Tuesday, 26 June 2012

A Tale of Two Cities

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."

The opening lines from Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities" somehow seems the perfect description for my own personal tale – and just like Dickens' novel – is also centred around the cities of London and Paris.

This past weekend I, along with over 450 other cyclists, undertook the mammoth task of cycling from London to Paris over a three day period. This, in and of itself, isn't all that difficult a task, especially for an accomplished cyclist such as myself. However, with a few twists and turns thrown in for good measure, the journey became much more challenging.

But let me backtrack a week and explain how I came to find myself in London to undertake this trip in the first place. It all started from a tweet. A harmless, innocuous tweet sent from myself to the Irish cycling legend Stephen Roche. It went along these lines: "I bet you didn't know that Ireland has three current Paracycling World Champions!" To which he replied "I didn't know - chapeau!"

Why is this significant? Well, this year mark's the 25th anniversary of Roche winning the triple crown of cycling: The Giro d'Italia, The Tour de France and The World Championships. He is a key figure in the history of Irish cycling and an inspiration to many. It was a little disappointing to find out he didn't know who I, or my teammates were and what we had accomplished, and also gratifying to see what happened next.

He got in touch with me directly. And along with an events organisation that he does a lot of work with (Hot Chillee), invited me to join him on a celebratory bike ride. The London to Paris ride. It was to be his 5th year doing the ride, but a special one as it was a celebration of his Triple Crown win. I spoke with the head of Hot Chillee, Sven Thiele as I was about to board a plane to Spain to race in the second World Cup race of the year. Sven invited me to join Stephen and several other 'Legends' on the ride – including Nigel Mansell, Magnus Backstedt, mountain biker Karl Platt and another former World Champion, Maurizio Fondriest. Even though it was last-minute, there was no way I was going to pass up this opportunity.

And despite the best laid plans, I almost didn't make it to the start line. On Wednesday afternoon I was driving down the motorway on my way to London from Manchester when I had a bit of a problem with my car. To keep it brief, I managed to total the car on the M1 about 60 miles from London. The car had to be towed back to my house and I was supposed to go with it. That meant I wouldn't make the ride. But after a quick phone call from Sven, he told me to send the car home, get in a cab and get to the start. He would take care of everything – but i had to be there. So that's what I did.

A few hours later I found myself in Sven's living room, sipping a glass of champagne with Stephen, Karl and Maurizio. It was a little surreal for me to be in the company of these great men of cycling. And over the next 3 days I would be treated as an equal to these men in many ways. It's hard to explain how that makes you feel, but let's just say 'very special'.

And so, finally, the time for the ride was upon us the following morning. There were seven different groups of cyclists on the road, from hand cyclists to leisure cyclists to the racer types. Group 7 being the slowest and group one the fastest. Groups 1 and 2 were the 'racing groups' - meaning the riders would compete each day in designated race sections along the way. It was tough riding every day already, with over 100 miles to be completed each day. Add to this a fairly rapid pace mixed with some actual racing and the challenge got a lot harder.

Throughout day one I was pushed. I worked hard to try and stay near the front of our group as much as possible – giving myself room to slip backwards on the climbs. This worked fairly well throughout the day. Several times I found myself at the back of the group, but battled to get myself back into the bunch. At the 100 mile mark there was one last big climb of the day – and at this point I was past my limit. My legs were both cramping and I couldn't face the climb. I wanted to climb off and get in one of the vehicles that accompanied us, but one of the Mavic neutral service bikes that was following us took pity on me and gave me a push up the hill. Going down the other side I was still in excruciating pain with leg cramps – something I had never experienced ON the bike before. But I rolled into the port at Dover knowing that my work for the day was done.

We had covered 105 miles miles in under 5.5 hours. And over 5000 feet of climbing. That is some going! It took some time to get all the riders onto the ferry for the crossing to Calais and it gave me lots of time to get some fluids into me to ease the cramps. Day one is always a long one and it was 10:00pm before we had settled into our hotel and sat down for dinner. I certainly slept well that night!

Up again at 7:00 the next morning and downed a quick breakfast before hopping on the bus back to the warehouse where the bikes were stored overnight. The staggered starts of the groups meant I still had to wait around for almost an hour and a half before we started our journey for the day. It was to be a tough old day as well – with stiff winds, pelting rain, long miles and rolling terrain. In addition, the race section for this day was much longer and the speeds much higher.

