Sunday, 23 September 2012

The Epilogue

Having allowed a few days to come back down to earth I thought I'd draw together a few general impressions of what was a pretty special experience. 

Otherwise I fear that my memories of the Ride Across Britain will be like one of the several magnificent but ephemeral rainbows we saw on the ride, stretching the full width of the landscape in awe inspiring splendour.  I need to capture and preserve them before they fade and melt away into the background grey sky of normal life.

The whole experience of taking part in the RAB was anything but normal, quite extraordinary in fact.

I was incredibly lucky to have been there at all. Back in March when I had lost all power in my right hand due to ‘handlebar palsy’ and was told I would need surgery I really didn’t think it would happen. Indeed, had I not sought a second surgical opinion from the excellent Mike Hayton in Manchester who advised me not to delay the operation I suspect that not only would I not have done this ride but that my cycling days could easily have been at an end.

The organisation of the RAB itself was quite amazing. It defies belief that it could be possible to enable a group of some 700 riders of very different experience and abilities to cycle almost 1,000 miles in 9 days in some very testing conditions without it all going horribly wrong at some point. There were plenty of opportunities for this certainly. There were times when it was a struggle to keep the bike upright because of the strength of the winds; those same winds were attempting to blow our encampment of pop up tents into the next county one night; another of the camps had been flooded and was under several inches of water; there were many mechanical failures and broken bikes; there were inevitable crashes and injuries.

But the Deloitte RAB Team took all of this in their stride. One had the sense of superb project management so that when there were problems it had all been factored in and they had a contingency plan. Perhaps not, and there was a lot of feverish paddling below the surface even though the enterprise seems to glide, swan-like, on the surface.  It seemed that there was an almost military precision about everything. Not that this meant that we were subject to a stringent, impersonal regime. Anything but. The atmosphere throughout was one of kindliness and support and this permeated through to the riders so that most of us saw it as our mutual responsibility to see each other through.

For example, take the guys who were on security duty at the bike pen. Each day when we arrived at the next base camp the first person we saw after crossing the finish line was one of a number of burly blokes. They would applaud and congratulate us, high fiving and were genuinely delighted that each of us had made it though. They became the people we most wanted to see as they symbolized the end of another tough day and the chance to recuperate before we did it all again. They stayed out all night to ensure the bikes were safe.

I had assumed they were paid security guards but no. Chatting to some of them one night I discovered they were all serving police officers from the Armed Response Unit of Thames Valley Police. (the bikes were pretty safe then...). But what was astounding to me was that they had all taken holiday leave to participate in the RAB. They had no time off in lieu of this and all said that they did it because of the enjoyment it gave them to see the riders take on and conquer this challenge.

One of them disclosed to me that he knew he would be in tears at John o’Groats as people he had got to know over the event crossed the finishing line. And these are men who are trained to shoot to kill when necessary...

The honours list is endless:

·       the catering section who produced enormous quantities of healthy, fresh food twice daily;
·       the sports physiotherapy students from Birmingham University who gave free massages every other day and eased the aches and pains away;
·       the medical team, junior A & E Doctors lead by the lovely GP Dr Karen – they were constantly on standby with the Sudocrem and Vaseline as well as dealing with somewhat more serious injuries and ailments;
·       the team of bike mechanics from Halfords – it is no exaggeration to say that they worked through the night to ensure that our machines were roadworthy the next day, and did so with great humour. It was very disconcerting to note that one of them (‘Scouse’) both looked and sounded like Mark Cavendish. When I first spotted him I thought my tiredness was worse than I had thought. I had fallen asleep and in my dream I was riding a bike event where all the supporting crew were my pro-cycling idols. Look, here is Bradley Wiggins serving my evening meal and is that Eddie Merckx I see cleaning the showers...?

The list goes on:

·       the friendly tent allocation people;
·       the dispensers of PowerAid (I forgive you...);
·       the cheery tent erectors/ removers;
·       the shower attendants with their daily squeegee juggling act;
·       those manning the information tent fielding more daft questions from over tired riders;
·       the oh so welcome providers of bananas, crisps, sandwiches, chocolate and on special days wonderful rice puddings at our feed stops every 35 miles or so.
·       the speakers at the nightly briefings that became a highlight of each day as they were so entertaining and professional;
·       the guest ‘celebrity’ riders that spoke and then rode the next day’s stage, particularly the paraolympians who were truly inspirational

Everyone had one thing in common – a shared desire to make this event special and ensure that as far as possible each and every rider made it to John o’ Groats. They all really cared.

