The summer of 2021 has been a difficult one. Two major life events came along that seemed to change everything: I lost my dad, and then soon afterwards Paul, my close work colleague, lost Rachael, his partner and mother of their son.
My dad had always been the focus of our family, the most dependable and supportive person. Whenever I’d done things, he’d always message me to say how proud he was. We all miss him so much.
Paul and Rachael had been through a journey with breast cancer, supported through it by Seddon and The Christie. Sadly, it concluded just nine days after the anniversary of Christopher Seddon, who also had strong links to The Christie.
In light of this, I decided to do something to benefit The Christie on behalf of Seddon and to focus on some good things for people to get behind.
Jon Strange, who is also working at the Belong site for Seddon in Chester, was going to join in and we had fabulous support from Seddon in getting the message out to the wide world.
Belong provides a living environment for elderly and dementia affected people across the North West. We decided to ride our bikes, on bridleways, gravel tracks and roads, around all the Belong Villages, as well as offices of people associated with the new village we are helping to build at Chester.
Jon is a super-fast runner and cyclist who competes in triathlons and Ironman races. He’s fast but has never done rides of this distance. I’m nearly twice Jon’s age, not fast, but with experience of super-long endurance ride races across multiple days/nights.
And so it was that we gathered at Seddon head office in steady rain, ready to set off at 9am on Saturday 2 October 2021. The forecast was dire but we’d chosen this date to coincide with Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Stuart, the partitioning manager for Mansell from Chester was also there to ride the first few hours along with several Seddon people who came to watch us set off.
At the stroke of 9am, we got going. Our challenge was not only to ride the course we’d set but to get back within 24 hours. We had mapped it at 328km and honestly didn’t know how ambitious that goal was. At 9am it was time to click the GPS logger and off.
We raced down cycle tracks, parkland, and roads to Salford and across into Manchester to our first ‘target’, TRP Engineers in the heart of the city. Racing through such a densely packed city, on a Saturday morning was great fun; Jon was fast learning the art of urban riding, while I was showing the skills learnt in my misspent youth!
We were already 19mins up on our schedule but guess that was mainly due to loss of elevation riding down from Bolton.
From there we were riding through vibrant streets at Longsight to The Christie at Withington. It’s a large hospital site; we didn’t have time to find a main entrance so took our photo at the first suitable sign we saw.
We’d also gained a few more vital minutes. Belong Didsbury was our first ‘Belong’ to get in the bag and only a mile away. We were keeping up our gains on the schedule but when we arrived nobody was there. So, we decided to take our snap and get going as we didn’t have much spare time.
The urban riding around Manchester was fast and it seemed like we were flying. The rain eased a little and into Sale we were at the office of ESD, the services engineer for Belong. Sale was showing its colours as a trendy place to live as we rounded the tram station with a smell of fresh ground coffee. No time to stop for us though!
As we left Sale towards Altrincham, we got on the canal path and raced with the Sale rowing club as they rowed up and down the canal. I think rowing is a sport more suited to heavy rain than cycling! As we got into Altrincham, it showed Sale up as being far superior on the yuppie front! The streets were full with camel hair coats, milling round Altrincham Market hunting out avocados, tofu and hoping to find a bargain of eco-friendly ratan furniture to fit in their Porsche Cayenne.
The route sent us up some narrow and steep walled alleys to the office of Pozzoni Architecture. When we got there, we were surprised to see the beaming faces of Ciara, our project architect, and Paul waiting there to encourage us. It was a real boost.
We had made good time, now 29 minutes up but knowing that the climbing was only just about to begin. The rain was also beginning to increase in intensity. It was 15°C though, so no great problem – if you like rain!
We rode past (or rather under) Manchester Airport and into the centre of Alderley Edge and turned left up a long hill which was a blessing as it warmed us through –but we lost that on the long descent into Macclesfield. Our stop there was Belong Macclesfield where we were greeted by Nicola Hodkinson, our guide for the town and director from Seddon, on her e-bike alongside numerous staff from the Belong village who came out to say Hi!
We had lost all our gains and were now just two minutes up on our target pace to beat 24 hours. This was going to be tough.
Nicola has her own, very personal reason to be thankful for The Christie, along with her dad Christopher Seddon, and that was at the forefront of our minds.
After waving goodbye, we set off the very short distance to the new (under construction) Christie at Macclesfield and saw Paul there again.
We set off now to Stoke and Newcastle-under-Lyme; a long stretch likely to be a couple of hours and first to Congleton. When we got there, a gravel track wound its way steadily uphill up around 16km.
Stuart had ridden further than he set out to do, and had been a great companion but now it was time to phone and arrange collection. He’d covered 80km, more than intended so well done Stu.
Jon and I carried on up steep gravel tracks now so much so that Jon’s drive-train failed a couple of occasions under pressure. It would continue to fail a few times more across the ride, but Jon soon became adapt at repairing it.
