Today is day 1 of the latest charity cycle challenge organised by Ride2Raise. It is organised on behalf of CHECT, the children’s eye cancer charity, and the riders – Dave, Duncan, Matt, Owen, Peter, Richard, Simon and Tristan – have done an amazing job in advance of the ride with their fundraising pledges. Over £12,000 has been raised before a wheel has even turned on the ride!
For me, as one of the support team, I will have the relatively easy job of following the route in the support car, bike maintenance, first aid if needed, and general admin on the three-day ride. Sounds easy… It’s 5:30am. Yes, half past five on a Sunday morning. The ride starts in Brighton and I’m in Essex. My day starts with a drive to Dorking to meet ride manager Richard and fellow support team member Julian (Jules), where I expect to be greeted with a nice bacon sandwich to start the day. I start the day with a disappointment… no bacon sarnie. Still, toast, coffee and we’re on our way to collect Peter King, the ‘celebrity’ of the riding team, and we’re off to Brighton. It’s my first Ride2Raise as a support team member. Jules has done two already so he’s in charge of the driving, a decision the four of us briefly question the wisdom of as the Land Rover Discovery support vehicle bounces off a kerb as we discuss the plans for the day. Oops! You concentrate on the driving Jules.
9:30am in Brighton and the rain is seeping through our clothes, it’s colder than it’s supposed to be in June, the wind is blowing brutally along the seafront and gradually the team of eight unimpressed looking riders arrive. It’s tough to be enthusiastic given the conditions but brave faces are put on, hellos are said, Fiona from CHECT thanks the riders for the work they have already done to secure a fantastic amount of fundraising, and the work they are about to do to justify it and the eight cyclist are off… to the pier for some photographs.
I’m team photographer and I can already sense I’m the least liked person on Brighton seafront at this particular moment so after a quick few snaps the team are off, heading west along the seafront. There are 200 miles of riding ahead of them over the next three days and I can see why they are keen to get going.
The first part of the day is straightforward. The route hugs the coast as much as possible so there is no drama. Sea on the left means we’re going the right way. Jules and I spend the two hours getting to know each other, and the Garmin navigation system, a bit better. We stay close to the riders to make sure there are no problems and go on ahead from time to time to make sure we, and the riders, understand the planned route. Near Littlehampton we spot some stylish and brightly coloured beach huts which will make a great photo backdrop. Newly painted in yellow, green and bright blue they will contrast with the grey, overcast skies and driving rain so we wait for the riders with the camera ready.
This carefully planed photo opportunity is largely ruined by vehicles overtaking the riders but it’s clear as they pass us that the bitterly cold wind coming off the sea has taken its toll and eight faces blasted by driving rain need to stop for a while. 200 yards down the road is the welcoming, award-winning architecture of the East Beach Cafe. Eight bikes are pretty much abandoned outside and the riders pile in to the warm, dry cafe for Coffee and a slice of cake. It’s been a tough start for the riders. I’m sure nobody expected conditions like these, but everyone seems happy enough and I’m already full of admiration for these eight guys. I’d wound the car window down once to take some pictures and that was enough for me. The wind and rain was horrible so I wound the window back up. The riders are two hours, and about 20 miles, in to an 80 mile ride and the weather is as bad as it was at the start.
The East Beach Cafe is clearly a popular stopping point for south coast cyclists. We meet a couple of guys cycling in the opposite direction – heading for Brighton having started in Portsmouth – raising money for Meningitis research, wish each other well, pay the £42 bill(!) and the riders head off into the very slightly improved conditions.
For a while conditions improve. The rain almost stops and the dated, welcoming yet unappealing seaside towns along the coast from Bognor Regis to Pagham and into Hunston pass by unremarkably. After around an hour the support vehicle and cyclists are on the same stretch of road. Conditions are worsening again and a sturdy and large bus shelter is spotted. Fingers are pointed and some strange sign language combined with unintelligible noises from various riders and support team mean that we all understand this is where we should stop for lunch. This, so Jules tells me, is a stressful time for the suport vehicle team. Eight wet riders all want to grab their bags from the back of the carefully loaded vehicle at the same time. They also want lunch and, after they have finished it, will drop bags, rubbish and half empty drinks bottles in the back of the car.
