It all started back in September 2010 talking to Mike Connick (Connick Tree Care) at the AA Conference in Manchester. There he was bedecked in his orange Chicago Tour de Trees t-shirt and I found myself asking the obvious question “Oh, you did the Tour then?” With the answer in the affirmative, a light-bulb flashed in my head and I sparked back with “We could do a mini-version here?” And so Ride for Research (RfR) was born. To give us a flying start, after a brief chat Dr David Lonsdale, who was stood just 4m away, the idea of raising research funds for Acute Oak Decline (AOD) was identified as the key focus. And even better, later that day, as news got around, fifteen riders were signed-up and free trees were secured from Barcham Trees.
At this stage, readers may ask why the new name? Simples! As Tour de Trees is an established international event, firmly associated with the main annual ISA Conference, we needed to draw a distinction between the two. To this end, a fresh new logo was designed to give RfR this distinct identity.
A date was then set for the following year so that all the elements could be arranged in good time. Being blessed (or cursed) with the idea it fell upon yours truly to organise the event. First, a route was sketched out for N.E. London and Tree Officers were contacted to select schools in their boroughs that would like trees: supplied & planted for free. An easy sell really. But seriously the key focus for event was to be an educational opportunity: as much as getting each rider to raise £200.00 to take part. Then came the need for sponsorship. Given the combined elements of school children, tree planting, environmental education and cycling arborists, this quickly followed to cover the event insurance, tree planting, logoed t-shirts and food. One key element was to ride the route end-to-end to carry out a ‘risk assessment’ and thereafter notify the Metropolitan Police Events Officers in each of the affected boroughs: Brent, Camden, Harrow and Islington. The Schools - Glebe (Kenton), Laycock (Islington) and Hampstead (Camden) - were also visited to ask them how they wanted to engage with a gaggle of cycling arborists talking about and planting trees. In essence, it was to be the school’s day & the ride would accommodate them.
Over the months and weeks up to the event a crucial element was regular email contact with the riders (by this time up to 24) covering ‘event logistics’ as they unfolded. The objective – to involve riders every step of the way. These updates became more detailed and regular as the big day arrived. And so it did - a glorious sunny spring day on 23rd March 2011. I awoke at 4.00am with my brain cross-checking every facet of the ride. With one or two last double-confirmation emails, I knew the plan was set. It just needed to be executed: to lead 22 arborists (two dropped out the previous day) on a 32 mile cycle ride around one of the busiest Capitals in the world.
By 7.30am my kitchen – the unofficial starting point - was filling with arborists dressed in various sports attire but notably adorned in their yellow RfR t-shirts. Several brews later and by 9.00am the mood was beginning to buzz as the time to leave for Harrow civic centre and the Mayor’s rendezvous approached. Then off we wheeled for the first of many miles to be covered. The Mayor arrived promptly in his state car (just after the risk-briefing of the route had been carried with riders) and after several press shots we were off! My stomach was tight as I knew the long snaky route ahead of us and the strict timetable to arrive at each school in time for the waiting school children and Mayor. Good time was made on the short leg to Glebe School to see pupils sat on the ground and then clapping as we cycled into the playground. I felt a lump in my throat as I knew we had started a very special tour. After a short delay the respective Mayor of Harrow arrived and we were treated a tree poem and an oak tree song from a small choir, all set against boards of class work on the benefits of trees – there was a definite ‘wow’ factor in the air. I was requested to give a short presentation about RfR and AOD and took questions. The first, “Where do the bacteria come from” piped-up a young lad. I had no clue and deferred to the arborists around me that raised a laugh (I recalled the old adage never work with young children and animals!) As no one knew, I recovered swiftly by saying that this is the job for the scientists (as indeed it will be!). A bird cherry was planted with the Mayor and a School governor quickly followed by an oak tree in another playground with a different group of children and more talk about the benefits of trees and the RfR. With the Glebe School visit complete it was off to Islington - right across NW London to Laycock School. Mindful of the required pace, I set off with fair speed to set the tempo: like the rowing drum-master on a Viking ship. The steady hill through Fryent Country Park soon awaited and separated riders into a long stream of yellow t-shirted spots: an ideal opportunity to take photos! Then we entered the urban bowl of Neasden with pot-holes, bus & truck fumes and busy underpasses. For the next 1.5 hours we ground gears and weaved through road-works but the group held together. In a lapse of concentration off the Kilburn High Road, handle-bars met with a rear wheel and a rider was down. With shouts from the rear group, I circled back hoping t’was nothing serious and fortunately found only a grazed elbow and a scratched mobile phone. We pressed on to the infamous congested Swiss Cottage roundabout and I knew this would be a challenge. We were to enter from the left and cross four busy lanes, with traffic speeding-up from the rear, to exit right towards Chalk Farm. Just before the roundabout I stopped the group at the roadside and gave strict instruction for tight formation and clear hand signals: Ben Hur eat your heart out! The yellow cycling snake entered the fray and with precise road positioning, we executed the manoeuvre perfectly! Phew – I thought. From here the back streets were relatively quiet with only the pot-holed Brewery road (that passes the London Black Taxi Cab service centre) and HMP Pentonville Prison between us and school number two. Almost 1.5 hours later to the dot we arrived a little sweaty and stiff but to the applause of waiting pupils and the Mayoress of Camden: a lady of petite stature that made me feel like a giant! This was a special stop as the rowan tree planting was a memorial for a pupil who had recently died. The School had wanted to plant a tree but had had no monies - so roll in RfR! More tree benefit presentations and questions “What colour is tree blood?”…. would make an ISA Certified Arborist’s teeth curl….! The tree planting was ordered chaos with every student wanting to get their hands on the spade. Feeling a little tired and hungry we retreated to the pocket park outside the school for a well earned rest and a 45min wait for lunch as the support vehicle that had got lost! So with only 10mins to bolt down food I shouted the cry “mount up” as the shorter but hilly leg to Hampstead School had to be completed in just under an hour - without question!
