Tough Guy 2010

I completed the infamous Tough Guy challenge in 2010.

“The original and toughest test of its kind anywhere in the World. Run on the last Sunday in January, you will need every last ounce of mental and physical strength you can muster to rise to this challenge. Your fear of heights, tight spaces, fire, water and electricity will be tested to the max. Everyone bar the very toughest will be beaten!”

Great photos can be found here.

Monopoly Board Ride 2012

A quiet Autumn Saturday pedalling around London… visiting the places on the Monopoly Board… in order!

London Tube Lines 2015

I am attempting to cycle the length of each tube line. Done so far:

  • Northern Line – Southbound – Edgware to Morden via Charing Cross (Feb 21 2015)

London to Paris 2012

24h London to Paris – June 2012

A while ago, I decided that I wanted to cycle to Paris and set about researching the options available. Whilst a number of charities offer organised rides from London to Paris, I was put off by the cost and conditional fundraising targets – my friends would never sponsor me to “subsidise” a holiday. Many of the charity routes I’d encountered also spread out the ride over the course of 3 to 4 days, whereas I wanted to fit my trip into a weekend at most and was prepared to cycle many more miles per day.  So, the idea of a self-organised, unsupported 24 hour challenge was born.

I found a great website, which markets itself as an independent guide for those looking to cycle from London to Paris and set about planning my adventure, drawing from others’ experience where possible. In this article I’ll outline some of the main areas of preparation, before recounting the ride itself and then provide some insight into how it could be improved should you be considering your own Parisian adventure.

The Prep

Firstly, there are an infinite number of routes that can be taken to reach Paris from London. But these were my basic rules:

  • Marble Arch to Arc de Triomphe, as used in the Enduroman triathlon
  • As short a ferry ride as possible, since I get seasick
  • Rolling countryside where possible, as long as reaching Paris in 24 hours could still be targeted

I’m used to starting events early morning and would have planned the same here, had I not come across a team who took a slightly different approach – one which I think worked perfectly. The concept being: leave London late in the evening, cycle to Dover to catch a 3am ferry, arriving in France at dawn to maximise the available daylight for the remaining cycle to Paris. The route would be split into 3 cycling sections with the Channel crossing between 1 and 2: London to Dover, Dover to Calais, Calais to Amiens and then Amiens to Paris.

Allowing for a generous average speed of 20km/h (12.5mph) led me to devise the following schedule:

London-Dover Check-in Dover-Calais Calais-Amiens Amiens-Paris Total
Clock Time 8:15 PM 2:30 AM 3:20 AM 5:50 AM 12:50 PM 7:20 PM
Distance (km) 125 140 130 395
Distance (miles) 78.1 87.5 81.3 246.9
Speed (km/h) 20 20 20
Speed (mph) 12.5 12.5 12.5
Time (h) 6.25 0.8 1.5 (+1h) 7 6.5 22.1

I pulled routes for the three cycling stages directly from a website and painstakingly re-plotted them for my Garmin. More on this later!

Stage 1 – London to Dover

Stage 2 – Calais to Amiens

Stage 3 – Amiens to Paris

Establishing that the best time to do this ride would be when there was most daylight, but recognising that I only had one free weekend in June – the date of Friday 30th June was put in the diary. A ferry for Saturday morning (£19) and a Eurostar train from Paris for Sunday afternoon (£75) were booked. Trevor (my Trek road bike) was allocated a place on an earlier Eurostar, which I pre-booked to avoid any hassle at Gard du Nord (£30). Numerous emails, complete with school level French, were sent to hotels around the Champs Élysées and one was found which was prepared to accept a cyclist who needed a room for the Saturday night and a safe place to store a bike. The game was on.

At this stage I was prepared to embark on the trip myself, having experienced initial enthusiasm from interested friends to be replaced by a familiar lethargy of those with a deep attachment to their sofas. With 2 weeks to go, I’d signed up Dave to join me! We were now a team and final preparations and kit allocation could be shared between us.

We came up with a master kit spreadsheet which we shared over Google Docs and refined as the 30th June neared. Most of the contents were drawn from my experience of long distance rides and Ironman triathlon, coupled with Dave’s experience of ultra-running. Dave would cycle with a lightweight rucksack and I would utilise a handlebar bag for items we couldn’t fit in pockets or under the saddles. Where we could make do with shared items we did. I’ve included it here out of interest.

