Voices emerge from the darkness, “Bon Courage!”, it’s gone past midnight and small waving hands appear in the light beaming off the bike, small excited faces beam back. The darkness hides the little flow of tears as the emotion of this ride overtakes me.
In 2006 Paris Brest Paris (PBP) was just black ink printed on while paper, as it will be for the many reading this. It is hard to imagine what Paris Brest Paris means without doing it, but for me that blank ink now has colour and meaning, while the pain and suffing will be forgotten, the feeling I’ve just conquered something majestic will take some time to fade.
The scale of PBP is proabably what’s blown my mind the most. 2,000 voluteers help out over the course of six days, be they the folk who stamp your brevet cards at the control points, to those standing at the junctions at 3am directing you through some of the easily missed turns. Not to mention all the food served 24hours a day feeding 6,500 hungry cyclists arriving at all times day and night like a swarm of locusts, nor the mechanic who crawls out from under the blanket at 3am (it was pretty nippy at night) to find a stanley knife to allow you to make repairs to a dynamo hub. All along the route families would have tables outside their houses, offering water, cake or coffee, shops were open late making crepes and restocking empty cyclist’s larders and marquee’s were erected as supply stations. These were useful as some of the offical stops had run out of food and dinner consisted of a bowl of soup only. To these folk, my humble gratitude for their time to allow me to fulfil a long time dream.
For the navigationally challenged, this is the ride for you. Every junction was well sign posted: yellow signs to Brest, orange signs to Paris and green signs with crosses on if you missed a junction and went the wrong way. Periodically along the way there’d be a little confirmation you were on the right road, darkness does crazy things to the brain, but there on the side of the road would be a small reflective arrow reassuring your now fatigued brain you were still on course. 1,230km of signs on poles, stickers along the curb and stonking great red boards with Vegus style flashing arrows for the control points. If you missed a control you were proabably heading to Mars from Jupiter because these babies could be seen from the moon. That being said we did miss a junction and were flagged down by a passing car informing us we were now on the wrong road, I couldn’t see that happening anywhere other than on PBP.
Perhaps my favourite part was the night riding. We were armed with these ever so stylish yellow PBP vests, I hope the guys from the space station had a camera panned our way, beacuse the entire route must have been demarcated by a trail of lights and reflective jackets. As far as the eye could see, light reflected back at you from the vests, a trail of red tail lights could be seen all the way up the side of a hill, pointing you on your way. Every now and again you see this discombobulated mess of red and white lights next to a reflective mass and need to shake your head and double blink, as you got closer you realised it was someone asleep next to their bikes on the side of the road.
Sleeping, now that was an interesting thing in itself. I couldn’t quiet make out the nationalities, certainly Asian, perhaps Japanese, but there were a band of folk who would sleep sitting up, cross legged with their heads slumped over, at the side of the road, some were even sat on the tarmac. I found it incredible that folk could sleep this way, I envied them as sleep appeared to evade me. My sleep strategy was to ride about 450k then sleep 1.5hours, then 350km + 1.5hour sleep, 250km + 1.5hour sleep and then to take 20minute naps for the remainder of the ride. The first night, at 3am, I got about 45min sleep, I tried to get a bit more but it wasnt happening, so I got up and started rding again. At Brest (614km mark) I took a 30min nap (at about 4pm) then rode until 3am, with another 45min sleep. After that I decided to just keep riding and nap when the urge took over, I couldn’t seem to force myself to sleep at the controls like many others were doing. So in the 6hours I spent lying down trying to urge myself asleep, I managed a total of 3.5hours sleep in 3.5 days. The 20minute naps were the best and I will go with this from the off next time. I slept for 17 hours a day for two days when I got to the hotel with a small interludes for food, alot of food I might add. And appear to still be napping frequently.
I wish I could have taken more photos but as I was secretly chasing a sub 80hour ride, I felt the need to keep pushing on and was ever so grateful when a fast paceline of riders yelled to hop on. My favourite was a chap from the Alsace region who caught me on the descent on the way back from Brest. It must have been a good 20km descent with an off the scale grin factor. They picked me up the following day again, where we formed a good group and were chewing up the miles. Amongst the group was a former pro rider who is now the DS (director sportive) for a team whose name escapes me. We overtook a group who joined us and were riding pretty terribly, so the DS guy decided it was time to shake them and put the hammer down on a climb. I am so grateful I had good legs that day because I stayed with the group and we rode for almost an hour as if we were winning the Tour de France. I kept thinking, this is gonna hurt tomorrow but stuff it this is way too much fun. Darn I’m a racer at heart and am faking this randonneuring malakry.
Those were the highs and yes there were certainly lows, but I went in with the mental attitude if I had to crawl over the line to finish then I would. Oddly enough many of those lows appeared to coincide with the varying road signs used to describe the road surface. The French have a large variety of discriptions for their road surfaces, as a cyclist you don’t need to understand any of them because it doesnt matter what they say the surface is going to be shit to cycle on. Rough, slow and after day one in the saddle your undercarriage isn’t going to like any of them. This was no Tour de France newly laid smooth black road surface.
You can’t conceivable train for this ride so at some point you are going to delve into the depths of your mental strength, whilst delving during a rather dark phase I pulled up the A-Z of 80s music, where I had to think of the artisit’s name and then sing one of their songs. After an hour I got to “I”. At 3am I was struggling to think anyone starting with “I”. Took me a good 45 minutes to remember INXS and for the life of me could not phathom how Suicide Blond went. By the end of PBP I was still stuck on”R”. Could someone please put me out my misery and name an artist beginning with R?
My ride started out at 26km per hour for the first 200km and by km 1200 I was down to an average of 15kph which included all my rest and food stops and the umpteen faff stops too. I was chuff as pie to come in under 80hours, 78h53min to be precise. The question everyone asks “would you do it again?” Absolutely, I’m just sorry I’ll have to wait another 4 years before it comes around again. But thankfully I’ll have some bikepacking races to keep me going til then.