The Resilience Ride

When our CEO, John Steel, asked us – “what can we do to honour the 30th anniversary of Cafédirect?” my mind was immediately inspired by the resilience, bravery and determination shown by different people and organisations who formed and managed our company over such a long period of time. They were worth celebrating.

I proposed to John that I would honour the founding organisations and key partners by visiting them across the country on my bike.

With a starting point of Cafédirect’s Roastery in London and the furthest founding partner being in Edinburgh, it seemed obvious – this would be the route. Five days of roughly 100 miles each. My family are to be my support group and meet me at various points along the way.

The event would also make some progress towards Cafédirect’s mission to raise £50,000 for its farmer-led charity, Producers Direct. This comes at a crucial time where the farming community at origin are facing an extreme challenge from the Coronavirus pandemic which is causing them immense hardship and so I am so happy that I was able to do this ride to raise money for the Covid Relief Fund which has been established to provide direct financial assistance at a time of such great need.

Tuesday 1st June – Day 1

I wake up at my home in Northampton and jump in the support vehicle to reach Cafédirect’s Roastery in London Fields at 6:30 am. Our Head of Operations – Katrina Pantelli who has worked at Cafédirect for nearly 21 years had opened up the Roastery to prepare me a decent cup of coffee. No cyclist starts a ride without a coffee first.  It had to be a cup of our Smooth Roast – Cafédirect’s original product, which was the humbly titled Medium Roast.  And it was Smooth Roast that was the symbolic gift that was presented at each of my stops.

First stop: Twin Trading, one of our four founding companies (which was acquired by Sustainable Harvest in 2019). I travel around 100 metres from our Roastery to meet with Maire Reier, who we work with through the contracts we have with Sustainable Harvest for key origins.

Departing from Twin and setting off was the moment of realisation that I had something huge ahead of me, and I was really scared. The warmth and support of the start were now gone and I was on my own. When you cycle through London streets, it feels a very long way from Edinburgh.

I meet with Eleanor Deans at Fairtrade.  An important stop for the ride as Cafédirect was the first Fairtrade certified roast and ground coffee in 1994 and has been 100% Fairtrade ever since.

And then I was on my own for a while with plenty of time to contemplate the journey ahead on the way to meet John Steel, our Chief Executive, in his home town of Wendover in Buckinghamshire. John has worked with Cafédirect for nearly ten years and is more than just our CEO. Being, without doubt, the soul and beating heart of Cafédirect, he joined as Cafédirect was entering some difficult times and ultimately was called upon to take a masterful role in saving Cafédirect from extinction. This ride was also a tribute to John and the team of people, many of whom are still with us, who worked extremely hard over a very long period of time to preserve something precious.

From Wendover, the heat started to become quite noticeable as I made my way to Oxford to Oxfam – one of the founding organisations of Cafédirect. Unfortunately, Oxfam’s office was closed so I added a decorative element to their signage:

When I leave Oxfam I’m 90 miles into my 120 mile route and I’m looking forward to my comfortable hotel and spa in Stratford-upon-Avon. This doesn’t sit too well with my idea of suffering in honour of the cause, but I somehow managed to justify it to myself. By the time I had completed that extremely hilly 30 miles I didn’t feel any shame whatsoever. This was day 1 and the sheer joy of seeing that hotel on the horizon reminded me there were four more…

Wednesday 2nd June – Day 2

I fell asleep at 9 pm and woke up to the sound of happy birthday. All of a sudden I’m 48. And what a way to spend my birthday.

I left the hotel at 8 am.   I’m not a cold-weather person and was sooo grateful for the sunshine but it does fatigue you. In the hot countryside south of Wilmslow, uncertain of how far I still had to travel I did start to feel a little delirious as 90 miles ticked by. I turned on the pace and did a final sprint to the hotel because I really wanted to get there and get a nice cold drink.

Thursday, 3rd June – Day 3

It’s no longer my birthday and because I start out thinking this is going to be a tough day, I unconsciously make sure this is a tough day. The middle stint will always be the hardest, especially if it involves traversing the Yorkshire Dales. It’s very beautiful of course but this is not adequate compensation on this occasion.

The day started quite joyously, I travelled to the Co-op’s HQ in Salford with ease.  Co-op has always supported Fairtrade and was the first retailer to stock our products. The Co-operative is a great movement and a huge friend of Cafédirect over these past 30 years and their enthusiasm for our brand and what we do was felt very clearly during my visit. It was hard to leave but leave I must. Below is a picture from inside their rather spectacular atrium at their head office.

Shortly after leaving I experience my first puncture of the trip. It’s not a big drama – a five-minute stop at the side of the road but it’s an unwelcome interruption. I rode out of Manchester, through Burnley and into the Yorkshire Dales. I knew how much hill climbing I would need to do and the one thing that weighs on your mind is “are my legs going to fail me”. They didn’t and they never do, it’s the mind that gets tired and tells your legs to stop.

