Merlin 4 Parks 4 Days – October 2011

Merlin 4 Parks 4 Days – Day 1

Regular readers of my Ride2Raise ride diaries won’t be surprised to hear that there’s been no improvement in the Bacon situation at the Dorking R2R HQ where we meet to load up the support vehicle before the start of the ride. My resignation letter is drafted but as this is the last challenge of 2011 I’m sure there is time for improvement before next year’s busy schedule of rides.

Today is the start of the Merlin Entertainment 4 Parks 4 Days ride in aid of the Merlin’s Magic Wand charity. Merlin’s Magic Wand helps seriously ill, disabled and disadvantaged children to enjoy magical experiences at Merlin Entertainment’s many attractions world wide. This ride will visit 4 of their UK attractions – Thorpe Park, Chessington, Legoland and Alton Towers.

The ride will last four days and the riders will be expected to cycle 250 miles in that time. It’s quite a challenge for the riders and it’s a diverse, and quite small, team of Merlin employees who are taking part. Julie, riding a hybrid bike, is as enthusiastic as they come but has some concerns about a recent knee injury. Liz is a First Aider for Merlin, and also a personal trainer so she sounds ideally suited and prepared for a long ride, however she will only be cycling the first two days due to work commitments, and Michael – to be known from now on as Finlay for some reason – is slightly enigmatic. He’s young and looks fit but is on a borrowed bike and doesn’t reveal much about his abilities at the start.

In addition the Ride2Raise riding team consists of two riders at the start – Ride Manager Richard and George – but George will also be leaving the ride after a day and a half due to other commitments.

Weather has been very good for the days leading up to this ride but there is some concern that it will change as the ride progresses and may be quite cold and wet by day four. In addition Julie is suffering a slight cold and George is also feeling quite poorly so who knows how this is going to go?

The start of this ride is at Thorpe Park in Surrey and riders and support team meet in the car park. The support vehicle is loaded up with luggage and at this stage there would usually be a pep-talk from Richard about how things will go on the ride, before a fairly slow and sedate start to the ride, with riders pacing themselves and getting to know each other and their riding styles.

This ride is a bit different. The Merlin’s Magic Wand team of Carly and Melinda have decided this challenge is going to start with a 0-80mph sprint on board Thorpe Park’s world record holding Stealth roller coaster! It’s an unexpected 0-80mph in 1.8 seconds, 4.7G delay to the start of the ride but the team are up for it and it’s a fun way to kick things off. My feet remain firmly on the ground as I have to… erm… take some photographs for the diary!

Stealth ride over and a big photo session at the entrance to Thorpe Park done and we’re ready. Richard finally gets to do the pep-talk to the riders and they’re off. 4 Parks 4 Days is go. Actually it nearly wasn’t for the support vehicle as the handbrake decided to stick on but, having cleared that I set off in pursuit of the riders.

Day one is a bit of an odd one. To meet the requirements of Merlin’s Magic Wand, day one will finish at Chessington World of Adventures which is only around 15 miles away from the start by a fairly direct route. To make the distance more suitable Richard has planned a scenic and diverse route allowing the team to rack up around 45 miles before reaching Chessington.

There’s a slightly disjointed start as we miss the carefully planned route for the first few miles. It’s not a problem as the riders know the area quite well and know where they are headed but it results in a bit of a circuit around Thorpe Park, now known to these riders as the Thorpe Loop, before we pick up the correct route and head for the lunch stop which has remained exactly the same distance away for the past five miles.

Lunch on day one will be at the top of Box Hill, a well known and popular cycling destination famous for its views over the surrounding countryside. We travel through some beautiful Surrey countryside on the way and I take advantage of this to stop and take a few photographs of a lovely sunny morning view of the boats on the canal near Chertsey. As I’m snapping away I can hear behind me the unmistakeable sound of the horn of an articulated lorry but I don’t pay much attention to it. It’s a fairly busy road and, mid morning, it’s not an unusual sound to hear.

