Paris-Brest-Paris attempt 2015

Looking very sorry for myself in Brest
Looking very sorry for myself in Brest

Lets start with the worst bit – me sitting in the glorious sun on the lush grass under a magnificent tree at Brest sobbing my eyes out. Sometimes you don’t know just how much you have given to something until you let it slip away from you.

I had just handed in my timing chip to the controller with a single word, “Fini.” I don’t even know if that’s French, but it was pretty clear what it meant. He nodded and took my chip. Not five minutes earlier he had given me a bit of a look as I handed in my card. Yes, I was very near time-out wasn’t I?

I agreed. I’d spent the last couple of hours agreeing as I came in over The Roc, getting slower and slower, my resolve to continue being bleached out of me by the sun. Just over The Roc I’d seen lots of Audax UK folk who had started one or two hours in front of me now six or more hours ahead of me on the road. I waved cheerfully, but the wind was just gradually leaving my sails.

I’ve had plenty of time to relive the ride and it’s this section that I keep coming back to. The couple of hours where I went from just keeping going to a realisation that I didn’t want to continue.

Not that I couldn’t, that I didn’t want to.

It’s not easy to admit it now but I think I simply lacked courage.

But courage comes from somewhere – from a base of experience and a blast of audacity. And as I keep telling my testosterone saturated 10 year old son, mistakes are ok, that’s how we learn.

So, let me learn. Why did I get off my bike at Brest?

It’s hard

When I tell civilians that I ‘only’ rode 615km and that it was hard they look at me like this is a self-evident truth. But for properly hardened Audax folk and those who are looking to do it there are types of hard. Let’s have a look at why it was too hard for me this time.

Physical preparation not good enough

Due to a very bad wisdom tooth I didn’t even get out the blocks until late April. By that I mean I only had commuting miles in my legs since the Flatlands of the year before. Since then I had my qualifying – and rather flat – Essex SR and an additional 200 and 300 in the bank. On top of that maybe another 6 rides of 3/4 hours and 10 sessions on a Watt Bike at a Gym (brilliant, a story for another day).

In terms of outright distance that is ok, but there were about nil vertical metres in it. Also I am not long a ‘proper’ Audaxer by which I mean an SR bagger, I only have two SRs (Super Randonneur Series, a 200, 300, 400 and 600km ride in one year) to my name and none of the rides are hilly by any means – no Brian Chapman’s (a very tough 600km through Wales) or anything like that. I’ve been riding in the ‘easy’ bit of the Audax world.

Perhaps most telling of all was that I didn’t really commit to PBP until I qualified. I did want to qualify but I wasn’t sure I would until I did (you can get a glimpse of the terrible equivocation of which I am capable right there).

In comparison the other Kiwi in AUK, tippers kiwi who I see often out on the Essex circuit, had some early rides with the Essex Massive, some epically nasty wet and wild early season 200s, and a BCM under his belt. He’d done a proper long build up and it worked for him (go Nik!). Wilkyboy had 2xSR and some good early seasons rides and made it oh his Brompton and had been preparing for three years. Huggy had been targeting the ride for a long time and he made it. You get the picture.

So I was a bit undercooked. And a bit over weight. And a bit slow – I’ve never been that fast despite being very fast as a young racer man back in the – cough cough – eighties.

I also hadn’t, most crucially perhaps, done any rides which exposed my lack of fitness this year. So the hills of France totally caught me out. Yes I had looked at the profile and yes I know the hills aren’t steep, but I wasn’t ready for them and my average speed was not great. Even the first ‘fast’ 220km I only managed in 11 hours, I probably should have been around an hour faster if I was on form.

You can see this in the chart below – I am the black line, and this is position in the field. I start out near the bottom and then drop. This graph includes time in controls, which I took way too long in as well. The ‘waves’ are created as people drop positions sleeping or eating – that’s why I get a bump up (riding when a lot of people were sleeping) and then that drop.

position
(c) Jo Wood, 2015, giCentre, City University London

Controls

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Very polite early food stop. No indication of the carnage to come…

Each control has food, a mechanic, a doctor. Some have sleeping and showers. They are all spread out over several buildings and each time you get to one you have to figure out where everything is. This can be a bit of a challenge when you are very tired and there are a thousand cyclists around you wearing visibility tops – the whole thing looks like a sea of bright yellow.

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There are queues. It can take 30-45 minutes to get a meal finished. It’s very very easy to just get caught up in it. A stupid mistake I made was not wearing a watch, so time just slid by without me even registering it.

If I had reduced control time by a third I would have been more than three hours up on my time in Brest.

This graph shows ‘time in hand’, that is buffer that you have. Along the way people pretty much ignore your time but the goal is to get back to Paris in less than 90 hours. You can see the dip here when I take that sleep…

I w
I was meant to have 6-8 hrs in Brest, I ended up with one. (c) Jo Wood, 2015, giCentre, City University London”

Nutrition

For me there is also the ongoing difficulty of getting gluten free food – always a challenge in France and more so at 3am in the morning when you can hardly think. I ended up with some very strange meals and, on reflection, nowhere near enough carbs. Rice was ok, but pasta would have been a lot better!

There are options if you can eat anything – you can eat outside of controls in the day which is much much quicker. I am pretty sure that many thousands of crepes were downed by the road side.

Normally a diversion to a supermarket would help, something I do in the UK, as all UK supermarkets have decent GF sections. French supermarkets in towns have a small section which seems entirely devoted to rice cakes. Rice again. No good.

On top of this the energy bars available to buy in the controls are all oat based, a no no. So I couldn’t throw six bars in my back pocket and be set for the next 100k.

For reference I saw a rider I know who can’t eat gluten either. I asked him what he ate “The last two days I ate chips.” That would have meant about 10,000 calories of chips. That’s hard!

Sleep

I took a 3hr sleep in St Nic, it was too long at the speed I was riding. Looking at other finisher’s time in hand graphs you can see that they took less sleep than that – here is Wilkyboys:

wilkyboy
(c) Jo Wood, 2015, giCentre, City University London

I needed the longer sleep as I was beginning to see things and I had been awake for coming up to 32 hours at that point, with only two 15 minute catnaps for respite.

90 minutes would have been enough.

With less time in controls and 90 minutes less sleep I would have been six hours up in Brest.

Stage by stage

Ride – leg 1

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Looking fresh at the start

I was expecting the bolt out of the blocks at the start and wasn’t disappointed. Found a good group buzzing along around the 25kph mark which seemed like a good compromise between speed and sustainability and stuck with them until I needed a pee at about 50km. From there I hooked into occasional faster groups but already was finding myself riding in small groups.

I didn’t see any particularly bad riding, probably because I was being overtaken most of the time by young folk on their carbon bikes.

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The first roadside coffee stop was a delight. 3am and here was a hamlet that was giving away coffee. I knew it was going to happen but actually seeing it was awesome. And the coffee was appreciated very much. Passed a good few more of these all night, including one family in the middle of nowhere at about 4am. They were obviously not well off, there was a baby crying in a pram and a small child watching cartoons, but there they were, cigarettes dangling from mouths and handing out coffees.

A surprise was that there were people sleeping beside the road already – in the first night. The roadside was dotted with person-sized tinfoil packages and even the odd rider just lying in the grass with no covering. Brrrrrr. This didn’t seem like a good sign to me, but I am moderately well blessed by the sleep fairy and know I can do 24 hours straight. A small – displaced – feeling of smugness.

Got to the first stop, I was carrying food enough for 12 hours so I kept my time here down but even so I spent 30 minutes here when I thought it would be 10. A sign of things to come.

Hit the first control at 220km at 6pm. I had roughed out the first few controls with expected arrival times. I had this one down as 5-6am. I was already on the outside of my timing window.

My broad plan was to ride and a night and a day and then get as far through the next night as seemed humane and take a 3 hour sleep at Loudeac or St Nic (530km). Why 3 hours? I thought that is what my body would need at that point. I had done the last Flatlands on two naps (NOT intentionally) and felt thrashed at the end of it, I didn’t want to get to Brest and feel that bad.

Needless to say I spent too long at the control – at least an hour, maybe up to 90 minutes. Far far too long. My Coeliacs issue communicated with a laminated card. A shout back to the chef, potatoes and fish ok. Breakfast. What I wanted were some grains but I kinda knew that was going to be a tall order.

Leg 2

Back out into the foggy dawn. Colder than I expected, the moisture in the air really keeping the temperature down and fogging my glasses. The climb out of the control warmed me up soon enough (climbs out of controls are a theme of PBP it seems) and I played tag with a french threesome for an hour or so before riding on my own for the rest of the day. When I say on my own I mean constantly being overtaken by faster riders.

