This is not the post I was going to write about Paris-Brest-Paris. The post that I composed in my head, sometime around midnight on Monday 19th August, went something like this:
So, I failed at Paris-Brest-Paris. And honestly, I’m not sure whether I care. I’m not sure quite why I was riding it in the first place, or why I attempt to ride any really big rides. Or why anyone does. Is it just so we have bragging rights? So we can say, look at me, I can ride sooooo far? Is it to try and find our limits? I’m really not sure. Anyway, I wasn’t really fit enough for this ride and everything caught up with me and then I got sick and enough was enough. Really, my heart wasn’t really in it.
I don’t really know why that didn’t turn out to be the blog I wrote. But here’s the story of my Paris-Brest-Paris.
The road to Paris Brest Paris
The journey to Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) necessarily starts many months before you actually ride it. Even if you are the kind of rider who is fit enough to just pitch up and ride 1200km in 90 hours (I’m not!) you’ll still have an extended preparation period, as you have to qualify for PBP by riding a series of accredited 200km, 300km, 400km and 600km rides within a set time period in the first half of the year. So you could say that my journey to PBP started on 12th January, when I completed Mr Pickwick’s January Sale 200km – my first audax of 2019 and the first of my PBP qualification rides.
Actually, my journey started before then. You can ‘pre-qualify’ for PBP by riding an accredited ride in the previous year. You still have to ride the whole series of qualifying brevets in the time-frame, but pre-qualification allows you to register in advance and guarantee your PBP place. This was important for 2019, as it was widely predicted that this was the first year where people who had not pre-qualified would likely not get a place. I rode the Bryan Chapman Memorial 600km in May last year so that was my pre-qualifying ride, which enabled me to register for PBP in early January, before I’d ridden any of this year’s rides.
But really my journey started back in the autumn of 2014, when I first started getting to know about audaxes and heard about Paris-Brest-Paris. At a time when my longest ride was about 200km (and it had been a big challenge to get round that), I was fascinated by the idea of such a giant ride and had no idea how one would undertake such a challenge.
In 2015 I rode my first 400km ride, which many fellow riders were using as a qualifier for PBP. I barely made it round the 400k in one piece but nonetheless I still definitely wanted to give the longer distance a go! And once I’d ridden London-Edinburgh-London in 2017 it seemed like Paris-Brest-Paris was the next big goal on the horizon.
So Paris-Brest-Paris was on my to-do list for a long time, and at the beginning of this year I duly lined up the rides I would use to qualify. A Facebook group which had been set up to encourage more women to ride PBP proved to be a great place to connect with others who were doing the same and to get motivation. I even got (much appreciated) support from Rawvelo, who provided me and two other female riders who were aspiring to ride PBP with some of their delicious energy bars and gels to fuel our qualification efforts.
Through the first half of this year I ramped up my mileage (although maybe not as much as I should have) and worked my way through my qualifying rides: the 300km Everybody Rides to Skeggy on 13th April was followed two weeks later by the 400km Moors and Wolds. At the beginning of June, I completed the 600km Windsor-Chester-Windsor – the final step on my journey to Paris Brest Paris. I was on my way to France. In the interim, I had rather rashly signed up for the very hilly Pure Peak Grit Challenge in July, lured in by the temptation of a big challenge just for women.
Then my mum’s health took a turn for the worse. She’d been fighting cancer on and off for over two years and suddenly it was aggressively back. On Saturday 6th July she died.
A week later I tried to ride Pure Peak Grit and only made it about 120km before I felt I just couldn’t go on. Having ridden through the night, I bailed on the ride and returned to my car as dawn was breaking, exhausted, and spent most of the day asleep. If I couldn’t manage a night start on what was meant to be a 48 hour ride, I wasn’t sure how I would manage one on a 90 hour one.
Through the blur of grief and funeral arrangements I barely rode my bike for the rest of July, managing just one 200km ride. Suddenly PBP didn’t seem very important at all.
Just as London Edinburgh London doesn’t really start in London, Paris Brest Paris doesn’t really start in Paris. For obvious reasons, the ride starts some way west of the city, in the small town of Rambouillet or more exactly in the Bergerie Nationale (the National Sheepfold, according to the PBP website) just outside the town centre. There are lots of ways to get to the start and I probably chose the most stressful, though it was quite cheap and relatively fast!
My start time for PBP was 18.45 on Sunday 18th August, but I had to attend bike check and registration the day before, on the Saturday. I was quite stressed about getting there in time for this. Having collected a large cardboard bike box from the local bike box, I boxed up Trixie the Tricross and flew with her to Charles De Gaulle airport on the morning of 17th, arriving around lunchtime.
I then got a coach to Gare Montparnasse, meeting a nice Croatian guy called Matija who was doing the same journey as me, en route. Once at Montparnasse we eventually found the right train for Rambouillet and boarded, along with our bike boxes and a lot of other cyclists. Fifteen minutes later, the train still hadn’t left the station and the police came along with large guns and made us all disembark whilst they inspected a suspicious package!
We eventually were allowed back on and the train took us to Rambouillet, from where we found a bus to take us to the Bergerie. What we didn’t know was that it was a half a mile walk uphill on a muddy path from where the bus dropped us off to the registration place. Between us we dragged the two bike boxes up the path but it wasn’t the most fun and relaxing journey ever! I reassembled Trixie, left the bike box in the left luggage and got through bike check and registration.
