The official start of my Paris-Brest-Paris began about 400km north of Rambouillet on the outskirts of Oxford. Here, on a fine summer’s morning, Quentin and I set off shortly after the appointed 8am start. My Flying Gate was pretty loaded up with a rando bag at the front, a rear-rack bag behind and a couple of rear panniers for good measure. Quentin’s Dawes Galaxy had a couple of rear Ortlieb panniers too, but without the extra baggage as he was only travelling to the outskirts of Paris where he would spend a leisurely long weekend with an old friend.
After peeling off the A40 after Wheatley we headed in a southerly direction. At the pretty village of Ewelme we reached our first short ascent marking the beginning of the Chiltern Hills. It was time to lose a layer and take a short breather. Around us the countryside bristled with the expectation of a fine warm day ahead. We wound our way over rolling hills, along quiet gravelly lanes and through villages with sweet names like Ipsden, Gallowstree Common and Kidmore End until we reached the outskirts of Reading. So far so good.
Over the bridge spanning the Thames we made a sharp left turn and onto the riverside path which was busy with walkers, fishermen and a few other cyclists. Under the railway bridge, along another river (the Kennet), down some side streets and across some parkland and we were out of the clutches of Reading and on the Wokingham Road – a relatively painless route to avoid a town I normally avoid. We were still in urban Berkshire and the roads were busy but bearable as they led us through the leafy commuter belt towns of Crowthorne and Sandhurst. After passing under the M3 we had 75k in our legs and the hot sun meant a cafe stop was in order. Olivers cafe in Frimley had cycle racks outside the front door and ticked all the other boxes too. Being used to leisurely weekend CTC rides Quentin was starting to stretch out as he pushed his plate away, but I was keen to get back on the road as I knew The Hope at Newhaven would only be serving meals until 8:30pm and we had some distance to cover before we reached its generous portions.
Back on the road and more endless suburbia: Frimley Green, Ash Vale, Tongham and Runfold where we turned into the wooded Surrey Hills towards Beacon Hill and Hindhead where we pulled over to take a short breather. It was all pretty much downhill from this point but the road down to Haslemere and on to Fernhurst was narrow and busy and I was thankful that we were descending it at speed and not weaving our way up in the opposite direction (as I would learn on the return journey).
It was a relief to cut across to Bury via a series of quiet lanes that took us through Lickfold, Lodsworth and Selham, before we were once again on a busy downland road. We had now entered West Sussex and well on our way towards the coast. A final clamber up Bury Hill and we swept down to Arundel where the roundabout was gridlocked with traffic. The only safe way around this was to dismount and walk across the angry traffic. A final straight stretch through Ford and we were within sight of the sea.
I’d arranged to meet my daughter in Worthing for afternoon tea and she called to check where I was at around this point. “O, not far now. Maybe half-an-hour or so”, I opined. Being a medic, you may well imagine that she doesn’t do waiting. Worthing, it turned out, was a good 20km sprint around bungalow-clad coastal sprawl like Angmering and Ferring and it was now that hottest part of the day. We were pretty cooked by the time we flopped outside of Giuseppes which served delicious Italian gelato, ice creams, pastries and cakes – I would say that it was just what the doctor ordered! We left Worthing refreshed and ready for the final 35ks to Newhaven.
It seemed quite a stretch before we reached Shoreham where the 200k SeaShore audax had parted company with the coast. Brighton and Hove had the usual obstacle course of summer-stunned pedestrians strewn randomly across the cycle path. But we were making good time on this flat stretch and were soon riding beneath the white cliffs towards Rottingdean and Peacehaven where the cycle-route veers away from the coast up a steep street and then takes a non-scenic concreted road past poorer housing stock. The rutted track that forms part of the NCR was a serious mistake, but, after a short diversion to save both our tyres and our sanity, we were soon on the main road and spinning rapidly into Newhaven and the final meal orders at The Hope Inn (suitably named, I always reflect, given that it is the last point before crossing The Channel). I must say that after 200ks the steak with all trimmings went down a treat with a couple of local ales for good measure.
Suitably refreshed we left the pub and headed for the dockside where a long line of cyclists stood waiting to board the midnight ferry, while their various rear lights flashed distressingly: we’d finally caught up with Operation Blighty Does PBP.
I wandered up and down the line chatting to those I vaguely recognised. There was much excitement and anticipation and a wide assortment of bike layouts. Few had travelled far on two wheels to get to the ferry. I met Lee who relayed that poor Ricki had managed to wound his hand with a penknife while cutting off a zip tie, and was currently languishing in Brighton Hospital’s A&E department. The hazards of audax where anything can happen at any almost time.
Naturally, and perhaps to Quentin’s disappointment, I hadn’t booked a cabin for the crossing (and as anticipated all of the cabins had been taken by the time this was highlighted as a potential issue). Nonetheless, after staring at some brightly light florescent ceiling panels for an hour in the desperate hope of some shut-eye the allure of the luxury lounge seating was starting to fade. I wandered the decks and found an upper storey to the canteen had become a makeshift dorm with cocooned bodies littered beneath tables and chairs. I quickly gathered my belongs and did likewise and managed to get a few deep snorts out before the tannoy announced our imminent arrival at Dieppe (which was clearly a lie as we were barely mid-channel) but there was nothing else for it but to shuffle to the stairwell and try not to look too stupefied.
Below deck we bumbled with our bikes and emerged into the twilight world of dockside Dieppe. There were even more bikes now, it seemed, than the night before and we made a fine sight as we rode southwards and in formation along the road that leads through the Brays. It was a brisker pace than Quentin and I had been used to and it took some effort to keep up with Group AUK. After some while we were escorted onto the pitch-dark Avenue Vert by Phil Whitehurst (aka Route Master), and it was here that I chatted for a while with both Lee (who may have been on fixed), and Aidan who was most certainly on a tricycle. We were going great-guns (I believe a rendezvous with a bakery had been arranged), but Quentin and I decided to drop the pace and stick with our original plan of feasting on omelettes and pastries at the Cafe Dieppe in Forges-les-Eaux where some strong grand cafe was also most warmly welcomed.
By now the morning had truly broken and the petites oiseaux were chanting in the bushes, etc. etc. In other words the petit dejeuner had done the business and we were now firing on all four cylinders again.
The route that I had plotted out months ago on ViewRanger (a GPS package widely used by walkers it has to be said) had seemed fine-looking in the mapping package, but it was not long before we found ourselves in the rough down an overgrown farm-track. Quentin is an astonishingly tolerant chap and took this small diversion in good spirits (perhaps it is also because he is so used to my surprise off-piste tracks by now from several previous expeditions that he barely bats I eye when we plunge off perfectly smooth roads and into tracks barely fit for sheep and cattle).
Still, back on the road and we found ourselves on the old charity-run route of 2018 through the rather original and German-sounding Hodeng-Hodenger and the fine winding and wooded road that leads to Beauvoir-en-Lyons perched on a hill. Here we took a diversion through a woodland road before re-emerging onto the wide open hedge-less farmland typical of this part of Normandy. Between Morgny and Étrépagny a splinter-group from the ferry caught up with us. At this point it was starting to get a little hot and I was fading a little so I slipped back and let Quentin power-away on the front. The guys were on a quest to find another bar (having already visited one between the Avenue Vert and this point) which meant that it was a pretty feverish pace to Étrépagny where we parted company outside a bar. We had now completed 100km since leaving Dieppe and we were blessed with another hot dry, day.
The basic plan on this French expedition was to avoid Paris by heading around the fringes of the Parc Naturel du Vexin Français, cross the Rhone on the western fringes of the conurbation at Mantes-la-Jolie where I would bid au revoir to Quentin, and then take a south-westerly route to Les Vaux de Cernay tucked in the heart of the Parc Naturel Haute Vallee de Chevreuse. Like I said earlier, it all seemed pretty straightforward on the mapping package.
We headed still further south into Vexin-territory along gently rolling and smooth-surfaced tarmac that almost made you weep with joy until we dropped down into a river valley (the Epte) and stumbled onto none other than the Avenue Verte again (I was as surprised as Quentin by this development even though I’d plotted the route). This was an old railway line again and was easy-going. At Forges we made the surprising discovery of an old mill which now appeared to be a hostelry. We were both hot and thirsty and a cool drink would have gone down a treat on this hot afternoon, but hell, this was France and such logical conclusions don’t always follow. The Moulin was ferme and we had to suffice with taking some photos like everyone else while our tongues stuck to the roofs of our mouths.
A few k further on and being both hot and befuddled the rutted, rocky, ferme track seemed far more obviously sensible than the smooth road surface – particularly as it scrambled up the valley side before disappearing into some dense woodland. As I mentioned earlier, being rather sanguine Quentin merely shrugged off this nonsense of navigation and we struggled over the ruts until we emerged at the edge of a small airfield surrounded by wide open fields and perched on the lip of land we were now cresting.
After the off-road scramble the descent to the bank of the Seine was exquisite if not a little short lived, for the road soon went back up the valley side again (for we cutting a straight line where the river curved out and then back again like a squirming snake), but then back down the other side and the almost welcome view of something sprawling and urban: after the thick-end of 150km of French countryside the gritty congestion of the ironically named Jolie was rather pleasant if not a tad polluted. We crossed the bridge and struggled to find food as we might have expected. Finally a table in the shade by the exhaust-fumes and some pastries from a boulangerie over the way was our final meal before Quentin made a quick get-away to the train station (and presumably a cycle-free weekend).
Some heavy construction work blocked my route to the riverside. I skirted around the town centre and finally found an alternative route and was now down on a riverside track but after a kilometre or so it too was barricaded with absolutely no way around. I backtracked, made for a gap into an industrial estate and then followed some diversion signs around some fairly hairy and precarious roads – precarious unless you were in an articulated lorry that is, which everyone else seemed to be driving. After feeling my way around some unpleasant large roads on what I presumed to be a cycle-path I was soon heading away from this concrete-ridden urban milieu and on the road to Guerville up yet another valley side.
I can only presume that the reason my mapping package had taken me to Arnouville-les-Mantes rather than Boinville-en-Mantois is because there was a splendid track across a field that I would have missed had I merely settled for smooth road and an easier afternoon. Further meanderings around pleasant rural roads over expansive field landscapes finally lead me into woodland which I knew to be a very good sign, as was crossing the N12.
The last 20km took me into well-heeled manicured towns and villages – like Egremont with it’s roughly cobbled high-street (which brought me to a juddering halt and forced me to dismount and appreciate its beauty from the pavement); Saint Hubert perched on top of a steeply wooded hill surrounded by tracks only equestrians could hope to enjoy; and, Les Mesnuis with its confectionery 17th century château complete with further rigorous cobbles which all traffic was forced to endure.
One short and seriously misguided piece of route-planning later and I was sliding down a heavily-rutted and rock-strewn gorge (by this point reduced to stumbling on foot) down and over the stream which I believe goes by the name Vaux and into the lush manicured grounds of the stunning Abbaye des Vaux de Cernay, where I was to spend the next two nights.
After finding a safe conference room to store my mud-spattered bike (several other gleaming and manicured machines were already positioned around the walls), I made straight for my room, poured and oversized bath containing two bottles of bubble-bath, in which I soaked for the best part of an hour, and then promptly flopped into the vast bed for the next 12-hours.
I was now ready to face the ordeal of registering for PBP in the pouring rain.