I first heard of the ride from my children's school to Bruges over a couple of quiet beers with some of the dads from school. As a regular participant of many Sportives, the 100mile Ride London event and having also completed a ride from London to Paris over 3 days this multi-day ride certainly appealed to me, plus it was a great chance to raise money for the school in the process.
After moving to London from Singapore in 2012, I became a regular cycle commuter to the office and, as I, fortunately, live close to Richmond Park and the glorious hills of Surrey, I am never far from my bike, a late model BMC team Machine. So you can imagine my dismay two weeks before the event when after a routine service I noticed a nasty crack in the seat post on my carbon frame. A great excuse for a new bike you may say and although I totally agree, I didn’t really have the time or the resources to do the research on a new steed and get it delivered prior to my ride to Bruges.
Fortunately, a mate of mine Charlie who lives in Abu Dhabi had used the Livelo service both in London and Brisbane and could not speak more highly of the operation. So with a little searching and some probing questions from the feedback page on the https://www.livelo.com.au/ site, I was duly impressed when my query was answered straight away by Peter the owner and founder at about 1:30 am Sydney time. With this sort of customer service and being an Aussie myself, I knew I was onto a winner.
Within a few days of my ride to Bruges, the boys from Livelo delivered a new Cannondale Evo 6 to my office complete with well-equipped saddle bag with spares/multi-tool and CO2 canisters. My concerns re the set up were minimal as I had taken the time to provide my seat height, reach and bar drop so I was all set to go. After a few laps of Richmond Park, I was duly impressed and was looking forward to my trip from London to Bruges.
The one thing most of us were worried about when we signed up in cold and wet March was the weather, however little did we know that that would be the last of our problems as we rolled out of East Sheen in South West London at 9 am as the continued Aussie Summer greeted our morning with sunny clear skies.
The biggest debate we were all having was the start time. There is no doubt the Day one ride to Dover was a massive ride in itself, over 100 miles and over a 2000 meters of climbing and with the pressure of getting on a 6:30pm Ferry there were a few furrowed brows from the organisers when the group was adamant we wanted to do a Grand Depart from Sheen Mount school to ensure all the kids, parents and friends were able to wave off loved ones who had trained tirelessly for the last few months for this very day. To say the Grand Depart was worth it would be an understatement, with the backdrop of some pretty tough times for our little old school this was one event that put lots of smiles on faces and dare I say it, a few tears in the eyes as we did a lap of the school high fiving all the kids, parents teachers and support staff as we rolled out to Richmond Park.
Once we arrived in Richmond Park the realisation set in on what lay ahead. As we were a group of 30 it was far safer and far better experience if we split into 4 different speed groups all supported by two ride captains from the Bicycle Moaning Collective, a cycling club supporting our ride with experienced ride captains, vans, mechanics and plenty of food and drinks. Any thought I had of heading out in Group 1 ( Ave Speed 30km/hr) were soon dissipated when I saw who rolled into the group, a mix of seasoned cyclists, ex-pros and triathletes all on 7kg bikes that were aiming to smash the record to Dover – they didn’t disappoint! I was quite happy to settle in group 2 with Ali, Cynthia, Donal, Cara, Alex and Christine a nice mix of a good pace with still the chance to take in the scenery and not be focussed on holding the wheel in front of you aka group 1. We set off on a brisk pace through Kingston and Wimbledon.
As the groups were still finding their rhythm we were still riding as a bigger group so to keep drivers happy and cyclists safe I played traffic cop at a few intersections to let all the cyclists through, so they could stay together. This was all going swimmingly until I got stuck in no-man's land between group 3 and behind group 2. I could see them in the distance so I thought all would be fine as I knew they would be caught at lights however just past Wimbledon I lost them. So, 10km into a 160k ride I had followed my nose, made some incorrect assumptions about the route and found myself lost. As I was in Wimbledon and the tennis was on, the thought of settling in with a cheeky Pimm’s and Lemonade did cross my mind but after a quick phone call and the group's location sent via maps on WhatsApp I was off in hot pursuit. As I didn’t have GPS on my bike computer I had to stop every few km to check where the group was and happily after about 20km I could see the bright yellow and green jerseys up ahead - I was quite relieved as the thought of riding solo to Dover filled me with dread.
The group I had caught up with was Group 4 and to be honest it was this group that embodied the spirit of this ride as most of the group were either brand new to cycling or had not had the opportunity to do some really long training rides so I was quite happy to lend a hand of encouragement as we rolled through the gorgeous English countryside of Surrey and Sussex. We rolled through the picturesque Pilgrims Way in Surrey, a gorgeous single lane track with amazing views south. Our first stop was at 55km and we could already feel the pressure of not stopping for too long in order to make our next check-in point and the 6:30 ferry.
We were all in good spirits and the group was going well – that said the day was getting hotter and we were now on some pretty nasty main roads to ensure we got there as quickly as possible. The group was also supported by Richard, a hardened ex-triathlete and seasoned cyclist who was supporting and riding with his mate Alex in group 4. With the blessing of the Ride Captain and the group, we made the executive decision to hot foot it up the road to catch Group 3 by lunch to ensure we got to Dover in time. Richard and I were also fortunate enough to have Natalie with us as we time trialled for about 35km to reach the lunch venue. Full credit to Natalie here as we learned later that she had only taken up cycling in April and here she was 3 months later comfortably sitting on 33km/hr while slipstreaming Richard and I - Chapeau to her!!
We reached the lunch venue in the picturesque village of Charing as Group 3 were just getting ready to tackle the final 40km push to Dover. A decision had to be made, do we wait for Group 4 and have a proper rest of do we have a quick sambo, a drink and jump in the bigger group 3. We decided to roll with the bigger group and to be honest it was great decision as the effort to ride in a bigger group is much less and we were greeted to some amazing views in the county of Kent as we rolled towards Dover, that said two massive hills and a puncture nearly broke me but the sight of those famous white cliffs and the Ocean was enough to erase any pain in my legs. The smiles and jubilation on everyone’s faces were amazing as the realisation had set in that everyone had achieved the Day 1 goals of getting to Dover safe and sound and on time!!!
Over a couple of quiet beers and dinner on the ferry, there were plenty of war stories shared from the road of near misses, horrible hills and for some in Group 1 setting a near-record pace to get to Dover. Fortunately, our support crew had a masseuse on hand to soothe any sore muscles in readiness for day 2 in France. Once we arrived in Calais a quick 3km ride to the hotel gave us enough time to find our rooms and have another couple of celebratory beers as we were briefed for the day ahead.
The arrival of day 2 came a lot quicker than a lot of people wanted as some weary bodies stumbled to the breakfast bar to fuel up in readiness for our push to Bruges. Fortunately, the day again was gorgeous and we all rolled out promptly at 8 am (the loss of an hour let me tell you was a killer). For me, this stretch in Northern France was one of the highlights of the ride. A group of us had formed a new group 1A so we cycling at a fair clip but the roads and the countryside were simply stunning, helped by the fact that drivers give cyclists so much more respect here. After a quick stop in Au Pub Mardyckois in Dunkirk for a coffee it had dawned on us that we were cycling on Bastille Day so every little town and village were preparing for their own ceremony to celebrate the day so in between these gorgeous little towns we passed through rolling wheat fields, sunflowers and grazing sheep and cattle. I must say that despite having 100 miles in the legs from Day 1 everyone was in great spirits as we nonchalantly chatted away covering off all manner of subjects. In doing so we hardly noticed we had ridden 66km and crossed the border in Belgium in the seaside resort of De Panne and we were ready for lunch.
It was clear we were getting closer to our destination as the Group 1 team who had been here for about an hour were already tucking into Aperol Spritzers. Our beachside lunch stop gave our group the opportunity to tuck into the local delicacy of Croque Meseur washed down by an Icy cold Coca-Cola - for us the beers could wait to Bruges. After about 40 minutes we were rallied to push on and my research had suggested that this next leg was not going to be easy as we would be cycling into quite a strong headwind as we headed up the coast. We said goodbye to the rolling countryside, smooth roads and minimal cars and we said hello to narrow cycle paths, why would tourists and high rise beachfront apartments. As were we cycling through some famous WW2 beaches I really thought the area would be protected from development. That said it was still spectacular as you envisaged young servicemen landing here almost over 70 years ago. When we re-grouped in Oostend I know a few of us were pretty glad to see the end of that leg as we also knew we were only 24km from our destination.
Emotions were running high as we all formed one big peloton and rode together on this final stretch - and what an amazing final stretch it was. We cycled along a gorgeous cycle path along the Bruges-Ostend Canal that took us all the way into the centre of historical Bruges. This leg was done at a leisurely pace and you could see that there was great camaraderie amongst this special group of people via all the laughter and banter that was going on between the group, war stories were shared, more rides were planned and thoughts were for those waiting for us either in Bruges or back at home in East Sheen. The site of Le Grand Place in Bruges was amazing, it was a brilliant sunny Saturday afternoon and the cheer squads greeted us with hugs and kisses. From the hugs and the high fives when we finished I am pretty sure there wasn’t a dry eye in the house as we all realised what we had achieved, not only a 300km ride to Bruge but also the fact we raised over £40,000 for the school. It was now that we welcomed some well-deserved Belgium beers!!!
A massive thanks to Peter and his team at Livelo. I can’t fault their product and customer service - nothing seemed to be an issue and you guys really helped me out of a bind when I thought my only option was to borrow a clunker from a mate of mine or ride my Fixie!
Matt Calabria - London - July 2018