London-Paris 2007 Ride Report
Imagine the perfect cycle event, and you won’t be far off the reality of the 2007 London-Paris Cycle Tour. Sure, that might be over-egging it a bit; the ride is not going to be every cyclist’s cup of tea. But with closed roads, a challenging, scenic route, full mechanical backup and a level of organisation more commonly associated with international sporting fixtures, the London-Paris ticks most of the relevant boxes before a pedal has been turned. Billed as ‘The Professional Event for Amateurs’, it has grown during its first four editions from a fun ride for a few mates into an event prestigious enough for its participants to be invited to precede the 2007 Tour de France peloton for the first stage promenade from Admiralty Arch to Tower Bridge. If that sounds almost too good to be true, then there’s more. Not only did the ride offer proper racing, but it boasted the company of two of the greatest racing cyclists ever in Sean Kelly and Johan Museeuw. And to cap it all, there were three days of riding and 600km to enjoy. Well, it did go from London to Paris…
Day one, Thursday 28 June, dawned with a typically British summer combination of bright sunshine and dark clouds that offered at least the possibility of rain. Riders arriving at Hampton Court Golf Club looked for team mates, pinged tyres, harassed the mechanics and posed for group photos while waiting for the ‘off’, which took place in three waves. With some 300 cyclists of widely varying ability taking part, the event was split into three groups, with riders in Group 1 eligible to compete for the Leader’s, Climber’s and Sprinter’s jerseys. British road regulations being what they are, the real racing would not begin until we reached French soil, but the 60-odd riders waiting eagerly to set out in Group 1 could look forward to a taster on the slopes of Grayshott Hill, which preceded the first day lunch stop. If they could hold themselves back, that is.
Team Museeuw-Onimpex, comprising the great Johan himself, Onimpex boss Ken Jones, Eurosport commentator and RCUK columnist David Harmon and RCUK editor Richard ‘The Pheasant’ Hallett, pondered team tactics. Family commitments meant that Johan would only be able to ride the first day, so an all-out assault on, say, the sprinter’s jersey seemed out of the question. So too did an attempt to snaffle either of the other two. The climber’s jersey fell the previous year to former 1st cat. roadie Michael Blann, who did not look like he was prepared to let it go without a struggle, while the 2006 Yellow Jersey sat nicely on the shoulders of former Rabobank amateur teamster and Australian National Series silver medallist Jerone Walters, who looked equally hard to dislodge. Did someone say there was going to be some proper racing?
In the event, the first serious climb of the event went to form, with Michael carrying on where he had left off the previous year. Perhaps the most notable moment of the morning came when event organiser Sven Theile flatted. With several spare pairs of Lightweight wheels sitting in the mechanical backup van, he stopped to wait for assistance. Seeing his plight, the kindly Johan also dropped off the back of the bunch, which was travelling at well over 33kph. Maybe the backup van took a long time to arrive; maybe the wheel took a bit of fitting; either way, Sven had reason to be grateful to Museeuw for the tow back up, although ‘grateful’ does not even begin to describe his, er, overheated appearance as he regained the safety of the bunch.
In much the same way, the afternoon was frequently enlivened by Sean Kelly until the former King of the Classics and winner of Liege-Bastogne-Liege started to find the frequent short, sharp climbs of the South Downs a bit taxing. Why else would he take a pull off the mechanic’s van up the savage climb out of South Harting? What’s that? Old pro’s trick? On arrival at Portsmouth Docks, we spread out over the parking lot next to the ferry ramp. This part of the ride was, it has to be said, not a high point. Luckily, it was not raining. After a long wait, we were told that we had to unload our luggage from the lorry on which it was stashed and carry it onto the ferry along with the cycles. Unloading the lorry took some time, and more than a few riders had problems managing heavy luggage and bike together. Eventually, London-Paris made it on board in time for the overnight crossing and we settled down to a few pints of recovery fluid.
Breakfast was taken at a hotel in St Malo, followed by the same sequential departure as on the previous day. This time, however, we had the full works: rolling road closures thanks to a dedicated and highly-skilled team of four motorcycle outriders, a stiff cross-wind that played into the hands of those of us who knew how to use it to our advantage, and some real racing. Anyone tempted to scoff might like to bear in mind that the L2P has a fine record in this respect, with the previous year’s headbangers including the prolific Matt Stephens of Sigma Sport. The format was simple; a sprint at 41km followed by a 24.8km road race for GC time in the morning, with a sprint, climb and second 19.3km road race in the afternoon.
Where's my lead-out man?
