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Paris Brest Paris 2023. My Story.


Prologue.

Go on, you know you want to, it’s a nice verge, the grass looks soft, see there is another rider doing the same, just stop, lie the bike down, lie down, shut your eyes for 10 mins, you know you want to, you’ll feel better for it.


This was the stream of a soft tempting voice in my head on the climbs out of the control at Montagne-au-Perche with under 200km to go to Rambouillet. I was tired and I know that should I be tempted it would be day break by the time I came too.

So I’ll come back this in my Paris Brest Paris (PBP) story below…


The start of my Paris Brest Paris story

So where do I start, most readers will know what PBP is and what you have to do to actually get to the start line including how to get there in reality which is where I’ll start my story.

My eldest Daughter Anna did her degree in French and Politics and was keen for any time she could get in France, so we came up with a plan to drive over stay a couple of nights and then after the start, go to Paris and then home as she’s didn’t have the holiday to see me finish. A great father/daughter opportunity.


Thursday night she came down, met the other siblings for a pizza in Newbury before coming home, only to leave with me at 5 in the morning and drive Dad’s car, (this is big deal as I like my car!!!), down to Dover. Running up to leaving I have been a bag of nerves, not just about the event but driving to France for the first time in decades, so she was a great calming influence, unfortunately not that calm and we took our time to get down to Plaisir now far west of Versailles with numerous ‘pit stops!’. Booked into our rooms in the early evening and as we didn’t want to drive any more walked to the local diner.

As I was filling my boots a family walked in, slim middle age man with silver hair, I looked at him, not even knowing if he was English and said ‘I know you’ to which the predictable reply came ‘Chocolate Milk!’, it was Tom Jackson along with his wife Julie and daughter Emily. I’d first met Tom on the Fenland Friends audax in 2022 when we had been in the same restaurant where he’d had to explain my request for chocolate milk to the waitress as a ‘cyclist thing’. I’d also seen him at Boston on the way up in LEL in 2022, just minutes before I vomited my freshly consumed macaroni cheese with copious amounts of milk, but that was part of my LEL tale.


They were staying in the same hotel where we also met Oewn Wood, Matt Chambers and Rob Bullyment at breakfast and exchanged tales of a small world, the small world of endurance cyclists. At breakfast it became very apparent very quickly it was full of people with a very similar dysfunction with 6,500 cyclists doing the same event, it was hardly surprising.


Registration

Then at around 10ish we drove off to Rambouillet securing a parking spot just outside the chateau entrance gates. It was a wet morning so we ambled down into the park and followed the throng up to the registration about 2km, there bumped in to Damial Webb who was thrusting LEL candies to anyone who would take them, Tom from ACME who ran the fenland friend and Dai, who I’d met in the full fat festive 500 back in December, it really was a small world.


Queued up to get to registration, only took five minutes which when you think they were going to process 6,500 riders is quite something. The uniform gilet that everyone has to have, fitted fine at an L, but the regulation jersey at an M was not going to happen, so there was a good exchange facility and ended up with an XL, which even so is somewhat aero on my frame.


On the way back down to the entrance we paid a visit to Simon Smith from the LEL group I was with. Simon was easy to pick out in a black van in amongst as sea of white. I would see Simon numerous times on the ride, much to my surprise. Next stop was to find the merchandise tent for the wind stop top I’d ordered, which was all the way back to the entrance!


Then off into town for an indulgent lunch and some very heavy chocolate eclairs. Town as you will not be surprised to hear was heaving with cyclists in Lycra and merchants to provide for them. There were many largest groups in uniform, Germans, Italians, Japanese, Croatians, you name it seemed like most countries had some representation. There was a noticeable absence of white vans and ‘youfs’ so all the bikes seemed pretty safe. Spent the day eating, walking through the chateau’s grounds, sleeping and more ambling, then returning back to the motel.


It had warmed up, a portent of what was to come. There were many TV screens showing the forecast for the whole of France – the area to the west of Paris was showing 28 deg C, mercifully a lot lower than further South.


Off to the start.

