Photo: The Paris Brest cake named after the race.
Plan, Prepare, Perform
How do you plan for something you have never done before? Instead of speculating and then fumbling about in the dark I read many blogs and forums and spoke to previous PBP participants. Different riders approach PBP in very different ways, but everyone I spoke to had an insight that would help me.
Based on that knowledge I compiled a plan:
600km – sleep – 300km – sleep – 300km – finish
It became known as the Specialissima Strategy after online chats with Tiffany, an Australian rider, who has the same bike as me and a similar plan.
My plan, based on my start time of 18:15 Sunday 18th August for the 90 hour event:
The horizontal colours are days. Sunday evening through to Thursday. Having read so much about wasting time at the controls I put a departure time target, rather than an arrival time.
The critical number was 02:14. If I could finish by then on Thursday morning I would have finished in 79 hours and something. Ten hours to spare. This was designed to see if I could manage the 80 hour event in four years time. Planning ahead.
My preparation went beyond the required series of rides to become a Super Randonneur. Having completed the 200km and 300km in the UK and the 400km and 600km in Italy I was well prepared for heat, rain, cold and wind. I completed an additional 300km ride with 5,000m of climbing to add some strength to the legs for good measure.
Two months before PBP I tested my strategy with a 600km no sleep ride followed by a night at home, then 200km, another night at home then another 200km. 1,000km in 69 hours, solo. This gave me the confidence that my ‘No sleep until Brest’ strategy could work for me.
Having prepared physically the next consideration was the bike and kit. I had my bike fully serviced a month before. New cables, new grease, new brake pads. A week before, new tyres and inner tubes.
Several months before I had prepared my kit list. A few days before departure for France I laid out what I thought I would carry. I took much more kit with me to Paris so that I could make my final decision on what to carry on the morning of the ride depending on the weather forecast. In the end, this is pretty much what I carried.
My final selection was:
Cockpit bag: Power bank, cables, café stop lock & key. The cash (TOP TIP: take about €150-€180 in €5 and €10 notes to speed up paying), id, EHIC, Euro credit card and Brevet card all ended up in the PBP lanyard around my neck. TOP TIP: If it’s comfortable around your neck, use the lanyard for your Brevet card, money, credit cards. That way, all you need carry to the controls is your water bottle (and you computer if you prefer not to risk leaving it on the bike).
Top tube bag: Fuel to get me through the first night, antibac wipes, wet lube, sun cream, toothpaste and brush and hydration tablets TOP TIP: I used High 5 Mojito flavour hydration tablets. Tastes like you are boozing but no alcohol. I also used the berry with caffeine for night riding.
Seat post bag: Inflatable mattress, silk liner, emergency blanket, change of clothes (base layer, jersey, bib shorts, socks, gloves and cap), additional clothes (arm warmers, tights), sports towel, loo roll, plastic bag.
On the bike: Wahoo computer, multitool, tyre levers, cable ties, CO2 cannisters (3) and inner tubes (3), puncure repair kit, water bottle.
Wore: Heart monitor, base layer, bibshorts, jersey, gloves, socks, shoes, cap, helmet (with head light), presciption sunglasses.
Carried in jersey pockets: Phone, rainjacket, PBP reflective gilet, neck buff.
How successful was this selection? Not bad. I didn’t regret not carrying anything I left behind but I didn’t use the inflatable mattress, silk liner, sports towel, loo roll or the emergency blanket.
My final preparations incuded a 31km ride to the start at Rambouillet from my hotel the day before the ride to have my bike checked and collect my gilet, jersey, number and tracking tag. On the way it started to rain. It didn’t stop. I was soaked by the time I got there.
“I want your arm” demanded the lady at the registration desk. She put on this bracelet that I was to keep on until I had finished. This was to be used at the controls to check my bike number matched my wristband.
At least I could get out of the rain in the Casa Italia to catch up with with my friend Pino Leone, Captain of Audax Randonneur Italia.
I caught the train back to Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines. Chatting to a couple of Indian riders, one a fellow Bianchi Boy, they gave me a little gift to thank me for helping them get the right train and where to get off. I loved the spirit of international friendship. Such a contrast to what’s going on in the world at the moment. I had nothing to offer in return. TOP TIP: Next time, get some badges made up to exchange.
Back at the hotel I had to strip the bike and clean it in the shower. Such fun this PBP.
The day of reckoning had arrived. It was raining. I postponed my drive to Rambouillet for as long as possible so that the rain would clear. Arriving at 13:00 I still had 5 hours to kill.
The weather forecast was looking better. Good news – it would be dry. Bad news – headwinds all the way to Brest.
I dropped by the Italian Randonneurs for their group photo and chat with a few friends. The gloved hand bottom right is mine.
“I wouldn’t feed this to my chickens”. This was the verdict of a Brasilian rider about the pasta meal we were provided. TOP TIP: Take your own pre-ride meal or find a bistro in Rambouillet.
I met up with Salvatore Pepe, an Italian who had helped me get through my 600km qualifier in the rain in Milan. Grazie Salvatore.
The time came to move to the start. We were organised in groups of 300 by letters of the alphabet and released every 15 minutes. It was time for my group:
“5-4-3-2-1 Go”. We were underway.
As I crossed the starting timer it hit me. A wave of emotion. 5 years ago I broke my back skiing. The surgeon said I was unbelievably lucky not to have damaged my spinal column. I am grateful everyday that my legs still work. I started cycling on the road in 2015. Now I was starting the legendary PBP.
I was prepared for this to happen at the finish, but not at the start. I felt this pressure in my chest and I starting crying. It could not control it. It happens from time to time. I just have to deal with it. It’s part of my life now. It will probably always be there.
It lasted a few hundred metres then went away. I hope no one noticed. If this is how I felt at the start what would hit me at the finish? I would find out in three to four days time.
The start behind the control car made us feels like professionals. The initial pace was smokey. Incredibly, after an hour I was 30km in, the upper limit for audaxing. It couldn’t, and didn’t, last but I was feeling good.
At 60km in I started to hear a ‘squeak ….. squeak ….. squeak’. Was that noise from mine or another bike? The chain started to skip cogs. It was mine. I had a problem. My plan was to ride straight through the feed stop at Mortagne-au-Perche (118km) and on to the first control at Villaines-la-Juhel (217km) but the mouse hiding somewhere in my cassette put paid to that.
At the feed stop I headed straight for the mechanic. A charming young French lady, a volunteer translator, explained I had to wait for 30 minutes to be seen. I headed for the gents, re-filled my water bottle then headed back to the mechanic’s tent to wait. They were sorting it out. Nothing serious, the cassette lock ring had come undone. “Combien monsieur?” I enquired, “Rien” he replied. “Merci beaucoup monsieur et mademoiselle. Au revoir”. I was on my way. TOP TIP: Learn some/speak French. I was amazed how much school boy French I remembered. Many of the volunteers spoke English but I preferred to speak French whenever I could. It’s just a mark of respect.
How much help do you give? On the next stage to Villaines-la-Juhel (217km) a German lady pulled up alongside at a junction and said “Thank you”. I have no idea why she said thank you but maybe she had been drafting me. It was dark by now. We chatted for a while. I used nearly all my German to explain that I had been in Bremehaven in 1974 for gymnastics. Bearta replied “I was born in Bremehaven in 1974”. I can assure you that’s where the connection ended. I was not her long lost father!
She tucked behind me for some protection from the wind. She was a little slower than me but I thought it would do me good to slow my pace a little after the fast start. At the control we shared a bowl of coffee (one serving, two bowls) and flan, my treat. After the control I pulled away as she remained in a larger group. I was happy to help for a while but I had my own pace to maintain.
The support from the French people, and the Bretons in particular is the best part of PBP. It’s truly uplifting. Entering a village or town one is bombarded with “Bon route”, “Bon courage” or “Allez allez”. Occasionally when on my own I heard “Baroudeur” meaning warrior (or stupid!).
I would wave at every well wisher and reply “Merci”. In one village I saw the parents and grandparents sitting on chairs outside their home and the children hanging out their bedroom window cheering on the riders. It was four o’clock in the morning!
Heading for Fougères (306km) I started alone but ended up in a group of about 8 riders as the dawn broke on Monday morning. Descending at some speed two PBP officals stepped into the road and blew their whistles. I thought it was one of the secret controls. They pulled our group over as two riders had turned their lights off too soon. I was running a dynamo so mine were on, no need to conserve batteries. I have a dynamo that conforms to German traffic regulations – the dynamo stays on for 10 minutes after stopping (to allow for traffic lights etc.) so I was allowed to continue. We arrived at Fougères (306km) for breakfast. I was now ‘half way to half way’
I left the control at about 08:00, two hours ahead of my plan, heading for Tinténiac (360km). The terrain was constant rolling hills. Up, down, up, down, up down like a children’s rollercoaster. A rollercoaster into the wind.
We were now well into Brittany. A Brit said something to me that was to change my plan much later in the ride. He observed that whilst the countryside was nice, it’s wasn’t that spectacular, a bit samey.
The villages and towns of Brittany were very pretty. Many were twinned with places in the UK that I’d never heard of. I wondered if some dodgy salesman had a job lot of UK town names he had to shift.
After Tinténiac (360km) along a long straight road into the wind I had a front wheel puncture. Whilst repairing it an old man came out from his house to ask if he could help. I thanked him in French then had to answer his next question with “Je regrette, je ne parle pas français”. Many of the volunteers said I had a very good French accent. That confuses people, when you explain near fluently, that you can’t speak their language. I replaced the inner tube but couldn’t get the CO2 from the cannister into the tyre. I tried a second cannister, same result. I had to resort to the pump. Enough to keep me going to the feed stop at Quedillac (387km) to pump it up to full pressure. Quedillac was also the bag drop for Audax Randonneur Italia. Although a member of ARI, as well as Audax UK, I preferred to do it in the traditional manner and carry everything I needed.
From Quedillac (387km) through Loudéac (445km), Saint-Nicolas-du-Pelem (489km) onto Carhaix (522km) I continued alone or in a small groups for short periods. This was the drive to the half way point. My speed was dropping as the driving headwind took it’s toll.
