On the road again – PBP 2011, next try

Paris-Brest-Paris is an event that will take you to your absolute limits. I had had no idea what would expect me – your own body turning into your worst enemy, sleep deprivation driving you into utter madness, the forces of nature conspiring to try and put an end to your ride. Only your iron will to keep you going, turn after turn of your crank… not! I am afraid drama is not something I am particularly good at. So if that is what you are looking for, you need to look somewhere else. My ride report of PBP 2011 is hopelessly mundane, in fact I wonder if I did not miss out on most of the excitement.

Off again in the first bunch 5 o'clock Monday morning

Off again in the first bunch 5 o'clock Monday morning

Once I was finally off and had survived the neutralised section in the dark, the ride itself was comparatively uneventful, at least in comparison to what other riders experienced. The pace was extremely fast right from the start and after the surprise pave section in Gambaiseuil (32km) I had lost the lead group and could only watch them slowly disappear in the distance. Soon two Danish riders caught up with me and I decided to go with them. A bit later two young Germans joined in, Jochen and Clemens from ARA Breisgau. The five of us (later reduced to four as one of the Danes dropped back) made good progress through the grey morning to Mortagne-au-Perche (140km), where the remaining Dane left us.

The road is still dry - clearly before Mortagne. Image by Maindru Photo

The road is still dry - clearly before Mortagne. Image by Maindru Photo

Instead we were soon joined by Gerhard, a fellow Osterdorf rider from the Bavarian outback with a heavy Bavarian accent. We went on through the rain that had started right after Mortagne and would not stop again. The kilometres went by via Villaines-la-Juhel (221km) to Fougeres (306km), where we arrived after 11 hours and left again in a heavy downpour. But only a few kilometres on the way to Tinteniac (364km) the rain subsided, it got warmer and finally even the sun got out. Wow. This might finally take a turn for the better, the hopeless optimist inside me thought. Of course I was wrong. First we came across a fatal rider accident when the emergency services were just about to install a road block and then, just a bit after the Quedillac (390km) secret control, we were surrounded by thunderstorms on all sides. To call the rain torrential would have been an extreme understatement. The heavy drops hammered on my arms and my back, while there was less than a second between lightning and thunder. Real Audax weather again. Thus we headed into our first night.

When we reached Loudeac (449km), Jochen, Clemens and me (Gerhard had left with another fast group of Germans) were not at our most spirited and meeting disgruntled Saxonian organiser Olaf on his return leg did not help either, as he gave a drastic account of what was to come for us, road-wise and weather-wise. Towards Carhaix the rain eased up at first and we became part of a larger group climbing through the hills. This was when I first felt the exhaustion of the ride, the pre-ride stress and two nights without proper rest. At Merleac (470km) we were offered places in a roadside barn dortoir, but as Jochen and Clemens wanted to ride on, we declined. I have come to realise that during every brevet I make one really stupid mistake and it soon turned out that this had been the one for PBP 2011. The rain set in again and just a few kilometres later I got the dozies in a really bad way. No matter how many guarana pills I swallowed or guarana gums I chewed, the situation got worse by the minute. After an alarming microsleep episode in the descent to Corlay (484km) I thought to myself that it was about enough and so I bade my comrades farewell and forced my tired limbs into the already crowded Corlay branch of the Credit Mutuel de Bretagne. The situation there was a bit odd. The door had an automatic opening mechanism and in the only spot left to lie down I had keep infuriatingly still in order not to unwillingly open the doors all the time. About half an hour of uneasy sleep later I got up again and made my way to Carhaix (525km) where I met Jochen for the last time. He did not look too happy either as he set out for Brest.

