by Marcus Leach
It's been a little over eight years since a surgeon advised me that it was in my best interests to stop playing rugby - two ACL reconstructions in as many years had put pay to any rugby ambitions that I may have harboured.
Painful as it was to accept, I gradually became accustomed to not lacing my boots up on a Saturday afternoon as I grew used to hobbling around with a leg brace on. However, once I had recovered from the second operation it dawned on my that more than missing actually playing rugby I missed the unique sense of camaraderie that came with the sport.
Now some will say that's not exclusive to rugby, all team sports have that bond, which is true to a degree. Yet given the fact that in rugby you put your body on the line, literally, for your friends and teammates there is a deeper sense, in my opinion anyway, of togetherness. There is a sense of loyalty to one another, a brotherhood if you like, and suddenly that was gone from my life.
Despite trying my hand at various other sports and activities - all of which I enjoyed - I realised that none offered that feeling I had from my rugby days. That was until I had the honour of taking part in the opening two stages of the 2014 Ride of the Lions this weekend.
Their ethos, the spirit of rugby on a bike, could not have been more apt. For here were a wide ranging collection of former British and Irish Lions mixed in with all manner of cyclists of varying levels, but all with one thing in common; a love of rugby, either from playing the game themselves or simply as fans, but all with that deep understanding of what it means to be a part of a rugby team. Oh, it's worth mentioning they all love cycling too.
From the moment I arrived at Twickenham Stoop early on Saturday morning it felt like I was back as part of a rugby team. Kit was laid out and ready to be assigned, riders were mingling, some acquainting themselves, others reacquainting, and there was plenty of light-hearted banter - not least when Rob Henderson (not quite as slight as he used to be in his pomp) came in with 80 egg and bacon muffins (I can only imagine the look on the cashier's face when he put that order in at McDonalds!)
It has been said of many sports stars that they are too far removed from the 'real world' we all live in, and as such we can't relate to them or the life they lead. There was not even the slightest sense of that amongst the Lions taking part in the ride. In fact, as I cycled along chatting away to Colin Charvis about holiday destinations and his carpet business, I could just have easily been talking to one of my friends as a man who played for Wales 94 times and has two caps for the British and Irish Lions.
Talking to some of the other riders it became clear many had joined the ride because it was a chance not only to take part in a fantastic event, but to spend a week on the road with their sporting heroes. It's not often we as fans get to have that sort of access to the players we have grown up watching, supporting and admiring. To be able to do so whilst supporting such a fantastic cause, the ride is raising money for the Walking with the Wounded charity, is twice as rewarding.
Having not cycled for well over a year I was a touch concerned I would struggle with the mileage, 172 miles over two days isn't to be sniffed at, but thankfully my training away from the bike put me in good shape and my legs held firm. So much so that I managed to complete the two stages riding with the quickest of the three groups, even doing my fair share of pace setting at the front of the group. The times when I did struggle there was always someone to help you, after all we were in this together, as a team. This wasn't a race, although it felt like it at times as we clocked an average speed of over 17mph for the two days, this was about finishing as one, helping each other through and knowing that we are stronger as a team rather than a group of individuals.
A rugby tour, albeit on bikes, wouldn't be complete without a few beers, and never has a cold beer tasted so good as when we arrived in Swindon after cycling 95 miles in what was a warming heat. That's something else I realised I missed, yet was able to experience once again here, the re-telling of the day's events (or game as it used to be) over a few hard earned beers. The telling of those stories always seemed to bring everyone closer, a sense of pride at being a part of the unofficial history of your team, of being able to say 'I was a part of that'.
It was then, given all that the two days had meant to me on a personal level, with a great degree of sadness that I left the rest of the team drinking cold beers in front of the Millennium Stadium, as having started this challenge and gotten through two tough days as a team I felt a duty to all involved to be a part of ensuring the challenge was completed. Not to mention wanting to hold onto that spirit of rugby for just a few more days.
As I sat on a warm, over-crowded train heading out of Cardiff Central I felt a huge sense of nostalgia as a smile broke out across my face. Eight years on from last having that sense of togetherness as a team and I had just been lucky enough to have experienced it again with the most wonderful team. I can only thank all of those involved for allowing me to relive that feeling for one sunny weekend in June.