I felt I'd built a reasonable level of fitness in the four years since my stem cell transplant.
But on the 1st Jan 2014, I decided to kick it up in preparation for my challenge this year. I didn't have a clue what the challenge would be yet, but better prepare anyway.
It seemed like a life time ago that, post transplant, I was too weak to climb the staircase at home, and I remember clearly the first time I cycled to Southampton hospital for my check up just nine months after, to the amusement of the specialist.
"Steve, have you really just pedalled here? How far is it?"
"44 miles Kate."
"Are you catching the train back?"
"No, I'm pedalling."
When I signed up to cycle from London to Paris at the start of the year, it seemed so far away, loads of time to train, no worries. I've cycled through rain, wind, hail and pitch black nights over the past 6 months, averaging about 120 miles per week. I was sure that this was probably over the top, but I have this little competitive streak (who me? really?) It drives my wife and children nuts. (I think it's a common think with cancer survivors, no YOU WON'T beat me leukaemia.)
Now it's here, hundreds of people have supported me and Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research by donating their hard earned cash. It's time to deliver the goods.
I'm stood next to the General Wolfe statue at Greenwich Park surrounded by 240 like-minded cyclists, all dressed in the same branded clothing. It's a glorious sunny day, and we're all thinking the same thing right now - oh s***!
There's quite a diverse crowd before me, racer types with stick-thin shaved bodies and all the kit, not so thin bodies on hybrids, mudguards and all, a lady on crutches with an amputated leg and a man on a recumbent bike with a disability, the list goes on, but one thing connects most of these people - they or someone they love have all had a brush with this awful disease. I see one man who has a picture of his son on his back, 1992-2012 RIP.
I'm stood there with Carolyn (the wife) taking pictures and emotions overwhelm me. She gives me a hug, tells me how proud she is, and we both shed a tear. To think this evil disease nearly got me, and five years later here I am lining up for the start of a 500km cycle ride.
The horn goes and we're off, this is an amazing experience like nothing I've ever experienced before, I've never ridden in such a huge group, and here we are cycling through London, with motorcycle outriders stopping the traffic for us. At this point I'm glad that I'm wearing dark sunglasses, because tears are rolling down my cheeks.
All manner and colour of bikes surround us, but we all proudly sport the black and red leukaemia jerseys, united in our cause.
It's a horrendously slow, stop/start pace going through London, which takes us approx. an hour to cover five miles, by this time I've met a fellow rider named Trevor, who also rode this event last year. The road now opens up and the pace starts to quicken. We exchange tales and seemed to be of similar pace, so it's not long before we're overtaking rider after rider.
At about fifteen miles in, in dawns on me that we've really picked the pace up and we've caught the lead group. There's seven of us pedalling at a good 28/30mph, (and all the while I'm thinking there is no way I can keep this pace for 4 days) so we eat up the last five miles to arrive at the first stop point, 25 miles in. There's a huge array of food and drink, music pumping, but most importantly there's massage tables, and because we're the first to arrive, they're empty. Result. It'd be rude not to!
I sit there refuelling sat on the grass, watching the film crew pass from person to person, getting everyone's story. "So why are you here?" They use this footage on the website. It's an important message to get across to people, after all, why should they give hard earned cash to another charity? Simple really, you could be saving your own life, or the life of someone you love.
Then it's time for the off, we're told that the next stop will be in 30 miles time, it is a gradual start, not en masse so the last group to arrive don't have to spring back on the bike immediately.
I start after about 50 or so riders have left and pick up the rhythm once more. I seem to spend a fair while bouncing from one group to the next, until I ride up next to a chap called Chris. We seem to be of a similar pace, so we have a chat. Chris started with a group of work colleagues, but they've been separated. It happens, punctures, sprints etc...
Chris's sister is 6 months post transplant, so I give him the benefit of my experience and miles fly by until we reach the next stop, but it's 40 miles in, not 30.
We seem to have arrived in the first 30 people. I grab my tucker, take a seat on the grass and munch away. I figure we have quite a long wait this time as 40 miles can really stretch 240 mixed ability cyclists, so I lay down and rest my eyes for a while. 45 minutes later and still people are just arriving, but it's time once more to get our bums back in the saddle. It seems we only have about 16 miles left to do today, but there is a bloody great hill near the end. Grreeaat.
I leave alone, but within ten minutes, Chris rides up next to me. We resume our chat, take in some of the beautiful Kent countryside (at this point I keep reminding myself to take it all in and not just race to the end), and before we know it, we're riding up said hill. Not as bad as I thought it'd be, but I'm sure there will be quite a few walkers on this one.
