6. Bristol to Paris bike ride

For our sixth challenge Cozzie and I cycled from Bristol to Paris – the city of passion, where romance apparently blossoms over a lingering glance across the sun-brushed Seine. Frank Sinatra might have loved the French capital all year round, but I can guarantee you his adoration would have been somewhat tempered if he’d had to pedal the entire way there…

And so it was, after months of dreaming, weeks of begging, borrowing and stealing bike panniers, maps and knowledge, and hours – nay, minutes, perhaps – of actual planning, we set off on our merry three-day trip on Wednesday, July 10.

Our journey would take us from the front gates of Bristol’s Southmead Hospital, south through the chocolate-box villages and towns of Wiltshire and Hampshire to Portsmouth. An overnight ferry to Le Havre and then we would wind our way through the Normandy countryside to arrive before the bright lights of Paris two days later on the Friday night.

What followed was 250 miles – 420km – of stunning scenery, shredded tyres, gruelling hours in the saddle and incredibly rewarding riding. Old Bradley Wiggins doesn’t know what he’s missing…

6. Bristol to Paris bike ride – July 10-12, 2013

Planning for an expedition, no matter how modest an undertaking it might be, almost always seem to take up as much time as the event itself. Other things in life over the previous few weeks had curtailed our preparations, so the day before our departure Cozzie and I found ourselves with a whole host of jobs left to do and questions left that were both unanswered and unanswerable. Gear fitted into our borrowed panniers (thanks TQ and Teilo), but we as yet had no racks to stow them on. Tiny hand pumps were strapped to bike frames, but would they really inflate a tyre in the event of a puncture? Energy gels were packed away, but surely they wouldn’t satisfy Cozzie’s insatiable appetite? And is it really practical to print off 18 pages of tiny maps from the internet as your sole method of finding your way from Bristol to Portsmouth? After 14 hours of cobbling things together we’d had enough. Bugger it – throw caution to the wind and crack on…

Day 1: Bristol to Portsmouth

And so it was at 8am on a beautiful Wednesday morning we miraculously found ourselves packed, strapped up and ready to go – off on our sixth challenge.  My surge of excitement as we steamed out of the gates of Rectory Gardens disappeared within seconds as I realised I couldn’t turn my pedals – my panniers were too far forward. Much huffing and blustering later and we were finally off, heading out through Bristol’s rush hour for the first leg of our journey.

Quick photo call outside Southmead hospital (sorry, no time to stop in and say hello!)

With fresh legs and bags of energy, here we are ready for the start of our 3 day cycle ride

Southmead Hospital, the inspiration for our year of challenges, was our first stop – just a couple of miles from home, but after an early morning hill that blew away the cobwebs a most welcome pause to check the bikes and make sure we could actually ride them now they were fully laden. After a quick photo shoot and an encouraging wave goodbye from mum we were off on our journey proper, zipping through Henleaze and the city centre to the Bristol to Bath cycle track.

The domain of commuters, pleasure cyclists and the odd dog walker, the cycle track is the oldest 15 miles of path in the National Cycle Network, following the line of the disused railway track between the two cities. Meandering through old cuttings, tree-lined embankments and quiet suburbs, it’s an enchanting route, never more so than when a bright summer sun sends shadows dancing across the Tarmac. And it’s busy – hundreds of commuters whizzed past us heading towards Bristol, families and groups of children walked to school, and the throng of cyclists dodged in and out of the odd runner. It was only when we got out into the countryside between the two cities that we had the track to ourselves and could open things out a little. Under a shimmering heat we got a decent bit of pace up, hitting 40kmh at the Avon Valley Railway near Bitton, before zooming through cool glades at Saltford and on down into Bath inside an hour and five minutes.

Cycling along the Bath to Bradford-on-Avon canal

Cycling along the Bath to Bradford-on-Avon canal

After zig-zagging our way eastwards through the Georgian city and the wrong way down some one-way streets we reached the start of the Kennet and Avon Canal, the historic waterway which links the Thames with the Bristol Channel, and our route to Bradford-on-Avon. Now, the canal is the perfect place for a Sunday afternoon stroll. Colourful barges and houseboats line its banks, with rusty bikes, plant pots and all manner of things strapped to their roofs and decks, and people sit out along the waterway’s grassy verges on deckchairs, occasionally getting up to explore a shady nook or stone bridge, or simply to wander into one of the many pubs littering the route for a quiet pint.

