It is 04.55 and my bedside clock is emitting an urgent series of bleeps that will crescendo into a sonic frenzy if I fail to intervene. If that doesn’t wake me, then my mobile phone has been instructed to contribute its marginally less tumultuous tone a minute or so later.
There is no need. I’ve had about six and half hours sleep, but of an acceptable standard, it isn’t cold and I feel remarkably spry. This is contrary to how I would normally expect to feel at this hour. It’s not that I struggle with rising early – during my intermittent periods of unemployment that have characterised these last nine months, I’ve been habitually up by 08.00 and on the road for 09.30 – but any earlier than, say, 06.00 and I can find it all a bit menacing.
Not today, though. For breakfast I have pitta bread stuffed with a whole tin of tuna, a glass of orange juice, and a cup of coffee. This is in no way an exceptional start to my day, although I’d usually hold off for an hour or so before making coffee.
I listen out for my neighbour and think I hear him. When I’ve finished in the shower I can definitely hear him. I get dressed and alert Mommersteeg of my near readiness. We are a little behind our agreed schedule but I’ve only got to fill my bidon with EPO and H2O, and I’m primed.
Mommersteeg isn’t primed: his rear brake has jammed. He tinkers with it and improvises a solution. We leave our respective flats at 06.05, 20 minutes later than planned.
It’s Sunday and an exiguous collection of vehicles stalk West London’s roads, although there’s more traffic than one might expect for the time of day. As we near Putney other cyclists begin to emerge from many directions, united in purpose. By the time we’re descending Battersea Rise, they’re everywhere.
Team Carlos-Weltschmerz is supposed congregate around Clapham Common Bandstand anywhere between 06.15 and 06.30. By the time Mommersteeg and I pull up it is 06.40. The rest of the team are ready and waiting and I respect their punctuality. Apologies are offered for our tardiness, although we do point out the mechanical cause of our delay.
My team’s jerseys are looking good, but it’s a little fresh and some of us are wearing outer garments and base layers. Only Mommersteeg’s St. Raphael and Wenborn’s Château D'ax Gatorade tops are actually perceivable, although Evans (S) is wearing a long sleeve retro-styled Peugeot jersey over his short sleeved Café de Colombia one, so really it’s only me and Gowland who aren’t visibly paying homage to cycling’s past. We momentarily remedy this for an improvised team photograph.
Our allotted start time is 07.00 and it says so on the rectangular pieces of paper the British Heat Foundation posted to us, along with the edict that we attach them to our clothes. They are even coloured in a peremptory coding, designed, I presume, to deter queue jumping. Our plan is to join the event a little ahead of the starting line anyway, at the roundabout where Nightingale Walk joins Nightingale Lane, to avert getting caught up in the bunch. This strategy ensures that we are on the road for 07.00, eluding a multitude of cyclists and delaying us no further.
It’s a token gesture. By the time we’ve hit Bellevue Road we’ve lost sight of Mommersteeg and Gowland, who’ve been sheared off ahead of the group via the medium of traffic lights and marshals holding placards commanding us to pause. These signalling devices proliferate all the way along Burntwood Lane, Garratt Lane, through Tooting and along London Road, and our progress is mulishly slow.
After about 15 minutes or so, Gowland materialises out of nowhere, smoking by the side of the road. He extinguishes his cigarette and re-joins the group, but can’t enlighten us as to the whereabouts of Mommersteeg. Now I’m torn between riding with Gowland and Evans (S) or catching up with Wenborn, who’s slowly pulling away from the rest of us. I do my best to fluctuate between the two, and collisions are only narrowly avoided. It is apparent that I need to commit one way or the other, and my appetite for progress determines the outcome.
It’s not really until we’ve reached Carshalton that I’m able to settle into anything resembling a rhythm. Mommersteeg is still out of sight, Wenborn looks like he might be going that way, and I can only assume that Evans (S) and Gowland are somewhere behind me. As I turn right onto Pound Street, with ponds to both sides, I can feel the tempo rising. The field is starting to spread out a bit, and I push on unimpeded.
Suburban now, and with about 11 miles covered I hit the first discernible climb. It’s not a steep or long climb but the path is bloated with cyclists and everybody toils to keep out of each other’s way. I think this is Woodmansterne Road and past its humble peak the field begins to thin out again. I’m conscious of the fact that I’m now averaging a fair speed (whatever that means) and the short descent down the B278/Rectory Lane excites. I have little idea of how far I’ve travelled or where everybody else is. I’m not particularly concerned; the sense of occasion has me in its thrall.
