by Steve Luck. 1995.
“THE ULTIMATE CHALLENGE”
The thought of cycling 750 miles in one go scared the wits out of me. At 1200 kilometres the PARIS-BREST-PARIS, held every four years, is one – third of the length of the Tour de France. However, the Tour lasts for 22 days, the P-B-P is all over in 90 hours!
This, the oldest cycle race in the world, was first staged in 1891 and was won by a professional in just over 71 hours. Charles Terront completed the distance ahead of his rivals by simply going without sleep. The bicycle he used was a fairly basic one by today’s standards – but it seems he did have the benefit of pneumatic Michelin tyres – a must on the poor road surfaces of the day.
Nowadays, the “race” in non-professional and attracts very fit club racing cyclists and hard riding tourers, or randonneurs as the French call them, they come from all over the world. The majority of the starters electing to complete the 750 miles in a maximum time of 90 hours, the more elite attempting to do it in under 80 hours. This seems to most onlookers like all the time in the world, when the winner this year took a mere 43 hours and 20 minutes. Scott Dickson, an American, completed a hat trick by winning in 1987/91/95. This year crossing the finish line ahead of a bunch of nine riders – six Frenchman – two Americans and one Spaniard – all sportingly given the same time, which was just four minutes faster than the previous record set in 1983.
To even start this, the most prestigious single-stage endurance event in Europe, the riders have to become Super Randonneurs by completing at least one 200, 300, 400 and 600 kilometre ride in the same year. These qualifying rides are staged in most countries and Britain has a full audax calendar. Audax UK (audax = Latin for bold) is the governing body here and is well represented by over 200 riders in the P-B-P. Others travel, at great expense, from as far afield as Canada, the U.S.A., Australia, New Zealand and Scandinavia. Every entrant has to produce doctors’ certificate to show that they are at least fit in body, their bikes, trikes, tandems and recumbents also undergo a similar rigorous check up before being allowed to start. Particular attention being paid to lights, spare bulbs and reflective belts. After all… the nights are long (ten hours) and most will cycle through at least three.
Strategy plays a big part, plans are made before the start of the race, for race it most certainly is. To some it is the chance to be the fastest in their club, or the first in their country or region. Those going for a really fast time go without sleep – travelling light – with support teams at the controls, spaced at intervals of approximately 60 miles.
It is at the controls that the Brevet Card (collected at the start complete with photograph) has to be stamped for proof of doing the ride. There is also the chance to “re-fuel”, at this level the average cyclist burns up to 8000 calories per day. This kind of food intake is imperative if you want to avoid getting too fatigued, or the bonk. Virtually every need is catered for, from bike repairs to massage – for the legs! Camp-beds are also provided, set out in rows in gymnasia or sports halls, for those wishing to sleep for just a few hours, or those taking a more sedate approach. There are some that do not like cycling in the dark hours at all and wish only to finish in the allotted time, often getting uncomfortably close to the 90-hour time limit.
Unlike the Tour de France, no back-up vehicles of any sort are allowed on the route. The average audax rider is self-sufficient and without support. The event remains for most, the ultimate trial of endurance.
Lack of sleep can cause all sorts of problems and many experience hallucinations, generally in the early hours of the morning when it is still dark. Crashes do happen – I met one chap that had fallen asleep on his trike and ended up diving headlong through a barbed wire fence, luckily the damage was confined to his thigh and shorts. However, he did bend the frame of his trike and continued on slowly until he was able to get it re-brazed at the next control. I also met an Australian who had mistakenly ended up on the wrong side of the road after turning left and crashed trying to cross over what he thought was a white line, in fact it was a concrete slab! Accidents are uncommon though; most of the injuries are stress related – torn ligaments or tendonitis, but nothing too serious or life threatening.
