Day 1: Friday 3rd June
After all the fundraising, training miles cycled and tears shed the night before when you realise you should have started training sooner, the London to Paris cycle challenge for Aspire and Back Up was upon us. The early morning rise (super early!) brought a rather grim view from the seventh floor of the Travelodge and only strengthened the notion that this would be impossible. Arriving at Crystal Palace, however, proved a very different story. A fluorescent yellow and blue sea of bicycles and handcycles was a clear display that whilst this would be a challenge, it would be entirely worth it.

Cyclists ready to set off from Crystal Palace

After a quick briefing, we said goodbye to our supporters and were off whizzing through the streets of London, finding ourselves sooner than expected in the English countryside. The first and second stages proved a slight challenge as we 'lost' a few cyclists, but they were found safe and sound and brought back to meet the group at the second stop. Whilst we waited on the rest of the team arriving the weather was anything but pleasant, and like the typical British we all began to bond over our hatred of our nation’s weather. With blankets passed out and some hilarious pictures taken, we set off with the promise of a pub lunch. Arriving at the pub we quickly set about getting some much deserved refreshment and carbs - minestrone soup and filled baguettes. With time ticking away the group banded together as our race to the ferry was on. Thankfully, despite a slight detour by some of the cyclists, we all made it to the ferry and, more importantly, to dinner.

Cyclists in blankets keeping warm

Whilst everyone had done fantastically well, pushing themselves the entire route, the ferry’s four hour journey proved too much for many, and the snores from various (myself included) team members were heard throughout the boat. On our arrival in France we made the short journey to our hotel in Dieppe, as our first day drew to a close. Whilst ‘pleasantly surprised’ would be my take on the day, I put the celebrations on hold!

Day 2: Saturday 4th June
After the late arrival at our hotel in Dieppe, the promise of a later start filled the entire team with a sense of relief. After the 5am rise yesterday, never in my life has "breakfast is at 9am" filled me with so much joy. Having set off on what was meant to be the more leisurely of the three days, we were treated to some of the most beautiful scenery I've seen, the surreal tiny villages mixed with the forever-reaching green fields had everyone contemplating leaving our lives behind and retiring to these villages, or at least purchasing a fantastic summer house.

Cyclists and handcyclists in France

The day was taken at a leisurely pace, with the handcyclists in particular enjoying the smooth roads and gradual gradients. I spent a good deal of time with Andy and Mike as we whizzed through the peaceful towns. A special mention has to go to both David Ralph and Johnathan. It turned out that David cycled the entire first day with his brake on, contouring the majority of every steep hill in the English countryside, which was incredible, and Johnathan's gears wouldn't change, so he had to attempt (and succeeded!) every hill in a far higher gear than should have been possible. While a number of the team got lost yesterday, thankfully it was only Konrad who got lost today (for the second time during our travels), and actually managed to cycle a 15 km detour before finding the hotel. I was sure this wouldn’t be the last time someone got lost though!

The day had brought some fantastic cycling, with really enjoyable downhill sections which I cycled with Matt and Simon in proper Tour de France style. However, our enjoyment quickly turned to rage as Mitch effortlessly breezed past us, prompting a mad dash from us in a feeble attempt to keep up. The irony that a charity cycle could provide such a competitive element is perhaps one of the funniest parts of this entire experience.

Cyclists and handcyclists in France

Once we arrived at our hotel, it was straight to the bar for a very deserved refreshment of Leffe before dinner, with Mitch even trying his hand at being a bartender. Whilst we enjoyed a buffet and some more of this deceptively strong beer, even Scotland getting beat 3-0 by the French couldn’t ruin what had been a fantastic day, although Hank's announcement that breakfast would be at 6am did terrify me! The night ended with some speeches from Aspire’s Paul Parrish and Kat and Andy from Back Up, who helped to reinforce that, despite the fact that tomorrow would be a huge test, the real reason for each and every one of us undertaking the London to Paris cycle is to help both Aspire and BackUp continue the fantastic work they do supporting people with Spinal Cord Injury. Although I had felt very happy with my cycling so far, I knew we still had a very long way to go!

Day 3: Sunday 4th June
Following the 6am rise I don't think I can officially say I was awake until about 10am! Breakfast was of solemn comfort as the prospect of covering 115km filled me with dread, but little did I know that this would be the best ride of the tour.

As Hank led another warmup, I decided that with such a distance, and the miles starting to wear on my body (particularly my backside!), that I would not push myself today. But again, I could not have been more wrong. Initially starting slower knowing how far we had to go, the day began to look very bleak as our visibility was reduced to 50m, with a fog straight out of a horror film descending onto us. The result was that the hills seemed to last forever, which made my heart sink each and every time. Due to the great distance, the team became quite stretched and I cycled most of the morning with Huw. After what felt like an eternity we both began to receive phone calls. Puzzled, we stopped and answered our phones only to hear Hank frantically asking where we were, to which we replied we didn't know but that we could still see the green arrows. It turned out we had missed a stop and carried on, cycling more than 30 miles straight in under three hours, and I could definitely feel it! So technically I didn't get lost… technically I just skipped a stop. After a short wait at the next stop, we continued on our cycle. Having effectively broken myself I again thought I'd cycle a tad slower, but I again was wrong. Trying to keep up with the front runners nearly killed me, but thankfully after some unreal climbs, lunch was a more than welcome sight!

David Round cycling in France

With our end now firmly in sight, I set off with the front runners wanting to finish with them, and the competitive element was now firmly apparent. As Mark leisurely cycled past the front runners, the mood of the group changed and the alpha male instincts kicked in. After two minutes the group could not take it and Matt set off to catch Mark to ensure nobody would reach Paris first alone. Mitch, then Patrick and myself followed, for what was a brilliant end to this incredible trip.

After our final stop the group changed again and decided to take the last stretch as a whole. This was completely unplanned and not only perfectly summed up just how incredible this group was, but epitomised the message from Aspire and Back Up. Siby, who had been incredible throughout the entire trip, led the group the final 15km through the streets of Paris to our destination. With the sun appearing for the first time this whole trip, we reached the Eiffel Tower and completed our London to Paris goal. After everyone took photos we checked in at our hotel and went for our celebration dinner. After some red wine and fantastic food, Hank, Paul, Kat and Andy all gave a few words of thanks. Some of us then decided we deserved a few beers and we had a brilliant night. This again summed up how this challenge and the two charities had brought a group of complete strangers together who bonded and had an amazing weekend.

David Round with bike at the Eiffel Tower

Final thoughts
All I can say about this tour is that it was an incredibly humbling and enjoyable experience. Having literally had no idea what to expect, I have had a fantastic weekend with an unbelievable group of people. Regardless of who you cycled with you could strike up a conversation, take it at racing pace, or simply enjoy the sites, everyone was catered for. The handcyclists in particular were an inspiration, putting in unimaginable resolve and effort in this extremely challenging tour. I just want to say thank you to both Aspire & Back Up for this incredible opportunity, to Classic Tours for running a seamless event and particularly a massive thank you to my fellow riders who have made this weekend so enjoyable.

Lastly I want to say a great deal of thanks to my family and friends and everyone who has supported myself and my fundraising for this event. I urge anyone who has read this to consider looking into any events such as this. I cannot do this experience justice, but I can say that I will definitely be working with both Aspire and Back Up in the future. Despite the stress of training and fundraising I have loved every second of this cycle challenge. Sign up and I promise you won't regret it!

David Round

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