On 23rd May 2018, I accepted an invitation to ride in the Ride London 100 for the charity Childhood First. That’s a 100-mile bike ride departing from the Olympic Park in East London, heading off to Surrey and the infamous Box Hill and the lesser-known but harder Leith Hill, before returning to London and finishing in The Mall.
Many times in my life I have accepted an opportunity without really thinking it through; this was another of those occasions. But each time has been an adventure. Adventures often happen when you say yes to opportunities!
There were many times when I questioned my decision – Have I bitten off more than I can chew…what if I can’t do it… what if I can’t finish…what if I’m not fast enough…what if I fall off…what if…what if? – but somewhere in there, I began to think, “What if I CAN do this?” and decided that all I could do was give it my all during training, then turn up on the day and give it my best shot.
www.ChildhoodFirst.org.uk is an amazing charity that works with children who have suffered horrendous trauma through either or a combination of physical, mental, emotional and sexual abuse. Their work is so specialised because of the depth of the abuse that the children have suffered and you are not likely to read about the treatment or hear from their families (likely the cause of the abuse).
Due to the nature of their work they don’t get as much media coverage and awareness as many other charities.
I don’t know what these children would do without Childhood First, probably drop out of society and repeat the same learnt behaviour that happened to them, that is really sad.
You can donate to the charity via my fundraising page https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/alison-graham-100cycle I have hit my target but I would love to raise some more for this amazing charity so they can improve their facilities and help more children.
On the day I accepted the invitation, my bike had a puncture and hadn’t been ridden for a month – and my last serious ride was in November when I completed a 28-mile sportive. (A sportive, is a short to long distance, organised, mass-participation cycling event, typically held annually.)
I needed to step up my game. Nine weeks and counting…
Week 1 – Bank Holiday weekend
My first ride was in Richmond Park where I’m used to cycling. I covered 13.4 miles that day and realised two things. First, I needed to be comfortable cycling on roads with traffic – although roads are closed to traffic on the day of the ride, I had to be confident on the roads to get some real training done. Second, that I couldn’t do it on my own and needed to recruit some help
Help came from my friend and fellow personal trainer, Michael. We did a long (well, it felt like it then) 22-mile ride to Chesthunt and back on roads and canal towpath. It was a great ride and really boosted my confidence cycling on the road and at more speed than I was used to.
This was also the week that I ventured my first ride into the West End and Oxford Circus. I remember how nerve-racking it was that first time: I was so concerned about the traffic and being in the right lane. Wow, I was being brave for me, but I did it.
Michael and I rode to from Chesthunt again with a friend of his. I’m not sure if the friend realised what he’d said yes to. While I was starting to ride better and enjoying riding with increasing speed and for increasing distances, he wasn’t! It was a long day as he needed a long rest before our return journey, which made me I realise that if I wanted to conquer the 100 miles, I needed to work harder.
Wisely I had invested in some padded riding shorts. A game changer on the comfort front for long distances, and a must for anyone in the saddle for hours. The cycling shorts also made me feel like a professional cyclist – I’d even cycled to the cycling shop to buy them, a proper cyclist around town!
I’d also bought a phone holder bike bag that fits on the handlebars so I could follow google maps to my destination, it gave me so much independence and confidence. Now I looked like all the other cyclist around town, I felt like I fitted in.
I had been looking at some rides outside London, but it’s hard to know what route to chose when you don’t know the roads. It was the Sunday and I set off to Ashridge Estate near Hemel Hempstead with my bike on the back of my Mazda MX5 and a website with a route on it. I was ready to ride and get some more miles under my belt but when I got there, there was no signal for my phone and I couldn’t find the route. I set off hoping that a short way down the road I’d find a signal and all would be well. Nothing!
I had no idea what to do.
Luckily, just then, three cyclists stopped on the other side of the road, asked if I was okay. It soon became apparent that I had no idea about the area or where I was going. They kindly invited me to ride along with them for another 10 miles and then I could ride 10 miles back to my car. Perfect! So on a Sunday in early June, I set off into the countryside with three strange men…it turned out to
be the best thing I could have done and was a big turning point in my training. I know their names now (thank you Alan, Joe and Glen).
