Well, it’s all over and it really would seem that I saved ‘the best to the last’. Perhaps that is a truism, as in the end it’s the event that is the winner and it brings out the best in you. Having said that, never in my most bullish imaginings did I expect to cover the 100 miles at almost an average 14 mph.
The omens were good from the start. With all the right intentions, given the organisers’ statement that all roads within a 5 mile radius of the Olympic Stadium would be closed, we set off to find the ‘drop-off’ point but by honest misadventure Jane set me down right outside the stadium itself. Getting to the start at 06.15, allowed for a full 55 minutes of eyeing up the other riders and asking myself “what the hell am I doing here”, before my load time. I had been too excited & nervous to eat a good breakfast before leaving, but managed to down the honey sandwich Jane had prepared for me. The chatter around me was all self-reassuring comparatives: “What time do you expect to do it in? Done much training? etc etc” and there was an Olympian amount of weeing going in too! (In fact, this carried on throughout the event; at times the roadside rivalled some of the best of the French countryside.) So at precisely 07.12 I responded to the call to load Zone Q, which was then progressively released from the pre-starting line, a good 2 miles from the official start, which I went through at just after 07.47.
My earliest intentions had been to take the ride to The Surrey Hills at a steady sub-12 mph but upped this as my late start-time allowed me only 40 minutes of lee-time before the threatened ‘cut-off’ times. As it was all this went out the window with the adrenalin & the occasion and I covered the first 24 flat miles, reaching the 1st cut off point of Hampton Court at a potentially dangerous 15 mph clip. Then it was on to Kingston, possibly the point outside London with the largest crowds, and out onto the Surrey countryside proper. The crowds at point were all ‘very stockbroker English’ – a sort of small-scale Last Night Of The Proms – and hat’s off to them, and all those on the roadside throughout the event, for their generous and unstinting encouragement. I, like most of the rest of the riders tried my best to acknowledge their presence for they really, to steal a footballing metaphor, were our 12th man.
As we approached The Hills, at around the 45 mile point, a palpable feeling of fear could be felt amongst the increasingly silent majority of us. At the beginning of the ride, despite my 15 mph, I was mostly being overtaken. By this stage, I was well-and-truly in the peleton with only the alpha-riders zooming by. Whether it was my earlier pace, or the sense of what was about to come, this was the most difficult mental point in the ride for me. Suddenly my energy levels were dropping, despite the steady diet of gels and bars, and if there was a moment of self-doubt this was it. But I demonstrably was not on my own. The whole peleton was now slowing down on every up-slope as “Newlands Corner” approached. The three hills we rode are proper Category 4 climbs: Newlands Corner is a genuine lump; Leith Hill is a ‘stinker’ by any standards; Box Hill a pussy-cat, by comparison, were it not for its length. But it is the fact that one takes on all three within a single 15 mile stretch that, IMHO, really what makes completing this event an achievement. Newlands Corner was physically hard but it was the thought that Leith Hill followed that made it mentally very hard too. A minority of the riders had either decided in advance to walk their bikes up the three hills but Leith Hill genuinely beat many of those who hadn’t.
What can I say about Leith Hill? For me it was like a horror film – and I don’t ‘do’ horror films – where the slasher is in the cupboard hiding from his victim, who knows he is there. And like in the movies, the director takes his sweet time in producing the denouement. It was a good 10 miles between Newlands Corner and Leith Hill. At one time, one passes a road-sign for Leith Hill pointing in the other direction and I began imagining that the organisers had had a last-minute change-of-heart and were diverting us around it; this self-delusion being increased by the downhills that come before one reaches the base of the hill. But then, there it is. One turns a corner and one now knows that there has been no last minute reprieve. It’s a pig. It’s also a tease as it is, in reality, 3 sharp climbs with 3 mini-inclines in between. After 2 of these, I like many thought it a ‘done deal’; a non-fact reinforced by a cruel spectator who replied to my breathless question: “Is that Leith Hill over” with a “Yes mate, you’ve done it!”. Liar, liar, pant’s on fire to you ‘mate’. But then perhaps I should be thankful to you and regard your misinformation more as a well-meaning white lie. And the 3rd leg of the hill is the one that asks The Big Question: “How Much Do You Really Want This?”. I guess I wanted it.
After that it was all downhill home. Well not really, there was the small matter of Box Hill to contend with. However, I had looked Box Hill in the eye at the Care Surrey 65 mile Etape and I knew that it held no real fears. I am very pleased that I had experienced it before, as a sizeable few of my co-riders seemed to give up on it from the start. To be fair Leith Hill had taken its toll and legs were jellied. However the knowledge that this was the last uphill challenge, and that 2/3 of the ride would be completed by the summit, was a great counter-weight to negative thought. Box Hill is lovely and the view from the top is awesome. A brief stop was in order, for the view’s sake and for recovery, but 5 minutes later it was ‘frappez la rue’ again.
The last 35 miles was where my training really came into its own. I had managed to get to the top of Box Hill at an average lick of 13.2 mph, which was more than pleasing. But as I cycled back towards London, I discovered that I really did have something in reserve. Feeling quite strong, I increasingly upped the pace, with every landmark spurring me on. The Surrey crowds were now at their largest and I sped through Esher, Cobham & Leatherhead. At Kingston I acknowledged the cheers of my charity, Epilepsy Action, with a triumphal arm-raise. Crossing Putney Bridge, Fulham Football Ground to the left cheered me on. Onto the Kings Road, past Stamford Bridge and onto the Embankment. My average time had now climbed to 13.8 mph and, with 8 miles to go, I harboured illusions of completing The Ride in a 14 mph average. I emptied the tank and gave it what was left. Onto The Mall and I was cycling like a demented fool. Crossing the finishing line, my on-cycle computer told me that I had completed the ride in 7 hours 7 minutes and 29 seconds, at an average pace of 13.9 mph. I will have to wait for my official on-the-road time. I reckon that will add 17 minutes to that time. I would have been very content to complete the etape within the time-limit. I expected to do it in 8.5 hours and would genuinely have been delighted with a sub-8 hour time. But to do it in the time I did, I am over the Moon.
It’s been quite an amazing personal journey. I can honestly say that I have not committed so much focus and energy to any event this century. In just over 2 months I have ridden around 1000 miles and put myself through an unparalleled fitness regime. I have lost over 1 ½ stones, (I lost a further 6 lbs with the event itself). I am now at the same weight as when Jane & I got married. And I feel great and this, ultimately, is my reward.
Last but not least, a massive thank you to all of you who have supported me. I won’t insult your intelligence by saying that without you I wouldn’t or couldn’t have done it. But the fact that you were there with your interest and your encouragement, really, did help me keep going and I am enormously thankful to you for it.