Behind the scenes of the Big Bike Ride – up to the recce

We’re barely off the bikes and into the bar at the end of the Big Bike Ride before people start talking about the next one – making suggestions as to where we should go, asking where we’re going, committing themselves and umpteen friends etc. It’s absolutely wonderful seeing everyone so excited and enthused by the experience of the last few days, but the reality is we’ve no idea. The ride takes an enormous amount of organising so it’s time to relax and celebrate the current success before worrying about the next one.

It’s usually not long though before Kev starts making enquiries to hotels, which is always the first step because it’s by far the biggest single challenge. It seems that hotels don’t want large bookings any more, despite how much O2e usually spend in the bar! Kev literally contacts every large hotel in each location and is lucky to get one or two positive responses, which often come with difficult demands such as large deposits or even payment in full before they’ll commit, way before we’ve even announced the ride let alone got any funds in. Hotels identified, Kev then has to juggle dates with the hotels, the ferry company, return transport etc. before a final decision on when and where we’re going can be made.

Once Kev has the key suppliers lined up, he shares it with me to start thinking about the route. Originally I had to do the route planning using paper maps, but these days it is of course all done online. It’s not long before I’ve checked how far and how much climbing each day has using the shortest route and used topographical and cycle-route maps to see what’s around. This gives the first inkling of what could be in store. Do I need to take the scenic route to get the miles up or am I going to have to try and keep it as tight as possible? Are there are any nasty lumpy bits to worry about? Any official cycle routes that could be useful?

The detailed planning then starts using three key decision factors:

1) is it safe? This is always my absolute priority, remembering that this is a challenging ride and people may be tired and/or finishing in low-light

2) does it have too many junctions/turns and are the ones we have obvious? There are potential issues with navigation (increasing chances of getting lost) and overall speed for both our signage team and the cyclists

3) will it be enjoyable? Always a challenge because cycling is a broad church; some people want head-down fast, others want scenery; some enjoy quirky cyclepaths and cobbles, some want silky smooth tarmac; some people love hills, some people hate them. So I try and put in a bit of everything where possible.

With the route broadly mapped, I then spend many hours using Streetview (amazing invention) to check the route for potential hazards, such as turning across traffic and junctions where riders might be carrying speed. For example, this year I had to reroute a large section after discovering we didn’t have priority when the road forked, effectively a left turn across oncoming traffic at the bottom of a reasonably long fast descent. Highly likely at least one cyclist would miss such a turn, make the turn too fast/late and fail or forget to check for oncoming traffic – the consequences of which could be irritating at best and tragic at worst.

Whilst waiting for the date of the recce to come round, the route gets checked and re-checked, my brother sticks his oar in gives his valuable opinion and I deliberate about things probably far too much.

The recce is critical – it’s our physical check of the route to ensure it’s safe and to identify where we can locate the support stops. We usually do this by car for speed but any cycle-only sections are always walked or ridden. Over the years we’ve found the best combination is a driver, a “spotter” and me in the back seat frantically trying to navigate as well as update my route & notes. Much of the route is covered quickly with no issues, but there’s always a good number of unexpected issues or roads that aren’t as great on the ground as they may seem on a map. We end up driving the same stretch many times, considering different options or looking for support stops, or trying to deal with an unexpected one-way system, road closure, no cycling etc. It’s surprisingly easy to lose an hour on the most simple of obstacles but then there’s the truly unexpected dangers or challenges resulting in whole sections being reconsidered. They’re long days, especially for the driver, but I’ve never done one where I didn’t feel better/happier about the route after.

Back home it’s time to write up notes, draw up the route changes and prepare everything for handing over to the support and signage teams so they can start working on their plans. Meanwhile, I can kick back, relax and look forward to actually riding the route in glorious sunshine…

Rafe