Two wheels, 44 new friends, a good cause and me

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Eugene Scanderfield with landlady of the Hayling Billy  Mandy Mather Picture Ian Hargreaves  (171085-1)

Regulars raise a glass to help support charity

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They do say you never forget how to ride a bike – and Tracy Harris is certainly living proof of that.

Despite the fact that she hadn’t been on two wheels for more than 30 years, she signed up to take part in an adventure that involved five solid days of cycling.

She joined a women-only pack of fundraisers who pushed themselves to their limits to raise more than £630,000 for charity.

And with hands that are still numb from riding a bike along rough, pothole covered roads, she’s returned home with a new perspective on life.

‘It was an amazing and humbling experience that I will never forget,’ says Tracy.

‘It was life-changing. You’ve got to experience something like this at least once in your lifetime.’

Tracy had already completed the Great South Run after ditching her 23-year smoking habit but was looking for another challenge in the lead up to her 45th birthday.

So when the self-employed businesswoman saw TV presenter Fern Britton talking about a cycle ride she’d done for Professor Robert Winston’s Genesis Research Trust, she was intrigued and signed up.

Genesis organises regular bike rides all over the world to raise funds for research into the causes and cures for conditions that affect the health of mothers and babies.

But once she’d put her name down to take part in the gruelling ride, there was just one small matter to deal with – she hadn’t been on a bike since she was 16.

‘I don’t have a bike and I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been on a bike,’ laughs Tracy. ‘But I borrowed one and had to re-learn.

‘I actually had to hand the bike back at the beginning of the year so I trained on a static bike at home but that doesn’t train you for riding in 45 degree Celsius heat. It doesn’t train you for riding up and down hills or in 89 per cent humidity.’

The Women for Women cycling challenges have now been running for 10 years and have raised millions of pounds for the charity.

Tracy, from Stamshaw, had just over a year to prepare for the challenge which saw riders cycling around 400km over five action-packed days.

Former This Morning presenter Fern took part in the first of the Vietnam to Cambodia rides, with Tracy and more than 40 other women booked in to follow on the second leg.

Starting off from Ho Chi Minh City they peddled through rural Vietnam, past paddy fields, farms and market towns.

Once across the border into Cambodia they cycled just a stone’s throw away from the killing fields, through a country still ravished by years of brutal conflict. Their final destination was the famous Boeng Mealeah Temple.

Professor Winston had met Tracy and the rest of the cyclists at the airport and set out with them on their first day.

And rather than fly equipment over with them, everything was hired from local people, meaning the bikes were in various states of disrepair.

‘Mine was a little basic but it got me from start to finish,’ laughs Tracy. ‘We had others with handlebars falling off and people with no brakes. Fern completed the whole thing in the same gear.’

She adds: ‘The whole group really gelled well. There was this camaraderie all the way through. It was tough and there were a lot of challenges but it really added to the whole experience.

‘Whenever there was any crying, or we were so hot, or one of us said “I don’t think I can make it”, or we came across potholes the size of craters, we’d just say “It’s all part of the challenge girls”.

‘I went out with 44 strangers and came back with 44 very close friends.’

At the start of each day the riders would rise early to set out on their bikes. Apart from a lunch break they’d cycle right through the day, often not stopping until the sun had started to set.

On their first day in the saddle they covered 66km, then 85km on the second day, followed by 95km, then 77km and 66km on the last day.

For 46-year-old Tracy, one of the highlights of the trip was meeting the local children who would come out each day to greet them.

The group’s fastest riders would whizz through roadside villages, alerting the locals to their presence and giving Tracy and the rest the chance to follow through with a wave and a present or two.

‘There were houses at the sides of the road and there would be five or six kids per household,’ remembers Tracy.

‘They’d come out and all the little ones would be naked. They would run up and we’d be cycling along waving. I’d be cycling one-handed and giving high-fives.

‘I’d taken out lots of little things, like lollipops, bouncy balls and balloons and I’d put them into party bags, hooked them on to my handlebars and would hand them out. It was amazing, so humbling. Their faces lit up.

‘I had goose-bumps all the way through Vietnam and Cambodia with emotion.’

After 18 months of gearing up for the challenge the trip flew by in no time at all. Friends and family had rallied around to support her fundraising efforts and were keen to hear all about the experience.

And as she now prepares to celebrate Christmas with her husband Steven and their 13-year-old son Curtis, thoughts have already turned to what her next adventure should be.

‘I want to thank the people of Portsmouth for putting their hands in their pockets,’ she adds. ‘Now I’m ready for the next challenge. I don’t know what it will be yet, there are several options but Genesis does such an amazing job.

‘It’s money raised by women to help women. If that goes into research it doesn’t just help people in the UK, it benefits the rest of the world. I feel like I’m putting more back in.

‘It’s just phenomenal to know that it is going to benefit women and babies throughout the UK and beyond.’

Some of the Vietnam and Cambodia riders are already making plans for a reunion and everyone who took part has been invited to a tea party at the House of Lords on May 2.

Tracy would now like to follow in Fern Britton’s footsteps and become an ambassador for Genesis – and she’s keen to urge others to make 2012 the year they tackle a charity challenge of their own.

‘I think these very emotional shared experiences make people reflect on their own lives and I’ve certainly done that,’ she explains.

‘I’ve looked back and thought “I need to address my own health issues” because the only person who can look after me is me.

‘I also want to inspire other people to do something like this. Raise some money for charity – you can make it fun.

‘We can all do so much.’

Genesis Research Trust patron Fern Britton has been involved with the charity since 2004 and has flown the flag for the Women for Women challenges right from the start.

She’s cycled through Egypt, India, Cuba and Jordan and got on her bike again to take part in the Vietnam to Cambodia trip.

Professor Robert Winston’s pioneering work on IVF gives the TV presenter a personal connection to the charity as her own twin boys were IVF babies.

Genesis Research Trust raises money for the largest UK-based collection of scientists and clinicians who are researching the causes and cures for conditions that affect the health of women and babies.

Professor Winston began his groundbreaking research in 1980 and founded the roots of what has become the Genesis Research Trust five years later.

To find out more about Genesis or the Women for Women challenges, log on to iogt.org.uk