“Eh?! Paris? On a bike?! Isn’t that quite far?” The surprise in my voice was plain to hear. Visions of breezing effortlessly through stunning French countryside were immediately replaced with fears of exhaustingly sweaty hill climbs, saddle sores and collisions with rusty old Citroëns.
“Nah, it’s only 285 miles from London, and we’ve got four days to do it.”
And so, on a hot and sunny August morning five of us assembled at Marble Arch to begin our journey to the Arc de Triomphe. It became clear at this point that the group (I shall refrain from calling it a team – that would suggest some level of cohesion, organisation and prior experience) had vastly different abilities:
- Craggy – dedicated fitness fanatic, regular and successful triathlon competitor whose strength lay in road cycling
- Me – relatively fit, fairly regular cycler (but only to work and back) and completer of one triathlon (finished highly placed but virtually dead by the time I crossed the finish line)
- Tim – regular football player and occasional mountain biker
- Coxy – sporadic gym-goer and very occasional mountain biker
- Ross – concentrates on weights in the gym, thinks cardio is Spanish for cardigan, rides bikes regularly, but only if there’s an engine attached to it
Tim and I aside, everyone had travelled down from Yorkshire for the trip. Coxy was to borrow my Dad’s old bike (a 1989 luminous pink British Eagle) which I’d dug out of my basement and fixed up for the occasion. Alas, no amount of titivating would stop the bike looking like it was owned by Penelope Pitstop.
Full of enthusiasm we departed into the London Friday morning traffic, which was pretty slow going. Eventually we emerged on to the open road and headed for Canterbury.
Every so often we’d stop to wait for the slower riders to catch up and it was dark by the time we arrived at our YHA hostel. I specify YHA, because until we arrived Coxy had been telling us we were staying at a YMCA hostel. I’m sure the YMCA is a wonderful organisation, but we were a little worried that we were staying in a friendly gentleman’s establishment complete with moustachioed men dressed as cowboys, Indians and bikers dancing in the bar. As it turned out, bar the bunk beds being marginally larger than a mid-sized Post-It note, it was a lovely place.
Saturday morning I woke, well rested and brimming with vim, vigour and excitement at the day’s adventure which lay ahead. And then I tried to get out of bed… only to find I had transformed into a frail geriatric overnight. I ached in places I never knew existed. The only part of me that didn’t hurt was my teeth.
Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, I rolled on to my side in an attempt to elevate my decrepit carcass from its temporary tomb and was greeted with a rear view of Ross’ lumbar region. As if this wasn’t disturbing enough, due to his lack of padded cycling shorts and seat cover he was busy anaesthetising his sore areas with ibuprofen gel. This put me off the idea of breakfast. Possibly until next February.
Getting back on the bike was tough. I’d have been more motivated by the thought of attaching my tongue to a car battery with a nail gun. I was broken and we’d only done 70 miles. But once we got going it was great to be back on the open road.
And then we hit the A2. If you’ve never been on it, it’s a nice straight dual carriage way which is perfect for zipping down to Dover in a car. But cycling down it in the rain is beyond terrifying. Cars flew past us at 90 miles an hour, missing us by a few feet. Lorries thundered past engulfing us in clouds spray which blinded and soaked us through to the skin. We were all pretty relieved when we got to Dover.
Having made it through customs without having to show our passports once (that’s the way to illegally emigrate to France, in case you were contemplating it) we ventured up the ramp to the ferry’s vehicle bay. Now, in a car the smooth, oily parking area of a ferry is a pleasant place to be. On a bicycle with slick road tyres, however, it’s more like trying to cross an ice rink on stilts. A fact perfectly illustrated by Tim as he “tapped” his brakes in an attempt to slow down. Both his wheels shot sideways like they’d been hit by a freight train and he clattered to the floor. Once we’d stopped laughing we did stop to see if he was OK. Nothing fractured but dignity, fortunately.
We emerged from the ferry at Calais not into blistering continental sunshine, but horizontal rain that was being flung in our faces by a wind so vicious I half expected the Eiffel Tower to fly past at any moment. This did not bode well for our progress. We’d only done 20 miles in the morning, and with a couple of hours taken up by the ferry ride, it was already lunchtime and we had nearly 60 miles to do.
Three and a half hours, several brutal hills and many wrong turns later we limped through the constant headwind in to a very small town and decided we should stop and take stock. We found a bar for beer and food. It wasn’t good news. Navigator Tim had led us rather astray and although we had covered around 30 miles, not all of it had been in the right direction. It was nearly 5pm and we still had 40 miles to go. At the rate we’d been going, it would take us until at least 10pm to make it.
After much negotiation (in GCSE level French) with the locals, a nice chap agreed to take us to our hotel in his minivan and stick the bikes on his trailer. What a cop-out. Still, it did give us a couple hours in the bar to drown our sorrows.
The next morning after a nutritious Maccy-D’s breakfast, we set off in stunning sunshine. This was what we came for. Quiet roads eased us through quaint villages, vast fields of rapeseed, sunflowers and poppies. We pounded the pedals, leaned in to corners, scaled hills, freewheeled descents, chatted, joked, mocked each other for our inappropriate outfits. We spent half the journey with our tops off (much to the disgust of passers-by) and acquired tans worthy of a fortnight in the Caribbean. It was brilliant. In fact, aside from ingesting the dodgiest hot dog I have ever laid eyes on at a roadside café, it was pretty much a perfect day. In fact we made such good time that by 5pm we were sat outside a bar in a picturesque square in Beauvais, giant lagers in hands and even bigger smiles on faces.
The final morning we set off in search of Paris. Now you’d think somewhere that big would be pretty easy to locate. Apparently not. We visited several industrial estates, many dead ends, what looked like a disused clay quarry (which appeared to be utilised to grow illegal substances), a couple of dumping grounds and a traveller caravan park where bare-chested, heavily-tattooed men emerged from their trailers and eyed us with the kind of expressions that suggested they wanted to use our faces to break in their newest batch of knuckle dusters.
We were rather relieved when we arrived at the Arc de Triomphe. We were less relieved when we actually had to manoeuvre ourselves around it – an act that is risky in a car, and downright suicidal on a bike, especially if you didn’t know the rules of the road… which we didn’t. After the customary photo shoot we set off across the ceaseless, chaotic circular flow of traffic, hoping that nothing hit any of us. In the event nothing did, but I believe that’s more down to luck than any cycling proficiency on our part.
The whole system seems preposterous to me, but oddly it works. By “works” I don’t mean that it’s safe or organised; on the contrary, I’ve never been so convinced that I was going to die since I woke up after an entire night of drinking whiskey. But we made it, found our hostel and treated ourselves to a couple of beers. And then a couple more. But we’d earned it. 270 miles of self-propulsion in 4 days.
As I sat relaxing on the Eurostar the following day, grateful for the protection the padded shorts and seat cover had afforded me (the same could not be said for Ross, who was not at all comfortable in the sitting position), I mused as to whether I’d be up for doing a similar trip again. The unequivocal answer was “Yes”!
But not just yet.