I challenged myself by undertaking a bike ride from London to Paris. I flew to London for the start, taking my bike with me. What happened was much more than a physical challenge for me. Training for many months before only prepared me for a fraction of what I would experience on this trip. Below is but a brief snapshot of the overall experience. The climbing on these days may not seem like much to those who live and ride in other parts of the world, but to a Chicagoan, these were challenging days. And the weather made things a bit more difficult at times. Upon my return, it was difficult to process everything that I felt.
Day 1: London to Dover/Calais
88 miles; 5008 ft. of climbing
I awoke well before my alarm, my stomach in knots. I knew the day ahead was to be a long and difficult one so I tried to eat breakfast, but could only manage a few bites of food. This was not only to be the longest mileage day of the trip, but the one with the greatest time pressure as we all needed to be at the ferry that would take us from Dover in the U.K. into France before 5 pm. I got on my bike for the first time in four days and nothing felt right to me. Was it nerves or the fact that a few key components of my bike had been removed for travel and then re-attached when I got there? While others were still registering I rode up and down the block a bit, trying to settle my nerves and get the feeling of my bike.
After breakfast, checking in, and some basic instructions from the organizers, 150 cyclists – 141 men and 9 women – set out to do battle with the London traffic on the way to Dover. The group splintered pretty quickly between fast riders and slower ones; and the stop-and-go of traffic lights.
London traffic is insane. Between that and the fact that it is anything but flat makes for pretty interesting riding. About five miles from the start I was riding about a bike length behind one of the other girls on a fairly busy two-lane highway. A truck vs. car altercation made her lose concentration and I saw her swerve, lose control, and hit the curb…and then she sailed over the bars and landed on the sidewalk. I stopped, laid my bike down, and went to where she was laying and holding her neck. Road rash covered several different places. Some others stopped, and we waited with her until the SAG wagon and doctor came. I was torn between wanting to stay with her and knowing I had to keep going. I had 80-something miles yet to ride.
Forge ahead. Eventually, we left London traffic behind and the real fun began. Climbing is not something I’m used to doing, living here in good old flat Chicago. As I hit each of these “hills” I just tried to remember to spin, breath, and try not to die out there as the blood was pounding in my ears like the beat of a drum. I was one of the last ones to hit the first water stop, so I also had to keep my ego in check and not worry about what everyone else was doing. Just keep going…ride my own ride.
At about mile 50 a local cyclist came up alongside and started chatting. Now under normal circumstances, a fairly good-looking, English-accented, lycra-clad guy would be somewhat fascinating, but at this moment, not so much. We chatted a bit and he was kind enough to point out the climb we were approaching, noting the steepness for me. Why thank you very much for that. My breath was becoming labored and he just kept asking questions, seemingly oblivious that my answers were becoming grunts instead of words. Yes, I actually do have opinions about Lance Armstrong and Floyd Landis. Could we talk about this some other time, please? I think it was only when he saw the drool did he mercifully move along.
The climbs – and the descents – were hard for me. But little did I know how hard until it started pouring rain when I got to mile 60-something. Cold rain. I pulled over and put on my vest and arm warmers. I knew I had almost 30 miles to go to the ferry. My gloves were soon soaking wet and my hands were getting tired from gripping the brakes. I tried to stay relaxed on the bike knowing that the descents and slippery roads are better navigated when under control. I knew that remaining calm while avoiding slick road paint, railroad tracks, and street furniture was the only way I was going to make the ferry in time. My only focus was following the orange arrow markers the organizers placed on the road. I rode most of this stretch alone, not knowing if others were behind me or not. I stopped looking at the time because it was just making me more nervous. I finally hit Dover and caught up to a few other cyclists who I rode with to the ferry location. I can’t really describe how I felt riding up to the ferry. I was completely spent and overwhelmed, but I made it with about 20 minutes to spare. And I was smiling like some sort of crazy person. Perhaps I was in that moment. Where’s the coffee??
The ferry ride was about 90 minutes to Calais, France. We collected our bikes, and had about a five mile ride to the hotel. I was never happier to see a not-so-great hotel in my life. After eating something I fell into a coma; 7 am wake up for day 2.
Day 2: Calais to Abbeville
72 miles; 3,630 ft of climbing
I didn’t feel too bad when I got up; just a little stiff. Was curious to see how I would feel once I threw my leg over the bike. The group was split at three different hotels for the night and one of the other hotels was the designated start point for today; about 1.25 miles away…and straight uphill. That didn’t feel good on cold legs. After our daily briefing, we were underway. The sun was shining, and it was an absolutely gorgeous day.
As we were leaving Calais, we passed two old women standing in their front yard waving to us. Their farmhouse was bright white, dotted with lush pots of red geraniums, like a King of the Mountain jersey. This was to be the first of many images from this day that will forever be planted in my mind. I felt a smile on my face as we began riding through some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen.
There were a few hard climbs today, but mostly rolling terrain flanked by beautiful and simple houses and coffee shops. Images that were once only seen in movies or in photographs came alive for me. And all along, people in these small towns smiled and waved as we went through. Drivers on the roads gave a wide and courteous berth as they approached.
