By Derek Wolfson
“Bon courage!!” It rang in my ears, hey, here I was riding the PBP and loving all those French people who never lost their enthusiasm, day or night. They encouraged us, they fed us, decorated their villages and towns. I saw some really quirky bikes. All along the route, they are familiar with the hardships of this long distance feat of riding the PBP.
The PBP started on 6 September 1891 when Pierre Giffard organized a 1,200 km race to promote the bicycle. Just 206 cyclists, amateur and professional took part -Frenchmen only.
Forty years later, in 1931, Australian Hubert Opperman won in the record time of 49hours 23minutes. His record stood for many years (see Wiki about his many other amazing feats).
124 years later, in August 2015, I was one of the 5,500 Audax randonneurs setting out from Paris on this four yearly audacious ride, both an adventure and test of endurance. It is open to men, women and all nationalities who, like myself qualify by completing 200, 300, 400 and 600 km rides in the preceding year.
The ride is well organized by the ‘Audax Club Parisien’ who set the brevet rules and organize sign posting, check points and feed stations with an army of volunteers. All sorts of bikes take part. I spotted a tricycle, 3 person tandems and some sleek fibre glass recumbents.
I joined Audax Australia 5 years ago and soon learnt that the PBP ride is the apotheosis for all long distance cyclists around the world.
So here I was, lining up for the 19.45 start outside the newly completed Velodrome National in Saint Quentin-en-Yvelines just west of Paris on a cool dry August evening. Waves of 300 riders left every 15 minutes with a motorcycle escort through the urban sprawl past cheering crowds into the open countryside.
Soon, darkness fell and ahead a long serpentine line of red lights (no flashing LED allowed).
The roads were quiet, well signed with reflective arrows, marshals guided traffic at major cross roads and French drivers were happy to stop to let us pass. There were 15 check points, each with a cut off time and an overall target of 1,230 km (yes an extra 30km) of 90 hours. I set time targets for each one so it looked less daunting. I was aiming for Loudeac, 448km for a sleep in my pre-booked hotel. The Australian team had arranged a bag drop there. Unfortunately, it took an hour and help from an American rider to locate my bag because I rode around town searching for a white van. The marshals were perplexed and tried to guide me to the control point -again! I had been too tired to notice the bags had already been unloaded next to the control point.
I knew I would need a good sleep and those 3-4 hours boosted my 332 km ride to Brest and back to Loudeac, where I had the same hotel and another short sleep.
I had expected some cold periods at night but leaving Loudeac in the dark of early morning, the freezing fog took me by surprise. In some sections visibility was particularly poor and compounding that, my glasses misted up. So when a young French rider came by, I followed his bright tail light which got me safely through those difficult kilometres. “Merci mon ami”.
Having read about the ride from various sources on the internet I now appreciated how time was lost at control points. So I started parking my bike as close as possible to the brevet stamping desk and making sure I remembered exactly where I had left it. This sounds obvious, but with hundreds of others coming and going, I was searching fruitlessly and imagined it had been taken. So after that, I counted rows and lined it up against a landmark. Another lesson was to ensure I took absolutely everything I might need so as not to make unnecessary trips back and forth. As expected, food queues were busy and sometimes it was quicker to buy soup and a sandwich. However, their calculating the cost could also take up precious time!
Sleep deprivation is a problem for those who take the longer times for the ride. I saw many riders asleep over their food, slumped in chairs, under the table, anywhere. I did try the 3 €uro foam mattress on the floor option, it was not a success. Riders came and went in their clonking footwear, they snored – loudly, lights flashed, I might have done better in a quiet corner. As it was, I slept fitfully but at least I was awoken at the requested time.
Falling asleep on the bike is a known risk on the PBP. I recognised the signs – loss of pedal power, veering to the wrong side, imagining large animals lurking in dark shadows. Even so, I postponed making the decision but thankfully stopped before a fall. A nice grassy bank but the brambles went unnoticed until a painful thorn pierced my finger.
I was now well into the final 450km.
At the Mortagne control, with another 140km to go, I met up with some Australians. Despite being exhausted they were determined to ride on. Critically, I decided I needed to sleep. Had I joined them, I might have made the 90 hours. Perhaps I slept too much.
I had also dawdled at times, enjoying a chat with families who had tables outside their homes set up with coffee, biscuits and snacks. I also stopped to give the mini koalas I had brought especially to give to the French children who were just as enthusiastic as their parents in cheering on the riders.
The rain came on the last day. Until Neuilly sur Eure, I had found the route markers easy to follow. I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t find the way. Three others were exploring the back roads of Senonches, a Frenchman, a Thai and me. Yes, it sounds like a joke, but it wasn’t. We lost more time and the Frenchman took some bad advice and shot down the wrong road. I went to “centre ville” and a friendly car driver said “suivez moi” and led me back to the route.
Talking about friendly car drivers, I had a funny episode with a French woman and her dog. I had just turned into a quiet side road behind a hedge in the middle of nowhere to apply some cream to my nether regions. I was ready with cream on my hand and just about to drop my knicks when her car turned in and stopped. How can I help you? Water? I have coffee, cake!
Then the dog escaped and had to be retrieved. Er! No thanks …just have to put some cream on and I waved my white fingers at her. She did eventually get the message and left me to it!
At the Dreux check point, the marshal who stamped my brevet wouldn’t look me in the eye. Maybe he knew I wasn’t going to make the 90 hour cut off. I knew too, but I was finishing strongly and keeping up a good pace. Then, as luck would have it, I got my one and only puncture at Monfort l’Amoury just 25 km before the finish! And something had happened to my pump, or maybe it was my brain, anyway I couldn’t get it to work. A friendly Spanish rider stopped to help, took over, put in my new tube and inflated it with his gas device. No sooner had he finished than we noticed his front tyre had also punctured so I waited to help him. Then, to top it all his gas applicator blew up!
It was a long meander to the Velodrome National and finally…. the last bend. Wow! I had completed my first 1200 (1230 km) and there was my smiling wife, Helia. Strange to ride my first 1200 …as perhaps it will remain the most challenging. I finished in 91 hours but I’m not too fussed. I survived and made the line unscathed. I hadn’t become one of the 20% DNFs.
All the build up and training was worth that tremendous sense of achievement.
This unique PBP experience, from qualifying, planning, lining up for bike inspection, the excitement at departure and of course, the ride itself, has been a very special time for me. I’m well pleased to have shared this amazing PBP journey with fellow cyclists from around the world. We have endured!
Australian Audax Cycling Club: http://www.audax.org.au