Blazin' Saddles

Blazin’ Saddles: Bronzini, Blythe and Bertha star for RideLondon

Blazin' Saddles

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Eurosport blogger Blazin' Saddles swapped his armchair for a bike on Sunday to take part in the RideLondon Surrey 100 sportive. From Bronzini to Blythe - and via a blustery Bertha - here's Felix Lowe's round-up of the wonderful festival of cycling that was RideLondon...

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If the rainbow jersey and Rabobank logo were so familiar it was because I had - just a day and a half earlier - been told to look out for them. Having wolfed down a welcome bacon sandwich inside the famous Olympic velodrome at Stratford at 6:30am on Sunday, the last person I expected to be riding alongside to the start of the Surrey 100 was Marianne Vos.

You see, Vos had told me when we chatted on Skype for an exclusive Eurosport Q&A just 39 hours earlier that she was due to start the 100-mile amateur 'race' at 6am. But I recognised the slight yet imposingly athletic shape of the superstar who, the night before, had finished second on The Mall in the RideLondon Grand Prix just hours after touching down from the Netherlands.

Rather politely, Vos had told me I should look out for her rainbow stripes on the road. "Perhaps you will pass me. If you do - wave and say 'hi'," she said in spite of the 40-minute handicap I'd conceded to the greatest cyclists of her generation.

"Aren't you a bit late?" I asked as we edged through the Olympic Park after introductions were made (we had made an audio call on Friday, rather than a video call - at her request).

"Ah, I got the wrong time - I'm actually due to start right now at 6:40." In fact, she had already waved the flag to start the first wave of riders at 6am alongside Laura Trott and Dame Sarah Storey. And now - perhaps after a bacon sarnie of her own - she was heading back to get her own ride under way, alongside the perceptibly more rounded figure of celebrity chef John Torode (a couple of bacon butties to the better, clearly).

When Vos and I spoke on Friday, the 27-year-old had acted surprised when I asked her what she thought of Giorgia Bronzini's chances in the women's Grand Prix.

"Is she even racing?" Vos enquired before admitting that, if the Italian sprinter were there, then the Wiggle-Honda team would have a second card to play alongside the British defending champion, Trott. Unfortunately, I had no time to say something suitably witty such as, "I told you Bronzini was racing!", for I had to peel off and get to the back of my own start pen.

Riding through the streets of London on closed roads was quite an experience. On Saturday - and under bright sunshine - some 50,000 amateur cyclists took to the streets of the capital city to ride a closed 10-mile route on anything from Boris Bikes to fixed-wheel steeds.

From the Tower of London to the east - where 200,000 and counting red ceramic poppies currently 'flow' into the moat to commemorate those soldiers who lost their lives during the First World War - to Westminster in the west - where last week ArtAngel, a stunning beam of light stretching vertically into the heavens every night, also commemorated the centenary of the Great War - this city circuit was something I had experienced and cherished last year.

Twelve months on, I was back for more: and this time in the form of the full 100-mile ride over the Olympic road race route in Surrey.

Except the Surrey 100 had become the Surrey 86: the impending arrival of Hurricane Bertha forcing race organisers to cut out the Leith Hill loop and Box Hill (climbs that I know well from numerous training rides in the area with friends).

Only learning of the shortened course from fellow riders as I edged out of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, I was inspired to up my pace and give it some real wellie. Besides, there was no sign of rain for the time being and both the setting and occasion had quickly made my body forget that my alarm went off at 4:40am after a stuttered night of just two hours sleep.

The route ran through central London past various landmarks - the Embankment, Westminster, Whitehall, Trafalgar Square, Hyde Park Corner and Harrods - and with the roads closed in both directions it was the perfect chance to bag a whole host of 'Personal Bests' on Strava from my habitual city commutes.

And then the rain came. It first fell through Chiswick before it really started bucketing down in Richmond Park - so much so that all the deer had taken cover in the woods. Things eased a little as we passed Hampton Court and the site of Bradley Wiggins' post-Olympic time trial gold throne antics; but that was merely the calm before the proper storm.

