“Birmingham to Cardiff? But that’s only a hundred miles. Not exactly ‘Big’, is it?” That was the response of a friend of mine to the news that we (I use the royal ‘we’ here, obviously, as I was never going to attempt to clamber onto a bike myself – that would be silly) would be involved in helping to organize a third Big Bike Ride to raise money for the Tom Maynard Trust and the PCA Benevolent Fund. As the previous two had journeyed from, respectively, Durham to North London and Truro to South London, for a combined total of around 800 miles, I could see my questioner’s point.
“We’re linking the PCA’s home in Birmingham, as it’s their fiftieth anniversary, and the Trust’s home in Cardiff,” I replied, realising as I was speaking that it still sounded awfully thin. “We’ll find a route that makes it a bit tougher than it sounds,” I followed up with…
Well, mission accomplished. It was ‘a bit tougher than it sounds’. Quite a lot tougher, actually. 362 miles, with climbing of around 27,000 feet – not far off the height of Everest – and some really tough hills along the way. 59 riders committed to the whole five days, with a handful of day riders supporting them. And what a monumental effort it was by all of them. The faces of the riders as they completed the Tumble and British Mountain climbs on the final day said so much about the whole ethos and challenge of the ride. From the immediate abuse, expletives and out of breath collapsing-in-a-heap came the sense of pride and achievement just a couple of minutes later, immediately followed by the rush to encourage and applaud colleagues following them up.
Having been a part of the small team that helped map the route back in May – Andrew Hutchings, Mark Lambert and Mike Bell riding, with Tracey Hutchings supporting in the Cotswold Cycles mechanics’ vehicle – I guess I knew what was to come. And when I think that originally we had a load of extra miles on the first day and an even tougher climb planned for the final day, I imagine that had we not changed it we would quite probably have been rounded up, taken behind the pavilion at the SSE Swalec Stadium and summarily shot.
My job on Big Bike Ride 3 (‘BBR3’ for short) was to help the indefatigable Ali Prosser of the PCA with all of the planning, the original brain behind the whole BBR concept, Jason Ratcliffe (surely it’s his fault, all you riders…?!) having left the PCA last year. There is so much else going on for the PCA in the Autumn – awards dinners, summits etc. – that it was felt someone else might reasonably pick up the baton. And as the Trust shares in the benefits, that someone was me. And I was very happy and proud to be able to do so. A whole raft of other folk came in for the week itself, of which more later.
We didn’t get off to a great start. The Berrys coach which Matt had arranged to transport those who wanted to leave their vehicles in Cardiff up to Edgbaston became snarled up in some nasty traffic and took nearly five hours to complete what under normal circumstances would have been a 150-minute journey. That potential disaster was nearly superseded on the fourth morning when we managed the not inconsiderable challenge of getting the whole of Group 3 down to Monmouth School cricket club only to find that the caretaker had overslept and the building where the bikes were stored was all locked. I must admit my heart was in my mouth for a good while as I tried (probably unconvincingly) to remain calm, assuring everyone that everything was completely under control. Thankfully Andrew Jones came to my rescue and there was no damage done…
In addition to all of the logistics, the health and safety and the liaison with the clubs along the way, I also followed Group 2 around over the five days supporting the riders (Tim Bresnan, Dan Cherry, Andy Coope, David Fulton, Olly Hannon-Dalby, Tom Jones, Mark Lambert, Leisa Lavender, Simon Lee, Daryl Mitchell, Alex Morris, Gareth Rees, Ian Saxelby, Marcus Trescothick, Mark Wallace, David Wigley and Matt Wood rode all five days, with Liam Mitchell with us on day one, Michael Vaughan for most of day two, and Julia and Ian Brookes on days one and three). Helping the group were also Gary Metcalfe, the ride’s lead medic, Ian Hughes (our Yoda-like mechanic) and the wondrous Ian Thomas, who was the real support star in this group, ministering to the riders’ every need and appearing to come into Cardiff with more food and drink than he actually set out from Edgbaston with in the first place, such were his magpie-like skills in ‘topping up at each stop’. Banana, anyone? What a fabulous bunch of people. I thoroughly enjoyed travelling around with them.
