Last August I finished the first draft of the manuscript that would become We Are The Legion: 100 Years of the Royal British Legion. Like the rest of the world, I had been locked up more or less since the middle of March and I was aching to have a project that would take me out of myself and out of my writing space and beyond Oxford. One of the stories I enjoyed writing up most in the Legion’s history was the tale of one the annual fundraising initiatives, Pedal to Paris. Every year for the past quarter of a century, except for 2020, several hundred cyclists of varying ability have taken to the road to pedal from Eltham Palace in London to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
The trip takes four days with a total of 297 miles (475km) and is meticulously organised by the RBL with breaks en route, road closures where necessary and motorcycle outriders where not. The final day sees the cyclists pedal triumphantly up the Champs Elysees, which is closed for the event, to the Arc de Triomphe. There a senior Legion figure lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. In 2019 the honour fell to Lieutenant General James Bashall CB, CBE, who is the Legion’s National President. The only other cycling event for which the Champs Elysees is closed is the Tour de France.
Staring out of the window after clicking ‘send’ on the final draft of my text I reflected that I would be 60 years old by the time the edited version came back. Then I jumped up, ran downstairs to my husband’s studio and said: ‘Let’s do Pedal to Paris!’ Chris has much more experience of long cycle rides than I do, albeit his have been off-road on mountain passes and through tough countryside. He said yes. So, we signed up, dusted off our mountain bikes, which had hung limply from the garage roof throughout lockdown, pumped up the tyres and set off on a ride. The sheer joy of being on a bike was intense. As soon as we had been permitted to do outdoor sports I’d gone back to the river and into my boat, almost forgetting I had a bike. But here we were, at the end of August 2020 and eager to get fit enough to go the whole distance in a year’s time.
The training was fun and we did some lovely rides but the mountain bikes were not suitable for a long distance trip. What we needed were lightweight road bikes. Chris had a 23-year-old Klein racing bike, but I had nothing. If anyone reading this article tried to buy a bike in 2020 you will know that they were as scarce as hen’s teeth. We spoke to a cycle shop in Henley who initially thought they could get us bikes within four months but later rang back to say it would be March 2021 at the earliest. No one else we spoke to had any better news. Apparently, the Shimano warehouse had suffered a catastrophic fire and the supply chain had been disrupted, adding yet more woe to the Pandemic delays and Brexit. Chris did not give up. He contacted Ribble in Preston and they said they would be able to help. We would not be able to see or try the bikes in advance, we had to trust that they would be suitable and a good fit. So, with some trepidation we ordered two bespoke bikes online, going into every detail imaginable and some I had not even thought of. Within less than two months we took delivery of a pair of beautiful bikes, one red for Chris, one teal for me.
Our son, Simon, turned 30 just after my 60th birthday and was enthusiastic to join in the Pedal to Paris fun. He ‘inherited’ Chris’s Klein which, as it turns out, is almost the same age as the RBL ride itself. We decided to call ourselves Team Steeley as Chris and Simon both answer to the surname Steele and as a family we’re known locally as the Steeleys. There could be no excuses now. We spent the winter, spring, early summer and the last few months belting around the roads north, south, east and west of Oxford in rain and shine. Some days we came back soaking wet and freezing, other times we looked as if we’d been boiled but we never lost sight of our goal.
Wewill set off on Wednesday 1st September for London and begin the ride proper on Thursday 2nd September at 6:30am. Are we ready? Yes. Will we make it? I do hope so. Will it be hard? Undoubtedly but we’re determined to enjoy it. And we’re proud that we’ve raised £7,880 at the time of writing. It is in aid of a wonderful cause, and I could not be more grateful to those who have donated funds.