Day 4 – the road to Olympic glory

The final day of Stage 5 of the Cycle Slam was a 60 mile ride from Ashford to London, finishing next to the Olympic Park in Stratford. A day to truly appreciate the efforts of all those involved in raising a staggering £1.8M for the excellent charitable causes.

The day started with the all too familiar 5.30am alarm call, but everyone was feeling remarkably fresh, in anticipation of the day ahead. Our rider numbers had doubled, as many stage riders were returning for the final day, but our group stuck together (no surprises there then!) We did have a VIP guest though – Chris Hyman who is the Chief Exec of Serco who were one of the major sponsors. And as I have done some call centre business with Serco, it was actually quite a good networking opportunity!

The morning ride took us through the Kentish North Downs and actually included the toughest hill climb of the entire stage with a 1 in 6 ascent of Vigo Hill. Now that got the lungs bursting, but I made it to the top okay. By mid morning we had reached the pit stop in Dartford, where the mood was relaxed and positive, everyone looking forward to not only the finish but equally realising the rising sense of achievement of a challenge conquered.

The next part of the ride took us into south London where the traffic volumes made it difficult to ride together. So we were pleased to make it to the Woolwich Ferry car park where everyone was assembling for a final convoy ride to the finish. Text and phone messages to my wife Louise to let her know that she still had time for lunch, as we would be another hour before arriving.

 

Soon though we were crossing the river, and with the tour cars at the front of the pack, we made our way steadily as one long snaking peloton through Docklands and onto our final destination Stratford.

The core riders peeled off to tell the stage riders approach the finish, where we were efficiently marshalled to form a guard of honour for Lawrence and Freddie to ride across the finish line. Queue flashbulbs, camera crew, lots of hugs and even a glass of champagne that one of my team mates had arranged with his family.

And what about my family? Well, my Dad is in his eighties and now lives in Australia. Well, he had planned his annual trip back to the UK to coincide with the finish of the Slam, so I had my own ‘fan club’ meeting me there – making it a very special day indeed.

And finally, if you have enjoyed reading about the Slam, then it is not too late to make a donation. Go to my Virgin Money Giving page now!

Day 3 – experiencing the Roubaix cobbles

Stage 5 day three was an 80 mile cycling stage, following the course of the famous Paris Roubaix cycle race, including a couple of sections of cobbles, finishing at the famous velodrome.

Another 5.30am alarm call – this time because our timings for the day meant that needed to arrive in Roubaix by 2pm to get our opportunity to ride the velodrome, before being coached to Lille to catch the Eurotunnel train back to the UK. It was a chilly but bright morning, and as the forecast showed a declining wind strength, I took the opportunity to ‘get my legs out’.

But it didn’t take long for the strength of the spring sun to take effect and we were soon enjoying the rolling French countryside. And today we had a second birthday in our group – it was Chris Board on day one and now Malcolm Davidson on day three. Birthday boy enjoyed a glass of bubbly at the morning pit stop and the pace soon picked up as our group chain-ganged our way through the sleepy French villages. Why so quiet – well, it was actually a bank holiday!

I must tell you the story behind this photo. The official Slam photographer Rob Cox would pop up everywhere – even hiding in a field as he was when taking this fantastically evocative group shot. Nice one Rob!

So the first 70 miles passed surprisingly easily, so we soon found out what this famous cycle race is all about. The cobbles! Now I am not talking about the traffic calming measures that are used in some UK towns, these are like riding through an earthquake, so much so that your whole body shakes with the movement of the bike. Riders were soon diving left and right to the side of the road for a small degree of comfort. And the professional racers do 50 km riding cobbles like this – no way!

But everyone in our group survived, amazingly without a puncture. Riding into Roubaix our destination was the banked velodrome where we were all allowed to do a couple of flying laps before posing for the obligatory team photo. Our whole group had stuck together (like limpets) for nearly three hundred miles, and it was most noticeable that this was the distinguishing factor. Every meal time, someone grabbed enough table space for the whole group to sit together – 100% inclusive.

