Multiple people asked me to write a ride report. Sure, I said. I’ve read dozens of those in months and years prior to PBP, surely I can write one myself. However, as I’m typing this, the task seems about as daunting as riding the event itself. Most of it is a blur now. Sun, wind, nights, chills, stars, red lights and white lights, sweats and laughs, pain and elation — it feels impossible to put all these things on a timeline. I will probably end up with something long, boring, and rather incoherent. But maybe writing this up will help me process what actually happened over those long 79 hours in northern France.
Also, I won’t spend much time explaining what Paris-Brest-Paris is. After all it’s a bike ride, though a pretty long one. It’s very old (older than the Tour de France) but it’s not a race. It’s a kind of ride in which the riders do not compete against each other, but race against time to get to each next control point. Those close at certain times and those who haven’t passed yet are out. The clock never stops: you may pedal, eat, sleep, etc., but seconds are ticking away. There’re many rides subject to the same rules all other the world (called brevets) but PBP is the king of those. It’s held every 4 years and attracts thousands of people. It’s the biggest cycling show for brevet riders (or randonneurs).
Here’s a good photo gallery introducing PBP (from 2015). Pictures are worth thousands words, eh?
When did it start for me?
Seriously, when? Did it start when I clipped in on Aug 18, 2019 at the start line in Rambouillet? Or when I started the preparation? Or maybe when I read the first PBP ride report and the bug was planted? All those time instants equally deserve to be the Moment Zero.
But I choose Aug 11, the week before, my last club ride with RSV Heidelberg (my local cycling club). It’s hot and fast. It’s longer than our usual rides, and it’s hillier, too. As we traverse one hill in Odenwald after another, I start feeling terrible. I sweat and pant. I keep telling people I’m tapering for the big ride ahead and thus don’t push hard on the hills. But it’s a big fat lie. I don’t have the legs, I sweat too much, I’m encrusted in salt, I’m out of food and electrolytes, and eventually 20km before the end I let the group go and sink into grim thoughts. What is happening? Why is it happening? What did I do wrong in my training? Did I not ride enough (well, that’s always the case)? Did I not recover well from the previous weekend ride in the Alps? How the heck am I going to recover in the mere 7 days before PBP? What if I don’t?
I spend the week spinning legs on rollers, drinking recovery proteins, and agonizing over these thoughts. First time in 2-3yrs the dark “what if”s dominate. 2 weeks later I am fully convinced that sullen week is an integral part of my PBP.
This year PBP starts in Rambouillet, a nice Parisien suburb with a famous castle. The organizers, however, have chosen Bergerie Nationale as the start/finish site, which basically looks like a large medieval farm surrounded by parks and green lawns. It’s raining and the lawns are a muddy mess as I and Xenia, my 5-year old daughter, are standing in long bike check and registration lanes. Lots of excitement all around and I slowly, very slowly start soaking it all in. I am here. I may or may not be fit to ride it but I am here and I am going to give it all to get back here in time. I know I am not fast but in my 4 years of brevet riding I also learned that DNF’ing (did not finish) isn’t an option I take easily. I had crashes, heat strokes and hyponatremia cases during those rides and occasionally I finished very close to the deadline, but so far I always finished.
Eventually I get my bib number, a reflective vest, and a blue ribbon is loosely fixed on my wrist. It’s got my number, too. Perfect, I think to myself, at least they’ll have no issues identifying the body, should it come to that. Black humour has always been my thing.
Surprisingly I sleep well before the start and feel pretty calm. Pouring rain outside as I start to finally pack my bike bags. There isn’t much to pack, all food and gear were carefully selected back in Germany. Just need to put them in the bags. Tubes, multi-tool, medicals, nutrition, leg warmers, arm warmers, socks… socks? Where are my cycling socks? Stay calm, same place as various cycling gloves. Where are my gloves?! My beloved and oh-so-important SealSkinz waterproof gloves? Where’s all that stuff?
After 30 mins of frantically sifting through all my belongings I bitterly conclude the essential gear isn’t with me. I don’t panic just yet but I am close. Damn close. Lena (my wife) stays heroically cool. She’s the best. You can maybe find a replacement at Rambouillet, let’s get going. We drop the Airbnb keys and are off to the start.
It’s buzzing at the start of the biggest 90hr group. Cyclists from all over the world, 5,000 people hopelessly crazy about going absurd distances on 2 wheels, are there. I pull the bike from the car, exchange words with a girl from Saint-Petersburg whose PBP account from 2011 has made a big impact on me becoming a randonneur (what a happy encounter!) and move as close to the start as I could. I even manage to buy fingerless gloves and socks! As I hold Xenia in my arms telling that we meet in 4 days — and she smiles happily — life seems better. I also get emotional. This is the moment I’ve been waiting for 4 years. Every pedal stroke during those years inched me closer to this. And here I am, bike ready, gear (almost) in order, among the 5,000 of similar cycling fanatics, at the start line of the oldest and biggest endurance ride in the world. Stoked to the extreme.
Unfortunately the waiting isn’t over yet. Approximately 30 mins before my group is supposed to get rolling, I notice that my saddle bag is too close to my tail light fixed on a seat stay. No problem, let’s move the light an inch lower. What can be easier. I pull my screwdriver and the mount basically disintegrates in my hands. The bolt wouldn’t screw back in. Now I am in full-on panic. Adam, a Canadian guy we chatted just 10 mins ago, is telling me my group is lining up. I ignore. I only see the stupid bolt and feverishly try to get it back in. Nope. Hands trembling. People move around me. I curse. Still nope. Fine, I still have my spare light. Maybe I’ll get it sorted later (spoiler: I won’t).
Next thing I remember is I am deep in the starting crowd. Fist bumps, hand shakes, and kisses all around me. I am not calm but I’m about to start, everything else is secondary. Finally at 17:51 I get the first stamp in my brevet card, clip in, and make the first pedal stroke. My PBP is underway.
The first of 4 long nights is calling.
