France 1 : Brompton 0

My keys, where are my fucking keys?!! That’ll teach me to rush from the office early enough to get a seat on the crowded Gatwick train. Now I have to go back, retrieve the forgotten items, and try to squeeze on board with a weekend bag and my Brompton. I manage it too, and spend 90 minutes wedged in the middle of half a dozen noisily excited teenage girls, bound for Gatwick but dressed for Chlamydia: “I so have flown by myself before” and “Her hair is so, like, awesome I’ve started writing my name like hers”. 89 minutes to go.

All change at the airport, grab a Cornish pasty on the fly, board train for Lewes. Exchange pasty for indigestion and Lewes for Seaford, bail out at Newhaven just as it starts to rain. Swap pleasantries with an older chap on a classic touring bike and plus-fours who looks the sort to cycle to Montpellier for breakfast. Nice trews mate, where you headed? Dieppe. Eh? Apparently there’s a radonnee or something, supposed to be very famous. By now the level crossing barrier that’s held us captive in the drizzle is raised, and I make a bolt for the town. There’s an hour to kill before check-in and I won’t have time to snag my usual sleeping space on the boat if I also go to the bar, so may as well sink a couple now.

The first pub I come to looks safe enough, a huddle of toothless die-hards keeping the pregnant teenage barmaid from her book, but then I notice the smell; a mature fusion of vintage take-aways and sweat. Three sips in and it looks like the beer’s off too, so I cut my losses and grab a two bottles from the offie next door before mooching back to the ferry. The lady behind the desk doesn’t notice I’ve got a bike with me despite having paid as a pedestrian, and I’m spared the whole “it’s luggage” scene every Brompton rider expects from petty officials. In no time I’m through and waiting with the other cyclists round the back, but I’m the only one with a folding bike and its not long before the ribbing starts. My brethren are a mix of credit-card tourers on expensive carbon road bikes and over-packed happy clappers who look as though they’ve been refused entry to Glastonbury. I think they’re talking about peloton strategy as they sip their Gatorade and try to join in, but end up feeling a twat and stick to my Newcastle Brown.

Yellow fold-up bike parked in front of full-size road machine

A mad scramble to board is followed by a race for the best seats, but experience trumps enthusiasm and I secure the front row of the quiet lounge, ripping up seat cushions to fashion a rudimentary bed next to a sour looking retired couple from Wales. They get their own back by talking loudly into their mobiles until the signal gives out, at which point we’re joined by another veteran of the midnight crossing who makes his own bed in similar style. We grin and exchange nods, earning more sour stares and a couple of tuts. Ear plugs in, jackets over our heads, hello oblivion.

Three hours sleep has never seemed so short as I pinball around the lounge, trying to change into my riding gear while showing as little arse as possible. The salty muck on the windows can’t hide the fact that it’s dark out there, and raining very hard. Great. We leave the ferry together, a rag-tag assortment of cycling weirdos, and present ourselves to the immigration official in his little hut. When he sees my bike he just shakes his head and waves me through. Bon Courage indeed. I leave Dieppe on the back roads, following a GPS track laid down on my last outing in search of the Avenue Verte. Four miles out and my lower front half is soaked to the skin when I pass a clump of trees by the side of the road, instantly recognising the unhappy place where I donned my waterproofs last time around. Only this time I haven’t got any. It’s as black as the inside of a cat, my headlight a lone beacon picking up swirls of steam where cold rain meets warm road, and I start to ponder the career potential for someone who can make it rain without really trying. There’s nothing for it but to plough on, head down, trying to balance the wet and the cold with pace and body heat.

Once on the Avenue Verte I make a small pit-stop of energy bars and Gatorade (every breakfast should contain something blue) but stopping turns out to be a bad idea and it takes me ages to get back up to temperature again. Along the way I surprise dozens of juvenile rabbits and one hedgehog, each encounter threatening to end in a comedy collision as both parties try simultaneously avoid each other. Dawn could have happened any time between 04:30 and 06:00, it was just too dark to tell, so I risk a glance at the GPS to see if it’s slipped into daylight mode yet. I’m always reluctant to look at the odometer, torn between the need for reassurance of progress and the dread of disappointment at lack of, but this time around optimism was rewarded: I was already 15 miles into my day! Suddenly the bike started to feel very heavy and I’m sure the rain just increased. Damn you, optimism.

Funny where your mind goes when you’re cycling and don’t have to worry about traffic or progress. One particularly smooth stretch of jet black tarmac kept me amused for miles, the rain turning it into a perfect mirror and giving me a unique perspective of my progress. Around then I’m sure I heard English voices coming from the road parallel to the cycle track, a group of cyclists and something about “Isn’t that the guy on the Brompton,” which made me chuckle.

I battled it out for another two hours and called it a day at Serqueux, sodden throughout and with feet like permafrost. There was a train waiting at the station and I squelched my way onto it, dripping bike in one hand and €17 ticket in the other. Rouen was followed by Oissel and St. Lazare, a wholly unromantic swim across Paris for Gare du Nord, then on to Chambly and the Centre Equestre.

So, a failure then? I didn’t make it all the way to Paris on the Brompton, which is a disappointment, but conditions weren’t exactly favourable. What I did manage was over 50km cycling in horizontal rain starting at 03:30 after a couple of hours sleep. Guess I’ll just have to console myself with CHBC‘s summer party, always the best event of the year and this time bigger than ever. Hope my shoes dry out in time.

Yellow folding bike parked on waterlogged cycle path