Paris Brest Paris (PBP) is a famous long distance race and ride that has been held every four years or so since 1981. To complete the event, cyclists must ride 1230 km from Paris to Brest and back within a 90 hour time limit. Along the route, riders stop at checkpoints called controls in order to prove they are completing the entire course. To be allowed to enter, each rider must complete a full series of qualifying rides of 200, 300, 400, and 600km within the same calender year. Clubs all over the world host the qualifiers, so there is a wonderful international community of cyclists who participate in these long distance rides. To learn more, see information at www.rusa.org and http://www.paris-brest-paris.org.
It took two years to train for this event, ten years if I count the progression from 100km rides to 100 mile charity rides, then bike touring, then some local ITT formmat bikepacking events. In 2014, I completed a full series and a 1000k event. We completed the 1000k in Florida in a fast time, finishing hours before the cutoff and with 4 – 6 hours of sleep each night. This test passed, I felt confident to increase the challenge and give PBP a try. In 2015, I finished the full series in April, and was dividing my time between training, work, and an Udacity online nanodegree in front end web development that consumed 10 – 20 hours a week of studying/coding. May through June I did regular workouts at the local gym, Hard Exercise Works in Jupiter. I added in some time on the trainer and some 20 mile rides before work. Always, I do long rides on the weekend — once a month to maintain, 3-7 times a month when I am preparing for a big event.
June 22nd, I finished the online degree program, and had more time to train. I started riding longer rides before work and pushing towards 300 – 400 mile weeks. Paul and I also took a week off in July and drove to Michigan to see his family, stopping to ride each day on the way out and back. I mangaged a couple more 300+ mile weeks after the trip, but then developed sciatic pain, probably from overtraining. I quickly reduced the miles and added in some swimming and time on an ellipical trainer. I also did less weight training in the month before the event to clear the time for cycling and to avoid any possiblility of injury. I do think the workouts at HEW have really increased my ability, and plan to use their program to maintain fitness for training for the next event.
Specialized Roubaix Carbon Road Bike
- new Conti 4000 25 mm tires(very happy with this choice)
- Terry FLX saddle
- no fenders
- compact double chainring, 11-28 ( i think) cassette
- newish brake pads
- newish drive train and shifter cables
- short sleeved jersey
- bike shorts
- leg warmers
- buff(must have)
- sports bra
- wool socks
- shimano road cleats, bike shoes
- Plastic purse with neck strap containing Brevet card, money, id, hotel and drop bag vouchers
(wore this at all times, would not be good in very hot weather)
Small front handlebar bag
- Long sleeved mid-weight jersey, zip front – very good to have
- mylar emergency blanket (could have used it, but gave away)
- dry shorts in a ziploc bag (not needed, but would have in hot or rain conditions)
- long sleeved basee layer shirt (not needed, and inconvenient to take off/put on)
Two Relavate Feed Bags
- Toiletries/First Aid
- Spare AA Batteries
- various items needed close at hand
- gummy candies
- Clif Bars
- bagettes with ham and cheese
- Stick of sunblock
Relevate Gas Tank
- nuts, dried fruit, more gummy candy
- AA batteries
- reflective vest
- reflective ankle bands
- 2 spare tubes
- patch kit
- duct tape, zip ties
- reading glasses
- personal headlight with headband
- 1 spare tire
- multitool, tire lever
- chain link
- 2 CO2 cartridges
- chain lube
- spare AAA batteries, spare taillight
- Spot Tracker
Attached to the Bike
- Son 28 Dynamo Hub – powers headlight and USB charger
- Luxos U Light with USB outlet
- Dynamo Powered taillight
- Garmin Dakota GPS
- Backup battery powered head and taillights, USB rechargeable
In my Back Pockets
- ziplock bag with wipes, chamois cream, tp, hand sanitizer
- lip balm
- paper towel
- phone – sometimes
- more food – sometimes
Things I Wished I Had but Didn’t
- larger handlebar and saddle bags. I lost time carefully folding and cramming stuff into small bags
- small colored LED helmet light to mark friends
- skinnier hill climbing body
Being a first time rider at PBP, I trusted all the travel arrangements to DesPeres Travel rather than take the time to research all the options. We flew Air France from Miami, stayed at L’Auberge du Manet just two miles from the start before and after the ride, and booked hotels along the route — the Hotel de France in Loudeac, and the Hotel du Tribunal in Mortagne au Perche. In my imagination, we would ride through the first night with just a few hours sleep, then sleep 4-5 hours each day in these nice hotels. We had drop bags delivered to Loudeac and Villaines to provide fresh clothes and ride food. The drop bags were delivered as promised, though the inital pickup time was an inconvenience as it conflicted with some group photos at and near the Velodrome the day before the ride. We never used the second drop bags, but would have been glad to have them in the case of rain. The hotels were very nice. We especially enjoyed the included breakfast at Auberge du Manet. The airport shuttles organized by Claus Clausen were not much less expensive than a shared taxi and were at terrible times. We waited some hours at the airport before leaving to the hotel, and then the morning we left, we had to catch the shuttle at 5 AM for our 2 PM flight.
