Sunday, October 2, 2011

My Paris-Brest-Paris 2011 Story

Executive summary: The Randonneuring Mecca. A difficult ride made more challenging by inconvenient start times and ride lengths, and some bad weather, but a unique experience made special by the extraordinary support of the local people.

The Buildup

The build up to PBP is long, over a year in my case, when I decided to do the Santa Cruz 1000K in June 2010, that would get me priority registration for PBP. That ride also gave me confidence that I could ride a 1200K but, as we shall see, the differences between the organization of the two rides made that confidence less valid.

Late in the fall I had decided that I needed a new bike that was more suited to long-distance riding than my carbon Trek 5200, and also a better fit for my body to mitigate the discomfort that can become critical on a ride as long as a 1200K. [PBP is actually 1230K]. I chose a steel framed Waterford with S+S couplers that would allow me to pack the bike in a standard sized suitcase and therefore take as regular checked baggage. The bike arrived just in time for the first qualifying ride, the SFR 200K Point Reyes Lighthouse ride, thanks to some fast work by the dealer, Stone's Cyclery in Alameda. It is truly a beautiful bike and probably as comfortable as I could expect from a standard bike.

At that time I was (still) suffering with peroneal (ankle) tendinitis that had flared up just after the fall Death Valley double in early November. I really had no confidence at this point that I would be able to ride PBP at all. At that time, I was unable to stand on the bike and could not push hard with my right leg. The 200K San Francisco Randonneurs (SFR) Lighthouse ride in January was not a good omen. About an hour into the ride, the ankle started hurting and continued to do so for the remaining nine hours or so. I recall climbing the steep pitch to the Lighthouse seated in my lowest gear, essentially pushing with just my left leg. After the ride I went back to the sports medicine doctor who wanted to inject the tendon with cortisone. I wasn't happy about this as I had read that cortisone injections were not recommended for the peroneal tendons and could cause a rupture. We had a ski trip coming up so I decided to wait until after that before making a decision. The ski trip was a disaster; despite the bracing from the rigid ski boots, it took just one run to persuade me that skiing wasn't going to be possible without setting me back to the beginning. I guess this was my lowest point as I was beginning to wonder if I'd ever fix the problem. The thought of never being able to ski again was very depressing. After the trip my physical therapist suggested that I see a podiatrist. He taped me up with a temporary orthotic and it seemed to work well, so I ordered the real thing. As luck would have it, they arrived the day before the 300K qualifier and I wore them on the ride. Miracle cure! No pain for the entire ride. So that was the real start of my recovery. Another aid I used was KT Tape on the ankle for the entire campaign to provide some extra support. The problem was that I was very slow on the bike, probably 1-2 miles an hours slower average speed that before. Doesn't sound like much, but on a long ride it can make a huge difference.

Owing to a family issue I had to miss the SFR 400K qualifier, so I did the Santa Cruz 400K a week later. This meant I missed my favorite double century, the Devil Mountain double but, given that I had done no climbing, that was probably a good thing. I finished the 400K in 20 hours, after which 20kph or better became my riding goal. At that speed PBP would take 62.5 hours of riding which, given an 84hr ride, should allow adequate time for sleep and food stops.

The 600K qualifier passed without issue and I also did the Davis Double Century in May. I was still slow compared to previous years but I was definitely improving on every ride. I had a slight setback on the Terrible Two where, despite finishing, I wasn't fast enough to get California Triple Crown credit. I did more climbing in July on the Peninsula Death Ride and wrapped up the training with the Mt Tam Double in early August, which went pretty well. Along the way I was doing interval training on the bike trainer, trying to increase my speed.

Off to France

So finally, on August 13th, it's off to the real thing. I had decided to spend a week in the UK getting over jet lag and visiting family, so this meant I didn't fly with the main body of SFR riders who went Air France direct to Paris. Packing was challenging. The Waterford packs into a regulation sized suitcase although my unusually long fork stem means I have to remove the fork to make it fit, which requires a mallet both for disassembly and reassembly of headset. I had done a practice pack and unpack before Mt Tam, so it wasn't so difficult. The scare came when, 30 minutes before leaving for the airport I weighed my other suitcase and found it 6 lbs overweight, mostly due to the riding "food" I was taking with me. Fortunately the bike case was underweight so some last minute shuffling fixed the problem. The riding "food" was mostly Hammer Nutrition Perpetuem powder and tablets; this is my usual long distance riding diet and I had decided to carry a modest amount on the bike as a base nutrition level, to be topped up by food at the controls and bakeries along the way.