That day I ended up riding 22.5 miles with Alan as the other two had to go. He took me up hills and along speedy bits (I wasn’t that fast then) and around Whipsnade Zoo while telling me stories about the elephants coming out for a walk in the afternoons. I was overwhelmed with gratitude and appreciation for this stranger I had only just met who gave up his time and patience that Sunday.
I was armed with more vigour and confidence. I cycled to my clients at every opportunity. I went on my bike to meetings. I became “me and my bike”. I knew I needed to get another long ride in at the weekend.
I got my wish on the Sunday with Alan, covering 41 miles, and again it was great. Alan’s riding skills are amazing. He stayed with me all the time – riding at someone else’s speed, especially on the hills, shows real talent – all the while offering encouragement and praise. I couldn’t believe my luck in meeting him and realised pretty quickly that it would be a good thing to ride with him as much as possible.
I was happy to just follow the route he’d chosen. It’s what I was going to have to do on race day so I thought I may as well get used to riding on roads I don’t know.
My big lesson in week 4 was letting go on the downhills. It was a massive metaphor for life. We cling on and try to control things so much that we nearly stop them happening, whereas if we can learn to relax and let go we get to our destination quicker and more easily. It is, of course, more easily said than done. On some hills, I had been holding my brakes for so long and so tightly that they started to squeal and my forearms began to cramp. I had to practice letting go to increase my average speed, help get me to my destination quicker, and to stop my arms from hurting.
‘That’s it, just let it roll Alison’ was a phrase I heard quite a bit.
This week was pretty standard with rides to clients and a long ride at the weekend. The weekend before had been the London to Brighton ride and I thought it would be nice to do the same ride and have fish and chips on the beach.
That plan fell by the wayside and with Alan away, it was Joe who came out with me. I realise now how amazing these guys were. I had met Joe on that first weekend I rode around Hemel Hempstead but not for very long and, although he didn’t know me, he took the responsibility for taking me out for a 40-mile ride round trip from Gadebridge Park, Hemel Hempstead around Studham, Slapton, Mentmore and over Ivanhoe Beacon and under the bridge (in)famous for The Great Train Robbery.
I learnt some top tips about riding the smooth part of the road and, of course, letting go on the hills.
I kept practising and practising that one, down every hill I let it go a little bit more and my arms hurt a little less (or at least were getting used to it).
We covered a healthy 38.4 miles and increased my average speed from 9.5mph to 10.9mph. This was really important because the 100 miles needed to be completed in 8.5 hours, averaging 12.5mph overall. Being slow on the uphills means letting go on the downhills and gaining speed is crucial to finishing within the allocated time.
On my bike to and from client sessions became standard practice, but I still wasn’t doing enough cycling so I needed to put in some extra time. This week turned out to be a busy cycling week.
My first extra ride was Thursday night with Alan. England was playing in the World Cup and the roads were quiet. It was such a treat. Alan had chosen a hilly route with a speedy section at the end, although I declined a really steep hill as I was riding the next morning, but made sure I gave it my all on the speedy section.
At 17 miles, it was a shorter ride but my average speed was 13.4mph. What a great ride! That speedy section would become a favourite for part of my evening training.
On Friday, I rode with the ladies from Breeze Hemel Hempstead, a women’s cycling group. They were a lovely group of ladies, we were out for 20 miles and stopped for tea and cake at the Hillside Farm. It was lovely, although cake was not part of my training plan! It was great to do this ride so soon after the speed session the night before – spending as much time on the bike as possible is important for getting stronger in the saddle.
On Sunday I arranged a ride with another group in Harpenden. The weather had really started heating up and I missed the communication that they were going out an hour earlier. Drats, I had to make another plan!
Disappointed, I set off back home and took the rest of my day to myself. So much training so quickly takes its toll and I ended up sleeping for quite a bit of the day.
I started the week with renewed intention and determination. I had wanted to do 60+ miles the previous day so I set off to Richmond Park. The park is a 6.7-mile loop and I decided I would do 10 loops and hit my mark.
I knew when I started this was going to be an emotional ride due to the previous day. In fact, for the first 5 loops, I had a terrible conversation with myself (no one should ever speak to themselves that way!). But then I had something to eat which did the trick and I was on much better form although my mind was still wandering where it shouldn’t (I wonder what’s it’s like to be knocked off my bike by a car?).
I was having a good practice day of letting go on the downhills, picking my line on the road and finding the smooth bits. As I handled my bike better, the things I wasn’t so good at became much more apparent and going round right-hand bends were my weakest link. Was it the roundabout or corner? Was it me? Was it where I positioned myself on the road? I wasn’t sure but it was something else for me to work on.
At this point, I was two roundabouts from my start point and I had to turn to the right at both of them. I approached the first roundabout, over to the right and going quite slowly as it’s quite a tight turn. A guy on a bike goes past me on my left, cycling more quickly. I carry on with my manoeuvre and as I look down I see a car bumper by my left leg, am I cycling faster enough to get out of the way? No! The car took out my back wheel and I got my answer to what it felt like to be knocked off my bike. (Be careful, everyone, of the questions you ask!)
I don’t know how but I rolled off my bike – my shin was grazed and I had a small cut on my knee but I had definitely got off lightly. I asked the driver in an accusing tone ‘Where were you looking?’ and when she replied that she hadn’t seen me, for some reason, I added, ‘I’m training for a charity ride’. I was in shock but in that moment I realised that this older woman (I think about 70) hadn’t meant to knock me off and was also likely to be in shock. I didn’t want to add to her distress so I calmed my tone.
One wheel was mangled so I couldn’t get back on my bike.
Another cyclist stopped, asked if I was okay, and suggested I got the driver’s details and ask her to pay for the damage. The driver gave me her details and offered to give me a lift to my car with my bike but as she didn’t know how to get it in her car, she got back into her car and drove off, leaving me by the side of the road with a bent wheel and a scraped knee!
It was a mile and half to my car and I couldn’t push the bike as the wheel wouldn’t turn.
Another cyclist stopped to help. I said was trying to hitch a ride back to my car and that I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to get the wheel off to put the bike in my car. He kindly checked the wheel would come out for me and suggested I look out for a police car as they drive around the park regularly.
I stood by my bike trying to hitch a ride but realised that no one could see what was wrong, so I popped the bike on my shoulder (luckily it only weighs 5Kg) and stood by the road. Result!! Once people could see the problem, I got a ride really quickly and was dropped right by my car.
As I stood there taking stock of the situation and calming myself, another car pulled in next to me and a guy got out and asked if I was okay. He explained that he saw the damaged wheel and, as a fellow cyclist, realised that something had happened. I told him the story and how I wanted to ride 67 miles but had only done 52.2 miles. He told me to me to be positive about the 52 I’d managed before the accident.
Each time these people left me I had a little cry, from the shock of the accident and worrying about how long the wheel would take to sort out.
I dropped the wheel into my go-to cycle shop (Cycle Republic in Bloomsbury) on Monday evening and it was ready for collection the next lunchtime – amazing service! It was important that the wheel was fixed quickly as I knew that the longer I was off my bike, the harder it would be to get back on. The ride home from Bloomsbury was both awful and great at the same time. It is so true that you’ve got to get straight back on again after being knocked off but it was only a day after the accident, I was tired and riding home meant dealing with rush hour traffic in central London. However, I did it and it was the best thing I could have done; I realised that if I learnt nothing else during the rest of my training, this was an incredibly important lesson.
I needed to focus then on the weekend and completing a long ride. I wanted to hit about 75 miles, something close to the event distance.
On Sunday, I headed out to Hemel Hempstead by myself and rode some routes that I had ridden with Alan and Joe. I started with the speedy ride I did with Alan and then set off on the 38-mile ride I had done with Joe. After a snack break, I set off on the last section, the speed bit again. It felt tougher the second time around and I had to stop a couple of times, calm myself and tell myself that I was strong enough to do this, after all, I had done it before.
