The word hero is generally overused but it is the most fitting word I can think of to describe each and every rider who took part in Piste 2 Plage, which came to a triumphant end late yesterday afternoon on the beach at Juan les Pins. In a nutshell, it was four days, 440 km and 160 cyclists snaking along Tour de France routes and up and down cols from the Alpine ski resort of Sainte Foy to Juan les Pins in weather that ranged from driving rain and freakish September blizzards to 30 degrees of sunshine.
Lining up with 160 riders in the pretty mountain village of Auron in early morning sunshine, the anticipation of the final 111 km descent from the mountains to the coast created a tangible buzz of excitement in the air. At the forefront of my mind was the mantra 'Do Not Fall Off The Bike' and perhaps even more importantly 'Do Not Fall Over The Edge.'
Having fallen off while stationary twice this summer, not forgetting a couple of embarrassing crashes into my fellow cyclist Tony while touring Kyoto two years ago, the falling off thing was in danger of becoming an obsession. Especially when I spotted crash barriers at the side of a sheer drop that had already been crashed into and destroyed. Thankfully, nothing to do with me on this occasion.
We set off at 9.30am in staggered starts, with the slowest, most cautious riders first and the speed junkies last. I think you can guess which group I was in. The biggest group I have ridden in until yesterday was a gang of two so the joys of riding in a peloton were all new to me. The descent down from Auron through the mountain pass towards Nice is a spectacular drive at the best of times but on a bike with 160 other riders whizzing along with you, the wind on your face and the September sun high in a blue, blue sky, it came pretty damn close to perfection.
With the roads getting busier the closer we came to Nice, we bunched together with riders shouting out warnings about gravel, posts and oncoming cyclists to the riders behind. One minute you'd be on your own lost in thought, concentration and the breathtaking scenery and the next, another rider would draw level and strike up conversation. I made a lot of new friends.
As we cycled towards Villeneuve Loubet slightly ahead of schedule, the temptation to ditch the bikes for a dip proved too much and they were abandoned on the grassy verge as 100 or so sweaty padded bottoms made a dash for a quick swim in the sea, much to the amusement of the French sun worshippers on the beach. 'Oui, c'est les Anglais,' sighed a female pedestrian as she looked on bemused.
If any of us needed any reminder as to why we were taking part in such an arduous challenge, it came right then when Mark, a marine who lost his right leg below the knee in a parachute accident, abandoned his bike too, ran down the beach, kicked off his prosthetic limb and hopped into the sea amid deafening cheers. Jamie, a para who sustained 60% third degree burns when his plane cockpit burst into flames, Rab, an army captain who broke his back and neck in an army ski training session and Mike, an RAF operator injured during reconnaissance over Afghanistan rode alongside us. However much your bum might hurt on that miniscule saddle, you don't even want to contemplate moaning as you ride alongside such inspirational human beings.
As we headed into the last few kilometres at Cap d'Antibes in a long meandering snake, with drivers beeping and pedestrians cheering their support, the atmosphere was electric. We finally crossed the finish line at the Pinedes in Juan to the claps and cheers from friends and family and the tears flowed (well, mine did!) One year ago,I wouldn't have dared to dream that exactly a year after being diagnosed with cancer I would be marking that first anniversary riding in a challenge of this scale. I wasn't the only one proving that impossible is nothing. Neil, who had open heart surgery a few months ago, and Tom, who broke his back a year ago, were also doing the same.
As the celebrations continued into the early hours at a party on the beach in Juan, the buoyant mood made everyone dig deep at the auction and raffle, leading to a current total in the region of £325,000 for Help For Heroes, which is nothing short of phenomenal. This money will fund a hydrotherapy unit at Tedworth House rehabilitation unit in Tidworth, Wiltshire as well as spa facilities for injured servicemen.
None of this would have happened without the tireless dedication of one individual in particular, a certain Mr Al Parker Swift, who has lived and breathed this event since first coming up with the idea of a little cycle ride with a few mates last autumn. Words cannot express how brilliant it was. You'll just have to take my word for it.
I am a London-born journalist, married with two daughters, who one day took a punt and upped sticks with my family, our cats and dogs to start a new life in the South of France.
Prompted by the desire to have an improved quality of life and better manage the balance between working and tasting the coffee, we sold up lock stock and barrel and headed for the little Provencal village of Le Bar sur Loup, 30 minutes from Nice.
Our beautiful Victorian house in Hertfordshire was swapped for a derelict villa on a hillside which represents a huge black hole into which we throw endless fistfuls of money but hey, we have sunshine, views to die for and the best rose in the world to drink.