This folly all began whilst watching an old BBC series called Last Man Standing. A show in which 6 unfathomably fit professional athletes travel around the world competing against various tribesfolk at their own sports to work out who is the best all-round super athlete. Laying in our kebab-stained tracksuits, 2 crates of Biere D’or deep, and moving from the sofa only because pissing ourselves where we sat was a level of degradation we’d not quite achieved yet, we saw something of ourselves in those fine specimens on the TV.
The TV show. Not us.
Through the Class C haze we watched these highly tuned athletic machines leap about breathlessly until one of us finally slurred the observation that was staring us all in our unwashed faces.”We too could be that fit if we wanted. We just don’t have anything to train for.” We belched in agreement. He was right. We were clearly natural athletes, all we needed was a little motivation.
So motivate ourselves we did. We discussed all manner of outlandish feats we could easily complete with just a couple of weeks of cardio. Thankfully, most of the more ludicrous ones were eliminated by whatever remained of logic in that room; running the Great Wall of China (too expensive), swimming the Channel (too much paperwork), walking to Russia (too time-consuming).
So despite what you’d think would be the obvious hurdle of none of us even owning bikes, we concluded that cycling the 500 or so miles from Sheffield in Yorkshire, to Paris, France, would be the best way to spend our Easter.
Of course, this was just booze talk. A couple of months earlier we’d planned to write a musical about a Poltergeist based on the music of Timberland and One Republic. It never really got off the ground.
We woke up the next morning with thumping heads and very little recollection of the previous nights bold promises. Fortunately, a Facebook group full of well wishers was there to remind us of all of them. And a Just Giving account with £70 already donated to the MS Society was there to tell us we should really probably think about getting some bikes. Soon.
When the local papers got involved we accepted we had very little choice. We we’re committed by the power of the media, and the last we wanted was the multiple sclerosis mafia hunting us down if we reneged this promise.
That was it. We were cycling to Paris. Of the 5 who drunkenly signed up for it, only 3 eventually set off on the journey. And inspired by Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman’s motorbike adventure, Long Way Round, I decided to borrow a mini-disk video camera and film the whole brave odyssey as well, from training to (hopefully) the finish line.
The 5 were myself and 4 of my housemates, Danny, Simmy, Dave and Trav. Out of all of us, Trav was the only one who did any form of regular exercise, playing for the university football team. Dave apparently played cricket but this mostly seemed to consist of trying to drink as much snakebite as possible every Wednesday and then washing purple vomit off his shirt every Thursday.
We worked out we’d need to be cycling almost 100 miles a day to get to Paris, which meant we were going to have to cycle more each day in just ten hours than any of us had done in the last ten years. It was clear that stamina was going to play a much bigger part in this than the ability to ride one-handed or pull a wheelie, and as none of us yet owned bikes to practice, we decided to join the gym.
We started going the gym every day. Conveniently there were TV screens right in front of the exercise bikes so we’d turn up in time for the Hollyoaks double-bill on E4 and leave after My Name Is Earl.
We both had goals
Eventually Dave, Danny and Simmy all bought some cheap bikes, and I managed to borrow my dad’s old racer, which in my first real test of endurance I had to cycle 75 miles, mostly uphill, back to Sheffield. It took me nearly 7 straight hours and by the time I arrived I was nearly in tears. At one point the incline and headwind were so strong that I simple stopped moving forwards and toppled sideways into a muddy ditch off the A61.
However, as April grew closer things really started to take shape. We had cycled out into the Peak district at least 3 times, had worked out a rough route, printed instructions off the internet on how to change a tyre, and bought helmets, panniers, a tent, and entire outfits made from offensively tight lycra.
Trav still hadn’t bought any of this but encouraged us all to “Chill oooooout.” Which I think meant he was sorting it.
Then, a few weeks before we were due to leave, disaster struck Dave in the form of mumps. The ‘kissing disease’ – what a slag! He recovered in time but the illness had physically wiped him out and he’d had to stop training completely. With only one week until D-Day, he slowly started trying to build up his fitness again and we all kept our fingers crossed.
It was only the night before that with a heavy heart Dave made the difficult decision to pull out of the challenge. His stamina was in tatters and even the shortest rides were leaving him exhausted. He simply couldn’t do it.
