Thursday, May 18, 2017

London to Brussels - Day 2 (Downs, more like Ups)

Day 2: Rochester to Dover to Dunkirk (May 7th, 2017)
49.7 miles, 3215' Elev Gain, 13%+ grades, 12.6 mph Avg (click for route map)

The morning of Day 2 arrived a little too soon for those who decided to camp out at the local pub the previous night (this would be a re-occurring theme for a few of us during the tour). We had planned to meet for breakfast at 7am, and get on the road by 8am, today we had a deadline to make Dover by 3 pm for our ferry connection to France. The Youth Hostel breakfast consisted of the usual suspects (cereal, yoghurts, fruits, and of course a hearty English cooked breakfast), hot breakfast was the only way to go when you have a calorie burning hilly ride day ahead.

YHA Medway - Image from YHA website

The 8am start did not quite go to plan, having got all the bikes out of the bike shed, I checked my tyres and noticed my front tyre was a little softer than it should be. I decided the best bet would be to change the tube and air on the side of caution since we had some steep descents today. The spare tubes I had have removable valve cores, which do not cooperate well with my Lezyne pump that "screws" onto the valve - yes you guessed it, the pump also screws the valve core out, making inflating near impossible. After a few rapid deflation's of the inner tube, and a lot of faffing around, (much to the amusement of the French Croquet team staying at the YHA), we were finally on the road again by 8.30am.

The temperature starting out was around 48f (9c) and overcast, in fact, the entire day it barely got above 50f (10c) - brass monkeys as we say in the UK. Straight from the YHA though we had the longest climb of the day, 3.6 miles at a steady 3-5% grade, this warmed you up fast!. Following right on from the ascent came one of the fastest descents of the day, an 18% grade that was enough to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up - ok, that may have been due to the 48f temperature + wind chill. One of the ladies bikes was having issues shifting, so a quick stop at mile marker 4.5 to tweak was needed, then we were on our way again.

First deviation of the day from NCN # 17

Much of our route to Dover followed the Pilgrim way (NCN #17 & RCN #17), but since a lot of the national and regional cycle routes in the UK are off-road too, we had to deviate away from NCN #17 on numerous occasions, this meant going up and down the Kent Downs on narrow hedgerow-lined roads, passing mostly horse riders and other cyclists. The hardest ascent of the day came after our first deviation at about mile 10, a 1-mile slog with grades reaching 13%, I knew that this Kent route was going to be the toughest of the tour, and this hill confirmed it loud and clear.

Regrouping at the top of Hollingbourne Hill

The constant up and down was burning a lot of calories, which was good since the beer from the previous night added a few extra ones; we were not breaking any land speed records though, but were making steady progress (mainly due to a lot fewer turns than Day 1, and less stop/starts). After a couple of hours in the saddle, we were all getting a bit Hank Marvin, but today we could not afford a 2-hour lunch affair again. I knew the only real sizable village I had on today's route was Wye, a pretty little place at mile marker 28. As we rolled into the village, it was like a mirage seeing a Co-op supermarket jump out of nowhere, a 20-minute break was all that was needed for 13 hungry cyclists to devour a bucket load of sandwiches, crisps, chocolate biscuits, and crispy cold bacon.

After Wye more rolling hills faced us, "Quelle surprise", but the views, woodlands, and fragrant bluebells took the edge off of the suffering, well slightly.

Horton Downs road

At around mile marker 40, we finally caught a glimpse of the sea, at first sight it just looked like mist in the distance, it was a moral boosting moment for sure when we realized it was not mist.

Finally, the ascents eased, and we caught a glimpse of the sea

After passing the Kent Battle of Britain Museum in Hawkinge, the final 9 mile push into Dover seemed relatively easy compared to the prior 40 miles. The landscape opened up into more open farmland, and the downs eased their way back downward to the sea. After 49 miles of rural countryside, it was a bit of a shock to all of a sudden hit busy roads again, wrestling with buses and cars for an inch of the road. Luckily the road into Dover was short, and once we reached the town centre cycle paths came to our aid.

We arrived at the ferry port with about 30 minutes to spare, finding the terminal was easy, well it is big, so is pretty hard not to miss really. To my surprise, once you are within the bounds of the ferry terminal, cyclists have their own dedicated path and a painted red line that guides your way. The red line leads you right to French passport control, where a large "STOP" is painted on the road, although a couple of riders blew right past it, but in a very French way, the officer just rolled his eyes. Once all passports had been checked and stamped (non-Europeans) you follow the red line again to the ferry ticket office, here you are assigned a lane number.

We did not have to wait long before boarding commenced

Very gingerly we cycled up the loading ramp, walked the bikes across the "fingers", and found the bicycle racks at the bow of the boat; unloading the Bikepacking gear all of a sudden became quick and easy. The lift (elevator) up to the main floors was small, and did not appreciate us piling in trying to set a "how many people and luggage can you fit" record, it proceeded to not budge until we let 2 people off - damn cheek I thought, those hills must of surely burned some "extra" baggage. Finally we could all relax a bit, we had made it through Kent, and were on the way to France.

Onboard and relaxed

The crossing to Dunkirk was smooth as silk, it is not often you can say that when crossing the English Channel!. Most of us chose to grab food and drink, which was pretty decent and not too pricey; the Chicken Tikka was good, but the Naan bread was a little mummified. The crossing was a short 2 hour hop, but you get a sight of the French coastline after about an hour. Disembarking was easy, we just rolled off and rode onto the road, no border control since we did that in Dover, a short 2.25 miles of riding brought us to the Hotel Campanile in Loon Plage.

The Hotel Campanile was a step up from the previous nights Youth Hostel, but not a fancy hotel by any means; their conference room served as a secure bike shed for the night. Now, beware though, the shower doors at this hotel bite, and complaining to a young receptionist who spoke very little English created a "Fawlty Towers-esque" comical moment that will be talked about for years.

Bon Soir

Day 2 route

Link to DAY 3

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