Day 1: Rambouillet – Mortagne – Villain – Fougeres – Tinteniac – Loudeac – Carhaix
My plan is simple: ride as long as I am able, but not longer as to avoid the state of exhaustion. I know that I have really hard time recovering from those. So I set into some steady pace of about 30kmh and move from one little group to another motoring out of Rambouillet. There’re already people lining up on the streets, I hear “bonne route” and “bonne courage” all the time. I make high fives with local kids. All thoughts about the stupid light are gone now, I feel settled and efficient, kilometers start to tick away.
I am in the H group so people have been starting 2-3 hours before me. Passing lots of people from South-Eastern Asia I can’t help thinking that there’s no way they’d finish. It’s been 30-50kms in and lots of them clearly struggle. Some are out of breath. Others rock left and right as if they are climbing a hors categorie mountain. Some are on ridiculous department store bikes. How did they qualify? I prefer not to think about it.
Then that little group led by a Japanese guy speeds by. A moment of hesitation. Shall I hop on or shall I keep moving at my own pace? The brain is still pondering while the legs bring to the back of the group. We’re fast and nobody stays with us for long. The night falls quietly but we don’t slow down. At Mortagne (km 117, about 11PM) there’re only 3 of us left though, I and two German speaking guys. I am starting to feel the effort in my legs though so make no arrangement for us to stay together after the stop. Nobody else does either. The stop (it’s not a control on the way out) is crowded and I won’t see these guys again. That’s typical for these long rides: you share the effort with random people, chat random things, sometimes things you’d only tell your close friends, but at the end you may not even remember their names. Just as you, they’re mere pilgrims on this long journey, and names don’t really matter, only the endless road which brought us together does.
Mortagne to Villaines (first control, 220km) feels very unusual to me. I am used to quiet night riding, usually in no one else’s company, because people tend to take different approaches to sleep (some sleep longer, others stop more frequently). But here it’s all different. Lots of groups glide through the night lighting up the dark French roads. Hundreds of lights. People laugh and chatter, the excitement hasn’t yet set in. I happily join a random group as my goal is to get to the first food stop at Villaines-la-Juhel with minimal effort.
Somewhere around half way there I come to the uneasy conclusion that I should rather let the group go. I am not yet tired but somehow it’s no longer pleasant and I’m resolute to not dig deep into my reserves. 10 days later browsing my riding data I am still unsure if this was a right decision. Maybe? I never destroyed my legs during the whole thing so something has been done right. Still, I start losing time as I wait for the next group to ride up to me. That repeats 2-3 times before we roll into Villaines. I believe I am about 9:30 into the ride now, which is about 30 mins slower than the best case scenario, but feels alright overall.
Now I get to experience the unique PBPesque way of arranging things at control points. I have read about this stuff dozens times before. Laughed about it. Worried about it. I definitely, most certainly expected it. But still it throws me off and will keep doing so all the way back to Rambouillet: PBP controls are for runners, not tired cyclists in ridiculous road cycling shoes.
First, ride in a skills-testing maze leading to the bike parking area. Find a parking place (and, dude, remember where you parked your bike, it’s dark and there’re hundreds if not thousands of bikes around!). Next challenge: where will I get my passage stamp? Oh, here’s the sign. Run 100 meters. The stamp looks pretty, thanks, now give me some food. What, food isn’t here? Where is it? Oh sweet, another building, run another 100m. Crap, forgot a toilet visit, surely there’s one in this room. No? Seriously? Another 100m? Ok, I’ll forgo the toilet. Refilling water bottles? You get the idea. You are desperate to leave the place, grab your bike, and get off back into the night? Nope, you can’t exit through the door you entered. There’s another one, 100m… ok, let’s be fair, less than 100m away. But you get to run to it anyways.
I drives me nuts throughout the ride. Now, sitting in a couch, I understand that it’s all a part of the unique PBP experience. I get it. Now. But there and then all I think about is time ticking away as I run around the controls. That sucks.
Anyway, in Villaines I start seeing some fatigued people. Some take naps at the table, others just stare at the ceiling. 220km is a hell of a distance for most normal people but we’re up for a monster 1220km ride. There’re control closing times. If you’re late, you’re out, plain and simple. The time allowances are harsh at the beginning and ease off towards the end. We can’t afford to be tired just yet. It’s the first night out of four, get on your bikes!
It’s past 3:30AM as I roll out setting on a course to Fougeres. When I mentally broke down the ride on multiple parts, Fougeres was the first control which was like, not near Paris. The first part was a warm-up of 220km, now the real thing starts. Also I don’t typically do well in the “wee hours” (but who does?). I’ll soon see if I’m good enough for this challenge, this gets me excited. If I still feel strong after sunrise in Fougeres, I know the prep was good and my chances of success (assuming no game-ending mechanical failures and the like) are pretty solid.
But I feel great no more. First signs of tiredness felt during the previous stage didn’t go away. I manage to stay in groups till the sky starts to lighten up. I so want the sun to break out. That moment is always magical on these rides, it can mark the transition from the most horrible, bleak exhaustion to a state of utter elation, the “there’s nothing else that I’d rather be doing right now” sense of happiness. But it’s 6AM, and the sun isn’t there. It’s cold. I’m tired. I realise we’re further out to the west now and the sunrise is late. I get into a roofed bus stop and lay on the bench. Way too early than I was hoping but I don’t care, the riding isn’t going according to the plan no more.
But it’s stupid, there are only like 20kms left to Fougeres. I crawl out of the booth and get on the bike. A smiling American on one of those ridiculously heavy steel machines with enormous bags and mudguards asks how I’m feeling. I smile wearily in return. He laughs. I love and hate the guy at the same time. An hour later we roll into Fougeres, it’s late but not catastrophically late, I know that I just need to get some food and coffee in and it’s all going to be different now, in daylight and warmth.
