Britain: For the Love of God, Please Stop David Cameron

Benjamin Studebaker

On May 7 (this Thursday), Britain has a general election. I care deeply about British politics–I did my BA over there and will return to do my PhD there this fall. But more importantly, David Cameron’s government has managed the country’s economy with stunning fecklessness, and I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t do my part to point this out.

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Fighting, not getting comfortable.

About one hour ago, I watched this, and the way Casey Neistat summed it up helped me climb a little further out of the rut I’ve been feeling stuck in recently. In fact, Casey sums it up even better in another, short video – here. Long story short, I’ve achieved goal number one of relocating to Germany (many Germans don’t realise I’m not German), so I’m in need of a new challenge. I need something to prevent the feeling of stagnation that comes from ‘feeling comfortable’.

But I can’t give Casey all of the credit because my thought track started a little sooner than that – whilst out on a three-hour ride on Monday with nothing for company aside from a new podcast and the steady drive of rain that had long since soaked through to my skin. (Skin is waterproof though. Or to put it another way, Rule #9.)

The podcast in question is The Travelling Cup, which I actually came across by fluke whilst searching for one about coffee. Mark Guay’s chats with various guests cover various themes but the common thread is related to finding your purpose and acting on it. (Episodes 36, 62, 63, 72 and 73 have since been playing on a loop. If you feel like you’re living in a little rut of uncertainty like I have been recently, I suggest you have a listen. You don’t have to go on a 3 hour bike ride in the rain, though.)

While listening to ideas on finding purpose for those uncertain where to look, one notion has continually popped up. It may sound obvious, but perhaps it’s less simple than that. If you’re looking for purpose, look to what you like doing. Do that.

My mind went to work and some ideas for the near future have sprouted, but since I haven’t padded them out properly yet I’ll save them for another post. Until then, I can continue with the purpose of this post, with the thing that has given me plenty of purpose so far in 2015 and does involve doing two of the things I love most: cycling and helping people. I’m talking about my and my dad’s fundraising for Help for Heroes.

Being totally honest, I’ve noticed the great momentum we had slow down to a barely noticeable crawl. Our training is still going fantastically well – I’ve never been prouder of my dad’s fitness and he’s riding more and more each week – but since passing the two-thirds mark of our fundraising target, we seem to have got ‘comfortable’. Time to start ‘fighting’ (if you haven’t watched the link at the start of the post by now, that’s the source of the comfortable/fighting thing).

I’d earmarked my next blog post to be one that revealed a near-finalised route for my big charity ride (with H4H’s organised ride in the middle). However, I started planning that today and got as far as days 1 and 2 of 14, so I’ve decided that this entry is to tell you that “planning is underway!” and to give the momentum of our fundraising a push in the right direction.

So, here’s a little summary of the plan, with my solo ride in bold:

  • Saarbrücken to Paris… ±400km/2-3 days of riding
  • Paris to Windsor… ±600km/5 days of riding
  • Windsor to Saarbrücken… ±700km/5 days

This patchwork-of-feelings-and-ideas blog-post is to avoid the comfort of silence and to start fighting forwards towards our goal. It’s for my eyes and mind as much as it is for yours, to help me put my thoughts in order. Perhaps reading it might do something for you too.

If you would like to contribute to our fundraising effort, you can do so at www.bmycharity.com/TimandJoe 

Noticing and being grateful.

It was fitting that as I flew home on Friday afternoon, our pilot pointed out Belgium’s capital city below our left wing, basking in almost unbroken sunshine as February began to lose its wintry grip. The following day I would be riding a bike on a turbo trainer at Sainsbury’s in aid of Help for Heroes. Below me was the start line of last summer’s Big Battlefield Bike Ride. Perhaps I should move there, because every time I’ve seen Brussels, it’s been blessed with blue skies…

I’ve said before that getting involved in charity work is life-affirming, and this little moment brought it back to the fore. Getting involved with H4H continues to remind me how much I have to be grateful for. The sun was shining down on the thin, parallel strips of cotton-wool clouds that stretched out for miles, and I was heading ever nearer to my wonderful family. There is always so much to be grateful for, so long as you keep your senses open to it.

