Tuesday, September 06, 2011

The London to Paris cycle ride, part four

A thump on the window. Le Campanile's version of a wakeup call. I'd actually woken a little earlier, feeling remarkably good, certainly better than I deserved to. And, contrary to expectations, not particularly sore: In fact, I seemed to be floating slightly, with a faint grin on my face. We were all up earlier than any of the other days, simply because we had a rendezvous with Paris at 2.30. I found I couldn't eat much - too early to eat, or maybe too excited, I don't know. It was a somewhat perfunctory affair, a croisant and a coffee, then I packed my daysack and main pack for the last time, keeping the former as light as possible for the last leg. The morning was cool, with mist hanging around the tree tops opposite the hotel, but it boded heat - you just knew that when the sun got going, it would turn into a hot one. We threw our bags into the support van, saddled up, and, from me -
We pedalled onto the road again, the whole pack of us. The atmosphere was one of excitement and anticipation, of knowledge of a job nearly done. We turned a corner, then another, and then whoosh! into the mist and the forests and the hills. Riding through fog is always a strange and exhilarating experience - the movement into the unknown, the way the opaque curtain closes behind you, the sense of being held in a bubble, the way  it emphasises that, as you ride, there is only you and the now and the road.
And what a road! A sheer joy of tarmac: with the exception of our voices and the odd car, we moved on in near silence, a ghost peleton, a glimmer of brief rushing colours passing through the fog. As we came out of Compiegne, I also saw, for the first time ever, a red squirrel. Sadly, little Squirrel Nutkin had not heeded his own road safety advice.
It was splattered across the road.
There can be little doubt that roadkill in the United Kingdom exhibits a far greater range of wildlife than it does in the French Republic. Upon the roads of the Green and Pleasant Land, one may observe Hedgehogs, frogs, toads, rabbits, pigeons, squirrels, pheasants, peasants, grouse, ptarmigans (in the north), quail, sheep, muntjac and other varieties of deer, even the odd wallaby. France, however, displays a far greater amount of roadkill. rare is it to go 200 metres along a main road without encountering a flattened rat, or exploded mouse. If one wishes to enjoy sheer roadkill headcount, then France is the country for you.
The roads were fairly hilly, but by and large not excessively so. Well, that's how it seemed at first. We went into dips, then rose again, occasionally climbing up out of the fog into a brief view of a small island above a sea of white, before dipping again. But then, we hit a hill. A big bugger. It went on and on, and then on a bit more. And then a bit extra. Finally, we got to the top. The road was clear of mist, although it still lay in the fields to either side. The sky was suddenly properly visible, the kind of blue that turns gradually paler as the day passes. Turning on to a side road, we waited for others to catch up. A couple of minutes passed. Ross appeared, struggling with a very spongy tyre. Following him was Sabrina, clearly having problems.
'You Ok?'
'No!', she smiled, nearly crying at the same time. She'd done something to one of her legs, and was obviously in quite a lot of pain. We stopped for a breather, and she hobbled off her bike, nearly collapsing. Kris, Glen's trainer, had a look at her leg, and tried giving it a massage. It had already started swelling.
'I felt it go as I came up the hill', she gasped.'I just started off too cold'.
While Kris looked after her, I tried helping out Ross and his back tyre, which had suddenly gone flat. He tried reinflating it with his pump, but it was a screw-in type, and kept on taking the valve out. We tried with three different pumps, with mine eventually getting a bit of air successfully into it. Someone else had also developed a flat. It seemed as if, on the final day, whatever could go wrong, would go wrong. The support vehicle turned up, and Marco got to work with inner tubes and pumps. Suddenly, from out of the mist, there was a tremendous roar, the sound of what I thought was a  jet fighter flying low and very, very near.
'Jesus! That plane's close!'
'It's not a plane', replied someone, 'that's the Eurostar - the line's just down in that valley'.
Never heard a train sound like that. I felt my legs were getting cold, so rather than run the risk of them cramping up, I decided to ride on to the water stop, which was only a couple of kilometres ahead, and located in what should have been on the stereotypes bingo list - a lovely, honey-coloured chateau:
what - no bananas?
across the road, over the field, electricty pylons poked their heads through the mist, and down a misty lane with sunlight lancing, a man on an old-fashioned bicycle went by.
He wasn't playing an accordion though.
honest, that's a bloke on a bike without an accordion.
