Wednesday 28 June 2023

Back again to Paris by bike - Part 2: Paris Triathlon

Given that I have spent so much time in Paris over the course of my life these days my trips there tend to be for a specific reason. I travelled there earlier this year to go an interview the top brass at Amaury Sports Organisation/L'Equipe Media at their offices just in the suburbs at Boulogne Billancourt. This time I was back again to take part in the Garmin Triathlon de Paris. 

It is an event that I had been wanting to do for some time. Originally I had thought of taking part in a swimming event that took place the week before the triathlon, in the same area - Ourcq Canal. That was going to be just an open water swimming event. I have been doing a fair amount of open water swimming and I felt ready to do an event, but getting to Paris in time for this event was proving tricky logistically. So as a kind of "consolation" I decided to do the triathlon, given that that would involve open water swimming in the same canal, plus a bonus of a bike ride right into central Paris. 

Based to the north-east of the city, in the 19th arrondissement of Paris, the Ourcq Canal is part of the canal network in Paris that includes the Canal Saint Denis and the Canal Saint Martin. The latter connects to the Ourcq Canal via the Bassin de la Villette, a rectangular artificial lake which is the site for leisure activities on the water, including sailing, pedalos and there is a cordoned-off section to form a Lido during the summer months. The wider area, Parc de la Villette is home to a science and technology museum, concert venues, an open-air cinema, and on this weekend, the Garmin Paris Triathlon.  

The triathlon took place at a timely moment for me because I had a medical certificate, and obligatory document that most French sports events ask that you have in order to participate. In fact it was due to expire on 25th June - the day after triathlon. So that was lucky!

Arrival into Paris 

On my arrival into Paris Saint Lazare station, I had initially thought to do the 20-minute ride straight to the Parc de la Villette where I would sign-on for the event, pick up my race pack, and leave my bicycle there overnight. All participants had to leave their bikes at that the transition the day before, given the size of the field - there were around 2000 participants.

Cycle path on the left-bank of the River Seine

But I was not in the mood to get shot of my bike so soon after arriving into this city that looked even more beautiful on this hot sunny day. So I decided to do a mini tour first. It wouldn't do any harm, especially as I had only ridden 20 miles on my stint through Normandy. So a flat 10 or 15 miles were not going to totally tire me out. 

From the station I headed slightly north towards Rome metro station and then cycled along the grand boulevard to reach Charles de Gaulle Etoile. There were lots of cyclists and scooters out, with some on the cycle lanes while others were on the main carriageway. Traffic is quite dense and can be slow-going, even with segregated cycle lanes. So it tends to be every man and woman for themselves regardless of what mode of transport they are on. I guess, as a regular cycle commuter in London this was nothing new to me. 

You have to be careful on the cycle lanes because they aren't 100% segregated as they have openings, notably for delivery vehicles to pull in. The lanes also melt away at junctions and so it's a question of following bicycle markings on the road surface, though not all road users or even cyclists follow them.

My main issue with riding around Paris is the various cobbled sections. I am sure my road bike can handle those sections, but when I am bike packing I still worry that something might get rattled off or break. 

After a mini photo opportunity stops at the Arc de Triomphe, Trocadero (near the Eiffel Tower), and on the river near Alexandre III Bridge, I rode along the lovely cycle path along the river. This path doesn't just go through the famous areas, but also into the less glamourous parts of south-east Paris, after Austerlitz station and near Ivry Sur Seine. In fact I was able to get to my loggings at Maison Alfort via the cycle paths.

Late Registration at Parc de la Villette 

This was the time to drop off my bags and then continue my ride up to La Villette. When I told the receptionist that I would be cycling up to the Parc in the north-east of city, he looked at me like I was mad. He was saying I would need all evening to get up there! Really? I almost began to wonder if it was a strange thing to do.

Well, in fact the route was around 40 minutes along the cycle path on the grand boulevards via Pere Lachaise Cemetery and Belleville. I remember at the time when I lived in Paris I only ever travelled by public transport, and it's true that the idea of cycling from one end of the city to another seemed a long way. In fact, it is when you cycle that you realise just how compact Paris is.

