Congratulations to Brother James and Pete Smith

I received a text message this morning (Sunday 5th June) from Brother James to say that he and Pete had reached Assisi. They arrived in the dark yesterday at 10.20pm after a 164 mile cycle through the Tuscan Hills. Congratulations to both of them. Remember that the monies raised through sponsorship goes towards the re-development of the ‘Brothers’ schools in Haiti. Donations can still be made and left at the College or Charlton House Offices.

bro j and p smith

Brother James and Pete Smith (archive picture of them in North Wales)
Pictures from the epic cycle can be seen by following the link below:

Sponsored Cycle - Southampton to Assisi 2011 - the return - 15

Brother James and Pete Smith are now on day 6 of their cycle to Assisi. The updates were received this morning at 6.30.

Day 1 – Saint-Malo to Abbaye de Solesmes
Arrived about 1hr earlier than expected thanks 2 cross/tailwind + hard riding to make most of it. 5.45, having only finished breakfast @ Brothers’ St. Malo 9.30am. 108 miles. Both feeling good. Ritual handwashing as new guest from Solesmes Abbot before supper in monastery refectory.

Day 2 Sanctuaire de Pellevoisin
Arrived 5.05pm having set off 7.30am. Tail/crosswind again but more tail. 113 miles, 9 less than planned thanks to taking a few small lanes to avoid busy main roads. Even faster av. speed than yesterday. Just under 17 mph. Very happy with that. Pete had our 1st puncture.

Day 3 Abbaye de Bellaigue, Virlet
Lots of climbing towards the end with fast traffic, up to 625m. alt. Light head/ crosswind. Sunny + warm. Shape of things to come? 14.5mph = very good considering. But 10 mls more than planned, 108 mls. due to the monastery not quite being where Google Maps said it would be.

Day 4 Le Puy En Velay
Tough day in searing heat. up to 30C in shade. 2,300m vertical altitude climbing in 138 mls. (10 more than plnned due to yesterday’s Google blip) to Le Puy En Velay. Would have preferred more comfortable accommodation after such a testing day, but what I’d booked ended up being a very basic pilgrims’ hostel rather than a proper b&b. Morale took a hit when we arrived. Could end up being toughest day of the trip. But we’re through it. No major injuries or mechanicals.

Day 5 – Vaison-La-Romaine (121 miles)
121 miles covered. Very strong headwind climbing to top of the Ardeche region this morning. Great high-speed descent though down Ardeche valley, just the kind I really like (topped 40 mph a few times). A bit disappointed that I only managed to overtake one car though 🙂 Drama at the end of the day… the rear pannier stem on my bike snapped just as we arrived at our Hotel this evening. Could have been so much worse if it had happened during the descent and fallen into my rear wheel!! Friendly hotel staff have given us the address of a local bike shop. Will go there first thing tomorrow to buy a new pannier rack. As we climb the Mont Ventoux tomorrow (pannier replacement pending) I’d planned a shorter day – 80 mls – so, despite the late start we will hopefully still be able to get to our planned destination in good time can. It was also fortunate that it happened today and not as we were climbing the Ventoux… And to think that we were originally going to stay in a monastery in the middle of nowhere tonight, i.e. with no bike shop for miles around! I think the prayers of my friends + fellow Brothers came up trumps for us here.

Day 6 – Ganagobie (80 miles)
More drama yesterday evening… Pete slipped after getting out of the shower and fell on the sliding rail of the patio door… banged his ribs badly. Looked painful. He had a rough night I think. Managed to buy and fit a new rear pannier this morning and fit my existing pannier bag to it. Left Vaison at about 9.40am. Not too bad, all things considered. 21km climbing the Ventoux in drizzle (av. gradient 8%)… actually made it much easier. As expected, Pete got to the top long before me. My extra 3 stone in body weight + extra gear in my panniers/handlebar bag compared to Pete aren’t quite balanced out by my relative youthfulness. Plus, he’s just bloomin’ fit, much more naturally fit than me and does far more riding than me during the year. I do more than hold my own though outside of the longer, steeper climbs when I lead the way so as to navigate. Must say I’m proud to be riding with him. When we tell people what we are doing they look at Pete as if they can’t believe an “old guy” like him could do such a thing, but how wrong they are. He’s not just super fit, he’s as tough as old boots!

It was freezing on top of the Ventoux and poor old Pete had to wait about 20 mins till I got there, doing the climb in about 2hr10 to my 2hr30. Also freezing and very windy in the dangerous descent. Couldn’t make the most of it. Both of us had to keep stopping as we were shaking so much from the cold and weren’t able to hold the handlebars straight. Ended the day with a steep 4km climb to Ganagobie Monastery where I did a 3-week retreat back in 1996 to prepare for my perpetual profession (final vows). An emotional return for me. A wonderful welcome from the monks just as they were finishing supper, many of whom I recognised… 80 miles.

