|PBP Stories - 2003||
PARIS-BREST-PARIS: AN ACCOUNT
The Paris Brest Paris is a 1200 kilometer cycle which may be regarded as long distance cycling's equivalent of the Tour de France or the Olympics. It takes place every four years, over undulating and open country roads. All participants must qualify to gain entry to the event and this is done by riding a Super Randonneur series in the same year as the event. This consists of a combination of 200, 300, 400 and 600k rides, all of which must be completed within set-down time limits. These limits are a maximum speed of 30k.p.h and minimum of 15k.p.h.
Each participant selects one of three expected completion times (80/84/90 hours) with each group leaving at a different time. On starting the event each participant is given a brevet card, which states the controls where the card must be stamped to verify that the participant is following the pre-designated route. At these controls food is available and if necessary sleeping facilities for longer events.
At the 2003 P.B.P there were 4033 riders, representing 25 countries and for the first time ever 5 continents with the participation of Audax Japan. There were five riders present from Ireland; Darren Lovejoy (Sorrento), Padraig Curry (I.V.C.A), Kevin O Sullivan (Midleton) and myself, Paul O Donoghue, also of Sorrento C.C. As is usually the case there was some other Irish participation - John Connaghan, from Donegal, was riding under Audax Scotland colours. In previous years there have been Irish cyclists riding under Swedish and U.S colours as well as German and U.S cyclists under Irish colours.
This article sets out my experiences in the 2003 P.B.P. This was to be my third P.B.P, my previous times being 74 (1995) and 65 (1999) hours. On both occasions I had stuck with a pre-determined plan of riding straight through to Brest and sleeping there; while stopped I also took advantage of having a shower, something that can mean the difference between a comfortable ride the next day or not. On both occasions I reached Brest in about 25.00hrs just as it was getting dark, while other riders carried on. This was something which I didn't feel up to at the time. I was to know better as I gained more experience.
Since 1999 I had ridden a 1200k in Australia which I had hoped to use as a dry run for P.B.P. Unfortunately this did not really turn out to be the case and for much of the time it was just a matter of flogging myself from Canberra down the coast to Victoria and back across the mountains. More importantly I had ridden the London-Edinburgh-London (1400k) and managed to ride up to Edinburgh (700k) and 200k back down before sleeping. I was fairly ropey by Carlisle (843k) and would have liked to stay there. However, there were no spaces available, other than the floor or a head-down-on-the-table experience. As none of these was too appealing at the time I pressed on.
The next stop, a youth hostel booked for the event, was on the wrong side of the Pennines but I was fairly confident that there would be a bed there. The important point was that I had been able to cycle for about 37 hours at this stage and had learnt a valuable lesson for Paris 2003. I realize that this might seem a bit strange to some people, to cycle so far without sleeping, but as I was on for a good time the less I stopped the better. It's one of those situations where you need to push yourself beyond what you had previously thought you were capable of; it had worked out for me on this occasion and mentally it was a huge bridge crossed for Paris. As it turned out it was just as well that I had made it to the next control, as all the deluxe red telephone boxes I had eyed on the way north now turned out to be full of happily-snoring cyclists!
In any P.B.P year the qualifiers must be completed by late June to facilitate the processing of all the entrants. This year, we kicked off with the 200k on St. Patrick's weekend and had completed all the events by the end of May. From then on it was a matter of maintaining fitness and enthusiasm levels until the start on Monday, the 18th of August. In the meantime it was becoming all too apparent that Europe and, in particular, the Paris basin was experiencing a heat wave, which was a bit worrying for me as I always find myself struggling on hot afternoons after cycling through the previous night. However there was not much that could be done about the weather besides staying properly hydrated and not getting burnt; the only other option I could think of was if I needed to stop/sleep at any point, I should be aiming to do so in the hottest part of the afternoon between 14.00 and 16.00hrs.
I got to Paris on the Thursday afternoon 14th of August as I always like to have some time to check out the route and iron out any mechanical problems caused by flying. We were staying at the same hotel as the Canadians, where long distance cycling is relatively popular, particularly in British Columbia.
On Friday I went out for about 40 miles to test the legs/bike and check out my route sheet-reading skills. Later I rang a friend whom I had met during the London-Edinburgh-London. He was local cyclist, Richard Leon, who lived within 10k of the start. Not only was Richard a nice guy, but he was also an exceptionally experienced cyclist. This was to be his eight P.B.P. Five of them were completed under 50 hours and all were done without the aid of back-up. We arranged to go for a spin on the following morning, by which time all the Irish participants were expected to be in Paris.
