The Rapha Gentlemen’s Time Trial

On 13th June, Rapha staged an unsanctioned and unmarshalled team time trial of 120-plus miles in the south of England, the inaugural UK running of a ‘Gentlemen’s Race’. A form of racing first developed by Rapha in the USA in 2008, it was titled, in keeping with the UK’s passion for time trialling (not to mention police concerns over mass-start road racing) the ‘Gentlemen’s Time Trial’. The race was contested by eleven teams of six riders, each starting and finishing at the Rapha Cycle Club in London’s Clerkenwell. The teams would race to Brighton, on the south coast, and back again, taking any route they wished as long as they passed three checkpoints along the course. One of these was the Rapha H-van, conspicuously parked on the Brighton seafront.

gents route map

The teams came from a cross section of cycling tribes including club teams and racers, general enthusiasts, as well as representatives from some of the more avant-garde sections of London’s burgeoning cycling scene. Bikes ranged from state-of-the-art carbon fibre to fixed-gear track bikes and folders. And then there were the outfits, everything from Lycra club kit to riders resplendent in tweed and wool. One team, from Brompton, were even given special dispensation to take public transport at various points, as long as they signed in at all the checkpoints and accepted an additional penalty of taking three fairground rides on Brighton Pier (for which photographic evidence would be required).

Unlike conventional time trials, Rapha’s Gentlemen’s Time Trial had only five rules. Based on an approximate ‘code of honour’ they were:

  1. Equipment: Each rider shall ensure that his equipment (bicycle, including accessories and other devices fitted, headgear, apparel, etc.) does not, by virtue of its quality, materials or design, constitute any danger to himself or to others.
  2. Timing: Each team’s time shall begin upon the first rider’s departure and shall be deemed complete upon the arrival of the fifth member of the team to the end point.
  3. Checkpoints: Shall be completed in the order specified. Each team will need to collect a stamp from the official at each checkpoint. Teams who do not have all five stamps upon arrival at the end point shall be deemed “DNF.”
  4. Highway Traffic Code: Please obey the rules of the road, including red lights, rights of way and stopping at pedestrian crossings when necessary.
  5. The Sixth Rider: If one of your fellow riders should run into difficulty, please be kind and ensure that he is able to make it back to the end point before you carry on with the race.

With start times based on a handicap system, those teams predicted to be slowest would start first. The winning team would be the one that took the shortest time to reach Brighton and return to Rapha Cycle Club. Up for grabs, apart from pride and bragging rights, was the Gentlemen’s Time Trial trophy, and the added glory of being the first team to have their name inscribed upon it.

City start, brighton bound

The day of the race dawned fresh but sunny. With the experience of three Rapha Gentlemen’s Races in the USA behind us, we knew many things could go wrong in an unmarshalled race involving more than 60 riders, so I was somewhat apprehensive as the teams checked in at the Rapha Cycle Club and tucked into coffee and croissants.

Primed and ready, the teams set off at ten-minute intervals, the Brompton team opting for the now customary Le Mans-style start. First developed by Rapha at the nearby Smithfield Nocturne, the riders ran to their folded machines, quickly assembling them before riding away.

By midday, the teams were scattered all over the Sussex countryside, navigating their own tailored routes. The three checkpoints offered a variety of delights: coffee; energy bars; drinks; spares; even a pint of ale if so inclined. Now the riders just had to find them. Back at the Cycle Club, as we awaited news from the road, our attention turned to watching the Tour of Switzerland.

Pre-Raphaelite pace

First back were the Rapha Condor Club team, the Pre-Raphaelites. Sporting an image of Millais’ Ophelia on their race numbers, they had cruised past a number of other teams including the Tweed Run (possibly delayed while taking tea/ale), the Armchair Anarchists, a team from the London Fixed Gear and Single Speed Forum who rather surprisingly were using fully geared bikes.

The Pre-Raphaelites had, it seemed, set a cracking pace, following the most direct route possible to ensure they were first through all the checkpoints. Coming home in a blistering 6hrs 56min, they were taking the event extremely seriously and decked out in white Rapha Lightweight Jerseys they had, crucially, ridden as a team. They celebrated with grappa and cigars as we sat back and waited for the next team to arrive.

The wait

It was a very long wait. As the minutes ticked by, team after team failed to top the Pre-Raphaelites time. By 5.25pm, there was only one team could beat them. As hosts, it had seemed only polite to make sure the Rapha staff team were the last to depart, and they had set off an hour and twenty minutes after the Pre-Raphaelites. The boys from Imperial Works looked sharp in their matching red jerseys and white silk scarves but few of us thought they had the pedigree to beat some of the more experienced racing teams.

