For anyone who is still finishing off mountains of festive food, here are a couple of articles you can read whilst you eat –
The first is a feature from a recent edition of Shred, a South West-based mountain bike magazine, in which Paul Hopkins is the featured rider. Click here, then go to ‘Shred Mag’, then ‘continue reading’ on Shred 57, then click on the e-version of the magazine under the big photo of Paul.
Also, below is a report from Daryol Laws about his and Simon Barfoot’s epic ride at this year’s Paris-Brest-Paris 1200kms randonee.
The 17th Paris-Brest-Paris Randonee
How to lose 4 nights and 3 days in Northern France while riding a bike!
A little history first; Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) is the remnant of the oldest bike race
going, pre-dating Le Tour by a few years as PBP started in 1891. However, riding the
1200km+ between the capital and the coast and back were considered so tough that
the event was only held every 10 years initially. By 1961 the event went to 5 yearly
and then in 1975 the randonneur event became the present PBP format and ran every
“You’re doing what?”, “how far?”, and “are you riding for a charity?” are all
comments heard by UK participants in PBP, not many people, even cyclists, seem to
understand the event, maybe cycling like this is still not in our national psyche but the
French adore it. Yes I did ride for ‘Help for Heroes’ in 2007 but this year it was going
to be just for me, just for the enjoyment! There was one more difference this time
around, in that I’d managed to rope in a fellow GDW rider, Simon Barfoot, to come
and participate, after all he was fed up with trying to grind Vince down on the TT
circuits so he’d decided on another challenge.
Before you can enter PBP though riders are required to ‘qualify’ by riding a Super
Series; which is 4 rides of increasing distance, namely 200km, 300km, 400km and
PBP began on Saturday 20 Aug, with bike check and registration, a very French affair
of compulsory checking of all steeds (there are many different types of cycle used
from tandem trikes, recumbents, fixies, velomobiles through to full-on carbon bling
race machines), however ‘checking’ seemed very dependent on who was the official.
Si had an old chap who lifted the front wheel of his Spesh Tarmac Dura-Ace bling
bike, spun the front wheel and declared ‘bonne’ and he was in!
I on the other hand had a younger chap who didn’t even seem bothered with my mechanicals but looked at the
3 sets of tail lights and declared that, as none were fitted to a seatstay, I was not
‘bonne’ and needed to immediately make an adjustment. So out came the zip ties, off
came the most convenient light and quick as a flash, light and seatstay were mated
and I was in. Two minutes later the light rotated and clattered into my rear wheel, but
because I was now through scrutinising and had my stamp to prove it, zip tie was cut
and light removed, no worries!
Another aspect of the PBP which appears to mainly continental is the support wagons;
there are hundreds of camper-vans with friends and family which deposit their rider at
the start and then meet them at each control with food, fresh clothing (oh bliss), water
and of course encouragement. These seem to be mainly French, Italian and German in
origin and some of their drivers have no sense and must be clinically blind, as 2 of
these vehicles tried to wipe both of us out on the way into a control at about 850km
into the ride.
Sunday 21 Aug, the Grand Depart awaited. We had thought we were leaving on the
9PM departure slot but on checking our paperwork found out that we were listed as
being in the main body of departees, leaving in waves from 6PM onwards. With so
many riders there needs to be a wave system of releasing riders into the French
countryside and for PBP it is like this: the semi-pros or speed merchants depart in
groups of 4-500 at 4PM and 4:20 with 80hrs to complete the ride. Then the weirdos
(tandems, recumbents, trikes etc etc) leave at 5 and 5:20PM.
Starting at 6PM the biggest bulge of riders are released in groups of 500 every 20 minutes with 90 hrs
available to complete. 9PM saw a free start time, also with 90hrs available and then at
5:30AM on Monday there were the remaining 7-800 riders who had 84 hrs available.
Two mistakes here at the start; firstly I had forgotten that St Quentin-en-Yvelines, the
quiet Paris outer suburb that hosts the start and finish, is shut on Sunday and I mean
totally shut, not even a bar was open and we were very lucky to discover a Subway
shop in a backstreet otherwise we’d have had no food for about 8hrs prior to the start,
Then came the queue; I knew this would take a while but hadn’t banked on it
being 30+°C in bright sunshine while we waited. There is a huge carnival atmosphere
and every single group is hyped up by a very vocal commentator who gets the
massive crowd of onlookers, well wishers and locals whipped up into a frenzy to
cheer each and every rider off on their voyage of discovery.