After I hear the horn a couple more times it slowly dawns on me that the industrial estate entrance I’ve chosen to park in is a bit narrow. I’ve left plenty of room for pretty much anything to get past me… Anything, that is, except a 40 foot long, bright yellow articulated lorry. Oops! I sheepishly wave my apologies to the driver – and the train of cars stuck behind him – and jump back in the car and head off after the riders.

A lot of this morning’s ride is on the Surrey Cycleway so roads and scenery are great for somewhere so close to the M25. Surrey is popular for cyclists and the narrow lanes of the route are ideal and almost empty of other traffic. We always try to avoid busy and potentially dangerous main roads on Ride2Raise challenges. It’s much nicer for the riders and the scenery is a lot more pleasant. I head off to arrange things at the top of Box Hill for lunch.

The climb into the picnic area is well known for being quite challenging but the riders all take it in their stride and we settle around a picnic table for lunch. A bit later than planned thanks to the roller coaster ride at the start of the day but spirits are high and the riders have enjoyed the chance to get to know one another on the road. Bonding between riders is important on our rides as they will need to encourage and motivate each other throughout the rest of the challenge.

Embarrassingly, at lunch something we find out is that, thanks to a slight communication break down, we haven’t arranged a gluten free lunch for Liz who is gluten intolerant. Thankfully Liz is very understanding and has come prepared for exactly this situation and she delves into her own supplies for a tin of rice and, combined with a banana, it provides enough fuel for the rest of the day. Not ideal but at least we know for the rest of the ride. Thanks for understanding Liz.

Climbing Box Hill has been harder for Julie than the others as she is riding a hybrid bike against the dedicated road bikes of the other riders and, because of her knee injury, she is reluctant to get out of the saddle to make the climb easier, but she is happy and confident that it’s not a problem.

After lunch and coffees for the team we set off for the afternoon ride and the destination of Chessington some 20 miles away.

The rest of the day is taken at a fairly leisurely pace and the riders arrive at Chessington for photographs with the Merlin’s Magic Wand team of Carly and Melinda and settle in to the comfortable Holiday Inn Chessington Resort Hotel for the night. The riders have done well today. Julie has proved her strength and determination, Liz has enjoyed her ride despite our lunch mix-up and Finlay has, well he’s just been Finlay. He gets on his bike and rides. No drama, no issues, he just gets on and rides.

Merlin 4 Parks 4 Days – Day 2

Breakfast is good at Chessington Resort Hotel. Finlay claims he’s been for an early swim but we’re not entirely convinced. However, what we do know for sure is that Julie’s cold has got worse and George isn’t feeling great either so we make sure we have plenty of tissues ready for day two. Today is going to be a long, tough day in the saddle, the riders will be covering almost 80 miles, so this isn’t an ideal start.

Breakfast over and we’re ready to go. There are no bike problems so I don’t need to do any repairs or adjustments before the start. It’s cold but sunny and it looks like it will be a good day. Today’s ride will pass through Legoland in Windsor – another Merlin Entertainments attraction – before heading north to the finish at Horwood House Hotel in Milton Keynes. Chessington Resort Hotel, just like all the hotels we work with, have been great so we rattle off a few photographs with Guest Services manager Sumit Virmani, load up the hotel-supplied packed lunches and head off into the fresh, crisp morning air.

As always I stay behind for a few minutes to make sure we’ve not left anything at the hotel and to thank the staff, then I head off after the riders. A short distance from the hotel I spot a supermarket where I pick up some gluten-free goodies for Liz’s lunch then I quickly catch – and pass – the riders.

The support vehicle serves a few purposes during a Ride2Raise challenge. Apart from its main purpose (which is storing Richard’s odd selection of… um… ‘music’ for him to listen to on the drive home at the end of the challenge, in case you were wondering), it’s important for the vehicle to be fairly close to the riders most of the time. There are a few reasons for this, such as: the vehicle contains the tools in case of a breakdown; if a rider is ill or injured they can be collected by the support team; to provide protection to riders on narrow roads from approaching traffic; waterproofs can be passed between riders and support vehicle easily if the weather changes unexpectedly; to reassure riders that they are on the correct route or ‘this is where we’re stopping for lunch’. Also, I like to take photographs of the riders wherever possible during the ride so sometimes I’ll drive off ahead and try to find a suitably pleasant setting to stand with the camera while the riders pull a selection of silly faces at me as they ride past.

