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A 407-mile virtual bike ride in aid of Scope

This reflection on a 407-mile virtual bike ride from the Scottish border down to Dover in February 2021 is not about me. It’s about over 300 people, friends, colleagues, Scope staff and trustees, friends of friends and strangers. It’s about our combined push for recognition of people with disabilities. Their value, their strength, their brilliance, their courage against mockery, despair, poverty and omission.

When I wrote to Matt Hancock on December 2nd 2020 asking him to save thousands of lives by prioritising vaccination for people statistically over three times as likely to die, I couldn’t have imagined that it took nearly three months for the combined wisdom of government to even acknowledge a problem. It took whistleblowing by a celebrity with a disabled sister to get attention.

More than that it took Scope and other great charities pushing and pushing and pushing.

And without a doubt, the strong wind at their back from your support for Lockdown Legends kept them going when others might have despaired. Thank you.

Here’s a small resume of my journey, with a few extracts from my diary.

The itinerary

  • Hexham to Durham = 38 miles
  • Durham to York = 72 miles
  • York to Lincoln = 72 miles
  • Lincoln to Peterborough = 58 miles
  • Peterborough to Cambridge = 34 miles
  • Cambridge to Enfield = 45 miles
  • Enfield to Clapham = 14 miles
  • Clapham to Maidstone = 34 miles
  • Maidstone to Dover = 40 miles

Total = 407 miles

Challenge highlights

Week 1

“Getting used to being up and at’em first thing is not a musician’s natural cycle [forgive the pun]. We are usually nocturnal, hence we can jump around on a stage at 11pm or later. So on a dark cold February morning, getting up and stretching for 20 minutes, then putting on socks, shoes, cycling shorts, back supporter, shirt, tie, knee pads, drinking a coffee, eating an energy bar and getting on my bike for an hour is so not me!

… As I get into the week, I’m  starting  to enjoy myself and settle into a routine.

… Pure chance that I was ten miles out of North Shields, the birthplace of Animals guitarist Hilton Valentine on the day he sadly died. When I was a kid, not only did I wish I was called Hilton Valentine but I, like so many kids in the 60s, spent hours trying to play Hilton’s unforgettable opening guitar arpeggio to ‘House of The Rising Sun’. RIP Hilton and thanks.

… Got a text asking me to go for my jab tomorrow. Very mixed emotions. On the one hand really pleased. On the other hand, incredibly frustrated that there are hundreds of disabled people still dying every single day who are not being prioritised. I’m at a loss and it will be hard to forgive the Department of Health when we’ve put it right under their noses since before Christmas.

… I was determined not to be late for the jab and fell head over heels on one of the many rubbish pavements in Wandsworth. Low council taxes are all very well, but you get what you pay for and they are a real hazard for me and other blind folks, wheelchair users, elderly people and the like. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a road crew sorting out a pavement in Wandsworth in the 12 years I’ve lived here.

… I’ve got bruises in places I didn’t know I had places, if you know what I mean.

… So back on the road today, circled round York and 20 good strong miles, listening to Spurs winning at last …I even showed off at the end with a burst of speed to overtake a virtual bus.

… Broke the 300 mile barrier – a good moment. We need these little victories to spur us on.

Week 2

… Shelley is being a great pit crew and Joey and Joe are providing all the socials. I’ve had wonderful messages from Scope staff up and down the country, many doing their own challenges. I am privileged to have this role and I will try to make a difference.

… Definitely getting cocky in Lycra. I had a rest day – thanks Kev, very good advice – so full of energy. A couple of bursts of speed at the end of the second ride – showing off!

… Confident no side-effects from Friday’s vaccination.

… Afternoon 10 miles through storm D’Arcy – apparently the correct name for this year’s Beast from the East – so I should call this pm ride ‘Ride and Prejudice’ – oh dear, not great

… Twenty-one miles is just about my maximum in the saddle, but still driving on…the 200-mile barrier up ahead is a big incentive.

… The end of the afternoon I’m starting to come down with what feels like the mother of all flus.

Tuesday Feb 9th (Day 9) Morning: 13 miles with a temperature, including overtaking two tractors near the end! Hallucinating all day. High fever. Thumping headache … so that’s what they mean by the vaccine delayed reaction. Somehow when you know why you’re feeling rubbish it’s not as much of a bother as a mystery illness.

… Spoke to my housekeeper in Marrakesh, where we haven’t been since March. The aircon is bust, the fridge is bust, it’s 28 degrees and sunny every day, and I’m here on my bike – but I’m a lucky guy in many ways.

Wednesday Feb 10th (Day 10): Target of £30,000 smashed! I’m still pinching myself that all you wonderful folks got us across the £30,000 barrier when I was still under half distance. That money pays for three thousand expert responses to the Scope Help line – that’s three thousand people, up against it, looking for advice, love, compassion. How brilliant is that!

… I had a come down after reaching the money target and knowing I was less than half way through the ride. So now it’s all down to man vs machine. I’m on my fourth different style of padded shorts but I can’t find an inflatable seat anywhere….either that or I need an inflatable bottom!

Friday Feb 12th (Day 12): Cracked the 200 mile barrier after 4 miles and the halfway point at 7.5 miles. A good feeling but more chilling stats from the Office for National Statistics. Getting to the midway point was amazing, but the Office for National Statistics figures finally broke cover and shocked the media and the nation. No one can quite believe that 6 out of ten deaths were disabled people and that even young people with mild disability are over twice as likely to die….how the hell do I get this message across. Matt Hancock hasn’t acknowledged either letter sent in December.

The glorious Cathy Newman picked up the story and was beyond angry. She got me straight on to her drivetime show and gave me the time to set out clearly what needs to happen now.

… Scope have asked me to stretch my target – apparently that’s a technical charity giving phrase. Well Scopers, I’ve been stretching just about everything else for the last two weeks so might as well. Another five grand is another 500 phone calls responded to and another 500 distressed or isolated folks given quality time.

Saturday Feb 13th (Day 13) Afternoon: 16 miles in a single stint today. angry that government still ignoring disabled people for vaccination. I’ve written another letter and sent it to Mr Hancock’s Parliament address. Bounced back as I’m not a constituent. Grrr

Sunday Feb 14th (Day 14): My first thought was Valentine’s Day massacre. I’m so frustrated. I wrote an open letter to Matt Hancock and sent it to The Times and The Sunday Times. Both papers rejected the letter. Why? There was nothing offensive at all. In the end, sent it off to The Telegraph who have acknowledged receipt. I’m sure the Scope team will find a way to deliver the note. They are a determined lot.

Week 3

Monday Feb 15th (Day 15): 9 miles. Coccyx hell on a handcart. Just over halfway. I remember previous long distance runs across London and Paris where they ring a bell at the halfway mark. I usually wanted to give up and to hell with what I was raising money for. This time I’m rather more involved at Scope and I’m getting first-hand storytelling from disabled people having it a hundred times more tough than me, so onwards! The sore bits are very sore, but my body is starting to change shape – arms and legs in particular. So I am a god after all – an ancient god, somewhere between Apollo, god of music and poetry and Bacchus, god of wine, sensual pleasure and truth.

Tuesday Feb 16th (Day 16): A rather hot 10 miles  – thank god I took Steve’s advice and bought big tubs of rubbing gel – it really is called Swerve! Go figure.

… Evening a serene 9 miles started with a tune on the guitar to celebrate new life. Our sixth grandchild Blake was born I think on Valentine’s day in Sweden, so I celebrated with a quick rendition of ‘Here comes The Sun’ to remind mum and dad of their wedding day, where I played that song as they walked – or rather ran down the aisle. Babies are wonderful and they bring optimism in these dark days.

… The place where the drainage tube was for all that time – right hand side under the ribs – has been giving me grief since the first week. I decided to take Chris’ advice – Chris does these ghastly seven deserts marathon things and comes home with foot rot. He said ‘don’t be a hero Rob, take painkillers; we all do’

… Broke the 150miles to go barrier. Good feeling.

… Changed ties early as I hit Cambridge after 1 mile. Will wear the light blue again tomorrow. I waved at my old college Queens’, where I spent 3 great years and met many people still my friends and they have supported me this month on the challenge. Lovely. Loyalty is King. This Schwinn bike trainer reminds me a bit of rowing, which I tried in an eight boat and hated it. I had no idea the seat was above the sides [whatever they are called] or how fast you travel. Thrilling but weird. Prefer white water.

Thursday Feb 18th (Day 18): Jo Whiley has stirred up the hornet’s nest on vaccinations with a very brave and passionate interview about her sister Frances in a care home. We all felt for her but were grateful because she has shone a light on the problem and I do believe after a nearly 3-month battle that the media get it, all of you get it and the politicians are starting to get it.

… Very chatty today, talking about my old school and the frustrations of being a lifelong Spurs supporter. Having managed to lose their last 6 games, I threatened to stop riding if they didn’t win this evening. Miracle of miracles they did.

Friday Feb 19th (Day 19):  Broke the 100miles to go barrier! Woohoo! All the rides are recorded. I simply don’t believe even the least trusting of you will sit through the lot. Good luck if you do. I did do a lot of whooping and hollering when I got down to 100 miles to go. … I can’t feel my backside anymore but I can feel the finish just about in sight.

… Passed my old school in Enfield and arrived at the house I lived in for the best part of 20 years. The longest I lived anywhere since. Arrived in Winchmore Hill, 3 miles from my spiritual home Tottenham where the Millar family started life in a flat next to the Spurs ground and where my dad worked for over 30 years. Down the Edgware Road where I had my first flat in London, down Park Lane where my girlfriend and I went to the Hilton for tea and felt very posh.

… Clapham, where I have lived for 12 years. You can take the boy out of norf London but … well no buts, I’m very happy down here but I miss the kebab shops in Turnpike lane. I visit my Daughter who lives up there and it’s always kebabs.

… I’m sort of numb both literally and spiritually. 72 miles out of 407 to go. I knew I would make it because it’s not in my nature to fail and because 300 of you have put your faith and your bunce behind me and I don’t let people down. This Lockdown legends thing has been a good shot in the arm for the good people of scope and the number of people backing me and so backing them in a time of need is fantastic.

… Incredibly this ride will break £40,000 by the end of the journey. That’s 4,000 disabled people having someone to turn to in their time of greatest need. You should all pat yourselves on the back.

… After 28 hours in the saddle, all I’m desperate for is my home in Marrakech, the warm African sun on my face  and a massage from the fearsome lady at the Red House.

Week 4

Monday Feb 21st (Day 21):  a mighty 17 miles. The longest stint ever. ‘Spurred’ on by annoyance and frustration that Spurs boss started with the wrong team and lost to West Ham. Grrr

… Wearing a horrible tie.

… Pleased the Sunday Times printed my plea to Matt Hancock

… 6 miles and I’m beat! Bruised feet, cramp in calves, killer knees, bum totally destroyed, both elbows aching, drainage tube scar tissue complaining, hands knackered, left shoulder feels like it’s been pulled out of its socket. Spirits good.  Cumulative effect starting to tell and I’ve got music work to do tonight which means sitting in my chair! Aarrgghh

Tuesday Feb 23rd (Day 23): I’m losing it guys. I think I said today was Monday 23rd on the video!

Wednesday Feb 24th (Day 24): Riding on air. Smashed £40,000 for Scope thanks to 300+amazing people and organisations.

… And GUESS WHAT? Power to you people. Today the government announced that ALL folks with learning disabilities, young or old, in care or in the community, will be prioritised for immediate vaccination. That is a victory for pressure, tireless work by Scope and other fantastic charity partners, your donations, the pressure on politicians and real people telling real stories. Today is not a day to think about all the other people still waiting. Those with learning disabilities are THE most likely to suffer the worst consequence of COVID-19 and they get protection.

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… I will ride 11 miles tomorrow for sure and leave the final mile for Friday morning and thank you from the bottom of my heart – and from the heart of my bottom, which has borne the brunt of the work.

Thursday Feb 25th (Day 25) lunchtime: 11 miles incredibly difficult. My body knows it’s time to stop … but I sprinted the last 150 metres! Get in!

Running total 406 miles. Miles remaining 1!

… The crowds are starting to arrive and check in to their guest houses in Dover ready for Friday! It’s not the Champs Elysees but it’ll do fine. Tomorrow will be a very special day. I aim to hit the bike at 10am for the final ten minute mile and, like the true English son of immigrants that I am, celebrate with a cup of tea!