I should have learned by now that when my boss Detta Regan comes into the office with a certain look on her face and says ‘...I’ve had an idea’.. it will mean something that is probably impossible, will take over your whole life and ultimately prove amazing.
Last time it involved a youth exchange for over 100 young people from countries in conflict including Palestine and Israel. It happened of course, and was amazing but left us physically and mentally exhausted. So I should have known better when the notion of hundreds of women cycling together through the Middle East for peace turned out to be the ‘idea’.
It’s over a year now since Detta put the wheels of the impossible in motion and where are we now? This time next week we will be in Beirut on the first leg of our great adventure for girls.
The group consists of young women, mothers and grandmothers and includes 3 youth workers, two police women, three teachers, a nurse, an upholsteress, a marketing manager, a caretaker, a journalist, and a customer services adviser.
What a time we’ve had in the months of preparation. In the beginning it all seemed so far away and unlikely, but quickly we realised how much we needed to do. We needed to get fit and we needed to fundraise and so we began.
Every Sunday sees us puffing and panting along the lanes of rural Berkshire.
When you’re cycling along the canal path being buffeted by winter wind and freezing rain with aching thighs its really hard to bring a picture of desert roads to mind. Our very first outing found some of us huddled under a bridge whilst others valiantly mended our first puncture in a hailstorm and Detta went up to her knees in a puddle.
Some weeks later found one of our number so numb from cold that her legs ‘froze’, she couldn’t get off her bike and the others had to rub her legs in a valiant attempt to get her mobile again.
But something has happened. When we met for our ride last Sunday we posed for a photo for our local paper and we looked at each other and blimey, we actually look like cyclists now. My personal epiphany came, not on the road to Damascus but, on the road to Henley later that day when I overtook a male cyclist going up a hill. OK so he was past retirement age but it made a change from the sinewy members of Reading C.C. blasting past as if we are in reverse Even as I write the rest of the girls are pounding the pedals in one final ride, leaving me behind. Behind being the operative word as I have rather an unspeakable injury in the nether regions inflicted by over exertion on a rowing machine. Only 4 days healing time left.
Every Monday night became gym night. At 7.45 we gather for a meeting followed be a work out. Sometimes this involved a session of ‘spinning’. This is a torturous form of static bike workout, guaranteed to leave you feeling that you never want to see a bike again and invoking derisive laughter from the rest of the group at the sight of my scarlet, dripping visage.
As these meetings progressed we found ourselves being side tracked by the issue of packing. During a discussion about visas and crossing borders someone mentions that we'll need at least 15 pairs of knickers each and that you can get them from Primark for 50p. Then the whole meeting descends into how many pairs of shoes to take, how big is your suitcase ( I measured the litreage of mine using a rug, a tape measure and several lunch boxes) is anyone taking a hairdryer? (yes, Julie) and so on and then everything is brought back into perspective by an email from a young person caught in the invasion of Nablus.
The fund raising has seen us in a variety of guises. First we choreographed a rather unusual tribute to Riverdance which the whole group performed at our Ceili night in December wearing cycling shorts, green and orange socks and very straight faces. Remarkably we got an encore and gladly obliged. If we can remember it we're going to do it in a Bedouin camp during our journey.
Then there was the aerobathon during which we subjected our bodies, now slightly fitter, to three muscle ripping hours of pain in the school gym and charged people for the privilege.
This was followed by a 60's night during which legs that hadn't been under a mini skirt since the originals came out to raise more funds. Oh and Elvis put in an appearance.
Two weeks ago we donned bum bags for a car boot sale where we all bought each others stuff and went home with more than we came with and Julie was duped into selling 3 violins far too cheaply to a dealer.
Recently we've all undergone cycle mechanic training in which we did our best and raised our confidence a little - but please don't let anything more than a puncture happen.
There are only 4 days to go and on Wednesday night we'll meet once more to remove the pedals from our bikes, let down the tyres, flatten our handlebars and box up our beloved bikes ready for flying. We might have a glass of wine too and compare final packing notes.
And what of Detta? The extraordinary woman behind all this. The woman who never gave up on realising this dream when everything was against it happening and wouldn't be beaten Well in the final run up she's emailing until dawn, has spent considerable amounts of her own money travelling to and fro in the Middle East making sure things happen, is cycling everywhere - to work, to meetings with the Police, The Union of Catholic Mothers, to wherever she is needed. Last week she was spotted walking her dog on the park...wearing her cycle helmet.
Elaine Morton, 2004