A short while in to the morning’s ride I found a nice spot under some trees which overhung the road giving a nice ‘tunnel’ effect, and with the light picking its way between the leaves and branches. I set myself up with the camera and readied myself for the arrival of the team. As they came past I snapped away at the riders who, for a reason which wasn’t immediately apparent, shouted back at me. I hadn’t noticed that the flash on the camera had been needed due to the low light under the trees and some of the riders had though it was a speed camera going off. They were riding well, I’ll admit, but I think that was a little optimistic!

Due to the anomalies of the first day’s route, the morning covered some of the same ground as yesterday, though thankfully not the Thorpe Loop again. First destination of the day is Legoland in Windsor, another Merlin Entertainments attraction.

The riders arrive at Legoland to another rousing reception from various brightly-shirted Merlin staff, as well as a big, red, smiling Lego brick on legs. Before Carly and Melinda whisk them off for some more Merlin’s Magic Wand PR photographs I’m advised that Julie’s bike is not shifting gear properly so I take it away to the car park to check it over while the rest of the team disappear for coffee, cake and photos. I rode Julie’s bike round the car park a bit and couldn’t find anything wrong. Somehow I convinced myself that despite this it must need some adjustment so that’s what I did. By the time the team came back from their break I still hadn’t managed to get the gears back to shifting as well as they had been before. Oops!

A few minutes more with the gears and they felt better. I rode it round the car park again and all seemed good. A small raising of Julie’s saddle was also made to ease a little pain she was experiencing and the riders were ready for the off again.

Lunch will be somewhere near Knotty Green so, after following the riders for a while, I shoot off ahead to find a suitable place to stop. We always look for somewhere with a bit of space, somewhere for the riders to sit and rest and, ideally, somewhere I can check over the bikes and work on them if necessary. A pub with a beer garden is ideal and fortunately on the rural routes we take these are quite plentiful and usually accommodating.

I find an ideal looking pub and park the Ride2Raise support Land Rover in a highly visible spot so the riders can see where I’ve chosen as their rest spot. Unusually it proves a bit tough to get approval from the pub as we have our own lunch but a bit of the well-practised support team charm and a phone call to the landlady seeking approval secures us a perfect spot outside just in time as the riders have arrived outside. It’s warmed up as the morning progressed so it’s a nice break in the sun.

The morning’s adjustments to Julie’s bike seem to have worked well and mechanically everything is fine on the bikes so all I need to do is top up the air in a few tyres.

This is as far as George is going on the ride. He has to get away because of other commitments so he says his goodbyes to the other riders and they set off for the remaining 40 miles of the day’s ride. I hang back with George to make sure he has his rucksack and other bits and pieces. He’s not been feeling well since the start in Thorpe Park but I can tell he’s sad to be leaving. As usual the group builds a strong bond over the course of a challenge like this and it’s always a shame to have to say goodbye to new found friends.

With George on his way I set off some time after the riders. Not long into the drive something which has bothered me for a while about the support vehicle comes to light again. I’ve noticed a couple of times that when turning left, vehicles which are close behind sometimes don’t seem to notice that I’m planning to turn. I wonder if the indicator on that side is working so I find a large lay-by to stop in and check.

Sure enough, the indicator on the large rear-mounted bike rack isn’t working. The main indicator is fine but I can only suppose that following vehicles are fixing their attention on the bike rack’s lights and not noticing the ones on the vehicle. I spend a good few minutes removing the lens to get to the bulb – which is fine – and by the time I’ve put it back on, and accepted that there’s nothing I can do to sort the obvious wiring problem at this stage, I realise that I must be quite some distance behind the riders by now.