At breakfast the following morning I can see Richard arrive at the hotel early and without a bike. One hand is in a fairly severe bandage; he has spent part of the previous night in the hospital, as a freak accident at home has seen him sever a tendon and the medical advice is that he won't be able to use his fingers well enough to manipulate the gears/brakes. This is obviously a devastating blow, to wait four years between P.B.Ps and have this happen in the last 72 hours. However, despite this serious setback there is still some time before Monday night to see how the hand progresses. He heads back to see the surgeon, while I head off for about 50 miles or so. Today I'm having problems following the route sheet which is a bit ominous, but put it down to thinking about what has happened to Richard at this late stage. I meet a large group of cyclists from England and Scotland, including John from Donegal, and return in their company. Thankfully Kevin, Darren and Padraig are ensconced in the hotel with bikes intact.
Unfortunately there is more bad luck going around today. Due to a power failure on the U.S/Canadian east coast, many of the Canadian party have been delayed for 2/3 days and the lucky ones are arriving in dribs and drabs, after some very convoluted journeys involving flying altered routes. One girl is still missing her bike, which has been mislaid in Charles de Gaulle Airport for several days now. All bad news as the obligatory bike check is tomorrow.
The registration for P.B.P takes place on Sunday and we're all down for an early start. This is a well organized and efficient process, taking place at the sports center which will be tomorrow's place of departure. First off, the bikes are checked for the appropriate lighting, a backup set of lights, some form of reflective jacket/belt and documentation. If the organizers are happy the rider is allowed entry to the hall, where all the relevant control cards and swipe cards are given out in a plastic envelope for safekeeping. Even at this hour of the morning [09.00hrs] there is a huge crowd present and it's like a stroll down memory lane as it is a great place to meet cyclists from all over the world, some of whom I haven't seen for four years. Manage to hook up with Richard, who's understandably a bit out of sorts but is still going to play it by ear. He figures braking will be o.k., but he's not too sure about gear-shifting. As it's still early we decide to stretch the legs and head into Versailles. Besides the obvious tourist activity, there is also some form of race on. It turns out that we're in luck as we catch the sign on for the final stage of the Tour de France feminine; there's a sea of national championship and rainbow jerseys on the stage and an overall field of about 80 riders.
It's great to see so many national teams in their colours, but it's also fairly disheartening as there couldn't be more than 500 people present to see the riders off after 2 weeks of racing up from Sardinia in this heat. A far cry from the Tour just a few weeks earlier, where there were crowds of 500,000 some days. It's very hot on the way back from Versailles, which is probably just as well as the last few days have been tolerable and it's certainly not a time to be complacent. Back at the hotel everyone has got through the bike check. Better still, the girl whose bike is still circling Charles de Gaulle Airport managed to borrow a bike from a Danish girl, whose partner is riding the event while she does support.
MONDAY: the longest day!
Prologue; Monday morning sees a grey and rainy start to the day, raising the possibility of greasy roads at the start of the event. We all head down to the start of the prologue, which is a short ceremonial cycle around the Parisian suburbs which are hosting the event. This gives the locals a chance to meet the riders and have a short[30k] spin together. From my own point of view, I am glad that we are taking part as it's a good opportunity for the Irish group to get a feel for riding in a big group, which P.B.P will entail. Everything goes well and everyone gets a prologue t -shirt for their endeavours. Another advantage of riding the Prologue is that it passes part of the day, which is not to be snuffed at as I'm not off until 20.00hrs and my Irish colleagues will start even later.
From previous years this can be a terrible day as everyone is waiting around, checking bikes and kit for the hundredth time, packing and unpacking food or just trying to sleep on any flat surface which may present itself. This year we're in luck though as those crafty Canadians have negotiated a deal which allows us to keep the hotel rooms until Friday, so there's no need to sit around a hotel lobby or garden for the day. It also gives me the opportunity to pack and unpack the saddle bag in comfort for the hundredth and first time.
At about 15.30 I head off down towards the start; as there are not many people in the hotel taking the 20.00hr start most people are trying to snooze or just lounging around trying to relax. I bump into two chaps, Dan and Harold, who are doing support for the experienced Canadian, Keith Fraser, who is looking to ride with the first group. They inform me that he is long gone as the top riders must be at the start three or four hours before everyone else to hold a position at the front. Anyone in contention for a good time won't want to be stuck behind 750 other cyclists as the sheer volume of bikes on the road will make it very difficult to work one's way up to the front.
There's a meal organized for all the participants, but as I've lost my ticket I make do with some sandwiches outside. On entering the start control there are already huge lines of people looking for a good position, but as I don't fancy standing for the next 90 minutes or so I sit down and gather my thoughts and chat to a few other starters. There are more people in the event this year than normal. Thus the 80 hour group is divided into two groups of 500, standard practice with the larger 90 hour group. I manage to get into the first of the 80 hour groups, leaving at 20.00hrs. This splitting of the group didn't really matter to me, but as the event unfurled was to have a radical effect on Audax U.K's fastest rider Gethin Butler. On a good day he was poised to be the fastest ever U.K participant and a contender for the first group of finishers. Unfortunately he was hampered by not being in the first group of starters.
There's a lot of speeches and Breton music in the lead up to the off as most of the cyclists around are French. It's a quick handshake and 'bon route' before the countdown.
20.00 hrs.LE GRANDE DEPART
Well we're finally under way, at a fair pace as the initial roads are very wide. For the first 30k or so the roads are lined with supporters cheering on the riders. Eventually things spread out a bit as we reach the more rural areas and it's time to learn the vital French words, 'a gauche','a droite' and the really important one 'ralentisseurs'(speed bumps). There are five controls between Paris and Brest, the first one is optional but at 141k, I'll be stopping for water for sure.
It's a grand mild night and there's no need for arm/leg warmers. Within an hour it's lighting up time. From previous experience I know to keep my wits about me as most of the accidents will happen when the group is still 500 strong. I always figure that people are jumpy at the start and usually do stupid things; obviously there's no room for mistakes in a group of this size traveling at this speed. How and ever, with some fairly radical 'ralentisseurs' along the route, the ground is littered with lights and pumps. It never fails to amaze me that people try to stop to retrieve their bits and pieces in front of several hundred cyclists.
On this leg there are long sections through forest and it's a bizarre sight to see all the trees lit up by cyclists for a couple of hundred metres or so ahead. It feels like riding through a tunnel. At the first control, I fill my water bottles as quickly as possible and carry on. At this point there are so many cyclists on the road that you are kind of sucked along, and we're still traveling fast through some very open countryside. Now, as things are sorting themselves out, everyone is getting into the meaning of what it is to be an international cyclist. French, English or whatever has been dispensed with, to be replaced by a screeching of brakes for an upcoming hill, the knock on effect of a 2 or 3 kilometer peleton. The other important sound is the riders upfront kind of going 'whoooaah' which usually means that something is happening up ahead(puncture/train tracks). This 'whooaah' is then passed back along the group.
The roads in this part of France are usually quiet, but any car coming against the mass of oncoming riders has to pull in to the side of the road, as cycling is a big thing around here I don't really think that there's any resentment to giving the cyclists a free road. For this night the bike will be king in the Paris Basin and Brittany. I meet a group of cyclists from New England, amongst whom is Melinda Lyon, first female finisher in 1999.The odd thing about an event like this is that it's the third time in my life that we've spoken and each time has had a four year gap and always been within the first 300k of this event.
At the second control Villaines-La-Juhel (223k) I meet an English chap that I know, who tells me that Richard is up the road with the lead riders. This is great news as this is the first I know that he has started the ride. On entering the control I catch sight of Dan and Harold who are looking after Keith (the Canadian intending to ride at the front). This is a big surprise and means either that things aren't going to plan for Keith or that I'm going too fast and will pay the price later. It has to be the former though as I'm feeling rather perky. Leaving the control I lose about 10 minutes taking a wrong turn but quickly catch a group of about 16 riders who are moving along at a good pace. I stop for a call of nature and lose the others I chase for a while but then settle down to riding my own P.B.P, which suits me just fine, as I was starting to feel hypnotized with the effort of following all those red l.e.d's rear lights. Obviously if I eased back a bit I could wait for another group but I'd rather keep going at my own pace. The countryside around here is rolling and it's important not to get lost. As there's no sign of life in front or behind me at this stage, I have my trusty laminated copy of the route sheet close at hand.
When I get my bearings I settle down, as on this section I know that I'll be spending long stretches on easily identifiable roads so navigation will be fairly easy. It's a perfect night for cycling still tipping along without arm/leg warmers. One thing that I have noticed that wasn't the case in previous years is that most major towns have acquired new branches of Auchan and Carrefour shopping centres. What has that got to do with cycling at night? Well, at this point, a lot really as they are all very well lit up and I can use them as a landmark for miles around! Such are the thoughts of a cyclist at night!
Before the next control (311k) I catch a bunch of mainly French riders and we enter as a group. Even at this hour of the morning the streets are still lined with locals cheering on the riders. To keep the crowd off the road, barriers have been erected, thereby making the street very narrow. The minute we stop there is a crush of wives, partners and children onto the road, who promptly take the bikes from the riders while they get their card stamped. All well and good but (as a someone without backup) it takes me about 5 minutes to get through to the entrance of the control. Thankfully a marshal spots my plight and clears a path to let me through.
