Unite and Bike for Heroes

Just under a year ago, I decided to enter this event to commemorate the Centenary of the start of the Great War.  As you will know, if you have followed my blog, I was fortunate enough to serve with the Royal Engineers for a number of years until being medically discharged in 1997. A large number of my friends and colleagues have been impacted by loss in conflict and I have lost several friends and this seemed a fitting tribute to their memories.  I had also recently been bitten by the cycling bug so it was a perfect fit.  I also decided to dedicate the year to raising funds and awareness for Blind Veterans UK and you can read more about their work and my motivations elsewhere in this blog.

I have had a superb year and have achieved a number of firsts (for me) with several highs (and a couple of hiccoughs) and have made many new friends along the way. I have had wonderful support and met many inspirational folk, so was very excited as we approached this ‘final’ event in August.  However, I had not appreciated just how emotional the trip would be and what a superb end to the years fund raising.

And so it began – Stratford Intl to Folkestone – High speed train

The trip to Folkestone by train was unremarkable, as were my first impressions of the town when I arrived.  Folkestone was gearing up for a big centenary parade on the 4th, with Prince Harry in attendance and there were bands rehearsing and police cordoning the front off, so I just had a gentle cycle around whilst waiting for the rest to arrive.

The first evening was a genteel affair, getting our admin packs and getting to know one another.  A few of us met up over a couple of drinks (and a mediocre) meal and friendships started to form

Day 1: Emotional! – Folkestone to Ypres 110 km

(click names for Strava links)

Day 1 Map

 

We left Folkestone early on the 4th August, mostly having been awoken by the seabirds and noise of the preparation for Harry’s visit.  The weather was perfect for the 17 km dash to the ferry in Dover but the group was split up by the slight hill en route to the ferry (a 1km beast, hitting 12% just 5 km into the ride).  Boarding was uneventful and we made our way to the deck for the short trip to France.  Unfortunately, the ferry was delayed by an hour which challenged some of the timings for the first leg.  In Calais we regrouped and set off for Ypres.  The ride was very flat and easy riding across beautiful countryside interrupted by the odd very quiet village (all of which seemed to be closed, a recurring theme for the ride).  The highlight of the ride was the lunch stop where we had our first taste of the superb food laid on by Ashley.  Clearly, this was not going to be a chance to lose weight!  The cross over into Belgium was unremarkable and the onward journey flat and smooth.  Unfortunately, Dave came a cropper due to the somewhat alarming 45 degree level crossings!  Luckily he was able to continue and the bike was ok.  I also nearly wiped out on the cobbles as we entered Ypres.

Rebecca, who was also raising funds for Blind Veterans UK had arranged to lay a wreath for Harry at the Menin Gate as part of the Centenary Last Post ceremony and had very kindly asked me to join her.  We arrived just in time and made our way through the huge crowd, still in sweaty lycra to join the ceremony.  There was a huge crowd, with representatives from the Kiwi Embassy, the Legion Riders and 1st Edgmond Scouts to name but a few.  The ceremony was very solemn and as we marched back from laying the wreath, all I could see was the sea of red eyes as people gave their silent respect.  Afterwards, as we spoke with the other folk paying their respects, the dust did get the better of me, and a few tears were shed.  Later that night, after supper, we returned with Sallyann to light a candle for Lights out across Europe.  When the Menin gate went dark, it got a little dusty again!  This was to be a recurring theme for me throughout the week.  The magnitude of the loss and the sacrifice made by so many is commemorated so well, that it is hard not to be moved!

Plans for an early night, however, were scuppered and I stayed up until the small hours swinging the lantern and chatting about mutual friends with the Kiwi Defence Attaché, Lt Col Mike Beale

Day 2: Humbling! –  Ypres to Arras – 110 km

Day 2 Map

The ride for the second day was slightly more challenging with a couple of decent hills, particularly towards the end.  The weather was great again and the heat did start to tell a little bit.  The route to Arras passed by a number of key memorial sites which we spent time exploring.  I was fortunate enough to catch Stewart and Tracy before they set off to mark the route and they recommended we see the crater at Hill 60.  I didn’t know what to expect but it was a site well worth visiting, being a Sapper, I was able to empathise with the work the Engineers had undertaken to breach the defences and the sheer volume of explosives to create the crater.  The other sites were equally impressive in their own rights, each with their own characters and stories to tell.  Towards the end of the day we climbed a decent hill passed the Loos Memorial to the Vimy Trenches.  Though grown over with time, it did give an indication of what life must have been like for the young soldiers.

We had all watched documentaries and done some research before the ride but seeing the thousands of grave stones,  the ages of those lost, the names on the memorials, the number of countries represented and the number of graves with no names was hugely humbling. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission have done a fantastic job in preserving these sites and they are a fitting tribute to those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice.  What was even more alarming was the number of smaller memorials.  Being on bikes, we were able to notice the smaller sites, and dedications in the villages we rode through.  There were times of introspection as we rode but also times when we chatted and learnt more about the stories and challenges of those taking part.

Our stop for the night was in Arras, a lovely town, despite the cobbles and we had a pleasant evening in one of the bars catching up and enjoying just a little too much Leffe.