And boy do I feel grateful to the wonderful people of Cambridge, once again! After a long coin-counting session yesterday evening, we confirmed an amazing total of £931.08!! Once again we were reminded of the human being’s ability to be open and compassionate. When you put a bucket out with no expectations, every clunk of a coin means a lot, and people’s capacity to help others is endlessly encouraging and a real sign of hope. A special mention should go to the Big Issue seller outside who twice came in and put some coins in our bucket. I promise to buy a copy whenever next possible and I hope we didn’t take too many of people’s spare change away from him.

Our total means we’ve nearly reached our £4,000 target (time to aim higher) and both Tim and I (especially Tim) are feeling fitter each week. It’s a great source of happiness and pride for me to see my dad hopping back on the bike after so long, to see him rediscover his natural ability for turning the pedals (I know I got it from both of my parents) and to see him enjoy getting and feeling fitter.

Health – whether physical or psychological – is happiness. The two are inextricably linked, so I  struggle to imagine just how soul-destroying a life-changing injury is (be it physical, such as an amputation, or psychological, such as PTSD).  The importance of and value in helping people overcome those injuries can’t really be put into words, but I saw it in action last summer between Brussels and Paris and I’m sure I’ll see it again between Paris and Windsor this June.

Keep moving, keep inspired and keep in mind what you have to be grateful for. It’s working wonders for me.

Find out more about our fundraising effort at www.bmycharity.com/TimandJoe

Thank you!

Here I am again, in a train heading along the river Saar. But the sense of déjà-vu and the sleep stuck in my bleary eyes is easily forgotten as I reconsider the success of yesterday evening.

Thanks to the outstanding support of our wonderful crowd of (more-or-less) knowledgeable quiz-goers (you all did better than I would have), we managed to raise an incredible £1,160 for Help for Heroes (all of that after covering food and venue costs), beating the total raised by last year’s quiz and breaking past the £2,000 barrier overall. We are thrilled to bits to be over half-way there!

I wanted to write this as a thank you for all of the support we received around the quiz night, to recognise our wonderful crowd’s commitment to our cause. It’s quite an emotional investment of time and energy to organise an event like this, but the reciprocated investment of time and energy we got from you is what counts and what makes the real difference. So thank you once again from the bottom of our hearts.

Like I said yesterday evening, I believe that supporting charity work like you all did yesterday evening is about putting something back into the world and our wider community. It is about strengthening the bond of support between human beings and opening up everyone’s minds to the power of possibility. For the charity’s beneficiaries it’s the possibility to overcome life-changing injuries and obstacles to happiness. With the right support they can stay tenaciously focussed on the positives and gain forward momentum in life. For us, I think it’s about the possibility to be inspired by those people and their optimism, and to find our own for whatever obstacles we have in our lives.

On Saturday 28th February Tim and I will be at Sainsbury’s Coldham’s Lane riding our bikes (going nowhere on home-trainers, not weaving the aisles getting in the way). Once again, all of it will be going towards our fundraising effort at www.bmycharity.com/TimandJoe – come along and say hi if you’d like to – we’ll have plenty of time for a chat!

Have a wonderful rest-of-the-weekend, and thank you once again!

(PS: Since we don’t have everyone’s contact information, please pass this on to the rest of your team!)

When inspiration comes knocking.

The term ‘couchsurfing’ needs no introduction and the website is used by millions worldwide. But fewer people are aware of one website offering the same kind of network specifically to cyclists: warmshowers.org. The advantage for the touring cyclist? Your host won’t hold anything against you for turning up in some kind of musky, damp state (whether sweat or weather induced) with a bike that is dirty, dusty, muddy, oily, or any of the above.

