The #StayStrongForOws Cycle to Paris – Part 5

WP_20150606_027The route towards the Arc de Triomphe would take us along the Route de Suresnes and Avenue Foch, following the blue line of the marathon I had run barely two months previously.  This excited me enormously!  Along the blue line, I became a little emotional, remembering my exhaustion and effort on that day in April, as well as my pride at achieving my target time!

This excitement, and the fact that the entry into Paris had turned me into a “tour guide”, probably seemed a strange development to those around me.  As  I have said previously, I love the city and have spent a good deal of time visiting, with the consequence that I know a reasonable amount about the place and it’s landmarks!  I could hardly contain myself, pointing out this and that to those in our party, I wouldn’t have been out of place on an open-topped bus!  Indeed, by the end of the brief visit to the capital, I had probably bored most of my colleagues to death!

WP_20150606_030We tried our best to stare at the Arc de Triomphe, yet remain as a tight peloton (strongly ‘encouraged’ by our Guides to “stay together”!!), whilst simultaneously blocking the traffic and occasionally flouting the laws surrounding traffic lights so as not to get separated!  As we headed down the Champs Élysées, I realised that I had travelled in a bus, walked, run and now cycled down the famous avenue, yet never once driven there!

WP_20150606_032At George V, we turned right and headed for the infamous Pont de l’Alma, crossing the bridge in the midst of the early evening traffic.  Negotiating the back streets on the opposite side of the Seine, we approached our final destination at approximately 6 o’clock on the warm, summery evening in June. The end was almost an anticlimax as we saw we would be welcomed in a corner of the Champs de Mars, in view of the Eiffel Tower, though not directly beneath it.

WP_20150606_033Colin had rejoined us, on a bike with no pedals (!), and as a group, poignantly led by Huw and Gavin Williams, we met our welcome party of friends, family, Jamie Roberts and of course Owen himself.  There were hugs and kisses for many and the alcohol-free beers provided by PIE were more satisfactorily supplemented by the crate of champagne kindly supplied by Mr Roberts, who praised our achievements and willingly posed for photos with one and all!

WP_20150606_036Having congratulated my team: Adam, Andy, Dave, James, Jeff, Kerry, Lee and Matt and of course Richard who had set off with us, as well as many other new friends from the other groups, I tidied my bike to one side and waited.  We had a few photos together before congregating and readying ourselves for the departure to the hotel, far later than scheduled.

Generally spirits were high, though deep down I felt we were all disappointed the ride was now over.  Another 10 minute ride and our day was done, enough time however for Lee to pronounce his pleasure at having remained upright throughout, before promptly failing to correctly unclip on arrival at the hotel and hitting the deck!  We handed our bikes to the PIE men, recovered our luggage and headed for the showers.  The next time we would see our bikes would be in Cardiff on Monday, a strange feeling after spending four days attached to them!

Matt nabs a Champagne bottle!

Matt nabs a Champagne bottle!

The rooms were by far the plushest of the whole expedition, although there was no double bed for Adam to benefit from, having accorded me that honour in the Premier Inn in Frome!  Showering and changing, leaving cleats and clothes trailing on the floor (in my case!), we met downstairs for the first beer of the celebration evening.  Speaking with Chris and Duane, they expressed how pleased they were at having completed the ride and how they hoped some of the participants would join them at the Beddau Bike Club and continue the team spirit in the future.  This was a sentiment echoed by most, and certainly Group 1 talked of meeting up again for future rides.

People and bikes everywhere!

People and bikes everywhere!

Far later than planned, we finally all left the (rather expensive) hotel bar and headed for the site of the evening meal, “Le Bistrot d’en Face”, an upmarket brasserie in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.  Friends and family joined the meal, though our Group was supplemented only by the addition of Lee’s wife, Sarah, whose sense of humour fitted in perfectly well alongside the pre-established tone of our collective. Beer, Pastis and Wine flowed continuously as we celebrated over a similar meal to the previous evening – salad starter, chicken main, but this time with a crème brûlée pudding!

WP_20150606_047After the meal, Richard Holland gave an inspiring, and at times, comedic speech of congratulations and thanks to the participants and the families, before handing out medals and certificates to each and every cyclist who had left Cardiff three days previously.  In the presence of Owen and the rest of his family, his father Huw then followed with a passionate and poignant speech of his own, touching emotions and demonstrating to us all just why we had signed up to this challenge at the outset.  He, and the family are clearly thankful for the efforts, both on the bike and in the fundraising, and in turn the participants are equally glad to have made some kind of difference to the lives of this closely-knit family.

With the speeches over, a hardy group of ‘party people’ were rounded up by Jamie Roberts and whisked away in taxis for a night on the town!  Group 1, of a slightly more ‘mature’ (older….) outlook, remained in the bar, with about half of the total group, who consumed liberally whilst enjoying traditional Welsh singing from Cardiff Blues very own Rhys Blumberg.

As the evening drew on, there were pangs of hunger among our cohort and I made an executive decision to twist the arm of Hervé, the bar owner to supply us with some plates of cheese, bread and more wine!  Despite his insistence that the kitchen was closed, my inside knowledge that any French brasserie will always have a good stock of cheese on its premises allowed me to persist with my request, which eventually bore fruit…..or at least cheese….to the relief of our table of ravenous cyclists, who had plenty of lost calories still to replenish!

James, Matt and I finished our “soirée” at the bar, trying to coax the owner into a little English speaking, and freshening up our palates with the unmistakable minty-freshness of the alcoholic liquor which is Get 31!  With the time past 3am, it was time to leave the premises and head out into the humid French night.

