This is the story of my ride. I’ve written a separate post on the specifics of what I ate and am intending on writing something about my bike set-up (if you’re into that sort of thing!).
I’m in a little holiday home in a small french town somewhere outside Paris, lying on a bed, propped-up by lots of pillows. My legs are sore and swollen, my hands and back ache, and the less said about my backside the better. But I’m happy. Twenty-four hours have passed since I completed Paris-Brest-Paris, so here are some thoughts before the glow wears-off and the memories start to fade.
So many things about this event were extraordinary: the amount of participants (6000), the history, (it dates back to 1891), the volunteers (2000 of them!) and the wonderful generous people who live along the route. Most extraordinary however was the scale of the challenge: 1220km in 90 hours, twice anything I had done before.
Having registered on Saturday I arrived at Rambouillet (just outside Paris) for my depart on Sunday afternoon. The weather was looking good, in contrast to the previous day when it rained constantly, soaking us all as we queued to register. There was a tangible atmosphere of nervousness and excitement. Thousands of people had gathered from around sixty countries, we waited in line in anticipation.
It was good to get going, and once we did there was a sense straight away of what makes this event so special. People would gather by the side of the road to clap and cheer, shouting ‘Bravo! Bon courage!‘. Young children would clap excitedly and hold out their hands for a high-five. And so it was for the whole 1220km. This surprised me, we are amateurs afterall. Yet there is something about the history of the event, and what it means to those who live along the route that makes them want to sit and watch and cheer. All along the route people set up tables offering free water, coffee, cake and other goodies, always delighted if you chose to stop.
My start time was 18:30 on the Sunday evening. This would mean riding through the night before having really gone very far. It was light for the first three hours, and all that initial excitment meant a quick pace. It wasn’t difficult to find a group to ride with, the smooth flat roads of the opening stretch were ideal. As we rolled along it was amazing to see the range of countries represented; as well as us Europeans there were many riders from USA, Canada, Brazil, Japan, Australia and many more. There was lots of good chatter as we settled into the ride.
The first official stop was Mortagne-au-Perche at 118km; not a control point, just food. I got there at about 21:20, so it was getting dark by this point. We were now in an area of forest, and the roads had become hilly. I didn’t stop long, I bought some dried apricots and a bread roll, filled my bottle and carried on.
The first control point was Villaines-la-Juhell at 217km, where I got my card stamped at 04:35. On a ride like this most time is lost at controls, so I didn’t want to stay too long. Mindful of this, I had stopped at a shop just before the control point itself and bought some dates, nuts and a banana. I also enjoyed a quick coffee which the shop owners were serving from the pavement outside.
Leaving Villianes I got chatting to a German man named Andreas, and we stuck together for the rest of the night. I love cycling through the night, but it can be hard on your own when there is little to break up the monotony of the long dark hours. Andreas was very chatty, which was really helpful – before long the sky was getting lighter, and the sun came up on our first full day.
We arrived at the Fougeres control (306km) at 09:07, – one quarter of the ride done. I refuelled by mixing up some porridge and having an Alpro chocolate soya milkshake, both of which I had brought with me (not knowing what the vegan options would be like at controls). I wasted time at this stop (there was a really long queue for the toilet), but was still riding well within my 90 hour limit.
The next stage to Tinteniac was shorter, just 54km, and Andreas and I arrived at 12:54. I had a proper lunch – rice and green beans with carrots and vegetable soup. Andreas was having an issue with his bike, so I carried on while the mechanic had a look at it.
Despite having been awake for 30+ hours I was feeling really good. The route was hilly – long gradual climbs, and equally long and enjoyable descents. At Quedillac (386km) there was another ‘services only’ point, I filled my bottle and carried straight on.
I arrived at Loudeac (445km) at 18:21 and stopped for another good feed. I had brought some ready-made lentils with me, so I mixed these with some rice from the canteen which worked really nicely.
Another 83km got me to Saint-Nicolas-du-Pelem at 21:43. This was an unexpected control, advertised as ‘sevices only’, but when I arrived I was told to get my card stamped, which they did in a box marked ‘surprise’. I didn’t really understand that bit.
