Today is the final day of the epic seven week cycling relay fundraiser that is Thighs of Steel.
At about 5pm, the latest peloton of steely thighed cyclists will sweep into Athens, hot, sweaty and exultant after an 85km day’s ride – the culmination of a journey that started 4,600km ago in London.
The bike ride, and the 80-odd riders thereon, have already smashed their target of raising £50,000 to pay the bills at refugee community centre Khora – and are pushing on to beat the record set last year of over £100,000.
These are the numbers. On the face of it, they sound very impressive. But, let’s be honest, there are more efficient ways of raising money for charity.
A single fundraising soiree in the City of London could raise over a million pounds, and completely transform the operational capacity of Khora literally overnight. A bike ride is a painfully elaborate way of charity fundraising, no doubt.
Even the riders themselves are poorly chosen. My companions were teachers, counsellors, social entrepreneurs, itinerant festival workers. It wouldn’t be hard to target a higher-earning bracket of cyclist and easily double or treble the fundraising target by tapping into a network with more money to give.
But that’s not what the organisers have done, that’s not what the organisers want to do, and that’s not what the organisers have chosen.
They have deliberately decided on an inordinately long bike ride, they have deliberately targeted this motley demographic. None of this is an accident.
Thighs of Steel is not a fundraising machine powered by bikes. It is a community on wheels.
- What do you need when you get bitten by a potentially rabid dog in rural Romania?
- What do you need when you get nudged off the road by a van travelling at 50km/h?
- What do you need when you get heat stroke and spend the night throwing up?
- What do you need when you’re feeling down and out, despondent and depressed?
- What do you need when you’re trying to raise £1,000 for charity?
- What do you need when you get a puncture, fix a puncture, but can’t get your tyre back on?
- What do you need when you’ve run out of water and you’re riding in 36 degree heat?
- What do you need when faced with a 20km, 1000m climb, tougher and steeper than you’ve ever faced before?
- What do you need when you make camp on a beach and the wind turns it into a sandstorm?
Yeah, that’s right: you need community.
It’s no secret that I believe in the transcendent power of long, arduous – even pointless – journeys. One night in a City members’ club might raise half a fortune, but one week of cycling through Eastern Europe will spin your life around and give it a shove in an unpredictable, but always interesting direction.
Beyond the fundraising, the real outcome of such a week is immeasurable. What will become of the hours of thoughts, ambitions and secrets we shared? What will become of the muscles and friendships we built?
- Shall we meet down the pub next week?
- Or plan another long ride together?
- And marry, before raising our kids on a farm?
- Will I start a new job in pastoral care?
- Or spend my days fixing bikes?
- And my nights throwing fundraising soirées?
- Will I spend the winter in Greece?
- Or perhaps rural Romania?
- And launch a rabies inoculation programme?
Cycling always creates plenty of space for upside down and inside out thoughts. Cycling in a community like Thighs of Steel adds camaraderie and caring, laughter and lectures, ideas, ideals, practical jokes, impractical jokes, cultures and creations.
My long journey back home is full of potential, and the promises and resolutions I make are easier to keep when I have a dozen new friends cheering me on.
Thighs of Steel is not just a bike ride, and it’s not only a fundraiser. It’s a community on wheels that, once built, can never be forgotten.