However, just as in Villaines, I see no hot food, only croissants, snacks, and drinks. It was surprising there but now it becomes a concern. I can’t get very far on snacks. Some people might ride RAAM on bananas (maybe?) but I can’t. Some can ride on countless gels and coke, but not me (I get bloated). I burn crazy amounts of carbs as my HR is consistently higher than for most people and fat burning efficiency just isn’t my thing. I need some complex carbs, like pasta, rice, muesli — that kind of stuff — and I’m not finding it. But at least I get coffee, in wonderful soup bowls, and it’s terrible but no matter: I feel like riding again.
I don’t remember much of the leg to Tinteniac. The burst of energy from Fougeres doesn’t last. The wind picks up. There’re more cyclists passing me. I don’t stay long in groups and drop back. As I’m writing this now, I’m really not sure if I was doing the right thing. Who knows? I may have saved hours of battling with the wind had I stayed in a group or I may have blown myself into pieces. Either way, I’m not happy, I don’t feel great, but I move in the space and every pedal stroke brings me closer to the next control. It’s probably around midday when I get there.
When I see no proper food in Tinteniac, I am in distress. This is odd at best. Where is all that French gastronomic bonanza that I’ve been reading so much about? How much longer should I survive on croissants, sandwiches, and bananas? Should I stop looking for food at controls and just stop at cafes along the way? I’ve not seen many so far (spoiler: there’ll be more ahead, and also more people with roadside food stands along the way).
The leg to Loudeac is an interesting one. Loudeac is at 460km mark and technically it’s the min distance that I must ride before sleeping if I am to finish within time limits. Most people starting in the early morning would make it a night stop. I certainly want to get further than that but, hey, if lying to myself that it’s the last part before sleeping is going to help, I am all in. I roll out with that thought in mind.
At that point the headwind upgraded from awful to outrageously bad. It feels like there’re no descents any more. I oscillate between the eye-bleeding efforts to get uphill and simply pedaling hard to get down. Nothing frustrates me more than constant headwinds. I am a small 62kg guy and a good headwind slows me harder than any mountain. It’s liking hitting a wall. The mountain — any mountain — will eventually end, and I know that, while the wind can be battering me for hours and hours, till there’s nothing left to propel me forward. It’s also pretty hot. The first half to Loudeac is basically battling with the wind, hanging on desperately to whatever groups I can find, and sitting on the side of the road thinking about my life choices.
But then that happened. I stop at a small roadside table a family has set up to provide the riders with water and sweets. I have nothing special, perhaps a cup of coffee, some cake, and pick 3-4 incredibly sour green apples from nearby trees. Chat with a random Spanish guy from Bilbao who also wants to get pas Loudeac but already deals with severe saddle sores. There is nothing else, but when we set off, I suddenly feel intensely alive again. Like I ask my legs to put in a little dig to cover 40kms to Loudeac and get a big Okay! back. I accelerate. Still feels good. I go even faster. The Spanish guy loses my wheel. In no time I’m in Loudeac.
This is pure magic but nothing too surprising. The 4 years of riding brevets have taught me one thing: whatever good or bad things are happening now, they will most likely be gone if you just hang in there long enough. The road is long and things change. Never abandon the ride when you feel miserable and have one of those “wtf am I doing here?” moments. Things will get better eventually. Of course, when things are great, it means they will soon get worse, too. Riding brevets is like compressing your life, with all its highs and lows, into a very short period of few days.
At this point I’m adamant that I’m not going anywhere without proper food. I ask around and, just as I should have realised, there’s proper cafeteria at every control but — you guessed right — it’s a 100m run from the croissant & sandwich buffet! But no worries, I also discover that running without cycling shoes is much more efficient. The socks I put on yesterday don’t really make the air any fresher where we eat but nothing could be less important to people at this point. Get your stamp, visit toilet, eat, sleep, refill the bottles and get back on the bike — everyone got used to the routine by now.
It’s about 5-6pm now, still hot, but I am feeling pretty confident about reaching Carhaix today. It’s only 80kms and I just had my first proper hot meal of the whole ride. The headwind is still strong, the sun is still warm, but what could beat a couple bowls of hot veggie soup? Nothing. Also I know that the wind will subside when sun gets down and I should arrive in Brest tomorrow before sunrise, so this might be the last stretch with this ferocious headwind (spoiler: haha, it wasn’t).
I again move from one group to another but when I decide to stay with one group longer than I was comfortable, I surprise myself. I don’t blow into pieces. It hurts for 15mins and then goes back to normal. We start picking up people and the ride is thoroughly enjoyable at this point. We ride up to Karin, a very tough woman cyclist with whom we rode a bunch of events, including our failed attempt at Fleche Allemagne in 2017. It’s so great to see a familiar face. I ask about her sleep plan but she’s got none. She’s not stopping at Carhaix. Maybe I should have listened instead of blindly sticking to the plan, maybe I would have continued making good progress? But the body is like: hey, dude, you promised me a sleep stop in Loudeac and we’re 60kms past it, don’t even think of doing it again! Alright, stopping in Carhaix then. I feel bad about it now because I really am feeling good, I make a nature break, and still manage to chase the group before we reach Carhaix. But whatever. It’s dark now, I get both soup and a huge plate of Bolognese with cheese. Feels like a natural end of the day. There’s a dorm with sleeping mats but, yeah, probably few hundred meters away. Ah, screw it, I find a place and collapse on the floor. I am 527km in, first day is a done deal.
Day 2: Carhaix – Brest – Carhaix – Loudeac – Tinteniac
I’m not sure that “wake up” is the proper word for the transition from that strange state of half-asleep. I’m not sure it is a sleep but about 1.5hrs are gone and I don’t remember how they passed. So guess that qualifies for sleep then. There’re bodies everywhere now, in all corners, under most tables, in all imaginable positions. “Something in between of a refugee camp and a WWI field hospital”, as someone has put it, is probably the best description.
I am super stiff, disoriented, and my knees are in pain just above the knee-cap so I can hardly straighten them out. It worries me but not too much since that sort of pain will disappear once I warm-up. Pain is an interesting subject on these rides. It comes in plenty of different forms. Some pains are your friends, they help you stay awake in the deep, dark nights, and remind that you’re still alive and (probably) moving. You learn to embrace it. Other sorts of pain can eventually make further progress impossible and it’s important to fix the underlying causes as quickly as possible. Sores from stiff muscles and ligaments are usually of the first kind.
Still, moving around isn’t easy. Two cups of awful coffee make it slightly better. It’s 2-3AM and I need to get moving to Brest. This is now the part that I dread most: it’s cold, damp, dark, it’s the wee hours, I’m tired, and it’s supposed to get hilly. The perfect combo.
But as I roll out of the control and start climbing, I realise it’s nowhere as bad as I feared. It’s a clear night, I can see stars peppering the sky. The road weaves between hills and through dark little villages, it’s very quite and peaceful, and very different from the previous one lit by thousands of bike lights. It takes a moment to admit that I enjoy it. I pass a couple riders, get passed by others, and eventually settle into a steady pace with a British guy. I can hardly recall the conversation, it’s even more random than usual. He complains of the cold and eventually drops back. Oh well. I continue upwards.
As I get on some major road and climb some more I am surprised to see the transmission tower. This is the top of Roc’h Trevezel, the highest point of the whole ride. I read so much about cyclists struggling up that hill so I am more confused than pleased that it feels so effortless. I probably should keep going but I see a roadside stand with a couple people and something tells me to stop. I’m neither hungry, nor cold or thirsty, but you’ve got to imagine this: it’s maybe 4AM in the morning, it’s a cold night, the nearest village is miles away, and there’s that guy, he looks in his 70s, getting out there just because a bunch of cyclists decided to take that route on their journey to Brest and back. He knows many are seriously fatigued, sleep-deprived, and cold at this point, so he’s serving hot coffee with cake. I think I see someone nearly cry when receiving that coffee with trembling hands. It’s unbelievable. This local support is what makes PBP truly unique.
Warmed by a much better coffee than at the control, I point my wheel to Brest. It’s mostly downhill now! Now, one thing you need to know about me is that I’m basically the worst descender. Descending on a road bike is a skill that one can master to an extent but it’s a tricky matter. It’s a risk since speeds are high and lots of factors beyond your control, such as loose gravel or wet spot, can send you off the road and cause life-threatening injuries. Good descenders don’t really think about these things as they lean bikes into corners at speed — but I cannot. I badly crashed once and since then, once speed goes above 60kmh, the crash starts replaying in my head. It’s annoying, and embarrassing, and causes troubles whenever I try to stick in a group but there’s only so much I can do.
But interestingly when I am very tired that mental process preventing me from going fast down the hill doesn’t work. I just… ride. I feel free. I have no explanation for this but it happens consistently. I am not even sure if it’s a good thing, but it feels phenomenal. I let go of the breaks and start chasing red lights down the road. I don’t even bother checking my speed.
It’s close to 6AM when I eventually reach the pedestrian bridge over the Brest bay, the iconic place for all PBP cyclists. It’s a mandatory photo stop but there’s still almost no light so my photos are useless. But I don’t really care, I’m still on time and all I think about is reaching the middle point, getting some food, and rest. But that sense of achievement is awfully premature: the road to the control feels very long and it goes very steep uphill into Brest. I sweat and curse. Seriously, who thought that making a control so high up would be a great idea? Surely there’re some schools and public buildings closer to the shore? Ugh, that roundabout isn’t the last one. Up I go. Out of the saddle. Crazy steep. I feel pretty wasted as I roll into the control. I get food and even find a couple of cardboard boxes which serve as a perfect pillow for an hour nap.
This time, as I open my eyes, it feels like a pretty decent sleep. The frontal knee pain is still there so I have trouble bending legs, but that’s alright as it’s warming up outside. After few more runs to refill the bottles and toilet I’m back on the sun-lit roads of morning Brest. Now every pedal turn brings me closer to home!
Ugh, now traffic sucks. After so many hours on quiet back roads it’s pretty disconcerting to have no space from passing cars and trucks. The way back from Brest is also different than the way into the city, no scenic bridge any more, just an up-and-down a major road, with traffic. I don’t enjoy it but I know that all I need to do is to get on the road which brought me in, have coffee in Sizun, and it’ll all be good from there on.
But it takes forever to get to Sizun. I ride with a bunch of middle-aged French guys from a single club and they’re usually not a good company. I guess it’s a language barrier more than mentality but it’s this category of riders with whom I am never able to get a good conversation going. And believe me I tried.
However, when I go get to Sizun, it’s an absolute highlight of the whole ride. It feels like a proper party now. It’s sunny, warm, buzzing with riders going both ways, fresh baguettes with coffee, croissants… feels pretty heavenly. Feels like PBP I’ve been reading about. Feels like something worth training years for. The only disappointment is that I really should have taken a 2nd baguette along.
The climb back over Roc’h Trevezel now feels much longer than the same hill on the way to Brest. Maybe it’s sun or maybe it’s indeed longer. The views from the top are wonderful and I enjoy the straight, non-technical descent. But then comes the frustration: we don’t turn left into the beautiful green hills surrounding Carhaix but continuing on the major road, and the traffic gets grippier with every kilometer. The last 10K or something feel like a constant slog under the sun on a road with no shoulder, being pushed off road by trucks and buses. Bleah. One of the low points of the ride.
“Hey RSV!” I hear from behind. Looking back I almost miss the woman speeding by. She appears unbelievably fresh and strong in her Rapha kit and I barely manage to shoot “Hi Fiona!” in her back. Fiona Kolbinger, who stunned everyone in the ultra-cycling community with her jaw-dropping win of the Transcontinental Race just couple weeks ago. Who not just found the legs to participate in PBP but rode 600K to the start. On a bike. Some people are really just made of steel, I guess. Seeing her gliding effortlessly up that brutal road into Carhaix lifts my spirits. A little.
