Sent to the naughty step
“Rider, get back on the road!” came the extremely assertive shout from one of the Hotchillee ride captains. I was riding along the margins of the road, on a loose gravel surface, using the extra distance from the riders in our peloton to try to capture some wide-angle images. The shout from the road captain, whose role as mobile marshalls is to keep the peloton both safe, but also moving at all times, was quite startling and made me feel like an errant child, about to be sent to sit on the naughty step.
It was particularly jarring as it came after three days of joyous, almost life enhancing gravel riding with a group of gravel riders, dubbed the graveleers, taking on Hotchillee’s inaugural gravel London to Paris trip. Our route took us on a mix of gravel trails, minor back roads, forest tracks, urban cut throughs, field margins and as many other different surfaces as was possible to imagine on our journey of nearly 400kms.
The gravel ride captains – left to right - Captain, Tinks, Jonno and Jack
The forty-strong group of gravel riders were managed by four ride captains, all of whom volunteer their time, and who were incredibly relaxed, friendly and motivating. For three days we had ridden at whatever speed each of us felt was appropriate, paused to take pictures of the scenery, made impromptu visits to cafés and ice cream emporia and rapidly gelled into a small band of happy gravel riders.
The graveleers rode in tandem with Hotchillee’s London to Paris road cycling event, but apart from a shared start and end point, the majority of our journey was entirely separate. It wasn’t just the route that differed - the graveleers rode point to point, finishing every day at our overnight hotel and the relatively compact size of the group meant we were all staying in the same accommodation, and perhaps more critically, we didn’t need coach transfers to take us from each days’ finish point to our hotel (unlike our road riding sisters and brothers).
The very nature of gravel riding (generally off-road, away from traffic, on mixed surfaces) combined with our relatively small peloton size meant we didn’t need to be managed in the same way as the road riders. Instead of motorbike outriders and a rolling road closure, we had our four roving ride captains who rode along chatting with the groups, offering a word of encouragement, trailside mechanical assistance or a wheel to sit behind when we got tired. The graveleers were given the freedom to choose our own lines and generally were the masters of our own destinies, but there was always help in the background if or when we needed it.
A shared physical experience, particularly one which is challenging, exciting and mentally stimulating is a sure-fire way to speed up group bonding and even by the mid-morning water and snack stop on the first day, strong bonds were forming between riders. We soon figured out who was riding at a similar speed, or who had similar aspirations and motivations and the larger peloton developed its own ‘gruppetos’. Each group seemed to look out for its riders to an impressive degree and the mix of support, encouragement, gentle ribbing and impromptu sharing of tips proved to be a heartwarming and surprisingly emotional one.
The start point of our ride was Imber Court, a sports complex in an affluent and leafy part of south-west London. It was chosen partly for its scale - it needed to be big enough to cope with the arrival of 400 riders, (plus support staff) and all their vehicles, but also for its proximity to a good exit route for the road and gravel groups. The afternoon before departure, all the riders were required to sign-on, collect the essential pre-ride items (including a graveleer-specific event t-shirt) and attend a short and enlightening briefing.
Hotchillee’s CEO and former pro-road rider, Sven Thiele started the briefing with his welcome and talked about his love of travel riding, but what dominated his talk was a discussion of Hotchillee’s upcoming Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) Initiative.
“Watching the final stage of the Tour de France, you can’t fail to notice the sheer number of vehicles preceding and following the riders and the obvious carbon footprint this creates. Hotchillee are more than aware that this also applies to our own and other cycling events and are proud to be ahead of the ESG curve. For London to Paris 2022, we’re planting 1000 trees in Dunoon to offset the carbon produced by the event, but we realise that you can’t solve the bigger problem by simply planting trees - there’s just not enough land mass! The long-term solution is global systematic change and we’re starting with our community of riders and our digital platform.
Similar to earning “Drops” on Zwift, we’re aiming to gamify real-life riding to encourage our riders and crew members to ditch their car and use their bike or feet instead. We’ll then redeem these credits for vouchers to spend at Sigma Sports - carbon bling for saving carbon. We’re also working with DHL on eco-friendly logistics solutions and a host of experts and industry leaders to achieve our goal of still delivering the Hotchillee “pro experience” but in a more sustainable and green way.”
Photo courtesy of Michael Blann
Gravelling our way to France
Day 1 of the trip saw a slightly bleary-eyed group of riders meet at Imber Court before 6am. Overnight bags were deposited with our luggage vehicle, day packs (musettes in Hotchillee-speak) along with all important passports for the ferry crossing were stashed in our support vehicle, we signed on, had a quick briefing from David “Captain” Kirkby, our head ride captain and then, punctual to the minute, we were off! The first part of our journey was via an interesting amalgam of trails, urban alleyways and the occasional set of steps. Team bonding was kickstarted straight away with some minor navigational challenges on the spider’s web of trails. Fortunately, we all made it safely to the Thames riverside towpath and headed south, out of London, bound for the south coast and our late afternoon ferry crossing to Dieppe.
When you ride for the first time with an unknown group of riders, there’s always a bit of initial stiffness in the ease of conversation – even without meaning to, we all make judgements on our fellow riders based on their choice of kit, bike and riding skills and it can take a little while for everyone to mentally warm up and start chatting. Hotchillee, with their years of experience in running large group cycling holidays, had realised this and played one of many genius cards to resolve this potential problem – when you signed on, everyone received a personalised recycled paper bag containing all the relevant paperwork for our trip including a race number and four safety pins.
To some gravel riders, pinning on a race number might feel a bit of an anathema, but the number wasn’t intended to turn us into speed demons, it was intended to break down the apocryphal British reserve and help start conversations. To do this, every number contained the rider’s name, nationality and the number of Hotchillee trips they had previously taken part in. Just the simple fact that you knew the name of rider in front of you was a master stroke – it made starting a conversation so much easier. It was the gravel equivalent of a couple of beers at the start of the annual Christmas works party and it worked perfectly.
As we rode further away from London, the terrain and the trails slowly morphed from riverside towpath, to hardpacked sandy/grassy trails to converted railway path. As the trails widened and flattened, so the speed at the front of the peloton soon picked up and it wasn’t long before the front group were riding at 30-35kph, kicking up a plume of dust in our wake and feeling almost like pro-riders.
Photo courtesy of Michael Blann
Hotchillee used a number of different support vehicles to look after the gravel riders and they met us frequently through the day. As well as carrying snacks, drinks and food, we were also accompanied by two bike mechanics (with an impressive range of tools and spares, including some esoteric and potentially ride-saving spares like fully charged Di2 batteries) and our ever-smiling masseuse, who unpacked her massage table at every lunch and overnight stop and offered riders free massages on a first-come-first-served basis.
We also had our own paramedic who tracked the group and stationed himself close to the sections of trail identified in the reccies as likely to be potential accident spots. The support vehicles also carried our musettes which we could fill with spare clothing, extra energy bars, suntan lotion and anything else we might need for the day ahead. Unlike the road groups, the gravel riders didn’t have instant access to a support vehicle, but the system of regular stops worked perfectly and each morning we were given the km location of the drink and food stops. The support crew then used a number of portable Hotchillee flags to mark them, so that no matter how sugar deprived or lacking in concentration we were, the stops were impossible to miss!
With our lunch stop out of the way, we continued southwards, the smell of the salty sea air steadily drawing us in like a large gravelly magnet. Some local knowledge, combined with ever increasing sunshine and rising temperatures, meant an ice cream stop was in order and handily our route took us literally past the front window of Hove ice cream institution, Marocco’s. With sugar levels topped up and core temperatures lowered slightly, our route took us along Brighton’s seafront and eastwards on a mix of segregated and shared-use bike paths to the ferry terminal at Newhaven.
While the UK national media was full of stories of traffic chaos and horrendous queues at Dover, the graveleers route was planned to take us to France on the Newhaven-Dieppe ferry route and we arrived into the port to find a newly constructed caféwith shady outside deck area waiting for us, courtesy of some great planning by the Hotchillee reccie team. We arrived early enough to be able to change into more casual clothes for the sailing, grab some post-ride/pre-ferry food (and cold beers) and there was even a hosepipe for anyone who wanted to wash the day’s dust and grime off their bike.
Our worries about über-queues to get through passport control were largely baseless and although it took slightly longer than in the halcyon pre-Brexit days, our group got through relatively quickly and were soon cycling on to the ferry. Once onboard we were directed to a top floor VIP area, reserved just for the graveleers and were then furnished with vouchers which covered the cost of a surprisingly good dinner on the boat. There was post dinner chatting, swopping of stories and some surreptitious napping. On arrival into Dieppe, passport formalities were again surprisingly straight forward and we were soon gliding through the attractive centre of Dieppe, bound for our seafront overnight hotel.
The queen stage
Day 2 dawned early and somewhat overcast, but any residual tiredness and lethargy from Day 1 soon dissipated thanks to the excellent buffet breakfast, accompanied with wide-ranging views over Dieppe’s castle and adjacent seafront. Today was scheduled to be the queen stage. Although the graveleer’s route was significantly shorter than the one the road riders were due to complete, we still had a chewy 140kms route with 1500m of climbing to contend with. In the Captain’s jokey (and very Australian) morning briefing, he talked up some of the day’s potential challenges including “The Valley of Death”, which either terrified or inspired the riders, depending on their outlook on gravel riding. We were given free rein to set off whenever we liked, but the Captain suggested an 8am start for those riders wishing to take a slightly more relaxed pace and 8.30 for those with a speedier outlook. There was a ride captain at the front and rear of the overall peloton, plus a couple of floating ones and photographer Michael and videographer George who hopped from group to group, capturing the action. After a successful first day, I joined a group of slightly speedier riders and we set off at the back of the pack at 8.30.
Photo courtesy of Michael Blann
Our route took initially took us back through the centre of Dieppe, before turning right up a surprisingly steep tarmac climb. The lack of warm-up and the tough gradient raised a few rye smiles and made us realise we were in for a challenging day. It also introduced us to the world’s-apart attitudes of the majority of French car drivers. As we wove our way up the first climb we had a couple of cars behind us, but unlike the majority of their UK counterparts (gross over-generalisation of course) the drivers were patient and when they did overtake, they gave our grupetto plenty of room.
After a few kms of paved road, we turned off into the woods and took on our first gravel challenge of the day – a smooth, but steep singletrack climb up into an area of broadleaf forest. Tyre choice and off-road riding experience came to the fore here and there were a few muttered curses and involuntary squeaks as rear tyres broke traction and bikes squirmed around as we put power through our pedals. I felt quite smug as my 29x2.2” XC MTB tyres dug into the loose surface and my #monstercross bike choice paid dividends, balancing out the extra weight and drag.
The first hour of riding set the tone for the day – a mix of fantastic gravel riding, with every possible flavour of trail types, linked together with short sections of mainly traffic-free backroads. We passed through beautiful and eerily deserted villages which looked like something from a Disney set. The route profile looked like crocodile teeth and although the climbs weren’t sustained in length, the gradients frequently reached into double digits and with trail obstacles such as fallen branches, water-created erosion gullies and even the occasional step to overcome, this was realgravelTM rather than something our American cousins would recognise. The difference from the more uniform trail conditions of Day 1 was stark and the riding was all the better for it. As the skies brightened and temperatures rose, the enthusiasm and buzz within the group seemed to rise correspondingly. There was a tangible feeling of excitement in the air.
As mid-morning approached, we entered a small provincial town and realised it was market day. Stalls were liberally distributed across the main square and down many of the side streets, including the one we needed to take. Despite the town being busy with locals doing their daily shop, no-one was agitated at the sight of a forty strong peloton traversing the town and there were a number of calls of “bon courage”.
Refuelled with coffee from a local café and cereal bars, fruit and peanuts from the support vans, we set off again, straight onto a climb and probably the toughest challenge of the day – a long section of undulating road with quite a strong headwind. Our initially quite large group soon fragmented and as we made an effort to follow the impressive pace being set by Marty-the-Kiwi and ride captain Tinks, the group started to split into smaller grupettos again. I found myself riding next to videographer George and we chatted about bike films as we tried to keep up with the 35kph pace.
Photo courtesy of Michael Blann
Unfortunately, as we crested one of the route’s small rises, the tyre plug that George had previously inserted into his punctured rear tyre blew out spectacularly, showering adjacent riders with white tyre sealant and accompanied by the characteristic whoomph-whoomph-whoomph sound of a rapidly deflating tyre. As I instinctively slowed, I had to make a split-second decision – leave George to deal with his mechanical gremlins and chase hard to regain the back wheel of the rapidly disappearing group in front, or stop and help George fix his tyre issue.
It didn’t feel right to abandon George, so I stopped and ride captain Jack rolled up to a stop next to us. We made a series of attempts to repair George’s tyre over the next four or five kms, but every time we thought we had won the battle, the plug would be spat out and we’d be back to square one. When even Jack’s ‘foam bomb’ idea failed to fix the problem, we resorted to basics and fitted a tube instead. The one bright side of this temporary pause in the ride was that it allowed the second group on the road to catch us up and this meant a change of faces, new conversations and a slightly more laid-back approach to riding.
In the section leading up to lunch, the mix of trail types was again impressive and included the frequently talked about “Valley of Death”. Fortunately for us, this relatively steep, narrow and gullied descent was dry and everyone made it safely to the bottom. The mental images we had each created were actually significantly nastier than the descent was in real life and there was a tangible sense of relief and of achievement in having safely navigated our way to the bottom.
As the morning rolled into the early afternoon, stomachs started to grumble and energy levels dropped. Luckily right at the point where we starting to get a little tetchy, we spotted a couple of Hotchillee flags and turned off the road into a small carpark, where the support crew and perhaps more importantly a wood-fired pizza restaurant with outside seating were to be found. “Just take a seat and the restaurant staff will keep bringing out fresh pizza until you’ve had enough” was the instructions from the crew, which sounded like music to our ears. Cold drinks and slices of cake topped up calory levels and restored our gravel grins.
The challenging morning meant the services of our bike mechanics and our masseuse were in demand, but it wasn’t long until bodies and bikes were ready to roll again. A look at the profile showed that we had broken the back of the ride and that the afternoon promised a gentler profile, even if the pace was still decent. With my newly adopted group and the addition of photographer Michael we set off - just 60kms remained between us and our overnight hotel.
Photo courtesy of Michael Blann
The afternoon route was again a mix of farm tracks, rural backroads and a long section of segregated bike path running beside the Seine. As the gradient flattened out, we formed an impromptu paceline and I sat on the front for a few kms, sharing the pace-setting duties with Alex from Moloko Cycling. We span along, trying to keep a constant pace and chatting and the kms ticked by surprisingly rapidly. However, it wasn’t long before our legs were tired and she and I gracefully retired to the back of the peloton instead. As I looked around, I realised we had been joined by a local XC MTB rider, who was happily taking a tow as he rode the last part of the route back to his nearby home. We conversed in a not-entirely-grammatically-correct mix of French and English and he asked about my bike. As he was an MTB rider, he recognised straight away the fact my bike was different to everyone else’s and asked me for some details. Despite my slightly rusty French language skills, I explained why I had built it and he approved, saying that he wanted something similar for himself.
The final section of the ride flew passed and although some of the group stopped at a bar situated just off our route, the lure of a hot shower and the build-up of glowering thunder clouds persuaded me that heading on to the hotel was a better choice than stopping for a beer and risking getting soaked.
The support crew pulled another masterstroke as we arrived and handed out boxes of uneaten pizza from lunchtime which made the perfect post-ride snack. Despite the fact we arrived more than 30 minutes earlier than they had expected, they were just as cheery and efficient as ever.
All together now…
Day three dawned grey and a little damp, but some overnight rain was actually welcome as it damped down the dust. The day was split into two distinct sections – 50kms of off-road followed by the same again on-road, joining forces with the road groups for the rolling-closed-road-section into Paris.
The morning’s gravelling was equally as good as the previous days – a perfect mix of techy trails (including one sustained off-road climb which was pretty greasy under tyre and one chalky gullied descent which didn’t go down well with everyone but was short enough to walk down without any drama), woodland singletrack and smooth flowy farm tracks, plus one 20% tarmac climb. This offered perfect grip but was a bit of a challenge for tired legs and some of the group walked the steeped top section.
The combination of slightly damp trails, a few technical trails and tired bodies/brains meant stage three was quite a challenge, but I think the morning was actually my favourite bit of the entire event. It was one of those days were some MTB experience paid dividends and prior experience of multi-day riding was also super useful, as it meant your body was able to better cope with the demands being put on it.
As we arrived at lunch and were welcomed by an army of support staff who managed the road riders, I felt surprisingly deflated. The three days that I’d shared with the graveleers were some of the best I’d ever had on a gravel bike and a) I didn’t want it to finish and b) I was slightly trepidatious about joining up with 400 road riders for the last section into Paris.
Despite being well fed and with our bikes freshly washed by the amazing support crew, as we rolled out at the back of an insanely long group of road riders, my sense of deflation was realised and although in awe of the motorbike outriders and their efficiency at closing side roads and keeping us safe, the actual experience wasn’t one I would sign up for again in a hurry. Our average speed on the section into Paris was the slowest of our entire trip and everything felt very restrictive and over-controlled. This probably sounds churlish and ungrateful, but the culture clash of riding in such a huge peloton differed so vastly from the freedom and flexibility of riding with the graveleers that it felt more like being an exhibit in a zoo.
Of course, there were some incredible moments riding the last section into Paris itself – being joined by a local and trying to explain to her what we were doing as she not only kept up, but kicked our arses while wearing jeans and a pair of trainers was amazing and the sight of the peloton rolling up to the Eiffel Tower takes some beating too. But the slight air of chaos, noise and all-round-business at the finish was somewhat anticlimactic. The Hotchillee staff did an amazing job of keeping us safe and getting us to the finish line, but the actual arrival didn’t match up to the positive vibes of the other stage finishes.
Chatting with my fellow graveleers, there was a shared sense of achievement from having ridden off-road from London to Paris and a heartfelt love of the off-road version of the trip, but also a sense of disappointment about the final afternoon’s road ride.
To their immense credit, the Hotchillee team obviously talked to the gravel riders and listened to their feedback and before we even had our final night’s drink’s party, they announced they were going to alter the 2023 route and keep the gravel riders off-road and separate from the road group for as much of the journey into Paris as possible. Chapeau!
Le Tour Femmes
As part of the tie-in with the Tour De France organisers, the ASO, Hotchillee had laid on a special extra for anyone who wanted to stay on in Paris another day. We were offered the chance to ride the closing circuit that the riders of the inaugural Tour de France Femmes would take on later the same day. All wearing our special edition jerseys, we set off in a vast group of 200 riders and made a celebratory lap of Paris, cheered on by spectators and seeing some of the amazing sights the female pro-peloton would witness later in the day. The sheer size of the group made it very stop-starty, but it was brilliant to experience some of the thrill of riding the central Paris circuit. The organiser’s suggestion that all the female riders from the combined road and gravel pelotons should ride at the front of the group seemed like a perfectly fitting celebration of the rise (finally) to prominence of women’s professional cycling.
The highlight of the final day for me? Easy – watching many-time world champion Marianne Vos completing her multi-lingual post-race interviews with a relaxed ease and grace that only comes from decades of experience.
Home again, home again, clickety click
Our journey home again was remarkably smooth and simple (apart from not being able to initially find our transfer bus at St Pancras when we arrived back in the UK) and the Hotchillee staff again proved what a slick and efficient service they run, by having managed to get all of our bikes safely back to the start point, so that we could return home with just our overnight bag.
A few days after our trip, there’s still some residual tiredness in my legs and my bike is still dusty from our final ride. Looking through the images of the event now brings a huge smile to my face and it feels like I was away for a lot longer than a long weekend.
Gravel riding from London to Paris? Hell yes, that sounds like a fantastic idea.
Thank you for the invite Hotchillee – joining you on the inaugural gravel London to Paris trip was an amazing experience and with the changes you’ve already put in place for next year, I think it will be a run-away success.
If you’re interested in finding out more about the Hotchillee trip, you can see all the details of next year’s trip here
You can also watch the combined highlights of the road and gravel trips from this year’s event here: