Pilot and cyclist Robin Evans sometimes gets to exchange wings for wheels. He recounts where both passions recently crossed with rugby and recovery in a brief taste of Spanish island life; the closest he expects to get to the life of a pro cyclist.
I grew up in an active family (my Aunty is Kirsty Wade, three-time Commonwealth gold medallist) and find wheels are metaphorical wings. I get a huge physical and mental boost from rolling around the countryside.
The year began badly with prepatellar bursitis of the knee, an unwelcome hangover from a previous challenge, then a technical disaster on the cobbles that ended my Belgian Tour of Flanders sportive. I felt cursed by mechanics and biomechanics and quite depressed, this being my first brush with sporting damage.
Months later, with physio complete but form dented, I received a surprise invite to the 2016 Dallaglio Cycle Slam. This is a biennial cycle tour, founded by ex-England rugby colossus Lawrence Dallaglio in aid of his charity’s primary programme RugbyWorks. My employer was a major sponsor, represented briefly by some hardy colleagues and invited guests.
“Lawrence missed lots of thing about the game when he retired from rugby and wanted to stay fit, keep the camaraderie of team sport, but with a less intense effect on his body” explains Paula Robertson, Head of Operations at Dallaglio RugbyWorks. The inaugural Slam was in 2010: 2,400kms from Rome to Edinburgh, visiting each of the Six Nations stadia along the way. “2012 provided an Olympics inspired route from Greece to London. Since then we have searched for interesting routes that take in the climbs and passes of the great rides of Europe, with some easier elements to encourage new supporters and cyclists.”
In total, there were about eighty Slammers riding per day, either joining en-route for certain stages, returning to finish what they’d started earlier, or surviving the whole event: 16 stages over 2000kms and 36,000m of climb. The route spanned the Pyrenees from San Sebastian to Barcelona, then crossing to The Balearics.
My own contribution is to be a single day in Mallorca on brief days off, traversing the Sierra Tramuntana range from west to east: 160 kilometres from Palma to Port de Pollenca. The significance of this task is not lost on a pilot; the mountainous northern coast requires careful consideration, regardless of your vehicle. An undisputed cycling mecca, Mallorca was hitherto unknown to me from ground level, though I’ve gazed down thousands of times whilst flying in and rapidly out, helping others have their own experiences. On this special occasion, I have 48 hours on the island and in cycling terms, a whole box of matches to burn.
The first of the articulated support trucks are already appearing from the overnight Barcelona ferry. The hotel lobby is rammed with bikes, bags and mechanics assembling and fettling machinery. The logistical setup is impressive for an operation of this size, especially where a different hotel each night was required as the team steadily rolled through the mountains. If Lawrence is Hannibal and his elephants are bikes, then we’re his army.
The evening meal is the first time my teammates and I get a sense of the number of riders involved; there’s also an excuse to fuel up prior to a big day. There are two particularly memorable events, both offering perspectives on adversity.
We start with some hilarious entertainment courtesy of budding stand-up and auctioneer Austin Healey. He’s a gregarious whirlwind, launching into the sale of various promises in rugby banter mode, a regular event throughout the Slam. Much of his humour is directed squarely at Lawrence, sat two chairs away – I get the sense that only Austin could possibly get away with this sort of mischief.
Next up is a teammate and new acquaintance: Andy Kelsey, ex-member of the GB Cycling Team and owner of a gold medal from the recent Invictus Games in Orlando. Andy details his life after a fall the height of the Angel of The North during a rock climbing exercise. He’s a master of his audience in a more subtle, unexpected way. He pauses, allowing us to contemplate the gravity of his story and then delivers a triumphant goading of the rugby fraternity present – the room erupts. He tells me later: “I was very pleased to have the opportunity to present although very apprehensive, especially with one of my heroes in Lawrence Dallaglio sat in the front row! After the presentation I received lots of nice comments and it was great to hear that people had been inspired.”
The curtains reveal a classic panorama of yachts bobbing in the harbour and palm trees casting huge, early morning shadows. I can hear messy nights out winding up outside. It seems a massive shame in the warmth of the sun; I can’t imagine worse things to do.
I’m not a rugby follower but have to chat briefly to Austin at breakfast. He and Lawrence, amongst others, have been cycling the route for weeks. He admits it has been tough so far and seems a little wearied…not knowing him I later have to revisit this opinion.
I take fifteen minutes aside from the burgeoning camaraderie to stretch off the morning cold; it’s still early but we’re dressed in expectation of extreme heat. We’re staggered in small groups off the line, the first few miles leading us away from the bleary urban shadows and pointing us north, the sun on our backs. A welcome team jersey with sponsor’s titles unites us; it almost feels like a race.
