I’m not much of a cyclist but I just completed what has to have been one of my toughest challenges yet (although they all feel like that at the time).
My partner, Jamie, and I had agreed to cycle London 2 Paris in 24 hours as part of a group. But when my friend, the group leader, was unable to continue with his plans we decided to go for it as a solo couple.
Having spent most of the year training up for my ultra run in July, with just one bike ride a week thrown in, I really had to ramp up the cycling for the last two months before the ride. However I knew that I hadn’t really done enough training to be able to not worry about this challenge. Jamie tried to tell me that I could think about it as two rides with a six hour break in-between but this did not inspire great confidence in me. I knew that six hours was a good amount of time for leg muscles to cool off and seize off – not to mention that those hours would be spent trying to grab a small amount of uncomfortable sleep.
In the days leading up to the ride I was particularly tense and nervous. My back had been playing up all week, it took me weeks to find my passport and I was concerned about the logistics of getting us and the bikes to and from France.
I knew that this would be tough. I knew that this could be the challenge I did not manage to complete. I knew that I would try my hardest and that what would be would be.
We caught the train from Nottingham at lunch time on Friday. This meant getting to London in the early afternoon, with plenty of time to cycle across to our start point of Tower Bridge for 4pm. I thought that cycling in London would be terrifying but found it pretty similar to any other city but with the bonus of some pretty good cycle lanes built in. You certainly had to be on your guard but that is the same anywhere and I would say that London drivers were possibly more aware of cyclists than elsewhere – this didn’t mean they liked them or gave them a lot of space but they knew where you were and that it was best not to actually hit you.
We had borrowed the route that my friend had originally plotted and it took us through Southwark, Lewisham and Croydon before we headed out into the countryside. Some slightly rough off road options made it interesting on the road bikes but they always gave way to good roads once more. As the sun started to spectacularly set on Friday we still had many miles to cover to get down to Newhaven and the ferry. Our lights went on, first portions of flapjack were scoffed and the tyres rolled on. The journey got progressively tougher, not just because of the testing climbs, but mainly due to the increasingly inviting country village pubs we had to pass! We both later recounted to each other our private horrors at having to pass the ‘CAMRA Village Pub of the Year’ without stopping.
At the time the ride to Newhaven seemed tough but looking back it was the easy part of the challenge. Arriving at Newhaven just before 9.30pm we checked in and joined many other cyclists waiting to board. There were two large, organised, groups and one cycle club from Brixton all hoping to complete the route to Paris. My trusty B Twin bike looked a little lost amongst the thoroughbred bikes surrounding her but I am always proud to ride her We seemed to be the only couple that day. I think that most of them had been sensible enough to book cabins on board. The check in girl felt sorry for us and told us where to find the most comfortable seats on the ferry.
On board we took in in turns to buy some truly bad food from the ferry restaurant. The veggie option was to take them 15 minutes to cook/microwave so I went for a plate of chips. I believe the chips were very well travelled as they had clearly crossed the channel a few times and possibly been rejected by the sea gulls before being served to me. Jamie did not think too much more of his spag bol. But it was food in our stomachs and time to get our heads down. The ferry departed Newhaven at 11pm and was to arrive in Dieppe at 5am (4am GMT).
Jamie was, typically, out like a light with his light down jacket wrapped around him. I struggled to sleep in the seat so opted for the hard floor, with my rucksack for a pillow. It was a joy to discover which parts of my body went dead depending on which position I tried to sleep in. Eventually the cold drove me up from the floor and back to the seat. Another half hour of trying to get warm and comfortable eventually promoted me to dare to wake Jamie and ask for ‘a go with the down jacket’, only to discover that Jamie was ‘sweating buckets’ with it on and glad to get rid of it. Sigh.
We both managed a few hours of broken sleep before it was time to disembark into the fresh darkness of France. Dieppe marina looked pretty in the stillness of night and we made our way onto the Avenue Verte, the paved, off road cycle path from Newhaven to Paris. Our route was to keep us on the path for part of the way before taking us back out onto roads, For reference, if you plan to do this ride, I would recommend staying on the Avenue Verte for the entire ride. It is not the shortest route but is very well maintained and signposted.
The sun did not rise until around 7.30am, the air was chilly and the route spooky but so enjoyable. It became quite a mission to dodge all the rabbits in the darkness; each one seemed intent on giving us multiple chances to mow them down. A little of the Lambert family animal adoption gene seems to have rubbed off on Jamie also as a young cat ran from the darkness, to his moving bike for a cuddle. Watching the sun rise and burn off the mist from the surrounding fields was a wonderful part of the ride for both of us.
By around 7.45am my energy levels were getting seriously low and I was grateful to see signs for Forges-les-Eaux; a place where I had read you could get food. Luckily we had just got ahead of the other groups of cyclists and so were first to the bakery in the town. A large order of pain au chocolat and crème café éclairs ensued. I believe it was the best éclair I have ever tasted but I my judgment may have been slightly skewed by the fact I was wobbling around on the bike à la Jonny Brownlee in the minutes leading up to breakfast.
From here we headed out on the roads, fully believing that our route, at thirty miles shorter than the Avenue Verte, must be the easy option. To start with it was a truly lovely ride. The French villages we passed through were very picturesque and the odd chateau would appear to the side. We stopped for pony hugging and more flapjack. I started to discover that the French part of the journey, however, was no where near as flat as I had been told it would be. There are a series of rolling hills, close to us in Nottinghamshire, which are referred to as the Southwell Rollers. This ride was like doing those…for seven hours! The journey was not flat but our tyres were. We both got punctures and Jamie managed to blow a third inner tube up with over enthusiastic use of a gas canister. We still felt on track for finishing between 3-3.30pm French time. Well inside the time we needed to finish in.
Then it all went a bit pear shaped. Our route tried to take us up a farm track and the following search for the correct route added a few miles, a few hills and a bit of frustration into the day. It was at this point, as we went up a particularly long hill, that I discovered I had lost a lot of my gears. I have had my bike a few years and it has never let me down before, but today was a step too far and the gears just wouldn’t work. This was the cause of much swearing over the remaining 50 miles.
We ploughed on and I still felt that we could achieve our aim. It would be hard but we would make it. A nasty head wind picked up. Then it got worse.
The route took us down a slightly rough looking road and into a traveler camp. The GPS said to go left down a track. The travelers disagreed. We had to turn back. Phones and GPS kept insisting we should go back but we felt that they hadn’t met the locals before and so ignored them. Having gone round in circles for some time we had to admit it – we knew Paris was close but we just couldn’t find it!
Eventually Jamie approached a lady who was washing her fence. It was a bloody good idea. She and her husband were wonderful; not only did they tell us a route and give us a map to take, they also offered to refill our, severely depleted, water bottles.
By now we had done over 155 miles and we knew we had at least another 15 to go before Paris. I was flagging, badly. A few more miles and I tried to tell Jamie that I was going to collapse. All that came from my mouth was a jumble of babbled words, I started to shake and I knew I was in trouble. I also knew that there weren’t many options for getting to Paris but to keep cycling. But my body was telling me to stop and curl up by the side of the road.
Jamie was amazing. I didn’t realize it at the time, in fact I thought he was being quite cruel, but he truly was amazing. Having opened a gel and fed it to me (I was beyond being able to do these things myself) and then making me drink water, he then pushed me and the bike for the next few miles. Where the road narrowed and cars needed to get by he would give me a big push, to get me in front of him, and tell me “you pedal now”. My legs would automatically turn (albeit with very little power) until he could push me again.
We both knew what it meant if I could not continue. Not only failure of the challenge but also a nightmare of getting me and the bike into Paris somehow. Once I had revived slightly my stubbornness kicked back in. I had another gel, pulled myself together and tried to work out how long we had to make Paris.
It was going to be tight and we both dug deep. It seemed to take as long to get into the centre of Paris as it had to get out of London. I don’t think ether of us will forget the pain of unclipping and clipping in, with sore feet, at hundreds of sets of traffic lights for a long time! We also found that they aren’t that keen on a sign post in Paris.
The idea of cycling, in victory, down the Champs-Elysees had long since gone out of the window. Now we needed to go straight to the Gare du Nord and get ourselves and the bikes on our train home. At traffic light after traffic light Jamie asked for directions and finally, finally we arrived!
Did we make it to Paris in 24 hours? Yes. Were we in the centre? No. But with 20 extra miles on our journey, taking the entire route to 180 miles, I am classing that as a win!
The fun was not over yet however. Jamie had booked the bikes on our train. But the ten minute jog (we were low on time) to the bike check in took us to a surly check in clerk. He told us it was not possible to get the bikes on the train as it was full. “But I have a reservation” Jamie pleaded. “I don’t understand much English he replied”. Another gentleman translated “réservé”. Seriously! I am still struggling to believe he couldn’t understand that one! After a few minutes he found our booking, smiled and cheerily told us it was no problem and the bikes could go on the train!
We then ran back to human check in and could finally relax. Beer and a cheese baguette!!!
On the journey home we use up all our Euros on three more cans of beer before sleeping our way to St Pancras. Once there we had to honour Jamie’s promise of visiting the Betjemen Arms before wearily boarding our train back to Nottingham. We kicked off our restrictive cycling shoes, caring not for fellow passengers experiences of our scent, and we snoozed.
Many hours of travel, no fall outs (this was down to Jamie not me), more miles than we wanted in our legs and a fantastic adventure to go home with.
The adventure was everything I thought it would be. I can’t sit, stand or blink comfortably today. But I loved doing it.