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Posted on 14 October 2016
in Stories

How to ride a Brompton hard and fast for 100 miles

Nick’s Brompton Prudential RideLondon 100 Challenge, Job Done!

 31st July 2016

The build up

The last few years I have consistently failed to get a place on Ride London via the ballot, so I’ve always gone down the charity route raising money for WaterAid. Raising money to do an activity that you really like sometimes grates with potential donors. My uncle Malcolm said a couple of years ago it could be impressive if I did it on a Brompton, my mate Daz just wanted me to suffer in any way in order to feel comfortable in donating money.  The seed was sown.  So having done it pretty quickly in 2014 and 2015, and to some extent been put off doing it quickly by the pace and twitchiness of the early novice peletons I decided I’d ride it hard this year. Do it on my Brompton!

My cycling background

About my cycling, I don’t ride a huge amount but do reasonably well in some sportives, though did dismally badly in the UCI Amateur World Championships in Denmark last September, which I and a large number of other British riders enjoyed thanks to relatively easy qualification in the Tour of Cambridge. A few months ago riding the Velothon Welsh sportive I found myself shamefully walking up a Caepehilly Hill due to cramps, trying desperately not to let the photographers see my rider number, sadly failed much to my cycling buddies amusement, I expect that photo to be on a Christmas card cover. So I’m not a strong club rider, but I do like to put the hammer down when I can, and have scalped a reasonable number of Strava KOMs, though typically canal side. In that great leveler of cyclist strength, Richmond Park, I rank just over top 10% for most sizeable segments/lap timings. The above is probably gobbledygook to many people but many cyclists reading it will now be able to gauge my level.

The training

The problem is I’m a little competitive, so I couldn’t just do it on a Brompton. I needed to try and get a time I’d be proud of.  So ambling round the course in eight hours was never going to happen. Having generally only ever ridden the Brommy for short hops and the odd lazy tow path meander, I needed to train and tweek my wee wheeled black beauty. To get familiar with what it would be like to get fast and furious over longer distances, building up to the big day.

Step one ride round Richmond Park, clockwise and anticlockwise, and home, about 40

km, with the Brompton as standard. It wasn’t very quick and it was hard work averaged 23.7 km/h and the next day core and shoulder really felt it from the different bike position.

Based on this and comparing my road bike Richmond Park times I could see it was going to be approximately 20% harder on a Brommy. Using this information I registered my estimated ride time for the RideLondon to be 6 hrs 30mins.  All riders have to do this so the 26,000 participants can be set off in waves of those with similar abilities.  I thought I could be quicker but didn’t want to start too early and have all the fast guys fly away, or worse find in their way like slow moving road furniture, I thought starting later I’d have riders to draft who weren’t too fast to hang onto. I regret this now, more about that later…

So seeing how hard it was I started to make adjustments, and train more, improve my Brompton gear managing skills. Slowly but surely these changes and time in the saddle brought about significant gains culminating in times and speeds that many roadies would be happy with, not hardened club riders, but committed hobby riders (if there is such a thing).

The bike performance tweaks

  1. 1. Switched to MTB pedals (well cheap Decathlon ones anyway) with cleats so I could lock my feet in.  Speeds edged up a few km/h.
  2. 2. Kojak tyres running at 100 psi, another few km/h added.
  3. 3 .Seat mounted twin carbon water bottle holder and cages.
  4. 4. Finally the switching of the rubber suspension bung for a stiff Titanium spring, to stop losing power on the well known Brommy bounce factor.

Due to family commitments my training was mainly revolving around riding it once a week on the 50km commute from Reading to Ealing, and the odd Richmond Park venture and then a few weeks before the Pru100 a longer 88 km loop to check out Box Hill.

The Box Hill trip was not planned, I was about to go and lap Richmond Park, cruising along Syon Park at 18/19 mp/h past a group of roadies who caught me when I stopped at the lights, I heard one moaning to his mate grumpy at being dropped by a Brommy, that I’d not be able to keep it up for any distance. So I carried on to Bushy Park, Cobham, Box Hill, clock Box Hill zig zags in 8 mins 13 seconds, which seems a respectable time for some one roadies, no names mentioned here. Hit 50 miles solo in 3 hours, and was passed only by one rider in a black skin suit doing Box Hill repeats. At this point I realised the 100 mile Pru challenge was looking good.