Day 7 – Menton (107 miles)
Headwind followed us all day through the Alps, funnelling through each valley we rode through: the first few kms heading north, then a long stretch east eventually following the Var river and at highest point of the day – the Col de Toutes Aures 1160mtrs, we were almost blown off our bikes by the force of the wind coming over the mountain pass. We’ve never known a wind like it. Then all the way down the Var valley to Nice (east then south), another headwind. Couldn’t profit from the descent. Had to fight the wind all the way. By the time we got to Nice Pete was in a bad way with his back after his fall in bedroom. Sitting behind me for shelter, riding through the pain. But a wonderful welcome from a community of enclosed sisters at Menton on Med coast beyond Nice. One is a trained nurse and gave Pete a special bandage to put on his ribs whilst in bed. Lots to tell about our arrival there… will put the details on my blog at a later date.

Pete’s injury seeming more and more like a cracked rib. His support + encouragement continues to be priceless. I knew this would be my toughest sponsored ride yet, but am very happy with how I’ve come through physically. Knees = pretty good apart from in rain + cold. Achilles likewise. Shoulders + neck bad for a couple of days only. Now fine. Main problem has been last 2 days. Sciatica type numb pain in right buttock + then down back of whole leg into the side of my foot. Relieved by riding out of saddle. Also, left hand + wrist goin numb. Pete has something similar. But we’ll get there! 107 miles today.

Day 8 – Recco, Italy (127 miles)
Ascension Day… at least in Italy, where they haven’t moved it to the nearest Sunday. 127 miles covered. A day of riding along the Franco-Italian Mediterranean coastline… pretty much one long procession of Riviera resorts with occasional headlands to climb over. 2 smelly cyclists passing through the playground of the rich + famous and those who just want to look like they are rich + famous… Pete + I fell into neither category, though we weren’t impressed by the standard of bike that the average Italian trundles around on. Terrific cycle track along the coast through Genoa. Took great pleasure in overtaking “serious” local cyclists in smart lycra who “ride like tarts” according to Pete. Ascension Day celebrations seemed to include local road race cycling events and a fascinating cycling proficiency competition for very young road racers in full lycra gear riding racing bikes and for which the police had simply closed the main road through the centre of one particular town. We ended up cancelling our planned B&B accommodation for tonight which was further inland (in the hills), so that we could stay near the coast (= a slightly more direct and hopefully slightly flatter route). Found a very nice little hotel in Recco, east of Genoa with a lovely view of the steep-sloped headland that we will have to start by climbing tomorrow. Well, at least it will give us a nice warm up early doors!

Day 9 – Cascina (just east of Pisa – 130 miles)
Our toughest day so far. Morning = constant up + down over the steep headlands of the Ligurian coast in searing heat… after 5 hours of this we were wishing for the Mont Ventoux. Then when I tried to find a flatter road right on the coast I only succeeded in wasting over an hour in the early afternoon and adding about 10 miles to our journey. More important was the time wasted. We eventually had to double back. Felt so sorry for Pete with his painful ribs. He could have really torn strips off me, but instead he simply said that I had done so well navigating for 8 days, I was bound to make a bad choice at some point and not to worry. Now there’s a true friend, and boy did I need one right at that moment. Self-confidence very low. This would, however, have a serious knock on effect for us later in the day. Once we got onto flatter roads I basically got my head down on the front and we pushed as hard as we could for the remainder of the afternoon + early evening, just making the one stop of any length in about 6 hours riding. When we did make that stop at a Lidl to get supplies (as we so often did during the 10 days as a whole), I nearly collapsed when I got off the bike… heat exhaustion + dehydration + guilt for what I’d messed up earlier making me push on longer than I should have without stopping. I slumped to the floor, hyperventilating and started retching… an empty stomach, so nothing came. It’s a feeling I’ve had before and know that it does wear off once you get fluids + energy back into you. After initially checking I wasn’t going to completely expire on him, Pete went in to do his shopping and let me recover in my own time… 10 mins. later I went in and joined him in the cool of the supermarket… some drinking yoghurt, cereal bars and iced tea later and I felt I could just about get on the bike again. 30 mins. riding later and I was on the front flying again… a good thing too, as we still had lots of miles to do.

Tonight we basically pushed on as far as we could into the night, eventually totalling 130 mls for the day by 9.30pm – we should have done about 140 and so had to cancel our accommodation again and find somewhere to stay. This we ended up doing east of Pisa when it was getting dark, eventually finding a lovely B&B “chambres d’hôtes”-style off the beaten track, where we were welcomed in with open arms by the owner, a very interesting bloke who gave us a heart-warming discount and personally waited on us at breakfast.

But our adventures have left us with a bit of a “mountain” to climb on the last day: well in excess of 150 miles, possibly over 160 if we are unable to take the direct road to Perugia and on to Assisi which looks like a dual carriageway on the map, but could be a no go for cyclists. This would require us to zig-zag through the Tuscany hills.