Then there were the riders. Of course there were far too many to get to know well but by the end of 9 days it was easy to recognise most from sections ridden together, chats at feed stops or over dinner or just from short interchanges and jokes shared while waiting in one of the many queues that made up a lot of our daily life while not riding, eating or sleeping.

Readers of this Blog will realise that something of a special bond formed between 3 of those 700 riders.

Vicky I knew as a former colleague although not very well before the RAB. From her previous exploits running, trekking, cycling and taking part in madcap events (motorised rickshaw racing in India for example) she came with a reputation of something of a ‘superwoman’ and I suspected that I would not see her for dust once we began peddling!  In fact we found that our riding skills complemented each other quite well. I am a reasonably good and fast climber; Vicky is a very strong rider with a daredevil streak and superb bike handling skills on descents. I was able to help her a bit on a few of the climbs (there is some benefit in slipstreaming even when climbing) and as the days went on I became just a bit more confident about following her line when the road headed down and her broad grin announced she was about to take flight. But her athletic prowess comes with a very caring nature. I don’t think I ever saw her pass a slower rider without her asking how they were doing or fail to strike up a cheery conversation with those around her when we stopped.

The other member of our trio was Chris, the psychologist from Fife we chanced upon in the peloton and whose pace of riding, easy, intelligent banter and silly sense of humour matched ours very well. Very experienced on the bike, I suspect Chris was riding well within himself and it was great that he chose to make up our little gang. The miles sped by as we put the world to rights and he led our irreverent mini seminars in group dynamics and social anthropology.

We shared a mutual respect for each other’s riding abilities which meant we could relax with each other totally. When you are positioned 6 inches behind someone else’s back wheel believe me this is really important! It was very evident when we found ourselves part of larger groups that this sort of respect has to be earned and must never be taken for granted especially with riders you do not know. Moving out of line without proper warning or braking too hard can spell disaster. And we looked out for each other, taking our turns to ride at the front in the wind to allow the others to recover a bit and sharing food, extra layers of clothing, paracetamol and words of comfort and encouragement as required.

We discovered that we are all freedom loving Sagittarius and spookily in the case of Chris and myself, that we share 28th November as our birthday. Not that I believe in any of that rubbish you understand...

Suffice it to say that the 3 of us are already planning our next big ride together in 2013.

I will never know if I would have done this ride had it not been for Sam's selfless struggle against his cancer and Annie and Peter's resolve to set up the Foundation in his name to honour his memory and to make a real difference for those unlucky enough to contract this horrible disease. I may have done I suppose as the 'End to End' is on every keen cyclists wish list of rides to tick off.

But I am sure that my experience would not have been the same if it had just been another cycling adventure. I admit to being pretty determined and competitive in any event, but throughout the RAB I felt an extra sense of duty to finish no matter what and in doing so to take out and give back as much as I could.

I had to finish because so many people had been so generous in sponsoring me. As I write my ride has already raised £5,750 for the Royal Marsden Cancer Charity without taking into account pledges made. It was unthinkable that I might not do it and, although my sponsors might not see it this way and I think most would have been happy to donate anyway, in my mind not to have finished would have been letting you all down.

But I also had to finish because of the very strong sense I had throughout the ride of the huge privilege bestowed on me, whether by my genes or just the lottery of good fortune, to have the health and fitness at the age of 60 yrs to even attempt an endurance event of this kind. So many of my contemporaries have been so much less lucky. And of course it was never far from my thoughts that Sam had suffered so much pain throughout his 20s and died so terribly young.

So, and with apologies if this seems maudlin, trite or even bordering on the rabbinical (which is not my calling for sure!) I did have a strong sense in the build up to the ride and during it that surely the duty of the living is to live, and to enhance our lives to the greatest extent that we can?  

As Chris commented when we were sharing our last coffee stop together 50 miles from John O’ Groats, the Ride Across Britain was a truly life enhancing experience.  You can’t ask for more than that.

Go for it, in whatever way suits you, because, to quote the RAB strap line:


Tuesday, 18 September 2012

The Ride Day 9

The end of any journey can prove to be an anticlimax and waking up at 4.40am to the sound of rain falling on the tent didn't help dispel the slight mood of sadness that had settled on the group at last night's final briefing.

