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Photos: Dave & Holland

What it’s like to ride 1200 kilometres non-stop
Paris Brest Paris, August 16-20
by Dave Campbell & Holland Gidney

Paris-Brest-Paris is incomprehensible to most people. Even keen cyclists didn’t understand why we would want to ride 1200 km, let alone all at once with very little sleep and only a few breaks. So, why do the ride? Because it’s there.

Anyone who gets into randonneuring quickly learns of the sport’s French history (and quirky French rules). And inevitably, even before you’ve ridden farther than 200km, someone will tell you about PBP. Happening only every 4 years and attracting thousands of participants from all over the world, it’s kind of like the Olympics, only not competitive. For the two of us, we started talking about doing PBP together in the spring of 2014. Holland had just bought a new bike specifically for randonneuring and we’d spent a week riding 1,100 km in Wenatchee, Washington — for fun. Obviously going to France the following summer was a good idea. Plus we could blend it into a vacation and take advantage of having our bikes with us to do some touring afterwards. (Because really, after you’ve ridden 1200 km, you really want to ride more!)

Our preparation for PBP began in October 2014 when we bought our plane tickets and continued through April and May, when we did the 200, 300, 400, and 600 km qualifying rides. We had hoped to both qualify during Hell Week but Dave’s hub seized during the 600km so we both rode the Ripple Rock Ramble so Dave would get his 600. As bonus training, we drove up to Kamloops to do a second/third 600 with Michael Tilitzky (a ride we nicknamed Rando Inferno due to the high 30s temperatures) and then circumnavigated the Olympic Peninsula on a ride organized by the Seattle Randonneurs (a 1000 that used a “night start” and had its first sleep control at 502km in to mimic PBP).

However, nothing can really prepare you fully for PBP. There are no books or detailed websites/blogs about what to really expect and things change enough from year to year that even the experiences of other randonneurs are to be taken with a grain of salt. But that’s part of the charm. Once an exclusively French event, PBP now embraces riders from all over the world (some 60 countries this year) so there is more English spoken now and a slight catering to an international crowd. But the event is still very French – something that both appeals to foreign riders (fuel your entire ride with croissants!) and infuriates them (archaic logistical details, such as putting dormitories and toilets far apart). In the end, our experience at PBP 2015 was as unique as everyone else’s…

This year, the ride started in waves leaving every 15 minutes from the National Velodrome in St-Quentin-en-Yvelines (about an hour outside of Paris proper). We arrived about an hour before our start time of 6:15pm (part of the ‘K’ group, which was the 5th wave of about 400 riders who were committed to finishing in under 90 hours and which left 1 hour after the first 90-hour group). After lining up for awhile, we were corralled into a holding pen, and then waited as the waves in front of us departed. As our start time approached, we were moved up to the starting line, while a man on a megaphone acknowledged all the dignitaries on hand, and wished everyone “Bonne Route.” And then finally, with the countdown (cinq, quatre, trois, deux, un), we were off.

The first stretch of PBP wound its way through the commercial centre of St-Quentin. It was fun to ride in such a big pack, and there was a real parade atmosphere, with the streets lined with cheering spectators and children wanting high-fives. Everything was off to a fabulous start it seemed and we were both having fun. Until…

At about the 10km mark, we were leaving the first small village along the route and coasting down a small hill when all of a sudden Dave’s gears started skipping and his chain was no longer moving in time with his pedal strokes. We pulled off the road to investigate. After a bit of looking at the gears and the derailleur, Dave discovered that the rear cassette freewheel was not spinning, and was completely jammed. Even with force it wouldn’t move. This was not the kind of problem that is easily fixed at the side of the road without special tools. Half an hour into our big ride, and it looked like it all might end suddenly due to a mechanical problem!

After realizing we weren’t going to be able to fix the cassette, we decided that the best thing to do was ride the 10 km back to the velodrome where we knew mechanics were stationed helping tune up riders’ bikes. If the problem could be fixed quickly, we figured we could get back on the road. Fortunately, Dave was able to limp his bike along (it rode like a fixed gear bike, only with a derailleur) as long as he kept constant tension on the chain. A passing by cyclist discovered our plight and helped guide us back to the velodrome using a more direct route and avoiding the oncoming cyclists that had started after us.

Back at the velodrome, we found our way through the cyclists who were still waiting for their waves to start. We explained the problem to the mechanics (one joked, “you are riding a fixie?”). They got to work on the wheel right away but they had great difficulty getting the cassette off. The mechanics were giving each other glances that suggested that this didn’t look good. Once the cassette was off, they started pulling bearings out of the freewheel, sharing more of the “not good” glances with each other. It really wasn’t looking good so Holland enquired whether it might just be faster to buy a replacement wheel. They agreed that would be the best plan and Dave spent 200 euros without a second thought. The mechanics quickly swapped over his cassette and tire, and then got the gearing and brakes tuned to the new wheel. And we were back on the road!

We did some cyclocross riding across some grass to skirt the group that was waiting to leave (so as not to cross the timing mat accidentally again) and started back on the route. We had lost about an hour and a half getting the problem sorted, but since the first control we had to check in at was 200km into the ride, it was far enough to be able to catch up so that we weren’t at risk of running out of time. But we knew we couldn’t exactly dawdle.

To give you a sense of how far back we were at this point, we’d originally started with the K group but we were now riding alongside Rs and Ss. But at least we were moving towards Brest and had people to draft behind as the sun set and we started riding through the night. It was a surreal experience, riding at night with so many others — a trail of red taillights stretching as far as the eye could see.

