6.30pm and I finally reach the start line after 3 hours stood in the sun. I’m in St. Quentin du Yvelines some 10km west of Paris on Sunday 21st August 2011 to take part in the the Paris-Brest-Paris 1200km Audax and I’m waiting for the 90hr start. With me are Neil and Martyn, fellow Audax Ecosse riders, I’m feeling pretty relaxed given that in front of me are 1200km of riding in the next 3-4 days. The commentator is starting to wind the crowd up as we get close to the start time, then the countdown starts. We are a bit back from the actual start line so it takes a moment or two before we start to move.
I give it a second or two to give myself a bit of space and then I’m moving, clipping in and picking up speed. I’m careful to follow Neil’s advice and stay towards the centre of the road to avoid problems when the road narrows. The group picks up speed quickly as I follow Neil’s wheel through the initial turns and out onto the straight section of dual carriageway. Working together we manoeuvre our way through the pack. The speed is high, far too high, but it’s good to burn the adrenaline off after over 3 hours stood in the queue for the start. We make the biggest gains on the downhill sections with long swoops down the outside of the pack. I get a warning from Neil after one of these where I just let it go down the outside, on the wrong side of the road through a series of blind bends. He’s right, that was a bit daft and apart from the consequences of meeting a vehicle coming the other way, I could get pulled over and fined time by the motor cyclists policing the groups. Still, we are flying and are soon off the front of the group we started with and getting mixed up with the next group.
Our average speed is over 20mph over the first hour. It is at this point, after losing the group on a hill and then regaining them on the next downhill, that I start to calm down and decide to drop off the pace. Once I slow down and get some drink in me I have time to look around and appreciate the spectacle of a solid line of riders disappearing into the distance ahead, a quick look behind confirms the same spectacle behind.
The weather is hot and humid and I’m getting through a large amount of water and starting to worry about getting the bottles refilled. Just as I start to get really worried about this there are spectators offering water along the side of the road. I see a group at the top of a rise ahead where only a few riders have stopped. I pull over and get my bottles filled quickly and efficiently, I offer my thanks and with their words of encouragement ringing in my ears, carry on. Soon dusk is on us and I stop to put my reflective gilet on.
On into the growing darkness, following the snaking line of red lights that I can see for some considerable distance ahead. We pass through small villages with knots of spectators offering their vocal encouragement and on into a small town where the main street is busy with riders stopping for refreshments. I carry on straight through on the wave of riders and back out into the darkness. A few kilometres further on and I’m starting to feel a bit rough, the heat and dehydration from standing so long in the sun at the start and the initial fast pace have taken their toll. I press on regardless but at around 115km I have to stop. I pull out of the line into a track as we pass through a forest. Off the bike I eat an energy bar and consume a whole bottle of water with a hydration tablet in it. The view up and down the road is amazing, solid lines of lights as far as you can see.
After 10 minutes I’m back on the bike, it takes a while to find a gap in the line that I can slip into and then I rejoin the river of riders. A bit further down the road and as we are passing through a dark village a rider gets a bit too close to me on a bend, I shout at him then recognise the Audax Ecosse shirt he’s wearing. It’s Dick from Galasheils closely followed by his wife Lucy who gives me a quick ‘hello’ before following Dick up the road. I will continue to meet them at controls all the way out to Brest and back as far as Tinteniac. It is not long afterwards that I find myself climbing up through the town of Mortagne towards the first stop – this isn’t a control on the outward leg, just a food stop. My original plan was to skip this control but I’m still feeling a bit rough and moving fairly slowly so I decide to stop. This is my first PBP stop and it takes me a while to park my bike and find my way through the facilities. I decide to go for a full meal so I join the queue, pick up a large plate of pasta and make my way among the tables looking for a space. I hear someone shouting my name and it takes a while to locate Graeme and Neil McD amongst the throng of riders, once I spot them I make my way across and join them. I tell them I’m finding it hard going and they invite me to ride with them, it seems a good idea. Other familiar faces appear including Simon and Ian who I had ridden with a number of times in Wales. I meet up with Graeme and Neil outside and set off into the darkness.
The way out of Mortagne is downhill and I let the bike go expecting the other two to follow but find that they haven’t. I hitch myself onto the back of a group and spin along expecting them to catch me up but they don’t. I see Neil again on a couple of occasions at controls but it is the last I see of Graeme until the final control at Dreux when we meet as he is arriving and I’m leaving.
