Paris – Brest – Paris saved me. Maybe that’s hyperbolic, but it is the truth. 2019 started as a nightmare personally. It was through the focus of the BRM’s, and relationships I made during them which gave me hope. I started off this series of Brevet posts looking for an answer. Adjusting to my new life in the emotionally and physically claustrophobic city of Paris. So trying to summarize what PBP has meant, is as intimidating as the preparation for it.
This fascination began 4 years ago, while still living in the US. I found a brief article online that mentioned the last PBP in 2015. I was racing at the time, and thought myself a capable cyclist. But the distance and time cut for this event was too much for me to grasp, so I tucked it inside, next to fear and insecurity. Thinking it both impossible and inescapable.
Central Brittany is a region obsessed with the utilitarian elegance of the bicycle. It lacks the mountains, vineyards, canyons and seasides of typical cycling destinations. What draws thousands from the far corners of the world once every four years to this geographically unremarkable passage through France? Following a corridor of the country not printed in travel brochures, or hashtagged with duck faced travel couples? Maybe we are taking flight on this trace through Brittany. Searching for each other and ourselves in equal measure. It pulls us like the migrants from a Steinbeck novel.
“And they come into 66 Brittany from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads. 66 Brittany is the mother road, the road of flight.”
Now I find myself at the starting line of the oldest continuous cycling event. As my previous Brevet posts have outlined, this is an earned privilege. There are no gifts for a randonneur. I am here because of the support of too many people to name. Most notably my fellow randonneurs. Some of which were not able to make the starting line today despite earning it just the same.
It is August the 18th, 2019. Ahead of me, of us, is a test. A test of distance, of fitness, of patience, of self. Today is the 19th edition of Paris – Brest – Paris.
The weather is brilliant on this late summer Sunday. The rain which soaked the grounds of Rambouillet’s gardens for the past 36 hours, has moved on in time for the Depart. I begin my ride at 16:45, and quickly find myself in a clump of 50-70 riders careening through cheering villages as we exit the suburban bubble of the greater Paris metropole. Never comfortable sitting in, I tilt forward through the menagerie of migrating steel, carbon, titanium and aluminum. A real who’s who of the periodic table. Taking survey of each chariot and coming to the conclusion, I overpacked. Having returned from a bikepacking trip across the Alps the previous week, I was prepared for the apocalypse. Food, clothes, tools, sleeping bag, toilet paper… possibly a gold coin or two should the world economy collapse. It did not take long to realize that most people, intentionally or not, packed less. This became a doubt in the back of my head for the next 1,200 kilometers. But like any obstacle in a brevet, even the ones out of your control, you plug away and collect your stamps. Regardless of what happens from this point, I’m on my way to Brest.
Night one quickly approached after a short stop in Montagne-au-Perche. The school of riders I had embedded with, were now dispersed by the lure of baguettes and cheese. This meant finding another group for the graveyard shift. I expected to ride much of this course by myself, but preferred to ride with a small group through the dark void. It is instinct most likely. As the edges of the roads close in, the comfort of a red tail light to affix your gaze, can be the difference in taking a break or continuing on.
Another checkpoint and I lose my 2nd group. It is now 1am, and I’m on my own. The tail lights in the distance become further and less frequent. Most have decided to take a quick nap. I carry on. Passing a few solo riders, none of whom really seem awake. It’s nearly 3am and though I’m getting drowsy the legs are still there, for now.
There is casual chatting behind me. Then WOOOSHHH! A young woman with 4 men in tow motor past me. I need to wake up, so I press on the pedals to sit in the small and lively bunch. I come around to take a pull a few minutes later and recalculate the arrival until the next checkpoint in Fougères. If there is one thing that always passes the time, its calculating and recalculating the pace in your head.
Damn, I dropped them. Strange, I’ve been pacing myself with a power meter. Maybe they weren’t as organized as I hoped. A few minutes later and my shadow is dancing in front of me on a slight ramp. I pretend I’m now on his wheel, the loyal lieutenant pulling me through the maw. My super domestique begins to fall away, an indication we aren’t alone from the approaching headlight. The young woman pulls around me and I grab the wheel. It is only now I realize who the rider is. Fiona Kolbinger, recent winner of the Transcontinental Race, and first women to do so outright. It is just her as she dropped the others attempting to match her tempo. We ride for the next hour together, trading pulls through the sleeping country roads. The temperature has dropped to 8 degrees celsius, so the higher pace is more than welcome. It isn’t until we reach the next checkpoint in Fougères do we exchange hellos and have a quick chat about her recent and historic win. It felt like an honor to share the road with such a talented cyclist. I stayed around a few minutes longer to eat and stretch as she pressed on into the night. Taking my domestique with her.