Category Item Shared or Individual Dave to Carry Shu to Carry Comments
Repair kit Tyre levers Shared Yes
Repair kit CO2 gas pump Shared Yes
Repair kit Tyre repair patches Shared Yes
Repair kit Spare chain links Shared Yes
Repair kit CO2 gas canisters Individual Yes – 3 Yes – 3
Repair kit Inner tubes Individual Yes – 3 Yes – 3
Repair kit Spare bit of tube/tyre to repair hole in tyre Shared Yes
Repair kit Locks Individual Yes Yes Lightweight snowboard locks
On bike Presta to Schwabe valve adapter Shared Yes A magic device that converts valve fittings. Means we can pump up tyres at petrol station if needed
On bike Front lights Individual Yes Yes With new/charged batteries
On bike Rear lights Individual Yes Yes With new/charged batteries. Helmet lights too
On bike LED key ring torch Shared Yes To read route instructions and trip computer in dark
On bike Trip computer Individual Yes Yes One bike computer being reset after each stage, one continuous
On bike Garmin Shared Yes Loaded with maps, fully charged. Off whilst in the UK, only used in France
On bike Bento box Individual Yes Yes Stocked with food
On bike Handlebar pannier Shared Yes In the end this was a very small bag fastened with cable ties rather than a cumbersome box
On bike Bottles Individual Yes – 2 Yes – 2 Make sure they fit bottle holders properly and don’t rattle
On bike Under saddle bag Individual Yes Yes One each. Shu to predominantly carry repair kit, Dave to predominantly carry first aid kit
Food Snacks Shared Yes Yes Pre-prepared mini bags of nuts, raisins, skittles, malt loaf, coffee sweets
Food Energy drink tablets Shared Yes Yes Nuun tablets and High5 powder sachets
Food Gels (other powders and potions) Shared Yes Yes Shu uses Qimmiq as the packaging is compact
First aid kit Wash kit Individual Yes Yes Umm, just a toothbrush and some roll on deodorant
First aid kit Suntan cream Shared Yes Mini bottle of factor 30+. Ever hopeful
Other Passport Individual Yes Yes Shu also carries blood and organ donor cards on the bike!
Other Phone Individual Yes Yes One indestructible Nokia, one Smartphone
Other Money Individual Yes Yes One card each, some pounds and some euros
Other Ferry tickets Individual Yes Yes Printed out and on phone
Other Train tickets Individual Yes Yes Printed out and on phone
Other Bike transfer tickets Individual Yes Yes Printed out and on phone
Other Hotel booking Shared Yes Printed out and on phone
Other Maps Shared Yes Printed out, backed up on PDF on phone. Locations of supermarkets & bike repair shops plotted online
Other Camera Shared Yes Tiny Nikon to record arrival at key towns / cities / countries!
Other Dry-bag Individual Yes Yes Dave to bring one for rucksack. Shu to bring small one for front pannier
Clothes Upper body clothing layers for ride Individual Yes Yes Tops and arm warmers
Clothes Lower body clothing layers for ride Individual Yes Yes Underwear, padded shorts, leg warmers, socks
Clothes Waterproof Individual Yes Yes Also windproof
Clothes Gloves Individual Yes Yes
Clothes Helmet Individual Yes Yes
Clothes Sunglasses Individual Yes Yes
Clothes Cycle shoes Individual Yes Yes Check and replace cleats
Clothes Something to keep feet dry Individual Yes Yes Not bothered with – just went for wet feet
Clothes Footwear for Paris Individual Yes Yes Flip-flops
Clothes Clothes for Paris Individual Yes Yes Underwear, lightweight outfit. Assume good weather. Anything else can be bought there.

The Ride

I booked the morning off work on the 30th, partly so I could have a lie-in and partly so I could take my bike into town on the train after rush hour. Dave crazily worked a full day on the Friday! We rendez-vous-ed at 6:30pm in The Victoria pub near Hyde Park for some dinner, and to while away the evening until our amended departure time of 8:30pm. Obligatory photos were taken at Marble Arch – I liked the red phone box installation with a giant pigeon!

Cycling out of London on a Friday evening we were able to latch onto the wheels of a couple of late-leaving commuters. Our first stage to Dover was expected to have 800m+ of ascent so all energy conservation was appreciated. Although I’d had reservations of tackling the A2, it proved relatively empty that late on a Friday night and our only hold-up involved navigating a pedestrianised one way system in Gillingham at pub throwing-out time. The big climb out of Canterbury was rewarded with an excellent, fast, well lit descent into Dover and we arrived an hour early for our ferry check-in. The ferry terminal caters for bikes well – we had a red line to follow as cycle passengers which I was particularly impressed by. As it happened P&O were running late and there wasn’t an earlier ferry, so some quick credit card action saw us transferred to a new 2:30am Seaways departure.

After a quick refuel in the café on-board, we caught 40 winks and arrived in Calais on time, but also ahead of our schedule.

Having self navigated from London to Dover, now was the turn of Garmin to help us through France. We’d figured that the 20h battery life should be reserved for the continent as we didn’t want to risk power failure as we neared Paris. I’ve used the triathlon specific Garmin watch on many previous rides, but for some reason my watch was not happy on this particular morning. Refreshing problems and random turning off stilted our escape from the docks into the open French countryside.

We had a breakfast stop at a little boulangerie in Fauquembergues – just time for a quick can of Coke and a chocolate éclair! The lady in the shop was kind enough to refill our water bottles.

As the morning went on, we encountered more problems with my route! “You are off course” alerted the Garmin – despite us not being able to make out where the route went and where we should turn. A couple of attempts to find the magic line to follow left us thoroughly annoyed with technology and we reverted to good old maps. It turns out that there were also some major flaws in the route I downloaded, perhaps lovely paths alongside rivers if you’re not in a hurry and riding a hybrid… but not exactly what we had in mind.

Our mid-checkpoint across France was Amiens – a projected 140km (88 miles) away with over 1000m of ascent. Easy, we thought. It turns out we’d wasted quite a lot of our hour-in-hand from the early ferry resolving route issues but the biggest shock was the average speed we were maintaining. As we crossed the rolling plains of Northern France we were battered by a continuous headwind. Perhaps we should have realised why all the wind turbines are located here, for mile after mile after mile. Our energy was being sapped rapidly and seemingly easy hills were turning into mountains.

Unfortunately, soon our route saw us riding through a forest track for 3 or 4 miles down what can only be described as a mountain biking course. Boulders, stone and flint – not fun on a full carbon road bike. Miraculously neither of us punctured. A further “detour” after a missed turn (with an awesome descent that neither of us wished to cycle back up to correct) resulted in unplanned mileage. By the time we were closing in on Amiens, we were both desperate to put stage 2 behind us. The long straight drag into the city dragged… In the end we covered 159km (99 miles) to Amiens. I also suspect it was a lot more than 1000m of ascent.

Another refuel – this time coffee and ibuprofen – the endurance cyclist’s friends:

A brief appearance of the sun at our coffee stop encouraged me to coat myself in suntan cream for the next section… but it was short-lived as we were soon cycling along long straight rolling hills in a monsoon which seemed to go on forever. And then more wind turbines appeared, so it was time to put the heads down and power through the weather, constantly picking at our fuel supplies for extra energy.

Once again we were instructed to take some interesting turns – I didn’t take a photo of this one, but a later snapshot from Google Streetview is below. We wisely chose to add some extra miles cycling around this short-cut.

With about 60k to go, I was starting to feel the effects of the distance in my knees. A sharp pain which shot through my left kneecap put at an end to the possibility of getting to Paris within the 24 hours but it was going to be close. Several ibuprofen stops later, I was having to cycle very carefully to avoid any unnecessary force through my left knee.

Finally a welcome sign! But this was just the start of a hard section dropping down into Paris. Our route was not the best and involved quite a lot of the N1. Riding as far to the right of the dual carriageway as possible, we were attracting a lot of unwanted attention from drivers (who up until now had been exceptionally kind to us cyclists).

