Tuesday, 23 December 2014

London to Paris - Tour de France 2014

It’s 08:00 am on Thursday 23rd July. The sun has just come up across Canary Wharf and the City is starting to come to life. As the lights of One, Canada Square are still twinkling, workers from all across London are on their way into work, with their best suits on and coffee in hand, discussing what is to come from the days trading – just another weekday in London.
But today is different for one set of city folks. The morning meeting is taking place overlooking the city, at Greenwich Observatory. The meeting is not about stocks, shares, current accounts or financial products. This meeting is about a grand 280 mile journey to Paris by bike, to watch the final of the Tour de France on the cobbled streets of Champs Elysees in just 4 days time. Suits have been replaced by their best cycling lycra and the only drinks that can be seen here are isotonic Nuun tablets.  After 6 months of preparation its time to ride out Paris bound on this Adventure Café Corporate London to Paris Tour de France Ride.

Day 1: Greenwich to Dover – 75miles

As we depart Greenwich Park and turn left onto Shooters Hill Road you can sense the excitement in the air amongst the team. For many, cycling is an individual sport, as we get used to those training rides where usually, we are the small speck on the horizon for drivers - but not today. As we head towards the first note of interest on the gradient profile, Shooters Hill, its clear to see that today cyclists are taking back the roads. Our peloton is not met with hostility from local motorists or the general public but instead intrigue and wonder. As the group slowly gets spread out along the road, split by pace of different riders and the ebb and flow of traffic lights, there are many conversations breaking out between motorists and cyclists at red lights…  

“So where are you lot off to?”


“Paris – France??”

“that’s the one!”

“wow… good luck to you….. I would get the train!”

With each encounter you can see the pride sweep across peoples faces with distinct broad smiles.

In no time at all, powered by excitement and adrenalin, and with many dreaming that its their own mini Tour De France (I know I certainly am!) the 60 strong peloton sweeps out of London and crosses over the M25. From here on out, the traffic eases and the scenery becomes far more green. We pass Dartford and Gravesend, with many open straight roads in front of us, bound for the historic town of Rochester and the crossing over the Medway.

Rochester is our designated coffee stop on this ride, and as I arrive in at Simply Italian on the high street, some may be mistaken in thinking we had already arrived in France. The sun is shining, the bunting that is hanging across the high street is fluttering, and everyone is outside the Café, espresso in hand, smiling and joking about the mornings’ ride. It’s these moments that you can’t help but think life is good! Inside the café, our host, the eccentric Giuseppe, is entertaining everyone. Giuseppe epitomises everything that is great about this type of ride - everyone comes for the roads and the challenge, but it is always these small encounters that will continue to make us smile at the end of the day. 

Fresh from the mornings caffeine fix the next stage of this ride takes us from Rochester to Staplestreet, via Sittingbourne and Faversham. Continuing to pass through the beautiful Kent countryside, we can’t help but feel that the gods are smiling on us; the roads are dry, the skies are blue, the sun is beating down and there is not a breath of wind. Perfect conditions for cultivating those tan lines (Rule 7). We settle down and clock through the mileage. Talk is of “If only Chris Froome had had it this easy during the tour, what might have been?” After no time at all, we are greeted by the support vehicle and the welcome sight of the Three Horseshoes Pub at Staplestreet. Once again they have done us proud with a great lunch buffet. On such a lovely summers’ lunchtime it would be easy to think about a cold shandy, but with another 27 miles to go we continue with our Nuun Tablets and rehydrate.

The final 25 miles are by far, my favorite section of the day. The route take us out of Staplestreet via Canterbury and then alongside the Kent Downs. This section of road is truly beautiful as you make your way through beautiful Kent villages, and small roads in the heart of the countryside, until you finally make the long descent into Dover.

Arriving at the port of Dover, we were greeted by a number of other cycle tour providers, and what seemed like an army of cyclists, ready to invade France. The port of Dover knew we were coming, so had made us wait at the gates of the port with the other cycling teams, to wait for a lead car to take us through customs to the ferry holding area. We patiently waited for this car to emerge, but more and more groups were being escorted through in front of us and still no car! “Right that’s it” Lead by our fearless leader Richard, enough was enough “These groups that are going through in front of us, have been following florescent arrows from London so need guiding through – We are cycle leaders… we know our way to the ferry!” and so the Grand Tour Cycling assault on the port of Dover began!! Within minutes, we were through customs and ready to board the ferry who’s passenger manifest must have been made up of at least 90% cyclists.