We knew that there would be only a brief time for goodbyes at the finish. There is not a lot to do at the most northerly point of the GB mainland.

We have been living in a bubble for 10 days and bubbles have to burst. We will rush off to catch our transfers and carry on where we left off in the parallel universe where our normal lives exist.

So for one last time I haul myself out of my cosy sleeping bag and prepare for another 104 miles. A task that would have been a lot easier if I had not mislaid my head torch some time during the night.

Working by feel I locate my gear. I'd already resolved the day's only real decision to be taken namely what to wear. Get this wrong and you either freeze or boil. Despite the rain I gamble on it brightening up and choose to go light rather than have to carry lots of kit if it warms up. So a gilet, arm and knee warmers and a very light showerproof race cape.

Then stagger over to the catering tent and join the line of other Lycra zombies (good name for a band Steve?!) shuffling along to fill digestive fuel tanks with quantities of food that would be obscene in any other context but on planet RAB represent Darwinian necessity.

Porridge, honey, tea/coffee, toast, jam, full English (or in my case full Veggie) breakfast, croissants, juice, yoghurt. I skip seconds today as it is only a short ride...

Shuffle out for queue for loos (courtesy of the imaginatively named company WC in Fields), then a spot of communal outdoor teeth brushing.

Remember at this point to check which way the wind is blowing to avoid being the victim of collateral damage - also applies to roadside pee stops :-)

Fill water bottles with worryingly coloured fluorescent, radioactive looking Powerade.

Locate my tent. I have my wristband with today's tent number on it but can't read it in the dark and my brain is still on recharge. I can't remember if today it is Purple 82 or 53.

Even if I could remember all the tents are identical green pop ups. In the rain and in my semi comatose state it is akin to trying to locate one individual pebble on a beach.

Stuff the rest of my fetid belongings into my bag (I swear dirty clothes weigh more than clean ones) and stagger over to dump it with the ever hale and hearty UPS guys running the baggage transport.

Re-unite with my poor bike, left out in the racking overnight at the mercy of the wind and the rain after another hammering day. And this my new custom made Italian beauty that has performed impeccably this trip.

You should only be for Sunday best and reside indoors displayed as a work of art. How will I ever make up to you for this abuse?...

Roll out gently, no-one speaking yet, only sound is the mesmeric and strangely empowering 'whissh' noise as the high pressure tyres glide along the smooth, damp Tarmac.

We slowly increase speed and come to life. Snippets of conversation are caught as we overtake slower moving groups. Always try to greet everyone even if it's no more than a 'hi'.

We get up to cruising speed, someone starts singing to themselves, jokes from previous days are recycled. All peppered with shouted warnings and signals and marinated with deep meaning to other cyclists used to bunch riding. Must sound very odd to any pedestrian we pass. "HOLE", "ON YOUR RIGHT", "BUMP", "GRAVEL" etc. The various hand signals must look positively Masonic to the uninitiated.

The rain clears and my wardrobe gamble is vindicated as the weak northern sun pastel washes over the breathtakingly beautiful countryside.

We reach the sea and continue along a fairly 'grippy' cornich road. The water is a deep blue and it would be easy to imagine I was riding the south coast of Crete, familiar from previous trips, if it were not for the somewhat lower temperature and lack of olive trees.

Getting closer to the finish. First feed station at 35 miles then our trio agree we need a coffee stop at the half way point.

Knowing the end is so close is quite bitter/sweet. We are pretty exhausted and although by now are doubtlessly highly trained to cope with day after day of century rides, home and a different type of normality beckons.

We start our goodbyes there to the soundtrack coming from the juke box.

The track changes to Alicia Keys singing about New York and I am subsumed by a sudden sadness reminding me why am here at all.

This was the last song played at the end of Sam and Ali's wedding party. We all (including me of 2 left feet fame) had formed a circle and swayed together to the melody bringing to a close that very special day.

We saddle up and finish what we started 9 days ago, gliding on towards JOG with the sun still shining on the glittering water. Chris catches up with a friend on the final run in.

I hear the pipes droning and see the finish line ahead. People are cheering and waving at me. I feel very happy.

Vicky and I cross the line together at 2.35 pm followed by Chris. We hear our names being announced over the tannoy system. Vicky's mum is there.