My detour to the UK meant that my riding "tapering" dropped to zero for the week before PBP. As we'll see below it's not clear that was a good thing. In the week after Mt Tam, I just did three easy one hour spin sessions on the trainer. I'll admit I was feeling pretty good and my weight was at minimum for the year. I had a relaxing time in the UK, did plenty of stretching (Yoga for Cyclists), and ate well. Spent a fun morning at the Coventry Transport Museum learning, amongst other things, the history of bike design and manufacture in Coventry at the turn of the 20th century. Saturday I got back on the plane for Paris from Heathrow. Of course, it being Heathrow in the summer, the plane was delayed which made for a nail biting trip as I had to get my drop bags (change of clothes, Perpetuem resupply, replacement batteries etc.) to the trucks by 7pm. There was a +1 hour time change in Paris despite there being no change in longitude. Fortunately the taxi from the airport was faster than I expected and I had 15 minutes to spare by the time I reached the Hotel Campanile. I had packed my drops bags in the UK, so hustled to drop these off at the bag drop location up the street, before checking in. Outside the hotel late arrivals like me were assembling their bikes. I decided to assemble mine on Sunday morning as I had an 11:00 bike check scheduled at the start area. It took me a bit longer to assemble the bike, especially as I had a momentary panic about where a particular washer went on the headset assembly. Fortunately, there were some knowledgeable people around who knew for sure.

I rode up to the start area which was at a big sports arena a couple of miles away. The first ride after re-assembling the bike is always a bit nervy! Check-in went smoothly, as most people had done it the day before, and I picked up the all-important brevet card and tracking chip that would track my progress on the route and on the web. The weather was uncomfortably hot and sticky, well into the 80's, which wasn't a good omen.

While most 1200K rides have a fixed time limit of 90 hours and a single start time, PBP has three ride lengths, 80, 84 and 90 hours. The start times were different for each, 4pm on Sunday for the 80hr, 6pm on Sunday for the 90 and 5am on Monday for the 84. Since most people elect for the 90 hr start, the 6pm time is actually nominal as groups of riders are let go in waves starting at 6pm. This means that you can actually start 2 or 3 hours after the nominal start time. Given the hot weather I was very glad that I wasn't lined up in the stadium waiting to start under the hot sun. Obviously with the 90 hr ride, you start by riding through the night, then through the day, stopping for the first sleep stop on the Monday evening. I'm no fan of night starts or night riding for that matter; it doesn't bother me and I don't get sleepy, but I just prefer to see where I am riding. Plus that first stretch makes for a long spell on the bike. So I had signed up for the 84 hr start when I registered in April. Once you elect a start time you can't change it so I was stuck with it and, given the weather I was pretty happy with it.

Had it been cooler, I might have gone to the stadium to watch the start, but as it was, I just grabbed something to eat at the local bistro and rested. We had to "check out" of the hotel on the Monday morning which, in practice, just meant storing the suitcases in the conference room they had set aside, as we would be checking back in on the Thursday afternoon.

Day One

At the Start

I was up at 4am, downed a couple of energy bars, filled the water bottles, stowed the suitcase and headed off to the stadium with the smaller group of 84 hr riders. We lined up on the running track waiting for the 5am start, a veritable sea of reflective vests. I met some fellow Brits in the line, who were veterans of Randonneuring, one of whom had done two 1200Ks already this year. Interestingly, they were riding small wheel, foldable, Moulton bikes from the UK.

Eventually we were let out of the stadium only to queue again a short distance down the road. At this point it started to rain! Fortunately it was just a shower but it was not auspicious as the forecast for Paris was dry whereas the forecast for where we were heading was rain and thunder, which is how all hot spells end in northern Europe. Little did we know.

I had read that the most dangerous part of the ride was the first 60km, as it is essentially urban and there are several places where the road unexpectedly narrows. However, the marshals did a great job of marking those, so I didn't ever feel unsafe. Once into the country, it's a very fast ride for the first 200K as the terrain is mostly flat. The first control was at 140km at Mortagne, where, if all went well, I would be sleeping on the last night on the return. I made the first 100 miles in 7 hours, a time I am always very happy about. However, somewhere around mile 40, with no apparent cause, my left hamstring started feeling tight behind my knee. Sometimes this happens and it goes away after a while, but this one didn't and was a consistent but, fortunately minor, pain for the rest of the ride. I was really quite annoyed as otherwise I was feeling really strong, suggesting that the tapering had worked well. I wondered if taking the whole of the previous week off the bike might have been a bad idea after all.

