Paris-Brest-Paris 2019

When the idea of Paris-Brest-Paris was first floated to me last year, I didn’t think I’d actually complete it. The last time I mouthed off about a bicycle adventure, I didn’t finish it so why would this be any different? PBP is different, though. It’s 6000 friends and soon-to-be friends riding their bikes around northern France’s countryside in late summer all chasing the same goal: glory and bragging rights.

© Daniel Witzke

The thing about randonneuring is there is always someone out there riding the unimaginable on, as it turns out, an unimaginable bike in some cases. The scene is full of wise owls of cycling who came before the Instagram generation, so ride their bikes simply because they love doing it. Of course, some of them are now on Instagram and it’s how I’ve become friends with them.

PBP is a bit like a time warp, though I imagine less so this year than in previous years. There are 90s steel bikes leaned up against fences all over the place and cowering behind them are the modern-day carbon road bikes like mine. Much like many ultra-endurance events have stated recently, there is no “perfect bike” for PBP. Aesthetically you could argue that some of the beautiful chrome Alex Singer frames are perfect but there are plenty of others getting around on other materials.

And there are plenty of others getting around on all kinds of bikes. I saw trikes, recumbents, single speeds, a pino, tandems, fixies, a triplet, velomobiles, full-sus MTBs, hardtails, fatbikes and Pashleys. A broader cross-section of the cycling market you could only wish to see.

I didn’t manage to take many photos while I was riding PBP (despite carrying around my good camera for 3.5 days) and in some ways this is a shame – I wish I had a small collection that captured certain moments of the ride. Alas, it’s all etched into my brain and legs so I’ll do my best to translate what I can through the written word.

After the quagmire of bike check, it was soon time to wave off the 80 and 90 hour groups. All my friends departed on Sunday which left me alone for that night ahead of my Monday morning kick-off. It’s a different experience starting a day after everyone. There isn’t as much fanfare at 4:30 as there is at 19:00 in the evening sunshine. Part of me regretted my decision for this alone but it soon became apparent that I had indeed made the right choice.

Some of the women of PBP

The longest stretch was the first: 200km to the first formal control where we would receive our second stamp (the first at the départ in Rambouillet). I thought that with 300+ people setting off in my wave, I’d easily have someone to ride with for a good few hundred kilometres but the truth is, I was mostly alone. Sure, I rode alongside a few people for a time, sucked some wheels for as long as I could but for the most part, I was in my own company.

I had no idea how long or how far I would ride on day one. Should I push on into the night while I felt fresh? Should I hold some back for the following couple of days? I analysed the control opening and closing times and soon realised I needed to push on. I couldn’t believe how behind I was, though it turned out we were given 36 hours to get to Brest and 48 to get back to Rambouillet and as long as we made it back within the final cut off, I’d be ok.

I rode a really efficient day one spending just 2.5 hours off the bike. I realised I was going quite well when I looked at my power and average speed. Even despite the headwind, I managed to clock 388km. Once the day was done, I retired to Quédillac where I got about 3 hours’ sleep. This would be the longest of my sleeps throughout PBP.

Day two began in the bitter cold. The cool overnight temperature caught a lot of people out with many retiring. All I had were arm warmers, knee warmers, a rain jacket, full finger gloves and the prescribed hi-viz gilet. It did the job thankfully and I didn’t find myself shivering too much.

Tiny red LEDs hovered up the road ahead under the darkness of the morning. The occasional freehub would sound as I homed in on my targets. I find the mornings hardest on these rides. It takes me a long time to warm up and was slow-going as I ducked into roadside sanctuaries in search of a good cup of coffee (there wasn’t one, FYI).

My low point came on this same morning. I realised just how far from Brest I was and I was overwhelmed by the challenge ahead. What if I didn’t make cut off? What if I never warmed up and stuck at this pace for the rest of the ride? I had a little cry and a word with myself. I dusted myself off, womanned up and got on with it. After all, if I’m going to wallow in self-pity I may as well do it while turning the pedals.

Eventually I found my second wind and I began to relish the ride. My legs found themselves and I was picking people off up the climbs as though they were standing still. I felt so strong. Really strong. Where this feat of strength came from, I can only hypothesise to this day. I don’t generally class myself as a rouleur let alone a climber – is there such a thing as a ploddeur? – but as I reached for every single one of my 22 gears, others were grinding seemingly having lost use of their shifters.

The climb up to Huelgoat and eventually Le Roc was wonderful. Reaching the junction to the main road and seeing the returning riders whizzing past on their way back to Paris was both a blessing and a curse. “I wish I was descending this bit…but no, I have to continue climbing!” I started doing the maths and looking for frame numbers to see which wave all these riders were in. If I was seeing wave G riders on the descent and I’m about 4 hours from them…I’m in wave X so that means I’ve really motored to get here at this time.

Abreast the bridge in Brest

I waved to my friends as they climbed up Le Roc and as I tapped out the descent. This was a real highlight. Having felt like an outsider for some time, seeing them cheered me up no end. I arrived in Brest in the late afternoon and made the decision to inch closer to my ultimate destination: Rambouillet.

I rode all the way back to Saint-Nicolas-du-Pélem where I knew I could get my head down for a couple of hours. And a couple of hours was all it was in the end. I got there around 01:00, had a bit of food then slept and knowing I had to be up early to make the cut off for Loudéac. I ended up 30 mins late to Loudéac but according to reports, this wouldn’t matter so I just cracked on and tried to make up the time on the road knowing my legs were in ship shape.

The real reason Voile Straps were invented.

By my calculations, I needed to make it back to Mortagne-au-Perche to avoid a 200km day on the final day. Once again, my legs took a few kilometres to find themselves but as I closed in on Tinténiac, I received a message from one of the Bristol lot asking how close I was to the control. Dave waited for me and we worked together. It was so good to work with someone of a similar ability and who knew group riding etiquette as well as me. Up to this point, I had seen some pretty shocking road riding and towed many people along without them returning the favour (you’re welcome, though.).

Dave and I took turns, chatted side-by-side and paused to pick up food strapping it to my bike. I was still keen to ride efficiently, therefore eating on the move was a given. My Australian friend, Tash was at a cafe at the bottom of the hill so she rode with us from this point, which was lovely.

Tash and I on day three

We bounced through the controls and maintained a steady pace the whole day. We stopped for food in Lassay-les-Châteaux, finally hunting down something other than the bland pasta and soup available at controls: PIZZA! If you’ve ever gone a few days without vegetables, you can imagine my face when a pizza loaded with aubergine, rocket, tomato and peppers landed on the table in front of me.

We made a decision we’d get to Mortagne no matter what time we arrived. We would stick together, communicate, keep ourselves awake and help each other. Bodies wrapped in emergency blankets lined the roads between Villaines-la-Juhel and Mortagne-au-Perche. It was quite a spectacle. Riders weaved all over the road clearly suffering from sleep deprivation, so it was important to stay well clear of these riders in the interest of self-preservation.

This section was really quite hilly but again, my legs complied with what I asked of them. Thank you, legs! A haven of chocolate, crisps and mini biscuits was setup in Mamers at a time we all needed a bit of a sit-down. Fellow riders got their heads down for a few minutes, others, like us, were capitalising on the dark chocolate strips usually seen baked inside a pain-au-chocolat.

Last push for the night then but it wasn’t without a sadistic 30% climb up to the control at the very end. Basic sleeping arrangements awaited in the form of a quite-shit sleeping mat in a hall of snoring blokes. Alarms set for 06:30 to be on the road for 7:30 for a final day of pedalling.

Yet another disappointing breakfast kicked off the day just as the man in front of me claimed the final pain-au-chocolat. If looks could kill, he wouldn’t have walked out of the hall and on to his bike, that I can tell you.

Saddle pain, knee ache and general fatigue all came into play on this final day. Touchwood, I don’t generally get any of the aforementioned ailments but I guess 1200km with nothing more than a couple of 50km loops in the weeks previous will do that. I slapped on as much chamois cream as I thought I could get away with (without it seeping through my shorts) and popped a couple of ibuprofen and paracetamol tablets and got on with it. 120km is nothing compared to what we’ve already done.

The final 40km were the worst for me, from memory. They were dull, there was a slight cross headwind and all I wanted was to finish. Then came the cobbles around Rambouillet. WHAT WAS THAT ABOUT? My undercarriage did not need additional battery at that stage of the event.

All’s well that ends well and I was ecstatic to find I finished in 80 hours and 48 minutes and crossed the line within seconds of my friend Judith Swallow. We congratulated each other and bumbled into the tent for our final stamp.


Learnings:

  • Good road craft is not a given just because people have done an SR
  • Bounce controls – I did this for some but should’ve done it for all of them. They’re busy, slow and the food wasn’t great.
  • Take more paracetamol/ibuprofen just in case.
  • Chat to more people – I met some lovely folk but wish I’d made the effort to meet more. That’s what this journey is really about.
  • Learn more French – very few people speak English in the French countryside and while I got by, it’d have been nice to ask the French guy giving me a tow to slow down a bit as my legs fell off.
  • The 84-hour wave is a good one because you make up the time by not having to ride through the first night.
French guy ripping my legs off between Saint Nick’s and Carhaix

Key stats:

  • 1,224km
  • 11,434m
  • 22,777 calories
  • 80:48 total time
  • 52:41:39 moving time (I can definitely faff less next time)

I also need to have more faith in my ability. I was so nervous coming into this event, full of self-doubt wondering whether it’d be another black mark against my name for DNF events. I learned a lot during TCR that I subconsciously applied to PBP and that means a lot. I am a bloody good cyclist and I should celebrate that more often and not be afraid to take on challenges that scare me a bit. I can look after myself, I can ride my bike at a decent pace and I can get through the low points. I can tow a bunch of dudes up a climb and I can hold a wheel when I need to.

Now, if someone can take the tingles out of my fingers, that’d be great.

Any ideas for my next big brevet?

4 Comments

    • GraceQOM

      You too Andrew – was nice bumping into familiar faces on the way around. Hope your neck held up ok and you’re recovering in style.

  • Chris Ashford

    Great write up Grace! I’m surprised you didn’t mention the lucky 30min huddle under the canopy whilst waiting for the rain to stop, or the search for frites on day 3! Great news that the pizza’s were worth the wait – we had a shop stop and pushed on at Lazzy, and definitely agree with your comment on vegetables being required. If you ever end up in Birmingham, there are four Beacon RCC riders who will more than happily show you the local lanes of our fair city. Oh, and next Brevet – LEL?

  • Simon Mac

    Great accomplishment and read. Very inspiring. A club mate of mine also rode the ride and loved it, especially once she slowed down to soak it all in. I hope your fingers are better by now!

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