This is a tale of how a series of unexpected events in reverse resulted in four of the greatest days of my life – London | Paris 2014.
Unexpected event #7: Paris, baby!
On 22 June 2014, I arrived at the base of the Eiffel Tower - on my bike. Yeah baby! I actually did it! I had ridden all the way from Greenwich, South London to Paris, i.e. 500km, over a period of four days with 250 or so other riders (all fab people), but from my point of view one particular rider amongst this 250 stood out – my brother Martin.
As you can imagine, I was somewhat elated and euphoric and possibly hysterical upon arrival – did I care about my now chronic helmet-shaped forehead, my mashed hair, sunburnt chin, gelatinous legs and blisters– no, I did not. I had achieved something unimaginable and, incredibly, I had shared it with my brother; someone who I think is completely awesome and means the world to me but because of modern living, I just don’t get to see that much of.
And why had we gone to such lengths to get together to mark Martin’s birthday? It was to raise money for Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research (LLR) to help them beat blood cancers.
But also because we both secretly really wanted one of these but didn’t know it:
LLR bling A prized London | Paris 2014 medal
Martin and I standing in front of a famous French landmark
Cycling into Paris was an unexpected event because up until a few months earlier I had never sat on a bike let alone ridden one.
These days, learning to ride a bike is pretty much viewed as the next thing you do after a number of other basic life skills, such as eating, drinking, talking, walking and turning the telly on but this was not the case when I was a young girl. Our family lived on the 18th floor of a block of flats in London’s East End; a locality less inclined towards bike riding I struggle to imagine – so, I never had the opportunity to learn as a child.
Unexpected event #6: Riding as part of a peloton
Wow, who would have thought I would be doing this?
Definitely not me. Riding as part of a peloton was a tremendous experience. Slowing!! The presence of the motorbike outriders and the LLR crew elevated it to the extraordinary –we were all doing something amazing by raising money to beat blood cancer - and cycling as a peloton throughout the French countryside sent a powerful, visual and awe-inspiring message to spectators and bystanders - and goosebumps down my back. The camaraderie among the riders over the four days was fabulous, many new friendships were formed and a lot of fun was had. The French were so incredibly supportive of our efforts - as we cycled past they lined the streets and clapped and cheered us on and sometimes they were accompanied by classrooms of schoolchildren too. What a special moment for all of us.
But on a personal level, cycling side-by-side with Martin into Beauvais on day three will always stay with me as one of the most memorable experiences of my life. And I could not have done this without the support offered by LLR as part of this ride – the ride captains, mechanics and crew are all truly incredible people who are nothing short of a privilege to know.
Am in there somewhere at the back.
Given my efforts on days two and three I feel I can now reasonably award myself a promotion.
I am no longer Mr Bean on a bike. Instead, I am now Frank Spencer. I have only fallen off my bike once so far.
Frank and I adopt the same ‘cross ya fingers and hope for the best’ pose when out on one’s bicyclette.
Unexpected event #5: Terror on two wheels
I came to this event with zero cycling experience, in fact if there were an integer that I could reasonably apply lower than zero to this then I would. As someone completely new to cycling I was terrified of just about everything that a cyclist could reasonably expect to encounter when out on a ride:
less terror and more like torture
you must be joking
no chance, it involves loosening my death-grip on the handlebars
Drinking from one’s water bottle while moving
But this ride consisted of lots of going uphill and therefore downhill (France is in no way flat). So, on day two, during a particularly terror-induced slow ride downhill the ride captains leapt in to offer me support (they did this many times over the four days). With their encouragement (and actually lots of pointing out that I cycled faster on the flat than I did downhill) I decided to give cycling downhill at a decent pace a try. I subsequently found cycling downhill quite AWESOME and have literally never looked back
probably because I can’t. The only problem then was that generally speaking you are required to cycle up it in the first place.
Saying ‘non’ to helmet hair
As part of my preparation for the ride I indulged in a pre-L2P hair-snipping activity. Be gone cow licks and sticky up bits, I shake my fist at you!
We love our friend Anna, who is the best hair dresser in the world. There’s no way she's going to let me have sticky up bits actually she told me at no point should I take my helmet off. Ever. Not sure what she is trying to tell me.
Unexpected event #4: Fundraising
On a weekend back in May, and as part of our fundraising efforts, Martin and I set our bikes up on our turbo trainers at a Sainsbury’s in Nottingham, for a 125-mile ‘spin’ in the hope that passersby might stick a few coins in our LLR buckets.
It’s OK – we did ask Sainsbury’s first.
Martin had constructed a poster in advance that we placed behind us outlining why we were there and what we were doing – the poster also indicated our cycling target for the day – to cycle 120 miles between us, yeeees, if you say so, Martin.
Throughout our pursuit, the people of Nottingham were great, people came to tell us their stories, some had Leukaemia, some had Lymphoma, some were doing their own sporting charity thing, some were cycling other events, some just came up to say ‘hello’ or to chew the fat. Whatever. People were actually interested in what we were doing and wanted to talk to us. And they listened kindly to my moaning about the sore state of my backside.
I found it a wonderful experience, sharing tales with strangers, essentially, but with momentary shared understanding and appreciation.
At 15.50 we reached our cycling target – all this and an excuse to eat three Snicker bars throughout the day and not feel guilty. What more could a girl ask for?!
(A big curry later.) (Am never drinking Lucozade Guava flavour again it was yukky.)
Martin and I giving it everything at Sainsbury’s. Someone managed to capture a moment when I wasn’t in the cake aisle.
Unexpected event #3: Learning to ride - enter Ridewise
I live in Nottingham, the home of the bike charity, Ridewise.
Ridewise allocate you your very own instructor and can teach you to ride a bike from scratch or help you just to ‘ride better’ depending on your ability; they, of course, also provide traffic-awareness training and will take you through the various levels. Ridewise are happy to teach anyone at any level, from children to adults.
After a brief exchange of emails and the handing over of a small amount of hard cash, Ridewise allocated me my instructor, Kate, and the process of learning to actually ride a bike finally began.
Unexpected event #2 Sheila Greaves the cyclist
I have to say now that Kate really does deserve a medal. She is kind, patient, gentle, quietly encouraging and overwhelmingly positive, i.e. exactly the sort of person needed when you are fearful and certain in equal measure that you are about to make an enormous tit of yourself.
Kate got me saddled up on a Ridewise bike (this is the other wonderful thing about the Ridewise scheme – they will lend you one of their bikes for three months at a time for a nominal deposit so that you can practice at home) and then it was time to get started.
Our early sessions consisted almost entirely of me sat on the bicycle with my legs draped either side, with me propelling the bike along with my feet (and not the pedals). The idea is that in time you learn to balance sufficiently to enable you to get your feet onto the pedals but for now it is about remaining upright (or, in my case, just ON the bike with the bike the RIGHT WAY UP).
Eventually, you are able to scooch yourself along sufficiently that you can lift your feet onto the pedals and actually ride a bike. Kate stood behind me and held onto the back of the bike while I set off. This I did with the firm belief that Kate was still holding onto the back of the bike and trotting along behind me. Except, of course, when I stopped later due to a near falling-off incident I discovered that Kate was in fact at the other end of the road.
Sneaky or what?
Am quite pleased with myself.
Unexpected event #1
Back in the tail-end of 2006 I discovered that I had lymphoma. This was completely unexpected and a confusing and terrifying time for me. I didn’t fit the cancer demographic; I was fit, young(ish), had always led a healthy lifestyle and was ‘cancer aware’ in that I knew the key signs and symptoms that if experienced should be checked out by a doctor.
I had also recently worked as a commissioning editor, commissioning haematology and oncology books (the irony) for a large well-known university publisher and had spent time with researchers and consultants in the UK and the US discussing book opportunities so I had some knowledge of cancer and haematology from the medical perspective at that time.
And yet my own diagnosis and disease hit me like a tonne of bricks. Me? A blood cancer patient? Seriously - you must be joking.
I only initially made an appointment with my GP because I knew that the symptoms I had could not and should not be ignored but in no way did I actually expect them to turn into anything of any consequence.
I remember driving home from my GP surgery in a state of confusion and horror having been told that my symptoms were definitely not dismissible – and then, almost everything I had ever worried about in my life prior to this moment, unexpectedly disappeared in a flash down a mental plug hole as they were now no longer worthy of concern or anxiety. Jeeze – why had I ever bothered worrying about those things when, really, they just don’t matter?
What did matter, though, was my unidentified lump, and I was completely lost to it along with my confusion and shock.
I experienced real terror in those first few weeks – not the sort of terror you sometimes feel watching a horror film, nor the fluttery terror you can feel when on a funfair rollercoaster, but actual-real-life-all-encompassing fear. Flight or fight have no place here.
My diagnosis took six weeks - the not knowing during this period was hugely difficult. Until you know what you are dealing with you cannot move on and life for me was lived in slow-motion-terror-limbo.
But the diagnosis came, along with the necessary treatment. In short, I was benefitting from treatments and diagnostics developed from research paid for by organisations such as LLR and because of this research my disease is now manageable and treatable. Some blood cancer patients are not so fortunate, which is why work undertaken by LLR is so important.
I am one of the lucky ones and I have been able to move on in my life and live it as I want to. Because of this I want to give something back. This is why I am very much looking forward to cycling London | Paris again next year– along with Martin, many of our new L2P friends and also my long suffering partner, Daniel, who was there to watch us cross the finish line this year.