I was also riding my Gravel and Road bike for another 100km ish during most weeks. But in specific Brompton training I clocked up 518km on it in 10 training rides from May.

For the first 20 km or so of each Brompton commute I’d employed my lead out man Andy to help me get used to drafting at reasonable speeds. This working in a pair, him on his single speed and me on the 6 speed tweaked Brommy worked well, the benefits of drafting being large, if not larger than when on a road bike, as on the Brommy you can get lower, and you are already lower, the bottom bracket sit low. You need to be very careful you are upright when pedalling, as banking on a corner there is very little clearance and scraping a pedal like a TT biker but less cooly is a reality.  Working in a pair also helped me see how significant a good gear change is. The Brommy has 6 gears, 2 on the left hand which switch between 13 and 16  toothed sprockets on the back. The right hand controls the 3 speed Sturmey hub gear. You need to alternate between the two carefully to work through the gears. Get it wrong and you drop 2 gears lower in one move, and the drop off in tension on the hub gear finds you almost going backwards, as the bike weight about 12kg. Practice makes perfect though, well almost, still have the odd gear change glitch, but not often.  Oh and that weight, oh boy does it help on the downhills.  Being a Brompton the 16 inch wheels and geometry naturally make it a bit twitchy.  Take a hand off the bar and you better have the other arm crooked and strong or you could be going face first into the tarmac. The arm crooking takes some of the bounce more naturally, and is also vital with both arms on a fast descent, you have to use a fair amount of upper body strength to stabilize the beast. But do that and only maneuver with small micro weight shifts and you can descent like Nibali, much to the chagrin of many race bike riders. But practice first.

Windsor Great Park

Finally as we shifted into July average speeds for 50km rides went over 30km/h. Before culminating in 32 km/h for the Pru ride, with a 75% Quartile speed of 36 km/h. The chart below shows the weekly progression, with a minor blip in speed due to riding in busy old London.

The sponsorship

The lure of suffering did open the wallets and wagers as I’d hoped. WaterAid require at least £550, however, for the suffering I wanted to raise more than I’ve raised before, and set a target of £2000. The day after the race I breached it. £2,183.01 (plus £342.14 Gift Aid) on 5th August and still some funds are rolling in. It has taken a fair amount of pestering but many friends and even acquaintances I hardly know have been so generous, many donations over £30, quite a few £50s and even one £400. Hey if you fancy it and the link still works feel free to donate or donate again (link).

The race

The sprint finish on the Mall.

The meat in this story.

My 6hr 30min estimate strategy put me in starting in pen H at 7:59 from Olympic Park. So civilised in comparison to the previous years start times of 6:12 etc.  I was even able to lie in until 5:30am and get a train from Acton to Stratford before ambling to my pen in a very laid back manner. Luxury, ask anyone starting at 6:00am how hellish that option is.

The looks and comments as you can imagine started early, I suspect most thought I was mad, and others expecting I’d fade off to the side of the road and die come Richmond Park.  I met many nice folk too, wishing me luck. After an age we finally got shuffled off to the start, and rolled off.  Very odd in comparison to the fast riders start, folk rolled away at a nice pedestrian pace. I managed about half a km before I’d tired of that and started weaving up through the other starters.  “There he goes” one shouted.

Then on the first underpass someone shouted “hole” and a second later pop went one of my water bottles. Luckily folk were not going quickly and it didn’t fell a 48km/h peloton. My carbon water cage option was proving useless, I’d lost a bottle without realising on a practice ride, and so had my remaining bottle inner tube tied in, expecting failure.  I thought about recovering it, but realised I needed to crack on and solve this later, who needs water when riding for WaterAid.

