Happy Friday! And greetings from Athens.
It’s been quite the ride.
Thighs of Steel, a rolling community of fundraising cyclists, left Glasgow on 16 July and arrived in Athens on 17 September.
Over the course of 49 days, 95 cyclists rode a cumulative 71,337km and climbed up 757,975 metres of elevation, the equivalent of more than 85 Everests.
Powered by 781 bowls of porridge, 11kg of peanut butter and untold megatons of pastries to fill a 2,341,500 calorie cycling deficit.
Brought together by at least 34 punctures (including one tyre pin-cushioned by 15 thorns along one apocalyptic goat track), 435 tent erections at 42 camp spots, plus two saline drips and a butt jab during one of two trips to A&E.
Together we have raised £94,574 and we’re open for donations for another few weeks before distributing the money to solidarity communities working with refugees and other people on the move in Athens, the UK and northern France.
Today’s story is about what Thighs of Steel does in the world (hint: it’s not cycling) and, inadvertently, how you might zoom out from the particular to uncover the universal purpose to everything you do as a human.
It’s big picture stuff, so I’ve illustrated the story with seven photographs taken by cyclists on the ride. You can find more on Instagram. Enjoy.
Not A Charity Auction
A lot of people ask what it is that Thighs of Steel do and the answer is that the answer is different for everyone involved.
But here’s my answer.
We’re Not Movember
Thighs of Steel is a fundraising organisation. The way we fundraise is to organise bike adventures to give people an excuse to invite their friends to donate in solidarity with refugees.
Yet, in those two sentences alone, there is a contradiction.
If we wanted to maximise our fundraising potential, instead of spending nine months planning a bike trip, we’d throw all our energy and resources into schmoozing at charity auctions for High Net Worth individuals in The City.
Or, even better, we’d create mass participation events, like Movember or the World’s Biggest Coffee Morning, rather than a logistically complex continental adventure that is forceably capped at 96 participants.
Ergo: Thighs of Steel is not purely a fundraising organisation because, if it were, it’d be a horribly inefficient one. There’s something else going on.
We’re Not A Cycle Club Either
Thighs of Steel was formed as a Community Interest Company and, on our registration documents, this is how we describe our public benefit:
All communities within the United Kingdom stand to benefit from our company as our bike rides are open to people of all ages and fitness levels to join.
There are rides of different degrees of difficulty to challenge experienced cyclists and also encourage and include those who are new to cycling.
The individuals who participate and also those who follow our activities will benefit as we are promoting and encouraging healthy activities and challenges.
As well as health benefits, we are also promoting environmentally friendly travel (travelling by bicycle) which aims to inspire people to use their own bodies, thereby encouraging lives with a low carbon footprint, which has a positive impact on the whole community.
All of this is true, but there’s no at all mention of fundraising, the very reason Thighs was set up in the first place!
This is because the donations we raise don’t exclusively benefit UK populations and therefore fall outside the cut-and-paste regulatory requirements of a CIC.
And this isn’t the only time that our two primary activities of fundraising and cycling feel like they’re in competition with each other.
Are We Fundraising Or Cycling Here Or What?
During the difficult moments, sweating through the Lake District, struggling up the Dolomites or vomiting into a toilet in Albania, it can take a certain amount of effort to remember why we’re doing this horrible thing: caught up in effort, we forget why we’re fundraising.
Conversely, at peak moments, during sunshine descents, pistachio ice cream or geothermal sea baths, many of us feel a guilty tension between our personal joy and the difficult reality of daily life for refugees, the people we’re riding in solidarity with.
Both forgetfulness and guilt are dangerous states of mind that can sap our appetite to do anything at all, whether productive or pointless, difficult or delightful.
At its worst, our activities could seem pretty crass: a bit of fundraising bolted on to a cheap bike holiday.
But rather than try to resolve this tension between our stated aims of fundraising and cycling, let’s zoom out to a wide perspective where we’ll see them feeding into each other as two expressions of a third, much greater, purpose.