The Carhaix control on the way back is overwhelmed with cyclists. It’s the only checkpoint which hosts people going both ways when I pass through. The line for hot meals is unbearable so I weave around to the buffet. It’s such a strange, random collection of food items… Soft cheese, some bread, a baguette, cookies, whatever. It’s fast and full of carbs. Half of the baguette goes into the back pocket and I roll out to Loudeac.
I have no recollection of the first half of that leg. Little hills, bigger hills, faster stretches, longer slogs — everything is a blur. I sweat a lot, that’s for sure, it’s a hot day. But it’s not nearly as bad as going west, no more relentless winds. There’re some but the efforts don’t just feel futile as a mere day before. I remind myself of how it was and it keeps me moving.
Somewhere around the half point mark I find myself is a fairly large and mostly English speaking group. Sometimes they go just a little harder than comfortable but this time I’m not willing to let them go. Let’s see if I hold up. Interestingly, it seems to be working. Little efforts here and there to regain my position after a descent but nothing to require an extended recovery. As someone said, my bonkometer isn’t any close to the red line. Good stuff.
Not very long, but very sharp hills surround Loudeac. On one of those I notice a couple guys in single-speeds wearing Korea Randonneurs jersey, but looking pretty American (or, at least, not Korean). I am always amazed by people destroying their joints doing massive uphill efforts on a single sprocket so I make a comment about that. The guy laughs and the conversation starts. He immediately recognises my custom-made titanium bike and turns out that he sells the very same frames in Korea! I saw those on Instagram a bunch times. We both know the Triton workshop in Moscow which builds them. A pretty crazy encounter given how many riders are there at PBP. We talk bikes, frames, bottom brackets (and the Triton’s obsession with T47 standard) — all that stuff. Kilometers start flying by.
But there’s a catch: staying within a group which has single-speeders in lead positions is always a little adventure. They go hard up every hill to basically just avoid stalling and having to walk. That could be brutal for everyone used to spinning up in a small gear. It’s an extra challenge for me because they also go fast on every descent to keep up the momentum for the next kicker as much as possible. Normally I would drop back. This time something sparks inside and I try to hang on as much as possible. It’s a risky ride for me and I have no illusions that I’ll have to pay for the efforts later in the ride. But makes no matter at the moment, it’s tons of fun. The group depletes but I stick in. Another sketchy descent and another 300W at the foot of the next ramp. I sweat. Man, I am happy to see Loudeac.
While running around the control and eating I think about today’s plan. It’s about 6pm now and the hills around Loudeac took a lot out of me. The next control, Tinteniac, is about 90K away and about 360K from the finish. I at least need to get to that before calling it a day. However, the one after — Fougeres — is only 54K up the road and, crucially, only 320 from the finish line in Ramouillet. Reaching Fougeres with time to sleep most likely means finishing before I hit the fourth night on the road. Do I have it in me? I don’t know. Will see. But got to finish this huge Bolognese first.
I see Karin ahead of me leaving the control. She’s strong but I’m tired so it takes a good half an hour to ride up to her rear wheel. But she’s not in the mood to combine efforts, drops back only to speed by when I slow down. I, on the other hand, feel very off my game. Can’t get the bike rolling on that awful, coarse-grained French tarmac. After about an hour I spot blackberry bushes on the side of the road and decide to take a break.
I hang around way, way too long around these bushes. How many blackberries a man can eat? How about a guy who rode nearly 800K? It gets ridiculous. Just can’t get back on the bike. God, I love blackberries but the sun is very low and the road is long. I feel 10kg heavier as I try to hop back on the bike.
After a while I get to ride with a really funny mid-aged Englishman from (I think) some part of London. I catch him by doing my share of front work in a group of few other people but I quickly notice something unusual. Instead of jumping on my wheel, he accelerates to keep me behind. I get confused. Why would someone expend energy for something like that? I push harder too. So does he. Makes no sense. I ride harder and eventually he lets a loud sigh out and eases off. “It’s hard” he says (true, and also unnecessary). “But it’s fun”. We’re friends for the next bunch of kilometers.
The guy (again, no idea about his name) informs me that there’ll be a control in Quédillac. It was a secret (not officially on the brevet card) control on the way there so I believe him. We chat, kilometers tick away, life seems better. Unfortunately, as it gets dark, we ride up to another group whose riding style is utterly stupid: they roll agonizingly slow on the flats only to destroy themselves up every little hill. This is just as inefficient as it possibly gets. The Brit, however, finds it amusing and sprints out-of-the-saddle with them only to spend the next 5 mins recovering. I get annoyed, try to explain that we don’t have to play the silly game, but to no avail.
There’s an important lesson for me right here: it’s important to find someone to ride with but it’s equally (or even more so) important to know when to break it up. It’s a simple truth that I have read in numerous reports but what people don’t write about is that it’s often hard. Sharing road with someone creates connections which aren’t easy to tear apart. When the Brit starts to drop behind I can’t just ride on. I should but we stick together till Quédillac. It’s not a control but just a food stop. Again, it’s a mistake that I stop just to keep our riding partnership. He wants to eat but I feel OK and simply let time go into waste.
We spend maybe 30mins in there but I am already super stiff once we’re back on the road. And frustrated. It feels like lost momentum. I have no ambitions any more to get to Fougeres, Tinteniac it is for the night. It’s cold now and good 20K still to go. I force myself to push on. 10K later I realise the Englishman is no longer there. Sigh. Am I an asshole? Feels kind of like that. But lots of people still on the road, tell I myself, he will be fine. Shortly thereafter I am in Tinteniac.
Between days 2 and 3: a zombie march to Fougeres
As I eat yet another Bolognese a small group of Germans discuss their options. One suggests that the dorm is overbooked and points outside where a group of people is lining up, apparently for sleeping mats. They decide to march on to Fougeres. It’s around 12am and the decision makes sense. I should leave with them but it’s hard to reverse a decision I’ve already made during those dark 20K after Quédillac. Nope, I’ll sleep. 360K is OK for tomorrow if I start early. I slept on the floor in Carhaix, I can do it here. But curling up on the floor just doesn’t work. I can neither bend my knees nor straighten them out, the frontal pain kicks in as soon as I cool down. After tumbling for about an hour I realise it’s not working this time. Pain and shivers but no sign of sleep. And if I don’t sleep or eat I must pedal, these are the simple rules of randonneuring.
