Le Tour de Rugby League Cares was a 500-mile/800 kilometre six-day cycle ride in June 2023 from France’s wild Atlantic coast at Biarritz to the Mediterranean beach at Canet-en-Roussillon near Perpignan.
Fifteen riders, including RL Hall of Fame inductee Adrian Morley, former Bradford and Salford centre Nathan McAvoy, French RL Federation vice-president (and 2000 French coach of the year) Patrick Pedrazzani and ex-Super League referee Thierry Alibert, set out from the start line on June 11. Six days later, 12 had survived to cross the finish line.
Here’s the story of the many ups, and the occasional downs, of le Tour de Rugby League Cares…
Day 0 – Saturday June 10
Manchester to Biarritz
Disaster at the airport as riders arrive at 4am to discover their Air France flight to Biarritz has been cancelled. With no-one from the airline awake to help, panic sets in and two riders, Steve Smethurst and Chris Irwin, board a train to Stansted to catch an alternative flight; Jimmy Bray, James Elston, Simon Dunkerley and David Stephenson jump on an early plane to Paris in the hope of making a connection to Biarritz; and seven others sit tight hoping for the best.
The decision to hold their nerve proves inspired: Air France puts on another flight to Biarritz via Paris at lunchtime. Although the riders have a six-hour wait at Charles de Gaulle, the stopover is long enough to merit a taxi ride into the French capital where they hire e-scooters to whizz around the Arc de Triomphe, Eiffel Tower and Trocadéro Fountain before sampling a few refreshing beers in a boulevard café. Molière would have been impressed. A couple of the smiles fade at Biarritz airport at 10pm when it emerges Air France have left Nathan McAvoy’s and Neil Farrow’s cases in Manchester.
Day 1 – Sunday June 11
Biarritz to Pau – 95.5 miles/153km, 5,800ft of ascent
At least the bikes all made it to Biarritz on time, ferried from England by support van driver Graham Clay. The weary travellers are introduced to Patrick and Thierry for the first time at breakfast, before hastily getting their bikes ready for the grand depart. Too hastily for former Oldham, Hull and Rochdale loose forward Dave Stephenson, who forgets to tighten up his mate Jimmy Bray’s handlebars properly. Eighteen inches into the ride we have our first faller as Jimmy hits the tarmac and is left with cuts and grazes to his leg and elbow. Patrick’s vocabulary of English swear words is enhanced, not for the last time this week. French RL historian Frank Perrin waves off the riders after presenting them with signed copies of his book, Rugby League: Rugby of the Future. After photos on the promenade and a walk across the beach to dip a wheel in the Atlantic, the riders (two in borrowed kit) are on their way. Twenty miles of flat roads make for a gentle start, but the hills soon come thick and fast, and the peloton stretches as the day unfolds. The heat and the hills prove too much for one rider, who climbs aboard the van for the last 10 miles into Pau, where the team dines in a lively Irish bar.
Day 2 – Monday June 12
Pau to Sainte Marie de Campan – 74.3 miles/120km, 8,900ft of ascent
The forecast rain never arrives as the riders head for the Pyrenees via a mid-morning stop in Lourdes, where some pray for a miraculous intervention to their legs ahead of the biggest challenge of the week: the Col du Tourmalet, a mountain pass which has featured in the Tour de France more than any other. Just before the foot of the Tourmalet, the route takes a short detour through the village of Chèze up a hill with an 18 per cent gradient. The riders make their views known to the route planner with multi-lingual abuse. And then it’s onto Luz-Saint-Sauveur and the start of the Tourmalet, 12 miles of constant uphill at an average gradient of seven per cent. The climb is spectacularly pretty but brutal in its demands yet 10 of the 15 riders pedal all the way to the top, while 14 enjoy the exhilarating descent down the other side to an overnight chalet in Sainte Marie and unlimited pizza and beer. Today was the toughest afternoon any of the riders have ever experienced and the team are battered, broken but resolutely unbowed.
Day 3 – Tuesday June 13
Sainte Marie de Campan to Boussens – 79 miles/127km, 5,800ft of ascent
The problem with an overnight stay halfway up a mountain is that the hard work is only half done, as the riders discover when, from the chalet doorstep, they set off up the Col d’Aspin, an eight-mile/12.5km climb at an average of five per cent. But they huffed and they puffed and the 14 who set out after breakfast made it to the summit, where spectacular views and an immense sense of achievement awaited. Another glorious descent to a café in the village of Arreau was their reward before the route headed north across (not always gently) rolling countryside through the tree-clad foothills of the Pyrenees to a late lunch at Saint-Gaudens Bears RL club. Despite being out of season, Saint-Gaudens opened up their facilities and provided coffee and cake for the riders, who are greeted by former France international half-back and coach Gilles Dumas. From Saint-Gaudens, there are just three more short testing climbs on the way to the team’s overnight hotel by the river Garonne in sleepy Boussens.
