On a dark December evening I sat with Claire and Ali in their home, a narrow boat in Oxford, sipping tea as they recounted their cycling adventure of a few years ago, which took them from Kent to Paris.
In 2011, Claire (a designer) and Ali (a science editor) decided to cycle from Ali’s home in Sellinge, Kent to Paris. Without any training and using kit mostly from the 1970s - a BSA steel frame bike and a huge, old, black Peugeot (£34) - they set off from the small village hoping that their laden £4 eBay-bought panniers would hold the weight of their camping equipment. They aimed to complete the journey in 7 days, spending the nights in a blue ridge tent borrowed from Ali’s parents who had used it on their honeymoon motorbiking around the US.
After crossing the Channel by ferry, the first night they were plunged into rain and darkness. At a campsite in the town of Sangatte near Calais they were allocated a tent pitch on the edge of a cliff. A windy, wet night filled them with doubt about the trip ahead as they lay awake on the hard ground getting slapped in the face by a flapping wet tent. But morning came and with coffee and breakfast so returned their taste for adventure.
The rain on Day 1 set the weather for the rest of the trip. August had fooled them into packing for summer and Claire’s shower-proof (not waterproof!) coat let the rainwater soak through to her skin. They both had persistently wet feet and suffered the consequences of saturated socks and shoes as well as sore bums from the saddle, and regular over-caffeination as they drank coffee after coffee trying to dry-off in coffee shops.
After abandoning the gas they’d brought with them - it wasn't permitted in the panniers when crossing the Channel - a kindly man lent them some cooking equipment while watching bemused as they tried and failed to cook using the heat of candles.
It was this kindness of strangers that they remember most vividly from the trip. On the fourth afternoon Ali had a persistent puncture and with the night drawing in and no sign of a campsite they began worrying about where they'd pitch up. Positioning themselves at a junction they flagged down the next vehicle, a van containing a bewildered french farmer. Climbing on-board and their bikes thrown in the back (the van was full of cherries and honey from the farm) they were driven ten miles to the next campsite. When they arrived an elderly couple in a caravan gave them hot chocolate in a bowl (a French classic), dried their clothes on a heater and lent Ali a shirt.
They cycled from town to town, through beautiful countryside and vast fields of cereal crops, picking up food and wine along the way. For meals they ate cheese, saucisson and pâté en croûte, bulked out with rice and pasta. Whenever there was a sunny spell they hand-washed their pants and socks and dried them on the panniers to dry. They ingeniously strapped the map to the back of one of their bikes so that the other could read it without having to stop cycling
While telling me about their trip, we finished the tea and began eating a warm winter vegetable salad, sitting close to the wood burner that makes their boat so warm and inviting. They were full of enthusiasm and appreciation of the kindness they’d found along the way from the locals in France and how easily they were able to make the trip despite their lack of training and planning. On average they covered 60km per day. Sadle-sores and pulverised perineums weren't enough to stop the dread of hitting the road again each morning, gradually turning into a yearning; the boundless freedom, sense of challenge and pure adventure spurring them ever onwards through the rain to the Eifel Tower.
When I asked if they would do it again? They both immediately said yes. Of course they would. They laugh now at how under-prepared they were but argue that over-preparation or the perceived need to over-prepare, is the thing that really stops people doing the things they want to do.
All photos were taken by Claire Cartwright.