It was in the second half of the week that things really got interesting and tested me to the limit of my physical and mental abilities.
Arriving in Dieppe at 04:00 I felt surprisingly confident, disembarking and following the twinkling stream of lights towards the road. Setting off at a good pace, I felt quite isolated, shortly finding myself on the Avenue Verte, a popular cycle path. I’d made it to France- surely this was a boost? But as I cruised along the track, something wasn’t right. My eyes flickered, alone on this eerily dark cycle path. What was wrong with me? I was well hydrated, desperately sipping MyProtein Energels and Chocolate Muffin to revive myself. I was spent after ten miles.
Continually slipping into a sleepy daze and sliding off the road into the grass verge. Over and over again. I just couldn’t work it out. As it got brighter I was like an exacerbated Slug on wheels. The nearest town beckoned and a strong coffee helped but now I found myself following the quieter D roads, as planned, and sliding off the road as I kept closing my eyes and yawning. This was dangerous- I was vulnerable. Nor was it slowly slowly catchy monkey- the monkey had already done one. Instead, I knew this day had to go well or it would badly upset the rhythm. So tired I was slurring my words, I ‘powernapped’ on a park bench with the bike lock entangled round me for about 30 minutes. That was enough to get the motor spluttering to life. It was a few hours before I suffered again. Called at a Boulangerie for Croissants and fought pain with Pain (the floury, baked kind). Besides my exhaustion, I was loving the scenery, the respectful drivers, the quieter and lesser-potholed roads. But I was unfocused, anxious and a bit lost. I rang home and just said in self-pity ”I’ve had enough- that’s it”. Mum simply said ”Oh come on, even you know you’re not going to give up”. Sometimes, being as stubborn as my dog with his favourite tennis ball, is a useful asset.
I straggled onwards down lanes and open countryside until I reached Compiegne- I had about 20 miles until Soissons but passed a Hotel F1 and knew I had to stop at 103 miles. The miles had never passed so slowly. No plan remains the same on the first contact with the enemy. It wouldn’t change the route to Auxerre too much. Instead loaded up on a huge dinner- too big to even quote here- and an early night. There was no down time, it was a Tour-de-France style cycle, eat and sleep. Anything else was taking away time from sleep. I knew a good sleep was crucial now otherwise I’d be severely compromising myself.
But man did I feel better in the morning. Eager to catch up with schedule, I set off to Auxerre. I knew a big day was ahead. But I guess the beauty of being unsupported is knowing you haven’t got much choice but to get on with it.
I started to enjoy things more- taking in the local culture, but this was a challenge- not a sightseeing tour. My pace was comfortable. The heat was totally bearable- the battle being purely mental and being able to numb out the anxieties of what lay ahead. I knew roughly where I was going and when I made a wrong turn I was usually able to get myself on course without much added time.
Eager to stay on schedule, I kept on going all the way to Auxerre- worrying whether I would still be able to get in at this ungodly hour. Soon I was fully immersed into the dark for so long that the battery on my Garmin died. I started hallucinating, distracting myself from the tiredness by trying to sing my favourite songs like usual, reciting Monty Python sketches and talking to the ‘H brothers’ i.e. the two mascots on the back of my bike inspired by my Labradors Harley and Hooch. But I was so tired it came as nothing but a slurred mess of words and occasional exhausted laughing to myself. Had the bike broken, the chain snapped, or if I’d clipped the curb- it didn’t bear thinking about how much risk was involved. Thinking only about the moment I arrived in Chamonix, which sent goose-bumps up my arm. After about 136 miles I approached the hotel. Of course, with no food available other than a vending machine my grossly inadequate dinner consisted of a Snickers bar and a bag of M&M’s. Even the night porter found it amusing as he waved a stale Baguette at me.
Fell asleep with the mobile phone in hand again, waking up by sheer luck. Day 6. I gave the shower a miss- time was crucial. After an insulin-tastic session of stuffing my face I got on the bike, sighing at what lay ahead. Time flew by and it was 10am by the time I had left. Not good.
