Paris-Brest-Paris 2003, my recollections

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Although I have never been an enthusiatic Audax rider I decided in 2003 that I would try and qualify for Paris-Brest-Paris as I felt that in my sixtieth year it could be my last chance. How right I was. I now feel able to think and write about the experience without too much trauma and I am able to gather my confused recollections of this classic event.
I left Brighton on Friday to cycle the ten miles to Newhaven to catch the Sea-Cat to Dieppe. Unfortunately it was full so I sailed on the 10am boat and it was 3.30pm before I disembarked in Dieppe so I decided to spend the night at the Youth Hostel.

On Saturday morning, well fortified with about a metre of baguette and jam, I set off in the direction of Paris via Rouen to Vernon. The hostel was full so I pressed on to Mantes-la-Jolie where they had a room at the Formula 1 and space for my bike in the broom cupboard.

There was heavy rain overnight but it was fine as I set off for the Depart. I had reserved a room at the Audax UK hotel but on arrival I was told that it was over-booked. Le Patron then put my bike in the back of his old Jeep and took me to the Campanile hotel about five km away. In the afternoon I cycled to the H.Q. for the bike check and to sign on. There was a minor problem as I had forgotten my spare batteries but I proudly showed the checker my two spare bulbs and he let me pass. The document pack contained a rather nice “Super Randonneur” medal from Audax Club Parisien. For a moment I felt I should take my medal and quit while ahead. There was about a dozen Brits in the hotel and we had a pleasant dinner talking in the main about our qualifying rides. Nobody had ridden PBP previously so we were all pretty nervous about the task ahead.

On Monday morning I was up by seven o’clock and hoovered up a massive buffet breakfast after which I had to lie down to digest the carbo load. I then checked out and went to the Audax UK hotel. I removed my panniers and fastened a top bag to the rack. I then decided to lighten the load and I removed the bag and rack and fitted a Carradice wedge type saddle bag instead. I then slumped in a comfortable armchair in the hotel lounge stirring only to walk to a boulangerie to buy a snack.

At six pm I rode to the start for the pre ride dinner. At eight pm I watched the “vedettes” start and I was surprised to see that they departed in two groups with a fifteen minute gap as there had been no mention of this on the PBP web site. I was also surprised that the majority looked like the usual bunch of Audax turkeys. I had imagined it would look like the start of a Tour stage with bronzed muscled limbs not varicose veins and cellulite! I immediately wished I had entered for this eighty hour group if only to reduce the hanging about which was really getting me down
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By 8.30pm a queque had already formed for the ten pm start but I decided that I didn’t want to stand for ninety minutes and went for a sit down. I spoke to an American who had ridden twice before. He told me to look on the event as a series of three 400km rides with thirty hours to “cruise” each section. That sounded easy-peasy and cheered me up no end.

At 10.30pm I joined the tail of the queque and at 10.50pm I finally started. I had been up for sixteen hours and was ready for bed! Fortunately the early kms were a great experience and I soon felt charged up. There was a crowd on every junction cheering “Bon Courage Mon Brave”! OK the bars had just shut so they were probably taking the mick but with 1230km to go it still sounded good. Like every other neo PBP rider I was amazed by the sight of thousands of red lights stretching to the horizon.

I cruised along in a big group until the first stop at Mortagne Au Perche after 140km. There I saw a clubmate who told me that Gethin Butler had started in the second group. It was obvious that he had no chance of catching the leaders. I have since spoken to his Dad who said Gethin just screwed up and was not the victim of an evil French conspiracy to do our boy down.
Dawn was breaking on Tuesday as I neared the control at Villaines La Juhel after 225km so I turned off my front light to conserve the batteries but an official at the roadside called out to me. I quickly covered my number to avoid the time penalty for a rule infringement. The next control was at Fougeres at 311km which I reached in under thirteen hours. This was faster than my 300km qualifier but I felt that I was sticking to the “Just Cruisin” rule.
I had a substantial brunch then pressed on to Tinteniac at 365km. for afternoon tea. I left Tinterniac at 4pm and reached Loudeac 86km nearer Brest at 7.30pm. There was a scrum for the food and I had to queque for forty minutes which isn’t what you want.
In a moment of weakness I decided to stop for a sleep as I had been up for 36 hours. This was a mistake. Had I pressed on to Carhaix I would have arrived by midnight and, importantly, I would have been ahead of the crowd. I had a shower and as I wasn’t carrying a towel I dried myself with my racing jersey. I paid two euro for a three hours kip on a camp-bed in a large tent. A pillow would have been nice. I recorded the time I wanted to be woken and at 2.30am on Wednesday someone shone a torch in my face and I hit the road again. As I left late arrivals were waiting for the bed I had vacated.

