The Anniversary Waltz

Twelve months ago on this very day, Dunco et moi set off into a dark, cold, wet night from Fir Park, Motherwell after a Billy McKay effort had somehow failed to cross the line 30 seconds from the end of a 2-1 defeat. The next 24 hours changed the course of history of this epic bike ride. The 165 miles to Carrbridge over the ensuing 18 hours laid the foundation for everything that has happened since. Highland Bike 1 changed everything…

I remember it so well: I’d been doing okay on alternating four and five day weeks which ensured 144 miles one week then 180 the next. My working pattern was about to change to permanent four and a half day weeks and I remember being so concerned about that last trip of the week being on tired legs just five hours after getting off the bike. Highland Bike 1 blew away all those fears, and a whole lot else on the side. From worrying about repeated 180’s, I suddenly had 165 in a single day and 232 for that week. The shackles were off. Suddenly I was limitless. To this day, Dunco probably doesn’t realise how important that single journey was in the context of this trip round the globe from Stewarton to Glasgow and back.

We set off at 10:15pm, having retrieved our heavily laden bikes from a local church close to the ground. The Lord did a good job, although he could perhaps have been kinder with the weather: it rained for the first three hours and that ensured we were well chilled by the time the body clock hit 2am.

No support vehicle for this trip. Everything we reckoned we’d need was onboard and I kid you not, those bikes were heavy. We’d told the Highland Marchers that we planned on wild camping our way up the road over a couple of days, intending to join them at the Carrbridge bunkhouse (the favourite HM bunk joint by far by the way) on the Friday night. Nae luck lads: we’d already phoned ahead and added ourselves to the booking for the Thursday night. And we intended on being there first to grab the bunks in the roof space (have you ever come across three layers of bunks in a dorm? This joint is maaaagic!)

Our plan was dead simple: get ahead of them on the road while they were sleeping (they were parked up in Aberfeldy on that Wednesday night, and doing Glen Tromie south to north on the Thursday morning. Tromie’s 21 miles and off limits to vehicles: Once you’re in there, it’s six hours of walking to the other end. So our plan meant being through Pitlochry before 9am so they wouldn’t spot us on the road: then we could come into the Glen from the top end and lay the mother of all ambushes in a well known fire lookout post. Pulled that stunt before with a big heap of pine cones. The Highland March loves a good ambush and the LifeCycle Man, aka Yompa at the time, is the reigning champion after a magnificently executed assault on two enemy marchers hiding in a big drainage pipe on HM3. I spotted them from 400m with a pair of field glasses that I found in a ditch not an hour before. I then circumnavigated their field of vision, in full view of said pipe, by crawling along a dry river bed to get the northern end of the scene: the one they were least expecting and certainly not covering. Boom!

Anyway, back to the HB: Dunco and I were parked up opposite a bacon butty n pop shop in Pitlochry about quarter to nine on the Thursday morning when the black maria pulled up:

“WTF are you doing here: we thought you were camping. Where’s yer stuff”?

“What stuff? Camping, us. Feck that. We’ve just legged it from Motherwell in a wonna. We’ll get you in Carrbridge, except we’ll be there first. Top bunks!”

And with that we got back on the road, dismissed the ambush plan and did indeed get the roof space. I think I must have been on my third or fourth tinnie by the time they arrived. Cue a sleeping bag full of…. Zzzzzzz’s.

I mention all this because tomorrow is another day that’s got its magical identity stamped all over this bike ride. Tomorrow is the day that Oscar gained his angel wings a year ago. I was on the road by Loch Insh when it happened, a spot that I will pass close by a week on Saturday. We will stop and remember him.
Highland Bike 2 was never going to be anything else other than a tribute to his short but memorable life. I never met him, but I know enough people who did to ensure that his angel wings sit permanently on my bike: I may not be the fastest guy in Ayrshire but see in the middle of winter when it’s blowing a gale and the Fenwick Muir’s just plain nasty, Oscar makes the difference. There are no lycra boys in December and January…
This Oscar memorial is going to be special for a whole host of reasons, and they’re all rooted in neuroblastoma, football and friendship.

There’s a wee girl up in Forres, 30 miles from Inverness, who was diagnosed with neuroblastoma in May of last year. It’s almost like we lost Oscar but gained a new wee soul that replaced him. Mouldy and I met wee Eileidh in the pub at the end of Cycling Santas in December, we just didn’t know it at the time. So when Mouldy texted me about a month ago and suggested that we meet up for some weekend cycling, a wee light tripped on in my head. The post split fixtures had just come out and Mouldy’s Celtic were hosting my Inverness on the last day of the league season. It was too good an opportunity to miss.

“Hey, Mouldy, fancy cycling from Inverness to Celtic Park on Highland Bike 2. We could raise some much needed cash for Eileidh cos Gail needs to raise a hundred grand by June to get her to America. It’s kind of urgent”.

Mouldy: “why don’t we start in Forres. It’s only 30 miles from Inverness”.

God, I wish I’d thought of that!

Mouldy is fantastic: he’s just like me but bigger. Mouldy is just the most logical thinking, organised guy you could ever come across when it comes to organising something like this. I guess that’s why he works in logistics then…

And that was basically that. We’re starting in Forres on the Saturday morning (not sure where yet, but the Forres Mechanics FC ground has been mentioned), cycling the 30 miles over to Inverness, taking in the game against Dundee United with the Highland Marchers then setting off to kill another 50 miles straight after the game. Destination Newtonmore: lights for the last 90 minutes methinks…

Sunday morning will throw up a leg which feels like it should be downhill, given that we’ll have climbed from sea level to a thousand feet the night before, but 85 miles will probably take a different kind of toll. This ain’t gonna be no picnic, especially if the weather doesn’t pick up from the way it’s been these last two weeks.

Monday is a relatively short sprint, 60 miles, from Comrie to Celtic Park vis the Celtic training ground at Lennoxtown, if they’ll let us in that is: we need to get the LifeCycle flag signed by both teams. Inverness will get it done up the road next week and then we need to complete the job. It’s great that the flag is filling up because it’s the heartbeat of this adventure. And who signed it first? Vanessa.

The squad for next week is a good one: there’s Mouldy and me, obviously. There’s Mouldy’s mate Robbie from Spean Bridge: he was a #TeamOscar pedal soldier back in 2012 when the Celtic bhoys raised a hundred grand in next to no time. It’s both ironic and coincidental that that’s what we’re aiming for this time aroun: for Eileidh. Then there’s Kev, who shall be known hereafter simply as The Lawlerman. Kev and I go back a long way, thirty years of a long way, except we lost twenty five in the middle. We were both runners at Cumbernauld Athletics Club in the 80’s and shared many a muddy moment. One of these days, I’ll explain The Wednesday Run in all it’s glorious, gory detail: suffice to say just now that you could be up to yer baws in icy cold water depending on what the weather had been doing. And our driver (yes, we’ve got one this year) is a true charity legend: the indomitable Tyneside Numero Uno, Iain McGovern. In order to get him on the insurance, I needed his driving details: convictions and experience etc. “None and driving a supporters bus to Celtic Park every two weeks” came the reply. Without fear of contradiction I would say that Iain, aka Brendan Foster (who he is the double of, by the way, is one of the nicest, easy going blokes I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. It’s gonna be some trip. All we need now is the weather, so please, please, Judith Ralston, gi’us a tailwind. I really don’t mind if it doesn’t warm up, just gi’us a tail wind.
Oh, and as if next week wasn’t exciting enough with all these good lads onboard, there’s the prospect of CAKE next Saturday. The short trip from Forres to Caley Stadium at Inverness is primed to bring up the 14,000th mile of this epic journey. Cannae wait: CAKE at Caley Stadium!

It started with Vanessa, Oscar and Mackenzie. And one year on from Highland Bike 1 and Oscar’s wings, please take your partners for…

“The Anniversary Waltz”.

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