Fourth Time Around?
In August 2015 I rode the 1200km Paris-Brest-Paris randonee for the third time. Whereas on my first two successful attempts I had travelled with Sports Tours International and made use of their drop bag locations along the way, on this occasion I rode completely unsupported. A few days after finishing, while on holiday in Brittany, I made the following notes on the ride.
I was prompted to read them again by an email reminding me that I’d need to slot in at least one 600km event in 2018 as a pre-qualifier for PBP 2019, were I to choose to ride it again. My first reaction was to look at the forthcoming events calendar but, after re-reading what I wrote back then, and reviewing my thoughts at the end of LEL last year, I decided not to enter in 2019.
But if you’ve never ridden PBP and are thinking of giving it a go, there’s nothing below that should put you off entering for one moment.
And you will never regret it if you do. Read on…
Paris-Brest-Paris is like one of those observation tests where a group of people are asked to watch a film and then answer questions about what they have seen, in order to prove that we all experience things differently and our memories of events are highly subjective.
Some people will tell you that it is a fast, flat route while other will mutter darkly about the short, sharp hills in Brittany. For every rider that grumbles about the food or queuing at the controls there will be someone that claims to have eaten like a king and never had to spend more than 45 minutes off the bike.
Some praise the unofficial support along the road and relish their contact with the people who stay up all night to serve free drinks and food from their front gardens while others ride the entire event barely looking up from the illuminated line on their Garmins.
There is no correct way to ride it nor a “best” way to experience it. All you can do is ride it for yourself and take away from it what you will.
This was my third PBP so to some extent I should have known what to expect, yet still there were aspects that caught me by surprise. For example, my memory had blotted out the rolling hills between Mortagne and Senonches. I barely registered them on the outward leg but on the return each seemed as daunting as an Alpine climb. Conversely, the final leg, from Dreux to the finish, had seemed to go on for ever on my previous ride but shot by this time around, to the extent that I had to stop to kill some time before riding in to the velodrome at the end.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me take you back to the start, on a warm Sunday night in August 2015.
Riders were being sent off at 15 minute intervals, in groups of a few hundred. I had secured a slot in the 6pm start group, Group J, which meant that there were three other 90-hour groups on the road ahead of me from the start (F, G and H), the sub-80 hour groups A-E having started from 4pm. 90-hour groups would continue to start every 15 minutes until 8pm (Group T), with the sub-84 hour group X starting at 5am the following morning.
Allocated start times was a new introduction for PBP. In the past, there were just 3 start groups, one for each of the time categories, and one simply had to queue until one reached the start line. Last time around, this had meant a wait of more than 2 hours in baking sun for many of us in the 90 hour group, leaving us irritable and dehydrated from the get-go.
Our group of 300 was off on the dot of 6pm, the motorbike escort leading us out of town on closed roads with applauding crowds. As always, the buzz lifted everyone and the pace was high – too high to be sustained and potentially leading people to burn out too early in the ride. I rode fast for the first 20km or so, as I was in a large bunch that was rolling along well. For much of that I was chatting with a lady named Nicky, who had recently moved from the Cotswolds to South Yorkshire and was not only riding her first PBP but had taken up Audax riding only this year. She had, she told me, taken a photo of my bike earlier that day, having noticed the Tigger mascot on the back. That Tigger was to serve as a reference point or conversation starter throughout the ride. It also had a more practical purpose – making it much easier to find my bike among hundreds of others at the controls along the way.
There were numerous watering stops along the way – usually families who had set up a table outside their house and were topping up bottles from their household supply – whilst as in previous years the Bar de Sport in Chateuaneuf en Thymerais, at 80km, was doing a roaring trade in expressos and, no doubt, beers for the more confident riders. Starting earlier than in past years meant that this was the first time I had passed through the town in daylight and I was easily able to resist the temptation to stop.
MOST LIKELY YOU GO YOUR WAY AND I’LL GO MINE
Nicky, riding with very little kit, was enjoying the pace but after a quick stop to top up the water bottles near Chateauneuf en Thymerais, I eased off to a speed that I knew I could hold over remaining 60km to the first food stop, at Mortagne au Perche. I knew from past experience that the last 20km or so featured a succession of sharp climbs so I wanted to keep some energy in reserve for that stretch. I didn’t see her again so I presume she found herself a fast-moving group and finished with plenty of time in hand. She had a B&B booked for the following two evenings at Loudeac and was planning to ride from there to Brest and back in one day, which I thought was a little ambitious, but she looked to be a strong rider so perhaps it was achievable with a suitably early start and late finish.
