Keep Right On To The End Of The Road

On the Thursday morning of Highland March 6, as the Inverness Caley Thistle walkers approached Loch Insh, we learned from our support driver of the passing of Tommy Burns. Every time since then, as I’ve passed that very same spot where the van was parked up, I’ve thought of Tommy Burns. I did so two days ago 150 miles into the first leg of The Highland Bike, an offshoot event of The Highland March. What I didn’t know until yesterday morning, when I managed to get enough of a 3G connection to get online, was that wee Oscar passed away during that same passage of time. However it wasn’t until later yesterday, when I was able to put everything into perspective, that I realised the significance of the timing and of that place. Loch Insh, just a couple of miles south of Kincraig on the back road to Tromie Bridge, will forever be the place where I connect Tommy Burns and wee Oscar Knox, and it will forever be the place where I remember the joy and hope that they brought to the people who follow Celtic Football Club.

Yesterday was a surreal day. It was spent in the company of my long term friends on the Highland March but I didn’t go out on the road. I spent much of the day reading tributes and generally trying to keep up with events with no WiFi connection and barely 1 bar of a 3G signal. In a sense my job was done of Thursday in any case but it had crossed my mind that I might follow 165 miles on the bike from Motherwell with a 22 mile HM walking leg from Tromie Bridge to Carrbridge. The news changed all that and I spent the day reflecting on Oscar’s passing and what it meant to LifeCycleForNeuroblastoma.

I never met Oscar Knox, but then I felt I didn’t need to. I have spoken to people who did meet him, both in person and online, and I got the sense of joy and impishness that he brought to any occasion and any gathering. Oscar Knox was one of the reasons I swapped four wheels for two last summer: he was one of my inspirations. Along with Vanessa Riddle and MacKenzie Furniss, Oscar came to my attention through the wonderful fundraising work led by Brogan Rogan Trevino and Hogan at Celtic Quick News. It wasn’t until later last year that I learned of another sufferer, Alfie Sharpe, just ten miles down the road the other side of Kilmarnock. Alfie passed away just two weeks ago.

However what really, really attracted me to the Oscar Knox story was the profile of a wee bhoy who just refused to stop fighting the disease. For #FearlessOscarKnox, #NeverGiveUp was the perfect catchphrase and whoever branded the Oscar Knox Appeal with those words knew exactly the kind of bhoy they were dealing with. Oscar’s catchphrase will live on through LifeCycleForNeuroblastoma. People who know me well know that I am the most determined, most stubborn, most outrageous individual who simply refuses to give up on anything until it is technically or physically impossible to achieve. I don’t do giving up: I never have and I never will. So from this day forward, LifeCycleForNeuroblastoma will hold the proverbial candle that was lit by wee Oscar Knox, and it carry the message that you never give up the fight, you never give up hope, and you always, always do everything within (and beyond) your limits to deliver a result that reflects the sacrifice that you are prepared to make. Words can be kind but action is powerful.

And so to The Highland Bike, 196 miles of cycling from Fir Park, home of Motherwell FC, to the Tulloch Caledonian Stadium, home of Inverness Caley Thistle. I’ve previously been on 12 Highland Marches, walked 11 of them for a variety of charities and last year drove the support bus. I’d already decided that 1700 miles was probably enough for my old, worn out body but when I realised that there was a midweek fixture to kickstart HM12, my competitive spirit had other ideas. I was planning to walk it solo in four days until Dunco, himself a veteran (at 30?) of seven HM’s suggested that we bike it. I wasn’t sure, I really wasn’t sure, because on HM9 I’d failed to walk from Inverness to Hamilton in three days (I only managed 91 miles) and I wanted to right that wrong, especially with an extra day to do it in. But hey, Dunc’s been biking to and from his work this last wee while and he’s got a wee boy who’s his mini double. LifeCycle is about engaging with people and getting the message out there so in the end there was no decision to make: The Highland Bike was born and HB1 was going to be mega: Highland Marchers don’t do things by half…

Dunc’s original suggestion was that we wild camp on Wednesday night and Thursday night before meeting up with the Marchers for a wee session on Friday night in Carrbridge. I wasn’t sure about that on two counts: firstly carrying tents and sleeping bags, on top of the other stuff we’d need on the road, would have added to the load and slowed our progress significantly. Secondly, by ditching the tents and sleeping bags and taking on the Motherwell to Carrbridge leg non-stop, it would give us the opportunity to ambush the other lot somewhere around Kingussie. It was definitely doable and it was always in my thoughts that if we could pull it off, then Dunco would be empowered for the rest of his life. So that was that then: I railroaded him into 165 miles, non-stop apart from short food and drink breaks, starting at 10pm at night. It was a challenge to focus the mind, focus the body, and most of all focus the human spirit. 165 miles is a LifeCycleForNeuroblastoma week in one day. Ride all night after a day at work, then ride all the next day. Yeah, we can do that, we’re Highland Marchers. And what’s more, #FearlessOscarKnox says you #NeverGiveUp. Well I’m glad that’s sorted then!

