Tuesday 26 July 2016

Paris en vélo! Arrivée réelle

In search of lost time

Perhaps I should have returned to Beauvais, but I preferred a Western approach entry into Paris. If I had wanted to get a glimpse of the England football team at their base in Chantilly, pass the Stade de France at St Denis, or see the start town of the final stage of the Tour de France, Beauvais would been convenient. But I favoured the upmarket route via the Roland Garros tennis stadium, Parc des Princes football ground and the various horse-racing courses around the Bois de Boulogne.

My destination was Vernon, a neighbouring village to Giverny, the home of Claude Monet. Most people arrive at this town as the gateway to Giverny but it is worth exploring Vernon before visiting Monet's house and garden. A bike hire shop right outside the station means that you can do a mini tour of the meandering streets before heading to the Claude Monet village.

There are some beautiful 11th century buildings from the time of the Norman Conquest, and Vernon has its own Notre Dame Cathedral, as well as many medieval buildings, with wood carvings in the architecture. It is a real not-so-hidden gem!

Giverny was lovely, too. Beautiful stone buildings that were converted into art galleries, pretty gardens and tea rooms, and other lived-in cottages. This town was certainly more touristic than Vernon, and that made it slightly difficult to ride my bike through the crowds of folks who had travelled from far and wide. It was a relief to get back onto the open road and ride unimpeded.


Discovering the Vexin and Île-de-France

Today was a lovely day to be out on a bike ride, and as such, there was a real feelgood factor riding through the various quaint villages in the Vexin area. It was just as well that the villages had something worth looking at, for the terrain was a little bit challenging. It wasn't the Alps, but the roads in this area are by no means pan flat!

But what you gain in height you also gain in lovely views - such as a spectacular vista over the River Seine snaking through the forest below while I was cresting a road surrounded by rocky outcrops at La Roche Guyon.

On this sunny Sunday afternoon I rolled through many deserted country lanes. It was possible to stop at the side of the road by the arable fields for a sandwich or a nap, and be completely undisturbed. I didn't do that though, as Paris was tantalisingly close and I was really looking forward to reaching the heart of the city.
Bridge to the Bois de Boulogne with Eiffel Tower poking through

In fact, at this point Paris is frustratingly close. I kept getting views of either the La Défense skyline at Poissy and Le Pecq, or of the Eiffel Tower when in St Cloud, but there were still lots of obstacles to get over first - hills, bridges, woodland, unwanted propositions on the pedestrian bridge to the Bois de Boulogne. And someone even had the cheek to set up a fun-fair on my road through the St Germain-en-Laye forest!

But after passing through the lovely, leafy western Parisian suburbs of St Germain, La Celle St Cloud, St Cloud, and Auteuil, I finally entered the city of Paris via the Porte de la Muette, where I was immediately in Trocadero and greeted by the sight of the Eiffel Tower, resplendent in its home on the Champ de Mars. This is one of my favourite views - notwithstanding the football fan park underneath!

Shortly after that, my route took me to the centre of Paris - the Charles de Gaulle Etoile roundabout - with the Arc de Triomphe in the middle of the chaos of this 12-point star! Lovely.
Finally arrived! Loving being at Etoile

As France were playing a football match that evening the roads were unusually quiet, which meant I had a very straightforward ride through the city centre.

I whizzed around the Etoile junction, endured the bumpiest ride down the cobbles of the Champs Elysées, while still enjoying the thrill of riding down one of the most famous avenues in the world!

This was the climax of my ride, and I really wanted to soak in the moment. The rest of my jaunt was by no means anti-climactic though. I still had Place de la Concorde, the Pyramides of the Louvre Museum, the luxurious shops of rue St Honoré, the Left Bank, and Notre Dame to behold.

Yes, I was in Paris, and I had ridden my bike there. My bike-riding wanderlust around the Parisian region was satiated (at least for now), and I was happy!

My ride into Paris from Vernon according to Strava

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That annoying puncture fairy!

