Category: Thighs of Steel
Make Space For Others To Shine Last summer, our 93 cyclists not only rode 5,428km from Glasgow to Athens, but also raised a record-breaking (for us) £114,632 in solidarity with grassroots refugee projects through charity MASS Action.
Summer feels like a loooong time ago, eh?
It’s dark outside and the windows are misted up with rain. Our tans have faded and even our steely thighs have turned to jelly.
As all but the freshest or most cursory reader will know, I’m one of the infamous community of cyclists that make up Thighs of Steel and every year I help organise what is almost certainly Europe’s longest charity bike ride.
Last summer, our 93 cyclists not only rode 5,428km from Glasgow to Athens, but also raised a record-breaking (for us) £114,632 in solidarity with grassroots refugee projects through charity MASS Action.
I know that many TDCN readers contributed to the pot, so thank you: £114,632, including £12k in Gift Aid, is such a significant amount of money.
It means that MASS Action have been able to give a big YES to no fewer than sixteen solidarity projects, covering pretty much every aspect of the movement for migrant social justice:
- Community centres offer everything from nourishing meals and legal support to bus tickets and hot showers in Thessaloniki (Wave Thessaloniki), Samos (Just Action) and Athens (Khora)
- Several projects provide accommodation or work to improve living conditions in Sheffield (ASSIST Sheffield), Glasgow (Scottish Asylum Seekers Resident Association) and Athens (Chamomile and Mazi x FORGE For Humanity)
- The Babylon Project offers drama, storytelling, film-making and dance in the UK, while Musikarama connects people through music in Athens
- Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group supports people during and after immigration detention
- Hakoura Organic is an ecological cooperative farm established by refugees in the countryside northwest of Athens
- No Evictions Network, No Borders Network and Calais Migrant Solidarity take direct action to support the rights, safety and dignity of people on the move in the UK and France
- In Scotland, LGBT UNITY is a peer support group made up of LGBTQIA+ refugees and asylum seekers in Glasgow and Bike For Refugees runs cycling community hubs in Glasgow and Edinburgh
Phew! Hard to believe what a couple of months’ cycling can achieve.
It’s so significant that we couldn’t even display every project on one pie chart, so please hurry along to The Reason and read more about what all that money is doing out in the world.
And — YES — this isn’t even the whole pie. There’s still £7,445.23 for MASS Action to distribute after this summer’s ride, wherever the need is greatest.
Sorry, did somebody say ‘this summer’s ride’?
Once again, we’ll be facilitating the highlight of your summer, starting in Glasgow on 14 July and finishing a continent later in Athens on 17 September.
We open for signups on Friday 17 February at 6pm — but ONLY if you’re on our special secret early access email list.
The most popular weeks sell out minutes after going live, so get on it!
Humanity is a team game. We don’t have to do it all — we can’t — but we can choose to play our part.
I’m lucky that my part, right now, is to help put on a bike ride that makes space for others to shine — not only the ninety-odd cyclists who surprise themselves with their own strength, but also the people and projects making change happen on the ground.
Everything we do in life either brings us one step closer together or pushes us further apart.
Go Team Human.
Lies And The What What Now Now While livers and kidneys and stem cells do their surreptitious work, the rest of the world, friends, family and lovers from back home look on and ask of us the what what now now
Last week I told you no lies. But perhaps I was sparing with the truth.
I said that Thighs of Steel left Glasgow on 16 July and arrived in Athens on 17 September.
I also said that 95 cyclists rode a cumulative 71,337km over the course of 49 days.
But there’s a gap between the truth and the whole truth, right? You know what I mean.
In those 49 days, we didn’t quite cycle all the way from Glasgow to Athens — even after you excuse us the cross-Channel ferry.
We missed a bit.
Let me take you back to Dubrovnik and the beginning of Week 7.
Probably A Hill / Gravel / Borek
Covering the 800km between Dubrovnik, Croatia and Thessaloniki, Greece inside one week was always going to be a big ask.