I’d been unable to find a hotel in Rambouillet for the Saturday night, so was staying a few stops on the train back towards Paris. Having mislaid my phone for an anxious hour or so (eventually found it safely in my bag!) I then couldn’t find the hotel and spent a fair amount of time cycling around in increasingly torrential rain. It was gone 9pm before I found where I was staying and then there was nowhere but McDonald’s to eat nearby, so dinner was potato wedges. Not the best preparation for a big ride!
Setting off: Rambouillet to Villaines-la-Juhel
I woke up on the Sunday morning to see the trees outside my window angrily thrashing around under grey and rainy skies. I wasn’t due to start riding until early evening, so I sincerely hoped that the weather would improve (as it was forecast to do) before then.
Having spent several hours packing and repacking what I was carrying, attaching the numbers to my bike and looking again at route timings I made my way to Rambouillet late morning. Luckily the weather was brightening up by the time I left the hotel.
The WhatsApp group for women who were riding PBP was busy with last minute questions – someone had noticed that the times in our brevet cards did not actually correspond with our actual cut-off times, unless you happened to be in the very last group heading off. I had already calculated my cut-off times and stuck them on my top-tube but this did seem a bit confusing and unfair to riders who were relying on the brevet card to provide their timings.
I had a lazy day in Rambouillet, catching up with friends from previous audaxes and getting together with some of the other women riding PBP for a group photo outside the impressive chateau. Although apparently there were more women than in previous years, we were still massively outnumbered by men. I wasn’t surprised – this has been the case on every audax I’ve ever ridden. Particularly there didn’t seem to be many French women and, although the ride was very international, the majority of riders were French. I only met one female French rider through the whole event.
I was in start group L, due to set off at 18.45. About an hour before my start time I headed towards the start and found hundreds of cyclists, roughly arranged in their letter groups. I say roughly because every now and then a new cyclist would arrive and accidentally join the wrong group, then have to shove their way forward to the correct corral. I took the time to admire the different bikes on display around me, including one which had a clock built into the headset cap. Turns out headset cap envy is a thing!
Eventually we were shepherded gradually towards the start line and then we were off, passing under an inflatable archway and over the first of many timing chip mats. Almost immediately the pace picked up as the stronger riders dashed off.
The first few hours of PBP went by in a blur as I tried to stay with as fast a group as possible. There were several good pelotons working together which I benefitted from, even if the speed was a little too extreme for me – I was travelling at over 30kph for quite a long period, which is considerably faster than I usually ride. But I wanted to hang with the fast folks for as long as possible to build a time barrier – I always figure that riding fast at the beginning, as long as I’m not actually gasping for air, makes little difference to how tired I’m going to feel later on but does buy me an early time buffer.
Even at this early stage some riders seemed not very equipped for riding in groups. I was surprised to see riders on their own in the middle of the road, making it hard for anyone to overtake, and also riders not holding their line but weaving as they were being overtaken. Unfortunately this would just get considerably worse throughout the ride.
The first control wasn’t until Villaines-la-Juhel at the 217km point, though there was an optional stop at Mortagne-au-Perche after a little over 100km. As I’m vegetarian and dairy-free, I figured that food en route was likely to not be ideal for me (checking out the food options at the first control confirmed this) so I’d decided to use controls mostly just for sleeping and topping up water bottles and try to use supermarkets, cafes and the food I carried for fuelling. I didn’t stop at Mortagne but instead carried on towards Villaines.
By now it was the middle of the night, and I was amazed that there were still intermittently people out by the side of the road cheering us on. At a little before 3am I stopped to use the loo in a little town and was surprised as I came back out by a woman waiting for me, water bottle at the ready, asking, “L’eau?” I gratefully filled my water bottles and carried on.
The first few hours riding in fast groups had helped my overall time and I arrived in Villaines at around 4.30am, at least an hour earlier than I’d thought I’d get there.
The received wisdom is that on the initial section of PBP you should ride through the night and the subsequent day, only stopping to sleep on Monday night. But as I got off my bike to get the first stamp in my brevet card I realised I was already a little sleepy.
I find my body really struggles in the early morning if I ride through the night without stopping but if I can lie down just for a little while I can trick it that it’s had a night’s sleep. So, brevet card safely stamped, I headed towards the sleeping area and paid €3 for an hour and a bit lie-down. I asked for a wake-up call at 6am and was shown to a large room filled with very hard gym mats and dotted with a few snoring men. I wasn’t sure I’d sleep at all, but I wriggled into the silk sleeping bag liner I’d brought with me, draped the thin blanket they’d provided over the top and promptly drifted off.
Monday: Villaines-la-Juhel – Carhaix-Plouguer
I was suddenly wide awake at 5.55am, five minutes before my wake-up call was due. Stumbling outside I found it was still dark, but with the promise of dawn arriving soon. I decided I needed coffee and investigated what there may be on offer that I could eat – pretty much just French fries! So I had a quick and not entirely appetising breakfast of coffee, fries, bread, veggie slicing sausage and energy bar and then got back on the bike.
