RideLondon: what I learned from 6 hours cycling

After a two-year hiatus due to Covid, RideLondon was back at the end of May with an all-new route from London into the lovely Essex countryside and back.  Although there were three possible distances (30, 60 and 100 miles) my ever-ambitious husband signed us up for the rather daunting full 100 miles.  And, just to spice up the challenge, almost immediately we got our places, I was injured for 4 months, only getting back on the bicycle at the start of May.

So it was with some trepidation that I arrived in Parliament Square at 7am on 29th May with my number pinned on my back and my bike chipped and ready to go.  Here’s what I learnt during 6 hours of cycling (or 5 hours, 59 minutes, and 1 second, if we’re going to be precise):

What to wear

I have an abject fear of being cold, and the forecast said it was going to be between 9 and 12 degrees during the ride, so I was wearing a long-sleeve cycling jersey. Conversely, my husband hates being too hot, so he was wearing a short sleeve top. It’s definitely worth knowing what kit suits you at different temperatures, because being too hot or too cold for six hours can be pretty miserable.

The course

I’ve only ever seen Essex on the TV advert for ‘The Only Way is Essex’, but it turns out it’s rather lovely – all green rolling hills interspersed with pretty villages.  As the entire course followed a series of A roads and dual carriageways, rather than tiny, snaking country lanes, the route was generally smooth, wide, and pretty straight, with any sharp corners signposted and flagged as you approached them. This was good for me as I am terrible at taking corners at anything above snail-pace. Also, rather than steep climbs and descents, it was gently undulating, so although there was about 1,000m of climbing, it was actually barely noticeable. The last section of the ride back into London was straight and fast, although not very pretty, but finishing at Tower Bridge made for some nice photos.  If you are not confident, or fairly new to cycling, I would say it is a great route to complete your first major challenge on.

Image credit: RideLondon

Taking ‘comfort’ breaks

As well as regular portaloos along the route, there were a series of ‘Welfare Stops’ where you could refill your water bottles and grab some free snacks to keep you going – energy supplements courtesy of event partner High5, bananas and flapjacks.  As I’ve learnt from previous rides, only an idiot (me) doesn’t refuel regularly.  Although I had packed my own snacks, I still jammed my face with all the lovely freebies whenever I stopped.  There were also mechanics at the Welfare Stops, although luckily I didn’t need them.

Other observations

I did expect some camaraderie between the cyclists, maybe even to get into a group and chat with people, but everyone was cycling pretty much in silence.

In contrast to the silent cycling fraternity, I was surprised by how many people were out cheering riders on; some people had even brought deck chairs and flasks of tea.  I was particularly surprised since we were passing them at speed and mainly without looking up.  I made a point of waving and shouting ‘thank you’ as often as I could.

This year the finishers’ medal was made of wood. I know RideLondon are looking at how they can be as eco as possible, and I love that!

I felt fine the next day.  I put this down to eating a takeaway curry when I got home, followed almost immediately by a burger and chips.  I’m not sure a sports nutritionist would recommend it, but, like I said, I’m a big believer in refuelling.

Would I recommend it?  Definitely!  Apparently 25,000 cyclists did it this year.  I reckon, like the London Marathon, it is only going to get more popular.

Can you do it?  After so many months injured – at my lowest point I couldn’t even sit on the bicycle in my own sitting room without being in pain – I was not confident of completing the course, but I think the design of the route means that providing you ride regularly and have a reasonable level of fitness you should be able to finish. (Before injury I used to cycle about 85 miles a week.) I’m not saying you’ll be quick, or that it will be easy, but it’s definitely worth a go.

Made it to the end!

5 things every driver should know about cycling

If the way bicycle parts and kit keep selling out is anything to go by, the pandemic has turned everyone into a cyclist. Never one to miss a trend, this time last year I jumped onto my bike to give it a whirl and am now regularly cycling over 100k a week for fun. As a result, there are some observations I would really like to make about the relationship between motorised vehicles and people steaming along by pedal power…

1 Not all motorists. Not all cyclists.

Not all motorists drive like they’re actively trying to kill you. In fact, most of them drive really considerately, giving cyclists a wide berth and overtaking slowly. Sometimes people even shout encouragement when I’m cycling uphill. If this is you, I thank you. I always try to acknowledge when people have slowed down or made room for me – it’s just safer and more pleasant for everyone. It is also true that not all cyclists cycle sensibly, so please don’t judge us all by the exploits of the minority.

2 The edge of the road is where all the cr*p collects

I know that motorists are often annoyed when I don’t pull in closer to the kerb to enable them to overtake. It’s not because I’m deliberately being awkward, it’s because the edge of the road is the most hazardous part for a cyclist. It’s where the tarmac often disintegrates a bit, the drains are inset, and broken glass and other detritus accumulates. Basically everything likely to puncture a tyre or jettison me off the bike and under a car resides at the edge of the road. Also, on country lanes, the hedge that motorists blithely expect me to cycle up against is full of stinging nettles.

