Newsletter - 2019 Archive

BC Randonneurs logo

BC Randonneurs
Cycling Club
BC Randonneurs logo


My First PBP: Best Laid Plans
(Paris Brest Paris 2019)
Ride dates: August 18-22, 2019
by Mike Hagen

I wasn’t sure I was going to write this up. I wasn’t sure I’d ever do this ride again. Actually, I was pretty sure at one point that I never would. Then I wasn’t sure about that. Now . . . well, it might happen. So, a write up to reread in four years seems like a good idea.

I was pretty apprehensive before the trip. I worried about my bike surviving – I’d never taken a bike on a plane before. I worried about getting through customs. I worried about what the weather would be like for the ride. Would I have the right gear packed? I worried about going off course and getting lost in a foreign country where I didn’t speak the language. I worried about the food; what would I do if I couldn’t find Gatorade, ice-cream, and hot-dogs? I worried about riding at night in a pack with strangers unaware of my peculiar challenges, and night riding was unavoidable as I’d chosen a 90 hour group.

But in the end, these worries turned out to be, if not groundless, then certainly overwrought. The flight to France was fine, the bike survived just fine, but getting out of CDG was, uhm, not so fine.

We’d leased a car and were supposed to be greeted at arrivals by someone holding up a sign with our name on it. That didn’t happen. Sure, we were late and at the wrong terminal, but, still, no car. A couple hours later, we had the car, but it was small and we needed to make two trips to the hotel. I waited for the second trip. It took me five hours to get out of the airport. Later, we bought a bike rack from Decathlon so we could transport the four of us, our bikes, and our luggage all at once. It was a tight fit. Very tight.

Other worries turned out to be baseless also. It rained Saturday, the day of the bike check, and Sunday, the morning of the ride, but by afternoon the sun was out and the forecast was good. There were a few spits of rain overnight Sunday, but otherwise the weather was great. There was some headwind on the way to Brest, and it was quite hot in the afternoons, but not complaining. Route finding turned out easy, as many said it would be. The arrows were (usually) easy to spot. The few times I worried I might have taken a wrong turn (or missed a turn) I just stopped to see if anyone came along. Someone always did; I never waited more than a minute or so. There was just one time I missed a turn and was alerted by a red X marking the wrong way just a few dozen metres down the road – and good thing too, as someone had followed me astray. Night riding turned out to be a non-issue (though with some freaky moments) because there were virtually no on-coming cars and the moon was out.

So, there was I, Sunday afternoon, somehow at the start at Rambouillet. I was in Group H starting at 5:45. My plan was to ride all the way to Brest in one go, sleep there, then make my way back in two 300 km days. I had two water bottles and my Camelbak filled with my maltodextrin/chocolate mix, enough powder for one re-load, and half-a-dozen food bars of one sort or another. It was enough to get to Loudeac at 445 km before needing to buy food.

For that was another of my worries: control line-ups! I’d heard stories of jammed controls, lining up for hours to get cards signed, food and water, and a bed at the controls I wanted to sleep at. That did not happen. As it turned out, I was far enough ahead of the pack that my complaint was more mundane: too far to walk in the controls! I learned very quickly to take everything I needed from my bike, because it was a long way back if something was forgotten.

I also worried about getting caught up in the adrenaline rush, pushing too hard, and going too fast at the start. But that didn’t really happen either. I started about 1/3 the way back in my group. I worried that this was too far back, that I’d be held up by the crowd, and miss going with the fast riders at the front . . . but that didn’t happen. I was easily able to make my way up toward the front of my group after we started (helped along by a fellow with aerobars that I unashamedly drafted). I settled in with a group of about 20 riders, and we were hauling into the headwind. It was great. But after a couple of hours, the pace started seeming too fast, so I let them go. Now I had to face the headwind by myself, and I had second thoughts about not working harder to stay with the group I was with. But it worked out, for another group came along. And this was a common theme all that first night and day: there’ll be another train along in a minute.

The second train I was with dropped me just before Mortagne-au-Perche. But I passed a lot of riders on the climb out of Montagne. It was dusk then, and a good time to stop to turn lights on, put the PBP reflective vest on, have a pee, and get ready for the night. Anna did the same, she said later, and we figure that is where we passed, though we didn’t see each other. I did not learn until I finished that Anna had withdrawn at Loudeac.

