Paris Brest Paris: The ultimate party on wheels.
Paris-Brest-Paris: Race out, Party home
The elephant in the room
Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) has been an eight year long elephant in my room. It’s the pinnacle of endurance riding and one that for many many years was beyond me. Held once every four years PBP attracting 6,500 riders from all over the world, it's a 1,220km ride with 12,000m of climbing to be completed in 90 hours. I contemplated doing it in 2011 and even had a hotel room booked on the start line, but as with so many people this year I found out that as you move up the required qualification distances from 200km to 300km to 400km and finally 600km, it doesn’t just get physically harder – it gets exponentially mentally harder too – I used to ride 200km and 300km rides every weekend come rain, snow, ice or storm – but those are rides you complete in a day – move up to 400km and you are now riding through the night and the first time I attempted one, fuelled by a massive dose of sugar and caffeine it was miserable, truly horrible and I quit the ride and deleted my PBP plans. Some 1,700 people found the same this year – giving up their places before even getting to the start line.
2018 – Inspired by my belle
Roll forward seven years to 2018 and my riding belle Clare suggests riding Mille Cymru together, a 1,000km hugely hilly 4 day / 3 night ride in Wales, along with 400km and 600km training rides also through the night - I was naturally apprehensive – I knew I was physically fit enough for it, but was pretty sure I didn’t have the mental or emotional strength to ride through the night or cope with sleep deprivation. Well, ride that we did, and we both surprised ourselves in untold ways. I also started to really enjoy riding through the night – the bats, the badgers, the owls, the silence – giving way to daybreak, birdsong, sunrise and mist filled valleys – things you feel truly blessed to experience, and all because you are out there, on a bike. To Clare I will always be grateful for you inspiring me and supporting me on this journey.
2019 – PBP year
PBP 2019 was always the next natural goal. On paper much much easier than Mille Cymru – longer in distance (1,220km at PBP vs 1,000km at Mille) and only marginally less climbing (12,000m versus 15,000m) but the bit that would make it easier though were rider numbers - 6,500 at PBP, just 70 at Mille Cymru – with 6,500 riders even though they are starting in blocks of 200 over a 15 hour period, there will generally be groups of riders you can join or form, and make life easier for yourself. The reality was however that the PBP terrain was truly spiteful – only two proper hills, and the rest were like a thousand tiny draggy rolling chunts, persistent for hundreds of kilometres so that you never get into a rhythm or flow, its terrain that I truly truly loath with a vengeance.
Lets also add in block headwind misery shall we….
Race day arrives, mercifully dry after two days of torrential rain, but sadly now with a direct block headwind, straight into our face for all the 600km to Brest. Even more annoyingly the forecast was that pretty much as we got to Brest the wind would turn….. and yes there would be a headwind for at least part the way home too….. So now we have loathsome terrain and a spiteful mean headwind…… joyous.
To ride or to race…
To ride or to race, well, I didn’t know that myself until I set off on Sunday 5:30pm. The answer came about 1km into the ride when with everyone in my wave just cruising down the road Fiona Kolbinger, the overall winner of the recent TransContinential race came steaming by me with a +1 at double everyone elses pace, and so the +1 became +2 as we flew along, sadly my bananas letting go from their strapping and disappearing under the wheels of 200 following cyclists. We rode hard and committed as a threesome for 10km (OK, they rode, I mainly just sucked their wheel) until my legs gave up. 10km gone, 1,210km to go…..
Initial silly season over, I settled into a well working pack and decided to follow the general mantra of “race out, tour back” and in particular with 600km of block headwind to face the only sensible way of racing it was to find or make groups, and stick with them as much as possible.
The racing boys are soooooo dull
Sadly the downside of being with the racing boys was dear good they were as dull as shit, the continental Europeans in particular being brought up in a cycling ethos of “less talking, more cycling”. Well, that’s their choice I guess but it was beginning to do my head in, just hour after hour of riding in silence and after a while the brits were actively hunting each other down just to be able to chat and pass the time. The outbound leg was truly unmemorable, the 600km taking 28 hours, riding through the night from Sunday 5:30pm to Monday 9:30pm, stopping only at the controls (to have your carnet stamped, and get food and water) and for the obligatory picture of the very pretty bridge into Brest.
I had originally planned to split the ride into 3 segments – ride 400k, sleep, ride 400k, sleep, ride 400k home, but decided very early on to move to plan B and ride straight to Brest at 600km. Just a year ago if someone had said “sure, I plan to race hard all the 600km to Brest, sleep and then ride home” I would have felt this was pure madness, but here we all were, in Brest, half way there, feeling pretty chipper. Not quite as chipper though as all the leading guys and girls who despite us working as hard as we could were already 200 KILOMETERS AHEAD OF US!! We saw them on their return leg, gave them a wave and then let out a universal “NOOOOOOOOO” at just how astonishing it was – they would finish in around 48 hours, on zero sleep, truly truly remarkable.
Sleep, well that was next on my agenda. I am usually a truly terrible sleeper on these events, usually just laying on the bed staring at the ceiling for an hour or two as the adrenaline still flows around the body. I don’t mind riding on zero or negligible sleep and have learned to manage my fatigue by taking 20 minute microsleeps every two or three hours or so.
And here I assumed it would be the same, so when the bed controller asked me at 10pm “what time shall we wake you” I glibly said “ha, lets say 5am shall we”. There was logic in choosing 5am – thus you don’t need to ride at night when you are always slower / less alert / more dangerous. I assumed though I’d be back on the bike by 11pm ish, 12pm ish after some good ceiling staring….
Too much sleep….
So, 5am arrives…. Well that was 4 euros for my bed for 7 hours sleep, without doubt the best 4 euros I’ve ever spent! I truly felt like Zebedee on speed bouncing around the breakfast hall, much to the intense annoyance of all the lost souls in there who were just arriving after having ridden through the night.
Zebedee meets Ian
Zebedee then went into full gas party mode and was no doubt equally annoying as he sauntered past all the tired fatigued souls on the climbs out of town. I bumped into Ian on my way out of town – Ian was somewhat tired and fatigued, having fuelled himself solely on gels and red bull on the outbound leg, and having had a very natural complete body crash when they wore out, having considered quitting at Brest. He was a good lad, with an interesting background and we were soon swapping stories of life, love, women and the universe. We rode together for the next 300km until I needed a ditch / barn sleep, and then we bumped into each other a few more times and then finally at the end - Ian my friend, you are in a truly blessed place in your life now, with wonderful people around you, it was an utter pleasure to hear your story and ride with you.
Life heading home was immeasurably more enjoyable than the outbound leg, savoring the villagers who lined the route cheering you on all through the night – whole villages there at 3am, 4am cheering, handing out food, drink, wine, beer. Kids holding out hands for high fives. People videoing me (why??????!) as I passed. PBP is described as “the ultimate party on wheels” and it was a lovely party on the return leg, knowing I would be back into Paris sometime on Wednesday, potentially a whole 24 hours ahead of the deadline. Going through the controls on the way home, now hundreds of Km ahead of the people just arriving into the controls still on their outbound leg, poor lost souls, many hours behind cut-offs already and zero hope of making it to the end, the 600km of relentless headwind and spiteful hills putting an end to their ambitions.
My finish time, no, its not important….
On arrival into Brest in 28 hours, thought did turn to “I wonder what time I can actually do this in”. I had no plan before starting other than “finish” (and obviously within the 90 hour deadline). But now thought turned to “hm, I’m feeling pretty decent here, what is actually achievable”. Well, double 28 is 56, plus a couple of hours sleep in Brest plus a little more because you invariably slow down as you get fatigued, that makes, hm, 60 ish. Well that was all well and good until 2 hours sleep turned into 7 hours sleep…. 60 ish became “Sub 70”. But within that I was determined to not simply race – we would stop at the tabacs, we would have cake, we would savour the ride home.
As the ride went on, the pain and discomfort naturally increased, my left achilles was angry, both of my quads were on fire and my lower back was very unhappy. I was mainlining both paracetamol and coke by now, purely in “get me home mode”. 100km to go now. Everything hurts. Vision is blurry. I need the end, now, but its still five hours away.
Defcon 1 / damaging myself
At the final control, Dreux, just 45km to go, they told us “its all flat now” and with a little over 66 hours on my clock I decided to go into “Defcon 1” mode and hurt myself – and chase down a sub 68 hour finish. Not for any reason really other than to keep my mind occupied and detract from the pain, fatigue and tiredness that was now coursing round my body. Those last 45km were “properly committed riding”, I only recall riding that hard for that long once before, to avoid being swept up by the broom wagon along with Dave Allen on Cent Col Challenge. 10km from home and I thought I was doomed, I was a minute behind schedule and no ability to change it – when two other riders came by and we worked so incredibly hard as a threesome – I was damaging myself now, deliberately causing untold damage to a tired and fatigued body. But the adrenaline was flowing, my head as up, and the finish line was near.
Where is the damn finish line?
The finish line though, where’s the damn finish line – and as my Garmin clicked down to 300metres to go, it also clicked over to 68hrs and 1 minute riding. I had a realisation that the official PBP course time is only based on when you personally crossed the start line, I knew it took me a good minute or so to get across from my starting position near the back of my wave so maybe, just maybe I had a little time in hand.
Sobbing like a baby over 36 seconds.
67 hours 59 minutes 24 seconds.
I sobbed like a baby.
They gave me my finished medal, I sobbed some more.
I was interviewed on French television. And sobbed some more on TV.
I was a mere 20 hours (!!!!!) behind the winners but at least 10 hours ahead of any time I could ever have dreamt of achieving. 68 hours is around a top 11% to 12% finish time but at that moment all that mattered was the 36 seconds. Reflecting of course, a top 10% ish finish from a guy from the flatlands who quit his first 400km ride and vowed he would never, ever, do PBP, that ain't none too shabby a result.
I met Ian and his family in the finish zone. And sobbed some more.
So, would I do it again? Nope, not like that anyway, its just too insanely dull racing and not talking for all that time and the course itself is pretty drab and uninspiring. I gave up being “just a cyclist” for those reasons. Also, what’s it prove - so I do it again and this time don’t stop / don’t sleep and get home in 60 hours – and so what? As I wandered down to the finish line in my civvies the next day and watched groups of friends and clubs come in, 24 hours after I had been and gone - all together, all just within the 90 hours – that’s how I’d do it again – with friends, stopping to drink the beer, enjoy the crepes, chat with the villagers who came out to cheer us on, to enjoy PBP for what it really is – the ultimate party on wheels.
Some basic stats:
Riders starting: 6,500
Finish rate: around 80%
My finish position: circa 700th (to be confirmed)
"Day" one for me: Started Sunday 5:30pm, rode through night arriving in Brest at 610km Monday 9:30pm. Outbound leg 28 hours. Slept to 4:30am Tuesday
"Day" two for me: Started 5am Tuesday, rode through night, finished 1:30pm (minus 36 seconds!) Wednesday. Return leg 32.5hours.
Total time: 68 hours, of which riding was 50 hours, sleep 7 hours, and the remaining 11 hours at controls, eating, ditch / barn napping en route, photos etc.
Average moving speed 24.3km/hr
Number of pedal strokes: 270,000. Number of times my bottom bracket went "click" as I pedaled...270,000.....