Friday 28 November 2014

Posted by Velouria Posted on 16:01 | 6 comments

Coronation Double Century 2014

Once a year, the forth oldest town in South Africa is transformed from a destination better known for its fine dining and agricultural shows, to the capital of endurance road cycling. The Coronation Double Century attracts bike riders from all over the country, eager to measure themselves against the 202 kilometres in and around the picturesque town of Swellendam. Now in its 22 year, the DC, as it is affectionately known, continues to innovate and adapt, and this is what makes it part of our unique cycling culture. Why else would 200 twelve man (and woman) teams subject themselves to the months of relentless training, the emotional anguish and the physical suffering?

Team HotChillee
Under the careful craftsmanship of Captain Craig, HotChillee had assembled two very powerful teams, both with aspirations of podium level greatness. After many meticulous months spent planning the intricate composition of the teams, like an artisan creating a masterpiece, Captain Craig presented two finely balanced teams, with equal parts of professionalism and comicality, that both honoured the spirit of the Coronation Double Century, and hopefully armed us with an opportunity to climb a little higher up the podium.

The official unofficial team photo
Team Sky's track standing champ and super speedster, Ben Swift, had returned to give us that experienced edge, as well as our resident Iron Man, Dan Halksworth. And this year Dan had some company - no longer the sole victim of countless triathlete jibes - in the form of James Cunnama. On the youthful side of the spectrum we had the 19 year old duo of Nicholas Dlamini and Shameeg Sallie, the former still recovering from the jubilation of signing with MTN-Qhubeka's feeder team, and the latter coming off a win at the recent One Tonner. Naas ticked the steam train check box, and the doctor threesome of David, Dylan and Doc provided us with some solid workhorses. Finally, we had mountain biking pro and Rocky Mountain rider Jarryd Haley to keep a suspicious eye on us roadies.

Detailed race tactics strategy meeting
As is the norm, Team HotChillee only meet up the night before the event. No silly training rides through the long dark winter. No team strategy meetings and motivational outings. Instead, we congregate at Tredici, home to the finest chocolate brownies in the country, for a pre race pasta meal and a few glasses of red wine, followed by chocolate brownies - obviously. This provides the opportunity to catch up on the happenings of the preceding year, and more notably, confirm the fitness levels of our team mates that we'd spent months scrutinising on Strava, analysing each and every ride, knowing that your team mates were doing the exact same thing to you.

Our highly proficient backup crew
With the wine flowing and the chocolate brownies tasting like the tiny slices of heaven, Ben gave us our first and only pre race talk. After successfully adopting several of Team Sky's Marginal Gains ideas on our way to 3rd place the previous year, we were eager to see what other tricks he had in store for us. With tips from the covert Incremental Gains program, and some concepts from the secretive Monumental Gains system, we discussed things like riding formation, momentum conservation, code words and secret handshakes, water point optimisation, race strategy, and how to look like a pro. The seasoned professionals on our team seemed to be soaking this up, while the amateurs started to feel increasingly uncomfortable. Like inmates on death row we were filled with regret. Regret of missed training rides and short cuts. Of one too many slices of cake (and Tredici chocolate brownies). And anguish. Anguish about the pain and suffering that awaited us. Anguish about the intimacy with which we'd get acquainted to The Man with The Hammer. Anguish about our contribution to the team's cause. I suspect, that as we drifted off to sleep that night, more than one of us made a desperate plea to the leg fairy to look favourably upon us, and deliver a pair of legs worthy of the challenge that awaited us.

The HotChillee Racing formation
Racing the Coronation Double Century at the pointy end of the race has several advantages. First on my list is that we get to start at a respectable time. None of this waking up with before the witching hour. Another perk is that by the time we start, we don't need to be wearing all the kit we own in the desperate attempt to conserve some body heat. As we each finalised our pre-race routine, checking tyre pressures and lubing chains, applying bum cream and smearing on sun tan lotion, we nervously brushed up on the details of the previous night's strategies. By the time we rolled down to the start chutes after the traditional official unofficial pre race photo, the field was like a deserted waste land. There was no sign that 192 teams had already departed on their odyssey, apart from a few evil-smelling porta-loos and the odd discarded energy bar wrapper.

