MDCC does PBP

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

Along with Mike Henley and Sarah Davies, I was one of three members of MDCC who completed the Paris-Brest-Paris Audax last week.  This iconic long-distance ride traces its origins back to 1891 and takes place every four years.  All entrants are required to complete a series of pre-qualifying and qualifying rides of increasing length before attempting to ride the distance of 1,218km from the outskirts of Paris to Brest on the north west coast of Brittany and back in 90 hours or less.

 

 

The registration and bike check in heavy rain on the Saturday brought home to us the enormity of the event with over 6,500 riders made up of 58 different nationalities.  Fortunately the rain had cleared by Sunday afternoon as Mike left with the first group of riders at 16:00. Not long after were the group of ‘special bikes’: tandems, trandems (ridden by 3 Germans, not the Goodies!), recumbents, velomobiles (bicycle cars) and even 7 Bromptons before Sarah and I set off in the 18:45 wave.  The first two sections were relatively flat and exposed (think one of those boring sprint stages in the first week of Le Tour), but they were also long and the sun had dipped below the horizon by the time we had made it through.  We were making good progress riding in packs and had the chance to chat with the various riders from all over the world.  One moment I was discussing the test match with someone who used to go to school with Australian fast bowler Merv Hughes and the next moment hearing about the problems for female cyclists with a lady who works in Delhi.

 

The temperature fell as we cycled on through the night and we were grateful for the warmth of the rising sun the next morning.  We were appreciating just how much the locals embraced the event.  Every village had people at the roadside wishing you 'Bravo', 'Courage' or 'Bonne Route' whether it was 2 young girls not old enough to remember the previous event 4 years ago out in their pyjamas, a group of neighbours having a street party or a senior citizen in a wheel chair who could probably tell you stories of many previous editions.  Food and drink were freely offered by so many. Car drivers beeped their horns and shouted warm greetings, not 'bloody cyclists'. Drivers frequently gave way to us even when it was their priority.

Daytime also brought a headwind and this made the afternoon particularly challenging, but we reached Loudeac, our first sleep stop fairly close to our forecast time.  As we set off again into the night we knew we had the biggest climb of the whole route to conquer before reaching Brest. At this point Sarah’s knee was starting to hurt so we were taking it steadily. As we climbed, the temperatures dropped further than the first night.  Sarah had her Apple Music playing, so to keep our spirits up, we started to sing along to whatever came up on that. The Christmas Carol 'In The Bleak Midwinter' seemed particularly apt despite it being August!

We took the descent carefully as there was now a cold mist as well as dazzling lights from the leading riders returning from Brest.  So we were particularly grateful to find some cafes open in a small village where a lot of riders huddled inside to enjoy a welcome French pastry and warm drink.  Before Brest there was an obligitory stop for a picture by the bridge over the harbour before we reached the control in 39 1/2 hours.  Sarah had her knee strapped up with rather bright red and blue tape while I watched the local TV crews interviewing riders and it was difficult not to switch off mentally and feel we had finished rather than being only halfway towards our objective.

We made our way back over the hill and being daytime we could appreciate the great views that we couldn't see overnight. Unfortunately returning to our sleep stop in Loudeac we had trouble getting back into our hotel – speak to Sarah or I for the full story that at one point involved Sarah trying to smash in through a window using a fire extinguisher and later being lent a jacket from a policeman to keep warm!  This all cut into our intended sleep time and we did not then get a great start to the next day when, not long after we set off, I received a call saying my father's emergency alarm had rung.  Fortunately it eventually proved to be a false alarm, but it took time to sort out that we could have done without. 

One of the frequent features of the whole route is seeing riders lying down on the roadside taking a nap.  The draining effect of the last few hours were beginning to take its toll on me and on the next stage I decided I would have to be one of those and took a quick 15 minute rest. It was really pleasant in the morning sun and I felt much better when I got up and carried on, catching up with Sarah at the next control.  In the afternoon we stopped at a pleasant riverside cafe which raised our spirits and as we climbed a hill, I chatted with a guy from Seattle who told me that the next control was special (but he didn't want to spoil the surprise for me).  He was totally right as it seemed the whole town had turned out to greet us.  To reach the control desk, we had to climb a set of steps lined with masses of cheering spectators.  It was just like climbing the steps at Wembley to collect the FA Cup and very emotional.  With just three stages totaling 200km to go and over 20 hours in which to make it, we felt good.

Unfortunately after about 25km I began to feel dozy and we stopped where a group had set up a food and drink stop.  As we went on and the sun went down, progress for me became more difficult and we had to make frequent stops. Before long Sarah decided I was not safe to continue and ordered us to stop.  We wrapped ourselves in our emergency foil blankets and lay down for a sleep under a clear starry night - I do know how to show a girl a good time!!  I think Sarah got more sleep than me and as the temperatures approached freezing, I convinced her that I was ok to carry on slowly. We descended into a village, where we briefly debated settling down in a bank foyer, but then saw a cycling club had set up a food and drink stall and were advertising sleeping facilities.

We both knew that a sleep stop of any reasonable length would mean not making the 90 hour target limit.  It was clear I had little choice but to stop. However Sarah could still make it. Having ridden together so much, it was a very emotional and painful decision to split up, but having promised each other that we would take great care, that was what we did. After a three hour sleep I carried on, slowly but feeling much better than before. At the next control I heard from Sarah saying that she was now suffering like I had been which did cause me concern, but she assured me that she was being careful.

I set off again as dawn rose, but the sun was shining painfully straight into my eyes and I decided I had to stop for a while until it was higher in the sky.  Knowing I was out of time I just took the stage very steadily taking every opportunity for a rest, particularly as my Garmin was touching a temperature of 30C and there was very little shade. At the penultimate control, my initial thoughts of another rest were abandoned as I spoke to Sarah who had now reached the finish well under the 90 hour limit.  The last stage was straightforward, relatively short but still bakingly hot. The final kilometre was rather crowded but before long I reached the finish where I was so grateful to be greeted by Sarah.  We were so pleased each other was safe. My finish was outside the 90 hour limit but I still got a medal and we met up with Mike who had finished in an impressive 74 hours.

I had read so much about PBP beforehand. Most of it turned out to be true, but even more true than expected.  A truly memorable, full on (and one-off!) experience. Sarah’s first message on crossing the line was to hear how well her son had done in his GCSE’s.  Mine was to hear that I have got a London Marathon place (fortunately not for another 8 months).  Both would normally be causes for celebration, but we just needed to sleep!