DISTANCE 31 miles (50km)
MAIN CLIMB White Downs
TOTAL CLIMB 600 metres
ACHTUNG! Take care crossing main roads

The sales literature for the London to Paris Cycle Tour dubs it “the professional event for amateurs”.

You get 600 kilometres split into three stages — this year, the middle one has a distinct taste of the cobbled Classics — and your entry fee covers accommodation. There’s pro-level back-up, and, if you want it to, London-Paris can be a race too.

Cyclo-sportive events in Britain tread a fine line between competition and the personal achievement of completing a course. Many events publish the times riders take, but not necessarily in any order. That way they can’t be interpreted as ‘results’ and events don’t tumble into the legal minefield of being official races.

With London-Paris there’s no blurring of that line. “It’s a cyclo-sportive event. Completing the course is a great challenge, and it’s what the majority do it for, but once we are in France, if you opt for the front competition group, there are different sections where London to Paris is a race,” says Sven Thiele, whose brainchild the whole thing is.

The race sections are like the special stages of a car rally. “We pick the less populated areas and have a rolling road closure in place. The yellow sections are for the overall jersey, and they are about 20 kilometres long. We have hill sections for a climber’s jersey and one-kilometre sprint sections for the green jersey. The winner of each section gets points towards the various classifications,” Thiele explains.

imageCycling socially
For the rest of the time, lead cars make sure that the pace is controlled, and the emphasis is on the sociability of cycling, which is what today’s ride is about. Thiele has invited along last year’s London to Paris overall winner, Jerone Walters; the man who won the climber’s jersey, Michael Blann; Mark Sinclair, who is responsible for athlete liaison in Adidas’s British Olympic team sponsorship; and another London-Paris regular, Andrew Gill.

The ride starts just south of Cobham and uses the narrow, wooded lanes of the North Downs. It’s soon obvious that these guys aren’t just key players in the London-Paris story; they are also a firm group of friends.

“The overall aim of London-Paris is to bring people together and to get them into cycling regularly. We’ve got the backing of British Cycling’s Everyday Cycling initiative, and one of
our objectives is to get people to try BC races with a day licence,” Thiele says.

“We organise spring rides to get people used to riding in big groups, and we feel we are really fulfilling a role.

“London-Paris is still more about social cycling than competition, though. We want to offer something for people who are flat out in their lives. They’ve got families and responsibilities; they don’t necessarily want the added pressure of competing, but they want to keep fit and they maybe want to push themselves a bit,” Thiele adds during a stop to deal with a puncture.

Back on the road and the chatter stops while the group negotiate the steady climb up to Newlands Corner, where the route crosses the North Downs Way long-distance footpath. The chalk grasslands around here are home to some extremely diverse flora and fauna, including seven species of orchids.

Now the ride’s character shifts to hilly. Flicking left and right though Shere and into the woods just north of Ewhurst, Jerone Walter’s race pedigree shows through. He’s a 34-year-old Australian, who like many compatriots, came to Europe to try for a place in a pro team.

“I raced in Belgium with the Kingsnorth club. I got some decent results and I got an offer to ride in Holland with one of the Rabobank-sponsored clubs. I did OK, but I got too many seconds to be a pro,” Walters says.

imageA challenge
Walters settled in Britain, got married and is now the director of an IT company.
“I didn’t ride for six years, but I got going again and did the London to Paris for a bit of a challenge. I’ve started racing now, but I only ride at the weekends, then maybe in the week sometimes in the summer,” he says.

We carry on through Peaslake and into Hurt Wood, and here the best views on the entire circuit are to be enjoyed before heading north and up White Downs — a hill climb that ascends the steep south-facing side of the North Downs escarpment. It’s a chance for Michael Blann, a 37-year-old photographer with plenty of racing experience, to show why he won the London to Paris climber’s jersey in 2007.

The whole section south from Shere and north back up to the A25 is delicious cycling country, where there isn’t any indication that you are riding just outside the M25 and one of the busiest cities in the world.

Back in Cobham, Thiele tells me another story that emphasises what London to Paris is all about.

“We’ve just had our first London to Paris baby. Andrew Gill met his partner Lizzie Carpenter during the ride, and they’ve just had their first child.”

The happy event underlines the family feel that Thiele has created with his event. It’s not an easy task to juggle the logistics of moving hundreds of people many kilometres through two countries, and to do it professionally, as well as make the whole thing friendly, warm and inviting. Sven Thiele and the people involved with London to Paris have somehow managed
it perfectly.


IS CYCLING THE NEW GOLF?
Big business deals used to be done on the golf course, but nowadays just as many are negotiated in events like London to Paris.

“So many company directors are taking up cycling that there isn’t a better place for business networking than events like London-Paris,” says Andrew Gill, who works for IBM.

“I did my biggest deal ever through London to Paris, worth more than £10 million. And in the Cape Argus Classic in South Africa, I sorted out another deal with this guy I met while riding. We were finalising the price as we rode up the finishing straight,” Gill says.

Jerone Walters adds: “My wife works for Regus, the office rental people, and I’ve been able to put several people in touch with her who have become good customers.”

But Walters has seen another advantage to this phenomenon. “There are lots of professionals taking up cycling, and they encourage people in their workplace to ride as well,” he says.


LONDON TO PARIS FACTS
* This year is the fifth edition.
* The start is at Hampton Court Palace, and stage one takes the riders to Dover.
* Stage two is Calais to Amiens, with the cobbled hill of Mont Cassel, of Four Days of Dunkirk fame, among a number of other obstacles.
* The third stage is from Amiens to Paris.
* Stephen Roche and James Cracknell are among the celebrities taking part.
* It will be the first time that Roche has ridden into the French capital on a bike since he won the Tour de France 21 years ago.


WHICH WAY?
Head south from Cobham on unclassified and turn right (TR) at Cobham Park. Continue on unclassified road through Martyr’s Green and Ockham. TR on B2039 and 1st TL on unclassified. TR on unclassified at Sussex Farm. TL on A247. Join the A25 at its junction with the A247 and A246. TR on unclassified in Shere. TL to Peaslake. Go straight over the crossroads in Peaslake and TL on unclassified to Holmbury St Mary. TL on B2126. TR on unclassified at Sutton and cross the A25. Then cross the A246 at Effingham and TR
on unclassified at Effingham Junction and follow the unclassified back to Cobham.