My experience of the 2022 Ride London Essex 100

And so it came to race weekend. I’d set myself the challenge of cycling 100 miles in 8 hours or under, riding the only bike I owned (a super-heavy touring bike) coupled to a baby carrier-come-chariot and carting all my provisions along with me (a total of of 45kg).  It was all part of the RideLondon 100 mass participation bike race – the ‘London marathon’ for bikes, so to speak, whose route began in the capital and took in some of Essex’s rural highlights before heading back for a finish over the iconic Tower Bridge…

The RideLondon 100 route

The last time I’d gotten on the bike one week previously had ended in disaster after injury struck, so I went into the challenge completely unsure if I was healed and ready to take on the hundred miles.  The week before I’d attempted to complete 90 miles along mostly the same route (circling through Essex up to Chelmsford and back), but had to cut that ride short, in agony, after 80 of those miles.  The only thing left to do was give myself total rest for the whole week and hope it didn’t resurface on event day, and that a healthy dose of race-day adreneline would get me through those extra 20 miles.

I arrived at the start line physically rested but having only had 5 hours or so ‘sleep’ on the floor of my office in central London the night before – in the rush to get ready I’d gone and left the vital ingredient – my camping mattress – at home.  Preparations and training had all been pretty last minute as Trishna only saw that Down Syndrome International were looking for riders to take on the challenge four weeks in advance, and with most of my time taken up with work, Anaaya, training for the ride and fundraising the £1000 sponsorship I’d promised to raise, I only got to properly read the event guide two days beforehand. It was to be an early start even though I was in the slowest rider category – a departure time of 8.30-9am, and an arrival time at Parliament Square of 8am.  One of the two train lines into London wasn’t running that morning and I didn’t fancy the prospect of fumbling around on public transport to get to the start line with the bike, chariot and provisions the morning of the race, all the while wearing my ice-skate-like cycling shoes (there was no bag drop so I’d have to wear what I’d ride in).  Central London hotel prices were crazy that night with everything reasonable long gone (£400 was the cheapest I could find, while a single bed in a dorm was going for an unbelievable £200 at King’s Cross youth hostel).  The only thing for it was the hard floor of my UCL office, but at least I’d be close to the start line without any early morning race day navigational headaches.

I said my goodbyes to Trishna and Anaaya at just before 7pm the night before and headed for the train, slightly nervous about all the bike/chariot/baggage coupling, decoupling and carrying I’d have to do.  Despite the remnants of cup final supporters from Tottenham’s nearby stadium, the train wasn’t packed and I could board and depart in relative peace.  Then it was a gentle 30-minute cycle from Liverpool Street to Russell Square, moving as slowly as I could past all the Champions League fans gathering in pubs and bars along the way, to conserve as much power as possible for race day.

Heading off into London… travelling light!

At just past 8, with the delayed final playing in the background, I set about final preparations – charging everything, setting up the chariot with lights, flag and most importantly of all, laminated messages about the cause I was riding for.  Then two hours spent thanking as many sponsors as I could for all their incredibly kind support.

My homemade sign for the chariot & flag pole

Suddenly it was midnight and time for floor-come-bed.  By then I’d realised I’d forgotten that mattress and was in for a unforgiving night.  I lay a few old suit jackets on the floor, folded a hoodie as a pillow, climbed into my sleeping bag and hoped for the best.  Finally asleep by maybe 1am, I wrestled with the suits and the hardness of the floor throughout the night, waking intermittently, and rose exhausted from the battle at about six-thirty.

Straight into more prep: my normal breakfast (no sense changing things up on race day). Sandwiches x 8 to make (peanut butter and banana on white bread for easy digestion and quick and slow-release energy).  4 x bottles of drink (sticky energy drink made up from powder – a trusted concoction that’d helped me dance through deserts four years previously).  3 litres of Camelbak to fill (I sweat a lot).  Emergency contact details noted and race numbers to attach to me and the bike.  A final before-the-ride photo to share with followers and then, an hour after waking, it was time to ride to Parliament.


