It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, there is something special about riding on closed roads. All the biggest sportives offer this experience, from the Etape du Tour in the French mountains, to Etape Caledonia’s lap of Loch Tummel in the heart of Scotland. The chance to ride in these amazing locations, on closed roads is a bucket list must-do ride for any aspiring cyclist.
Will the roads of Essex slot RideLondon back into the pantheon of great events? A county not known for its hills, cycling folklore or stunning scenery but rather boy racers in souped up hatchbacks. Can it host an inspiring day’s riding for 25,000 people this summer?
Originally run in 2013 as an Olympic legacy event, RideLondon weekend hosted a men’s WorldTour road race, a women’s crit, a family focused Freecycle and of course the sportive that saw cyclists enjoy closed roads out to the Surrey Hills and back. Surrey Council decided to pull its backing in 2020 so Surrey’s loss is now Essex’s gain.
As if to help with the transition, and move on from the old pre-pandemic format, the organisers, London Marathon events have come up with an entirely new route - not to mention a new program of races for the duration of the weekend. Even the sportive’s start and finish locations have moved from the Olympic Park and The Mall to the Embankment and Tower Bridge.
The start line will this May be chalked up outside Somerset House with the start pens extending back down the embankment and up to Trafalgar square. From there the route heads east to Docklands, north up to Stratford’s Olympic park then onto the A12 and up toward Essex and the countryside.
The loop, which looks like a figure of eight but is actually more of a balloon on a string pinched together in the middle, rejoins itself in Woodford and retraces its steps back into London and the finish under the first arch of Tower Bridge.
It doesn’t scream ‘must-ride classic day out on a bike’ but genuine relief at getting the event back on the calendar, and the fact we always enjoy a day out on closed roads no matter where it is, meant we had to get out and ride it before the big day to let you know what was in store.
Group ride dynamics
Even though you are likely to find yourself in big groups throughout the day, keep in mind that the group you’re in might not be a group at all, but just a lot of individual cyclists that have found themselves in a group due to the sheer number of people on the road. If this is the case, the group you find yourself in might disintegrate as faster riders ride off ahead, others sit up to wait for friends or people don’t like the speed so move up the road or drop back.
In previous RideLondon’s I’ve found myself in the middle of a big group, rolling along nicely, only to look up the next minute and realise I’m basically on my own. Keep a look out for this dynamic, although it can catch you by surprise. One way to avoid it is to look for groups from clubs in matching jerseys. If you see 20 riders together all in the same club kit it’s safe to assume they’re riding together, and the group that has formed around them should then stay together.
In previous years the club riders were set off in earlier waves and the standard of group riding was better in the early groups with more cohesiveness than those further back. Beware of the effort needed to ride up to a group ahead. They might look close, but if they’re travelling at 25mph you’re going to have to ride at 27 or 28 mph on your own to catch them. Doing this repeatedly can really wear you down, meaning those groups you left early on come rolling past you later in the ride as your legs pay for the effort you put in.
With the A12 not accessible to cyclists on a normal day, and many of the East London roads before that just not fun to ride with traffic, we started our ride in Epping Forest, just outside of Chingford. This is where maps start to turn green as north London’s suburban sprawl suddenly releases you into the countryside.
A quick glance at the route’s profile shows a fairly savage looking climb just before the town of Epping up to the highest point on the route, at about 400ft. The fact that there was absolutely no discernable climb to this point tells you everything you need to know. This is a flat route. And one that largely takes place on wide, main roads.
Route Director Kevin Nash took us through the planning. “It's a balance between competing requirements,” he explained.” We've got to keep London and Essex moving, so we have to talk to the highway authorities and have input from the emergency services. There are a whole range of stakeholders.”
“As event organiser we have the requirements of the cyclist, in terms of safety, and the appeal of the route: It's got to be a viable cycling route and be as nice as possible. And a lot of our riders are new cyclists, charity riders, etc., we wanted to make it as inclusive as possible. It’s not designed to be a mountainous challenge.”
That’s no understatement. There isn’t a climb anywhere on the route, but don’t let that lull you into a false sense of security. 102 miles is still a big day out, and some of the roads coming back into London do gently undulate. Easy with fresh legs, but if you’ve been riding in a fast group for 60 miles the fatigue can sneak up on you.
Chelmer CC Club Captain Matthew Cooke told us a little more about riding in the area. “I think the thing that will surprise people as they go along is the short little inclines.
This kind of route will suddenly catch you out if you’ve got tired legs. And that's what riding in Essex can be like, because you're going at such a pace, you’ll suddenly feel it and think “I thought it was meant to be flat.” That's a really common thing.
This was certainly the case on our preview ride. As we left Epping forest we were quickly into a rhythm, rolling along just below 20 mph. The roads were generally in good condition and it wasn’t hard to hold a good speed, and that was with two of us.
With 25,000 riders set to head out, that’s about 30 to 50 miles of road space taken up by cyclists, around 100 passing through any particular point on the route every minute. This means big groups of riders will form giving plenty of wheels to sit on, and therefore, in the first hour or two, rolling along at well over 20mph. The faster riders starting at the front are likely to be done in under four hours.
We kept our average speed nice and steady all the way up to Great Dunmow as we cut through open farmland interspersed with a few small towns and new housing developments. Truth be told, once you leave Epping at the top of the forest, there are few landmarks to tick off and keep a mental register of your progress. North Weald airfield (home to an operating Spitfire) is easy to miss and you’re in and out of towns like Chipping Ongar and Leaden Roding before you’ve even noticed them.
Once you turn and head south there are a few more smaller roads, but with mile after mile of farmland it becomes quite hard to recall them. It’s a shame the route wasn’t able to use some of the area above Great Dunmow as this area that stretches up to Cambridge to the west and Bury St Edmunds to the east is, according to Cooke, a treasure trove of quiet little country lanes where you can ride for hours and barely see a car.
The onus on moving 25,000 riders along a route in good time (and maintaining access for emergency vehicles and keeping riders moving even if there is a serious incident) meant Nash wanted to stick to bigger roads where he could.
There were incidents on the Surrey route that blocked the roads and kept riders waiting for hours, which itself can be dangerous if the weather turns bad.
The roads after Chelmsford tick this box and while we found ourselves riding them in pouring rain with darkening skies at rush hour, we’re hoping on the day to be blessed with sunshine and a fast moving bunch to ride in. It was on the roads after Chipping Ongar that Cooke’s words were ringing in my ears.
Partly due to plummeting temperatures and sodden kit, the little rises in the road were really starting to bite and our progress slowed dramatically. When the cold became too much to continue safely we abandoned the ride and hitched a lift the final few miles to our car with our photographer.
While better weather and an endless supply of wheels to sit on will make the day itself faster and maybe a bit easier, this is a route that could catch you out, so despite the lack of hills it still needs to be treated with respect.
A classic ride? Maybe not. But a fun day out speeding along some fast roads feeling like you and your ride buddies own them? Definitely.
This feature originally appeared in Cycling Weekly magazine. If you want to read more great ride features, get indepth news analysis, product reviews and expert fitness advise you can subscribe to the magazine, save on the cover price and get it delivered each week.
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