London to Brussels in 24 Hours – Part 2, Calais to Brussels

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The upshot of getting the later ferry was that we walked down the ramp into the dark of Calais with little more than 12 hours in which to complete 155 miles or so.  We also had 5 scheduled stops to fit into that time so at best we would need to average around 16mph over 155 miles.  Straight away at the bottom of the ramp the group had a puncture.  Fixing that we set off out of the port, lights all blazing, and immediately took a wrong turn.  We were to meet the support vehicles a couple of miles away in order to fill bottles and formalise the groups.  Straight away riders were struggling with riding on the right hand side of the road, and especially left turns at roundabouts!

After regrouping we set off in the first group, with the ride leader James and other strong guys in the group setting a fast pace.  At this point I was happy to sit in the peloton and cruise along comfortably.  We whistled through deserted suburbs and towns outside Calais, barely seeing anybody, and on roads that put the UK to shame.  When we did see cars they were always respectful, giving lots of room and only overtaking when safe.  Through Oye-Plage and Gravelines we turned south-west and headed out into the countryside.  I have to say that night riding is fantastic.  The reflection of the lights off the road, simply watching the lights in front, no cars and relative silence as you just churn out the miles.  Brilliant.  We ate up the miles, breezing into and out of street-lit towns.  33 miles in and we’d reached Arneke where the support vehicles were waiting for us in a picnic area by a lake.  By this time people were tired – sleepy tired rather than fatigue tired.  Unfortunately there were no coffee facilities so I made do with a gel powder mixed with cold water.  And far too many jaffa cakes.  As we all mounted up ready to go one bike was still propped against a fence.  Then we saw a head-torch flickering in the distance across the other side of the lake.  I’m not sure why, but he made it back without ending up in the water and we set off again.

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Billiard table - 2689ft of ascent

The profile above makes it look like there were some hills but really the scale makes that look worse than it was.  The route was pretty flat with at worst “rolling” roads.  The second night stage was a bit of a struggle.  Tiredness was kicking in now so one of the guys from La Squadra turned on his bike portable music player and we were riding along to heavy rock music.  Cassel, St-Sylvestre, Caestre, Strazeele, Estaire all came and went.  There was no aching in the legs, no fatigue, and my heart-rate was very low, but the tiredness came in waves now, and I found my concentration lapsing and zoning out more and more.  It had rained a bit too on this stage, but not so much that it was unpleasant.  The rest stop at Aubers couldn’t come quickly enough, and thankfully it was in a village hall so there was coffee, pasta and a sandwich.  Everybody was sat in a big circle looking very tired, but the two cups of coffee perked me up really well.

It was psychologically tough now.  Three more stages – one of 34 miles, one of 39 miles that was worrying many, and a final one of only 20 miles.  It was 4-10am when we left the rest stop, as the sun was starting to come up, meaning we had 93 miles to complete in less than 8 hours.  We pushed on, with the darkness receding.  A cockerel was crowing and we were encountering more and more cars now, all polite and respectful.  Somebody punctured on a long drag, with the peloton strung out.  We all watched the repair from different distances, many slumped over their bikes.  I felt worse when we stopped than I did when we were riding.  I tried to talk to one the La Squadra guys but I’ve no idea what about.  I looked up and saw a van driving down the road.  He’s on the wrong side of the road!  I looked the other way to see if there was a car coming and the inevitable accident before I snapped out of it and realised that we were in France and he was on the right side of the road.

We’d skirted south of Lille by this point and passed Orchies and Beuvry-la-Forêt and we entered St Amand football club where more food and coffee was available.  By now it was light and we rested for 20 minutes, leaving at 6-56am.

Five hours to cover 59 miles – this was looking like we could do it.  The rain briefly returned.  I had no idea relatively where we were and after an hour we reached a short, straight hill with a church at the top.  Several riders groaned and started to haul themselves up it but I felt good and moved towards the front.  At the top we stopped and waited.  I looked back and realised there was a line in the road, and I was looking at a small sign that said France.  I’d crossed the border into Belgium at a place called Bon Secours.  I took a turn on the front trying to keep a steady pace of 18mph as people were getting dropped now.  I managed maybe 5 miles before youthful exuberance saw some of the younger riders overtaking and pushing harder.  Belgium was much more like Britain in terms of the roads – quite bad potholes and poor repair, and the drivers were very fast and nowhere near as respectful as the French.  The roads were also becoming very long and boring – quite exposed and a bit more rolling.  It was taking its toll.  Group riding was also disintegrating now, with people often 2 or 3 abreast when it wasn’t safe, drifting across the road and generally losing concentration.

