I had not long been a member of the Team Liv Camden cycling group when, in their wonderfully inclusive way, I was invited to their first birthday party. This was hosted by two of the members at their great mews flat. It was lovely to hear from Liv Ambassadors Amy and Sandra as they showed photos, told stories and presented awards to the various members. It was very inspiring and I felt really glad to be part of this fledgling club. Sandra announced that they had been looking to organise a cycle with the club from London to Paris and talked a little bit about her initial logistical thoughts and approaches. As we had a drink afterwards I spoke about the events work I had done in this area and she asked if I would be willing to help. I didn't hesitate, thinking about the support I had already been given in the past weeks with my club rides out of London and on my initially scary Regents Park laps. Sandra had been in touch with a possible support driver, Mark Allen (who will appear later in this blog) and as I had organised sports events with my colleague Joe at Greenrock,I offered to help with advice on routes and health and safety. And so we were off, emails went back and forth about ferry crossings, routes and hotels.
There are various routes which can be taken to Paris, but I had heard the best reports about the Portsmouth to Le Havre route, which also meant we could maximise the ferry crossing of 8 hours to have a decent nights sleep. We got a final costing together and sent it out to the Liv group to see how much interest there was. Very quickly we had 14 people signed up. Excitement was mounting. We circulated briefing documents and kit lists and gathered essential info. Sandra organised a couple of recce type rides of the Woking to Portsmouth leg, which proved really helpful in ironing out some tricky sections ahead of the big day. A final briefing was held with the team, and Sandra and I met our support driver Mark to discuss final logistics.
Before we knew it, Friday 1st September was on us and a group of excited cyclists amassed at the Giant shop in Camden. Last minute tweaks were made to bikes, final panic purchases made, and bags packed onto Mark's support van. Sandra and I were issued with head sets so that we could keep in touch with Mark via radio quite easily on the ride. I felt very 'Tour de France' as we cycled through central London to Waterloo station. A short train trip to Woking (not cheating, avoiding nasty traffic!) and we were at our designated start point. Not the most glamorous start line next to the Greggs at Woking station, but nothing was going to dampen our enthusiasm.
The sun was shining and we were off. These roads were great - hilly, yes, but not overly busy and we soon started to think about where our pit stop for lunch was. It turned out that we weren't going to have to spend too much time concentrating about such things, as Mark was ready and waiting outside the designated pub waving wildly at us. Our first little group drew in and grabbed a table in the garden. The sun was still shining to the point that a sunscreen top up was in order. The pub were ready for us and had in fact ordered some cakes in specially.....yay, cake, every cyclists' guilty pleasure! A short while later, the next groups arrived, just in time for us to think about setting off again.
This is when I'm glad that I'm not obsessed with knowing all of the detail of routes including elevation as there were a few little hills as we went over the Downs, but well worth it for the view, especially as we saw the first glimpse of Portsmouth Harbour from the top of the last hill near Fort Nelson. Hooray, we were almost there! As we wound our way into Portsmouth, wondering how far it was to the stopping point of the Premier Inn, there was Mark waving at us to take the next turning which would make it easier. Now here's where there's a definite advantage to being in the first group as we had only booked one hotel room for all of us to get showered and changed in. The four of us bundled our bikes into the back of the van and enjoyed the luxury of a hot (and still clean) shower and a bit of a relax and rehydrate. As the others arrived we captured a few more not so glamorous group shots outside a soulless hotel before we helped pack their bikes away. Thankfully the reception staff seemed too preoccupied to notice 14 cyclists trundling up and downstairs to use one room!Next stop the Beefeater for some refuelling before a short taxi to the ferry port.
The next part is a bit of a blur as at now 11pm, we were starting to feel the effects of the day as we tried with varying degrees of success to split ourselves into 4 berth cabins. I realised I hadn't been on a ferry cabin since I was a child, and although I initially felt excited about being on the top bunk, the reality was a ladder that was so narrow that it dug into your feet, and the lack of space meant that any trips to the bathroom had to be a strict necessity. I was hoping that the weird engine vibrations would lull me to sleep, but it has to be said I think the sleep I managed was more from just being shattered.
Another wrestle around the tiny cabin in the morning ensued as we took it in shifts to get dressed and head up for breakfast. This is where my slight OCD kicks in, as I came prepared with my bag of oatcakes and mini jars of peanut butter and jam. Well it works for me! It was a very surreal experience disembarking the ferry as no one seemed to officially tell us to get off and a few of us were left wandering around an empty corridor looking for the way out. It became apparent that ferries don't attract many foot customers, as we seemed to be the only ones. It was quite a sight to see a whole squad (if that's the collective term) of motorbikes lined up and ready to drive off first en masse. We were transported to the ferry terminal building by bus, where even this was a strange arrangement, where the customs police took passports off people about 10 at a time, took them to the passport office and then came back on the bus to try and match them up again with their prospective owners. A strange French game of 'Snap' perhaps that they use to while away the hours?
Mark met us with the van to unload our bikes, giving them the once over as we all took some pre departure pictures, again, not in the most glamorous location. We all set our Garmins as we reminded ourselves 'cycle on the right, cycle on the right...' However we were to be met with our first challenge as soon as we hit the main road as the road we needed to take was closed. Aargh...the sound of 14 cyclists having a slight panic.
Back on track, or so it seemed, we were off to look for some water to fill our bottles. So far so good for a few kms as we were on a nice cycleway on the main road. A random guy seemed determined to tag along and advise us which direction to go, and not entirely helpfully it turned out, as we ended up carrying our bikes over some undergrowth to try and pick up the wrong cycle path. Merci monsieur! Finally, with water bottles refilled and male cyclist dispatched, we were off. The roads out of Le Havre were flat and great easy riding. We utilised our Regents Park skills to take it in turns at the front to take on the ever so slight head wind and were easily embracing this riding on the wrong side of the road lark.
