RideLondon 2014: conquering the weather

…because rain is temporary, quitting is forever.

RideLondon 2014

Piers and Nicola: we survived RideLondon-Surrey 2014

Imagine having constant buckets of water dumped on your head while you cycle in a bath with a high-pressure jet of filthy grit trained on your face. For five hours.

That was RideLondon-Surrey 2014.

On the plus side, it wasn’t raining when we started – so at least we weren’t standing around in wet clothing getting cold and miserable before we began. That would have been a potential deal-breaker. 
Conditions remained dry, in fact, until Canary Wharf (three miles down the road from the startline at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park) where my husband Piers and I hooked up from our separate start waves to cycle in convoy.
It was our second RideLondon; last year’s event was marked by a crash caused by a jaywalker which almost put paid to our ride and pushed our chip time to seven hours plus. [Read about our 2013 RideLondon experience hereThis year we were hoping to complete the 100-mile circuit in 6h15.
We knew from the start, however, that was not going to happen: organisers had responded to the forecast of atrocious weather conditions and shortened the course to 86 miles by cutting out the big Surrey climbs of Leith Hill and Box Hill. Disappointing but understandable, given that we would be cycling in the slipstream of Hurricane Bertha.
So whatever Bertha had to throw at us, at least we knew it would be over relatively quickly.
Cycling through Central London on closed roads is a joy, although there was less sightseeing this year as it was heads down to escape the lashing rain. We glanced up to admire the moat of poppies at the Tower of London, though, and I remember catching a glimpse of Harrods as we pedalled past.
Spectators were few and far between – there’s not much appeal to standing on a kerb in the rain at crack of dawn on a Sunday – and I did feel sorry for the poor marshalls. There was a lot less banter between cyclists too compared with 2013 as we all dug deep to keep going despite being soaked to the skin.
Curtailing the course meant that no one was going to get a 100-mile PB, so riding was generally very restrained and most participants were cycling defensively and sensibly. We witnessed little in the way of crashes, but numerous mechanicals. The roadsides were littered with cyclists fixing punctures in the pouring rain – I spoke to one poor guy who had used up both his spare inner tubes within the first couple of miles.
Heavy rain means the road carries more grit and debris, turning cycle tyres into puncture magnets. Piers had stocked up on spares but we were lucky enough not to need them.
From Canary Wharf onwards, the rain was heavy and constant so it was just moments before we were both soaked to the skin. At least we couldn’t get any wetter, and it was warm as long as we kept moving.
Determinedly stuck to Piers’ back wheel, for speed and shelter, I wasn’t too aware of the scenery. We were soon shooting through Richmond Park, across Kingston Bridge and towards Hampton Court, where the rain really started to hammer down. Torrential doesn’t do it justice: we were cycling into a wall of water, battered by enormous, brutal raindrops from above and at times almost knee-deep in floods.
Hurricane Bertha was living up to her name: gusts blasted us sideways as she continued to dump buckets of water on our heads. From Hampton Court all the way to Ripley (miles 25-40), the monsoon did not let up. Fed up? I was actually laughing. This felt more like a Tough Mudder than a cycle sportive .
Molesey, Walton-on-Thames, Brooklands, Weybridge, Pyrford, Byfleet: all a blur of wet road, wet shopfronts, wet corners and skid-scary roundabouts. I really had no idea where we were most of the time, despite these being familiar training routes. The rain was so heavy you could barely make out road signs or landmarks. By this point, we were so thoroughly sodden, that even Piers’ ‘weather-proof’ Garmin cycle computer had drowned. Kudos to those dogged spectators who were still roadside cheering us on.
Massive appreciation to Piers too for guiding us safely round so many hazards. He was riding for Macmillan in memory of his father who died suddenly of a brain tumour earlier this year. What better reason to keep pedalling?
As we progressed along the shortened route, keeping our speed down in a bid to stay upright, it became very obvious why organisers had cut out Leith and Box Hills: the descents would have been treacherous rivers. The climbs would have been littered with casualties.
Meanwhile, on the rolling flats of Surrey, we were already negotiating flooded lanes, with burst drains, overflowing gutters and impromptu waterfalls spewing onto the road. The amount of visible tarmac was frequently no more than a foot wide, with gigantic, spreading puddles at the margins. Staying alert to hazards distracted from muscle ache and the discomfort of squelchy cycling shoes and soggy chamois.
The funniest thing we saw all day: an enraged motorist so frustrated by the closed roads that he screeched his car into a U-turn to avoid a road-block, only to skid and crash noisily into a van. I bet that made him feel better…
Mid-ride stop

Our first and only hub stop: rain-battered but still cheery

At the top of breezy Newlands Corner – the day’s first and pretty much only climb – we paused to fill our water bottles at the food hub but set off sharpish to avoid getting cold. Then it was more or less homeward bound.
The rain was easing off a bit by the time we got to Esher, although many parts of road were still utterly submerged – in places every pedal stroke saw cycle shoes disappear beneath the water. Kingston was pretty benign, and it was clear skies by Wimbledon.

 

Lovely to stop for a few words and hugs from the children, Piers’ mum and sister at the foot of Wimbledon Hill – thanks so much to them for turning out in the face of abysmal weather – then full-speed ahead for the final nine miles to The Mall.

We cycled central London in bright sunshine, crossing the finish line largely dry but caked in filth. Especially my face, after a five-hour grit jet-wash facial from Piers’ back wheel.

Would we do it again? Try and stop us!
The lowdown:
Chip time: 5h 26min
Riding time: 4h 58min
Average riding speed: 17mph
Nutrition: three caffeine mule gels (coffee flavour), one High5 energy gel (citrus flavour), one and a half Bounce bars, one banana, a bite of CNP energy bar, half a bag of dried mango. Three and a bit bottles of water containing High5 electrolyte sports tabs. V impressed (like last year) with service and supplies provided at food stations.
Most jawdropping moment: being overtaken by a guy riding a BMX bike. Standing up on a bike for 86 miles? Rather you than me, mate.
Hairiest moment: losing the back end and skidding round the final corner out of Raynes Park. Without falling off, phew!
‘Doh, why did I open my big mouth?’ moment: cycling in the rain (natch) up Newlands Corner, to Piers, “well at least it’s not torrential at the moment”. At which point there was a crack of thunder and the hill turned into a river as torrents poured out of the sky and down the road beneath our wheels.
Biggest achievement? Surviving and completing what has got to go down in history as the rainiest ever RideLondon-Surrey.

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