Having started queuing about 4:45 we eventually got to the start line at 7PM to be let
loose at 7:15 but by then Si had drunk 90% of his bottles of water, so the 1st leg, a
mere 140km, was going to be interesting to say the least. Especially when you are
released behind an official car and 2 motorbikes outriders who escort the group
through closed roads for the 1st hour at an average speed of 32-34kph. Then with the
sun starting to set in the direction we were riding we were finally let loose on our own
off to Mortagne, the first stop. The first proper control point was not
until a further 82km beyond (222km total) at Villaines la Juhel.
The first night’s riding is often the memory that sticks with PBP riders above all else
because once past the hillier areas around the western edge of Paris the land flattens
out into a more rolling landscape and the sight of hundreds of red lights stretching out
into the far horizon is not one that many people, even semi-pro riders, have ever seen
before and rarely forget.
Having left in a mass start, groups formed and fragmented
as riders found those like minded and of the same speed so by the time it went dark
we were in a smallish group of about 15 rolling along at about 28kph.
I must admit that I did not enjoy the 1st night; maybe it was the feel of the bike (I was riding my
Giant that I hadn’t ridden for ages, not the same as the bike I’d completed my
qualifying rides on), maybe it was the apprehension, possibly it was also a bit of
dehydration but despite the calm, warm evening all I could think of was feeling when
would this end. A very odd thought given that I knew we were in for another 3 days
of pedalling, it was also not helped by stomach problems for which I had no rational
explanation but which just made me feel … ick!
However the first 220km flew by, as we arrived in Villaines after just 10hrs including
a food stop of about an hour at Mortagne and a coffee stop at a bar in a village whose
name has totally escaped me’.
Control towns are about 90-100km separated, with the exception of Fougeres and
Tinteniac which had the smallest leg at 65km; however each control was important as
here we walked over the timing mats, beeping our arrival into the computers and also
got our Brevet cards stamped.
The cards are the proof of you having been at a control
and there are apocryphal stories of riders leaving cards on tables and not discovering
the fact until the next control some 4-5hrs later and bang goes their ride as the card is
everything, without it you will not be given a time at a control and therefore cannot
finish the event, officially that is. You can still ride it and damn the consequences but
you won’t be shown as completing. So we always checked each other for cards, bags
and money when we left each control.
This was from bitter experience when I had
left my backpack at a local Spar shop on a qualifying ride earlier in the year and
didn’t notice it until 12km down the road; luckily the group we were just ahead of had
seen my stupidity and cycled up to us as we turned round, with my bag in tow.
After breakfast at Villaines, and a quick 15min power nap for Si, we set off into the
dawn and the 1st full day of riding. We had a plan to reach Carhaix, the penultimate
control before Brest by midnight Monday, thus riding 526km in about 28hrs and
breaking the back of the ride. Fougeres was the next control town and we rolled in
there about 10:30am to be greeted by crowds shouting ‘courage’, ‘chapeau’. The
French just get the idea of this ride so much and the whole course was covered in
people giving encouragement at all times of the day and night. It is very hard to
describe adequately how you feel when riding through a village in the wee hours of
the night to see dozens of locals under a marquee beckoning you to come over and
enjoy a drink, or a crepe or just shouting in such an enthusiastic manner. Whole
town centres are closed down except for allowing bikes to pass through and you can
be offered totally free coffee, cakes, sweets and other food from complete strangers
often for no return other than a ‘merci’ or maybe just the hope of a postcard sent when
we returned home.
As we rode through Normandy and into the eastern edge of Brittany, a hotbed of
French cycling, the signs written on the road and plastered on the sides of houses
became more and more prevalent. Local clubs and riders were heralded as well as all
the foreign competitors, the theme being ‘well done all of you keep going’. Often we
would see temporary road signs erected saying things like ‘Brest only 300km to go’.
Navigation was easy as every junction is signed with PBP arrows, one colour for the
way out and another for the way back, and to avoid any confusion there were also big
red crosses on roads around junction to tell riders that they had taken a wrong turn.