And not just because of the distance.
The mountains of Montenegro, Albania and Macedonia barred our way to the cotton and pomegranate plains of northern Greece.
Oh, and all this on a route we’d never done before, on roads that could run out at any moment.
Naturally, it was hands-down the most popular week of the trip, selling out on day one on this hapless promise of unknowable adventure:
This is the week for people who LOVE not knowing what’s around the corner (clue: probably a hill / gravel / borek).
We’ve never been to North Macedonia before (have you?) so we’ve no idea what to expect, but the internet tells us it’s freakin’ gorgeous (if a bit hilly). We’re looking forward to the endless views and the bottomless mountain lakes.
As ever, we don’t know where we’re staying each night until that day, so we may be welcomed into homes, adopted by villages or wild camping beside a river. Expect to meet extremely friendly strangers and strangers who are extremely confused by us.
Before The Lake
After two days climbing through Montenegro, including the sixteen switchbacks of the Kotor Serpentine, we camped on the edge of Lake Shkodër, right on the border with Albania.
We arrived at camp in time to blow up the inflatable aubergine (yep), chuck a frisbee around in the shallows and then, because apparently we weren’t tired enough after a 97km ride, embark on a
leisurely grueling swim out to a rocky island.
About halfway across, I was reminded that, over water, however distant your destination seems to appear, you should triple it.
The evening sun hurt our backs, the lake weeds caught our strokes, the vast current clubbed our legs.
We struggled back from the island, crawled ashore like wet things from the Pleistocene, and collapsed into a pot of dinner as mosquitoes danced.
Within 15 hours of that ill-advised swim, I was fixed to a drip in an Albanian hospital while my friend was being jabbed in the butt with a needle of drugs.
After The Lake
We think we picked up the stomach bug from dirty water in the lake, but who knows.
What is certain is that, although almost everyone managed to cycle the 130km from Lake Shkodër to Tirana, by midnight all but five of the party were stricken.
There are no days off on Thighs of Steel, but there was no way we were going to cycle any further the next day.
Thighs of Steel, maybe, but bellies of jelly. Or worse.
A rest day was the only option.
Luckily, we had found a bucolic campsite up in the foothills of Mount Dajti, populated with ducks, chickens and a clutch of (now) horrified campervanners.
The proprieter was a jolly woman who, after seeing our condition, mocked us for not being able to handle our alcohol. When we revealed the true extent of our indisposition, she was appalled — until we explained that we’d picked up the bug in Montenegro.
‘Ah, Montenegro!’ she cackled. And restocked the toilet paper.
By the evening, most people were able to prop themselves up on an elbow and nibble a little plain pasta. A couple of us managed a game of Bananagrams. Some mad cats even cycled down to the city for a tour of the fleamarkets.
We called council and made the decision that anyone who could hold down the morning porridge could ride on the next day — with the proviso that Calypso, our beloved support van, would scoop up any strugglers.
But our recovery day meant we were travelling one day behind schedule.
In our fragile condition there was no way that we could make up the time, so, instead of reaching Thessaloniki on the seventh day, we ended the ride in Florina, a hot, flat ride over the border from Macedonia.
Then we caught a train.
In Thessaloniki, we snatched one last dinner together before saying our goodbyes.
The next day we welcomed the final week’s cyclists and rode six days to Athens.
5,304km from Glasgow, but somehow missing something…
Connecting The Dots
Why is it that we feel compelled to finish things?
Why, on Monday, did I feel compelled to take a train from Athens to Thessaloniki, meet fellow core teamer Fen, drive Calypso to Alexandreia, park her up in a quiet suburb and catch another train with our bikes to Florina — only to turn around after a night’s sleep and ride 124km (into a strong headwind) back to Alexandreia, thereby linking Week 7 to Week 8 and making an unbroken land route of 5,428km all the way from Glasgow to Athens?
