It’s early. Despite regular 5am runs, especially during the hot summer, nothing softens the blow of waking at 2:30am for your mate to pick you up at 3:15am. That is officially night time and not early morning category. Mostly I’m glad to be collected though given I’d sorted nothing for this event other than entry. It was only a helpful reminder from David that my number needed collecting from the expo (which he did for me) and that I might need to get to the start (which he also did for me). If I could have just convinced him to ride it for me as well I could have stayed in bed.
After 6 weeks of perfect (if hot) weather, the day was forecast to be constant rain. Joy. In my (not) extensive training I’d yet to even cycle in a light mist of water. The organisers had sent a helpful email advising to drop your tyre pressure by 5psi for added grip. Given I wasn’t sure what mine should be in the first place and didn’t really trust my pump gauge anyway I left them alone.
The previous night a concerned Billy had voiced the thought that Daddy might die undertaking this bike ride. I tried to re-assure him that compared to some of the stupid ultras I’d completed (at risk of drowning in a canal or being attacked by angry badgers) this was a walk in the park. Charlotte just asked how much life insurance I had. It’s good to have support like that.
Back in London and under cover of darkness David and I arrived at the world’s smallest NCP that he’d pre-booked. There were a handful of parking bays and only a couple were empty. One was occupied by a sleeping tramp so we parked in the remaining empty space and assembled bikes remarking how maybe lights might have been useful as we had a 7 mile ride to the start and it was still night. Oh well. I pull on my custom cycling gloves (old running gloves with holes in many fingers, attacked with scissors to make fingerless the night before) as we set off.
Negotiating drunks and taxis we weaved our way across London, picking up other cyclists on route to form a disorderly convoy of 20 or so, the largest group I’d ever ridden in. Good job I wasn’t about to start a ride with 20,000 others. David displayed the colour perception issue common to many cyclists at the lights and the group split so I made my way with half the pack to the Olympic park.
Given how manic some marathons are with just people present, I imagined thousands of people and their two-wheeled cheating machines would be chaos but it all seemed very grown up and civilised. I dropped my bag off on the luggage lorry like London marathon and visited the portaloo (very clean, not like most marathons) before assembling in the pen wearing my trusty bin bag for warmth and rain protection (I seemed to be the only person to adopt this marathon tip). I had nearly an hour to go before my wave start at 6:52 but only 30 minutes before the pen closed and not much else to do anyway but wait in the cold, hoping the rain would stay clear. Surrounded by cyclists with yards of lycra, stupid shoes and bikes costing thousands I was very out of place but did get a few comments on the bike, not all of them accompanied by laughter.
The tannoy called the various waves to the start line and eventually it was our turn to wheel forward. I made the masterstroke of dropping my vintage bike so it fell heavily on the gleaming carbon fibre machine of the bloke next to me. If there’s one thing a middle aged man in lycra (MAMIL) likes less than having their crotch rocket knocked into by a piece of cycling jetsam, it’s having their machine liberally coated in Red Bull when the emergency can I’d taped to the seat post was punctured by the fall. Great start on ingratiating myself into the new community. I took advantage of the portaloos located in the staging area to go and hide until he passed and then rejoined a bit behind him. I think. One bloke wearing garish, overly tight lycra looks a lot like another to be honest. Without licking each of the them to determine which tasted of energy drink I couldn’t be sure he was gone.
The announcer counted us down and we set off. I was off to try and ride 100 miles. How far would I get? A few feet after crossing the line I noticed many bikes at the side of the road, their owners frantically changing innertubes already. How bad is your karma to pick up a puncture in the first few seconds of a sportive? That has to be fate telling you to try a new hobby.
The first miles were fairly repetitive. Cycling along a dual carriageway in a small pack, lined on one side with yet more punctured cyclists bent over their machines, rhythmically pumping their fist up and down in a very suggestive manner, and the faster riders from each subsequent wave rushing past on the other. Being conservative I held back and cruised along, one basket and a dog short of Dorothy.
Eventually we hit some more interesting parts of London and I decided I’d had enough of staring at the back of the guy in front and could speed up a little. Don’t tell anyone this, but I secretly loved it. Cruising down closed streets, whipping past the Tower of London in pretty much ideal weather (a little chilly, light drizzle had started) was amazing. Maybe this is why people like cycling? Small cog on the back, a little work for the legs to do but it feels good, like a social paced parkrun but somehow passing everyone. For very little effort I was able to maintain decent speed. It was ace. I was ahead of my planned 15mph pace so held back a little. I can’t pace a marathon after 100 of them, so doubtless would make a hash of a first bike race.
As the miles click by the weather worsened. Within a short time it’s transitioned from “it’s a light drizzle I’ll be fine” through to “it’s heaving down I’m so wet there is no point putting the rain coat on anymore”. Trying to avoid sudden movements I bravely pull out a Mars bar (tried on all training rides and work great) and open it whilst in motion. Get me, I’m a pro! The joy of a sodden chocolate bar is occasionally interrupted by the need to negotiate around fallen bike paraphernalia on the road. Cyclists drop a LOT of stuff. Often from those stupid cycling jerseys they wear. Water bottles are common but so are inner tubes (still wrapped) and several bike pumps, along with cameras and bike computers.
Once out in Surrey the full brunt of the weather hits and it’s not good. Lashing rain and gusts of wind right when you’re trying to navigate a pothole and would rather not move sideways without warning. Still in a t-shirt I’m starting to struggle. We hit some slow sections and the lack of heat production means I’m getting cold. Cold and very wet. I’m thankful for the first real climb after West Horsley. Although only 5% it’s enough to keep me warm and I remind myself I’m a big tough runner and we deal with this stuff regularly.
By Mile 48 I can no longer feel my fingers and although soaked through decide I might benefit from the raincoat so pull into Newlands Corner and the ‘Hub’ for my first stop. Nearly halfway and feeling fresh although frozen. Like a pea in the freezer. After an actual pee and wolfing down some crisps and banana I get the biggest slice of Peugeot love of the day as a volunteer delights at admiring the bike and asking many questions from his encyclopaedic knowledge of vintage bikes. “Wow, what rims and hubs are you running? Is that a [I can’t remember] derailleur? The gear set doesn’t look original?” he asks. “The wheels are mostly round, the hubs are whatever was attached to the round wheels and the gears I nicked off the daughters bike.” I can’t help feeling he’s a little disappointed by my response so grab some crisps and leave whilst he explains the inefficiencies of the brake system currently installed and upon which I will shortly be relying heavily. What I really fancied from the hub was a hot drink. What I got was a warning of impending doom.
The raincoat is helping and I’m mostly warm. Wondering when the next hill will come. The helpful cross bar sticker with important distance landmarks and climb gradients the organisers gave out did not last in the rain and when I look down it’s gone for good. So I pedal on, looking out for the infamous Leith Hill. From some last minute research I’d learnt it was generally considered a tougher climb than Box Hill. Given the increasing rain and potential safety issues I was half expecting to be forced by the organisers to use the shorter diversion. I wanted to ride 100 miles not 90 something.
Gradually the road rose, it was steep but not too bad. I could manage it. A woman cycling in front asked a passed competitor if this indeed was the hill, to be greeted by howls of laughter “Oh no this is just a slope love, you’ll know the hill when we hit it”. He wasn’t wrong. It was steep and made up of a series of small rises with some flatter sections in between. I changed straight into lowest gear and pedalled away, no need for heroics. The new bigger cog on the back was helping. I’ve got this! Then I don’t ‘got this’ and have to get out the saddle. Now I’ve got this again, bow down to the might of a runner you puny cyclists! Then my gears made a lovely clunk and it dropped down to a smaller cog on the back. I only had six speed to start with, not the limitless range of those bikes around me which seemed to be mostly gear rings.