My plan, such as it was, for the ride was to keep an average moving speed of more than 20kph and to limit my time at most of the controls to an hour, interspersed with two or three longer breaks in which I could get two or three hours’ sleep. On previous occasions, I had taken my first such break at Carhaix, about 500km in, but this time I planned to ride through to Brest (615km) before allowing myself to lie down.
It was a beautifully warm evening and I reached Mortagne at about 1.00 am, still in shorts and short sleeves. For some reason there was no coffee available (a harbinger of shortages to come at several of the controls) but I put away a bowl of pasta and a yoghurt and, with an extra layer for the cooling night, was back on the road within the hour.
The ride to Villaines, the first control proper, was uneventful. In fact, it’s probably the dullest part of the PBP route. I would occasionally hook up with groups of other riders but frequently found them to be constantly speeding up and slowing down while I was comfortably holding a consistent pace, so I was mainly on my own. I rolled into Villaines at 4.30, meeting up with some of the Essex crew, who had started at the same time as me but not stopped to eat at Mortagne. I was feeling a little sleepy so allowed myself a slightly longer stop and a 45 minute catnap at the table before heading out again, still well within my “schedule”.
DOWN THE HIGHWAY
Villaines to Fougeres, at 300km, is virtually one road, punctuated with long (dull) drags rather than steep climbs. This suited me as I’d been concentrating my “training” on pushing slightly higher gears than were comfortable for extended periods. I found myself passing group after group, occasionally picking up a few followers. I arrived at Fougeres just before 10.00, had a quick coffee, and pressed on, knowing that it was only 54km to the next control at
This leg was hillier than I remembered but I was feeling strong and reached the control at 1.20. In past years the food here has been quite poor but the options this year were a little better and I was able to load up with both carbohydrate and protein and squeeze in a short catnap before setting off for Loudeac, arriving just after 7.
At just under 450km, Loudeac is where many riders choose to take their first proper sleep and, as such, it has a huge dormitory in which mattresses can be rented for a few hours. I suppose that would be quite seedy if it wasn’t for the fact that after 24+ hours without sleep and 450 km perched on a small piece of leather, few would be capable of anything other than dreamless slumber. It’s an odd control in that, for some reason, half the town seems to come out to wander around and generally get in the way of the riders. In 2003 I queued for more than an hour for food because there were so many locals taking the opportunity for a cheap meal. Thankfully, that’s been seen to and now only riders are allowed in to eat, but it retains a slightly chaotic feel and I was happy to grab a quick meal (the only control offering fresh fruit salad!) and move on.
One bemusing thing at Loudeac, though, was seeing a large number of drop bags laid out for a group of Japanese riders who had clearly come with some form of organised tour. The bags were identical and individually numbered. Over the event, there was some discussion among riders about the Japanese riders, a large number of whom seemed woefully ill-prepared for the challenge. On the way out from Paris, less than 50km into the ride, I found myself overtaking Japanese riders who had started 30 minutes before me and I was to encounter many who seemed to be struggling. Indeed, as I approached Carhaix on the return from Brest (so, some 700km into the ride) I was amazed to see some members of that ‘G’ start group only just leaving the town – still on their way to Brest several hours after the control had closed. There was some speculation that perhaps their qualifying rides had not been policed to the same level as those in other countries, thus allowing the tour organisers to achieve sufficient entrants to make the trip viable.
Between Loudeac and Carhaix, it gets seriously hilly, but for me this stage was a novelty as I had not seen most of it in daylight before now. In past years, my later start time and slower pace has meant arriving at Loudeac at dusk and leaving in the dark. This year I left at around 8.15, giving me a couple of hours of daylight. I was feeling pretty strong still and found my legs powering me up hills that just a few months ago would have seen me scrambling for lower gears. Certainly I left a fair number of people in my wake, which is a rare occurrence for me.
NOT DARK YET
However, lest I become too cocky, it was on this stage that I started to encounter the first of the “vedettes” – the very fast riders who carry no luggage and (mostly) have support crews at every control – on their way back, having started just two hours before me. I envy their ability to ride so fast but can’t help feeling that they’re missing much of the fun of the event. I like that I can stop for 15 minutes for a chat with a couple who have set up a table at their garden gate and are offering coffee and cake to any cyclist that feels like calling in. This year, I did that more than on either of my previous PBPs.