the road on which we stopped was Rue Jean-Paul Satre, which almost counts for the sneering existentialist philosopher in a black roll-neck sweater listening to jazz stereotype.
The rest of my pack came in a few minutes after me, and once they'd had their fill, and Sabrina had been checked over again, the nurse asked her if she'd be ok.
'I've come this bloody far, I'm finishing this!' Good for her.
We carried on into a brighter day, and as we headed towards Paris, we came on older roads, and an older type of road surface: cobbles, or CCCCCOOOOOOBBBBBBLLLLLEEEESSS AAAAAGGGHHH, as all the people on road bikes called them. My cunning plan to use a heavy mountain bike was finally coming to fruition, I kidded myself. It was only in the villages we passed that we encountered this - in between, there was still the baby-smooth EU-subsidised, Tour de France-attracting tarmac. We glided down one hill, across a plain and towards another ridge, on which a ruined turret jutted from the tree tops, looking in sunlight like a ragged face staring towards us. Another uphill, a sudden bout of cobbles, the sound of Sabrina going 'Oooowww!' as she went over them, a brief stop at the top, and then we were in the Oise Valley - the Oise, which debouches into the Seine. We were almost on the final leg.
 We rode through a village with more traffic than we had been used to, and there on a corner was -
man with baguette under his arm exiting a boulangerie!
we cheered, much to the bemusement of people watching us go by.
Lunch. At ten o'clock. Did we care? Hell no - there was apple pie, more pasta of various hues, a final melange of options from the previous few days, and 80's music: What more could you ask for from a saturday in France with the sun rising? The nurse gave Sabrina an injection to help with her swollen leg, and within half and hour she was feeling a lot better - well, she could actually walk, for one thing. Lorraine, who had taken the tumble the day before, was sore and riding slow, but still in one piece. In fact, everyone was bubbly and ready for the very last section.
would you like some pie with your cream, Ross?
We thanked the field catering team (Extreme Catering, for those who want to know), and got into the saddle.
And promptly got almost lost. Well, actually, we were in the right direction, but Dave suddenly said,
'Hang on, this must be wrong - we're doubling back on ourselves'.
We looked at our maps, tried to work out what was going on, then went back down the hill, went down a side road, saw that was wrong, saw another group of riders, then decided to follow them. And that was the last example of signage anxiety of the trip. Carrying on up a hill, I ended up ahead of the others, and decided to stop and put on some sun cream - by now, it was seriously hot. The rest of the group came up the hill, and on we went - down one road, through another surrounded by older houses, down a hill, up the other side and then, a couple of kilometres later -
Pylon after pylon, marching across the countryside, all aimed in the same direction. Planes coming in to land, or lifting up into the sky from some as yet unseen airstrip. Glints of glass, roads to the left, to our right, ahead, all with a single destination - the towers and buildings on the horizon, so close -
we whooped and cheered, and seemed to get more life into our legs. We were almost there, it seemed. Team Rouge (me, Kev, Sabrina, Dave, Glen, and Ross ) ploughed on. And on.
In fact, there were quite a few more miles to cover. The Banlieus of Paris approached. We went down one downhill, and in front of us were the skyscrapers of the financial district and suddenly, between two buildings, gone in a flash, the Eiffel Tower. Not everyone got downhill in one piece. We passed Dulcie, being helped by the support vehicle, who'd come off in a pothole, bashing her knee.
On went the banlieus, and the traffic became heavier while the roads became narrower. It was time to switch to city-style cycling, slower and more defensive, and after the freedom and speed of the last few days, immensely frustrating. Paris exuded heat: It clung to us, a clammy shirt of humidity, and left us sapped and increasingly thirsty. The traffic meant that it became difficult to overtake or move ahead easily. At one stage, we were forced to crawl behind a guy driving a mobility shopper down the road, who I suspected was thoroughly enjoying reducing our speed. Finally, the Seine appeared, and we moved along its banks, frustrated by the traffic lights - but where was our stop? We still had kilometres of avoiding pedestrians, cars, and parked vans that abruptly pulled out, earning at least two a thump on the side from me.
'Where the bloody hell are we bloody stopping?' I yelled, annoyed.
'There!' said another guy just in front of me, pointing at Marco, who was waving frantically in the middle of the road. At last, the park!
'Well done guys, you're here! Get in the park and have an ice cream.'
I didn't even mind spending three quid on a Cornetto.
Paris! And this, unbelievably, is a public toilet.