So, on into the night I ride moving from group to group as people speed up, slow down or stop. The road in front is a river of red lights that I float down, my white light cutting into the darkness. We pass through the occasional village, a brief oasis of light in the blackness, small knots of spectators shout encouragement as we flash through and then back into the blackness again.
A few hours of this and I’m in the lights of Villaines and into the noisy confusion that is the control – music blares out mixing with the cheers and shouts of encouragement from a crowd of spectators – this is 5 in the morning! It takes a while to park the bike and find the control to get my card stamped. Again I opt for a full meal and make my way across the road to the self service restaurant. I don’t recall seeing any familiar faces here and, after a 10 minute search to relocate my bike, I’m back on it and making my way out of the town as a slow greying of the skies announces the dawn.
As daylight seeps into the landscape I’m on a rolling road passing through fields and woods interspersed with small villages. Slowly I’m getting into the ride, slipping into ‘audax time’, measured in the distance between controls and the time it takes to complete each section. Places, people and incidents merge into each other. A control comes and goes, Fougeres where I have a second breakfast, lose my bike and spend too much time getting food and sorting myself out. Back on the road again, smaller roads and hills now as I ride on into the day by myself, the hum of tyres on tarmac and the buzz of the chain for company. At some point I ‘m riding with a group of Australians who are working efficiently, I take my turn at the front and enjoy the conversation when on the back. I ride with them for a while then I’m riding on my own again. Somewhere else that day I’m aware I’ve been towing a group along for a while until I stop for a comfort break. The day passes, it is warm and humid and feels as if it will rain, kilometres pass. Another control, Tinteniac, another meal and some conversation with Dick and Lucy, I also meet up with a couple of tandem pairs here – Colin and Sonya and a couple of VC167 riders, one of whom is blind – who I will bump into at most controls back to Paris. These opportunities for conversation pull me back out of the ‘other worldliness’ of audax time, providing landmarks in the moving panorama that the ride has become.
Back out into the day on my own; groups and single riders come and go, some spending a little time around me, sometimes I’ll sit in with a group. We are moving at our own pace so we are never together for long. I’m now recognising riders I’ve seen previously and I will continue to ride around this group for most of the event. The lack of sleep is starting to tell as time passes, sometimes painfully slowly, the distance crawling past, minutes and kilometres lasting forever; sometimes flying past in the blink of an eye. As day slips into evening I ride into Loudeac, 400 kilometres, one third of the ride in a little short of 24 hours. More food, another conversation with Colin and Sonya. Then I’m on my own at the table in the restaurant – I’ve fallen asleep and half an hour has passed. For a moment I’m angry at Colin for not waking me when he left, then I realise that it’s my responsibility – it’s my ride and no one else is responsible for what happens on it. Another frustrating 10 minutes to find my bike again and then off into the gathering dusk.
Small lanes, hedges, hills and dark clouds gathering on the horizon – it’s going to rain and heavily by the look of it. As darkness falls lightning begins to flicker and thunder rumbles threateningly around as I reach the lights of St. Nicholas du Pelem. This is a food stop with some sleep facilities. I decide to stop for a coffee and some cake to see what the weather will do, the thunderstorm is nearer now. Inside the marquee I sit with Dick and Lucy and we discuss the options – to sleep here or to push on to Carhaix and hope to get a bed there. I’m worried about time although I know I have at least 4 hours in hand but my instinct is to push on to the timed control at Carhaix and get the stamp in my card. This is what I decide to do and I cycle out of the lights of the control into the night as the rain starts.
The night is lit by the flickering lightning as the tyres swish along the wet road. After an hour I ride out of the rain and, although I still have the thunderstorm for company, the rest of the ride to Carhaix is dry. I beat the rain to Carhaix by about 15 minutes and find myself waiting in a queue for beds in the rain. After half an hour we are told there are none left and it will be over an hour before any are free so I retreat to the restaurant for more food. Once I’ve eaten I lay my head on the table and sleep. I awake an hour later to a scene of chaos – there are sleeping bodies everywhere there is space on the floor and many more like myself have their heads on the table. Congestion was always a potential problem at this control as it was the point where the fast riders from the earlier starts, on their way back from Brest, would meet slower riders like myself still on their way out. This was exacerbated by the weather as people sought shelter from the thunderstorm.
