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Ride Report - Tour of the South East (Event 2 of 4)

Dear all,

This is the second in my series of reports on the cycling challenges I’m taking on for the NSPCC this year.

Before I start, though, I’d first of all like to thank everyone who’s already given to this year’s campaign. I’m bowled over by your generosity; we’ve reached 37% of the £3,500 target after just one event. The NSPCC are grateful, too – something I can confirm since they saw fit to name me a “Fundraiser of the Year” at the dinner event on Saturday’s. Actually this is your award, not mine – so anyone who’d like a go in the commemorative cycling jersey they gave me is more than welcome!

At the dinner, the NSPCC showed a video setting out their programme for primary schools. The key statistic is that, on average, 2 children in every primary school class are suffering abuse or neglect. That’s 120,000 children in all, most of whom are too young to know they’re being abused, or to know whom to turn to. The NSPCC wants to send trained volunteers into every primary school in the country, more than 23,000 of them, at least once every two years from 2016. You can read more about this programme here. It’s going to cost £20m to set up, and every contribution, no matter how small, goes towards this target.

To donate, please go to


299.8 km (186 miles); 11h 35m in the saddle; 3,510m (11,515ft) of climbing; 7,000 calories.


Detailed ride report

The ride was spread out over two days, starting from the Gravesend Cyclopark on Saturday morning, heading to Guildford for an overnight stay and then taking a different route back to Gravesend on Sunday. There was a lot more to it than a normal “sportive”, or organised cycle ride. The riders were split into four groups based on expected average speed; each group was preceded by a motorcycle outrider and followed by another motorbike, a team support car and an ambulance.

Ride2Raise, the organisation behind the Tour of England, had put a lot of effort into getting as close to the “pro peloton” experience as you could for amateur riders. This included recruiting some pro cyclists to provide ride leadership and “domestique” support – of which more later.

My group of around 30 riders set off at 08:30, second from last – the groups were running in reverse order of speed in the hope that we’d all arrive at Guildford at roughly the same time. This made it important for the group to stay together, because anyone who couldn’t keep up would end up falling back to a still faster group. We set off at a reasonable pace in threatening, but dry, conditions; unfortunately it soon became clear that we’d set off in the wrong direction! Due to some issues with signage and mapping devices, we’d missed a turning; we had to turn back and retrace our steps to get on the correct route. The early pace also told on group cohesion, with the weaker riders struggling to hold on; this meant slowing the group down, which made it hard to ride in a fluid rhythm.

The Saturday route was very hilly, with more than 2,000m of climbing. This spread the group out further, making the ride leader’s job still harder. Then the heavens opened – not entirely unwelcome as a relief from the muggy heat, but as the rain persisted spirits dampened along with clothes and everyone became spattered with mud. The roads also became treacherous in places and we had our first faller. This is where the support riders and vehicles came into their own: the group carried on while the support staff administered first aid and got the rider’s bike sorted out; then one of the domestiques rode her back to the group.

The schedule called for three stops on the way to Guildford: a morning break after about 50k; a lunch stop at 85k and a final tea break at 125k. While it’s unusual to stop this often, and doubly so to stop for a proper cooked lunch, it gave the groups a chance to reform properly and offered a rest for those finding it hard going. It also allowed for some shuffling of the group order; our unscheduled diversion meant that the fastest group caught up with us at the first stop; we were then held there to let them get a head start. On Saturday, though, there was palpable frustration at the artificial pace of the group and in the end, blessed with drier weather, a couple of us made a break after the first stop. We recaught the fast group at the foot of the Kitts Hill climb – that day’s timed climb challenge – although the work of catching them blew our chances of setting a good time up the hill, despite the valiant efforts of the NSPCC cheerleaders half-way up.

We picked up our group again at the top of the climb and continued on to lunch. While a rest and a meal is never to be sniffed at, we ended up stopping for 40 minutes, which meant cold legs and heavy stomachs when we set off again. The group fractured again shortly after lunch and I found myself out front chasing the lead motorbike. I was having a nice, if slightly lonely time, in increasingly good weather on quiet roads when I was surprised to see the escort rider heading back in my direction. Apparently he was lost; and so, in consequence, was I. Apparently the rest of the group had spotted a turn-off he (and I) had missed and were merrily heading north-east as we rode west. He asked me to wait while he checked; after 8 minutes he came back to tell me the bad news. I’d gone 4k in the wrong direction; having to retrace my steps, plus the waiting time, put me about 10k behind the group on the road.

