Paris-Brest-Paris: 1200km bike ride for cake
Cyclist and personal injury lawyer Rory McCarron details the ups and downs of his experience during the Paris-Brest-Paris cycle event
Posted on 30 August 2019
In the Audax/Randonneuring world, Paris-Brest-Paris is the biggy. Dating back to 1891 when it was originally a professional bike race, it’s the oldest running bicycle event. It’s over 1200km (760miles) and surprisingly lots of elevation, approximately 38,000feet, but now no longer raced professionally - although some people still consider it a race, much to the disapproval of some of the purists.
The route is set with signs throughout and it’s simply out and back from just outside of Paris to Brest and then return with 15 checkpoints (Brevets) to validate your ride. You can either ride it with a support vehicle/team or be self-supported and carry most things you need (which is what I did). There is a time limit and you get to choose whether you want to do it in 80hrs, 84hrs or 90hrs.
The preparation for PBP started quite some time ago. There was a lot of chat on forums about the number of people wanting to do PBP in 2019, considering it is only held every four years. I also realised that just completing the Super Randonneur series of BRM rides (one each at a minimum of 200km, 300km, 400km, 600km) to qualify on the year of the event would not cut it for a place, therefore a pre-qualifier was needed to put me ahead of others.
I scrambled to the Audax UK website and looked for the longest possible ride within an acceptable distance. The longer the ride, the further up the pecking order you were to register.
I found one in August 2018, a 300km Audax with over 5000m in elevation starting in Burnley out to Great Dun Fell - the highest paved road in the UK - and back. A long train journey on a Friday night after work. Sleeping in a cricket pavilion and then setting off at 6am. I got it done and dusted but still had to wait until early 2019 to see if I could get a place for PBP.
On 25th February 2019 it finally came round to 300km “pre-qualifiers” and there were places left, but for groups C and D only for the 80hr limit. The As and Bs were the faster groups who intended to race the event. I obviously wanted a fast time but never intended to race so was really pleased just to get on and booked myself into the C’s. All that was left now was to just complete my Super Randonneur series, easy. They actually started in mid-January 2019 and I had my 200km and 300km ticked off already. The last one was mid-May 2019.
This may sound simple but it was far from it. The 600km was the first available one on the calendar and I had to do it and finish. My wife was 9 months pregnant with our first child and if I didn’t complete it, there was no chance I could do another with a newly born in the mix. All went well and we had little Annie three days after completing the 600km, great timing!
Since starting this journey back in August 2018 my priorities had dramatically changed: I was now a married man and a father. There was less than three months until the start of PBP and the idea of “racing” it or being up the front was gone. I didn’t even know if I was going to actually make it to France now. Five days away from my new family was a long time, especially as Annie was up 2-3 times a night needing to be settled and rocked back to sleep. It was a lot to ask my wife to deal with this on her own.
For the first two months after Annie was born, I barely touched the bike. Not a bad thing as I loved being a father, but I always had it in the back of my head that I needed some miles in legs to at least get me round this thing if I was to do it.
I started riding again around the circles of Regents Park slowly increasing my rides to three hours before work. This was the maximum distance I could ride. Three weeks before PBP I still hadn’t ridden over 100miles and panic set in. I booked a Friday off work and rode round Richmond Park for 200 miles. That was it. One ride over 100miles +5hrs. I suffered and knew that PBP would have to be enjoyed and treated as a holiday rather than smashed round and I should just embrace it. I felt a bit of pressure as a few friends would say “you’ll smash it” but failed to consider my preparation or lack of riding before that – or the sleep deprivation I’d been living in for the last three months. I never set myself unrealistic goals and I don’t like that sort of added pressure. Perhaps I lack the confidence others seem to possess in long distance cycling.
Two weeks before PBP I put my kit together and the bike weighed a tonne. I had packed everything for every possible situation so decided to ride a Specialized Roubaix I bought from eBay a few weeks prior, rather than my trusty Titanium I had used for the qualifiers. Maybe a stupid idea but one I had committed to. The bike was packed and shipped on the Eurostar a few days before my actual train so there was no going back.
I got the Eurostar on the Saturday morning and arrived in Paris to the grimmest weather imaginable. I needed to get to Trappe where my hotel was and check-in before PBP registration in the afternoon in Rambouillet. By the time I got to the hotel everything was soaked. It was a low budget hotel and everything was broken. Thankfully a friend picked me up and drove me to Rambouillet for registration and everything was good. We walked round the site and bumped into loads of people we knew from the UK Audax Scene or from long distance cycling events. It seemed everyone had converged on this small town. I particularly enjoyed looking at other people’s bikes and set ups and seeing the wide range of ages - clearly age is just a number.
Four of us went for dinner and I got back to the hotel at around 10:30pm. Sleep is critical before these things, especially as my start time was 4:30pm the next day. I tossed and turned thinking about Lucy and Annie, the ride, lack of training, fear of my bike breaking or running out of food. I woke around 5am after intermittent sleep and got about five hours sleep. That simply wasn’t enough!
I milled around most the day until I was off at 4:30pm and had to be in the pen an hour before. There was lots of chat in the pen of various languages, ambitions and tactics for the forthcoming ride.
The one thing that struck me was the amount of people from all over the world. Apparently there was a 400-strong contingent from Japan and 300 from India.
