By Mitch Phillips
LONDON (Reuters) - Exhilarating, challenging, absolutely ridiculously soaking - when the tail end of Hurricane Bertha met 21,000 amateur cyclists in the Prudential Surrey 100, a fun day out in the country was transformed into true test of man and machine.
When the riders lined up in the shadow of the velodrome in Olympic Park on Sunday, two years on from the Games that has transformed that swathe of east London, the daunting weather forecast had already made a major impact.
Faced with the likelihood of torrential rain and driving winds, organizers removed the two biggest climbs from the course - Leith Hill and Box Hill - because of the potentially dangerous descents, and although it cut the course to 86 miles (138.4 km) and deprived riders of the focal points of the whole route, it proved an eminently sensible decision.
After weeks of balmy sunshine, Sunday dawned dark and brooding and most participants had to dig out their winter gear in readiness for what was to come.
On Saturday, 55,000 participants had enjoyed endless sunshine for the Ride London freecycle event, when 10 miles of the city were given over to cyclists to potter past the sights and enjoy a festival atmosphere.
The penny-farthings and fancy dress were all packed away by Sunday, however, as the more serious matter of the country's premier cyclosportive took center stage.
For people used to commuting in and around the city, it was a surreal feeling to have major roads and bridges cleared of traffic for the day.
For the first few miles, most riders stuck firmly to the left, seemingly not quite ready to believe that all carriageways were theirs and that a white van was not about to come screaming into them around the next corner.
Eventually, however, the realization dawned that for the next 84 miles it was bikes only and they settled down to enjoy the rare thrill of riding at speed in a peloton like the professionals.
Initially, the dire weather forecast looked to have been over-cautious but soon the skies darkened, the rain began and then got heavy.
That initial fall, however, later appeared a light shower in comparison with the biblical deluge that dumped a month's worth of rain in four hours, swamping the course and transforming the event into a teeth-gritted battle against nature.
Many of the narrow lanes of the Surrey countryside were transformed into rivers, with riders fording "puddles" 40cm deep.
Descending the hills that remained on the route became an unnerving experience as waves of loose water coursed down them, washing mud and debris into the road.
Those stones and thorns took an enormous toll, causing hundreds of punctures, and trying to fix one with sodden fingers while hunched against relentless rain was an experience many riders went through on several occasions and led the on-course mechanics to frantically set off on motor bikes to collect extra supplies of spare tyres and tubes.
The weather also led to several accidents and organizers announced on Monday that Kris Cook, a 36-year-old riding for a hospice charity, had died from a sudden cardiac arrest midway through the ride - though it was not clear whether the incident was the result of a crash.
Almost everyone who started, however, completed the course, with close to 21,000 enjoying the thrill of riding the finish up The Mall toward Buckingham Palace, watched by a hardy throng of supporters who had braved the appalling conditions.
One couple who were assured of an extra clap were Gary Watson and Lisa Russell, who paused an hour into their day to tie the knot in Richmond Park before completing the ride with their bikes festooned with "just married" balloons."
"It was a brilliant day," Watson said. "It was windy, rainy, wet and now it's sunny. But the weather just made it more exciting. It was just fantastic."
Russell added: "I was awesome - and my dad walked me down the aisle dressed in lycra, which was a bit bizarre."
The event, launched last year on the back of the success of the Olympic road race over a similar route, is expected to raise 12 million pounds ($20.14 million) for charity and has already become an over-subscribed "must-do" for the country's cyclists.
When the last of Sunday's participants had dried themselves off, the pros took to the road - spoiled by drier conditions - for the 200km Surrey Classic, with Briton Adam Blythe pulling off a surprise win in a gripping sprint finish.
"From all the families and kids who have hopped on to the saddle, to the elite athletes and enthusiastic amateurs who've battled through driving rain, it's been a fantastic advert for cycling and for our city," said London mayor Boris Johnson, the driving force behind the event who rode the full 100 miles sportive in 2013.
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(Editing by John O'Brien)