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.