Sunday 27 August 2023

20th June 2023 Paris-Brest-Paris starting in Rambouillet, France

Elapsed Time 80:45:21  Ride Time 46:55:25  1228km   41146 calories   12264m elevation

On September 6 1891, 206 cyclists set off on an epic adventure. Over dirt and gravel roads they vied for position, passing through 16 checkpoints over the 1,200-kilometre route. Charles Terront, a Frenchman, led the pack home in a sleepless 71 hours, winning by more than eight hours on his nearest rival. PBP was born.

Being the oldest bike race in the world and only run every 4 years, PBP has long been on the bucket list but given the very different nature of the event, it has taken a while for everything to line up. The process to be on the start line started with a shout out to friends interested in coming along for the adventure - over the months it whittled down to Dan and Laurie as life etc got in the way of others joining us.

The entries opened in February this year but to be allowed to enter, you needed to have completed a long ride in the prior 12 months so, our qualification journey started in 2022 with a 300km ride starting at midnight! With that ticked off, we were able to make our application to be on the start line in August. I say application as once entered, you needed to validate your entry by completing recognised Audax events from March to June, as a minimum, at distances 200km 300km 400km and 600km.

We manage to squeeze these into the diary and get them done along with learning how to ride long, unsupported and what equipment would be needed. It was a steep learning curve as it was very different from anything I had done before but great fun to start to figure the puzzle out.
We were set off in batches of 200 or so on 15 minute intervals starting at 1600, our start time was 19:45 is we had a fair bit of hanging around before starting.

Once we were off the pace was good although the pack was a little hazardous with pack riding skills not everyones' strong suit. We kept it conservative and concentrating on staying upright until things started the thin out after 20km.  We were all excited and very fresh so the kilometres raced by and we were soon at the first service area. As we parked up I looked at my watch and thought 15 minutes max as we had 15 check points to visit and any longer would eat up the time. Despite our best efforts we were out in 30 minutes and over the course of the ride, that would frequently ballon out to an hour. They were about 80km apart so at every stop water bottles would need refilling, some food taken on and other bits of admin/faffing. Sure, we could have gone faster at each stop but our aim was to complete not race and take chances.

Our plan was to ride to the control at Loudeac 435km and take a rest there having booked a chalet close by to the control. We had also booked a bag drop service so we could pick up a change of clothes and some back up supplies if they were required. With the high pace, we arrived slightly ahead of the time we had planned but that just gave us more in hand to stay ahead of the rolling cut off deadlines following us along the route. We stopped for a proper meal at the control point, picked up our bags and rode the 2km to our accommodation. it has been a hard ride with no sleep during the night so we were ready for a break off the bike. we washed and got into bed but I was so wired I couldn't get to sleep despite how exhausted I felt. I simply lay there hour after hour wondering when sleep would come but it never did. After 4 hours I threw the towel in, roused Laurie, and got back on the bike. 200km to Brest and then we would be riding back to Paris!

We kept going at a reasonable pace but the hills started to feel longer and the legs more and more fatigued. By 4 in the morning I felt like I was starting to nod off as we rode and I was really having to fight off sleep. We crested a hill and with a very sore back and feeling so drowsy we decided to stop. It had been the same all along the route, locals turning out offering food and drink to riders as they passed by, and here we were, in the middle of nowhere, 4 o'clock in morning and a guy and van by the side of the road heating water on a stove handing out coffee and snacks to whoever stopped. Four heaped teaspoons of coffee in an expresso sized cup, I could feel the caffeine pumping into my veins! I sat, rested the back for 10 minutes then climbed back on the bike for the final push to Brest.