It was about 90 kilometres to the next control and I pretty much immediately realised three things:
- When people had described the route of PBP as ‘mostly rolling, with just one major hill’ what they meant was that, apart from at the very beginning and end, I would always be riding either up or downhill, with very little flat in between
- The wind was picking up and was blowing determinedly into my face
- Nobody was being very friendly
Although I was feeling refreshed after my nap and somewhat ready for the day ahead, I was also feeling a little overwhelmed at the enormity of the task before me. I wanted to get as close as I could to Brest before I slept again, and I was hoping to build up a buffer in time so I could get at least three hours sleep on Monday night. I figured I could probably make it to Carhaix-Plouguer at 521km and sleep there, which meant riding a little over 300km. Suddenly that felt like an awfully long way.
I really wanted to find someone or a group of people to ride with and I was surrounded by other riders but it didn’t seem that anyone wanted to ride together. Every time I either went past someone or they came past me and I said ‘Bonjour’ or ‘hello’ there didn’t even seem to be a response, not even an acknowledgment I’d spoken most of the time. I’m not sure if this was due to language differences or everyone struggling a bit with the wind, but it was very strange and not something I’ve experienced on an audax before – even on London Edinburgh London. Meanwhile, the poor road etiquette of the night before seemed to be continuing, with many riders riding in the middle of the road and others undertaking them.
Every time I did manage to join a little group, the relentless rolling terrain and diagonal headwinds seemed to splinter it almost immediately. Also, most other riders seemed to be just stopping pedalling on the downhills, which I really don’t get when you can see the uphill coming. Since most of the other riders were male and heavier than me, they would sail past me as we started to go down, then stop pedalling and not start again until the gravity of the next uphill started to slow them. Since I was trying to build momentum to get up the uphills, this meant I had to get past them as we started to climb in order to keep moving forward. The combination of it all: relentless terrain, headwind and other riders who seemed to be a hindrance rather than a help, really started to get to me.
By the time I reached Fougères at 306km at a little before 10am I was hungry. I really wanted ‘real food’. A veggie fry-up would have been nice. But failing that I’d just take whatever was on offer.
They say never go shopping when you’re hungry. Well, I was pretty hungry and also sleep deprived when I spotted the large supermarket. I’m also never particularly good at shopping quickly. I spent the best part of twenty minutes wandering around the aisles trying to find food I could eat before emerging with bread, a litre of chocolate soya milk, a large carton of bulger wheat with edamame, almonds and raisins, aubergine spread and a box of Nature Valley bars. Rather an odd combination. I sat outside the supermarket and ate as much of it as I could before heading on to the control for my stamp.
In retrospect, drinking most of a litre of chocolate soya milk may not have been the best plan. Or perhaps it was the random assortment of food that I’d shovelled down. Or maybe it was the water I topped my bottles up with (I later found out that several people started to feel a little poorly after Fougères). Whatever it was, shortly after I got back on the road I started to get indigestion.
Monday dragged on. I was only a quarter of the way into the ride and things were hurting. The wind was still blowing. Other riders still seemed unfriendly. I don’t really remember riding with anyone, but I must have done at some point because I remember a conversation with someone where I was telling them how much harder than LEL I thought PBP was. I got to Tinténiac at about 2.15pm and, feeling like I didn’t have much time in hand, I almost immediately pushed on for the next control.
In retrospect, I can see that there were several things happening: going into London Edinburgh London I was nine weeks after a hysterectomy and cancer diagnosis. Nobody really expected me to be able to ride it, including myself. So the first couple of days, when I discovered I could ride and actually didn’t feel that bad, I was almost euphoric with the realisation. Going into PBP, everyone I knew seemed to expect me to just sail round. But I was really not sure I was fit enough, or even that I wanted to ride. Now that the route was harder than I’d expected and the wind was constantly in my face, the pain and lack of motivation were probably unsurprising.
Also, on LEL a combination of a tailwind heading north, a more generous time allowance for a longer ride and the fact that the cut-offs are spread evenly over the whole distance meant that I built up a large time buffer. At one point I think I had twelve hours in hand.
On PBP, the minimum average speed over the whole ride is 13.3kph – this of course includes all stoppages so your actual moving speed needs to be considerably quicker than that to build up time to eat and sleep. On LEL, because it’s a longer ride, the minimum average speed is 12kph. Also, on PBP they assume (probably rightly) that riders will be slower on the homewards leg and therefore weight the time allowance accordingly. What this means is that you have around 38 hours to get to Brest and about 42 to get back to Rambouillet. So it wasn’t really that surprising that I was reaching controls with less than five hours’ time in hand – but I felt like I wanted to be further ahead as I was thinking about sleep time that evening!
The only thing lifting me was the support along the roads. Fairly regularly we were passing impromptu stands, with local people offering drinks, snacks and encouragement. At some of these you could take a slip of paper with the person’s name and address on it to subsequently send them a thank-you postcard. Many of the towns we rode through had decorations for Paris-Brest-Paris and the names of local riders who were taking part. It really did feel like a big event.
More wind, more relentless ‘rolling’ (and very attractive) countryside, I eventually reached Loudeac at around 7.30pm. Getting off the bike to get my card stamped I realised I was once again very hungry. My stomach hadn’t felt quite right since just after Fougères and I’d subsequently not been eating that much. Once again there wasn’t really anything on offer at the control that I could eat so I decided to head out through the town.
