Well now, that was quite a thing! I still have to pinch myself to believe I’ve actually cycled from London to Paris in a day – isn’t that the kind of thing serious cyclists and athletes do? Surely not middle aged family men with dodgy knees…
We’d agreed to have a go after the 2010 London to Cambridge ride but I was late starting training due to a neck injury late 2010 which kept me off the bike until March. Not a good start given this was by far the most serious event I’d ever attempted, and the first time I’d entered for a long ride in 14 years. The last one ended badly with a knackered knee after 100 miles. Fair to say I had my share of trepidation about the idea. The organised training rides were great for knocking both men and machines into shape however, and for getting the riding dynamics right. What started as a rag-tag collection of wobbly riders gradually transformed into a slick peloton. In training we suffered our fair share of punctures, attrocious weather and even a rear derailleur falling off. Finding a replacement rear hanger on a Sunday afternoon 60 miles from base tested more than our patience, but credit where it’s due spirits never flagged!
Leading up to the ride, fitting time to get in the final spurt of training miles around family stuff became increasingly elusive, leaving me feeling a little less prepared than I’d have liked. A good final 60-miler the weekend before helped though and left me feeling a lot more positive. As ride day approached I felt as ready as I’d ever be. One final round of fund-raising including an interesting evening for three of us at the local pub wearing our lovely pink Lycra cycling tops later we were ready to go.
Thanks to our amazingly well-organised support crew, all I needed to do before the event was to pack a couple of boxes with spares, food and drink and dry clothes, and turn up at the van with my bike. Bikes were packed into the van and once set up again in London , all in our matching pink ride jerseys, it began to really feel like an event. Children and pedestrians stopped and pointed. Traffic slowed to let us through. This was it!
We mustered at Marble Arch and after final adjustments, posing for some photos and good luck kisses from family we set off into the London evening traffic. We’d done this leg in training so knew what to expect although with a full peloton in glorious matching kit there was a definite sense of presence and purpose about it this time. As the light dimmed and the crowds standing outside roadside pubs got lairier, we were cheered as we passed. Made me smile. Hey, drunken encouragement is still encouragement, and helped to keep spirits high even when John’s new bike satnav led us a merry dance down some backstreets near Dartford . If we’d wondered how “Mr Jeckyll” got his nickname, now we knew…
Once out of the London traffic we locked into a rhythm and the miles steadily ticked past. As it got darker and the chill started to bite we donned jackets, long pants and over-sleeves. A single stop halfway to Dover around midnight gave us a few minutes to sort ourselves out and “refuel” before heading into the true darkness or rural Kent .
As we set off again, lights blazing, we must have looked like a high-speed horizontal Christmas tree! Before us lay “The Hill” – a long curving stretch of dual carriageway with a relentless incline that went on for about 5 miles. I remembered how tough it had been last time but this time we took it at a more steady pace and before I knew it we were over. The weather stayed clear and soon enough we found the long fast descent into Dover.
We’d hoped to get to Dover feeling fresh and seemed to have managed it, more or less. Once loaded up and onto the ferry, a “quiet” stretch of deck served well as a bed. Someone must have switched me off as next thing I remember was Dan rousing me with a playful kick to the ribs.
The early morning in Calais was glorious – bright, crisp and clear. A bit too crisp maybe as a few miles after setting off I began to feel the effects of the chilly morning air. A stop after the first stage gave the opportunity to refuel and put on extra layers but by then the damage had been done. The cold, the lack of sleep and the effect of the previous night’s ride had sunk my energy levels and spirits so low I began to seriously wonder if I could carry on for much longer. Training rides had shown me how to sense dropping energy levels and to balance energy input to get through them so I forced some pasta down, gritted my teeth and carried on.
Others on the ride had overcome more than this to be there and I’d be damned if I was going to let the team down! This was the low point of the ride for me and it was all I could do to focus on the rear wheel of the rider in front and keep the legs going round. Slowly, steadily I felt the energy levels and spirits rising again. They dipped a couple more times again during the day but I’d got through it once and wasn’t about to give in now.
As we approached Paris the patience and consideration of drivers started to diminish. We had a few close shaves, but thankfully that’s all. Somewhere in France there’s a careless scooter rider who knows what it’s like to be buzzed by a swarm of irate cyclists! The ride into Paris went more or less without incident, although as we hit the cobbles I’m sure my back teeth started to work loose. We were comfortably ahead of schedule so a few wrong turns weren’t a problem and gave us the opportunity to see the Eiffel Tower . As we turned into the Champs Elyses, the Arc de Triomphe lit up in the distance by the evening sun was a wonderful sight, and even inspired a spot of singing. Unfortunately several thousand sets of painfully slow Paris traffic lights lay between us, and after 260 miles my patience with constant stop-start traffic and painful cobbles was wearing a little thin, but we ploughed on. Startled and bemused tourists at the Arc seemed unsure what to make of the dozen tired-looking men in blue Lycra emotionally hugging each other, shaking hands and cheering but they seemed to get the idea. I particularly liked the Japanese family who were dead keen to be photographed with us even though we had no way of communicating with them what was going on. I wonder if they thought we were with the Tour de France and are even now telling their friends back home they met one of the Tour teams.
To satisfy my adorably pedantic wife, we took a dive through the subway with the bikes to have a seat ON the Arc and take photos before being moved on by the French police. Apparently you’re not allowed bikes on the Arc de Triomphe where the Tour de France finishes. How ironic is that?
So at the end of it all, how did it feel? Was I tired? Yes – so tired I felt drunk. Exhilarated? Yes, though still slightly incredulous we’d all done it – and we all had, without a single puncture, breakdown, crash or incident of any kind. We’d taken a couple of wrong turns which in the end made no difference and even the weather had been close to perfect. Above anything else I felt lucky! Lucky it had all gone like clockwork, lucky my fine toothpaste-coloured Italian steed had carried me without complaint through all the training and the ride itself and had held its own against newer, lighter and more expensive machines. I’m not too proud to admit I gave it an affectionate pat! Most of all I felt lucky to have been included in a group which, if I’m honest, I have no right to be in. I rode alongside world-class rowers, experienced distance riders who have cycled from Lands End to John O Groats in 5 days, guys who have completed time trials and triathletes. They looked after me, encouraged me, pulled me back on when I dropped off the back of the peloton and helped to knock me into the kind of shape where I could complete, at 43, what most experienced cyclists in their prime would think twice about.
Like I said, it was quite a thing…
The Riders >