There’s nothing like cycling a strenuous uphill to focus your concentration on the here-and-now, to the exclusion of all else: there is only the cadence of your breathing as you narrow your vision to the pedals, counting one revolution after another. Here you are in your own bubble, and you fight the urge to look ahead to see what’s remaining of the hill. The satisfaction of reaching the crest is reward enough — until the next uphill.
The idea of a Paris-London cycling trip germinated in Corinne’s mind even before we cycled down the Rhone in 2018. We ruminated on it for many months, anticipating the preparation, the adventure, and the moment when we would meet Nabil and Samira in London. We were excited.
And we nearly cancelled the trip.
I started planning for our ride early in the year. I was concerned with routes, cycling time, accommodation, and of course crossing the channel. I looked at the official cycle route and read other cyclists’ travails and (often contradictory) advice. I agonised over a mixture of official and tried-and-tested routes, trying to find the best compromise between route type, distance, and available accommodation. It did not help that we had picked a long weekend on Whitmonday, as that made the task of finding accommodation that much more challenging. But I can proudly say that a few days before our departure, we were ready. The route was downloaded into my GPS; the first two nights of accommodation were booked and all that remained was to get to Paris with our bikes. Easy, right?
Planning the route turned out to be the easy part. We naively thought we would simply take the first TGV train to Paris, throw in our bikes, and sit back to enjoy the scenery. But that was before we discovered that the TGV doesn’t accept mounted bikes. We could take the Regional trains, for they (bless them) do take bikes. But the only Regional trains to Paris run through Lyon and would make the distance in eight hours, compared to only three and a half by TGV. Surely there was a better way? Our challenge was that we were not doing a round trip: we’d arrive in Paris but depart from London. We tried to think laterally and went to the airport. We learned that it was possible to send our bikes by plane as they pack them in a cardboard box that they provide. But just as our hopes were raised we discovered that London airports don’t provide the same service, and we quickly eliminated the air route.
There ensued a frantic internet search where we ended up buying bike bags big enough to pack our bikes in (unmounting the front wheel), but small and light enough to carry once packed. It was not a perfect solution, as it would mean that we would need to carry the bag (dead weight) as we cycled, but it was a solution that was accepted by the TGV, and thus allowed us to continue (nay, start) our adventure. Corinne’s crafty idea was to post the bags to the kids in London once we arrived in Paris. But Fate had something else planned for us. We discovered upon arrival that the post office is not only closed on Saturdays, but was also exceptionally closed on Monday (public holiday). Sending the bags on Tuesday was too risky as we could not afford missing them when it was time to leave London. We thus resigned ourselves to the only option left, and carried them inside our saddle bags with the rest of our belongings.
Now this might not seem like a big deal. But real estate in saddle bags is more scarce and valuable than anywhere in downtown Geneva. Any item that goes into the bag is scrutinised in terms of its usefulness versus the space it would occupy and the extra weight we’d need to pedal against. I learnt to be ruthless. Anyone who knows me would appreciate how difficult that endeavour was for me. But experience taught me the hard way. Packing for a cycling trip is a near spiritual exercise in Minimalism. Weight has a tendency to accrue much faster than any Law of Physics would allow. A hundred grams here, a hundred grams there, quickly turn into kilograms, kilograms that you will be ruing as you push up that 10% incline. Shaving foam? Forget it. The sink soap will do just fine. After-shave? For wimps. A little tube of cream will do the job perfectly. Against this backdrop, carrying the 1 kg cycle bag that (although very small in volume) we’ll only use on our last day travelling back to Geneva on the TGV, feels like heresy. Still, we reminded ourselves that without those bags our trip could well have been cancelled altogether, so we soldiered on.
We arrived on time in Gare de Lyon, along with thousands of passengers about to enjoy the long weekend. We quickly uncovered our bikes, got out of the station and went into the wild. Paris traffic is crazy in the best of times, but if you add abundant roadworks, closed bike lanes, and an increased holiday traffic, it becomes a little surrealistic. Nevertheless, cycling on the quai along the Seine has a magical feel to it, and seeing Notre Dame de Paris from a distance, as well as passing the Eiffel Tower on a bike more than made up for the difficult traffic.
We managed to meander our way north of Paris towards Maison-Laffitte without any major incident, and found our first hotel of our journey. Contrary to our usual routine, we booked two nights ahead, just to be sure we have accommodation during the busy weekend. We usually like to book only one night ahead, so as to better gauge the next day’s cycling time and distance, searching for accommodation along our route. This is actually not as easy as it sounds, for we needed to square many seemingly conflicting variables. We looked for a place that accepts bikes in a locked room, that either serves dinner or is at least a walking distance from a restaurant (after some 5-6 hours on the saddle, we did not want to get back on them), and of course a place that was affordable, comfortable, and along our route.
