On Thursday 15th August 2019 I finished up a stressful two weeks in the office and headed for Newhaven to get the overnight ferry to Dieppe. My plan was for a restful start and plenty of sleep but like most plans this didn’t quite happen. First all it seamed that August was quite popular this year with annual leave, so I was only able to get the Friday before and the following week off. It also meant that the two weeks before I was the only person in the office – doing the work of three people. Stress city but it couldn’t be helped.
So Thursday evening could not come soon enough, I rushed home packed the last things I needed in the bike and then shoved it in the car: Newhaven bound.
I joined the queue with the other cycles and motorcycles, we were really early and had a long wait. This allowed for a nervous and excited atmosphere to be generated – or maybe that was just me. There was plenty of time to explain to the others in the queue why there were so many cycles there tonight whether they wanted to hear it or not. I think the general consensus was that we were made for attempting this bike ride – yep, sounds like Audax to me and they were probably right.
I found my cabin and tried to get to sleep as quickly as possible but had great difficulty. I kept waking up during the night and as the boat rode the waves and made for an uncomfortable crossing.
Friday 16th August 2019
So come 05:00 French time we were kicked off the boat. After having my passport checked I bumped into Tom and found out we were both staying at the same campsite, so I would see him later. That night however I had a night of luxury in a cheap hotel about 12 miles away from Rambouillet which I was looking forward to.
I set off into the French darkness hoping the dawn would come soon as it was a bit cold and I was very tired still (something I would become accustomed to on this trip!)
I had about 106 miles to my hotel with a planned stop at the McDonalds in Gisors around 60 miles in. I would need to stop before that though as I had left my water bottles on the bike on the ferry so hadn’t been able to top them up. I would also need to buy some additional snacks to keep the engine going. I was of course in rural France and it took a long time for any of the shops to open.
The route was quite hilly, not steep but rolling. I was beginning to wonder if all of PBP would be like this (of course it would!) and if so it would be a bigger challenge than I had anticipated. The sun was up now and already it was hot, I stopped and took off a layer and checked my phone to see how much further there was until the McDonalds: 20 miles; nearly there.
In the next town I passed a supermarket and was able to buy some water and snacks, hopefully enough to reach the hotel. The McDonalds came soon enough and annoyingly by the time I got there I wasn’t hungry. Still, I ordered some food and forced it down knowing I’ll need the calories for the last forty miles.
Just as well I did, as there was now a headwind and a strong one at that, not to mention the hills showed no signs of going away either. On top of all of that my cycle computer had also stopped working which was annoying. It proved to be a very miserable afternoon and the seeds of doubt about my ability to complete PBP began to set in and I did my best to ignore them. Eventually I reached the hotel and after dinner went to bed and slept for 11 hours.
Saturday 17th August 2019
I awoke to rain! The forecast had said it was going to rain but I didn’t want to believe it. Worse still that night I would be camping. I left it as late as possible to leave the hotel and then reluctantly made my way to the campsite and only about 12 miles away or an hours cycle as the crow flies.
The campsite in the rain was more miserable than the road. The tent pitching area was in a bit of woodland, I hoped the trees would provide some shelter from the rain but not such luck. Their roots however did make for some uncomfortable bedding, one day I will get the hang of this camping lark. When putting the ten up I remember that I hadn’t used this tent in the wild yet and the first and only time I had put it up was in the garden about two years ago. After some head scratching and desperate searching for the holes where the poles went whilst it continued to rain I finally managed to put it up. I dumped the stuff I wouldn’t need on PBP and headed into town for the bike check. Oddly enough though my bike computer had decided to start working again, so it wasn’t all bad!
As it is such a big event on PBP every bike needs to go through a check, from what I heard though some checks were thorough than others. In my case all they checked was that my lights and brakes worked and that was it. With 6000 bikes to check it does take a long time, so there was a bit of a queue… in the still pouring rain. Once that was over with I was directed to an adjacent building to get my timing chip, high viz gillet and the most important document: the brevet card! This card would be stamped at each control to prove I had been there and cycled the route. After that the rest of the day was mine.
We had an ACME pre-PBP meal at a traditional French pizza restaurant which I really enjoyed. Amongst us were a mixture of veterans and first timers. So advice and nervous energy filled the table.
