I spent half-time during Barcelona 3-0 Manchester United arguing with the manager of Wales about BMXs, Raleigh Choppers and Grifters. Ryan Giggs was there to see the game, but what good would it do to talk about the football? Nine minutes aside, United were battered by the home side.
Giggs got on to the subject of bikes because he said he was keen to join us on our journey from Barcelona to Manchester, to raise money for a dedicated ambulance for a hospice close to Ryan’s house. My dad died there in November and we wanted to do something to help; to provide something tangible which could be put to good use. St Ann’s Hospice, which cares for people across Greater Manchester, needed a £40,000 ambulance. Two weeks before Dad died, there wasn’t one to take him home from hospital.
Giggs, Gary Neville, David May and Andy Cole were all up for helping out. We knew they couldn’t ride the 2,000 kilometres from Barcelona – Giggs had a national team to manage, for one – but their help was appreciated. May dared us to cycle naked, then offered to help clean our rings.
Ryan had one single stipulation.
“I’m only doing it if I can do it on a BMX,” he said.
“Imagine if you bought a BMX,” I replied.
A death stare followed.
“What do you mean ‘imagine if’? I’ve got one.”
The conversation descended into the bikes we wanted as kids – and the ones we actually got. Lads with BMXs adorned with ‘mags’ – those plastic, coloured spokes, were posh kids.
We finished the ride on Monday at Old Trafford. Turned down Sir Matt Busby Way, where we seemed to have spent a lifetime selling fanzines, on a bike for the first time. Hundreds were waiting for us on the forecourt. What a buzz.
Giggs was there. Gary Neville and Andy Cole, too – he put off a trip to London to wait for us. Cole had met my dad.
“Get your boots on because this is shit!” Dad had told the former hotshot during a magnificent 4-3 game between Manchester United and Newcastle in 2012. Cole was over 40 at the time. Dad loved to moan about Manchester United. He even moaned the morning after the Treble win in Barcelona outside the Camp Nou, which was our set-off point for this ride.
But these former footballers were lads of a similar age to us, who gave us some of the greatest buzzes of our lives as football fans. It was a nice touch on a 16-day marathon pedal full of them. Paul Power, who none of us know, was a Manchester City stalwart when we were kids. He lives in France now and invited seven of us for tea at his house.
Strangers being good to us helped us through the awful days of projectile vomiting, rain and record low temperatures for June in the Pyrenees. I’d nearly given up at one point through illness, though I was the only one not to get a puncture at all. The others averaged five each. Our arses were sore through chaffing, though creams I didn't know existed a month ago helped.
The night before we finished the ride, we arrived at a public park in the middle of rural Staffordshire. I fell off my bike after a 15th day of 120km rides and my brother stood in dog shit. Malt loaf, long made in our part of Manchester, apparently has restorative powers to help you do the equivalent of Manchester to Birmingham every single day.
The kitchen was closed but the landlady sorted us a Sunday lunch. The locals heard what we were doing and passed a pot around, which soon contained £190 towards the ambulance. Earlier in the day near Birmingham, a lady came out of the kitchen in a pub and gave us the money back which we’d paid for the food. She wanted it to go towards the ambulance. She’d lost someone to cancer, too.
We started planning this when our dad was still alive. He suffered six months in acute and often unbearable pain before he died in November, aged 69. A man who never stopped complaining about Manchester United seldom complained about his own pain. It was awful to see a fit man diminish and you feel helpless. What can you do to help? I had an idea.
“Dad, we’re going to raise money by cycling from Barcelona to Manchester next year.”
“That’s a bit much, son. How far is it?”
I told him again a few weeks later.
“It’s a good idea son, but can't you avoid the mountains?”
“No Dad, I can't move the Pyrenees.”
“I’d go where there’s the most minge if I were you.”
We found sponsors, which meant that every single penny we raised went towards the ambulance. Red Army Bet paid us £5,000; Meadows Gin £2,500; Brittany Ferries gave us free crossings across the Channel; Fat Heads, a quality Manchester creative company, did a logo for free; Decathlon gave us a bike after a lad had his robbed from his shed the week before. Artists Nick Dillon and Brendan Higgins donated paintings, Donkeystone Brewing company a tour with beers for 10.
We can’t bring our dad back, but it felt good to do something useful in his memory. An ambulance will now serve people in Greater Manchester where he lived for almost all his life. He was a footballer himself – the whole family are – and he gave me my love of the game. I watched him play around the grounds of the north of England as a kid. The seemingly giant stand at Drill Field, Northwich or Ewen Fields, Hyde, were my Maracanas before trips to Old Trafford became the norm as soon as I was old enough to go by myself at 13.
Dad and I often had opposite views of football. I’m an optimist – he was never, ever happy with Manchester United. He’d refused to go to Old Trafford, just three miles from his home, because United weren’t as good as Brazil’s 1970 side every single season. United was an outlet to vent.
This bike ride wasn’t a Manchester United thing, though. True, United welcomed us back to Old Trafford, put food on for 200 and gave us one of their best lounges.
But we got one of Liverpool full-back Andy Robertson’s two match-issued shirts from the Champions League final in Madrid. That sold for £5,000. Loads of Scousers put money in for us – some of them £6, one for each of their European Cups. Thanks for that. Manchester City gave us a signed Sergio Aguero shirt too. It all helped towards the target.
Five minutes after we saw the first sign with ‘Manchester’ on it just north of Congleton, we got confirmation that we’d hit our £40,000 target. By the end of Monday it was closer to £50,000. Wow.
Over 1,000 people put money into what we did. People get mithered for charitable donations all the time and our story was hardly ground-breaking. But people also lose their loved ones to cancer all the time. We’re so grateful to everyone who helped us.
Just don’t ask any of the other five cyclists (one of them a Manchester City season ticket holder...) to ever get on a bike again.
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