A happy ending? A posh hotel just outside of Paris
My Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) jaunt ended amongst the plump velvety cushions, and comfortable quarters of Rambouillet’s Mercure Chateau Hotel. I’d booked to stay there for the two nights following PBP over a year previously. I reckoned if I did get back from Brest I would deserve some luxury. When I dropped a bag of surplus kit off there before my ride started on the Sunday the elegant forecourt was festooned with bikes. After PBP on Thursday it was clear the place couldn’t cope. The staff were harassed, the lobbies were lined with bike boxes for Seattle, Taipei, Nova Scotia, and Sydney, and by the time I emerged for breakfast it had been pecked to dry bones by hungry seagull-like cyclists. The only evidence of croissants were flakes of pastry on the white linen of an empty wicker basket. The bacon, sausages and eggs had been scoffed by those with intercontinental flights that afternoon from Charles de Gaulle. Let me tell you how this all came about.
(I’ve included at the end of this post an analysis of where in the world everyone came from.)
The spartan world of audax
My PBP adventure started with a 600km “pre-qualifying ride” in the Scottish Borders in August 2018 (my blog on Borderland 600), which saw me crash anonymously on a dreadfully pot-holed “C” road in heavy rain near Moffat at 2am. When I checked in for the night at the Lockerbie Lorry Park (Lockerbie Lorry Park) an hour later the staff had quite a shock – I was far more bloodied than I had realised.
Once pre-qualified the Audax Club Parisienne (ACP) require you to qualify for real by doing 200, 300, 400 and 600km rides crammed in before early June. My first qualifier was a failure as I was unable to fix a puncture – I had “DNFed” (Did Not Finish). I changed the stiff tyres on the bike as a result. In March the spartan world of audax was hammered home on “The Dean”. One hundred of us rode from a bleak Park and Ride north of Oxford, where the drizzle sparkled under the halo of orange street lights. I can’t imagine what the bus driver starting his 6am shift made of it all. From there we rode into 30mph headwinds (with gusts at twice that) all the way to the Severn Bridge 150km away. I scraped into Chepstow in the mid-afternoon 4 minutes before the cut-off time. I got back to Oxford after another nine hours mainly through rain – I simply couldn’t afford another DNF.
Once qualifiers were done a new set of worries lurked. Spreadsheets defined the maximum amount of sleeping time available. Where will I eat? How will I sleep? Can I poo without a queue? Will my bike fall apart? The best advice was “don’t worry – everything works out on PBP”. And so it did. Answers below.
The warm up
I’d taken the ferry from Portsmouth on the Thursday evening; meeting an Audax Club Bristol rider first who unlike me had ridden all the way there. We were soon joined on the ramp by a dozen other PBPers bound for Le Havre. I learned 60 Brits were gathering at the same time in Newhaven for the Dieppe boat. Anticipation began to build. We worried ourselves with talk of how far we would cycle on our first stage, the early closing habits of French shops, and avoiding rashes in delicate places. The “Baie de Seine” was a very appropriate boat for audax (Baie de Seine). It was a bare bones affair with a simple café, and berths fringing the vehicle decks. It doesn’t hurry across the Channel and gave me a good night’s sleep. I cycled down through Normandy over the scary crossing of the Seine on the Pont de Normandie (Wiki entry), with its narrow cycle lane doubling up as an equally inadequate hard shoulder on the motorway. I met the support crew of Naomi and Judy for a lunch of crepes at a monastery half way (Bec Helloiun Abbey) and pitched up in a B&B in Guyancourt near Versailles that evening. I had told the B&B owner I needed a place to store a bike, but she did a double-take when she realised I’d ridden 200km to get there. It was of course just a warm-up.
Saturday was the day to get the bike checked and registered at Rambouillet. Did the lights work? Did anything fall off it if it was dropped? Cycle Heaven’s servicing this year allowed me to pass with flying colours (Cycle Heaven York). Rambouillet is 60km from Paris but serves as a good proxy. This was to be the first year PBP had started from “La Bergerie Nationale” (Bergerie Website). This translates as “The National Sheepfold”; it is an experimental farm rather than a nationally significant sheep enclosure. Continuous heavy rain put the dampers on what I had imagined would be a sociable afternoon of sitting around munching pizza and drinking beer in the warm shadows of pine trees. I returned to Guyancourt a drowned rat. The whiff of slightly damp clothing was one of my contributions to the sense of decay and decline at the Mercure in Rambouillet five days later.
I was one of the 300 starters in the 18.15 start “J” group. I’d never started a long-ride before in the early evening. I was nervous of not reaching the hotel I had booked in St Meen-Le-Grand 390km away the following evening. Once I got myself over to Rambouillet on Sunday lunchtime I spent the time consciously trying to do as little as possible: nosing my way through the event lunch, detaining anyone who might dispense wisdom, lying under a tree as the sun warmed damp ground, and eventually sauntering up to the queue of “J” starters. I was ready to go.