The sun began to rise as I made my way toward Tinténiac. 360km in and I was beginning to feel the efforts build in my legs. Here I begin to lose memory of what is happening around me as my mind slips into a trance. During the entire day of riding on Monday, I only recall a few details. I see my friend Michal at a checkpoint. Another friend, Fanny, is seen at various places along the course as we leapfrog each other. At some point, I stopped for about 2 hours to shower, change my kit and eat. It was the middle of the afternoon and I intended to get an hour of sleep, but felt a strange sense of motivation, or urgency. I remounted the bike and wanted to reach Brest in 30 hours. That singular thought was the only clear one being communicated to the rest of my body.
Why 30 hours? Much of this comes from ego, that pesky, inconvenient, mysterious, ego. Unsatisfied with my 600 BRM 2 months prior, I knew in my bones I made mistakes with pacing. I wanted to prove I could do better. I felt that if I could do 600KM in under 30 hours, there was a good chance at hitting my loose goal of 70-75 hours. It would also take the pressure off and allow me to get some real sleep in Brest. After all, I wasn’t going to drag a sleeping bag around France for nothing. The final 100KM into Brest was extremely difficult. The headwind picked up considerably as the Atlantic Ocean drew nearer. I was unable to find a steady group the entire day. The rolling hills felt like mountains and their frequency increased. Long, grueling drags into the wind that sapped energy and will. As the sun set on another day, I reached Brest in 29h52m exhausted but satisfied. Filling my belly with food once more, I curled up behind a cash register in an empty room. Tomorrow, I would head back home to Paris.
Monsieur! Monsieur! Trois hueres! Il est trois heures!
What? Quoi? Uhhh…OK. Was I not allowed to sleep here I ask myself? Who the hell is this guy? Why is he telling me it’s 3am? He looks at me and pauses. I’m not sure if it’s mistaken identity or he sees the sunken look in my eyes and is terrified. He turns away and leaves me in my corner. I see another guy shivering 2 meters away from me, with no cover and still in cycling kit. I realize the once empty room is now a depository of exhausted bodies in every variation of slumbering contortion. Some cocooned in mylar blankets, but most on the cold tiled surface. I felt like a king in my silk lined sleeping bag, boxers and t-shirt. I maniacally chuckle to myself and doze off for 2 more glorious hours.
It’s Tuesday, I think. Cramming my sleeping bag away, along with a baguette into my stomach, a resume riding just before the sun reveals my whereabouts. I enter and leave Brest under the cover of darkness and find my way back into the rhythm. I briefly hop onto and off small bands strung across Brittany. It soon becomes clear how large this event is. Passing hundreds, no thousands, of people still making their Hajj into Brest. The warm morning sun attempts to pierce the blanket of fog that has settled in the streams, gullys and rolling nooks of the Parc Naturel d’Amorique. An official races up and down the course, breaking the serenity, to reprimand the high-viz vest anarchist among us. Only by chance was I wearing mine as the early morning hours required the additional layer of warmth. Even still, I thought the tone of the official towards some of the riders a bit harsh, but felt assured that the organization took such things seriously.
It was here that details again become murky. Faster than the day before, my hypnosis returns. My minds only thoughts, the next control and the checklist of things I needed when I got there. Saddle sores then became my second focus. Usually I’m not prone to them, but a lot of things happen over the course of 1,200km that aren’t normal. Around the 700KM point, the pain was starting to become unbearable. Affecting the way I sat and pedaled. I still had one pair of fresh bibs with me, but I knew that a simple swap might only give me 50 comfortable kilometers. Things were getting… pretty bad down there. So I gambled, and tried something different. Pulling off to the side of the road, and with very little dignity, I stripped down behind a shrub and put on the fresh bibs, then the worn bibs over top. I doubled down, very literally, hoping the extra padding could get me through the last 400KM.
It worked! Though I could still feel some discomfort, I was able to sit on the saddle in a normal position. The searing pain was muted, giving me an incredible boost of confidence to face the last night of riding. The problems in life that can be solved by adding a second pair of pants is a short list, but in this case, I was relieved to have packed a third change of shorts for the event.