Our flights were not the cheapest, but I had misunderstood the airlines’ rates for carrying a bicycle and thought that the more expensive Air France ticket would be the same as a cheaper Delta ticket when luggage charges were added. I still haven’t reconciled advertised rates with what I was charged. Next time, I will just pick whichever carrier has the cheapest ticket and be ready to pay whatever extra a bike costs that day. There was also some confusion and difficulty making the reservations via an agent. I feel it would be faster, cheaper, and more accurate to make reservations online.
Paul, Chris, and I all traveled together and arrived in France a few days before the event. Chris did not bring a bike, as an injury prevented her from preparing for the ride this time. Paul and I assembled our bikes without incident and stored them away in a room provided by the hotel for all the cyclists. I enjoyed meeting other US riders at the hotel. We visited Paris and Versailles, really enjoying the beautiful city. I walked more than I should have. I had sore ankles and shins. We rode our bikes to the stadium for packet pickup the day before the ride, but did no other riding. I think that maybe planning some easy morning rides after arrival might have been better. A little spin each morning would have settled our nerves and given me a chance to adjust the shifting that had been a bit off since the bike reassembly.
Our hotel was convenient to the ride start, but far from the airport or the parts of Paris that remain open in August, the traditional French holiday season. I think that next time, I will try to get a hotel near Versailles, so that I can do some sightseeing without so much walking to the bus, to the train, to the Metro etc. I’m told there is a nice bike route from Versailles to the area of the Velodrome.
The French are wonderful hosts. Cycling is a popular sport there, and not only were there hundreds of volunteers helping the ride, but all the locals have little get-togethers and cheer along the route. In many places, families were passing out coffee and cake, asking nothing in return. Everyone was kind and helpful, which really makes this a special experience. I can see why riders return every four years to repeat the event.
The controls were set up in schools and typically had good food choices available for purchase, a place to sleep, toilets, and sometimes showers as well. Cards were marked quickly, but there was often a line for food and toilets. The official sleeping places charged a fee and included a blanket and a bed or foam mattress. As far as I can tell, vagrancy laws are suspended for the duration of PBP. There were people sleeping everywhere.
August is a holiday month, so while the beaches are hectic, the country roads we rode had minimal traffic. Some roads were a wavy, bumpy chipseal surface. There was very little flat ground. We were up and down hills all the route.
I chose a 17:45 start time, which was one of the earlier waves. I thought it would be less work to be passed rather than pass people as I wander along at an average sort of speed. I also hoped to arrive at controls before they developed long lines for food or waiting lists for sleeping space. We arrived much earlier than needed at the stadium. We had signed up for a lunch that was advertised to run from noon until six or so. I have noticed that the 24/7 always available, always open American culture is not shared by the French. I predicted with perfect accuracy that they would run out of food at 3:00 PM. We arrived at 2:55 and had a nice meal, though we did have to hustle to get some water and some dessert, as these items were being consumed a little faster than the caterer could manage to replenish the food line.
Paul and I watched the 80 hour groups start, then found our way to the staging area for our group. We both felt nervous and excited. I had loaded up my bike with snacks of dried fruit and a bag of these funny little crumpet-like breads that I purchased at a French grocery store. I snacked while we waited to keep my calories topped up for the ride.
Finally, we started. It felt great to be riding instead of worrying about riding. A short way into the ride we found ourselves on a country road between two long rows of trees though a field, and I then felt immersed in the French countryside. Up to that moment, the trip had been all city and suburbs. I was well rested after reducing my training mileage for the previous two weeks and felt great — ready to cover some miles.
We had heard that the lines at the first aid station can be quite long, so we agreed to carry enough food to ride to the first control at 220 km. Just like when we had raced the CFiTT mountain bike ITT, we would be all business for the first nine to ten hours of the ride. In CFiTT, the goal was to get to a river before the ferry shut down for the night. In this ride, the idea was to get to Villaines a little ahead of the clock so that we can sleep a little around 4-5 AM.
The first half of our ride did not happen as planned. By the time we got to Brest we had no time to spare and a big sleep deficit.
Leaving Brest, I found a nice pace that I want to remember for future rides. I kept my heart rate between 120 and 130 while climbing or going less than 18 mph. We made good time without getting out of breath. On long downhills, we could stop pedaling after reaching 18mph, so we got our rest without sacrificing forward progress. I am really struggling with sleep deprivation now and have begun taking 20 – 30 minute naps at each control.
After Carhaix, we find that Paul’s Luxos U light, powered by a Son 28 Dynamo hub, has stopped working. It blinks instead of having a solid light and will not turn off. We lose more time looking at it, but are unable to repair it. I believe the unit needs to be replaced as it is new and should be under warranty. I expect some bit of circuitry is malfunctioning.
Again, we arrive at our nice hotel in Lodeac at 11:42PM with just time for a short sleep. All this is a bit hazy, so I am using my GPS track and google maps to recreate the experience. Paul looked at his broken light again and the bottom of his shoe broke while he was bending down to look at the problem. No one wanted to go to the vendor tent at the control in search of new shoes. Paul decided to ride with the broken shoe. After our showers and quick sleep, we coffee up and hit the road. The Hotel de France in Lodeac was great. They had a room downstairs for the bikes and were just a block away from the control. They served breakfast and coffee all night.
We got an early start at 2:15AM, but I was a disaster. The sleep monster was on me. I was freezing on each descent, but would sweat on the climbs if I added any more layers. I was deliriously tired. As in all the ride, we could see a long line of red bike tail lights ahead, but now I was unable to tell if they were going downhill or uphill. I had to wait until I was warm or cold until I knew which direction we were going. I was rambling on and on to Paul in an attempt to keep myself awake. It was too cold to stop and nap, but I was really too sleepy to make good progress. Paul was very patient with me and helped me remember to keep some power to my pedaling when my mind drifted off. Now Paul is the stronger rider and is held back waiting for me to pull myself together.
In a cold little valley we came across a man standing in the middle of the road. He was dressed for cycling, but we did not see his bike. He was actually standing in traffic and seemed disoriented. I asked in my miserable French if he needed a doctor. No. Another English-speaking cyclist stopped. His French was better and he understood the rider to be abandoning, and that he had a friend who would be passing this way tomorrow. We never did figure out why he was standing in the middle of the road. As we spoke, he had his arms pressed against his chest as if cold, so I gave him a Mylar emergency blanket I had been carrying. In the spirit of typical American aid, not knowing what the man needed, I gave him what I had. He seemed touched and said thank you several times, so maybe I helped a little. I thought that once all the English speakers moved on, maybe French riders seeing him alone would stop and maybe do a better job of helping.
I was so tired that everything seemed like a dream. I was struggling very badly to stay coherent. We rolled into a little village where it was a bit warmer. I saw several people asleep in and around a bank lobby and pulled over to join them. I did not ask Paul’s opinion. I did not set an alarm. At that point I did not care about anything other than getting some desperately needed sleep. I later looked up the details using my GPS track and see I was at N48 11.336, W2 11.488 for 15 minutes at about 4:30 AM. Paul waited for me. I am sure he was worried about my condition. I felt bad that I was slowing us down, but just did not have the ability to stay awake.
I and several other riders slept in and around this bank ATM lobby at N48 11.336, W2 11.488 for 15 minutes at about 4:30 AM
I see from the GPS data that we were in the control in Tinteniac at N48 19.937, W1 49.524 from 6:17 to 7:28 AM. I think this is where we rented another sleeping space for a half hour, but it was a disaster. It was in a building with tiled floors and concrete walls where all sounds were echoed and amplified. A man sharing the room woke up and started talking full volume to his partner. I suppose he had no idea of where he was or how many people he was waking up. I left and purchased our coffee and some sandwiches that we could eat on the road. Paul was so deeply asleep that he never heard a thing.
We gave up on using our last hotel in Mortage-au-Perche. Changing and showering was using up too much time. We also gave up the hot food lines at some of the controls in favor of these nice baguettes with ham, butter, and cheese that we could eat while we rode. I was eating gummy candy all through the ride as well. I shared these with Paul, and then we looked for a store to resupply. We recognized the name of a French grocery store on a building and pulled over. It turned out to be a giant shopping mall with a grocery store inside it. We don’t have this type of configuration in the US, so it was really a surprise. Imagine a Macy’s at the local mall has been replaced with a WalMart Superstore, but with organic farm fresh food. We lost time here. I had to walk in the mall to the store, then search the store to find the sugary bike fuel gummy candy. Candy is on aisle 37 or something like that, rather than near the door as in US stores. I also bought some fruit, but got stuck at the register because I was supposed to weigh the fruit and add a label myself. A very kind Frenchwoman who was in line in front of me took care of this for me.
Villains-la-Juhel put on a huge welcome for the riders. As we approached the control, there were crowds lining the road, shouting encouragement. There was a festival atmosphere that made me feel really proud of what we had accomplished so far.
Out in the countryside, I lost track of Paul again in the dark. He texted to say he stopped to take a picture and saw me pass. In the dark, I did not know it was him and kept going.