Sunday 18th August 2019
It was still raining in the morning but thankfully my tent hadn’t let any water in and I had had the good sense to bring my shoes inside the tent (which I’m sure breaks some rule when camping) and they were still dry too.
I stayed in my tent as long as I could but once awake and it is light outside there really is nothing to do in a tent, not to mention that it is quite uncomfortable. I made my way down to the campsite cafe in the hope of obtaining breakfast. However to my dismay it turned out breakfast needed to be booked the day before, which of course I hadn’t done. I was able to purchase a cup of tea though and even then it wasn’t proper tea; some kind of sweet vanilla tea. Anyway I nursed that and watched the rain fall contemplating what I was going to take on later that evening.
After a quick trip into town for supplies it was soon the evening and I made my way over to the start area. Naturally there were bikes everywhere, all kinds of bikes: usual diamond frames, recumbents, trikes, tandems and velomobiles. There were even a number of mountain bikes and fat bikes. I had to admire those who chose to attempt this ride on what some would consider an unsuitable bike. I had completed a 300km and 400km brevet on my hardtail mountain bike and everyone thought I was mad.
At that moment though I was a complete bag of nerves. I was hoping the atmosphere, the drums and the music might help get me in the mood but it was to no avail, I had decided I didn’t want to do it anymore. In my head I was planning a leisurely cycle back to England stopping at cafes and pastries along the way and getting a full nights sleep every night: a nice cycling holiday rather than the 90 hour gruelling sleep deprived onslaught I had signed up for!
Luckily (or unluckily depending how you look at it) I was with Raymond and he practically shoved me into the starting queue and that was that.
At about 19:12 I crossed the timing mat and shortly after got my first stamp in my brevet and my PBP adventure had officially begun! The plan was to ride straight through the first night to try and build some time in hand to sleep on the second night.
The start was split into waves of about 100 people with a fifteen minute gap between each wave to try and avoid the chaos of a mass start but even so with so many cyclists all cycling together the incentive to go faster than ones normal pace was there. So into the lovely French evening we raced.
Along with Raymond I was also riding with Steve Ogden who took Jane and I around the 400km qualifier, once again he seamed to have self appointed himself to be our guide through the madness of PBP. For the most part we were able to stay together but occasionally swarms of faster riders who had started after us got into the mix looking for space to get ahead and split us up a bit. We soon regrouped and carries on though.
At around 20:30 (1 hour and 30 minutes in) we stopped to turn our lights on and put on our reflective gillets for the night. The plan was to ride straight through the first night stopping only for food and hedges (if you know what I mean) to try and build up some time in hand to sleep on the second night. This however was not everybody’s plan as as soon as night fell the roadside was littered with bodies in bivvy bags trying to get some sleep. This seamed like a strange strategy considering that we only had 40 hours to get to Brest and 50 to get back, so it would make more sense to sleep on the way back when there is more time and you’ll need it more. Still maybe they were confident in their ability to make the time back up.
I was still riding with Steve and Raymond however every now and then a group of fast cyclists would catch up, swarm us and overtake us. During one of these swarms we all got split up. Not sure where any one was, whether there were behind or in front of me it didn’t make much sense to stop and wait, it was best to keep going and hopefully regroup at the control.
The French families were out at the roadside cheering us on and making sure we took the right exit at the roundabouts. A kebab shop had seen a way to make a quick buck/euro! and setup a stall outside their shop selling water and overpriced cokes. Foolishly I got caught up in the excitement a bought an over price coke for two Euros! On the bright side though we did all regroup here.
The first stage to Villaines-La-Juhel was 217km long and of course it was a rolling rollercoaster of hills. We were deep into this stage and the sun had already set. As far as the eye could see there was a never ending stream of red lights ascending to the top of each hill and then down the other side. I would say that it is worth doing PBP for this sight alone; very beautiful. There was the whirl of hundreds of wheels going past and free hubs turning, not to mention the chatter in lots of different languages. Some people had attached some speakers to their bikes so at various points music could be heard drifting over.