At the Mortagne Control

I stopped briefly at the first control at Mortagne at around 11am for some water, but decided to press on to the control at Villaines, where the first drop bag was, before stopping for a meal. The terrain got hillier in his section which slowed my average speed. Around midday it started to rain a bit and then, just as we were entering a town, it really started coming down hard. I pulled off the road and put on my rain jacket and rain legs and my lights. The rain kept coming and then thunder and lightning mixed in. We were riding in some exposed countryside, at one point on quite a busy road, with trucks carrying livestock passing by, which was a bit scary. Somewhere on this stretch there was a lightning strike on the hillside about 100 yards to my left and the thunder ripped over my head like artillery fire. At this point I was getting a bit concerned for my and other riders safety. Further up the road course marshals made us put our reflective vests on over our rain jackets. The weather kept up all the way to the control at Villaines.

I was well soaked by this stage, although the rain legs had done a good job and seemed to have helped to keep my shoes from getting too waterlogged. Carrying all the wet stuff made navigating the control and the cafeteria pretty difficult and I was ecstatic when a volunteer carried my tray down to the seating area. It was still pouring when I rode back to the drop bag location. All the bags were on the ground just covered with a tarp and there was nowhere to shelter except inside the truck.
I ended up spending nearly an hour at this control, which was longer than I wanted, and it made a big dent in my average speed.

After a hilly start, the terrain flattened as the route headed for the next control at Fougeres, 50 miles away. Thankfully the rain stopped and I actually managed to dry out after a couple of hours. There were lots of roadside stands on this section at the small villages on the way, mostly run by kids and eventually I stopped at one and had some coffee in trade for one of the RUSA pins I was carrying. Shortly afterwards the heavens opened again on a descent into a village, rather unexpectedly as it didn't look very threatening, but I was quickly soaked again. Some other riders were sheltering in the village and I joined them until the worst had passed. Fougeres was soon reached after that, definitely the largest town so far, and after a meandering route, I eventually reached the control. Supposedly we went close to an impressive castle, and I've seen it on other rider's photos, but I have absolutely no memory of it either inbound or outbound.

I tried to minimize time here as it was past 7pm and I still had 55km to go to reach my planned sleep stop at Tinteniac. As I was laving I met up with a couple of the Brits I had chatted to at the start and we rode out together. Climbing out of the town the weather ahead initially looked promising, with some clear sky visible. However, right on the edge of town, things changed suddenly and very dramatically. Very low and fast moving clouds were racing across the sky and it just had an evil look to it. It reminded me of some of the scenes of tornadoes on the Weather Channel. As luck would have it there was a gas station across the street and I decided to wait out what I was sure was going to be a major storm. Amazingly other riders kept going. The winds got stronger and sky got darker and after about 5 minutes all hell broke loose. It was like the end of the world, intense lightning, thunder, crazy winds, and torrential rain. I was so glad I had taken shelter. Still, riders were coming up the hill and continuing on. I felt for their safety. It lasted about 20 minutes during which the street lighting went out three times after lightning strikes.

The storm was moving north but it remained active for the rest of the ride to Tinteniac. Periodically the whole northern sky would light up with one or more lighting strikes, followed by ever more distant thunder. Another of the Brits on one of the Moulton bikes caught up with me on this section and we chatted briefly - he wasn't too happy - but I couldn't match his pace. Just before Tinteniac I saw the lead riders coming back from Brest! These guys had started 25 hours earlier than me but it was still a stunning pace. It looked more like a real bike race as they had follow cars and it was quite a circus.

I rolled into Tinteniac just before 11pm, almost exactly on my 20kph schedule, which I was happy with given the weather delays. I ate a real meal at the control and then went in search of the sleeping area. I had decided to sleep at Tinteniac partly due to it supposedly have good sleep arrangements and indeed this was the case. The control was in a college and they used the dorms, which had four beds to a room. People were sorted into rooms based on the time they wanted to wake up. I decided on 3am, based on the need to get to the next control at Loudeac, 55 miles away, by about 8am. Initially I was alone, but eventually a Swedish rider joined me. The showers and toilets were just down the hall and they even provided a towel! It cannot be overstated how great it feels to get in the shower after 18 hours on the bike! It's also amazing how long it takes to get everything organized. I have learned that it is a good idea to get as much stuff ready for the morning before going to sleep, as there is an inevitable brain-fog on awakening. One thing I did forget to do was charge my Garmin bike computer, despite there being a handy socket right by the bed. I would regret this the next day.

Day Two

In theory the volunteers wake you at the time you requested. In practice I had a small alarm clock which woke me at 3am. Not my favorite time to get up, but you get used to it after a couple of years of randonneuring and double centuries. It took me 40 minutes from waking to getting on the bike. I felt reasonably good, and ate a couple of energy bars for breakfast. Unfortunately I realized that I had mistakenly used my Perpetuem powder the previous evening. So I only had the Perpetuem tablets to keep me going until Loudeac.