There’s a gentle social limbering up. I chat to Vincent, one of our guests who has never cycled this distance before…whilst this appears reckless, it later transpires that he is ex-special forces and well up to the task. It seems I’m surrounded by elites but this isn’t a pre-requisite – the beauty is that anyone of reasonable fitness can sign up for a fully supported experience in groups of graded ability. Consider that a muscly rugby physique isn’t suited to hauling up huge mountains either – nobody is left behind.
The landscape is varied and impressive. There’s a series of tight, symmetrical hairpins under a dense tree canopy, the dewy road pointing unrelentingly skywards. The odd finca nestles in the hills and then you break out into the sun again, empty roads hugging the mountainside. The inevitable descent appears and you’re working like a pro: a synergy of rider and machine, tyres humming on warm tarmac.
There’s the occasional reminder of the day job – signs for places I’m familiar with from the air. Andraitx has its own radio beacon, directing aircraft towards the airport, whilst the coastal village of Tuent has a waypoint of the same name marked on our navigational charts.
The immaculate coastal twist between Valdemossa and Soller is a delight. Working together, taking turns on the front, we flash past floral, whitewashed villages against a permanent backdrop of deep blue. Wheels sing and spirits soar. Even the laybys are scenic: lunch is a gourmet pit stop amongst plantations of huge, gnarled olive trees.
At the base of the first significant climb, Puig Major, I have a vision of skeletons and rusting bikes at the bottom: beware all who pass. It’s tough, but we tackle it together. We pause towards the top where there’s a brief narrowing of the road as it darts through a rocky archway. Somewhere in the valley below there’s aromatic wood smoke that gives the air a blue tinge, a counterpoint to the scream of the occasional motorbike.
My most keenly anticipated part is the infamous Sa Calobra: ten kilometres of coiled cul-de-sac threading itself down a rocky, lunar landscape to a shimmering bay. Once at the base, the only way out is back the way you came.
As always, life has a way of humbling you. You’ll recall my earlier impression of a weary Austin Healey at breakfast; who should now burst from the top of the climb? Despite the gradient he’s just coerced his team up, he’s flying and gives us an emasculating motivational roar as he passes. The guy is a dynamo.
The drop is incredible, your own private rollercoaster. The climb is also a steady test of mettle. My recurring fear is running out of gears – I find myself periodically tapping on the levers just in case there’s an extra. There never is but it becomes a comforting talisman. Huge coaches of disconnected tourists occasionally pass by in hot, dusty clouds, engines grinding. Like some nightmarish driving test, they tenaciously tackle the terrain, with an occasional three-point turn on unfenced, mountain hairpins. With excessive gradient at the top, enterprising highways engineers sent their road over itself in a spiral. A spectator asks me what it was like? Between breaths I can spare a forced: ‘That was the maddest – and best – thing I’ve done on a bike’. A word pops into mind to describe it: cyclopathic.
There’s a team ice cream stop before the long, winding drop back to sea level in Port de Pollenca. Andy & I manage to break free from the group, swapping tales – we’re caught a few kilometres from the finish by the rest of the team in a final dash for the hotel. There’s a huge banquet awaiting, tales to be swapped and congratulation shared.
In the morning there’s a brief changing of the guard as I hand over to an incoming colleague. Whilst a single day might seem agonising, especially leaving my colleagues behind to continue the fun, I’m not at all disappointed. I burned all my matches, met some great people, wrestled with an amazing part of the world, the physio recovery has held up and I can still walk: it’s been the most intense 48hr mini-break I’ve known.
The final words on the subject should go to Andy Kelsey: “The Dallaglio Cycle Slam is a unique event that every keen cyclist should experience at least once. The challenging riding, combined with rugby style banter will have you grinning ear to ear all day long. Preparing for this event will require equal time spent perched on a saddle and a bar stool! I would encourage anybody to take on the Slam because I know you’ll have great time and be supporting a fantastic cause which Lawrence Dallaglio is clearly very passionate about.”
The 2018 Dallaglio Cycling Slam runs France/Switzerland/Italy/Slovenia/Croatia in May & June and is now open for bookings: http://www.dallagliocycleslam.com. Tell Lawrence & Austin we sent you, but don’t underestimate either on two wheels, no matter how tired they pretend to be.
The 2016 Slam raised £800,000 for Dallaglio RugbyWorks. This helps deliver a long-term intensive skills development programme, based upon the values of rugby, to 14-17 year olds excluded from mainstream education, helping them into sustained education, training or employment.