PBP – Paris Brest-Paris – an epic feat of endurance, courage and sometimes a little crazy – I did it in 2007 and am happy to say: I survived the thrills and chills of PBP!
What is PBP you ask? PBP is the most famous long-distance randonnée: 1200 kms (745 miles) done in a maximum of 90 hours. You can sign up for one of 3 time cut offs – I elected for the 84 hours. The logic behind completing such a long ride in less than the maximum allowable time – I preferred to start at 5 in the morning rather than starting my ride in the night. While I lay down to sleep for only 5 hours over the 3.5 days, I figured it would be easier to push my body to the limit if I started with a good night sleep!
The 2007 edition of Paris Brest Paris was particularly gruelling. They say it was the toughest weather conditions in 50 years. We suffered through chronic rain, freezing cold nights and tremendous winds. When I did sleep, it was in a gymnasium with 500 of my closest cycling friends! At times, the bodily symphony at night was too much for me – while I lay in a cot for 5 hours over the 3 nights, I don’t think I actually slept much! Thank goodness for my amazing riding partners, Vytas and Guy, for allowing me the privilege of sleeping on the side of the road – those little mini naps were probably the deepest sleeps I had over the 1200 kms!
A number of years later, when cycling in the south of France, a number of male cyclists approached me – I was wearing my official PBP jersey – they wondered if I had actually ridden in the event. I received considerable praise and kudos from these men as some had started but not completed the 2007 edition. Of the 5,159 riders who started the event on August 20th, 2007, only 3,607 finished – a drop out of 30%!
Getting there…the challenge before the challenge!
First, you must qualify for PBP. Even the qualification process can be daunting as riders must complete a series of brevets in the same calendar year. The initial ride starts at 200 kms, and moves up step wise to include a 300, 400 and 600 km event. All rides are timed and with check points. The challenge becoming the balance between riding, eating and sleeping in order to make each point before it closes. Being in Canada, the weather adds an extra element of difficulty as the qualification needs to be completed early enough to complete the series in time for registration. I have completed a number of 200 km qualifiers in freezing cold conditions, sometimes not able to feel my fingers at the end of the ride. All in the name of fun!
Welcome to Paris
Before the ride was a mass of adrenalin and nerves as thousands of bikes and riders descended on France, coming from all parts of the globe. You can only imagine the chaos as we met at the Gymnase des Droits de l’Homme in Guyancourt for registration, bike (safety) check and photos. It was quite the sight to see so many bikes and what could only be described at road rockets – recumbent style bikes completely encasing the rider. As I had registered for the 84 hour time cut, my group was the last to start giving me one last full night of sleep and plenty of people to catch on the road (I was also a racer – catching and passing people always brings a smile!).
Paris Brest Paris – the ride
The ride and experience was nothing short of overwhelming – the enormity of the event and the magnitude of support along the way is what really made the experience special. Sure, we would be riding as close to non stop as possible, stopping only for checkpoints, food and virtually no sleep. The names of towns remain a blur – I wouldn’t even be able to list them off as I pedalled along!
We set off in waves of 500 cyclists. The morning was dark, wet and cold. Our group of 5 started towards the back of the wave – better to stay out of trouble as the onslaught of excitement that was about to begin. It was a sea of red blinkies (tail lights) as the mass of bikes pedalled into action – the excitement was palpable! Towards the back, it was a fairly slow start as we fell in behind hundreds of riders. As day broke, so too did our group with a touching of wheels after 80 kms. Some of our riders went down. It was a heart in throat moment as we assessed the damages. I was lucky to avoid the crash, but it would plague our group as it compromised our pace. Before the day was over, our group of 5 had shrunk to 2. There is no mercy on PBP – the cut off times can be cruel, and time wasted at the beginning is time you will never regain! We had to push on.