Then there’s another short climb (up How Lane) which is even more congested, although my legs feel fine – indeed, I’m churning a relatively big gear to maintain the momentum and dodge the dawdlers. It occurs to me that the allotted starting times bear no relation to a rider’s capability or intent. Either that or I’m selling people short, for there are a lot of well-worn bikes and inappropriate-looking cyclists keeping up a respectable cadence, pinned with a colour coding corresponding to my own.
The weather’s holding up nicely. Conditions are still cool and overcast but I don’t think it will rain. There’s a complimentary stillness to the peloton, although really it’s no peloton at all: just a mass of bikes steadily moving forward. It’s a singular experience, this: people’s heads are down, nobody’s communicating. Dare I say the atmosphere borders on the funereal? There are spectators gathered here and there to cheer us on, but this is no London Marathon. These are transient moments and the speed of travel spares us reciprocation.
Miles 14 through to 17 are uneventful, passing through fields, pop-up barbeques and through small villages, and then breaching the M25. I do, however, find Wenborn pausing at the top of Rocky Lane, waiting for the rest of Team Carlos-Weltschmerz to catch up. He asks if we should wait for the others, but it’s been a while since I’ve seen them so I advise we press on. Still no sign of Mommersteeg.
There’s another climb at about 20 miles – Church Hill – taking our elevation up to 430 feet (although we reached 577 feet earlier), but it’s no great strain. On the other side of Church Hill is the descent down Cooper’s Hill Road. It is fast and exhilarating, the tree lined banks of this country lane creating a tubular effect, and the vicarious pleasure of the event – in lieu of genuine Tour conditions – is gaining momentum. I’m surprised at how fast most people are tackling these descents and the marshals admonish us for our velocity. Some of the hairier corners are backed up with bales of hay as a precaution.
I’m still just about keeping up with Wenborn. Along the flatter sections – through Smallfield and along Redhill and Effingham Road – I’m with him most of the way, and we talk of our progress, the distance left to Turners Hill, and hotdogs. I’m absolutely ravenous and it’s very tempting to stop for something to eat, perhaps at Burstow Scout Hut and to hell with the schedule. Wenborn reassures me that there’s not long to go until Turners Hill. Then he drops me and I’m all alone again.
Turners Hill Road is the first climb deserving of our effort, and at the top is Turners Hill. It’s taken us 30 miles (neglecting the distance any of us had to travel to reach Clapham Common) and over 2 hours to get here. It has cost Wenborn 2 hours and 6 minutes, to be precise, or so says his Garmin computer. From that we can deduce that it’s taken Mommersteeg – who, under the impression that he was behind us all, sped on ahead – about 2 hours and 5 minutes, and myself about 2 hours and 7 minutes. Evans (S) and Gowland follow approximately 10 minutes after that (or however long it takes us to lock our bikes, take a leak and buy a cup of coffee). Using the Tour de France system to determine a Points Classification, and assuming that we’ve completed a “medium mountain stage” (because I’ve now suddenly decided that this is how I’d like to quantify our teams’s progress) the standings after Stage 1 are thus:
Points Classification after Stage 1
Evans (J): 22
Evans (S): 19
I hadn’t realised how long it would take to get out of London. I didn’t appreciate that, although the route to London to Brighton is closed to traffic, open roads would recurrently interrupt our forge to leave the capital. I assumed that our scheduled stop in Turners Hill marked the halfway point, but it is three miles more than that, and feels like it. The back of the route is firmly broken, then, and we reward ourselves with a light lunch.
Evans (S) and Gowland acquire themselves a pint of ale to accompany their burgers made of beef. I had been resolutely anti-alcohol but Evans (S) deliberately exploits my fondness for cycling’s heritage to point out that alcohol was used to aid many a cyclist’s fortune back in the day. I compromise and buy half a lager to accompany my sausage filled bap and think of Jacques Anquetil some more.
There’s a church fete kind of atmosphere all about us. Refreshments and sustenance abound, and a brass band strikes up a tune. There’s no sense of competition amongst the massed, although I wouldn’t say we’re overwhelmed with camaraderie either. People are friendly enough but nobody’s checking out each other’s bikes, or admiring Team Carlos-Weltschmerz’s sartorial elegance.
