It hit me like a brick. As soon as I saw the inflated red finish line in the car park of the hotel in Milan I felt completely overwhelmed. It was so unexpected—for the past couple of miles we had been leisurely cycling our way to the end, laughing and joking as we had for so much of the 900 miles beforehand. For these last few miles we were taking it steady as we were accompanied by ‘Tour Dad’ Fred, the amazing father of one of our riders and core organisers of the trip, who hadn’t been on a bike since he was fourteen. We had also agreed to come over the finish line as a team. I didn’t expect to be overcome with emotion but I couldn’t help it—everything seemed to converge all at once. All of a sudden I now knew that I wouldn’t be getting up for another ride tomorrow with these amazing people. I couldn’t help but think about all of the training hours that I had put in since January, spending time away from my beautiful and incredibly supportive wife and children to get fit, my short stay in hospital that I thought was going to set me back so much and of course all of the donations and words of encouragement from my colleagues, friends and family. And now it had slipped through my fingers and was almost gone, just as soon as it seemed to get started, and it choked me up. It was one of the most amazing nine-day periods of my life.
But I’m getting ahead of myself!
I sincerely apologise for not having been able to write a blog at the end of each evening while I was away. As I said in my last couple of posts everything was such an incredible rush. A typical day started with an alarm at 6:40am, hurriedly getting dressed into cycle gear and filling my pockets with stuff (energy gels on the left, energy bars and spare Garmin in the middle, technical items on the right) that I had carefully laid out the night before, heading down for a big breakfast (muesli, three to four croissants, scrambled egg on toast, tons of orange juice and a cup of tea), making sure I had the appropriate things on my body (for the weather) and in my day bag (in case the weather turned), loading things onto the van, getting going on the bike, stopping for a rest in the morning after 25–35 miles, grabbing lunch in the early afternoon, having another brief refuelling stop a few miles later, rolling into the hotel in the early evening, showering, going for dinner, laying out stuff for the next day and going to bed. Repeat x9. People, myself included, started to get very blurry after a few days as to what had happened when—we would recount a funny tale of having to follow a Garmin route up some stairs the day before only to be corrected that it actually took place that morning. There was little time to reflect and think let alone write things down. I’ll try and correct that now.
Things I had left out of my blog post of the first couple of days
After the near-mutinies related to people being rushed for breakfast, lunch and dinner we tried a new approach of setting out in a number of different groups with the slower riders leaving at 7:15am and one or two other groups following up to 8:15am. This worked really well as generally we were roughly in the same place by lunchtime and nobody needed to add indigestion to their list of cycling-related ailments.
Day four: Eindhoven to Spa
Day four started as day three had ended with lots of cycling along big long Dutch cycle paths. We hadn’t quite got into our stride of riding in a group and didn’t spend too much time in a chain gang. I remember this day as being pretty wet and having roads that stretched out towards a vanishing point, like a more sedate and unspectacular Dutch version of an Eagles album cover.
Entering Belgium was a shock after the luxury and beauty of the Dutch roads—the pot holes and poor road surfacing was like switching from a triple-quilted brand of toilet roll to the green paper towels that we used to use at primary school. We had to be on our game a lot more now.
At the end of the day as we approached Spa we encountered our first proper taste of hills. I half welcomed them after the endless flats of the past 48 hours but relatively speaking they were little beasts that left us with a sense of foreboding:
I had also started to develop some deep ravines in my thumbs which meant I had to tape them up each day for the rest of the event so that they didn’t get any worse:
Day 4: Spa to Luxembourg
I distinctly recall pinching myself at the end of this day and saying to myself that ‘I rode to Luxembourg on my fricking bike!’ which seemed like an apt thing to do after riding to Luxembourg from London. On a bike.
Today started as the previous one had finished. Immediately after leaving the hotel we had to tackle a 1,000ft climb, leaving us with stomachs that threatened to eject their freshly-ingested contents onto the Belgian tarmac. By the time we had got to pit stop one we had barely gone anywhere and I started to get worried about the time we would be getting to the hotel that evening.
A comedy moment happened just after we past the Spa racing circuit. Our Garmins (or ‘vermins’ as they came to be known) were telling us to go up a service road. This was obviously wrong—it was clear from the map that the tool was planning an ill-advised short-cut and we should go on and take the hairpin bend a few hundred yards away. Gayle (daughter of ‘Tour Dad’ Fred) asked me “shall we go on?” and I had barely muttered “Yes, but…” before she and two other riders had rolled down the hill, missed the hairpin and continued going at speed until they disappeared from view. Being the gentleman that I am, I waited with the others at the hairpin for their return. Someone more valiant than me went to fetch them and returned some 20-30 minutes later. It turned out that the two girls in the group had their Garmins off and the guy following them was, well, following them.