Day 10 – Assisi (164 miles)
WHAT A DAY!! Pete was certainly “up for it” this morning. Once I had led us through some fiddly easterly roads into a headwind for a couple of hours, Pete went on the front (about time too!) on the long straight road to Siena. After my exertions the day before (+ this morning), I had a real job keeping up with him. But I could understand what he was doing… we had a VERY long day ahead of us and it was a good idea to try and get as many miles under our belts in rapid time while we could in the morning. And we did… much more so than on the previous 2 days. However, once we got past Siena, the roads got more hilly again as we zig-zgged through the Tuscany hills, at times reminiscent of the North Wales hills that the 2 of us know so well. Beautiful, quiet roads, but slower progress. Pete got to see what he considered a typically Italian scenic view (lines of conifers leading up to hilltop settlements, rolling fields, etc…). Time for a photo. Then we decided to see if we could go the direct way to Perugia + beyond… No luck. The dual carriageway marked on the map now had the status of a motorway. However, we did chance our arm for a few miles, given than we were desperate to try and get to Assisi before it got too dark. But there was just so little room at the side of the road for us to ride, otherwise I think we would have persevered and saved ourselves well over an hour. As it was, we came off at Perugia and it was then down to me + the GPS on my phone to find the most direct way to Assisi that didn’t take the expressway. Not an easy task, given that for much of the last 10 miles we rode in darkness on unlit country roads without adequate lights on our bikes. I have to thank Pete for his encouragement + support during these final miles. I realised I was putting him through the mill, especially as he was having even more trouble than I was to see the road and his ribs were still causing him much discomfort. But he was all for us pushing on to Assisi and making sure we got there on the day we’d said we’d get there, rather than compromising and staying the night in a hotel nearer Perugia, even if it meant arriving after 10pm (which is what happened).

Those prayers I mentioned a few days ago worked their magic again… once we eventually got to our destination and found the street that contained our planned B&B in the lower part of Assisi a couple of miles outside the old town on the hill, I immediately noticed a youngish man starting to pull down a window shutter. He saw us and called out in excellent English, “Is that James?” With buckets full of relief instantly coursing through my veins I breathlessly shouted back “YES!!” “Oh, we were so worried about you!” They had waited for us all evening, but were about to go back to where they lived 4 miles away in the hills, having given up hope that we were going to ever turn up. I had tried to phone them during the day to warn that we would be late, but the number I had taken from their website was unfortunately no longer accurate. It turned out that the husband was a Music teacher + choral director. When we walked into their apartment B&B we were welcomed by the gentle sounds of Glen Gould playing Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” on cd, the piece originally written for an insomniac patron of Bach to give him something to play whilst awake during his long, sleepless nights. Somehow I don’t think we’ll have any trouble sleeping tonight!!

Rest day (6 miles by bus + 1 mile or so walking)
Our body clocks still being attuned to early rising, we were both fully awake well before 6am, 2 hours before breakfast. So we pottered around in the bedroom, did a few odd jobs mending bits of gear + clothing, wrote a bit in our journals, and started to take stock of what we’d achieved… but to be honest our brains were pretty much frazzled, so we mainly just chilled. After a long, relaxed breakfast we ambled down the road to the bus stop that would take us up the hill into the old town of Assisi. We took our time strolling through the town, visiting some of the many churches on the way, admiring the lovely old brick work of the dwellings that lined the narrow, winding streets, both of us surprised + delighted that there seemed to be relatively few people around. Some photos and a smoked ham + cheese panini later (just for me. Pete wasn’t feeling hungry) we headed for a bus stop to make the short journey back to our dwelling and a 2 hour afternoon siesta, after which we both seemed pretty much back to our usual selves, though I was soon to be in for a surprise…

One of Pete’s causes célèbres during the 10 days as a whole was the invasion of McDonalds across Europe, so imagine my surprise when he suggested that rather than sit and order a pizza in the noisier central part of lower Assisi, surrounded by jabbering tourists + pilgrims, a pizza that we could end up waiting a good while for, he’d rather that we buy a quick carbohydrate (+ fat!) take out fix from the local McDonalds, and sit outside in the cool, drizzly evening air to eat it. I laughingly agreed, so long as I had his permission to take a photo of him in this incriminating situation underneath the McDonalds sign. Deal!

Departure day (23 miles)
Another early rise well before 6am, but this time Pete came up with a stroke of genius. He suggested that we ride up into Assisi before breakfast to
a) visit the town when it was at nearly empty altogether with minds more receptive than they were the day before
b) take in San Damiano just outside old Assisi (a Franciscan monastery on the site of the first Franciscan community founded by St. Francis + his followers)
c) give our legs a stretch before the ride to Perugia airport
d) and perhaps most importantly, because I had always said that for me our ride would end at the door of the Basilica of St. Francis in the old town and we hadn’t yet actually ridden up to it.

So at 6a.m. we set off up the hill on our bikes. It was a lovely, lovely experience and I got some very nice photos.

Thank you, Pete.

After breakfast we headed for the airport about 6-7 miles away… all in all, the journey back to Southampton wasn’t as smooth as we would have liked: a few “jobsworths” in Perugia airport and Stansted airport railway station did their best to make our last day a miserable one, but fortunately there were also some very helpful people about, e.g. those that let us put our bikes on 2 coaches (down below with the suitcases): Stansted to Liverpool St. Station in London and Victoria to Southampton. We eventually made it back to So’ton at about 8 p.m. to a hero’s welcome and a well-deserved glass of champagne from Br. Francis. Ouf!!!