Yes, I made it to Paris in one piece. The event was everything I hoped it would be: great weather, well organised, fun and with a great sense of camaraderie among the participants. A few things perhaps didn’t go as planned but these were minor and generally beyond the control of the organisers.
I had a couple of issues. Two in fact: my feet. I suffered dreadfully with a condition known as “hot foot”. I was advised that my shoes were too tight, too loose, my cleats needed to be moved further back, I should wear Scholl gel inserts etc etc. I am seeking professional advice from a podiatrist whom I’m quite sure will come up with a solution for the problem. In addition, and probably to be expected, my nether regions were feeling a bit sore by the end of the three days. As you can see from this photo of me on the Champs Elysees, I’m grimacing as I ride over those cobbles.
The more observant among you may be wondering where are the other 349 participants? Or, am I making my usual bid for Lanterne Rouge status? There’s approximately 340 souls ahead of me and about 9 behind. I deliberately dropped off the back so that my beloved could digitally capture me. I had set off from the lunch break momentarily at the head of the entire peloton until I slid, as is my wont, gently back through the peloton to my rightful place as a tail-end Charlie.
I went over to London a few days ahead of the start to catch up with friends and family. Apart from a quick spin each day, I tried to rest my legs, conserve my energy and eat wisely. My youngest sister lives but a few kilometers from the start so I was able to ride there on the morning of the event. Fortunately, and surprisingly, it was warm enough that I didn’t need either leg or arm warmers.
We were advised to arrive a whole hour before our scheduled departure time during which the numbers in Group 5 swelled alarmingly as riders from other groups decided that they’d prefer a slower start. We rolled out at 07:00 and headed south into the commuter traffic. It was fair to say that our reception was less than rapturous as cars honked their horns, shook their fists and, despite the presence of outriders, attempted to drive us off the road. In no time at all there were cars mixed in with riders and the peloton was shattered.
A large portion of our Group took a wrong turn and we lost a considerable amount of time waiting for them. Needless to say they got plenty of good natured ribbing about this. Lunch was an all too brief stop at Lamberhurst and then we were off again to Dover. Reinforcements were drafted in to try and make up for time lost. Those of us who were flagging were helpfully pushed on the uphill bits. I made the acquaintance of Nigel Mansell and his two sons who were riding the event as a warm up to their cycling challenge for the charity UK Youth. They were aided and abetted by Magnus Backstedt who pushed me for 2km on a false flat at 55km/hr. That’s the fastest I’ve ever ridden on the flat and the highest cadence I’ve ever attained. Who needs an engine when you’ve got Magnus!
Sadly, our efforts were in vain, as we just missed our ferry and had to endure a long wait on the tarmac for the next one. Arriving in Calais, we cycled another 5km to the warehouse where we left our bikes overnight. I finally reached my hotel at 22:30 and was asleep before my head hit the pillow.
Day 2 dawned. More fabulous weather, a good breakfast and I was raring to go – yes, really. What a difference a day makes. Our reception on the other side of the channel was in marked contrast to the day before. People were waving, cheering, clapping, taking our photographs and generally enjoying the spectacle. Drivers waited patiently for us to pass or willingly pulled over to ease our passage. Yes, the French love cycling and I love France and the French.
To be honest, I felt much happier on home turf and cycling on the right side of the road. Numbers in the group had thinned, the pace was better policed and more consistent. However, I still had to ride all the descents on my brakes thereby foregoing any benefit at the base of each climb. But this was an issue common to all groups, save 1 and 2. Lunch was another hasty affair but I was so hungry I made the mistake of eating all of my delicious ham baguette which lay like a stone all afternoon in my stomach. With hindsight, I should have eaten two apple tarts and skipped the baguette.
The group made regular stops throughout the day to refuel and I made sure that I ate and drank enough. I steered well clear of the gels and modified the strength of the energy drinks but even so by Day 3 I was mainlining Imodium Plus. We arrived that evening in Amiens with enough time to enjoy a meal with a few of our fellow participants and discuss the day’s highlights. On account of numbers, we were dispersed across a number of hotels until we reached Paris.
I awoke on Day 3 feeling my age – not a good sign. I felt nauseous, weak and generally ill at ease for the first 25 kms which was ridden (thankfully) at 3/4 pace. Thereafter, I felt much better and we rode 122kms to lunch which this time was a very quick 10 minutes. I grabbed a chocolate eclair and eschewed the baguette. This was a mistake, I should have had two eclairs. I joined the lengthy queue for the toilet. Sadly, one was out of order and the other had been occupied for an unconsciably long time by a man who was nearly lynched as he emerged from the cubicle looking quite sheepish.
We were riding the last 45kms into Paris together and the ladies were sent to the head of the peloton where most of them stayed. However, all of us in Group 5 gradually slid back to our rightful places. It was a great ride in and a real sense of occasion as we arrived on the outskirts of Paris flanked by our motor cavalcade. As we headed towards our final destination, roads were closed until we had rolled through. As I glimpsed the l’Arc de Triomphe I felt a huge sense of relief tinged with pain as we hit the cobbles. One of the ride captains advised me to ride on the white lines, advice he’d gotten from Stephen Roche, a man who’s knows a thing or two about riding and winning Grand Tours.
I saw my beloved on the bridge, sucked in my tummy for the photo and tried to look purposeful. I rode round the corner to the hotel, the finish and a bit of an anti-climax. It was all over. Someone kindly handed me a glass of champagne and I went to collect my belongings.
Over dinner that evening we likened the experience to childbirth: we had quickly forgotten the pain amongst all the other good memories. Indeed, that’s what made the event for me. The support crew were fantastic, we didn’t have to sweat the small stuff. The motor outriders were fun guys who kept us smiling all day long with their humour, gallantry and music. I rode with a great bunch of people who, sadly, I may never meet again.
On Sunday morning, I bumped into a couple of guys who were riding back to the UK via Dieppe (short cut) and honestly a part of me wanted to ride with them. That would have been the part without my feet, so it would have been tricky.
Finally, a word of thanks to my cycling coach. I could not have done this without the training. A number of (male) participants claimed to have gotten on their bikes for the first time just three weeks before the event. I find that really hard to believe.