Day One: Leaving Calais

Riding away from Calais, after weeks of deliberation, of not knowing if I would, could or should depart I felt ready. I am proud of how I have helped, in awe of those I have met. My soul a little broken from those I have met who are refugees, the hopelessness of their situation of the situation we all find ourselves living in where there are millions of displaced people with nowhere to be. No right answer. Now is time for me to go a little. I don’t feel guilty walking away right now, I have that privilege, I am free and I value it. For now, I am less useful than I have been, I have more to learn. I have more to see. I also want to ride. I can, I will and I will be stronger for it, more informed and better to help again before too long. The privilege that is freedom.

 

 

The first ride is a familiar one, away from the caravan park that I have called home for 5 months, living with fellow volunteers, next to a beach on the flat plains north of Calais. It is a beautiful day to leave on. Not because of fate, because I waited for the sun to come out before I left. With a steady head wind, I rode the familiar route to Gravelines with a friend from time in Calais, one who had helped give me the nudge I’d needed to go out and follow my dream to ride the world. A good egg, one of many I’d met in Calais.  A final farewell. On along to Borbourg I stopped to take some time and reflect and to look at the signed high viz jacket given to me by the volunteers, friends I had left behind. People who I would never otherwise have come across but who have given a richness and diversity to my social network. People who I have learnt a great deal from through our similarities and our differences. Amazing people who give up so much to help, each for their own reasons but mainly because in their minds it is the right thing to do.

 

Bourborg is an attractive town, simple, functional, non-commercial, cobbly. It  was hosting a weekday market, selling clothes, veg, fruit, shoes, meat.  The necessities, not the luxuries often associated with markets at home in the UK, The South. The scenes here resonate with an article I’d recently read, produced by the BBC http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-39284234. Le Penn posters are dominant in these parts. I can understand why.

 

Riding from Bourbourg to Lille is one I have done before, I love it. It meanders through flat French countryside, for the most part the roads are empty. Suddenly, you find yourself on a switch back, turning to overlook the French countryside below you. A few turns latera and you enter Cassels. A beautiful, cobbled town, wide streets a beautiful cathedral, wonderful views. All the better for the unexpectedness of its existence. I have stopped here before, I didn’t this time. There are plenty of coffee shops for those wishing to sit and watch the town pass by. Leaving Cassels is downhill on bobbly cobbles.  I had to stop to tape my portable cooker to my front pannier.

 

Turning off towards Steenvorde the road becomes smooth. Smooth roads lined by green and yellow fields take you to and across the border to Belgium, bike paths and car free roads, short sharp climbs and pleasant towns line the path.

 

It was fitting to ride out through Steenvorde, past signs to Norrenfont, both of which host small refugee populations of mainly Eritrean refugees which are supported by our warehouse in Calais in collaboration with other local organisations. Norrenfont was one of the camps who we provided bikes to following the #WrenchesforRefugees campaign. I had visited it the day before I left, taking a weekly supply of wood provided by Calais Woodyard and food provided by RCK.

 

After passing through Lille and failing to find a sheltered, non-exposed bivvy spot l continued to the next town, Tournai where there was a youth hostel with a bed for me, and a banquet hall for Galapagos, Darwin.  img_20161205_085825

Strava route

While I have left Calais, the need for volunteers and donations at this time has not.

If you are interested to learn how you can support the ongoing work the main organisations I have been working with are Help Refugees / L’Auberge , L’Auberge des MigrantsRefugee Community Kitchen, and Utopia 56,  

They would all very much value your help. Particularly at this time, RCK and Utopia 56  who are very much on the front line in providing support & food to those without homes on the streets of Calais.

