I left Lyon before anyone had stirred; I roamed the streets by bicycle alone and had time to reflect on just how for I had come – from the top to the bottom of France, I felt I had done well. This reflection had distracted me from remembering exactly where the train station was located, with 15 minutes until my train was set to leave I was panicking that I would not make it in time…
The inner Mark Cavendish was summoned, as I sprinted through the city regardless of the lights, traffic or pedestrians. It didn’t help that there were three different stations in Lyon, all in fairly close proximity to one another. It wasn’t until I reached the end of a street (at which I had been told to turn right) I saw the correct station on my left, so I made a dash and managed to grab a ticket, find my train and board with a minute to spare. Had I not managed to get this particular train, I would have been stuck in Lyon a further 4 hours, while the next train wouldn’t get into Paris until 8pm, and what a nightmare that would have been!
I hopped onto the carriage and stored my bike away. It turns out that I wasn’t the only cyclist in a frantic rush to try and hop aboard the train destined for Paris. A whole hoard of MAMILs (Middle-aged men in lycra) and their wives clambered aboard with about 10 bicycles. Suddenly the carriage I was in, which I thought would be peaceful enough for a quick kip before my last cycle, wouldn’t be so peaceful after all. It turned out that it was a big group celebrating fifteen year wedding anniversary, by cycling from just south of Paris back down to Dijon. I managed to sleep for a little while, amongst the many bicycles strewn all along the carriage I was in. Just before Dijon, two ladies boarded the train and sat down next to me. It turned out that both were English and were on a little cycling expedition just like myself. They had taken the train, along with their bikes down to Basel, Switzerland and had been cycling along the canal paths of Germany and France ever since, finishing in Lyon. I was impressed with lack of planning and “chancing” the women had decided to do, booking nothing in advance and merely finding stops along the way. It reminded me of just how little I had planned, given the size of my task, and yet I had managed to cope. It was nice to talk with the ladies, and they helped to speed up the journey as we talked about my trip; a little about theirs and what our plans were when we both finished our journeys.
I had decided to get off at the stop before Paris and cycle in, with the stop beforehand being Sens. Thinking that the stop before would not be too far from Paris, and would perhaps be more of a light cycle in, it turns out that Sens was still over an hour to Paris by train. After a quick google, I realised that it was around 90-odd miles away from the Eiffel Tower – my final destination by bike. I had aimed to get to Paris for about 3 or 4pm, but this was looking slightly unrealistic given that it would take me around 6 or 7 hours at a speed of about 25km/h to hit Paris at 6pm. Starting to slightly regret my decision to come off the train, I grabbed some food and started to make my way on my bike for the final time. I hit the ground running (pedaling) as I knew I would need to really push it on the day if I was to get to Paris for a reasonable time. The scenery along the way was slightly different to what I had seen throughout France all throughout my trip. Although again mostly just farms, the colours were like something out of a Van Gogh painting, with the vivid yellows of the sunflowers mixing with the greens of the tall cornfields, scorched underneath the glare of the bright sun that I had brought along with me from the South of France. 60 miles in and I was making good time, perhaps I was fit after all. I had managed to do 60 miles in just under four hours, which meant I was exceeding my target of around 25km/h and it looked like I may make it into Paris on time (something which hadn’t been a regular theme throughout my trip).
I started to slow when I realised that my water supplies might not last me for the last 30 miles of the trip. I was pedaling as fast as the bike would allow in order to more quickly seek a nearby town that would have a little shop that would provide me with much needed hydration. I was heading closer to the suburbs of Paris, but my Garmin was yet to give me a break, insisting that I stay on any road but one that would lead to some sort of oasis. I saw my opportunity ahead of me in what looked to be a purpose-built town for commuters into the capital. I headed in and scoured the area for supermarket, high street store or corner shop, anything would do. Luck was on my side and a small shop tucked away in the corner of an estate would provide me with a few bottles of water, a much needed coke and some chocolate to keep my energy up. I can’t remember the name of the little place, but I didn’t fancy hanging around for too long – it was like a weird set from the film Kidulthood and I felt a little uneasy, with lots of guys in full tracksuits, obvious drug deals taking place round the corner and pimp-like characters who were flirting with girls half their age; it was all a little bit strange. Wanting to get as far away and as quickly as possible, I hopped back on the bike and headed for the first exit that said “Paris”.
