When I first saw a cycling trip advertised on Twitter to cycle 200 miles from London to Paris in under 24 hours with Sophie Radcliffe, I thought it was exactly the kind of challenge I needed, signed up and promptly moved to a Scottish island with no roads…
With three weeks to go till the big day, I came back to Shropshire, visited Halfords to buy the cheapest road bike I could find and started learning to ride a bike with skinny tyres and weirdly positioned brakes.
Two weeks later, I was feeling a little more confident on the bike but having only covered a grand total of 85 miles on the bike I knew my chances of making it to Paris in under 24 hours were pretty slim. However, I was keen to see what I could do under pressure.
I was getting as nervous as hell and starting to twitch, so I was relieved when Saturday rolled round and I could start making my way to London with riding buddy Neil. We hit the first hurdle at Warwick when the train we were supposed to be on was too crowded and we weren’t allowed to board. (The train from our local town was replaced by a bus service for rail works and wouldn’t allow bikes, hence having to drive to Warwick. Grr.)
Finally on the next train 40 minutes later, and we met up with team mate Sue and successfully made it to Marylebone, though far later than we wanted. Cue a stressful race through the tube system, thinking this would be quicker than cycling through London and we made it to Greenwich Observatory, sweaty, flustered and a bit stressed but with 5 minutes to go before kick off.
After undertaking some public stripping of clothes, throwing our bags at the luggage van and smiling sweetly for a group photograph, it was time to follow the lead cyclist out of London and onto the signposted route to Newhaven, 58 miles away.
After living in Shropshire for so many years then spending a month living on the Isle of Eigg, cycling through London frankly scared the shit out of me. I was pretty relieved when I made it to the first checkpoint without getting run over by an irate taxi driver! I grabbed a banana, and set off happily down the country lanes we were now into. By this point, I’d fallen well behind the group I started out with so spent the rest of the ride on my own. Bizarrely, although this was one of my fears going into the journey, along with cycling in the rain and cycling in the dark, during the 58 miles to Newhaven I did all three and thoroughly enjoyed it. Biking through the South Downs in a light drizzle as dusk fell, singing to myself, was just amazing. (The singing wasn’t amazing, as anyone who knows me will testify, but the rest of it was!)
I had a strange moment around 15 miles from Newhaven; I was cycling along happily when suddenly my legs stopped turning and the bike felt really heavy. ‘Shit’, I thought, ‘I’ve got my first puncture and I’m going to have to deal with it on my own’. I jumped off the bike (*stopped, forgot to unclip and landed on the verge*) and checked the wheels. No puncture. Dammit, it was just my legs deciding not to work. I stuffed a gel down my throat, gave myself a talking to and set off again. Shortly after, I got into my rhythm again, helped by seeing some llamas in a field. Llamas make me happy. A sign for Newhaven indicating six miles to go made me even happier, though that six miles then felt like about 20!
Finally arriving in Newhaven at 9.05pm, I was over the moon to have not only made it in time, but I felt absolutely great and I’d covered double the furthest distance I’d cycled to date!
I was bouncing around as we boarded the ferry, and in high spirits got straight in the queue to get some dinner. Beef bourguignon has never tasted so good! Once I’d refuelled on beef and babybels, I settled into my seat and closed my eyes. Sadly, sleep didn’t ever really arrive and as we got closer to France I got more and more nervous until by the time we disembarked my earlier high spirits had dissipated and I was thoroughly grumpy!
Leaving the port at Dieppe at 5am in the drizzly dark, knowing the checkpoint (and breakfast) was 30 miles away was a little miserable but I was pretty happy to find myself able to hang on the back of a peleton, cruising along through the rapidly brightening French countryside. Listening to the dawn chorus start cheered me right up. Sadly, this didn’t last too long and after about 15 miles my legs decided they’d had enough. Despite the encouragement of Neil, who’d kindly (and at the expense of him successfully arriving in Paris in under 24 hours) decided to cycle with me all the way to Paris, I couldn’t catch back up with the peleton and I sadly watched them cycle into the distance. From this point on, every mile hurt like a bitch and I was having serious doubts about actually making it any further than the checkpoint. Tears were close to hand and I was kicking myself for signing up for such a challenging event without having the time to train properly.
By the time we arrived at the first checkpoint, I was feeling low and sick and couldn’t stomach more than a cup of coffee and half a pot of porridge. On the good side though, the mechanic (from the absolutely amazing Cycle Friendly support team) checked my bike over and realised my back brake had been stuck on… Hmm.
After about ten minutes, the peleton who had previously dropped me were just about to head out and Neil and I decided to follow them and see if I had more success keeping up now I was no longer cycling with my brakes on. It wasn’t a success. The more I tried to keep up, the more my legs gave out and we quickly decided to let the peleton go and just continue at a steady pace.
With 28 miles to go until the next checkpoint, I was pedalling along steadily but pretty slowly and on arrival at the checkpoint I knew it wasn’t looking good on the basis there was absolutely no one there, other than the support team and the checkpoint had been packed away… No shock, I was told that I was a good 15 minutes behind the cut off time and would need to be shuttled ahead. I’ll admit, I was pretty gutted. I knew it would be a real slog but I was confident in my ability to make it to Paris – eventually. However, of course the safety of the team was paramount and with cyclists stretched over such a big distance, the support team had to shuttle me ahead.
After a few tears, I got a grip and decided to make the best of it. There were two options available; the first was to get dropped at checkpoint 3 and cycle the remaining 46 miles into Paris but the first leg of this involved two big climbs and we weren’t sure I was up to this… The second option was to be shuttled a little further to checkpoint 4 and cycle just the last 24 miles.
I was feeling so shit by this point I figured I may as well take the easy option and go straight to checkpoint 4. I wasn’t going to be able to complete the full ride, so why bother having to navigate the climbs and add on another two hours of cycling if I didn’t have to? Luckily, Neil brought me back down to the earth and pointed out we had a good five hours available to us to cycle, and based on my current pace we could complete 46 miles during that time. Not only that, he came up with the very good point that we’d come here to cycle through France and we should take the opportunity to do so, rather than sit in a hotel for several hours. This brought me right out of my funk and got me re-motivated so we agreed we’d be dropped at checkpoint 3 with 46 miles to go.
Arriving at the checkpoint, I got a little emotional again as I saw Sophie and her husband Charley and told them I’d been shuttled. I felt as though I’d cheated when I saw a number of shattered but happy cyclists arriving to refuel and head off again. Determined not to dwell on it, I went for a wee behind a tree and we set off, fuelled by soup, gels and power bars.
After cycling through several beautiful villages, we hit the first big climb; an alpine style pass with numerous switchbacks, climbing continuously for around 550 feet. It hurt. A lot. Really, a lot. I was very happy to make it to the top without stopping, though breathing was quite a challenge for a few minutes! Some lovely flowing lanes followed for a while before we arrived in a small town, came round an island and saw ahead of us the next big climb; 600 feet straight up a steep hill before hitting a shallow but never ending ascent. This one hurt even more and I had to stop on the steeper part of the hill where I promptly forgot to unclip yet again and fell off my bike onto the verge. No injuries were incurred and we had a few giggles, shared a gel and set off again.
Not too long after, we arrived at checkpoint 4 where I had the biggest smile on my face ever. I’d survived the hills and we now only had 24 miles to go to Paris! We were on the home straight and I was very excited.
A feast waited for us and I stuffed down a baguette with humous. Whilst scoffing, a lovely chap came over – I never caught his name, but his bike had broken (possibly derailleur?, I’m not good with the mechanics) and he couldn’t finish the ride. In his position, I’ve have been sulking in the back of the van, thoroughly pissed off, however he’d clearly made his peace with it and was on a mission to keep everyone perked up and on track – anyways, he asked if my back was hurting. After staring at him, thinking he was psychic because my lower back on the left hand side was extremely painful, I admitted it was and he said my seat was too high and he’d seen I was having to extend my legs too far. He then worked with the mechanic to get my seat to the correct height (all whilst I was still stuffing my face with humous). I was really grateful and we exchanged a high five as Neil and I set off on the final leg to Paris.
Not long after leaving the checkpoint, the numerous gels I’d ingested were starting to make themselves known and my notoriously sensitive stomach was not happy. As we cycled along, I checked out each and every bush, hedgerow and field to see if they offered suitable coverage but since we were heading into the Paris suburbs, things were not looking good. I tried to keep my mind off it by thinking about how amazing it was going to be to arrive under the Eiffel Tower and this worked for a while. By the time we had only ten miles to go though, it was getting urgent. Screeching at Neil that I had to find a loo RIGHT NOW, we passed a petrol station which had just been locked up. Neil used his far better French to speak nicely to the chap with the keys while I bounced around next to him, looking desperate and begging frantically. The nice man clearly figured that it was better to open up than have to clear up a nasty mess on his forecourt and opened up the shop and let me use the staff loo. THANK YOU, NAMELESS BUT HEROIC MAN! You’ll never know quite how grateful I am to you!
Much relieved, it was back onto the bike for the last hour of riding. Neil was in a great mood, saying this was what he had been looking forward to, a leisurely ride into Paris, enjoying the experience. I just wanted to get there, throw the damned bike into the nearest hedge and rip off my shorts to inspect the friction burns and blisters I could feel and eat everything in sight. At this point, the incessant rain and wind finally eased and the sun came out, ready to greet us as we arrived into Paris.
After so many hours cycling through quiet lanes, Paris was shit scary! However, by this point I was more confident (and possibly too tired to give a shit about cutting people up and possibly getting run over) and despite the numerous red lights we were caught at, we made steady progress through the city and then it happened… we had our first sight of the Eiffel Tower! With renewed energy, we hurtled (not really, it was more a crawl) through the Parc de Boulogne, to pass under the tower itself, dodging tourists, to see Sophie, Charley and the support crew under a tree.
We’d made it.
The tears started (as they are now as I’m writing this (and again as I re-read before posting)), and they continued as Sophie’s lovely mom came over with my medal and gave me a huge hug and congratulated me, followed by Sophie who was also a little emotional at this point. She said later during dinner how much it meant to her to see 70 cyclists completing a trip that meant so much to her.
After yet more hugs and various photographs – I attempted the iconic bike over the head pose but my heavy as the sun bike and weak as a kitten arms ended up nearly dropping the damn thing on my head – we walked our bikes through the streets to the hotel, where we were greeted with cheers and applause from the folks who had already finished and were sitting in the nearby pub, enjoying a few well deserved beer. It made me cry yet again.
I also cried once I checked into my room, got in the shower and felt the water on the raw and broken skin on my arse… (Luckily, two days on it has all scabbed over nicely and whilst sitting is a little painful, I can now shower without squealing in pain. I do not intend to get on a bike any time soon.)
All that was left to do was celebrate! Dinner, several gallons of water and bed at 10pm. I know how to party. As much as I’d have loved to have gone out with the hardcore folks who visited the Eiffel Tower at midnight, I was wiped out.
After passing out in bed for 10 hours, I met up with Team Shropshire; me, Neil, Sue and also Matt and Alan – they’re extremely strong cyclists who were among the first to arrive in Paris – well done chaps!) for breakfast and we decided on a meandering walk to take in the sights of Paris and enjoy the sunshine, before arriving at the Gare du Nord to catch the Eurostar back to London.
The whole way home, we chatted about the trip; favourite bits, the killer hills, tough moments, injuries, bikes, you name it. It was amazing to have experienced the trip as a whole, but to share it with like minded (but far more skilled!) people was fantastic. I’m in absolute awe of a lot of people I saw on that trip. So many amazing cyclists, they’ve really given me the inspiration to continue with my road cycling – once my arse has healed), improve and give this another shot. Apart from anything, I feel I owe it to Neil, who is a very strong cyclist and would have easily made it to Paris within the 24 hour target if he hadn’t decided to stick with me. Thank you Neil!
After a few days to contemplate it all, I’ve come to the conclusion that although I’m very disappointed not to have completed the full distance or finished in the 24 hour time, to have assumed I could have done so was very arrogant. This is one hell of a challenge and those who completed it within 24 hours are seriously good cyclists, with a lot of experience and skill. As a beginner road cyclist with only 80 miles under my belt, I’m actually pretty pleased to have cycled 160 miles in two days. Hitting the 100 mile mark in one day is a good milestone and something to be proud of.
When I look back at the various endurance challenges I’ve undertaken, I’ve noticed that it’s only on the second time round that I’ve done myself justice. Both the marathon and the Longmynd Hike are great examples of this. The first time is a practice run to find out where I stand and what I need to do, the second time I’m ready to smash it.
Of course, this means I’ll be doing this trip again. I’ll work hard on my cycling, particularly my average speed, and my strength and stamina.
Paris, I’ll be back.
In the meantime, however, this was only challenge No.1 of three challenges I have lined up this summer. On Saturday, I’ll be hiking 200 miles across Scotland, self supported, with my buddy Sarah on the TGO Challenge. I’m packed and ready to go. On the good side, I already know how to hike – and I have the vaseline packed!
P.S I’m undertaking these challenges to raise funds for the Stroke Association. I’d love it if you could sponsor me (even just out of sympathy for my friction burns) at www,justgiving.com/cyclehikerun.