By this time I had reached the end of the disused railway line on Avenue Verte. So when the rain stopped, on resuming my ride, the route took me to the nearby town of Forge les Eaux, from where the theme would be country lanes through bijou villages. Not being one to follow routes to the letter I ditched the Avenue Verte official route and decided to ride my own ride route that was improvised from the French Ordnance Survey maps (IGN series). I didn't get back onto the Avenue Verte until a section near Paris along the river Seine.

However, just outside the town I felt the rear of my bike wobbling strangely as  while riding down a hill. I came to a sudden stop, only to discover I had a flat rear tyre. As there was a supermarket nearby this made it convenient to change the inner tube in a clean dry area. Before leaving the town I decided to pick up more inner tubes and top up the air in my tyres at a bike shop.
Avenue Verte Guide book

The Avenue Verte guide book said there was a bike shop in Forge les Eaux, though unhelpfully didn't state where it was, so there was a bit of to-ing and fro-ing and asking directions from the cycle tourists I saw. However, none of them knew where the bike shop was, as they were tourists like me! Then a local person gave me some directions to what looked like a lawn mower shop! In actual fact this shop did a bit of everything - lawnmowers and other gardening machinery, motorbikes, and push bikes.

I really admired how the guy could one minute be talking about the best way to trim your hedge, and the next minute talking about Campagnolo group sets and gears. A lot of his customers were locals that he knew, so when he served me he treated the occasion like it was a bit of a novelty event and was quite impressed to know what I was up to.

Other customers joined the conversation about the best way to go, and "ooh isn't that an impressive young lady, etc....I said that the delays to my journey meant that I was not sure I would get to Paris by bike that day and would probably have to get on a train at Gisors. "Oh," said the shop manager. "You've gotta be positive and go for it. It gets dark at half ten tonight so you should be fine!" Er, I'd been hoping to be tucking into a nice meal at 8pm!

After a nice chat and him bidding me "bon courage" I left the shop, the afternoon sunshine motivating me to hit the road with gusto. But then, psst! I got a puncture on my front tyre - a few yards from the shop. So once again, I was changing the inner tube and back in the shop topping up the air and restocking inner tubes.

They guy probably thought I was one of those girlies who doesn't know anything about bike mechanics. "Are you sure you have properly checked inside your rims?" he asked. "But it's the front tyre this time," I replied. He looked mystified. As I paid him for three more inner tubes he joked, "Maybe you should buy a crate of these. We can even do you a loyalty scheme!" Ha ha!

Argueil village square

Recommencing my route, I pedalled in earnest in the sunshine, while still enjoying the rolling hills and rustic architecture of the Bray area of Normandy. There were a few nice villages I passed along the way, notably Argueil and Fry.

But as it turned out, our man from the bike shop did have the last laugh, as I got two more punctures on my front wheel during the course of the ride. In fact, he was right. I hadn't fully checked everything, and had failed to find a tiny piece of perspex lodged in the front tyre - probably picked up during the heavy rain. My bad!

Tyred out

Once the offending piece was eliminated everything was fine, except that by this time it was 6pm, and I was nowhere near Gisors, the place I had earmarked as my bail-out point to get on a train if need be. The nearest town was Gournay-en-Bray so I headed there, in a hope of finding a train to Paris. The couple I'd met at breakfast that day was due to end their ride at Gournay this afternoon, and I had told them I would be in Paris this evening. Wouldn't it have been embarrassing to spot them now, showered, rested and enjoying an early evening aperitif in the village square after their leisurely day of cycling. I swiftly left the square to find the train station.

On my arrival at "la gare SNCF", my heart sank when I asked a local girl on the platform what time the next train would be. "No idea," she replied, "But I think normally there's one train a day at 6am." Surely she was kidding me! Yes, her information was not correct. According to the SNCF website there wasn't one train a day from Gournay, but two a day, and the last one left at 5.00pm! Eek!

So it looked like I'd be stuck in this godforsaken village tonight, paying for a second lot of accommodation in addition to my booked room in Paris. My last chance option would be to try and get the last train from Beauvais to Paris at 8.45pm, with a change at Creil. As it was now 7.15pm and the town was 20 miles away, getting the train would be touch and go. Normally, this target would be doable, but today I was on a heavy bike with panniers, the terrain could be hilly, I didn't know where the station would be in this substantially bigger town, I didn't know if the 20 miles were to the centre of Beauvais or to the edge of the town, and I would need to queue up to buy a ticket. I tried to keep calm.

