Paris France to Dover England (or “I told you not to cycle”)

Written by Jon.

We don’t usually do headlines for our blog entries but this deserves one.

I toyed with ‘How I almost killed myself’ and ‘Look what happens when I leave you alone’ but have settled on the apt…’I told you not to cycle’. Suffice to say, I am writing this blog entry more than 4 months after the event and still have not regained full feeling in my ‘pinky’ fingers!

After spending an enjoyable, albeit slightly wet and cold few days exploring the delights of Paris with our dear friends Sabine and Thibault, the time came for Vanessa and I to go our separate ways for the first time in 11 months. 🙁

Sabine, Thibault and Vanessa


Vanessa took the early train from Paris to St Malo and, the next day, caught the ferry from St Malo to Jersey, where we would be spending Christmas. She would send her bike from Jersey to Australia (another story entirely).

In the meantime, the plan was for me to make my way from Paris to the UK (where I would pack and send my bike back to Oz), then meet Robyn & Harry in Heathrow as their flight arrived from Australia, escort them to London Gatwick, then the 3 of us would take a short flight to Jersey and be reunited with Vanessa…Hooray!

I had 3 days before the UK-Jersey flight and decided (despite Vanessa’s parting words to me being…”don’t ride, it’s forecast to snow”) that I would cycle at least part of the way from Paris to Calais. The total distance is 295km and even in my most optimistic of dreams, I knew that I wouldn’t be doing those distances in mid-winter with loaded panniers. Sabine put me in touch with her good friend Anne Loire, who lives in Lille, which is only 120km from Calais. I figured that 120km was a do-able distance and arranged to train up to Lille from Paris, stay the night at Anne Loire’s, then cycle to Calais the following day and catch the night ferry to Dover, where I had booked accommodation and pre-booked having my (boxed) bike collected, before catching a train to London. Simple!

Day 1 – Paris to Lille.

This day involved 2 train journeys from Paris to Lille and a reasonably short cycle of around 10km to Anne’s house. The first train from Paris Gare Nord to Amien was scheduled to take a little over an hour. It set off half an hour late but, as there was over an hour before the next train, this was not a problem.
The second train left Amien on time just as the sun was setting. All went well until it reached Albert station, where it ground to a halt. The doors suddenly opened and the electricity switched off, leaving the passengers in the dark and allowing the biting wind to blow through the train. An announcement over the tannoy (I asked some fellow passengers to translate) explained that a tree had blown down on the track ahead, so we sat in the dark and increasing cold, waiting for news.

3 hours later the train set off. As I had no wifi, I persuaded a helpful passenger to text Anne Loire to explain that I would be delayed a few hours.

Arriving in Lille shortly after 10pm, I cycled in the biting cold to her home and was thrilled to be greeted with a warm bowl of soup and home-made cake. Anne Loire and her partner were really welcoming and also super impressed to hear about our cycling exploits. On our WhattsApp group they referred to me simply as “Crazy Cyclist”. As I put myself to bed, they pre-warned me of the predicted 70km Northerly winds and rain forecast for the following day. I should have listened to them too and taken the train to Calais.

Day 2 – Lille to Dover

This was one of the longest and toughest days of my life. I woke at around 7am and after saying a very fond farewell to my hosts and newfound friends, left the house at 8.15am, as the sun was rising. In truth there was no sun to speak of as it was a very dreary mid-winter’s day in Northern France. It was already pouring with rain but I had my waterproofs on, which at least kept my body warm.

The first 2 hours were at best, unpleasant, as I battled against a strong headwind and incessant rain. Navigation was a little tricky as I struggled to keep my phone dry and the app quickly drained the life from my battery. The early morning commuters meant that the traffic around Lille was also pretty heavy.

By mid-morning I had cycled around 30km. My gloves were soaking wet, as were my feet, due to the rainwater splashing up from the road. Fortunately the rest of me was dry. Then, suddenly the rain changed to sleet. Whilst the visibility was poor (I had my lights on all day) I initially enjoyed the exhilaration of cycling/battling with the sleet whistling past me but pretty quickly it changed to full on blizzard conditions.

I reached the village of Le Seau and stopped outside a pharmacists. The snow died down for a short while, giving me a brief respite from the elements. The temperature on the shop front said 1 degree but the wind chill made it feel a good deal colder.

I checked Maps.Me and noticed that I was only 200 meters from the Belgian border. I couldn’t resist taking the short detour (it felt like a lot longer into the wind) and a photo or two of the bike in yet another country.

Back on track again, it was still only 11am as i headed off North. Unfortunately the snow picked up and started to stick to the roads. After a while my wheels starting slip sliding all over the place and I had to un-clip the cleats for fear of falling over completely. The cars were also having trouble and were crawling along in a long procession behind me, which made me a little nervous. As the villages gave way to open fields, I was suddenly very conscious of the biting cold and that the roads were becoming treacherous.

