How Not to Cycle from London to Dover

by Alice Mariscotti-Wyatt

Some people like to cycle from London to Dover for fun. It’s the first leg of the somewhat famed London to Paris cycle route. This type of challenge is normally undertaken by the sort of cyclist who was born in bum-padded lycra, has thighs the size of Emperor penguins and, most importantly, owns a decent road bike.

I am not that sort of cyclist. Myself and my friend Leanne who made the trip with me use our cycles to pootle about London. Leanne had never cycled further than 20 miles in one trip. I’m allergic to hills (specifically uphills). My bike is covered in flowers and has been rather impolitely referred to by my local mechanic as ‘pretty basic’.

So why, you may ask, were we cycling to Dover? Well, we planned to travel to Calais to volunteer at the refugee camp, and a curious fact of P&O Ferries pricing system is that it is a whole £5 cheaper to take a ferry to Calais as a cyclist than a foot passenger.

Among the many things we learned over the course of the 90-odd mile cycle, is that this is not the money-saving hack it initially appears to be. Our £5 savings quickly went on snacks to fuel us through. We also needed to spend another over-£5 on beer at the end to recover.

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And if you’d like some other hard-gleaned pieces of advice on how not to tackle this iconic cycle journey, you’re in the right place:

1. Don’t trust Google maps with your route planning

We did check out the route before we started. Honestly we did. But we somehow missed that 44% of the cycle route we were to follow, the Pilgrims Trail, was off road. This is a problem because while bikes that are suited for pootling are ok at roads, they are not good for muddy paths, loose gravel trails or uneven surfaces in general.

It’s fair enough, Google isn’t to know what bikes we’re using. But once we worked out that we were going to end up walking most of the route if we continued, we found a second flaw. We had no back-up maps.

And Google is obsessed with the Pilgrims Trail. No matter how far off-track we headed, Google always found a way to lead us back. And on the few times it didn’t guide us to the Pilgrim’s Trail, it instead recommended the duel carriageway of death (well, nearly) and sets of steps when we should have been on a final exhilarating downhill into Dover.

One star. Would not recommend.

2. Alternatively, do cycle on a suitable bike

I believe the Pilgrim’s Trail may be remarkably pretty. I can’t say for certain because on the bits I cycled I was too busy attempting to stay upright to appreciate the rolling countryside, the forested lanes and the broad estuaries.

What I can say for certain is that it contains several agonising hill climbs. I know because even walking up them was torture. At Bluebell Hill we could barely manage three steps at a time before we had to pause for breath.

After enough desperate off-road sections, I did finally remember the key to controlling a bike on rough terrain – don’t use your brakes. And then I remembered why I had hated off-road cycling so much – you can’t use your brakes.

3. Don’t go on a hot summer day

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In the lead up to the cycle, my biggest weather-related fear was that we’d have a torrential downpour that day. A day of blazing sunshine seemed unlikely given the British summer track record. But that’s exactly what we got.

This route is hard. Heat and dehydration are only going to make it harder. We added in extra water stops, but uphills in the midday sun still frequently got the better of us.

The situation was not made better when we were attacked by clouds of small bugs. They stuck fast on our sweaty, suntan lotion soaked bodies. Remaining there until Calais in most cases.

However bad the bugs though, do not under any circumstances scrimp on suntan lotion. Especially if you have bizarre racerback shapes in your top. We thought we were applying regularly enough, but Leanne’s back is still showing otherwise.

4. Don’t neglect your hill practice!

London commuters so rarely have to deal with hills, that even finding a suitable hill to practice on was a challenge. And the bumps that I did train on were no substitute for the sheer variety of hills in Kent. From slowly building agony to sheer inclines which surely must be impossible? We probably ended up pushing on 50% of the slopes.

Our eventual route took us along the north Kent coastline before turning south to Dover. While this meant some mercifully flat mid-sections, unfortunately the worst of the hills were saved for last. And some longer term hill practice probably would have stood us in good stead, building our stamina for this final, seemingly endless push.

But. We made it. Six minutes to spare before our check in time for the ferry, we pulled into the port. And yes, I’m a little bit proud. Not least because we raised over £1,500 for Doctor’s of the World’s refugee campaign, providing medical assistance to the refugees making difficult journeys all over Europe right now. Here’s the link to our Just Giving page if you’d like to contribute: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/AliceLeanne

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So that’s how not to cycle from London to Dover. But what if you do want to? On our ferry over, we met a whole platoon of cyclists, also on a sponsored cycle. They were cycling from London to Paris. In 24 hours. How long had the section to Dover taken them, we asked? Just over five hours in some cases (compared to our 15 hours). So if you really want to cycle from London to Dover, they’re your people to ask.

 

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