After I finished, I was so happy and buzzing from completing my longest rider EVER and by myself. I was so hyped from the experience and the huge amount of sugar I had consumed about an hour and a half earlier (thank you chocolate flapjacks and snickers), that I had the best drive home, with the radio on full blast, singing, smiling and on a high!
No photos though because my phone was totally out of battery and overheating when I tried to charge it in the car. This was good to know since I realised I would need a portable power bar for the actual day as I wanted to record all the details of the ride.
The week involved the usual training during the day. On Tuesday evening I went up to ride with Alan and Joe and a new guy, Steve. I was so spoilt because every time that I rode with them the ride was about what I needed to do to get around this 100-mile ride. I also got to see some beautiful countryside in the process and that night was beautiful up on the downs and glorious in the late sun (see the photos).
That night I learned about “drafting” which is what all the professionals do when you see them grouped together. It means you can travel a bit faster with less effort as you’re tucked in behind the rider in front, and it is especially good if there’s a headwind.
I am forever grateful to these guys for totally looking after me; I learned so much from them and I’d only met them a few weeks before.
We took the fast route back to where my car was parked – we were clocking 23mph for a good section and I was out there leading the pack and drafting behind Alan. Talk about fun!
That Saturday, I bought a portable power bar to charge my phone – on Sunday I was riding alone again, and I didn’t want to run out of battery. Saturday was a hot day, I was out in my car with the roof down and I think I got a little too much sun. During the afternoon I could feel the anxiety rising and messaged Glen and Joe to ride with me in the morning, but they were both busy. In the evening I messaged Alan the route of the 100-mile ride, I was feeling needy and my anxiety was still rising.
Sunday turned out to be my worst ride of all, maybe ever (at this moment in time). I was struggling mentally and my legs felt as if they had no energy. My plan was to ride a 41-mile route, circling back to my car to refill on drinks and eat something, and then do the route in reverse. I wanted to get over 80 miles to build my confidence even more.
It didn’t happen. I came back after what felt like a slow ride with many stops. I even stopped on a slight downhill section to have a chat with myself. I got back to my car, decided to halt my ride and called a friend to chat it through. We agreed that there was no point in pushing on with the ride when it wasn’t flowing for me. Slowly I packed up and drove home, feeling completely different to the week before when I was stuck to the sky. It felt like a disaster, and I didn’t take a photo after this ride.
Not long to go now and counting down to ride day. The time for any hard training has passed; the goal now was to keep my confidence (or get it back after Sunday) and stay focused. On Tuesday evening I headed out for a ride with Alan and John, another experienced rider. It was a great evening but I forgot to turn on my Strava to track my training, so it only picked up the last 10 miles. But my average speed was up to 15mph, we came back along the fast section and I picked up then. Speed is what I need.
My lesson that night is that not every ride is good but there are a lot fewer bad rides and it is important to try to forget a bad experience and have a good experience as quickly as possible.
On Sunday I headed out for my last long ride with Alan and Steve; an early 7.30am start to keep out of the heat of the sun. It was so much fun – I have improved so much from that day in early June when I first met my Hemel Hempstead cyclists. We took in hills, down-hills and fast flat sections, including some drafting and laughing at Steve’s jokes. Averaging 12.3mph for 40 miles, we were flying along! Have to admit I was feeling a little emotional when we finished. With only one week to go, I wouldn’t be cycling with them again before the ride.
I’d learned so much from them all and not just about cycling – I also learned about myself and to trust the process of accepting help when it is offered. It was a chance meeting but it was my luckiest moment. I am forever grateful for their encouragement, tips, motivation, patience and kindness and in helping me fall in love with cycling.
My lessons from this ride were to let it go, keep going and also to look back at how far I had come. All the effort I had put in over the last weeks has been worth it.
Countdown to the big day
During this week, the goal was simply to keep my legs moving, riding as usual to and from clients, keeping everything as normal as possible and trying to think of Sunday 29th July as a training ride with 30,000 people that I haven’t met yet!
On the Friday I collected my ride number from Excel. I cried when as I saw the wall where riders leave messages – it just got to me.
