The plan was to get 20 people, including 10 strangers, from London to Paris in one piece and to raise £15,000 for the charity Sanitation First in the process. I had organised two of these before and I knew the experience would be essential in putting on the event, but it was still quite a daunting thought. After all, I was the only one at the time whose name was on the list to ride it.
Day 1 London to Dieppe
So there we were on a busy Friday morning in London, the road full of Hansgrohe Bora replica cyclists and the air filled with nerves, apprehension and excitement in equal measure. It was one of those events where you knew the sooner we got going, the more relaxed everyone would feel.
As we left London’s Piccadilly and headed up the Mall towards Buckingham Palace, despite the cold air and frosty fingers, the blue sky and early morning sun rewarded us with one of Londons most iconic views – Buckingham Palace. A quick look over my shoulder five minutes later to check everyone was present and they weren’t. Not a great start.
Looking back on the trip, the first day was probably the most fragmented. Due to the 7.00am start, it was not known when or where lunch would be and the stops were going to be as and when they were needed or could happen. Fortunately, as I left Carshalton I immediately noticed that the group ahead had stopped at a bakery and were loading up on doughnuts and coffee; a great idea and one that was much needed – if only to regroup everyone again.
From that point onwards the group of 20 riders split into their own sub-groups, formed mainly on speed, time of departure, who didn’t go through a red light and who they wanted to ride with. Although it was creating a little bit of stress at the time, I knew it was best to let this happen and to just focus on making sure that every group had someone who knew where they were going, or had a device that told them. The only real challenge for the day was finding somewhere to eat lunch. You would think the country lanes of Sussex would have plenty of options but the reality was very different.
Eventually, Simon found a pub just off the route and about two hours after it was most needed but it was perfect and a very welcome sight. Sadly, Helen, who was struggling the most at this point, didn’t make it to the pub as the instructions didn’t reach them and their break was instead taken sat on the floor outside a convenience store. She didn’t look that well when we caught up with her, but the only cure was to keep going and then rest on the ferry.
The target was to arrive at the ferry port in Newhaven for 4.00pm. I don’t know how we did this, but that is exactly what happened and you could tell from the reaction of the riders arriving that this was a welcome site as the moods lightened. Perhaps, the best surprise of the day was how good the ferry was. Probably the best venue we would visit in our entire trip with a decent bar, plenty of space available to spread out and relax and a restaurant serving a wide venue of food to refuel the riders. It was the perfect end to the day, had of course it not been the short but steep ride to the Dieppe hotel at 11.30pm on a cold September’s evening. Pushing on, we all made it.
Day One Photo Album
For a complete set of images from Day One, click through the Flickr album below.
Day 2 – Dieppe to Gournay en Bray
This was more like it. We were in France, everyone was more relaxed and the prospect of a much easier day in the saddle along the Avenue Verte cycling put a positive buzz in the air. Fifty five miles, plenty of time, warm weather promised and what more could we want?
The best thing about the cycle path is that you can’t get lost, you don’t need your Garmins and you certainly don’t need to worry about what speed you do, or don’t do. One thing we hadn’t allowed for was Ana and her inability to pay attention to Stop signs. Not that she was the only one, but she was the only one who rode straight into the side of a car causing damage to the door, and maybe even herself too. Fortunately, after 30 minutes of arguing and a quick check-up by an ambulance driver, everyone was given permission to carry on their way.
The first unofficial stop was a photo opportunity at a beautiful Chateaux and another chance to dig out the banner. More flapjacks were consumed, water bottles were topped up and the ever present support crew of Roger & Sandra were appreciated once again.
Given that we had made no arrangements for lunch, it was pretty remarkable then that we could turn up unannounced in the small town square of Forges Les Eaux, pull-up 22 chairs and order to be fair quite an enjoyable cheese-burger and chips. By that stage we would have eaten anything, but this was perfect – even if on another day in another location we might well have walked past for something a bit less greasy!
The reminder of the rider that day brought us to some of Normandy’s best countryside with rolling hills and fields guaranteed to remind us that the journey was just as important as the challenge. A final stop at a view-point and we headed to the hotel for a much welcome curry and beer.
Day 3 – Gournay-en-Bray to Paris
Everyone was now more than ready to take on the last day and the final challenge before Paris. You will have to ask others on the ride how they felt as I couldn’t sense any nerves or change of mood from the previous evening’s relaxed atmosphere. I am though hoping that there was a nice buzz around the group knowing that at the end of the day they would be cycling under the great Eiffel Tower.
Within a mile we were lost, or at the very least, lacking confidence in our Garmins as they failed to pick up the route. It was also impossible to remember where we should have gone as the whole thing had escaped me. However, somehow we find our way on the right road and although it was pretty cold, it was one of those that opened up in front of you with large flat fields either side, covered entirely with bright blue skies. It was perfect!
What we hadn’t appreciated, or certainly I hadn’t, was that the route I had mapped out would take us through such beautiful countryside. It really was. We hopped from village to village and through some of the finest countryside that you could imagine. You could tell that everyone was appreciating the beauty of it as the pace slowed and the number of photo stops increased. What they didn’t realise at this point was that the ride was going to get so much tougher. Lunch had been planned for Pontoise, the first proper town we would arrive at on our way to Paris and a place full of choice. We hoped.
As it turned out, we had to ride for miles and miles before we stopped. I think it was about 55 miles before we got chance to eat and by then everyone was full of flapjacks, out of water and very very hot and tired. As the last riders arrived at the perfectly chosen Pizza restaurant, they looked red faced and overall, pretty pissed off. It was certainly a scorching day and it was at this point I realised I hadn’t made the best schedule. Realistically, I should have allowed the slower group to have set off much earlier so that they could take on a few more stops along the way and at their own pace. That way, by the time the faster riders got there, we would all be eating pretty much at the same time. The consequences of this were that we left the restaurant without knowing where two of the riders were as they were now clearly way behind.
The support team agreed to stay on and look out for them but we had already agreed that we would not go into Paris without them. Nonetheless, the riders were getting restless so we all left the restaurant at the same time and from now on it was going to be a slow and steady ride towards the outskirts of Paris. I needed to slow everybody down and I also needed to keep everyone together. It seemed to take forever, with roundabout after traffic light followed by another roundabout. Eventually, we arrived at Bezons which was the point in which we agreed we would wait for the two riders. Forty five minutes later, if not an hour, they arrived with us, smiling more on the outside than perhaps they were on the inside. They had got lost!
The next phase from Bezons was relatively easy effort wise, but tricky due to the traffic, lights and general desire to keep everyone together. We managed this, just, and got to the Arc d’Triumphe with a renewed level of energy and excitement. All that was left now was to navigate the eight lanes of traffic and head down the famous Champs Elysee until we could turn off and head over to the base of the Eiffel Tower. As we did, you could see the excitement on everyone’s face – all keen to stop and take pictures and all keen to get there.
The best part of arriving in Paris was getting the photographs at the park opposite the tower. We must have been there a good 45 minutes taking various selfies, group photos and so on, and I wanted this moment to last as I could see that the more inexperienced riders were phoning home to tell them of their great achievement. We celebrated at a Pizza restaurant with probably the worst service we could have experienced. We must have been waiting a good hour for our food and they couldn’t serve the beer fast enough. In fact, eventually they ran out and sent us packing! Nonetheless, we had a great time and the evening was wrapped up with the handing out of some medals to every rider and the support car team. A little gesture to cement that last moment of solidarity and an opportunity to remind every rider of their entertaining moments and contribution to the trip. Well done all!