WP_20150611_002Before hitting the sack, I wanted to see the Paris skyline at dusk from one of my favourite vantage point in the city, the Trocadero, just opposite the Eiffel Tower.  To my surprise a band of four (Matt, James, Kerry and Jeff) wanted to join me on my mini-adventure, although they soon regretted the decision after more than 5 minutes walk on tired legs in the dark, accompanied only by rats and youths smoking drugs…..  Jeff also seemed unsure where we going exactly, having misheard my explanation and expecting to arrive at a chocolate factory!

Nevertheless, we made our way over the Seine and up the steps of the Trocadero to survey the scene.  Paris by night is always an awesome sight, although perhaps slightly less impressive at 4 in the morning when the Eiffel Tower, along with most other monuments in the city, are no longer illuminated.  Still, for me, it capped the days activities perfectly, although we were all ready for a sleep by then, some more than others!

10 minutes later, we had re-traversed the river and arrived back in the hotel lobby, eyes closing and sleep just moments away….  Cardiff to Paris on a bike. Done.

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The #StayStrongForOws Cycle to Paris – Part 4

WP_20150605_024Once we arrived in Evreux, and met with Group 2, there already seemed to be an excited buzz in the air, almost a “party atmosphere”.  Having worked hard for three days, and in the knowledge that the shortest ride of the whole trip would take us to Paris tomorrow, everyone was feeling jubilant and ready for some relaxation that very evening.  I was certainly in the same boat and felt that, with just one day left in the saddle, I could relax my ban on gluten and enjoy some wheat-based beverages with the others….

WP_20150605_025We showered and changed before meeting in reception of the hotel and heading just around the corner to a local bar, the “London Pub”, which served pints of Bière blonde at 5,60 Euros each.  Arriving in dribs and drabs, the waiter performed several return journeys before everyone was served and despite the weather threatening overhead, with a few spots of rain falling, Groups 1 and 2 were enjoying each others company.

The friendly rivalry was of course top of the agenda, with stories recounted about the events of the day, and much good-natured banter.  Naturally we spoke of Welsh rugby and learned more about each other’s backgrounds than is possible when cycling!  Time passed quickly as we welcomed home another one of the groups (giving them correct directions to the hotel!), and joked with one another.  Instead of dragging us back to the hotel for a debrief an executive decision was made that this would be held after the meal in the restaurant just nearby.  By the time Andy joined us for a beer, it was time to go to eat….but we did manage to squeeze in one more, just for him!

Buoyed by the day’s events and fuelled by a couple of beers, the evening meal was a jovial affair, accompanied by good French wine!  Our group had taken over more than half of the restaurant space and entertained the locals with our loud talking and laughing!  The food was good and just a little different to what we had been fed when in the UK!  Goats cheese salad starter, chicken and mash for main followed by chocolate mousse, all quickly polished off by our hungry riders!

Following the meal, we congregated toward the rear of the restaurant for the debrief and awarding of the pink ‘helmets’, with ours going to ‘Rich the Ditch’ for quitting our team that day!  Then, despite the offer of a quiz that Matt Lissack had diligently prepared, the group consensus was that we should all head out for a drink together!  We finished off our wine and headed for the street, and the bar we had spied earlier with the live music and the BBQ!

WP_20150605_028Owen himself had travelled over to France with a friend to join us for the last few days, and came out to the bar with us in Evreux.  His appearance generated a surge in the excitement levels, which were already pretty high, with the majority of the group partying well into the night!  As the music stopped, we made our way back to the hotel rooms, trying not to think too much about how hard tomorrow’s ride could now be!  I was the last to return, having been speaking with some locals in the bar and missed the others leaving!  As I had the only key to our room, I hurried back expecting a grilling from Adam, but when I arrived, he was already in the room!  He didn’t seem to know how he’d got in however and until the next day I was panicking thinking I had forgotten to lock the door.  That was until someone explained to me that the receptionist had helped him out!

WP_20150606_001

Dave raring to go….

The morning in Evreux was not all that easy for most of the party.  I was even told I looked “rough” by Matt (my eyes were taking some time to open though I felt pretty much OK!) and so I piled in the coffee to bring me round!  Again, we were to be last away, but no-one felt in a major rush, perhaps tired from the night before or, more likely, wishing to spend time posing for photos with Owen outside the hotel!

Picture courtesy of Kerry Wilde - Group 1 ready for the final day

Picture courtesy of Kerry Wilde – Group 1 ready for the final day

Andy and Benn had, whilst I showered and breakfasted, completely disassembled my rear wheel, removing the bearings one by one and cleaning them before putting them back!  Although Andy’s feelings were that I would still need new wheels, I could at least ride with my own for the final day into Paris.  They had gone to great trouble to perform this mechanical work, and even though I tried to repay them with beer that evening, I still don’t think it was really ample reward for their efforts!

Finally, far later than we had planned, we set off for the day’s riding, compartmentalised into small 30Km “chunks”, it should have been a doddle for us and despite the climb out of the town, and some aches in our limbs, spirits were high as we headed for France’s capital.  Incident though was just ahead of us as we entered the countryside….  Following one of Andy’s now infamous U-turns, I turned into a road at the rear of our Group, only to see Kerry lying on the side, seemingly in some pain.  I guessed this tumble was more serious than the last as Jeff hadn’t yet begun to laugh.  Matt also hadn’t managed to capture this one on his helmet cam!