I hadn't gone far before I had my first "getting lost" experience leaving Tinteniac in the sense that I became unsure that I was on the right road as I wasn't seeing any of the handy (flourescent) route signs. So I backtracked almost to the control and made sure I hadn't missed a turn sign in my brain-fog. Fortunately more riders came in the other direction (a theme that would occur all day) confirming I was on the right road. It wasn't raining but it was quite foggy in sections. After a couple of hours, I reached the "secret" control, that is, one whose location is not revealed ahead of time. This turned out out be very useful as I was able to grab some food. Dawn arrived about 6:30 which always provides a lift. I don't mind riding in the dark, but out in the boonies it's like being in a tunnel with only the headlight showing the way.

All along this section I kept remembering that an article in the Ameican Randonneur PBP edition had said that it was mostly flat from Tinteniac to Loudeac. Well, it certainly didn't seem that way to me! I also had a panic when I realized that I was about to run out of water. It seems that, in the brain-fog at 3am, I had failed to fill my Camelbak properly. I had filled it in the sink and I think the angle had made it appear it was full when it really wasn't very full at all. And since I had not had any Perpetuem powder I hadn't bothered to fill up my water bottle. Duh! I'd passed through several villages where I could have got some water but now I seemed to be in open countryside again. And, of course, the next village we came to had absolutely nothing open even though it was 7am by this time. The failure to charge the Garmin came home to roost also as I lost power (my fresh battery pack was in the bag at Loudeac) so I had no idea how far it was to Loudeac. Eventually I came to a village that had a bakery open, where I had some excellent pastries and stocked up on water. It turned out that Loudeac was only 7km away.

Loudeac is kind of the "center" of PBP. Tons of people sleep there as it's where you end up Monday evening if you do the 90 hour ride. It's also where Bretagne starts and road signs start appearing in Breton and French. It also had the craziest entry to the control, requiring good bike handling skills to negotiate the narrow, twisty and up and down fenced in track from the street to the control proper. I was glad it was light. Since it was breakfast time, after the brevet card stamping ritual, I headed to the cafeteria and had an omelette and mashed potatoes (weird but it worked). Then off to the bag drop area, this time conveniently in the main control and nicely laid out under an awning (not that it was raining at this point). Although I had carefully packed everything in plastic bags, marked with the day, it still seemed to take a while to get everything sorted, so it was 9am before I hit the road again.

I got lost again leaving Loudeac. I didn't see any turn signs and the rule is to keep going straight otherwise. I got nervous not seeing any riders in either direction so doubled back when I reached the outskirts. I met another rider going my way and he seemed confident it was right. But when we reached the autoroute intersection and saw no PBP signs I knew we were wrong. Fortunately we knew the next village we were supposed to get to, and there was a road leading there. When we reached a T-junction in the village we saw lots of riders on the cross road. I asked one group of four going our way how they found the route and they said they were lucky to see some riders coming the other way else they too would have gone wrong. Seems like someone might have taken the turn sign as a souvenir.

After a few more miles going up and down definitely steeper hills I began to realize that PBP is a ride in two parts. East of Loudeac is flat to rolling countryside, whereas westwards it is much hillier. Another curiosity was that, whereas in the East the most of the villages (except Mortagne) are all at the bottom of valleys, in the west they are all at the top of hills. So you climb in and descend out. Also lots of Norman churches that reminded me of England, not surprisingly given the shared heritage.

I was barely averaging the minimum speed of 15kph on this section and started to get worried about my sleeping plan for that night. I had a hotel booked in Carhaix and I hoped to reach it by 9pm, so as to get some sleep before having to get up again in the middle of the night to get back to the Loudeac control by 7am the next morning. It didn't help that my left hamstring was bugging me more now that there was more climbing. Just before Carhaix I saw SFR rider Theresa Lynch on the return. At the Carhaix control I grabbed some lunch and then decided to go see the medics about the knee. Not much English was being spoken but a doctor examined it and confirmed what I already really knew, which was that it was just muscular. I really wanted some analgesic gel and I eventually managed to get some applied, after a lot of paperwork, including marking my Brevet card. I asked for the name and whether it was available over the counter. The answer was yes, so I stopped at a pharmacy just down the road and bought a tube. So more time lost unfortunately and the big climb ahead over Le Roc Trévezel on the way to Brest.

The route out of Carhaix up to the Roq was different to the return, taking a detour into a quite scenic area for a while before rejoining the main road for the final climb to the summit. Although it was the longest climb of the ride it was fairly tame by California standards, topping out at 1100' and an easy grade. There are hundreds of riders coming the other way now. Most of these are 90 hour riders but there are some fast 84 hour riders mixed in. It's a long descent off the Roq and we are still a long way from Brest once it flattens out, with more ups and downs. At some point the inbound/outbound routes diverge again, so the train of returning riders stops and finally I start the final descent to sea level and cross the famous and eye-catching bridge over the estuary. On the Brest side of the bridge I come across a guy on a recumbent who has a broken chain and doesn't have a chain tool. Fortunately the chain tool on my multi-tool can be separated, so I just give it to him, not expecting to see it again and not wanting to wait given the time pressure.