I found it difficult right from the start. There was a hefty cross-headwind and no matter where I positioned myself, I always seemed to be battling the wind. The accumulated fatigue from the previous day made the legs feel heavy and I was trying to keep pace with some seriously strong riders. As the day progressed the rain began to fall heavily, which in addition to the winds, made riding conditions miserable. It's one thing riding along in these conditions on your own, but when you're tired and sat behind someone else taking the spray off their rear wheel hour after hour, it starts to become rather soul-destroying. At one point, after battling my way up a steep climb, only to discover we had gone the wrong way and had to ride back down again and take a different route upwards instead - I nearly cracked. My legs started to cramp again and I started to drift off the back of the bunch. It was at this point that Karl Platt came to my rescue - basically pushing me up the climb and taking me from the rear of the group all the way to the front. If he hadn't helped me I would have had to climb off.

After that the cramp eased a bit and I got into my rhythm again. It was still wet and windy but I stuck to the front of the bunch and rode strongly into the lunch break. But it was perhaps the worst day I had spent on a bike. And it wasn't over yet!

I missed group one departing after lunch due to some poor timing and ended up riding in group five. What a contrast to group one! The pace was relaxed to say the least and many of the riders were more of the amateur calibre – probably undertaking a long journey like this for the first time. Myself and two other group one riders were on the front the whole way – but had to constantly slow our pace so as to not lose the rest of the group. It made me appreciate how difficult the trip is for some people – and also how good a rider I actually was in comparison. Nevertheless, it gave me a chance to meet some new people and for that it was a worthwhile change. Day two ended with 107 miles and 5500 feet of climbing.

I awoke on the final day with very sore legs. But also with the knowledge that we would reach Paris later that day. I initially had planned to start in group one again, but at the last minute changed my mind and opted for the second racing group instead. It was a wise choice. Although this group was also fast, they lacked the insanely fast speeds of group one. I was able to keep pace without any real issues and spent a good amount of time at the very front, driving the bunch onwards. Even in the 'race' section for the day I survived quite well - coming across the line in the second bunch of riders. The ultimate complement was paid to me by some of the riders who claimed they struggled to keep up when I went to the front!

Myself, Fondriest and Roche cycle past the Arc de Triumph. Photo by Karen Schermbrucker

After lunch on the final day, the entire peleton of over 450 riders set off together towards Paris. We were only 40km from our final destination at this point and most of it downhill. I picked my way through the riders until I was right up at the front of the group. And as we entered the downtown core of Paris itself, I found myself alongside Stephen Roche and Maurizio Fondriest – leading everyone onto the cobbles of the Champs Elysees. I am not ashamed to admit that the moment was not wasted on me. That I was riding down that famed boulevard, wearing my rainbow jersey, in the company of true Legends. Tears filled my eyes and I was glad to be wearing sunglasses so as to hide my emotions from anyone else.

Myself and Roche in Paris. Photo by Karen Schermbrucker
We rode past the Eiffel Tower, on closed roads, a peleton that stretched back almost a mile and over the finish line to be greeted by cheering friends and family. The epic journey was complete. And in the starkest of contrasts to the previous day, I knew this day was one of my BEST on a bike. The sun was shining, and I had just ridden into Paris with cycling royalty – and treated as an equal by them. They had made me feel special and welcome.

From the very start the event was run with the greatest of professionalism. The logistical challenges of moving 450 riders and 190 staff from London to Paris with as little problems as possible isn't easy. Every day bags are packed onto giant DHL lorries and dropped off at the finish line for the day. Busses ship riders to hotels and back to the bike each morning. Food is provided at lunch stops. There are lead cars, ride captains, mechanics, motorcycle escorts that follow and lead each group of riders on the road – blocking intersections and providing rolling road closures – and keeping all the riders safe and moving. And there are all of the Hot Chillee staff that help take care of every other little detail you can think of. There are even photographers and a video crew filming every day and producing daily videos. It's the friendliest and most organised group of people I have ever come across.

And at the head of the group – is Sven Thiele. It is to hime (and to Stephen) that I owe my greatest thanks. They brought me along and took care of my every need. They covered my costs and did it so I could help spread the word about the Paralympics and rally support for my squad. They ask nothing in return – not even that I write this. I just wanted to try and convey my thanks and spread the word about how they run things!

There was a lot more to the trip than what I have written about. Here's a great highlight video from the event that was shown at the Gala Dinner on the final night in Paris. It brought tears to the eyes of many of the participants! 

A couple of final points I'd like to touch on. There were 3 hand cyclists that did this journey. And no matter how hard it was for myself or any of the other riders, it pales in comparison to what they had to endure. They were on the road for over 11 hours a day (with stops). I take my hat off to them and they have my unconditional respect. And the last thing I'd like to convey, to any of the riders who were on the trip, whether you were in group 1 or group 7 – is that you are ALL champions. No matter what your level of fitness, this was not an easy trip. You may not realise it today, but it will stay with you forever and will change you (for the better). One day you look back on it and it will hit you, if it hasn't already. There's a reason why so many people go back and do it year after year.