Unfortunately the bumpy gravel path is not quite so welcoming to road bikes with skinny tyres. We were forced to cycle slowly and pick our riding lines carefully, and we arrived at Bradford-on-Avon coated in dust, a little later than we’d hoped. At 12pm we were 54km down, with a good 125km still to go. We could do it, couldn’t we? It sounds like a long way when you add it all up… A quick ice cream and banana, a generous slathering of sun cream (no one wants burnt thighs rubbing against cycling shorts…) and we were off towards Salisbury, our next stop.

Heading south, our route took us through the stunning scenery of Wiltshire. Cycling along quiet country lanes, with nothing to keep us company other than the odd horse or cow in a field and the burbling sound of the River Wylye, we got up a decent head of steam. Unfortunately, that early promise of making good time was undone by my long-held resistance to embracing certain aspects of modern technology, namely the sat-nav. So instead of eating up the miles, we had to stop at the end of every other road junction, precariously balance our well-laden bikes against a thigh or wall and fish around in panniers for our tiny printed maps. Not a clever move, Dom – one which ate up huge amounts of time. I eventually succumbed to using a map on my mobile, but we still had to stop to find it at the end of every road (always, always in the OTHER pannier to the one you’re rummaging around in…), and by the time we reached Salisbury after a quick energy gel stop at Warminster we were getting a little twitchy.

4pm and we're finally having a stop in Salisbury...

4pm and we’re finally having lunch!

Tired and hungry after 110km, we crashed out on a grass verge opposite a newsagents at 4pm to wolf down an Elf Harris ham-and-brie sandwich special, chocolate milk, jelly babies and nuts – anything to give us a decent energy kick for the long ride we still had left. No time to rest for long – and sick of teenagers showing off by riding one-handed up a nearby hill – we dragged our weary bodies back into the saddles and headed out on to some A-roads to get up a decent lick of pace. A-roads (major, non-motorway roads, for all you Kiwis out there…) are great – they’ve invariably got a decent surface that you can fly along (I hit 64kmh at one point) and are fairly straight. Unfortunately you have to share your time-trial course with traffic – lots of huge lorries that threaten to drag you under their wheels as they whistle past at breakneck speed.

Back on the minor lanes it was far more enjoyable. Our route took us through idyllic English country villages, places you might expect the Famous Five to enjoy a jaunty holiday adventure, and streets with names like Teapot Lane and houses called Nutmeg Cottage. Village after village put smiles on our faces, making up for some of the more challenging aspects of the ride. Midges and flies constantly got lodged in eyes which were already sore from the wind (my sunglasses were helpfully buried in the bottom of one of the panniers), forearms were beginning to seize up and backsides… well, the less said about them the better.

As the shadows lengthened and the sun began to set we powered on towards Portsmouth, skirting around the northern edge of the New Forest and Southampton. The sea was always on the edge of our senses, but we could never quite see or smell it, and as the sky turned inky we thought we were home and dry – until our maps took us on a frustrating turn off the main roads and back on to unnamed country lanes. At 9pm, some miles away from Portsmouth and with a ferry we had to catch by 10.15pm, nerves and tempers began to fray a little.

End of Day One, and a very sore butt! (understandably so after 165k's of pedalling)

End of Day One, and a very sore butt! (after 165kms of pedalling!)

Half an hour later, both frazzled, Cozzie made an executive decision – the best of the day and an absolute lifesaver. “Sod the biking, let’s just get to the ferry terminal.” Two taxi rides and 20 minutes later we were queuing behind cars at the dockside in Portsmouth. We’d missed finishing the route by about nine miles, and while it was utterly gutting that we had to concede temporary defeat, when we were scoffing down chicken curry and eclairs (£30 for two ferry meals and a couple of cups of tea in paper cups!) it was a hell of a lot easier to stomach. Bodies aching, thighs fast cramping up and eyes as red as if you’d poured vinegar in them, we swayed – nothing to do with the motion of the boat – back to our berth for a well-earned sleep. 165km of riding down – what would the second day bring?

