The silent roll of skinny tires on a bike ride and the lithe carbon fiber frames swishing through the air had got me back to cycling, which I used to enjoy in my teens. I was looking for a long bike ride and the London to Paris challenge caught my eye. At 55, I was late to join the much mocked new breed of cyclists called “Mamils” - Middle Aged Men In Lycra - and thought it was a crazy thing to do. But with lots of encouragement from my wife Nandini and saw this opportunity as Cycling from London to Paris is one of the great cycling experiences in Europe. It didn’t matter that the tour de France pros ride at twice my speed, while riding into Paris I can pretend as if finishing at the same sporting finale like the best cyclists on the planet. I have heard that Europe is very cycling friendly and I jumped at the chance to carve the distance from London to Paris over four days. It got me dreaming of a meandering tour, savoring and relishing, the treats of country life at a slow pace en route the battlefields, châteaux and cathedrals and being greeted by a friendly Bonjour Monseir, fine wine and the fabled Boeuf bourguignon in the evening.
I am among the many who has fallen in love with cycling recently and bought an aluminum framed road bike two years back. As a child I always enjoyed cycling and had the unfulfilled dream of owning a three speed bike. Now with the economic independence, I did not want to leave any stone unturned to make my experience comfortable, so I acquired the carbon framed Cervelo S2 weighing only 8kg. Excited about the prospect of an adventure and with some trepidation, I set off from Abu Dhabi with my bike in tow and arrived at London. My bike was safely packed and took it along when I travelled with my daughter Pallavi to London. After a 7 hr British Airways flight which took me from Abu Dhabi to London, we were received at the London Heathrow my ex colleague and friend Panicker who stays in London. We checked in the Clarendon hotel in Black heath close to the Greenwich park where our challenge was to begin the next day. I was the only one in the group to travel from overseas. In the afternoon we walked over to the Greenwich observatory and traipsed in the Greenwich park from where we will start our ride to Paris. Coming back to the hotel, we waited for our cycling guide Matt to arrive who helped me assemble the bike which came in a box for the convenience of transportation. After a hearty meal fully loaded with carbs, the night before the ride, we strolled back to the room for the night and get some rest before embarking on our trip.
Getting up early, final preparations were made with energy bars, chocolates, electrolytes on the bike and the minimal luggage as recommended by the organizers, before moving over to the restaurant for breakfast. Time was tight, so without much hanging around, finished breakfast, headed to the storage room to collect our bikes and rolled our bike into a misty Black Heath Common to meet my fellow riders for the next four days. We lined up at the Greenwich Park to begin our challenge bright and early from the Prime Meridian next to the Greenwich observatory, at South London. Meeting at Greenwich Observatory were 10 other cyclists in Lycra of varying shades. Sam who was the cycling guide for the trip, has completed it a number of times along with Matt the guides from Maximum adventures and Tony in the support van were providing the support during the trip. After, a group photo and some brief words from Matt, we were off.
The route starts at the Greenwich park and we were covering the 500-km-long route set in a scenic landscape where history had been shaped by the world war. With an early start we thought we could avoid the morning traffic as we pass through the outskirts of London onto quieter roads. After negotiating the early risers near Greenwich Park and dodging the traffic, getting out of London was trickier than we thought. The route from Greenwich park passes through shooter hill and then follows the Thames corridor to Dartford. Going through traffic lights many of which were red, we stopped and started our way through the beeping horns, the smoking exhausts and trying not to fall off my bike with shoes clipped in at traffic lights. Once we started heading east, things improved, however the early morning city traffic, the right turns at the signals and the roundabouts was something of a wake-up call for me being used to driving left hand in middle east. It is not long before we are among the rolling fields and villages of rural Kent and starting to make some real progress with our mileage for the day through picturesque Kent countryside, the garden of England passing orchards and traditional oast houses where hops are stored.
