PBP makes me cry (again)
Four years ago I had let it all get to me and I surprised myself by bursting into tears at Brest moments after I abandoned.
This year I was properly tired and emotional and had a bit of a weep but for an entirely different reason.
Beauty and wonder.
It was after I had left Villaines on the return leg. Villaines where they treat even middle aged hacks like myself with the utmost respect, with claps and cheers and Chapeaus! In the UK we usually just get mocked, shunted off the road and spat on.
As I rolled high on the ups and downs of the rollers out of Villaines I was suddenly struck by what I was doing. This was not a facsimile of an event, like Etape, this was the actual oldest running cycling event and I was actually doing it. For a boy from the colonies who used to read the shop copy of International Cycle Sport months after it was shipped to NZ, who grew up feasting on the impossibility of European cycling, being involved directly was bringing a tear to my eye. An event older than the TdF, and, unlike the TdF, open to the amateur cyclo-touriste. Anyone with the qualification rides and the courage to enter could do this, even me.
Also the support. Every five k on this leg there are people on the side of the road offering you something, water, coffee, pastries. The people of PBP, all volunteers, are incredibly generous. They are patient with me and my cudgeling of basic French, they wait while my tired mind works out what to eat and drops coins over the table. Hundreds and hundreds stand by the roads shouting, clapping, urging us on. Someone estimated 10,000 in all. I recognise people on the way back who where there two days before.
On this stretch of road there is free l’eau and cafe every five kilometres, just because they want to be involved. You want to stop at each one of those stalls and say thanks, but the time would vanish. There’s bagpipers too, and whole towns turn on hospitality tents which host sagging riders. The children of Villane proudly escort you to your table. When I finally stop to replenish my sun screen the young man who sells it to me follows me out the store and asks me questions about my bike, how the ride is going. As someone who lives in London and is generally ignored in the run of everyday life I found this extraordinary – It’s certainly never happened in England.
I started the ride thinking it mine to ride and then came to realise the ride was theirs, had been forever, and they were enfolding me into the human richness of the experience.
That’s one of the defining things about PBP – you can’t hang around, but the experience is so good that you want to savour it. Perhaps that is one reason why people go back, time after time.
Leg 1 – Paris to Villaines-la-Juhel – 271 km cumulative
Other ACME riders at the start in the J group were Tom, myself and Andrew T. Cambridge CTC rider Alex was also around. Tom looked pretty relaxed – this was his fifth PBP. There was no plan to ride together, a couple of ACME riders were setting off in front of us including Andrew P, Elliott and Jan, and somewhere way back was Jason. Joss and Ged, Andy. There were quite a few scattered though the first half of the 90 hour group.
18:21 for the off.
The start was odd, bit of an anti climax compared to 2015, and as soon as we were out on the road the groups were already thinned by the starting process – not so much waves of riders as packets.
The trick is not to get carried away by nerves and waste yourself, but the temptation to slip onto the back of a group and take some free speed is very high – specially with the noticeable headwind. I was content to ride a moderate pace and wait for the big trains of riders that would come, pick one up and see how long that would last. Meantime I was smiling at all the encouragement we were getting on the road – much clapping and cheering.
I busked a ride with a group of Seattle Randonneurs and resisted the urge to jump several large groups that were going just a bit too quickly for me. The pace was not as high as 2015 due to the headwind. The common thinking is that your first 200 or 300 on PBP will be better or close to your best simply because there is nowhere to stop and there are so many opportunities to catch a lift. That was certainly not true this year – my first 200 was dispatched in 9 hours with a fifteen minute break at Montagne le Perche. Quickish but not fast.
The headwind was strong enough that I failed to catchup to a large group that was travelling about the perfect speed for me; I slogged away for ten minutes getting nowhere, so gave up. Then a larger, faster group blasted by and I used them to make the gap and settled in for a steady, easy march to the not-control of Montage.
It’s a real blast night one. You are riding with a lot of cyclists and there is a sine-wave feel to it as you ride the rolling territory towards, and then away from, the large arrays of flashing red lights that top wind turbines. In amongst the breathing and intensity of concentration that group riding brings there are shouts of encouragement and recognition as riders recognise each other in the dark.
There’s only one climb that requires a gear change and it gets a bit crowded. Fifty metres back there is the unmistakable sound of someone colliding with someone else and falling off. There’s no point stopping, there are fifty cyclists in that fifty metres, and people on the road watching right there. Already we overtake the doomed – the guy on the fat bike. I mean, really?
I reach Villaines just at the end of the night and take time for breakfast. I run into Elliot and the two Andrews and we decide to set off on the next leg together – a good match, we are all more or less the same ability.
As I wait for them another kiwi, Ian, who I had met on the Ferry from the UK, stops to say hi. He started three hours after me, so he is storming along. I figured out he was fast as we were chatting on the crossing – he used to be a triathlete competing at international level. Triathlon is practically the national religion in NZ. Everyone follows rugby but they do triathlons. He went on to finish in 65 hours. – and he is not even that much younger than me. Chapeau Ian!
Villaines at 04:51 Monday morning – 10hr 20min riding – 20.6 avg incl stops
No alarms and no surprises
Because I rode the first half of PBP in 2015 I realise that I have retained aps of where things are at controls and don’t have to spend time looking around just trying to figure things out. This saves time and valuable cognitive cycles.
But there’s more to it that that. I have re-calibrated what normal is on a ride like this. Four more years of AUK events, including an LEL, have meant that things which previously seemed insane are now just how you need to do things. I now know in my bones that two hours sleep counts, that you can sleep on the floor if you need to, that a 10 minute nap on bench or even the roadside will turn your dozies around. I know that you can feel awful for a while and it will probably pass. I know the main thing is to keep riding, that speed is relatively less important than not sitting around in controls too much.
I know when I see a Japanese cyclist blink to life in front of me for ten seconds and then disappear just as suddenly on night three that this is ‘just’ an hallucination. On the same leg into Dreux, suddenly flat, the lights in the distance create a wavering sense of reality – a tree in the mist becomes magical, then terrifying, then more of a tree than any other tree I have seen before. I’ve had this before, on LEL on the final night, this loosening of the bonds between time and space.
It’s not alarming now, it’s part of the experience, the folding of perceptions together in a different way.