That may well be the case but I don’t get to see any of that. It comes to light that Simon, one of the riders, has only had one gear for most of the ride so far. Respect to him for keeping up but inspection shows a woeful lack of servicing on what we learn is a borrowed bike. The rear outer gear cable is frayed and split, the inner cable is exposed and twisted and there is simply no movement at the rear derailleur. The only solution is a replacement cable. Fortunately, Ride2Raise support vehicles carry spares for such situations. Unfortunately the rain is as strong as ever and the only shelter for miles is full of cold and wet cyclists stuffing themselves with Waitrose sandwiches and Hula Hoops. It’s a good job RideRaise support teams are tough, and revel in challenging situations. The cable is replaced at the side of the road, the rear brake which has obviously been dragging on the rear wheel since the start of the ride is freed up a little, and the team set off for the afternoon.
There’s a lesson here for anyone who thinks they can do a long-distance ride without paying at least some token attention to basic servicing. You can’t! On a Ride2Raise managed ride there’s a service team to fix your bike no matter what the conditions, even if you are sixty miles from civilisation. On most other rides you’ll be on your own. Service and clean it before you go on the ride or you’ll be the one with water dripping off your nose, filthy hands and a bunch of frustrated fellow riders breathing down your neck!
Back to the ride and things aren’t improving for the riders. The wind and rain is clearly not going to let up all day but morale at lunch has been great and somehow it doesn’t seem to be affecting them at all. They point themselves toward Chichester and Havant and head off again. Jules and I stay behind for a while to eat our own lunches and lose track of time a little. When we set off we’re not sure how far the riders are likely to have gone since lunch. After a slight wrong turn we’re convinced that the riders are behind us so we turn round to re-trace the route in case there has been a problem. It turns out we must have turned round about 200 yards behind them as we double back again and catch up with the team stopped at the side of the road, and a bike clearly undergoing repairs at the top of a climb near Brockhampton. It’s a puncture for Matt and the repair is almost finished when we arrive so we leave the riders to finish the repair while Jules attends to a minor grazed knee caused by a slight fall. We’re up high at this point and up here the wind is as brutal as we’ve experienced so it’s a quick pump up of the tyres and the riders set off for the last 15 miles of the day. After a few miles Jules and I part company with the riders as our job includes making sure everything is in place at the hotel, ready for the riders to head straight for a hot shower when they arive.
Everything is in order at the Mercure Southampton and the staff are very helpful, bags are deposited in rooms and bang on cue the riders arrive after another puncture for Matt and probably one of the toughest days of cycling most of them have ever experienced.
Day 2 – CHECT South Coast Spectacular
A tentative look through the crack in the curtains from my room in the Mercure hotel puts a smile on my face. Monday morning is bright, the sky looks clear and, what I was really looking to see, best of all Southampton is dry.
Most of the riders looked bright enough yesterday evening over dinner but I’m sure there was a lot of bravado involved. Diner last night had been almost a party as a large number of friends and family joined us at the hotel in Southampton. This year’s South Coast Spectacular is being taken on by the team who are involved because of very difficult personal experience for rider Dave and his family. The rest of the riders are friends and family and a lot have links to Southampton so the dining room was filled to the brim with people. Thanks to all of you for coming to see us, and boost the morale of an already exhausted team.
A word about CHECT – the Childhood Eye Cancer Trust. It is a small but vital charity working with children affected by Retinoblastoma. They offer support and information, fund research and raise public awareness of this rare cancer. For more information on CHECT visit their website at www.chect.org.uk.
Back to bravado. Riders were quite physically drained after the ride yesterday. The relentless rain and driving wind had taken quite a toll. Dinner with family and friends was lovely, and – with the exception of Duncan – all stayed up chatting and socialising until quite late. Most would happily have been in bed, asleep. As mentioned yesterday it had been the toughest day of cycling most would ever experience.
As well as the toll on the riders, most of the bikes had also taken a bit of a battering on day one. Over dinner a few niggling problems were reported so Jules and myself were up early and working on the bikes from 6:45 in the morning. Gear adjustments were made to the two bikes we’d been told about, brakes were serviced and as much of the road dirt which had accumulated yesterday as possible was cleaned off. Where we could we wanted the guys to feel like they were riding clean and fully serviced bikes. It’s not that practical to service eight bikes in the hotel lobby at 7 in the morning but we did the best we could then joined the rest of the team for breakfast at 7:30.