Our first stop was at George’s Inn a country side bar in Trothsclif just after a leafy green strip and a very steep downhill. A cup of coffee, some pleasantries with the team and getting introduced to them we got going again and maintained a steady pace for the next 40 km to next break. It was an exhilarating ride through crooked redbrick villages full of ancient oast houses with distinctive conical roofs. About one hour into the ride and when we were to join the motor way M9, came what would become the familiar shout time and again to stop for the puncture and we all stopped while the tube was replaced. From there we skirted to Maid stone passing through Coxheath and stopped at Chequers bar, Lenham for the lunch and proceeded over the Kent downs. Our path winds through traditional British countryside, via Folkstone and follow the coast northward to Dover. Before reaching the white cliffs of Dover, we head through Tonbridge and follow country roads across the hills of the North Downs to Dover with a panoramic ride along the coast.
I managed to stay in the peloton all through the ride, but until after about 6 miles from Dover my my calf muscles almost gave up. It looked like an indication to stop and the last six miles were probably the toughest one on the whole tour. There was a long steep climb and I watched the team cycle into the distance and sadly plodded on. I was wondering how the heck I was going to be able to make it to Paris for the arduous inclines as two particularly long climbs went on forever, testing our pedal-power to the limit. Arriving in Dover much before sunset. with an enormous smile on my face, I was feeling very pleased with myself that I'd just bettered my personal record of the longest cycling ever done at a stretch, the previous being 92 km for the Dubai Spinney’s ride.
As we eventually reached our hotel, a weary 10 hours on the saddle and a total of around 140 kms on the road after we set out, the thoughts in our mind were a hot shower and to rest our tired muscles. The only carbs we were interested at this time were the lager as we sauntered into beach side bar of the cozy Best Western Hotel in the beautiful and historic town of Dover. A liter of it and I sank into the happy oblivion at the bottom of the pint glass. Soon we headed to our rooms to scrub off the thick layer of dirt and chain marks, as well as shower and change. After an early well-earned dinner at the local steak house, replenishing our reserves and the opportunity to get to know our companions a little better we returned to our rooms.
Rising after night of sound sleep and a good breakfast, we gathered outside the hotel at around 6 am and after the day’s briefing we sped towards the coast. Still fresh following our first day of cycling and surprisingly ache-free, we rose to tackle day two of the ride. Fully energized after a good night’s rest after the long toil previous day, we began our ride out of UK just as the sun was rising. In the light of dawn, we had the first glimpse of the cliffs of Dover looking back and prepared for what we hoped would be a slightly less strenuous day than the previous. We had a short ride form the hotel to the passport check point, and to the port to board the ferry which would take us across channel to France. Suddenly I realized that my passport was safely packed in the bag kept in our support van which had already gone over to board the ferry. Our cycling guide Matt was so helpful that he sped like a superman over to the van near the ferry and retrieved my passport and came back in a flash. But I was sure that he was not wearing the superman T shirt which he was wearing on the last day. All the fellow riders except me being British, they waved them off without checking the passports. After a short wait with endorphins running through our body, we were let on the ferry first and we rolled on. It was nice to cycle up the ramp and left our bikes resting up against the wall on the car level.
The trip form Dover to Calais is about 90 minutes. As soon as we left the port, we could see the cliff of Dover in the background bright and white against the sun shining from the East. The ferry was very comfortable with several bars and restaurants. The seating were comfortable and varied and not crowded, we retired to the lounge to await our arrival in Calais. By about 10 am we reached the port of Calais, As we waited to disembark at Calais, I was excited at the prospect of beginning the next stage because I have heard that cycling in France is a very different experience to riding in England. Sam warned us to be wary of the rails when we disembark from the ferry as the tyre fit perfectly in the gap between the two sections of the rail. We disembarked as a peloton, smugly before any motorized vehicle, reminding us to keep to the right unlike in UK as we rolled along Calais’s mast-lined seafront. There was no emigration checks and had a short ride out of the port and brief stop to refresh and change into the full cycling gear. Our support van with Tony was ready with the assortment of snacks and Snickers, fruits and water. Tony who had earlier worked in Al Ain had good understanding of the Middle Eastern compulsions and soon got very friendly with me.