I accept it as normal that there won’t be much of an I with an ego left by night four. If I were more inclined to the spiritual I might note that this state is special – it’s what is sought by shamen and transformative mystics.
Perhaps then this is something like a vision quest, a way for us all to reach a little beyond the solidity of the certain universe and dip our fingers in wonder into the dark matter than we cannot describe, into the ineffable universal that continually rains through us?
Or is that just me getting a bit carried away by fatigue?
And, really, is there a difference?
Leg 2 – Villaines to Fougeres – 306km
We all rode together and I learned about Elliot’s plan with the van. Elliot has a VW camper parked at Loudeac with a stew ready to go and clean sheets for himself and Andrew T. I wonder if that’s a little soon in the ride as we should be getting there in the early evening, but it’s a damn sight more civilised than the catastrophe that I knew I would be encountering at Carhaix.
This was a nice steady leg spent in good company. It really helps to share the load and pass the time, particularly with that persistent headwind not easing.
We did take a stop at Ambrières-les-Vallées, where the route turns over a bridge and there is a convenient bar open, for a terrible and over-priced coffee, which was never the less gratefully taken.
Just as I was saddling up to leave Ambrieres I recognised a rider that I had helped out on LEL – Raniel from Brasil. I called out to him, we gave each other a hug, slapped each other on the back and then he went on. A great moment – I’d been following him on Instagram for the last couple of years so I knew how much preparation and commitment he had put in to make the trip around the world. I know the Brazilian’s take a good long holiday at the end of their long rides and they know how to enjoy themselves. Chapeau Raniel!
The four of us carried on to Fourges, but when we got there I bid them goodbye as I had a dropbag to look forward to, supplied by Baxter’s tours. In actual fact I didn’t need anything much from it but I gratefully ate half a packet of GF muesli and soy milk before heading off for a quick checkin at Fourges.
Fourges at 10:15 Monday morning – 16.6kph – including stops at cafe and dropbag.
Leg 3 – Fourges to Tinteniac – 360km
As it happened I saw the others just as they were leaving so we grouped up for the next leg too.
About this time shit started to get real. I am fit enough to get through 300 without too many worries but there comes a point where you can’t fake it anymore and a pace that you can actually keep up for days on end will settle on you, immovable as a dense morning fog.
Andrew P started to pull away from the rest of us on occassion, looking strong and resolute in the wind. There was nothing much to be done about it – either you can keep up or you can’t. And there is little point in slowing down when you are feeling good either, so, after making some jokes about Andrew ‘The Beast’ Preater, the three of us settled back into our own pace.
It’s a short hop to Tinteniac and no one felt like a big meal, so a quickish stop ensued. There were other ACME riders around, Jan, Josh, Andy, a rumour of Tom but no sighting – common theme on this ride, after seeing him at the start I heard of him a lot but never actually saw him. Perhaps his Audax Wizard status granted him invisibilty at controls?
Tinteniac at 13:00 Monday afternoon – 19.1 kph
It gets down to four degrees at night. I have every stitch on and still get colder and colder. Its not my hands and feet or head, which are all fine, it’s what I call ‘system cold’. Being sweaty (I prefer to think of it as efficient) and hairy (too much detail!) means I need a lot of cooling as I ride but as soon as I stop my sweat chills and I can be shivering in a moment. Sleeping on a floor makes it worse.
The key, then, is to either be riding or sleeping somewhere warm, or rapidly transiting between the two. Stopped by the side of the road or sleeping on a cold floor are enemies. Keep moving on the bike, keep warm as soon as you stop – keep the system cold at bay if you can.
I am carrying a very light down jacket and I also have an equally light OMM half sleeping bag, both weigh 250gm. Foolishly, at a bag drop, I inadvertently swapped the OMM bag for one of a similar size which contained…. a pair of smelly cycling shorts that I had dropped earlier.
I have been making sure that I waer less on the bike this year and ir has helped, but I didn’t get this right as I tired on night three and four – possibly I over-dressed and consequently ‘wetted out’, with knock-on system cold issues. If you get wet you put on more clothes to keep warm and progressively just get more sodden – and then you have no warm clothes left to put on when you stop.
The only known cure for this is horrendously expensive gear. The Shake-dry jackets being a case in point, well over £200 a pop. The best solutions for dry riding have a wind-proof front and a lot of venting at the back. The jacket I was riding at night in, a wonderfully visible Rapha Audax jacket, was simple not good enough. Just as well I bought it on sale then.
I have not solved this one. You need to travel light but travelling too light means you can’t stop without chilling. Marginal when it’s not raining, a bit scary if it’s wet as well.
Luckily it is not at all wet.
Leg 3 – Tinteniac to Loudeac – 445km
Andrew P had flown the coup before we were ready so three of us left the control together. I inadvertently left the others behind me on the climb up to Becherel and, feeling rather good, rode on alone, first to have a quick feed at Quedilliac on a big serve of the cyclist’s favourite, rice pudding, then onto Loudeac.
Loudeac was pumping with spectators and the riders were getting getting a great reception.
I realised quite how lucky I had been on timing too. I needed a proper meal so I joined the queue to the restaurant, which was maybe 10 metres long, and sat down with my food about ten minutes later – a tolerable delay. When I finished and went back out the door of the restaurant the queue was four times longer. I had been surfing along just in front of the dreaded ‘bulge’. In 2015 I had been in the middle and then the rear of the bulge and it meant that service look longer and food was often gone by the time you got there – an altogether more grim experience.
Loudeac at 18:20 Monday night, 16kph average for leg
Start and finish and everything in between
The finish is confusing. You have to make your way through the parked camper vans, there are finishers coming back down the hill towards you, lots of people walking. You cross under the arch but that’s not the finish – that’s the timing gate in the courtyard. This makes some people cross about disrespecting the slower riders, those who can ill afford to waste minutes figuring it all out. There are celebrations on the line, literally, that stop riders crossing it. Selfish people will be selfish people regardless.
The start is a bit odd too, a timing gate in the middle of nowhere, no one around.
Everything in between is very good, or about right, or as expected. There aren’t enough beds at the right places at the right time (there never could be) but there is only one inedible meal – the rice at Brest is like kitty litter. Otherwise I am happy with the food, rice pudding, lots of fruit options, yoghurt, rice, chicken. That is what you actually need. Repeat endlessly.
