Paris-Brest-Paris has an iconic standing among randonneurs. The event has an unrivalled history. It pre-dates le Tour being first held in 1891. For the 2019, or 19th Edition, of PBP I joined over 6,000 riders who started. Technically, my ride of 91 hours, 58 mins and 56 seconds was a failure, but I did not care as you will understand if you read the rest of this blog:
The Road to Paris
Run the auspices of Audax Club Parisien, it is held once every four years. If Audax Club Parisien allowed everyone who wanted to ride it to do so, it would be well over-subscribed. Partly to keep the number of riders to manageable proportions, there are four qualifying rides (which count as a super randonneur series) that everyone must ride by specific dates. For 2019 in the UK my qualifying rides were:
Required qualifying events
Actual event completed
200k event by 28 April
Delightful Dales from Clitheroe
300k event by 26 May
Beyond the Dales We Know from Thirsk
400k event by 2 June
Llanfair PG from Stockport
600k event by 30 June
3 Coasts from Hebden Bridge
Having missed out in 2015, when I failed to enter sufficient qualifying events, completing the 2019 (19th edition) was my goal for the season. The date for the event this year was 18-22 August.
The week before
On 11 August I had my last event before leaving for Paris, the BC Mens’ National Masters road race. Although I knew it was probably risky to ride such an event the week before, I did not want to miss out since I thought it would not be held near Lancaster again. Within 5 mins of starting, near disaster struck--I was brought down by a rider immediately on my right and, although not going at any pace, was hit by a rider immediately behind me as I fell on to the road. The result was that I could still ride, but I had a painful and sore lower back and could not get out of the saddle to climb or ride hard. The injury did slowly improve before I was due to leave on the Thursday and I decided I would go to Paris and try to take it easy (ha!) during the ride.
The day before
On 17 August, all riders had to report to the control for a compulsory bike check, and to collect their Brevet Card and pack containing bike, helmet and frame numbers, mine being ‘T101’. Although we were all given a report time, there was a huge queue in the continuous rain:
The big day
On 18 August, I waited in the grounds of the Rambouillet Chateau before I took my place along with over 6,000 other riders.
My start time was 2030. At least the weather was good, deceptively warm in the sunshine as we queued in our allocated ‘wave’ groups waiting to start. The atmosphere was special with so many international riders and machines of all types:
Lots of volunteer marshalls gradually manouvered us to the first check point, which I thought was the start line. No, this was merely to get your Brevet Card stamped, the start gate turned out to be a further ½ kilometre along the Chateau’s grounds where my wave (‘T’) was eventually sent off with great fanfare with about an hour of daylight left.
With a great deal of trepidation, I started anxiously and quickly adjusted to the pace of a small group peloton that was riding at a steady pace. Any rise in gradient found me struggling to keep up as I tried to nurse the pressure being exerted on my lower back, getting out of the saddle was too painful to attempt and as the light failed, I settled down to accept that I could ride at near normal pace on the flat, but much slower with any rise in the gradient. To begin with the hills were gradual and not too long.
The first stage to Mortagne-au-Perche passed in a blur of red lights. This was not a control point, but after the first 100k merely a chance to rest, queue to pay for a coffee and pastry at the ‘Restaurant Rapide’, a misnomer if ever there was one, and then press on. On leaving in the early hours of Monday morning, the temperature was dropping like a stone. I was not prepared for it and had sent on extra clothing such as my leggings to be picked up from a coach at Fougeres the next day as part of a roadside change of kit in a drop bag. A service I had paid for separately to a British company. Desperately trying to warm up, it seemed a long time before dawn, but I was cheered with the sight of all the support at the roadside in some of the villages.
The first proper control at Villaines-la-Juhel, at 217k in, was achieved with a great deal of relief. I could not feel my fingers, thoroughly cold and my back was aching, despite staying resolutely in the saddle. I arrived to find music and a party going on at just after 0800 hours, plenty of vocal cheering and shouts of 'bonne courage' and bonne route' as I entered the control . Now there was the need to get my Brevet Card stamped and try to find the real restaurant as I was in need of some proper food and a chance to get warm.
Feeling much better, warm and rested, I was aware of the need not to stay too long at the first control if I was to have any chance of making my 90 hours’ time limit as I knew that I would be a lot slower on the way back. The temperature soon warmed up as I set off for the next control at Fougeres. Now in strong sunshine, I could actually begin to enjoy some of the ride, there was even free coffee at the roadside from supporting residents. I began to enjoy the pretty villages along this stretch of the route.
However, being a Monday, all the local ‘boulangeries’ were closed and shops open were limited making it difficult to find food. I made sure I could find the coach parked on the way into the control at Fougeres, retrieve my change of kit and the leg warmers which I knew I was going to need as it was only going to get colder further on towards Brest. Arriving at the control in Fougeres, I allowed myself to believe I might be able to finish the ride for the first time. Now I knew the score at the control, I could get the food I needed. Leaving Fougeres without too much lost time, I was in my Lune kit for the first time and heading through the rural villages to the next control at Tinteniac.