Night once again settled in and by this point, my frayed mind was running on fumes. You can prepare for the physical toll of an event like this, but the mental and emotional fatigue that builds, is unpredictable. With 300KM remaining, I had gone through every high and low multiple times. I became cynical and suspicious of each emotion as it approached. Oddly, The counterbalance of my inner voice guided me.
There are negative thoughts, which would reveal themselves when I was on a high. “Legs feeling good are they? HA! That’s not gonna last. Better pull it back some, you can’t keep this up. Are you even gonna finish? There are hundreds of people in front of you, I bet they feel much better.”
Then the positive thoughts, which dragged me back to reality, just as I was slipping under the water’s surface. “We have been through worse, this pain. Remember how you felt earlier this year? See, this isn’t as bad, right? You know this is just a dip, if you keep spinning, keep moving, it will get a little easier, and you will be a little closer. There are so many people sending you notes, and you aren’t alone out here. That guy ahead, he’s going a little bit slower. Tell him good job, give her a nod, that group needs a wave. They might be hurting more. You’re almost there, this will pass.”
This rolling prairie of emotion was even more potent than the hills of Bretagne. Every effort comes with a price tag. If you followed a wheel that was a bit too fast, if you beat yourself up too much or thought you were capable of more than who or what you are, there is always a cost. On this third night, I would not sleep. Tonight I had to settle my debts, one way or another.
Follow those tail lights. 3 more, now they are in the mix. 2 more, we have a good pace. I’m swept away by a group of human sewing machines methodically spinning through the night. A tinted yellow moon lights our way ahead and the oscillating rhythm of red light soothes my tattered nerves. The buzz of a freehub, an exchange of French too soft to be understood. This is wonderful and otherworldly. But I have to pee… I pull off to the side and the night absorbs my companions. It is very difficult to clip back in when you can’t see the pedals. I don’t like being alone. I’m afraid, and begin to chase for the group. A few kilometers down the road, a sigh of relief. I found them. Another 30 minutes goes and I have to pee again. What the hell!? Again? Once more, I break from the group. This time the bike topples over while I’m stopped, and I catch the handlebars with my free hand. Only then did I realize I’m giving the front wheel an impromptu cleaning… I can only laugh at this point as I piss on my bike. I again chase back onto the group, but offer no explanation as to why my front disc is now squealing when I brake. My French stinks anyway.
The swaying lights of my fellow riders are now shapeshifting into animals. I see a wolf between two, and now a bow and arrow. Is someone singing? That’s a great song. Are they talking about me? Oh that guy has a flying bike, I want one of those. Well, I think you are hallucinating now. Probably not the safest situation, but with 40KM to go until the next control, I slide to the back of the bunch, far enough I am only a danger to myself. Ouch! A bat hits me in the shoulder, that wasn’t a hallucination. Around 4:30am, I can feel myself starting to crack, and there are still 15KM until the next control. Another village approaches, and like a mirage, there is a large tent setup with hot drinks, snacks, and a group of teenagers just dancing and singing in the middle of the street. Another hallucination? I pull in and they can see there is no light in my eyes. I ask for a hot chocolate and lack the energy to swing my leg off the bike. I stand there trying to wake up, hoping the visions stop long enough to take back control and get to the next one. The teenagers hop on a makeshift stage and start singing for me. A woman asks me if I’m sleepy. I think it was in French, I only know I understood what she was asking. Maybe my French is getting better.
Well, I think you are hallucinating now… I slide to the back, far enough I am only a danger to myself.
Back on the bike. No more chasing, just pedal hard to stay warm. At 5 degrees celsius, I’m starting to shiver and focus harder on the remaining kilometers. Reaching Villaines-la-Juhel, I stumble my way into the warm cafeteria and try to recover for the final 200KM. A distance which seemed like nothing at the start now feels like traveling to another planet. Overheard, an older gentleman who recently abandoned. A friend offers his sympathy. A new fire lights inside of me. I don’t want anyone to offer their sympathy, you have to go, I tell myself. A message pops up on my phone, another message of support. I tell myself again, “You have felt worse, this will pass”. Clip clopping back to my bike, I put on EVERY article of clothing in my bag to fight off the tremors brought on by the morning chill. Heading east, searching for Paris, for the sun, for 3 more stamps.