I just had to don my brightest garish-coloured high vis-jacket, light myself and my bike up like a Christmas tree and time trial my way down the fast national trunk road direct to Beauvais. No time to admire the scenery!

It was a fast road, but thankfully there weren't many vehicles and no lorries. Folks were probably feasting with friends or watching Euro2016. I had to just keep my nose to the handlebars and ride like a woman possessed!

Let the train take the strain

Someone must have been watching over me, as the road was smooth and fast, there was only one significant hill along the way, and I didn't get any punctures. It was really handy too, that the train station was on the edge of the town at the end I entered it.

The finish line came just after 8.30pm! Breathless and sweating I asked for a ticket to Paris. The woman in the ticket office looked at me alarmed and said, "You've gotta run now. The train's about to leave, I don't have time to sell you a ticket or else you'll miss it! Just run!" So I dashed across the concourse and jumped onto the train with my bike just as the announcer said the customary "attention à la fermeture automatique des portes."

It turned out that the 8.36pm was the last direct train to Paris and the SNCF  employee very kindly hadn't wanted me to miss it. The only problem now was I didn't have a ticket, there was no guard on the train from whom to buy one, so there would be a bit of explaining to do at the ticket barriers at Gare du Nord!

As it happened, by the time I reached central Paris at 10pm it looked like the staff had knocked off for the evening and there were no barriers so it was all fine.

Sous le ciel de Paris

I was just happy to be in Paris - a place that I still hold dear even though it was more than 20 years ago when I lived there.

Out of the station, I hit the Boulevard Magenta, Place de la République and Boulevard Voltaire, which all looked atmospheric in the twilight. The Bataclan concert hall was on my route. Sadly, it was still boarded up and all the flowers had gone. There were just scribbled messages of solidarity on the wall.

Once at my hotel, the proprietor welcomed me, relieved that I had made it there in one piece!
Bastille by night

The bike shop owner in Forge-les-Eaux had said I had until 10.30 to make it to Paris before night fell. I managed it - I just won't tell him I took the train!

Showered and rested I thought it was too late to go out and enjoy a meal, but in fact the night was just getting going! I enjoyed a well-earned pizza and beer along the rue de la Roquette, took a midnight stroll around Bastille and the Marais, then returned to my hotel to plan the other half of my ride that I had not completed that day! I would catch an early train from Gare St Lazare to Normandy the next day, and then ride back into Paris. It had to be done!

My day's riding according to Strava

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Tuesday 19 July 2016

Paris en vélo! C'est parti!

It's time I went to Paris

It's been ages since I took my bike to Paris. I’ve ridden on a bike share Vélib the last few times I’ve there but nothing beats that feeling of arriving in this beautiful city fresh from London on your own two wheels.
Port of Dieppe

So a couple of weeks ago I booked my ferry ticket from Newhaven to Dieppe, lodgings at the coastal town, and a hotel room in the trendy 11th arrondissement of Paris. That would hopefully motivate me to keep pedalling.

I have good memories of this part of Paris from the time when I lived there, and I never tire of going to the different zones in the area – Bastille, rue de la Roquette, rue de Charonne, Chemin Vert, Richard Lenoir, Voltaire, and in particular the old local wine bar, Le Baron Rouge at Ledru Rollin.

Keeping these places in my mind would get me through the long ride across northern France - not that riding across Normandy would be such hardship!

This was my fourth London-Paris bike-ride, and it was also my fourth different route. There are so many roads in northern France that you really do have 57 varieties to choose from when getting to the City of Light.  

I was going to ride along part of the Avenue Verte - a waymarked route from London to Paris along disused railway lines and quiet roads.

Setting off

When taking the Avenue Verte route the official start is from Marble Arch, but given that I live in South London and I didn't fancy doing Crystal Palace to Newhaven in torrential rain my ride didn't start until Newhaven when I rode from the train station to the harbour – all of one mile!