After a smooth crossing, it was a short ride to the hotel, a shower and a glass of French red wine. 3 More Days to go!

Day 2: Calais to Abbeville – 78miles
Departing Calais early, it’s very clear that from here to Paris the riding will be very different. The peloton again departed our hotel, Hotel - Calais de la Plage, riding out along the promenade with the warm sea breeze in our hair. Again we had been greeted by another blue bird day – perfect! Our route today was very simple keep the sea on the right. We follow the D940 through the Nord Pas de Calais National Park - on quiet, rolling, coastal roads never loosing sight of the sea. Either side of us, we pass beautiful green fields and it is hard to imagine that there was ever a time when this coastline was not tranquil. Looming never too far away though, is the history of this coastline. The war museums, with old WW1 tanks outside and the abandoned gun turrets are nearby, reminding you of a sadder time.  

 Our target for this morning is the beautiful fishing town of Boulogne, and more espresso, opposite the harbor. The roads are good and we all make steady pace. This enjoyment is only briefly interrupted with the rumor of a looming Strava segment – suddenly the mere thought focuses the mind and narrows the vision – apparently our city riders are competitive!!

After our morning coffee, and a brief rest to again work on our tan lines, we continued toward Etaples and lunch. This section again flashes by as we make use of good cycle paths, and continue to pass wartime relics, the most poignant being the Etaples cemetery on the outskirts of town, where we pull over to pay our respects. After a short ride into Etaples, we are greeted by Ian and our lunch stop on large park area outside a marina. Typically lunches on these cycle trips are a buffet style with French baguettes, ham, cheese as well as many other finger snacks. They are always well received and a great chance to kick back and relax. The only real cause of great stress and debate was between two Grand Tour Cycling Leaders Rich “tabouleh” McLaughlin and Rob “the gherkin” Lucas over which is the best cycling superfood – I’m pleased to report the winner was my ham, cheese and rocket sandwich, as I was too hungry to listen to the outcome of the debate.
After lunch and fuelled by whichever super food you settled upon, we continue south to Abbeville. The route changes significantly from the morning’s riding as we head inland. We move away from the coastal roads and find ourselves winding our way through pine forests, as we head towards the Somme Valley and the market town of Abbeville, our evening stopover. After a warm shower, we all departed for our evening meal where it was clear that moral was high. The lead leader of our illustrious group from Grand Tour Cycling was to bear the ‘brunt’ of the mood; 5 or 6 times we tried to offer the briefing for the following days riding, what people had ordered, the weather or even just tried to stand up to visit the bathroom, each time to be greeted with rowdy jeers! As the wine seeped in, the volume increased. Clearly everyone was having a great time. Tomorrow Beauvais.

Day 3: Abbeville to Beauvais – 65miles 

Day 3 is always a great days riding. Motivated by the thought of only 65 miles riding, and after celebrating our first proper days riding in France the night before, the peloton set off flying. The ride from Abbeville to Beauvais takes you up onto a high plateau, with French countryside spread out before you. We wind our way from one farming village to another, and it is clear to see we are in the heart of Northern France, and it is easy to think that in many ways this region is very similar to the UK.

 This day really allows people to stretch their legs. We are predominantly riding on smaller roads and using the support vehicles and cycle leaders, we can really allow the group to flow through junctions at their own pace. Today, more than any other day, the group feels that they are cycle touring. The routine is set, pace is steady, and the team can really sit back and enjoy the ride. The day passes smoothly. Lunch is taken in the charming village of Brombos, on the village green, next to a lovely little pond. As the group is lying on the village green, eating lunch, laughing and joking, it is evident that they have settled into life in the saddle. Again blessed by another beautiful day, we allow ourselves a bit of an extended break, before making the final push towards Beauvais and its magnificent Cathedral. 

Over dinner that evening, it soon became clear that the tide had turned. After three days successful days riding, with a Grand Tour Cycling Leader at the head of the peleton, a splinter breakaway was forming. An eager alter-leader was shaping a new counter challenging team. The plan: to deliver their leader and hopeful sprint champion in prime position, for a prestigious stage finish at a small abandoned garage some 20km into tomorrow’s ride. Declaring to put their Superfood differences to one side, the Gherkin and a third Grand Tour Leader, Pime aka Owen Wilson, had vowed to do the same for team GTC. Talk of this battle filled the evening and many performance enhancing drinks were offered to aid the team domestiques, and lead out riders, but what would tomorrow bring…??

