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PBP a lengthy account(9 posts)

PBP a lengthy accountthe flying bean
Oct 22, 2003 12:44 AM
Did my first PBP this year with a couple of mates from Topsham, England. In case you're interested here is my account. I completed it OK, in fact I had no after effects at all. Hardly slept 2 days before the event and very little sleep during the event. Only had a good night's sleep when I returned home. Bike-wise I was on a Principia, Kysrium wheels, double c/set,Carradice saddle bag and battery lights. No mechanical problems or punctures. Wore one jersey (wool) throughout. Found the course hilly in places but nothing as bad as this part of the world. Excellent road surfaces. Here's my FULL account:


Stage 1 – Paris (but no Eiffel Tower)

August 2003; Europe was basking in a heat-wave. Thousands of people were reportedly dying of the heat in Paris. Refrigerated lorries were being used as mortuaries filled up.

Monitoring weather conditions in Paris and at various airports throughout Brittany the week before PBP, I had seen temperatures nudging 40C (104F). Marc had experienced similar temperatures on his family holiday in Portugal (where forest fires raged) and was concerned at not having sufficient water carrying capacity on his faithful British Bob Jackson bike. However, temperatures began to slip at the end of the proceeding week so we'd be enjoying, or enduring hot, rather than baking temperatures. My only concession to the heat would be the employment of the 2nd water bottle carrier on my bike. I reassured concerned family and friends that we would be alright as cyclists created their own 20mph plus cooling breeze and we had no mountains to climb.

After overseeing the lashing of my Principia's strong but fragile aluminium frame to the massive steel ferry hull by a P&O stevedore, I waved farewell to Sharon on the Portsmouth dockside. Life as I knew it – my family, home and country was being put on hold. The next week would be spent living on and from the bike.

I met up with the others at the campsite after a sleepless night parked in my hire car. I had been trying to find them since the previous evening with another PBP entrant but this suburb of Paris proved fiendishly difficult to navigate (a fact confirmed later by our motorbike escort riders in the prologue ride). Phil, an architect, put it down to the lack of natural landmarks like a river or hill, in this tailor built suburb. You couldn't even see the Eiffel Tower to get a fix on your position.

The sheer scale of PBP was at last presented to us when we arrived at the queue for registration and bike check. 4,000 riders from every continent on machines ranging from gleaming lightweight racers to well used heavy tourers, with tandems, folding bikes, recumbents and glass fibre bodied contraptions thrown in for good measure gathered in the athletic stadium. There was even a guy from Finland on a scooter (who did complete the event). With superb efficiency our bikes were checked; my examiner on completing his task, shook my hand and wished me ‘Bon courage'. That well wish from not just him, but the whole population that we'd be passing, would set PBP apart from any ride that we've undertaken. Having collected our swipe cards that would register our progress on route (and also enable friends, colleagues and family to check our whereabouts via the Internet) we were finally ready to start the 2003 Paris Brest Paris.

Stage 2 – Let's go!

Despite the fact that it was past 10 in the evening, it was still pretty hot as we shuffled our way to the startline. Crusher resplendent in his rainbow striped world champion jersey would ride next to Phil with Marc and me sticking behind. To add to the throng of riders ahead and behind us were masses of spectators to our sides firing off camera flashes. And then the shuffle ceased. Thoughts of crossing the rain lashed Menai Bridge passed in my mind - the infamous Bryan Chapman ride, a defining ride that enabled me to be here in Paris. A minute or two later and our wheels were rolling, ju
re: PBP a lengthy account -contdthe flying bean
Oct 22, 2003 12:53 AM
A minute or two later and our wheels were rolling, just fast enough to gain balance and engage both feet to the pedals with that satisfying ‘clack' which signifies rider and bike are now one. A gradual build up of speed and then we were pedalling our way out of the suburb of Guyancourt. Through red traffic lights and roundabouts, our pace was unhindered with passive armed gendarmes, officials and even bystanders guarding our progress at all the junctions. Through a residential district with blocks of flats where young children way past their bedtimes, were cheering us on from the roadside, balconies and their parents' arms. Young mums, old ladies, old men, teenagers, everyone, were out to see the PBP as it headed out of their sultry suburb with lights blazing, towards the fresh Atlantic air at Brest, two nights and a day away.

