With the recent excitement still in the air with the announcement of the first there stages of the 2014 Tour de France in the UK, including a stage finish in London, I find myself reminiscing about my experience in the most amazing mass participation ride I have experienced, Ride London 2013. It seemed like the whole of London was out on their bikes that day or cheering from the side. In fact it seems like the whole of the UK was riding. The atmosphere was fantastic, indeed the whole country was gripped in a cycling frenzy I had not seen before. Buoyed by the second TDF win in as many years and the success of team Britain at the Olympics the sense of pride filled the air. It was dads out riding with their kids (all decked out in team Sky kit) and you could sense a bright future for British cycling; as a visitor it was palpable. But most of all there was a feeling of celebration, happiness and joy…was this the financially depressed country I was told to expect? One thing is certain, when the tour arrives in London town next year, it will be met by a City with a renewed passion for cycling and an irrepressible spirit. I would love to be there.
Longing for a taste of riding the dales out of London, I boarded a South West bound train from Waterloo Station, destination Ascot. Here I met up with my newly acquainted riding buddies from the month before in the French Alps. Locals to the area they had promised to give me a taste of the British countryside with a gentle ride out around Windsor Great park and the town of Windsor. We headed off on our trusty steeds combating the commuter traffic and the potholed surface over gentle rises and through manic roundabouts.
We soon reached the gates of the Windsor Great Park, and after negotiating the deer proof gate, we were in. A glorious ride through the open park until one of my riding companions signalled to stop – a photo opportunity. We were stopped at the top of the royal mile, with the road stretching off into the distance with the palace sat at the far end. The sign at the top of the road clearly read, “No vehicles, including bicycles”. So avoiding the risk of descending swat or MI5 teams we continued on our way and around the park, leaving the tempting straight stretch of picturesque road behind.
Following the park to the other side we had looped back to the castle itself and the town of Windsor. The town was not quite what you would expect for a royal town…It was all big hair and tight skirts out for a night out at the steak house.
After we had eaten our fill we climbed back on the bikes for the ride back to Ascot and my train back to London.
Arriving back at the station after an exhilarating ride through the dusk it was farewells as the mini cab drivers waited for their inevitable evening drunken fares.
I sat on the train happy and content having completed my excursion out of London with a ride in the countryside with my new found friends.
After a day of walking around Camden Town in the rain the sun is shining again and London decides to put it all on show again, a perfect day to head out through the inner North-East and pick up the bike route along the old tow path of the Regent Canal. After a short ride through the inner North-Eastern suburbs I met the canal in Islington.
The sunlight was reflecting from the water heading out along Union Warf where the canal side cafes tempted with their aroma of freshly ground beans.
I pushed on towards the East, ducking under the many bridges along the way hoping that no one was bearing down from the other direction.
Along the way boat owners were painting and working on their long boats or lazing in the sun making the most of the balmy weather. These travelling homes each reflected their owners personality; either beautifully adorned and well
kept or ramshackle and un-kept like an old barge hound. As I ventured further it was like entering into an almost gypsy world where the boaters had taken over the canal banks with their carni ways.
The path opened out along-side the glorious Victoria Park and I entered and looped around the central lake. After stopping for a refreshing ice lemon tea I headed out onto Hertford Union Canal and across to the Greenway and the sights of the Olympic stadium before joining the water back up on the River Lee Navigation in Hackney. I followed the river along past the old industrial warehouses, now all repurposed as studios, galleries, cafes and bars, I came across a riverside pub and stopped for lunch and an ale in the summer sun.
After a quick loop around Lee Valley park in Millfields, I headed back in along the path past the converted warehouses, past the park with its lake side tea rooms, past the rows of long boats and their keepers an back up above ground to the streets at Broadway Market. After a cold drink and a handy purchase at Lock 7, it was back along the way I had come in, along the Regent Canal and back home again.
A magnificent day along the water side and this town like the water is flowing its way into my heart.
Well I managed to pilot the rental car through the loops of on and off ramps at CDG and after the all clear dragged my bike and luggage through the terminal to the SNCF station destined for London via Lille.
London was calling my every fibre and I would soon be downing an ale or three in an inner city bar somewhere.
After settling in to my digs for the week, it was time to jump on a Boris bike and see some of London town close up.
I soon found myself heading down Old street to find ‘Look mum no hands’ a cycling shop/cafe I had heard of and absolutely had to see. Here I found cycling heaven. Good coffee, great beer, a busy workshop next to a counter covered with many fashionable cycling accessories.
The place was full of cyclist and others simply escaping the day with a brew or a cold one, with the relaxed atmosphere and decor reflected the inner NE design savvy location. But this place also hinted at something more, a feeling of connection, a feeling of a community within the city…cycling heaven.
I headed further West out of the Lorraine and Alsace regions into the region of Champagne and the centre of the bubbly empire… Reims. I am not a drinker of bubbly stuff myself, and aside from being a stop on the way back to Paris, I was interested in the country side, the rolling plains and the town itself.
On first appearances the town didn’t seem to stand out in comparison with some of the others I had visited and had more the feel of a provincial centre.
Riding around I was able to have a closer inspection there were some hidden gems including the unheralded monuments and statues that dotted the outskirts of the old city. Signs of the distant and a more immediate past of struggle sacrifice and honour – from Roman times to WWII. I am not one to normally seek such places out, however I found myself in a similar place of mind I had been in Flanders a week or so before. The feeling of debt is inescapable, it is written on the monuments, in the fabric of the land and in the people you meet.
Here’s to Liberté, égalité, fraternité.
I landed in Strasbourg, the gem of the East, after a sweltering drive from Munchen in 38°C heat. I was longing to return to French territory, and had no idea of the lovely city that would great me just over the border.
After dumping my belongings in the hotel I jumped on the bike and followed my nose into the heart of the city, the old cobbled street and canals of the historic quarter of ‘Petite France‘. The beauty was overwhelming. It was like a mini version of the Parisian islands of the Seine, without the bus-loads of tourists.
I vowed to explore the area further, but for now I needed to stretch those legs after a long day driving. I headed out along the canals and one of the many bike paths the town offers. These even head out of town and join up with the paths of the Alsace region I had visited on the way through.
The path followed a long straight canal that headed out of the centre into the surrounding commercial and residential areas. I passed a billboard with an electronic sign that told me it was 6:00pm and still 38°C. I road onwards until the path would take me no further and then across the bridge and back into town along the other side of the canal. By now the sun was fading and the golden summer tones were reflecting on the steeples and shingled roof tops of the old quarter. I ride past the cathedral of Notre Dame and into the winding cobbled streets and laneways. I found a restaurant tucked away under an archway and ordered the local delicacy ‘tarte flambee’ and of course one or two of the local beers.
A while later I rolled off through the inner streets and past the main square, with a satisfied belly and a heart full of love for this town… vowing that I will return.
Germany‘s Black Forrest. The name conjures up images of shadowy groves full of elves or woodland creatures hidden in the dense, dark impenetrable tangle of branches, limbs and undergrowth. What also comes to mind is the promise of beauty…forests, hills and valleys of magnificence laid out before you. What I found was all of that, including alpine villages and holiday camps full of vacationing German families.
I set out from the hip uni town of Freiburg and its lovely old quarter with streams of water running through it like tiny rivers, up into the mountains above to find my own slice of the fabled forest. The ascent out of town was sudden, with climbing corkscrew roads hair-pinning their way upwards. Levelling out at the top I found my way to the towns of Hinterzarten, and the picturesque lakeside Titisee, a classic German styled resort town full of Alpine holiday lodges. From here the route headed alongside the blue waters through a succession of afore mentioned holiday campgrounds, where families were pitching tents, pumping up inflatable boats and recreating in a very orderly fashion.
I journeyed on beyond the camps where the road began to climb again up and away from the merry holiday makers.
It was here I came upon a couple of riders also tackling this climb, all of us on our way to Feldberg. With very little in common language we started to ride and work together to combine all our strength and reserves to concur the ascent. Before I realised what had happen we had dropped one of the riders and it was Fritz (name used for illustrative purposes) and myself left forging ahead onwards and upwards. When faced with the common struggle of a mountainous climb there is already a common language, pain, and the communication is given in your breath, the grimace on you face, and the rhythm of your stroke.
We struggled onward until we reached the turn off to the last stage of the ascent where Fritz yelled out that he needed to wait there for his friend. After wishing him well I continued on, solo again.
The final climb opened out to reveal a mountain top resort village with hotels, cafes, ski lifts and a church. Also to my surprise and amusement… a circus, complete with big top, caravans and side show alley. Where ever I go there seems to always be a circus reminding me of my past.
After taking in the Alpine delights it was time to saddle up again and tackle the descent. Miles of free flowing super smooth pavement, all heading in one direction…down. Magnificent!
If the climbing is purgatory then the descent must truly be heaven. And on the way down I stopped and took the time to take in the spectacle of rolling mountains, valleys and dark woods.
The Black Forrest was all that I thought it would be.
So I headed out of Belgium, through Luxembourg and into the Lorraine region of France. After an unremarkable overnighter in Metz I headed out to the Alsace region to seek rolling fields of grapes dotted with the small medieval towns I had heard about and the boundless rides that connected them. After negotiating the various toll booths on the A6 I found exit 26 and entered into the wonderland.
The landscape rolled out before me…it looked like the countryside I’d seen in picture books, the quaint houses, the winding roads and the green rolling hills and before too long it was starting to look like a childhood story come to life.
The towns were a strange mix of French/German styling (I suppose the boarder has moved around a bit here for a few centuries) and there is a noticeable difference in the accent as well.
After wandering through the streets and squares of Molsheim, not really knowing what direction I was going, I happened upon a small cycling exhibition at the town hall dedicated to le’ Tour and to French cycling past. If I thought I had landed in a wonderland then this was a wonderland within a wonderland (like one of those pictures with has someone holding a picture of the same scene, with has a picture of the same scene…you get the picture).
The private collection (from what I could gather), belonged to a former team rider, a domestic, but his passion and love for the history of the sport was on display.
Maybe this is where all old cyclists (and cycling fans) need to come, so their life can be one with their dreams in a (slightly surreal) fairytale wonderland.
For some people sacred ground is the hollowed turf of Wembley, the MCG, Twickenham or Lords. But for some it lies in the Napoleon era cobbles that line one of the many ‘Pave’ sections of the one day classic know as the ‘Hell of the North’ the Paris Roubaix. Among those sections there is one stretch of cobbles so treacherous so infamous that the mere name draws a gasp from the punter…the Forest of Arenberg or ‘the forest’ as it affectionately know is where all the intensity of this annual monument of cycling tousle comes to bear. This stretch of a tree-lined track boarded by muddy ruts and channels which somehow always seems to coincide with a pivotal moment in the race where a group breaks away or the peloton is caught behind a spill. It is here that I exited the motorway after my own sat nav tousle and stepped out of the rental car into the (seemingly always) misty Nord day. The cobbles seemed to echo the calls of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen from the many races viewed from afar. There was something quite special about this place but this romantic sentiment didn’t stop the bone shattering experience of riding that few miles on this cobbled section of hell. As many riders experienced and Stablinski said, “Paris-Roubaix is not won in Arenberg, but from there the group with the winners is selected” This is truly the road to Hell.
Well you can have your Euro Disney (or even the full blown US version) but if it comes to more smiles and enjoyment for my dollar, I’ll be taking the Tour of Flanders (Ronde van Vlaanderen) Museum any day. Located in the before mentioned lovely Oudenaarde this home of trinkets and memories from the grandest of the one day classics (insert debate re Paris Roubaix) is a cyclists fantasy land come true.
The unassuming frontage of the museum is only marked as slightly conspicuous by the bright orange 80′s sponsors adorned ‘Molteni‘ Volvo tem car complete with bike racks out the front. Once inside the cheerful staff present you with a guide (depending on language of choice) and send you through the doors to the cycling wonderland. The legends Eddy Merckx, Peter van Petegem , local hero Tom Boonen and current champion ‘Spartacus’ Fabian Cancellara, are all represented, as well as a great inclusion from the professional women riders, which was great to see.
But really the show truly did belong to ‘the Cannibal’ himself and all items of memorabilia (just shy of his underwear) were on display. There was even a ride simulation of the memorable climbs such as the Koppenberg (however I didn’t get a go as it was hogged by an eager eight year old the whole time I was there).
The one thing that came through to me from the whole experience was that these guys were phenomenal.
Their stamina, their courage and the dogged perseverance.
Truly humbling and inspiring.
- Flanders (martycunningham.wordpress.com)