Using push and hand bikes as well as specially adapted tandems the team completed the challenge to raise awareness and funds for both Motor Neurone Disease and the charity Pilgrim Bandits – who organise gruelling expeditions for injured service and emergency personnel, many of whom are amputees or have PTSD. With a no sympathy approach, Pilgrim Bandits push veterans beyond what they thought was possible to build confidence. This challenge was no exception.
Pilgrim Bandits teamed up to run the expedition, Operation Ride UK, with veteran and ex-firefighter John Chart. One year ago, John, 49, was diagnosed with MND.
Together with John’s team of ex-military and serving firefighters, the Pilgrim Bandits team left John O’Groats on Monday 10 August and, less than two weeks later, reached Lands’ End on Saturday 22 August. The team cycled 80 miles a day, battling through the heat wave at the beginning of the challenge and torrential rain towards the end. There were also gruelling challenges for the team to complete throughout.
The expedition was the first since lockdown was announced, and with many of the team having been shielding, they couldn’t wait to get started. The operation was also supported by another military charity – Vetrun180. Volunteers from Vetrun180, who are injured veterans themselves, organised all the logistics like preparing food and setting up camp for the riders.
John Chart was just 48-years-old when he was diagnosed with MND in July 2019. MND is a fatal and incurable neurodegenerative disease, with a life expectancy of three to five years of symptom onset. Six people a week die from the condition and another six are diagnosed. As a firefighter for 26 years, John said he was ‘devastated’ by the diagnosis but determined to fight it. He used a specially adapted tandem throughout the challenge and was joined by various companions along the way, including his 14-year-old son Christopher and his wife Arlene.
He said, “Motor Neurone Disease shuts down your muscular system until you are literally cocooned inside your own body, your brain is still compos mentis but you can’t move, you can’t breathe, you can’t eat, you can’t speak and your body eventually will just close down until you sadly pass away. This ride has been about doing everything I can to raise awareness as not enough is known about the disease – many of us participated in the Ice Bucket Challenge a few years ago but how many of us took the time to read up about what it was all about? That’s what I want from this challenge – I want people to take a few minutes to read up on this demonic disease. It’s a matter of doing everything I possibly can with great people like the Pilgrim Bandits. I want people to see the devastation of what it does to you, but I also want to say to people don’t ever give up. You’ve got to keep going. We’ve had some great support throughout the challenge and it’s really kept us all going – it’s what it’s all been about.”
John is determined to raise awareness of MND and has already received support from Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, who posted a photo on Instagram of her wearing a ‘MND Warrior’ t-shirt in support of the challenge and has been doing daily IG interviews with the team. Oscar-winning actor Eddie Redmayne has also sent John and the team a video message of support. The Pilgrim Bandits have also received words of encouragement from SAS Who Dares Wins’ Mark Billingham.
Joining the expedition was Pilgrim Bandits Patron, former Lance Bombardier Ben Parkinson. Ben is one of the most seriously injured to survive the battlefield. He lost both legs and suffered brain damage while serving in Afghanistan in 2006. He was not expected to survive, let alone speak or walk again. But his determination and tenacity meant he defied these odds and has since taken part in many Pilgrim Bandits expeditions – becoming the first double amputee to cross the Hardanger Plateau in Norway and one of the few to conquer the mighty Yukon River in Canada. More recently, he took on the charity’s Winter Survival Course in Sweden, trekking across inhospitable terrain and sleeping in snow holes at minus 20 degrees. Now he has conquered this 1,000-mile bike ride across the country.
Ben, who rode a tandem with Pilgrim Bandits CEO, Matt Hellyer, said he had trained “very hard” for the challenge. He said he enjoyed it and described it as being “a walk in the park” in comparison to his previous feats. “It’s been a long time in lockdown and I hadn’t seen anybody for months – I couldn’t wait to be part of the team again. There’s always someone struggling and this was my chance to support John to get him on his way.”
CEO of Pilgrim Bandits, Matt Hellyer led the expedition and kept everyone on track. He said, “It’s been a privilege to ride alongside John and all of the injured and amputee veterans taking part – raising awareness and funds for MND and Pilgrim Bandits. Our motto is ‘Always A Little Further,’ because we know that pushing our team physically and mentally – when they have already endured so much – sees them rise above and beyond. We don’t do sympathy, but we offer camaraderie, an adventure and we believe in the power of humour over pain. There were long days and tired muscles, but also some much-needed banter amongst the team – we’ve had a great time and we don’t take ourselves too seriously. That’s exactly what kept us going over the 912 miles.
“We started out at John O’Groats and we had the most beautiful weather following us all along the country. We smashed Scotland bang on time and we had mileage in the bag – it got tougher as we continued on through the rain this week, but we kept on going. We will also take some very special memories of the trip with us, including stopping off at memorials, cathedrals and key military landmarks along the way, paying our respects to our fallen comrades. We’ve gained some fantastic support along the way, extra team members joined us throughout as well, and we’re all going to continue to support John and his family through these hard times.”
You can take a look at highlights from the Challenge over on the Pilgrim Bandits Facebook page, Twitter and Instagram feeds and via John’s page Cycle Challenge for MND or on Instagram @cyclechallange4mnd. It’s not too late to show your support.
Donations can be made to Pilgrim Bandits via the Operation Ride UK Total Giving page: https://bit.ly/3fadwvw
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