Morning came round a and a leisurely breakfast, where Tom asked me if I was doing my first PBP adventure unsupported, which I was, no drop bag for me, I was starting to feel very nervous, but not a nervous as Owen was as it was his first ride over 600, then again he’s a young whipper snapper so would be OK as against myself and as I found out Tom who’s even older at 67!


So back to the grounds of the chateau and eventually parked up. Very early so time for another amble, a bit of lunch and the Paris Brest pastries which are enough to power an entire PBP. Then back to the car to change, assemble the bike and let Anna go to the station, but not before a goodbye shot!



I was in group H – one of the first 90-hour groups and the first starters were off in 15 minute slugs with the first riders going at around 4 o’clock. I wolfed down some food in the tent next to the start, it was pandemonium as there was nowhere set up for the bikes and also it was boiling. Then walked back to find my letter and the slow procession through, bike check, stamp and into the start funnel, where we jostled for any available shade. Now I was here, now it starts. There were also all manner of riders, recumbents, velomobiles, (flying sausages), tricycles and a few Brompton’s to boot.


While waiting, I’d bumped into Adrian Lee of Reading, who was keen to recruit me in growing Berkshire Audax community, which as he said a are mainly white, middle aged or just ancient men. At the same time Tim Maw from Reading came through the entrance having come over from Chartres to register and bag drop before starting somewhat later in the evening.



Then the count down with lots of motivating music, the calling out of the country and boom 17.45 had come and we were off…It had begun!



Stage 1 Rambouillet to Mortagne-au-Perche – 120km

The actual start is on a rough track that goes through the tracker devices, turn right and drops down onto a main gate where cobbles await, left turn and back onto smooth tarmac. When your bottles are full and you are negotiating with 350 plus other risers from your slot, staying up right was a tough ask and the plumes of dry dust in the air heaped itself on my now sweaty body, only 1 km done!

Then the anticipated rolling roads on lovely smooth tarmac that would dominate much of the ride. I remember taking a bit of time to find my rhythm going in and out of wooded sections to cool down than exposed sections, eventually I ended up drafting a bunch of Italians, (not difficult to miss as along with the Germans there were a lot of them). Slowly the light dropped and on went the uniform gilet and a long line of reflective shapes snaked in front of me. Even at this early state there were locals who had filled their cars with bottles of water to re-fill, an essential part of being able to do the distance.


Before I knew it I was climbing up into Montagne-au-Perche that was a feed stop, not a control at around 11. There was a real party atmosphere, complete with live music, so can only assume the whole town was in on the act. My first stage, 120km done and sausage roll plus coke and bottle refill done and I was on my way.


Stage 2 Villaines-la-Juhel – 203km

It was still warm so had moved into my arm and knee warmers, which was as bad as it was going to be for the whole ride. The terrain became a bit lumpier causing the large field to bump up and for the first time show the live art of a PBP the snaking bouncing figures in their gilet with the red lights below, it was quite magical, almost hypnotic, and impossible to photo!


I remember running out of water and stopping at a shop, one of my still open in the small hours, refilling, another coke before Matt shouted to me that the control was just around the corner! So 2 mins later up a closed street with 1,000s of bikes parked up wondering where I would put mine. Eventually found a spot and then realised how much extra weight my bike was as I lifted it and almost broke the bike stand!


It was now 3 in the morning. Of up the street to get my card stamped and to buy some food, which when I was there realised it was cold so left it to find the small school on the other side where there was warm food which is what I fancied, only to find there was sleeping too, and I felt I needed some so paid my dues, lay down for 60 mins, got up grabbed some warm food and off I was again!


Stage 3 Fougeres – 293 km

I’m struggling with stage in my memory, but it was the transition from the dark of the early morning to the light, felt it getting warmer quickly and started to strip, before making the control at around 9 in the morning. It was boiling and heaving in the control and eating area, but I forced down a litre of fluid, filled my bottles, forced down a baguette.


