A bike ride is an endlessly shifting narrative of alliances, obligations, rewards and sacrifices, and those who participate affirm their membership by shouldering these duties, to a greater or lesser degree. Sharing the burden, looking after those who are less strong, and leaning on those who are stronger is all part of the pleasure of riding in a group, but taking all these responsibilities onto your own shoulders is an empowering experience of a profoundly different order. I am about to undertake a month of cycling that will stretch the extremities of my experience of this dialectic like never before, beginning with a week-long, 1000km charity ride from Birmingham to Paris, and ending with the epic Prudential London 100 Sportive. The first ends on July 26, just over one week before the beginning of the second: an intense 17 days that is, in some laughably small way, comparable to Bradley Wiggins’ Tour/Olympics magnum opus around the same time last summer. Yes, I am hyping this up a little bit, but I always saw that as the point of cycling was to create small but completely real moments of personal heroism, whilst having fun and getting dressed up in brightly coloured lycra.
The opportunity to ride the Prudential London 100 Sportive arose quite recently, and somewhat surprisingly. I have been spending most of this year preparing for the charity ride, so have certainly had my fitness hat on this spring, but I virtually discounted the London 100 from my plans on the basis that it is being run so soon after I get back from Paris; a time when I expected to never want to see a bicycle ever again. However when I was invited to participate I could hardly say no. Aside from the physical challenge I was sold on how unique this event is; primarily that it takes place on last year’s Olympic circuit on closed roads. This never happens in Britain. Residents, police forces and councils are allergic to the idea of closing minor roads for a few hours to stage bike races, and even the Tour of Britain still has to operate using rolling road-blocks, rather than the total shut-down European authorities can put into place. The idea of steaming around London and Surrey on my bike with no traffic to worry about, save for other cyclists, was too awesome to turn down. It is literally a once in a lifetime opportunity.
The course is not massively difficult. At 100 miles it is long, obviously, but there are only four climbs, the last of which is at mile 68. This is the most attractive part of the route of course, through the rolling hills around Dorking, and it should be an uplifting experience whirring through the mid-summer afternoon in the company of thousands of other cyclists. The ìpelotonî should have thinned out considerably by the time the climbing starts, so I would hope to find myself in the company of similar riders to attach myself to as we go over Leith and Box Hills. The rest of the time it will be a matter of riding at a steady tempo, and with no traffic lights or other reasons to stop the only obstacle to this will be keeping food and fluid levels up. The longest I have ever ridden without a break is 3.5 hours, the idea of doubling this is daunting and I expect I will stop at least once to rest, but I have got better at fuelling up for endurance so should be ok. Should!
I have had to adjust my training significantly. In the past I have simply limited myself to three or four pints and 5 fags the night before a ride, had a big heavy breakfast in the morning and got on with it. This year I have had to take this side of things a bit more seriously in order to survive a week of long, moderately paced efforts over flat lowland countryside. And now, faced with a one-day, 100 mile effort over hilly terrain, and with a stated target time of seven hours, I have had to adjust again. On top of basic conditioning and weight management I have had to add some strength training ñ long, hard efforts on the flat and short, steep climbs (the only type worth the name in and around London). It has been hard to make these progressions, particularly as ‘form’ on a bicycle is that ‘good’ feeling you want when climbing or pushing hard, is so transient. One day it’s there and the next it’s gone! Real life gets in the way of course. A few weekend drinks here and a tough few days at work there and suddenly you feel like you’re dragging an anvil behind your bike. Rest days also seem counter-productive sometimes, I never feel worse than when I try a hard ride the day after my last one. You’ve got to keep spinning to sustain that feeling, or rest properly and completely for two or three days. The magic formula eludes me at the moment. It’s just about equal measures of hard work and suffering for now.