WP_20150606_008A noise on Kerry’s bike had caught the attention of Andy, and Kerry had looked down to find the source of it, only to veer into Andy’s rear wheel, causing him to fall awkwardly, landing on his knee.  We spent some time on the roadside while Kerry stretched out, and a local man, wiry in stature and dressed only in a dressing gown, handed us some chilled water to try to ease the swelling.  After a short period, Kerry decided he was ready to ride again, but less than a kilometre up the road the pain got the better of him and we stopped again, this time phoning for the medic to come to meet us.

WP_20150606_004Waiting for the medic to arrive, we spent approximately an hour frolicking in the field, posing for photos on the hay bales and trying in vain to balance the incredible T-shirt tans we had developed over the previous 3 days!  There was plenty of banter and laughs to keep spirits up despite having only travelled about 15Km from the 112 planned in the day.

When the medic did arrive (finally…), a plan was formulated that meant Kerry would be transported ahead to the morning break stop, receiving treatment in the van, whilst we rode on to collect him there later, although we would not stop for long so as to regain some lost time.  As Kerry departed, we formed up into our lines and pushed forward at a good rate, eager to claw back some of the distance lost on the others, and keen to meet up again with our bruised colleague.

Pedalling hard we soon arrived at the meeting point and saw Kerry, all alone but ready to go!  We paused briefly to ensure he was OK before heading on toward lunch.  Comparatively, this section of the journey passed uneventfully, which was a relief to us all!  By the time we arrived in Thoiry, we had caught up with the other groups who were still on site, albeit with some preparing to leave!  We stopped to eat (filled baguettes and a whole Camembert – purchased especially for me and my decision to avoid gluten….up until the night previously of course!) and Benn and Andy made plans about the management of the rest of the ride, and in particular the trip into Paris itself, which was clearly concerning them!

Kerry films his war wounds!

Kerry films his war wounds!

After lunch, another short section of cycling brought us to the final stop before the end of our voyage, a small bar in another French town.  Again, we were last to arrive, and therefore last to leave, although this time our break was brief since we wanted to catch the others and not have them waiting around for us!  Finally, we were on the homeward stretch.  What was the shortest and theoretically easiest day had been rather elongated and full of incident!

Jeff keeping his cool

Jeff keeping his cool

The meeting point with Group 2 in Versailles was very close by, however even before we arrived there we had caught up with them on a large trunk road.  They had suffered not one but two punctures to the same wheel, one immediately after the other!  Unlike on previous days where the “compassionate nature” of Group 1 would have sent us flying by, this time we joined forces to make one larger group to ride into the grounds of Versailles for a photo session by the lake together.  The roads had been busier all day, but now we saw a marked increase in the number of people about.  On the paths around the Chateau we weaved in and out of the tourists and visitors, making our way to the far exit, ready to head into the city.

WP_20150606_022Once on the far side of Versailles, the whole party – all four Groups – were joined together, however the guides felt this was too large a number to ride such a distance together and so we once again broke into two sections – Groups 1 and 2 leading the way, with Groups 3 and 4 to follow shortly after, with the plan to join back together by the boating lake in the Bois de Boulogne.

WP_20150606_023We rode on, up a steep slope and down a steeper hill.  Over the river and into the wooded parkland where there were plenty of locals and tourists soaking up the Sun, as well as a cycle event taking place around the Longchamp Hippodrome.  The infamous prostitutes were also in attendance, seemingly oblivious to all of this, and took great delight in exposing themselves to innocent and shy rugby boys on bikes!

WP_20150606_026Soon after we arrived at the meeting point and alighted from the bikes.  We waited.  And waited. And waited….  For a very long period of time, maybe an hour, Groups 3 and 4 were nowhere to be seen!  We had already passed our estimated arrival time at the Eiffel Tower and still we had the city centre to navigate….  Eventually the second large group showed up, having suffered yet more punctures and two crashes!  Charlotte had fallen and grazed herself badly, but was back up and running and Colin had badly damaged his bike and would have to meet us somewhere near the finish!  Day 4 certainly was eventful!

Now we joined to form one complete group and received a final briefing and safety warning from the guides who were seemingly beginning to panic they would lose or kill someone!  We formed up a huge peloton, riding in pairs, and headed for the recognisable landmarks….

The #StayStrongForOws Cycle to Paris – Part 3

Part 1 can be found here…..and Part 2, here!

Before beginning the story of the third day of our epic voyage, it is worth me reiterating that this blog only represents my own personal experiences, and therefore those I shared mainly with Group 1 on the road, and a little with Group 2.  Only very few of my stories include Groups 3 and 4 due to the different schedules we rode to.  Therefore to fully understand what they went through you would need to speak with their members who would, I am certain, enlighten you about replacing inner tubes many times over, or the taste of a much-needed cider in a local pub!  For my part, I will continue with my first hand experience on Day 3, which began on the ferry, in a cabin, with my room-mate Adam….

WP_20150605_004We were awakened at about 6am (which of course felt like 5am British time) by some bizarre combination of Celtic country and folk music which, having previously travelled with Brittany Ferries, I knew was coming, but still sounded abysmal.  Adam and I had slept well and came round with a jolt, looking out of the window and spotting land, though we still had 45mins before we docked.  We took it in turns to shower in the minuscule “en-suite” bathroom, packed our bags and headed out on deck to meet the others.  Unlike most of my colleagues who had cleverly packed flip-flops, I had only “smarter shoes” which I had already stuffed into my luggage.  Therefore I walked in only socks, not wishing to slip and slide in my cycling shoes with protruding cleats!

On deck, the sea air was bringing us round and awakening us for the day ahead,  The weather again looked bright, and the ship’s bar didn’t seem to have inflicted too much damage the previous evening.  We had been promised better, flatter roads and an easier journey than in the UK, despite the greater distance on the “stage” ahead of us.  As we waited to disembark, Rich gave me the devastating news that he would be leaving our group to drop down the ranks and take the ride at a slower pace!  It was sad for our team to be split apart but Rich insisted we were too rapid for him and he wanted to ride at a more leisurely pace.  Despite protestations we were forced to accept that we would be a man down, and we disembarked as foot passengers, caught a bus to the ferry terminal and had passports verified before mustering in the café for breakfast.

WP_20150605_005I had prepared myself for croissants, pains au chocolat and bread, which I knew I would not eat due to the copious amounts of gluten I was desperately trying to avoid!  And this was exactly what was on offer, and to be fair, exactly what everyone else seemed to want!  I, on the other hand, contented myself with fresh fruit and a coffee.  I shared a table with Steve, Kerry and Charlotte, whose mother I had met at the Cardiff Blues v Zebre game where we both did a bucket collection at the same entrance.  Charlotte had been ill in the lead-up to the trip but was going well and looked to be thoroughly enjoying the experience.  Steve, part of the University of South Wales “collective” was also enjoying the trip, although Group 2 had already awarded him their pink helmet for paying close attention to the cleanliness of his bike!  And I could see Kerry psyching himself up for a momentous day in the saddle….  Not content with having tried to kill me a day earlier when I had to collect his bike pump from the centre of the road in front of a Campervan, he was about to inflict a visual atrocity on the whole of Group 1 in the shape of……well, whatever was contained in his see-through cycling shorts!!

WP_20150605_017The queue for the terminal toilets was as long as the one to clear passport control, but eventually our band of intrepid cyclists was ready to saddle up once more.  The same order as the previous day meant that we would again be last to depart but as Group 2 pulled away and as I pushed my bike into position, something made a strange sound in my rear wheel and didn’t feel right….  The minor mechanical issue was ably investigated by our guide-cum-mechanic Andy, who reported that a “bearing was dragging” – not that I really understood the reason, meaning or consequences!  Andy decided that the best solution for the day was to swap my rear wheel with that of the PIE spare bike, moving my gears into place on the spare wheel, and then to investigate in more detail later.  He kindly and professionally resolved this for me, although I had cost our Group a good half hour of cycling time…

Eventually we got rolling.  Immediately we joined a flat cycle path next to a canal and spirits were good.  I caught up with James who was the only rider in our Group using flat pedals.  Though there were others on the ride, Jammo had kept up with the rest of us despite having to expend more energy to do so!  He was enjoying the trip, though having problems with Kerry’s blue Astana shorts and their lack of modesty, particularly perturbing when following his wheel…..

WP_20150605_011Hardly 5Km into the ride and we reached the historic Pegasus Bridge, the site of a strategic WW2 battle and a monument to those who lost their lives to preserve our freedom.  The whole Group wanted to stop here to reflect, to take a photo and to speak with some Veterans who were gathering in preparation for a ceremony to commemorate the battle for the bridge on that very day (5th June) 71 years before.  I personally found this experience very humbling and emotional so I deliberately crossed the bridge a few steps behind the group to gather myself before we rode on.

WP_20150605_013Once back on the bikes, we finally began to pick up some pace.  Day 3 was to become probably my favourite day all-in-all, despite the stop-start beginning to the day and the distractions of a team-mate’s attire!  We rolled into a typical French village for the first stop of the day, and, possibly a little distracted by traffic and unsure of directions, or possibly looking for another 70-year old lady to oggle, Kerry made an attempt to take out Andy, the guide!

Picture courtesy of Matthew Lewis

Picture courtesy of Matthew Lewis

Crashing to the ground outside the shops, there was hardly a pause before Jeff burst out laughing!  Fortunately both were fine and even more fortuitously our trusty colleague Matt had recorded the moment for posterity on his helmet camera!

Still last on the road after the delays and breaks of the first segment of the day, we didn’t spend too long at the first break stop before heading off.  The professional “through and off” tactic hadn’t gone down well with the group who couldn’t slow down enough when changing sides (resulting in Andy constantly shouting….particularly as Jeff!), so had been permanently abandoned in favour of riding in pairs with Adam and James captaining the ride to dictate the speed.  Riding in this formation did help us gain time however, and we caught and passed Groups 3 and 4, who also, it must be said, suffered more than their fair share of punctures and mechanical issues over the whole 4 days!  This though left us with Group 2 ahead of us and an epic battle was about to take place…..

WP_20150605_018Arriving at lunch, outside a local village hall, Group 2 had already arrived and were well into their filled baguettes, looking rather smug with themselves.  As I practiced my French by explaining what we were doing to a local father and son who were watching with interest, Group 2 prepared themselves to head off.  As Group 3 arrived, they left and our team “put a watch on them” to see how much time they were ahead of us.  When we finally got ourselves into position, they had a 20-minute head-start and we had no chance of catching them unless they had a puncture…..

Turning a corner in the road, we suddenly spotted them up ahead and caught up quickly.  Forming one big group we found out exactly how we had managed to make up so much time, and indeed it transpired that a puncture was to blame!  What terrible luck!  We pulled in front and headed for the next town, about half-way to the afternoon break in a bar.

