I have wanted to complete a cycle sportive for a few years now, so the opportunity to take on the 100 miles of the Ride London Surrey in aid of Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) was hard to pass up. I signed on the dotted line… www.justgiving.com/James-Sinclair5/
My friend Steve duly signed up to ride for Starfish Greathearts Foundation, and I was grateful to have someone to ride with.
OK, that would be a stretch. With the best intentions, I read over the detailed 3-month training plans that came with the sportive magazine but, before I knew it, I only had 2 months left, one of which was due to be spent on a small Greek island.
The combination of my Greek bike literally falling apart in my hands – having been corroded to the core by the Aegean winter winds – three kids to look after, and hot weather, led me to swap cycle training for daily swims across the bay. I can’t really complain, or at least I didn’t think I could until I took on my first hill once back in the UK. I had always heard that swimming was the best form of exercise, but that clearly does not stretch to propelling me up hills on two wheels. Taking on Harting Down, I foolishly locked to the wheel of a fitter cyclist and, by the top, had to stop and sit down, flashy lines crossing my eyes and heart palpitating.
This came as a bit of a shock and gave me the jolt needed to squeeze in some proper training around my hectic life. A month of after work rides through the South Downs followed. From Guildford to Chichester, up Hindhead hill twice, down Black Down at over 60kmph, on beautiful back country roads and horrible commuter trawls. It was great.
0430 alarm. Slap on some Vaseline, pull up the Lycra, and stuff so many carbs into my stomach that I want to puke. An ordinary start to the day. I understand trying to get 25,000 fun riders through the course before the pros necessitates an early start, but an arrival time starting with a 6 is tough.
As it happened, it was a glorious morning. All blue skies and crisp sunshine. This helped me get over my normal morning blues and, before we knew it, Steve and I had parked up in North Greenwich and were zooming through the Blackwall tunnel to the Olympic Park. By the time we arrived at our designated start zone, we had already clocked 8km. As if 100 miles was not enough for one day.
I had been in a state of excited – if slightly hesitant – anticipation for days and this reached a crescendo as we lined up by the Olympic velodrome and we were funnelled onto the start line. Ahead and behind were thousands of cyclists, carrying out nervous last-minute checks. Music was pumping and the MC set off group after group to upbeat tunes.
When it was our turn (Yellow F), we were greeted and sent off to the forgotten tune of “Barcelona” (“…what a beautiful horizon...”), which made sense when we were informed that Sally Gunnel was in our group. Hero.
A shake of Steve’s hand, and we passed under the timing banner. Down the hill and we were off at pace through the docklands. Past the Wharf with a shiver and on into the City.
Our negative split plan (i.e. set off slowly, come back strong – or at least stronger than we would have if we had not set off slowly…) seemed to be going well, as the majority of cyclists whizzed past us. On closer inspection of our speedo, we were traipsing across the capital much faster than we planned, averaging a good 30kmph. It was just that most other people were either faster or more caught up in the exuberance of the herd.
At the beginning, we were greeted by a sparse crowd of confused hung-over people and the odd genuine supporter. As time went on, this grew to more and more people that seemed genuinely excited to have this mass participation race pass by their homes. Riding for GOSH seemed particularly popular, and I was buoyed on by well-wishers.
It was a fantastic feeling to pass by the sites of London on traffic-free roads. The Strand, Trafalgar Square, Kensington, Chelsea, across the Thames and into Richmond Park. We whizzed up and over Richmond Hill, barely noticing it compared to all steep parts of the Downs. On and on, past Hampton Court Palace and then back across the river. In the Sunday morning sunshine, our route through South West London was a real pleasure.
Into the Surrey Hills
Pouring out of London into the undulating greenery that is the county of my birth, we entered Surrey for the core part of the sportive.
We pushed on to Newland’s Corner and then up the first big hill of the day. Unsurprisingly, I soon fell behind the wheel of Steve, as my fitter friend (admittedly, on a lighter bike) sped up the hill. Surprisingly, once I got into my stride, I was passing a lot more people than passed me. Perhaps the month’s training and negative split plan was paying off?
At the top, we parked up our bikes and took a proper rest stop, stuffing our stomachs full of bacon butties and sports drinks. It was just under half and I was feeling on good form. Pity the big hills lay ahead rather than behind.
Setting off again recharged, we took on the fast, sweeping, long downhill in the direction of Shere. I have always loved this patch of road, and it was exhilarating taking it on amongst the throng of cyclists.
There is, though, a flip side to this exhilaration. Danger and accidents. We had passed three separate ambulance cases just on the first third of the ride. The problem is that in such an inexperienced crowd, very few people know how to ride in mass peloton. I include myself in that inexperienced number, but at least I had the common sense not to serially cut people up on either side, through tiny gaps without so much as a “on your right”. The situation was exacerbated on the downhills, where people would be hurtling down at varying velocities, often with little respect for those around them with inevitable wheel and handle bar clips.