On Saturday afternoon, I posted on Facebook about my ride with links to track and sponsor me, and then I restricted my social media activity. I wanted an early night with as little distraction as possible although I seemed to wake up every hour.
My alarm finally went off – ride day was here!
You never know how the day will go, so all you can do is turn up at the starting line and do your best.
As I locked my front door I heard someone ask if I going to the 100 ride? A woman, Linda, was cycling past and, spotting me, suggested we ride together. What a great start, another new cycling friend who happens to live around the corner. We had a lovely chat on our way to the start until we had to go to our separate sections.
People deal with the start of big events differently: some people are very quiet and focused and others are more chatty.
We were at the start for about an hour before our wave was due to go and it began to rain. I had completely missed that in the weather forecast but no matter, we would all be moving and warm soon. We could see the other waves going and hear their countdowns. This had just got real for me and my emotions were right on the surface. As much as I try to save all my energy for the ride I am emotionally attached to completing this ride – I want so much to complete it and do my best after all the time and training. My lips quivered and my eyes filled but I managed to keep it together. I chatted to a couple of chilled guys in the queue.
As we get closer the compere is chatting to each wave before they go. Each wave was asked for the tune they wanted to leave to. Amazingly, I ended up cycling out of the Queen Elizabeth Park to Abba’s Dancing Queen, my favourite song, on my longest bike ride on a wet and windy day in July. It couldn’t have been more perfect! I sang (to myself) for the first mile, “you can dance, you can jive, having the time of your life…’
London was quiet. We had the roads to ourselves and going under bridges and through tunnels meant some welcome relief from the rain. Everyone was in great spirits. The roads were ours and it was comfortable being in a pack. With no one going crazy, it felt like everyone was riding more sensibly due to the weather. We headed west out of London towards Richmond Park, and towards the roundabout where the lady had knocked me off. Although we were going in the opposite direction, for a moment it all came back to me, then all those bad memories faded and my mind was back on the ride.
I didn’t stop until the hub at 21 miles. A quick banana and peanut butter cookie and I was away again. At 25 miles the road splits: people on the 46-mile ride go left and the 100 milers go right. Suddenly it felt very quiet – where did all the people go? I think there may have been some who registered for the 100 miles but opted for the 46 on the day. I was quite surprised how few were left. The next 25 miles were quiet and I was on my own for much of the time. I had a brief chat with a guy and his dad, then with a woman who rode alongside for a while but otherwise it was just me.
Just before the next hub was a hill, not as big as Leith Hill or Box Hill, the famous ones on this route. I decided that I was going to cycle up this one as preparation for Leith Hill. I wanted to have that experience in my body; the rest of the ride had been pretty flat so I wanted to practice the hill. It was tough and felt steeper than I had ridden before and at the top, I felt a bit ill. A quick pain shot through my body and I felt faint and sick for a moment but I told myself just to keep going and not to get off…I would be okay and even if I wasn’t, the hub was close (Newlands Corner).
The wave passed and I was fine again but once I got to the hub at the top, the wind and rain picked up and it was horrible. The hub only had toilets available, the wind was blowing things over and people were slipping with their bikes. I headed for a quick pee and straight back on the road. With such miserable weather, that was the only time when I really wondered if it was worth it. But by then I was halfway and there was no point in stopping so I decided that I may as well keep going. The thought of quitting was gone; I had started this ride intending to finish it, not to quit just because it was little more difficult and uncomfortable than I would have liked. Onwards!
My client Sharon had arranged to meet me at 50 miles, bringing me the drinks which I had used during training and weren’t available on the ride. However, I didn’t spot her and she didn’t spot me, so I decided to keep going. I was in a bit of flow and wanted to make the most of it.
There’s a time limit for the turning to Leith Hill. I reached the turning about 5 minutes too late and so got sent on the shorter section. It turned out to be fortunate for me as some of the riders who made it to Leith Hill before the cut off were kept hanging around for 20 minutes due to a medical emergency and a pile-up of cyclists. Not going up Leith Hill this time gives me a reason to come back and do this ride again. A couple of miles on and the people who have been over Leith Hill came back and joined the route. I enjoyed the feeling of riding in a pack again.
