What makes you want to dress up as if you are going to a wedding, mount a folding bicycle and then race around the streets of London, flat out for half an hour?
It wasn’t an unnatural swing toward eccentricity, nor was it the distant and unattainable call of glory. More that it looked like an absolute hoot. When I first came across a folding bike race at the London Nocturne in 2010, it was around Smithfield Market and looked hilarious. So I entered the ballot to win a place in the Brompton World Championships London Final, 2018 edition. The chance to race around St James’s Park in the heart of London, outside the palace, was just too good to turn down.
The Great British Knees Up
Brompton put on a great show. There was music, Thomas Dakin small batch gin, cheese toasties, beer and conviviality in abundance. Their well-recognised folding bike, with devotees dotted around the world, hosted an international audience for the London final of the Brompton World Championship, played out around St James’s Park with a sprint finish down The Mall.
For a British brand it felt fitting that the Corinthian spirit of taking part over and above winning was valued, and cripes, did people take part. The outfits ranged from elaborate, stylish, wacky and timeless. The bikes, from genuine well-used commuter workhorses, to custom builds, to race ready bikes with deep section carbon rims and eye-popping levels of lightweight, aerodynamic accessories were a great homage to an adored and valued bike that has evolved over 30 years into the much loved design classic it is today.
The race format
If bike racing wasn’t unforgiving enough, adding a LeMans style running start to assemble a folded bike was chaotic hilarity mixed with Krypton Factor type focus under pressure. Competitors line up along The Mall, opposite their folded Bromptons, waiting for the countdown, before rushing to their bike, assembling it and riding off with everything intact. Hopefully. There was a lot of chat on the starting straight; one guy had modified his Brompton with full Campagnolo componentry and drop bars, which ingeniously could be folded down using some cunning engineering nous. At great cost to his sleep the night before, by his account; whilst dressed in tweed and Oakleys, one guy hadn’t ridden his since he’d moved to London and made damn sure he was getting his excuses in early; one lady in head-to-toe pink; one guy dressed as a bolero bicyclist, with a moustache that would have made Antonio Banderas blush.
Soaking up the atmosphere, it felt like being a part of a huge, moving gang of well intentioned, adrenaline seeking eccentrics. London, in the sunshine, on one of the most recognised boulevards in the world gave the whole thing a vibrant, vintage festival feel. After taking such a beating on the world stage, it was heartening to see the capital hosting something fun, light-hearted and positive that included people from all over the world, celebrating a great British innovation. It had a bit of a 2012 feeling about it. Brexit and a polarised nation was temporarily forgotten.
Here goes nothing – the start
I’d ended up in the second wave of riders, starting 10 seconds after the first bunch of whippets. A lot of shaven legs and the wafting smell of embrocation hinted at the level of preparation employed by the elites. After spending weeks saying I was doing it for the craic, as the 5 second countdown began, I found myself taut with anticipation, ready to leg it over to the folded wee bike to furiously try and assemble it without catching any tie / beard / appendage in the act of unfolding. Making sure that with haste it was completely intact and I wasn’t going to fall on my tailored-trousered-arse.
*Tom Jones ‘Sex Bomb’ belts out over the tannoy* I want to laugh but fear missing the gun.
5… 4… 3… 2… 1… KLAXONNNNNNNNNNNNNNN!!!
ADRENALINE. Wasn’t expecting that. Bike unfolded. Not a bad assembly. Surprised. No time to pat myself on the back. Wave upon wave of formally attired chaps and dames were whizzing past as I tried to clip in to the pedals. Now, largely into the unknown. It was over 12 years since I’d raced in a group, and despite its jovial nature, this was deadly serious competition for the racers. For the next half an hour, I just wanted to stay upright and not get lapped. And try not to let my face kiss the quite attractive looking red Mall tarmac. The Corinthian spirit was fired right out of the window. DE-FEN-E-STRATE-ED. All the memories of race crashes from the past urged caution, and the fact that I wasn’t on a bike that was mine(!) meant I started sensibly. This helped, as it looked like the marshalls had left some barriers across the road in front of Buck Palace, which slowed the leaders and provided a bit of a nervous group laugh for the already ragged chasers.
