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Reflections on the Berry Bros & Rudd 325 Ride with Davy Zyw

21 September 2023

I joined the business in October 2017, and shortly afterwards I was diagnosed with MND. Motor Neurone Disease is an evil condition, affecting one in 300 here in the UK.  It’s degenerative, it’s paralysing, and it’s terminal. It kills off your neurones; stopping all motor functions as sufferers’ muscles waste away, which cannot be rebuilt. Cruelly, it leaves your mind intact to consciously review your failing health. Average life expectancy from diagnosis is just two years, there is no treatment and no cure. These are hard facts for anyone to handle, but fortunately for me I have (relative!) youth on my side and my symptoms have been slower to progress than many living with the disease. 

It was a dreich autumnal afternoon in 2022 when Lizzy Rudd and I hatched the plan to cycle from London to Champagne, as part of the company’s 325th anniversary. After a quick search we discovered that with only a short detour, it would be a rather neat 325 miles from No.3 St. James’s to Pol Roger in Epernay.

Planning, rallying, and campaigning ensued. Not to mention recruiting for cyclists from all across our business. We weren’t sure how many people would sign up: 325 miles in four days, covering two countries, with over 3000 meters elevation is a daunting challenge for even the keenest of cyclists. But when we first put the idea to everyone at Berry Bros. & Rudd, we had so many people volunteer in the first two weeks that we had to stop recruiting.

This was going to be our biggest fundraising effort yet in our 325 years of history. We committed ourselves to raise £325,000, with every penny going towards our chosen charity, My Name’5 Doddie Foundation. A charity started by the late great Rugby legend Doddie Weir, who in 2017 was diagnosed with MND. Doddie, despite his own failing health, through tireless campaigning managed to tackle gaps in care, fast tracking research, and raising incalculable awareness, and thus raising the horizons of everyone living with MND. Those like me.

Our plan was to arrive at our friends in Champagne, Pol Roger Epernay, on the evening of Sunday 10th September. A route of 325 miles to cycle, over two countries, over four days in the saddle. Many of our group were brand new to bike riding, others very experienced, some new to the company, and others longstanding employees. But all of us united by this brilliant business, and the support for our chosen charity. 

Our newly formed peloton of 37 cyclists gathered at first light on Thursday 7th of September. Nervous, caffeine induced energy coursing through our ranks, busy filling bidons of electrolytes and pockets full of flapjacks in anticipation of our departure, in what was billed as the UK’s hottest day of  2023. After months of training, fundraising, bike fittings, lycra-clad cat walks and campaigning, it was time to clip in and roll out into a golden dawn at No.3 St. James’s. From the safety of home from our historic cellars, we were all cycling into the unknown, a distance greater than many of our group had cycled before.

We floated through the golden morning of Westminster, central London putting on a fine show. Then the reality of rush hour enveloped our group, in traffic, red lights and the car horns that punctuated our escape of London.  We finally broke out into the country lanes of Kent which provided some well needed leafy shade, testing our fresh legs on sharp hills of the Downs. 95 miles done, some 11 hours after we departed, we rolled into Dover to a chorus of seagulls, ready for a good night’s rest. 

Day 2 started with an early ferry crossing. Watching the white cliffs of Dover fade into the morning mist, the next time we’d see the chalk soils would be on the vineyards of Champagne. Our route serendipitously tracing the ancient geological strata of Cretaceous chalk band which connects the Champagne region with much of the South Coast of England. Queuing for the Full English in the canteen resulted in one of our group receiving a €10 donation from a fellow passenger, bringing us a little closer to our £325,000 target as we neared the French coast.

We offloaded from the ferry and regrouped in a Calais Bistro, locals eyeing our group inquisitively over their bierre blonde in the mid-morning sun. After an early start, we were all eager to get on the road, confident in our abilities after a long first day. We threw caution to the red weather warnings flashing up in the bar on the French TV, and set off.

After navigating roundabout after roundabout, the peloton ate up the miles on the smooth tarmac of French roads. I could feel the strength in my neck and shoulders begin to wain soon after we left. My relationship with MND is combative, since my diagnosis I refuse to let it defy my actions, and I fortify myself by fitness and a positive outlook. But despite my best efforts to fight its effects, the muscle wasting in my upper body meant that the 11 hour previous day had sapped any strength I had to remain upright on my bike, I dropped behind the group as I couldn’t lift my head to see the road. Before I fell off, or caused an accident, I pulled the plug, watching my fellow rides zoom away. After a quick medical assessment, my bike on the roof rack, I got into one of the support vehicles.

I was devastated. Despite my training, my meds, my personal fortification, the disease beat me down that day. I felt helpless and feeble, knowing that everyone else had the strength to push through to complete the day when I could not. I was terrified that this would happen again over the following days, which signalled not only I’m not in control of my symptoms, but also they are progressing faster than expected, despite my best efforts to own my narrative. From the back seat of an air con SUV, notwithstanding the pain in my neck, I could not be prouder of the peloton who rallied and fought through the sticky heat of industrial northern France to complete day 2. The halfway point. We all fell asleep to the sounds of Pierre Bettinger, of Champagne Leclerc Briant, singing La Marseillaise after France’s victory over New Zealand.

