London-Paris 2011: A Photographers Tale

With the likes of Nigel Mansell, Magnus Backstedt, Stephen Roche and other famous names, Dave Hayward took the trip to Paris from London with cameras in hand and here is his story …

I arrived at the start venue as a photographer, but deep down I’m still a cyclist envious of the adventure that lay ahead. Thursday 22nd of June I find myself up at the crack of dawn waiting for 365 riders to descend on a sports club in Esher to embark on an epic journey to Paris.

Sven Thiele conceived the idea eight years ago in creating an event for the amateur rider to experience a stage race style event in a sportive environment. London-Paris 2011 is a professionally organised cycle event.  It is a seriously tough challenge and not a “pootle to Paris”.  This is a cyclo-sportive which will demand physical fitness and mental strength.

Unlike most Sportives that are challenging for a 120k, London-Paris 2011 carries on the next day, and the next until they reach Paris. At 5 am, riders started to arrive. The sports club was becoming a hive of activity with 30 National Escort Group outriders to escort five groups of riders. Skoda had provided cars to lead each group and carry support members to various location on route.

Day 1, 170k ahead, would see the riders leave Esher towards Leatherhead, Dorking, Lingfield, Frant. Lamberhurst was a welcome lunch break where riders were treated with pasta and salad lunches. Dealing with the 350 riders on the road could be a logistical nightmare. With seven years under their belts, the support team or “The Crew “ as they are known, have spent long hours in the planning stage to execute a well drilled operation second to none to the real Tour de France.

One of the many elements added to the event is the Tour De France famous yellow support cars and motor bike supplied by Mavic. This gave a real Tour essence. Any rider having a puncture or an issue with their bike Mavic were there to keep them going. After lunch, the journey continued through the Kent countryside towards Dover.

The five groups were categorised on rider ability and fitness. Group 1 would have the racing or fitter guy’s where the other groups had the hardened sportive riders, to those who just wanted to enjoy a more relaxed pace until the road went up!

To give some of the more experienced fitter riders something to go for, there was to be racing sections at various points along the route for a sprint competition, King of the Hills, best Female rider, and Yellow jersey for the overall leader.

Day 2
Early to rise in sunny Calais for the next stage to Amiens 175k of rolling open roads. Riders seemed more relaxed with blue sky’s, even though the riders faced a long tough day ahead. The five groups of riders were now escorted by the French MSO motor bike out riders, The added radio noise from their motorbikes gave an even more important feel to the event causing locals to turn and look with a cheer as we passed.

Before stopping for lunch, 20 villages and towns were passed through to reach a quiet village called Frevent. It was going to be a swift lunch as time was pressing. The plan was to meet the hotel coaches for 4 0’clock. The groups of riders were pouring into the lunch stop, and for some, the fatigue was starting to show. Group five had been caught by group four while Group three was was also close to passing group five.

Day 3 Amiens to Paris
A cloud covered day greeted the riders on the last day of their adventure. After a tough day in the saddle. spirits were remarkably high. Talk of the final leg into Paris was the topic of conversation. Before Paris there was still another 120km to cover before lunch and two of the longest climbs so far with a hint of drizzle in the air, the hopes of a sunny arrival to Paris was look doubtful.

Clearing the busy roads of Amiens, the riders enjoyed the quiet open country roads again and the thoughts of the impending final hills. Group 3 had now caught and passed group five, there were concerns that group five would not make the lunch stop in time for the departure to Paris. It wasn’t physical ability now, more of mental strength, “get to Menucort for lunch, get to Paris”.

Group 1 was still looking strong with, former 2004 Paris–Roubaix winner, and Tour De France rider Magnus Backstedt spent most of the time leading group 1 with some of his team UK Youth contending the race section. At Amiens, Backstedt was leading the mountains jersey, Greg Mansell held onto the green sprints jersey, while Roy Chamberlain was holding onto the yellow leaders jersey for the GC.
Tania Slater of team SIS had a tight grip on the women’s pink jersey for the ladies competition. Probably the hottest day so far, during the morning the the sun had burnt off the cloud leaving the purest blue sky ever. The plan was to have all the groups together for the final 30k into Paris. The French MSO out riders, all 30 of them were to be ahead of the procession, a lead car followed by the 350 rider who had covered the 300 miles for this moment of riding past the Arc de Triomphe.


Stephen Roche, winner of the 1987 Tour De France, mentioned at the Gala dinner how he still finds it very emotional riding into Paris with all the 350 other riders who have shared the journey from London. “It always brings a tear to my eye when I get here”.

One thing that did impress me was the determination in all the riders through the tougher sections of the journey, none some more so impressive was Nigel Mansel. There were times when the suffering and fatigue was going to be too much, but in true sportsman style he battled on over the long arduous climbs, yes he did get help from his UK youth team, but you still have to turn the pedals, get up each morning and continue pushing through the elements, thats where the true sole of a bike rider is shown.

Sunday morning I leave the London-Paris 2011 challenge as a photographer, but in my heart I’m still a cyclist even more envious of the achievement that all who took part can go home with their bikes in the knowledge they can say “I’ve ridden from London to Paris in the company of some Great British sports stars, seen them laugh and joke, as well as suffer as I have, raising money for their respective charities”.

Dave Hayward for HotChillee

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