About the only time I get really crabby on the bike is when my mental model of what is coming up doesn't match reality, usually because I haven't scouted the route adequately. This happens now. My belief is that the rest stop will be shortly after the bridge on the flat area by the bay. Wrong. After riding a long way through this area we turn back inland and start climbing into the city. It seems never ending and the road is narrow and the traffic is not happy with bicycles. I wonder what it must have been like earlier with the 90 hour horde. Generally, the drivers in Brest are the worst on the entire ride as far as treating bicycles with respect. I get the feeling that Brest as a whole doesn't care much about PBP.

Eventually I reach the control at about 7pm, 30 minutes before the closing time, not feeling very happy. I've had this sense for most of the afternoon that I'm on a different ride from everyone else; I guess seeing all those returning riders reminded me that I am at the back of the ride. I'm hungry and had planned to have dinner here but there is no food! That's the problem being at the back of the ride just before the control closes. I manage to get a couple of (dry) baguettes from the bar, which is better than nothing. I'm glad I've got my basic Perpetuem nutrition backup to keep me going. Several riders at the control have decided to quit and face a train ride back to Paris. I'm feeling ok physically and I set out with a small group of riders for the return journey.

The way out of Brest is ok, much better than the meandering entry. We skip the bridge and take a more direct route. I find myself riding with a couple of French guys who speak no English, so I try my schoolboy French on them. Amazingly we actually manage to communicate a bit, at least about the ride. It's a long gradual climb back to the Roq, by which time darkness has fallen. It's kind of chilly at the top and it's a long downhill so I stop to put on another layer. I lose the people I was riding with and around in the process, so it's a lonely ride back to Carhaix. I'm way behind schedule and my plan for the hotel has gone from sleeping a couple of hours to just grabbing a shower to skipping it altogether.

Just before Carhaix a car pulls up behind me and slows down. This makes me a little nervous given the hour of night. No worries, the driver winds down the window and says something supportive in French. He then pulls past and parks ahead in a turnout. I'm curious what is going on. As I approach he gets out of the car and stands by the road, clapping and and saying "Superb" as I ride by. This is definitely the highlight of the day and keeps me upbeat until Carhaix, where I manage to get a little lost again, taking the wrong exit at a roundabout. I'm halfway down a hill and about to turn round as I know I'm wrong (having done the route the other way, although in the light) when another car pulls up and directs me back to the control. What support!

It's still pretty busy in the control and, unlike Brest, they haven't run out of food, although the choice isn't quite what it was at lunch time. As I'm eating a guy on the table in front of me turns round and hands me my chain tool! Yes, it was indeed the recumbent rider who evidently caught me up on the way back to Carhaix.

Since it's past midnight and the Loudeac control closes at 7am, I know I have to ride through the night to be sure I get there in time. I decide to try to grab some sleep in Loudeac and hope I can make it there in reasonable time. On the way I meet up with an Irish rider, Phelan, who lives in Berlin, and we strike up a good conversation and stick together all the way to Loudeac. It's a long haul but there are several riders in and around us and the company and conversation make the time go fast and stave off the sleepiness. Towards dawn, in one village there is a great coffee and pastry stand, which really goes down well. We are close to being their last customers I'm sure.

We arrive at Loudeac at 6am and this time I have to navigate the control chicane in the dark. I've ridden 260 miles in 27 hours and am definitely in need of a rest. The control is a logistical nightmare. After getting the card stamped, I go find the showers. No towel this time, just a roll of paper. The toilets are somewhere else and the "dorm", in reality the school gymnasium floor, is yet somewhere else. All these things cost a small amount of money; the main hassle is just finding it in my mental state. The sleeping arrangements are fold-up beds and mattresses on the gym floor with a blanket. I get a fold-up. It's still dark so the volunteer leads me by torchlight. I dump my gear under the bed and climb on. The bed squeaks with every move I make and is less than comfortable. There is a lot of snoring going on. I'm so tired that I do sleep for about an hour when, I guess, the noise of other people getting up and the light streaming in wakes me. I'm sufficiently uncomfortable that I decide I should just get up and get going, given that I have a real hotel waiting for me at the end of day 3.

Day Three

I hit my drop bag and dump my day two clothes. The good news is that I can travel a bit lighter as I'm going to pass through the other drop bag location before I reach my hotel so I don't need to carry the change of clothes. However, I do need all the Perpetuem to keep me going. I'm completely out of batteries now, so from this point on I won't have the Garmin. I've had enough of control food so I decide to pass on breakfast at the control and instead stop in at the bakery I found on the inbound which is only 7km away. There is simply no equivalent of the French bakery in the US; in France the croissants are warm and just melt in your mouth. On a ride like this you can eat pretty much anything and everything you want, so I loaded up.

If you recall, on the inbound in the dark, I had disputed the notion that Loudeac to Tinteniac is mostly flat. Well, it turns out that it really is mostly flat at least until you almost reach Tinteniac, and I make good time. The weather is pleasant and I am confident the rain is over. I also feel part of the ride again as there are plenty of riders going my way now. They probably had a few hours more sleep than me though. There is another secret control on this section which was nice as they had more snack-like food available. I chatted with one US randonneuse from the 90hr group on this section; it was kind of bittersweet because I (and she) knew she couldn't possibly finish in time a that pace and yet she still had so far to ride with that knowledge.

I rolled into Tinteniac around midday and, much to my surprise, there was Jack Holmgren and SFR admin Rob Hawks just getting ready to leave. This really lifted my spirits. They are both great guys and Jack has a really dry but always-on sense of humor. They ride faster then me and I hadn't expected to catch them up at all. I'm guessing I made up some ground on people with my scant one hour sleep in Loudeac. The control food options aren't great, especially if you happen to be vegetarian (I'm not), but I eat anyway. Halfway through I realize I am eating a beef tongue. Normally this might make me gag, but like I said, on a ride like this...

It's an easy three hour run to Fougeres, this time in the light of day. I run into Jack at the control again and this time I leave ahead of him as I'm in and out in a hurry. It's a long climb out of Fougeres to the plateau that leads to Villaines. As on the inbound there are lots of roadside stands with drinks and snacks and I stop at a couple. Also plenty of people clapping their hands as we ride by. It seems to me that we are slowly climbing a staircase as we keep hitting short climbs followed by more flat land. My memory of the latter half of this section is definitely sketchy because of the rain and thunder, but it gets hillier than I remember close to Villaines, with some steep valleys to traverse. On one of these sections I come across an English speaking rider who is clearly worse for wear; he's riding ok but the words coming out of his mouth make no sense. I think he might be hallucinating.

Finally, we descend into Villaines, which is one crazy scene. It's a small town and it seems as if the entire population is out in the street. They have an inflatable archway leading to the control, and music from loudspeakers. It's very cool and I really wish I was staying here for a while, as I had originally hoped. Unfortunately the hotel was full so I had to settle for Mortagne, another 50 miles further on. Given that it's about 7pm, I do need to eat, but the cafeteria has a long line. Fortunately, there is a bar that is selling ham and cheese baguettes and soup, which absolutely hits the spot and I have double helpings. I find my drop bag in the failing light and load up with the change of clothes, fresh headlight battery, and supplies for tomorrow. I'm so confident of the weather that I decide to dispense with my rain jacket, something I will regret later.

It's pretty much dark by the time I leave, but there are plenty of riders with me. In fact tons. I guess I've caught up with a lot of 90 hr riders who have to be done by between 12pm and 3pm the next day depending on which wave they started in. Since it's 230km to the finish, they definitely need to be on their way. At one point I recognize a voice behind me and its SFR rider Debra Banks. We chat for a while but then I have to stop to put on my knee warmers as it's getting colder. I can tell already that the decision to ditch the rain jacket was a mistake, not because it's likely to rain but just for the added warmth. There is a fair amount of up and down, more than I remember on the outbound. Lots of people are clearly very tired and are just crashing out by the side of the road. Much as that isn't really appealing, I'm tired enough to consider it, but I've got that hotel waiting. I'm actually more sleepy than I've been and I'm definitely in a kind of fog. I'm also experiencing some mild hallucinations, mostly in my peripheral vision. Nothing scary. I'm getting seriously worried about how much longer I have to go to get to the hotel. Fortunately at the next town there is a refreshment stand. I slug a couple of cups of coffee and then add a bunch more to the Perpetuem in my water bottle! The coffee works wonders and I emerge from the funk. Unfortunately it's still over 20km to Mortagne. It's getting colder too. Eventually Mortagne comes into view by which I mean the lights of the town way up there on the hill. It's a serious climb up to the town and then a ridiculously steep ramp into the control. The place is buzzing with riders but I'm just interested in finding my hotel. It's 2am. I had made myself a basic map ahead of time and also get directions but still get lost as it's hidden in a courtyard up a side street. Eventually I almost stumble into the front door.

As I'm entering a group of 90hr SFR riders are just leaving the hotel! That's what you have to do to get in by midday even though it's less than 90 miles to the finish!

