London to Paris - Part 1: London to Dover - and Calais
We travelled down in the early afternoon. It was hot and sunny and our trip started with all the forethought and seriousness of a proper expedition; our bags were stuffed with enough Lycra to equip a Tour de France team and our bikes were firmly anchored to the roof bars. The journey was relatively easy, no stressful traffic hold-ups and almost before we knew it we were circumnavigating the M25 looking for Croydon.
Croydon is a pleasant residential suburb for commuters into London - it was the location of London's main airport until the second world war and there has been much regeneration since. But we were more interested in the roads - in particular the gradients. We noticed it was hilly. We drove up a long twisting rise that silenced us as we contemplated what the possibility would be of riding up such a gradient on a bike. None according to Gary.
|Selsdon Park Hotel|
We adjourned to the bar - the air conditioning was working at full tilt in there and we felt comfortable. It was 4.00pm, we'd already had two pints - this might not go to plan.
As we looked out over the car park we watched more and more cyclists arriving - the anticipation was becoming more noticeable - the palms sweatier. Two more pints and we are watching highlights from the days stage of The Tour on the big screen TV - we are joined by Stephen who introduces himself and asks if we are riding - we enjoy some chit-chat about bikes and training before he wanders off to join the group dining experience in the adjoining restaurant - we didn't bother booking in for that.
At about 7.00pm we are joined by Dave who is riding with us - he got held up at work and then had to get across London in the rush hour - we go down to register and pick up our luggage labels and route maps - and that's it we're about done. We retire to bed early - its and early start tomorrow morning.
Wednesday 17th July 2013
After that we check out and take our bags down to the awaiting trucks, then get our bikes and join the masses at the front of the hotel. As you might expect there are delays, late arrivals etc and it is 7.20am before we start rolling out of the car park on route for Dover. It's baking hot again, even at this early hour, I suspect it will be tough by midday.
A dead badger creates quite a hazard to a group descending a hill at maybe 30mph.
Just another twenty or so miles to Dover - a few more hills and we're there - the last part of the ride is flat or downhill as we roll into the port and find a space on the grassy patch opposite the ferry terminal - now it's a question of waiting. Our ferry leaves at 5.30 - we have an hour wait. There are people arriving all the time - and a few in our bunch who are missing - as time presses on I hear the organiser say he will have to go out in the van to scoop them up - just then they arrive in, the last few cyclists, visibly drained and looking tired. This was a tough first stage - and we've still got a few miles to ride in France to get to our hotel.
Riding onto the ferry was an experience - a bunch of 150 or so riders holding up the traffic and making its way over various roundabouts, ramps and obstacles before coming to a halt just on the edge of England - The white cliffs were right beside us as we awaited to be checked in/on. The last few yards had to be negotiated on foot, and we were given a complete bay to ourselves for our bikes. By now its about 5.30 - the sun is still strong and the sea calm as we set off across the Channel. We get to the restaurant but there's not much of a selection and I'm still feeling full from lunch - I opt for just a sandwich whilst the others get chicken and chips. Add on the hour time difference and it's near enough 7.30pm by the time we get off the boat in Calais. Then its a ride of about 5 miles to our hotel - This one has air-conditioned rooms (hooray!) - We queue for our room passes, get our bikes sorted, find our bags, get showered and its bed time - no time or energy for a drink at the bar - just need sleep!
Max speed: 30.1 mph
Height gained: 4859ft
Max temperature - 104f
Calories used: 7582
As the day went on the climbing continued, including some long stretches of steep, narrow paths, no better than gravel tracks with edges bare and unprotected. I took my eye off the road for a second to reach for my bottle and rolled off the edge of the road, just enough to cause me to lose balance and within a second i was off the bike - thankfully I wasn't travelling very fast - but I lost skin on my elbow and knee and suffered a nasty bruise to my thigh.
Onwards and upwards the pitiless roads stretched out with dawdling bends and steady upward gradients. Riders are flagging now, sweat-drenched, emptying water bottles over themselves in an attempt to allay the effects of the torrid heat, the July sun, blazing on full power. We hear of a rider who has collapsed - the rumour is sun-stroke. We hear that he's okay and is resting and hoping to rejoin later. This is serious, hard-core riding. I don't remember any mention of the effort required on any of the material that was sent out when we signed up? - But we're here now, doing it, no choice but to keep going.
Our lunchbreak is another village hall - this one beautifully cool inside - we collapse to the floor along with 30 or so other cyclists - and gradually cool down our core. After a rest of maybe 30 minutes, we press on, the terrain remains the same - there is a cruel rise immediately after lunch, so that the effort makes regurgitation a distinct possibility.
Now we're passing along roads covered with a canopy of dense trees, the sun shines through creating dappled diamonds and oblongs on the road, but it's essentially dark and difficult to see the variations in the road surface. I spotted a couple of interesting wildlife examples - unfortunately both dead. A mole and a red squirrel.
We showered and changed and came down for a supper of spaghetti bolognese - we heard stories of people dropping out and being scooped up - we could understand it - the combination of heat and difficult terrain made the day most demanding. After supper it was immediately to bed again - the effort of all day out on the road takes it toll - sleep is what we need. Gary and I have had problems in the past trying to get home after a few beers, but tonight was different, no excess of beer just extremely tired and a problem remembering room numbers. I went up to the room, Gary was following in the next lift. Gary arrived at 'the room' and tried the credit card room key to no avail. Gary knocked on the room, still no response, after more knocking and a few choice words from Gary, I replied, we had a conversation, I opened the door and saw Gary's back to me talking to the room door on the opposite side of the corridor !!!
Max speed: 36.2
Height gained: 5925ft
Max temperature: 105.8f
Calories used: 9286
|Ice Cold in Amiens!|
|The Cathedral at Amiens|
As we file out to our bikes for another day in the saddle it is welcoming to know that the hardest days are done - today will be similar in terrain to the previous two, but only 65 miles or so to ride.
There's a subdued atmosphere as we clip in and get ready to set off. Everyone looks tired, hunched and in need of more sleep. The sun is already beating down and it is going to be another hot, dry day out there.
We get an update that a couple of riders collapsed yesterday with heat exhaustion - and on today's sheet there quite a few DNS - (Did not start). It's understandable - this has been a tough ride, the combination of demanding terrain and excessive heat has taken its toll. Martin, the man in charge tells me that everyone who is struggling will be allowed to drop back in when they feel better - he is hoping for a full roster come Paris. Meantime we've got to get to Criel. My back has been troubling me since we started, I've controlled it with drugs but the hilly nature of the course hasn't helped - add to that sore thigh muscles, excessive saddle soreness (something that's never really bothered me previously) and a pain in my left foot and I realise I'm not really in the best of condition. However I'm determined to get it done - and the prospect of a shorter day and then tomorrow into Paris lightens the load.
Dave catches us up here - but we're leaving just as he arrives - he wants to eat so says he'll catch us up - he will - he's riding really well. We head off and there's the usual tough, steep climb out of the village to the next ridge - long and hard - not easy with a full stomach. At least we know we don't have far to ride this afternoon - the sun blazes again, the tarmac is melting in places and grit and stones get stuck to our tyres. A few more up and downs and the road gets flatter - we're approaching our destination and negotiating various roundabouts and dual carriageways - interesting fact - Criel is twinned with Bethlehem - but no star to signal our resting pace for the evening - once again we're in two separate hotels - unfortunately the first one we come across isn't ours - some of our group drop off here, but we have a little further to travel and enlist the help of a 'man in a van' who gives valuable directions to the Campanile hotel.
Another mile or so and we're there - we join the group of cyclists already congregated on the grassy patch outside the bar, all crammed against the wall on the metre wide strip that is in full shade. A couple of beers and we settle to watch the others arrive over the next hour or so. Pretty soon the bar has run out of beer - bad planning by the Campanile - 75 or so English cyclists arriving at your hotel on the way to Paris - you'd think they might have anticipated a demand for a few beers?
|Outside The Campanile|
After a short rest it's down to the restaurant for supper. As we know, French cuisine is revered throughout the world; sophisticated, complicated, beautiful - the greatest cuisine ever invented? But so far on this trip there has been no evidence - there seems to be a gastronomic malaise in this part of France. The thing is that French food is weighed down by a heritage that is both unimprovable and archaic. Cooking isn't timeless, it's as much a product of fashion as ....well, fashion. All attempts at modernising it diminish it. Cuisine minceur, nouvelle cuisine, the arbitary addition of eastern spices, twiddly garnishes etc - all make it absurd. It's food caught in aspic - you either eat history or move on like the rest of Europe, to easier, dumbed down food.
|Dave grabs a rest before dinner|
I'm not sure what we were served this evening could ever be called 'fine dining' - our starter was a birds nest of raw grated carrot with half a hard boiled egg sitting in the middle. Appalling - absolutely ghastly.
