On Cycling from London to Paris for The Big Issue Foundation
An Idiots Guide
I hope these reflections will inspire any of you out there to have a go! It’s a lot of fun and not as terrifying as the words like ‘steep hills’ and ‘230 miles’ and ‘sore backside’ conjure up!
Cycling from London to Paris has been the most exhilarating and enjoyable thing I have done in a long time. Maybe a tiny bit self-punishing if I am honest, but the pluses outweigh the negatives, as everyone on the ride agrees, from those super fit testosterone felled bike-geeks steaming ahead of the rest vanishing as quickly as a puff of wind, to those like myself, coming in two hours behind them.
Why do it? Is the question we asked ourselves, and one I have been asked countless times, often in solicitous tones when people realise I’m well past my sell-by date. This year was my sixth (my fifth with Big Issue, the other for a cancer charity), and each year I have wondered if it will be my last but happily I have grown fitter with advancing years so I hope to carry on as long through my seventies as long as I can.
Why do it? Numerous reasons…. There is the totally obvious – to help the impressive work of The Big Issue Foundation, but one is unaware of the fuller meaning of this word until cycled with the workers and sellers. On the very first event we ended at The Arc de Triomphe, where waiting for us was a young family who have their own story of how The Big Issue had helped them. Seeing them I welled up, feeling ‘This is what it’s all about’. Another year our lovely photographer, Adrian, shared some of his story with us and this year we were accompanied by friendly Dean. But ‘help’ is multi-layered. There is a level of support and warm encouragement from the organisers that banishes any self doubts about being slow. On the first I was embarrassingly unprepared with an unsuitable bike, insufficient training and pushing along slow as a London bus in rush hour. Nonetheless, at no time did I feel humiliated (as I might have expected) and I was helped to puff and pant to the end.
Why do it? The camaraderie within the group, has to be experienced to be believed. But the sheer effort of this 230 mile jaunt would not be possible without military-style organisation from the caring organisers, Amy Howell, James Tansley (himself an epic cyclist), his assistant Ed, our medic Sarah, and last but far from least the leaders of each group. Our friendly leader introduced himself with the improbable name ‘Baggy’. I spent many cadences pondering the source of this name. Might there be some obscure link with Bagpuize The Marmalade Cat? Certainly he bore the same infinite good nature. Anything to do with baguettes? Can’t see a link there, unless it’s something to taste in bikes as opposed to tasty French bread. Or Baggy as in clothes worn in the 70’s, sloppy and saggy? Absolutely not, because our Baggy was clear, precise and disciplined in the best possible ways. He would always forewarn us about a particular nasty hill or sharp turning and was always careful to make sure we were drinking enough water “to deal with the build up of lactic acid in those muscles”. Cycling at astonishing speed from one end of our straggling group to the other, reassuring us all the way. He looked after the entire team with five star standards.
Why do it? There is of course the magical hilly countryside, all birdsong and sweet air of Surrey and Hampshire to pass through on the way to Portsmouth, followed by the thrill of an overnight ferry. Then the sheer pleasure of rolling through Normandy’s fields and woods, past those famous World War two beaches (they hold a special significance to me as a wartime baby, whose father was involved on those very seas). France has numerous tiny roads with barley any cars, but those that do pass always give cyclists a respectful berth (unlike many in England). The few villages are picturesque, many with ancient timbered houses or quaint buildings, and flowers everywhere. This is as good as any holiday, which is why I always pay at least half of the ‘sponsorship’ amount.
Why do it? We all aired the question over tea breaks and dinner, and these conversations revealed that all of us has, at some low point in our lives, reached a moment of vulnerability wherein we might fallen or survived, and for many of us , luck or the availability of a good friend has meant survival in a safer place than might have been.
Why do it? For me, the main prompt coincided with its inception in 2007; and my return to live in London at the time when my son became seriously ill. I was shocked to see the extent of homelessness, having left more than thirty years at the time when we were being told that homelessness was ‘becoming a thing of the past’. How untrue that had turned out to be.
After the first, I became hooked and as well as wanting to maintain my support it had become a kind of pilgrimage in memory of my son. So, this year, on July 22, a small group of us consisting of a doctor, a nurse, vendor Dean – friendly and brave, a psychotherapist and an accountant, all traipsed around Paris seeing the sights before heading off to the Champs Elysee. After our three challenging days sitting there in the sun watching Bradley Wiggins whiz by seemed heaven indeed. And now, a week later, the adrenaline has subsided and I have come back down to earth again, just another ordinary woman, who has been privileged to spend a few days in company with some extraordinary people.
Anne M Jones.