I was one of those cyclists and over the coming few blogs I want to give you a taste of what it's like to ride this excellent event organised by Hot Chillee. Today I'll focus on day one.
Described as a professional event for amateurs the entire experience was class from beginning to end, a masterpiece in logistics and planning, with 195 support staff for the amassed ranks. It costs €1,365 to enter and sells out almost on the day it's announced every year. I rode as a guest of Skoda, who were one of the event sponsors.
|Mavic Neutral Service|
Arriving at Imber Court, Esher on the day prior to set-off, you got a sense of the scale of organisation. A large fleet of Skoda cars, Mavic neutral service, hundreds of bikes on racks and a huge marquee full of riders logging on. I was handed a number of things, stickers to identify my wheels if they were swapped by neutral service on route, frame stickers, numbers, timing chips, postcard size route maps, my bodyweight in SiS products aswell as other freebies from sponsors.
|Five of Twenty Skoda Support Cars|
You needed about an hour to get tuned in and set your bike up where it gets stored until the following morning. In the evening, a running pasta buffet is put on with presentations from the organisers introducing some of the big names riding the event, this year Stephen Roche and Maurizio Fondriest were two of the key characters along with former Paris-Roubaix winner Magnus Backstedt and Eurosport commentator - David Harmon. Joining us the following day after a ride down from John O' Groats was formula one legend Nigel Mansell.
|Bike Racks at the Start Point|
Riders categorise themselves into one of six groups, 1&2 being the racing groups, three to six being non-racing groups, each with an averge speed requirement. This year there was an additional group for hand cyclists from Stoke Mandeville spinal injury unit, more to come on those guys in later blogs.
|A Stoke Mandeville Hand-Cyclist En-Route|
Having never ridden three back to back centuries, I booked myself in group six to give myself some capacity if for any reason, things didn't work out as I thought. As it happens, over the three days, I could have easily gone up a couple of groups, however as the story elapses you'll see, I didn't.
Day One - London to Dover
|Day One Route from London to Dover|
The unique thing about this event is that it has full rolling roadblocks with motorbike outriders all the way to Paris and a lead car, plus neutral service at the rear of the peloton. You don't need to carry any saddle bags, spare tubes or levels, just put your hand up. We put this to the test pretty quickly as my ride companion - Jonathan Durling of Skoda - flatted aroung five miles out from the departure point.
We made steady progress heading out via the Olympic road race route near Box Hill and cycled steadily East hitting a few climbs on the way to our lunch stop around the 90km mark.
Just before lunch and after a stiff little climb around the 80km mark, the ride captain - Goose - picked up the pace on the front and a group of us jumped onto his wheel, not realising that we had entered the GC and sprint stages that groups one and two were racing for. As we whipped up to 50kmh I thought we were racing to the lunch stop, so happy days, I was on the wheel and cranking out the watts having a great time. The ride captain went off the front and pointed to a banner which I thought was the lunch stop, so I sat up. Little did I know it signalled the end of the sprint stage - bugger - a few more turns and I would have gone over first.
We rolled into lunch, all happy. We'd put a gap of around 2km into the rear markers of the group, some of whom were still climbing. After lunch we rolled out towards Dover, all with the thoughts of climbing the Capel le Fern which comes at the 160km mark. I've been up it before and remembered how long and steep it felt. As we hit the bottom a thunderstorm started and the heavens opened - boom, we took a soaking.
Cresting the top felt great, it's a hard climb and a few of the group walked it. After that, we rolled down to Dover and the ferry, wet but happy. After a wait, we rolled onto the ship and headed straight for the restaurant where I stuck Fish and Chips down, an apple pie and a much needed bottle of Apple Cider (one of my five a day). I stuck some fresh Condor socks on, a fresh top and as we disembarked, the whole 465 riders headed off to a warehouse to store our bikes and then be transferred to the hotel.
|Bikes stacked in the hold on the ferry to Calais|
Arriving at the hotel, we were greeted by a music festival - happy days. All the streets were closed and lugging my bag about half a km to reception (reminder to self to take a bag with wheels next time), I didn't realise what we might be in store for - techno and thrash metal - until around 4am. Not ideal, didn't particularly contribute to the best nights sleep I'v ever had. Rising around 5.30am, I figured I got about two hours sleep all in and peeping out of the window, the wind looked very blustery and the clouds very grey.
Summing Up Day One
A wet start, group very nervous as many never ridden in a group before and of varying capability. Rode on the front a lot of the time and really enjoyed the sprinting. Legs felt great and my fitness and stamina had definitely improved following four weeks of a programme from totalcyclingperformance.co.uk. In fact, I felt in the best shape I ever had.
I was super impressed by the organisation, the neutral service, the lead car and the ride captains. Things were looking good for day 2.
To be continued......