Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Ride London 100 isn't the new London Marathon

The Prudential Ride London 100 is often described as "the cycling equivalent of the London Marathon". So why isn't it?

If you have secured a charity place in the Prudential Ride London 100 this year, you will probably be trying to drum-up donations of up to £750. And you will almost certainly have met with the bemused enquiry: "Ride London 100? What's that?"

London taxi drivers have heard of it, as I learned to my cost last year: "I'm really excited. We're here for Ride London 100". Cue long rant about road closures and bloody cyclists. People in the London and Surrey communities through which the route passes, have heard of it. Cyclists have heard of it - some of them, at least.

Beyond that?

Nothing. Zilch. Nada.

If I worked for Prudential, I'd be asking serious questions about the bang we're getting for our buck.

Compare the media coverage for the London Marathon: normal programmes cancelled on Five Live to carry fabulous radio reports, hours of live streaming to television and extensive highlights. Acres of newsprint.

Ride London 100? You'll probably catch highlights of the pro race and a few seconds showing that "thousands of amateur cyclists also tackled the Olympic course."

So why hasn't Ride London 100 established itself in the public consciousness? Is it a function of the complex sentiment towards cycling and cyclists or is it something else? Is it, perhaps, due to the sport's continued vision of itself as advocate for professional cycling? We might celebrate record levels of public participation in cycling but...really...they aren't proper riders.

Here are some dead easy steps that the organisers could take to help ensure that Ride London 100 really does become "the cycling equivalent of the London Marathon."

1. Welcome the 'triers'. These are the people in your street or office. These are the riders pitting themselves against an extraordinary challenge, the people who will engage huge numbers of friends and colleagues in their journey.

You don't welcome triers by putting us at the back of the field and then telling us we've got to clear a series of checkpoints by a certain time or be taken off the course. That means that the slower riders actually have LESS time to complete the route.

Me? One of the final riders to set off in 2015 I had the checkpoint times sellotaped to the crossbar of my bike and stressed the whole way round. I got removed from the route at 91 miles "Because we have to clear it for the professional riders." I was heartbroken and friends who knew how hard I had trained, just felt that this was definitely not an event for them.

So send the professionals off first, as they do in a certain marathon. Then, because you want to get the roads open for traffic,  give slower riders an earlier start in the main field and tell them to keep left. It's not rocket science. You've got closed roads, with plenty of room to overtake and you can still open the route to traffic on schedule.

2. Tell the story. Forget Bradley. The country knows and loves him but most of them haven't bothered to watch him ride since 2012. Seek out the fundraisers, the fatties, the fancy-dressed and the frightened. Make the event come to life by putting these cyclists at the heart of your media work. Put their faces on the banners, chalk their names on the roads, start an I Ride platform online and share...share...share and retweet.

3. Talking of media work...for heaven's sake! This event should be a gift for any PR team worth its retainer. There are stories to tell. Help the media find a reason to love cycling and marvel at what ordinary people are capable of doing. Challenge some of those celebrity shape-shifters and DVD-dieters to Get On Your Bike. Give them a place and watch the national coverage follow. Think regionally - if you can push out profiles to regional news programmes and newspapers you'll create engagement far beyond the capital.

4.Remember - the only people interested in the professional riders are other cyclists. If the only footage streamed shows the pro race then you are never going to reach the people on the sofa.

How many couch potatoes start running the day after the London Marathon? Ride London 100 could inspire just as many newcomers to cycling. It just needs to look beyond the professionals and find all those people riding because they want to change lives and make the world a slightly better place. People like you?

2014. When Hurricane Bertha battered Ride London and it STILL didn't hit the front pages. (I made it to the finish line that year!)

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Cycling in Rajasthan

Having loved my trip to Kerala last year, it was but a hop, skip and a jump to turn my ‘once in a lifetime’ cycling adventure into a return trip. This time, though, I would go cycling in Rajasthan.
Now I should admit straight away, that I did very little research. I blithely assumed that it would probably be like cycling in Kerala but with added palaces.

On reflection, I wonder whether I am a little too old for such a devil may care approach to travel. But then again, perhaps, I’m too old to change.
Cycling in Rajasthan is nothing like pedalling through Kerala.

Kerala is lush, green and misty. As I rode last year, I caught beguiling scents of herbs and tea. Starkly different,  Rajasthan was arid, dusty, a sandy backdrop brightened with sharp splashes of colour from a jewel-coloured sari or extravagant turban. 

The scents I caught on the breeze in Rajasthan were not always as enticing: open sewers in remote villages, pollution in the towns and everywhere the smell of death; a pile of dead puppies by the roadside, a long-dead cow, decay that leaves a scent memory impossible to erase.  

Again, this year, I was the lone cyclist, joining a quartet of friends. Again, I was the slowest. I’ve stopped worrying about it. Short of putting an engine on my bike, I’m not going to get any quicker.  

Five of us pedalled along sandy tracks, past leopard-lurking rocky outcrops and through small, slumbering villages which sprang to life at our approach.

Clearly, we were a curiosity. 

Children tumbled out of schools to watch us pass. Villagers crushed around us when we stopped to refill our water bottles, open stares, shy giggles and the ubiquitous selfie. Many of those we met lived in homes without running water. Subsistence farmers, they lived off inhospitable land using farming techniques unchanged for centuries. 

Yet, still they had mobile phones, extended for photos.

Our trip started in Pichola and ended in Jodhpur. Between those towns we were very far from shops and restaurants, deep into rural Rajasthan. At the end of a day’s cycling we slept in desert tents, in a historic hunting lodge and even a Raja’s glamorous fort.

We had supper on a rooftop, high above the dark, star-reflecting waters of lake Pichola. We enjoyed dinner on the ramparts of Fort Bhadajun, where we were unexpectedly joined by the Raja and Rani. We were, somewhat to our embarrassment, enfolded into a village wedding; guests of honour at the head of the procession, ushered into the family home of the groom. Big, clumsy, consumed with a very British longing for invisibility.

Somewhere there is a wedding video showing a hundred wedding guests in brightly-coloured saris and five bemused Western cyclists, swept up in a traditional dance.

We were awoken by peacocks. Wild peacocks. I thought peacocks had been bred to look decorative around stately homes. It had never occurred to me that they lived rough. Those extravagant tails looked incongruous on the rocks – never more so than within leaping distance of a slyly-hunting leopard.

"Um, are the leopards dangerous?” I asked our guide. Apparently the week before, they had taken someone off a moped. Villagers are compensated for leopard losses. The community nearest the leopards we spotted, had electricity and street lighting. Make of that what you will…

Hardest to bear, for me, were the street dogs. Everywhere we went the dogs roamed, sad stray scavengers. Injured dogs healed, deformed, or died. One was run over and killed in front of us, an inattentive motorist having his attention drawn by the crowd of onlookers surrounding our refreshment break. He didn’t stop. Nobody mourned. A long way from my adored spaniels, I took myself to a hidden corner and sobbed hot, salty tears.

One afternoon, miles from the nearest habitation, we found a howling puppy in the middle of the road. Too young to leave its mother it was alone, hungry and blind. I couldn’t carry it home. Couldn’t help.

In other low points I was attacked by a monkey, spending a sleepless night regretting my decision not to go for the rabies jab. And I narrowly avoided being pushed, sideways, off my bike as a young girl made a mad dash into the road to touch me.

More seriously, it seemed, at one point, that we wouldn’t make it home. Our departure from Delhi coincided with violent civil unrest in the region. Twenty-two protesters were killed. The water supply to Delhi was cut off, railway stations closed, roads blocked. We made an anxious overnight journey by bus and arrived at the airport courtesy of our guide talking his way through a roadside checkpoint.

 “Are you alright?” the texts asked. “Are you coming home?” “Will you go to Wales next year?”

Perhaps they are right. Maybe it was an adventure too far? I've promised, next year, I'll go cycling in Wales. What could possibly go wrong?