Why Mahmoud wears cologne

The incidental benefits of cycle touring are well known: fitness, tan-lines, an insatiable appetite. But I think I can say without fear of contradiction that cycle touring isn’t particularly famous for its promotion of good personal hygiene.

This year, I am proud to be a part of the Thighs of Steel core team for the glory run to Athens. During those last three weeks of riding, I’ll probably have only 8 showers and wash my clothes twice. Most days, I’ll wake up in the sweat I accumulated the day before, and step into the clothes still encrusted with grime from yesterday’s riding.

Most days, our only chance to scrub will be in rivers, lakes and perhaps under a bucket. Shampoo, perfume and pomade are, for most of us, redundant.

But not for all of us.

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Mahmoud couldn’t actually cycle, but joined the van team for two weeks from Paris to the Pyrenees. He couldn’t ride because of a long-term knee injury sustained during the Syrian war. He now lives in Germany.

One thing you should know about Mahmoud is that he is very particular about his personal hygiene. Every morning, he combs wax through his styled hair. He applies perfume to neck and wrists, and coats himself in a layer of antiperspirant.

Where most of us have perhaps one change, Mahmoud seems to have a bottomless wardrobe of crisp, clean clothes. He refuses to swim in our wonderfully wild rivers and lakes because the water is dirty. It’s a fair point, and one that he emphasises with good old soap and tap water.

He does everything he can to hold back the inevitable tides of sweat and grime that two weeks’ camping set down. His careful preening is a good-humoured joke. Good-humoured because he wears his fashion lightly; a joke because, standing next to us cyclists, he looks superb.

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‘I had days where I slept with the blood of other people on my body,’ Mahmoud says. ‘Because you sleep when you are tired, you don’t care about yourself. You can’t imagine the dirt – sometimes I slept in some shit.’

We’re sitting on an artful block of concrete on the banks of the Garonne in Bordeaux and Mahmoud is explaining why he is such a stickler for cleanliness.

‘Because of this trauma – why do I have to be dirty? Why do I have to smell?’ His voice rises in incredulity that anyone would choose dirt.

‘Everything is in my hands now. I don’t want to go back to those days. I have a developed nose and any smell could bring me flashback – I don’t want any flashback.’

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‘I feel like cleanliness makes me trust myself more,’ Mahmoud explains. ‘If somebody smells in front of me, I take a step back.’

As a refugee, Mahmoud feels like ‘the whole society has taken a step back from me already.’ He doesn’t need to add bad hygiene to the repulsion.

Mahmoud met Harri and Annie, two of the brains behind Thighs of Steel, at a grassroots community centre in Athens. ‘At Khora, everyone was lovely,’ Mahmoud says. ‘Fucking amazing lovely people. But Khora was a small world, really.’

The small world of fucking amazing lovely people doesn’t care whether you’re a refugee, whether you’re dirty or smell bad, or are dressed in cheap clothes. But the big world does.

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‘The big world really doesn’t like you, really doesn’t want you, and doesn’t accept you,’ Mahmoud says. ‘So I have to do what other Syrians do. They spend money to wear Adidas, to wear Gucci – why? To fit into the society, so people know they have money, so people stop judging them. You cannot afford Gucci if you are not working.’

‘I could lie to myself and say everyone is nice – no. People smile in front of your face, but they don’t like you. They smile in front of your face for the society. Do you think that everyone talks to me nicely?’

‘For me, to look good and to be clean could help me in front of society. People might accept me.’

~

Thighs of Steel is Europe’s biggest charity relay bike ride, taking 9 weeks to cover the 6,000km from London to Athens, with a frankly silly detour via the Pyrenees to make it more than 90,000m climbing over three of the continent’s toughest mountain ranges.

Over the past four years, Thighs of Steel supporters have raised more than a quarter of a million pounds for grassroots refugee organisations like Khora. Already this year we’ve raised more than £50,000.

If you want to help…

If you have any trouble donating, let me know – the website isn’t always the friendliest. Thanks!

The Trials and Tribulations of Van Days Thighs of Steel 2019

Being part of the core team for Thighs of Steel this year is a very different experience to riding the full week as a fundraiser. Mainly because I spent two of the six days driving Calypso, the team’s support van.