Due to Gluten intolerance I can’t feast on the crepes and pastries that seem to line the roads, taunting me. But a day in I find I have no appetite for anything sweet anyway. I have gels and Gluten Free treats and meal replacement powder in drop bags but use almost none of it. I make a note to myself how my body is enjoying the simple food and I have no lack of energy, something to take home and learn from.
It helps having done this all before in 2015. I am a lot more relaxed about the organisation. There was no information at all about how to actually start so everyone was just relaying on what someone else said – a kind of comical whispering and rumour -based comms. Audax-telegraph. Despite the lack of info everyone made the start as far as I know. Yes parking was a bit random, yes the signage was a bit lacking. But then I think to myself – would I want to ogranise 6000 anxious and excited audaxers though a four day not-race?
Not a chance. Thank you Audax Club Parisien, I hope you had a great party afterwards.
Leg 4 – Loudeac – Carhaix – 521km
As I left Loudeac I realised why there were so many people there. As I came down a small hill I saw a phalanx of bright yellow coming down a side road towards me – this was the fast group coming back from Brest. The crowds had gathered to see the fast group come in.
Fecking heck. They had done 780km in the time it had taken me to do 440. Mind boggling. Of course the ones who could hold onto that pace and push through to around 45 hours (it was a ‘slow’ year on account of the wind) wouldn’t sleep at all.
I remembered the topography of this leg from last time – there is a decent climb up to Merleac which totally surprised me in 2015. Last time I was on this climb in the early hours of the morning – this time I was on it well before dark. I was at least 8 hours ahead of where I was in 2015. I needed to be 8 hours or more ahead of course, 2015 was dismal, but this was encouraging.
And this is one of the nicest sections of the ride too. A lot of PBP is up down-up-down, rollers through farm land, often a bit bland, but this section is properly pretty and, with the sun softening towards dusk in the sky, it was lovely to be steadily climbing by myself, watching the greens of the valley shift with the falling light.
Carhaix I got to in the dark. I visited my dropbag, changed my top and socks for the first and last time, had some more GF muesli, then headed up to the control. I knew I needed a sleep at this point and I also knew that around about 1500 other people would be thinking the same thing.
I checked in then wandered around for five minutes looking for a good spot on the restaurant floor, I didn’t even bother trying the dormitory. Of course all the good spots were gone, so I picked a bad one instead, set my alarm for two hours and promptly fell asleep on the cold hard floor.
Arrive midnight Tuesday, 13.4 kph for leg (couple of hills, a few roadside stops, riding by myself)
2hr 55m stopped in Carhaix icluding sleep and dropbag stop; head back out at 3am
Chatting with Andrew on one of the legs we rode together I ask him about his partner and what she does. Andrew is a library guy, not a filling out cards in a local library guy but a high-end university library guy. But, sorry Andrew, he is seriously out geeked by his partner who has a PhD in Physics and works with super dense materials. The kind of materials that only come into stability at minus 4000 degrees kelvin.
Only on an audax could you be riding a bike with no sleep and talking about something like this. Andrew recommends I start looking at neutronium for fun. I look it up later. It’s theoretical matter, what’s left when a star collapses onto itself.
“One cubic metre of “neutronium” matter from the centre of a neutron star could have a mass of up to 10 to the power of 18 kilograms, or a million billion tonnes.”
All this talking about heavy things makes my legs feel slow and treacly. Why couldn’t she have been studing lighter than air gases or something like that? People are so selfish.
We talk about what this ride would be like on fixed gear. Andrew only rides gears when he really thinks they will be needed. Do you really need them on PBP? We agreed probably not. For me that meant, yes please give me all the gears you have, for him that means he will most likely do it fixed next time.
One gear to shift all that weight up all those hills. I would need to be 10kg lighter to even think about that. Or within sight of the weight I was as a 16 year old racer. Possible I guess, 10kg is a blink on the cosmic scale of weights after all.
Leg 5 – Carhaix – Brest – 610km
This leg I remember as being interminable in 2015. It has the relatively substantial climb over ‘Le Roc’ to take, around an hour in total, though the gradients are pretty benign, then it’s longer than you expect from the top of the hill to the coast.
My intention was to take the Carhaix-Brest-Carhaix loop as one big piece – the whole loop is around 175km so I should be back to Carhaix well before next nightfall, ready to push on to see how far I could get before sleeping again.
Despite the two hours sleep in Carhaix things got a little hazy around this point. The back valley route to the main road through Le Fau is nice, but things were getting a little surreal – by the time I got to the main road the insistent flashing of the lights atop le roc were doing strange things to my head. Distance became very hard to judge – one moment I was at the top of the climb then a moment later I realised I was only half way up.
Taking the long descent in the pre-dawn I got very cold. It really is coldest before the dawn and I was struggling now, shivering and tired. I know to expect this, it happens all the time on UK rides, but after two nights with one two hour sleep it becomes harder to stay warm. And you are not capable really of speeding up to warm up, particularly downhill.
Fortunately, where the route splits at an intersection at a very small hamlet called Le Queff someone had set up a coffee stall.
Andrew P was there, I think, at least I recall, or I imagined, a conversation. It’s quite possible I had been riding with him for a little way too, though I certainly didn’t crest Le Roc with him. Anyway he had a coffee and pressed on while I saw a foam mattress on the ground and a blanket that had my name on it.
Cross checking with Andrew later he too had had a rough moment and had taken a ‘potato nap’ (wrapped in foil) for ten mimutes beside the road before seeing an ACME mudflap in a passing group and chasing me down.
Not bothering to set an alarm I lay down and immediately fell asleep. When I woke I had no idea how long I had been asleep, anywhere from ten to thirty minutes I thought. I felt much better though, a quick coffee and I was on my way again – this would see me through to the early hours of the next night for sure. I see from my GPS track that I was at this stall for 45 minutes in total.
45 minutes stopped here.
I crossed the old bridge at Brest without stopping for the obligatory photograph, took the torturous route through Brest to the control and checked in. I was still 7 hours or more ahead of my 2015 self, having made the 600 in around 38 hours. I was aiming for a little quicker but 38 given the headwind I would take.
Regardless, this was new territory for me. I have only been over 600km in one hit on LEL and that is much more relaxed on control times, so I was in new territory here.
