The story of an epic bikepacking adventure from Farnborough to Paris and back again, in August 2019, by Terry Holmes, Nick Wood and Walter Bremner.
The Journey – Terry Holmes
The routes came together from a bit of research online. Several sites offered info, maps and gpx files. Somehow I managed to download what looked like the “actual” official route. In any case, we found out en route that looking out for the green signs helped a lot. Nick put together the English routes, there and back. We’d be happy to share all our routes with other club members if anyone is interested.
Starting at Nick’s place we cycled out to Tongham and Seale on familiar roads, then over to Puttenham, Shackleford and Godalming.
Just south of Shalford we picked up the Downs Link, a 36 mile ex railway line off-road route leading to Shoreham by the Sea. Nick and I were already familiar with this gravel route but had only done it in dry conditions. On this day we had thundery downpours and this meant a very damp and mucky start to the adventure!
Nick had researched a cafe stop for lunch at the excellent Cafe by the Lake, attached to a Camping site near Barns Green. The service and food here were outstanding, and the fish and chips were just what we needed to restore our motivation to get to Newhaven in some pretty dodgy weather.
We were wet and filthy but our spirits weren’t dampened. For the rest of the day we were shower dodging, and boy those showers were heavy!
A well-timed stop for another refuel came at the delightful La Patisserie in Shoreham, appropriately owned/run by a friendly and accommodating lady of French origin.
The remainder of the route was pretty much all along the seafront, using cycle paths and part of NCN2. This part of the route did include an unwelcome rough gravel track on the outskirts of Newhaven, but the concreted coastal pathway (shared cycle and pedestrian) below the cliffs cut out some of the busier bits of Brighton and took us past the beautiful but dilapidated Victorian archways.
After returning to the road and continuing on the long ups and downs of the cliff top rollercoaster A259, we finally dropped down into Newhaven with about three hours to spare before sailing. Our stomachs were telling us it was time for dinner, so we headed towards the Hope Inn for a well earned meal and a pint.
We had a bit of a wait to board but this enabled us to recharge our various devices (phones, Garmins, lights etc) as there were numerous plug-in points in the waiting area. Other cyclists were doing the same.
Departure was 23.59, arrival in Dieppe 04.00. We’d wisely booked a cabin, giving us the opportunity to shower and wash some clothing and attempt to get it dry in a mere three and a half hours!
Bleary eyed and still somewhat moist around the edges, we rolled into Dieppe in pre-dawn darkness. After a little bit of tricky navigating we headed out of town and onto the long straight tarmac Avenue Verte, a superb tarmac’d traffic-free trail that was once a railway line.
Going out of Dieppe the trail has a very gradual upward gradient for many miles but that’s a big plus coming the other way on the return journey.
We stopped for breakfast in Neufchatel en Bray – coffee at a tabac and pastries from the boulangerie opposite.
After continuing a short distance, Walter began to have some concerns about a rear hub squeak and we stopped at the next town, Forges des Eaux, to find some spray lube which seemed to penetrate and do the trick.
Onward to Gourney en Bray for lunch. The sun came out and we were shedding layers. We had left the railway trail and moved onto some quiet roads crossing rolling countryside with a few long but gradual hill climbs. We sometimes saw fellow travellers doing the Paris ride in either direction, often giving us the chance for some friendly banter or at least a “Bonjour!”
Once in Gournay it was pizzas all round, and a well timed stop under the restaurant’s awnings as the heavens opened for at least an hour.
Although not raining all afternoon this changed matters. We’d planned that night to do the first of two nights of wild camping under the stars. I’d even pinpointed an area of appropriate woodland to pitch up. Following the last two days of rain, we decided to ride on to Gisors and chance finding a hotel for the night. Sound thinking, as it turned out, since we had further rain that evening which would have made the camp a tricky experience!
The extra distance to Gisors had also helped reduce Wednesday’s mammoth ride in and out of Paris, which I had slightly(!) underestimated. Accommodation was sorted out, and we had a good meal and a comfortable night in Gisors.
This was going to be a tough day in many respects: distance, terrain (our first gravel sections in France) and not least the labyrinth that is central Paris with its numerous stop/starts, one way streets, pedestrians and contraflow bike lanes. We even had tram lines to deal with. Needless to say we had some busy roads but also some quiet cut throughs in the extensive ‘Parc’ areas around Paris.
We followed the Seine, which gave us quieter options but a longer route to the centre. After a tricky time negotiating the currently closed off (but still busy) area around Notre Dame we finally crossed and followed the Seine, turning into the Avenue de la Bourdonnais and then into the Bassins du Champs de Mars (traditional posing area) for our victorious Tour Eiffel photo shoot.
Walter had already decided that the achievement of getting to Paris was his goal and had decided to make the return on the train. He had acted as our whistle-stop, on the move, tour guide as we’d ridden through central Paris, but on this trip our schedule had allowed us little time to look around the city.
After saying our goodbyes, Nick and I carefully threaded our way through the crowds and queues at the Eiffel Tower in the direction of the Trocadero and began a very gradual climb out of central Paris towards Versailles and Saint-Cloud.
The objective for Nick and I was to reach our hotel in Orgeval before 20.30, while the hotel desk was still manned. We didn’t want any problems accessing our accommodation, especially without Walter’s command of French to get us out of trouble! We didn’t leave Paris until late afternoon and had 25 miles or so to cover. Luckily the route took us through another extensive park area that was largely traffic free. By this time Nick and I were dragging each other along at different stages after a long day in the saddle.
We reached the hotel by 8pm and got a meal in the dubiously named Buffalo Grill next door. As with most eateries in France the food was excellent. Stomachs filled and spirits lifted we crashed out and slept well.
We had taken the wise decision to book an “eat as much as you like” buffet breakfast for a mere 6.50 euros. We were going to need that. However, the packets of Emmental we took with us went a bit soft and warm in our jersey pockets!
So, down to the penultimate stage in France, Orgeval to Menerval, with another meal stop in Gournay on the way.
What lay ahead was one of the most difficult days I have ever spent on a bike, chiefly because of the fierce Westerly wind we had to deal with across open rolling country. This was mainly a buffeting side wind but for long stretches we were also going into it head on. By the time we’d reached the highest point on the hills we had been crucified by the wind.
Nick and I were getting separated by the conditions and the long climbs, so at Bachivillers we decided to do our own pace and meet in Gournay. After a brief, but much needed, coffee/sandwich stop in Le Coudray-Saint-Germer, I slogged it out to Gournay not knowing if Nick had in the meantime passed me or not. Luckily at a junction near Gournay Station, where I waited, Nick rolled in less than ten minutes behind me.
We were in the midst of France’s holiday fortnight, and Gournay now seemed as quiet as on a Sunday in November! Fortunately we found a supermarche for water and a delightful patisserie where we stocked up on pastries for the following day’s breakfast.
We had planned to do our second of two wild camps this evening, and it had stayed dry and reasonably warm. We hadn’t come all that way with the gear not to use it at least once!
After an evening meal in Gournay, we then had just enough daylight left to cycle 20km to an area north of Menerval to the proposed camp area where we set up for the night.
The wind dropped but we had the shelter of the fir trees anyway, and the soft forest floor gave us a comfortable pitch. Sleeping in the forest in the moonlight was quite an experience, and gave us an opportunity to test our camping kit.
The final leg in France was relatively short and gradually downhill once we had rejoined the old railway path.
After a leisurely pack down, bike re-pack and croissant breakfast, we made our way to Forges des Eaux for coffee and were easily persuaded to go for an omelette for top-ups. After yesterday’s Gournay ghost town, Forges was positively buzzing with human activity. Here we bumped into a guy from Ealing who, travelling alone, had been down to Geneva via Paris mixing cycle with train – kudos!
The final few miles were unhurried and enjoyable as we knew we would have plenty of time to look around Dieppe, grab a celebratory beer and evening meal. One or two quayside restaurants were clearly cashing in on their captive travelling audience: fish and chips for 26 euros!
We had a pretty rough crossing on the ferry. Nick and I didn’t get much sleep in our allotted 3.5 hours as we were convinced that the lurching boat was throwing vehicles around, and that our bikes would be scattered in bits all over the boarding deck. A night trip to the cabin loo was an interesting experience!
When we disembarked, the crew looked nonchalant and everything was intact. Difficult to believe, but the bikes stood as we had left them.
Setting off into driving rain and a tough headwind in Newhaven was soul destroying after having had virtually no sleep! We made our way down to the seafront path and battled on to Shoreham as best we could, finding nowhere open for coffee and breakfast at that time of the morning, just clubbers spilling into the streets after their Friday night out.
We proceeded North up the Downs Link and were only able to stop for breakfast once we had reached the life-saving Cafe by the Lake, which had just opened when we arrived at 08.00. Phew! A big breakfast and two coffees got us on the way, and we joined roads near Rudgwick for a hilly but scenic route back to Farnborough. Not much left in the legs but we made it!
Tools, toiletries and travelling light – Nick Wood
We all tried to travel as light as possible, and for me nearly everything ended up on the kitchen scales. The consensus struck was for each of us to take two sets of cycling gear, one to carry and the other to wear. For casual appearances we included one t-shirt and a pair of shorts, plus flip flops or lightweight shoes. Our rain jackets were to double up as evening gowns. We each had a small amount of toiletries, like chamois cream and Sudacrem, which had been decanted into small travel vials.
