Friday, August 26, 2011

The London to Paris cycle ride, part one

Oh, my aching legs.


In fact, I feel remarkably well, and well enough about the whole experience to consider doing it all over again - but more about that later. In the meantime, here's how it went.
Woke up at about 4.15 am in Karen's house, and had a steaming bowl of porridge. Well, I wouldn't have a cold bowl of porridge, would I? That would be like chowing down on beige puke. No, porridge must always be steaming, cliche though it may be. I may be talking about cliches and stereotypes later on. Anyway. Part of my feeding plan while on the go involved eating items largely based around oats and bananas. I was helped in this by Karen giving me a small sack of energy bars consisting of these two items. She also gave me some energy jellies and energy drinks, several of which I decanted into my luggage, and several into the bag I'd be using while riding. After careful consideration, I'd decided to eschew panniers, especially after seeing photos from the previous cycle challenge of people of ultra slimline road bikes seemingly consisting of straws and dental floss, and use a  daysack, containing one fleece, a hi-viz jacket, repair kit, one inner tube, one pump, food supplies, ibuprofen, paracetamol, hand wipes, hand cleansing gel, vaseline, sudocrem (the stuff you put on babies to control nappy rash), some antihistamines, and a large tub of Udderly Smooth, aka Bum Butter, used to prevent certain areas being rubbed rawer than a carrot on a grater. I began to wonder whether I may have overpacked. Still, I didn't have much time to reflect on this, as we had to be on the road by 5.
The journey to London went without incident - the sun rose over a cool morning, and the traffic gradually intensified the more we approached the centre. There were plenty of early morning cyclists around, probably enjoying the relatively quiet streets of the capital, and the sight of them made me feel more apprehensive about the challenge ahead. I knew in my head that I could do it, but even so....what about the traffic? what if I got injured? what if I just couldn't move my legs by the third day? I was also feeling somewhat lonely - I didn't know anyone else on the challenge, and wondered if they were going to be ultrafit athletes, gliding miles ahead of me while I ploughed a lonely furrow at the back.
Yes, I know, all total balls, but let's face it - when we stare at a task ahead of us, it's far easier to imagine all the worst things about it than the possibilities, and I reminded myself of this, but even so....
We arrived in Blackheath just before 6.30, and there were already several other cyclists there. I registered with the person from Discover Adventure (the company organising the trip on behalf of MacMillan), and had a look around at the other cyclists, and felt heartened by the fact that amongst the young whippets there were also a few riders who had clearly never been averse to a pint or a pie or ten.
Karen was ogling the road bikes. 'Look at that one!' , she said, 'that's about two grand's worth of carbon frame!'  It was clear to me that my saddle probably weighed more than some of these bikes. Fortunately, I also saw a few mountain bikes and hybrids as well, as well as one with panniers attached. Clearly, it was going to be a lot more eclectic a range of participants than the worst case scenario in my head. A few more people rolled up, then we were all called to huddle round one of the support vans for a briefing. First of all was Gemma, the MacMillan rep, giving some info about the day, and lots of encouragement and thanks for doing this for MacMillan. Next up was Marco, one of the Discover Adventure team, telling us to follow the little orange arrows all the way along, which were apparently attached to anything static the team could find every few hundred metres along the way. 'And don't forget', he said, 'it's quite hilly, so don't attack the hills too early or you'll get too knackered to carry on'.
Hilly? I'd looked at the route profile beforehand - it hadn't looked that particularly hilly to me, certainly no worse the anything I'd tackled in training.
Oh deary, deary, lordy deary me. How wrong can you be?
We set off at seven o'clock, and were almost immediately introduced to our first little hill of the day - namely, Shooter's Hill, also known as one of the biggest hills in bloody London. Thanks, Discover Adventure. I got chatting briefly with another cyclist, Pat, who was wearing a Heathrow Airport Hi-Viz yellow jacket, but then we got separated by traffic lights. Oh, what fun they became. It seemd that everybody got stopped by every single traffic light on the route leading east-south-east. It was pedal-pedal-pedal-stop......pedal-pedal-pedal-stop....and so on. Fortunately for me, I wasn't using cleats, so I didn't have to unclip myself from the pedals every time.
