Just got back from France, where I've been with 11 other from the Penge Cycling Club for the first edition of what I hope will be many Penge Continentals. This was the 3rd ride of my summer of 8 organised rides (not including the Sunday club runs), several of which I'm doing to raise money for JDRF (Read more here)
This one was a 100km around the Pas de Calais, organised by John, taking in 60 miles of bucolic French scenery, including several stiff climbs, apparently linked by flattish roads...this is the route!
And here's the profile - flat bits at the start & mercifully the finish, not so much in the middle:
The 12 of us assembled at the travel centre in Dover at 8ish then followed the red cyclists line round to the ferry. As cyclists we were allowed to embark first, and because many had just bought coffee, water bottles were temporarily replaced with costa cups, which fitted really well, and we took on the first climb of the day to get onboard. Bike racks were provided, and we all piled up to the cafe and watched on with interest as some tugs shifted a container ship which had run aground in the inner harbour. Once we got going the chat & banter increased as the continent got closer and we could see our first proper climb looming into view. I had clearly overdone it on the food front and even had some dry clothes in my bag, which was already heavy and quickly became a burden once we started riding - already investigating saddle bags for next time!
We rode out of the port and along towards Sangatte on the coast road, straight past the refugee camp, and continued to make our way through the outskirts, already noticing that drivers were giving us a respectfully wide berth, and there were even some encouraging toots of the horn. There were some envious glances from me at the people queuing up for €6.50 roast chicken from a van by the side of the road, but there was no time for such fripperies as lunch, so on we went!
There was a decent tailwind, so we made good progress to the base of the climb up to Cap Blanc Nez, then pedalled up that at our own pace, under the watchful lens of Martin who had his camera out at the top for those all important “this climb isn’t bothering me at all” shots as we approached the top!
We waited for everyone to arrive, took some pics, looked back at the impressive height we’d gained, then set off down the fast sweeping road on the other side of the cap and turned inland onto the tiny, largely traffic-free roads which were to characterise most of the ride. It was here we got the first "Courage" from a random old lady, but there was banter with other cyclists, as well as the occasional hilarious "pedal" joke from a car when we were going up hill...
It was lovely to ride up these empty roads in between rolling hills, then get to the top and see the magnificent views across the channel or back to Calais, or on to the next set of rolling hills on our route...
After a long descent into another hamlet on good surfaces apart from the slippery gravelly bit in the middle of the lane, we went up another valley and came across our first car - apparently being driven by a child sitting on its mother's lap! The road surfaces were generally very good, and we were going through some very bucolic looking & smelling scenery - big piles of natural fertiliser on the edges of many of the fields, some enormous looking farmhouses, a few of which had been converted to gites, and may have been a good option for a holiday - if it wasn't so close to home with the same weather! Eventually we got to a village called La Slack, and the photo opportunity was too good to miss!
Not long after this I started to struggle - I had been fine all day, but with the dark clouds looming, the weight of my rucksack starting to give me gip and the rain starting to spit I started to feel rough and needed to stop for some food. I ate some bread & salami from my bag while John & Sophie waited, then we shared a very bizarre tasting energy bar, and the three of us carried on until we met up with the others at the cafe stop about 10 miles on.
The next 45 mins or so were miserable - as miserable as I'd been on a bike for a long time. All of those black thoughts start going through your head - I started remembering my last bike ride in France, the epic fail of the Etape in 2011 (described here), I decided I would throw my bike off the first available cliff and give up all the riding I have lined up for the rest of the summer, why was I doing this, the weight I had lost didn't seem to be making me any faster, what was the point etc etc. John stopped to take a call, and I confided in Sophie that knowing that the only way out of it was to keep going as there was no chance of bottling out and calling for rescue was a bit demoralising. While she agreed, she also said it would be good discipline to crack on, and not that we had any choice in the matter, that's what we did, if not a massively cracking pace!
There was a long drag up to Boursin, which didn't seem to the one of Cheese fame, and then a stiff climb out of town on one of the last 3 hills of the day - we went up to a crucifix appropriately, praying for deliverance from these hills, then branched left, and the road ramped up around the corner to the top. By this time it was hosing it down, which paradoxically made me feel much better and I started enjoying myself again! I was wondering why I had been struggling quite so much up the hill - could it have been the phantom mechanical?! - so I got off at the top and found both the mudguard & rear brake blocks were rubbing against the back wheel rim. A twiddle from John sorted the brakes and a kick from me sorted the mudguard and on we went.
Here's a picture from the bottom of the hill - we have to get to the top. It may not look steep, but why don't you try riding up it?!
Down the other side and past the bemused farmer in his tractor, then through another village and out the other side to see a wall ahead of us, our penultimate climb, and the one with the hairpins. As we approached it and could see where we had to go it was quite daunting, but once you got into the hairpinny bit, it wasn't too bad - though by this time I was utterly soaked and could hardly see a thing. I got to the top, parked my bike against a house, chatted to the locals about the weather and waited for John & Sophie to arrive, which they duly did, and we carried on down to the next village and the long awaited cafe stop!
When we arrived triumphant at the hilariously named cafe, a big cheer went up from inside, and we went in to warm up a bit, dry off a little, and shed some of the weight in my bag by eating a few rolls and some cashew nuts. The rest of the rolls stayed behind and only the malt loaf and the remaining cashew nuts continued the journey. We would have liked to have had some frites, but some other cyclists had been in earlier and apparently polished them off!
After watching the end of the LBL race on telly with the owner, who turned out to be Monsieur Boulanger, who claimed to be two-time French National Cyclo-Cross champion, with the pictures on the wall to prove it, we carried on.
The final hill, le Cote du Mat, was straight up the side of the escarpment, but wasn't that long, and after a break at the top for more photos, we struck out for home. This is the view back down it.
The first section was a long downhill, which was great and very fast, then quite a long tiring stretch into the wind, which kind of mitigated against it being flat, then a stretch along the canal into Calais - some of which was the worst surface we'd been on all day. The sun had come out, and the mood lifted even more when the roadsigns started showing Calais again. We had an enforced pitstop because Liam had cramp, but then we finished the last few miles to the port, and after a false start trying to go in via the lorry entrance and a quick escape back down the one way entrance ramp the wrong way, we found our way to the right part of the port and, after passing through the border controls, made our way to the front of the line and relaxed. Out came the malt loaf, down went the malt loaf with a hefty thump, and eventually we were allowed to embark, after the lorries but before the cars, and trying to break the strava segment time for sprinting up the ramp.
Bikes stowed, we headed for the bar and a well deserved drink. Really well deserved! So well deserved that we had another one, then one more just to make sure.
Once we'd disembarked, we were pleased to be able to follow the red line again out of the port, and not encounter any more lorries (until the bit when the red line bizarrely went straight across the main exit route, but luckily the lorries stopped to let us go), and we headed for the car-park, loaded the bikes, said our farewells and headed home. Thanks to Martin for stepping in at the eleventh hour and giving me a lift there and back, and for his excellent company.
It was a fantastique day out, brilliantly organised by John Haile, who rode along at the back all day, and helped those of us who were there, for however long we were there, get through the rough patches and over the hills. Without that kind of encouragement and support when you're out, riding can be very lonely, so I want to thank John & everyone else who made the ride such a great experience.
Can't wait for the next one! A tout a l'heure!
PS - thanks to Martin & John for some of the photos.