Turkish Delight falls out of the sky If a picture speaks a thousand words, then each one of those letters yells a poem.

There are only three more days of cycling left before we finish spelling out Refugees Welcome in the largest bike-powered GPS drawing the world has ever hypothetically seen.

After 1,905km and 24,118m of climbing elevation, this is what we’ve got so far:

We’ve done ‘we’, we’ve done ‘u’. There’s only ‘me’ left.

If a picture speaks a thousand words, then each one of those letters yells a poem.

Where Refugees was all about doing the distance and spreading the word, Welco has been all about other people, other cyclists and other fundraisers.

Georgie and I have been thrust into the background, supporting artists of an all-star ensemble cast. Humble van drivers, camp strikers, porridge stirrers.

We’ve hosted 27 cyclists so far, with another 27 to join us on the M and the final E. The energy of all those humans makes everything and anything possible. Whether that’s quite literally climbing Steep Hill…

Or dealing with the aftermath of an ominous popping sound when changing lanes on a dual carriageway…

This was first thing on Monday morning, ten minutes after waving off the ‘O’ cyclists at Falmer Station. I was hungry and needed the toilet, but felt like the first thing I should do is report the incident to the RAC.

I barely had enough time to find a toilet and buy a cuppa before Mark rattled up in his roadside recovery vehicle.

Mark’s ‘little trick’ involving a ball of steel wire didn’t do the job, so he towed Calypso to the inestimable PJE Automotive. But, as I watched Calypso and all our camping kit vanish into the pale distance, six hungry mouths were cycling inexorably towards a forest camp, expecting tents, clothes and a birthday dinner.

I walked back to Kemptown, where Thighs Core Team stalwart Bobby lived in a former Pupil Referral Unit. Bobby lent us a backup backup van (Harold) and he quickly talked me through its vagaries — the fuel pump, the shoulder shove to unlock the back, the steering wheel lock.

As I was pulling out of the Pupil Referral Unit, Bobby added one final warning: ‘Don’t panic if Turkish Delight falls out of the sky. A friend of ours hid thousands of them in every nook and cranny of the van and they have a habit of appearing unexpectedly.’

I screeched off into the Brighton traffic, only realising halfway into a snarl up that I hadn’t eaten lunch and it was almost four o’clock. At that very moment, braking into the red lights, a packet of Turkish Delight fell from the overhead mirrors.

I made it to PJE Automotive about half an hour before closing. Calypso was already being worked on. Three mechanics swarmed her undercarriage in a flurry of fixingness.

This was a heartening sight, bar one minor detail: Calypso was three metres up and I needed, not only everyone’s tents and bags, but also two cooking rings, an incredibly heavy gas canister, the crockery and cutlery and three crates of food, including a surprise Colin the Caterpillar birthday cake for Georgie.

So began an impressive recovery operation of an altogether different kind. As I shouted vague instructions from ground level, a tottering mechanic on an extendable ladder liberated as much of our kit as he could get his hands on.

It would have to do. I threw almost everyone’s tents, practically all of their bags and pretty much most of the cooking stuff into the back of Harold and, finally, headed for the forest.

A couple of hours later, Georgie was blowing the candles off Clive the Caterpillar (IT WAS A FAKE!) among a circle of friends — many of whom were at least partially dressed in their own clothes — as if this was exactly how we’d planned it all along.

This is what Thighs of Steel is all about: the collective pushing those pedals. Doing things that we never thought we could.

The clutch now moves ‘like butter’. I can hear the sound of chopping knives from the kitchen. Bobby has lit a fire on the beach. We’re ready for the last rides of the summer.

Brighton Palace Pier at sunset. At dawn, we ride again…

Talking politics with strangers Approaching a stranger to ask for their signature and contact details is pretty daunting when you think there’s a 50/50 chance that they’ll hate everything about you.

On Wednesday, we stayed with the wonderful Christine and Hayden in Alton (home of Sweet FA). We shovelled down a spectacular dinner in double quick time: Christine had invited a circle of friends to listen to our stories from the road.

I hadn’t prepared a Powerpoint, so instead I gave a impromptu bugle recital and a depressing speech about the Nationality and Borders Bill.

One of the high points of this bike trip is having conversations about immigration and asylum with the people we meet.

It’s great that everyone knows at least vaguely what’s going on in Afghanistan at the moment, but not so many people understand how our government is ripping up the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees.