Outside I bumped into Simon and decided to have a nap on the grass, which now was became very easy to do… and of course I get photobombed 😊



Stage 4 Tinteniac – 354km

20 mins of much needed nap and off I was up and down carrying another 3kg of fluid, some of it inside me. Lots of rolling hills and my pace had slowed quite considerably. Also the temperature was well in the 20’s by now and my arm coolers were proving effective and stopping me burning. Numerous stops with locals for refuels as I was going through at least a litre an hour plus snack as it got it just got hotter! Hitting Tinteniac in the early afternoon was a welcome break and repeated my pattern of stamp, food, ablutions and sleep for another 30 mins . Met Simon again, so wasn’t far behind him which I considered to be an achievement.


Stage 5 Loudeac – 434km

This section felt fast, rolling and highly forgetful… some very fast descents through which were great fun. I was discovering the ‘tandem’ effect of my bike. Tandems are heavy and so on the uphill dog slow, but when you hit the crest the acceleration and seed is great fun, the curves the road allowed for high speed and no unnecessary loss of momentum.


The control was heaving with both cyclists and spectators and had a real carnival feel to it. Lots of unintelligible loudspeaker announcements. I managed to get a nap on the one bit of shaded grass in the area, punctuated by an emergency run to the loo, at least the bowels were functioning, but they picked their timing!


Stage 6 Nicolas-du-Pelem – 482km

More fast rolling in the heat of the day although it’s decline had just started, a pit stop really before rolling off again. This control was split with the control it’s self in one building a and the food stop a short tolling ride of 7km. Hot food was found and a short vertical sleep of 30 mins had… and back into the darkness. I did think about a bed, but there was a queue!


Stage 7 Carhaix – 515km

It felt like a quick jump, well it was only 40km or so and I hit Carhaix at 1 in the morning. This needed to be proper feed stop. It was heaving as the last stop before Brest. This control was a large school, with a huge area to store bikes, card stamped, ablutions completed, food eaten, (are you getting the pattern now?). By now the floors in the control were festooned by sleeping riders and although I contemplated buying a bed. I did wonder how many people were on their way to Brest or on the way back. Having a nap outside was not on as it was quite cold by now, I did see Anne Young who’s I’d met in my attempted Inverness 1,200 audax back in June, she looked cold, unhappy and not in need of a hello!


Stage 8 – Brest 604km

The control told me it was 90km to Brest, so I girded my loins and set off, I was very tired by now and just on the exit went straight over hitting a curb. Not too much damage I thought, until the controls started to get a bit sticky, and I don’t think it was gel!


To make the 90 hour limit, you have to hit Brest by 40 hours, so the option of sleeping at Carhaix was out of the window. When you are very tired, getting an extra 90km is a big ask, but at least it was not cold, and I certainly was not alone!


Now I was getting really tired, I inadvertently stopped my ride on the Wahoo, only having to restart and wondered what I’d lost at least I knew which way to go! I genuinely felt quite vulnerable as every downhill triggered another long slow ascent, knowing it was 90km knew it was going to be a long wait. Moving out of country terrain to a city was a welcome relief knowing it was getting closer even though one rider told me I had 15km to go. Even in those early hours there were constant shouts of ‘Bon Courage’ or even just ‘Courage’ it was so motivational to know that every French man/woman was willing the riders on and celebrating the challenge.


The control arrived and in my best French told them I was incredibly tired, it was now 6 in the morning so I’d had been going for 36 hours. The plan here was executed to precision. Get spare gear and shorts, shower, sleep for 2 hours and eat… all worked fine, my derrier appreciated being out of bib shorts and a chance to dry. When you are that short of sleep even the most helpful volunteer can seem obstructive, so my grump management was at max. I do hope I was polite, but I can’t remember.


Secret control Canihuel – it was on the sheet, but I have no idea how I got my stamp! It must have been completed when I hit Carhaix.


Soon my sleep was over, got dressed, had breakfast, charged some kit, even attempted to put on my XL PBP top which felt a tad to tight, so stayed in my Newbury top, which by now was developing it’s own ecosystem, in addition the small would prevent anyone from drafting me! As I said to a fellow club member, never in human providence has a Newbury RC top, travelled so far, for so long and stank as much as mine did!


Stage 8 Carhaix – 697km

It felt so strange to be back at Cahaix, it was dark when I was last there and now the beating sun had hit.


