When my brother-in-law started feeling a little bit “off colour” in the spring of 2013 none of us could have guessed that a year later he would no longer be with us. Mike’s illness turned out to be acute myeloid leukaemia. He was told a bone marrow transplant was his best hope of beating AML.
After months of waiting for a suitable donor, the welcome news came that someone in the United States of America was a match. We visited Mike in University College Hospital, London, the day the transplant took place.
Mike had started cycling just before he became ill and sitting up in his bed, he started looking ahead to how he might get back in the saddle as part of his recovery. The London Duathlon was mentioned – Mike, if needs be, careering round Richmond Park on a tandem and in a wheelchair. Then – as we munched our way through some red velvet cup cakes – Mike mentioned the Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research charity’s London to Paris ride. At least two of the consultants working with him received research funding from LLR (now renamed Bloodwise) so it was an appropriate choice.
It’s unclear how this hospital-room banter transformed into a concrete commitment to actually do the Paris ride – but before very long my wife and I were fully signed up for the four-day pedal crunch. Together with Mike’s wife Maureen, son Patrick and daughter Molly, we formed a formidable fundraising team – the Gurning Grimpeurs. Mike sadly, never recovered sufficiently to get back on his bike or see us reach Paris for the first time in June 2014. He died at the start of February.
That was then, when we were L2P virgins, now we’ve just completed our third consecutive London to Paris bike trip. Not only is it a fundraising money-spinner, it’s become addictive.
The ride had a new starting point in 2016 – Eltham Palace. Aside from the midgies which ate us alive as we made last minute adjustments to bikes and kit in the palace car park, it was the perfect location. Outgoing charity head Cathy Gilman sent us off with her traditional speech at about eight am on a September morning. Around 200 amateur riders, mechanics’ support vans, a fleet of ‘moto’ motorcycle outriders and a convoy of Bloodwise vehicles set off through south London traffic headed for Dover.
Experience from the first two trips had taught us not to take our time. The first day always has a time pressure – because you have to reach the south coast in time to catch the ‘Chunnel’ train, or in this year’s case, the Calais ferry. Consequently, we didn’t dally during the lunch stop as in previous years. The weather stayed fine and the route was bearable – nothing approaching the bliss of riding on French roads however.
There was one cruel sting in the tail – Dover Hill. This lung-busting incline had to be tackled when we all thought the end must be in sight. Unbeknownst to us it was. Many riders succumbed to the siren sound of their legs refusing to “shut up” and duly hit the Tarmac with both feet. The Bloodwise ride captains pulled off a Herculean task pushing riders up the hill and – more like Sisyphus – repeatedly freewheeling back down to propel even more struggling pedallers up the slope.
And it was indeed the end of the ride. Just after cresting that evil incline, we had a right turn off the road and there were our coaches and lorries, lined up in the Battle of Britain Memorial car park. After loading up bikes and grabbing a coach seat we pulled off for the ferry port, legs still stinging from that final effort. For one terrible moment it seemed like the buses were going to turn left onto the road and take us back DOWN the hill we’d just grimaced our way up – but no, we took the other direction and were soon trundling onto the ferry.
There was a great buffet meal on board for hungry cyclists and we all no doubt had a well-deserved sleep in our hotels.
Day one, 114km and 1,047 metres of climbing, done.
CALAIS TO ABBEVILLE
The Calais starting point is an unusual venue. Le Channel was once an abbattoir, now home to a quirky cultural centre. Day two and the place is full of anxious riders trying to find their bikes, stocking up on energy drinks and queuing for a sports massage before the challenges ahead. The TV production team from Cyclevox get us all dancing on camera (a daily occurrence as they gather sufficient footage to edit together the ride’s music video in time for its Paris premier!).
It’s overcast – a meteorological carbon copy of this part of the ride in 2015 when the heavens eventually opened. Today was to be no different – if anything, the rain was even heavier.
Riding out of Calais inside our all but hermetically sealed, car-free pocket, created by the tireless motorcyclists, had a familiar feel to it. We recognised landmarks, stretches of road – and yes, the torrential rain when it came was a known acquaintance from 2015, if not an old friend.
