Spend the whole year building up to something; the idea, the planning, the trepidation. What kit do I need, get the kit, test the kit. Training, qualifying, and learning how your body reacts to it’s first 600k event, it’s second, it’s first dress rehearsal. That’s all in the past now, you’re on your way, you’re carrying what you need, hopefully not too much of what you don’t need, anything else will need to be collected on the way, the start line lies ahead.
Drive to family in London. Leave the car and cycle from there. Overnight ferry Newhaven to Dieppe. Ride directly to bike check/registration in Rambouillet. Details contained elsewhere, but it was a wet wet wet ride French-side. It was a battle to dry everything overnight in the hotel room but thankfully with the heating cranked everything was ok come Sunday morning. The all-you-can-eat hotel breakfast was attacked. Spin to Rambouillet and ready myself for the task ahead. Kick off was 4pm. I was rider A101. That is in the first group, of which I’m guessing there were around 250 other riders.
Somewhat an unknown but I’d done a fair amount of reading and watching YouTube videos. I knew I wanted to ride through the first night and get to Brest - 600k out the gates before any sleep was considered. After my experience at the hall in the North Coast Classic 600 I’d booked a super cheap hotel at Brest. A nice shower and good quality few hours sleep would be my reward for getting half way. Control closure times (Brest it was around 4:30am for me) would mean an early start to the second day, but it would be necessary to get moving earlier to keep and start building a bit more time in hand.
From there it would be see how I felt, with two ideas. Split the remainder into Tuesday 300k / rest / Wednesday 300k, or 400/rest/200. Ideally the latter because it would give more time at the finish and to get to the hotel afterwards.
The other bit of the plan was a maximum of 1 hour at most of the controls. Only stop if absolutely necessary at the food non-controls. A 4 hour break at Brest, and every third or fourth 2 to 3 hours. At an average of 14mph this would take me very close to the time limit - but I quite like a non-optimistic plan and to stay ahead.
The Ride - Brest Bound
I’d kept myself to myself a lot on the ride over, and at the hotel, consumed by my thoughts, and what I needed to do next. But there was one guy I’d spoken to at the hotel that morning, an Irish guy, he was in the same group as me, and I spotted him again in the starting pen. We nattered a bit more as we waited half an hour until we started moving. Nervous times. Probably 15 minutes before our scheduled departure we started moving - walking - and went through a small tent collecting the first stamp in the brevet card. We now grouped at the start line. Final bathroom dash, switch the Garmin on, down the last bit of granola that I’d got from the supermarket the day before and couldn’t bring myself to throw away.
4pm. Nothing. But anticipation. I don’t know why but it was 4:03 when the hooter went and we got the show on the road. Shuffling at first, then scooting, before there was enough space to start soft pedaling. The sun was out, it was a warm afternoon, I’d applied sun cream. I lost touch with anyone I knew (even if I had known them only for a few hours), but this was fine, probably preferred as groups were big, nervous and required full concentration.
The first wave of riders starts behind the race car, pacing a neutralised section, before the flag drops and it peels off. In this time the pace goes from fast to idling at a moments notice. All the time people jostling for position. It was one hell of an experience riding in this group, I saw the race car ahead without getting too far up. I think it’ll be the closest I’ll get to riding a bunch race, as my current outlook just doesn’t motivate me in that direction. There were a few small towns and villages to get through, it was good that these were in a neutral, as with so many riders, and France having a lot of road furniture. Everyone gradually settled, strung out a bit and then we were able to get going ourselves.
I rolled alongside Alan Parkinson at one point, a guy that did Mille Pennines when I did it last year and I follow his adventures on Instagram - good to natter for a few minutes. There were a few sketchy moments during these early kms though, one touch of wheels to my 2 o’clock, lots of shouting but thankfully no one went down. I was just far enough away from it, but still a heart-skip-a-beat moment. The second was someone’s rear bag becoming detached and bouncing like a rugby ball through the peloton. Russian roulette, but again I saw it happen and didn’t hear anyone go down and I managed to evade it.
Once it settled a bit I was in the third group on the road. Excited, half a dozen of us found ourselves on the front and made a break for it. The headwinds were pretty strong at this point. I was on the front for a little while when a Canadian guy made the call for us to circulate through and work together a bit better. It was great fun. We all did a turn, pulling well clear of the group and the next group on the road was spotted. A bit of work and we made it to them, great stuff. We merged in with them and took a bit of a break from our efforts.
