PARIS BREST PARIS AUGUST 2015 by Mark Cockbain
Paris-Brest Paris is a Randonneur (a Randonneur is a long distance cycling event where participants must pass through controls) of 1200km (768 miles) in length. Riders have 90 hours to cycle this hilly course non-stop, self-supported with very little chance to sleep unless you are fast.
PBP is one of the oldest endurance events in the world and was established in 1891 and is held every four years.
You must first qualify before you can apply to enter PBP. You must qualify by riding a series of Audax (long distance cycling club) Brevet events. These are distances of 200, 300, 400 and 600km, which must be completed in the same year as PBP between March and June.
This series of Brevet qualifiers is known as a Super Randonneur and each ride must be validated by the French Audax club before you will be accepted to ride in PBP.
I had joined Audax UK in 2014 in anticipation of attempting to qualify for PBP 2015 (well at least it was in the back of my mind)
However, cycling is not really my sport and anything over 100 miles non-stop seemed quite daunting, however I was to learn that it was all relative.
I completed the 200km and I felt ok, so the 300km was just a little bit more, then I felt prepared for the 400km. Mentally, just like with ultra-running, I broke these big distances down in my head to manageable sections and just aimed to get from one checkpoint to the next.
I learned quite a lot about long distance cycling in a short space of time whilst doing these events. Riding skills, equipment, bike modification and mental preparation all helped and it was not long before I had completed my final 600km (380 mile) qualifier. It took me over 36 hours to complete this on a fairly flat route and I was exhausted at the end of it. PBP would be twice this distance…it seemed impossible!
My qualifying results were validated by the Audax France and I received my confirmation that I would be a starter at PBP 2015.
PBP starts at Saint-Quentin-En-Yvelines, on the outskirts of Paris at the national velodrome. My starting slot was 5:30pm on Sunday evening. I would be a group G starter with more groups starting at 30 minute intervals right up until 8pm. I was one of over 5000 riders taking part in the event.
We were well supported by cheering crowds as we cycled out of town and into the suburbs. The first few miles were quite scenic as we passed through small quaint villages and open fields. Just what you imagine French countryside to be like. The occasional Chateau, virtually no traffic and very peaceful other than the whirring of my wheels.
It was soon dark and I faced a long night of cycling ahead. The first control station would not be until 200km. It was amazing to see thousands of red lights ahead snaking off into the distance. Cyclists from all over the world had trained hard to be at this prestigious event and the atmosphere was electric. My bike panier was loaded with as much food as I could carry. Mainly gels and energy bars, but I knew that a high calorie intake from real food would be the key to success (the average PBP cyclist will use up to 35000 calories during the event!)
I am not a fast rider, but I knew that I must average 12mph to stand a chance of finishing this event. I decided not to think too much about this and just keep moving forward. 12mph would be quite difficult for me to sustain as the route has some enormous hills and I would more than likely get much slower towards the end with lack of sleep and exhaustion.
With having an evening start time I was basically losing a night’s sleep straight away and in the early morning hours I reached the first checkpoint at 120miles at Villaines la Juhel. I parked up my bike and got my Brevet card stamped and signed by the officials. All the checkpoints (controls) had food, water, mechanical help and sleeping areas. However, slower riders like myself cannot afford to waste time here as the clock does not stop ticking. I grabbed a few baguettes and headed on my way. I felt quite drowsy until it started to get light again and I woke up when my body clock kicked in.
The next day was a very long hilly day of cycling in very hot conditions. I made sure that I kept drinking and eating at every opportunity. I could not afford for my hydration levels or energy levels run low. There would be no time for them to catch up and I would just get slower and slower. I needed all the energy I could get to power up the hills, but I never knew when they were coming, so I found it impossible to pace myself. It was a relentless full body workout and I was sweating buckets in the heat of the day. I could see that I would struggle to get a 600k (halfway) time near 36 hours like I had got in my qualifier. I knew I would be much slower.
After 24hours of cycling I had been awake for two nights straight and I seemed to be running on autopilot. Some checkpoints were very busy and often I had to wait to get food so I found it easier to stop at the village Boulangerie to get pastries or crepes. Anything that would give me energy.
The support from villagers on the route was amazing as whole families would stand outside their houses with coffee and cake stalls for the riders. This really helped me as I needed a constant drip of caffeine to stay a awake. I really struggled between 4am and 6am, and my pace slowed as I concentrated hard on the road ahead. One crash and it could be game over.
I had completed around 250 miles and the hills and heat were draining. Lots of climbing followed up and up out of Tinteniac that put us on part of the Tour De France route. Hill after hill that never seemed to pay off with any long downs.
It was now really cold at night and the lack of sleep was catching up on me and I felt isolated whilst cycling through the night. It was eerie as my mind played tricks on me. I felt like I had a passenger with me. A woman, to my left side. It was comforting as I hypnotised myself looking at the red blur of lights in the distance, but she made me feel safe.