I rode as hard as I could manage and finally caught them at the last stop of the day, just as they were rolling out. Lesson learned, I stuck behind the ride leader from then on. The ride was pretty uneventful for the rest of the way to the finish, with the exception of the last 5k. Just as we saw signs for Guildford and started breathing the relieved sighs of the soon-to-be-showering, the course turned off to the right. The organisers clearly felt we hadn’t suffered enough, as they’d thrown in a couple of short, but nastily sharp, climbs before the end. There was much cursing – especially from me when I realised that a combination of the big effort to get back on the back of the bunch and failing to eat while doing so meant I’d run out of legs.

We rolled into Guildford together, ditched our bikes and headed totteringly for rooms, carbs and showers. Total mileage for the day was 161km (just over 100 miles) for me.

That evening the NSPCC laid on a dinner for 100-or-so riders. We swapped war stories, ate well, and were entertained by Paralympian Mark Colbourne. Now a professional speaker, he gave a crisp and funny account of his transition from amateur triathlete via life-changing injury to world champion, Paralympic gold and silver medallist, and MBE. At the close of the dinner there was a prize-giving, as expected, with jerseys for the fastest from each group up the timed climb – not something I was in any danger of getting. What was unexpected was that I was called out to be awarded a jersey as a “fundraiser of the year”. I felt very flattered – and very conscious that many others had done equally impressive things; I’m just fortunate to know generous people.

Sunday’s ride was a marked contrast. There’d been a little juggling of groups, but nothing dramatic, yet by some alchemy we suddenly cohered as a unit. In glorious sunshine we rolled back to Gravesend – on a significantly flatter route – holding a good pace and working together well. I was surprised – and I think others were too – to find we still had legs and could hold our own on the climbs; in fact I set my best time ever up Box Hill (though still nothing to write home about – I wonder if I’ll ever do this climb with fresh legs?).

My only drama was a sudden rear tyre blow-out, thankfully after the long and fast descent from Box Hill – peak speed 74km/h (46mph). Once again the support system came into its own: no sooner had I stopped than the team car pulled in, a replacement rear wheel came off the roof – then several more ‘til we found one with the right number of cogs – and I was on my way again. The long-suffering domestique towed me back onto the group and all was well with the world. Well, apart from finding that SwissStop Black Prince (what a name!) carbon-specific brake pads are definitely carbon-specific. On alloy rims they have slightly less effect than prayer. Never mind, I had my first-ever tour-style wheel change and I still had one working brake, so all was well with the world.

Lunch saw my own wheel, and hence two-wheel braking, restored. We restarted with our only unscheduled diversion of the day when we turned the wrong way out of the lunch stop, cheered on by the indefatigable NSPCC staff. Possibly if they’d booed us instead we’d have worked out sooner we were going the wrong way. Fortunately we twigged quickly and turned around; repassing the lunch stop did lead to suggestions that we pause for a quick top up, but these were over-ruled and we rode on.

This time our pace was such that the fast group didn’t catch us till close to the last stop of the day; given that their ranks included a number of Cat3 racers, that felt pretty good. As did being held at the final stop to prevent us arriving back at the Cyclopark too soon! Eventually released, we worked together like clockwork through the last couple of big climbs and then the fast run into the finish. We rolled in through the gates bang on time and did a final lap of the Cyclopark race track. There may have been racing, but that would have been childish, so I shan’t confirm it. Except to say I went too soon and didn’t win the final sprint.

All in all, despite occasional glitches, a well thought-out and well-executed event with tireless and enthusiastic support from NSPCC, Ride2Raise and CTC – this last providing the mechanics who not only fixed mechanical problems at the stops en-route, but also cleaned and fettled all of our bikes overnight – what a luxury. I’ll certainly be back next year if they run it again.

My next update will be in July, after I get back from four days trying to fit in as many of the historic climbs around Alpe d’Huez as we can manage. I said at the outset I’d do 600 miles and 10,000 metres of climbing for the NSPCC; so far I’ve done 289 miles and 5,533 metres in two events, so perhaps I can beat that target. I also said I’d raise £3,500 by doing it. Perhaps we can beat that target too?