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At Fourges at 12 for lunch I got my cables adjusted by a very pleasant mechanic. The indexing on my 105 triple levers was just not something I have ever really got to grips with. It should be simple but for some reason I have never had as much trouble as with these levers. I would have gladly thrown them away at this point and traded for some bar end levers. May yet do that.

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After the mechanic I went into town and looked for a Carrefour I had marked on a map. In my addled state it was beginning to take some time to get things together and find the place. Then when I found it I made myself a mini feast but – no surprises – the only grains I could find were rice cakes. At least they had Yops (yoghurt milks). I had a pleasant if not particularly satisfying picnic near the town fountain. Again, a long stop, before heading off on the next leg.

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Leg 3

As the day drifted into afternoon the countryside really lit up. This was the prettiest section so far and the ride into Fourges was pleasant. I wasn’t tiring at this point at all. Yes there were hills but I was fine. I rode along with a SanFran randonneur for an hour or so, but otherwise rode by myself again.

4pm into Tinteniac, then back out into the late afternoon and a quick ride over to Quedillac at 389km, then another break before setting out again for the traditional ‘hill out of control’.

I was operating a ‘no display’ rule on my Garmin, that is I had the map and time and that was all. No speed, no distance, nothing like that. I also didn’t have a watch. My theory was that I would find my rhythm and just keep going – if I looked at a computer I was going to put myself under stress, so I didn’t bother.

This was fine but as I left Tinteniac and went to switch routes on my Garmin it just died. I’ve had this before, but only recently and it’s eihter the card or a recent ROM update. I wasn’t worried about the route – there were upwards of 8 arrows on any round about on the route! But I lost my time.

Night again soon enough. While I had at least known that I was losing time at controls now it all started to blur a bit. Tiredness was beginning to really kick in now. I was still ok on the bike – though I felt uncomfortably welded to my Brooks there was no particular pain. My hands were ok too.

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Quick catnap in a tinfoil bag, I actually can’t remember where this was!

So I got into Loudeac at sometime after nightfall, about 10pm. I was ready for a sleep but there was a queue. I went and had a meal which I shared with Sonomulent, good company. I realised that I hadn’t really seen a anyone I know on the road. Most of the Essex crew had started an hour before me and that effectively meant I would be lucky to see any of them.

It was odd to be riding with so many people and not actually have that many conversations. Probably my fault. But I didn’t talk much to people passing me and I wasn’t passing anyone from the earlier waves now.

Now I was cold. I didn’t want to stand in a line so instead I went and had a shower. This perked me up no end, even the rather spartan all-in thing didn’t worry me too much. Pulling on a merino base layer and then throwing a jacket on over the top I was toasty as I set out.

And as I rode out of the exit I fell in behind three of the Essex crew – Huggy, Rob Wall and another guy I didn’t know. Brilliant, I thought, here was the night-time company I needed. It was 11pm now, a few hours gentle riding to get to St Nic where I would have a decent sleep.

Leg 4

Unfortunately the landscape was against me here. The route here – I now know – takes a small country road with a jagged profile. I know now there are 4 or 5 small but testing climbs. In the dark, first time, without being able to see the tops and not having a Garmin that would show me how many lumps there were, it was impossible to know how long this would last. I clung on to the Essex boys, rapdily overheating, no one saying much.

This was a bit grim. Bodies were strewn by the road, people no doubt planning to sleep at Loudeac but who had given up just after and fallen asleep beside the road. The stream of people coming back from Brest was steady now, their extremely bright LED lights a constantly wearing eye-burn.

At some point Rob pulled off the road in front of me. I wasn’t stopping, I daren’t.

This was the most dangerous section. A jagged profile, either crawling up a hill and being bombed by returning riders, or the opposite. Demanding riding, narrow roads.

I took a moment at a T intersection for a drink and watched as a woman came into the stop, put her foot down and just fell over.

Nothing serious but in seconds there was a motorcycle there and people asking her if she was ok. Good to know!

At this point the leg flattened out considerably, which is just as well as I was beginning to hallucinate. Static shadows started to jump out into the road at me. Solid red lights began to strobe, but the king of them all was a collection of reflective road signs that became a 12 foot white rabbit. It really was time for a sleep.

Luckily St Nic had beds. It took a while to find the dorm, but once in I singed in for three hours. It was early morning now and I was conscious that I was drifting dangerously close to time, but I needed that sleep.