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16.8mph average speed

We passed through Ath (Aat) and then hit a 10 mile straight and very boring road into Enghien, where we would take our last stop, and breakfast, before hitting Brussels.  It was 9-40am and we agreed to be on our way by 10-15am to cover the last 20 miles in about an hour and a half.

We naturally slowed down as the traffic got busier and busier on the route into Belgium.  Some of the riding also got more and more dangerous and I tried to hang back a bit, cringing at the way in which certain guys were oblivious to the cars around them.  We approached Brussels from the Anderlecht suburbs and with a shout of “Allez Philipe Gilbert!” from a bystander we entered the city.  A couple of riders nearly came off in the tram tracks but we weaved our way into Grand Place and rode across it to the bar where Action Challenge were waiting for us with beers, dodging the local police who were shouting at us that we couldn’t ride in Grand Place.  We didn’t care because we’d made it.  It was 11-43am GMT – 23 hours and 43 minutes since we’d started.

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Dodging the police to finish in 23hrs 43m

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In terms of the distance my legs and body felt good and I probably could have gone further.  However, the tiredness was a big problem and later that day I found myself falling asleep quite often!

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Average HR of 115bpm

We had a celebratory dinner and a few beers (some more than others!) and then had a few hours the next day to look around Brussels before getting Eurostar back.  Overall the organisation was pretty good, and we got commemorative jerseys and medals from The BHF.

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Chilling in Brussels

Overall it was a great experience.  I got to ride through the night, which was brilliant, and I got to ride in France and Belgium, which was equally enjoyable.  I rode further than I had before if you add the two legs together.  And, most importantly, I’ve raised £1,570 (£1,918 including gift-aid) for the British Heart Foundation.

Ride stats : 157.2 miles in 9 hrs 22m @ 16.8mph average.  2,689ft of climbing, 115bpm average HR and 5,151kcals energy used

Overall stats : 239.8 miles in 14hrs 29m @ 16.5mph average.  6,952ft of climbing, 125bpm average HR and 8,933 kcals used

London to Brussels in 24 Hours – Part 1, London to Dover

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So after around 6 months of preparation I set off to drive to London on Thursday 14th.  A relatively uneventful 200 miles until I hit the outskirts of the city and then my satnav guided me closer than I wanted to the congestion charge zone.  I needn’t have worried as my Prius is apparently exempt – thanks to Steve for the hastily tweeted info – but traffic in London is obviously painful, and it was a slow drag through the Blackwall tunnel to my pre-booked parking at car park 1 at the O2 arena.  Which was closed.  I pulled up and phoned the helpline.

“Event?  What event?” came the response.  Great.  Logistics, or lack of planning, was my biggest worry.

I blagged my way into car park 2 and made my way with 2 rucksacks and a large bike bag to the taxi rank, worried about whether my car would still be there and if so, whether I’d get out.  The chirpy cockney cabbie (I’m being sarcastic – miserable git) took me to the Clarendon Hotel in Blackheath where I tried to relax and get an early night; something made more difficult by the usual noisiness in hotels.

At breakfast next morning I looked around the room.  Who looks like a cyclist?  Hard to say, but I forced some food down and wandered onto the heath outside to register.

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We were given route cards, reflective armbands, a BHF jersey and instructions where to drop our bags.  The weather was really nice – warm and sunny.  Usually I jinx it by applying sun lotion but no, the sun stayed out.  A few brief chats with people and then we trooped back into the hotel for a last cup of coffee and the pre-ride briefing.  An introduction by The British Heart Foundation and then they handed over to the effective organisers, Action Challenge.  There were slightly less than the advertised 300 riders – erm, 31 – and we would have 3 ride leaders, a mechanic, a doctor and several other members of the team.  Average speeds on this side of the channel would be 15-17mph and on the other maybe 13-15mph.  The channel crossing was booked for 7-30pm.