Breakfast was perfect. Plenty of excellent fuel for riders and support crew. Faces were stuffed, camaraderie was great, jokes and light hearted insults were flying and there were smiling and enthusiastic faces everywhere. Plenty of new bike niggles came to light over breakfast so plenty more gear and brake adjustments were made. Slightly over exuberant use of the tyre pump meant the first inner tube had to be replaced before a wheel had turned but the riders were ready to set off for day 2 a little after the scheduled 9:30am start time.
Roads were busy out of Southampton, and not particularly nice for the riders but after a while we peeled off the main road and onto narrow country lanes through Lyndhurst and the beautiful surroundings of the New Forest. The scenery here is stunning and, with the bright and clear skies and even some warm sunshine on their backs the riders are happy. The team attract some fellow cyclists on to the back of the group for part of the ride through the forest. This is clearly a popular area for cycling and it’s easy to see why. We pass a couple of farmer’s wives on horseback walking dogs on very long leads who greet us with a pleasant, warm smile and a welcoming wave from their weather beaten and creased faces. This was the first experience of some amazingly friendly and helpful people in this part of the country. Everyone we met today was extremely friendly and couldn’t do enough to help us.
We stopped briefly in Thorney Heath for a snack after a couple of minor and unplanned route deviations. Slight adjustment was made to one bike and off we went again. We stayed fairly close to the riders through this part of the ride. Sometimes the support crew need to head off and leave the riders to it while we re-stock the spares box or pick up items the riders need later in the day, but we were fully stocked and enjoying the ride through the New Forest, and offering some protection to the riders from approaching traffic, although the roads were pleasantly quiet.
Through Ripley on more single track roads and the ride was going well. This was, however, time for the latest in an unfortunate series of punctures for Matt. Although the ride team are careful to warn each other of possible dangers on the road it is sometimes impossible to avoid them and Matt, riding near the back of the group, had caught a pothole with his rear wheel and the tube had burst immediately.
As we were right behind them on the road we pulled over and I took on the tube replacement. Now as much as we all know that roadside puncture repairs are part of cycling, personally, I don’t much like repairing other people’s. A pinched tube or a not fully checked tyre can mean another puncture in a few hundred yards if you’re not careful so I’m always a bit nervous after a repair like this. Even though this was now Matt’s fourth (or is it fifth..?) puncture of the ride I didn’t want to feel responsible for another stop after my first puncture repair so I took extra care to ensure no pinching of the new tube.
Repair done and we’re off again through Sopley, Hurn, past Bournemouth Airport. The pleasant scenery of the New Forest is long gone and we plod on through Parley Green, Dudsbury… pleasant enough sounding towns but all fairly dull. Wimbourne is nice and the difference is obvious. It is very busy, not with road traffic so much but there are lots of people around. May be a good place to stop on a future ride. We head on a little further and stop on a large grassy area outside a petrol station. Perfect for the riders to be able to use the toilet and relax over the Mercure Hotel-supplied packed lunch.
Jules had been a little concerned about parking the Land Rover support vehicle on the grass verge. I’d insisted on it as I wanted it to be prominent and noticeable both to the riders as they came up the hill towards us and to other traffic on the road. Some free advertising if you like. For a moment it looked like Jules may have had a point as a man in a high-vis jacket approached us with a rusty axe… but he just used the back of it to knock a sign into the ground advertising next Saturday’s farmer’s market and off he went, leaving us relaxing under trees in the shade with the riders. Lunchtime’s support team task – on top of the usual dishing out of lunches and sweets, accessing personal belongings in the back of the car, topping up drinks bottles and so on – was to make minor adjustment to the cleats on Duncan’s shoes. Thanks to years of knee, hip and ankle problems, Ride manager Richard carries vast knowledge, and a book, to help with any niggling pains caused by cycling. In addition, rider Owen is a trainee physiotherapist so a course of action was agreed to adjust the cleats so Duncan’s heels would be slightly turned in to improve the situation with a small knee pain he was experiencing.
Lunch finished and the target now is Weymouth, our overnight stop, with a break for ice creams planned for somewhere near East Lulworth.