The first “stop” a non-control at Mortagne-au-Perche just over 100km in to the ride I grabbed a bottle top up and got spinning again. It was a bit odd, PBP the first control, where you need to get a stamp is at 200km, in a regular audax you’d have two or three controls in that distance. But a water top up was necessary it had been warm and another 100k would need more than what I was then carrying.
The groups had been smashed up by this point. I found a few riders, twos and threes. Some I rode through, some jumped on my wheel, I jumped on the odd wheel too. The sun was descending into the horizon, the temperature with it. Golden hour was beautiful. My mind was transferring from the excitedness of the racy start to the long road ahead. Matches had been burnt, but I didn’t regret it, a fantastic experience, but now it was time to work on some efficiency, tap out some miles but replace and conserve energy.
I paused when I figured I could no longer ride without my reflective gillet on - a requirement in France to ride with it on from twilight. A comfort break, and got the lights switched on too.
I remember just after there was a little town with a crossroad where a couple of dozen locals lined the road cheering and clapping every rider that went past. I heard the commotion before I rolled through. It was like this in various places throughout the ride. Banners out, locals cheering, kids giving high-fives, cars tooting, waving, and shouting bravo bravo from their open windows. Absolutely fantastic.
I was ready for the first control when it came though. Villaines-la-Juhel at 215km. It was twenty past midnight. I’d eaten enough from my stash, I wanted a break from the saddle and some real food. Volunteers shepherded cyclists through a right turn, banners left and right, a couple of stalls, then the street was occupied with bike racks. I racked my bike, grabbed my front bag, plugged in the Garmin for a bit of juice, and made my way up to get a stamp. Stamped. That’s the first one down. Crikey this page is double sided. And only takes me outbound to Brest. If the enormity of the ride hadn’t hit me already it did now. 200 down, but 1000km still to do.
Stamped the next item on the agenda was food. I filtered through, croissant - nope, pain au chocolat - nope, apple-sugar-coated pastry thing - nope, ham baguette - nope, drinks… what, that’s it?! I wasn’t best pleased. (Later I found there were other options elsewhere) I’d resigned myself that I’d need to alter my diet preference early and make do, it was less than 100k to the next, hopefully that’d be better. I went round again, got a selection of not great pastries, a bowl(!) of tea and found a seat. I needed another bowl of tea before I could get myself to head bike-ward again though.
It was 1am or so as I filled the bottles and got ready for the late shift. It was cold. Surely colder than the 12 degrees that had been in the forecasts I’d seen (and I’d looked up a lot). It was colder, perhaps 8 degrees. Best place to warm up was spinning the legs though - I got going.
Odd small groups on the road, again I rode through some, figuring it best to keep my heart rate where I wanted it and with it my warmth. I did join a group of similarly paced riders at times though.
At times it was difficult to spot the direction signs. Only the little triangle of the arrow was reflective. And not all junctions had signs. In a group at least there were more eyes to spot them.
I’d worked with a French chap for a little time, alternating time on the front, when he pulled alongside and enquired about my rear light. Could I turn it down as it was a bit bright. I was certain it was on the lowest setting and angled it to the side for him. At the next control I realised I was mistaken and it was on the brightest setting. Oops. And double oops - what about the battery life I’d taken by using the bright setting. Sorry Mr French-guy my bad.
It was around 3:30am when I rolled in to Fourgeres. It had gotten colder. I had gotten hungrier. I’d potted my next clothing choices, and crossed my fingers for better food options. I rolled in, a school, as many of them were. Stamp. And on to the food. Croissant, custard tart thing, and a jambon (ham) baguette, urk. I asked one of the volunteers, is this it? Across the language barrier she said there was a restaurant further down the street. A restaurant I thought, and what is the chance of that being open at 3:30am?! Reluctantly I got a drink and a jambon baguette - resigned to the fact that I’d pick out and ditch the jambon. I remained not happy at the food situation. Only 34 miles to the next though, it’d be better there, right?
I sorted myself and got back on the bike. I rounded the corner and ahead was another school building with lights on and a sign. “Restauration”. That is what she meant! It was the school canteen, set up and serving riders. It turned out that this was the setup in almost all of the controls, including that first one that I had been smarting at earlier. So the next leg of the ride was only a few hundred meters as I made a bee-line for the “Restauration”.