Now this is a bit of a new phenomenon for me as I [naively] assumed that the lead riders were the only ones using back-up. As the event unfolds it becomes obvious that the opposite is the case and nearly every European I meet has back up, with the exception of the U.K riders who go the traditional self sufficient route and take a pannier / saddle bag. While I'm inside everyone else has someone to change batteries, fill bottles and replenish food supplies. As the distance increases these duties will advance to massage and from the numerous campervans on the streets many riders are going to take advantage of a snore-free bed for the night. Back up is allowed on the event, but only at the controls; all vehicles are numbered and must follow a separate route to the riders. Anyone found taking assistance on the route from their support vehicle is penalized by having two hours added to their time.
It's a short ride to the next control at Tinteniac [366k] and I contentedly plough towards daylight on empty roads. Dawn can often be the worst time when cycling through the night; the body is at its lowest point as the new day unfurls itself, but I am feeling good and am glad that I have sailed through this night so easily. What the next night will bring remains to be seen. I know the only way to get a good time is to not have to cycle into the third night and this will mean riding through two nights without sleep, something I haven't done before. However, darkness is still a long way off and the penultimate stage to Brest sticks in my memory as being a particularly difficult one. Obviously this opinion could be coloured by how you feel when you hit this stretch, but everyone mentions this one as being relatively difficult.
The day dawns hot and at this point it's just a case of counting the kilometers. I reach the control at Loudeac[452k] at about lunch time and the sun is splitting the sky, as it always seems to be when you're about to start climbing. Even mid-December in Ireland! Up to this point I have been eating from my own supplies and haven't sat down to eat at any of the controls, as to do so would instantly lose me somewhere between 30 to 60 minutes each time. What I have been doing is grabbing sandwiches, crepes and bits of cake from the controls and eating them on the move.
At all controls there are two types of feeding zones, one is a self service counter with a selection of hot and cold food and although I don't really use this facility this year my memory is that the fare on offer is well tailored to hungry cyclists. The alternative, quicker version usually serves crepes, cake, sandwiches, etc. and this is what I have been supplementing my supplies with. The less time off the bike the better, particularly now while I'm feeling good or as good as could be expected considering that I've 450k done.
The bumpy section into Carhaix(529k) isn't as bad as my recollection from previous years. By now the sun is really beating down with a vengeance, the flat run into Carhaix seeming to take an eternity. Now starting to feel myself fade. At this stage I have been cycling for about 18/20 hours and knew that this was coming; there's nothing to do but just keep plodding forward, confident that I will snap out of it but not knowing when. Sooner rather than later, hopefully!
As I'm only treading water at this stage I decide to stop at the next control, eat and gather my thoughts, such as they are at this point. When the control finally materializes, I get some soup and pasta, washed down with a can of coke to see if the caffeine will have the desired effect(which it didn't). As I leave, Richard appears and doesn't look too good. Turns out that he went to the start at about 17.00 hrs, got himself to the front and rode a couple of hundred k with the lead group, then things started to fall apart. An upset stomach has seen him riding several hours on an empty tank. I feel for him as he has had a fairly disastrous few days. Unable to eat what he has just purchased, he tries to sleep on the floor. I'm fairly devastated to see a mate in this state, I offer to hang on a while and see if we can carry on together. At this stage he's only half concious, but insists that I carry on. All I can do is offer him a few Rennies and carry on with a heavy heart. The one good thing that I take comfort from is that this is Richard's eight P.B.P, so with this much experience and a large cushion of time racked up already he should be able to ride himself back into the event if he can get his eating sorted. I still feel bad about going on, though.
My stop at the last control has not really done much to revive me and although I can keep moving along, the going is quite tedious and not at any great pace. Within a short while I join up with a group of French riders and we tip along together towards the Atlantic and the knowledge that Brest will see everyone at the halfway point. Conversation isn't exactly flowing but there's an invisible bond between everyone as he/she is lost in their thoughts and tiredness. To make matters worse we're seemingly going downhill for a long time following a river, but the average speed looks more like we're going uphill. Eventually we reach the biggest climb on the whole route, Roc-Trevezel. Strange as it may seem, I'm glad as at least now a gradient is visible and there's a reason to be going so slow. There are large crowds on top cheering on the riders but I know from last time that Brest is still about 50 k away and at this speed 50 k feels more like 150k. At last the bridge into Brest materializes, after what seems an eternity, and now there's a large climb up to the control.
For the first time in 22 hours we're mixing it with heavy traffic. Brest is a milestone for me - my best time for a 600k is 25 hours and now I have reached here in 22 hours. In previous years I showered here, eating before and after sleeping, but not this year. Prior to the event when I did my calculations for a 50 hour P.B.P I reckoned that I had 21 hours to reach Brest. Obviously I haven't made this target, the last two stages having been painfully slow, but I know that in time I can snap myself back together and ride back into the event. I try to have a wash and freshen up but the water is scalding and it's fairly dangerous in the wash room as all the steam has left everything slippy, I didn't come this far to take a tumble now. Have my complimentary[half way] drink and a few sandwiches. One of the chaps that I rode in with had said about riding on together, but when I go outside at the pre-planned time he's not around and I can't locate him after a quick scout around
SECOND NIGHT ON THE ROAD
On the run out of Brest I meet up with a group of French, Swedish, Spanish and Belgian cyclists and decide to sit in with them for a while as I'm not feeling too good. After a while it becomes obvious that everyone is having a hard time. I had hoped that the pace would pick up when we cleared the city, but as this doesn't look likely I go off the front on the next climb. It might seem strange to leave the shelter of a group like this, but I know that I'm riding slightly below my own pace and for me at this point I need to ride alone, even if the group are only five minutes behind. The way I look at it, darkness is falling, everyone is tired, no one knows each other and most importantly there is no one to take charge in some common language and work out what is to be done. Though the temptation for me right now is to sit in, I know that I have no time to spare. If I have to sleep any chance of meeting my 50 hr target is gone.
The return route to Carhaix is different to the one in, but it is still fairly hilly. Because of this I never catch a glimpse of the lead riders. It's just dusk when I reach Carhaix. By now I'm in the company of three other cyclists and we make tentative plans to go on together for a while. After kitting up for the night and taking on a set of batteries, I find the others, Martin from Leeds, Norman from Germany and Thomas from Denmark and it turns out Norman has back up and a camper van at the control. At this point it makes sense to team up on the road as the extra lights make night riding easier for everyone. I haven't really talked to anyone for the last 26 hours or so and the company makes a change. Norman and Thomas are both riding their first P.B.P and are both talking about finishing in 50 hours, a big task for anyone, particularly on the first attempt. I wish them the best but inwardly feel that they are underestimating what a second night without sleep will be like. Martin, a nice calm guy, has the approach that it's still early days and he intends to take it as it comes.
Unlike last night, tonight is fairly cool. Having turned at Brest we are meeting the oncoming riders literally in the hundreds and at times their lights are so strong that I am finding it difficult to follow the road; I hope that this doesn't lead to accidents during the night. I hadn't planned for this, probably because I normally would be in Brest at this hour, also the lighting on the approaching bikes has radically improved in four years.
I'm in the horrors now, finding it hard to stay awake. This is bad news as its not even midnight yet and there's another 5 hours of night riding ahead. I am aware of just how easy it would be to fall asleep and cross the road into the stream of oncoming riders. No matter how bad I feel, Thomas is delirious; he is talking to himself and every so often raps himself on the helmet to try and stay awake. Thankfully he has stayed a few bike lengths behind Martin and myself, so won't bring us all down if he falls. At this point Norman has long been lost. I feel sorry for Thomas as I know the horrors of trying to stay awake on a bike, especially when the clock is ticking, but if I were he I would get off at this point and gather my thoughts(if only for a few minutes). A secret control materializes, Martin stops to put on leg warmers and I take this opportunity to gather my own thoughts and still standing lay my head on the saddle for a quick snooze. Within three minutes we're off and I feel O.K .This good feeling lasts to the next control Loudeac(773k) and although I'm under no illusions about what is in store I'm content that I'm still going forward, although shakily at times.
Loudeac looks like Stalingrad just before surrender and there's an air of chaos about the place. Many people break the ride into a 3-night affair. At 452k out this is the obvious place to stop leaving relatively manageable distances for the next 3 days. There are also returning riders staying here, so everything is stretched to the limit. There are queues for beds, queues for food, queues for toilets and even queues for the queues; hundreds of bikes are spread everywhere and there are people crashed out all over the ground in survival sheets trying to sleep. I'm glad that I am not stopping here for anything, as any time spent here is going to be wasted. I meet up with Darren, who is looking a bit shell shocked as he hoped to sleep here and it's not looking good, not helped by a rather chilly night. There is an electronic system for tracking riders on the event's web site and Darren has been in contact with home. I now know that both Padraig and Kevin are within an hour or two of this control. It is great to make this contact as the possibility of meeting each other on the dark roads is non-existent.
I carry on alone as Martin and Thomas have opted to sleep at the control. The next few hours are over flattish to rolling roads with nothing to distinguish them and thus a bit dull. As on the previous night my main concern is to avoid going off route. A quick calculation tells me that its about 44 hours since I last saw a bed and that I have been on the bike for about 32 hours. I'm still not sure if I can make it through the night without having to lose time to sleep. The road to Paris is empty so I know that I'm fairly ahead of the pack. Occasionally riders pass going out to Brest, which is good for me as it's always a reassurance that I am on the route. I can't help feeling that these riders are under fierce pressure, as within the first third of the event they are already chasing the clock, for what its worth I shout encouragement where possible.