Full steam ahead
With moments to go before the start of such an event, a calm typically descends on the start line. Be it quiet introspection, or mental visualisation of the assignment awaiting us, each rider has their own way of dealing with the nerves and uncertainty that slowly bubbles just beneath the surface. And just like that, we were on our way, our date with destiny having finally arrived. For a moment, I allowed myself to bask in the limelight, listening the the crowds cheering, the flutter of photographers capturing the moment, and the encouragement from our backup crew. I was rudely yanked back to reality by the diminutive figure of Ben swiftly vanishing up the street ahead. Time to ride bikes!

Bird's eye view of the action
Our plan was to take the first hour quite conservatively, if averaging close to 38km/h can be called conservative for us amateurs. Like a single sentient being, we quickly formed up into our racing formation, the sum of the parts greater than the parts alone. As we raced along, we explored our fitness and sussed out our form. Just how good were the legs, and was everything working in unison? The answers to these questions would determine our individual race strategies for the remainder of the day. How long would our turns be on the front? Who were we going to ride behind? Where did we expect hit the wall?

The lesser know racing skein formation
With an hour of racing behind us he hit the first of the climbs, and almost immediately we lost our first rider. While the pros did not seem too concerned, those of us in the amateur ranks took cognisance of this. The position you never want to find yourself in, whether it's team time trialling like the DC, or two man stage racing like the Epic, is that of the weakest link. A world of torment and hardship awaits, for as long as you can fend of The Man with The Hammer, or as long as you can remain camped at the very back of the pain cave, your mind a blank slate, save for the suffering and the single minded determination to give your team every last ounce that your body can muster. And now we were all one spot closer to being the weakest link.

An impromptu strategy meeting
As we crested the second of the two long climbs Team HotChillee was down to nine riders. Not ideal, but with 50 kilometres to the neutral zone, it was manageable. Any thoughts of recovering on the downhill were dashed when I realised we were flying along at 84km/h. As I loitered on the back of the HotChillee Express, gripping my handlebars like my life depended on it, I got to witness Ben pulling off his best Peter Sagan super aero tuck impression as he dodged back markers and drove the pace forward. Luckily, I had some company dangling off the back, as one or two triathletes, manhandling their bikes like diesel mechanics playing tiddlywinks, seemed to share my complete and utter lack of descending ability.

No caption required
Carrying our momentum, we raced for the neutral zone, dodging the slower teams ahead of us, and avoiding the traffic mayhem around us. One by one we dropped riders, all part of a sneaky plan hatched by our pros the night before. Get to within striking distance of the neutral zone and then launch an all out assault on the clock. Every opportunity to make up time could make a difference in the overall standings. We'd either pull it off and make up minutes, or implode spectacularly and limp home. So far, the plan was working, and we stopped the clock at a respectable 2h54 for 115kms. Time for us to meet up with our backup crew, to restock the energy supplies, and regroup as a team, before doing it all over again. We'd put in a solid effort, but the rumour running around the neutral zone was that we weren't even in the top five. Fortunately, we had 85 kilometres to turn things around. Eighty five kilometres that stood between us and a spot on the podium. Time to lay it all on the line.

The hills taking their toll
We rolled out of the neutral zone with 11 riders, and quickly got back up to racing speed. No time for small talk or taking in the beauty of the surrounding scenery. We had a task to do. As the pace quickened, the toll began to show, as one by one we started to lose riders. For 12 months I'd visualised making the steel bridge at 145 kilomteres with the team, donating whatever organs I had left before kicking in the clutch and limping to the next water point on my own. So you can imagine my surprise and sheer terror to discover that as we crossed the bridge with 25 kilometres to go to the neutral zone, I was one of the six. Months of mental preparation and training counted for nothing. I was in uncharted territory with a select handful of very talented bike riders. But I wasn't alone. Doctor Dylan too found himself unexpectedly in the wrong place. At least we had each other for inspiration and commiseration.

One little push and the photographer just happens to be there
As we crossed the mats into the final neutral zone we knew we'd just put in our race defining ride. Our backup crew did another fine job of replenishing our bodies and motivating our minds, as we waited for the rest of the team to regroup. We had one final push, 40kms of torturous rolling hills, ahead of us, and needed all the manpower we could muster. Team HotChillee rolled out of the final water point with 9 riders, each focussed on getting the team to the line in the quickest possible time. As our super domestiques, Captain Craig and the doctor duo of David and Doc, peeled off one after the other, each putting in a super human effort, lungs screaming and bodies battered, it was once again down to the final 6 to get us home. To make the sacrifices made by so many to count for something. By now, our pros were coming into their own, taking massive turns on the front and quietly encouraging each one of us to hang tough. With gentle encouragement and careful pacing we inched our way towards the dreaded Three Sisters - three rather average hills that assume Alpine Pass-like status after 180 kilometres in the saddle.

