Last week I cycled over 400km from London through the French countryside to Paris. Fast forward seven days and I have no regrets about my decision to leave the camera at home.
My 'holidays' revolve around photographic opportunities and therefore tend to involve a fair amount of hiking, walking, camping or all three. I can't remember the last time I packed a beach towel. I'm no stranger to strenuous activity but when I agreed to take part in this charity cycle ride it filled me with mild dread. I had never undertaken something as challenging as this before. The discomfort of spending eight hours a day in the saddle, risky September weather, my fitness levels, and the standard aches and pains were all factors that made me contemplate why this might be a good idea.
The romantic notion of cycling through sleepy Normandy villages with camera in tow was extremely tempting. Ultimately, however, practicality (and realism) won out. I figured I needed to give myself as much of an advantage as possible and shedding the extra weight of even the lightest camera gear was a wise move. When I wavered in my decision I reminded myself of the time I hiked Scafell Pike with a full backpack of gear and a tripod. I had no intention of suffering like that again, especially with the added misery of chafing - something I had been warned all too often about.
So over the course of the three days I made the compromise of using only my phone for any and all photos.
Less Shooting, More Pedalling
Day 1 began on the embankment in central London and took us through Hammersmith, Richmond Park, Esher and continuing south into the South Downs National Park. It was a distance of 140km and without a doubt the hardest of all the days. The hills were demoralising and such was my focus on grinding that it wasn't until we arrived exhausted and dejected in Portsmouth that I realised I had taken just one photo all day. At this point I was longing for a hot shower and a bed rather than my camera.
The overnight ferry arrived in Caen at around 6.30am and Day 2 covered 145km to the town of Évreux. This stretch took us through some of the most stunning villages I have seen. With great expanses of rural land, dilapidated farmhouses, and obligatory chapels, you would be mistaken for thinking you were on the set of a World War 2 movie. It was picture perfect. The beautiful town of Beaumont Le Roger was the highlight of the day, along with some dramatic sweeping descents.
The quiet country roads continued on Day 3 and seeing the sun rise over one of the many valleys made the whole thing feel like you were cycling through an impressionist painting. We took a short break about an hour into the day at the bottom of a hill where this road gracefully unfurled in front of us. It was the moment I missed having my camera the most. Even with a map finding places like this is tough and there will always be slight disappointment that I was unable to get a shot that did the scene justice.
There was a grit and determination in the group now that we were on the final stretch and had the shortest distance to travel - approximately 114km. However, it was the most physically painful day for me. A twinge in my left knee came and went; an intense pain in my right hamstring came and stayed. Many painkillers and repeated strappings later I cycled into Paris with my right leg cramping and seizing in comical fashion, but we made it to the Eiffel Tower as the sun began to set which was a terrific moment.
A Worthwhile Sacrifice
There were many times, especially on Days 2 and 3, when I would have loved to been able to stop and take photographs of the Normandy landscape. Or walk around the villages and communes, photographing the locals and their way of life. But practicality wins out on challenges like this. I have camera phone images of a successful trip which is infinitely better than having DSLR images of an unsuccessful trip. It was a lesson in the adage that the best camera for the job is the one that you happen to be carrying with you. And, believe it or not, sometimes photography doesn't always come first in my life!