What started off as a sneaky idea over a beer following a one day ride quickly escalated to reality over night. The magnificent five were booked up and ready to take on 250 miles from Paris back to our home town of Rayleigh.
The tour, dubbed ‘Le Tour de Rayleigh’ would be done over three days, covering over 80 miles per day and cutting through some of the most picturesque destinations that France and south east UK had to offer. Magnificent five consisted of: Myself, David Gittings, Chris Bruns, Marcus Bugg and Michael Gittings.
Day One – Thursday 24 July
At midday the five of us met outside Rayleigh train station, and normal banter commenced as I was ridiculed for packing twice as much as everyone else. My priorities, to be in clean clothes after cycling each day. This was not shared by the group.
On the train, we started perhaps the most stressful part of the whole journey. Midday Thursday and the train was packed with a variety of people, however they all shared a mutual hatred for cyclists. Thankfully we got off at Liverpool Street and made the educated decision to cycle to St Pancras. One Eurostar trip later and some fatty train snacks and we were in Paris. Next Challenge…getting to the hotel!
At this point we realised two things:
- Car Garmin’s are a lot easier to follow than Bike Garmin’s
- There are a lot of one way roads in Paris
Result – one hour and 10 miles later we arrived at our awesome abode. A bad putt away from the Eiffel Tower, and there we proceeded with the mandatory ‘tower’ snap. An amazing dinner followed and a treasure hunt for cheap water. By midnight we were all tucked up and freaking out about what lay ahead. Then Chris started snoring, not ideal, but eventually I got some shut eye.
Day two – Friday 25 July
‘Dooms day’ – simply put, getting out of Paris on a bike is not easy. Traffic, cycling on the right, traffic lights, Garmins freaking out, these all contributed to our 1.5hours to travel barely 10 miles. We missed most the sites we had planned to see, however eventually the smog cleared and regal houses appeared on top of the green flowered hills, I’m not lying check out the picture! We were out of Paris, and I think all of us knew the real journey started now.
One issue though, a 10 percent incline up cobbles! The first real climb of the day. It’s important to point out though, these are not nicely laid stones, these are harsh, demon like cobbles – unticked Paris Roubaix off my bucket list!
Thankfully it wasn’t as bad as it looked and we all cruised up and onto the village, where we found ourselves lost again. We also discovered that French people in this particular village must be very prone to sickness, as there were about 10 pharmacies in the space of half a kilometre.
The rest of the day was filled with amazing forests and nature reserves; we also noticed that the French drivers were incredibly courteous in comparison to the British. With the European sun beaming on our faces, and the flat smooth roads under us we cruised onto 50miles. Then out of nowhere an unexpected surprise…
A 1km stretch of road with a gradient of 18 percent! For those not in the know, that is steep – Tour de France steep. Four walked but one struggled through and rode to the top. I don’t mean to brag – actually I do as it was me! I was given the accolade of king of the mountain, barely a mountain though, but I took the compliment.
Shortly after the climb we realised that skipping lunch and relying on gels and protein bars was a mistake. The afternoon dragged and all of us found ourselves in pretty dark places emotionally. Legs were tired, moods dropped and the finish didn’t seem to ever get closer. Finally after hours in the saddle we eventually arrived at Lallandelle.
The group learnt some harsh lessons and spirits were definitely low…until we met our B&B host Mary the Magnificent. Mary quickly shipped our bikes into the garage, fitted with bike racks and a pump, and got us sorted in our amazing bedrooms. She practically forced us to give her our dirty clothes which she washed ready for day two.
She then got us all beers, followed by appetizers and homemade cider in her immensely beautiful garden. Following this was one of the best four course meals I have ever had. Worth noting at this point that Mary is a genius at cooking and making jams. French wine was a must and given to us by the bottle, suddenly it felt like a holiday and not a task or chore.
With our bellies full up we set off for bed, but the day still had one last twist. Yelling from the other room, then fits of laughter, Mike had stood on a wasp. And with that the day was done.
Day three – Saturday 26 July
Hmm, why am I not in agony? With the lessons learnt from Day two we headed off early with clear goals:
- 25 miles before any stopping
- 50 miles until lunch and then
- a massive push to the finish
We set off in a dull mist and quickly came up to our first descent of the day… followed quickly by another. We had now realised that Marcus was both skilled on the bike at pace but also a little fearless. Clocking 60mph at stages going down these hills the first part of the day cruised past. 20 miles in a shade over an hour. Games and chat commenced as the pace slowed slightly, but between all of us was a sense of relief for a number of reasons.
- We were moving quickly
- Our bottoms were not too sore
- We might get to the end with some time to properly chill out
Something worth saying about France is that their cycle paths are amazing, we travelled on these at pace for miles. They have regular water stops, bathrooms, friendly locals and epic scenery. Before we knew it lunch had arrived. Although there was one small problem, the waitress only spoke French, so we had to go ‘Lehman’ with the ordering. Cue five coca colas and five cheese omelettes.
Post lunch and feeling a little sluggish, we set off. We then missed two turns and climbed a fairly decent hill. Then a mammoth hill came out of nowhere. Feeling slightly heroic and living off the accolades from yesterday I flew up the hill. It became a trend over the day to come, me up first and Marcus down first. The rest of the day was our adventure down to sea level, good pace and happy faces, as well as some artistic photography. We snuck past two wicked lakes, and finally entered Dieppe, described by a friend as the Blackpool of France.
Getting to the hotel, we were in high spirits. The hotel itself was a bit of a dive, but for 20 odd quid a night I wasn’t expecting the royal treatment. Five pizzas, a few celebratory beers, an early night and France touring had come to an end. Tomorrow we were back home, and a couple of surprises were waiting at Newhaven.
Day four – Sunday 27 July
England the land of Hills? The ferry trip was an experience. We found ourselves tucked up on cinema type seats trying to get some shut eye after a 03:30 wake up. Chris and I succeeded but the others failed dismally. Not too much of a problem as a full English was waiting for us to get the energy levels back up.
Heading off the ferry we knew our spirits would be lifted by the arrival of Lisa with a bike pump (I cannot stress enough the excitement of having a foot pump) and treats, as well as Ray ‘the legend’ Bias, who would be cycling the last leg with us. Ray had also brought pages of inspirational quotes written out for us, one for every six miles (as I said, legend).
So we rode on the newly formed group of six and went off at quite a pace, 20mph average to be exact. We’d heard the last leg over the South Downs was notoriously hilly, so we wanted to cover as much ground as possible upfront while the going was still relatively flat.
The hills soon arrived and they were awesome. Long 5-10 percents covering kilometre after kilometre – my ideal cycling terrain, as I tend to get bored with tedious straight flat roads. The others didn’t share my enthusiasm and rightly so, as the going was tough.
Hours later we stopped for water in a wicked local town (name unknown). The store owner found it funny that we were all dressed the same, I didn’t bother explaining, you can tell when someone would care less. The hills didn’t stop after that, in fact we hit the biggest one at about 13:30. But once we peaked, the cracks started to show. After two and a half days of cycling the first real worry set in.
Mike looked in a state, his face pale, his lips cracking and generally broken. A quick descent, and the round table formed to discuss while Mike was lagging. The group decided to speak to him and check he was good, suggesting exit plans and expressing our worry. Dave his brother started the chat, Mikes response was anger (ah, relief!) It might not seem it, but it was the perfect scenario. We knew there was still plenty of life in him, if you have enough energy for anger you have enough energy for 40 more miles.
Dartford Crossing was an experience, near impossible to find, but once we got to the stop it was smooth. Picked up by a shuttle service, you strap your bike to the car and they drive you through. A couple lessons learnt though: The crossing has plently of secret paths going off it. There’s mental security and it makes a lot of money.
With the crossing done it meant that Ray’s ‘inspire the group project’ was complete, and our new chaperone took over. Vince dragged us home for the final 25 miles, although Ray helped by falling off for the third time in one day (between the five of us on the ride, only I fell off once over the three days).
10 miles from home the reality sunk in of how far we had travelled, faces lit up and the pace snuck up a little too. That was until the last hill just outside Basildon. This beast was met with the determination of a bed of sloths in the midday sun, it was our Everest. Eventually we found our way up, and at the top we were met with the relief of less than 10 miles to go.
The celebratory final kilometers commenced and the excitement was clear. It was done, the only stress was finding out which gate the final destination we needed to come through.
Entering the park, we expected a handful of friends… what we had was 100’s of people cheering us on! I’ll be honest, it was awesome and completely unexpected. Feeling half embarrassed and half like a hero, we knew we had done it.
Paris to Rayleigh, we were the first and probably the last, mainly because no-one will find Rayleigh a suitable place to end such a challenge. The memories will last for ages.
Now it’s down to planning the next trip! If you would like to sponsor me for my 1000 mile year please visit my Just Giving page.
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