In my ongoing quest for adventure, earlier in the year I asked Twitter if anyone fancied cycling to Paris. Inspired by @ChallengeSophie who seems to zip back and forth across the channel at wild abandon, it seemed like an easy enough task. Get on a bike, pedal in a forward motion in the direction of France, hope for the best.
The first person to reply to my Tweet was Alan Eagle. Although we didn’t really know each other all that well, having followed one another’s running exploits online for years, it felt perfectly natural to agree to cycle to another country together. Alan is also ginger, so by default he is a really cool person. We set a date and agreed to undertake the challenge. What could possibly go wrong?
As the date approached, with an imminent house move, cash flow issues and the glaring lack of a bicycle keeping me awake at night, I started to question my decision to cycle to Paris. I called Alan and tried to backtrack. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ve got it all sorted, just meet me at King’s Cross at noon. Oh and bring a bicycle.”
After some hustling, I acquired a bike, borrowed panniers off my cool friend Anna and bought some lube. I had no excuses. I was destined to cycle to Paris if it killed me.
When my partner in crime took 30 minutes to find me on the platform at King’s Cross station before we’d even started our journey, I knew we were in for a rough ride. It turns out Alan is a bit rubbish at navigating. Oh and he didn’t bring a map. But apart from this, he was a wonderful companion and I promise not to take the piss out of his lack of spacial awareness a moment longer. If you ever get the opportunity to go on an adventure with Alan, jump at the chance. He is a cheerful and considerate cycling companion. Just don’t leave him in charge of the map.
Armed with bum lube and home made flapjack, we set off in the direction of Newhaven by way of the Avenue Verte, a cycle path promising to lead us from London to Paris with relative ease. Except we may have miscalculated the distance somewhat. It turns out that, having not really done any training, 60 miles on day one is a huge undertaking. Despite having 11 hours to play with, we missed our ferry crossing by two minutes. Undeterred by this minor setback, we found a hotel and set off again at dawn.
Although our first day in France was a little behind schedule, it was worth the wait. The French approach to cycling is considerably more civilised than us Brits and the Avenue Verte provides a stark contrast to the UK. With well signposted routes and long traffic-free sections set along an old railway line, it was a pleasure to explore.
As the gentle Normandy landscape unfolded around us, we passed row upon row of fairytale houses, with quaint wooden shutters and perfectly manicured hedges that looked like they belonged in a Hansel and Gretal story book. Cruising through olde worlde deserted French villages with nothing but delicious bread and cheese and balmy sunshine for company, we didn’t see another cyclist all day long.
After 40 odd miles and a few wrong turns (it’s hard to navigate even the clearest routes with just an iPhone) it became apparent we weren’t going to make it to Paris (or even halfway) in one day. As nightfall descended and our weary legs could cycle no more, we stopped off in the little town of Forges-les-Eaux. The only venue open at that hour was the casino. So on a Thursday night in a small town in Normandy, we found ourselves in a packed ballroom eating Tagliatelle surrounded by inflatable palm trees and elderly gamblers listening to James Brown’s Sex Machine. Alan produced a Hawaiian shirt from his pannier. If I hadn’t been so tired/drunk I would have noticed we’d slipped into a parallel David Lynch dimension.
The following morning we rose early and, drunk on optimism, decided to try and complete the last 100 miles to Paris in one day. Stuffed full of croissants and those miniature jams I always want to steal, we set off for the big day ahead. Having shared a rather small twin room with Alan who was still a virtual stranger, I foolishly didn’t go to the toilet and hit the road with a full tummy.
After about an hour I needed a poo so badly I would have gone to the loo with a hundred virtual strangers in the room and not given a rat’s arse. But there were no toilets, and so we toiled up some rather hilly sections of the route while I desperately tried not to poo myself. By mile 30 I gave up hope and squatted in a field. A nearby car stopped to watch. I cycled the next 20 miles really really quickly.
The next few hours drifted by in a haze of rolling hills, soothing countryside, stunning chateaus and bum chafe. At about mile 60, tired but determined and roughly 40 miles outside of Paris, a cheerful drunk Frenchman leapt out in front of us and enthusiastically motioned us towards his home. After a complex game of sign language, he produced a rather beautiful wife who spoke perfect English. She generously invited us into her home while her pissed husband stood and shouted at us joyfully (I assume) in French. We declined their kind offer, for fear of waking up in an ice bath with no kidneys, and set off.
Ten minutes up the road and it started to rain, heavily. Twenty minutes up the road we approached the only hotel within a 50 mile radius, and it was full. We found a bus stop to shelter from the downfall and discuss the price of human kidneys. The merits of getting arrested to ensure a warm bed for the night also came up in conversation. But then Alan produced a bottle of gin from his pannier. Soaking wet and miles from anywhere with nothing but neat gin and flagrant cheese for dinner, I realised I hadn’t felt this happy in years.
There’s nothing like the need for sleep and a substantial dinner to galvanise a girl to cycle 100 miles in one day so, fuelled by gin and desperation, when the rain finally stopped we set off again. As the clouds parted, we were rewarded with a rather sublime sunset and the hint of the outskirts of Paris.
Exhausted and chafing in strange places, as the 95th mile approached, cycling through the darkness I was convinced we were nearly there. But upon closer inspection of my iPhone, it turns out that Paris is in fact fucking huge.
At about 2am in pidgin French I somehow managed to convince a bus driver to stick our bikes in between the seats and drive us further into town. My visions of cycling the final mile towards the Eiffel Tower with arms flailing in the air like a pro cyclist were crushed, but at that time of night frankly who gives a toss, we had made it to Paris.
Fortunately our bus driver revealed himself to be the wheeler dealer of late night transport and watching his shady interactions as he raced through the city streets was worth sacrificing the victory mile for.
At about 3am soaking wet and exhausted but ecstatically happy, we finally arrived in the centre of Paris. In the closest hotel possible we persuaded a suspicious concierge to store our filthy bikes and, after 16 hours on the road, we stumbled into bed.
The next two days were spent feasting on pastries, drinking wine and pretending to have the energy to be excited about famous monuments, before shuffling onto the Eurostar home. Cycling from London to Paris on a wing and a prayer is not easy, but it was worth every second of adventure and I’d do it again tomorrow if only I could still sit down.