Well, I’m in Paris. Feels like an achievement in itself getting here from London, but of course it’s only a fraction of the way to my final destination, so I won’t be popping the champagne corks just yet. It’s actually been quite a challenging first week, more so than I’d anticipated.
While physically I think I’m up to this whole trip, it’s proving to be a real mental challenge that I didn’t quite anticipate. First of all, to my surprise I actually feel a bit homesick- not something I’ve ever really experienced in all my years of travelling. Maybe it’s because, unlike other places I’ve been to, I’m often packing up and leaving for my next destination after one night, rather than three or four as I might usually.
Besides that, all the planning of places to stay and directions to follow is already becoming tiring. There’s also the loneliness factor, the stress that comes with being out my own in foreign countries, knowing that if anything goes wrong I can’t just call family or friends for help. And the whole scale of the journey is becoming clear. I feel like I’ve been away an age already, but I’ve only completed a fraction of the trip in time and distance.
On the flip side, I know how beneficial this whole experience could prove to be should I get through it all without giving up or going crazy. It’s going to require a lot of patience, persistence and self reliance, and I will have to step outside my comfort zone and learn to deal better with difficulties than I currently am able to.
Fortunately, there have been good times to. I’ve already visited two of the world’s greatest cities, met some wonderful people, passed through pretty countryside and small rural villages- and I have the satisfaction of knowing that the most interesting parts of the route are still ahead of me.
So, here are a few things which happened in week one, starting with a first day that was unforgettable for all the wrong reasons…
Day 3, June 15th, London to Brighton, 110km (207km overall)
After a couple of days exploring London, Thursday was my first day of the journey proper, heading from the capital down to Brighton on the south coast. I’m not going to sugar coat it: it was a disastrous day, one that even in my worst expectations I did not foresee! I wouldn’t say I’ve been taking this whole trip lightly, or that I’ve not done enough planning, but my experience today would suggest things are going to be more difficult than I’d anticipated.
After two punctures, failed attempts at fixing them despite the help of passers-by, a trip to the bike shop to buy equipment in the back of a friendly stranger’s van, twenty minutes of pushing the bike through a forest after getting hopelessly lost, a route that passed through Gatwick Airport, and numerous morale sapping hill climbs, I made it to Brighton.
At this point, what I wanted to do was throw my bike in a skip and never ride again. But what I had to do instead was set an early alarm for a 20km ride to Newhaven for my ferry ride to France…
Day 4, Brighton to Newhaven, 20km & Dieppe to Forges, 60km
The ride along the coast out of Brighton was a really nice route between the chalk cliffs and the pebbly beaches, but sadly I was in to much of a hurry to appreciate it. I didn’t really have time to see much of Brighton, either. Shame, because it looked like a nice city.
After the ferry arrived in Dieppe on the Normandy coast, I wasted no time setting off southwards. Immediately, it became clear that the French half of the London to Paris route was going to be easier than the British one. The route was much more clearly signposted, and the roads were far more suitable for cyclists. Most of the first part of the route was on the Avenue Verte, a long, flat traffic free cycle route cutting through the countryside. It wasn’t particularly exciting, but it was quick and unstressful compared to the English roads.
On my first night on the continent I stayed with more hosts from the cycling hospitality website Warm Showers, as I had done in Brighton and have done again since. I was a stranger to them, yet they were happy to give me a room to stay in, and shared loads of local food and drinks with me, including fruit and vegetables they’d grown themselves in their garden. The French really do know how to live!
Day 5, June 17th, Forges to Gisors – 76km
10:10pm – I’m writing this lying on the grass in a campsite- the first time I’ve been camping in years- the shore of a big lake just a few metres away. The sun has set but it’s still pretty light. It’s really quiet, except for the distant hum of a road, an annoying kid whining away in the tent nearby, and a few of the animals in and around the lake are blabbering away. Seriously, geese, you need to find a better sound.
Today’s riding was more of a challenge than yesterday, but the route was more picturesque. The first couple of hours were great, riding in the sunshine on quiet country lanes through the rolling hills. The temperatures were reaching 32°C, apparently, and I could certainly feel it on the long inclines.
I ended up getting quite lost on the second half of the route, which was annoying. I look forward to the days of following rivers or coasts, and all I’ll need to do to stay on the right track is keep the big blue thing within sight. After a few hours wiggling through the countryside I found my way to the campsite and had an early finish.
And that’s about all I have to say, except oh-my-god a hedgehog just walked past. What a thrilling way to end the day.
Day 6, June 18th, Gisors to St Germain, 86km – Another slightly unremarkable day. Once again I managed to totally lose the proper trail, and wasted loads of time trying to improvise a new route. I ended up spending much of the day on the roads, but fortunately it didn’t feel particularly dangerous, the drivers are quite respectful. I eventually got to my destination and spent another nice evening with a local family. I’m so grateful for all the help I’ve been getting from people.
I’m realising quite quickly that my focus on racking up the miles every day is rather preventing me from properly appreciating the places I am visiting, and I’m starting to seriously consider something that barely even crossed my mind before I left: that I might take a train to skip certain sections of the route, starting in a few days from Paris.
The obvious drawback is that it would stop me from doing the whole journey under my own power as planned, which to some extent would take away the sense of achievement, and that would obviously be a shame. And yet, I feel I could enjoy this thing a lot more if I can take my time a bit, stop to relax and enjoy the scenery a bit more often, and avoid spending too many hours toiling away in the summer heat. It’s personal pride versus pragmatism, and I’m still totally undecided.
Day 7, June 19th, St Germain to Paris, 49 km
6pm – I’m sat here in the shade of a tree by the banks of the River Seine in Paris. I’m dying for a whizz, but I have my bike and all my belongings with me, and I’m thoroughly, perhaps delusionally paranoid that I’ll come back from a quick trip to the loo to find that all my stuff has been pinched. These are the complications you don’t really consider when planning a solo cycling trip!
I won’t bother describing Paris much, I think everyone knows how beautiful it is. It felt nice arriving, seeing all the sights, and realising how far I’d travelled to get there. And it was surreal to travel down the Champs Elysees by bike- those cobblestones are a nightmare for cyclists!
Every day I’ve cycled so far has been mostly sunny and warm, but the further south I go the hotter it is getting. (Honestly, who could have predicted that?). Here in Paris this week, there’s a heatwave pushing temperatures into the mid thirties. It’s a good job I didn’t have so far to travel today, but god knows how I’m going to cope when I have to battle through 40°C days in Central Europe in a few weeks’ time.
I’ve racked up exactly 499km over the past week, and I think it’s time to give my titular sore arse a much needed rest for a day or two. I guess Paris is a good place for a break- there are a couple of nice things to see in the city, so they say.
Update 11:35pm – Holy moly, there was an attempted terrorist attack on the Champs Elysees only a few hours after I was on there…