Around 5 or 6 in the morning, we arrived at the first control in Vilaines la Juhel. Inside was quasi-chaos with just as many riders crashed out on the floor as lined up for breakfasts of cafés au lait and croissants. Realizing we’d made up the time we’d lost and had added a bit of a time cushion, we found a spot on the floor and grabbed a quick 20-minute snooze.

And then off we went again, but now it was light. A long day of riding and tiredness from our effort to “catch up” convinced us to sleep at Loudeac, even though our arrival there was just before 9pm. We immediately paid for 2 sleeping spaces (4 euros each) and set the alarm for 12:30am – a short nap would substitute for a good night’s sleep. Unfortunately, Holland didn’t sleep, due to noise and the cold temperature and an afternoon espresso, but Dave was out cold.

Starting riding in the middle of the night is hard, particularly if you don’t start with coffee. We were sleepy but the cold, foggy weather convinced us to keep riding rather than nap at the side of the road. Fortunately, there was an opportunity to sleep at the next control in St Nicholas de Pelem, though it was on a cold tile floor at the side of a hallway! (Had we known, we could have slept under a table like Graham did.) Farther along the road, a family of “PBP angels” was serving coffee to riders and we accepted a cup each. We scored more coffee by going in the back door of a secret control for cyclists cycling in the opposite direction, sharing a table with an older British gent who had already been to Brest and was now on his way back to Paris.

After the chaos of the Carhaix control, a crossroads for riders coming and going in both directions and a popular sleep spot, we were closing in on Brest. There was some climbing involved but we kept the pressure on and passed many riders, rewarded for our efforts with some amazing views. We reached Brest just before noon and did some grocery shopping on our way to the control that marked the halfway point of the ride (~615km). It was exciting to be in Brest but we knew we had a long, hilly haul back to Carhaix so we couldn’t linger. As we were leaving the control, Graham, Jim, and Phil suddenly appeared (and then disappeared to find lunch).

Philip, Graham and Holland leaving Brest

We hit Carhaix for the second time around 4pm (our first visit had been around 5am) and realized that we’d be overnighting in Loudeac again, but arriving a bit later this time. In Loudeac, we used our previous experience as a reason to request beds at the far end of the gymnasium turned dormitory to avoid the noise of riders coming and going at all hours. It worked well and we each got 5 hours of much-needed sleep.

We left Loudeac for the second time around 2am. It was a foggy morning again, and many riders could be found napping at various spots along the road: in ditches, on the benches of covered bus shelters, and on the floors inside the lobbies of banks, curled up next to the ATMs that could be found in villages along the way. Feeling sleepy a few hours into our ride, we pulled out a space blanket (recommended equipment by PBP organizers) and had a 15 minute nap atop a root cellar door, chosen in the hope that the wood “mattress” would be warmer than a concrete sidewalk or wet grassy ditch.

Later in the morning the fog cleared and the sun came up. We had planned to stock up on groceries in Fougeres, a lovely fortified hillside town with a large medieval castle. However, unable to find a grocery store along the route, we opted for a sit-down meal at the control; our first warm meal in over 900 km. The cafeteria spread was impressive – so many choices of things to eat and drink. Dave had a large serving of pasta with salmon sauce and Holland was overjoyed with an omelette and a platter of green beans. Plus there was enough food to pack up some of it to go so we ate well until the second to last control.

The return to Villaine la Juhel (the third to last control) felt a bit like the *unofficial* end of the ride, with its truly festive atmosphere and the whole town out to greet the riders who’d first passed through in the wee hours of the morning. It was a party in the streets, with bands playing and clog-dancers dancing. It was a very different atmosphere than when we had first visited but we didn’t feel we could hang out for longer than a coffee break. While many riders were pushing on to the last control at Dreux (1165 km) or even to the finish that night (in part due to weather forecast calling for rain), we opted to grab 3 1/2 hours of sleep at Mortagne au Perche (1089 km) before tackling the final stretch to St Quentin. It was a good decision and we arrived in time to snag two prime spots in the the dortoir, crashing out on camping mats under blankets amid the comings and goings of hundreds of riders and their various cellphone alarms. A light drizzle as we left Mortagne au Perche foreshadowed the rain to come but we had our rain gear at the ready. It was a long haul that final morning and riders were napping closer to the side of the road than ever, and not always with the protection of a space blanket. The beginning of harder rain foiled our own attempt at a catnap so we got up and rode on, pulling and being pulled for a while, amid groups of American riders.

We reached Dreux just as morning was breaking. After breakfast in Dreux (including a Paris-Brest pastry for Dave) and a 10-minute power nap at the breakfast table, we headed out in the rain and almost immediately bumped into Graham, Jim, and Phil, who had caught some sleep at the control. Rain showers came on and off for the last few hours of the ride into St Quentin but it was warm enough and we were so close to the finish that we didn’t mind the wet.

Compared to the festive atmosphere in Villaine la Juhel, the finish in St Quentin was anti-climatic. Perhaps it was the rain and being wet. We were cheered in by a small supportive crowd as we crossed the final timing mats, and were directed to a packed bike parking area outside the velodrome. The line to get our control cards stamped inside the velodrome took about half an hour, with a bigger line following to get food (which was a pasta dish that Holland couldn’t eat). Rather than wait in line in our soaked riding clothes, we opted to make our way back out into the rain and bike the 10 km back to our motel, stopping to grab groceries along the way.

We checked into our hotel around noon, ate some food, and were fast asleep within an hour and a half, exhausted from the ride and overjoyed at being to sleep without an end time in mind.


Go to: Dave & Holland's Photos

Go to: BC Riders' PBP Stories Hub Page


November 24, 2015