Wow! 800 people, nine days, 969 miles, over 56,000ft of climbs, a new cycling language, three countries, 13 counties, beautiful scenery, over 8000 calories burned a day, 19 refueling pits stops, an unchecked diet of jelly babies, chocolate bars, peanuts, crisps, sausage rolls - and to cap it all, weight loss thrown in for free!
The best all inclusive holiday you could have... ok so a holiday it wasn't and, over the last 48 hours, I have had a chance to reflect on what I, 34 core team riders and over 100 stage riders in the Dulux Let's Colour cycle team, have achieved.
Just 11 days ago I was getting on a train to travel south to Land's End on a train rammed full of people talking about all the training rides they had completed and that they were feeling strong. A lady travelling in the same carriage was so amazed by what we were all attempting to complete she donated £50 there and then to the Outward Bound Trust. It was a timely reminder that, whilst we were taking on an individual and team challenge, it was all in aid of raising money for charity.
To be honest, whilst I had done some training, I was sitting on the train feeling simply terrified at the thought of nine days on a saddle that resembles something nearer a razor blade, tackling over 100 miles a day of England's, Wales' and Scotland's roads; riding up hills that I actually would think twice about driving up, let alone pedaling up!
The morning of the first day arrived all too quickly, waking to the rousing anthem 'Eye of the Tiger'. You could really feel the apprehension, but the flow of adrenaline overcame this and over 800 riders set off from Land's End on the first of nine stages. The five stars of difficulty proved to be more than true; whilst the first 70 miles were hard, we had managed to refuel at the pit stops, but the true realisation of what we had all taken on materialised during the third leg of day one. I can clearly recall thinking I will never make it through nine days of this; hill after hill, mile after mile, with a pair of legs that felt more like lead weights. If it hadn't have been for Paul Howlett, Ben Williams and Dave Crofts, I would definitely have picked my bike up, thrown it in to the nearest hedge and called for a taxi!
That night, in camp at Okehampton, the full realisation of what I had taken on hit home. Thankfully I only had to look around to know that I was not alone. I went to the luxury of my tent that night, wondering if my body would actually survive this onslaught without falling apart.
After about five hours of sleep, only broken by the nocturnal sounds of horrendous snoring, the polite breaking of wind and the zip of tents opening and closing, as people headed for the toilets, I was woken by PJ & Duncan (Ant & Dec to the younger readers) singing their ridiculous pop song 'Let's Get Ready to Rumble'. Crawling out of the tent, I was feeling less than fresh, but readied myself for day two's ride. Apparently this was the second hardest day, but it actually proved to be one of the most enjoyable, heading through the spectacular countryside of Devon and Somerset, including climbing over the Quantocks and up through the Cheddar Gorge and on to Bath. Everyone arrived on a bit of high, only heightened by the realisation of a proper bed with en-suite bathroom at Bath University - a chance to dry out the damp sleeping bag and pillow I had been sleeping on for the past two nights.
An early morning mist and weak sunshine welcomed all the riders to day three. The high of the previous days cycling evaporated rapidly, I learned never to believe the cycling chaperones when they say that the day was "just a bit lumpy with a few grippy climbs". It proved to be a day of some ridiculously steep climbs on single track roads with tractors and dust carts occupying the whole road, requiring cyclists to dive for the hedgerows to pick blackberries and endless ups and downs that sapped your energy and your motivation. The chaperones were definitely economical with the truth!! Despite all this, the scenery we were all riding through was beautiful, with some fantastic views as we crossed the Severn Bridge and briefly crossed into Wales, before cycling through the stunning Forest of Dean to Ludlow.
Arriving at Ludlow race course was a mighty relief, with the thought of a relatively flat and easy day heading north to Haydock across the Cheshire plains. And so it proved, even allowing me to enforce a stop for ice creams (or, more specifically, Soleros) in the afternoon, something I then enforced every day - well there have to be some benefits to being the MD!
My lasting memory of this day, however, was seeing Vicki Fleming, who joined us as a day rider for this leg, cross the line after nearly 11 hours in the saddle; an amazing show of personal determination and an example to us all about never giving up.
Queen's great anthem 'Bicycle Race: I want to ride my bicycle' raised me from the squalor of my tent, where any idea of good army husbandry had completely gone out the window. I managed to find some dry and reasonably clean cycling gear and prepared myself for day five's dramatic and stunning views of the Lake District; including the long, grippy climb up to the to the top of Shap Fell, nine miles of relentless uphill cycling. But it was worth it for the long descent the other side. Long descents are something I have learned to enjoy as the bigger you are, the faster you seem to go! The long downhill run ended at the stunning campsite in the grounds of Hutton in the Forest castle.
