My sister: Fran to almost everybody, France to me, Frances by birth - has always looked after me. Pretty sure it's not supposed to be that way although with us it always has been, possibly since the moment she picked a fight with a boy who was older than me who had punched me in the face. I was eight, France was six.
For my 40th birthday she organised a surprise birthday lunch, with some of my oldest and dearest friends turning up, which is no mean feat as my birthday is January 4th so everybody is a bit over it by that point. France still managed to rope them all in. Not only that, she turned her home into a restaurant, more like a hotel that had a bar and a restaurant, there were waiters and waitresses, amazing chefs, very surreal.
That whole day is another story though, this is about what her gift to me was, and only she could think necessary after creating such a mind-blowing actual birthday lunch/party.
She gave me an envelope, and within it were tickets for the two of us to go to Hong Kong in style, with rooms at the Mandarin Oriental awaiting us. I'm rarely speechless. It left me dumbfounded.
Hong Kong had been my home, it had also been the place I'd missed the most in the world for many years, especially those early, lonely years as a professional cyclist. I'd come to the conclusion quite early on that I was better off avoiding it, not because it was bad, but because it was so wonderfully good, and because of that decision I'd missed much of what had happened with everybody and everything I knew from there over time. Well, that and the fact I don't do Facebook. Hong Kong had become a fading memory, and I think my sister decided it would be good for me to revisit and remind myself of where I come from.
She had organised it with my wife, Nicole, to the degree that she knew my schedule and made sure that it was kept clear. When I found my voice after opening the envelope the first thing I did was look at Nicole and ask, "I can go?"
"Of course you can go!" She rolled her eyes, "I helped plan it, you idiot."
And that was that, six weeks later I was running through Heathrow to meet France (already in T5 at the Seafood Bar) in an attempt to make sure I didn't lose a single moment of it all.
The next three nights are somewhat of a blur, yet somehow similarly embedded permanently in my mind. As soon as we had our baggage and we were out of the airport in search of our car we both knew it was right, we hadn't been back in years, and Hong Kong being what it is, everything had changed, although everything remained reassuringly familiar.
We checked into the Mandarin Oriental, the definitive HK hotel for us, and went to our adjacent rooms. Everything about the MOHK (that's the acronym we'll use from now on) is mid 20th century colonial with a good dose of modern hotelier know-how with an ever present yet subtle fragrance of Ginger Flower (I had to ask an old school friend this as I had no idea). Like kids we checked each other's rooms out before agreeing to be ready in 15 minutes to head down to the Captain's Bar.
There we ordered two of their finest Japanese lagers which obviously arrived in beautiful silver tankards, and got talking to a guy sat at the bar who said he only turned right into his hotel suites as everything felt wrong if he went left, and that he has very sensitive skin, so much so that when he first visited the MOHK after its refit he came out in a rash after using their soap so had them change it to Hermes. I will repeat that: he had the MOHK change every single toiletry in the entire hotel to Hermes.
Moments later my best friend from school, Ruggero Nardone, appeared laden with gifts for my children. Which made me feel terrible because I'd tried and failed to find something for his two little girls in Heathrow while France was on the phone at the Seafood Bar, even after Nicole had repeatedly told me to make sure I didn't see him empty handed. So that wasn't cool, and I still feel terrible about it.
We then headed out, France had procured the most amazing list of places to go from a friend of hers, James Ward, a big hitter at 21st Century Fox. James became an invisible friend to us, if we hesitated on any decision we would simply look at each other and say, "The List." I have, for posterity, although knowing HK it will be out of date soon (which makes it even more impressive that James could compile such a comprehensive zeitgeist list) replicated it in our TRAVEL section. You're welcome, enjoy having James Ward as your ghost friend if you ever go to Hong Kong.
The List took us to many places, although perhaps the most memorable was our second night. James had booked us a table at The China Club, a member's club atop the old Bank of China building. I like to imagine it's what 1930s Shanghai was like, only with an extremely subtle 21st century feel. Ruggero with his wife, Margaret, and his sister Rachele, and our old partner in crime from school, Shelley, and one of my favourite and most important teachers from KGV, my HK school, was there, the legendary Mr Charlie Riding. It was a proper reunion, one that I'd not had in over a decade.
After The China Club we ended up in Dragon Eye where more old friends turned up, one of them being Tsewang, a crazy, yet incredibly well connected and kind, Nepalese chap. He was wearing an afro wig, and when the place got police raided and you could hear a pin drop as they turned everything off and demanded total silence Tsewang just carried on like it was still PARTY TIME. So he and Ruggero got thrown out, although Tsewang being Tsewang meant they were back in the moment the police opened everything up again. Rob Gitelis, the owner of Factor Bikes, was there. He'd flown over from Taiwan to hand deliver my bike, a bike that I was going to ride up The Peak first thing on Sunday morning, something even Rob said seemed like an incredibly stupid decision on my part.
The next day France and I did exactly what we did the previous day, nothing until 5pm. We had decided to stay on European time, which to be perfectly frank makes no difference in HK as it's 24hrs anyway so it's not as if there is ever FOMO. We decided we should go over to Kowloon side and find somewhere with a view of HK island, the view I had so loved and grown up with, having spent the vast majority of my time in Kowloon or the New Territories. We met up with Shelley again after dinner (Ruggero was taking a night off) and stayed up to the wee hours, as Rob predicted, getting up in the morning to meet a group to ride up The Peak suddenly didn't feel like the best decision I'd ever made.
I did it though, and although I wasn't at my best I'm glad I did, the roads were quiet and the group was entirely made up of locals, no expats, which made it even better as it felt like the old days when I used to ride and race there. I met a guy called Nathan who owned a Factor x CHPT3 so we got a load of photos, and most importantly I got the photo I most wanted, of me atop The Peak in my CHPT3 kit, JJ'd up (didn't need anything else apart that and a LSWBL to ride both up and down, #witchcraft) with my CHPT3 bike. It was weird sitting up there thinking that 25 years before I'd done my first ever road race in Victoria Park, wearing a PDM jersey, on an unbranded road bike using my mountain bike shoes and pedals. It felt a lot more than 25 years.
I somehow made it back to the hotel in sort of one piece, then France and I prepared ourselves for our last escapade: brunch, like many expat places these days it has become a "thing". Fortunately we went to a civilised one at the W Hotel, Veuve Cliquot in constant flow, and a buffet on Henry VIII calibre. Ruggero and Margaret were there and other friends from school days. It was a good send off, although we weren't quite done, Ruggero, Shelley, France and I carried on. And one by one they left, the penultimate being Shelley, then last, Ruggero, just as it had been 22 years before, and before we knew it France and I we were on our way back to the airport and leaving Hong Kong behind once more. Only this time, unlike every other time before there was only a little sadness, because for the first time I knew a part of me would always be there.