It wasn’t the first time I’d gone to Paris with the intention of riding the world’s oldest and most famous randonee. I set off in 2015 only to “pack”, as in pack it in, at Loudeac after less than 450km. When people ask why I tend to say, “I forgot to eat”. That was indeed the biggest mistake I made, but I also managed to faff around beforehand, spending three hours at the first feed station. By the time I found myself so hungry that I couldn’t eat until I’d rested, it was too late to recover the time.

My preparation for 2019 focused on avoiding those mistakes.

I drew up a spreadsheet and worked out how fast I expected to go on each section. Plenty of people told me that no one ever sticks to their plan, which I’ve no doubt is true, but at least I’d have some idea of how fast I needed to go. Others told me that obsessive planning would take all the pleasure out of the ride. For me, having a small sheet I can quickly refer to and know how far ahead or behind I am, makes things simpler and calmer. It also helped me to arrange meeting my father who was driving a support vehicle for me, providing fresh clothing, more interesting food options and moral support. Oddly, having a support car made packing more complicated, because the variety of things is possible to take is much greater. Things that may get me out of trouble or make me more comfortable, but that require more thought than a single saddle bag. Secondly I packed two top-tube bags with chewy bars for when other food was unavailable. There are many friendly locals offering food and drink along the route, but not necessarily at the right moment.

All this meticulous planning was almost for nothing when, with five days to go, I couldn’t find my passport. I turned the house upside down, checked the bags and clothing I used last time I travelled. I phoned the passport office to learn that the express replacement service could get me a new one in seven days if I went to Peterborough or Glasgow. Maybe it would arrive sooner, but no guarantees. Four years of waiting, planning, qualifying and training. I was upset and angry with no one to blame but myself. Slowly I began to accept that I wouldn’t be going. Then I checked one of the bags I’d looked in earlier and found it! Relief!

So after all this, when I finally reached the start line I felt relaxed. OK, maybe a little excited, but calm and ready to ride steadily. I was in an earlier group than last time. H has only two 90 hr groups ahead of it so I guessed there would be a lot of competitive riders going much faster than me. As long as I didn’t exhaust myself by trying to keep up with them I was confident I’d be able to stick with my plan to ride through the first night.

James in foreground wearing Mille Cymru jersey with many cyclists getting ready in the park
A small corner of the chaos before the start. Some 6000 riders were milling around trying to get ready.

The location of the start and finish at Rambouillet was in a large park in the edge of a forest. My group set off into the early evening sun. I waved as I passed my family and the crowds receded. We pedalled through the partial shade of the forest on quiet, smooth roads with only occasional words of encouragement from marshals. I remember 2015 being very sociable, but apart from some Finnish and Brazilian groups talking amongst themselves, no one spoke. Maybe I was in a more serious starting group and everyone was focused on getting a good start or perhaps some of the foreign riders weren’t confident about speaking English. I’d learnt to say “hello” in a few languages, but didn’t get much response until later in the ride.
After an hour I started to notice riders from the starting groups ahead and behind – G and I. I thought I’d been going fairly fast, but the I group riders must have done the same distance as me but fifteen minutes faster! I thought that was a good reason not to try to follow them and wondered how long they’d keep that pace up. I had made an optimistic “fast” plan as well as a more realistic “slow” plan. The average speeds and times I had to leave each control were on a small sheet on my handlebars.

Handlebar mount with GPS and event plan sheet
My GPS with French maps and blue line to follow. Also the minimal event plan sheet which helped me stay on track.

It was 118km to Mortagne Au Perche so, although it is not a control on the way out, it is a useful place to get food. However I decided that if there were long queues I would get back in the bike and eat something from my well stocked bags. Luckily there was no need to wait and within minutes I had a good sized meal. There were certainly advantages to being ahead of the “bulge”. In about half an hour I was back in the bike and taking it a little slower as planned. I was cheered and delighted by the support from the French public and the displays in the villages we passed through. Most had old bicycles painted in bright colours, some even had full glowing bicycles attached high up on lamp posts. Simple enough things, but they made me smile. I went through Villaines La Juhel fairly quickly and onto Tinteniac for a longer rest where I was meeting with my father. It was good to have someone to chat with and relate my experiences so far. He also provided little luxuries like fresh socks and a full phone charge. Though it’s fair to say the main reason to use my phone was to keep in touch with him for the next rendezvous.

By the time I reached Loudeac I knew I was doing much better than my last attempt. Not only was it much earlier in the day, but I felt capable of eating, not that terrible bonked feeling that should be avoided at all costs. I changed to a fresh and apparently identical pair of shorts and soon suffered from chafing on my thigh. I still don’t know why this happened, but the little sachets of chamois cream my wife had given me were a life saver!

