The Highs and Lows of Cycling from London to Paris with Parkinson’s Disease

The training was complete, the bags were packed, the alarm had gone off and it was 4.45am on Wednesday 8th May 2013. We were heading off to Crystal Palace, London for the start of our first long distance cycle ride from London to Paris. Here is how we got on….

Day 1 Wednesday 8th May 

We were ready for the off. All 140 cyclists gathered in the pouring rain in a very grey, chilly Crystal Palace car park for our first briefing. The most important item on the agenda was the route. Follow the pink arrows all the way to the ferry! Last check of the bike and we were in the saddle fighting with the early London traffic. Everyone was excited and keen to get going.

It didn’t take long and we were out in the countryside and well on our way. Everyone was completely drenched by the first water stop and so the rest was a brief one! The route was well marked and the rain began to stop so feeling good. Katharine, my partner in crime had a surprise visit from her family and they cheered us off after lunch!

All the training was paying off, happy with our pace, certainly not the slowest and easily managing the hills. Even a road closure on the marked route and a puncture successfully repaired didn’t throw us for long and we made the holding area just outside Dover with plenty of time to spare.

Our first hurdle was unfortunate admin chaos at Dover, but after a fairly chilly, longish wait at the ferry terminal, we eventually sailed over to Calais and finished the day with a five mile cycle uphill to our first hotel. ‘Uphill to the hotel’ became a familiar phrase by the end of the ride!!

Day 2 Thursday 9th May

Alarm set early and our first briefing in France.

Much anticipation for an easier day, as earlier memories of Northern France were of flat, slightly undulating terrain…how ill informed can one be! The first 27 miles to the first water stop were a mixture of long, gently rising hills and steep uphills and freefall down repeated time after time!

Everyone was ready for yet another cereal bar provided at the water stops! Jelly Babies were an occasional treat! Lunch at 51 miles didn’t come too soon but the weather was glorious and the countryside a stunning combination of golden yellow and luscious green.

Feeling quite chuffed with ourselves by lunchtime, having conquered all the hills, we enjoyed an hour in the sun getting to know some of the other cyclists, trying to match faces to Facebook posts we had read before the ride and generally absorbing the experience. Only 25 miles left and a couple of hills and we would be at our hotel.

Our hill technique was quite well rehearsed as many of our training rides were spent around the Chiltern Hills. Stopping, taking some fluid and catching our breath enabled us to be back in the saddle within seconds and walking was not an option! Hills therefore didn’t really phase us and on arrival at a long, meandering, steepish hill, we began to tackle it just as we had earlier in the day.

My Parkinson’s had not raised it’s ugly head so far on the trip but this particular hill was to be more challenging than most. I realised that a quick pause every so often would get me to the top in comfort but my legs were not going to comply with any cleat release.! Fatigue kicked in and however hard I tried, I could not release my cleats. The choice was therefore fall down or keep pedalling. With the tears beginning to flow, I did manage to keep pedalling and stayed on two wheels but falling off wasn’t too far away!

Day 3 Friday 10th May

Another morning and another beautifully picturesque start to the day, along narrow traffic free lanes; an opportunity to chat and enjoy each other’s company.

 The weather forecast was mild with light showers so some were surprised by the heavy rain that arrived mid morning and continued over lunch. Much shivering was done around the food tent and lunch became a brief, fairly unsociable affair.

Once back in the saddle, having found an extra dry layer and some warm dry gloves lurking in my bike bag, we set off. The weather dried up a little and we ended the day riding around the ring road of a large town and on into an out of town shopping complex to our hotel. Fearing the worst, we were delighted to find comfortable rooms with a very welcome bath and good food.
The evening turned out to be less enjoyable. Unfortunately contorted involuntary movements (Dyskinesia) can be a side effect of Parkinson’s medication and people with Parkinson’s can appear to be over animated and ‘dance’ in their seats. I personally had only experienced this mildly before to the amusement of my children’s friends. This evening however I found I was moving much more than I had ever done previously and was exhausted as my already tired limbs moved without my control. I decided to miss my usual evening medication for fear of exacerbating an already distressing situation and with huge relief, gave my excuses after dinner and crashed into bed.

Day 4 Saturday 11th May

Our final day, only 55 miles to The Eiffel Tower and what should have been a morning filled with excitement and anticipation.
I was surprised when I woke to find my previous day’s writhing and rolling was still much evident and as we left en route to Paris on much busier roads with faster, less forgiving traffic, my anxieties rose.

I could see that I was not as stable as normal in the saddle and my control of the bike not so smooth. Small involuntary movements seemed to be magnified and maintaining the handlebars in a straight position was proving to be quite tricky. I rarely use my disease as an excuse but at this very moment in time I was angry that the disease was adversely affecting my ability to ride safely and confidently and I was feeling vulnerable. Katherine Parker, my friend and team-mate was fabulous. She sensed things were up and offered occasional words of encouragement without patronising me, sensing that I was the only one who could work this through.

With the tears this time rolling quickly down my face, I decided that it might be worth trying to incorporate this rocking motion into my ride and sprint fast…and that’s what we did all morning to the first water stop. Katharine was amazing and sprinted with me. We raced up hills sometimes at 20miles/hr passing walkers and riders of both sexes. We rested for breath occasionally and went for it again! It worked and through riding fast and foregoing another of my regular drugs, we arrived at lunch with only one fall courtesy of another failed cleat release!

The combination of riding fast and missing some medication did result in less rocking and rolling, but I was increasingly aware that the inability to reliably release my cleats was ever present. I had a near miss with a French driver who decided to try and floor me by turning right across my path. With increased traffic and plenty of junctions and traffic lights, efficient cleat release was imperative.

During lunch I decided to ride the last 11 miles cleat free and two gents whose names I unfortunately can’t recall but whom I will always remember, found their tools and removed my cleats from my shoes. The remainder of the ride was so much more enjoyable and we reached our final get together point 3 miles from the Eiffel Tower with emotions running high and excitement rising.
The plan was to cycle together escorted by the Skyline staff and the support vehicles. (accompanied by the now familiar Best Songs of Billy Joel!) It was an incredible sight seeing all 140 of us in our matching blue T Shirts cycling the next 3 miles together along the Champs-Elysees, around the Arc de Triomphe and onto the Eiffel Tower. The atmosphere was brilliant.

 Everyone was so pleased to be there and proud of our achievements. Many of our family and friends were waiting for us at the Tower and we proudly held our bikes aloft for the traditional ‘I Did It’ Photos.

Everyone who took part in the ride had their own very special reason for being there and so much money was raised for many hugely important charities. We have raised over £12,000 for The Cure Parkinson’s Trust and I cannot thank all our supporters enough for all they did to help us raise such an amazing amount.

Our ultimate aim was to raise awareness for a disease which affects around 170,000 people in the UK for which currently there is no cure. I hope we have achieved a little of that through our ride.

During the ride I was touched and humbled by so many of the riders who kindly told me how they had found my story both encouraging and inspirational. I was so lucky to share such an experience with a fantastic group of people and a very special friend, Katharine Parker and would encourage anyone who feels up for a challenge to give it a go.

I am taking part in a clinical trial looking at the long term benefits of exercise on the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease and I am certain that my training and participation in this ride has alleviated my symptoms quite significantly. I hope to continue cycling for many years to come and hope the benefits I have felt continue to delay the progress of my disease.

Rachel Gibson