At around the half way point there was a service control. You didn’t have to stop if you didn’t want to. To break up the stage we stopped and used the opportunity to fill up our water bottles and grab something to eat. The queue was quite long and then they ran out of bread and were waiting for a delivery. I ate my sandwich that I had bough earlier and then we regrouped and were on our way again.
Sometime after this one of our group had a visitation from the puncture fairy and a nasty one it was too. The air could be heard hissy out of the tube in a fit. So another fifteen minutes or more was wasted while the tube was replaced.
Monday 19th August 2019
As dawn was approaching the temperature dropped quite suddenly, it seams it is coldest as well as darkest just before the dawn. I was not expecting it to get so cold so still had my short fingered summer gloves on and my hands were soon numb. Luckily though we weren’t far from the first control. At this control the whole street had been taken over, bikes could be parked on either side of the road and you needed keen eyes to find an empty space and then take it as soon as you saw it. It was then a short walk up some stairs and around the corner to building where some kind volunteer stamped my card and then we were on our way again. Before we left though I did put on my winter gloves.
After the control there were a series of long up hill drags. We must have lost Raymond for a bit as it was just Steve and I. I then lost Steve on the uphill but he had said that after the crossroads there was a pop up tent selling sausages, so I figured I’d wait for him there.
I must say the sausage baguette was very much needed on that cold morning and went down a treat. Whilst there I bumped into Richard Painter who was on our Easter Arrow team. I think he had started before me but had fallen asleep on his bike and ended up in a ditch, where he proceeded to sleep further and was now playing catch up to make up the time. Just as Steve and I were about to leave Raymond caught up with us and we waited for him to have something to eat and then all left together. Next stop: Fougeres!
The sun soon came up and warmed us up and the cold of the night and morning was soon a distant memory. The plan at Fougeres was simply to get in and out as quickly as possible, although Steve did have a shower – not sure how that came into the plan? We didn’t eat there and instead opted to find somewhere in town. This proved more difficult than originally planned for some reason and we found ourselves in a fancy French restaurant with quite (but not very) slow service, it was also quite expensive – should have gone to McDonalds we saw on the way into town. We were now quite concerned that we may not reach Brest within the forty hours and would be out of time.
It didn’t help that on the next two stages the wind was against us and was quite strong not to mention unrelenting. It was on the way to Loudeac (approx 400km in) that the struggle became real. I began thinking of what would be an acceptable reason to pack and surely there must be a train station or something at Loudeac. It was nice to entertain these ideas and they kept the mind occupied but deep down I knew I had come this far and wasn’t going to pack. The same couldn’t be said for Steve who really was really struggling, he told us to go on ahead without him, so we did and we never saw him at the next control and we didn’t have time to wait. We later learned that he had packed but lucky for him he had booked himself on the Baxter’s coach service, so all he had to do was get to the next control and find the coach and they would take him and his bike to the ferry once the event was over.
The Loudeac control is feared by many a Randonneur who attempts PBP. Situated at approx 400km it would be the ideal sleep spot, however as PBP is an out and back route it is also the ideal sleep spot for fast riders on their way back from Brest, so it tends to be very busy. The way in was up a narrow corridor of barriers with people watching and cheering. We arrived at about 22:30 but this didn’t seam to matter to the cheering crowds, only in France I guess? We needed some food this time, so couldn’t bounce the control however the queue for the restaurant was right out of the door, so we didn’t even bother going inside. On the lower level however was a kiosk selling more sausage baguettes and this time chips. There was no queue and even a bench to sit on, so we made good use of that and were back on the road in no time at all.
Before the control at Carhaix there was Saint Nicholas. The notes had this as another service control with just food and water being supplied but it was in fact a secret control to ensure that we didn’t take a short cut. It seamed that most people simply got their cards stamped and went which meant that there was barely a queue for some cooked food. I treated myself to some pasta and some chicken, my vegetarianism was not going well on this trip.
Tuesday 20th August 2019
Back on the road we were now deep into the second night and couldn’t go on much further without some sleep. We found a side road, set a timer on my phone and slept for twenty minutes. Those twenty minutes went past really quickly and we were back into the night again. We could see motionless red lights in the distance gathered outside someone’s house. It must have been very early in the morning but a family were up and serving us cyclists coffee outside their house. I don’t like coffee but I had some anyway, hoping the caffeine would keep me awake. We thanked the kind family and then carried on. I don’t know what was in the coffee but I certainly wired me – unfortunately this was the only time the coffee seamed to have any effect.
From what I remember at Carhaix we simply got our card stamped, bottles refilled and then carried on on the way to Brest. Dawn was now approaching and it was just as cold as the night before, but this time I had my long fingered gloves on so at least my hands weren’t numb this time. The route took us through a forested area and then up the huge hill of ‘Le Roc.’ Another never ending stream of cyclists could be seen ascending this stairway into ‘heaven.’ Raymond was struggling a bit now and we were on the look out for another coffee stop. Luck was smiling on us as at the top was a campervan with a couple offering free drinks. The views at the top as the sun rose with the mist were pretty good I thought. Unfortunately the coffee didn’t seam to help Raymond too much who was still struggling and in need of some decent food and sleep I think. We decided we would would have an hours sleep at Brest. I went ahead and let him ride in my slipstream and told him to tell me if I was going too fast.
We made it to the town of Sinzun which was not a control but the shops and cafes were open. I restoked on supplies and bought a baguette to eat for breakfast. Then were on the way for the last 10 miles or so to Brest. A quick stop for a photo as were now on the Atlantic coast and on to the control at Brest.
Brest was really busy, there were people sleeping on the grass everywhere and the queue for warm food was very long – so another baguette it was then. Jan had seen us arrive on the tracking app and came and said hello. He had started much earlier than us and while he was sleeping we had caught up. He was stopped at Brest for half an hour to charge up his Garmin, phone and other gadgetry and then after a quick chat he left us to start his journey back to Paris. Raymond and I however found a secluded spot around the back of one of the buildings with a bit of shelter (as it looked like it would rain) and then slept for one hour.
After our sleep I bumped into Richard Painter again as I was filling up my water bottles, he was still having a trying time chasing the clock! Unlocking our bikes we saw Jason – who was making great time. We rode the next stage back to Carhaix with him. This stage took us back over the Roc, which didn’t seam so bad on the return journey and then a fast and rolling road saw us back in Carhaix. Despite now on paper having an extra ten hours to get back to Brest it still seamed like we were always up against it. We made it to the control in time (I think) but it was all rush, rush, rush. Saint Nicholas was a secret control on the way back again. It was now evening, so as there was no queue we had another hot meal of pasta before heading out into the night again.
Wednesday 21st August 2019
By the time dawn arrived we had approx 300km to go. I felt very miserable that morning and really just wanted this ride to be over. We had another 20 minute nap in a field, it was wet from the mist during the night. I put my waterproofs on and slept in the field anyway, I didn’t care. Despite my bad mood it was a very pretty part of France, there were green fields and trees everywhere. In my slept deprived state I thought that I was in Ireland for some reason, I haven’t been to Ireland.
Once the sun began to warm everything and me up! I felt a lot better and got into the swing of it again. We were soon in Fougeres again and we bumped into Joss. We all had a quick catch up and then Joss carried on while we had another baguette. I bought another too to take with me.
Wednesday was the hottest day of the whole trip and were glad for all of the support from the families along the way offering to fill up our water bottles for free. We had another nap in the sun by the side of the road and as we were approaching Villaine-La-Juhel we stopped for an ice cream by the river. Very pretty stop for an ice cream. Whilst there we saw Andrew and Elliot and rode with them the rest of the way to the control. This part of the stage took us past the sausage stop from after the first night, this time we didn’t stop but kept going. The climbs were long, slow and hot but eventually we reached the street party of the control. It was so lively it felt like we had finished, but there was still another 200km or so left to go and one more night to cycle through which I was not looking forward to but I would make it to Paris in the morning.
