In true ‘El goes on a bikepacking adventure style’ this story starts off with me being a bit under-the-weather. The classic work up until Christmas, run yourself ragged, stop and get ill. Except that I’m asthmatic and anything I come down with ends up going to my chest. It was so bad my mother vocalised that she thought that I shouldn’t go. Like the good daughter I am I ignored her advice.
Day 1. Bristol To Winchester https://www.strava.com/activities/813987308
This was glorious. Out of Bristol on an crisp and frosty morning.
The route took me along some lovely Wiltshire lanes. I was taking it easy, deliberately to save my lungs. I stopped to talk to wildlife and to enjoy the views. It was sunny, I was warm, I was on my bike. Life couldn’t get any better. I’d planned to stay the night with my friend Josie in Winchester. I turned up, had a lovely warm shower and then her and her partner decided we were getting takeaway for dinner. A sunny day on the bike and a curry. Life doesn’t get much better than this. The only downside to day 1 was that my rear light stopped working, a little too much mud and rain me thinks.
Day 2. Winchester to Newhaven. https://www.strava.com/activities/815105243
When I planned this trip I saw that there was an overnight ferry option. This seemed to make sense, it maximised daytime for riding. I would just sleep on the ferry. Right?!
I must have been apprehensive because I stalled all morning. Not wanting to leave the comfort of the sofa bed. I got myself up. Josie and I had agreed to go to this new local yoga cafe for breakfast. I went downstairs to start attaching my bags to my bike which had been left indoors under the stairs in the block of flats. Something didn’t look right about the front tyre. Flat. Not just flat, a massive hole in the sidewall of the tyre. I have no idea how that happened.
Luckily there was a local bike shop right next to the yoga cafe. A new rear light and new front tyre. Today was already expensive! In the bike shop Josie was picking up the energy gels ‘this is what I expected you to have on you, not haribo!’. Clearly she didn’t approve of my nutrition! I found that one haribo strawberry per half hour was about right.
By the time I actually got going it was nearly lunchtime. Not to worry, I’d had a big breakfast and would make up some time by not stopping for lunch. Except that my route out of Winchester to the South Coast took me through the South Downs National Park. Rolling hills sap my energy, especially when I’m ill and carrying luggage! Slow day. Then a puncture. Luck was not on my side. To boot it was ROASTING! So warm and sunny. I had not prepared for warm weather so I took off as many layers as I could and unzipped my winter jersey.
I made it to Brighton pier where I stopped for some fish and chips before heading off to Newhaven to catch the ferry. By this point it was getting cold. All my layers were on. Except for my down jacket (found by my mum in a charity shop) which was for emergency warmth and for sleeping. I would be so thankful for this tomorrow.
This was my first time every getting a ferry by myself and not with a coach trip. I wasn’t really sure of protocol. Apparently as a cyclist you count as a car and have to wait in a queue with the cars. Not likely. I went indoors, changed to a clean pair of bib shorts and leggings for warmth and got some rest until they started boarding. Remember the plan? To sleep on the ferry. Ha! I had forgotten how loud ferry engines are! And despite the floor being quite comfortable I got approximately zero hours snooze.
Day 3. Dieppe to Neuilly-en-Thelle https://www.strava.com/activities/816406451
This was something else.
I got off the ferry at 4am and stood shivering in the customs queue (I don’t understand that they think a person with a bicycle should be treated the same as people sitting comfortably in their cars with the heating on). It was SO COLD. I’d brought a down coat with me for sleeping in and I wasn’t taking it off any time soon! I thought to myself, cycling through this at 4am with 4-5 hours until cafe’s start opening is a bad idea. I don’t mind cycling in the cold if I know I have options open to me to go inside and warm up. I did not think it would be wise to be stuck in outside in -silly figures with no escape. I asked the man in passport control if there was something that was a 24h McDonalds or similar nearby where I could go and wait out the wee hours. He said not close but that I could wait in the ferry office. This worked, until 6am when they were closing the ferry office. Damn. Luckily, with my limited French I managed to learn of a cafe in the town that was open in the early hours. Win. I cycled over, teeth chattering. Found the cafe and wasted time until 8am. I was really questioning what I was doing. I had never cycled in France before, it was cold, dark and I was on my own. Some lovely encouragement on twitter from Audax legend Steve Abraham and I decided I wasn’t giving up yet.
