I got a phone call from Phillip. The call was direct and to the point. Jo Jo, you’re coming on the bike ride. End of call. So that was that. I was roped into the ride. I sat for a few minutes thinking about what had just happened and my default thought was how do I get out of this? My mind was filled with negativity. I’m not fit enough, I’m overweight, and I can’t afford this right now. Nothing positive was radiating from my head. I knew my fitness had fallen off the cliff since the Covid Lockdowns. The gym was closed, we weren’t able to go out, and working from home had all added to my waistline. Then I got the COVID. I had all the vaccines and all the boosters too. So why did it come to my door? The weeks from hell passed and I had beat it, or so I thought. COVID had left its mark. But I didn’t know it. I started to notice that my heart rate was off the scale. I would get up from my desk and my heart was racing and pounding in my chest. I had no energy and felt weak. This is not good. I started to constantly check my heart rate and it was in the hundreds. Sitting at my desk my heart rate was 120 bpm. Standing up it would go to 140. The best I could get it down to was around 90 bpm and that was lying down on my bed. That’s it I’m fucked I thought. I used to have a resting heart rate in the very low 50s and even recorded 42bpm, so I knew I was done.
So what to do now? Looking at my options there was only one choice and this was to get fit enough to make it. So with this in mind, I started doing some small rides after work. I kicked it off with some fifteen-mile rides, building it up to twenty and thirty miles over the passing weeks. I started to notice that my heart rate was getting better but nowhere near where I was before the weight gain and COVID. The signs were promising and with a few months to go before the ride, I had at least a chance to get in some sort of shape. The negative thoughts were still there but I was committed by the ribbing I knew I would get If I pulled out. The male ego is a powerful motivation.
The Clarendon Hotel – Blackheath
Phillip, Simon, Ali, and I arrived the night before the start of the ride at the Clarendon Hotel. It’s the type of hotel that should charge a level less than they do. But with a 7 am start and an 80-mile first-day ride in front of us the hotel was a good choice. We settled in and headed to the bar. The hotel was filled with middle-aged men and women decked out in lycra and wearing flip-flops. If you did not know this is the dress code for cyclists you could be mistaken for some sort of funny club. Wink wink.
People were checking each other out and the conversation was about who is riding what and did you see that fancy bike with all the super flash-lightweight bit in reception. It had started. The Big boy’s toys games were in full swing. At least that’s the only thing that was in swing. Lycra! Flip Flops! Hairy men? After a pizza and pasta carb dinner, we called it a day for a good night’s rest before the first days of riding.
7 AM kick-off on the green and a first look at the runners and riders.
The morning was bright and crisp as we congregated on Blackheath common green and we were greeted by our escorts. Tom the leader ran through the running order of the day and we are to introduced to Ben and Andy who were going to be our guides for the coming days of riding. As Tom spelled out the rules the early banter started to come out. The cycling group was a mix of people from the super fit deck out in the latest gear to the completely unfit with a bike with a flat tire and a yellow duck bell on the handlebar. I turned up with a bike built for London commuting with huge tires and a saddle that looks like it come from the 1940s. The way I saw it, no way was I going to ride 300 miles on a razer blade. Comfort was my plan. I may not be fast but my backside would live to fight another day. As we mingled around, two lads from Lincon broke the ice and introduced themselves. Darren is a tall lad with a warm smile and looked to be in good shape sporting a Planet bike finished in white. I could tell he fancied his chances with the London boys and their flash bikes. Then there is Gary. Darren’s next-door neighbor. He is a tall lad with slim legs and well-trained eyes. He is quiet and a thinking man. He would wait for his well-timed comments. Tricky to gauge this one. We shook hands with some others and exchanged polite words as we lined up for a photo shoot before setting off.
We won’t leave you behind they said!
Before the ride, the promise from my clan was this. We ride as one. We would ride as a group and they would help me get there. That was the deal. This lasted for at least 30 seconds as we started our ride to Dover. I knew this wouldn’t be the case. There was no way in the world these boys on bikes, which are worth more than some good second-hand cars were going to wait for commuter boys riding a tank with white-walled tires. So we were off. No turning back now. Full send mode. As we navigated the street of southeast London I focussed on keeping it easy. Don’t overdo it. Stay within my limits. But the heart was already playing a paradiddle and thoughts of oh shit entered my head. Keep your head down Joe, I said to myself. The stopping and starting of London streets didn’t help too. No time to get into a rhythm.
