First things first. Everyone is safe and well.
The crazy antics of 30-odd Anglais spread bafflement through France however. I, for example, have just stepped out of the front door of the hotel, at 5:30am, and let it close behind me, only seconds after reading a sign that says “reception est fermée jusqu’á 0700″. It’s a good job the weather’s nice.
The morning start from the ferry was a bit surreal, with thick fog hanging over the river, and early miles passed through an industrial landscape of chimneys and oil terminals. A motorway flyover disappeared into the fog, as Leslie said, like the road to nowhere.
I had the team’s first puncture after around 20km, fixed quickly and I was glad to have the company of Tom G and Simon to help me back to the group at around 20 mph in stiff winds. Morning break arrived as the fog lifted and the landscape improved and we were truly in la belle France.
The van still being shopping we moved quickly on to a long and lovely wooded section, but tiring. A short but steep 12% climb had us all wondering if the Stelvio was really such a good idea! Steve, Tom E and I pressed on at steady pace and were surprised to see the breakaway group of Andy, Tim D and Simon reappear behind us. Wrong turning, and as Andy said at dinner, they “knew they’d gone wrong but just carried on to see what happened”. Yes, the same Andy who has spent the last 6 months poring over Google street view planning this magnificent route!
LD ferries continental breakfast was definitely running low as we arrived at the 103km lunch stop to find a hearty and very welcome feast. I was a bit breath-taken when I saw Hannah and Amy lighting candles in an apple tart. Waking up in a strange place I’d completely forgotten it was my birthday! Everyone sang Happy Birthday and I was completely gobsmacked. Thanks guys!
Refreshed by lunch, the young bucks set a fearsome pace led by the palmares pair of Tim D (fresh from two climbs of Mont Ventoux and a tour of the Pyrennees) and three-Etape Simon. Neil and Max were inevitably up front, with Mark, Joel and Ben for company. I was in no man’s land, the pace was too hot for me, but when I saw one figure in the distance I pressed on to try and catch. It was Mark, and we shared the burden for a while, though I think Mark did the lion’s share. Eventually Ben and then Joel fell back from the lead bunch as Tim F joined us from behind. We were on a wide Route National which went straight ahead regardless of terrain, and so the climbs were not steep but very long. It was a tough but exhilarating afternoon.
After a long lie down and Hannah’s fantastic flapjacks, we resumed for the last 34km of the day, at a pace everyone could maintain. Passing through a small town, we reached a no entry sign but decided to press on with the route with a mixture of pavement and cautious road cycling. As it turned out, it was one way “sauf velos” (except bicycles) but you could imagine the locals slapping heads and shouting “crazy English” as they encountered cyclists riding down the left hand side of a one way street.
Then back on the main road to our resting stop at Beauvais. Riding the RN is very different from the equivalent English A road. Lorries cross to the other carriageway to over-take, preferring to risk themselves or approaching drivers rather than drive too close to the cyclists.
Beauvais welcomed us with classic French tree-lined Avenues, and Jamie, propelled by a new chain after he broke the last one through sheer power, kept muttering “Buffalo Grill” like a man in the desert dreaming of water. Eventually the Buffalo Grill appeared, and next to it our hotel for the night. Welcome arrival!