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The start of the Brompton World Championships at St James's Park, London. Picture Prudential RideLondon
The start of the Brompton World Championships at St James's Park, London. Picture Prudential RideLondon

Strangest bike race in the world

You might think that bikes have no place in a motoring column but bear with me. Bicycles, particularly in an urban environment, are often the ideal way to get around. A bike journey can often replace a trip by car, reducing traffic and pollution and making a positive contribution towards fitness.

I’ve ended up owning a number of bikes, including the iconic Brompton folding bike, which is still hand-built in London. It gets its name because Andrew Ritchie, who invented it, could see the Brompton Oratory from his flat as he developed the first prototypes in the 70s. I use it around Ennis and when I’m picking up a test car in Dublin, it invariably gets chucked in the boot. I find it’s the easiest and fastest way around the city. I’ve even rocked up to car launches on it, which raised a few eyebrows initially.

Owning a Brompton is like joining a club and our equivalent of the All-Ireland final is the Brompton World Championship, which is held annually in London.
Over 500 riders take part each year. Some are professional riders fresh from the Tour de France. Well they’d be easily beaten after tiring themselves out riding around France. This year they were joined by a group of Irish Olympic athletes who would be extremely competitive. On the other hand, you had the chancers like me, who got our place in the race through a lottery.

The circuit this year was a 2km lap around St James’ Park, right at the gates of Buckingham Palace. Eight laps wasn’t a daunting prospect but the speed of the top competitors was. Last year’s winner averaged around 40km/h and by my reckoning, I might be lapped three times before the end.

The race runs like the Le Mans 24 hours. As soon as the winner crosses the finish line, everyone else finishes their current lap and the race ends. The parallels continue with the start. Our Bromptons are lined up folded at the other side of the track and at the off, the riders run to their bikes, unfold them and take off like the clappers.

There’s a further complication – a strict dress code. Jackets, shirt and tie are required for the men although given that we’d be racing, shorts are allowed. But no lycra. That material of the devil is banned completely and rightly so.
If I had to wear a tie in a bike race, I decided to do it properly and have one hand-painted for me by a lovely lady I know in Covent Garden.

Racing drivers have a book of excuses to explain away less than optimal performance and I’m sure the same goes for professional bike riders. My excuses start with the fact that my Brompton is far from being the fastest configuration available. It lacks the expensive, lightweight titanium parts, the lowered handlebars and the racing tyres of the fastest Bromptons. My race preparation consisted of taking off anything I didn’t need, swapping my lovely, leather, Brooks saddle for something half the weight and slapping on a set of racing pedals. In all, I dropped around a kilo from the bike.

My biggest excuse though was a dodgy back that prevented me from doing much training in the weeks leading up to the event. The week after the race, I had an MRI scan which found a slipped disc. How’s that for an excuse?
It’s important to warm up before a race and I’m often guilty of not doing that sufficiently. On race day, there were a lot of cycling related events going on around London on account of the RideLondon festival and I used a Boris Bike to get around to a few of the events, getting my warm-up in at the same time.

With Will Butler-Adams at St Paul's Cathedral.
With Will Butler-Adams at St Paul’s Cathedral.

At St Paul’s Cathedral, the new electric Brompton was being introduced and I went along to give it a try, meeting Brompton MD, Will Butler-Adams in the process. I was interested in the new Brompton as I built a folding electric bike a few years ago. I was impressed by the light weight of the motor, but a bit underwhelmed by the battery solution which is identical to many e-bikes, including my own. The new bike was co-developed with Williams Grand Prix Engineering and I was expecting a bit more from it.

The race began later that evening and so did the rain, which was unrelenting, before, during and after. Despite the weather, everyone was in good form as we waited for the off. We were divided into groups so that the faster riders would get a head start, with other riders flagged off at intervals of 10 seconds. By the time my group got the nod, the race was 30 seconds old. I was slow getting away, so that’s something I’ll have to practice. I was all fingers and thumbs unfolding the bike so I lost a few more seconds but it wasn’t long before I was tearing down the road towards Buckingham Palace.

I had debated taking my mudguards off to save weight but given the amount of water on the road, I was glad I hadn’t given in to the temptation. I also didn’t pump my tyres to the last and the extra grip gave me a lot of confidence on the corners.

With 550 riders competing on a small track, at times it got quite crowded and on one tight corner in particular, there was often a traffic jam and we had to thread through carefully.

After a while I got into my rhythm, even though by lap two my back was killing me. I found my pace and stuck to it although if anyone passed me on the straight, I made sure to pass them again by the next corner. The leaders of course, flew past me in a tight group at a pace that I could never hope to emulate but there was nothing I could do about that.

I was counting my laps as I went along and there was supposed to be a bell to indicate the last lap. As far as I was concerned, I heard a bell on every lap so I was never quite sure at what stage we were at. Every time we came onto the main straight though, the roars of the crowd kept us going. Maintaining that level of enthusiasm while being drowned by rain takes some doing but the support was greatly appreciated.

Waiting for the start of the race in the rain.

All too soon, it was the last lap, just when I was really beginning to enjoy myself. As I came onto the finishing straight for the final time, I felt I could do the whole thing all over again.

In the end, I came 288th and was only lapped twice – not bad given the circumstances. I’ll be back again and with a bit of training, maybe I’ll only be lapped once.

I rounded off my London trip with a tour of the Brompton factory where we saw the frames being hand-brazed by skilled craftsmen and then assembled into finished bikes. The current factory was only opened last year and now incorporates a paint shop, bringing this process under one roof for the first time. Having seen the way they test components repeatedly and often to destruction, I have even more faith in my bike. Having seen the factory, even my wife, Shelly, is thinking seriously about getting her own Brompton.

I’m still a car nut, but there will always be room in my life for a decent bike or two.

About John Galvin

Motoring editor - The Clare Champion Former Chairman and voting member of Irish Motoring Writers' Association

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