I don’t know. But it felt really good. And not just because of roads like this:
It felt good to honour the ride that was a year in the making. It felt good to honour the other cyclists who couldn’t ride the full route during Week 7.
It felt good to take to the roads again and remember the purity of why we do this without the frantic circus that comes with riding in a large group.
It felt good to join the dots.
We have now raised £96,964 and if you want to help us join the dots to our £100,000 fundraising target for refugee solidarity charity MASS Action, you can donate here.
I know times are tough for pretty much everyone right now, but every donation makes a difference. Take these examples of what a donation could do for the Khora community spaces in Athens:
- £10 buys 20kg of fresh fruit and veg to serve at the Khora community kitchen, free for anyone who needs a hot meal with friendly faces
- £50 covers the costs of running the Khora Asylum Support Team for a day, providing vital, free legal support to asylum seekers in Athens
- £100 pays the electricity, water and gas bills at the Khora kitchen for a fortnight
- £250 covers food supplies needed at the Khora kitchen for a whole month
It does feel good to have connected the dots, to have finished a project. Like, really finished it.
But now, sitting improbably beneath a glacier, I’ve come to that other moment, where one project ends and I feel…
The What What Now Now
Well, the immediate what what now now is that I need to get to a secret location on the edge of the Morvan in central France. There, awaiting repair, is Calypso, fallen at the last, with oil spewing from her undercarriage.
But once the mechanics have been called, once the vehicle has been recovered, once she limps onto the ferry and makes her tired, troubled way back home, and I have, perhaps, showered and slept, then I will be faced with the what what now now.
Projects like Thighs of Steel take everything you’ve got, all thrown into a threshing machine, and scattered, in this case, across barren gravel tracks from the Clyde to the Acropolis.
During this grisly process, something powerful and enduring is created from the entrails of the various participants — no doubt about that — but it can take some time for everyone to regenerate.
In the meantime, while livers and kidneys and stem cells are doing their surreptitious work, the rest of the world, friends, family and lovers from back home look on and ask of us the what what now now.
The answer is I don’t know know now now.
But I do have some ideas, generated from a grid I made, which I’ll share because you might also find it useful if you’re having trouble figuring out your own what what now now.
To avoid jinxing all my nascent plans, here’s an empty one, drawn in the back of a notebook designed in Tehran, bought in Athens:
Get stuck in. Add or change the columns and rows until you have your own full-on personalised Zwicky Box of What What Now Now.
Thanks to everyone involved, to Fen and the tortoise, also to Tim Ten Yen, and of course The Much Much How How And I.
Not A Charity Auction 'Cycling together, reaching our destination and fundraising for refugees, brought everyone together and created a sense of intimacy that’s very difficult to find.'
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 🥰
The second century followers of the gnostic Carpocrates believed that human souls must go through every possible earthly experience before they are released and return to god’s side in heaven.
For most ordinary people, this means reincarnation after reincarnation as they labour through tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich, poor, beggar, thief. But the Carpocratians tried to pack everything — absolutely everything — into a single lifetime.
I know how they feel.
Thighs of Steel is an undertaking of Carpocratian magnitude and the last month has seen a total of 48 cyclists riding 2611km from Glasgow to Milan.
Over a hundred kilometres a day, packed into twenty-five heatdawn, overdrawn days.
So please accept my sincere apologies for not writing to you the last couple of weeks.
I am now taking a break from cycling while the ride continues from Milan to Dubrovnik without me.
This break will be amply — even excessively — filled with the frantic gathering of thoughts as I seek to process what on earth has happened over the past month.
I’m writing today from a farmhouse near Garlasco, a quiet town in a quiet corner of Lombardy, totally unremarkable to the locals, but nevertheless subject to a constant stream of remarks from me and my British companions, evenly split by topic between the heavenly pizza and the hellish mosquitoes.
