Just over a week ago I set out to make the most of a long Bank Holiday weekend by cycling 200-miles from London to Paris. I wanted to show that anyone can have an adventure without much cost, fitness or time.
This is how it went.
London to Newhaven (65 miles)
My journey began on a sunny Sunday morning at Greenwich Observatory in London. I took a quick photo and began pedalling the 65 miles south to Newhaven.
My hastily-plotted route led me through south London – Lewisham and Croydon – through as traffic-free a route as possible. This meant mostly cycling along canal paths and through industrial estates. I soon left the city behind and climbed up to the Farthing Downs, from which point it was nothing but 45 miles of countryside between me and the coast.
The morning had been intermittently cloudy but it seemed like the second I left London the sun won the battle and I powered through blistering heat for the rest of the day.
I crossed over the M25 and spent the afternoon cycling through quiet country roads, forests and farm tracks. I was stopping at pubs every couple of hours to fill my water bottles, and it was lucky I had no money with me because I probably would have been 8 pints down by the time I reached Newhaven.
Not too challenging until I began climbing the 600-foot Turners Hill in Surrey. I made it about three-quarters of the way up before giving up and had to shamefully push my bike the rest of the way, while other, better cyclists shot past me.
This was my first multi-day trip and my first time riding with panniers. They didn’t slow me down as much as I expected and for the most part I didn’t realise they were there. Initially I was a bit paranoid about losing them every time I went over a bump and I did feel my balance being thrown off slightly on the downhills, but I quickly got used to them.
As I got approached Newhaven I did have to cycle along a few busy roads which is never fun, although there were only a two slightly irritating incidents.
The first was when I let a driver behind me safely overtake on a narrow road, only for him to suddenly stop right in front of me for no reason. I was forced to quickly brake but didn’t unclip myself from the pedals in time, ending up doing the classic slow motion fall onto the tarmac. He then sped off with no explanation.
The other incident was a lorry passing way too close to me on a tight corner. I was forced to make the difficult decision of being crushed to death or having to cycle in the gutter and run over a dead squirrel. Being an uphill section, I was cycling slow enough to hear the sickening crunch as my 29-inch tyres crushed its tiny head. It was grim.
The final stretch was a beautiful section through the South Downs, miles of miles of rolling hills and bright green and yellow fields on either side. Quite difficult cycling and I was faced with one final huge bastard of a climb before I made it down to the coast.
I had previously scouted out an area on Google Maps that I thought might be wild enough for a good campsite. I hoisted my bike over a stile and followed a footpath into a farmer’s field where I found a perfect flat spot underneath a clump of trees. But there was one problem – it was already occupied.
These were the most curious cows I have ever seen in my life. As soon as they saw me enter the field, about 20 of them came running over to accost me. They were sniffing my panniers and licking my bike and it became clear that I would not be left alone all night. Scaring them off didn’t work as they only came right back towards me. I don’t think I’m that interesting to look at but for some reason these cows were absolutely fascinated.
I backtracked towards the beach and found a spot close to the sea with ruined stone buildings dotted all over the place. I had passed this spot initially but dismissed it as it was fairly close to the town and I thought it might turn into a nighttime drinking spot for belligerent teenagers. On the contrary it was actually a really nice camp, sheltered from the wind, and I had a good night’s sleep ready to make the crossing into France the next day.
Newhaven to Dieppe
Dieppe to wild campsite (40 miles)
A late start this morning as I was booked on the only ferry of the day at 10.30am, which would take me over La Manche to the small coastal town of Dieppe. I cycled the short mile down to the ferry terminal, where I met a gaggle of other cyclists making their own various routes to Paris. Most of them were taking much more direct routes, while I had opted for a more scenic passage that looped south of the city and back north to avoid the worst of the traffic on the way into Paris.
This was good news for me as I’m always happy to have the roads and the trails to myself so I enjoyed the four hour-ferry ride, topping up on some much-needed sleep and looking forward to some alone time.
Disembarking at 3.30pm local time, I wanted to get as far as I possibly could before nightfall. I needed to average just over 60 miles a day over the two days, which would have been easily achievable if I’d had an earlier start. But as this was late afternoon I only had five or six hours of daylight in which to ride. I intended to power through this short window of time in order to set myself up for as easy a day as possible tomorrow.
Getting back in the saddle was a little painful. I was exhausted and aching and my body wanted nothing less than to be astride a bicycle again. But I clipped in my shoes, switched on my Garmin and followed my set route south-east towards Paris.
Leaving Dieppe was easy enough and the route began to follow the Avenue Verte – an official cycle route linking London with Paris – which followed an easy, flat path through forest and fields. I could have taken this route all the way but I wanted a more adventurous journey, so after a few miles I deviated. I soon regretted my decision.
My chosen route whisked me away from the nice, easy terrain to what was probably the most undulating, difficult route I could have gone for. It was one steep climb after another, through endless rapeseed fields and identical villages. I passed through the national forest of Eawy and the town of Saint-Saëns, becoming increasingly shattered with every mile. Each uphill was more unbearable than the one before it.
