24,000 cyclists took off from The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park on Sunday for a gruelling ride through London and Surrey. RideLondon 2014 cyclist Alex Kalinauckhas brings us an exclusive report of his journey.
As I hauled myself up a nameless Surrey hill, wind pushing me backwards, rain soaking my clothes, I found myself questioning how I’d ended up in the same situation again. Just 16 months after I’d struggled and sworn my way through the London marathon, I was once again taking part in another mass endurance event that I’d once again failed to train properly for. This time it involved 100 miles on a bike through the capital and the Surrey hills. Oh and there was a small matter of the remnants of Hurricane Bertha battering the south-east of the country that very morning: this was RideLondon 2014.
Before the off, I shook my head at the thought of another day of unrelenting pain and tucked into a surprisingly pleasant protein combo of porridge and scrambled eggs. Hoping for reassurance I checked the weather forecast and stared open mouthed at the sight of the rain and wind heading my way. Having gathered my composure and applied chamois cream to unmentionable places about my person (a process that also made me question if what I was doing was really worth it) I headed off for the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and the starting line.
Rumours were flowing through the ever growing pack of competitors, some (including me) dressed head-to-toe in full rain-proof kit, some with just a bin bag to cover their summer lycra, that the organisers had shortened the route for safety reasons. No announcements were made or instructions given, but a last minute check on Twitter revealed the full story: no Leith hill or Box hill and a route cut down to 86 miles. It didn’t have quite the same ring to it as the full century but this meant there was more of a chance I wouldn’t actually die in the process. Several people covered in top of the range kit and grasping replica pro team bikes moaned loudly about “health and safety gone mad,” – these were no doubt the same people I later observed throwing themselves down every descent in a brazen and ultimately pointless bid to prove their withering, middle-age masculinity.
At 7.32am I stepped on the pedals for the first time in anger and set off through the streets of The East End. With no cars on either side of the A-roads or the dual carriageways, an eerie silence hung in the air – as if we cyclists were the only survivors of the apocalypse – you could almost hear Jeremy Clarkson turning in his metaphorical grave.
As our band of cycling survivors passed through the City, I met up with my dad, who was also taking part, and the first rain showers eased up as I began to enjoy the freedom of the road. I still found myself obediently sticking to the left hand side of the carriageway and my fingers instinctively shooting towards my brakes every time a set of traffic lights changed.
My theory of having survived the apocalypse was ruined when we arrived in central London and observed signs of life at the roadside; hotel porters glancing nervously skywards, packs of recently-arrived tourists racing across the flooded streets, and drunken clubbers stumbling out of taxis (at least one bloke was throwing up).
Before I knew it, the surrounding buildings were being replaced by trees and green spaces. Despite the weather there was great support from the roadside, spurring us on as we headed into Richmond Park. Here we had a stark reminder of just why the route had been cut down. Hands shot up and the pack slowed; someone had crashed and was being attended to by paramedics, their bike loaded onto a sweep-up van. The cheery demeanour of the officials carrying the bike reassured me that the rider was ok, but I hoped they hadn’t been badly hurt. I shot a filthy look at a man who suggested anyone not wearing a certain brand of kit be disqualified, but generally the riders around me were concerned for the fallen rider and happy to stop.
We were making excellent progress, until the rain came. The early showers had lulled me into a false sense that Big Bertha wasn’t too bad; I knew nothing of rain back then. The torrents came down so hard I could barely see where I was going, my clothes rapidly saturated and sagged with the weight of the liquid – it was like having buckets of water constantly poured over my head. For half an hour we slogged our way through the rain and approached the Surrey hills.
Now at around the 50mile point, the suffering really began. Rolling roads gave way to grinding hills that I was forced to grind my way up – although I took pride in the fact I was not forced to walk. The descents were completely treacherous as visibility and braking were both virtually nonexistent and the organisers were completely justified in cutting out the route down.
I endured the middle part of the ride sitting behind my dad and getting a welcome tow before being dropped on every hill. “One day,” I said, a touch ungraciously, “I’m going to be the stronger rider in the hills.” He smiled and offered an energy bar in support, knowing full well I said this on regular occasions and usually turned snappy when suffering.
The silent support worked a treat. I got through the bad patch over the hills and soon we were heading back to London. Then sun emerged and I could use my previously pointless sunglasses. The water was still ever present as we had to avoid numerous flooded roads and one tunnel where the road was completely underwater meaning a ginger ride through the swell.
Across the water, we flew back towards the suburbs as more spectators emerged to cheer us on. The few who had braved the weather earlier in the day deserve tremendous credit for their unwavering support. We shot back through Kingston and headed up Wimbledon Hill at the 90 mile mark (a short climb I’d been fearing for much of the ride) but which turned out to be a joy – there was even a spot of light racing before my legs quickly cried enough.
We powered through the final 10 miles, once again enjoying the closed streets of London and racing through Kensington and Chelsea. Despite a nervous moment when I misjudged the final corner under Admiralty Arch, we roared up the finishing straight towards Buckingham Palace. I considered going full Mark Cavendish and blasting ahead to claim victory – but I thought that pretty unfair considering the amount of help my dad had given me on the day.
Six hours after it all began; we were enjoying sunshine in Green Park, taking photos and on the lookout for a bacon sandwich. I was relieved it was over but determined to return and hopefully to do the full route next year (having hopefully done the appropriate amount of training). Bertha gave us one last downpour before we climbed back on our bikes and headed for the train home, very happy but very tired. “Wait,” I exploded, the penny finally dropping, “it’s HOW FAR to Liverpool Street?”