Can you hear that loud, rumbling sound in the distance? It’s not thunder. It’s the The Heavy Metal Truants reconvening on their annual charity cycle challenge.
Founded by ex-Metal Hammer editor-in-chief Alexander Milas and Iron Maiden manager Rod Smallwood, the group – comprised of various representatives of the music industry and fans themselves – began their three-day, 150-mile trek from London’s Alexandra Palace to Download Festival on Tuesday, June 6.
The challenge has raised over £1M to date for four children charities: Teenage Cancer Trust, Nordoff Robbins, Childline, and Save The Children.
Ahead of the ride, Download Festival and The Heavy Metal Truants have also announced the launch of the Download 20 Auction to coincide with Download Festival’s 20th anniversary. The historic event will see the last 20 years of legendary Download headliners contributing to a collection of unique and rare memorabilia which will be auctioned off to support four children’s charities.
The online auction, which has already been promised special items from Avenged Sevenfold, Bring Me The Horizon, David Coverdale, Iron Maiden, Metallica, Muse and System Of A Down among others, will go live on Thursday June 29 and remain online for one week. Entries will close on Thursday July 6 at midnight, UK time.
Winners will be announced for each item the following week, with proceeds going to the Heavy Metal Truants four chosen charities: Teenage Cancer Trust, Nordoff And Robbins Music Therapy, Childline, and Save The Children.
Here, Phantom Management’s Dave Shack and Helen Curl, plus founder Alexander Milas talk heavy metal, raising money, industry engagement and what it feels like to finally cross the finish line…
Last year was the 10th Heavy Metal Truants pilgrimage to Download – what did it feel like to reach that milestone?
Dave Shack: “It did feel that bit more special. I remember being in Morocco on the Truants ride when Rod and Alex conceived the Heavy Metal Chapter! I’ve done all but the first ride, so to ride with so many great people has been a privilege. There’s never been anyone who wasn’t a top person in the Heavy Metal Truants – well, maybe just one actually but that’s another story and he didn’t last more than one ride! And that speaks volumes about the metal/rock fraternity and how generous of spirit and time they are. Seeing the charities benefit from it is a teary annual reminder and the fact that the mothership is now a bona fide foundation is a source of immense personal pride.”
If you have staff that likes cycling, rock music or giving themselves a hard but achievable challenge, then here we are!
Dave Shack, Phantom Management
Alex Milas: “It was emotional! It's impossible not to feel like you're literally bursting with pride. I never knew it'd become a true calling, and the friendships you make along the way are their own reward. Every year I get teary-eyed when we get near enough to see the outskirts of the festival. It's this overwhelming feeling of, 'I can't believe we just did that,' but there's never much time to take stock, you've got to keep looking forward. Yeah, we've made it to ten years. How are we going to reach year 20? A million pounds? Great. How are we going to get to 10? That isn't to diminish our achievements, but you've got to keep your foot on the gas. You don't visit Teenage Cancer Trust's ward on Gower Street, or see the incredible work Nordoff And Robbins do to transform lives with music therapy, or hear how Childline's work spiked over the pandemic, or see the conditions in the conflict areas that Save the Children operate in every single day, and think, 'We've done enough.' It's, 'What's next?' Our first decade's been a true adventure, but we accept no limits on what we can achieve. One thing I'm extremely proud of is that when we had to cancel our physical ride to Download during the pandemic, we did a virtual one instead. At the start we wondered if people would have anything to give amid all that chaos. That year we doubled our biggest year to date. That's special.”
Helen Curl: “I took over organising the Heavy Metal Truants in year four and to still be going at year 10 and then into 11 this year was such a highlight of my life – I feel like a modern day Robin Hood! Although the ride has stayed the same logistically throughout that time, it’s amazing what we’ve done behind the scenes to raise more money. It started off as a fun thing for Rod, Alex and friends to do to raise money for children’s charities in the UK, now we're a fully-fledged official foundation! We’ve added Save The Children International to our list of beneficiaries, making it truly global, plus virtual challenges so people all over the world can join the Heavy Metal Truants family. We hit the one million pounds donated mark last year and we’re nowhere near stopping! There are plans afoot to make this bigger and raise more money than ever before. It’s all about the future generation.”
How successful was last year? And what are your targets for going into the 11th ride – both in terms of money to be raised and also riders to recruit?