Day 4: Beauvais to Paris – 56 miles The Big One

Knowing that today was the big day the group set off riding early and made good time passing through Meru for our daily espresso, (you are probably now noticing a theme), and powering towards Cergy Pontoise where we had lunch next to the Seine river. Although the legs by this point are starting to feel the previous days mileage, teams are always given a second wind, because as you make your way down into Pontoise, the skyline of Paris can start to be seen on the horizon – not far now! We finished lunch and re-instated the peloton for the remaining 20 miles, we would ride in together. The mileage ticks by with out you noticing, and our approach quickly sneaks us into the suburbs alongside the Seine and via the back roads, towards the capital. All around the buildings are getting bigger and bigger, the traffic gets busier and you can feel the buzz of the city growing. Keeping the group moving together using the un-crowded bus lanes in the city, and with cycle leaders buzzing around like ranchers keeping everyone safe and on the right route, the excitement grows. Shouts of “go” at traffic lights and the emergence of typical Parisian cafes with people sat outside, only continues to build the anticipation. The architecture is changing also as you pass by. Gone are the glass and steel of the business district instead you are greeted by the older buildings that are so typically French. Almost unaware of how close you are, we swept around one last corner and up a final climb, with the Arc de Triomphe standing on the crest – wow this is Paris! Horns are beeping and there is traffic everywhere, but similar to the Red Sea, the traffic seems to part for us to enter into the Arch de Triomphe for the mandatory laps around this most famous land mark – and to think in less than 24 hours the Tour de France riders will be riding on the same hallowed cobbles! Its always great to see how respectful and tolerant Parisian drivers are to cycle groups. Cycling does seem to be part of the French DNA.  From here it’s just a question of cycling to the Trocadero and the iconic Eiffel Tower to let the celebrations begin. We’ve made It!!
After 20 minutes and many many photos with bikes aloft with the famous Paris backdrop its time to depart but the fun has not finished yet. We still have a few more miles back to our hotel past the where’s where on the Paris Monopoly board, before we are finishing for the evening. Right on cue, the Red Bull Girls turn up in their little Red Bull Mini, and started to hand out cold cans of Red Bull for the final push – that should see us home. Again riding as a peloton we depart the Trocadero and head back towards the Arc de Triomphe where we turn right and cycle down the most famous road in cycling history the Champs Elysees. As we ride down these famous cobbled streets, which have already been prepared for the Tour’s final stage you can’t help but get caught up in the history of the grandest of Tours. It is also hard to not feel the excitement and anticipation of the event as you cycle over these cobbles – the whole city is waiting. It in these moments the achievement of what the team have just completed is clearly setting in.
A shower and a few beers later its time to reflect on a what has been a great 4 days. The speeches passed without any renditions of Happy Birthday and we all settled down for dinner and a small glass of wine in a great little Parisian restaurant…. The perfect way to finish a grand ride.


Day 5: the Tour de France

            My choice was an early start to make the most of the day. For others, a later start was the option of choice, after a later evening. Paris is a fantastic city and for any cycle leader, after a grand 280 miles, the way of exploring the French capital was only ever going to be by one form of transport – the bike! We took to our Hidalgo Bikes. I can only imagine this is what they would be called… We have Boris Johnson they have their Parisian Lady Mayor Anne Hidalgo. After 4 days on Road bikes we were overjoyed to be back on these street cruisers; fat tyres, low gears, buckled wheels. This was living the dream J. We took in the sights of Notre Dame, Montmartre, The Eiffel Tower from below and Stella Artois, the only thing we needed to complete this perfect day was a Team Sky British win. As we waited by the side of the Champs Elysees, the overriding sense was of how much the French, and now the world, love their cycling. The buzz was amazing, and then it was the moment we had been waiting for. As the riders got closer we could see the helicopter in the sky approaching as the wall of sound got nearer. And then the peloton zipped by in a nano-second followed by their entourage. There were multiple leaders in the multiple laps, Jens Voight was there, as was Geraint Thomas but both faded into the distance. For a long time it seemed that Richie Porte may just hold off the chasing pack, but ultimately it was Marcel Kittal who stole the show. What an experience, the speeds and closeness in proximity of the rides was amazing. An unforgettable ride. A huge thank you to the Team who made this an unforgettable ride.
If you fancy joining this fantastic mélange of sporting masterpiece and 4 beautiful and fun days in the saddle. Then visit www.adventure-cafe.com or www.grandtourcycling.co.uk – or just pick up the phone and call us on 01460 249191…. Rides available throughout Europe all year round….

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