Trav had also gone home two days earlier to pick up his passport and get a bike, although now Dave’s bike was free so all he needed was his passport. By the night before he still wasn’t answering his phone, not unusual for Trav but he was meant to be back in Sheffield by now. The next morning, as we were waiting to set off, he finally text us back. It said he’d also caught mumps…
And so then were three. Simmy, Danny, and myself. We aimed to leave the house by 7am. We left at about 11. This would be a running theme over the next 5 days.
However, we were clearly well prepared. Being those halcyon days before smart phones and Google maps, all we had to guide us to France were road signs and regular maps. To save time on the road I’d written the first day’s route in biro on my forearm. I’d ingeniously called it our ‘Sam Nav’.
Sam Nav (focus not included)
All was going swimmingly for about 2 miles until, before we’d even left the city limits, I was checking my Sam Nav and my front wheel slipped into a tram track. I went flying over my handlebars right in front of a queue of waiting traffic. My side panniers unclipped and went skidding across the road with my dignity following swiftly behind. I scrambled over the tarmac collecting my equipment up, bleeding, and trying to get out of the way before the lights turned green, but I needn’t had bothered. They were all crying too hard with laughter to drive anywhere.
Thankfully, we got our only crash out of the way early and aside from considerable ‘wear and tear’ we continued to Paris injury free.
For the first two days, we managed to reach where we’d planned to spend the night, albeit through a combination of leaving far later than planned every morning and our severe lack of fitness or any real training meant that we got there long after dark had fallen, and just had enough time to eat and collapse in bed. Making the distance wasn’t so much of an issue, we just couldn’t maintain the speed to do it in time.
It soon also became very apparent that lumpen weight of a tent strapped to the back of our bikes would not be getting used. Strangely, campsites simply weren’t that common in the East Midlands. We probably should have researched this beforehand, as we should have pretty much every other aspect of the trip.
This was where Dave became the fourth member of our team. He was our Ziggy from Quantum Leap. He was Gary Sinise in Appolo 13. And much like Gary’s character, beset by illness, Dave became our man in Houston (Sheffield). Texting us through alternative routes, places to sleep, cycling song recommendations, Wetherspoons pubs, and anything else we pestered him for.
Day two stretched us. Not only were we physically wiped from the previous day’s mass of unexpected hills and our noticeable lack of training, we arrived at a hotel so late and so hungry that we just ended up ordering a massive Chinese takeaway to the room. We then finishing it off in the morning for breakfast. At the time, we couldn’t think of a more perfect leg fuel than sweet and sour chicken balls.
It really wasn’t.
As the day pedalled on we were plagued by punctures so much we had to call into a nearby town to stock up on spare inner tubes. It was getting dark and desperate long before we were close to where we hoped to spend the night, and we just couldn’t seem to find the right route.
Never has a place name taunted us as much as ‘Bedfordshire’
For one weak moment we passed a train station and considered railing in the last few miles and not telling anybody, but pride prevailed and we battled on. When a sign reading “Hitchin 2 miles” finally glinted in our headlights we stood up and raced blindly down the pitch black country lanes, wooping like a demented Oprah audience. Potholes be damned.
We had to reach our planned end point on this day you see. More than any other. Because tonight we were staying at our friend Pete’s parent’s house which meant not only a free bed, but his mum had put a massive beef stew in the slow cooker for us. Not only that, but we hadn’t told her that Trav and Dave were no longer coming, so there was stew for five, for three!
We arrived about 10pm, inhaled the entire pot of stew and a whole loaf of bread, then slept like Rip Van Winkle watching Aston Villa’s 2015/16 season review after Christmas dinner.
The luxury of no check out times and having been told to ‘help yourselves to anything in the fridge’ meant that an early start was never on the cards. But an almost instant puncture in my front tyre didn’t help. On the plus side we were getting VERY good at replacing them!
This was the day we were faced with the challenge of traversing London. None of us knew London at all, but the idea of going through it sounded like a terrible one so we decided to skirt round to the east. Finding where East London ended however, was a different matter.
We were besieged with one way systems, wrong turns and roads to nowhere. After finally getting on an A-road out of the mayhem we came to a huge tunnel guarded by a sign reading, amongst other things, no bicycles.
