Time: 27 September 2011. Place: Perpignan, France. Event: nineteen cyclists are sharing a final evening meal together after riding just over 2,000kms, climbing 46,000 metres and going over 106 Pyrenees Cols. One of them is standing, explaining to everyone else that he doesn’t feel like a ‘proper cyclist’ and wants to thank all the ‘true cyclists’ for the privilege of having ridden with them. After Stage 1 he had confessed to me that he realised he was going to be exploring another dimension of cycling for the next nine days, one in which he was uncertain he would survive. He did survive it, and in so doing earned deepest respect from the whole group. Kelvin had not been cycling that long before the event and yet had dared to face a massive challenge to raise money for a cause dear to his heart.

When I conceived the concept of the Cent Cols Challenge (CCC), back in 2008, more than anything I was hoping to find guys like Kelvin. In the five CCC’s that I have run so far, I have ridden with some extraordinary riders and have felt flattered that such powerful , dedicated and experienced athletes have been blown away by the experience. You see, I don’t consider myself a ‘proper cyclist’ neither.

I was recently lucky enough to have spent a week riding in Spain with Tom Southam and Dan Craven, both riders (in 20011) for Rapha-Condor-Sharp. Tom told me of how he started racing every weekend when he was 12 years old, thanks to his Dad, who would drive him wherever the races were. When I was 12, I could make skid marks cornering on gravel with my bike and loved the plastic smell of the inside of a brand new bidon. But I had no idea that cycling even existed as a sport. Sure my bike was my beloved tool for escapism (still is!) but nothing more. I had to wait for my own mid-life crisis at 40 before, as a man, I got ‘serious’ about what I’d loved as a boy. I bought a bike to commute to work and a year later, on my hybrid, rode my first Century Challenge. Two years down the road I was riding a steel racer, taking part in Audax rides regularly, and lengthening my commute while developing a love for riding up hills. My worrying wife was told by others about the sad Club of the ‘Cycle Widows’.  A year later, perhaps in a bid to avoid joining this Club, she accompanied me down to the Etape du Tour where she crawled out of our tent at 4am to cook me a Full English breakfast on a dodgy mini-camping cooker. I rode off an hour later and became A Hero in one day, as all sportive riders do! Three Etapes later it was clear that I now needed something bigger.

Cycling had naturally become a beautiful obsession, one which was ever harder to satisfy. A tiny press release spotted in a cycling magazine about a guy who was going to try and ride 100 Cols in a month was the beginning. I was going to turn fifty the next year and I used this as an excuse to take a month off work and impose on my wife a very self-centred holiday. She still maintains that she never really said “yes” to being my support car, but that is what she ended up doing for 29 days in July 2007. Of those 29 days, I helped Claire drive for two of them – (transferring from the Alps to the Pyrenees, and from the Massif Central back down to the Southern Alps), and rested on one. Over the other 26 days I cycled nearly 4,000kms, climbed 82,000 metres, and rode over 312 Cols in the Alps, Pyrenees, Ardeche, Cevennes and Massif Central at an average overall speed of 23 kph. (As I started planning one year before, 100 cols in one month had just not sounded enough!) This of course was the ride that has changed my life and from which I conceived the idea of the Cent Cols Challenge.

I had been ‘excited’ by the idea that it looked impossible. I had cried through exhaustion after only two days. On the third day I cried in despair at the thought of what lay ahead. But I did the seemingly impossible thanks to the ‘magic of the mountains. What had happened to me when I faced up to my scariest doubts, alone in the mountains, was life-transforming. To try and offer that opportunity to others was a very natural Next Step.

The Cent Cols Challenge is no picnic. It’s a ten-day feast that you need solid guts to stomach. It requires attitude too: a mix of determination, resilience, generosity, humility, and humour.  Could this be why I always seem to have such great riders come to the event from Down Under? Although I live in the Belgian Ardennes my network is mainly UK so this is where the majority of CCC riders come from. I’ve had many from USA and Canada, but it is the Aussies who seem to provide the largest number of riders from distant shores and who also shine the brightest on the event.

From the understated humour of ‘Team Pill’ to the wise (truly wise) cracks of the oncologists from Brisbane, the Aussies who have done the CCC seem to have a sense of humour that stays afloat no matter what. “When the going gets tough, the tough get going” and humour is often a sign of that winning spirit. It bonds the group and gives perspective. The suffering seems less serious. Everything is relative. And here is where humility fits in. This event is too long to be predictable. No rider knows how his body will hold out. No one knows what the mountains will do with them. The rider can only concentrate on accepting what he can’t do anything about and giving all he can when things are going right. In the same vein, the event is not a race, but there are two timed climbs per stage, so the competitive ego can strutt its feathers. Testosterone levels tend to drop dramatically after a couple of stages once riders realise that just to finish this thing is in itself more than enough to aim for.

I have included generosity in the attitudes because I have witnessed beautiful moments of this when everyone in the group is under intense pressure of mental and physical fatigue. To look out for others when you could just be all about “me,me,me”; to ride slow with a struggling back-marker when you could be passing others up the climb; to lend a hand to the support team loading luggage. On an extreme event like this to become totally self-centred is almost a pre-requisite, so little gestures of generosity have a surprising effect on the whole group.

At the end of Kelvin’s speech, on the 27th September, another rider stood up and told him that “any rider who could complete this Challenge was most definitely a ‘proper cyclist’!” Everyone applauded. No more words were needed. As I looked at the emotional faces around me, I could only reflect in silence on the achievement of my own challenge-within-the-Challenge, and looked forward to the other Kelvins that I know I will meet along the way on the many Cent Cols Challenges to come.

Cent Cols Challenge Photo Gallery
from various trips through the Alps, Pyranees, and Dolomites. Read more about the Cent Cols Challenge here.