Yet, with only a few minutes left to go before the Pre-Raphaelites would taste victory, the Rapha ‘red train’ came swooping round the corner. Barelling down Farringdon Road, they sprinted for the line. After 6hrs 47mins on the road, the Rapha staff team crossed the line to win the inaugural Gentlemen’s Time Trial by just nine minutes.

Over the following three hours the remaining teams struggled home. The arrival of each group of riders was greeted with warm cheers (and cold beers) as the Rapha Cycle Club filled up with bikes, friends, families and exhausted but happy riders.

Each had their own story to tell. The teams from Condor and Bespoke Cycling had both been diminished by last-minute withdrawals. The Condor team had still managed to draft in a couple of ringers, including Tao, a 15 year-old Rapha Condor racer. However, as Condor team rider Ben Spurrier had probably realised the moment race organiser Jacqui spilt coffee down his pristine white racing jersey at the start, it wasn’t to be Condor’s day.

Naked

The three men from Bespoke had suffered on the road before finishing a creditable sixth, while both the ‘hitters’ from the Mosquito team and the Rollapalooza boys found the going harder than they had expected. Both posted respectable times, nonetheless. A number of the teams were held up in Brighton, possibly distracted by a procession of 2000 naked cyclists, many of whom shouted ‘get your kit off’ to the time trial teams.

The biggest cheer at the finish was reserved for another LFGSS team, ‘Buns and Poses’ who, true to their roots, had ridden all the way to Brighton and back on fixed-gear bikes. To make matters worse, they had got quite lost on the return leg to London and ended up riding more than 150 miles. As a result, their 8hrs 25min ride for eighth place was probably the most impressive performance all day.

Rock

Despite the fact they had been allowed to take public transport, the Brompton team were one of the last to make it back. Having taken trains between London and East Grinstead, and then from Horsham, they had taken their compulsory penalty of three fairground rides in good spirits. In such good spirits, in fact, that they had decided to enjoy the nice weather, fold their bikes once more and hop aboard the historic Bluebell Railway for a steam-powered tour to nearby Sheffield Park. That they brought us each back a stick of rock from Brighton proved they were gentlemen indeed, even if their approach to the race was hardly conducive to a winning time.

Crash

The first riders to leave on Sunday morning had, in contrast, endured a torrid time. The Tweed Run riders had left the Cycle Club at 9am, looking resplendent in their traditional breeches, flat caps, capes and silk scarves. However, disaster struck after the first checkpoint, at Turners Hill, when a deep pothole proved to be too big for team rider Matt’s Moulton wheel. Despite the fact he was wearing a helmet, the majority of the impact was taken by Matt’s face. He was rushed to hospital at Haywards Heath and great credit goes to the team from Look Mum No Hands, who not only stopped to lend a hand but then nursed the remaining Tweed riders over Ditchling Beacon and on to Brighton. It’s hard to know whether it was this chivalrous act or their long lunch that put paid to Look Mum’s chances of a fast time.

“What a fantastic event,” Andrey from the Rollapalooza team was kind enough to comment afterwards. “We had everything, mechanicals, a puncture, tyre replacement, a crash. We got lost a few times and had to leave one man behind. But that’s what made the day.”

So, credit all round to the teams for making such an amazing day and a great race. The Gentlemen’s Time Trial trophy will be proudly displayed in the Rapha Cycle Club in London until the end of July.

The inaugural Gentlemen’s Tim Trial was stripped back, unpretentious, hard riding. It was also lots of fun. For me, perhaps the most striking and most appealing feature of the day was the camaraderie shown within and between teams. When was the last time you saw a bike race where each finishing rider was cheered across the line by his competitors? I look forward to our next Gentlemen’s Time Trial and the chance to enjoy racing like this again.

Rapha Gentlemen’s Time Trial 2010, final standings and times:

  1. Rapha (staff team): 6hrs 47min
  2. Rapha Condor Club: (the Pre-Raphaelites): 6hrs 56min
  3. Grey Shadows/ Mosquito: 7hrs 24min
  4. Armchair Anarchists (LFGSS, geared): 7hrs 31min
  5. Condor: 7hrs 37min
  6. Bespoke Cycling: 7hrs 55min
  7. Rollapalooza: 8hrs 17min
  8. Buns & Poses (LFGSS, fixed): 8hrs 25min
  9. Brompton: 10hrs 11min
  10. Look Mum No Hands: 10hrs 20min
  11. Tweed Run DNF (Honorary placing due to crash)

Rapha Gentlemen’s Time Trial from RAPHA on Vimeo.