Last night I returned home from a week's cycling; 350 miles across three countries in five days with a group of wounded, sick and injured servicemen and women, and 200 fundraisers, who have been raising money for Help For Heroes on the Big Battlefield Bike Ride 2017. It has been a life changing week and one that I will treasure for the rest of my life. Despite the lashing rain, the gale force winds, the early starts and punishing hills, I have had more fun this week than I could have imagined, I have learned things about myself that I didn't know, I have made friends for life and I have done something that I can be truly proud of.
We all met at St Pancreas station at 10am on Sunday morning. Since I have been involved with Help For Heroes for the last 11 years, and this was my fifth Big Battlefield Bike Ride, I had a lot of hellos and hugs from new friends and old friends, people that I haven't seen all year who come together for a week of pain for a great cause. We load our bikes onto a big lorry and collect our tickets before making our way through security and boarding the Eurostar train to Lille in France. For many this is their first ride and you can feel the sense of apprehension hanging like a cloud over the carriages. For many though this is a reunion and the bar cart is filled with old friends raising a glass to what is undoubtedly going to be a great week.
Later that day we check into a hotel and come together for a big team dinner. Beers were drunk, reassurances were dolled out from old hands to nervous new comers and stories were shared from H4H CEO to it's proudest supporters: how our money and efforts were going to change the lives of those that have paid such a huge sacrifice for our freedom. It was a great night but by midnight we had to accept that riding the next day would definitely be easier without another glass of wine, and we headed to bed.
5.30am and we're up. A hurried breakfast, padded shorts everywhere and a sense of subdued panic from those who have absolutely no idea what to expect. We board a coach to our starting point and listen to a service given by the 'Pedalling Padre' in a beautiful church. He tells us that our life is out of our control. And, since we're about to follow the infamous orange arrows laid out by the Discover Adventure team for five days across strange lands, I can't help but agree with him. Then we're off. With a wave of the Help For Heroes flag, the Pedalling General starts the ride and 200 lycra-clad people wobble their way through the streets of Lille.
Before we knew it we'd made our way up some fairly considerable hills, were fifty miles in and eating lunch out in the sunshine. If we had known that clouds were making their way to us at an incredible speed perhaps we'd have departed quicker, alas, we set off again slowly and by the time we had reached Brussels, at rush hour on a Monday evening I hasten to add, the weather was beyond belief. My friend Sophie (poor Sophie to any podcast listeners out there) lived up to her name and went flying off her bike after underestimating the depth of a puddle and the Traffic-Gods looked down on us a with wrath we didn't deserve; every light turned red as we approached it, busses seemed to go out of their way to drench us, driving through puddles at remarkable speeds and the tram lines caused accidents left right and centre, landing two people in hospital.
We had a bit of a sense of humour failure, Sophie and I. The shoes that you wear to cycle in are called 'cleats' and they mean that you are attached to your bike. They are very useful on long open roads, since you can pull up on the pedals as well as pushing down, but in towns they are a nightmare; if something jumps into your path you can't just put your foot down to steady yourself and falling off seems an inevitability. We walked over the tram lines (all 1000 of them) and eventually made it back to our hotel soaking wet and a bit grumpy (so of course I bit Alex's head off when he told me that he'd forgotten what room we were in which resulted in an examination of four floors). We drank lots of wine that night and pretended that we didn't have to do the same thing again the next morning.
Another early start to allow time for another 75 miles. Knowing that since the town had been terrible to arrive into on Monday night during rush hour, we allowed plenty of time, since Tuesday morning rush hour probably meant more of the same. The weather was better this morning though and plenty of others had had the same idea; we left as a group of fifty or so and made our way out of Brussels. (My friend Ross was knocked off his bike by an angry Belgian driver who had no doubt had enough of the lycra wearing lunatics who had taken over his city but other than that we escaped relatively easily).
At a service that morning, at a cemetery deep in the country side, we heard from one of the Band Of Brothers (the name given the 75,000+ Help For Heroes beneficiaries) who described with beautiful and brave honesty his battle with alcoholism and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), it was both humbling and inspiring and reminded us why every single wet and windy mile was worth it. The rest of the day was perfect; windy but bright and the roads were flat. We passed the time with word association games and at the 65 mile mark we were allowed to stop in a brewery; a couple of ciders made the last ten miles almost easy.