Driving for home
In my mind I could hear Paul Sherwin's commentary as we dug deep into our suitcases of courage one last time, cresting the final climb. A fast and furious dash to the fine was all that remained, and while no one dared to mention it, we wondered if we’d done enough to climb onto the podium, and this spurred us on one last time, up the finishing climb and across the line in a spectacular time of 5h09. All we could do now was wait.

Shut up legs
While Team HotChillee 2 briefly occupied the top step of the podium, the team was eventually bumped down into second, a tantalising 7 minutes behind the leaders, and a nerve-wracking 11 seconds ahead of third. Despite the celebrations and high fives all round, there was a sense that we could have done better. And as long as the team has that hunger, you can bet that we’ll be back, in better shape, and with an improved strategy, in the pursuit of those 7 minutes.

Stop the clock - 5h09
A complete team effort
The Coronation Double Century had once again lived up to its reputation as being one of the premier endurance events on the South African calendar, with its fair share of drama, heartache, euphoria and camaraderie. It was an absolute privilege to share the road with some of the most professional pro athletes in the world, as well as some of the most courageous and committed amateurs. Bring on 2015.
Mixed emotions - equal parts elation and exhaustion
HotChillee on the podium

Tuesday 19 August 2014

Posted by Velouria Posted on 16:43 | No comments

Trans Baviaans 2014

August in the Western Cape heralds in the beginning of spring. The fruit trees start to blossom, the cold morning nip begins to ease, and the days start getting noticeably longer. August is also the harbinger of doom, suffering and missed training opportunities, because August is Trans Baviaans month. A gentle ride from the time forgotten town of Willowmore, through the Baviaans Kloof Nature Reserve, to the seaside surf Mecca of Jefferys Bay - 230kms of breathtaking scenery, body pounding corrugations and leg crippling climbs.

Pondering the pending pain
With Old Man John officially retiring for the second and final time, Captain Craig and I had the enviable task of trying to find a replacement. After going through thousands of applications, from mountain goats to former professional bike riders, we settled on the somewhat risky option of Halfway Warren, better known for his inability to finish bike races either due to mechanical or physiological failure. Essentially, he was the combination of Captain Craig's questionable mechanical durability, and my disposition to regurgitate my stomach contents, all rolled into one bike rider. Above all, Halfway Warren had the right ratio of fun to raciness to qualify to ride with The Pink Fluffy Monsters. We might have lost Old Man John as a team mate, but he'd taken over the backup duties. Seven years of riding Baviaans had prepared him well for what lay ahead.

This certainly isn't the school hostel
In this modern era of Garmins, Strava and social networking, it has become rather difficult to successfully pull off a secret training campaign. What is the need of a secret training campaign? Forget about the competition, this is intra team skulduggery. In any team race, it's not about being the strongest member in the team, it's about not being the weakest member. Being the weakest member in the team usually means an early and prolonged solitary visit to the pain cave. And I'm not talking about dancing around the entrance. You go right to the back, like a kid in the naughty corner, and you usually don't come out.

First road trip stop. The Riversonderend pie shop
Back in the day you could easily fib about how much riding you were doing - knock a couple hours off the reported duration of your rides, fake illnesses, or have unexpected work commitments. The more creative you were, the more chance you had of your team mates buying your subterfuge. Come race day you could show your hand and hopefully the bluffing worked. Unless you rode with even sneakier partners. Nowadays, the second you finish a ride, your statistics are automatically plastered all over the internet for anyone to see, which only serves to motivate your team mates to train more. An arms race of one-upmanship. It takes careful planning, cautious use of technology, and subtle ruses to effectively convince your team mates that you haven't seen a bike in ages. And this year Captain Craig emerged as the master of disinformation.

Second road trip stop. Halfway had a dodgy Wimpy omelette. We smelt it for the rest of the weekend
After a night spent in luxury compared to our traditional hostel accommodation, we slowly made our way to the start. In what must have been a misunderstanding, the organisers hadn't seeded us this year, and so we had to start with the ordinary folk, segregated from the race snakes. After Wikus's usual pre-race mumble, the 11th Trans Baviaans got under way to the cheers of the 7 locals who had turned out, and the 300 plus backup drivers. The Pink Fluffy Monsters quickly made our way through to the front group, something we've become quite accustomed to in recent years. Our pre-race talk was of riding with our brains this year, avoiding the front of the group, and taking it easy for the first 100kms.

A collection of colonial memorabilia
Once the front group has established it's always good to see who is there. We spotted the usual contenders, and couple of pretenders, and our old friend - The Beast - a man mountain of a bike rider. We had poached Halfway from The Beast's team, and now we had to deliver on the smack talk we'd been spurting for the past few months. As big and as strong as The Beast is, he has an Achilles heal - hills. In a move aimed more at sending a message than causing total destruction, Captain Craig upped the pace on a small climb, causing The Beast to get dropped like a bag of hammers. And suddenly there was one less team in the lead bunch to worry about.

The Pink Fluffy Monsters
Our HotChillee friends, Dylan and David, were also present in the lead bunch, and with five of us wearing the same kit, we could sense the slight confusion all the HotChillee kit was causing, given that the maximum allowable team size is 4. Cyclists aren't known for their intellectual abilities, especially when hurtling along with oxygen deprived brains, and this again was evident when 3 or 4 donkeys decided that the other side of the road looked like a better option. In a scene that had all the makings of this video, the donkeys crossed the road, through the middle of bunch. Chaos and pandemonium ensued, along with grown cyclists shrieking and howling like children at the determined equines. For a brief second, the level of testosterone in the bunch plummeted with all the high pitched squealing and arm flapping, before returning to its normal argy bargy levels.

The Pink Fluffy Monsters had done everything right so far, avoided burning too many matches, stayed out of trouble and generally ridden with more brains than brawn - a rare thing for this team. And then disaster struck. I punctured. I hoped that the liquid sealant in the tyre would plug the hole, but judging by the amount of sealant covering my legs it was sealing anything but the hole it was intended to seal. A quick shout to Captain Craig, a plug and a bomb later and we were back on the go, about 2 minutes off the lead group. Captain Craig and I chased back alone, and just as we we were beginning to wonder whether Halfway was indeed a double agent for The Beast, he appeared around a bend and gave us a much needed helping hand onto the back of the bunch. Crisis averted, for now.

Team 15 in 9th place at checkpoint 2
We whizzed through the first compulsory stop, grabbed some supplies, and were back on the road in a flash - we'd talked about how we wanted to minimise our stops, and so far things were going according to plan. We also took just long enough to let the main contenders get a gap on us, leaving us to ride at our own pace for the next 40kms - a crucial section with 4 big climbs that can make or break the whole race. At precisely four hours and six minutes, I felt the first onset of cramps. And I don't cramp. The last time I had cramped was after 10 hours on our Big Day Out. I hoped this was just a friendly reminder to keep eating and drinking. But these were more than just reminders. They were passengers, companions, silent accomplices. Nagging and pestering me when I least expected it. Calves, quads, hamstrings. Nothing to do but suck it up an keep on going.

The Monsters crossing a river
Just as we were cresting the big climb, my nemesis made an appearance. As the strength slowly drained from my legs, my stomach started to churn like a washing machine on pre-wash. Captain Craig and Halfway Warren were champions, taking turns to push my sorry body towards the fourth checkpoint. After a masterful tactical vomit and some soup and bread, we were back on our bikes and tearing off down the hill, taking a mere eight minutes to attach lights, lube chains, restock on fluids, and expel the evil in my belly.

Chasing back on after a puncture, Captain Craig's 46 tooth chain ring causing some pain
With me firmly camped out in the pain cave, it was great every now and then to get a visitor. Halfway Warren popped in for a few minutes earlier in the day, but didn't stay for long. Every now and then I'd step out for some fresh air, hoping to leave the cave for good, but knowing it was just a brief departure. On one such excursion, I was quite surprised to find Captain Craig getting comfortable in my cave. While he kept me company, Halfway took a massive turn on the front into the ever present headwind as we made our way to checkpoint 5. Halfway wasn't pink, or fluffy, but he certainly was a monster!

Old Man John's backup station. A study in efficiency
As we rolled into the checkpoint, we were greeted by Old Man John, and any thoughts of him getting old or slow were quickly banished. He was one step ahead of us, anticipating our needs, predicting our whims. Old Man John was as efficient as the SARS help desk in tax season, getting us back on the road in less than 3 minutes, much to the envy of all the other backup crews there.

A place for everything, and everything in its place
With the penultimate stop behind us we set off towards the NeverEnder - a hill, much as the name implies, that just goes on and on and on. Not particularly steep, but just enough to suck the life from your aching body. Captain Craig and Halfway Warren gave me the honour of setting the pace. It was either that, or pushing me later when I popped again. Staring at my heart rate monitor, I found that 152bpm was the number I could hold. One beat more and I was aware of the Grim Reaper's presence. One beat less and it felt like I was coasting. Pedal stroke after pedal stroke we climbed that hill, not a word said between the three of us, yet we moved in almost perfect synchrony. We rolled into the final checkpoint as the last glimmer of twilight faded.

Glad it's over
Old Man John was on form again, and we were back on the road in the blink of an eye. By now Captain Craig had well and truly left the pain cave, and in a severe case of long distance white line fever, was continuing his love affair with his dinner plate sized 46 tooth chain ring, much to the discomfort of Halfway Warren and myself. Grit your teeth, ignore the pain in the legs, and do everything you can to hold onto the wheel in front of you. With Halfway and myself worried about the approaching lights from behind, and Captain Craig focussed on the finish, we ate up the final kilometres in no time, despite the discomfort of some very unwelcome single track.

Another fantastic sunrise in JBay
The Pink Fluffy Monsters finished in 9h36, claiming 10th place and were the first placed 3 man team. We were also the first unseeded team, the first team team in HotChillee kit, and the first to finish 4 bottles of wine later that evening. In the eleven times that I've done this event, despite having had several bad patches, this was the slickest ride we've done. While everything didn't go according to plan, we had fun, went to some dark places together, and emerged from the ordeal as mates, which, ultimately, is the reason why we ride.

A true team effort, in everything we do

Thursday 7 August 2014

Posted by Velouria Posted on 14:02 | 1 comment

Transkei 2014

Sometimes it's not about speed, watts per kilo, winning times, heart rate zones, or bike weight. Sometimes it's just about riding bikes, sharing experiences, looking around, enjoying the journey and having fun.

Our merry team of Transkei adventurers
Some local fauna and flora
Perhaps I am getting old, but sometimes I think we forget why it is we cycle. Why we fell in love with this ridiculous activity in the first place. We focus on training programs and race rosters, worry about our weight and Strava segments, secretly stalk our competitors for signs of weakness (or so I've heard) and completely forget about the simple things. The sense of freedom and independence. The spirit of adventure. The companionship of friends.

Action beach shot
A stroll across a river
Acting as guinea pigs for Cape Cycle Tours (Captain Craig's day job), we headed off to the Transkei's Wild Coast for a week of bike riding, relaxing and basket buying. Our adventure would start in Morgan's Bay, and end in Coffee Bay several days later. In between that, we had free reign to do as we pleased - ride bikes, afternoon naps, sundowners on the beach - anything and everything to forget about the outside world.

Long, pristine golden beaches
We're rather quick to pack our bags and head off to exotic places all over the world, and yet we have some amazing places right here in South Africa. This was my first trip to the Wild Coast, and I had no idea what to expect. Somewhere in the back of my mind I imagined bananas and pineapples growing wild, but that was as far as my expectations went.

A boat trip sure beats a swim
The route was rather simple - keep the sea on the right, and keep pedalling until you get to the next overnight stop. Generally this involved riding on golden beaches, metres from the roaring ocean, with occasional detours inland to avoid obstacles. Low tide allowed us to ride quite easily on hard packed beach sand and make fantastic progress, but unfortunately, the tides change. High tide had us riding in the softer sand higher up the beach, and if you weren't a master of riding sand before we started our adventure, you quickly learned a soft sand riding technique that worked for you. Even if it involved walking. And we all walked at some point. Progress was measured by counting river crossings, objectives were limited to a suitable place for the next snack stop, and the schedule was to the nearest change of tide.

