If I'm honest, I'm not entirely sure how we ended up gathered by Nelson's Column at eight on a Friday night in June. It's when I would normally be in the pub, enjoying a quiet pint and winding down after the working week.
But, instead, six of us stood around in lycra, bikes laden with kit and clothes, passports stashed somewhere safe and some serious lights on our handlebars. There were almost three hundred miles, one ferry and two countries ahead of us en route to the Eiffel Tower - our pockets were overflowing with food.
It all started with pub talk. Wouldn't it be fun to ride to Paris? An adventure. I really didn't think it would happen. But somehow momentum built, tweets were sent, a bicycle tour company contacted then rejected thanks to cost, spreadsheets compiled and routes discussed... and now, here we were.
Fail to prepare...
None of us had ridden this challenge before, and only one of us had ridden anything like this distance in a day (and night) before. We needed new kit.
Long and detailed discussions were had on the virtue or otherwise of triangle bags for frames, tri bags, handlebar bags, seat bags, boxes, and seat-post clamps for pannier attachments.
The "what to bring with us" list was longer. As an unsupported ride, we decided to be as self-sufficient as possible. So on top of the standard multitool, pump and tubes, we added spare tyres, first aid kits, gaffer tape, pedal wrench, lock ring removal tool, chain whip, spare cleats, spare pedals (flats), and anything else we thought we might need and could fit.
As for the route, we had a spreadsheet:
- 132km to Dover (25kph average speed)
- 156km to Amiems (23kph average)
- 138km to Paris (23kph)
So all we had to do was ride three sportives in a row, none that heavy on climbing, with breaks for the ferry and lunch and we were there. Photo taken, we rolled off.
We'd badly underestimated it.
The sun sets
Getting through London as a group is always, er, fun. Lights, traffic, not being entirely sure where we're going, and four of the six of us - regular cycle commuters in the capital - convinced that we DID know where we were going.
But we made it, heading through Blackheath and into the (quasi) countryside as the sun began to set.
It was my first real experience of riding through the countryside at night, a mini-peloton of six, following the blinking red light in front on quiet roads.
The total quiet. A view restricted to front lights. Time losing meaning, just you, fellow riders and the bikes. It was magical, for a time.
We pulled over after what seemed an age and someone asked what time it was - it was 22:30. We'd covered 30km. We were already badly behind schedule.
Then lights started going out.
There's simply no way to cycle, on a moonless night, on unlit streets, without some pretty decent lights showing you (at the very least) that the road is about to turn right.
The first person's lights went (he'd only brought one, as it had seen him through Dunwich Dynamo with no problems once before) and after tracking him down, we re-distributed spares. Then others started going as the night wore on, leading to increasing caution as we slowed down, our collective halo and moods dimming in tandem.
A lack of light was a particular problem - for me at least - climbing hills. If I lost the others for a few minutes I was left, lost, alone in the night - feeling especially vulnerable going at 12kph (ish) uphill on an open road.
It didn't help that my bike was weighed down with a fair few kilos of kit, or that I had no clue when the climbing would end. It helped less that without light I couldn't see my Garmin either, so didn't know the percentage or the pace - or how far into the ride we were. I ground away until I reached the top.
Descents were the primary concern of another of our group. Moving fast down country lane, into a small tunnel of light created by you alone, is far from fun. Potholes were frequently indistinguishable from shadows or road discolouration - I was riding using the riders in front as guides, but if I lost them I was in real trouble.
And there was more climbing than I'd anticipated.
I knew it was approximately 1,500m climbing to Dover, but hadn't really considered that an issue. But in the dark, bike laden with kit, on not enough sleep or food it was almost too much for me by the end.
The long night
We'd picked the shortest night of the year, but with our average speed dropping, slow climbing and slow descending from different members of the group, and a desire to stick together we crawled to Dover.
We missed the 3am ferry, the 4am ferry, and there was no 5am ferry.
It was close to dawn and the sun was (blessedly) rising again by the time we got to the south coast. I was in trouble.
I'd not slept enough the day before, or the day before that, and got up early on Friday so I could leave work early and have time to prepare for the ride. I'd eaten too many gels and almost nothing else, and my head was pounding.
My legs worked, but the power was gone from them - I was achingly slow up the final climbs of the night. My knee was starting to hurt too. There was 294km left to ride.
And miles to go before we sleep
Possibly worse than the physical effects, I could see the 24-hour mark slipping. We'd need to average 29kph (including breaks) over close to 300km to make it in time. I had no idea how long it would actually take us.
The original plan of a relaxed beer and some food in the French capital, followed by an early night and the train back the next day looked - instead - like an exhausted collapse into bed, with whatever food we could grab from anywhere open, and too little sleep before check-out time.
And all that after 294km MORE of riding.
I needed sleep - badly - and I really didn't think I'd make it to Paris. I couldn't see how I'd get there, and if I failed at that point I'd fail in France - with no way home.
I waited with the rest of the guys until they were about to board for the ferry (at about 5:40), then went home.
On the train back I couldn't stay awake between stations, fortunately it terminated in London Victoria, a 3-mile ride from home.
I got there at about 8am, and collapsed into bed for 11 hours. When I woke they were still riding.
To the victors, the spoils
Of the six of us that set off, four made it into Paris - at 4am. The journey took, breaks included, 31 hours. Without sleep. Riding for the vast majority of it.
I've no clue what state they were in when they arrived, especially having seen the state of some of them in the approach to Dover. I have total admiration and respect for them all.
Did I regret my decisions to bail? Well, yes and no.
I think I might have made it. I also think I would have suffered, a lot, on the way if I did.
In the end, this was a ride I was undertaking for fun and I wasn't having any. Worse, I don't think I would have had time for any when I reached Paris, and would have been wiped out for (at least) all of Sunday too.
As it was, I got home and sleep and a 130km ride in - as well as some experiences and lessons for the future - with the downside minimised.
Lessons for next time
If I was going to draw any conclusions from the experience it would be simply this: take it more seriously.
Better lights, an earlier start to get to Paris at a reasonable hour even if things went wrong, and a lot more sleep (maybe take at least the Friday off work).
My food choices would change - sandwiches being high on the list - but mostly I would favour things that weren't gels or in any way sweet to eat. Basically, "normal" food.
Or, y'know, do it over two or three days instead...