4:30pm came and I rolled out towards the back of group C and got on my way. The streets were lined out of Rambouillet and as soon as the roads opened up, I put my foot down. There were lots of groups on the road, and I would ride up behind each one moving to the front. I would then leave dragging a few riders with me. This continued for about 20km until I hit the front group of group C. There were some strong riders in there so I was happy to sit in and do the odd turn. We soon passed a huge group B and then started picking off As.
We raced straight through Mortagne-au-Perche at 75miles and onto Villaines-la-Juhel at 135miles. It was incredible rolling into the first stamped checkpoint. You docked your bike in the street and hundreds of people lined the walls looking down at you taking photographs. I went into the building, got my stamp and grabbed a quick coffee and filled my bottles from a tap outside. I saw Will Armitage, a local London Audax’er and fellow TCR vet sitting in a chair looking a bit worse for wear having been in the racing group A since the start. He said he thought he needed some parenthood training like me and was probably going to take a nap. My passing words to him were, “be careful and don’t ride tired”. Oh how these were to bite me in the butt.
The group quickly reformed, and we continued to the next checkpoint in Fougeres at 224 miles. It was getting dark by this point and we were rolling into the night. About 15miles from Fougeres I started to feel very weary and faint. I felt like I was going to be sick and couldn’t understand what was happening. I sat towards the back of the group as we rolled into the checkpoint. I jumped off the bike and walked into the hall where the official stampers were when I stopped and threw up all over the wooden floor. I suddenly fell really faint and a medic came over and took me to the side. He said I needed to lay down and wasn’t allowed to leave until he was happy I was ok. I threw up again and then texted my wife to say I think PBP was over and was going to scratch. I got my silk liner out my bag and slept for 2.5hrs under the bright lights of the hall and chatter.
I woke feeling pretty dazed still but decided to eat the jambon and fromage baguette I had been carrying from the start – my dinner. I felt fine and the medic was ok with me leaving so I jumped back on the bike. It was about 2am by this point and all the faster groups had been and gone. I rode steady until sunrise and still felt ok, so I cracked on towards Brest, about 400km away. I was on my own for most of this but I never felt lonely. The streets in every town were lined with locals cheering you on, passing up water and food. There were decorations everywhere, much like the Tour de France if you’ve ever been. The atmosphere was truly amazing with people shouting encouragement and kids looking for high fives.
I pulled into the last check point before Brest where I saw Will again and he looked at me a bit confused as to why I was still behind him and I explained my ordeal and we both laughed at my passing words.
I rolled into Brest just before 24hrs on the clock and rewarded myself with some food and a lay down on the grass to call my wife before setting off for the second 600km. I had a plan and I stuck to it. Manage my body and don’t ride too hard. I decided to ride until about midnight and then sleep for 3hrs. I needed to get to Loudeac by that point, which I did. I knew there were beds there and I would be able to rest. What I didn’t factor in was the amount of cyclists going the other way towards Brest! It was chaos, no beds available and people had taken up every possible floor space in the canteen. I managed to build a bed out of 3 chairs above someone else but I couldn’t sleep. I tossed and turned and gave up eventually and sat on the grass feeling sorry for myself. The temperature had dramatically dropped too and was about 6-7degrees.
I got on the road again by about 3:30am and I had 275miles to the finish. I had set myself a target of finishing in less than 2.5 days/ under 60 hrs so the following 10-12hrs consisted of me staring at the Garmin calculating distance and times to each checkpoint and ETA to the finish.
The sun was bright on the Tuesday and I really regretted not packing the sun cream. My neck was on fire and my arms and legs were cooking. I put my leg warmers on as my legs had barely seen the sun all year and were most likely to burn first. I was making good time and despite not sleeping, I was clocking off the miles. I rolled into Villaines-La-juhel with 130miles to go. I didn’t intend to stop there this time, other to get the card stamped, but when I out walked out I bumped into an old buddy, Darren Franks, who had been riding mostly with the As. It was a really surreal moment but one I was really grateful for. Darren’s a strong, consistent rider and great chat on the bike. I was more pleased for the company as I’d been riding on my own for well over 24hrs. We laughed and chatted about the chance meeting and rode side by side sharing our stories of the road so far. Darren’s got a strong social media presence so we joked I’d be his personal photographer to the end.
We started to set a good tempo, working well together and we soon breezed through the checkpoints and then picked up three older French riders. The all jumped on our wheel and two became five and then soon became three as two of them didn’t have anything left and couldn’t take a turn. The remaining French rider was a good 20-25 years our senior but desperately tried to take turns and show his appreciation. After about 45 minutes they all gave up and they faded away, but they weren’t far from the end, so a truly inspirational feat by them and they were on target for sub 55hrs.
We rolled into Rambouillet just before 10pm and my official time was 53hrs 26minutes. Darren started 30 minutes before me so it meant I had a 30-minute advantage on his finishing time. He didn’t seem too bothered mind.
It was really nice to finish with someone I knew and we celebrated with a cuppa soup and a glass of water. Weirdly my legs still felt good and left me to ponder how much I left on the road.
The fastest people on standard bikes finished PBP in around 46-48hrs and rode from the start to the end with little sleep. Looking at my ride on Strava, I lost lots of time trying to sleep and eat with a total of 11hrs off the bike.
The reward for finishing Paris-Brest-Paris; well nothing other than a medal and the Paris-Brest dessert which was designed to commemorate the race back in 1891, something I restrained myself from having until the finish. 1200km all for a piece of cake, but it was far from it!