THE UPS AND DOWNS OF AN EIGHT DAY CYCLING CHALLENGE
It is fair to say that May was a busy month:
We delivered a two week wellbeing event for a client - a global asset manager based in London.
Some of my best (and maddest) friends joined me on an eight day cycle ride to the South of France, where I was due to get married a few days later.
I got married to my amazing wife.
I enjoyed a week off in Italy, sampling some mouth watering food and even putting my feet up for a few hours at one point.
It was certainly intense, but it was a life changing experience in more ways than one, for me, my wife, but also for my friends.
I am keen to share with you the experience of the cycle ride, which involved assembling a motely crew of some of my best friends, some of whom hadn’t owned a road bike or ridden more than 30 miles until 4 months prior to setting off on the trip; a trip that saw us cycle an average of 111 miles per day across the entire length of France, up mountains, across muddy fields and into 45mph head winds. To make the trip that little bit more challenging for everyone, I also opted to take them on a little detour via Mont Ventoux, one of France’s toughest cycling climbs.
We set off in glorious sunshine from Greenwich for the first leg down to Folkestone, where we were due to get the Eurotunnel first thing on day two. We couldn’t have wished for a better start and with a pit-stop for lunch (read: three course feast) at my cousin’s near Tonbridge, we were in great spirits at the end of day one with 80 miles under our belts.
Long distance cycle rides are synonymous with early morning starts and day two was no exception – we were up at 5.30am with just enough time for a quick breakfast, before crossing the English Channel, ready for the 105-mile stint from Calais to Peronne. Day one’s sunshine gave way to murky clouds and eventually rain - our attempts to out-cycle the weather front, unsuccessful. Spirits for a couple of the group ran low, as we cycled - soaked through to the bone - for a number of hours, before reaching our final destination - Peronne. It fell to a couple of the more seasoned multi-day cyclists to try and boost their moral. For two of the group, this had been their longest ever day’s cycle.
Day three greeted us with drier weather and another 105 miles into the heart of the Champagne region. Most of the day was spent observing the countless war memorials that lined our route, commemorating those who fought bravely but whose lives were lost in world war one – a humbling experience. The final stint on freshly laid tarmac along the river to Epernay was magical and we celebrated, the only way you should when in Champagne, with a bottle of Moet & Chandon.
Our longest day - 149 miles on day four - was very much a step into the unknown for two of the guys. Robbie and I had previously cycled 190 miles when completing 8 Days of Madness in 2012, so knew what was in store. Or at least we thought we did. Whichever way you cut it, 149 miles is a long way, especially when you’re up against the elements. The first half of the day was extremely draining as we battled into a relentless head wind. Some of the guys were struggling a little from the previous day, so I sat at the front for the first 25 miles, sheltering them from the worst of it. With my legs tiring, we opted to work as a team and take it in turns on the front. Cycling is a fantastic team sport and there is nothing more galvanising that taking your turn on the front of the peloton knowing your efforts are helping the group as a whole progress. If we hadn’t worked as a team, the day would have been much, much longer. Thankfully, the afternoon was kinder to us and we were lifted by the fact we had another friend joining us that night for the next couple of days. The miles slowly ticked away and we made it to a little hamlet by the name of Beurizot by 8pm. Tired legs and heads saw some of the gang slump off to bed before dessert, whilst Robbie and I waited up for our good friend Mark who was flying in for the weekend, the only days he could spare, as he was mid-trial in London.
We put Mark to good use straight away on day five and he kindly obliged, sitting at the front of the peloton for large stints, enabling us to recover a little form the previous day’s exertions. One thing France is extremely good at, is its Voie Vertes along disused railway tracks. We found ourselves on a 40km stretch of well kept tarmac which we relished, as we passed through quaint villages and canals. A head wind greeted us as we approached the outskirts of Lyon and we had to work hard to complete the 135 miles from Beurizot. On arrival at the hotel, we were greeted by two more friends who would cycle with us for the remainder of the adventure.
