The Ride by Howard Johnson

Do you remember what you were doing on January 30, 2011? More importantly, do you remember what you were saying on January 30, 2011? Because I know only too well exactly what I was screaming on that unforgettable day. I was on top of a bloody great hill in Cuba at the end of three days of long, hard, pothole-filled bike riding, my body in bits and my nerves in tatters. 'Never again!' I hollered. Never again in my life would I let that silver-tongued leader of men and sheep, Rod Smallwood, talk me into putting my fast-degenerating frame (bone) onto another fast-degenerating frame (metal) – all in the name of charity. It was my very own Steve Redgrave moment. 'Listen,' I howled to no-one in particular, while covertly trying to massage my ruined buttocks. 'If you ever see me on a bike, you have permission to shoot me!'


Now maybe I say any old crap when I'm delirious. Or maybe I'm just plain scared of Rod whenever he's on the fund-raising warpath. But unless I'm hallucinating in the 35 degree heat, then I believe this really is me, in 2012, on a bike, in Morocco, sore as you please and with something like another 60k still to go before I can get off this bloody bone-buster. They say there's no fool like an old fool…


BabooneryThe problem is, though, The Truants get under your skin. Memories of legs jellified, lungs ruined and arses 'babooned' seem to fade far quicker than sentiments of camaraderie attained, objectives reached and funds extorted for good causes. Good job, really, otherwise Rod would be doing these rides on his Jack Jones…


As it is, though, the third installment of the ongoing soap opera that is The Truants saw a record-breaking 40 fools wagging off work to take on the heat, hills and harum-scarum traffic of Morocco to raise money for Childline and Nordoff Robbins. Flying in from France as I was, I'm unable to comment with any authority on the behaviour of the main party of Truants on the four-hour flight from London down to Marrakech (or is it Marrakesh, fans of pedantry?). But given that Menara Airport clearly wasn't on a state of high alert as I waited patiently for my fellow riders, I guess we can safely assume that there was no repeat of 2011's legendary 'incident' on the Virgin flight to Cuba.


Three cups of industrial strength coffee with our urbane and distinctly beardy Tour Guide, Claude, while waiting for the others got me sufficiently irritable as to feel ready to do battle with the motorists of Marrakech once everyone was on terra firma. And boy, was I glad to be in such a heightened sense of caffeine-induced awareness. We hadn't even left the airport car park in our mini-bus before I was yelling a panicky 'Attention!' at our driver. Another car – seemingly unaware of the existence of either the Highway Code or his own steering wheel – was threatening to broadside us and send us direct to Marrakech hospital, do not pass go, do not collect 200 dirham. 'Bloody hell, this will be fun on the bikes tomorrow,' said Alan Bennie, a man not usually known for his cussing. The lovely Mrs Bennie simply looked at her shoes. Nerves, it seems, were already taking hold!


Once ensconced at the hotel, hugs and back-slaps dispensed to one and all, a very pleasant evening watching Team Europe retain the Ryder Cup from an impossible position against the USA ensued. Well, very pleasant for everyone except David Whitestone, a new Truant who looked so damned fit I reckoned he'd cycled from his native America. Confronted by a horde of fellow riders, yet not fellow golf supporters, demanding a solo 'USA, USA' chant to back his boys, David wisely kept his counsel. Remarkably unassuming for an American and a lawyer, David remained impressively humble right through till bedtime. And at least he was allowed to dream of victory in peace…


Day One of the ride got underway with a frankly ludicrous concept called 'Early Birds', the idea being that masochists who felt 50k of hard riding over dusty terrain in 35 degree heat while sitting on a sharpened razor blade wasn't enough punishment could start out by doing a bit of a warm-up ride. What pillock would possibly sign up for that nonsense? Well, me for one, and I immediately regretted it when I was told that the ride would 'only be' a quick hour bombing around Marrakech. That's Marrakech, the city where the fumes from the cars are so all-pervasive that no-one can see the traffic lights. Or at least that's the only explanation that I can come up with to explain the local residents' complete disregard for the rules of the road. Now I know what those World War 1 pilots, the 20 Minuters, must have felt. That was about how long I estimated I'd last before being sent up to sit alongside Allah welded to a Moroccan fender.