I rode on to unfamiliar roads. Although I was tending to slip behind the fast plan, I still dared to believe I might make Brest that night to reward myself with as much sleep as I could afford. I chatted briefly with a few people along the way. Somehow I ended up discussing power generation with a Swiss guy. He told me that the Swiss were more intelligent about it than the French because they used hydro electric dams to manage demand. I suggested it wasn’t so much intelligence but geography that allowed this. Sometime that afternoon I passed the house of a French family who were standing outside and called “Gateaux de Maison!” – Home-made cake. The cake I discovered was made with yoghurt and quite refreshing. I stopped for a few minutes to chat as I’d started to remember how to speak French – at least with a fair bit of gesticulation and lengthy explanations to get around the vocabulary I was lacking. They wanted no payment, but I contributed a few coins, partly to make myself lighter, if I’m completely honest. I was handed a slip of paper with their address on it, so that I could write a postcard to them when I returned home. A promise I still have to fulfil.

French camily with spread of cakes and drinks outside their house

Several hours later, on reaching Carhaix I had a full meal. I was surprised to see the control canteen selling bottles of wine and beer. Each to their own, but that was the last thing I wanted at that moment. I tried to be friendly and show off my language skills when an older German chap sat down next to me. I asked “Wie gehts?” to which he responded with a dour monologue. Unfortunately German is not as good as my French and I couldn’t understand a word. When he paused for breath I admitted this and we had a laugh and a nice chat in English.

The next stage to Brest was long, dark and lonely. It got colder than I had expected and I stopped a few times to add more layers of clothing. My gears started playing up. This wasn’t an entirely new problem. I’ve had the electronic SRAM eTap since January and on my 600km qualifier the rear dérailleur had twice refused to shift for a period of about twenty seconds. Rather than attempt an uncertain warranty return at short notice before PBP I had decided to put up with the very occasional annoyance. Now it seemed to be happening more often. Equally unnerving, my GPS twice switched itself off without warning, despite having relatively fresh batteries. It came back on, but made me wary. Much of the ride seemed to be in a deeply wooded valley, though I could hardly tell in the dark. All this and tiredness added to a growing sense of unease. When someone called “Bravo!” out of the darkness I nearly jumped with fright as I’d thought there was no one nearby. Eventually, after a very long very gentle climb, I reached the top of Le Roc, after which I knew I’d have a long descent. It was great to get free speed for so long, but it was also rather cold. I kept pedalling in a high gear more to keep warm than to go faster. It was encouraging to see the lights of Brest, but the GPS told me I still had a fair way to go before bed. As I entered the town navigation suddenly got harder and the wonderful reflective arrows that had guided me so far also disappeared. Perhaps they are more likely to be tampered with in urban areas like Brest. I was grateful to have a GPS track to follow as a backup or I may have been wandering around for a while.

Both my plans had me stopping at Brest for six hours, but I’d arrived about three hours later than the fast plan which I wanted to stick with in the hope of finishing on Wednesday evening. Either way I was very glad to have made it so far before sleep – a record for me that took its toll physically, but put me in a good place the next day. After three hours in a proper bed I felt a lot better. Sure, I could’ve easily slept for another seven hours, but I couldn’t have made that time up on the road.

James in bike park with baselayer over jersey sunblock on nose and buff over hair
The morning after the night before. Ready to leave Brest after 3 hours sleep

The day was bright and cold as I set off into the rising sun with a few others. The long gentle climb was a pleasant way to warm up. The town of Sizun was full of fun as promised and I paused for an apple pastry and a moment to take in the atmosphere. Clearly the effects of tiredness were starting to catch up with people. I saw riders napping beside the road wrapped in space blankets. I know those things are hard to repack, especially when tired, but I was appalled by how many of them had been abandoned, littering the countryside. At some point in the rolling hills I caught up with a couple from the USA on a tandem. I found out that like my wife and I, they had done their honeymoon on a tandem. In their case when they completed PBP in 2011. This seemed like a funny coincidence as it was my wife and my anniversary that day. My wife Erica is very understanding about my cycling – I had texted her first thing and our daughter had given her my card. I asked if the tandem couple minded me drafting and they said they didn’t mind but appreciated me asking. This worked well for me on the flat, but when the road dipped down I had to pedal quite hard to keep up. Once they both tucked in and stopped pedalling I was spinning out in my highest gear and still couldn’t keep up. This was fast and good fun but I soon realised a very silly idea during such a long ride. The effort soon made my legs ache and I felt sluggish for some time. I should know better, but sometimes it’s tempting after plodding for so long!

Lively town with church spire and apple tart held in foreground
Sizun was nice and full of life. I stopped for an apple tart and to enjoy the atmosphere a moment.