I felt the rider’s mood change: was it the lunch or that tree-folk many of whom had never met were beginning to gel together and feel truly part of this special day? One thing about central London is it’s one-way streets. Net result – we couldn’t go back precisely the way we had come. So some ducking & diving was required and at one point we had to dismount and walk the wrong way up a one-way street: well that was the front of the group. Unfortunately, as the instruction was passed down the yellow snake it got lost in translation and some mounted riders meandered down this street in full view of an on-coming British Transport Police mini bus! Need less to say ironic smiles on both sides saw this faux pas pass without incident. After navigating over the Swiss Cottage roundabout – this time on a straighter course – we entered the top end of Abbey Road (unfortunately just north of the famous Beatles zebra crossing) and the slow hilly climb past West Hampstead tube station. By this time the local lunch-hour was in full swing and so was the traffic. Some lungs were beginning to gasp as we snaked our way up the congestion-clad steady climb and past the tube station. I could hear pedestrians shouting “What are you doing?” and “Where have you been?” with retorts of ‘tree planting’ and ‘we’ve been to Paris & back’ (now there’s a future RfR idea?) that drew some funny gazes. Finally we turned into Westbere Road and a welcome downhill run into Hampstead School. Some riders looked positively dripping in the spring sunshine. As we neared the planting site for the two oaks, the twang of guitars and the thud of drums could be heard – the school band had turned out for us! Being older children they acted a little cooler but their eyes showed they were still captivated and once on the spade – after the fine Camden Mayoral effort – each one of then got stuck in. After the last spade of earth was placed and the deafening band ceased it was clear that we had done it - RfR mission accomplished!! Just one final leg back to Harrow awaited with no time pressure and a relaxed cruise with riders chatting about the days inspirational events. As we ground the gears home for the last few miles, I reflected how amazing it had been that we’d stuck together in an epic zigzag cycle tour right across NW London – from the leafy outskirts to the inner urban sprawl – and managed to plant five trees with countless children and three London Mayors: and all on-time! It’s great when a plan comes together. Finally after 6.5 hours we arrived back at my house. A few folk left promptly to travel home to distal parts but a core gravitated to the local pub to kick back, relax and reflect on the day……. and of course the next RfR. Total amount of sponsorship raised £5,500.00 to go towards scientific research into the disease Acute Oak Decline.
I would like to give special thanks to those – in no particular order - who each raised £200.0 plus to participate and made this day such an enjoyable & worthwhile event….. Martin Gammie, Ian Haynes, Tom Thompson, John Robinson, Simon Ffoulkes, Patrick Stileman, Paul Frainer, Simon Holmes, Oliver Stutter, Gabriel Hemery, Mike Connick, Rob Styles, Rich Larmour, Mick Boddy, Olly Kan, Robin Hellier, Tracey Clarke, Grant Andrews, Jonathan Mills, Rebecca Farrar, Rupert Bentley-Walls and Patrick Prendergast.
And finally, I would like to thank the sponsors: Barcham Trees, Capita Symonds, City Suburban Tree Surgeons, Gem Tree Management, Gristwood & Toms, Tree Surveys and the Red Foundation’s i-volunteer. Plus Patrick Richardson and Jake Tibbetts from Islington Council Tree Section and Trees for Cities.