Geared up for goodwill

Looking for a unique way to get to France and do your bit for charity? Anna McKittrick saddled up and embarked on her very own Tour de France

Looking for a unique way to get to France and do your bit for charity?Anna McKittrick saddled up and embarked on her very own Tour de FranceThere are many ways to get to France – by train, boat, car or plane – but it has to be said that travelling on two wheels was not something I had ever imagined doing. However, a chance sighting of a poster for a London to Paris charity bike ride caught my eye and, without thinking twice, I signed up. Let me clarify from the offset that I’m not a cyclist, in fact I didn’t even own a bike before I started my training and if I’m truly honest I was a little bit scared of cycling on the road. But I thought the trip would be a fantastic challenge, a wonderful way to experience the French countryside and a great oportunity to meet new people en route.I was joining up with 54 other cyclists for the 300-kilometre journey to Paris in aid of M�decins du Monde UK. It was clear even before we set foot on the pedals that there were vast differences in ability levels of the cyclists taking part – ranging from those who looked as if they were doing a practice run for the Tour de France to those who were more suitably attired for a leisurely weekend cycle ride. With so many kilometres to cover in three days, I sensibly opted for trainers and a cushioned derri�re. The bike ride was organised by charity challenge specialists Classic Tours and to make it seem less daunting, each day was broken down into bite-sized segments with scheduled water and food stops every 15-20 kilometres and a French-style relaxed lunch break. A nervous excitement filled the air as we slowly weaved our way out of southeast London at 7am on a cool July morning, warming up muscles still not quite awake. I was not really aware of what was in store over the next three days; the saying ignorance is bliss’ rang true and was to become my motto as I found my cycling legs on the three-day journey to Paris.Day one of the ride was entirely on English soil and was spent ambling through the picturesque Kent countryside as we made our way to Dover. The morning mist was burnt off by bright sunshine and with the first 20 kilometres under our belts, it was clear that we were all starting to get into a rhythm. The fast riders established their positions out at the front and the rest of us found our own pace. The organisers had explained that it wasn’t in any way a race and there were marshals in place to ensure that no one went too far ahead or got left behind. We cycled through the pretty city of Rochester, passing the 1,000-year-old Norman castle as we meandered out towards the North Downs. Before we set off I had made a pact with myself not to walk up any hills and after conquering the sheer incline that greeted us before lunch, I was feeling pretty smug. That mood was to be very short-lived as that afternoon we had a few very steep hills to climb and only a brave few made it without pushing their bikes. I was seriously impressed when Susan Wright, director of M�decins du Monde UK, sailed effortlessly past me on a tandem with her boyfriend Steve. She said it wasn’t quite as easy as it looked: “My boyfriend and I thought it would be easier. We had never been on a tandem until the day before we left and we soon discovered that the opposite is true. All that weight and length are nice when you’re going downhill, but not quite as nice when you’re going uphill! It is twice as hard as we thought, but ten times as much fun.” As we cycled up and down the wide country lanes, past vast converted barns,conversation flowed as nervous energy coursed through rapidly pumping veins. The first question on everyone’s lips was: “How much training have you done?”. The common answer was: “Not enough”. I happily chatted, in cycle-speak, about the benefits of a road bike compared to a hybrid and whether electrolyte drinks are worth the money. Six months ago this would have been alien to me but now I considered myself something of a pro. Talking with my new-found friends passed the time quickly and, as I caught my first sight of the white cliffs of Dover, a wave of relief and a huge sense of achievement filled me as day one drew to a close. Although I knew there was plenty more to come once we got to France, I felt energised and full of excited anticipation for the next stage of the challenge.

Pedalling on French soil When the ferry arrived in Calais we cycled a short distance and then got a bus that took us the two-hour journey to our hotel in the seaside resort of Dieppe. The next morning we indulged in a power breakfast of viennoiseries, cold meats and cheese – there was no guilt factor as I knew we would easily burn of the calories with the 88 kilometres we were due to cycle that day. I could definitely feel that I’d spent the previous day cycling but I wasn’t nearly as stiff as I’d anticipated. After a good stretch, I mounted the bike and I was ready to go – excited to explore the Normandy paysage. The Saturday morning market was in full swing as we cycled through the bustling streets of Dieppe with locals intrigued by the sight of the large group of us snaking through their hometown. We edged out of Dieppe and headed inland, passing through sleepy villages and wide expanses of fields, towards our first stop of the morning in Torcy-le-Grand in the d�partement of Seine-Maritime. I had already eaten more nuts, raisins and bananas in a 24-hour period than ever before and there was still a day and a half to go but I was grateful for the refuelling as my legs were feeling heavy from the lactic acid that had built up. Gideon, an organiser from Classic Tours, had told us to expect some gently undulating parts of the route before lunch but it soon became clear the term undulating was used very ambiguously and could cover all terrain from gentle slopes to steep hills that required a very low gear. At midday we reached the village of Saint-Sa�ns for a much needed lunch break which marked our official half-way point. Everyone was in good spirits, pleased with what we had all achieved in such a short space of time. Setting off after lunch was always a bit of a physical and mental challenge but the promise of a cold beer at the end of day two was enough to push me through. We whisked through pretty little villages, past farmers at work and even got overtaken by groups of Lycra-clad French cyclists keen to exchange pleasantries. By now the group, a melange of English and French participants, was well acquainted and the camaraderie was fantastic. If at any point someone was flagging, there was always a fellow cyclist on hand to lift the spirits and help you push on. At times I cycled on my own, which was far from lonely; either I listened to music or enjoyed the opportunity to reflect and absorb the surroundings. Normandy is known for its bocage – farmland criss-crossed with hedges and trees – giving off a patchwork effect which looks particularly striking with the rows of corn fields that were nearly as tall as me on my bike. The countryside looked like a colour swatch of greens, dotted with bright red poppies swaying gently in the wind, set against a backdrop of clear blue sky. We encountered more undulating terrain as we neared the end of the day as we edged into Picardy but it was worth the effort as we were rewarded with beautiful views of Saint-Aubin-en-Bray and Ons-en-Bray. With rosy cheeks and weary legs I was delighted to see the hotel in the distance in the picturesque town of Gournay-en-Bray. Heavy skies greeted us the next morning but that wasn’t enough to dampen our spirits as an excited buzz filled the breakfast room. Any thoughts of fatigue from the previous day had long since vanished with our goal now in striking distance. Gideon was quick to remind us that we still had to cycle more than 100 kilometres to reach our target but that didn’t alter the jubilant mood. We whizzed through dormant villages yet to wake and cycled along narrow lanes lined with hedgerows sprinkled with yellow primroses. By stage two the villages were coming to life with church bells chiming and locals waving us on. The landscape shifted from vast expanses of countryside to more urban settings as we edged into the suburbs of Paris. After lunch we entered a wooded area known as Le Parc aux �toiles before beginning the steep descent towards the River Seine, crossing it near Poissy and then heading uphill en route to Saint-Germain-en-Laye. We crossed the Seine twice more and then had our last uphill slog that took us into Bois de Boulogne on the western edge of Paris where we regrouped for our final water stop. After a brief rain shower the grey skies lifted to expose warm sunshine as if to welcome us to Paris. Spurred on by the thought of steak-frites and a glass of red I pushed aside any aches and pains, particularly as sights of the City of Light that I know so well came into view. Dressed in our blue charity t-shirts we were like a sea of cyclists as we made our way down the cobbled Parisian streets straining for the first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower, everyone ringing their bells in excitement. We cycled past Trocad�ro, with crowds of tourists cheering us on, and made our final crossing of the Seine on Pont d’Iena with Paris’ most famous monument in full view and emotions running high. The realisation of the enormity of what we had just done hit home and as we arrived at our final destination at the Champs de Mars there were tears of joy from many riders – including me. I’m happy to say that after three days of cycling I’m a convert to the sport and now that I’ve got a bike and conquered my fear of the roads, I’ll be back to discover many other areas of France on two wheels. FRANCOFILE CycleThe next London to Paris bike ride in aid of M�decins du Monde takes place 22-25 July 2010. This year’s event coincides with the finale of the Tour de France on the Champs �lys�es. Participants must pledge to raise at least �1,100 in sponsorship. Visit the website for more information and fundraising ideas. Tel: 0207 515 7534 or visit www.doctorsoftheworld.org.uk

SwimIt can take years to train for a cross-Channel swim but past participants, including celebrity David Walliams who did it for Sport Relief in 2006, have battled through freezing temperatures to swim the 34-kilometre route from Dover to Cap Griz Nez. Tel: 01509 554 137 or visit www.channelswimmingassociation.com

RunThere are all sorts of marathons that take place in France so whether you want to pound the streets of Paris or explore the vineyards of M�doc, there’s something for all types of runners. For a detailed list of all the marathons in France this year visit www.marathons.fr which even lists events in the d�partements d'outre-mer and territoires d'outre-mer (DOM-TOM) if you want to head further afield.

WalkIf trekking is more your thing, Time Outdoors organises two charity walking challenges in France. Choose from a five-day trek which follows the old trading routes along the highest part of the Pyr�n�es or on eight-day Mont Blanc trek which spans France, Switzerland and Italy. Tel: 08456 585 600 or visit www.timeoutdoors.com

M�decins du MondeSupporting doctors around the world Tel: 0207 515 7534www.doctorsoftheworld.org.uk

Classic ToursOrganise challenge events, including bike rides, runs and walks, for a variety of charities. Tel: 0207 619 0066www.classictours.co.uk