My plan, as I waited at the start nervously looking around for the nearest loo, was to get as far as possible before stopping for sleep, hopefully to Brest or very near. Although I had discussed briefly my plan with club mate Dougie, I wasn’t sure what he was going to do, but then again neither was I. We had chosen the 90 hour start along with the vast majority of riders. It was 10 o-clock in the evening of August 21st and the weather was warm and dry. We hardly said a word to each other, our apprehension was running so high. The thought in my mind was that I just wanted to finish, without pain, without injury and in the allotted time. The fact that Steve Oxley from Newbury C.C., a veteran of 2 P-B-P, was standing nearby did nothing to quell my own anxiety. Somebody – a Norwegian – said, “Phoenix” is that Arizona?” I realised he was talking to me, he had seen the name of our club on my shorts! Just then a foghorn sounded, we had started at last. Because of the number of riders it took five minutes or more to cross the line, but once we got going we were cheered and clapped for most of the route through the town by enthusiastic and knowledgeable crowds. Throughout the ride we were to be greeted by brass bands outside bars and small groups of people in the villages shouting “brave” and “courage”. Families at the roadside along the route offered fruit, cakes and coffee, while small children pleaded for the opportunity of handing you some fresh – cool – water to fill your bidon (water bottle). What a contrast to the UK, where cyclists have to put up with the aggro from passing cars and inebriated louts when cycling through town centres at night.
After 50 kms or so the bunch was starting to split up into smaller groups and we trundled along in the darkness. Our own thoughts and initial excitement slowly fading at the realisation once again – that there was still 720 miles to go.
The first ravitaillement for re-fuelling came at 141 kms (86 miles) and the time was just after 3 am. I forced down as much food as I could, but really didn’t feel like eating – re-filled both bidon with carbohydrate drink and set off again into the night. I was using a dynamo for lighting, with a battery light for back up, just in case. The next control was at Villaines la Juhel at 220 kms – hopefully I would get there before breakfast. As the hours passed I watched the night sky slowly brighten and the morning mist disappear with the heat from the rising sun. I wasn’t particularly cold, but looked forward very much to the daylight.
On arrival at Villaine, I went straight to the control to get my brevet card stamped and the time card (like a credit card) swiped, I then joined the queue for food. It only took a few minutes but you were continually aware of time. For breakfast I had spaghetti bolognese, followed by semolina, I hadn’t had that since school days, some fruit and a litre of water. It is very important to keep hydrated because of the high temperatures expected during the day. The menu was fairly varied but generally consisted of carbohydrate in the form of rice, pasta or mashed potatoes, with some protein like chicken, beef or fish. There are only so many ways you can serve it up. The food was always simple but good quality and fresh, the price, thankfully, was also reasonable. The most I spent on a tray full of food was 63 francs, at 7.5 to the £1 – money could easily disappear fast.
I was beginning to feel like a pony express rider from the American west, as I carefully eased myself back into the saddle and continued on my way. The urgency and motivation increasing with every stop – always aware that the clock was ticking away the precious time allowance.
Full after a big meal it is difficult to get moving again. We started slowly letting the speed gradually increase, sometimes getting up to a steady 23 mph, or even 45 + downhill! I had been told by people back home that the P-B-P was flat and that it would be a piece of cake after all the mountainous qualifying rides in Wales. I realise now that they had been pulling my leg – nothing could be further from the truth – I now knew what they meant in the pre-race blurb by the line “pay attention to your developments” (gears)!
We soon got into a good pedalling rhythm, with plenty of time to take in the scenery and enjoy a multi-lingual chat with fellow cyclists. One minute talking to a Dutchman or a Canadian, the next an Australian or even a Frenchman! All topics seemed to be covered and it was good hearing the news from various countries around the world. The control stops and the miles went by… Fougeres… Tintiniac and the on to Loudeac. At each brief stop the brevet card was stamped and a tray of food consumed. It all sounds rather mechanical but every little painful niggle or twinge was assessed for future problems, together with the constant concern about taking on enough food – fuel for the engine!
Although over 3000 people had started, there were long periods when I was totally on my own. The daytime temperature had reached 33°c and with no respite from a cloudless sky. This, combined with the after effects of cycling through the first night, had caused a number of riders to suffer from heat exhaustion. All along the route you could see bicycles leaning against hedges or walls – with no sign of the owner, they had ‘crashed-out’ in a field or by the roadside. On occasion, if the bike was lying on its side in the long grass, only the tip of the handlebars were visible or perhaps a pedal. I thought about joining them a few times, especially when I spotted a nice patch in the shade, but decided to keep going rather than get bitten by insects. It would not take long for the ants to make a meal of me!
Throughout the ride I had to constantly keep forcing myself to take sips of carbo or isotonic drink, now getting quite unpalatable in the high temperature. Later on I stopped taking the carbo-drink because it was blowing up my stomach and making it impossible to eat at control stops. For a while I cycled alongside an American from San Francisco who told me he planned to take caffeine tablets to keep awake. I prefer to listen to what my body is telling me, at that point I was doing my best to ignore it, because it was telling me to stop for sleep.
