The Prudential RideLondon festival was a celebration of all that is two wheeled. A product of the 2012 Olympic legacy, the centre of capital was given over to cyclists for two days of riding, racing and enjoying.
Will the legacy last longer than a couple of days in August? Felicity Hawksley shares her experience and views on the weekend.
Recapturing the spirit of 2012
Standing on the Millennium footbridge, west of the Hungerford and looking upstream, I am greeted with a moving sight.
Thousands of bicycles, processing amicably, five, six abreast.
There is the odd shrill bell, a stripe of continuous, weaving, luminous safety vests and the chatter of families turned out en masse to celebrate the brief utopia of closed roads in the capital.
There are dads and mums in faded marathon tees; girls on pink bikes with streamers and jangly wheels and girls on bikes three times too big, standing and pumping the pedals; little boys wobbling and tacking and racing.
Every kind of bike is here. Shiny bikes, dad’s old bike, shopper bikes with busted wicker baskets held on with duct tape. Bikes with flat tyres, bikes with stickers, bikes with the kind of saddles that could cut cheese, and most bikes with the seats too low. Some with half a pop bottle for mudguards, front and back, others with kids in trailers and bobbing flags. People are riding bikes with fixed gears, thousands of pounds worth of carbon, folding bikes, tandems, recumbents and everywhere the feeling that you are safe and okay, and can enjoy the day.
As you pedal down Embankment, there’s no need to keep turning your head about, checking, readying to dodge the next too-close buzz from a cabbie; no leg-burning dash to leave safe space between you and the Mercedes that’s waxing and waning right up your chaffinch.
You can cruise, enjoy the spectacular view and hear whatever you want to hear. I heard a bird. On Embankment. This is on a road where normally, it’s impossible to hear anything but over-revving and beeping and sirens.
This is a place for true beginners, true enthusiasts and everyone in between. And there’s a whole weekend of it.
Turning up at the Mall, the beating heart of the Prudential weekend, there is a party-like atmosphere. Couples lounge on scrubby grass just off Admiralty Arch and jolly village fete types in bright tabards and branded backpacks offer free programmes and the kind of relentless bonhomie that makes a great deal of us feel a little uncomfortable, but is actually pretty nice.
There is definitely the sense that people would generally quite like it to be the Olympics again and are doing their best to make it feel that way. The best place to stand is on Horse Guards, from there you can see two corners; always a great deal more fun than the finishing straight, which is invariably a crush.
Race time – the RideLondon Grand Prix
The para-cycling is on, and draws a fairly regular battering of hoardings and the odd wave of clapping. It looks like it’s immensely difficult to overtake. Then the juniors come on, and the now swelling crowds are probably all reminded of the rank unfairness of growth spurts. Some riders that are practically grown men fly past, followed minutes later by a handful of very cross-looking red cheeked younger boys and girls, with peachy skin and oversized bikes.
The main wait is plainly for the women’s criterium, however, and I move down the railings, earwigging shamelessly, trying to gauge the atmosphere.
“The idea” one beefy boyfriend opines “is that this is a test run for next year, when it’ll be bigger and better”. “Yes” says his girlfriend, tartly “and maybe they’ll let the women have a proper race like the men”. He doesn’t reply, but she’s right of course.
The test run for the Prudential was the Olympics. The women’s race then reportedly drew more roadside support and the first British medal.
Further down the barrier, a couple stands, watching with vague amusement the road-crossing shenanigans forty or so yards away, where faintly panicky stewards shepherd people across the course with a megaphone, a whistle and two rolls of stripy hazard tape.
“Stay here”, says one, drily, “and you might get the scoop of the day”. She is referring of course to the possible, although decreasingly probable (as they get the hang of the whistle-warning system) carnage that would ensue from a herd of fast-moving bikes, heads deep in competition, speeding towards prams, sticks, roaming kids and tourists.
The start of the women’s race is delayed by a crash in the junior crit, and people patiently wait, shifting from foot to foot and watching the wind gust up and tug at the banners, and the sun go down over the Duke of York.
At last, the women round the corner, and people point at the front of the group, straining, inevitably, to pick out Trott, King, and maybe Rowsell. There are some other big names in the group that probably go unnoticed, and Hannah Barnes, in the blue and red stripes of the national champion, is only spotted by those who’re keen.
It’s close, and for the first seven laps, the middle of the group, by my watch, hasn’t changed its speed at all, with each lap lasting 3 minutes and arriving at 17 seconds past. No-one leads the peloton twice in a row, although by lap ten Lauren Rowney has sat on the front twice, noticeably taller than most of the others. After one lap, there are three distinct groups and some stragglers, after three, four groups and between lap 11 and 15, Wiggle Honda have broken the front group and taken a handful with them, a couple of bike lengths away, interspersed occasionally by the odd valiant effort at bridging the gap.
By the end, of course, it’s the win everyone wanted.
Trott outsprints Barnes, restoring balance to the cycling world. Rowsell has a spill and breaks her collarbone, and various features of the British circuit scene either make it in with the group or drift in a bit later, underprepared for 15 laps at a steady 40kph.
After the vision, business as usual
By Monday, the capital is restored to normal. Railings are piled up at the side of the pavement, cyclists frantically pushing speeds to stay safe, or stay ahead, some skipping lights, some waiting, some squeezing through painfully small gaps, some on the pavement, and the general swerving and hooting that accompanies every commute.
There is an article in the Telegraph by Boris Johnson, detailing aspects of the Surrey countryside we all knew existed and by 11.24am, the London Ambulance service has reported the death of a cyclist in Archway.