Only 54K to Fougeres can’t be that bad, can it? A couple of familiar faces turn up as I limp to my bike. Aynur and Hajo, we rode many a kilometer together our of Saarland. They comment that I look tired. Thanks, I feel like shit, too. Probably worse than I look. But 54K can’t be that bad, really can’t…
First couple Ks on the road make it painfully clear that 54K is a hell of distance. I try to join a couple of similar misfits but they wave me to move on. Sigh, but OK. Who else is there? A couple of young Americans ride by briskly (or so it felt) and I make a giant effort to hop on their wheel. Attempt a conversation but they merely shake their heads. Soon one of them stops to fix something with his light and I’m on my own again. I resort to counting pedal strokes: 1-2-3-4, repeat.
Each red light ahead is like a new hope, only a good chat can save this night. Most are the middle aged Frenchies who never seem to engage in conversations with foreigners. But eventually I get lucky, a similarly tired lady from San Francisco appears happy to talk. We talk everything: bikes, traveling, weather, prices, food. We don’t know each other names but I kind of want her to know how much she helped. I like to think I may have helped too. Slowly, ever so slowly we conquer the last few kilometers and roll into Fougeres. It’s past 4am and our average speed was under 20kmh. She immediately collapses on the floor while I search for a dorm. Sure, a 200m run but the horrid memories of the floor sleep attempts in Tinteniac are still fresh so I get on the bike and ride there. No queues, I pay and get a place.
The place, however, merits some description. It’s a dark room with thin yoga mats on the floor. reasonably warm. Snores and farts all around. Nobody bothers to take a shower. Doesn’t smell good. Do I care? Nope. My job is to fall asleep before my knees cool off and start aching. A reflective foil blanket helps even if I awake half of the room unwrapping it.
Day 3: Fougeres – Villaines – Mortagne – Rambouillet
It feels like it’s all just tumbling again but it’s already day light outside, 7AM, so I must have slept. I badly need coffee, so badly that I ride back to the main control building first. The SF lady is still in the same position on the floor as yesterday. Seems to be breathing though, ought to be alive I conclude. Here’s my coffee, time to get back on the road.
Climbing out of Fougeres is a struggle, it’s still cold, my knees are cold and aching. But it’s the last day. No way I would DNF on the last day. I may need to go into the fourth night but it won’t be a full night. These things circle in my head as I’m gradually warming up. Eventually I realise I’m maintaining a pretty decent pace and even catch a small group. Yeah, middle-aged French riders again but I take it, every little help counts.
I haven’t used much of roadside support up until this point but something tells me to stop when I see two teen girls with coffee and water. They speak English and seem so genuinely into this event that I hang around longer than planned. Their cake is delicious and they keep offering more. Whatever your names are, thank you. I feel so revitalised after this so I keep catching and passing other riders.
A fast guy with a strong British accent rides by and I hop on his wheel. He does a strong pull for about 10 mins and then makes a gesture inviting me to do my share. Fine, that’s fair. I keep the pace for maybe 5, he goes to the front again. All is good and well till he starts lecturing me about my poor descending skills. Yes, mate, I am aware. But we’re 900K+ in at this point so lectures sound silly. I recall I kind of did the same yesterday to the other Brit. Oh well. What goes around comes around. We part ways.
The French cake buzz wears off just as the day gets hot. It’s also a hilly, scarcely populated area, and my progress over these hills is slow. Somehow it’s always the last 20Ks before each control point which are especially hard. I find myself fixated on my Wahoo’s screen and the kilometers look stalled. Frustrating. I use the old trick: stop by blackberry bushes. This time there’s an extra bonus: a wild peach tree. Wild peaches (or apricots), how cool is that?! Small, green, extra hard to bite, and super sour. Just as I like it. Just enough to propel me over the last hills, past the long awaited 1001K sign, and into the Villaines control.
The control is one ginormous party. People lining up along the road, loud encouragements, music, everything makes you feel a part of a monumental cycling event. As I park my bike and run to get my stamp, however, I start worrying about the crowds. The sheer number of just cyclists is usually enough to overwhelm controls but here there’re a lot more people, walking, eating, listening to local bands. How much time am I going to waste here? When I see the gigantic queue to the cafeteria, my heart sinks. Zero chance for proper fuel here.
But then, as I ask a random volunteer how to get food, the absolute miracle happens. A boy of maybe 6-7 years old gets dispatched to me and orders to follow him. We run around the queue, get into the cafeteria where we picks up the tray, jumps to the front of the queue, and asks what I want to eat. Bolognese it is. He orders food, drinks, runs with the full tray to get the utensils and then to the cashier. I pay and he gets me a place at the table. In no time. Asks if I need anything else. I nearly cry as I say Merci and shake his hand. Next second he’s already off to help the next cyclist. The little dude is an absolute highlight of the whole ride for me.
Only in randonneuring (and maybe in the bigger ultra-cycling community) you’re going to hear something like “only 200K to go, we’re almost there”. Feels both pretty close and very far as I roll out. Well hydrated, well fed, but heavy and tired. It’s also very hot at this point. I definitely can take advantage of a company, start searching for a suitable candidate, and soon see a tall Canadian on a retro steel bike. He looks like a perfect companion: neither fast nor slow, steady, and offering a perfect wind protection. I catch him up and say something like, yo dude, I’m feeling pretty broken and you appear pretty terrible as well. He laughs. Perfect match. This time we learn each other names, he’s Toby (or Tobi) from the Toronto area. We roll the next 40-50K together, again, talking everything.