My experiences on BBR2 meant I was able to put in a bid for an automatic car to drive around in this time. Toyota, one of the PCA’s partners, provided this, along with vans for Ian Thomas and for Jon Touhig and Sophie Edelsten, who were supporting Group 3. It sounds a bit pathetic to say, when you consider what the riders have been through, but it really is rather tiring driving along all day at 10mph, stopping every mile or so, dodging tractors and trying to deal with a stream of irate and impatient motorists. Some drivers need to take a good hard look at themselves. On one climb in the Peak District on the second morning, on a road where even the skinniest supermodel would have struggled to get past a car, I was being papped and flashed so much by some idiot behind me that I slowed right down, allowed Matt Wood’s arse to disappear into the nether distance and got out of the car to have what might politely be termed ‘a frank exchange of views’ with said idiot about whose land we were on and our respective entitlements to be on the road. I believe my final words to him were, “go on then, you tosser, why don’t you try and overtake me,” before jumping back into the Toyota and haring on at a steady 2mph for another couple of miles, smirking as I watched the bloke behind me getting more and more angry by the yard. Needless to say when we reached an appropriate overtaking point a few miles further on, I was regaled with a record-breaking volley of expletives and hand gestures as he went past. I’m not sure what possesses people to be so angry.
If you ever support a bike ride you have to expect to be crawling along. That’s the deal. Though on BBR2 the then PCA Chief Exec Angus Porter managed to average 11mph over the week yet still pick up two speeding tickets. Most drivers we came across were very patient, and the riders in our group were very respectful and appreciated the courtesy afforded to them by 99% of the drivers they came across. As on BBR2, where it was Graham Napier’s backside that I became alarmingly over-familiar with, this time it was Woody’s. He claims that it’s a better view. I would hate to differentiate between the respective merits of the hind quarters of two such fine men and therefore make no comment other than to say that in bowing in admiration to their stamina and fitness, neither is a picture I want to linger over for too long.
After firing round an email the week before the ride outlining the proposed composition of the three groups I spent most of the following day fielding responses and trying to find a way of avoiding having a Group 3 of 40-odd people, such was the clamour to be placed in the bottom group. I think there was a genuine view that Group 1 was packed with classic ride veterans, Kings of the Mountain and yellow jersey wearers, and that Group 3 contained loads of people who had never so much as been on a bike before. We got there. Somehow.
Talking of yellow jerseys, BBR3 saw the return of the famous ‘Dick of the Day’ tabards, awarded by each group daily to, well, the Dick of the Day. I’ll spare the recipients’ blushes with regard to the who and the what for, but it made for some really entertaining explanations at the start of each day’s riding and definitely added to the camaraderie of the week. My favourite was the award to someone in Group 2 for falling off his bike as he was setting off from the afternoon stop on day two. In front of his wife, young child and family. They probably didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. His riding colleagues opted instantly for the former.
I loved the way the groups developed their own sense of identity, formed or reformed their own friendships and established their own rules and modus operandi. But there was also a lot more mixing on this ride than in previous rides, possibly because the generous sponsorship of Full Time Cover (whose Matt Dewen rode the whole five days and his dad, John, accompanied the riders all the way round) and Sandersons (with MD and electric biker Ian Sanderson, plus fellow electric rider Jon Randall, Andrew Kneeshaw, Simon Barrett, Chris Blackburn and Dan Wray with us for the week) meant we didn’t feel the pressure to arrange evening functions. This meant that the headline names – Marcus Trescothick, Geraint Jones, Tim Bresnan, Matt Maynard, Gavin Hamilton and Graeme Fowler – were free to mix much more in the evenings.
