I had honestly been thinking about doing this ride for a couple of years after getting back into road biking during my mid-life crisis, (one of many!) Then out of the blue my sister Gill was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia and her world turned upside down. Gill lives in Ashstead in Surrey with her husband Richard and little Alice with most of her family in the north. It has been difficult to offer much support other than flying visits at the weekends and phone calls, e-mails and texts. My brother John and I were both screened as potential stem cell donors but unfortunately neither of us were a match. (Thankfully a donor was found and Gill has since had the transplant) Feeling a bit useless, I dug out the info I had bookmarked regarding Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research and the Unstoppable ride from London to Paris. A plan began to hatch.
I spent the next couple of months spreading the word and seeking out potential team members from work. The plan gathered momentum and before I knew it we had a team of four riders willing to shoulder the expense of the trip and to undertake the training needed for such an event. I had originally planned to recruit three or four fairly unfit but willing partners that would make me look good for four days as we cycled through the French countryside. What I actually ended up with was a bit different…
After a quick breakfast we made our way across Greenwich Park getting more and more excited as we neared the start line. The area was a hive of activity as 240 riders all checked in, adorned their equipment with their ride number and went through several last minutes checks. (Otherwise known as phaffing!)
After some inspiring words from the organisers at last we rolled out to a very slow start through London traffic. I immediately swooped in on ITV’s sport commentator Ned Boulting to get a selfie at the first set of lights!
All too soon we hit our first pit stop at Aylesford and I began to realise how organised the LLR team are. Clapped in by the support team, tons of food, music, masseurs, I could get used to this!
Off again and no sooner had we started when Peter disappeared off my back wheel. I slowed for a while but he didn’t reappear. I found out later he had had a serious mechanical. I settled into the 45km section as the peloton thinned out as we headed into the Kent countryside. After chatting to two or three other riders I was eventually was passed by a guy with a Summit Bikes sticker on his shirt. I said hello as I recognized the name from the LLR Strava group. It turns out that Steve Mitchell had beaten leukaemia five years ago after having a stem cell transplant. His story is amazing because he was given little chance of survival initially and here he was cycling from London to Paris, living proof that what we were doing now can really help to save lives.
Eventually Steve and I cycled in to the lunch stop an hour or two from Folkestone. After refuelling on baguettes we headed off for the last leg on the journey that had a sting in the tail in the shape of Lympne Hill. Having been worried about the climb for most of the day, Steve and I were deep in conversation when we suddenly realised we had almost missed the start. It wasn’t as bad as I feared, as the steep gradient lowers in certain sections meaning you can get your breath back and go again. Once we had conquered Lympne Hill it was a short ride to the tunnel crossing where we boarded the coach for France.
We checked in to the hotel in Calais and Peter again seemed to get first choice of bed, (double for him, fold out camp bed for me!) We then headed across the road for an evening meal in a shopping centre that was much better than it sounds and our team of 5 were joined by Steve and another Chris (Stephane’s allocated room-mate for the trip). There was just time to watch Suarez dismantle England’s defence before we headed back to hotel and to bed where I drifted off into a dream where I was the MD of the company and Peter was a driver.
After a quick breakfast, we boarded the coaches and were dropped off at the start point in Calais. This was the first day that we could select the speed group to ride in and, after some indecision, I eventually stuck to my choice of riding in the 15mph group with Peter. The other three team members all plumped for the fast group.
The first of many time trials and hill climb sections was waiting for us at around the 10mile mark but unfortunately Peter and I would not be able to test ourselves as we were stopped as soon as we had begun. It seems that we had caught up with the social group quicker than anticipated and had to wait for twenty minutes for the road to clear. This was a bit disappointing to be honest and pretty much made my mind up that I would switch groups at the next stop.
We lunched at Samer and I had the first of many massages to ease the aching legs. It worked a treat and I felt pretty good and ready to step to the fast group.
We started with a testing hill section but I was living with the pace and felt that I was in the right group now. At one point I suffered a slip chain but thanks to the mechanics I was back in the saddle and being pushed off within 30 seconds. Paul had dropped back and rode me back up the middle of the peloton at breakneck speed through a tricky descent that was part exhilarating and part terrifying!
At the next lunch stop I told Peter how much I had enjoyed the quicker group and that he should think about joining us. He had pretty much made his mind up to do this when the decision was made for him. The organisers told the first 10 riders of the middle group who had been trying to overtake the lead car to step up. “You know who you are!” Now all of our team were in the fast group and we would stay there until Paris.
