Danny Bonnett, a wind turbine engineer from Bristol and a cycling pilgrim, shares his experiences of the road to Paris.
Day 1 – Newhaven to Dieppe
Mileage: almost nil.
Events: a few episodes of queasiness, great hospitality in Dieppe, and a great tour of historic churches – if only we had known how cold it was going to be! Our hosts were so welcoming it was lovely.
Day 2 – Dieppe to Gournay en Bray
Mileage: about 63 according to my back calculation. Happy for a more accurate number to be inserted here.
Events: we had a lovely mass in the Eglise St Jacques, and we started cycling as we meant to go on with several punctures. We almost lost some of the party at the first junction in Dieppe! It was pretty wet, with intermittent showers at times feeling more like contiguous showers. The day was longer than expected in terms of cycling time, so we were a bit behind schedule all day, but we got into Gournay just as it got dark. We did a bit of puncture repair in the hotel lobby before going for a wonderful meal in a restaurant just nearby. This was great work by those who had done the trip reccie back in the spring as the food was fabulous, and all prepaid. Just what we needed.
Day 3 – Gournay en Bray to Boisemont
Mileage: from Ged’s speedo, 66 miles.
Events: it was obvious straight away that it was a beautiful but really cold day. We navigated successfully onto a wonderful new railway path, but it was so icy that it was only a matter of time till one of us fell off. Father Tom worked out that what we were missing at this point was a sign interpreter. This was because Tom was thrown to the ground only a few hundred yards beyond the point where we should have left this path and rejoined the Avenue Verte (AV). However, we did not correctly interpret this (possibly) divine intervention, and it was about 5km further before we realized our mistake. Also felled were Ann and Jackie, with Ann hurting her knee, and Jacky her elbow. We got back on route, and were quite behind schedule at our coffee stop. I should mention here just how wonderful it was whenever we spotted the van (Europcar). The van crew were fabulous, providing for us, worrying about us, caring for us. Thank you David, Lucy and Clara.
Then a period of sustained mechanicals occurred. Chi was struck down as we left the coffee stop, with a puncture, and we made the decision to break into 2 groups. It was never the intention to ride separately as our normal configuration, but we were so pushed for time we had little choice. Also, Chi was attended by Mark and John, as strong a support group as you’d find anywhere, including the Tour de France, so we knew she’d be OK.
So, next to fall victim to the puncture fest was Jo. She had a serial puncture and repair that took us 30 minutes to sort at least. Jo and I stayed to sort that, meaning that we were now in 4 groups, unless you include Jackie (who had to retire at coffee because of her arm) and Barbara and Madeleine who were by now cycling as a duo, starting at the lunch stop. What confusion!
For me, the next bit of the route was the best of the whole journey. The climb up from Neuf Marche and the slow descent to Gisors was fabulous. The sun was up, the sky blue, temperature just right and the views were lovely. The van in Gisors was in the Lidl car park, and the food provided was very welcome. We had re-grouped by now, so we were 3 groups again, Barbara and Madeleine out front, the peloton, and Chi’s group making up the ‘autobus’ as they say in the Tour. On the 3rd quarter we had more punctures for Jo, one in Chaussy, and a second one on the ‘pave’ section. Meanwhile, somewhere in the back group John got a puncture too. Lucy stayed in her own in the Lidl car park awaiting Chi’s group while the van took Jackie ahead to the accommodation. By the time we made the teatime rendezvous in Wy-Dit-Joli-Village, the Barbara group were already home. Chi’s group were 45 minutes back, and Fiona, Father Joe and David had missed the van and splintered off the front. We did tyre changing here, retired Ben to save his legs for the following day, and donned lights for the moonlight ride to Boisemont. This was about 5.30pm. Barbara called and provided some top directions to speed us on our way.
The final quarter of the day featured no punctures for anyone, I think. This is good as they are much harder to mend in the dark. We deviated quite heavily from the AV to avoid the off-road sections, and we made good time through the moonlit turnip fields. We regrouped in Sagy, and took an unplanned detour in Menucourt (sorry!) before limping into our Boisemont farm accommodation at about 19.45. The Chi group came home around an hour later, in good spirits, having cycled all afternoon as as a well-oiled machine. Wow, what a day! We had a wonderful dinner, home-cooked food, quiche and lasagne, wine and cheese.
Day 4 – Boisemont to Notre Dame
Mileage: about 45.
Events: Another cold start. David had an overnight puncture to get us going. He had another in the lovely wooded park, and a 3rd on the run-in to Paris. Ben, suffered a puncture just before the wooded park as we crossed the Seine. Chi got her final flat as we crossed the Oise, and Mark got a ‘manageable slow-puncture’ sometime during the afternoon. We were determined to stay together on this final day, as we knew that navigation was going to be our principal challenge, but even still we splintered before the end. We had a couple of crashes too. Aiden came a cropper on the descent from one of the bridges over the Seine, piling into a fellow-pilgrim, and after lunch Ged came off on a tight turn headed into an industrial estate. Both seemed to be OK afterwards, thank God. The riverside paths on this day were a big feature, and were lovely. The route through the port less so. The tram tracks were an unwelcome additional hazard, to further add to the difficulty of the capital city traffic. This was a day of only 3 quarters, stopping only for coffee and lunch. The van found a genius spot for lunch, giving us sustenance close enough to central Paris that we could go all the way in from there.
The route through St Denis was pleasing to the nose, with many fires roasting food around the station in supermarket trolleys. From there the canal towpath took us all the way to inside the peripherique, before we were left alone to battle the Paris traffic and pedestrians. A couple of close quarters encounters with pedestrians for Father Joe ended without injury for either party – luckily Jo had only disconnected his back brake!!
The first pilgrims made it to Notre Dame at 5pm, with David and his ‘grupetto’ only 10 minutes behind. Photos and relief followed, before Fiona headed north again to go home. Once more, what a wonderful, action-packed and inspirational day.