I’d passed Deirdre, Colin, and Michael about an hour in, and Jacques shortly after that. I saw a bit of John and Malou, Bob G, and Russel during the night and to Loudeac, and I rode with Paul much of the way from Loudeac to Brest. I chatted with Keith briefly at Fougeres on the way back where I stopped to sleep, but Keith pushed on. I talked with Adam from NS a bit, but, other than that, I didn’t see much of anyone I knew.

Loudeac is where the wheels came off. 19 hours to go 445 km? With night riding? Not too bad; not too bad at all. I was confident that I’d get to Brest before dark at that point. But when I came back to my bike, ready to carry on, my Garmin said, “Memory almost full.” As I stared incredulously at that message, it changed: “Memory full.” WTF?!? Long story short, I’d left it on a memory-hog setting, and now I had no choice but to save and start again. To save, though, I needed Wifi and Internet. And there was none to be had! This was really unexpected: I’d thought Wifi would be easy and that I’d be able to upload to Strava each day and communicate with my kids. But no.

So I settled down to a more leisurely pace and rode with Paul to Brest. Without my Garmin I did not know how fast we were going, how far we had come, or how far to go to the next control. I did not know what time it was. It was somewhat freeing, but gradually I decided I hated it. I wanted my Garmin! I stopped at a small town after Carhaix to see if I could find a Wifi hotspot while Paul rode on ahead. No Wifi. I caught Paul again just before Brest, which we reached at 10:20.

We shared a two-bed dorm, which worked great. Had a shower and slept really well, even without a pillow (note to self: pack an inflatable pillow next time). Wake-up call was at 5:00 and we were on the road soon after. Paul went on ahead as I wanted to take one more stab at locating Wifi, either in Brest or in Landerneau. But no-go. I gave up. I could not solve my Garmin problem with the tools and time available. So suddenly I did not have a problem anymore, and I used my external power pack to charge my secondary light instead. And that was a good thing, as it turned out.

The out-and-back section of the route at the high-point before the decent into Brest was, for me, one of the highlights of the whole ride. It was really cool to see a long, steady stream of cyclists travelling in both directions as far as one could see, the few cars picking their way carefully down the middle of the highway. It was awesome.

Shortly after that, running down the highway after the routes had diverged again, I felt an odd swaying sensation when I rose out of the saddle. My saddle bag strap had broken, and my bag was resting on the fender, with only the Velcro strap around my seatpost still holding. Yikes! The bag is a large Timbuk2 brand, with a separate strap to hold the bag closed. I was able to modify this strap to attach the bag to the saddle and close the bag too. Dodged a bullet there. The saddle itself had broken at Tintiniac when the plastic part of the seat had cracked. I still had good support under my pelvic bones, but the left side wing was flappy. What else could possibly go wrong?

As Tuesday morning wore on, my energy flagged, I was drowsy, and the various routine rando pains started preying on my mind. I’d been trying to shake off a headache most of the day, but it was intensifying. So I took a caffeine tablet and two ibuprofen tablets. This worked: now I was alert and moving well, the kilometres flowing by under the wheels. A touch of acid indigestion was a small price to pay. So I thought.

I fell in with a group of about 10 riders after Tintiniac, most of whom seemed to know one another. I took my turn at the front and seemed to mesh with the group well enough, but it was getting late and we would not get to Fougeres before dark. Should I tell them about my night-riding challenges? Or no? I didn’t.

My secondary light puts out 700 lumens in a narrower beam that nicely complements my wider-field dynamo headlight. I’d comfortably made it through Sunday night with this setup, though the secondary’s battery had been depleted. But I’d charged the secondary from my external power source. Would it be enough?

It was, though the downhills were nerve-wracking. I would rather have gone slower, but I needed to keep up with the riders ahead of me as their lights were of immense benefit. On one particular downhill, we were going 50 or 60 kph, far too fast for my comfort. But slowing down was not an option because I would suddenly be going too fast without enough light. I was freaking out. Then suddenly a velo streaks by going 70 or 80 kph. ARGHH! Thankfully the pavement was good at that point.

We got to Fougeres about 10:40, and that was enough for me. I ate, skipped a shower, and booked a mat in the gym with a wake-up call for 4:00 a.m. The fellow on the mat next to mine was snoring up a storm. The room was shaking. Thank God I didn’t have to listen to that! I turned off my processor and went to sleep.

But I did not sleep well. I didn’t have a pillow, and I didn’t have the Mylar blanket we were supposed to get. It was not warm. At 3:30, I woke and decided to get going. Breakfast was good, and there was a steady stream of riders leaving Fougeres, so riding into the dawn was fine. It was turning into another nice day, but I felt I needed a boost. The caffeine and ibuprofen trick had worked great on Tuesday, try it again?

It didn’t work. I became more alert, but hot acid indigestion became an issue to the point I was almost spewing onto the road. Frequent sips of water kept this under control, but I was not a happy camper. I decided to check with medical at Villaines.

The doctor was French, but the interpreter was British. We managed. The doctor prescribed a large cup of hot tea with lots of sugar. He gave me an antacid tablet as well. And urged rest. I asked about milk in my tea. “No milk! No milk!” he said. “Cola, Cola!” he said, “Sugar, sugar!” Pastries and sugar and all the good stuff: I could live with that. I figured out later that dairy products and/or something like a ham and cheese baguette is too hard to digest. Indigestion meant fats and proteins were just sitting there in my stomach. What I needed was energy, and that meant simple sugars.

But I didn’t take enough of the right kind of food away with me from Villianes. The stage between there and Mortagne-au-Perche just dragged. In fact, the 150 km between Fougeres and Mortagne was easily the worst stretch of PBP for me; I was only averaging 15 km per hour. The funny thing was that the people around me were going the same speed; it wasn’t like I was getting passed by a steady stream of faster moving cyclists. Without a Garmin, I really didn’t know how slow I was going, and I wasn’t really bothered.

At Mortagne I sat down and had a big plate of macaroni and meat sauce, downed a cola, and chased it with a paine-au-chocolat. That did the trick. There were some nice descents and climbs after Mortagne, then flatter terrain into Dreux. My speed had picked up considerably; I was feeling good again. I was passed then by a group of young riders, a mix of Austrians and Brits that I’d seen often during the day. This group was fast, but liked their breaks. Every hour or so I’d see them in a coffee shop or a pub or some other stop; every hour or so they would blow by me enroute to their next stop. Approaching Dreux, they passed me again. Somewhat audaciously, I jumped on the back. They didn’t like it, and tried to drop me. The speed rose, 35, 40, 45 kph, on the flat, albeit with a tail wind; their own riders getting shed off the back. It was fun, I was laughing to myself, but ultimately it was too fast and I eased off.

Dreux was good too. I had another cola, a paine-au-chocolat, a chocolate pudding filled éclair, and some other delights. I was good to go, just 25 km to Rambouillet. Except that I need to read the route sheet correctly. It was actually 57 km. So I’m charging along, looking for the finish. Is it here? No. Is it there? No. Where is Rambouillet, damn it! It’s getting dark!

The finish was anticlimactic. I guess I was expecting cheering crowds and a brass band. Instead I got a traffic jam, lights in my eyes from approaching cyclists that had already finished, and I couldn’t see the arrows to be sure of the route. But finally, there was the turn into the sheephold, there was some semblance of fanfare, and there was the last timing strip to run over. I was done.


In hindsight, I didn’t do some things I should have, and did some things I shouldn’t have. I regret not stopping to take pictures. I didn’t stop at any of the booths or tables set up along the route, many staffed by young children. I should have stopped more and passed out the Canada Day Populaire pins that Cheryl provided us with. I skipped the intermediate, non-control stations; stopping for food more often would have been better for me. But I took my time in the controls on the last day, getting more rest, and that helped. I did drink enough, I think. I’m not used to plain water in my bottles, so I didn’t eat enough to compensate, but I took frequent small drinks of water, and that worked pretty well. Figuring out what foods to substitute for what I usually eat was a challenge, but the experience will help next time. If there is a next time. Yes . . . next time . . . .


Go to: BC Randonneurs PBP Results


September 17, 2019