For those that haven’t seen it, my pre-race plans are on this link: PBP Race Plans
I’m in Paris for the start of the race, well just outside in Rambouillet with its pretty chateau and grounds that can handle the 7000 people registering for this epic event. It’s pissing down with rain and we are standing in a 400m queue waiting for our “bike check”. The brilliant French organisation begins with publishing individual timeslots for everybody’s check and then just letting anybody through at any time they want. Luckily, I have my waterproof and an umbrella (I’d seen the forecast, and it wasn’t in doubt). Everybody is in good spirits and excited despite being soggy. I start chatting to a Russian guy who has driven for 3 days in his 1.2litre fiat to get here, and then a group from Ireland who took a 17hr ferry overnight without a cabin. After an hour or so, the bike check is a Frenchman testing the brakes, lights and telling me my tribars are too long. I tell him, in my best Franclais, they are just within the limits, being shorter than the brake levers. He disagrees, so I tell him he needs to check with someone else. When another guy comes along, he also isn’t sure, so my umbrella comes alive to persuade him. Instead of using the umbrella to poke each of them in their eyes, I demonstrate the various lines of the limits, and finally with Gaelic shrugs they give up with the obstinate Englishman and allow me through. Now complicated security for bike racking with stickers on bikes, matching race numbers on paperwork, but 2 large entrances/exits into the enclosure, and only one of them is manned – quality. I lock my bike and proceed to the next bunfight to collect race-pack of Brevet card, jersey, Hi-Viz gillet etc. Looking around there are all sorts of weird machines, bromptons, fixies, velomobiles, tandems for 2 and even 3 people, and various styles of recumbents.
By late afternoon its back to the hotel for the final bike clean following its soaking and riding the sandy tracks around Rambouillet chateau. Still raining. Eat some pasta. Desperately try to dry my bike shoes using the hotel hairdryer. Sleep overnight and wake to continuing rain.
The morning of the race, I make a few adjustments to my kit to account for the weather. The roads have streams all over them, meaning I’ll get wet feet early on, so I pack 2 spare pairs of socks, as it will be lovely to put clean dry socks on later during the ride. Waterproof socks/overshoes are great for a couple of hours, but after many hours nothing is waterproof when it has a large hole in the top to put your foot through, so might as well just accept getting wet and move on.
The start isn’t until 4pm, so I take a little walk around the grounds and discover the start is at the other end of the park from the bike check. Its stopped raining – Hurrah.
Finally, onto the bike and into the start pen, chatting to a bunch of Seattle Randonneurs who are taking this even more seriously than me. They have support crews meeting them at the Controls, so they are just on lightweight race bikes. The vast majority of riders however are self-supported like me with pockets bulging, large top tube bags, and big saddlepacks sticking up behind them.
Plenty of Rapha kit around but also loads of old-style traditional jerseys declaring the riders’ allegiance to their various native countries, and a lot of merino wool. The sun is out and its feeling 20+ warm – Double Hurrah. There are about 250 riders in each pen, leaving every 15min, but we are first off at the “tete” of the course, although I am about halfway down the group of 250.
And we’re off – through the arch, over the timing mats, down the greasy wet track, underneath the trees, with moss patches and gravel to avoid, towards the gates at the edge of park, over the cobbles and onto proper tarmac. Excellent – not fallen off yet, but holy shit the front 100+ riders are already 50 yards ahead (that is 0.00003% nearer the finish than me) and a gap is forming, so its full gas to catch them up. That was a train I did not want to miss. There were a lot of others thinking and doing exactly the same. The next 3hr30 to Mortagne was some of the craziest time I have spent on the bike. The peloton was about 200 strong, powering into a moderate headwind (which made it easier to keep with it). We had a lead-out car with lights flashing about 100 yards ahead of us, and the cars coming the other way just pulled off onto the verge to let us pass. There were a bunch of 20-30 riders really pushing the pace at the front including the Seattle boys and group of Italians in national kit. The arrowhead widened behind them to take up the full width of the road, despite the road officially being “open to the public”. It was harder to stay in the middle of the pack than I thought. There was a constant gentle swirl as everybody naturally drifted backwards within the group until you decided to move to one side and overtake to pull yourself back towards the front before re-joining at about 30-40th wheel, where it was only 3-4 riders wide. Luckily it felt a lot safer riding than previous road-racing I have done in Northants or on the Tour of Cambridge, because everybody just held their lines, with an occasional side nudge, and there weren’t the sudden changes of speed/direction I have experienced before. I realised just how much a benefit a proper wide peloton is compared to a single person width pace line. On the downhills I was braking most of the time, and on the flats I was barely pedalling just being sucked along. The uphills however were pretty hard (well over threshold), trying to keep up with the group. So, it turned into an “interval” session with few minutes of high-zone effort (heart rate hit 198 at one point), followed by a nice long rest and then repeat. During these rests I met a few people I had ridden with on my qualification rides. There was Claude who I rode the entire 300km “Rough Diamond” with, when we finished together in first place. He is a lightweight Frenchman who has a good pedigree for long distance racing, lives and works in England now and had just spent the last week walking in the Alps with his family. There was Jasmijn who I rode the early part of Windsor-Chester-Windsor 600km with, who was the 2017 world 24hr time trial champion, and I think holds the ridiculous record for the longest virtual ride of 1800km on Zwift. Some guy recognised my green & black iconic Gorilla kit and asked me if I knew Jack Peterson. It turns out he was Rimas, another super-fast rider who I had heard about. It was bizarre chatting in a relaxed manner at fast speed, and then suddenly a hill, where all conversation stops, and you find yourself at the top next to somebody new, so time for introductions again and start a new conversation that you may or may not get chance to finish.