I don’t remember what I had, but through these restaurations I had umpteen plates of plain pasta, the odd one had a vegetarian sauce but most only meat and fish. Some had a nice couscous salad. That was about the best of it. While I’m on about the food I’ll roll my other thoughts from the rest. Plain pasta was the order of the day. One control has mashed potato which I had. Most had white rice, but I never fancied it. They were the accompaniments to fish, chicken or pork everywhere. One had a ratatouille, rejoice! Everywhere had umpteen beige pastries, some cream filled, some sugar coated, a couple iced. One had one cake, a brownie - one control, one cake, this a uk audax was not like! After the first few I realised that a plate of plain pasta was not enough fuel for the next 3 hours riding. I still needed to ditch my preferred diet and take on some more of what was on offer even if I didn’t want to. So the odd pastry ended up on my plate. I remember one eclair, one Paris-Brest, one croissant, none were enjoyed and actually I don’t think I had any others. Because I found rice pudding. Some had little pots like yoghurts, and some had bigger tubs. Usually I had it with some fruit. I did have that brownie that I found (in Dreux). There was an odd Red Bull or sugary fruit juice when needed, and more than one or two coffees. Overall if you hadn’t guessed I wasn’t best pleased with the food but I understand the challenge they faced of feeding 6000 cyclists.
Ok back to riding. I looked it up on my Garmin, 4.8 degrees. Eek. I was wearing most of my layers including; overshoes, buff, long fingered gloves and a couple of jerseys. The graveyard shift was tough going all due to, the cold, my ability to spot signs, and at this point my poor fuelling ability - I just wasn’t taking on enough to keep me going at tempo.
6am and some blue started to creep into the sky. Daylight was coming and that was a boost. Tinteniac - the next stop - was also coming. A plate of pasta for breakfast - it wasn’t memorable. Quedilliac next was food-only and bypassed.
When it started getting warmer, around 9am, I spotted a table and group of people at the end of their driveway. It was like this in many places, a table filled with food, drinks, sometimes a charity collection tin, but often not (video below give a feel of the atmosphere). I took the opportunity to make some clothing changes, collect a bite of what was offered, and fill my bottles. The family had a map, and asked stoppers to place a pin where they were from. There were about 10 pins on the board, the day and field was still early.
The morning shift, while better than the night shift, was laboured going. This is when I realised my fuelling mistake (too little), and piled in a number of items from the bag. I got a boost, and rolled in to Loudeac in good spirits. After the control and customary plate of food I made a supermarket raid. Baguette and biscuits. Strapped to the bike and I was on my way again. They would be future fuel.
The afternoon shift was buoyed by my extra calories and the sun on my back. I rode through a couple of groups and a train formed behind me. Some get grumpy when doing the work on the front and folk jump on their wheels, but I was riding my pace and I would be with them or not. Karma, I was paying some forward as undoubtedly I’d be someone catching a wheel at other times.
Saint-Nicholas-du-Pelem was food only and I wanted to ride by, but a shout of “control”, “secret control” was sounded and a stamp was sought. I didn’t hang around long, my thoughts were turning to my ETA at Brest, and the hotel logistics there.
The next section I rode a little with a chap from Audax Club Bristol. He organises some events that way and we talked about the Bryan Chapman event and route. Good change of focus to natter for a while. This was a decent spell pace wise again, but tiredness was building, Carhaix-Plougher the next control I would need a little break from the saddle and something good to get in my belly.
I spent about an hour at Carhaix-Plougher. Very aware that evening was approaching I got moving again around 5:20pm. On this section was the highest point on the route, Roc'h Trevezel where a red and white mast marks the top. It was a long climb to that point though, long and gradual, and tree-lined twisty to begin. A rider from North Yorkshire joined me around here. We talked about the usual things and riding back home, but if I’m honest my heart wasn’t in it. I was struggling a bit after a good afternoon. Energy levels were depleting and I found the pace and chatting difficult to maintain at times.
It was a relief to be over the top of the Roc’h, we had a good descent. Would it be a descent to Brest now? With my energy levels I hoped so. Nice idea, but it was more rolling terrain. A number of riders had begun passing us in the opposite direction, these were now groups, obviously making good time and good use of the daylight to get a bit further - that is if they were going to stop and not power on through!
As we covered the final kms towards Brest I made the conscious decision to let the group go. I wanted my headspace back, and even just following wheels (not chatting) can take a majority of concentration and occupy the thoughts. Up down the rollers kept coming. We rode alongside a busier road or motorway before the sea came into view and the city.
It was a good moment rolling onto the bridge - a photo opportunity that I was aware of in my research. A friendly pedestrian offered to take my photo. We were on one bridge with the more picture friendly bridge behind. I was tired but it felt great to have ridden through and got to Brest before the sun went down. At the same time this thing became doable in my mind, but also, crikey that was only half of it, another half still to go. That was daunting!
It was another few km to the control in Brest - city riding, and being a city the cycling event was consumed in the hustle and bustle. Other than a couple of advertising posters I spotted you wouldn’t know there was an event on - quite different to the towns and villages ridden through. Light was really fading as I pulled into another school. Stamp. And the food was a bit different here not much of an option and more move along the line getting a dollop of whatever was next. I didn’t mind much, I knocked it back and went to find this hotel.
It took a little finding, a bit further off the route than I expected, but it was found, the touchscreen check in computer coaxed into giving me a keycard and room found. This was not a swanky place, this was the opposite of swanky, but it was perfect for a hot shower and three hours good kip. Everything was put on charge, Mrs S was spoken to, the alarm was set. Lights out.
The Ride - Paris Bound
2am. Beep beep beep. I was surprisingly up for the reverse hotel dance. I had a bite of whatever I’d had in my pockets the night before and was on the road at 2:30. It was cold. And the ground was wet. What? It hadn’t rained, but there were sprinklers doing their sprinkly thing along a bunch of these roads watering the grass or traffic lights or something. Odd. I rejoined the route, and commenced the little reflective triangle spotting game.
It was cold. Bitterly cold. I was wearing almost every layer I had. All the ones from the previous night plus my rain cape, and both finger and fingerless gloves. I complain but the first hour was pretty ok. I had the residual warmth of the hotel room, had eaten, and the quiet moonlit roads had a particular charm to them. After an hour though the charm was wearing thin. I’d ridden through a couple of singles and a couple of small groups. Joining them wasn’t on the cards I needed to keep my tempo and my heart rate, with it my temperature.
Lights of a small town. Landerneau. A 24 hour bakery. Hmm, that’s cool, a minute later, hmm that might have been a good idea, but I was a minute past. One of the local supported tables lit up with fairy lights emerged on my right ahead, I was stopping. I took advantage of a coffee and a few bites of what was on offer, some really nice dark chocolate was amongst it. It tasted amazing.
It was the boost I needed. The return climb of the Roc’h was now. I climbed, pleased at the warmth it brought, but then a little overheat-y, and I managed my pace to my temperature more than anything. Lights streamed past in the other direction. The later starting groups out in full force this evening. Some in good spirits, multiple languages glancing my ears, but also a number of quiet groups. 500 and odd kms, middle of the night, I imagined, and to some extent remembered what they were feeling.
The odd car came passed, and an occasional lorry. Night riding is pretty good on the traffic front, mostly quiet, and you get plenty of notice hearing an engine come from afar and headlights well in advance. Again I mostly rode alone.
The out and return route diverged in several places. Near Brest was one, which is why the lights in the opposite direction only happened nearer Roc’h, and there was another divergence on the other side of the summit. Again the roads were quiet. Travelling in this direction to road was larger and free flowing. I descended into a mist. I’d be repeating myself if I said it was cold, but it was, a cold cold mist. Atmospheric though.
Little reflective triangles were few and far between. I was losing confidence that I was on the correct route. I continued, there hadn’t been any junctions for some time - that would be why there were no signs. There was a red light in the distance. I settled on the aero-bars and focussed on that. Gradually we came together and he took a slip road exit. There was no sign though. Stopped at the top we exchanged words, trying to identify the route. Initially he was confident this turn was correct. I wanted to check. He checked also. It was incorrect, we returned down the slip road and rejoined the main road. Not before a handful of other riders had navigated towards our red rear lights however!
It turned out the main road went directly to Carhaix-Plougher the first of the return controls. As I neared this destination the sky had been turning lighter shades of blue, the mist coming and going with the contours of the land.