Almost as soon as I set off again I get a ‘phone call from Richard. The riders have stopped for a while and Julie is suffering a bit of indigestion. I have indigestion tablets in the car so the plan is to catch and find the riders so they can get the tablets. I should have no problem either catching or finding them as I have the same navigation system in the car as the riders use, and it has the same route programmed in. I’m somewhere near Amersham and they are probably some way ahead but catching them should be easy enough, however after some time driving after them it seems odd that I haven’t caught them. I probably go much farther than I should before I come to the conclusion that they can’t possibly have come this far. I lost track of time while helping George get sorted and while looking at the rear lights but I’d travelled quite a long way since the call, maybe 20 miles, and not found them.

So, I turned round and headed back along the route, expecting to find them heading towards me in a short while. Again, I seem to travel a long way back and still no sign of the bright yellow cycle convoy. I’m baffled! I turn round again and head back in the direction of the route and shortly the ‘phone rings again. It’s Richard.

“Where are you?” we both ask. It turns out we’re quite close to one another and finally we re-establish contact. Of course by now Julie’s indigestion has passed so the tablets aren’t needed any more. We’ll be addressing this kind of issue for future rides with a tracking system so the support vehicle can check where the ride team are at all times. Understandably I take some light-hearted abuse for this mix-up and I deserve it. It seems that somewhere near Amersham the car must have had to take a different road from the one the riders took and we just missed each other by seconds.

By now the riders have covered a fair distance since lunch and I’ve missed it all. Everyone seems fine though and the overnight stop at Horwood House hotel is not too far away. It’s been a long ride and clearly the hotel will be a welcome relief so I head off to make sure that everything is sorted for the arrival of the riders, their luggage is waiting for them in their rooms and a secure room for the bikes is organised.

Over dinner in the hotel Julie is suffering a bit. She still has her cold and it’s not getting any better, but she’s now experiencing the real bane of a long-distance cyclist, saddle sore. There’s not much we can do to resolve that so she’s going to need to dig deep over the next couple of days, and hope it doesn’t get any worse.

Finlay has, again, just got on with it today. He’s a bit of a machine, he just gets on the bike in the morning, rides until the end of the day and gets off. No drama. It’s quite impressive. It’s also becoming increasingly apparent that he has a similar relationship with food. You just put it in front, or, more accurately, somewhere near him and he eats it, and keeps eating until there’s no more food. It’s also quite impressive!

Sadly, today was Liz’s last day of the ride. She has work commitments which can’t be avoided so… wait… she’s what..? Great news! Liz has, with the help of some not-so-gentle persuasion from the rest of the team, managed to convince herself and, more importantly, her boss that she should ride for another day. We’re all ridiculously happy about that. Having lost one rider already today it would be demoralising to lose another, particularly as the team are gelling so well. Liz will ride tomorrow but will definitely have to leave at the end of the day.

That’s is if any of us can find our rooms to get some sleep. The room layout is a bit confusing to say the least. At one point I spot Carly and Melinda – who are following the ride all the way and staying at the hotels each night – guiding people to their rooms. They seem to have got the hang of the room numbering system.

Two minutes later I spot them again… looking for their room. Their giggles can be heard all through the hotel as they struggle to find it. Good luck girls!

Merlin 4 Parks 4 Days – Day 3

It’s another cold and sunny morning and I’m up early. Liz’s bike has been bugging me as she mentioned last night that it’s still a little temperamental shifting to its smallest front cog. In the large meting room we have stored the bikes in overnight it’s a bit easier to adjust than at the side of the road so I spend some time trying to make sure it’s well adjusted. All seems fine so I join the others for a hearty breakfast – some decent fuel for the riders, and me, well I just love a fried breakfast and the Horwood House breakfast is great.

The hotel is approached down a long straight driveway and I can see an opportunity for some arty photography on the way out. Once that’s out of the way the riders set off into the slightly misty morning. They are well wrapped up this morning to beat the cold and it’s just as well. The thermometer in the car doesn’t show above 6 degrees for most of the morning.

Despite the cold, it’s a lovely Sunday morning ride. We travel through sleepy villages on empty roads. I begin to wonder why the skill of thatching is often reported as a long lost one because we pass thatched cottage at every turn and down every road. Apparently the quality of the straw used by thatchers has improved greatly in the last 25 years and this has led to an increase in the popularity of the thatched roof. It’s good to see renewed interest in such a genuine craft.

