Whoosh 2021 Prologue, Herne Hill to Reading. Distance 62.2 miles. Time: Six hours, eight minutes

Followers of the annual Tour de France bike race are probably familiar with the Prologue Time Trial. The event is a short time trial race, the day before the race’s first normal stage. It presents a first opportunity for time-trial specialists to show their abilities and determines who will wear the leader’s yellow jersey on the race’s first stage.

The prologue to the Parish of Herne Hill’s 2021 Whoosh Fundraiser followed a similar concept. But it replaced the highly-trained athletes with a group of middle-aged Londoners, put them on a mixture of road and touring bikes and told them to follow the “Thames Cycle Path” signs west out of London as far as Reading. These changes made a substantial difference.

There was nevertheless a grand départ of a kind for myself and the other 11 riders taking part in the prologue. Three miles or so after setting out from St Saviour’s church in Herne Hill, we turned into Abbeville’s, the café on Clapham Park Road run by First Step Trust, one of two charities for which this year’s ride is raising sponsorship. The other is Tumaini Health, which is building a health centre for the village of Rwika in eastern Kenya. We enjoyed coffees from Abbeville’s, posed for pictures and headed west. (You can find out more and donate here)

Quite how different the experience would be from the Tour de France became clear when the route reached Putney Heath. The track across the heath was the first of many stretches along the route – theoretically part of the National Cycle Network – that involved our navigating stony, loose or muddy surfaces. The mind inevitably wandered to how Tour de France riders periodically stage a rebellion if the rsoads on which they are racing turn out to be poorly surfaced.

Whooshers turned out to be made of sterner stuff and, under threatening skies, shifting between sections on tarmacked roads, well-surfaced paths and tracks so overgrown with nettles or strewn with pebbles that it was not always easy to remember we were on route 4 of a system known as the National Cycle Network.

It would be tempting to say we shifted effortlessly between these different surfaces – but inaccurate. On a muggy day, with the surfaces sometimes bumpy and periodic swings from driving rain to pleasant sunshine, the going at times felt harder than the relatively modest distance might have suggested. A steady climb on a rough surface beyond Maidenhead sent some of us digging into our reserves of energy, scaling our personal Monts Ventoux.

The route, nevertheless, made it clear we were in Britain. It snaked round confusing housing estates in a way that many bits of the National Cycle Network seem to do. There was an especially archetypal British cycling experience as we made our final approach towards Reading, riding on a pavement next to a dual carriageway, battered by the wind and soaked by a steady rain. It felt archetypal while not being exactly an advert.

But the allure of cycling is that the satisfaction at having arrived so often outweighs the feeling of getting there. We reached Reading’s Ibis Hotel together, still riding purposefully. We await new arrivals on Friday and a longer day on better surfaces.

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