As I rode we settled into small groups of three and fours. No one was really talking and everyone was focusing on the traffic. I settled into a group with a mother and daughter. They looked to be good riders and at the time I didn’t know their names, they are Carmel (Mum) from Liverpool and Savannah a vet from London riding good bikes. I could see Savannah was a safe rider and looked confident. Mum was also a safe confident rider. Both are in good shape and dressed in good cycle clothing. They clearly are riders. As we plodded along we soon come to our first pit stop after about 20 miles of riding. This is where I got to know Tariq. A reserved man with a warming smile and in very good shape. He was riding a Specialized Allez finished in metallic green and sporting a branded Woking club jersey. He could mix it up with the front runners but was keeping back for now. As we took in energy in the shape of chocolates, snack bars, and bananas. Time to move on and my boys asked if I wanted to ride with them at the front. The group running order for the trip was already established and I knew this was not a place for me.
I knew the day was going to be a slog and no time for heroes. As predicted the ride was long and hilly which shook me up along with Mark. Mark is a larger middle-aged man from Cambridge. He was riding with his wife Claire who is a petite lady and in good shape. Claire is a great hill climber and left Mark and me for dust. She went up the hills in a flash where Mark and I struggled with our weight to keep her in our sight. Mark used his disadvantage of hill climbing when descending and pounded the peddles on the way down. With strong powerful legs, he could put in a good turn of speed. Thought the day I felt a silent comradery between Mark and me as we battled the hills. The hills are a large man’s nemesis and this clearly took a toll on Nathan. Nathan is a new rider with a brave heart. He joined the group with little experience but gave it a good go but the hill will break you down and this was the case for him. I didn’t really get to know a lot about Nathan other than he looks to be a great guy working in a hospital in biomedicine. We did have a chat near the end of our trip and I asked him if he would carry on riding. Riding is not for him he said but he will endeavor to keep on keeping fit and find other sports to achieve his goals.
One Direction & Ben The Beast
As the first day of riding was closing in, nicknames started to come out. The first of which was One Direction given to Andy our guide. A little harsh I thought considering he only made one or two wrong turns. Andy is from Bath and looks to be a free spirit type of guy with a background in creative arts. He is a model maker and builder and clearly enjoys working with his hands. He is also a closed book and not there for self-promotion. He is there to guide you on the journey and is wise enough to give you gentle encouragement when you need it. Then there is Ben the Beast. Ben is a PT instructor in a top-notch boarding school. One could build a skyscraper on Ben’s legs. He is strong as a bull and intelligent and if so wanted, could destroy top-notch riders out of the water, but Ben’s strength is not his mussels. He has strong views on life and high moval campus. You can see that he wants the very best for people and society. He is the perfect role model for young men. Working hard and keep improving every day is his motto and he must be a credit to the school where he teaches. He is a top man and a pleasure to cycle with. Ben is wrong in only one thing… World Population. lol.
Dover In Our Sights
Our lunch stop was in Faversham after around 40 miles and as we rolled in it was clear that the front runners had been there some time. The food was laid out and everyone got stuck in. This was the first time we really got to see people’s personalities as we chatted about the ride so far while eating our fill of french sticks hastily filled with what was on offer. As we chomped the calories mechanical issues showed up. Ian is a slightly built man boosting a Pinarello Dogma F12 finished in Rosso red was the first with a low battery issue which left him only able to change down his gears. Luckily this was sorted with a battery top-up. Then the was Gary with a small bulge on his rear tire which would later give him a problem. After these small issues were dealt with we saddled up and continued on our way.
We still had a way to go but the pitstop had refreshed us and we made good progress as the roads opened in front of us. We soon were in the heart of Kent and the twisting hills and rough roads start to sap our strength. On one of the downwards sections, Darren’s rear wheel thought it would be a good idea to part company with the frame which resulted in rear wheel locking up and popping the tire. Darren looked a little shocked as he counted his blessings that he didn’t end up on the Kent highway. As I assessed the situation, I decided that the front runners and Darren could deal with this one. So I pushed on with the slower riders.
20 miles clicked by and one more pitstop before the final push to Dover for the waiting Ferry to Calais. I felt a second wind come into my sails and noticed the chalky landscape of Dover on the side of the road. We are getting closer and it wasn’t long before the coastline line come into view. As I rode along the coastal road to the Ferry port I could see Dover castle on the hilltop to my left. My mind quickly remembered that I had been there on a wet Sunday afternoon with a lady friend. A little smile broke on my tired face and then we were there. I had made it. London to Dover done.
After passing French passport control Phillip cracked a few jokes as we waited to board the Ferry. The banter was in full swing and there was clearly a group forming with Tariq, Ali, Phillip, and Simon taking their place as the front runners. The whole group of cyclists had made it and we boarded the ferry knowing that only a short ride was between us and a good night’s rest was in sight. Dinner was taken aboard the ship and as we rested the time quickly passed.
We arrived in Calais at 9.30 pm and we were escorted out of the port, a very short ride later we were at our hotel. A quick debrief and I was in my hotel room. Standing in the shower with the warm water hitting my bald head, my legs felt the 80-mile ride. Waiting for the escort at the port didn’t do my legs any good either. As I washed away the day’s ride away, all I could think of was getting into bed. I had made it. Only three days to go I thought as I searched the French TV for something to watch. I opened the window and let the cold night air make the bed sheets cold before getting into bed. As I lay there watching French Wheeler dealer on the box, I wished a good night to the day’s ride with a wink and kiss.
The Mind is Willing But The Body is Weak. Day Two Calais to Arras.
The morning sun filled my room with light and as I lay there I felt ok. This was until I went to move out of bed. This is the point where my legs said to me – “Are you having a laugh?” They shouted at me to stay in bed. The first day’s ride had taken its toll. As I washed my face I could see in my eyes that I was tired. My legs agreed my eyes and confirmed the disagreement my mind and body were having. It had been a long time since I rode a tour. But I’ve been here before. I know it takes time for the body to adjust to a sudden increase of riding. It’s just a question of time, can my overweight carcass remember what it’s supposed to do? The covid years had left me unsure. I know I was strong once. Do I still have it? These nagging thoughts still rattled around in my head. Maybe if I just put my head to the side and shake them out of my ears like the water after getting out of the swimming pool.
I got dressed and went down for breakfast where the walking dead greeted me. Zombies with a mouth full of chocolate croissants said their mumbled good mornings. It’s not just me then that feels like shit I thought. Stiff bodies did their best inpersination of the Thriller dance as they stumbbled across the room to get their coffees. I watched them as they slowly tried to sit down at the table, lowering their still bodies down. At least the breakfast was good. Compared to The Clarendon this was like eating eggs benedict at the Bluebird in Chelsea. With breakfast done, I went back to my room and packed my gear to be transported to the next oasis. We grouped in the car park where Tom ran through the day’s ride. Today would be slightly less. Around 65 miles. The good news is it’s sunny and light winds but we would be doing some more climbing, around 3300 ft he said. After a few fags I saddled up. At this point, I’d like to introduce Mr. Joe ‘Dickhead’ Bernardes. He is the guy who once gave up smoking 20 a day 10 years ago and started again. I’ll be having a serious chat with him.
We made our way out of the car park and just like the day before it wasn’t long before my boys were off on their tour de France da France. We crossed and railway track and soon rode on an alleyway. This is interesting. Maybe we would ride along the canal I thought but this was just one direction number two getting it wrong. We made our way out of Calais and started to see the French Countryside. Small French villages with no one in them came and went and we settled in. My morning ride companion was Vikram. A nice guy who didn’t say too much but was likable. He had the same pace as I did and we rode along silently for the most part taking in the views and enjoying the flats.
Most people find this surprising about me but I like to be silent. I can be a bit of a loner and often spend days and weeks alone walking the Mountain of Maderia, my homeland. If you have read my blog you will know this is something I do whether it’s walking, cycling, or traveling alone. It’s not that I don’t like people. In fact, I really enjoy the company of humans and like having a laugh with these strange creatures but I also like the solitude that can be found on the open road or on mountain hilltop. Losing my racing thoughts in physical exercise surrounded by the moment.
Not long after the first pitstop of the day, the aches and pains of the day before ride we a distant memory. As the miles clicked by I felt myself getting back to my old self. Cycling partners came and went as we swapped riding positions and negotiated pack leadership. I noted that my heart rate was lowering. Still high but lower than before. The weather was perfect. A bright but not too warm day unfolded and the cycling group was doing well. The rolling hills were becoming easier but still not a walk in the park and it wasn’t long before the day was done.
