“Unfortunately not” and “we are full” - the most common phrases pitched in my direction at this year’s RideLondon-Surrey Classic.
One by one, the number of chances to ride out in one of the team cars was slowly decreasing, until reaching Matt White, directeur sportive for Orica-GreenEdge.
“Sure, we’ve not got any guests. We’re leaving in 10 minutes." He seemed pretty relaxed about allowing me to join him.
There wasn’t much race action to begin with as the convoy set off through London and into Richmond Park, so I spent the time chatting with Matt.
“Be glad your not doing a Grand Tour,” he said. Leg space in the front seat was, well, limited, to say the least - possibly the tightest place I’ve ever put myself into to photograph. Squeezing myself in, it was fortunate I had my Fuji X100s with me: small, as conditions dictated. The challenge now was to try and capture moments quickly, while maneuvering for the shot in such cramped conditions.
As the race advanced, Matt questioned me about the different features of the English countryside.
“Is that a vineyard? I didn’t know there was English wine."
Neither did I, but apparently it’s becoming fairly popular in the South East. I guess it's a similar climate to Northern France.
From our position at the back of the convoy, it was a struggle to reach the peloton when assistance was needed, especially around Leith Hill. The roads here were almost as congested as the footwell; the car as deprived of space as my legs, but with our call to action, I knew it was time to get ready to take some photographs.
After a few laps through Dorking, pulling over for the guys to sample some English cider from local spectators, it was time to move onto Box Hill: somewhere I’d never been, but was always interested to photograph. Alas, I was in a car behind the peloton, and my only view of the race was from live coverage being shown on the screen built in to the dashboard. At this point, I was also shocked by how few in number were the spectators. I had always thought Box Hill was a popular viewing point. Even Matt commented on the fact that during the 2012 Olympic Games, one stretch of the climb had been jam-packed with crowds, but today? Barely any.
For reasons unknown to us, one of the race motorcycles had created a barrage. The peloton was gradually gaining distance on us, until a communications car appeared from behind and allowed the cars through. Our speed increased.
“It’s not often you can drive like this without getting arrested,” Matt said, after we hit the open road heading for the group.
Having Leigh Howard in the breakaway meant for a speedy drive through Kingston-Upon-Thames to get food and drink to him before the embargo. We hit a sudden corner, the car drifted, and the crowd that had finally arrived roared its approval. A near miss of the fence. We all laughed, nervously.
Howard ended the day in sixth place, which Matt agreed had made it a good day for OGE, finishing in the company of the leading riders. With the last men rolling in at least 15 minutes behind the estimated arrival time, however, the real race of the day, in Matt's mind, was getting the riders to Gatwick in time for their forwarding flights.