Tuesday, 21 May 2013

London to Paris in a Weekend

London to Paris

The route from London to Paris is something of pilgrimage amongst velocipedes in England. Numerous charities offer eager participants the "life changing" opportunity to make the trip in return for a pledge to raise bags of money. A lot of attention has been paid to the route itself, dubbed the Avenue Verte, and it has been held up as a model for ideal continental cycle touring.

Having lived in London for almost 9 months now, I was keen to test the route for myself. so last weekend my friend Cameron Bellamy (of Ubunye Challenge fame) and I set off from Greenwich, London and headed for the coast. Our plan was basic to the extreme: 
  • Get to the English coast at Newhaven by 11pm on Saturday for a pre-booked ferry crossing. 
  • Sleep on the ferry. 
  • Leave Dieppe on arrival and be in Paris by 11pm on Sunday for our pre-booked bus ride back to London. 
  • Sleep on the bus. 
  • Arrive in London at 06h30 on Monday and go to work.

We left Greenwich at about 09h30 on Saturday, with minimal baggage, a gps-enabled phone and our credit cards. I rode my Raleigh Royal Tourer, while Cam chose a restored single speed. Riding a single speed was always going to be a gamble for a trip like this. We had no idea of the distance ahead of us, let alone the terrain! 
Cam and the Grey Goose

HMS Donkey

Saturday's ride was familiar to us, as we'd enjoyed a past trip to Eastbourne, which is near enough to Newhaven to share many of the country roads through Kent. The landscape is characterised by rolling hills, farm roads lined with eye-level hedges, and scattered villages. 

A highlight was our lunch-break at "The Rock" pub at Chiddingstone Hoath. We learnt over rabbit and pheasant pie, that the pub was built in the 1520's! Kent has a lot of history and some of the towns we passed looked absolutely idyllic. 

The afternoon ride was fairly easy, and made all the better by the segregated bike lane heading into Newhaven. Once in Newhaven we retrieved our ferry tickets and headed to the "Hope Pub" near the harbour mouth.

The Hope Pub served some great ale and good food, none of which was allowed to be shared with Pip, the pub dog. The signs were everywhere: "Please do not feed Pip the Pub Dog". Any assumptions that Pip was a small innocuous pooch with a penchant for greasy food were quickly eradicated when Pip himself lumbered into view. This was a hound of note! 

We had some time to spare at Newhaven, so we tucked into (probably) more than our share of ale! To be fair, we truly felt like the proverbial weary travellers and needed to fortify ourselves against the unpleasantness of sleeping on the ferry...

Total distance: 113km

The ferry trip was relatively quick (4 hours), and we docked at Dieppe at 3am UK time (4am local time). It was dark and rainy, the sleep we had was pretty poor, and the beers were still making their presence felt as we found our bearings and headed for the legendary Avenue Verte...
Admittedly, it took us a while to find the start of a stretch of the Avenue that they call the "Greenway". I had heard magical claims about this stretch of converted railway line, such as: 

  1. It used to be a railway line
  2. It is completely segregated from all motorised traffic
  3. It is tarred, and a minimum of 3 meters wide
  4. It is flat for its entire 60 km length 

I am very, very happy to report that all of the above is true. The Greenway is as good as a cycle path gets. The low cloud and rain, hangovers, fatigue and stiff legs could not have dented our spirits as we slipped along this blissful route. For the first time, we were able to ride alongside one another rather than in single file. We could take our eyes off the path long enough to absorb the agricultural scenery. Our speed varied from 23km/h to 29km/h, and we'd managed to notch up 60 km before breakfast.

We stopped to eat a continental buffet breakfast at a hotel in Forges-les-Eaux. The food was less memorable than the driving rain and freezing temperatures! But our spirits were still high. After Forges we managed to lose the Avenue Verte, so we took the highway to the next checkpoint at Gournay-en-Bray.

At Gourney we (miraculously) found the route again and enjoyed another blistering ride into Gisors, where we found a local pattiserie for lunch. The carbs were most welcome and I still remember the taste of the almond croissant I inhaled. By this stage the rain was starting to abate, and our bikes were holding up to the challenge beautifully. Coincidentially, we parked outside a bike shop and our steeds received some admiring glances from the locals! 

On the route between Gisors and Gasny we passed some fellow tourers, decked out in full touring kit and evidently enjoying their time on the road. Cam and I had a little chuckle at their reactions when we said we'd left from Dieppe that morning and expected to leave Paris that night. The conversation was a series of escalating questions: "You left from where? This morning? And where are you staying tonight? Paris? Paris? But you left from Dieppe this morning?"

This part of the route was not segregated from other traffic, but was nevertheless spectacular as it took us past Norman castles, rolling canola fields, majestic chateaux and flowing rivers. There was an endless procession of scenery to admire with very little in the way of potholes or hills to distract us. The mileage racked up effortlessly and before long we'd reached 150km for the day. At this stage we were able to estimate that the rest of the route was well within our limits and this certainly energised us...

As the day wore on and we edged closer to Paris, we joined the segregated cycle route that makes the Avenue Verte such a pleasure. At the satelite town of Pontoisse, we joined the Seine river. This signified the final "stage" of the route, with no more inclines and a river-side track to follow. Crucially it also meant that there were no more alternative routes to follow or paths to miss! All we had to do was follow the river...

By now we'd put some serious miles in, but were still feeling good. The rain returned along with the urban scenery. The peripheral suburbs along the river were spectacular and the riverside path fronted some luxury homes! In a perfect world, we would have taken an entire morning to meander down this stretch, but time was running out and we pressed on with our usual strong pace. 

Unfortunately, and a quick glance at a map of the area will confirm, the Seine does about 2 massive S-Bends as it winds into the centre of Paris. While the road was flat and fast, this proved to be a bit too far for us to tackle in the time available. After a particular muddy stretch where construction work had eradicated the trail, we threw it in and headed for the city streets. With very little recourse to my GPS-enabled phone, we made a bee-line for the Arc de Triomf (our pre-agreed symbolic finish line).

We arrived at our destination with tired legs, soaked clothes and massive smiles, but we arrived nonetheless! Day 2 of this tour was a record-breaker for me, with 227km under the wheels over a total of 15 hours (breaks included!).

Our time in Paris certainly wasn't the point of the tour (for example, we ate McDonalds for dinner) and we spend most of it looking for a taxi willing to take us to the bus terminal. Easier said than done! But eventually we prevailed and arrived at the bus station with 30 minutes to spare before "check-in" closed. No rest for the weary! 

Riding from London to Paris ticked all of the boxes for me, with fast roads, mixed yet easy terrain, foreign lands and long distances. Riding with Cameron was great - we had so much fun together that he even forgot that Sunday was his birthday - I had to remind him at 1pm! Our bikes performed admirably and, with any luck, we will be repeating the journey with a bigger group in the near future.