In the second part of our series on what cycling means to me, John Readman tells Sarah Freeman how the Tour de France’s arrival in Yorkshire inspired a whole new career.
The arrival of the Tour de France in Yorkshire has inspired some peculiar behaviour.
A month or so ago a group of renowned musicians played a piano as it was pulled up the longest climb of the course at Cragg Hill. An estate agents in Hawes has taken its inspiration from the King of the Mountains jersey and broken out in red polka dots. Even sheep have been painted yellow.
However, long before any bunting was hung and months before the first bicycles began popping up on street corners, John Readman was displaying signs of what can only be described as Grand Départ-induced fever.
Prior to Welcome to Yorkshire’s successful bid to host the opening stages of the 2014 Tour, John was running a successful search engine and digital marketing business in North Leeds. It employed 160 people and profits were healthy. Not long after the shock announcement - a government-backed bid from Scotland had been favourite to win - John had a surprise of his own. He announced to family, friends and colleagues that he was walking away from the company he had founded and was setting up a cycling business.
He wasn’t going it entirely alone. The venture was a joint one with his friend Rob Hamilton, but he admits now that some doubted his sanity.
“It all began when Rob organised a charity bike ride from the UK to Australia,” says John who lives near Wetherby with his wife and two young children. “The idea was to do it in 25 stages and raise money for the African charity 1MoreChild. We thought a few other people might be interested, so we sent out a few emails, but the response was just incredible.”
In total 150 people said they would like to join Rob and John on their adventure and it was then the pair began to wonder whether they could turn what had started out as a personal challenge into a business.
“It just seemed there was a market for a new kind of cycling travel company and when we heard the Grand Départ was coming to Yorkshire we reckoned now was the time to do it.”
It was in December 2012 that Yorkshire was named as Grand Départ host for 2014 and it was on January 6 this year that John sat down with his staff to tell them he was leaving.
“I’ve always got lots of ideas, but sometimes you need a push to make them a reality. I don’t know whether we would have got Ride25 off the ground if it hadn’t been for the Tour de France coming right to our doorstep. It was a huge decision to leave my other company, but Rob basically convinced me that we had enough money to give it a go. Sometimes you just have to go with your gut instinct.”
No one is more surprised than John at how the last few months have panned out, not least because until a few years ago the last bike he’d owned was a BMX as a child.
“I’m not, or at least wasn’t your stereotypical cyclist,” says the 38-year-old. “A couple of years ago I realised that I needed to do something about my fitness. The weight had gradually crept on and I was pushing 19 and a half stone. I wasn’t really a natural build for cycling, in fact my sport had always been rugby, but I thought getting out on a bike might be a good way to lose weight. It was, but it was also much more than that. There’s something about cycling which gives you a different perspective on the world.
“When I couldn’t go out on my bike for whatever reason I really missed it. The idea of Ride25 is to inspire that same passion in other people.”
Ride25 aims to fill the gap between leisurely cycling holidays and the kind of epic fundraising rides organised by some of the countries major charities. The 25 individual sections, which take people from here to Australia, can be spread over a number of years and while people are encouraged to raise money for good causes there is no obligation.
“That’s one thing we were really keen on. It’s great the likes of Oxfam and Macmillan organise gruelling rides through places like Vietnam and Cambodia, but some people can be put off by the idea that they have to raise a minimum amount of sponsorship. We have made a commitment that for every person who takes part in one of our tours we will donate a bike to Africa through our own corporate charity Re-Cycle.
“We realised that there are a lot of people out there who want to challenge themselves and our role is to take care of the logistics. Really, it’s about making these kind of cycle tours more accessible. It’s for people who can’t just put their life on hold.”
Ride25 currently has spaces on various UK to Paris legs as well as a second leg from Geneva to Milan.
“Our routes aren’t necessarily the shortest between the two locations, but that’s not the point,” says John. “Cycling should be about seeing the world, it should be about taking in beautiful landscapes with the least amount of traffic. When you’re on your bike it’s the perfect pace at which to watch the world go by.
“We tend to average between 70 and 90 miles a day and while we do encourage people to commit to some kind of training plan before they go, it’s not targeted at elite cyclists. Far from it, this has always been about making cycling more accessible.”
Footage from the last Geneva to Milan leg, which went through the Rhone Valley before skirting the edge of Lake Como has been turned into a video with Pharrell Williams’ hit Happy providing the soundtrack.
“I think that tells you everything you need to know about cycling,” says John. “After a long day in the saddle your legs might ache, but the sense of satisfaction is incredible.”
While he hopes to use this weekend’s Grand Depart to promote the new company, his main priority is to watch at least some of the race with his two children, aged six and four.
“Who knows what the legacy of the Tour de France will be in Yorkshire, but hopefully it inspires a whole generation of schoolchildren and that impact will only be seen in five or 10 years time,” he says. “My two are only little, but they’re excited and it’s not often that you get an event which brings the whole county together.
“It might be just be me, but it definitely feels like there are more people out and about on bikes and the opening of the new velodrome in York will be a massive asset for the region. It feels like cycling is on the verge of something really big in this country.
“No-one blinks and eye at airports when they see people turning up with their skis, but at the moment the idea of travelling with your bike is still a bit unusual.
“I reckon in a couple of years that will no longer be the case. I’m not joking when I say it could be the new golf. Cycling has become a big part of my life and I wouldn’t want it any other way.”