It’s another fairly long ride today, some 65 miles, but it’s a little easier than some as the route is not particularly hilly. I’m sure the others are pleased by this but Finlay finds it a little uninteresting today, he clearly prefers more of a challenge. It’s probably not a bad thing though after yesterday’s hours in the saddle.

After an hour or so I head off to find a suitable mid-morning coffee stop. This proves a little tricky as it’s still fairly early on a Sunday morning and we’re out in the sticks, but I find a nice looking pub in Blisworth which might be suitable. Unfortunately it’s too early for it to be open but the big car park is a good place for the riders and their bikes so I park the support car in a prominent position so the riders can see it and head for the Post Office over the road to ask for suggestions. Apparently there’s nothing around but fortunately the Post Office has a coffee vending machine so that will have to do. Unfortunately there are only three cups of coffee in the machine, and there are five of us, but the manager offers to make us a couple of extra cups and fires up his kettle. Very nice of him.

Refreshment stop over and we’re off again. It’s an uneventful morning for the team and after a while I head off on my daily quest to find somewhere to stop for lunch. The rural areas we’re going through are not exactly littered with suitable venues and, after finding two which are closed, either permanently or until the evening, I seek advice from a helpful local who directs me to the Red Lion in Crick. It’s a nice pub with a sheltered outdoor area and they are able to come up with some nice sandwiches for us. It may be lunchtime on Sunday but a full roast wouldn’t be ideal for the riders. It smells great though and Finlay is disappointed, and tempted.

The rest of the day’s ride is more of the same. Gorgeous scenery all around – we pass a beautiful church and several chocolate box houses as we pass through Stanford upon Avon. It’s one of the great things about our rides, although I don’t know how much the riders are able to take it all in. I have time to stop when I’m taken by a particularly appealing view or an impressive house and my camera is always at hand. I love to capture the beauty of our routes. It’s the main reason why I’d struggle to take on a Ride2Raise challenge, I’d want to stop every few miles to take some photographs.

The finish of day 3 will be at the impressive sounding Hinckley Island Barcelo hotel and, after a while, I head off to organise rooms and dinner for the team. I’ve had a call from Carly and Melinda, who have already reached the hotel, telling me that the rooms are amazing but I’m still surprised when, after checking in the riders prior to their arrival, I find that all our team’s rooms are huge, comfortable and have two double beds in them. Once again our partner hotels have come up trumps to make sure the tired riders are as comfortable as possible, although I’m not entirely sure what they think we are going to do with two double beds!

Something we learned last night is that Melinda is a qualified massage therapist and she’s more than happy to offer her massage services to the riders at the end of today’s ride. We can’t thank you enough for offering Melinda. It’s a very welcome treat for the riders at the end of another long day in the saddle.

It’s an incredibly busy hotel, particularly for a Sunday night, with a huge carpet maker’s conference and a live band in one of the conference rooms, but once again we have sorted out a nice secure room for the bikes and all the luggage is in the riders’ rooms when they arrive. The afternoon ride has been quite straightforward although the last mile has been along a fairly busy road as it’s the only way to reach the Barcelo hotel.

A nice meal and some friendly banter between the team finish off a good day, and the only thing to decide is which of the two double beds to sleep in. Most of us go for the one nearest to the window.

Once again it’s time to feel a bit sad as, after yesterday’s extension, today was Liz’s last day of the ride. She has work commitments which can’t be avoided so… wait… she’s what..? Great news! Liz has, with the help of some not-so-gentle persuasion from the rest of the team, managed to convince herself and, more importantly again, her boss, that she should ride for the last day. We’re all ridiculously happy again. This is a strong team and we don’t want to break it up. Thanks Liz, for wanting to carry on and thanks again to Liz’s boss.