PBP is a bit cruel in that you have less time to get to Brest than you have to get back; 42 out and 48 back. The old adage is Race out, tour back. But frankly that’s nonsense when you are not that fast – you can’t really take your foot off the gas or underestimate the drop in your speed that will happen in part two – as I found out.
Also note that the headwind failed to become a tailwind. As soon as I turned it effectively stopped. And this is not just my tired perception, this is truly what happened. The following two days were hot and still. The more paranoid believe there was a headwind on the way back too.
08:27 Tuesday morning – 38:05 to Brest – 10.5 kph (big sleep, small sleep and riding up a big hill)
Obviously there is the physical training. But somewhere else I have postulated that riders tend to have one thing stronger that the other – minds or bodies – and that I am one of those with stronger bodies than minds.
As a consequence I have worked hard on my mental game. LEL was a big boost here because I had genuine and deep doubts about my ability to do it, but I managed it just fine. I also been reading a lot of sports psychology books and books by people who do stupid things for their ultra kicks.
Visualisations, strategies for bad moments, routines and all that. I didn’t do a ton if it but I did enough. Here’s an example:
That’s a rough diagram I did myself the day before PBP, I listed out all the things that I dreaded and then countered them with evidence. Lets call it catastrophe and counter:
- Not enough food (by which I mean GF food) – You have tons to start on; the controls could actually be fine (they were) and you know you haven’t bonked in years.
- Knees – You have a good position, gear you know well and the ‘bikeintelligenge’ to work it out on the fly.
- Mental game and dark thoughts – strategies, top of the mountain, haka.
The last one is most pertinent here. I had mental strategies, deliberate things I could do to build confidence and not psych myself out.
First thing. When I arrived in France I went into social mode. I made sure I talked to people, I laughed and joked and kept the tone light – I left no room to ruminate and actually had some nice conversations with interesting people. This is particularly important as hanging out by yourself in a shitty hotel for two days before the event can be isolating. I knew too that it can be quite lonely on the road – lots of people don’t talk English well enough to hold a confident conversation – so the more people to chat to the better. This was also eased by simply knowing more people in AUK than last time. If someone is in a Bristol shirt you know they are good for a sardonic quip 😉
‘Top of the mountain’ refers to ‘putting your fear at the top of the mountain’ which is a strategy from an elite mountaineer doing stupid things. If you have the fear then the best way out of it on the mountain is to keep going up. For riding this works for me by placing an image on myself at the finish, imagining the sense of achievement – put your fear and doubt to the END of the ride. It’s slightly abstract, but works for me.
Haka – if things get really bad fire up your phone and watch a video of the Haka, or do it yourself. This connection to my homeland and the sense of identity and strength is important, as it is to all of us, and reminds us of how we have become who we are.
One I picked up just a few days ago also worked very well and that is talking about yourself in the third person. It sounds self aggrandising but it helps to objectify what you are doing; “Allen is getting cross at getting his light charging strategy wrong, but this is not helping him move forward. He needs to try and find a spare light if he can.”
Leg 6 – Brest – Carhaix – 693km
I took breakfast at Brest and spotted Alex, who had ridden through without any sleep at all, looking really quite spaced out. As he put it ‘I am slow, I don’t have time to sleep’ or words to that effect. Comparing Alex’s ride to mine is interesting – I ride about 1kph faster on the road than he does, practically nothing, but that 1kph gave me time for nine hours sleep versus his three and a half. His ride was far more audacious than mine – it was his first PBP and he knew he wouldn’t be sleeping much but he took it on and aced it in a way I couldn’t manage in 2015 – chapeau Alex!
Riding back out I really fancied a McDonalds thick shake and I knew there was a Macs somewhere along the route but I couldn’t see it. I also badly needed to replace some sunscreen I had dropped somewhere along the way but couldn’t see anywhere to stock up on that either, so, before I knew it, I was back climbing up through Sizun to Le Roc up a road that I hadn’t got to do in 2015 – a lovely steady climb. There was a bagpiper doing his thing for the riders here – no doubt a traditional instrument of the Brittany region rather than the Scottish version?!
I took at stop at Sizun because there was a good convenience store open. I bought some tinned pears on the recommendation of a Bristol rider and they really hit the spot, nice call! Sizun itself was a party, even this early in the morning. An enthusiastic – no, manic – helper who obviously needed a good sleep was plying everyone with Evian water while loud music played and the bars around the square were heaving.
24 minutes off the bike, then onto the second half of the climb up to Le Roc and down the other side. This is where I had another strange moment – I realised as I looked at the doomed riders who had ‘early’ plates on that most of them couldn’t make Brest in good enough time to comfortably finish the ride – and there were plenty who didn’t stand a chance of making the Brest cut off. I was, effectively, looking at myself four years previously. Like looking simultaneously at two versions of yourself.
Then there was an interminable B road all the way back into Carhaix with a fair bit of traffic on it. There were other riders around but the mode for most of the second half of the ride was set, soloing along at my own sweet and slow pace, taking as much as I could in as I went.
Just before entering Carhaix I saw Judith Swallow coming the other way. For a moment I wondered how she had got so far behind, then I realised she would have been part of the 84 hour group who started a good twelve or more hours after the 90 hour group – so she was doing ok, beginning her Brest ‘loop’ as I was finishing mine.
At Carhaix I made the shoe swap, took a shower and put the wrong bag into my Carradice (shorts not sleeping bag) had even more GF Muesli, lightened the load a bit by swapping rain jacket for my pink Rapha jacket with lots of reflectives, changed shorts, got some more food and carried on.
14:35 Tuesday afternoon – 13.6kph – 55 minutes stopped in Carhaix
Filth and anguish
There are the priceless moments. Walking into the Villaines control I am behind an epically tall, tanned and buff cyclist, one of those guys who could have been a part time model. A middle aged french woman behind the barrier issues an appreciative ‘oh la la!’. I look back at her and she smiles and gives a dirty cackle, poking her friend in the ribs. So that’s one of the reasons towns come out to watch cyclists… pure filth.
To combat a more personal filth I take a shower. It’s grim. A tiled box of the kind that rugby teams bully runts in. The ‘towels’ are those kind of fibrous napkins that smear rather than dry. At least there was no temptation to dally. I also brush my teeth, the once I bother.