Thank God for another sunny day. We made our way out of Belgium (something that really couldn't have come soon enough as the place was definitely not made with cyclists in mind) and arrived in Holland (which by stark contrast is a cyclist paradise). Another very humbling day visiting cemeteries and remembering those who had fought so bravely for our freedom during Operation Market Garden, where my grandfather had fought and won his Victoria Cross, in 1944. The wind today was reaching speeds of up to 40mph and the act of staying upright on our bikes was becoming a real challenge. 74 miles later though and we were all safe and sound and in the Holiday Express in Eindhoven celebrating the wonderful Dutch.
Wednesday morning, by the way, is ALWAYS the hardest. Your bum is at peak bruising and your legs spend a lot of time asking you what the fuck you think you're doing making them do more work. When Wednesday is over, it is a great feeling, because you know that by day four you will be totally numb.
Here comes the rain. Famously, Thursday on the Big Battlefield Bike Ride is 'fancy dress day' and the theme this year was 'airborne'. In 2013 I made the mistake of taking dressing up very seriously indeed and ended up doing 85 miles dressed as a medieval wench; corset, bonnet and even two enormous fake hips. That had been the hardest cycling of my life and I was not going to make that mistake again so opted this year for a humble t-shirt. Others had a bit more fun with it and two of our members, both big blokes, riding a tandem, did it as fairies in charity shop dresses stuffed with false bosoms. Thank god for the laughter, it kept us warm.
People tell you that Holland is flat and they're not entirely telling the truth. Nijmagen is home to some hills and by 4pm we were soaking wet and making our way up them. At the top of one we heard another great sermon by the Pedalling Padre and remembered yet more of the brave men who had given their lives for our freedom. A combination of not enough food and the pouring rain started to get to a few of us by the point and I did the last seven miles with tears streaming down my face and my jaw chattering, I think that might have been the coldest that I have ever been. I've never got to a bar faster in my life.
We spent the evening playing silly games and helping one of my best friend's Ross celebrate his 26th Birthday. He says he had a great birthday but I'm sure there were a few things that would have made it a bit better: dry socks for example, or maybe not having to do 65 miles on a bike.
It's the last day and it's raining HARD. Since my mum was going to be honouring her dad today as we cycled to our finish line, the bridge at Arnhem, we thought we would do it as our team of twelve. The rain was so bad however, we literally could have been riding with anyone, not being able to hear each other over the sound of pounding rain or see each other through the dark. Thankfully by 9am it had eased and the sun was starting to make it's way through the clouds, the damage however was done and, soaked through, 200 of us squeezed tougher under a bridge for warmth. Desperate to enjoy our last day however we pinned our smiles on and continued. This was by far and away my favourite day.
Following the route that 12,000 allied troops had followed 73 years ago had been an incredible experience and cycling the streets on which my grandfather had fought was an experience I will treasure forever. We had a truly moving service and my mum spoke beautifully about her father and the man behind the medal. By the time we reached the bridge and our finish line it was raining again but we didn't care, our week was over.
350+ miles cycled was coming to an end and there is no describing that feeling. As one team we cycled through the city and laughed and smiled and cried as the wonderful Help For Heroes support team cheered us in. We were thankful for the rain, after the week we'd had it wouldn't have been right to finish in the sunshine.
We had dinner together that night, all 200 of us; we ate, we drank, we celebrated, we hugged and we learned that as a group we had raised over half a million pounds for this incredible charity. It's hard to complain about the pain in your legs when you've got a hero at the end of the table who completed the ride with no legs and only one arm. It's impossible to moan about your sore bum when you see a father pushing his son in his wheelchair up to the stage. You can't take this as a personal achievement when you look around the room and realise that what it was was a team effort.
Nursing hangovers and stiff bodies, we made our way back to the UK yesterday and by 9pm I was asleep on the sofa with drool sliding down my chin. Although I'm happy to be home; I'd give an awful lot to do the same again. Because the Big Battlefield Bike Ride is an experience like no other. To take part in something so massive, so challenging, so humbling, is something that I feel very lucky to have done. I wouldn't change a thing, I wouldn't swap a minute of it. Even if I could have done, I wouldn't have even stopped the rain. Every single second of this week was a memory that I will treasure forever and was very lucky to live.
Sean Connery, star of the film A Bridge Too Far, which told the story of the Battle of Arnhem, once said: 'there is nothing like a challenge to bring out the best in a man' and he was right. Sitting at dinner on Friday night I was surrounded by the very best of 200 people who had done all done something extraordinary for the people that need it the most. I am incredibly proud to support Help For Heroes and am very grateful to them for bringing out the best in me this week.
If you would like to donate anything you can do so here: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/emandalex