I got into cycling in the first place because it rewards both social and anti-social instincts in equal measure and this month will be a true test of my ability to be co-operative and supportive under pressure, and to survive on my own. What excites me most about the London 100 is that I can really get into this solitary, heroic role ñ to hunch my shoulders and grimace like a true racer; to accelerate past fleetingly selected, arbitrary opponents and to zip up my jersey and hold my hands aloft as I cross the finish line on the Mall. In reality only the first is guaranteed, but these are the adolescent dreams that all lycra-clad roadies enact every time they get in the saddle. Only on this occasion it will seem a bit more real, and bit less silly, than usual.
I was back on the bike yesterday evening for my first ride in anger since returning from the low countries on Friday. My hope was that three days of horizontal rest would be the perfect interval, allowing recovery from what was, in the end, a pretty punishing week, and a chance to have a few drinks and retrieve a semblance of normality to my life. And it seemed to work. My legs still felt strong, able to spin at high revs and apply power on higher gears without breaking sweat. A colossal thunderstorm over Epping Forest around 7pm prevented me covering the distance I had hoped, but on the flat, clear roads (of which the London 100 is principally composed) I felt fast and durable. My only real concern now is my gears, which I am woefully poor at tuning. Still a few days to get this sorted ñ I might even put a shout out to Mr Madegood here for a quick tune-up.
The Prudential London-Surrey 100 is now only five days away now and itís starting to become apparent what a big deal it is. Websites and posters are warning travellers of disruptions over the weekend now, and some colleagues and friends seem to know what the event is before Iive fully explained it. The arrangements for registration in the days before the event are a little daunting, involving heading out to the cyclists’ hell that is the Docklands to pick up numbers and departure times. Which reminds me, I note that I may be required to start as early as 6am. For someone as morning-phobic as me this is a dire situation, but then I remember that I live no more than two miles from the start line. People from other parts of the country will be staying with friends or in hotels that require 4am wake-up calls. Harsh. Deciding what to take with me will be important. The 1000km we covered last week means that I am now well practiced in refuelling, and I know what food and drink is best suited to such an effort (it’s all about the Gels, by the way). I’ll also need a basic puncture repair kit and my key possessions. I may have to break the racer aesthetic and take a bumbag, especially if the weather stays variable.
My tactical approach will have to revolve around my ability to conserve and re-stock my food supplies, with an aim to go into beast-mode late in the day when I know what I have in my pockets. Heading into the wind first thing it will be all about taking it easy, whilst finding some people of similar ability to roll along with. If itís seriously crazy I may have to make a break at some point, but my first major effort will be in Richmond Park, where we take the long drag up from the Roehampton Gate to the Richmond Gate. I know this stretch well and will try to get my heart rate up the incline then try to maintain a higher tempo until weíre out of the suburbs. The first of three climbs is at 45 miles, and from here to the top of Box Hill 20 miles later I will ride at a high, even tempo, without emptying the tank. The run in, all 30 miles of it, will be about throwing as much at it as I can and simply hanging on. There should be a slight tailwind and with my light bike and big body I should get some help, but I will be suffering Iím sure. Having some gels left over here will be vital. Seven hours is the target, which is an average of 14.2 miles an hour, yet I can’t help but think than 15 miles an hour would give me a time of 6’40′. Settle down Tom; don’t get over-ambitious! I’ve been riding long enough to know that even finishing will be an achievement if I flame out, run out of food, crash or have a mechanical.
It all seems like a massive undertaking, and I’m really not sure I’m ready for the craziness at the start line and finish. There’ll be TV cameras and helicopters and stewards and police. It’ll probably be so busy that no-one will be able to go at their own pace until we’re well down the river. If last week I got a taste of the life of a Tour pro behind the scenes, poorly ventilated hotel rooms, snoring team mates, horrible, aching, cramping mornings, then this will be more like the front-of-stage experience. Lights, cameras, action.
Gustaf Håkansson – the 'steel grandpa' who won a 1,000-mile bicycle race bit.ly/1bD4P8R