I arrived at Loudeac (441 kms) in the early evening. Found a quiet corner on my own under a marquee and very slowly sipped cool mineral water from a bottle. I must have looked all-in, because at least two locals asked me if I was okay, they also asked me if I had stiff legs – and I thought the French hadn’t got a sense of humour!
I had lost contact with Dougie soon after the start and was fairly certain he wasn’t in front, so all along I had assumed that he was behind me. With so many cyclists it was easy to lose each other in the dark. I had been keeping my speed down and taking my time to eat at controls in the hope that he would catch me. Loudeac was no different – so I slowly forced down as much food as I could and then totally overcome with tiredness – I decided to join the battleground of sleeping bodies outside. A short nap on the grass right outside the control seemed like a good idea, Doug would have to pass me and then we could continue on together.
It seemed like I had just closed my eyes when a thoughtful cyclist nudged me awake, I had dozed for about 20 minutes. It wasn’t Doug but Jonathan, a chap I had met on an audax ride in England. We had been at the start together and met up again. I was extremely stiff from the damp ground and after such a short nap my head felt very fuzzy. It took ages to get going again, but eventually and in a dazed trance we got back on our bikes and set off in the gathering gloom to cycle through what could turn out to be our second night without sleep.
It wasn’t long before darkness reduced us again to our own cocoon of light. Thankful at least that the road away from the control was downhill, it seemed that all French towns are built on a hill – this was more noticeable of course when approaching!
It was on this next very undulating section that we saw the first of the fast cyclists – they had already been to Brest and were on the way back! We spotted the lights in the distance – a tight bunch formation of about 30 riders – followed closely by a commissaires car. The gentle swish of gears as they passed by and then silence as they sped off into the night – leaving us once more to our introverted thoughts.
The second night in the saddle was colder than the first, time was starting to drag and miles seemed interminable, one bit of road looking much like the next. We had started to take more notice of the signs, at each one we would check the kilometres to the next control stop at Carhaix. It was beginning to get more difficult to keep your mind on the cycling as tiredness started to take over again. Every few seconds I was on the point of nodding off – we tried all methods to keep awake – taking regulars sips of drink – shaking your head – changing position on the bike. It is strange how bits of your body itch and skin becomes sensitive… suddenly we come across an oasis in the dark… an open café. The temptation was too great for two of us, so we peeled off and stopped. For a few moments only we savoured the hot chocolate drink. Rejuvenated, but reluctantly we climbed back onto our bikes for the 25 kms to Carhaix.
On arrival, which hadn’t come a minute too soon, I shook hands with my companion for the last few miles and promptly got my brevet card stamped. I noticed that I was well up on time, about 8 hours, so I could afford to stop for a while. To my amazement I met Dougie coming out of the control. How did he get in front? He told me that he had got a puncture within 14 miles of the start, had to buy a new tyre and feeling that he had lost enough time already wanted to continue on to Brest. I grudgingly wished him the best of luck – no way was I going another mile without sleep. In a robotic trance I found the dormitory, a large sports hall and booked in. Aware that in my tired state I had made no attempt to speak French. I asked them to wake me at 5:15 am (this would allow me about four hour’s sleep). I was then led by a torch-bearing usher to my canvas camp bed, handed a coarse blanket and then left in the darkness to sort myself out. Trying to maintain some logical order with my kit and at the same time keeping as quiet as possible – I managed to make myself comfortable and fully clothed I very soon fell asleep.
It must have been a deep sleep, because I don’t remember being awakened, it was 5:45 am when I finally managed to drag myself from the comfort of the bed. Carrying my shoes I silently found the exit, thanked the volunteers that had been there all night and were still remarkably good-humoured. Then made my way to the showers and a shave. Feeling refreshed – I changed into clean kit, it had been 36 hours, had some breakfast whilst watching the sky gradually lighten and made ready to depart at about 7 am.
On leaving the control I took some comfort in the signs that now pointed the way to Brest and the half way point! It wasn’t long before I met up with two Dutchmen and we sped along at 23 mph, doing bit and bit. We managed this for a couple of hours until I had to stop to remove some clothes due to overheating. I wistfully watched the backs of my speedy companions disappear in to the distance…
The scenery for the next section was a bit like crossing Bodmin Moor. The mist adding authenticity to the image, a damp sea mist that clung to everything making it wet. I had known before starting that this was to be the final test before reaching halfway – nature had put a small mountain in the way and the route planners had exploited it. They were forgiven at the summit, when out of the fog appeared a secret control and a chance to have a hot coffee or some delicious soup.