The routine was followed, had a good fill of fluids, and quick food, as I didn’t fancy the queue for the hot food. I can’t remember who I saw and off I was again.



By this point I’d given up thinking about what the next control was all I knew is it was getting hotter and there were lost so hills, most of them quite steep and I must have enjoyed them a few hours earlier in the other direction, but I really don’t recall!




Found a bit of shade ate, 20 mins if vertical snooze and off I went.


Secret control return - Pleyben

It got hot and at the top of a yet another hill that Tuesday was the secret control. Time for stop, stamp food and lots of drink. I did remember asking for two cokes and the young lad said that there would be a deposit of 3 euros for each cup, which given that both cups had been consumed or should I say evaporated into yours truly, proved unnecessary.


Stage 10 Loudeac -782km

I remember returning to Loudeac, in the dark it was a very different place like the others. I knew that they had beds, but also knew what I had to do as in the routine. I find as I get to the later stages on an Ultra you get programmed into what you are going to do, do it without thinking as in the most part I’m not awake. Most controls I just left everything on the bike, including the phone… less faff time. Anything that is not moving time is wasted but sleep sometimes gets in the way!


Stage 11 Quedillac – 842km

This was a full on night stop… so proper bed for 2 hours and proper feed as it was now dark, cold and definitely the morning. Bumped into the crew from Bristol Audax club including Will Pomeroy who organisers some of their events. It was also a reminder of how lucky I had been as one of the Bristol crews rear Di2 derailleur had packed up, so he was stuck with a middle gear, not impossible for the rolling terrain, but hardly a bundle of laughs. This was a refreshing stop, except on starting off it was misty so seeing where I was going was a challenge.



And you can see I was still smiling!


Happiness or just delirious in the morning


I have no memory of this control, that was the impact it had!!!


Stage 12 Tinteniac - 867km

The fast undulating terrain continued in the dark and as dusk approached the mist came rolling in making seeing where I was going a little tougher! Daylight broke and dropped into the Tinteniac control. Memories of queuing for the loo and riders hogging the cubicles, oblivious to those waiting. I did my bit and was in and out as hygienically possible, which given the smell factor of my kit by now was a bit of a contradiction!


Stage 13 Fougres – 928km

The fast, undulating terrain continued in the dark and as dusk approached the mist came rolling in making seeing where I was going a little tougher! Daylight broke and dropped into the Fourgres control.


Not much to say here except this time I found the restaurant, plus Owen, Tom and Matt and has fresh chips plus lashings of carbona sauce, bliss! Fully loaded I waddled of on the bike again for what was a very forgettable lumpy section in the most incredible heat, this section was perhaps the hardest because of the amount of climbing and the heat, I have no idea how many refills I needed, or how often I stopped for refills.


Stage 14 – Villanes-la-Juhel – 1018km

Long hot section, started to cool in the early evening, the place was full of people and a lot of talk from a loudspeaker, it really was like a celebration and I was part of it. Tried to sleep in a bit of shade but there were so many riders and spectators milling around, it really felt like a family affair. As I remembered the layout this time, did the routine and slowly set off making a few stops for provisions. On the way out bumped into Dulce who I’d first met in my first 400km attempt in 2022.


It was cooling down which was nice and soon we were flanked by motorcycle riders and told to stop to put out gilets on, yes it had gone from dark to light and now entering the dark again.


Rolling fast roads, great fun, but knew I needed to stop to picked one of the pop up food services and had what felt like the best spaghetti carbonara on the planet. I was chatting to some Irishmen, I or at least I assume they were who gave me a some good news I was probably only 30km to the next stop.


Darkness descended and more fatigue with what felt like endless climbs preceded by a city section, I really can’t remember the order now, except in going up one climb I did definitely see another cyclist cross the road once only to repeat it exactly the same again, now I knew I was seeing things and hoped we’d arrive at the next stop soon.


