Tuesday, July 15, 2008

London to Brighton, at last

So very overdue! Never mind.

Sunday 15th June was the annual London to Brighton bike ride in support of the British Heart Foundation. Simply put, this is 27,000 people on bikes riding 54 miles and causing general chaos. Yay! This is a really long post.

The weekend started with a bit of trouble. D, the work colleague who had actually organised for us to take part, ended up backing out because his wife couldn't find her driving glasses and therefore couldn't get the car from London to Brighton to collect him at the end. This shouldn't have actually been a problem - although the train operators won't let participants take cycles on their services any more (which is, in itself, ridiculous) they will still carry people. We could have taken his bike and he could have quite easily caught the train. Never mind.

Fortunately my very good friend C had already decided that she wanted to come and see us arrive in Brighton, largely because she'd never been. The previous plan had been for her to drive down with R and Mum and I would go with D. Change of plan! She ended up with two bikes on the back of her car, which made her nervous for a little while before she got used to it.

In any case, we eventually had everything sorted, the bikes all loaded up and maps ready, and off we went. The drive to London was uneventful - motorway driving isn't hugely exciting. We even found the hotel without too much trouble, bagged ourselves a space in the car park, checked in and took bikes to our rooms with no problems. Huzzah - it's nice when things just work.

That night we wandered into Putney and found a lovely little Greek restaurant. We decided on sharing platters, because those things are just good; stuffing yourself with spiced houmous, lamb kofta, stuffed vine leaves and various other dips with flatbread is something that should be shared. Add a tasty Cretan wine, a dessert platter of cake, Greek yoghurt with honey and nuts and baklava and you have yourself a mighty fine meal that wasn't even particularly expensive. Oh, and a free drink of ouzo because Greece scored in the Euro 2008 match that was happening at the time. Bonus.

After this it was off to the pub to sample some London Pride, which was delicious as ever. There was a chalk drawing of Darth Vader on a board behind the bar, for a reason that was never explained. Finally we decided that in actual fact bed was quite appealing, since our setting-off time was 7.30am and the start line was two miles away.
Far too early next morning my alarm decided it was time to get up. I was all for ignoring it, but fortunately R got up which meant I had to as well. After a quick shower and sorting out gear it was time to leave. Oh wait, we didn't know where we were going. Cue Mum and C trying to work out where we were going on maps with different scales. Once it was eventually worked out, we discovered that it was actually quite simple to get to Clapham Common, it was just that the route took us over about 4 pages of the A-Z map. Urk. Eventually, however, Mum and I left the other two in the chill of the London morning with the agreement to meet at the start before we left for Brighton.

When we got to the Common (which was easier than expected - we just followed the stream of cyclists and cars carrying bikes), that plan went straight out of the window. A phone call confirmed that due to the joys of public transport C and R were still waiting for a bus, so we opted to just get started and that we'd see them at the end.

Crossing the park to the starting point was the first time we realised just how many people might be doing this. There were people everywhere.
It was all very well set up, though: there were four big archways, each with a start time written on it. We duly joined the back of one of the 7.30 ones to munch on muesli bars and get our cards stamped. We didn't have to wait very long before we were through the archway (picking up route planners and safety pins for our numbers) and funnelled off into one of three large holding areas in front of the start line. I now know how cattle feel.

While we were waiting for the off, there was entertainment! Giant lobsters on stilts: and some bloke playing the organ beneath a plastic palm tree:

All very entertaining. I decided that I really wanted my camera somewhere more handy than my bag, and so my windproof became a convenient camera holder. Marvellous. (I was actually very impressed that I didn't drop it at any point. Success!)

There was enough time to pin on our numbers, adjust our helmets and generally get ourselves prepared for the journey ahead. Then we watched the other holding pens open up, and off people went to much clapping and cheering from all spectators.

Finally, it was our turn. Away went the ribbon, and we set off in a mass of whirring metal and cheerful voices.
Through the London streets we went, causing chaos as we tried to avoid traffic and each other. Sensibly, there were ride stewards and police at every set of traffic lights to stop bad things happening, such as cyclists jumping red lights or white van drivers expending their wrath on cyclists. (No, they don't need a reason. There is just wrath that must be expended.)