With fear in my heart – and, it must be said, my bowels – I decided my best chance of survival was to stick as close as possible to the group's best rider; Baigrie? Hole? Someone fit and fearless and with the mental toughness to see this through. Then how in God's name did I end up next to Mark Bloody Fuller? A fine man, a true bon viveur, a wonderful dining companion. But a rotten option when you're relying on a man in Lycra to keep you from certain death!


A Captain Oates momentHow Mark and I made it back in one piece I shall never know, but made it we did, dizzy with success and euphoric about still being alive… only for Rod to tell us the ride proper was about to start. And that we'd be going out of town the way we'd just come back in. To quote our glorious leader… 'Blood-dy hell!'


No deaths had been reported by the time we reached the outskirts of the city and some welcome quiet. But even if there had been, no doubt The Truants would have merely marked it down as a 'Captain Oates Moment' and settled into the task at hand, cycling hard for charity.


With the city smog finally behind us the full joy of the Moroccan landscape began to unfold. It's a curious sight, really. At first it feels like a vast expanse of terrain dotted with collections of half-built 'stuff'. But eventually you realise there's more to it than that. Hidden behind large, long and frankly tatty walls are some extraordinarily plush houses that you can kind of sneak a look at through cracks in the walls or through the railings of the main gate while you're pedalling past. Clearly there's a chasm between the 'haves' and the 'have nots' here, and that gulf was only made more apparent as we cycled further out to the south, where the houses became smaller and the numbers of folk standing by the side of the road grew noticeably larger.


Tent for hunchbacksAfter an enjoyable and well-earned lunch in a tent designed for hunchbacks, followed by the now traditional display of 'Mankini Men' (easy ladies, they're all married) the afternoon got underway with the likes of Dave 'Shacky' Shack (must work on that nickname, son!) and Truants legend Gunnar Scholdberg powering ahead with suspicious vim and vigour. I asked Doctor Nick to take samples to test for EPO. He refused, making me question whether it was in fact he who was The Bag Man. And I personally could have done with my own Doctor Feelgood by early afternoon, as I suddenly came over all queasy and uneasy. Was this the first attack of dysentery of the trip? I had a nasty feeling I was about to find out as I pedalled frantically for the hotel, cursing my luck at having forgotten to pack my trusty incontinence pants! Never in the field of Truants bike riding was so much owed by one man to one toilet. Take a bow, the Vatel Hotel!


Facilities aside, the night's hostel had much to recommend it, not least the fantastic leg massages provided by some stern yet experienced female experts in the field. Some of the cleverer members of the entourage (Daryl Clark, was it?) went back for seconds, basing his tactics on the fact that the extremely helpful staff wouldn't be so rude as to accuse him of such a heinous crime. And he wasn't even fined!


Kulveer's asleep againHaving been suitably humbled by the day's 'near miss' I opted for an early night, though not as early as my roomy Kulveer Ranger, erstwhile right hand man to Boris Johnson. Given how many hours he sleeps it's no wonder London's in such a state! I drifted off listening to that phenomenon of human construction Simeon Thrower entertaining the troops at the bar in that lovely fruity tone of his. Ah, sweet dreams…


Day Two – and no Early Bird ride on the schedule. Having received news in dispatches that a full scale, Mafeking-style rebellion could be on the cards if 'extra riding' were so much as mentioned, Rod had wisely decided to kick it into touch – only to replace it with an early start for each and every rider, the crafty devil! To prepare us for the rigours ahead what better than Tom Baigrie, resplendent in yellow as our WOTD, putting us through the kind of stretching paces that would have taxed Olga Korbut?! I decided to observe his limbering-up technique from behind to avoid the feeling of having a moustache bearing down on me. Happened once with a girl. Didn't like it. But I can now see where Baigrie gets his cycling power from. He's got an arse width the length of the Fourth Bridge! Must be all the Biltong…


Tour Guide Claude was getting into his stride, giving us endless doublespeak about how easy and undulating the ride would be. But there was an erratum in  the 'Difficulty Rating' on the sheet of paper we'd been given outlining the day's activities. Next to moderate – and in brackets, no less – was the word 'long'. Had some careless crew member failed to strike the inappropriate word? I had a nasty feeling we were about to find out.


