The Road to PBP – part 1

Ever since my first attempt at PBP in 2015, I knew that I would probably have another go at completing it. It was such an experience, and I knew what I did wrong, so figured I had another 4 years to work things out and fix them.

What is PBP you may ask?

PBP stands for Paris – Brest – Paris.

It’s a 1200 km cycle event from just outside of Paris, across Normandy and Brittany to the West Coast town of Brest, and then back again. It is one of the oldest cycling events that is still regularly run.

The first ever PBP was held in 1891, when it was a race, won by Frenchman Charles Terront. It is even older than The Tour De France, and was most likely the initial inspiration. It was last run as a race in 1951, and is now a ‘brevet’ in which cyclists ride individually finishing within the 90 hour time limit. It runs once every 4 years, the next being in 2019.

Although this is now an ‘amateur’ event, there is still a tough qualifying process. In the months running up to the main event, hopefuls have to complete a series of ever increasing distance events of an approved standard. A series consists of a 200km, 300km, 400km & a 600km ride. Only when these are all completed in time, is the participants entry valid.

The emphasis is on self-sufficiency and no motorised support is allowed along the cycling route, just at ‘controls’. Each control has food, toilets, showers and some sleeping facilities, although riders can choose to buy supplies or make alternative arrangements on the the route, as long as they still pass through and get validated at each control.

Sleep on the event is minimal – only the very fastest riders have the time for a full 8 hours sleep along the way. Most others grab a 3 or 4 hours each night if they are lucky. It’s not uncommon to find riders sleeping in fields, bus shelters, or grassy verges.

It is a truly multinational event, with riders coming from all over Europe, India, Thailand, Brazil, Australia and America to name just a few.

The local population really support this and some villages really pull out the stops, laying out their village squares as a 24 hr party of rest stops with drinks, bbq’s etc for the passing cyclists. This can be very welcome in the middle of night when all shops are closed. There is something very surreal, but welcoming having people run up the road after you at 3am shouting “Allez, Allez”

What happened last time?

In 2015 I entered knowing there was only a 50:50 chance of completing the event, and very nearly decided not to attend. However, after a friend gave me a good talking to, he convinced me that if I didn’t start, I would never know if I could have completed it or not.

At the beginning of the year the longest distance Audax I had completed was 200K. However, a couple of years earlier I had got myself fit enough to ride from London to Paris in 26 hours, so I’d had a taste of the longer distances under pressure, and some idea about what I was like riding sleep deprived. I was also a very experienced cyclo-tourer, having undertaken many multi-day rides, and keeping going regardless of how tough things were getting.

I chose a double set of events to ensure my qualification, and got cracking with my first 200k in January. I won’t go into all the details, but I had to do each distance (other than the 300k) twice in order to qualify, and I started to learn a lot about how my body coped with lack of sleep, technical issues with navigation and lighting for such a long time. I had a lot of failure before succeeding.

I tried to develop my strategy for completing the main event, and hoped for the best.

When I got to France, I soaked up the atmosphere, and made up my mind to enjoy it and get to the end no matter what.

All started well, I found my place in the pack – slower than many, but faster than others. For much of the first 400k I was going well, and still overtaking people (which is very unusual for me). It was amazing chatting with other riders from all over the world, and riding with whoever, was going the right speed for me at the time. When I reached Loudeac, on the second night, I planned on getting about 3 hours sleep. Unfortunately, although I had missed the main ‘bulge’ of riders, I had a problem. The really fast riders, were already on their way back and had also hit Loudeac. The place was heaving. I managed eventually to get a bed, but I had got cold whilst waiting. I lay under the blanket shivering, and couldn’t stop. This mean’t I also couldn’t sleep. After an hour of trying I gave up. I figured I’d be better moving forward than lying there shivering. I’d try to get some sleep elsewhere.

It really was the start of all my problems. At every control after that I would put my head on a table, and just snooze whilst my food was digesting, and Garmin charging. On the return stretch there was an additional issue, one of the controls where I had planned on eating and catching a bit more sleep had run out of food. It was the middle of the night, and they had no way of buying any more until morning. This was a disaster. It had been a long & lumpy ride from the last control, and I was starving & tired. There are no 24/7 facilities by the roadside in this part of France. I had a cup of tea, and a bit of a nap on a cold floor before moving on. Luckily a ‘secret’ control wasn’t too far away, and I was able to get food there – and another nap on a table. The lack of sleep was proving to be a problem for me now – but I was beginning to get very short on time so had to keep moving. Also, I was beginning to run out of battery on all of my lights – an even bigger problem since I had another night to get through yet. I was loaned a light from another Audaxer I knew who had packed further on, so I was back in the game.

Somehow I made it through the next day – power napping every time I started to fall off the bike. But at Fougueres it really was the beginning of the end. The control was closing behind me, time was running out. I had worked out that I still had about 300km to go, and if I could ride at my current pace, consistently without stopping, then I could get there in time. It was interesting, that when I was on the bike and moving, I was still peddling at roughly the same pace as I had on the way out. It was a good pace too – but the sleep deprivation meant that I needed to keep stopping – and this was eating up my time. As the day turned to evening and the sun started to dip, a drizzle started. I knew it was going to be bad for me. I was becoming dangerous on the bike. Dangerous to me, and other road users. I also knew there was a small town coming up. I made my decision – if there was a hotel on the route, that was cheap, I was going to stop. The area was such that I could get back to Paris from here. Just as I entered the town, a beautiful sight appeared. I motel type hotel, for just £35 a night including breakfast – I packed for my own safety. It was the train back to Paris for me in the morning.

What did I learn?

I learned

  • if I find the right pace, I can keep it going indefinitely.
  • Get the sleep strategy right. This one I am still fine tuning, but I need to practice getting to sleep quickly and soundly.
  • Rethink my gadgets and lighting – I resolved this straight after the event. I replaced my front wheel hub with a dynamo hub, and B&M front light, with USB charging. This means as long as I’m peddling I have light, and can charge up my Garmin or phone, without the need for heavy power banks, or multiple charged light batteries. The expense has been well worth it. In fact it’s the best thing I’ve ever bought for my bike.
  • Keep the carried weight down. I had carried everything with me, but I could have left drop bags providing a change of clothes, additional power banks etc
  • Lose weight myself, to make myself a bit quicker again.
  • Get fit for the longer distances in the year prior to the qualifiers
  • Cross train to improve my strength and power so that I ride faster over a long distance and varied terrain.

Since PBP I’ve become much more successful at completing Audaxes in time. I’m still full value, but I’m more consistent. I have no worries about navigation, or lighting. I’m quicker through controls as a result, as I’m not trying to charge things while I’m stopped. I do need to be quicker still.

I entered LEL (London Edinburgh London), trying to put into practice all that I learned at PBP. Again I didn’t complete the event, but sleep deprivation wasn’t quite the problem that it had been before. It was a pain in my knee that caused the big problems. I packed at the 800k mark, got a lift back down south, then cycled another 100k back to the start.

I was very happy that most of my PBP problems had been fixed, so this has given me the momentum to make PBP2019 my long term goal. I am very determined to not just complete it, but complete it with time to spare.

After LEL, I got back to riding with our regular Wednesday night group, and my friend Laura asked if I was still wanting to do PBP? I told her that I was more determined than ever, and she said that she’d been inspired by my LEL attempt and wanted to do PBP with me……So now there were two…..Follow our journey towards the start line in part 2.

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