Do you know Charlie Webster (right)? Earlier this year, she ran 250 miles in 7 days to raise awareness and well over £100k for national domestic violence charity Women’s Aid. Born in Sheffield, Charlie ran for England as a teenager, has presented the Olympics and Wimbledon, fronted Sky Sports, and seriously considered boxing professionally.

She’s a busy woman. But until last weekend, she wasn’t a cyclist. Not really.

Earlier this year, Charlie was one of a handful of women to sign up to cycle the first 3 stages of the Tour de Force, an iconic charity event in aid of the William Wates Memorial Trust, which covers the entire route of the Tour de France one week before the pros come whizzing through.

She was delighted for VeloVixen to kit her out for the Tour with some of our (and now her) favourite gear.

Tour de Force: Stage 1

70 of us pedalled tentatively out of a grey Leeds at 7.30 on Saturday morning. Nearly 600km lay ahead of us over the next 3 days. Normally, the Tour de France organisers break the riders in gently. Not this year.

It became clear that this was going to be a proper challenge for Charlie when she confessed after a few hundred yards that she’d never ridden this bike before. Her sponsored bike hadn’t arrived in time, so they’d lent her this one. Nor had she ever ridden more than 120km before. Today was down as 205km. Ah.

We hit a reasonable early pace through stunning, bleak Yorkshire scenery all the morning, riding in a small group. Villages were bedecked in Tour de France yellow and King of the Mountains red polka dots, and yellow bikes hung in every farmyard.

Yorkshire was spoiling us. Spirits were high.

But just before lunch came the ‘Cote de Buttertubs’ – a notorious climb in those parts that reaches a thigh-burning 17% gradient in places. Battling with capricious gears, Charlie ground her way up to our lunch stop at a barren spot overlooking the Dales. And was immediately engulfed by some of the charity’s 10-year old beneficiaries who’d come out to support us.

Shivering, we swooped on, up and down Dales, but by the next steep climb – a little beyond 120km – she hit a wall.

We’d been on the bikes for over 6 hours and she was shot.

Slumped by the road with her head spinning, it looked for all the world like an early exit. Fortunately, a support van came past and was able to concoct a cocktail to revitalise her: Coke, cake, flapjacks and loads of water.

15 minutes later and rehydrated, the two of us pressed on over mercifully less hilly terrain, counting down the kilometres to the final feed station. And then doing the same to the Harrogate hotel where we arrived exactly 12 hours after setting off.

Dishevelled, hurting all over, and cursing her misfiring gears, she resolutely kept on smiling. But was it through gritted teeth? Stage 2 tomorrow would be an even tougher day, we were told at our briefing.

The third hardest, in fact, of the entire 2014 Tour de France.

What Charlie Learned on Tour:

  • If you sign up to an event with the right attitude (and preferably some Yorkshire grit!) nothing is impossible
  • Don’t be put off entering events through lack of experience, provided you’re in decent shape
  • Eat and drink plenty to avoid hitting that ‘wall’
  • Take all the good advice going
  • Stay positive and ride with people
  • If the going gets tough, think Yorkshire Grit!
  • Wear your kit from VeloVixen with pride

Tour de Force - Stage 2

A 5am alarm call followed by a bus transfer to York didn’t exactly help morale. And by the time Charlie came in to Feed Station 1 on this second stage, 40 flat but blustery kilometres seemed to have taken their toll.

We delayed a few minutes whilst a physio applied tape and massage to her worst pain centres. Already the clock was ticking on a marathon day.

A group of 7 of us formed and resolved to help each other through the remaining 170km of seemingly endless undulations.

And this was when Charlie’s metamorphosis began. Charlie wasn’t going to take this lying down. Especially not as one of a minority of women in the event!

By the middle of the day, she wasn’t arriving last at feed stations. Not by a long chalk.

Charlie was focusing on eating and drinking plenty today, and soaking up advice from the more experienced riders and support crew around her like a kind of cycling sponge. Spurred on by scenery that will see Yorkshire swelling with pride when the pros come through, she’d got to grips with her bike and was rapidly getting to grips with the hills.