AM: “Last year was really fantastic, we reached a massive monetary target of £160,000, but it said something about our longevity, too. In some sense the pandemic forced us to evolve: we couldn't do our physical ride during lockdown, and so with just six weeks’ notice we invented a way for Heavy Metal Truants to join us no matter where they were virtually. That digital component's still going strong and I see it as a huge opportunity for us. We've also got the Download 20 auction coming up which is going to be pretty epic – the generosity of the headliners has been remarkable and we've got some genuine museum pieces going in. I'm jealous of whoever gets them! We always settle on around 30 physical riders to Download as it's a manageable number and it's quite a precise operation to do that safely, but there's no upper limit on how many virtual walkers, runners, and cyclists we can have along.”
HC: “Year 10 was truly remarkable. It wasn’t easy though. The fall out of Covid meant that people had charity fatigue. The war in Ukraine started and it was tough to get the donations in. It was important for us to show what the charities do with the money we donate. Teenagers were still getting cancer and having their lives torn apart by the disease. So we pushed and pushed and our amazing riders pulled it out of the bag! Every single one of them can be proud of what they achieved. And then we start again! As soon as we announced how much we’d made back in November, the sign-ups for 11 started – you think we take a break? Hell no! This is an all year round endeavour! This year, we’ve changed the route to make it different. We’re heading to the dizzing heights of Milton Keynes on our first night on the physical ride. People started knowing the old route too well and were seeing it in their sleep…. We’ve got loads of new riders doing it for the first time and obviously we carry on with the virtual challenges for those not able to make it to Download. As far as the money target is concerned, we push as hard as we can to raise as much as we can. There isn’t a target in our heads, although it is nice to be able to beat previous years. With the cost of living crisis, we know it will be tough again. But we do what we do for the kids. They’re what’s important in all of this.”
What is your message for the music industry?
DS: “The message to the industry is that we all continue to support worthy causes – and the industry is fantastic at that – for the privilege of being able to work in something most of us love. Please look at our offering. If you have staff that likes cycling or rock music or giving themselves a hard but achievable challenge for the benefit of others, then here we are – fully inclusive, not at all scary and guaranteed to make you feel like you have achieved something very special as you pedal into the waiting arms of Mr Andy Copping backstage at Download! Bizarrely, they’re always peeling onions at the same time…”
Heavy Metal Truants started off as a fun thing to do to raise money for children’s charities in the UK, now we're a fully-fledged official foundation!
Helen Curl, Phantom Management
AM: “If there's one thing everyone can agree on it's that kids are the future. All of our charities support kids and young people, and it's hard not to be taken by the remarkable work they all do when you see it up close, and the people working there are just utterly inspirational people. It's incredibly motivating. If you're in the industry, send a rider, sponsor a rider, donate to our fundraiser, or get in touch if you have an idea about how you can help. We've enjoyed enormous support from across the spectrum, and a lot happens behind the scenes and there really are some angels out there, and it's important to say: Andy Copping at Download has supported us unswervingly from day one. With a festival like Download to run that's pretty special – he's always got time for us.”
HC: “Hola musos! Think us metal lot are a bunch of long haired, bearded Vikings!? Well, you may be right on most of that, but we’re also generous and brave and loyal. Come join us- see what it’s all about. Get that lycra on! Dig deep in those pockets! Make a fuking difference. Each charity has their own unique area that they work in. Nordoff And Robbins are obviously close to many musicians’ hearts as music is what keeps us all going. To use this to bring out the personalities of kids with autism or other physical disorders – even adults with dementia – it’s truly inspirational. You can see the spark of life in the eyes when music is played. It touches something deep within our souls that medication can’t reach. We sent a few of our top fundraisers to see a therapy session taking place and not one of them came out with dry eyes. They knew why they do this and why we carry on year on year.”
What does the Truants' success say about the metal community in the UK?
AM: “Heavy Metal Truants is a global community – we've had people join us physically and virtually from all over the world, and I think it isn't just about the fundraising: it's a positive message about what a community can do, and it definitely surprises people who still think of metal and conjure the typical stereotype. Along with a slew of artists and major music industry moves and shakers we've got bankers, lawyers, astrophysicists, you name it. I really love that.”
DS: “Personally, I think the longevity says a lot, but it is a big commitment in time when a lot of the industry is tied up in the more normal ways of making the pilgrimage to the festival. Metal fans have massive hearts but, like most people, they are sentiment rich but time poor. It’s then up to them to be creative with donations for the Massive Rock auctions we do – because they really raise money. The regular support of Whitesnake, Kiss and Metallica is well documented with items or hard cash and I know Rod is proud with how Maiden always come up with something unique such as lyrics, album artefacts etc., so maybe we could encourage fans to donate that signed tour programme from AC/DC with Bon Scott or the Dio signed album they have stored in the loft for years that we could auction. Or just buy a Truants shirt or Hoodie. It’s been a thrill to ride with members of Saxon, Priest, Orange Goblin.”
