After a brief lesson in how to unfold a Brompton bicycle, Oliver Pickup negotiates the crashes and carnage of the 2015 Brompton World Championships alongside pro racers such as David Millar
Wearing a tartan bow tie, a ruffled tuxedo shirt, a charcoal suit jacket, Superman socks and knee-length rusty shorts, I’m poised for action on The Mall with a clear road to Buckingham Palace.
My competition stands alongside me in similarly natty attire. There is a ninja, Napoleon, a wig-wearing high-court judge, and hundreds of other folk in mirth-inducing costumes, including a couple of brides (one female, the other a rather alarmingly craggy-faced, hairy-legged male). Harris Tweed is everywhere – which is not ideal, considering the fire-up-the-barbecue conditions.I see a rider hit the road with a thump, remaining motionless as others take emergency evasive action.Oliver Pickup
Oh, and in addition, way ahead of me in ‘Wave A’ (I’m in ‘D’), there is a raft of athletes with serious peddle power, such as Tour de France stalwart David Millar, who only retired last year. They are also bedecked, cap-à-pie, in fancy dress (after all, there is a no-Lycra rule and celebrity stylist William Gilchrist has been asked to select and reward the most sartorially impressive).
We 500 or so, pricked with nervous tension, are ready to take part in the Brompton World Championship. It’s a big one: the tenth, fittingly held in the 40th year since Andrew Ritchie, a Cambridge University-educated engineer, invented the prototype of the iconic folding bicycle.
And in this edition, for the first time, the wacky race makes up part of Prudential RideLondon, with elite women riders charging along the same route, a 2.15km circuit which loops around St James’s Park, shortly after the conclusion of our event.
Indeed, this is the quintessence of Britain at its incongruous, batty and bonkers best. That fact, in turn, seems to attract others; I spoke with Germans, Australians, Spaniards and Japanese who had come over in hordes especially to indulge in this Brompton bizarreness – and that was only within my helmet-swinging distance.
The start of the 17.2km race is marked by the dropped Union flag. We dash, elbows out, to our folded bikes; a start-line scene reminiscent of historic Le Mans races. After scuttling across to our vehicles, we have to unfold the contraptions, which is not easy, especially if you have not afforded yourself much time to practice. Ahem.
My pre-race practice had not gone to schedule. After jumping at the opportunity to participate in my first (and possibly last) world championship of any kind, courtesy of RideLondon sponsors Prudential, I’d been furnished with kit by Brompton, Le Col and Hoy Vulpine. Feeling content with my ‘progress’, I’d then done almost precisely zero physical preparation, instead relying on the briefest of morning practices with my bike to see me through (I got my ‘unfold time’ down from 30 seconds to 15 – still some way off the unofficial world record of 5.2 secs).
So, before heading out on to the track, I decide to seek guidance and tips from veterans.
Michael Hutchinson, winner of the World Championship in 2011, 2012 and 2013 tells me his average time to unfold the bike is “seven or eight seconds” and acknowledges that in a race which only lasts around 25 minutes, those marginal gains are even more important.
He should know, having come second to three-time Vuelta a España winner Roberto Heras when he first attempted the race, back in 2010. On that occasion, despite going “50mph on a downhill bit – pretty interesting on a Brompton”, he missed out by half a second. Afterwards, he even took out the lining in his green jacket, which he has worn for every one of these races, so as to become quicker (and less sweaty).
Last year, Belfast-born Hutchinson missed the Brompton World Championship because he was competing in the Commonwealth Games – he finished 12th in the individual time trial in Glasgow; not bad for a 40-year-old.
I ask what attracted him to the Brompton World Championship in the first place. “It’s hilarious,” he grins. “Have you seen it? I don’t even approach it as a serious bike race. I’m lucky enough to be a decent rider so I can get towards the sharp end. But it is really just a laugh. They are great wee bikes and it is great fun to get out and race them. It’s really just for the hell of it.”
And tips? “They are pretty simple to ride, the Bromptons. You can get fairly low, and aerodynamic on them. Today it will be staying out of trouble because there will be a lot of people on the circuit. Keeping your wits about you, not crashing in to anyone else and trying to avoid anyone coming in to you will be quite a lot of the mission.”
How apposite Hutchinson’s words of warning prove to be.
Having clicked and screwed my bike in place and wheeled away along the straight towards Her Majesty’s palace, I weave through the packed field, taking a left down Spur Road before a second straight, Birdcage Walk. Another left takes me around Horse Guards Road and one more brings the finish line back on The Mall – where the cheering crowds are five-rows deep – in view.
One lap down, seven more to go – although that’s not quite correct, as it’s a criterium event which means when the winner wins the race is over for everyone else, after their lap, thankfully.
The second time I swing on to Birdcage Walk I hear a shout from behind, something about the leaders. And sure enough a swarm – a topical word, but appropriate in this sense, given the menacing whirr of peddles – of riders, with noses to their handlebars and bums above their shoulders (I realise at this point my seat is far too low, but don’t want to stop to alter it lest I add vital seconds to my time) boom past, like a thunder clap, with Hutchinson’s green jacket flashing by.
It’s awesome, and frightening, and belittling. And it spooks an Italian rider 100 metres in front of me. I see her look behind her right shoulder at the advancing group, and lose control of her bike. It jackknives and she hits the road with a thump, remaining motionless as the riders take emergency evasive action. Not all come through unscathed.
Fun it may be, but at Hutchinson’s “sharp end” it is certainly competitive. I watch the peloton fly away – they lap me once more, on my fourth time around – and marvel at their efforts, as I pick off more modest targets.
Photo:Prudential / Jonathan Ord
After 30 minutes and 14 seconds, and six laps – two behind the winners – the chequered flag is waved for me, and it’s all over. My bum and thighs sting, my back is sweaty and my suit jacket sticky and damp. Later I discover my finishing position: 290th, out of 332, in the male category, and over a minute ahead of Brompton inventor Ritchie (aged 69). Let me write that again: I am the 290th best Brompton rider in the world, officially. Well, this year, at least.
I feel a great sense of pride and achievement, even buying a poster to commemorate the event. And it’s washed down by a complementary G&T. How bloody lovely.
Afterwards, I wander over to Hutchinson to see how he fared. “Out of the last corner I was where I wanted to be, I just didn’t have the legs for the sprint,” the Northern Irishman, who ended 12th in the standings, tells me, ruefully. “It was a big-bunch gallop, and I’ve never really been a sprinter.
“It was always going to come down to a sprint on this circuit. I attacked a couple of times but I am always going to be a marked rider in this race, so they chased me down.”
Millar, it seems, failed to burst out of the blocks quick enough; he ended 62nd. The winner was 2014 champion Mark Emsley, from Team ASL360, who successfully defended his title by a wheel-length, ahead of Yavor Mitev, of Brompton’s own Factory Racing Team, and Eduardo Gomes. The top 17 finished within four seconds of the victor.
Next year, with actual practice, cutting out the lining of my jacket and a sub-10 unfold, I reckon I can crack the top 150. Or perhaps I should just be happy with my tremendously fun experience; for certain, the Brompton World Championship is a one-off.
This article first appeared in The Telegraph in August 2015