- Jamie Shannon
Through northern France. Hello Paris
From Tournai, I continued south west across the border to Rumes. A gentleman waited on the path for me to pass, and even though I was listening to music, I think he said bonjour. My reply was an instant”merci bien”. I still don’t know why I said thank you to him. It was simply the first thing that came into my head. To this day I still wonder what he was thinking after I told him thank you.
About half way to Aras, I saw a sign for a turn off that led to a first world war memorial. This sounded like the perfect excuse to break up the monotony of the traffic and so I found myself in a quaint little village where the memorial was located. It was down a small street next to some woods and was quite small and intimate. Even with so much time having passed, it was immaculately kept and was quite a sight. Quite poignant. As ever though, I had a dog continuously barking at me with which to keep company with.
It was only another 10km's or so to Arras and once in the centre-ville, a couple of young French journalists said hello and asked if I needed any help. Do I always look like I’m lost? Most probably. Anyway, we had a conversation and they and another friend pointed me in the right direction out of the city and explained why every single shop and business was closed and why I couldn’t buy any food. It was of course a bank holiday. Now that explains it! The French don’t have strange opening hours all the time. Well they still do but no as strange as I had originally thought.
It was now Friday afternoon, and having told Rose back in Douai that I would be arriving in Paris on Sunday, I needed to get a move on somewhat.
With a couple of hours rest though and my left knee beginning to return to normal, I packed up my stuff and headed back down the road towards Doullens, halfway between Arras and Amiens. Places to camp were thin on the ground but as I have said before, my luck always returns and I found a gap in the woods about 1 metre wide which I could wheel my bike into. I waited until I saw no vehicles either way and did just that managing to get my tent up in time before the heavens opened. Quite a close call.
As with every other night on this trip so far, I wasn’t disturbed at all, but for the sound of the odd car the next morning.
I cycled another 14km’s before coming to the small town of Doullens and to my utter surprise and relief, found both a Lidl and a McDonalds. Can you believe how incredibly happy I was? Well, I was quite happy. I am that sad. Needless to say, I stocked up on food whilst a French man looked after my bike. Well, he wasn’t so much protecting it as standing next to it, but he never moved and thus I had my own French guard of honour outside Lidl.
Arriving in Amiens didn’t fill me with much excitement apart from the fact that I was really in France now. That was until I got to the centre and found a quite picturesque little city; all cathedrals, churches and cobblestones. Very nice indeed.
On the way out I dropped into a Decathlon store to buy a new kickstand as mine had bent out of shape and broken off. It was priced very reasonably at 6.95 but was told at the till it was in fact 9.95. I just let it go because we both couldn’t understand one another and I was too tired to argue in sign language.
It was now late afternoon on Saturday and I had to be in Paris the next evening as my friend had booked a hotel for me for two nights. I saw that I still had 120 km’s to go and started to worry a little. Maybe though, just maybe if I could get another 40 km’s done today I could be in Paris by 4 or 6pm the next day.
Thankfully for me, later on, I found just the smallest opening in the trees behind a crash barrier at the top of a huge hill, and in the tiniest of spaces, managed to erect my tent . Salad days.
I knew I should have pushed on, as camping when I did left me with a mammoth task the following day in order to get to Paris at a reasonable hour. I was simple too exhausted to carry on though.
Today I had to give everything I could find; every ounce of energy, every bit of sweat and every gram of determination. I promised myself I was going to make it and what a day it was going to be. The toughest, most testing, and tiring day I have ever endured on a bicycle. I simply can’t describe in words here how painfully difficult it was. I could have cried.
Getting to the city of Beauvais was easy enough even though I was a little wet when I got there. I can handle being wet and sweaty at the same time. It’s just what happened on the outskirts of Paris that tested my resolve.
On the way there, I met with seven Lithuanians who were cycling from London where they lived to Paris before catching the train back the next day. They were all really nice and were quite impressed if a little bemused that I had already been cycling and camping for three weeks. They couldn’t understand how I could do that. They said they needed a hotel after one night sleeping on the ferry, but as with everything in life, if you train and condition yourself, over time, everything becomes easier and in fact quite acceptable. After cycling with them for a half hour, I pushed on and met them again at a McDonalds further down the highway. This is the point where I should have asked them which way they were taking as it was from here on out that I endured an ordeal that lasted around five hours. It was unbelievable to say the least.
After having said goodbye to the Lithuanian guys, I found that the only sign at the roundabout that would direct me towards Paris led also onto a motorway. One blue sign above a green sign but both indicating Paris. I knew the blue meant that the road eventually led onto a motorway and the green was always used for the route national which I could cycle on. Coming off the slip road and onto the highway, I found myself cycling on quite a wide shoulder which was unusual. To my dismay, this is when the horns started blowing. It was then that I knew it was indeed a motorway. Thus I made my way back up the slip road, pushing my bicycle in the process back to the roundabout from which I had come. I then decided to take another road which in the end turned out to be the exact same road I had arrived by. Seeing as there was a barrier in the middle and thus blocking any opportunity to cross to the other side to go back the way I had come, I had to continue cycling until I came to another slip road that led into a village and onto Persan.
It was here where I tried asking a lady about a suitable road to get me across to Paris but she, like everybody only knew of the motorway. She did however suggest I cross back under the highway from which I had come and head into Champagne and from there I might be able to find some signs to guide me.
I decided to do this but my inadequate map couldn’t function with the signs that indicated only small villages. Now I was getting frustrated. I headed back onto the highway and on again to the McDonalds in order to take another route. This led to Beaumont Sur-Oise where I again asked for directions. I was told to go back the way I had come. This obviously wasn’t an option as I was tired and would have to go back up a very long and steep hill and so I headed east to the village of Viarmes from where I could see a road on my map that headed directly into the suburbs of Northern Paris.
After an hour or so, and having pushed my bike up through the village, sweating profusely and shouting profanities in the process, I eventually came to another roundabout right on the outskirts of the city where I headed onto the highway. It looked busy, too busy perhaps and so, standing in the middle of the road where the slip road joins the highway, I gestured with my hands, pointing to my bicycle and then to the road at a passing driver whom waved his hands in a way that indicated I shouldn’t cycle there. I walked back up the road to the roundabout and asked a man if I was allowed on the road and he said, although it was indeed very busy, that I could and so off I went.
It was a half hour later, on one of the busiest route nationals in the country that I realised I was actually heading East to Pontoise. I had taken the wrong exit and I couldn’t believe I didn’t pay more attention. It was just so busy that I was simply concentrating on negotiating the roundabout safely. What a fool I was!
I thus took the next slip road into a village called Frepillon where I asked two ladies about a suitable road. They directed me towards Taverny but then suggested I simply take a train the rest of the way. I didn’t like the idea but I was tired and dirty; sweating from every pore and had already cycled 150km. I just wanted to get to Paris and rest. It was already 7pm.
I could have taken you through all five hours of that little story, but as I would never be able to get across my sheer frustration and mood at the time, I’ll leave it up to your imagination. Five hours though, in 25 degree heat and with 30 – 40 kilo’s on your bike. Imagine.
And so having cycled all the way from Manchester and through three countries, I had to take a train the last 25km’s. Needless to say I was slightly gutted but at least I got to Paris. I arrived at Gare du Nord and cycled through the city, grabbing a beer on the way before plonking myself under the Eiffel tower. Having sat down, relaxed and having thought about it, I was reasonably pleased with myself but lessons had to be learnt from this as things will no doubt only become more difficult.
Just one more thing though; sitting here and writing this, I have just realised I could have simply gone back to the McDonalds and used their wi–fi. If only I had thought of that then….