I must admit when I see the coaches ready to take us through the tunnel, I'm quite pleased. My bum is starting to hurt now. It's on the train to Calais, time for a shower, food and beer, not necessarily in that order though!
Surprisingly I took it easy on the beer last night, I was hovering in the bar when Chris noticed me, came over and invited me to join him and his group of colleagues for dinner. They turn out to be a top bunch of blokes and a good few laughs are had, while we watch England get beat by Uruguay in the World Cup.
When I signed up for this event, I tried to get various people involved, but to no avail. I may have arrived solo, but I met some top people with whom it was a pleasure to cycle with. So this morning I'm feeeeeling good. Breakfast for 6:30 and on the coach back to the bikes at 7:30.
We arrive at the start point, pick our bikes up, restock on fluids and food, slap on sun cream and make general prep, all to the tunes pumping out of the speaker system. "Because I'm happy, happy, happy".
Today is where everything changes. No trickle out of London today, we have a full support group of motorcycle outriders, and not just any group, but the actual group that support the Tour de France. Now I feel special. It's a very impressive sight seeing it all come together on such a scale.
Now, today, you have to actually choose your speed group, then your start time will depend on which group you're in. Stefan, one of Chris's associates, and I debate this for a while. While we're debating, Paul announces that the timing is 9:00 the slow/ social group leave, 9:15 the medium group set off, and at 9:45 the fast/elite group try to catch up. Half an hour difference, really?
We finally pluck up the courage to commit to the premier group and wave off the social group, there's quite a few in this one, then it's time for the medium group, I'm guessing there's a good 130 people in this one, and once they leave I look around me to see about twenty five people. Holy s***, 25 out of 240, and with a 30 mins deficit. I'm looking around and not really liking what I'm seeing, fit young guys. Oh well, in for a penny.....
The feeling as we fly through the streets of Calais, is truly amazing. With the motorcycle outrider team that actually support the Tour de France, well, you feel mighty special. Roundabouts? No stopping. Traffic lights? No stopping. Traffic in general? No stopping. You're like a cycling train, that just barrels on through, no matter what. I can see why this feeling might be addictive!
The fluidity of this travelling bicycle train is actually an immense thing to experience. If you get a puncture, the method of getting back on the road is to carefully pull over to the side of the road, whilst holding a hand up, then signal to the powers that be, by either holding up a wheel, or just a hand, dependant on experience. If you are unlucky enough to suffer from a flat, then the van will stop. Replace your front wheel with another (ah, that'll be the reason for numbered stickers on the hub then). And then you're off again. The LLR team mechanics sort your wheel, then get it back to you.
The order of the day seems to be 3 rest stops per day, then everyone regrouping about 15 miles from the daily destination, with the last segment ridden en masse, which is an excellent format.
The feeling you get from having nothing to worry about from the moment you wake, to the moment you sleep, except pedalling your bike, is totally liberating. No emails, no phone calls, no Facebook, no getting the kids to school, walking the dogs, putting the bins out, cooking the dinner, just ride. It's great, and so well facilitated by the LLR team. If Carlsberg did London2Paris trips, this'd be the one.
When you've signed up for something like this and you tell people, the non-cyclists admire you and describe you with words like, brave, mad, inspirational. The cyclists who have experienced this sort of trip just say, "Enjoy your holiday".
That feeling when you pedal over the rise and the Arc de Triomphe comes into view for the first time is truly spine-chilling. A huge smile spreads across your face in the realisation that we've done it - 500km over four days with a plethora of memories you will cherish for the rest of your days.
As you approach the Arc, the streets are full of people applauding and cheering, car horns tooting, (and not because you haven't paid road tax, so you don't have any rights on the road, UK fashion) at this impressive train passing.
Then you realise that the traffic has been stopped for you, yes, one of the busiest intersections in the world, has been halted for you, as you pass by the Eiffel Tower to the Pullman Montparnasse hotel.
Shouts, cheers, tears, hugs and so many back slapping moments. WOW.
I'd never taken part in a multi-day event like this one, but I'm truly glad I choose this one. It was truly remarkable, and I can't wait to take part again next year. The celebration on the Sunday night wasn't bad either...
I really don't want this to sound like an acceptance speech, but there are many people who enabled me to take part on this journey, who I would like to thank. The fantastic team at LLR, the many selfless people who have and continue to treat me, my loving family, Carolyn - you have been my rock, my friends, and lastly a person who I have recently learned her details but not yet met, my donor, Katherine, thank you for my life line.
See you on the start line.