Night riding means something different to everyone. My feelings are that no matter who you are there are only two possibilities; a good night and a bad night, and there is very little a cyclist can do if a bad night is beckoning. I try something that works for me as I don't want to get sleepy again. I slightly under-dress for the chilly night, in the hope that the slight discomfort will help me stay awake and stay focused. Inevitably I start to get sleepy again; my eyes feel like lead and it's impossible to keep them open. After a veer into the side of the road I know that it's time to stop and in the next village, I lie down on a bench for about 5 minutes. This time is spent in a kind of state between sleep and wakefulness, as falling fully asleep isn't an option. I can hear that big clock ticking away in Paris!
These little snoozes seem to buy me about 45 minutes before getting sleepy again. The next wave of tiredness hits with a bang and I know that I have to stop as the bike is now all over the road. I'm traveling through corn fields which come right out to the road leaving nowhere to stop, so I have to wobble on to the next town. Then, at the edge of town, I have to brake hard to avoid an elephant crossing a bridge before me! I actually stop, wondering which way he will turn.
In reality, what I thought was an elephant was really a group of bushes. I had heard of long distance riders hallucinating but this is the first time that it has ever happened to me. Proof that another snooze is needed. I find a nice bench outside a church and collapse. After a few minutes I'm aware of a presence; when I open my eyes there's a chap out walking a dog and he is adamant that we start a conversation on the benefits of pillows for a good night's sleep. During the whole conversation I 'm still flaked out on the bench. I take my leave promising to bring a pillow in 2007 and he seems pleased that I have heeded his advice. For the next few minutes I really have to question if this conversation actually took place or was I dreaming. I regret not asking what he was doing walking his dog at four in the morning.
On leaving the town I see something that you could only see in France; like a mirage there's a boy of about twelve standing outside his house with coffee and cake waiting for any cyclists who pass during the night. I instantly regret not getting a warm cup of coffee as I'm sure its just what I need at this point. I also regret not having the time to stop and have a chat but this is the way it has to be if you want a low time. What a boy, I'm well impressed!
First light brings a cold morning. This coldness is offset by the beautiful sight of mist on the valley floors and along the river beds. It makes for great cycling as I tip away contentedly on near empty roads. I'm feeling confident about a good finish but know that the most important thing to be done now is to maintain focus. This isn't the time to let my mind wander, as an optimistic calculation still sees me on the road for 14/15 hours more. Nonetheless, I'm feeling good in myself and keeping a semi-respectable pace. At the next control I have a wash, change my socks and shorts and brush my teeth. Apart from the obvious comfort/hygiene factor I always like to go through this routine after a night's cycling as I feel that it somehow signals to the brain that, irrespective of how it is feeling, it is actually a new day! If time permitted, I would stop for breakfast for the same reason.
While I'm doing all this, the local supporters gather around as they can't figure out how I am content to cycle on my own. They want to know what its like to ride P.B.P and keep telling me that I am well up the field. There's a group up the road and they are adamant that if I chase, I can catch them within the next 30/40k.This has been the scenario at the last few controls, particularly since the riders started to thin out. Everyone comes over to talk to you. On realizing that I'm Irish they want to know what Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche are doing now; in return, they insist on telling me all their stories of seeing the two greats in action. When I finally get to leave, they're full of encouragement.
I have started to do calculations about a finishing time and the last control confirms that if I can maintain this pace I can make 50 hours, though it is going to be right down to the wire. It's another hot day and every now and then I pick up a straggler who is looking poorly (the result of trying to stay at the front for too long, I wonder ?). I offer a wheel, but no one takes the option for long. All day long people are cheering the riders along and for miles there's a group of workers laying trenches who all down tools to shout encouragement. This will be the scene for the next few days as riders will be returning until 16.45 on Friday. There are people all along the road and particularly on top of the climbs with ice buckets full of water and coke, tables and chairs in the shade with cups of coffee and cake and sandwiches to soothe the weary soul. As I'm not in a position to stop, the kids want to 'hi five' and know what country I come from.
When I make it to Villaines-la -Juhuel, I have reached the 1000k point and start to think more about a result. I'm getting slightly more confident about a 50 hour finish. There is a group of juniors representing the E.U countries riding the route over 14 days. After a quick scout around I establish that there is no one from Ireland in the group, which is a big pity. When I'm leaving the town, two girls call me back. I'm reluctant to turn back but figure that I must have dropped something (don't want to lose my control card at this point). They ask me if I'm going to Paris and try to explain the benefits of traveling in a group. Needless to say, their father is part of this group. For some bizarre reason I agree (they're rather pretty) and lose about 10 minutes waiting for them to get sorted. What was I thinking? Sucker!
We take off and at the first climb I go straight to the front and wait at the bottom to regroup. Yes, indeed, what was I thinking? I pull myself together, aware that I'm losing time. At the next climb the same thing happens. Now the group is bigger and someone goes with me, he asks me to steady up a bit, we drop back and I tell the others that I have got 50 hours on my mind. The guys that I left town with are all encouragement and wish me all the best as I press on.
There were many moments like this on the trip and for me this was a special one. These boys knew that they were on for a good time, were content with that and were wise enough not to break their rhythm trying to ride above what was obviously a successful formula for them (both wise men and canny cyclists in my opinion). After about five minutes I couldn't see the boys and didn't doubt that I made the right decision. Eventually this group turned up in Paris about 90 minutes after me, as I thought they would.
As the temperatures rose, I started to hit some main roads which were very exposed, and spent a long time battling a vicious cross wind. For the first time in my life I was wearing a back -to- front cap to protect my neck from a very strong sun. Now of all times it was important not to put myself at any disadvantage. There was one hairy moment when I started to doubt whether I was on the right road as I had not seen a sign for what seemed like ages. By the route sheet I figured myself on course but was strongly tempted to turn and recheck the signs. It was touch and go as returning would have cost 20 minutes and going forward, who knows? Then, out of nowhere a fire engine appeared out of a field, and a bemused driver confirmed that this was the right road for me.
At Mortagne-au-Perche [1084k] I tried to get through the control as quickly as possible. This was not too difficult as I was the only participant in 200 people present. I was aided in my haste by some local cyclists who had decided to take me under their wing. As one filled my bottles, another cleared my pockets of a day -and- a- bit supply of sweaty rubbish and inevitably I was asked about Messieurs Kelly and Roche. A big cheer on the way out and a glance at my control card told me that I still had my name in the pot for cinquante heures!
Within a couple of kilometers I found myself in a bunch of about 10 French cyclists plus an Italian and an Australian and settled in for a while. The going started to get hilly, very hilly in fact. I don't recall this section being this hilly before. It looks to me like the continental plates have shifted within the last four years, though there were some lengthy descents on the way out. Sometimes its hard to judge things in the dark! The group splits up on the first long climb and a French chap and I are first on top and hang back for the others. Next climb, same scenario. On the next climb, it's the same thing but the French chap who has been grumbling to himself keeps going over the top and, for some reason, I waited for the others.
Why did I do this? I don't really know. I reckon that I started to make the one mistake that I wasn't in the position to make; I took my eye off the ball. Whether it was because Paris was getting nearer, the heat and tiredness getting to me or a combination of these, I was now hanging back for people that I didn't know; in fact, this was the first time in my life that I had seen any of these cyclists. I assume that the chap who went on ahead realized that he was losing time and knew that he had to go on alone to recoup it. This is obviously what I should have done, but as always, hindsight is a great thing.
I never caught the other chap and I spent most of my time at the front of the group (of which only four do any work for the group). When I was not at the front I was wishing that I was, so as to keep the pace up. It was tough going, though, as it's very open countryside around here and fairly windy. The few riders who worked were tetchy with the ones who would not come to the front but I could not help thinking how was I so stupid to allow myself slip into this position, particularly towards the end of the event. I felt that I was riding below pace to the next control and I was itchy to get moving.
Misjudging the distance to the penultimate control, I carried on with this group. The few French guys working are talking about riding the final leg together. I'm conscious of not getting lost on the last tricky stage in the dark, so this suits me fine.
When we reach the final control before Paris (Nogent -le-Roi 1167k) my card is stamped at 18.30hrs and I can't believe that I have lost so much time on the previous leg. I have left myself 75 to 90 minutes to ride the final 58k.
The stage just completed has been slow progress; I felt that I was losing time but didn't really know things were this bad. As I know that I am not going to reach Paris before nightfall I kit up for darkness and clear the control as quickly as possible. The group that I came in with are gone, so I leave town as quickly as possible and put my head down to try and limit losses. I instantly fall into the nightmare scenario of wondering if I'm on the right road or not. Signs are non-existent when I need them most, though it's possible that they may have been taken by souvenir hunters. There's also the possibility that in my haste to make up time I have overshot the relevant signage. Reality bites. Knowing that 50hrs is out for me today I ease back deciding that the best thing to do now is enjoy the run in and not get lost at this point of the event.
Things get a bit surreal in a section through forest, just as darkness falls; there are bats flying really close to me. No big deal in itself, but these bats look like something from Jurassic Park. I have never seen bats this big and keep a wary eye as I don't want to come a cropper now.
The run in to Paris is frustrating as the last kilometers are through a never ending series of red lights and signage is thin on the ground, leading to a wrong turn in the final kilometer or so.