My chest seemed to be fluttering, racing, I felt dizzy, nauseous and generally drained. I’d lost the sensation in my little finger yesterday through the constant vibration of the handlebars, making turning a key difficult, for example. The thought of 140 miles today was overconsuming. I knew physically I would manage but arriving at 2-3am was going to muck the schedule up yet again. But for the first time in my adventure career, I was genuinely scared for my health and had what felt like a bit of a panic attack, alone in tranquil lush French farmland and vibrant sunshine. I had lost mental focus, even though I was hydrated, fuelled and unwillingly going rather slowly so couldn’t work it out. I consulted with ‘mission control’ and my super-experienced cyclist neighbour Richard who put it down to exhaustion and too much sugar. Reluctantly called it a day and headed to Avallon, the nearest town, after a meagre 44 miles and felt like I’d let myself down. Being a Sunday it was eerily quiet. The French never seem to be in work anyway, but today everywhere was closed and my panniers were unhelpfully loaded with an extra 4kg of water and food for the day. The Hotel Campanile staff were probably tempted to lock me in my room to keep the general public away from this smelly nutcase on a pair of wheels… Sirloin steak, pasta and ratatouille tonight before they ushered me out of the restaurant…
Day 7: As scheduled, to Lons-le-Saunier today. I passed on the Coffee, as my heart was having enough to deal with anyway. Impressive discipline by my standards! Breakfast of fruit salad, two crepes, 3 bowls of muesli, herbal tea, and two croissants.
Set off earlier this time and it was a freezing morning when out of the sun but beautifully peaceful. I’d go for a couple of hours then stop at a Boulangerie, and ask nicely for my bottles to be topped up. Bumping into a British cyclist after four days of solace gave me a boost. I remember around lunchtime passing through incredible sunflower fields and farmland with the Chateau du Cheateauneuf in the distance, canals and ponds along the side of the road which seemed to relax me. Birds of prey hovering above. I’d been on such a strict time limit every single day that I rarely stopped for photos but this was an exception. I realised that this trip would be so much more enjoyable had I done it in twice as long- but then it wouldn’t have been an epic. Seeing a road sign to ‘Silly-le-Long’ also required a video.
I did find however, that the French don’t know what a cycle path is. My route was mostly roads apart from dozens of times when I was frustrating signposted to follow a ‘road’ which was actually a Farmers track or coarse rocky path that I wouldn’t even take my mountain bike down. In case they happen to be reading this, please find the following as a reference…
I was in a hurry to get to Lons-le-Saunier. Legs still not tired and the dreaded saddle-soreness still distant. Picked the pace up for the final undulating miles- regularly stopping to check the remaining miles. The sunset was pretty spectacular over sunflower fields and some huge tower thing reminiscent of an Olympic torch.
Arrived grinning at Ibis Budget Lons-le-Saunier after 118 miles to find reception closed and my credit card failing to work in the key dispenser. And even worse, to a cry of ‘Oh fishcakes!*’ (*certain words may have been replaced) the restaurant next to it was closed. Some chap came down and helped me in. By utter good fortune, I bumped into a British couple and Paul, ex-Royal Air Force, offered to run me into town for food. This ultimately saved the final day of the challenge. Usually with an aversion to takeaways like a child to carrot sticks, I was glad to get a kebab in the town centre. Far better than nothing. So, if you’re reading this- Paul- I salute you! Chatting in the car on the way back, I realised my plans for tomorrow were too ambitious so stayed up into the early hours re-planning the final day’s route. I’d known all along I would make it- but also knew how much pain I had left to push through and that I’d already pushed my body beyond it’s endurance limits.