‘Third time lucky’ goes the saying – but on this occasion my London to Paris ride would not adhere to that maxim. It was just as the rain started in Samer where we were to stop for lunch that my day in the saddle came to an abrupt end.
We navigated our way gingerly over the cobbles in the town centre – I even cautioned anyone who cared to listen, to be extra careful as the cobblestones turned slick and shiny from the first spots of rain. I don’t remember the next part.
“What’s your name? How old are you? What year were you born?”
Apparently, I could answer none of these questions. I was sitting in the back of the mechanic’s van beside Nick, a Bloodwise paramedic. My befuddled attempts at answering his questions made it an easy decision to send me to hospital. Before long I was in a car with my wife, being driven by Rob, through a torrential downpour to the hospital A&E at Boulogne sur Mer.
My lack of French and the hospital staff’s lack of English notwithstanding, I was seen swiftly and thoroughly checked out – that means I was given a neck & head x-ray AND a CT scan.
I had survived the slippery cobbles apparently, only to come to grief in slow motion, turning on some extra-shiny white paint on a pedestrian crossing. The wheel just went from under me and to this day I don’t remember coming off.
We got to the hall in Abbeville in good time to see the riders squelch in after their waterlogged exertions.
I had been advised not to remount my bike for at least four days – but thought I would see how I felt in the morning. The support from the Bloodwise staff and crew had been outstanding.
Day Two, 136km and 1,179 metres of climbing, done (some of it by car in our case).
ABBEVILLE TO BEAUVAIS
In the morning I packed the neck brace the hospital had given me and prepared to mount my bike for Beauvais.
The ride boasts several hilly sections and passes a British War Graves’ cemetery at Crouy-Saint-Pierre on the D95. No surprise, as the route is based on an original London to Paris event pioneered by the British Legion. We didn’t stop but pedalled past it, going up a gentle incline through the fields. An internet search later reveals that it contains 739 Commonwealth war graves from the First World War along with a number of French and German graves.
The theme is echoed at our destination – the fire station in Beauvais. This is where we leave our bikes for the night but before the coaches shuttle us to our hotels, there’s an open-air reception from the mayor’s office. During the speeches, the bond between Britain and France forged during the war years is mentioned more than once.
Time plays tricks on you during London to Paris. On day one, the hours of pedalling seem to stretch endlessly into the distance. Getting to the French capital can seem like an impossible task. However, you’re very quickly into the second day which means you’re halfway there and the whole complexion of the task at hand changes. The ride to Beauvais is the penultimate effort and by then people are already feeling nostalgic and wishing the ride hadn’t passed by so quickly. This is partly due to the fact that all we do is cycle. Each day is a living enactment of those t-shirts which say, “eat, sleep, cycle, repeat.”
Day three, 115km and 786 metres of climbing, done.
BEAUVAIS TO PARIS
Last day and spirits are high. We cycle through more French countryside but the landscape subtly starts to change as we near the city.
For the ride into Paris the speed groups are dissolved as we’re all to form one gigantic peleton. Riders from the fast and intermediate groups mingle with those in the social group. Now the ride captains have extra pairs of hands to help when the roads start tilting upwards.
During the ride you meet many people who’ve been affected by blood cancer in some way. Some are riding in memory of a friend or relative who had leukaemia. Others have suffered from it themselves. These latter are particularly inspirational.
Steve met his bone marrow donor in Paris for the first time, as he pedalled past the Eiffel Tower at the end of the 2015 ride. Now he has persuaded her (accompanied by her husband) to actually take part in 2016.
Teenager, Joe, succumbed to blood cancer three times before he had a stem cell transplant. He is riding for the second time and has been given bikes by the Sky pro team to use. Some of these are to be sold in a charity auction after the ride.
The Bloodwise ride is first and foremost about the people who ride it – its family – and the cause they are all pedalling for. That’s why, as we clink celebratory beer bottles after a breathtaking ride round the Arc de Triomphe, and through central Paris on closed roads – we will be back to do the trip again. It raises awareness of the 137 blood cancers Bloodwise is helping to fight and it raises funds for their work. It also gives us the perfect way of paying tribute to our brother-in-law Mike who, back in that hospital room, inspired us to do the 500km ride in the first place.
Day four, 102km and 948 metres of climbing, done.