The last few years I have consistently failed to get a place on the Prudential RideLondon via the ballot, so I’ve always gone down the charity route with WaterAid. Raising money to do an activity that you really like sometimes grates with potential donors, so after my uncle Malcolm said a couple of years ago it would only be impressive if I did it on a Brompton and my mate Daz just wanted me to suffer in any way in order to feel comfortable with donating money, the seed was sown.
Having done the Prudential RideLondon pretty quickly in 2014 and 2015, and to some extent been put off doing it quickly by the pace and twitchiness of the early novice pelotons, I decided this was the year to do it the hard way – I would do it on my Brompton!
My cycling background
I don’t ride a huge amount but do reasonably well in some sportives, though I did dismally badly in the UCI Amateur World Championships in Denmark last September, which I and a large number of other British riders enjoyed thanks to relatively easy qualification in the Tour of Cambridgeshire.
A few months ago, riding the Velothon Welsh sportive, I found myself shamefully walking up a Caerphilly Hill due to cramps, trying desperately not to let the photographers see my rider number. I sadly failed much to my cycling buddies amusement and I expect that photo to be on a Christmas card cover.
So I’m not a strong club rider, but I do like to put the hammer down when I can, and have scalped a reasonable number of Strava KOMs, though typically canal side. In that great leveler of cyclist strength, Richmond Park, I rank just over top 10% for most sizeable segments/lap timings. The above is probably gobbledygook to normal people, but many cyclists reading it will now be able to gauge my level.
The problem is I’m a little competitive, so I couldn’t just do it on a Brompton. I needed to try to get a time I’d be proud of. So ambling round the course in eight hours was never going to happen. Having generally only ever ridden the Brommy for short hops and the odd lazy tow path meander, I needed to train and tweek my wee wheeled black beauty to get familiar with what it would be like to get fast and furious over longer distances, building up to the big day.
Step one: ride round Richmond Park; clockwise and anticlockwise, and then home, about 40km, with the Brompton as standard. It wasn’t very quick and it was hard work. I averaged 23.7 km/h and the next day my core and shoulders really felt it from the different bike position.
Based on this and comparing with my road bike Richmond Park times I could see it was going to be approximately 20% harder on a Brommy. Using this information I registered my estimated ride time for the Prudential RideLondon to be 6hrs 30mins. All riders have to do this so the 26,000 participants can be set off in waves of those with similar abilities.
I thought I could be quicker but didn’t want to start too early and have all the fast guys fly away, or worse find me in their way like some kind of slow moving road furniture! I thought, starting later, I’d have riders to draft who weren’t too fast. I regret this now, but more about that later…
So seeing how hard it was going to be, I started to make adjustments, train more and improve my Brompton gear managing skills. Slowly but surely these changes and time in the saddle brought about significant gains culminating in times and speeds that many roadies would be happy with; not hardened club riders, but committed hobby riders, if there is such a thing?
The bike performance tweaks;
I switched to MTB pedals and cleats so I could lock my feet in. Speeds immediately edged up a few km/h. Kojak tyres running at 100psi; another few km/h added. Seat mounted twin carbon water bottle holder and cages. Finally, the swapping the rubber suspension bung for a stiff titanium spring to stop losing power to the well-known ‘Brommy bounce’ factor.
Due to family commitments my training was mainly revolving around riding it once a week on the 50km commute from Reading to Ealing, and the odd Richmond Park venture. Then a few weeks before the Prudential RideLondon, I did a longer 88km loop to check out Box Hill…
The Box Hill trip was not planned. I was about to go and lap Richmond Park, cruising along Syon Park at 18/19 mp/h past a group of roadies who caught me when I stopped at the lights, I heard one moaning to his mate at being dropped by a Brommy, and that I’d not be able to keep it up for any distance. So I carried on to Bushy Park, Cobham, and then Box Hill. I climbed Box Hill zig zags in 8 mins 13 seconds, which seems a respectable time for some roadies, no names mentioned here. I did fifty miles solo in three hours, and was only passed by one rider in a black skin suit doing Box Hill repeats. At this point I realised the 100 mile Prudential RideLondon challenge was looking good.
