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6 June 2014updated 11 Sep 2021 6:02pm

Tour to the Rock: why we cycled 1,700 miles to Gibraltar

Former rugby player Paul Sampson and Paralympic cyclist Darren Kenny share their story

By New Statesman

On the 12th of May, Gibraltar’s Governor Sir James Dutton and Chief Minister Fabian Picardo were amongst the welcome party at the top of the Rock of Gibraltar when two cyclists finished a gruelling 1700 miles cycle ride from Bradford to Gibraltar in 17 days to raise money for good causes.

Paul Sampson, a retired professional rugby player and Darren Kenny OBE, a Paralympic cyclist and world record holder, had been accompanied at various stages by other para-cyclists, elite women cyclists and riders from the Armed Forces. Their ongoing fundraising efforts have raised in excess of £20,000 for the Marie Curie Hospice in Bradford and The Royal Marines Charitable Trust.

Here, Paul Sampson and Darren Kenny share their story with the New Statesman:

What was the inspiration for your journey, and why did you chose a route to Gibraltar?

Paul Sampson: The route was chosen to incorporate the two charities, Marie Curie Hospice in Bradford where my father was superbly cared for, and Gibraltar because of its significance to the Royal Marines over the years. This, however, meant 1,700 miles in distance, but I wanted a challenge and I think we achieved that. 

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Darren Kenny: It was just before Christmas 2012 that I first met up with Paul and he told what he was planning and asked if I’d like to be involved. I thought he was mad, but I couldn’t turn down the opportunity of such an interesting adventure. Mind you, this was going to be quite an ask, even for someone who rides a bike full time. Not only that, but Paul was intent on making it as hard as possible – when I suggested a couple of rest days to make it easier he flatly refused: “it’s not a holiday!”

How challenging was the ride?

DK: Last August I managed to rupture two thoracic discs, both compressing my spinal cord and seemingly unwilling to heal. Luckily with a few weeks to go my surgeon gave me the go ahead to do the ride. It was extremely hard to get my body used to riding again, and the prospect of what we were about to embark on was quite frightening.

Finding the motivation to get out of bed to put on wet clothes and face 7 hours of riding in the rain and strong winds with long, lonely rough roads was incredibly hard for me. Sammo, on the other hand, was like a robot. Nothing fazed him. I really can’t express enough how hard Paul has worked in order to be ready for the ride; he went way past what either of us had expected.

PS: There were definitely a few struggles for me – time to recover in the evenings being a main one. When I’d been in the saddle for 7 hours with my heart rate averaging over 160bpm, the thought of sleep is very appealing. But come bedtime, the adrenalin was keeping me awake. It was torture. 

What were some of the highlights?

PS: One of the main highlights for me was of a very sentimental nature. For months I had been thinking and preparing for this challenge. I had trained hard, made sacrifices and lived like a professional athlete again, but I always remembered why I was doing it. My father and I were very close and a lot of our best times together were spent on the track training, hill sprints or rugby field with his voice constantly encouraging. To hear his voice again was emotional and fantastic at the same time and enough inspiration to get me through some dark days. 

What kept you motivated?

PS: I had an officer from the Royal Marines, Rob McPhearson constantly in my ear as he drove the support vehicle, so I was not going to complain about cold toes to him! 

Darren is a six time Paralympic Gold Medal winner and he also kept me inspired. Darren wasn’t born with a disability, it was as a result of a cycling injury as a promising athlete when he was 18. He went on to win 10 Paralympic medals. Who was I to complain about a hill? Darren was nothing short of immense.

Also, the constant messages from friends and family, seeing the donations come in at the end of most days, and the prospect of meeting the Governor and the Chief Minister at the top of the Rock, were a huge motivation for Darren and I. 

DK: I found it very inspirational to see how Paul used what was in his heart to drive himself on toward his target. The support crew and I nicknamed him “the unstoppable force”.

In terms of what it meant to me to arrive at the finish alongside Paul, I felt so proud of what he’d achieved and proud to have been able to say I’d played a part in it. The feelings were easily on par with anything else I’d achieved on a bike, and I’m just itching to get started again on our next adventure.

What kind of support did you get from Gibraltar? What was the reception like when you arrived at the Rock?

PS: The support of the Governor, the Chief Minister, and the people of Gibraltar has been immense. The Chief Minister, Fabian Picardo, even donated £4,000 to our ride.

We felt very humbled and privileged, and when Cpl Ivor Morgan, who was instrumental in organising the reception party, had mentioned that Gibraltar would give us a great reception, we were not left disappointed. It was a fabulous experience from the moment we crossed the border into Gib until the last glass of champers in the evening. The entire experience was perfectly fitting with the ‘Gibraltar welcome’. We almost feel we could do it all over again. 

From L to R: Darren Kelly, Chief Minister Fabian Picardo, Gibraltar Governor Sir James Dutton, and Paul Sampson at the top of the Rock

To read more about their journey and ongoing fundraising efforts visit http://www.ride4care.com/