The hills were beginning to get noticeably longer, more painful for my back. At this stage the countryside was particularly rolling and very rural, with few shops available, or places open. It seemed a long stretch against a strong headwind before I rolled into Tinteniac by late afternoon on the Monday. I had been riding without much rest and in pain, yet only 360k into the ride. I needed to rest at this control. All the controls so far were super busy, but I did manage to find a quiet corner to get some improvised rest, stretching out across three empty chairs at the back of the busy restaurant. I should have taken the opportunity to get more rest and a little sleep before pushing on. However, I was tempted by the remaining daylight that was left and thought that I would rest for longer at the next control, Loudeac.
Heading now towards Brittany, we began to lose the bright sunshine as the clouds built up and we had the only showers on the ride and some wet roads to contend with. I stopped and put on my rain jacket and saddlebag cover, the only time I was to use them.
Arriving at Loudeac around 11pm, the control turned out to be super-chaotic. Although this was only 445k in, fast riders were already on their way back! Long queues for everything and nowhere to sleep, but I was not keen to keep riding without some rest. I knew that the next stage would still be cold as the skies had cleared and the temperature would soon drop. I did my best to rest for a couple of hours, but still without sleeping. It was now Tuesday morning before I left Loudeac. In the early hours of the morning, I was relying on following red lights. Although the route was marked by small signs at each road junction, they were difficult to see at night and easily missed. I was carrying an external battery, but it was insufficient for re-charging my Garmin (which had a GPX of the route) and I used it instead to make sure my lights were re-charged. The cold night was beginning to drain my energy, but the local support was fantastic coming upon brightly lit stalls selling coffee and pastries in the early hours of the morning. They were life-savers:
Eventually, after a long cold night, Carhaix-Plouguer was reached at 521k, just after 6am, but still dark. I was hoping that the worst might be over. It was time to get warm and have a good rest. There was still 90k to go to reach Brest. I was due to rendezvous for a 2nd drop bag on the way out of Carhaix, but I could not find the right mini-bus that was supposed to be parked and waiting. I decided to press on as I wanted to reach Brest and be back in Carhaix before the loss of daylight in the evening. Daylight and bright sunshine were warming up a deeply wooded valley and Brest beckoned.
At this stage a steady trickle of riders was returning to Carhaix. Further on a long climb awaited out of the valley ascending some 400 meters. As we climbed out of the valley, the returning riders became a stream. This confirmed what I knew already, that I was towards the end of the field now and gradually losing any time that I had in hand. Reaching the top of the climb we were turned away from Brest and at least the flow of returning riders ceased as we took a different route, from those returning, into Brest over the old road bridge, which ran alongside the new one:
The control at Brest was reached just after midday on the Tuesday. Now 610k completed, it had taken me just over 40 hours. Although I wasn’t doing any mental calculations, I knew that if I left to return before 2:30pm, I still had 48 hours to complete the ride within the 90 hours’ time limit. I was just relieved to be in Brest. With the long hill to come on the way back, I made sure I took some time to rest and refuel. On leaving the control, a tempting boulangerie appeared with lots of riders outside enjoying its products in the warm sunshine. Thinking that I now had some time in hand, I stopped and bought two of their delicious fruit-filled pastries. Fortified, I was ready to tackle the return.
On the way over from Carhaix, I had noticed that a village near the top of the climb had some welcoming cafes, but I pressed on at the time. This time I stopped and over the coffee chatted to a lady who was still on her way to Brest, she seemed unconcerned at being towards the end of the field and was confident she would finish in the time limit. She was eventually to finish ahead of me. There was still some climbing to be done as I rode up the remaining uphill stretch, I fell into conversation with another British rider who knew me by name, but I don’t recall how he knew me. His bike was laden with equipment, I remarked that he had 'everything but the kitchen sink with him', just to prove this was no hinderance to him, shortly after that he powered away from me.
Anxious to get back to Carhaix before evening, I completely forgot about looking out for the minibus and my 2nd drop bag. By the time I remembered, I was in the control and was not going to go back to look for it. My existing kit would have to last back to Fougeres. I decided against resting for any extended length of time, my thinking being that, as it was still early evening, I could probably get about three hours riding time before we lost daylight. Although it was 90k back to the next control at Loudeac, there was a stage stop roughly half-way, a chance for pastries and yet more coffee. However, such ‘stages’ were not really suitable for resting or sleeping and I was hoping that the outward chaos at Loudeac would have disappeared or at least lessened. By now I was definitely slowing, the hills seemed longer, my back was beginning to get very sore and it was nearly 2am on the Wednesday before I reached Loudeac. It was a real effort to get off the bike and stand properly.
I needed to get some sleep and sought a quiet table in the restaurant to get a couple of hours of at least fitful sleep and it would also pass some hours of the cold night. However, a group of American randonneurs were on the next table debating whether to press on or stop, to me there was no debate, but they proceeded to discuss this by shouting at each other in loud voices, "just go away" I thought. I managed a couple of hours eventually and left in the still dark of the early hours around 4am now heading back to Tinteniac, I still had nearly 450k to go and approximately 34 hours left.
