Eight months of training in the legs, plenty of carbohydrates in the body, surely I'm ready?
Yes, but it was only Wednesday and my Arch2Arc challenge did not kick off until Saturday evening so I re-checked and re-packed my bags. It was clear that nerves were high and I anxious to get going. It took lots of focus to not get too stressed out on the coming days and finally the big day arrived, my bags were taken to the collection point and assembled with my nine other team mates ready for the trip down to London.
The atmosphere in the mini bus was good, the sun was blazing and everyone felt good; especially as we heard the fund raising had gone past six thousand pounds. The convoy of the Suffolk Road Safety van and our mini bus made great time into London, only to find Gay Pride Parade was still going on and we were in the middle of blocked roads and celebrating people. Time ran out, we were forced to change into our cycling gear in the bus as we travelled through the crowds; not really the best place and probably a comical sight from the outside.
At least we managed to assemble on the kerb opposite Marble Arch, we were only 50 minutes late! With a sudden fear of failure beginning to set in we kicked off at ten past nine through the traffic of London. This was my biggest nightmare, I cycle enough to know just how dangerous traffic can be; I'm not going to get into the rights and wrongs of road safety, it was just a case of making it through without any problems.
As the sun set we finally cleared London and onto the A2 towards Sittingbourne and our first stop, it was clear our delayed start was now in danger of either missing the ferry to Calais or forcing a van trip to make up time. I'm a stubborn person and there was no way I was going to get into a van so early on, so I dug deep and tried my best to cut a line for the team to make up time. Slip streaming and group riding in cycling really does work, by the time we hit Sittingbourne we were 10 minutes behind and with a final dig we free wheeled down into Dover back on schedule and ready for a break on the ferry.
The bus pulled off the ferry in France and we met our motorcycle outrider, Martin, provided by Suffolk Road Safety. He loaded up the panniers with food, water and spares and we set off around five on a misty Sunday morning inland. The roads were flat, the wind was low and the confidence was high, the kilometres were rolling along, it looked to be a good day to cycle to Paris.
The first French stop was in Fléchin, we entered the village to find the support crew had put out food, drinks and clothing ready for a quick stop, we were now 20 minutes ahead of the schedule. Looking at the forecast I opted to go with just short sleeves and sun cream, it was early but knowing the next stop was another three hours away my plan worked; the sun came out and then some.
By the next stop in Doullens the sun was in full flow and next stage was going to be the hottest part of the day. Martin packed additional fluids on the motorbike and we set off for one of the longest legs of the trip. Crèvecœur-le-Grand was the next stop and the cracks were beginning to show. Pete, the ride organiser was on the ropes and could not get back on the bike due to dehydration. The rest took on as many fluids as possible and took note that we were now just behind the clock, this stage was shorter but with moral low it could be difficult. On the road we tried everything we could to keep the speed where we needed it but the hours were taking it toll and tempers were frayed.
There was a difficult awkward silence in the group and those who had the energy tried to keep the pedals turning and lift those who needed it. The rolling hills of France are not in the vocabulary of your average Suffolk cyclist and with over 200 miles already in the legs they felt like a mountain stage of Le Tour.
The last stop was only 25 miles north of Paris, we were just about back on track but knowing the traffic of a capital city it was clear we were not home and dry yet. Pete re-joined us, determined to ride into Paris as a group and we set off for the final time. Moral had sunk as low as the heads, until I saw a few buildings on the horizon, one of those was the Grande Arche. It was enough to raise the spirits and allow another dig to the finish line; helped by a lovely down hill run into the Parisian outskirts.
Picking our way through the retail parks and busy suburbs we started into the city centre and what appeared to be an endless sea of red traffic lights. After being awake for over 32 hours and cycling this far the last thing I needed was a traffic light; I ride with those clip-less pedals and knowing my reactions were not the fastest now I envisaged me forgetting to unclip and falling sideways into the gutter.
Now started one of the biggest challenges; navigating Paris.
A few of the riders had the bike version of car satellite navigation systems so we had the route but it was no easy task. The traffic was huge and in places extremely scary, no matter which way we turned there was no sight of the Eiffel Tower let alone the Arc and we were getting more and more frustrated.
Caught at another set of traffic lights a gendarme pulled up along side us, he looked up and down the bikes and then us. My head was so low I could not see that we are at the foot of the Avenue Mac-Mahon and at the top was the Arc de Triomphe. When it finally clicked and I could see the moment I called out to the other riders. The police man looked over, saw my face and smiled, nodded and pulled away. We reformed into pairs and started the climb of the final hill, the low sun in the sky light up the Arc in a very Hollywood fashion and rode up and onto the Place Charles de Gaulle roundabout, then quickly off it!
I had just ridden that entire way without any incident, there was no way I'm chancing my luck and putting in a victory lap of the Arc just for a laugh; have you seen how those cars drive round there!
So we opted for a group photograph from the safety of the pavement.
We had made it and within time too. 22 hours and 49 minutes was the official time on the gps. That includes all stops and ferry crossing.
Yes, it was worth it. I love a good challenge and this was that. It was the longest I have been in the saddle and the furthest I have cycled. You need to have a strong mental mind set to do something like this. It is hard but as long as you don't let it get you down you can push your body through it. I learnt that, the mind will try to convince you to stop well before your body needs to, but now I'm looking for the next challenge. I have completed that one, the next one has got to raise the bar a little further...
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