So here’s my bullet point digest for you to share with friends:

  • The new Nationality and Borders Bill is in direct contravention of the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees. This strikes me as a bit of a shame, given that the UK was one of only ten original signatories of this landmark document.
  • The new Bill creates a two-tiered asylum system that distinguishes claims based on the means of entry to the UK rather than by whether the human being entering is actually in need of asylum. This prejudice is explicitly forbidden by Article 31 of the 1951 Convention.
  • Should the new Bill pass, the only admissable refugees will be the few who arrive here on painfully limited resettlement schemes. For example, the government has committed to resettle 20,000 Afghans over ‘the coming years’.
  • The UK currently stands in nineteenth place in the European league table of asylum applications per capita of population, below Greece, Germany, France, Spain, Sweden, Belgium, Slovenia, Switzerland, Austria, Malta, Italy, Finland… You get the point.
  • Even if the government’s resettlement promises can be trusted — which they manifestly can’t — the new Bill would send the UK spiralling even further down the list of safe nations for those fleeing war.
  • Furthermore, under the new Bill, those who enter the UK ‘irregularly’ — i.e. without a passport and visa — will have their asylum cases deemed ‘inadmissable’ and the government will try to deport them.
  • If you are a refugee, it is essentially impossible to enter the UK with a passport and visa. Do you imagine those fleeing Afghanistan had time to apply for a visa on their way out? The result: the asylum claim of every refugee coming to this country under their own steam will be ‘inadmissable’.
  • If the government simply can’t get rid of them (because their freakin homes are on fire!), then these people will be allowed to apply for asylum… but…
  • Even if these irregular arrivals are ultimately awarded refugee status, they will never be given the right to settle here and will be regularly reassessed for removal. Again: this prejudice is explicitly forbidden by the 1951 Convention because it’s manifestly unfair.

The British were very successful at promulgating the myth that their Empire was founded on good will and fair play. This was always a gargantuan lie, but it’s a lie that this government seems particularly eager to expose with the extraordinary cruelty and arbitrary injustice of its Nationality and Borders Bill.

Every time we stop the GPS for a bike break — lunch wraps, punctures, bedtime — we need to get our logbook signed off by a member of the public. This means that we talk to a lot of people about what we’re doing.

At the beginning of the trip, we were both a bit worried about discussing refugees with any old stranger on the street.

The anti-immigration, anti-asylum right wing press is the most popular in the country and, naturally, we thought that these newspapers would reflect the views of their readers. Not only that, but the elected government of this country is run by a man that the BBC can, without fear of slander, describe as ‘a liar and a racist’.

Therefore, basic probability told us that a good chunk of our unsuspecting witnesses would hold strong, negative views on the right of refugees to claim asylum in this country.

Approaching a stranger to ask for their signature and contact details is pretty daunting when you think there’s a 50/50 chance that they’ll hate everything about what you’re doing.

As the trip has gone on, however, we’ve come to the heartening conclusion that The Daily Mail and the Conservative Party can’t possibly reflect the real views of the people of this country.

We’ve not done a survey, but it’s statistically fantastic that zero of the 114 people in our witness book neither read the country’s most popular newspapers nor vote for the most popular political party.

Yet the vast majority of people we’ve met on this bike ride show great compassion towards those forced to flee their homes. Indeed: most people tell us that they think the government should be doing more to help.

This government, and the billionaire-owned press that goads them on, are not only heartlessly vindictive, but they foment a social atmosphere that divides us and makes us scared to share our true political beliefs with each other.

This trip has not only given me the strength to approach strangers and open up political conversations, but also the confidence that they won’t rip my head off. Far from it.

If we are going to defeat the Nationality and Borders Bill — and the countless others that this government are yet to write — then we need to be able to trust each other.

This bike trip has shown me that we can.

So let’s.

‘We identify ourselves as human beings’ If it passes without amendment, the Nationality and Borders Bill will put UK law in direct opposition to the 1951 Geneva Convention by criminalising people who arrive on these shores without a visa — even when they have a legitimate claim for asylum under international law.

On Monday I will hop onto a train and then into a car and travel down to St Austell for the beginning of the second longest bike ride of my life and the first that has required more than a few days’ planning.

Spell It Out, a 2,400km world record-breaking ride across the south of England, began as a hypothetical exercise during the Thighs of Steel Adventure Inventor application process back in March. Finally, after five months of intense communication, organisation and logistics, the cycling begins.

It’s a huge relief.

Compared to the uncertainty of sitting in front of a computer screen trying to convince people to go on a long bike ride, actually going on that long bike ride will feel like a doddle. Even when the elevation chart looks like this:

Since we launched the Spell It Out fundraiser in May, over fifty cyclists have collectively raised more than £24,600 for Choose Love. We’re still some way off our target of £100,000, but I can feel the momentum building: we’ve raised nearly a grand in the past twenty-four hours.

~

I had an interesting chat this morning with a friend who works for Fat Macy’s, a wonderful social enterprise currently raising funds to open a new training academy in East London.

We were talking about how charities, social enterprises and other projects that do what we called ‘meaningful work’ get funding, bemoaning the fact that it often depends on the indulgence of wealthy individuals or companies.

‘High net worth’ funders are the lifeblood of many charities and their directors and trustees will spend a significant amount of their time schmoozing with those who have spent their lives earning the big bucks and now want to ‘give something back’.

Thighs of Steel has always been different. We don’t actively seek wealthy backers and we deliberately set our ticket prices low, widening participation to include people who are unlikely to have high net worth networks of privilege.

We think it is important that we have ninety cyclists with big hearts rather than ten cyclists with deep pockets.

Because human beings are important.

~

Researching this story earlier today, I was struck by the words of lawyer Jack Pelele, writing on Refugee Action about his experience as a refugee in the UK asylum system:

We must remember that behind our numbers and the fateful journeys we go through, we are people who have dreams, identify ourselves as human beings who were once useful to ourselves and our communities and can still be. Our value and worth do not end in victimhood or burden to those from whom we seek sanctuary.

Hang on — ‘we identify ourselves as human beings’ — I’m sorry, but how othered do you have to feel before you find yourself forced to assert your very humanity?

Well, funny you should ask. You see, Spell It Out has taken on a whole new level of urgency in recent weeks, as the government pushes forward with its barbaric overhaul of the asylum system.

If it passes without amendment, the Nationality and Borders Bill will put UK law in direct opposition to the 1951 Geneva Convention by criminalising people who arrive on these shores without a visa — even when they have a legitimate claim for asylum under international law.

In practice, there are no legal routes to asylum in the UK. And the only alternatives to legal routes to asylum are illegal. This government, and the right wing press, depend on this tauntology to justify their existence.

Tightening border control forces people into ever more desperate and dangerous routes to safety and the proposed bill will not only criminalise refugees themselves, but also any organisations or individuals who try to offer them safe harbour — including the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.

And this comes on top of an asylum system that is already founded on detention and destitution.

How’s that for othering?

~

Thighs of Steel aren’t politicians, we’re not law-makers — we’re cyclists.

Over the next month, forty more cyclists will hit the road and help us create the world’s largest ever GPS drawing, on a route that spells out ‘Refugees Welcome’ from Cornwall to Kent.

Without big money backers, our ninety-plus cyclists depend on a solidarity network of hundreds, thousands of friends and followers stumping up £5, £10, £50 of their hard-earned.

It’s true that one millionaire can single-handedly transform the fortunes of a struggling project stripped of funding by the pandemic.

But thousands of small-time donors generate enough energy to show the world that the people of Britain still believe in compassion to those facing tragedy.

We think that’s important.

Because we also identify as human beings.

DONATE HERE

~

Many thanks to everyone who are making Spell It Out possible: the hard-working Thighs of Steel clan; the hosts we’ll be staying with, from Warmshowers and Workaways to farmers and friends; St Austell Holy Trinity Church for helping us with our Grand Depart and Migrant Help for meeting us at the finish line in Dover.

And, of course, bottomless thanks to the ninety-plus Thighs of Steel cyclists — and their donors — who are doing what they can.

Join us, if you can.

No more ‘hostile environment’ We need to tell Priti Patel and this government that our country will always stand for tolerance and compassion and that we will continue to offer a safe haven for those fleeing their homes

Spell It Out is a 2,400km bike ride along the south coast of Britain that follows a quixotic route which will spell out the words—well, I’ll let you see for yourselves:

Yes – that is an actual bike route. Credit: GC and OKH!

The ride, organised by Thighs of Steel (obvs), is a direct response to our government’s creation of a ‘hostile environment’ for refugees.

Priti Patel is right now rushing through an overhaul of UK asylum law that will put us in direct opposition to the 1951 Geneva Convention on refugees, closing down legal routes to the UK for those fleeing political and religious persecution as well as those who are trying to join family and friends already in this country. What does she think these people will do instead?

It’s a complete horror show.

We need to tell Priti Patel and this pettifogging government that our country will always stand for tolerance and compassion and that we will continue to offer a safe haven for those fleeing their homes. We are stronger together and the tide will turn.

Join us any time—12 June to 26 September

If you would like to join Spell It Out as a fundraising cyclist, then hop on over to the Thighs of Steel website. You can sign up to ride any of the letters (100-240km each), with anyone you like, at any point between 12 June and 26 September. The more people who take part, the bigger our voice and the bigger our positive impact.

If you would like to show your support, then please share the website or crack open your wallet / PayPal and donate to my fundraising page (live now!). All of your money will go directly to organisations that offer refugees the warm welcome that our government withholds: legal advice, psychological counselling, vocational training, language lessons and more.

What’s this about a Guinness World Record?!

The 2,400km route will also be the world’s biggest ever GPS drawing by bike, smashing the previous record by about 1,600km.

We’re still thrashing out the logistical details, but please reply to this email if you’re interested in helping us break a world record—we’ll need cyclists, van drivers and overnight hosts across the south of England. Watch this space…