Day 1 statistics: Distance: 165.68km; Max speed: 64.1km/h; Average speed: 18.1km/h; Saddle time: 9hrs 8mins.

Day 2: Le Havre to Le Goulet

After 11 hours in the saddle we slept well. Oh, how we slept. So well in fact that, with no alarm (I’d brought the wrong phone charger…) we woke at 8am to hear a garbled message coming through the muffled tannoy. “Would the couple with the bikes on deck three please get their arses out of bed and off my boat, or their fancy new bikes are going overboard.” Or something like that. We were up, packed and out of the door in about 30 seconds, only to find we weren’t holding anyone up and that all the worry was probably just the captain’s early-morning grumpiness. So there we were, bikes in hand, blinking away sleep and trying to find our land legs on the quay side, absolutely no idea where we were.

A sleepy start for Day Two in Le Havre. "Must cycle on the right, must cycle on the right."

A sleepy start for Day Two in Le Havre. “Must cycle on the right, must cycle on the right.”

Just out of the docks I immediately spotted a man carrying a baguette under his arm, which suggested we had indeed made it to France and hadn’t just been dumped at some obscure port as punishment for making the captain bad tempered. The dock master waved us away with some general directions towards the town centre and off we went to look for some decent French brekkie, plan our next move and for Cozzie to put her cycling shorts on the right way round after getting muddled as she got dressed in such a hurry…

Now, I should make this clear early on. I enjoyed French at school – partly because we all fancied our rather lovely teacher. I could pick up languages fairly quickly, and I managed to get an A in my French GCSE. The old phrases we learned from that famous Tricolore text book still ring in my mind – “Ou est la gare, si vous plait?”, and “Je voudrais une chambre avec douche pour deux personnes pour ce soir, monsieur”. But in hindsight my fascination with my French teacher didn’t actually extend to following a single word she said back to me. Thus, as we agonised over our map and made tentative requests for directions, I was left with the conundrum of people we met believing I could actually hold a conversation with them. After asking the way to the nearest cafe in my near-perfect (ha!) French, I was forced to nod and smile like a simpering fool while they reeled off exquisite, detailed directions, only to turn away and admit the truth to Cozzie – I had no bloody clue what they were saying. It took a while to get breakfast that morning.

Day two, French breakfast  - bon appetit!

Day two, French breakfast – bon appetit!

Finally, after picking up a “continuez tout droit, et il y a un cafe le premier rue a la gauche…” I was able to drag a starving Cozzie to a nice little cafe on a backstreet square for a fantastic chorizo omelette and tea. We pored over our map to Paris over a glass of orange juice and realised we had but one problem – how the hell do you get out of Le Havre? Finding your way around – and out of – a new city is always an adventure, especially when your grasp of the language is rudimentary at best. We found our way to the train station, where I got my hands on a map of the town itself, and then put our trust in a local resident who looked at it and waved her arm in a direction that seemed to involve at least three points of the compass. “Down there, down that big road – that’s where you want”. Hmmm…

Off we went – must remember to ride on the right – weaving our way through streams of traffic powered by Gallic insouciance, practically using the sun as a bearing to go east out of the city. We followed cycle paths, dodged French drivers and their blaring horns and followed the map to a ‘T’, only to find ourselves following a turn that led us to the Le Havre equivalent of spaghetti junction and straight out on to a motorway. We were stuck at the end of a slip road and about to cycle on to a three-lane carriageway, with lorries and cars hammering through at 70mph and drivers hurling confused and angry glances our way. Definitely not right. There was nothing for it but to wait for a break in the traffic, grab our bikes and run hell for leather for the other side, praying to God that our panniers and bike bags didn’t send us tumbling beneath an 18-wheeler.

We made it, and by luck find ourselves on the exact road we needed. A quick check of directions (I was getting better at this after 20 times of asking) and we were finally headed out of Le Havre on a decent road, our Tarmac red carpet laid out to welcome us to two days of biking through the French countryside.

We rode on for another 10km or so until we reached the soaring Pont de Tancarville, a 1,420m suspension bridge that crosses the mouth of the Seine. A steep rise to the main span rewarded us with magnificent views, but it was when we hit the downward slope that the effort was truly worthwhile. Steep and long, it just begged for you to open up and ride as hard as you could, and so I did. And it was wonderful. So wonderful that – I’m embarrassed to say this – I found myself laughing out loud and then singing the French national anthem, its rugby songs and the theme from ’Allo ’Allo at the top of my voice. Fortunately Cozzie couldn’t hear me, but on the off chance that there are any French motorists out there still confused by the sight and sound of a guffawing, warbling, tone-deaf Englishman ruining the tranquility of the Normandy countryside I can only apologise.

IMG_6024

Day Two and the impressive Pont de Tancarville bridge in Normandy

This was more like it, then. Lovely fields all around us, hills and trees in the distance, a decent road with little traffic – it was bloody brilliant. We could barely hide our delight, and for the next 20 minutes or so pootled along enjoying the sights and sounds around us, giving serious consideration to having a cycling holiday every couple of years or so.

And then it happened.

Pop! I could hear it from 300 metres away. And then a far-away call. “Dom!Do-oooom!!!” It could only be one thing – a puncture.

Epic blow out!

Epic blow out!

“It’ll be fine,” I thought. “It’s only a puncture, and we’ve got everything we need to fix it. 15 minutes, tops, and we’ll be on our way.” But when I got back to Cozzie, sat on a grass verge mournfully nursing her front wheel, it was obvious it was a tad worse than that. It wasn’t just a puncture. The entire wall of the tyre appeared to have shredded. You could see its insides poking out through the rubber outer, mangled as if someone had taken to it with a hedge strimmer. Bugger. “Ok, let’s see if a spare inner tube will hold it together until we get to the next village.” No. That burst as soon as it was inflated. This was becoming a serious conundrum. We were miles from anywhere – bar a few local houses – with no apparent way of fixing the tyre. It was 1.30pm, we’d barely covered a third of our route for that day and there was about 90km of cycling to go. Hmmm. Just as we were beginning to lose hope a car came out of a side road and the driver and his wife looked across. I ran over.

“Bonjour! Pardon monsieur, le velo, il y a un ‘phssseeeuuusssttttt’ (complete with dramatic hand gestures). Est qu-il y a un magasin pour des velos dans le prochaine ville?” Or something like that. “Oui, oui, s’appelle Decathlon,” and he explained – I fervently hoped – that we could get a spare tyre there. “Combien, le distance?” “15 kms.” Then with a quick smile, toot of his horn and wave, off they went. Well, there was nothing for it. It was a massive gamble but we had no choice – I would have to cycle to the next town, pray to god that I could find the bike shop, that it was open and that it did actually sell tyres, and zoom back before we could be on our way again. Our chances of getting to the hotel that night looked laughable, but we had to go on.

So, after stripping my bike of its panniers and bike bag, and tucking Cozzie’s ruined front tyre over my shoulder and under my cycling jacket, I left her in the shade of a tree munching muesli bars while I went off in search of our last ray of hope.

Fortunately, it was all pretty easy. After half an hour of riding along a back road that took me past a meandering stream and enormous country houses with faded wooden shutters that looked like they belonged in 1930s New Orleans, I arrived in Pont Audemer, a large village with a vibrant square. I stopped to ask directions to the bike shop from four locals – it was a couple of miles out the other side of the village, of course – and soon found myself at Decathlon, a large outlet-type store that would be shopping heaven for anyone with an interest in the outdoors. Palms sweating, heart racing, I found a shop assistant and explained my predicament. “Bonjour! Le velo, il y a un ‘phssseeeuuusssttttt’….”

Cozzie's knight in shining fluorescent jacket returns from Pont Audemer with a replacement tyre!

Cozzie’s knight in shining fluorescent jacket returns from Pont Audemer with a replacement tyre

There was hope. They had a tyre – not quite the right size, but apparently close enough. I am always nervous when confronted with a Gallic shrug of the shoulders and a “boofff” – it suggests “it might work, it might not, but hey, that’s all there is to it.” Less than reassured but with no other choice, I slung the tyre over my shoulder, pocketed a couple of spare inner tubes and high-tailed it back to Cozzie. After an hour and a half away I expected her to be snoozing in the shade, but she was up and ready to help, fingers and everything else crossed. Moment of truth…. Yes!!!!! It fit perfectly! Even better than the one the bike had come with! All our worries evaporated as we pumped up the tyre and it all held like it had been born to fit Cozzie’s bike. Crisis averted, we were back on the road, riding together now past the New Orleans houses down into Pont Audemer. But we’d lost three hours, leaving the “puncture point” at 4.30pm. We wolfed down a couple of baguettes in the square and headed out of town (passing Decathlon again…), cycling further south east and inland along country roads by the River Risle.

Day two - a late lunch stop in Pont Audemer after the tyre disaster

Day two – a late lunch stop in Pont Audemer after the tyre disaster

After 20km or so we came to a tricky roundabout; we dodged a rather large lorry, negotiated confusing streets and crossed back over the Risle to the village of Montfort. A quick pit-stop later and we were through the other side, riding out along a lonely road and cutting through thick forests that blanketed the hills around us. Huffing and puffing we pushed ever onwards, cranks turning slowly but surely as we made our way towards somewhere – anywhere – closer to Paris to stop for the night. The hills began to level out and the trees grew more sparse, and then we were finally up on a plateau, plains of corn fields dotted with clumps of poppy flowers stretching out all around, as far as the eye could see.

The endless fields were stunning. An occasional country house broke up the open expanse, and the sheaves of corn glowed a soft gold in the liquid evening light. Cycling on, my mind wandered until it paused on a sad fact. Little less than 100 years before, these beautiful fields, now filled with food and flowers, bore witness to some of the most horrifying scenes humanity has ever known. How many young men – boys, barely – had fought and died in these fields, through which I now cycled? How many had been slaughtered as they toiled over 100 yards of ground, or a small ridge that would give them some minute strategic leeway? Unknown soldiers, in their thousands. Impossible to comprehend, impossible to forget, impossible to pay enough tribute to their sacrifice.

Evening cycling in the country lanes of France, en route to second nights sleep in Elbouf

Evening cycling in the country lanes of France, en route to second nights sleep in Elbouf

As long shadows began to dance across the road ahead of us, it became ever more obvious that we had to push on hard and find a place to stop for the night. A quick consultation of the map and we picked Elbeuf, about 30km distant. But 30km is still 30km, and so we hauled ourselves back into our saddles and pushed on in silence, lost in our own little worlds, one riding ahead and then the other. It’s a funny feeling – you’re riding through beautiful countryside, thoughts wandering aimlessly, and within minutes they return to one thing – “God, I ache”. Shoulders, hands, forearms, fingers – all throbbed in their own way with a dull pain that wouldn’t disappear no matter how many times you shifted your weight or altered position. At Bourgtheroulde we paused again to check the map, and those five minutes rest were heaven, before returning to hell again for the first two or three minutes back in the saddle, the soreness searing through my backside.

On further still, through villages whose names we forgot as soon we passed through, and we wondered if ever we would get to our destination. Finally, when we thought we could go no further, the road gradually began to run downhill, at first gently and then steeper and steeper. This was it – our final descent into Elbeuf. With a sudden rush of energy we found ourselves pushing hard, as hard as we could, cranks spinning as fast as they would go as we rocketed down the 3km hill to our stop for the night. It was utterly exhilarating, and came to an end all too quickly, but we were finally at our destination, a town on the banks of the Seine.

We cycled around looking for Elbeuf’s centre for 20 minutes before I could put my finger on what was wrong – for a decent sized town it was practically deserted. As we rode down streets that in England would be bustling with activity it was eerily quiet, with not a car or person in sight. Finally we came across a small hotel on a side street with a couple of men outside drinking beer. It was as good a place as any, reasonably priced and they’d let us put our bikes in the hallway, and when the owner promised croissants for breakfast Cozzie was sold. We dumped our gear in our room and unsuccessfully tried to persuade the chef to re-start the ovens in the kitchen, so the lady running the place kindly took us to an Italian restaurant a few streets away.