Unfortunately there were so many sets of lights, and so many cyclists trying to get through them that it took us an hour and a half to get to the first refreshment stop, a village hall eleven miles away. This is not a good pace! We stopped there anyway, for toilets and water refills (it was warm). Again, the organisation of the event stood out. Loads of toilets, so no huge queues, free water refills and a mass of old ladies making sandwiches and selling them along with tea, coffee, fruit juice and bananas. It was wonderful.

I sent a quick message to R+C telling them where we were and how things were going. They sent one back saying that they were in Brighton and there were people finishing already. Depressing! That's what happens when a) you start at 6am, the earliest slot and b) you're treating it as some serious training.

Spurred on by that, we were soon back on our bikes and on our way. It must be said, it was a really pretty route through plenty of small southern English villages. You know the type, they're on postcards - little cottages with roses growing in the gardens, ponds, pubs and village greens.

We couldn't spend too long looking, though - with so many people it was all too easy to fall over someone.

We'd not gone too much further when my brakes were put to good use, as a mass of stationary people was just round a corner on a downhill stretch of a country lane. It transpired that there had been an accident, and judging by the amount of emergency vehicles a fairly serious one. Incidentally, hats off to the emergency services - I'm sure trying to get a First Response Land Rover, a full-sized ambulance, two police patrol cars and a police motorbike through a crowd of cyclists on a narrow country lane was less than fun, even if we did all move to the sides. I'd also like to call down bad karma on those idiots who followed the ambulance through in order to get to the front of the stoppage - seriously, you gave a whole new meaning to the term 'ambulance chasing'.

It took about half an hour for the stewards to start letting us through in dribs and drabs, but once we got going again the crowd soon spread out. Cue more wonderful scenery of rolling hills, woods and fields interspersed with scenic villages where the residents were standing outside spraying us with water as we passed. That wasn't as mean as it sounded - we provided target practice for the kids with water guns, and the water cooled us down. Fair trade, I thought.

More cycling. I think my bum was getting sore at this point, despite the gel seat and horribly attractive padded shorts. In any case, I was relieved when we stopped for lunch. This rest stop (a Scout hut) had a barbecue going! And it smelled delicious. However, we were desperate to make up some time (since it was now... I don't know what time. Late) so we stuck to our previously purchased sandwiches, bananas and muesli bars. Oh, and a piece of Kendal Mint Cake for that sugar buzz. Yum. All too soon it was time to put on more sunscreen, fill up the water bottles and head off again.

R+C were a little concerned that since it had taken us so long to do the first half, we wouldn't get to Brighton before about 8pm - which meant a long and late drive home. However, the second half seemed to fly by - more villages, more countryside, more rest stops at pubs (none of which we stopped at - we were the height of restraint, I tell you) and more people on bikes getting in everyone's way. We kept up a fairly decent pace, having decided not to stop again until the rest area just before Ditchling Beacon. This was another great one - it seemed to be a care home of some kind, which had kindly opened their garden so that lots of sweaty bikers could crash out on the lawn for a while. Which we did. Time for another banana and two pieces of Mint Cake, because we could now see the hill and it was a little bit terrifying.

There it was: Ditchling Beacon. Notice in that link where it says "a particularly challenging northern face" - oh London, why must you be north of Brighton? You can see the relative size and gradient of it from the copy of the route planner below (or you will be able to when I add the photo).

Mum and I had done a fair bit of training, and although I didn't feel particularly super-fit it soon became apparent that actually, I was better than I thought. As soon as we hit the slightest incline all that could be heard was the clanking of gears and the huffing of people. I'll freely admit that I was huffing and puffing too - this was one of those hills that just had no levelling off at all, which (coupled with the people) made it so much harder to actually ride up.

As for the people! They were everywhere, stopping in front of me and (most annoying) walking their bikes up the middle of the road, three abreast. Move! Fortunately the ever-present stewards told people in no uncertain terms to walk on the left, so unpleasantness was largely avoided. There were a couple of occasions where I was damn near taken off my bike by someone trying to go too fast and having to swerve, but they were so apologetic I didn't really mind. And when they didn't apologise (or just didn't realise) a good shout of "I'm on your left/right!" made them take notice. And no swearing!

I'm very proud to say that I managed to get up the hill without walking. I'm less proud to admit that it was mostly ego and stubbornness that got me there. D had confessed that he'd never been able to ride up the hill, which of course made both Mum and I determined to beat him. I did point out that we could tell him we had even if we hadn't, since he had no way of checking, but that did feel a bit like cheating.

In any case, I agreed to meet Mum at the top (she's much better at hills than me - fancy light road bike, and actually being fit) and joined the throng. It didn't take long before my hands were dripping with sweat - I'd never appreciated how useful cycling gloves may have been - and I was sounding about as good as an asthmatic badger, but slowly and steadily I made my way up. So. Very. Slowly. However, I was passing some of the more professional-looking guys - young fit men all dressed in Lycra, with the super-lightweight bikes and the cycling shoes with cleats - which cheered me up rather more than I should admit to. Not the Lycra, I should point out, but the fact that I was passing people.

Anyway, the Beacon is one of those hills that just never seems to end. Every time I got round a corner I thought I must be at the top, and then... oh wait, that's just more hill. Boo. There were a couple of times when I seriously considered getting off and walking, but I didn't see how that would make much of a difference. I'd still be going up a steep hill, but with the slow pace of walkers to annoy me. Besides, every time I thought this I was in the middle of the road and couldn't have got off my bike without causing an accident, so I carried on.

After what seemed like a very very long time, but was probably only about 20 minutes or so, I could hear megaphones. The stewards at the top were being incredibly encouraging as well as giving instructions on what to do when we got to the top and the final rest stop before Brighton. Doing a good impression of the Big Bad Wolf I finally made it to the top and into the car park of the rest stop, where there were three (three!) ice cream vans all making a wonderful profit. But I had no time for ice cream. I had to find my mother (who was not in the car park, and was instead further along the road), so after a brief flop, a lot of water and a short "Where are you?" phone call I was back in the stream of people.

The top of the hill was very level, which made a nice change. The men with megaphones were announcing that it was only five and a half miles into Brighton now, and it was downhill all the way. Thanks very much, that'll do nicely! I feel the downhill was well deserved. My legs were wibbling in relief that there was no more Beacon to climb, so we pootled along for a little way before picking up the pace. Not that it was hard to go faster; gravity has a way of pulling you down. Funny that.

The final five miles were amazing. As steep as the Beacon was to climb, I'm very glad we didn't go down that way as the twisty road would have been far too dangerous. The wide, sweeping turns of the southern descent were bad enough - I was braking fairly firmly all the way down, and my speedo still told me I was doing over 30mph. There were stewards with megaphones all the way down telling cyclists to slow down - even at 30mph I was being overtaken on a regular basis. The reason for the caution soon became clear - another accident was further down the hill. It looked like someone had been going too fast and not made a turn very well. This meant we were stopped again, although since this section was on a cordoned-off part of a wide main road the ambulance was soon there and we were allowed to trickle past. The injured man seemed to be ok - he was conscious, at least, albeit with an oxygen mask, and the paramedics didn't have him strapped to a board or anything. I was just very glad I'd heeded the warnings to slow down. A helmet is all very well, but the road rash you'd get from coming off a bike at 30mph is fairly serious - and there was no way I was wearing leathers!

At last, we were at the bottom of the hill. Phew! Much further and I think my brakes may have worn out. This would not have been a Good Thing. All that was left was a couple of miles along the roads of Brighton, and then the last few hundred yards along the Promenade. Everyone was very cheerful by now, since the end was in sight.

Turning the corner onto the Prom, we were greeted by hordes of people, all cheering and clapping and waving. The crowd was honestly about twelve people deep on either side of the road, and the noise was incredible. It put a big grin on all our faces - we've never felt so special! The hard bit was going to be finding C and R, or so we thought. Not far from the finish line we heard an almighty yell - guess who that was! I didn't know two people could make so much noise over and above the crowd. Made me laugh. I nearly fell off my bike.

