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Paris Brest Paris 2023
I’m one 6700 riders from around the world who have arrived in Rambouillet, just outside Paris, for the start of the world’s biggest cycling tour. It’s a 1219km return trip to Brest.
The first wave of riders has already departed. Those first groups must complete the journey in 80 hours. They will be followed by the special bicycles, which includes tandems and velomobiles, the aerodynamic machines that look like a submarine. I’m in the first wave after them, the first of the 90-hour riders.
It’s hot in Rambouillet, about 30C. The sun is relentless. I sit quietly in the shade with Kathy, conserving my energy until it’s time to say goodbye and follow the long line of bicycles through the safety check and then the start control to get the first stamp in my control card. After a long slow procession, we are finally off. Before long, I settle into a group of riders that is moving at a comfortable pace. For the first 100km, the riding is easy on flat terrain.
But I’m concerned that l’m not going faster. It’s not that my pace isn’t where it should be. My concern is that I should be finding this pace too easy. The conversation I should be having with myself at this stage should be about the merits of slowing down. I attribute it to the heat and try to put the thought out of my mind. It turns out it wasn’t the heat but that’s getting ahead of myself.
The first food stop is at 119km. I intentionally ride past it. My plan was to get through the first 200km before stopping. I had plenty of food on my bike for 200km but, especially with the heat, not enough water. I needn’t have worried, there were well-wishers all along the route, day and night, with shouts of “Bonne courage,” “Bonne route” or simply, “Allez!” and, more often than not, jugs of water to refill our bottles.
I arrive at the first control at 203km. My time is good. It’s time to stop for food. At each control there is a hot food line or a faster “self-serve” line with sandwiches and pastries. The sandwich is always ham, cheese, and a lot of butter on a baguette, which is simply called a “jambon”. I opted for a jambon with a raisin roll. Well, this was my first lesson on wasting time at a control. The jambon with its fresh baguette cannot be eaten quickly. It involves a lot of chewing. But that was something I didn’t learn until after I had eaten my first jambon. Nonetheless I was still on pace when I left the control. It turns out that a jambon is easily eaten with one hand and will last for about 40km of pedalling through the French countryside.
My original plan had been to stop at Le Ribay for a sleep. That plan was based on the assumption that the early morning hours would be uncomfortably cold and that the afternoon hours would not be uncomfortably hot. Neither was true so I kept riding with the plan to have a nap in the late afternoon and then press on to Brest where Kathy had a hotel where I could have a real sleep. It didn’t go according to plan but more on that later.
The riding is through rolling hills past fields of corn with thick green stalks that were considerably taller than me. There were fields with grazing cows. Mostly black and white Holsteins dairy cows. Occasionally all white Charolais. Even though jambon appeared to be a staple in this part of France, I didn’t see or smell a single pig farm.
The villages were mostly at the tops of the hills. Each was dominated by a stone church, the plainest of which was impressive. Some were far from plain with ornate and intricate spires and bell towers defining the skyline.
One of my problems on long distance rides is that I lose my appetite, especially when it’s hot. This, of course, has disastrous consequences later in the ride when the calorie deficit catches up with me. I force myself to keep eating while I ride whether I feel hungry or not. Success depends on having a variety of food since any one food, consumed over and over causes “palette fatigue”. In other words, you can’t force yourself to keep eating the same thing. At one control, I decided to try the hot food line for a higher calorie meal. My choice was chicken, pork or fish with pasta, rice or potatoes. I opted for fish with potatoes but skipped the green beans that were offered. They didn’t look good and I definitely did not need fibre. I needed carbs with some protein. It wasn’t great but I managed to struggle through the whole plate. I later found rice pudding went down a lot more easily.
The local farmers drive massive tractors with fat tires. The machines are so big that they have pilot cars in front. The tractors were sometimes pulling equivalently scaled manure spreaders. It seems that the farmers make good use of natural fertilizer. The fresh air in some pockets reminded the riders that this was farm country.
I should have stopped in Tinténiac (353km) for a sleep but decided to press on to Loudéac (435 km). I thought I could make it and that reaching Brest from there would be achievable. Neither was true. Getting to Loudéac was more than I could manage without falling asleep. I found a grove of trees next to a field where there was grass and shade and had a short nap. But not before checking that the area wasn’t recently fertilized! The nap was sufficiently restorative to get me to Loudéac but I was slow and well behind the pace I needed to have a proper sleep in Brest. In Loudéac I paid for a bed in the sleeping area. This is where I learned how valuable the eyeshades and earplugs I brought were.
I had hoped that this sleep would get me to Brest but it didn’t. I was still struggling. At the Canihuel secret control, there was a food stand with hot crêpes. I wasn’t going to stop until one of the volunteers pointed out that it was another 42km to the next control at Carhaix. The hot crêpe was delicious. Maybe even the highlight of my trip.
I stopped in at the control in Carhaix-Plouguer (515km) for a sleep. I had enough time in hand but it would mean that I would not make it to Brest in time to stop for the long sleep that I had hoped for. I was assuming that my sleep strategy had been all wrong and that I should have slept earlier in the ride. Again, despite sleeping in Carhaix, I could not make the remaining 90km to Brest without stopping for a roadside nap.
We rolled through the town of Sizun. I was told this was a great place to stop and eat. In fact, many fellow riders were lined up at the crêperie and at the boulangerie. I would have loved to have stopped but every minute off the bike was a minute I would not be able to sleep in a bed.
With 20 km to go until Brest, I was starting to get sleepy. I told myself that I could push through. Just focus on pedalling. This worked until it didn’t. All of a sudden my bike veered wildly off course. I had fallen asleep while riding. Fortunately the swerve woke me up before I hit anyone or anything.
One the riders shouted “Ça va?”
“Tres bien,” I responded which clearly wasn’t true. “Very lucky,” would have been a more appropriate response. I immediately pulled my bike onto the sidewalk for a nap. Any passing pedestrians were just going to have to step over me.
I made it to Brest without any further incidents. I arrived on time but only by minutes. This meant that I would be underwater if I stopped for a sleep. Under the circumstances, I really had no choice. I stopped at Kathy’s hotel for a shower, food and a sleep in a real bed.
I was excited to see the arrows now saying “Paris” instead of “Brest”. It really lifted my spirits to be heading back. The morning ride out of Brest was sunny and warm but not yet hot. It was lovely riding. Unfortunately my struggles with sleep continued. I made it to the control at Carhaix-Plouguer on time but couldn’t go on without stopping for a sleep. My struggles with sleep were getting worse and worse. Despite getting a real sleep at Carhaix, I was getting to the point where I couldn’t ride for more than 20km without stopping to nap.
I was late arriving at the control in Tinténiac. Theoretically, this could result in my disqualification, but my understanding was that I would be allowed to continue as long as I made it to the finish on time. My adventure racing daughter @jennytough says never abandon a ride when you are hungry, thirsty and tired. Thirsty was easily resolved, hungry was harder because I wasn’t hungry but I made myself eat a protein bar. Despite being late, I knew I couldn’t go on without a proper sleep. I paid for a bed and went to sleep.
I awoke shivering. I looked around the room, there was only one rider left and he was asleep with nothing on but his shorts. I took this to mean that the room was likely fairly warm. I was under a doubled over wool blanket, I was still wearing my leg warmers from the cool morning ride that got me here. I was also wearing a wool jersey and sun sleeves. I shouldn’t have been shivering.
I dragged myself to the medical tent and asked them to take my temperature. Getting up and walking over there was enough to stop the shivering. They pointed me to a stretcher and asked me to sit down. The stretcher was only about 5cm above the floor! After 870km of riding, I wasn’t sure I could get there without embarrassing myself. And then there would be the problem of getting up again. Nonetheless, I complied while they took my temperature. 36.2, all good.
I decided that my shivering was just my body shutting down to conserve energy. It was like the Enterprise shutting down all non-essential functions to divert all available power to the warp drive. I think traditional Chinese medicine has similar logic but a Star Trek analogy is way more fun.
So now I am awake, I don’t have a fever and I am several hours underwater. I could go on but I don’t see how I can make it in my current state. I can’t ride more than about 20km without a roadside nap and I’m having to stop at every control for a sleep. It’s time to consider my options. The volunteers at the control have a shuttle to Rennes where I can get the TGV back to Paris. They tell me that the TGV doesn’t take bicycles unless they are in a bag.
They have a bag that I can purchase for 51 euros. No problem. The shuttle is leaving in 10 minutes, so I have to get my bike dissembled quickly. I get the assistance of the on-site bike mechanics to take it apart. There are about 6 of them working on my bike simultaneously. The bike is disassembled and in the bag quickly and professionally. Now I have a soft sided bag with no wheels that weighs about 30kg! And I’m still exhausted.
I drag myself and the aforementioned bicycle bag to the shuttle and then into the train station at Rennes. Kathy was still on the train from Brest to Paris. It turns out it is same route that I will be taking, just a few hours later. She will do some sightseeing around the Montparnasse station in Paris and wait for my train to arrive. I arrive in at the Montparnasse station at one end of the train. The platform exit is at the other. My bag still weighs 30 kg. I am still exhausted. French trains are really long.
Once I make it through exit, Kathy and I each take a handle and between us, we lug the bike to the suburban train that will take us back to our hotel near Rambioullet.
Normally after a multi-day ride, I sleep for about 8 hours. Two things conspire to get me out of bed. This first is my legs. They are sore and uncomfortable. The only relief is gentle motion and stretching—neither of which happens when I am still in bed. The other is hunger. By morning, I’m ravenous and need to get up and eat. Alarmingly, neither of these mechanisms is at work. I try to get up but can’t. I eventually get up and have a smoothy but then go right back to sleep. This goes on for 36 hours. I didn’t know it was possible to sleep that long. I wake up with a cold.
“Do you think you will try again?” Kathy asks.
“First I have to decide if I am going to throw my bicycle off a bridge.” I respond.
“You could take up golf.” She says, a little too enthusiastically.
I later learned that I have COVID-19. Given the incubation period, I must have had it, asymptomatically, before I even started. Despite being current on my vaccinations, it has been a long struggle. As I write this a week later, I am still not fully recovered but I am getting better.
I haven’t had the energy to reassemble my bike. I’m a long way from finding the energy to drag it to a bridge. But, yes, I believe I will try again.
BC Randonneurs PBP Stories Archive September 4, 2023
September 4, 2023