At Parc de la Villette there was a vibrant atmosphere in anticipation of the event, with various trade stalls up, a bit of music and a commentator contributing to an animated vibe. In a way I was glad to get there when I did - about an hour before they were closing the event village - as I didn't have to queue up. The transition area looked impressive with thousands of bikes. I almost wished I'd brought a balloon or something as an aide-memoire for where my bike was. Would I know where to find my bike when I exited the water?

Sign-on at Paris Triathlon Event village

Getting back to my apartment by public transport was straightforward and I had worked out how to get to the triathlon in time for the 7.15am start the following morning.

Early start for race day

The following morning I took a 5.30am metro to Porte de Pantin. Unsurprisingly the train was full of people all dressed in sports gear, showing off their race numbers. Seeing people with the same wave number as myself made me feel reassured that I wasn't late. 

It's not that easy remembering where your bike is among all this!

Setting up my gear in the transition area was easy enough as all the essential items had been left there overnight. I didn't feel too nervous about the event as I considered myself to be just a Jonny come lately who fancied having a go. I knew that I could do all the individual disciplines. I just had to be mindful of not making a silly mistake like not adjusting my goggles properly, or not eating/drinking enough while on the bike.

There was a palpable sense of excitement and nervous anticipation among the participants, especially as I stood in the rather long queue to the portaloo. The walk to the start was a good 800m along the grass and the canal towpath. Many people were wearing old trainers (which could be left at the startline and collected by clothing charities). As I had to travel light, I wore a few pairs of thick old socks.

After a short delay due to the organisers having to remove some parked cars from the bike course the event began, with competitors and spectators alike cheering and applausing each triathlon wave that began before us, and also the single duathlon wave as the participants ran along the opposite side of the canal from us.

Eventually, my wave (wave 3) began and we eased forward through our holding pen to reach the entry point in the Canal Ourcq. Knowing that swimming is my weak point, and not wanting to be caught up in a bunfight in the water I put myself at the back of the pack. I was fine with that. What I wasn't fine with, was the sight of folks at the front of our pen leaping into the water. I was shocked to think that I would have to do that to. Is this a French thing, for participants to leap into the water? Is coldwater shock just a myth that they dismiss? I wasn't looking forward to having to leap into the canal. 

The Swim

Thankfully, as I reached the pontoon I realised that there were in fact two queues - one for those who would leap into the water, while the longer queue was for the majority of us, myself included, who would gently lower ourselves into the water.

My race had finally begun. In the rather warm water, I did a few breast strokes before beginning front crawl, and I was quickly into my rhythm. This was the first time this year that I was doing an openwater swim in a competitive environment. I then had to remind myself of the need to not just be sighting ahead, but also looking out for other swimmers. Even though I was at the back of the pack, there were a few people who swam past me. I am assuming they were late-comers. Furthermore, I began to catch a few swimmers - something that I don't normally do when swimming - those sessions at my local pool in Crystal Palace had obviously paid off. 

The water was surprisingly clear, and I was a bit surprised at how many ferns and plants were in the water. I was also surprised to see how many people were lined along the side of the canal cheering us on. I didn't know who any of the people were, and they hadn't come to see me, but I still felt very spurred on by their support. After what seemed like a short time, I suddenly reached the finish gantry of the swim, where there were steps to take us back onto the towpath, as well as marshals to give us a helping hand.

Rubbish transition 

My transition (the unofficial 4th discipline) was a mess. Firstly, I struggled to get my wetsuit off. In order to cut down on luggage space I took my smallest wetsuit of the three I own - the swimrun wetsuit. I also chose this one because it zips up at the front, meaning I could put it on myself without assistance, and it would be easier for me when doing the last-minute dash to the loo. 

I hadn't thought about how tricky it would be to remove while running from the canal back to my bike. As I clumsily struggled to extricate myself from this stubborn neoprene while running, a fellow competitor stopped to help me. It was really nice of her, and the offer was much appreciated, but I declined all the same - not just because I didn't want to mess up her race, but also because there'd be a risk of disqualification for giving outside help to a competitor. The transition area seemed to be awash with French Triathlon Federation referees, all ready to pounce and be a jobsworth! So I continued my mini contortion dance. 

