Now, here’s an indication of how much my cycling’s improved: I woke on Sunday morning thinking “Only 48 miles today”.
Hang on – what was that? “Only” 48 miles? Just a few months ago 48 miles would have been an unthinkable distance, and now I’m thinking it’s an “only”. Quite chuffed about that. Four months ago I really was only riding a mile and a half to work and back. Just occasionally – once in a blue moon – I’d go for a ‘long’ ride, but by that I meant perhaps six to ten miles. And, yes, I did once do the London to Brighton ride (about 56 miles). But that was nigh on twenty years ago.
We had a target time of arriving at the Arc de Triomphe for 2pm, so to be sure of getting there we had a fairly quick start. Relaxed enough to enjoy a breakfast (which bizarrely and delightfully included cakes) before setting off onto lovely smooth roads and a really great feeling of riding as a team. Day three had felt a bit of a slog to a few of us, so today we bunched up tight and worked well to protect each other from the wind. And it felt fantastic. We set much better pace than day three, which had been slow going, and the quality of the roads meant that it felt we were flying along. Well, it did to me; I expect for a couple of the more experienced riders it still felt fairly pedestrian. We made such great progress that we covered 26 miles before we even stopped for a proper break, and there was some debate as to whether we’d need to stop (in a bar) just before the Arc so we didn’t get there before people were expecting us. Our smooth flow was interrupted at one point by a street market that took over the whole of the main road through Amblainville and closed it to traffic. We walked through, but had to phone the support crew to tell them they’d need to make a detour.
We lunched in Auvers-Sur-Oise (in yet another car park) and then it didn’t seem too long before we were winding our way through the outer suburbs of Paris. Which, it has to be said, are a darn sight prettier than the outer suburbs of London. Eventually we met up with Paul, a friend of Andy’s who lives in Paris, who guided us in for the last couple of miles. Cobbled streets were a bit of a shaky surprise (at least I had a mountain bike!) but it didn’t matter because the excitement at being so close to our target was building. We agreed to stay together and make out approach as a singly unit, and then we rounded a corner and there it was.
That final approach was a touch surreal, to me. After four days in the saddle, and getting to know a bunch of people who I’d never have crossed paths with otherwise, it was all coming to an end. And we were about to reach the Arc about twenty minutes before two o’clock, so I also had the slight worry that Rachael and Ainsworth might not be there. I’d discovered the night before that she’d booked tickets to come out, but had no way of knowing whether they’d arrived or exactly where they were if they had. All this was on my mind, and suddenly there we were. Not just at the Arc, but actually riding around it. I’d not expected that. Last time I was in Paris, fifteen years ago, I’d sat atop the Arc a couple of evenings watching the traffic in amazement. I certainly wouldn’t want to drive round it, yet here I was on a bicycle. It was delightful. And, amazingly, didn’t feel all that dangerous. Throughout the ride we’d found that French drivers were generally much more tolerant of cyclist than English drivers, and even here it was no exception. They were letting us through.
Yes, we really did ride around it.
We pulled up on the little paved area at the top of the Champs-Elysées where our support crew were assembled with flags and banners cheering and waving along with a few family members of the riders – including, to my delight, Rachael and Ainsworth. Photos were taken, medals presented, and Champagne drunk.
And that, my friends, is that*. According to my Garmin thingummy, we rode 266 miles. And the really great news is that we’ve raised over £28,000 for the James Whale Fund. It’s not too late to donate, either: all you need to do is click here or thrust some cash in my hand next time you see me.
(PS: If you’d like to see more of my photos, there’s a load over on Flickr here.)
(*I could go on to detail the logistics of getting to a Paris hotel, where some of the team were staying, of sneaking a shower and change in someone’s room, of finding a grotty bar so some could watch th eEngland world cup match, of making our way to Eurostar, of getting home for a bath. But let’s face it that really would be boring. So I won’t. Suffice to say I got home fine, and cycled to work the next morning.)