There are medals hanging round our necks. Hugs all round. Pictures at the JOG sign.

The Crew are lining the finish area and performing a Mexican Wave style 'wiggle dance' as riders come in. I try to thank as many as I can before packing the bike and gratefully accepting a lift back to Inverness

I have done it!

In doing so I have now raised over £5,000 for The Sam Keen Foundation's fight against malignant melanoma.

Thank you so much to everyone for helping to make this happen.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

The Ride Day 8

It is a measure of something, I do not know what, that's a ride of 110 miles seems relatively moderate after what we have been through this week, and particularly yesterday.

Certainly, yesterday's extremes both of length and weather conditions has put everything else into perspective. The general feeling in the account is that if we can manage that we can manage anything and 110 miles holds no fears.

Today was payback time in terms of weather conditions. Although the day started dank and cold it warmed up and within a couple of hours we were riding in bright sun although still with a chilly winter.

I started a bit late and knew that my two riding partners were ahead of me and so put my head down and chased. After about 40 minutes I was caught by a group of four riding faster than me so I latched onto the back of them and the five of us took it in turns to ride in the wind with the other 4 sheltering behind to recover before coming to the front to do their turn. We really hammered it and for about an hour must've been riding at an average speed of close to 25 mph.

Despite this it took almost to the first feed station for me to catch my "team". I knew I'd pay for this later but it was worth it for the exhilaration of speeding along beautiful fast roads with no traffic.

We then rode along the shores of Loch Ness which was unbelievably scenic and then treated ourselves to a cappuccino by the waterfront in Inverness.

We then climbed the moors into Sutherland where we were struck by some really strong crosswinds which were blowing us all over the place but we got down safely to base camp still in lovely sunshine.

So last night in camp and tomorrow we ride to John o'Groats. Hard to accept we have almost done it. Lands End seems light years away.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

The Ride Day 7

This will be a short update, dear public, as I need an early night.

Suffice to say that today, because of a landslide, our route was diverted at one point adding 7 miles to what was already by far the longest stage of the ride. So that meant a mere 134 miles over Rannoch Moor and down Glencoe to finish a few miles the other side of Fort William.

To make things really interesting the weather overnight had been atrocious with gale force winds brining in squally showers all night. You notice that sort of thing in a tent. Breakfast was a sober affair with lots of worried, sleep deprived faces - and with good reason.

We were 'allowed' to start early because of the longer day and our little team of 3 set off at 6.30 am.

Skirting through the western Glasgow suburbs we were very aware of the still very strong head/cross winds. It was also wet but not torrentially so.

We made good time through some pretty countryside and after Callender stopped for a coffee, which felt a real indulgence.

Amazingly the weather turned in our favour while we climbed up to Rannoch Moor. We saw some sun and the scenery up there was truly magnificent. I'd not seen this since Helen and I had ridden up from Crianlanarch many years ago on loaded touring bikes.

But despite the sun the riding was brutal because of the ferocity of the headwind and we had to work very hard to make headway. Both up and down! There is particular unfairness having to fight your way down a long descent after a gruelling climb.

We had one indulgence. Chris suggested a 'wee dram' at the pub in Glencoe Village. We deviated a mile down a beautiful side valley and surprised the locals somewhat who are more used to climbers than exhausted, sweaty cyclists.

Fortified, we carried on down and along the stunning coastline to Fort William.

This had to be one of the hardest days I have ever had on a bike but one of the most rewarding too. It was truly uplifting to see riders helping and encouraging others and applauding in the slower riders who didn't arrive in camp until after 8.00 pm

2 days to go. I need to sleep!

Thursday, 13 September 2012

The Ride Day 6

On paper today's stage looked relatively 'easy'. 106 miles but no horrendous climbing and we assumed good fast roads to Hamilton Racecourse south of Glasgow.

I started with soggy wet shoes and still sporting my uber-specialised freezer bag inserts. I knew Vicky had started before me so put the hammer down to join her, riding the first 10 miles alone and then working with 4 fast riders who caught me for the next 25. That way I averaged 18.5 mph for the first 35 miles, much faster than normal.

But I didn't catch Vicky who had gone off like a rocket and was the very rider to reach Scotland. Chapeau to her!

The second stage was wet and pretty miserable. We rode with Chris, a psychologist from Fife and managed to keep our spirits up although they dipped at one point after an incident involving 2 other riders.