Also the roads in France are generally much better than the UK, no major potholed
lanes though we did cross the occasional railway track, especially in the run through
the docks at Brest, which did give the heart a flutter when the front wheel shimmied.
However the worst aspect of the roads was the surface; the minor roads PBP uses now
tend to have a gravel-like surface which of course can wear and does mean a
rougher ride resulting in a constantly vibrating handlebar. This is the main reason Si
and I lost feeling in our toes and fingers, 80+hrs of low level vibration tends to mash
most nerves into oblivion!
Monday was kind with the weather, at least until we had done about 440km and we
arrived at Loudeac. Here we saw the fast riders on their return leg, they were now
400+km ahead of us having only started 4hrs or so ahead of us, but they are a
different breed; they shot into the control, threw their bikes at their helpers who
checked mechanicals whilst the rider ran to the control point and got their cards
stamped, on their return another helper gave them a bag full of food, a lump of
chamois crème was positioned not so discreetly and off they went, like bullets.
Overall they went through a control in under 5 minutes and woe betide anyone who got
in their way! The quickest riders, for there are no longer any winners of PBP,
returned to Paris in a time of 44hrs and 15mins for an average of just under 27kph
over 1230km, including all stops and no sleeping.
As we left Loudeac to ride westwards we saw the skies darken, not only from the
setting sun but there was a gathering of clouds, which we were hoping would drift
south of us but we were soon to find out that we were not that lucky. We rode past a
good few others who had stopped to put on their reflective vests and rain gear as a
few spots of rain had started to fall but we pressed on into the dark. 30 minutes later
though the sky lit up and I asked Si ‘Did you see that?’ the answer to which was
drowned out by the thunder. An hour later and everything changed, the rain was torrential and we had to stop to put on our
coats; however I was staying nice and warm as the glare from Si and accompanying
cries of ‘why did I let you talk me into this’ meant I pedalled harder to keep ahead and
avoid being belted around the head with a pump!!
The next few hours to our overnight stop in Carhaix seemed to take forever but, even in this weather, standing
outside of his house which was totally alone on the lane we were riding down, a man
clapped us through and shouted ‘dix kilometres’. ahh what a great way to encourage
wet riders to keep pedalling. And 10km later, at about midnight, the control at
Carhaix came into view
We got our cards stamped and walked through the rain to the gymnasium that was the
dormitory but when we arrived there was a queue and Si, using his impeccable French
soon found out that there were no beds available right now and that we’d have to wait
a little. However this ‘little’ dragged on and it became apparent that their definition of
‘a little’ was going to be about 1-1.5 hrs and they wouldn’t book anyone in until beds
Si decided he was going to go and get something to eat and try to find
somewhere else to kip, but he was good at that having power-napped at almost every
control so far. I decide to wait and get a more comfortable few hours and was
rewarded about 30minutes later with a camp bed. So I got 4hrs good
kip but when I saw Si at 5AM it was obvious that he hadn’t as he had been trying to
sleep on the cafeteria floor with some cardboard for blanket. We ate breakfast quietly
and then pushed out into the pre-dawn and through the town, still seeing people
arriving from Paris and on their way back from Brest.
A few km out of town the route took a turn up a wooded
valley and I knew that this was the signal for the only real climb of the ride, riding to
the top of Brittany’s highest point, Roc Trevezel, at about 400m. The climb takes
about 12-14km and is the same on the western side so is not overly taxing but I got
worried when I started leaving Si behind and disappearing around bends well ahead of
I stopped at a junction and about 1 minute later Si appeared having had a severe
fit of the ‘dozies’ whilst riding, he was dropping off to sleep whilst still riding up the
slope!! So I tried to stay with him and chat but it became obvious that even my inane
chatter wasn’t going to keep him awake.
In the next village we saw a baker’s shop getting ready for the morning and stopped.
Si assumed the position of ‘knackered’
and proceeded to power-nap for England on the baker’s veranda, whilst I waved at the
other riders passing by. Even being right under the town bell didn’t make a
difference, Si said he heard the 1st 2 rings but he certainly didn’t hear the next 5, in
fact I nearly didn’t hear them over the noise of snoring!!
