Head down, pedalling furiously while squinting through the pouring rain to avoid obstacles in the road ahead, I could have been cycling anywhere. Visibility was atrocious.
But wait, what’s that old building emerging through the drizzle on my left? Isn’t it the Tower of London? A couple of minutes later, on the right, there’s St Paul’s Cathedral, followed by Trafalgar Square and the Houses of Parliament. This is no time to be staring at the tarmac.
It wasn’t supposed to be wet. It hadn’t rained in the British capital for eight weeks and weathermen had been predicting that cyclists taking part in last month’s 160km RideLondon event would roast in temperatures of up to 38°C.
Doctors were warning of severe health risks for the 25,000 participants, some of whom would take more than eight hours to complete the course.
Actually, nearly 100,000 people took to the streets of London on two wheels over the July 28-29 weekend for what is billed as the world’s biggest cycling festival. Most rode shorter distances. But the centrepiece was the Sunday 100-miler, starting at the Olympic Park in London’s East End and finishing outside Buckingham Palace, on Pall Mall. In between, most of the race is through the leafy lanes of the county of Surrey, southwest of London.
Organisers say 80,000 cyclists applied for the 25,000 RideLondon spots. At prerace registration, it was clear that a healthy number were South Africans — their nationality given away by their accents or their cycling jerseys in the national colours.
A growing number of SA cyclists are riding overseas, and not just in the UK. RideLondon is only one of five annual international mass-participation cycle events organised by the World Association of Cycling Events, or Wace.
Our own 109km Cape Town Cycle Tour, formerly the Argus, is one of them. With 35,000 riders taking part each March, it’s the biggest timed event in the world. New York’s TD Five Boro Bike Tour takes participants through 64km of the city on the first Sunday in May. It’s the only one of the Wace events in which riders are not timed. It’s also one of only two events each year (the other is the New York Marathon) for which the entire city, including its iconic bridges, is closed to motor vehicles.
The Granfondo Campagnolo Roma is a tour through 120km of history in and around Rome that takes place in October. It starts outside the Colosseum, where gladiators fought to the death 2,000 years ago.
The route, parts of which are cobbled, includes Lake Albano, where the pope has his summer residence.
And then there’s the Big Daddy of them all. Sweden’s Vätternrundan, which happens every June, takes cyclists 300km around the country’s second-largest lake. (Vätternrundan means "around Lake Vättern.") Despite the distance, it attracts over 20,000 people each year.
Riding these events is not cheap. The entry fee for the London event is nearly R1,000. Then there are the air tickets and accommodation. Some people tag cycle events on to holidays or business trips.
Daryll Sherwood, a retired businessman from Cape Town, rode London this year with five members of his family. It was his third time there and he has also ridden New York. Naturally, his collection of medals includes the Cape Town tour. Rome is next on his bucket list.
He undertook his first overseas ride as a challenge. Since then, it’s become much more. "It’s the whole experience," he says.
"Each event is still a physical challenge but you are meeting people from all over the world. There’s a wonderful atmosphere. And you have time to appreciate the places you are riding through."
That was certainly true last month in London where, despite the rain, many riders slowed to gaze at the famous structures a few metres away. And even the damp that seeped inexorably through rain jackets couldn’t halt the sense of shared endeavour. Encouragement for struggling riders was constant and it was rare for puncture victims to suffer alone. Almost without fail, other riders stopped to assist.
Smells like team spirit
A similar ethos exists at other events, and with SA participation growing at all of them, there’s no reason for "Saffers" to feel anxious about taking part, says David Bellairs, director of the Cape Town Cycle Tour Trust and a Wace board member.
Excluding the Sweden race, where it’s first come, first served, entries to Wace events are managed through a ballot system. You apply and hope for the best. The good news for South Africans is that, with the exception of their home event, the best is almost guaranteed. All five events want maximum international representation so a large number of places are reserved for foreign riders.
According to Bellairs, as long as you apply for a foreign Wace event within entry deadlines, you’re unlikely to be turned away. This includes Sweden. The Cape Town Cycle Trust is setting up an online system to help South Africans enter other races. It should be ready by the end of 2018. There’s even a special Wace medal for people who complete all five events.
London is a natural first overseas stop for many South Africans. However, this should not mask the fact that RideLondon is half as long again as the Cape Town Cycle Tour. Eric Scoble, a BMW car dealer and former chair of the National Automobile Dealers Association, rode it in 2017 with his wife Merilyn. Their plan to use Cape Town as a warm-up was thwarted when gales, fires and protests forced its cancellation. So they arrived in London as big-race novices.
"It was a fantastic experience, but I learnt very quickly that miles are much longer than kilometres," he says. "I’d think I was doing so well and then I’d see a mile marker and realise I hadn’t gone as far as I thought." But they made it. "I kept framing the finish in my mind — visualising my coming round the corner and seeing Buckingham Palace at the end of the Mall. Nothing was going to stop us getting there. When we rode down the Mall and heard the crowds cheering, Merilyn was in tears."
My cheeks were also wet when I finished, though that may have been from the rain. I went to school in central London and grew up in the same Surrey countryside where the ride took me. It was, literally, a trip down memory lane.
So there was never any question about finishing.
The forecast extreme heat might have changed things but, on the day, the cool weather made the distance a formality — weeks of long rides at altitude in Johannesburg saw to that.
Some people may be fit enough to ride any distance at a moment’s notice, but for mere mortals preparation is vital. What’s the point of travelling thousands of kilometres and spending many more thousands of rands if it all ends in failure because you’re not ready?
Bellairs says: "Before you go, understand the ride and the distance. Climbing in Cape Town is different from climbing in Italy. Appreciate the distance and the difficulty. Don’t go in cold."
Sherwood notes: "Leave nothing to chance. Is your bike serviced and ready? Are you equipped for different kinds of weather? Should you get yourself checked by your doctor? A rider died of a heart attack in Cape Town this year and another one died in London."
So which races would Bellairs, who has travelled to them all, recommend to South Africans? "They all have much to recommend them but I think the nicest is Vätternrundan. I know it’s two or three times as long as the others, but that’s what makes it so special."
The race, which has been staged annually since 1966, begins and ends in the town of Motala. June is midsummer in Sweden so the sun sets at 10pm and rises at about 3.30am. Riders are sent off in batches from about 7.30pm. Some go hell-for-leather, but the 29-hour time limit encourages most to adopt a more leisurely pace. For some, that means riding for five or six hours, then snoozing by the roadside for a couple more, before getting back on the bike.
For those intimidated by 300km, there are two shorter races: Halvvättern is 150km and Tjejvättern, for women only, is 100km long.
For me, the cycle tour bug has well and truly bitten. With five Cape Town and now one London ride behind me, Sweden or Rome beckons next.
Which one? Watch this space.