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Team Claire take on the Help for Heroes Battlefield Ride

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Liam Flanagan-Todd’s personal blog on his Help for Heroes Big Battlefield Bike Ride as part of “Team Claire”. Follow the teams ride from Paris up to the Normandy beaches and along the route of the D-Day landings to Cherbourg. The ride ends up with over 1,500 riders joining together at the Air Force Memorial in Runnymede to celebrate finishing their gruelling challenges. Hope you enjoy it and maybe it will inspire you to take on a similar challenge for Help for Heroes in 2016.

Day 1 Paris to Evreux

The day started very early, 250 riders plus support teams on the road from our hotel in the 17th arrondisement to the Chateau at St. Germain en Laye.  As always a candle was lit by the youngest rider and the memorial prayer said by the eldest rider.  The chapel at Paris St. Germaine n Laye is the final resting place of King James II. A rather overcast start to the ride, supporting Claire Edwards who is an injured veteran and the only seated female cyclist on the ride.  Not too hilly in the morning and the sun managed to put in an appearance.  Lunch was taken on the banks of the Seine looking with the impressive 12th century Chateau La Roche Guyon – the headquarters of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel during the Nazi occupation of France. After a hearty lunch we headed off at a steady 10 miles per hour, a fast pace for a veteran who is bionic from the pelvis down.  Little did we realise what lay ahead, the climbs this afternoon were challenging for non-disabled riders, for people who have amputations, nerve damage etc. the final climb was a killer, especially when your top speed on the climb is around 1 ½ miles per hour.  Around 9 hours after leaving Paris we finally arrived at Evreux.  No time for a shower, straight to dinner, too tired to eat.  Distance covered, around 60 miles.

Day 2 Evreux to Lisieux

Another early start as we headed into the Normandy countryside.  Also team shirt day and we have the honour of carrying the ‘baton’.  The baton is made from a handle of a stretcher used in Afghanistan and contains the names of the fallen from the conflict there, 2 of our team have direct links the baton, and the day just became more emotional.  The largest climb of the day was mid-morning, whilst not particularly steep it is long, over 2 ½ miles.  Watching the veterans take this challenge in their stride is inspiring to say the least, that they are battling other demons such as PTSD they still urge other riders on.  French motorists are the most tolerant, they hang back until the road is clear.  Lunch at an airfield used by the Luftwaffe which was of little use to the Nazis during D-Day as they only had 2 aeroplanes on the strip.  Onwards towards Lisieux, and another nasty hill to end the day. Really not what you need after around 10 hours in the saddle!

Day 3 Lisieux to Caen

And again, up at the crack of dawn as we head to our first War Grave memorial ceremony.  This is the meeting point for the team, after a nice climb out of town on what is little more than a gravel track – it was a killer first thing in the morning.  I don’t know why but when the last post is sounded I get very emotional, perhaps it is because I am surrounded by people who died before they had a chance to live, some of the graves are of men, boys really, and some unknown.  I am not alone is being tearful whilst in the cemetery, there is barely a dry eye.  At each of the wreath laying ceremonies an injured veteran will tell us their tale, emotionally challenging but ultimately uplifting. I am truly blessed to be a part of such an amazing group of people, from different backgrounds but with one goal; to ensure that our injured and their families are looked after.  We are also joined by a car load of Gendarmes, and they are wearing Help for Heroes arm bands.  Today we had to make the decision to take motorised transport to Pegasus Bridge, we would not get Claire to the ceremony in time otherwise.  Crossing the bridge behind the piper, legs are like jelly.  The scene of some fierce fighting at the start of the invasion and the start of the liberation of France and some fantastic tales of how the French celebrated the beginning of the end of the war.  Dinner tonight was in Caen town, overlooking the rebuilt cathedral – a wonderful, architectural gem.  Steak and chips – wonderful!

Day 4 Caen to Bayeux

Today we head to the beaches, and just like June 6th 1944 the weather is awful, Claire is not on the road as the rain is so heavy.  We head off at a steady pace into the battlefields, 1,000’s of casualties on both sides and some remarkable stories of German surrender, including one officer who sent his batman to pack his suitcases so that he would have a change of clothing whilst being held as a PoW.  We get to the D-Day landing beaches, the sheer loss of life is overwhelming, the sacrifices made by men who knew they were not going home.  Although this is the shortest day in terms of distance, and fancy dress day, it is by far the most important day for many; one of our team is proudly wearing a t-shirt with a picture of her grandfather who was in the first wave of soldiers to land at Gold beach, just hearing the guide talk of the horrors awaiting the allied troops has us blubbing again.  Early lunch and then onwards to Bayeux.  Cheeky climb up to Arromanche and the 360 cinematic experience, best €5 ever spent.  Watching the realisation of what happened 70 years ago on the face of the young is priceless, they went in to the cinema full of joie de vivre, they left animated, but in a respectful way, talking about what they had just seen.  It’s starting to brighten and warm up.  We need to complete another 20 miles to get to the ceremony at Bayeux, and an hour to do it.  A bit more sprinting than I’m used to but we did it.  Another emotional talk from a veteran before we stand in silence and pay tribute to the fallen.  The War Graves Cemetery in Bayeux also contains a German fallen, but in death we are all equal.

Day 5 Bayeux to Cherbourg

One of the team wants to be at Omaha beach early, we leave the hotel at 6:30 to ensure she gets there on time.  The French countryside at dawn is peaceful, just a few others heading to or from the boulangerie with their breakfast baguettes and croissants.  We arrive at the American cemetery at Omaha at 7:30, an hour before the other riders, so we take a walk to the bluff overlooking the beach, which housed the German gun positions.  It looks very different to 1944, the sun is rising, the Channel calm and barely a sound to be heard.  The American cemetery is breath taking, the graves seem to disappear into the sea and surrounding woods. Onwards and upwards, literally, there are some big climbs before we descend into Cherbourg.  Lunch is at St. Mere Eglise, where an allied paratrooper landed on the church spire, he was taken PoW by the Germans but escaped.  Well done John Steele. We arrived at the holding point a full hour plus before the cut time, but the best part of the day was reserved for one of the American team who had struggled with the climbs but was determined not to arrive sat in a wheelchair or support van.  We lined the entrance to the park and cheered him through.  Final 2 miles is in a peleton through Cherbourg to the harbour, much to the amusement of the locals.  We did it! We finished the ride, all the team in one piece.

The Hero Ride Grand Finale

The last phase of the ride sees over 1,500 riders come together to ride en-masse in colours.  Gold for veterans and serving personnel, red for the army, navy blue for, well, the navy and light blue for the air force.  The ride from the hotel to the Air Force memorial at Runnymede is a gentle 10 miles, the average motorist was not as polite or pleasant as the French, several riders run of the road and seated riders almost hit. The sun is out and we will not let anything spoil the day.  After the ceremony came a pleasant ride to Windsor followed by a pint or two of cider and I’m physically and emotionally exhausted. Liam Flanagan-Todd 2015 Many thanks to Liam for this wonderful review of his time as a member of Team Claire in what, I’m sure you’ll agree, was a very challenging ride. Liam has already signed up to take on another H4H ride in 2016, this time the Western Front Challenge. If you have enjoyed his recollections and would like to donate towards his fundraising for his 2016 challenge, you can find his Just Giving page here.
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