The frantic preparations were over. No more ‘to do lists’, last-minute bike-shop purchases, excruciating spinning classes, weekend training rides, caffeine-gel binges or endless, experimental, chewing on so-called ‘energy bars’.

We were finally on the start line at Greenwich Park, suspiciously weighing up the prospect of 500km on two wheels. The Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research, London to Paris 2014, charity cycle ride, was about to begin. And we were doing it!

The mass peleton moved through central London traffic as one. We had motorcycle outriders who shepherded us along but were not permitted to close the UK roads. 

Just like the pros

It was more akin to a bike commute than a mass participation sportive. By the time we reached the south coast, our forearms and faces were caked in urban grime. Our distressed appearances thus vindicating the moto rider who’d prophetically told a pedestrian who was eyeing up the shiny, fresh-faced and immaculately kitted cyclists waiting for a green light at Greenwich, “They won’t look like that when they get to Folkestone.”

That first day’s ride had been a mad, two-wheeled dash. We had a deadline to reach the coaches which would transport us onto the Eurotunnel and take us under the Channel to Calais.

Lymnpe Hill just before Folkestone was the day’s designated timed climb. It makes Ditchling Beacon or Box Hill seem like false flats. Many riders were forced to ‘uncleat’ and push their bikes up the steeper ramps.

Then, when we reached the top, we were urged to keep pedalling, as time to catch the Eurotunnel train was running out. It was a relief to slump into the coach seat and be ‘driven’ under the sea to our Ibis hotel in the centre of Calais. We’d made it onto French soil!

First day in France - start line in Calais
Day two felt quite different. The starting venue on the outskirts of Calais was some sort of disused factory, or abattoir, or warehouse. It had been transformed by the presence of masseurs, bike mechanics, LLR-branded support vans, Torq drinks station, leathered-up moto outriders, a Cyclevox TV production crew and of course, more than two hundred apprehensive cyclists.

Masseurs at work
Music blared out as we readied ourselves for our first pedal turn on French territory. Farrell Williams’s Happy would become the theme tune of our ride and feature in a Cyclevox video released at the end. The ride immediately felt more relaxed. Motorists seemed accustomed to sharing the road with bike riders.

Calais to Abbeville was our first French stage. A neat road book gave us an idea of what to expect in terms of hills, flat sections, distance, daily time trials and hill climbs.

We were soon pedalling through gently rolling fields. Roadside poppies were ubiquitous as you’d expect. 

The peleton was now divided into its three groups – slow, medium and fast - each with a lead car, be-whiskered moto outriders, a support van, mechanics and ride captains. Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research had the event extremely well organised.

The ride captains on our slow group worked tirelessly to encourage less-experienced riders. 

The crew clapped every single rider in
They spent many hours riding alongside cyclists and pushing them up the steeper hills. Tom, Jody and Nick had probably cycled the equivalent of London to Paris and back, by the time we’d reached the Eiffel Tower.

We finished up storing our bikes in a massive Abbeville gym before coaches took us to the hotels. 

Jackie's Boardman 'in goal' for the night

Ours was on a pleasant square in a central location. By the end of the evening French drivers were circuiting the streets, blaring their horns incessantly. France had just thrashed Switzerland 5-1 in the World Cup. Getting to sleep became the next challenge.

Day three offered more quiet French lanes, rolling fields of ripening crops, a small British War Graves’ cemetery and more glorious sunshine.

Some of our riding companions were truly inspirational.

We’d spotted Martyn from Wales away back in Greenwich because he had a large picture of his late son, Shaun, pinned to the back of his jersey. He kept his sights set resolutely on Paris throughout the ride, with Shaun always at the forefront of his mind.

Sheila – who'd been diagnosed with lymphoma some years ago – was a determined member of our ‘slow’ group. She was cycling with her brother who’d had the idea of doing the ride. Their stories were to be showcased on a programme aired by Eurosport about a week after the event.

Cyclevox crew filming
The end to our third stage in Beauvais was special. As he had done the previous year, apparently, the town’s assistant mayor, organised a reception for us at the fire station where we corralled our bikes for the night. After a very warm welcoming speech, we were encouraged to help ourselves to rosé wine and nibbles. It was a great way to wind up our penultimate day in the saddle.

The toilet in our Ibis hotel would not have looked out of place in a sci-fi film. It was a self-contained, white, lozenge-shaped, plastic capsule. The hotel had a funky feel to it all round. Shame it was situated on the edge of a retail park quite a distance from the town centre. It’s the sort of accommodation Tour de France riders are probably very familiar with.

Did Sid make Paris?  We may never know
In the morning, we got on the coach to take us back to the fire station. This was Day Four – the last leg of our pedal to Paris.

Day 4 looks lumpy!

More sunshine, more rolling fields – but the closer we got to the city, the more the soft edge rubbed off the countryside.

We had an extended lunch break at a school. Leukaemia and Lymphoma crew members lined the entrance applauding as each and every single rider arrived.

Much hilarity ensued as the ride captains, the medics and the larger-than-ever group of women cyclists had their pictures taken for posterity.

Medics eye Ned Boulting's football injury
Ride captains' rear view
We left together, in one gigantic peleton so that we would all enter and ride through Paris en masse, whilst the motos and police closed off the roads for us.
Santa Claus gets on with his summer job
As this massive bunch cruised along and stretched out we passed the time of day with whoever happened to be pedalling beside us at the time. I met an oil trader from the City, another City worker from a farming background who told me what crops we could see in the fields around us.

Pick a bike, any bike...
One rider had a horrendous looking crash at the bottom of a long descent. She escaped broken bones but her ride finished in an ambulance.
And here's how...

We stopped to regroup outside the French capital. A rider caught me from behind as he surged past and our handlebars and elbows become entangled, triggering a ridiculous wobble-fest which we both rode through
 without falling over. It was a Cavendish-Greipel tussle, without the sprint.

Barrelling through the streets of Paris on closed roads was a huge thrill. After a couple of taxing climbs, we hit cobbles on the slope up to the Arc de Triomphe. I knew Jackie’s sister and her children would be waiting there to cheer us on. Sure enough, I could see the Allez and pink peak of Patrick and Molly’s Look Mum No Hands caps, as they waved furiously at us from the roundabout in the middle of the road.

Then we’d swept past them and trundled over the final cobbles down the hill to the Seine, across the bridge and into the Pullman Hotel grounds, with the Eiffel tower directly behind us.

Ride manager Paul having some beer!

Nine months after discussing doing this ride with our brother-in-law, Mike, as he lay in his hospital bed after his bone marrow transplant, Jackie and I had actually done it.

Mike had not lived long enough to see us complete the ride. But we’re doing our best to raise money for Leukaemia and Lymphoma research in Mike’s memory.

That's what I call a medal
It’s not just Jackie and I. Mike’s wife Maureen and children Molly and Patrick are all making a huge effort to support the charity. Our team name may be the Gurning Grimpeurs but we’re not complaining.

Gurning Grimpeurs in Paris
Kit washed ready for next year!


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