The problem with the sprint, for anyone wanting to contest it, was that 60 riders approached the start flag as a mass bunch gagging to give it a lash. With a mere 500m between the start and finish lines, the result was an impressive mass gallop that used the entire width of the road and, quite possibly, a fair bit of verge if you were further back than about 10th. The well-drilled Team Lend-Lease put hulking ex GB triathlete Anthony Shippard into the green jersey, but only after Kelly had goaded the bunch by sitting on the front at 50kph and waving his gilet around in the hope that it be taken by a ‘domestique’. Sadly, David Harmon was in the wrong team and too far back in any case…
The road race was even harder to get right if you had no computer. Again, there were 60-odd riders in contention with only 25km to race. Lacking a computer, I tried to judge the distance to the finish line by time and reckoned on the race lasting about 33 minutes. The pace was fierce, with enough reasonably fresh legs to deter most attempts to get away. After several such, I managed to get a small gap with Jerone Walters. Within a couple of turns on the front, however, I remembered why I stopped racing even as it became obvious why he got to ride with Rabobank. The result was a solo win for Jerone and bunch-bound ignominy for The Pheasant, which was compounded when Group 1 left early for the afternoon leg while I was still munching on a substantial picnic lunch.
Instead, I got to ride with Group 2 for the afternoon. Less competitive types thinking of taking part next year, take heart. The pace was steady and the experience very agreeable, with a relaxed and mutually supportive atmosphere that made a distinct change from the competitive Group 1. If this still sounds too fast, Group 3 should be a good choice. On arrival at Alencon's vast fire station, we retrieved our labelled musettes and luggage before heading off to whichever hotel we had been allotted.
That evening, the motorcycle marshalls staged a party that left a few of us cyclists with serious hangovers the next morning. Only one thing for it; have a proper crack at the first sprint. The two sprints of the previous day had been nothing on this one; Stage Three’s opener came at 16km, leaving barely enough time to warm up and certainly not enough for a badly-needed ‘comfort’ stop. As the start line approached, anyone with the faintest hope of a result began to creep up the outside of a bunch moving at a good 45kph. With Team Lend-Lease giving Anthony Shippard a perfect lead-out, I decided his was the wheel to follow. I was right, and with 200m to go, I came off his wheel. Shippard is a sharp character, however, and he had his eye open for a challenge. As his leadout man went to go right, Anthony yelled at him to pull off to the left. This he did, neatly impeding my run to the line and consigning me to third place. At least we could stop for a leak.
With a mass ride into Versailles as the highlight of the afternoon’s riding, all the racing on day three was crammed into the morning session. Shortly after the sprint came a 22.7km road race. Using a bit more 'nous', I held back until about 5km to go, attacked, got into a three-man break, got dropped on a short climb just as Jerone Walters and Michael Blann blasted past and just held off the charging bunch on the line. The climb that came next was long and undulating. Anthony Shippard flatted between the summit and the start of the second road race section, missing the start along with his team mates, and was forced to make an ultimately fruitless chase though increasingly heavy rain. This section was a peach, with a 5km drag midway that blew the bunch to pieces. Jerone again won the stage with a superb solo ride, while I got into a group of five for the last 5km and jumped it for fifth.
That was enough racing for this edition of London-Paris. As we regrouped by the side of the road, the clouds parted, the sun came out and we rolled down into St Maixme for a great lunch in the courtyard of the Hotel de Ville. There remained a lumpy but very pretty afternoon session where anyone with any gas to burn did so at every opportunity. Eventually, we made rendezvous with Groups 2 and 3 and the backup vehicles, ready for the mass ride into Versailles. This was quite a spectacle, and more than a few onlookers were left wondering what such a big peloton was doing, weaving through the heavy traffic of a Saturday afternoon on the outskirts of Paris. The London-Paris Cycle Tour was booked en masse into the Novotel hotel. Here, the bikes were loaded into a lorry to be driven overnight back to the Union Jack Club, which lies conveniently close to London's Waterloo Station. Later on, David Harmon conducted the prize-giving ceremony with his usual aplomb. But then, he had been saving himself.
All that was left was to stroll around a beautiful sunny Paris on the Sunday until the Eurostar was ready to depart for London. Team Museeuw-Onimpex lunched in Montmartre, but not before observing a number of L2P participants feasting on steak, chips and beer in the cafes around the Gare du Nord. Obviously the thought of a 3km hike and lots of steps did not appeal to them.
The London-Paris Cycle Tour 2008 will take place between 26 and 29 June.