It was around here that my chain came off. I popped it back on and sent it good vibes so that it stayed on. But it caused a problem with the lower gears on my back cog so I managed the best I could, although it may have caused me a problem on Box Hill as I would need them going uphill. But Box Hill was closed due to a medical emergency so we had to stay on the shorter route. Everyone was now on the shorter route. What I hadn’t previously realised was that some people on the 100 route already planned to avoid the two big hills.
The number of cyclists was growing all the time and as we get to the point where they rejoin from Box Hill there were even more cyclists. At Leatherhead, we had to get off our bikes and walk. This took a while, I thought it was a 25-minute wait although I saw others on Facebook say 45 minutes. I can’t be sure how long we waited but I did get very cold. But everyone was chatting and we were all in the same boat. There was a hub station here too so I popped in and there was a community centre with proper toilets, warm and dry which were a blessing.
Onwards, you’ve got to keep going.
Once we were going again it was about 25 miles to the finish. I thought, I can ride 25 miles, I can do this. I had a couple of stops in that last section. Firstly, I attached the power bar I had bought for exactly this moment to make sure that my phone had enough charge in it. Secondly, I needed to eat as I wanted to arrive in good spirits and not collapsing. Fuelled up on food, I kept my head down and headed for the finish. With still over 20 miles to go, it was not the time to make a sprint finish. I just needed to hang on, stay steady, keep turning the pedals.
I’d been warned about the hill in Wimbledon Village. It was tough but nothing as bad the one earlier although after 77 miles of riding it was enough to slow me down a little. Once over that hill, it was flat to the end! The closer I got to the finish line, the more my energy rose. Whatever distance I had ridden, this was my big finish and I couldn’t help myself but pedal fast for the line.
I turned into The Mall, the finish line was in sight. I screamed “Yes! Yes! Yes!” pumping my arm in the air (I could only do one as I haven’t yet mastered riding with no hands!) And the crowd responded cheering me in – it was absolutely thrilling, I was so delighted to be there. I had done my absolute best and finished the ride. I couldn’t be more proud of myself. Of course, emotions nearly caught me again – that moment when you finish something and you can’t quite grasp what you have done. I just thought, I DID IT, I DID IT, in all that wind and rain, I DID IT!
I would have never entered the Ride London 100 if Childhood First hadn’t offered me the place and at the time of writing this I have raised £755 for them. My fundraising page will stay open until 31st August and it would be fantastic if the total went up to £1,000. They are a brilliant charity and I hope that I have raised awareness by completing this event for them.
I was met at the end by my friends (Kate, Helen and Jodi)and I was so glad to see them. We filled two hours of recovery with lots of ride chat and catching up whilst I refuelled and rehydrated. And we celebrated with large gin and tonics at Henry’s Café Bar!
And then I had to cycle the last leg, along Piccadilly (where my chain came off again), Shaftsbury Avenue and onwards to home… for a lovely hot bath and some dinner. Next morning, I lay in bed reading all the lovely comments on my Facebook page which set off the tears again.
Thank you to everyone who has sponsored me and thank you on behalf of the charity too. This valuable income could go towards any number of things; from extending and enhancing our residential communities in Norfolk, or providing Theatre trips for the children, providing them with a memorable outing and contributing to their education.
These are the 7 Lessons I’ve learned from training for and taking part in the Ride London 100 2018
- Adventures happen when you say yes to opportunities
- Make a plan and take steps in the direction of achieving your goal
- Accept help when it is offered
- Let go!
- When you fall off, get back on again as soon as you can
- There are more good rides than bad ones, so focus on the good
- Turn up, start, do your best and finish
Until next time…!
My sponsor page: https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/alison-graham-100cycle
Childhood First: www.childhoodfirst.org.uk
Hemel Hempstead Cyclists: https://www.facebook.com/groups/hemelcyclists/
Cycle Republic Bloomsbury: https://www.cyclerepublic.com/bloomsbury-store
Breeze Hemel Hempstead https://www.facebook.com/groups/BreezeHemelHempstead/