By day four everyone is a heady stew of dried sweat, salt streaks, burnt flesh, festering socks, roasted breath. Minor injuries abound. Some limp, some groan, a few have neck braces to prevent or ally the dreaded Shermer’s neck. People shake out their hands all the time – that’s where it really gets you, the unavoidable build up of pressure leading to slow nerve damage. In the past I have had numbess in my first two fingers but this time it’s in my little fingers. Apparently nerves repair themselves at about the rate of a mm a week, and for most the numbness will clear in a few months. That’s just the price, part of the new normal that I have come to accept.
You have to pay attention to the minor ailments and treat as you go but also stand yourself outside of it a bit. I rode the first 700km in my winter road boots because they were the things that fit me best, but they became painful after 600km and were way too hot.
I had dropped one of my beloved Bont shoes on the way back from the gym months ago and had tried four pairs of road shoes since. I have the feet of a hobbit, so balancing length and width is tricky. None of the four pairs I bought have really worked, but the Lake’s are the best, so I hastily swapped cleats over before the start and threw them in the drop bag at the last minute so I can have the option of swapping them out with around 500km to go. I have only ridden them out to about 100km. Is it worth the risk of swapping shoes at this stage?
I reason if they are bad at least they will be a different kind of bad for the last 500km, so I swap them out. A few kms down the road I realise there is some kind of lumpy bit in the left sole that is going to grind a hole into my foot very quickly. Rummaging about in my stuff I find a Cycling UK members card in the bottom of my Carradice (I mean, WTF?) and use it as extra layer between the shoe and the inner sole. It works. Turns out the shoes are way better than the boots and, with a bit of cleat adjustment, get me through to the end comfortably. It’s also the only use I have ever got out of my membership of Cycling UK.
Leg 7 – Carhaix to Loudeac – 783km
I don’t remember anything about this leg.
Oh… no I do remember it getting hot. And there was an accident – a cyclist not moving in the road, surrounded by motorists. And a little while later a woman holding her knee by the side of the ride, being attended.
And I stopped somewhere to have a coke and I bought some milk to make a quick Complan lunch. Or was that after Loudeac?
Things are beginning to get wonky.
At Loudeac my GPS says I take an hour thirty. I don’t remember that time or what I did with it. I think I sat with Andrew P for some food and chatted to a nice, laconic German who was doing a good impersonation of a rider from Bristol. No, I think that was later. I have been told I had dinner with Joss and a few others at Loudeac. Things are jumbling up.
Writing through this I can see the time off the bike is really starting to add up now. I was taking the tour back thing a bit too much at face value. If you are reading this and thinking about doing this ride and you are going to be at the slower end of the spectrum then thinking Race out, race back, party later will serve you better.
I do remember stopping at the ‘secret’ control at Saint Nic for a bit and chatting with some dry as dust Audax Club Bristol riders about understanding controls times. None of us had any idea really. I did actually have a list of control close times on me but for some reason I decided not to trust it. It was, checking now, absolutely correct. Such is the effect of fatigue!
20:42 Tuesday night – 14kph including decent stop at St Nic and Sizun – 1:30 stopped at Loudeac.
Other kit worth throwing away
People have varying opinions on what the right amount of kit is for PBP. Some wouldn’t dream of leaving home without a spare tyre, others take less for PBP than an X-rated UK event on account of their being good mechanics and spare parts at every control – if you can get back to the control that is.
Things I started with but then left in my drop bag include: lock, antibacterial hand gel (I had wipes), spare GF food and gels.
I started with a route sheet as I thought it might be a nice way to pass the time. I had also marked up locations of shops and supermarkets. I shouldn’t have bothered and the route sheet holder annoyed me so much I just broke the plastic off somewhere around 700km. It should be noted that, had I been using the route sheet or even control list, I wouldn’t have made the silly mistake of reading a 5okm control as 90. Next time – a control list with closing times taped to the top tube will do
I took my saggy baggy old carradice saddle bag because I knew at some point I would just want to throw everything into it, buckle it closed and ride on without having to worry about packing things in the right order. Which is exactly what I did on the last couple of days when ‘Audaxadmin’ got beyond me. Bikepacking bags are leaner and nicer but harder to pack.
But my carradice is way too big. Next time I will take less and use minimal bike packing bags. Or move down two sizes in saddlebags.
A few random things that worked well – a very small piece of bubblewrap, just enough for my bum and lower back. Taking a musettte for organisational purposes at controls. Complan. Rennies. The OMM half sleeping bag was excellent for the one night I had it – doh!
Leg 8 & 9 – Loudeac to Tinteniac – 869
Somehow, I don’t remember how, I was riding with Andrew P again. I guess we had set out together after eating with the locaonic German. A really good person to be riding with, thanks Andrew.
It got dark somewhere in this leg and I was getting properly cold. Someone clocked 4 degrees on this night and that felt about right.
This is where I lost touch with reality a bit, not unexpected, but always interesting to see where your mind goes to. Something like a balloon, it feels like you are floating above yourself for a bit, then back into the reality of your legs, then out again into a world defined only by the edges of your headlight on a low setting. Just this piece of road here, this is all that exists. It starts to seem obvious that time is not linear – it knots around me, several pasts winding together, LEL, other rides, other nights, other versions of me.
Neutronium. Approaching the centre of a black hole, time bending around me. Perhaps in there I can glimpse the next time I do this ride already?
And then something more practical intrudes. I needed to stop for a pee. Andrew got this idea in his head that we could find a nice toilet in the centre of a town. I was skeptical but too tired to resist much so we rode through a couple of small villages, none of which had the quality of convenience that Andrew was looking for, until I could take no more. I pulled over right in a village square and found a convenient bush.
There was a street party going on nearby, it might have been around 11pm or midnight. I went to see if there was a chair there I could slump into for ten minutes but there was only benches. I waved Andrew on and, completely ignored by the revellers, pulled two benches together, put down the small square of bubblewrap I was carrying around for just this moment and reached for my lightweight half sleeping bag. Nope – doh!
Didn’t matter much. Despite feeling like a block of ice I feel asleep instantly for ten minutes, again without an alarm – I knew there was no way I would settle into a longer sleep.
Sure enough I woke up and climbed back on the bike, still in my down jacket, which I intended to take off as soon as I warmed up.
A minute later I heard the woosh of a solid bank of riders coming up behind me and the unmistakeable lilt of Irish accents. Soon I was engulfed in a sea of Audex Ireland riders, maybe close to twenty of them, and a good few hangers on at the back.