Living in the centre of Saarbrücken, I’m just 3 minutes away from the ‘Saar-Mosel Radweg’, a bike path running from near Trier down towards Sarre-Union in France. Unsurprisingly, I often get sent requests to host during the summer months – many people stop off here on their way between Luxembourg and the Rhine valley.

It was slightly more surprising, however, when I received one last Friday evening. As my laptop chirped its email notification, I was sitting in my warm room watching sluggish snowflakes the size of ping pong balls settling with the lightest of thuds on the rooftops across the road.

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“I’m in Luxembourg at the moment and planning to get to Saarbrücken on Sunday evening. Any chance you could host me?” Josh got the same reaction from me as he did from most people – disbelief and overwhelming respect in equal measure. (I’d hazard a guess that most people would prefer touring when the temperature is above zero.) I had work at 7:30am on Monday but there was no way I was going to turn the man down, so I quickly sent off a reply to tell him he had hot food and a hot shower waiting for him on arrival.

Josh riding along the Maginot Line, France.

Josh riding along the Maginot Line, France.

Another advantage of using Warmshowers? Anyone willing to sit on a bike for a week or more and lug their belongings around usually has a passion for cycling, so that’s immediately one thing in common. Reading Josh’s bio on the website was like reading my own – only a year younger and from a parallel universe where my dream jobs had come true. Four years riding as a pro in Belgium before a stint as a journalist for Cyclist magazine. Then, three weeks ago he started riding from Scotland to Hong Kong, hoping to complete the distance over the course of a year. I had a feeling we’d get on pretty well. Indeed, a conservative estimate of how much conversation was consumed by cycling comes in at 80%. (My girlfriend would no doubt argue otherwise, considering my childlike curiosity to know anything and everything about life as a pro-cyclist and cycling journalist).

Warmshowers has a knack of bringing interesting people your way. Well-travelled people who are open to the world around them are full of interesting stories, and always prompt my urge to explore to rise up within me. This time was no different, in fact more so because the tour I’m planning for June will see me take similar roads to those Josh had – albeit hopefully a tad warmer. (I’ll be riding a loop from Saarbrücken to Cherbourg via Paris, onto Windsor, and then back to Saarbrücken via Belgium. The plan is to do it in two weeks, with one week riding from Paris to Windsor as part of Help For Heroes’ Big Battlefield Bike Ride 2015.)

Provisional plans for my June 2015 tour.

Provisional plans for my June 2015 tour.

After 9:30 on Monday, I had a break until 17:45 (freelancing has its advantages), so I jumped at the chance to join Josh for a part of his journey on towards Hagenau, his half-way stop before reaching the Black Forest. The recent snow fall hadn’t stopped me cycling, but since it’d begun I hadn’t ventured out too far afield, preferring familiar roads closer to home that promised a quick escape route home in case extremities started dropping off in the cold. (Even when I layer up like an onion the cold seems to find a way in eventually).

Riding partners are always good motivation however, and before long we’d reached Wittring, 30 kilometres away along the Saar. From there, we began a gentle climb up towards Rohrbach-les-Bitche. We were heading into the Parc National des Vosges du Nord, and with every pedal stroke the scenery got whiter and whiter. As the road flattened out a blanketed landscape spread out before us, its soft mottled textures mirroring that of the overcast sky overhead. Except now a streak of blue was doing its best to break through. Josh had seen more than enough snow in Luxembourg already, but for me it was a revelation to ride in this wintery wonderland. Even a puncture wasn’t enough to wipe the grin off my face, and I easily ignored the biting wind on my gloveless fingers as I did the job at hand.

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We rode on through villages where locals stopped clearing their driveways to give us looks of ‘what-on-earth-are-they-doing?’, probably wondering why we were a) riding at all and b) what kind of bet I’d won to make my mate carry all of the bags. Each bend in the road led on to another feast for my eyes, the black tarmac of our road winding its way across the powdery undulations, occasionally, delightfully, accompanied by blue sky and sunshine.

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Inevitably, however, the point I’d begun to dread eventually arrived. After 60km of grinning like a Cheshire cat, my Garmin told me it was time to turn back home. I wished I could simply carry on all the way and worry about getting home another time. But English lessons don’t teach themselves.

Taking part in one three-hundred-and-sixty-fifth of Josh’s adventure had been a real privilege and for me a whole adventure in itself. He rode on and I reluctantly turned my bike round into the headwind home, back the way we’d come. Ten minutes later I found myself riding head-on into a snow storm, squinting my eyes away from the stinging flakes as others lodged themselves in my smile.

***

Josh and I had talked about the Saar valley between Konz and Mettlach, him having just ridden along it that Sunday. I’d seen it from the train on a handful of occasions and had envisioned riding along it and up into the vineyards and forests on either side, but had never actually done so.

Two days later, on Wednesday morning, I clicked into my pedals outside Mettlach train station and rode off into the hills.

When inspiration comes knocking on your door (or inbox), you’d do well to let it in, give it some warm food and shelter, and listen to what it has to say. It might just help you find your next adventure.

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Tired Legs, but Tireless Optimism.

Three trains, two busses and two flights. Thirty-nine hours in the UK, nine and a bit of them on a bike on a turbo, and £906.00 raised as part of our Big Battlefield Bike Ride 2015 effort for Help for Heroes.

Four hours sleep to catch a 7am flight isn’t ideal for recovery after more than double that turning the pedals, but obviously I’m feeling very happy as I sit here, knackered, on a train home along the Saar river.

Although we had a few hitches from the start, there were clearly no issues with the unwavering generosity of Cambridge’s Saturday supermarket shoppers, whose kindness amounted to an amazing £1.60 a minute, just under £100 an hour.

We arrived and set up after half past nine. At which point I realised I’d left my Garmin at home (which we needed to record the distance I would ride) and that we needed to shorten the seat post on my dad’s wonderful Mercian bike by an inch or so. That I hadn’t yet started on the bike was no deterrence to some however, who put some change in our buckets as soon as I started setting up our banners and flags.

As I pedalled a bike with no saddle, Tim sawed the seatpost down and reinserted it into the frame. Now the game was really on. I settled into a gentle rhythm. At first, the only plan was to start pedalling and keep going until my legs stopped. But after the seventh or eighth person asked us what the target time or distance was, we haphazardly settled on 200 kilometres, since it was a nice round figure. Once that was mentioned, I couldn’t possibly back down. I stood up on the pedals again to aid blood circulation and looked down at the Garmin. Tapping out an average 22-23km/h, we came to the realisation that we’d be there for at least another 9 hours. It would be a long day…

With laws and regulations in England stipulating that you can’t shake a donation bucket in people’s faces, we simply greeted shoppers as they came and went, just to engage their attention. It was entertaining witnessing the range of reactions, from those awkwardly and knowingly avoiding eye contact to those who seemed startled as they looked up, only to see some lanky lad with shaggy curly hair riding a bicycle inside the store’s entrance.

We’ve probably all been that person; in a rush with other more important things to do, unable or unwilling to stop and chat and explain why now just isn’t a good time. It didn’t bother me and my dad at all though. Donating is inherently a free choice and we didn’t want to guilt people into handing over money – though on occasion they clearly guilted themselves after we wished them a lovely weekend on their way out of the store.

Regardless of the donations coming in, the overwhelming feeling all day was a real sense of community and generosity. It came from all kinds of different people and was a palpable show of humanity above class, race or nationality.

Like I wrote in my previous blog post, charity work and fundraising really does have a knack of bringing unity and positivity into the world. At a time when unity is extremely present in people’s minds due to the tragedies in Paris, it is reassuring and reaffirming to know that so many out there are passionate about sticking together and contributing to ensure support is given to others in our society who need it.

