Martin Malins writes…
Paris-Brest-Paris 2007; the end (and beginning) of a long journey
This event is the natural zenith of many Audax UK members’ riding, as AUK itself came about partly as a means of allowing UK riders to qualify; the Windsor-Chester-Windsor 600 being the first UK event to enable PBP eligibility. The ride itself dates back to 1891 when it was run every 10 years as a competitive event. In the early 20th century it was run non-stop, with some riders apparently given a cocktail of drugs even then to enable them to overcome the pain and sleeplessness.
Eventually the professional race was curtailed as the newer Tour de France came to the forefront. But the ride continued as a long distance “Randonnee” every 4 years; the 2007 edition being the 16th of an event taking place in late August.
After riding my first 400km in 2002 I learned of PBP, and was impressed by Paul Harris’ account of his successful attempt in 1987, although I did not consider going for it at the time. In the same year Angela Nainby suggested going for an “SR” (a series of 200 300 400 and 600km rides in one season).
I completed my first series in 2003 which was also PBP year, and felt quite left out when many other riders departed for Paris and returned with tales of the amazing atmosphere and exhilaration of the event; I decided then to make PBP 2007 my goal. Building slowly over the next 4 years I completed another SR in 2006, mainly to prove to myself that I could do it all again to qualify.
The 2007 qualifiers were all straightforward although the Hailsham 300 was to prove the only dry ride of the series (and even the later events I rode as extra training were also wet in parts). In fact some of the qualifying 600s saw many prospective PBP riders abandon their hopes. I was relatively lucky with the Bryan Chapman which proved to be one of the easier rides of this distance.
The useful online registration was easy to use and I soon had my frame number and start time emailed back. I arranged to ride down from Dieppe with Rob Bullyment, Mark Heffer, Richard Thomas and Chris Tracey who all completed the ride in 2003 and with whom I completed most of the qualifiers; and Garry Broad, the only other first time rider in our group who rode his home-made recumbent and attracted massive curiosity and admiration as we rode to Paris over two days.
We arrived at the Campanile hotel 9km from the start (where Matt Chambers joined our party having ridden from Le Havre) to find that along with the adjoining hotel and the roads filled with campervans most of the Belgian contingent were there. Over the next two days the truly international nature of the event began to sink in; with the huge gymnasium where registration took place resembling a global village. There were substantial national groups from most EU countries as well as Russia, the USA, Canada, Australia and Japan; many wearing specially designed jerseys for the ride. I had seen the designs for the UK and French versions and decided to order the latter, but promised myself not to wear it until I completed. On the registration day I received my jersey, tee shirt, bidon, brevet card, swipe card and ACP SR medal; this was for real now, no going back!
The next evening the 5000 plus field slowly swarmed around the start and the surrounding roads like birds getting ready to migrate. And as darkness fell and the rain started we slowly filed out of the playing field to receive a last bike and light check and receive our start stamps. At exactly 23.10 our party departed as a firework display heralded the start of the event with local media coverage. The exhilaration of the huge peloton passing the closed road junctions out of the city soon gave way to an endless line of LED lights as we headed into the unlit lanes to the constant applause and encouragement of the spectators we passed; trying to stay in our group whilst avoiding the numerous traffic hazards. After 70km we passed the first water stop at a boulangerie with a large illuminated cyclist display (the first of many) and soon small groups of riders began to appear at the many cafes as people loaded with caffeine for the first overnight stage. After a lumpy and very wet section we reached the first control at Mortagne au Perche at 140km at about 0400. All the controls were similar to those used on AUK rides but on a massive scale; often taking over entire schools or streets, with queues for food drink and sleep shaking around the corridors.
My rough plan (recommended by many veterans) was to get through to Loudeac (451km) non stop; and this proved a popular choice as I found out later to my discomfort. After Mortagne the first dawn broke and we all hit the first patisserie to open; they were soon cleaned out! The next control at Villanes sur Juhel was just like the finish town of a Tour stage complete with inflatable arch and applauding crowds, although the barricades were to lean the bikes against. We decided to “bounce” this control, just getting a stamp and raiding the local supermarket for food and drink. We did much the same at Fougeres as by now the numerous free roadside controls had started to appear offering quick and effective coffee and cake together with the friendly cries of “allez” and “bonne courage”. I could not believe how helpful and friendly the locals were; such a pleasant change from some of my UK rides.
At Tinteniac (about 300km) I met Alex Ball, another UK rider who I had met on the Hailsham 300. He had unfortunately hit a very bad patch with constant knee pain and was going to decide on continuing on arrival at Loudeac. I didn’t see him again; to see someone on the verge of abandonment is a very sobering experience, all the best Alex and good luck for next time!
As darkness fell on the second night we continued the long slog to Loudeac. I can honestly say that there is almost no flat riding on the whole route; although the highest point is only 244m the constant rolling nature of the ride takes a heavy toll with 10,000m of climbing (more than 6 Mid Sussex Hillies!). And this was to turn out to be the wettest event since 1987 with reportedly over 1600 riders abandoning. Just before the control we saw the first of the returning Vedettes. These are the last vestiges of the former race; a select group of about 25 amateur riders who still contest the event non stop and heavily supported. The group was surreal, almost sci-fi, as a flash of halogen lights was followed by a few support cars. It was to be many hours before we passed the next returning rider from the 80 hour group. Apparently the fastest rider completed in 44 hours. The race has been criticized for not being in the self supported spirit of the event; but I still doff my hat to anyone who can ride that distance at that speed.
Loudeac was mobbed as expected but I was so shattered by then I grabbed a quick drink, unrolled my sleeping bag and crashed out outside under one of the buildings.
A fitful and cold 4 hours later I was awoken by the crackle of more riders’ survival bags and I rejoined my group (The “Hailsham Massive”) at 0500 for the next section, 320km to Brest and back. The overcast sky didn’t see the sun rise until nearly 0700 and there was a dark and hilly section next, fortunately punctuated with coffee stops. We also had the first “secret” control and were flagged down off the road for an extra stamp in our cards; which proved to be a pleasant way to meet up with many of the other UK riders I knew. By about 500km we were in leafy and dry lanes and this was the undoubted best bit of the ride for me; I felt that I actually might be able to pull it off. As we climbed the long section to the summit of the ride at Roc Trevezil on the only hot and sunny day of the ride the returning riders were now passing us in droves; it was here I saw the first recognisable returning UK rider Jo Wood. I finally saw the breathtaking view from the estuary bridge at Brest at just before 614km; although my pleasure at having got half way was diminished by seeing a rider being loaded into an ambulance after an accident with a car. On the way back to Loudeac darkness fell and the rain started again. At Loudeac I wisely went for the indoors option across 3 chairs in my wet gear; I abandoned the soggy sleeping bag there to save weight.
At 0500 I was again awoken by Chris who was having trouble locating first Richard and then my bike (mine wasn’t the only yellow one!) but soon we were all together; heading for the planned coffee stop at St Meen le Grand.
I was now well into the unknown at 775km, almost 200km over my previous longest ride. But soon the rain stopped and the mood lifted as daylight broke. Another secret control appeared 10km before our planned stop; and this was very welcome as it had also had bowls of coffee, bananas and chocolate bars. At St Meen I decided some personal gratification was called for and bought two large bars of chocolate; devouring the first en route and the second with a coffee at Tinteniac (860km) where we were photographed by a British reporter who had ridden PBP many years ago. I was now about 24 hours from the finish in Paris and felt good. I phoned home as I passed 1000km and was feeling good. PBP looked like it was in the bag; how wrong I was. Returning to Villanes the crowds were still there but I was in low spirits as the hills and rain had taken their toll; this was the point that I met Phil Chadwick and Peter Marshall and complained at how much I was hating the ride by now.
1000km can do strange and unpredictable things to the human body and over the next 20km both my Achilles tendons became increasingly painful; the pain rising to a level where every pedal stroke was agony. With 40km to go to Mortagne (1084km) I had to find a way to get through; rubbing Voltarol gel on my legs had little effect. I tried pedalling with straighter legs; my shoes pointing down like a ballerina. It was awkward, clumsy and inefficient but it worked and I finally grovelled into the control at 02.19 after much freewheeling. This was the absolute nadir; everyone else was there feeling upbeat about completion of the remaining 143 km and I could hardly walk; far less pedal.
3 hours across chairs (not a good definition of sleep) had done nothing to rest my ankles and with even more familiar faces by now I was staring into the abyss of a DNF. I asked around and got much helpful advice; freewheel as much as possible, spin a very low gear and of course the inevitable industrial strength pain killers. The medical room was not an option if finishing was in sight. I took the maximum dose (thanks Julian!) and went back out. 40 lumpy km later and the pain was less, I had settled into my unorthodox pedalling technique (apparently splinting the feet thus is a common remedy for such types of pain) and the sun rose again to reveal many roadside sleepers; one had simply lay in the middle of a side road and a few other riders moved him to safety.
And after slowly freewheeling into Dreux the last control I was able to take a shower and have a shave before loading with coffee and patisserie. For everyone lese it was a 68km victory parade but for me the pain had returned and I could not take any more tablets. But somehow I got through and after what seemed a day I was back in the heavy traffic of the last 10km; praying for a green light at each junction to avoid the agony of unclipping my left pedal. And I finally crossed the finish line (which isn’t really, you have to get your card stamped to complete) at 86 hours. I can honestly say that I would never have completed any other ride in half as much pain and discomfort; which is testament to the desire to finish PBP above all else.
And soon I met the dozens of other happy AUK riders as the pain subsided and we revelled in the enormous relief of completion over a few beers and a pizza. All that was left now was to collect my possessions from Versailles and take the train into Paris for a fairytale ride across the city by night (I don’t like the new Eiffel Tower illuminations; it looks like a big sparkler!) before catching the RER to the airport.
In summary; PBP is the ultimate ride, extremely hard but also very moving and satisfying, but do not underestimate what it may take out of you. I will never try it again, as for me it marks a turning point in my cycling as I will now concentrate on the shorter 200-300 distances.
Video from the event…