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September 2, 2011
Last week my colleague James Fairbank finished one of the oldest and most challenging cycling events in the world. Paris-Brest-Paris is a 1200km “brevet” from Paris, to Brest, and back again in a time limit of under a 90hrs. This type of event is certainly not for me, but I’m intrigued by these competitors and what drives them to take part in such madness. Here’s James’ report after finishing P-B-P and is under no delusion of ever wanting to do it again. I hear ya James. I say that every year after the Melbourne to Warrnambool, and it’s only 8hrs. You’ll be back…
I’ve left writing this for a few days in the hope that my thoughts would coalesce and that some sort of coherent narrative would emerge from the three nights and two days that constituted my Paris-Brest-Paris. No such luck. It will likely remain a mass of disordered experiences, with one control point blurring into another as surely as day blurred into night – and back again. It will almost certainly be remembered as a ride of contrasts, from the overwhelming enthusiasm of the French spectators lining the route, to the horror of the control station at Carhaix on the return leg.
In contrast to our qualifying rides, we had plenty of time to prepare for the start and we nervously fidgeted with bicycles and luggage, fretting over the weather forecast as it turned from clement to thundery. I still managed to forget ibuprofen and earplugs, two things I considered essential. The start was a convoluted affair; we arrived three hours early, at 2pm, and then proceeded to knock around in the baking sun slowly dehydrating.
It did at least give us the opportunity to inspect our fellow competitors and their bikes. In contrast to UK Audax events, where mudguards and steel frames are commonplace, everyone seemed to have wheeled out their race frames. These, in turn, had been customized with every kind of saddle, nose and bar bag imaginable. An American contingent was flying the stylish randoneer flag and I also saw a beautiful Cherubim. Beyond that, the bikes had been set up for speed and practicality rather than aesthetics.
By 5pm we were on our way, a nervous, twitchy peloton making the most of closed road junctions. As the road rose, and I watched my mate Ultan move up the outside of several groups of riders, I realised that, sadly, it would be the last I’d see of him until the finish; my riding ability doesn’t begin to compare to that of Ultan (Rapha’s multi-talented Irish Art Director). During a quick café raid to fill up bottles, we decided to press on. I dawdled long enough for everyone in our small group to catch up and we would ride together for the majority of the remaining 58-odd hours.
By the time we got going once more, the main field had split into groups and we found ourselves labouring into a hot headwind across open farmland. We caught up with a sizeable group of twenty or so riders that were willing to work together. The night and subsequent kilometers passed quickly. By this stage we were well on our way to Brest and a plan had begun to form in my mind. Despite the fact we had 80 hours to complete the 1,200km distance, the idea of dragging things out didn’t appeal; the quicker we completed the ride, the quicker the discomfort would end. “Push on to Brest?” I asked Phil “and then sleep at Carhaix on the return leg?” He agreed.
What amazed me from the beginning was how many of those riders on my shoulder who had ridden at least 1,500 qualifying kilometres to get to the start line, now displayed a standard of group riding that was lamentable. A couple of crashes put paid to a number of ambitions before we’d really gone anywhere and I distinctly remember one rider emitting a guttural howl at the sky as he realised his rear mech hanger had been ripped out of his frame. I’m not really in a position to criticise given that I was last wheel fighting sleep in the group heading into Brest, but it was beyond me why someone would sit second or third wheel and refuse to do a turn in a group that was otherwise working well.
One rider who we came across on the second afternoon, and who happily munched his way through the sausages strapped to his top tube, refused to ride on the front no matter how hard we tried. He was far from alone. Wheelsucking for 1,200km represents the opposite of panache and the guilty parties should reflect that it lessens their achievement. These things are of course hard to quantify. Given the effort they saved, let’s start at 30%
All the controls we’d passed on the way to Brest had been quiet. For that reason, the flaw in my plan to grab three hours sleep at Carhaix, on the way back to Paris, wasn’t immediately apparent. We set off with the top riders, the vedettes, about 5pm on Saturday, aiming for a sub-80 hour time. The bulk of the field, looking to complete the ride in under 90 hours, started a few hours later.