I cycle in London a lot, but I can honestly say cycling in Paris takes nerves of steel. Signage is either non-existent or ambiguous. Straight-ons are often signed to the left rather than ahead which caused some confusion. At one point we were looking for a way out of St Denis and ended up heading up a motorway. We weren’t the only ones who went wrong – a car driver decided he didn’t want to go that way either and blocked the traffic to do a u-turn across a 3 lane carriageway to correct himself. This gave us a few seconds to leg it across the road with our bikes to get ourselves on the right road. Looking at the map later revealed where we’d gone wrong, but I’d be happy never to see this junction again!

It was tricky trying to find our way to the Arc de Triomphe and although the clock ticked over to 24h whilst we were on the outskirts of Paris it took a further 90 mins to finally reach our destination. I was surprised that cycling into Paris you can’t see any major landmarks in the way that you can in London. You certainly appreciate how good signs are in London!  In the end we put in a 135km (84 miles) stage to complete the ride in an elapsed time of exactly 25.5 hours.

By the time we got to the Place de Charles de Gaulle, we were tiring of the tense cycling – holding our nerves in traffic and pedalling across wet cobbles – and were ready for showers and dinner, so we abandoned trying to work out how to get under the Arc for a photo! This one was taken on Sunday morning in much sunnier weather…

The Mistakes:

  • Trusting a route plotted on the web, without questioning the detail. Hindsight is a wonderful thing! If I did it again, I would check the route for suspicious shortcuts through forests or fields and find a better route into Paris avoiding St Denis.
  • Assuming that it would be easy to navigate in France using the Garmin. Whilst easy to follow a line on the 910 XT in the UK, the satellite refresh was much slower on the continent and retracing steps to find the route line after leaving it proved much harder.
  • Forgetting to print out a map to get from the Arc de Triomphe to the hotel. I totally underestimated how finding our bearings and decision making would be impaired by tiredness.
  • Not bothering to work out a route from the hotel to Gard du Nord and then accidentally ending up at Gard St Lazare after mixing up which was which.
  • Deciding to ride to Paris 6 days after doing an intense 24 hour time trial! Fresh legs would have been better 😉

The London Orbital Ride 2014

Circumnavigation of London outside of the M25 Motorway

A Lap of London – April 2014

The M25 is London’s orbital motorway, and the second largest in Europe after that around Berlin. It is made up of 188 km (117 miles) of road which is forbidden to ride bicycles on! The M25 isn’t quite motorway all of the way around London, there is a small stretch of A road across the Thames river at the Dartford Crossing (the A282) but this too is illegal to ride a bike on (either on the QE2 Bridge southbound, or in the Dartford Tunnel northbound).

Starting from St Albans in Hertfordshire (to the North West of London) and travelling clockwise, the M25 crosses the following motorways: A1(M), M11, M2, M20, M23, M3, M4, M40 and M1, all of which need to be carefully negotiated. It passes through the counties of Hertfordshire, Essex, Kent, Surrey, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire.

I decided back in September 2012 that I would try to cycle around London, entirely outside of the M25. The attempt was plagued by route issues, namely because Google sent my boyfriend and I down some lanes that weren’t rights-of-way and because we both accidentally left our phones at home so we couldn’t navigate our way out of dead-ends to avoid crossing the M25! The main problem area was around Epping where seemingly every signpost points to Nazeing, yet it is impassable without quite a deviation away from the motorway itself. Having asked lots of locals how to get through without going under the M25, with no luck, we eventually stopped in a shop to buy a map which pointed us in the right direction, much further away. This wasted quite a bit of time to our planned day.

On this attempt we were however able to reccie the crossing of the river at Dartford. As mentioned it cannot be cycled across. When the QE2 Bridge was built, somebody decided in their wisdom not to have a cycle lane, nor a pedestrian route across the bridge, meaning that from then until eternity it is necessary to provide a service to ferry cyclists and walkers across the river. There are collection points on both the north side of the river in Essex and the south side in Kent, from which it is necessary to call an official to take you across the river by car. When we first attempted this, the service was completely on-demand for 24 hours. Since then they have introduced a timetable of availability, which makes sense really so that the poor souls who have to drop everything to accompany people across the river don’t have to keep leaving their dinner to go cold. The time taken to cross the river will depend on this availability and how many other people are being transported across. In 2012 it took us about 90 mins.