I was also riding for another 100km-ish during most weeks, but in specific Brompton training I clocked up 518km in just ten training rides from May. For the first 20km or so of each Brompton commute I’d employ my lead out man, Andy, to help me get used to drafting at reasonable speeds. This working in a pair, him on his single speed and me on the 6-speed tweaked Brommy worked well; the benefits of drafting being large, if not larger than when on a road bike as I could get lower on my Brommy than my regular road bike due to my riding position and the low BB height, although this means you have to be careful when cornering – lean too far and you’ll be grinding your pedals.
Working in a pair also helped me see how significant a good gear change is. The Brommy has six gears, two on the left hand which switch between thirteen and sixteen toothed sprockets on the back. The right hand controls the three speed Sturmey hub gear. You need to alternate between the two carefully to work through the gears. Get it wrong and you drop two gears lower in one move, and the drop off in tension on the hub gear finds you almost going backwards. Practice makes perfect though, well almost; I still have the odd gear change glitch, but not often.
Being a Brompton the sixteen inch wheels and geometry naturally make it a bit twitchy. Take a hand off the bar and you better have the other arm crooked and strong or you could be going face first into the tarmac. The arm crooking takes some of the bounce more naturally, and it’s vital to use both arms on a fast descent; you have to use a fair amount of upper body strength to stabilise the beast. But get that right and with small micro weight shifts you can descend like Nibali much to the chagrin of many race bike riders – but practice first!
Finally as we shifted into July average speeds for 50km rides went over 30km/h. Before culminating in 32km/h for the Prudential RideLondon ride, with a 75% Quartile speed of 36 km/h. The chart below shows the weekly progression, with a minor blip in speed due to riding in busy old London.
The lure of suffering did open the wallets and wagers as I’d hoped. WaterAid require at least £550. However, for the suffering I was about to submit myself to I wanted to raise more than I’ve raised before, so set a target of £2000. The day after I reached it; £2,183.01 (plus £342.14 Gift Aid) on 5th August and still some funds are rolling in. It has taken a fair amount of pestering but many friends and even acquaintances I hardly know have been so generous, many donations over £30, quite a few £50s and even one £400! Hey if you fancy it and the link still works feel free to donate or donate again (link).
My 6hr 30min estimate strategy put me in starting in pen H, at 07:59 from the Olympic Park, so civilised in comparison to the previous years start times of 06:12. I was even able to lie in until 05:30 and get a train from Acton to Stratford before ambling to my pen in a very laid back manner. Luxury; ask anyone starting at 06:00 how hellish that option is.
The looks and comments, as you can imagine, started early. I suspect most thought I was mad, and others expecting I’d fade off to the side of the road and die come Richmond Park. I met many nice folk too, wishing me luck. After an age, we finally got shuffled off to the start, and rolled out. Very odd in comparison to the fast riders start, as folk rolled away at a nice pedestrian pace. I managed about half a kilometre before I’d tired of that and started weaving up through the other starters. “There he goes,” one shouted.
Then on the first underpass someone shouted “hole” and a second later pop went one of my water bottles. Luckily folk were not going quickly and it didn’t fell anyone in the 48km/h peloton. My carbon water cage option was proving useless. I’d lost a bottle without realising on a practice ride, and so had my remaining bottle secured with an inner tube, expecting failure. I thought about recovering it, but realised I needed to crack on and solve this later, who needs water when riding for WaterAid?
Shortly after this – finally – a small train came through; six riders with Red shirts and a decent pace. The Woking Cycle Club train. I jumped straight on, and we fired our way up through the field. We managed Tower Hill to Richmond Park in half an hour averaging 38 km/h. I got to Richmond park before 09:00 and, having lost half my water, stopped to make use of the water station and let the Woking CC fellas press on without my shadow.