I then punctured and this cheered us up no end. I had loaned Vicky my jacket at the first feed stop as she was so cold. I was fine while riding but needed protection while standing still to change the tube. Chris had a spare cape which I couldn't work out how to put on. I received forceable assistance which still didn't work and hurt too. It then dawned that removing my helmet might help!

The final run in to Hamilton was pretty awful due to the combined effect of a tough headwind and atrocious road surfaces but we made base camp in good time.

It was really lovely to be cheered in by Lisa and Colin and to sit and relax with them.

Tomorrow is going to be the big one. 130 miles over wild country and bad weather predicted. Well, I knew this would be no picnic...

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

The Ride Day 5

As I sit here in the warmth of the catering tent it is hard to accept or describe the scene outside. Imagine the love child of Glastonbury and a Somme battlefield and you will not be far out.

We were warned last night that today's base camp at Penrith had been flooded and to prepare ourselves for a challenging night. The Deloitte RAB crew have done an excellent job of mitigating the inevitable discomfort but you can't drain a swamp overnight.

The drying room is full to overbrimming and is an Aladdin's cave of posh but fetid hanging Lycra and cycle shoes. I don't quite get the logic of the 90 per cent of riders who have deposited their shoes there. Do they think the site will be bone dry tomorrow? Their shoes will be saturated again by the time they have walked to their bikes for sure, and they will have a matching pair of muddy non-cycling shoes as well.

My cunning plan (and there is so much about tonight's site that smacks of an episode of Blackadder) was to keep wearing my sodden cycling shoes but inside them to have layers of socks, survival foil and a freezer bag. This way I keep my ordinary shoes dry. OK the penalty is trench foot but you can't have everything,

Today's ride was ranked as the hardest day since Cornwall. We first has to negotiate the badlands of Wigan but did eventually make it to rural roads. All this in pretty torrential rain. I rode all today with Vicky the Demon Descender and we really attacked the first 30 miles making good time and keeping warm despite the soaking.

At one point Sarah Storey, the paraolympian cyclist who was fresh from her 4 gold medals, sped past us. I couldn't resist jumping on her wheel (a cycling expression meaning 'follow closely' rather than anything more literal!) and surprised myself by being able to stay in this exalted company for a reasonable time, OK she was on cruise control and i was eyeballs out with the effort but hey, she's younger than me,

It carried on raining but we were so lucky that our ascent of Shap Fell was in sunshine. The views were great but so was the effort needed both because of the gradient and the cold strong head wind all the way up. This continued all the way to Penrith. I have never had to put so much effort into riding downhill.

But I feel I am getting stronger each day and although extremely tired the thought I have now ridden over 500 miles and my fundraising today reached £5,000 will spur me on tomorrow into Scotland as will the thought of seeing my sister Lisa and her partner Colin tomorrow night at Hamilton, near Glasgow.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

The Ride Day 4

Things didn't exactly get off to a great start for me today. Riding 106 miles on 2 hours sleep is not in the training manual and I confess to feeling a little miserable when dawn broke and it was time to do it all again.

I did start to buck up over my rather late breakfast. It's not every day that an Olympic gold medalist sits down at your table and starts chatting over a full English breakfast.

Rebecca Romero is a very unique athlete. An Olympic silver medallist and World Champion in the sport of rowing, Rebecca took up cycling with the aim of achieving the same elite standard. In a rapid rise through the ranks in track cycling she shattered British records and became double World Champion and Olympic Champion all within two and a half years in the sport. This made her the first British athlete and only the second woman in history to medal in two different sports.

Meantime, unknown to either of us and completely by chance our bikes were getting close up and personal as I discovered when I went to collect mine. There was no mistaking her state of the art time trial machine there in the racking the very next one to mine.

We started with a climb over the Shropshire hills before dropping down and on to the Cheshire plains. It should have been the easiest day but we were greeted by a very cold headwind which made life somewhat more uncomfortable. I started gently but by the second feed station was feeling back to normal, rolling in to Base Camp at Haydock Racecourse with a large group. Fantastic to see the 2 downhill skier paralympians riding hand cycles with us today. How hard must that be?

Our briefing this evening was brimming with Olympians and Para Olympians all encouraging and motivating us.

To be precise, James Cracknell, Sarah Storey and Barney Storey.

Tomorrow we cross Shap Fell en route to Penrith. Time for bed!