It’s a fairly uneventful afternoon’s ride. Even Matt can’t manage another puncture! Team work is good on the ride, with each rider taking a turn at the front, pulling along the other riders in his slipstream, and at the back benefitting from the same. We travel through the lovely riverside area of Wareham and head south to Lulworth.
Best find of the day is the Weld Arms in East Lulworth. Not only is it a lovely country pub with a beer garden, but the people are incredibly welcoming, friendly and helpful and, best of all, the pub has an ice cream hut and they will open up especially for us! Cornettos and Magnums are greatly appreciated by the riders. It seems like it’s the best thing that’s happened to them all day.
Paul Turner, a local eating outside the pub asks us about the ride, and what CHECT are all about and then forces some money into our hands. Diane, the boss of the pub, offers us a meal for two to raffle for the cause. It’s been a short stop at the Weld Arms but we’ve enjoyed it here and we’ll make this a regular stop on the South Coast spectacular. See the Weld Arms website HERE.
Leaving East Lulworth the terrain is tougher for the riders. Jules and I head straight to Weymouth, just 15 miles away, but we still experience some of the spectacular views the riders will see, particularly from Durdle Door. There are some fairly serious hills on this part of the ride and the team are going to have a tough end to the day.
In Weymouth we learn that the pace of life is slow, hotel owners like to talk… and talk… – not least about the changes being made in the area in preparation for the Olympic sailing events which will take place in 2012 – but once again the welcome is fantastic and we meet possibly the happiest man in the world in Rob Cole, the owner of The Esplanade on Weymouth seafront, and the very helpful and accommodating Lorraine in the Richmoor a few doors down. Riders and crew are split between these two typical and perfectly comfortable seaside hotels for the night. We meet for a quieter dinner tonight and I don’t know about everyone else but I’m exhausted and get my head down early for a good night’s sleep.
Day 3 – CHECT South Coast Spectacular
I don’t know if it’s true or not. Last night, although we ate dinner in the Richmoor Guest House, where some of our party were staying, I was staying with the remainder of the group in the Esplanade, a few doors down the road along the seafront. So maybe it’s true. Maybe there WAS bingo followed by pole dancing in the lounge of the Richmoor just before we arrived for dinner. Perhaps I’ll never know. Perhaps I don’t want to know. Whatever the truth it was clear that the riders had got on well the previous day and banter and joking between the team members was flowing.
Personally, I like it when a group of people feel relaxed enough in each other’s company to be able to do that. To laugh and joke at minor misfortunes which other riders have experienced is healthy in my book. You’ll get it back, of course, but when you do you wear the badge of someone who is completely accepted by other members of the group. It was clear at dinner that everyone was wearing the badge. This is a good group of guys who have all got each other’s backs and don’t mind a bit of stick.
When you live in a busy city it can be strange to experience the more relaxed way of life in a place such as Weymouth. Breakfast this morning was at eight in the Esplanade and eight thirty in the Richmoor so an early start was always going to be difficult. In the Esplanade, “World’s Happiest Man” Rob had cooked up a great breakfast for us. Riders were feeling the effects of two days in the saddle. On top of that it had been known since the start of the ride on Sunday that Tuesday – the final day – was going to be tough. Properly tough. Even Peter King, the most experienced rider in the group, and a man who has cycled around Britain solo, and raced over the years with some of the best, was showing signs of nerves and suffering the aches and pains of a couple of tough days. He knows today’s route quite well, having ridden it in the opposite direction in the past, so he knows what is coming up today.
A reasonably early start is essential for a number of reasons. Least pressing of those at the moment is that two riders, Tristan and Simon, have train rides home booked from Exeter late this afternoon. Most pressing at the moment is that if we don’t set off soon the warm, bright sunlight which is all around us will convince us that the best thing we can do today is grab a deck chair and make the most of Weymouth’s delights for the day.
I quite like Weymouth. It’s not the slightly run down and slightly depressing British seaside town that most of us remember from our past. It IS a bit like that, and I for one find that kind of seaside town appealing, but Weymouth is different. It’s trying to improve. Trying to embrace the modern visitor. Trying NOT to be what we know it is. I hope it achieves its aim, and the Olympic sailing in 2012 is already casting its influence on Weymouth, but I hope it keeps an element of that black and white, box brownie photographed charm.
