Qualifying for Paris-Brest-Paris

O to be a

Super

Randonneur

“There simply is nothing else like it. And, as a test of physical and mental endurance it has no equal”

— Chris Boardman

Paris-Brest-Paris (or PBP as it is more commonly known) is a 1200km cycle ride boasting of a pedigree going right back to 1891 and the dawn of the safety bicycle – and pre-dating the Tour de France by some 12 years. To take part in PBP is not a trivial undertaking, and to complete puts you a little closer to those cycling legends who completed the gruelling course on tough steel velos in ridiculously short times (like Maurice Diot who completed in 38 hours and 55 minutes in 1951 – a time that has not been bettered to this day – perhaps earning him the unfortunate nickname of “le Teigneux”, or the Bastard!).

In order to enter PBP, entrants must complete a Super Randonneur (SR) Series, comprising a 200, 300, 400, and 600 kilometre ride within a specified timeframe and with strict time-limits for each of the four qualifying rides. This perverse 1500km hurdle is most certainly designed to separate the wheat from the chaff, and ensure that only the totally committed make it to the start line.

As I’ve been riding more-or-less one 200km ride per month since January 2015 (largely on account of trying to obtain an award known as the “Randonneur Round the Year”, or RRtY, denoting one 200km ride per month for 12 consecutive months) the 200k seemed the least of my worries. However, this year my usually January ride “The Poor Student” (which went without incident) was a week before the start of PBP qualifying 200k rides and I then succumbed to cold, flu, flesh-eating pneumonia and, just as I was about to crawl into February, an excruciating lower back pain.

Against doctor’s orders I did the 200k Chiltern Grit on the last Saturday in February (I still wanted to keep my RRtY don’t forget), managing the 206kms in 11 hours – quite good going considering the state my back was in. For good measure I also did (again against medical advice) the March Madness from Tewkesbury the following first Saturday in March. This was a tougher, hillier route which took me almost 12 ½ hours, but again comfortably within the 13 hour timeframe and still with back problems to be overcome. Rod and Doug also entered and completed the March Madness and, being faster riders, I saw very little of them, except at Hope Colliery in the Forest of Dene, where they had obviously lingered over the sumptuous fare.

After a brief visit to France (we were, after all, destined to leave the EU at the end of March, and I needed a little injection of all good things Gallic to mark the end of winter, and stock up on some essential provisions before they became as rare as butterflies), I entered The Rough Diamond and the first 300k qualifier.

Although the forecast was for rain all day, it didn’t start getting seriously wet until slogging over the Brecon Beacons. Before that soaking was a stiff headwind from Tenbury Wells (the spiritual home of my Flying Gate, which was sadly in pieces after bending the frame last Autumn) to  Talybont-on-Usk. It was on this section where I found Rod in a delightfully up-market control bracing himself for the headwind over heavenly cakes and coffee. We decided to work together on this next leg. All was going well as we sliced through Storm Gareth collecting some solo-riders along the way. Eventually, as is often the way, one of those riders recovered sufficiently in our slipstream to make it onto the front and then up the pace. I watched Rod’s back wheel disappearing away from me up a hill and decided to let it go and sit back and enjoy the raw energy of the gushing headwind. Soon that merry lot from Bristol passed me by too (although they seemed to stop shortly afterwards to gather around an ancient tree – a truly staggering creature that had clearly seen many a storm. Maybe they linked arms around its girth to sap up some extra energy for the next leg – goodness knows they would need it).

Perhaps one reason why I was going a little more slowly was that I was carrying a spare set of clothes in a pannier. After getting soaked to the skin I found them invaluable when I changed into them in a rather dispiriting chippy in Usk. That and the dubious pie, chips and gravy washed down with a drain-cleaner of a coffee gave me the lift and warmth I needed to clamber over the beast of a hill that stood between me and Chepstow. By the time I reached The Severn Bridge the viscous storm had blown through (earlier riders had commented that it was almost impossible to stand let alone cycle) and it was a fine calm evening ride back up through Gloucester and Tewkesbury to the waiting arrivee. It had taken me 19h 15m – just 45 minutes before the cut-off. I heard that quite a few had DNF’ed, sapped of energy by the wind, rain and cold. Rod was, as usual, grinning when I exchanged war stories with him at the end of the ride. We now had two of our four qualifiers in the bag, although it would be a reckless overstatement to say that we were anyway near half-way there.

Five weeks later…

There’s a gem of a 300k called The Heart of England. I’ve done it a couple of times before and it really is a beautiful ride to undertake on a fine spring day. As I’d already done my 300k PBP qualifier and was desperately aware of the impending 400k qualifier I decided to #bemoremike and ride to the start in Cirencester, do the ride, and then ride home again just like a proper 400 (except that it would tally up to 431k – even better).

My Flying Gate was reassembled and my Claud Butler decommissioned for the rest of the season. I set off at some silly hour and rode the 62.5k to the start. A good field was already assembled and getting ready to go. I gulped down a coffee and some toast and set off on the first leg that led over the Cotswolds and the first control at Alcester. I was in fine company as I chatted to Andy Curran of YouTube fame at the back of the field. It couldn’t have been a more different 300. It was now the third week of April and the sun was shining over a very spring-like landscape. Without the pressure of needing to complete the ride in time I was able to relax, enjoy the controls, and chatting more with the other riders as the miles passed blissfully by. When we reached Sturdy’s Castle on the return leg, and just north of Kidlington, Andy decided to carry on. I made sure I had a hearty pudding and custard washed down with a strong coffee before heading out on the final stretch back to Cirencester. I completed the 300 well within time and treated myself to an hour’s kip on the church hall floor before setting off on the return leg home. Both evening sections had a wonderfully bright moon. At one point near Brize Norton a snow-white barn owl flew soundlessly at the edge of my torch beam in the cool night air. It was 05:30 when I arrived home. I’d completed well over 400k in 27h 15m which seemed to be more or less right on the time allowance. But the real 400k qualifier was not quite so benign…

Brevet Cymru fell on the May Bank holiday weekend, the same day in fact that Rod and Doug would be riding their 400k London-Wales-London. I drove over to Chepstow on the Friday evening and slept in the back of the car in the station car park. This may seem like an unorthodox form of accommodation, but I can assure you that in audax circles it is at the upper end of the luxury scale. I was surprisingly refreshed and ready for the early start. There was a large field and I found myself behind a beautiful classic tandem whipping along at a cracking pace. On this first stretch to Hay-on-Wye I reached down to find that I had no water bottles – they were safely stowed away in my car. A rider alongside me offered me one of his bidons which got me to Hay, where I bought a couple of bottles of water. In doing so I lost Ivor and Ian and ended up on much of the next legs (via Builth Wells and Llandovery) alone. It was a fine day with a cool headwind. Just before Tregarron I was starting to flag a little, but the small store provided sufficient calories, caffeine and sugar to get me back on the road laden with some sharp climbs all of the way to New Quay – home to a legendary chippy which offered mash instead of chips. The road out of town was steep, but relatively straight and rolling, and I made good time along this stretch eventually catching two other riders, one of whom, Mike from Usk, was suffering from flu. We stuck together for the remainder of the ride which was a pleasant way to make it through the dark hours. At Llangattock village hall there were scenes of desperation as the night temperatures had dropped to a very chilly -2C and some appeared to be ill-prepared for such bone-chilling temps. Once again I had brought an extra set of kit in a pannier (including a fleece) and kept toasty warm on the road back to Chepstow – particularly over that final climb where I recall Mike and I tucking into my emergency chocolate rations to power us up to the summit before coasting down to the arrivee. Despite having an hours’ sleep I completed with 2 hours in hand – 25 hours for the 406km. Another qualifier ticked off.

