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!).
The VCJ (Velo Club Jericho – that’s Jericho the suburb of Oxford UK) team consisted of Rod, Doug and myself. I rode my Flying Gate laden with provisions for a three-week tour over the Himalayas. Rod and Doug brought with them somewhat lighter machines and the assistance of two hardened PBP-veterans: John and Bob – the sort of unlikely duo you’d build into a script if you were to turn PBP into a sitcom (and Rod was perfectly capable of that).
I use the term VCJ team loosely. We all met in the mud and pouring rain among the chateau outbuildings as I imagine hired loons would meet in the years of yore, and briefly managed to disrobe sufficiently to reveal that we were all wearing the same VCJ randonneurs jersey, before Rod and Doug announced that they would be heading back to their hotel which was somewhere way off in a seedy suburb of Paris.
I decided not to squelch around in the mud for too much longer and headed into Rambouilliet where I found a perfectly located café, ordered a Parisian salad, and met some of the other riders – among whom a bunch of Italians who were to play a significant part in the following day’s proceedings.
Back at the hotel I met more riders – predominantly Americans and Canadians (lured no doubt by the abbey’s historic past and eyewatering prices) who had brought with them huge bike storage boxes and classy high-end machines. A couple invited me to join them for dinner, but I politely declined saying that I had just dined (the vastly priced dinner lasted 3 hours, it transpired). Overnight the rain fell even more intensely and I was lulled to sleep by the sound of it gushing down on the abbey grounds.
During the buffet-breakfast I made sure that I had a generous helping of each dish on offer, focusing on the higher cost items most likely to fill me up: cheeseboard, meat-board, fried-breakfast and a little cereal for good measure. Each time I replenished my coffee cup my plate would be scooped away by the eagle-eyed waiting staff. I fetched another groaning platter and continued my gastronomic assault.
The smooth American riders had gathered by the lobby of the abbey hotel, comparing bikes and looking out at the heavy rain (hardly a concern as they all had arranged transportation to the start). After completing a very leisurely breakfast during which I checked my messages and the weather forecast I took an even more leisurely amount of time to pack and make the most of my final moments in the overpriced room. I perused the PBP app which listed all riders and their starting group letters. I was in the 17:30 G group, Rod was in R, 11 groups and 2 hours and 45 minutes behind me, and Doug in T, 30 minutes further back – all of us had one common denominator: 90 hours to get to Brest and back. The hotel reception, which also doubled as the entrance to the classy Sunday buffet lunch, was awash with queuing cyclists and smartly dressed, chic, elderly French couples awaiting a sumptuous afternoon banquet. In the melee I didn’t check my bill and only later realised I’d been overcharged for my room.
“Is there somewhere I can pray?” It is, after all, an ancient abbey and I thought a quick round of Our Fathers and Hail Mary’s might be a helpful start to an epic audax.
“I’m afraid not, monsieur” came the surprising response.
Prayer, or no prayer, the rain had stopped during the extended checkout and it soon became bright and sunny and the roads swiftly began to dry.
After checking out (I left my panniers behind among the cycle boxes in the storage room), I ambled along the road and into Rambouillet, and popped into my regular café for a final pre-ride beverage. Unlike the previous day, the rain had given way to a fine warm day with the cloud noticeably breaking up on a strong westerly, like all the way from Brest.
At the start I watched the two streams of rider groups of alternating letter groups, coalesce and then disappear into a single-stream down the dirt track to the start banner proper. People and bikes were everywhere, and there was a huge wave of nervous energy and expectation in the air. After watching the F-group, representing the most amazing pedal-powered machines snake their way out of the castle grounds, I grabbed my bike and shimmied into the front of my letter-group, G, and found myself alongside El from ACB. She had a stunning canary yellow machine fitted with a single rear sprocket – yes, El was riding PBP fixed! We were soon off and out of the castle grounds and whisked up the road on a wave of enthusiasm, heartened by the crowds of well-wishers that greeted us on every corner and throughout the towns and villages along the way – a theme that would continue until the end of the ride.
Being in an earlier start time, it was some time before darkness descended and we had to don our obligatory hi-vis vests, and so there was time to chat along the way with the other riders. Soon after setting off it became apparent that our main challenge was to be the head-wind. While it was drying up the roads nicely, it was strong and relentless, particularly on the more exposed hills (of which there were many). Trains began to form and I hitched a ride onto them as best as possible to seek some shelter and to preserve energy for the rigours that lay ahead.
Sometime before the first stop at Mortagne-au-Perche, the light had sufficiently drained from the skies to switch on the lights and don the official waistcoat. The ride took on a very different form as way off into the furthest horizon an arc of taillights stretched in an almost continuous line picking out the hills and drops that were to precede us.
Mortagne-au-Perche was not a control, but it was a welcome break and good to get some food before carrying on. I chose to grab some ready-made meals from the chiller-cabinet – a tuna and rice salad and a rice pudding which I washed down with a bowl of coffee – and then got back on my bike again to get to the first proper control of Villaines-la-Juhel. I didn’t really stop for food here as I had already brought some provisions (including a whole pain de campagne) in my handlebar bag – a tip I’d picked up from Adam Watkins of ACB – which I pecked away at, together with some snack bars, through the darker hours.
