Cycling for Soldiers

28 August 2008

As James and I reflect upon our 1800 mile bicycle journey down the United States of America's western seaboard the overwhelming sense is one of stupidity and foolishness, as revealed by the first twenty four hours of the trip. We picked up our bikes on the way to London Heathrow and assembled them in a Vancouver hotel room without so much as a clue as to what we were doing. We piled the spare bolts and screws (which probably had a job to do) into the panniers along with a vast excess of kit - we were carrying so much weight that by the end of week one our panniers would shear through the metal frame attaching them to our bikes. We then got on our bikes and set off. On that first day we managed to cover less than sixty miles, some distance short of the 100 miles a day target, and awoke on day two with incredibly stiff legs. To make matters worse, we had injured our knees and ligaments thanks to incorrectly positioned saddles. We managed a wry laugh that morning, but lurking behind the humour was a serious concern that we might not be able to complete the challenge.

Arguably the most foolish aspect of the trip was our complete inattention to terrain. We had sort of thought that as we were following a coastal route we would be at sea level and thus not subjected to any hills. We were very wrong. Our moods undulated like the land - long, slow, hard climbs preceded all too short-lived downhill stretches just as hours of pain, boredom and a constant desire to stop were interrupted by spikes of excitement, adrenaline and jubilation. The lows that stand out now include: the feeling of foolhardy ignorance on day one; the severe knee pains that on day three made us make the call to carry on even if it had a longer term adverse impact on our military careers; having to stop on a climb over the mountain range to the west of Santa Barbara because our bodies were so dehydrated and overheated that we were close to collapse; being forced off the road by octogenarian recreation vehicle drivers who seemed to be on a mission to send us sprawling into the Pacific; and having to stop at endless traffic lights and stop signs through urban areas. Some of the highs that kept us going were the towering trees flanking the route through the Redwood National Park; the young black bear that scuttled across the road just ten metres in front our bikes; the rugged beauty of the coastal route in northern California; the ten mile downhill section into Santa Barbara that did not require us to pedal; and the unfailing support for our cause from the people we met along the way.

Serving and ex soldiers reading this will notice the parallels between our experiences during Cycling for Soldiers and their own on operations, where the prevalent tempo is usually one where long periods of the mundane are interspersed with brief moments of extreme excitement. Similarly our feeling each morning upon hauling ourselves out of bed was that exact same sense of foreboding that soldiers experience when they dismount a warm coach to begin a cold, sleep-depraved exercise, or clamber out of a thoroughly warm sleeping bag at the bottom of a trench to begin a two hour sentry duty in the middle of the night, or glimpse at their watch at the first water stop on a long march and realise that only a fraction of the route has been completed.

I suppose then, that as soldiers we were well prepared because our experiences in training and on operations informed the manner in which we set about the challenge. This is necessarily true, but there was something else that powered us over the hills and through the pain: the men for whom we were cycling.

Our periods of discomfort were insubstantial and pathetically brief compared to those faced by the soldiers by whom we were inspired. Our battle was a steep gradient or a particularly long day in the saddle where the top or the end is always in sight - their battle is never over. Their battlefield is daily life, their enemies disability and difficult memories. The Colonel's Fund and Help for Heroes help wounded soldiers fight their new battles.

We shall announce our final figure in February 2009 following a boxing match in Wellington Barracks organised by one of our sponsors, London District TA & Army Amateur Boxing Club. Please visit for more information or to donate.

Captain Andrew Tiernan