I have no recollection of where or when this picture was taken. Image by Maindru Photo

I have no recollection of where or when this picture was taken. Image by Maindru Photo

The Carhaix control itself was warm and dry and after some food and coffee I rested my head on the table for another power nap. All this had seemed to help and I was already looking forward to the return point at Brest. But already on the way to Huelgoat (548km) my eyelids became heavy again and my riding got ever slower. This was in fact the absolute low point of the ride. I was cold and wet and extremely tired, crawling along through the middle of nowhere at ridiculously low speeds, unable to keep up with even the slowest of groups. A heavy fog lowered itself onto the world like a shroud, it became difficult to see the road ahead. The roadside was strewn with other riders lying in the ditch and when the long climb I had been on turned into a descent I joined them for a short while, trying to find some rest in a paved side way entrance. It was obvious that going on like this was absolutely pointless. I had not had sleep problems like this in two years. Going downhill at any reasonable speed was dangerous in my state, I just needed to find a place to get some real sleep. Luckily, when dawn tried in vain to force its light through the fog I came across another ATM booth in Sizun (578km) (from what I remembered from Damon Peacock’s 2007 video, shouldn’t Sizun be just before Brest? But what about the Roc Trevezel? I would have to climb over this one before the next control. When would it finally come?), there was even a very nice spot free and not covered by another tired rider. I was delivered! I dropped to the floor and passed out in an instant. I do not know how long had lain there, but when I woke up again I felt so much better I could not believe it (even though I left a wet patch on the tiles as I got up again. Apologies the next rider to lie down there). I rode on westwards through the grey fog among other riders with as many others coming the other way already. The road went up and down and up and down again. I had heard that there was a series of shorter climbs before you finally got up to the Roc, but this was ridiculous. When would it finally come? Eventually I rode up to a French rider and asked him how many kilometres were still left until we would reach Brest. Four or five, he said. Four or five? Oh, I had not expected that. Apparently I had gone over the Roc without ever realising where I was. Very well, some good news at last. I would be in Brest two hours sooner than I would have calculated before. Soon later the Pont de l’Iroise (607km) came into view, or at least the lower part of it, the suspension pylons vanished in the fog. One sightseeing tour of the Brest docklands later I reached Brest (618km) control just after nine in the morning of Tuesday, after a little more than 28 hours. Not too bad after all. Not after this night. Even though a sub 60 time was now out of reach, I would still be able to finish in a decent time and after the events of Sunday afternoon I considered myself definitely a winner. One breakfast, one brush of my teeth and one change of clothes later I was on my way back to Paris in enormously good spirits. Seeing some familiar faces among the 90h riders at the control and having a chat over a little food had felt so good, in particular after the lonely despondency of the previous night.

What now followed was the most relaxed and easiest bit of the ride. I was riding at my own pace, unhurriedly but quickly. I easily made my way over the numerous climbs, passing other riders all the time. Back to Carhaix (703km) I had another thirty minutes’ nap on the grass verge of the control and when I continued eastwards I felt even better. Between Loudeac (782km) and Tinteniac (867km) I had a little chat with an American recumbent rider, all while we were progressing at a decent pace. This was Audax riding as it should be. It was not hot, but the temperature at some point even climbed over 20 degrees and there had been no rain the entire day. My mitts were even drying again. The wind had turned to the West and was comfortably in my back. This way I would easily be able to cover some distance before the next sleep stop (the next night would see one for sure and in a more appropriate place than during Monday night). Tinteniac control was extremely amiable again. On the path into the control building a stage had been erected for the display of traditional Breton music and dancing and a small crowd had gathered to watch from across the path and thus the riders were to pass between the dancers and the audience. As we came along on our way, the dance group would interrupt their display, run to the edge of the stage and cheer for us, while the audience cheered from the other side. As a randonneur you do not get a treatment of this kind very often. At the Illifaut (819km) secret control I teamed up with Gerhard from the Monday section again. He had sped ahead that night but taken a comparably long rest in St. Martin de Pelem. We had seen each other at all the controls from Brest onwards and now decided to do the rest of the ride together. With us was Osterdorf regular Roland, a fast rider in his own right. Together we moved on, meeting fellow Osterdorf riders all the time. Which was odd, given that I had not seen any of my British or Swedish colleagues since the start. But never mind. We came to the brilliant Fougeres (917km) control at one in the night, this time in dry and pleasant conditions and booked some mats for two hours of sleep. With the good progress we had made up to that point the 60 hour idea began to remanifest itself in our egos. Up again at three, to Villaines until seven, yes, it might just work.

