It was cold and wet and Christmas had just been and gone. The bike sat lonely, ignored and unused in the garage, wishing there was a ‘Bikeline’ number it could phone for support. What to do???
New challenges, that is what is needed. VCGH trip to Paris, that fits the bill perfectly. Joyously I skipped to the bike to share the news.
Fast forward 5 months and many many What’sApp messages and there we were, in the Port of Dover ready for our first Team Talk from Matt. Anticipation was high. What will he discuss – the route ahead, expected pace, group riding tactics, communication reminders? No. Matt had a much bigger worry. Clearly this had been a
‘Now listen up everyone, this is really important. I cannot emphasise this enough.’ Anxious looks pass between us. This is serious. Matt took a deep breath and continued in a deeply solemn tone… ‘Make sure you are in the right gear going up the ramp to the ferry because if you aren’t you WILL fall off and look uncool and everyone will laugh at us for the whole ferry journey. Seriously everyone,
YOU MUST LOOK COOL.’
(VCGH committee please note and ensure this is in the club rules. And maybe printed on any future jerseys?)
Across millpond waters and then onto French soil for the first leg. One tight group (after a little higgledy piggledyness sadly witnessed by the support crew who held their heads in their hands) and we swept through the french country side to St Omer. Long straight roads, not much hillage but long and straight, tree lined but long…and straight. Very straight. A blue blurry pelaton whizzing through, cheered on by an elderly French gentleman sat at the side of the road in the middle of absolutely nowhere. Was he saving his place for the Tour de France, or maybe left over from last year? He was happy and he was cheering us on. He knew we were coming because the roads are so straight and long – did I mention that?
St Omer appeared, the location for the most delicious evening meal of the trip, in my opinion. Other restaurants are available in St Omer but why bother, this one was amazing. (Although Andrew sadly realised he had chosen the wrong dessert when his strawberry and vanilla ice cream came in the form of a Magnum. But it was presented very beautifully in a flower pot.)
Day 2 – St Omer to Amiens 116km 1300m
Another beautiful day as we ventured deeper into French countryside and the roads started to bend a little, up and down as well as left and right. Beautiful villages, smooth roads, courteous drivers. This is what cycling in France is all about.
Big day today. Frank had done extensive, and I mean REALLY extensive research on the route and had spotted that we had a Col to climb. Now this is what all my hill repeats had been for. Up and down up and down time after time and now we were going to finally do The Col of all Cols. Col des Chemins, a cheeky number that the Tour is too afraid of to include in its routes. As Frank said ‘No mountain too high for this group’. Col des Chemins …136 meters. That is ONE THREE SIX!!! And not steep. Not even a Strava segment.
The plateaus are beautiful, the views are amazing but the wind…wow! Luckily I could sit behind the two tallest gents on the trip as it was brutal, I was learning to make myself very small and the pace did pick up considerably as someone mentioned beer. Nothing could cheer me up though from the sight of a lonely man in a boule park playing boule all by himself. I hope he won.
Into Amiens and low and behold a bar just on the corner of the hotel, perfect positioning for cheering people in. Strava analysis showed that VCGH, especially the ladies, had swept the board, like a professional team swooping through the area and claiming all the cups. Team Awesome.
Dinner – not as quite good as the night before. Delicious Posh fish and mushy peas…but without batter and without chips. Enough said.
Day 3 Amiens – Rouen 128km 908m
Sighted by many as the most beautiful day (both in terms of weather and route) twisting and turning through the French countryside with only a few little hills to contend with and less wind on the beautiful plateaus which offered such stunning far reaching views of the French countryside.
However, before that there was a shock. Bags had to be ready to go in the van at 6.45 am. That is SIX FORTY FIVE IN THE MORNING. (Please refer to the blog on RideLondon to predict what my reaction to that was). I was a grumpalump on a grumpabike cycling my way along the grumparoad to grumpaville. Luckily Grumpaville was a pretty town in which Brian greeted us with ‘Matt has chosen the seedy little bar where all the local drunk men are or you can go to that gorgeous patisserie which sells delicious cakes…it’s up to you guys, I don’t want to sway you either way of course’. Patisserie?? Grumpiness cured.