After this nap Si was back on song and soon was riding away from me up the higher
slopes of the ‘Roc’, although he may only have been just 100m ahead as the fog had
descended and visibility was below 50m in places. Not an ideal way to ride the main
road to Brest during the rush hour! We were later to find out that an American rider
was killed by a lorry somewhere on this road in the fog.
The descent of the Roc was more fun in that we could freewheel now for ages although pedalling was still better
as it kept us warm through the fog and drizzle. The route came off the main road
about 30km before Brest so that it skirted the peninsula on the South and, with the bad weather lifting we crossed the bridge into Brest.
No power-nap this time and we just queued for food, (which is where the biggest time
losses occur on PBP), ate, and then pushed on to start the return leg to Paris. It was now
mid Tuesday morning.
The route back is generally on the same roads, with little
diversions here and there, so we knew what was ahead of us; simply we had to repeat
what we’d just done!
An early Thursday morning arrival looked feasible as we
travelled back towards the controls we had passed through in the last couple of days.
Inevitably, riding long distances without much sleep means that you will slow down
and, although we had been planning a moderate 24kph moving average, this started to
deteriorate as we passed the 700km mark. Tiredness was not the only factor as
constant usage puts the body into areas it would rather not be in and niggles become
annoyances, which become pains. We spent many hours in silence no
doubt both of us thinking ‘we wish this pain would stop’.
Si’s Achilles tendon was aching and my hands and wrists had eventually yelled ‘enough’ and as we arrived in
Carhaix I decided to see if the mechanics could wrap another layer of bar tape on my
handlebars to try and give me some semblance of comfort. This was duly completed
but of course costing us more time at the control while we waited in the queue of
other riders with more pressing problems such as broken wheels, gears, brakes,
buying more inner tubes and chamois cream!
One benefit of a slower pace is that we
got to see those places we’d passed through in the dark on the way out during daylight
hours, which usually meant even more people standing and applauding the groups and
individuals as they cycled past.
As the kms passed away and we got ever closer to the finish, the plan was
to reach Tinteniac control in the early hours of
Wednesday morning and catch another few hours of sleep. This was based on my
previous experience of there being very comfortable dormitory sleeping arrangements
here and good showers.
After an uneventful day’s riding and about 5 hours of night
riding we arrived in Tinteniac to see the bike park full, so it wasn’t a surprise that
when we asked for a bed we were told we’d need to wait about 30minutes but that time was used to get food and a
welcome shower before being escorted to our extremely comfortable bed and blanket.
3 hours however passed in the blink of an eye and it felt as if we had just put our
heads down when we were awoken by the dormitory staff to let us know our time was
up. Breakfast was a hearty meal of pasta, bread, rice pudding, fizzy
drink, strong coffee and cheese
So we pushed on for the shortest leg from Tinteniac to Fougeres, a mere 55km, but I
seemed not to be able to maintain any sort of decent pace but couldn’t understand
why, as my body didn’t ache more than it had before. This meant that we were
drifting out of groups as they were generally about 3-5kph faster than us. Also, sleep
deprivation was catching me up.
As we rolled into Fougeres, I decided to take my bike to the mechanics again
as it was not shifting into the big chainring and it was now that, as I pushed my bike, I
noticed that the back wheel was rubbing badly against the brakes and when spun it
would stop almost immediately; no wonder I was having trouble with speed. This
was quickly diagnosed as a broken spoke and the mechanic set to work repairing it,
unfortunately he didn’t have a spoke of my type and he bodged together a repair from
a longer spoke, hurrah!.
Having lost about 40 minutes now we decided not to waste
anymore time waiting in the long queues for food at the control and get something to eat in
town, and just on the outskirts we stopped at a little shop that sold large hearty galettes wrapped around Breton
sausage. The owner re-filled our water bottles for free and then
off we went into what was now lovely warm sunshine.
The speed returned but, only
50km after the repair, I heard a ‘twang, clunk, clink’ and looked down to see my bodged spoke wrapped
around my rear hub and poking into my rear derailleur. Luckily I was able to stop
before it did any serious damage and managed to unscrew the offending spoke and
bend it out of the wheel. There was 35-40km left to Villaines which took about 2hrs
at a slowish pace to avoid doing any more damage to the wheel. Lesson learnt, carry
spokes, they don’t weigh much and can be wrapped around a downtube, would’ve
made everything so much easier.
