Inspiring cyclists: Harri Symes, Thighs of Steel

Photo of Harri Symes on her bike

We meet the first of our ‘heroes on wheels’ – Londoners who use their bikes to do brilliant things – Harri Symes, founder of Thighs of Steel, an epic charity cycle which spans seven weeks, thousands of miles and a LOT of inclines to raise funds for refugee centre Khora.

What is Thighs of Steel?
Thighs of Steel is a relay cycle ride from London to Athens. Every cyclist who comes on board chooses a week to join the seven-week ride, and fundraises for a refugee community centre in Athens, called Khora. Their centre provides not only basic needs such as free nutritious food, warm clothing and dental care, but also social needs such as education, childcare, access to information and a safe space to build relationships and relax. Last year we aimed to raise £20,000 for them, and actually actually managed to raise £48,000 – enough to pay for the rent and electricity of their seven-storey building for the entire year. This year we’re setting our target at £40,000, with all the money fundraised going directly to Khora, and none of it on the cycle.

How did it come about?
The idea for Thighs of Steel came after a (pitifully short) ten-day trip to the Calais refugee camp, where I spent most of my time feeling generally useless and unsure of how to make a difference. I realised that the grassroots response to the refugee crisis would be more powerful if small groups supported each other, so I set about trying to create a project that financially supported a small, well-functioning grassroots organisation. The bizarre part was working out how to use my random interests and skills – cycling, adventure and organising – to do this, but it seems to have worked out alright!

Thighs of Steel cyclists on the road

What kind of person does the ride attract?
The ride attracts people who generally come for three reasons: they love cycling, they love adventure, and they want to support refugees. Each person is pulled by one of these factors more than the others, which means that we have an amazing and diverse, interesting group.

Tell us about this year’s route
People join or leave the trip in these cities along our route: London, Paris, Lyon, Milan, Trieste, Dubrovnik, Igoumenitsa and Athens. We’re crossing the Alps via the Col du Mont Cenis, so we’re expecting a lot of beautiful views and any kind of weather. Last year we had sunshine and tailwinds, so we have fingers and toes crossed for a second year of the weather being our friend. We still have two spaces left for people to join us for the Alps week, so if you’re feeling brave, join us! (Applications close 30 May.)

We then wiggle our way along the foothills of the Alps towards Slovenia, then down through Croatia and into Montenegro and Albania. This is where the adventure really kicks in in full force… Wild dogs, camping in abandoned war bunkers, lots of dips in the Adriatic to cool down and cycling through empty, beautiful landscapes are all on our list of things to expect.

The last leg through Greece will be arid and beautiful. We’ll be joined by a few of the volunteers at Khora so we can hear stories of the centre’s progress as we pant our way towards our final destination!

Thighs of steel cyclists on the road

Any highlights from last year?
The sheer amount of generosity we received from strangers. Most of our accommodation isn’t planned, so each morning whoever is driving the van goes ahead with the mission of wooing a farmer or landowner into allowing us to camp on their land, using our non-existent Italian/Greek/charades. Week after week we were welcomed into people’s homes/fields, cooked for, were told stories of the area, and vice versa (although once people knew we were from England they generally didn’t want us to cook for them). Europe has a dot-to-dot trail of generous hosts in my mind now. Our route is different this year, so I’m hoping to meet just as many lovely people… This year we’ll come prepared with presents.

And what’s the most challenging part of the cycle?
I think everyone had one thing that proved the most challenging aspect for them. Most people found the cycling the main challenge – conquering the hills and distances and chafing. But for others, the unpredictability and adventurous aspects can be challenging: not knowing where you will sleep that night, or even exactly how long you will be cycling that day. Personally, I found the endurance needed for a six-week trip pretty taxing; I had to sleep for about a month afterwards…

What kind of kit do you need?
We’re of the mindset that you don’t need all the fancy equipment on offer and the newest bike around, so what ‘necessities’ are fairly limited: a bike that works (we give guidance on what sort of bike e.g. road bike = great, tricycle = not so great), a helmet and some clothes. We strongly recommend a few other bits and pieces, like cycling shorts and cycling tops, but nothing else is essential.

What training do you do beforehand?
We’ve been doing monthly training rides from London to get our thighs limbered up – last weekend we did 100km from Crystal Palace to Whitstable. Everyone’s welcome (free, of course), so do drop us a line at hello@thighsofsteel.com to find out about the next. There have been lots of other rides in and outside of England too; I’ve been living in Athens so I’ve done a couple of big climbs – it seems you only have to cycle 20km before you start climbing up to 1000m!

Where can we hear more?
We decided that we’d like to start our trip with some noise about the refugee crisis, so on Sunday May 14 we’re going to have a mass cycle through London – Critical Mass style – with the message ‘Refugees Welcome’. We’d love everyone to join! There’ll be music and food afterwards so expect to have fun and meet great people. We’re finalising the details now, so stay tuned to our FacebookInstagram or blog to find out more.

You can read more about Thighs of Steel, and meet the cyclists, on their website – and if you can’t join them, you can still support the cause by donating here.

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