Put it this way: I'm glad I hadn't stopped to remove my rain jacket around Weybridge - because moments later, the heavens re-opened something rotten.

Now, I've ridden in worse rain before: my ride through the sodden Tuscan countryside on the day of the wash-out that was the 2013 World Championships springs to mind. Then, we had been in the eye of the storm with thunder and lightning right overhead - and the fall-out is recounted in my recently published book, Climbs and Punishment: Riding to Rome in the Footsteps of Hannibal.

But the rain around those familiar training roads of Surrey - as we passed the towns of Ripley, West Hornsley, Dorking, Leatherhead and Oxshott - was almost as Biblical. Exhilarating too: for once you're wet, there ain't much you can do about it (although I really did regret using Sunday to try out a new pair of swish cycling shoes - currently stuffed with newspaper by the radiator).

But seeing that it wasn't cold, the best thing was just to embrace the hand we'd been dealt and see it as part of the challenge - making up for those lost and largely uphill 14 miles, perhaps.

Mindful of the deluge, I stopped just twice during the entire event: once for a quick call of nature besides an allotment (Ian Stannard, the former British national champion from Team Sky, punctured somewhere around here during the men's Surrey Classic) and a second time to fill up my water bottle and swipe a couple of gels.

One of the most memorable moments of the day occurred when riding back through Kingston at around 10am and seeing hundreds of cyclists still making their way from central London having, presumably, started towards the back of the field at around 8am. Despite the shocking conditions, some 20,342 people finished the race out of 20,600 who signed on - meaning less people dropped out than last year, when the conditions were far more clement.

Having teamed up with a chap called Alex from Bristol - who kindly eased up to wait after I toiled to get my 6'5" frame up a stinging final climb in Wimbledon (where BMC's Philippe Gilbert launched his own attack from the breakaway later in the afternoon) - we braved the worst of the downpour as we edged back up the Embankment before sweeping under Admiralty Arch and trickling over the line on The Mall.

On our arrival, the sun - typically - broke through the clouds to reveal a bright blue sky.

My time of 4hr 23min was acceptable given the conditions, my lack of sleep and a few muscular problems that have hampered my 'season' - although I was taken aback to see that Martin Johnston, the towering former England rugby player, had come home half an hour quicker. It was a flat course, mind - and look at the size of his thighs... bigger than Andre Greipel's, for sure. (I did beat the far nimbler rugbyman Matt Dawson, however, which was a bonus).

Nipping home to wallow in the bath and replenish the calorie deficit, I returned to The Mall in time to watch the conclusion of the men's professional race later that afternoon, for which those cancelled climbs had been reinstated. Watching the peloton battle up the narrow road on Leith Hill - spattered with mud and covered with leaves and branches from the battered trees overhead - it was easy to understand why us amateurs had been directed away.

Although most of their race took place in sunshine, the roads were still very wet and muddy and most of the pros finished the race completely caked in dirt - reminiscent of the very best of brutal Paris-Roubaixs.

It was on the approach to Box Hill with around 70km remaining that former world champion Gilbert made his move, sparking a reaction from 10 other riders including British favourite Ben Swift, who's Sky team (Wiggins and Stannard in particular) had worked incredibly hard to control the race and keep tabs on an earlier break that formed in Richmond Park.

Gilbert's dig near Wimbledon was checked by Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe (OPQS) before Swift latched on with his friend and training partner Adam Blythe (NFTO) and Cannondale's Kristijan Koren. The quintet approached central London with about 45 seconds on the other escapees and over a minute on the peloton, which was being led by Cannondale in a bid to launch Italy's Elia Viviani for a bunch sprint.

It was while the action was being relayed to fans on a big screen opposite the Grandstand on The Mall that the last two riders from the Surrey 86 gamely crossed the line amid clamorous roars from the spectators. I took this opportunity to have a quick chat with Iain Edmondson, Head of Major Events at London & Partners, who put on the RideLondon weekend. Like me, he had ridden the sportive in the morning. Unlike me, he looked refreshed, buoyant and chipper.