Merlin 4 Parks 4 Days – Day 4

So, the final day of the Ride2Raise Merlin 4 Parks 4 Days challenge is upon us. I have a few bits to sort before breakfast but once again all the bikes are performing perfectly so there’s nothing to do there. We haven’t even had a single puncture through the whole of this ride, something we’ve all avoided mentioning for fear of jinxing the final day.

I refill the large water butt which we keep in the support vehicle to replenish riders’ drinks bottles and retrieve the secret bottle of Champagne which has been in the hotel’s fridge overnight. It’s always nice for the riders to have something to celebrate with at the end of a ride and this team are really going to have something to celebrate!

At breakfast, talk is about how happy everyone is that Liz is going to be part of the team right to the end; how great Julie has done to persevere with the ride despite her cold and some not inconsiderable discomfort on the bike; and how many breakfasts Finlay will be having today… Actually that’s a little unfair on Finlay. I remain impressed with his ability to ride all day with no obvious signs of tiredness or effort. On the way out I grab a handful of doughnuts from the breakfast buffet for the riders at the morning coffee stop (yes, doughnuts for breakfast!), we make our final preparations and head off into the initially busy streets of Hinckley.

Once we’re out of Hinckley and back on to quiet country lanes I quickly turn back to a supermarket I’d spotted to pick up a bag of ice to keep the Champagne cold. Then I’m back on the same route as the riders as we head through more quiet villages. It’s another cold morning and there’s a real threat of rain today so we’re all hoping the day goes without a hitch and we can reach the finish at Alton Towers before the rain hits.

For the riders it’s going well. As usual, after a while I head off to find a suitable coffee stop for the morning and that’s where my messy morning starts. Once again, finding somewhere open where we can get a coffee, in rural central England on a Monday morning, is proving impossible. I drive some way ahead, nothing. I come back and head off route a bit, nothing. I even ask a postman and still nothing. Then, to make matters worse, for no reason whatsoever the navigation system in the car stops working and won’t restart. Luckily I’m back on the route the cyclists are taking, and some way ahead of them, but all I can do is park up and wait for them, and then follow them until we find somewhere to stop for coffee.

We ride on for a while and finally find a pub which might be open. It’s not but I peer through the window and spot someone inside. It takes a bit of effort to attract their attention but – famous support team charm again – they agree to open up early for us to come in and have a coffee.

Richard has shown me the trick of how to reboot the navigation system so while I sort that out, Finlay and I sit outside to keep an eye on the bikes and get collared by the cleaner as she’s leaving for the day who proceeds to tell us her life story. Three times. She’s been there for four years doing 10 hours a week and gets lots of compliments for the 10 hours a week she’s been doing for four years. That’s four years and 10 hours a week and she gets lots of compliments you know! Time we were off…

It’s been a late coffee stop and a decent number of miles are completed. The day is around 55 miles and there’s a lot of talk among the riders about the final climb into Alton Towers. It’s a tough, steep, long climb and it comes right at the end of the day, and after 250 miles of cycling over four days. However, optimism and determination are high and there are only around 25 miles to go.

The late morning stop allows us to plan for a late lunch to get to within 15 miles or so of the finish. This will mean a short final leg into Alton Towers and that daunting climb. There’s a quick game of chicken from a small dog along the way but it’s an otherwise uneventful ride although there are some tired legs and bodies and it’s finally beginning to show a little. The riders have enjoyed this 4-day challenge but I’m getting a feeling that no-one will be disappointed to see the finish.

As usual I head off to find a suitable lunch stop, and, as usual, there is nothing open for miles. In fact in for all of today and most of yesterday it’s been very difficult to find any real sign of life in most of the villages we’ve been through.

If we don’t stop soon there will be almost no point in a lunch stop as we’ll be nearly at the finish, so, in the end I settle for a deserted and empty pub in Marchington which has an outside seating area for the riders. I park the support vehicle in a visible spot as usual and walk back to a small convenience store I’d noticed to source some lunch for Liz. As always, the hotel from last night had provided us with packed lunches for the team but sandwiches are a no-no in a gluten-free diet.

Options were limited so I went back to the car just as the riders arrived. Having dished out lunches to the others, Liz and I went back to the store to see what we could find. The only suitable thing in the small store was a small microwavable chili con carne ready meal but, unfortunately, the store had no microwave. No matter! Remember the now legendary support team charm?

