PBP 2011: Four Journeys

Photography: Wig Worland | Date:

After more than six months of arduous training and qualifying rides, four Rapha riders headed to Paris in August 2011 to participate in Paris-Brest-Paris. The oldest and certainly one of the longest road races still in existence, the 1,200km plus journey is not for the faint of heart, head or legs. Here are their accounts.

Ultan Coyle | Time: 54hrs 05mins

Sitting on the start line for what seemed an age started to wear down the relaxed demeanour I’d adopted in the days building up to PBP. With the sun beating down on top of my poor pale skin, I could feel my salt reserve being sucked out of me. My carefully attached, clip-on mudguards were taking a lot of knocks from the jostling crowds, all costing rich mental calories and heightening the nervous tension. “Get me the f**k out of here.”

Bang, and we were off, skipping along and positioning ourselves with as much flair as youthful intercourse. I held the outside line as best I could but some clown would always scream through a gap I never knew was there. Jostle, jostle, jostle. Crash, bang, wallop. Some hit the central reservations, somersaulting into a knot of tangled riders and with only the slightest sympathy from the bunch. I was very much on edge, looking for any gap to zip or squeeze through.

The road ramped up and I took off up the other side of the road as quickly as possible. This proved fruitful and I repeated the same move for the next couple of bumps until I found the front. Nice one. It was clear water, air to breathe. Then I thought, ‘Shit, I’m near the front, what the hell am I doing here?’ When I hopped on the lead, I did more than my fair share. I went to adjust my cap and felt the salt that had already accumulated around my forehead. ‘Be alert, be alert,’ I reminded myself, ‘ease off the berries or you’ll blow.’ I checked my bottles – almost empty. This act always reminds me of that scene in Mad Max Two, where Mel Gibson knocks his gas tanks to see what he has left and the noise that returns is hollow and empty. I had to make a stop before the next control.

We milled through the next village to find a classic scene; a family out on the front lawn with the garden hose. My saviours. While this unhitched me from the bunch, when I got going again they seemed tantalizingly touchable in the near-distance. I tried and tried but the winds got the better of me and I resigned myself to ride alone. Which was great. All on my lonesome, for the first time I was able to sit up and comprehend what I was doing. I rolled along a wooded road and there was an old boy playing the accordion in the middle of nowhere. I doffed my capped and got a warm smile in return. Things were starting to settle.

James Fairbank | Time: 61hrs 48mins

I watched Ultan move up the outside of several groups of riders, as the road rose and realised that, sadly, that would be the last I’d see of him until the finish. During a quick café raid to fill up bottles, Anton decided to press on. I dawdled long enough for Phil to catch up and we would ride together for the majority of the remaining 58-odd hours.

By the time we got going once more, the main field had split into groups and we found ourselves labouring into a hot headwind across open farmland. We caught up with Anton again and the three of us found ourselves in a sizeable group of twenty or so riders willing to work together. The night and subsequent kilometers passed quickly. We had set off with the top riders, the vedettes, about 5pm on Saturday, aiming for a sub-80 hour time. The bulk of the field, looking to complete the ride in under 90 hours, started a few hours later.

By this stage we were well on our way to Brest and a plan had begun to form in my mind. Despite the fact we had 80 hours to complete the 1,200km distance, the idea of dragging things out didn’t appeal; the quicker we completed the ride, the quicker the discomfort would end. “Push on to Brest,” I asked Phil “and then sleep at Carhaix on the return leg?” He agreed.

What amazed me from the beginning was how many of those riders on my shoulder, and that had ridden at least 1,500 qualifying kilometres to get to the start line, now displayed a standard of group riding that was lamentable. I’m not really in a position to criticise given that I was last wheel fighting sleep in the group heading into Brest, but it was beyond me why someone would sit second or third wheel and refuse to do a turn in a group that was otherwise working well. One rider we came across on the second afternoon, and who happily munched his way through the sausages taped to his top tube, refused to ride on the front no matter how hard we tried. He was far from alone. Wheelsucking for 1,200km represents the opposite of panache.