Shortly after this finally a small train came through six riders with Red shirts and a decent pace, a Woking Cycle Club train. I jumped straight on that train, and we fired our way up the field. We managed Tower Hill to Richmond Park in half an hour averaging 38 km/h. Got to Richmond park before 9:00am and having lost half my water I made use of the Water station, and let the Woking CC fellas press on without my shadow.

My domestiques were waiting near the Kingston Gate as a good place to meet after the early mayhem, and near family cheering points. However, expecting three I found one (Plod), a strong one, but alone not strong enough.  Two were missing. Being clever and using the iPhone tracker app that did not take account of my water break they thought I’d snuck past and so they were chasing my faster ghost.  I pulled over and called them to find they’d got to Hampton Court bridge trying to catch me. Sadly Jose at a thankfully slow speed had a fatal mechanical, stem snapped on a pothole. Luckily Guy was within ear shot still and I was finally able to get my team together with an unexpected extra, Gary.

Then it was time knuckle down and crank out the miles. The Brommy was good at 38km/h, but 40km/h the pace Gary and Guy were sitting at was burning my oil too quick, a few shouts and an understanding began. We kept this pace flying past other participants by the hundreds, keeping it just under 40 km/h till we ground to a halt due to a horrific accident near Ripley which required an air ambulance.  Sadly a rider went down very hard on a corner, I understand losing a lot of his face on the fall.  No idea what happened there. Though I do know there were a lot of slow riders unfamiliar with the danger they created in distributing themselves all across the road, despite official guidelines on staying left. Guy did a good job of policing this as we made progress, like a sergeant major.  Frequently hearing the “it’s not a race” comment, which though true doesn’t really justify blocking the road unnecessarily forcing faster riders and chains to alter course and speed, which obviously raise the likelihood of collisions. Thankfully we had no incidents all day long.

I didn’t tell my team that I was thankful of the enforced rest. But my legs were starting to burn after 60km at a blistering rate for a Brompton. So took the opportunity to finish my water and fuel up. About an hour and twenty minutes later we rolled off, past a beautiful church/abbey at Ripley filing by the police cordon of the accident site. Gary had lost interest on hearing of another accident at Box Hill, so he took off solo and we were down to two.

Those starting later in RideLondon have been consistently hit by these stoppages in the last few years. I met a few riders who are losing interest having had one hour plus stoppages scuppering official time goals they’ve been training for.  I suspect though it was luxury starting late I would have been just fine starting at around 7:00am with those targeting 5 hour loops.  I was strong enough to hold 38-40km/h in the first dash to Richmond Park, so my original plans of relying on slower paced riders was erroneous.  It also meant Guy had virtually no respite as pretty much nothing came by us except on the hills and even then not many, so there was no drafting for Guy. Luckily he’s strong enough for that not to be a problem towing me.

Soon after the stoppage first lumps came along, the legs were reasonably fresh, so they came and went fine. However, Plod started falling back and as we descended Newlands I don’t think we saw him again. He’s not accustomed to riding in groups so wasn’t benefitting from Guy’s wheel, and so was in effect taking all the wind himself.

Descending Newlands was epic, though I understand not a pretty sight. Crouching and hovering my grimace over the bars with arms crooked and ready the 16 inch wheeled folder was hitting 63 km/h.

The hills started coming a bit more frequently.  On the flats and descents I was flying, but the hills were starting to take their toll as my legs started to bubble.  Nervous of terrible cramps I had in the Velothon I knew to not push harder when the tell tale signs came in. Guy kept my spirits up and I thanked each and everyone of my Bromptons low gears. The Granny gear option was a Godsend, letting me spin my legs without much downward pressure and progress up Leith Hill while watching and dodging several other riders cramping and falling in the middle of the road.

The comments also kept me going, though I heard from others who were within better earshot that there were a few grumpy ones too, hee hee. But in general most were supportive and appreciated my efforts.