Out front were Andy Mitchell, our kit supremo and resident photographer, in his Owzat Cricket-logod-up van, with Sam Relf of the PCA, whose role included somehow shoehorning everyone into the same hotel every evening. I don’t know how she did that, such were the constantly changing demands and requests. We were regaled at every stop with tales from Mitch about Sam’s questions and we almost had a diplomatic incident on the fourth morning when Sam dropped his camera. No damage done to the relationship but the atmosphere was a tad frosty for a while…
Even though she was only available for the first and last days I still couldn’t get away from Ali. Reminder phone calls (she knows me too well) and texts about when breakfast was, when folk had to drop their bags the following morning, and how much we’d raised to date came through every day. It was like being remote controlled. But as the woman is a tried and tested organizational marvel, I just did what I was told.
In Group 3 we had Mike Bell, Matt Maynard and Geraint Jones leading and sweeping the self-confessed waifs and strays. They did a magnificent job. We sent Group 3 off first every day and they were rarely too far behind time. If you discount Dastardly and Muttley on their electric bikes (Sanderson and Randall) Sarah Bell was first up the Tumble on the final day, much to her pride and amazement, accompanied by the Group 3 mechanic, Jon Touhig. Tough cookie, Belly, a real BBR trooper and a loyal Trust supporter. You know if you’re ever staging something like this she’s bound to be one of the first to sign up. Noisy during the mid-ride social quiz, mind.
Holding them together was the irrepressible Richie Green, in his Abbey Glass support vehicle. He loves Group 3, does Rich, and wouldn’t want to be working anywhere else on the bike rides. Clearly he enjoys a challenge… The bill for Haribos alone would have hit several hundred quid. He even led the charge when Foxy Fowler suggested having his head shaved for the two charities. I’m not sure I’ve seen him move quicker as he leapt off to find his razor. There was no one else going to have that particular privilege.
Group 2 was led by Mark Lambert and swept by Matt Wood. Mark’s daily preambles to the award of the Dick of the Day bib were genuinely hilarious, especially the speech given at Monmouth on the final morning which culminated in him awarding himself the jersey for repeatedly leading his charges the wrong way. Which he proceeded to do one last time in Newbridge for good measure. Like Mike Bell and Andrew Hutchings, Mark is part of the fabric of these rides and again did a super job all week. As far as Woody is concerned, I doubt you will come across a more naturally positive character. Nothing was too much bother. Nothing was a problem. “All good”.
Group 2 included Gary Metcalfe, our BBR3 medic. Brutally efficient in his planning we managed to avoid any real emergencies. There were naturally a few cramps. aches and strains, some under-the-weather diagnoses, and a few falls, though nothing alarming. Tres’s fall was captured on camera by Mitch. I missed Olly Hannon-Dalby’s, which was a degree more painful, and looked it. But, trooper that he is, he insisted on getting back on his (buckled) bike and continuing rather than diving into the van with Ian Thomas. Largely, though, we were blessed with decent weather and a relatively injury-free week. While the 60 riders pedalled their way around the 362-mile route, Gaz managed only to peddle record numbers of ibuprofen at each stop.
Jo Kain (for a second time) and Lisa Procter joined us for the week as masseuses and their healing hands were called on by a good number of riders at the end of each day. Without their support, along with that of so many others, the delivery of an event such as this, across six different locations, would be impossible. The PCA’s Sam Relf, Sophie Edelsten and Emily Lewis were with us all week, in different roles, and Paula Cummings-Riddoch back at PCA HQ…. It was definitely a team effort and we relied on them all.
Group 1 contained its own characters and, if the truth be told, most of the ‘proper’ riders. James Harris signalled his riding credentials by deciding to arrive in Cardiff two days before the start of the ride proper, leave his car, and cycle to Edgbaston via Hereford to join the others. So when they were coming into Cardiff on the final (fifth) day, Bones was on day seven. He’s probably still out there somewhere as you read this. He loves it. Listening to him and Steve James debating reasons why one had beaten the other up a hill on the penultimate day was fascinating. Competitive? Those two? No chance… I also enjoyed the fact that Ian ‘Wales’ Williams, on his third BBR, was asking Ian Thomas to pick him up a Daily Telegraph every day. Presumably delivered ironed as well.