Prepped, packed and ready to pedal

The striking blue sky and relative quiet of the morning made for a serene London that morning.  I navigated back roads and cycle paths to get me down to the Strand where I joined the cyclists filtering into the official route to the start. The excitement was building.  Riders numbers were growing.  A trickle quickly became a throng.  The Mall filled with bikes and competitors getting final snaps before it all began.  By then it was clear my approach to the ride was unique: no-one else (for good reason, let’s face it) was doing it with a baby chariot, and almost everyone else with a purpose-built racing bike, not a cart-horse of a touring bike weighing a ton.  Admittedly there were a few anomalies – a couple of guys on Santander hire bikes and an older couple on old fashioned Pashley bikes; hope they all made it back! – but in the main this wasn’t the equivalent of a fun run on wheels.  Most riders had a few snacks buried in the back of their smart cycling tops, not a bag-full of sandwiches and single pack of 10 jaffa cakes (the plan being to consume one in celebration of every 10 miles completed).   Still, the chariot, flag and signs got plenty of attention and, as I carefully steered the chariot to the start of Whitehall (and the assembling queue to get to the start line on Victoria Embankment), I was even greeted by a rider who also had a daughter with Down Syndrome who enthusiastically wished me good luck.

Thousands filtering down Whitehall towards the start

The only chariot in town…

45 minutes of slow walk-shuffling later and after saying goodbye to Nelson’s column and a fellow rider I’d befriended called Julian, the Embankment was in sight.  We were invited onto our bikes ready for the start line ahead, just beyond Waterloo bridge.  Only 15 minutes later than planned I was off – this was it – and the challenge had begun…

Not my photo but it gives a sense of how packed things were at the start… it’d thinned out a bit 3 hours later when I rolled past.

3 hours later when I rolled past!

I turned on the GPS tracking on the RideLondon app so Trishna and others could follow along, pressed start on my Garmin and go on my watch and set off through London on the first of a hundred miles.  The roads had been completely cleared (the logistics of the thing were a marvel – literally every junction over those miles marshalled) and it was great to have plenty of space for me, the chariot and other competitors.  I said hello to as many stewards as I could along the way and settled in for a day of mental battle: ‘ease down, take it steady, don’t get carried away’, I repeatedly reassured myself, as I felt my legs pushing more than they probably should have, subconsciously attempting to keep up with the flow of riders alongside me.

I hadn’t done the London bit of the route the week before and was surprised how difficult it felt, with dips and inclines making the early going way tougher than expected: coming out of the Limehouse Link tunnel; the flyover at Stratford; the neverending ups and downs of a deserted A12 out of London.  Yet more dispiriting was seeing the earliest starters (who’d left at maybe 6am) already flying back into London in tight racing formation towards the 100-mile finish line at Tower Bridge.  It’d be a while before I’d be in their shoes.  And by then I knew I wouldn’t be flying.

I couldn’t find any snaps of the A12 so borrowed this one from a previous race – it gives a sense of the space without any cars

Cycling as much as I have done since my youth – having never learned to drive and the bike being my main mode of transport, plus growing up around Bath where every road seemed precariously steep – I’ve always felt confident and strong going up hills.  On each hill (and there were lots, not particularly steep but just lots in number and a fair few that went on for an age) the ‘peleton’ before me seemed to come rushing back as I began to catch up. With four weeks’ chariot training in the bag I was used to the extra weight and actually overtook quite a lot of racing bike cyclists on each hill.  It was a nice but disconcerting feeling so early in the race – was I actually pushing too hard, to much, too fast?  Was I getting carried away, as I’d told myself not to?  The 14.5mph average speed on my GPS told me yes, and unless I was careful I’d pay for it later.  In the back of my mind the whole way through (and an everpresent concern over the previous four weekends of long ride training) was the outcome of doom – that if you didn’t go quickly enough you’d be collected by the ominous-sounding ‘sweep bus’, a destiny befalling all those too broken down, injured or tired to keep going quickly enough to avoid the roads being opened back up to traffic.

Game face on for the long (but gradual) incline out of London into Essex

So far so good though and what was amazing all the way through was the positivity of the whole thing.  The locals coming out to cheer riders on – families with kids and homemade signs, pubs full of people raising a glass to cyclists whizzing (or more likely trundling) by, or the teams of charity supporters with pom-poms in hand screaming support for everyone who passed.  I shouted, cheered and honked my hold-fashioned bike horn every time I went past any wellwishers and they in turn bolstered my efforts as mile by mile the going got that bit tougher.

It was after about 10 miles of fairly gentle climbing out of London up through Epping forest, and about 20-25 miles of total riding done, that I first felt the type of pain that wasn’t welcome.  My left leg injury from my penultimate ride – attempting to go too far, too fast, too soon – was back.  Then, rearing it’s head after 70 or so miles, it’d stopped me pretty much dead in my tracks.  Coming today after just a quarter of the distance done, my thoughts raced. Was this it?  Was just a third of this challenge all I’d be able to manage?  I thought about all of my sponsors.  I thought about Trishna and Anaaya waiting for me at the finish line.  I thought, ‘that can’t be it?’

In a sense when a niggling injury first crops up the worst thing a person can do is focus on it, keeping it in mind so its severity and impact just grow.  There were a few things on my side in this regard, and the constant and increasing stream of fellow cyclists wishing me luck, congratulating me on my efforts so far pulling that chariot, helped massively.  I resolved to push with my right leg all the more, giving my left as much rest as I could for as long as I could sustain it.  The heavens opened for a bit, forcing me to focus on how freezing it was and debate whether the jacket I’d earlier removed should go back on.  All the way out we cycled into a headwind, so that focused the mind whenever it blew and buffeted more than usual.  And around that time I had a cycling friend of a work colleague come and say hello for about a mile (great), a group of guys from a charity film-making company hung around and chatted for a couple of miles, and a trustee of Mencap cycled alongside me and talked about Anaaya and support for her to help distract me for a few miles more.  I knew too that I had to keep my fuel levels up to supply power to my fading legs – so with the first round of sandwiches over, I grabbed a quick pitstop to replenish them from the bounty in the buggy.  After a secret countryside pee I rejoined the ride refreshed and ready to go again.  The pain was still there, and worse, but in a few more miles I would be close to half way, and if I could make it to there, then – whether limping, hobbling, broken or in pieces – I was going to make it to the end.  I laughed at the absurdity of it all, and just why I always seem to go out of my way to make it that bit harder.  Deep down I know the answer: what’s a challenge without the challenge?

The other niggling worry is that I knew how difficult the back half of the course was.  The ride back into London the week before had felt awful, slow, and uphill all the way.  It’d felt neverending, as if it had been made purposefully punishing as the end got closer.  And I knew all that was to come. 

I had to include at least one photo which made it look as if I was in the lead, and on a hill!

Yet I had to count myself lucky – of the 25,000 riders taking part, a steady stream of mechanical casualties lined the roadside at regular intervals, suffering the curse of the puncture or worse still the broken chain.  Ride mechanics rode to the rescue of many, with spare inners and tools for the job.  I carried everything with me as I my bike was no thin-tyred racer and I definitely didn’t want to be caught short. There was no way I was giving that sweep bus a head start.  I had thick puncture-proof tyres and thankfully through the race no breakdowns came my way, and despite the chariot being pretty difficult to manouvre around the number of riders on the course, luckily I wasn’t involved in any crashes either – though we were held up a couple of times because of others unfortunately affected by these, and a few times ambulances whizzed by to help those in need.

I ticked off the miles in my head (‘if I can ride one, I can ride two, if I can do two I can do four’) and redoubled efforts to engage in my surroundings, with fellow racers and crowds wherever they appeared.  By now the bike horn had long since fallen off but I could still give a cheer and a jokey ‘brup brup bruuup’ every time wellwishers shouted in solidarity.  It really worked: the mind demons counjoured by the slow drip of the miles on the GPS display were always there but thankfully kept in check.

The momentum swung once past half-way, and strange things began to happen.  While the physical exhaustion became overwhelming throughout those second 50 miles, the acute leg pain remarkably didn’t.  Maybe it was delerium but every now and again my legs felt lighter, not heavier.  I didn’t feel the need to stop at any of the official rest stops; wanting to just push on though.  I embraced the pain of every hill, knowing I’d already beaten each the week before, and keeping a little in reserve for everything I knew was still yet to come.   By now my heart rate was permanently in the second-to-highest zone (orange), and frequently in the red (maximum).  I gasped for air and fuel on the hills – but I used high gears, high revolutions (keeping those legs spinning fast), and was even still overtaking others as I climbed (plenty more were overtaking me, mind!).  At sixty-something miles I took two minutes for a final drink and sandwich swap and then was off for a final thirty-mile run into the finish.  My average speed still said fourteen-and-a-half – a mile and a half quicker per hour than the training ride the week before.

Unlike most of the riders I bypassed the official rest stops (where apparently my time would also pause too) at 70- and 80-something miles and by then I was just zeroing in on getting to the end.  Past Woodford and back onto the A12 and those rolling inclines of hurt.  Thirteen miles left.  Time to bury myself and give it everything.  Other cyclists were still cheering me on and congratulating the effort and every time it boosted my flagging legs and bursting lungs.  That A12 went on forever.  This route was definitely going to be more than 100 miles!

