London to Paris – July 2013
Day One – London to Calais
After a very enjoyable ride from London to Brussels last year I persuaded the other half of South Cave Road Club to sign up for L2P this year in aid of Action Medical Research. The carrot at the end of the stick was seeing the finale of the 100th edition of the Tour de France.
Registration was between 5.30 and 6.45am on the Tuesday. Our plan was to register as early as possible and then head off to Tower Bridge, grab a coffee and then start. Our preparation was excellent; a friend had transported our bikes down by car on the Sunday, we had travelled by train on the Monday and had already been to find the registration point which was Bermondsey Village Hall. It was on this reconnaissance mission that I had managed to upset the international film star Bill Nighy by trying to take his photograph without permission on a film set. He did relent and my Facebook profile picture is ‘me & Bill’.
Our preparation was slightly better than that of Discover Adventure (the organising Tour Operator). Of the four staff manning the desk not one of them had a working pen or pencil and they were missing the ‘red dots’ that were needed for our luggage labels.
I really didn’t want to compare last year’s jaunt to this one and had to stop myself from saying ‘last year’ but things were very different. In 2012 there were only 20 cyclists and three support staff, this year there were 300 riders on two different routes and a dozen or more support staff (with only one pen). These numbers meant there wouldn’t be the camaraderie of last year, but I was cycling as part of a team (albeit two) as opposed to a solo rider, and as such didn’t feel the need to join up with anyone.
It was quite clear that something had amiss with the registration procedure and there was no way we would be departing on time, so I took this as my cue to go and find some coffee. It was only a five minute walk to a café and only five minutes back to lift the lid and realise they didn’t understand the term BLACK coffee, still it was a lovely morning with the Sun coming up over a block of council flats so I drank it au lait (to be fair – at that moment in time my French didn’t go as far as that).
Eventually (despite missing 9 participants) we were told to head off, follow the orange arrows and make our way to Tower Bridge for the Grand Depart (I knew that much French meant the Big Off). Within 30 seconds we were in a tunnel and somebody started “OGGY OGGY OGGY”. Within two minutes the peloton was in complete disarray, tempers were raised and car horns were blaring. A lorry had inadvertently parked and hidden the orange arrow, some cyclists in the know had taken the right left turn whilst the rest of us carried on regardless only realising we were wrong when Tower Bridge was behind us. I’d never cycled in London before but I’d been in Hull city centre a few times and I knew you can’t just execute a U turn in the middle of a busy road – but plenty did – cue angry car drivers and blaring horns!
It was just after 8 (no chocolate wafer mints though) when after a rousing speech by Action Medical Research staff (I say it was rousing but it could have been insulting, condescending or boring – as it was drowned out by construction work and music from an outdoor bootcamp class) the huge peloton left City Hall and began to make its way through South West London. At the intended departure time of 7am there might have been a bit less traffic, but as it was now 8-ish the roads were chaotic with cars, pedestrians, buses and schoolchildren. We were probably somewhere in the middle of a single file line on 300 cyclists, it wasn’t a continuous line as it was broken by stopping at the never ending sets of lights and crossings – but there were some incredulous looks from waiting bus passengers and car drivers trying to get out of side streets.
Most of the suburbs were not worth mentioning, but Greenwich looked quite nice as we passed through with slightly less speed and aplomb than Sir Bradley on his way to Olympic Gold in 2012. Once we had skirted Dartford the scenery was a bit less ‘The Young Ones’ and bit more ‘Terry and June’. Our first water stop was after 23 miles and in the village of Harvel. There was a good selection of oaty type snacks, caramel wafers and fruit with two big jerry cans of water. For the wannabe pros there were gel bars and isotonic drink supplements.
Last year the lunch stops had been in pre booked restaurants, this year a catering company had been hired to shadow the tour in a Transit van and produce a buffet in various farmers’ fields (with or without their permission). The first said field was just outside Charing Heath. There was a minor panic when some riders had stopped at the side of the road and were calling out that we had passed the lunch stop. I assured the leader of this particular group that I had never missed a lunch in my life (let alone a free one) and we left them trying to call the support crew for guidance. The lunch was superb (and would be on each day). There was a bountiful variety of pasta salads, cold meats, salads, bread and cakes. The only criticism was there wasn’t any really cold drinks – just cordials to mix with the jerry can water.
After lunch under a shady tree it was back into the merciless heat of the Kent countryside. After a poor summer so far it was great to be cycling in sunshine for a change. But the lack of cold drinks at lunch and temperatures in the 80s meant that it was with regret we passed a pub with a pretty beer garden. We didn’t make the same mistake twice! At a junction the arrows were pointing right but there was pub with tables and sun canopies outside to the left. Whilst several riders called out we were going the wrong way we sped across the green to said pub. Up North if you order a lager shandy – you’ll get punched and called a puff – down South they all drink it, and I can see why. It was one of the most enjoyable drinks I’ve ever had. I asked the barmaid if she wouldn’t mind filling our bidons (with water). When she asked if we would like ice in it – I thought I’d died and gone to Heaven.
The next water stop was only a few miles away, but as we still had plenty of ice cold water – it was only a fleeting visit to boast about the pub visit and we were off again. I was pleased only to have had a shandy as the inclines seriously increased just after. Whilst not on an Alpine scale they were some long testers in there and I saw people walking for the first time.
As we were arriving into Dover I saw Sam Hughes, who was one of the support crew for Global Adventure Challenge on London to Brussels last year. GAC also had a L2P ride happening and I had seen a few of their riders on the road. I stopped to say hello and exchange handshakes before Sam announced he would have to shoot off as their ferry was within the hour and a lot of riders were still missing!
We had been told to carry a ‘day sack’ with us that contained a warm fleece for the wait at Dover for the ferry. Neither of us had wanted to ride with a rucksack or large saddle/bar bags and said that we would wait in a café or pub if it was cold. It wasn’t cold! Which was just as well as we waited for two hours whilst DA tried to sort out which time ferry we would be getting on. We were told that several of our riders were missing and because it was a group booking the authorities would not let us embark. After several false calls we were finally told to make our way up the ramp and have our passports ready and shout our names out as we went through the gate. We never got to shout our name and indeed not show our passports and we were shepherded (via another U turn as the P&O van took us the wrong way) to the final waiting area. A couple of riders got off their bikes and made a mad dash for Burger King, running out clutching their brown paper bags as we set off up the ferry ramp. I had discussed with Scott the probability of nearly 300 cyclists plus ‘normal’ passengers all wanting an evening meal on the ferry and with that in mind, we didn’t hang about leaving our bikes on the car deck and legged it up to the restaurant.
We were lucky and were one of the first to be served, but others spent most of the crossing standing in the queue to get a hot meal.
When we arrived in Calais it was more waiting as the directions were sorted to the three hotels we were billeted in for that evening. Ours was five miles away and one in the KYRIAD chain. It was a budget hotel that had the good sense to install card entry room doors, as if you put a key in the door lock there would be a good chance it would smash the window on the ‘far’ side of the room. After a quick shower it was into the bar to relax and enjoy a few well-earned beers. Except Madame Grumpee had decided it was time for the bar to close and lock all the doors. After much negotiaton she let us have a couple of beers (actually four small beers as she had no large glasses) which we had to pay in advance for with the right money as she claimed to have no access to the till. At least our bikes were safe – the lock up at the back was full so the bikes were nestled into the breakfast room.
DAY ONE – 95 miles – DONE