We rolled into Arras. Arras is a cobbled town with lots of bars in its center filled with tables to enjoy the company of friends over a glass or two of your favorite tipple. I took my room and after a quick shower I was exploring Arras. Taking a walk my legs appreciated the stretch as I explored what Arras had on offer. It wasn’t long before I was back at the hotel after buying some more death sticks. Dickhead. I’m so easily led astray. I few text messages later and the London boys gathered in the lobby ready for dinner. We venture out to find something good to eat. Pizza is always a good choice for filling up on carbs for the following day’s ride. A rowdy dinner found us at odds with other patrons who were trying to enjoy their evening meal. We lowered the volume and chatted the normally cycling chat. What bike bits to buy and who looks best in their spayed on lycra? Then the conversation moved on to my weight gain and how good I would be if I lost the pounds the boys said. Philip then wagered a bet. Jo Jo, I will bet you £1000.00 to your £100.00 if you get to 11 stone. We negotiated back and forth a bit and thrashed out a deal. We ended up at 11 stone 7 pounds with a weigh-in date of June 2023. This would be just before the Etap ride which I also had to enter. Deal done. As we finished dinner I thought about the deal I had made. I made a mental calculations on how many kilos I had to lose a week to get win the bet. It’s around half a kilo a week or around 2 kilos a month. With this in mind, I had my last dessert for a long time.
Arras to Compiegne, Day Three, The Winds of Change.
I woke up feeling tired as I didn’t get much sleep. Arras had come to life just as I went to bed. The night crawlers wanted to let me know that this was their town and they were going to shout about it. The A/C was out, so leaving the window open was the only relief to the still warm night air. Go to bed you Gallic lot. Don’t you know I have to ride around 60 miles in the morning?
We gathered again for our riding instructions for the day and were informed that the day would be nice and warm but we would be met with headwinds. We soon pushed off into the French countryside and It wasn’t long before those ring words were soon upon us.
As we saw the windmills of power gently turning in the distance and the landscape change to allow the winds of power to blow across the fields of yellow corn we started to battle. I so took the lead and helped block the pushing air for Carmel and her daughter Savannah. We all tucked in and Steve from leads, a strong grinding ride helped to cut through the invisible force. We swapped positions to help each other and the signs of fatigue started to set in. Vikram wished he had my 1940s saddle and he soon was falling behind. The stronger rider also did their part as windbreakers. Darren took the lead and gave myself and Gary a break from the winds. This would be the order of the day. Darren and I kept our spirits up with banter and I recounted stories of trips gone by. At one point I blasted past Gary, shouting like a mad banshee as I buzzed him. This reckless action scared the life out of him which he was not happy about but I found funny at the time. Sorry, Gary. We battled for each mile and we looked forward to our pitstops. Splatters of rain threatened to spoil the day but held off as we rolled into our lunch stop, giving us a much-needed break from the winds.
The day felt longer although the distance was shorter as we ended the day at Compiegne. The night’s dinner was going to be a group night out at a Chinese all-you-can-eat buffet. Chinese? France? Strange. We rested in our rooms before heading out for dinner. We gathered in the hotel lobby and the troops gathered for a not-so-short walk to the restaurant. The dinner was really good. I didn’t expect It to be that good, to be honest. After dinner, we went back to the hotel and enjoyed ourselves drinking beer and talking crap as we do. The London boys lowered the tone as normal as the others looked on. This was going to be Simon’s last night with the group. He had arranged for a driver to collect him in the morning as he had to get back to the UK so we stayed up late talking about life and our plans for the future.
Compiegne to Paris, Day Four, Gustava Eiffel
The morning was clear and bright with a chill in the air and everyone started to gather in the car park with their bags packed and ready to load into the van. Our last day’s ride had arrived.
All that was left was 50 miles to cover. Tom the group organizer explained the rules of the day. We would start our ride and as we got closer to Paris we would stay as a group in order to negotiate the busy streets of Paris. We pushed off and rode along the canal for a while. The group spread out and we assumed our normal riding positions. Ali, Phillip, and Tariq had already disappeared into the distance. They were not going to hang around and were keen to get to Paris.