Weymouth’s charms are resisted and with almost nothing but a quick wipe down needed for the bikes, the riders set off along the seafront away from the town heading for Abbotsbury.
It’s a pleasant ride at first. We pull off the main road and gradually the scenery becomes more rural. We can see the daunting hills in the distance but for now we just notice historic monuments sitting on top of seemingly inaccessible peaks. We ride past thatched cottage after thatched cottage. Stone walls line the narrow roads. It is truly beautiful and the view back over Chesil Bank as we climb Abbotsbury Hill is truly one of the most stunning I have ever seen.
The riders probably didn’t quite feel the same. Jules and I are in a Land Rover, remember. Half way up Abbotsbury Hill we find the riders in groups of two or three walking up the hill pushing their bikes. What we in the support vehicle haven’t really taken in is just how steep it is along this long climb. It is brutal and all but Matt have been forced to admit that the severity of the climb has caught them out and Abbotsbury Hill has beaten them. Cyclist are proud people. They certainly don’t like to walk, and they most certainly won’t let a hill get the better of them unless it is seriously challenging. This was. Steep hills can be fun for cyclists. Long climbs also, but a combination of the two, close to the start of the day, proved impossible so thankfully the riders stepped – or fell, in the case of one whose initials are RK… – off their bikes and trudged up the hill. Not an easy task in itself wearing cycling shoes. I know they were disappointed but at least they got a chance to take in that stunning view.
But let’s not forget Matt. Admittedly his bike was slightly better set up for serious climbing but we can’t take away from the fact that to make it to the top of Abbotsbury Hill was an astonishing achievement and he deserved all the respect he received from the other riders and support crew at the top.
I admit that I thought one or more of the riders would call it a day at this point. They had all been feeling the effects of some tough climbs at the end of yesterday’s ride but they were nothing compared to this. Some of the riders were not hugely experienced, with maybe 10 miles each way on fairly flat roads being their more usual daily cycle. This had now become serious. We’re possibly less than 10 miles into a 60 mile ride, the first of several serious climbs of the day has almost broken the riders, and the finish in Exeter probably seems an almost unachievable aim. But I wasn’t riding a bike. After a surprisingly short break at the top to take in the views and some refreshment, the enthusiasm to get going again took me by surprise.
Of course there were jokes about hanging on to the support vehicle up the next hill, or calls for some of whatever it is that Tour de France riders take to help them appear super-human. But to a man it was clear that the team were not going to let a setback like this beat them. We are going to Exeter… Bring it on!
For the next few miles things are thankfully easier. We twist and wind along rolling hills on the way to Bridport. South coast village life is evident all the way. Shutters are being painted, roofs are being thatched, gardens are being tended. It’s an appealing picture of a lifestyle most of us rarely experience.
Coming out of West Bay I notice Exeter on a road sign. It’s still a long way off but for the first time the end is, though not really in sight, a genuine target.
Another gruelling climb out of Bridport and the riders enjoy some on-road bonding with another cyclist. He is going solo from Sittingbourne to Exeter and beyond. It’s a nice moment and although he doesn’t stop with us at the top of the climb, Jules hands him an energy drink as he pedals past which he takes with a smile and shouts his best wishes to the team as we wave him on his way.
The morning continues with climbs, short stops to catch breath, then more climbs. Technique is improving for everyone as the hills are seen as a challenge rather than a chore and although it’s been a really tough morning and 16 legs are really feeling it, behind the obvious pain morale is as high as it’s ever been. Every one of the ride team has really pushed their own limits today. We knew today was going to be hard. Really hard. But watching these guys achieve something to be genuinely proud of on every climb is amazing to see, and to feel a small part of.
Lunch will be in Lyme Regis. The original plan was for fish and chips for the riders but a chat at the last refreshment stop concludes that will be too heavy a meal for the riders given the final climbs into Exeter. Jules and I are given the task of sourcing something more suitable so, once we know the riders are as comfortable as they can be for the seven miles into Lyme Regis, we head off ahead to find some locally made sandwiches. We get lucky when we pile into Lyrindas deli in the heart of one of the south coast’s busiest resorts. Kelly and Ben, the staff, couldn’t have been more helpful. 10 fresh sandwiches, 10 bags of crisps, 10 cakes and 10 drinks, all in double quick time at the busiest time of the day. We can’t thank them enough. Better still they offer a nice discount and the lovely Kelly gives us all the change she has in her purse to add to the fundraising pot. Thanks so much Kelly. If you are ever in Lyme Regis they are worth a visit. Website HERE.
Good as the sandwiches are, the riders are struggling to eat. The morning’s gruelling climbs mean that rest is the most important thing on their minds. Food is essential fuel for the rest of the day, as more energy sapping climbs are on the agenda, so the stop is fairly lengthy. That’s fine though. Lyme Regis is a lovely, typically picturesque seaside town. It is also very busy and the sight of our support vehicle and a bunch of riders in CHECT branded jerseys generates a few donations from passers by.
What is clear is that the riders are now focussed on the finish. It’s not that far away. Maybe 30 miles between here and the finish. The last push won’t be easy – there are more stamina sapping climbs to come – but this is the last leg. Brighton is a long way behind us. Even Weymouth, where we started the day, is a distant memory. It’s all about Exeter Castle now. The finish.
Rousdon… Axmouth… a few navigational issues as the minor roads fail to appear on the navigation systems… Stepps Road… Seaton… all very nice to visit but they are quite challenging for the riders so Jules and I stay at the back to protect them from the light traffic on these narrow country lanes.
We ride through the village of Beer. Something for the team to look forward to! The hills are still as tough as they have been all day but pace is surprisingly good. This is a great bunch of guys. Motivating each other, warning following riders of dangers on the road, enjoying the fact that this is something special for every one of them. Maybe I haven’t expressed very well just how tough today has been. Believe me, many groups of riders more experienced than these eight would have found this an impossibly difficult day of riding. All the bikes are performing flawlessly and although the team are tired there is no way they aren’t going to work together to make this happen. This is a very personal challenge. Dave and Sarah’s friends have stepped up to support a charity which means so much to them and have done CHECT proud but it’s more than that. Personal goals are being achieved here and, hard as this day has been, the riders probably wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
Branscombe… tick. Weston… tick. Salcombe Regis… tick. On a climb around this area we run into a slightly cocky bunch of local riders. Surprisingly the local riders are quite dismissive of our team. Jokey comments are normal between cyclists but there’s a different atmosphere here. Our guys are not very happy about being accused of not being serious cyclists by the locals. “How far to go?” Richard asks one of them as the local aggressively rides past. “I don’t know where you’re going” is the flippant reply.
Others in the local cycling group almost barge past our team on the way up a challenging climb. They hear Peter jokingly ask “whose idea was it to ride this hill?” as they pass. “That’s what you get in Devon, mate” is their dismissive reply but just at that moment one of their group has a noisy tyre explosion and comes to an abrupt halt ahead of us.
OK, it’s not something we are proud of – we’re supportive of all other cyclists at whatever level they ride – but there was a slightly satisfying feeling as Peter instantly came back with “THAT’s what you get in Devon, Mate!” on the way past the stricken group. We all allowed ourselves a slight smile. We deserved it. We’ve worked bloody hard to get where we are and nobody is going to make light of that achievement!
It’s the final motivation the team needed. There are still some hills to take on as we approach Exeter and drop down through Weston, Street, past the donkey sanctuary and in to Sidford, viewing the climb back up the other side, but we’re nearly there.
Jules and I have one last task before the finish and it’s one of the most important. Champagne! Eight exhausted cyclists will deserve a celebration at Exeter Castle, the final destination after 200 miles of rain, wind, bike problems, hills, hills and more hills. We fill the drinks bucket with ice and a couple of bottles of fizz before parking up in the castle car park and wait to guide the riders in through the clogged rush hour streets of Exeter.
It’s over! A final short climb up a cobbled street and the South Coast Spectacular is finished. Eight amazing guys have helped each other to dig deeper than they have ever done. To ride through some of the toughest conditions I have ever seen for cycling. To climb hills they never though they could consider taking on. Then taking on the next, even tougher, hill. I’m feeling quite emotional as the hugs and handshakes are shared. It’s a big, big moment. It’s been a big, big challenge, and I’m really, really proud of every single one of you.
Dave, Richard, Peter, Duncan, Simon, Matt, Tristan, Owen, you have all been amazing, and it’s been amazing to be a part of this incredible experience. I can’t thank you enough.