Since I last wrote, our fundraising cyclists have covered every inch of the road (and sometimes gravel) between Bristol and Milan.
The change in scenery has been mildly dramatic:
Putting those two photos side by side gives an impression of distinct and dramatic movement. One moment your eyes are on the downs, the next on the Alps.
It looks like a clear and obvious turning point: that moment in a story where everything changes forever.
But that’s in stories.
On a bike ride, change is infinitesimal and incremental and our wheels are always turning.
Between that first and second photograph, we got up out of our tents, ate breakfast, did some cycling, ate some food, did some more cycling, drank our water bottles, refilled our water bottles, did more cycling, put on sun cream, did more cycling, ate dinner, went to sleep, woke up, got up out of our tents, ate breakfast, did some cycling, ate some food…
For two weeks.
There are no turning points — except those we choose to recognise after the fact for the purpose of understanding our lives, for telling our story.
Making sense of our experiences is one of the reasons I love writing to you and why it’s a shame in a way that the past three weeks have been so full of life.
I wonder if the Carpocratians allowed themselves any time to process, or whether ‘storyteller’ fell outside their definition of earthly experience.
Writing gives us a moment to put down a marker, recognise some turning point in experience or learning, and help us understand how what we’re doing fits into the universe at this moment in space/time.
So here are four turning points from this journey, one for each week of the ride so far.
Glasgow to Bristol: A Short Ride Across Town
The two months before this ride began were stressful.
In the manic weeks in the run-up to our departure, I wrote myself (and you) letters about the electromagnetism of responsibility and the need to replace control with trust, but I still arrived in Glasgow with a sneeze-cold.
Thirty blood tests, five Covid tests and two courses of antibiotics did nothing to alleviate the stress I felt, nor resolve the question uppermost in my mind: forget the century of cyclists signed up to ride, would I be able to take care of myself over the next 5,000km?
I needed, or thought I needed, a holiday.
Then, before we were anywhere near ready, it was already time to cycle across town to meet the first week’s cyclists at Glasgow youth hostel.
Spinning wheels, one, two, three kilometres. Friday rushhour, Clyde summer sunshine, giddy core team.
This short ride turned inertia to momentum, old questions to new, and blind doubt to blind faith.
By the time we crossed into Dumfries and Galloway, the stress was gone. The sneezes followed stress into the wind the next day.
Bristol to Paris: Cheese On Toast
That first week was tough. Thighs of Steel had never ridden so far in a week before: 754km with an Everest of climbing. In a heatwave.
But we had done it.
Together we had done it — and we had raised a lot of money in solidarity with refugees in the process. Most of the cyclists on the Glasgow to Bristol leg raised over £1,000 each.
In the heat of the struggle, the cycling had taken every ounce of our strength, while daily disasters had taken every ounce of our ingenuity and saying goodbye to fast firm friendships had taken every ounce of our social emotional energy.
And now we had to do it all over again, with ten complete strangers.
The turning point of this second week was relearning how quickly we humans can go from utterly depleted to utterly repleted.
Hunger draining our legs. Heat draining our minds. Off-road gravel draining bashed bikes. Then a smashed GPS screen.
We freewheel downhill to a cafe marked as ‘open’ on the map. Desperation for water-fillers and stomach-fillers.
Back up the hill, in silence.
They only serve cheese on toast.
No matter: water at least, tea at least, shade at least.
But wait. This isn’t cheese. This is Cheese. This isn’t a cafe, this is The Milk Churn, home of Sussex Charmer.
Fifteen cyclists tucked well in. Even the vegans. Powered all the way to Lovebrook.
Turning point: there is nothing that can’t be fixed by comfort food. (Except perhaps smashed GPS computer screens: for that you’ll need Laka cycle insurance.)
It’s not inconceivable that the success of the first week from Glasgow to Bristol was a fluke. But Bristol to Paris showed us that the Thighs method works.
Fresh croissants at dawn, demi-bottles of lunchtime wine, massage circles at sundown.
