Paris Brest Paris 2011

PBP 2011 Colin and Camilla Mathison

This year Colin and I decided that our main cycling objective was going to be the Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP), a 1230km ride starting from the outskirts of Paris and traversing across France via Normandy and Brittany to Brest and back again. In order to even get to the start line every rider has to complete 4 qualifying rides - a 200, 300,400 and 600km audax which together make up a Super Randonneur series.

Our PBP preparation started in 2010 with an SR series just to see how we got on! Audax Club Parisienne had stipulated that those entrants with 2010 rides of more than 400km were able to pre-register there-by giving you the best chance to get a place in a popular event. This was good for us because it gave me the chance to do a dry run and see how I got on with even half the distance.

Our qualifiers for 2011 consisted of the Coast and Quantocks (200) in March, followed by a manic Easter with the Heart of England (300) and Brevet Cymru (400) in April and the Brian Chapman 600 in May. These all went really well mainly due to the weather.  Any of these rides are a great challenge in their own right but we had our sights on France! The qualifying rides done by mid-May left us with quite a while to PBP so we did a few audaxes and another week cycling in France to keep us ticking over!

Getting to France involved an overnight ferry, kipping on the floor of the cafe! Ideal for being first in the queue for coffee in the morning! We arrived in France at 0800 we arrived in St Quentin in time for the bike check. Three officials checked lights, brakes and a gave our bikes cursory glance over, an all important stamp gave us the all-clear to sign on and get our Brevet cards. Then we went off in search of food, sleep, more food and final preparations for the Sunday 1800 departure.

Sunday involved eating, although this was a challenge for me as I was already quite apprehensive by this stage; followed by a considerable queue for the start. It was hot and very sunny but the mood was actually surprisingly relaxed as we waited for a couple of hours for our cards to be stamped and the grande depart!

We rode mainly in group of three; Jon Croome, Colin and  myself. We had travelled with Jon from Exmouth, this was his fourth and Colin’s second PBP. It was my first one, but I felt reassured knowing they had done all this before! Sunday night was quite fast, which I had been warned about; no surprise really as there were lots of people all full of adrenalin and 1230km to cover! As we left Paris we were waved through every traffic light and junction, so with that and the general fast pace of the groups on the road we were making good time. The route was sign posted with arrows that were fixed to lamp posts but with more than 2000 bikes on the road in front of us, as darkness fell, the twinkle of red lights snaking up the road showed us the way to the first food stop at 140km. We ate and pushed on, wanting to get some time in the bank while we were still fresh. It was a warm and balmy night and we continued to make good time to the first proper control in the early hours of Monday morning. The routine was by now well established; card stamp, food, fill water bottles then onto the next control.

About mid-morning Monday, all three of us were a bit drowsy, I think I may have gone round a round-a-bout with only one eye open, so we stopped and revived ourselves with coffee and a cake to encourage us on our way to the next control and half way to Brest.

We arrived in Loudeac to really big crowds of people all cheering us in, it was brilliant, but really they were there because the lead riders had just come through on their way back from Brest. As we queued for food in the Loudeac control, I have to admit to being a little worried. I was already tired, hardly surprising as we had been cycling for almost 24-hours and awake for much longer, but my mind was occupied with the 80km until Carhaix where we were planning on snatching some sleep. After food and drink the world was back in perspective and we prepared to carry on. At first it was just a few drops of rain, then it got a bit heavier. We met up with some guys from New Jersey and sheltered in a doorway thinking it would be a short sharp shower. The rain got heavier and heavier! However, stopping in the doorway was messing up the plan so we carried on into the pouring rain. As darkness fell the rain fell harder, then the thunder and lightening started, really close and really loud. At one stage we pulled off the road into a farm courtyard and about thirty cyclists followed. The farmer came out and rather than shooing us away, opened a building to let everyone shelter. It was at this point that the three of us decided it was easing off so, as the thunder rumbled and the lightening sporadically shone the way, we left the relative safety of this little courtyard and continued into the night with the Americans for company. And still it poured and poured, pretty much solidly for hours!  We arrived at the extra sleep stop that had been put about 35km from Carhaix completely sodden but it was still only 11pm which was a bit early for us to stop. The tiredness from Loudeac was completely forgotten, the storm had given us that bit of adrenalin we needed, plus we were wet anyway, so we carried on to Carhaix.

Carhaix was a sea of bodies, under tables, on tables, in doorways, just everywhere there were people asleep! We figured with this many people on the floor of the restaurant a bed was unlikely so we dried off as best we could and settled down with the ‘rest of the world’ for a couple of hours sleep. The following day we climbed to the highest point in Brittany before descending in mist and fog to Brest, meeting the Americans again from the night before who we had left at the sleep stop. I hadn’t actually cycled further than the 600km qualifier so I was a bit apprehensive about what sort of protests my body might make on the return trip. The old adage ‘Don’t think passed the next control’ really rang true so I just focussed on getting back to Carhaix. We met some friends at Sizun, which lifted the spirits and then climbed our way back up to the main road into Carhaix.

After brief hilarity that Jon had to climb his way out of the toilet at Tinteniac after locking the door for good, we continued on our way to the next control and then into the night through a secret control to get to our next planned sleep stop at Quedillac. Just before the sleep stop Jon found a French guy on a recumbent just asleep in the road where he had just toppled off his bike. Thankfully he was only a mile from the sleep stop so Jon and another cyclist followed him in shouting at him in French to stay awake! 

After a little sleep, some breakfast we headed off on our final full day of cycling. Arriving in Villains La Juhel the number of people supporting was again incredible, cheering and clapping every rider! In fact I think the support all the way round the PBP will be my lasting memory; people of all ages, at any time of the day or night, little tents and tables at the side of the road. We stopped at one of these little gatherings at the side of the road on our way to Dreux. We welcomed a cup of coffee, a nice gentleman took my bike insisting on holding it for me while I munched on a petit gateaux. There were occasional language translation issues which at the time were just hilarious such as the expression on Colin’s face when presented with a plain biscuit; not what he expected of a petit gateaux!

Arriving at Dreux we decided to get some sleep and then do the last 65km in the morning, it was a real treat having almost 5 hours of sleep, I waited for a bed and after just a five minute wait I curled up on a camp bed in a gym. I fell asleep quickly and when I was woken some five hours later someone had covered me in a blanket and properly tucked me in! We set off early the following morning to do the final leg. I was admittedly still half asleep for some of this to the extent that I didn’t notice Jon and Col at the side of the road taking some layers off! Needless to say eventually I realized they were not in front, they realized I wasn’t behind and we all found each other again and made our way through the outskirts of St Quentin en Yveline and into the finish.

The finish was really well supported, lots of family waiting to pick up their tired relatives and of course cheering everyone in! It was a really strange feeling to have finished. I felt a little relief that we had made it, there was a lot of tiredness, but mostly, an immense feeling of satisfaction at having achieved something that I could be really proud of. One thing I could be sure of is that I would probably forget quite a lot of the finer uncomfortable detail very quickly and only remember the good bits, who knows whether we will have forgotten enough to come back in 4-years time!


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