I finish at 23.01, giving me a time of 51.01. Not quite 50 hours, but near enough for me. As it's night time there aren't many people around, but the updated list of finishers on the wall shows me somewhere within the first 50 or so. All finishers get a voucher for a free drink on finishing and I go out to get my celebratory drink from the local cycling club, who are running the canteen as a means of generating money for their activities. Its good to see a friendly face. People always say that its very disheartening to finish P.B.P at night as there is no one around in this huge hall, but I'm very content with my time and having checked, I now know that the other Irish cyclists are still on course for a good time. Its time to head back to the hotel, knowing that Thursday will be a day to rest and Friday will be the day I head down to the control to cheer in Darren, Kevin, John and Padraig. Happy days!
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT!
In an event of this length anything can go wrong and the best-laid plans can become unstuck. So here are the details of what happened to the cyclists that I have mentioned during the previous pages. Kevin, Darren, John and Padraig, the Irish contingent who were all on their first P.B.P, finished on Friday morning through to lunch time. After the dust had settled, they all enjoyed the event and will hopefully be back in 2007.
Gethin Butler, who was a favourite to come in at the front of the field, got placed in the second group and spent most of the time chasing the lead group. A 49.15 finish saw him become the first Audax U.K rider in below the 50 hour mark ever, along with the fastest time ever by an a U.K rider. Melinda Lyon came in around the 53hr mark to become the fastest female for the second time. Keith Fraser, always due a fast time, took a fall in the first hundred k or so, was late getting to the control and lost contact with his support. Assuming that he had abandoned they returned to Paris, but then rapidly realized their mistake and returned again looking for their man. As Keith was travelling very light he quickly ran out of food and rode several hours on an empty tank before re-establishing contact with his back up to eventually finish in 59 hrs.
Thursday morning started with a phone call from Richard, who had finished in 53 hrs. I could not think of a better way to start the day as here was one person who started the event in very adverse circumstances, yet still managed to notch up a great time. He was also able to tell me the position of the Irish riders and, with his knowledge of the event, could plot their respective finishing times(which subsequently turned out to be very accurate).
As for me, after P.B.P 1999 (65 hrs), I came home knowing that I had spent too much time eating/sleeping at the controls, not to mention an extra 30k due to a wrong turn. I initially settled for a sub 60hr ride for 2003 but as the years ticked by I started to think about a better time and set my sights on 50hrs. I never held any illusions but that this would be very difficult. No matter which way the figures were totted up, sleeping was never going to be an option. The best that I could hope for would be a quick 5 or 10 minutes along the route, and then only when I was so tired I was falling off the bike.
Sitting down and eating at the controls would be a luxury also, so before I even started cycling it was straight into uncharted territory as I had never gone without sleep this length of time, nor had I eaten so little solids on an event of this length. Traveling without backup automatically put me at a disadvantage as I would be carrying all my clothing, lighting and food with me for the full 1225k. However I was prepared to follow the traditional route, as to me P.B.P is an Audax event (not a time trial) and self sufficiency is a large part of the Audax ethos.
Apart from the obvious worries such as mechanical failure or a crash, over which I had no real control, my biggest apprehensions prior to the event were the possibility of high temperatures and the onset of tiredness on the second night. In the week or so before the event I started to doubt my chances of a 50hr P.B.P. A lot of people that I talked to seemed to think that 50 hours was just too difficult, compounded further by my decision to ride with a saddle bag. My confidence had been shaken at the Mersey Roads 24hr time trial three weeks previously, where I had found it almost impossible to stay awake during the night stage and didn't feel too good for most of the next day. When I returned home from this event I spent a day or two feeling sorry for myself before figuring out that this was a waste of time and it was better to focus on the positives, specifically what I had learned for the future.
On the morning of the initial day of the P.B.P I started to feel more confident, knowing that whatever way things were going to go in the next two days or so the best approach was to stay focused, ride at my own pace and enjoy the occasion. As it happened things went well and, although I didn't make 50 hours, I was very happy with how I rode the event and certainly took away a lot of valuable knowledge from Paris.
The biggest mistake that I made was losing focus during the last few hours, but the truth is that with the benefit of hindsight I don't really feel that I lost a whole hour during this period; it was more likely an accumulation of ten minutes here and five minutes there, easy to do on an event this long. Unlike other events, I wasn't shattered after the ride, leading me to the conclusion that I paced myself well throughout the days (I did not get to bed until after 03.00hrs on Wednesday night). In fact I found this years 24hr T.T. harder than P.B.P, although it took less than half the time.
Before this year
I had always held anyone who finishes in 50 hours as a super
human athlete; now I know that this is not necessarily the whole
picture. While exceptional fitness is obviously vital, confidence
and good judgment are just as important. This was my third time
riding this event and it never loses its appeal. It was great
to be there in a green jersey along with Kevin, Darren, John
and Padraig. Hopefully by 2007 there will be a bigger Irish presence
in Paris, as this is one trip that all cyclists should do at
© Copyright 2004, Paul O'Donoghue
photo by Dan McGuire
I've now found a link to this on irishcycling.com ---> HERE