My two-wheeled journey from London to Paris
Tony Wheeler follows the (mostly) traffic-free Franco-British Cycle Plan
Saturday 02 October 2010
Buy a new bicycle and you have to ride it somewhere, right? So, early one morning, I turned right from my front door, rode through Earls Court to Parliament Square, glancing up to note that it was still 6.50am, according to the clock on Westminster Tower. And three mornings later, I pedalled by the Eiffel Tower.
The Franco-British Cycle Plan is a grandly titled scheme that aims to link the two capitals by traffic-free cycle paths. My plan was to follow the bits that are already open, supplemented with quiet back lanes and country roads.
The Newhaven-Dieppe ferry service would get me over that awkward stretch of water between England and France. So step one was to find National Cycle Network (NCN) route 4 along the Thames to Greenwich, then turn south along NCN 21, heading down to Gatwick airport and beyond.
Through London the two routes do a pretty good job of keeping bikes and cars separate, but you soon discover two problems with this plan. One is that avoiding traffic can mean some awfully circuitous meandering. As the crow flies, Gatwick is just 25 miles from my front door; Google Maps promises to direct me there in 30 miles. I'd clocked up almost 50 miles by the time I pedalled on the perimeter road under the airport's south terminal and past the landing lights.
Getting lost was definitely problem two. Get off NCN 21 and it's not like finding your way back to the M25 – goodness knows where the route has wiggled off to in the mile since you missed that sign cunningly hidden behind the hedge. Then there's problem three: to avoid those nasty traffic-filled roads, the cycle route frequently heads up bridleways and paths more suitable for a mountain bike than a road cycle. If it's been raining recently, you'll be mud-spattered even before you roll under London's orbital motorway.
So perhaps it's wise to abandon the approved route from time to time and plot your own course. There are plenty of minor roads to choose from. My meandering meant I'd cycled more than 90 miles by the time I wobbled, somewhat exhausted, into Seaford for the night.
Still, there were plenty of compensations along the way, such as the delightful Cuckoo Track: 14 miles of flat, well-surfaced and traffic-free cycle trail following a disused railway line in East Sussex. Next morning, it was only a few more miles, and some of it by cycle track, to Newhaven, where mine was the only bicycle on board the ferry.
Four hours later, I rode off at Dieppe and almost immediately found a sign directing me to the Avenue Verte, the French part of the London-Paris cycle route. Only six miles later, things got even better at Arques-la-Bataille with the Avenue Verte cycle track, another old railway line converted into a cycle path, but this one proceeding along for almost 30 miles with no interruptions and lots to look at, including old railway buildings and stations, an assortment of villages with imposing churches and a real chateau at Mesnières-en-Bray. From Neufchâtel-en-Bray there was even a 1:1.4 billion-scale Solar System model strung out along the track. You don't find that sort of thing in south London. The Avenue Verte finally petered out at Forges-les-Eaux, my night stop 40 riding-miles from my Seaford morning start.
There were no more cycle trails to follow the next day, but it was no problem to plot routes along minor roads – most of them with only the occasional car all day. I pedalled through Saint-Samson, La Vierge, Hodeng-Hodenger, Bellozanne, Gournay-en-Bray (a larger town), then Saint-Germer-de-Fly, with its wonderful-looking church, and a long stretch along the D129 to Saint-Crépin-Ibouvillers, by which time I was discovering a French problem. It was August and everything was closed: restaurants, cafés, shops, all shut for les vacances.
Hénonville was pretty, but quiet as a morgue, Grisy had a place where I could have had lunch, except it was now well past lunchtime and I began to contemplate cycling all the way into Paris for the night. Instead, I carried on through Chanteloup-les-Vignes and finally stopped at Poissy – the French car-manufacturing centre on the outskirts of the capital, not to be confused with other outer suburbs such as Boissy and Roissy (the location for Paris's main airport).
I'd covered 72 miles, and should have bought lunch before I left Forges-les-Eaux in the morning.
Next morning, I'd stopped just a mile or two down the road to study my map when a French cyclist heading to work pulled up to help. "Riding into Paris?" he asked. "Just follow me."
So the final miles were down obscure laneways, along a Seine-side cycle track for a spell, the odd short-cut through a park.
It was only as I rolled down to the Pont de Suresnes, five miles from the heart of the city, that I really saw any traffic. I mingled with the serious cyclists on their training rides through the Bois de Boulogne, and got my bearings with the help of the scale model of the Statue of Liberty on the Grenelle bridge. Just a few more traffic lights and I'm riding past the Eiffel Tower itself.
I restored some carbohydrates with a great lunch in the Marais at L'Ebouillanté, a little café on rue des Barres that does the best brics (a North African dish somewhat like a savoury crêpe) in Paris. Later that afternoon, I handed my bicycle over at the Gare du Nord and Eurostar whisked me back to London at a top speed of 186mph – about 10 times more than I had managed.
Tony Wheeler is co-founder of Lonely Planet, and author of 'Bad Lands: a Tourist on the Axis of Evil' (£7.99)
Travel essentials: Paris by bike
* LD Lines Newhaven-Dieppe ferry route has singles from £20, including bicycle carriage (0844 576 8836; ldlines.co.uk).
* Eurostar has singles from Paris to London from £45.50, plus £20 for bicycle carriage (0843 218 6186; eurostar.com).
* The Avondale, Seaford, East Sussex (01323 890 008; theavondale.co.uk). B&B from £65.
* Hotel La Paix, Forges les Eaux, Seine-Maritime (00 33 2 35 90 51 22; hotellapaix.fr). Doubles start at €57, room only.
* Hotel Ibis, Berteaux, Poissy, Ile-de-France (00 33 1 39 65 56 10; ibishotel.com). Doubles start at €70, room only.
* Tony Wheeler's trip cost £350. It covered 244 miles.
* The Franco-British Cycle Plan: 01273 481 441; francobritishcycleplan.org.
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