Life in the wheel world has hills and thrills for everyone: Keith Elliott at large

I'VE been a cyclist for only three days, and already I hate you bloody motorists. You pull out of junctions as if I wasn't there, cut me up, drive through puddles so I get soaked and fill my lungs with exhaust fumes. No wonder barely a quarter of the 15 million who own bicycles brave the open road even once a week. It's all the fault of lazy car drivers. A third of their journeys are less than one mile, while 75 per cent are under five miles. On your bike, motorists]

Blame the NSPCC for my two- wheel evangelism. The charity runs an annual three-day sponsored ride from London to Paris (250 miles). As a nation, we give more to dogs and cats than caring for children. This ride seemed an opportunity to discover more about the zen of cycling in advance of National Bike Week (13-19 June) and to raise money for something more worthwhile than an unwanted pet.

But first, a little background. I am not a cyclist. I have always seen pedallers as those two-wheeled nuisances who stop you doing 50mph in the High Street. Earnest backpackers with their maps and Quorn sandwiches hogging all the outside tables at your favourite pub.

I was set to undertake the ride on my wife's bike with the front basket for refreshments, three dependable Sturmey-Archer gears to power me up hills and a fine broad saddle with those old-fashioned springs to cushion the bumps. A 15-mile practice a week before the event made it clear that I would not get to Portsmouth, let alone Paris. Fortunately Raleigh came to the rescue with a space-age bike boasting 18 gears and handlebar gear change. Whatever could all those gears be for? I was soon to find out. Further advice equipped me with a helmet, those wonderful multicoloured shirts, and padded shorts that made me feel like Linford Christie.

As I pedalled up to London's Guild Hall for the start I felt pretty good. Apparently a chap with one lung has made the ride regularly. Others have included a group of postmen on their working bikes and this year, an eight-year-old girl in tandem with her dad. I'll chat to them on the way before I whizz off for the coast.

But what's this? The place is a mass of Serious Cyclists. You can spot them a mile off. They walk like John Wayne, have calf muscles that look as if their legs have swallowed avocados and are so bandy that Michael Jordan could thread a basketball through.

The first 30 miles weren't too bad - except for the hills. By half-way, I was ready to give up. My backside sore, I slumped on a grassy bank and glugged a quart of water, two Wagon Wheels and three bananas. (Strange diet these cyclists have.)

The next 19 miles were tough. In other circumstances, I might have noticed that the route planner had chosen pretty villages and sylvan lanes rather than a direct slog along the A3.

Only 16 miles to Portsmouth, they said at the final watering hole. They lied. It was nearer 60. Only a long downhill freewheel into Portsmouth saved me from oblivion. Even the NSPCC officials seemed suprised. 'You made it]' Yes, but at what price? Getting off the bike, I am too weak even to break wind. The narrow racing saddle has permanently distorted my bottom.

Over supper that night, I learn where I went wrong. Judy Purkis, a 28-year-old Coventry midwife, advises me to massage out the lactic acid swilling around in my legs. Purkis, who races with Coventry Road Club, says: 'I used to be really fat until I took up cycling seriously this year. It's great because I love food and can eat what I like.'

Day two: A grey dawn in France. The serious cyclists are revving up on the Caen quayside as I discover a wonderful skive - the secondary start. This cuts 20 miles off the 84- mile slog and is designed for duffers, the wounded and the very old. I thought I might qualify under the latter category until I met Eric Povey, 73, from Potters Bar. The last time he rode London to Paris was as a member of the British team against France in 1948.

To a club cyclist, 20 miles is an evening spin. To me, it's the difference between reaching Rouen or falling down beside the road and waiting for the St John Ambulance to scoop me up. But I'm noticing some of cycling's pleasures: for example, what goes up must come down. After you've struggled up a hill, there is the wonderful sensation of a 30mph free- wheel down the other side.

Half-way, and it's time for more substantial fare than Wagon Wheels and water. I hobble into an auberge and meet fellow rider Roy Woodgate, 66, who holds the world joggling (jogging and juggling) record. Woodgate, from Heathrow, has been cycling for five years and last year represented Britain in the world unicycle championships. He's also a magician and made many of Tommy Cooper's tricks. Just to prove it, he disappears before my very eyes soon after we get back on the road.

Fuelled by filet de barbue and a bottle of Chardonnay, the next stage is almost enjoyable. Never mind that everybody overtakes me, including Andrew Manning of British Eagle Cycles on the prototype Lotus Sport 101, developed from Chris Boardman's Olympic-winning bike. A wonderful sweeping hill snakes down to the ferry leaving across the fen and on to Rouen.

Then suddenly, it gets really hard. A forever uphill climb, no one to talk to and the final indignity - a small French boy on his kiddy bike pedals past as I stagger up the final few feet. I never came closer to retiring. I stagger on and on. Thank God there is a long, long free-wheel plunge into the city and the hotel.

'How do you feel?' I am asked.

I reply: 'Like a man barely alive - but there's nothing that three hours resting in a bidet won't cure.' I award myself two bottles of wine for getting this far. It brings dreams of endless downhills until 6am.

Day three: Why are cyclists so cheerful at this hour? Bryan Mockridge, 54, an ex-Formula Two racing driver from Hastings, says it's because you get the pleasure of unpolluted air with an early start. Those bloody motorists, I agree.

The secondary start again, missing a nightmare climb out of Rouen. Although we were driven 20 miles along the route, the first cyclists are there only a couple of minutes later. This is not a race, but put 200 cyclists together and it's inevitable that some will want to finish ahead of the others.

After a few miles, I notice one of cycling's mysteries. Whichever direction you're travelling, the wind is always in your face. The first stage is easy with few hills, but I reach the half-way point in just two hours - an average of 13mph] I'm going so well that I set plans for lunch in Nezel, 10 miles on. It takes ages.

After Nezel is the last rough hill, according to the map. I resolve to cycle it whatever happens. Half-way up, I'm walking again. It just goes on forever. At the top, my legs are shaking like a refrigerator changing gear. But now Paris is only 20 miles away and just 12 from the final watering hole. The last stretch is a delightul run through forests, then downhill into the French capital.

And as I cross the finishing line, the serious cyclists all want to know 'You enjoyed it really, didn't you?' Well, no. My bottom is on fire and divided into ridges carved out by the racing saddle. Long-forgotten muscles are calling 'Remember me?' and I feel like chucking the bike into the Seine.

But now I'm less cynical. When people ask what I got out of it, I reply: 'Money for the NSPCC, a sunburnt nose, brown knees and a hatred of motorists, especially caravans.' And today, I cycled all the way to the shops.

Thanks to Raleigh for their help and supply of a bike. You were right. I did need more practice.

(Photograph omitted)

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