Burgundy to Blighty. June 25th – July 14th, 975 km.
Coincidentally, I’ve started writing this blog whilst watching the Tour de France’s 16th stage: a ball busting 197km in the Pyrenees with a couple of hors-categorie (beyond categorization) climbs. Whilst my final week in France included a 221km day & involved a British team showing the locals a thing or two about cycling, the similarities end there…
Stage 15 ended with a false finish in East London on May 18th. Stage 16 restarted in Beaune more than a month later. I spent the intervening weeks catching up with some old & new friends in France, attending a wedding & funeral in the UK, racing around Lake Geneva on Thandie in the annual cyclosportive & then cycling from Chamonix to Burgundy from where Stage 16 began.
Clockwise from top R: ‘Cousins’ on the bike in Chamonix; Anna joined me to cycle through the Jura; on Groomsman duties for Gareth McCartney; Ed Freeman showing his power & dress sense on the cobbles in Beaune. Bottom: Meeting up with the ‘frenchies’, Jeremie & Claire. They pose at the place where they started & finished their epic 2 year ride around Africa. I first met them in Malawi!
I had organised to meet Seb Fitzgerald in Beaune to help me cycle the 500km towards Paris over 3 days. A former professional rugby player, Seb enjoys his physical challenges & so seemed to ideal man to share a few longs days on Thandie. We were fortunate to be guided out of Beaune by Tom Kevil-Davis, the legendary Hungry Cyclist (I’d recommend reading his book!). Tom has done a couple of his own big tours, most notably a 20,000miles journey from New York to Rio, in search of the perfect meal! Now working for a gastro cycling-touring business in Burgundy, we shared a local plat du jour (delicious rabbit then a Paris Breast for pudding washed down with a carafe of Rose) before saying goodbye.
A half eaten Paris-Breast under the approving eye of the Hungry Cyclist. These were served by bakers to give cyclists energy during the legendary race…
For the next couple of days, we followed the canal heading up towards the Champagne region. Ironically, it was easier to buy food in many parts of Africa than in France, with their traditional opening hours & unsmiling service. We begged a supermarket to let us back in one day 1 minute after closing to buy a baguette but to no avail. Jodie & Duncan Collins from Beyond Ourselves met us on the Tuesday evening in Saint Dizier. They had driven down in the support vehicle &were kindly coming out to help with the weekend group ride. This would be Duncan’s fourth visit to help with the support & logistics!
The aim of the 3rd day was to try and break 200km on Thandie. With help from Jodie & Duncan in the morning whilst Seb transferred to one of the Zamboos, we made good progress to Epernay before Seb& I finished the ride, winding up through the hilly vineyards before dodging trucks on an A road to try and make up some ground. The euro semi-finals provided an incentive to finish the ride & after nearly 12 hours on the road, we rolled into Noyon to meet Jodie & Duncan for a well-earned beer & expensive shower.
The rear sprocket about to be replaced after 11 months on the road. It had only 1 tooth left! ; Seb with his watch recording 221km on day 3
Five mates, two beyond the bike returnees & three newcomers were to meet us in Compeigne, famous for being the start of the classic Paris-Roubaix 260km that I had sampled back with the DallaglioFlintoff Cycle Slam in May. I had originally planned to do the whole thing over two days with the group. Duncan Donaldson, one of the newcomers, historically never keen to don the lycra, had initially been enthusiastic. ‘Keen - as long as we can drink some 1664 en route’ was his initial comment. Having randomly spoken to a serious French cyclist at his Rugby Club in Copenghagen who informed Duncan that he would ‘respect him massively’ for doing the ‘Roubaix’, his enthusiasm quickly diminished.
Fearing mutiny from the group, I turned the weekend into a chance to explorethe WW1 battlefields and local beers. In hindsight, this was the right decision. The dense scattering cemeteries & war memorials over the fields of Flanders & the Somme are a sobering reminder of the needless sacrifice that so many young men made in the 4 years of the ‘Great War’. Each of us were moved by the experience and it helped again for me to put my own trip into perspective. At Thiepval, engraved on the walls of the memorial are the names of more than 73,000 British Soldiers whose bodies were never found at the Somme!
Each pink dot represents a Cemetry – there are more than 150 in the area
The iconic Memorial to the Missing at Thiepval. Duncan Donaldson, Me, Mark Hepburn, Dan Rea, Fi Ramsden, Jodie & Ducan Collins
It wasn't just the British...
Two corps that I might have joined had I been a different generation...
From Thiepval, we zigzagged through the rolling countryside, via the Canadian War memorial at Vimy and overnighted near Ypres, across the border in country no 18 – Belgium. Every night at the famous Menin Gate, where soldiers would have marched through during the war to get to the Western Front, the last post is played. With the weekend marking the annual memorial, we were joined by a couple of hundred tourists to enjoy a military band with their bagpipes marching through the gate. As the poignant last post sounded, the hairs on the back of my neck stood to attention as we bowed our heads in respect.