Today would be an easy ride for everyone. Time to relax and take in the sights. The chilly morning air quickly changed to a lovely warm day and at the first pitstop and took off my hoodie. No special riding clobber for me. After a quick few drags of my Heets cigarettes, we were off again. It wasn’t long before we stopped again in a market village for a coffee. It felt like we had only left our first stop and we were stopping again. I could tell that this was going to be a long day. A little frustrated by the frequent stops, I sat on a stone bench by a church as the others explored the market and went to enjoy a coffee. With no cigarettes to pass the time a reviewed my work emails. This is taking ages I thought. Come on, let’s get cracking. I said to myself. With still no sign of the troops, I went searching for them and found them relaxing and drinking coffee. This is going to be a bloody long day I thought again. Oh well. Just chill, it is what it is I told myself.
They finally finished and we were off again. We left the market and we traveled through small towns. I could tell that the open countryside was changing to an urban setting. More people, more cars but still enjoyable. Soon it was time for a lunch stop. Instead of the normal side of the road pitstop, we stopped in a village church car park under a group of trees. A nice setting I thought. We tucked into our French sticks filled with cold meats or cheese washed down with warm tea. I could tell the mood was lazy today and the cyclist had had their fill of riding. We chatted away about our pets with our cyclist vet Savannah, asking why dogs like to eat grass and sharing photos of our four-legged companions. Soon we were off again.
Riding out of the twisty roads of the village felt good. My past worries were gone. I looked down at my Garmin bike computer and could see that my heart rate was low. On the first day of riding my heart rate was between 150 to 180 bpm and now it was showing 120 bpm. It’s amazing to think what a few days of riding can do for your fitness. The pace was slow and easy and I took advantage of my newfound fitness and pushed ahead. Steve and I swapped positions throughout the afternoon ride, leading the pack into Paris. Again it wasn’t long before we stopped again at a Patisserie. Not again I thought as the riders tucked into the chocolate cakes. This 50-mile ride was taking as long as an 80-mile ride.
As they consumed the French delights I walked around looking at the estate agents’ shop windows. The price of a nice two-bedroom flat was around 150k and I asked myself a question. Could I live in France? My mind wondered.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the latter part of my life and where I want to be in a few years. One thing is for certain, it’s not London or even the UK. London feels so oppressive. Congestion charges, confusing parking regulations that require you to have a Ph.D. to work out. No parking between this and that time or not at all on football match day. When is the match day and how do you find out? How do you pay and what app to use? What if you don’t have a smartphone? Then there are the house prices, fuel prices the list goes on and on. I can feel an old man rant coming on. When you are on your bike riding along, life seems a lot simpler.
The Final Riding Along The Seine Into Paris
We enter the suburbs of Paris and some of the cyclists became nervous about the traffic. Claire from Cambridge was very worried and I felt a responsibility to look after her. She really didn’t like built-up roads. I’ve been riding in London for many years and am used to cars trying to kill me. Riding in busy London streets requires a different approach. You have to take your position on the road. Don’t invite cars to overtake you by riding to close the curb. Car drivers are surrounded by metal and are insulated from the outside world. Cyclists on the other hand are exposed and open to the elements. You need to have eyes in the back of your head. Making eye contact with drivers and letting them know you see them is the key. You can quickly see if they see you. If they don’t make eye contact with you and they seem to look straight through you, this is a dangerous sign. It’s like they have tunnel vision. So many times I’ve had a car pull out in front of me when I’m right on top of them. And they always say, sorry mate I didn’t see you.
After a lot of left and right turns we soon joined the road alongside the Seine. This was our route into Paris proper. Again we stopped to group together and the pace was slow and steady. Constantly stopping to group together was tiring but necessary for our group’s safety.
As we got closer to the Arc De Triomphe, Ben the Beast gave our last instruction. We were to tackle the very busy intersection as a fighting force of unity. We would ride two by two and bunch up so as not to let sneaky car drivers dive bombe us. I took up my position next to Claire taking the right side to protect her from the oncoming cars. As we entered the Triomphe I heard Claire say that her shoe was not clipped in. Keep going I said. Don’t worry. My shoe, my shoe, she said… Keep going, I repeated. Clare’s brain was overloaded. Cars on all sides, Cobbles, and her shoe not clipped in. All in a matter of a few seconds it was over. We made it though. Claire breathed again and she clipped in. Relieved that we were all ok we continuing to the final finishing post. The Eiffel Tower. We had made it.
The sun greeted us like champions. The rays of the sun streamed between the legs of the tower showering us like French champagne. I raised my bike above my head to pose for a photo of remembrance and that was that. London to Paris in four days but a route to recovery for me.
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