It turns out there’s nothing much open in a small French town on a Monday evening. All the shops and supermarkets were firmly shuttered and several cafes that I passed were also closed. I was heading out of town, and beginning to wonder just what I would do about food, when I saw an open café. In my not-very-good French I managed to explain that I didn’t eat meat or dairy and ask if I could possibly have some pasta without either of these. Pasta with vegetables duly arrived and was wolfed down, along with an alcohol-free beer.
It was whilst waiting for the food that I realised that, in amongst the wind, there had actually also been quite a lot of sun and that my legs had definitely caught it. In fact, I suddenly felt like I’d maybe had a bit too much sun in general.
Heading out from Loudeac with a full belly I should have felt good. And I did feel better…for about ten minutes. Then the churning returned in my stomach. I rode on. Drank more water. Rode on. The route suddenly seemed even more spiky than it had before (this wasn’t just an illusion, I realised on the way back that the section between Loudeac and Carhaix-Plouguer is full of short, sharp ascents and descents).
It started to get dark. I thought about how pointless this whole thing was. What was I trying to prove? To whom? I needed a wee, but there was nowhere to go which was out of view. I felt silent hatred for the many male riders I’d seen all day who would just stop and urinate by the side of the road in full view, a couple without even properly getting off their bike. There were still many riders around me, but I felt very alone.
Eventually, a little before 11pm, I made it to St Nicolas du Pelem, which was meant to be just an optional sleep and refreshment stop but which was actually also a secret control. I was tired and thought about sleeping there instead of at Carhaix, but I told myself I would have to get up and get riding again when it was still the middle of the night and would also be letting myself in for a bigger day on Tuesday.
It was a little after St Nicolas that I started to feel the fatigue. I wasn’t really that far from Carhaix, and I was trying to tell myself that, but it felt harder and harder to turn the pedals. It wasn’t that I was super sleepy, more just that I felt bone tired. My stomach continued to churn. I kept sipping water and electrolyte drink, alternating the two bottles. Coffee. I just really needed a coffee to get me through the next few kilometres. I knew it was stupid to allow myself to obsess over how much I needed a coffee when it was 11.30pm in the middle of nowhere in France but I couldn’t get my mind off how much I wanted one.
Maybe I had a guardian angel at that point, because I rounded a corner and was met with a house illuminated by disco lights. Outside, a small bunch of people were sat behind a table with what looked suspiciously like a flask of coffee. “Café? L’eau?” the guy shouted as I approached. I stopped and tried to express in my broken French just how grateful I was for this provision. I’m not sure I quite managed but hopefully they got the gist!
I had a bounce in my pedal for a couple of kilometres after the coffee stop, but it was short-lived. I was close to Carhaix…close to being able to sleep…but then the stomach churning got more insistent and then I was stopped by the side of the road, leaning over my handlebars to vomit copiously on a grass verge. I finished throwing up all of the pasta I’d eaten a few hours before and took a sip of water. Mistake. Gagged again. It seemed that all I could do was keep pedalling and get to Carhaix.
It was getting on for 1am by the time I dragged myself into Carhaix-Plouguer and all I wanted was a bed. Or whatever type of mat they had that would pass for one. Just somewhere to lie down for a couple of hours with a blanket over me. It was not to be.
My request for the sleeping quarters was met with the news that they were full. One of the volunteers offered to show me where I could sleep on the floor. Heart sinking, I followed her, to find a hallway chock-a-block with bodies. There was just one small space so I got my sleeping liner and lay down…only to be moved on by a guy who’d apparently already bagged that space and had returned with his sleep sack.
By this point I was pretty much in tears. I was exhausted and felt like I might throw up again at any moment. It was cold outside, definitely too cold to try sleeping out without a bivvy bag, and there was no way I could make it another 90km to Brest without sleeping. By this point I was pretty sure I was going to bail on the ride anyway, there seemed no way I was going to finish it and little reason to try, but even if I bailed there and then the most important thing I needed was to lie down!
Luckily some Scandinavian guys found me trying to express this desperate need to one of the volunteers and took pity on me, showing me to a disused canteen they’d found where there was a least a little floor space to lie on. The floor was hard, and cold, but at least I was horizontal.
Tuesday: Carhaix-Plouguer – Tinténiac
I know I did sleep, a bit, at Carhaix but it really didn’t feel like I had. I was awake before my alarm was due to go off and it felt like I spent the whole of the previous two hours shivering uncontrollably, trying not to throw up and thinking about how much I did not want to be here. I made my way to the toilets and brushed my teeth – even that made me gag.
Sometimes you don’t look as bad as you feel. The mirror helpfully confirmed that this was not one of those times. My face was a puffy, creased mess, with huge bags under my eyes. It wasn’t even that cold inside, but I was still shivering, my body seemingly unable to regulate its temperature. I wasn’t sure what I wanted but I knew I did not want to go back outside and get back on a bike.
I went outside to do just that…and couldn’t find my bike. I really thought I’d parked it on row C, but it was nowhere to be seen. There were hundreds of bikes. It was still dark. I was more than a little out of it. I walked up and down, up and down rows of bikes, unable to see Trixie’s familiar purple handlebars.
It took me a good twenty minutes to locate her, twenty minutes that I really didn’t have to lose. But at least all the walking up and down had warmed me up a little. My Garmin showed the temperature had really dropped and it was now only 5C. But it also showed, through its elevation screen, that I would very soon be heading uphill.
I didn’t feel I could set off with a completely empty stomach but I didn’t want to eat anything either. Time for an emergency gel. I forced one down and chased it with a sip of water. Wanted to be sick but didn’t actually vomit. Headed out.
The section after Carhaix-Plouguer was a low point. On the approach to Carhaix I’d been feeling rubbish and wanting to bail but I somewhat comforted myself with the idea of sleep. Now the sleep stop had come and gone, with very little sleep. I still felt rubbish. I just wanted to get off my bike and lie down by the side of the road – the only thing stopping me was how cold it was. I was wearing all my layers and still felt cold.
Soon I was going up. And up. And up. The climb was interminable and the increasing number of lights coming back towards me (fast riders heading back from Brest) was not helping my mood. Finally I made it to the summit and it was freezing. A cold mist hung over everything. I had to stop and put on latex gloves under my normal gloves to add an extra layer of warmth. By now the Garmin was telling me it was 3C. The descent was almost as miserable as the climb had been. I just needed to get to Brest…and get on a train.
At the bottom of the descent there was a town, Sizun. Several bakeries and cafes, open early to cater for PBP. And miraculously people I knew: Angela, Debs and Marcus. They exclaimed over how rubbish I looked, and I told them how rubbish I felt. I told them I thought I was going to stop at Brest. Hearing it out loud I felt a pang of regret, but also relief. They were pushing on to Brest, which I knew I needed to do too, just not right this second. I went into a café, ordered a peppermint tea, put my head on the table and slept for half an hour.
I woke up and drank the remainder of my peppermint tea, using it to wash down small bites of energy bar. It felt like a belt had been tightened across my chest, preventing me from swallowing anything without gagging. All consumption had to be done carefully and slowly. I made it back onto the bike, telling myself it was only about 35km to Brest and then I could stop.
It wasn’t until the descent into Brest that my attitude started to change a little. The sun was finally shining and warm and there was the sea! Our route took us over a large bridge, with lovely views. We were nearly there, nearly halfway (actually the control was several kilometres further on, reached by weaving through the morning traffic, but I didn’t realise that then!)
I reached the Brest control and wondered what I should do. Get my card stamped? Tell them I was bailing? Maybe I didn’t want to bail? I tried to eat some veggie sausage…that didn’t go so well. Drifted over to the refreshment area and thought I should celebrate getting this far either way. Bought a beer. For the first time since the night before I managed to consume something without gagging a bit. Beer went down much better than water had been doing!
My phone started to light up with messages from friends who were using the online tracker to watch my progress, and who had seen I had made it to Brest. I mentally kicked myself for sharing the tracker link – all these people were watching me and cheering me on. If I bailed I’d also have them all watching me do so.
I thought about how I really didn’t want to ever do this ride again, or in fact any super long audax. If I bailed now, would I feel compelled to come back in four years with unfinished business? I thought about how I’d learnt before that no-one would care that I’d failed but me. But that I would probably care a lot. Probably better all round to keep going.
Back on the bike, I knew I needed to eat something but couldn’t really stomach anything either. There was a Lidl on the way out of town, so I stopped there and tried to find something to eat. I bought some bread and crisps but found I couldn’t really eat anything too solid. In the end, I took the soft bit from the middle of the bread and smothered it in the vegan pâté I was carrying. That just about went down.
I was dreading the climb out of Brest, but the sun was shining and there were still riders heading towards me into town, which made me feel a bit better. And I got chatting to a nice American guy from Pennsylvania, whose name I don’t recall but who suggested that honey might be a good solution to fuelling with my upset stomach.
It was getting hotter again, so I stopped at a conveniently placed roadside stand and removed one of the two pairs of socks I was wearing. I was still finding it difficult to eat and drink, but generally was feeling a little brighter. Even more so when I got back on the road and found myself riding with a German guy called Olaf.
He’d previously lived in the UK and we started talking about LEL – it turned out I’d read the blog he’d written comparing LEL to PBP. I told him I planned to volunteer next time to give me an excuse not to ride it and it turns out he is overseeing the volunteers! He also knew Fiona Kolbinger (having met her on LEL) and we talked about her incredible achievement and how insane it must be for her to suddenly have been propelled to stardom through her TCR win.
Through all the chatting I barely realised that we’d climbed the whole horrible hill that I’d clawed my way up in the dark. We rode together into Carhaix, where he left to find a café. The sun was out and it was warm. I decided to stop just before the control to get an ice lolly. That’s when I realised I didn’t have my purse.
I spent ten minutes checking and re-checking every pocket in my jersey and every bag on my bike. Definitely not there. About €300 in cash, several bank cards, my driving licence…all gone. My immediate thought was how was I going to continue the ride? I had no way of paying for anything…and I would need to at least buy some food. I couldn’t even bail, as then I’d need to pay for a train back to Rambouillet. It really was a not great predicament, but I felt like I was facing it slightly detached from the situation.
As I rode into the Carhaix control an amazing stroke of luck – a familiar face! It was lovely to see Alice, who I’d met on the Pure Peak Grit challenge, and even more lovely that, once she learned of my lost purse, she immediately lent me some euros. I would be able to continue the ride, or pay for a train if I decided to bail.
