Ronnie Russell takes on Cuban Challenge

Former Isle of Man Centre road race champion Ronnie Russell embarks on a trip to Cuba next week. It will mark the culmination of what has been 10 months of fund raising and training for a 250 mile Global Charity Challenge cycle ride across the communist-run Caribbean island.

He leaves the Island next Thursday, October 18, and will be in Cuba for 10 days, during which time he hopes to cover between 40 and 70 miles a day on a hybrid bicycle supplied by the organisers of the event. It is being staged to raise money and awareness for the National Deaf Children's Society (NDCS), which he says will find its way back to the Island via a whole spectrum of things including parental support, teacher training and the purchase of special aids for children. Ronnie, now 46, was one of the Island's leading road racers in the 1970s, but his ambitions were brought to a sudden and painful halt when he crashed heavily at Hillberry during practice for the 1979 Manx Grand Prix.

He certainly had a chequered career in road racing and his somewhat flamboyant riding style led to no fewer than four crashes in just five years of racing on the Mountain Circuit. Third in the 1977 Junior behind Kev Riley and Ron Jones, Ronnie had been hotly tipped for top honours in 1979 and received the backing of well known Ulster sponsor Hector Neill on the RG500 Joey Dunlop had ridden in the same year s TT. Ronnie made what was a virtually fatal error or judgement at the flat out right hander in the first evening practice and his right leg was virtually ripped clean off as he thumped the hedge on the apex.

The surgeons at Noble's hospital were sure the leg would have to be amputated, but Ronnie and his family pleaded with them not to. Amazingly, he was back riding a motorbike within 12 months, but he never raced again and lost virtually all mobility in it. Over the years he has undergone numerous operations and has half an artificial joint in the right knee. But he has persevered well with the leg and has used the extensive training for the Cuba trip to help build up the strength and mobility of the severely damaged limb.

'I read about the Cuba trip in a national newspaper just after Christmas and thought I'd like to do it, so here I am,' said Ronnie after completing his solo ride in the recent Shoprite Challenge. Ronnie was well satisfied with his time of 2 hours 16 minutes for his first official cycle event over the TT course. He was placed 13th overall, in among the teams who participated, ironically the same position he finished in his Manx Grand Prix debut in 1975. 'I also crashed that day,' remembers Ronnie ruefully. 'It was misty on the mountain and I ran wide at Windy Corner and fell off on the first lap. I got back on and semi-toured back to the pits where I was going to retire.

'But then I saw the look of thunder on sponsor Des Collins' face and thought I'd better straighten the clip-on and get back out there. I was glad I did as I won the newcomers' award in the Junior in the years just prior to there being a separate Newcomers race.' Ronnie's times for what were six-lap MGP races in those days were not far off the same he took for one lap of the same course in the Shoprite Challenge under his own steam.

He is certainly taking the Cuba challenge seriously and has been putting in up to 100 miles a week over the past few months to prepare him for the 250 mile ride in what should be pretty hot and humid conditions. 'To be honest I'm not quite sure what to expect in Cuba,' he adds, 'but I'm certainly looking forward to it.' He had to raise a minimum of £2,500 for NDCS, but in the event has more than doubled that sum. Ronnie initially sent out about 300 letters to various local companies, and says he has received a favourable response.

'Everyone has been very generous, from family and friends to work colleagues, supermarkets and several companies in the local finance sector. I'm hoping to raise around £6,000 in total.' An engineer with the Manx Electric Railway, Ronnie s employers generously allowed him to have him the free use of a tram to Laxey one evening earlier in the summer. Once there, he and friends went around the pubs fund raising. 'I'd like to thank everyone who has helped me in whatever way, but most of all I must express a big thank you to my wife Helen and our children Kirsty and William who have been most supportive over the past few months.'

John Watterson

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