Ahead of us we could see the finish line, which was definitely a sight for sore eyes. Mum suggested we should speed up to "finish with style", which suggestion I treated with the scorn it deserved. Let the groups of lads speed past to race each other - I could see that there was only fifty metres or so after the finish line before you needed to dismount to go through the exit gates, and that's not a good stopping distance. That's my excuse, anyway, and I'm sticking to it.

The feeling when we swept across the finish line was just brilliant; a mixture of relief and accomplishment, garnished with "How are we going to find anyone in this crowd?" Grinning, we dismounted to get our cards stamped and collect our shiny gold medals (everyone's a winner, baby) and a much deserved bottle of water.

You know that feeling when you've been on a bike for too long and your legs don't want to walk ever again? Yeah. That's how I felt. Trying to control my limbs, which felt like the bones had melted, we got ourselves out of the way and waited for people to find us. C and R were first there to reluctantly give us hugs. A short while later, J appeared with H and the other C, bearing gifts of cookies and cake! Yum. Unfortunately, none of us were hungry. I find that happens - exercise fills me up until much later. In any case, I was too excited to be hungry, which was a shame because everything was delicious.

Someone decided that since we were at the sea-side we should go and paddle. Good idea, I thought, my feet are decidedly warm. Unfortunately, Brighton beach is all stones and not so good for tender tootsies. The cold water was nice though, but only for a few minutes. Then there was time to sit on the pebbles for a little while and look at the big menacing cloud that was looming towards us before we decided we should make a move. Back to the Prom we went, lugging bikes and biscuits. We managed to fight our way through the crowds (who takes dogs to an event like that, seriously?) and back towards where the car was. All too soon it was time to say goodbye to the Southerners, since they had to be getting back, and so did we. Thanks for coming down, guys! Sorry it was such a brief visit.

Back to the car, then. And just in time! That menacing cloud had decided it was time for action, and the heavens opened. Fortunately C and R had had the foresight to park in a multi-storey. Success! We were dry. The bikes were once again loaded onto the car, and we piled inside to join the throng of cars carrying bikes that were now trying to get out of Brighton. Oh well. We sat in queues for a while, but that's to be expected.

We decided that it would probably be a good idea to make a loo stop somewhere, not least so Mum and I could change out of sweaty clothes and be marginally more pleasant to have in the car. Dingy petrol station toilets, here we come! The less said about that, the better. Then it was back on the road.

Eventually we decided that stopping for food would be good - this also allowed us to feed C coffee (which she doesn't usually drink any more) so that she'd stay awake for the drive home. The soup we had was too heavily salted, which didn't really help with the dehydration but never mind.

I don't really remember much about the journey after the services. R sat in the front so he could talk to C and keep her awake, which left Mum and I to sleep. And sleep we did! Then we were home, as if by magic. There was enough time to unload our stuff and say a quick hello to my sister before collapsing into bed, ready for work the next morning.

Overall, it was a fantastic experience and I'd do it again. The atmosphere was phenomenal, with all the stewards cheering us on, along with people lining the route and the other cyclists themselves being generally friendly. I didn't even feel too physically tired after it; the next day (when I expected to be punished by my muscles for my foolishness) I was fine. If anyone's thinking about doing it, all I can say is "Go". You'll have a great time.

There are more photos to come - half of mine didn't want to upload to Picasa. Boo. Here are mine, and here are R's.


Claire said...

You are forgetting the proudest moment of the trip, even if it is a little worrying!! Me and R drinking a beer (San Miguel) at 10:30 with burgers on the sea front. In my defence we had been up since 5am so it was like lunch time for us, and I felt as if was on the holiday is the Costa Del Sol!! and it was spanish beer too :D

Syrrys said...

But the beer was part of the R&C story, so I don't really feel like it was left out of the main narrative...

It was a good day though. Possibly even amazing (for me) if we consider that the 5 hours of sleep I got in that London hotel was the only (non-airplane) sleep that I got between Friday morning and Sunday night...