We also tried to find hotels that were “bike friendly” and indeed this is an official certification that assures services such as washing and drying clothes, locked bike rooms, service tools, areas to wash the bikes, and so on. However, we quickly learned that the certification is not enforced and in many cases was nothing more than a “marketing badge” to lure bikers. At the end of the day, we only specifically asked for the availability of locked bike rooms. The most memorable accommodation in that respect was our hotel in Newhaven, where the bikes slept in our rooms — much to my delight and Corinne’s amusement. We would have loved the ability to dry our clothes, but that was quite rare. This might sound banal, but due to limited space (see above paragraph on “Minimalism on Saddle Bag Packing”), we only had one change of bike clothing, so we needed to wash the clothes we were wearing that day and to get them to dry by the next morning. One hotel did offer the use of their clothes dryer and that was very helpful. But other than that we had to fend for ourselves, becoming adept at finding new techniques of drying our clothes (it was not always warm and sunny).
Our route crossed an eclectic selection of landscapes, through forests, on bike paths, narrow country roads and sometimes on straight departmental roads. We diverted a few times from the official “Avenue Verte” route, following other cyclists’ recommendations. We did go for a leisurely pace, taking our time to smell the flowers, to picnic whenever possible, and of course to stop for the requisite cappuccino in a genuine French bistro. We were not in a hurry. We ended up cycling on average 60km a day, leaving at about 9am and aiming to arrive around 4pm at our destination. This would give us time to settle down, shower, rest and then go for a leisurely stroll around the village in discovery mode.
From Maison-Laffitte our route took us to Gisors, some 64 km away. We got a little lost in the forest leaving town. All these paths look the same in a forest, but a friendly family gave us directions and we were quickly out in the clear. A coffee stop at Neuville-sur-Oise was, we felt, well deserved. We found a quintessential French bistro with a terrace and some colourful locals sipping their morning beers, as we ordered our espressos. Around Cergy we got into another small forest and met yet another kind soul who comforted us in our navigation. We followed him for a little while and engaged in small banter. When he asked us where we were heading, I couldn’t resist replying, “London”, and I must admit it felt kind of cool (not that we were showing off at all). He and his wife had done several “stages” of that route and one day, they said, they’d like to do the full course.
From there the roads took us to some beautiful scenery on quiet departmental roads. We found a quaint spot for a picnic near the town of Us — a bench under the shade of a big mulberry tree, next to a cemetery. A quiet picnic area, one could safely presume. We could just imagine how soothingly cool that refuge would be during a hot summer’s day. It was actually a summer’s day, but hot it wasn’t. After a while we felt the humidity and it was our signal to move on to Gisors, where we found our hotel easily enough.
We were so lucky with the weather, managing to squeeze in between the few drops of rain. The weather kept up on the next day, which took us to Forges-les-Eaux. Again it was another beautiful ride, on narrow roads with no traffic, only cows to our right, sheep to our left (and sometimes on the road accompanying us). It was just the way we imagined it. The ride was hilly (we maxed at 17% incline at one point), but it was nonetheless thoroughly enjoyable. We were riding side by side, chatting along, admiring the slowly changing scenery, stopping whenever we felt a photograph was calling out to us.
Being Whitmonday, everything was closed that morning as we entered St Germer-de-Fly, a quaint village with an imposing abbey. The restaurant owner noticed our perplexed looks, took pity on us, and opened her restaurant just for us, to service our caffeine fix. We were touched. Making small talk, she started complaining about her compatriots, saying how no-one wanted to work any more, which explained, she said, why so many places were closed. She didn’t elaborate though, as to why her own establishment was also closed. Notwithstanding what she said, compared to our trip the year before along the Rhone river, we found the North West of France more prosperous. We saw more beautiful homes that looked either freshly renovated or new. We also had no trouble finding open shops, and generally found more signs of commerce, more life in the villages we crossed than in the ones in Provence. There we sometimes had the distinct feeling that villages were being slowly but inexorably deserted, a feeling reinforced by the scarcity of open “boulangeries”.
Corinne did notice a staple presence in every town we cycled through: there was always a “Soins de Beauté” shop. The particularity of these Soins de Beauté shops was that they were not only for people; they were also for pets! It seems that when the finances become difficult, people start cutting spending on luxury items first and leave dog grooming till last. I also noticed an inordinate number of funeral parlours. In Gisors, I even counted three, though I’m not sure what meaning to extract from this. How can there be enough business for three funeral parlours in a small town?