Day 3 – can’t use Humbling again so will settle for ‘Rule #9 – Badass‘ – Arras to Amiens – 100km

Day 3 Map

This was our shortest days ride.  However, some truly foul weather, some nice hills, some geographic challenges and a lot of time spent at memorials made it quite a long day.  I continued Day 3 bringing up the rear.  I was happy to do so, as I had been suffering with a knee injury before setting off and was happy to spend time at the memorial sites.  The foul weather, and French habit of moving the markers meant there were a couple of navigational issues and a fair number of punctures to help out with.  Adrian, the mechanic following on was kept busy and braved the weather to sort out bikes as we stopped.  I had not seen many Sapper graves on Day 2 but found several at the Arras and Sheffield memorials and spent quite some time paying my REspects and searching out folk from my various home towns.

Unite & Bike A very wet Arras

 

A very wet Arras

The Thiepval Memorial was particularly moving.  Here we met up with a party of Chelsea Pensioners, touring the area.  Rebecca and I spent some time chatting with Jerry and Harry, a couple of Fusiliers and Alex Murray a fellow Sapper who had served in 28 Amph Engineer Squadron.  Despite the damp, the dust got the better of me, unfortunately whilst being filmed by a crew recording the Pensioners journey.  Hopefully that will end up on the cutting room floor!

Once again the ride finished over the cobbles, this time around Amiens and after supper we visited the light show at the Cathedral – Another overwhelming day!

Day 4 – Introspection and punctures Amiens to Compiègne – 102km

Day 4 Map

Day 4 was largely about relocating to Compiègne for the final 130 km push to Paris.  The weather was glorious again and the ride steady with only a couple of hillocks and so lots of time for introspection and unfortunately a lot of punctures!  In addition, my Lake cycling shoes, my pride and joy succumbed to the weather and walking around memorials.  Fortunately, the company were extremely understanding and were able to order a new pair on warrantee.

The key monument was the Australian Cemetery at Villers which surprised with a few points.  It really brought home the sacrifice of troops across the Commonwealth, many of these guys would have travelled for weeks to lose their life in days in the battlefields, they new nothing about.  There were also several graves for children (19 yrs old) who had died after the armistice was signed and finally, we found a grave for an Edwin Slack from my home town’s Regiment. I have since done some research and cannot find a direct relationship but it did still bring about some introspection!

Garmin proved it’s worth again in finding the hotel and we spent the evening eating, drinking and preparing for the ride to Paris.

Day 5 – Euphoria and crashes  – Compiègne to Paris – 135 km

Day 5 Map

Alex, the expedition leader, decided that we should stagger the start on the Friday so as to arrive in Paris as a group.  As back marker, I was in the first group off, so had an early start for once.  The weather was good once more, with mist coming off the fields as we headed out to the Le Wagon de l’Armistice.  This was the site where Marshall Foch took the German surrender on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.  Unfortunately, due to the early start, the centre was closed, and that, combined with the absence of the carriages (destroyed in 1945 by the SS) meant this was quite a short visit and we were soon on our way.

The initial nice weather was replaced by rain during the morning and the crash and puncture count soon started to rise.  However, all the groups made steady progress. Again, we were challenged by markers being removed and so there were a few back tracks.  Mid morning, the faster group led by David caught us up and I took the chance to have a bit of a burn with the speed snakes before lunch, which was great fun but I settled back in with my group for the afternoon.  By this time the winds and rain had started to pick up and there were a couple of nice climbs which tested tired legs.  As we came into the outskirts of Paris, the wet roads took their toll and there were a few more crashes and punctures.  The final 30 km was quite eventful with the city traffic building up but we all met up at the Louvre in more or less one piece.  The finale of the ride was a ride around the wet cobbles of Paris taking in the Champs-Élysées, l’Arc de Triomphe before finishing under the Eiffel Tower with Champagne and photos.

The evening was taken up with a celebratory dinner and beers in the shadow of the Tower. It was a great evening, sharing laughs and stories with the friends we had made during the week.  Even the very mediocre food at the Dinner (vegetarian option, rice, potatoes and beens) couldn’t dampen the mood and I was somewhat humbled (again) to be mentioned by Global Adventures for my back marking, tyre changing, first aid, mechanics and crap singing in the rain skills. Even more humbled when An’ji and Team Seafarers gave me a cup for the same . Thanks guys! It has pride of place in my lounge!

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On the Saturday morning, I took a moment to visit l’arc de Triomphe and lay one final cross before heading to Gare d’Nord for the trip home.

The Riders

 

 

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There were 27 of us taking part in the ride from a wide cross section with many different motivations.  However, over the week, we formed into a strong team and I built huge respect as their stories came through.  I cannot introduce everyone but a few stories come to the fore

Richard was commemorating his Grandfather, Spr George Foster RE who served with 92nd Field Coy RE  and his Grandma who had worked as a munitions worker

Rebecca was doing the ride, in memory of her Great Grandfather, Sgt Harry Hackett Grenadier Guards, who was killed in the war on 22 April 1918. She brought with her a number of pictures and letter he had written, describing life at the front and his experiences during the Christmas Truce.

Peter and Graham (Team Bloke) were searching for and commemorating the memorials of some of 102 soldiers, sailors and airmen from Horcastle, their home town, who died in WW1.  The found and recorded the 27 on our route and will commemorate them at a