‘The most amazing thing to me is that we did it all again after 20 years. How did we not learn?’ Duncan (a history graduate) contemplated forlornly as we wondered back into town for a meal& beers after the ceremony.As Clarence Darrow famously put it: ‘History keeps repeating itself – that is one of the things wrong with history!’
The last post being played at the Menin Gate, Ypres
The Bamboo bikes show their prowess off-road; Gareth McCartney & Duncan Donaldson at the border with Belgium.
Mark Hepburn takes it easy on the back of Thandie
Hangovers and a brutal headwind slowed our pace on the final day to Calais and the need to watch the clock reduced the opportunity to reflect on what would normally be one of the milestones of a South Africa to London cycle. Whilst it was the first time that I would be crossing the channel by boat, the fact that I had already returned to the UK somewhat muted any emotional feeling of triumph at getting this far.
Having bid farewell to most of the group by the time we reached Dover, I was able to ride the last 30kms solo on one of the Zamboos as Jodie drove the vehicle to our hosts for the night: Chris& Jane Reynolds, whose son James had joined me in Zambia & Switzerland. We had a great evening with them & xx father who entertained us with his stories of flying Lancasters over Berlin during WWII, getting shot down on his last flight and being imprisoned: ‘For you now, ze war is zover’ he remembered the German soldier delivering that message as he parachuted into Germany Capital in the middle of the night (as you do). In keeping with our weekend, he had visited the graves of his fallen crew 40 years later. If we had felt moved by our weekend, I could only imagine the memories that such a visit must have evoked for Henry. After the war, he had coincidentally worked as an engineer in Zambia, helping build Lusaka’s airport for president Kauanda. He proudly showed me a letter from KK himself before he returned home in the early 1970s. What an amazing man!!
‘The president asked me to build Africa biggest airport in Lusaka. Impossible given the finances, I made it the longest by having a narrow strip at one end’…
We pushed on the next day to Tonbridge, where I gave a lecture at the school and stayed a couple of nights with friends Jono Arscott and Andy & Amy Whittall, teacher & houseparents respectively at the school. It was from Tonbridge School that I set off for penultimate day of my journey with 15 staff & students from Cranleigh, including headmaster Guy Waller. Despite the rain, it was a fun day and great to catch up on the schools news. Little had changed substantively but it was super to feel so welcome back after a year away.
Whilst places & adults don’t change much in a year, it is in children that change is most apparent. Some of the younger students that I tutored in 2011 seem to have grown immeasurably and some of my friends’ kids had similarly changed!
With Cranleigh Students and Staff having been welcomed back into School with Head Guy Waller fittingly on the back
Comparing suntans with an Irish colleague at School…
With friends, new & old, on the last day from Cranleigh to London
If cycling into London with the DallaglioFlintoff cycle slam had been a false finish, the ride into Cranleigh and final day into London seemed more real. But as I said to many friends who enquired, it felt to some extent like just another day’s cycling. As someone far cleverer than me put it, ‘It is good to have an end to journey towards, but it is the journey that matters, in the end!’ Moreover,the best way to get through a long journey whose magnitude can at times feel overwhelming is to take it a day or stage at a time. Starting off for the final 60km for London felt similar to my first day from Jo-burg to Pretoria. Rather than thinking about the trip ahead or behind, I was focused on completing the day& getting the accompanying group to the end in one piece. With several beers at lunchtime, there would have been a certain amount of dark irony if we had crashed in the final 20kms between the Pubs in Esher & Richmond! It was great to have some many returning stokers & friends and particularly touching to meet Steve Braham’s father in the pub in Esher. Steve & his wife Sal had looked after us wonderfully in Jo-burg and it was wonderful to speak to them on the phone at the end of the journey – Thanks guys if you’re reading this!!!
With Jodie at the finish (R). I cycled solo into central London on Monday to take a photo with supporter & ex Scottish PM Jack McConnell.
I’m sure it will take a bit of time for the full extent of the journey to sink in. I told everyone that ever came to one of my school talks before or during the trip that cycling would be the easy bit. I’d reinforce that now. Deciding to do it was much harder (I’m struggle to make decisions as many of you will know!) and planning the school trips & group ride to Zambia, as well as the overall fundraising, was much more challenging. Thanks especially to Jodie & Duncan from Beyond Ourselves, Mark Jenkins, Richard Humes & Dave Boggitt from Cranleigh, Tanzania & slam stoker Rob Heck & my own family in this regards as well as to all the other stokers and friends/strangers who have kindly raised money or donated to the project. As I write there is a group from Cranleigh out at Kawama School and I know the community there are massively grateful for the resources that Beyond Ourselves have helped to bring to the School there – things that we in the UK take for granted.
At the last count, we just shy of our target of £100k. If you’d like to help get us through that landmark, feel free to donate at www.beyondthebike.org
A journey is best measured in Friends, not kilometres… (thanks to Emma Watson Mac for bringing this quote to my attention – I like it!)