I identify a nice Chas Roberts road bike which I swear I saw on Gumtree a few months back; it is coloured racing green with yellow bar-tape, so quite distinctive. Why is nobody looking at my bike?
After about an hour we’re ready for Stage 2 of the… race! I suppose that Stage 1 hasn’t turned out quite as I anticipated. There has been no discernible peloton – just a chaotic conglomeration of riders riding at varying speeds – and Team Carlos-Weltschmerz has struggled to keep together. Consider our bicycles: Wenborn and Mommersteeg have the lightest, most expensive bikes, and that’s paid off for them. Conversely, Evans (S) is riding an aluminium hybrid with treaded tyres and two panniers strapped to either side of the back wheel – with this in mind, to be only 12 minutes down in the general classification is actually quite respectable. Gowland’s bike is also made from aluminium but it has road specific tyres and he’s not attached panniers. I fancy my steel bike to be more congruous still, and that I’ve spent much of time stuck in the middle implies that this could very well be the case. We resolve to try to stick together for a while. Maybe we can start to help each other out?
It’s also decided that we’ll reconvene at the top of Ditchling Beacon no matter how the next “stage” pans out. I’ve come around to the idea of this two-stop strategy, not so much because I like it but as a result of wanting to establish a rough general classification. For this to work we need to follow the same schedule, which means beginning the descent into Brighton as one.
Turners Hill debriefing
Team Carlos-Weltschmerz climb back upon their bikes and within about a mile they’re spread out again, along the same lines as before. I suppose if one’s riding a Condor Squadra or a Specialized Roubaix it must be hard to resist the temptation to see what it can do.
And then, somewhere on the approach into Ardingly, just 4 miles on from Turners Hill, I pass Wenborn and Mommersteeg fiddling at the side of the road. It doesn’t look like a puncture is the problem because they appear to be playing with something in and around the pedal area of Wenborn’s Roubaix. This is on a slight descent and I’m travelling along the opposite side of the road, making good time. I would like to stop and help but can’t fathom how to safely go about it. It occurs to me that Stage 2 must be a High Mountain Stage, so whoever’s first up Ditchling Beacon would have to be King of the Mountains. Like Javier Chacón sensing his opportunity, I decide to move up gear – literally and figuratively – and see if I can put a bit of distance between me and the rest of the bunch. I do not expect my breakaway to succeed.
A group of riders in full British Airways regalia are vexing me. They look serious and they sound serious. It appears they’ve made it their mission to take every descent as recklessly fast as they possibly can, aggressively overtaking down the right hand side of the road. Then, when the course starts to straighten out, they slacken off, contradicting a physical mien that leads me to believe that they could push harder if they so desired. This is frustrating because after overtaking them on the flats I’ve then got to repeatedly deal with their blustering antics whenever the road decides to take another tumble.
The next nine miles are all whirlwind, heat and flash. I pass through Lindfield and Haywards Heath, and still no sign of either Wenborn or Mommersteeg; the Roubaix or the Squadra. I’m riding “full gas” (I’ve been dying to write that), taking on liquids regularly, and I look to have freed myself from the British Airways mob. I feel champion. For a few miles I make it my mission to follow in the path of an androgynous figure speeding along on a Charge Plug fixed-gear bicycle. When the road slings upwards, and my gears give me the edge, I find someone else to hang to. I’m not looking for any assistance – just incentives to drive me continually forward, like Javier Chacón.
It’s on exiting Haywards Heath – or soon after – and riding up Fox Hill/Lunce Hill, that one catches the first glimpse of The Beacon. It’s an intimidating presence, although still some way off: about four miles. It looks so sheer one cannot comprehend cycling up it. I start easing up in preparation, although I’m very conscious of the possibility that Wenborn or Mommersteeg, or both, may not be far behind.
Through Wivelsfield and the nearer I get the harder it is to see how close The Beacon really is, for it is now obscured by trees and buildings. Passing through Ditchling itself, and then along Beacon Road, I’m incapable of discerning the precise moment the climb is supposed to kick in. And then Ditchling Bostall – the road that ascends the beacon – is suddenly there. So abrupt is its emergence that it takes me a few moments to decide it is what it really is.