We rode into the town of Calais and although it was a working day the city looked very deserted. However, as we passed through the city at one place we could see queue of African emigrants. There were one hundred and twenty kms to Abbeyville across the Somme and through fields of poppies. After exiting Calais via the old town center travelled south through the national park area over good roads and undulating terrain. France is a great place to cycle and you don't need a cycle path. The next stretch was a satiating ride by the side of Canal de Calais a Cuines, a beautiful stretch probably the best all the through the tour. It was mostly flat and we could go on good speed and ride along the side of the river was gratifying. More over being early in the day the temperature was pleasantly cold to give lot of energy for the ride. Today I was pleased with my riding – not bad for my age. Overall I found myself up with the team but not as quick as Rob, the fitness trainer who kept him at the front of the peloton always.
We traveresed through the small villages and towns of Northern France and had a short stop at clock sculpture at top of place, Place Leon Blum, Desvres, Pas de Calais, France.
We continued to the wine village of Besigheim, surrounded by the Neckar and Enz rivers, I loved the next 60 kms to Aurberge. There were a many challenging hills, but equally some amazing downhills where, as the miles passed, and I was starting to fly downhill without hanging onto the brakes, screeching in terror. Some areas are exposed to wind and challenging up hills. Road surfaces were generally good and there was beautiful scenery to enjoy. After this, the route heads out into the country on good roads passing through numerous small villages and passing a very pretty windmill with crepe shop attached. Here the roads are narrower with some loose surface gravel. It was warm and dry but a good easterly wind blew along. The route is rolling countryside on minor roads riding on through medieval towns with half-timbered houses, vineyards, and discovering France along the way makes for a much better cycling experiences. After a long slog and a crash by our Rob who went over his bike and landed on the ground bruising his leg we reached Abbeville.
The discussion on the long inclines, unsurprisingly featured prominently on our trip. Our cycling guide Sam when asked about the route would say, there are a few climbs, but it's mostly undulating and from now on it goes down and this kept us happy. But we slogged the arduous ups, which came at us, one after the other, unrelenting in their assault on our muscles and at times, our minds, as the miles ticked by slowly through the day. Climbing the mountainous roads, sometimes serpentine, we kept our eyes peeled for the pinnacle at which they would level out, or give us a real treat down. Although thoroughly tested by the terrain, at the end of each exertion we recovered quickly, ready for the plunge for the next hilly encounter with the same determination as the last hill. Towards the end of the trip we came to know what Sam meant ‘down’ was that the road went South down the globe. While toiling uphill, console yourself with the anticipation of freewheeling to come. The scenery we viewed was truly lovely, rolling fields, stunning countryside makes you forget how tough it is and how sore your legs are and gorgeous weather more than helped us on our way, as we cultivated, the largest appetites any of us had ever experienced. We reached the Ibis Hotel in Abbeville, a popular stop-off for cyclists with storage space for cycles.
This morning, which was crisp and sunny, we had late start unlike the previous two days. The day started with a ride through the town center then again out into open countryside headed generally south all day. It was very sunny day and I enjoyed it thoroughly being from the tropical country. Fingers crossed for flatter ground today, but a gentle headwind slowed us down, allowing us to take in the distant church spires and smoking farmhouse chimneys that flank the route. Noticing that I was falling behind our cycling guide Matt very kindly allowed me to do 'draughting' behind him- where cyclists go in single file to block the wind for the others behind them. This, towed me and Christian firmly to the group, with smiles on our faces and the wind most definitely not in our face.
The cycling experience in France I noticed was so refreshing and safe. The majority of motorists are respectful towards cyclists and you are more likely to hear a gentle 'beep' to warn you that they are approaching than an irate blare of the horn. I think we encountered more farm equipment today. Sometimes they create a wall of wind when they pass on the other side, some they overtake and create a dust storm. But when we are hot on a killer of a hill, they would slowly trudge behind you. Pedaling on through the farms with little or no pollution from the vehicles and the refreshing smell of the farm was so energizing. We cycled in glorious sunshine through the remainder of the French countryside, easily covering the first forty kilometers of the day. Before we knew it, the mid-morning break was upon us and we stopped in for our first break near a church stop in Selincourt for our mid-morning snack provided by Maximum Adventure the organizers.
We rested our legs, replenished the energy bars and refilled the bottles amd cycled through the undulating beautiful French country side, forty-five kilometers till lunch. By lunchtime saw faces hungry before setting off for the final sixty kilometers of the day, we then went on for lunch at Le Must at Grandviliers and ate warm pasta. In the afternoon it was mostly field views with a couple of killer hills thrown in for fun before the food had not even digested. Passed through Montcavrel, St Nicolas & Bloville and arrived in Grandviliers for lunch.