The room is really nice and it's a shame I'm going to make such little use of it. The shower is fantastic and, after a bit of preparation I set the alarm for 6:30, which should give me plenty of time to get in, and crash out in a very comfortable bed - it was, but pretty much anything would have been at that point.

Day Four

I woke at 6:15am with excruciating pain in both my knees. I'll admit I was really quite panicked as this was way beyond anything I had experienced in the past - generally I don't suffer knee problems while biking. I figured I'd better get in the shower and try to loosen them up. It worked after a while and I decided that I must have slept with my legs locked in one position. The bed covers were pretty tight and I'm used to a duvet, so I think I just didn't move much. Still scary though.

I'm out and on the road by 7am, so that's a comfortable 10 hours to cover the 140km go the finish. There's a nice descent out of Mortagne but then there are more hills. On this section I run into several people I know including SFR rider Jonathan Beck. While riding with him, we have a very scary experience. A rider from Belgium is also riding with us and on a fast, twisty descent, he moves to the left of the center line with a blind curve ahead. A BMW comes around the bend very fast and he manages to cut back in with about a second to spare. He's very lucky to be alive.

Classic PBP View

I also run into Phelan who I haven't seen since Loudeac. He's doing well and pushing the pace so I drop off. I also meet up with Jack Holmgren and we ride together for quite a while. Jack is suffering with saddle issues and is riding much slower than usual. After a while he tells me to go ahead, but I wait for him in the next village as I need some food. We ride slowly together for a while and take photos of each other lying on a bench at a famous view of a stately home. Jack says it's a classic PBP photo. Then we come across a rider suffering from Shermer's neck. Jack is quite the expert on this and stops to fix the rider up with an inner tube brace. I take a break down the road and we meet up again. By now we are on a long flat run in to Dreux and I suggest that he drafts me in. It doesn't work so I go on ahead as I'm feeling pretty good and riding well. We meet up again at the Dreux control and ride out from there together after some seriously good pastries. Although we're tired we share a real sense of excitement at being so close to the finish - only 50km to go!

Ironically, we come across yet another Shermer's neck sufferer and at that point we part company for good as Jack once again administers his skills. Shortly after I meet up with a young 90 hr rider from Singapore who is worried, rightly, about whether he is gong to make it in by his cutoff. We chatted about randonneuring in Singapore and California, and many other things, as we ticked off the miles. Eventually we came to the one remaining short but steep climb in the forest before hitting the rolling countryside in to Saint Quentin. At the summit the mileage to go was marked and I remember thinking that my friend from Singapore was really on the cusp. Shortly after we were joined by another rider in the same position and the two of them picked the pace in what I must admit I thought was a lost cause. I wasn't in any hurry having about a two hour cushion, so I let them go. Eventually we reached suburbia and the final run in. It was a bit tedious with lots of traffic lights. They had posted signs at 15, 10 and 5 km to go. I must say the km seemed more like miles! But ultimately we reached the big roundabout leading to the finish control where there were lots more cheering spectators. Then into the gym to hand in the brevet card and get the final stamp. I met up with the Moulton riding Brits again outside so we must have taken almost the same overall time, although I hadn't seen them for the last two days. My final time is just over 82 hours. I have no idea exactly how much time I actually spent on the bike, probably about 60 hours, but I do know that I only got 7 hours sleep in total, which is way under my plan.

We got a ticket for one free beer (well lager) in a tent by the exit, where I was happy to see the Singapore rider and hear that he had made it with a few minutes to spare! I can't imagine the stress he must have felt especially waiting at all those traffic lights.

So off to the hotel for a well earned shower. I'm feeling surprisingly good, and not especially tired. Had a couple of hours rest before heading out to dinner with a bunch of SFR riders at one of the restaurants near the hotel. A great time is had by all and no holding back on the food. Yummy profiteroles!

A good nights sleep but didn't sleep in much, which is a surprise. Feeling ok and and after a large hotel breakfast, including lots of croissants, it's time to pack the bike into the case. Unfortunately it's raining again so there is competition for the space in the covered tunnel by the hotel. It takes longer than it should but I'm done by lunch time. The final celebration is the evening dinner for all the American contingent that booked through the Des Peres travel agent. It's fun and I meet up with my buddy Ken Shoemaker for the first time, so we have a lot to talk about.

The journey home, unfortunately, is a nightmare. Breakfast is at 5am, but I'm good at that by now, then it's off to the airport in the buses. There's a lot of concern in the group that's flying to East Coast as a hurricane has shut down most of the airports. So they have no idea what's going to happen. I'm the only one not flying Air France so I part ways and catch the shuttle to the British Airways (BA) terminal. After waiting a while, there is an announcement that the flight will be at least two hours delayed owing to a problem with the inbound aircraft. This eats up most of the cushion I have at Heathrow for the connection to San Francisco. Of course, this being Heathrow, we are put into a holding pattern for about 20 minutes before landing. I'm sure I'm going to miss the connection now unless the SF flight is also delayed. No such luck and we are met at the gate by a young man, whose job I do not envy, who has to deliver the bad news and escort us to the agents who will try to rebook us. I'm assuming there's not much chance of that as most of the US flights have already departed, so I am expecting to have to stay in London and flight the next day. However, the agent manages to get me on a flight to Vancouver and then an Air Canada connection on to SF. I have to wait a couple of hours to get my boarding pass so I get the full English breakfast gratis courtesy of BA. Then some really good news is that I get upgraded to business class!

The flight to Vancouver is super comfortable in business class and it's very nice to just stretch out and watch movies and read. I'm bit worried about my ankles as they have swollen up, partly from the ride and partly from the lower cabin pressure. At Vancouver you have to go through Canadian customs and US customs so it can takes a while. I'm not even sure if my luggage made it onto the plane. It seems to take forever for the luggage to arrive but I still have 45 minutes before the SF flight. Unfortunately that's not enough as you are not allowed to enter the US customs zone later than one hour before the flight leaves. In fact it's all shut down for the night. So I am stranded in Vancouver for the night and am pretty unhappy and tired at this point. But BA puts me up at the airport Sheraton and books me onto an 8am flight the next morning, which isn't so bad. Apart from Air Canada trying to charge me extra for my bike suitcase, which I'm having none of, the rest of the trip is uneventful and I finally arrive home midday Sunday.


I was surprised that I hadn't experienced the usual immediate post-ride extreme fatigue. However, I made up for it by feeling just worn out physically and mentally for much longer than usual, about two weeks. I heard of other riders who contracted various nasty bugs, likely due to weakened immune systems, but fortunately that didn't happen to me. I actually jumped on the bike trainer on the Tuesday to do a recovery ride. That went ok but I realized that the problem with my left hamstring had not healed and in fact seemed worse than when on PBP. I resolved to do plenty of stretching and just light riding on the trainer. Unfortunately, about two weeks later I developed pain in the medial area of my right knee while on the trainer. The pain is reminiscent of I experienced with a meniscus tear in 2008. However, other movements, like closing the knee tight doesn't hurt, so it seems more likely to be arthritis. This is not good news so I have decided to drop all my plans for further 200K and 200M rides for the remainder of the year and try to rehab the knee slowly over time. The hamstring also isn't completely repaired at the time of writing, five weeks after PBP. One good thing is that the ankle was fine during and after the ride. I also didn't suffer any saddle issues for which I credit the Boure shorts, which were far more comfortable than the Pearl Izumi I used to wear.


So, in the end, I have mixed emotions about the whole PBP experience. On one hand, I was lucky that I was able to rehab the ankle and do the ride at all. On the other, I've ended up with a similar condition a year later. Both of these conditions are very likely to have been caused by the repetitive stress incurred in endurance rides, of which PBP is undoubtedly the most difficult that I have attempted. No doubt about it, a 1200K event is a test of physical and mental endurance, and the way PBP is organized seems to me to make it tougher than it should be. I can't help remembering the number of times on the ride where I thought how nice it would be to stop in one of the delightful villages and enjoy a leisurely drink or meal. That's no doubt possible for some riders, but not at my pace with the ever ticking clock of PBP. I'm questioning whether I wouldn't just prefer to tour an area at a leisurely pace rather than race through it as a randonneur. So overall I'm left feeling a sense of achievement for having completed a ride that most people can't even imagine attempting, but balanced by a fear that I may have placed a dangerous level of wear and tear on my body.

I know people who have done multiple PBPs and can't wait for 2015. Personally even if I get healthy and stop worrying about repetitive stress injuries, I'm unlikely to do PBP again. The way the ride start times and ride lengths are organized just makes it very difficult to avoid a lot of night riding and/or unreasonably long stretches on the bike. With hindsight I wish I had known how much more difficult the course was between Loudeac and Brest, as I would probably not have chosen the 84 hour ride. That's one reason for writing such a detailed description, so that it may serve as useful input to new riders in 2015.


  1. Great story, Mick. PBP can be a crapshoot...'07 was steady rain for 80 out of 90 hours. It was much like your ride just described, I only got 6 hours of sleep in all. But this year's ride was delightful, got plenty of sleep. One thing that helped me immensely was having a hotel room in Loudiac both ways.
    I'm happy you overcame your obstacles and finished on time!

  2. Good read, Mick. I appreciate your candid assessment of PBP. Hope you heal up well, so you can enjoy the riding you love...and maybe avoid the riding you don't!