The second night had begun, and I had to make a plan for some sleep. The next control looked ideal – Carhaix-Plouguer at 521km. I was pretty exhausted by the time I got there at 23:55, but when I asked if I could have a bed to sleep on I was told that the dormitory was complet. My French is limited to what I learnt up until year 9, but I got the picture – no bed for me at Carhaix-Plouguer. So I decided to do what a lot of others were doing, find a spot on the floor to lie down on for some sleep. Except it didn’t work. I lay down, put my hat over my eyes and realised that this was going to be a waste of time: my mind and body weren’t going to let me sleep on the hard floor in that noisy corridor outside the toilets. I realised that I only really had one option. I had a good feed (more porridge) and set out into the dark for Brest.
Dew had settled on my bike when I went to collect it, and there was a definite chill in air as I left Carhaix at about 00:25 on Tuesday morning. There weren’t any other riders around at first, I was on my own for the first 15 minutes or so. It felt very dark. I felt a little nervous riding into my second night, unsure of what to expect. Up ahead I saw a tail-light and heard music – a rider with a bluetooth speaker playing Bon Jovi and Robbie Williams. As I passed, she asked if she could ride behind me for a while. Karine was from Brazil, and it was really good to have her company for an hour or so. The terrain was still hilly, one steady climb after another through more forests.
Karine’s pace was slower than mine, and I was getting cold. It was good to have company, but I was concerned that my heart-rate was too low; I needed to be pushing harder up the hills to stay warm. I was reluctant to leave her, but was relieved when she said she wanted a quick rest and that I should continue. There were more riders around by this point, including several from VC 167 – a club who are always well represented at audax events in the north of England.
After a while I realised that the hill I was climbing didn’t seem to have a top – it just went on and on. I had been told that there was a ‘Big Climb’ before Brest, and realised that this must be it. This was confirmed by the sight of a tall radio tower up ahead. Tiredness was really setting-in now. My vision was going a bit strange – I started to hallucinate a bit, the white lines on the road were wiggling a bit like worms and black spots of tar moved a bit like frogs. I needed to stop.
It was great to get to the top of the climb, but that meant a very very long descent (15km?) in the freezing cold. And there was still 55km to Brest.
At the bottom of the descent there was an impromptu stop – amazing and wonderful people serving food and drink at 03:15. Trouble was, all they had was pancakes and I really didn’t want non-vegan food if at all possible. I raided my bag – dates, nuts, anything I could find to keep me going. If I hadn’t had enough of my own provisions I would have eaten some pancakes for the sake of my own safety, but fortunately I didn’t have to.
I rode from that stop to Brest with Anne, a VC 167 member who I have met several times before (she’s from Newcastle!). Her company was a lifesaver. We chatted about nothing in particular, but it was enough to distract me and keep me going and we arrived into Brest at 06:30. This time there were beds available. I asked for a 09:30 wake-up call, set my alarm just in case, then lay down and slept.
I woke up before the alarm after about an hour and three-quarters, had a shower and put on clean clothes. Sitting eating breakfast I checked the various messages that were coming in from my family. The Japanese man sitting opposite me probably didn’t understand why I was crying. Actually, he probably did – he had also just cycled 610km just to get to the half-way point.
Even a small amount of sleep can have an amazing effect, re-setting body and mind. The sun was shining and I felt good leaving Brest. I was also very pleased to discover Lidl where I stocked-up on nuts and dates. Outside Lidl I met Reine, a vegan friend of Andreas, who had the same idea as me!
I knew that soon after Brest would come the Big Climb (aka Roc’h Ruz), and soon enough there it was – the radio tower looming up ahead like the Eye of Sauron. It took a long time, but it’s a gentle gradient so I still felt good at the top, and for the first time I felt able to look around and enjoy the view. On the way down the other side I chatted to a friendly Canadian chap who was the first person I has seen who was also riding a bike with just the one chain ring.
Tuesday daytime was fairly uneventful. The relentless hills started to take their toll, but as fatigue started to slow me down I somehow found some fresh energy to drive me on to Carhaix (693km) at 14:55 and then Loudeac (783km) at 20:25.
I didn’t enjoy night three. I was cold and tired, and either riding on my own or in no mood to chat. I was aiming for Tinteniac (869km), which I knew would be a good place to sleep, but it seemed to take forever to get there. I had some soup at Quedillac (843km) which gave me a bit more energy, but the next 26km to Tinteniac were really hard. There was a queue for beds, but I didn’t have to wait too long, and slept from 03:00-06:00.
Waking up, I knew I had the strength for the final third of the ride. The only potential problem was my backside which was feeling very sore. I had been using plenty of cream since the start of the ride so chaffing wasn’t an issue, just the constant pressure. I told myself – ‘if I can sit on my bike, I can ride it’. I could sit on it, so I rode it.
I had a quickish stop at Fougeres, (923km) at 10:05, no messing about this time. Wednesday afternoon was hot and hilly and we had a headwind. I wasn’t enjoying myself. I realise that I let myself get dehydrated – my leg was cramping and I kept needing to pee. It wasn’t too bad, and rehydration tablets soon sorted me out, but I was getting tired and irritable. I very nearly started swearing at an English rider who kept sitting on my wheel without so much as a ‘please’, ‘thank you’ or offering to take a turn.
By Villaines-la-Juhel (1012km) at 16:01 I was exhausted. However, this stop was amazing. The streets were full of cheering crowds who roared as I rode through the banner. The town was in full party mode – it was basically a carnival! I sat in the canteen, set my alarm for 20 minutes time, laid my head on my bag and slept. 20 minutes isn’t much, but I woke refreshed. Three stages to go: 85km, 77km and 46km. I can do this. I ate some food, had a caffeine gel and set off. As I left Villaines there was a banner hanging across the road which read Bon Courage! Paris est a la horizon! I can do this.
The reset button had well and trully worked and the next 85km to Mortagne-au-Perche were fantastic. I felt like I was flying in the beautiful evening light. I arrived at Mortagne at 21:30.
Night four was exciting, not far to go now. Lots of hills, lots of forest, but my legs wanted to go fast so I didn’t want to disappoint them. Three-quarters of the way through the stage I met some riders from the UK and sped on with them to Dreux (1174km), arriving at 02:08.
Just 46km to go, I figured I might as well push on to the finish. Except that when I went out to my bike I realised it was now absolutely freezing outside. I had two choices – ride through the coldest part of the night to finish in the early hours with the aim of achieving an impressive finish time, or wait at Dreux until dawn. I waited.
I got about 45 minutes of very uncomfortable sleep, lying across three chairs, waking at about 05:00. I had some soup and a coffee, chatted to a lovely but very cold-looking Brazillian man named Christiano, and set out at around 06:00, having wiped the near-freezing dew from my saddle. It was a trully beautuful morning as the sun rose over misty fields here in northern France, and I was really glad I had decided to wait at Dreux.
The final stage was short, but was made more difficult by the fact that my backside was now seriously painful. Basically, I coudn’t sit down and rode the final 46km out of the saddle.
Finally, after 86 hours and 1220km I rolled across the cobbled finish at Rambouillet. It was an extraordinary feeling, and I’m still trying to process it all. Silly as it sounds, I nearly burst into tears when the nice lady put the final stamp on my card and hung a medal round my neck.
It’s not often I drink beer at 9am, but this was a special occasion and it went very well with the delicious vegan meal that was waiting for me at the finish. It was so good to sit and eat and laugh with others I had met on the way.
Why do such a thing? The short answer is that I don’t know. However, what is probably clear from this very long write-up is that this was more than just a big bike ride. Even more than the physical challenge, there was an emotional (and spiritual?) journey happening here too. When I set off I genuinely didn’t know if I was capable of completing the event. I had never gone over 650km, I didn’t know what it felt like to go that far. I had to trust my body. I had to trust my bike. I had to trust the event organisers. I had to trust my fellow riders. I had to trust God. This all meant letting-go, giving up an element of control. It meant finding courage – a word I kept hearing over and over from the cheering spectators, and one which I will write about specifically in a future post.
In Matthew’s gospel Jesus is recorded as saying ‘…hard is the road that leads to life’ (Mt 7:14). It’s a verse that struck me after I did my first 600km ride last year. For me, there is something life-giving that comes through long-distance cycling, it’s hard to describe, but I give thanks for it.