The decent from the summit made up for the slow climb – we all got into an aerodynamic position and held on for dear life as the speed increased. The kilometres seemed to flash past. Spurred on now by the smell of the sea I soon came to the spectacular suspension bridge that crosses the wide estuary at the approach to Brest. Since saying goodbye to the two Dutchman I had been on my own, but as the mid-way point drew near a bunch started to form. It was hard to believe at times that we had covered nearly 380 miles, as testosterone and enthusiasm got the better of us a series of sprint races away from each set of red traffic lights hastened our arrival. It had taken 38 hours.
Some homemade vegetable soup, half a chicken with mashed potatoes, followed by some fruit and I was soon out of the control and on my way back. I was now into unknown territory in terms of endurance having never cycled more than 600 kms and then only once before. The weather had closed in again and it had started to rain quite hard, I really could not be bothered to put on a waterproof, hopefully it would soon stop – at least it was warm.
My recollection of the return leg is a bit of a blur. I remember getting a puncture and as I hastily changed the inner tube the riders I had overtaken many minutes earlier passed me again. Apart from that I had no other mechanical problems. At every control stop I managed to eat well, feeling at times like a steam engine – shovelling food in and then getting on my bike to burn it off. I would just have enough in reserve between stops, before I started to feel light headed at the initial onset of the bonk. Saddle soreness could have been a problem, but that was kept at bay by that good old cure for nappy rash – zinc and castor oil cream. I was really enjoying everything about the ride and soaking up the atmosphere. To use a quote from Zen – “I was beginning to feel at one with my bike” – and felt that I could go on forever.
At times I kept seeing the same people. On very rare occasions on the long ride you might find somebody else going at the same speed. I had met up with a chap called Dan on a Moulton APB and we bowled along at a respectable 20-mph for several hundred kilometres. It was wonderful cycling – empty roads – courteous drivers – friendly people – interesting scenery and fantastic weather. All the time keeping a look out for Dougie. We eventually met up again at Loudeac; we were to stay within a few miles of each other until the finish.
Our arrival at Tinteniac (490 miles) was just after midnight on the third night, we had planned on stopping for sleep – so we booked in and paid 30 francs. During the previous section we had been rather anxious that there would be no beds left, so we were relieved to find that there were, later arrivals were not so lucky. We had a meal in the restaurant and then turned in just before 1am. At 5 am we were roused by a gentle pre-arranged nudge. Still dressed in cycling kit, I pulled myself from the comfort of the hammock shaped mattress. It had been a hot sticky night – so I thought a shower would do me some good – it might even wake me up! Unfortunately the price of the bed did not include a towel, so I stood there shaking myself like a dog until I was dry enough to get dressed again in the same clothes. I would be able to change at the next control stop in 30 miles. The coach we had travelled out on was waiting to pick up anybody that had ‘packed’ and we had been able to leave a change of kit or other comforts on it.
The return route was almost an exact retrace of the outward one, except the florescent yellow arrows pointing the way were now red. Even so we still managed to go wrong and made an unwelcome 6-mile detour. It was after our last stop for sleep at Tinteniac – feeling decidedly jaded at 6 am we had turned right at a junction instead of going straight on. In the pitch black we had followed the red lights in the distance. Our misleader turned out to be an Irishman named Pat. We didn’t make any jokes at the time, but having been to Ireland I am sure I was not the only one thinking about the Irish and their sense of directions. There is nothing like an adrenaline-induced race back to the correct route to wake you up though.
Our four-man peleton continued on together – cycling – eating and doing everything else you have to do on a long bike ride in a synchronised fashion. We passed through the controls swiftly – waiting briefly for each other to reform the group. Together we were working well and keeping up a good speed – we all knew our goal was getting closer.
At Villaines la Juhel (600 miles) we were all given a music CD – at other controls we had been given other freebies, under normal circumstances we would have not been ungrateful, but finding the space in our already limited luggage space was a problem – and also the extra weight! They had also set up photographs of P-B-P cyclists – it would have been nice to find your own amongst the thousands on display, but the urgency to keep going was getting ever stronger. Next stop Mortagne au Perche.