I pulled off the road and tried to shelter behind a broken down truck

As an endless stream of vehicles passed me by in both direction at little more than walking pace. I fancied hitching a lift but knew that only a large vehicle (van/truck) would be able to carry me with my bike and full panniers…I stuck out my thumb at the odd truck or van that went by but had no joy. This went on for around half an hour, as i got increasingly cold and the snow got grew thicker. Once or twice, a car did stop and offer help but none had enough room for me and my bike. As I stood there, the cars started to grind to a halt due to the snow. This at least gave me something to do to keep warm, as I helped to push around half a dozen vehicles that had become bogged.

Eventually I decided I had to keep moving or simply freeze where I stood. I changed out of my sodden gloves and switched to my dry but fingerless ones. Getting back on the bike, I found that as the snow had thickened to around 5cm deep and I was no longer slipping all over the road. in fact, I was able to cycle quite happily (still unclipped) but at a reasonable pace, whilst the cars on the roads had stopped moving.

With a little renewed determination, I carried on through the heavy snow, overtaking the endless line of broken down vehicles. Occasionally, I would need to dismount and push the bike past them as they blocked both sides of the road. I wasn’t travelling very fast but by mid-afternoon I reached the small town of Cassel, where i stopped again for a breather and took a couple more photos.

I set off North again along snow-caked roads through open fields, where I had no protection from the biting North-East crosswind which almost pushed me over on several occasions. I was determined not to fall into the roadside ditch and cycled as near to the centre of the road as I could. Occasionally the odd motorist crawling along behind me beeped at me to move over…I was well past caring about their feelings and made sure they know what they could do with their horns! “Crazy/Angry Cyclist”. I pulled alongside a roadside house to shelter from the wind and noticed that my bike was completely covered in ice nd snow, with icicles hanging from the chain, pedals and rack. I tried to take a photo but realised i couldn’t feel my fingers and gave up. I didn’t take any more photos that day.

In the village of Arnake, I stopped and sheltered in the doorway of a small bakery, whilst dripping all over their shop floor. The young lady behind the counter kept ushering me outside the shop (I don’t think I was a good look for custom) but I was loath to move away from the blow heater above the door.

It was starting to get dark so I cycled a little further through the village until I found what looked like a pub. I walked in to find the bar-tender and 1 customer. I ordered a hot chocolate and started talking to the bar-tender, who was able to decipher that i was after a train to Calais. He explained that the train station was only just across the road and that a train left in about an hour. I had placed my sodden gloves on the radiator for a short while whilst I drank my hot chocolate and wasn’t keen to put them back on again so soon but figured it was worth stepping outside again if it meant catching the train. I pushed my bike the short distance to the platform where I waited sheltering as best possible from the wind. At least by now it had stopped snowing. 3 young men joined me on the platform which encouraged me that a train might show. We waited, and waited but no train. After an hour on the platform the 3 men started to leave…I asked in broken French about the train and they said that it had not arrived due to the weather…they were going to walk 10km through the snow to get home! This was bad news. I decided I would wait a while longer and then return to the bar to warm up if it had still not arrived. Half hour came and went, so I trudge wearily back to the bar, only to find to my disappointment that it was closed. In fact everything was closed! I muttered an expletive or two and looked at my phone (I was finding it hard keeping it dry and couldn’t feel my fingers). I had around 60km to go to Calais and it was about 7pm.

Over the last 11 months Vanessa and I had made a point of avoiding cycling at night but with no sign of life anywhere and the thought of pitching a tent in the snow being way down on my list of priorities I decided to start cycling again.

The next few hours consisted of cycling through snow-covered country roads in a vague North-Westerly direction with the occasional slow moving vehicle to contend with. Vehicles behind me helped to light the road up whilst those approaching would blind me with the glare.

At around 9pm I reached a T-junction joining a major road. I pulled off onto the hard shoulder to look at my phone for direction…To my horror I had only 1% left on my battery (which was suffering with the cold), so I started to scramble through my panniers to find my battery charger and cable. At that exact moment, I noticed that my back light had died.

I stood in the dark, on the hard shoulder of the snow-covered main road, shivering in my sodden clothes, being buffeted by the gale force wind and calculated that in order to keep my back light working I would have to sacrifice my phone, which was my only method of navigation…A thought occurred to me, which hadn’t entered my head during the preceding 11 months’ travels…”I would rather be sitting behind my desk at work”.

Fortunately I managed to push this brief moment of self-pity and temporary insanity to the back of my mind and eventual managed to plug the battery charger cord into the back light socket…Did I mention that I couldn’t feel my fingers? I was good to go.

I took a long last look at the phone for direction before it died on me and headed off in the direction of the port town of Gravelines (20km West of Dunkirk). Luckily the traffic was sparse, other than the very occasional truck, which would crawl past me. Half an hour later I arrived in Gravelines, having ridden over the motorway heading to Calais. There was nothing open. In fact the town was (like its name) lifeless, aside from one homeless person huddled in a sleeping bag in a bus shelter.

Looking at the street signs I could see that there were 2 possible routes to Calais. The more direct route was 25km on the motorway (strictly not for bicycles) and the longer one was 35km on minor roads. My issue of course was that I was freezing, tired and hungry and also had no means of navigation on the minor roads. I reasoned that there would be little traffic on the motorway with the weather being so bad and that the hard shoulder on the well-lit motorway would be safer than the minor roads. So the motorway it was.

I would definitely not recommend cycling on a motorway in Northern Europe at any time but these were desperate times. I pushed on as best I could. On the whole the trucks gave me a wide birth and I only received one or two blasts of the horn. The snow on the motorway had melted sufficiently that I wasn’t slipping all over the place and I only had any difficulty when I had to negotiate the off-ramps where gear changing became difficult as I couldn’t feel my thumbs. At least the wind was now blowing more with me than against.

After an hour or so on the motorway I had just over 1km to the Calais turn-off, I was just about to fall asleep whilst cycling when a police car pulled up next to me on the hard shoulder. The gendarme wound down his window (obviously not keen to get out) and explained that I couldn’t cycle on the motorway. I did my best “dumb tourist” explanation that I was trying to get to Calais and would be getting off the motorway very soon. I set off again, this time with a police escort (flashing lights and all) driving very slowly in front of me. This was actually a bit of a relief as it meant that the trucks gave me a wider birth.

Once off the motorway the officer kindly directed me to the port. He did his best to explain the quickest way but this still meant by-passing the town, which wouldn’t be a problem in a car but took me some time on my bike.

Eventually I found my way to the port. I pushed my bike into the relative heat and luxury of the ferry terminal and got a glimpse of the clock above the counter. It was 1.15am!

The woman at the counter explained that normally the last boat to Dover left at 1am but, due to one of the earlier crossings being cancelled (she didn’t tell me why but I later found out that an earlier ferry had been blown aground by the gale force winds) there was a 2am sailing. I hurriedly bought a ticket, expecting to be able to sit in the warmth and dry off for half an hour before walking my bike aboard but she told me I had to join the cars waiting outside on the dock with my bike (not happy). I cycled to the front of the queue and stood with my bike as the wind buffeted me again, waiting to be directed onboard by the ferry staff. After 15 minutes I could take no more and pleaded with the driver of the coach waiting behind me to let me stand inside the coach until it was time to board. He agreed but didn’t want me to sit down as my clothes were soaking.

After an eternity we were ushered forward. I cycled as fast (not fast at all) as my legs would allow me up the ferry ramp, which had a 1 in 5 gradient, whilst the trucks & coaches waited patiently behind me. Once aboard, I locked my bike, then headed upstairs to the cafeteria, where I bought & consumed about 5 snickers bars in the space of 10 minutes, then plugged in my phone and light to charge and spent the duration of the crossing (1 hour) drying my clothes under the blowdryer in the bathroom.

Arriving in Dover it was still only 2am (the UK being 1 hour behind France). I cycled off the ferry and found my way to the hostel I had booked. I knocked on the door, expecting not to get an answer at that time of the night but was pleasantly surprised when it was answered. I was ushered in by “Gary”, who did the night shift. He was a lovely guy, who had all the time in the world and wanted to do nothing but chat. We found a spot for my bike and he gave me a well needed cuppa which I drank whilst listening to his stories about his ailing mother and her dodgy doctor. I wanted to do nothing but curl up in a ball. I interrupted Gary to explain that I desperately needed to sleep, which prompted him to show me to my dorm. Unfortunately the other guests in my room had locked it from the inside, which meant that Gary had to instead put me in the one spare bed in a 10-bed dorm. He also couldn’t find any blankets so I made do with a sheet (I was to tired to look for my sleeping bag in my panniers).

As I lay down to sleep I noticed that it was after 3am (4am French time) and that I had 2 messages. The first was from Vanessa with a news article of the ferry which had run aground due to storm force winds. asking if I was OK? The second was from Anne Loire, who was obviously worried about me too…plus she advised me that their house had been broken into and ransacked that very day. I guess it was a bad day for a few of us. I replied to them both that I was in one piece (just) and tried to settle down to sleep.

Unfortunately I didn’t get much rest as the 9 other occupants of my dorm all got up at 5.30am and spent the next hour preparing for a charity walk from Dover to London. I did my best to sound enthusiastic but wanted them all to just bugger off and leave me in peace. In addition I had the daunting task ahead of dismantling and boxing up my bike for collection later that day…this proved to be particularly time consuming and difficult as I had next to no strength in my hands and couldn’t feel any of my fingers. I was diagnosed with frostnip a few days later.

Anyway, lesson learned. Next time my better half tells me not to cycle…I will probably do as I’m told. 😉