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Le Grand Depart - I'm near the back

A klaxon sounded and we were off, weaving through the traffic.  Maybe a mile in and the shout went up.

“Puncture!”  Little did he know at this point that unfortunately this would be the first of 4 punctures for John.

We waited whilst it was fixed and then set off.  Next problem was some emergency pipeworks that were blocking the traffic, the support vehicles, and us.  It was clear that the abilities of the group differed dramatically so we’d splintered into 3 groups now – a quicker group at the front, the group I was in, and some backmarkers.  Our group found a novel way of getting through by riding under the tape and through the cones, past the bemused workers.

“Is this for charity?” asked one bloke who clearly hadn’t seen salad in a long-time. I couldn’t help thinking he might need some of the pioneering research the BHF does in years to come.

“Don’t ride through the water,” said another.

“Why not?”

“Because it’s shit,” he said matter-of-factly.  Nice.

The first stop was planned at around 19 miles, simply to take on water and regroup after getting out of London.  As we hit the campsite at Meopham it was clear that the traffic and various incidents (puncture and one ride leader was clipped by a car) had delayed us.  We’d managed 13.2mph for the first 10 miles and had then picked up slightly as we passed the M25 and managed 14.8mph for the second 10 miles.  Not really good enough and we were already up against it.

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Ridiculous number of stops getting from the start to the M25

The next leg was 32 miles to Charing and I decided to join the first group this time.  There were some lovely bikes on display.  A couple of Cervelo’s, a Trek Madone 6.2, a lovely titanium Sabbath and a mean Planet X speed machine with full Super Record and Cosmic Carbone wheels worth more than my entire bike.  I got chatting to some guys from a new Sheffield club – La Squadra – who were pushing the pace on the front, and had fantastic looking club kit of black with red detailing.  These guys, and ride leader James, didn’t appear to be really trying, but were going fast.  The splits for the next 30 miles were 18.2mph, 15.9mph and 18.3mph.  The group sub-divided into fast-fast and fast-medium, and the fast-fast guys were racing up climbs and I was just hanging on to the back as we pulled into Kerala Spices.  Bizarrely the hot food stop was at an Indian Restaurant and we were served curry, chicken and rothi/chapati.  John rolled in with his second puncture and a split tyre, which the mechanic patched up.  We waited for the rest to arrive.  And waited.  And waited.  People were struggling and we’d done 52 miles.  The Action Challenge guys clearly had a plan B and announced we’d get a ferry at 9pm instead.

The final leg to Dover took us over White Hill, through Wye, a wait at the world record longest level crossing, down to Folkestone, over Dover Hill and then a fast cruise into Dover, where hot food and the ferry awaited us.  I got shelled 50 yards off the back of the fast-fast group going up White Hill but we regrouped at the top and pushed on.  These boys were fast, and even though we’d been artificially held back at Charing we would still have made the 7-30pm ferry the pace we were going.  As it was the final climb up Dover Hill and descent into Dover meant we had time to eat our food and get our kit sorted for the next leg.

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4264ft of ascent

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Average Speed - 16.1mph

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Average HR 135bpm. Max HR 187bpm

Once kitted up we rode from the hotel on Marine Parade through some cycle paths and the operations manager picked up our tickets.  We were directed to lane 186 and we rode through what I can only describe as a customs shed.  The guy asked me if I’d packed my own rucksack.  I told him I had.  He asked what was in it and for a split second my mind went blank.  The first thing that came to mind was gels.  And clothes.  He seemed satisfied and waved us through.  There were lines of trucks and cars at lane 186 but we were directed straight onto the ferry.  A quick sprint up the ramp and we were onto the empty deck, which was fantastic.  Our bikes were stowed (that’s sailor-speak for “leant against”) on one side and we trooped up to the lounge.  As the public were finally allowed on they were greeted by 30-odd cyclists in various states of undress trying to get some sleep on chairs not designed for it.  The light on the harbour wall went green and we were off.  I couldn’t sleep because every time I closed my eyes I felt seasick, so I decided the best thing for that was a bag of crisps and some pepsi max.

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Leaving Dover - aye, aye cap'n...

Ride Stats : 82.66miles in 5hrs and 7m @ 16.1mph average speed.  4,264ft of ascent, average HR 135bpm and 3782kcals energy used