Baigrie's big bottom!79 kilometres doesn't sound like a lot. But let me assure you, it certainly feels like a lot when you're back in the saddle and feeling the pain. Members of the entourage who are more driving front row than dancing fly half showed courage beyond the ken of those butcher's dogs up at the front by settling in for a day of long, hard, hot and sweaty graft. Victor Ubogu – very actually a front rower of some repute at one time – pumped his big old legs furiously, while wearing the fixed grin of the clinically insane. Jason Peers simply would not be beaten – except by some sticks held in the hands of mischievous children in one of the villages we passed through! Adam Tyrer pedalled ahead of the pack at regular intervals, the better to take photos of all this human endeavour. And Paul and Carol Tindley showed that love does indeed conquer all by treating such physical hardship as nothing more than one great big hoot. They were bally heroes, one and all.

Lunchtime provided welcome respite from the heat coming up off the road and even if there had been alcohol available in our chosen restaurant I suspect it might have been a Truants first with everyone opting for Coke. Yes, things were that tough!


With the trained eye of a journalist I did notice one or two folk eyeing up the restaurant khazi with something approaching, dare I say it, tenderness. Not a comment on the establishment's catering, you understand, though it is an interesting question exactly how many Tagines a man can force down? Rather the fact that a general feeling of dickiness was clearly starting to take hold. The discovery that toilet paper was not a prerequisite for a toilet in Morocco was just on the point of reducing grown men to tears when Steve Pennington produced some Wet Wipes from his pocket. If he wasn't already married…


Barry Drinkwater, meanwhile, clearly hadn't felt the morning's riding had stretched him enough, so inexplicably bought a lot of heavy rocks from the local roadside vendors, the better to weigh him down. The man's a fool, but a gallant fool, all the same.


And so we attacked again. Alexander Milas, the only man whose hair billows when there's no wind, was still being pleasant. Eric Newnham whiled the hours away dreaming up his next multi-million-generating enterprise. Gunnar Scholdberg cursed a lot. In Swedish – and then in English! Luke Burdess dreamed of cocktails and nightclubs. Philip Rowley kept his counsel and simply left us to admire his very dandy scarf. We were The Truants. And we were taking on the world. It remained to be seen whether the world was going to win.


On and on we rode, past houses, shops and people. But mainly past great expanses of nothing, the jaw-dropping Atlas Mountains looming above us. The only thing that was higher in the sky was the blasted sun, our constant companion/tormentor. And boy, was it hot!


We'd always been told that Day Two would end with the group sleeping in tents under the stars at the foot of the Atlas Mountains. And as we finally got to the last five kilometres of a nasty day's riding someone still had enough breath to ask me whether there would be a swimming pool at our campsite! For a small sum their name has been kept out of this report!


Victor and his HaremOur camp was a thing of immense wonder, erected during our day's travails by our ever-willing, ever-smiling Moroccan crew. And what a job they'd done, even going to the trouble of boiling up hot water so we could use a makeshift shower they'd created. I for one was amazed at just how well you can wash with one bucket of water and being a tight bastard have now instigated a strict regime of one bucket per person per day since returning home.


With each and every one of us smelling as fragrant as Mary Archer herself, we assembled for dinner. Chris Drake had been universally lampooned for opening up a full hanging wardrobe in the middle of the desert. But Dear Lord, the piss-taking had only just begun. First we were 'treated' to a gaggle of white folk shaking their uncoordinated arses to the evening's entertainment, a trio of BOMUs (that's Big Old Moroccan Units to you) shaking it hard and true, while backed by some over-percussive, yet noticeably under-toothed local musicians. In the interests of accuracy I must admit that I may have encouraged such behaviour by getting up first. And yet no fine!