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TCRno4s136: Entering the time warp, the first 24 hours

Night/day one

My route took me through the night to Laon. Time flew, literally within what seemed like minutes hours had passed. The roads were good and quiet. During the course of the night I met a few fellow cyclists who evidently had similar routes, we would generally chat for a bit before going our separate ways (or speeds). It was nice to see lights in the distance of a fellow TCRer, or a plastic wrapped TCR rider having a kip. There was one occasion where I saw a rider going the opposite direction, I’m still not sure who was going the wrong way. The only (definite) wrong turn I took was after a brief chat with the TCR Volvo early on, in the excitement of the distraction I stopped looking at Prof calculus…

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I was pretty disciplined with eating and drinking through the night, making an effort to take on something every 10-15 miles, to try and ensure that I kept my fuel supplies, preventing fatigue for as long as possible. I am not entirely sure when Belgium became France, benefit of being an EU member in an open border Europe is that is doesn’t really matter (ironic lol).

At some point I had my first dog chase, luckily I was faster. About 3am I had a stop, put on an extra layer. Waved at a pair who passed. As daylight broke I was approaching Laon, everything was still beautifully flat. I eased off a bit for a cruise into the city hoping to sync my arrival with the opening of a boulangerie , as I rode into Laon I was approached by two local cyclists who were out to welcome weary TCR riders to their home town, they rode with me to the local bread stop, (although I probably could have followed my nose (mmmm fresh bread!) where I found coffee and fresh baguettes which I used to make egg sandwiches with some of the 6 eggs I had brought with me from London (protein is important too).

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At the time of breakfast, I had made good progress and was in the front half of riders (ish- un exact calculation based on dot cluster). I was feeling pretty good so got back on the bike, with the aim of reaching Toucy (156 miles away) by bed time. I then rode up the hill to the Cathedral, not the road to Toucy. I then did a tour of Laon’s suburbs, which were also not the road to Toucy. I finally started climbing the correct hill out of Laon, this was the road to Toucy,  and noticed a bush that looked like it would be a great place to sleep.  About 90 minutes later, 3 and half hours after arriving in Laon, I emerged from Bush, to continue the ride.  Not the plan, but that was ok, I knew there would be lots of times over the next few weeks where plan B would be used. Although, admittedly I didn’t realise how far down the alphabet I would get.

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Day one; part two, Laon to…

 

Following on from Bush nap, I was feeling groggy but it didn’t take long to wake up. It was a beautiful day, a beautiful road, golden stubble fields, grass verges, blue skies, rolling hills and other cyclists. Basically exactly how the guidebooks describe cycling in France. The rest of the day is a bit of a corn coloured blur. Cycling seemed easy some of the time, slow some of the time. I must have stopped a few times to make some more egg sandwiches using the baguette and eggs I had with me, also snacking on mum’s flapjack.

 

I stopped in a tiny village, Dravegny, around lunch time, it wasn’t a scheduled stop, I think it was a subconscious controlled you should drink some coffee now stop. It was a tiny bar, essentially in the living room of an elderly couple. The bar was dark, cool, decorated with a random assortment of crockery; the sort of thing you would expect to see described as “quirky” “eccentric” or “hip” if it was in Shoreditch, London.  In this case it was functional. I ordered what would become my normal order, a large glass of milk, large glass of water, a large coke and two short coffees. I then used my head torch to go to the toilet because I couldn’t find the light switch and the couple had, clearly coming to the conclusion that although odd I was trustworthy, had disappeared into the rest of their house. By the time I left there were a few onlookers, who seemed a bit bemused by this lone cyclist with a bread role and some eggs strapped to her bike. I’m not sure, but I don’t think this particular part of my route was used by many other riders. I got the feeling this village wasn’t one frequented by non-locals very often, it was lovely though.

I carried on for a few more hours stopping just before Chateau Thierry to have lunch, about 2.30.   In broken French I tried to explain the bike race to the patrons who were interested in where I was going and surprised by the size of my food order. While I was eating a local cyclist popped in, after seeing my bike, to have a chat. He had been in the town watching the other riders and was a TCR fan. He explained the TCR in better French to the patrons, who to be honest looked even more confused and disbelieving having heard what I was doing from a native French speaker. I was pleasantly surprised to hear that there were a lot of riders in the town as I hadn’t made great time over the past few hours. I rode through Chateau Thierry, which looks like a lovely spot to stop in, and out over the river Marne, which looked like a lovely spot for a swim. Given that I was behind schedule I reluctantly rode past without a swim.

