Standing by the side of the road, watching a large peloton of nearly 500 riders pushing up the road, I cursed the loose mudguard clip that had seen me stop just a few minutes after setting off for Brest. Perhaps this was a ride above my pay grade, and I did not deserve to be amongst the qualifying riders from around the world.
It all started for me with the mythology that surrounds cycling in France; the role of the Tour de France, the iconic climbs of the Alps and Pyrenees and the battles on French roads by some of the world’s greatest riders. Like many UK cycle tourers I have returned rejuvenated, commenting on the space granted by French drivers, and the warm welcome afforded in boulangeries and bars.
The French love affair with cycling began in the 19th Century and long distance cycling was established. This Strava blog is a good introduction to the history of what has become a well known and long distance event for cyclists. Any event that has a French patisserie named after it has clearly made its way into the national consciousness.
Audax Club Parisien have taken on and developed this tradition and it is a huge undertaking. 6000 cyclists from 60 countries, over 2000 volunteers, closed roads at the start, motorcycle support, film crews and signage covering 1228km of the route.
Getting to the start line takes commitment. ACP insist that a series of rides of 200, 300, 400, and 600km are ridden in particular date windows to help prepare for the challenge, and try to keep the list of non finishers as small as possible.
So, on Sunday 16th August at 5.30 I set off with Bonne Journee, Courage and Allez-y ringing in my ears. A maximum of 90 hours lay ahead to complete the route from the National Velodrome to Brest and back again. That time includes any time spent eating, managing your way through the busy checkpoints, and sleeping. Whilst the allowance may seem generous the reality of most rides is that a number of hours are ‘lost’ to other activities so the minimum speed limit of 14.3km per hour is more than a little deceptive.
Stage 1: Velodrome – Mortagne au Perche: total distance: 140km, elapsed time
It is a fairly flat run out to begin with, and adrenalin fuelled groups form heading off at well over 40km/hour. French clubs will often ride together and soon pick up a train as they set up a paceline.
I know my limits though, and resisted the urge to spend a lot of energy hanging on the back of those riding much faster than me. Group after group went past, and I became increasingly worried about in ending up in the ‘bulge’ where riders overwhelm controls, and long delays can form.
At this point, it was too early to worry about all this and I don’t ride fast enough to escape anyway so I set my usual rhythm and began tapping out the pedals for the first night’s riding. I guess the stresses of travel to Paris, and hot hotel rooms had taken their toll and I became sleepy following the snaking red tail lights off into the distance. Around 8kms from the food stop I decided to have a micro snooze by the side of the road, which is a common strategy in PBP. There was a whirr of wheels, chatter and freewheels as I lay there for a few minutes.
Throughout this stage there were groups outside bars, and on the streets in villages and small towns, cheering and encouraging the riders on. At the top of one climb at 2am there were a group of young women, all with pink wigs standing on a roundabout shouting ‘Courage!’. A unique memory that was a microcosm of the persistent encouragement and support from the roadside.
It was onwards to the stop, and the first of the queues for food – pasta bolognaise, coke and water refills. I soon realised that the amount of time spent wandering around the large schools and buildings used as checkpoints could cost a lot of time.
Stage 2: Montagne to Villaines: total distance 220km, elapsed time: 11:17
It was still dark but time for my first petit dejeuner as I rolled into Villaines. Checking my time I was behind my usual schedule of 23-24km/h and put this down both to sleeping and the delays at the last control.
Produced my brevet card, and got the first stamp from the volunteers at the control. We had also been issued with a timing chip, which updated an online tracking service for family and friends.
Stage 3: Villaines to Fougeres: total distance: 310km, elapsed time 16:56
The sun rose again, and although it was cold for the first couple of hour of daylight the sun was soon breaking through and warming me through. Soon the compulsory reflective gilet was shed, along with arm warmers. When I have ridden through the night, I find that the new day brings renewed levels of energy and optimism and this ride was no different.
Bouncing between different groups the pace was a little steadier now. There was none of the urgency of the previous night’s rush into the evening and there was chat between English speaking riders from Canada, the USA, Australia and those Europeans who seem to speak much better English than us ‘rosbif’.
Arriving at Fougeres I was struck by the enormous fortress that dominates the town, and worked my way through the streets where it was evident that the control was very busy. A quick look at my GPS confirmed that we passed out through a commercial area and I decided to stop at shops on the way out and picnic, rather than deal with the madness of the control. This became a firm strategy on much of the rest of the ride – assess how packed the bike park was and then make a decision about a boulangerie or tabac.
Stage 4: Fougeres to Tinteniac: total distance: 364km, elapsed time 20:15
The route rolls on, and my packed lunch came in handy as I refuelled. The ride was beginning to spread out now, and there were small groups which formed, collaborated and dissipated as riders took ‘comfort’ stops or stopped for food.
The Tinentiac control was not at all busy, as I guess a number of people had pressed on past it.
Stage 5: Tinteniac to Loudeac: total distance: 449km, elapsed time 25:32
A lot of European riders have a degree of support – camper vans driven by wives, friends or family. They are not allowed on the route but can provide support at the checkpoints. This means that the run in to a checkpoint is normally through a wave of motorhomes, with picnic tables and dinner laid out; changes of kit; and even spare bikes on the back. The next control, Loudeac, is infamous as being a major hub for anyone providing such support. At 449km into the ride it is well placed on both the outbound and return legs and is often the point at which the ‘vedettes’ (racers trying to set a good time) cross over.
Sure enough Loudeac was busy, with little space in the bike park. Impromptu reunions between family and riders – sometimes in the middle of the road – made it a congested and difficult place to negotiate.
Fortunately, I had an ace up my sleeve here and visited the local supermarket on the way out of town to pick up some provisions.
Stage 6: Loudeac to Carhaix: total distance: 525km, elapsed time 32:46
I could deploy my secret weapon here – access to a family member’s holiday home just a few hundred metres from the route around 10km away from Loudeac. A quick shower, change of kit, food and the ability to leave a few things there for the return was fantastic. Even managed to grab an hours sleep in comfort before setting off into the darkness. It felt a little odd to leave and rejoin the fray but soon I was in the snake of tail lights heading into the hills near Loudeac.
However, soon we were passed by an emergency vehicle and sadly the reason was evident a few minutes later as we arrived at the scene of a cyclist being given CPR and were waved on by the local gendarmerie. Obviously there was a lot of speculation about whether it had been a crash or collision. Later I discovered that it was a heart attack and that, unfortunately, the rider died.
Stage 7: Carhaix to Brest: total distance: 618km, elapsed time 39:32
This leg is where the fatigue began to hit. By now I had been cycling continously for around 30 hours, with a couple of hours for sleep and food. As the night deepened so did my mood. Knowing that this section included the highest point of the route – the Roc’h Trevezel – did not help.
Eventually I conceded that, although I was between controls I needed to sleep. Out came the silk sleeping bag liner, the emergency bivvy bag and a section of roadside verge was procured. I was that tired I could have slept anywhere and managed a couple of hours. Waking at around 5am, it was still dark and I felt stiff and reluctant to press on. Had to have a stiff word with myself to press on, and remind myself of those times when a ride has got better after the low points.
Soon as I was climbing on the Roc and arrived at the summit at dawn. Below the valleys were shrouded in mist as a consequence of reverse convection, and the road fell away below. There was a fast, long and cold descent to Sizun where the town appeared to be having a party. I noted the facilities for the return and pressed on to Brest, tagging on to the back of a German tandem team as we wove our way around the outskirts before crossing into Brest and beginning the climb up from sea level.
A boulangerie beckoned and another stop to resupply with fresh croissants, cookies and coke. Staff were surprised by the influx of riders as a French rider explained where we had come from and our plans.
Stage 8: Brest to Carhaix: total distance: 703km, elapsed time 44:44
The Brest control was a struggle to negotiate and finding everything proved a challenge, so I decided that I could stop on the return in Sizun and take in the party atmosphere there. The climbs out of Brest were challenging, with a number of rollers that were taxing in the early morning heat. However, there were plenty of crowds out on the climbs shouting ‘Bonne Retour’ and helping to refill rapidly deplenished bidons.
Being on the larger side, the steeper stuff is always a challenge for me, so it was a case of gearing down on my steel tourer and spinning while the racing snakes on their carbon bling went up the road.
By the time I reached Sizun the party was in full flow. A film crew was filming a group of around 10 children who were holding out their hands for ‘high fives’ from the descending cyclists still on their way to Brest.
Time for an ice cream – and an impromptu negotiation with an Italian cyclist in the freezer section of the local supermarket managed to see us buy a box of 4 Magnums: 2 each, eaten quickly in the sunshine.
Breton music played out from the local bars and cafes and cyclists criss crossed, some on their way to Brest and others returning.
On the ascent of the Roc, I slowed a little to ask Idai on the Elliptigo how their group were doing. He had lost contact with other riders, but his support confirmed that everyone was still on the road. Astonishing that many of them finished in time.
After the Roc, I picked up with 4 riders from an English road club who were riding together and we made good progress to Carhaix.
Stage 9: Carhaix to Loudeac: total distance 782km, elapsed time 51:27
There was a ‘secret control’ around 12km from Carhaix, and I stopped on the return leg at my own secret checkpoint to pick up clean clothes, eat, shower and shave. Feeling normal again I rejoined the route where a group of Finnish riders asked me how many kilometres I had added by getting lost, until I explained the reason for my diversion.
Unfortunately this leg also saw my only mechanical – worn bearings on the lower jockey wheel were causing shifting problems. There were two options – singlespeed by shortening the chain or bodging some kind of repair with whatever was in my parts box. A couple of washers, a pen knife and some greasy hands brought a solution that seemed to work across most of the cassette, and it held good for the rest of the ride.
In contrast, at every control the mechanics seemed to be busy with a mix of broken spokes and shifting problems. One German rider at a control pointed out his three new spokes on his race wheels, he had been fortunate to find spares. I know of a number of riders who had to buy wheels along the way. As far as shifting goes, perhaps 9 speed is a bit more workhorse than the fussy 11-speed compact doubles that seemed to be lined up at the mechanic’s stands.
Stage 10: Loudeac to Tinteniac: total distance 867km, elapsed time 59:27
The ‘gateau’ shouts of a couple of small children drew me to the roadside, and I thanked them for their apricot jam cake. Pressing on there were other small towns and villages where there were informal stops, ranging from a placard placed in a garden welcoming cyclists to siesta or fill their water bottles to whole teams of people working to provide soup, coffee, rice pudding and water. The one thing in common was a desire to see riders finish, and a huge respect for those prepared to take on the challenge.
My roadside stops became more frequent on this leg – the allure of coffee and soup as darkness and the temperature began to fall proved to strong. A couple of snatched conversations with locals suggested that some were spending 5 hours outside with their families, keeping coffee on the go.
Stage 11: Tinteniac to Fougeres: total distance 921km, elapsed time 62:57
Breakfast in a tabac as it opened was fantastic – a strong coffee and pain chocolat helping to kick start what was now a weary metabolism back into life, attempting to convince the body that really you have just woken up and have not ridden for much of the night. It did enough to see me to Fougeres, although I realised a couple of km down the road that I had left my gilet in the tabac so had a couple of bonus kilometres. Note to self – do not remove clothing when you are tired or you will forget it.
Stage 12: Fougeres to Villaines: total distance 1009km, elapsed time 68:39
I pushed on to Villaines, and this was where the psychological stuff began to work in my favour. Breaking the 1000km mark, and calculating the average speeds required. I had 21 ½ half hours to knock off the last 200km. Even at a crawl it began to look possible, with time for a couple of sleep stops.
Given that I would be in no danger of setting any records – the first rider back had long since finished and was probably celebrating – I decided to try and grab a couple of two-three hour sleeps over the last few controls. This seemed to play out as a sensible strategy, as there were an increasing number of riders littering the roadside.
Stage 13: Villaines to Mortagne: total distance 1090km, elapsed time 73:44
OK, so sometimes thoughts get a bit hazy and confused on a long distance ride. The terrain rolls, you pass through small villages, past stalls and float between groups of riders. A bit like the journey to work, there can be a switch in to autopilot. That’s my excuse for not remembering much about this stage. My one firm memory as the banners hanging across the road in Averton – there were obviously a number of local riders who were competing and names were strung across the road, along with home made decorations by the roadside. Some had the distances remaining to Paris, others were decorated bikes and some said simply “Courage” painted onto black plastic covered hay bales.
Stage 14: Mortagne to Dreux : total distance, 1165km, elapsed time 81:06
The lumps and bumps around Mortagne had sparked a few roadside conversations about the toughness of the climbs – they were persistent, and repeated until you got to Senonches when the plains opened up ahead of you. Riding in the dark there seemed to be a succession of climbs, none were long but all were draining at this point in the ride. By now the ride was spread out and I was alone for much of the time. My steady efforts meant that I was now beginning to pass people, some of whom looked like extras from The Walking Dead. I expect that my own appearance would have given me a job as an extra in the series as well.
Then I hit the plains, and in a moment of good fortune a well coordinated group of Denmark Randonneurs and and an Italian club flashed past. Feeling good on the flat I jumped on the back wheel and discovered that I was alongside Nigel from Beverly Velo, with whom I had ridden a number of the same qualifying rides; small world. We chatted for a while and enjoyed the benefits of what I thought was a high speed peloton but was actually cruising at around 27-28km/h. Even at this pace the group pushed past a substantial number of riders, before closing in on Dreux.
Stage 15: Dreux to Finish: total distance 1230km, elapsed time 87:23
Arrival at Dreux led me to do some maths – 9 hours to complete the last 66km and so some more sleep, head down on a table in the dining area for two hours. Feeling rejuvenated I set off, but only a little stiff and sore to complete the last stretch. This is predominantly flat and a welcome end at this point. A couple of short climbs through the woods around Rambouillet help to stretch the legs but otherwise it is mostly harmless.
10km from the finish saw, for me, the first rain of the ride as we rolled into the arrivee. Over the timing mat and a slow walk to the control to hand over the brevet card and I had a huge sense of accomplishment at completing the toughest ride I had ever undertaken.
- This is one of the few rides where I had to worry about time limits. This was because the controls are vast, and each one could easily lose an hour at each one. There is no standard layout and finding control desks, water, toilets and the fast self service restaurant were a challenge in that involved walk from one section to another.
- The food was functional and did the job, but I the thought of pasta with chicken by the end of the ride was enough me to make me gag.
- Hygiene and care is important – look after yourself as the damage that 1200km can do is significant. This includes keeping bidons clean, shorts and other aspects of kit. I heard of a number of riders with stomach problems, not uncommon on long rides.
- The crowds and support are what make this ride – the encouragement and respect for the riders is touching. Some people must have spent a fortune on provisions for riders that they gave away. You do feel part of something special.
- It is a very international affair and fascinating to ride alongside people from many different nationalities. Chat to those riding alongside you if you can.
- I don’t care what anyone says – it is not a flat ride. My GPS track said I spent 30% of the time climbing and that seems right to me!
- Be prepared to rest afterwards. Some damage is probably inevitable, my only ailments are some numb toes/feet but degrees of neuropathy do vary and recovery can take a few weeks or even months. I was in much better shape in this regard than London Edinburgh London – probably because of the much better road surfaces.
I am not an overly fit or hard rider. If you are keen, and want to finish then with the right preparation you will be able to do so. Step up through the distances, learn along the way and bonne chance in 2019 (or London Edinburgh London in 2017 if you can’t wait)!
And the Strava stuff: