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 😉

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