My mind wanders to images of thousands and thousands of people lining the roadside in London to cheer on charity runners. Not a single one of them turns up and stands there in silence until their friend or family member runs past, before packing up and heading home. They clap and cheer on each and every individual who makes their way past, wishing those people’s pain and grimaces to fade away, hoping to keep them happy the whole way round the course.

It is important to highlight moments of community and collective optimism because they get the ball of positive momentum rolling again. This can only have good outcomes; it can lift the spirits of those feeling down and it can spur on those who are doing well. I believe public displays of fundraising are examples of those moments, bringing great optimism to people’s minds – whether they be beneficiaries of the action or not.

That is what I am standing for as I take part in this fundraising effort. Seeking and demonstrating optimism for humanity is something that we should all get on board with. For me, the BBBR15 and the fundraising along with it has its own little part to play in that.

Please take a look at www.bmycharity.com/TimandJoe and keep an ear open for our fundraising events in 2015. We will be hosting a quiz night in Cambridge on Saturday 7th February and there are more stationary bike rides are to come! Email joe.mctaggart@gmail.com if you would like more information, want to contribute raffle prizes, or would like to contribute in any other way! 

Thank you.

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200km reached… finally.

Perspective and Positive Momentum.

Tomorrow I’m going to sit on a stationary bike all day and pedal for hour after hour in order to raise money for Help for Heroes. My dad and I are taking part in the Big Battlefield Bike Ride 2015, raising money to ensure that more direct, practical support can be given to people with life-changing injuries. And to think that two weeks ago I was whining about having a niggle in my knee…

There I was, feeling annoyed and sorry for myself. I looked down at the Garmin and saw what I’d managed – just seventeen kilometres – before turning my bike around and heading back in the direction I’d come. Despite the rain, I’d set out to do five times that much to make the most of my day off. That might sound like a great decision, but because I’m a little weird I sometimes love heading out in awful conditions. But my knee had other plans, deciding to whine at me to turn back home. I reluctantly complied.

If I go longer than a few days without doing some form of exercise I can feel the pent-up energy building and crying out to be used somehow. So at times during the two weeks my mood was distinctly crappy.

But sometimes life serves you up a nice healthy portion of perspective to help you stop feeling sorry for yourself. Thankfully I was served mine a while after getting home and wringing the water out of my drenched clothes. We all need a dose of it sometimes, and whilst I’m sitting here about to write about how important it is, I need just as much as the next person and had to keep reminding myself during my two weeks off. It’s human.

Back in June 2014 I rode my bike between Brussels and Paris in aid of Help for Heroes. Some of the other riders were excellent at serving great big healthy portions of perspective.

Dean, the only survivor of a bullet through both hemispheres of the brain (in above the right ear, out above the left), had spectacularly crashed into someone’s driveway the day before, grazing up his legs and breaking his thumb. Admittedly, the man has seen worse, but when he chuckles back the response “oh, absolute agony”, it makes your legs feel a little less tired, that’s for sure. Then a second portion comes my way: “Life’s great! I’ve got engaged … we’re moving in together…”.

Claire was thrown up into the air by an explosion. When she landed, her comms. pack crushed her pelvis. As she pedalled her sit-down trike through Belgium and France, her injuries gave her near-constant grief. Yet she was cracking jokes, making us laugh, and spurring others on.

These people’s active lifestyles were irreversibly changed by injuries. Niggle in the left knee? No riding for a couple of weeks? Not as bad as being told you’ll never walk again.

Perspective.

I’m not saying that’s it isn’t okay to feel sorry for yourself or feel pissed off. It’s human and difficult to avoid along the road to physical or emotional recovery. But a good portion of perspective taken in the right way can help you focus your energy positively instead of having that helpless feeling you get when you’re upset. By that I mean drawing inspiration from the relatively positive aspects of your situation, and from others in a similar situation.

I imagine that’s what people like Claire and Dean do. Their focus on the good things and their determination create a positive attitude towards life – one that a lot of people could learn and draw inspiration from. My interpretation of it is to focus on the positives and use those to build some positive momentum to drive you forwards.

That is one of the many reasons why I’m raising money for Help for Heroes again in 2015.

I want as many people as possible to know about its beneficiaries, so that they too can draw inspiration from these amazingly tenacious individuals.

I want to support the men and women with life-changing injuries (and their families) and I want them to feel the support of as many people as possible so that they don’t suffer in silence. During the Big Battlefield Bike Ride 2015 we will ride from Paris to Windsor. We will join up with other Hero Rides on arrival in a huge public display of support.

For me personally, supporting a charity is about emotionally investing in the interests of other humans. Making that connection – even if you donate, fundraise, or contribute in any other way without coming into contact with beneficiaries (though I suggest you do) – is life-affirming for everyone involved. It helps build positive momentum in a world that can always do with more. It creates community and cohesion. It actively helps to make the world a happier place.

If you would like to help build that momentum, please take a look at www.bmycharity.com/TimandJoe and keep an ear open for our fundraising events in 2015. In February we will be hosting a quiz night in Cambridge and more stationary bike rides! Email joe.mctaggart@gmail.com if you would like more information, want to contribute raffle prizes, or contribute in any other way!

Thank you for reading.

Big Battlefield Bike Ride 2014 - Northern France

Big Battlefield Bike Ride 2014 – Northern France

Lest We Forget.

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Thiepval Memorial, France.

I stood there on the 4th June this year, looking up at thousands of names with unknown faces, trying to contemplate the pain and sacrifice given by each of them in the face human nature’s most ugly creation.

Trying and failing to comprehend the scale of the conflict, I thought how insignificant each individual effort might have seemed as war fronts moved back and forth, both sides incurring more and more casualties all the time. Each week would see land recently gained lost again shortly thereafter, at the cost of yet more lives. Those of friends and comrades. Of family.
But yet they kept gritting their teeth, they kept staring death in the face and they kept doing what they could in a horrific situation they had very little control over. Eventually, each seemingly insignificant individual effort played its part in the very significant greater effort helping peace to prevail.

I looked up again and saw the name McTaggart. Twice.
That hits home. That slaps you around the face with a good deal of perspective and tells you how lucky you were not to be born into that era and that situation. How insignificant things we might whinge about on a day-to-day basis really are. How much we take for granted.

We have so much to be grateful for if we only look for it. And so many lives were lost fighting for just those things. So many lives continue to be damaged or lost around the world because humans haven’t learnt from past mistakes yet. But I have been lucky with the cards life has dealt me, luckier than many are now and luckier than many of these unknown faces were back then.

That is why I think it is crucial to remember Them. It is crucial to keep Them in our hearts and minds – not to scold us and tell us to stop whining, but to remind ourselves to maintain a positive perspective and notice what we have to be grateful for. Not to let the small negative aspects of life get to us, but to see the silver lining behind them, pick ourselves up and aim straight for it.

Lest we forget.

Bye bye Bavaria. For now.

Bavaria is rolling away from me once again as I sit on the train to Stuttgart.

Typically well-tended fields spread themselves from village to village, broken apart by small clumps of forest. Spending summer weeks here has once again been a repeating loop of lacking restraint in the face of hearty food and beer. But then it’s all the better for fuelling your next trip out of the door to explore the fascinating scenery of rolling hills, farmland, forests, caves, rivers and old castles towering over all of the above. At least that’s my excuse.

IMG_6418For the last six weeks I’ve been working for LEOlingo, a summer language camp for German kids learning English. Unlike some other language camps, LEOlingo camps remain a week of summer camp as opposed to summer school. Fun is the name of the game and the children pick up English via games, dramas, songs and having natural conversations with native speakers. I get the priceless satisfaction of teaching someone something whilst my inner child is gleefully (and not at all competitively) playing games, clowning around and trying to make more noise than the other twelve kids. On top of that, in place of my usual classroom was a secluded cloister, a Schloss near the Altmühltal river, one grand old and fairly isolated Burg and finally an even older, more isolated Burg. Working for six weeks has at times felt like a six-week holiday. (Of course sometimes some kids certainly make it feel like work, but with a bit of perspective a smile quickly reappears across my face.)

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It’s not just the work and the locations that make it special though. Having eighteen colleagues who also aren’t averse to clowning around makes for an infectiously hilarious atmosphere. Training week with all eighteen is intense and hysterical; whether due to energy or lack thereof, the result is the same. Because doing this job requires patience, open-mindedness, optimism, generosity, energy, kindness and an inclination for making a fool of yourself, the people I’ve met doing it are real gems and I’m always left feeling that I wish I had more time to have more fun with them. The world could do with more LEOlingo counsellors.

There’s so much to get involved in both on and off the job that it’s a bit of a whirlwind with little down-time. But that of course hasn’t stopped me from getting out on my bike when I could find the time and energy to do so. So long as you have the legs for a few climbs (or the gearing for that matter), Bavaria is a cyclists paradise unlike those often talked of in the warmer climes of Spain, France and Italy. Here, the travelling cyclist is king. An extensive network of cycle paths sees to that, well sign-posted and often well surfaced and segregated.

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My knowledge of the region is limited to Franconia and the Oberpfalz – I’ve never made it further southeast than Regensburg – but I’ve had more than enough to get my teeth into. Cycle routes line the Danube and the Altmühltal rivers and extend out and away into the surroundings. It’s pretty easy to keep to smaller roads with a bit of planning, yet unlike other places I’ve ridden, these smaller roads are more often than not surfaced with lovely smooth tarmac – a road cyclist’s dream. On bigger roads, cyclists ought to be a bit more wary of Germans’ tendency to drive faster (though if passing cars don’t bother you it’s not really an issue), but that is also usually where the best and most segregated paths can be found. Danke schön German planning.

Heading away from the rivers or further south and east into the Oberpfalz will ensure a good workout for the legs. Though most hills are small, they are often unforgivably steep. It seems that Germans aren’t worried about their well-made cars getting up gradients in the double figures. No need to plan any intervals during your ride, just get out on the bike and your heart will soon be thumping in your rib cage. But then weirdos like I get a kick out of that, which is why I love riding my bike around there. Also, riding up means riding back down. And when the road is perfectly surfaced and you have smooth bends to navigate, often down through another forest, there’s no feeling quite like it.

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Because of the large amount of agriculture, the landscape isn’t so wild, but it does make for quiet riding. Several minutes can pass without the sound of a car interrupting the swoosh of the wind in your ears and the whir of your wheels and chain. Small villages with amusing names come and go before you find yourself on another deserted tarmac carpet winding its way onwards.

The land of leather trousers and big beer glasses that is Bavaria will definitely see more of me. And not just because the food is rich and plentiful and the beer is good. (Very, very good.)

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BBBR Day Four: Tuesday the Third of June

Having started the week full of good intentions, it is now Sunday the eighth of June. Incidentally I’m once again on a train as I find myself finally getting around to writing. But better late than never.

The past week has flown by and actually I’m glad I didn’t stick to writing a blog post every night because I would have missed out on some brilliant laughs and excellent conversations.

 

So let’s begin with…

 

Tuesday the third of June.

 

This grey morning started with a nice chilly descent from our hotel down into Mons to wake us up, which was just as well, since we had to be downstairs for breakfast at six. On the plus side, the hotel had had maple syrup, Speculoos spread (if you don’t know what this is, find it and buy it as soon as possible) and waffles; with plenty of coffee and sugar inside me I was rearing to get going for our longest day of the week – seventy-seven miles to Arras.

 

Since our hotel was the furthest out of town, we got on the road out of Mons a bit later than most. But since that road began with a long drag uphill, it didn’t take us long to spot them. In a group of 300 cyclists, it was just as well everyone wasn’t told to meet and leave together. Contending with the school run in those numbers was a recipe for stress and beeping horns, but the vast majority of people were patient and simply intrigued to see so many people on their bikes! Then again, cycling is the number one sport in Belgium, so perhaps this shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

 

Cycling up this long drag, I caught up with one of the recumbent bikes. Actually, tricycle would be a better description. With two front and one rear wheels, the rider sits in a reclined position and pedals with the legs out in front of them. This particular trike was flying the lovely Union Jack and being piloted by the lovely Claire. A small (in stature, certainly not character) red-head from Yorkshire, Claire used to drive transport vehicles. She joked to me about how much lower to the road she now was than in those big trucks. I ended up chatting to Claire and the others riding with her for a good while, also keen to help them help her through junctions by warning traffic and ensuring they noticed the lower-than-normal tricycle. In the meantime, many riders had passed us, but I am so glad that I stuck with that group, because I was to learn a lot about the nature of the ride by doing so.

 

For someone who has been blown up by a grenade, the nature of the Hero Ride is not about speed. Nor is speed always an option. It is about getting through the day and reaching your goal. Claire was blown up by a grenade. When she fell back to earth, her radio pack crushed her hip and permanently damaged it. She walks with a stick and she cannot sit on or pedal a bicycle. But she can ride her trike seventy-seven miles (one hundred and twenty-four kilometres) from Mons to Arras. She can do it with great grit and determination, despite the pain, through the dry and the wet, as well as down and up hills. With four kilometres to go, going up a hill, I asked her how her legs felt.

 

“It’s bloody painful.” she said, with no trace of a grimace. If I hadn’t asked, I wouldn’t have known and Claire wouldn’t have mentioned it. After that hill, there were three more long drags uphill, each hiding the next. But Claire battled on.

“Just goes to show they were wrong though.”

“Sorry?”, I said.

“Well, the doctors told me I’d never walk again, so that just goes to show them.” she said.

 

I didn’t really know what to say. I was riding up the hill next to her in a stunned silence. The previous seventy-four miles or so hadn’t been that difficult for me since the pace was much slower than what I normally ride. I could have ridden off at my own pace at whatever point, but I hadn’t – I had had no desire to ride off alone anyway when I was enjoying the company of this group of people. But it was a different kind of challenge for me, riding these seventy-seven miles. People who know me might well think that seventy-seven miles in eight hours would be easy for me. Yes I may normally ride that distance much quicker, but I was drained by the end of what had been a long day in the saddle, concentrating on pace and traffic all day.

 

So if it was a challenge for me, I can’t begin to imagine how draining and difficult it must have been for all of the Band of Brothers (wounded soldiers) riding that day too. I was proud to have battled through the day with Claire and so glad to have shared it with her. It was truly inspiring.

 

The next moment of inspiration came at dinner time. Most of the three hundred riders ate together in one of the hotels that evening. After we’d been sitting down for ten minutes, all at-least-two-hundred of us were on our feet again, clapping. Dean had just walked into the room, having battled all of the way to Arras in around eleven hours. I will write some more about Dean later, but ought to briefly clarify that he is one of the Band of Brothers and the only person to ever survive being shot through both hemispheres of the brain. The sense of positive energy and triumph in the room was almost tangible. It was an incredibly moving moment, seeing two-hundred people spontaneously bursting into applause in support of what was a (or rather yet another) truly incredible achievement from this man. I think it was also the only moment during the week when I didn’t see a smile on his face. But like I said, more on Dean later.

 

Tuesday really taught me what the Big Battlefield Bike Ride was all about. Speed is irrelevant, it is the journey that is important. Who you ride with and making it to the end as a team are key. The forecast for the following day was awful, but we were ready to go out there again and face it together.

 

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