200 MILES ON A TANDEM
A RIDER’S STORY
When Margaret Biggs and I were invited to be Ambassadors for The Douglas Bader Foundation, we thought long and hard about ways in which we could raise awareness of the charity, attract some much needed finance and also attempt something that would put us under a degree of pressure.
As we were both cyclists, a challenge on two wheels seemed the logical way to go but then Peter Jones, a good friend and Director of County Cycles happened to mention that he had a tandem we could use and why don’t we ride down the length of Wales on it? Riding my own bike whilst managing my disability is one thing but to share a bike with another amputee and remaining safe, was going to be a challenge in itself!! I knew that Maggz (a very talented able-bodied and later a trail-blazing paralympic cyclist) had ridden a tandem many years ago with her mum and when I asked if she fancied sharing a tandem with me on this ride, she was very positive……NO….CORRECTION…….FORGET THAT …… I LIED…….she was scared stiff, especially as I suggested I’d like to pilot the thing!!
With Maggz living in Southport over 200 miles away, training together was always going to be a problem and we actually only managed one training ride together and that was on a flat 22 mile stretch of the Millenium Coastal Pathway near Llanelli. My other training rides saw Peter Jones on the back for one and my wife Marg (who surprisingly loved it) for the other three with a longest ride of just 33 miles.
Were we adequately prepared? As we stood at the port in Holyhead holding the tandem for the pre-event photo-shoot, all sorts of doubts were starting to kick in. We knew that if we could co-ordinate our push to get the tandem moving we’d be fine on the flat – in fact we knew that we could bomb along as it is a very fast bike. The unknown factor would be the hills that we’d have to encounter especially on Day 3 on the way down to Lampeter – would we, between us, have the necessary “grunt” to get this steel-framed beast to the top of each climb, or would we need the help of other cyclists to push us up?
We are both right-sided amputees – Maggz below knee and me above, so we had to click our prosthetic legs into the cleats before getting into the start position. I then had to get on the saddle (on tip-toe) with our prosthetic side at a quarter past three position on the pedals and then after a 3-2-1 count down we’d push away and Maggz, having the benefit of a knee joint would generate enough downward pressure on her prosthesis to get the cranks moving. Once we had momentum we were away but we always had to be vigilant when stopping and invariably looked for a curb or bank so that we could unclip on our “good” side and coast to a stop.
Gemma Trotter and Colin Davies, both above knee amputees joined us on their own bikes along with able-bodied cyclists from my club in West Wales – CMC. Sandra and Peter, both club members and owners of County Cycles, were also riding with us as well as providing the technical back-up. Support vehicles were driven by my wife Marg, Rob, Gemma’s husband and Marianne and her husband Jeff. Marianne was particularly miffed that she couldn’t ride with us, having just broken her wrist in two places. Three of our club-mates were coming up by train that morning but as they weren’t due to arrive until 12.30pm we had to leave Holyhead without them. Little did we know that as we cycled past RAF Valley, a few miles down the road from Holyhead, they saw us as they passed in the opposite direction with their train well ahead of schedule.
It was great to see Wendy McCleave of The Douglas Bader Foundation and her husband Martin at the start. They’d come up in their campervan and would be shadowing us all the way down – fantastic! The first part of the ride passed uneventfully along the A55 – this used to be the main road south but once they’d built the expressway, this road became very quiet and great to cycle on. We used this time to get used to communicating with each other – “stop pedalling” “pedal” “change down/up” “signal” “push hard/slow down”. We’d found very early on that communication was vital – on one occasion, I didn’t tell Maggz that I was going to stop pedalling, the result being that her prosthetic leg came adrift of the cleat holding her leg onto the pedal. Apparently it was quite a sight seeing Maggz’ right leg going into “frantic” mode!! Traffic started to build as we reached the 20 mile mark at the Menai Bridge – our first major land-mark which saw us re-enter mainland Wales.