The daytime temperature was again 33°c and the long climbs to Mortagne soon had us strung out along the road, we all arrived fairly well cooked within a few minutes of each other though. It had been so hot I had turned my cap around to shield my neck. On a ride like this you watch the sunrise and track it across the sky until it sets, having roasted one side we now had the opportunity to do the other.
We did not stop for long. With just over 100 miles to go somebody pointed out that it might be possible to complete the distance in 75 hours – the race was on!
Once we got going again it became obvious to us that we were not the only ones with this thought – groups of up to thirty riders were starting to form. Making hard work for the front riders pushing the air, but a welcome rest for the ones at the back being towed along by the draught. Our bunch of four proved to be fairly strong at this stage, as we seemed to find ourselves at the front for longer than was fair. Plans of gamesmanship came into play. We would sprint away from the front of one bunch to try to tag on the end of the bunch in front, thereby losing the hangers-on. It wasn’t long before we had worked our way through that bunch then the whole process would start again. We got quite verbal with one or two who were quite content to just tuck in behind and get a free ride. Definitely not British – or Australian for that matter because they took their turn up front. This might seem a bit petty, but when you consider that this would happen for a whole section of 50 to 60 miles and last for many hours.
Up until now we had been closely watching the mileage/kilometres, but as the prospect of beating 75 hours became a possibility we started watching the clock as well. We could feel the end was in sight and even if we had a major mechanical failure, we could at least finish on foot – pushing the bike in the allotted time limit of 90 hours. The thought was too dreadful to think about but we took some comfort from it.
Somehow we kept up the pace, by taking turns at the front we managed to get to Nogent le Roi, the penultimate control before 10 p.m. We had just less than 40 miles to go and 3 hours to beat our revised goal. I renewed the batteries in my front light, determined not to use the dynamo for fear of using any more effort. I had to resort to dynamo on some of the long dark descents at speed, but then it saved using the brakes quite so much. As night drew on it started to get colder and although I had another top to put on, I had optimistically left my leg warmers on the coach. As long as I kept going I should be all right, but I was starting to feel the cold in my knees. It was bearable in the hills but in the valleys it seemed to be colder – something to do with temperature inversion – no matter, nothing was going to stop us now.
The last test of character came when we were made to do what could have been a lap of honour of the town of Guyancourt. This would have been fine during the day but at gone midnight the roads and street were deserted. For some reason we had expected the crowds that saw us off to be there to greet us home, they were tucked up in bed nice and warm.
With just one last roundabout to navigate we could see the crowds over the other side and the finish. For some like Pat – it was too much to keep in – yelling and screaming his way over the last few yards, overjoyed to have completed the longest single-stage-endurance-race in Europe or the longest randonee in the world. I was overjoyed all right; there may have been tears in my eyes. I find the emotion of the moment difficult to put into words. I had got so used to cycling and enjoyed it so much that I was a little disappointed about stopping – on the other hand I was extremely relieved. In my enthusiasm and caught up in the atmosphere – I had actually ran to the finishing control to get my brevet card stamped and time card swiped – as if a few seconds would have made any difference. I had beaten the 75-hour mark with 12 minutes to spare.
I wanted to just stand there and do nothing – soaking up the feeling. I ought to punch the air in triumph – but somehow couldn’t quite believe I had really finished. Then I felt I should get going again – can’t stop – must keep going. It was difficult for me to take in what I had achieved. I had cycled 1200 kilometres – my computer read 769 miles, in just over three days! It had not been my original goal at the beginning of the year – nor had it been a life long ambition, but I was glad that I’d done it. Would I do it again? I doubt it. It had been a wonderful experience and I prefer to have just one lasting memory of it.
I walked outside looking around for my bike, I felt lonely without it. I found my colleagues. Pat, Dan and Dougie and together we savoured the moment and our first beer for five or six days. Sitting there on the grass, I preferred to stand – watching the others arriving at the finish having achieved their own Ultimate Challenge. Fifteen hours later there would still be people coming in. It was good to have already finished.
After a while – having used up our last drop of adrenaline – tiredness started to return – it was time for bed, a real bed – our first for three nights. One more time I had to climb back on my bike and ride to the hotel three miles away, I had to do it standing up, there was no way I could bring myself to sit down on the saddle.