Once out of my wetsuit I then had to find my bike. I was sure I had come to the right place, but I couldn't find my bike. I almost thought someone had taken my beloved Boardman in the rush. Then I realised I had got my orientation wrong and the bike was at the other end of the bike park - more time wasted. 

The Bike

Finally, I got out on my bike and felt much more in my element. As this was thexsprint triathlon, billed as suitable for all levels of athlete, including newbies, there were lots of different types of bicycles on the road. 

Naturally there were lots of experienced bike riders on expensive road bikes with aero bars, and wearing cleats. But there were also folks on hybrid bikes mountain bikes, even shopping bikes. One woman had a rear-view mirror attached to her handlebars!

Zooming through central Paris

As someone who is used to cycling around the streets of Paris I was familiar with the roads on the course. The big difference was that we were on closed roads and could ride as fast as we wanted (or as fast as our legs would allow) through some of the most famous parts of Paris, with no regard to traffic signs, delivery vans, or pedestrians crossing the roads. It was like doing high(ish)-speed tourism. 

The route went along the Canal Saint Martin, out to République, Bastille, then along the main road that hugs the River Seine all the way to Place de la Concorde. That was the turnaround point, where we turned back and returned via the cycle path along the River. It was a fast mainly flat course where you could do the whole thing on the big ring. My biggest issue was the cobbles. There was a long stretch between Tuileries and Concorde, where I ended up slowing right down and all the people I had previously overtaken could now get their own back on me. A similar thing happened right at the end of the bike course, on the approach through the Parc de la Villette. The cobbles in this area were much bigger than in central Paris. They were more like the big round Roubaix pavé. Knowing that I would need my bike to get back to my lodgings, and also back to London, I preferred to go easy and lose places on the bike leg. 

The Run

By this time the crowds were quite thick, both at the finish of the bike leg, and the start of the run leg. Even though it was a sprint race on largely gentle terrain, the organisers decided to put a sting in the tail by having the run route go over a long flight of steps onto a bridge to cross the canal.

Tough work on the bridge after climbing up 200 steps!
Then it was case of going along the dead straight towpath into the suburb of Pantin, then over a ramp to return along the other side of the Canal Ourcq. Running has tended to be my strongest discipline in the past, but not today. Injury had meant that I had missed out on running training, so was not on form. 

So this was just going to be a 6km survival run, going past the less visited parts of Paris - train tracks from the Gare de l'Est with disused locomotives, old containers, disused factories. Then later there were working class blocks of flats. There wasn't really anything to keep me going. I just had to steal myself and believe I would get through it in the mounting heat. 

I didn't feel that strong, especially as many runners overtook me. There were still folks going slower than me, with some even reduced to walking. 

Fortunately another runner was going at the same pace as myself, and we ran side by side for a few miles. There was no communication between us. We were aware of one another, but were focused on our respective races - living our own tribulations. I didn't feel bothered to have the lady running close by - it was good to have someone to keep me going. 

Then in the last couple of kilometres she put in a spurt, and I just couldn't keep up with her as she disappeared into the distance. It was hard to know where the finish gantry was as it was around a bend. Eventually, I passed the familiar spot where it had all begun a couple of hours earlier. I therefore knew I had 600m to go. 

The crowds began to thicken again, further confirming that the challenge was coming to an end. At that point I put in a final effort of what I could muster, as well as putting on my most presentable face for the finish line photograph. Immediately after crossing the finish line I felt like I was going to throw up. Thankfully I managed to hold things together, which was the better thing to do, given that there was a camera interviewing an athlete right next to me. 

Glad to have made it to the finish line!

Medal Saturday!

After a minute I had a big smile at the thought that I had completed a triathlon in my favourite foreign city. At the post-race feed station I saw the lady who I'd run with earlier, and we congratulated each other. She said she too had been suffering on the run, but found a second wind after the turnaround point. 

Who knows, maybe I will see her in another race in Paris in the future. After the customary medal and T-shirt I was able to have a sit-down in the park and enjoy my achievement in the sunshine.

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