Getting to the Starting Line...

How it all started

Nearly four years ago I was at the funeral of my Godson, Fraser, and his Dad, Iain, suggested I join him cycling from Lands End to John O'Groats to raise money for CHASE, the Children's Hospice that had supported Fraser and his parents throughout his life.  I said yes and nine months later, after not having ridden a bike in anger for nearly 20 years, I had cycled nearly 900 miles in 5 days and was part of an amazing team!

After that ride there was some debate about whether it was possible to do London to Paris in 24 hours.  I thought Iain was mad and just ignored him.  However that debate had been in the back of my head for a while and towards the end of Autumn 2010, while drinking a coffee with Duncan in Caffe Nero, I decided that I was going to try and get a team together to see if it was possible!  So, Iain and Duncan - it's all your fault, not mine!

Also in 2010 I had done the 60 mile London to Cambridge ride with Cormac, Ben, Dan and Mark.  We did a bit of training together and somehow got through the ride!  In the pub afterwards we were discussing what to do next and I suggested London to Paris.  The seed had been sown.

15 November 2010 came and following some discussion with my wife, Clare and my Dad, Dave, I setup a Facebook group for LondonParis24 and set about the task of getting a team together and trying to workout how this ride was going to work!  I invited the RaceForCHASE team and my London to Cambridge buddies and a couple of other friends.  Not everyone thought I was mad.

Early training rides

On December 31 2010, Dan, Ben and I decided to mark Old Year's Day by setting off on our first "team" training ride!  Ben ended up with a flat tub and quipped about me needing to loose a few pounds (I actually lost about 20 pounds during the training, though I've pretty much put it back on again now!).  

In early January the weather tried to get the better of us, with both Simon and Ben taking tumbles after encounters with black ice.  But this didn't put a freeze on our plans.  Fortunately there were some glorious sunrises during these early rides that made it worth while getting out on those cold mornings!

By the end of January, I'd encouraged a load of guys to start training for a ride that I hadn't done any planning for and had no idea whether it was even possible!  Having done just 200 miles in the month, I was fully aware that it was significantly less than 265 miles in a day!  I think my Dad was also starting to feel twitchy and asked if we'd got a date for this ride yet!  Well, to be honest, No...

Early Planning

There was much debate during late winter and early spring on when the best time of year to go was, when we should set off, what the route should be, and I soon realised that it wasn't going to be possible to decide everything through consensus on Facebook!  Some decisions needed to be made.  

The date - July or September?  Not August due to holiday season.  July had the advantage of having the most daylight, but September gave us more training time.  July it was.

The start time - early morning, mid evening or midnight?  Early morning would mean riding through the night in France, but we would be fresh from a good night's sleep.  Mid evening would minimise the amount of night riding as we would be crossing the channel for 3 hours, and we would be in Paris at a sociable time, but we would be up all day before the ride.  Midnight would mean we did it in a single day, soon discounted as a stupid idea!  Mid evening it was.

The route - where do you start, lots of research, not many successful self organised stories out there on the Internet, big charities not offering much help.  Somehow we pieced together a rough route from a variety of sources.  My Dad agreed to take my Mom, Stan and Angela to Paris for a few days and test drive the route.  Sorted - thanks Dad!

The First Team Ride and Team Meeting

Come mid March the team was taking shape, and we arrange to meet
up for the first time.  There were a few new faces to me, Andrew, a friend of Simon's, and Andy, someone who went to the same school as Simon and had somehow heard about the ride and asked if he could join the team.  Simon,
Rich, Iain and Tim from the Race For CHASE team turned up for the 50 mile ride through Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Essex.  Tim had no plans for joining the team and sadly, Iain had to later drop out as he hadn't recovered sufficiently from a knee operation he had just before Christmas 2010.  Father and son, Ben and Dan, were there, as were a slightly nervous Cormac and Mark.   The clocks had just gone forward and Lawrence had got the meeting time mixed up so we agreed to meet him on route in Saffron Walden!  No sign of the other Dan yet, but we were assured he'd been doing the miles!

We set off about 11am, just after Andy had informed us of how he'd never had a puncture.  Needless to say after a brisk first 10 miles Andy was off the bike replacing his inner tube!  This was the first time the team had ridden as a group and it was difficult, with the team splitting up many times especially on the hills where youthful enthusiasm saw some blasting away into the distance where others went at their own pace!  There were a couple of difficult conversations during and after this ride, but it was all part of learning how to ride as a team, and looking back now, we learned a lot from that ride!

Laurence, who had a nasty cold, joined us in Saffron Walden, only to leave us again later in the ride to head home, bonking on the way.  The rest of us made it back after about 4 hours, averaging about 14mph, for a lovely lunch!