97 miles done and it was into twists and turns around Stratford and the docklands. A cyclist asked if I was doing the shorter route (30 and 60 mile options were available) as despite him overtaking me twice I’d somehow go ahead of him again.  The full hundred with no shortcuts, I reassured him, happy being the plodding tortoise to his more temperamental hare.  Then ‘HEY BEN HAMMOND’ came at me from the side of the road.  While I was in no mood or place to stop – the end was just too close now – I turned to see a work colleague smiling and waving… she’d been tracking my progress and came out to that spot to give me a push to the end: an amazing effort and just what I needed.

Back through the Limehouse Link Tunnel and the steepest part of the whole course as you came out into the light. Dizzy and groggy on my bike, rolling back through the gears to keep moving forward… every cyclist around me feeling it too.  But I new this was the last – up and over and that was it for punishing uphills.  The last barrier removed, I welled up thinking of crossing that finish line with Anaaya.

What I hadn’t considered is that Anaaya might not actually be there. We’d agreed on 4.30pm as the earliest I could get to Tower Bridge and given I hadn’t been on the road for 7 hours, I realised I must be early. A check of my phone and the reality dawned – tube delays meant they weren’t yet there.  I must’ve flown those final few miles, so now dialled it back slowly rolled the last couple of miles to our agreed rendez-vous spot just before the turn onto the bridge, resting up until Trish and lil’ one arrived at just before half past four.  Though Anaaya herself was none the wiser as to my exhaustion, the venemous layer of salt, sweat and dirt covering my body laid bare the day’s exertions.  We hugged and kitted Anaaya up with helmet and baby suit.  Next she was in the chariot and together we were ready to ride to the finish.

Meeting Anaaya and preparing for the finish!

Rule Stickler up in the finish line commentary box told me off for waving to the crowds on the way towards the line (‘two hands on the handlebars’) but who cared, this was it; we’d made it.

The big moment: Anaaya singularly unimpressed!

Made it!  Can you spot Rule Stickler?

Over the line and off the bike and a big cheer with Anaaya (in the moment more interested in trying to remove her helmet).  I pulled her and the buggy over the rest of the bridge and we basked in a job well done.  Collecting my medal, I took a chance and asked if Anaaya could have one too and fabulously the very nice lady said yes, but advised me hide it until out of the throng should others of Rule Stickler’s ilk take unreasonable offence to that charitable act and officiously intervene.  We doubled-back over London Bridge and went and met Trishna in our rendezvous spot in a nearby park.  Celebratory ice creams all round – and for Anaaya her very first taste of that creamy confection.  She loved her medal too – but mostly for eating and chewing!

We snapped a few pics of us together with the medals, updating Facebook to tell everyone we’d made it to the end.  Amazing then that it was pretty much at this point we realised we’d made it to our sponsorship target of £4000!   What kindness from every one of the 160 donors over the past four weeks – and it made all the effort, the sheer exhaustion and pain, feel absolutely worthwhile.  It was a real Gautama-Hammond team effort: Trishna providing the idea and loads of the sponsors along the way, and Anaaya helping so much with the motivation at every turn.  If you haven’t yet been able to but would like to sponsor me there is still time – just click here.

I have to say the photos don’t really do the whole experience justice, making it look a little too much like a relaxing Sunday jaunt on the bike!  For me it’s the stats that complete the story: I made it to the end of 102 miles in under 7 hours (7.16 if you include the 20-minute wait at the end), at an average speed of 14.5mph, took no break, hauled 45kg of bike, chariot and kit with me, climed over 1200 metres (the equivalent of cycling up somewhere between Snowdon and Ben Nevis), spent an hour of the ride in the red zone gasping for air, more than three hours in orange battling continuous leg pain, and burned almost a thousand calories an hour. Unsurprisingly it’s taken a few days to recover and get my legs, body and mind back to something close to upright.

Yet I’ll forever love the combination of challenge, training, raising funds for and speaking up for causes I believe in, and sharing such adventures with friends and family.  I’m so lucky and privileged to be able to do this while I can. We can but hope that Anaaya gets to live out her dreams in such a way too as she grows up as a unique, spirited and very special part of this world.

Until our next adventures, then. Thank you again for all your support along the way.