We decided early in the year to undertake a “first” by entering a team into the British Heart Foundation off road London to Paris 3 day challenge. The reason this is a first is because the team consists of two riders on top quality mountain bikes and two on high spec power pedal electric mountain bikes. The e bike riders are, let’s say, “more advanced” in years and the two non e bikers are younger and fitter.
We called ourselves the Cycling Made Easy – Haibike team because we run a specialist store in Coulsdon Surrey which specialises in quality electric bikes, and one of our key suppliers is Haibike a top spec German sports bike manufacturer. Haibike is distributed in the UK by a division belonging to the Dutch Accell Group, who also own Raleigh UK. Haibike agreed to sponsor Cycling Made Easy and provided the two Haibike Xduro 29 plus two high spec 29er mountain bikes. The UK brand champion, David Notman, agreed to accompany the riders and transport the backup vehicle with full food and servicing support during each of the stages.
The van was loaded on Friday 31 July meaning we could get an early start at 6 am on the Saturday travelling from Chipstead to the start at Kempton Racecourse in West London. We had to be prepared for the briefings and last minute planning from the organisers scheduled for an 8am start.
The field had 160 riders mostly in teams although some entered as individuals with planned coach assistance. We climbed in the saddle, with some butterflies, not knowing what to expect. This is the fourth year that the British Heart Foundation have mounted the event so with previous years fields only consisting of maximum 70 riders this is quite an elite event considerably more testing than the conventional road routes favoured by many thousands of British cyclists over the years.
The start of the ride was stunningly pretty hugging the Thames and then on to the Wey navigation. We travelled through meadows and past locks and over lots of narrow bridges and footpaths. South of Woking then popping out in central Guildford and after a short bit of road jinking hit the Downs link which for the first 20 or so miles is the old railway line. This takes the rider past Cranleigh and Rudgewick with beautiful views of undulating peaceful countryside. All that you hear is the steady hum of the tyres and chomping of the cattle in the fields. We were blest with a fine sunny day- not too hot and a good temperature to ride. David from Haibike met us through the day at planned checkpoints where we refilled with water took on food and rested tired legs prior to swinging into the saddle for the next stage.
Things got a bit more testing when we climbed the Thundersbarrow Hill and this is where the two e bikes came into their element. Despite it being indented scree the bikes climbed through the field of riders combating a steep 1 mile gradient of off road bridle path. The path joined a road which still climbed and climbed to the top of Southwick Hill. From here we could see Shoreham with Brighton and the sea as backdrop.
We dropped down the hill on a rutted chalk track which was flinty but dry. We arrived at Carats Cafe on the sea front at about 2.30pm having travelled 62 miles. The Haibike eQ Xduro RC’s are fitted with Bosch Crank driven motors and Bosch 400Wh lithium ion batteries. This system provides information on to a centrally mounted display indicating battery level, an average speed for the day of 12.5 mph and the trip distance. It also indicated that the maximum speed achieved during the ride was 31.4mph. Of course the motor cuts out at 16.5mph (15 plus 10%) so if you travel above this you are under your own power which amazingly we seemed to do for many of the flatter paths where you wanted to move along as a group at a sensible speed to gallop through the miles. For those interested techies the day had 960 metres of climbing.
We loaded the four bikes on to the Haibike van and then set off to travel up the M23 and then down the M20 to the Ashford Tunnel rail link. We caught a 6pm train getting in to Calais half an hour later and booking in to a good old Ibis hotel for a welcome shower and change. A couple of well earned athletes beers then a short walk to a French shopping and restaurant complex for a great Italian meal then bed to crash out ready for the next day.
French breakfast then into the van which was a Renault Trafic sport which has 6 seats and was ideal for this type of event carrying two RC 29 Haibikes (£2750 retail) one medium frame one XL a medium frame Greed Team Haibike (£5500) and a medium Greed SL (£2500). David also brought along two spare full suspension 26″ e bikes just in case of failure or accidents. We decided that we would use as standard the 29er bikes which give better rolling for longer routes and securely sit on the off road terrain for comfort and stability.
Calais to Dieppe took two hours and we arrived in good time to unload and set off at 11am from the seaside at St Aubin Le Cauf. A few sceptical seasoned mountain bikers from other teams tried an e bike for the first time whilst we waited for the start and experienced the exhilaration of the powered assistance. They modified their standard “cheating” comments recognising that the power is there to be called on and can deliver as little or as much as required and does not take over as pedal pressure produces a satisfying cycling sensation, not sitting back and “cruising”. It is almost as if you have bionic legs giving up to three times that of a standard rider in the saddle.
What a day of contrasts; the first 25 miles followed a scenic French off road route populated by walkers, runners, power walkers and cyclists. This is a level tarmac surface which just goes on mile after mile. At this point we thought that the modest 50 mile day would be easy and quickly accomplished. We stopped for a cheese and ham baguette lunch at Forges les Eaux and picnicked on the grass in lovely sunshine feeling that all was good in the world and looking forward to the afternoon easy amble.
