Paris Brest-Paris 2011 (part 1)

A ride report from the vaults. May contain useful advice, but probably not.
This is my frame number. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

“Hey man, it’s just a ride – the world doesn’t stop for it”. So said Peter the Mad Magyar Messenger, but it’s easy to forget that the world’s still turning when you’re so caught up in the bubble of the ride, when cheerful French supporters line the route and  lean out of their houses to cheer you along, and whole villages party through the night to celebrate your passing. Actually, never mind just riding; there were times when you had to stand back and remind yourself that all this was for you, you weren’t an interloper but someone with a gilt-edged invite to the whole shebang.

There was, however, the prospect of having to ride 1200 km. This was twice as far as I’d previously cycled, and I’ll admit to some nervousness at stepping into the unknown.

pre-ride prep. I was so much older then etc.
More pre-ride prep – Andy on the Champs. Later, we sat in a park drinking wicked strength lager.

The first night was stone starking bonkers crazy-insane.  After a day’s dossing about and wasting nervous energy and watching the other starters depart, I rolled up to the stadium with Alex at about a quarter to nine. Boab and the Elgin CC lads were already there, waiting for the off and awarding marks for how well people rode down the ramp onto the track. As everyone in front of me dismounted and walked down the ramp, I didn’t have chance to ride down it and, naturally, I felt I deserved a proper go. I received raucous applause from the spectators for my re-entry into the stadium, but getting back up the ramp had been the most difficult part.  Lindsay accused me of being an exhibitionist, and oddly it wasn’t the last time this accusation was levelled at me on the ride.

me and Alex at the start

The advantage of the 9 pm 90-hour start* was that it was smaller, so we avoided queues at controls, and avoided being on the road with three hundred others of varying abilities.  It seemed to be very much in favour amongst Brits.

It also meant we weren’t waiting long in the stadium, unlike the previous groups which were held for hours in the blaze of the sun while endless ceremonies went on, conducted by a booming Frenchman. “And now, the mayor of Loudéac! His deputy! His deputy’s cousin’s eldest son who once went to the supermarket sur velo! And now, the same again in English! German! Swahili!” etc. They skipped the ceremonies for us and just chucked us out into the night in groups of twelve or so.


I was behind Lindsay and Alex and the Elgin lads in the line, ahead of Danial Webb and Julian Dyson – the same booming Frenchman gave the bikes a once-over to make sure our lights and hi-viz jackets were in place, then booted us out into the crepuscular gloom.  There was a red phallic Velomobile starting with us, struggling with the wee ramp, so I weaved my way around him and onto the road. Filled with adrenalin, we set a blistering pace and we were soon catching up riders from previous groups, snarling at the frustrating red lights which cropped up every couple hundred yards (we stopped at most of them, honest!), and struggling not to be overwhelmed by the experience of dashing into the dark with still-cheering spectators and the hiss of the pressure valve threatening to overload. It’s a long time in coming, PBP – it only happens once every four years, and there’s at least a two-month gap after qualifying before the event itself.  For me, that first run into the darkness was a great release of tension. 

There was a group of mostly Irish who were cranking up the speed, and shelling riders behind them up the hills. I had to stop as my rear light was flashing (event rules stated: no flashing rear lights, else suffer a time penalty), and since it happened just at the point where the traffic lights ended at the Parisian city limits, I was using myself badly to try to catch up with the group. The pace they were setting was so high, there was no chance for slower groups to form, as everyone was trying to keep up.  I rode along with them for a while, but when Julian eased off I did the same.  Going off too fast on the first night was one hazard I wanted to avoid.  Turns out, this wasn’t an issue for me.

I had been worried about getting water and provisions, as there were 190 km to the first port of call, but everyone said there was plenty of roadside support, and they were right. At about 70 kms a little girl filled my bottles, and at about 100 kms I stopped at Thymerais where the Sports Bar was open all night and there was a wild atmosphere.  The waitresses were all in fancy dress, a guy from the local news was filming the scene, and cyclists were draped about the chairs and tables, sleeping and snoring and sweating in the humid night.  I got myself an espresso and watched the riders milling around, already looking a bit spaced out, and I wondered what I’d signed up for.  I was bouncing with caffeine and adrenalin – everything seemed to exist in primary colours, which might have been the effect of some of the more out-there club jerseys.  Not to mention the compulsory hi-viz jackets of shame which we were obliged to wear during the hours of darkness.  I generally took mine off as soon as daylight came around – not that I found its weight a problem, but I preferred letting other people see my club jersey, and I would have preferred seeing other riders’ club jerseys to the great wash of Health and Safety yellow which greeted mine eyes, even during the day.  So, first thing Monday morning, I sat up on my bike and de-hi-vizzed myself.  A broad Aussie voice behind me shouted “You effing show-off”.  I shrugged.  Riding no-handed was to prove an exceptionally useful skill, as I could take the pressure off my hands, take off or put on my jacket of shame, and even stretch a bit while riding the bike.  And of course, it looks damn cool.

I built up a bit of good karma when I left the Sports Bar: a rider asked if I had spare batteries for his light, and since I had batteries to spare, I gave him a couple, and refused his kind offer of payment. It was that kind of convivial atmosphere. Loads of people were cheering you on, who all wanted you to succeed. And it turned out, I had the favour returned to me later on.

By this time the groups had fragmented, so we were a bunch of individuals on the road.  I rode at my own pace, overtaking a few riders. One Italian rider grabbed my wheel as I passed him, which was fair enough, but after seven or eight clicks I decided to let him do some work – he got the message when I almost pedalled to a standstill.  After my next turn, I simply swung off and he came through – we seemed to be working well together, though we spoke barely a word of the other’s language. Grazi.

I was about to let him go, expecting him to descend faster than me when we were hitting the rolls about 50 km from Mortagne-au-Perch.  There were a couple of other cyclists around – I could see red lights streaming into the distance.  It was a ride where you would never be alone, unless you wanted to be.

Sadly, one of the riders up ahead took a tumble on the descent. I was about two hundred metres or so behind them, and either there was a touch of wheels between him and the rider close by him, or he fell asleep (though it seemed very early in the ride for that to happen), or a small animal ran into his wheel… I have no idea. However it happened, he took a header off the road and landed heavily. The other rider had already picked himself up by the time I got there, and a few others gathered around, and we called an ambulance, and the control at Mortagne to let them know what was happening. As it happened, an English doctor was riding, and he came along to the scene. I generally felt useless, but at least I could explain what had happened and advise English-speaking riders to keep moving on. The injured rider was Taiwanese, but unfortunately no other Taiwanese riders came along.  One rider asked if it was a secret control – I don’t know if it was the ambulance, or the guy on the stretcher, or the pack of paramedics which gave him that impression.  I shook my head and waved him on. 

Along with the other riders who’d been close to the accident, I waited until he was packed off in an ambulance, and rode on, hoping that he was OK. There was, sad to say, one fatality on the ride, but I haven’t heard anything about an injured Taiwanese rider.  I asked at a couple of controls, but no one had any information, so I hope that no news is good news.

I was a bit weirded out by the whole thing, and Mortagne couldn’t come soon enough, where I hoped to get some coffee and a sit down and a bite to eat with familiar faces.  The route was rolling still, but I wasn’t paying much attention, until I passed a rider who was walking his bike at the side of the road.

“Are you OK?” I asked.

“Erm, no,” he replied.

So that was how I met Alex from Bangalore – his front mech clamp had snapped, and he couldn’t even pedal the bike.  He refused my offer of help at first and insisted that I would make myself late, but I had the tools and know-how to split his chain, remove the mech and leave him with the use of a single chainring, so it would have been daft not to, especially as it saved him a 25 km walk, and only cost me about 25 minutes, including riding along with him a bit to make sure he could pedal. And to be honest, I was pleased to have something I could actually do, after feeling useless and helpless for more than an hour.

But being a good samaritan only goes so far – I got Alex riding and pedalling, then buggered off to Mortagne in search of coffee.  Caffeine dependency is a cruel mistress. 

I rode into Mortagne-au-Perch with a Canadian chap – I never caught his name, I only know him as the famous Hugh Porter, as his frame bore the name Hugh Porter, he complained that some people called him Hugh Porter, I mentioned that some people had asked if my name was Dave Yates, and I even made the mistake of asking who Hugh Porter was (the name did ring a vague bell), only to be told that he’s a hero in my country.  Well, not in my fucking part of it, matey.  Such conversations are the stuff of night time rides.  I caught up with him later, shouted “Ah, you must be the famous Hugh Porter!” and carried on the conversation from before. It was only when the breaking daylight improved and allowed me to see his USA jersey, and I surreptitously took another look at his frame, that I realised it was a different, if similar, rider. I blame it on the hi-viz jackets of shame.  Dashed decent of him not to point out that we hadn’t had a conversation previously, though.

