Stars and Spokes
Meet Dan: Expedition Cyclist (half of the double act!)
Hello all, Dan here again. So as part of the meeting the team series I’ve put pen to paper, or at least fingers to keyboard to explain a little about myself and why this expedition is important to me.
So pull up a bollard (Navy slang for a chair) and let me spin you a dit (Navy slang for a short story)…
My first introduction to the expedition was a phone call:
Pascal: “We’re cycling across America for charity mate”
Me: "Oh, ok; when do we leave?”
I assumed he wanted me to be part of this to improve the nascent team’s photogenic and charismatic properties, but the reality is probably because he knows I love adventures and that if he hadn’t brought me in, I’d have never forgiven him!
I’ve known Pascal (and Cocksy!) since 2005 when we joined the Royal Navy on the same day, and we obviously got to know each other very well over 3 years of flying training together, day in, day out. We went slightly different directions but always remained close friends. We definitely have a shared love of the outdoors and exploring, coupled with a self / each other-deprecating wit. I let him mock my 80’s dress sense and in return his horrendous, patchy beard is fair game.
My affection for adventuring was fostered when as a kid (of 18 months) my parents scrupulously saved and saved to fund several years sailing on a small boat. We sold everything and headed for the horizon, sailing briefly through Europe, across the Atlantic then up through the Caribbean and east coast America. Aged around 11, my parents took the difficult decision to return for our education. Home schooling is tough, as many of us now know, but on a boat there really are limited resources for a secondary school education.
Anyway, after that, and several more experiences along the way the best way to get back to sea and travelling the world seemed to be through the Royal Navy.
Through various deployments I’ve flown helicopters in the Arctic circle, across deserts and jungles, and of course over the world’s oceans and seas. I’ve paraded in capital cities and slept in abandoned airfields in the highlands of West Africa. I’ve hosted Ambassadors and met tribal chiefs. I’ve hunted submarines, pirates, and drug smugglers, and delivered aid to those who needed it most.
Not only that, but the RN uses Adventurous Training (AT) to help prepare personnel for rigorous service, which I’ve been fortunate to participate in. AT allows graduated exposure to risk in a controlled environment. Individuals can be habituated to stress and thus being pushed out of your comfort zone on a mountain bike, or skis, actually means that when under extreme conditions of warfighting your body already has a resilience to draw from. This isn’t just a stock PR line - this was part of my Master’s dissertation!
AT is a tough one though - you have to carve out the time in your work schedule so it fits without putting undue burden on your team and the operational capability isn’t put at risk. However, in doing so I’ve sailed yachts from New York to Halifax, and again from Iceland out to the sea ice near Greenland. I’ve also hiked in Germany and gone mountaineering in the Alps, so I’ve done pretty well! I love the different situations- the challenges, the team work, the new skills to master.
Our cycling expedition is a natural extension of this. We need to work as a team in the build-up; the planning, admin, publicity, and permissions. There’s a huge amount of trust too, to train properly, to have ‘bought-in’ to it and give it the time it demands and requires. Once we’re out on the ground we’ll need to look after each other and bring our different skills.
I think the other element to mention is the reason we’re doing this. Mental health is such an important thing; it is definitely in the public lexicon at the moment but I think sometimes the extent we are all vulnerable is overlooked. Humans are always victims to their own enormous brains, which are so remarkable but are still on a knife-edge, dependent on chemical balances and experiences.
So here’s my brush with mental health.
My brother works as a forester, and has always been so happy in his work I’ve always held him as an example to aspire to. He had a horrendous accident a few years ago when a tree fell on him as it was being cut. He broke all but 1 of his ribs, fractured his spine, and his femur ended up near his ear. Not only that but there was a thunderstorm going on so the medevac helicopter couldn’t get to the woods so he was out there with his mates in unimaginable pain for over an hour, properly close to death. The medics eventually scooped him up and put him back together - he made an amazing physical recovery and was back at work in a few months.
However the trauma of the event and the closeness of his call lodged in him, began to gnaw away and crept up in to his head. He began a gradual decline in psychological well being which basically drained all of his resource and affected his whole being until he ended up in a bad way despite the best efforts of his family.
I hadn’t noticed. looking back I didn’t do enough to keep check on him, and my daily phone calls turned in to weekly, in to monthly. Over a long period of time you don’t pick up on subtle changes. One evening his wife called, and told me he had deteriorated and she was really, really concerned for him.
Luckily I wasn’t deployed so I dropped everything (literally) and drove up through the night. When I got there he was not the same person I known- he was evidently exhausted, pale, withdrawn, edgy. To cut a long story marginally shorter, he was diagnosed with PTSD. Through a short course of medication, great support from his work, friends and family, he climbed out of his hole and is back to his chirpy, upbeat self.
What struck me was that he was the happiest bloke I know, doing everything he loved and surrounded by people who loved him and in turn were loved by him. The doctor explained it to us on one visit- it’s a chemical imbalance. It’s not about attitude, being ‘tough’, a stiff upper lip, ‘manning-up’. It’s because we’re complex physiological systems and sometimes the balances in our bloodstreams aren’t what they need to be.
Why not raise money for the NHS if he wasn’t military? Well, I need to start somewhere, and I have 27,000 brothers and sisters in the Royal Navy and Royal Marines. If this sounds a bit melodramatic then so be it- you forge some pretty strong relationships and loyalties to the Service and it’s personnel.
This endeavour should tick both boxes - raise some cash for essential work by the Royal Navy Royal Marines Charity (RNRMC), and have a seriously challenging adventure along the way! I’ve lived with myself and had enough battle damage upstairs and downstairs over the last 38 years that I don’t think this is where I ‘find myself’- this isn’t the Strictly Come X Factor Voice after all. I am however really looking forward to the physical challenges, meeting new people, the sights, and the experiences, like sleeping in a bivvy bag in the desert.
I’m not looking forward to seeing Pascal’s beard every day though - it’s only going to get worse.