Day 8: Having already surpassed the disappointment of adding the final day and beating myself up over the various logistical errors all week, I knew it was nearly over with. To the obvious delight of the other guests, I crawled into my unshowered cycling gear and disturbed the French with my 3 bowls of cereal and 6 slices of toast for breakfast with Nutella. I’d given up with my technology, instead emailing the photos so far to two of my closest friends and social media gurus Chris and Ste. Now I could focus on the task at hand.
Leaving the busy city centre, nothing felt different- the first miles being incredibly hilly, slowing me right down. I remember the smoky scent of fresh log fires in the villages I passed, chilly country lanes shaded into grey light by towering cliffs and forests- it was a poignant reminder of Nepal and the Himalayan countryside. Incredible. The scenery had certainly changed from an endless maze of straight roads, villages, farmland and rusty tractors. I tried not to be too obsessed with my mileage, but seeing progress spurred me on most. Mentally, once you hit half-way, your entire mindset changes.
My bike was finally starting to snap crackle and pop, and I was almost slapping it like a galloping horse, saying ‘hang on in there son!!!’. I was impressed at my own ability to keep pushing on too. Today was beautifully scenic with huge lakes and rivers. I’d opted to head further South, to avoid the Alpine climbs which would slow me down considerably, particularly when I started rolling backwards… the longer route would add 20 miles but I felt was worth it. Wrong decision- as I soon found out, the other route had about 9,700ft of ascent too…
But the support messages were overwhelming and with just hours to go, it seemed insignificant after I’d got this far. I was loving the mega Alpine downhills- after I’d done the uphill part. But then, I really started to suffer. In my tiredness I ended up on an major AutoRoute (motorway) and realised the various screeching car horns weren’t cheering me on. I carried the bike across a farmers field to find the nearest road. More delays. Arriving in Geneva was the milestone I needed, along with seeing my first sign for Chamonix, but being in major traffic was an unwelcome surprise. Distracted by the upmarket shop windows and dreamingly eyeing up an appropriate present for mum for tolerating my various endeavours, my front wheel fell into the tram line groove, jammed and threw me forward off the bike into the pavement and a signpost. Unfortunately for the Chinese tourists flashing away with their Nikon cameras, I was unscathed as I fell onto my hands, just glowing red from embarrassment. Two local police officers checked me over but fortunately I wasn’t eligible for any offence other than stupidity.
Getting back onto lanes was a relief. My muscles were demanding a payrise and heavy with lactic acid. I knew I’d be late in Chamonix. But I wasn’t stopping… until the local Boulangerie. He asked me which cake I would like. I was thinking more ‘which one do I want first?’… and also giving me a free bag of Plums which I tried to refuse politely as the bike was heavy enough.
Later on, I was slowing down considerably. I was convinced the rear tyre was punctured. Sods law would have it fit nicely, but after various checks, it wasn’t. There was only one reason for this mysterious slow crawl- I was knackered. As goosed as the local duck pond. Arriving to Sallanches, the darkness cloaked me quickly and I still didn’t know how much ascent I had to go. Another bout of swearing as my route tried to send me down another forest track and it was quicker to stagger through the pitch black forest over stones to the road than turning back on myself.
Things went well for a while, this was the home run, and the adrenalin was taking over. Until I was sent to the next ‘path’ up a winding mountainous forested road full of Swiss chalets in the pitch black. Sluggish like a wet sponge. Then the map told me to turn off. But again, this was a forest, not a road as it was listed. I could see no other way down, at the end of my tether. I encountered a sign which with my basic French skills, translated to ”Warning- forbidden access to public, unexploded mines in the area”. Jolly good. Ending with a bang, obviously. In my exhaustion and frustration, I thought I’d found a road going down to Les Houches. But after a brilliant 5 minute snake-like downhill, it became apparent that I’d just cycled DOWN the route I’d just cycled UP. And I had no option other than to go back up. I wasted no time. It was about 11:30pm. Chamonix was just 10 miles away but it felt like forever. Near the top of the road I lost my balance on the slope, clipped a rock and hit the tarmac. The road so steep I started to slide down In the overwhelming stress of the situation I just lay there, the bike lying on me and my bleeding knee, looking up at the stars and literally crying out for it to be over with. But it fell on deaf ears- other than the odd Squirrel in the forest, who probably couldn’t lend a hand. Finding a spot in the undergrowth, layering up and sleeping there became a viable option. But I still had to get to Chamonix, with my sponsors, family, friends and supporters waiting for the news that I’d achieved what they’d become part of. Thankfully, about 12:30am I found the road. ”Barree closee” read the sign. This really was turning into an episode of Mr Bean’s holiday now. I pressed on, pushing the bike up some exposed gravel track for a while until the roadworks were finished, then following an epic downhill all the way down to Les Houches. Utter relief, pride and elation. I was almost there and still had the energy to smile. Now it was a straightforward road all the way for five miles. I used to cycle five miles to school and back every day- but this would be the most triumphant of my life, in a different kind of uniform. My Westgrove EPIC7 cycling jersey.
Now I had nothing but drunken tourists to avoid as I straggled onwards. My throat dry, my knees bleeding, my neck stiff, eyes stale, my carb reserves depleted, not that they were doing much anyway- I was fuelled by nothing more than determination to get the job done. I was too tired to think and reflect on the trip; just mentally numb. Until in the pungent orange glow of the street lights and freezing Alpine wind, a sign started to appear. It read what I had dreamed of. ‘Chamonix Mont Blanc’. I started to laugh. Then cry. Nothing mattered now. I’d done it- surpassing other people’s expectations, but most importantly, my own. I had finished another chapter in my journey back to Everest- and learnt how much further I was able to push my mind and body. The answer being, far more than I expected- leaving me excited for what I could pull off next. Something conceived whilst ridden with Salmonella in Kathmandu after Everest 2014, had matured into something far greater- but like with any dream, can only grow when the seed is planted and watered. In many ways this was harder than anything I had ever done- so maybe I need to get Salmonella more often…
No heroic fanfare serenaded my arrival as I chugged up the familiar high street. The bakery hadn’t opened late for me (perhaps it was the approaching odour) but I didn’t need it. Sure, I was disappointed not to be able to celebrate or be welcomed by the Alpine panorama, but inside echoed the classic Italian Job line: ”You were only supposed to blow the bladdy doors off!” which summed it up. Once again, through the support of those around me, I was able to overcome obstacles and triumph through adversity- even if it meant changing the plan of action. I didn’t want to see my bike again anytime soon. It probably didn’t want to see me either…
Arriving in Chamonix at 2am after 146 miles with bloody knees and eating nothing other than some MyProtein bars and a bowl of couscous, I was destroyed. But nothing rebuilds stronger without breaking it a few times first.
Some stats to brighten your office morning:
- Miles travelled: 878.41 miles
Average pace: 12.4mph
Vertical ascent in feet: 27,678ft (Everest is 29,035ft)
Hours in the saddle: 68.35 hours
Maximum calories in one day: 6,600kcal
Weight of panniers: Approx 10kg (bike 8.71kg)
Weight loss: Approx 9lbs
Biggest ascent in one day: 9,744ft
Countries travelled through: 3
Flat tyres: 0 (!)
Number of times lost: >29,035
Approx total hours sleep since starting: 47
- 70070- please text this number followed by EPIC57 and your donation amount in £ to help me make a difference 😉
And a few final lessons?
- 1) Don’t use Samsung mobile phones.
- 2) Don’t cycle into tram lines.
- 3) Don’t forget the Vaseline.
- 4) Challenges are designed to test us and are crucial for success.
Keep tuned for my EPIC7 Chester2Chamonix movie which I will produce on my return.
A special final thanks to the Westgrove Group, Youth Hostel Association, MyProtein, Edge Cycleworks, Giles Babbidge, Julie Rogers/Marcus Saw, Becky Bellworthy and all who came to my send off!