They were steaming along, 30kph or more on the flat. Getting a jolt of energy from god only knows where, I jumped on the back and held on for grim death. The adrenelin kick was great, it felt like I was back in a race as a junior many many years ago doing that racing thing of pulsing hot and cold, measuring the effort needed to keep in the slip stream.
At the first sign of a hill someone near the back called out ‘Steady up’ and the pace instantly dropped to 20kph, then, when the road flattened again, someone would call something else out and off they would fly again.
They were working a system. A couple of monsters on the front who look like they could have ridden the whole thing at 40kph with some more ‘mature’ road captains making the calls at the back and between them a whole crew of young, old, men and women riding together. I found out later that one of those guys on the front usually did 50-60 hour rides but this year did a 87 hour ride with lots of first-timers, his first time in The Bulge – oh, to have a choice!
It was kind of mental and wonderful all at once. I shamelessly took advantage and overheated massively in my down jacket, but the buzz was terrific. Perhaps it was just the sheer difference of it, after days now of plodding along at my pace, to be suddenly on a high pace.
I knew that I was going to stop to sleep at the ‘food stop’ at Quilldiac come what may so I was happy to push on a bit. Somewhere in that mad rush we overtook Andrew P, I was looking out for him but failed to see him.
So I stopped at Quedilliac. It’s not a ‘proper’ control but I knew they had some beds and I knew in my state I could sleep anywhere that was actually inside, so when they offered me ‘half board’ – a thinner mat without a blanket – I said fine.
It was a little more comfortable than Carhaix but not much. My expectation was rock bottom so I was happy enough and took my two hours before having an early morning breakfast and heading off the short distance to the proper control at Tinteniac.
05:50 Wednesday morning – 9.4 kph <<<< Warning! Not quick enough!
A couple of simple, stupid mistakes
I make some simple, stupid mistakes. Some are consequential, logically obvious things that were bound to happen in retrospect.
I decided that £300 on a dynamo front wheel for the disc bike was too much. Instead I would use my perfectly good Moon meteor front light, and, since I had drop bags, I would just stack up the power packs.
This worked for night one and two and three, but my last battery pack had an issue with charging the Meteor that I had forgotten about. At Montagne I fired up the Meteor – 25% charge and the pack I’d been changing it with while I slept was dead – WTF?!
25% was probably not enough. I looked through my bag for the small Exposure light I had for emergencies – it had about four hours on low and the two would get me through to Dreux where I could wait for dawn.
Nope, couldn’t find that. Cursing I went back into the control. Yes they did have a light. An utter small piece of crap for 30 euro. Sighing, I coughed up. Turns out 25% of a Meteor was enough to get me to Dreux. And I found the Exposure once I got home.
Next time, dynamo, if only for the piece of mind. Reducing the amount of decisions, reducing the number of routines and points of failure – all positives when things get wonky.
Two problems with time. Conventional time.
On morning three, at Tinteniac, I checked in. The controller said something to me in Franch and looked worriedly at the timings on a big board. I couldn’t make head or tail of them, nor could I actually figure out when the control closed for me, but I thought it must have been bad. The last time a controller had looked at me like that was in 2015 when I abandoned.
Shivers, I was running out of time – panic one.
Later that day, by the time I got to Villaines and onto the final 300km I was five hours up again and knew I would be fine.
That was until, 12 hours later, I decided to take my sleep early at Montagne instead to pushing to Dreux. Putting my head down at 9pm I was one of few in the hall. I ordered a wake up in two hours and had the luxury of a blanket.
I woke four hours later. Four hours! Someone had failed to wake me. Leaping up I tried to make a quick get away, which was going well until I switched on my light. See above.
Being resilient meant I had to change my plan. Or rather I had to retrospectively alter the plan to make it successful under the given circumstances. We do this all the time at work. We aim to finish a project at a certain date, we don’t hit that, so we realise we failed to account for something (sickness is always good) and then readjust our timelines to fit the circumstances. Then – viola – success!
So I just retrospectively replotted my plan from two hour sleeps on the last three nights to two hour sleeps on night two and three and a luxury four hour sleep if time allowed on night four.
Suddenly I was successfully following the plan. Awesome work!
Leg 10 – Tinteniac to Fougeres – 923km
I left Tinteniac in a bit of a flap. Looking back on it now I had near enough two hours in hand but I didn’t have a chance of actually working that out at the time. Yes, my notes were accurate but I didn’t trust them.
And then I did something really stupid and misread the distance to the next control – I thought I had 4 and half hours to do just over 90km. In normal life that would be a doddle but suddenly I felt up against it. I pressed on as hard as I could for two hours, catching as many wheels as I manage and getting down on the drops, but I could see it was going to be a close thing.
This led to a very uncomfortable 2 hours where I tried to push along at 30kph. I knew if I was hammering 30kph on the flat easy bits then I would make an average speed for the leg of around 25kph, which would get me through 90k in under fours hours. I was really kicking myself for the couple of mini luxury breaks I had given myself in the daytime.
That is until the next control appeared just over two hours later at 53kms. I had read the wrong line on my controls. 53km not 91. Unnecessary effort.
On the positive side I was a long long way from done in – if needed I would ride all the way to Paris scarping along the time limit, I was not going to capitulate that’s for sure
I stopped for the last time at my bag drop and had more GF muesli. I forgot to retrieve my sleeping bag and I forgot to drop the smelly shorts I had been carting around with me for the last day and a half.
9am Wednesday – 17kph <<< Trying to be fast simply not working, though this does include breakfast at Tinteniac
A bit of a pain
The major turn around in my riding in the last few years is my attitude to pain. I understand now that pain is feedback and that there are many many shades of it from ignorable minor irritations to full blown intolerable. Developing a healthy relationship to pain is part of the training. Pain requires respect but not fear. Fear is not useful and I have got some way towards making that attitude an actual reality, though I still hate a dentist.
The most difficult ride I did in the run up to PBP was also one of the flattest. The wind on the Fens on The Capitals of East Anglia 300 was brutal, the last 100km or so back from Norwich to Cambridge took forever and drained the spirit like a emo vampire. But the pain of that made the headwind to Brest, though significant, seem less horrible than it was. It’s that confidence that comes with experience, slowly slowly building behind you, a private tailwind in the most challenging of times.
