Cycling London to Paris on a single speed bike...for the ride.
- By London Cycling Campaign on at 10:23am 13 June 2013
- Posted in: News and blogs
- Tagged with: london, single speed, paris, cycle ride
London Cycling Campaign Office Volunteer Elaine Yeung writes about her recent ride to Paris with friends.
It had been on my mind to go on scenic rides that didn't involve endless traffic lights and weaving around cars in the city. This seemed like the perfect idea paired with the ability to justify an overdose of French pastries, chocolate, bread, cheese and wine against the 80 miles per day. I hadn't given it much thought that I don’t own a touring or road bike, the latter which everyone else would be riding. But there was a big part of me that wanted to do this on my single speed bike. My single longest distance was a recent weekend ride to Oxford and back which was 70 miles each way although I do clock a fair distance with my 18 mile daily commute and cycling around London whenever I can.
The bike itself is an early Foffa creation, when Dani first started out working on vintage bikes. I’ve since customised it with a reclaimed saddle reupholstered with a decorative William Morris pattern by Cycle Fabric. A single speed bike has fixed gearing with no other variable mechanical advantage meaning the bike goes as fast as your legs will pedal yet allowing you to freewheel. I was quite concerned about whether this distance in one gear was a good idea for all sorts of reasons, namely the numerous hills that we would encounter. It has a gear inches of 78 with 46 teeth in the sprocket, 16 at the back which is a decent middle ground ratio for both speed on flat terrain and a bit of climbing. Reading about other single and fixed gear riders having done the Paris journey as well as the hill climbs like the infamous Box Hill and Ditchling Beacon, it slightly reassured myself the feat was achievable, I just needed to train enough in the remaining two months and hold back on those croissants.
Organising a trip like this takes some time and effort to plan, we split up the tasks of planning the route, accommodation, hire cars, ferry and the logistics of the ride itself. The London to Dover leg was tested and refined, finding the optimal route to catch our 6pm ferry. The routing in France was based on rides from blogs and forums. Our trip dates meant we couldn't time it with the Newhaven - Dieppe crossing and follow the Avenue Verte. Possibly another ride in the future?
My own preparations for the ride include kitting the bike with a saddle bag (a generous capacity of 2.7L) and a water bottle belt to eliminate having to carry a rucksack or fixing a bottle cage to the bike frame. I was constantly checking the weather forecast during the week before the ride. Unfortunately, no matter how many different websites I checked or the number of times I hit refresh, the outlook for the first day was to be very wet. Cue a last minute mudguard purchase which I fixed to the bike with some string after having packed all my tools in the support vehicle.
Day 1 - London to Dover
Waking up to the weather reporting the coldest day in May, I knew today’s 80 miles would be challenging. As we meandered our way out of London, the sky was dull and grey. We were soon greeted with heavy showers and hail bringing the temperature down to 2C. Along with the cold wet conditions, we had 11 punctures between us. It was not an ideal day to be cycling and I was stretched to the edge of my mental and physical limit. With the looming deadline of the ferry check in, I dug deep for last remaining ounce of energy I could on what seemed like never ending undulating country lanes. We soon reappeared back onto roads in the outskirts of Dover. Then, to my disappointment and ever so slight sigh of relief, with only 2 miles to go to the ferry terminal, a puncture meant a call for the support car for the final dash to the port. By the time everyone got to the port, collated our luggage and returned the hire car, our pre booked ferry had already set sail. With new tickets purchased, we were back on track and off to cross the Channel. After a hearty and surprisingly rather delicious fish and chips on board, we arrived in Calais to much needed hot showers, dry clothes and recovery from the day’s dramas.
Day 2 - Calais to Amiens
A new day and things were another world on this side of the Channel. The conditions were warm and sunny. After a trip to Decathlon to stock up on a few spare parts, we were on the road with renewed enthusiasm whilst reminding each other to keep to the right side. As soon as we left Calais, the landscape opened up to rolling fields and trees with the smoothest roads I’d ever been on. The flat stretches were almost effortless to glide along. This was more than how I’d imagine it, taking in the colourful view with the quiet hum of the wheels against the road and the occasional car overtaking by moving completely into the opposite lane.
the open road; fuelling up; the town square in Fauquembergues
Without ready access to internet, we relied on the preloaded GPS routes on a handful of devices in the group. Following a blue line on a screen took us through some woodland and rocky terrain, difficult for the support car to find us but luckily no punctures occurred. With no time pressure, we leisurely arrived in Amiens to enjoy a deserved French dinner.
Day 3 - Amiens to Paris
Getting out of bed was a little harder this morning. Legs were definitely achy and suffering from fatigue. The first few miles were a slow painful wake up call for the body but once warmed up, it was ready for the home straight. The hill climbs were accompanied with shouts of encouragement reminding each other 'to think of the downhill on the other side'. Thankfully, there was an even distribution of hill climbs rewarded with some fun and fast descents.
Navigating into Paris was a bit tricky with one way systems, lots of traffic and junctions. With persistent and patience, we finally arrived into the heart of Paris. Only after the obligatory photos at the Eiffel Tower as we stood with our bikes beside the evening tourists did it slowly sink in that we had travelled all this way by the power of our ourselves on two wheels. The whole body was aching and jelly-like but boy what an amazing journey. A memorable trip with tan lines across my face, hands and legs in time to compliment the summer wardrobe.
Berthillon ice cream on Ile Saint-Louis; tree lined cycle path in Paris; a bike lock on the Pont des Arts
As for cycling the distance on a single speed, a few climbs were undoubtably really tough, but it shows that the simplest of bikes can still go a long way. A total of 16 of us completed the 270 mile journey over 3 days, roughly 22 hours in total on the saddle.
Bringing the bikes back on the Eurostar was very straightforward. After handing it in at the drop off point, the bikes are labelled and placed on trolleys hung by the front wheel as if they were fish being taken to the smokehouse. In one tenth of the time it’s taken on two wheels, we were back in London to a balmy evening. A great way to finish off the trip was a gentle 5.5miles feet-stayed-on-pedals-the-whole-ride through central London back home.
What’s next? I'm planning to do more scenic touring rides in England, exploring small towns and local eateries along the way. My friend is also suggesting me to cycle the Alps and Pyrenees, I would definitely need a bike with gears for that!