Photography by Dean Alexander
I’ve always had a fascination with distance and quantities. How far and how many? Not in a greedy sense, but more with a curiosity about how much people are capable of and if they reach this point, what does it feel like? The earliest record I have of this is an anecdote from my mum who recalls that when I had just learnt to walk, I would do repeat laps around the outside of the house whilst pushing my buggy. It probably looked like quite odd behaviour but in a way, I was doing a toddler version of an endurance challenge and was starting to test my limits. (It was also before my sister was born so I probably had quite a lot of time on my hands). Many of us as adults do exactly the same thing; we sign up to events to test ourselves to see how far we can go and to find out what it feels like when you get to the end. The curiosity is the same and I have loads of it.
Last month, about 70 of us joined Sophie Radcliffe on her inaugural sportive to cycle from London to Paris in one go. The only breaks we would have would be whilst we were crossing the Channel and at the short rest stops for food and water. We had 24 hours on the clock and we were going to make it.
It all began at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich in the United Kingdom’s home of ‘time’ which is relevant seeing as we only had 24 hours of it. As the clock started, the sounds of shoes clicking into place and a few nervous cheers signalled the start of what was to be an epic journey.
I was going to call this section ‘LOW POINTS’ but it didn’t seem right as there weren’t really any – what I had instead were challenges to overcome and these were the following:
The weather: It began to rain in Newhaven and did not stop until a few miles from Paris. This added a dramatic backdrop to our endeavour, with muddy faces and cold legs at the food stops. It also made for some extra ‘bad-ass’ riding expressions.
My left pedal broke: Still with 100 miles to go, my left pedal would not click into place and so I had to cycle with only one cleat which put a lot of pressure on my right knee and made the hills extra hard. However, it was worth the drama because Sophie awarded me (for my persistence) with a pen in the shape of a baguette at the welcome dinner when we eventually arrived in Paris. I will treasure it for life.
Getting off the ferry The first 30 miles after wrenching myself from the ferry chair where I was having a nice nap was the hardest part for me. I was exhausted and my body didn’t want to move. I had to keep my head down and just get through the dark early hours. As soon as the sun rose and we reached the first food stop my grumpiness subsided and I was back in high spirits.
Before you begin a journey like this, you have a few anxieties and pre-conceptions of how you expect the challenge to go. When the challenge is over, all your pre-conceptions are proved ridiculous and you are left with a few surprises. These were mine.
I didn’t get left behind – I had the fear that I wouldn’t keep up with the group and would spend most of it on my own. Instead, I was part of a consistent and organised peloton who wouldn’t leave a man down and I was also surprised that I could keep up with them, even if my turns at the front brought the speed down a little!
My adrenaline masked a lot of the pain – I know they always say it but I didn’t quite realise how reliable adrenaline is when you are technically in a lot of pain. The momentum brought about by the general spirit of the group and the excitement of the reality of what we were doing saved me from a lot of pain.
I coped with the tiredness – I was concerned before I left that the last time I pulled an all-nighter, it was under a slightly different haze of a boozy party on a beach. I honestly thought that on this trip, falling asleep on my handle bars was at genuine risk of happening. Weirdly, it was the opposite, I was oddly wired the entire time.
You can have a lot of good times in 24 hours and I certainly did on this ride. They always say you’re one bike ride away from a good mood and this was one massive bike ride and as such a lot of good mood abounded. Here are some of my top moments.
The food stations: This sounds obvious but I got into the habit of mentally breaking the distance down into 30 mile slots because that is roughly around the time we could expect a warm welcome break from the Cycle Friendly team who were helping us reach our destination. They were such a lovely team of people and made sure we were well fed and still smiling. It was also a chance for us to stuff our faces and check we were still alive.
The peloton: I mentioned it earlier but I can’t express enough how grateful I was for the support that came from the team I was with. Sophie joined us for the last 60 miles when we were starting to hurt and topped up our enthusiasm levels with her infectious, positive attitude. Left to my own devices I think I would have been in a much darker place.
Arriving at the Eiffel Tower: This is another obvious one and I can’t really explain the feeling when we eventually arrived at the landmark we had been visualising for months of training and through those crucial 24 hours. We actually did it in 23 hours 52 minutes and the thrill of knowing that we were still against the clock was what powered me through the last painful moments. On arrival, delirious but safe, happy and relieved were almost like a dream sequence, I was handed a glass of Champagne and was surrounded by smiling, happy cyclists. I was also extremely grateful to Sophie for providing us with an opportunity to test ourselves, settle our curiosity as to whether we could go the distance and experience what it feels like at the end.