It began late in 2002. I was doing a bit of weekend cycling, up to 25 mile trips, and my brother in law, Graham, asked if I thought we could do 180 miles in a weekend. He had found a route around Oxfordshire, and was looking for a challenge. His idea was to gather a small team, train through the spring and summer, and then have a go one weekend in September. We decided that we would raise money for CLIC (now CLICSargent), the children’s cancer care charity that was providing fantastic support to my 9 year old daughter Francesca, during the treatment of her brain tumour.
Within a few weeks we had a team of six, all around 40 and unfit, and the training began. We started at 25 miles and built to 40, we then did a 60 and then an organised (Bike Events) run from Birmingham to Oxford at nearly 70 miles. We thought we were ready, and had pegged the weekend as the 13/14 September. We called ourselves BOTTOM, Boys Of Thame Touring Oxfordshire’s Margins, as the majority of us lived or worked in Thame. We had decided to start on the Friday afternoon and get about 30 miles in, as we were still unsure if we could actually make it all the way around the county in two days.
That Friday is burned into my mind. Francesca kissed me goodbye as I left for work, and said, “Good luck on the cycle ride Daddy. Have fun.”
Those were the last words she spoke to me. She collapsed at school that day, and was being airlifted to the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford as we were meeting to start our ride. Her tumour was wrapped around an artery in her brain, and the artery had ruptured. Francesca’s story is for another time, but it has bought a significant poignancy to that ride and all those that followed.
We set off as a team on the Friday, my thinking was that I was as close as possible to the hospital and able to divert to Oxford as necessary. In the event we only got five miles down the road before I was called back, and the rest of the team headed on. I joined them later that night, riding through the dark.
The Saturday dawned and we headed off across the Southern section of the Oxfordshire Cycleway and then climbed up the Western edge of the County, finishing the day at a great little pub in Hook Norton. I was understandably withdrawn, my mind elsewhere. My strongest memory is of the beautiful butterflies, fluttering around my dusty front wheel. Francesca always loved butterflies.
I can still remember the enormous relief as we rode into Hook Norton, collapsed on the forecourt outside the pub and ordered our first beer. It had been slightly over 80 miles that day, and about 35 the evening before. We did have a support driver who carried spares, met us with food and energy bars at the lunch stop, and had delivered our overnight bags to the pub before we arrived. This meant that we needed to carry only puncture support, drinks and energy food.
We ate and slept in the pub and organised for our support to collect our gear the next morning. Sadly at breakfast I got the call I had been dreading, and took a taxi to the hospital to meet my wife. After exhaustive tests and lengthy discussions we agreed to turn off Francesca’s life support that afternoon. She had had her 10th birthday the previous weekend, and had spent a fantastic girls' weekend in Paris with her mother and a friend. The rest of the BOTTOM team completed the ride, and met for a BBQ back in Thame. The sense of achievement was clearly dulled as everyone felt our loss, but somehow all knew that it was also the start of something. We raised about £12,500 in sponsorship money.
Ironically, in 2005 the teenage daughter of one of the other cyclists, Colin, was also diagnosed with cancer. Claire had years of difficult treatment, and a testing adolescence, but she is now a beautiful, happy, and successful young woman. She celebrated her 21st birthday in 2012.
The next year was 2004, and after some discussion we agreed to do another County, and the idea of the annual County circumcycle was born. I would map out the routes, Jon would sort out the accommodation, Leo would organise a web site and communications, Graham would manage any fundraising. The ride was a kind of memorial to Francesca, a boys bonding weekend, and a reason to stay reasonably fit.
We kept to the end of September / early October timing, and did Berkshire in 2004, Buckinghamshire in 2005, and Northamptonshire in 2006. We did not raise money each year, but we did try again for Northamptonshire and this time we raised £12,000. By now we were just riding the two day weekend, and we could be reasonably confident of 90 mile Saturdays, barring mishaps, however our rides were not without incident. Berkshire cost a complete rear wheel (kindly replaced at 08:30 in Bourne End on Saturday morning before the shop was officially open), and a broken face and forearm (time spent in Reading casualty) when one of the team went over the handlebars on the Thames towpath. Bucks day one was finished in the dark after 115 miles, and Northamptonshire involved 8 punctures, a damaged knee, and was blowing a gale and pouring with rain all Sunday.
The BOTTOM team was being whittled down as age increased, and other commitments grew. In 2007 we were down to three, brother in law Graham, brother Leo, and myself. Rather than do a circumcycle that year we decided to try a run to my parents house in Devon, carrying our overnight kit. The plan was that this would be about 165 miles on a Friday and Saturday. Our families would come down to meet us on the Saturday and we could all drive back on the Sunday. That was a lovely run, and a real family time for us all. If I say so myself it was also a great route.
The original County Circumcycle concept was to ride Oxfordshire, and then do the surrounding Counties. We had nailed Berks, Bucks, and Northants, but we still had unfinished business. Jon came back into the fold having sorted his knee out, and the smaller core team of four set out for Wiltshire in 2008, Warwickshire was completed in 2009, and then we nailed Gloucestershire (240 miles) over three days in 2010. By now we had graduated to what we thought were real cycle tourists, independently carrying all our gear with no support backup. The tight economic climate in 2010 made fund raising difficult, and with only four in the team we were pleased to raise about £5000 on Gloucestershire.
In 2011, having done a big ride the previous year, we were looking to raise our County count, and we decided to try and do two Counties that year. We hit Bedfordshire (about 120 miles) in a single day in June and then tackled Hampshire (shortened to 170 miles) on our traditional September weekend.
We are making the routes available through this web site, and trying to encourage others to ride them, and raise money for CLICSargent.
The routes are aimed at touring cyclists on family bikes. Hybrids, touring bikes, even mountain bikes. Whippets, on decent road bikes, could try and do the large Counties in a day. Families could cruise round in four days or even a whole week. The routes all have some “off-road” tracks or paths, but these have by-passes for those on narrow tyres.
The BOTTOM team all love to get together and talk about how much of beautiful England we now know intimately. We have seen fantastic architecture, from stately homes and majestic follies, to tiny thatched cottages. Fantastic lunchtime pubs and great bits of history, from Roman roads and ruins, to the marvels of Victorian engineering. Cycling these routes you get a sense of the real England, a stunning country that we should all be proud to live in.
So go on, why not have a go? Choose a route from the web site, pick a weekend and set yourself a challenge. Circumcycle an English county, and raise some money for CLICSargent.
If you do, and you see a butterfly, think of Francesca.