2.50am, Saturday 5th July 2014. The Crown Hotel Harrogate. This was the earliest I had ever got up for anything in my life. I’d stayed up all night on many occasions, had many early mornings and interrupted sleep, but to actually get up for anything this early was a first. Usually if you need to be up at this time you would not go to bed and sleep later. I didn’t have the luxury to even think about that though. I was going to be riding the first stage of the Tour de France only hours ahead of the professional peloton.
Marie Curie Cancer Care were the official charity of the Tour de France Grand Depart. I had first learnt in November 2013 that they planned to organise a ride for the Tour de France. Andrew Walker who had helped me with previous fundraising events had been to a presentation by the charity and thought I may be interested. I heard nothing more about the ride until late January 2014 when I was sent details of the ride by Marie Curie. Marie Curie were creating the Power Peloton for the Tour de France. The riders of the peloton must be able to ride the 190km of stage 1 of the Tour de France at an average of 17mph. This seemed quite possible. Each rider must raise a minimum of £19,000 as this would pay for a Marie Curie nurse for one year. This second part seemed more difficult. For the three years before 2014 I had raised about £3,500 each year and that was hard work. Was £19,000 in less than 20 weeks possible?
I mulled it over in my mind speaking to as many people as possible to get their opinion. The overwhelming opinion of my peers was to leave it well alone as raising that much money in such a short time was impossible. I took no notice of the advice and finally agreed to do it. I had to sign a contract to say that if I didn’t make the £19,000 I would personally make up any shortfall. This focuses the mind somewhat! There was no going back.
No going back maybe, but I soon learnt that I had no control over my destiny. No sooner had I signed the contract than I received a telephone call from the charity. ‘It’s off’ they told me. The Tour de France Hub, a collection of all the local councils together with the police, fire and ambulance, 14 authorities in total, could not guarantee safety on the closed roads prior to the race going through. A week followed where I waited to see what was going to happen. I couldn’t start my fundraising, I couldn’t mention it to anyone, and it was now late February. Time was running short.
Finally, as February melted into March the powers that be agreed that the ride could go ahead. We would be riding on closed roads, with a service van to the front and rear, and two motorcycle outriders who would control any ‘official’ vehicles on the route. On March 11th, with only 16 weeks to the ride, I finally had my fundraising launch lunch for local businesses in York.
The fundraising took up a great deal of time leaving me little time to train. I first rode part of the route on 22nd March with the Clifton ‘Three Peaks’ Spring Tour. From that point on I rode as much as I could up in the Dales.
Following all the fundraising and training I found myself meeting up with the other riders of the Power Peloton at the official Tour de France opening ceremony in Leeds on the Thursday before the ride. On the Friday we were taken on a 30 mile ride just to see how we all rode together. On the return to the hotel in Harrogate we had a riders briefing. This riders briefing was when it first struck home that we were riding stage 1 of the Tour de France. The briefing was very formal and we were presented with the road books which all of the riders, teams and journalists receive. As a group we were taken through the route by Graham Baxter who was leading the ride for Sports Tours International. We were told that we must stay a minimum of 3 hours ahead of the main peloton and if we dropped off or had a mechanical we would have to go into the van. Each of us was presented with our ‘Power Peloton’ kit and official Tour de France armbands to show that we should be on the route to any overzealous marshals and police who the ‘Hub’ had forgotten to brief. We were now all set for the 4am start on Saturday morning.
I had a fundraising event already organised in York at the Ye Old Sun Colton on the Friday evening. Some friends were organising it but I had to go there to rally every last pound out of the enormously generous benefactors supporting me. I was back in Harrogate for 9.30pm. I laid out my kit and went straight to bed. I was asleep by 10pm and slept through to my 2.50am alarm call.
Porridge for breakfast, bikes on the trailer, and onto the bus heading for Harewood House. I looked through the rain soaked windows at people still coming home from their pre-Tour revelry in the pubs and clubs of Harrogate. Today the Tour would start in Yorkshire.
We started from Harewood House at 4am. The roads were officially closed and we had the vehicles to guide us through the dark and rain. We set off at one hell of a lick. We rode as a tight group ticking off villages and empty pavements that in only a few hours would be standing room only. As we entered Otley we saw a group of silent Tourmakers being briefed. They had plastic bag hats and kagool’s to protect them from the rain. The same at Ilkley, but this time a cheer from the assembled Tourmakers as we rode past. The world was starting to wake up. To the Power Peloton it felt like midday. The Power Peloton continued to ride on quickly. We were ahead of time. At Skipton, Greg Green, a lifelong friend of mine had rented a cottage on the road out of town to watch the Tour. I saw a solitary figure on the pavement on the road. ‘Come on Hughesy’ he called as I rode by. I later learnt he then went straight back to bed! At Kettlewell one of the riders got a puncture. We stopped as a group and one of the mechanics in the van did the fasted puncture repair I have ever seen. The wheel was off, and repaired in moments. We had a bite of an energy bar and were off.
