Ride Hard for RHN 2012 – London to Brighton and Back

Day 1 – Saturday May 12th.

6am. I’m showered and ready to set off for my first Ride2Raise charity bike ride of 2012.

At 8:30 I arrive at the meeting place for riders and support team, the Royal Hospital for Neuro-Disability in Putney. We’re meeting here because the riders taking part in this two-day challenge, setting out from the hospital and heading to Brighton for an overnight stop before turning round and cycling all the way back, are raising money for the hospital. It’s a great cause.

The Royal Hospital for Neuro-Disability is a charity which believes passionately that all people have the right to achieve their full human potential and enjoy the optimum possible quality of life, whatever their level of ability. Their mission is to help people with severe disability due to neurological impairment achieve this goal, wherever they are in the UK.

You can read about the charity HERE.

It’s also set in an amazing building in Putney. I meet the first of the riders, Andrew, in reception when I arrive and I’m shown to the impressive library which looks and feels exactly as a library in a huge old house should.

Andrew’s bike looks good. An almost new Specialised road bike is a good sign. None of the riders on this challenge had been able to make it along to the training ride we’d organised for a few weeks prior to this event, so we didn’t know what to expect. We know from experience that not everyone will have a quality road bike like Andrew’s Specialised available to them. We give as much advise as we can to riders on our challenges but we have had a few turn up on bikes not very well suited to our long distance road rides.

Next, Lucian arrives with a respectable looking bike. It’s borrowed, and a few years old, and has a slightly unusual mixture of Campagnolo cranks with Shimano derailleur and shifters but it’s sound and Lucian has recently had it serviced which is always recommended before a lengthy ride like this. My personal aesthetic OCD cringes at the blue frame/red saddle/black bar tape combination but at least that won’t affect the performance.

Lucian’s mother is a resident in the hospital. She is present at the start and a photograph taken of her and the family is an emotional moment and a genuine thought provoking moment reminding us what this ride is all about.

As we prepare the start area, setting out energy bars, water, suncream (yes, after three weeks of non-stop rain the sun has actualy come out for us) and other things the riders might need, two inquisitive cyclists head over to see what’s going on. They’re on scruffy, mud-caked Giant mountain bikes with fat balloon tyres and it looks like the’ve been having some off-road fun this morning. We make conversation with them and gradually we realise that in fact Stuart and his son Rob are not inquisitive passing off-road cyclists but are actually signed up to do the ride with us.

Stuart and Rob will be cycling 60 miles each day, on some of the toughest climbs in the south of England, on filthy, hub-geared, seven speed, fat tyred, poorly set up mountain bikes on loan from Putney Cycles’ hire scheme. I’ve said it before when we’ve seen mountain bikes turn up for our rides. You’re either a hardcore cyclist or you’ve made something of an error of judgement. Time will tell which – although I’m pretty sure I already know!

We chat with the riders, learn about any excuses they may have in the bag and make sure they are well stocked with energy gels, drinks and snacks from our supporters. Andrew has been quite ill recently and is also only recently recovered from a knee injury, Lucian has also been quite unwell recently, and Stuart and Rob, well there are those dodgy bikes, and the fact that prior to yesterday Stuart hadn’t ridden a bike for around 30 years and I’m not sure if Rob has ever ridden one. I’m not convinced we’ll make it half way to the M25, never mind 60 miles a day for two days to Brighton and Back!

Around 3 miles into the ride Richard and I notice the cyclists stopped at the side of the road just ahead of us. Has my prediction come true already..?

In fact it’s Ride2Raise Ride Manager Aidan who has caused the group to stop so soon. Nothing serious, just a puncture, but it seems somehow wrong that a man who has just set the fastest time ever for cycling the Cairngorms Loop, and has cycled competitively (and succesfully) at -25 degrees in Alaska should be reduced to repairing a puncture at the side of the road just outside Wandsworth.

We take this opportunity to make some adjustments to the saddle heights of Stuart and Rob’s mountain bikes. It’s quite common for riders on this type of bike to have the saddle set too low and this is no different. A low saddle height can cause severe knee pain when cycling, particularly for long distances, so it’s something we know can make a huge difference.

The route is not very nice at the start. We always try to avoid busy roads and take our cyclists on some of the most scenic routes on Ride2Raise challenges, but starting from Putney means we have to clear some built up areas and roads cluttered with parked cars and speed humps first.

In the support car we have the usual first ride ‘Operator Error’ problems with the navigation system but that’s soon resolved and with the built up areas cleared we’re soon into some nice roads and fantastic scenery as we shift from London into Surrey postcodes. We pass Epsom and the incredible views over London, pass tranquil and historic Hammer Ponds and experience some of the climbs of the Surrey Hills.