Better by far  – at least to the European palate – was the tremendous 'karaoke' session that ensued after dinner as the cares of the day melted away under the influence of some specially imported booze. With ivory tickler extraordinaire  Paul Curran leading the way (well at least pre-pissed he was extraordinaire), pretty much everyone massacred a song of someone else's choosing. Bucking the trend and figuring a true biker anthem to be entirely appropriate on a Truant's ride, Rod had a go at 'Born To Be Wild'. Only about six people seemed to know it. For shame! It's Steppenwolf, by the way…


William Luff, the quiet man of EMI, suddenly got the devil in him and insisted on drinking vats of cognac before wobbling off to his tent and a much-needed lie down. That man Drinkwater, seeing double after drinking triples, hung around the campfire slurrily putting the world to rights with a host of impressive arguments that were only slightly undermined when he finished off the night by pissing in the corner of his and Gunnar's tent! Perhaps it was a deliberate policy to keep the wild dogs, gathering menacingly above our campsite, as far away as possible.


Hitting the wallAnd so to the last day of our momentous ride. It was an early start for everyone, with light having barely pierced the gorgeous blanket of night sky and stars that sat so beautifully above us. Everyone had frankly had enough of being boiled on the road and wanted to get the hard yards out of the way and make it back to Marrakech – and a much dreamed-of bath – asap. This proved to be easier said than done, though, with two days of tough riding, a rapidly-widening circle of dysentery sufferers and possibly a teensy bit of over-indulgence the previous night all weighing against us.


Poor old Paul Fletcher kept up the habit he'd picked up since the first morning's ride, getting a puncture when he'd barely got his back wheel off the campsite. He'd counted them all. Number 16, take a bow!


This wasn't perhaps the day you'd choose to have someone filming your efforts, but when you've got a Rottweiler like Andy Matthews behind the lens there's no chance of escape. And so it was that a battered, bruised and somewhat bleary crew covered the last 50k with that bugger recording it all for posterity. Dave Shack genuinely thought he wasn't going to make it, while William Luff – not a well man – misunderstood the idea of 'leaving everything you have out there' and made a deposit at the side of the road. It was gruesome, gruelling stuff, though Chris Lyons smiled serenely through it all, as he always does. The man is an example to us all.


Illy Jaffur looked suspiciously like he was wearing the same gear he'd started cycling in three days previously, so I studiously avoided getting downwind of the tenacious Yorkshireman on this final leg. And talking of tenacious Yorkshiremen, David Baty – who almost shares a name with the tough-tackling Leeds United legend – was still going remarkably strongly. Pete Farley looked like he was in danger of imminent collapse, while peloton regular Mike Hole was clearly not in good shape. Suddenly the pernicious thought started creeping into everyone's head. Maybe Lance Armstrong had been right all along! So, could the Truants do what the seven-time Tour De France winner hadn't been able to? Get to the finish line without drugs? It was touch and go, but finally, finally, the smog-filled air of Marrakech could be seen rising majestically like a poisonous cloud before us.


'Onward,' wheezed Robin Moore, my own personal hero of Marrakech for riding as many kilometres – 178 – as he has years. 'Onward,' wheezed Nick Price, John Muncey and Jonathan Goring in response, a trio of Supremes to Moore's Diana Ross. 'I think I'm dying,' said Des Murphy and, by God, he looked like he actually was! Perhaps it wasn't the time to remind everyone that awaiting us at base camp was Andrew Hewkin, the extraordinarily-talented artist who seems to think he doesn't I Think I'm Deadhave to ride a bike, so long as he paints a pretty picture at the end of it all! But still, flogging his paintings that are inspired by our efforts raises so much money that he has a fairly good argument for being an honorary Truant, doesn't he? And when I can write something that raises half as much dough, then I might just have a leg to stand on…


So in conclusion let me just say this. 'If you ever see me on a bike…' Oh, why the hell am I bothering?! See you on the next one!





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