This is the fifth year of the RideLondon-Surrey 100, one of the legacies of the London 2012 Olympic Games, and the first time I’ve ridden in such a huge sportive. Nearly 30,000 people registered for the event, and I queue up at the start surrounded by hundreds upon hundreds of cyclists. The logistics of such an event must be a challenge, but we are moved forwards and somehow leave at our projected start time: 0642. Though this is my first sportive it’s not my first century. I’m riding with a friend who really looks the part with a Rapha jersey and a slick bike. I don’t own a cycle jersey and I’m the only one carrying a backpack: sandwich, snacks, and spares.
ACDC blares from the speakers as we cross the start line and head straight onto the A12. It’s a real buzz to be riding on a dual carriageway empty of traffic, the peleton taking up the whole of the road, heading through tunnels and over flyovers that are normally inaccessible to bikes. “I won’t race,” my riding partner says, although his idea of slow and mine are probably very different.
We head westwards out of London through Chiswick and into Richmond Park, the early morning sun emerging as we flow through Kingston and towards Hampton Court. We’re being carried along by this tidal wave of cyclists at an average of 20mph. I’ve never known anything like it; mostly I ride at touring pace, either solo or in small groups, so the feeling of fast is new, and I love it.
Forty miles in, I start to lag. “How are you feeling?” I ask my riding partner. “Great. Doesn’t feel like I’ve ridden 40 miles. You?” “Definitely feels like I’ve ridden 40 miles! Feel free to drop me if you want to go faster.” I manage to hang on for another five or six miles, but as we near the halfway point he pulls away and is soon swallowed up by the riders ahead. Soon afterwards I pass the ‘Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’ sign, followed instantly by the promised hills. It’s a tough climb towards Newlands Corner – the first of many.
I pull into one of the rest stops for a break – the pace has hurt and I need some time to recover. I eat my sandwich and help myself to some energy chews. This is the fourth rest stop we’ve passed, all packed out with drinks, sweets and biscuits handed out by smiley people. There are toilets and plenty of places to rack your bike. It’s all brilliantly organised.
Back on the bike, and back into the hills. It’s absolutely stunning – this is not an area I’ve cycled in before, but I can see why it has its reputation – it’s wonderful cycling, with challenging climbs and long freewheeling downs, winding lanes and picturesque villages. And it’s great day for it, too – the sun gives a rich shimmer to the surroundings. The road is full of bicycles, but despite the numbers it’s flowing really well. I pause for a moment, enjoying the lack of engine noise. Silence but for the whirr of thousands of bicycle wheels.
Soon comes Leith Hill – the steepest and longest climb of the day. The road narrows and cyclists come out of their saddles, weaving across the road. Avoiding touching wheels is almost more of a challenge than the actual climb. “This is the final stretch!” says one of the stewards, misleadingly: there are at least three more false summits and corners before the road finally levels out and the glorious descent can begin.
“Slow down!” the marshals are calling from ahead. There’s an ambulance and some cyclists receiving First Aid, and beyond, two riders lying on stretchers, one with blood covering his face. It’s a scary sight. A little while later I see someone come off and skid along the ground for several metres. It looks really painful. It’s inevitable that there will be collisions in an event with so many people but it’s worrying to hear of the serious crashes that caused chaos later in the day, leading to delays and diversions and two riders being airlifted to hospital.
Ten miles later it’s Box Hill, a famous climb. It’s not nearly as steep as Leith Hill and from having worried since the start line about this section, I really enjoy it. I’m good at steady climbing, and the views as the road creeps higher are astounding. As with any hill, all you need is a low gear and a healthy dose of determination.
With the big hills behind us and 70 miles under the wheels, the final 30 miles are a rip-roaring ride back to London. I’m pumped and stop once more for a sandwich break before the final stretch. “Last climb!” the stewards call as we tackle the hill at Wimbledon, then we pour down towards the river and across Putney bridge. I jump on someone’s wheel and stay there all the way along the Embankment, allowing him to carry me to Parliament Square. I don’t think he noticed. The Mall makes a triumphant finish and I pass beneath the hoarding 6 hours and 5 minutes after leaving. Not bad for my first sportive – I’ll definitely be signing up for another.