What I wasn't expecting was to get bitten by a mosquito, and for the mechanic checking my bike to snap my front mech gear cable, and take 20 mins in ever worsening light to fix it (only cost £3 though) before I'd even started. But once I had got through this trauma, I met up with JDRF Elizabeth, and we went to meet the other JDRF riders - several of whom recognised me from my sweaty selfies on the facebook page. It was a really lovely atmosphere as we prepared ourselves to go, took some pictures, cracked jokes, and all very relaxed considering what lay ahead.
Thanks to John for the photo of the team below:
We were due to start at 2235 in the second wave, but it was slightly chaotic at the start, so we all set off with the first wave. As we waited to go, the lights of all the riders ahead of us disappearing up the road was all very romantic, but the romance passed soon enough as we rolled forwards to find that we were delayed because someone hadn't spoken to the park wardens and got them to leave the gates out of the car park unlocked! We wiggled out one at a time through a gap and were away.
The first bit was a nice downhill around the park, with the lights twinkling ahead, and then across to Sydenham after which we headed for Greenwich. I was chatting to some people as we went, but it was all a bit stop start with the lights and the traffic, and as you quickly lost people, I just decided to get on with it. Each time I caught the next group, I asked them if we were the front - but we never seemed to be!
I was pretty surprised at how busy the route was - I'm not sure I would have chosen to go along the South Circular - I thought initially that as we were starting early there was still plenty of traffic about, but I was later disabused of that notion. Over Blackheath, belted down Maze Hill into Greenwich, losing & retrieving a backlight in the process, and then a bit of a wiggly route along through Rotherhithe towards Tower Bridge. Somewhere along here we got ourselves a bit lost, and missed a rest stop (DISASTER!), but ended up in the right place, Tower Bridge!
Even though it was now Sunday, it was busy! Lots of traffic, lots of people out and about - less drunk and more touristy at the tower than they were Up West later. While waiting at some lights, we struck up a conversation with a chap in a taxi who was interested in what we were up to - this happened several times. There was some wiggling around through the city, and after a while we were heading back out again towards Wapping and the Isle of Dogs. By this time I had made friends with a couple of chaps who were riding together and were going at a similar pace, so we tried to stick together. (Larry & David. yes, really.)
Although we were going at a reasonably fast pace, the lights and weight of traffic were slowing us down. Plus the signage was a bit erratic - often only seeing the sign as you were right on top of it, and if a bus was in the way then you were in trouble. We largely got around most of the course without too many alarms though - the basic rule of thumb seemed to be stick to the busiest available road!
Wapping High Street with its cobbles came and went mercifully quickly, and after a couple of laps of Canary Wharf it was off towards Olympic Park for our first stop outside the Velodrome. It was about 25 miles in, and after a quick sugar intake, we cracked on.
As we left the Velodrome, we went past a lady who was doing 60km on a handbike accompanied by her dog - very inspiring. In fact, there was room on the ride for all sorts of bikes,and it made a welcome change from the usual chiselled whippets on carbon bling - as did being able to keep up and even do a bit of overtaking...!
From there it was on into the mysterious lands of North London - Hackney, Stoke Newington (both packed & achingly hip, natch), past a bloke who'd just got out of his cab to throw up, Wood Green (where my Dad grew up) and on towards Ally Pally. By this time it had become clear that Larry's mate Dave was struggling on each and every incline, and Larry had already tried to send me on. By the top of Ally Pally, which was stiff but not unmanageable, he was walking, and he kindly sent us on without him. So, without stopping for cake in case he changed his mind, on we went!
I liked the road up to Ally Pally - there were loads of kids parking up and gathering to chat, or smoke or drink,or just be teenagers. It reminded me of going up to the hills behind Folkestone to look at the view, have a cheeky beer & smoke, listen to Transformer & plan how to persuade to get a girl to go along...
Back in the real world, it was just 2am, and we had done the first 35 miles in 3.5 hours. There was a nice fast run down the hill, then we went up a residential street which turned out to be a long old climb up through Highgate to Hampstead Heath. It wasn't enormously steep, and it wasn't KGB hour either, but they do say the darkest hour is before Dawn, and even though it was only just post 2am, first light was only about an hour away. Larry was chatting away oblivious as I had a bit of a wobble, which quickly passed, but I felt rough for a bit. Once we started going down the other side, and I'd had a banana, and I knew there were no other hills of note until the end, I was a lot happier.
Unfortunately, my back trouble from last week proved to be an omen, and the same knee pain I'd had last year came back somewhere between Olympic park & Ally Pally. Time for a visit to the osteopath, and to do some bloody core work :-( On the night,it seemed the best plan was to keep going, and once we were over the penultimate hill, we seemed to get faster - I think we both secretly wanted to get back before it got light!
The pace was now really rapid, and a little group formed as we swept down towards Swiss Cottage, Abbey Road - probably the only time of day to "do" the zebra crossing without incurring the wrath of the taxi drivers, then Lord's and back round to Baker Street via Regent's Park - the first red light we jumped - if you can't jump a light at 0230 with nothing about and no street lights, then when can you?! There were still people about, but it was nothing compared to the hordes around Piccadilly! Big queues of people waiting to get in to places I've read about in the gossip columns, traffic jams, lots of revelry, very busy - and it was now past 0230, and there was no sign of it dying down. Somewhere in Covent Garden we went past a tired and emotional chap who just wanted to know what all the bikes were doing as he'd seen them all night. We went back across the river for more wiggling before coming back over Westminster Bridge, past Parliament, off up Whitehall, through the "as busy as daytime" Trafalgar Square, then down the Mall.
Suddenly it was dark & deserted again, as we rode down the big wide road, around the corner and back up Birdcage Walk into Parliament Square again - meaning we had missed a turning somewhere as we were supposed to be in Victoria, rather than about to set off for a second lap of Whitehall. We found our way eventually and got to Lambeth Bridge in time to see the dawn start to appear - by now it was a bit after 3am but it was still very early / late...
Then it was an increasingly fast ride back to Crystal Palace under the ever lightening sky, through Brixton, past Herne Hill Velodrome, lapping a few late starters from Ally Pally along the way. Larry described it as the beasts heading for the water hole, such was the sense of urgency. We crossed the by now very quiet South Circular and the fast group we were in split up a bit on the long drag up College Road, but we got to the top with no great drama. My knee was really protesting now, so it was slow going, but then it was an easy roll down to the finish. Here's my road buddy Larry with me at the finish:
The finish was a bit disappointing really - there was no obvious end - just a banner in the car park but people weren't riding under it and they were handing out the medals before you got there anyway - all a bit low key. We then had what I'd have to rank as the worst bacon sandwich of all time (which didn't stop me from eating it), and we rode around the park looking for an exit near to where Larry had parked. We had done the bit from Ally Pally to Crystal Palace, about 30 miles, with all the traffic jams & carnage of the West End, in bang on 2 hours, which was very pleasing! After bidding him farewell, and thanking him for sticking with me as I got slower on the hills, I took a picture of the sunrise and went home, waving at the poor buggers setting off from Crystal Palace with halfway to go as I did.
It was a great ride, not too hard so that it turned miserable, a really wide range of ability & bikes, people riding to raise money for a host of worthy charities, all chosen for their own reasons - in my case my 8 year old daughter who has type 1. Another JDRF team rider was doing it to raise money as her nephew has it, for example. The atmosphere was great all the way around.
I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to anyone - the faster folk can have fun whizzing around the quieter streets in the dead of night, the steadier riders can build themselves up to the challenge of 100km - none of the hills are TOO bad, and if they are then you can just walk anyway!
Things that surprised me? That really wide range of people & bikes, the all pervading smell of ganja in many of the built up areas, the lovely curry smells coming from some one's house in the East End, the number of people who were still out and about at 3am. I must be getting old.
I imagine it would have been quieter and calmer later on, and I've seen some great photos of London as it got light, but I was pleased to be done and dusted and home in bed by 0530 - the joys of living 3 miles from the start!
I'll leave the last word to William Wordsworth - I didn't know this poem before today, I saw the first line in another post about views of London, and looked it up. It perfectly describes what I thought the ride would be like, but in fact,the mixture of chaos & calm made it a lot of fun. Take it away Billy:
Upon Westminster Bridge, Wordsworth
EARTH has not anything to show more fair;
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty.
This city now doth like a garment wear
The beauty of the morning: silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky,—
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!