Having made good time coming from Sens into the suburbs of Paris, I started to be slowed by the introduction of traffic lights. They started to become an (un)popular acquaintance the further into the city I cycled, with our meetings becoming as frequent as perhaps every 500 metres or so. Having managed to breeze through 80 miles in around 5 1/2 hours, the last 10 miles were to become a struggle, due to the stop-start nature of city riding as my legs began to seize up on occasion. Stuck behind two electric scooters on a cycle lane alongside the Seine, I dreamt of having an electric bike in the hope that my motor would start to kick in anytime. Alas, my legs were all I had, so a little shake-out was all that was needed to get my pistons firing again. Seeing the Eiffel Tower in the distance probably helped to motivate me further, and soon I was back haring through the streets of Paris (more importantly past the show-offs on the electric scooters). I passed the Notre-Dame, and heard its bells chime for 7pm, as I darted through the traffic that at times was a little hairy. The combination of crazy taxi drivers, daredevil motocyclists and angry bus drivers were a potential recipe for disaster, but years tearing it through the streets of Southampton at break-neck speeds had taught me something about awareness at least.
I finally stood below the magnificent steel structure that was the Eiffel Tower. I had seen it countless times before, but seeing it this time was something special. It signified the end of a long journey that had been tough extremely tough at times both mentally and physically. After fifteen days of cycling, around 2000km travelled, 12 different hosts and 16 different locations, all that was left was one very tired, but also quite proud guy. After months of building myself up for the challenge, it was finally over, the cycling at least, and I have to admit that I was a little emotional. Never before have I completed anything so difficult and more demanding than the 16 days I spent, often alone or in the company of strangers; all in aid of a really good cause in that of the Alzheimer’s Society.
After taking a few pictures, I headed off to the campsite on the other side of the city, near the Boulogne district on the outskirts of the 15th Arrondissemont, where I would meet my friends who I have grown up with all my life, to spend two nights squashed into a campervan. I arrived at the site, sweaty and horrible and surprised the lads as they were eating dinner. After a long shower and changing into something nice for a change, we headed out into the city.
It was safe to say that my experience with French transport already hadn’t been the best. Within a few hours of being in Paris with my friends, it was about to get even worse. Having all bought a one-way metro ticket, we headed off into the centre of Paris. Having only gone about 5 stops, we headed for the over-ground looking for the Pantheon. We were stopped on the way by the transport police, who were checking that people hadn’t hopped on the metro for free. My ticket was swiped – fine. My two other friends – also fine. Just our friend Oli to go, but there was a problem. His ticket was registering as never been used, despite him managing to get through the barriers and buying a ticket. The transport police set about trying to make an example of him, while we all protested his innocence. He even showed his receipt, but apparently its just as easy to find one of those lying about too (what a cruel joke this was turning out to be). Long story short, after lots of arguing and remonstrating, Oli had to pay a €30 fine, despite paying €1.80 for a ticket. It is safe to say that those who work within the French transport system are extremely uncompromising.
Regardless, we had aimed to have a good night and despite Oli grumbling for five minutes about cheese-eating surrender monkeys, we managed to grab a few beers and head towards the Pantheon, Paris’ biggest student area. After drowning Oli’s €30-sized sorrow in a few of the finest supermarket branded Belgian blondes, we decided to find a bar. We headed up to the popular student area, dominated by bars and restaurants and not entirely knowing the way, we followed a convoy of open-top Citroen C2’s full of chicks on a Hen do. The road was called Rue Lacépede, which led up to a small square full of bars. The atmosphere was buzzing and everyone was having a good time, there were dancers and singers on each street corner that interjected one another where the roads converged. We sat down at a super busy bar called Le Wall, which I didn’t realise until after was actually an English pub. It was clear that the carrot on the stick for most punters in this particular establishment, was the offer of €3.50 pints of the house lager, which of course we were more than happy to consume. The night slowed down as we relaxed in our chairs, after a few pints of the house lager and a couple of Chouffes. It was nice to finally be able to fully relax and was the first time on the trip that I had been fully able to do so, which was a welcome relief. We stayed until the chairs had began to be put away and stumbled into the back of a taxi after reloading on the carbs with a huge filled crepe…
Waking up the next morning in less than comfortable surroundings; 4 hairy guys in the middle of summer had made the campervan a mobile sweatbox, not to mention the thousands of mosquitos that made me look like a leper. Today was game day, the big finale, and you could sense that something big was on the horizon from all the flying flags and football shirts that dominated the campsite. We changed as quickly as four men in a tiny camper could, and headed out after a breakfast that consisted of warm orange juice and a bacon sandwich cooked on the grill. Heading into the centre on the metro, we prayed that the same thing wasn’t going to happen to Oli, while I filmed it all partly for a laugh, but partly as evidence! After having no hassle on the metro, we hopped off at the stop Argentine and walked towards the Arc de Triomphe. For me it was a fitting way to begin touring the city, given the previous two weeks exploits, and so we continued on down for some window shopping at all the things we will never be able to afford on the Champs-Élysées.