Heading through the middle of villages was crazy criterium style riding, where you had to accelerate very hard out of each 90degree turn to catch up the accelerating riders in front. Tip – don’t be too far back in the pack when approaching a village, or else you risk never getting back in the pack after the corners. Problem – everybody knew this tip and was trying to do the same thing. Result – hard riding and bunching on the approach to every village. All adds to the madness of the event.
The course meandered along through the rolling countryside, and on the Southerly sections we experienced the crosswinds from the right. Echelons formed and the riders were hugging the far left of the road. You can imagine the entertainment when we saw a car came from the other direction. It was during one of these times that I saw Jasmijn disappear backwards deciding to ease off the pace.
I think there may have been a group of 10-20 riders who were a few hundred yards off the front by the time we hit Mortagne at 73miles. By this point we had averaged nearly 21mph, my power data was similar to a tough Sat/Sun morning ride with the Gorillas, and it occurred to me that distance and route would have been very comparable to a morning in Rutland. This had put me 40min ahead of plan but was unsustainable for me. The final push into Mortagne was quite a climb, and I thought I don’t want to be at the back of a queue of 100 people getting their Brevet Cards stamped, so I worked pretty hard to be nearer the front of the main bunch. I knew you ride into one side and out of the other side of this Control, but as we entered people were just stopping everywhere on either side of the road, at the same time as some of the others were getting going again. It took me some time to realise this was the supported riders being giving their compulsory Hi-Viz nightime gillets for the next section and having their water bottles exchanged for them, by their supporters who were standing by the road. My gillet was in my saddlepack, it was only 7:30pm and I was pretty warm and sweaty with all this effort, so I thought “I’ll stop and put mine on later, I just want to get my card stamped and fill my bottles”. I couldn’t see where the actual Control point was because everywhere was crowded with supporters and locals cheering. Maybe it’s a little further on. Next thing I know I am flying down a hill past a sign that says Mortagne “crossed-out” – the French way of telling you that you are leaving the town. But that means I’ve missed the guy who stamps my Brevet Card. How have I managed that? I stop and ask the locals, but unfortunately, we can’t understand each other. Shall I forget the Card and just ride? Does the Card really matter, when there are electronic timing mats? Would the French officials be sympathetic to an innocent mistake at just one Control from a “Rosbif”? Do the French feel slightly irritated by the British and their (minority) desire to leave the European Union? Bugger it – I want to do this properly and get the Card stamped everywhere, so I start riding back up the hill, only to observe Claude, Rimas and many other of the riders I have seen over the last 3hr30 flying down the hill in the correct direction. I won’t be seeing them again then. I sprint back up the hill and get to where the officials are all standing around. They look at me in surprise as I am going the wrong way and I ask them where to get my card stamped. Finally, somebody understands, and tells me you don’t need a stamp here on the way out, only on the way back. Whoops. My mistake. I knew there was the extra Control on the way home at Dreux (between start/finish and here), but because I had done my timing to consider this first 73miles as my first stage, I had forgotten that effectively there were 2 extra Controls on the way back and this was one of them. Oh well, the milk is spilt, you can’t pick it up again, best get back down that hill and start pedalling towards Brest.