After sampling the historic showers at the velodrome (where each cubicle has a plaque marking the achievement of a Paris-Roubaix race winner) we had time for some souvenir shopping (the French cycling hats were the best seller) before boarding the coach for the short journey to Lille. Amazingly we had some free time, so a hot lunch of sausage and chips, washed down by a couple of beers was the order of the day. A quick power nap on Eurostar and we were back in ‘blighty’, getting ready for a night out courtesy of Pizza Express in Ashford. And the service was excellent – starters on the table as soon as we arrived and they just kept bringing pizza until we could eat no more. The ‘end of tour’ speeches were very poignant, and Dave Butler graciously commended all of the “awesome” group 2 riders on how well we had performed over Stage 5. It would have been unfair to pick out any one rider based on their cycling contribution, so Dave awarded the ‘yellow jersey’ to Yogi (aka Jolyon Lockyer) for raising nearly £30,000 against his personal target. That is 1,000% – wow – and very deserving.

So another memorable day on the Dallaglio Flintoff Cycle Slam was drawing to a close. Just one more day – the glory stage to London – to go.

Day 2 – group riding at it’s finest

Stage 5 day two was another 100 mile cycling day, heading north from the champagne region, skirting east of Paris to finish in St Quentin. Another headwind day, so a perfect opportunity to hone the group riding technique – with the ‘awesome’ Group 2 riders.

The day started with a 5.30am alarm call – so just 4 ½ hours sleep following the Bollinger champagne reception and dinner the night before – then a quick breakfast before the rendez-vous in Challons. Never one to turn down a media opportunity, did a video piece with Taylor Murphy (the Slam Insider) whose angle was that, as a triathlete, then this cycling lark was easy. I put him straight, as the following video shows.

Today’s ride had less time pressure than day one, and more hills, so that meant more opportunities for stops. The groups set out in reverse order i.e. slowest group first; and we were the penultimate group to set-off. The first stop was back at the Bollinger champagne house in Ay, not for a ‘hair of the dog’ but more for a photocall. Each group in turn had their photo taken on the steps.

 

Leaving Ay, the hills started. Now those that have visited wine growing regions know that vines need well drained land to grow – and that comes naturally from hillsides. So we soon had a double climb as we left the wine growing valley behind us, only to be passed by Graeme Le Saux and Lee Dixon on the Pizza Express tandem. To add to the occasion they were dressed as wine waiters and Graeme (at the back) was carrying an open bottle of champagne. As competitive ex-sportsmen that didn’t stop them from working hard on the hills – respect guys!

The second stop was in a pretty French village that had a boulangerie – where the group bought their choice of freshly based cakes and savouries (mine was a pate en croute!) Nice to sample the local produce. To make up from some lost time our group became more organised, and under Dave Butler’s instruction, we started chain-ganging. With the 12 riders riding two abreast, in close formation, our peloton only took up the same space as an artic lorry. The outside line of riders moved forward one at a a time, taking a 30-60 secs turn on the front, tackling a modest headwind, whilst the rest of group tucked in to take shelter from the breeze. By the time we approached the lunch stop, we had the riding technique perfected, and noticed a helicopter buzzing around overhead. Assuming this to be the Discovery Channel doing some filming, we had no better incentive to ride in tight and controlled formation to the rest point. And as a club cyclist, that felt really great!

The afternoon was a continuation of the group riding, with plenty of banter to keep everyone on their toes. That night, I found out that I had a new nickname – Mouse. Why, because I had a bike that squeaked, following the previous days rain and road grit that had caked itself on my machine. Following the afternoon refuelling stop, where Catermasters provided a lovely cup of tea (and more cake!), our route led until the much larger town of St Quentin where we battled with the rush hour traffic to get to our destination.

So, another long day in saddle – nearly 8 hours of riding – but a deep sense of satisfaction at what we had achieved.

Fundraising in Champagne

Well it is not all hard work and no play when you are on the Cycle Slam. After a tough Day One ride battling all of natures elements, the evening brought an unexpected opportunity to live it up – when we visited the Bollinger champagne house for a private function. So what’s the connection with charity I hear you ask?

