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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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