At four in the morning we sped out into the night again, charging up the climbs, racing down the descents, taking turns in the lead and picking up quite a few wheelsuckers along the way. After the worst bit of road of the entire ride, just before Le Ribay (991km), we stopped at Villaines (1009km) for a second breakfast just as the sun began to climb up over the morning haze and started our journey over the endless rolling hills towards Mortagne. The ride was no longer in any way relaxed, but with enough pastries, coffee and power gels I felt good and gladly took my turns at the front. Mortagne (1090km) came and went with a banana and some mashed potatoes and once we had left the ups and downs of the Perche region and progressed into the flatter lands towards Paris, our speed picked up even more. We were moving now amid the fields in a group of about ten, but with only three doing any work in the lead. The situation became increasingly irritating. It might be a problem of the 84 hour start, but seemingly we had been dragging people through France on our rear wheels ever since we set out on Monday morning. We needed no more of this and finally managed to force some other riders into the lead. But a harmonic rhythm would not establish itself after that point and the final kilometres to Dreux would see some on/off riding until Roland, Gerhard and me were again on our own. Dreux (1165km) control was just a brief interlude, evacuating bladders, filling up bottles and giving the best wife of them all a short call announcing my impending arrival. Out of the control via numerous alleys and supermarket parking lots, threading our way through the Paris suburbia in ever changing constellations until we came to Gambaiseuil (1194km) again. The cobblestones were as horrible as they were on Monday morning, but this time they announced the beginning of the final section before the finish with the Cote de Gambais as the final serious climb. The rest of the ride was a breeze in comparison, never mind the last little ups and downs. We were going easily and were well in time to reach the 17h00 cutoff for a sub-60 finish. I even had to smile as we came across the place where my ride had ended on Sunday afternoon. All’s well as ends well, as they say. Half a dozen stops at traffic lights later we reached the Rond Point de Saules and amid the cheers of the spectators entered the compound of the Gymnase (1236km) again. We were ushered into the finishers area, got our final stamps and the beer vouchers and then… well, then my first Paris-Brest-Paris was over after just under 60 hours (counting from my second start on Monday morning. I do not know which time will finally be homologated by the Audax Club Parisien (ACP). Actually it does not matter whether they put down 60 or 72 hours in the end, I will be happy either way).

Tired, but happy - the Osterdorf heroes

Tired, but happy - the Osterdorf heroes

Bla, bla... road surfaces... microsleep... wheelsuckers... yadda, yadda

Bla, bla... road surfaces... microsleep... wheelsuckers... yadda, yadda

Finally, back to the hotel

Finally, back to the hotel

We spent some time under a tree in the arrival zone “boring each other senseless with war stories” and drinking beer and exchanging congratulations and generally feeling very smug and pleased with ourselves. After the events that had led up to this finish, 59:24 was not a bad time at all. All the three of us, Gerhard, Roland and me, were first timers, as were Clemens (who had finished some four hours ahead of us) and Jochen (who came in some 90 minutes later). Back at the hotel I met my friends again, Martin was extremely relieved to hear of my successful ride and soon we settled again in our routine of drinking too much beer. Thursday was a day of relaxation, cheering for the last 90 hour finishers, seeing our friends off at the St. Cyr train station (not without sharing a couple of beers before, of course) and Friday we too made our way home.

Post ride relaxation...

Post ride relaxation...

...with international isotonic drinks

...with international isotonic drinks

Seeing friends off at the station, the British way

Seeing friends off at the station, the British way

Paris-Brest-Paris 2011 was a brill event, even though it carried some more excitement for me than I would have liked. In the end, in particular taking into account what I heard about other people’s mishaps, I consider myself to be quite lucky. I did not get hurt in the crash, I could ride and finish the event. All the people involved, the organisers, the volunteers and the spectators along the way all did their best to ensure this turned out to be a fantastic adventure. The weather was mixed, in particular for the 84h starters (though nowhere near as bad as in 2007), the roads ranged from glass smooth to downright bad with useless road furniture making life needlessly dangerous, but it was the enthusiasm of everyone on and along the route that made this such a special ride. A great big thanks to all the people of the ACP and the volunteers. And even greater thanks to the helpful souls who helped me out in my time of need. I will be back in 2015!

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