I pull myself together and get ready to carry on, as I do so I meet up with Richard who had been part of the group I had set off from Paris with. He had been delayed with bike problems at the previous control. We decide to ride together and, at around 1.00am, set out into the damp night, though thankfully the rain had stopped. For a while the going is fast and we take turns on the front. Then the road starts to rise and we ride into mist. This is a problem for me as I wear spectacles and soon I’m nearly blind as they mist up. I follow the edge of the road as best I can but I have to slow right down. The night is now frequently lit by groups of riders coming the other way, swooping silently past in the darkness. Somewhere along this stretch I lose touch with Richard and I’m alone again. I reach the top of a hill where there are people stopping traffic so we can safely cross a busy highway – I’m being directed to turn left but can’t see where to go and have to stop, wipe my glasses, and then peer into the mist and darkness. Downhill now and it is even worse, I’m crawling along following the edge of the road which is now starting to jump and dance in front of my eyes – in my tired, sleep exhausted state my brain cannot process what it is seeing. Eventually a thin grey light penetrates the darkness, the mist lifts and a cool, bleak dawn makes its appearance. It is difficult to ride in a straight line now and I’m looking for somewhere to stop. As I reach the edge of a village there is a large concrete block so I stop, prop my bike up and sit down with my back against it. Half an hour later and I start awake, I feel better and more in control again. Back on the bike and the time and distance pass quickly, in seemingly no time I’m crossing the bridge into Brest. It is a long tedious tour round the city to reach the control but just after 8 on Tuesday morning I arrive – it has taken a frustratingly long 7 hours to cover the 93km from Carhaix!
I park my bike, get my card stamped and then make my way around to the restaurant. Here I bump into Richard again, he had arrived only a few minutes before me but we fail to work out where we lost each other. My plan is to get some proper sleep here and then set off around midday. We agree to meet up after we have slept and make our way to the dormitory. There are only a few occupied camp beds and I take another blanket to use as a pillow and get my head down. I wake after an hour and a half and decide it is pointless to just lie there so get up. Once awake the only choice is to ride, so, despite my previous agreement with Richard it is back on the bike and out into the traffic on my own.
It seems to take an age to get out of the city as I make my way around roadworks but eventually I’m back out in open country. The going seems easier and there is a distinct tailwind now so I’m making good time. Frustratingly I’m not going as fast as I could because of problems with my gears. Just before starting my front derailleur broke so I have been riding in just the middle of my 3 front chainrings. Up to now this hasn’t affected me much but now I’m spinning as fast as I can but could go faster if I had a higher gear. To make matters worse the chain is starting to slip in the 2 highest gears that I do have. I resign myself to the situation and carry on. Further on I get a tow behind a tandem which proves really helpful when we reach a town and they force their way through the traffic, I follow in its wake getting a clear run. I lose it as the road starts to climb and it falls behind.
We are now following the outward route in reverse and there is a constant stream of riders going the other way. I occupy myself by trying to spot riders I know. I see a few – Matt, John and Dave are familiar faces but my brain is too slow in recognising them and they are past and away before I can greet them. Somewhere close to Carhaix there is an ambulance at the side of the road and a rider is being attended to on the verge. I take it in but feel nothing other than some disappointment for them that their ride is at an end. I’m encased in a bubble; real time, the real world, are distant and there is only the road, the ride, the next control and time limits – nothing else has any meaning, it is audax time again. Back at Carhaix I hear that an American rider has been killed but this seems peripheral, part of the outside that has no direct effect on me. More food and back on the road again.
For a while I’ve been suffering from severe indigestion and this is starting to be a problem so, on seeing a pharmacy on my way out of the town, I stop. The assistant is very helpful and wants to know about the ride and how much (little) sleep I’ve had. She sells me a pack of pills and once more I’m on my way. The medicine works brilliantly and the problem is cured. Not so for the problem with my gears which is getting so bad I’ve lost my highest gear completely now, something clearly needs to be done. I pull in at the intermediate stop at St. Nicholas du Pelem and speak to the mechanic there. Luckily he has a new rear gear cluster that fits, so while I have a coffee he fits the new gears and half an hour later I’m back on the road again.
My aim for the day was to get to Tinteniac before sleeping but it is clear as the afternoon turns into evening that I’ll need more sleep before then. I arrive at Loudeac just before 8 in the evening, sleeping here means another stint riding through the small hours of the night but there is no real choice. I’ve had a total of about 3 hours sleep in the previous 60 hours and that is about as much sleep deprivation as I can take. I grab some food and then make my way to the dormitory with a request to be woken at midnight.
3 hours sleep and I feel a whole lot better and after yet more food I’m back out on the road again. It is a fast run through the dark to Tinteniac and I’m pulling a sizable group along for a good part of the way. Just over four hours later and I’m at the control. There I meet up with several other British riders and we sit around for a while swapping stories and having a bit of a laugh. The general atmosphere is much more relaxed now. I think others, like me, know that they can finish the ride in time (barring accidents or catastrophic bike failure). There is talk of finishing and at what time. I make a decision here to time my arrival at the finish for the Thursday morning. I could continue at a faster pace and finish earlier but I would arrive in the early hours of Thursday morning with a better time but when there was no one around, that would feel like an anti-climax. A later arrival when there was a crowd and all the razzmatazz would be a more fitting end to this ride. So now I would be pacing myself to arrive at Mortagne for some sleep then riding the final 140km to arrive mid-morning.
I set off in the dark but with a lightening sky. Today it is a beautiful dawn with the dark being banished by a sky of red and gold lit clouds which disperse to leave a warm and sunny morning. A couple of hours in and I’m getting sleepy again but this time instead of pushing on to the next control I start to look for somewhere to stop. The centre of a small village and an unoccupied bench under the war memorial provide the opportunity. I take the saddlebag off the bike to use as a pillow and stretch out, immediately I’m asleep. I wake an hour later, put my bag back on the bike and set out again; as if stopping to sleep on a bench is the most natural thing to do – audax time again.
I make Fougeres, the next control, shortly after 9.00am and embark on the routine of parking the bike, getting my card stamped and eating. I meet Dick and Lucy in the restaurant and we converse over our meal and then go our separate ways again. It is now a beautiful warm, sunny day as I set off for Villaines. The morning passes quickly as I cycle steadily onwards enjoying the warmth and lack of pressure as the kilometres tick by. I stop at a bar somewhere for a drink and to refill my water bottles then move on again, riding on my own and passing many other riders. I meet up with the late Dave Lewis and a clubmate from Cardiff Byways along this section and spend a little time with them before we go our separate ways.
In the early afternoon I reach Villaines where music is blaring out and there are crowds clapping and cheering, something of a rude awakening from the quiet of the last few hours. It is very strange to park your bike and sort yourself out under the scrutiny of the crowd hanging over the barriers. Here, on this ride, in this country, you are a hero. Probably the only place in the world where the general public understand what you are doing and what it takes to do it. I think I might prefer the anonymity of riding at home to this level of scrutiny though. In the restaurant there are many non-riders in the queue but it isn’t a problem as a volunteer takes a tray and gives it to a young girl who takes it to the head of the queue and then puts my choice of food on it. It is then carried to the cash desk for me and then on into the eating area – I hope I thanked her enough! I eat alone and am soon back out and on my way in the heat of the afternoon.
One last section to Mortagne and I can get some more sleep. The road is hillier now with some big rollers down a dead straight road. I’m having some difficulty with my gears and pull off into a hidden layby where I startle a group of Italian riders who have met up with their support vehicles. This is not allowed outside the control areas but it hasn’t been unusual to see riders with support along the roads. It takes nothing away from my ride so I’m unconcerned. I have a fiddle with the gears and manage to get the chain to shift between the middle and small ring at the front – that may help at some point. I also try and adjust the rear to stop it catching on the spokes. Back off up the road and it is becoming an effort to keep going – I’ve been on the go since 1.00am and now need some rest. The kilometres tick by more slowly now and as the afternoon shades into evening it brings a welcome cooling. Eventually I reach Mortagne and the climb up into the town. Annoyingly, I unship the chain when I try to use the small chainring halfway up the hill; its a messy business getting it back on again. Finally, around 7.30pm I make the control. I’m staggering now, limbs barely co-ordinating as I stumble into the control to get my card stamped and then into the restaurant for yet more food. I eat in a zombie like state then set out to find the dormitory, I see a volunteer and ask her where to go. She takes one look at me and takes me by the arm saying ‘vous regardez très fatiguée’ (at that stage probably the understatement of the ride!) and leads me to the dormitory. I book a call for midnight and fall asleep straight away. I’m woken on time but it takes a real effort to get up and moving again. Eventually I get myself up and back to the restaurant for a coffee and a bite to eat before setting off. Here I bump into Lindsay and a couple of other riders I know and exchange a few words.
