To Paris in winter
In December 2022, EGCC member George Barnstable was up for a cycling challenge. At an unusual time of year to be taking on an epic ride, he found himself cycling to the south coast and on to a ferry heading for France as part of a solo cycle to Paris. You can read his account below…
Cycling from East Grinstead to Paris may be something a few members have already done. Maybe more have done the better-known London to Paris. Usually those rides are in the summer months where the sun makes an appearance in the often ‘rainy and cloudy’ north of France. Most people wisely train for the event with a planned workout and nutrition guide developed many months before the day. For me, I did the opposite; I had a week off work before the Christmas break and lots of free time given all my friends were still working. I also had the idea of to do the cycle two days prior to setting off. With a degree in Health & Exercise Science, I still didn’t appreciate how taxing that would be for my body. That and a history of being fairly injury prone.
So why’d I do it? Well, like I said I had a bit of free time and a personal situation made me realise how important exploring new places and pushing yourself is.
Day 0: Prep, prep & prep
Monday 12th was planning day; I programmed routes in my Hammerhead Karoo, popped down to Sainsbury’s for snacks including energy gels, sweets & dried fruit. I packed my pannier to the brim with clothes, food, chargers & anything else that’d fit. Safe to say it was heavy!
Day 1: To the sea
Day 1 was the easiest of the lot; A short 30-ish mile ride to Newhaven ferry port. The only issue was that my ferry departed at 11pm and I set away at 2pm to ensure I wasn’t riding in the dark. It was my first time being guided by a cycling computer and I couldn’t flaw the Karoo – I was so impressed at little things like elevation tracking! I arrived safely at Newhaven ferry port at around 4pm and locked my bike up outside the glass door; understandably they didn’t allow bikes indoors. I now had a period of 7 hours to kill. It was at this point I realised that not bringing my headphones was likely a mistake; my thinking beforehand was that I’d be cycling so much that I wouldn’t need them, which was true, but I didn’t factor in what I’d do during the time I wasn’t on the bike. I initially got changed into some comfy clothes and read, scrolled through my phone for hours before getting peckish and walking to the nearby KFC to grab dinner – it was either that or McDonalds…!
It would be my first time boarding a ferry, so I was excited! The staff were incredibly nice to me, allowing me to stay in the warm, going through ‘ferry patrol’ procedures last and allowing me to board first – skipping the queue of cars, needless to say a few drivers weren’t too impressed with that! After parking & chaining the bike I went upstairs to my seat to get some shut eye; the trip to Dieppe was 4 hours and I needed all the sleep I could get for the hardest day ahead. I only managed about 30 minutes. Before jumping off the ferry at almost 4AM local time, I grabbed a latte and 2 croissants for breakfast.
Day 2: A big day in the saddle
Back in my Lycra and ready to get back on the road, I cheekily slipped past the rows of queuing cars who were again perhaps less than impressed. Still, I was finally in Dieppe, it was 5AM and had 120 miles ahead. My destination was an Airbnb located just north of Paris in Saint Denis.
The first three hours were boring to say the least. It was a completely straight cycle route with a barricade every few hundred metres which meant I had to slow down to weave through – my pace averaged around 10MPH. It was also pitch black and I was completely alone, not seeing another soul for hours. I ensured I was properly fuelling, sipping my water with energy tablets every 15 mins and had an energy gel every 90 minutes. After around 30 miles, the sun began to rise and I entered an area of civilisation. I stopped at the first place I could, thinking it would be a great breakfast stop. Instead, it was a local coffee shop where nobody spoke English. Having managed to order a coffee a few pieces of fruit before getting on my bike again, I saw a supermarket where I bought a sandwich and fed it down my throat. Despite not feeling particularly hungry, I was aware how important sustenance is!
In hindsight, I should have picked my stops in advance but without any local knowledge, that felt tricky. After a few more hours cycling it was almost lunchtime and I was pretty hungry! That worried me, as the few YouTube videos I’d watched mentioned as soon as you get hungry you know you’ve made a mistake (you want to be continuously eating – as I was doing so well with my liquids – to avoid bonking). I tried endlessly to find lunch spots but had no luck and decided to soldier on and use up the snacks in my pannier instead – it would make me lighter right?!
It was at this point where things started to go downhill, my knee was flaring up. Over my Lycra shorts, I was wearing some snug winter trousers which seemed to tweak my knee quite a bit when flexed. I removed the trousers, knowing it was probably already too late. I planned to stop every 90 minutes to fuel with snacks and rest my knee as it wasn’t feeling any better. The clouds rolled in and the rain started to patter. I was two hours from the Airbnb, soaking wet, hungry, tired, in pain and digging deep.
What am I doing? Should I go on? What if I quit…? No! Keep peddling.
I arrived at my accommodation for the night around 4 o’clock but the relief was short-lived as my bad luck was set to continue – the key didn’t seem to work but thankfully a welcoming neighbour came to the rescue. I made quick work of washing myself and my gear, then planning my evening shopping trip. Even though I was technically on annual leave, I had a few things going on at work that needed attention and so after a few calls, I’d completed a food shop. Using a whole loaf of bread to make 2 sandwiches for dinner and 4 for the next day, I finally waddled into bed at 9PM.
Laying in bed with my knee throbbing and painful when flexed, I thought ‘I’ve got to do this all again tomorrow’. Troubled and a bit demoralised, I text a friend to update them on my arrival and we spoke about my injury, they suggested I enjoy my time in Paris instead and use tomorrow to visit the city and utilise trains to rest my knee; I felt like I was being soft but agreed.
Day 3: Paris here I come…
Waking at 6AM and immediately began tucking in to toast and a bowl of fruit for breakfast. I got ready, put plenty of ‘deep heat’ on my knee and set off for Paris, specifically the iconic Eiffel Tower! Safe to say I made it and got the crucial picture to prove it. This was only a 10-mile cycle but the pain in my knee was excruciating, it felt like my patella would pop out at any moment. I spent a lot of time focusing my mind elsewhere to stop thinking about the pain and whilst it didn’t remove the pain it did reduce it. I then jumped on a train from Saint Lazare, Paris to Rouen, a town in North-West France, about 40 miles from Dieppe. The train journey was roughly 90 minutes, and I spent the time getting through a large bag of crisps and 3 sandwiches – seeing a less fortunate travel-sick lady puke on the seat opposite me didn’t make the sandwiches go down any easier.
…And back to Dieppe
I arrived at Rouen for about midday and had about 4 hours to cover 40 miles… plenty of time. I was riding well, albeit my knee was still hurting. Focusing my mind elsewhere – I thought of how cold and wet I was and that reduced the pain in my knee – sounds weird but it worked! I covered 25 miles in 2 hours and was ahead of schedule. Feeling a lot more positive, I was smiling as although my knee hurt, nothing else had gone wrong. I was alone, in a foreign country with just my bike & pannier and I couldn’t believe how impressive this feat felt!
That’s when trouble ensued. My luck wasn’t getting any better. 10 minutes after getting back on the road, I got a puncture. Now, I’ve had many punctures on my commuter bike and am used to quickly fixing those, but I’ve never had one on my road bike with it’s much skinnier tyres that are not as easy to get on and off! I searched for minutes to find the culprit, but to no avail. I swapped out the inner tubes and set off. 20 minutes later, another puncture! It was now that I was stressing. I was alone, in a foreign country and in the middle of nowhere. The clouds thickened, making it feel ominously dark and the rain wasn’t appreciated either. I had no idea what was causing the punctures. Oh, and did I mention, I had no spare inner tubes left? Talk about a lack of preparation!
I sat at the side of the road, desperately waiting for a car to pass. Thankfully I didn’t have to wait long when a large SUV pulled over having waved it down. At first, the young French lady, who spoke impressive English, wasn’t too keen on letting a wet, smelly, Englishman and his dirty, rain soaked bike in to the car, but she mercifully decided she couldn’t leave me stranded. With the bike in the boot, she drove me to Dieppe, 20 minutes away. Throughout the journey we spoke about Harry Potter as quite a bit of her knowledge of the English language came from reading each book in the series 5 times and watching all of the movies many more times! She even had multiple tattoos and accessories to prove her love of the franchise.
Safe to say I arrived at Dieppe ferry port an hour before departure. I felt a tad disappointed that I’d ‘cheated’ by getting a lift but what else could I have done? I didn’t let that small disappointment stop me from indulging in a hot plate of food and some cake when I boarded the ferry. After arriving at Newhaven, I wheeled the bike onto the station with the destination being home; it was at this time I could inspect the puncture culprit and it seemed to be multiple shards of glass deep within the tyre; something I couldn’t see due to the lack of light and downpour of rain when on the side of the road.
The days and weeks after
The next morning, my body clock woke me up early as usual. Rolling over, I managed to sleep in until 10AM. For the rest of the day I felt incredibly motivated. Feeling a natural high, like completing a marathon or finishing a tough workout. Now I had an appetite for more, already!
A month later and my knee still isn’t back to full strength. I’m continuing to rehab it with foam rollers and massage balls as well as daily flexibility work, but it seems as if the stress I placed on it during the Paris cycle were too much. With rest and strengthening exercises, I’m sure it’ll be back to 100% soon enough.
So, what’s next? I want to do a few more body-and-mind-pushing things this year on the bike, like LEL (London-Edinburgh-London) in the summer and maybe even an inter-rail type trip around Europe in the spring if my holiday allowance permits. Safe to say I’ll be training properly in advance this time… If you fancy joining me, get in touch!