"Having Sir Bradley Wiggins here is a big deal for us," Iain said, "but we also have Philippe Gilbert, Elia Viviani and some top quality international sprinters. The aim is to be part of the UCI World Tour [at the moment, the Surrey Classic is part of UCI Europe Tour with a 1.HC category event status].

"We want to be the biggest and the best. We're in discussions with the UCI. We had some of the UCI executive team riding today and Brian Cookson took part last year."

As the escapees crossed the Thames and entered the final 10km of the race, I asked Iain for a prediction.

"I haven't been watching closely enough to know all the moves that are being played out, but I do know that Sky are taking this race very seriously. It's their home race. They've been chasing down when they've needed to chase down. They've been working very hard for Ben Swift, who's their top sprinter and who's in this leading group. It would be the dream scenario for him to win. They're coming over Putney Bridge now so we'll know soon enough."

Encapsulating Sky's season to a tee, the victory did not go to Swift but - fittingly - to the other Englishman (and English team) in the break, former BMC fast-man Blythe, who jumped early on the closing straight to take a routine victory in the shadow of Buckingham Palace.

"OK, it's not like I won the worlds or anything, but this is a very big race for a British rider to win, especially in this setting in front of the Queen's house," said Blythe. "I hope she was watching."

The 24-year-old was allegedly bought out of the last year of his contract at BMC before joining the big-budget British pro-continental team of the Downing brothers, Russell and Dean. Sponsor NFTO - Not For The Ordinary - is an independent producer of outdoor attire based on optimised performance, which is apt seeing that Blythe was the best rider out there on Sunday and the team's kit is heaps more stylish than any of the top tier stuff out there in the pro peloton.

While not a scratch on Team Sky's juggernaut of a bus, the NFTO vehicle was pretty swanky itself and - parked up in the elegant St James's Square - was deliciously stationed besides the similarly black-and-red van of Blythe's former employers, BMC.

After the finish, I strolled around the Square as the riders returned and mechanics got to work. Sean Yates, formerly of Team Sky and now DS at NFTO, chatted to colleagues while illustrious cycling podcasters Daniel Friebe and Lionel Birnie gathered information for their next show.

It says a lot that no fans gathered outside the bus of the race winner, instead preferring to swamp the Sky 'Death Star': bald and bespectacled, Dave Brailsford was being interviewed by TV before posing for selfies with fans; Stannard and Luke Rowe rolled back as if they'd just finished a shift down a coal mine, but there was no sign of Wiggo, despite his solid performance to finish within the main chasing group, 34 seconds down.

For Swift, it was a second successive runners-up spot in a sprint on home soil after missing out in the national championships back in June. The victory would have justified the minor commotion outside the bus - but it was still a great showing from a team who have struggled for results this year. And Swift was "super happy... to share the podium" with his friend Blythe, who he knew "was perhaps the quickest rider".

And that was that - the RideLondon weekend of cycling was over having shaken its fist at Hurricane Bertha and lived to tell the tale. And this mere blog is but one of a varying repertoire of tales from a further 20,341 people - many of whom raising funds for charity - who braved their way through the elements for the chance to emulate the pros on the famous pink tarmac of The Mall.

Throw in the tens of thousands of people who were swept up by the whole festival - be it as a rider during Saturday's FreeCycle or a spectator along the country roads in Surrey, or, even, the couple who got married in Lycra at Pembroke Lodge in Richmond Park before a very wet ride towards their wedding reception.

The broad appeal and success of the weekend model is something that the UCI is keen on emulating and transporting elsewhere, according to Iain Edmondson: "They see that it's not merely about the pro race and they want to encourage all aspects of cycling." RideLondon has laid down a marker; it will be interesting to see if any other European city can do it as well - and in the face of such challenges.

Felix Lowe - Twitter: @Saddleblaze

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