To the side of the tunnel were half a dozen men in jumpsuits picking litter. They were prisoners doing community service so naturally we asked them for advice. A gentleman with a skull tattooed on his own skull told us politely if we couldn’t take the tunnel, the only other way south of the capital would be to turn back the way we came several miles and turn onto a different road. Fuck that. We were tired of going the wrong way. We were running out of daylight and needed to get to France.
We thanked our criminal friend and headed into the dark of the tunnel. “Careful” he warned. “Don’t let the cops catch yer!”. We nodded knowingly. It was narrow, poorly lit and lorries screamed past us at a deafening proximity. My arse was clenched so tightly my seat needed re-shaping. The slim path quickly disappeared so we cycled through as fast as we could in what I guess was some sort of drainage gutter. A bright light eventually appeared and it took me a while to work out whether that was the end or the afterlife.
By nightfall we’d got as far as Dartford, saw a Holiday Inn and decided that was enough for today. We checked in to get an early night and promised ourselves we’d make up time tomorrow.
You can’t have everything
Clear of London, there was only Kent between us and France. And the sea, obviously. Within an hour we were finally back out in the countryside and it was beautiful. The sun was out, the roads were clear and it was downhill all the way to Dover. This was what we’d dreamed of when we’d drunkenly planned this adventure and it was brilliant!
We weaved down the roads singing, riding no-handed for one-eighth of a second before quickly grabbing our wildly veering handlebars, and admiring the scenery as we flew down the hills. We skidded to a halt at a fork in the road like the kids in ET and checked our map again. Then we checked it again just to be sure we’d read it correctly. Then again.
We’d gone the wrong way. For fuck’s sake!
We dolefully turned around and slogged our way slowly back up the hills. Luckily we didn’t have to go more than a few miles before we were cruising back down towards the coast, and by 4pm we were sailing into the port of Dover, delirious with adrenaline.
A P&O ferry has never looked so beautiful.
Of course, I got another puncture whilst wheeling my bike into the fucking ticket office. But it was dark by the time we got into Calais anyway.
Consoling me about my puncture and my 2009 haircut
It was raining and we’d woken up in Calais. Quite possibly the worst place in France. Probably the worst place in Europe. But it was France.
There were two routes we could have taken from Calais, the main roads close to the coast, or the smaller roads inland that would take us on a more direct route. Knowing we had to make up time, and remembering how much we enjoyed the winding countryside of Kent, we went inland.
We coasted into rural Northern France through sleepy towns and villages. Very sleepy. It was a Thursday and France seemed to be completely closed. There were no people walking about, hardly any cars, shops weren’t even open. It was very peaceful but there was something a bit 28 days later about the whole thing that I imagine is far spookier to the energy-sapped mind than the sane one.
The road took us into green farmlands and to a sign that read “Bienvenue dans Les 7 Vallées”. The 7 Valleys? I hear you say. They sound lovely! Yes, they do. And they were. But they were also 7 valleys. 7 huge valleys with 7 huge hills between each and every fucking one of them.
The down slopes into the valleys were amazing, the first and second times. But we came to resent these joy rides as we soon came to realise that every down meant an up, and every soaring run with the wind in our hair meant a brutal climb back out the other side with burning legs and tears in our eyes.
It was stunning but my god was it tough. At the end of the day we arrived in Abbeville, 30 miles short of where we aimed for but not a terrible place to stop compared to Calais…or Dartford.
I’d noticed that evening that cycling south for 5 days in a row, and missing much of the rising morning sun in the east, had given us all a curious tan. Our right arms were not only far browner than our left, but they started with clear distinction at the cuff of our t-shirts and ended at our cycling gloves. The fingerless gloves we wore also meant that the only tanned bit of our hands were the ends of our fingers and a weird brown spot where the velcro fastens left a gap.
Also available for mime artistry.
This was to be our last night before Paris, and we had 110 miles to cover the next day if we were going to make it on time. Not a huge distance for keen cyclists admittedly, but far more than any of us had ever done before. So we decided to rest properly. We splashed out on steak for dinner and for the first time on our trip took a wander around the town. This not only took our minds off the road but it gave us a chance to use our legs for something other than pedalling. Cycling by this point was absolutely fine, it was second nature. But anytime we tried to walk our legs moved like we were still on a bike…or had shit ourselves.
Back at the hotel we had half a beer each, packed out bags and laid out our clothes for the morning. Tomorrow was a big day.
For the first time in a week we got up, had breakfast and left early. We’d had no punctures and seemed to be making good time.
By 4:30pm we stopped for food and to lather Deep Heat on our aching legs. We’d only travelled about 60 miles in 7 or 8 hours. It had been going so smoothly but we just hadn’t been hitting a fast enough pace, and we were only getting slower.
We still had 45 miles to go but we had no choice, we had to get there. Dave ‘Gary Sinise’ Allen, our two neighbours Holly and Kate, and Trav (magically recovered from mumps and suddenly with a passport), were arriving in Paris today and meeting us under the Eiffel Tower.
But as the roads levelled out, and the road signs started counting down the distance to the shining lights of the big city, we started flying. Maybe not physically, but it sure felt like it. We were slightly losing it by this point, so a sign saying ‘Paris 53km’ was all it took for us to start laughing deliriously and fail to pull a celebratory wheelie.
Then, just as it was going dark, after having no punctures since England, Danny cycles over something brutally sharp and rips a three inch gash in his tyre. There was no way for us to get a new tyre at this point so I emptied out all of our puncture repair kits and used all but two patches bandaging the fuck out the hole. It looked better than it almost certainly was.
How much is the train?
Trying to make up for lost time we shot off towards Paris once again, but before long we were back on the side of the road fixing Danny’s re-burst tyre and inner tube with duct tape and one of the remaining patches. Twice. We couldn’t risk another blow out so to take weight off the buggered wheel I also swapped it with his front one and told him to try and lean back for the rest of the journey. Wheelie if possible. On the outskirts of Paris, and with no patches left we trundle off towards the city no faster than a well-executed wobble.
Another bloody puncture
At 10pm we get to the outskirts of Paris. But we can’t seem to find a way in that’s not a motorway. Success is so close we can smell the garlic, but we just can’t seem to get there. It takes us two hours of circling and diverting until we’re in what you’d call Paris city, but by midnight we’ve still not found the Eiffel Tower and have no maps small enough to locate it. I figured it would be towering above the whole city like a beacon like it does on postcards, but it turns out Paris is absolutely massive and the Eiffel Tower is not.
We find it bizarre that nobody seems to point us in the right direction as well. Surely the tower is the landmark of Paris? It IS Paris! But then we were from Sheffield which isn’t quite on the same scale. Living in London I now realise how unrealistic it would be if someone asked me in Notting Hill to point them in the direction of Big Ben. And even more unrealistic for me to expect them to find it from pointing in a vague direction.
We followed various lights and beacons that we thought might be it to no avail, until finally at about 12:50am we saw it across the other side of the river. Taking notice of the furiously beeping traffic we shot out across the road in it’s direction. We’d be damned if we’re going to lose it now! Around the corner from the park in which it stands, we took off our helmets and wrapped Union Jacks around our shoulders like we were bloody Mo Farah. I got out the video camera to capture us arriving at our long awaited finish line and pressed record.
The bloody finish line!
We spotted Dave, Trav, Kate and Holly and sailed towards them cheering, they greeted us like returning heroes. We couldn’t have timed it more beautifully. Unbeknown to us we arrived at 1am on the dot, just as the illuminations begin to flash and dance up and down the tower in one final daily goodbye to Paris, and one big welcome to us!
We cycled a celebratory lap of the tower and our friends pulled out banners and ran up and hugged us, some of them cried, it was all very emotional but that was probably because they’d been waiting for us since 7 o clock and were absolutely hammered. There were beer and vodka bottles everywhere.
More like 500 miles but whatever
Heck yes we did!
Knackered, Simmy and Danny paid a fortune for the first hotel room that had vacancies. I was also knackered but not quite knackered enough to override my innate thriftyness. So I drank what remained of Dave’s vodka and pitched our tent under the Eiffel Tower. We’d dragged the fucking thing this far, I might as well use it!
Two days later, as I waited in the departure lounge of Charles De Gaulle airport, trying to work out whether standing on my legs or sitting on my arse hurt more, I decided to have a look at that final bit of footage. Our grand arrival at the Eiffel Tower. But all I saw was 10 seconds of “Ready? Flags on? Ok, press record Sam, let’s go!” In the excitement I’d pressed the button twice and none of it was recorded.
…We were going to have to do it again.