By 4am I was beginning to bonk but luckily there was a bakery open and I topped up on pain aux raisin which got me to Carhaix at 530km. It seemed strange having a big dinner for breakfast but there was no alternative if I was to keep the motor running.
About thirty km from Brest I was riding alone when I passed a patisserie. The window display was so tempting that I broke my Golden Rule and stopped other than at an official control. Suitably fortified I joined a nice group that swept towards Brest. The view was superb as we crossed an impressive bridge over the bay. There was then a stiff climb up to the control at 615km. It had taken 36 hours and I felt that unless I suffered a major mishap I was bound to finish. It had been a vent debout out and I was looking forward to 600km of tail wind. The organisation also felt we deserved a reward as I was given a beer.

The bridge at Brestbridge-brest_ph.jpg
The return started with a long climb to Roc Trevezel where a former Kenton R.C. clubmate now living at Quimper gave me a cheer. I can recall little of this stage of the ride other than it was very undulating. I was annoyed that the French tended to freewheel downhill whereas I preferred to give it big licks hoping to freewheel most of the way up the next slope. Naturally this annoyed the Frogs as I belted past on the descent only to tuck in behind them as they caught me again.
Back at Carhaix ,700km, I snacked with a young Aussie and when we left the control I was amazed to see that he was riding a sixties style, three speed, Moulton! He said that his girlfriend was riding a modern space-frame Moulton but I cannot recall if she was ahead or behind on the road. After about twenty km we passed through the village of St Lubin where there was a really nice welcoming party offering coffee and snacks. This was a regular feature but for some reason St Lubin impressed as a special atmosphere. In fact on returning home I sent a thank you note to the Marie.

girl on a MoultonI suppose the suspension helps

A coffee stop provided by local villagers

One of the many refreshment stalls provided by locals
I arrived back at Loudeac (773km) at 8.30pm. Although it was a little early I didn’t fancy another 90km to the next control so I had a leisurely meal and then booked a bed until 2.00am. The night was cold and by 1.00 am on Thursday I was awake and decided to press on. At some stage I had lost my hat,armwarmers and trackmits and I was freezing. I stopped to put on my rain jacket and as I remounted a French group came past. I tucked in and the group was really moving. I was pleased that after 800km I could still cut the mustard in a pace line.
Once again I got the early morning hunger knock and I was beginning to despair when we stopped at a secret control stacked with grub. The French group stayed just long enough to get their cards stamped but I tucked into a hearty breakfast and had a nap at the table before setting off again.

All I remember of this day is that it was very warm and the wind was, in the main, helpful. In the afternoon I again broke my golden rule and stopped in a bar for a beer. Shortly after restarting I came over very weak and sat at the side of the road to eat an energy bar that I had found at the last control. I was idly reading the label which read “Luna- the whole nutrition bar for women- because we care what we put in our bodies” and thinking it was obviously a variation on what Marianne Faithful allegedly did with a Mars bar. Just then Alan Ephgrave, who worked for Whiskers at Neasden for forty years, came along. We rode together to Mortagne where he dropped me on the climb to the control. So much for the customer always being right! By this time it was 9pm and after dinner I tried to book a bed but there was some bureaucratic confusion so I went for a shower instead.
The showers were excellent and I stayed under the relaxing water for about thirty minutes. I then went to the medical control were I had a massage which seemed to sap what little strength remained in my legs but was again relaxing. I then mentioned that my derriere was rather tender so I was back on the table for an application of creme. At every control since Brest I had been self-medicating by applying Mil-Kreem a South African product designed for application to the udders of cows to prevent discomfort at milking time. Surprisingly it seemed to work on my right cheek but not on the left and I can offer no explanation for this.