Around 5.30 the rain started to fall – light at first but absolutely bucketing it down before long. It was a miserable evening and I wanted nothing more than to stop, eat and sleep but I knew I had to make use of every second of daylight. I was fighting through the rain with the wind and water whipping at my face, shivering and sweating at the same time.
Around 9pm it began to get dark and I started looking for a place to camp. I was cycling along a forested road so I wasn’t short of shelter for the night. I pulled my bike into the trees and set up my tent on a flat patch of ground. I hadn’t gone as far as I would have liked – just under 40 miles – which meant I had 85 miles to cover the next day to reach Paris.
One of my many terrible camping habits is my refusal to cook dinner outside my tent when it’s cold and wet. As soon as my tent was up, I huddled into my warm cocoon and heated my food in the porch, desperately hoping my chilli would reach its optimum eating temperature before I succumbed to either carbon monoxide poisoning or a fiery death. I survived both, and quickly fell asleep to endure another restless, achy night.
Wild campsite to Paris (85 miles)
I was up at 5 am to start cycling at first light. I started down the empty road with my lights on, through more of the same small villages and farmland. Every now and then a car would pass but other than the sheep and cows in the fields I mostly had the road to myself. It was windy and freezing and everything hurt. I was really feeling the effects of the previous two days and had slowed down a lot. Every few minutes I was standing up on the pedals to mitigate the onslaught against my aching backside.
Looking at my Garmin display I knew exactly how many miles I had to go and how many hours until my evening train. Although I tried not to think about it, my mind was constantly calculating and recalculating the average speed required to make it to my destination on time. This did not help my mental state at all.
I had been relying on my route to get me to Paris without issue, but my Garmin led me astray a few times. On several occasions my plotted route took me off-road through fields and farm tracks, some of which were manageable on my mountain bike, but all of them slowing me down considerably.
I had to limit my stops to the essentials – eating and refilling water. I had absolutely no time to stop and boil water so for my final lunch I had to endure a packet of uncooked Uncle Ben’s rice. Surprisingly not too bad, although a bit dry.
The sun came out in the afternoon and despite my time constraints I was enjoying the challenge. I climbed high up into the Vexin Français Regional Nature Park and raced back down to the outskirts of the large town of Cergy-Pontoise, where I crossed the Seine for the first time.
Everything changed the moment I realised I had exactly two hours and 20 miles to get to Paris in time. If my calculations were correct, this meant I had to average 10 miles an hour without stopping. Easily achievable on a normal day, but these were not normal circumstances. I had been moving at a crawl for the past few hours and even the slightest uphill was too much for me. I knew I was directly east of central Paris at this point, so rather than take my planned scenic detour, I decided to make things easier for myself by bombing it directly east into Paris. Surely it couldn’t be too difficult – just look out for the Eiffel Tower right? This minor shortcut wouldn’t reduce the distance by much but it might just mean the difference between success and failure.
My bright idea started off well and I was making fast progress in the right direction until I reached an on-ramp to the motorway. I wasn’t willing to die for the sake of a bike ride so I knew I had to find a better way into the city.
It took a long time cycling around aimlessly before I eventually found a cycle path leading towards Paris. I had wasted quite a bit of time so I had to give up my plan of getting a triumphant photo at the Eiffel Tower and head straight to my final destination of Gare du Nord.
My Garmin will only follow a pre-plotted route so at each intersection I would stop to ask passers-by whether I was heading the right way for Gare du Nord. After being given the same incredulous response by two different people – “Gare du Nord PARIS?” – I realised I was not as close as I’d thought. My attempted shortcut actually ended up being longer than the route I’d initially planned.
Although I was heading in a straight line, I had some difficulty navigating the bridges over all the different loops of the Seine and I constantly had to backtrack on myself. Traffic was whizzing by inches away from me and I could feel the exhaust fumes destroying my lungs. I hadn’t had a single drop of water for the last four hours and I was ready to collapse but I eventually made it the train station with less than 30 minutes to go before my departure.
I’d made it!
Or so I thought until I headed to the luggage booth and was told it was too late to put my bike on the train. I nearly burst into tears. And probably would have done if the man’s colleague hadn’t arrived and taken pity on me.
I left my bike in his capable hands and made it onto my train with seconds to spare, the only proof of my success a hastily-taken photo of Gare du Nord and a selfie of me nearly dying on the Eurostar.
It was perhaps the most stressful, frantic three days of my life but as I made my slow way back home I was able to bask in the familiar feeling of successfully completing a difficult adventure.
Although not everything went to plan (not that there was much of a plan) I think I still achieved my aim for this journey – to show that you can have a great adventure without much money, fitness or time. Firstly, I didn’t spend a single cent while I was out there, although there were times when I wished I’d had a few pennies for a big, delicious beer. Secondly, a little bit of training wouldn’t have gone amiss but I still made it without. And finally, although time was limited I still managed to complete my journey and stumble into work the next morning.
So next time you have two or three days of freedom, what’s stopping you from having a microadventure of your own?