La France Profonde turns out for cycling
The PBP traverses “La France profonde”; it is a long way from Paris to Brest by a number of measures. The largest places are Fougeres (where I was twice met by Naomi and Judy for breakfast) and Dreux whose populations are 21 000 and 32 000 respectively. The route goes through nearly 200 villages. The rural nature of the ride, and the fact it takes the same course every time, probably contributes to the welcome we riders got – it is a big deal for these places. The nearest thing to this I know of in the UK is the Dunwich Dynamo (Southwark cyclists 2019 pages on dynamo).
The support from the French on the ride started at 0 km and didn’t stop. It was often overwhelming, and I could empathise with one fellow UK audaxer who said that at times it made him cry with joy. Shouts of “Allez”, “Courage”, “Bon Route” and “Bravo” rang out in so many places. The thanks I shouted back felt inadequate, however I did get really good at high fives from the bike! I was quite amazed by the variety of support: mothers and grandmas, groups of men stumbling from tabacs, larger family groups picnicking, teenagers, everyone. I don’t expect that the general populace should come and cheer me doing my hobby, but it did all make me reflect on the churlish reaction cyclists often attract in the UK and newspaper editors who see cycling only as a way of fomenting strife in their comments sections.
In just about every village there was at least one stall handing out snacks and water. On the top of Roc’h Trevezel (the highest point of the ride east of Brest) I stopped for freshly made chocolate crepes and coffee in a gazebo set up by the local village. No donations were accepted in lieu of payment. Another enterprising group towards Mortagne-au-Perche had set up two tables 100m apart. At the first they handed out a glass of water; at the second they collected the empty glass. I felt like a racing star after successfully dropping the empty cup into the accumulating stack from earlier riders.
In Villaines the four-yearly PBP is the biggest event to hit the village. The cheers of the 3000 villagers welcomed us into the control area. I was watched intently as I parked my bike, re-arranged my stash of emergency baguettes, detached empty-water bottles, and retrieved my brevet card to get it stamped. Two DJ-types prowled back and forth along the line of arriving cyclists to broadcast a commentary over the village’s loudspeaker system. I was escorted by an enthusiastic villager to the café to pick up two more baguettes – had there been a queue I was assured of my priority. Indeed, cyclists eating a sit-down meal had food carried to their tables by red-uniformed school children.
The route runs through two distinct French geological provinces. In the east it traverses the vast areas of flat lying Chalk and Cretaceous sediments that extend far from the Paris Basin. The area is dominated by huge cornfields, and except for some steep river valleys, is gently rolling land with occasional forests and surprisingly sparse habitation. It doesn’t rain as much as it does in the Brittany. It is similar in places to the Yorkshire Wolds near to me in York.
To the west of the Brittany-Normandy border the geology changes to a mix of older crystalline rocks and sediments. Heights such as Roc’h Trevezel are made up of exposed granite. The east-west grain of the landscape was caused by mountain-building associated with collisions between ancient continents. These mountains have been worn down now by 400 million years of erosion. The farms and fields are smaller on the whole, there seem to be more villages, there is more woodland, and for cycling a few more ups and downs. The place names are bi-lingual on road signs. At Brest, looking in the opposite direction from the Pont de l’Iroise, there is a view off towards the Atlantic and a slight sense of the end of the land. It is similar in scenery and geology, and of course language, to parts of Cornwall.
As I’d had an early start at 18.15 I found myself being overtaken frequently as we headed towards a receding sun through dark forests west of Rambouillet. After 15 minutes I was overtaken by a strong American-Korean rider, who I had ridden with over the Humber Bridge on a very wet evening on the LEL in 2017 (My blog on LEL). We snatched two minutes to exchange tales of what happened to us after Louth in 2017 before I dropped back to my natural pace.
The first twelve hours were very exciting. That first night, when the 6000 riders were still spreading out into the night, I have vivid memories of the stint between Mortagne and Villaines where we formed a dense snake of red tail-lights that stretched over and around each near horizon. Faster riders zoomed by. Occasionally I and others moved gracefully out of the stream to pass slower riders ahead, accompanied by the soft whooshing of wheels over smooth tarmac and neat silent hand signals of “I’m moving out” or “I’m dropping in there”. It was like a dance; quite magical. We carried on like this for several hours.
I reached my hotel room at Saint-Meen-Le-Grand at 3pm on Monday afternoon and immediately drew the curtains (I’d recommend the hotel). On checking-in I spontaneously also booked for the following night, committing myself to 449km the following “day”. I set my alarm for 7.15pm. For me the total of 7 hours of sleep on the PBP in a real bed, with a shower, a change of clothes, and on my second visit to the hotel a pint of lager and plate of pasta, did me a power of good. Many others slept in real audax hotels: bus shelters, public loos, the warm vestibules enclosing ATMs, on the ground by the road, or at a restaurant table. I missed out on those deprivations.