On those two earlier PBPs, Carhaix was the low point; the point at which I have nearly quit. I think that’s because I have arrived in the early hours of the morning, cold and tired, compounded by the poor quality of food available. This year I arrived just after 1am focused on taking on some carbohydrate and bit of protein, having a 45 minute snooze, and heading straight out again.
The next stretch, up into the Forest of Huelgoat, is to my mind the most attractive part of the PBP. In past years I’ve ridden it in the first light of dawn so it was interesting to ride it in darkness, hearing the sounds of the forest at night. It seems counter-intuitive, but it’s possible to appreciate the beauty of a place in the dark as well as in daylight.
From Huelgoat it’s a steady, but undemanding, drag up to the highest point on the ride, the Roc de Treverzal, which I reached shortly before the first light of dawn. A blistering descent, peaking at 68kph, and rolling roads took me to Sizun, where several cafes had stayed open all night providing welcome coffees and snacks. Stewed coffee and hot quiche has never been so appealing.
After Sizun, it’s fair to say that the ride gets rather dull. For understandable reasons, the organisers like to bring riders into Brest over the old road bridge across the Penfeld river, which sits alongside the more spectacular modern bridge and offers fairly attractive views of the harbour. However, the route to this is dreary to say the least and once over the bridge one quickly realises what an unappealing city Brest is. A long, mainly uphill, drag through grim streets leads to an apparently unfinished community centre. This is the Brest control, the place for 6,000 riders from all over the world have been aiming, and what a complete and utter let-down it is.
Now, I’m writing this a week later and I still can’t believe how utterly abysmal the Brest control was. The bike parking, toilets (unspeakable) and canteen were on three separate sites and the latter had three separate serving areas, requiring you to queue three times were you so choosy as to require a hot drink, fruit and something more nourishing. I was fortunate; at that point I had enough time in hand not to need to eat there, but I did need to sleep. I learned afterwards that there was a separate sleeping area, but in my befuddled state, I saw nothing to indicate that the idea that riders might need some sleep had occurred to the organisers. However, I did manage to find a flattened out cardboard box in an unfinished part of the building and stretch out on it for a couple of hours’ reasonably uninterrupted, if not comfortable, rest.
I’ll comment on the overall finish later but it does seem to me that for most riders, getting to Brest is an achievement in itself so it’s a shame that this, of all the controls, should be such a let down. This isn’t new, by the way. It was poor in 2011 and, indeed, in 2003. Perhaps Brest would prefer the ride to go elsewhere. Certainly, it seems uninterested in welcoming it.
ON THE ROAD AGAIN
Having arrived at Brest at 8am I left at around 11.30 with almost 50 hours to get back to Paris. A comfortable margin, I felt. Annoyingly, over the next 18 hours I made several misjudgments that chipped away at my buffer and even left me, briefly, worrying about finishing on time.
The first mistake was to go for a pizza. As I was leaving Brest, I bumped into Richard Parker, another British rider whom I knew. Like me, he had been underwhelmed by the food on offer and, like me, needed to refuel before the hilly ride back to Carhaix. I had in mind a boulangerie and a pile of croissants, pain-au-chocolate and coffee. It was, after all, breakfast time. He had in mind something more substantial and thus we pulled into a Dominos Pizza on the outskirts of the city.
One of the things I love about France is that it has not succumbed to the takeaway culture and it’s still quite unusual to see overweight blobs waddling through the streets, grazing as they go. On the other hand, when one does visit a fast food place, there’s a reasonable expectation that the service will be, well, fast. Sadly, this message hadn’t reached this particular branch of Dominos and so we lost a good hour for the sake of a mediocre blob of dough, cheese and tomatoes.
Back on the road, Richard was faster than I and quickly left me behind (although I learned later that he had suffered stomach problems later in the ride and abandoned). I rode the rest of the way to Carhaix solo, stopping off once again in Sizun for a cold drink in a marquee the locals had helpfully erected in the market square. Here, a Belgian rider rode off just as I arrived, leaving behind a pouch containing not only his brevet card but also his cash, ID card and driving licence. I waited a while for him to return but, after half an hour with no sign of him, I took it with me. Happy to report, I was able to reunite him with it at Carhaix where, the controllers told me, he had arrived in a state of despair.
I reached Carhaix at about 5.30 to discover that the canteen had run out of all food apart from a thin, tasteless soup and some overcooked green beans. Annoying for me but I could imagine how difficult things were going to get later as more and more riders started arriving back from Brest. I allowed myself an hour’s sleep and, still hungry, pressed on for Loudeac.