With his somewhat distinct upright riding position, Crusher's enthusiastic progress in the peleton was clearly visible, especially with the white of his world champion's jersey capturing the rays from dynamos, battery lights and the spooky bluish tint from LEDs. Marc nervously asked me whether Barry realised he still had over 700 miles to go as we overtook riders to keep up with him and to maintain our quartet. Crusher was clearly thriving and took great pleasure in telling one rider, in fluent French that their rear light was not on. The rider took no notice of the world champion from Topsham, (probably wasn't French at all) although he readily pulled over on the order from a passing motorcycle official.

It wasn't long before we were out of streetlights and in the pitch darkness of open countryside. Little packs of red lights from the group who set off 20 minutes before us could be seen in the distance, seemingly floating in the air - the gradient of the road was playing tricks. Passing through a little hamlet at around 1am the spectators were still out, cheering and clapping. Settling into a steady pace – the road seemed to be very gently graded and seemed to descend most of the time. The sound of singing tyres was all to be heard now. It was the middle of the night with absolutely nothing else around. But then music! We hadn't passed any houses or buildings for miles. It couldn't be coming from a rider – a bicycle barely carries enough power for lights. Was it a rave? It got louder - eerie music, no vocals. Eventually, all was revealed. A PBP official's car with roof mounted speakers, was driving at only about 3mph faster than us. He was providing some light entertainment with a serious cause – to keep riders awake.

Further on, the PBP magic continued. In a little village with all windows shuttered, an illuminated bike display (the first of many we'd see) signalled a café that had remained open. The owner and maybe it was his daughters, were filling up water bottles and offering coffee. Bikes were parked all over the place with riders eating drinking and chatting. It must have been 2am.

Our first official stop and en route PBP meal was at a large community/sports centre in Mortagne. After finding somewhere to park our bikes (and remembering where they were) it was an opportunity for Crusher to circulate amongst the friends he made on the Denmead qualifying rides. It was also time for me to initiate the others into the art of having a cat nap as we all intended to ride through the night and the following day. Returning into the noticeably colder night air, we donned extra layers before riding on to witness our first sunrise over the Normandy countryside as well as the first space foil blankets in use. Riders had succumbed to tiredness and had slept anywhere - on verges and in fields, with one rider lying asleep on a gravelled drive entrance. My own foil blanket given to me for the Bryan Chapman ride, remained unopened in my saddlebag, but I sensed its impending use.

Stage 4 – Brest and halfway

Our quartet remained, I think, until the afternoo
re: PBP a lengthy account -contd 2the flying bean
Oct 22, 2003 1:00 AM
Our quartet remained, I think, until the afternoon of this following day (Tuesday). At the crowded stop of Loudeac we couldn't find anywhere indoors to pitch down. Every square inch of floor space was covered with riders who looked as though they had suffered a toxic gas attack. Marc, Phil and I therefore had to grab the last remaining area of grass and bed down. I unfurled my foil blanket and wrapped myself up. Marc and Phil went out like lights in their sleeping bags. Crusher was still on the road although we heard later that he slept on the steps of a church. I lay resting, but was not tired. So rather than waste time, I left my sleeping partners and headed off into the darkness. The air was a lot fresher than at the start, and in valley bottoms markedly colder. This probably kept me awake and alert as I traversed the gentle hills of Brittany in starlight.

Marc and Phil met up with me en route nearing Brest. This halfway point did not have the same aura as the Menai Bridge and Isle of Anglesey had for me on the Bryan Chapman. There was a climb to the control point in Brest, with much traffic, something we were not accustomed to and the place itself was a baking suntrap. All in all, it was a bit of a disappointment to me and I think Marc who had hopes of celebrating halfway with a meal of oysters. I learnt a day or so later that it was my birthday, such was the disorientation of time and day and wearing a watch didn't help. But still, we were now on the return leg and celebrated with a baguette and tart. I generally feel tired mid-afternoon and today was no exception. Spotting a grassed bank beside the road, I clipped off from Marc and Phil and lay down under a tree. It was a perfect place for a kip on a hot day. Overlooking the road with fellow riders passing I must have slept for a couple of hours or so before resuming the ride to the next official stop at Carhaix.