We were joined on the first day by Dean Downing, a former British cycling champion, who had seen the PCA Benevolent Fund’s mental health awareness film and wanted to do something positive. He met us the evening before the start and then rode with different groups on day one and his input and subsequent support on social media was much appreciated. And on the final day, when Group 1 was joined by Richard Gambling, Richard received a message from Magnus Backstedt, former Paris/Roubaix and Tour De France stage winner, to say he was keen to ride with us, rang him at Abergavenny and Magnus joined the group at the foot of the Tumble. The Trust has supported Magnus’s daughter Elinor with a grant, so it was good to have that association firmed up with Magnus’s appearance for the rest of the day’s riding. Though he and Richard were barely out of breath at the top of the climbs…
Along the way we were made to feel incredibly welcome at the various stops. When Andrew had first mapped out the route, we decided that as he, Mark and Mike would test it, so I would take the opportunity to visit potential stops and chat to the clubs concerned to see if they would be willing to help us out. Pete Ford offered to identify the best places and between us we contacted all the clubs prior to testing so that over the five days of testing we managed to get around almost all of them. That proved to be such a good move in terms of planning everything. There were 18 ‘local’ stops on the route – Atherstone, Quarndon, South Wingfield, Sheffield Collegiate (at Abbeydale Park), Buxton, the Poachers Inn at Bollington, Middlewich, Calverhall, Broseley, Cleobury Mortimer, Ledbury, Ruardean Hill, Lydney, Monmouth School, Abergavenny, Newbridge and St Fagans, along with Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Glamorgan county clubs. Almost all of them gave their time and hospitality for nothing, for which we are enormously grateful, and at the majority there were cricket demos, guards of honour, school groups and photos and autograph requests galore, thus providing a lovely buzz as the riders arrived.
My admiration for the bigger name players grew and grew as the week went on. In our group the majority were county players but Marcus Trescothick and Tim Bresnan were, I suppose, the ‘name’ cricketers. Their patience and attention to every request was amazing. They must have been knackered and craving a quiet corner somewhere on occasions but you wouldn’t have known. The food on offer was unbelievable at every stop, though my favourite was being offered a choice of normal, smoky or crispy bacon, on white, soft, wholemeal or seeded bread at Calverhall (smoky on wholemeal, since you ask).
Pete Ford, who, not content with volunteering to help me in finding the clubs for us to stop at, again completed the whole ride. He also helped me by putting on a quiz halfway through the week, just to mix things up a bit so that it wasn’t just crack of dawn/ride/food/quick drink/bed (for most). The world needs more Pete Fords. The man’s a star. The winning team was (coincidentally) the largely Welsh team (The Sheepsha**ers) comprising Messrs Mark Wallace, Gareth Rees, James Harris, Ian Williams and Dan Cherry, plus guests Tom Jones (presumably by association) and Tim Bresnan (no obvious reason, though hopefully nothing to do with sheep). There was some post event controversy when Ian Saxelby, a member of the team that finished runners-up, pointed out that one of the answers had been given out incorrectly. But as it was our quiz and not his, his appeal was very quickly overruled. (Sorry, Sax. You were right, butt. I’ll give you a +1 head start on the next one).
Quizzes were a feature of some of the legs on the way around. Gavin Hamilton, Jason Chipchase and Mark Wallace were keen to have questions thrown at them so that they could keep their minds on anything but the riding and the hills. I offered to set a few, but was given the red card after asking them a question for which there should have been three answers, but for which I had told them there were four. They were scratching their collective helmets for a good 20 miles. Sorry, boys.
Graeme ‘Foxy’ Fowler’s was a welcome presence all week. As someone who values the work that the PCA does, and being a close friend of Matt Maynard’s, he again offered his services way back and very quickly settled into his BBR2 routine, accompanying Paul Bolton as the advance party, putting up the PCA banners and shepherding each group in to each stop. It got to the stage towards the end of the week where I started to worry that I wouldn’t be able to find the car park at work the following week without a PCA banner and bearded man jumping up and down manically as I drove in. I enjoyed ferrying him from Sheffield to Northampton and back on the second evening so that he could fulfil a speaking engagement: his stories are brilliant. I don’t know how the offer to have his head shaved at our final stop in St Fagans for added donations has gone down at Foxy Towers but the man is a trooper and an invaluable support.