The ride along in the afternoon was pretty much eventful. It was not long before Richard had his bike chain snapped and his bike stopped, the links securing his chain ring had broken. Thankfully, this was the only mechanical failure; the others being the puncture. But our cycling guide Sam was so good that the chain was fixed in less than 5 minutes. I felt that I should have taken a video of this if I knew he would finish it in such short time. The roads used are in good condition although narrow and single lane in places. The last section of the day runs along the motorway to Beauvais; the road is rough around Moliens and on exiting Crillon there is a short steep downhill before we to head to Beauvais as we negotiated the increasingly busy streets on our way to the City. The third day saw us passing more stunningly beautiful scenery, and a number of World War One cemeteries. After 110 kilometers clocked for the day, we reached Beauvais, an old town boasting of some 1,200 years of architecture, crisscrossed and the cobbled streets which shook us like badly.
The town’s St Peters lorded over the town, the sight of immaculately kept brilliant architecture was one we will all remember for many years to come. Coursing through a 12 km-long straight stretch from the city we reached out hotel for the night. With the trip passing quicker than we imagined possible, rest was welcomed with sadness-tinged excitement, at the prospect of completing our journey, but reaching the destination the following day.
Saturday, the fourth and final day dawned. So far, the ride had seemed like a jolly holiday. In fact I had never been on one quite like this before with ten other likeminded companions, hotels, the refreshment stops, evening getogethers all set by maximum adventure team organizing it so well, I didn’t want it to end. And today was going to be the last day of the wonderful journey. With mixed emotions we got ready to embark on the final lap of our journey, heading for Paris' iconic Eiffel Tower and our final cycling hours in the saddle had an indefatigable anticipation. Although the forecast the previous day was rain and thunderstorms when we about to start, the sky looked clear with not a single cloud in the sky,
Collecting our bikes and we set off, following the river course to South East until reaching Mouy and it was a pleasant ride with occasional drizzling and good roads. About 8kms ride we were out of the city then through highway M 927. The rolling fields we had become accustomed to give way to smooth highways and fast traffic. When it started drizzling, I was regretting that I did not take the rain gear out, but we had another stop and without losing a moment I wore the water proof jacket. Soon there was sudden change as black clouds filled the sky the wind picked up and then came the deluge. But there were others in the group who still did not feel to put the rain gear and were drenched within the first few minutes. As it started to rain needless to say and we took shelter under an abandoned petrol station and everyone put on the rain gear on. It rained elephants and hippopotamus (not cats and dogs), the most accurate way to describe the rain that came down, gushing across the smooth roads of Muoy accompanied by the soundtrack of rolling thunder and lit by lightning.
Although cycling in the rain was nothing new for me having experienced the Kerala monsoon. As we negotiated the slippery, wet roads, although it was a bit difficult at first, it was the full complement of adventure and as the name of the organizers. “Maximum adventure”. This also gave me an opportunity to use all the gear including the rain coat and switch on the flashing lights on the rear to help me avoid getting run over while riding in the reduced visibility of the rain. It was clear that wet weather, skinny tyres do not mix and had experienced some skidding moments but thankfully did not fall down. Enduring three hours of rainfall before the rains finally abated, and task of drying out the soaked members of our team. Throughout the day in the heavy rains I stayed dry thanks to water proof jacket which was very recognizable by the bright orange color. I found that many had Sealskinz overshoe which also kept the shoes dry. The fingerless cycling gloves which I wore all though the ride got fully drenched.
Just when it was almost starting to feel a bit too easy, we embarked on a welcome up-and-down through the hedge-lined section through the suburbs of the great city. Having experienced the hills and downs of previous days the ride to Paris was often a little different, but we were never bored. It wasn't frightening, the pace wasn't fast and in fact the final miles of the trip were some of the comfortable in terms of cycling speeds. For the last time, we stopped on the road side for some refreshments and to take out our cell phones cameras which was safely stacked in the van due to the rain.
We approached Paris along the banks of the river Seine on traffic-free paths. Experiencing around seven punctures across the group, we had the final one on the banks of river Seine. Not long to go now, and every one had big smiles, the last 20 kilometers was tough as in any city. Fairly challenging negotiating the traffic as the city was very busy being Saturday afternoon. The route was ups and downs, yet again and the Parisian scenery had an almost different feel in comparison to the calm rural landscapes we had cycled during the previous three days. This changing backdrop to our trip was as anticipated as we looked up at glamorous buildings experienced the traffic jams. The exhilaration was building at the prospect reaching our destination with every passing mile, although I took this trip not for the ardor of arrival but for the pleasure of peregrination.
There were lots of stopping and starting, just like in London and it was required to stay together. Lots of traffic lights & humps on the roads, barely giving time to clip into our pedals before it was time to release again, which made some very wobbly and when completed safely quite funny moments. Having cycled around 10 kilometers alongside the river Seine, we crossed into the city center through Avenue du Mathama Gandhi and sweated up ride through Avenue George Mandel, where the endpoint finally came into sight. I’ve seen the Eiffel Tower once before in the past about two decades back. But there was great rapture this time as I saw it rise up through Paris’s low-slung city skyline just a few miles in the distance. With long days in the saddle and some strenuous hill-climbs, the sight of the Eiffel Tower, our finishing point, evoked a real sense of accomplishment. The Eiffel tower loomed large in the distance, closer, and then we were there and we make our way to the Trocadero where we had beautiful views of the Eiffel Tower. After the pain, the rain and the groin strain with long days in saddle with much excitement we alighted and congratulations to everyone. Proud, drenched and exited, memories were captured we rested our muscles, and enjoyed the destination.
Before long it was time to go our hotel, with one last ride. The final lap and with sufficient instructions, to cycle confidently and not to give way to anyone no matter how much they tried to move us to side. We then took the final ride along the Place de Concord through Champs-Élysées to busy and treacherous roundabout and home to the Arc de Triumph and through the Place Charles de Gaulle. With caution we pedaled with determination through the traffic as the cars did indeed drive at us, beeping their horns steering a careful path around drivers blasting their horns. it was exhilarating and after more than twenty-two hours of riding and slightly less than 500 kilometers, our journey was complete.
It was Earnest Hemingway who said. “It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them”. Nothing is better said than this. It is definitely quicker to check in online than it is to fix a puncture. You can pass through the Channel Tunnel in the time it takes to cycle 5 miles in London traffic, but Hemingway’s fleeting remark still holds true seven decades after he wrote it. There simply is no better way to explore a country than on two wheels. You might think cycling between London and Paris on traffic-free paths and minor roads was simply a nice idea but not really practical, you are wrong. There is a cycle route which connects two iconic locations, the Greenwich meridian and Eiffel tower, letting you pedal between the hearts of both cities on traffic-free trails and quiet roads going through some beautiful landscapes along the way. If you are embarking on the trip, you should be aware that the topography is not the most challenging for cycling standards nor are the sceneries the most startling, yet it will lead you to little known farming villages, and to the kind of smoky, back-end drinking holes that you would never have chance to see.
By cycling across the five hundred kms of greenery that falls between two of the Europe’s top capital cities, we had experienced something that no sightseeing tour, train or holiday operator will ever be able to offer. The great part of the route uses traffic-free village roads and pollution free greenways and minor roads. When you start riding we get into a rhythm. It’s better and less tiring to roll along slowly without stopping, than to stop and start every 10 miles while someone catches their breath, adjusts their bag or goes to the loo.
Our last day in Paris allowed us to see the sights and soak up the romantic atmosphere of this majestic city. After the revelries of the previous evening, we got up slowly to enjoy our final day in France, and this time would not be involving bicycles. Glad to be on the foot for a change, and wandered the French capital in search of some entertainment before it was time to return to London. With only a few hours to spare walked on the banks of the Seine and enjoyed a relaxed lunch at a crepe shop before making our way to the Eurostar for the short trip to London. My daughter Pallavi, her friend and my friend Panicker was there to receive me. Saying our final goodbyes to my travel companions for the five days and the support team at St Pancreas, big smiles were exchanged as we were ready to relax, refresh and replay our five days of experiences and pleasurable achievement.