Team Rouge!
So, we all got drinks and ice creams and changed into our MacMillan Tshirts, and suddenly no-one really knew what to say. It's always the same when you reach a target or achieve something: there's a moment of anti-climax, of doubt, of 'well, what next?' We stood or sat, relaxing, and actually there wasn't a need to say a thing. We had ridden three hundred miles in four days, and you don't do that too often.
But we hadn't quite finished yet. There was still the small matter of another ride in formation to do, and do THIS:

Holy Shit! We rode round the Arc de Triomphe and down the Champs Elysee! It doesn't get much better than that.
Well, actually, it did.
We headed towards the Eiffel Tower, the support vehicle ahead of us, holding us together as a pack. As we approached the Champs du Mars, it slowed right down at some traffic lights, then suddenly roared off as they turned red. We had to wait, and it dawned on us that we had to do a sprint finish. We lined up, poised on the  pedals, waiting for the lights to change. One of the Discover Adventure team was ahead of us, waving a flag and beckoning, and the the lights changed, and BOOM! we cranked it as hard as we could, and there ahead of us was a roundabout and friends and relatives all screaming and cheering and waving flags,  and Marco was shouting 'keep going round, keep going round!', so we did, everyone whooping and laughing.
Fortunately, there were several little blokes running round with buckets of beer, and by God, they tasted good. The beer that is, not the little blokes. All that was left was the photos and greeting families - and for Laura to fall over on her bike because she couldn't get her cleats out in time. It was time for a last pedal - down to our hotel, The Pullman Rive Gauche, which was definitely a notch better than the other hotels we'd stayed in. I went to get my key and find out who my roommate was for that night - turned out it was Ross once again, but:
'My girlfriend's got a room. No offense, but I think I'd rather spend the night with her', he said, grinning.
I had a couple of glasses of champagne that had  been laid on, and checked on my bike, which was in the stack that were being loaded onto a lorry for transportation back to St. Pancras.
'You did well on that', said one of the Discover Adventure guys. ' When I first saw it, I thought, nah, he'll never make it.'
'It's not that big a monster!'
'That is a Claud Butler. I reckon that's one of the heaviest bikes ever to complete this challenge. However, I've seen someone try to do this on a shopper bike.'
Feeling terribly chuffed with myself, I went up to my room on the fifteenth floor, one I could enjoy in glorious solitude, with views across Paris and the Parc des Princes. I poured myself a beer and treated myself to a long, hot, shower, a great big grin spread over my face.
And that's where it ends, nearly. The victory dinner was socially pleasant, but the food was, beyond doubt, a disaster. If I thought the grub at Arras was bad, it hadn't come remotely close to what awaited me here. It was :
shame on you Pullman Rive Gauche! Shame
Well, it was some kind of potted lamb meat, served on a bed of couscous. It's really hard to bugger up couscous, but by God they'd done it. And the lamb - it really did taste as bad as it looks in the photo. However, it was more than made up for by the party in the bar across the road, which went on to past three in the morning, survived a sudden torrential thunderstorm, and saw at least one broken table.
All that was left was a couple of hours walking round a sunday Paris. I ended up in the Tuileries with Kev, admiring the gardens and statues, then headed back by metro to the hotel. And finally, coming up the exit tunnel, there he was:
An accordion player.
Accompanied by a tuba player.
Playing a rendition of The Birdie Song!
What an adventure. What a great five days.
To everyone who made this possible, thank you. To everyone who participated, you're all brilliant. To Sabrina, Kev, Glen, Dave, Ross, and Kris, thank you for making the whole thing so enjoyable.
And would I do this again?

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