Eventually we stopped in a pretty little town on the outskirts of Abbeville so that all the groups could join up and ride to the finish together. This would happen on the last stage for the next three days and was a nice way to reach the final stop of the day.
Our bikes were stored in the local fire station overnight and we were bussed out to the lovely Hotel du Cap Hornu on the Somme Estuary. After a duck dinner I tried to stay awake long enough to watch France dismiss the Swiss but admitted defeat and retired to a bed which wasn’t broken or smaller than Peter’s, which was nice.
After another quick breakfast, we boarded the coach and picked up the bikes from the sports hall where they were kept overnight. We were all looking forward to testing ourselves on the time trial section today, as it was the longest and flattest one to date and promised to be fast and frantic. I didn’t know it at the time but today would prove to be the best day on the trip for me and some of my team mates.
We positioned ourselves at about halfway in the fast group but no sooner did we reach the flags of the start line when there was a decisive split and the fast group separated into two. Peter, Stephane and I found ourselves in the chasing group along with around 15 other riders and for the next 10km we all went flat out! The positions changed constantly as we fought to get on a wheel only to see another bike go past on the outside and we would jump on that one instead. One minute I was boxed in on the inside and next I was bombing through a gap and heading to the front of the bunch and sprinting like crazy to stay there. This was insane, no way would we be able to keep these speeds up for 10km but somehow we did and all the time keeping a careful eye out for the slower riders in the social group that we had caught and were now frightening the life out of as we hurtled past.
After working at the front for probably way too long I started to tire just as we approached the line. Thank the Lord, the pace finally eased off and grinning from ear to ear we eased to a stop in a picture box village complete with ubiquitous pond and church spire.
Paul and Graham may have encountered that kind of racing before but for Peter, Stephane and I, it was a first and what a buzz it was. By far the best experience I have had on the bike so far but I have been saying that a lot so far this trip!
We set off once more and I was about to discover that the racing wasn’t finished for the day. It would appear that a few of the really fast guys at the front were intent on cranking the speeds up over the next few miles. (I would discover later that Paul, who had led the peloton at the end of the time trial, was largely responsible for this!)
As mile after mile whizzed by, I realised that we were dropping more and more people from the lead group. It turns out there was a split in the fast group again but this time I had managed to bridge the gap. I had a look around for any sign of my team mates but couldn’t see anybody. Never mind, just crack on.
Up to 25 mile an hour now and flying across the French farmland dropping more and more riders, this was awesome! Inevitably I started to tire and was in danger of losing the wheel in front of me and no wonder, a quick glance at the Garmin told me I was doing 28mph on the flat! I don’t do 28mph on the flat!!
I knew that we could only be a couple of miles from Poix de Picardie where we were due to lunch but try as I might I couldn’t stop from slowly dropping off the back of the group and very quickly 10 yards from the nearest wheel turned into 50 yards as I lost contact. I could see the town now and it was such a shame to get this near and not be able to roll in with the leaders. And then out of the blue I spotted the lead group beginning to slow as a tractor had temporarily blocked the road. YESSS!!!
With renewed strength I shifted gear and accelerated, just managing to catch them before they pulled off again. What a stroke of luck! I rode the last ½ mile into town near the front of the group, trying desperately to make it look like I had been there all day! To stay in touch with the fastest riders for the last 12 miles as they stretched the peloton to breaking point was by far the highlight of the trip for me and the hardest I have ever ridden. But now I was a spent force. I wolfed down my baguette and joined the queue for a massage to see if the physios could save my legs.
After a brief rest and an impromptu game of football, we set off again. I took it relatively easy in the afternoon after the exploits of the morning session. We eventually rolled into Beauvais passed a convoy of wedding cars with blaring horns and into a fire station where we were greeted with a champagne reception and some lovely words from the Deputy Mayor.
In the evening, a curious thing began to happen to Peter when he came over all competitive, but not with the whole group you understand, just with me. He worked out that we were tied 2 each in terms of stage wins against each other and decided that it would be winner takes all in the last timed hill section taking place the next day. Honestly, has anyone told him it’s not a race?
The last day on the bike had arrived and I was really happy to make it this far but even happier to know that the level of training I had done for this event had really paid off. I was feeling good and ready to give it all on one last push to Paris. There was also the little matter of the last timed hill climb that had suddenly gained more prominence!
The profile for today’s ride was a lot hillier than yesterday, until about 40 miles outside of Paris where it flattened out. On one of these hills I unwittingly acted as domestique for Peter by towing him right up to the top of the hill where he popped out from behind my wheel and passed me with a cheery “Thanks for the tow Chris!” This was a textbook move and was expertly played out by Peter but unfortunately he had shown his hand too early because the timed hill climb was the next hill.
As we neared the start flags of the climb, I could see a left turn ahead and then the road ramped up for a couple of hundred yards before a tight right hander sent it switching back in opposite direction. Peter was about ten or so riders in front of me and my plan was to slowly reel him in. As long as I finished close to him then I would win the section. As we rounded the hairpin I could see in front of me with Steve a little behind him. I slowly went past Steve and said, “He’s mine”. Steve replied, “Go get him Chris”. It was at this point that the hill ramped up further and I changed my plan. If I went past Peter at full throttle there would be no way he could jump on my wheel. I attacked and flew past Peter and about 40 other riders to be fair as I aimed to put as much distance between us as soon as possible. I buried myself getting up that hill and as I neared the finish line I was running on fumes. I looked round frantically as I slowed almost to a standstill but thankfully Peter was nowhere in sight and I crawled across the line... possibly not the best career move but ultimately satisfying nonetheless!
We collected together at the next town but as soon as we set off I knew I was in trouble. I felt like I was treading water and watched as bike after bike passed me, uh oh… I was paying the price for my heroics/stupidity on the hill. I sat at the back of the peloton for about 10 minutes, took on a gel and slowly started to come round. I will never be sceptical of gels ever again as that one saved my ride! After about 20 minutes I felt fine again and gradually made my way back thought the group to join my friends. Phew, that was close.
At lunch we learnt that all three groups would be riding in together from here on. This was a little bit of an anti-climax as we thought we had one last fast section to ride. In the end it turned out to be a good call as we were able to offer assistance to others by giving them a little push up the hills. It was a nice way to share the last 25 miles or so and wasn’t without incident. First we learned that one of the girls had fallen and had to abandon 20 miles from Paris. Gutted for her. (It turns out she broken her collar-bone). Then just before the final stop to wait for the Paris police, Gio from Spain who rode last year, crashed and damaged his rear mech. Cue a lot of expletives as Peter, Paul and I tried to calm him down. In the end he had to climb into the broom wagon but we did see him on a spare bike at the Arc de Triomphe so we know he made it. Incidentally we had one last exciting sprint through the first traffic we had encountered since England to try get back on after Gio’s crash. I was led out by a ride captain with Peter following Paul at traditional breakneck speed!
Then finally after 4 days, 325 miles, 5 punctures, 2 broken spokes and 1 slipped chain between us we were rolling into Paris. It seemed to take forever before we got our first glimpsed of the Eiffel Tower as we crossed the River Seine. Our smiles were as wide as the river as we all got our cameras out for the obligatory selfie! Then it was onto the cobbles up to the Arc de Triomphe. I think we all had a moment here thinking about the reasons we had set out on this journey in the first place and the people we were doing this for. Certainly I had a tear in my eye as this was the moment I had been focusing on for months. We had made it. We were here.
As I rounded the Arc I heard a familiar voice shout my name and turned to see my brother John. He had travelled to Paris to see us finish the ride and although it was impossible for Gill to make it, it was great that John was there to share the moment and the emotion. You never know next year Gill may be here as well. What a spot John picked as well to capture the moment with some cracking pictures.
We finally rolled to a halt outside the Pullman Eiffel hotel with the famous tower looming over us. The cheers, laughter and singing as we posed for pictures will live long in the memory. I have to say the first three beers didn’t touch the sides! John found us and so did Stephane’s mother and cousin. We received our treasured medals from the wonderful support crew and couldn’t stop looking at the tower! We congratulated everyone we could get round for completing this momentous ride before slowly the crowds began to thin and it was time to board the coaches for the last time before heading to our final hotel. The gala dinner was fantastic and was the chance for the riders to clap the crew for a change as we showed our appreciation with a series of standing ovations. The longest of these was reserved for four very special athletes: William who completed the journey hand peddling in a recumbent chair, Tessa and Jonathan on the their amazing tandem, and Anil who had cycled all the way from Blackpool Tower to the Eiffel Tower.
After the dinner was over our group slipped out into the Paris night to enjoy a few drinks and take in the atmosphere of the pavement café’s and bars. It difficult to describe the sense of satisfaction that comes with completing an event like this so I am not going to try. Safe to say that we celebrated long into the night with all the talk of a return next year.
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