Once in the town, Andy explained he had taken a wrong turn and we needed to retrace our steps and traverse the railway line, but no sooner had we faced the other direction than Group 2 arrived!  Their guide, Benn, was taking a different route and said they would meet us there….the race was on!

WP_20150605_019Heading along roads on the other side of the railway track to Group 2, we were not able to see them, but we understood it would be close!  Kerry urged us forward, swearing that we couldn’t arrive in second place!  Yet, as we arrived in the village at the bar there they were, already on the terrace enjoying their Cokes!  And, in a moment which we had surely been asking for, and which made me laugh loudly, they all proceeded to stand at the roadside and applaud our arrival, complimenting our efforts!  This was banter of the highest order as we acknowledged, possibly through gritted teeth!

Leaving again for the final section of the day, we soon saw Group 2 again stopped on the side of the road, once again having suffered from a puncture.  We cycled slowly past, sympathising with them and cursing their bad luck.  Once out of earshot however, the cry went up to “put the hammer down” and leave them behind!  By now, the roads were good and reasonably flat.  We rode in “formation” at speeds of around 40km/h all the way into Evreux, our base for the night.   Before showering, we hung around at the hotel entrance to repay the compliment from earlier that afternoon, clapping Group 2 home as they arrived!

The evening in Evreux was memorable but will have to be the subject of the start of the next blog, given the length of this one already!

The #StayStrongForOws Cycle to Paris – Part 2

If you missed part 1, you can read it here…!

WP_20150604_004On Day 2, the group order was to be reversed, meaning that as “Group 1” (apparently officially called “Pro Elite” for some strange reason, surely only to mock Group 2 who had delusions of grandeur!), was to depart last.  Therefore my room-mate Adam and I enjoyed a little longer in bed than we presumed we would and sauntered in to breakfast at about 8am.  The other groups were already present, or outside setting up, as we prepared ourselves for France by enjoying a “continental breakfast”, though others around us seemed to be carb-loading for the day ahead!

WP_20150604_002We packed our bags and headed out to cheer the other groups off, the atmosphere perhaps slightly more reserved than the previous day, with everyone possibly concerned about the climbs that may lay in wait!  Standing around, I chatted with Matt Lissack, DJ on Capital Radio’s flagship breakfast show, and learned he was providing updates back to the studio about the progress of the ride, giving great publicity to the cause.  I also spoke with Lee from our group who I hadn’t really got to know on day 1, as I had found his wife had begun stalking me on Twitter – searching for updates about Lee’s whereabouts and welfare no doubt!  Lee was our resident legal expert and I hoped he had already begun preparing a defence for Jeff to explain the many boxes of energy gels already secreted in his luggage….

It was more or less exactly at the moment that Group 2 pulled away when I fully understood the competitive nature of some in our group, and in particular the older contingent!  I forget Kerry’s exact words but it went something along the lines of “Right boys, let’s get them before the first stop!”.  I later understood the feeling was entirely mutual as Group 2 were doing their level best not to be caught…..more of which later!

The ride to the morning stop passed fairly uneventfully.  A few climbs and despite the earlier war cries, most of the group was fairly content to amble along and not push the pace, still half asleep and digesting breakfast.  We rode past Longleat and down a well maintained road in the forest with a couple of sharp inclines, and quickly arrived at the morning break stop where we found all of the other groups together.  This felt like a strange way of riding to me, I had been used to doing 100Km+ without a stop, now we were breaking every 40Km or so and momentum ebbed away.  It took some getting used to.

During the pause, Andy explained some cycling tactics to us.  We were going to attempt to ride in formation and, all being well, maybe some “through and off”, a professional way of riding as a peloton and maintaining a good speed.  As he spoke, we were aware of eyeballs on us.  Group 2 were trying to stare us out and Richard Holland, CEO of the Cardiff Blues, was looking on incredulously, implying we were taking things way too seriously!  But in order to satisfy Kerry’s (and Jeff’s!) insatiable appetite to catch the other teams, we had to up our game…..after all, we were team “Pro Plus Elite”!

Last away from the break, it didn’t take us long to catch the 3rd group on the road……..twice!  Having set formation with Andy and I at the front and riding in pairs, we nonchalantly rode past, ringing bells (Kerry!) and shouting “Bonjour”, and then proceeded to take one of many infamous wrong turns literally just up the road!  Finding ourselves behind the same group again, we performed the same manoeuvre all over again, albeit with slightly redder faces!

Riding as a group is an art, and can be a tricky thing to accomplish.  Following a wheel closely is difficult enough, but one also needs to master sign language at high speed in order to warn those following of obstacles in the road, pot holes and so on.  Perhaps one of the most important signs in Group 1 however, was the #StayStrongForOws symbol and a thigh slap to alert the rest of the riders to the presence of an attractive member of the fairer sex on the roadside!  Unfortunately though, this was flagrantly abused by Kerry during the morning of day 2 as he made the call when 300 metres away from a rather elderly lady up the road!  As we approached he tried to retract his announcement but the damage was done, Group 1 suffered partial blindness and Kerry won a pink helmet for day 3!