Day 3 arrived, a shorter 100km route ahead. We were joined at this point by my friends from Champagne Mailly, Chateaux la Nerthe & Ornellaia, who injected fresh legs and energy into the group. Our route gave us quiet roads rolling through agricultural fields, we passed through silent villages awoken by the buzzing of bikes and barking dogs. And war graves, after war graves. A constant reminder that this landscape is still healing from the devastation WW1 & 2.

By the afternoon, the heat was too much for some, 40c according to the Garmin. My neck was twinging, but compared to the previous day I felt restored and so grateful for the support of my fellow riders. This support extended to all of the peloton, as on day 3 we had our first crash of the trip. And despite a nasty bash and dose of road rash, our fallen rider refused to get into the support vehicle. Last on the road, he painstakingly pedalled into camp in St Quintain to rounds of heartfelt applause. England-Argentina gave some distraction in the evening, but we were all excited and fearful for the fourth and final day, at 105miles it was to be a grande finale - our longest ride of the trip. And for many, the longest cycle of our lives.

We started before dawn, tired legs pushed through quiet miles as the white gold light of dawn cast long shadows across the creamy tarmac. The morning’s landscape was punctuated with war memorials, picturesque villages, and inviting lakes. Lunchtime provided a respite from the heat and time in the saddle, everyone feeling the fatigue of our efforts. But collectively we found new strength, forged over miles and miles, the making new of friendships, many individuals surprising themselves with their own resilience. As we entered the Marne Valley in the afternoon, it became hillier, and roads busier with tractors towing trailers of freshly picked grapes, and we knew we were getting close. Roadside vineyards filled with harvest workers shouting words of encouragement as we whizzed past. The view of Reims Cathedral signalled our arrival into Champagne, we took a direct route through the capital of the region, aiming for our final pitstop at Champagne Mailly. We regrouped, cooling down with a glass of UKC, rejoicing safely in the knowledge we were going to make it. But our final test was climbing the steep hills through the deep forest of Montage de Reims, before our steep descent into Epernay.

The finish line approaching, we accelerated down the hill past the spiritual cradle of Champagne, and the resting place of Dom Pierre Perignon, Hautvilliers Abbey. Lizzy and I led the peloton up the neat cobbles of Avenue de Champagne whose wide boulevard is lined with the palaces of many of Champagne’s greatest names, the 35 other riders all in formation behind us.  It’s a memory I will forever cherish. Even after four days of cycling and with 325 miles in her legs, Lizzy had the strength to power up the last climb, to the roars of praise from the riders behind, we turned into the gates of Pol Roger where owner Hubert de Billy, and our incredible support teams were waiting. We were done.

Sunday evening and the sun was setting on the day, and our long journey from London. Rays of tangerine light bounced off wet cheeks and polished flutes of Pol Roger as our peloton embraced, kissed, and cried. Tears of joy and exhaustion brought us together in this special moment, united in the shared suffering of a long four days in the saddle. Looking around that group, the pride in our own and each other’s achievements dulled any pain in our legs, or necks. The sunlight, the smiles, the free flowing Brut Non-Vintage all added to the positive energy amongst us; it was palpable.

325 miles, two countries, four days, 12 punctures, new friendships forged, and countless litres of electrolytes consumed.  These are four days I will never forget, the road pushed us out of our comfort zones, and mentally and physically challenged us all. We set off from No3 as a group of determined colleagues, and we arrived into Pol Roger as a peloton of friends, united by this life affirming experience and our support of the MND community, and those like me, whose future is uncertain living with this terrible disease. 

To date we have raised £344,500 for My Name’5 Doddie Foundation, every pound we raised will go directly to aid research into treatments and help those living with the condition. And I cannot be more grateful to my fellow riders, the producers who joined, and my resplendent employer, Berry Bros. & Rudd, for enabling us to achieve an incredible sum for charity, but also the pride the company has allowed us to have, and the culture it has created. It is a rare privilege to work for a business where kindness, support, generosity of spirit and family values runs at its core. We are not only custodians of the greatest wines and spirit reserves in the world, but also custodians of each other. We support our own, and look after one another, as we have over 325 years of business. And long may it continue.

Thank you to every rider, Zeus Events, our incredible support crew, and to everyone who donated. Together, and only together, can we make a difference; the money we raise will get us closer to banishing MND to the annals of time. 

And you are still in time to donate: Berry Bros. & Rudd 325 Ride | Cycle London to Champagne for MND - JustGiving

Reflections on the Berry Bros & Rudd 325 Ride with Davy Zyw
Reflections on the Berry Bros & Rudd 325 Ride with Davy Zyw

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