RideLondon: it’s all change as cycling festival on closed roads returns

RideLondon is back. After a Covid-enforced hiatus, the closed-roads cycling festival held its first incarnation since 2019 on Sunday, with both the family-based Freecycle and the 30-, 60- and 100-mile rides held on the same day. There have been some changes – so what was it like? As has become traditional, here are five thoughts about the event.

Goodbye Surrey, hello Essex

The first seven editions of the RideLondon 100 (and its shorter cousins) took riders on the same route into the Surrey Hills and back. Now it is Essex, and the difference is notable. No especially steep inclines, like Surrey’s Leith Hill, and more in the way of wide roads – especially in London, where the route in and out, through Stratford and beyond, was something of a mini-tour of London’s urban motorways and underpasses.

It’s fair to say that the old route, through west London and Richmond Park, was more scenic, and that lovely as the Essex lanes are, we saw relatively few of them. There is a reason: one plan was to avoid rapid, narrow descents (such as Leith Hill) to reduce the number of crashes, and also ensure that if someone did need medical help it would not necessitate re-routing riders, as happened in 2016. This year, a rider did require an air ambulance after a suspected heart attack (the good news is they are understood to be stable in hospital), and while that delayed a lot of people, me included, the moment the air ambulance had gone, riders were allowed through.

Also: Surrey didn’t want us any more. Despite residents voting to keep the event in a mini-referendum, the county council decided it was too disruptive. RideLondon organisers say Essex officials were enthusiastic.

It’s still very well run

You might expect this, given that RideLondon is put together by the same people who have organised the London Marathon for 40 years, but things do go very smoothly, and all the marshals, volunteers and others I encountered were excellent. The logistics are a bit different now. No longer starting in the huge spaces of the Olympic Park, but on the Embankment, meant the event was easier to get to for many, but there was no room for a bag drop service.

The way the different waves of riders joined the course seemed a bit haphazard, but at least it avoided the previous experience of having to wait around in the morning chill until your group was allowed to go.

More diversity

Speaking to Hugh Brasher, who heads the London Marathon organisers, he stressed this as an aim, all the more so given that road cycling is a pursuit which, arguably even by the standards of organised sport, is disproportionately done by men of a certain age, me among them.

The 30-mile event was 46% female this year, with the figure for the 100-mile one being 23% – still fairly low, but 40% up on 2019. Brasher has liaised with disability cycling and groups representing minority ethnic riders, and when the various-length events merged near the finish, it was heartening to see participants on hand cycles and trikes, among other machines.

Cyclists are remarkably easy to organise

This is more relevant to everyday riding and city planning, and something of a truism, but worth stressing: when it comes to finite road space, people on bikes are very flexible.

This occurred as I waited for the air ambulance amid a vast crowd of tightly packed cyclists, one that presumably stretched for miles behind me. But once we got going, within minutes, the hordes had self-organised into stretched-out groups, without any fuss. A similar-sized traffic jam involving cars – and remember, 22,600 riders started – would have taken all day to sort out.

Remember this next time a newspaper prints a photo of an “empty” cycle lane. It’s not that it’s not being used; it’s just that the cyclists have already gone.

100 miles without (much) training

To indulge myself with a final point about my own ride, it’s fair to say I began with some misgivings. Barring a four-day mini training break in May, my entire preparation involved a three-ish mile each-way commute in work clothes on an everyday bike. And yet, if I exclude the wait for the air ambulance, I finished in about 5 hours 10 minutes, only slightly more than my fastest ever time, when I was about five years younger and much better prepared.

Yes, I did find the last 15 or so miles a slog, and I am limping a bit on stairs, but I was surprised. Or maybe I shouldn’t be? With various other cycle-based chores, I probably average 40 or 50 miles a week of riding. This is the magic of what public health experts like to call incidental activity – physical exertion you carry out not for formal exercise, just in going about your everyday life. It should not be underestimated.

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