A pattern for this ride is becoming obvious. Lucian and Andrew are strong cyclists on efficient road bikes and capable of cycling at a steady and reasonable pace. Stuart and Rob are on scruffy, mud-caked… you know the story. The pattern is that Lucian and Andrew head off into the distance with Aidan leading them along the route while Richard and I in the support car stay back with Stuart and Rob. It’s not ideal, we like riders to ride as a group whenever possible, but everyone seems happy enough with this. It means the lead riders can go at their own pace then stop after a while for a rest while the others catch up. It also means that Stuart and Rob get much shorter rest breaks but there are no complaints from them.

Lunch on day 1 is at a nice pub in Lambs Green called the Lamb Inn.  The food is tasty, the rest much needed and it’s the first proper chance to chat about the morning’s ride and fore me to make a few more tweaks to some of the bikes. Chatting about the ride doesn’t last long and we’re soon onto football.

Lunch over and we set off again. The stop is at almost exactly half distance for day 1 and Staurt and Rob already have reason to be pleased with themselves. Pace isn’t great but miles are being covered without too much of a problem, although at times Rob’s facial expressions give away how tough he is finding this.

For the afternoon, wherever possible, Aidan’s aim is to help and motivate Stuart and Rob when he can. Andrew and Lucian are happy to cycle on their own and when the route will be easy to follow for some distance Aidan hangs back. It’s quite hilly now and the mountain bikes are struggling. Rob is on foot on a couple of hills and although Stuart is not ready to resort to walking it’s clearly a struggle for both. In contrast Andrew and Lucian are doing great. Their cycling technique is good, although Lucian’s stubborn refusal to utilise all his gears on the climbs is a little baffling.

It’s an uneventful afternoon and, with regular stops for the riders to regroup, we are closing in on the tough climb of Devil’s Dyke before the final descent into Brighton. We stop at a garden centre at the base of the climb to top up water bottles and prepare for the climb. Richard takes this opportunity to chat up a couple of elderly ladies while helping them pack their car with their purchases and spirits are high. The end of the day’s ride is not far away although there’s a brutal climb before the comfort of the overnight stop.

It’s as tough as expected and a closed road means a slight detour which doesn’t help Rob and he’s forced to walk some of the climb again. It’s a minor inconvenience though and we are soon within sight of the day’s finish on Brighton seafront. Richard and I head off to check the bags in to the Mercure Hotel situated on the seafront of Brighton and the riders are not far behind.

The most important thing to do, once everyone has been shown to their rooms and the bikes have been placed into a secure room by the support team, is to head out and find a pub to watch Crewe Alexandra’s biggest game of the season so far. Richard’s a life-long Crewe fan and it’s the first leg of their Division Two play off semi-final. We’re all invited to join him to watch!

Despite this offer I decide that the two scruffy hired mountain bikes need to be cleaned up a bit to make Stuart and Rob feel a bit better about riding them tomorrow, so I make my excuses and head out with them strapped to the rack on the back of the support car to find a jet wash. It’s no exaggeration to say that they are absolutely filthy and caked in dried mud and I hope the surprise of cleaned bikes in the morning will spur the guys on.

Cleaned, oiled and almost looking presentable I lock the bikes back into the secure room at the hotel and head to the pub to catch the second half of the game. I look forward to seeing their faces when they discover they are almost riding different bikes in the morning.

Crewe win 1-0 and we’ve enjoyed the game, and each-other’s company. Time for dinner.

Brighton is incredibly busy, as always, and hotels are full of wedding parties, stag and hen groups and clubbers. We pass a group of superheroes, female golfers and mock scotsmen on the way back from the pub and are grateful that the restaurant is quiet so we can enjoy a nice dinner and a chance to discuss events of the day. The group have bonded well, despite often being some distance apart on the road, and light hearted mocking is taken in the spirit it’s intended. We also discuss the reasons for doing the ride and the incredible work that the RHN does but we’re all tired and it’s an early night for all. In fact Rob’s pretty much asleep at the table!

Day 2 – Sunday May 13th.

So, it’s early morning on Day 2 of the Ride Hard for RHN Ride2Raise challenge and we’re ready to set off on the way back to Putney. Well, I say we are but it’s actually 4:30am and for some reason I’m wide awake and ready to go but I’m pretty sure nobody else is. Breakfast is not until 8:30 so I consider checking over the bikes but unfortunately I don’t have the keys to the support car where the tool kit is stored so there’s not much I can do. I decide that as it’s such a beautiful sunny morning I’ll take one of the newly cleaned mountain bikes for a spin to see what it’s like to ride them. As the saying goes, before you criticise someone you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way, when you do criticise them you’ll be a mile away. And you’ll have their shoes… or bike in this case.

The surprised night manager at the hotel helps me get the bike out and I head off along the seafront. It’s an eventful ride from the hotel along the front to Brighton Marina. Most of Brighton seems to be still enjoying its night out as I pass night clubs, beach parties and motorhomes parked along the seafront still enjoying Saturday night’s excess. I’m more used to being one of the late night revellers so the temptaton to join the crowd heading for a huge beach party at the end of Madiera Drive is strong, and there are still three hours until breakfast, but I resist the temptation and, after a ride of a little over an hour, I park the bike back in the store room and walk back to the seafront to enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of a seaside town preparing for a sunny Sunday.

Even at this early hour the typical seaside cafe smells of frying onions and heated sugar doughnuts are evocative and satisfying. Joggers smile in the glorious sunshine and, on a day like this, Brighton seafront is a very nice place to be at 6:30am.

As breakfast time approaches the Ride Hard for RHN team begin to gather in the hotel reception area. Stuart is already dressed for the day’s ride and is as enthusiastic as he has been since we met him yesterday morning. We fuel up with a top quality hotel breakfast and almost everyone is raring to go and looking forward to the day. The only slightly less optimistic person is Rob who is quite quiet and, it’s fair to say, doesn’t seem that keen.

Breakfast over, bikes recovered from storage, tyres pumped up and… Rob and Stuart have completely failed to notice that I spent an hour cleaning their bikes last night! After our usual presentation of a Ride2Raise Charity Hero award, to Duty Manager of the Mercure hotel, Ryan Selwyn, the riders are ready to go. I decide I’d like them and their bikes to gather on the bandstand on the other side of the road for a photoshoot first but once that’s out of the way the riders are off along the seafront, initially retracing the route which led them to and along the seafront yesterday evening.

The day starts with a tough climb out of Brighton and already Rob is struggling and walking the last of the hill. He has my sympathy. A tough climb on the bike he’s riding isn’t nice at any time but just 15 minutes into the day’s ride is really tough.

We near Devil’s Dyke and it looks like the road which had been closed on the way in last night, causing a slight detour for the riders, was open again. This was a good thing as it takes the riders along a road with fantastic views across vast yellow Rapeseed fields and out to the sea. The road climbs to the peak of Devil’s Dyke and then drops sharply. It’s slightly treacherous as the surface has been newly gravelled so Aidan advises the riders to take extra care, particularly going downhill. It’s an easy surface to lose control on.

The morning continues in much the same way as the rest of the ride. Lucian and Andrew ahead and riding at a good pace. Rob and Stuart struggling a little at the back and Aidan dividing his time between the two groups. Stuart is struggling more today than he had been yesterday and soon the reason for that becomes clear.

When the riders next stop to regroup Stuart tells us that he is struggling to change gear on his bike. Neither Aidan or myself have much experience of the hub-gear system on Stuart’s bike, and the side of the road isn’t a great place to learn, so it’s with some relief that Aidan notices that the end of the gear cable has become dislodged from the twist grip on the handlebars. It pops back into place easily enough and the gears appear to be working again. Stuart says he’s disappointed that he has to carry on and was hoping we wouldn’t be able to fix it. We know he’s joking but the signs that this bike was never ready for a ride like this have started.

Well into the morning we’re in a popular area for cyclists and on a Sunday as nice as this there are several around. Rob is at the back of the group and struggling up another hill when he is passed on the hill by a mother pulling a child on a cycle trailer on the back of her bike. She hasn’t struggled to cycle 90 tough miles since yesterday morning on a wildly inappropriate bike but Richard and I can’t help but chuckle.

We reach our lunch stop at the Star Inn in Rusper and both Rob and Stuart’s bikes are beginning to cry “enough”. Both chains are quite loose and Stuart is still struggling to get his gears. I tighten the chains, oil the gear cable and ride Staurt’s around the car park to see how it feels. The gears are certainly vague and there’s a nasty crunching sound coming from the hub. We’re three quarters of the way through this two-day challenge but I think Stuart’s going to find the last 30 miles hard going, and Rob’s bike is also beginning to need regular attention.

It’s getting a little chilly in the shade of the car park and rain looks a possibility for the first time all weekend. However, once we set off the sun is shining again and the riders know the end is not too far away. It’s probably less than 30 miles to the finish but for now there is another more pressing target… Box Hill, and part of the Olympic Road Race route.

Although Box Hill is not the toughest of the Surrey Hills by some way the route to the top, known as the Zig Zag Road, is quite steep and is a popular test of fitness for cyclists. Our riders have been noticeably pacing themselves all morning in the knowledge that the Box Hill climb is one that all cyclists like to achieve successfully. Andrew has ridden Box Hill before but Lucian, Stuart and Rob are virgins.

We regroup at the base of the hill and look up to the Salomons Memorial viewpoint high in the distance. I take some pictures and we plan to regroup at that very memorial, hopefully in the not too distant future, to look back down to this spot. Andrew and Lucian are keen. Stuart and Rob not so much. At least one of the two gears Stuart’s bike can reliably get is the one he’ll need for this climb.

We stay close to the riders for as long as possible but it’s a very busy Sunday afternoon on Box Hill and it proves tough. On the way up we can see that Andrew is ahead of Lucian by some way. We can’t tell if there is any competitiveness between these two. Lucian had looked very good on the previous climb while Andrew had looked to be struggling a little for the first time however the tables had been turned and Lucian was grimacing with every turn of the pedals.

Richard and I headed off in the support car to find somewhere to park and to wait for the riders to reach the top. We wondered if Lucian was pacing himself and might catch Andrew before the top of the climb and we didn’t have to wait long to find out as the two rounded the final corner together. What we later discovered was that Andrew had stopped to wait for Lucian so they could reach the top together.

We congratulated them for making the climb and as we sat and waited for Rob and Stuart, with Aidan encouraging them up the hill, I think we probably all thought it unlikely that Rob, and possibly also Stuart would manage to cycle to the top. How wrong we were!

It’s been difficult to build the camaraderie on this ride at times with the riders some distance apart on the road for long stretches, but when Rob and Stuart joined us at the top of Box Hill and we discovered that everyone had made it all the way to the top under pedal power – yes, including Rob – there’s a really noticeable sense of team pride. The smiles are bigger than at any other time on the ride and even Rob seems to have enjoyed the achievement of climbing Box Hill on two wheels.

After a quick photo shoot at the top the riders set off for the final 20 miles to the finish. Stuart and Rob’s bikes are really struggling now and I’m sure they will be happy that they never have to ride them again after this.

It a mostly uneventful afternoon as we gradually get closer to south west London’s busy and concrete lined streets. There’s an amusing moment on Epsom Downs. The riders are turning right at a roundabout but Richard steers the support car straight on at the roundabout for a quick toilet break. Somehow Stuart fails to notice the other four riders turning right and follows the support car straight on at the roundabout. He also fails to notice the car pulling into the car park outside the toilet 100 yards past the roundabout and he powers on past us and off in the wrong direction.

It takes Aidan and the other riders a little while to realise what’s happened but when Stuart is spotted in the distance Aidan sprints off after him on his bike. Fortunately there is quite a speed difference between Aidan at full pelt and Stuart on his failing mountain bike with his head down and teeth gritted wishing the ride would end. With the lost sheep rounded up and the group back together there are only the last few miles to go to the finish.

In the last few miles Richard and I stop at the side of the road to make sure we are prepared for the finish and are approached by a cyclist trying to change the pedals on his bike outside his house. Fortunately we have tools for all cycle maintenance needs so we help them out then carry on, only to find Aidan repairing a puncture on Rob’s bike at the side of the road. Only the second puncture of the ride and fortunately repairable with a patch as we don’t usually carry spare tubes for the size of tyre on the Giant mountain bikes.

Fortunately it’s the last mild drama of the ride and suddenly the Royal Hospital for Neuro-Disability is in sight and the ride is over!

Although tough at times it’s not been the toughest of Ride2Raise challenges in real terms but, as always, this ride has thrown up some challenging circumstances for all involved. Andrew and Lucian have been fantastic riders who would fit in well with any group and we hope they will consider cycling with us again in the future. However, I’m sure they won’t mind us congratulating Rob and Stuart for completing the ride on the bikes they used. It’s made it particularly tough and we know many very experienced riders would never have considered attempting what they have achieved. By the same token we know that Stuart and Rob are grateful to Andrew and Lucian for being patient and extremely supportive despite the difference in pace between them. All the riders deserve every penny of their fundraising efforts and it’s been very enjoyable to spend the past couple of days in the company of Rob and Stuart Arnott, Lucian Drane and Andrew Yeates.


Ride2Raise support team:

Ride Manager – Aidan Harding
Support Driver – Richard King
Support Mechanic – Tim Watling