Travelling through Northern France by bike

As we climbed over the hill, we saw a great expanse of curving road out in front of us, curling around the corner. But what was most beautiful of all was Dover port was in sight. We had made it. On a main motorway, with only a couple of minutes to spare before they pulled the drawbridge up on the ferry, we had made it. I looked down at my speedometer on my bike, and it was registering around 55mph, though I cannot definitely confirm this as my speedometer had a habit of dying, and did not work after that first day.

A lady behind us honked, and we again came to the realisation that we were speeding a breakneck speed on a motorway, though in the mind of most mechanised car travellers our pace was minimal and lacking. We took the first left off the roundabout, and moved towards the control gate, unclear as to what path to take, such is the equivocation of the cyclist. The women at the gate told us with absolute delight that we did not need to check our passports as we were EU citizens. This theme kept going on, the whole Brexit thing, but felt especially rooted in that first day.

It was a peculiar journey and certainly intense, certainly hard and certainly not without its hiccups. Some people like to do this sort of thing, and one of those types is I. A had a good friend, Lewis, accompany me on this journey. In fact, he was the impetus to us starting, which is certainly a good thing.

The challenge was to travel, by bike, unassisted, from London to Paris, in four days. We did it for charity, and I am happy to say raised a very good amount for a local homelessness charity (the whitechapel centre), that we both either had volunteered for, or assisted at some point — which is all very good. That was the impetus, the starting spark point for us so to speak. But it presented all sorts of difficulties. Logistics; where, how, when, which hostels when, which stops, train tickets, passports, packing bikes on trains, Eurostar regulations, packing the right stuff. Day to day travelling; using google maps religiously, downloading the maps whenever wifi presented itself to save money on phone data, left right right right it curves 3rd exit on roundabout — cycle paths are not as they seem — don’t trust the direction google maps finds for you!

We were so tired on that ferry. Dover to Calais, with a hotel in Calais. We’d been up at 6:30am, and been to bed at 1:30am. This lack of sleep is explainable, I’ll come back to it. We sped across central London on a Saturday morning, across Buckingham palace at 8:30am, when things are a little bit calmer. It was gloriously efficient to see London as we did, with occasional stops and most touristing done before 10:30. We had started in west London, in Islington, which was a mistake, largely because of some confusion regarding accommodation. This meant late night booking of a hostel in Islington and travelling across London at midnight to find it. I remember being strangely relaxed at such a stressful situation, and it actually was all just fine.

The next day it was to Arras, then we went on to Compiegne, and then finally Paris. The trip was designed so the lengths of travel got short and shorter, until eventually nothing, when we finally got to Paris and could just relax for a day, before the Eurostar back.

The places we went through were so varied. And this is what I thought was so unique about doing such a way of travelling. The Eurostar back sped through and past every bit of culture we had soaked in on the way through France. As you cycled, it went like so;

Long stretch of road, a few interesting things to see, but mainly cows and fields. Pylons loomed overhead, whilst quality of road varied under wheel. After a good 10 minutes to half an hour, a town would approach. Then you’d see the sign, and some interesting landmark, a rundown petrol station, a museum, a Lidl, and as we travelled more and more through France, varied uniqueness. This meant monuments, rivers we travelled along, picturesque cobbled streets, winding paths. This meant cities and urban landscapes, meadows and overhanging trees and varying degrees of steepness of paths.

When in France, we found ourselves along the path of Ypres and the Somme, in the area where a lot of the trench fighting had taken place. It is surprising how profound the effect such monuments still have. There is a awfully peaceful stillness to the graveyards of World War One, each indicating a particular regiment or section of the army, with a particular story attached. There was no talking when we pulled up to the monument, just soaking in the fact that this is where a lot happened once, and now there are not things happening here; there is just the noise of car moving by occasionally, the wind on the grass and endless fields. Things happen elsewhere now, but this part of the world is in peace for now.

The Hostels we stayed at were all mainly for truckers. They had names like F1 hostel, and I would possibly not recommend them. Unlike with hitch-hiking, there is no necessity to be on the road of a city when starting each day — namely getting hostels centrally would be preferable. By far the nicest hostel was the Parisian one — very cheap still, but had that funky ‘backpacker’ vibe, of communal spaces and eating breakfast together.

Saying this, in our last stop before Paris, in Compiegne, we ate out in the town, cultivating our habit of eating and drinking a lot in the evenings. A man noticed we were cyclists, and approached. It turned out he and his wife were Dutch, and were cycling also. He seemed obsessively keen to gather as much information on our exact distances, and compare to his. He replied “Okay, that is good distance. Me, my wife, we do 80 kilometres in one day. Then we stop. But we go for weeks. We’ve come from Belgium you see”. What was most odd was the contrast between his dour frown and the almost apologetic smiling elation of his expressionful wife. As if she was an entirely necessary counterweight.

But let me describe for you the elation of reaching Paris. It was by far our shortest cycle, ranging at only about 55–60 miles or so. We took it easier, and this was also the stage with the most hills, we climbed further and further up from arriving at the coast of France anyway. Suddenly the towns became different in tone, with Notre Dame cathedrals and city walls, features lacking outside of Compiegne.

We felt on the outskirts, with busy roads and pylons congregating and meeting in a giant power station north of Paris. Some indicators presented themselves;tThe crackle of an aeroplane overhead, some larger lorries and signs to Charles de Gaulle airport. We kept feeling we were nearly there. We took lunch on a hill overlooking the ride into Paris, feeling just around the corner from the Eiffel Tower, which was a far departure from reality.

Directions became more complex, areas suddenly varied hugely in economic level as we cycled through, from demonstrably run down to very upmarket, though mainly the former. Busy, busy roads ensued, as we were pushing by roadworks and fancy cars in the sweltering heat on our bikes. A riding through one of the parks, we came out the other side onto a giant cobbled roundabout, as if the only reason it had never been tarmaced was for the constant use. No lines on the road, just dangerous veering across traffic.

It was around this time we felt completely and utterly elated. We’d come into Paris from the North, dropping through the poor northern urban areas, and would be staying in the North of Paris, a 10 minute walk from revolution square, where a vegan/anti-police/down with the government style occupation seemed constant.

The hostel worker was Australian, the first English voice we had heard in France. She seemed surprised to hear the distance we had travelled, and disdainful of the fact we were only staying one night in Paris, though this was perhaps to induce us to spend more money, and stay with them another night.

More drink and food ensued, and more drink after that. This didn’t seem to matter, as we were up and out, fed, by 10am the next day, cycling around the great tourist sights, perhaps in the most efficient way possible. We saw an outdoor exhibit at the Lourve, visited countless churches, cycled up the Champ-Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe, stared at the Eiffel tower. Though I feel we still preferred the more gritty, dirtier Northern parts of the city; where people lived, on top of each other, and tried as hard as possible to look more left wing than the person next to them.

A note on metropolitan cycling; if you are to not following the rules of the road in London, people will scream in absolute anger at you, there is a lot at stake constantly to ensure you are in the right lane. If you are following the rules of the road in Paris, people will honk and lazily shout at you for not sneaking in between those two lorries, or going up on the pavement. Dozens of vespers wasp by you on the cycle paths, and everyone feels more conscious of their surrounds, and actually, this more risky, flowing style feels easier and preferable to London’s organised harshness.

We took a train at about 5pm back to Paris, in the luxurious and much recommended Eurostar. This being said, the bike space was a nightmare, and the staff have no way of booking on bikes until on the day. The service for bike transportation on the Eurostar is outsourced (unhelpfully — privatisation strikes again), to two separate companies, one Paris to London, and vice versa. Both with different policies, and booking systems, yet using and providing exactly the same service. What is the business of such a company? How do you go about starting a ‘Eurodespatch’ business — what is your life goal by that?

The private sector is meant to provide better quality service from ‘market forces’, it is laughable. Surely the ultimate form of customer satisfaction, from the much lauded ‘market forces’, is complete publically run integrated transport? The bike transportation service is completely separate, and has absolutely no way of booking onto online or over the phone, it has to be done in person.

Despite my ranting, the journey was lovely, and we were quickly in Euston station, and then found ourselves in Liverpool 10:30pm that night, to our joy. I had a drink in a new bar on Seel street on arrival, and I believe Lewis ended up staying out to the early hours.

Our journey was certainly not easy. Constant pain in legs, ankles, feet, back and crotch meant much deep heat and rest, and prolific stretching. We bickered at times, but only at points of peak tiredness, and only when our predicament and its results were outside of our control. We did not think we were going to make it to Dover, and got hugely lost on the second leg of our journey, resulting in Lewis falling over several times, usually into a bush of sorts. This was as we went along a river where works were happening to build a fantastic cycle path; unfortunately, google maps had sent us a couple of years too early, and we were very much cycling through a construction yard.

I would do it again, or trips similar, maybe across Spain, or up the length of the country. It seems quite fun, and I hope you have a chance to experience something similar yourself.