Everyone is ignoring the mild pains. A four day event means you can just about push most discomfort away enough to get you to the finish. My Brooks fits me so well I don’t have any rear end or gentleman’s discomfort or need any saddle cream. I take a couple of painkillers when my boots get bad and munch two Rennies early on when I was still trying to eat sweet food.
At the drop bags around 500km a UK rider is complaining about her knee and asking for more painkillers. It’s bit early for that I think, but I see her again at 700km where she is calmer, though still in pain, and hunting for more painkillers and then finally at the end she comes in as I am watching. That’s three days of bad knee pain on the trot, that really is mind over matter.
Do I remember her talking about the pain of childbirth or did I make that up?!
Leg 11 – Fourges to Villaines – 1012km
I literally remember nothing of this other than the fact I was riding by myself. I think I stopped in a small town and had a coke in a bar, partly so I could say that I had done that on PBP. But that might have been the day before. And I should have had a cider.
But the surreal atmosphere of entering Villaines was a real trip. Being applauded, me! I was buzzing, I had plenty of time up my sleeve, I could take an hour for a decent breakfast, all was good in the world.
In the restaurant I saw Dave Minter and George, his tandem partner, discussing arrangements on how they were going to leave the control. Clearly they know each other very well as they were reminding each other what to do, and what not to forget!
I remembered the moment after the stormy crossing of Yad Moss in LEL where I saw Dave and had a funny exchange – where I had the feeling then of having become a ‘proper’ audax rider. Seeing Dave shake that experience off, and both us being able to make light of it, I knew after that soaking that I would make the finish. Now, as I sat in Villaines chatting with them I knew I would make this one too. It felt good to share a bit of time with fellow crazies, the kind of crazies who would do this ride six inches away from each other, who thought all of this was something like normal.
13:13 Wednesday afternoon – 14.4kph < steady with a couple of short stops – a complan lunch, buying sunscreen.
Four effing years to dwell/train
PBP only happens every four years. That feels about right. You need several seasons to build up to it (or I did) and the pre-qualification rules and qualification rules means it takes around 16 of targeted rides before you make the start line.
Having failed my first attempt it did feel like a long time to wait, a long time to be talking about failure. I did wonder if I could be bothered with riding anything over 600 at all, whether I was cut out for it.
The year after PBP was pretty quiet, I did my SR on fixed wheel for variety. It took me a year to realise that LEL was not going to leave me alone, and once I made that decision to do that the prep for that took over. That got me out and up some proper hills to prepare (including a Bryan Chapman), then another quiet year and then into PBP training.
I tried something different this year, I did ‘reverse periodisation’. The accepted wisdom is long miles in winter to build base and then speed up through the year. I did the opposite – I spent winter doing short rides and a lot (for me) of zone 4/5 endurance intervals at around the 270/320 watt mark. Then I lengthened the rides as the weather improved. It worked very well – I avoided all the boring junk miles in winter and carried a good deal of power with me right through the year and felt fitter than I had in many years, certainly a lot fitter than LEL.
For those who have done PBP the similarity with an endlessly repeating power interval is obvious!
You can see it in the chart above; 2017 (green) was LEL; in 2019 I built earlier using shorter rides and carried the power up the distances.
It should be noted I am never bothered with AUK points or RRTY and outright distances for the year, my ambitions are pretty simple; an SR every year and a good single long event annually or biannually. Even in an LEL or PBP year I am scarcely getting over 50 points. My idea of preparing for events is not to run myself into the ground doing endless 200s at a moderate tempo. I would rather the variety of gym and speed work coupled with distance on occasion, I think it makes the riding more interesting and makes you a more flexible rider. Also, I don’t have the time. Work, a family with a son doing GCSEs and kung fu and drama and Explorers, and me the taxi service and cook.
Leg 12 – Villaines to Montagne – 1097km
Physically this was the hardest leg, but at the same time I found it the most beautiful. I was at this point deeply grateful for the experience. The support on the road on this final day was immense. I stopped at a chemist to get that bloody sunscreen (I was burning up) and the guy I bought it from followed me out of the shop to look at my bike and ask me questions.
In this leg I passed the three teen girls who I had passed two days earlier. Honestly, on the way out, I thought they were taking the piss. Clearly I had underestimated them.
Wow. Humbled, I rode on and on, across the baking roads, lost in something that was probably exhaustion but felt like elation. At this point I was physically in a kind of balance. In terms of speed and power I sismply didn’t have any left, it was just about turning the pedals at the level of effort my body could manage in that moment. But I had no particular pain; my saddle was good, my back didn’t hurt, my knees were ok, the only thing that was my hands – nerve damage was setting in now but that it normal, ignorable. Just keep going.
These were the roads that we had come over on night one, so it was interesting to see them in the day light – they really were long sine-waves. There’s nothing quite like coming over one roller to see another beyond, then another and another all the way to…
Montagne for dinner. I saw Dave and George again, which felt odd – they must have leapfrogged me at some point but I couldn’t figure out where – at the drop bag maybe?
They were taking an early sleep, saying that Dreux would be at capacity. I thought that was an excellent idea. I knew I could have pushed through to the end if really had to at this point, but it would be safer if I took another two hours here and then pushed through to the end with a roadside kip if needed in the morning.
So I set my light charging and walked down to the hall where a couple were arguing about the orgaisation of the sleeping arrangements. Perhaps this is wny I didn’t get my two hour call. Perhaps I held up the wrong number of fingers. Perhaps they thought ‘two’ meant two o’clock not two hours sleep?
I guess I should have set an alarm.
After racing to get to my bike I then had the light incident.
20:30 Wednesday night – 16kph < Includes hour at Villaines. Riding solo not stopping yeilds better speed
Leg 13 – Montagne to Dreux – 1147km
For the second time things were looking less than secure. I mean I knew I had plenty of time in had still but I didn’t want to squander it on things like this – it wasn’t elegant!
Still I rode the next leg really well. Four hours sleep helped the power output. Not super fast, but strong. I was expecting more hills and was holding back a little, but when the road levelled out on the approach to Dreux I knew the climbing was done.
There were a lot of people on that leg who were in all sorts of states – wandering, zombie eyed, pulling off the road, there were riders wrapped in silver and gold space blankets scattered everywhere – exhausted caterpillars hoping to come forth as butterflies.
I was surprised by an attack of hallucinations at this point though. The phantom riders, the tree and the mist. I think knowing that the hard riding was over, and suddenly having longer vistas in front of me and seeing more of those cursed blinking red lights, bought them on perhaps. I thought that four hours sleep would have seen them off.
Still learning then.
Dreux was worse than Carhaix for devastation. People sleeping on rolled up carpets, injuries obvious, neck braces, knee tape. I was right to sleep earlier and glad to have the luxury of time to spare. I grabbed some food and sat down with some AUK riders, wondering if any ACME folk were around. A few were but it took me a while to realise that there was not going to be a ‘gathering’ for the final 35km. I moved on, but could easily have left half an hour earlier, the dozies shaken now by food and the light coming into the sky.
05:30 on Thursday morning – 8.6kph includes unwanted four hours plus one meal
Over six hours left to do 35km.
Two days before I leave for France I am riding my PBP bike to work. As I cross an intersection a car accelerates into me. The driver has mistaken a left arrow going green for a straight ahead arrow going green.
I hit the very front left of her bonnet doing about 25kph. Mountain bike skills take over – keep your arms on the bars, hit the object with the biggest part of the body and roll as best you can.
It’s the worst accident I have ever had on a road bike. Remarkably I walk away with a few grazes and bruises. The bonnet has a fair sized dent in it. My handlebars are thrashed, my frame seems ok. What makes me really cross is that I take out my phone to take a photo of the bonnet and plates, and think that I have video recording and soon afterwards she admits completely liability. Turns out later I hadn’t caught that on video and she starts to realign reality so that she is less responsible for it. In the end she doesn’t make a claim against me as her insurance has already been stressed by ‘other incidents’ so I settle for her compensating me for the broken bars.
The annoying thing is that the bars were fantastic and had made the bike much nicer to ride. They were carbon, Cinelli Neomorphes, a work of art and a major investment in comfort for PBP. I also wondered if I should be riding a bike I had just pranged, so I took it apart, looked at all the surfaces and thought everything looked ok. It’s carbon, so I guess you can’t tell without a scan, but then a scan wouldn’t happen before Thursday and then I really would have to not ride the carbon bike.
I ride the alternative, a steel bike, to work the next day, the first time I had ridden in a couple of months. I don’t like it. I am used to the crisp carbon bike now. I bought the carbon bike on the back of my miserable 2015 PBP experience. PBP is the kind of event, on the kind of roads, that you can ride a carbon bike on without any penalty.
So I change the bars on the carbon bike and take a chance on it.
It works a charm. I have a B17 on it and 32c tyres, which are great for London and UK but overkill in France. Next time – 28c’s. The carbon bike is efficient up just those kind of climbs that PBP is saturated with – short, seated, low percentage power climbs. I had fitted a compact chainset, but could have easily lived with the semi-compact with a bottom of 36 x 32.
Leg 14 – Dreux – Paris – 1219km
Dawnlight, low, orangey-pink. Massive haystacks and endless fields. Not looking at a Monet, being in it. Suddenly flat roads. No fences.
Now I was on an ocean, tacking amongst galleons.
I passed, and was passed by, plenty of cyclists without a word exchanged. Fatigue? Just soaking in the moment? Concentrating on keeping those wheels turning?
Just keep going.
Halfway along here I spotted a vending machine and spent a precious nine minutes and thirty seconds sat by the side of the road supping a Fanta, watching people go by. Wrecked but certain now. Trash-happy.
And then across the line. And then over the timing line on the cobbles and the suddenly challenging gravel. And then get your card stamped. The woman who signed me in made sure to place the medal around my neck, taking a moment to make it a moment for me. Thank you.
08:57 – 12.7kph < Includes meal and vascilation at Dreux – 86hr 35min overall.
Finally, second time trying, the finishing tent. Riders only. I am tired but totally elated. Later on someone says I looked better at the end than I did at the start and I think they may have been right. I spend a while there soaking it all in. Smiles all round. ACME folk all good – a strong showing in full-value riding skills.
After a while I go back outside and watch people coming over the line. Tom is there, already changed out of his cycling kit and into civvies, welcoming ACME folk and the many others he knows in, like he did at LEL.
Some are wrecked and happy, others are wrecked and lost, in full zombie mode. Watching people come over the line makes me cry a little again. Fatigue for sure but also watching what this means for other people makes what it means for me more real. Every now and then I see someone I know and cheer. Alex comes in, confused a little about which side of 90 hours he is actually on – the right side as it turns out. I am as happy for everyone else as I am for myself.
Maybe there is something about pushing beyond what you can think you can do that dissolves that ‘you’ for a while. I certainly had diffuse edges, a softened ego, empathy for all.
Beauty and wonder.
A day later and I am not as wrecked as I thought I would be. It was physically hard of course, very hard, but it wasn’t extreme. 95% of the time I was totally on top of things and the other 5% was just bad admin. I had surreal moments (and probably would have felt cheated if I didn’t have them) but didn’t go anywhere near as deep as LEL on the hallucination and abstraction front.
86 and a half hours, so three and some in hand. Not a fast ride but for me a good one. Near enough to nine hours sleep in all, no food issues, stomach was fine. Shoe issues developing but sorted, no saddle problems.
I am still buzzing a week later. So are the nerves in the base of my hands.
I am nauseous with smug self-satisfaction. When people ask me how it was and I saw ‘It was great fun.’ I really mean it. I loved it, not only having done it and reversing my fortune of 2015, but while I was doing it. I gave myself over to it and didn’t hold anything back in terms of the experience. I didn’t ‘wait and see how I go’, I whole-heartedly just did it, full volume.
Loved loved loved it.
And I catch myself thinking about late night chats with Andrew about doing it on fixed. Calculating in my head how hard it would be to be in the 84 hour group next time, on an even lighter bike, carrying less, with aerobars perhaps?
Or maybe that ride in Sweden, or over the Pyrenees? Something gravelish?
Or maybe just get fat over Christmas and try to keep this stupid smile on my face for as long as possible.
Other good blogs about PBP2019
- Alex’s lovely account of a first timer not sleeping much!
- Really great photos on this one: https://ridewithgps.com/ride_reports/4309-2019-paris-brest-paris
- From the Diagonaliste: http://www.diagonaliste.com/pbp2019/
And a MEGALIST of all PBP blogs from MG (nice one)