There are two start points – one in Yorkshire and another from the velodrome at the Olympic Park in Stratford. I cycled to Stratford’s Premier Inn the day before the ride’s start, a slightly unnerving ride with a rucksack filled to bursting point on my back bouncing away and acting like a sail to catch every crosswind.
Bright and early on Friday morning we gathered at the velodrome to meet our fellow riders and get a briefing from event organisers Expedition Wise before setting out through the East End and into Essex.
This was my first surprise of the ride. My sister lives and works in Essex but evidently she lives and works in one of the flatter parts. The initial miles of the ride were marked by constantly rolling hills – great fun to descend, not always so fun to climb. But it soon flattened out and, very kindly, the organisers had arranged for the route to be diverted from the publicised one to take me right past my sister’s work in Shenfield. A quick stop for a natter, then it was on towards the morning feed station.
At which point the heavens opened. I’m a bit of a ‘fair weather’ cyclist usually; a single grey cloud in the sky is enough to start me thinking of excuses why it might be better to skip a ride and stay under the duvet instead. So cycling through the worst of what a British summer has to offer was slightly unusual, to say the least, both for me and my bike: it’s going to need cleaning in places that it’s never been cleaned before.
Midway through the afternoon stint my long-standing (and oft-mentioned) injury woes were starting to cough distractingly on the side lines, mainly my left leg’s adductor which was twanging slightly, although thankfully it didn’t blow up any more than that. But as I approached the final stop of the day at Harwich rugby club I was still pleased to find myself in a trio being led by Sutton United sports therapist Bobby Childs, who helped me and another young rider home.
After a nice early evening sitting on the rugby club’s patio drinking a pint or two and enjoying the provided food in warm sunshine – a complete contrast to the weather that Essex had served up earlier in the day – we loaded our bikes into a van and were shepherded to the ferry terminal by bus for an overnight ferry to the Hook of Holland.
Cycling in the Netherlands is fantastic, quite unlike anything I’ve experienced before. There seems to be mutual respect on the roads, presumably because everyone cycles and so car drivers know what it’s like to be on the other side.
The cycle paths were predictably brilliant – although some of the minor roads we cycled down were brick-paved and gave a minor taste of what the Paris–Roubaix must be like – but you still had to be alert for the rare occasions when the road signs oblige cyclists to give way, something that seemed to catch out some of the other football fans on the ride. There’s something undefinably relaxing about cycling alongside a canal.
In comparison to the previous day, with its rolling hills and longer length, day two in the Netherlands was straightforward, almost a recovery ride, although it was nice to be able to put in the occasional burst of speed knowing there wouldn’t be a hill just around the corner to make you regret it!
It didn’t seem like long before we were on the outskirts of Amsterdam where we were held at a pub – no complaints there! – before being released in batches for the final stretch of the ride. The outside of the Amsterdam Arena is a strange sight as the stadium nestles behind brightly coloured shops and apartments, but the finish line was welcome as we headed straight for a beer or two.
A celebratory evening meal at the hotel brought home the size of the event as for the first time the London and Yorkshire legs joined together in the hotel’s conference centre – almost 400 riders who between us raised nudging £500,000.
The following morning us London riders piled onto coaches for a transfer to Brussels and then the Eurostar home, and no doubt I wasn’t alone in looking forward to a good night’s sleep – although I think that might have been as much due to lack of sleep during the ferry crossing as anything else!
I’ll definitely do the ride again at some point, although being self-employed limits the number of people I can ‘tap up’ for sponsorship so I might give it a year or two to allow them time to recover. But I’d definitely recommend this ride to any football fan who enjoys cycling or wants a challenge and wants to combine that with raising money for a good cause.
There’s still time to sponsor me – visit my JustGiving page to make a donation.