I could see another rider 50 yards ahead so caught him, and then we caught another. Bugger, I’m a bit knackered now, that was a couple of matches burned. Double bugger, in all my excitement about the Brevet Card stamping, I forgot to fill my water bottles. I’ve drunk ~1800ml in 3hr30, sweated a lot, got ~200ml left, and it’s about 60 miles to next checkpoint in Villaines. Right, I need to find a village with some water. We go through one with no sign of any tap, and I’ve no idea how far it will be to the next, so when we head past a farmhouse with an old guy hanging over his gate cheering us on, I stop and ask him for some water. No problem, we sprint through his gravel courtyard into his kitchen, fill them up while his wife jabbers in French, and he replies that I’m English. Getting back to the bike I see a couple of riders fly past, and as I’m getting my electrolyte tablets out to put in the bottles, I can hear the road noise of a larger group approaching. Quick as I can, I sort the tabs, and jump on the bike just as they go by. By the time I’m up to speed they have some distance on me, but its too good a chance to miss, so there goes another match.
In a group of about 20 now, so its time to conserve some energy and repay some of the recent debts. Its starting to go dark, half the group have their Hi-Viz gillets on, but half of us don’t. The power of numbers – if we get stopped by a motorbike martial and told to put them on, at least I’ll have company afterwards. We sweep up the other riders I had been with before stopping to fill my bottles – just shows the difference the group makes with the extra few mph of speed.
We enter Villaines up another hill to a huge cheering crowd lining the road – why would this many people be out at 11pm on a Sunday night, just to see a bunch of idiots who they don’t know ride their bikes in and out? Well its entertaining for me anyway. This Control is much easier to navigate with the officials directing us where to rack our bikes, where to head to get our card stamped etc. I decide after eating just bars and gels on the bike so far, for 135miles, it is time for my 2 chicken rolls that I have in my saddlepack, so I buy some coke, sit down for 10mins and enjoy the rest and nutrition. So that is 135miles in 7 hours and sensibly slowed down to 19.3mph average, but still 1hr 20min ahead of plan because of riding in groups, and minimal stoppage. My power and heart rate have nicely recovered to my target figures, so all is looking good.
Before setting off, I put my long-sleeved top and Hi-Viz gillet on, as I have cooled down whilst sitting still and the temperature has now dropped to 12deg. Not long out of Villaines, I end up with another rider, then a third, and fairly soon there are about 8 of us together who seemed really similarly matched (clearly self-selected by this point). After a couple of hours, the pace feels like it is dropping a bit and I seem to be doing more and more work on the front, but suddenly a group of riders from the second group who started 15min after us (with race numbers starting with a “B”) come past us in a long line, and so some of us jump on board. It’s a fickle world, and recent acquaintances are left behind when a better opportunities are offered on a plate – harsh but that’s reality. Into Fougeres, the half-way Control at 02:30, so that is my fastest 190mile (300km) ride ever in 10hr30 elapsed time. Another sit-down rest having bought a couple of cans of coke and enjoy some of my flapjack. Fougeres to Tinteniac is a much shorter stage at only 34miles and whizzed by in the early hours of the morning with another group who I meet on the road. About 20min before arriving at Tinteniac a couple come flying past the group and we all latch on. The guy at the front, Carlos, is really driving the pace on this downhill section, and his partner Ana is drafting super-close to him the whole way. They started in the B group, 15min after me and clearly have a plan to get her a good finish time. Approaching the Control, a large Polish guy overtakes Carlos which seemed a little disrespectful to me, as Carlos had single-handedly pulled the entire group for the previous 20min. I thanked Carlos for his effort and his wheel to follow and that most of us appreciated the work he had just done. He was grateful and rather scathing of the Big Pole.
Tinteniac Control at 04:30 was particularly underwhelming. There was no real restaurant or seated area in a building, just a tent with cold volunteers selling cold food/drink, so it was time for more coke and my first of many jambon baguettes, which I sneakily ate whilst sitting next to the Card stamping people inside the building in order to keep warm. When I left, there seemed to be nobody on the road, and it was the first time I felt alone. However, this suddenly became a lovely liberating experience – being able to just cycle at my own pace, enjoy the hills, take the downhills and turns without braking, not have to focus on a red light in front of me. I forgot about the now 7deg cold and was really enjoying cycling in the way I have done a lot of long-distance stuff recently. Around 06:30 there was a glimmer of light in the East behind me as dawn was stamping its mark on the day. I decided I was about halfway to the next Control, so would treat myself to a 2min stand, off the bike, by the side of the road and eat a flapjack. As I was getting going, I saw the first sign of life for 2hrs behind me and a group of about 10 bright white lights were approaching in the distance, so I just pedalled normally and it wasn’t long before they caught me up and I joined in. Turned out Jasmijn, who I had seen earlier, was in this group, and she hadn’t stopped properly or eaten anything substantial since the start. I was wondering whose strategy was better – hers of just keeping going or mine of sticking with fast boys for longer but having longer stops and eating more. Each to their own. This turned out to be a great group of very equal riders again, and we were really enjoying riding into the new day with the ground mist and inverted isotherms creating an ethereal atmosphere, especially as we descended into the concealed valley of Loudeac, the next Control, which was shrouded in the cloud beneath us.
It was now 08:00 and Loudeac Control was a huge empty maze of bike racks waiting to be filled later in the day. Inside it was time for more coke and jambon baguette, whilst chatting to others in the group who had stopped. Jasmijn decided it was time finally for a long sit-down breakfast, and we were with a Korean rider, being supported by his wife, who made him a huge bowl of soft noodles with a lovely thick aromatic sauce. It looked warming and hearty, and I was only a little jealous. But it was time for me to get going and keep on trucking towards Brest. Still a fairly cold morning at 9deg, but much easier riding in the full daylight again. There were no big groups but a few people to partner up with here and there. The route took us right into the Control at St Nicholas, which I thought a little odd, as it was only a Control on the way back, and I thought we should be bypassing it on the way out. All was revealed as we entered however, and the martials said this was a secret Control added in to make sure everybody was doing the marked route. We had no idea how many or when the secret Controls would appear, so it kept you to the designated route. Card stamped and on to Carhaix, where I sat down again with more coke, some orange juice and a large croissant, then another large croissant. It was bizarre sitting alone in the huge cafeteria, set ready for the 1000 people who would be here all together in the middle of the night to come.
Leaving Carhaix at 11:45, it was back to short sleeve, single layer Gorilla top, and it was the second time on the outward journey I was alone. This lasted for an hour, when I saw a French guy ahead and slowly reeled him in. We worked together quite nicely in this rolling terrain, and then a huge tractor came past on a very narrow lane, with another rider drafting behind one of the 6-foot back wheels. We were just accelerating to join him, when the rider called a loud “Merci” to the tractor driver and the tractor turned off left. Hey at least there were 3 of us together now. Very well matched and really enjoyable again, we rode more undulations and up the most beautiful part of the route so far – its highest point, the radio mast on the ridge at Roc’h Tredudon, with cracking views in all directions of the compass, including the rock formations to the South-West. A rapid descent down the other side, and we are overtaken by 5 riders including the Big Pole. The final 20miles into Brest were interesting. We were working as a pace line, but every time the Big Pole came to the front, he would ramp the pace up until somebody dropped off the back. It was like Shad or Dunc just playing with us for their own amusement. In the end he had dropped everyone except his mate and myself, so I could see what was coming, and I thought I’m not playing your Polak game, so I stopped working and just sat on. As you can imagine, that didn’t go down too well, and he kept flicking his elbow at me, but I stood my ground and rode my own pace. Finally, on entering the Brest suburbs, he hit a downhill racing line through a roundabout with the clear intention to drop me, but I followed, and his mate missed out. I was a bit surprised, but he just left his mate and the two us continued alone. Over the iconic bridge into Brest where he slowed for a photo, but I continued. Soon after, I went underneath a roundabout that I should have gone up onto and found myself on an off-road track in a valley. Looking at my Garmin, I could see I should be on the parallel road 50 yards to my left but elevated through a densely vegetated extremely steep slope. No problem, there is track in half a mile that switchbacks up the slope back onto the road. As I am on the switchback, climbing the 1 in 3, oh how I laughed when I realised the Poles had followed me down the valley, and were now swearing this was a ridiculous route and couldn’t possibly be correct. The final 20 yards up a set of steps, more swear words ensued from behind me, whilst I just thought – “Adapt to the situation and get on with it” – Just desserts guys.
Into Brest Control at 15:00, so that is 23hours for 600km including 1hr40 of stoppage time – another record for me being my fastest 380mile (600km) ride ever. Overall I had hit the planned Power figures and heart rate figures, although it had been more erratic than intended with the racey initial 7hours, much harder than I planned, followed by an easier recovery for a couple of hours, and finally settling into nice steady Power figures just a little below target, and heart rate bang on target. This was going very well. My fluids intake / output was on track with 9 litres of electrolyte drink + coke and regular clear looking urine, and the stomach felt good. Time for another large dose of sudocrem on the undercarriage just to be safe. Sure, the legs were a little tired, but no signs of cramps. I sat down with a couple more cans of coke and another classic jambon baguette, and contemplated my options, whilst checking the messages on the phone. I had always planned to head to a pre-booked hotel for ~6hrs of rest/shower/sleep at this point, but I was 3hrs ahead of time, didn’t feel tired, and the headwind would now be a tailwind, but that was only forecast for another ~10hrs. Time for adaptation again, I cancelled the hotel using my phone app. (flexible rate, pay nothing), and decided to push on now and sleep later in the cold of the night at one of the Controls on the way home. So, after my longest rest of the trip (35min) it was back on the road heading towards Paris. Immediately, my body felt I was missing something, and I had a craving for salt. I realised there hadn’t been any crisps on sale at any of the Controls, and in the UK I would have got through 300g+ of crisps by this point, but no worries, I’m leaving a big town, so bound to pass a shop on the way out. Unfortunately, I didn’t see one, until the next town down the road where I dive into something called a “tabac”, which I seemed to remember from school French lessons was like a newsagent. Well it wasn’t – It was basically a betting shop with about 20 screens showing different sports, and a counter selling hundreds of different types of lottery tickets/scratch cards, and beer and spirits. I asked for “pomme frites” and was rebuffed with another Gaelic shrug. Time for a sharp exit. Oh well, set off up the steady 500ft climb from Landerneau and gradually pass a few people whilst sticking to my power numbers, then I spy one of the many masses of spectators around a marquee who I had seen on the way out, where they were trying to usher people in and ply them with crepes – Oh go on then, twist my arm – And a coke – thank you very much. Back going again down into Sizun village where I finally find a little supermarket to stock up, so I can avoid the queues in the next few Controls that I expect to be busy with riders still coming out. I now look like the proper long-distance cyclist with a 400g packet of biscuits sticking high out of one back pocket, and my saddlepack full of crisps.
Another fun 800ft climb back to the pretty Roc’h Tredudon, and I time the crest perfectly to catch a group of 4 riders, and we stick together until the next Control. Unfortunately, they were all pretty knackered by this point, so I seemed to be doing most of the work, but its still nice to be getting some time to rest up behind others. Carhaix was still fairly quiet, so I saved my own food stash and sat down in the self-service restaurant with 3 large croissants and 2 cans of coke – I’m sure the jam counted as something towards the five a day pieces of fruit. Whilst heading back to my bike I bumped into John Wilton in his Leicester Forest CC top, and he recognised me with my Gorilla top, so we had a little chat and swapped stories so far, saying this was a little different to the Mountain Bike Orienteering that we normally compete at together. He had started 1hr45 after me, was now about 110miles behind me, but was rolling nicely along towards his target and feeling good still.
As I left the Control, one of the marshals asked me to put my Hi-Viz nightime gillet on, I explained it was 19:30, the sun was still beating down on us, and it would be far too hot, but I promise I will wear it once we get to sunset. Onwards to St Nicholas and solo again, but after my now customary jambon baguette and coke at St Nicholas, I bump into a couple of the Seattle Randonneurs who I had met in the start pen 29hrs ago. I had caught these two as they had done their domestique duties for their top guys and were just riding home now, so I asked if they minded me joining them, and they were very welcoming. Unfortunately, soon after we set off from St Nicholas together it became apparent their legs were shot from earlier work, and they were just limping to the next Control for a sleep, whereas I was still feeling “top of the world”. So, they told me to go on, and it was back to solo again. This was quite a hilly section to Loudeac, and it struck me that in Brittany they seem to build a disproportionate number of their villages on the highest ground, to command the strategic military advantage. They really must have suffered a lot from invasions over the years to necessitate this, and I feel the pain of the Celts driven to the edges of the continent – similar to the Cornish, the Irish, the Welsh, and the Scots. The difficulty for me is the roads seem to want to visit all these bloody villages in their elevated locations.
I hit the Loudeac Control at 23:00 into my second night now. It was carnage here. Despite this being a huge Control, every spot on the huge mass of bike racks was full, there were people sleeping on most of the available horizontal ground, even though it was pretty cold at about 8deg. I head inside for warmth and to my surprise there is no queue to buy coke – 2 more cans please. I find some salt on the table to add to my crisps as the French clearly don’t add as much as I’m used to with Walkers. The majority of people here are still on their way out to Brest, so if I can cruise through another 60-90 miles, the Controls should be much quieter and there should be airbeds available to sleep.
I now have my full kit on (including emergency leg-warmers, and waterproof/windproof Goretex top, long sleeved Gabba, Hi-Viz gillet, long fingered gloves), as it is only going to get colder. Thank god I carried it all just in case. It is a shame that its dark, because there is a constant stream of people heading the other way, but instead of being able to see them and their bikes, it is just a bright white light dazzle every minute or so.