As I progressed, I became acutely aware of later letter groups beginning to pass by. No longer was I riding alongside G’s or the preceding special F’s (made up predominantly of velomobiles, recumbents, and tricycles), but also H’s, I’s J’s and beyond. The bulge was inexorably beginning to build, sweeping myself and all that followed in its wake.
And so, I think that it may have been at either Fourgeres or Tinteniac that I first met Doug who was pummelling along the course and reported that Rob was about one control behind. At Fourgeres, again I didn’t eat at the control. It was the start of a new morning in the real world and I longed for a café au lait and some fresh pastries. I perched in the early morning sunlight in a café overlooking the Boulevard du Marechal Leclerc eating still oven warm almond croissants and pain au chocolate watching the PBP cyclists pass by beneath me being heralded by none other but a bagpiper in a pretty garden beneath. After hearing a heartrending rendition of Flower O’ Scotland I wiped my eyes dry, paid my bill, and re-joined the PBP-bubble towards Brest, ever towards Brest, beneath a fine summery sky.
Most people I’d met had been targeting Loudeac as their first sleep control. I, however, thought that 440km was way too far for me, and instead targeted Tinteniac at 360km, which was more in keeping with the structure followed by Mile Failte that I’d successfully completed the previous summer.
As we neared Tinteniac, however, more and more people sounded as if Loudeac was a bit too far before they hit the deck.
And hitting the deck was literally what many were doing. The verges, fields, gateways, doorways and even the highly rare, but seriously prized ATM lobbies and bus shelters became bedecked with various forms of prostrate cyclists – often in shiny silver or golden bivvy bags – like badly prepared roast turkeys, but without the trimmings. During the first night, and just before dawn, I could succumb to the clamour for sleep no longer and lay, despite the uninvitingly low temperatures, at the side of a field in my brand new lightweight orange bivvy bag (a big thank you to Andy Curran for the recommendation) and slept soundly until a friendly well-wisher woke me to ask if I was okay. Shivering and a little damp (maybe a silk liner next time?), I stuffed away my gear and tried to steer until I’d warmed up sufficiently for the shivers to leave me.
At Tinteniac I had almost 90 minutes sleep and a shower that amazingly brought me back to life and enabled me to carry on towards Brest.
Although the headwinds eased as we neared Brest, the land became significantly hillier, and so the effort to keep heading in a westerly direction was just as demanding. On the plus side, the downhills were a total joy – long and sweeping and smooth surfaces with well-defined lines to keep you on the straight and narrow and not career off the edge or worse. I found that the steel-framed Flying Gate, laden as she was with both rear and front baggage, despite a wee bit of shimmy now and then, swept down the slopes of Brittany like a dream, swooshing past riders on lighter-weight, and predominantly carbon machines – of which there were many. I was making pretty good progress by my reckoning.
Steel aside, the additional weight and baggage was attributable to the extra clothing and provisions required for riding the whole event unsupported. Along the route, and particularly on the outskirts of the towns hosting the control stops, was a fleet of uniformly white campervans offering up a host of additional support to riders deeming such support necessary to the rigors of an event as challenging as PBP. These riders carried modest bags (all of their spare clothes, extra food reserves, etc were tucked away in their team SUV), generally rode lighter bikes, and tended to ride as a tight knit team, generally at some speed throughout the event. Sitting and waiting in one such mobile-home was Bob and John, the support crew of team Rod’n’Doug
The true randonneurs, riding the event in the spirit of the original race, were pretty-much totally self-supporting, and carried hefty canvas or leather bags, mounted front and rear and trusty machines made of steel and adorned with a full plethora of accessories including racks, mudguards (often of hand-crafted shining steel manufacture), dynamo hubs and solid yet slick tyres that soaked up the combined weight and any mischievous road deformities of which, in France, there were few. Among the best-represented of the purist randonneuring clan were those riders emanating from the most westerly shores of the Americas, including California, Seattle and Canada. El, and others on fixed, represented a pinnacle of audaxing purity without even the modernity of derailleurs to clutter their machine’s faultless form.
The Gate caught many an admiring comment from fellow riders and gave me a real boost to know that I was riding a machine that was appreciated for its aesthetics and historical interest as it was for its functionality as a machine superbly suited to such a long multi-day ride.
Rod’s dream was to see Brest at dawn. Sadly, that was not to be, as I saw him several hours after I had witnessed a truly stunning sunrise from the renowned bridge at Brest several hours earlier that fair morn. I spotted Rod some while later on my return leg heading to Brest in one of those long strings of riders that thread up the face of tarmac known as Le Roc.
It dawns on you imperceptibly as the ride continues, that time is indeed a precious thing. Each control has a pre-determined cut-off time beyond which riders face disqualification. Every stop for food or rest nibbles away at the margin of time between where you are in reality, and the future (but often not very distant) time represented by your control cut off. Time-management is therefore essential lest you run out of it and forfeit your place in PBP history.
At one control, I think it was Tinteniac, on the return leg, I had a mere 45 minutes in hand. Clearly, I needed to pick up speed and minimise stopping time if I was not to fall foul of the relentless clock.