Before I answer that question, I want to tell you a little more about the charities that the event is fund raising for. Previous blog posts have covered the Dallaglio Foundation and their sponsorship of research into Prostrate Cancer, but what about the AF Foundation, set up by Andrew and Rachel Flintoff?

Well I rode with them on day one and, during our 8 hour cycling stint, had the opportunity to chat with Rachel about the charity. Basically it all started following Freddie’s benefit year where Lancashire cricket raised over £1M. Having recovered from several injuries himself, he was very aware of the need for excellent physio and rehab facilities. When a friends child needed the same type of support, it became very apparent to the Flintoff’s that whilst the local NHS staff were excellent, the facilities they were using were not. So they set about funding the blueprint design and development of a new physio and rehab unit at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool.

With a recipe for success now in place, the proceeds from the Cycle Slam will be focused on replicating these facilities at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London. The vision is then to roll out further units across the country at places like Birmingham, Sheffield and Newcastle. An ambitious plan, but one through the drive and determination of its founders certainly deserves to succeed, as the following Slam TV video confirms:

Please donate now if you can. Together we can help improve children’s recovery from serious illness.

So back to the Champagne question. Well part of the answer lies in the fact that Andrew Hawes, who heads up Bollinger’s operation in the UK, was a participant rider on Stage 4. He also stayed with the Slam on the first couple of days of Stage 5 in order to facilitate the 130 Slammers being able to visit the Bollinger facilities in the village of Ay and enjoy an evening’s hospitality. And very, very good it was too!

The second part of the answer to my question became clear during the presentations that take place after every evening meal on the Slam. Having read Lawrence Dallaglio’s biography whilst on holiday earlier this month, I knew that he is a lover of fine wine. And so in July, the Dallaglio Foundation will be launching a wine club, selling (yes, you guessed it)… Bollinger…. with the profits going to the charity.

Ah ha, now it all makes sense, with a 130 people in the room a captive audience to buy and promote these products when we get home. I have a 50th birthday coming up this summer, and now I know what to ask my wife Louise to buy me as a present. Very subtle marketing me thinks!

Day 1 – Three seasons in one day

First day of Stage 5 ride completed – 103 miles covered in 7h 23 mins riding time – so a full day at the office. And I needed to use the mechanics in the support crew to fix my bike. At to top it all off, the last two hours of the ride were into a terrible headwind, which picked up in strength with thunderstorms that swept through central France. So quite a baptism to Stage 5 of the Cycle Slam.

The day started early with a 5.30am alarm call (it wasn’t even light) and we assembled outside the hotel and departed in group order. My group of 12 was led by core rider Dave Butler and included Mr and Mrs Flintoff. The first problem struck just an hour into the ride when the bolt connecting the rear brake caliper to the bike became disconnected. Arrangements were made to meet the mechanic support crew at the first scheduled stop – and problem was duly fixed. Thanks guys – and I had only had the bike serviced the week before the event. Morale of the tale should have gone to Halfords!

So far the weather had been dry, but that quickly changed as the rain showers moved in and the temperature dropped. Much more like ‘April showers’ than France in May would normally expect. But there was much worse to come. During the afternoon the weather turned much for the worse – thunderstorms, hail backed up a string northerly wind. And you guessed it, our direction of travelling was north so we were travelling straight into a headwind. The group of riders, all evenly matched and with excellent biking skills, starting riding much more tightly as a group, with different people taking it in turn at the front to shelter those behind. Freddie Flintoff also had the novel idea of giving an interview to the Discovery Channel TV crew who are covering the Slam, whilst cycling along, being sheltered by the van. Smart thinking!

With some relief we pulled into the town square in Chalons – a good day’s riding at a surprsingly good tempo given the conditions.

Note my real need to start stretching as soon as I got off the bike!

Oh and did I mention the rain?

