Gravel events: Hotchillee London to Paris
Imagine 350km on every possible off-road (and road) surface, many laughs, few tired moments and a memorable, nearly historical experience. That is how I would summarise the 2022 London-Paris Gravel edition.
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[Photos by Michael Blann and ASO/Charly Lopez]
I have never before done a supported, multi-day gravel event but when I heard that the well-known Hotchillee London to Paris ride was offered on gravel this year, I was hooked. The starting point was in Esher - and albeit this town on the outskirts of London is not necessarily big, it made it easy to find the hundreds of bikes, people and loudspeakers at the town’s sporting centre.
The gravel ride, happening parallel to the road version started very early on Thursday, which meant the only time to sign up was on Wednesday afternoon. The process was really smooth and in no time I picked up my day bag, rider numbers, and some snacks and sat down for the rider briefing. This was also the last time I got to see the road riders before Saturday's roll to Paris together.
Our briefing included an introduction to Hotchillee from its CEO Sven Thiele, the man who started the first ever London to Paris ride back in 2004, and a short summary of what we were about to do over the next three days.
A lot has changed since Hotchillee’s first London-Paris, and this year was special in various other ways, too. Many riders had rolled over their entries owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, finally getting to ride the route this year and, for the first time, the riders would get to witness the Tour de France Femmes in addition to the men’s finish on the Champs-Élysées. But for my gravel riding companions listening to the briefing, there was even more novelty to this ride: it was the first-ever gravel edition of the London-Paris ride.
Day 1 - to the ferry
There’s no question that the first day of the ride felt like the first day in school, with a blend of nervousness and excitement bubbling inside me as I pedalled to the starting point from my Airbnb.
Unlike the hundreds of road bike London-Paris riders, we headed off in one group, with our ride leaders Jon, Jack, Tink and Captain all among us, bringing our total headcount to 37. It was clear from day one that this is not an easy ride, but I could tell it was going to be a lot more relaxed than the road version.
On day one we had 122km to cover, all the way from the start in Esher to the ferry terminal in Newhaven. Very soon after the rollout, we hit the urban gravel paths, tracing River Wey. It was occasionally challenging to hold a conversation on the multiple off-road surfaces we covered, from sandy singletracks to rooty canal towpaths and bridleways - many of which were lined with brambles and nettles that kept whipping us as we went.
Once we had passed Guildford, we joined the Downs Link, which was a welcomed break from focusing on riding in sand and over roots and rocks. This old railway line was very flat, and gave us dusty smooth gravel to ride on - and a break from the stinging of nettles.
We had two stops planned for the day; one for snacks and water and later, at around 80km, for a proper lunch. The lunch spot that sat on the ridge was absolutely beautiful and from there we continued towards the coast where we could sniff the fresh sea breeze. I’m not lying when I say, it did not feel like we were in England, but rather somewhere in Spain.
The weather had been amazing for the whole day. Not too hot as the heatwave from days earlier had cooled down a little, and not too windy so that it would’ve slowed us down. Riding off-road often provided us with shelter from the harshest sun, as well, which was something I don’t think the road riders got to enjoy much.
Riding along the coast through Brighton’s busy road network and then the last ten miles along the coastal path that is lined by the magnificent cliffs was my favourite part of the day - and it truly felt like I was on a holiday.
We arrived in Newhaven with plenty of time to change out of lycra and prepare for the four-and-a-half-hour ferry crossing to Dieppe. Day one was a long one, with the start at 6:30 am and by the time I was ready for bed in my shared room, the local time was about midnight. But I would not have changed a thing about the day - and time had passed by so quickly getting to know all the other riders.
Day 2 - Gulley of death
Day two was titled the “Queen Stage” of this trip - which was a very accurate description. We had 140km to cover, and even though about a third of it was on tarmac, it was going to be hard going. There was a lot of talk about the “gulley of death” which, according to the ride leaders that had recced the course, was a pretty technical and puncture-rich section we’d recognise once in it.
With the thought of this gulley looming in our minds, we were on the road again. The grogginess from the short sleep from the previous night quickly vanished when we hit the first punchy climb of the day and embarked on a journey through the French countryside, past the cows and wheat fields.
Most of us rolled out at the same time, but we naturally broke into smaller groups so that everyone had company to ride in a suitable place. We were a mixed bag of abilities and bikes, after all. Some had chosen to complete the ride on full-suspension mountain bikes, whereas a few opted for electric assistance.
There was some rain forecasted for later and we had plenty of climbing and distance to cover, meaning no one wanted to go too hard on the first few climbs - both to save the legs and the batteries.
This day was the day I realised how nice it is to be on a fully supported ride. Somewhere about a third into the ride, I got a sidewall puncture which would not seal, but luckily didn’t slash the tyre completely open, either. I fixed it with a tube and once we got to the lunch stop which was around the 80km mark, I simply handed the bike to the team mechanics there and they fitted my bike with a new tyre.
Sure, I could have ridden the rest of the route with the slashed tyre but would I have been confident with it for over 150km more and especially on some gnarly descents? Probably not. It was a huge relief to be able to have such help at hand, and someone to sort out my bike whilst I dug into a hard-earned pizza. Similarly, those on e-MTBs had a chance to charge their bikes at all of our pitstops.