I was taking the Avenue Verte, a mainly traffic free cycle path from Dieppe to Paris. It was beautiful in the frozen morning mist. Sadly, I don’t have many photos because my phone got so cold it stopped working. My garmin got down to -8. I found it very difficult pre trip to find much information on the French side of the Avenue Verte but had found a route on Ride With GPS which I had uploaded to my Garmin. It was pretty well signposted and I stopped needing to follow my Garmin and just followed the signs.
One thing I realised pretty quickly, the route goes through some beautiful countryside but it was sparse. I tried to stop every 1.5h to go find coffee, food and warmth but sticking to that quickly went out the window. I ended up eating my emergency malt loaf for breakfast and I didn’t find anywhere for lunch until around 14.00. Oops. At this point I was cold and tired. My down jacket was getting damp from the freezing fog and my hair had frozen. I was feeling pretty bleak. I wasn’t half way yet. But not one to give up I headed back out, this time with emergency croissants.
Belly full of Pizza obviously benefitted my mind and my legs, and I got some good pace on. Whizzing along the Avenue Verte to Beauvais …. where it ran out. No more path, no road markings, no signposts. SHIT. This is when I bothered to look at my Garmin and realised I was pretty far off course. How? I managed to warm my phone up and checked google maps, I rode into the town of Beauvais where I found…. A LOCAL BIKE SHOP! HURRAH! The owner of the LBS didn’t speak much English and I was too cold and too tired I couldn’t remember much French. Eager to help, he went to fetch his daughter from upstairs, she spoke English and could translate for us! They had a little tourist map of the Avenue Verte. It turns out it splits after Gournay en Bray and there are two possible routes to take to Paris. The other route was clearly the one I had uploaded onto my Garmin. The LBS owner and his daughter were very helpful and I left with a list of every town on my route, including which ones would have trains to Paris. So even without the GPS and the signposts of the avenue I knew which roads would be quieter and a plan that would get me to Paris, somehow.
It was now getting dark. With the frozen fog I was glad I had a high vis vest in addition to my lights. I made it to Mouy. This seemed like a lively town so I decided to stop and recharge my phone, lights and Garmin. I found a bar, the locals were welcoming and interested in my trip. They helped me with the remainder of my route, recommending roads. They also helpfully pointed out that it was now too late for trains from any of the larger towns but said if I got stuck there would be hotels in Chantilly. One helpful Frenchman tried to insist that it was too late for me to be cycling and I should sleep on his sofa and get back on my way in the morning. I wasn’t sure about this and decided to keep going.
Cycling through the dark, foggy night in the sparse countryside I thought ‘this would be a really bad time to have a mechanical’ and this was quickly followed by ‘don’t think about that, it’s scary’. On and on we go. Singing ‘All I want is a room somewhere‘ from My Fair Lady to myself to try and keep the mood upbeat. Then, that familiar feeling of a flat rear tyre. I’d not long gone through a village, so retraced my steps. It was so cold that if this was anything but a straight forward flat I would be screwed if I was on my own. From this town my friends (waiting for me in Paris) insisted that it was now time to call it a day, at 11pm in the countryside outside Paris, with a flat tyre and sleep deprived. They managed to persuade an Uber driver to come pick me and my bike up.
No one likes to scratch, but I was so close to Paris and the conditions had been far from ideal. It’s hard not to be hard on yourself when you fail to finish something that you set out to complete.
I suggested to my friends that I would get the train back out tomorrow to finish the job from where I’d been forced to stop. They were having none of this!
It turns out that talking to them on the phone that night I wasn’t making much sense and they were concerned that I probably wasn’t far from hypothermia. Thank goodness for friends! Steph helped me out of the Uber and we carried my bike up to her flat. They made me some soup, a hot water bottle and I had a warm shower. The cold had got to my lungs and my cough was worse. It was a good thing that I stopped when I did.
My lessons learned page is now full. From cycling through the most glorious British winter sun to freezing French fog it was a strange and challenging trip. Not the easiest introduction to solo bikepacking. I’ve always known that I’m an optimist. That was confirmed. Even in the freezing dark I kept my spirits up. But sometimes realism needs to take over. I was lucky that I was close enough to Paris for rescuing and that my friends are awesome. We celebrated NYE in Paris with ice skating, amazing food and champagne in the street at midnight!