Racing in front of the Royals
As the special collection of the capital’s roads flew by in a blaze of mottled sunlight through the trees and waving flags, Buckingham Palace, Horse Guards Parade, Admiralty Arch, groups formed of similarly paced riders, working together despite being complete strangers. This familiarity felt cosy, despite the pace, and although the body was a bit more battered and the mind a bit more hesitant than in the past, there was a strange comfort from the speed and the suffering. The exhilaration. Some shared glances that said ‘what are we doing, but hell, this is great craic’. Maybe especially true of the ladies and mens team from Ireland, the former who eventually won the ladies team prize. The green blazers were a sight going up and down The Mall. Chapeau to the shamrocks! At one point I saw one guy dressed as the EU getting away from a guy wearing a Union Jack jacket. I wasn’t ready for this level of allegorical significance so early on. I would have laughed but was too busy wheezing hard to muster a giggle.
I thought I’d be able to take in the sights a bit more, but most of the time was spent head down, drooling snot, breathing heavily, whilst tucked in behind the biggest wind defender of a lad that could be found, trying to stop the semi-buttoned blazer acting like a posh-parachute. Never before had a tie-pin been used to get more aerodynamic.
Some small experience racing as a youngster, and a hefty bit of reality born from sparse preparation told me I wasn’t going to get round the full 8 laps without keeping my head down and hoping the Gods of not-bouncing-along-the-ground-on-your-backside were looking down upon me. Favour was granted, mercifully enough, during a close encounter toward the end. See video clip for gratuitous crash footage. Here’s hoping the rider wasn’t too bashed up.
The brilliant folding Brompton
Now’s a good time to say a bit on the Brompton itself. When I first had a go on one, the initial feeling was of admiration at the stripped-back simplicity and practicality. Followed immediately by ‘this is twitchy AF’. And having a new found respect for pot-holes. Rock hard 16″ wheels give your crotch a more intimate relationship with London’s varied road surfaces than you would like. Overall, with time, and the advantage it gives you over the other rat-racers during a working week, you do feel like you’ve been let in on something special. After all, it is undeniably fun and rewarding. Something that allowed me to get to and from a stag do in London and back for the very race that evening in good time. That day the Brompton was practicality and pace combined. It demonstrated its attractiveness & necessity completely. That’s why I love it. I guess that’s why it’s got such an enthusiastic following of global fans.
After some time motoring around the course, handling it began to become more and more second-nature. Throwing it into corners couldn’t come round quick enough. For something with such small wheels, it was remarkably forgiving, especially after spending a good deal of time in the saddle. It seemed like there weren’t as many crashes as I’d thought, considering the mix of head-down flyers and plucky participants.
The final gallop
According to the commentator, the final lap was fast approaching and the thought that our small group wouldn’t get lapped was becoming a reality. We’d complete the full 8 laps. The feeling of relief and surprise growing in an oxygen deprived head was enough to muster the effort to have a crack at a sprint for the line, though two crashes in front put paid to a decent position. That day remaining intact and finishing was a great consolation. When the crash happened close by ahead, the same feeling of micro-second dread, then resignation, followed by ‘how did I avoid that?’, flashed through my foggy consciousness, sending an already racing heart right up my throat. Close shave there. Then to make up the 50 or so yards lost whilst keeping enough for the final gallop. My legs, however, protested loudly at this thought, berating my brain for being so enthusiastic in the face of admittedly woeful fitness.
Despite the disruption the final sprint still provided a great thrill. To whizz past the finish gantry and chequered flag with family and friends banging the boards was an experience that will live long in the memory.
Sign up for a unique thrill
Maybe in light of how international the day felt, the mens winner was asked on the podium, whilst being awarded the spoils of victory ‘What country do you come from?’ to which he replied ‘ESSEXXXXX!’ Cue much laughter, right in keeping with the tone of the day. Olympic Champion and all round pocket rocket powerhouse Emma Pooley won the ladies prize, not being far behind the men. What a ride. This was followed by her by riding the Ride London Classic the day after on a utility Buffalo bike. Not light by any means. A worthy as well as tireless champion. For me Sunday was spent laying in, then taking a spontaneous three-hour nap in the afternoon. A long way to go to.
Without hesitation I’d recommend having a go at this unique event, something that celebrates something quintessentially British, a product that’s admired internationally. On Saturday, Brompton put on a great show and invited fans from all over the world. And London loved it.
A massive thanks to friends and family who made the day a very fun, memorable one. Thanks for picking what was left of me up afterward and giving me food, water and laughs. Your support and love mean an awful lot.