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Marathon man Brasher inspires London to get riding

By Mitch Phillips

LONDON (Reuters) - As race director of the London Marathon Hugh Brasher was not exactly short of things to do with his time but when the invitations went out for bidders to organize and run a mass cycling event on a similar scale he jumped at the chance.

His organization duly got the job and last year delivered the inaugural Prudential Ride London weekend, highlighted by a 100-mile close-road sportive for amateur riders largely following the route of the 2012 Olympic road race, which inspired the whole idea.

This weekend sees the second edition, with the numbers up from 16,000 to 24,000 for the sportive and an estimated 50,000 more taking part in Saturday's "freecycle" where several miles of roads in central London will be car-free for the day.

Just like the London marathon, where around 34,000 places are many times over-subscribed, the Surrey 100 has immediately grabbed the imagination of the country's cyclists with 47,000 applications within the first hour this year and 80,000 within a month.

"I think the whole thing last year just amazed people," Brasher told Reuters in a interview.

"We had these waves of 250-500 departing Olympic Park on time every two minutes and cycling on close roads past all those London icons and out into the beautiful Surrey countryside with thousands of spectators cheering them on.

"Then that finish, down the Embankment, Admiralty Arch and on to Mall, it really is stunning."

The thought of closing many of London's streets and bridges to traffic for an entire weekend would have been as unlikely as a British Tour de France champion just a few years ago.

But Britain is slowly but surely learning to appreciate the bicycle and the event comes in a summer that has already seen a hugely popular Giro d'Italia start in Belfast and millions turn out to watch the first three stages of the Tour de France in England.

With the backing of cycle-friendly Mayor of London Boris Johnson, Brasher and his team were able to use the decades of experience gained putting on the London Marathon to cut through a daunting array of red tape.

"There will be almost three million miles ridden this weekend, it is already the largest cycling festival in the world and we think it's the greatest," beamed Brasher.

"It raised seven million pounds for charity last year and we expect that figure to climb to around 12 million this time."

Brasher is the son of former Olympic steeplechase gold medalist Chris, who also helped pace Roger Bannister to the first sub-four minute mile 60 years ago.

Brasher senior, who died in 2003, was one of the founders of the London Marathon, first run in 1981, and Hugh is delighted that cycling now has a similar event where the sport's elite and the masses can come together.

"Very much like the marathon, Prudential Ride London is about inspiring people to take up cycling and it's also about their daily health," he said.

"Yes there are some super-fast people who will tear around the course but for many others the idea of riding 100 miles is a huge, huge challenge.

"Twenty two percent of the field are women, which is a huge figure for a sportive of this nature and beats the five year target we were given. At the first London Marathon 4.5 percent of the finishers were women but now it's about 38 percent.

"And the more people we have who look like everyday people not like elite athletes, the better. People then think: 'they did it, why can't I?'"

MAYOR MILES

Mayor Johnson certainly looks anything but an elite cyclist but he impressively hauled his 17-stone frame round the entire 100-mile hilly course last year in just over eight hours.

"On a hybrid with barely-pumped tyres too," said Brasher. "It was actually a phenomenal achievement and shows how inclusive the event is.

"We really need the mix. It's not a race, this is a challenge and really we want to encourage all types of people to take part."

Not everybody welcomed last year's event with open arms, however, with some residents complaining about road closures and leading to a few changes for 2014.

The few "antis" however, are massively outnumbered and rather than the event being restricting, it looks likely to grow and spread.

"A lot of UK and foreign cities have looked at it and said 'wow'," said Brasher.

"We have quite a few delegations coming over to ride it and experience it for themselves so I think we can expect to see a few more similar events popping up in the near future."

The weekend also includes a televised women's grand prix race featuring some of the biggest names in the sport, a 15-mile handcycle race and the grand finale of the London-Surrey Classic, where a high-quality field of male pro riders will largely follow the amateur route before sprinting it out on The Mall.

(editing by Justin Palmer)

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