My first experience of a long-distance bike ride was – as it is for many people – a charity ride.
I’d been throwing myself around the London backroads for a few years on a steel Ridgeback hybrid, with big thick tyres and weighing a tonne.
I was keen on cycling as a London commuter, but the world of competitive cycling (and bikes that weighed a quarter of what my Ridgeback did and cost 10 times as much) hadn’t opened up to me yet.
My friend Mike and I decided we’d put ourselves to the test and raise some money in the process.
We signed up for the London to Brighton bike ride in aid of The British Heart Foundation. The most I’d ever done on the bike before that was about 17 miles, so the 54 miles of the ride – plus the distance from East London to Clapham Common – added up to a formidable challenge.
It felt like a really big deal.
I can’t remember how much we raised, but it was a beautiful day with wave upon wave of cyclists weaving their way out of London and into Surrey in one never ending trail. It made you feel good to be part of something.
But at about 20 miles, just as we were heading up a little hill near Godstone, something somewhere went ‘crunch’. My back wheel stopped going round and I had to hop off at the side of the road to take a look.
Unable to identify the problem, I carried my suddenly even heavier bike back to a mechanic’s tent we’d passed about half-a-mile before. As the mechanic removed the wheel, the bolts on either side simply fell away. Somehow, I’d snapped the rear axle.
“That’s your ride over, I’m afraid,” said the mechanic sympathetically, it being something he couldn’t fix with the kit he had. “You’ll have to wait until the broom wagon comes through. They’ll take you and your bike to Brighton.”
I sent Mike on his way, while I went off to find a steward to report as a DNF: Did Not Finish. Sorrow filled my heart.
But not long after disappointment had set in, determination suddenly took its place. Where, I asked the steward tentatively, was the nearest bike shop?
There was none close, the steward said, but chuck your bike in the back of my car and I’ll drive you to Halfords in Redhill. At least I could get a train back to London if it couldn’t be fixed.
At Halfords, the guy running the bike maintenance area couldn’t budge the other bikes he’d already booked in. But there were a couple of grubby fingered teenagers hanging around who looked over my steed with amused interest.
Within minutes they had my back wheel off, the rear cassette unscrewed, the spindle out and a new one in. Twenty minutes later, and a couple of teenagers £10 each the richer, I was back on the road.
Waved off by two lads I’d never met before, but who were as pleased as I was with a job well done, I set off in the general direction of where I thought the ride probably ought to be going past.
I called Mike to tell him I was back on the road and would see him in Brighton.
“Nah,” he said. “It’s boring without you. And anyway, there’s a lovely pub here. I’ve just bought a pint.”
Half an hour later I bought him his second, me my first, and a gin-and-tonic for each of us just for good measure. We may even have stayed for another.
The miles seemed to fly by after that. Even the infamous Ditchling Beacon didn’t wear down our spirits, and we both refused to climb off as we cycled up and over the top. We then clocked 42 mph going down the other side, and not long after arrived in Brighton.
Fast forward nearly 15 years.
Last weekend I left my house after breakfast, cycled nearly 50 miles in less than three hours including a coffee stop, and then another five miles to join my wife and some friends of hers.
I’d done London to Brighton – a distance I once considered a real challenge and for which I asked people to sponsor me – well before lunch time. And that was a pretty average Saturday for me.
It made me appreciate my wife’s old school friends who had driven hundreds of miles, from all over the country, back to Essex for the weekend.
The six of them had been inspired by my diagnosis, and the impact it has had on our family, to do a 5k sponsored run in aid of the Brain Tumour Charity.
At each kilometre mark they were plastered with a different coloured paint: pink, orange, green, blue and finally a triumphant purple as they leapt across the finish line with huge grins on their faces.
They’d run, jogged, walked and even danced their way around the course. For some it was further than they’d run, jogged, walked or danced for some time.
It was a challenge completed not just to enjoy each other’s company, but because they wanted to do something positive in the face of what life had thrown our way.
As my children and I clapped from the sidelines, the prodigal Essex girls did lap after lap, becoming messier and messier, but their smiles growing wider and wider.
I was reminded what a big deal that first London to Brighton bike ride had been for me. We were doing it for fun, but also to raise money to help other people.
I was reminded that it was all the more fun because I did it with a great friend, and it offered an opportunity to challenge ourselves and be together at the same time.
And I was reminded of the kindness of complete strangers who had helped me just when I thought all was lost.
In the same way, those six women I barely know wanted to do something. Something together. Something fun. Something to help. Something important.
When you get good at cycling, or any sport, you can become a little snobbish about charity events. Huh, call that difficult? I’m not paying to do what I normally do anyway.
On that day, as the girls insisted they gather around me for a victory photograph (click it to enlarge), I resolved that no matter how fit I am, or how far I cycle, I will remember that every participant in a charity event is doing it for great reasons.
Reasons like I had when I first did London to Brighton: To challenge myself. To have fun. To be together with friends. To do something to help.
Those things together do amount to a really big deal.