Fortunately, I was able to find a boulangerie still open in one of the villages – Merleac, I think – not far along the way and stopped off for a feast of pastries and coffee. A few miles further on was an official feeding stop. The fare on offer wasn’t too appealing but I did stop for a coffee and bumped into Alistair, also known as PieEater, with whom I’d ridden some of my qualifying rides this year. He was chatting to Heather Swift, one half of the AUK film crew on the ride, and I promptly found myself being drawn into the on-camera discussion. Given my cumulative lack of sleep, I dread to think what I said but no doubt it will come back to haunt me on YouTube someday.
I stayed far too long and, when I was leaving, Alistair suggested that he and his friend, whom I’d not met before, joined me for the rest of the stage. With hindsight, this was a mistake. They were riding at a slightly slower pace than the one I had established and, having started later than I, were also happy to stop at each opportunity and so another 45 minutes were frittered away at a roadside café in St Martin de Pres, barely 20 miles down the road.
In the end, I reached Loudeac just before 2am, only 10 minutes before my cut-off time. Although there was no real risk that I would not be able to claw back some more time, I had squandered almost all of the buffer that I had built up in the first 600km.
PieEater and Pal wanted to stop at Loudeac for some food but I chose to continue, determined to get back into the black. (Sadly, I was to learn that Alistair also failed to finish, having suffered stomach problems on the penultimate stage, from Mortagne to Dreux.) I rode steadily to Tinteniac, stopping only for a disappointing breakfast at Quedillac (again, they had run out of many of the items that were supposed to be on the menu), and, after only a brief stop to eat a couple of yoghurts and a crepe, continued to Fougeres, at 900km, which I reached just after 11 am.
IF YOU GOTTA GO, GO NOW
I bumped into another familiar face, my near-neighbour, John Sabine, on the way in and we both opted to have a proper lunch here. He had started at the same time as me and was keen to get going straight away so that he could “bank” a bit of time for some sleep later on. Although I’m a slower rider than him on the road, I opted instead for 45 minutes stretched out on the grass snoozing before setting off, confident that I could make up for lost time. Apart from a few long drags, the next stage is rolling rather than lumpy and I was proven right, reaching Villaines once again at about 6pm, 72 hours after starting.
This is a weird control – some love it and some, like me, dislike it intensely. It sprawls either side of the street; there’s a canteen on one side which, predictably, had run out of almost everything. On the other side there’s a “restaurant” attached to a large hall, in which most of the town seemed to have come out to eat. In the middle, where you park your bike, there seems to be a perpetual party going on with trashy Europop blasting out at high volumes and a middle aged man prattling into a microphone. Last time around, I made the mistake of trying to get a few hours’ sleep here, only to discover that one of the speakers for the DJ was on the window ledge of the hall set aside as a dormitory. The service is always slow, especially as every transaction seems to involve two or three people and a great deal of discussion.
At the time I arrived, there seemed to be some confusion over where the food was being served and a long queue (mainly comprising non-cyclists) was building up. I did get something to eat, though, and put my head down for 45 minutes before heading back out into the night air. At the table, I chatted briefly with an American couple riding their first long ride outside of their home state of Florida. They were having a thoroughly rotten time, having not anticipated how hilly the route would be. How did it compare with the
London-Edinburgh-London route, they asked. I felt duty bound to warn them that while the hills on LEL were harder, the resulting views and descents more than compensated for the climbing, making it an altogether more satisfying ride.
ONE MORE CUP OF COFFEE
Villaines to Mortagne was memorable mainly for a couple of roadside coffee stalls, one run by the local cycling club in Mamers and the other by an enthusiastic family who just happened to live near the top of a hill about 20km from Mortagne and seemed to have roped in several of their neighbours to keep an all-night barbecue on the go. My riding pace was fine but I must have spent a good 60 to 90 minutes at these roadside distractions. The final climb to the control was, as always, painful, and I was relieved to arrive at about 1.20. The food here had been good on the way out and was still good on the return. A freshly cooked omelette and some yoghurt did the trick, enabling me to carry on without a further snooze.
I commented above that the run in to Mortagne was a series of difficult hills and, of course, the same was true of the route back, but in reverse. If anything, they are harder going back because of tiredness and I found them particularly hard going this year. However, once I reached Senonches, where the route back diverges from its outbound counterpart, I knew that the remaining 36km to Dreux were relatively flat and I was able to pick up the pace again.
