Sophie Radcliffe's London to Paris in 24hrs Sportive

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Sophie Radcliffe's London to Paris in 24hrs Sportive

I met Sophie at one of Freestak's events last year during which she gave a presentation about her work, lavishly illustrated with spectacular footage from some remote mountain or other. While her itinerary seems to be whatever part of the planet she fancies at any given point in time, this ride to Paris is a regular fixture. I think she's ridden it 9 times now, with this and the previous couple of years run as a sportive.

I had no idea what a sportive was and still don't but this really struck a chord with me. It seemed very achievable even for someone who goes shopping for curtains more often than he gets the bike out, given some notice. Plus I like a journey as much as anyone and anything and self-powered journeys are an irresistable magnet. So I'd signed up before the bulb of the overheard projector had cooled to room temperature.

I've been pretty blase about the cycling bit. Having a background in running a lot gave me confidence the cardio was there even if the bike skills weren't. Furthermore running ultras gives you confidence you won't quit unless strictly necessary. So it was just a question of keep turning the pedals, not falling off and hoping repetitive strain on something not used to it wouldn't derail the adventure.

Specific training on the bike has been sporadic at best but I had put in some long rides, including a couple with the brilliant Dirty Wknd people who were also part of the L2P24 team and I reckon if you've ridden 110 miles in one go, you can do this.

So two weeks after Boston with the legs barely done complaining I made my way to Greenwich Observatory for the very civilised registration time of 1pm in advance of the 3pm roll out.

We have 70-something miles to ride to Folkestone where a chippy tea is on offer before a bus transports us to Dieppe via the Eurostar. Dieppe to Paris is 128 miles with a 5am start (4am UK time). There is basically one immovable job - make it to the bus before it has to leave for the shuttle.

I joined a fantastic team including Emily who also ran Boston, Hannah who like me is from Leicestershire and therefore automatically gains security clearance, Jenny, Jo, Nicola and Gavin. The 120 or so riders are batched up into waves of 10 people, started a minute apart to avoid congestion but I had some congestion of my own to deal with and as a result we started dead last!

To the cheers of the friends and family (not ours!) we rolled out through Greenwich Park and over Blackheath where the London Marathon had lined up the week before and down into the town.

London to Paris 24hrs - L2P24 - route map for day 1
London to Paris in 24hrs L2P24 - route map day 2

We didn't get very far. A bang rang out panicking the pidgeons in Blackheath High Street which turned out to have come from Nicola's bike. The inner tube had blown and also split the tyre! We'd covered exactly a mile. Luckily, as this ride is fully supported, the mechanic had a spare otherwise that would have been game over, and we were back underway 20 minutes later.

The route is arrowed, there are two checkpoints on the way to the coast stocked with things made of sugar, and our day-bags are ferried by van. All we have to do is ride and after a few miles we've left the city behind, crossed the M25 and are pushing through the countryside.

I'm still not used to the speed that distance is covered on the bike versus the running. 25 miles to a checkpoint sounds a long way to me. In an ultra, covering that in anything under 4 hours would be going pretty well, but it passes so quickly on two wheels.

Hannah immediately identified my total inexperience of riding in a group and coached me to pull right up to the wheel in front to take advantage of drafting. I tried but it's hard to be confident the person in front isn't going to suddenly brake. At one point we had to as someone loomed up out of a ditch in front of Hannah, dried blood streamed down his face from a cut above his eye like an extra from the Walking Dead. He claimed to have been hit by the wingmirror of a truck the opposite side of a field of crops he'd just staggered through and refused our insistence on calling an ambulance as he lived 'just there'. I hope he was ok. He'd been hit by the bottle as well by the smell coming off him.

Last checkpoint 50 miles in and the last leg to the coast. The downtime for various stops meant we were going to arrive in the dark and the sun was already sinking as the Jaffa cakes were demolished.

I didn't enjoy the night riding. I had a decent light thanks to Mel's recommendation and it floodlit the road ahead but tiredness was starting to creep up and concentration in short supply, plus there was a stiff headwind. It was a lift to see the coast lights when they eventually appeared with about 6 miles to go, 4 of which were along the seafront. This was my lowest point of the day - strangely unpleasant to ride along the prom despite a very flat surface. Other unlit pedestrians and their dogs were a constant hazard and really it just felt like the middle of nowhere. Bits of civilisation started to appear more and more and eventually we reached town and the sight of the chippy - cheerfully lit up, windows steamed opaque with fellow riders spilling out everywhere.

Never have fish and chips tasted so good! There wasn't much time to savour them either as the first of two buses left for the Channel Tunnel before our order even arrived.
Some only just made the second bus and had no time to eat which must have been desperate! One hero had a broken chain before the second aid station, had it fixed but then rode the whole last section alone in the dark. He arrived just as the bus was about to go!

To Dieppe
No-one enjoyed the bus. Maybe the guy in the middle of the back seat who possibly had some leg room but overall it was a something of a veal crate in personal space and the temperature inside seemed out of control, especially when we were in the tunnel. I got some kind of fitful sleep as we drove through the night, arriving at a hotel in Dieppe at 4am local time.

We were due back out there in an hour - just time to change, drop the kids off at the pool and reapply the lube! In a disaster of epic proportions, there was NO COFFEE!! That would have made all the difference and was all I really wanted. That aside, I felt great! A stark contrast to an overnight ultra where I'd now be struggling to walk.

Dieppe to Paris
Bus 1 had somehow got delayed in crossing and our lot set off ahead of them through the silent town. The wind had pretty much died and it wasn't freezing but as the sun came up gradually it got colder and colder. I had four long-sleeved layers on and was still shivering.

Given that yesterday's aid stations hadn't hadn't featured anything hot, I had low expectations for day 2 but at Buchy, 30 miles in, there was warming porridge and, yes, coffee! I totally stuffed myself and life was restored. The day was finally starting to warm up and the countryside was often beautiful - half-timbered buildings, fields of vibrant yellow oilseed rape backdropped by stands of poplar trees on the far horizon under a blue sky. I wish I'd taken more photos.

The second checkpoint of the day was our first sighting of the Seine after nearly 60 miles of cycling. A perfect spot to spend the entire afternoon on another day.. the grassy bank of the river overlooked by the ruin of Chateau Gaillard.

London to Paris 24hrs - 60 mile checkpoint
60-mile checkpoint at Les Andelys on the bank of the River Seine

There were two more aid stops to come and it felt like the job was almost done despite 68 miles remaining. The section to 80 was flat but battered by a headwind which made it a slog, then after a soup and slab of baguette there was a tougher section up to the last CP 102 miles in. Testing climbs bookended this leg but to my surprise I found I could do pretty well uphill. I don't have flat out speed but seem to be able to climb ok.

One unfortunate had hit some street furniture (they have very aggressive street furniture out here!) during this run and I gather broke a collarbone. I was waved on through and didn't hang back because I'm no doctor and would have merely added to the problem. Apparently he asked if he'd stopped his Garmin so that's a good sign!

Jenny (who is a doctor) and Emily stayed back to help and sorted the guy out proving yet again that this team has a more compassion than me! I don't think I'd have stopped for wingmirror guy either so respect to them for putting their ride second.

There's the best catering of the day ahead of the last leg into Paris and I help myself to a picnic. It had started raining with the last climb and I thought we were properly for it but luckily it paused and we headed out on dry roads for the last 22 miles.

Like the last section of the previous day, I didn't enjoy this a whole lot. There was a lot of traffic, a lot of traffic lights (all red!) and some major roads to contend with. For the first time this weekend I fell off at a traffic light having clipped out but somehow managing to immediately clip back in again. No harm done except to my confidence with the things and I rode through the St Germain streets (which I was fooled into thinking was Paris) and then actual Paris streets with one foot clipped out at all times; a cycle path through the Bois de Boulogne giving some respite from the busy roads.

The top of the Eiffel Tower poked above the buildings tantalisingly, the group constantly counting down the last couple of miles and wishing it away!

Finally we could see the whole structure and mistakenly thought that was the end! How the last half mile circling round the back seemed to take a day and a half!
But it was done!! Hug from Sophie, medal from Sophie's mum, champagne from.. well, I've no idea.. probably another relative.. but they had me at Champagne!!

Most of the team (Hannah, Nicola, Jo, Emily) - The Seine at mile 60 - The finish with cheesy grim, nutcracker bandy legs and crazy-paving face, medal and champagne!

It's been a pretty epic couple of days. Especially for a non-cyclist and in fact my team are all primarily runners too. I really appreciate them letting me tag along, they were a huge boost and were brilliant fun to be with and it looks like by chance we are running the same events later in the year. Looking forward to that!

Sophie's team were brilliant. I doubt many of them got any sleep and must have had to start before us and take down past the event too. So big thankyous to all of those great people.

I loved the challenge.. it's certainly very accessible to the average cyclist (I wouldn't even call myself that) and if you're thinking about it and wondering whether you can do it, I'm telling you that you can! A couple of guys even rode it on a tandem this year.

Next up.. mountain training starts for the Lakeland 50 and the A-race - the CCC

Movescount Day 1
Movescount Day 2
Strava Day 1
Strava Day 2
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Well done Andrew - a great write up of a really great weekend (though I loved the bit on the prom between Hythe and Folkestone!)I've got fond memories, but, less excitingly, a stinking cold! The prom would have been great in the daylight!