There are a few things I have taken away from this year’s Prudential Ride London-Surrey 100 other than a medal, and the main one is that I never plan to do it again.
I feel terrible writing that, especially having pushed my bike alongside thousands of remarkably chipper participants around some sizeable chunks of the route. You can’t help but smile when someone attempts to get a Mexican wave going, or demands that everyone sing happy birthday to his friend.
Spirits were high, even by the time the stoppages began to nudge double figures. And this is when I realised I had no place being there.
The organisers released 26,000 cyclists onto the closed roads of London and Surrey on Sunday, plus another 3,000 on a new 46 mile route. That is an ambitious goal at the best of times let alone doing it to a deadline with the prospect of a professional race barrelling along the same 100-mile course later in the day.
With those sorts of numbers the potential for disaster is omnipresent. One minor shoulder bump, one clipped wheel, one unnoticed pothole and you set off a chain reaction that can put people in hospital. And people were indeed put in hospital as a result of crashes. I don’t know the specifics of the incidents, but the numbers speak for themselves. Three serious injuries, 33 admitted to casualty. Although not thought to be related to a crash, one participant later died as a result of a heart attack he suffered on the course.
If you want to look at it with a cold statistical eye, you might expect this kind of casualty rate among that number of riders. It doesn’t make it acceptable.
But what do you do? Someone asked me exactly that in a Tweet and I struggled to think of anything that could be done to make it safer.
This event is run by the organisers of the London Marathon. They have years of experience in dispatching tens of thousands of individuals off around a course. The difference between the London Marathon and Ride London is the bikes. In marathons, there's not really any such thing as a high velocity accident.
Marathon runners don’t hit trees. If they collide with each other they probably won’t fall over too seriously. Also, everyone, from an early age, can run. It comes naturally.
Not everyone can ride a bike. But the real problem is, they think they can. Because there are different definitions of being able to ride a bike and Ride London has to cater for all of them.
If, for instance, you happen to be someone who is fairly fit because you ride a lot to work, you’re going to think you can accomplish a 100 mile ride without a problem. Likewise if you maybe nip off for a saunter every couple of weeks. Or you might be fairly new to the sport but want to raise money. You’ll put your training in and will be more than ready to cover the miles.
What none of the above considers is the added complication of cycling in close proximity to others for an extended period of time. We’re not talking about 20 minutes down Boris’s Superhighway here, we’re talking mile after mile, and at any moment that person next to you could veer into your path.
Group riding, cycling at speed within inches of another rider’s wheel, teaches you to think at speed, react in a split second and expect absolutely anything to happen at any time.
It is a competence that only comes with riding regularly and with others and usually means you are more comfortable at a faster pace and aim to get around the course in record time.
The Ride London organisers attempt to filter the more energetic riders to the early departures by asking each participant the time they expect to complete the course. Anything around five hours (averaging 20mph) is considered a fair pace and should result in you being placed in one of the earlier departure waves.
It's the sensible way to do it. Getting the faster riders out of the way ensures the road is clear for everyone else.
The later waves are a study in cycling demographics. There are the big-hearted, bucket-list people who fancy a fundraising challenge. Amongst them might be the more relaxed club riders who don't care for Strava. The couples, the office teams, the families, the tourers, the list goes on.
This is where the danger lies. So many levels of ability in such a tight squeeze. It has the feeling of a vast stream of random atoms bouncing around each other. Inevitably some will collide and then tailbacks begin.
The shame is that a lot of these people didn’t ride 100 miles in the end. The multiple hold-ups were so severe this year that the professional race behind had to be neutralised for 30 minutes as amateur riders were diverted away from the course and taken from the 48-mile to 70-mile points, thus missing out more than 20 miles. We didn’t do 100 either. By the time we had got to the Leith Hill turning, it had been shut off and we missed a 10 mile section of the route.
But the smiles on the faces of the people around me at Buckingham Palace said it all - they were elated. They didn’t mind the two-plus hours of walking, some of them probably welcomed the respite.
That’s when I realised I have no place on Ride London. I understand the need for the emergency services to deal with incidents but that wasn't the only reason we had to walk. More often than not it was a bottleneck caused by sheer weight of numbers. If I wanted to wait around in a traffic jam I'd get in a car.
You could perhaps limit these delays by neutralising the ride after a certain time of the morning - everyone gets the same time, thus removing the incentive for those who fancy themselves but whose enthusiasm doesn’t match their ability.
“Impossible!” You might cry. “How do you prevent riders from cycling too fast?” One possible solution could be to introduce pace cars or bikes ahead of each wave, travelling at the speed that particular wave is expected to safely achieve. Some riders might slip through but the majority could be held in check.
You never know, it might help minimise the risks. I’m all ears to other suggestions.
One thing is for sure, on events such as this, even a single accident is one too many.