Sgt Stephanie Cole was one of 14 cyclists who took part in the Merlin 1000 to raise money for us and three other charities. In this guest blog, she looks back on the challenge that covered 1000 miles over four countries.
The route was nothing short of daunting starting from RAF Benson in Oxfordshire and ending up in the centre of Milan. Day one was a gentle 76 miles catching night ferry from Portsmouth and then the journey began through France and then onto Tours.
After battling the traffic in Tours we then followed an exact copy of Stage 13 of the Tour de France, this took us into Saint-Amand-Montrond. The following morning silence descended on the riders, this was no doubt going to be one of the hardest days so far – 110 miles but also 1445m to climb!
The next day was a shorter day into Lyon however we still had to battle with a 5/ 6 per cent incline for 5km. The hill was on a Tour De France leg and so campers surrounded the road, cheering us on and keeping us going.
The next day we watched the Tour de France pass through. We then headed off towards Belley after one of the chaps had thought that menthol foot cream was Chamois cream! I won't say anymore other than the soundtrack of this stage was Jonny Cash's Ring of Fire.
I think that most of us found this to be the hardest day. Legs were hurting, the saddle sore had kicked in and the fatigue levels were now significantly higher.
Cycling to Brig
The cycle to Brig, Switzerland was stunning and mostly completed via cycle paths next to rivers and lakes. We rested for a day in Brig where the looming Simplon Pass (a high mountain pass between the Pennine Alps and the Lepontine Alps) towered down on us.
Stage 10, the day of the mountain goats! Only 69 miles, but it included the Simplon Pass where we climbed 2277m. The feeling of pride and relief when we made it to the chilly top was in my eyes so worth the pain of climbing up the hill.
The route down led us into a warmer Baveno, Italy and the following day we were in Duomo di Milano, the city's magnificent Gothic cathedral. It all got pretty hairy towards the end though with three riders crashing within one mile of the finish line. Tram tracks, cobbled streets and crazy driving do not combine well with 14 cyclists!
All riders finished and many hadn't trained enough but battled up the hills and along the long days through sheer tenacity and determination. It would also have been less pleasant and more fatiguing if the guys in the support wagon weren't there at every stop with water, food and encouragement.
As Merlin 1000 came to an end, the team went their separate ways and nearly £10,000 had been collected through street collections and our Virgin Money Giving web page, it was important to focus on what we had achieved.
I think everyone realised especially at the end that Dead Last is greater than 'did not finish' which trumps 'did not start!'