The Flatlands was actually my back-up 600k ride, but it came before the main one that I booked (see further on) initially. It came two weeks after the 400, so I was totally recovered and as ready as I could be for the challenge. I drove to the start (at Great Dunmow in Essex) on the Friday night and treated myself to a night on the floor of the church hall. In the morning we were greeted with a light drizzly rain as we wound our way through the lumpy lanes of Essex and north into a slight headwind onto the flatlands proper. Somewhere along the road to Boston I caught up with a chap called Steve from York. As he was going at roughly the same speed, I suggested we work together into the wind and this got us nicely into the Boston Weatherspoons in the middle of a torrential deluge. A couple of coffees and a plate of fine hot fare later and we were back on the road with the shower behind us (or perhaps it was blown on ahead) and we coasted across the plains and along segments of the LEL (London-Edinburgh-London) route, eventually encountering Owen from this East Midlands area and forming a strong trio all the way to Goole and then back down as far as Gainsborough where Steve and I had booked accommodation in the newly established Travelodge. I’d not stayed in a hotel on an audax ride before and I must say that it was a totally excellent idea. In addition to a hot shower, warm, dry bed and tea-making facilities, it allowed me to get 5 quality hours off the bike. I’d liked to say I slept well, but for some odd reason my brain failed to shut down.

At 4:30 in the morning Mike and I met once again in the hotel lobby and set out into the cool morning air which was thick and dense with mist and fog. At Lincoln the sun managed to slice through the dense grey and revealed the splendour of the cathedral which was sadly covered in scaffolding. The sharp hill and cobbles came as a surprise. Here we met another rider on a fixie who had just ridden on through the night. Along the stretch to Spalding we encountered one or two other riders who had slept out in bus shelters or at the side of the road. Each looked as haggard as the next and some seemed a little wobbly on the saddle.

At Spalding an unofficial stop at the Weatherspoons allowed us to catch up briefly with Ricki’s gang from the Four Corners Audax. They were in fine spirits having just finished their breakfasts and they heartily recommended the Full English which was, of course, the only option on our minds. Thus refreshed Steve and I continued through to the Green Wellie at Chatteris where Ricki kindly offered me the remnants of his chicken dinner. Instead I wolfed down a fruit crumble and custard, topped up the bottles and then carried on through the next stretch which took us through Cambridge and then eventually, and after some significant climbs, back to Great Dunmow. Steve and I actually arrived at the same time as The Four Corners guys which was quite a treat (Ricki had featured in most of my qualifying rides and is a serial audaxer clocking up a staggering number of points each year). The sun was out and the mood in the beer garden was buoyant. I didn’t feel like food but some fluids went down a treat. I bought a 600k badge to add to my collection – as this was actually my first successfully completed 600 (in 35 hours, including the 5 hours at the hotel), and headed back for the car and the drive back to Oxford. Mission had been accomplished – I now had a full SR series and was PBP qualified.

But…the following weekend was my proper original 600k qualifier – Benjamin Allen’s Summer Outing – setting off from near Tewkesbury and heading in a perambulating route right across Wales to a point very near to Aberystwyth. Not only did it have over 6000 metres of climbing in it, but it also had some wonderful Welsh wild scenery, a classic Mark Rigby route (ie lots of quiet lanes) and some of the best café stops this side of the Channel. Plus, I could look Rod and Doug in the eye knowing that I hadn’t copped out and got my 600k from riding around on the flat like a Fenland Fairy.

The first third of the route was not entirely dissimilar to some of Mark’s other rides – a bit of Brevet Cymru here, a leg of Rough Diamond there. It even had the delightful Talybont Stores café up the glorious Usk Valley and the inimitable Corner Café in Llandovery. This time the weather was much kinder and the chill and rain kept well away. The lumpier section was in the West of Wales which included Devil’s Bridge where a good crowd of riders had gathered in a local pub. Not content with a basic bun and crisps I opted for a fine lasagne and chips washed down with a couple of mugs of tea. This was a relatively remote part of the route and I wanted to be properly fuelled. After more hills and at around 9pm-ish I made Machynlleth where I grabbed some further provisions from an over-sized Co-Op and then turned back toward the return leg and a ridiculous climb over seriously twisty and gravel-strewn lanes near Newtown. The steeper hills gathered clusters of riders together and it was fine to have some company to moan with in the wee small hours before coasting down to the sleep control at Wigmore village hall. Here I managed 2 hours of deep sleep before setting out again to complete the remaining 200 or so ks.

This stretch was relatively benign until Tintern where a road closure forced the route up overbusy winding narrow lanes clinging on to the southern flanks of the Wye Valley merely to spin down to Chepstow. Once safely across the bridge and back into England I called into the motorway services for a badly needed coffee and panini. Shortly thereafter it was the final control near Slimbridge just by the canal. Here there was a regular posse of riders gathering sustenance for the final leg, including the ubiquitous Four Corners team headed up by Rikki and the surprising sight of Kevin from Cornwall. Feeling strong I got on the front and steered the peloton away from the canal and safely up the A38 towards Gloucester. As the nether-regions of the city appeared one of the Four Corner riders assumed the lead and took us firmly through the industrial hinterlands. Spotting the glittering waters of the canal I struck out solo and followed the official route towards the cathedral and the dockside which was festooned in bunting and thronged with crowds and stalls to see the Tall Ships – so glad I took the backwater route away from the busy town centre roads! I soon rejoined the A38 again and the road back to Tewkesbury. I was feeling fine despite the  600k in the legs and cruised in to arrive at a comfortable 38h 20m – a cool 1h and 40m within time. I now had 2 600s, 2 300s, 2 200s and just needed another 400 to complete a double-SR series.

The following weekend I’d booked another flat ride starting in Essex called Asparagus and Stawberries. This sounded about as exciting as a day picking your own fruit and so I reviewed the calendar and found something much more appetising – a lumpy route (over 4,000m of grippy climbing) around Wessex starting at 10:30pm on the Friday night and with 400kms to enjoy – it was none other but the Avalon Sunrise. I contacted Kevin from Cornwall. He’d seen the ride a while back but it had filled up. Clearly some new slots had appeared and so we quickly booked before it disappeared again. We were not disappointed. A small but chirpy group set off from the remote pub tucked into a fold of the Blackdown Hills near to Taunton Dean services and disappeared into the night. Once again I found myself on the front of the peloton (with the amiable company of Kevin) all the way up the Exe Valley after Tiverton and over Exmoor to a waiting cuppa and slice in a friendly living room and again on the front all the way to Bridgwater Services. It was a fine, warm dry evening and the well-worn tyres merely hummed along the mainly main roads.

You know that when you see Zoy in the names that you’re entering the Somerset Levels and soon the sky was lifting and from Street there was a truly magnificent sunrise outlining Glastonbury Tor which left a lump in the throat. The Mendip Hills got the legs stretched again with a fine view hidden behind a blanket of grey mist. At Nunney Catch services a good number were tucking into the breakfast offerings. This wasn’t any old service food, but Waitrose services and they came with swanky loos too. Suitably recharged it was a fine day and the leg to Chepstow shepherded us onto the Bath to Bristol cycleway allowing for some traffic free banter among the cluster of riders I was with.

You simply wouldn’t have clambered up to Wotton-on-Edge on a hot afternoon for the sake of it unless someone had put a control up there. However, it was a delightful (if a little over-priced café) and the fare cleared the dust and pollen from the throat. Only 125k to go from this point. Somewhere along this next stretch, on a hill leaving Bath, I lost Kevin (or rather he couldn’t take the crawling pace any longer) and I found myself in the good company of a proper ex-hippy Garga who pointed out all of the laybys he had lived in during his hippy-years living life on the road in an old van. It seemed appropriate that we were once again in sight of Glastonbury at this point as we passed the enormous site of the festival ground at Pilton. Another final stretch of flat levels followed, together with an interesting whistle-stop tour of Taunton, before what seemed like the endless ramp up into the Blackdown Hills again and the waiting pub, splendid fish pie supper and a pint or two of very local ale. No problem sleeping in the back of the car once again. I made it about 420k in a little over 24 hours (the control closed after 27 hours). A double SR series – how overqualified I had become for PBP!

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