We rode through the magnificent country side – so beautiful with rolling fields, castles and quiet roads filled with cyclists. Paradise found! Checkpoints along the way are mandatory as your PBP passport must be stamped including the time you arrived. Everyone was in high spirits and the energy electric. Friends who had previously completed PBP had counselled me on the importance of eating (one would think intuitive, but believe me, it becomes difficult as you push your body to the max!) frequently. We ate at every checkpoint – I can’t be certain, but I believe I was eating 6 + pasta dinners a day, plus snacks on the bike and drinks in my bottle. The pasta was never ending – by the last night, I could no longer eat. My hand would bring my fork to my mouth, but I could not put it in. With no fuel, I would not be able to continue! Thankfully, I was reminded of the wonders of the french bakery – welcome Pain au Chocolat – my friend! Another attempted introduction to the PBP diet – coffee! With enough sugar to make the spoon stand on end in its cup, I still could not drink it down! To this day, I am not a coffee drinker – surely a disadvantage as the caffeine jolt would have been useful!
The French were amazing. All along the route, regardless of time, spectators were on the road. My favourite – riding through town in the middle of the night. As we rode through the town squares in the rain, men would be on the sidewalk, beers in hand, pointing us in the right direction! Even at 3 in the morning! There were bar owners who removed all tables and chairs, laying cots and mattresses on the floor for the riders. In the absence of a bed, riders would sleep on the floor!
We rode through the rain and the cold.
PBP 2007 was the first time I ever felt I would fall off my bike from the cold as one night my shivering overtook my body. When we came across one of the bars turned cyclist refuge – I was only too happy to stop. The steam off the cyclists bodies rose through the air as we organized for a bowl of hot soup and a bed. Our rest was short lived as we slept for only an hour. A welcome rest before we pushed on into the night.
PBP is an institution!
As the miles were adding up, the generosity of the locals grew. Families would set up tables and share home made cakes and cookies with coffee, some even offering wine (it was France after all!!). They would send their oldest child up the road with a sign, so that riders knew that they could stop for a snack 500 m up the road. It was amazing to see how much they embraced cycling and the event. When it became a game of mind over matter climbing the hills, people would line the route, cheering you on!
The atmosphere at the rest stops changed as the ride progressed. At first, they were highly functional stops – stamp the book, eat the food, change clothes as required. Sleep when it was time. As the days ticked over, and the timelines got tighter, there was a heightened element of pressure – get through the checkpoint faster, eat and back on the bike. No time to rest. I ran into problems due to wet shorts from the rain and visited the medic station on a few stops. Diaper cream is not just for babies – I may not have been able to complete the event without it!
The atmosphere at Brest was amazing. This was the half way point. There were bands and beer, probably 1000 spectators to cheer us on! I believe there were tears of joy streaming down my face – perhaps exhaustion! It was an emotional roller coaster as sleep deprivation and excitement surged through me. The realization that I was half way was not missed. We also had the first bit of sunshine – you could see riders flaked out on the grass, soaking it up! With little time to soak it in, we were soon back on the bikes, waving at the crowds and jubilant in our achievements!
It was the final rest stop that baffled me! There was a strong sense of urgency for many, and for others – beer! I couldn’t understand what was happening – it seemed some of the riders were having a party! How could this be? Turns out – there were many riders who had already missed the time cut! They no longer had any urgency to continue – in fact, I am sure many of them did not. Stories of waiting for buses and trains floated through the air. With no need to hurry, the beer flowed. The band played. Legs, tired from 1,100 kms were up and resting. Not the case for us, we quickly ate and hit the road. The time would be tight, after all – we had signed up for the 84 hours ride – we had to press on.
PBP – The final stretch
The last segment was a blur. At times I didn’t want to go on. The pain circulated my body – I would rotate the pressure off my feet, legs, bum and hands. I saw people who had the dreaded Shermer’s neck. They could no longer hold their heads up as the neck muscles had given way!
I don’t know where it started – but suddenly we seemed to be a huge group on the road. Vytas and I were close to the front and the police were shutting down traffic to allow us to come in. Before you know it, we were sprinting up the boulevards. In my racing days, I was a sprinter – so suddenly my legs were coming back to life and they were firing on all cylinders. An Italian cyclist was egging me on, naming me “La Motocycletta”. The policeman on the motorcycle was having difficulty controlling us and the drivers as he would go to the intersections to stop traffic as we rolled through. With all the excitement, one of my sprints topped out at 52 km/hr! The exhilaration was unbelievable. We stormed back into town like a hurricane. I don’t even remember getting to that final roundabout, but we slowed down to enter the Gymnase des Droits de l’Homme in Guyancourt. Someone showered us with the spray from a champagne bottle. We had done it – 1200kms. My final time: 82h03min.