What I fear most is the presence of other cyclists, and particularly those who will struggle to stay true. If I come off my bike I know I won’t be able to get back on, for the road is too steep and congested to allow for it. It is a serpentine trail, which is probably a good thing for it obscures its length and therefore its potential duration. A swerve to the right, a sharp swing to the left, and general windingness thereafter. My cadence is steady and I’m happy with how the Romani is responding. A tortured woman almost veers into me and apologises profusely, but I manage to hold my course. The profusion of her confession means I don’t hate her for it.
I pass a sign informing me that I have 800 metres to go and cannot decide if this is a good thing or bad. When I reach the next sign and it tells me that there’s still another 400 metres remaining I conclude that it was probably bad.
A man is pushing his bike up on the right side of the road, which is forbidden, or at least audibly discouraged via the medium of megaphones. It’s a terrible effort to circumnavigate this dozy article, and I have just enough breath spare to make him aware of this. He offers nothing in reply, which means I absolutely loath him for it.
Sat out of the saddle, I reach the top and pull into the maelstrom foaming at the side of the road. Approximately 1 minute later, so does Wenborn. I AM KING OF THE MOUNTAINS, but wouldn’t be had Wenborn not suffered unspecified technical difficulties on the run into Ardingly.
A few more minutes elapse and then Mommersteeg emerges. The three of us have made it up Ditchling Beacon without dismounting. Another 5 minutes and Gowland shows his face, and Evans (S) soon after. They had to alight about halfway up, and there’s no shame in that.
Points Classification after Stage 2
Mommersteeg: 30 + 15 = 45
Wenborn: 25 + 17 = 42
Evans (J): 22 + 20 = 42
Evans (S): 19 + 11 = 30
Gowland: 17 + 13 = 30
The weather, which on Friday had been forecast in a very negative light, but by Saturday had been revised to say it would be largely rainless, has very much behaved itself today: light winds, overcast but dry, approximately 15°C. Now, though, the wind and the rain have tuned up unannounced, and our sojourn atop Ditchling Beacon is but a brief one. Plans to approach the final descent with my jersey on display – for I’ve been wearing my Mavic technical jacket all the way – are abandoned. What’s more, this act of meteorological sabotage decimates the efficacy of my brakes. The flat ride over the top of Ditchling Beacon is not as aggressive as it could, or should, be, and I spend much of it riding at the back of the group alongside Evans (S) and Gowland. Wenborn and Mommersteeg repeat their disappearing act and form yet another breakaway.
My brakes have recovered their purchase in time for the descent down Coldean Lane, but the standing water discourages me from freewheeling down this monstrously steep declivity.
Along the A270/Lewes Road, and the terrain has levelled out. I pedal accordingly. I have since overtaken Evans (S) and make it my mission to finish before, or with, Gowland. I pass as many people as I possibly can and nobody gets past me. By the time Lewes Road has morphed into Richmond Terrace and reached Grand Parade, we’ve all been siphoned into designated bike lanes, demarked by railings and regulated by traffic lights. There’ll be no sprint finish here.
Actually, as Madeira Drive widens, there’s just enough time for a final turn of speed, and I’ve plenty left in the proverbial tank. I collect my “medal”, find the Carlos-Weltschmerz support team of one, wander about looking for the rest, and then remember that we’d agreed to reconvene at the Concordia, where will I find my fellow riders in the process of acquiring celebratory alcoholic beverages.
The final flourish into Brighton has been more akin to an intermediate sprint or a time trial (this is all relative), which leaves the Points Classification as thus:
Points Classification after Stage 3 – Final Classification
Mommersteeg: 45 +17 = 62
Wenborn: 42 + 20 = 62
Evans (J): 42 +15 = 57
Gowland: 30 + 13 = 43
Evans (S): 30 + 11 = 41
Turns out I overtook Gowland somewhere along the A270 without even realising it.
In terms of General Classification, we deduce that Wenborn must have recorded the fastest time. With regard to the Points Classification, it’s a draw between the breakaway boys. As for who’s King of the Mountains there was only one ‘mountain’ (don’t laugh: Ditchling Beacon is as steep as Mount Ventoux, albeit a tenth of the distance) and I was first up that – thanks to Wenborn’s technical hitch – so that will be me. But there’s only room for one winner in the five-man Carlos-Weltschmerz, and on balance that has to be Mr Wenborn. Well done, Mr Wenborn – here’s your bottle of champagne, a furry ape holding a banana, and some bizarre ceramic ornament, collectively worth a little over £10.
We then proceed to get quite drunk.
Wenborn receives accolades