After about 10miles, its midnight and I suddenly notice the rear gear shifting isn’t synchronising very well. That is very odd for the cable to suddenly loosen, so I stop under a streetlight in a village to examine it. Nooooooo! – the damn cable has frayed – only 3-4 strands broken, but that puts it at risk of snapping completely. How can that be? – I put a new cable on 6 weeks before the race – surely it shouldn’t be fraying already – Well it is – What are you going to do about it? Luckily, being a man who prepares for the “known unknowns” I carry a spare gear cable and a Leatherman, so have all the kit/tools to replace the cable if needed. So:
Option 1 – Change the cable here under the powerful streetlamp
Benefits: Good visibility for repair-work
Risks: If I cock it up, it’s a 10mile walk back to previous Control, which is very busy
Difficulties: No stand to hang bike on here. It could take me 30min+ and its cold here
Option 2 – Push on (with minimal gentle gear changes) to next Control (27miles)
Benefits: Probably mechanic at next Control with bike stand and industrial lighting
Risks: If the cable snaps completely en-route, I’m stuck in the very hardest gear, or I can try to replace the cable on a grass verge holding my bike light in my mouth, for illumination
I go for Option 2, reckoning the risk of complete cable snapping is very low, although accepting the consequence of this risk is very high. Always happy to roll the dice, when the odds are stacked in my favour. These next 27 miles are tough, as I try to avoid changing gear too much, so end up pedalling a very low cadence at times, which starts to put a lot of strain on my knees and makes me realise the benefit of spinning up hills and just how often I change gear to maintain my constant power output and effectively flatten the hills. I get off the bike a couple more times through villages to examine the cable and am re-assured that more strands of the woven cable are not snapping. Maybe I’ll save time and not bother getting it changed at all, but I have lost the ability to use the top 2 and bottom 2 cogs on the rear sprocket as the cable is sticking too much, so as I hit Quedillac, Mr Sensible heads straight for the mechanic – very pleased that there is one here, and he is available.
Luckily the mechanic speaks excellent English – Unluckily he tells me this is a silly modern carbon “race-bike” with fancy internal cabling and I should be riding a more traditional bike which runs accessible external cables. He has failed to mend about 20 such bikes already today. “No worries”, I tell him, “the outer cables are a single piece that run the entire length and stick out of the frame at either end, so I can just push the cable through and it won’t get stuck in a 90 degree bend requiring complex stuff like bottom bracket removal”. I suggest just borrowing his bike stand and doing it myself, but he says if I am 100% sure the cable will go through easily, he will do it – but if he can’t get it through I shall be pretty stuffed. Fortunately, I’ve changed my own gear cables on this bike before, so I know it will go, and he cuts the old cable off, flicks it out, whilst I cross my fingers. Initially the cable seems to get stuck as it heads round into the downtube, but I just pull the outer cable from the back, and it slides on through. He tidies it up, tensions it correctly and I’m good to go, leaving him a nice tip, as the whole process took less than 15min and I’m back in the game feeling unstoppable.
Elated, I whizz onto Tinteniac Control, where it is even colder than the previous time, and time for more coke and jambon baguette – hang on let’s push the boat out this time “jambon & fromage baguette”. I look to see if there are any sugary snacks to buy like jelly babies, but I don’t really fancy the high-fat offerings, so I get an extra can of coke. There are still people sleeping in all sorts of odd positions, but I don’t really feel the need and I’m still on a high from getting the gear cable sorted. It’s a beautiful moonlit night, but I guess the clear skies have resulted in the temperature dropping down to 5deg, so I need to keep moving. There are lots of very small roads through wooded areas on this section, making the descents very dark and rather damp. I later found out it had rained around here (near Rennes) earlier, and I was pretty lucky to have just missed it.
Towards the end of the second night, at 05:45, I hit Fougeres Control, the halfway point on the return trip, so that is 570miles (900km) in the bag. The Controls are now pretty deserted and the officials stamping my card are really surprised that I am heading back, as some of the tail-enders have only just gone through. Sit down with couple more cans of coke and yet more jambon baguette and check my messages on the phone. Poor Sue keeps waking through the night checking the tracker, and Mike Richards is tracking from USA, sending me silly messages, reckoning that not many others will be awake at this point of the night. Its decision time, shall I have a few hours kip to re-vitalise my legs? No. Its only 190miles (300km) home, which is a good days ride normally, and it is almost dawn, so why not think of it as just that, time to start a nice day out on the bike, and I shouldn’t need to use any of the third night so I won’t need to re-charge my front light again. I have a second front light, they each last about one full night’s worth, and I like to keep at least one fully charged up just in case.
The third day has arrived, but after the cold night, the hollows are full of mist and chilly still. Jack had told me about hallucinations after sleep deprivation, but I had never done two nights on the trot without any sleep before, just riding on through. I kept thinking that I was seeing supporters up ahead cheering me on, but as I approached, they were just marker posts or similar by the side of the road. After a few episodes of this, I realised what was happening. It was actually just my eyes seeing shapes in the distance, and my brain being too lazy to focus fully, and process what was ahead, and so instead my brain just filled in the gaps with assumptions, because I had seen so many supporters all along the route out cheering on the roadside. This is exactly the same as when you read a sentence with all the vowels missing. You just look at the rough shape of the letters/words and your brain fills in the missing letters using pattern recognition and experience. It is a clever thing the human brain. Now I knew this was happening, every time I initially saw somebody ahead, I look more objectively and could see it was actually just a signpost combined with the branches beside it in the rough shape of a person.
These next section to Villaines was 56miles and fairly lumpy, so I mentally broke it down into halves and stopped by the side of the road to re-fuel and remove some of the overnight clothing. It was lovely to start to feel the sun warming the world and I was heading straight towards it, so surely that would make it warmer quicker than if I was heading West – marginal gains and all that. I approached the Control about 10:15 and there were plenty of real (not imaginary) enthusiastic supporters here, wanting a quick chat about the bike set up. I was the only rider here, as by now anybody heading out was way out of time, and safely on a train back to base. What shall I eat? Oh, go then jambon baguette and coke. Just as I was leaving, I see Ana and Carlos, who I had ridden with about 30hours ago, coming in. Its their turn to talk to the supporters.
I had now taken to buying extra coke at the Controls to keep in my back pocket to fuel me during my mid-section stops, and most of my biscuits had now gone, so there was storage space available. I was back in Gorilla T-shirt only, feeling free on the empty roads, but I was definitely slowing down now. My power had settled to about 25Watts below my targets, and felt comfortable like that, but a real struggle to push it much higher for any sustained hill, and the hills had definitely grown significantly compared to when I came the other way on Sunday evening – that is a sure sign of fatigue. I was very glad to have my easier gears with the 40-tooth cog to spin up the hills. There was only the occasional rider about now, and everybody was just doing their own effort. It felt really hard to try and go at anybody else’s pace, so somebody would overtake me, and I’d let them go, then 30min later, I’d see them again, and re-overtake them, but they couldn’t follow. So, I had pretty much been riding solo for the 16hours since about 21:00 yesterday
Mortagne Control by 14:00, and that meant it was only 76miles, which is just a good solid Sunday morning spin with the Gorillas left to go. You can do this now, and in a great time, providing you don’t make some silly error, so load up with Coke and crisps, and let’s get this show on the road. The hills are getting flatter again now, and the route is different to the way out, as we make a deviation North-East to the extra Control in Dreux. At my mid-section stop with coke, I wonder about a little lie down on the verge but decide the risk of not getting up for a couple of hours is too great, so push on. Every now and then I can feel a twinge high in my left Achilles, and low in my left glutes, but more worrying is the ache lateral in my right knee when I put too much power down at low cadence effort – “Hang on lads – I’ve got an idea – don’t put lots of power down at low cadence – Sorted”. There is fine balance between looking after yourself, listening to what your body is telling you, adapting appropriately, and becoming paranoid about minor aches when you just need to MTFU. It would just be such a shame to push too hard now and cause an irreversible injury preventing finishing, when I have come so far, so let’s just be safe.
“Clang, clang, clang” behind me – my empty coke can has fallen out of my back pocket – do I really have to stop, go back and pick it up? Would anybody notice? Of course, I return to retrieve it, bitching about the 30seconds that has cost, when around the corner I see Carlos and Ana approaching and calling out for me to hop of their wheels. Well the enthusiasm lifts me, and we are off. Its good to chat about our strategies through the event, and Ana is now really aiming to be the first girl home, with the help of the machine Carlos to draft behind. We ride the flatter roads into Dreux together, and I enjoy the easier feeling, though my power goes up a bit – just shows how psychological the whole thing is.