By the time I came out of the medical control I felt so renewed that I decided to forego a bed and instead head off into the cold dark night. I felt pretty good for about forty km but then I began to feel very sleepy so I tried to sleep behind a war memorial on the edge of a small town. After twenty minutes of fidgety rest I gave up and pressed on again. In the next village I joined a group of Brits who were lost. We eventually found the road out of town and settled into a good pace. A Geordie said he was so tired that he had to stop and sleep. I told him that we must be less than five km from the penulimate control at Nogent Le Roi but he insisted that it was “an health and safety issue” and he must stop.

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Fortunately I didn’t get into this state

He then lay down on the pavement! In fact we reached the control in five minutes. I had a hot breakfast and then considered if I should press on to beat eighty hours but decided against it. I slept for more than an hour laid out on a bench nine inches wide.
As I set off on the last leg into the rising sun on Friday I rode with three Germans. One was riding a full suspension bike that looked as if it weighed forty pounds. He said he bought it because he had a bad back but he didn’t think that it helped much. This part of the route was fairly hilly and I left the German on his Panzer behind on a hill. Shortly afterwards my computer clocked up 1200km and I changed up and pressed hard on the cranks for the first time since leaving Paris. Up to this point I had been Cruisin’ conserving my energy at all costs but I now felt I could throw caution to the wind. I caught and dropped two men on a tandem as we joined the busy streets of Guyancourt and I entered the final control at 8.30am to the sound of one hand clapping. I had my card swiped for the last time, handed in my Brevet card and went to the bar for my free beer.

Honestly he did finisf behind me!

He did three pushes and then changed legs, and yes I was in front of him!

I picked up my panniers at the Audax UK hotel then went back to the Campanile for a bath and a lie down.That night eight of the riders from the hotel went for a celebration dinner. It was really strange to eat without falling asleep at the table! A young South African living in London had got round in sixty hours but a scouser had packed at Brest and returned on the train. Not surprisingly he didn’t enjoy the night listening to the rest of us swapping tales.

On Saturday morning I declined an offer of a lift to Dover and instead, to ease the stiffness out of my legs, I cycled 220km to Dieppe. I went to the Youth Hostel to use their showers, then for one more high carb. meal and caught the Seacat to Newhaven at 1.00am on Sunday . I cycled to Brighton, getting home at 4am, to find that my elder daughter Zoe had come from Harrow to welcome the “Ancien” home. She called congratulations from the bedroom then went back to sleep!

For the technically minded I rode a Roberts compact made from Columbus Max steel tubing. It was fitted with mudguards which I did not need as there was no rain. Gears are 46,38,26 chainrings and 13 to 21 8speed cassette. I was one of a tiny minority with down tube levers. Tyres are Panaracer Stradius 700c x26mm. with Michelin latex tubes. I rode these tyres in all Audax events,including riding to and from Paris. I did replace the back tyre before PBP and had no puntures in the event. I cannot recommend them too highly.
I had two L.E.D. rear lights and two Cateye front lights, one a three L.E.D. type and the other a 2xD cell light with a halogen bulb. I was envious of riders who had either a Lightspin dynamo or a Schmidt dynohub. I fitted foam under the bar tape and suffered no hand discomfort.
I rode SPD trainer type shoes that were excellent for all the walking and standing around but I did suffer from numb toes for about six months. As mentioned earlier I had considerable discomfort from a sore behind which seems unavoidable to a greater or lesser degree.
The parcours is very pleasant almost all being on minor roads. The route is well signed, out and home arrows being different colours. Only once did I go off course when, in the dark, I followed a rider out of a control to a motor caravan where he was to spend the night with his wife! The roads are well maintained although long stretches have a course, grippy surface that not only slows you down but is also wearing on the posterior. According to the Willesden C.C. magazine there are 360 climbs in the event. This sounds unlikely but the Willesden should know as they had 33 starters!

I would recommend PBP as something that every club cyclist should “tick off” before he/she is too old. Anybody who has a modicum of talent for the sport would have no difficulty getting inside 90 hours. I took 81 hours 40 minutes and I was actually cycling for 51 hours. I had no support carrying just a spare pair of shorts, a long sleeve Helly Henson vest and a rain jacket in a saddle wedge . I took Ibuprofen throughout the ride to keep the dreaded dodgy knees at bay and I took ProPlus caffeine tablets each night.

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1 Comment »

  1. Wislon said

    Ibuprofen and pro plus !! Has the UCI truth and reconciliation committee interviewed you?

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