There were people everywhere in Carhaix. The first wave of riders away at the start are those with an 80 hour time limit, then 90, then 84. So the 84s catch the 90s. And the 80s meet them both at some point on the return. This was my first taste of the rest of PBP. Bike racks were well stocked, “baked potatoes” on the grass, under trees - baked potatoes is the name I’d heard folk call the riders wrapped in foil blankets catching 40 winks in all sorts of places. I entered and got my stamp. Now to head for some breakfast. More baked potatoes. A long queue for the bathrooms. Folk curled up in corners of the corridor, folk sprawled out along the corridor, folk head down on tables, folk head down under tables. Crikey. This wasn’t even the sleeping area, it was the restauration area.
For which there was a big queue. Well probably not a big queue, but bigger than anything I’d seen so far. This must be something like the bulge that I’d read about (bulge being the meeting of the 80, 84 and 90 hour groups). I shuffled through the canteen collecting an array of calories. The blockage was the cashiers. Standing waiting was a waste of time, so I tucked into my calories, they could charge me based on the empties. I’m not sure if I was the first, but I only noticed other riders doing the same once I’d started tucking in.
Paid up I had a little left and in a few minutes it was gone. With the sun making the blue sky golden I was making my way back to the bike before I knew it. It was firmly the second phase of the ride now, keeping moving would keep the 400k plan alive. The other thing on my mind was that I did not want to ride through the graveyard shift for a third night. The temperature and confidence in spotting signs made it a nudge too far into type two territory. If I got on with things perhaps I could avoid it, and still get to the finish with time to get to the hotel before hitting graveyard on the fourth night too. Oh dear, I was thinking of the ride after the ride already. Focus on the task at hand Richard.
The early morning was good. It’s amazing what a bit of daylight does for the spirits. Saint-Nicolas-du-Pelem was next, food only again, I decided I would fill bottles and take a few layers off but not stop. Well, it was a secret control again, so a bit more than that was necessary. I stopped a bit longer, but only picked up a banana with which I made a banana baguette. The remains of the baguette that I’d been carrying since Loudeac - I figured it shouldn’t return to Loudeac!
10am, it was quite warm now, and a section that started strongly enough, I faded. Maybe it was tiredness, maybe it was fuelling, but my head was getting in a funk. There was a long way left, my mind was focussing too far ahead, it was daunting. As I hit yet another rolling hill, robbing me of my momentum, there were three cheery faces, and cheering voices at the top. Three children, perhaps 8 to 10 years old. They were cheering me up the hill, and held their hands out for a high five as I rolled past. I couldn’t help but smile, then laugh, and return some cheer for their enthusiasm. That was a fantastic moment, because it was fantastic, and because I needed it. Lifted I had a little more spring in my pedal stroke.
Loudeac. I was confused. My handwritten notes attached to my handlebar bag said Loudeac should be another 10 miles on the road. I did maths. I couldn’t work it out, other than the total was correct, so there was another 10 miles to be added to one of the sections that lay ahead. Not to look a gift horse in the mouth I got my stamp, and entered restoration. A group of non-riders were also in the queue looking for an early lunch, they saw me and insisted that I go in front of them. I wasn’t keen - Britishness coming through, but thinking I guess it made sense, they weren’t against the clock. Small human acts of friendliness like this gave a good feeling.
Kindness and high fives aside I was tired, my feet hurt, I was in no rush to move on. This was my longest non-sleep stop at around one and a half hours. Probably thirty minutes longer than what would have been but I needed it, and I was aware of that. In this time I was doing maths on the set of planned timings I had. Would I rest this evening at Fourgeres (for 300k for the day) or Villaines-la-Juhel (for 400k). All being well Fourgeres would before it got dark, Villaines around midnight. Fourgeres would mean setting out in the graveyard hours, as there was no way I was sitting there for 8 or 9 hours, that would be far too wasteful. So Villaines became the target. The 400 plan was better anyway, and riding to midnight it wouldn’t have cooled too much. A good hour of faffing, 4 hours sleep, it might work out quite well...
Enough of that. Unable to imagine the miles away I got back on the bike and got the legs going again. They were reluctant. A couple of small groups came passed. I let them go. Then an orange tandem rolled alongside, this one might be a go-er. There was a number of riders sailing the tailcoats and I unashamedly joined them. The German orange tandem was strong, climbing well, and descending like a rocket. Another great experience, it put a smile on my face as we spun out, our gears too little for the power of the tandem, struggling to keep in the air pocket.
My front brake began to make a non-normal noise, I wondered if my pads were getting thin. It sapped my following a wheel confidence - not fair to put others in any danger by following closely without all the tools at my disposal. Also the headset had sprung a creak. There was a lot of weight in the front bag, and the creak was concerning. When I’d had my fill of tandem chasing antics I pulled over and got the spanners out. The headset would be tightened up, I’d get a few minutes off the saddle, out of the pedals, and do the last few miles of this section at my pace by myself.
I’d hopped past Quedillac again, I’ll have to see that food-only control another year, but that was some time ago and Tinteniac wasn’t far away. It turned out that a number of others that had been in the tandem group also had their own ideas around the same time as me. A chap rolled out the back and presumably stopped for a comfort break, a German couple I shortly spotted taking a break resting in the shade of a tree.
Tinteniac came and I made the quickest of stops (for me). I had a new part to my plan, and for it I’d need a little extra time at Fourgeres. I wanted pizza. Fourgeres is a bigger town. I’d get there around 7pm. I’d find a pizza shop and take it into the control with me. Glorious.
I don’t remember if I rolled into him, or he into me, but I began riding with Alex a guy from Colchester. We nattered about all sorts of nonsense beginning with the experience in the tandem group. I’d see and speak to Alex on and off for the remainder of the ride.
Fourgeres and pizza time. Russian roulette about getting close to the control, but not past the last pizza shop and needing to turn back. Not my usual call, but Dominos was just about in the right place. And the lady serving would do me one without cheese (pizza without cheese a revelation once you’ve tried it). However they didn’t understand that the clock was ticking and took over 20 minutes to turn my craving around. I filled time speaking to Mrs S, charging devices, and moving kit into accessible places to enter the twilight shift later on.
Gingerly I rode the remaining meters to the control with a pizza in one hand, fully loaded bike controlled with the other. I got some extra shouts and cheers from the volunteers and crowds watching the riders in. And I got some envious looks and words from some of the riders in the control too. There’s no denying it I had a small feeling of smugness. The pizza tasted great, and I didnt need to face another plate of pasta.
All told I didn’t take much if any longer than I would have done at Fourgeres. I changed into my long sleeved Kinross club jersey, asked for a photo, donned another couple of layers and got back on my way.
Sun setting I made a good start, legs felt pretty good, pizza power doing it’s thing. I kept going as long as I could before relenting to the twilight, stopping to put lights on and the hi vis gillet. The dark was all encompassing pretty quickly. There weren’t many junctions or turns on this section, so not many signs. Perhaps five minutes had past since the last one, had I gone off route? Nope, a sign popped into view. Then ten minutes pass. Where were these signs? I started to lose confidence, and there were no little red lights ahead to calm my angst. I rolled into a small town - Ambrières-les-Vallées - there was a bar on a corner and shortly after the decision was made, I would pause and join some other riders - many eyes being better than only mine. I half cursed not stopping at that bar.
But I needn't have, around the next corner there was a table. A resident had opened their garage on the street. A table loaded with the usual things along the front. I stopped, took advantage of a coffee and a couple of bites of the offering and had a chat with the hosts - a father and son. Further back in their garage they’d setup air beds and offered a few hours sleep. Fantastic! But not my plan.
A couple of Spaniards rolled round the corner, I was about to dash for the bike when they turned to sample some of the local delicacies also. I wrapped myself up in a few more layers, wrote in the guestbook, and set out again. Just as the Spanish chaps and I readied ourselves another small group rolled through, Italians I think.
After the stop I couldn’t get into my rhythm again. Too warm climbing, too cold descending, concerns about the noise from the front brake. With the extra stop and drop in pace, the possibility of getting to Villaines-la-Juhel by midnight evaporated. Half past wasn’t so bad I tried to convince myself. This two hour section was tough going, tough going mentally, a real low.
I looked around to divert my attention, a set of wind turbines adorned with flashing red lights, the glow from the streetlights of a passing village, the moon doing it’s thing. A rider dropped back, a German chap I’d had a few words with earlier, he switched his front light to a red, and I asked if all was ok. He was concerned about remaining battery life and conserving while in the group. It was a long two hours but finally we entered Villaines. A place I’ve only seen in the dark, well orange with the streetlamp glow. I remembered back to earlier in the ride when I had food woes here, I had more time in this direction, I’d be scouting out the full facilities this time!
Stamped, I asked for directions to the restauration. Across the road and around the corner - no wonder I hadn’t stumbled across it two nights earlier! I selected a few bits from what was on offer and made my way to the hall to consume it. A few sleepers here, but perhaps not as many as I’d expected. “Richard” I heard shouted from across the room, it was Will - a chap I’d ridden with in Wales earlier this year, and briefly said hello to earlier in this ride. He, a couple of others and I sat together and exchanged a few stories from the road. His plan was to make use of the sleeping facilities here and get riding again just before dawn.
I was convinced to do similarly. I hadn’t had much plan, perhaps resting in a quiet spot in this hall, but the dormitory sounded good - good to get the full PBP experience and try one out. Food, nattering, and sorting out my bed for the night hadn’t been quick, but I didn’t feel too tired, more motivated by not riding the graveyard shift. I asked for a wake up at 5:30am, and settled on the gym mat in a room with perhaps half a dozen other sleeping riders. The Ride - lets get this done - the final 200km Sleep was surprisingly good. I was awake at 5:30, but in no mood to rush to get back on the bike. Sunrise would be around 6:45, blue hour before, but still cold. I went for some more food, again nothing memorable and not breakfast-y either - pasta I think. I faffed and faffed, finally setting out the wrong side of 6:30am.
200k to do, maths said I’d be done late afternoon, that’d be fine. I admired the most beautiful sunrise, I was facing it this morning, without the mist too. The legs woke up and got into a groove. I stopped briefly for a comfort break, and to de-layer. Time to start tapping this out. Amazing what de-layering does, I started chasing my momentum on the rolling descents, and attacking the climb on the other side. I became aware of a group of riders forming behind me. I was happy doing my thing and if I towed some of them along for a bit all the better. Actually it was great fun as I felt the group like a piece of elastic stretch on the climbs and come back together on the descents.
My drivetrain wasn’t the cleanest sounding by this point though. One thing I hadn’t got in my bag was chain lube. I would see if they had anything at the next control - Mortagne-au-Perche. Mortagne came - it was mid morning. I got fed. Stocking up on rice pudding here. And found a mechanic with some chain lube. He wanted to adjust my rear derailleur but I convinced him just to oil the chain - the possibility of incorrect adjustments were not something I was going to risk at this point.
Bottles filled I embarked on the final “full” section of the ride, 43 miles to Dreux, the finish a stones throw of 27 miles on from there. I hit a bit of a lull on these 43 miles, after the high of the morning I was chugging a bit. The terrain changed again, more open agricultural land and ditches here. But somehow there was a headwind. A small group came passed and I jumped on the back to shelter from the wind.
Dreux was a bigger town. More traffic, rougher roads. It was pretty warm as I rolled into the sports complex that served as the control. Again a raid on the available food, I sat with Alex and tried to shoo some overly interested wasps away. A volunteer sat diagonally from us and we exchanged a few words.
Right let’s get this done. I filled my bottles for the last time and got on the bike. Hmm, that felt a bit odd. I did the diagnostic shake/wobble/bounce. The rear tyre was soft, punctured soft. Typical. Chuckling in dismay I dismounted and walked the few steps towards a tent to get me out of the sun while I would get it fixed.
I entered the tent and was descended upon by three volunteers - it was the mechanic’s tent! They insisted on taking over and fixing it for me. Not to trigger a diplomatic incident I facilitated their generosity. One of them was the chap I’d spoken to over my food. I don't think they’d seen a through axle, on the rear it requires an allen key to remove, I did that and they took it from there. I did get a talking to about the pressure I wanted in the tyre, but I’m not sure if I was being scalded because it was too high or too low! I’d asked for 85psi.
Back out on the road my late afternoon finish was becoming an early evening finish. It would be what it would be. More open exposed fields lay ahead, I was looking for a forest - similar roads to those that I’d ridden on my way to bike check in the rain a few days before. The forest came, and it gave me a boost, inexplicably my legs started powering up. It felt like a good pace along a tree-lined road, the chateaux at Rambouillet would come into my view on the right at any moment. A little further. Surely it’ll appear…
The road started to descend slightly and wham right on to an intersection of some of the roughest cobbles I’d encountered. Ouch. Good job I had everything tightly secured! Up the street, traffic, turn right through the large gates. Not quite there yet though, it’s a long driveway. People, spectators and earlier finishers everywhere. A lot of the parking for folk during the event was on this road. No time to lose concentration. I didn’t see any other rider finishing at the same time as me, so I needed to query directions whilst on the move a couple of times. Further I got along the driveway my tempo picked up. It was a genuine little dig. It felt great. One or two people noticed and shouted “Bravo! Allez! Allez!”. Around the corner, and on to some more cobbles, left into the courtyard, half way round on gravel and through the finish. Bleep bleep went the chip timing.
Smile on my face, exhilaration running through my veins. I gasped for some air, taking it, and the realisation of completing, in at the same time. What a feeling. I’d done it. 73 hours 34 minutes 50 seconds.
The bike was wheeled round to the secure area and racked. I walked to collect the final stamp. They took my brevet book (I’ll get it back in January after validation) but handed over a medal. I spotted some of the reflective signs that I’d been following the last few days in a pile on one side. The lady spotted me looking and the result was I have one as a souvenir (nothing special I think many people got one).
A quick school-type meal was inhaled as sent the required messages, and posted to the social media places. I struggled to come up with words to describe my feelings.
Time was ticking though and I didn’t want to be caught riding to the hotel in the dark. So I made a move. The legs were done, it was a very leisurely spin. At the hotel I called in to check-in, but then immediately back out to grab some food before heading for my room - if I went to the room before I knew I wouldn’t emerge.
Always working on the next, I was thinking and researching my plan to get to the coast tomorrow. I didn’t want to fight the bustle in central Paris. I found train options slightly north west after a short ride, but also had the option of riding the whole thing if the legs felt willing. In the end they did the latter and I was self propelled to Dieppe on a beautiful summers day. Overnight in a hotel there before catching the morning ferry. Peak time train restrictions UK side saw no such rail option as France, so it was riding a few more miles, through central London and to family hospitality. Getting to the Thames at sunset was a treat and it began to feel like this adventure was coming to a conclusion.
This was my first audax running a power meter, so I have no comparisons. Also I made the mistake of not pausing the Garmin at controls, so I’m unsure if the average speeds are accurate as the GPS traces do the hopping about bit while fighting the buildings. So all the numbers are of interest only. The heart rate sensor failed the day before so don’t have that. I was happy enough with my stops, although 23 and a half hours is rather alarming. The only ones that stand out from the plan are Dreux which was because of the puncture, and Villaines-la-Juhel which was because I was done with the cold of a third night.
How did the body hold up?
Legs felt fine (within reason) throughout the ride, peaks and troughs were energy related. My rear end complained a little towards the end of the section to Brest, but was mostly unfussed otherwise. My hands felt ok, very thankful for the aerobars taking the pressure off the wrists. My feet were probably the most vocal complainant. Perhaps one too many insoles made the shoes a little too tight. Slight tingling in the toes that has remained the week or so following - as I write this.
Would I do it again?
Maybe. Probably. It wouldn’t be a definite yes, there were tough moments. Moments I wanted to scratch and quit. Moments I couldn’t see myself coming through. But there were high highs. Sunrises, sunsets, rider comradery, towing a train of riders, being towed by the tandem, spinning out on a descent and a velomobile comes shooting past, high-fives from the three children, the hospitality from so many locals and friendliness of so many volunteers. It would be easy to forget the tough times, and I’m determined not to let rose tinted spectacles do their thing.
New bike for the year after putting an alarming amount of miles on the previous. A Kinesis GTD. GTD - “go the distance” they say, “getting things done” is more familiar to me, hopefully this is somewhere in-between.
Lights, a Son dynamo on the front coupled with a B+M light, Exposure Blaze on the rear, a couple of cheap backups in the bag.
Bags; a handlebar bag, frame bag, and saddle pack. I was carrying a few extras due to setting out from London and no drop bag. A set of regular clothes and the lightest pair of shoes I have. Two jerseys, one short sleeved, one long. Two shorts. Two pairs of socks. One pair of waterproof socks. Arm warmers. Leg warmers. Rain jacket. Cold jacket. Buff. Finger and fingerless gloves. Casquette. PBP registration pack would add a jersey, and a reflective gillet. Power bank. Charging cables. Cafe lock. Sun cream. Chamois cream. Basic toiletries and a little pack of stuff for my contact lenses.
Crikey it is a bit of a list; usual other bits, three inner tubes, tools, helmet, shoes, and as much food as I could fit in the remaining space. A mix of flapjack, nut bars, Veloforte, and an emergency mini bag of Haribo.
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