In audax circles, Paris-Brest-Paris is the big one. Run only every four years it’s a 1200km ride with a route pretty much described by its name except these days it starts a little way outside the French capital (this year in Rambouillet about 50km out). Complete the epreuve and you can call yourself an ancien of PBP and join a list of riders going back to 1891 when the event first started (you don’t have to be an ancien to enjoy the eponymous cake though you may regret not burning the necessary calories).
I became an ancien this year. I didn’t expect to as even getting to the starting line is difficult. Places are first doled out to those who have done a randonnée (a long distance cycle ride completed in a certain time) the year before and you then have to do a 200km, 300km, 400km and 600km randonnées to take up your place. I failed to do the former (nope the TCR doesn’t count…) so thought I wouldn’t have a place as pre-qualifiers filled them up. Fortunately a number of the pre-qualifiers failed to complete the rides this year needed to actually apply and some new spaces opened up. I jumped on one and put myself in wave A – the first group off with 80 hours to complete the ride. So what did I learn…
PBP is bigger than any other randonnée. The moment that brought this home was the second day on the road. With an early start and good legs I’d ridden straight through to Brest and slept for a good seven hours. That put me ahead of the bulk of the riders. As I started back the other way I began climbing the Roc’h Ruz the highest point on the course. It was still dark. Coming the other way was a stream of white bike lights that just kept on and on. Blinded by the lights, I couldn’t see the riders but there were literally thousands passing. With the sky lightening behind them it made some view and one which was much more vivid in my mind than the camera on my phone could capture.
Groups don’t find you, you make groups. I rode with people for 1050km of the 1200km, usually with four or more people. The start was easy as a huge peloton of 400 sped off but there were still times when effort was needed to close gaps. The rest of the way it was about being attentive and spotting the steady, sensible riders who would be good in a group; striking up a conversation and creating an incentive to work together; and not being afraid to do a turn. By the time I turned from Brest I’d made a number of friends I kept bumping into and instantly became the nucleus of a group. Unsurprisingly that usually meant riding with good English speakers – Brits, Americans, Dutch and Scandinavians – but we soon collected others.
Going fast is about how long you stop. I finished in just under 72 hours. Looking at my Strava only about 45 hours of that was moving. Compare that to Darren Franks: 54 hours elapsed with 44 hours moving. On the road we moved at pretty similar speeds yet he finished 18 hours earlier. The difference? First, I slept for about seven hours in Brest and for a little under four hours on the way back in Villaines-la-Juhel; Darren only took a 25 minute power nap in the whole event. Second, I took my time at the controls getting food and talking to fellow riders. Overall I’m not sure how I feel about this. Partly I’m not sure I’d trade my experience as I enjoyed taking in the views and engaging with others. At the same time I do wonder what I could do if I did really focus and push myself. Lastly I also wonder whether I need the stops: could I have kept up that moving speed without the sleep and the proper food?
It’s not about the bike. I rode a rather-heavy steel bike I built myself (post to follow). Others were on high-end carbon machines. The Americans had a penchant for classic randonneuring bikes with plush, gum-walled 650b tyres and lots of chrome; the Brits for thin-tubed steel, mudguards and quite often riding fixed. There were tandems and even a tridem, recumbents, velomobiles, trikes and hybrids. There were even fatbikes but as I’m not sure any of those finished that may not have been such a good idea. What mattered most was the person pedalling and while I wouldn’t want to ride it fixed myself it showed me you could finish on almost any machine if you set your mind to it.
France will always be France. PBP may theoretically start and finish in Paris but just as London is not England, Paris is not France. PBP takes place in la France profonde of small villages and winding roads, old people sitting outside in a deckchair to watch cyclists go by, shit corporate catering, the smelly of slurry, nobody speaking English, claims of significance dating back centuries and exclaimed with a decaying chateau, exuberant facial hair and zero concept of customer service. It is both wonderful and exasperating while also being reassuring that it exists and was ready to welcome with open arms, tired, stinking cyclists from around the world whether they were white, brown, black or something else with a shrug of the shoulders and a sincere “courage!“.
PBP is a bubble. In the day or two before cyclists gather and hanging out in lycra, talking bikes and brevets ridden in qualification. Normal concepts of decorum are slightly flouted and the bike rules. During the event, you retreat deeper into the bubble with nothing to do but to pedal and focus on how far you’ve gone and how long you have to get to the next control. Decorum has gone by this point. While I didn’t succumb others strip off where they stand, sleep anywhere (even in the road itself) and don’t even bother to find bushes to pee behind. Then suddenly it’s over and you have to leave the bubble for a world that doesn’t care what you’ve just done. For me that moment came within minutes of leaving the finish line as I plunged into French traffic only concerned with getting home or to the supermarket. I can see how post-event depression could hit, especially for those who didn’t get round. I can also see how addictive it is being in bubble of the events and the pressure to perform. I’m still not sure whether I will want to return in four years.