It was a few days before the Ride London Classic in 2016 that I received an email asking if I'd like to commentate from the back of a motorbike for the BBC coverage of the Ride London Classic. I gave it some thought, for about one to five seconds, then said yes while trying to keep a poker face that would hide my excitement. Due to it being an email correspondence the poker face was for my own benefit in an attempt to at least try to pretend to be cool to my own face.
I turned up in 2016 with no idea what I was supposed to do or how it was going to work, fortunately nobody else seemed to know either. Which ended up being the best thing ever as it meant I was given carte blanche to do what I wanted. In my usual fashion I had done zero prep, and didn't even have a start list when we set off, I had to ask the Mavic neutral support to give me one of theirs, it helped I'd known the Mavic guys for years, and this ended up being a bit of theme and made our life that much easier.
When I say our life, I mean me and my moto pilot, Steward Poulton. Stewart is an ex-police motorcycle rider, so as a team we worked perfectly, I knew everybody in the race, he knew everybody escorting the race. Then there was Mick Bennett, the race director, he realised that we could be an asset to the race regards the viewing experience and allowed us more movement within the peloton than I would have ever dared imagine. There was only one small thing, I'd never ridden pillion on a motorbike before. Obviously I hadn't told anyone this...
Riding on the back of a motorbike with a pro pilot is an amazing experience in its own right, rolling through a closed road London was surreal, yet being in and out of the peloton felt the most normal part for me as the proximity of the riders was something I'd spent most of my life living with. No doubt that was mostly due to the fact that Stewart was so effortless with it all.
The most surprising thing was the speed. It was relentless. I was in complete awe of the peloton and plain shocked that it went so fast, and that in a not so distant past I was one of those riders who could do it. Finally I got a grasp of why people were impressed at what professional cyclists can do, I'd always taken it for granted, from the back of that motorbike I got to see it up close and personal and experience it in a visceral way that no TV, onboard camera, following car, or anything else can convey. It was madness, and it only got madder.
As this was a new format for everybody involved in the TV production there was no real script or plan, it was simply a case of making it up as I went along. Through the helmet comms I could speak directly to Stewart, while next to my seat I had a control box which allowed me to listen to the program director, the audio from the live transmission, and also race radio. Unfortunately most of it was interference, until the commentary began when thankfully it all became clearer. Once the program was live all I had to do was find things to talk about, connect through to the program director saying I had something to say, then they would let Simon Brotherton and Chris Boardman know (the two commentators on the finish line transmitting live) that I was good to go and they would hand it over to me.
There wasn't much to say for a long time, then thankfully Team SKY lit it up on Leith Hill and I became more excited than a seven year old on Christmas Eve. From that moment it was hard for them to keep me off the comms. With the race unfolding I found more and more things we could do, jumping between groups, stopping at the side of the road taking time checks, sliding back to the peloton to see who was riding on the front and who was getting dropped. It was amazing, the best thing was I was getting to see a bike race in a way I'd never seen it before, which meant that it was the same for everybody watching live on BBC.
We did get a bit sketchy at times, well, it felt like it to me being the novice, but actually Stewart didn't once seemed stretched. The reason for the sketchiness was due to the roads in the middle part of the Ride London Classic basically being not only single track but all over the place. There were times when Stewart was having to use all his years of experience and skill to keep us ahead and out of the way of the race. The whole day was magic, it didn't once feel like a job (don't tell the BBC that), but an absolute privilege.
It felt exactly the same this year, only better because I now know Stewart and he knows me, I managed to get a startlist 2mins before we set off, so my prep was mint. The race itself was great, once again I got to see the race in a way that nobody else gets to see it and hopefully I was able to share that. My admiration for the peloton remains. Yet now the initial shock and awe of riding pillion on the back of an ex-police motorcycle pilots bike in the middle of a pro bike race is over, I can safely say the peloton owes a great deal of respect to them.
Yes there have been some horrible incidents in recent years involving motorbikes in races, and that must never happen again, but from what I've seen the majority of the riders are very skilled, very disciplined, and extremely respectful of the peloton. I doff my hat to them, and thank you for looking after me so well, especially Stewart, you tempered my recklessness extremely well! Here's to more of the same (minus the rain for the BWC) at the Ride London 2018 weekend.
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