This whole ride is something very special. It unites current and former players, international cricketers and club cricketers, fans and county members, drawing on county chief executives (would have been chairmen as well had not Richard Thompson broken his foot a few weeks before le Grand Depart), coaches, captains, administrators, physios, medics, ECB staff and general supporters of the game and the two charities like nothing else I have come across in any other sport, certainly not cricket. I have a horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach that despite everyone saying that this will be the last one, there may well indeed be a Big Bike Ride 4 in some format or another. Over half of the riders on BBR3 were returnees and I suspect there will be a great many who rode in this one who, sore bodies, broken bikes, aching bones, gripes, whinges, injuries, sweat and tears notwithstanding, will be signing up as soon as the gates are officially open. And good on them. These rides have raised well over £400,000 already and it would be a crying shame to ditch them, even though the fundraising is getting ever more difficult for the participants.
Roll calls, cooked breakfasts, gels, lycra, bananas, water bottles, powders, bumpy roads, cranking low gears, Garmin, more lycra, dirt, flapjacks, hills, baggage drops, cow shit, maps, steep hills, cakes, autograph hunters at the local clubs, tuna sandwiches, punctures, yet more lycra, lost phone signals, lost support vehicles, Guinness, massages, Dicks of the Day, angry motorists, energy bars, sat nav, even more lycra, Haribos, traffic queues, wrong routes, sheep, bacon rolls, ridiculous alarm calls, bin bags of rubbish, photos, crashes, more hills, lost hotel key cards, creaking bodies, broken chains, scheduled toilet stops, unscheduled toilet stops, strappings, more cakes, endless tweeting, a bit more lycra, lack of sleep, one last hill, cleats, day bags, Strava, de-flinting, changing group personnel, van passengers, sausage baps, rub downs, seriously just one last hill, more sheep, beers, laughs…. what a fantastic week.
There are so many people who made this ride so memorable but one really notable factor for me was just how many outstandingly and infuriatingly nice people there were as part of the overall group. The spirit was amazing and the support for one another throughout has been exceptional. And the fundraising effort – the purpose behind the week, after all – has been Herculean. Both charities will benefit hugely from the efforts of the group. Please do continue to donate.
My primary memories of the week centre around Ceri Maynard, Tom’s sister. She rode with Group 3 alongside Matt, in what must have been an incredibly emotional rollercoaster of a five days. What an amazing young woman. She battled much of the week with illness but somehow managed to get through the majority of the ride, including the really difficult climbs on days two and five, and my admiration for her was colossal. And she also found time to introduce me to Desperados in the hotel bar in Crewe. Good work, Cez… xx
The level of detail which went into the organization and arrangements was colossal, so well done Ali Prosser, who again worked so hard on the planning. Andrew Hutchings deserves a medal for planning a route like that, too. I know a few riders will be cursing him for the climbs, but it was also a magnificent route for scenery and the work he put in to the testing and re-testing is something most don’t see. It just wouldn’t work without him. Matt, too, deserves praise for being a continued energy behind the whole thing. Thank you to everyone who rode, supported, sponsored, provided services and tangible equipment or food and drink, and to all the venues, clubs and stops along the way. Without whom, etc…
To the veterans – riders and support crew – who have done all three rides, I doff my cap: Mike Bell, Sarah Bell, Dan Cherry, Andy Coope, Richard Green, James Harris, Andrew Hutchings, Mark Lambert, Matt Maynard, Andy Mitchell, Alex Morris, Charlie Mulraine, Ali Prosser, Jon Touhig, Marcus Trescothick, Mark Wallace, Ian Williams and Matt Wood. Well played, sirs.
So with BBR3 finished, the question is: will there be a BBR4? It was an out-and-out ‘no’ a few weeks ago. Now? Well, to use a Gallagher brothers phrase, it’s a case of ‘definitely maybe’…
Until next time?