Even before this excessive effort I found myself unable keep up with the average speeds I’d set myself. I knew that simply trying harder wouldn’t be sustainable, so I tried taking shorter breaks at each control. I ate my own food instead of getting some at Carhaix and bounced through the secret control in the attractive town of St Nicholas. At Loudeac I was meeting my father again, so I messaged him with some food requests. In general food had been much easier to find this time, so I left the second top-tube bag with him as I had plenty of cereal bars spare. Oddly it had been impossible to get a cheese sandwich at any of the controls but Dad went out and bought a nice piece of fromage. He also found me a great falafel salad which was a welcome change from pastries and bread. The troublesome shorts were swapped to a third pair which seemed a bit better, but I still needed to apply the chamois cream at regular intervals. I continued through Tinteniac with the strategy of short stops. Although I felt OK I was getting further behind the fast plan.

Rider sleeping on bench under a space blanket in front of maize field
A rather typical scene at certain points in the ride.

I arrived at Fougeres in the small hours nearly three hours behind. At this point I probably should’ve found a bed and got a good sleep, but instead I took a couple of twenty minute naps in the canteen with my head resting on the table. I think this decision is what made the next 70km to Villaines-La-Juhel the toughest of the whole ride for me. I had eaten plenty, but not had much chance to recover. Setting off into the dark is hard mentally, especially with so far still to go. I’m lucky not to suffer from falling asleep when riding, but I do find myself getting slower as tiredness accumulated. As I rode the temperature dropped and soon I was wearing every bit of clothing I’d brought including a thin balaclava, leg and arm-warmers, a base layer and waterproof jacket. My hands were painfully cold despite full-fingered gloves. I hadn’t brought my winter gloves because well, it’s August in France. I’m only guessing, but it felt like less than five degrees centigrade. I think I had sun or wind-burnt my lips at some point because they were now rather painful and as my nose was running in the cold, breathing was uncomfortable. To make matters worse my electronic gears deteriorated further. The rear dérailleur would refuse to shift for minutes at a time, causing me much frustration. At some point I realised that going over a bump seemed to temporarily wake it up, so I would aim for whatever tiny pothole I could find in the otherwise smooth French roads. It was probably just as well that I rode this section in solitary as I would’ve moaned at whoever would listen. Once the sun came up the temperature finally rose a little and I found a patisserie to further cheer myself up.

By the time I reached Villaines I had realised that a Wednesday evening finish was no longer realistic. I had hoped my family would be able to greet me at the arrivee, which would be difficult if I arrived after dark. Now that my ETA was looking rather late there was no point rushing. I could get some sleep on the way back and finish on Thursday morning. With this decision made I relaxed and took a long rest in a town square at Villaines, while my father and a friendly Dutch cyclist puzzled over what to do about my malfunctioning gears. We managed to shift into the third largest sprocket after which I removed the battery from the rear dérailleur to prevent any accidental shifts. I could still use the front dérailleur, giving me two gears. A low one good for most climbs with occasional standing and a higher one good for the flats. That was fine as long as I didn’t mind spinning the pedals really fast as my speed increased. I was no longer frustrated by this, but accepted it philosophically remembering that plenty of riders were on fixed gear bikes. Like a few others the Dutch chap disliked my heavy Schwalbe Greenguard tyres. They are a bit chunky and in theory roll more slowly, giving a harsher ride than typical randonneur tyres. The advantage is far fewer punctures, which on a long ride can be utterly demoralising as well as time-consuming. I had discussed the pros and cons at length with my cycling buddy Nick and we both eventually settled on the reliable option. I may have had some disapproving looks, but I’m happy to report no visitations from the puncture fairy!

Colourful bikes arranged in a pyramid up a post with a sign giving the distance to the finish
One of the many colourful displays found in many villages along the route

Now with about 200km back to Paris and 160km until I planned to sleep, the ride seemed more manageable, but another worry surfaced. My right Achilles tendon started twanging. It was only occasionally painful, mostly uncomfortable. I normally point my toes down a bit as I pedal but I found that keeping my foot more level seemed to help. I crossed my fingers that it wouldn’t get any worse. Somewhere along the road I met a cyclist called Antonia who’s a police officer from South West England. We chatted for a few hours about jobs and kids and a bit about cycling. It was great to have some company and the distance seemed to go quickly. After a while I struggled to keep up. I’d like to claim it was my limited gear range, but I suspect the lack of sleep and sprinting after a tandem the day before was more to blame. As she was planning to finish late that night, we said goodbye and I plodded on alone. As I approached Mortagne the road became hillier. This gave some nice views, but also meant I had to stand up on the pedals for the steeper parts. I had mixed feelings about this. It’s tiring for the legs, but gives a bit of relief for the bottom.