Guy was feeding me water from his bottles.  Sometimes luring me to push harder to reach his out stretched hand, proper carrot and stick tactics.  We agreed not to stop for more hydration until the top of Box Hill. Almost pulled over in Westcott, but it looked way too busy.  On hitting Box Hill, I was at the same pace as most of the riders, but a snail’s pace compared with Guy’s usual.  He had the cracking idea of shooting up and filling the bottles while I used a more rack and pinion approach. Guy was like a bird released and smashed it up Box Hill, going three or four times the pace of the rest of the field who must have wondered what was going on, whether the pro race had started early and the first break had just ripped past.  As I summited he was good to go, non-stop Brompton mayhem with in flight refueling.  

Soon after the flats and descents kicked in as did our pace, though had to take a few downhills opting for purely aero performance resting the legs to preserve energy for the final 30 miles.

It was about here I had my favourite conversation, a rider caught me on an uphill, and said “I can’t believe 70 miles into a bike race I got dropped by a Brompton on a descent!”  I lapped that one up.  

The feeling that the end was reachable starts at this point. Oxshott hill and the Hill up towards Kingston came and went, Guy was waving his arms and invoking cheers from the plentiful crowds like a proper show man, all the while sitting in front of me at the pace I could stand.  I has a system of one bell ring for faster and two for slow.  I’d also frequently shout slowing as the inclines burdened significantly, took me a few days to get my voice back.  One fault though was I’d often flick the bell by accident when changing gears and have to shout quickly before Guy dropped me, “that was a mistake, do not speed up!”.  

I knew WaterAid supporters camp was on Wimbledon Hill, and this really helped me press on with sadly dwindling vigour.  I uncleated my pedals on the Hill approach rotating them to flat no SPD connection side, in pre-emptive preparation so that if I did cramp I wouldn’t roll over like an odd snail with a Brompton shell in front of the capacity Wimbledon Hill crowd.  The photo of me palm in air at the start of this story was taken then by the WaterAid photographer.  I look composed and ok, inside and either side of that split second my face was a full Voeckler grun (google it if unfamiliar - the Voekler gurn is legendary), tongue out massive effort.

Cresting Wimbledon Guy and I carried on towards Putney still weaving past the field. Until a familiar red set of Woking Cycle Club shirts trained by.  They must have had some mechanical, I hadn’t seen them since I stopped for Water on mile 23 in Richmond Park, I think they were as surprised to see me also.  Glided down into Putney on one of my favourite descents. We got a bit nervous on seeing running cars either side of the major South Circular traffic lights at the bottom of the hill. Thankfully they stayed put.  

We pounded out the last flat miles feeling the end beckoning us.  Guy spotted his wife, daughter and dogs who gave us a final cheer from the Embankment.  Finally into the home straight.  Time for the sprint finish, and job done!

The sprint finish on the Mall.

Can’t thank Guy aka ‘Wouter Poels’ enough. He topped off the training and tweaks with a 75 mile lead out to the Mall. Andy Wright also deserves special mention for training ride efforts.

My wife, Mum, son and brother were near the finish line, but for the third year in a row missed me, last 2 years I was too quick and this year seemingly no different, the tracker app actually showed me still riding after I’d finished, Guy had managed to coax a few extra km/h after we passed over the last tracker transmitter.

Official finishing time was 6 Hours and 24 minutes.

Studying Strava data I could diagnose that the forced stoppage cost me about one hour and twenty minutes, so I’m giving myself a riding time roughly 5 hours, averaging 32 km/h for the 100 miles, and 75% of the time sitting around 36.0 km/h.  Which by some dubious analysis of the finishers timings seems to put me about top 15% of all rider.  I’d dreamt of sub five and half hours. Now I’m thinking I could have gone a good sub five hours. Massively satisfied with the achievement, and money I raised for WaterAid.

To all those who sponsored me, thank you so much. I buried myself on that 100 mile route that Sunday late in July 2016, all cards on the table, and nailed it!

At the WaterAid reception

Once I found my family, got my heart rate down, thanked Guy again, it was off to the WaterAid hospitality at New Zealand House (Haymarket) for some much welcome sustenance and a very painful sports massage, which made me weep as she dug her thumbs deep in my calves. But the next day I felt great, the post ride massage is a life saver.

Hope you enjoyed my story! Well done if you made it to the end. Also if you sponsored me, have another Thanks!!

Nick Greenhalgh