My Mom and Dad made the journey down from the Midlands to help with lunch and meet the team.  Dad had helped out a lot with the proposed van logistics and the route research and we talked through the plan for the ride and the potential costs.  It was starting to look a bit expensive when you consider hiring a van, travel costs, hotel in Paris, cycling jerseys, return train fares for any excess riders (there was only space for 7 riders in the van on the way back!).

We all went away with plenty to think about and there was much discussion in the following few days!  But I had seen enough to believe that we could all do this ride if we put the required effort and commitment into the training.  There was no-one more committed than Mark, who even changed jobs to be nearer home and make sure he could get the training in.  Though I think his two daughters like having him around more now!

A couple of weeks after that first ride I had a very welcome phone call from Simon.  He had managed to convince PH Travel Consultants to cover all the travel costs on the ride!  That covered the van, the fuel, the ferry, and the return train fare for the 3 lucky riders who didn't fit into the van.  All we had to pay for now was the hotel, and all those essential bits and pieces for the bike!

Designing The Jersey & Nicknames

Cormac kindly hosted a jersey design evening for me, him, Mark and Ben, after he had seen my original designs and decided I needed some help!  We used OWAYO.COM's great kit designer to mess around with designs, colours and logos, and getting pretty close to a final design that evening.  Though there was still some debate to be had about colours!

We thought that it would be good to have nicknames on the jerseys which provoked some entertaining discussion over the next few days: Dr Jeckyll, Minty, The Colonel, Newton, Phantom, Grotbags, Dad, Whippet, Dash and Sporting Billy.

After a few days chasing logos and fiddling with the designs the order was placed, and the costs kindly covered by IndigoBlue.  The delivery date for the order was about two weeks before the ride...

Testing the Route to Dover

We had agreed after our first training ride that it would be sensible to test out the route to Dover, at the time we were planning on starting and making sure we could get there in the time needed to catch the ferry and get a feel for riding in the dark!  None of us wanted to fail the 24hour challenge before we had even left the UK!

So laden with backpacks and having sent food parcels ahead to the hotel in Dover, we met at Marble Arch about 8:30pm.  By 9pm (our initially planned departure time) we were ready to go.  After busy roads past Hyde Park, confusion over the route to Vauxhall Bridge and getting lost somewhere near the Oval, we eventually found the A2 out of London, passing many jeering Saturday night drinkers!  

I had tried to memorise the route, I had my iPhone and Mark had the route in his Garmin, but despite this there were still a number of slight diversions as we didn't quite take the planned route. The view of the Thames at Gravesend was not part of the plan!  We were also stopping more frequently than we had planned which got a bit frustrating for some!

However, despite the sharp hill at Chatham and the long drag on the A2 dual carriageway, we made good time, waved at the 2am revellers just outside Dover before plunging the last 2 moonlit miles into Dover at nearly 40mph!  The feeling of getting there in the allotted time and without any mishaps filled us with confidence, everyone seemed happy!  

We spent some 20 minutes eating petrol station sandwiches before heading off to the hotel, which  was 3 miles away up the other side of the very big hill we had just descended!  After a bit of a slog we hit the sack at about 4am and were up again at about 8am for a full English breakfast, before setting out on the return journey to London.

The journey back was pleasant for the first 20 miles through the countryside, but then we hit the A2 dual carriageway which was no longer deserted.  It was full of foreign lorries not giving us much room.  Rich had had one close shave too many and opted for getting off the A2 and finding an alternative route!  The return journey was into the previous night's tailwind and with tired legs wasn't much fun.  Mark had obviously eaten something that didn't agree with him and he opted for taking the train back from Dartford.  The rest of us ploughed on, mistakenly ending up in Bexley, bad for a number of reasons.  One road rage incident later and we'd all had enough and opted for the train too.

So a mixed weekend, delight at reaching Dover in the required time and despair at idiotic motorists.  More valuable lessons learned.

Working Weekends

In the run up to the ride itself I shared a number of working weekends with Dan. Despite the work we did manage to get out on a couple of rides, though a slashed tyre and knackered bearings in my front wheel resulted in a shortened ride and significant discomfort!

The Audax from Hell

Not everyone was available for our last team training ride, the High Five Audax, taking in the five highest points in Herts, Beds, Bucks, Cambs and Essex.  Ben, Mark and I set out from Stortford to add an extra 2x20 odd miles to the planned 129 mile route. Dan was supposed to be meeting Rich and cycling to Hertford from Chesham, however Rich turned up alone and Dan arrived by car just after all the other riders had left the start!  Cormac was meeting us somewhere along the route...

The ride to the start was glorious, sunshine and a tail wind - surely this was going to be a lovely day!  None of us had done an Audax ride before, so the quiz on the route card was interesting and the route descriptions somewhat codified.  Nothing to worry about though, Ben has the route on his everlasting iPhone and Mark has his Garmin, what could go wrong?

