Looking for charity ride to get involved in, but want to do something a little different? Jennifer Stuart-Smith and her mountain bike took on the BHF's off road London to Paris ride.
Finding a fresh challenge can sometimes be a challenge in itself, and an invitation to do ‘London to Paris’ didn’t immediately make my heart race. Until I discovered that this L2P, unlike all others I have heard about, was off road - and over 3 days. Now that’s a neat idea.
The British Heart Foundation have been running the event for the last 4 years and about 200 people sign up for the challenge. Riders can take part as individuals, or in teams, but the ride is just the same; 200 miles of stunning, traffic-free tracks and cycle routes, finishing in front of the Palace of Versaille. You’d hardly think it possible.
There are a few sections of road, which offer a nice little breather and a chance to drop some mud off your bike, but the majority of the ride is on dirt.
Max Darkins of Rough Ride Guides has been working with the BHF since 2008, helping to plan intricate off-road routes, including this year’s L2P. I’ve done enduros with less efficient signage than Max’s epic ride...and still can’t get my head round how you can plan and mark out 80 miles across the UK countryside, let alone rural France.
Riding as an individual, I didn’t have a team to consult at every turn, yet on pretty much every occasion that I doubted I was on the right path, I’d see a distinctive yellow arrow pointing the way; stuck on a fallen tree, a piece of dumped furniture or stuck in the hedge. Great signage takes the stress out of exploring and leaves you free to ogle the views.
The ride started at Kempton Park, bright and early on a Saturday morning, before following the Thames, the River Wey, and the Wey and Arun Canal out into Surrey. The main challenge in the early stages was not getting distracted by pretty barges and picturesque cottages, and cycling straight into the water.
At Guildford we joined the Downs Link cycle track - a disused rural railway track from village to village and between open fields - continuing at an easy pace, on relatively flat tracks. The big climb of the day, from Upper Beeding up on to the flinty South Downs, made me pleased that I’d put in a bit of training. Never has the sea, and the finish, been such a welcome sight.
The route used to involve taking the ferry to Dieppe, but on this occasion, we were bussed up to Dover and down to Dieppe, ready for Day 2 - supposedly a ‘recovery day’ of 50 miles. I thought I would take it as I found it (is there any other way?) and enjoyed the twisty, hilly route, through the Normandy countryside, taking in flint cottages, masses of wild flowers and greeting friendly locals with an enthusiastic ‘Bonjour!’ With limited vocabulary, I thought I’d make frequent use of what I did know.
I even passed a couple of 'crocodiles'; lines of French school children who stretched out their hands for a high five as we cycled past. We might as well have been part of the Tour, they seemed so excited.
After a huge meal in the town square and a night in the picture-perfect village of Lyons-La-Forêt I felt ready, if a bit nervous, about Day 3 and the final push of nearly 80 miles. Whereas Day 2 sounded a pushover (it wasn’t) the last day was going to be a challenge in many ways; hills, mud, technical single track… and a hell of a distance on a mountain bike. But, hey, people don’t sponsor you to do easy stuff.
A long drag out of the village, on a full stomach, was a tough start, but soon my legs were spinning nicely and I felt like the proverbial Duracel bunny as we warmed up on miles of Avenue Vert. The weather was perfect, again, and it was impossible not to enjoy this hard but glorious ride.
Chalky single track high above the Seine lead us into a hilariously muddy stretch of woodland, where logging trucks had left ruts big enough to swallow both rider and bike. Filthy tracks induced some pretty filthy language – but big smiles too.
Back out into the sunshine, on muddy frames that vaguely resembled bikes, and we were almost there. The ‘Route Royale’ was a clue, and the Palace would soon be in sight…though still a couple of miles away. Gee, those French Royals like a long avenue.
As I trundled into Versaille – only my second-ever visit to Paris – I couldn’t help but laugh at the state of me, covered head to foot in mud, and the fact that the ‘trail’ setting on my bike was perfect for the cobbles of the French capital.
A novel experience from start to finish… and fantastique too.
If you would like to take part in a similar event, the British Heart Foundation are running a London to Brighton Off Road event in September 2013. You can also visit the BHF website to see the full range of rides you can join.