There is a tradition at Guys Hospital that involves a toast with gin. Except we weren't at Guys, but Penzance. 17 guys and 3 guides on a nondescript Thurs evening toasting 342 miles ahead on a bike.
There is always apprehension the eve of these trips for both riders and guides. 113 miles lay ahead into the unknown. You cut down risk, by doing a thorough reconnaissance of the route, noting dangerous sections, hospitals and stops; a pre-ride medical questionnaire; endless weather forecasts and rider briefings the night before. The fact remains that you're riding with 17 other riders who are completely unknown to you. Can they ride in a group; have they done enough training; have they got the right kit; are their bikes healthy and how will they stand up when the going gets tough. Above all, everyone is praying for a safe trip. You'll soon find out.
Gary had been treated for testicular cancer at Guys, under the care of Consultant Oncologist, Mr Simon Chowdhury. Both keen cyclists, Gary set out to repay his debt to the hospital, by organising a charity bike ride from Lands End to Guys in London. Both had enlisted fellow doctors, patients and friends for the challenge. I was the lead guide for Bikecation, organisers of the trip.
6:45am and spirits were high, despite the damp, dark brooding weather. Taxi's to Lands End, followed by a quick 10 mile spin back to the hotel to collect some late risers and the support van. No matter the weather, starts themselves are always full of optimism and high spirits. Set free from the drudgery of the day job, riders are like over-excited children on a school trip. My fourteen years of parenting prepare me well for the constant nagging: have you filled your bottles; have you got food; have you checked your tyre pressures and so on. 8:40am, some 40 mins behind schedule we roll out.
I've never cycled in Cornwall before. Those of your familiar with the county will know that there are endless river tributaries winding their way through picturesque valleys before dribbling out at the sea. The cyclists amongst you will know that valleys mean hills - particularly when you transect them. That is exactly what lay ahead for day 1. Up until lunch, the terrain was relatively kind but that would soon change post lunch. The descents down quiet, windy lanes soon turned to sharp, punchy climbs. None of the climbs on their own would ordinarily trouble a decent cyclist, but one after another would take a cumulative toll. By late afternoon, the attrition rate was high.
I've done numerous trips as a guide and I'm still puzzled by the combination of naivety and perhaps male machismo to preparation. It's during the day 1 late afternoon conversations with riders that you discover that a few have done next to no training and quite a few more have already ridden twice the distance of their longest training ride. I'm never sure if it's naivety of the challenge or male machismo (or possibly both) that lies behind the decision that training doesn't seem necessary for a consecutive 3 day, 342 mile bike ride. It's around about this time, that I know that the days will be long; very long.
Cycling can be of course a punishing form of physical exercise. Not many are aware of the price it can take mentally, even to those that consider themselves 'tough'. At 85 miles in, we were about to tackle the hardest part of the route. Climbing up and over Dartmoor from the west, before a descent on the far eastern side, into Chagford. My role was to stay with the 'stragglers' and make sure they all got 'home'. The first, brutal climb smashed the group to smithereens. An advance group slowly made their way to Two Bridges (about halfway across) where they were to wait for me and the remaining members of the group. The second climb, what it lacked in steepness, it made up for in length. We slowly, very slowly, inched our way into the heart of Dartmoor. By the time we reached Two Bridges, Dartmoor took a menacing turn. Hearts and minds were shattered when a hail storm of biblical proportions erupted. Freezing, bullets of hail were driven into our faces causing physical pain. Grown men were close to tears. Dartmoor had broken them. Mentally and physically exhausted, we rolled in at 20:30; just 10 mins shy of a mammoth 12 hours in the saddle.
There was no let up. Day 2, an early start, 1 mile in and the last Cornish climb of 16%. I did wonder if some of the English cooked breakfasts might be making a reappearance. A comedy moment, when a grey animal was spotted running down the right hand side of the lane. "A badger" someone shouted from behind. "Its a bloody cat" came my reply from the front!
Guiding is not about being the best or fastest rider. It requires empathy and judgment. There is a skill to be learnt in correctly pacing a group. Too fast and gaskets will blow, one by one. The group won't thank you when there's still 40 odd miles to home. Too slow and some of the decent riders get twitchy, wanting to stretch their legs off the front. Male machismo will turn these efforts into competitive sprints, with riders breaking off the front emulating the pro peloton that then risk causing chaos when junctions are missed and guides required to chase back. It also takes a while to mould a group into a functioning peloton. Many of the riders will not have experienced riding in groups. It's almost impossible on the first day, but sometime during day 2, the makings of a peloton are stirred. The benefits of drafting are experienced first hand and slowly but surely a peloton comes together. It helps if the terrain is kinder. That's exactly what happened in the middle of day 2. Gentle rolling roads leading to the Somerset levels meant we could form a peloton (of sorts).
During breakfast one of the guides will give the riders a profile for the day ahead. The profile on day 2 contained a beast, lurking at approx 52 miles in. It was whispered all morning in hushed tones. The beast in question was the Quantock hills. The climb resides outside Bridgewater. It is brutal and I suspect is infamous in those parts on Strava. It's a real leg breaker, with a series of ramps, corners and length. Hit this climb hard early on and it will break you. The rewards are worth the effort however. A series of splendid views out westwards over Weston-Super-Mare and into the Severn Estuary punctuate a sumptuous descent. More climbs beckoned when we reached Wells at mile 85. This time the Mendips and a high ridge above Bath city, that rans west to east, followed by a meandering descent through residential streets down to the centre of Bath. A 19:15 finish - a mere 11 hours in the saddle.
Day 3 started with a novelty. The Combe Down Tunnel, at an impressive 1672 metres, is just over one mile, and is the UK's and possibly Europe's longest cycle and walking tunnel. Some hoot had even brought a train whistle to add to the experience. A sense of humour would certainly be needed as we had 124 miles ahead of us, taking a route south of the M4 through Devizes, Shalbourne, Greenham, Sandhurst, Weybridge, Kingston-upon-Thames and finally through central London. By now, we had a peloton. A flat(ish) route also meant we could keep a decent, relaxed pace and enjoy some conversation. Last days tend to cement bonds and new friends are made. A glorious sunny day brought out several white, pasty legs fresh from winter's hibernation under tights and leg warmers. Whilst the weather was kind, the same couldn't be said of some of the drivers. A particularly aggressive form of white van man, tried to run one of our group off the road. Perhaps he hadn't noticed the white jersey's emblazoned with the fact it was a charity ride raising funds for a cancer centre.
For me, I will always remember the scenes from Kingston into central London. The final stop and 4 comics of the group had decided to change into Teletubbies outfits for the last 12 miles. I'll never forget the peloton of 23 riders headed by four Teletubbies taking over the roads of central London. Teletubbies on bikes stop the traffic. Simply brilliant.
The riders entered Guys to a triumphant welcome from friends and family, and rightly so. Many had pushed themselves harder and further than they had ever done before. I'm sure a few had discovered a grit and spirit that they perhaps never knew they had. All had succeeded well out of their comfort zone.
For the guides, it's a mixture of relief and camaraderie. We had got all riders back safe and sound, without any incident. You can take great pleasure in that as a team.
Day 1: Lands End to Chagford
113 miles & 2,897 metres of climbing
Day 2: Chagford to Bath
106 miles & 2,311 metres of climbing
Day 3: Bath to Guys, London
124 miles & 1,513 metres of climbing
At the last count, I think Doctors, Patients and Friends had raised almost £100k for the cancer research centre at Guys.