No sooner was I down and I was asleep in the camp stretcher, even the pathetic white ‘sheet’ which had no warmth at all couldn’t keep me awake. Apparently some people can’t sleep in dorms – I can!

So there I was, back out on the road at about 5AM. Too late really, but I felt better. There was no food I could really eat here but yoghurts and fruit. It wasn’t enough, I was beginning to hollow out. I wasn’t hungry and I wasn’t bonking but I was hollow and felt slow, really slow.

Leg 5

I felt slow, I was slow. I got into Carhaix (526km) at 8:25AM, officially out of time. No one would actually stop you and it would be impossible to tell from the brevet card if you were out of time or not as the start was spread out over 5 or 6 hours.

The ride over the hill to Brest, a mere 90km, took me over five hours. Even given there was a hill in the way this was bordering on pathetic.

It was a nice ride and watching everyone coming the other way was great. Watching the Velomobiles bombing down the hills was excellent.

I was watching for people I knew and got a shout around lunchtime from Nik. He had started with Tomsk one hour in front of me but now was around about 6 hours in front of my schedule. 6 hours, maybe 8.

This is Nik’s time in hand chart – he was riding with the very experienced Tomsk, and this is how it’s done:

tippers
(c) Jo Wood, 2015, giCentre, City University London

Extrapolating my current speed I could see that I was going to be close to time. This meant I would be chasing times all the way back. Even fresh and ready to go I had been losing time. I would have to do the return leg at the same speed or faster. ‘At the same speed’ sounds achievable, but that would be the same average speed. My average had been dropping and dropping, not helped by mucking about at controls and struggling to find food.

Dragging myself over the last small hills into Brest and over the magnificent bridge I was fighting a battle with myself. I knew I would be close to time or out of time, I knew it would be a hideous struggle, I knew I would be pretty much alone and I knew there wouldn’t be enough decent food.

The Mind Game

Audax varies for people. For some the challenge is purely physical – they can just bolt on a mindset and decide they will do it and they will get there one way or another, its just about time and suffering enough. These riders will tend towards over confidence, but usually they come out on top. If you can ride fast you can sleep more – here is the time in hand chart for Simon, a young Kiwi I met on the way – two decent sleeps!

Simon
(c) Jo Wood, 2015, giCentre, City University London

For others there is a big physical element (obviously!) but whether they can do it or not depends on managing their state of mind. These riders are less mentally ‘tough’ and tend to towards under confidence.

No doubt which I am. I have long been used to being ‘soft’ in cycling terms – I am generally overly sensitive, ‘receptive’ and my performance is often a lot more about my state of mind than the state of my body.

When I am left on my own I have a tendency to be pessimistic. I found that riding 45 hours without a decent conversational ‘reset’ was too long. I had a couple of conversations along the way, but in truth I found it quite a lonely event. There were cyclists everywhere but not that many to talk to. I am used to chipping away by myself for long events, even through the night alone, but on UK rides you tend to share more about the experience as you go, with people that you know a bit. This mental isolation really doesn’t suit me, and while I wouldn’t say I was a very social rider I do tend to have a better time and do better if I ride at least 50% of a ride in company, as a way of tempering my pessimism and continually getting ‘over myself’.

In this Audax closely resembles real life, only more so!

In fact Audax itself is part of my ongoing education in what is possible with good thinking. I never thought I would be able to do 300 or 400km, let alone 600, so I have to acknowledge that Audax has helped my overall mindset.

So, here I am back at the beginning, at the end of my ride, halfway through.

I managed to get back to Fountainbleu that night via the excellent french train system, and the train back was actually quite fun as there were plenty of us who hadn’t made the cut.

And – to put a positive spin on it – I recovered quickly and was able to spend a lovely few extra days with my family, not groaning in pain 🙂

Conclusions

I ‘tripled’ the errors on this one:

  1. Too slow. It’s clear from the graphs that I was well under the average when it came to overall speed. When you factored in the time spent in controls I was losing ground right from Villaine on. Too slow on the road AND too slow through controls.
  2. Not understanding time in hand properly. I didn’t really understand how PBP worked. Strangely I have never really had to worry too much about time and controls in the UK as I tend to ride flat rides and time is not much of an issue. My understanding of time in hand was a bit rudimentary.
  3. Gave up too easily. If I had seen that ‘time in hand’ graph above then I probably could have adjusted my mind set and got through at least another control or two. It’s clear that, while I was out of time leaving St Nic in fact I was slowly (very slowly) clawing time back, I just didn’t recognise it at the time.

