RUSS-APPEAL “Ride for a Flight” – 17th August 2003
Unless you’ve recently returned from an unsupported solo trek across the Gobi Desert, you’re probably aware of the RUSS Appeal. And if you’re not, follow that link and you soon will be…
I’ve just been to see Russ Pinder at Stoke Mandeville Hospital. He’s doing great, only a couple of weeks away from flicking his middle finger at institutionalism and rebuilding his life in a new stair-free home bought to make his wheelchair a non-issue. Russ is looking forward to going solo in his soon to be modified car, playing with his kids and slipping gently back into the nine to five, bending his spirit to conform to our idea of ‘normal’. He’s an inspiration and, in spite of everyone that told us that the RUSS Appeal wouldn’t work on a whole load of levels, makes me proud of what you all achieved.
And what was that, then? Well, the RUSS Appeal Ride For A Flight, through hard work, individual generosity, innovative thinking and bloody mindedness, has so far raised in excess of £15,000 for Russ’s chosen charity, the Air Ambulance Service. Over 160 riders gained sponsorship to ride the RATZ course at Checkendon, bathed under sunny skies and a cool atmosphere. Every rider wanted more laps, more time, more singletrack and, probably, more beer. The soporific environment drove sane and sober people to talk of 500 riders next year, more sponsorship, better industry involvement, and bearpit fights amongst the magazines for the publication rights. Such a fantastic day meeting and exceeding our expectations and renewing our faith in the small yet perfectly formed mountain biking family. It was bloody excellent and I salute every one of you who came. That’s not a cheap shot or mere electrons under the cyber-bridge, it is a heartfelt thanks partly grounded in the terror of building a huge field and nobody coming…
That “nobody coming” thing was a constant nagging fear. At the start everything looked good, the chat forums burning hot with messages of support, promises to do, well, anything really. And if absolutely everyone who originally said they’d do something actually did, we’d probably be looking at an even bigger pile of money than that £15,000. Couldn’t make it? Didn’t sponsor anyone? You haven’t missed out – you can still buy a T-shirt. Hell, you can just send money if you like. We don’t mind. Just, please, do something, OK?
The big day
Here’s how it went. Everyone seemed to be having a fine time right from the moment when, through the power of mobile phones and frantic hand signals, I bounced across an as-yet worryingly empty field to be met with a hardcore of campers and a cold beer. Declaring to anyone in earshot it was my birthday, I was further fortified against the possibility of extreme singlespeeding the following day by partially cooked unrecognisable meat products and a never- ending stream of those fine ales created by a certain Mr S Artois [Mr? Shurely ‘Stella’ is a girl’s name? -Ed].
A man of my advanced years should be congratulated on his ability to remember both frames and wheels so an insignificant oversight on the airbed front hardly even merits a mention. It certainly didn’t as I floated asleep on a yielding bed of alcohol in half a borrowed tent. However, come 7am my aging frame demanded water, Anadin and preferably the number of a decent chiropractor. None of the above were readily available so instead I sought solace in the marquee where Trail Break were doing a fantastic job of organising an event in which most things were fluid (including total participant numbers and, in fact, most of the riders on the campsite). The breakfast canteen was open for business and I enthusiastically wolfed down doorstep bacon sandwiches – thanks, Mrs Hargreaves!
“Build them a field and they will come,” was the mantra of Dave Barter, the driving force behind the event. And they did, at first in dribs and drabs from 8am and then in ever-growing numbers, wandering over to the marquee, signing on and handing over money. We took a deep breath, staggered that as yet nothing had gone tits-up and watched in awe as Phil from Trail Break herded up a flange of riders for the first ride at 9:30am. Professional and organised as ever, I floundered, camera in hand, up to the start line desperately attempting the ever-tricky ‘one handed, four battery change’.
Narrowly avoiding being crushed in the ensuing wheeled stampede, I took a position by the finish area and was amazed to see the first riders completing a five-mile lap in around 27 minutes. One of them was on a 20 lap (that’s 100 miles, maths fans) epic which was both a superb effort and a personal embodiment for the dictionary definition of ‘chafing’. Having wandered about for an hour taking photographs and sweating lager, there was nothing for it but to get out there and ride some laps. I had sponsorship for, err, many but after completely mincing the first downhill section began to think that I should selflessly abandon my own personal endeavour and instead dedicate the rest of the day to cataloguing the bravery of others. This failed on two counts – firstly there was an obvious lack of bravery and secondly I’d signed a pact with the devil of 32:16 and he wasn’t go to let me get away with it.
It was a dumb arrangement. I’d wagered a small bet with Justin Sheldon (the consummate spannermeister of the First XV) that he couldn’t complete a singlespeed build while I was out on the course taking photos. Let me offer some advice based on the experience of 36 years – never bet with a sober person while you barely retain the power of speech. Needless to say, I wandered back to the start area with a flashcard full of photos and a clinical need for fried food only to be presented with a singlespeed Inbred bristling with attitude. For one second I felt like a proper racer as I threw the Kona into a bush, jumped onto the singlespeed and destroyed yards of course tape (sorry Phil) to illegally present myself at the start of the next lap.
Off we go. Flat start to field edge styling it up on the right hander still in view of the spectators. I really should have grown out of the type of juvenile behaviour that sees a balding, skills challenged coward chasing down expensive bits of aluminium. And yet, there’s a certain satisfaction of crying “on your left” before executing an elbows-out passing manoeuvre, skidding a full 360 degrees and backflipping into a bush. Down the first descent, accidentally larging fat air with nothing fully compressed except my sphincter before plotting a course into the technical section that had little to do with line choice other than that it didn’t end upside down in a tree.
As the course flattened out, I ordered my eyes open and stopped to have a chat with an eight year who had just ridden the previous section with the kind of aplomb that only happens in my head. I took a photo of her dad who looked a bit sheepish having just been shredded by someone thirty years his junior. Off again onto some great singletrack, stopping to laugh at Nigel whose lovely Ellsworth was upside down awaiting tubes. He observed my single stupid gear and laughed right back as I ground up New Hill silently cursing the day the RATZ guys removed ‘Old Flat’.
Singletrack everywhere from here on in, fast and loose to sharp and tight, overtaking where I could and chatting when I couldn’t. Trying hard not to be competitive but even after overcooking an off-camber turn ending in a tree hugging embrace, I barely paused to count the scars before firing off again in search of sinewy singletrack. Much more of this and I was going to explode like a 15 year old with a copy of Hustler, but the one jump on the course brought me back to earth. “Right, I’m going for it, yep, yep, yep, oh feck no”, as I grabbed a handful, saving rear wheel tread by surfing down the slope on my front tyre. I bounced in an ungainly manner for a while before executing a fine tree-assisted braking manouevre. Still, any landing you can walk away from is a good one. I continued on past serious riders on multi-laps, wives and girlfriends doing it for themselves and, fantastically, a lady with a child seat and small person having it large.
Through the tight singletrack, cleaning the step up through a ‘grunt/wrench’ manoeuvre, and then into the open field, calves straining but determined to push it out to the end, past a couple of tiring multi-lappers and into the finish area, hanging it out on the final turn and done in 28 minutes. Three minutes off a really fast time but good enough for me. Top course, well done to the RATZ MBC for creating something really quite special.
My extended family turned up and I introduced them all to Russ. My 2 year old asked “What’s that” when she saw the wheelchair and my four year old, to her eternal credit answered “Nothing”. The atmosphere was about as chilled as it could have been without recreational pharmaceuticals and finally, after seven years of marriage, my wife told me “you’re still a muppet for riding round in circles but I can kind of understand why you do it now”. In the Leigh family, that’s as good as it gets.
I did a couple more laps dialled into better lines and faster descents. But it didn’t matter as our broad church seamlessly catered for kids on their first bike, serious multi-lappers and everybody in between. If I could capture a single feeling from the weekend it would be this: a guy clearly on a mission for a fast lap stopping to help a young lad over a rooty section, shaking his hand and taking a photo. I’m not ashamed to say there was tear in my eye at the end of that exchange.
Inevitably, about a thousand people need to be thanked for making the day a success. Trail Break, Evans Cycles, RATZ MBC, the timing guys, the Air Ambulance for bringing a helicopter (my kids want one now Ray!) and MBR for attending and following up with an article in their next issue. No less of a big hand goes to Justin Sheldon ‘fettling for charity’, everyone who helped with the catering and other logistics, Dave Barter (and his ever supportive family) for having the vision, strength of character and never say die attitude that made this such a success, ably supported by Peter Wallace, Simon Still, Adrian Heath and Mike Beckley. Plus of course everyone who showed up, rode laps, bought T-shirts and generally made it all happen, And, lest we forget, Russ Pinder, who has given so much for this sport and, due to the skill and bravery of the Air Ambulance, was still around to experience the product of his devastating injury. Russ – I’ll never tire of saying it: you and your family are an inspiration and example to us all.
Sometimes ours is an exclusive and aloof sport, steeped in baffling technical terms and unknowing arrogance. It’s unhealthy and yet it’s so clear it doesn’t need to be. The RUSS APPEAL weekend was a latter day Woodstock defined by compassion and consideration. And it was all the better for that. We’ll be back in 2004, bigger and even better. The more pertinent question is, will you?When he wasn’t riding, drinking or falling over, Al took about 150-odd (yes, some of them very odd, here’s your coat) pictures of the day. Check them out here.