Saturday sees the start of the world’s most famous cycle race – the Tour de France. Elite cyclists at the peak of their physical fitness will push themselves to the limit cycling 3334 kms and climbing some of Europe’s highest mountains in 21 days.
A day ahead of them will be Ilkley’s Michelin-starred chef Simon Gueller, 50, who joins former England and Barnsley footballer Geoff Thomas and 20 other cyclists in the One Day Ahead Challenge which aims to raise £1m for the charity Cure Leukaemia. Geoff Thomas was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukaemia in 2003 and given less than three months to live. Following treatment from Cure Leukaemia Co-founder Professor Charlie Craddock and a bone marrow transplant from his sister, Geoff has been in remission since January 2005.
He now wants to give something back.
Simon himself has battled with illness which makes the challenge of cycling some of the toughest ascents in the world even greater.
“A few years ago I was diagnosed with a tumour on my spine,” says Simon who runs the Box Tree, Ilkley with his wife Rena.
“I had to have surgery on my spine and I was warned against playing football, which was really hard as I loved playing the sport.”
Simon was also warned that there was a risk that he may never walk or stand again, a devastating blow for a man who earns his living standing at a stove.
After extensive surgery and lengthy rehabilitation, he finally made it back into the kitchen.
But he says it came at a difficult time.
“I left school at 15 and had worked 12 to 14 hours a day in kitchens ever since. I think I was in danger of burning out,” he says frankly.
“I put on loads of weight – ate and drank all the wrong things and really had no interest in anything.”
Then one day friends said they were going mountain biking.
“For some reason I said I’d go with them. They all laughed, but I did it although it was one of the hardest things I had done. I had to stop and push on every hill. But I am a very determined person and I knew that it was doing me good as I saw results really quickly. It also gave me a sense of freedom that I hadn’t felt in a long time.”
Seeing the beneficial effects of mountain biking Simon decided to move to road bikes and started to compete.
Being a perfectionist, Simon immersed himself the world of cycling, watching DVDs, reading books in an attempt to improve.
He then read Lance Armstrong’s autobiography and was inspired.
“The way he talked about the romance of the Tour de France was infectious,” says Simon.
The he read about the One Day Ahead challenge on the internet.
“I saw that another chef was doing this event and I thought it would be a great opportunity to get to do the Tour de France Route.
“To start with it was all about me challenging myself. But the more I have got into and the more I have met people with leukaemia the more it has become about the charity and raising money for it.” Each rider has the challenge of raising £50,000 with all money going to Cure Leukaemia.
Simon has already raised £17,000 and has more pledged.
“We are really hopeful that once it starts we will get even more money. People have been very generous – lots of my suppliers and customers are supporting me.”
Simon has been training around 12 hours a week around the roads of Ilkley, but just three weeks ago his dream of taking part in the challenge nearly ended in disaster.
He was on a rise with a group of other cyclists travelling around 35 miles down a hill when he suffered an horrific crash.
“I can’t remember what happened,” says Simon who suffered three broken ribs and a punctured lung.
He spent six days in hospitals and doctors said he should not take part in the challenge.
“I did think at the back of my mind that it might be it, but I never let on. I always told everyone even Rena that I was going to continue.”
And true to his word he did. But it was not just the physical scars that had to heal.
“I have only recently been back on my bike again. Cycling in a bunch can be quite scary and well as an adrenalin rush. Doing the Tour de France route will be as much a mental as physical challenge. We only get two rest days over the 21 for the rest of the time you are doing back to back rides of more than 100 miles each.”
The 2015 Tour de France marks the tenth anniversary of former England and Crystal Palace footballer Geoff Thomas first completing the Tour de France route in 2005, which he achieved despite only having gone into remission from leukaemia six months previously.
Geoff said: “I’m delighted that Simon has committed to cycling Le Tour – One Day Ahead with me. It’s going to be a tough challenge, but having such dedicated and confident riders alongside will help all of us achieve our goal – not just to complete the ride but to raise £1 million for Cure Leukaemia.”
For Simon the biggest challenge is going to be the infamous cobbles of the Seraing to Cambrai stage. Although at the moment he has no idea just what toll the event will take on his broken bones, he is determined to finish.
To sponsor Simon visit uk.virginmoneygiving.com/team/boxtree