We only had to knock on two doors to find a slightly wary but instantly friendly and welcoming lady who was happy to pop the ready meal in her microwave for us. Huge thanks to Catherine Wainwright in Marchington for helping us out. Your holiday snaps looked great and I hope you got the complimentary Merlin tickets for your grandchildren which we bribed you with!

It’s getting quite cold as the riders finish their lunches so they are keen to get going, once Finlay has finished off any stray sandwiches. We’re only 12 miles from the finish now and, after a final pep talk from Ride2Raise Team Leader, Richard, the final leg is underway. Because the pub wasn’t open I head off to find somewhere for a final comfort break. We stop at Uttoxeter Golf Course to use the facilities and Julie, who has clearly been suffering a bit, takes this opportunity for a final application of chamois cream.

As Alton Towers comes into view some way in the distance I wish I was actually part of the riding team. The encouragement and motivation between riders is always good and nearing the end of a ride like this it’s absolutely inspiring. I’m always a bit disappointed that I’m not able to experience it first-hand.

Signposts show that we’re close. Dishearteningly for the riders we don’t always take the most direct route so when a sign shows Alton Towers is to the left, and the riders head right to avoid busy roads, it must be tough on them. Then, almost unexpectedly, we’re at the base of the climb to the finish. I’m not sure how long the climb is but I sit behind the riders as they grind a weary and slow pace on the pedals. It’s as tough and steep as we all expected and, from behind, I can see that Julie is struggling. Julie has been an absolute star on this ride. She’s sometimes been a little off the pace of the others – her bike isn’t ideal for the tough climbs, and there have been a few – but at no time has she looked like quitting, even though she’s not felt great all through the ride, and has been in some discomfort for the past two days.

I have to be honest here. As the riders close in on the entrance to Alton Towers, all driving each other on up this brutal climb; making sure the other riders are OK and encouraging each other all the way, there’s a lump in my throat. It’s amazing to watch and I feel quite a sense of pride. As always, my job has been simple compared with what this great bunch of people have endured. We’ve gone from strangers, to a team working together, to a bunch of friends over the four days of this ride and I’m silently screaming encouragement to all of them from the support car.

The pace is almost pedestrian as the climb relentlessly challenges the riders but as the entrance comes in to view on the right there’s a noticeable collective sigh of relief as the team pull in to the security entrance to Alton Towers.

We stop at the gate and the team are emotional and ecstatic at the realisation that this tough and challenging ride is over. Hugs, kisses and congratulations are cut short for a while when we realise that Julie is almost unable to breathe. The final climb has really been tough for her but she was never going to give up, however she now realises just how much it has taken out of her and it’s a slightly worrying moment. Impressively, she’s soon smiling again. Her recovery time is as impressive as her determination has been throughout the ride.

All that remains is a short ride from the security entrance to the main entrance, where Carly and Melinda are waiting, with friends and family of the riders. The team slowly ride in to cheers and congratulations from the small crowd of well-wishers who have gathered. Carly and Melinda have followed this ride all the way and they know how huge the effort has been from the riders, and all in aid of the seriously ill, disabled or disadvantaged children who are helped by the Merlin’s Magic Wand charity’s efforts.

All that’s left is the final photo opportunity at the entrance, the hugely deserved Champagne for the riders., and plenty of well deserved admiring words of congratulation for this amazing team of riders. I’ve been involved in a few Ride2Raise challenges this year but I’m not sure if I’ve enjoyed any as much as this one. It’s been tough. Very tough. It’s been challenging, funny and there have been a few times when I wasn’t sure the team would make it to the end but Julie Steadman, Liz Browne and Michael Finlay you have been incredible throughout and I have nothing but admiration for the way you have all faced this challenge. It’s an awesome achievement and you should all be very proud. I know I am.

Tim Watling

You can find all of the photographs from the Ride2Raise Merlin’s Magic Wand 4 Parks 4 Days charity cycle challenge HERE.