Tuesday, 24 July 2012

London to Cambridge, not to mention Wiggins and Cavendish

In 1986 I worked in a local warehouse until I had enough money to buy a proper bike and then set off around the south coast of England. At Land's End I met a lot of people who were about to start their 'End-to-End'. There were a lot of worried faces because the prevailing south-westerlies that would normally blow them out of the west country and up towards Scotland had been replaced with severe north-easterly gales - a sort of aftershock from a recent Atlantic Hurricane. Anyway, I set off through torrential rain and rode slowly up the coast road to St Ives at which point the wind got strong but, mercifully, the rain stopped. I decided to dry off in the laundrette and struck up a conversation with a local elderly man. We discussed the difficulty of the weather and it turned out that he was a keen cyclist. "You don't see many lone cyclists these days" he commented, with clear approval of my solo riding habit.

How things change, cycling is a lot more popular in 2012 and I often see solo cyclists out on the road. But this popularity contrasts with a similar rise in the popularity of mass participation cycling events. The web seems to have a blind spot for the history of the London To Cambridge bike ride though it seems likely that it started after the London to Brighton as there has been such a long tradition of holding events (not just bike events) between those two cities. That event even has its own wikipedia page and it appears to have been running since 1976 - judging by this article and accompanying poster. It must have been held during one of the UK's most famous droughts. These days, around 30,000 people participate in that annual ride. According to one report Sunday's London to Cambridge ride had 5,000 participants. The official site makes the more modest claim of "around 4,000". Either way, I had no idea these events were so popular.

Out and Back

So in all innocence, on Thursday night I decided to sign up online for the 2012 London to Cambridge. The plan was to rise early, cycle gently down to the start thus ensuring there was plenty left in the legs for the return journey. This would also be the first time I'd be riding my new Cinelli bike over 100 miles in a single ride - a chance to find out if the frame is forgiving enough to remain comfortable over longer distances.

I did wonder if I'd see other riders on my way down to London but I didn't expect it within 5 miles! I rode the remaining 42 miles to the start with Simon and Chris who are veterans of this event and have clearly paced each other over many miles together. Despite this experience we did take a wrong turn in the last few miles and ended up riding against the flow of the event to get back to the start. At this point, it really brought home to me just how many people participate.

The event has been in the hands of bike-events.com for many years so, as you might imagine, the organisation is very slick. It wasn't long before I was on my way with that unfamiliar feeling of having a number pinned to my shirt.

With so many riders on the road it was a case of move at the pace of the group on the flat but as soon as the road started to climb the riders started to bunch up and I found myself in the fast lane. At the top of the first climb I saw Chris and Simon up ahead but I quickly realised that experience counts for a lot when you are cutting through the traffic and they disappeared off into the distance.

Official photo thanks to  

After about 10 miles things started to settle down a bit, riders were getting stretched out a bit more and I found myself mainly surrounded by people of a similar pace. There were still a few hares who come racing past on the flat (or the descents) only to slow to a tortoise pace on the next climb. Hats off to the guy on an old black Cinelli Gazetta track bike though: any lack of speed on the climbs was more than made up for in style.

This event clearly has a significant impact on motorists who are used to travelling much faster. It is almost impossible to overtake the riders once you get in amongst them (there are just too many). Hopefully most were successfully warned and managed to avoid the route completely as the roads were de facto closed, at least in the direction of travel. When cars did get on to the course they tended to have to move at the speed of the slowest and this resulted in serious bunching of the riders behind them - especially on the hills. It is a shame that a tiny minority of riders show a lack of patience in this situation and end up doing risky overtaking manoeuvres because this is exactly the sort of thing that upsets cyclists when the situation is reversed. Still, despite all the talk of road-wars in the press it really is a tiny minority of people (whether on two wheels or four) who show their frustration. My top tip for these events: best to just ignore the average speed on your cycle computer and enjoy the ride.

The route seems to be chosen more for the practicality of minimising the impact of traffic than for taking in particular climbs. The above picture shows the total elevation profile of my ride (created with MapMyRide). The left-hand side is the southward journey to London via the hill at Barkway. As you can see from the right half of the picture the official route has the typical saw-tooth profile of a ride through England's rolling landscape but there are no long climbs and the maximum elevation is never more than about 450 feet. MapMyRide has a climb classification system but it fails to register for this route - there are a few steep bits but they're way too short to show up on this sort of system.

Sadly the last bit of the ride directs people through the centre of Cambridge which is notorious for its traffic. Yesterday was no different - stationary cars for the last 2 or 3 miles on roads with no reserved space for cycles. Cambridge prides itself on its cycling credentials but visiting Londoners must have wondered why.

The ride finishes on Midsummer Common which gives it something of a summer fair feel and provides a way for a non-cycling spouse to share in the occasion. The weather was perfect for resting on the grass and replenishing energy supplies from the various catering vans. I must also mention the commentator who started the riders off in London with a carefree "be off with you" and was transported to Cambridge in time to welcome them to the common with various comments ranging from the sartorial to the frankly bizarre. He certainly brightened the afternoon and made it a bit less boring for the people waiting for their friends and relatives to arrive.

Hats off to Cavendish and Wiggins!

With such an early start I had plenty of time to eat lunch on the common and peddle slowly back to my house in time to watch the end of the Tour de France. It was a tense last lap of the Champs Élysées but the finish, with Bradley Wiggins in yellow leading out Mark Cavendish to win the stage completed a fairy-tale ending for British riders in the Tour. I know that there seems to be a huge gap between these super-elite athletes and the people who participated in the London to Cambridge but to me they are still connected. Sport is like a pyramid, if you want to build it high you have to start with a wide base. The fact that British riders have won the Green Jersey and then the Yellow Jersey in consecutive years when no British rider has ever won either of these competitions before is not just a stimulus for future riders, it is also indicative of the growing interest over the last 20 years. Who knows, perhaps some of the younger riders who took part on Sunday only to realise that they could keep up with the fastest riders might now think of taking up cycling as a sport too.

"Just ride and be happy"

So am I a convert to mass participation events? Would I consider doing the London to Brighton for example? It is a similar distance to the London To Cambridge (though with more climbing) and it might just be possible to start the ride in Cambridge, thread my way through central London and still have enough in the tank to get up the Beacon at the end. Or do I feel like Matt Seaton whose quote I've borrowed for the sub-heading. He said on the Guardian Bike Blog:

I often get asked: "Oh, have you done the London-to-Brighton ride?" To which my answer is, no, I've never done it – because it means sharing the road with 30,000 other cyclists and no one can even ride up Ditchling Beacon (the big hill behind Brighton, and the best bit) because of all the folk pushing their bikes. OK, so that's a tad snobby, but I do ride to Brighton (and back) at least a couple of times a year

I'm sympathetic with much of what he says in that post but, like him, I've ridden solo to London (and back) several times for pleasure and yet this time there was the added sense of occasion that the event organisers are so good at generating. For me, it certainly isn't about the charity sponsorship. I don't need that motivation to ride my bike (or to give to charity).

I think my enjoyment at doing the London to Cambridge stems mainly from the fact that the Cambridge end is home. One of our biggest local companies, ARM (and I'm talking as a resident of Cherry Hinton here) had over 100 riders taking part. I also saw plenty of riders from the other big local name, the Marshalls engineering group. If I did London to Brighton I wouldn't feel the same connection and I'd have the added inconvenience of having 7 times less room between me and the person in front.

Would I do London to Cambridge again? Yes, definitely - the out and back route combines the advantages of both solo and mass participation riding. But keeping this type of thing as an annual event feels about right to me.

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