Something in the alchemy of the way Thighs of Steel was founded attracts people with not only a strong, positive and collaborative work ethic, but one that’s paired with equal parts joy.
Paris to Lyon: Pineapple Chess
Sometimes the most signficant turning points are scarcely more than a dramatic inflection, an almost imperceptible change of emphasis, but one that leaves an important, lasting impression on our experience.
Paris to Lyon was exactly that, for me at least. It was fun, actual fun, cycling with friends old and new for a week through Comté, Beaujolais and Tour de France country.
Days in the hot saddle chatting shit, inventing songs, playing games: ‘I’ve got a business’, one word stories, Pineapple Chess. Nights wild camping under stars, nuzzled by donkeys, rescue piglets and other tame animals.
That’s not to say that it wasn’t a tough week. But when you’re having fun, things just flow, right?
It’s a virtuous circle of energy: other people love to gather around fun and, when people gather together, problems get solved easily, almost before anyone’s noticed there was ever a problem.
That was the turning point of Paris to Lyon. And, if you want the rules to Pineapple Chess, you’ll have to donate 😂
Every penny goes into our MASS Action fundraiser in solidarity with refugees, asylum seekers and other people on the move across Europe.
Lyon to Milan: No Ikaría
I was worried about crossing the Alps on my bicycle.
The Scottish Lowlands, the Lake District and Hay Bluff are one thing: the French and Italian Alps are quite another. Not helped by the realisation that I hadn’t even taken a dump on a serious mountain range since, ooh… 1990.
Now: I’ve always been proud of my heavyweight cruiser of a bicycle, but with some of the others riding carbon, I was a little nervous to be giving away an eight kilo handicap before we even left the start line.
I was so worried, in fact, that my bowels occupied the first 24 hours of the week unavoidably voiding themselves and I was forced to spend the first long, hot, flat day in the van.
But early the next morning, sitting in the Alpine garden of our hosts Pierre and Pascal (found through slow travel hosting site Welcome To My Garden), madly trying to swallow down the prospect of more than 2,000m of climbing in the day, I decided to seek inspiration from all the other tough rides I’ve ever done.
As I shoveled soothing porridge into my belly, I searched Strava, where I record most of my ride data, by elevation climbed.
I was pleasantly surprised. The rides I did last year through Cornwall and Devon were similar total elevation and, in fact, steeper climbs.
But nothing in the Alps — nothing — could be tougher, or even be close to being as tough as the ride I’d done three years ago on the Greek island of Ikaria: nearly 3,000m of steep climbing, in hot summer sun, increasingly off road.
The Alps, I decided, with their smooth roads and steady switchbacks, would be a cinch.
And so it proved.
Okay, so ‘cinch’ might sound like an overstatement, but when you’re riding in a generous community, always ready with a joke, a song or a word of encouragement, the metres and miles dissolve into the road.
And, besides, even in the toughest moments, there’s always the scenery.
It’s fair to say that I started out on this journey pretty worried. As an organiser, worried about all the things that could go wrong with the ride, but also increasingly worried about whether I personally would have the strength to see it through.
The last time I was part of the Thighs of Steel core team, back in 2019, I was also worried — and amazed, amazed to discover that, rather than being depleted, exhausting day by exhausting day, sleepless night by sleepless night, my strength only grew over the weeks, until I was fit to burst as we rode into Athens.
But 2019 was a long time ago. Much has changed. Would those wells run so deep?
As we rolled on and on, I was relieved. They do.
Humans are amazingly adaptable animals and even our relentless routine — early starts, big climbs, late nights — has become quotidian, tapping into fathomless reservoirs of energy that my daily life never needs.
And I’m not special. This isn’t something unique that my brainbody does.
As we sweated and strained our way up to the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, dominating in gold and glass the skyline of Lyon, one of the cyclists remarked: ‘I can’t wait to go on more adventures like this — now I know what I’m capable of!’
