Words: Phil Deeker | Photography: Wig Worland | Date:
The suffering served up during the 1,200km of Paris-Brest-Paris starts long before the riders arrive on the start line. Of all the BRM (Brevets des Randonneurs Mondiaux) rides needed to qualify (200, 300, 400 and finally 600km) for PBP, the one Rapha’s team of PBP novices had feared the most was the big one (well, biggish given what we will encounter come August). Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Bryan Chapman Memorial Audax Ride, Scenic version: 620km with 9,000m of climbing. Widely considered the blue riband event of the UK Audax calendar, James Fairbank had picked it as our 600km PBP qualifier a while back. The other members of the team, Ultan Coyle and myself, both agreed it looked some challenge; whether we would complete it within the 40-hour cut off we preferred not to think about.
The man whose name now graces the ride nicknamed ‘Wales in a weekend’ was something of a legend in these parts. “Bryan Chapman was one of a collection of riders renowned for riding insanely high miles on insanely high fixed gears,” explains ride organiser Mark Rigby. Among Chapman’s other cycling idiosyncrasies, Rigby points out, was an ability to never quite set his derailleur true. Riding companions recall the constant chain clatter, a noise only interrupted when Chapman changed gear, and which would then resume almost immediately, albeit in a different pitch.
“The Bryan Chapman Memorial counts for around a third of all the 600km audax rides completed in the UK every year,” adds Rigby. “Obviously that’s higher in PBP years as invariably it’s most people’s last qualifier.” Had this event been called a ‘cyclosportive’, only the cream of sportive riders would have taken part. Outside the registration centre, the Bulwark Community Centre in Chepstow, there would have been a collection of bikes whose price tags would, if their owners knew what was good for them, have been kept a secret from their wives. Inside, you’d likely have found slim, super-fit bodies clad in HTC, Garmin-Cervelo, or Team Sky replica kits. Complete with waxed and oiled legs, they would doubtless have been nervously busying themselves over last minute details before the ‘race.’
But in the reality of the Bryan Chapman lies its beauty. At 5am on the Saturday of the event there’s a different vibe. Outside is a collection of bikes that most riders could proudly show their wives as proof of not breaking the domestic budget. Inside, calm and confident, modestly dressed riders chatted together as if about to go on a morning club ride. But these guys had a presence about them that betrayed the low-key appearance of both bodies and machines; these were road warriors of a very special kind. Pre-sportive banter would have been full of dread and self-doubt, partly contrived to enhance hero status at the finish. So while I overheard one rider confessing to being “a little scared” at the prospect of climbing the equivalent of Mount Everest over the next 30 to 40 hours, it seemed to ruffle no feathers on the other riders around us.
Initially we felt a little self-conscious riding out in our new Rapha Brevet Jerseys and hi-vis pink vests, especially as we were a trio in an event most ride solo. Once we all got rolling however, we quickly settled into the friendly atmosphere. By the time we rode back into the community hall car park, 34 hours later, we had gained a true understanding of how, in audax riding, the spirit of road cycling is to be found without needing to win.
Of a total of 180 riders, we were three of 40 who had chosen the ‘Scenic’ route. The Scenic was created as an alternative to the ‘Classic’ route some years back and was designed to restore flagging interest. So while the Scenic is a shorter route it is one that entails more climbing. Opting for the Scenic entitled us to occasionally leave the Classic route to climb narrow, seemingly vertical lanes until we could see most of Wales before us, then plunge down again to rejoin the Classic riders further along their route. This was by no means flat (overall it has only 500m less climbing) but usually meant climbing on long-slog A-road gradients. On the second of the eight stages, the Scenic option really delivered, taking us all the way up the Elan Valley. Had we not been fighting an evil headwind all the way, we might even have enjoyed it. A plate of beans on toast and a couple of cuppas soon restored us at the Scenic’s ‘control’ café’ before our route took us back toward our Classic colleagues. Meeting up with increasingly familiar faces became a comforting part of the ride for us after our lonely escapades on Welsh farm lanes. It also meant sub-10% gradients for a while, which was useful.
It was on these lanes that James seemed to experience his darker moments. Having volunteered to be our route-sheet reader-cum-navigator (GPS is highly recommended for these rides but I’d not found the time to download the route), he understandably got a little tense at times. At a junction halfway up a particularly cruel 16 percenter, a tempting lane downhill happened to coincide with a doubting navigator. James suggested we head down to the main road to link up with the Classic route. That sounded like defeat to Ultan and I. How we gently managed to persuade him that seeing Wales from a hilltop once more was the better option I’ll never know.
Ups and downs, for both body and mind, are a constant feature of this ride. Ultan found himself approaching a giant white moose on the A470 shortly before we reached the hostel where we were due to grab some sleep; that it turned out to be a gorse bush suggested we reached the hostel just in time. I, meanwhile, survived an almost complete meltdown on one particularly long climb. Having overprotected myself against the cold wind and persistent rain, I found myself blinded by salty sweat and I overcooked. A couple of minutes at the side of the road to put myself together again and I was good to go. Just…
The wild scenery, the epic proportions and the impeccable logistical back-up make this event a true monument indeed. The organisation at the Kings youth hostel in Dolgellau illustrates this perfectly. Ride organiser Mark Rigby books the whole place for the weekend and the figure-of-eight route takes riders there twice to make sure they don’t forget it. The first time round it’s a food stop, a haven for hungry, tired riders; the second time, when you sleep there, it’s simply heaven. Our initial plan had been to ride through the night but after Ultan’s ‘moose’ attack, James’ navigation tantrums and the fact my own neck was having trouble supporting my head, we decided to stop.
The suffering experienced on the ride was, of course, relative. This being the world of brevet riding, there were nutters aplenty to keep Chapman’s derailleur-rattling, superhuman endurance spirit alive. One rider overcame the problem of a broken rear mech early in the ride by shortening the chain to fit a 42/16 gearing. Another summoned not only the spirit of Chapman, but that of the legendary Eugene Christophe. It was Christophe who, on the Tour of 1913, had been descending the Tourmalet when his forks broke. Securing the help of a local blacksmith to mend his forks in the village of Saint Marie De Campan, he duly remounted and continued on his way. Fast forward nearly a century, substitute the blacksmith for a welder at a petrol station, and the fact he repaired a broken frame rather than forks and said rider earns an extremely honourable mention in dispatches. He also completed inside the 40-hour cut-off.
For us lesser mortals, we arrived back at the hostel for another three-course, £3 miracle meal before being allocated a bunk bed each and asked what time we required our wake-up call. We agreed between us that two and-a-half hours of horizontal bliss was reasonable. I pulled off my Rain Jacket, shoes and soaked socks and slid under my puffy duvet. A five-star hotel would have found it difficult to offer greater luxury. Two and-a-half hours felt like two and-a-half seconds when the polite prod came, accompanied by a whisper: “It’s 4am.” A pair of dry socks helped soften the blow. (Had we read the small print, we would have seen that the organisers offer to carry baggage, including dry clothes, to and from this wonderful hostel).
After some more sweet tea and a jacket potato with coleslaw (an interesting menu at 4.30am), we set out into the semi-darkness. For the next four kilometres, back-tracking along the road we had arrived by, we met a steady column of single white lights. We had dined, slept and ‘breakfasted’ and these guys were just arriving, having ridden all night. In that instant, I do believe I met the spirit of audax. Usually, seeing riders behind me would have been a time for self-congratulation. But I can honestly say that my competitive ego had disappeared. I was humbled by the courage and determination of these guys. How much time it took anyone to ride this was irrelevant (apart from those needing to complete in under 40 hours to qualify for PBP). In that moment, these veritable kings of the road appeared a lot wiser than the sportive wannabes I usually consider myself to be part of.
We also learned that while suffering is present by the bucket load, glory is to be found in a cup of tea and a slice of toast handed to you with a smile in the arrival hall. No congratulations, no questions, their eyes expressing respect better than words ever could. None of us had pedalled for so long before and we had ventured in to the unknown, far beyond our previous limits. James and Ultan had looked after me well and allowed me to catch up when gaps got a bit ‘elastic’. We had managed a 25kph average, despite many darker moments. And yet, while this ride has given me confidence I can handle PBP physically, it has left me questioning whether I can keep a finger on the ‘positive attitude’ button for long enough. I’m counting on some of the other 6,000 riders at PBP for help on our journey. All suggestions for good cycling mantras welcome.
Paris-Brest-Paris takes place between August 21st-25th 2011.