“WHERE’S THE LUBE?”
A faltering shout echoes its way around the small fourth floor flat in East London. Beyond the slender brick walls lightning cracks and rain creases. Momentarily a second shard lights up the city’s skyline.
In the bedroom bike workshop an inner tube blows out at low pressure and a frantic Laurence now looks confused.
It is 6:15pm. Less than two hours to go. I serve up pasta with an over-sized ladle into over-sized bowls. Tom brings a mountain of grated cheese to the table where Oli, Dayfdd and Austin wait eagerly. The six riders huddle round their food and one by one dismantle the ziggurat of cheddar, sprinkling it generously over their meal. Small talk is made. Dafydd, to everyone’s delight, confirms that a microwave in Welsh is indeed called a ‘popty ping’.
“LET’S FILL HER UP”
Roy, the support vehicle driver, orchestrates the systematic loading of the van with the spare bike, wheels, tools, food, drink and kit. Oli goes over a final checklist, Laurence curses his missing ferry ticket, Tom stretches his lycra-clad buttocks. Dave, the film-maker, scuttles around shoving his camera in everyone’s faces.
It is 7:55pm. We line up in front of Marble Arch, where a small damp crowd looks on. After an unsuccessful attempt at synchronising our watches (Hollywood make it look misleadingly easy) we decide it is 8:00pm. One by one we lift our feet from the floor and the ‘click click click’ of cleats clipping into pedals reverberates as we pass under the arch. The crowd cheers. A few of the ladies faint. We swing a right under the arch and immediately come to a complete stop. Red light.
It takes almost an hour to get out of London. The rain has eased a little but the drizzle is still persistent, laying a reflective sheen on the road and making the darkness glisten. The team struggle to settle into any kind of rhythm due to the steady beat of red lights, but it gives everyone a chance to calm themselves after the frantic few hours before the start. As I coast to a stop at a junction, thinking about how there are only 274 miles to go, I hear a yelp behind me and turn just in time to see Tom clatter sideways into a stationary Laurence. Promising start.
Riding from Sittingbourne to Dover in the dark is a little like that scene in Star Wars when they accelerate into hyperspace. Picking up our speed on the desolate A2, cat eyes explode out of the vanishing point ahead of us in eerie shades of green. We push hard towards the coast, knowing there is a slim chance we can get ahead of schedule by catching the earlier ferry.
We make it with just minutes to spare, thanks to a long steep downhill run into the port. Once the 2:20am ferry to Calais had departed, the team commandeer a corner of the Spirit of France and begin to stretch. As Tom lunges down the gangway in his full length lycra, a large group of French schoolchildren look on bemused. After an intense 10 minutes of groin strains and pasta consumption, I immediately fall sleep, only to be awoken upon arrival in Calais after what seems like a matter of minutes.
Getting back on the bike at 4:30am is certainly one of the lowest points in my twenty-two year life. It is cold and dark and French. I wearily swap my watch over to my right wrist in a feeble effort to remind me that we should now be riding on the other side of the road. I quickly scoff a jam sandwich and a handful of peanuts with some more energy drink, to compliment the stodge of pasta already at the bottom of my stomach, and then comes the familiar ‘click click click’ as we set off.
Amazingly, in utter defiance to the weather forecast, it hasn’t rained since the gentle drizzle that sprinkled us in London. I smile at the weatherman’s ineptitude, knowing that we are an hour ahead of schedule and all set to simply cruise into Paris at a gentle 15mph. So despite the grim restart, I suddenly feel really good. Through small villages and over rolling hills we ride, out of the darkness and towards the sunrise. But suddenly a headwind hits us with a big, painful, morale-stealing slap to the face. I should have known it was too good to be true. Every pedal revolution gots two times harder.
The long first stage in France ends with a much needed coffee and refuel in the village of Fléchin, 142 miles into the ride. The short 20 minute break has to be extended slightly due to some very upset bowels, but once back on the road at 8:00am the entire team are looking slightly better. None of us clock that we had just passed the halfway marker, but this is probably a good thing as the thought of needing to cover the same distance again would no doubt severely dent our spirits; certainly Austin’s, whose general instability reminds me of Captain Jack Sparrow.
The next 60 miles pass, but I remember very little. By Crevecoeur-le-Grande, the rain had finally caught up with us and the team were all cold, miserable and soaked. The fierce headwind refused to go away and this had cost us all of our earlier advantage. We tried desperately to push on, to get the average back up, but at one point the wind was so strong we found ourselves pedalling down a steep hill at just 14mph, less than what we needed to average if we were to make it to Paris inside 24 hours. I started frantically crunching numbers in my head – hours, minutes, average speeds, seconds – while around me I knew faces were filling with doubt. I tell myself that this is the point in the film when everything suddenly become OK. Right then and there, it begins to hail.
At around 5:00pm, after an hour of delirious head-down riding, we look up and see black turn to blue. Behind us, the blanket of storm cloud comes to a halt; someone, somewhere, must have decided that enough was enough.
The final 60 miles to Paris were, for the most part, dry. Austin endured a brief bout of hallucination (for which I was for a time extremely worried), but other than this there were no real incidents of note in the last 4 hours of riding. It did of course, feel more like 10 hours, but at this point it did not so much matter because I had convinced myself that we were going to make it. (I realise this makes the final leg probably sound easier than it was, but it would take a much more talented writer than I to explain the complex range of thoughts, feelings and emotions endured during this time). Looking around, I find myself in the suburbs of Paris.
At exactly 8:24pm French time, the entire team sweep onto the unpleasantly cobbled Champs-Élysées. The rough ride brings our attention back to the pain in our bums – a feeling masked for the past few hours by a combination of extreme muscle fatigue and mental tiredness. The Arc de Triomphe comes into view dead ahead and we come to a stop at a red light, just 100 meters away.
“YOU’VE GOT TO BE JOKING…”
As we are waiting for it to turn green Dafydd discovers he has a puncture. After 283 miles and not one problem with any of the six bikes, the team can’t help but let out a slightly feeble laugh.
Green! ‘Click click click’.
We dash off towards the Arc, plunging like Kamikazes into the eight lane roundabout, weaving our way to the monument at its centre. It is 8:31pm. 23 hours and 31 minutes ago we left London, but it feels like days.
Thank you ALL for your support, it has been incredible. Also, thank you Seb for giving me a bike to ride and thank you Yan for giving us a bed in Paris.
Until next time…