The whole group was going well and we were relieved to hear that the three late arrivals were also making good time and not too far behind us. We stopped at the “Galeri” on the quay in Caernarfon for lunch – exactly 25 miles with everyone in good shape. It had been bitterly cold on the run-in to the lunch stop as we turned into the strong westerly wind but thankfully, the rain was holding off. An old college friend of mine, Aled Roberts who lives in Caernarfon met up with us for lunch. He’s a keen cyclist and would have joined us for part of the ride had it not been for the fact that he’d just stepped off a flight from Boston. We’re planning, as a club, to take up his offer to introduce us to his favourite cycling routes in North Wales. Our “missing three” finally caught up with us and we set off for the second part of the day’s ride down to Porthmadog. We cycled past the magnificent Castle in Caernarfon and picked up the cycle trail that would keep us off road for the next 20 miles. My club mates were fantastic on this stretch, heading off in two’s to open and close the numerous gates on this trail – as a result the tandem didn’t have to stop for any of these obstacles. Gemma and Colin, in the meantime, were both riding well – the only downside being the low cloud that obscured the breathtaking scenery of the Snowdonia mountain range. Still no rain and we were mostly sheltered from the strong wind that whipped in off the sea. The final 5 miles on the road were really quick with a final plunge into Porthmadog that saw the tandem hitting 40 mph!
Day 1 completed with an average speed of 14.8 mph but we were very concerned when Colin decided not to join us for a pre-booked meal at a local restaurant – he complained of feeling very tired and decided to have a take-away and get to bed early. Margaret and Keith Powell were also looking rough and it was no surprise when they very sadly decided to return home the next morning – a wise move as Keith was running the London Marathon at the end of the week – awful to see them go though. On the plus side, Colin looked much happier and was eager to get under way.
Day 2 – Porthmadog – Machynlleth
One thing we’d learned very early on was that the tandem is exceptionally quick. With both of us putting down a little power, it was very easy to get well over 20 mph and this was putting some of the riders under pressure.
We’d had a chat over dinner the night before and decided that we would head out in front on Day 2 and try and keep a nice steady tempo. So it was, that at 9.30am, we left the Travel Lodge in Porthmadog and headed at a sedate 12mph via a Toll Road on the coastal road towards Harlech. This is a beautiful stretch of road and even the Toll Keeper was in a good mood – after hearing that we were a charity ride she waved all the riders and support vehicles through and asked us to donate the savings towards our fund-raising effort instead – brilliant!! We knew that the weather would be deteriorating as the day progressed with high winds and heavy rain forecast later in the day. I knew that the exposed section from Harlech to Barmouth would be brutal if we left it too late getting to that point. We approached Harlech and the first solid climb of the day up to the town. The castle looked majestic as we approached on the lower slopes and to our amazement, our steady tempo in an easy gear made the climb disappear very easily and we were soon entering the narrow town streets. We stopped at the town car park (and toilets!!) only to hear from our support crew that Peter (Mr County) of all people had punctured on the ascent – we were also told that some members of the group had made a detour to the castle for photographs. We were immediately behind schedule and the wind was getting stronger as we finally left Harlech. It’s lucky we left early that morning because by the time we’d battled our way down to Barmouth in a strong headwind, the rain had also started to fall. With even stronger winds due later in the afternoon, we didn’t waste too much time having lunch before heading off across the railway line and footpath on the wooden bridge across the estuary. Before leaving, a little girl came up to me with a £5 note to add to our collection – her mum is an occupational therapist who was delighted that we were demonstrating to other disabled people that it could be very rewarding to push yourself a little harder to improve your own quality of life.
The ride across the very slippery wooden boards was a bit hairy and Gemma was adding very quickly to the £1 fines I was imposing on her for any offending language!
She is a remarkable young lady who, since having an osseo-integration procedure some years ago (this is when a pin is placed into the femur and the weight of the prosthesis is then taken through the skeleton rather than through a socket) has become the first amputee spin instructor in the World. She’s an inspiration to so many people and you couldn’t wish to meet a nicer person – she’s also part of a terrific family unit with her husband Rob and little boy Archie. Just as we got to the other side of the estuary, we stopped to allow everyone to catch up – a momentary stop and I thought that Maggz was still on the back of the tandem. After we’d regrouped, I got in position and counted down in the usual way and pushed off. There wasn’t the usual burst of power from the rear but I put this down to Maggz having another of her private picnics or texting/ phoning Wendy with regular updates of our progress. I heard some shouts from behind but ignored them as I set about picking up some speed – the tandem was feeling decidedly sluggish though! The shouts were now becoming quite frantic and when Maggz failed to give me her usual running commentary I realised that she was missing – I’d left her behind and she was very unimpressed as the tandem took off without her. My club mates reckoned I did it on purpose but I’d never have done that on purpose ………would I Maggz?????
With Maggz safely back on board, we headed east on the sheltered part of the Aberdovey peninsular which was very undulating. Colin’s lack of mileage before the event started taking it’s toll and he was very grateful for the assistance he received from Dave Pope and Guto Evans who gently helped him up the steeper inclines. Once we rounded the headland, the fierce wind was in our faces and boy, was it getting strong! We had momentary relief when we came across Wendy and Martin parked on the side of the road, although the communication system failed yet again between Maggz and I when I failed to warn her that we were about to veer across to the right hand side of the road where they were parked – Wendy claims to have heard Maggz from 100yds away giving me some grief!! By now it was raining heavily and we were all looking forward to our arrival at the Wynnstay Hotel in Machynlleth. We arrived at bang on 5.00pm to be greeted by another good friend of mine Roy Williams – we were also in college together and it was great to see he and his wife Yvonne there to meet us. Thankfully, they helped us get the tandem plus our two spare bikes (in case of breakdown) stored away and helped Marg get our luggage, plus Maggz’ and Colin’s up stairs to our rooms. After a tiring day co-ordinating with Rob in the back-up vehicles protecting us from the impatience of some drivers, this was the hardest part of the day for her. We also had our two whippets with us and as the three of us had our cycling legs on it was difficult for us to carry too much luggage for fear of falling over – we were grateful Marg – honest!!
The Wynnstay is a typical old town hotel with rickety stairs and strangely angled floors that feel as if they’ve been treated with a strong dose of rum rather than varnish! Some of us had an early bath that overly strained the hot water system, resulting in many of our party and other hotel guests making do with cold showers – they shouldn’t have gone to the bar first!! These shortcomings were soon forgotten as we were treated to an excellent evening meal in a private dining room. Maggz and I were feeling really good, if a little tired and we were looking forward to the second half of the journey. Jeff however, our technological phone wizard with an “app” for all occasions darkened the mood with his updated weather forecast for Day 3 – Gale force winds and torrential rain which may clear later in the day!
Day 3 Machynlleth – Lampeter 54 miles
Jeff’s “app” was right – the rain was horizontal and you could barely stand up in the wind let alone ride a bike!! There were grim faces all round with some advocating a delayed start to give the weather a chance to ease, while others just wanted to get on with it, adopting the philosophy that once you’re wet you’re wet – end of!! There were no guarantees that the weather would improve, so a decision was made that we’d head off at 10.00am. Rob and Gemma’s mood wasn’t improved when they realised that their nearly new VW camper had been badly dented the night before when late night revellers made their way home from The Wynnstay. In an age dominated by watching cameras, it was ironic that the hotel didn’t have any! Peter had the strange if practical idea of putting the complimentary shower caps provided by the hotel over our cycling helmets to keep our heads dry and warm – it looked very strange but it worked!! The 14 miles down to Aberystwyth seemed to take forever – the wind was incredibly strong and within minutes we were all soaked to the skin. Jeff and Marianne headed off to look for a café so we could get a hot drink – they failed to find one, so Jeff in his inimitable way knocked up the landlord of a pub and coerced him into opening for us. Luckily the pub floor was wooden because it was quickly saturated with water pouring off some very cold cyclists. The hosts at The Black Lion were fantastic and they also added to the growing amount of money we were collecting. When we got into Aberystwyth, we met up with Denis Pook at PJ’s Snack bar on the promenade. He had cycled up from Lampeter that morning and after having to wait for nearly 2 hours for us to turn up was blue with cold. We got him some warm clothes and he soon felt a lot better – we all did after a really nice meal, made even better when the rain finally stopped and the sun momentarily came out – oh yes – the owner of PJ’s also contributed to the fundraising tally.
So far, it was the weather that was making the ride hard even though we had also encountered some stiff climbs. The going was now going to get a lot harder as we headed in land. We were escaping the teeth of the gale but were about to encounter our first steep climb with a 17-18% gradient and over a mile long. We had a really enjoyable approach to the climb, which is on the Pontrhydfendigaid Road from Aberystwyth.
We stopped at the bottom to get Colin’s bike in the back-up vehicle – having missed a great deal of training time, it was better for him to avoid risking injury by trying to be a hero. It took a great deal of persuasion but he eventually got in alongside Marg for a lift to the top. Maggz and I were determined to make it up but we were acutely aware that if we stalled and left it too late to get our feet out of the cleats, we could get hurt if the tandem fell back on us. There’s no easy approach to this hill, you’re straight onto it and straight up! There’s a short respite after a quarter of a mile when you can pull onto a forestry road to get your breath back before you tackle the next really steep bit. With heart rates hitting 180bpm we pushed hard over the steepest section and once over, we could relax and use an easy rhythm for the remainder of the climb to the top. A few of the club riders had to stop and walk, so it was with a great deal of joint and personal satisfaction that Maggz and I, together with Gemma conquered this major challenge – it was a tough climb for able-bodied cyclists, so it was especially rewarding for the three of us to get up it without stopping!! We turned south after the climb and any thoughts of an easy ride down to Tregaron were soon forgotten as the gale that hit us kept downhill speeds below 10mph – it was hard going! We had a well-earned break in Tregaron before heading down the valley towards the village of Llanddewi Brefi – made famous by Matt Lucas in the “Only Gay in the Village sketch” from the “Little Britain” series. We had the obligatory photo shoot at the village sign (to be posted later) and then we set off for our hotel in Lampeter. This was a very long and tough 54 miles but the whole group was in remarkably high spirits. The Falcondale Hotel is set in impressive grounds with a long and imposing driveway. Marianne and Jeff were there to greet us and the hotel staff couldn’t do enough to make life as easy as possible. They put the bikes away and took everyone’s luggage to their rooms without any fuss. The rooms were huge and luxurious with, thankfully, copious amounts of hot water and some nice comfortable bath robes to relax in before heading down for dinner. They put on a hot and cold buffet for us in a private room that was magnificent – I think I had at least three meals, as I was so hungry after the exertions of a very tough day. We retired to a comfortable sitting room for a few drinks to relax before bed. We had completed over 150 miles of our journey south and everyone was enjoying themselves, however, I knew from a “recce” ride I did with Guto the month before, that the smiles would quickly disappear after the first mile of cycling the next morning!! Before that however, we had a good night’s sleep and a sumptuous breakfast to look forward to – it was dawning on us that this fantastic adventure was going into it’s last day – and that was a bit sad for all concerned!
As we set off down the long driveway the next morning, the sun was shining and the birds were singing – even the wind was just a whisper. We cycled slowly through a sleepy Lampeter and then the hard work started – a 4 mile 6-8% climb out from the town. Maggz and I stuck the tandem in a low gear and kept a steady 90-100 rpm cadence to the top, with Gemma, Sandra, Anna and Phil just behind. The rest of the group were supporting Colin and giving him the occasional push to keep his momentum up – he was working his socks off and showing great determination. Once at the summit, we started a thrilling descent that had some fantastic bends and long straight stretches. To sit on the back of a tandem as it plummets downhill at 43mph takes some guts – you’ve got no control and are at the mercy of the “pilot”. Your cycling instincts kick in and you naturally want to brake at certain points and take the apexes in a certain way – but you can’t!! I heard a wailing coming from the rear but I put this down to the wind-rush and the deterioration of my hearing!! Poor Maggz, the day before we had been belting down a hill and although very careful about avoiding wet metal grills in the road, the back wheel did clip one on a bend that made the back step out a little – that was a “moment” for both of us and a salutary lesson to give these mini skid pans a wide birth. I’m not saying that Maggz was at all unnerved by this very rapid descent but she did a make straight for the loo at the garage we stopped at!!
Word came through that big Adrian had broken his bottom bracket (on his bike) and that he and Peter were using a spare bike off Marg’s car – mine in fact, so it was fortuitous we thought of bringing them. Big Adrian or “Mighty” as he’s affectionately known in rugby circles, was a really good prop forward, who played for his country at junior level and also for the famous Llanelli Scarlets. After retiring, his weight ballooned to 27st and he was also smoking to excess. He and Anna decided to take up cycling and in the last year he’s shed 7 stone and stopped smoking entirely – he loves his new sport. Anna has a medical condition that leaves her tired at times but she has become one of the best hill climbers in the club – they both love cycling, especially in the company of other like-minded people. Although I’m an amputee, with a reduced power level, I can still cycle with the other club members on equal terms. What I love is the fact that no allowances are made for my disability and nor would I want them to. I pride myself that I can get up 99% of the hills in our area (The Devil’s Staircase with a 25% climb beat me) using a Compact front chain ring and a 32 tooth rear cassette. Changing from a round chain-ring to Rotor Q Rings and Cranks enabled me to ditch my old triple front chain-ring. I can keep a high pedalling cadence on the hills and generate a good amount of power on the flat – I love my bike and when I’m cycling I often forget about my disability completely.