I was feeling generally strong and in good spirits buoyed along on a tide of well-wishers clapping and cheering, and the ongoing train of cyclists from every corner of the world. Many stuck together in well-disciplined groups – most notably the Japanese and various randonneurs of the North Americas. The Italians, as one might expect, formed a neat and noisy peloton, and seemed to traverse the terrain with relative ease (although I was to see them throughout the race, so perhaps they stopped at various controls (or support vans) for longer, or there were several Italian groups on the road and I confused one with another. In an earlier stage of the race I joined an Italian train which streamed past just about every other cyclist on the road and helped me to make fearsome progress against the aforementioned westerly.
As the controls came and went, I checked my account and was pleasantly surprised to see that my window of time was once again building and that I had amassed a further 3 or 4 hours that I could cash in for a more leisurely snooze at the appropriate point. My second control-based sleep was at Carhaix-Plouguer (as planned) and consisted of a meaty 2 hours deep slumber. This time I skipped the shower and instead focused on getting some caffeine into me before heading out again onto the road.
I kept meeting several Brits, including a good contingent of Four Corners, the occasional VC167, the ever-present ACB, including Adam Watkins who documents his rides in wonderfully observed vlogs on YouTube.
Every so often I would meet El still spinning her pedals and commented on the fact (as if such an observation were warranted) that it was not as easy as she’d first thought. I had little doubt, however, that she would, as indeed she did, power over the finish line and in time.
It was Adam who had first inspired me to stuff a loaf into my handlebar bag, and I must say that a daily visit to a patisserie became a must as I replenished my bread intake, but also relished the opportunity to imbibe some fine French pastries, quiches, flans and assorted cakery. Highlights were a chocolate loaf, embedded with muffin-rated chocolate-chips (still warm and melty from the oven), a brioche embalmed in caramelised sugar, and embedded with oversized sugar crystals (I hallucinate recalling this orgasm of cuisine as I write), and of course, the Far Breton which makes a mockery of the humble British custard tart.
Along the way, the generosity of the Bretons was overwhelming. Day and night random pop-up roadside stalls offering water, stronger beverages (unbelievable wine and beer was sometimes on offer) and cakes, crepes and even soups were to be found. I stopped at one stall being efficiently run by a teenage brother/sister combo, and one or two farmers stalls, including the legendary Paul Rogue at St Berthevin who would take no money for his kindness, but asked simply for a postcard upon return (which I duly did).
It was at this impromptu café in the middle of a cool night that I met a couple who had retired to live in this delightful village and had had the pleasure of putting Aiden Headley and his tricycle up the previous evening.
The farmers stall (which was in his garage) was groaning with cakes and jams made by the people of the village – such wonderful altruism was overwhelming and, on several occasions, I simply couldn’t hold the tears back.
The miles were flying by and I was beginning to feel that this extraordinary experience was coming to an end as the lightness began to sweep over the participants. One memorable moment was encountering an open bar in a tiny village in the middle of a cool night in the vast and black countryside playing hits by Bowie and serving good strong coffee (next door the patisserie was also open, although I resisted the temptation).
Dreux, the penultimate control, had become a holding point for many local and national teams, among them ACB to which Cornish Kevin had become integrated. Here I had my final planned control sleep in a decided chilly sports hall so cold that you could even see your breath! After reviving I rode for a while with Kevin and various ACB members including John and El while Adam captured some footage. It was a great feeling, but I felt that this was their moment and I also badly needed some caffeine (and had no desire to foreshorten this remarkable ride any sooner than I needed to) and so I soon announced that I was seeking a café stop and disappeared up the road. At a crossroads at the foot of a steep hill I located a suitable café cum deli and breakfasted in the warm early-morning sun while watching streams of riders’ head by on the short leg back to the arrivee at Rambouillet. It was so pleasant to sit back and soak up the sheer enormity of what we had all just undertaken in this quiet moment. The café was secluded (my eagle eyes had picked up the shop which was screened behind some wooden fencing and I slipped out of the long thread of riders) and tucked myself behind my vantage point. As I slowly sipped my coffee I overhead the husband and wife owners bickering about the fact that thousands of cyclists were literally streaming within 10 metres of their store. Had they been on the other side of the crossroads I’m sure that they would have had good business. As it was not a single other rider joined me. I freshened up and completed as slowly as I could the last few kilometres to the bustle of the National Sheep Fold in Rambouillet once again. I completed in 89 hours and 9 minutes* – a comfortable 51 minutes within my time allowance.
To my sheer surprise, Rod was waiting in front of me to hand in his brevet card. This was the first time I’d seen him properly since the day of the bike check in the pouring rain. He looked relieved that the experience was over and I joined him and Doug for beers shortly afterwards, our huge medals gleaming in the late morning sun.
VCJ had secured 36 points in the AUK club points league table, but of perhaps even greater importance, we had completed PBP unscathed and written our names into the greatest and earliest cycle race of them all. Now we truly were Randonneurs.
Soon, inevitably, Rod and Doug’s carers came and whisked them away again, and the spell was broken.
You can find some further reflections on PBP here