I underestimated the constant undulations – it was uphill and downhill all the time and that is what gets you, and then when that big climb comes, your mind is tired and you don’t want to do it. You get it done by sheer force of will. I had scheduled a family meet up for a quick drink, 30 miles from Richmond, my final destination on day 3.  I eventually found the pub.  I had only 30 more miles to complete – easy right? Well, no.

The pub was in a village before the steepest incline of the entire trip. As I cycled towards it, several people wished me good luck. My concerns were justified as I rounded a corner to observe a cliff-like hill that my cycle computer told me would be 8 kilometres of climbing. The steepest gradient on that climb was 23%, bordering on the uncyclable, at least with the gearing I had on my bike.

Add the above to a sense of sheer isolation in what looks like the middle of nowhere, and so high that it’s getting cold, bleak and grey. Never give up though right. Almost in tears, but I make it.

Part of cycling these hard hills is the joy of the descent.  Due to mental fatigue and near 50mph speeds, I underestimated a corner and came close to losing my life over a sheer drop. “Time to wake up man”, I told myself. I mounted the bank at the next corner but was fortunate not to sustain any damage. Luck was on my side. Time to get a grip and crack on. My cycle computer was telling me of two more graded climbs before I reach the hotel.

With surely the worst of the day behind me, I regained some mental composure and pushed hard to get the rest of the distance done. It was really hard but now I know what I’m capable of. Can I reach Edinburgh? Of course I can.

Friday 4th June – Day 4

I wake up early for my daughter, Juno’s, birthday. She too is celebrating her birthday in the whirlwind of this ambitious event.

I realise that, despite the fatigue of yesterday, I’m getting stronger and feeling good. This puts me in a good state of mind for today’s ride. Today is a flatter and shorter distance that will take me to Alnwick, north of Newcastle to my final point of rest before I complete the trip in Edinburgh.

Today I will visit Traidcraft, another of our founders who are also a commercial business but one that was one of the pioneers of the Fairtrade movement and has also had some struggles to survive, but survived it has.

At Traidcraft, I would meet with Matt Oliver, as well as Joe Osman, a man who was there at the beginning of Traidcraft some forty years ago and who had retired quite recently. He’s written a rather wonderful book about his time with the organisation and I was thoroughly excited to meet him.

My ride felt easy today and it was such a joy to reach Tyneside – when you reach there you know you are properly ‘up North’ so it felt like a milestone.

I arrived at Traidcraft and like many of the other stops,  I didn’t want to leave. They also had the best biscuits which made it even harder.

Shortly after leaving Gateshead, I ride over the iconic Tyne Bridge in Newcastle, a moment I had really been looking forward to.  I had saved my last sports beans that Katrina had given me at the Roastery on Tuesday morning for a little moment of celebration. It is in these kinds of situations that a small act of kindness can make all the difference, those sports beans always cheered me up.

After what felt like a celebration ride through the City of Newcastle, I had another 30 miles or so to reach Alnwick, a very beautiful small town that sits on the other side of some big hills about 80 miles from Edinburgh.

Saturday 5th June – Day 5, The Final Day

80 miles, that’s all that separates me from the finish line. I knew I could do it but I also knew of the mountain range in between. It’s also inexcusable to fail this far in so my confidence was at a high point. Again I slept well and woke up feeling fresh and pain-free, putting the third-degree sunburn to one side.

This was the victory ride and it should be undertaken in a celebratory state of mind. So I made sure it was. It was sunny, still, beautiful, quiet and not one car passed me in the first hour of my ride that morning.

The mountain, I was very much “bring on the mountain”. I wanted to get to the top, then make a video explaining what I was doing and why.  These hills were extremely hard, but it was a celebration and I knew I would give it my all even if it broke my legs.  Now I’d come this far, all I had to do was coast down the other side for 40 miles and I’d made it.

Arriving in Scotland was another big milestone:

At this point, I could say “I’ve cycled from London to Scotland”. What a happy moment that was and still with one sweaty bag of Smooth roast in my pocket.

With the hills done all that was left to do was coast downhill into Edinburgh, a bit tearful but full of sadness that one of the most special things I will ever do was nearly over. Funny thing was I still felt great physically and like I could carry on further. My mind wouldn’t have let me though.

The strangest sensation at this point was just how long ago it had felt since I was in London. It didn’t feel like five days, more like five weeks. Not even that, a different life.

Anyway, this is me 773km from London, in Edinburgh…

And 5 minutes after that

Not one mechanical issue, not one spot of rain and only one puncture. It may have been tough but I was very lucky.

As I always will say – nothing worthwhile is easy.

James Nixon

Head of Finance, Cafédirect plc

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