WP_20150604_007As lunch approached, the roads became more rolling and gentle and, despite the headwind, we managed to pick up speed in our pairs and caught the second group on the road.  Forewarned by Andy not to accelerate when approaching another group but simply to keep a steady pace and make the catch gently, we suddenly set eyes upon our prey just up ahead and there was a surge of excitement!  Group 2 were just around the corner and we knew we could make the catch!  Cries went up from the peloton as preparations were made for lashings of banter….  Coming into a village we joined into one big group, jibes flying back and forth, resulting in a request for “Quiet!” from a local resident (and derision among the riders…)!  Group 1 edged ahead and arrived at lunch in Salisbury RFC in pole position, closely followed by Group 2.

At the lunch stop, despite them being our “rivals” I chose to sit with some of our Group 2 colleagues who I had not had the opportunity to speak with beforehand.  In fact, due to the structure of the ride, it was difficult to get to know members of the other groups who were setting off at different times and therefore congregating together at stops and in the evening.  However, despite jostling for position on the road, it was clear Groups 1 and 2 were evenly matched and we would be spending a good deal of time together….. which, all joking aside, was definitely a good thing!  At Salisbury I met and spoke with Chris, Duane and Chris who told me about Beddau Bike Club and the bespoke jerseys they were were wearing.  After we had eaten, I rejoined my group with some more good-natured banter and we set off for Eastleigh RFC, the location of the afternoon break.

WP_20150604_008Once we had shaken the cobwebs out of our legs, we continued at a good pace until we reached Eastleigh, described by our guide (Jeff) as “A big place considering I’ve never heard of it”!  The traffic caused delays as we un-clipped and clipped back in before we reached our destination, soon after joined by Group 2 on their perpetual mission to catch us!  This was a brief stop before we headed onward toward Portsmouth, a shower, some food and the ferry for the night.

WP_20150604_010On the way however was the longest climb of the day up onto the cliffs.  Despite some tired legs we made it to the top and continued along the ridge before a long drop into the city, crossing some rather congested roundabouts with fast moving cars, where we incurred the “wrath of Andy” for not staying together!  On the run in to the hotel where we would shower, Andy gave us a yellow-pages style run down of the local cycle shops nearby and Kerry decided he would like a guided tour….and to purchase some new brakes!  The rest of us politely declined to join them and stared back down the road, hoping Group 2 would not come past.  We waited……and waited…..and waited…..  Finally Andy and Kerry rejoined us and we were off again, safe in the knowledge we could use all of the hot water up with impunity!

Arriving at the hotel, we took on some fluids, handed over our bikes and received a room key before heading upstairs for a shower.  By the time we descended, Group 2 had shown up and we passed over the keys, proposing to meet in the adjoining hostelry….of course!  Still trying to avoid gluten, I partook of a cider with my team and as Group 2 joined us from the showers we were able to applaud the final two Groups as they arrived in Portsmouth after a slightly less eventful day in the saddle!

Together we ate in the pub, where I had the opportunity to speak with Huw Williams for the first time.  Naturally the ride meant a lot to him and the family, and he surprised me with how much he already knew about me and my challenges this year, thanking me personally for being involved.  I really cannot overstate how much this simple gesture meant to me then, and still does now.

WP_20150604_012Over our cottage pie and chips we laughed with waitress Hannah M (sister of Boney, apparently…) and looked forward to a night in comfort on the ferry….  After the evening’s debrief and the awarding of the “helmets” we walked to the ferry terminal to check in where I took the opportunity to phone home whilst others continued to hydrate, an important facet of any sporting challenge!

WP_20150604_013Once on the boat, we settled into our luxurious cabin and headed out on deck for a nightcap (small glass of wine in my case!!) before bed.  Whilst we were waiting to leave port, I caught up with some members of the other groups I had hardly spoken to since we left.  Helen, Che, Rachel and Charlotte were all in good spirits despite the difficult first day and there was a real whiff of France already in the air…….that unmistakable smell of cigarette smoke!

Heading down to the cabin, Adam and I settled in for the night and actually got off to sleep OK!  Day 3 was just around the metaphorical corner….

The #StayStrongForOws Cycle to Paris – Part 1

So much happened, so many stories to tell, so much banter!  The cycle to Paris was a truly exceptional, and emotional experience that it really cannot be documented in one solitary blog post!  So this is the first of a mini-series of posts that could span two, three or more…. Let’s see how we go with this first one though, and whether my unofficial 1000 word limit can be adhered to!

WP_20150603_002It all started for me last Tuesday, 2nd June.  Having completed my last blog, I proceeded to dismantle my bike (well, take the wheels off…) and pack my case.  This was an ordeal in itself!  How to fit enough cycling kit, casual evening wear, chargers and toiletries into a small bag usually used for hand luggage resulted in some difficult decisions and a lot of rolling and stuffing!  That done, I settled down for an early-ish night, knowing the alarm would sound at 5.30am the next day….

On Wednesday 3rd, when the alarm did go off, I was quickly up and about, my blurry eyes belying the alertness of my mind as I rushed to and fro, washing, eating and double checking I had everything ready!  My Dad collected me at 6.30am, and as I said goodbye to B, I knew I had four days of cycling ahead of me and wondered how my legs would cope!

On the journey down to Cardiff Arms Park, I went over the trip in my mind.  How much ascent, what kind of distance, how long would it take….?  I was very much on my own.  Other than organiser Helen Davies, I knew no-one on the trip at all!  It was like the first day of school, that apprehensive yet excited feeling, knowing you could not turn back, and wondering what lay ahead!