I probably shouldn’t mention the incident in the ladies’ bogs at Mortagne – hey, it wasn’t my fault.  There was a beardy bloke washing his face when I went in, so I thought it was the gents’ and wandered in, but when I came out of the cubicle a female rider was giving me a very strange look. An honest mistake, m’lud.

I also saw some of the stars of the ride at Mortagne – Team David’s Salon sat at the table next to me while I guzzled coffee and pastries and tried to get my shit together.  David is a British ex-pat who set up a chain of hair salons in the Phillippines, and in order to qualify he had to set up the qualifiers and create a long distance riding scene in the Phillippines.  He’d brought over a number of ladies from his salons (actually from the accounts department), and the plan was to ride as a team, in matching outfits.  I don’t think it quite worked out, but when I saw them at Mortagne they were seated together, with David at the head of the table and the female riders flanking him.  I imagined that they went on the road in much the same way, David at the back and twin lines of ladies in front of him, riding a disciplined line and listening for his instructions to swap places.  Leader of the Pack came over the sound system, which seemed apt, especially after the line “They told me he was bad”, which David echoed by saying “They told me it was flat!” Last I heard, David had packed, but he was cheering his remaining riders on from the roadside.

I left the slightly surreal scene behind, and I was very pleased to see Alex from Bangalore come into Mortagne just as I was leaving – he handed his bike over to the mechanic, hopefully for a more permanent repair. I wished him well, and at this point, I was simply hoping that the rest of the ride would be straightforward and simple, no more adventures or extraordinary happenings or chance meetings. A simple, easy ride back in, without any dramas.  Maybe I could handle a puncture, or a bit of rain. Be careful what you wish for.

Still, the riding itself was easy – for most of Monday morning after the sleepless night I was steadily overtaking other cyclists. The night had been warm and I’d drank six bottles of water, but the dawn was overcast and the day proved to be much cooler than the previous days.  Andy and I had ridden into Paris on the Thursday, when it was 35 degrees C. The ride would have been a very different experience if that had persisted.

I did my bit for UK-Taiwan relations (don’t ask – or if you do, ask me in person, as it’s a much better story when I can mime the actions), then for most of the rest of the day it was just a matter of pedalling, eating and shitting.  The squatting toilets at Villaines were a bit too much for me to cope with at that stage, but that’s the great thing about a shite – sometimes you can hold it in (though don’t tell Andy Wills this, as he had a very different experience on the ride). I commented to Sven the Flemish hipster on the second or third day that these rides tend to reduce you to your most basic needs – get something to eat, have a piss and a crap, get some sleep, possibly have a shower, and keep going.  So if I do write a book of it, I’ll want to call it “Eat. Sleep. Shit. Ride.”

There was a brief rain shower, when I sheltered in a barn and ate the last of Kat’s chocolate flapjack, which I’d carefully hoarded for such an occasion. An Alaskan named Buzz agreed with me that it was too warm for a rain jacket, as we rode past lines of cyclists donning all sorts of wet weather gear.  Later in the ride, I was inbetween Neil from Sunderland, who was sweating in shorts and short sleeves with the zip of his jersey right down, and his Porto Rican mate, who was icily cool in full length arm and leg warmers. That was one of the best bits of the madness, the array of nationalities riding, and the pleasure of company from different parts of the world. Apart from Alaskan Buzz, there was Geert the Smoking Dane, Sven the Flemish Hipster, a pair of US ex-pats living in Singapore, one of whom had the most fabulous full-of-attitude New Yoik accent. I could have listened to him all day.  As well as a rich mix of French, Italians, Japanese, Spaniards and Dutch, and a lesser-spotted Hungarian, Peter the Mad Magyar Messenger, who worked as a bicycle courier in Berlin, had ridden to the start, and rode around in a knackered old wifebeater and a pair of corduroy shorts. I asked him if he hadn’t had time to get changed into his cycling gear that morning, and he replied “Hey, this is how I roll, man”.  I even rode with people from such exotic and faraway places as Kent and Wakefield.

I’d decided to have a big eat at Fougeres, to shelter from the rain (which had stopped before I left), and this was the right place to eat, as the food was plentiful and not that expensive. Mind you, you probably needed a three-course meal to set you up for the walk from the control, to the restaurant, to the toilets, all of which seemed to be as far away from one another as was possible.  On the way back, I rode my bike up to the control, then to the bog.

Full of food, I enjoyed the grand ride past the chateau out of Fougeres in the sunshine.  I missed a turn in one of the villages, but thought to myself “not a problem – I’ll just nip across this car park and back onto the route”. Unfortunately I’d forgotten that the French don’t do dropped pavements, so I took the entrance to the car park with more speed than was probably wise, and earned myself a snakebite puncture.  It was easy to fix, and I was managing fine, until a local came along and insisted on helping. He was most insistent, and I didn’t really have the French or the heart to tell him to piss off and let me do it by myself.  I replaced the tube without a problem, but I made a right cock-up of re-setting the wheel. Riding fixed, this is a bit of an issue, and I noticed that my chain felt extraordinarily slack. I stopped pedalling, the sprocket unscrewed itself, and I came stupidly to a halt. Not in itself a big issue – there was no damage done, and I decided to flip the wheel to use the sprocket I had on the other side. With an audience of amused locals, I didn’t find this especially simple, so my chain was still exceptionally slack when I set off, as Alex Greenbank was kind enough to point out.

This was merely the first incident in a chain of punctures and mechanicals, all of which were simple enough, but in total they were a bit disheartening.  The low point was sitting in a field east of Loudeac, with one unpatchable tube, two tubes in which I couldn’t find the puncture, and rumbles of thunder coming closer.  I didn’t want to be stuck in a field in the rain, trying to bodge a repair, or have to take a ride with the motorbike support crew, who were hovering like vultures, or so it seemed.  Luckily enough, the first cyclist I flagged down had a spare tube which would fit my tyre.  Paul from Canada, you are a gentleman and a scholar, but fuck knows why you had that tube when it wouldn’t have fitted anything on your bike.

I vowed to buy more innertubes when I got to Loudeac, and rode on while the storm was still brewing.  Seems that the delay was a blessing in disguise, as it gave Andy a chance to catch up – he’d been having a torrid time with his digestion, and I think I’ll leave it at that.  We rode together into Loudeac through an immense storm, which I found utterly wild and hilarious. I couldn’t see a thing with my glasses on, as the rain covered the lenses, and even with my glasses off, I couldn’t see far.  I soon lost Andy, and I thought he’d gone off the side of the road when someone shouted what I thought was my name and waved me down.  But it was just an over-enthusiastic local, crossing the line from friendly and supportive to annoying and intrusive (I had a wonderful ride, but that was one of the few moments where I became a bit irritated).  I rode back up to Andy and let out a series of whoops and exclamations to echo every shout of thunder, which must have made the experience exceptionally mad, as even he remembers it, in the blur of shitting and struggling to eat and sleep deprivation which was his ride. He got around, though, and I was there to cheer him back.

I was, I think, starting to suffer with sleep deprivation, since I’d been awake for 40 hours or so.  The lead-in to Loudeac was a bit of an assault course in the dark and wet, a series of narrow chicanes inbetween crash barriers which funneled us into the control.  There were bikes everywhere, Neil was just leaving, looking a bit tired, knackered in fact.  I would probably have told him to stop and get some kip instead of carrying on, but I wanted his bike space…

Andy was pushing the time limit and was a bit concerned about getting sleep, so we went and found Julian Dyson, guru of timings on PBP, who told Andy how long he could afford to sleep. I saw Andy to his dorm and some much-needed rest, decided that a quick beer would send me off to sleep and sat in the cafe to guzzle it before following Andy into the dormitory.

Though I had a lot more time than him, I think I’d picked up on his sense of urgency, so I asked for a 3 am wake-up, which was far earlier than I really needed, and I spent a restless night waking up every half hour or so, probably not helped by the epic snoring and general noisiness of the place.  One guy took a phone call in the middle of the night, and only hung up when his neighbour asked “Dude, what the fuck?” Someone came to wake my neighbour at about 2.30, then started to have a conversation with him. I gave him a look filled with as much disdain as I could manage, which I think is quite a lot, even at dark o’clock.  Anyway, I took it as my cue to get up, get eating and get gone.

Part 2 here

*This option doesn’t exist any more, it seems to have been a 2011-only thing.

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