Main course: two pieces of bony chicken with a spoon of boiled rice. Actually the chicken tasted good - just very little of it. No vegetables, no bread. We were left feeling like asking for more.
Desert: a beaker of yoghurt with a teaspoon of raspberry jam. Looked like raspberry ripple but tasted sour, warm and boring.
The uninspired food and the lack of beer meant we went to bed hungry - we all wished that they could have arranged for the mobile catering company to service us in the evenings as well - their fayre was much more suited to our needs. We later found out that one of our group - Jonathan Campbell - made a trip into town for a large portion of Chateaubriande and frites - wish we'd known!
Hopefully today was the last tough day. It's our last day of riding tomorrow and we lay in bed thinking of riding along the Champs Elysees.
Max speed: 36mph
Height gained: 2612 ft
Max temperature: 96.8f
Miles covered: 62.06
Calories used: 5347
|Gary - preparing for the off|
|On the outskirts of Paris|
|Outside the Louvre|
|The celebratory beers|
I woke at around 11.00am - in fact Gary woke me as he staggered around the room - I felt awful and just needed sleep - Gaz decided on walking down to the centre with Stephen our farmer friend from Suffolk. I said I'd see them later and pulled the blanket over to shield the spears of hot, bright sunlight.
I wished I had kept clear of the club last night - we were so misplaced in there - I should have retired, not out, at a more respectable time. Too late now - but another hour or two in bed should sort it - I set the alarm on my phone for 1.00pm.
Instantly it was 1.00pm - I felt no better - but got up anyway and made a wavy line for the shower. Gradually I was feeling human again - I wandered down and out of the Hotel - heading in a vague, uninformed way to where I thought the Eiffel Tower would be. Within four-hundred metres of the hotel I went past a Blues club - we went in the wrong direction last night. The sun was hot and my dehydration needed attention - I stopped at a cafe for coffee and a bottle of water - there was a piano player singing 'Those were the days' in French. I moved on - using google maps to direct me - I was shocked to see that I had to walk almost 6km - my legs were tired, my feet hurt - I almost turned back - then Gary called - he and Stephen were at the Eiffel Tower - where was I?..... On my way I told him - but at least an hour away - I told him I'd call him when I was close.
I paused at a random green patch, caught in the intestines of concrete like trapped wind. A sit down - it's just too hot, i'm grateful that the bench is in shade. I realise that wandering around the streets of Paris is pretty much the same as the streets anywhere, .... all the International brands and universal labels are here in their masses - the old Paris, the pensions and bistros, 10f menus, coffee with chicory in bowls and Pastis at 9.00am have vanished. But that's not to say there aren't still places to be seen and stylish people to see - you just have to work harder. The characters are still there - the cabinet minister with the drooling lip, eating oysters with one hand; the French pop star dressed entirely in black leather with dark glasses the size of satellite dishes; the old glamour model with her dog; the father with his daughter, or perhaps a friend of his daughter, the mournful, gargoyled faced waiter.
Finally, after what seemed like a journey lasting days, there it was. The ultimate landmark - 324 metres of latticed iron work - the most visited pay-to-enter monument in the world. I couldn't quite understand how it had remained hidden from me for so long - it's not exactly small - You could say it was an eyeful..... I strolled along the Seine in the general direction, I bought another bottle of water from a street vendor and sat on a bench overlooking the river and the city beyond. I'm close now - but feeling extraordinarily tired. At last I cross the Seine and I'm on the Champs Elysees - there are people lining the streets already, their places claimed next to the barriers. There are a lot of Union flags and people wearing Mark Cavendish masks. The atmosphere is building, there are various 'official' trailers selling merchandise and the usual food stands. The smell of onions fried in fat and water and then scorched on a hot plate is something that England has given to the world - I imagine this is a smell that the Crusaders would recognise - all the way from Tilbury to Acre.