After crossing, we continued our planned route but eventually decided that we had eaten away at too much of the day to be able to get round successfully in one go. The challenge was abandoned and sidelined for another day.

2 further attempts were curtailed for bad weather. I knew that sitting at the Dartford Crossing for a while would be sure to make me very cold, so twice I cut short the route before the journey south of the river.

Fast forward to April 2014, when one Saturday I found myself looking for a route for my RAAM training. I thought I’d give it another go, taking on board the route issues I’d found in Essex and after examining Google streetmap at some awkward places to ensure the roads were really passable. The route came out at 258 km (160 miles) and I figured I could probably do this in 12 hours with some food stops and waiting for the transportation at Dartford.

I set off from St Albans at just after 6am on the Saturday morning. [As an aside, I wouldn’t recommend doing this on a Sunday as food and drink options were scarce until south of the river and opening times will be a problem].

There are some miserable roads around Cheshunt, so I was pleased to be hitting those before the Saturday shopper traffic. I successfully navigated the Nazeing Triangle and passed Epping. Soon after there are two places where the route almost touches the M25, but doesn’t cross it. The lanes around here were pretty and quiet. When I’d originally plotted the route, I’d proposed a coffee stop in Brentwood (a short deviation from the route), but this time I pressed on, since I didn’t want to run out of time again. I did pass a small Londis shop if any food or drink was required.

Around Thurrock it is necessary to navigate the back streets of the commercial estates to get to the Dartford Crossing northside meeting point. The trick is to head westbound on London Road and head up a cordoned off slip road to the right, just before passing under the A282 (the non-motorway part of the M25). It looks like you are heading up to the motorway, but opens out onto a parking area, where the motorway service vehicles are kept.

There is a small building and what looks like a bus stop. Here you will also find a phone! Don’t be confused by the fact it says for Emergencies Only – it has a plaque above it with a number to call for transportation across the river.

I gave it a call, and waited whilst tucking into a snack. Not knowing that the service was no longer 24 hour, I had a slightly longer wait as it was also a break time for the officials. I’ve attached the timetable here, with the caveat that it may change.

Still, it wasn’t too long before a guy drove up with a truck and bike rack for 2 bikes [bear this in mind if there is a big group of you attempting this challenge – you may be some time crossing the river!]. He helped me put the bike on the back and was kind enough to suggest finding a rag to protect my bike from the clamp (himself a cyclist). He then drove me across the QE2 Bridge.

Once on the other side, we were greeted by the sight of the police booking a BMW driver for either speeding or non-payment of the Crossing toll. We had a chuckle. I was dropped at another building on the south side (which would be the collection point had I been travelling northbound – the system is the same whichever way you are travelling).

I carried on my cycle ride, mainly on the A25. This road was getting busier and also bumpier as I was on the edge of the North Downs. Westerham has plenty of nice pubs for lunch and a plethora of shops for snacks. I think I stopped in a garage a bit before to stock up.

I was congratulating myself on skirting Dorking and the infamous Box Hill, when I turned up Pebble Hill – a far harder climb, which I crawled up! It’s the highest point of the M25 orbital circumnavigation. After that I had a nice downhill, a couple of little lumps and then a pretty much flat 40 km (25 miles) to the lakes outside Slough. Looking at my route again, I’m not sure why I went around Pyrford and missed the B367 – there must have been a reason, but it is entirely possible that a few kms could be saved by going up Newark Lane and Coldharbour Road.

The run-in home from Staines is one I know well, as I often open-water swim at Wraysbury and Datchet. Save a bit of energy for the evil New Road Hill in Sarratt which sadly falls just on the right (wrong?) side of the M25. Beautiful views though in the fading sun.

The whole route took me 10h47 of ride time, over 12h19. Distance 257.5 km (160 miles) with ascent of 2669 m (8756 ft). Maybe I should try circumnavigating Berlin next!

Liege Beer Marathon 2017

Second time running this awesome marathon with 17 dégustations of Belgian beer on the way round. This time there was a fruit and veg fancy dress theme, so disguised myself as an avocado.