Skip to main content

Le Petit Enfer de Calais

Usually my best friend, my Garmin didn't like the rain it would seem: Calais, France.
Warm-up rides completed, overnight accommodation in Folkestone booked and a smooth journey to southeast Kent completed, things were looking good for our second attempt at the French Revolution bike ride.

Two years before we had participated in the same event on a near-identical route and had completed it in around 4 hours and 45 minutes (including stoppages at feed stations, Jonesy’s detour into a maize field and a twenty-mile fight with a headwind), only for me to break my wrist whilst riding back to the car park. This year we were hoping for less trouble – obviously this wasn’t ever going to be the case.

Upon arrival at the Port of Dover, all however many hundred riders were required to join one queue in order to show their passport to a solitary French immigration officer. Whilst cars, spread across a number of lanes whizzed through, it took us the best part of two hours from the car park to the boat’s departure. Obviously the event was happening post-Paris attacks and during the European Football Championships, but it wasn’t ideal that 800 people should all be using one booth.

When the ride officially started, the frustrations of many riders could be seen. The fast men were blasting away with double- and triple-overtake manoeuvres happening on the road between the port and the town. Jonesy, cautious after his illness over Christmas, requested we take it easy.

After clearing Calais town and the mildly perilous tramway tracks, he told me to set the speed at 18mph and took my back wheel. We invariably started overtaking large numbers of riders and, as I was feeling back on form, we ratcheted the pace up a bit.

A number of riders of similar ability saw our pace and joined on the back. Before long we had a chain of around twenty riders hanging on to our wheels – a very satisfying feeling, even if it was quite tough work for me.

As the houses gave way to open fields and a view of the English Channel and we reached the bottom of the Cap Blanc Nez, I kept the tempo up with Jonesy following for a bit, but the rest of the chain had disappeared.

Coming back together on the other side of the hill, Jonesy seemed to be in good shape as a few spots of rain started to fall. It was nothing to worry about at the time and before long we were at the first feed station in Fiennes.

At this point the heavens opened and the rain, whipped up by the wind coming off the English Channel, started coming in sideways. I put my lightweight (read, useless) rain cape on, and Jonesy soldiered on having decided in favour of a long-sleeved jersey anyway.

Far from relenting, the rain intensified over the next ten miles through Hermelighen, Boursin and Wierre-Effroy. It was tough concentrating on the climbs as riders started to slow to a crawl. I twice found myself having to stop after losing my balance and riding on the muddy verge, much to own amusement as I failed to clip back in or regain momentum.

What was even worse, were the descents down the many undulations of the Nord Pas de Calais. The rain, coming in at the speed it was, felt like needles being jabbed in to my face and eyes making it hard to see and focus. Furthermore, it was impractical to wear my sunglasses for protection as the skies had ominously darkened.

Soaking wet, muddy and feeling a little worse for wear. Near Calais, France.
It was, on one such descent where a left turn was to be made at the bottom, that Jonesy came unstuck. He managed to slow his Bianchi down sufficiently, or so he thought, to take the corner cleanly, but touched one of the painted white lines as he steered.

He lost grip with the front wheel, somehow came unclipped and the bike slid forward from beneath him and he landed on his shoulder and backside heavily. As I took evasive action, two other riders, one of whom had just had an identical accident, helped him out of the road. He was in a lot of pain and had a serious cramp in his right leg.

For around ten minutes, we stood at the side of the road weighing up the options. Jonesy was in a lot of pain, but had seemingly avoided any breakages and if he was bleeding the rain was washing it away quicker than it could well up anywhere. There was some swelling on his left hand and shoulder blade which made it harder to brake and change gears, but, after deliberating, the course was set for a slow ride to the next feed station where we would assess the situation. The biggest damage seemed to be to his legendary descending skills.

The rain didn’t give up and it was beginning to feel cold too.

We arrived at the second feed station in Offrethun feeling somewhat beaten up and chilly. Jonesy’s damage was a bit more visible now as we joined a group of riders huddled under a mechanic’s awning.

There were 40 kilometres left. Jonesy decided to carry on, but at this point my Garmin decided it wasn’t going to and deleted all my data for the ride. For me, this was the final straw and I did well to not lose my temper and throw the thing into a field. It was Jonesy’s turn to encourage and so I just acquiesced to just swearing under my breath for around fifteen minutes.

With me in a furious mood already, to my additional annoyance, whilst launching one of my trademark dashes up one of my favourite little climbs outside the small village of Bazinghen, I punctured. I decided to get as far as I could before stopping to do a windswept, rain soaked repair. At this point, we couldn’t help but burst into laughter at how ridiculous a pair we must have looked and sounded.

As things transpired, around 15 kilometres from the finish, on the penultimate climb of the event, the clouds cleared, our moods lifted further, and we both dug deep for the final climb out of Escalles for the final ascent of Cap Blanc Nez. So much so, in fact, that both of us found the energy and motivation to smash our previous best times – in my case by around 40 seconds.

With some fuel clearly still in the tank, we rapidly descended the other side of Cap Blanc Nez, and powered back into Calais, passing many an early pace-setter on the way. We crossed the line in a time marginally quicker than our first attempt in 2014, but still missed out on a ‘Silver’ award time.


After the event, whilst on the ferry eating a meal of steak and chips, we continued to laugh off all of the annoyances of earlier – border controls, rain, crashes, Garmins and punctures.

Jonesy, in more pain and knackered, slept for the rest of the sailing after popping some ibuprofen. Let’s face it: with all write-ups like this where I moan about everything, it never stops us from doing it all over again.

What is left of the Strava data can be found here: https://www.strava.com/activities/607573403

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Atay Maghrebi: To Essaouira and the Atlantic

Leaving Marrakech, the landscape stays flat, except for a few distant outcrops of rock. The sensation of the inhospitality of the environment creeps up on you as the olive groves become fewer and further between and rough scrub runs away to the base of distant hills.
Eventually, the landscape starts to undulate as you pass through small towns like Sid L’Mokhtar, and, after two hours, Morocco simply runs out of land as the coach starts to plummet down to the Atlantic coastline and the peeling whitewash of Essaouira’s medina.

The morning started with the obligatory slices of sweet cake dipped into apricot jam, with a side of yoghurt and coffee. I had a chat with Merissa who was already awake and wearing sunglasses like she was nursing a hangover.
I packed up my bags and meandered my way out of the medina towards Bab Laksour to get a taxi.
Having learned the lesson last year that taxi metres are always mysteriously broken in Marrakech, I readied myself for a battle with the driver who…

Atay Maghrebi: Out of the Dark and into Jemaa El-Fnaa

The night time offers a wealth of opportunity and intrigue in almost any country, but when I'm somewhere where my understanding of the language extends to just a handful of phrases and disconnected words, I find it all the more enthralling. Marrakech genuinely quickens the pulse and widens the eyes by night, with the famous Jemaa El-Fnaa as its wildly arrhythmic beating heart.

After a day of perfectly idle wandering and preparing for my journey to Essaouira, I sat up on the roof terrace, ordered atay, read the ending of Alex Garland’s The Beach and waited for sunset.

During this time, a Dutch woman and a Belgian man sat near to me and started to talk about a range of subjects. Most of their discussion was centred around the regular banalities of two travellers who don’t know each other well and clearly don’t have a great deal in common.
Shortly before sunset, the Belgian man caught my attention as he started to regale his newfound friend with quotes from the Quran taken both ou…

From a Crooked Rib by Nuruddin Farah

I stumbled across Nuruddin Farah’s novels when searching for something written by a Somali author. Perhaps due to the conflict that has raged for years in Somalia, it is very difficult to find much from Somali writers published in English.
From a Crooked Rib was published in 1970 and tells the story of Ebla, a young, orphaned, illiterate nomadic girl, who runs away from her encampment. She takes the decision to leave upon learning of her Grandfather’s intention to marry her off to an older man within their Jes (a group of families living in an encampment together).
She firstly escapes to a town, Belet Amin, where she finds her cousin and his pregnant wife. She also finds a guide and confidante in a character known only as the widow. Things seem settled until, yet again, Ebla finds her freedom compromised by a male character – this time her cousin, whose wife and child Ebla has been nursing.
In her haste she leaves Belet Amin with the widow’s nephew, bound for Mogadishu – still called