Tom Balmer

10th May 2016

Trepidation, anxiety, excitement, tiredness… regret? All the feelings I got when waking up at 5am on Saturday, ready for our long drive to the rolling hills of bonny Scotland. We loaded up the van with our bikes, enough food and water to keep a small army going for several weeks and a mind full of car games… we would need them all after 10hours on the road. Cambridge, Peterborough, Doncaster, Newcastle, Edinburgh… Pitlochry. The accents got thicker, the air clearer and I was starting to feel a spot of vertigo being so far north. 

We arrived in the tiny, picturesque village of Pitlochry around 4pm and headed to the ball of people that was sign in. I had hoped to catch up with my pal Chris before we faced off at the line tomorrow so I could share a word of encouragement with him. Ha!

Anyway, I picked up my race pack and got a hero’s welcome from the Marie Curie team for donning the yellow and blue for their cause. We caught up with the others and decided (not me) that a warm up ride would be a GREAT idea. I kitted up, saddled up, filled my water bottle with the beautiful water from the river Tummel and headed off. We set off up towards the distilleries just outside town, no idea where we were going. After a day in the car, no food in hours and a hill which seemed to go on forever, we turned around and headed back after about 30 minutes (which was long enough). At this point I felt very nervous indeed, as we had only cycled for 30 minutes and I was knackered. Little did I know we had taken on a CAT 2 climb, risen 600M and done almost half the climbing we would do all day tomorrow… so I felt a little better. We hit the pub for a swift pint and plenty of carbs and took in the atmosphere – a lovely summers evening by the river. 

THE RACE – we made it, just, in time for our wave after parking up and throwing on our kit. The weather was drizzly and overcast but not cold, which was a bonus. The first 20km or so were okay and not too hilly. Josh stayed with me most of the way until his chain broke! He of course fixed it, got back on and caught me up in about 10 minutes, really filling me with confidence…! For me it wasn’t a race, I was just looking to finish.

After a while we reached the side of the Loch, which was flat and a lovely place to ride, right along by the water for 20 to 30km. It was really stunning and the sun even took his hat off for some of it. Then came the real test; King of the Mountains. I hit it hard and kept in a higher gear than usual to really push myself. A foolish plan which saw me stop half way with mind bending cramp. The shouts of “You alright fella?” and “Stretch it out and get up there son” really summed up the fantastic atmosphere that surrounded the Etape Caledonia. I made it up and as I was descending, I passed one of my well-wishers who herself was suffering from cramp – we swapped a laugh about it and an electrolyte tablet before cracking on. 

I lost most of our group right at the start so got accustomed to making friends as I went, which was easy! This is cycling, everyone is really friendly and encouraging and most importantly, in it together, wearing lycra. One chap road up next to me at my darkest point, just crowning a hill in the misty rain, and asked “Do you want a gel mate”, to which I replied “No, I’m ok thanks. I’m more of a solids man”. He was adamant to help, “How about nutella on brown bread” he persisted. I thought he was winding me up but apparently not! It was “all part of the service” and he handed me a sandwich as he road-off shouting “Good luck, mate!”

I have never been more grateful to get a slightly squashed sandwich from a strangers bag… it was heaven. This sense of community was phenomenal. The constant cramp, dead legs, sore arse and lack of clothing were tough but the people I met were just brilliant. One chap rolled up next to me and said “I’ve really hit the wall; I don’t know what to do”. I told him that pain is temporary and he has to just smash through it. 10 minutes later he came flying past me shouting “I BLOODY SMASHED THROUGH, FELLA”. Terrific.

I remember so clearly coming around the final turn and I got fierce cramp in my right leg, I could hear the cheering crowd audibly sigh and one person say “oh no” as they saw my struggles. Then the lad next to me went “Push hard, one last effort and it will go away” so sat up on my bars and pushed through the pain to make it over the line, I could hear him cheering as I did so. Really great stuff.

And then it was done. All the driving, all the training (hmmm!) and all the prep was worth it. I had finished, met some fantastic people along the way and really had a lovely day in the Scottish hills. I finished around 2,500th but it was a victory for me. It was about finishing and I’d done it – more importantly I’d done it for a reason and had raised over £600 for a fantastic cause. For anyone that loves cycling, or doesn’t (as WAS my case), I can definitely recommend the Marie Curie Etape Caledonia. A truly great event filled with fantastic people. Now for the 10 hr drive home..!

6th May 2016

That feeling when you run out of gears…

At the time of writing I am 3 days away from the ride and I’m feeling great, excited, prepared and frankly quite worried. Coming off the back of a holiday in Greece last week where I swapped two wheels and legs for four wheels and an engine (as well as the best that Greek hospitality has to offer). As a result, I am feeling thoroughly unprepared and am therefore so unbelievably grateful that there is a reason I am doing this. A really great reason, in Marie Curie.