Leaving Brest at dusk on our return, the increasing humidity hinted at the prospect of rain to come and we soon found ourselves riding through a mist into a river of oncoming headlights. The glare off the wet road surface and dancing shadows were a portent of the hallucinations proper that would plague our third night.
As Phil’s climbing legs kicked in, I sat back to catch up with a group of English riders I’d met during our qualifying rides. Safe, predictable wheels were very welcome by this stage, as was the opportunity to have a natter. I broke away from this group on the descent from the Roc and pushed on alone. The horizon ahead of me was flickering and I couldn’t tell if it was lightning or lights on top of wind turbines. The thunder confirmed my suspicions. As I entered the outskirts of Carhaix, it started to rain, hard.
Arriving at the control I opened the doors to see Phil among a sea of humanity. People were asleep everywhere, on tables, chairs, even on toilet floors. It turned out we’d ridden straight into the bulk of the 90-hour field. There was, apparently, a half-hour wait for beds, although what this was based on nobody seemed to know. We decided to take our chances on (and under) tables. I caught about an hour of sleep before Phil roused me with a bowl of tea and we pressed on.
The condition of the riders at Carhaix left me a little concerned. Was I in a similarly vulnerable state? As I opened the doors to leave, I interrupted a man with a chinstrap beard who was vomiting onto the grass. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, apologised and rode away. On leaving the control, the lights from other riders coming toward us were distracting. The disconnect between riders and their lights removed any of succor the sight of another rider might normally offer.
I remember little about the final day. Controls came and went, we raided a patisserie to break the monotony of overcooked pasta and sauce, and we rode two-up for most of the day. Eternal thanks, by the way, to the Willesden CC rider who gave me some chewing gum to help me stay awake. My head was nodding and I was struggling to keep my eyes open, so something else to focus on was a welcome distraction.
At every control, I’d pull my cap down over my eyes and grab 10 minutes sleep. That, along with a hefty tailwind, was enough to keep me going. Dusk rolled in, twelve hours to go. At the penultimate control we came across Bob, a rider I’d met in Yorkshire on my 300km qualifier back in May. One of those characters who makes cycling look extremely easy, he was spinning a small gear, closing the gaps by increasing his cadence in a technique honed over many winters riding a fixed gear. He didn’t slouch or fidget, even after 40 hours in the saddle.
I’d received many sage words about what I could expect when riding PBP – most proved to be true. Riding with Phil, I was glad of his experience particularly when, as the night progressed, I began to lose my mind. At one point I thought I was on a photoshoot, completely forgot what I was doing, where I was going and felt like I was drowning in indeterminate black fields.
Unlike previous bouts of tiredness, this was incremental and it took some stern words from Phil and an unwavering focus on the centre line, verge or a back light to prevent me from sailing into a ditch. Minutes dragged on but slowly the glow of Paris drew us in. As dawn broke, we found ourselves riding along the dual carriageways I recognised from the start. A roundabout, another sports hall, some sleep, a lost temper and it was all over. No fanfare. 61 hours and 48 minutes.
This ride was the culmination of eight months of preparation and perhaps it is unfair to heap too much expectation on to one event. It could never live up to that kind of pressure. However, for me, there was no euphoria on completion. PBP has neither the scenery of the peerless Bryan Chapman, nor is it the athletic challenge of a 24-hour time trial.
In some sense I feel slightly duped, and I can’t help feeling I have gone through a box-ticking exercise just because PBP is the oldest and longest event of its kind. The support is magnificent and something only the cycling community could provide. The volunteers manning the controls were also a wonderful source of encouragement. Yet to do something just because it’s there isn’t reason enough for me to do it again. I’d recommend the journey to anyone but perhaps the destination wasn’t for me.