At the end of August the nights are already quite long. As the skies were cloudless it was not fully dark until 10pm which was a blessing. On my second stage I rode for 27 hours and into two sunsets. Farmers were harvesting till last light each time. The moon accompanied us every night. The ratchetting sound of back wheels could be mistaken for the crickets that started chirping before first light. They were followed by owls, and then the first glimpses of bluish sky on the eastern horizon. The morning light came slowly. This was also the time of day when the air was at its coldest – it was a long three hours before the air was warmed by the sun.
I never figured out the best tactic for catching a train of riders. Surely if I left a control at 22km/h then anyone going much faster would pull past me, and if I did catch anyone else then I’d want to get past them. I figured it was down to the serendipity of being caught up by a group travelling around a kilometre/hour faster than me who had left the previous control no more than 3 minutes after me (to catch me in an hour?), and then hanging on. As time went on this became more and more unlikely.
It’s easy to forget a month later but the ride is hard! My low point was approaching Brest on Tuesday morning. I was cold, rolling hills went on for ever, I lost any frame of reference, there were few villages, and an early imagined glimpse of the coast never came! Bright lights of returning riders blinded, goaded and taunted me as I struggled along as the sky slowly turned from darkness. This stretch was the place where I was so tired I considered an unplanned stop for safety’s sake. At other points on the way back I got so bored I resorted to singing Abba songs to myself. And then I depressed myself with pointless calculations of the distances ahead: less than York to London to go; York to Sandringham; York to Ladybower and back; just 100 miles now; just a York Rouleurs Sunday morning ride. It didn’t help. On the bright side my Yorkshire White Rose flag became an ice-breaker. Many conversations helped pass the time; with fellow Brits, but also with Canadians, Dutch, Americans, Taiwanese, Indians, Australians, Finns, French, Germans, and Brazilians. However at other times I was condemned to my own company as I failed to stay onto passing trains.
The last person I rode with for any length of time was Shaun from Stoke who I eventually lost to a train that split over the crest of a hill west of Dreux. Whilst tucking into two pizza sandwiches in the control at Dreux I looked up at the big clock on the wall and realised that I too might be able to make the sub-80-hour time I knew Shaun was chasing. I left half a pizza sandwich, quickly lost the Dutch couple I’d then hoped to tail for the last 50km back to Rambouillet, and headed out onto dark roads guided by the fluorescent “Paris” signs put up by ACP. The roads were disconcertingly empty after midnight. A train did eventually catch me 10km from Rambouillet. Strava records that my pace in that last two hours was only slightly faster than my average, but I felt I was flying, and we zoomed past several other trains through the last stretches of forest. I’ve never gone across cobbles as fast as I did over those at the last junction into Rambouillet – nothing fell off the bike – so the bike check had played its part!
A few cheers rang out as we went through the finishing arch at 2am, followed by a short circuit of the empty courtyard of La Bergerie Nationale. After collecting the final stamp on my Brevet card and a medal I found a space to sleep on the floor of the makeshift dorm there and slept till 9am with my pannier as a pillow. The Mercure hotel (Mercure Rambouillet) had to wait for another 6 hours. It was a very comfortable resting place in the end. I slept, lounged about, read novels, toured the castle grounds, drank beer, and enjoyed eating salad. Luxury indeed. I may be back!
Facts and statistics
I covered the 1219km official distance in three stints:
- Sunday 18.15 to Monday 15.00. 400km and 3665m ascent from Rambouillet to Saint-Meen-Le-Grand.
- Monday 19.30 to Tuesday 22.00: 449km and 4811m ascent from Saint-Meen to Brest and back.
- Wednesday 03.30 to Thursday 02.00: 387km and 3655m ascent from Saint-Meen to Rambouillet.
Total distance was 1236km and total ascent 12 131m. Total time was 79h 44m, including 59h51m on the bike. I slept for 3 hours and 4 hours on consecutive stays at the hotel in St-Meen. That leaves about 13 hours doing everything else, or around 40 minutes per stage.
I ate at most controls, often buying more than I thought I could eat and then wolfing it all down. I also often picked up baguettes for on-the-road snacking. I only remember queueing for any length of time twice (at Loudeac and Carhaix for a meal and the loo!).
Everyone else’s ride
The number of riders finishing in their time limits (80, 84 or 90 hours) was 4413 out of a total of 6374 starters (69%) according to the times on an unofficial PBP results website (PBPresults.com). The numbers of finishers as a percentage of starters for the 66 countries represented were:
|Hong Kong||10 (42%)|
|New Zealand||7 (88%)|
|South Africa||7 (63%)|
|Czech Republic||2 (67%)|
|San Marino||1 (100%)|
|Sri Lanka||1 (100%)|
|Puerto Rico||1 (33%)|
|Dominican Rep||1 starter|