Photos by Chris Auld
Words by Matthew Bailey
Prudential RideLondon, which yesterday reached twin climaxes in the form of the Surrey-London 100 sportive and the Classic one-day men's professional race, styles itself “the world’s greatest festival of cycling”. And with 100,000 participants in a huge range of bicycle-related events over three days in the heart of one of the world's great cities, it's hard to disagree.
The model of holding professional races and mass participation events on the same course at the same time is certainly not new – 40,000 runners take part in the London Marathon, only a handful of whom count as “elite” athletes, and Ironman triathlon has always worked in the same way, with the sport’s world championships in Kona involving a couple of thousand mixed-ability “age groupers” alongside barely a hundred professionals. But it remains a novelty in cycling.
True, the first Étape du Tour, in which amateur cyclists ride a stage of the Tour de France, was held as long ago as 1993, and last year’s event attracted 15,000 participants. Several one-day classics, including Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders, offer sportives run over their official course while it is closed to traffic. But in all these cases the amateurs ride on a rest day, or the day before the professionals – not on the day of the big event.
This feature of Prudential RideLondon is clearly a huge attraction. Almost 30,000 riders took on Sunday’s London-Surrey 100, held over the same course as the men’s elite road race. 3,500 more, mostly young people and children, took on the shorter Prudential RideLondon-Surrey 46.
However, the simultaneous participation of elite and amateur cyclists on its final day is far from being the only remarkable thing about Prudential RideLondon. In fact, there are so many remarkable things about the whole event that each individual highlight risks being lost in the torrent.
- The elite women’s event, the Prudential RideLondon Classique, took the form of a city centre crit over 80km. This year, for the first time, it was rated a UCI Women’s WorldTour event – the highest level of the women’s sport.
- The prize money on offer for the Classique was both the highest ever offered for a women’s event and matched that available to the men
- This equality of prize money is rendered all the more remarkable by the fact that the RideLondon Classic is also the world’s richest one-day men’s race.
- Almost 70,000 people took part in Saturday’s Prudential RideLondon FreeCycle, a gentle family-friendly ride held over ten miles of closed roads in the centre of London, passing numerous world-famous landmarks, from Buckingham Palace to Trafalgar Square.
- Alongside the actual cycling the event offered a huge variety of live, free, and extremely well-attended bicycle-themed entertainment – music, shows, demonstrations, workshops – spread over seven “Festival Zones” around the capital.
- Events at the Lee Valley VeloPark (in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park) included handcycle & BMX races and performances by legendary stunt rider Danny MacAskill.
Prudential RideLondon is organised by the London & Surrey Cycling Partnership, a joint venture between SweetSpot Group and London Marathon Events Ltd. SweetSpot has rapidly become the UK’s most dynamic and creative organiser of road cycling events, being responsible for not only RideLondon but also the Tour of Britain, the immensely successful Aviva Women’s Tour and the Pearl Izumi Tour Series of city-centre criterium races. The public’s appetite for road cycling events is clearly undiminished since the 2014 Yorkshire Grand Départ of the Tour de France, and before that, the 2012 Olympics – of whose legacy Prudential RideLondon is surely the most enduring and successful element.
And, as noted above, the influence of the London Marathon on this massive, participation-led urban event is obvious. That said, it might have been wise to do as both marathons and Ironman triathlons do, and send the fastest participants off first, rather than last: crashes among sportive riders held the men’s race up for around half an hour during its early stages.
Apart from this issue (and the perennial problem of overly-officious officiating – just seconds before the men’s peloton hit the home straight on The Mall a steward was seen to insist that one photographer on the finish line change from a blue bib into a red one) the event was a tremendous success. Indeed, so quickly and easily has it grown into a summer fixture in the capital (a city which offers the visitor many competing attractions, sporting and otherwise) that one cannot help but wonder whether the model could be extended to other new events.
Or perhaps even old ones. Certainly the organisers of some of continental Europe’s high-profile but marginally sustainable one-day races must look at the success of London’s upstart event with some envy.
What is more, Prudential RideLondon demonstrated the huge and growing demand for mass-participation events in cycling in the UK – and not just from the riders. Spectators lined the course through Surrey and back into London, cheering on struggling occasional riders alongside both the professionals and the numerous non-cycling celebrities who took to the course.
There may be some who sneer at the participation element, associated as it is with “New Cycling”, and, in particular, the inability of participants to ride safely in a group. But an event on this scale, which not only raises the profile of cycling in such a positive way, but taps into and evidences huge public goodwill and support for the sport, can only be a good thing. At the very least, these positive images should be called to mind next time there are reports of widespread public hostility to cycling and cyclists.
Despite the scale of both the wider event and the financial rewards on offer, the men’s race was rated a lowly Category 1.HC on the UCI Europe Tour. This meant that, while it attracted seven UCI WorldTour teams and nine UCI Pro Continental teams, there was also room for seven UCI Continental Teams, most of them (unsurprisingly) British, and a team from British Cycling.
Among the WorldTour stars on display were Tour de France winner Chris Froome and Team Sky team mates Geraint Thomas and Ian Stannard, plus Michael Matthews of Orica-Bike Exchange, Mark Renshaw of Team Dimension Data, and Alex Dowsett of Movistar (though riding here for the British Cycling team).
Conquista star blogger Mark McNally of Team Wanty-Groupe Gobert put in a sterling appearance, finishing tenth, and our Tour de France microblogger Dan McLay of Fortuneo – Vital Concept rode for the British Cycling team alongside Dowsett.
In a breathless finish, he race was won by Etixx-Quickstep’s Tom Boonen after the peloton caught lone breakaway Geraint Thomas just in time to set up a bunch sprint on the Mall. Renshaw and Matthews filled the other podium places.
Photographer Chris Auld was on hand to capture the anticipation before the start and the excitement at the finish, exclusively for Conquista.
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