Other highlights of the day for me were seeing the monument to Sean Kelly (see below) and experiencing some amazing drafting as we rode in a group. In the long line of bicycles I couldn’t believe how much speed we could carry up hills—I would never get to those speeds riding solo—and that downhill my trusty cyclocross bike runs out of gears at about 33mph!
Nancy itself was beautiful (the little we saw of it) and I wished we could have spent a little more time there.
Day 6: Nancy to Freiburg
This ended up being my biggest day of riding ever (so far), clocking in at a whopping 127 miles, beating my previous record of 120 which I had set on a day’s training where I rode from Berkhamsted to Wimbledon, did a 40-mile loop in the Surrey hills and rode back to Berkhamsted again. In summary, it was a long way. Today’s ride included a fantastic climb in the Vosges region of France up the Col De La Schlucht, high enough to have a ski lift at the top of it.
The descent down The Schlucht saw one of our riders hit a top speed of almost 100km/h (about 61mph)!
Day 7: Zurich to Feldkirch
Today we were joined by the CEO of one of our corporate sponsors, who planned to ride the whole segment on a bike without Lycra or clipless pedals. We started the day with a sleepy train journey from Freiburg to Zurich which felt a little bit like cheating as we effectively skipped 100 miles or so, but was the only way we could cover the distance to a major city in the nine days—Ride 101010 doesn’t really have the same ring to it, does it? As luck would have it, our seats were double-booked and so we had a free upgrade to first class which although comfortable, didn’t get us out of having to pay £5 for a cup of tea!
At the coach park near Zurich train station it dawned on us how far we had come in terms of a complete lack of decorum in relation to our calls of nature. Gone were the early days where we were looking for a secluded quiet bush or tree to relieve ourselves of the coffee, tea and electrolyte-infused water that had been weighing us down—now we all seemed quite happy to go right in the middle of a major urban area with a wholly inadequate small bush and wire fence to hide our shame. Not great!
Heading out of Zurich was the first time that we had a glimpse of what was to come—the Alps loomed large and beckoned us towards them. We knew that tomorrow we would be making our ascent. For now though we were very happy with a long drag out of Zurich along the lake and down through the alpine valleys. Here we found the most beautiful place ever for lunch, beside a lake with the sun shining and mountains all around us. Most people went for a swim, being careful to avoid the swans, and there was even time for a post-lunch swimming race between a couple of riders.
Day 8: Feldkirch to Campodolcino
Only one phrase had been dominating my thoughts since I signed up to the ride and learned the route we were taking—The Splügen Pass. Today was always going to be about the climbing. The past few days had taught me that I was pretty average going along the flats but the big climbs were where I could push a bit harder and although we were all helping each other along a nine-day endurance event there were a few of us that secretly/not-so-secretly did want to get one over on the other faster riders.
Most of the day was spent climbing but we did hit an early descent which saw me clock my fastest speed ever of almost 52mph. It felt absolutely amazing and thrilling to be going that fast and I felt such a buzz when I got to the bottom.
After the fast descent we spent most of the rest of the day on a long, shallow climb which slowly got steeper. It felt as though our lunch stop took forever to get to. After we had refuelled, we set off up a few switchbacks and I made good progress—before I knew it I was whizzing past a scheduled rest stop, eager to get on with the climb. I found myself on my own and stopped on the little descent into the village of Splügen which saw the start of the ascent proper.
The Splügen Pass climb was unlike anything I had done before. It wasn’t that it was exceptionally steep, it was more that it seemed to go on forever. Up the hill from the village, turning right onto the first set of switchbacks before hitting another mile or so of straights before starting again on an even longer set of switchbacks, this time with more and more snow around me and less and less oxygen. You could easily see back down the road you had been on and view the riders that were pursuing you (as I said, it wasn’t a race but there was something primal in me that wanted to stay ahead) but you couldn’t see what was up ahead or how long it would go on for. Sweat and mucus dripped from my face but I was beyond caring—all I wanted to do was to maintain some kind of rhythm and get to the top, ideally without being overtaken. I was looking at the snow and marvelling at how it could remain on the ground when it was so warm and then only when I stopped for a while did I realise just how cold it was up there. Later, I was gutted to find that I had stopped short of the end of the Strava segment up the pass and couldn’t see the time it had taken me—luckily Veloviewer came to the rescue and showed that it was almost 50 minutes to complete the ascent.
Getting to the top was an incredible moment—we literally felt on top of the world and that we had achieved something. The crew from the event organisers Action Challenge were waiting at the top and were fantastic—they made sure that they drilled the point home that what we had done was a real triumph. Aside from catching our breath and in one case even retching from the effort we started to realise that we had conquered the biggest climb on the trip. It was fantastic. To make it even better, we all waited at the top for every single member of the group to come up—all of whom made it—to share in the joy at having taken on the mountain and won.
By the time everyone had arrived at the top we were all freezing. We were covered in sweat and knew that we now had to tackle the first part of the descent down the other side so took time to add a layer or two and get ready.
The ride down was crazy. The Italian roads were similar to Belgium’s but even worse and this time we were travelling downhill at speed. We travelled through a bizarre, cold, barren landscape of rocks, snow, water, road and very little else. I had to stop and take a picture of the eeriness.
We also had our first taste of Italian tunnels, some of which would turn out to be truly terrifying over the next 24 hours—broken lights, sounds of vehicles that seemed to come from everywhere at once, traffic lights and roadworks in the tunnels themselves—as we made our way down the Alps.
It took us no time at all to reach our alpine lodge at Campodolcino and settle in for the night. Given the epic achievement of the day we were keen to let our hair down. Most of us had a pretty late night which was eased along by a ‘kangaroo court’ game where we were each accused of something and forced to drink a shot of disgusting grappa if found guilty (or innocent, for that matter) and pay a forefeit. The whole thing had the atmosphere of a sixth-form trip about it and that was no bad thing.
Day 9: Campodolcino to Milan
The final day saw us setting off down the mountain descent which had been cut very short the day before. We had barely gone a mile before I witnessed one of the riders in front of me experiencing a brief case of speed wobble. All he had done was to ride over a different-coloured patch of asphalt but at the speed we were going it sent some bizarre vibrations through his bike. It looked scary from where I was and he told me later that he thought he was going to crash but it was over in the blink of an eye and he carried on down the hill.
The heavens opened on us early on and we found ourselves working our way towards Lake Como in a biblical downpour. Once you’re wet, you’re wet and there’s nothing to do but to plough on. It was a struggle to see at times as rain came at my face vertically from above and also below from the rear wheel of the rider in front but somehow we made it there without incident and in good time.
Confidence had built up massively over the previous days and quite a few of us now felt pretty adept at riding extremely close to each other. This gave us a dramatic advantage in terms of speed and exertion in exactly the same way as a flock of birds support each other by flying in formation. This, coupled with the thought that we didn’t need to leave anything in our legs as we had no other days left to ride, led to a extremely fast and thrilling day. Four of us ended up together in an early afternoon session where we were as close together as we could possibly be. The environment changed around us and I was oblivious to it except where we went through tunnels, but even then I continued to focus on the rear wheel ahead of me. Keeping going at a steady 23mph for miles on end when you usually potter around at 16–17mph was amazing—we ploughed through the route with ease. After lunch I found myself in another group where we raced along as fast as we could go; all of the usual niceties of group riding such as pointing out potholes and other hazards were out of the window as we pushed with all our might and tried to cling into each others’ paths. I’d never been in this situation before and it was incredible—when we all ended up at the next rest stop it literally had me laughing with joy at the fun we had just experienced. I felt like a teenager again.
Before I knew it we had come to the end of the racing and were entering Monza and the outskirts of Milan where traffic lights naturally brought the speed down. We had all agreed that we would reassemble as a team before heading to the finish line. ‘Tour Dad’ Fred was going to get on a bike and we would come across the finish line as we had started, all together again but this time with thoughts of what we had collectively achieved. We laughed and joked our way there, stopping for a final break at a cafe where we were served bucket loads of tapas alongside beer and coffee before heading on. You know the rest.
On any number of levels this is one of the most amazing things I have ever done. Signing up to the ride was a massive commitment for my wife and I—we spent £1,400 of our savings on the entry fee, I had to raise at least £2,000 in sponsorship which seemed like an incredible hurdle at the time and I then had to train so hard for it, spending time away from my family in order to get the miles in. The night I signed up I immediately went to bed and proceeded to have the worst, most stressful night’s sleep for many years; it brought back vivid memories of some dark days I experienced at university and was a useful reminder of why the Get Connected service is so important for the young people who need their support.
The response from my friends, family and colleagues has been overwhelming and I have so far raised over £4,300; as a group we have hit our £120,000 target which is incredible. Thank you so much to everyone who has helped to support this invaluable service. The people involved in the event—at the charity, with the event organisers Action Challenge and the riders themselves—have all been wonderful to get to know and I feel truly privileged to have had the opportunity to take part. The memory of the trip will stay with me forever.