Now separated from Marc, Phil and of course Crusher, I watched the other riders from my dining table in what appeared to be a sixth-form college. Some looked stressed and most looked tired. All walked awkwardly with their cycle shoes on, and some looked in pain. A notice-board displayed the hand written times of trains back to Paris so clearly, some would be taking that option. But for me the road back to Paris beckoned and the sun was getting low.

Night riding was not the bogey we had feared when initially contemplating 24 hour riding. In fact it was a magical experience crossing the traffic free Brittany countryside in the pitch dark. Occasionally a dog's bark could be heard echoing in a distant yard, but otherwise silence. I instinctively eyed up potential sleep stops – barns, soft verges, sun-loungers left out in gardens and so on, but there was no need. For the temperature as we descended into valleys dropped significantly and this always seemed to keep me awake. Along the route we'd often pass lanterns on tables and local folk offering coffee and cakes to participants.

Stage 5 – Paris or bust

I rejoined Marc and Phil at the again crowded facilities at Loudeac. This time I hired a camp bed in a huge warehouse where hundreds slept. The official showed me the way to my bed like an usherette at a cinema. I lay there in pitch dark listening to the sounds of this multinational army of cyclists at sleep. Judging by the noises, I could have been in a cattle barn, though the smell was less unpleasant, just. I slept for a couple hours and then set off with Marc and Phil just before sunrise. Crusher was en route behind us, his progress being monitored by Marc's wife Kim in England, who would text his whereabouts. Barry was just making it to the controls before the official cut-off times, an art he had perfected in solo riding the Denmead series whilst keeping an eye on his average speed read-out.

It's easy to see why Brittany is a hot bed for cycling. Well surfaced Roman roads offering superb visibility and re
re: PBP a lengthy account -contd 3the flying bean
Oct 22, 2003 1:07 AM
It's easy to see why Brittany is a hot bed for cycling. Well surfaced Roman roads offering superb visibility and relatively gentle gradients. I imagined riding the Tour de France here, catching riders who had broken away and storming along at high speed in the large peloton. And judging by our reception, Paris Brest Paris was equal to the Tour for the towns and villages we passed through.

Children would chant ‘Allez, Allez' and ‘Bon courage' or ‘Bon route' would be hailed. People would be sat outside their homes with many offering water, coffee and cakes. I carefully picked up a plastic cup of water from a child who was holding it aloft as we approached their roadside house. Emptying it down the back of my neck, I was able to throw it back into their garden as we sped on. ‘Bon Soir Monsieur' would be heard from open, unshuttered windows, revealing enticingly lit living rooms. Perhaps a lifetime of family memories displayed on mantel pieces or in photos on the walls with, if you were lucky, an accompanying young woman, would be glanced in less than a second as we flew past into the night. Motorists passed us without fuss, even on occasion juggernauts. If the passing vehicle encountered another oncoming, the other would simply mount the verge – no problem. We would be given right of way at roundabouts, junctions and even if traffic lights were against us. In short, we were treated as heroes and for me and maybe others, it was just reward for years of enduring the anti-cyclist attitude of many British motorists.

Thursday siesta time marked another temporary end to my riding with Marc and Phil. Under a tree on a lawn at the Fougeres control point, I rested during a hot and sunny afternoon. Having no predetermined plans of when I would sleep, it was a pure delight to stop whenever I fancied. Others following a plan would probably disagree and just goes to show how we all differ in coping with tasks.

The Danish riders were exceptionally regimented in identical jerseys. They rode in tight formation and would not tolerate any outsiders infiltrating their pack. They would also stop for convenience breaks all at the same time -they must all have had the same metabolic rate.

