Deal to London (via Cranbrook), UK
Number of Kilometers: 15,184
Number of Countries Crossed: 16 (China, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Italy, Switzerland, France, United Kingdom )
This is it! More than 1 year after leaving Shanghai, we finally made it to London. Our sharpest readers will have noticed that we were actually at Northbourne Park School (about 150 km from London) by November 23rd, 2013. True, this last leg of the journey was a tough one: the rain, cycling on the left-hand side of the road, the traffic around London and the terrifying Box Hill just before Croydon. Honestly, behind the Pamir section it was one of the steepest climbs we did on the entire trip and for all of you who have done it on your road bike imagine hauling an extra 55kg up there too!
As difficult as the last leg might have been, it did not take us 8 months to cycle 150 km. We did reach London on November 26th, just in time for the Yeomen warders to escort us into the Tower of London, for Oli to cry in front of all his family and friends and for Matthieu to hear at least five times in 30 minutes that the canons exhibited in the Tower had been taken from Napoléon at Waterloo. It was a combination of acute laziness and heavy agendas (now that we are back in the real world!) that kept us from publishing these last lines. And, unconsciously, perhaps we did not want our expedition to end. So this last article must start with an apology to our ever faithful (and still growing) readership for keeping you in the dark for so long.
We left Northbourne Park pumped up by the amazing welcome we received there, ready to enjoy our last few days riding through the gorgeous Kent countryside and the not so gorgeous London suburbs. After a lunch break in Canterbury (much to Matthieu’s disappointment, we could not stop in Sandwich for one last kebab), we headed towards Cranbrook, another one of Oli’s old schools, where we were expected to make a speech in front of the students. Said speech was beautifully executed by Oli, while Matthieu chatted with the rugby coach about all those crucial penalty kicks Oli used to miss back in the day.
We had a wonderful night at the Cresswell’s “house in the woods”, being filled with a hearty roast dinner and a few ales. Leaving our Eau de Road lingering in the living room we headed off for the penultimate day of the Road of Smiles. During eight months on the road, we often thought of the last day and what it would be like. As always with those long-awaited moments, it never happens as you thought it would. It had not yet sunk in quite what we had achieved. Would we miss being on the road, sleeping under the stars, free to roam? Would we want to do something like this again? Our quick emotional “this is it” moment on top of Box Hill was dampened by the necessities of time: we needed to reach London before it got dark.
One night at the Goulden family den in West London later, we climbed on our bicycles for the last time, direction Tower of London. One last fiery debate (“which has the best river banks, London or Paris?”), one last interaction with tricky locals (Matthieu got scammed with an old five-quid note), one last bro hug, and we reached Tower Bridge, where our last military escort of the journey was waiting for us. After having been kicked out of our hotel by Chinese special forces in Xinjiang, gone through countless military check points in Kyrgyzstan, been woken up by Tajik soldiers while camping along the Afghan border, interrogated by the police in Iran and arrested in Bosnia for not wearing helmets, we thought it was a quite fitting end to our story to be escorted into the tower by two (friendly, this time) royal guards.
The welcome committee, brought together by MC Goulden Sr., was impressive. Friends, family, Operation Smile London team, of course, but also a few special guests we had the immense privilege to count among the supporters to our cause: Sergeant Johnson Beharry VC, Lady Borwick, Deputy Mayor of London, and Charlie Elphicke, MP for Dover and Deal. A separate article will follow (hopefully not in 6 months!) with our list of credits for the expedition but to all present that day, thank you very much – you made a very special journey end in the most perfect way. Last but by no means least a thousand thanks to Grazzle Dazzle for putting together this amazing reception and to Mog for all the support – we both could not have finished without you.
For some reason, we both had a hard time keeping it together during the cocktail that followed our arrival. There are many theories on what made us crack in the end that day – some say it was the memories of the good, the bad and the ugly of our journey, others that seeing all those familiar faces again pushed us over or perhaps was it living the last moments of the two-man wolf pack? These were all immensely important to us but no, it was the prospect of saying goodbye to eating ice-cream all-day everyday once and for all. We will remember you Mr Whippy.