The RideLondon 100 is one of a number of events that take place every July in London and Surrey as part of the RideLondon festival of cycling. The RideLondon 100 is a 100 mile closed-roads sportive for 25,000 riders that takes in the sights of central London and the rolling hills of Surrey – cast your mind back to the Olympic Road Race and (now iconic) Box Hill. The RideLondon Classic (a men’s UCI WorldTour one day race) follows many of the same roads immediately after the sportive has passed through. On the same weekend but preceding the 100 and Classic are the Freecycle (a family ride around London) and the Classique, another UCI WorldTour race but this time for the best women riders in the world. So all in all RideLondon makes for a busy weekend and shines a bright light on all things cycling.
RideLondon took place for the first time in 2013 and was conceived as a legacy event for the 2012 Olympics. However, it has it’s roots in the London Freewheel (which took place in 2007) and subsequently the Skyride, both family oriented rides on closed road circuits around central London. I have a close connection with RideLondon, having helped develop the concept whilst working at Transport for London (TfL) the public body which, along with London & Partners (L&P), got the event off the ground. The event is managed for TfL and L&P by an entity called the London Surrey Cycle Partnership, which draws know-how and resource from London Marathon Events Ltd (with its track record of delivering mass participation events and working so successfully with the charity sector) and Sweetspot Group, with it’s ability to deliver world class cycle racing (think Tour of Britain, Women’s Tour etc).
I have ridden the RideLondon 100 three times, 2013-2015. In 2013 I failed to get beyond the 6 mile point; a routing error (not my own!) led to a sticky situation and a collision with a traffic cone which sadly rendered my bike inoperable. It was a long walk/scoot back to Stratford and an early alarm for my wife who graciously agreed to pick me up. I did manage to finish in 2014 (despite Hurricane Bertha) and 2015, and have some weighty medals to show for it (no other event does medals quite as well as the people at the London Marathon). However, as a racing cyclist and someone who is simply incapable of doing anything sporty just for fun, it’s often occurred to me that my experience of RideLondon is likely quite different to the vast majority of participants.
I have started all three of my attempts at RideLondon in the first wave of riders (at the crack of dawn), raced around the course sheltered by a peloton at an average 25mph, and only really had to push the pedals in anger when the road went uphill or street furniture caused a gap to open up in front of me. I have never stopped to use one of the hubs or drink stations and never really had the time to take in my surroundings. Finishing in The Mall by 10am I’ve had time to ride the 7 or 8 miles home and still enjoy a late breakfast.
This year my experience of RideLondon was quite different. I spent the Friday and Saturday prior to the event working on the logistics and setup, and during the event itself I helped to keep the drinks station and festival (village fete) site at Westcott operating smoothly – offering participants some respite just after the 60 mile point. Spending the day at Westcott not only gave me an insight into the experiences the 100 offers up to it’s surprisingly broad spectrum of participants, but also, a better understanding of how an event like RideLondon can build positive relationships with the communities it passes through.
The team working at Westcott was an eclectic mix. There were myself and a colleague representing the RideLondon crew; a RideLondon volunteer leader and group of volunteers; James (a local District Councillor) and his able assistant representing the local community; at least half a dozen Girlguide leaders and Guides whose tent building skills frankly put mine to shame, and last but not least an amazing group of helpers from Bracknell Forest Runners who ran the water station, as they do every year.
James (District Councillor/big cheese in the NHS/local Westcott resident), was the sort of person who seems to a) know everybody and b) find 36 hours in a day. He arrived on site before us (about 4am he said) and when he wasn’t helping to direct operations he was chatting to passing residents, re-assuring them that the grass would quickly revert to it’s luscious green state having suffered somewhat under the wheels of 10,000 cyclists. Big events like RideLondon will inevitably attract local criticism and resistance and they rely on personalities like James to support them and persuade others in their community to do the same. Most of us like attending events and do so without more than a passing thought for the impact they have (positive or negative) on host communities. However, when it’s our community playing host things often start to look more complicated. Sections of the media don’t always help, distorting the truth to such an extent they become a parody of themselves, though occasionally a much more positive narrative emerges. But there is no doubt that the logistical demands of an event on the scale of RideLondon will inconvenience a large number of people, albeit for one day per year.
One of the key challenges for the organisers of RideLondon therefore has been to secure and maintain the support of its host communities. This is where the Guides in Wescott come in, and an organisation called The London Marathon Charitable Trust (LMCT).
The LMCT in its own words ‘primarily provides capital funding for building or facilities projects that inspire increased participation in physical activity, sport and play’, and accepts applications for facilities that are located in the areas in which London Marathon Events Limited organises events. Since 2013 the LMCT has awarded grants totalling over £2.2m to some really good causes in Surrey including in 2015 a grant of £100,000 towards a new ‘Girlguiding residential building in Westcott’ to support the ‘delivery of a range of physical activity and sport participation opportunities to children of varying ages.’
It’s not just about money for bricks and mortar though. The Guides have actively engaged with the event and worked incredibly hard from 7am until late into the afternoon serving RideLondon participants and spectators for the RideLondon Classic with a range of BBQ food, a huge selection of homemade cakes and gallons of tea and coffee. This all went down extremely well with an endless stream of customers (particularly after RideLondon supplies ran low) and must have raised a small fortune for the Guides too.
Whilst calculating the economic impact of events on host regions is normally a dark art, the £2.2m awarded by the LMCT is tangible and no doubt very much welcomed by the worthy recipients. It is of course not the only tool used by RideLondon, you can’t simply buy support. Engaging effectively with communities impacted by large events requires a multi-layered and multi-faceted approach and a good dose of sincerity. Being in a position to award grants is nevertheless very useful indeed.
Overall I really enjoyed working on RideLondon. My fellow ‘logistics crew’ members were interesting to talk to and good company throughout. But I particularly enjoyed engaging with the participants who stopped off at Wescott. Some exchanged just a few words and were keen to get back on their bikes as soon as possible, others were happy to talk about how their ride had gone so far. For some of the later arrivals riding 100 miles was clearly an epic challenge and – with 40 miles still to go back to the finish in London – one they were really struggling with physically and mentally.
I’m sure I’ll do RideLondon 100 myself again at some point, but I’ll take it slowly, enjoy the closed roads and be sure to stop for a cup of tea and a slice of cake at Wescott.