When we reached Belong Newcastle, there was nobody about so we took our photos just as Jon’s fiancé and friend (and dog!) arrived. They had brought dry clothes for Jon and gave a real morale boost to us both. We couldn’t hang around though. We’d gained 40mins on our schedule but knew that we’d be slower in the dark and would like a stop for ‘proper’ food at some stage rather than the bars and biscuits we’d been eating while pedalling along
Another long stint got us to Belong Crewe. It was memorable for some sections of proper off-roading, and we’d now reached the time when BBC Weather said the rain would get more intense. They were right.
When we got to Crewe, we found the Belong and took our now-instinctive photo. As we did, a woman came over to us to say that she was Paul’s mum and had come out to support us. That was another great boost and so good of her to come out. We were on a schedule though and soon off towards Nantwich not too far away.
At Nantwich, our pre-planning stood us in good stead as we found the head office of Belong and got our cameras out. As we did, Paul’s mum re- appeared along with dad and brother! We knew this was the last daylight we’d have because the next stretch was a long one, so we made psychological preparations, strapped our lights to the bikes and helmets and set off into the increasing gloom.
At one stage we saw Paul and his son Callum waiting to cheer us in a layby, always a good boost to our spirits. Darkness slowly enveloped us and by the aptly named ‘Poole’ and ‘Wettenhall’ just beyond Rease Heath, the rain became biblical to add to the total darkness.
We were fortunate that much of the route was on tarmac now towards Chester and that meant visiting our own site ‘home turf’ as we would know where we were. The rain was relentless though and we were kept going by the promise from Paul that he would open the site office, have the heaters on and maybe get some food in. Our plan would be to use up some of our hard-won time to take a rest there and eat.
About five miles short of Chester we were on a narrow muddy path made worse by the rain, which was making it hard to keep my eyes open and the glare from the headtorch on raindrops were a problem. Suddenly, a bush at the side of the path ‘grabbed’ my bars and I was thrown over the bike, onto the ground, smashing my light and glasses. My helmet took the force of the fall and luckily Jon was close by to help me get back together. The rain running down my face, now mixed with blood and sweat, tasted very sweet and I was just focussed on getting inside to where I could sit it out.
As we got to the Chester site, Paul and Callum were there along with Jon’s fiancé, Chloe, and friend, Robyn. We were treated like stars, with pizzas and mugs of tea while we tried drying our clothes as much as possible. We knew we only had 20/25minutes to spare but made the most of it multi-tasking stood beneath a heater, getting clothes off, eating pizza and zip-tying a headtorch all simultaneously. Who says men can’t multitask!
As we left Chester and set off up the Wirral, the roads were wide and largely empty. It was a lot flatter than I expected, which meant we made good time. We spent a minute at a 24-hour filling station buying a few cans of double-expresso for later before getting to Birkenhead. It was 11pm and the pubs were throwing out; we saw some sorry states including one guy doing far worse than us at keeping his pizza safe. We got to the new Belong site at Wirral Waters and saw Paul and Callum there sat in the car. They took our photo and declared this was their last meet as they needed to get home. We said our farewells and set off to find the tunnel.
I was looking forward to this short section as it’s not every day you get to ride beneath the river. At the toll, the police gave us a pleasant ‘hello’ and just asked us to keep left and we were on our way. At last, some dry riding!
In the tunnel the temperature suddenly went up several degrees and we were definitely overdressed for this bit as we started to pedal hard on the uphill exit. After an all-too-short time, we emerged opposite the Liver Building; it was nearly midnight and we had to find the AECOM office.
After a couple of minutes of scrambling about we eventually found it, suitably locked away from the Saturday night revellers. We rode around the corner into what must be party-central for Liverpool. I come from a small village in the Yorkshire Dales but this was like a scene from the Wild West only with glitter and flesh thrown in. It was a real shock to two men riding through the dark night!
We were through in a flash, both literally and metaphorically (them not us!), and soon riding though the deserted docklands and Bootle. It was eerily quiet but probably a good time to pass through.
We soon got onto the canal that then turned into the TransPennine Trail, a gravel trail. By now the wind was up and getting ever stronger and the temperature was plummeting. It had been 6°C in Bootle but was now down to 3°C with a frost shimmering on the grass from the lights on our bikes. We could see the lights of Formby in the distance; by now the sky had cleared out to show a few stars and a great quarter moon. The wind was getting worse until we hit Pontins at the coast and the relative shelter of Southport’s dunes. It was 2:05am when we got there and arrived at the Belong Birkdale site, eerily quiet, just the noise of a site fire alarm beeping in the quiet night. The temperature was cold, dipping just below 3°C but with it being now dry, and the prospect of dry for the next few hours, we felt warm inside. Photo taken and we were off again through the centre of the town. With the wind on our backs we were flying and had 43 minutes in the bank at this stage. We were full of confidence and still feeling strong. Dry weather and no cockups were all we wanted. We’d had none so far so why wouldn’t we be super-confident?
The first problem we hit was Scarisbrick Hall. The route (from Google CycleMaps) sent us down the drive to where we rode around a fixed barrier. The signs on every gate becoming more and more menacing as we climbed over a few locked gates, but we were confident of the route taken from Google. The route was probably 10 or 20 metres to the side of us but lost in the darkness. Then after going past most of the buildings, we were stopped by an impenetrable locked hoarding.
