From the punishing cross-winds of Essex to the glorious traffic-free roads of the Dutch countryside, Gary Trudgett shares the many highs and few lows of his epic 145-mile cycle from London to the Ajax Arena on our Football to Amsterdam ride last weekend.
My cleat clicks into the pedal and I take my first pedal stroke heading towards the Olympic Park. It's early and the weather has an early morning freshness as I head from my hotel to the velodrome, the starting point of this amazing and epic cycling adventure they call Football to Amsterdam.
The atmosphere and enthusiasm being generated by the 190 riders inside the velodrome is the start of something very special. My head is awash with emotions: excitement, nervousness, curiosity, trepidation… to name but a few!
One of the first people I see inside is Watford, AFC Bournemouth and AC Milan legend Luther Blissett, who instantly shakes my hand and comments on my AFC Bournemouth cycling apparel that SaddleDrunk had made for me. But lined up on the start line, all the riders look resplendent in their team colours.
The first few miles are great fun, with lots of smiles and football team banter occurring regularly as the groups of riders converge at the many sets of traffic lights in East London.
Reaching the first stop after 22 miles, the smiles are still there along with some good-natured encouragement now. After quick refreshments, it's back out into the Essex countryside.
The lunch stop is a little after Chelmsford and sees our numbers swell considerably as Team Ipswich Town arrive. Now we are 250 riders, including ex-England captain and Ipswich Town legend Terry Butcher, cycling his second Football to Amsterdam.
With the grey clouds gathering and the temperature dropping slightly, I'm keen to get back on my bike. So a quick visit to the support truck to replenish my supplies of snacks and energy gels, then I'm back on my bike and heading towards Colchester.
The group becomes a little dispersed on the road, with everyone finding their own pace and speed or riding in groups and teams.
The hardest part of the ride for me personally is the section just before Colchester, where the road passes a reservoir. It's exposed to a vicious cross-wind with a hill that drags on and on into the distance. But once I finally drag myself past the reservoir, I catch up with a group of Ipswich riders and we ride the last few miles to the Colchester United football ground for a well-deserved final water stop.
My Garmin tells me I'll soon be approaching Harwich, so I spot a couple of riders up ahead and speed up enough to catch them and ride the last few miles together to the finishing line. After 83 miles of cycling, day one ends with a warm shower, some hot food and a cold beer or two!
The Hook of Holland is under warm, misty skies for our early morning start. In smaller groups, we ride on flat, smooth tarmac on wide traffic-free lanes – a cyclists dream!
The route dissects the beautiful sand dunes of the fantastic Dutch coastline. When we reach the first water stop at 18 miles, the atmosphere is all smiles and good humour as we're all really enjoying the cycle paths, amazing weather and wonderful scenery.
The big difference I notice on day two is a real togetherness amongst us. It could be because we are now all dressed the same in our black Prostate Cancer UK cycling jerseys, but the banter and good-natured rivalry has lessened now our club colours are gone. Or it may simply be that we're pulling together as a bunch of riders with one common cause. That collective team spirit grew throughout the day to truly epitomise the descriptor Men United.
After lunch, the sights and scenery we encounter over the next 15 miles are breath-taking. We ride past green flat fields littered with windmills, along tree-lined roads and beside beautiful endless canals and lakes.
The pace is slower today as we're held at the last water stop until another 80 riders or so arrive and we can enter Amsterdam in larger groups. Eventually I join around 60 others heading alongside the canal into the city, before our guide stops us about 800 metres from the finish to regroup. Then, as a collective, we ride across the finishing line in front of the magnificent Ajax Arena.
I feel a mixture of really positive emotions passing under the finishing arch: happiness, relief, achievement and pride. A medal is placed around my neck, and congratulations ring in my ears as I slowly dismount. Then it's handshakes and hugs with every rider in my close proximity.
After a couple of pictures, it's out with the smart phone to update social media and text my family, before a glass of champagne is handed to me to celebrate riding 145 miles from London to Amsterdam for Prostate Cancer UK.
A truly awesome challenge that I can only describe in two words: epic and unforgettable.