Cycling London to Paris on the Avenue Verte
When my friend Alastair proposed a cycle ride from London to Paris, I had visions of a Three Men In a Boat style meander. The gently rolling hills of Southern England and Northern France would glide by beneath our wheels; there would be plenty of time for beers at the end of the day, plus excursions to find the freshest croissants before setting out in the morning; and it wouldn’t matter that we were riding single-speed bikes... the reality turned out to be rather different.
We planned to use the Avenue Verte, a cycle-friendly route between the two cities. Well-established between Dieppe and the French capital, it has been set up more recently on this side of the Channel between London and Newhaven, and is to be the subject of a new guidebook published by sustainable travel organisation Sustrans early in Spring 2013. A shorter route is also explained the Donald Hirsch website, along with tips on places to stop off along the way.
As cycling enthusiast Hirsch says, the official route “doesn’t provide an ideal run all the way”, but it has now been signed most of the way in England, in a belated effort to catch up with the French side. There were five of us, none serious cyclists, and three of us riding single-speed bikes. The idea was to see how accessible the route was to a cycling commuter like me who is looking for a challenge, as opposed to the more dedicated cycle-tourist, for whom the 200+ miles would hardly stretch the legs.
We set off on a Friday morning from the London Eye. With our return Eurostar journey booked for Sunday evening, we were already aware that we hadn’t left much time, but a combination of work commitments and the timing of the Newhaven to Dieppe ferry saw us leaving only two and a half days for the trip. I already had an inkling that it wouldn’t be particularly leisurely.
Leaving London was the most time-consuming part of the ride, and navigational difficulties were to prove a theme on the English side, with ‘AV’ signs not quite frequent enough to put the map to one side, but once we found the Wandle trail through South London, we started to make headway. London’s tentacles extend a long way, and it wasn’t till mid-afternoon that we reached Gatwick.
We finally left Greater London behind on National Route 21, and headed East before dropping down towards the coast again. The Sussex countryside is beautiful but the views come with some quite punishing climbs, and much of the route is on unmade gravel tracks, which made me and my companions regret our skinny road tyres. We had managed to organise to stay with family near Heathfield, but didn’t roll into our destination until late on Friday night, and after about five hours sleep, we were up early for the run down to Newhaven. Taking us down from the High Weald and up again over the South Downs, this was the most spectacular part of the trip, with some long downhill stretches and an easy-to-follow route. However, this also highlighted the fact that much of the English Avenue Verte is still some way from a smooth highway.
We made the morning ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe in plenty of time, and found 20 or 30 other cyclists also using the LD Lines service, which is well set up for bikes. With a cabin on board, we took in some much-needed calories in the form of a cooked breakfast, and rested during the four-hour crossing.
Disembarking in Dieppe, we entered the calm and well-signposted world of the French part of the route, where maps are more or less redundant and you can go for a couple of hours along the Avenue Verte without seeing a car. By nightfall we had done another 50 miles to Gournay-en-Bray, where we found the friendly owner at the Swan hotel cooking up a batch of home-made jam for breakfast. By this time we had done 170 miles in 36 hours and were more than ready to collapse into our beds.
Sunday held a further 80 miles standing between us and the prospect of our celebratory dinner in Paris. We left the official Avenue Verte in order to save time on the final stretch, which begins in rolling hills that wouldn’t present much challenge to a serious, and well-rested, cyclist, but that we found fairly hard going as we passed the 200 mile mark.
By the time we reached the Seine, after several stops at boulangeries in sleepy villages for fuel, we felt the end was in sight, and paused on its banks for a baguette in the watery September sun. The woods and suburbs to the West of Paris required some careful navigation, and we didn’t make it as quickly as we had hoped to the centre. With only an hour left till we had to check in our bikes on the Eurostar, we were just entering central Paris.
With a gratuitous but triumphant detour to weave through the traffic on the Champs Elysées we ended up racing to Gare du Nord, making the check in with minutes to spare. The hotly-anticipated celebratory meal became a cold beer and slice of pizza in a café opposite the station before we flopped into our seats on the train.
We all felt a huge sense of achievement, especially given our lack of gears and relative inexperience, and there had been plenty to enjoy along the way. In France in particular, investment in the route, a strong cycling culture, and the food and drink to be had almost anywhere you stop, make the ride a real pleasure. With a little research into places to stay, the route offers a cheap green getaway accessible to pretty much any cyclist. Better planning and scheduling by my friends and I would have left us more time to take in all that the Avenue Verte had to offer.
Avenue Verte Tips:
- If you are doing the trip quickly, and staying in hotels, you can travel light with just one bag or pannier.
- The signage on this side of the Channel is not (yet) good enough to travel without a map or GPS.
- If you want to shave miles off, it’s easy to do so with the help of Donald Hirsch’s route.
- London to Paris is possible on a single-speed bike, but gears are advisable.
- You can pay for a cabin on the ferry, which is useful if you are short on sleep.
- Rural France is very quiet at the weekends, so plan your food intake carefully, as cafés may be shut.
- Book well ahead and you can ensure your bike is on the same Eurostar home as you are.
- Check out the useful website of Avenue Verte.
>> See our previous article on cycling the Avenue Verte, when it was first opened in 2010:
12 July 2010: Introducing: Avenue Verte - the new cycle route from London to Paris