Siena to Stratford, May 5th – 18th, 1250km
People talk of false starts. I’ve never heard of a ‘false-finish’ but I was searching for the equivalent word on May 18th. On that grey spring day, I found myself unexpectedly cycling an African made bamboo bike with 150 other cyclists within a couple of miles of my old workplace in Canary Wharf, the first time on English soil for exactly 10 months...
“Why?” I hear you ask, “I thought you were meant to be finishing on July 14th when you cycle from Cranleigh into London!!” More about that for those keen enough to read to the end of this blog. In the meantime, my journey must re-start from Sienna, the beautiful Tuscany town where I said goodbye to the cycle slammers.
A bientot but not au revoir….
After waving goodbye to Freddie & the boys in the magical Piazza del Campo in Siena, I cycled Thandie off to the local campsite. I had gotten used to being a passenger on the slam, with its slick organisation, physios, helpful bike mechanics & nice hotels. Reverting to camping & self-organisation didn’t hold the same appeal in Europe as it did in Africa. Nonetheless it was great to see Duncan Collins, who had kindly offered to support Beyond the Bike for the 10 days to Chamonix where two groups of mates would be joining on consecutive weekends.
We were treated to an excellent meal in Sienna by David Ross, one of the core riders on the slam who, alongside his brother James, was attempting to cycle every inch of soil back to London. ‘Ok Stu, here’s the deal’, he said as we opened the leather bound menus. ‘I’ll buy you dinner if you come and speak at my some of my schools’. David admirably is investing some of his wealth (he is co-founder of Carphone Warhouse) into improving state education in the Midlands. As the waiter brought round an unlabelled & dusty bottle of red, I felt the pressure to deliver some good lectures!
Dinner in Sienna with Rossbros & Duncan Collins
Four unconnected mates were joining me for a 3 day cycle from Siena and it was super to see them roll into the campsite the following evening. Coordinated by Garri Jones, an old cricket mate from Uni, he was joined by ex Citi colleague Derrick Lockley, and old mates Kingsley Maunder from SA & a late but welcome addition in Will Crawforth from my Herefordshire days. The plan was to rotate on Thandie & the two Zamboo Bamboo bikes.
The route, kindly put together by Derrick, took us towards Florence, across to Lucca before heading up into the Appennino -Tosco National Park mountains & then descending to the coast just north of Pisa. 250 lumpy kilometres in 2 ½ days. It may not seem a lot to regular cyclist but it was fantastic on day 2 for all the boys to record their first century of kilometres on bikes, as we gasped up the final steep ascent to our B&B that night. When Duncan clicked that it was in these mountains that he used to come skiing, it reinforced what our legs were already telling us, namely that we had done some serious climbing that day!
Can you spot Derrick?
We enjoyed superb hospitality on both nights in villages in the region, the first with Sue an ex Londoner who used to design clothes for Boy George. She was enjoying a more relaxed life in the Tuscany countryside near Empoli with her husband Ricardo. “Mama Mia!”, he declared when we told here where we had come from. The following night was also a mixed Italian-British couple. Rupert was running bike adventure holidays in the mountains with his Italian wife running the B&B. ‘Yup, we drove past you yesterday – the guys on the tandem were way behind the bamboo bikes! It looks like you must have come all the way from somewhere like Greece with a bike like that….’
Despite a heavy downpour overnight and persistent drizzle, the highlight of the weekend was perhaps the 20km climb over the top before a magical 30km winding descent back to the coast on the Sunday, passing crumbling villages oozing history but clearing lacking the funds for the much needed renovations.
Group photo at the top of the Pass on Sunday
Saying goodbye to the guys as Duncan takes them back to Pisa airport. Thanks to BMW UK for the X5!
A candlelight dinner for two to celebrate Duncan’s birthday…
Having said goodbye to the group and celebrated Duncan’s birthday in Massa, I took 2 days to cycle the 300km to Asti with a welcome rest day either side of the ride. The first day followed the stunning but lumpy coast 180km through Genoa. Being on the Zamboo, I was able to make good progress and could easily keep up with the local roadbike enthusiasts enjoying their morning or afternoon spins. But I did meet another tourist: poor Cynthia was struggling up one of the hills, cursing the Romans for not building flat roads. Approaching her 63rd birthday, it was an impressive effort to be cycling back to London from Rome. I hope she made it (do get in touch if you made it!!)
