Our everyday language is full of expressions like, "the hard yards" and "going the extra mile." All that changed a couple of months ago when Iron Maiden’s manager Rod Smallwood asked me, Alex Milas the editor of Metal Hammer, along to join his charity cycling group, the Truants, for a ride to benefit Nordoff Robbins, Childline, and Teenage Cancer Trust. Suddenly I was faced with the prospect of cycling 130 miles around Marrakech and toward the Atlas Mountains with about 40 other riders hand-picked by Rod to help his ambitious, long-term goal of raising a million pounds for kids in need.
Backing out wasn't an option, and so began a few adventurous weeks of dodging black taxis, London buses, and suicidal pedestrians en route to work. On weekends there was the odd 45 mile trek to Windsor with my fellow Truants William and Paul thrown in to strike down any smug sense of progress I may have stupidly developed.
With the date looming, my mind was awash with preparation for the desert - dioralyte to restore your salts, isotonic powders and power supplements to keep you going, knee supports, gel padding, first aid kits, next of kin forms, and enough Sudocrem to sink the Bismark. But with money flowing into my justgiving page and some tremendous encouragement from friends, family, and colleagues, the motivation was huge. Above all else though was a palpable sense of being able to make a difference, and that something as random as a ride through the Moroccan wilds could help change lives back home. After learning more about the work that Nordoff Robbins, Childline and Teenage Cancer Trust do, and the genuinely inspiring difference it makes in the lives of these kids, no mountain – or indeed desert plain – would be too big. 130 miles? That’s the easy bit.
Doesn't look that far?
Sadly, bravado couldn’t really prepare me for what happened when I at last set off for Morocco with a jovial bunch of riders from all walks of life. There I was, on a BA flight bound for North Africa with a group of artists, tycoons, writers, and vagabonds of all ages united by a sense of purpose to face a hard task in the name of some genuinely awesome causes. As the cabin doors unsealed a furnace-blast of heat struck my face and my heart started to flutter at the thought of how gargantuan the task ahead would be. Even more so around 7am the next morning while getting fitted for a mountain bike that’d take me across the arid expanses and up to the Atlas Mountains. First impressions: Morocco is f*ing hot, and it was gonna hurt.
The first day was largely a warm-up for the rest of the ride, an 80 wheeled march out of the chaotic din of an ancient, sun-baked city into the flat, palm tree-dotted wastes. It’s hard to imagine what the locals made of it all – this gaggle of men and some women in bright green Truants shirts with a couple of support vans in tow grunting past in the blazing sun, all drenched in sweat and eager to pile the miles on. You high-five them, wave and say ‘bonjour’ as you crawl and sometimes coast past but you never know just how bizarre it must look until reviewing pictures at the first stop. It was too soon to reminisce, though, and after a few dozen miles it was clear that the only priorities should be finding shade and getting a few pints of water peppered with isotonic powder before striking out again.
The local kids must have thought the Martians had landed
It’s quiet out there, and each leg of the journey – about 15 or 20 miles a go – was a chance to stop and stand in isolation as our troupe inevitably spread out over vast distances according to ability. As with so many pursuits, camaraderie carries you when strength alone can’t, and everything from the best Van Halen lineup to your most offensive jokes pass the time when you have a companion to slipstream with (And no, I’m not telling any). Perhaps it’s the charitable aim of it all that made it such an encouraging environment, but fast or slow, everybody got a round of applause rolling into the rest areas.
That modest optimism changed on day two. We were up at 6AM for the longest stretch of about 50 miles, give or take a few from the occasional wrong turn. Severe sunburn from the spots you missed 24 hours ago begins to emerge, your lips crack if you forgot to bring balm, aches from sitting on a saddle for hours become impossible to ignore, and genuine exhaustion at the relentless heat rising from the ground beneath begin to becomes a serious hurdle.
How much further?
The people at Classic Tours – an incredibly experienced globetrotting team of mechanics, a medic, a guide, and his support team were an incredible source of assurance as the fluffy clouds on the horizon slowly revealed themselves to be the snow-capped peaks of a mountain range so striking it’s inspired legends since antiquity. And when the five-mile inclines – soul-destroying in their subtlety - began to morph into sudden drops toward dried-out riverbeds and, cruelly, steep hills things really began to get tough. Do you step off your bike and walk? Would anyone back home – either the scores of people who’ve generously donated, or any of the charities care either way?
In the windy desolation, the only possible decision was always to press on. As with everything else, it’s for the kids, and not a single rider faltered on that hellish day, and as we pulled into a rest area for the night – a series of tents laid out under the slowly emerging milky way – we may as well have been rolling into a five star hotel. Magical doesn’t begin to cover it.
By the third day I was completely ready for action – it’s as if your body’s learned to work a bit more efficiently, and pacing yourself in the knowledge that at the end of it is a bed and a beer is the best possible incentive. There’s also a sense of melancholy – about the dwindling last hours of an adventure – that made me want to savour each passing village and breath of hot air even more. As the low-set skyline of Marrakech approached in the vast distance, the sense of triumph and pride at making it through and was overwhelming, not just at the miles completed but the funds raised. At present, we’ve surpassed £200,000. To have contributed some small bit toward that by conquering a small stretch of arid land on a bike was easy.
Going the extra mile? That’s happening back here in the UK every day as unsung heroes working for Nordoff Robbins, Childline, and Teenage Cancer Trust make a difference for children in need. That’s real mettle.
The satisfaction of finishing was hard to contain