Just before the Dreux Control, Carlos peels off, and I realise he isn’t actually entered in the event with a number board, so he can’t go into the Control. He is riding purely as a pacesetter and windbreak for Ana, in a similar riding style to that which the Gorillas have done to get top spot finishes for Jo and Amy in Tour of Cambridge or Tour of the Peaks, although we always pay to enter the events as competitors. Fairly quick coke stop, but Ana is already on the bike leaving. I wonder if its worth catching them up again, as it was nice to benefit from Carlos’s work at the front, but he was riding pretty erratically after 735miles and it was mentally a lot harder trying to follow, brake, steer, than to ride my own pace. This road feels like a rubbish surface as I leave town, but the tarmac looks pristine – oops – that’s because I’ve punctured the back tyre. Decision made, don’t bother catching up the others. Right, only 25miles to go, loads of time, I could walk this if I needed to, so there is no need to get stressed about being unlucky. You are tired, you need to focus, replace the tube in a methodical manner, and do not do anything silly. I have a separate little bag inside my saddlepack with all the kit to repair just a single puncture, so its quick and easy to locate. I find a shard of glass in the tyre and it takes some effort to remove it all to be sure of no second puncture. No other sharp bits sticking through into the inside of the tyre – good, tyre back on, CO2 cannister, bosh, and we are back on the road after 10mins. Not the quickest, but a solid sensible effort getting it right first time despite fatigue. It’s amazing how your spirits feel like they rise higher after the brief low of the puncture and it’s a great feeling to be back on the road heading along the final section.
My quads are aching a lot from the slight increased effort with Carlos before Dreux (maybe it wasn’t psychological after all), my bum is feeling tender to sit on the saddle, and the soles of my feet feel tender/numb when I stand on the pedals over bumps. This means every riding position has its drawback, but I pretend I am leading a group down the road, so I need to keep the effort up and not let the power drop. I can hear the inner chimp (or Gorilla) in my head saying, “but you don’t usually spend much time leading the group, you lazy wheel-sucker”, and my reply, “Well today is different – today is my day”. I use my final gel as a boost with 15miles to go, and then it’s a lovely sunny finish into Rambouillet and the Chateau grounds, one final hill, thank you, round the cobbles, into the courtyard and underneath the finishing arch at 19:30.
Huge cheers from the 20ish supporters at the finish. It turns out Ana had finished 11 mins before me, so that was pretty much the time it had taken to mend my puncture, but also there were now no others at the finish line, so the Frenchmen were all taking photos of me and wanting to know everything about my bike, its set up, how I had managed to get the large mountain bike gears to work on the road bike, what my strategy had been during the race etc. Somebody handed me a cup of water and I thought maybe a beer would have been more appropriate. My phone was pinging in my pocket, and it was off to get my Brevet Card stamped for the final time to validate the ride and eat some normal food.
I have a quick chat to Sue on the phone, and then sit in the finishing marquee contemplating the enormity of the event. Looks like I was the first Brit over the line, with the fastest time of those competing under the Union Jack, and overall the 46th rider to finish from 6399 starters, so easily in the top 1% though even 12 hours later, fewer than 300 had finished. This was my A-race of 2019, and I had not only completed the 760mile (1200km) challenge safely, but also smashed my target time by hours to finish in 51hr 29mins, with a combination of good fortune, no sleep, minimal rests, and a racing peloton to drag me along early doors, but pretty much solo riding for most of the return leg.
That is an utterly mad event, ridden by nutters, assisted by the most generous group of volunteers, and supported by thousands of passionate French people in their pretty villages along the way. Long may it continue.
- Calories burned: 22,000
- Calories eaten: 13,000 (including ~22 cans of coke)
- Riding Time: 45hr 40min
- Stoppage Time: 5hr 50min
- Total Elapsed Time: 51hr 30min
- Distance: 760miles (1200km)
- Average Riding Speed: 16.7mph
- Total Elevation: 38,000 feet
- Average Heart Rate: 130 – as predicted
- Average Power: 134 Watts (~20 below target)
- Normalised Power: 162 Watts (~10 below target) – 62%FTP
The lower power was certainly due to fatigue, but more than compensated for by the time saved avoiding sleep and only spending minimal time resting. If I had rested more, I don’t think I could have increased my riding speed enough to get that time back, so it was better to ride at slightly reduced power.
The power and heart rate over time graph (above) shows quite nicely the initial over-powering and resultant high heart rate, followed by a steadying for the majority of the ride. They stay “aerobically coupled” with the heart rate plateauing around 130, then down to 120. The power tails off again towards the end, but I was able to push it back up a little in the final 3 hours, once I was confident of finishing.
For interest, my pre-race plans are on this link: PBP Race Plans
And the Electronic results: