Tuesday, May 16, 2017

London to Brussels - Day 1 (The long lunch)

Day 1: London to Rochester (May 6th, 2017)
38.5 miles, 1792' Elev Gain, 10% max grades, 11.4 mph Avg (click for route map)

2 years almost to the day had passed since my first European cycling adventure when myself and 2 friends leisurely cycled from London to Paris, it was an adventure that had me yearning for more. After a year in the planning, cycling adventure numero deux had finally arrived, I was going to be guiding 12 other riders (9 Americans, 3 Brits, 1 Irish woman) from London to Brussels. Most of the non-European citizens had been to Europe before, if only once, but this journey would still be an experience of a lifetime for most.

Arriving into London on Friday, May 5th, I felt pretty excited to be guiding 12 other cyclists across 2 international borders (UK/France and France/Belgium) over the coming 5 days, the 2015 adventure had certainly given me some useful insights, confidence and UK/European route planning skills.

The iconic Shard building in Southwark

After a pleasant, and surprisingly "relatively" cheap overnight stay at the Ibis Styles hotel in Southwark, my buddy Steve and I headed to "On Your Bike", the same bike shop I had used back in 2015, and the starting point of our 13 strong group cycling from London to Brussels. From 9.30am onward, the remaining 11 riders began trickling in, each one trying to resist the tempting aromas drifting from Borough market, as it turns out, we actually would have had time to sample the food at the market. Our group were 2nd in line to be assisted, after a large group of "Tweed ride" folks had to get setup. There is perhaps nothing more British than seeing a bunch of cyclists dressed in Tweed, wearing long wool socks, flat caps and showing off some nice curly mustaches (wish I had taken a photo). We were taking bets on whether our slightly eccentric other Brit rider would show up in Tweed, but he opted for "his" winter kit instead consisting of shorts and sleeveless shirt.

Bike setup was a slow process, some bikes needed different stems, saddles, pedals, and all of us had to load the bikes up with Bikepacking gear (a process that we would all get faster at come the 5th day).

Getting setup at On Your Bike

We eventually got ready to roll by around 12pm, by then the temperature was about 57f (14c), under overcast skies, but generally pretty pleasant. Four of us in the group are native Brits/Irish, so cycling on the left comes naturally, however, at least 8 of the 9 remaining had only ever cycled/driven on the right before. I had visions of all sorts of drama happening on this first day, fortunately, the first 6 miles was mainly on quiet back roads and NCN #4 (National Cycle Route), there were even some cobbled streets to contend with. The group negotiated the first few miles of urban London with no trouble, reaching leafy green Greenwich. The car-free climb up to the Observatory is fairly steady, it's a cracking view from the overlook, even on a hazy day!.

C'est Moi at the Greenwich observatory

Greenwich is a little oasis of well-kept parks, trees and grand houses; the oasis does not last long though, you are quickly back into the land of Kebab shops, betting shops, and charity shops. We had all skipped lunch in the excitement of getting the bikes ready, and perhaps all felt the need to get through London ASAP, so the decision was made to wait and find something once out into the Kent countryside. Now, getting to the countryside was the challenge, navigating London is slow and painful, with many many turns involved (I am certainly thankful to the patron saint of travel for the invention of GPS).

Our first (and ONLY) flat tyre of the entire tour came in Sidcup, 13 miles into the 38-mile route - hmm, how many riders does it take to change a tube? - answer 8 :).

First and ONLY flat tyre

By about mile 15 we were finally clear of the London sprawl, and the beautiful countryside was ahead, which also meant hills!. It had taken about 1.5 hours to get this far, so we were all feeling pretty peckish, it was time to start looking for a pub!. The first country pub we came to was the "Red Lion" in Swanley Village, unfortunately, we were too late for lunch service, but were instructed to try the "Lamb Inn" a mile or so onward. The Lamb Inn is a quintessential English local Country pub and were not prepared for 13 hungry cyclists, but they went out of their way to accommodate us. We parked all 13 bikes in their small beer garden and spent 2 hours sipping beer and eating sandwiches (all prepared by just one person). The service was very good considering, "Lizzy's Lamb" delivered, albeit slowly - check the pub out on facebook!

The Lamb at Swanley Village

Urban sprawl gave way to cute cottages and countryside

By the time we rolled out of the Lamb it was well past 3.30pm, we still had 20 miles to cover, and a 7 pm dinner deadline to hit, it was looking iffy (at least based on the average pace of the first 18 miles). The small country lanes and hills started to appear thick and fast, we did not encounter much traffic though, only during a couple of dodgy crossings. We finally made the outskirts of Rochester in about 1.5 hours of riding, and the welcome sight of the castle greeted us.

Rochester castle from the west bank of the Medway

The Medway area is pretty busy, navigating through Rochester and Chatham is not fast; you have to dodge tourists, teenagers, the odd drunk, and even motorcyclists trying to practice Kung Fu kicks (yes you heard that right, Hong Kong Phooey I guess resides in Chatham - who knew). Once you leave the Medway area though, you are back into the pleasant green rolling countryside, and right on the chime of 7pm, we arrived at our overnight spot - the YHA Medway.

Youth Hostels are basic, providing shared dorms and shared bathrooms, this was our least glamorous overnight accommodation by far, but served its purpose, and even had a large lockable bike shed. The food was included (if pre-booked) and was basic but adequate, and wine and beer could be purchased. The closest pub was less than 0.5 miles away, an easy walk, (well not quite as easy in the dark after a few pints).

Phew, Day 1 out the way, perhaps arguably the only day that was ridden out of necessity (i.e. to purely say you truly started from central London).

Day 1 route

Link to DAY 2

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