Wednesday, 14 September 2011

La Manche - Part 1

I had toyed with the idea of writing a single post covering the whole of the London to Paris trip, but on reflection I think there's simply too much to cover over the 4 days, so I'll divide it up and do it a little at a time.  It'll also - I'm afraid - be in diary format, but with only a couple of sportives left this year there won't be too many more examples of that.

So, the trip started for me at 1.15 pm on Thursday 1st September, when I locked the front door, and set off on my fully-laden bike (rear panniers anyway) to Macclesfield railway station. Apart from the absence of Mendip Rouleur, it was hugely reminiscent of the start of the journey to Cornwall to start Land's End to John O'Groats two-and-a-bit years ago, the same kind of sunny, breezy day, and huge sense of anticipation.  The journey to London passed in a flash as it tends to on the Pendolinos, and then it was the ride from Euston to the Novotel at Waterloo. Oh my goodness. Even taking things extremely steadily it was the scariest few miles I've covered for a long time, and I include descending mountains in the Pyrenees in wet weather in that. Other cyclists, mopeds, white van men and women, and bus/cycle lanes that stop abruptly leading to left turns that simply invite motorists to cut across your path - they all contributed to a really tough little journey. Talk about needing to have eyes in the back of your head. I was mighty relieved to get to the hotel.

The 4 of us doing the ride rendezvous-ed over the course of the evening, and shared the inevitable Italian meal (carbs and beer).  The roll call besides myself was Neil (riding for Save The Children, recently of Lloyds but now of Dell), Andy (also Save The Children, Lloyds) and Dylan (riding for Help For Heroes, works for Computacenter). We'd previously agreed to a 7.30 am photocall at Lloyds' head office on the morning of Friday 2nd, so that meant an alarm call at 5.45 am. That's not right on your holiday. We eschewed the £15.65 continental breakfast option at the Novotel in favour of a backstreet caff (almond croissant and cappuccino in my case, £2.40, bargain). We ate outside, a delightful Polish waitress taking the first of many team pics.  It was a lovely morning, and choosing that option rather than the hotel for breakfast added a je ne sais quoi. Which was just as well as we were en route to France, needing some savoir-faire to negotiate the London traffic, and requiring more than a soupcon of courage. That's right, Franglais took hold early on in the group.

The photocall at Gresham Street marked the start of a few inglorious episodes for your writer. First, I managed to fall off my bike directly under the Lloyds sign that is always shown when there's a news item on the organisation.  Not sure how I did it, but there was no real damage done, other than to my dignity. Second, and no more than 10 minutes later, crossing the busy Bank junction I passed an amber light (it really was, not red) without realising how far it was across to the other side, and consequently garnered a whole load of abuse from a motorcycle courier and a lorry driver for delaying them by, well, it must have been nearly as much as 2 seconds. Third, having carefully plotted a route down Borough High Street, we found it was then closed, meaning we had to walk with our bikes down crowded pavements for half a mile. It was now nearly 2 hours since we'd gathered at the hotel reception, and we were still in central London.

The rest of the route out of London was fairly straightforward however.  Busy, but straightforward. Bermondsey, New Cross, Blackheath, Welling, Dartford, south to the A20 was the chosen path, and a hell of a lot easier than navigating into Paris. But that's a blog for a different day. There's not too much to recount about the actual ride itself. Neither Maidstone nor Ashford were entirely without incident as far as staying on the right road was concerned, but I prefer to put that down to the fact that signs for the A20 disappeared temporarily in each, rather than any failings on my part. Greggs (the bakers) did good business in Ashford as far as luncheon arrangements were concerned for some of the party (though I preferred M&S, putting in another sterling performance by having to call Dylan from the till to get him to bring my wallet).

Stopping briefly just before Hythe for a photo-op (and why wouldn't you when the place is called Pedlinge; ok it's probably pronounced with 'j' sound at the end rather than a 'g', but a judicious hand over the 'e' on the sign took care of that problem), we ran along the coast to Folkestone. Till then it had been a sunny and pleasant day, but the haar and fret were rolling in mightily, and visibility became practically zero for a while (slightly bizarre on a summer's afternoon, but I guess it's a regular occurrence around the coasts). The single most testing, ie steepest, climb of the entire ride was encountered between Folkestone and Dover, and a proper legwarmer it was too, necessitating a bit of shank's pony for my fellow travellers.

Now, the entrance to the port, queuing up on our bikes alongside the cars, lorries and motorbikes, and then riding up the ramps actually on to the ferry itself had been the single part of the journey I'd been looking forward to the most.  I've seen plenty of other cyclists at other ports do it, and frankly, been very jealous. A car is very practical, functional and sensible, but it doesn't imply free-spiritedness, or some sense of being an adventurer, a pioneer even, someone not bound by convention. To me, if no-one else, it just looks so damn cool. In the event, I was pretty disappointed. Dover itself is a pretty grotty place these days, the port reflects that, check-in was in a grim shed where the truckers present their paperwork, and the ride onto the boat didn't have an audience. I was pretty tired after the early start and navigating down some busy roads to get there, and that might explain things a little, but really, it wasn't the experience I was hoping for.

Onboard it wasn't a lot better. I've probably been spoiled by Brittany Ferries on the crossings to France, which run excellent, clean, comfortable ferries that feel like the seafaring equivalent of travelling business class. P&O to Calais is more like Easyjet. They're not as bad as Ryanair though, and to be fair, the vast quantities of fish and chips we consumed in the restaurant were perfectly palatable. The food of the gods didn't really revive me however,  and I was more tired on that ferry than at any other point on the entire trip.

I was a bit worried about the final bit of navigation for the day, the - as it turned out - 10 km to the hotel in Coquelles. It was dark, we were tired, we weren't quite sure which part of the vast ferry terminal we were exiting, so orienting ourselves wasn't easy, but to my very pleasant surprise we made it to the hotel without a single wrong turn. Better than that, the air was warm, the roads were smooth, we rode well as a group, and the bit of Calais we saw looked surprisingly salubrious - though maybe Dover has lowered my expectations. The mood felt almost ecstatic by the time we arrived at our luxurious garrison for the night - the Formule 1 hotel at Coquelles. I shall ruminate further on the joys of the Formule 1 in a later post. Anyway, that was Day 1 done - the longest, hardest, and most particulate-inhaling of the four, but then, you didn't expect anything else when it was a day spent on British roads did you?

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