Last week, sitting on the 6:18pm commuter train from Paddington to Reading, with my Brompton in the rack behind me, my phone pinged with a new email. A new clinical trial had just started, providing and little more hope for Eli and the thousands of boys like him. I smiled thinking back to an exhausting day in June.
Three years ago I first learnt about Eli Crossley, a gorgeous little boy, then aged 5, who had the extreme misfortune to be born with Duchenne muscular dystrophy. It is a horrible disease, with no known cure, that kills its victims as they reach their 20s and 30s. Eli’s amazing parents were determined to improve his odds of survival, and the odds for all the other young men (it mostly affects men) in the same situation. They set up the Duchenne Children’s Trust to raise money to fund critical clinical trials and its flagship fundraising event is the Duchenne Dash - a London to Paris in 24 hours bike ride.
In 2013, I completed the inaugural ride, on my carbon racer, and tapped up everyone I knew for sponsorship. In 2014 I wanted to do the ride again, but knew I could not go back to my same friends and colleagues to sponsor me for the same thing, so to add to the challenge, my heroic wife and I completed the ride on a tandem. It was tougher, but a lot less tough than people thought (good for the sponsorship!). And in 2015, looking for a fresh challenge, and one that aligned with my love of West London’s finest engineering export, I decided to complete the 297km and 2678m of climb, in 24 gruelling hours, on a Brompton. This would surely be my toughest challenge yet.
We have read wonderful stories of Bromptons covering huge distances (see Peaks of the Western Ghats). And we have evidence of people excelling against the clock on their fabulous folders (see Brompton World Championships). But people still seemed to think my one day charity challenge was insane.
To maximise my chances of completing the journey I decided against taking my 2-speed commuting workhorse, and instead obtained a six speed P-type; the gears to better cope with the hills and the two-position bars to allow for a slightly more aerodynamic stance when needed. I chose a beautiful red, white a blue paint job (the desire for this meant no lightweight titanium frame parts), added a bottle holder, and had some decals made to advertise the charity ride. I also chose the firm suspension, switched the pedals for SPDs and fitted a saddle bag with spare tubes and spanners - of the 110 people on the ride, the other 109 were on 27 inch wheel racers, so the support van was not going to have spares for my machine.
Training for the ride was a bit limited by a busy work schedule, but I did manage a couple of fun outings.
On one occasion I did an early morning commute from Reading, where I live, to Hammersmith in West London (65km). A few miles into my journey I was passed by a young chap on a racer. I spotted my chance for a tow and hauled myself into his slipstream. Its amazing how effective slipstreaming on a Brompton is. The small wheels mean you can get that much closer to the bike in front, so gaining even more advantage. We then took turns on the front for nearly 30km, until he left me in Windsor with a wave of gratitude and a look of slight astonishment that he had got to work 10 mins early on account of a man twice his age with wheels half his size.
Encouraged by the commuting success, I decided to brave my Saturday morning bike mates, the self-styled Pangbourne ‘OFOBs’, or Old Farts on Bikes. Despite the self-mocking name, this group does regular trips to the Alps and Pyrenees and the weekend ride is a pretty competitive 3 hour thrash around the Berkshire and Oxfordshire hills, fuelled by too many spin classes and a desire to burn off the Friday night wine excess. I showed up at the usual time and place, but without my usual Pearson Carbon Pro. They of course predicted that I would last only 15 mins, and joked about how useful it would be that my bike would fit in the taxi home. Forty miles later, having been dropped on only one of the longest climbs, I’d earned a dose of respect for my new bike and for my tenacity.
Rather too quickly the weekend of the charity ride came around, and in glorious sunshine we gathered at the HQ of Channel Four, one of the ride’s supporters, for the 4pm departure. Before we set off, we were reminded why we were all doing it. Emily, Eli’s mum and the driving force behind the charity, spoke movingly and bravely about their struggle, about the amazingly promising clinical trials being funded by the sponsorship we were raising, and about the increased hope for Eli and other young sufferers from Duchnenne. There was not a dry eye in the room.
We gathered on the steps of Channel 4 for a send off photo and then headed out through the congested streets of London towards Newhaven and the ferry terminal.
For the first 15 miles of the ride, escaping the capital, our speed was limited by the traffic rather than our legs, but any frustration was offset by the reaction of the folks we passed. Seeing a big crowd on bikes in matching charity shirts, we elicited lots of shouts of support, and always with an extra look and a cheer directed towards the Brompton.
The trip south had a couple of nasty hills, especially up to Turners Green, where we stopped for refuelling. I suspect I was not alone in being grateful that the steep sided South Downs, exemplified by the brutal Ditchling Beacon climb into Brighton, peter out before they reach Newhaven.
On reaching the coast, we regrouped, changed, had a pretty dodgy meal at the Newhaven Travelodge, and boarded the ferry. We had five hours on board, four hours until the wake-up tannoy, so settled down quickly for what was a mercifully smooth crossing, and as much sleep as we could get.
Brutally awoken at 4am (3am UK time), we stumbled down to the car deck, picked up our bikes and headed off in the pre-dawn darkness with 200km ahead of us.
The first thing you notice, especially on a small-wheeled bike, is how good the roads are in France. Before the crossing, any stretch of tarmac is punctuated by shouts of ‘hole’ and wavy hand gestures from the riders in front. In France potholes just don’t seem to exist, leaving the riders to enjoy the gorgeous rolling scenery. Rolling hills means hilly rolling, so I had lots of opportunity to test the gearing on the bike. I have to say that I was really impressed. On the uphill, I could climb anything we came across without having to get out of the saddle, and on the downhill, my legs were never spinning out. I could also get into a lower tuck than the other riders and often pass them on long, steady descents at speeds often exceeding 60kmh. So glad there were no potholes!
The beautiful route planned by the Duchenne team kept us off the main roads and took in some beautiful sights, with numerous lovely chateaux and river views punctuating the route.
The highlight of the trip had to be the entry into Paris. By this stage we had regrouped into a mass peloton and were flanked by a number of off-duty gendarmerie motorbike outriders, many of them complete with comedy handlebar moustaches and ever-glowing Gauloises. Riding ahead of and beside us, they kept the traffic at bay and waved us through red lights and roundabouts. It made us feel very special and also encouraged the locals to cheer us as we passed.
Although the cobbled stones up the Champs Elysees and around the Arc de Triomphe were a bit jarring it was the perfect finish to an epic ride, and we arrived under the Eiffel Tower, just after 5pm French time and 24 hours after departing London SW1.
While it felt great to have kept up with a bunch of cyclists on £5k+ carbon bikes over 300km of hilly terrain, my real triumph was yet to come. After the obligatory team photo under the tower and a bottle of nearly-cold-enough beer, the cyclist needed to get rid of their bikes. They all wheeled their mounts off to a nearby sports ground where they queued patiently before loading them onto the back of a number of Luton trucks which would be driven back to the UK. The owners would then have to collect the bikes from a warehouse in South London later the following week. At least that’s what the other cyclists had to do. As for me, I folded by Brompton, chucked it into the boot of a Paris taxi, drove to the Gare du Nord, and then put the fine machine into the Eurostar luggage rack as the train sped me home.
After a quick pedal across London from St Pancras to Paddington, I was on something that resembled my usual commuter train, with my Brompton in the rack behind me. My phone pinged with a new email. It was Emily. The ride had raised over £500,000 to fund critical clinical trials. I then emailed my wife. I’d be home by 11pm, 31 hours after I pedalled out of London, in time for a celebratory glass of wine. French of course.
Written by Dan Cobley.
If you would like to find out more about The Duchenne Children’s Trust or donate, click here.