HC: “Ah, metal, the second love of my life – behind my cats! I remember when I was 19 and working for a particular sparkling apple juice company, we would go to festivals and hand out samples from these massive packs on our backs. I was apprehensive of going to Download, despite having loved the music from a young age. Why? Scary looking people! I stayed near our backstage area for most of the morning, until a 6 foot 2” goth, with full KISS makeup, long black velvet trenchcoat, top hat and cane approached me. As a 5’0, young female, I was initially wary… He stood right in front of me holding his cane with a skull top pointing to my backpack and said, ‘Excuse me young lady, so sorry to bother you, might I perchance taste some of that lovely cider, please?’ He was so polite, respectful, gallant and chivalrous. That moment stuck with me and from then on, I was no longer afraid of the crowd. It ended up being the most wonderful experience with the nicest people on planet earth! That’s what the metal community is. The Heavy Metal Truants band together. They support each other. They lift each other up. There’s no egos or judgement. We’re a team. We always say, it’s not a race. We go with the slowest rider and we stick together. The friendships have been forged in hell and remain strong. It’s a beautiful community that I’m proud to be a part of.”
Our first decade's been a true adventure, but we accept no limits on what we can achieve
Alexander Milas, Heavy Metal Truants
Most importantly: does that three-day, 150-mile trek from London’s Alexandra Palace to Download ever get easier with practice? Or are your legs always on fire by the time you see the festival site come into view…
DS: “It doesn’t ever get easier but to correct you, when you see that festival site you get the tear in your eye and then freewheel downhill for a while so the fire has pretty much gone by then! Saddle soreness at 7 or 8 am on day two as you push through some horrible roundabouts and a dual carriageway is always the bit I hate the most. Mind over matter and a good metal playlist on your speaker is all you have at that time!”
AM: “There's no way around it: it's a tough ride and no matter how many times you've done it there are some hills you just try to put out of your mind because it's punishing. We've done it in extreme heat, one year we did it in record-breaking storms, but the thing you've got to remember is we're always smiling through it all. It's a mix of delirium and disbelief, like, 'What on Earth are we doing?' And also great pride. It's rare in life you get an unambiguous indicator of achievement: a lot of us do work with abstract targets and marketing speak. Being able to say, 'I conquered that hill,' or look at a map and say, 'I covered that distance on a bike,' or indeed to see a charity changing the lives of kids and think, 'I helped that happen,' – that's very special. I always say it to people: do Heavy Metal Truants, and no matter what else happens in your life, you'll know you've done some good in the world. That's a special feeling. It's addictive.”
HC: “This is a difficult question for me to answer as I’ve never done the actual ride. I’ve done other Truants rides in Mexico, India, Vietnam, Scotland and Argentina, but HMT is another beast altogether! I did the virtual challenge on an exercise bike in Year 9 and that was hard enough, but the physical challenge to Download is my Everest. I’m highly allergic to hills. If I see one in the distance, my legs refuse to move! Hence, I join the gang at Leicester and ride with the medical team to Download. There’s also a lot of admin to be done during the days, so someone has to stay behind and keep an eye on the emails! I’ve taken that mantle on as a volunteer for five years, and now as an official employee of the Truants Foundation. But seeing the joy on the riders faces as they hit the Purple Gate and see the finish line makes all the pain totally worth it! And knowing that they’re raising a shedload of cash for young people across the UK and the world keeps the lactic acid and the mind bugs at bay. I find the mental endurance actually harder than the physical exertion. I’ve suffered with depression in the past and those long roads and hills stretching out before you can bring up some truly horrible thoughts, like, ‘I can’t do this, what the hell am I doing? I hate this bike. I hate this road. I hate this hill.’ And then someone comes cycling up beside you and asks if you’re ok, or the boombox on your handlebars spills out a banger and you catch your breath and sing along and the brain noise quiets for another 10 miles. And then you hit a rest stop and everyone is feeling the same but still cheering you on. It’s empowering. Emboldening. You can do this. You have done this. You look at your donation page and see another £20 from a friend you haven’t spoken to in years. You get back on that bike and you get it done. For the kids. For the Heavy Metal Truants. For Metal.”
To donate to Heavy Metal Truants, click here.
Photo: Steve Bright/Liquid Crimson