The view never gets boring
Another picture postcard view
Nothing fazed us - taking 7 hours to ride 35kms was 7 hours well spent. Crossing a "shark infested" river on the incoming tide at night (a few Zambezi sharks were spotted several years ago) was just another story we'd have to retell over a couple of beers.

A surreal sunset
Need a snack break? Then stop and have a snack break. Want to look at the view? Then stop and look at the view. Don't want to swim across a river? Then wait for Captain Craig to steal a canoe and ferry you across.

The local cows keeping a watchful eye on us
Captain Craig guessing the river depth
From the endless beaches, to the lush indigenous forests, from the friendly locals and cheerful kids, to the quaint hamlets and farm animals - every twist and turn promised something new. Nothing got old, nothing got boring.
Cuddling at the Hole in the Wall
Post ride snacks with a sublime view
And after each day's riding we'd talk about the riding, recalling the day's adventures, recounting tales to our non riding partners over a few beers and some good food. The river crossings, the soft sand, the cows on the beach, and the non-existent pineapples. Bike riding how bike riding was meant to be.

Beer, and the best peanut butter and jam sandwich ever!

Friday 18 July 2014

Posted by Velouria Posted on 10:03 | No comments

London to Paris 2014

For my first overseas event as a HotChillee Ride Captain I had the privilege of riding their flagship event - London-Paris. Being a Ride Captain is a serious undertaking requiring special skills and talents, with the added responsibility of looking after hundreds of cyclists out on the roads of a foreign country. While on bikes. With sponsored goodies. Basically, a cycling holiday in a far away land with some like minded people. A serious undertaking indeed.

A cycling holiday
But back to the sponsored goodies. (Anyone remember Wayne's World). Feeling like a kid on Christmas day I couldn't wait to see what Father Christmas (aka The Bull) had organised for us. There were things that I couldn't wait to try out, new Lemarq kit with my name on it, pristine white Shimano shoes and a dayglo green Lazer helmet. Then there was some new stuff - Sportique's range of warming and cooling creams - that I wasn't quite sure how to use, or where to apply. Nothing worse than discovering on race day that warming cream shouldn't be applied to "sensitive areas". I am however a firm believer in Sportique's bum cream Century Riding Cream - tried and tested. We also received new Garmin GPS units, and at the risk of sounding like an old age pensioner overwhelmed by technology, I was a little apprehensive. I'd just mastered the previous version after several months of trial and error, and now I had a new techno gadget to play with. But play with it I did, and it really is an amazing little gizmo. I felt like such a local being able to give the names of roads and towns that we were riding through.

A bag full of goodies
After a quick ride to the local coffee shop with some fellow Ride Captains to make sure the bikes were in perfect working order, we headed off to registration. As the riders steadily rolled in it was great to see all the new faces, and recognise a few familiar ones here and there. From race snakes to weekend warriors, seasoned veterans to rank amateurs, the excitement was palpable. London to Paris is an opportunity for normal everyday people to live the lives of the professionals for 3 days, enjoying rolling road closure and full mechanical support but without the scrutiny and pressures of supporters, reporters and grumpy team managers.

The start of my first London to Paris
I'd been assigned to look after Group 5, along with Steely Dan and Whisk. We weren't the speed demons or the celebrity racers, but we were a tenacious and determined bunch of guys and girls focussed on one single objective - getting to Paris with as much fun as possible. We'd leave the Strava KOMs for the front groups, and instead focus on trying to be the most awesome group on the road - all for one and one for all sort of thing. After several months of hype and build up we were ready to finally unleash our inner racers, each of us a little worried that we hadn't trained enough, or had one too many pork pies in the run up to the start. None of that mattered now, our only goal was to get to Paris in one piece. It was time to put behind us the weeks and months of training, the early mornings and the missed social occasions, and go bike riding. For the next 3 days we had a new family - admittedly, a rather large and extended family in all shapes and sizes. What we lacked in raceyness we made up for in brawn, beauty and bravado.

Best bike shed ever

Stage One was a testy 160km affair from Imber Court to Folkstone, with almost as much time spent standing about in lay-bys as we spent winding our way through the English countryside. As a South African, we love to whinge about anything, from the cost of bike parts to the latest performance of our sports teams. With this in mind, it was reassuring to discover that the state of some of the roads we travelled along was well below what we're used to back home. I'm quite sure there are still some Group 5 riders lurking at the bottom of potholes or stuck at the side of the rode with pothole induced catastrophic bike failure.
Is there a better place to ride?
The highlight (or lowlight) of stage one was a short stretch of tarmac up a steep little rise, known to locals as The Wall. This over-hyped hill struck fear through the peloton, and as we approached it a silence fell over the riders. From the build up you would have sworn we were in for an Alpe d'Huez type climb, and for some it may well have been their Alpe d'Huez. With guts, determination, and the occasional Hand of God we made it, not only slaying the hill, but slaying some demons too. As we twisted and weaved our way through the quaint English lanes towards the coast we got some time to chat to our fellow riders. On the bike we're all just bike riders, united in our objective of getting to Paris. Every rider has a unique story - when they started riding, why they started riding, why they are doing London-Paris. As we chatted the miles whizzed by, our confidence increasing and our nervousness ebbing away. In 160kms we'd gone from a ragtag bunch of strangers to a group of like minded cyclists, a third of the way to Paris.

Quiet contemplation
Stage Two from Calais to Amiens promised another day of great bike riding - 170kms of rolling farmlands through North West France. While the profile resembled something like a seismic graph during an earthquake, Group 5 was all smiles at the start. We were now cycling in France, on pristine French roads, with friendly French motorists and amazing French scenery. What was there not to smile about - perhaps the fact that we'd lost a Ride Captain - Whisk - to the same pressures of the outside world that we were all trying to forget about. In his place we'd inherited James, a diminutive L2P veteren, certified ginger and all round nice guy. As we left Calais, each rider slotted into their position in the peloton, their familiar little spot in the coordinated fluidity of the bunch. The speed machines near the front, the conversationalists in the middle, and the gravitationally challenged towards the back. Much like the riders, the Ride Captains had their spots too. James up front setting the pace and abusing the radio, with Dan and myself at the back, bringing up the rear, helping with punctures and mechanicals and occasionally applying a helping hand.

Myself and Dan, keeping an eye on things
While the riders in Group 1 tend to think that they are the real racers, the riders in Group 5 displayed way more determination and grit as they battled their way towards Amiens. As the day wore on, the hills got a little steeper, the legs got a little heavier, but the smiles got bigger. Not even a brief downpour could dampen our spirit as we rode between the poppy lined wheat fields, through picturesque French villages, and rolling farm lands. And despite the tired bodies and tired minds, the group was starting to show the signs of a well oiled machine, a cohesive unit moving as one. And because we had such a good time on our 170km adventure from Calais to Amiens, our protective motorbikes and lead car gave us a few extra scenic kilometres around Amiens for free. C'est La Vie.

The roads of Northern France
Stage Three dawned bright and early for Group 5, and even if the prospect of reaching Paris should have had everyone feeling elated, there was a slight sense of melancholy hanging about. This was the last day of our adventure, one last time to forget about the real world and enjoy our time on the bike. The amazing thing about cycling in France is that the scenery just gets better and better, from tree lined avenues to the rustic churches. Much like the scenery, so too were the riders just getting better and better. Rachel who couldn't go downhill was now a descent queen, Simon who couldn't go uphill resorted to pure power to conquer the climbs, and Mark who thought he belonged in Group 6 finished strongly with his Group 5 companions. Each and every rider had a similar tale to tell, from conquering their doubts, to overcoming injury, from arriving at registration without shoes, to having the airline lose their bicycle. And yet here we were, within spitting distance of Paris, 500kms behind us.

Despite the rain, still smiling
And what would a HotChillee London-Paris event be without rain? To meet our expectations, Mother Nature saved the worst for last, and belted us with rain, wind and cold for the final 50kms into Paris. And despite the conditions, rolling up to the Arc de Triumph, on a bicycle, with 400 other cyclists was truly spectacular. Riding the fabled cobblestones of the Champs-Élysées like the pros we all watch on TV in July was a dream come true, and not nearly as easy as they make it look. As we crossed the finish line, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, to the cheers of family and friends, our cycling epic finally came to an end. We started as 50 strangers with a distant objective, and finished as 50 friends with a shared achievement, some great stories, and a common bond.

We made it
Thanks to all my fellow riders, Ride Captains, HotChillee crew and organisers for making this a fantastic experience, and I can't wait to see everyone at the next event.
The finish line, in Paris.

Ride Captains getting ready.