Into the control and I tried to explain to the volunteers in my broken French that my purse was missing. Miraculously, someone had already found it! It was at the roadside stand where I’d stopped to remove extra socks. Even better, they would be able to get the motorbike guys to pick it up and bring it to me. Did I want to wait for it at this control or have it waiting for me at the next one?
I was a bit overwhelmed that my purse was found and making its way back to me but very happy. I told the volunteers I would like to have it waiting for me at the next control, then used a bit of the money Alice had lent me to buy a beer to celebrate (they had Pelforth Brune, which is my favourite Fench beer, and beer had worked well for me at Brest so why not?) I also called Emily to update her on my progress and told her I still hadn’t quite bailed.
Leaving the control, I tried to ride out with Alice but we got separated almost straight away. I saw her again in the next town, where she was enjoying pastries with Els, an awe-inspiring rider who was riding PBP on a fixie. Heeding the advice from earlier, I bought a tube of squeezy honey.
I reached St Nicolas again at about 6.45pm and found my purse waiting for me, with all money and cards intact. I was very grateful to the motorbike guy who’d delivered it there safely for me and tried to express this as best I could!
I wanted to get to Tinténiac before sleeping but figured this would mean riding through much of the night. On LEL I learnt that late afternoon, when sleeping stops are quiet, is a good time to take a short sleep break and it was the same on PBP. St Nicolas had comfortable camp beds in a warm room, with only a couple of other riders snoring away. I paid my €5 and asked for an 8pm wake-up.
I slept soundly for an hour but still woke up feeling nauseous. I chased down some squeezy vegan pâté with some squeezy honey and hit the road. And the hills. It was straight back into the spiky section I’d hated so much the day before. It was soon getting dark and I could tell it would be a long night.
I was about halfway to Loudeac and into a rhythm of cursing myself for signing up for this ride, cursing my stomach for not settling and cursing my fellow riders for erratic weaving across the road when I came across Nick. I met Nick on Windsor-Chester-Windsor in June, though I’d also previously ridden an audax he’d organised. He was stopped d so I asked if he was OK. He told me he’d just decided to bail on the ride. He was riding fixed, was tired, up against the time limit and alarmed by the poor standard of riding around him.
I suggested we rode together to the next control, which was great for me as I had company. He may or may not have felt the same, but I felt it was nice to have someone to chat with as I gritted my teeth against the incessant ups and downs. We had one of those quite familiar conversations that you can only have with a virtual stranger when you’ve both had your emotions flayed by a lack of sleep and a surfeit of time on the bike!
We reached Loudeac a bit before midnight and for once I managed to find something to eat in the cafeteria – just soup, but it was warm and salty and made a nice change from honey and bites of energy bar! Nick was going off to find a bed and I was very tempted to do the same but I knew I needed to push on.
It was 86km from Loudeac to Tinténiac, over 50 miles. I knew there was an optional stop at Quédillac in between, with places to sleep, but I also knew that if I didn’t want a hellishly long Wednesday, I needed to get to Tinténiac before I slept. I told myself that no matter what I was having three hours sleep at Tinténiac. Even if it meant I was out of time.
I left Loudeac and almost immediately felt sleepy. Time to bring out the podcasts. I’d downloaded the TCR podcast, as well as several of the Tough Girl ones and some Desert Island Discs episodes. Listening to Fiona Kolbinger describe her incredible ride as well as various other inspirational women talk about their lives and exploits worked perfectly, keeping me alert and giving me something else to think about other than the pain I was in.
Unlike on usual night rides, I was continually surrounded by other riders, so didn’t feel fear about being along in the middle of nowhere. On the contrary, I felt fear that I would be crashed into by one of the obviously sleep-deprived randonneurs, many of whom were riding ever more erratically. All along the route, the sides of the road were littered with sleeping audaxers wrapped up in bivvy bags and foil blankets. In one town I passed a small ATM vestibule which looked to have around ten riders sleeping in it!
At Quedillac I had a coffee and tried to eat yet more energy bar. I just wanted to sleep, but I also wanted to push on. I was moved ever slower, but I was still moving. And it was a beautiful starry night.
I finally reached Tinténiac just before 6am. My cut-off time here was 9.16am, so having three hours sleep would put me right on that cut-off. I didn’t care, I knew I needed the sleep. I was alarmed to see a small queue for beds, but it was just due to them taking some time to allocate spaces, rather than being full. Eventually I was shown to an actual bed, in a room with only three other beds in it. Luxury! I lay for five minutes listening to my still over-active heartbeat before I descended into sleep.
Wednesday: Tinténiac – Mortagne-au-Perche
Once again I woke up shortly before my wake-up call was due. I still didn’t feel great, but I felt much better than I had the day before. I had 350km to ride and about 27 and a half hours to ride it in. Normally that would feel simple. Right now, it did not.
Before leaving Tinténiac I treated myself to a clean pair of shorts. Because there were no drop bags on PBP, I’d been limited in what clothing changes I could carry with me. In the end, I’d decided that a clean jersey wasn’t essential but I didn’t want to wear the same shorts of four days.
Back in the saddle and everything hurt. My seatbones felt like they had hard ping-pong balls of raw flesh beneath them, a sure sign of saddle sores despite my wet-wipe and chammy cream routine. My hands did not want to be back on the handlebars. Legs felt stiff and unwieldy. It was day three and I was feeling it. I left Tinténiac at 9.25am, with no time at all in hand.
Luckily just up the road I managed to latch on to a small multinational group of German and French guys. Having wheels to ride on gave me a boost and I made spinning easier again. I made it to Fougères at 12.09, seventeen minutes ahead of my cut-off time.
The sun was shining but I didn’t dare expose my burnt skin, so I rode along in leg and arm warmers, trying to drink enough to not dehydrate too badly. I was feeling a little better but still struggling to eat or drink substantially. Drinking had to be done in sips rather than gulps. One of the roadside stands I stopped at had mint cordial which they added to my water – that was divine!
I can’t say I was entirely happy, but Wednesday was definitely my best day so far, if only because I wasn’t feeling quite so wretched. I was grinding rather than spinning up the hills, but I still don’t think that excuses one old Polish guy coming up behind me and shoving my bike forward from behind on one climb. It totally caught me by surprise and it was all I could do to not crash. The sheer inconsiderateness of it, when I was obviously tired, really took my breath away. I’m absolutely sure he wasn’t shoving the bikes of any slow men.
At a supermarket between Fougères and Villaines I found my saviour – avocado. I’d gone in looking for proper food that I could still somehow eat without choking. It turned out avocado was just the right consistency. I bought two and mixed them with some couscous, washed down with some iced tea.
Riding into Villaines-la-Juhel on the Wednesday afternoon was the absolute highlight of Paris-Brest-Paris. A large inflatable arch to ride under, cheering crowds on both sides of the street and a band playing a fanfare for each rider who arrived – I literally felt like I’d won a stage of the Tour De France. Better still, I’d now ridden over 1,000km and *only* had a little over 200km to go (I tried not to think about how that meant I actually had about 130 miles still to ride).
Highlight number two came soon after the Villaines control. I stopped in town and bought another avocado and some bread, then got to the top of the hill heading out of town and found a field with a view for a picnic in the evening sunset. Life felt good, just for a few minutes.
My euphoria was somewhat shortlived. As it got dark it felt like the zombie cyclists came out to play. It felt like I was well and truly in the ‘bulge’ and any semblance of competent group riding had gone out of the window. Over-tired riders zig-zagged erratically across the road, sometimes veering abruptly to the side, stopping and just going to sleep draped over their handlebars! Others rode doggedly down the centre of the road, ignoring all calls in French and English to move over. Some people’s lights seemed to have failed, and I told a couple of people that their back lights weren’t working only to be met with a shrug.
Sunset and sunflowers
A little way before Mortagne-au-Perche, we came to a town where half the population seemed to be out in the town square cheering us on. A marquee had been set up, serving hot soup which was vegetarian. It was a welcome break, and a small sign on the wall told us we had ridden 1,074km and had 145km left.
I rolled into Mortagne-au-Perche around midnight to find a bustling control, with riders passed out in various corners or laughing, eating and drinking. I needed to sleep, or at least get horizontal for a while, so I paid €5 for a bed. This turned out to be a thin sleeping mat, packed cheek by jowl in a hall with hundreds of others.
The mats were so close together that it was virtually impossible to access one without tripping over the legs of the people who were sleeping in the vicinity. This, coupled with the fact that there was only a thin sheet (so I was immediately cold but too tired to go and get more clothes from my bike) meant I didn’t sleep very much in the hour and a half I had allocated myself.
The final push: Mortagne-au-Perche – Rambouillet
Back outside and onto the bike in the dark. I just had 122km left to ride, and over 10 hours to complete it in, but it still didn’t feel like I was near the end. I knew I was finally due some flat riding once I got half-way to Dreux (the final control) but for now the road continued to rise and fall. I really needed someone to talk to, a little company through the night.
My hopes were answered when Alina rode up alongside me. She is German and I’d seen her earlier in the day riding with some other fast German riders but now she was riding alone. We started riding together and chatting, sharing stories and letting off a bit of steam about the frustrations of the ride. The next 30 or so kilometres, and the last few hills of this ever-rolling ride, flew by.
Unfortunately, I was now well into calorie deficit and my body was screaming at me for food. However, I was also still feeling nauseous. It was dark and I couldn’t rummage around for whatever snack would keep me going whilst not making me throw up without stopping. Reluctantly I let Alina head on towards Dreux whilst I stopped by the side of the road and rummaged for sustenance.
One sachet of almond butter, several large squeezes of honey and a Rawvelo bar later I was back on the move and heading towards Dreux. The final control before the finish. I got there at about 6.20am and found they were selling cure little PBP Dreux purses alongside the brevet card stamping.
Dreux was a place of reunions and zombies. Semi-conscious bodies were scattered around the hall, draped over chairs and tables. But amongst the comatose there were familiar faces, exhausted but awake and ready to ride: I bumped into Angela, Debs, Els and Alina again as I wandered around the hall and got a coffee, all of us thrilled to have made it to the last control. A text message told me I’d just missed Marcus – he must have been heading out as I arrived. There was only 45km to go and we all knew we were going to make it.