Day 0 – Nancy – mid-France

Have arrived safely in France and spent the afternoon sorting out my bike and getting ready for the ride ahead. Despite the sunny conditions, tomorrow’s weather forecast is pants, but the motivation we need is an evening visit to a Champagne producer at the end of the first day’s ride. Now if that doesn’t spur me on – nothing will.

The day started with a 5.30am alarm call (which is something I will have get used to all week long) and a short drive to Heathrow Terminal 5. Our group party of 70 Cycle Slammers must have significantly increased the BA passenger yield on the morning flight to Luxembourg and for those business people, who were used to a quiet flight reading the FT, we must have provided quite a shock as the noise levels of chattering and introductions must have made us sound like a school trip!

Bags collected, we boarded the team coach for the two hour transfer to Nancy. Looking around there were lots of guys like me – ‘40 somethings’ looking for a physical challenge – so we all had stories to tell about why the Dallaglio Flintoff Cycle Slam was the challenge for each of us.

Tonight’s resting place is the Novotel in Nancy, and the afternoon was spent finding the local supermarket (needed an ATM for Euros), prepping the bike and generally soaking up the atmosphere. The daily briefing showed the sheer scale of the organisation behind the Dallaglio Flintoff Cycle Slam event – nine Halfords mechanics; a medical team of five (including a paramedic ambulance); and assorted support vehicles that act as sweeper vans for those finding the going too tough. Hope I don’t need their services, but reassuring to know that help is there if you need it.

Next on the agenda is the carb loading evening meal, and then I am promising myself an early night. The post holiday 7 hour time difference jet lag is okay so far, but I really do need a full nights sleep to set me up for the 160km riding ahead of me tomorrow. Alarm call again at 5.30am; shower;  breakfast and then away on the road in a medium paced group by 7am.

Wish me luck and keep those donations coming in – just £500 left to go to reach target.

 

Preparations are now complete – let the challenge begin

It’s been a little bit like waiting for Christmas when you were a kid. My training is all done, the bike is shipped to France, and I have just had a weeks holiday to recharge the batteries. Now let the 360 mile cycling challenge that is stage 5 of the Dallaglio Flintoff 2012 Cycle Slam begin.

Tomorrow is an early morning rendez-vous at London Heathrow Terminal 5 for a flight to Luxembourg, followed by a coach transfer to Nancy – slap bang in the middle of France. Then on Tuesday we start our four days cycle route back to London, arriving back in Stratford (next to the Olympic Park) by Friday lunchtime. Me and 75 other riders – all with the same purpose in mind.

You will be able to follow my progress by a rather clever facility of Live Rider Tracking. You scroll down the list of names (with a Christian name of Paul I will probably be listed next to Paramedic Ambulance), click on my name (not the ambulance!) and see my progress on an interactive map. Tracking is the perfect way to share my journey and to make giving to the Slam easy, as there donation links to my Virgin Money Giving page  from the tracking profile.

In terms of the scheduled rides and routes, on Tuesday we cover circa 100 miles riding North West from Nancy to end up at Chalons in the Champagne region of France. Then on Wednesday we continue north on another circa 100 miles ride skirting east of Paris to end up in St Quentin. Then on Thursday is the signature day, where we follow circa 100 miles route of the Paris-Roubaix cycle course, including sections riding on the famed cobbles. We finish in Lille for a short coach transfer through the Channel Tunnel. Last (but not least) on Friday is the 60 ride from Ashford to London.

And the weather forecast – not good! The first two days will be wet and (worse than that) a chilly northerly breeze means we will be riding into a direct headwind. The clouds may break up on Thursday, and Friday at present is forecast to be sunny. So the fabled “Paris in spring-time” it will not be – more like Blackpool in the winter!

But that just adds to the challenge. And with the camaraderie and support of fellow riders making it a shared experience, then it should be an interesting time for us all. Make sure you check back to my blog each night as, hotel Wi-Fi permitting, I plan to post a blog entry at the end of each day. Also don’t forget to try out the Live Tracking feature to check on my progress during each section of the ride.

And lastly, if you haven’t yet gotten around to making a donation, then please do that as well. Thank you.