More heavenly meandering through the countryside (France has such quiet countryside, no lorries or coaches were encountered thundering past). Lunch was a picnic by a quiet road (so lovely to suddenly see the ‘lunch van’ in sight, Brian and Matt always received a rapturous welcome) which wasn’t so quiet with us all chatting and laughing – I have to say the camaraderie of the group was amazing.
Our rooms weren’t ready when we arrived in Rouen but what does that matter to a group of cyclists who have Strava stats to entertain them? And I thought I was one of the few who spent FAR too much of my life pouring over Strava but it seems that the country’s productivity would be far higher all round if it did not exist. So we lounged around on the sofas oohing and ahhhing at our amazing accomplishments whilst wondering why the French have not fully embraced Strava (but quite relieved or pots would not have been so plentiful).
Dinner was another quiet affair, she lies, and featured the much anticipated hot sausage brioche and Norman Pig Baker. A spare meal was raffled off (it was what Jackie would have wanted) – I won a potato but events conspired against me claiming the coveted prize. Previous experiences with going out with cyclists after a hard days cycling often involved a very early night as we are all drooping our heads on the table with tiredness. Not so this trip and we even had an impromptu architectural tour by Ralph on the way back – he’s a knowledgeable man and even made drainpipes sound interesting. Seriously. A rare talent.
Day 4 – Rouen to Paris 140km 1660m
My goodness, last day already. Another early start and then straight into a hill to warm up on. At this point I need to again highlight the extensive research Frank had done, street viewing the whole route to iron out any potential problems and find features of interest – today was no exception. A few miles down the road we stopped at a huge yellow jersey monument for one of cycling famous figures, a son of Normandy, the first five time winner of the Tour de France Jacques Anquetil. We then continued along the roads which his legs had also glided along, just a tiny bit slower. Just a tiny bit.
Attempts were made to up the pace as presumably Brian had knowledge that Matt was not in full control of the van and nearly lost it at our coffee stop. Yes, Matt, vans do have a hand brake and they like them to be used, especially on a slope. Disaster was averted by a superman manoeuvre into the van and our jelly babies were able to live another day.
As we neared Paris anticipation of the Champs Elyse grew… the traffic, the cobbles, the navigation, the need for the ladies room. The blue VCGH peloton that rode into the capital was tight and formed a presence on the road that was not to be messed with. People looked on in awe as we swept through, crowds gasped, traffic came to a standstill, children knew they would never forget such a sight, YouTube crashed with footage of this momentous event. Above all, Matt, WE LOOKED COOL.
A slight hiccup when we pulled up outside the George V Hotel (why, why, why did we have to stop there?? Just cruel. We’d have fitted in perfectly in our sweaty lycra. I’m sure the staff are trained for all eventualities but is that a scenario they have considered?) and then more bouncing over the cobbles (a lost light was the only tragedy) to the stunning, majestic sight of the Eiffel Tower.
The magnificent Tower paled besides our own magnificence. WE HAD DONE IT! Ok, there may have been another team arriving at the exact same moment who had come from Rotterdam, which is much further, but we are VCGH and we are AMAZING.
Some advice if considering doing this trip:
Ask for orange club biscuits on day one. Do not take no for an answer.
Cycle from Milford to Ashford the day before – flat as a flat pancake for over 70 miles and amazing to think you have cycled from Milford to Paris (and it’s probably further than from Rotterdam).
MAKE SURE YOU ARE IN THE CORRECT GEAR TO GO UP THE FERRY RAMP. And for goodness sake, look cool.
Do not expect to lose weight – the food is yummy and plentiful (apart from the fish and mushy peas night, obviously).
Ensure Frank has street viewed the whole route – he was an invaluable and knowledgeable expert.
Don’t let Matt park the van facing towards a river. Hand brake to be applied at all times.
If you get the opportunity DO IT. As Audrey Hepburn said ‘Paris is always a good idea.’ With VCGH its the BEST idea.
Finally, be prepared for your face to ache from laughing, your legs to ache from cycling, Matt’s brain to ache from worrying and your heart to ache when it’s all over.
A few last words…
A HUGE MASSIVE GIGANTIC ‘thank you’ to Matt, Brian, Lara and all those involved in making this trip such a roaring success. As Ralph observed – we could simply think about our cycling and the support crew really did the rest. As close to professional cycling as you will experience!
This blog is dedicated to Norman