TS Eliot knew a thing or two about cycling. “April is the cruellest month” he wrote when considering the date chosen for our epic ride to Paris. “A cold coming we had of it, just the worst time of year for a journey and such a long journey”. Yes, Tom certainly had a good perspective of the challenge that we faced as we assembled outside the Lloyd’s building at 4am on a frigid Saturday.
It was dark as we pedalled off. The “steady” group setting off before the others to allow more time to reach Dover and the ferry. Swifter, more optimistic cyclists left at intervals over the next hour. 41 Lycra clad bodies covered in layer after layer of thermal kit to preserve some heat in the biting cold.
A functional route took us out of south east London following, in the main the A20. We were not pilgrims heading to Canterbury and telling tales. Not much conversation passed in those early hours.
Ten miles in and a first puncture. The group stopped and waited in the cold as frozen hands grappled with a tyre. Off again and eventually seeing the dawn as the suburbs gave way to fields; lights off to conserve batteries.
The idea of the challenge had come as a surprise last October. The Lloyd’s Cycling Club has organised major challenges every two years and, to that date, had raised over £100,000 for charities. Discussions had taken place about the 2013 challenge. In 2011, we have ridden 950 miles over nine days from Lloyd’s to Monte Carlo. Two years before the club had completed the “End to End” from Land’s End to John O’Groats. Something equally challenging but possibly less time consuming was called for.
When, sometime before, someone had mentioned a 24-hour non-stop ride to Paris, I had smiled and said “no”. It was not for me. Multi day rides were tough but feasible. That was simply too much.
And so we sat in a conference room in Aegis’ offices in October and were told about the charity that we would be riding for: Action for A-T (www.actionforat.org) . We were then presented with the challenge. No one could say no. I was committed. Six months to train and one valiant push. I convinced myself that it could be done.
Six months to train did not take into account the weather that has prevailed in England since early December. Black ice and snow make cycling very dangerous. None of us could afford injury. Dull hours on turbo trainers replaced road time. Unless one is as gifted and motivated as Bradley Wiggins, two hours of buttock numbing discomfort is as much as one can handle in one session. And then my aging mother took a tumble on black ice breaking her hip and wrist, meaning that much of the time I had allocated to training was given to visiting her.
Training did not go well. Two weeks before the ride we were due to have our last big training ride. A trip to Dover and back to learn that part of the route. 150 miles. We met at Lloyd’s at 7am in a blizzard. We went home. Another training day lost.
In the days leading up to our challenge, nerves kicked in. While support and logistics were expertly arranged by Events Unlimited, each rider had responsibility for his own safety and survival. Proper lights that could last the night. Navigation equipment. Adequate clothing.
The longer range weather forecast started to show that temperatures would be well below average. Kit ordered in more optimistic times was clearly going to be inadequate. Fresh winter kit was required.
The idea was a functional route to get us to Paris and not a scenic route. Avoiding hills where possible, we would make good speed.
In England a drag up out of London was rewarded by a long descent into Kent. Legs were recharged as we saw daylight. A couple of speedier groups passed us as we headed for our first feed stop at a transport café on the A20 just beyond Maidstone.
Food and hot coffee were forced down in the not so salubrious surroundings of an institution more likely to be frequented by truckers than gourmets. We did not stop long and hit the road again to cover the last 32 miles to Dover.
At Folkestone we saw the marshalling yards for the Channel Tunnel trains. Two hours to Paris in warmth and comfort. We hit the climb up and over Shakespeare Cliff to Dover. Sweat poured out on the ascent and was chilled by the coastal headwind on the descent. Shivering we arrived at the ferry terminal at 10:45, decently before our boarding time of 11:15.
We were greeted by supporters from the charity Action for A-T including its founders Toby and Emily Read and their four children, including six day old Winston and, of course, six year old Evie.
Seeing the reason for our ride was inspiring and moving. Hearing from Toby that we had raised sufficient money to pay the cost of an entire research project which could make a real difference to those suffering from the awful condition Ataxia-Telangiectasia and those who might be born with it in the future made the aches and the cold seem less of a challenge.
We went through to the ferry with purpose.
We were then shunted off to a security shed; stood freezing by the docks for an hour or so. Missed our ferry as a consequence, had to find another later boat and then wait to board that. Standing in sweat laden Lycra on a freezing dockside is not ideal.
On the boat we recharged the batteries on GPS devices, lights and phones and tried to recharge ourselves. We ate all we could and then more. Energy comes from food and we needed energy.
I should have realised, at that stage that things were not right. We had ridden just short of 80 miles, a lengthy distance but well within my capabilities. I had ridden well and, apart from the last tough climb up the cliffs, had kept pace with the others and we had made good time. And yet, on the boat, I was struggling.
I had difficulty finishing the food in front of me. I needed help in sorting out chargers and sockets. Something wasn’t right but I wasn’t in a position to notice it.
We arrived in France and rode ashore. One unfortunate rider managed to get his wheels stuck in a grove on the car deck. Luckily it was released without incident. We formed up, filled water bottles, mixed energy drinks, loaded food into our pockets, set the route into our GPS devices and were ready to go. 41 riders and 170 miles to go. The sun was out. It was 4pm. We had lost over four hours of precious daylight in the crossing.