We’d lost probably 10/15minutes but, undeterred, we retraced our steps, went a couple of miles around on a detour and bypassed the hall. Before Burscough, we got on the canal path that would take us 16km into Wigan and 6km beyond. It was more difficult going than it could have been with puddles everywhere on the gravel and a few muddy bits after the rain. It meant that concentration levels had to be keen to avoid a swimming disaster but still keep up our target speed of 16-18Km/h.
By now my brakes had pretty much gone (the pads worn down) and I didn’t want to mess about putting in the spares I carried so despite a few very scary moments, we carried on. We got to Gathurst Viaduct where the canal passes under the M6 motorway and it was clear that concentration was becoming a problem. A problem that tins of double-expresso cannot fix!
We decided to have a five-minute sleep (I find these work wonders) and I instantly drifted off on a bench. Five minutes later I awoke and clearly Jon had fallen asleep too as he was very much in deep slumber. I woke him up; I think he was dreaming about beds! Just being stopped had chilled us a lot and the frost was everywhere. We jumped straight on the bikes and carried on, as if we’d never stopped but feeling refreshed.
At Wigan town centre, there were some canal-junctions to take which seemed to go well; then, we were away from the town carrying on canal-bagging. That was when things went seriously wrong. After Scotmans Flash Reservoir, we missed the crossing and carried on the RHS of the canal. The path seemed good for a while, under the rail bridge and into the woods. Then a barrier to climb (but we’d done that many times before) and like a belligerent Yorkshireman we continued as the path through the woods became more and more hard going, past ‘trespassers will be prosecuted’ signs and wet bog until it was clearly fruitless, struggling on in the dark. We had also thrown away all our time.
Later it was seen that crossing the canal, where we were supposed to be, would have been a fast continuation. We climbed a barbed wire fence, threw our bikes over and into the simplicity of a very large field with winter grazing sheep. Heading towards house lights with the confidence given by seeing a road on the GPS, we climbed over fences and eventually made it to the houses at Bryn Gates and the sanctuary of a road.
We dared not check our time now as we knew it would be bad news. Nevertheless, on the road it felt like we were on a superhighway and just 1km from Belong Wigan. It was 6:02am and we were 22 minutes down on breaking our 24-hour goal thanks to all that messing about. We had lost a whole hour from Southport. When we got to Belong Wigan, there were no moments to celebrate, just photo- snap and off. But with just Warrington and Atherton to go, we felt that if we battered ourselves we could make that time up and squeak inside our goal.
Things were going well. The road was good, and the dawn was just beginning. A faint glow on the Eastern horizon grew as the birds began their chorus. There is something very special about riding into daybreak. We were flying, not a problem – I’m sure we were making up time even if we were emptying our energy tanks, then suddenly that nightmare sound. Pst, pst, pst – I had a puncture in my rear tyre and sealant was spraying out with every revolution.
Everything was cold and the road was wet and clearly it wasn’t sealing. It was probably glass on the road. I pulled up, we took off the tyre, the valve; I never even checked the sealant and put an innertube in. With two of us on it, this was fast. We set off again. I knew we were late, and the puncture was probably the nail in our coffin. I was kicking myself as I knew I’d left a tool at home which might have plugged it in seconds.
Then Chloe and Robyn came past in a car, having left us at Chester to retire to their beds; they were back on the route and cheering our race against the clock. They were whooping and shouting from the car as they passed. Just the encouragement we needed to click the speed up a notch. Then the front tyre had a puncture; I could hear that sound again but just prayed and prayed and slowly the sound became fainter as the hole self-sealed. Please keep sealed, I thought!
We got to Warrington and Chloe and Robyn jumped out of the car to take our photo. No time for conversations, so we just jumped back on the bikes and off. We checked our time and we were 23 minutes short.
I didn’t know the route to Atherton but just prayed for a level road. It was 21km and all the way we were swapping the lead to keep the pace up. We didn’t give up hope. I knew that Atherton being the final Belong site meant there was only 5km to the Seddon office – albeit with a long hill between them.
Racing against the clock when the prize is so big is addictive and makes you want to strain every sinew to get there. We had nothing else but to give our all.
We were racing against cars, making the most of traffic lights, jumping a few pedestrian crossings, just selling our souls for the prize. Chloe and Robyn kept passing us in the car, whooping and horn blowing and telling us how much the JustGiving page had crept to. It was rocket fuel to our battered bodies but razor-sharp minds.
When we eventually got to Belong Atherton, all the staff were outside cheering which just made us want the prize even more. We were 3m45s down on our time and with a considerable hill to climb – could we really make that up? We were going to fight.
After all that time the prize isn’t something you can just let trickle away, so we were gulping air like goldfish, stood up like a sprinter, just hoping against the odds to make that 5km harder than all the hundreds of kilometres that had gone before. Chloe and Robyn were there once more, cheering loudly, shouting like banshees up the hill and we turned onto Plodder Lane to get to Seddon.
Was it worth it? You bet.