I stopped in Mamers, N48 21.029, E0 22.190 at about 10:40 PM where the local cycling club was giving away potage (soup) and cake. There was a real party town feel to the venue even though it was late on a weeknight in this small town. Paul and I met up again in the next control — N48 31.278, E 32.442 12:27am – 01:35AM in Montagne-au-Perche. We ate, then used the half hour it would have taken to get in and out of our hotel to sleep on the floor of the cafeteria.
We got separated again. Paul texted me to say he was waiting ahead of me by the road. I had just passed 10 different men by the side of the road. It is dark, all 6000 or so riders are wearing identical reflective vests. Any of them might have been him. I had pulled over to read the SMS, and once stopped, felt really tired. I lay down for the most acoustically perfect nap ever. I was in a town a park bench at the base of a hill. I could hear whirring hubs of an unending stream of cyclist pouring down the hill in front of me. Behind me was a little stream gurgling and babbling in a little concrete channel right through the middle of town.
2:46AM to 3:02AM at N48 31.756, E0 45.105 in Longny-au-Perche, I slept on this bench listening to a stream gurgle and hubs ratcheting as a river of cyclists rolled down the hill
I never meant to finish so close to the cutoff. We had so many little delays which led to sleep deprivation issues. At Dreaux, I grabbed a coffee and a couple of incredibly good, fresh from the oven croissants, then got back on the bike. Outside the control I was on a nice flat road, but it felt like I was pedaling through molasses. I could hardly move. It was raining too hard to stop comfortably, but my forward progress was minimal. I saw other riders stopping at bus shelters to get out of the rain, but knowing I was set to finish just an hour a so before my 90 hour time limit, I didn’t feel I had time for anything other than to ride, sleep, or eat.
At many times over the 3 days I had some dark moments on the ride where I thought of quitting. Sometimes it was people not even on the course that kept me going. Family and friends were watching the progress of my spot tracker online. I knew that a successful finish would make everyone happy, while everyone would share my sadness in the event of a failure. My friend Chris had told me that I was riding for both of us, because she knew that if I could finish the ride, she would have been able to finish as well. When I thought of quitting I remembered all who were watching and pushed ahead.
I kept slowly slogging along until the rain stopped or at least let up a little. I saw another rider asleep in a gravel/rock drive and pulled over at a second drive/farm road 20 yards ahead of him. This was one of many times I fell asleep on route. Each of these times I was simply too tired to go on, falling asleep on the bike, and not caring enough to set an alarm. All the previous times, I slept for just 15 minutes or so and was a little refreshed afterwards.
I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but my GPS data tells me I slept soundly for 50 minutes on the gravel and rocks at the side of the road. I checked my time and mileage when I woke and saw that instead of having an extra hour, I would only make it by 10 minutes or so. I began riding quick and carefully. I kept my heart rate up, but avoided letting it get too high. I ate at least every 15 minutes to stay fueled, as usually my reserves are gone this far into a long ride.
N48 43.445 E1 25.918 — I slept here in the gravel for 50 minutes
I came to a hill that was so steep, some riders were walking. The whole route had been all hills all the time. I had trained for hills as best I could in flat South Florida, but was pleasantly surprised that I didn’t run out of climbing strength after 300 or 400 km as I have in the past. I struggled to the top of the hill, becoming increasingly anxious about time. Locals had come out in the rain to cheer us on. I cried a little, I was so touched by the support and relieved to be at the top.
My GPS mileage said the stadium should be soon, but the course made turn after turn with no finish line in sight. I was running out of time. My GPS mileage does not match the cue sheet mileage, and the offset had increased again in the last part of the ride. There were traffic lights. There were turns, more turns, endless turns, hills, a bike path. I find myself going 19 mph on the bike path. I can barely hold 19 mph fresh. What is happening? I don’t know who I am anymore. I feel like my body is made of electricity. I was a plodder, now I am crushing hills and flying around turns without getting tired. I have never ridden like this before.
I see the stadium and fly along the entrance path. There are tight turns and it takes all my concentration to maintain speed. Folks are cheering. They like the show. I wonder if they see my frame number H210 and understand that I only have 9 minutes left? I keep going and look for the sign to the control. At all the previous controls, there is a group of tables near the bike parking. Here there is just more caution tape marking a path to the back of the stadium. Nooooo…there are the bikes and then a huge line. I only have 2 minutes. I throw down the bike and run, sliding around on the ramp in my cleats, looking for the control, apologizing for jumping the line, explaining in French and English that I have just two minutes. A man explains I have already ridden over the sensor for the timing chip. I am done. I made the cutoff somewhere in that path to the stadium. I cry for about the fourth time now. I made it! I turn in my card and see it marked with a sub 90 hour time. As I walk out of the stadium I still feel I am made of electricity and believe that I have experienced a transformation into some one better and stronger that I was before. Or, maybe that feeling is just that my hands and feet were a little numb from the long ride?