This year marks the Centenary of the Royal British Legion (RBL) and in September the Legion ran its twenty-fifth Pedal to Paris (P2P). It’s not a race but an opportunity for enthusiastic cyclists to cover the 460km from London to the centre of Paris in just four days while supporting the charitable work of the RBL.

We assembled at Eltham Palace on Thursday 1 September 2021. It was the home of the Royal Army Educational Corps from 1948 but is now managed as a visitor attraction by English Heritage. Of about three hundred that signed-up about half withdrew or deferred to 2022 when France was placed on the Covid Amber List. On the day about 130 crossed the start line all sporting the latest RBL Cycling Jersey.

Close-up of historian Steve smiling at camera. Blue marquee tents and people with bikes behind on pavement. Trees in the background.

Final preparations at Eltham Palace in the new RBL logo jersey.

Day 1 – Eltham Palace to Dover

Up at 5.30am for the short walk from a hotel to Eltham Palace to collect registration paperwork, drop baggage and grab a bacon roll before the obligatory team photo. Then through Sidcup and out of London as a large peloton guided by experienced team captains. It was a bit chaotic but the early morning traffic was sympathetic and supportive. Breakfast was taken at the RBL Village at Aylesford. Once outside the M25, cyclists were allowed to free run to Dover.

I stopped briefly at Lenham, where a number of REME servicemen were buried following an incident at Charing, when a V1 Flying bomb hit 6 Guards Tank Brigade Workshop in 1944, a few days before the unit was to embark for Normandy. The hill outside Folkestone was the first big physical challenge. 97m up a 10% gradient and opportunity to seek out the very low gears. Cyclists arrived mid-afternoon at Dover. One managed to dislocate a shoulder somewhere en route and was evacuated to hospital. All paperwork was scrutinised and, for the first time in about 40 years, I had my passport stamped at Dover. Once ashore it was just a short ride to one of Calais’s historic forts where the bikes were secured overnight. The fort saw action in 1940 and later when elements of 79 Armoured Division supported 2 Canadian Corps in the assault at the end of September 1944.

Day 2 – Calais to Abbeville

Three pictures. From left to right, the first is a man in a green cycling jersey with back to camera looking at people lowering flags in front of a tall white memorial. The second picture is a man in blue, red and yellow cycling gear standing next to a recumbent bike on path outside. The last picture is a group of cyclists in red jerseys with medals around their necks posing in a group for a camera outside.

Paul Harding carrying the Standard for the Royal British Legion and later at Crecy with recumbent bike. He has ridden 24 of the 25 annual P2P events. The Ride Captains were distinguished by their red jerseys.

After speeches, cyclists headed out in three pelotons escorted by motorcycle outriders. For the next three days we ignored red traffic lights. All food and accommodation was pre-booked by the Legion and was mostly to a very good standard. Dan, the historian, gave several interesting talks about the Great War and highlighted the relevance to the route we were using. En route there was opportunity to talk to fellow cyclists despite travelling at speeds of up to 30km/h (a bit faster on the downhills). I met Paul and Alex, both of whom had served in REME. Next stop Crecy and then Abbeville, which was liberated by the Allies in late August 1944.

Day 3 – Abbeville to Beauvais

Probably the most challenging day riding through the Somme; bodies were beginning to ache! We stopped briefly at Auchy la Montagne where the village provided refreshments. It was liberated by 8 Armoured Brigade in 1944 and the village has not forgotten. They have looked after RBL cyclists for many years. The President of the RBL, Lieutenant General (Retired) Bashall, was presented with a silver cup to mark the twenty fifth P2P Ride.

The Legion are looking for a red phone box to give to the village and a carrier to get it there – please email [email protected] if you can help.

We were photographed throughout the event by an official photographer occasionally seen lurking in the grass at the side of the road. Late afternoon we arrived at Beauvais where another official ceremony of remembrance took place. The real challenge of the day was the COVID test which had to be witnessed online via an app! However, despite a few glitches everyone returned a negative and got the code necessary to allow their return to England.

Day 4 – Beauvais to Paris

In 1944-45, Beauvais was on Club Route – the 30 Corps route from the Normandy Beaches to beyond Bremen. The last day of cycling was just a couple of hills, a challenging descent to the River Seine, then along the roads into Paris (which isn’t flat). The weather was glorious for the final ascent over cobbles to the Arc de Triomphe. The Champs Élysée and Étoile are closed off for two cycling events, one of which is the P2P. Beers and medals all round then to the Eternal Flame for the final ceremony. Another privilege afforded the Legion. A quick change then a superb supper to mark the end of the event.

Two pictures. From left to right, the first is a man in a blue cyling jersey holding a bike above his head. Arc de Triopmhe in background. The second picture is a close-up of a circular golden medal with the Arc de Triomphe shape inside. Inscription reads " Pedal To Paris " at the top, and " 25th Anniversary " at the bottom. Blue ribbon on medal and dark blue pom pom next to medal.

A momentous celebration, 25 Anniversary Medal and Bleuet de France (a symbolic Cornflower, the French equivalent to the Poppy)

Two men in blue cycling jerseys hold the REME flag, which is blue with a red and yellow stripe running diagonally and a small logo in the top left corner. More people in ncycling jerseys in the background on the pavement.

Alex Thompson just happened to have a REME flag in his jersey pocket. 

The ride was managed by the RBL, supported by medics, maintainers and a small team of RBL employees to sort the food and accommodation. With the training, COVID paperwork and sponsorship sorted, cyclists could enjoy the event – everyone did.

The Legion does some tremendous work. Not only does it look after ex-servicemen but also it has, in the past, looked after those serving on operations. I remember getting my small parcel from them during the first Gulf War including a phone card and Frisbee! The gesture was much appreciated and demonstrated support for the troops at Christmas. Please give what you can this November.

There are still a few spots available for next year’s event!

Steve Colling, Corps Historian