A team of 15 set off from Catterick on the 27th of July, their aim, to raise awareness of the support Help for Heroes offers wounded, injured or sick veterans and to bring that message to the isolated parts of the glorious Scottish Highlands. Our group of 11 cyclists represent veterans currently supported by Help for Heroes, from across the country and from each of the military services. They are all individuals who have faced significant challenges and alongside the charity, gone on to achieve personal milestones, be that endurance racing across deserts dressed as a piece of fruit, cycling from Lands End to John O’Groats or trialling for the Invictus Games. Champions all.
Day 1 – Saw an enthusiastic send-off from Legion, Scotland, represented by Richard Otley, and the good people of Wick. The group set off to the sound of bagpipes, cheering from the assembled townsfolk and an inspiring poem from the Team Leader Mark Airy. Hard riding and the first glimpse of hills saw us riding 114 miles, with the temperature hitting 28 degrees at times. With tired legs but happy faces, we rode into Cameron Barracks in Inverness, via the castle, just as the sun began to dapple the sky with golden shafts.
Day 2 – After a restful night on army cots, the team enjoyed the hospitality of the cookhouse and left Inverness for Applecross. A heavy day was ahead, with the mighty Bealach na ba in our path, along with high peaks conquered by our Battle Back Warrant Officer and the lead group of cyclists. Perhaps it is the challenge and the working as a team but the smiles on the team’s faces shone through and they have been reflected in the greetings we have received from the communities we rode through. Our message of supporting people who find themselves isolated is well understood and Help for Heroes offers of support for Veterans was well received.
Day 3 – Its difficult to say which bit of this run is the most scenic, each section has its own special highlight, but this run, although still ‘bumpy’ won a special place in the hearts of our riders. Applecross has a stunning harbourside pub and Gairloch our final destination, felt for many like riding into their hometowns. Each new hill gave a picture postcard view and talking to the team it was obvious that many were thinking about their own journeys and the access they have had to Help for Heroes recovery channels and how much more difficult that would be for Veterans in these small hamlets.
Day 4 – After several days of ‘gentle’ weather, today was the first of more traditional Scottish rain. The scenery still took our breath away, but the team had their heads down. Facing their own challenges, but spurred on by the fellowship of their comrades around them. Shared experience and shared understanding delivered more a from a striving glance than an hour’s conversation. The rain abated as we headed toward our Lodge at Inchnadamph for the night but as the tarmac dried the ‘midges’ appeared. Swirling around our heads and nibbling our bare skin. Our first encounter and unexpected after the breeze of previous days. Two episodes encapsulated everything this ride was designed to do. During the day our support trailer finally broke down and we needed to call on the kind hearts of the people of Inverness to sort alternate transport for us and return the trailer to Catterick. All done with immediacy and understanding, we needed help, and people were there to support us. When the support team returned from Inverness they found that the riding team had seen a lone traveller, vulnerable and unsure, with nowhere secure to spend the night. The team watched her standing downcast in the rain and welcomed her into their dorm, sharing their food and friendship.
Day 5 – Today saw us emerging from the hills and heading to the coastal routes. Lochinver to Durness and the wonderfully charming Youth Hostel at Smoo. Sweeping Glens were replaced by towering cliffs and endless sea vistas. Only 60 miles today but the aches were easing as the team’s muscles adjusted to the regular labour and the team masseuse worked her magic. Although the route still had steep ascents, there was more of a rhythm to the group. With the riders working as a team and occasionally powering off to test their stamina and technique on different terrains, that rhythm also gave rise to more than the usual banter. Discussion turned to support, the simple things that are done to keep the team moving on but also the hidden work that the logistics team provide. The security of knowing that food and water will be at each stop, beds and personal kit will arrive at the end of a long day. The kind of support which allows the individual to concentrate on their own recovery and meeting the challenges before them.
Day 6 – Our final day of challenging riding from Durness to Thurso as we headed to the seaside towns. We passed the glowering DunReay and came into the bustling holiday town of Thurso. After the group's relative isolation in the hills, the prospect of a town and large numbers of people brings with it, trepidation. The riders pulled together in the final leg, moving as a group and pulling into the final stop for the day, together, as comrades. The end of things always brings an outflowing of emotion. The trip up on the minibus, as strangers are long forgotten. There is a gentle banter which brings everyone into conversations and the hugs are frequent and celebrate each individual’s success. In the evening, we were joined by a new team who are facing the challenges of the first adaptive Highland Games at the request of HRH The Prince of Wales. These are very much a local games, under the Castle Mey banner but that sense of belonging, support and affection was extended to us and that after the final 40 mile ride, which will be done in a spirit of celebration, I am proud to say the assembled teams will be donning the kilts of 7 Scots and representing Help for Heroes and the next Kings home games.
We came with a simple mission. To demonstrate to the people and veterans of the Scottish highlands that their service was not forgotten. That there was a helping hand and ongoing support for any wounded, injured or sick veteran and that Help for Heroes could offer that support within their communities. For too long the myth that Help for Heroes was a predominantly an English charity has held sway in Scotland. These first steps have helped to dispel that myth, alert thousands of potential beneficiaries to a new route of support, through our extensive local media coverage and our determination to deliver within communities by travelling through them. For the team and perhaps for Help for Heroes the message back from the communities we have passed through is that we are welcomed and that any support we offer will be repaid a thousand fold by the people of this stunning and vibrant land.