...or, How I cycled from London to Paris and met the donor who saved my life
Four guys on bicycles meet at my shop (in Selsey, West Sussex), 9am as agreed 8 months ago. We’re about to embark on a journey none of us expected to be so, so, so, TOUGH, WET, BLOWY, FRIENDLY, COMPASSIONATE, SURPRISING, pick your word, but the one that sticks in my mind the most? EMOTIONAL!!!
Now bear in mind that I took part in the London to Paris event last year, so I thought that I knew what I was in for (even though I was adding 90 miles in, by cycling from Selsey to Greenwich the day before the official start) – oh boy was I wrong!
Last year was my fifth year of being clear of leukaemia, so I wanted to take part, but it was a physical challenge, something to prove to me that I’m no longer that person who can’t make it up the staircase to bed, or is unable to play with the children because I’m worried that one of them may pull the tubes that extend from my chest, and actually sit internal, directly above my heart – no, I’m no longer the person who had a 30% survival chance.
Last year, I entered alone, and although I made some lifelong friends along the way, the finish was a little bittersweet, as there was no one there to meet me.
But this year is different, I’ve roped some buddies in, people who are actually quite fit, but wrongly question their ability, so I’ll finish with them.
Above: Steve (second from right) and his team mates
That would be a great finish to an epic journey, 5 days, 400 miles, perfect. But between myself and an important other, we’ve come up with a plan to top all plans.
What if I met my life saver, my bone marrow donor for the very first time, at the finish line? Now that sounds special!
We’ve arranged to pedal through the Checkatrade courtyard as an official start, but when we arrive, there are 100 people cheering us on, with a guard of honour to pedal through, really? I’m tearful before we’ve even started, even though it’s blue skies and sunshine.
That didn’t last long, an hour in and the first few spots of rain start, shall we stop and put rain capes on? Or wait it out? It soon becomes clear that, IT AIN’T stopping. By the time we reach the foot of Boxhill at Dorking, we’re soaked shivering wrecks (what a great idea this was).
After a short soggy lunch we climb Boxhill with a lake running down to meet us, by the time we get north of the M25 the satnav has soo much rain on the screen, that it keeps going into melt down.
We need to stop, because we could be going the wrong way, but if we stop, we’re going to get hypothermia. It’s at this stage that we start commandeering bus stops for even the slightest shelter. Fast forward a few hours and we come out of a cycle path in Greenwich, right outside the hotel, YYEESSSS!
Shower and beer time, but the bags which are due to be here have been delayed, never mind, let’s have a toga party! Always look for the positives.
Day 2 (or day 1 for most, but certainly not all the riders)
Started a little crisp, but no rain, yes!
I’m wandering around watching people flapping, nervous faces everywhere, people thinking “Have I done enough training, which speed group shall I go in, will I be able to keep up, have I got the right bike/pedals/clothing layers, etc”, whilst we all attach our rider numbers, chew on bacon rolls and fill up our water bottles.
I know all this because this time last year, I was as terrified as they are. But today, I feel calm and ready for the challenge, no, this year, I like this day, because it’s the official start of the ride, and the sight of 250 cyclists pedalling through London in matching jerseys, all with a common bond, to eradicate blood cancer, really is an impressive sight.
I keep bumping into people from last year, people whom I’ve only spent four days with ever, but it creates the sort of bond that could last a lifetime.
Once out of London, the pack splits, the fast riders are keen to stretch their legs, the adrenaline has now kicked in and all sign of nerves have abated for now. They’re keen to prove to themselves that all the training miles were worthwhile, whilst some riders are just beginning to understand the challenge ahead and thinking, “How did I let them talk me into this?”
We’re due to cycle a lap of Brands Hatch today, that doesn’t happen due to a miscommunication, but it really doesn’t matter, before long it’s lunch stop, and straight on the massage table, they are fantastic!
The only REAL hill today is Lympne hill in Kent, and it’s a goodun, plenty of walkers on this one, but then it’s only a few miles after, before we roll in the car park at Folkestone, on the coaches, and onto the Chunnel. There are some very tired faces at this point, it’s very easy to underestimate a ride like this.
Day 3 (2)
We board the coaches to take us back to our bikes and the start point in Calais.
It’s damp this morning, great, more rain!
Today is the start of the speed groups, and the timed sections. It’s impressive when you see a long line of motorcycle outriders whose sole purpose for the next three days, is to keep us safe and rolling.
This is the point where the nerves really kick in for people doing the event for the first time, which speed group? Mmmm.
I remember being in that mind frame last year, the social group left at 9am, the medium group at 9.15am and at that point, Stephane, Chris and myself looked round at the fast group to see 12 stick thin racer types, and us M.A.M.I.Ls. Uh oh.
But this year is different, it’s not about the speed, it’s about the journey, and four of us opt for the medium group, whilst Henry (who had put in 0 training, and was riding a steel CX bike) went for the social group.
Matt, Mark, Shaun and I headed out in the drizzle, which got worse as time went on, but every time somebody complained, one of us would shoot straight back with, “this isn’t rain, you should’ve been out in it Wednesday”.
That night at dinner, some of the guys are getting more confident, and talk soon heads into fast group territory and I manage to convince Mark, Shaun and Matt to step up, after all, tomorrow includes a 10 km timed section. It’s a good job us cyclists aren’t competitive.
Day 4 (3)
It’s time for the raceface, grrr.
If you’ve never raced or ridden fast in a bunch, this is quite an experience.
The fast group has swelled to about 40 riders now. About 20 miles in riders start to jostle to the front in anticipation of the coming timed section, no one wants to be held up, the atmosphere is electric! Then the flag comes into view and moments later it’s a frenzy, people swapping positions and taking it in turns to lead the bunch and take the hardest job, whilst you tail the rider in front only inches away from the next rider’s front wheel at speeds up to 32mph on the flat.
The finish flag doesn’t come soon enough, as we’ve all put everything in. Just as well there isn’t another 60 miles to go today! Ooopss.
All the chaps do remarkably well on this and lots of back slapping ensues.
A 5 minute stop and it’s time to resume the chain gang formation, just like the ark, all in rows, 2×2.
The sun is shining and the skies are blue for the rest of the day, which is enhanced when we reach Beauvais fire station, our warehouse for the evening.
We’re welcomed by the mayor’s deputy whilst sipping complimentary kir royal. It’s tough this cycling lark.
A few beers later I start to get nervous, very nervous.
Tomorrow is THE day that I get to meet the person who saved my life, the person who up to this point, I’ve only had email contact. I don’t even know what she looks or sounds like, and this is the person whose blood courses through my veins, I mean my blood group has actually changed to Catherine’s type.
I have a heart to heart with Matt, then it’s time for bed, I’ve got an important day tomorrow.
Sunday rolls around, I’m up at 4.30 but not through nerves, oh no, due to the fact that yet again Henry’s audible sleep pattern totally disrupts mine!
It’s back to the fire station to pick up bikes, fill bottles, and do the faff that comes with cycling.
By now the massage team, Bloodwise team and a lot of the riders know what this day means to me.
People keep trying to hug me – “Leave it out, I’ve gotta keep my race face on for a bit longer”
But I keep the shades on and do my best to hide the emotions.
The last 25 miles is ridden as one group and I’m asked if I’ll lead everyone into Paris.
The sight of 250 people behind you in matching jerseys is an emotional sight in itself.
We go over the brow of a hill and the Arc de Triomphe comes into view for the first time. There’s cheers whoops and hollers and lots of tears erupting behind me, as realisation dawns on us that we’ve made it, through wind and rain.
I keep it together until we hit the Arc, it’s one of the biggest intersections in Europe and the traffic is stopped for US!
We arrive at the finish point and a fantastic welcome awaits us.
The camera crew have previously asked me to find them first before I locate Catherine for two reasons. 1. They want to film the meeting 2. I don’t know what she looks like.
I spot the camera crew and head over.
Eleanor grabs me, “Have you met yet?”
She physically grabs the camera man and says, “She’s behind you”
I turn to see a mum, three children and a dad. I immediately crumble, stagger over and hug.
Catherine’s youngest daughter Sophie aged 7 grabs my hand and says:
“You’ve got my mummy’s blood, haven’t you?”
“Yes darling I have”
“You’re family now then”.
Video: Steve meets his donor on day four of London | Paris 2015