Emerging from the dark
I was still relying on following the red lights of other riders, although finding a group to ride with was increasingly difficult, some would stop to rest, others would be too fast, and it felt increasingly cold and more difficult to keep warm. I did not know it at the time, but that was because of my increasing tiredness and exhaustion. Dawn eventually arrived together with mist from condensation as we headed virtually due East and into the rising sun with more riders passing me and disappearing up the road.
I reached Tinteniac at 9.20am and with a great deal of effort managed to climb off my bike. However, I was relieved to get through the night and wanted to press on and not stop long now that the sun was warming up the temperature. I was keen to get to the next control at Fougeres where I had another change of kit which was in my drop bag. This time I knew where the coach was, eventually getting there in the early afternoon. I could just about struggle into my change of kit on the roadside and at last felt a bit better as I arrived at Fougeres at about 2:30pm. So, 300k left to the finish and approximately 24 hours left.
My strategy now was to press on while I could do so in daylight, I still had another cold night to get through, I could rest at the next control, Villaines-La-Juhel. However, by the time I arrived at around 9pm, I could hardly climb off the bike. It was obvious when I handed in my Brevet Card to be stamped at the control that I was not in good shape, I could not walk upright and was leaning at an angle like a heavily listing ship. I was taken in hand by some very friendly volunteer staff one of whom was able to give my back a massage, but insisted that I saw the doctor that was on duty, albeit after I had eaten. I was nearing exhaustion and was convinced the doctor would not let me continue. After a long wait to see him, he put me through some movement exercises which I managed and he surprised me by informing me that I could continue, so long as I took it easy.
The final day
All this took some time, so it was nearing the final day, the Thursday, by the time I left in the middle of the night. Still over 200k left, the night to contend with and only 14 hours left. My thoughts though were just to take it easy riding through the night with less and less riders for company, I was now riding on my own for most of the time. I was reliant on the route sheet for navigation, stopping frequently to check where the next junction would be. Fortunately, there were two further controls, one at Mortagne-au-Perche and the last one at Dreux. Free coffee at the roadside helped me to make it to the first of these, but it seemed forever up the final hill to the control. At the start of this hill, I chatted briefly to a British rider who had stopped at the roadside, he said he had seen riders falling asleep on their bikes and others riding into the ditch. At least I was still riding and on the road.
Leaving this control, to begin with I made some faster progress, but it gradually became more painful and the stops more frequent, even though this stage was largely flat. It was becoming more difficult for me to ride and I was leaning over to the left while riding to nurse my back, I could not ride near the right-hand side and was riding near the middle of the road, at least there was no danger of me riding into the ditch.
The police intervene
Getting to Dreux seemed an eternity, but as I approached the town, I noticed that I was being tailed by a French police car. The policeman who was driving came alongside, I thought I might get asked to stop, but he was just concerned about me and asked if I wanted to abandon. Eventually he let me continue, asking me to be careful.
The last gasp
I eventually arrived at Dreux just after 11:30am and I left about 12.45pm, still 46k to go with a little under 2 hours left, but I had long since ceased to care about finishing in time. Now though it became more and more difficult to ride. Hardly out of Dreux, I had to stop and was ready to abandon, one rider stopped and asked if I was alright, I shook my head and said I wanted to pack and phone the previous control, he said to phone the finish control at Rambouillet since “they speak English”, but at the same time he encouraged me just to rest and then continue. There was a small bar open across the road and I staggered in and asked for café. They obviously could see I was in some distress and I sat down while they brought me coffee. They waved away any attempt on my part to pay and told me just to be careful, it was all I could do to get on the bike, get my cleats into the pedals, let alone ride.
The rest of the distance was to take me 3 hours, somehow I got near to Rambouillet and a rider came past as I had one of my many stops and shouted “huit kilometre” –only 8 kilometres, this was the first time I thought I might finish after all. At the next junction, a sign said Rambouillet 5 kilometres and I made a last effort to ride the remaining distance. Arriving near the finish, I found that the signs directed me around the Chateau’s grounds and into a gateway where the ground was cobbled. There was no way I could ride over them and the marshalls stationed there had to help me to walk over them. After negotiating them, it was still a kilometre to go through milling crowds making their way home. Somehow I made it up to the final cobbled stretch and walked with further help from the marshalls over the finish line. Paramedics were called and surprisingly, although over my time, I still could get my Brevet Card stamped and in time to receive the finishers’ medal. Only around 250 finishers receiving this grace. Then I met the same rider who had stopped and encouraged me to continue at Dreux, he immediately embraced me and broke into a huge smile and gave me his congratulations, without his encouragement I would have packed at Dreux. After that, two paramedics walked me to the doctor’s tent where he kept me on a drip for a couple of hours before I was allowed to leave. I had my medal and my Paris-Brest-Paris ride was finally over:
6,418 riders started the event, 1,790 abandoned or finished too far out of time to be recorded as a finisher, 254 were recorded as finishers, but like me over the time limit, leaving 4,373 who finished successfully within the time limit. The successful completion rate of 68.1% was the lowest in recent editions of the event. For comparison, the previous (2015) edition the successful completion rate was just under 78% and for the 2013 edition it was over 81%.