Saturday 21st early morning, I was sitting in a café in Crawley, England, with my wife eagerly waiting for a text to say the rest of the team had arrived at the train station. I had no idea how the next six days would turn out. I guess this is much like most of our lives, we have an idea of what we think the future holds. Still, we don’t really know, neither did a family in Northern Ireland when our friend and colleague Anastasia got the news of her breast cancer only six months after giving birth to her son Mark.12 months later, at the tender age of 31, Anastasia, unfortunately, lost her fight with cancer leaving behind her husband David and 18-month-old son, Mark.
Initially, our key motivation was just to do something, as we couldn’t say our goodbyes or celebrate Anastasia. As the pandemic unfolded, we realized at the earliest point we had to act. Our desire to act, coupled with the mental and physical knock-on effects that such disease can have on people, we felt that a challenge that raised awareness around physical activity and mental health was the most appropriate route. Dr. Ruth Anderson, author of “The Cycling Mind,” says cycling has a clear and direct link between physical activity and good mental health & even a short ride is a great way to combat the stress of everyday life and enhance your psychological wellbeing. This is how the Cycle4Life 2021 challenge was created.
A close group of us got together and decided to support two amazing charities, Macmillan Cancer Support & Mind UK. We decided on a rough route, finishing at the Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland as Anastasia lived in Northern Ireland. Then the ideas began to fly, “let’s raise $15,000 for charity”, “let’s go global and invite people virtually to take up their challenge,” “we should integrate a cycling app into Webex so we can track and celebrate people.” Wow, we were all excited about this, but we had no idea what this would become.
The list of things to get done was huge, but thankfully Cisco is the #1 great place to work globally for a reason; everyone we asked for help or guidance said yes. We created Webex spaces, and people from all organizations in the world were eager to help. It wasn’t long before we launched the internal site, social media accounts, charity donation pages, and even created merchandise to help raise awareness and funds.
We wanted people to participate either physically or virtually from the comfort of their own home, set themselves a distance to cycle as a challenge. So, our engineers developed an integration between Strava and Webex so anyone in our Cycle4Life2021 club could post a ride, and the whole Cisconian community could engage and celebrate their efforts.
9:30 am on Saturday 21st August; our adventure started from the Cisco Crawley office with our first leg of the six-day journey that three of us would inevitably cover 450 miles, climb over 17,000 feet, one ferry, and visit 6 Cisco offices along the route. Each day we were joined by new Cisco colleagues, new faces, new experiences, all excited to participate.
Each day came with its challenges. We knew we would be tired, hungry, and often grumpy, but we were in it together for one or all six days. Early days’ progress was slow, hampered with multiple punctures. By the 3rd day, I was struggling and not enjoying being on my bike, which coincided with the first of the back-to-back 110 plus mile hilliest day. None of this took away from the amazing Oxfordshire countryside during harvesting, picture-perfect countryside. We arrived at our hotel 3 hours later than our schedule, but it was great to see Lesley from Pavelka, who lifted everyone’s spirits, a quick video interview dinner, and bed before 10 pm.
We were in a rhythm now. Stretch, massage, and check our kit before bed, wake up, fuel up with protein, get the bike ready, pack, and finally check the route before setting off. I was nervous the next day after the first big ride. I woke up not knowing how my body would behave, but everything was good, a little early morning cold air at the start. Still, we soon got into a good groove and the miles ticked away we progressed steadily. This was our hilliest days riding, as you climb, you are rewarded with fantastic views of the English countryside and what goes up must come down, the descents were equally as rewarding. Arriving later than planned at the Cisco Manchester office, we were all tired but in good spirits. Check the bikes, degrease and oil the chain, put the bike to bed, bath, eat and bed.
Wednesday Day 5 was thankfully the flattest ride between Manchester and Liverpool but became one of the trickiest with gravel and muddy tracks that didn’t favor our carbon road bikes. Arriving at Liverpool, we had five hours to kill before our overnight ferry, so we managed to change and enjoy a relaxing drink and dinner in the sun before boarding.
The ferry ride went like a flash, and it wasn’t long before we were woken by the captain announcing it was time to disembark at 6:30 am. Belfast was quiet as we made it to the hotel, where we decided to shower, change and prepare for the last and final 70 miles. Riding to the start point, I had mixed emotions – a little nervous, excited, and sad that this would soon be all over. I turned the corner and was met with so many friendly faces I hadn’t seen for more than two years; this was going to be a fun day. As we set off from the Titanic Museum, we had four new people to ride with and a slow climb up through Belfast. A last-minute detour to take in one of the Game of Thrones iconic locations meant we rode through spectacular dark hedges, and we were soon on the coast road just a few miles from the Giants Causeway.
We were done as we approached the Causeway; Anastasia’s husband David joined for this last leg and led us to the finish line. The whole team had turned out with flags, champagne, and cake J holding back the tears we had done it. Still, it dawned on me that not only had we completed our challenge, but we were also joined by over 90 of our global Cisco colleagues from India, Colombia, Mexico, Malaysia, Portugal to the USA who also wanted to get on their bikes and challenge themselves.
I thought going into this, I would enjoy the physical challenge and raise some money for two great charities, but I came away with so much more. When you are riding 4 inches from someone’s rear wheel at 25-30 mph, you have to focus and trust them so you can’t be thinking of anything else. My mind was refreshed, I felt relaxed and happy with life, but we had achieved something so much more as a team. We motivated others, raised awareness, got to know new people within Cisco we wouldn’t have previously, created a movement where people want to meet up and cycle more, and above all – raised over $25,000 for our charities.
There are many people to thank, especially the Webex and Cisco teams and anyone who sponsored or contributed to the effort. Specifically, the core Webex warriors who were the real heroes of this adventure – Katie Sneddon, Kathy Keeney, Nathan Reid, Rupali Vyas & Niaobh Levestam. Ian Chard decided he would pitch up and ride with us the whole way, especially Ben Bunn, who was in it from day one when we first thought a ride would be a good idea. They all have helped positively changing people’s lives. What’s not to feel proud about that, until next time …..
Watch the Cycling for a cause from London to Belfast video: