Here at Essential Cyclist we’ve had the pleasure of acquainting ourselves with Gideon Seligman, the mastermind behind Nightrider™ and many of Classic Tours charity challenges. Having travelled all over the world working and planning events, he has taken time from his busy schedule to sit down with us and have a good natter.
Firstly though, a quick background of Classic Tours and what they do. Classic Tours has raised an incredible £90 million for hundreds of charities. Since 1992 over 50,000 people have cycled, trekked, run, scaled mountains and even ridden horses in all corners of the globe while taking part in a Classic Tours charity challenge. In the last few months Classic Tours has hosted a replica of Stage One of the Tour de France for JDRF – the Type 1 Diabetes Charity, raising over £250,000 as well as a London to Amsterdam bike ride with a football twist for Prostate Cancer UK. This attracted the interest of ex-professional footballers and Sky Sports. Later this year Jim Carter, known for his role as Mr Carson in Downton Abbey, will be cycling across Madagascar to raise funds for Richard House Hospice.
Hi Gideon, many thanks for your time! So let's get started, where did the idea of Nightrider™ come from?
The idea came from a brainstorm meeting at Classic Tours. We were looking for new ideas for events and came up with Nightrider™ which, at the time, was the first of its kind!
(Nightrider™ London is an exciting 100km moonlit cycle ride past the capital’s iconic landmarks every June. Over £2 million is raised in one night for hundreds of good causes. The first ever Nightrider™ London took place in 2010 with 300 cyclists, since then we have grown it to over 3,500 cyclists in 2014. Registration is now open for Nightrider™ 2015 – www.nightrider.org.uk)
Explain in great detail what you want to achieve in five years with Nightrider™ and Classic Tours.
In 5 years I’d like Nightrider™ to be a ‘monument’, a fixture on the London and UK fundraising ride calendar. I’d like Nightrider™ London to be the centrepiece of a family of Nightrider™ events in other UK and European cities. I’d like to help Classic Tours to still be the force it is in charity challenge events, taking more people to more places, raising more money and leading the sector in innovation and fundraising.
What got you into cycling in the first place?
A number of things – I was lucky enough to be at a central London secondary school when track cycling at the Paddington Rec track and road at the Welsh Harp were on the curriculum, I rode 6 miles to and from school and started touring in my teens.
What do you eat for breakfast before a challenge?
Depends on the challenge, but in short lots! For choice – porridge and coffee, lots of coffee. I just finished a London to Paris cycle ride where I fell foul of the curse of the continental breakfast. It’s hard to eat enough calories if the choice is croissants and yoghurt. At the second break I attacked the snacks with purpose, I was really happy we always have normal food, not energy bars and gels on our events.
How often do you train?
I don’t like the word ‘train’ for my riding, that’s what you do for competition. The joy of cycling for me is that preparation for most fundraising events can be riding, and riding should be pleasure, even if it’s hard work. I live just south of Manchester, so it’s either up into the Peaks, or the Cheshire lanes; ideally 3 or more times a week if I’m not on an event.
You have travelled all over, where has been your favourite countries to travel to and why?
Am I allowed ‘all of them’ as an answer?
India is always top of my list – the rest of the world is a bit bland after the assault on the senses that India is, no-one leaves ambivalent, and I love it.
Any visit to Lapland, summer for walking or winter for dog sledding is amazing. Classic Tours have organised another Arctic Dog Sledding Challenge in January 2015 which is very exciting! It’s so different from anywhere else I have been and the winter experience so unique.
Getting to know new countries is always a thrill, and Classic Tours have organised two Cycle Madagascar challenges later this year. It will be my second time in Madagascar which I’m really excited about, the little taste I had on my first visit was tantalising, there’s so much to see and learn there.
What has been your favourite route?
Again, am I allowed ‘all of them’ as an answer?
I have to differentiate between ‘event’ and ‘route’ here – some of our rides are amazing for reasons other than the route – Rajasthan would be an example of that, where the distances aren’t huge and the route almost flat, but what an event!
I absolutely love our Malin to Mizen ride in Ireland from north to south, it has everything and Ireland is just fantastic as a cycling destination.
Other stand outs are South Africa through the Karoo and Garden Route, and our Kenya ride to Lake Victoria which has some real cycling challenges on it, including a 24km climb. Having said that, the London to Paris ride has fabulous cycling, and on my last event there even some experienced cyclists were saying that one of the days was amongst the most enjoyable cycling they had ever done.
How do you put events together and how do they take shape?
Ideas for events can come from many places – individuals coming to us with brainwaves, charities with requests or at our initiative like Nightrider™. My job is then usually to look at the feasibility and route – does it make sense, is it possible, will it be attractive to fundraisers and so on. An important question is always ‘who is this for?’, so a Lands End – John O’Groats ride can be a long day, high paced event or a mixed ability two week tour.
Other people then have the fun task of working out travel, logistics and accommodation and then we are ready to drive the route. Before any new event we always recce ourselves, we never trust anyone to do it for us, and by car, not bike – I have never had a recce where we have not looked at options, made mistakes and rectified them, all hard to do by bike! We then have to look at how to put together appropriate levels of support and staffing to give all participants the best possible experience. Classic Tours are lucky to have a great pool of staff who bring very different skills to rides so we can match the right people to the event.
How do you get people interested in your events?
My role is primarily in planning and operations, marketing is outside my comfort zone. I do give presentations to groups before events and promotional meetings for charities, which help to get interested people on board but Classic Tours have an incredible ethos which I find often sells itself. The great thing about Classic Tours is that the focus remains on the charity and making it work for them as well as creating a unique, experience-led ride for the participants.
How do you design the routes?
Research first, read around the destination - what should we try to get on the route for cycling reasons? What needs to be there so that the charity can attract fundraisers, find out who the ride is for and so on?
Once I have a clear concept of the route I go to one of the online mapping sites – it used to be Bike Route Toaster before their revamp but now I mainly use Ride With GPS. I generally draft, step away, redraft, consult and then prepare a pre recce route.
For Nightrider™ I also start with a clear set of rules for myself:
All on lit, surfaced roads, no bike routes or tow paths
anticlockwise to prioritise left turns
look for the sites – London is the star!
look for the experiences – Canary Wharf, bridge crossings etc
use feedback from previous Nightriders to fettle the route
Riding at night can be dangerous, do you have any top tips?
In the 5 years of Nightrider™ we have had a number of incidents, and in no way are we complacent about this, but with over 1200000km ridden, with many riders in an unfamiliar city and on a frequently challenging route we need to see it in context.
Top tips – it’s a combination of preparation and behaviour for me:
No other road user is going to collide with a fully decorated Christmas tree so make yourself a visible - hi viz for daylight and reflective for night. Black riding clothes at night have always struck me as a curious choice!
Moving reflectors are better than static ones so ankles, pedals (my road pedals have reflective tape on them) and wheels should be considered.
Get trained. Even experienced cyclists ride cannot be complacent, particularly in traffic. When I trained as a National Standard instructor a few years ago it was a real wake up for me about some bad habits I had got into, mainly in terms of road positioning.
Lights – get good ones, and have a backup.
How did you get involved with Classic Tours?
Classic Tours’ first event was a charity bike ride in Israel where I used to live. I saw an ad for it in New Cyclist (a great magazine back in the day) and got in touch with the people who were handling the local arrangements. They were looking for English speaking cyclists, comfortable with leading groups and we were few and far between, so that was my first job. As the company developed and the rides increased I was able to stay involved and started managing events a few years later.
What do you do in your spare time?
Sadly enough, mainly cycling! I love walking as well and am lucky to live close to the Peak District. Definitely watching too much TV and I don’t go to the cinema or theatre as much as I would like. Lots of reading, no gardening.
What bike do you ride?
I am a bit of a curmudgeon, so there’s nothing new in the garage. I sold my tadpole recumbent trike a couple of years ago, so it’s all conventional – a steel KHS Team mountain bike, a steel 1980s Peugeot road bike with mudguards and a rack for close to home and errands (15 euros from the second hand rack outside a Dieppe bike shop that we always find a reason to stop at on the way to Paris!), a steel Ribble road bike (seeing a theme here?) that I use mainly for events, and a Cannondale six13 that I ride for joy – I’ve ridden newer, I’ve ridden lighter and far more expensive, but nothing that puts a smile on my face like a six13.
How do you find the right balance in your life with everything you have to organise?
I’m fairly obsessive, I generally don’t sleep properly for the week or so before Nightrider™. If there are things on my mind with a project I’m working on I find it hard to leave at the end of the day, though it doesn’t help that I work from home! Fortunately we do have low seasons, but May to July this year has been packed, so finding a balance has been difficult. I suppose it’s one of the problems with working in a field connected with a hobby, but it would be impossible to do what we do and not feel passionately about it.
What tips would you give to someone just starting off with their cycling?
Make sure your bike fits. Try to find a good group to ride with (the growth of social cycling clubs has been brilliant). Listen to older Carradice carrying, been-riding-forever CTC cyclists as well as the Carboniferous generation. Go to your local bike shop if you need advice, don’t be scared of doing your own maintenance, and ride, just ride.
Do you have any strange facts about yourself?
I rode across the forecourt of Buckingham Palace when I was a despatch rider, and I was probably one of the first 2 or 3 to wear a helmet.
I was a contestant on one of the first episodes of The Price is Right (my father still uses the tumble drier I won).
Other jobs: cabinet maker, mobile bike shop owner, dairy farmer with responsibility for milking parlour maintenance, and child wrangler for a short lived kids TV programme.
I recently sat in a room with 6 ‘Drs Seligman’ – I was not one of them.
Many thanks to Gideon for a great interview! If anyone wants to take part in Nightrider™ or any other Classic Tours challenge visit www.nightrider.org.uk and www.classictours.co.uk for more information.