Introducing the cast;
Dad: the reason. It’s one of his ’50 challenges to complete before he is 51′ and he is the needle linking the threads of this ramshackle group. Very competitive and will start circling like a vulture if he suspects we may fall behind schedule.
David: the number one. First place is non negotiable and commitment to this privy spot will include self sacrifice and if pushed, probably a heart attack.
Andy: the spotter. Always eyes on the side, did you see that property, it would make a great investment? And as someone always have to be the butt of Dads jokes, Andy graciously doubles as that too. How many beer fines did you incur?
Kate: The Australian contingent and my roommate. Taking on the challenge on a mountain bike and testing those thigh muscles to the max.
Richard: the team player. One eye over his shoulder to make sure no one is left behind, checking everyone is warm enough, fully stocked with cereal bars and water. Also the one most frequently dashing for the bushes to water the French countryside.
Martin: Mr Gadget. All the gear and plenty of idea. There is a gadget for that and Martin has it. If you think it might be a good idea, it’ll be packed. Chief navigator, also instructions are to be taken with a pinch of salt if your assured ‘it’s just straight from now on’ or ‘there is only two hills today.’
Me: the tumbler. Staying strong to my once a day fall, which were mostly when stopped and my head and feet didn’t communicate, although there was one spectacular one where I managed to abandon the bike altogether and roll into the ditch.
Day 1: Nerves
Route: Stanstead, Suffolk to Orpington, London
Distance cycled: 80 miles/ 128km
Sore rating: Fresh to Ouch
For a long time London to Paris was a date in the diary and I thought little more about it. I think this was evident as I bought my first pair of clip on shoes and padded shorts the day before and Monday morning was their first trial. No better trial than the real thing. When it came to pushing off the driveway, 360 miles to Paris, it was a wet Monday morning. I was 100 metres from the house when I first met the pavement. A true amateur to road biking, I unclipped my right foot but leant left.
4 miles later we picked up Richard, a few after that, with one short detour, we picked up Martin and were on our way. The plan was to regroup and refuel every 20 miles so we bumbled on to Finchingfield, aptly one of the places on the previous Tour de France route. It was a brisk 10 minute stop before pushing on to Takeley. Grans house was to be lunch stop and warm soup and fresh chocolate muffins certainly helped boost morale and defrost icy toes, but at only 2miles from Stansted airport, it was almost too tempting to alter course. Gran performed her host duties exceptionally providing fresh warm socks and even wrapping my feet in cling film to help with the already wet shoes.
It was a nice run into the outskirts of London however the smattering of showers throughout the afternoon made for cold feet and bodies. Travelling through the congested East London we stuck closer together. The sky was grey and the roads wet. Through crawling traffic dad took the second fall of the trip as his brakes failed to prevent him crashing into the back of a Mercedes.
We crossed under the Thames and emerged the other side for a long 10 miles to the hotel. 10 miles seemed to become the go to ‘we’re not sure how far it is so we will guess’ distance, meaning you quite often cycle on and are still 10 miles away.
It was 7pm before we pulled into Orpington in need of a warm shower and a comfy bed. It appeared we weren’t to be lucky. Our hotel was rather ropey and as we split of into our three rooms, things were looking pretty grim. The first miscommunication of the week came when the boys were all in the bathroom puzzling over a lack of plugs. I emerged from my room holding a double plug adapted, ‘voila, now you can charge two things at once’ and Martin looked at me like I had two heads. It wasn’t until I went to use the bath that I realised I had misunderstood the conversation and they were more worried about holding water than electricity. Knowing it would be a quick dinner then bed we turned a blind eye to the cold rooms, grubby floors and cold showers, but when one of the beds had completely fallen through due to a lack of slats, we all piled down to reception to hassle the manager who upgraded us to his executive room. It was still far from flash but felt very luxury compared to the near miss we had nearly slept in.