Up, Down, Up, Down. I go down, sun comes up, I go up, the road goes down. There is no more calculating. Time goes up, I go down. I go up, time stands still. Time goes down, pace goes up. Pace goes down, I stand up. I sit down, ouch, damn saddle sores.
15KM from Rambouillet. For the past 72 hours, I have not ridden with a familiar face. I’ve seen friends along the way, but the timing was always off. Looking over my shoulder, and there is Bixente in a flying gruppetto. We rode much of the 400KM BRM together and I know if I ride with this chain gang, it will hurt. I hesitate but he gives me a glance and a nod to hop on, it sparks just enough in me to grab the wheels once more and empty the last bit of energy. We gallop back to the castle in Rambouillet, where we left 3 days ago on our crusades.
I do one final calculation and realize, I’ve finished in just under 73 hours. Overwhelmed with relief and a personal pride I have not felt in a very long time, I’m unable to hide the smile from my face as I cross the line. I made it.
After 1,220KM I’m back to where I started. Paris – Brest – Paris won’t change who you are. If anything, it exaggerates all of your strengths and weaknesses spectacularly. But it can give you a better idea of where you are. I’m in a better place than when I started this PBP dream. I’m also looking forward to where I’m going next.
Paris – Brest – Paris contains an ocean of experiences. Countless stories and lessons and memories. I for one not only find these fascinating, but essential to my own story. As I mentioned, I would not be here without my fellow randonneurs. They have all given me something through this journey. A wheel, a tip, a perspective, their generosity. This community is special, so I would like to share some of their stories. They came from across the world to ride the same road. So I wanted to know…
What did you learn from Paris – Brest – Paris?
“In the 1960's, a young speleologist goes down an abyss willingly and stays for 2 months in 4m2 and total darkness. His days and nights without sun are sliding as he lives on a 24 hours and 30 minutes clock. After 30 of his days, he is told he has spent 60 days in this hole, and he is pulled out. He truly lived 2 months and experienced only 1, slow and long. My 66 hours and 30 minutes on Paris-Brest-Paris are echoing his story.
My bike becomes the space where I am going to live three days. It is comfortable enough : bags are balanced, food is just under my hands, I can read directions easily. I sit at ease hands on the handlebars, I can lay on the TT bars. My bike carries all my clothing against bad weather, I eat there, drink there, and I won't be cold.
Hours, minutes, seconds have no meaning anymore, time is now distance. Each checkpoint is less time to go back to Rambouillet. Brest is half-time. There is no day, no night, I pause when I am hungry and tired.”
"When I woke up to an urge to vomit for the 2nd time, I knew it was game over for me. The food poisoning I got 30km before Brest simply took everything I had left. No can do. Out of all the scenarios I envisioned I could encounter during the 1200km, this wasn't one of them. I had mixed feelings. On top of the huge disappointment of not being able to finish, I also felt relieved. No more long, dark and cold nights on the saddle. I had all the time in the world to sleep as much as I wanted.
Now, a week after PBP I definitely have a bigger respect towards the unknown. While there's so much you can prepare, there's also so much that is simply out of your control. Going forward, I want to be more grateful just for having the chance to participate. It's the journey, not the destination, as they say."
“PBP is a different kind of challenge for every rider. Contrary to a lot of other riders I haven’t really looked at PBP as a goal in itself. I try to do at least a Super Randonneur series of 200, 300, 400 and 600km brevets every year, so qualifying is business as usual. I’m not very fast, but I’m good at keeping a steady pace. For me the major challenge for me as someone being used to riding long distances by myself or with a few friends was the amount of other riders and the big pelotons that formed. I keep forgetting this from time to time and then re-learning it again, but this kind of riding is not for me. As this started to ease up the closer you got to Brest I felt better and better and then when I was eventually riding the last 525km from Carhaix to the finish more or less on my own, I started to regain the happiness and positive feelings that I usually get from riding a bike. For the first half I kept thinking that I’ll never return to do PBP again, but knowing myself there’s a big chance that I’ll find myself at the start at least once more.”