At Forges-les-Eaux, as Corinne napped, I found a nice terrace close to a stream, where I enjoyed doing some writing. I appreciate taking time off to reflect on the day, with an old fashioned pen and paper. Of course my Kindle was not far (this one definitely made it in the saddle bag), so I’m not sure how low-tech this whole enterprise was.
The next morning was bright and sunny and we were looking forward to this stretch to Dieppe, our ferry port. The route followed a dis-used railroad line, converted to a cycle path. It made for yet another enjoyable road that passed through some bucolic scenery, marked by some interesting quirks. We passed by refurbished train stations converted into restaurants or cafes, as well as old railroad crossings with their “garde barrières”, remnants of a long bygone era when these crossings were manually operated. By its very nature, the road is long and straight, but it was not as boring as might appear, for the monotony could easily be broken by taking some of the numerous arteries that led to towns (that were near the old train stations of course). This made for a good diversion (plus a place to buy food).
We made good time to Dieppe. It is a bike-friendly town, and relatively easy to navigate. We quickly bought our tickets and were the first to enter the ferry (we were the only cyclists), as the car drivers looked upon us with curiosity. The empty cavernous parking space in the ferry was very impressive, specially to cyclists walking their small bikes. Our crossing was uneventful and we finally made it to the UK, arriving at Newhaven around 5pm. Our hotel was only a couple of kilometres away so it was a leisurely transition to cycling on the left side of the road.
Our first “real” cycling experience in the UK was the next morning and it was under the auspices of rain (you can’t make up the stuff). It didn’t start that way though. We were excited to have finally arrived in the UK, the culmination of so many months of anticipation, preparation and planning. Arriving in Newhaven also brought back many fond memories of when we dropped off Samira on her first year at University. We are starting to leave good memories behind us in the UK, memories that are very pleasurable to visit from time to time.
Another memory we revisited was the town of Lewes, where Corinne had spent a few hours with Samira back when. We found a nice coffee shop (do you detect a trend?), run by young turks (who else?). Their cappuccinos were delicious, and their place was warm and comfortable, in stark contrast to the outside. In retrospect, we spent too much time in the cafe planning our next steps — though in our defense, we did have trouble finding suitable accommodation for the night. We ended up choosing a Travelodge, in East Grinstead. Not exactly a luxury choice, but it was in a city, and therefore should put us within easy access to restaurants.
But first we had some cycling to do.
We continued on from Lewes to Barcomb and found a cosy pub for lunch. We also spent a little longer than absolutely necessary there, but the owner was a staunch supporter of Palestine (he noticed Corinne’s shirt from our “Big Ride to Palestine” the year before), and we got talking about Palestinian support in the UK, the Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn, subjects that do not lend themselves to brevity. Plus it was heart-warming to hear so much support for Palestine. In the meantime, as we were busy solving Middle-East’s problems, the weather was changing imperceptibly but surely. In fact, when we were finally ready to leave, the heavens opened up. There was nothing to do but to put on our shoe covers, rain coats, brave faces, and go battle the elements. We unfortunately followed the pub owner’s advice and changed our route from the one I had downloaded. It was well-intentioned advice, and the route did start well, but we ended up on big A roads, and in a downpour. Practically the nightmare scenario.
We were drenched, drenched and dirty as we cycled through muddy tracks that kicked off so much dirt our bikes were practically unrecognisable. We realised quickly enough, that once thoroughly wet, we couldn’t get any wetter, and each passing car that splashed us with a shower of water made no effective difference. We braved on, buoyed in the knowledge that we can now declare we experienced proper riding in the rain. Our bikes, though, were in no state to be left in our hotel room as planned, but luckily we found a storage room where they spent the night dripping water. We found our own room and had never been so glad to be in a dry place.
Checking the weather for the next morning, we decided to head off first thing, without breakfast. We did not want to repeat the mistake of the day before. This strategy played out well, as we reached Bletchingly (half-way house) without seeing one drop of rain. Bletchingly is where we discovered the most charming tea-room with the biggest collection of cakes south of London and the warmest of welcomes. If we were asked to describe the perfect tea-room, we would have been hard put to describe something different to Lamingtons in Bletchingly. As we were leaving, the owner gave us a thick slice of lemon cake as fuel for our next leg, a slice so thick it lasted us two days. The irony is that we would never have found the place had the pub we first entered been open. Sometimes things happen for a reason.