So as not to duplicate, we pooled tools and spares etc. Walter carried a spare G-One tyre. Wanting something a little more substantial than our usual diminutive road pumps, I had bought a Topeak Road Morph which we shared for the trip. After having had to use it several times, I think we all agreed that it was a great bit of kit and well worth carrying. It was like having a small track pump out on the road.
Washing clothes, and more importantly, getting them dry, was difficult. I took a clothes line and pegs and would use them at every overnight stay. This would quite often take over the accommodation. Even so, putting on damp or unwashed gear became part of the morning ritual. By the time we reached home my gilet had been worn for six consecutive days and walked itself into the washing machine.
Having had my GPS fail a few days before the trip, I hastily bought a Garmin Edge 830. Without much time to get to know it, and after having set it to maximise battery life, I can say that it is a great bit of kit and a big improvement over previous models. This was demonstrated on day three, the day we rode into Paris. After nearly twelve hours of use, including navigation, the battery level remained above 50%. It enabled us to continue along our planned routes long after other units would have stopped working.
All three of us took a portable power pack (the excellent RAVPower 26800mAh portable charger) to recharge various devices. This was partly to avoid any rush for the few sockets we would eventually stumble upon. Opting for a large recharging capacity was carefully considered because they come with a reasonable weight penalty. In the end they performed well, recharging phones and Garmins numerous times over with plenty to spare.
With France on a national holiday, cafe stops were few and far between. We could travel all day without seeing anything open and we would pass through villages without seeing anyone at all. This made the rural roads exceptionally quiet. Because of this, ensuring we were nourished and hydrated became difficult at times. On the evening of the camp we had to ensure we had something to eat and drink for breakfast. Finding a supermarket and a patisserie open, we topped my rack up with water and pastries. In the morning we sat on a groundsheet consuming what we had taken, whilst quietly celebrating the fact we had survived the night.
Although we tried to travel light, at one point Terry discovered that his bottle of contact lens solution had become rather lighter than ideal – the contents had leaked out! So as we entered the outskirts of Paris we stopped at a pharmacy. Armed with just the French translation for what we needed, and the desire not to end up with conjunctivitis, Terry’s mission was a complete success. To celebrate, he joined Walter and I for a strong coffee at a nearby cafe where we all sat and contemplated negotiating the Paris traffic ahead of us.
Bikes & Gear – Walter Bremner
We all rode “do it all” steel and aluminium road bikes with 40mm Schwalbe G-One tyres. Nick ran tubeless, which did cause some issues when an early puncture would not seal and so a tube was put in. Overall the tyres served well as the route included a fair bit of gravel, some of it quite aggressive. Gear-wise, Terry had a 2×10 set up while Nick and I ran 1×11. We all used all of our gears. After a particularly wet first day my rear wheel developed an annoying squeak. Without a cassette removing tool it was impossible to get in to have a proper look, but a trip to a supermarket meant we could give it a squirt with silicone lube, which did the trick.
Nick carried panniers and a bar bag while Terry and I had seatpacks, frame bags and bar rolls. We also had top tube bags which we will ditch next time. The ease of access and extra capacity of Nick’s panniers was balanced by their extra weight. Getting used to packing a seat pack and being confident with any wobble caused some concern at the start of the day but was quickly forgotten. The convenience of Nick’s zip top bar bag was great and it ended up swallowing all sorts of kit from us all.
We carried lightweight sleeping bags and inflatable mats. Nick had a one man tent while Terry and I carried tarps and bivy bags. It isn’t until you try to lift your packed bike that you realise quite how heavy the collective weight of all your gear is. We didn’t go crazy on lightweight expense but we did shop around – what you carry and how much it weighs became very important.
We did have some torrential rain and unseasonably cold weather which saw us cowering under trees, searching the sky for glimpses of blue. Strong headwinds as we cycled back from Newhaven to Brighton in the dark at 04.30 were a sting in the tail. As we were expecting to be warm, Nick and I had fairly lightweight shower proof jackets which reached their limits quickly, while Terry had a Gore jacket. We spent a lot of time wet and putting wet kit on in the mornings. We also spent a lot of time with newspapers up our jumpers which had a strange comfort to it.
While Nick and Terry cycled there and back, most of my return was by train. Perhaps I was lucky but I had no problems getting my bike on trains, neither in France nor England (although I was travelling at 05.30 from Brighton). One warning – running up and down stairs in a French railway station trying to make a connecting train, with 4 minutes to do it and carrying a bike the weight of yourself, is not good for your heart!