The idea for the day came from CP editor Rob Spedding. “Can any of you do a 100-mile ride on a 100-quid bike?” he asks the team, as they whistle distractedly and try not to make eye contact. But as the team’s resident cheapskate and go-to guy for testing budget-related kit, there was only ever going to be one, er, ‘volunteer’. “Oi! Withers! You’re doing it!” Which is why I’m struggling up the Surrey hills on an overgeared bike.
The lower reaches of Leith Hill in Surrey, just after the halfway point of the 100-mile Prudential RideLondon sportive, was where I discovered the big difference between today’s road bikes and their skinny steel equivalent from the late 1990s. Forget carbon fibre and big-diameter tubing, ignore aerodynamic this and ultra-stiff oversized that – the real change is the widespread use of the compact chainset.
I found this out when I flicked from the 52-tooth outer ring to the 42-tooth inner for the ride’s first ascent and barely noticed the change down. Which didn’t bode well as the biggest sprocket isn’t that big – so the granny gear isn’t that OAP-ish – and part way up its length Leith Hill briefly reaches 12 per cent. It didn’t help that the first time that day I’d tried an out-of-the-saddle effort – to look aggressive and show off my finest Alberto Contador moves for the official photographers – I shipped the chain off the inside of the inner ring, came to a halt and nearly crushed my dangly bits on the top-tube. This meant out-of-the-saddle climbing wasn’t possible, while the lowest gear was too big to spin comfortably while seated.
Walk on by
So, hoping nobody I knew was watching I unclipped and walked for a minute or so, at about the same speed I was cycling! I was in good company as a long line of pedestrians clipped, clopped and stumbled up the left-hand side of the road. I’d anticipated this eventuality by fitting a pair of single-sided SPD pedals and wearing my softer-soled – and easier to walk in – commuting shoes. By that stage I’d already broken several of the cardinal rules for riding a major event, so what was one more?
We recommend you don’t tackle a big day out on kit you’re not used to. Well, thanks to a combination of work and illness, I hadn’t managed more than a mile or so on the circa-1997 Raleigh M-Trax 6000R I’d just bought from eBay, enough to ensure the correct saddle height and that nothing would fall off. I measured and greased the seatpost, oiled the chain, checked the brakes and nothing did fall off… Oh, except the chain a couple of times. One of the other joys of down-tube friction shifters that I’d forgotten. And I couldn’t prevent the saddle from slipping forward until I tightened it as far forward as it would go.
It could have been worse, and the climbs that much harder, as some of that era’s M-Trax bikes had 53/42 chainsets with a decidedly not knee-friendly 12-23 cassette.
One thing that hasn’t changed over the years, in fact it’s got worse, is the plethora of standards. I needed a slightly shorter stem than the M-Trax had. Simple. Bristol has loads of bike shops where I’d be able to pick one up. Sure enough, the Bristol Bike Workshop had a handful in stock. Bingo. Until I had a thought and got out the Vernier callipers. Ah yes, Raleigh had gone with the Italian 26mm clamping standard rather than the English standard 25.4mm. And the shorter stems? Yep, the smaller diameter. Luckily Cycling Plus’s office is more-or-less next door to Black Beard Bicycles, which specialises in classic bikes, and a couple of days before RideLondon, co-owner Patrick swapped the bar and stem combo for an identical one with a shorter stem. It’s just as easy to do this as it is to swap the stem; along with the compact chainset the modern stem with four-bolt face plate is a real and underestimated boon.
RideLondon is fantastically organised event, a celebration of the delights of two-wheeled transport and part of a weekend of events for cyclists of every ability that culminates in a race for the pros over the same course, which means you have to get a bit of a wriggle on if you’re not a speedster and aren’t one of the first off the line.
The start at the Olympic stadium in Stratford is smoothly marshalled and a good chance to check out other bikes. Swanky all-carbon machines mix it with more modest bikes, a sprinkling of tandems, Bromptons and single-speeds (fixies aren’t allowed), though I only saw one other bike with down-tube shifters.
