Thursday 10th - Friday 11th April 2014
I've ridden London to Paris on two previous occasions, once via the shortish Newhaven - Dieppe route and once via the longer Dover - Calais option. I'm not one for doing the same ride twice where I can avoid it, so when I had to chance to do this one more time I needed to do something to make it a little different, and riding it non-stop seemed like an interesting twist.
I was both intrigued and mildly disappointed to find that many people had tried this before me and that it had almost become an institution in its own right. Still, it seemed worthwhile giving it a go as the stats alone gave it plenty of appeal and the various blogs and websites I found gave me some excellent hints and tips.
Packing for the ride was an exercise in what turned out to be wild optimism. A rack and rack bag with spare base layer, waterproof and the compulsory hi-viz vest for riding at night in France. In the hope of good weather I threw in my Europcar short sleeve top but didn't expect to be looking much like Tommy Voeckler while on the ride.
Having had my fingers burnt in the past by my unreliable Garmin I wasn't going to be relying on that for the navigation (just the Strava records!), so a good few hours were spent poring over photocopied road maps with a highlighter trying to make the route as simple as possible to follow. The last attempt at this route ended up in a short stint on what looked a lot like a motorway and some confused inner city wanderings on the outskirts of Paris, so this time I reverted back to my first ride route that went via Beauvaix and ended with a very simple ride into the city via Pontoise.
Early April is a dreadful time of year to predict the weather and I was sure I'd have some rain along the way, however, the temperatures didn't look too low (6-8 degrees overnight) and the wind was non-existent. So, although I knew I was in for some hard work, I wasn't dreading it too much and after dashing back from work on the Wednesday and having a quick dinner, a change of clothes and a rushed goodbye to my family, I was on my way down to the station.
Kings Cross is a lovely bustling part of London to arrive at and it was just a short ride from the station down to the YHA for my bed for the night. With little to do other than fuss over the bike a bit it seemed wise to head straight to bed and get as much rest as possible.
Trafalgar Square had been my chosen starting point for both previous attempts, so there was an element of Groundhog Day as I rolled along next to the early morning commuters down Whitehall and over Westminster Bridge in the shadow of Big Ben. Fortunately, I soon diverted off this well-trodden route and headed on the more direct (and less scenic) route directly eastward route out of the capital and toward Dartford and north Kent.
As ever with riding in London there were dozens of sets of lights. While I did my best to not annoy the motorists around me by jumping them, the temptation occasionally proved too strong as my average speed remained depressingly low. The transition out of London is always a little dull as the major sights are left behind you and you are heading out into more and more nondescript places. Dartford and then Gravesend came and went and although the sun was shining and the roads were a little swifter now I was out of the metropolis, there were a couple of nasty climbs around Chatham and Gillingham on the A2. My first stop at approximately halfway way to Dover was a petrol station near Sittingborne. A sarnie, a couple of cereal bars and a water top-up made the break very pleasant in the sunshine.
I'd left London at around 9:30 and I was due on the 5pm ferry but it was looking like I'd make it to Dover much earlier than anticipated. 70 miles in 8 hours was a little pessimistic, even if the London section was a little stop-start. Most of the rest of this leg was on the reasonably busy A2 all the way down into Dover and there isn't a great deal to say about that other than the view of the sea as the road starts to drop down to the port was lovely, and I enjoyed the relaxing sensation of gravity taking over the work for me.
After the usual customs and ticket checks I got booked onto an earlier crossing and settled down in the passenger lounge waiting for the boarding to be announced. Sat with my bike, in full cycling gear, I certainly stood out and eventually two young French blokes approached me. They didn't look the type to be interested in this sort of thing, more like Top Gear or Max Power, but after a brief exchange in a combination of broken French and English they got the gist of what I was up to and responded with a "Bon Courage" and a "Chapeau, Monsieur", which gave me a bit of a lift. None of the English passengers showed much interest however.
After buying in some (incredibly expensive) sandwiches and some chocolate for the overnight stretch of the journey I was soon riding up the ramp onto the ferry and getting comfy for the cross Channel sailing. A boring trip over the water was not enhanced by a rather poor quality chicken curry and rice, but at least there were plenty of carbs in it.
The time I'd gained on the ride down to Dover was sadly frittered away due to a delay on the ferry leaving harbour, and so I arrived in Calais at the original time of 7pm and I was riding around the town centre looking for the start of my route soon after. The next hour or so was superficially pleasant, with the fading sunshine making for some enjoyable riding conditions, but all of this was tempered by the knowledge that it would soon be dark and around 10 hours of darkness had to be ridden through.
In the fading daylight navigation wasn't too hard but when the darkness came I was often lifting the front of the bike up at junctions to help me read the road signs. As the sun went down the temperature sank quickly and soon I was stopping to put on most of my spare layers. Sunset was around 8.30 but I could still make my way without lighting for another hour or so. At this time of night the landscapes looked beautiful and I was constantly distracted by the Pas de Calais's rolling countryside in the low level light.
But it couldn't last forever, and eventually my dynamo was lighting the way ahead. Navigation now became a little more awkward and I gradually picked my way through the maze of local D roads. I was fortunate that the more tricky navigation came at this early stage of the night section as later on my brain certainly wouldn't have coped with this sort of thing!
Riding at night through rural areas is lonely enough in the UK but France is a big place and the gaps between towns and villages were significant. Traffic was sparse and on a lot of stretches of road the only signs of humanity were the lights on the wind turbines that littered the landscape.
The cold was really starting to bite after a few hours and I was cursing the quality of my gear as the sweat build up beneath my jacket was starting to cool down - a real absence of any wicking properties! Putting in a bit more effort on the climbs only staved off the effects for a while. Eventually I called it a day and had a break for food and settled down for a nap in a bus shelter. Annoyingly I couldn't get to sleep and only managed to close my eyes for a bit. So, off I went once more.