Leaving Brest at dusk on our return, the increasing humidity hinted at the prospect of rain to come and we soon found ourselves riding through a mist into a river of oncoming headlights. The glare off the wet road surface and dancing shadows were a portent of the hallucinations that would plague our third night.

As Phil’s climbing legs kicked in, I sat back to catch up with a group of English riders I’d met during our qualifying rides. Safe, predictable wheels were very welcome by this stage, as was the opportunity to have a natter. I broke away from this group on the descent from the Roc and pushed on alone. The horizon ahead of me was flickering and I couldn’t tell if it was lightning or lights on top of wind turbines. The thunder confirmed my suspicions. As I entered the outskirts of Carhaix, it started to rain.

Arriving at the control I opened the doors to see Phil among a sea of humanity. People were asleep everywhere, on tables, chairs, even on toilet floors. It turned out we’d ridden slap into the bulk of the 90-hour field. There was, apparently, a half-hour wait for beds, although what this was based on nobody seemed to know. We decided to take our chances on (and under) tables. I caught about an hour of sleep before Phil roused me with a bowl of tea and we pressed on. As I opened the doors to leave, I interrupted a man with a chinstrap beard who was vomiting onto the grass. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, apologised and rode away.

I remember little about the final day. Controls came and went, we raided a patisserie to break the monotony of overcooked pasta and sauce, and we rode two-up for most of the day. Eternal thanks, by the way, to the Willesden CC rider who gave me some chewing gum to help me stay awake. My head was nodding and I was struggling to keep my eyes open, so something else to focus on was a welcome distraction.

At every control, I’d pull my cap down over my eyes and grab 10 minutes sleep. That, along with a hefty tailwind, was enough to keep me going. Dusk rolled in, twelve hours to go. At the penultimate control we came across Bob, a rider I’d met in Yorkshire on my 300km qualifier back in May. One of those characters that makes cycling look extremely easy, spinning a small gear and closing the gaps by increasing his cadence in a technique honed over many winters riding a fixed gear. He didn’t slouch or fidget, even after 40 hours in the saddle.

Riding with Phil, I was glad of his experience particularly when, as the night progressed, I began to lose my mind. At one point I completely forgot what I was doing, where I was going and felt like I was drowning in indeterminate black fields. It took some stern words from Phil and an unwavering focus on the centre line, verge or a back light to prevent me from sailing into a ditch.

Minutes dragged on but slowly the glow of Paris drew us in. A roundabout, another sports hall, some sleep, a lost temper and it was all over. No fanfare. 61 hours and 48 minutes. There was no euphoria on completion. In some sense I feel I have gone through a box-ticking exercise just because PBP is the oldest and longest event of its kind. The support is magnificent and something only the cycling community could provide. The volunteers manning the controls were also a wonderful source of encouragement. Yet to do something just because it’s there isn’t reason enough for me to do it again. I’d recommend the journey to anyone but perhaps the destination wasn’t for me.

Phil Deeker | Time: 61hrs 48mins

Paris-Brest-Paris is not a race. Held every four years, to simply complete the 1,200km of PBP is enough of an achievement for most. It is too hard, too far and frankly too amateur to be organised annually. Yet from about kilometre 700, the only way to make sense of it was to make it into a race. James gradually lost all comprehension of why he was there at all (or perhaps it was a moment of clarity), yet it had been his idea to try and go for a sub-60-hour time. When we could find nowhere to sleep, he came up with the bright idea of ‘going for it’. From that moment, this insanely long and arduous ‘non-race’ took on a new meaning. Of course it’s a challenge to do it but it’s even better to do it fast! Do I really have to explain that? Surely not.

I was asked to find just one word to describe this experience. I settled on ‘timelessness’. Although our team of neo-audaxers included one who had already done the event and two who had gone an awful long way in a 24-hour time trial the month before, for me it was exactly twice as far as I have ever cycled in one sitting. It was so far and so long that time quickly lost all sequence. I can tell you about night number one, two and three. But only bits of them and not necessarily in chronological order.

Long, and thankfully mild, nights eventually became cold and misty dawns, with two long days in between bringing some kind of light relief. But there was no real structure to the days. The control points offered the same food for breakfast, lunch and dinner. In between the controls there was usually about four hours of pedalling. We spent about an hour at each control, time slipping away from us mercilessly as we made our way from card-stamp to WC to eating-place to bidon-filling taps. Out on the road, an overcast sky provided little contrast between am and pm. But I had no wish to know our ride time, the distance or even the time of day. It was all too unnerving. I just wanted to pedal my way to the end as quickly as my body could manage it.

To deprive my poor body of so much sleep was not part of the plan. I still find it hard to believe that having ridden through night one, on night two James and I simply slumped on the table we had just eaten at for half an hour’s sleep. It was followed by another two 10-minute slumps on night three – that was it. We became seriously detached from the normal concept of time. Not exactly the liberating kick I get from riding up mountains; just a numbed thrill of being somewhere that is totally unknown and not exactly 100% safe.

Imagine hearing voices, cheering and hands clapping in total darkness as you pass through, well… more darkness. Faceless spectators cheering faceless cyclists. In daytime, we saw spectators of all ages standing by the roadside, all promising it would get flatter soon.

Although I could not imagine riding this alone, and I thank James for his companionship, this is essentially an individual event. Witness the carnage at Carhaix. We were planning on finding three hours sleep on mattresses at this control but instead found only sleeping bodies lying, sitting, or simply crumpled, anywhere and everywhere. Each was trying to keep their own bubble intact, nothing more than survival instinct. You are on your own, there is no one to help you. Which is why we thought it better to do our surviving out on the road.

PBP is about seeing how far you can take yourself and it seemed for many French participants a way of earning some noble cycling stripes. This is what made it worthwhile for me. I have ticked the box. I can wear the badge. I have ridden the longest running road-cycling event. But what I will remember most about the PBP is not the cycling.

The two most memorable, and frightening, moments arrived when the demons of the night came out to test me. Night two began well. I charged out of Brest, up the 20km drag to the highest point in Brittany and was full of positive thinking I was ‘on my way home’. I was doing some proper climbing and, finding a decent pair of legs on me, had real purpose as I carved my way to the top. But as I did so I began to meet the thousands of riders still on their way to the halfway point. At the top of the climb, shrouded in mist, LED beams swung across the road, searching. More faceless spectators were cheering these ghosts rolling by.

This column of silent, spectral riders came at us through the night incessantly. Their blinking lights hypnotised and dazed us. Occasionally, lights backlit giant shadows on bikes, massive forms dancing eerily through the darkness. The silence was rarely broken by attempts at conversation. Company should have been reassuring. Instead, it simply took me further away from reality. The French towns we had been going through were devoid of life and movement. Now, even our fellow cyclists seemed to have become victims to some Harry Potter-like, marrow-sucking soul-gobblers.

Night three was even worse. When there are only 200kms left, a real sense of time and distance returned. The numbness caused by our previous ‘Whatever’ attitude fell away, like a dentist’s anaesthetic. Suddenly the end was almost imaginable. And yet, there were still enough kilometres to make for a substantial day’s ride in normal circumstances.

We were in the middle of a very quiet, very large forest. We had been through village after village whose silence had been deathly. There was no wind, not the hoot of an owl, just three of us pedalling toward a distant orange glow, a long way beyond. A red moon hung on the horizon until it eventually climbed above a layer of cloud and suddenly shone silver. The orange glow I was interested in seemed to get no closer. The forest began to close in on me and I feared that it was not going to release me.

Bob, a very experienced long-distance rider in front of us, asked if anyone else was hallucinating; he had just seen a pack of lions. I was desperately trying to stay calm. I was losing. Pedalling was easy; breathing was harder. Eventually the forest spat us out into an enormous black emptiness with a dead-straight road. I was desperate for street lights, cars, movement. Anything to confirm that I was alive and not part of some bad dream. I felt perfectly lucid, probably too much so; it was all too real and too scary. This had long ago become a sort of anti-adventure but the orange glow in the distance was the oasis that would quench my thirst for the real world. It would bring me back to myself. It took a very long time to get there.

The finish of PBP only confirms the view that it is not a race. We had received so much more encouragement at the controls. The women had looked after us like mothers, the men had looked up to us like kids look up to idols (well, almost), with the ubiquitous “Bravo les gars! C’est bien!” But at the finish, only a tired ripple of applause from friends and families of riders greeted us as we entered the sports ground. Inside the final control, another vast sports hall with bodies stretched out randomly across the floor, I handed in my brevet sheet and my transponder, and joined them. With my legs up on a bench and my back on the floor, I was gone. Thirty minutes later James woke me, smiling sympathetically as I tried to grasp where I was, how I could have got there, who he was and who I was. It was 7am and we had 10km to pedal back to our hotel and a real bed.

The battle James and I had and won in the middle of night three is what we would take away as our medals. Defeating the darkness, the exhaustion. Each of the bodies strewn around me in that hall had their own story of their own battles. They would all award themselves their own medal. Officialdom was absent, just a promise of a certificate that would be sent to us some time next year.

Initially, the sense of anti-climax left us feeling let down. Now it feels irrelevant. We had ridden with Russians, Canadians, Japanese, Spanish, Lithuanians, as well as numerous other riders from around the world. For some it is a race against the clock with its 90-hour cut-off time. For others it is a race to beat their time in the previous edition. We had set off in the 80-hour group with my own eyes on a 72-hour time. I took 11 hours off that and was happy. But in 2015 I will have no title to defend. It’s done. But I will encourage others to open the doors of Paris-Brest-Paris – if they dare.

Anton Blackie | Time: 70hrs 41mins

Reaching Brest, without sleep, at 28.5hrs was a major achievement and meant time for a little rest. This was to be the last time I saw Phil and James. A shorter than planned 1.5hrs of sleep had me heading back towards Paris before 11pm Monday. The return leg begins with plenty of uphill to the highest point in Brittany, Roc’h Ruz, before a wet, nighttime, downhill slog to Carhaix. Clearly by this point, my ability to convert food to energy and power was beginning to wane. Following a cracking thunderstorm, the roads were soaked and visibility due to mist down to just a few metres.

With dawn approaching, belatedly due to the poor weather, the mind played tricks with the mathematics of kilometres to go. Here the mental challenge was at its strongest. Clock off as much distance during daylight as possible, while fighting every urge to stop and rest. Breakfast, lunch and supper all became the same as each control served the same affair no matter what the time of day.

With the faster riders well up the road, I spent much of my time alone. Occasionally, small groups of riders or other lone riders would dash past, or else sit-on for a short period without offering assistance.

Arriving into Villaines-La-Juhel just after nightfall on Tuesday, a full sleep was in order. I’d amassed plenty of time (and not wanting to arrive in Paris too early…) I put my head down as a loud PA system offered encouragement to riders heading for the last 220km to Paris.

Whilst 220km in the context of a 1,200km might appear a manageable distance, it is still in itself a chunky ride. On departure, once again in the dark, my average speed was dropping, my ETA in Paris slipping along with it. Just after leaving I passed Wig, our photographer, asleep in his car, so stopped to check his plans.

I swallowed a breakfast of bolognaise at Mortagne-au-Perche as I tried anything to create some energy and power in my legs. One hundred and forty kilometres still to go. At Dreux, I went to see the Assistance Medicale thanks to a very sore left Achilles. A quick massage seemed to improve things, so I ate a couple of quiche and set out for home. My Achilles had other ideas and soon I couldn’t put any pressure through it whatsoever.

At 60km to go, I expected the adrenalin to kick in, meaning a remaining ride of around two hours. However, due to me one-legged pedalling, my ETA slipped further. With the sun, and the mercury, rising even with just at 15km to go I was struggling to get to the finish. Then, the signs for St. Quentin en Yvelines appeared. Rolling into the roundabout, I heard the cheers of supporters. Home.

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