Part I: The Training
When my husband first told me that he was thinking of getting a few guys from the office together to cycle from London to Paris, my
first thought was, “Who does crazy stuff like that?” The words that came out of my mouth were, “Can I join?”
I hardly had any experience cycling but that was not going to hold me back. I bought a cheap mountain bike in Egypt just before I climbed Kilimanjaro in 2009. I cycled a few times in Cairo as part of my training for the climb. That training consisted of leisurely cycling on flat road for no longer than half an hour at a time. I did not think it was leisurely then, of course. I now know what real training means.
After cycling on one of my husband’s bikes in the UK, I discovered that the mountain bike I bought in Egypt was of very poor quality and decided to buy a nice hybrid bike in the UK and take it back to Egypt with me. I rode it once every couple of weeks for about an hour as part of keeping generally fit. Months later and back in the UK after I decided I wanted to join my husband’s long distance London to Paris cycle, Colin took me out for the first time on a group ride so I could start getting used to cycling. This was six months before the trip. I took his mountain bike and we stood with all the others while we were waiting to set off. The newbies were placed in one group and the experienced cyclists in another. Only one of the other newbies was a woman and she was all decked out in cyclists’ attire sitting on a proper – and very impressive – road bike. I was feeling disheartened on my husband’s 20-year-old mountain bike. We started off with a hill. My seat was not adjusted for my height so my legs were abnormally bent with my feet on the pedals. I did not understand the gears. I cycled for two meters, stopped, told my husband this wasn’t happening, turned around towards the car, and then proceeded to throw a four hour tantrum. “You set me up for failure by placing me in a group with much higher capabilities!” I sobbed. “Besides, I have the wrong bike! That woman had a proper bike and all I had was a little mountain bike!” I lay in bed for several hours crying until I finally calmed down and came up with a solution. I needed to buy myself a proper road bike. I made my husband take me to the bicycle shop the very next day. I bought myself a pretty blue road bike for which I was properly fitted. I was not going to ride it because I was due to travel to Egypt a few short days afterwards. But it would be sitting in the garage waiting for me when I got back to the UK in May.
When I got back to Egypt in mid-February, I immediately began looking for other Egyptian cyclists I could join for long rides in order to train and soon found GBI Egypt, part of Vodafone’s Global Biking Initiative. Every Saturday they would meet very early in the morning to cycle about 70 km down an open highway that led out of Cairo towards the Red Sea. All the spinning classes I had been to while in the UK paid off and I was able to keep up with the group on my British-born hybrid bike. After every cycle I would go home in severe pain and lie on my bed thinking I had massacred my quads for good. But two days later the pain would go away and I would be back on my bike the next Saturday morning for another ride. I was loving it.
In the UK, my athletic husband began my training as soon as I was back in mid-May. We only had a month-and-a-half to go before the big trip and I needed lots of training still. The first day we went out I had only one request, “Colin, honey, I’m still new at this so please take it easy on me. I do not want to get demotivated. This area is very hilly and I am not used to the hills. Please take me on the least hilly roads you can find.” He nodded.
