And yet at the end I felt overjoyed; exhilarated; more enraptured than I can remember for a long time. The RideLondon 100 is a sensational event, and will have a huge future. It was a triumph of organisation by Surrey county council, Transport for London, Hugh Brasher and others. Thanks to the far-sighted support of Prudential Insurance, tens of thousands of cyclists, some proficient, some mediocre, were able to imagine – for a few brief hours – that they were in a prelapsarian paradise where the motor car did not exist.
We rode in a spirit of happy and amateurish emulation (my friend the Norwich goblin was in a tiny minority) and as we streamed in a foaming Limpopo of helmets, we imagined that we were making a statement about cycling in Britain: that it is ready for the next leap forward.
British cyclists have now won the Tour de France twice in a row – a thing that seemed unimaginable in my childhood. British cyclists have stormed the world in two successive Olympics; and now we have just put on the biggest inaugural mass participation cycle event in history.
For all of us on that race yesterday, it felt like a dream come true: to cycle on the roads with a carefree confidence that is normally impossible. My eyes were opened to enormous support for cycling, since we could have filled the marathon with would-be entrants many times over. But above all it opened my eyes to the astonishing beauty of countryside that is only a few miles from London.
It’s called Surrey! I mean to say: Surrey! Forgive me, please, all you rural Surrey-dwellers, but hitherto the word has generally conjured up an image of handsome semi-detached houses, and stockbroker Tudor, and Joan Hunter Dunn and the pine-y smell of Betjemanesque suburbia. All I can say is that I now know that Surrey is also wild and heart-breakingly lovely.
There are honey-coloured churches nestling in valleys that look as though they have been more or less untouched since Norman times. As I have mentioned, there are surprisingly big hills – and at the top of those hills there are primeval views of unspoilt deciduous forests. There are cheering little pubs, and places selling cream teas, and as we toured this Elysium I asked myself: why don’t I know about this? After all, I have driven through Surrey zillions of times – and there is the problem. We drive so fast in our cars that we don’t appreciate the countryside; we aren’t capable of walking far enough to do it all justice. To enjoy Surrey as I just have you need to go at bicycle pace. How can we possibly hope to do that?
As the British cycling revolution gathers pace, I predict a growing gulf between city and countryside. In the big cities, we can make cycling safer. We can do all sorts of things with cycle lanes and road space, to give cyclists more confidence to venture into an environment where average traffic speeds – in London – are only 9.3mph. But on country roads it strikes me that we have a real problem. I don’t know about you, but I would be very reluctant to let my nearest and dearest cycle on those fast country lanes, with cars whipping up behind them, in a narrow space, at 50 or 60mph. And we can’t infuriate the motorists, as we did yesterday, by closing the road.
What to do? As I cycled along I elaborated a bucolic vision: of a gigantic Rooseveltian scheme to get tens of thousands of young people into work – building a beautiful rural filigree of cycle superhighways, and making use of the old Beeching railway lines. At a stroke, we would allow everyone to do what I did yesterday, and enjoy our amazing country in a completely different way.
Euphoric with such thoughts, I finally made it home, to find a furious text from an old friend. What, he raged, was this self-indulgent orgy of cycling? London was paralysed. He couldn’t get to lunch with friends. It was a disgrace, he said.
I know he speaks for many, and I apologise again for the inconvenience that we caused by temporarily reserving some roads and bridges for cyclists. But I could not help myself as I texted back. “On your bike”, I said.