From here on the ride became really quite depressing. The terrain was a lot hillier than I anticipated or remembered - nothing dramatic but I seemed to be constantly climbing or descending. This meant I was using up energy I needed to stay warm on the way up and being chilled by the wind on the way down. The few decent sized towns I went through brought a temporary relief with the warmth of the day still retained in a modest way amongst the buildings. Once or twice I stopped for a bite to eat in a shop doorway (and once was given a nasty surprise by the shopowner who left his angry Alsation guard dog in his shop overnight!) but there was no getting away from the fact that I had 200 miles of France to get through and my speed was dropping with each hour.
My focus now was on reaching Amiens, the only city I would pass through before dawn, where there might be somewhere still open I could get a drink and warm up a bit. The approaches to the city though were miserable with fog-shrouded hills where the only traffic was trucks passing a little too close for comfort at that time of day. Sometime around then I hit a pothole and my rack-mounted rear light flew off in bits. I had smaller back up lights on the seatpost and my helmet and I crossed my fingers that they were big enough to catch the eyes of the sleepy truck drivers passing me.
I've been cold on the bike before but I was seriously suffering by the time I reached Amiens city centre, and the only place I could find that even had a light on was an Ibis Hotel. The guy on reception was a real saviour - he happily let me in for a sit down and more surprisingly got me a coffee and plugged a fan heater in to help thaw me out! I hugged that heater to me for around an hour before I was feeling up to leaving again. This was around 5.30am and I still had over an hour before dawn. I was drier, warmer and happier when I left though.
My next target was Beauvaix. It was 50 miles from Amiens and my recollection of the final stint from there to Paris was that it was a fairly easy ride with nothing too steep to deal with. There was the added benefit of knowing (very roughly!) my way into the capital from there so I could give my brain a bit of a break.
Dawn finally arrived and although it brought little increase in temperature the hills had clearly been left behind and the riding became easier. Apart from a 5 minute nap at the Ibis I'd had no sleep at all and this couldn't go on much longer. Despite looking out for places for quite a few miles nothing suitable presented itself and so in the end I settled for a hedgerow down a side road away from the traffic flow. My nap lasted less than 10 minutes but it was enough to get me back on the bike and tackle the last dozen or so miles to Beauvaix.
My first stop in town was a pharmacy where I bought some rehydration salts and knocked them back with some fresh water. The cold had masked my thirst, although where I would have picked up any water from I'm not sure - 24 hour garages are not common in rural France! Next stop was a café where some hot milk warmed me up and settled my delicate stomach nicely. I stripped off a couple of layers, the sweaty smell of them surely putting the locals off their pre-work coffee. To top off my well earned rest I called at the nearest boulangerie for a huge pastry which I ate outside, sat in the sun. I left the town feeling genuinely refreshed and the bright sunshine was a good sign of a warm day ahead.
As well as the temperature rising so was my speed and the trudging pace of the overnight section was a distant memory - almost a different person's ride. The next town to aim for was Pontoise where, as the name suggested, I was to cross a bridge. My hazy memory of 3 years previously told me that it was plain sailing into Paris centre once I was over the river and on the road out of that town.
Oddly, having reached the town I struggled to find the bridge but I put this down to general brain fade and got some directions after a bit of a sit down and a chance to pull myself together.
Pontoise was the beginning of the urban sprawl that makes up Paris and its satellite towns and so the remainder of the ride I never had more than a mile or so before traffic lights and junctions brought me to a halt. Not that I minded as, despite the rising morale, there wasn't much left in my legs. I was up to around 250 miles now and my total sleep was little more than half an hour in the last 24 hours.
The D14 took me right to the edge of the city centre itself but I still managed to make it complicated by cocking up the last obstacle in my way - the Seine. After some fiddly negotiating of a quiet suburb I found a bridge across and started to see classic Parisian architecture for the first time, leaving the more functional modern buildings behind. By now I felt pretty much like I'd made it and I could have happily got off the bike there and then. But a London-Paris ride is not complete without the obligatory photo at the Eiffel Tower, so despite the awful traffic I wound my way through the jams following my nose and relying on a very sketchy sense of local geography.
At last signs for Place de l'Etoile surfaced and it was plain sailing from there. A short uphill to the square (during which I managed to take a picture of the Arc de Triomphe from the bike despite being surrounded by moving cars and riding on cobbles) and it was time for the final challenge - crossing the most fearsome roundabout in the world. It's an odd place to drive around, let alone ride around but the trick seems to be to edge onto it slowly and carefully. Everyone is extra alert and it seems to work well enough if you keep your wits about you. I resorted to simply holding my hand out in an imitation of a traffic policeman and sure enough a stream of cars piling on to the gyratory slowed and allowed me to pass in front of them, move out toward the edge and reach my turn off unmolested.
The last mile or so was mercifully downhill and even the cobbles didn't bother me as I reached the Trocadero and the bridge over to the Eiffel Tower. Crossing the road to the base of the Tower was a huge relief and it was a long time (and a lot of junk food) later before I left for the hotel, despite my desperate need for sleep.
Eventually I was in a hot shower and then the hotel bed. My slow pace on the night section had stretched the ride out to 28 hours in total and delayed my arrival until 2.30 in the afternoon, compared to my initial prediction of 10.00am. By the time I'd had a bit of a sleep I was waking up at 10.00pm to find my family asleep around me in the hotel room. Not wanting to wake them I tip-toed out and went in search of a very late dinner. We were staying close to the Tower and the café I found gave me a clear view of it while I enjoyed a mountain of pasta and the chance to reflect on a truly awful but also truly wonderful ride.