During the night I managed to reset my head a few times by stopping at the side of the road and closing my eyes for a few minutes. It was enough just to nod off, let my head drop and wake with a startle to keep me from falling asleep on the bike.
I was very tired but I was still on course to make it to Brest the next day, even though it would be pretty tight. I had 45 hours to get there, and I was already close to the 40 hour mark.
I was now thinking that it was impossible that after 40+ hours of cycling I was expected to turnaround and go back again. I had been trying to mentally prepare myself for this by imagining what it would have been like to do another 600k after my 600k qualifier. I could not comprehend it.
Cyclists had already been coming back in the opposite direction for many hours. Although we all started at slightly different times, this felt a little intimidating as I thought that I must be near the back and I had not seen another group G cyclist for a long time.
More long climbs as morning broke and my body clock started to kick in and I knew that getting half way was possible now, but I also knew that I had all these hills to climb again in the opposite direction. I knew any return leg would be slower. I was exhausted.
Over one last hill and I started a long descent towards Brest, crossing its famous bridge shrouded in mist. A few cyclists stopped for photos, but I just wanted to get to the turnaround point.
It was a bit of an anti-climax when I got there as it was just an inflatable marker, with poor facilities.
It had taken me nearly 41 hours. I was knackered, and while I queued up to get my Brevet card stamped I began calculating my chances. On paper it was doable, but the way I felt at that point in time it seemed impossible.
However, I have been in these situations before. I remembered back to some of my ultra-running challenges and I knew the best idea was just to go for it. Don’t think about it, just get the hell out of there.
I got my card stamped and got straight back on the bike without stopping for food and headed back on the road. I needed to get away from here. I would find a shop back along the route and get food there.
Once my decision was made, I was full of adrenalin and purpose again. I had just under 50 hours to get back to Paris. Low on energy, legs aching, sleep deprived and getting slower and slower. The challenge was set. It would be a tight one.
It was a long slow climb inland away from the misty coastline of Brest. Several bikes were parked outside a village Boulangerie, so I popped in myself and stuffed down a mixture of Pain-au-Chocolat and baguettes. I also bought a massive bag of Crepes and stuffed them in my saddlebag for later.
Cyclists were still going past me heading for Brest and I knew they would almost certainly be out of time.
It was very hot and the hills seemed much steeper in this direction. Hour after hour passed until I could hardly keep my eyes open in the bright mid-afternoon sun. I stopped at the roadside and pulled my bike into the shade and lay flat out on the ground. My backside was on fire. I had been regularly using Chamois cream, but I had ran out and the chaffing down below was bad. I knew that I had to get up and get back on the bike and keep moving. Off I went.
I was now worried about the night ahead. It would be a real battle to stay awake. I found that around midnight to 1am was really bad, but 3am-6am the worst.
Through the darkness I was not sure where I was anymore, or what I was doing. I had been going for about 70 hours now and it was all becoming a bit of a blur. Was I on a path? Was it a road? Was I on the right side of the road? Things were getting weird, but my female passenger kept giving off a warm glow. Just keep moving. I can’t let my mind drift and swerve into a ditch or hit another bike.
By 4am cyclists were littered at the side of the road. Under bushes, in village gardens, behind walls. Many wrapped in foil blankets to keep warm, trying to catch some sleep.
I could not keep my eyes open anymore. I propped myself up against a wall and dropped my head forward. It was cold, but I could not afford to sleep, I just needed another reset.
I woke after about 15 minutes shivering, partly through cold, but mainly through exhaustion.
I knew that I needed more food and when I reached the next checkpoint I remember eating as much as possible, but it was now hard to swallow down the food. I did not enjoy it, but knew the calories were necessary. The excessive eating was making me gag.
I felt bloated and sick leaving that CP and another full day on the saddle in the hot sun did not appeal to me.
I felt like I was getting slower and slower. I had to force my legs to move and my backside was so sore that I spent a lot of time lifting off the seat. This just used energy and hurt my already strained and swollen knees. Around midday I spotted a pharmacy and popped in to get a big tub of cream for my undercarriage. I did not even have to explain to the lady behind the counter what I needed. I was walking like John Wayne as I entered the shop and I made a wiping action with my hand between my legs. She knew straight away and handed me a large tub of cream.
The cream gave me great relief, but as the day got hotter and hotter I began to struggle to keep up my average speed and doubt started to creep in. I was well below my required 10-12mph and I had been losing time gradually. The course was different on the way back. More hills and I was right on the time limit and I could not see how I could push any harder.
I had covered about 600 miles, but I felt like I was pedalling through mud now and not getting anywhere. I stopped. I got off and lay down in the grass, looked up at the blue sky and just closed my eyes and lay there as I heard other bikes passing me by.
Drip. A huge drop of water landed in my eye socket. It wasn’t raining, but I wiped it away and closed my eyes again. Drip. Another one in my other eye socket accompanied by some kind of insect chewing away at my leg. This was very weird, but I took it as a sign to get up and get going again.
What followed I really cannot explain, unless I was dreaming, but it seemed that from out of nowhere the wind had just picked up and was pushing me along the road. It seemed I was being blown down and around the hills and for a few minutes I just went along with it without even pedalling.
Whatever had just happened gave me a much needed shot of adrenalin. I was focussed again.
It was time to pull out all the stops and force myself faster. Hour after hour passed as I began calculating how fast I was going and how much time I had left to do it.
Of course this was difficult being so sleep deprived and my calculations were telling me that I might be too slow to make the 90 hour cut. I could just not work it out.
I kept asking others if we had enough time, but it was difficult as we all started at different times.
I just had to go for it. I peddled as fast as I could sustain.
Into the last night I was like a zombie. I just did not stop. I had no idea what I was doing anymore. I knew I was swerving a lot and I knew it had become extremely hilly. I even thought that the organisers were playing tricks on us by sending us up the same hill over and over again.
It felt like a dream, but I knew it was real as I was now struggling to keep my head up as my neck muscles had become strained. Apparently, this was a common occurrence in long distance cycling.
It was pitch black and sometimes peddling up hills felt like it was flat and flat felt like a hill.
Eventually I got to the second to last checkpoint at Montagne. This was at around 680 miles in and I only had 12 hours left to do the last 90 miles.
This seemed possible with fresh legs, but with the hills I was way under 10mph. I desperately looked around for cyclists that looked like veterans of the event to ask if it was possible to finish in 12 hours.
I was gutted when a Dutch cyclist told me there was no chance as the next section was all uphill. This was again confirmed by another foreign cyclist who said 12 hours was probably not enough time.
However, slim chance was all I needed. I again didn’t waste any more time at the checkpoint and instead stuffed down the remains off all the food that I was carrying and headed off in a panic.
It was all or nothing now and I knew I must keep my average speed as high as possible. Keep my head down and just go for it. I felt angry that I had got so far and could possibly run out of time. I decided that I would just push and push until I burned out.
It seemed like hill after hill, but I just wanted to get more miles covered. My neck was getting worse and I could hardly look up.
Eventually it flattened out and I saw a sign that said 100km to go to the final village at Druex, but it was about 3 or 4 am and I was veering all over the road. I just could not stay awake any longer, but I could not afford the time. I decided that I needed to reset my brain, but I was in the middle of nowhere and it was cold and starting to rain.
I got off the bike and began shivering in the wet. I decided it was time to use my foil survival bag and I got into it and lay down in it in a muddy wet field. It was surprisingly warm and I nodded off briefly. I awoke to heavier rain and I was freezing when I got out of the bag.
I thought ‘Ok let’s do this’. The cold was actually a bonus as it forced me to ride faster and faster to keep warm. I was calculating my finish would be just over 90 hours. I needed to go faster.
Luckily the hills were over. This was now flat countryside and it was starting to get light again. Still heavy rain, but my average speed was going up.
Then, to my relief, the last checkpoint was in sight. I dumped my bike, ran in, got my card stamped, grabbed some rice pudding, gulped it down, ran out and got back on the bike again.
Only about 40 miles left! But my neck was so bad I could not hold my head up to see where I was going. I stopped and took out a spare inner tube, cut it to make a long rubber length and tied it over my helmet and under my chin in an attempt to keep my head up.
However, I was not thinking straight as I should have attached the tube from my helmet to my seat to pull my head back. All I had done was to make it heavier!
I eventually removed my helmet altogether (this was not against the rules), but my neck was shot. Luckily, another British guy that I had been chatting with earlier turned up alongside me and I told him that I was in trouble. He said just take it steady and cycle the last 20 miles with him.
It was still raining as we crossed field after field, but at least it was flat. I kept my eye on my friend’s rear wheel and just followed.
Soon the surroundings were becoming familiar again and I realised that I was in with a chance of finishing. It would be down to the last hour and I prayed that I would not get any last minute punctures or mechanical problems.
I had nothing left in my legs and I really do not know how I managed to pull this one off, but it was not long before we were heading up the long approach towards the national velodrome where we had started almost 90 hours ago.
It was hard to take it all in. I was out of my mind with lack of sleep and totally exhausted, but I had done it. I just wanted to get my backside off that bike. I had completed the oldest and one of toughest cycling endurance events in the world. I crossed the finish line in 89 hours and 15 minutes. I had completed what was known as a ‘full value’ ride (almost maximum time limit).
Against all the odds I had completed Paris Brest Paris at my first attempt.