It’s not the title I had hoped to be writing, but I guess it’s the most accurate one. I’d never attempted an audax of more than 600km before, but as I’d finished the three 600s I’ve done with some time to spare, I felt confident, perhaps too confident, that I could complete the 1230km of Paris Brest Paris.
At the start
(There’s a gallery of my PBP 2015 photos here.)
It wasn’t particularly that I was unprepared, although admittedly I hadn’t studied the route or worked out a proper pace plan. I had however, given a lot of thought to clothing and equipment and ridden two 600s in case one of my earlier qualifiers hadn’t worked out. However, my training in the weeks leading up to the event consisted only of commuting – 74km twice a week. Family responsibilities occupied much of my time. I’d rarely been away from my wife and daughter for more than a couple of days and I knew I was going to miss them, so I tried to spend as much time with them as possible. Besides, having a young child is like taking on a part time job, where you are on call 24 hours a day. Asking my wife to take on my share of that for a week is enough of a favour, without insisting that she cover all the weekends leading up to it as well.
When registering for PBP I’d chosen the 90 hours “tourist” time limit, but been a bit slow off the mark, ending up with a 1845 start time, group M. I would’ve preferred to start earlier, giving me a chance to build up a time buffer before I needed to sleep. However, the advantage of going off later was that I had plenty of time to take photos of the many varieties of human-powered vehicles people were riding. Vintage bikes with plunger brakes, tandems, Bromptons, hand cycles, several kinds of recumbent and lozenge-shaped velomobiles. There was equal variety in the kinds of lights and luggage riders had and how they attached them. Great fun for a bike geek like me. More than 60 countries were represented and I’m ashamed to say that I could only recognise a handful of the flags shown on each bike’s frame label.
I was impatient to get going but, with only a couple of hours to my start, my stomach rebelled. I’m not sure if it was something I ate but I do have a delicate stomach at times. Anyway, I made repeated trips to the busy portaloos and, when the loo roll ran out, was very glad I’d taken Marcus Jackson-Baker’s advice to pack some of my own!
Disaster averted, I joined the 300-strong queue for my start and chatted to a Canadian chap about his wooden mudguards/fenders. The atmosphere as we set off was wonderful, people cheered, clapped and yelled “Allez vous” or “Courage”. I got the impression that it wasn’t just other cyclists and their relatives, but local people who had come along for the show. What I didn’t realise was that this support would continue at every town or village we passed through.
Progress into the countryside was swift but not frantic, smaller groups formed and broke up as people got into their rhythms or climbed at different speeds. I didn’t know anyone in my group, but chatted briefly with a few. It was a fairly warm evening, so I was wearing shorts and short sleeves along with the official reflective vest which would be mandatory after dark. To my surprise, I saw a group of cyclists from India wearing full length trousers, winter jackets and helmet covers. There were others who had even covered their faces, although the temperature was around twenty degrees C. I guess it shows that people need to acclimatise to temperature as well as distance. No doubt us northern European riders would struggle to ride in 40 degree heat that felt normal to others.
Before two hours had passed, about ten riders from group N caught us up. I was tempted to join them and benefit from drafting behind faster cyclists who had set off 15 minutes after my M group, but decided against it. I’ve learnt that there’s a comfortable pace for each individual which changes as the ride progresses. Not so fast that you’re sweating and getting out of breath, but not so slow that you get bored or cool down too much. Some people use a heart rate monitor to determine what that pace is, today I was going on feel. Either way, it seems to make a ride go better if you stay in that comfortable zone.
As the light began to fade I came across an Indian rider stood by the roadside examining his bike. I called out the usual, “You ok? Have you got what you need?”, to which he replied, “No, help!”. One of his pedals was coming loose and I was very pleased to have the 8mm allen key to fix it for him. Riding on, we chatted for a bit before I pressed on, keen to build up some sleep time. I didn’t see him again, but I hope his pedal stayed on and he had a good ride.
I now had my lights on but, as they were battery powered, I tried to conserve power by setting them to low when in groups, reserving the brightest setting for when descending. I had an Ixon IQ and Fenix LD22 on the front and a B&M toplight senso on the back. All take AA batteries as does my GPS. I normally feel like too much of an environmental criminal to use disposable batteries, but for PBP I had made an exception and used lithium ones for their long life. I hope to get dynamo lighting soon.
As I rode through a quiet village late at night I heard an unusual noise. For a moment thought there was a problem with my bike or part of my luggage was loose. Then I realised it was a man stood outside his house clapping! Children who had probably been sent to bed hours ago waved out of upstairs windows and a few had joined their parents outside to give us encouragement.