Day 2: Betrayal
Route: Orpington, London to Calais, France
Distance cycled: 69 miles/111km
Sore rating: Ouch to very Ouch
Kate had joined us overnight, so in the morning while we rectified the clothing issues we had encountered the day before, she was coming in fresh. It was a hilly start heading south from London and it was late morning before our coffee and warm up stop at a little pub on the outskirts. Although today’s distance wasn’t the longest, it didn’t seem to have diminished much due to a lot of regrouping and redirecting. The reassurance came, don’t worry, it’s a short day, we will be on the ferry by 4:30pm.
From here we continued the pattern of long climbs with short reliefs and Andy experienced his first puncture, followed shortly by his second puncture. We were now in Kent and the countryside felt very quaint and English. We passed the Kentish oast houses and timber buildings, the dark cloud of ‘the second big hill’ hanging over us. Kate had been pushing herself very hard to keep up with us on her mountain bike and waved us on ahead, feeling she couldn’t finish the day. Her noble attempt rewarded by a stint in the Kings Head waiting for the support vehicle who were, rather than in mobile range, exploring the tunnels of Dover. “Wouldn’t it be funny, Richard started, if they were actually underground..?” “Yes, the underground tunnels of Dover,” dad said with a telling gulp. In the meantime I had my second fall, coming in all confident to where Dad, David and Richard had stopped, unclipping my left foot without telling my brain and falling, in slow motion to the right.
We stopped at Lenham for lunch, again we felt like we were powering on but still hadn’t made half way. The stop was induced by a flurry of unseasonal April snow which was perishingly cold, but a Kentish tearoom soon warmed us up with light lunch and tea. By now our saddle soreness had kicked in fully and most were either sporting a funny walk or could be seen wincing when getting back on the seat. As we repaired Andy’s tyre once more, we headed on in search for the big hill.
We found a big hill, it went on and on and on. Alas, it wasn’t the forewarned big hill, so loosing faith in our map, we dreaded another. The epic climb would come shortly after Wye. We would drop down 600 feet into the town and then promptly climb 600feet back up. Of course, by the time we had dropped into the town, Andy’s attention seeking tyre was once again calling for repair, so we left David, Dad and Andy, by this point they were negotiating puncture beer fines, outside a pub which very temptingly advertised ‘warm fire inside’ and Martin, Richard and I made for the hill before our muscles seized. The hill was a big push, as expected, and just as we reached the top, the dark sky and snow caught us again, so the three of us moved under a wooden shelter, pretty exposed. We all donned layers and fuelled up. It was nearing 4pm and at this point I unzipped my under saddle pouch to reveal the pan au chocolat I had lovingly saved from breakfast. The others were evidently envious and I would pinpoint this as the moment I earned the reputation as having a permanent picnic.
“Erm Lauren, do you have a spare inner tube?”
“Puncture repair kit?”
“Nope you guys have got one of those haven’t you?”
“I’m wearing everything I packed…”
“Oh so you’re just using that under saddle pouch to store pastries?”
After a strong flurry of snow, the others made it to the top of the hill, except dad, not a man to be defeated by an incline, stopped short by about 50metres. You guessed it, puncture. As we repaired his wheel, the skies cleared and Richard announced, “much better, that sun is lovely and warm on my back” to which he was met with dubious stares and the feeling that no one took their summer holiday to the top of a hill, in Kent, in April.
Having mastered the three, not two epic hills of the day, Richard turned to Martin and said, “it doesn’t look very flat from here, in fact, I’m sure it’s the Kentish downs, not the Kentish down, are you sure that’s it for hills?” Looking to his map for support, he hastily changed the subject and we pushed on, or should I say down, followed by up, followed by down, followed by up, until we were starting to wish there was beer fines for the misleading geographical challenges of the afternoon. The rain began again, dad and I took a wrong turn, he got another puncture, we were almost out of inner tubes, definitely out of spare tyres and it was nearing 6pm. The support vehicle, having narrowly missed their first crossing were now booked on to the 6:35pm ferry when I piped up, “do you think it’s a good idea that our support vehicle, aka all our supplies and that clean towel we have been dreaming of, is in another country?” Rather reluctantly dad conceded I could call and negotiate with them, but they were already queueing for their next crossing and so it looked like we had little choice but to suck it up and hope for the best.
We abandoned the little roads we had been following and headed for Folkstone deciding no one was cycling on without a coffee and a pick me up, who knows, we could still make the next ferry. My resolve had left me and I was the head of team ‘get me on a coach to Dover’ when dad suggested we took the train to Dover to try and make the 19:50 ferry. By now you have realised that he catalogue of pitfalls is far from over, the trains weren’t running, blah blah blah. Plan B, replacement bus service. It went something like this;
Porter: “We don’t take bikes on the double deckers.”
Me: “Do you want me to cry?”
Porter: “I’m sorry”
Me: “No really, I’m sure I can cry”
Dad: “He’s from Denmark you know” *points to Andy*
Passer by: “you can put your bikes on the Eurostar”
Dad: “they told us we can’t”
Passer by: *googles it* sure enough the website says you can. “If anyone wants a tattoo, I own this tattoo shop, you can have one for £20”
The porter radios the station who have a coach, and puts a private service on for us, dad is convinced this is because he pulled the Danish card, porter looks like he doesn’t know if Denmark is a country or mental asylum at this point.
“Why are you all cycling to Paris?”
“It’s for charity”
“All of them, plus he’s just turned 50 and were helping him through a mid life crisis”
(I’m slightly ad libing, but whatever)
Whatever the reason, it seemed to work, we got a private coach to the ferry terminal and the driver wouldn’t accept a penny. Faith restored in humanity, we sped through the lights, through the customs barrier, at this point hoping we may just make the 20:25 ferry. We screeched into the ticket office only to have any positivity bubble popped by the lady at the desk who pretended not to notice us, instead shuffling papers around in an important fashion, and then tutting and rolling her eyes at us for inconveniencing her with something as trivial as leaving the country.
Finally, tickets in hand we made it to the 21:20 ferry, several hours behind our support vehicle and plan, leaving any sanity behind. There had been several 5 minute periods where hysterics of laughter were followed by a bipolar lapse of near tears, stress, then back to hysterics. This journey was going to be a whole load more challenging than I had envisaged.
1 ferry ride later, we were in Paris and refuelled. The support van would be waiting for us, from here it was easy. OH THE IRONY. We got off the ferry, and on to the motorway. Why, I hear you ask, bikes aren’t allowed on the motorway, I hear you scream. Maybe we just weren’t exhausted enough. Maybe we saw the sign Paris 270kms and just couldn’t bloody resist. 1.5kms down the motorway (I still thought we were inside the ferry terminal but we all know I can’t find my way out of a paper bag) a small hatchback comes screeching past, and then stops, in the middle of a dual carriageway, where everyone else is doing 110kmh. The wall of trucks following it began tooting. I saw this as the end of my life, not just the bike trip and along with Andy, threw myself over the road barrier and ducked. Out of the car steps a man, nonchalantly puts a blue light on the roof and his colleague REVERSES up the motorway and into our lay by. This is the police. Things just got interesting. In French he begins enquiring, probably asking, although none of us can be sure, why 5 English idiots and one honoury Danish idiot are cycling up the motorway at midnight. To our befuddled looks, his colleague insists we walk back down the motorway, beside the barrier, and get ourselves to town. It may be the wrong moment to be thinking this, but being told off in a French accent is still rather beautiful.
Once again, filled with adrenaline and dread, it’s a short burst of hysterical conversation and laughter before we realise we are on our own, our support vehicle at this point leaving us to our own navigation, across Calais, with 3% battery, a smattering of lights, driving on the opposite side of the road, at 12:30am to try and find our hotel. At this point my mum has just turned grey so I’ll quit laying it on so thick, we made it, it was kind of funny in a ‘what the heck just happened’ kind of way.
Day 3: Survival
Route: Calais to Abbeville
Distance cycled: 81 miles/130km
Sore rating: Very ouch to *****
Despite dads jokes about still having us on the bikes by 9am, it was a slower start, repairing the bike issues and giving them a good service. We set off, now on the right hand side, climbing out of Calais. The French roads were quiet and the towns beautiful, little streets and picturesque churches which soon lost there appeal once we made the link between church and hill. The cereal bar an hour trend was wearing very thin and with time pressing on the planned coffee stop in Boulogne sur mare was scrapped. We were following the coast and with lovely blue skies and clear views we could see the white cliffs of Dover we had been so keen to depart the day before.
With 20miles to go until lunch we joined a cycle path which meant that everyone could amble at their own speed. Obviously Dad and David are incapable of ambling, in fact no one was ambling, but it was a lovely ride down into Le Touquet for lunch. On this 80 mile day, the fact we stopped with 41 miles down was a psychological boost, even if it was 4pm by the time we left lunch. We ate in a beautifully typical cafe and we all practiced our French words. The waitress patiently put up with our strange pronunciations until she asked how long we had left to cycle and Martin in an attempt to say 70km, answered “7 years.” At this point she shook her head and said “English?”
In the afternoon, keen to buck the trend of arriving late, we cycled more in pairs once the natural order set in. David had a sore knee joint and after stopping at a pharmacy, Richard and I continued on, caught a little further along by Martin and Andy. Andy’s bike struggled with changing up to the highest cog when he really wanted a momentum boost. Every time he tried, the train would stubbornly jump off suddenly causing him to smack his leg down and scream. The resulting noise was *clunk* “arghh” and it happened so frequently it sent me into giggles.
I called this day survival as the saddle soreness was hitting a peak. With the van with us for lunch, it was almost too tempting to take the tempting option to Abbeville. Warming up he muscles again was a challenge, but the reward was great. The afternoon was a fast and flat ride so we passed through the surrounding towns. I was well and truly sworn off cereal bars when Martin offered me a piece of his protein ball alternative. When I commented that it was nice he replied, “yeah, and this is the worst one” which seemed rather funny until he explained he had eaten all the other flavours and it wasn’t some sort of vendetta.
David had to be subbed out due to his painful knee, Kate subbed in to complete the last 20 miles, dad speeding along by himself to make up lost time, meaning we all sped to the hotel in three groups but all in good time. We had an all you can eat buffet for dinner, and as happened many times I felt I managed literally, all I could eat, only to be hungry 2 hours later. Unfortunately two hours later occurred in the middle of the night when the only food was a cereal bar, causing me to revoke my previous revulsion of them and also discover the true feeling of being a secret midnight snacker.
Day 4: Empowerment
Route: Abbeville to Beauvais
Distance cycled: 66miles/106km
Sore rating: *** to toughening up
We kicked on, no one daring to point out that this was a shorter day. Abbeville was a gorgeous town, so nice we gave ourselves a few detours and a trip the wrong way up a one way street before leaving, of course up a hill. We, at this point down to the feisty five with David and Kate still out, got pelted by some particularly strong hail. Dad insisted I have a tow, something which I had been particularly nervous about, and I cycled about 20cm from his back wheel. We flew through the French countryside acting like something from the Pelitan, admittedly not taking in the views as I had to concentrate on the spinning his back tyre making sure he didn’t falter on a pot hole. Convinced I would dream only of babybel that night we went around a roundabout, only for him to stand on his breaks and declare “wrong direction.” With no time to react I bumped his back wheel, abandoned the bike and rolled a few times into the ditch. I emerged muddy and laughing, the most impressive fall so far and with no pain due to the soft earth I had encountered.
This was how the cycling should be, the miles flying off, although Andy was in pain and we did a paracetamol stop. In the town centre a few things happened. I did my classic fall from almost stationary, tallying now two in a day, Martin got a puncture and whilst they fixed it up, Richard and I went in search of a pharmacy to practice our best French/ charades.
I’m sure you can tell we were changing from a ragtag group of people to a band of brothers and team morale was strong. It did falter however when we were heading up hill steeply and dad shouted the familiar call of “off route.” Andy, ahead at the time stopped, only to be passed by all of us as dad said “no worries, we will just take the next left instead.”
Our lunch stop was traditionally French, McDonald’s in Grandvilliers and afterwards we were back up to six with Kate joining us. We passed fields and fields of bright oil seed rape and it was a sunny and pleasant cycle. By now we had clocked up a good few hours on the bike and apart from pondering your aches and pains, its interesting what comes into your head. My bike was pretty musical with clunks and squeaks so I found myself matching the rhythms to repetitive snippets of songs I hadn’t heard in years. I would sing aloud my own remixes of Bon Jovi, followed by girls aloud, intertwined with nonsense from road signs or things we were passing. I also found I spent a good few hours pondering the question Andy had mentioned at breakfast “which is faster, a lion or a horse?” The author of which was his four year old son. It was meditative to think my mind had emptied enough I had time to really weigh up the intricacies of this otherwise insignificant question.
By this point the picnic under my seat also became a bit of a joke as I could emerge with baguette and cheese late afternoon or a pan au chocolat I had smuggled out of breakfast. With their cereal bars, the boys looked enviously on.
We were fairly early into Beauvais, passing first through an aptly named town called Achy. Shortly after Andy announced that it was a fairly flat ride, we found ourself on a steep hill, then with a long stretch across town to find our hotel. Still, there was time to enjoy a beer in the sun and celebrate that we were 80% there and on the home straight.
Day 5: Victory
Route: Beauvais to Paris
Distance cycled: 55miles/88.5km
Sore rating: toughening up to Pro Athelete
We were back to a strong six for the mornings cycle to the outskirts of Paris and made for our earliest lunch stop ever in Pontoise at 12:30. This is not to say it wasn’t a tough morning as we had headwind and hills, but for the most part we were strengthening from our trials, recovering from our soreness and speeding up! Far from the set order of the first few days, there was lots of variety in who led and who followed. We had lots more singing and a strong lunch set us up for the more urban last 25 miles into Paris. We swapped out Kate for David who was still suffering with his knee but after 48 hours out, couldn’t resist the last stretch, so would ride one legged. Have you ever tried so hard for something and then been overtaken by a man with one leg?
We met the Seine and crept into the city riverside, no one daring to get too excited. When it got to the last 10 miles, I felt it acceptable to ask for updates every 400 metres. We rode up to the Arc De Triomphe for a victory photo and dad produced his St Georges Flag. This was it, we were in Paris. Suddenly being somewhere recognisable made it seem surreal that we had ridden here. It had been hard because it was hard, we were in Paris!! Dad, David and Andy took on the roundabout where as the life valuing amongst us took the underpass under the 12 lanes of adjoining traffic, to the Champs Elysee. How would you like to end your 570km cycle? Red carpet? Nah, cobbles for me please..!
We rode down the Champs-Elysees, (some of us pretending we were a jockey in the grand national, others not) and followed the Seine to the Notre Dame for more photos. The end of our victory tour was heading north east of the centre to our accommodation. With the end in sight I was proud of our little band of brothers and all we had overcome. And once showered, glass of wine in hand and the bike safely locked away where no one could easily challenge me on it, it did cross my mind that I might even miss it.
It was all for a good cause, and not just the peddle more to eat more cause. Dad and Richard were riding for Hoveraid, a charity which enables medicine and supplies to reach otherwise inaccessible parts of Madagascar. You can find there just giving pages here:
Andy was riding on behalf of Save the Children, in particular those children affected and displaced by the refugee crisis. His site is here: Save the children Andrew Lindsey
Martin’s inspiration was Cancer Research, a charity close to his heart;
Kate powered through to raise money for MS: MS Kate Cumming