Thirty thousand of anything is a lot. Thirty thousand cyclists creates an immense snake of humans and metal. The London to Brighton bike ride is the annual institution organised by the British Heart Foundation that can easily lay claim to be Britain’s biggest bike ride. And quite possibly one of the biggest in the world.
I’ve never ridden L2B, even though part of the 54-mile route does run very close to my home in Surrey. This year I decided to take part just to see what the ‘London Marathon of cycling’ was like, so my father-in-law Ken and I turned up at Clapham Common on Sunday, June 20, at the crack of a sparrow’s.
Before we even got there, it’s pretty evident that a big cycle event is going on. The roads into London were packed with cars and vans loaded up with bikes. In the opposite direction, a stream of cars with empty bike racks.
Parking a couple of miles away from Clapham, Ken and I cycled to the start, where you are met with a sea of 27,000 official starters all dutifully lining up in a queue relevant to their start time. Every imaginable permutation of bike was there – road, mountain, BMX, cross, tandem, trike, shopper. If each bike was, on average, worth £150 (and that’s being very kind to some of them) then that’s over £4 million worth of bikes.
We’d elected to set off at 8am. With hindsight, this was too late – we should have joined the early crew at 6.30am. You pretty soon catch up with the squeak of unoiled chains coming from the back markers of the previous group on the streets of south London.
In front, behind and beside you are hundreds of people on bikes, with more unofficial riders joining in along the route, swelling the ranks to well over 30,000.
I’d heard that it can take an hour just to get out of London due to cycle congestion, but it wasn’t London that was the sticking point. The army of 400 marshals and police kept the cyclists flowing. Although most of the roads are not closed to traffic, the police made sure that bikes and cars didn’t mix.
Nearing Cycling Weekly‘s home of Croydon, the ride started to slow down and by the time we hit the North Downs and the first proper hills of the ride, a logjam at the base of an ascent meant it was time to get off and walk. This happened a few times and there was a fair bit of standing about waiting for the way to clear.
Chipstead hill jam
This could have caused frustration among riders, but actually everyone was in carnival mood and it just presented an opportunity for a chatter. Where are you from? Have you done this before? How many miles to go? One hot topic seemed to be whether it was worth using clipless pedals. The question was soon answered for the doubters, with one hapless rider – incidentally in full Astana kit – failing to unclip and landing in a bank of nettles. He said something like ‘Contador’, but I didn’t quite catch it.
Several people had decided to strap large stereos to the back of their bikes, creating a slow-moving karaoke.
It also gave the bike geek a chance to check out other people’s kit. I was surprised to see so many people have already bought official Team Sky replica kit. Didn’t see anyone in any Footon-Servetto strip though.
Past the North Downs and we’d achieved the feat of averaging 9mph for the first 15 miles or so, but the pace very quickly picked up as the bike congestion eased and it was a breeze through the pretty towns, villages and countryside of Surrey and West Sussex.
The feedstops come thick and fast, both official and unofficial. Many enterprising residents along the route bring out their wallpaper pasting tables and set them out with homemade cakes and orange squash. The official stop stations – and there were a lot of them – all had hot and cold food, bike mechanics, first aid tents and toilets.
Other riders seemed to be treating the ride as a pub crawl, stopping off at every watering hole for a pint before continuing onwards.
Over the half-way point of Turners Hill and on towards the looming South Downs and the sting in the tail of the L2B – Ditchling Beacon. The road to the top of the Beacon runs up the steep chalk scarp slope of the downs. Normally, it would be a hard but steady climb up the narrow road. But by this point weary legs and heavy cycles meant that many opted to walk. A margin on the right-hand side was left for those to ride up.
Top of Ditchling Beacon
Your reward at the top is a stunning view out to sea and the finish in Brighton. It’s a long, sweeping downhill pretty much all the way to the line where massive crowds of families and bemused tourists wave and cheer.
Everyone gets a finishing medal and the nice man on the PA welcomed riders home and reminded everyone why they were there – £4.5million raised for the British Heart Foundation.
You can’t compare L2B with a cyclo-sportive, and shouldn’t do. The wide variety of riding abilities and bikes marks the event out as a unique experience. And one worth taking part in.
Big welcome for weary riders in Brighton