Dallaglio Cycle Slam – Stage Two

James McKenna
6 July, 2016

In January of this year I offered my support for the Dallaglio Foundations 2016 cycle slam. In the past I have volunteered for charities but with a massive focus on Mentzendorff in 2015 my priorities were elsewhere. In 2016 I resolved to offer my help to DF. With so many high profile supporters and even more high rolling fundraisers my offer of help was aimed at helping organise the logistics of the event rather than ride or fundraise. The event was scheduled to kick off in Spain and with a few days in Andorra and France. Being a Spanish, French and (on a good day) Catalan speaker I envisaged phoning and making hotel and restaurant bookings, fixing support from local bike shops, all from the comfort of the Foundation’s office in Shoreditch…it didn’t work out like that! I am a big believer in the charity itself. DF helps youngsters in Pupil Referral Units. PRUs are for those pupils that have been excluded from school. The Foundation, under the slogan ‘rugby works’ aims to get these teenagers back into training or employment. Statistically, teenagers at a state school have a 45% chance of achieving grade C or above in their GCSEs. Once they are out of mainstream education and in a PRU the chances slide to just 2%. In general terms a PRU is a brief stop between expulsion from school and a life on the margins of society, be that long term unemployment or prison. Lawrence’s vision is to have Rugby coaches in PRUs and teach them the values of sport: commitment, teamwork, communication, hard work and help be a catalyst for positive change in their lives. If no-one intervenes the statistics show where those in these Units are destined.

In February they confirmed that they would like me to help but needed me to think hard about their proposal before saying yes. Their idea was for me to help Dan Field participate in the Slam. Dan works for the charity and helps instil the values of the charity with young people across London. Dan would need some help getting ready for the ride as he had never ridden a bike before. As a newcomer to cycling it was important that Dan took part in the “easy stage of the ride”. “No problem, very happy to help” I said. Straightforward task bit of coaching may be the occasional training ride. This was before Andrew Hawes told me that Dan was partially sighted and that is the reason he had never learnt to cycle. Then I learnt that the request was that I would ride a tandem with Dan. Sharp intake of breath, “ok” I said. I then checked out the “easy” stage on-line. It started in the heart of the Pyrenees mountain range, Andorra. The first 30k of the 550k that we would ride would be up the highest paved road in the Pyrenees reaching 2600m above sea level. “Easy stage of the ride”. Dan has no sight in one eye and with his good eye he is able to read the top line of the classic optician test. How he copes, or better said, excels with his sight is impressive and he has learnt to utilise his other senses to compensate his poor vision. He is a successful parasportsman and represents England. Getting to know Dan and what he achieves forced me to reflect on what at times I consider to be excuses in daily life and also eliminated any reservations about joining the ride and helping. On arriving in Spain we felt massively underprepared, the Slam was in full flow and the ride had just 2 days earlier finished stage one, taking in the iconic climbs of the Tour de France. Our preparation hadn’t worked out as we had liked and we totalled 15 minutes of tandemtime before embarking on the massive task of climbing a 2600m mountain.

James and Dan

We started the ride and were immediately passed by the slow riders of the group which was massively frustrating. Tandem riding (two riders & one very heavy bike) means that riding downhill your acceleration is terrifying but uphill all momentum immediately dissipates. We were working as hard as we could but felt we were getting nowhere. Even as an experienced cyclist my efforts had no effect on our pace and at one point I was pushing so hard that the seat post came loose and required mechanical assistance. Dan had never ridden a bike for longer than 15 minutes so an hour into the ride with a broken bike and being the last riders on the road our motivation was taking a real hammering. As the oxygen thinned at 2000m our ride became a very slow trudge. We made it to the top after 4 hours of hard slog and were cheered by the support crew who had been waiting patiently for us. It had been an exhausting day but also a hugely satisfying one. The profile of day two was such that Dan and I started further along the route and ahead of the rest of the group. It wasn’t long before the faster riders joined us and a celebrity tag team of Austin Healy, Martin Johnson and Andrew Ridgeley took turns to push us up the main climb of the day! An easier day physically but heavy traffic in Narbonne was a technical challenge and we had nervous moments and a few navigation issues before finally finding the night’s hotel. As a team, Dan and I were learning. Tandem riding is about timing, constant communication, hard work and a tonne of patience. As we worked on these elements of the task, the ride became easier. The parallels with management were becoming clearer every day.

Days 3 and 4 took us along the coast and into Spain. Day 3 was punctuated with a beautiful lunch on the French coast whereas the ride across the border into Spain will be remembered for some cruel climbs, a wicked headwind and a late discovery that in fact our back brake had at some point in the day locked itself in an “on” position. After the high point of the Pyrenees this was our lowest point.

Day 5 took us to Europe’s best city and my former home, Barcelona. Familiar roads, our improved skills of tandem riding and the prospect of the finish line motivated us to power on and be the first to arrive at the finish line and take applause from the support crew and a well-earned beer. The Dallaglio Foundation Cycleslam brings together a blend of adventure, team spirit, competition and benevolence and that combination provided enough motivation for me to help the charity in a way I hadn’t imagined and will never do again!