Cycling London to Paris: the English part
London to Paris, everybody does it differently. Some people jump on their road bikes and race it in 24 hours, for others it is the challenge of a lifetime and they raise thousands for charity as they take several days to make their way south. It doesn’t matter how you do it, but if you’re a cyclist, you must at some point.
We’d had it on our wish list for years, but at last we had a date and, excitedly, company having persuaded our friends Tom and Katie to come along over an extended May bank-holiday weekend. Our plan was to take a relatively leisurely pace following the Avenue Verte, a signposted route between the two capitals, via a ferry crossing from Newhaven to Dieppe.
Unfortunately, we deliberated too long over which ferry to catch (none go at great times for cyclists) and by the time we decided there were no places left. So, instead, Paddy looked at Google Maps and found a route from London to Portsmouth, across to Le Havre and along quiet lanes and cycle ways into the heart of Paris.
We took a scenic route out of London, as we had time to take two days for the English-leg and were staying overnight with Paddy’s parents in Farnham. From the busy streets of Peckham, we headed out of the city via Putney and through Richmond Park where away from the traffic we could relax and enjoy the ride.
Knowing the gradients of some of the perimeter roads in the park, we took the flat path straight through the middle, a favourite with young families and dog walkers who we wound around. We stopped briefly to admire the herd of deer grazing under the bare trees; spring hadn’t yet arrived and there was still a chill in the air.
From Richmond we made our way past Hampton Court Palace, towards Weybridge and then West Byfleet, where we stopped to warm up with a hot chocolate. Replenished, we turned off the road at last to join the cycle route that runs along the Basingstoke Canal with its smooth tow paths and huge houses with gardens stretching down to the water.
Whilst the cycling was easy, we found ourselves having to turn back several times as we kept missing the tiny National Cycle Route 221 signs pinned to gate posts & low bridges changing the route to the other side of the canal. The tow path finally deteriorated to mud as we approached Aldershot and we pushed hard up the slopes next to the locks.
I was struggling with my gears. Having had our Thorn Nomad bikes serviced with a local bike company, mine had come back with a slight slip in the gears. Over the course of the day’s ride the problem had worsened and I now only had four gears working properly. I limped into my in-laws’ home that evening perplexed about what the problem might be.
We tried all the usual tricks to solve the problem, like tightening the gear cables and chain , but it made no difference. With a ferry to catch the next day, there was little option but to carry on, which meant that as my bike weighed 18kg plus luggage I was practically cycling a Boris Bike to Paris.
It didn’t make for much fun on the 45km stretch down to Portsmouth, especially as Tom and Katie were riding aluminium hybrids that saw them racing off ahead of us. They giggled from the top of the hills as they watched us ambling along in our granny gears that had been our saviour on the gradients of the Ecuadorian Andes. We were quite happy with them though as the road hit the South Downs and we found ourselves rising and descending frequently.
The route Paddy had found took us through quiet, country lanes where we could cycle four abreast to practise our French and decide what we wanted to see when we reached Paris. In quaint English villages, we refuelled sat on riverside benches basking in the sun that had finally come out for the bank holiday.
The South Downs were hilly and I was growing increasingly exasperated with my mis-functioning bike. If we hadn’t have been with friends, I possibly would have got off and kicked it in frustration on the last climb of the day as we rose to see Portsmouth and the English Channel stretched out before us. As it was, I made it to the top and at least could coast down to the harbour where we were booked onto an 11pm night ferry across to Le Havre.
We arrived in plenty of time and, after a meal down by the waterfront, we were ushered out into the loading lanes by the staff where we stood for over an hour in the cold, shivering and complaining with two other cyclists. Finally, we were allowed to wheel aboard to tie our bikes up in the bottom of the boat before heading to our four-man berth, our home for the crossing.
In spite of my gear problem, it had been a good start. But it would be another three days before we arrived in Paris; it was time to get some sleep in preparation for the road ahead.