Back out on the road again and its hilly, the road climbing up through wooded countryside. After about 20km the scene is beginning to resemble Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow! The road side is littered with sleeping bodies, in some places there are large groups gathered asleep. In my fatigued state it looks quite surreal and even more so when the moon comes out and spreads a ghostly light upon the scene. I pedal on in silence as we come out of the hills onto the flat plain. Kilometre after kilometre pass, each indistinguishable from the last, the monotony only broken by the occasional village or small town, each a brief patch of orange light in the darkness. After some 3 hours riding I reach Dreux – I’m directed onto a cycle path by a couple of volunteers replacing signs; a steep rise takes me alongside a major road and eventually to the control.
On entering the hall a difference in atmosphere is immediately apparent, there is a buzz in the air – we’re nearly there. I get myself a bowl of coffee, a pile of croissants and other pastries and join Sonya and Colin who have arrived earlier and slept here. The control is filling up, many riders are waiting here for daylight before riding on to the finish. I go back for more coffee and bump into Jan Geerts, the organiser of the 1200km Belgian ride I had completed a month earlier. He looks very tired but then I guess we all do. We talk for a while and then I leave him to finish his meal. Other riders I know are turning up – the VC167 tandem pair, Neil McD and, as I’m getting ready to leave, Graeme.
I set off out into a cool, grey dawn and make my way out of the town onto endless flat roads. A rider is sat behind me and, for the first time, it is irritating me. He has a noisy freewheel and I can hear him freewheeling as I’m pedaling. I wave him through to take a turn on the front, he comes through but increases the pace so it is harder work to stay with him. When I drop off to ride on my own he slows right down and drops behind me again and there he stays. It’s really bugging me now and when we catch up a group of riders on a rise through a village I sprint past them on the wrong side of a central reservation and keep the pace high. He doesn’t catch me up so I’m thankfully on my own again. The road moves off the flat terrain and into a lumpy section.
A right turn in a village leads to a sharp climb. I push the gear lever hard to get into a low gear but the bike comes to a sudden halt with a horrible grinding noise from the back. I know immediately what has happened – the rear derailleur arm has gone in to the spokes. This is potentially catastrophic and my heart sinks as I dismount. I free the derailleur from the spokes and it springs back into position and on examination only one spoke appears to be broken. I wrap the broken spoke around an adjacent one and spin the wheel. It jams against the brakes so I operate the quick release to move them out and spin the wheel again. It chafes against the brakes so I loosen them off. This time it spins freely, its not catching on the mudguards so, although it is quite badly out of true, it is still rideable. I get back on the bike and gently set off, then gingerly try the gears; they work. I reckon that as long as I am careful it will get me back the last 30km or so. A close shave, it could have been the end of my ride.
A little further up the road I catch up with Jan. I slow down to ride with him and chat for a while before he drops behind on one of the hills.
It’s getting into morning rush hour and the traffic is increasing. I have to concentrate hard to ride safely. As we approach the finish the traffic grinds to a halt and a large group of riders forms, threading its way through the queue, on and off the pavement to get around the jams. Finally we are on a section of busy dual carriageway leading into the town. There are frequent traffic lights and the ride becomes a series of sprints from one set to the next. A right turn, more traffic lights and a roundabout and suddenly we are there. The traffic is halted to let us through and there are cheering crowds and photographers. Someone shouts my name but I fail to spot them. Then I’m through and into the stadium, hands reach out and help me off the bike and then down some steps to the bike parking. The GPS says 1239km, the time 86hrs and 16min. I walk into the finish control for my final stamp and to hand my card and transponder in then it is all over. I wander around the hall for a while in a daze then make my way back outside and over to the refreshment area where I pick up a drink and some food. I sit there picking at the food watching riders come in for a while just soaking it all up, finally free from the necessity of pedaling but still in audax time. It will take while to to find my way out of it.