The weather was nigh-on perfect, so my lightweight showerproof stayed in my mini-saddlebag as we powered through East London and alongside the Thames. The early part was carried out at a very decent lick, as I got used to the bike on pleasingly car-free roads, and slowly learned to stop reaching for STI levers that weren’t actually there.
Most of the time I didn’t notice I was riding an old bike. At 10.25kg it’s heftier than a contemporary one, but it’s only a kilo or so heavier than a top-end bike of its time (Bjarne Riis’s and Marco Pantani’s Tour de France-winning Pinarellos weighed around 9kg), and decent hand-built wheels make for a smooth and easy ride on the flat. I changed the tyres and saddle, just in case, and there was a tiny amount of play in the rear wheel’s bearings, but nothing that a service wouldn’t sort. The rims are narrower than a modern bike’s but with quality 23mm tyres and a Fabric Spoon saddle there were no issues with comfort, and it could bomb downhill once I’d puffed and grunted my way up. I was happy to reach 40mph or more on descents, only a bit slower than on my own bike.
The real joy of the day is sharing the roads with other cyclists, realising just how much good cycling there is within a few miles of one of the world’s major cities; riding through Richmond Park with the deer in the distance and squawking parakeets overhead; chatting with other cyclists who’d come from all over the country and further afield; the gentle thrum of rubber on tarmac. Oh, and regular stops for food and drink.
I particularly have to thank the ladies of Westcott for their bacon roll sold to raise money for the local Guides. I was enjoying it at a leisurely pace when it was announced that we had to be at Box Hill within half an hour or we’d be diverted. I’d arrived at Leith Hill earlier with 45 minutes to spare which meant time was catching up on me. So, bacon roll wolfed down, bike mounted and pedalling frantically, I arrived at Box Hill… with half an hour to spare. I knew I was going fast but even I didn’t expect to get there in literally no time. Or perhaps it was just the announcer trying to chivvy people along…
Box Hill was fine, a reasonable incline meant no walking, even with an overgeared bike and dodgy knees, though a lot of us were bemused as we climbed for a while after reaching the King of the Mountains summit, which always feels unfair. But though RideLondon is a challenging day, a little more so on a 20-year-old hundred-quid bike, I didn’t have to dig deep into my metaphorical suitcase of courage, rather I had a bit of a fumble in the valise of reasonable effort.
Back when my knees didn’t creak I ran the London Marathon. This cycling take on the theme is its equal as far as the participation experience is concerned. Slightly smaller numbers than last year made it more manageable, and though there was a bottleneck at the bottom of Leith Hill, the stop-and-go was brief and well managed, and there seemed to be far fewer incidents than last year.
The last 10 or 15 miles through south London are some of the day’s best, as there’s a real party feel and only one climb, a nasty lump in Wimbledon. There’s great camaraderie among the riders, pubs are blaring out music, families and groups of friends cheering you on – and that really makes a difference. Eighty-five miles in your legs and you’re grateful for any pick-me-ups, and those final food stops prove very welcome.
As with my marathon years ago, and after eight and a half hours’ riding, I finished with a sprint, sort of, and this time I wasn’t overtaken by a 7ft Womble in the last mile. The finishing straight on The Mall heading towards Buckingham Palace is over 500m long and after 100 miles an eyeballs-out half-km à la Chris Hoy isn’t going to happen; but I upped the pace and pulled past a few riders. With a couple of hundred to go I went for it, though aided by my clumsiness with the down-tube shifters, I failed to get in the smallest sprocket. Still, I didn’t fall over and I beat Alexander Kristoff by a good half hour. Easy. He never had a chance against me and a 20-year-old M-Trax.
To enter the 2018 Prudential RideLondon 100 next July, enter the ballot here. Ballot results will be announced in February.