Eventually the road turns busy making it harder to ride side by side and talk. I also start noticing a worrying pain on the inside of my left knee. This is sharply different from the knee-cap pain which only happens when I cool down. This is not a good kind of pain, it’s a flash back to my 1000K last year when an outside knee pain almost took me out of it (I ended up single-legging the last 100K). Medial and lateral knee pains usually have something to do with your pedal or cleat positioning. If something is wrong there, the pain won’t subside. Ever. And it’s again around the 1000K mark. Not the kind of deja vu I am particularly happy about. Also I start dozing off so I wave to Toby and take a nap at the side of the road.
About 10K further down the road I decide to stop again and adjust the shoe cleat. I just can’t let this pain ruin the ride, it’s still 150K to go. I remember that last year I was able to abate the pain slightly by rotating the clean inwards so the knee would point slightly outwards. I do the same. Of course in my sleep deprived state I fail to recognise that last year’s pain was on the outside of the knee while now it’s on the inside. I should have done the exact opposite, i.e. point the shoe inwards. Oh well. I will pay for it later.
A Muscovite with whom we rode a little on the first day rides up to me as I test the knee after the stop. The cleat change seems to work at first so I pick up the conversation and we ride together. Soon we catch a couple of riders from the Lviv brevet club. As much as I hate to admit, it feels awkward to initiate a contact with Ukrainians these days. Especially Western Ukrainians. I don’t know what kind of reaction I get to a simple Hi any more. I suppose they don’t either. Politics sucks. I firmly believe that with many, most people I can easily find a common ground, we’re all just endurance cyclists anyway, no need to take sides in the evil conflict, but it’s the remaining cases that make it feel like probing on the mine field. So we ride quietly behind when one of them turns back and says in a very Moscow-sounding Russian: hey, you Russians, how about you give us a good pull to the control? I’m so relieved. We ride together. We chat random things. We’re just cyclists speaking a common language, and it’s perfect.
The guy is Andriy Fedorchuk who actually runs the Lvyv randonneuring club. He invites us to their next year’s grand randonnee, a 1200K challenge across the Carpathian mountain rage and few countries. I’m tempted but I don’t even know if, as a male Russian of a certain age, I’ll be allowed across the Ukrainian border. Yeah, it’s that bad. I will think about it next Spring. Right now I prefer to just enjoy the company.
Just as Loudeac the Mortagne-Au-Perche control is in a circle of sharp hills. The last climb to the control is especially brutal, my Wahoo is showing 12%-15%. There’s no shade. Nobody talks any more, everyone counts pedal strokes. Suddenly we pass the SF woman from our zombie march to Fougeres. How did she get ahead of me, the last time I saw her unconscious on the floor? She looks so miserable I offer her a gel. She can’t even answer, silently shakes her head. Still wouldn’t stop, she’s a seriously tough lady.
The last hills definitely leave their mark on my knee and I proceed straight to the doctor at the control. I ask for a bandage but get a massage. It feels good but deep down I know it won’t work in the long term. Still, at least I move the cleat to the original position before rolling out. The Ukrainians and the Muscovite (whom we dubbed “Cadence50” for his grinding climbing style) are already on the road by then. I feel alright and make a valiant effort to catch them. It takes about half an hour but I’m back. If hills stop soon I might be able to hold and be at the finish around midnight. It’s a big if though.
But the natural park around Mortagne and it’s beautiful green plushy hills extend as far as I could see. Where were all these hills just 2 days ago when we rolled to the first night stop? I didn’t even notice them in that fast bunch of countless cyclists… but now every pedal stroke feels like thousands needles into my left knee. Everything I’ve read about the route tells me the hills should stop, but I no longer see that coming. I realise I cannot do my share of front work anymore and tell Andriy to ride on. It’s a bitter, low moment for me but it’s the right thing. At this point I’m fairly confident that I’m going to finish the ride but I’m not willing to resort of 100K of shameless wheelsucking. Not all pride is gone just yet.
I stop immediately to assess my options. Limping along isn’t really appealing and tweaking the cleat position didn’t help (of course because I did it wrong). So I pull my mesh base layer and turn it into an impromptu knee bandage. It feels weird to bend the knee when I tighten it up but mostly stable at the same time. Worth a shot, I guess. While I’m doing it a woman comes out of a nearby house asking if I need help, water, food… when I politely refuse all these goods she smiles and offers a… bed! Seriously, French people, you’re the best!
Back on the road and the knee seems to hold up. I get sympathetic looks from passing riders though, that’s fine as long as I can move along. 10-15 kms further on it becomes clear than the hills eventually stopped. If only I knew when I let the group go… But then I wouldn’t have had the chance to band-aid the knee so perhaps it’s all good. I gradually pick up the speed as sun gets low. Eventually, when it’s already dark and there’s about 15K left to the control, a recumbent flies by. Those guys are seriously fast on flats due to the low frontal air resistance. I didn’t even have the time to toss up the idea but the legs swiftly move me to his back wheel. From that point on till Dreux we don’t just ride and pass others… we fly through the night and shoot through all other groups. It’s not even like they can’t hold my wheel, they have no chance of jumping on it. I look my Wahoo and can’t believe it’s nearly 40kmhs. Only 1hr ago I was limping at 20kmhs. Crazy stuff but it feels magnificent. The recumbent eventually shakes me off on a twisty urban descent but I quickly get back on a small blip that follows. Few minutes later we’re in Dreux, the penultimate control point.
It’s 10pm and less than 50K to the finish. I am excited. I feel that if we could continue with the recumbent, we’d be there in less than 2hrs. But we both need to collect our second-to-last stamps… Argh, those runs to stamp tables tend to be longer with each new control. I realise there’s no point to rush, I won’t be in Rambouillet by midnight anyway but should comfortably beat my 80hrs personal goal. Still not motivated enough to wait for hot food, I get a sandwich with coffee but then notice an unfinished plate with rice. Well, it’s mine now!
The first few kilometers from Dreux are a painful reminder that these events are always emotional and physical roller coasters. There’re no more hills nor winds, but I seem to be at the absolute minimum of my energy levels. Just feeling empty. I can’t even get enough energy to raise my HR a little to warm up. 2hrs feel like impossibly short time to cover 44kms. It’s laughable really, if only I could laugh. I try to dance on the pedals uphill to at least warm up but the knee says nope. Crap.