At Mortagne I met my Dad again. He congratulated me on how well I was doing. He was right, it was a whole lot better than four years ago! I may have had to give up the fast plan, but I always knew that would be ambitious for me. I never like to think that a ride is in the bag until I’m within walking distance. There are so many small things that could go wrong. It did feel like the end was finally in sight and I had plenty of time. The control was busy and I guessed a lot of people there were aiming to finish that night. After stamping my card, I took the time to brush my teeth, something I’d tried to keep doing regularly, just to feel a bit more comfortable. I found a quiet patch of grass and lay down for a short nap. Someone told me that the next twenty kilometres were hilly but after that it was flat. This turned out to be right. Some of the climbs went on a long time but none were as steep as those I’m used to in Wales and South West England. PBP is certainly tandem, fixed-gear and broken gear-friendly! The surface was variable on the way to the final control. I’d become rather bump-averse by this stage and while the flat gradient allowed consistent progress it meant fewer chances to get out of the saddle and the associated relief. This was a minor gripe however; I was feeling fine. I passed through woodland and fields with the sun setting slowly behind me. It wasn’t far to Dreux, but I was so looking forward to food and sleep that it seemed to drag on forever. Some company would have been good, but there was no one nearby. When I paused for a moment a group shot past, but too fast for me.

On reaching Dreux I was once again tired and a bit cold. Perhaps after some food I could have pushed on to Paris that night, but my mind was made up. I knew I’d enjoy finishing much more in the daylight and after sleep. I didn’t want a heavy meat dish, so settled for a pasta salad and one of the famous Paris Brest pastries. I thought maybe it was premature to have one, but I had at least been to Brest this time. To be honest the pastry was a little disappointing. More soggy sponge with a faint coffee flavour. I had been concerned that I might struggle to find space to sleep, but when I headed for the vast gymnasium only a handful of beds had been taken. It was cold, so I slept in my clothes and used a travel towel as a blanket. I hadn’t had time for a shower so it was at least dry. I shivered through the night, waking several times. When I got up just before 7am the hall was full of snoring cyclists. Seemed I’d timed it right.

Flat stubble fields with small church in the distance
In the interests of honesty, I should point out… A fair bit of the scenery was like this. Flat, but not very interesting to look at.

I could tell it was going to be a hot day, but heading out it was still really cold, so once again I wrapped up well and gradually peeled off layers over the next hour. The roads were busy now with many small groups of cyclists making a final effort to get to the finish. It was my last chance to say hello to strangers, so I tried my best. I was pleased to get some “Konichiwa’s” in return. I didn’t think my restless six hours in the hall would’ve helped me recover much, but I found myself overtaking others more than usual, so maybe I was fresher than I thought.

Hall crowded with cyclists eating breakfast at Dreux
Breakfast at Dreux on the last day. A strange combination of weariness and excitement.

The last section was a gentle ride through the forest of Rambouillet. I thought how much nicer it was in dappled sunlight than pitch black darkness. I caught a fairly large group and chatted briefly with a couple of people from the North of England. Time passed quickly again and suddenly we were back in the park which cruelly included cobbles at the gate. We’d had very little roadside support that morning, but now we passed plenty of people who had already finished, along with their supporters, so the atmosphere became more lively. Shortly before I got to the finish line I met my wife, daughter and father and stopped for a wonderful hug and photo. Only a few pedal strokes more and it was over.

Erica James and Sasha together, James still astride the bike. Campervans in the background.
A lovely reunion (almost) at the finish.

I was delighted to have finished on time. Not everything had gone right, but it seldom does on such a long ride. There are a few things I would do differently, such as deciding when to sleep. I’ve realised long distance riding is not like other holidays. How well it goes is down to each individual along with a fair bit of luck. If you don’t enjoy it or feel you got what you wanted you can’t complain or ask for your money back. I don’t know yet whether I’ll ride Paris Brest Paris again. I’m going to take some time off the bike to think about the next adventure as well as whether I really want to use electronic gears. For now I’m grateful to have had the chance to experience both failure and success.

My full set of Paris Brest Paris photos are here.

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4 Comments

  1. To repeat myself well done James an excellent ride. Rather a shame about your gears, though you did overcome the challenge. Don’t have that problem on fixed though, mind I’m pretty sure on fixed or gears it’s not something I’d have the ability to qualify, never mind ride it. Excellent ride and an interesting ride report!

    1. Thanks Mike. I did sometimes wonder about the simplicity of fixed, though my knees might not take it.

      Also, I’ve seen your rides and think you’d be capable of PBP if you were minded to qualify.

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