‘I feel like I’m sending you off to war.’
My flatmate’s parting words sounded melodramatic as she hugged me goodbye. But to be honest I was feeling the fear. I’m not a cyclist, I’m a walking disaster at the best of times, even with both feet on solid ground and yet here I was, lugging a backpack and a borrowed bike down two flights of stairs, stupidly early one May morning. Close to 300 kilometres of road loomed ahead. Cycling from London to Paris had sounded like a brilliant adventure when we’d committed to it six months ago but now, I wasn’t so sure.
We met at the Leather Bottle in Earlsfield for a quick coffee before heading out: myself, eight crazy inspiring women from Richmond Physiotherapy, Arnie, an enthusiastic partner joining us for the first day’s ride in reparation for the Prudential, and Matt – our absolute superstar chef d’equipe and support driver. Cycling through south London traffic was incredibly stop-start but not nearly as traumatising as I’d imagined it would be and the countryside beyond the suburbs is gorgeous. Our first pit stop was at The Bell Inn, a lovely pub south of Croydon where Matt sweet-talked the staff into opening early especially to serve us coffee.
A few more miles led us to Turner’s Hill, which I’d heard mentioned ominously a few times. I’d decided not to use cleats for this trip and halfway up was seriously re-thinking that decision. The further up I got, the more I felt like a dog frantically paddling to get to the top because once your legs stop moving it’s game over. A brief respite at the top – and a mini carb-loading session thanks to Bridget’s boiled new potatoes – gave my legs a chance to stop shaking and my brain to realise I wasn’t dying. The payback is worth the effort, freewheeling down the other side is a breeze in comparison. Not being used to the feel of a road bike yet, I did feel slightly hesitant, but the wonderful Toosie stayed close to me, throwing casual tips and encouragement : ‘pump the brakes Jules, or you’ll go flying over the handlebars when you stop’… ‘lean your knees against the frame for more stability, you’ve got this!’
The countryside is breathtaking and being on a bike connects you in a special way. We were making good time and stopped at Lindfield Coffee Works, a groovy cafe where we could sit out in the sun and enjoy their fabulous menu. Lindfield is such a picture perfect little town, one of many places I felt I must go back and visit but we needed to get going on the last push to the coast. Jess and Toosie disappeared en route – they are super fit speedsters and left us in their dust, accidentally taking a wrong turn, and inadvertently adding an unplanned scenic loop around the Downs before meeting us in another scenic Sussex town, Lewes.
Success! We arrived at Newhaven around four pm, an hour and a half before our ferry departed, so we had plenty of time to chill out at the DFDS terminal before boarding. An otherwise unexciting hour proved quite eventful when a lively French stag party came in off the ferry, led by an exuberant, intoxicated groom-to-be sporting a blonde wig and looking like a cross between Pamela Anderson and something off the Muppet Show.
The ferry crossing was long but calm, with the backdrop of a stunning sunset. We were all ravenous and the buffet provided delicious food while the bar staff helped us to a liberal sprinkling of water and wine. By the time the ferry docked, it was late evening in Dieppe and we had one last stretch up a fairly steep hill to the Brit Hotel. Pippa marshalled us all inside, instructing us to make sure we took our bikes into our rooms so they wouldn’t get stolen à la the infamous London-Paris ride of ten years ago. Ask Pippa, Kate or Edel to regale you with their stories on that – it’s become Richmond Physio folklore.
Crashing into bed, we were exhausted, seriously sore from the saddle (I don’t know how cyclists can have any kind of sex life!), quad muscles aching like nothing else and faced with the prospect of doing it all again in the morning! At least on the French side it would be pain with a side of brie and Bordeaux…
Sunday started with a delightful breakfast in the hotel and a few minor mishaps. Kathryn quick-washed her cycling shirt in the sink – clearly it wasn’t going to dry over breakfast, I’d misplaced my passport for about the third time, then we all happily headed off the wrong roundabout exit five minutes after setting off. Another five minutes later, Matt had us all back on track again, winding through country roads towards Beauvais, Kathryn’s soaked shirt flying like a flag from the window of the car.
The countryside in France is arguably even more stunning than in England. We cruised through tiny stone villages for a while before picking up the Avenue Verte – a smooth tree-lined track that traces the old Dieppe-Paris railway line across the north of France. We followed this for most of the day, threading though hamlets and small holdings, a seemingly endless road disappearing into a leafy green cavern… and blessedly flat! The aches and pains were still grumbling but it was much more of a cruising day, chatting for miles, dodging the occasional oncoming cyclist and stopping for coffee whenever a caffeine fix was needed.
In pretty little Forges-les-Eaux we stopped to grab a quick snack from the back of the car and a lovely Frenchman asked where we were headed, suggesting a more scenic route to Beauvais. This amended route proved brilliant – sending us through some glorious surroundings. Charming stone villages were woven together with fields of wheat and poppies nodding at their edges, gravelly road carved it’s way through the countryside and cows peered cartoonishly over hedges as we cycled past. Whereas the morning had been spent riding together and chatting sociably, over this section we were more spread out and cycling solo which was equally enjoyable in a more introspective, mind-wandering kind of way.
Arriving in Gournay-en-Bray with the intention of finding lunch, we were reminded that everything – really, everything – closes in France on a Sunday. Eventually we found a café that would serve us coffee and Martine managed to persuade them to spare us some bread as well, so lunch was spent with the nine of us sprawled across the small tables outside, drinking café au lait with baguettes, Twix bars and an assortment of fruit and nuts from Martine’s magic bottomless bike bag.
Re-joining the Avenue Verte led us pretty much into Beauvais without too much difficulty. After a little confusion in the town centre trying to figure out where Kate had booked us in for the night, we realised it was actually the Hotel Mercure and we were standing right outside it. What a relief, we’d covered one hundred kilometres and were ready to drop. The hotel had kindly prepared a special room to store our bikes securely and then off we tramped up to our rooms for much needed refreshing showers and a crash. By seven everyone was down in the bar ready to congratulate each other on our ride.The rest of the evening passed in a blur of uniquely crafted gin and tonics (without lemon… or ice…?!), white wine, red wine and dinner. Kathryn and I somehow managed to completely confound the waiter by asking to not only share several plates, but also have them come at the same time, which resulted in us each getting our starter and mains scrambled together in one giant plate… result!
Getting out of Beauvais in the morning proved tricky. We left in rush hour traffic and there were cars and roads leading off in every direction. We ended up carrying our bikes up the steps onto a footbridge and launching back onto the road at an incredibly busy roundabout. Kudos to the French drivers who patiently allowed us to weave about all over the place trying to find the way! Heading away from the town was a dream, cycling over smooth tarmac roads at such a pace, it feels like you’re flying. More rustic farm villages with ancient church spires and tractors edging along the streets, navigating the maze-like alleys of the bigger towns, getting lost in the one-way systems that loop around on themselves so much that you feel like you’ve explored the entire town before you find your way out of it.
We hit the outskirts of Paris much sooner than I’d expected that last morning. It was simultaneously exhilarating and disappointing to think that it was almost over; to get close to Paris felt amazing, yet I missed the countryside now behind us. Inching through suburbia, traffic-light by traffic-light with little children crossing on their way to school, it felt frustrating after the freedom of open roads. We stopped in a small railway car park on the edge of the Seine for one last coffee and a regroup before heading for the inner city chaos.
And it was chaos. Cycling through central Paris was daunting. The further in we got, the less order there seemed to be. Cars and motorbikes share the road with trucks and cyclists, all jostling for space, constantly honking and driving around each other. In extremely close proximity. Kate was the only one of us who really knew (i.e. had some vague idea) of where we were going so the rest of us were either valiantly making it up as we went, or there were eight of us in a pack blocking an entire lane of traffic. Then when the lights turn green it’s a close your eyes and pedal for your life kind of situation, hoping like hell that the cars – coming from any given direction and probably running a red light – will swerve to avoid you.
Twenty hair-raising minutes later, we finally rolled up in front of the Gare du Nord to the splendid vision of the suave and sophisticated Joe, who’d taken the Eurostar from London to meet us. Like a mirage, there he was, sauntering across the concourse with champagne and flutes in hand. To say it felt surreal would be an understatement. Extremely happy and slightly tipsy, we dropped off the bikes at Platform Two and headed for a delicious celebratory lunch in the Brasserie du Nord. Jubilant and knackered we poured ourselves onto the evening Eurostar heading back to London.
Several weeks later, my muscles have finally stopped aching, the bruises on my legs have faded away and I’ve fallen completely in love with cycling.