The route took us through some beautiful countryside and for the first 20 miles or so, things were looking fine!  Then the rain started, but we all had wet gear, so still nothing to worry about.  After missing the first checkpoint, we linked up with Cormac and stopped at a National Trust cafe for cake!  

Two punctures later and with a stiff knee, Ben decided to call it a day.  One down.  Soon after Rich discovered he had worn through his brake pads and turned to head for home.  Two down.  100 miles up for Mark, but a long hill and torrential rain put pay to his day, a call home for rescue.  Three down.  Dan and Cormac headed back to Hertford so that Dan could give a lift to Cormac so he could retrieve his car.  Five down.  Just me left, cycling 30 miles back home on my own in the rain.  

None of us completed the full Audax route, losing Ben with the iPhone GPS left us with Mark's Garmin 500 - which just about kept us going in the right direction.  But I was now worried about navigating on the ride itself - riding blind in France wouldn't be good!  So I ordered a Garmin Edge 800, possibly the best decision I made!

Two weeks to go, the Last Team Meeting

The Jersey's were due to arrive!  Though following a failed delivery the day before I was a little bit worried.  Several calls and checking the UPS website all had me convinced everything was ok until just after 5pm.  The tracking site was reporting an odd status that looked like a failed delivery without saying it.  After telling UPS that I had 10 people turning up at my office at 8pm to collect their kit, they agreed to use a local courier to get the jerseys to me by 9pm.

At about 7pm I finally got to meet Peter Hall from PH Travel who assured me that everything was in hand on the travel front!

At 8pm the team arrived, followed by the pizza!  My Dad was on the other end of the phone line and we talked at length about the logistics, the schedule and everyone's concerns!  

Come 9:55pm we were just wrapping up when a white van appeared and the jersey's were soon covering the trim (?) bodies of the riders!  Success - now we even look like a team!

The Accelerated Schedule!

For me (and Rich) it was all starting to feel a little bit tight on time.  I wasn't happy that we had enough contingency in the planned schedule for things that might go wrong.  We came up with the secret accelerated schedule!  The new plan was to push a bit harder on the first couple of stages in France to get ahead of the schedule and give us more breathing space.  Though I didn't share this with the team and Rich and I agreed that we'd try and push the pace a bit and hope no one would notice!

Before the Ride

The week before the ride was manic!  Checking kit, pushing sponsorship, collecting spares (parts and bikes), tools, wheels.  Calls with my Dad going through the logistics again and again! I didn't want to leave anything to chance, but in all honesty, I just wanted to be doing the ride now! 

One last short training ride and there was not a lot else I could do to prepare!

So Friday came, Dad picked up the van and drove down from the Midlands, I waited in for everyone to drop off the food boxes and bikes ready to be loaded on to the van.  A glance at Dan's rear tyre scared me!  Lots of nicks and flint embedded!  Time for a tyre change before we even start.  Paranoid, I changed my rear tyre too after remembering I had flat spotted it on the Audax ride with a nice slide round a sharp bend in the wet!  0 miles, 2 tyres replaced.

My Dad and Stan

Friday afternoon was a bit frantic!  My Dad and Stan had a plan for building a shelf in the van so that we could double the usable space in the back half of the van.  Somehow they managed to load two spare frames, a few spare wheels, all the food and kit bags and most of the team's bikes into the confined space.  

This ride would not have been possible without the support we had from Dave and Stan.  Their calmness throughout the entire event meant that we didn't have to worry about anything, even if secretly they had a few concerns!

Getting to the Start

Ben, Dan, Mark and Cormac turned up just before 5pm and we said our goodbyes to wives and children.  7 of us in the mini-bus and all the kit in the back - heading off to my office in London to hopefully meet the rest of the team!

We were all there except Dan.  We shouldn't really have been surprised as he'd been missing from most of the team training rides, but I was starting to get a bit concerned when he wasn't there at 7:30pm.  He'd gone straight to Marble Arch, but after a couple of phone calls he made it to the office for a quick change!
It was lovely to see Iain and Julie at the office to see us off on our journey, though I know Iain would rather have been cycling with us than waving us off.

Cormac secretly sprinkled Holy Water on all the bikes and we headed off on a gentle ride to Marble Arch.  Both Mark and I were panicing now.  NO GPS SIGNAL!  For some reason, maybe the tall buildings, we couldn't locate satellites!  You'll see me and Mark looking down at our bike computers in many of the pre-ride photos!

8:32 Saturday 9 July

The goodbyes had been said, the photos taken, and I led the team one by one through Marble Arch, onto the mad London roads.  The team strung out a bit as we all shuffled about on our bikes trying to get comfortable!  It was an amazing feeling seeing my team in our pink shirts sliding its way through the traffic and snaking round roundabouts.  The roads were busy and the pace was slow, but we knew it was going to be like that and we just enjoyed riding past the London sights.  Over Vauxhall Bridge, looking up the Thames, past the Oval, and out towards the A2.

We were on our way!