It had been raining all day on Wednesday and the prospects for a dry send off were not good. As if to make matters worse, Inverness conceded a penalty and an own goal in the opening half hour and as the rain continued sheeting down under the floodlights, the prospect of 18 hours on the bike didn’t seem so inspiring after all. But we are Highland Marchers and #FearlessOscarKnox says you #NeverGiveUp.

The bikes were under lock and key in a church while we were at the game. And the sign above the bikes read “Love God, Love People, Love Life” so we had the comfort of knowing that a guardian angel was looking after us.

We set off at 10:15pm and mercifully it was dry. Our route took us through the site of the old Ravenscraig steel works and past the Motherwell campus of New Lanarkshire College. Where there was once despair at the loss of a whole industry, there is now hope in the form of education for the young. By the time we reached Airdrie, the rain was back and we got a rare soaking as my local knowledge gained from ten years as a runner in Cumbernauld took us the dark, scenic route past Longriggend and Fannyside Loch, bypassing Cumbernauld almost completely before emerging at Castlecary. Banknock, Dennyloanhead, Denny and Dunipace were quickly behind us and we parked up at a deserted Stirling Services at 12:30am.

It’s very important to understand that when you’re on the bike, and going at the speed we were trying to maintain, with the load we were carrying, you are burning 600+ calories every hour: my body can only store 1800 calories of usable energy in the form of glycogen so it was vitally important to stop and eat/drink every couple of hours. It was imperative not to run out of fuel. The food itself was simple but effective: corned beef sandwiches, cheese sandwiches and homemade flapjacks.

Stirling soon became Bridge Of Allan, then Dunblane and finally Braco at 2:45am. This was where the Marchers thought we were making camp. Nope: flapjacks and water. Onward…

Our original plan was to head via Kinkell Bridge to Methven via a network of wee country roads but in the dark we decided that it was inappropriate to risk an unsignposted wrong turn so we took the hit of the extra miles and stayed on the main road to Crieff: 4am. How many cars passed us in the 75 minutes from Braco to Crieff: about three. Perfect.

With Dunco pushing a rare old pace along the A85, we were soon into Methven where my previous knowledge of having walked through there on HM1 kicked in. Methven to Bankfoot to Dunkeld: 6:30am. “Right, let’s noise up the Marchers, let’s tweet our position”….

Cycle route 7 from Dunkeld to Pitlochry up the left hand side of the A9 is a joy to behold. I’ve walked the other side of the A9 twice, on HM1 and HM4, but the official route on the other side is beautiful. Pitlochry fell to the advancing bikers at 8:45am. Then disaster struck our ambush plan… Unbeknown to us, the Marchers required to drop one of their number at a train station to make a short return journey to Inverness. They chose Pitlochry, and they chose 8:45am to make the drop.

“Allo, what you doing ‘ere”?

“Allo, what YOU doing ‘ere”? Cover blown…

“Oi, where’s your tents”?

“What tents: we ain’t got any”.

“You mean to tell me that you’ve just cycled from Motherwell without stopping”?

“Yeh…”

The look on Gringo’s face was priceless.

Bacon butties and Lucozade set us up for the next leg but by the time you get to Blair Atholl on a trip like this, you know you’re in for a hard time: Drumochter is next…

From Bruar up through Calvine, onward to Dalnacardoch and up the side of the A9 dual carriageway is a ten mile climb. But if nothing else, a winter of LifeCycle up the A77 and across the Fenwick Muir has conditioned me to the toil of a long climb: engage brain, engage attitude and find a gear that works at 10mph. #FearlessOscarKnox  says you #NeverGiveUp.

The top of Drumochter is a desolute place on a bike. It’s windy, it’s cold and it’s most uninviting: just as well it’s (slightly) downhill then. Crikey we clogged it from there. Dalwhinnie came and went, Ralia was gone in a flash, and was soon followed in quick succession by Newtonmore, Kingussie and Ruthven Barracks, home of many an HM photo opportunity.

The rest of Thursday was uneventful, save for a bloke coming up to me in Tesco’s car park in Aviemore (where I’d stopped to buy beer just to add even more weight to the bike) and asking where I’d cycled from. To this day I don’t think he believed me when I told him I’d left Motherwell 17 hours earlier. C’est la vie…

Ten miles beyond Aviemore lies Carrbridge, destination for day one, and it was duly knocked on the head at the back of four after 18 hours in the saddle. The Marchers didn’t arrive for another hour by which time I’d already bagged my traditional top bunk (third level up) with a wee stash of Luton Lager.

165 miles in one hop on a bike is hard going, particularly with something like 30lb of dead weight sitting over the back wheel. But it’s what you do. It’s the sacrifice you make in order to make people aware of what you are doing. Tomorrow the Highland Marchers and the Highland Bikers will once again form a guard of honour at Caley Stadium but I will say right now that my mind will be 190 miles away back down the road in the east end of Glasgow. I may be a Caley Thistle supporter (by marriage), I may be a West Brom Baggie (my English first love), but I now know that I have found an extended football family of likeminded people at Celtic Park.

The Highland Bikers have done exactly what Oscar would have wanted…

Keep right on to the end of the road.

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