Tales from the peloton, October 24, 2004
Part of the year-long centenary celebration of the Franco-British Entente Cordiale treaty signed in 1904, the Paris-London charity bike race threatened to be a little less 'cordiale' with a 300-strong pack of amateur bike riders, evenly divided between France and Britain. Resident Gran Fondo expert Ben Atkins was flying the flag high for Cyclingnews and his mother country.
Sunday, October 24 - Stage 2: Dover to London (via Rochester), 148 km
Good old British drizzle
If yesterday was tough, today was even worse. Firstly we had to be up at 6am to get to Calais in time for the ferry to Dover, and when we reached dear old Blighty, the fine autumn sunshine we'd enjoyed in France had given over to good old British drizzle. In a way, it provided a neat symmetry; the French had treated us to so much of what they're famous for, so we in turn provided them with the thing that we are.
A real highlight for me though was to be interviewed on the signing on podium by David Duffield who got wind of the fact that I was covering the race for Cyclingnews.com. It's a website he uses himself by the way, a fact that should, in my opinion, be reflected on the site's homepage!
Just like yesterday, today's stage was to be a split one. Firstly we were to race from Dover to Rochester on the River Medway in Northern Kent. Then, after a few refreshments, we were to ride at a neutralised pace into London for the finish at the Tower of London.
As the first few kilometres consisted of a few long drags followed by a pretty treacherous descent, it was decided - given the conditions - to neutralise the first 20km. This suited me pretty well today, starting - as I did yesterday - right at the back, it gave me a good chance to move forward in a fairly controlled way.
As soon as the flag was dropped, the pace shot up instantly. Today though, I was well placed to respond without too much trouble and after the inevitable split occurred I got myself in a group of around twenty and resolved not to do too much work as I did yesterday. A nice coincidence meant that I was joined in the group by my Giant Tour co-equipeur Phillipe Lesage - one of the most "cordiale" people you're ever likely to meet. We were able to exchange a few words of encouragement before he moved of to take his favourite place at the front.
For quite a while I was feeling pretty good, the road rolled, but not in a way that worried me at all, and the crosswinds from the southeast were not too bad as I managed to say tucked in nicely. Finally though, my good form ran out and the drags took more and more out of me, until finally there was one too many and I lost contact. I'd already decided that if this happened I wasn't going to kill myself trying to get back on, only to get dropped again on the next climb, so I maintained a pace I found comfortable and waited to see what would happen.
I didn't have to wait too long or another group to come through, but I'd lost so much strength that I could only hold on to them for a few minutes and before too long I was on my own. This is the way it was to stay for me for the remaining 30km to Rochester. Occasional puncture victims would fly past me but I didn't even try to go with them, preferring to save my strength to make sure I made it.
Finally I began to pass the last few kilometre countdown signs. Anyone who rode the PruTour "Red Ride" in 1999 would recognise these last few kilometres as the first few from that ride in reverse. You'd also remember how steep it was in both directions! I'd had a very useful handsling from a motorcycle gendarme with a great big moustache that made him look like a character from Asterix. This had been really useful and improved my morale no end. Right now though I needed more than that.
There was another gendarme who seemed to be looking after me and two other riders not too far ahead of me. Luckily he was in a very charitable mood and offered more pushes than are usually acceptable in normal bike races! The few sharp drags before the finish were almost effortless as he pushed me up nearly all of them! The other two also benefited from his good nature so I didn't feel too guilty - actually I didn't feel at all guilty!
There only remained the small matter of a twisty, slightly nervous descent down to the river, to finish in front of the castle. Again, the only way I know to cross a finish line is to showboat and milk any applause going, so the remaining crowd were treated to 250m of me waving and blowing kisses. It's more of a relief thing I think.
After a few sandwiches and a cup of coffee, we were called back to the finish line to start the ride to London. This was to be similar to yesterday's ride out of Paris, so I was looking forward to taking it easy, but I was in for a bit of a shock.
The neutral ride yesterday was done with fresh legs, over flat terrain, and I was at the front. Today, my legs were totally cooked, the terrain was much, much hillier, and I was really close to the back where - even in a controlled pace situation - involves a lot of sprinting and braking as the bunch expands and contracts. I was in no mood for moving forward though, and was only really in trouble once on a very long climb, but we could see the towers of Canary Wharf in east London from the top, which I suppose is some sort of equivalent to seeing the Eiffel Tower at the end of the Tour.
After a bit more rolling Kent, we crossed the M25 - the motorway that circumnavigates London - and had the surreal experience of riding up the A20 - almost a motorway - with no traffic. The course passed into South London, through the borough of Lewisham and the main streets of Peckham (home of the TV show "Only Fools and Horses"). We stopped so much traffic that most of us assumed that we'd get loads of abuse from angry drivers, but that couldn't have been further from the truth! We got so much support from drivers, pedestrians, people leaning out of windows - just as we've had for the whole weekend - that many of us were given to wonder why this kind of thing doesn't happen more often!
I was starting to feel the effects of the weekend, not really in my legs as we were flying along completely flat, well surfaced roads, but in my whole body, I was really feeling tired! Just in time though, we round a corner and the fantastic sight of Tower Bridge came into view. All there was left to do was to cruise across, trying to take in the experience - just as we did in Paris - before turning in the road and rolling onto the cobbles in front of the Tower, to finish in front of Traitor's Gate (marathon fans would recognise these from the London Marathon in April). David Duffield was there to announce our arrival, but more importantly, my fiancée Liz was there to see me finish.
After a quick shower in a nearby hotel we crossed the bridge - on foot this time - to attend a drinks reception at the City Hall, HQ of the Greater London Authority. Most of the top brass from the Tour de France Organisation were there as this evening London is making its official pitch for the Grand Depart in 2007 (fingers crossed there). It was a great chance to reminisce and swap stories of a great weekend for everyone. The ambassadors of both countries agreed that of all the 300 different events held his year to celebrate the Entente Cordiale, this had definitely been one of the best. It's just a shame tat I probably won't be riding when the two hundredth anniversary happens!