The start of this stage was a series of long straight roads with the odd roundabout. It seemed to go on forever. The sun was just setting and it was still very warm. The plan was to have another ten minute nap at around 22:00hrs. We found a field and settled down for a rest. For some bizarre reason another guy decided where we were sleeping would be the perfect spot to fiddle about with his bike and make a lot of noise. That being said, I was so tired I slept anyway and then was rudely awoken by my alarm when it was time to move on. I awoke very disorientated I could see lots of bikes going past and wondered why there were so many cyclists about. I rejoined them and then was wondering why I was following the signs to Paris. This night will forever be known as ‘the long night’ and I hope I never experience anything like it again. I was so tired that my vision was completely shot and everything was such a blur. I experienced hallucinations the trees by the roadside looked like people and were pointing to the direction of Paris. At one point I thought I saw some kind of fun fair ride being transported on the back of a lorry but all the lights were still flashing, I did my best to catch up with it for a closer look but I can’t remember if I did. The next thing I knew I was climbing another hill and had no memory of how I got there, complete auto pilot. The bike lights of the people in front of me were just one big gigantic red blur and after a while I stopped looking for the signs to Paris and just followed the blur in front of me and was praying the dawn would come soon so my vision would return. At one point somebody realised that we were off route and so we had to back track. I am glad that someone was alert otherwise I would still be aimlessly cycling around France right now.
Dawn was still a few hours away and I am sure I fell asleep on the bike, it was a strange sensation as your arms no longer hold your weight so you drop and then your brain senses you’re falling and then wakes you up with a jolt. A bit like a dream when you are falling except this time you actually are. It was a miracle I didn’t crash into anyone or anything and I really don’t think I should have been on a bike.
There was a series of tunnels or bridges, I couldn’t be sure but one side looked exactly the same as the other in the dark and it felt like I was in some kind of endless loop. I was so pleased when we finally arrived at Mortagne-au-Perche, this time it was an actual control and we went inside for some warm food and a 50 minute sleep.
Thursday 22nd August
We were now approaching the end of the ride, we had one more control at Dreux and then it was on to Brest. The stage to Dreux was only 77km (48 miles) long, so relatively short – all things considered! Everyone was saying that this stage should be more flat but seeing the red blur of the lights ahead of me ascending into the sky I think they might have been having me on. Not a lot I could do about it though except to continue following the blur whilst waiting for the dawn which would never come. Somewhere on this stage we had another coffee stop. I paid for an Expresso and swallowed it without tasting it but once again it did nothing. Back on the road I lost Raymond, I suppose I could have waited for him but by the time I noticed he was gone I couldn’t see him behind me at all, so I thought it best just to keep going. I later learned that he was having a bad moment and slowed right down. I on the other hand could see dawn approaching and a group of riders going at a decent pace in the distance. I gathered up my energy and tried to catch them. When I first saw them a sign said that it was 22km to Dreux and by the time I caught them up it said 11km! Those 11km of hard riding certainly woke me up and my legs still felt very strong, It was at this stage that I heard someone call my name.
I turned around I saw that I had caught up with Richard Painter. He said he was so glad to see me and see me going so strong as he was having a bit of a bad time. Together we kept the pace up and shared some of our war stories for the last 11km to Dreux. With only 45km or 28 miles to the finish we bounced the control as quickly as possible and set on getting to Brest as quickly as possible just so that it would be over with.
The sun was now up and shinning and it looked like we would be finishing on a glorious day in the morning. The finish had received some criticism from other riders but I quite enjoyed it. We did a victory lap around a fountain over bone shaking cobbles, just what you need after 1200km. Amazingly though after 86 hours in the saddle I hadn’t got any saddle sores so it wasn’t as uncomfortable as it could have been. That being said, I still stood up on the pedals over them. The timing chip as I crossed the barrier said I’d finished in 86 hours, 38 minutes and 32 seconds. So effectively I could have had another couple of hours sleep and still finished in time.
We parked and locked the bikes then walked into the control, got the final and most important stamp in the card and was given the finishers medal.
I couldn’t believe I had done it, I really didn’t think it was something I could do when I started it. I am not going to say it was easy but despite the endless rolling hills my legs weren’t aching as much as I thought they would be which was a bonus I guess. I am glad that Raymond pushed me in the queue and I completed it, it was quite the adventure and the support from the French people staying up all night and all day was something else, you would never get that in England. That being said four nights cycling with very little sleep was very dangerous and something I will never do again…ever! So I am glad I completed PBP but I have no intentions to ever do it or any ride like it again.