“My fitness level was adequate, nutrition plan not bad, however I completely underestimated the mental challenges PBP has brought. Officially, it’s not a race but everybody is racing it: against targeted time, previous PB or general time limits. Everyone has their own strategy, stays very focus on target and as a result doesn’t talk too much to preserve energy. In these circumstances, I ended up riding most of whole distance alone. Being so sleep deprived and fatigued (well after hitting 900k), I started to ask myself a serious but very basic question – what is the sense of riding in such circumstances. “Is the entire effort worth it, if you constantly have to watch the time limit and be efficient while off the bike, leaving you very little room to rest, take pictures and enjoy” - was the question buzzing in my head. Shortly (150k) before the finish line I met strong group led by Carles (Spain) who invited me to go with them shouting loudly ”coooome oooon”. Together with Jason (Taiwan) and 2 more French club riders, we rode a few km in much-more-than-endurance-pace maintaining perfect slipstream. When things slowed down, we started to have a chat and make jokes from time to time. This is what I was missing from the beginning. Something that would give me natural strength and motivation to carry on. I realized this is also what I enjoy in cycling mostly: hard effort, speed, freedom but also camaraderie. Not sure you will see me in a next PBP, but periodically I may do some longer distance rides. In a good company though.”
“PBP still remains to be one of the toughest cycling endurance events I have ever participated in. No matter how many times I have done this, it will still be as challenging and quite humbling. My 3rd PBP proved to be another epic experience and while I have successfully completed it in 2011 and 2015, 2019 was elusive due to factors out of my control - my riding partner suffered due to a strained muscle behind the knee and I had to make that judgment call to stop for the both of us.
Nonetheless, PBP has taught me that what matters most in these rides is the journey more than the end-goal of finishing. PBP is not just about the cycling... it is about this amazing randonneuring culture, the tireless volunteers, the smiles you see on the roads and friendships forged. The people I have met through these rides are the most amazing people that I am proud to call friends.”
I learned several lessons to get to this point. The most practical and healthy of which is stubborn flexibility. I think this is more commonly referred to as, picking your battles. I had a target of 70-75 hours, but in all honesty, this number was arbitrary. I have never ridden for this long or this kind of distance. I felt I could get to Brest in about 30 hours, but beyond that, I had no idea what would happen to my body or mind. The initial “plan” was to ride 300KM in about 16 hours, sleep for 4 hours and repeat. This would be about 76 hours in total. After the first 200KM on Sunday evening, I knew this was not going to work for me. For one, the headwind for the first 600KM was a factor. I used a lot of energy staying in a group to fight this wind for the first day and night. This allowed me to reach Brest ahead of schedule in 30 hours, but also meant a slower, more measured return to Paris. I did not sleep until I reached Brest. I then made the decision to only sleep once, which I think was the right call for me. Shutting down the body and restarting is no easy task, so I think limiting my sleep to one “quality” stop suited my needs.
Real fatigue was going to hit on the return to Paris, and saving time in the controls would offset my decreased pace. I began rehearsing the movements in my head prior to stopping to save time.
Because the needs would slightly change at each control, repeating this over and over, and visualizing the stop before you reached it, was extremely helpful. The time I spent at each control on the return to Paris was on average cut in half. I estimate this saved me at least 90 minutes.
I invested in 2 other areas to aid in my performance. Following my 600KM, I experienced some knee, lower back and neck pain that had been nagging me throughout the BRM season. I opted to get a new bike fit. My first since I began seriously riding 8 years ago. After a few weeks of getting accustomed to the higher, more forward position I was placed in, I felt a noticeable relief to the back and knee soreness I was experiencing.
Additionally, I invested in a power meter to help me better pace my efforts. During the second half of my ride, I would closely monitor the output when joining a group of riders, if they exceeded the effort I was holding, I would drop off, even if I felt OK. Being disciplined when you are sleep deprived is not the easiest thing, so the power meter was a fantastic advocate to make that judgement call for me. As an aside, I opted for a dual sided Pioneer Power Meter . This unit in particular gives you real-time feedback with your pedaling smoothness and efficiency. By no means is this an essential or even practical piece of information during PBP. However, I personally find comfort in data and numbers. It was, if anything, a welcome distraction from the hours of discomfort.
Similar to my 600KM Brevet , I did add a few more items that in retrospect, I could have left at home. One thing that is not immediately apparent in the event literature, is the sheer amount of resources available at each control. I certainly packed too much on bike nutrition along with a sleeping bag that could have been left at home as there were beds and blankets available at many controls. My choice to have 3 kits on hand, to change every 400KM was probably overkill, but in the end proved to be moral boosting and saddle sore saving components. The third night was very cold, and I was caught a bit off guard by this. A pair of thermal bibs or a slightly heavier jacket would have come in handy. In any case, here is my pack-list for Paris – Brest – Paris