Escaping unscathed, our road took us through the pretty villages of Shere and Ambinger Hammer, where smiling crowds greeted our transit. By chance, we met up with Sarah, a work colleague. I say chance – she could not miss the bright ginger side burns and incessant chatter which accompanies our rides. We rode on at a decent enough pace and prepped ourselves for the summit of Surrey: Leith Hill.
We wound round the lower slopes, before taking a sharp turn, into a decline and then, confusingly, joining up with another large stream of bike traffic. We were being diverted. The first thing I thought was that we had missed the cut-off time for the hill (there are series of sweepers along the course, ensuring we all finished or got off the road before the pro’s race). I checked the time and it did not seem possible. Not sure whether to be annoyed or relieved, we plummeted down the hill in a dangerous conglomeration of the fast and the slow which reminded me of a Delhi highway.
Snippet by snippet, we worked out what had gone on. Sadly, some guy had collapsed on the hill and the race had been halted in part, diverted in another, to allow an air ambulance to treat him. Tragically we found out the next day that he had not made it.
We pushed on to Dorking, where the crowds were at their best. Throngs of people beneath banners cheering us on. Then Box Hill. I have been up its famous – at least in Blighty – zig-zag road a couple of times before, and always found it hard going. I don’t know whether it was due to the training, adrenaline or lack of Leith Hill, but I shot up it, passing 80% of the crowd and felt well chuffed when I reached the stunning summit. Mountain it ain’t, but it is about as good as you get in the South East.
A whole lot more snack bars and fluid and we started back downhill on the final leg of the journey, back to the capital. Feeling great, the negative split was paying off and we were going to whizz home in no time. Wishful thinking…
Troubles on the (inner) Tube
Down another long steep hill with a suicidal bend at the bottom – yes, someone did come off in front of us – and Steve shouted for me to stop. We quickly pulled up to the side and just as we stopped, his tyre blew with a large bang. He was bloody lucky it did not go at the 50kmph a minute before.
It seemed his new special “puncture-proof” tyres were anything but. They were also a right bugger to get off. After 20 minutes struggle, and with some help of a passer-by, we managed to replace the inner tube and get the bike back upright. No sooner had Steve put his bum on the saddle, the tyre had gone flat again.
Hundreds of bikes were zooming past and we were in a bit of a pickle.
Fortunately, we were less than a mile from the race “Hub” at Leatherhead and repeated mini-reflates just got us there. A kind lady in the mechanic shop identified the problem and replaced the inner tube. A gash had developed in the side of the tyre, but she thought it would be OK.
We were by now starting to run short of time, so took a final grab of bananas, cakes and energy gels on board and pedalled off. Within 15 minutes, we were stopped again. The inner tube had exploded once more with an almighty bang, and we were stuck on a roundabout feeling exasperated.
Being a gentleman, Steve urged me to push on, but we decided to give it one last go. The inner tube was harder to change than ever (the bloody “puncture-proof” tyres seemed too small for the rim), but we just about managed it. On an inspired whim, we stuck to half pressure and set off on last chance saloon. Nervous, we started slowly, before picking up speed as we entered back into London. Steve was doing his best to not put any pressure on his front wheel and it seemed to be working.
To the Mall
After about 80 miles, the tiredness kicked in. Snaking back through London suburbs, I had a 30-minute stretch when I had little option but to block it all out and put in revolution after revolution. Hills that I would not have noticed at the start were a struggle, and a surprising number of people were resorting to walking on the steeper sections.
I just about kept on and onwards, and was relieved to receive my second wind as we passed Hammersmith, pushing on through Putney and back across the Thames. With five miles to go, I felt great again. We pushed up past 30kmph again as we followed the river all the way to Parliament and through the crowds of Whitehall up to Trafalgar Square.
One final sharp left turn and we were on the Mall, racing towards Buckingham Palace and the finishing line. Positive emotion welled up inside me as we rushed past the throngs of cheering crowds along this famous thoroughfare. I even managed to rise out the saddle for a short stretch, but all ideas of racing each other to the line had gone out the window, as we finished wheel by wheel.
A fitting end to what had been an awesome day on the saddle. A quick Lycra hug and normal life was set to resume.
Thanks to the amazing generosity of 34 friends and family that have, to date, sponsored me on this ride in aid of Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity, this wonderful charity will be shortly receiving over GBP 1750.
Great Ormond Street Hospital Children's Charity raises money to enable the hospital to save more lives, develop new treatments, build state-of-the-art facilities and support thousands of young patients and their families.
If you want to see examples of their fantastic please go to www.gosh.org/
If you want to donate or see my fundraising page please go to https://www.justgiving.com/James-Sinclair5/