And the team was working together, spurring each other on. We would regather and encourage one another at the top of each climb – which meant plenty of opportunities for regathering! After all, this was a day of 9 ‘categorised’ climbs, the most of any day on the entire Tour – and plenty more stealthy uncategorised ones besides.

It was genuinely inspirational to watch Charlie improving hour by hour.

Our team for Stage 2 – top of Holme Moss (Charlie centre, VV’s Phil 2nd left)

As the afternoon wound on, we reached the Cote de Holme Moss, a zigzagging ‘Cat 2′ climb that’s both the highest and toughest in the 2014 UK stages. Pushing hard, I reached the top ahead of the others, followed by Todd the Aussie, but then – not 5 minutes behind – who was this?

It was only Charlie Webster.

She’d nailed a climb that will have the peloton struggling, and was laughing as she reached the top. ‘Seriously, I don’t know how I just did that’, she smiled, with a panoramic sweep of Yorkshire behind her. The Red Arrows swept by in the distance as if to mark the occasion. Charlie had become a cyclist.

The rest of Stage 2 was increasingly demanding, climbs ramping up to 20% in places and light dropping. The kind of gradient where your back wheel can spin and your front lift off the ground as you wrestle with the bike.

We gathered in a couple more riders who needed the camaraderie we’d created. We were all going to finish this stage, no matter what.

Cruellest of all were those last 20km through Sheffield. Hometown girl Charlie knew these streets well and also knew the horrors of Jenkin Road – the ‘Col de Jenkin': a street so steep that pedestrians use a handrail. At one corner it hits 32% gradient.

But we made it. And Charlie came up in style.

We got to our hotel at 10.15pm, in near pitch darkness, fully 14 hours since setting off. We were all still smiling and there were hugs all round. Camaraderie had pulled us through.

Tour de Force – Stage 3

The next morning, after 4 hours sleep, and an equally long bus transfer to Cambridge, none of us knew how or if our legs would work. Charlie, especially, had been worked on into the night by the team masseuses so had had even less sleep than the rest of us.

But she wasn’t done yet. The sun was shining. And today she was a cyclist. No question. All 70 of us wove our way across the flats of Cambridgeshire as a peloton, with Charlie riding like she was born to it. After an idyllic sunsoaked food stop for the peloton in Dunmow, she and I joined our German friend Ingor in a mini-group.

But hang on – suddenly the two of them were pulling away, riding technically together, and I didn’t have the legs to keep pace. I dropped off the back. Charlie had broken me.

I picked up another group of 11 strong riders and we drafted together – 2 minutes at the front, 22 minutes rest behind.

But when we pulled into our lunch stop, we still hadn’t passed Ingor and Charlie. I was a little worried.

The previous day’s team spirit had been so strong, I hated the idea they might be struggling. Had they had a mechanical problem? A puncture? A coffee?

Oh ye of little faith. There they were, already into their lunch by the time we arrived. Learning from Ingor with every pedal turn, Charlie had blitzed it.

After lunch, it was a trafficky push to the Olympic Park and then The Mall. As we pedalled down Birdcage Walk, 200m short of the finish line, the heavens opened. It was almost like the gods were a little sad it was all over.

‘I just want to keep going’, said Charlie, beaming.

A cyclist is born! Charlie Webster reaches London, soggy but exhilarated

Then it was on to see off the amazing ‘lifers’ as they headed to France to cycle the remaining 18 stages. We were all buzzing, and drowning in endorphins.

As they were about to leave, Charlie leaned over to Sarah Perry, Tour de Force organiser. ‘Sarah – I’ve loved it! Can I sign up for the whole thing next year?!’

True VeloVixens – Charlie with Liz at the finishing pub

I swallowed hard. It was an emotional moment. It had been truly humbling and inspiring to see Charlie go from relative beginner to flly fledged cyclist in just 3 exhilarating days. She’d been determined not to be beaten by it and had come through dark moments. She had discovered the joys of cycling.

Hell, she’s even added ‘cycle’ into her Twitter description. Not bad for a runner.

We kitted Charlie out in some of our most desirable road cycling kit, from Café du Cycliste, Sugoi, Vulpine and Primal.