Because I’m an irritating contrarian, I had to disagree with her.
‘No you don’t. That’s the whole point. You’ve cycled 600km in six days, in a heatwave, and you still haven’t hit the wall. You have no idea what you’re capable of.’
And learning that is one hell of a turning point.
What must terrify us most as humans is not how little can be done, not how powerless or puny our lives are, but rather how great and signficant, especially when we join together and reach for limits out of reach.
Have you hit the wall? Have you reached your limit?
I don’t believe you.
Philoxenia and the Magic Cobbler
For the next couple of months I’m cycling to Athens, as part of Europe’s longest charity bike ride.
5,000km, a hundred people, through ten countries, over nine weeks gives me a lot of time to experience things, but not a lot of time to write things.
Today I happened to wake up at 5am — so here we all are!
We started the ride last Saturday morning and yesterday we finished the first leg, arriving in Bristol in an absolute ecstasy of a downpour, raindrops the size of popcorn.
You can follow the ride on the Thighs Instagram, Facebook or my own personal agony, ecstasy and knee cramp via the Strava updates on my fundraising page. (Ahem.)
Philoxenia is the wonderful Greek concept of generosity and friendship towards strangers, guests, gods, gods in disguise, foreigners, travellers and friends of friends of cousins of friends.
I’ve written before about philoxenia and my own solo experiences of bicycle touring (here and here), but, when travelling with sixteen other cyclists and a bloody great van, the generosity of strangers towards strangers that we receive rises to truly Homeric standards.
It’s hard — impossible — to pay tribute to myriad of kindnesses, large and small, seen and unseen, that the people of Glasgow, Dumfries and Galloway, Cumbria, Lancashire, Shropshire and Wales showered down upon us over the past 750km, but here are a few that rise to mind this morning.
June in Hesket Newmarket who let us use her campsite free of charge, ‘Consider it my donation’, her fridge-temperature bathroom papered with sheep-based cartoons and proud newspaper cuttings of Prince Charles.
The elderly woman in Windermere who wasn’t quite sure how to use her garden hose, but, once shown, took over the task of hosing down our oven-hot cyclists with a cackling child-like relish.
Steve The Magic Cobbler in Preston who not only sorted us out with a new set of van keys (don’t ask), but also performed card tricks while we waited.
Paula, Paula, Pauline and Keith at The Kathleen & May Heritage Museum in Connah’s Quay for letting us doss on their floor, surrounded by exhibits on the River Dee and the local paint industry. Thanks too for the fried-up breakfast butties that put our porridge to shame.
Fathomless thanks to the communities at Claver Hill and Three Pools who hosted us in Lancaster and Abergavenny, and to Phil and Bec who Warmshowered us on the hills overlooking Offa’s Dyke near Montgomery. If you’ll have us, we’ll be back.
Joe at Rogue Welsh Cakes for donating three dozen exquisite Welsh cakes. I wish I could say that they’d been savoured, but after seven straight days of cycling, they were mainly devoured as delicious calories. Luckily, Joe does postal orders for easy at-home savouring.
In fact: thank you to all the strangers who heard about the ride and handed us cash donations in solidarity with refugees, asylum seekers and other people forced from their homes. The purest form of philoxenia: stranger to never met stranger.
All the pub landlords who patiently filled our water bottles and waved us in to empty our bursting bladders. There are now fewer than 40,000 pubs in England and Wales for the first time since the opening of the Domesday Book (probably).
Even as someone who doesn’t drink much, that feels like a bit of a shame, particularly for the countryside communities that we cycled through. We’ll keep on buying chips and Scampi Fries.
Finally: thanks to the rivers and lakes, the woods and fields, the mountains and valleys, the road and hedgerow, the wing, feather, snout, hoof and fur, the wild and the tame that swaddled us all in gentle cradle, wrapping the journey in threaded cloth of nurture and nature.