Despite the camouflage, the Zamboo draws attentions in Acqui Terme
The second days took in a couple of climbs before flattening through the wine country around Asti. Two themes stand out from the day. The first was the fascination the locals had with the Zamboo. ‘Fantastico’ ‘Multo Bello’…. muttered old men in the various cafes that we stopped as they admired the bamboo. The second were the blonds on the side of the road seemingly recording the traffic? Looking for an excuse for a break/conversation, I stopped to ask the first one I came across to verify my directions:
‘Bonjourno… umm - how far to Asti?’
‘Ciao’ she winked, ‘50 euros’, looking me up and down.
Every couple of kilometres another deckchair would appear, with a young girl sitting on the side of the road protected by a mini-skirt and umbrella. Sometimes the deckchair would be empty – I imagined forlornly what must be happening along the country track that led away from the road. I stopped to chat to a few, with an economics blog ‘the modern day slave trade in Italy’ forming quickly in my head. Most of the girls were from Romania or Albania, taking advantage of their countries’ recent ascension to the EU? North of Asti, all of the girls were African. Either way, I didn’t have time to investigate this particular economic conundrum as the next group arrived from Milan airport…
A modern day Slave trade in Italy...
Nick Kirrage, an old friend who I started work with at Schroders back in 2001 had organised a group of mates to join me up the Valley D’Aosta to Chamonix. Nick is still at Schroders, thankfully loving his work - the thought of working in the same office for 10 years scares me. It was also fantastic to see Tom Wrigglesworth & Dan Rea, two mates who had done lots of touring in Africa (but on motorbikes) and had worked together on a renewable energy project in Zambia. Finally, we welcomed back Dr Fi Ramsden who joined on stage 1 – the second stoker to return after Rob Heck from the Slam! Fi had bought one spare inner tube to cycle 2000kms through Africa so it was little surprise when her chain had twisted when had packed up her bike before flying!
‘Oh noooo… & I did take lots of care to pack the bike up!” Poor Fi reflected sadly when we she had to take the back seat of the tandem when we couldn’t fix her bike on the first morning.
Later we discovered that she had packed her bike up in 15 minutes during a heavy night out in London before getting on the plane. If it hadn’t been her birthday…
Off-piste on day 1. Fi on the back of the Thandie whilst her bikes gets a fix..
The two days would take us to the foot of the Valley D’Aosta before making the gradual ascent up to Courmayeur, on the Italian side on Mt Blanc. We passed through some beautiful countryside & villages as we off-pisted through some sizeable hills it to our lunchstop at Chivasso and then enjoyed the smooth climb to Pont St Martin, with its famous 1st century Bridge & only ONE restaurant!
Attempting to find a flat route through the alps
The Zamboo enjoys a rest - lunch day 1
The tough option on the second day would have been to ‘nip over’ the pas de Grand St Bernard, one of the highest passes in the Alps. Cycling a heavy tandem with some unfit City folk rotating on the back didn’t appeal so I managed to talk Nick out of that idea before we started. Thankfully, it was closed in any case so we opted for the valley option. It is the smallest, least populous, and least densely populated region of Italy but is blessed with some stunning scenery & historic castles.
Chamonix was the final destination for Saturday night and we were met by Jodie from Nomadic Ski who kindly had offered to give us and the bikes a lift through the tunnel, before enjoying the final & fast descent into the town centre.
The final descent into Chamonix was fast & fun (Dan rea took this on his ipone at 60km/h from the back of Thandie)…
I hadn’t had much time to reflect on getting to Europe given the non-stop nature of the Slam & organisation of the subsequent 10 days. When I set off from South Africa back in July, Chamonix had always been a significant point on the map, given how well I knew it & the friends (& family) who lived there.
We headed straight for the famous Chambre Neuf, usually full of attractive Swedes drinking beers to live Music after a day on the slopes. ‘Apres-velo’ wasn’t quite the same but it felt awesome to sink a few beers with the guys. My cousin Lucy & her family had come to wave us in. Her husband Graham was also sporting a fashionable beard…
Relaxing at the Legendary Chambre-Neuf in Chamonix’s centre…
I had planned to spend two weeks resting in Chamonix & catching up with friends. The organisers of the Slam, however, had left me an open invite to re-join them. Duncan would effectively be driving past them on his way home so I had little hesitation to take up their offer. I joined them with the Zamboo in Nancy from where they’d be starting their 5th & final stage.
Like the first two stages, the 5 days back with the slam passed by in an exhausted, drunken but highly enjoyable whirlwind. I enjoyed catching up with the core riders & hearing about the stories of stages 3 & 4. It was also great to see some others returning from stage 1 including the aforementioned Rob Heck & Dan Ashton who had kindly helped me get involved in the slam.