I arrive at the half-way point, the Arc de Triumphe is up the hill and I'm around the finishing line. I can see they're setting up the podium for the winner and there's a big screen here too. I buy another bottle of water and a can of coke and call Gary. He's on the other side somewhere but says he'll wander over. I need to sit down but the only place I can find is a bench under the full intensity of the blazing sun - I don't care - I take a seat and drink the coke in a couple of gulps - I start sipping the water and listening to the other people sitting around me. There are a husband and wife from Evesham - he has a strong Birmingham accent. He sits on the other side of the bench whilst his wife sits on the floor - he talks loudly of watching the Tour on TV and how he much prefers Phil Liggett commentating to Sean Kelly. His wife says nothing. Then he seems to be assembling something, looks like a box, not sure where it came from but he offers it too his wife as a makeshift seat - she declines and stays on the floor. There are another four people sitting immediately behind me. They are Scottish, two couples. One of the men bears an uncanny likeness to a younger George Clooney - the other man is older and dressed in cycling attire including what looks like a recent purchase of a 'King of the Mountains' polka dotted jersey. They get chatting to the Birmingham couple - The Scots have been on holiday to the South and the older man has climbed Alpe d'Huez and The Galibier - he tells of riding up d'Huez before The Tour passed through - the crowds were already assembled and gave him much encouragement. It's about an hour since I spoke to Gaz - and I spot him wandering through the crowd. We decide to get another bottle of water and then move away from the crowds to a patch of grass for a lie down. It's about 3.30pm - The Tour won't be here until around 8.00pm - it's going to be a long, tiring wait.
We hear an announcement from the podium. ....'And the winner of the 100th Tour de France .... Christopher Froome'... and then the national anthem starts playing. They're practising the winners presentation - people start to sing along ... they even have people dressed in cycling gear on the podium waving to the crowd - it seems like nothing is left to chance. Then there's an open topped car riding along the Champs Elysees, in it a collection of past Tour winners - Eddy Merckx (the greatest of all cyclists), Miguel Indurain, Bernhard Hinault and Gregg LeMond. Then there's a childrens' race. We hear that parts of the tarmac are melting - we know about that - there's a vehicle like a big road-sweeper that rolls around the course sweeping away debris. All the time the crowd is getting bigger, swelling now with anticipation. The big screen flickers into life and we watch the riders setting off on the final stage. It's a relaxed day for most of the peloton - the tradition is that no one attacks the yellow jersey on the last day - the race is won, it's over - all that remains is the battle for the stage victory - for the sprinters - and a chance for Mark Cavendish to make it five consecutive victories on the Champs Elysees.
It will be another couple of hours before the Tour arrives in Paris - I'm flagging now - my legs ache, my skin is burning, I'm still suffering from last night - we realise we should have stayed in the Hotel and come down at around 6.00pm - there's a lot of waiting around for The Tour - which is fine if you're prepared, chairs, a parasol, a cool box, aspirin etc. Another can of coke and a bottle of water - I even pluck up the courage for a sausage baguette - much more stylish than a hot dog. Then, at last, The Tour caravan arrives in town - you don't get to see this on TV - a procession of vehicles, floats, displays featuring the various sponsors who parade around the course throwing out samples and bits and pieces - after that the riders are approaching - there's a long procession of outriders and cars then the riders speed into view, there's a surge and a cheer from the crowd as they fly past - its all over in the blink of an eye, as they head up to the Arc de Triumphe - then they come past again on the opposite side - its deceiving on TV - they don't look to be going very fast - in real life they are - and there's a distinct sound as 180 or so riders fly past. We watch on the big screen to see what's happening on the rest of the course, and wait for another blink of action as they come round again. All the time the tension is building - Cav gets a puncture, can he get back on the pace? Will it take too much energy, can he win for the fifth time on the trot? - The final lap sees the tempo lifted - they're really moving now - we know what that road surface is like, it's cobbles, many of them broken and rutted - its a shaky, unstable surface that rattles rider and bike - we can only imagine what it feels like at 40mph or more.
Then it's the final lap - everyone is shouting and straining to see the action - we watch it on the big screen for a clearer view - for a second we think Cav has done it - but no - he's well beaten - its not been a great Tour for Mark Cavendish - by his standards two stage wins is a disappointment! - but he'll be back next year I'm sure - with a better lead-out train.
There's 500,000 people around the course and we think the best option is a quick getaway via the Metro back to the hotel - within 20 minutes of seing the final sprint we're in the bar of the hotel - I can't face a beer so a celebratory soda and lime has to suffice. We sit for half an hour and others arrive back - all with iPhone pics from their various vantage points - many with much better views than ours. But it's still been a memorable day - I'd a long held ambition to watch a stage of The Tour - and the final stage must be one of the best - perhaps Alpe d'Huez would be the only one comparable?
We get to bed early - totally drained, aching all over and tired - but satisfied.