When I heard about Paris-Brest-Paris way back in 2006, I thought, ah man I’ve got to do that and parked it in the back of my mind. I dont think bucket lists were fashionable back then.
Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) is the oldest bike race, superceeding Paris-Roubaix by five years, kicking off before the turn of the century in 1891. It is iconic in cycling terms and pro teams raced it well into the 50s. There were even races against cars when they were first invented and given the lack of petrol stations back in those days, the bikes won. Actually I not sure why the cars lost. Anyway it’s a ride any discerning cyclist should add to their list. Life is just not complete without a PBP attempt.
Coming in at 1230km (770 miles) of fairly non-stop riding, it’s one you’d want to build up to and I certainly couldn’t have ridden it back in 2007 when it did it’s 4-year flyby and in 2011 I was too busy chewing up my handlebars on the men’s Giro d’Italia course.
This isn’t a pay your money and pitch up gig, you’ve gotta earn your strips. With the small matter of completing a 200, 300, 400 and 600km qualifier, you can tootle off to the start to knock out your PBP in 80, 90 or 84 hours. Chatting to a few folk on the qualifiers I went for the 84hour ride. Leaving towards the end of the event (Monday 5:15), I’m in the second last group, I figured I’d get a full view of the sheer scale of the ride as the riders make their way back after turning around at Brest. With around 6,500 folk starting between 4-8pm on Sunday and 4:50-5:30 on Monday morning it’s bound to be emotional. So 2015 it is and it was pretty close to being another 4 years before I could attempt it.
How I qualified is a bit of a mystery to me. Last year my body fell off the end of the world and it took some persuation to get permision from the health guy to allow me to keep pedalling to work, which was mostly me drafting Boris bikes for a few months just to make it into the office. The shorten version of the saga is that I needed to fatten up, and only when I put on 4kgs could I think of doing anything serious. That took 7 months. So with newly acquired bulk – not ideal for climbing – and my Boris bike speed training, I tootled off to try my hand at the 200km. My longest ride til then had been a slow ride to Brighton on Alfonsina (my 90 year old, 22kg, 2 speed steel slug). Reattaching my legs took 2 weeks after this ride. I made it round the 200km, thanks mostly to being adopted by two lovely gentlemen, a theme I was to find carried through all my qualifiers. Exhausted but happy, I booked the other qualifiers and thought hell YES I’m gonna do this. The 300 was torrid, being sold as a flat ride, it was anything but at 3000m of climbing and taking us back via Maidenhead at 8pm on a Saturday night was slightly hair-raising for an exhausted rider.
The 400km was epic, it was up in Norfolk, the route was stunning, quiet roads especially for the period through the night, hearing owls toot and the misty sunrise punctuated with bird sound were the perfect entrée to a full English breakfast at the finish after 21 hours on the bike. I also got to meet Adrian O’Sullivan who did Transcon the year before and was heading out to do Transam. He’ll be at the startline for PBP too.
All that needed to be done was the 600km and I went for the Bryan Chapman in Wales, an Audax ride which has stood the test of time. Starting in Chepstow heading north to Bangor before returning to Chepstow, 8,500m of climbing stood between start and finish and those extra 4kg were close to being my undoing. I was ecstatic to get round in 37 hours and thus stake my claim to a PBP start place.
After all this effort to qualify it was touch and go as to whether I’d get to the startline… one should ALWAYS check the expiry date of a passport before travelling well in advance and not just the night before. Queue mad rushing about, volcanic emotional flows and plently of oh f..ks. Getting an emergency passport does not extend to disorganised travellers, nor does running around like a headless chicken assist with resting before a big event. My only option was to just head to the ferry and see what happened. I got a bit muddled with my directions and found myself going the wrong way on the M25, in stationery traffic, but thankfully and very sweatily made it just before the cut off time. The lovely English folk waved me on but the French guys nabbed me. I got told by French border control that I’d have to return to England (the guy was chuckling a bit), when I explained I was riding Paris-Brest-Paris, they asked “per velo?” (by bicycle?) and with that I was let through with a telling off to get a new passport. So there you have it, the French really do love cyclists and actually did have a great sense of humour. So, by the skin of my teeth I am off to do PBP, given the efforts to get to the startline, I will do everything in my powers to nail this one well and good. Wish me tailwinds and tasty calories.