Stage 15 – Mortagne-au-perche - 1099km

Another control with a plan, needed a sleep and also the decision on whether I was going to hit my time although by this time I had no idea. After getting the card stamped, all the beds were taken so I along with others just lay down in the corridor, fell asleep only to be nudged by a very large bouncer and frog arched to the beds booking after with all my possessions hanging off me. How I didn’t lose anything, I don’t know. Anyway it was probably a short time by which I’d changed into my shorts was complaining in my head about the noise outside the sleep area only to be woken up at the correct time of 90 mins!


Kit back on and marched to the food area, where I saw Tim and also later Rob, who asked me the very perceptive question ‘is that a fashion statement or are your shorts inside out?!’


It was a good observation, as it made me go and change and lubricate my arse! That refreshed the parts other controls had not impacted.


Stage 16 Dreux – 1177km

Now off to Drex and my god did I feel slow on the exit from the control, with hills and fast descents when I knew I wasn’t quite in control, towns that seemed to repeat themselves until I realised that I was seeing other riders sleeping in doorways and benches like human litter!


It was now that the tiredness was kicking in again, going up one of the many hills or inclines seeing other riders on the side fast asleep that that tempting voice I mentioned in the prologue spoke to me and spoke and spoke, she was so reassuring, go on just a little sleep , bit it felt like something from a movie where the hero knows they must not fall asleep as the body snatchers would get me!


I desperately needed something to keep me awake and in one of the many small villages that we started to past through there were cafes so made my break. Stopped and joined the queue for a snack and the most powerful coffee I could get down my throat. I did remember my school boy French kicking in when the lady behind the bar said in French, ‘ so this is why I married you!!!!, to her husband, I presume, made me giggle and I don’t think she expected to be heard or understood.


In the dark I do remember riding at what felt with some speed with a number of groups, it felt like everyone was accelerating to the finish as the dark persisted, it did feel like I had been here before on Sunday, at least, that was my mind trying to make me hopeful.

Well, it had its effect and I felt like I gathered pace, one more coffee stop and the light of Thursday morning started to lift and we entered a built up area. I did recall there was control about 40km from the finish, but had dismissed it from my head, but here we were in Dreux, and it was only 6 in the morning!


Stage 17 – Rambouillet – Arrivee !!!!

So, the last control on the road had arrived, now only 40km to go and it was just past 6 in the morning and bright, now I knew I was close, I had to finish by 11.45, so although I had time and it seemed that everyone else was taking their time, I did my routine and didn’t stop to talk and back on the road.


With the light rising Dreux was busy, I knew I didn’t need to have full bottles this time and I just remember pushing. Some of the bigger climbs on this section gave me the chance to see the approaching storms in the distance. Rain was on its way, so would it get to Rambouillet before me, and did I care!


Push, push, push and eventually the roads stated to look familiar from Sunday evening, pushing more then a sign, 10km to go… again.


I just wanted it over and pushed more, then 5km to go and started to recognise the outside of the Chateau grounds, then the cobbles turn right, up the dusty track and left into the finish, tears were welling up like LEL, but not quite as intense as I knew it was part cortisol and a big dose of emotion…I’d done it!


I’d finished at 9.30, ahead of my cut off time of 11.45, so for me quite a margin and something I’m pretty chuffed with. Parked up the bike and got my stamp and medal, my god that felt good! The sudden realisation that I’d taken a challenge that scared me and seen it off again.



First person I say that I recognised was Damial from LEL, but my focus was on fixing the thing I knew I should have done and booking a hotel for the night as really, I’d expected to finish late Thursday, sleep in the car and drive home Friday. Silly idea, anyway, managed to book the same hotel and the revelation of the good night’s sleep a proper shower and return the diner became a reality. Just had make sure I could actually drive back to Plasir without killing anyone!


With hindsight I should have stuck around for a bit longer, but I was done, I just wanted to be horizontal!


Reflection and the road ahead.

So, I’ve earned my Audax coming of age, I have my PBP gilet so often admired in the last 2 years, now I have mine!


So, what’s next – well there is some unfinished business from the Inverness 1,200 in June, Borders and flatlands next ear, a return to the November Sunseekers and Moonrakers night ride and oh yes and of course LEL 2025 😊the rematch!



PBP 2023 H236 over and out!

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