Even though day two was long, it was also my favourite stage overall. We went through such a variety of surfaces, from smooth gravel to tarmac and from proper flinty stones to slippery roots and grassy fields. It required not only physical endurance to ride all of this, but also a constant mental focus. But I feel our group’s mood was never deflated - no matter how many punctures or small crashes happened, everyone kept smiling.
Day 3 - to Paris
After two long days in the saddle, some excitement of finally reaching Paris was definitely in the air on day three. There hadn't been much rest offered in the last few days, but we only had 56km until lunch, and then about 45km roll to Paris together with the road riders.
After a breakfast of what felt like one too many croissants, we rolled out of Vernon shortly after eight and straight away tackled some gravel that - compared to day two – was relatively smooth. The day’s route was to be like that: it was technically easy but included a couple of punchy climbs, all relatively short but offering proper sting to the already fatigued legs.
On our final riding day, we were pretty much tracing the Seine and had some spectacular views over the river valley. Riding on the ridge was a memorable experience and after the technical descents of day two, it all felt like a breeze.
Our graveleer bubble quickly burst when we reached the lunch stop around midday and the hundreds of road riders started to arrive in waves. We'd not had speakers to play music to us on our lunch stops, nor had we seen so many people in clean white socks since the sign-up. I felt deeply grateful for having chosen the off-road route because it was a much more enjoyable experience to ride with less than 50 people and actually get to know them properly.
From the relaxed lunch stop, we all grouped together, roadies and graveleers, and started our slow last leg to Paris. This was, I’m not going to sugar coat it, the slowest section of the whole three-day ride as we kept stopping and starting all of the last 50ish kilometres - and frustrating as it was, it was great for a proper chat!
Rolling into Paris in a motorbike convoy, and catching the first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower was spectacular and it’s a feeling I will carry with me forever. I was told before the ride that some riders cry when they arrive, and I had thought this is an exaggeration…
Maybe it was just the relief of having made it, or the fact everything on the ride had been nearly perfect but I felt tearful myself. It felt almost surreal reflecting on the past days, the spectacular route that we had just covered and the people I got to share it with.
We all got medals at the finish, snapped a few photos and then it was time to ride the final couple kilometres to the hotel where we had a celebration.
Was it worth it?
It goes without saying that attending this kind of organised, multi-day cycling event is a privilege as it does not come cheap. But after having attended this one, I’ve realised how much more you do get when compared to doing a self-supported, or even a small friends-only group ride.
First of all, you get to meet amazing, and also, extremely talented people. Most of them are likely new acquaintances and as an introvert, I found this aspect quite nerve-wracking - but discovered it was really easy to connect with people. We all had our names on our rider numbers, making it super simple to address people even when you have as bad of a name memory as I do. It is also worth a mention that this ride wasn’t a sausage fest as about half of the gravel riders were women - a split that wasn’t so much the case in the road version of the ride.
The team behind organising the ride were helpful with any questions and organisational stuff whereas the ride leaders really made the ride the most memorable with their quirky (sometimes borderline offensive) jokes and great, caring personalities.
But the Hotchillee team were not the only interesting people. I most certainly planted seeds for new friendships and was in awe of the talent present at the ride. Michael Blann, whose perfect photography is featured in this article, was sprinting ahead of us tirelessly, only to stop for snapping great shots and then catch up with us again. In addition to the many Brits, there were people from Lithuania, France and South Africa in our group, and many of them were well-known figures in the cycling industry. If cycling is your lifestyle – or even more, a job – this kind of ride offers more than just another cycling experience, it is also great for meeting like-minded people.
Every day we only had to worry about getting to the start in time, having the route with us and eventually, making it to the finish. Everything else was organised for us. I never ran out of snacks or water and had my diet catered for at every lunch and dinner. The hotels we stayed at (especially in Paris) were great and at the stops, you could have a short massage to help loosen the hard-working muscles.
I also got to experience the Tour de France from a grandstand seating and ride the Tour de France Femmes course just before the women themselves, both of which were memorable and even historic experiences that would be hard to come by if you were travelling self-supported.
It’s not a completely stress-free trip as you do need to adhere to an organised schedule, but overall it is effortless to focus on the most important thing – riding your bike – in this kind of event.
I would thoroughly recommend the Hotchillee gravel edition to everyone who enjoys a sense of adventure, challenge and community. It is a luxury cycling event in which you're guaranteed to meet some fantastic people and ride past places that you would never see if you were riding in a big peloton - and I am sure that the gravel version will be an ever bigger success next year.
Hotchillee told me that they're working on an updated gravel route for the final day, allowing the gravel group to ride to Paris as much off-road as possible, and stay in the lovely graveleer bubble for longer.
You can sign up for the Hotchillee 2023 London-Paris ride from 2 August.
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I agree, Ian. Day two was definitely the best day - so many different surfaces some fast and some a bit slower. And it passed so quickly with great riding companions
As a rider on the event I can say it was good, with day 2 being my stand out day. With great riding fun descents, pizza and beer.made some great new friends . Well done to hot chillee for organising such a good 3 days.
A great write up and soo tempting...
A great write up and soo tempting...
A great write up and soo tempting...