Why I was compelled to ride my bicycle 800km during the Christmas holiday

Steve Jennings
Jan 1 · 6 min read

We struggle, we thrive, we love, we play, we work, we win, we loose and eventually our lives end.

On the 2nd December, 2018, I received the news that my dear friend Paul Sherwen a former professional racing cyclist and probably better known as one half of the Tour de France commentary team together with Phil Liggett had passed away.

Paul doing his thing as the world renowned TV cycling commentator that he became.

Paul played a pivotal role in my life back in the winters of 1977 and 1978. At the time I was still living in my home town of Hull in East Yorkshire, England. I was a hugely ambitious 16 year old junior racing cyclist who dreamt of one day racing as a professional in mainland Europe.

Paul was five years older than me, and at the end of 1977 following a hugely successful career as an amateur cyclist he turned professional for the FIAT professional team.

Paul in his first season as a professional cyclist riding for the FIAT team.

I will never forget the day I was told that Paul Sherwen would be staying in Hull, during December 1977. Paul was looking for cyclists to accompany him on his long mid-winter training rides. These rides where never less than 5 hours in duration and more often than not ended up becoming 7 hour epic bicycle adventures on the narrow, hilly and wind swept roads of the Yorkshire Wolds in East Yorkshire.

East Yorkshire, England

Anyone who wanted to ride with Paul simply had to turn up at the Zetland Arms pub in Portobello Street, Hull. This was his aunt and uncles pub, and the place where Paul was able to spend time with his family prior to heading back to join his FIAT team mates in France.

The Zetland Arm pub in Hull, East Yorkshire, England

Riding with Paul was a real baptism of fire. He would be out on the road at 8:00am sharp every morning, come rain, snow, wind or sunshine. The thing that immediately struck me about Paul was his complete and utter lack of ego. He was just one of the lads on a bike ride. Albeit he rode at the front all day and we took turns to ride along side him.

Mid winter Kiplingcotes Lane in the Yorkshire Wolds

A typical ride with Paul would be: 7:55am - meet at the Zetland Arms pub. 8:00am - out on the road. 12 noon - stop at transport cafe for baked beans and poached eggs on toast, washed down with a pint of strong English tea. 1:00pm - back on the road. 4:00pm - arrive back at the Zetland Arms pub in Hull. And this would be the routine every day. I was very fortunate to be in the position to join Paul on many of these rides. Sometimes it would be with a group of 10 or 12 cyclists, other times it we be a small group of four cyclists riding with Paul, and on quite a few occasions it was just Paul and I riding together. We called ourselves ‘the hard-men of the north’.

Typical lunch for the ‘hard-men of the north’ baked beans and poached egg on toast

Paul was a wonderful story teller, and really knew how to capture the imagination of someone like me. The best part of these rides and our 1 hour lunch break was hearing Paul share the story’s of his cycle racing exploits in France. Paul told us about the inner workings of professional cycling and life on the road as a full-time cyclist. At times it was like hearing something that resembled Spinal Tap meets Waynes World and I loved it!!!!!

Eventually, in 1979 I did leave my hometown of Hull and followed my dream of becoming a professional cyclist. But that’s a story for another day.

Over the years I always kept in touch with Paul, which actually became much easier once he became a world famous cycling commentator for major TV networks. Every now and again we would catch up at a bike race and talk about family, business and Paul’s amazing life living in Uganda.

Paul in his element

Fast forward to 2006: It was long after Paul retired from being a professional cyclist that a new chapter in my friendship with Paul was forged. During 2005 I became acquainted with Pat Montani the founder of Bicycles for Humanity, a volunteer run, open-source organisation that collects unused bicycles, and ships them to Africa, bringing mobility to the millions of people who have no access to transport of any kind. In February 2006, Pat and I headed out to California with the objective of meeting with Paul and sharing with him the Bicycles for Humanity vision. Paul absolutely loved everything that Bicycles for Human was doing. Over the following years he contributed many hours of his time doing countless charity events to help build Bicycles for Humanity and thanks to his efforts, the movement grew to numerous grassroots chapters all over the world. So far Bicycles for Humanity have delivered over 160,000 bicycles to 11 African countries and created over 250 bike shops called Bicycle Empowerment Centres. In doing so they’ve become the largest global organisation at providing the gift of bicycle mobility.

February 2006, from l-r Steve, Paul and Pat at the Tour of California professional cycle race

Christmas Eve 2018: For some crazy reason I decided to sign up for an event that has become something of cult cycling tradition. The Rapha Festive 500, the objective of which is to ride 500 kilometers during the 8-day period from Christmas Eve to New Years Eve.

Living on a Vancouver Island in Canada I needed something a little extra to give me the motivation to tackle this mid-winter madness, Remembering those ‘hard men of the north rides’ with Paul was perfect. If I could do it when I was in my late teens, I sure as hell could do it again as a 57 year old who still loves riding bicycles as much today as when I was a small kid.

Carrying the memory and spirit of Paul with me on these rides I managed to ride more than 800 kilometers in 5 rides during the 8 days from 24 December to 31 January, more than I could have ever believed was possible when the challenge began on Christmas Eve.

Non of this was pre-planned, it was just about listening to my intuition, and doing something that I truly enjoy regardless of the weather, my age or anything else, whilst remembering a dear and greatly missed friend.

Rest peacefully ‘hard man of the north’

Paul

Steve Jennings

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