The Tour de France
Back in July of 2018 I was at a bit of a loose end. I had the TCR coming up in 3 weeks time, and I needed to get away on the bike for a weekend, mostly to just enjoy riding but also to try a few bits and pieces out ahead of the TCR. I also was super keen to take the opportunity to go and watch the Tour de France that was moving through northern France, so a short hop over the channel would give me a chance to get up close to the action.
After looking into ferries, hotels and the route of the tour, I decided to get a train down to Dover after work on the Friday, chug across the channel then ride somewhere to watch the race. Logistically, this was awkward. My past forays into northern France were via Dieppe, a slow 4-5 hour ferry from Newhaven with a chance to sleep and rest overnight and minimise the need for riding in the dark. The Dover-Calais option would mean much less sleep, and earlier and darker arrival in France, and also a lot further away from where the race would finish that day in Amiens. So obviously I chose this one.
I balanced it up and decided to ride from Calais down to Gournay-en-Bray for breakfast, then follow the route up to the finish in Amiens, before heading across to Arras for a hotel. The following day would be a case of catching the tour on some cobbled sections before gunning it back up to Dunkerque for the last ferry home that would connect me with my train.
I somehow managed to get an earlier train to Dover, which meant that when I got to the ferry terminal, I was waved straight onto the 10 pm ferry. Always nice being early, but this meant I would have 1 extra hour riding in the dark with the ferry arriving in Calais at just gone midnight.
The ferry was crazy busy, so there was no chance getting any sleep. I resigned myself to making sure I was fed and watered, ready for the long day ahead without sleep. It was a short ferry trip anyway.
After a bit of faffing around with the maps on the phone at midnight, I rode a bike path that led out to the streets Calais. Once clear of the port it was a case of getting my head down and getting the miles in. It was going to be a very long night.
It was dark, what with it being the middle of the night and everything. It was also a bit chilly. I managed about 3 hours before fatigue from the long week at work and the lack of rest on the ferry caught up with me. I’d covered 75 km and was happy with the pace but needed to rest before carrying on. I found an awkward bus stop in the town of Wailly-Beaucamp where I had a lie down and snooze. I struggled to drift off, but did manage a broken 10 minutes or so. The slight rest certainly helped, and after about 20 minutes the cold started getting to me so I swung a leg back over the bike and pushed on.
My favourite time of day. Just before sunrise, the magical time of day where you start to come back to life and can start to see some of the wildlife about – deer, rabbits, even a small family of wild boar that I mistook for a pack of dogs at first.
Unusually, I was feeling really quite tired still, but I figured that with the sun rising I normally find a bit of energy and sleepiness dissipates. It wasn’t happening this time, and at around 6.30 am I found a small patch of grass behind a tree just off the road and lay down. Sleep was fleeting, but I managed to drift off for about 10-15 minutes. The point of the stop was to rediscover some energy, and that mostly worked. I was also keen not to over tire myself so close to the TCR, but also wanted to balance it with testing myself to see how I cope. I was a little concerned as I’d been flagging way sooner than I’d hoped, but I was really tired after a big work week and had been pushing the pedals quite hard to start with.
Gournay-en-Bray & Breakfast
After nearly 200 km, at around 9am I found myself in Gournay-en-Bray, my target destination for breakfast. I located a boulangerie in the centre of town and ordered a number of pastries, coke, water, a sandwich roll, and some coffee. I sat down outside and studied the Tour de France route and devoured my food haul.
The town is a key location on the London (Dieppe) to Paris route, and a number of cyclist in all forms were milling around, which was great to see. I got speaking to a couple of lads who were heading down to Paris for the day, and were surprised to learn the Tour was going through the town they were having breakfast at. I gave them a good suggestion to head towards Vernon where the tour would be coming through around midday. While giving this advice my rear tyre decided to blow out while propped up in the morning sunshine. I took that as a sign to go order another sandwich and coffee, then set to changing out the tube. Meanwhile a marching band started banging down the main street. I hadn’t realised it was Bastille Day! France is often ‘closed’ most of the time, so was fortunate to find the Boulangerie.
Etape 8: Gournay-en-Bray to Amiens
I finished up the food, puncture, topped up my bottles with water. I wished the two lads good luck on their journey to Paris and in tracking down a good spot to watch the Tour go past. I headed to the edge of town to pick up my route and was surprised to see the roads lined with fans, seemingly camped out for sometime already. They’d started to close the road to cars already, but I was able to cycle along without any issue for a while. It was really special, all the locals and families camped out for the day waiting for the tour to pass through. I was buzzing from everyone cheering and waving as I went past, totally unexpected and felt amazing to be there.
A lot of the route, like many roads in France, were long exposed straight roads. There was very little space not taken, and was filling up as the morning progressed and as I closed in on Amiens. The monotony was occasionally broken as the route passed through the most picturesque towns and villages. The day had become quite hot as well, and the long straight roads were full of a headwind. This didn’t really bother me too much, as the crowds cheering me along compensated for it.
The closer I came to Amiens, the more attention I was getting from the Gendarmerie. Most were more than happy to let me ride along the route, and I felt they appreciated what it meant for me to do that, but before long I was halted by an over officiating officer. It was maybe 10.45 am, the Tour and Caravan due around 12pm. The officer told me, after I insisted I could not understand French and I could only speak English, that I could not ride on the road. I asked “But, why not?”. The simple and incredulous tone of the reply was “Because, le Tour!”. Fair enough! The first time I stopped, I explained I was trying to get to Amiens. The officer gave up around this point and waved me on, with about 60 km to go I was relieved I wouldn’t have to detour around to make it to the finish of the days stage.
It wasn’t much longer before I was stopped again, this time much more forcefully and without the chance to ask why – the road was closed and it was for everyone. With about 40 km to go, I was in a location that to detour on roads would have meant adding another 20 km – and the chance of missing the race and the finish.
Fortunately, I used my maps.me app on my phone to find an old train line turned gravel track running along a valley parallel to the route, most of the way to Amiens. I was somewhat worried of getting a flat, but happy to be moving through the tree dappled shade avoiding some of the heat of the day.
Rolling into Amiens, I found my way to the finish line festival and duly rewarded myself with a couple cans of beer and a hotdog. In hindsight, with another 60 km to Aras later, where I would get my hotel for the night, the following beers were perhaps a mistake. I was buzzing though, and the thrill of the circus was in my blood. I moved up and down the finish line area to find a place to settle in and watch the race come through – from arriving it would be 3 hours before the race would arrive.
I watched from the last corner, perhaps 300 meters from the finish, and was thrilling to see the peloton swarm around the corner at high speed. I obviously had my welsh flag out and one of the highlights for me was seeing Luke Rowe roll in a little back from the main bunch, obviously saving his legs for the mountains the following week. I gave him a shout waving the flag and got a nod of the head – it’s funny how a simple thing like that can make the whole day worth it!
Heading to the hotel
With the race done, it was time to head to my hotel, 60 km away in Aras. The day was still hot, and with the 3 hours of standing around in the heat (and the previous 260 km) I was probably a bit dehydrated. I was keen to get the days riding done and dusted, get to the hotel, clean up and get a good night’s sleep ahead of the next day.
I had to dive into a bar for some coke and water after about an hour, and had some fun trying to explain where I had ridden from that day… I think it was just under 300 km at that point, and was difficult for them to comprehend – I was also struggling too.
I arrived at the hotel before sunset, had a quick change and had some food and wine while chatting with a lovely family from Trento. Was pretty tired, so retired early to bed to get some sleep ahead of the next day on the cobbles of Roubaix.
Day 2 Etape 9: Aras to Roubaix, Sectors 9 & 5
I had plenty of time today, so had a leisurely breakfast, packed up my kit and headed to the citadel to try and get up close to the circus. It was packed, so I had no chance of getting in and seeing anyone or anything, so I decided to ride over to my first stop for the day, the cobbles of sector 9. Before leaving Aras, I found a mini market open where I stocked up on some food for the day, as well as a lovely demi bottle of Bordeaux red wine and a cork screw.
I knew it would be a while before I’d see the race start to pass through, but was keen to find a good spot to watch the race, but one that was also easy to get away and head over to sector 5 to catch some more action. I figured I’d have about 30 minutes to travel 15 km and find a new patch, before racing up to Dunkerque for the ferry home. Arriving at sector 9, I bumped into some friends from a local club, Rolling Dynamics who were camping out on a corner. I love this about cycling – ride your bike for 300 km across France and you can bump into friends on a random cobbled farm road.
In order to get across to sector 5 after the race rolled through, I needed to be a little further down the road to be able to get away quickly, so left their little party and found my spot. It was blisteringly hot and I had limited water, so made the most of the demi of Bordeaux and waited.
It was worth it! The dust, noise and excitement was a great buzz, being so close to the race as it thundered across the cobbles.
It blitzed by, and in no time I was packing up and trying to get onto the next spot, sector 5. It was about 25 km for the peloton, and 15 for me. I raced across the back farm roads, unsure if I’d make it in time to see the race roll pass again. I was somewhat concerned that the race was running a little late, limiting my time to make it back to the ferry from Dunkirk.
I made it to the cobbles of sector 5 and found my spot, and before long the dust storm was rolling past at speed again. A few trail motor bikes were leading and nearly had a big off. Such is the savagery of this sector, a couple of cars grounded very heavily with sparks flying – amazed they made it out.
The last 105 km…
With the race done and dusted, I started making my way back to Dunkirk. It was much later than planned, and only had about 4 hours to make the ferry home. It was mostly flat, so felt that this should be quite doable. But cutting it fine.
I made a dash for some water in a graveyard (usually a great tip, but with the heat I ended up paying the price with catching a stomach bug from it) and rode as hard as I could maintain.
I skirted through the town of Lille, with the tension of the World Cup final building and about to start, there was a great atmosphere. I was keen to get out into the quieter country roads though, so didn’t hang around.
After skirting through Belgium I arrived into the outskirts of Dunkirque with about an hour to go before my ferry. That’s when the quiet burbs started going a bit loud. Kids running into the street screaming, cars beeping their horns… France had won the World Cup. The town was going wild.
As I got closer to the centre of town, relaxed about time now and enjoying the moment, I noticed that my route didn’t go anywhere near a harbour. A quick frantic search on the phone showed me that the ferry terminal was about 15 km outside of the city center where I was. Shit. I had less than 30 minutes to travel that distance to catch my boat, so I went for it.
I may have run a couple of red lights and had little patience for the celebrating locals wheel spinning their cars all over the place. It wasn’t the safest places to ride a bike, but I was focused on getting my ferry.
I was following google maps now, and just when I thought I was going to make it, it send me down a dead end road, meaning a U-turn and find another way around to the port. I was giving whatever I had left. I finally made it to the terminal check in 5 minutes after my ferry was due to depart – I asked in vain hope if I could make the ferry, but was denied. I was resigned to waiting 2 hours to the next one and having to deal with working out how to get home from the other end, which would most likely involve having to get a hotel overnight. Food was also a concern – there were only vending machines available…
I rolled through passport checks and into the empty lanes of the ferry terminal. I was greeted by a loader who waved me straight onto the ferry that hadn’t left yet. Could have kissed the guy! I sprinted down to the ramp to the boat and boarded – a minute later the ramp was being raised. I’d made it!
Instagram Stories from the trip:
- Distance: 330 km
- Ride time: 13h 10m moving, 18h 51m elapsed
- Distance: 170 km
- Ride time: 6h 36m moving, 10h 27m elapsed