We set off and soon realised that we had been lulled in major miscalculation A steep ascent on choppy rutted meadows took us into different terrain. We then followed deep single tracks through woods with uphill climbs and muddy narrow paths requiring concentration and gung ho to get through some quite deep water obstructions. It was often a choice between going through the middle which could mean not very or very, very deep water or pick your way on the sides and risk getting it wrong falling sideways into the water. Often low overhanging branches snatched you unexpectedly and a balance had to be achieved between looking up and down to get through unscathed. Momentum and going for it proved the best balance because careful riding most likely meant getting it wrong – big time.
Once again the e bikes although heavier and less agile were at home on hostile ground. The Fox front suspension forks coped with stones and ruts and the chunky Schwalbe tyres were sure footed and secure. Uphill the climbing ability was stunning – downhill not quite as comfortable in that one of the bikes was carrying all the spares, tools and inner tubes in a Topeak pannier on a Rixen and Kaul saddle post rack so without rider would have been 20 kilos for the bike and an extra 3 kilos for the equipment – plus a fat elderly rider!!! Incidentally Ray at 65 was the oldest person on the ride and probably the oldest ever to take part (out of 300 people so far). Another first!
We kept popping out on deserted sweeping French country roads, meandering through sleepy villages to rejoin the wheat fields with poppies growing on the banks or darker forest areas with muddy narrow tracks. Full marks to the BHF as the route was well marked and we soon became familiar with looking out for the many yellow distinctive signs mounted on trees or bushes. This section was quite technical including riding for mile upon mile along field paths which had deeper tracks which if you got it wrong travelling at 12 to 15 mph plus you could spill off on to hard packed ground. The terrain for the most part is bumpy and hard so would not be good for a rider with a sensitive rear end. We had fitted the bikes with Selle Royal Respiro sixty degree saddles and also Thud Buster saddle post suspension units. Nonetheless to travel for mile upon mile on rough channelled uneven ground which hides stones and severe indents requires concentration and stamina.
With some relief we dropped down the hill into Lyon La Foret to be greeted by the Mayor who gave a welcome address and provided cider and wine in the late afternoon sun for the weary riders. We had come 50 hard fought miles and needed a splash down and some food. We had ascended 925 metres during day two.
The town is a delight and is archetypical of rural pretty France. Our hotel was quirky but importantly had a beautiful spa with Jacuzzi. Just what you need after a long ride. A meal in the hotel with a bit of Cote De Rhone and then wham – asleep.
Once again this was a day of massive contrasts. This was the longest distance day and we measured a cycle of 84 miles. Some of this involved sweeping along beautiful smooth tracks through forests and fields. However after Gasny we were cruising along comfortably when we saw members of the BHF team pointing us into a gap in the undergrowth and we started an extreme technical section which was steep, narrow, slippy and full of tree roots and low hanging branches. This caused chaos in our four rider team and in truth was too “technical” for us.
After much swearing, pushing of bikes and contemplating the meaning of life we all got through. If you could look down we must have been many feet above the Seine which was sweeping majestically by at the bottom of the valley where we rode at the top. We approached the inevitable descent with some trepidation and we were almost relieved to hit the single track mud, stones and scree at the bottom.
We crossed the Seine and by passed Les Mureaux and then just hadd to keep our heads down grit our teeth and keep going with our goal in sight. We entered the Foret Domanial De Marly le Roi and pedalled on till we found a road. Along this road until we saw a sign to turn through a gate on the left of the road which turned out to be the Gardens of Versailles Palace. What a view with the lake and formal gardens all before us. We thought we were there but actually we then swept along beautiful paths in a stunning location for another mile till we popped out at the other side of the palace and saw the BHF team and the finish. We all crossed the line together, tired and drained but also exhilarated and satisfied that we had made it. Our tired, slightly bloodied and very muddy legs were able to carry us across the car park to the Cafe Paris outdoor bar where a glistening beer clinked to celebrate our achievement. It was just after 4.15 and we had set off at 7.30am. We had climbed 700 metres through the day.
We helped David to load the van for the final time and booked in to the ibis round the corner. The BHF had organised a celebration dinner in a local restaurant and we all had a good night feeling tired but rewarded.
All thanks are due to the BHF team who put out 6 support cars, first aid help, water and encouragement on our journey. The real thanks go to David Notman and his support with sponsoring the Cycling Made Easy team. Plus of course the bikes. Ray and Jim rode the Haibike e bikes which were superb. They enabled us to participate in an elite event for predominantly fitter, younger men. The performance was overall superb and we had not technical problems whatsoever. The two non electric Haibikes in the hands of Robert and John really did the job. On longer hilly climbs it was not unexpected that the e bikes were able to overtake all the other riders in the event but when these riders saw that two of our team did not have assistance and were still moving well through the field everyone could be understandably well impressed.
We are all pleased we took part. Would we do it again? The answer must be “yes” but for me an e bike would be a must and the Haibike is right up there for performance, reliability and distance. Next year…