A few months ago I wrote about my plans to cycle to Whitstable as part of Rapha’s ‘Womens 100’ event. The event wasn’t really an event though, more of an initiative. Actually it wasn’t even that – it was a day. But Rapha didn’t invent the day, or any day for that matter… But they did come up with the name – The Women’s 100 – and they did have a hashtag – #Womens100 – which makes it all very official in our digital age.
The concept behind the Women’s 100 event/initiative/day was to increase women’s visibility in cycling, a sport that remains dominated by men (did you see any women riding in the Tour de France? And have you ever compared the number of women’s categories to men’s in local cycling races?). Their plan was twofold: to make cycling more visible to women and to make women’s cycling more visible, simultaneously raising the profile of women’s involvement in the sport while also encouraging more women to get involved.
Rapha simply named a date and said, “Ladies, go forth and cycle 100km”.
And so we did.
To the fucking seaside.
This was my first ever attempt at planning a cycle ride and I honestly had no idea how it would pan out. I also had no idea who, if anyone, would want to come with me. But it turned out to be one of the most fun things I have ever done, so here is my guide to planning a long distance group cycle ride, D.I.Y-stylee…
1. Pick your distance and destination
The distance had already been decided by Rapha – 100km. But there were no prerequisites about where to go. I looked at a map and drew a 100km radius circle around central London to help me decide where would be fun to go. I’ve heard the London to Cambridge ride is nice, but hilly, and I worried that would put people off. I know the ride to Brighton is nice because I’ve done it, but so have loads of other people, so that didn’t seem special enough. We could have gone to Milton Keynes, but I’m pretty sure no one would have come with me…
And then I spied Whitstable, lying on the North Kentish coast. It reminded me of my youth spent watching Tipping the Velvet on BBC1 with the volume really low. Whitstable it is!
2. Find some friends with bikes
I could have cycled alone, but that’s no fun. The best part of a cycle ride is the compulsory cake sharing after all. So I set up a Facebook event, invited every lady cyclist I know and encouraged them to invite their friends too. The result? 9 lady cyclists on the day, only 4 of which I had met before. New cycling friends!
3. Test the route
The original plan was to follow the National Cycle Network Route 1 from Greenwich to Whitstable, which followed the Thames Tow Path East, along the River Darent into Dartford, onto Gravesend and straight into Whitstable. However I had heard from fellow cyclist, Anne, that this route was unrideable. We ventured out on a test ride in June to see if it had been resurfaced, but alas, it was worse than Anne had described. Kudos to her though, she did not say ‘I told you so’ once. Instead she patiently bumped along the gravel, potholed path behind me and offered to try another route the next week. You can read about that mishap here.
So I cheated. I googled: ‘cycle route London to Whitstable’ and the cycling Gods landed The Whitstable Winder in my lap.
I thought that ‘winder’ was an affectionate cycling term to refer to nice routes that wind along country lanes, and so I coaxed 3 friends into accompanying me on a test ride with the promise of a pleasant day cycling through the Kentish countryside.
It turns out that ‘winder’ is actually a cute cycling term for so hilly you will cry and your legs will never forgive you and I’m still rather surprised that these adventuring friends are still talking to me. But they are, because the route is so damn beautiful you almost – almost – forget how much it hurts. We followed the instructions I had written and stopped at junctions to take note of landmarks and mileage, all while the sun beat down on us and the countryside went up and down and up and down and up and up and up and down…
We ended up missing a turning on the route and spent about 20 miles on the A25 and the A20. It wasn’t too scenic, but it was far simpler than multiple B roads. I decided I would feel much safer guiding people along this road than meandering along unnamed paths and so the route was adjusted accordingly. The lesson? Testing out the cycle route is a must.
4. Do everything you can to avoid getting lost
Sometimes getting lost is fun. But if you’ve promised people a cycle ride to the seaside, you had better deliver. I was taking no chances. Despite the ride being fresh in my mind (too fresh perhaps…) I made route descriptors for everyone and, being unable to afford a new OS map (we used Dave’s massive road atlas the week before), I photocopied a couple of pages from a road atlas at my local library.
I took the idea for the route descriptors from the Southwark Cyclists, who produce similar sheets for the annual Dunwich Dyanmo ride. I simply created 4 tables on an A4 sheet that gave mile cues alongside the directions. This meant that the sheet could be folded small enough to fit in a jersey pocket for easy reference.
If everyone has a route sheet, at least one of us has a map, and I know that the route will eventually get to Whitstable, we are surely as prepared as prepared can be…
5. Be confident, signal clearly and have fun
My priority during this ride was to make sure that everyone riding had a good introduction to bicycle-based adventuring. This meant finding a pace that suited everyone, stopping regularly enough to keep everyone alive and happy, and making sure no one got lost. It was no mean feat, it was far from flawless and everyone had to help keep the group together, but we made it to the beach – and surely that means it was a success!
I made it clear at the start of the ride that we wouldn’t leave anyone behind, that we would be waiting at the top of the hills people struggled up, and that we would wait at every junction. The group inevitably spread out along the long country lanes as some rode faster over the undulations than others, but after a few hours everyone fell into their own rhythm and all I had to do was stop at tricky turnings to signal the group on and make sure everyone had clear instructions. It took a little while to get used to the role, but I kinda got the hang of it by the end.
We had a fantastic day out on the bikes. For many of the riders it was the longest journey they have ever ridden and they seemed to be buzzing from the achievement on the beach! And they obviously had fun, because we’re already planning our next adventure to Cambridge – those hills don’t scare us now!
Oh, and for those of you who don’t follow me on instagram, here are some pics from our day…