Vivi cycle tour of Northern France

Earlier this month the Vivi team decided to make the most of the wonderful summer sunshine by doing a 5 day cycle tour of Northern France. Myself, Foster, Fresh, Jones, JJ and Pasty embarked on the 4th August, on a tour that would see us stop off at Lille, Lens and Boulogne-sur-mer: this is the story of how it went.

Day 1

Calais to Lille – 120k

Having left London at 3am to board a 6:40am ferry at Dover, lack of sleep was immediately the first challenge. Add a long, 100+ kilometre day in blistering heat to the equation and it already made a heady mix. Nevertheless, everyone was gasping to get out on the saddle, and with warm weather forecast (and a full English breakfast lining our stomachs), we arrived in Calais just after 9 to begin our journey to Lille. Almost immediately JJ was a pannier down as it flung off from his rack just as we picked the pace up. He claims it wasn’t secured properly, but personally we all felt it was a tactical move to get a breather! A quick reshuffle and a few cables tied around the rack sorted the issue – tip: as mentioned on our previous tour articles, having a good pannier set-up is invaluable.

Our first impression of Northern France wasn’t particularly good. The road surfaces were, at best, adequate (this improved), and the route getting out of Calais was particularly tricky to navigate. Once we were out of Calais’ clutches, however, we were able to stick to D roads (which are mostly long, straight and a good cycling surface). Spirits were very high on the first day. The legs were fresh, morale yet to be tested, and the route itself was of average difficulty. Our first major issue came about 40k in; annoyingly it was with my own bike. Having had bike problems prior to leaving and failing to properly fix them, I started the tour with no use of my lowest gears (my gears were misaligned and not shifting properly). As the hills began, and the heat muddled my brain, I forgot this and as I shifted one too many times towards my wheel, the gear popped the chain off the top bracket mid-climb for it to become very stuck in between the wheel and rear cassette. With the help of Fresh, and a good 30 minutes later, we were covered in grease but I was back on my bike. The bad news was that I was now terrified to go anywhere near the low gears (meaning hill climbs had just become even more brutal) – tip: always ensure you start a cycle tour with a fully-functional bike!

Back on the road, we soon got into a close-knit group of 6 and the pace shot up to around 35k for a prolonged spell, taking us to within touching distance of Lille. The route itself was fairly boring – it was essentially busy roads with the odd nice view. The pace remained high for the rest of the journey, with the odd water break providing a welcome respite from the heat. Fortunately, apart from Foster’s chain popping off a few times, we escaped any further bike issues and the journey had been fairly straightforward. 

Arriving in Lille, we found our apartment, checked in and immediately went out for dinner. Everyone was pretty tired so a beer and food was all we could muster. Having burnt a significant amount of calories, personally I felt pretty awful. A mixture of the heat, lack of food and probably not enough hydration had taken its toll and, despite being starving, I could barely eat my dinner that night. Fortunately, that was to be the last time my body crashed during the tour! 

Day 2

Slightly stiff after the previous days’ escapades, we awoke looking forward to a nice day in Lille. As it was our only day off from cycling we were keen to make the most of it and add a bit of culture into our trip. Unfortunately, Lille slightly disappointed on the culture front. It was incredibly quiet out and about, and there wasn’t much to actually do. After a bit of shopping and enjoying the weather, we decided to climb the reasonably new belfry tower. The tower itself is an impressive building, in great condition with a view overlooking the city. The negative part is that large council flat blocks surround the area and somewhat obscure the beauty that the city could offer. The skyline of the city has some lovely spires poking out between run-down areas, kind of spoiling it. It was more like Sauron’s eye overlooking Mordor… a slight exaggeration but, in essence, there wasn’t much to look at.

We did get some superb food in however, mainly ‘moules and frites’ – a French speciality (mussels and chips). After a lovely meal, we wanted to sample the Lille nightlife. Searching high and low for a suitable drinking venue was the first obstacle, the second being that when we found one (an Aussie bar appropriately called Café Aus) it was shut for refurbishment. Fortunately the pub/bar next door was open and served relatively cheap beers (5 euros) – the downside being it was empty when we arrived (around 5pm). Taking a seat out in the sun, however, we were soon joined by a bustling crowd and as the sun dropped, the atmosphere turned pretty lively. The 50k cycle we had the next day seemed a long way away…

It is fair to say that the night turned out to be fairly epic. After an ill-advised amount of local beer, shots were introduced. Bad mistake. We then made friends with a very helpful French couple who took us under their wing and walked with us to the ‘good part of town’. Their English and sport knowledge (a common ice-breaker) was superb, so we got on like a house on fire. Arriving at the so-called good part of town was an anti-climax however, as there was barely anyone around. After buying them a thank you beer or two, we proceeded in checking out other venues. The following events consisted of more alcohol, a beer pong tournament, a jazz bar, ballroom dancing (don’t ask), a nightclub, pizza and someone (I won’t name names, Pasty) being sick. We finally rocked back into our apartment at 5am, desperately hoping to avoid a hangover…

Day 3

Lille to Lens – 52k

I won’t lie, the hangover hit me like a punch from Tyson. Upon waking on the floor next to Fresh’s bed, I mistakenly believed I was in excellent condition – legs felt good, head wasn’t pounding and general awareness seemed reasonable. Thirty minutes after getting up, having donned my cycling gear, I realised that was blind ignorance. Fortunately, cycling is a great way to recover from a heavy night – fresh air, sweating out the booze – however caution is of course advised as you need to be in a fit state to cycle. We all looked a sorry bunch but with some much needed hydration (a large amount of water) we were able to get on our way to begin what we expected to be the easiest stage of cycling on the tour. Half an hour in, a McDonald’s burger perked everyone up and we were all largely back to normal within the hour. 

This was the day that we got to finally see some of the best reasons to cycle around Northern France. The route can only be described as picturesque. It was a comfortable first 40k – exactly what we needed. In the last 12k the difficulty picked up slightly and it was a climb up to the house we had rented. At that stage I think everyone had taken on huge volumes of water and had fully recovered from the previous night so, fortunately, we were all in good shape, making it to our destination without incident.

Arriving at the house, just north of Lens, we decided that a quiet night to recover was much needed. One group went to the nearest shop, whilst myself and Fresh were on cooking duty. The result – a huge portion of locally sourced spag bol: perfect carb loading for the next day! Add a wheel of Camembert cheese, a few ice lollies and a glass of wine and it was a nice evening in – made even better by the view from the (what turned out to be) lavish house we had rented.

Day 4

Lens to Boulogne-sur-mer – 101k

Having Google Mapped our route beforehand, we knew this one would be a killer. We aptly dubbed it the ‘Beast of Boulogne’, and after speaking to a few locals and gauging their reaction when we said we were heading to Boulogne-sur-mer (they laughed and gestured lots of hills) it was time to get our game faces on! Almost immediately the hills began, and they really were relentless. We left really early in the morning to try and get there by the time the Premier League kicked off – 4pm French time – so the sun wasn’t quite out when we began. It was a welcome respite from what had so far been a very hot tour. The good news was that everyone was coping with the hills well. Personally I felt really good, despite my shoddy gears, but it was definitely brutal work. JJ, who had been the pace setter for the majority of the tour, began to feel the burn from the constant climbing, Jones (who also had gear trouble) went through a stage of feeling very sick, Fresh struggled on up each hill, Pasty was off his saddle on every climb and even Foster (who normally embraces hills) found the going extremely tough – tip: take regular breaks, especially in hot weather, to keep hydration up.

On a particularly hilly section that ended with a huge downhill, disaster struck for Pasty. Myself, JJ, Jones and Foster had absolutely flown up the hills and then hammered down the descent (a very quick 4k stretch), before coming to a stop at the village we had just arrived in. Behind us, Fresh and Pasty were nowhere to be seen. After dismounting for around 20 minutes there was still no sight of either of them. Our conclusions were either they had had enough of the hills and turned around or the ‘Beast of Boulogne’ had broken them… in fact, Pasty had punctured his wheel, changed it (with the help of a French local), punctured again and walked the last 1k to meet us. Eventually Fresh came rolling down the final hill to break us the news. Devastated for Pasty, who was on his first cycle tour, we made sure he got a group hug when he finally came traipsing into the village. 

Loading up on food from the village supermarket was essential as we recharged our batteries with a lunch break. We were soon back on the road though (after Foster had repaired the puncture). Whilst it was tough going, it was a beautiful ride. On either side of the route were great countryside views, and as we were going higher and higher, the views got better: just reward for the climbing! Everyone did a great job on the saddle and morale was surprisingly high despite the effort that was going into each climb. Finally, after what seemed like an age, we approached Boulogne. A swift break about 20k out enabled Jones to get some water on board and eat something (his sick feeling soon disappeared), and we could all regroup and have a much needed breather.

Getting into Boulogne was great, pretty much all downhill. It was just like a typical seaside English town, with lots of restaurants near the seafront and marina. Needless to say, having conquered the ‘Beast of Boulogne’ we were a pretty lethargic group. After a revitalising cold shower, we were ready to get some food and find a good venue for the evening. Our first stop was next to our hotel. A bar/restaurant that had the late Premier League kick-off on live (Chelsea v Swansea). Much to the delight of most of the group, it was an entertaining match that finished 2-2. Combined with a few beers, it was a good start to the night. Desperate for more ‘moules’ we then found a restaurant in the old town area that specialised in mussels. The food was excellent, however a few more beers later had taken their toll on tiredness. I am pretty sure Foster barely said a word for the last half of the meal! It was decided that we would have a reasonably early night, knowing that the last stint on the final day would be another incredibly hilly day!

Day 5

Boulogne-sur-mer to Calais – 46k

This was by far my favourite day on the saddle. Boulogne-sur-mer is surrounded by a hilly national park, so we knew that there were going to be a fair few hills as we followed the coast round to the ferry port. What we didn’t know though was that within 10 minutes of leaving, we would be greeted with some of the best coastal views we could have hoped for. The sun was shining, the views were incredible, the pace was high and the dash for the ferry had begun.

Our route was a fairly simple one, hugging the coastline for the majority of the time. The rolling hills were a menace, but once more everyone did really well as they battled up the climbs and then thrived on the descents. With plenty of time to spare (we set off at 8, and our ferry wasn’t until 2), we were making great headway, however mechanicals then struck once more – tip: always leave yourself plenty of time to reach the ferry on the last day. Firstly, Fresh’s chain managed to get stuck between his wheel and rear cassette after he had shifted his gears too far over whilst struggling up a steep climb, and I can assure you (having suffered from the same issue on day 1), it is an absolute nightmare to get out. With a bit of help from myself, Jones and Foster we were able to prise the chain out from the back of the rear cassette and back onto the chain rings. Phew. Needless to say, Fresh used his lower gears far more sparingly for the last half of the journey.

Our second issue came within 10 miles of the ferry port. Cruel, with the end just in sight. Fortunately it was a simple puncture, the 4th of the trip (but the first for Foster – the previous 3 coming from Pasty). Having become the go-to man for puncture repairs, Foster had no problem with a quick change. However the same gritty road that had inflicted its wound on Foster, soon also claimed me as one of its victims. Having thought I had escaped, despite hitting some large stones, it turned out that I had a slow puncture. So less than a mile later, Foster was back on puncture duty – tip: take more than enough spare inner tubes!

Finally, we reached Calais ferry port. With a few of the group now really tiring after a tough 5 days it was a blessing that we were able to get the ferry an hour earlier! Safely on our way back to the UK we reflected back on the trip, deciding that the route is the most difficult out of the previous tours we have previously completed (in Belgium and the Netherlands). Whilst the cities we stopped at leave a bit to be desired (although from what I have been told, in August the locals all clear off on holiday), there were some fantastic cycle routes – it is definitely a tour more for the enjoyment of cycling, rather than a cultural tour by bike. Pasty and JJ, on their first cycle tour, both did brilliantly throughout – JJ also took on directions responsibility. Myself and Jones completed our third, whilst Foster and Fresh completed their second. Next up on the agenda, as the rumours go, is Vivi taking on some mountains in Mallorca… I think training will indeed be required for that. Here are the tour highlights: 

If you are interested in taking part in any of the cycle tours Vivi organise (France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and the UK) then please get in touch so we can discuss your needs and put together a bespoke package.

Chris Smith
Founder of Vivi Nation, sports enthusiast, occasional triathlete, keen cyclist and optimistic Liverpool FC fan.

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