DETERMINED fundraisers trying to drum up thousands of pounds for a military charity had to dodge riot police firing tear gas into crowds of protesters.
The group of 37 cyclists were on the final leg of their 300-mile odyssey from London to Paris for the Royal Navy and Royal Marines Charity (RNRMC) when the violence erupted in the French capital on Saturday.
Hundreds of anti-government ‘Yellow Vest’ protesters stormed the city’s streets, forcing police to blast demonstrators with tear gas and arrest more than 100 people.
The disorder grew to such levels organisers of the charity cycle had to abandon the planned victory lap down the famed Champs-Élysées avenue, which had been overrun by protesters.
Bill Oliphant, former Captain of Portsmouth Naval Base, was among those taking part in the epic cycle ride. The 55-year-old naval veteran from Southsea said: ‘I don’t think we signed up to be tear-gassed.
‘The organisers [of the ride] did a fantastic job. They were doing a lot of the planning on the hoof as the situation was developing in Paris.
‘It was a shame because we couldn’t finish on the Champs-Élysées. But it was a relief not to be tear-gassed.’
Despite the political unrest marring the end of the epic four-day adventure, the event raised a staggering £72,000.
Adrian Bell, RNRMC chief executive, said the money would help naval families to cope with the ‘human costs’ of military service.
‘This will make a huge difference,’ said Mr Bell, who greeted the team at the finishing line. ‘I salute everyone who took part.’
Riders set off from London on Wednesday, cycling 75 miles into navy command on Whale Island, where they were greeted by a fanfare from the Royal Marines Band.
The squad – made of civilians, military personnel, charity supporters and defence contractor workers – then sailed across the Channel into Normandy.
Designed to honour the heroes of D-Day, fundraisers visited Commonwealth War Grave sites, saw the D-Day landing beaches and spent time at Pegasus Bridge, the first area captured by the Allies during the pivotal June 6 invasion.
Commodore Craig Wood, commander Portsmouth flotilla, was taking part in the event and was moved by his time in Normandy – particularly the graves of fallen Allied heroes.
‘There was one grave that stood out for me,’ said the 48-year-said. ‘It was the grave of a 26-year-old Sergeant, it had an inscription from his wife, Lily, and baby, Janet and I thought: “That young lad has probably never met that baby”.’
The ride was backed by BAE Systems which partnered with RNRMC to support the event.
Keen cyclist Tim Bowman, BAE’s head of strategy maritime, was part of the event. The 38-year-old from Southsea said: ‘It feels great to be part of this and to be able to give back to those who use our equipment.
‘It’s been a staggering effort by everyone involved.’