For me, this ride was the complete opposite of yesterday’s ride; as challenging as that was for me, today was as enjoyable. This was a ride good for the soul.
I was riding with one of the girls who is a faster descender than I am. She would go ahead on the descents and I would eventually catch up as I’m a faster rider than she is. Or we’d stop and wait for each other, taking a much needed water break. On one rather long, sweeping descent I could see her at various points at we approached the bottom. I lost sight of her for a moment, and when she came back into view, I saw her on the ground and two cars stopped on the road. My heart started racing as I approached. I didn’t know if she got hit or fell or what happened. I got to where she was still laying and the drivers from the two cars were speaking very rapid French to which I could only shake my head and try to tell them I didn’t understand what they were saying. I asked her if she got hit, and she luckily had not. She lost control, unable to clip out as one of the cars approached and there was hesitation by everyone and she went down hard, hitting her head and leaving some skin on the road. By this time, another cyclist from our group rolled up. He and I got her bike, helped her up after seeing if anything was broken and got to the side of the road. The SAG wagon and doctor pulled up shortly after and checked her out. She was quite shaken, but refused a ride to the next stop. The other guy and I said that we would ride with her to Abbeville. We had about 25 miles to go.
It was slow going for a bit until she gained a bit of confidence back, and we made a couple stops for coffee along the way, but she kept going. Eventually we got back into a rhythm and finished this beautiful day, arriving in Abbeville.
Day 3: Abbeville to Beauvais
66 miles; 2,998 ft of climbing
Waking to rain is not a welcome site. Each morning the body seems a bit stiffer than the morning before, and getting started with that first push off of the pedal a bit slower. But it’s quite extraordinary what the body can do when pushed. I was continually amazed that on this day of a long, slow ascent – in the rain – that I could feel as good as I did as the day went on.
This was a ride through rural countryside, with long sweeping hills. I noticed how each day thus far had brought a completely different experience on the bike — from the road surface to the weather to the scenery. I felt like this was fast becoming a master class in bike handling skills for me. Some of the roads on this route had large stretches of gravel made even softer and mushier by the rain, others slick with oil, and others covered in horse dung. Oh I hated those gravel stretches! All I could hear was ping! ping! ping! as they would fly up against the frame of my bike. Plus they were not the most stable surface to ride.
It rained for about the first 30 miles, but then the sun came out, and the road surface seemed to improve greatly. “Undulating” was the word of the day… there were actually long stretches on this route where I could ride at a consistently decent pace. It was exhilarating to ride on these deserted roads where there is nothing except green countryside for as far as you can see. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Landscapes forever planted in my memory like a Van Gogh painting. As beautiful and as quiet as anything I’ve ever experienced. Where all you hear for miles is the sound of the rubber on the road and the wind as it whips past your ears. Bliss!
At the morning briefing we were “warned” that the last few miles to the hotel was a busy road and to be careful. Um, yes, busy would be a bit of an understatement. It was a bit of a white knuckle end to a great day on the bike.
Day 4: Beauvais to Paris
51 miles; 2,005 ft of climbing
What can I say about this day? I wish I could adequately put into words the emotions I was feeling…
It was cold and misty as we set out for Paris. My body was reluctant to move this morning and those first few turn of the pedals were an effort. We hit several red lights out of town and it was taking longer for me to take off each time. And if it were an uphill start, it was a pretty big effort to get that first push off. The sun eventually burned through, and with it came a loosening of my joints and muscles.
There was something different about this day. Aside from being the shortest mileage day, everyone seemed much more relaxed. Coffee stops were more frequent and longer, and people lingered at the organized water and lunch stops a bit more. I’m not exactly sure why, but after lunch people rode together in larger groups than I had experienced the three days prior.
As we got closer to Paris, my adrenaline was pumping and I could feel emotions heading to the surface. A small group of us made it to the gathering spot where we were merging with two other routes so that we could ride to the Eiffel Tower together. In total, there would be about 500 cyclists.
When everyone from the three routes was accounted for, it was time to go. 500 cyclists heading to one of the most famous streets in the world: the Champs-Élysées. I can’t describe the feeling of riding those cobbles, taking over the whole street, surrounded by cyclists laughing and talking and celebrating.
I will never forget that moment. One of many on this trip…permanently embedded in my memory bank to draw from whenever I need a bit of inspiration or motivation in the days, months, years ahead.
I met the most incredible people on this journey. There were some who amazed me, like the two guys doing this on fixies. There were those who inspired me, like a man with one leg and a 65-year-old ex-rugby player who did this on a specially made mountain bike due to his recent disabilities. And there those whose tenacity I could only imagine like so many of the cyclists who walked around with various amounts of road rash as the days went on.
I also learned something about myself along the way. The first day was probably one of the most difficult days I’ve ever experienced – on or off the bike. I wasn’t sure how I was going to finish the rest of the days. But how could I not finish? How could I ever accept another challenge in my life if I were to give up on this one? But as tough as it may have been, I wouldn’t trade a second of it. And I feel stronger physically and mentally for having accomplished this goal.
Tears filled my eyes as we rode those cobbles, finally approaching the Eiffel Tower. And they do now as I remember how I felt that afternoon. I’m not sure how I could ever top this whole experience, but I can’t help but wonder…