The riders spanned all ages from 22 to 60. There were brokers and underwriters, loss adjusters, accountants and lawyers. There were friends of other riders who were not directly involved in the insurance market but up for a huge challenge nonetheless. When dressed in Lycra with buffs and winter caps and helmets and gloves and jackets and leg warmers and shoe covers, it is difficult to distinguish one from another. Where riders had changed clothes on the ferry, confusion became greater.
Three of the riders had travelled from Chile to be part of the adventure. Three colleagues from a local loss adjusting firm had forsaken the 21 degrees of Santiago for the freezing temperatures of northern Europe.
The wind was behind us and the sun out as we departed Calais. The pace was high. The steady group had grown as some riders felt the pace of faster groups. I tucked in behind stronger riders and tried to attach myself to their wheels.
We hit our first hill. A long straight climb as the countryside outside Calais began. I dropped back off the group as I struggled to lift my obese frame up to the summit; a summit which, it soon appeared, was a false one. I pushed up to the top where the others waited in the cold. The last big climb, I was told. We descended, the sweat from the exertion of the climb freezing as we did. I descend like a stone.
At the bottom of the descent was another unheralded climb, followed by another freezing descent and then more. The promise of a flattish ride to Paris avoiding hills, turned out to be illusory. On each climb, my bulk meant that I dropped from the group of the climb and struggled back on the descent or had to hope that they waited for me in the wind.
A couple of riders sacrificed themselves to help me along but with each climb I was weakening. The power was leaving my legs. The chill was taking its toll. On descents I felt sleepy. My judgment was leaving me. A couple of times I realised I was in danger of crashing as we sped down fast roads.
I was struggling to catch the group. I was spent and not able to recover as each time we reached the top of a climb, I was pressing to make up the distance between me and the others.
We were almost half way. We still had 125 miles to ride. Sunset was coming soon.
I was determined to carry on but did not have anything left in my legs. I had used everything I had on the climbs and trying to catch the bunch. The other riders were freezing in the north wind as they waited for me. I realised that, unless I rode at a much reduced pace, I would never make it and if I did ride at such a pace, I would have to ride alone and did not know when I would make it. It was not feasible to ask the others to go slower. That would imperil their chances.
We reached a feed stop. I took a decision, a decision that I had fought to avoid but a decision that was necessary, not only for my own well-being but for the well- being of the others. After 125 miles, I was forced to abandon. I was dejected, embarrassed and angry with myself.
II sat in the broom wagon as it drove behind the group through the French countryside, up and down hills, never on the flat. I shivered for the next two hours despite the van’s heaters and borrowed layers. Cramp tore through my legs but I was out of the cold and no longer burning calories at an extraordinary rate over smooth French tarmac.
I would not have managed to endure what the others then did.
Conditions deteriorated. The wind kept up adding chill factor to lows recorded down to minus 6 degrees. Water bottles froze. The undulating landscape continued. Legs were sapped of energy on the repeated climbs. Sunset came soon. Flashing red lights one the rear of bikes marked the peloton. Groups rode closely together to draught from the slip streams of others and be more visible to the few motorists who were driving the empty roads.
At each feed stop conditions appeared worst as the night grew colder. Riders were massaged back to an approximation of warmth. Extra layers were found or borrowed in a vain attempt to mask the cold. Calories were forced down. The groups looked like the straggled remnants of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow. And yet no one else gave up.
It was clear that 24 hours had been optimistic. As dawn rose over the final feed station in a drive-through McDonald’s car park in the outer suburbs of Paris, riders had been going for over 24 hours since the start. All were close to hypothermia, if not actually hypothermic.
The final 18 miles were brutal. The lights of Paris could be seen but the route sought to avoid the road closures for the Paris Marathon. Traffic lights punctuated the ride and forced constants stops and restarts. Knees were tortured by clipping in and out of pedals. But daylight had returned and Paris lay ahead.
The first riders arrived at the hotel just before 7am, 25 hours after their departure from Lloyds. If the hour’s delay in Dover was eliminated, they had managed the trip in almost exactly 24 hours. Others filtered in until the steady group, which had started at 4am on Saturday, led by Peter Harris rode in at 9:15am on Sunday just in time to see Ben Galloway and Steve Hoey jog away to the start line of the Paris Marathon.
Ben and Steve, somehow, managed to run the marathon course after cycling 250 miles. A truly incredible achievement.
The achievement of all the riders who rode the 250 miles in appalling conditions was superhuman.
I, alone, failed and yet I am proud to have been a part of such an achievement and to have associated with those who fought wind and cold and hills to arrive in Paris.
Huge thanks to everyone involved, from the charity, Events Unlimited, the sponsors, the riders and particularly Rick Welsh of Aegis and Peter Harris of Besso who organised everything so well and with such a great sense of humour.
If we had known in October quite how tough the course was and how cold the weather was going to be, I, and probably a number of others, would not have started. That all bar one of the riders completed the trip in such circumstances is amazing.
Clive O'Connell is a partner at law firm Goldberg Segalla.
The charity donor page to donate is here: http://www.bmycharity.com/clivelloyds2paris