While Everesting, DIY gravel, and other solo challenges have caught the imagination of many cyclists, Jamie Wilkins recently completed a long-distance quest of another sort: He rode 440 miles across France to propose. (Spoiler alert: She said yes.)
I caught up with Wilkins after his ride from the Pyrenees in Southern France all the way north to Alençon, to ask about his choices of gear and nutrition, what problems if any he had, and how in the world this whole idea came about in the first place.
(Full disclosure, I used to work with Jamie at another cycling publisher, and was well-aware of his penchant for mega rides.)
First off, the why. Wilkins and his now-fiancée Kitt Blackman have been living together for some time in southern France where they operate the cycling tourism B&B Escape to the Pyrenees. Both are British.
“Kitt had been visiting back in the U.K. and then got stuck there because of COVID-19, so we hadn’t seen each other for five months,” Wilkins said. “Travel restrictions finally lifted last week so she could drive back out. It’s a long way so it needs at least one overnight stay and I wanted to see her sooner and help with the driving, so I thought I could ride north to meet her and maybe try to do so in one hit. We met in Alençon, 50km north of Le Mans. We arrived within minutes of each other and the sky cleared just in time.”
Okay, so that’s the logistics of how it happened, but what about the why of the whole idea?
“I only decided to propose at the end once I’d set off,” he said. “I’d had a different plan since the new year, but COVID put paid to that. Then I realized what a unique moment we were making and it was perfect. When a girl motivates you to ride over 700km, you know she’s special. It’s all I was thinking about as I rode.”
Prior to this odyssey, Wilkins’ longest ride had been 374km, done as training for this ride.
“I had five weeks to train after the lockdown ended, which is also about when I thought of this idea,” he said. “Before that, it was turbo [indoor trainer], and garden cyclocross.”
For food, Wilkins packed a small pantry worth in his various bags.
“Ridiculously, I took too much food! I set off with 15 large rice cakes (some leftover chicken and spinach risotto, plus bacon and egg ‘Feed Zone‘) but by the second day I couldn’t face another and they’d been out of the fridge a long time so I threw some away,” he said. “I also took a bag of dates (which I didn’t eat), 28 Snickers (yes, 28), plus a couple of caffeine gels and a tub of drink mix which took a lot of space but meant I could also drink carbs and have electrolytes too.”
Restocking on the road was a concern for Wilkins, as much of France shuts down after 8 p.m. He had read that cemeteries have drinking water taps, but discovered that those are locked up at night, too.
“I found a farm with a water pump right by the road at 10 p.m. and asked someone in a village for a refill at 1:30 a.m. as they were dropped off at their house just as I passed,” he said. “Lucky, really.”
Jamie Wilkins’ 440-mile proposal ride gear list
Bags: 8L seat bag, with a homemade support to stop it from swinging; 1L top tube bag against the seatpost for food, a smaller one against the stem with an auxiliary battery pack, and a couple of bars; 76projects Piggy toolbag strap-mounted between the bottles. 9 pockets (jersey, gilet, jacket) all stuffed at the start.
Lights: Light& Motion Stella 500 front light just made it through the night. I timed the battery on each mode at home but forgot to allow for it being colder. SeeSense strobes, 1 front for dusk/dawn, 2 rears plus a L&M rear.
Bike: 2015 Ridley Noah SL, ENVE 7.8s, SRM, Q-Rings, Schwalbe Pro One tubeless, ENVE Aero Road bar and TT extensions, S-Works Power saddle
Tools: mini-pump, CO2s, tubes, levers, chain tool, multi-tool, quick-link, valve extender, tubeless plugs, tube patches, zip ties, chain lube
Clothing and gear: Lots of my rides beforehand were spent going through all my favorite gear to find the absolute most comfortable. For example, I’ve always loved my Giro Empires but after seven hours on a training ride they began to hurt. I set off in: Verge custom Escape to the Pyrenees jersey and gilet, CHPT3 base layer, Sportful BodyFit Pro LTD bibshort, mitts and socks, Isadore knee warmers, Louis Garneau Course Airlite (2016) shoes, Ekoi Rain Stop gabba-type jacket (crap but hi-vis), Smith Pivlock glasses, MET Mantra helmet. In my bag I had Castelli Tempesta rain jacket and overshort (very grateful for both), Sportful long sleeve base layer, Castelli Lightness FF gloves, clear lens, USB charger and cables, baby wipes, face mask, Castelli winter headband, neck buff, extra chamois cream, ibuprofen, water purifying tablets, and compression leggings in a dry bag for after.
Problems on the road – and a rematch?
Per the spoiler alert, Jamie made it to Alençon, and Kitt said yes. So all’s well that ends well. But the journey wasn’t without its challenges.
“It rained about 20 times, so there were loads of stops to put on or remove a jacket, my feet were wet for nearly the whole thing (socks dry, shoes don’t), and I was wet through and cold all night, which sucked,” he said. “My knees started hurting a lot after about 12 hours. I had a puncture that sealant couldn’t fix, then a tubeless plug also failed, so I put a tube in. The valve extender didn’t fit well with my CO2 head or pump, though — it worked but was tricky. Then the valve extender somehow got bent and leaned slightly on the valve inside the rim, leaking air. I only realized this afterward. I thought I had two more punctures and lost loads of time battling this stupid problem, and probably lost more time riding a soft tire for ages. This alone makes me want to do something similar again just to have a less faffy run at it.”
Perhaps the second run could be for an anniversary celebration. Congratulations to the happy couple.