My Avenue Verte section would therefore start on the other side of the English Channel.
Start of Avenue Verte at Arque la Bataille

On the ferry it was easy to spot the other cyclists. They were the ones walking around in shorts, no shoes (as cycling shoes are difficult to walk in), sporting a bad case of helmet hair and looking very bedraggled after their sodden ride from central London.

We were a merry bunch! I was just glad to be on a ferry with other cyclists. The last time I took a ferry as a cyclist I was sandwiched between a load of Spanish lorry drivers looking at me like they hadn't seen a woman for 10 years! This Friday evening crossing was a definite improvement!

Once off the ferry we made our way through the late-night sleepy streets of Dieppe en masse. Although we were separate groups travelling independently, by some coincidence we had all booked to stay at the same hotel. How uncanny!

Breakfast was surprisingly hearty by French standards. They had definitely catered for folks who would be riding their bikes all day!

On y va!

Riding to Paris can be done at different paces, and the different groups of cyclists were doing just that. Some, myself included, were doing the ride in one day, while one couple from Brixton was making it a laid-back sightseeing trip that would take five days.

I didn’t hang around in Dieppe much, as I needed to be in my booked hotel in Paris that night, so off I popped with the proprietor wishing me a good, and hopefully dry ride. He probably knew the forecast was for a rainy day!

Very soon I reached the town of Arques-la-Bataille – an apt name, for I arrived right when a parade was taking place with folks dressed up to do a medieval battle re-enactment. Thanks for the welcome party guys!

Shortly afterwards the route led me to the Avenue Verte, a path reclaimed from a disused railway line in the woods. It was a real delight to be away from traffic and in my own little world. It was good to be under tree cover as well, in case of rain.

Given the length and traffic-free nature of Avenue Verte this is a popular route with cyclists, particularly those from the UK. So on this Saturday morning I was non-stop greeting other riders as I ambled along.
Café stop at Neufchatel en Bray former station

Avenue Verte has lots of stopping points with either cafes in disused railway buildings or exit points which lead to the centre of a village. I particularly welcomed toilets along the way, which were gleaming clean and had a good supply of toilet roll. Those little things count for a lot when you are cycle touring!

Particular stopping points of interest are Mesnières-en-Bray, Neufchatel-en-Bray, Neuville-Ferrières, and Beubec-la-Rosière – all pretty places, some with their own little chateau.

Unfortunately at lunchtime the sky turned dark and the rain came down in torrents. Someone must have been watching over me as this happened just when the Avenue Verte crossed a tunnel where I could shelter. 

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Thursday 7 July 2016

Fast, furious and risqué! Red Hook crits come to London

This Saturday we will be treated to the mass spectacle of one of the craziest criterium races I have seen - the Red Hook Criterium! Imagine a town circuit race on tight corners with participants riding fixed wheel bikes and no brakes.

Circuit races can be tough enough, but riding this on fixed wheel bikes adds that extra element of excitement and exhilaration - I imagine! I haven't dared to try it!

The event is part of the Red Hook Criterium Championship Series which consists of four rounds held around the world. The first round was held in Brooklyn, New York. London is the second round, while the final two rounds will be held in Barcelona and Milan.

I saw the race in Milan a couple of years ago when I was working there. It looked fairly scary and a bit wild, with folks shouting at each other to get out of the way.

There were only a couple of crashes, none of them being serious. Having said that, sometimes there can be carnage as was seen at the previous round in Brooklyn this year.

As Red Hook is coming to my home town I will go along to Greenwich Peninsula this Saturday afternoon and check it out. A couple of racers I know are doing it, though the star rider in the women's race will be none other than Dani King - Olympic team pursuit track cycling champion. Sadly she was not selected for the Rio Olympics so we will get to enjoy her company here in London. The Wiggle High5 rider said to be "thrilled to be taking part and can't wait to be involved in what will be a spectacular showcase for women's cycling."

I look forward to seeing how she gets on, and I'm sure her excellent track cycling and crit racing pedigree will make her a strong contender on Saturday at the fixed wheel criterium extravaganza.

Here's to a great spectacle with everyone finishing in one piece!

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