Fortunately, the first slope was ending so I pumped away until able to get back in the saddle and change down again. With non-indexed gears it must have been my fault for not quite aligning the gear properly. The next ascent would be fine now. Start slow, up in the saddle again as it got steeper. Clunk. OK it’s a real issue. Still my fault, it’s the limit screw on the derailleur not aligning with biggest cog, I’ll fix that at the top but should be OK in 2nd, not like it’s going to…. Clunk again into 3rd and my total body weight of 60kg and a bit (cough cough) is not enough to even turn the pedals. I’m forced off the road. Reasoning I’m lacking friction in my friction shifters I tighten them up (very easy on a Peugeot, no tool required, lovely French people) but through a combination of steep hill, inability to get both feet in the toe clips and generally rubbish cycling ability I can’t get going again so have to join the stream of walkers on the left. It takes me too long to realise the reason the other cycling failures are walking slowly up the muddy hill is because they have the stupid shoes on and struggling for traction on a wet road. I’ve got trainers so run up, briefly the fastest bike on the ascent and wondering if the gears will work better on Boxhill.
The downhill is worth the effort of the climb/run up and the trees are mostly protecting us. Coming up behind one rider I wonder why he’s chosen to undertake the ride in an awful octopus custom. Half a dozen black rubbery legs sprout from his cycling top in a very unconvincing impression and wave about in the wind. It’s only when I draw closer I realise they’re punctured innertubes and he recounts to another passing competitor he’s on his 6th and final tube. Is that bad luck or is his wife pre-puncturing them out of spite?
After the disappointment of Leith Hill I vow to stay on the bike for the rest of the course. I push the chances of this down a bit by letting gravity do it’s thing on the downhills. Big G and I don’t always see eye to eye on the uphills, either running or cycling, but he’s always keen to give a tubby fella on a hefty bike the extra pull coming back down and I hammer down, full of youthful exuberance I’ve borrowed from someone else is youthful and probably more useful on a bike that I, ignoring the much more experienced riders doing stuff like slowing down, my Peugeot expert said the brakes would barely work anyway.
As we approach Boxhill I see the warning signs advising the turn off to miss the hill is 1 mile ahead. It doesn’t look like we’re being forced to use it so the hill is open. I should be able (or at least have the possibility barring any physical or mechanical issues) to do the full 100 miles. Once again I don’t even see the turn for the bypass so just as well I wasn’t intending to use it. Foot of the hill and straight into what I’m told is Granny gear (a blue rinse and tartan slippers?) and churn away. Encouraged by some motivational signs on route I spin up the first slope, around the corner and just miss two cyclists who think the MIDDLE OF THE BLOODY ROAD IS THE BEST PLACE TO CHANGE A TYRE and gradually climb up. Somewhere along I realise that this hill I have actually ‘got’ and we crest the top into the hub at Box Hill Summit. 68 miles down, no need to stop and instead undertake another expert Mars bar unwrapping mid-climb (apparently the ‘summit’ of Box Hill is just before some more gentle climbs).
From my memory of the course map the remaining route is more undulating than hilly and the weather has cleared. 30 miles seems do-able. I am going to finish. On one small climb my attempt to change down goes awry and the chain at the rear somehow goes off the gear set, wedging itself delightfully between smallest cog and frame, needing some very vocal encouragement to free it off at the side of the road. Checking over and there is no way the derailleur should have allowed that, especially when changing down so put it down to one of those things, wipe grease stains off on some grass and set forth.
There’s an awesome section through (I think) Leatherhead where the locals are out cheering the riders on and the barriers are narrow enough to give a good sense of speed without intruding like the spectators on the Tour De France. It’s also where a timed 1k sprint is located so all riders are gunning it. Turning the corner on the high street and the pack is brought to a shuddering stop as the route ahead is blocked. A cyclist and a pedestrian have had a coming together just on the end of the 1k sprint and neither look in a good way as tended to by medical staff. It’s a sobering reminder of the relative risks involved.
The pack picks up speed again coming into Kingston and another section through the town centre stirs images of Cavendish at the front of the peloton. A spectator greets us with chants of “Welcome to Kingston, it’s flat, muller it!” so we do. Once again it’s short-lived as a marshalled crossing ahead closes the road to allow eager Sunday shoppers past to spend their diminishing disposable income, exerting what little spending power the pound still has to prop up a post-referendum sliding economy, over reliant on consumer spending and personal borrowing (that section is specifically for two mates!).
Whilst waiting at the crossing another rider asks “What’s the deal with the bike?”. Earlier on I would have (politely) explained it was a statement against weekend warrior bike snobs that feel nothing less than 4 figure price tag is worth riding. After 80+ miles I’m grudgingly deciding I like cyclists a bit so go for a less confrontational response.
The flags drop and we set off again. I used the break to check the waypoints and plan to make a second and final stop at mile 91 on Wimbledon Common for a wee, food and to ditch the rain coat. Stomach full of pretzels, bladder empty, and back to just the tee it’s 9 miles left.
Everyone has the same thought as me, it’s just a short sprint along flat and smooth streets back to the palace, time to make the most of it. I feel full of energy and oddly fresh. In the final stages of a marathon, even when running strong I’d have been aware of the miles in my legs and depleting energy, gritting teeth to maintain or occasionally increase pace in pursuit of an elusive PB. Instead I feel like I’ve got more to give than I’ll manage to expend I should have pushed harder at the start. For once I’ve gone off too easy.
Riding down the city streets on the smallest cog, pushing the pace, grasping the ends of the drop bars I can’t help but recall the photo of Dad doing the same, on a bike not much different and likely on similar London streets. Only 60 years separate us and I choke back emotions as I bury myself on the pedals. Of course the other difference is the world is colour now. Back then it was all sepia judging by the photos. Must have made traffic lights tricky.
Apart from a semi-slow by the marshals somewhere on the embankment we’re uninterrupted in the final section, each rider giving their bike a final spanking along closed roads before having to return to negotiating traffic, giving way at junctions and stopping for red lights like all cyclists do. Sometimes.
The last mile takes a different route from the London marathon, missing Birdcage Walk and instead approaches the Mall via Trafalgar Square and under Admiralty Arch before finishing in front of the palace.
100 miles done. The bike and I had made it.
Earlier in the week whilst wrestling with recalcitrant rear wheels I’d considered deferral. I’d not trained properly, had little experience and a bike that whilst now like a close friend (a slightly annoying and unreliable one that leaves smears of grease on your leg) was outclassed by nearly every velocipede on the course. It was mostly re-assurance from mates on the training rides that convinced me to go ahead. I would be reliant on stubbornness and running fitness. I’d managed it in memory of Dad, the stubbornest of all the family. After a little cry I went off to collect medal, find Cloë for some lunch and to re-assure her I wasn’t dead.
The finish was a surprise. Like the start I assumed thousands of tired cyclists and bikes would be mayhem but again it was handled slickly, and riders were processed through in quick order. It was noticeable how fresh everyone looked. Whilst not at the sharp end of the pack and firmly in the recreational times I was still expecting the usual post-marathon sprinkling of angst-stricken husks of humans, limping along, pausing only to vomit profusely in a wheelie bin, or leaning heavily on random strangers for support. There was none of that. People walked (well, clip-clopped on stupid shoes) away, chatting and swapping stories. It was more akin to the back end of a parkrun than a marathon. Later a running mate (and triathlete but I ignore his foibles) noted unless you’re at the front and blitzing every metre of the course, cycling has more in common with a long hike than running. The momentum is a massive boost. In running it’s a constant internal argument to keep going. Every step is an opportunity to keep your foot on the ground and stop. Go do something less arduous. The opposite is true on a bike. The machine wants to keep going, it was literally made for this. Spinning the pedals is easy, the legs keep going. The mental fight is more to force yourself to turn off and visit the aid station.
My goal had been seven hours, which I’d beaten.
I’d proven I could do it.
I’d proven cycling is basically cheating.
I’d discovered sometimes it’s really good fun to cheat.
I want to do it again.