That’s not to say that van days are easy. There’s an intimidating list of jobs that need to be done:

  • Pack up the campsite
  • Plan a meal and buy food for dinner
  • Drive ~120km (on the wrong side of the road)
  • Find the perfect wild camping spot for ~15 cyclists, not too far from the pre-planned route, but quiet, secluded, flat enough for tent-pitching, and ideally close to a river or lake for swimming
  • Cook the perfect camp dinner

A dozen hot and hungry cyclists depend on the van team getting this right. Oh – and you have to do all of this while feeling like absolute crap.

It is an unfortunate side effect of long distance cycling that your body mistakenly believes that van days are rest days. The body shuts down, the mind follows suit.

I felt like an extremely hot zombie. This was not great news, especially as I was driving and my French was in high demand to help secure us a wild camp site.

But on Thighs of Steel miracles happen. Indeed, the ride depends on miracles, almost every single day.

I’d been warned that finding wild camping for a dozen cyclists and a humungous van is the hardest part of the job. The plan is completely reliant on some kindly farmer, landowner or mayor taking pity on our ridiculous endeavour and letting us camp on their land.

After all, what would you do if you saw a circle of chairs, filled by dirty-faced foreigners, set up in your orchard?

But, in more than 20 weeks of touring, only once have Thighs of Steel been asked to move on. It is a daily miracle. Thank you, kind-hearted people of Europe.

With the help of my co-driver, I rang the doorbell of a likely-looking landowner, not far off route. We’d spotted a campervan parked in a closely-mown field behind his house.

With the help of his excitable dog, the owner was roused. He opened the door, and the dog bolted for freedom.

The man apologised, but couldn’t help: the owner of the field was in Belgium. He suggested that we ask the mayor, gave us directions to the town hall, and started calling for his lost dog.

We drove Calypso up to the quaint village Mairie. It felt like we were parking our tank on their lawn.

I began in faltering French: ‘We are 12 cyclists looking for wild camping…’ And, hallelujah, it was as if he’d been expecting us. ‘I have the perfect place,’ he smiled.

What followed felt like the oral part of my GCSE French exam: ‘At the crossroads go straight on and follow the road for 3km. You’ll see a low, white wall, with a gap in the middle. Go down this track, over a disused railway line through a wood, and then over a small bridge into a field.’

I follow the directions with apprehensive nodding. The mayor finishes by kisses his fingers: ‘And the river is perfect for bathing!’

We took his address to send a thank you card from Athens, and then drive out – slightly nervous – to our campsite.

To my astonishment, I’d understood his flawless directions and we found the field atop a tiny island, split by lazy turns of the river. Fishermen dabbled in the shallows and a paddleboard drifted past.

It was perfect (especially when the insects clear off).

We set up chairs in a circle, looking out at the sun dunking itself into the stream away to the west. We set the pot boiling with a vegetable curry.

Half an hour later, the cyclists arrive, stinking of joy, bells a-ringing. It’s only then that we notice the chairs are arranged in a perfect ring around a single, plump dog turd.


Thighs of Steel is Europe’s biggest charity relay bike ride, taking 9 weeks to cover the 6,000km from London to Athens, with a frankly silly detour via the Pyrenees to make it more than 90,000m climbing over three of the continent’s toughest mountain ranges.

So far, the cyclists and supporters of Thighs of Steel 2019 have raised over £38,000 £50,000 for Help Refugees.

If you want to help keep the lights on at grassroots refugee organisations across Europe, you could do a lot worse than contribute to my page here.

THANK YOU. I promise all donors something delightful by the end of the year…

Talk Migration: Help Refugees

Last Sunday morning, more than 40 people crammed into a wide circle to ‘talk migration’ under the wooden beams of Impact Hub in Kings Cross.

Talk Migration was a day of talks and discussion around the topics of migration, borders and refugee rights, organised by Thighs of Steel.

Every year, Thighs of Steel cyclists come together to fundraise for grassroots refugee organisations around Europe. In 2019 they are aiming to raise £100,000 with their legendary London to Athens relay ride.

A bicycle bell called us to order and the smiles rang out…


We started the day with a talk by Philly, one of the founders of refugee support charity Help Refugees.

Help Refugees started as nothing more than a heartfelt response to the growing humanitarian crisis in Calais in the summer of 2015. A few friends and a crowdfunder aiming to raise £1000.

A week later, they’d raised over £50,000, and were receiving 7,000 donations a day – tents, sleeping bags, clothes, toiletries. They rented a warehouse in London, another in Calais, and Help Refugees was born.

Almost 4 years later, Help Refugees are now supporting more than 80 grassroots projects in 12 countries.

This year, 120 Thighs of Steel cyclists are aiming to raise £100,000 for Help Refugees. The funds will be split between grassroots organisations along the Thighs of Steel London to Athens cycle route.

Campaigns Help Refugees support in the UK


Thank you to Thighs of Steel for putting on Talk Migration, a day of talks and discussion around the topics of migration, borders and refugee rights.

If you want to support Help Refugees, then you could do a lot worse than donate to my Thighs of Steel fundraising page 😀

oh merde it’s a FUNDRAISING LAUNCH!!

Click here to cut the crap and go straight to my Help Refugees donation page…

This summer I’ll be cycling ~1,800km from Rome to Athens because I vehemently believe that borders are really dumb.

Everyone should be able to roam the earth freely and that’s why I support the work that Help Refugees are doing to help stateless human beings get a foothold in life.

As one of the lucky, lucky people on earth who haven’t had their home village bombed to pieces, I like to do what I can to support those who aren’t so fortunate. If that involves cycling an awfully long way in 35 degree heat, then so be it.

If you think that helping refugees is a generally good idea, then I’d be super grateful if you could donate whatever you can afford.

Click this link to make that happen.

Having visited projects supported by Help Refugees all over Europe, I can reassure you that the work they do is of immense practical support to actual human beings every day. (I’ve published a lot of these stories on my blog – drop me a line if you want a direct link.)

Thank you in advance for being so generous! And stay tuned because your donation will get you free entry to a very exciting thingy that we’re planning for the start of July….

Oh now you’re interested! (Donate by card or Paypal…)


+++ There’s still time to join this year’s ride. Maybe London to Paris, or Milan to Venice? If you want to ride with yours truly, then sign up for Rome-Bari or Corfu-Athens!

Thighs of Steel: A Community on Wheels

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. Continue reading Thighs of Steel: A Community on Wheels

Thighs of Steel: Ljubljana to Sofia

How do you sum up two weeks of doing almost nothing but cycling and refuelling?

We’ve cycled from Ljubljana in Slovenia, through the hills of Croatia, the plains of Hungary and the free ice creams of Romania to Sofia in Bulgaria. That’s about 80 miles a day for 12 days, with one day off in the middle to stumble around Timisoara in a daze and eat.

Sitting here now, in the cool of the shade of a fig tree, it’s time to wonder what will stay with me. Memories being what they are, what I write in the next 20 minutes may very well come to define my whole experience. So strap on your safety goggles and let’s see what comes. Continue reading Thighs of Steel: Ljubljana to Sofia

A Morning in the Life of a Steely Thighed Cyclist

0505: Wake up needing the toilet. Hold it in.
0515: Alarm. Switch off with eyes tightly shut.
0520: Open eyes. Stretch out back in child’s pose on air mattress. Fantasise about a spa day. Search for glasses.
0525: Struggle into shorts from yesterday. They are damp. Start packing away unused sleeping bag. Keep searching for glasses.
0530: Pack away sleeping mat and other camping detritus in hope of finding glasses.
0535: Emerge from the tent into the morning dew. Wipe hands on grass and rub into face. Fetch shovel and biodegradable toilet paper from Calypso (the van) and find a suitable patch of ground for the morning constitutional. On the way back, make a cursory hunt for glasses.
0536: FIND GLASSES! Conclude that today will be a good day. Continue reading A Morning in the Life of a Steely Thighed Cyclist

Cycling to Syria – Back in the Saddle!

In 2016 I embarked on the somewhat ambitious target of cycling from London to Syria, reporting on the refugee ‘crisis’ from the saddle of my bicycle. In 46 days, I got as far as Vienna, before rushing back to work on Foiled at the Edinburgh Festival. It was a busy summer!

I always said that I’d carry on the cycle some day. Well, some day has arrived. Continue reading Cycling to Syria – Back in the Saddle!