I cycled for the first couple of days with ‘team Croker’, Rob, Dan & 3 ex-rugby players in the 40s/50s, Peter Taylor, Ciaran Bird & Rob Horne, mostly new to cycling but all strong boys. The first day in particular was a long slog with 160km into a strong headwind. I spent most of the day assisting Andrew keep the group together and helping Rob in particular, who was battling a bit up the hills. I had noticed that his chain-ring seemed bent…
‘It’s a design to help cyclists with new knees!’ he told me as we grinded up one of the last hills. He had replaced his knees with some titanium a few years ago.
How much for a bottle of Bollinger? Lee Dixon & Graeme le Saux serve some Champagne on the Tandem…
The pain of the day was soon forgotten as we enjoyed a night being hosted at the Bollinger caves & with the weather improving the following day, we passed through rolling countryside stopping at one of the many British WWI cemeteries providing a sobering reminder of how lucky we are today to live in peaceful & relatively prosperous times. Most of these young men, some nameless, were killed within the space of a week less than 6 months before the end of the war. What a waste.
Our final day in France took in the last past of the famous Paris-Roubaix route. I joined Freddie, Lawrence & a small group as were filmed doing a couple of sections of the infamous cobbles. Servais Knaven, the race director of team Sky & winner of the Roubais in 2001 had joined us on days 1 & 2 had told me the Zamboo’s flexibility should make it a more comfortable ride for the cobbles. Sadly, the pleasure was merely relative as we bumped along the first 400m section.
‘Hit them as fast as you can & don’t hit the break or try to steer’ were the advice of Roger Hammond, a veteran of some 15 Roubaixs. How the pros managed 56km of cobbles in the 260km race is beyond me.
Flintoff & Dallaglio about to lead our group over the cobbles with the help of ex pro Roger Hammond (in red)
A quick lap of the velodrome & a wash in the famous Roubauix showers (each cubicle with a nameplate for one of the winners), and the slam was off to Lille to get the Eurostar to Ashford. Beers flowed as the rugby tour re-started & we sung our way back into the UK.
The Discovery channel team ensure that the showers will be forever remembered…
Getting back into your home country after a long time away is always going to feel a little strange. On the final day’s cycling through the Kent countryside, I stopped to reflect on my first impressions of our green & pleasant lands.
Nice things: A smiley old man on a horse enjoying an early morning ride, a pigeon cooing alongside familiar birdsong from my childhood, the first pint of real ale.
Not so nice things: the 1990s out of town shopping centres; the overweight & grumpy receptionist in the Holiday Inn where we stayed; the potholed roads & the grey & overcast weather; the adverts for double glazing on the local Kent radio in the morning….
We took the ferry over the Thames at Woolwich and then slowly meandered our way to Stratford. Not even the mighty Dallagio & Flintoff could get the Olympic stadium opened and so instead the car park to John Lewis had to suffice, with the stadium an imposing backdrop. We hugged, sipped Champagne & celebrated the end. But inside me, this false finish sat somewhat uncomfortably – I hadn’t expected to be home so soon.
On the ferry over the Thames at Woolwich
But any strange feeling or sense of achievement was put into perspective on the Sunday – the reason I had decided to cross the channel into the UK. A friend Ed How had tragically fallen to his death whilst skiing in the Alps earlier in the spring & it was his memorial service at Charterhouse School. The 600 friends, family & students present were testament to what a great man Ed was – we will all miss him.
Despite the tragic circumstances, it was great to catch up with old cricket mates.
Andy Danson & I used to have similar haircuts…
I’m now in France enjoying the final month. It was great to take part in the cyclotour de Leman (race around Lake Geneva) with some of the Group Riders from Zambia alongside some leisurely cycle touring with old mates & catching up with the Frenchies who I met in Africa.
ACTIVITIES SINCE THE FALSE-FINISH IN LONDON....
I gave a lecture at the International School of Geneva (May 25th). Pour Allez a Angleterre SVP? © AP photograhpic
Panashe & Mostafa are from Zimbabwe & Egypt
It was great to share ideas on Africa with them...
Downing College Class of 2001 - Burgundy June 17th.
Next week I will start the final stage, just shy of 1000km between Beaune & London via Paris, Calais, Tonbridge & Cranleigh. The last day will on July 14th from Cranleigh to London (60km) – hope to see you there!