Soon we were at the base of the climb to Kidstones. Up until now we had not seen many spectators, only my friend Greg at Skipton to be precise. As we reached the top of the climb at Kidstones the spectators were starting to appear.
I had ridden this road a number of times and I had read the road book that we had been given yesterday in the hotel. I knew there was a sprint at Newbiggin just off the descent from Kidstones. As we approached the sprint section two of the riders had moved slightly ahead. I tucked in behind them and made my move as late as possible. I crossed the sprint line under the gantry first. It meant nothing to anyone but me.
The rain was now slowing to a light drizzle and the ride to Hawes had us picking up the pace again. The crowds seemed disappointing but I hadn’t realised how early it still was. This was going to change from the point of hitting the foot of the next climb, Buttertubs. Suddenly there were masses of people all making their way up the climb on foot, and also on bikes. The lead van and motorbike cut through the crowds but no sooner had they gone through, than the crowds moved together again. We all had to zig-zag up the climb in and out of the crowd. Concentrating on this however took any thoughts of pain from the climb away. Before I knew it we had gone over the steep cattle grid section and were approaching the top. The crowds at the top of the climb were incredible. The descent was swift but we had to be careful as people were walking up the other side too. We regrouped at the foot of the climb and rode on. At Reeth we stopped and were given a hot pork pie. This was magnificent. Energy bars are good but hot pork pie from Reeth bakery is better!
The next challenge was to be Grinton Moor. The crowds were similar to Buttertubs but it was even busier. It seemed that every field between Muker and Grinton Moor was full of tents. The world was camping in Swaledale. The Power Peloton broke up a bit over this climb so it was everyman for himself fighting through the crowds. As I rode over the small stone bridge followed by the adverse camber I saw a familiar cycle jersey in the crowd making their way over the moor. Clifton CC from York is my club and three riders were riding ahead. I passed them and called out a hello and was greeted with a loud ‘Allez, Allez!’ This really raised the spirits. From then on I kept on seeing Clifton CC shirts and hearing my name called. Before I knew it I was on the outskirts of Leyburn.
The ride before Leyburn had been wonderful. No matter how many times I had ridden the route, no matter how wet the start of the day had been, riding on the closed road and watching the route come to life had been something special. It was however about to become even better.
As the Power Peloton entered Leyburn the road was drying and the sun was getting warm. Barriers were either side of the pavement all along the route. The pavements were full of people and the atmosphere was building. Our gruppetto flew through the town and there were cheers. This was great fun. We ticked off the villages and towns as once again our speed increased in direct proportion of our excitement. Sweeping into Ripon any tiredness in the legs was overtaken by excitement. We approached Ripley Castle roundabout and on towards Harrogate. The atmosphere in the Power Peloton and the crowd was crazy. ‘This is the Tour de France. Today! On the roads we ride all the time. NOW!’
We were brought to a halt at the Flamme Rouge, one kilometre from the finish. It seemed that our enthusiasm had got us to this point too quickly. The finish line had not been painted yet! We laughed and joked with the crowd and then after 20 minutes, which seemed like an age, a French motorcyclist approached us and told us that we could proceed. At the briefing in the Crown Hotel in Harrogate the day before we had been told that we must roll over the finish line together. There was to be no racing. We all set off together in a line across the road. Our support vehicles were to filter off the route at about 150 m from the finish.
From the ‘flamme rouge’ the Power Peloton couldn’t see over the second of two hill crests before the finish. The crowds were getting even deeper and when we crested that second hill we saw down towards the finish. Suddenly we were met by a wall of sound. People were cheering, waving, banging the advertising hoardings, and generally yelling their heads off. I had never seen so many people and was genuinely scared. The sound was so loud that we could not hear each other. Not that we were saying anything. Like my fellow riders I had a smile from ear to ear.
The finish came all too quickly. The Power Peloton rolled over the line. Cameras were pushed into our faces. Jules Bellerby from Radio York who I had done a number of interviews for my fundraising pushed a microphone towards me, asked me how it went, and I answered with comments about this being a once in a lifetime ride and that the hot pork pie at Reeth has the highpoint!
Next stop the podium and photographs. What a finish. What a day.
After going back to the hotel for a shower we were then in the grandstand to see the professional riders of the Tour de France cross the line. I didn’t want this day to end. I had another fundraiser planned that evening at ‘Your Bike Shed’ in York. After the race had finished I got back into my kit and rode home from Harrogate. The sun was shining brightly and the rain of the early morning was a distant memory. The roads were empty and it was the most wonderful ride back to York.
The fundraising continued. As I close my fundraising I am at £24,541. How I managed to raise so much money is a whole other story. If anyone wants to support me, they still can at http://www.justgiving.com/mjdhughes. Thanks for reading this. I know it is a bit long drawn out but it could’ve been even longer. Every turn of the wheel is imprinted on my memory. I’ve tried to be as brief as possible!