A group of Italian riders I rode with were by contrast informal and joked quite a bit. Particularly noticeable on hills, our narrow waists and lightly built bodies were of stark contrast to those of the Danes and Americans.

The British provided the eccentrics. We had the tandem recumbent from Devon, which was a real crowd puller, a triplet being ridden by gents in summer casual clothing and a penny farthing at the start, though not taking part - the rider was just passing by Paris on a round the world ride! And there was the legendary Jack Easton, one of the oldest riders, who would make up time at controls by having a smoke rather than queue for a sit down meal. Despite our differences there were always times to exchange chat. I'll remember the American on a British built bike with leather saddle. He was enthralled at my stories of Colin Lewis' participation in the ill fated 1967 Tour de France. Our woollen jerseys also prompted inter nation talk – once the norm, wool has been replaced by lycra. Wool is cool in the heat of day and warm at night. It also stays fresh. Ask anyone who has performed an underarm smell test after a ride.(my jersey stayed on my back for the whole ride)

Stage 6 – Arrivee !

After leaving Marc and Phil camped at Mortagne late on Thursday night, I embarked on a solo night flight to the final control point. The reflective direction arrows were barely visible in the bluish white light of my headlights as the road cut through dense forests making the night even darker. Just before sunrise I eventually caught up with other riders. By this time my eyes were really tired and on occasion I had to apply both brakes as my bike uncontrollably surged forward into the wheels of the other riders. It was a s
re: PBP a lengthy account -contd 4 !the flying bean
Oct 22, 2003 1:10 AM
By this time my eyes were really tired and on occasion I had to apply both brakes as my bike uncontrollably surged forward into the wheels of the other riders. It was a sign that I was falling asleep. I kept myself awake until the sports hall control point at Nogent Le Roi where I forced down a cooked meal. Alas not a cooked breakfast in the British sense, just cooked food. Then from a commanding viewpoint I dozed, keeping an eye out for Marc and Phil, who appeared an hour or two later, together as ever.

On Friday morning we rode the final 35 miles together. We'd heard that Crusher may have missed a cut-off time when helping an elderly rider. But he was still going, behind us and likely to finish today. The final few miles (I deliberately avoided thinking in kilometres) brought us back into well laid out but characterless Guyancourt. Traffic lighted junctions every hundred yards or so marred a swooping finish to the line. There were crowds at the finish but all in all like most finishes to long rides, I felt it was all a bit of an anticlimax.

The real finish is reached later when stories are shared and images remembered. This account of PBP puts my memory pieces of a jigsaw back together before it is too late. If you thought it long and rambling, well, we were on our bikes from Monday 18 August 1020pm to Friday 22 August midday!



Epilogue

Sharon was at Portsmouth for my return on Saturday afternoon. Reckoned I looked even thinner. She asked how my legs and backside felt and looked in disbelief when I told her they were fine. Returned to a packed Topsham – it was carnival night. The Danish Beauty was wheeled through the crowds like a finished racehorse. No one realised what I had just done – other than my mate Karl who happened to be standing near our house. Karl and I have messed around on bikes since the age of 5, although Karl has now sensibly switched to the motorised sort. It was fitting to see him on my return from the grand PBP adventure.

The others cut short their plans to stay on and returned home soon after me. Crusher suffered with a sore arse, ended up wearing 3pairs of shorts – at the same time for increased padding! He also got some bacterial infection in his legs. Found walking very uncomfortable for a couple weeks afterwards. Marc and Phil were OK, thanks to the liberal application of a cream intended for the udders of dairy cattle.

The Flying Bean
October 2003
great story - nmMJ
Oct 22, 2003 2:35 AM
Great account of an epic adventure, Bean. Thanks! (nm)Dale Brigham
Oct 22, 2003 5:42 AM
Great piece Bean. It makes me want to do it! (nm)boyd2
Oct 22, 2003 8:07 AM
Excellent!Lon Norder
Oct 22, 2003 10:03 AM
It seems like we were on a similar pace. We probably crossed paths somewhere. I too was forced to sleep on the grass at Loudeac. Thanks for the report.