Coventry veteran Mick Ives begins his biggest challengeRiding the Tour de France at any age is a challenge met only by the fittest of athletes. But for 65 year old Coventry cyclist Mick Ives it is, if anything an even greater challenge.
Mick is not in the great race itself, of course, but the plucky veteran - who recently won his 50th national championship in 48 years of competitive cycling - is covering the entire course, riding two days ahead of the world's greatest annual sporting spectacle.
"I can set my own pace rather than having to keep up with the peloton," he says, "but, on the other hand, I have nobody to keep me company and no wheels to follow when the gradients rise or the headwinds are at their worst.
"Nor do I have all those massive crowds to encourage my efforts." There's an added problem for the lonely long-distance cyclist. Mick has to navigate his own way for the 3,584 kilometres of this mighty loop around a country that is twice the size of Britain.
"I have a back-up team comprising well-known cycling journalist Roger St. Pierre and volunteer Ian Wallace, who answered an appeal in his local paper.
"We are sleeping nights in an Elddis 300 Voyager camper van and feeding ourselves on the hoof."
Now into the fourth day of his epic ride, Mick has already suffered a tough baptism of fire on the undulating 114-mile stage from the mighty chateau of Chambord to the historic city of Troyes.
"I started in an absolutely torrential thunderstorm and at times the winds were close to gale force - and right in my face," he grimaced, "It was a really tough day and at times I suffered from the cold, but my legs feel good and I am well up on my schedule. So far I have covered 415 miles since we set off from the Atlantic island of Noirmoutier but there is still a very long way to go.
"These, of course, are the easiest stages and by the end of the week we shall be into the Vosges Mountains which will serve as a prologue to the mighty Alps and Pyrenees, where I will really have to grit my teeth. Mick is riding in a black and white jersey in tribute to the first ever British Tour de France team that took the start in 1955, with just Brian Robinson and Tony Hoar managing to complete the course out of the 10 hopefuls. "Every now and then I glance at the Union Flag on my shoulders and think of those brave pioneers. I just hope I can match their courage. I'd love them to be there to see me ride into Paris at the end of it all." Mick's ride is in aid of Cancer Research UK and he has the moral support of Lance Armstrong, who is seeking his seventh Tour de France victory in a row. Armstrong was himself a cancer victim early in his racing career. Armstrong's deputy manager Sean Yates, himself a former Tour de France yellow jersey wearer, and Tour boss Jean-Marie Leblanc have also sent their best wishes.
Any donations should be made out to Mick's TdeF Ride for Cancer Research UK and sent to 78 Mill Hill, Baginton, Coventry CV8 3AG. You can follow Mick's progress at http://myweb.tiscali.co.uk/tourdefrance.