Last weekend, 4,000 cyclists pedalled through London at night, using the opportunity to raise funds for over 200 charities.
We asked one of the riders, Lara Thornton, to share her personal story of grief and coping with training while being a busy Mum of one to Tommy!
I have a confession to make. I don’t actually ride my bike very much. I am lucky enough to work in the cycling world and I spend all day, every day, talking about bikes, riders, races and campaigns.
The cycling industry is an all-consuming thing and to be honest, when you’re running your own business and have a 3-year-old, there isn’t a great deal of time to go for a spin.
That’s not to say that most people don’t manage it; it’s just my choice that if I have time over the weekend, I’d rather teach Tommy to climb a tree, and evenings are spent working on a laptop not a turbo.
So how did I come to ride 100km overnight?
Two months ago I spotted on Twitter that there were still places on the NightRider, a loop around London but temptingly, riding at night, one of my favorite things to do. The places were available through Mind, the charity for mental health, and that sealed it for me.
In summer 2011, my husband’s 26-year-old cousin George, who had been battling serious mental health issues for some time, took his own life. I can remember very clearly when we found out; I was putting Tommy to bed, and my husband came in to the room very quietly and just said
Dad just called. George has killed himself.
That was it; we didn’t need to know the how or why. George was gone.
My goal for Mind was simple; to raise funds so that they can reach people earlier, before the need for bereavement counseling, before someone tell themselves there is no other way out. Men tend to ask for help much later than women, and often only for the physical symptoms not mental. George was quite seriously ill and under medical supervision, and very determined to go through with his plan – but if just one family never has to go through what we did, then I’ve achieved something.
So, in April 2013 I signed up. Later in the month, ‘training’ began. We took our bikes to the Brecon Beacons; up to that point, my mileage for the year was a paltry 20 miles. That week I added another 80 odd miles, pedaling up and down Hay Bluff a few times, coasting around while grandparents entertained our boy.
I had, honestly, intended to do more riding in the subsequent few weeks but once we were home, work kicked in and by mid May, the mileometer had gone on strike. One Sunday morning I’d planned to go out, but my husband got up earlier than me and rode with friends to Toys and Ide Hill; I could have gone out in the afternoon but that would mean the three of us hadn’t been together all weekend. So the weeks went on and I forlornly looked at my bike each time I passed it in the hallway.
In the three weeks before the event I travelled over 2,500 miles and none of them were on a bike, although they were all to talk about cycling. While interviewing at the UCI’s training centre in Aigle, Switzerland, I was asked if I was one of their new recruits, to which I could have cried, but laughed and said I am too old.
I watched some of the Rio hopefuls on the track, wishing I could turn myself into an invisible speedster and coast around the top of the banking without them noticing, or have my first go at BMX and hare down the ramp with the mountains in the background. Even at our Herne Hill velodrome fundraising launch I had the chance to ride but gave it up to talk to a journalist and collect Tommy on time (although I had ridden there and back – actually those 8 miles are probably the only riding I’ve done since April).
And so at 10.30pm last Saturday night, I found myself kitted up and heading off to Crystal Palace. With my business partner David’s words ringing in my ears – ‘Go pedal’ – I had one goal, to ride and enjoy being out on two wheels.
It’s not a timed event; it’s not a race. It was just me, riding my bike.
The casserole I’d eaten for supper would provide nutrition; in my jersey I stuffed a banana, Fruit Pastilles and some flapjack.
At the start line I found a very wide variety of riders and bikes; from tracksuit bottoms to Lycra, carbon frames to bikes which might well have weighed more than the person sitting on them. But that’s good; one person said the others would struggle on heavy bikes but I said,
It doesn’t matter; they’re riding, aren’t they?
We made our way through south east London and I found a nice group of about 15 riders, which was handy when we hit the cross winds on Blackheath; being quite light, wind is the only thing that worries me on my bike, so I tucked myself in amongst them for shelter. On the hill down to Greenwich a fellow female rider asked which club I was with, as I was doing club signals for potholes. “I haven’t been on a club run for years,” I said. “No matter,” said Cath, “do you fancy riding together?” And so we rode up through Greenwich, Deptford, and on to Tower Bridge, pretty much keeping together with the group I’d found at the start.
And then, for me, came the highlight of the ride. Tower Bridge was being raised so around 50 of us got caught at the barrier. Out came the phones and cameras to capture the bridge as it went up, and one guy cracked open a packet of jelly babies to share. Over the tannoy a voice said “traffic is requested to remain standing until the lights turn green” and that was it, a few of us clicked we could have ourselves a sprint here. Jelly babies were quietly and subtly put away. Water bottles went back in cages.
The gates started to open slowly, accompanied by a warning siren; the lights stayed red. I was three rows from the front and began eying the opposition. Cath and I were the only women there. Sitting back on my saddle I listened as the warning beeps finished. and then, in the dark and the quiet with Tower Bridge lit up as if to say ‘here I am, your reward for the night’, the lights went green.
From a standing start, around 30 of us went for it. By halfway across the bridge I was top ten, over the bridge and onto the lights I was gaining and made third place. And so our sprint of barely 300 meters, not even a full lap of Herne Hill, ended at the lights but with enormous and satisfying grins and high fives. I rewarded myself with a Fruit Pastille and, with it still stuck to my teeth, made my way in to the City.
By Stratford, Cath and I needed the loo so we stopped briefly then continued our way north. To be honest I am not entirely sure of the route – it was very well sign-posted and there were enough riders to always have someone in sight. I remember being on Stoke Newington High Street with some very trendy drunk people shouting,
What’s this, the Tour de France?
I said at least now they’ve heard of the Tour, last year we would probably just have been mooned, which funnily enough did happen later, the joys of London at 3am.
The more-or-less halfway point was Alexandra Palace, and we stopped to drink tea and eat cake. There were mechanics at each break point and while my bike didn’t need anything, I was glad they were there as the ratchet on my shoe had come loose. It was very cold and so we decided to keep going rather than stop too long.
Soon we were heading south again and down to Regent’s Park, then quite suddenly back into heavy traffic at Baker Street. Trucks and buses had been completely absent for most of the route so it was a bit of a shock to be in proper traffic again; Cath and I had parted with our original group at Ally Pally but found Mark and Rob, both from Worcester, and from there on in we all stayed together.
Before too long we were crossing (and then re-crossing) the bridges across the Thames, the final one being Vauxhall, where I think (and I was quite tired by now, being 4.30am) I may have started to sing the chorus from Homeward Bound. Sorry to everyone who was there to witness my dulcet tones.
As we made our way over the last few miles, and up the final rise to Crystal Palace, Rob pulled up by the side of the road, so I said ‘Come on, we’ll do it together’ and we pedaled slowly up to the park, where we crossed the finish line together, four riders who had never met before but helped and guided each other through the night.
And so at 5am we had done it. I know that to many people 100km is not far; a mere training ride. Put another 0 on the end and it might be a challenge to them. But signing up to an event and committing to do it was probably the only way I was going to ride my bike this spring. I am very pleased I did, and can’t recommend it enough.
If you’d like to support Lara Thornton, please visit her fundraising website on Virgin Money Giving.