By the time I reached Mortagne-au-Perche it was after midnight and the car park was filled with bikes. I was a bit bewildered and it took me a minute or two to find a space to park. Inside I joined the queue for food, which was long, but moved quickly. I looked around anxiously for the control card-stamping desk and eventually asked another rider who explained that this stop was for food only. The first control wasn’t until 220km. Perhaps I should’ve done a bit more planning so I’d have known things like this! After some food and chatting I found a relatively quiet spot behind a display board and got an uncomfortable half hour’s sleep. I didn’t set an alarm thinking I’d be flexible on timing and with the noise and hard floor oversleeping was unlikely. Somehow I managed to spend nearly three hours faffing at Mortagne, which I knew I was far from efficient. At Villains la Juhel some hours later I was a bit quicker, but still managed breakfast and another nap.
Back on the road I soon had a visitation from the puncture fairy. Mildly frustrating, but soon fixed. I didn’t mind too much as the weather was good and the people were friendly. Many of the towns and villages had been decorated for the event, as if they weren’t picturesque enough already. Old bikes were spray painted in luminous colours or adorned with flowers. Small groups of supporters sat in garden chairs at the end of their drives calling “Courage!” or “Bonne route”. Some offered water, tea, coffee or cake.
One of the things I had intended to do when I first arrived in Paris was to send postcards to my family, but I’d forgotten to do this so I popped into a village shop and quickly chose three with pictures of Normandy chateaux. Unfortunately the shop was out of stamps and the local post office was shut at ten am on a Monday! At a larger town some local supporters kindly directed me to one that was open. None of this took much time, but I could easily have saved twenty minutes had I done it in advance.
At Fougeres things were relatively quiet and service was quick. I was always around other riders on the road, but had no idea whether there were large groups ahead or behind me. I ate well and wrote the post cards as my lunch went down. Feeling good, I got back on the road with 309km done – a quarter of the ride. However, aware that I had been far too much of a tourist so far, I “bounced” the control at Tinteneac; brevet card stamped and bottles refilled in about fifteen minutes.
People’s opinions of the hills varied depending on what they were used to. I found them long but not steep. I often got hot by the top of the climbs, but the descents were rarely difficult and I’d usually keep pedalling gently on the way down. I could certainly feel the distance by this stage and was going a bit slower than normal. When I reached the optional food stop at Quedillac I hastily decided to keep going to gain time for a proper rest later. It was 45km to Loudeac, which seemed quite manageable. A short while later a rider overtook me in the familiar orange and white stripes of Chippenham Wheelers. I hadn’t seen any of the others from my home club since the start, so I was keen to catch up for a chat. It was Sheni who, after a slow start, was riding strongly and planned to push on to St Nicholas to sleep. It felt good to ride a bit faster and I enjoyed comparing our experiences so far. However, I soon realised that I was riding faster than felt comfortable at that stage, so I eased off. Sheni also slowed down, possibly in sympathy or because he was also feeling the distance. It was now getting dark and the last ten kilometres to Loudeac became a struggle to keep the pedals turning. My wrists, neck and shoulders started aching. I urgently needed a rest and something to eat. I usually carry a chewy bar, dried fruit or a banana on any long ride, but I had neglected to stock up on these essentials. If I’d had a five minute breather and something sugary to eat at this stage, I think I would’ve been fine.
But I wasn’t fine. When we got to Loudeac around 9pm I was feeling achy, exhausted and couldn’t contemplate food. I sat in the canteen and tried to nap, but it wasn’t happening. Sheni arrived with his dinner and kindly offered me one of his drinks, but I didn’t feel like it. Maybe I should’ve tried it, but I was afraid I wouldn’t keep it down. He finished his meal and set off to do another 45km before bed. I was glad to hear later that he made it around within the time limit. After getting my card stamped, I found a bed, asking to be woken at 4am. I’m not really sure why I said 4am. I vaguely thought that this might not give me enough time to reach Carhaix before it officially closed. On the other hand, if I was giving up, why not sleep in late? I guess I was tired and indecisive.
I woke around 3, still tired but much more myself again. I calculated that, once I’d eaten breakfast and packed up I would have three hours to cover the 76km to Carhaix. That sort of speed would be no problem if I was feeling fresh, but at that moment it felt completely unrealistic. So I got myself a good breakfast and chewed over the idea of abandoning… packing… DNF… not something I’ve ever had to do in the last two and half years of audaxing. I was feeling better and better, but not like I could race to the next control. Even if I made it there I wouldn’t be left with much time to eat and rest before racing on to the next one. I had foolishly squandered too much time early on leaving no margin for error. Then I’d made a great big error by not eating for 140km! It’s one of those things that people who’ve done PBP warn you not to do – why hadn’t I listened? Well I suppose I had listened to a lot of advice and it had been very helpful. What to pack, how to train, how to get there and where to stay – all that had gone to plan. I’d been more concerned about the logistics of getting me and the bike to the start, with the right kit, than actually doing the ride.
I returned to the control room, handed in my timing chip and abandoned the randoneé. So what now? I could carry on to Brest at my own pace, making use of the controls and resting as required, but I wanted to be sure I’d get back to Paris in time to get a good night’s sleep in the hotel and for the train back to England the next morning. I could possibly get a train from Brest or Loudeac, but as I wasn’t injured I liked the idea of returning under my own steam, being self-sufficient.
So, feeling at least that I had a plan, I set off into the darkness, this time heading East, following the pink and blue Paris arrows. I saw plenty of bright white LEDs heading the other way and it took me a while to realise that they were from the 84-hour group, who had started on Monday morning.
Starting a ride when it is still dark is often unpleasant and takes a bit of extra effort, especially when riding alone. However, it all seems worthwhile when the sun comes up, revealing the countryside in a new light. Everything feels fresh and hopeful. Today was no exception. The sun filtered though the mist as it hung in silky waves over the fields. After the previous day’s crowds and excitement, the quiet was blissful. I took time to enjoy the peace and solitude, taking a few pictures, aware that my photographic skills wouldn’t do justice to the scenes.
After a few hours, I arrived at Quedillac and decided that I could definitely manage a hobbit-style second breakfast. The place was almost deserted, less than ten people including about three volunteers. I suppose most of them were taking a rest before the next waves of cyclists returned from Brest. One of the few others there was an American lady called Laurie who had started in my group. She was still on her way West and would probably be out of time, but like me was philosophical about not completing her first 1200km audax. Her aim was to reach Brest and enjoy the ride. We sat and chatted about cycling and life and taking time to build fitness for a good half an hour – the sort of time I might not have spent sitting still if I’d still been trying to keep to my vague schedule.
Making sure I kept a banana in my jersey pocket in case of hunger, I rode East in the sunshine, enjoying the scenery but feeling slightly guilty being cheered by people unaware of my significant shortcut. At Tinteneac the volunteers tried to helpfully wave me into the control, but I rode past calling “J’ai déja abandonné”. I’m not sure if that’s the best way to say it in French, but it was a phrase I was to repeat many times over the next few days and people seemed to understand. At some point on my return journey, I’m not sure where, near the top of a hill I spotted a very well-stocked table at the roadside. Home-made cakes, biscuits and, oh joy, crepes! In broken and breathless French I fessed up and explained my situation to the three children attending the food. It seemed I was still allowed to partake, so I helped myself to a crepe au sucre and dropped some coins into the donation bowl. Such a spread would’ve cost a fair bit to make. I did my best to make conversation with the kids, but to be honest I struggled. After I left I spent much time rehearsing French phrases as I rode in the hope I wouldn’t stumble over my words so much next time.
I arrived in the beautiful town of Villaine La Juhel late afternoon having covered about 230km that day. I wasn’t really sure what to do next. The basic eat-sleep-ride pattern was disrupted, so I just stood there, taking it in. I was soon awakened from my reverie as a volunteer blew his whistle; there were more riders coming in and they needed to clear the thoroughfare. I parked the bike and headed for some food. At this relatively quiet time volunteers of all ages were taking the chance to use the catering facilities. Someone spotted me as I wandered in and called “cycliste!”. Five people leapt aside and ushered me to the front of the queue. I was getting tired of explaining that I was really in no rush, so I sheepishly thanked them and enjoyed a good meal. After that I had a shower and slept for ten, yes ten, hours. The makeshift dormitory was a school music room, judging by the records on the walls, but it had thick mats and I had it to myself. I think some others came to catch a nap during the night, but by the time I woke up I was alone again.
Getting up I felt good and I only had a 90km day planned which would leave a 141km ride back to Paris for Thursday morning. As I rode I chatted to a few riders who were, in effect, 330km ahead of me. I found that how I felt about abandoning the randonneé changed depending on who I was speaking to. Those whose attitude was most relaxed, “Well, it’s still a nice ride” made me feel comfortable about it, but other who had an “Argh, what a shame!” response made me feel more disappointed in myself. Curious, and something I’ll bear in mind next time I meet someone else who has packed. By lunchtime I was most of the way through the day’s riding, so in Mamers I found an Italian cafe and had a large pizza and dessert. More than I’d usually eat in one go on a ride, but I figured I could ride gently if I had any digestive trouble. The town had an attractive square, but I wasn’t quite sure I liked the atmosphere away from the main PBP route. It was generally quiet, but I noticed groups of youths hanging around, apparently with not enough to do. Perhaps I was getting paranoid travelling alone, but I find it harder to read situations in foreign countries, even when I can speak a bit of the language.
So I got back on the road and before long I was back at Mortagne, where I took some time to watch the riders arriving, applaud and take photos. I caught up with some other club mates who were tired, but doing well and hoping to reach Paris that night. After a lazy, but sociable afternoon I went to find a bed. I was amused when the volunteer described me as “Ce petit jeune” – “this little youngster”, but explained that although I was 36, I probably look young due to being slight of build and having had much more sleep than everyone else.
The thin mat on the floor was not particularly comfortable and I appreciated having ear plugs and a buff to cover my eyes – I think someone took a flash photo at some point. Still, I got enough sleep to set me up for another pre-dawn start.
The next morning when I got on the road the main thing I noticed was that I was overtaking everyone. I wasn’t trying to, I was just going at what seemed like a comfortable pace. Of course it wasn’t really fair as I had done a shorter distance and probably had much more sleep, but I was surprised how much difference it made. The dawn was not as dramatic as the last time. The sky remained a dark grey and looked rather threatening. I chap called Alex introduced himself and asked if he minded if he chat to me to keep himself awake. I was happy to listen and learnt a few things about the Ukraine – his home country. I wasn’t aware that their flag – blue at the top and yellow underneath – represented the sky and wheat, the latter being the country’s major export. We rode together for a couple of hours, sharing a love of Campagnolo ergonomics and home-brew bicycle hacks. I admired his Garmin mount made from an old bottle cage as we stopped for free roadside soup – “Je vous remerci les Francais!”.
At one point we were passed by Steve Abraham clocking up the miles for his one-year time-trial. I was delighted that he looked around and gave me a big grin – he must’ve recognised my YACF forum name plate.
Alex and I parted ways at Dreux. He was meeting up with his team mates and I wanted to grab a quick bite to eat without cooling down too much. Having been really lucky with the weather, it was now raining persistently, so I didn’t want to hang around. I think it was as I was leaving Dreux, climbing a small hill, that I spotted a van wanting to turn into a side road across my path. In the UK, drivers can get a bit impatient in this situation, but he waited calmly. When I got out of the saddle to clear the road more quickly, he thumped his chest with his fist and mouthed the word “Courage!”. I was grinning for a while after that.
After another pleasant chat, this time with a British recumbent rider I was soon rolling along familiar roads into the outskirts of Paris. I was feeling strong and still overtaking people who had done the full distance with hardly a chance to close their eyes. Again I felt a bit guilty and got a couple of grumpy looks. I decided not to try and strike up any conversations.
Thanks Rip Xvor for this photo!
The mood at the finish was one of muted elation and relief. I left my bike in the parking lot, congratulated a couple of friends who had made the full distance and headed into the velodrome for paperwork and pasta. I couldn’t find anyone I knew, so ended up sitting with a couple of older French men who’d just finished the ride. I was pleased that by this time I’d remembered how to speak French and one of them spoke English to a similar standard, so we took it in turns. It was a great way to learn and I could’ve chatted with them all day. No doubt I made plenty of blunders, but also managed a few jokes. It was the first PBP for Jean-Claude, at age 68. His younger friend joked that it had been easy for him to train, being retired. I explained my failed attempt and enjoyable journey back, how kind the French public had been and the wonderful scenery that made a pleasant change from England. In the months leading up to Paris Brest Paris, all through the qualifying brevets, I had felt oddly unenthusiastic about it, but now I understood why it is so special. Like many I thought it would be a one-off, but even if I had completed the randoneé successfully, I think I’d still want to ride it again. It may be a big commitment, but if circumstances allow I do hope to come back in 2019 and do it properly.
Some other riders took much better photos than me, and here are some of them on various themes.
Strava Glamorous glossy-photos view:
US-rider’s amazing photos: