Dean's Paris-Brest-Paris Ride 2019
2nd September 2019
For those that don’t know, Paris Brest Paris is a long distance bike ride that takes place once every four years. Depending on the start group they select, over 6500 riders from all over the world get between 80 and 90 hours to complete the 1200km rolling course with time limits imposed at each of the thirteen (plus two surprise) controls on route.
I have wanted to ride PBP for a number of years but never found time for randonneuring as most of my cycling energies are usually diverted towards various forms of cycle racing. On starting a new job last year, one of my colleagues, Billy Grace, mentioned that he had ridden it as part of the team of ElliptiGo riders that completed the event in 2015 and this provided the impetus I needed to actually make it happen. So in the Autumn of last year I decided that I would take a sabbatical from racing in 2019 and enjoy some long distance cycling, something I hadn’t done since the cycle touring trips of my student days.
Why ride PBP on a recumbent? I figured that it should have a number of advantages over a normal bike on the PBP course for the type of ride I wanted to do. I could cruise along quickly and efficiently and there would be no numb hands, no sore bottom, no sore neck. In addition I could be a minor act in the circus that is Group F (the specials category) and I would get a nice early start on the Sunday (Group F is the first of the of the 90hr waves to set off on Sunday evening - we got away at 5:15pm on the Sunday).
I first rode a recumbent (Optima Baron with carbon tailbox) in 2007. I enjoyed it for the novelty value but sold it soon after. I bought another one (M5 M-Racer) in 2014 but found the dropped chain arrangement an absolute menace (both the drive and return sides of the chain overlap the front wheel) so left it to collect dust in the garage where it still resides (minus the seat which I pinched for the Encore). I bought the Schlitter (careful!) Encore in 2016 thinking that I wanted a practical yet fast recumbent - it is just that at less than 12kg in weight (17kg fully loaded with bags and PBP gear). However, whilst it is a lovely bike, it quickly became an ornament too as I never got round to riding it what with training on and racing normal bikes etc.
So when I stepped onto the Encore to do my 200k pre-qualifier in October last year it was to be by far my longest ever recumbent ride After 50k over the Dales to the first control my knees had exploded and I spent the rest of the ride just trying to survive by taking it easy on the flats and then dismounting to push up any steep hills. I finished with sore ankles as well as sore knees, numb feet, a bruise on the back of my neck and a headache. By March I had forgotten about these various issues and pre-entered PBP in Group F, thereby binding myself to riding a ‘special’ bike.
PBP aspirants must complete a ‘super randonneur’ series of qualifying events over 200k, 300k 400k and 600k in the spring and summer leading up to the event before they are allowed to take to the start line. I did all of my qualifiers on a normal bike and remounted the recumbent again in mid June with less than two months to go. In retrospect this wasn’t very sensible but the logistics of living in Jersey and riding qualifiers in the UK meant that it just wasn’t feasible to ride the qualifiers on the Encore. Still I really enjoyed the qualifiers as I was able to ride some really hilly ones including the fantastic Brevet Cymru 400k out to the west coast of Wales and the equally fantastic Pendle 600k. The latter is a biannual event advertised as taking the riders through an “amphitheatre of scenery” (and over 10,000m of climbing) over the Dales, North York Moors, Pennines, Lake District (including Hardknott and Wrynose passes - they’re the 30% ones) and the Trough of Bowland. I think about 12 of us actually finished within the time limit including one guy on a fixed who then rode home afterwards! Special mention to Claude Bichot who I rode with on Pendle and who subsequently finished PBP in 46 hours! He didn’t sleep.
I was unashamedly looking for the full PBP experience that had attracted me to the event in the first place. I wanted to experience the crowds on the Sunday evening (actually they were there throughout), ride into the night at sunset and back out of it again at sunrise, ride out front of the ‘bulge’ (the glut of riders just in front of the time cut), experience the chaos that is the ‘bulge’, chat to fellow riders from all over the world, stop and chat to the locals and just generally to part of the event. I planned to finish between 75 and 90 hours in order to maximise enjoyment of the event with a fixed schedule up to the end of Monday and variable thereafter.
My strategy involved spending the first night out on the road followed by a 1hr power nap in the dorm at the third control, Fougeres, at 306k. On the second night I had prebooked a B&B in Sizun. I had emailed ahead to say that I expected to arrive between 10pm and 11pm The trouble was that with an irritating headwind the whole way out I couldn’t afford to spend much time not moving! The B&B was at 575k meaning that, based on what I thought was a conservative average speed of 25kph (I had done my training rides at 27.5kph plus with full camping gear), I would be riding for 23 hours. This only gave me about 5 1/2 hours stopped including the planned power nap. I had already been up all day Sunday sightseeing at Versailles.
The start offered a good chance to survey the various interesting machines on show. As usual there were a large number of recumbents (commercially produced and homemade), velomobiles and tandems as well as few trikes, a tandem trike, a triplet, fatbikes, bromptons and other assorted wacky machines including a Pino (a tandem with the front rider reclined and the back rider sat on upright).
I spent the first evening of riding enjoying the atmosphere on the road and taking it easy by slipstreaming tandems into the headwind that we faced across the plains.
Unfortunately within only 100km my knees were complaining and within 150k I was wondering if I was even going to make it through to the morning. This meant I was forced to ride much slower than planned and in particular was climbing at a snails pace. It also necessitated more time off the bike than planned as I stopped on a number of grass verges throughout the night to stretch including one that I left prematurely after laying down in a bed of nettles. After this didn’t work I resorted to changing the bike setup and pulled into a filling station (shut but a nice well lit concrete area) to try a more forward seat position. This is relatively involved with three different sizes of allen keys required as the seat has to be removed, the mounting bracket unseated, shifted, everything lined up and then reassembled again. I then stopped about 20k later to try a different seat angle before disassembling the whole thing again at the Villaines control (217k) and moving the seat forward still further. I knew that I was likely to end up with knee pain at some point in the road but given that I done 450k in a weekend and 310k straight in the month leading up to the event without issue I was very surprised to having problems so early on. I have no idea what happened here!
In the fortnight leading up to the event a did a lot of foam rolling and pushed the envelope on my stretching regime with a plethora of stretching positions that would have put a yoga teacher to shame. I can only speculate but it may be that some/all of this actually caused more problems than it solved.
Anyway, after stopping at Mortagne (118k) for dinner and then the first control at Villaines (217k) for a bowl of coffee and couple of pastries, I arrived in Fougeres (306k) just as it was getting light for my planned nap. There were a number of dorm rooms - mine had 7 gym mats and I was the only person in it. I had brought my own inflatable pillow and silk sleep liner so had a decent nap. The experience cost me 2 Euros and included a space blanket and wake up call - all very relaxed. I saw many riders dozing on the grass verges and controls throughout the day. There wasn’t much space left on the grass at the Loudeac control (445k) when I arrived late Monday afternoon.
The majority of Monday was a solo slog into the headwind although a slow puncture didn’t assist matters. My knees steadily got worse and I just tried to focus on keeping stopped time to a minimum so that I could make it to my B&B that evening. The highlight of Monday was the fantastic road from the control at Carhaix (521k) through Huelgoat and up the Roc de Trevezel as day turned into dusk and then night.
After a chilly descent off the Roc de Trevezel I found myself in Sizun (575k) at 11pm on the Monday. Sizun was buzzing both times that I rode through it and I saw a fair few riders crammed into an ATM foyer which I subsequently learnt was one of the premier ‘audax hotels’ on the route. Despite only being 500m off route my host was clearly not expecting a PBP participant and warned me to be very quiet on departure in the morning so as not to disturb her other guests. When I left I carried my bike 100m down the gravel drive so I hope that my efforts were appreciated. My accommodation was very nice with a king size bed, several rooms, hot tub (no time!) and a mega shower (which I spent about 20 minutes in). I washed my kit out, pressed it with a towel and hung it up on the drying racks, set my alarm for 5am and enjoyed five hours of deep sleep. I arrived in Brest (610k) at around 7:15am on Tuesday morning having left the B&B (and much of my kit) at 5:30am. The control was another concrete monstrosity and I didn’t stick around preferring instead to get back to the B&B for breakfast before heading off back up the Roc. My fellow guests were intrigued by the recumbent which I showed them after breakfast. On the way up the Roc I noticed Pers, a Swedish recumbent rider descending the other way. I recognised him as he had said hello at the bike check and was riding an interesting machine with an homemade plywood tailbox. I had also seen him on the first night when he overtook me going uphill and explained that he had been trying to assist someone who had removed their front wheel and lost the skewer nut (doh!). He was out of time at that point but having looked him up online I think he managed to turn it round and get back to Rambouillet an hour within the cutoff.
Tuesday was once again a painful slog albeit that I wasn’t facing any particular time schedule so could enjoy a bit more time at the side of the road and a couple of excellent sausage galettes at an intermediate foodstop laid on by the organisers at Quedillac (843k). In fact I actually rode past the Quedillac stop before smelling the barbeque and doing a U-turn to head back! A family at one of the road side stalls that I stopped at also recognised me from the way out although they said that they hadn’t seen any of the other riders I had been with that day.
The decision to use a second B&B was one made out on the road when I realised that I’d probably need every bit of quality rest I could get in order to coax my battered knees through to the finish. As things turned out I needn’t have bothered as apparently the sleep facilities in Quedillac and Tinteniac were excellent. I descended off the big hill after Becherel just before Tinteniac swung right and then to my dismay, headed straight back uphill. Having booked this one en route I had not been able to scope it out and it took me nearly an hour to find it. Luckily there was a guy giving a tour of the a very pretty church in Les Iffs who gave me directions. These turned out to be incomplete so I got some more directions from a lady dragging a chain along the road with her dog attached to the end of it. Eventually I rolled through the front door (literally) about 10pm and spent the next half an hour talking about my bike and progress to my host who had installed it in his living room and wanted some pictures. He explained that his friend wouldn’t have believed his story if he hadn’t taken pictures. Again, another big bed in the attic, decent shower and 5 hours of quality sleep. I almost tripped over his dog on my way back down in the morning which was sprawled comatose on the floor masquerading as the bottom step. I helped myself to some breakfast from the fridge and was soon on my way.
I navigated the 6km back onto the course to rejoined the melee just before 6am on Wednesday at the exact spot that I had left it at just after 9pm the night before. Actually this really was the melee as I was now riding in the ‘bulge’ of the field of riders for the first time with the straight road ahead illuminated by hundreds of glowing tail lights. There were bodies scattered everywhere at the Tinteniac control (869k) and a number of people who clearly hadn’t been expecting the chilly night time temperatures. One guy had improvised admirably by fabricating himself a pair of space blanket legwarmers and gloves. There was a queue for breakfast in the main canteen so I settled for a quick hot chocolate and pastry from the tents outside and was on my way. Even though I reckoned I was now in the bulge things still weren’t nearly as busy as I had anticipated. Maybe I wasn’t quite in the bulge. Anyway I had gone through the control, as planned, with just less than 45 minutes to spare before the cutoff and wanted to get myself back a bit of a buffer.
The road to Fougeres was where I first met one of the French AVF riders, Sebastian, who was riding a Pelso Brevet - the updated version of my machine. It was a revelation riding with another recumbent rider as our speed profiles were similar so we could actually ride together properly. That is the difficulty with riding a recumbent - they are not the most social machines as they naturally descend faster and climb slower than normal bikes I also said hello to the very friendly riders of the Pino who I had chatted with just before the start. Coming into Fougeres I wondered why my new French friend was tailing off before I then realised as he came blasting past me at the bottom of one of the rollers explaining to me that he ‘knew this town’.
I arrived at the Fougeres control (923k) at around 9:30am and had a proper audax breakfast medley of chicken and rice, hot chocolate, croissant and orange juice before getting back out on the road. I had been finding that one advantage of the slow pace that my knees forced me to ride at was that I was never physically tired and didn’t get anywhere near running out of food. This meant that I didn’t actually need to eat that much (compared to Pendle 600 for example where I had been necking cokes and entire packets of shortbread at an alarming rate). Also because of the relatively generous amount of sleep I had managed to get I never got the audax ‘dozies’.
The stage to Villaines was a drag ridden solo as most of the others had been. The endless rolling hills leading to Villaines really hurt my knees and I arrived at the Villaines control (1012k) slightly dazed by the large levels of noise. I decided I needed some proper time off the bike so went in search of the canteen which was a bit of a walk but I was glad of it. The dining hall was packed full of the French public with a few riders on reserved tables in one of the corners. I was asked what I wanted to eat and then escorted through the queues by one of the number of French kids tasked with ensuring that the riders were looked after. After a quick coke and baguette I found a quiet corner to do some more stretching.
Back on the bike the terrain started to flatten out which was much appreciated and this stage flowed reasonably easily. I stopped at a few nice roadside stalls on route to fill up my bottles including a marquee in the middle of a town which was doing its best to encourage riders to take advantage of the free food and drink on offer.
The climb up to Mortagne (1097k) was a real drag and I pushed my bike up the last steep 30m ramp to the actual control. I found Mortagne a very pleasant control and ordered the spag bol, remembering how much I had enjoyed it on the way out. Coming out of the control I ran into Sebastian and we agreed to ride the stage to Dreux together. Again it made a nice change riding with someone (I probably rode solo for more than 1000km in the whole ride) and we enjoyed a fast ride down into Dreux as the sun set. I also picked up some new tips and tricks including riding one handed down the descents in order to reduce drag! The stage was made a bit more entertaining when we tagged onto the back of a paceline headed by a pair of fast German riders. They pulled a few rather dodgy overtaking manoeuvres passing either side of a rather bewildered Chinese rider before heading the wrong way round a roundabout and off into the distance after we decided that we didn’t share their death wish. At least they were wearing helmets I suppose.
Dreux (1174k) was the best control of the lot. Spacious, 27 degrees (at least according to the screen on the wall) and with a very nice selection of pastries. I chatted with an American tandem pair completing their third PBP before heading off back into the cold night. Given the rapid progress since Mortagne I had decided to finish that night and then seek a bed at the finish in Rambouillet. I lost the tandem group on a hill about half way through the 45km stage when my knees started to really hurt again and rolled round the cobbled finish loop at just after 1am to complete the 1216k course in just under 80 hours. Of this I spent just over 50 hours riding.
After finishing I joined the French AVF contingent for the traditional post ride meal. Before sitting down one of them apologised melodramatically, on behalf of France, for the low grade catering at the finish and we sat shivering in the marquee eating and swapping stories before heading off. I went in search of a bed and became slightly concerned that I was in for a long cold night out in the open when one of the volunteers explained that the dorms were full. Happily a more clued up volunteer showed a couple of us to an empty dorm full of camp beds whereupon a laid down, put in my earplugs and had a good night’s sleep. It was almost full when I woke up about 8am the following morning and went out to cheer in the morning finishers which included the three German guys on the triplet.
Despite the issues I experienced with my knees and ankles during the ride I have concluded that, for me, recumbents offer the most comfortable and efficient means of riding long distances on anything short of mountainous terrain. I went back out on the recumbent three days after the end of PBP to find that the pain in my knees and ankles had vanished and I would have been happy to take to the start line again. Regular bikes have an advantage when ridden in groups but I expect that I will do long distance rides on a recumbent from now on for the sheer fun of it. You can just relax into the seat, rest your head back and watch the tarmac skim past. PBP represents a third of the total km that I have ever ridden on a recumbent and therefore I would hope that a bit more riding would bring the adaptation required to do really long rides in total comfort - well that’s the dream anyway!