It’s Tuesday morning at 9am as I gather in central London with 125 fellow riders ready to attempt all 29 stages of the Legal & General Cycle to Cannes. During 6 days we’ll be cycling 1500km from London through the length of France. As we weave through the London traffic and wave goodbye to our friends and family in our team bibs, the enormity of what I am taking on starts to hit. I really hope all those nights on the turbo trainer pay off…
At Brands Hatch, where cookies and hot drinks are gratefully consumed, it's a brief turnaround for us before we’re off again and a few hours later, the peloton arrives at Folkestone. Sports therapists from Roadside Therapy lead a stretching session and then it’s time for a late lunch and the journey to Calais. Day one done and so far the going is good.
With 125 riders travelling the full length of France, the support and logistics for the ride have been arranged with impressive efficiency. A full support team of bike technicians, physios, motorcycle outriders and even a crisis management team will join us on the route. The team also needs an extra-large tour bus for those that won’t be cycling every stage. We couldn’t attempt this without the support of this amazing team.
My bike for this tour is a Boardman Pro Carbon. With six full days of intensive cycling (with some gruelling days a full 6am – 9pm with only minutes breaks in between) I needed a reliable bike. While others around me where struggling with gearing issues, lost chains and punctures, I sailed through each day with no maintenance issues to report. The Boardman is also a very comfortable ride, imperative when you’re clocking up 70 hours in the saddle over a week.
Each day, the alarm goes off at 4.45am and like clockwork, the 125 riders roll out of the hotel car park at 6am; lights and high viz mandatory in the morning darkness. The peloton forms a neat and tidy neon yellow line of riders as they head out onto the road.
The scenery around us begins to change. Red brick gives way to sandstone, and we wind our way through pretty quaint villages and towns, complete with sleeping shuttered houses. The vines are bare of grapes and there is a hard frost on the ground, as the peloton travels through vineyard after vineyard.
At Pocancy, riders warm up and get ready to roll out. It’s still pretty chilly, although the light is clear and bright. The French motorcycle outriders do a sterling job, clearing our route ahead and effectively creating an ongoing rolling roadblock. In an otherwise empty landscape, wind turbines punctuate the horizon but there is little in the way of shelter from crosswinds so the pace is managed by Ride Captains to ensure the group stays together.
The next stage to Essoyes, is the longest of the week, at 68km. Day three into day four and despite my intensive hill training, I am really starting to feel the burn but I am determined to see the ride to the end, luckily for me, the bike is showing no signs of tiring…
To keep everyone moving and working together, the Ride Captains get the group practising through and off. For many of the cyclists new to the ride, this is an introduction to the technique that keeps the two lines of cycling rotating, affording some protection to each rider on the inside as riders come ‘through’ the outside line and ‘off’ the front to take the inside line. Ride Captain Support takes centre stage as they keep those at the back going with words or hands of encouragement.
After lunch at Essoyes, it’s a short, gently undulating stage, affording an opportunity to talk about cycling, the scenery, and more. At the hugely pretty village of Vanvey, we are once again welcomed by the former Mayor, who has thoughtfully been providing tea, coffee and cake in the shade of village hall since 2011.
Most of the riders are staying out on their bikes thanks to a combination of lovely weather and enjoyable cycling. The next stage, to Moloy, is a corker; a longish, flattish uphill for 37km and then a sweeping descent through wooded trees to the village of Moloy.
After more than 320km on day 4, the peloton has performed admirably. Both experienced riders, crew and Ride Captains have commented on the high levels of training preparation, evidenced by some very tidy cycling out on the road. The group has worked exceptionally well together, even making up time where it has been lost during the day.
The group, of which up to 80% have never undertaken Cycle to Cannes before, is looking good. The riders are relaxing into it, learning how to work together and becoming much more confident in their group riding, their through and off, and their descending. There’ll be plenty of kms to practice all three tomorrow, another 300km day to Valence. Two days to go…
Day 5 brings a change to the landscape which is distinctly Provençal and Spring-like: there is blossom on the front trees, rows of lavender fields, cork and cypress trees, stone villages on hillsides, and mountains off in the distance.
The Ride Captains are like gentle sheepdogs, shepherding the slower climbers in one tidy group gradually up the hill, with a bike-boom box and Jelly Babies on hand to help keep spirits high and legs turning. There is something surreal about climbing through a picturesque French village accompanied by Bryan Adam’s The Summer of 69. At the top, we regroup to don layers and then once again everyone is allowed to take the twisting, turning gorge descent at their own pace. The tour highlight never fails to live up to expectations: it’s a fantastic experience for riders both old and new.
Day 6: the final day and I am thrilled to realise I will complete the full length of France despite every part of me that touches the bike hurting. It’s a great feeling as we are up and out at 7am. It’s a tight, winding 15km ascent to the summit of the first hill, and although the peloton splits to allow everyone to take the ascent at their own pace, they ride in supportive groups. It’s a nice way to take on the steep climb that at times reaches 14%.
After a sunny coffee break in the quaint and pretty town of Le Val, the riders head back out on to the road for the 84km stage. The sun’s out and the group rides through more vineyards and fields of olive trees. As temperatures rise, layers of clothing are shed and water is consumed in great quantities. We skirt Lorgues and ride through Trans-en-Provence. The route hugs hillsides and heads upwards, steeply again, through Bagnols en Foret, an unbelievably stunning national park of steep forested hillsides and rocky outcrops. It’s reminiscent of Spanish countryside, a mix of sandstones, reds and deep greens. The stage rolls on, with more climbs and descents in the heat. After 84km it’s time for lunch at Montauroux.
Then it’s time for our final stage. We roll out in formation and drop down to skirt and then cross a vast lake. There’s one final winding climb and then after a final regroup at the top, the entire Cycle to Cannes peloton rolls down into the bustling town centre and along the sea front, to arrive six days and 1,452km after we set off. We are welcomed onto the beach front by our family, friends, colleagues and a surprise visit from Geraint Thomas. Delighted and exhausted, we pose for the team photo - the Boardman looks fresh enough to ride back.
Marc Dix is Director of LT Studio Landscape Architects. In March 2016 he cycled 1500km from London to Cannes over six days. The riders raised a total of £356,000 for children’s charity Coram.