By this stage in the ride, everyone is getting tired and it was starting to show in the ways some people were riding. It wasn’t uncommon to come across groups riding spread out across the whole road or hugging the centre line as if it were a magnetic track that would stop them drifting into a hedge or ditch. I learned to give these riders a wide berth when passing – many had a tendency to drift across the road when being passed. On the long climbs, where tired riders started to weave all over the road, I generally found myself taking a line on the the far left side and simply grinding past everyone. Fortunately, at night these roads are generally traffic-free.
All along, I had been aiming to finish between 11.30 and midday, so arriving in Dreux, just 65km from the finish, at 6.30am meant that I had time to have a shower and change, as well as having some breakfast. I was anticipating a 3 hour ride to the finish and so was slightly taken aback when another rider that I know well began telling me that the final leg contained “four major climbs” and would take at least 4 hours. On that basis, he said, I needed to leave asap.
I was thrown by this as I’d looked on the map and the route looked to be very similar to that from 2011. I compromised, not rushing off but bringing my departure forward by about half an hour.
SHELTER FROM THE STORM
As it turned out, the route was pretty much the same as last time, with a few short steep climbs but nothing that was going to make a big difference to my time, and I found myself rolling in to the finish with plenty of time in hand. I even ended up standing at a covered bus stop for a while, taking shelter from the sudden and torrential rain, so that my welcoming party could find their way to the finish in time to meet me.
As with Brest, the finish was a let down. In previous years, we’ve entered through the town and circuited a roundabout – usually full of applauding and cheering people – to reach the finishing line. This time it was a dull ride through a park before turning up through a narrow track alongside which a few people were standing, but with no sense of a finish line or any form of welcome. A real let-down, in fact. Then there was the chaos of the bike park, the queue to hand in brevet cards and the mediocrity of the finishers’ meal – cold chicken and undercooked pasta.
TROUBLED AND I DON’T KNOW WHY
I spoke to a few people and left the velodrome feeling completely deflated. Had the family, and my friend, Jon (who had been riding his first PBP but, sadly, had to abandon at Brest) not been there to welcome me, I suspect that I would have found myself questioning the point of it all. For all its reputation as THE pinnacle of long distance cycling, there’s just something slightly missing about PBP and it’s at the P and the B rather than in-between. Along the road, the support was inspiring. A week later, in Mortagne au Perche, I picked up the local paper and was amazed to find no fewer than 5 pages of photos from the event. This from a town through which we had merely passed. I think more needs to be made of both the arrival in Brest and, especially, the finish. Frankly, I’ve experienced more of a welcome at the end of a 60 mile ride in the UK.
Overall, I wonder if PBP has over-reached itself and can’t cope with the number of entrants it now attracts. The growing number of entrants riding with support crews, taking their meals from camper vans parked up around the controls, must make it hard for the volunteers to plan the catering, for sure, but that’s not really a satisfactory explanation for the poor quality of the food on offer at some of the controls or the lack of forethought that leads to (for example) having to join three separate queues in order to buy breakfast at Brest. Similarly, the shambles of the pre-ride meal, at which all food ran out before 4pm leaving any riders, like me, departing after about 5pm having to quickly find something to eat in the town centre before setting off, can only be down to bad planning, since those of us opting for the meal had paid in advance and collected our meal tickets on the previous day.
Perhaps these are minor gripes that seem significant now, a week on from the event, but will fade into proportion in a few months and be forgotten by the time qualification for 2019 starts. On the other hand, getting the food right is such an essential part of any long ride and absolutely crucial in circumstances where there are few other options available than the official controls. It can make the difference between finishing comfortably and failing – aside my own friends, I have since heard several stories of people abandoning due to stomach problems, which may be a consequence of inadequate nourishment along the way.
Will I do it again? At the time of writing, my inclination is not to. I’ve done it three times now and, while on the first two occasions I had moments when I seriously considered abandoning, and at times was riding right up against the time limits, this year I rode on my own terms, completely self-sufficient, always confident of finishing at the time I had planned and able to stop along the way and enjoy the event more. So, in that sense, I feel that I’ve “done” PBP and it’s hard to think of a good reason to do it again. And, it has to be said, when compared with, say the spectacular and diverse landscapes of London-Edinburgh-London, the route itself is not that attractive.
Perhaps I could volunteer next time around, to give something back in that way, or help organise some qualifying events. We’ll see. In the meantime: been there, done that, got the T-shirt. And that’s enough for me.