My domestiques were waiting near the Kingston Gate, a good place to meet after the early mayhem, and near family cheering points. However, expecting three, I found only one, Plod, a strong one, but alone not strong enough. Two were missing. Being clever and using the iPhone tracker app that did not take account of my water break they thought I’d snuck past and so they were chasing after my faster ghost. I pulled over and called them to find they’d got to Hampton Court bridge trying to catch me. Sadly, Jose suffered a fatal mechanical when his stem snapped on a pothole. The other, Guy, was within ear shot still and I was finally able to get my team together with the addition of an unexpected extra, Gary.
It was time knuckle down and crank out the miles. The Brommy was good at 38km/h but 40km/h, the pace Gary and Guy were sitting at, was burning my oil too quickly. A few shouts and an understanding was soon reached.
We kept this pace – flying past other participants by the hundreds – of just under 40 km/h till we ground to a halt due to a horrific accident near Ripley, which required an air ambulance. Sadly a rider went down very hard on a corner, I understand losing a lot of his face in the fall. No idea what happened there, though I do know there were a lot of slow riders unfamiliar with the danger they created in distributing themselves all across the road, despite official guidelines to stay left.
Guy did a good job of policing our progress, like a sergeant major, and despite frequently hearing the “it’s not a race” comment (though true, this doesn’t really justify blocking the road unnecessarily, forcing faster riders and chains to alter course and speed, which obviously raises the likelihood of collisions) we had no incidents all day long.
I didn’t tell my team that I was thankful of the enforced rest but my legs were starting to burn after 60km at a blistering rate for a Brompton. So I took the opportunity to finish my water and fuel up. About an hour and twenty minutes later we rolled off, past a beautiful church/abbey at Ripley, filing by the police cordon of the accident site. Gary had lost interest on hearing of another accident at Box Hill, so he took off solo and we were down to two.
Those starting later on the Prudential RideLondon have been consistently hit by these stoppages in the last few years. I met a few riders who are losing interest having had one hour plus stoppages scuppering official time goals they’ve been training for. I suspect though it was a luxury starting late I would have been just fine starting at around 07:00 with those targeting 5 hour loops. I was strong enough to hold 38-40km/h in the first dash to Richmond Park, so my original plans of relying on slower paced riders was erroneous. It also meant Guy had virtually no respite as pretty much nothing came by us, except on the hills – and even then not many – so there was no drafting for Guy. Luckily he’s strong enough for towing me not to be a problem.
Soon after the stoppage the first lumps came along. The legs were reasonably fresh, so they came and went fine. However, Plod started falling back and after we descended Newlands, we didn’t see him again. He’s not accustomed to riding in groups so wasn’t benefitting from Guy’s wheel, and so was in effect taking all the wind himself.
Descending Newlands was epic, though I understand not a pretty sight. Crouching with my grimacing face hovering over the bars, arms crooked and ready, the 16 inch wheeled folder was hitting 63 km/h!
The hills started coming a bit more frequently. On the flats and descents I was flying, but the hills were starting to take their toll as my legs started to bubble. Nervous of the terrible cramps I had experienced in the Velothon, I knew not to push harder when the tell-tale signs came along. Guy kept my spirits up and I thanked each and every one of my Bromptons low gears. The granny gear option was a Godsend, letting me spin my legs without much downward pressure and progress up Leith Hill while watching and dodging several other riders cramping and falling in the middle of the road.
The positive comments also kept me going, though I heard from others who were within better earshot that there were a few grumpy ones too – hee hee – but in general most were supportive and appreciated my efforts.
Guy was feeding me water from his bottles. Sometimes luring me to push harder to reach his out stretched hand; proper carrot and stick tactics. We agreed not to stop for more hydration until the top of Box Hill, after I almost pulled over in Westcott, but it looked way too busy. On hitting Box Hill, I was at the same pace as most of the riders, but a snail’s pace compared with Guy’s usual.
He had the cracking idea of shooting up to the feed station and filling the bottles. Guy was like a bird released and smashed it up Box Hill, going three or four times the pace of the rest of the field who must have wondered whether the pro race had started early and the first break had just ripped past. This afforded non-stop Brompton mayhem, complete with in-flight refuelling!
Soon after the flats and descents kicked in, as did our pace, though I had to take a few downhills opting for a purely aero performance, resting the legs to preserve energy for the final thirty miles. It was about here I had my favourite conversation, a rider caught me on an uphill, and said “I can’t believe seventy miles into a bike race I got dropped by a Brompton on a descent!” I lapped that one up.
The feeling that the end was reachable started at this point. Oxshott hill and the hill up towards Kingston came and went. Guy was waving his arms and invoking cheers from the plentiful crowds like a proper show man, all the while sitting in front of me at the pace I could stand. By now I was using a system of one bell ring for faster and two for slow. One problem though was I’d often flick the bell by accident when changing gears and have to quickly shout, “that was a mistake, do not speed up!” before Guy dropped me. I was also yelling, “slowing!” as the inclines began to tell; it took me a few days to get my voice back.
I knew the WaterAid supporters’ camp was on Wimbledon Hill, and this really helped me press on despite sadly dwindling vigour. I uncleated my pedals on the approach – rotating them to the flat, no SPD connection side – in pre-emptive preparation so that if I did cramp I wouldn’t roll over like a snail with a Brompton shell in front of the capacity Wimbledon Hill crowd. The photo of me palm in air at the start of this story was taken then by the WaterAid photographer. I look composed and ok, inside and either side of that split second my face was a full Voeckler gurn (Google it if unfamiliar – the Voekler gurn is legendary).
Cresting Wimbledon Hill, Guy and I carried on towards Putney, still weaving past the field. Until a familiar red set of Woking Cycle Club shirts rolled by. They must have had some mechanical, as I hadn’t seen them since I stopped for water at mile twenty-three in Richmond Park; I think they were as surprised to see me too.
We pounded out the last flat miles feeling the end beckoning us. Guy spotted his wife, daughter and dogs, all of who gave us a huge final cheer from the Embankment. Finally into the home straight; time for the sprint finish, and job done!
The sprint finish on the Mall.
Can’t thank Guy aka ‘Wouter Poels’ enough. He topped off the training and tweaks with a seventy-five mile lead out to the Mall. Andy Wright also deserves special mention for training ride efforts. My wife, Mum, son and brother were near the finish line, but for the third year in a row missed me. The last two years I was too quick and this year seemingly no different. The tracker app actually showed me still riding after I’d finished, Guy had managed to coax a few extra km/h after we passed over the last tracker transmitter…
Studying the Strava data I could diagnose that the forced stoppage cost me about one hour and twenty minutes, so I’m giving myself a riding time roughly 5 hours, averaging 32 km/h for the 100 miles, and 75% of the time sitting around 36.0 km/h, which by some dubious analysis of the finishers timings seems to put me about top 15% of all riders. I’d dreamt of sub five and half hours. Now I’m thinking I could have gone a good sub five hours. Massively satisfied with the achievement, and money I raised for WaterAid. Official finishing time was 6 hours and 24 minutes.
To all those who sponsored me, thank you so much. I buried myself on that 100 mile route that Sunday late in July 2016, all cards on the table, and nailed it!
At the WaterAid reception. Once I found my family, got my heart rate down and thanked Guy again, it was off to the WaterAid hospitality at New Zealand House (Haymarket) for some much welcome sustenance and a very painful sports massage, which made me weep as she dug her thumbs deep in my calves. But the next day I felt great; the post ride massage is a life saver.
Hope you enjoyed my story! Well done if you made it to the end.
Also if you sponsored me, have another “Thanks!!”
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