And there we found ourselves, sweaty, tired and still clad in cycling shorts and fluorescent tops, ducking the curious stares of our fellow diners and the waitress as we tucked into a well-earned steak, chips and a beer. We ate bread until it was coming out of our ears and talked about how lucky we were that we’d found a bike shop that had what we needed. Tomorrow would be a long day – much longer than we’d hoped – and we’d have to cycle hard instead of pootling into Paris as we’d planned. But we had a bed, we’d been fed, and we couldn’t be more content.

Day 2 statistics: Distance: 95km – Cozzie, 124.05km – Dom; Max speed: 66km/h; Average speed: 18.4km/h; Saddle time: 6hrs 44mins.

Day 3: Elbeuf to Paris

We were up at 7am. We had to be. My God it was hard to drag ourselves out of bed, but we had no choice. We’d only managed 95km the previous day – excluding my 26km shopping trip – so had a hard day’s riding ahead of us, which was the last thing my buttocks were calling for at that point. But it’s amazing how your body can adapt to discomfort, and after planning our new route and wolfing down a hearty breakfast we were on our way by 8.30am, 130km or so to go to the Eiffel Tower and our goal.

We pushed hard and as soon as we were out of town hit a long hill. But instead of tiring us out it proved an invigorating early morning wake up, and we found ourselves pedalling harder and harder, eating up the miles. The route was punctuated by gradual hills that led to open plains, followed by meandering downhills to small villages and towns – one of which threatened to seriously throw our itinerary into doubt after we spotted signs for a chocolate factory.

Hard to miss!

A brief stop to admire the scenery on day three

After 40km or so we passed what was meant to be our previous night’s accommodation at Le Goulet and immediately realised we had made the right decision to stop where we had. Pushing on would have made for a miserable last couple of hours of riding, and now we felt fresh and ready to ride a long distance. Which was a good thing, because the roads felt endless. But now, as we zoomed along roads that skirted the Seine, it was much busier. Roads teemed with traffic, lorries whizzed past every few minutes and with every turn of the pedals we felt the beat of the mighty river grow louder. Or was that just the throb of pain in our thigh muscles?

Walking across the Seine to find a lunch spot

Walking across the Seine to find a lunch spot

At Vernon we stopped for a well-earned lunch, tucking in to baguettes and cake in a park by the river, watching the world – and cruise ships full of tourists – go by. On we rode, with 20km stretches between towns. We went through Bonnieres, and then another 20km to Mantes, much larger and more industrialised. We got lost and found ourselves in a park, where we (ok, I…) had a 15 minute power nap, before stocking up on ice cream from a garage. The roads became ever more busy and confusing, and as we arrived at Mantes’ version of spaghetti junction we decided to change our route, instead heading for the north bank of the River Seine to follow it eastwards into Paris along quieter roads.

It proved to be an inspired decision. We found ourselves on a lovely flat road with pretty little villages built up around it, and enjoyed some nice steady riding towards the outskirts of the French capital. After all we’d been through we were within touching distance of our goal, and as the towns began to merge into one we realised we were close.

Finally - our first sign for Paris!

Finally – our first sign for Paris!

And then we were there – our first road sign for Paris! Surely it wasn’t far? We pushed on into St Germain in the western fringes of Paris, driven on by the fact that the map suggested we were just a few mere roads away from our goal. But oh, how those cartographers lie! We boomed down a curved hill and slammed on the breaks as we found ourselves effectively on a three-lane carriageway. Cue more confusion and angry motorists – we turned the air blue with exasperation. So close yet so far – after all we’d been through, it felt a little unfair. We hauled our bikes to a side road and studied the map again, but I had no bloody idea where we were. Perhaps the map-makers had been on strike that day…

 

Cycling into Paris as the sunset on Friday evening

Cycling into Paris as the sunset on Friday evening, taken with a very shaky hand as we dodged cars

Too close to be deterred, we found our side road led to where we needed to be, and then followed what seemed like endless suburbs, dodging in and out of buses and cars as we grew desperate. And then there was the Seine again, and we rolled triumphantly across one of its mighty bridges, the song of victory in our ears, thoughts of the maillot jaune inevitably not far from our minds. But no! It was just another suburb! Darkness was descending, energy levels were plummeting and nerves were fraying. Through the Bois de Boulogne park, on through more suburbs. We turned off a main road, went up a hill, and then I was lost. Cozzie was very patient as I threw my toys far and wide out of the pram, and then didn’t say a word when I gathered them up in silence after realising there was a big map on the footpath just 50 yards away pointing us in the right direction.