Next time

So lessons for next time (or other rides 1000km and over):

  1. Faster. Obvious this I guess, do more hilly training. Qualifiers with proper hills in them. More riding. Being able to ride faster is an advantage in that you can gain more time, getting through controls faster the same. All in all speed is a huge advantage – if you have it.
  2. Mental trining. This is probably as much about experience as it is about training per se, but there has to be a way to improve my mindset. This is probably a benefit of having a training plan throughout the year. I have a tendency to blow plans like that out, perhaps sticking to something might help?
  3. Company. At least try to have a small clan. Things will fall apart fairly quickly, but riding with one or two others for at east half the ride would be a help. Who would put up with me?
  4. Bike and gear. I would consider the carbon race bike if I could get my hands comfortable enough on it. That could be as simple as carbon bars. Less gear (all year round in fact). But one really warm layer for off the bike – managing cold at night when stopped was a real issue, even in the 10-12 degrees of the ride. My Brooks was Ok but felt very very hard after 600km in a way it hadn’t so far this year – I felt welded to it. Would like to find a lighter saddle that would do – or just keep riding that brooks and experiment with loosening off the tension a little?!
  5. Food. Tough one this. Short of some kind of endurance/fat diet which I don’t want to do I am not sure that I can get enough of the right kind of Gluten Free food in transit. This might mean that I will have to couch up for a drop bag. If I knew that at Loudeac there was a stash of solid food that I could eat, a run of tasty bars to get me to Brest and back and then another meal that would set me up nicely. Basically I can ride with 200-250km worth of food without weighing myself down too much.

Bike and equipment notes

I am sure I don’t need to tell you how much anxiety can be deferred by tinkering with bikes. I got a secondhand Kinesis ATR Tripster about 6 weeks before PBP which took a while to sort out. The wheels I have for it are a bit heavy. But it is a great bike and supremely comfortable, the dead hand nerves I used to get after 200km are now not a problem at 600, whether that’s the titanium frame, the all-carbon forks or the 28c tyres it’s hard to tell – probably all three I guess.

Even with the number of carbon bikes in the AUK peloton increasing I was still surprised by the VAST numbers of riders who seemed to have the equipment, speed and attitude of sportive riders. Being continually passed by people who looked like they were out for a club run was disconcerting and a little demoralising.

You could certainly tell the UK riders and their colonial brethren – steel, carradices, you know the story.

While the Tripster is a lovely bike I would be tempted to do this on a good (comfortable!) carbon race bike next time. In four years time the market will be saturated with fast comfortable bikes of this ilk, so I might switch if I can afford it. Then again I might discover that the Tripster is perfectly good enough if my legs work harder!

The experience

This all makes it seem like a bad experience. Well failing was, but the rest was very good. There were boring bits (the whole two-day registration and start process for example) and riding through the night can get a bit tedious, but the event as a whole is a fantastically weird and wonderful beast.

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Guys watching the cyclists go by at ‘The Four Ways’. There was lots of this, with clapping.

You get used to seeing villages decorated with bicycles and ‘bon courage’ signs. People actually clap you for just riding along. Others set up their dinner by the road and watch and clap as they have an evening meal. There are great sights and scenery. You get used to road side stalls giving away coffee and water. It’s a kind of region-wide party.

The ony event I have ridden with even a taste of the spirit of PBP is the Dunwich Dynamo. The bars open through the middle of the night, the carnival atmosphere, the long strings of tail-lights into the distance have a flavour of PBP, but only a flavour. It’s hard to imagine people setting up stalls outside their houses for cyclists in the UK.

Other accounts

Volunteers

I also have to give a special shout out to the Volunteers. Two thousand people gave up days on end of their summer holidays to serve tired cyclists food, check their bikes, make sure they sleep, look at dodgy knees, wave them into controls, stamp cards and generally help out. Of course this is France, and this event has been going through their towns for decades so there is civic pride at stake, but even so – amazing!

Makes me think about doing some of that myself.

Final word

Goes to ‘DCLance’ off yacf forum:

“Just completing a 600k doesn’t mean that you can complete PBP. Even being DNF can have benefits if you can come back better prepared next time.”

Point one – that’s me. Point two – might be me in 2019!

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