We decided to take the forest option for our next leg and nearly regretted it. The grounds were very wet from the rain the day before, and both our bikes were often bogged down. We did encounter, however, a friendly lady walking her dog, whom we asked for directions, and we started chatting. They are moments such as these, where we get close to locals and exchange, that makes travelling by bike such a unique, enjoyable, experience. The lady’s dog kept barking at me and I think (or at least hope) that he was intrigued by the flashing lights on my helmet. We found our way out of the beautiful forest easily enough, and were quickly back out into the open. We cycled close to Gatwick Airport and were at one point below Final Approach, with one airliner lined up in the air after the next, at two minute intervals. It was incongruous to be in open countryside and yet close to one of the busiest airports in the world.
It was again difficult to find accommodation for that night so we decided to indulge ourselves and chose a beautiful estate that included a spa, a swimming pool, a restaurant and a place to store our bikes. De Vere Selsdon Estate was quite a contrast to the night before, with our room overlooking an expansive golf course. We were even able to clean our bikes from the accumulated mud of the days before, so even the bikes were happy. And all this for about 10 pounds more than the Travelodge. We pampered ourselves, as well as our bikes.
The final leg would lead us to London. We were slightly apprehensive about entering a big city on a bike, having experienced Paris only a few days before, but it was surprisingly a very pleasant experience. We cycled through so many parks that we were inside London by the time we emerged. In the city itself the “Cycle Superhighways” separate us quite well from four-wheeled traffic, and the overall experience was more enjoyable than Paris. In fact, it was the other cyclists we had to be wary of. If you don’t know your way very well, you get overtaken by impatient cyclists on their way to ostensibly important meetings, or so it seems.
It was a strange, but very rewarding, experience to finally arrive by bike at Nabil’s regular spot, The London Velo, a combined coffee/bike shop. We in fact were there only 3 weeks prior imagining this very day. It’s a pity we had missed Nabil by only an hour, but we felt his presence. The London Velo guy was apoplectic when we told him we left our bikes outside leaning on the shop’s window and rushed out to pull them in. It seems that they would have been stolen within 5 minutes. I took advantage of being in a bike shop to ask him to cast an expert eye at Corinne’s clipless pedals that were very tight, making it difficult to remove the shoes. He loosened them easily enough (time here for a mea culpa; I had inadvertently tightened these pedals — leading occasionally to a colourful vocabulary when Corinne attempted to remove her shoes at a stop. Anti-clockwise to loosen, Hani).
At London Velo, we took a step back to contemplate how far we have come. It finally sunk that we had made it. We started this journey when it was still an idea expressed by Corinne a year earlier in the back of our minds at a subconscious level ever since. We had overcome many challenges, (not least of which how to reach Paris in the first place), the rain, the logistics, and oh those uphills. We were tired, but happy to have made it.
After our light lunch we cycled straight to our hotel (rather than continue the official route), with Google Maps on my watch showing us the way. For once a gadget I bought had demonstrated its usefulness. I must remember that Moment in History. The hotel concierge was not happy about us leaving our bikes in the luggage room. Not happy at all — but he had no choice and relented.
We met up with Nabil and Samira after their work at Covent Garden’s Eat Tokyo (quickly becoming one of our regular haunts) and it was a great reunion. It was heart-warming to see and hear them talk with such confidence and self-assuredness about their busy day, their meetings, colleagues and work. We have so much to be grateful for.
We spent the next few days, including a weekend, in London with the kids, and it was very soon time for the return journey by train. We nearly had a heart attack when we learned the price of the Eurostar to Paris, roughly 10 times the cost of an airline ticket to Geneva. We understood that the Eurostar is only affordable when booked months in advance, something we could not commit to. Having no choice, we finally took the train and made our own small contribution to saving the Planet.
We made it back home to Geneva without any incident, tired but happy. Bike-packing is a wonderful way to travel slowly, to be immersed in the landscape and culture and to engage with locals. We found the pace to be just right for us, somewhere in between walking and driving, where the landscape changes quickly enough to allow us to be amazed, but slowly enough to allow us to take it all in. It’s a great way to discover the world and a good reminder that there is much to be amazed about not far from us.
Cycling is a multidisciplinary sport, one that requires some navigational skills, some technical skills, and it helps to be in good shape. It lends itself as much to a group activity as a solitary one. Corinne and I enjoyed exchanging and sharing as we cycled together, highlighting sights, discussing alternatives or just enjoying our proximity. And of course cycling up that steep hill requires an inner concentration where you entreat your muscles to just keep pedalling and not to listen to that part of your brain telling you to walk the rest of the way.
And when the planets are aligned, when the bike is tuned just right and the gears click solidly into place, when all you hear is the wind on your face and the smooth “whish-whish” of the well-oiled wheels, when previous days of cycling put you in good shape and you are going at a good pace on a slight incline without an apparent effort… then you are one with the machine, and everything is right with the world, and you feel you could fly.