Earlier this month, the rather foolhardy amazing Andrew Diprose (art director of Wired and he behind the gorgeously illustrated cycling journal The Ride) undertook Le Jour de France, a sponsored ride from London to Paris.
The twist? It was a 24-hour overnighter.
Since we’d choose carrot over stick any day of the week, Mr & Mrs Smith offered to put him up in stylish Paris pad Hôtel des Academies et des Arts to recover, in return for this account of their adventure…
It’s not meant to be like this. It’s August; it’s meant to be summer!
6.30AM: we’ve been riding since three in the morning and it’s lashing down. Big, heavy drops of French rain. Spray from fellow riders’ wheels hits my face like a misdirected shower head, and I can’t see the road ahead.
Whose idea was this?
Flip the calendar back six months or so, and an old riding friend suggests a charity ride to Paris. He wanted to raise money for a cause close to his heart and thought it might be nice to have some company. Without hesitation, five of us jumped on the plan, all with our own choice of charities and levels of fitness.
The mission: ride as a group from the Tower of London to the Eiffel Tower in 24 hours (including the ferry crossing) along a 200-mile route.
Le Jour de France was born!
The UK leg of the route meanders through Lewisham, Biggin Hill and the suburbs, then south over the South Downs to Newhaven and the cross-channel ferry.
The ride through the traffic-choked suburban streets seems to take forever, but our enthusiasm gets the better of us: we sprint off at every set of lights, only to wait 100 yards up the road for the rest of the group to catch up. Eventually we’re in the lush greenery of Ashdown Forest (2), and just as dusk approaches, we’re treated to a distant view of the capital we have left behind.
We’re in Lewes before dark and the pretence of ‘carb loading’ gives us all an excuse for a fish ‘n’ chip supper (3). We can’t rest for too long, though: we have to meet the ferry at nine (4).
2.30AM. TWO-THIRTY AM! We’ve shut our eyes for what seems like all of five minutes before the crew start banging on our cabin door. Welcome to Dieppe.
Legs: sore. Riding kit: damp. We’re back out pedalling in the dark. Paris is almost 140 miles away and everything suddenly seems VERY real. But it doesn’t take us long to get organised, and it’s only a few moments before we’re each taking our turn at the front, shielding the other riders from the wind and preserving energy.
I check my watch. It’s 4am and silent on the road. The only sound comes from our breathing, punctuated by the occasional gearshift from the other riders. It’s beautiful and eerie, our lights cutting through the dark, the blackness resealing itself instantly behind our little bike train (5).
We meet the support car for some welcome refuelling, and change into waterproof jackets before the rain really sets in. What follows is a couple of hours of ‘character- building’ wet-weather riding (6). Slick downhill sections blur into rolling climbs – another village, another town, cries of ‘Pothole!’ and another energy bar.
Dawn eventually breaks and we stop to shelter under a café awning and chew on croque monsieurs. It’s past 8am and we secretly hope it won’t rain all the way. We’re really fortunate in that we only suffer two flats on the whole trip. Considering the conditions, we know we’ve got off lightly.
The hours roll by, the roads start to dry and the destination seems to get nearer in 30km chunks. We’ve dropped into an unspoken rhythm, shielding the more weary riders by rolling along with a measured speed that should just get us to Paris in time (7).
We’re following the Seine now and everything is prettier. Hang on… the sun is shining! There’s a collective feeling we can up the pace, and it’s not long before the countryside gives way to the suburban sprawl of Paris (8).
There’s hushed talk of a finish-line sprint along the Champs-Elysées. Everyone is silently checking out the other riders: who has the legs to leave the others behind over the last few kilometres? Someone spots the Eiffel Tower through the trees and a cry goes up. Buzzing with impatience, we cut though the traffic heading towards the Arc de Triomphe.
A feeling of elation passes through us. Suddenly everyone is smiling and those sore legs don’t seem too bad after all. We’ve got just half an hour before the 24 hours are up and all hell breaks loose on the Champs-Elysées. Weaving through Friday rush-hour traffic we sprint for the Place de la Concorde, a car-driver shouts out our speed: ‘Soixante kilomètres!’
Twenty-three hours and 25 minutes since we left London and we’re standing under the Eiffel Tower. We’ve raised almost £6,000, pedalled through the night and eaten our own bodyweight in energy bars. Sitting on grass next to the Tower, even the weak French lager tastes good (9).
With grins on our faces and our last bit of energy, my brother and I crawl along across town to the Hôtel des Academies et des Arts, just off Boulevard Montparnasse. Thoughts of the hotel’s cosy rooms, crisp sheets and Parisian macaroons kept us going for the last 50 miles, and if ever there was a time when we need a sanctuary, this is it.
The hotel is simple, chic and quiet: perfect for two tired riders. The lovely Patricia makes feel at home – sweaty Lycra, grimy faces, bikes and all.