Some more corn fields, some sunflowers, blue skies, combine harvesters, hard boiled eggs and flapjack crumbs later I arrived in Provins. This was a nice moment. Provins is pretty. It is somewhere I can’t remember going before. It is somewhere I remember plotting my route through to have a look at. So I stopped, took a photo, appreciated the old cobbled town and mentally added it to the list of places to come back to, to drink wine and relax in, in the future. Although these little “appreciate the moment”/beauty stops plotted into my route added time to my journey and contributed to the slower than hoped finish, they probably also contributed to me being able to finish as were physical and mental breaks.

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Back on the bike once more I decided to ride as far as the next town and find a bed for the night and some food.  Before too long I found a hotel/restaurant, unfortunately it was closed, as were the next two (one of which on closer inspection was just a closed restaurant).  I stopped and asked a man, he shook his head, “l’hotel?  Non, ils sont tous ferme”

“où est le prochain hôtel?”  looking bemused he replied,“je ne sais pas. Ou allez-vous?”

“à la Turquie”

“oh” “non, je ne sais pas”.

I carried on riding, slightly nervous that I had just left a town with some horrendous recent history, perhaps a zombie apocalypse? Why else had all the hotels shut? It was July. In reality, I had stopped in the small commune of Pont-sur-Yonne close to both Provins and Sens both with surplus accommodation options.  If I had thought this through a little better I would have powered on to Sens rather than faffing around. Indeed, before too long (though by this time it was close to 10pm) I arrived in Sens and found a hotel. The restaurant had shut but some people at the bar offered me half a left over pizza, I devoured, along with flapjack crumbs, an egg, some milk, and a beer.  Looking back, I feel like this was much further into the ride than a mere 24 hours. Riding the Transcontinental is a bit like being in a time warp.

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TCRno4s136: The Start, Apidura bags are go!

TCRno4s136: The Start, Apidura bags are go! 

 

The square was buzzing with cyclist clad Apidura bags; a mix of sizes, shapes, ages, both Apiduras and cyclists. As a newbie to the world of ultra-endurance cycling it was nice to see the diversity of people taking on this challenge. Already, from interactions on the journey to Geraardsbergen, the registration, briefing and final supper it was clear this was a random bunch of friendly people drawn together by a single combined factor, the desire to ride across Europe, alone as fast as possible. This was probably more reassuring for Mum, who had travelled with me from London, armed with homemade flapjack, most of M&S’s picnic section and a pretty extensive first aid kit. Post ride I was to find out that she had spent the hours after the send-off in a pub with a fellow TCR rider’s spouse and that accompanying me had indeed helped.

My hours preceding the race were spent with some slightly hectic last min prep, meeting other riders, a final feast, some more slightly more frantic last minute prep, rushed good byes and of course attempts to capture the event on film. I was lucky to spend the final supper with fellow Chevs rider Z, and the soon to be (relatively speaking) female race winner Emily Chapell. Emily and mum swapped flapjack for a book, so mums flapjack evidently is the fuel of champions.

At some time after dark the Mayor’s bell was rung, signalling the start of the race.  We set off across the square, past the flame bearing supporters; I concentrated on navigating the cobbles and crowds as a tactic to avoid crying at the start, it was all a bit overwhelming, in a good way, an emotional overload. The starting lap of the muur was sociable, easy pedalling, chatting to other riders a few of whom I had interacted with via twitter pre-race, twitter profiles are people too. The climb was a little hairy; I was glad to be at the back as it was narrow, bumpy, crowded and lined with flaming torches, with a few wobbles and the agility of a mountain ox I made it up; alive and smiling.

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Within minutes of the Muur descent, after pausing for the obligatory map check stop on the corner, I set off. For about 10 minutes I was in a bunch of cyclists, then my Garmin, prof Calculus, directed me to take a left turn and  I was solo, one girl and her bike taking on the world, well kind of.