Elton rider Dan McDonald conquers Tour de France route for Cure Leukaemia’s Tour 21 challenge
An amateur rider who took up cycling just three years ago conquered mountain passes, extreme heat and storms to complete the Tour de France route.
Dan McDonald took on the 3,404km of the world’s biggest bike race over three weeks as part of an 21-strong ‘Tour 21’ group which raised more than £1 million for Cure Leukaemia.
Setting off from Bilbao, in Spain, a week before the start of the Tour de France, the riders tackled all 21 stages that the world’s elite riders would go on to race.
“It was truly an amazing, special, life-changing experience,” said Dan, from Elton.
“I had to use all the physical and mental strength over those three weeks and the 10 months of training certainly kicked in.”
Le Tour has a fearsome reputation as one of sport’s toughest endurance events, and this year’s course was regarded as the most mountainous in recent times.
In total kilometres of climbing, Dan and his fellow riders faced the equivalent of cycling up Mount Everest seven times.
“It was pretty tough going through those mountain ranges – we had everything thrown at us,” Dan recalled.
“In Bilbao we had severe high temperatures and in the Pyrenees we were hit with extremely cold, misty conditions with visibility down to 10 metres in some places, and then biblical thunderstorms through the highest mountain ranges.”
Dan found the going at its toughest on stage 13 of the epic odyssey on a 17km climb of the Grand Colombier, in the Jura mountains, with a tortuous average gradient of 7.1 per cent incline.
“It took me about an hour and five minutes to go up that,” he said.
“The feet were just saying ‘no, no, no!’ and it’s just the mental strength that gets you to the top.”
His high altitude highlight came on the last of three successive days in the mountains – the Col de la Loze, a 28km Alpine grind where the road peaked at a mind-blowing 24 per cent gradient.
“We were met by thunderstorms, black clouds, you name it at the top,” he added.
“You get to the top, take your picture and you just want to get off that mountain top after three successive days of mountain climbs before the rest day. Things don’t get harder than that.”
Dan’s punishing daily schedule began with a 5.30am alarm call.
After the hours spent riding the stage, an evening transfer to the next day’s stage start, physio and the vital refuelling, Dan’s head would sometimes not hit the pillow until 11.30pm or even midnight.
“Then the same day happens again so it’s quite something,” he added.
“It’s the lack of sleep more than anything else.”
Not that he’s complaining. A healthy dose of perspective considering the cause behind the quest helped to drive him on.
“The patients who are going through these leukaemia treatments, they’ve got a much bigger battle on their hands so it pales into insignificance,” he said.
“We have a choice to do this and unfortunately those who have this cruel, cruel disease don’t have that luxury.
“That was the motivation. That gets you out of bed at 5.30 in the morning for another day in the saddle.”
As well as cramming in many months of gruelling training rides around the demands of work and family life, there was fundraising to drive, including a black tie ball, achieved with the help of wife Jess and daughters Carys and Eleanor.
With their support, Dan’s personal fundraising tally stands at a staggering £32,500, with his fundraising page still open for donations.
“I had some great support from friends and family who kept me going through quite a gruelling challenge,” he said.
“It’s a real super special feeling to know the fundraising will make a significant difference and help to save blood cancer patients.”
Jess, Carys and Eleanor, as well as Dan’s parents, were all there in Paris to greet him at the finish line, overlooked by the Eiffel Tower.
The Tour 21 riders reached the magic moment along the Champs Elysees after an average of 156 hours in the saddle.
But the elation of achievement and reunion was mixed with a little melancholy.
“To see your friends and family at the finish line is just incredible, but you have that sad feeling as well that it’s all over,” he explained.
“You’ve had an incredible time, you’ve been in that bubble with your new friends in the team and you have those mixed emotions.”
Dan is now looking forward to kicking back on a family holiday, with the added joy of no 5.30am alarm calls to cycle up mountains.
But he has already been drawn back to the bike and is not yet done with sporting challenges.
“I’ve got my name in the hat to do one stage of the Tour next year at the Etape,” he said.
“And I’ve still got one more marathon to complete before I hang up my trainers.”