At Carhaix (522km) my reward was a bowl of hot chocolate. I put my helmet in shot to show just how big a bowl it was.
I left Carhaix (522km) an hour and 20 minutes ahead of plan for the biggest climb of the ride, over the Roc’h Trédudon at 345m. The descent into Brest was fast. I began to think how hard it was going to be to climb back up in the morning. This began to pre-occupy my mind as the fatigue set in. I started to allow more time in my plan to climb back up.
On arrival at Brest (611km) I headed straight for the dormitories. There was a queue. After a few minutes they asked if any riders wanted to just sleep and not shower. The entire queue nearly disappeared to the basement for the mattresses strewn across the room. I was allocated a two person room and headed to bed, requesting a wake up call at 04:30. I set my alarm for 04:35 just in case. I hit the pillow (my change of kit in a plastic bag) at 00:30 Tuesday morning.
I was awoken by a volunteer. I started to get ready and realised it was 03:30. I got 3 hours sleep. They had got me confused with the guy in the next bed. We decided to wake him. He was a Brit who was grateful to be woken close to his requested time.
A shower, change of kit and breakfast then back on the road. I left Brest (611km) at 05:00. Exactly one hour ahead of plan.
I lost some of that advantage when I stopped for a quick coffee by the roadside. Even the old lady from across the road joined us in her dressing gown.
Before the climb I lost even more time with a second front puncture. On both occasions I removed the tyre completely to check for the culprit but saw no problems in the tyre. This time I could get some CO2 into the tyre but still I needed to top up with the pump.
The climb back up wasn’t as bad as I feared. I realised that the gradient wasn’t that steep. It’s just that I managed such good speed on the descent that it, and the fatigue, obscured my judgement the night before.
Over the top of Roc’h Trédudon again was a great feeling. The two biggest climbs of the entire ride were now behind me. On to Carhaix (694km) to use the track pump and buy a couple of inner tubes.
During this time the comment from the Brit about the landscape began to play on my mind. My original plan was to get to Fougères (924km), sleep for a good few hours then complete PBP by Wednesday evening, maximising the daylight hours to appreciate the countryside. The competitor in me took over. After lots of mental arithmetic I reckoned if I rode through the night I could complete PBP in less than 72 hours – three days. Then I thought, if I could do it in less than 72 hours, why couldn’t I do it in less than 70? This became my new target.
Motivated by this new objective I left Fougères (924km) before 23:00, 9 hours ahead of the original plan. During the night I traded places with various riders. One of them came alongside and I said “good speed”, he replied in a Russian accent “Do you have powerpack?”. His powerpack had stopped working in the cold and his front light had only 20 minutes left. I suggested we stop at the next village under a street light. I shook hands with Sergey and handed over my power pack. “Thank you, you saved my life” said a grateful Sergey. Hardly, but delighted to help. It turned out that Russian speaking Sergey was from Belarus. I used my TEFL qualification to conduct an English lesson to pass the early hours. Sergey will never forget “thirty three and a third”.
We decided to sleep for an hour at Villaines-la-Juhel (1,013 km). Enough time for his light to charge before we headed off for the final 200km.
Dawn broke on our way to Mortagne-au-Perche (1,098km). At a road side coffee stop we met Ian, a five time veteran of PBP. We chatted together on our way to the final control at Dreux (1,175km). My right foot had started to feel sore so off came the shoes for some respite.
We left Dreux (1,175km) at 13:15 for the final stage to the finish. The route had been changed due to road works. I didn’t have the final stage on my Wahoo so the final 45 km were computer free. I just enjoyed the ride and company. As we approached Rambouillet I began to think about the wave of emotion that might engulf me when we crossed the finish line. I needed to keep it together.
We crossed the line together. I stopped the clock at 69 hours, 5 minutes and 4 seconds, way faster than I ever dreamt of. Not bad for a 59 year old first timer. I started as a virgin and ended up with a sixty-nine. I hope I did my clubs proud: Islington Cycling Club, Audax UK, SCD Centinarolese, Audax Randoneur Italia.
It was a struggle but I managed to keep control of the wave that I could feel building up inside me. Park the bike, then the final control.
I called my wife Jan. As soon as I heard her voice I completely lost it. I couldn’t hold back the wave anymore. I sobbed like a baby. Embarrasing.
I composed myself to buy Sergey a beer.
We were no longer PBP virgins.
Will I do it again? Probably.
The issue for me is will I take easy and take nearly 90 hours to relish the ride and take all the photos I didn’t stop for this time or will I enter the 80 hour event and try to beat my time, even though I will be four years older? What do you think?
The highlight was the support from the locals. 6,000 people volunteer to help the event. One for every rider. Them and the number of people at the side of the road applauding and shouting encouragement is enough to draw me back again.
Merci sincèrement. Vous étiez magnifique.
PS This was supposed to be the pinnacle of my short cycling life, but it turned out to be more of a training ride for the Giro di Muscoli in 2020. My PBP performance has encouraged me that I can complete the two week tour in aid of MND / ALS / SLA.