This wasn’t the only incident on this leg. Despite our reduced speed we were
catching a larger group of mainly Dutch, Swede and Danish riders as we approached a
small village, only to suddenly see the whole pack stop ahead of us, and there at the
front was a Danish rider, bloodied, on the road, looking very concussed.
As he was being cared for and numerous people were phoning for
help, we pushed on, and were passed by an ambulance rushing to the scene only 3
Villaines came and we rested with copious amounts of croissants, pain
au raisin, coffee and other pastries whilst my bike was attended to again. We just had
the final 225km left to ride and so mid-afternoon we set off for Mortagne, an official time control on the return.
Unfortunately, this leg was not the most inspiring being that it spends most of its time on very long
straight roads. Chatting with other riders and generally enjoying a slight tail wind
meant we arrived pretty refreshed at Mortagne just before dark.
Si’s tendons had been playing up again and he decided to visit the masseur’s tent to get some relief.
He had tried to get some medical attention at Villaines only to be bumped by other riders and
then find the volunteer applying the ‘magic spray’ with a rag as opposed to directly
onto his leg!
After some food at Mortagne we pressed on into the evening twilight for
our last night ride of the event. The route at this point runs further north and goes
through the town of Dreux to break up the last 140km into legs of 75 and 65km
respectively, so the roads out of Mortagne were new and we soon found ourselves
crossing deep, wooded valleys were the climbs seemed to go on forever, on broken
surfaces which disrupted any decent rhythm, and the night-time descents were exercises in
At about midnight with 30km left to go to Dreux we passed through another small
town where the local cycle club had decided to lay on drinks and cakes. We stopped
and enjoyed a few minutes rest whilst talking with the locals, who had been there
since 4 in the afternoon. A tandem was there also and we found out it was a newly
married couple who were riding PBP as part of their honeymoon, complete with a
“Just Married” plaque on the back of their panniers. Not sure I could’ve talked my
good lady into such an adventure for a honeymoon!
Dreux pitched up at about 1:30AM and we decided to rest our faltering bodies with a
bit more sleep; however this may not have been the best plan as when we started off
again at 5 we were stiff and still sore, but the final 65km is peppered with villages and
towns every 3-4km to take your mind of such ills. Except of course when your body
starts to yell ‘ENOUGH!!’ as happened to mine with 35km left to ride. Si’s tendons
were still stiff but loosening with riding; however my left knee had picked up an
annoying pain during the climbs out of Mortagne, which had been getting worse and
By this point I could no longer put any effort through my left leg without
shooting pain through the knee making me jump in the saddle, so nothing left but to
pedal single legged! This wasn’t much fun as the final run into the finish followed the
same roads we had rolled over on Sunday evening, which meant rolling hills. Thank
goodness for the ‘granny gear’!
Eventually we reached to outskirts of St Quentin to be dropped into the Thursday morning rush hour and the road system from
hell, with traffic lights every 2-300m which never seemed to stay green long enough
for me to get through. Starting off again using only my right leg was not a fun
time. But as we got closer and closer to the finish roundabout the roads were closed
off again and we came round the last few metres to the applause of both locals and
riders’ families all waiting to see the last riders make it back home.
Once into the sports hall we handed over our Brevet cards for the last time but now
for the anti-climax; having guarded these little bits of paper for the last 3 days we
didn’t get them back as now they had to go off for ratification and we won’t see them
again for about 6 months!
But we were finished, and phonecalls home to friends and
family were made to let them know, so they could stop worrying. After a well
deserved shower, a little bask in some self-indulgent congratulations and a very well
deserved drink or 2, we hopped on our bikes and cycled back to find Si’s car and get
ready to drive off to Le Neubourg, Gillingham’s twin town.
We were treated to a great reception from the
twinners but that is another story. Before we packed everything away we rode to
Subway for a 12” baguette with all the trimmings, enjoying the bright Parisian
sunshine, just like it had been 4 days earlier. A fitting end to our French
Would we do it again? Si says no but I’ll be working on that; I most definitely will.
The sense of occasion, the camaraderie, the local support, and the encouragement to
all riders is really beyond belief and this is what help everyone through the bad hours
when you really wish you were curled up in bed. Roll on the 18th PBP 2015!