In the zone, we were suddenly aware of Mark at the side of the road shouting 'ferry!' at us. This wasn't the half way stop, what was going on? Well yes indeed, there was a small ferry to be taken across the river. As we boarded, the second group arrived just behind in time to join us on this little watery adventure. It seemed no-one had spotted this on their Garmins and so it was a lovely little distraction as we arrived into the town on the opposite side. Mark yet again proved himself a winner as he announced that he had some water, bananas and crisps for us. "Crisps!" everyone shouted excitedly. He had remembered how we had craved salt the day before - go Mark!
About another 20kms along the road, our official stop on this section was the tiny town of Montfort-sur-Risle. The sky was looking ominous as we cycled towards our ever welcome white van. Mark explained however, that this very typically quaint cafe didn't actually sell food (also typically French!). As we pondered what to do, we could suddenly feel large drops off rain starting to fall and so, decision made, coffee it was! The heavens absolutely opened as soon as we got inside and we could only feel for our fellow cyclists who were out on the road in the midst of it. Sure enough, as we were on our second coffee, they arrived looking rather bedraggled. It has to be said the cafe were very accommodating giving us bowls and plates for our own snacks. As the weather cleared though, unsure what might happen, we started to head off on the second section to Evreux. We were now officially half way through the entire trip! About a further 20km on, Mark waved us down in a lovely little village called Le Neuborg. Although we were unsure if we wanted to stop, when we saw, or rather smelt a little bakery selling cheese and ham baguettes, we were sold. We sat down in a square outside a church and were captivated by a local wedding that was happening. Time for a slightly more picturesque group shot, and with the sun now shining too!
And so onto the next push to Evreux. Well this was to prove to be a nice easy section, mostly cycle path, which was a nice welcome relief, and an opportunity for some chatting and even a team selfie on the go. Of course there was the inevitable final hill into our hotel at Evreux - mais oui, but we were all in high spirits when we arrived. Another very familiar group shot!
How lovely it was to check into a hotel and have your own shower and a proper (non-moving!) bed. After a freshen up we were ready for some real food. We were told that the hotel wasn't serving food that night and so the closest place was a steakhouse about a 25min walk away. Well that's nothing of course for athletes like us, yes, we agreed a walk would be nice. I have to say, though, this was weirdly the hardest part of the whole trip for me. I started to get really bad stomach cramps on the walk to the restaurant which had be almost doubled up. I realised in hindsight that drinking coffee doesn't agree with me, and particularly not two strong espressos! I started to perk up after some food though and then a taxi back and bed was a welcome end to the day.
The next morning we all gathered for breakfast and spirits were high as we were all ready in our specially kept Liv kit for the final day. The first section proved to be a bit on the windy side and so we recruited our peloton style riding again so that we could all take a turn at the front. The roads in France continued to be a treat to ride on, smooth, relatively clear and with mostly considerate drivers. By this time we were breaking down the mileage into 'Regents Park chunks' - so 20km to the next stop became 'just over 4 laps of Regents Park to the next stop!'. There was also a quite welcome distraction when a few guys cycled along with us for a few km telling us they were on club sportive and were impressed to see 'so many women cycling' They were even more surprised to hear there were another 10 of us in groups behind us! Our little separate groups were again to prove to be useful as we arrived at our much anticipated 'Crepe stop' in the village of Garancieres. The owner was very friendly and welcoming to four of us, however not so much when he heard there were 14 of us in total. Not enough 'oeufs' apparently (bit of an oversight for a crepe establishment me thinks?). We decided to employ a tactic of eating as quickly as we could so that hopefully we could do a tag team style effort, and all in our Team Liv kit he might not notice the people inside the kit had changed? Hmm, perhaps not - we shot off before he got too grumpy.
This was it, we were on the final leg! There were some of those inevitable hills of course which always seem to be there straight after lunch. We were grateful for our lovely ham and cheese galette for energy. Our main thoughts now were about the Eiffel Tower and how we could ensure we were all regrouped together for the final few kms. Mark was tasked with finding a suitable stopping place, and more importantly with finding some celebratory champagne for us! As we cycled through these final towns before Paris though, we were very aware that we were getting into more populated territory. Mark texted us with a possible location in Marly-le-Roi, but we overshot it, and so Mark (tracking us on the handy Life 360 app) was in pursuit of us in his van. It seemed the hills on the second half had split the groups a bit and so we should find a coffee stop. We were now on the edge of the Parc de Boulogne and so decided to settle there and have a drink and look aimlessly for a toilet (the woods!). We could literally see the Eiffel Tower peeking through the trees now, agonisingly close. As the final group came along the cycle path we set off en masse, definitely feeling very 'Tour de France' as we entered the main streets of Paris resplendent in our Liv kit. We had to restrain ourselves from stopping at every opportunity along the river to take a photo with the Tower in the background, and so within about 20 minutes, we were here! Our ever faithful driver Mark was there, parked right next to the Tower (what are the chances of that in this climate, in a white van??).
Now, here were some proper photo opportunities, we were so proud! This had been more than most of us had ever cycled, and we had made it in style - no accidents, no injuries and only about 6 punctures between all of us along the way. What an achievement!
Mark relieved us of our bikes to take back on the ferry as we went for some food before the Eurostar home. Here Sandra and I were presented with a little handwritten note on a napkin from the lovely team telling us that a Champney's spa voucher was to follow as a thank you.
Aww, thanks Team, it's been a pleasure, where to next is the question??
Denise Yeats is an events director, communications consultant, endurance athlete and avid adventurer.