We entered Brest in the dark, stamping our Brevet card around 05:30, stopped to refill the bottles etc then pointed the bike in the direction of Paris, this felt like real progress and gave our spirits a great boost. It was a pity it wasn't light as apparently the port is spectacular but we were not about to wait around although the sun did start to emerge as we go back into the countryside.
It was about 100km to the next piece of accommodation so we had thought we could chew through that fairly comfortably, but we had not figured on the topography of that section. It was by the far the hilliest part of the route and the hills just seemed to go on and on, sapping the life and enthusiasm from our already exhausted bodies. We finally arrived at Goureac at midday and stopped in a restaurant for some proper food. Until this point it had been a combination of soup, coffee, pastries and baguettes and that didn't feel long term sustainable. We tucked into chicken and chips, delicious! popped to the supermarket and then pedalled on to our near by accommodation. It was basic but there was a bed and shower which was pretty much all we needed. 

We calculated the time we would need to be back on the road to beat the cut off at the next control point, set our alarms then tried to get some sleep. This time I was out like a light thank goodness but I woke up around 1900 having had 3 hours sleep. It didn't then feel like I would get back to sleep so I lay there for a while before finally waking Laurie and suggested we get back on the bikes - by 20:30 we were heading to the next control. The next accommodation was a mere 240km away so we were looking forward to a shorter stint on the bike and grabbing more rest.

When we got to the hotel the door was locked but the owner had given us the combination to let ourselves in, trouble was, the number didn't work and it was 06:30 We tried to contact him but to no avail - no choice but to carry on riding despite how ready we were to take a long break as there was nothing else in the town available. The next control was 50km away so it wasn't disastrous although the body was starting to fall apart, sore ankle, sore back and a very sore butt. When we got to Villaines-La-Juhel there was still no accommodation available so we were starting to contemplate the sleeping strategy many had adopted - by the roadside, in the ditch, cash point lobbies - just about sleeping wherever you stopped, it looked like carnage from about 350km onwards in the route. 
We took a break, jumped on our phones and found a hotel at the next control Montagne-Au-Perche. It was another 80km but really we had run out of options, just get on the bike, ignore the messages the body was sending, and push on. We formed a little group on the road of riders of similar speed so the pace was good and it was nice to chat a little to other riders, but it was in the heat of the day, late afternoon 35oC. After about 40km my brain was starting to boil so we had to pull off the road and let the group go, we need some cold drinks or we would just over heat. Whilst we cooled down I flicked on the phone and sae a message from the hotel explaining there was a mistake and they didn't have a room for us. This hit us hard as we had already ridden further than planned, it was baking hot, the body was in bits and now we had nowhere to stay and no matter how hard we looked we couldn't find an alternate option. We opted to ride to the next control and knock on some doors although the spectre of having to just keep riding to Paris was looking like a distinct possibility or sleeping on the side of the road.
We got to the control, stamped our Brevet cards and then rode to the town square. The first thing to do was get some cold water, some coke and a beer - our spirits really needed a lift as things were looking increasingly desperate. Refreshed we started to look for somewhere to get some sleep and miraculously e found a bedsit that was available. By 1830 we had checked in, been to the supermarket and had a shower, thank goodness. Same old routine, set alarm for 04:00, woke up at 22:00 so packed up and got on the road, only 120km to Paris.

We had no appetite for riding a fast pace, we were just too exhausted but the terrain became nice and rolling so no big effort were needed. Light batteries were fading, Di2 front derailleur conked out but we were in the final stretch. The 80km to the next control seemed to take an age but in reality it took us about 3 hours, short break then press on to hoover up the last 43km and cross the line.

This is a great reel of the sleeping arrangements:

When we go to the finish it was still dark and there were a few riders there but by no means rammed. There had been a huge range of bikes entered, standard road, bamboo, bromptons, classic 60's, recumbents, tandems and velomobiles and everyone had a different approach to tackling and conquering the distance. Ultimately it is an event, not a race, and so they are very careful not to give out finishing positions, just your control point and finish times. My guess would be we were about in middle of the group and I was surprised to learn the drop out rate and those that missed the cut off amounted to nearly 40% of the field.

It was definitely a one and done event, just don't think I am cut out for this type of thing but did I enjoy it, well I suspect the more time passes the more positive the yes will be!