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Correspondent&#39s week

I was delighted to be asked to take part in a Tour de France-style cycling challenge to raise money for disadvantaged children. That the challenge covered 540 miles did not deter me. That the route ran from Nashville to New Orleans, home of country and western to home of jazz, was an added bonus.

Ten months after agreeing to take part, I arrived at Heathrow to join the challenge team, made up of 30-plus Zurich colleagues, friends and family.

With Hurricane Lily looming, any concerns we might have had about cycling 540 miles in six days were replaced with a very real fear that we might not actually make it to the US.

Like me, each member of the team had spent the previous 10 months in training and raising funds to help disadvantaged children and young people in the UK lead more independent lives. The thought that our training would go to waste was a minor consideration as, between us, we had £80,000 worth of pledges and we were all determined that we should complete our sponsored challenge to liberate that money for charity.

On arrival in Nashville, we were greeted by blue skies and sunshine. No sign of a hurricane. The challenge was on.

Our 540-mile route followed the Natchez Trace, a linear national park, in most places stretching no more than 100 yards on either side of the road. Gently rolling slopes gave way to some tough hills as the route weaved through the foothills of the Appalachian mountains (made famous in the Deliverance movie). We pedalled through farmland and pastures, swamps and creeks and finally subtropical vegetation, with towering pine trees saluting our descent to Natchez.

We might have endured a fitful first night&#39s sleep following our flight, with body clocks scattered across several time zones, but we were all up bright and early the first morning to be kitted out with bikes and helmets before posing for team photographs. Then we were off.

A gentle 66 miles later and we were finished for the day. Totally finished. Thank goodness for gel saddles and Vaseline. A cold beer and we were all resigned to walking like John Wayne for the rest of the day, if not week.

On days two and three, the route was one big tree canopy, home to many creatures (the majority seemed to be flattened on the road). We saw several sections of the original trail, including Indian burial mounds, hinting at the history of the area, although I have to confess that our group were more interested in the many Harley Davidsons that cruised past with their riders offering high fives.

By day four, we were ready to up the pace. Despite injuries and a change in the weather, we were ready to face the biggest test of our stamina, cycling more than 100 miles. We crossed the Tennessee river en route to the Mississippi state line, passing swamps and cotton fields before reaching Tupelo, birthplace of Elvis Presley. The day we had all dreaded turned out to be a day to celebrate milestones and achievements.

The final day was incident-strewn. We had a close brush with one of America&#39s four poisonous snakes – a five-foot copperhead, and our support truck got stuck in the mud. Thankfully, we managed to flag down a local and, despite any reservations the driver might have had about bright-coloured, Lycra-clad Brits, his 7.2-stroke diesel engine winched us clear in seconds.

Our final hurdle was a three-mile off-road route, leaving us filthy with orange mud, before we cruised the final 16 miles into Natchez town to be greeted by stunning views of the Mississippi river. The Big Lady looked awesome and our celebrations marked the end of the Cycle Challenge and a fantastic £80,000 donation to charity. A success for the disadvantaged.

Ramon Puig is a senior consultant at Zurich Advice Network

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