At 90 miles and relatively flat (following the river bed), this was due to be our recovery day ahead of Mont Ventoux on day seven. However, there are no easy days when undertaking multi-day events, which was made all the more difficult with a 45mph head wind. Never have I had to pedal down a 11% descent to just about maintain 15mph. Nor have I ever seen white horses on a river, but it was a sign of just how strong the wind was as it was funnelled down the Rhone Valley. Team work played a huge part in making any progress that day, as we each took it in turn at the front of the peloton – it was brutal, but we came through it as a team.
Finally, the day had arrived when we would climb Mont Ventoux. After some discussion the night before, the other guys had opted for the more difficult route up Ventoux via Bedoin – the one the Tour de France regularly uses. I had originally planned to take them up the slighter easier side of the mountain, but they made the call and, from a purist’s perspective, it was the only way up.
What awaited us, none of us could have anticipated. Having cycled up Alpe D’Huez in 2011, I was pretty sure I knew what to expect. I always thought the cycling forums were wrong when they listed Alpe D’Huez, with its 21 hairpin bends, as much easier than Mont Ventoux. How could you get tougher than that? It turns out, quite easily. After the first couple of kilometres, things got hairy, the ascent kicked up to close to 8% and remained there (or higher) for the next 100 minutes or so. Whereas I conquered Alpe D’Huez in 65 minutes, it took me 50 minutes more to stand on top of Ventoux. The final few kilometres proved almost insurmountable as the trees gave way to a surreal moon scape. With the temperature dropping ever closer to zero and the wind whipping at my wheels, looking for any sign of weakness to pull me from the mountainside, I will never forget the sensation of the penultimate corner as the incline ramped up yet more (close to 15%) into a savage head wind, which felt like an impenetrable wall. Digging deep once more, head down, I pushed hard. Finally, after just under 2 hours, I was there, the summit. My friends rolled in 10-20 minutes after me, all slightly amazed that they had managed to conquer something quite so ferocious. It was bitterly cold at the top and the descent was pretty scary with the gusts of wind threatening to throw us from the mountain top and our chill-ridden bodies shaking the handle bars unevenly down the rapid descent. Once back in the tree line the warmth returned, the wind dwindled and we were treated to some glorious descents for most of the rest of the afternoon, arriving in Forcalquier just after 7.30pm.
Two of the seven guys were adamant they would likely get in the support vehicle on the way up Ventoux. Neither of them did – testament to the grit, determination and mental strength each and everyone one of them showed on the climb. I am sure they left a small part of themselves on the mountain that day… But what they will have gained in resilience was priceless.
After a hearty breakfast we set off on the final 90 miles of our epic journey to Grimaud. The sun was shining and, for the first couple of hours, we were still benefiting from the efforts of climbing Ventoux the previous day, as we descended for many more miles. A couple of tough climbs kept us working hard, but with the finish line in sight we were all in great spirits. The final descent over La Garde Freinet was fast and furious, as some of the guys jostled for position – there would be a sprint finish, even on tired legs.
Champagne corks popped, as we were greeted by my parents and fiancée (now wife) and a number of locals who had heard the fracas and were keen to join in the celebrations. 888 miles (according to my friends’ Strava), 8 days and one hell of an adventure.
Wellbeing encompasses a number of elements. A multi-day cycle ride is extraordinarily powerful when it comes to maximising an individual’s wellbeing. Aside from the Physical element (both the physical exertion and mental strength required to complete such an event), it encompasses Community and Social wellbeing too. From a corporate perspective, these types of events are fantastic at fostering collaboration, engagement and hopefully people’s mind-sets towards health and wellbeing. Whilst we didn’t raise money for charity on this occasion, it is also a fantastic opportunity to raise much needed funds for deserving charities.
For me, this was about cementing the friendships I already have, some which had been formed in not dissimilar circumstances cycling from John O’Groats to Land’s End in 2010. It was also great to see new friendships being formed amongst my friends. They will have shared memories to last a lifetime.