After an ice-cream and drinks pit-stop, we carried on down to the Jardin de Tuileries and sat down to bask in the sun on some deck chairs over looking a large pond in the centre of the gardens. The heat seemed to take it out of us, which surprised me as I had no idea how I had managed to cope in the 40-odd degree heat down in Marseilles. By the time we had finished pondering at fish and pulling Joe’s leg, we were seriously hungry. It was also getting closer to kick-off, and there were lots of people obviously descending in hoardes down to the Eiffel Tower and fan park. I had earlier suggested that it would be a good idea to queue up for the fan park very early – but noone really listened, because honestly who wants to spend half a day caged into a place where the only beer that is served is Carlberg? We bought some streetfood on our way to the Eiffel Tower, following the masses of people, chanting, beeping horns and singing their hearts out. There were more Portuguese fans than I expected, but someone had told me along the way, that there was a huge number of Portuguese migrants that had come to work in construction in the eighties, and just never left! It was kind of nice then to have both countries come together for the final and you really felt that there was a good atmosphere between both sets of fans.
Not being far from the Tower, we felt a little bit left out that we weren’t looking particularly dressed for the occasion, but 3 berets for €10, plus an England flag thrown in sorted us out in no time! The queue for the fan park was enormous and there was still 3 hours until the game started. I didn’t want to say I told you so to the guys (I did a bit) because it wouldn’t have got us in any quicker. Regardless we queued like good Englishmen do, and perhaps because of our heritage, we weren’t daunted by the thoughts of spending the next three hours with our personal space abused and movement restricted. I had got into the queue only slightly quicker than the rest of the guys, but was dragged to the front by the movement of the crowd much quicker than the others. The crowd was looking dangerous, and a couple of people in front of me had fainted, whilst a small skirmiss had broken out, quickly broken up by the heavy handed Gendarmerie (French National Guard). Being aware of the events of Hillborough, as an English football fan, although not in any way comparing the two situations, it was quite clear that this could be a dangerous situation and it would only take a little bit of pushing from the rear for some of the crowd to fall and be trampled – I had experienced this a few times in France with regards to the fan zones and have to say that it was lucky that they managed to avoid any notable accidents or trouble.
As I was frisked and managed to get through the gates, I couldn’t wait to meet the others inside. As I turned around however, the gates had been closed off as the fan park had reached its capacity. We were all gutted as it meant that only one of us would see it in the flesh, but I didn’t want to hang about in there without my friends. I went in, took some pictures and caught a bit of the atmosphere, but it wouldn’t have been the same without my mates.
After escaping the fan park, which was easily over capacity and I thought held at least around 100,000 within its grounds, we roamed the streets searching for a bar that would be playing the game. Luckily we didn’t have to travel too far, as in a nearby side-street a nice wine bar was showing the game on a projector they had obviously installed especially for the Euro Finals. We all grabbed a beer from the bar and watched from outside, as there was just no space inside. It seemed we weren’t the only guys in town with this idea, and as kick-off drew closer, more and more people spilled onto the street. At first cars had to squeeze past, and people courteously moved out of the way. Closer to kick-off however the street had become so full, that it was in fact impossible for any cars to move down the street and it really felt as if the people had taken over! Despite a boring game (we couldn’t see it from all the people in front of the screen anyway), the atmosphere was electric and the street was full of people singing from all sorts of nationalities. There were French, Portuguese, Mexican, Algerian, Tunisian, English, American, all coming together just because of football; it really was quite amazing. It started to resemble a riot scene when a couple of the Tunisian and Algerians behind us started getting into the fervour reminiscent of the Arab Spring and took to standing on cars and chanting. It really added to the atmosphere, especially when someone brought out a football that was kicked around, but I can’t imagine many of the car owners would be happy to come back and find their rooftops caved in…
The game had ended with a shock 1-0 defeat of the French by the Portuguese and the streets were filled with some jubilant fans in red and many in anguish in blue. Surprisingly it stayed relatively calm, we only saw one instance of a crazy French guy attempting to windmill anyone with “Ronaldo” on the back of their shirt (most Portuguese do), though he was soon calmed down by a police officer or two. As we followed the crowd into the night, it started to occur to me that my journey was finally over. I had set about on my own tour of France, determined to follow the European Championships by bicycle and despite the absolutely torrid time I endured at the beginning, I had finally completed what I had set out to do.
I had arrived alone, in a foreign country, just myself and my bicycle. I was now leaving, in the company of three guys who I have always grown up with; and what a way to end my French adventure that was!