Arriving at the Arms Park before 8am, there were people and bikes everywhere!  Camera crews, microphones and press people were present, as were family members and Blues staff, it was a lot to take in!  I quickly checked in, handed over my baggage and lined my bike up in the correct area.  I had been placed in “Group 1”.  As an amateur cyclist of only 5 months, this really concerned me…. Would I be able to keep up?  Only time would tell…  I sipped an energy drink and tried to speak with people I recognised from a previous meeting or from Twitter.  There was a palpable nervous yet excited buzz in the air, everyone was keen to get moving, but wary of the distance we had in front of us!

group

Photo courtesy of Matt Lissack

Before we could leave however, there was the obligatory photo call on the pitch, and a safety briefing from our group leader, Andy.  For the first time I also met the other 8 riders, who would become my friends over the coming days.  Finally, it was then time for us to lead off.  Cheered on by supporters and family members, as well as the other groups, we headed behind the clubhouse and onto Westgate Street, turning left towards the Angel Hotel.  Already things had started badly  however as I asked Kerry, with his GoPro attached to his handlebars, if he was filming, to which he replied “Oh b@ll*cks, I forgot to turn it on!!!”.

Matt and James, ready to go!

Matt and James, ready to go!

The traffic in central Cardiff before 9am was a nightmare and we got caught at every set of lights, and then by Group 2, a harrowing experience that we were to try to avoid at regular intervals over the coming four days!  The stop-start nature of the exit from the capital city meant that once we did finally get rolling toward Wentloog and Newport, the energy drink I had consumed before the start was beginning to pressurise my bladder!!  I wasn’t the only one however and even before we reached Rodney Parade, the first of many “toilet breaks” was enjoyed by the group!

On the journey to Newport, I sat toward the rear of the Peloton, chatting with Jeff about his home town of Treorchy, training rides over the Rhigos mountain (being overtaken by a super-athlete on a “butcher’s bike”!) and rugby.  Jeff might have been one of the more senior members of our group, but he certainly seemed young at heart and quite a character.  This was backed up at the very first stop when he proceeded to load his pockets with free gel sachets provided by the organisers, proudly proclaiming “I’m from Treorchy see, we’ll take anything we will!”.  No surprises then, that by the end of the day he’d been awarded two nicknames, “Treorchy Trev” and “Del the Gel”!

Not for the last time on the trip, we took a wrong turn on the way into Newport and had to retrace our steps before we arrived at Rodney Parade for the first break of the day.  All groups arrived in Newport safely quite close together, and we posed for a photograph outside the clubhouse with some of their staff before Group 1 again lead the charge, this time towards our lunch stop in enemy territory!  The ride split a little as small groups formed, meeting and learning about each other – work, life, family and their connection to the cause.  I spoke at length with Richard Lord, whom I had been in contact with on Twitter beforehand, and with his colleagues Adam and Dave, from Bartholomew Hawkins, a financial planning firm in Cardiff.

Bridge

Photo courtesy of Andy Thornton.

The first climb of the day was short as we travelled through Magor and towards the first Severn Crossing, where we posed for pictures.  The lunch stop was not too much further over the bridge and we arrived feeling the first half of the first day had been relatively simple.  By this time, we were relaxing in each others company, laughing raucously as Jeff proceeded to drop dozens of gels on the floor that he had pilfered from the first stop, and chuckling as we nicknamed our guide “Garmin” and “Tom” (as in TomTom!) following a few wrong turns that morning!

Andy, our guide. AKA "Garmin" or "TomTom"

Andy, our guide. AKA “Garmin” or “TomTom”

Lunch (cheese roll, ham roll, or a roll of cheese AND ham…) consumed, we were back on our way and the group was beginning to enjoy itself with the banter really getting into full swing.  The terrain became more undulating and just prior to the afternoon break, Andy stopped us to tell us of the big hill up ahead.  Allowing us to go off at our own pace, he informed us of where we would meet up again for the break at the top of the hill.  We headed up, ahead of Andy, and conquered the climb in about 20 minutes.  Continuing on, looking for the PIE banner used to indicate stops, we travelled about about another 2km before deciding we had gone too far!  Turning around and heading back the way we came, we found Andy coming to get us!  We had arrived before the “PIE man” and his van were ready and no sign had been placed on the roadside to guide us!  Rejoining the group, we found Matt had suffered the group’s first puncture, but fortunately it was slow enough to complete the hill and change at the stop, aided by James.

The last stage of the day took us careering down a huge hill at speed into the historical and pretty city of Bath, before a brutal climb out the other side to the University.  Once done, the hotel for the night felt in sight, but a combination of more hills and some wrong turns meant we still had nearly two hours left in the saddle.  At one point, Jeff was so concerned about our guide’s ability he stopped to ask for directions to Frome, whilst pointing out the obvious fact that he was “on a bike”, something which later earned him the title of “helmet of the day” and a pink hat to wear on Thursday’s trip!

WP_20150603_011As it was, we arrived in Frome at about 6pm, on schedule and ready for a wash!  We were soon joined by Group 2, but as we re-hydrated on the terrace outside the bar, news reached us that due to illness, cramps and a fall, the other Groups had been delayed and 3 members of our team had been relayed to the hotel in the Ambulance car and the PIE van.  Fortunately, they were relatively minor ailments and all recovered well, but for Group 4 their wrong turns, mishaps and mechanical issues meant they spent over 12 hours on the road, arriving after 8.30pm that evening.

The hardest day – the one with the most climbing – was complete however, and we all settled in to enjoy our dinner, which clearly wasn’t enough for some as a pizza order arrived during the evening briefing!  Laughter turned to concern however as Jeff from our group firstly stood up with cramps and then collapsed with exhaustion.  He was checked over and thankfully recovered and was able to join us the next morning….with his pink helmet of course!