Day 4 – Wednesday June 14
Boussens to Toulouse – 76.5 miles/123km, 3,450ft of ascent
After three gruelling days, a decision is taken to shorten Stage 4 by 15 miles to allow the riders to catch their breath as the route rolls through rural France towards Toulouse. A long, refreshing café stop in the charming village of Samatans (burgers for some, Gâteau Basque for others) helps them recharge and then it’s on past fields inundated with floodwater to the lunch stop by a large lake at L’Isle Jourdain. Lunch is another delicious home-made feast provided by the RL Cares support team of Catherine Maddy and Tracey Barr – fresh baguettes with ham and cheese, olives, tomatoes and fresh greens. A few hundred metres from L’Isle Jourdain, the cycle path is covered by a hidden layer of soft mud from the recent floods which looks like a dry dusting of dirt. Unfortunately, rider Colin Mackenzie reaches it first and falls badly, suffering concussion, severe grazing on his thigh and, as subsequent X-rays reveal, a hairline fracture on his hip. His ride is over. The other riders press on along a friendly series of largely traffic-free cycleways into the heart of France’s fourth largest city, stopping off at Toulouse Olympique for a guided tour of Stade Ernest Wallon with the Championship club’s staff and players before continuing into the city centre.
Day 5 – Thursday June 15
Toulouse to Carcassonne – 88.9 miles/143km, 6,200ft of ascent
From their Toulouse hotel, the team joins the Canal du Midi and head south towards brunch at Saint-Michel-de-Lanes where the seeds of a cunning plan take hold in the minds of some riders. Knowing the afternoon is going to get ‘lumpy’, Neville Smith, Mark Bargh, Simon Dunkerley and Chris Irwin opt to follow the canal all the way to Carcassonne, although the badly rutted and muddy towpath eventually forces them onto the road. The others head up towards lunch at Revel on the edge of the Massif Central before tackling a spectacularly pretty but testing ascent of the Roc de l’Homme mountain from Sorèze. Once over the summit, it’s pretty much downhill for the next 15 miles past the ruined Cathar castle at Saissac and through fields lined with serried ranks of vines on the way into Carcassonne. The riders pay a flying visit to the headquarters of the French RL Federation on the outskirts of the city before making their way to Carcassonne XIII, where officials have laid on a fabulously warm welcome featuring speeches from the club presidents, fizz and finger food, and photographs by the statue of Carcassonne’s (and France’s) greatest ever player, Puig Aubert. A dinner of cassoulet and crème brulée at Le Jardin de Carcassas, a restaurant in the ancient walled city run by Karim Sabri, a sponsor of Carcassonne XIII, provides a memorable end to a memorable day.
Day 6 – Friday June 16
Carcassonne to Canet-en-Rousillon – 80 miles/129km, 5,000ft of ascent
The end is in sight and there’s a palpable buzz about the riders as Patrick Pedrazzani leads them out of his home city via another searching climb over a picturesque mountain, Pech de l’Homme, which is tackled beneath a clear azure sky. It’s also clear that some of the team members are running on fumes, while all-round fatigue is a factor for everyone, compounded by temperatures climbing into the mid-30s. Jimmy Bray’s rear-derailleur falls apart 30 miles in, ending his ride, and the riders limp to their brunch stop at Villerouge-Termenès low on water and energy. Refuelled at a tavern in the shadow of a Cathar ruin, the increasingly ruined riders head out into yet more hills before descending to the town of Tuchan, where they are greeted by 15 senior members of Cyclo Club Saint Laurent de la Salanque. It’s clear the French riders love a good hill as they lead the group over some gruelling terrain through Vingrau and Rivesaltes towards Canet. David Stephenson goes too far into the red and is forced to abandon with 20 miles left, and a low-speed collision sees a weary Adrian Morley take out Saint Laurent de la Salanque rider Christian Textoris. Both are bloodied but able to carry on: fortunately for Moz, Thierry Alibert has left his yellow and red cards at home. And then, at last, the riders reach the Mediterranean and the seafront at Canet, where they are met by the support team, family members and two ‘local’ rugby league personalities, RL Hall of Famer Shaun Edwards, who lives just across the road, and Catalans Dragons captain Sam Tomkins, who joins them later that evening for a celebration dinner at a restaurant on the beach.
After a day’s recuperation in Canet, the riders flew home from Perpignan on Sunday morning, bringing to an end their remarkable adventure in support of a charity which achieved all its aims: to raise the profile of Rugby League Cares; to forge close links with the French branch of the rugby league family tree; to give all the participants a first class experience; and to raise the funds it needs to continue making a positive difference to the lives of people in rugby league communities.
The ride would not have been possible without the support of its sponsors: Mattioli Woods, Slater Heelis Solicitors, Bartlett Insurance, Boiler Central, FFR XIII, Oxen Sports and the Francis Arthur Brooks Charitable Foundation.
Shortly after the return, the fundraising total had approached its £30,000 target: you can still support the work of RL Cares by making a donation via the ride’s dedicated Justgiving page: www.justgiving.com/team/tourderugbyleaguecares/