I’ve been thinking, and dare I say worrying, about this blog all week. So much raw material to work with: so much raw emotion to look back on: so much connection: so much of relevance and significance: and so much pain and difficulty. Yet by the end of the week, so much to look back on and be proud of.
All week I’ve had Big Country’s Fields Of Fire going round in my head: all week, that is, since #TeamOscar successfully overcame the best that the wee man could throw at us on our way down the road. It was an epic journey, one that combined persistence with dogged resistance, strength of mind with strength of body, and ultimately a will never to give in to adversity, even in the most difficult of conditions.
This is the story of the #TeamOscar Highland Bike for Princess Puddles. Line up the beers, strap yersel’ in and relive the windswept rollercoaster of the Highland Bike.
To begin at the beginning, we need to consider that Mouldy rode his bike into his work in the centre of Glasgow on the day before the off. Kev had a day off over in Wishaw, Robert probably did what Robert always does over in Spean Bridge, raced up a few hills in the big ring, and Brendan (aka Iain McGovern, Brendan Foster double alike) boarded a couple of late running trains on his way up from Newcastle. That was to be last time he travelled First Class that weekend.
We were meeting up in Pitlochry so the bhoys could watch their team sneaking away from McDiamid Park with a jammy point. Having said that, a few folk were choking on their beer when James Forrest rounded the keeper late on, only to bobble the ball wide of the target. Quite enjoyed that moment masel’, same as teaching these lads the latest dance craze: the Meek. It’s dead simple… stick yer right arm out and throw yer head back. Then repeat. Ad infinitum.
By pure chance, we met Sara and Grant in the bar. They were up to do Schiehallion the following day and I was duty bound to explain how my Twitter handle is @VonSchiehallion. Sara has been following me as the LifeCycle Man since I did a wee gig for Brendan this time last year and having finally met up, can I say what a lovely, lovely couple they are. Sara co-founded the Simba charity in 2008 and it was hugely touching to hear her story about how the charity started and how it has evolved.
Having failed to get the early night we had promised ourselves, we duly set multiple alarms in the Backpackers Hostel for 6am in order to be sure to be on the road by 6:30am. With the bikes to be reloaded onto both racks (roof and back), it was an exercise in teamwork that set the standard for what lay ahead.
Breakfast was booked at the Newtonmore Motor Grill and a rendezvous with Robert, who got a lift over from Spean Bridge despite the road being closed. We’re talking mega Olympic big breakfast here: the full works. I kid you not, you couldn’t have got any more of the good stuff on that plate: Highland Bike fuel.
So now we had one seriously laden motor: Two bikes on top, two on the back, all the bags inside, plus the food, and five blokes. Talk about a heavy load! But the old jigger delivered…
Destination: Mosset Park, home of Forres Mechanics FC. The Mechs did us proud. With their season already over, they opened up the ground, got a couple of players in and allowed us free rein to get photos on the park. Then Eileidh arrived: a magic moment. A truly magical moment. Eileidh had been in hospital in Aberdeen all week undergoing her last block of immunotherapy treatment and only got out on Friday night. But she was right up for this. Hugs here, high fives there, she even knew the names of the bikers. A Princess in the making.
We were led out of Forres by Calum Finlayson, Scottish 100 mile time trial champion, and patron of Pedal Strokes, a charity that supports sufferers of sarcoidosis, a rare condition that attacks the brain and lungs. Calum suffered a stroke in 2010, aged just 36, and has fought back to become one of the most feared competitors on the British cycling scene. Imagine cycling 100 miles at an average speed of 26mph: that’s Calum. Total respect. And, he was able to give us the potted history of every nook and cranny of the landscape as we meandered cross country into a biting 30mph headwind. Rain? Yeah, we got that. Hail? Yeah, we got that too. If you want a quick summary, it was hellish.
Next stop was Inverness Caley Thistle where the Highland Marchers and Highland Bikers had the bucket collection. Largely because of the weather, we didn’t arrive until just before 2pm so rattling time was strictly limited but it did provide the most poignant and touching moment of the entire week: Eileidh rattling a bucket to raise money to help save her own life. It summed up everything that this journey has been about: a small child with a permasmile relying on the generosity of others to have any realistic chance of a fulfilling life.
Eileidh, from the Highland Marchers and the Highland Bikers, we love you.
With inclement weather all around us, and a forecast that wasn’t in the least bit reassuring, I proposed to the #TeamOscar guys that we do something I’d never contemplated before on either a Highland March or a Highland Bike: we left at half time. We had a near 50 mile ride to do to Newtonmore, with challenging hills out of Inverness, Moy and Slochd, and with the wind continuing to gust at 35mph and rain forecast, we knew that if we were to have a realistic chance of refuelling before closing time, we had to be on the road at 4pm. It turned out to be the wisest move of the whole gig.
We made decent time in the conditions, averaging just over 10mph including stops, until we got to Kincraig. Then the rain started. Ten or so miles from the finish, and in gathering gloom, we got a right good soaking. We’d already agreed to finish back at the Motor Grill in order to make a clean start from there the next morning, but a recce of the Glen Hotel on arrival in the village revealed that we had precisely half an hour to get food: “in that case, we’ll just eat stinky then…”.
Sunday morning kicked off back in the Motor Grill, except that this time it was lashing with rain when we left: and I mean lashing. It’s uphill for ten miles to Dalwhinnie, it was into the wind and it was raining. A perfect storm.
Over the top of Drumochter, Mouldy suffered the first of two back wheel punctures in quick succession. And he had the gear shifter for the rear derailleur in his back pocket. It had snapped off on the road out of Newtonmore. To make matters worse, his front chain ring was now stuck in the big cog so he was left with one gear (big (hardest) ring on the front, big (easiest) cog on the bag) for the remaining 135 miles. Mouldy, you were a feckin’ hero mate: no giving up for you son.
We hit Pitlochry at lunchtime and by luck Brendan had parked the motor outside a café. The Lawlerman donned an NCCA T-shirt and dropped a bucket in the middle of the pavement. I kid you not: people actually came out of that café to splash the spare cash for wee Eileidh. Another magic moment.
I warned the team at this point that despite us being almost halfway for the day and the sun having come out, the second half of the day was going to be infinitely harder than the first. Feck, was I right: I remember it only too well from the night bike with Dunco on HB1.
Perthshire is undulating. It undulated from the moment we left Pitlochry, for 48 miles, and after we hung a westerly out of Methven, scene of a famous I spy game on HM1, we got our old foe back, the 30mph headwind: except this time, after we approached Kinkell Bridge, it came with a payload of the wet stuff.
Mouldy thought Auchterader was flat, having stopped there on Celtic buses en route to the north and east. Now he discovered to his dismay it was not. Crippled on his single speed 20 gear bike, he begged for mercy and his prayers were duly answered in the salubrious surroundings on Gleneagles. I can certainly think of worse places to call it a night. 88 miles duly delivered.
Tea was a hunt a pub job in Crieff, complete with the bikes locked securely on the motor, except for Robert who elected for the Kebab version instead: still downed his beer mind.
Cue Monday morning and more lashing rain. We piled everything back in the motor, except now of course we had ten collection buckets in a big box to add to everything we already had onboard. The route took us from Gleneagles, through Braco and Kinbuck, to Dunblane and a pit stop at Bridge Of Allan, just up the road from Terry Butcher’s old joint. By the time we hit Bannockburn, the rain was easing, but wee Oscar Knox, who helped me set the trail for this adventure, had one final ace up his sleeve: we were going the Tak Ma Doon road.
For the geographically challenged, the Tak Ma Doon road is the meandering route over the Campsies from Stirling to Kilsyth. From the Bannockburn side, it’s a six mile climb followed by a treacherous four mile descent. The road was wet and once again it was windy. Throw in a bit of gravel on the high speed corners and you have a recipe for disaster: except we were being careful. Very, very careful: nothing over 25mph.
At this point, it’s best to fast forward to The Forge shopping centre at the back of Celtic Park. We arrived in the east end half an hour ahead of schedule and made camp outside Pizza Hut awaiting our landing slot of 1:30pm on the Celtic Way. Brendan set off at twenty past to be sure of getting parked up, whereupon Robert was getting seriously freaked out by a big black cloud that had appeared out of nowhere right at the back of us. We’d had sun for the past three hours so this beastie, at this moment in time, was most unwelcome. We legged it…
Now, even for a visitor like me, I recognise that it’s only two minutes on a bike from The Forge to Celtic Park. We got half way and the heavens opened. We got to the lights by the Emirates Arena where you hang a left for the final 100 metres and the rain turned to hail. I’ve since had it confirmed by Leona that this was indeed Oscar having fun, looking down on us and saying “you beat every bit of bad weather I could throw at you guys: respect” Or as my fellow riders exclaimed “Hail Hail, the bhoys are here: and the LifeCycle Man”.
And there to meet us, along with Viv McGinty who took that famous Oscar picture, Lisa Hague and a chap from The Herald was…
I’ve got to say at this point that I have huge respect for Gail, Eileidh’s mum, in everything she has done for her wee princess. Gail is acutely aware that only media attention will deliver the cash that’s required to get Eileidh to the USA at the end of June, but it’s still a long haul to drive the family down from Forres to a photocall that hopefully will reach round the globe. And can I say also that not only is Eileidh a wee star, but Cerys is too. It cannot be easy being the big sister when wee sis is getting all of the attention, but Cerys, if you’re reading this, we all think you’re a fab big sis!
Now, it was during the photoshoot following the downpour that Eileidh got her new nickname: #PrincessPuddles. The chap from the Herald lined us all up in front of the main door at Celtic Park, only for Eileidh to keep disappearing off to jump in the (many) puddles all around us. That wee girl is such an adorable thing. High fives here, hugs there, and always a smile on her face. Remember what I said earlier: Eileidh, we love you.
And at that it was over. Job done and families to go home to. But friendships had been made, with not so much as crossed word in the most testing of conditions, all in the name of Oscar Knox in support of Eileidh Paterson.
It matters not a jot that I was back to work the next day and back on the bike at 5am. It matters not a jot that in the seven days from the moment we rolled out of Mosset Park last Saturday morning, that The LifeCycle Man has banged in 407 miles, having climbed over 20,000ft and burned up 21,000 calories in the process. None of that matters, for at the end of the day…
I’ll ride a million miles for one of your smiles, Princess Puddles.