We turned a corner, crested a rise and then hit a steep downhill through a very built up area. But what was that in the distance? Was it Gustave Eiffel’s most famous creation? Surely it couldn’t be? But it was! There was no stopping us now! Faster, onwards, down any road in the right general direction, suddenly passing boutique stores selling Parisian haute couture, onwards, breathless, exhausted… and then suddenly we were there, on the north bank of the Seine, right opposite the Eiffel Tower. We had done it!

BOOM! (now, where's the hotel and next food inhalation stop?!)

BOOM! Welcome to Paris. Now, where’s the hotel and next food inhalation stop?!

The relief and sheer joy was far, far more than I had expected. It had only been three days, but it felt like we’d been travelling for weeks. We’d covered so many miles, and the roads and towpaths of Somerset and Wiltshire seemed like distant memories. Here before us was our goal- surrounded by thousands of tourists, hawkers selling cheap tat and Parisians hurrying about their business. None of them, bar us, had cycled 420km – 250 miles – to get here, and none of them felt as happy as we did. It was utterly euphoric. Grins splitting our faces, we pushed our bikes across the river among the crowd and got to the foot of the Eiffel Tower at 9.15pm, just as its lights came on, a fantastic display that lit it from top to bottom. It couldn’t have been better.

We were done in. We still had to find our hotel and Cozzie was getting hungry, so any chance of sightseeing was out of the window. But cycling along the south bank of the Seine, zooming along with no lights on without a care in the world and staring out at some of the most beautiful architecture and famous landmarks in the world was enough for me. Up through the Place de la Concorde, past the mouth of the Champs Elysees, we finally found our wonderful little hotel near the station. It was all we could have wanted, all we could have hoped for. No cozy little back street restaurant for us – all we could find that was still open at 11.30pm was a garish American diner-style restaurant. But after another steak and – I kid you not – a PINT of chocolate mousse for pudding – I was more content than I can tell you. That bed could have been made of drawing pins and I would have slept soundly. It wasn’t, and we did.

Day 3 statistics: Distance: 136.35km; Max speed: 64.6km/h; Average speed: 15.5km/h; Saddle time: 8hrs 48mins.

Day 4: The Return

Three entire days to get there, and just 12 hours to get back. It’s impossible to underestimate how good a warm shower is after so much cycling, so after turning ourselves into prunes we popped out to a corner shop to grab supplies and then packed up and headed for the Gare St Lazare for our trip home. Somehow we managed to pack our bikes into our new bike bags at our first ever attempt – not that we needed to, as we could have just pushed them on the train – and stacked them on four first class seats before settling in for our journey back to Le Havre. 30 minutes of swearing at each other while we reassembled our bikes and we were on our way back to the port. After “checking in” we were let on board, quick as a flash. They wouldn’t have done that if they’d known we were the ones holding the ferry up a couple of days before…

And that was it. We settled in for a four hour cruise back to Portsmouth, arriving in the harbour just as the sun set between the Isle of Wight and the mainland, and then rode hell for leather to the train station. Like every other journey on this trip, we somehow managed to time it to perfection, and found ourselves sharing a carriage back to London with some rather drunk teenagers and a group of festival goers who were frankly amazed that someone would ride from Bristol to Paris. Back on the streets of London – which somehow lacked that je ne sais quoi of their French counterparts – we freewheeled our bikes the last few kilometres to our little flat – taking great care to sit on the saddle as little as possible. There’s nothing quite like your own bed, and a Sunday morning without an alarm is unbeatable. But just before we fell into a 10-hour slumber we both shared a little moment – we had cycled 426km in three days for charity. And I have to say, it was a very good feeling indeed.

Trip total: Distance: 426.08km; Saddle time: 24hrs 36mins.

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