A number of the faster cyclists, needless to say that was not me, went off to see the Outward Bound centre at Ullswater where all the money raised will be used to improve the facilities.
It was also great to see Guy Williams, who had been at the centre that day in his role as a trustee, appear at the campsite to give us his support.
Day six saw us head out for the last 20 miles before crossing into Scotland, thankfully no passport required this week! Needless to say, hundreds of cyclists stopping at the border sign caused chaos, with everyone having their photo taken with the 'Welcome to Scotland' sign, but also taking the opportunity to dive behind the hedges for a comfort break - not exactly what the locals were expecting to see, but needs must!! Maybe this is why many of the Scots want independence! Today was relatively relaxed, for whilst it was still a 100-mile ride, it allowed us to prepare for the 127-mile leg to follow.
Waking to Gary Barlow and Take That singing 'Greatest Day' the slower riders were up early for a 6am start to allow us to get to Fort William before dusk. We left Hamilton Racecourse, heading out through the suburbs of Glasgow and up the Campsie Fells heading for the amazing Glencoe. The scenery was amazing and you could tell everyone was enjoying the ride despite the grippy climbs - but it was only 50 miles in to the ride when we got a feeling something was not right, as police and ambulance raced down the roads past us. We were eventually asked to pull into the side of the road and await further instructions. Managing to find a small café, 200 riders crammed inside and outside in its car park, waiting for news. Today was not the "Greatest Day". There had obviously been a serious incident, which we later found out was one of the Lloyds Bank riders had been seriously injured in a road traffic accident. The day prematurely came to an end, as the riders were assembled in groups to be bussed back to Fort William. Unbeknown to me, my wife Sarah had decided to fly up and surprise me at Pit Stop 2, which unfortunately I was not able to get to. Having been up since 4.30 in the morning, she then drove a two-hour detour to spend a quick 30 minutes with me before flying back home. It was great to see her and gave me a huge lift and full of determination to finish what I had started. The Threshold team, who organise the event, did an amazing job that day to get 800 riders back to Fort William before dark on what was a very sobering day for everyone.
Day eight saw the 15-strong Lloyds Bank team lead out all the riders to a respectful round of applause; they rode out together and finished together that day. A day that took in more stunning Scottish scenery, including riding through the Great Glen and past the tomb of the unknown soldier, but most memorable was the ride alongside the banks of Loch Ness. A good number of team Dulux decided to stop for an unplanned tea and cake break on the shore of Loch Ness. It was only when the chaperones came over and said that we were now the last on the course that we realised we had been there for a little bit too long. A fantastic downhill stretch took us down in to the Kyle of Sutherland, where the Dulux team convened in a pub a mile from the finish to have a quick beer, and watch Aston Villa beat Liverpool 1-0, much to the annoyance of Mr McAuley!
It was later that evening that we all received the unfortunate news that the Lloyds rider, a wife and mum of two, involved in the accident had passed away. It brought home the hard facts of cycling on the roads and riding safely, but it also meant we all reflected on what is important to all of us in life. It was hugely humbling to see the Lloyds team out again on the final day to complete the ride with what was now a family of 800 riders, cycling on empty tanks on the final 104 miles to John O'Groats.
It was without doubt one of the hardest but most rewarding stages. Whilst the weather held, we rode in to a continuous headwind. At times I felt I was struggling to make progress even on the downhill stretches. I was later told by a local that a 20mph headwind was classified as a slight breeze in these parts! It seemed like an endless ride before John O'Groats and the Sea View Hotel, where the Dulux team had agreed to meet as a team, appeared in front of me. The welcome in the bar was nothing but immense from the team. Every rider individually cheered and congratulated by each and every member of the Dulux team, but with a very special cheer for Holli who joined us on the last leg and Andy Ward who rode with her all day - a brilliant individual effort.
A few drinks and then we left the pub as a group of 35 and rode in one large peloton to the finish, crossing the line at John O'Groats in a style and with an amazing team spirit that I wish we could harness every day, to celebrate with champagne and, for some of us, a quick belly flop in to the sea.
Wow! 800 people, nine days, 969 miles, over 56,000ft of lumpy, grippy and double grippy climbs, a new cycling language, three countries, 13 counties, beautiful scenery, over 8000 calories burned a day, 19 refueling pits stops, an unchecked diet of jelly babies, chocolate bars, peanuts, crisps, sausage rolls - and, to cap it all, weight loss thrown in for free...
...But, most importantly, I believe we will have raised over £150,000 for the Outward Bound Trust, so a massive thank you to everyone involved the riders, the support teams on the ride, the static riding team in Slough, family and friends, suppliers, customers and agencies - in fact everyone who has helped to raise money that will ultimately change young people's lives through the outdoor adventure and experiences they are afforded through the time they spend at one of the Outward Bound Trust centres.