That Saturday afternoon was almost the end of our marriage. I had gone driving around the area quite a lot so I had a general idea what kinds of roads I could expect to find. There were semi-flat roads, rolling roads, and very hilly roads. I was aiming for the semi-flat and maybe catching a couple of rolling roads but nothing more. We cycled for about 20 minutes on good road and then took a right turn somewhere I had never been. It was a quiet, hilly, rural road with some of the most stunning scenery I had seen. Green pastures with sheep and cows grazing, lakes on either side, small farmhouses… But did I care about any of that? No! We had just hit the steepest and longest hill I had ever seen on a road. And I mean this in the most literal sense. I looked at it as we approached in shock. I could not believe that Colin brought me here. I was still trying to figure out the bike gears on this bike that I was riding for the first time. I kept putting myself in the wrong gear. And even when I was in the best gear possible for the steep hill I could hardly move my legs. I got off the bike and walked up the hill. I was seething with anger. I thought the worst was over when I reached the top. It wasn’t. There was another hill, and another, and another. I had to walk on the two worse hills and cycled very very slowly on the others. “Are you trying to tell me, Colin, that you could not find any roads at all in the area that were less hilly than this??” I have to admit that I was almost hating my husband at this stage. “He thinks it is good to push me to my limit!” I thought. “He never listens to me! I tell him exactly what I need and he does the opposite!” I told myself. We continued on for 25 km. By then I was so tired and demotivated that I got off, and as my husband put it much later, I just sat on the ground. I did so for twenty minutes. I needed a break! And it was getting late so I also needed to pray. I prayed sitting because I could not move I was hurting so much. And I needed to eat some of the chocolates I had brought. I did all that, felt a little bit rested, and cycled back home. I did not speak to my husband for the rest of the night.
The next morning I woke up with a sense of determination in my bones. I had severe muscle pain but I was not going to let Colin think that I was not ready for this trip. “Take me back to that same route we did yesterday,” I told Colin challengingly. “Are you sure?” he said, unsure of my intentions. “Yes,” was all that I replied.
We took the same route and I was determined not to get off my bike no matter how hard those hills were to climb. And I didn’t. I came back feeling much better about my abilities but suffered through severe tendon pains in my backside for two weeks.
Colin and I continued to cycle every weekend up until the big day. I got better and better and could cycle longer distances at a faster pace as the weeks progressed. Colin made sure never to take me back to what turned out to be called the big Otley Hill. It turns out those were the hilliest roads in the area and many cyclists avoid them on their rides. But whether it was Colin’s intention or not, the result of that road being my first was that anything else afterwards seemed to be doable. If I could cycle up the big Otley Hill I could cycle up anything. And I did.
Part II: London to Paris
I woke up feeling very excited. The day was finally here! We were going to cycle to Paris! I had no doubts in my mind that I could do it. Colin and I had cycled distances just under the distances we were expecting on the big trip a couple of weeks earlier for two consecutive days. It was difficult but I had done it and I hadn’t felt too bad afterwards. I was feeling strong and I was feeling confident. Plus I had bought some cool biker chic digs to wear. That always puts me in the right mindset!
Watch a 15-minute video of our trip!
If that video cannot be opened in your country, watch this one instead:
Colin, being the experienced and much stronger cyclist that he is, kindly carried my 6 kg-worth of stuff in one pannier and balanced it out with 5 kg-worth of his stuff, spare inner tubes, and snacks in another. I was not about to kill my chances of success by lugging around extra weight on my bike! And of course I needed to pack those little shampoos and soaps for showering. No, hotel shampoos aren’t good enough for me. (Colin puts up with a lot. I admit it).
If you have time, watch a more detailed 30-minute video of our trip!
Mike and Andrew came over at 7 am, had a small breakfast, and we were off! We cycled from our house to Leeds Train Station. It was all downhill so it was quite a fun ride. We loaded our bikes on the train to London. The men spent an hour looking through maps and trying to get their heads around a route out of London. In London, the ride was treacherous. Big red busses pushed their way along the busy roads, seemingly careless of the many cyclists, including us, who shared the streets with them. We were stopped very frequently by red lights at every corner. But they gave the guys a chance to reconsider our way out of the city. We cycled past some of the major attractions of London: Piccadilly Circus, Big Ben, The Houses of Parliament, Trafalgar Square. I had seen all of these so many times before but cycling past them on my way to Paris (to Paris!) was simply surreal. We eventually reached a major motorway and were on our way through the larger London area.
I was asked several times by the guys whether I thought we should stick on the motorway. Hundreds of cars whizzed past us while we stuck to a narrow shoulder. The men seemed uncomfortable and were leaning towards taking a longer but safer rural road. “Heck, yes! Let’s stick with the motorway,” was my usual response. They would look at me suspiciously and then go back to their deliberations. They decided we would take the safer rural route. I wasn’t consulted much after that over the next three days about which routes to take.
We passed through slightly rolling rural roads, trees shading them on either side. Rain drizzled on and off but the sun eventually broke through the clouds. The moving was at a slower pace than we needed. Mike was struggling. We had to get to Portsmouth by 10pm otherwise we would miss the overnight ferry that would take us to Le Havre, France. If we missed the ferry the trip would have to be cancelled. Half-way to Portsmouth, Mike dropped out. Andrew, Colin and I were left on our own. Andrew took the lead and pushed forward at an incredible pace to make up for lost time. We were all worried that we might miss that ferry. For five hours we pushed. We stopped infrequently and for only very short chocolate breaks. At 9 pm, we passed the sign that announced we had reached Portsmouth. Below us we saw a beautiful white port town lying on the side of the English Channel. This was unanimously to become one of the best moments of the trip. We made it!
We cycled down to the port, checked in, and waited in the terminal for half an hour for boarding time. I went to the toilets and looked in the mirror. A face full of black grease smudges looked back at me. Both my legs were also streaked with grease marks from the bicycle chain. I washed my face and tried to rub off some of the grease from my legs with wet toilet paper. The effect was that it got spread around even more. I would have to live with it. There would be no shower tonight.
We stood for a full hour in the cold night wind waiting for them to allow us to board. I was shivering, having not had an opportunity to change out of my sweaty clothes. It was torture waiting for that ferry. But eventually we cycled onto to it with a group of motorcyclists, fastened our bikes to a cart on the boat, and quickly found a place to settle in for the night. I changed, we had a big meal, and immediately afterwards we each took a couple of reclining chairs and did our best to rest for the next day’s cycle.
The second day was by far the most difficult. Exhausted from the previous day’s hard push to Portsmouth and having had very little sleep, we cycled through pouring rains and harsh winds for hours and hours. The area was hillier than we expected it to be and the skies were grey. Nevertheless, the scenery was beautiful. We were all happy not to be on a deadline to get into Evreux. Despite our exhaustion, Andrew and I began to fantasize about cycling beyond Evreux that day, perhaps completing 100 miles so we could say we did a century ride, or maybe even cycling all the way to Paris so we could say we did the cycle in two days rather than three. Colin listened to our conversations and smiled along with us. “We’ll see,” he would say.
We took a nice break in a small French town for coffees – in my case hot chocolate – and patisseries. Colin checked the map for our next stop. It was a small town that started with the letter B. He then pointed to a sign not 20 meters from where we were sitting and told me that was the direction we were taking next. It was all fine with me. I was following. I didn’t care how we got to our destination as long as we eventually got there.
We set off. We climbed a high hill that flattened out for awhile and then went steeply down. Colin and Andrew seemed to get further and further away. I did not mind. I knew if I got too far behind they would stop and wait for me.
I reached a junction while moving at quite a high speed from the downhill run. Colin and Andrew were nowhere to be seen. One road curved to the left sharply uphill. The top sign pointing in that direction said it was heading to the Paris motorway. We had already agreed that it was illegal to take the large motorways so we would not be going in that direction. Other signs for smaller towns were under the sign to Paris but they seemed to me to be insignificant. Another road marked “Evreux” curved gradually up to the right. Clearly that was where we were headed today and that was the road I took without a second thought. I pushed harder and harder to catch up with Andrew and Colin. But no matter how hard I pushed they were nowhere to be seen. I started getting tired and decided I would not push so hard. They would eventually discover that I was not behind them and they would stop. I cycled at a more leisurely pace and tried to enjoy the French countryside. I kept expecting to find the two men waiting for me around the next corner but it wasn’t happening. I started doubting myself. Maybe the village that started with the letter B was on the other road that led to Paris? Maybe they took the other route? But they could also be just ahead of me. I can’t turn back in the opposite direction in case they were ahead. And if I kept pushing forwards I might be getting further and further away from them. I started slowing down significantly until I decided to stop. The only smart thing to do, I figured, was to stop in this very small village and wait for them to figure out what happened. If they were ahead of me and I wasn’t catching up they would eventually cycle back. If they were behind me and had taken the other road they would eventually realize I made a wrong turn, they would see the sign to Evreux and realize THEY had made a wrong turn, and then they would cycle in my direction (obviously the right way) and try to find me. I stood for about 20 minutes and nothing happened. I was getting agitated and scared. Why was it taking them so long to discover I was not behind them? How far did they cycle before they realized the woman was nowhere to be seen? What if one of these cars that were passing by decided to stop when they saw a woman standing alone with her bike by the side of the road, grab me, pull me into the car, and rape me? I was going to be raped in France and it was all Colin’s fault! I didn’t even have my passport on me because Colin decided to carry all our passports to save time when we cycled out of Le Havre’s border control. I couldn’t even get home if I was never to find my husband again. I turned on my phone and called Colin. I was asked to leave a message. Damn it! He ALWAYS shuts his phone off while on holiday! What if there’s an emergency? This IS an emergency! Why didn’t he think of turning his phone on when he couldn’t find his wife?? Or was he still pushing forward oblivious of the fact that I had not been behind them for the past 45 minutes??
I walked with my bike to the end of the village, thinking I might see them heading my way from in front. Nothing. After waiting for 15 more minutes I walked back towards the only shop in the village. In the message I left on Colin’s phone I told him exactly where I was. If he ever opened the damn phone he would head towards the main part of that village. I would want to be there. As I turned the corner, dragging my feet behind me and on the verge of crying, I saw Colin and Andrew stopped by the side of the road looking at a map. Andrew looked up and a huge smile appeared on his face. He started walking towards me. Colin looked up and it appeared that lots of worry washed away at once. My anger turned into relief and then into anger again. I mentally forced myself not to make a big scene. What was important was that we found each other and I was not raped. Colin and Andrew had taken the other turn. One of the signs under the sign to Paris clearly stated the name of the village we were heading towards. Colin assumed I would take it without a problem. The two of them climbed an extremely steep and long hill, focused completely on getting to the top. When they did, they realized I was not behind them. They waited for ten minutes and then grudgingly decided to head back down the hill to look for me. Andrew could not bear the thought of having to go back up that hill once they found me but there was nothing to be done. When they found I was nowhere to be seen, they realized I took the other route with Evreux on the signpost. Colin had only just turned on his phone when I saw them and had not yet listened to my message.
Colin checked the map once more. The route I had chosen would indeed take us to Evreux. So would the other one. We continued ahead.
The last 30 miles into Evreux were the most difficult. It was a mind-numbingly boring flat road that went on and on with absolutely nothing to distract our thoughts. It was so boring that Andrew once yelled out, “Look! A roundabout! Finally a bit of change!” We swung into the roundabout and then continued to cycle on more mind-numbingly boring flat road. It was during this time that I told myself over and over and over again, “You are not going to make a big deal out of the fact that you nearly got raped. You were not raped. You got a little lost. It wasn’t exactly your fault, of course. If I had focused more on the name of the town we were heading to things might have happened differently, but why on earth would we even head in that direction when there was another road leading directly to Evreux?? No. I would not make a big deal out of this. I was not going to throw a tantrum the minute I got a chance. I was not going to make myself and Colin miserable for the next two days. Lots of things could have gone wrong on this trip and could still. As long a none of us gets hurt or killed then it’s all all right.” On and on and on this dialogue went through my head until I eventually brainwashed myself into believing it. I calmed down.
We rode into Evreux around 5pm and Andrew and I were raring to keep going. “Let’s at least try for a century ride,” we told Colin. “Maybe we’ll even make it to Paris!” we said. Colin was not convinced. We had had two long days of cycling and we needed to rest. The cycle to Paris was still a long way to go and if we continued forward we had no idea if we would find a place to sleep for the night once we got tired. Besides, Colin had begun worrying about his knee. It was hurting him after cycling for two days with 11 kg of stuff on his bike. It needed a rest. We stopped for the night and took our first showers in two days. It was wonderful.
After a nice warm dinner and a huge breakfast the following morning, we were all refreshed and very excited to get to Paris. We pushed hard from the start. We wanted to get to the Eiffel Tower as early as possible so we could enjoy the day. We left just after 8 am, knowing we had more than 100 km to cycle. We pushed and pushed, got a little lost, pushed some more, stopped for a short break for coffees and pastries, and pushed harder still. We were on a mission. We got more excited as we got closer to Paris. None of us complained about our legs. None of us felt we were going at a faster pace than we had any of the other two days. We had something that needed to get done and we were going to do it! Riding along the Seine was amazing. Andrew took out the adventure camera I had bought before the trip and took videos of us cycling past. Huge smiles were on our faces despite the speed at which we were travelling. We got closer and closer to the city. The villages coalesced into towns and the towns coalesced into the outskirts of Paris. Andrew looked at his map frequently so we wouldn’t get lost while navigating our way through the big city. We reached a certain crossway and Andrew said, “Once we go up this ramp and cross the motorway, we should be in Paris!” Our excitement was palpable. Andrew turned on the video camera and cycled ahead. I was behind him. It seemed to be less than two minutes after that last stop and Andrew suddenly yelled out, “It’s there!” I looked off to my right where he was pointing. Never in my whole life have I been so happy to see the Eiffel Tower. “Wooooooooohoooooooo!” I howled We pushed harder and harder forward. Within minutes Andrew pointed again. “Look!” It was the Arc de Triumph! We cycled up to it, around it, and down the Champs Elysee. It was the most amazing and triumphant feeling in the world. The 3300-year-old Egyptian Obelisk appeared ahead of us standing proudly in the Place de la Concorde. I could not have felt more proud myself. I, an Egyptian woman almost 45 years of age, had just cycled from London to Paris and I was passing by this testament to Egyptian greatness of past times. I stopped by the Obelisk for a picture, holding my fist high up in the air.
We cycled all the way to the Eiffel Tower, took our pictures, huge smiles on our faces, feeling strong and happy. We were proud. We did it! I never would have even considered doing something like this months before. I was not a cyclist. I never would have thought something like that would have been possible. It was. I was so happy.
We cycled to our hotel, checked in, took quick showers, and went out immediately. We all agreed that we would probably fall fast asleep if we stayed in our hotel rooms for too long. We had a great celebratory dinner at a nearby restaurant and spent the evening walking around the Montmartre neighborhood. We made a quick visit to the Basilica of the Sacre Coeur and then returned to our hotel rooms and fell fast asleep.
The next day went by in a whir. Breakfast, some walking, a cycle to Gare du Nord Train Station, lunch, and getting on the Eurostar back to London. We all slept on the train. We arrived into London’s St Pancras Station with two hours to go till our next train to Leeds. We cycled to Buckingham Palace for celebratory photos. We cycled back to Kings Cross Station, ate some more food, and hopped onto our final train. In Leeds, Colin told us the next train was another 30 minute wait. We might as well cycle home, he said. And so we did. We cycled uphill for half an hour, pushing the whole way, wanting to reach our final destination. In front of our house, we took one last happy picture of the three of us. Big high fives and hugs followed. Andrew headed home in his car that was parked in front of our house. Colin and I walked into the house. More hugs for my kids who had surprisingly left the house nice and clean while we were away.
What a weekend. Who woulda thought?
Total distance cycled: 388 km / 241 miles
Total time: 25:26:44
Total moving time: 19:11:02
Average moving speed: 20.5 km/hr = 12.75 miles/hr
Maximum speed: 57 km/hr = 35.4 miles/hr
Total elevation gain: 2557 m / 8389 ft
Total elevation loss: 2679 m / 8791 ft