I headed out alone again but feeling euphoric. Suddenly I felt energised again and, realising that with a bit of a push I could make it back to Rambouillet in under 87 hours, I was soon zipping along. Even the pain from my saddle sores and battered hands couldn’t dull the excitement – I was finishing PBP! Day was dawning and a beautiful sunrise welcomed me as I headed out past fields. And that’s when the emotions came.
It started with me stopping to take a picture of the sunrise, and then a random thought that I wished my mum could see the sunrise. Then I remembered her and my dad unexpectedly showing up by the side of the road in Lincolnshire, as I was battling headwinds on the return route of LEL. By this time I was sobbing, tears of grief for my mum, tears of relief that I was finishing, tears of joy, tears of sadness, tears of tiredness. Just a lot of tears.
Through the tears and snot I was pedalling on as fast as I could, just determined to make it back to Rambouillet. And suddenly I was not alone. Someone was sat on my wheel, someone who was pedalling, and then freewheeling, pedalling and then freewheeling, with the loudest freewheel in the world tick-tick-ticking behind me. For mile after mile it seemed they were sat behind me, saying nothing, whilst I was sobbing and pedalling and actually might have quite liked a wheel to sit on for a little while.
So, I’m (a little bit) sorry to the American guy who got asked rather abruptly why he wasn’t coming past me and told that his free-wheel was frankly too loud (it was!) I don’t really buy your explanation that you were ‘waiting for a friend’ as generally you don’t do that two inches off someone else’s back wheel. But thank you for having the grace to back off when I challenged you.
I finally managed to stop crying and start smiling as we headed through woods on the approach to Rambouillet. By this point I had the ‘distance to destination’ screen up on my Garmin and watched as this ticked into single figures. Several groups of local riders passed in the opposite direction, out for a morning spin and shouting encouragement (or maybe they were just fast riders who’d finished the day before and were back out for a recovery ride).
Then I was heading into Rambouillet and into the Bergerie and it was chaos – cars and campervans and people on the approach road, so many that I wondered if I’d taken a wrong turn. Some people cheered me on whilst others seemed oblivious to the steady stream of approaching riders. Then we were filtered into a courtyard, over gravel and cobbles, just what you need at the end of a 1200km ride! After the hoopla and welcoming crowds at Villaines the day before it felt quite anti-climatic but I was finished.
Into a marquee to get my brevet card stamped, and to be given my very attractive finishers medal. Then into the food tent, to be welcomed by many audax acquaintances followed by several hours of story sharing, congratulations and a few beers in the sunshine. This is, of course, the best part of the ride – you’ve finished and others you either already know or have met along the way have done the same and you all get to celebrate!
It’s now nearly two weeks since I bumped my saddle sores over the Rambouillet cobbles. The sores are now healed, the post-ride fatigue has lifted and I’m starting to get feeling back in my little fingers. My sunburnt legs have started to peel a little, and I’m sure my battered palms will soon do the same. Basically, I am well on the road to recovery.
Already, people are starting to ask me what’s next. And I’m really not sure there is anything next. Oh, there will be plenty of cycling adventures. But big, long, multi-day rides…I’m just not sure.
The reason I love audax riding is that it allows you to challenge yourself and your endurance, even if you’re not a particularly fast rider. A rider able to average 12mph can build up to a 200km and ride it comfortably with a couple of café stops en route and still be well within the cut-off time. They’ll get the same recognition for finishing as the rider who whizzes round at 18mph. It’s nicely egalitarian.
But once you get into the longer rides that’s where the disadvantage kicks in – once sleep comes into the equation the fast riders once again have an advantage, and a choice. They can choose to be sleep deprived and whizz round in an impressively fast time or they can ride fast, get a decent amount of sleep, take time to stop and eat and finish in the same time. A rider like me doesn’t get to have a choice – longer rides will always be about sleep deprivation and chasing the clock.
I like 200km rides. They are a nice challenge. A big day out. An adventure. But one I can undertake with no sleep deprivation, no loss of sensation in my hands, no saddle sores, no crying or vomiting by the side of the road.
But…there is something about a big ride. Anything 400km and over and I know I’m in slightly different terrain. I’m going to be missing sleep. Having a lot of thinking time. And likely meeting with others who I will have an immediate intimacy with because they are doing the same. Emotions are closer to the surface when you’re fighting fatigue and the miles and sometimes that can make it easier to connect with others. I’ve met so many great people through long distance rides, and it’s generally on the really long ones that you properly do get to talk with people.
Over the last year or so, with the Peak Brevettes group, 2019 PBP Women’s group and Pure Peak Grit I have for the first time connected with a group of women, locally, elsewhere in the UK and internationally, who are riding long and arduous rides. Many of them are achieving things I can only dream of. But watching them does make me want to aim for more, even though I’m asking myself why I even want to ride.
My sister recently wrote a blog-post about using the outside to deal with grief and it strikes me the five things that she references are what you inevitably experience on a long ride. There is something therapeutic about big challenges, though there is also something horrible and pointless about them too! So as for what’s next, I’ll be attempting to ride 200kms for the next few months to continue my third Randonneur Round the Year effort and after that we’ll see…
TLDR: I cycled quite a long way in France over four days and it was hard.
You can see my ride on Strava here: https://www.strava.com/activities/2647480729