Britain saddles up to show its love affair with the bike is going strong

17,000 cyclists take over London to ride the Olympic course. Simon Usborne joined them

It started with a surreal procession as cyclists from across Britain converged on the Olympic Park in zombie-like silence before sunrise.

It ended anywhere from four to nine hours later as a 2012-inspired triumph of logistics and sporting endeavour - a London Marathon on wheels.

Up to 17,000 riders followed a 100-mile route based on last year’s Olympic road race, on day two of an unprecedented national celebration of cycling. From Stratford they zipped west through central London along car-free roads to Surrey before looping back to the capital.

Boris Johnson sent off the first wave of participants in the Ride London event at six o’clock before taking it on himself, the culmination of a training regime the Mayor called “operation chiselled whippet”.

Still perhaps more bulldog in silhouette, Mr Johnson was seen struggling in Richmond Park as riders wound out of West London. After punishing climbs of Leith Hill and Box Hill in Surrey, he returned to cross the line in just over eight hours.

He said he hoped the event, the biggest of its kind in the country, would set a new, popular high for a cycling boom at all levels given momentum by Britain’s track glory in 2012 and back-to-back victories in the Tour de France.

“It is a gradual step and the most important thing is to encourage people to cycle by making it safer,” he said at the finish. “I hope [the Government] will look at this and think what can we do around the country to get people onto the roads.”

Participants compared the ride to the London Marathon, which is organised by the same team, and hoped it becomes an equally popular fixture in the country’s sporting calendar. Planning is already underway for next year’s event.

“I want to see this grow and grow,” said Brian Cookson, a participant and the president of British Cycling. “We are a major sport now, we have taken our place, and I think the Great British public understand a lot more about cycling than they used to.”

James Cracknell was the first celebrity finisher, the former Olympic rowing champion crossing the line in just over four hours and 36 minutes, just over half an hour behind the first rider to cross the line.

“Thousands of people flooded into the Olympic Park, not to watch something, or see top performers, but to do something themselves,” he said. "If there are any legacy discussions going on, that is the selling point for me.”

Armies of cheering supporters and volunteer stewards lined a route that was closed to all other traffic and took in some of the capital’s best-known landmarks before a finish in front of Buckingham Palace on the Mall.

Yesterday, more than 50,000 cyclists, including families, rolled along some of the same London streets for a “free cycle” event around an eight-mile loop also closed to motor vehicles.

Later, Laura Trott, who lit up the Olympic velodrome a year ago, won a professional women’s race on a circuit around St. James’s Park. She was back on her bike just hours later as one of thousands of Ride London cyclists raising money for charity.

“There was a really great atmosphere going round,” she said at the finish. “It’s amazing to see so many people out on their bikes and there were people all around the course.”

At the start of the event, Sarah, a cyclist from North London, was delighted to be on home soil: “I’ve heard about big rides like this in France but it says so much about the way cycling’s going these days that it’s happening here.”

A 140-mile men’s race along the Surrey route, with repeat ascents of Leith Hill, concluded a momentous weekend for British cycling.

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