The traffic wasn't too bad, considering it was London, and I've seen worse in Reading, but I was glad to see a sign saying 'welcome to Kent' and the gradual thinning down of houses and businesses and the appearance of first greenery and then countryside proper. Pedalling along, largely by myself, I didn't feel that the route was too bad - certainly, there were a few hills, but nothing like the route up to Cooksley Green. Well, that was up to a couple of miles before the first water stop, when everything suddenly decided to go more vertical. Not horridly vertical, just decidedly more uphill, in a way that implied there were the mummies and daddies of hills lurking ahead, along with lots of little baby hills just for the hell of it.
The first water stop appeared after 21 miles, a gazebo with a table full of cyclist goodies - namely, bananas and oat-based snack bars. I was quite gratified to see that there were only ten or so riders ahead of me - looked like I wouldn't be the slowest then. I overheard someone say that one of the riders had fallen off their bike right at the beginning, smacking their face against the kerb, thanks in large to being cleated in. I filled up on water and snacks, and at this point I'll just preempt the rest of this report by saying these stops were an absolutely brilliant idea, well-executed and throughly timely - they broke the days up into achievable targets, gave mor eor less just the right time to rest, and ensured everyone was well fed. I stayed about ten minutes, then ploughed on. About a mile or so on, I got my first good vantage view - a spectacular panorama of the Kent countryside from high up, looking over our route southwards. And then -
The first big downhill, a real sinus-opening plunge through a woodland road and towards a village, designed to put a grin on your face. We came into a village and then I encountered for the first time a phenomenon that haunted me for the rest of the first day and for part of the second:
SIGNAGE ANXIETY n. the sensation that one has missed a crucial little orange arrow and one is now headed towards Slough
I almost missed a turning - in fact, I was pretty sure some other riders behind me did. Fortunately, I stayed on the right road, and the route to lunch wasn't too bad - a little hilly, yes, and getting hillier by the time we stopped in Charing, but still doable.
lunch was in a church hall, next to a picturesque church - well, obviously next to a church, or it would just be a hall, wouldn't it?  Anyway, it was a good place to take a break. The food was good too - loads of pasta, salad stuff, a platter full of what turned out to be grated cheese and pickle, cake, some hot pasta stuff and an 80's compiliation CD that came to typifiy the entire lunch break experience.
The London to Paris Lunchtime Listening 80's Experience Compilation CD:
Gold - Spandau Ballet
Karma Chameleon - Culture Club
Down Under - Men at Work
Toy Soldiers - Martika
Welcome to the Jungle - Guns 'n' Roses
Everybody Wants to Rule the World - Tears for Fears
Fast Car - Tracey Chapman
...and many, many more! BUT NO DURAN DURAN - we don't tolerate that kind of crap while catering to hungry cyclists
After lunch, I felt a bit stiff for the first mile or so, but then got back into rhythm, still pedalling along quite contentedly. As I was ploughing my way up a hill, however, I had a sudden attack of signage anxiety and looked behind me. Sure enough, I saw two cyclists pootling away down another round road a village green. There was a turning just ahead of me that would allow me to join up with them. One of them was the rider with panniers, and the other a young woman on a red bike. These turned out to be Kevin and Sabrina, who I ended up riding with for the rest of the ride, as we were all doing more or less the same pace.I raced ahead of them for a while, then Sabrina came up alongside as we hit a hill. We talked about the other riders - she was sure a big group had gone ahead of us, and  had taken the same wrong turning. We carried on chatting as we plodded up hill after hill, including one beast that went on for well over a mile and a half. Her gears had got stuck in the middle front ring, so she had to power her way up, while I could comfortably get down into my lower set - even so, it wasn't the easiest uphill.
These undulations went on, and on, and on until finally we saw the third pitstop, manned by a single person.
'Has everyone else come through?' I asked
'No!' replied the woman, whose name has completely slipped my brain, but she has curly hair and works in TEFL in Spain and sorry for forgetting your name if you're reading this, 'You're the first in'.
Wow! Leading the peloton! Sabrina and I gave each other a high five, then attacked the bananas and snacks. The next in was Kevin.
'That was a bit bloody 'ard' he said. 'You know what? we passed the top of the road where I live earlier on - I'm from Maidstone - should 'ave gone in for a cup of tea'.
Gradually, more riders appeared, including the group who had got lost. Sabrina and I were feeling pretty pleased with ourselves, so after we'd rested, we set off ahead of the others.
...And very quickly got lost.
Kev had set off a couple of minutes earlier than us, as well, and was nowhere to be seen as we cruised through the Kent landscape. After a few miles, we hit another spectacular downhill, turned left and pounded down the road. We were talking about why we'd decided to do the challenge - for me, about the family members and friends who'd had cancer; For Sabrina, it was to honour her dad.
'This is his bike', she said, patting the machine she was riding.'I do have a carbon fibre one, but there was a problem with it and I decided to use this. I've spent months training with his old friends - we've done all these long distance rides. The distance for this doesn't bother me - it's just going up all these hills and doing it in time!'
As we went on, the wind decided to get a bit friskier, and the clouds gradually darkened. After I while, I said, 'when did we last see an orange arrow?'
Signage Anxiety was beginning to creep over me once more.
'Ages ago. There's a road sign at the top of the hill - let's look at it'.
So we pedalled up the hill. The road sign pointed to a few local villages and Canterbury via an A road.
Suddenly, Kev appeared, pedalling madly towards us.
'We've gone the wrong bleeding way! I've ended up halfway to bleeding Canterbury!'
We stopped to check on our road maps - the one I'd hardly bothered to look at. Sure enough, it seemed to show a route turning about four miles earlier. So, off we turned and after four miles, there was the little orange arrow, flipping round in the wind. We got back on the correct path, and followed a route that was more undulating than hilly, and finally, a road sign saying 'DOVER'.
We arrived at the ferry terminals just before five, with a lick of rain just starting and an expensive coffee waiting in the ticket sales terminal. Most of the cyclists had arrived, all with their own tales, and a couple bearing a few cuts and bruises. Dominic, the guy who'd fallen off at the beginning, was sporting a really nasty bruised face and cuts, while another rider, Glen, was showing off an elbow he'd grazed up twice. Several of us were grumbling about the signs, but overall, the sensation was of quiet exhilaration, of a job done.
And then we had to go and wait for the ferry, on our bikes, in the rain.
For an hour!
I have to say that this was, on reflection, quite easily the lowest point of the entire jaunt. It was a just a miserable and increasingly chilly wait, and when we finally boarded, our spirits lifted somewhat, just to be dashed by SeaFrance's catering efforts - which leads me to another theme during this ride:
For your delectation on this, your first evening meal of your four-day quest, we have:
A rubber cheesburger-delicious hot or cold!
A chicken 'Curry' - it's beige!
sausages and chips - mmm, stale!

I had the chicken 'curry' and 'rice', most of which could quite happily be bounced across the floor.
The ride across the Channel itself was smooth, and I chatted with some of the other riders about how they felt it had gone so far - everyone still came across as enthusiastic, albeit knackered. Eventually, we arrived at Calais, along with the rain. We had to wait until all the motor vehicles had disembarked before we were allowed off en masse, into an evening full of swirling rain and wind. The Discover Adventure truck was waiting for us, and we followed their instructions to follow it in convoy through the Calais night to our hotel. We bumped across the ferry terminal road, out onto the main street, and all of a sudden my bike started purring, as it had its first ever encounter with French tarmac, smoother than any road I've been on before.
After five miles or so, we finally arrived at our destination - a Holiday Inn. I got my room keys, and found I was shairing with Ross, a tall guy from Aberdeenshire who I'd been chatting with on the boat. After having a shower and a truly well-deserved and expensive - 6 euros!)beer, I crashed out after what can only be described as a bit of a long day.

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