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Euro 2016: Stephen Collins cycling from Belfast's Windsor Park to France - and all for charity

By Claire Williamson

Meet the Northern Ireland fan who has taken being a travelling member of the Green and White Army to new pedal-powered levels.

Coleraine man Stephen Collins has kick-started a Euro 2016 Grand Tour ahead of the rest of the travelling support by setting off for France on his bike.

The 27-year-old pedalled off on Saturday, May 28 from Windsor Park for a 1,800 mile, 25-day cycle through Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and then onto France where he will watch his heroes in action for the three games in Nice, Lyon and Paris.

And, what's more - he is doing it all for charity in aid of Street Soccer NI.

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Stephen says the main reason he is ditching the "obvious" choice of transport is to raise money for the charity which helps disadvantaged people in Northern Ireland rebuild their lives through football training.

He had the idea ever since the night Northern Ireland qualified against Greece.

He said: "After 15 years of supporting the team through some desperately lean spells I knew I had to make this summer a memorable one, as it might not happen to us again in a hurry. Also I'd heard of the brilliant unique work that Street Soccer NI do for the past few years, and wanted to try and create a way to raise funds for them. "

PREPARATION

And just how much preparation has the medical student done for his epic cycle?

"Surprisingly little", said Stephen.

"In my free time, triathlon is my sport of choice and I'll often be out running or on the bike. But in the month leading up to this trek around France I had university finals to sit (just finished medical school in Southampton) so training took a bit of a back seat while I was cramming.

"I've done long cycles before, so I knew I was capable of big mileage for one day at a time, but I'd never done two long days back to back in my life, let alone 25."

And as is he well underway with his adventure in France he says he is having a "huge amount of fun" already.

He said: "Despite the fact that the weather has been completely back to front, with the searing heat as I passed through Ireland leaving me sunburnt, and the horrendous rainy weather in France being more like Rasharkin than Rouen.

"The muscles are starting to ache each morning. It's funny how adrenaline carries you through towards the end of each day, and then it's only the following morning that the pain hits like a ton of bricks."

He added: "I'm using much more of my GCSE French than I ever thought I would need to. And the best thing about France so far has to be the boulangeries in every village, they provide me with my energy boost each day."

'DREAM' TO SEE NI IN MAJOR TOURNAMENT

Now as the countdown is really on for Northern Ireland's first match - Stephen says it will be a "dream" to see them at the major tournament.

He said: "I've been going to every Northern Ireland match at Windsor for about 15 years, alongside the occasional away trip. I've always been hugely proud to be part of the greatest fanbase in the world. I remember the first game I ever went to was a 5-0 hammering by Spain, and i was hooked on the atmosphere from day1.

"I love how our wee country's team has united so many people in support of the team, especially since we qualified.

"There's such a buzz everywhere you go back home. It's a dream to see them play at a major tournament, it really is."

It comes as the Northern Ireland team jetted off on Monday to Austria for their pre-Euro 2016 training camp.

The team face Germany, Poland and Ukraine in the group stage of the finals.

Stephen's 25 day route:

Day 1: Windsor Park, Belfast to Drogheda (84 miles)

Day 2: Drogheda to Arklow (76 miles)

Day 3: Arklow to Rosslare (50 miles) and FERRY TO FRANCE!

Day 4: Cherbourg to Bayeux (61 miles)

Day 5: Bayeux to Rouen (97 miles)

Day 6: Rouen to Compiegne (86 miles)

Day 7: Compiegne to Troyes (115 miles)

Day 8: Troyes to Auxerre (46 miles)

Day 9: Auxerre to Dijon (96 miles)

Day 10: Dijon to Bourg-en-Bresse (86 miles)

Day 11: Bourg-en-Bresse to Annecy (72 miles)

Day 12: Annecy to Fontcouverte-la-Toussuire (68 miles)

Day 13: Fontcouverte-la-Toussuire to Briancon (47 miles)

Day 14: Briancon to Digne-les-Bains (107 miles)

Day 15: Digne-les-Bains to Nice (88 miles)

Day 16: MATCHDAY 1 (NI v Poland)

Day 17: Nice to Aix-en-Provence (117 miles)

Day 18: Aix-en-Provence to Montelimar (96 miles)

Day 19: Montelimar to St. Etienne (85 miles)

Day 20: St. Etienne to Lyon (37 miles) and MATCHDAY 2 (NI v Ukraine)

Day 21: Lyon to Vichy (96 miles)

Day 22: Vichy to Nevers (71 miles)

Day 23: Nevers to Orleans (102 miles)

Day 24: Orleans to Paris (78 miles)

Day 25: MATCHDAY 3 (NI v Germany)

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