20K to go and I sit on a bench in some random French village. It’s a beautiful, quiet, cold, moon-lit night. The kind of night I normally enjoy. Like the night before Brest. But now I just stare at the sky feeling utterly empty. I don’t feel pain or hunger or thirst or cold, or anything really, just not quite alive. Like the body isn’t mine. The out-of-body experience, I guess, looking at that dysfunctional flesh & bones from miles away and ordering it to get back on the bike. The body eventually obeys. I’m glad I use clipless pedals since when you click in, it’s a mental signal to start pedaling (otherwise you fall off). 20K to go.
It never really gets any better but when a rough patch of cobblestones on a mild descent nearly sends me into the ditch I suddenly realise what it means. It means Rambouillet. It means finish. It means it’s over. Well, almost over since Wahoo for some reason sends me on a detour up a steep hill into the city center. Man, that hurts. Why is it happening? I stop looking at the screen and navigate to the start point at Bergerie National. This is the park I walked into with my daughter for bike check only 3.5 days ago. I move barely faster than walking now but I know it’s over. Cyclists heading at me with medals. The finish arch. Ah, yet another stupid cobbled detour. No fanfares, but I don’t care. “C’est fini, monsieur”.
The rest is a weird experience. Feels anything but a party. No sense of accomplishment yet either. “The road is the goal, not the destination”, that phrase has meaning now. I get food at a large tent, the guy places the last stamp and asks if I want to take a photo of my brevet card before he collects it. Lots of people do that but I just shake my head. All I really want is food and bed. “You forgot your medal” he yells. Ah yes, the medal. If I could swap it for a warm shower and bed, I’d have done it.
After parking my bike I limp my last 100m to what they call a “dorm”. It’s not a dormitory, it looks like a 17th century barn with giant slits in walls and between the walls and the roof. Dark and freezing cold inside. Lots of folding beds, people sleeping or trying to under what looks like very thin blankets. Two guys fight over a bed. Somehow I find a bed in a dark corner. Can’t fall asleep due to anguishing frontal knee pain. Сold. God, I hate this place. Here’s my ibuprofen, how ironic to require it after the finish. Less pain now, shivering all the same. I seriously consider riding my bike few hours around the city, that’s how bad it is. But then, somehow, I notice it’s lighting up outside so I crawl out and smile.
Now, eventually, it’s fully over.
So Paris-Brest-Paris 2019 is history. What do I make out of it 2 weeks later? First and foremost it was a success but it doesn’t quite feel like exceeded expectations. Let me try to summarise positive and negative bits:
What went well
- At no point did I consider DNF’ing or had any doubts about making the 90hrs time cut. I don’t think I even checked my time cushion at any control. I knew it was alright. I don’t remember who said that since I’ve read so many PBP accounts, possibly it was Greg Conderacci, but the point was that most people worry too much about time. They nervously check how much they’ve got in the bag in order to decide how much to sleep, etc. Instead they should focus on maintaining their energy levels. There’s plenty of time at PBP, and similar grand randonnees — if you have the energy. It’s by far the most valuable advice I’ve had and happy to pass it along. I maintained pretty decent energy levels, except of two short night stretches (Tintentiac – Fougeres and Dreux – Rambouillet), ate a lot, drank a lot, and felt quite alright for most of the ride.
- Whatever pains I had, I kept them (mostly) under control. The inside lateral knee pain was the only one which had the potential to ruin it but didn’t. Yes, I misjudged what I should have done at first but the bandage worked well in the end. I had saddle sores, too but manageable. Being disciplined about cleaning skin and re-applying the chamois creme paid off. No back or neck pains.
- The bike and the gear performed great. Triton makes fabulous titanium frames which handle rough French tarmac superbly. My Apidura bags are awesome. The lightning setup worked flawlessly and I always had enough charge in all my electric devices. No mechanicals. Never felt overwhelmingly cold while riding (but yes, shivered a lot at controls).
And what did not
- The day after the finish I wondered why riding my bike feels so horribly uncomfortable. I checked my saddle and it was whopping 2cm lower! That easily explains the anterior knee pain. How stupid, I feel pretty upset that it didn’t occur to me to check it during the ride. It could have been such an easy fix…
- I did beat the 80hrs personal time goal but only barely. My average speed ended up about 22kmh which I personally consider quite embarrassing. Whatever I may think about it, it’s no improvement over my 1000K last year over a similar terrain, and that’s not happy making. We had considerably harsher wind this year but also larger groups.
- I feel I was letting fast groups go way, way too easily in the first 1.5 days. Always dropped back before feeling bad. On the third it turned out that I could hold without a major meltdown for a lot longer. In fact, during the whole ride, I was never close to bonking. This feels like a pretty major strategic mistake now and I’m slightly disappointed that after 4 years of riding these things I am still unsure if I could (or should) maintain a group’s pace.
- The flip side of eating well was losing tons of time at controls. All those runs between different points to get stamps, water, toilets, food, etc. costed me loads of time. Of course I’d read about it but did little to minimise the losses.
- Finally, photos. Next time I definitely need to pull my camera more often.
Will I ride PBP again? Maybe. Probably? Certainly not certainly. With all its amazing atmosphere it feels more like a giant celebration than a monumental cycling challenge. I certainly missed the sense of risk, the uncertainty of success, or the feeling of getting into troubles should anything happen on some remote part of the journey. Heck, there is no remote part on PBP!
I may be back in 4yrs time in a bid to improve my result considerably but for the next few years I will try to progress to longer and less crowded events. With the 79hrs PBP time I don’t feel I’m quite ready for proper bike packing races yet, but longer randonnees like 1001 Miglia Italia, London-Edinburgh-London, or Uppsala-Trondheim-Uppsala seem within reach. I am very clear that it’d require a major training step up for the next season and I’m still thinking if I’m willing to make that commitment. Still more likely than committing to PBP in 4yrs though.