After the evening briefing, most headed to bed to try to get some rest for Day 2…..which I will have to document another time, given the length of this blog already!

No Longer a Rapid Spin Cycle

WP_20150530_002A few weeks back I was asked to write a blog all about my bike.  At the time, I knew very little about cycling and so had hardly any details to include, and I was also concentrating on my marathon so the topic was less relevant.  Events then took over and the thought left my mind!  However, with “Le Grand Départ” due tomorrow morning for the #StayStrongForOws cycle to Paris, this now seems a very appropriate time to talk about the piece of equipment which I have been learning to work in harmony with over the past 5 months!

Firstly, for avid and knowledgeable cyclists out there, my bike is not expensive, nor fancy and I do NOT have more than one of them!!  I know many keen cyclists have winter bikes, summer bikes and who continually spend money upgrading elements to save weight and improve efficiency.  Undoubtedly, this all helps considerably, however I have neither the money nor time to invest, nor do I know any different, and so I make do with what I have and instead concentrate on my own technique and fitness.  I will never win the Ironman, but at least I can now cycle 100miles or more in a day!

WP_20150530_003My bike was bought as a “unit” from specialist online retailers Wiggle with flat pedals for about £700 back last year (2014).  It is one of their “in house” brands, a Verenti Belief, in white, and the 2013 model.  The full specifications are quite technical and I certainly do not know them off the top off my head, so although this model is no longer available, the best place to find all the technical information is still on the relevant page of Wiggle’s website, here.  Despite the size guide I did purchase a “large” frame on Mave’s advice, and this has been perfect!

WP_20150530_005I have of course replaced one or two (or more…) components as they broke, but these were with exact like-for-like spares, so there are still 20 gears and the brakes and derailleurs are still made by Shimano!  In fact, the only complete change I have made was in exchanging the flat pedals which were supplied with the bike to the Look Keo pedals I am currently using.  Additionally, I have also attached two bottle cages, a hand pump, a Deuter nutrition bag on the crossbar and a medium saddle bag to store spares and repairs, such as inner tubes, gas canisters and tyre levers.  The shoes I wear are Shimano R088 SPD-SL Road Shoes in a Size 45 and I find them very comfortable!

WP_20150530_004That’s pretty much all there really is for me to say!  The frame is a quite light with carbon forks and I now really enjoy riding it!  Most of my “new” money has been spent on kit to wear, and I do find myself toying with the bike more and more, adjusting this and adjusting that!  I always keep the tyres well inflated to try to negate the risk of a blowout, and I use a liberal dose of GT45 to clean and lubricate the mechanical moving parts……  The next test of the bike is tomorrow, and over the subsequent three days as we ride to Paris.  I’m sure the bike will be just fine, even if I suffer!

In terms of the preparation for this event, it has been a mixed bag in the lead up with some training, and some extra-curricular activities!  Having cycled 130km alone on Saturday (23rd) and run 13km/swum 1.5km, on the Sunday, I enjoyed a rest day on Bank Holiday Monday before picking up the training again on Tuesday 26th with a shorter (77km) cycle with Andy and Jan over to Monmouth and back via Raglan and Usk (where I was lead-out man into the headwind to help them obtain better Strava segment times!).

Mam did well in the Heads or Tails competition!

Mam did well in the Heads or Tails competition!

That evening we had a lengthy night at the Gurkha restaurant in Abergavenny, helping to raise money for the Nepal appeal and listening to stories from Scott “Postcode Lottery” Quinnell and Eddie Butler.

Wednesday brought a 4km endurance swim (1hr 23m) and Thursday a 19km run (1hr 35m) in the morning before an afternoon in Cardiff.  On Friday, my rest day, I headed to meet with Paul in St Albans to arrange the first session of his Academy, which begins this Sunday when I am sadly myself still in France.  We’re working hard to prepare this even now, but all looks good and those who attend will have a great time and surely learn a lot from Paul over the coming weeks.

WP_20150529_001 WP_20150529_012

In the end, I took another rest day on Saturday as I felt jaded from the travelling and 13 hours of training in the previous 6 days….  But on Sunday, I joined another group ride that Andy had kindly organised, cycling over the Tumble to meet a small, select group in Pontypool, before following the Velothon route over Caerphilly mountain and through Newport, Magor, Caldicot (where we went “off-piste” as the directions were not clear!), Caerleon and back to Pontypool.  By the time I arrived home I had managed my longest ride to date – 157km – albeit in a slower time than I would need to accomplish at the Ironman!

Time for a pause and a bacon bap (for some!) at the café on top of Caerphilly Mountain!

Time for a pause and a bacon bap (for some!) at the café on top of Caerphilly Mountain!

So today is the day before the off and despite the weather looking atrocious, we are assured it will improve.  I still have much to do – prepare the bike ready for my early-rising father to kindly give me a lift to Cardiff at 7am tomorrow; pack my bag (how will everything fit in?!!?) and possibly go for a run, although maybe I should save my energy…..I haven’t yet decided!

It is doubtful I will be in a position to update my blog en route, however I shall post some tweets with pictures (at www.Twitter.com/garethjspencer) and produce a full, comprehensive write up upon my return!  Don’t forget you can of course support Owen via donations in aid of the bike ride, by visiting my Just Giving page here: www.JustGiving.com/StayStrongForOws-GJS.