I have done some training rides, most recently was a “Little Jaunt” (Josh’s words, not mine) of 110K out to Box Hill and back… not for the faint hearted I might add. Cycling is annoying for me. My whole life I have been quite tall, slim and most people would assume fit… assume being the optimum word here. I have done triathlons, 5k / 10k runs, 11 a side Football etc. most of which I haven’t really prepped for. 

Cycling is a WHOLE different kettle of fish! I discovered there is absolutely no way of me blagging 6 hours in a saddle up steep hills. There is prep needed… and lots of squats.

Box hill was hard. I carbo loaded the heck out of my dinner and breakfast, which definitely helped, and set off at 8am with Josh in tow. Now, I have lost a few things in my prep for this race – my dignity, my tether, my way – but never so much as the trust that I have in my best friend and cycling fanatic Josh. Such phrases as “It’s just around the corner”, “It’s not that hilly”, “You’ll be fine, you’re fit” are all lies people… LIES. It’s ALWAYS further, it’s VERY hilly and to be honest… no, I’m not going to be fine. Either way, I grit my teeth and made it up and helped myself to a large serving of cake and sausage roll. Josh had a flapjack and a gel, of course. This ride was the first time that I had the realisation that you CAN run out of gears but let’s hope that doesn’t happen this weekend.

I feel like I have just moaned for a good three paragraphs. As British as I am, and as much as we love a moan, I will say that I have enjoyed myself. Cycling is so social, everyone says hello, hands you a gel, stops to help. There is camaraderie that I haven’t seen that much with other sports. Also I have loved getting out of the urban sprawl that is London and into the beautiful English countryside; it’s a delight. I am worried about the weekend, but I am also excited. Not only to complete the challenge but also to experience a cycle race, on closed roads, with thousands of others. It’s quite an exciting prospect and I’m also in the same wave as Chris Boardman. Chris, if you are reading mate, do us a favour and prep for a start line selfie, I doubt I’ll see you again all day. Unless you want to give us a tow :-)

Anyway, I’ll ensure to update you post race with my awful time and more importantly how much I fundraised for Marie Curie.

From your waify, reluctant lycra wearing pal,


3rd March 2016

“You can’t be sad when riding a bike”

I am starting to question this statement already and I am only 2 months away from a 130km ride across the bonnie braes of Scotland. To introduce myself, my name’s Tom, I work in sales in the city (London), and my relationship with a bike has never really gone further than a leisurely amble to the shops down the road. It’s safe to say that the Marie Curie Etape Caledonia is going to be a tough one.

Before I get cracking I needed to buy a bike. Exciting! That bits easy, right? No. Have you seen how many different bikes there are on offer these days? And how many different places there are to buy them? Materials? Wheels? Even bottle “Cages”!? It was a headache to say the least. Eventually I settled on an aluminium frame, with carbon forks and a lovely red and black paint job (personally my favourite part). I was assured it was a good purchase from several friends and went along to pick it up. What they didn’t tell me was that they don’t come with pedals. A bike without pedals… are you kidding me?! Anyway, I bought some “London Commuter” pedals that I can clip into and use my shiny office shoes on, and away I went into the sunset… without lights, which I also had to go back for.

You may laugh, but that was an ordeal in itself – this was when I started to really worry about having to ride my lovely new bike up and down hills across the Scottish countryside. So I set about training.

First things first, I needed a trainer! My flatmate, Josh, is a HUGE cycling fan – he shaves his legs, has more Rapha than I have had hot meals and his bike weighs less than my left leg. He was perfect, and actually really excited at the prospect. He took me out for a training ride last weekend and it was… difficult. He is about a foot shorter than me so I assumed that he would only be good over short distances; I can wholeheartedly dispel this myth as he comfortably cruised past me again and again around Regent’s Park as we negotiated our 8 laps. I was puffing, legs were burning and (excuse the language) my “buns” were aching. But it was fun, just about.

Learning about keeping my long legs straight “like pistons in a car” to ensure I pedal efficiently, strafing right up behind Josh to ensure he hits the air first (ha!) so I don’t have to and really just soaking up the very sociable sport that is cycling.

At the end of the day, I expect this to be tough for me, but it’s a personal challenge I have set and it’s also for an incredibly good cause – the Marie Curie team do amazing work and if you would like to sponsor me as I journey my way along the road to Caledonia I’d appreciate it ( I might even shave my legs if I hit my goal…!