3 Being rude doesn’t enable me to go any faster

Shouting abuse out of the window as you overtake me because I have delayed your journey by 30 or 40 seconds does not magically return that time to you, nor does it enable me to cycle any faster. You’re just showing yourself up. To be fair, hardly anyone does this, but when they do, it really makes me wobbly.

4 Slow your speed or keep your distance

There’s a golden ratio between speed and distance, which means the faster you want to overtake, the wider the berth you need to give me. To the yellow van that accelerated past me this morning: you may very well think that 5 centimetres is a safe distance, but that’s because you are travelling in a metal box that has been specifically designed to protect you in the event of a high velocity impact. I am travelling in my cycling kit, which basically gives me the same degree of protection as my birthday suit, that is to say none at all.

5 Cyclists are not a slalom course

There is a certain kind of motorist (noone reading this blog, obviously) who treats cyclists like slaloms on a downhill ski run – they accelerate wildly to swerve round you then cut in front as aggressively as they can. The worst is when they do it 10 metres before braking hard to make a left turn, so you have to brake violently to avoid hitting them side-on. For some reason the slalom-swerve is also a favourite manoeuvre for people towing trailers, who seem entirely oblivious to the way the trailer is veering uncontrollably from side to side behind them, like an errant bowling ball randomly taking out any pins (cyclists) in its vicinity.

Despite these gripes, I have also had some lovely encounters – the man who stopped on a narrow lane to let me pass and said he was just happy to see someone out enjoying the sunshine; the lorry driver who overtook me three times because I kept catching him up in the traffic and tooted and waved when our routes finally diverged; and the many many people who have slowed down, made room or generally been considerate.

So my message to motorists is: there is room for all of us on the road and driving considerately will probably only take an extra 30 or 40 seconds (less time than it takes to park when you get wherever you’re going.) I wish you a safe and comfortable journey, please make the small adjustments that will allow me to have one too.

Taking my cousin for a ride: cycling adventures on Regents Canal

Every other year my cousin Sheryl – a full-on born and raised American – comes to the UK to enjoy the delights of London’s Open House week.  Contrary to its name, the week is not limited to houses. In fact, Sheryl (who is an architect) hasn’t come for the houses anyway.  What she’s really into is infrastructure – train stations, aqueducts, and underground rivers are her favourites.  Sheryl so loves everything to do with water that she even persuaded my elderly mother to go on a tour of some sewage works with her.

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Victorian Gothic fabulousness

I lucked out by missing the sewage extravaganza, and instead we visited the architecturally fabulous St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, which is everything you want a Victorian Gothic building to be, and more.  Unfortunately, the hotel hadn’t got into the spirit of Open House week at all, so there were no legitimate ways to tour around it.  Instead, Sheryl and I had to masquerade as guests, sauntering casually through the lobby before sneaking up the stairs.  Imagine two 40-something women running up and down corridors, taking snaps of doorways and arches whilst giggling like naughty school girls hiding from the teacher.  We even managed to crash a corporate reception, not so we could gorge on the wine and canapés (both of which I love) but to admire the architecture of the room it was being held in.

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Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, from the north bank of the Thames

Given our track record, I was confident Sheryl would jump at the chance to cycle along Regent’s Canal from Greenwich to Islington with me, looking at all the shiny new buildings and the regenerated old ones. Knowing that I would most likely spend a lot of the journey enthusing about my passion for cemeteries, would surely only add to the charm.

 

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I’m keen, but clueless

This is not an activity for the feint-hearted – not only because it’s a 20-mile round trip, but also because you are only feet, and at some points inches, away from the canal, and an ill-judged turn of the handle-bars could easily pitch you into the water.  And bicycles don’t float.  It’s not the full-on Bradley Wiggins experience, but it’s as close as I’m ever likely to get.

Unlike my husband, who likes to cycle so fast that generally all I see of him is a Lycra-clad bottom in the middle-distance, Sheryl was happy to take her time admiring the view.

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Mind the gap! Bridge over Regent’s Canal

We stopped to ogle Victorian brick chimneys, take arty snaps of gas holders, and question the wisdom of building a school where part of the roof seemed to be wrapped in cling film.  We passed people running, walking and even two committed citizens collecting litter.

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Who doesn’t love gas holders in the sunshine?

Closer to Islington, we toyed with stopping at one of the trendy bars or cafes that front onto the canal, but decided to push on to the end of the tow path.

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Modern steel and glass next to Victorian brick – feel my joy!

Our dedication was rewarded with a light lunch sitting outside in the sunshine at trendy eatery Elk in the Woods, where the menu was both poncy and delicious in equal measure (hot smoked elk sausage with fig and rosemary cream, anyone?)  The staff were also lovely, and politely didn’t mention how sweaty we were, or that our bikes were causing a major hazard.  So after a bit of self-indulgence and a pleasant chat about waterways we were on our way home again.

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Sweaty but smiling

Back at Boudicca HQ, we had a quick cup of tea before I waved Sheryl off to see more cousins, who no doubt have their own special interests.  I’ve now got two years before her next visit, in which I need to plan an outing that tops sewage, Victorian Gothic and white-knuckle cycling.  Suggestions on a postcard please!