With Peter and Adrian back with us, we headed for Llandeilo via Talley along a very undulating and busy road. The back-up cars did a fantastic job along this stretch which is full of blind crests – they slowed down following traffic and kept us safe on what can be a dangerous section of road. It was very strange to pass within a mile of my house and avoid the turning I would normally take when heading home. We dropped down into Llandeilo for lunch at Rosetta’s. The owners – Gill and Daryl Gittins had prepared a buffet for us in a private room and had also made a provision to store our bikes. Daryl was on TV recently having his latest brain operation filmed as they “debulked” a large brain tumour, the complications of which led to him losing his leg below the knee a few years ago. They can’t eradicate this tumour and he has to have regular operations to minimise it’s spread….but it doesn’t stop him cycling with us!! He, Gill and their sons are incredibly positive people. There to meet us in Llandeilo were Roy Bergiers and Meredydd James – both ex-college friends of mine. Roy played for Llanelli, Wales and the British Lions and became a local legend when his club Llanelli beat the 1972 New Zealand “All Blacks” with Roy scoring the only try of the game. Meredydd is a larger than life character with a wicked sense of humour. He captained Bridgend RFC and is full of stories about the shenanigans that go on in the front row of scrums. He was recently honoured with an MBE for services to Education after a successful stint as a headmaster doing a huge amount to help his community with innovative initiatives. To have these guys hurling abuse and encouragement in equal measure was incredibly uplifting as we made our way to Rosetta’s. They then spent the next hour telling stories over lunch trying their best to embarrass me in front of our group – I just sat back and pondered how lucky Marg and I are to have such an amazing and happy life despite the setbacks of 2008 – we’ve got fantastic family and friends.
With lunch coming to a reluctant end, we headed off on the final 30 miles to the Mumbles, Swansea. Any thoughts that this would be a relaxing final push were soon dispelled with some gruelling climbs – but there were also high- speed descents! Maggz spent her time keeping Wendy updated on our progress and embracing any riders who came close enough – she was like a human windmill on the back and obviously thrilled that we were getting nearer our goal. The traffic down to Gorseinon and then over to Gowerton was very heavy and we all wished we could have been back in the solitude of the Welsh countryside where the only noises came from wildlife and the millions of sheep and newly born lambs.
We were slightly ahead of schedule and beginning to wonder how we could delay the ride to get to Verdi’s at the appointed time of 5.00pm, when Anita punctured on the cycle path that took us down to the coast. As we swung onto the cycle way, we could see Verdi’s on the sweep of the bay 2 miles away and knew that a crowd was gathering to greet us.
As we got nearer, I suddenly started to feel quite emotional – a really strange feeling. The ride had been hard of course but the training beforehand had seen to it that my conditioning was up to the challenge – so it wasn’t emotion triggered by fatigue! Maggz clapped me on the shoulder in triumph as we approached the finishing line (yes – there was a finishing tape!) and as I looked across at Gemma on one side of the tandem and Colin on the other (the rest of the group had made us ride up front on the run in to the finish) I felt immensely proud that we were sending a really positive message to others in the limbloss community. We had ridden the length of Wales with able-bodied cyclists who didn’t see us as amputees but as individuals who happened to enjoy cycling. While it’s important to educate people to see past a disability to the individual beyond but it’s equally important for disabled people not to see themselves as victims. There’s an incredibly happy life to be lived if you’re prepared to meet the challenge of making it so.
Marg, Rob, (Archie of course), Marianne and Jeff, and all our other friends and supporters were there to greet us, as were Wendy and Martin. Also there was Bron Jones who had tearfully left us the day before as she had to go back to her teaching job on the Monday – she was gutted she couldn’t ride the last day with us. I swear that most had tears in their eyes as we crossed that line – it was a very special moment!!
Pictures were taken of the happy group and we then went into Verdi’s for a well-earned meal – within minutes the talk had turned to planning the next venture!!
Sharing the tandem for four days with Maggz was an incredible experience. We had to work together as a team and in doing so, we conquered all the tough climbs and horrible weather conditions that tried their best to dampen our spirits. We, Gemma and Colin had a memorable time and enjoyed each other’s company but would be the first to acknowledge that our task would have been so much more difficult without the support of those on the trip with us – thank you to everyone involved who helped make this happen.
Roll on the next venture for TEAM BADER – any budding amputee cyclists out there who would like to join us next time should contact Margaret Biggs through the DBF web-site – you’ll have the time of your lives!!
*************************************************Tags: above-knee amputee, County Cycles, Douglas Bader, Falcondale Hotel, Little Britain, Llandewi Brefi, Matt Lucas, Menai Bridge, Millenium Coastal Pathway, osseo-integration, PJ's Snack Bar, prosthesis, prosthetic leg, raralympic cyclist, Tandem Challenge, Tandem Challenge Wales, Team Bader, The Mumbles