Zoom Zoom Zoom Out
Up close, things look disconnected. It’s only by zooming out that we can see the connecting lines between everything that we do.
This applies to our personal lives as much as the operational activities of a non-profit.
By zooming out, we can see what a £5 online donation from your cousin Frank has in common with rubbing someone’s back while they throw up into a toilet bowl.
The connection is connection.
One of the Thighs cyclists this year was Naoum Sayegh, a Syrian engineer who lived for 11 years in Lebanon before moving to the UK not long before Covid.
As well as being a great part of our little bike crew, Naoum is also super enthusiastic about embracing British culture, but until now has found authentic connection with his fellow citizens hard to find.
London is very individualistic so I don’t have the same social fabric as I had in the Middle East. I felt very isolated living in London alone. So, when I joined the ride, one of my main goals was to build this connection with British cyclists.
He wasn’t disappointed:
Cycling together and aiming to reach the same goal, reaching our destination and fundraising for refugees, brought everyone together and created a sense of intimacy that’s very difficult to find within British communities in England.
And because every night Thighs of Steel throw ourselves on the generosity of the communities we land in, Naoum was also able to connect with complete strangers across Britain (or at least along that thread of cycle road that connects Glasgow and Bristol).
Camping at community farms and being hosted by locals really helped me see the UK from a different perspective.
When we stopped at Claver Hill Community Farm in Lancaster, they cooked us a delicious meal with vegetables from the farm and gave us some outstanding apple cider — how sweet!
Then I sat down with the hosts and had a very interesting conversation about how they live and how community functions outside of London.
Being pampered by our hosts created a connection that is very important.
Let Me Count The Ways
Naoum counts two obvious ways that Thighs of Steel fosters connection: within the tight team of cyclists and with our camping hosts.
But there’s much, much more.
Cycling connects me as an individual to my own mind (agh, why won’t this hill stop!) and my own body (yes! I am strong!), as well as to my bike (another snapped gear cable!).
As Naoum said, over the course of a tough week of cycling, groups bond through both joy and adversity: one of the incredible things about organising this trip is seeing week after week of cyclists arrive as strangers and leave as friends.
These connections can last a week; they can last a lifetime.
Naoum mentioned our hosts, but what of the hundreds of people who helped us with directions, pastries, water or a smile? Every single one a spark of a connection, acknowledgement of something shared, and inducement to share in return.
The ride also connects us to the world, to its nature and construction: the landscapes we pass through, the tortoises we protect from onrushing cars, the wind, the weather, the birds of prey, the waves of the ocean, the kittens.
We leave the ride more connected to ourselves, to each other and to the rest of reality.
That’s a whole lot of connection already, but solidarity fundraising is in itself another gargantuan act of connection.
The 95 cyclists all set up fundraising pages and invited their wide networks of friends, family and casual acquaintances to participate by donation.
The most successful pages used creative strategies to connect communities and pull people into the project: parties, wine tastings, raffles.
Even those who never donated still heard about the ride and its purpose in an unmeasurable circle of influence that reaches out still.
Connection on connection.
And finally, of course, the money raised is funnelled directly into refugee projects specifically set up to foster connection and community.
Thousands of people will connect with those projects over the coming year and, being humans, the connections that they find will help make the world a better place for us all.
It’s not just cycling, it’s not just fundraising, it’s not just a £5 donation and it’s not just rubbing someone’s back while they vomit into an Albania toilet.
Connection, for me, is the purpose of Thighs of Steel. In fact, it’s what drives pretty much everything I do.
When I’m confused about why I’m doing something, I try to see how it will help me connect with the universe around me.
It’s usually not hard: everything we do connects us. If you want to get really zoomed out, then every act that you’re a part of is a small contribution to the workings of the cosmos.
The point is to amplify those connections and make them as generative as possible.
If you want to connect to this story, then my fundraising page is still open. Annoyingly, I’m £50 short of my target 🥰