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This is the first of a series on touring Battlefields by bike. This first instalment describes how our founder Richard's love of cycling started, and why bikes make such a great way to tour battlefields.
Before MAMILs became part of everyday life, and with Help for Heroes (H4H) at the earliest part of its life (they were only at about £10m raised), its founder, Brynn Parry, came up with the idea of a sponsored bike ride around the battlefields of France. I cannot remember how I heard about it, but I had certainly never considered a distance bike ride before. I had used my bike for a short commute into work every day, but I had never even ridden a road bike.
Fortunately Henry was in his teenage years and a pact was made that we would get him a road bike, I would use it for the Big Battlefield Bike Ride and then, expecting never to want to see it again, it would be his. And so the trusty Trek was bought (and still goes strong).
As I was taught in my time in the Army, Prior Preparation and Planning Prevents Piss-Poor Performance. Thankfully H4H sent out a detailed training guide which I, not wanting to show my arse, took seriously enough to do about half of it. Thank goodness I did. Hats off to those who turned up unprepared, but by Day 3 they were in tatters.
Nowadays you can do sponsored cycle rides everywhere but at the time this one seemed to be the first to capture everyone’s attention. H4H was building up steam and those who joined all seemed to have the most incredible personal commitment – often rooted in deeply-felt personal stories. In all some 200 cyclists took part.
I will save a detailed account of the various battlefields we visited but the brilliantly planned route saw us sent off from the Historic Royal Naval Dockyard, board a ferry and land at Caen. The Normandy beaches and Pegasus Bridge followed before tracking north to Le Havre and St Valery (site of the 51st Division’s capture).
We were then on towards the battlefields of World War 1 before returning to 1940 and the retreat to Dunkirk. ‘Evacuated’ by HMS Bulwark we crossed to Dover where landing craft put us ashore, before a coach journey to London and a triumphal final few miles into London led to a welcome on Royal Horse Guards.
For someone interested in military history this was heaven. Experts from the Guild of Battlefield Guides were positioned at important vantage points or cemeteries to explain things (and provide a rest from pedalling). The ride also opened my eyes to the totally different experience gained by viewing battlefields by bike. We were able to put in extra detours, work out where Rommel HAD to have had his command post or conduct individual acts of commemoration.
Importantly the ride raised over £1m in sponsorship – an astonishing effort that far surpassed H4H’s expectations. It has led to annual subsequent Big Battlefield Bike Rides (sign up for 2017 now!) which have raised millions of pounds.
As for the cycling. Well a new convert was added.
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Richard: 19th May 2017 13:26:00