Paris-Brest-Paris 2011

The story of 100 cols had ended, but there was just three days to the beginning of another exciting story:  the legendary Paris-Brest-Paris, the 1200 km brevet (or randonnée) to be completed under 90 hours.

When I came to Guyancourt (the starting point of the brevet) there was a tangible vibrant cycling atmosphere. There was a positive fluid in the air and the optimistic excitement about the ride was contagious. The cyclists had occupied the city. They came  from Europe, China, Japan, Australia, USA, India, Brazil, from everywhere, it was a big international event, adding to its grandeur. It was easy to understand now what had puzzled me before: how could someone return every four years and ride PBP for the second, third, tenth time?

Me, waiting for the start at PBP. Note my cycling footware for the PBP: the crocs.

A part of the Slovenian contingent for PBP under the Eiffel Tower.

Just before the start of the last group for 90 hours PBP.

The time for my start was scheduled at 18:00. However, the Slovenian group I was with, was reluctant to leave the good picnic space that we occupied in the hotel's courtyard until the very last minute, so we came late at the start and consequently we started in the last group of the 90-hours randonnée, at 20:00. The weather was ideal though. The afternoon heat finished during our 2 hour wait for the start and the evening was warm and cloudless at it remained so all through the night. My plan was to ride my own randonnée, according to my own rhythm, and not to be a part of any group, except of those that spontaneously form and dissolve along the route. It meant riding a lot of time without the benefit of drafting and support but also free of  constraints and compromises that riding within a pre-defined group poses. It was a very good choice.

First night was warm. No need for a wind jacket.
My 4000 km "preparation ride" over 100 cols turned out to be quite  good training for PBP. Just like the 100 cols itinerary the PBP is a collection of the biggest number of ups and downs that you can squeeze in a definite distance. The climbs are generally not very long, nor steep, but there is an endless procession of them. Yet, the first 20 hours were a pure joy to cycle. The 100 cols have shed off 5 kg of my body weight and provided me with the biggest quadriceps I'll ever have - a perfect configuration for hill climbing - and so in the first night I went flying over the climbs in the big ring, not even noticing them in the dark. You didn't need the road book nor the directional arrows along the road - you just had to follow the red river of riders' rear lights that extended kilometers ahead, ending at the horizon. I was overwhelmed with this fantastic fast group ride, I constantly thought how privileged I am to be a part of this exceptional event. However, there was a price to pay. I became too competitive, and was putting too much effort not to be overtaken by anybody on the climbs. Partly it was also a consequence of malfunctioning of the front derailleur: it had a tendency to throw the chain over the big ring, so to avoid it, I tried not to shift and stayed practically the whole night in the big ring, grinding my way uphill standing on the pedals. Progressively my shins started to hurt.

Bike park at a control point.

The first night was relatively warm, the next day was changeable, but mostly overcast, with a little drizzle at times, overall almost ideal conditions. The second day at 19:50 I made it to Carhaix, the last control point before Brest, completing 533 km -  which is now officially my 24 h record - and since it started raining at that moment, I decided it's a good time to take a rest. I chose to be waken at 02:00, but out of 6 hours I didn't sleep more then 3 or 4. At 02:00 the rain had already stopped, but there was a thick mist all the way to Brest, and the lights of the cyclists that were already returning from Brest were at times so blinding that I didn't see the road at all. The next morning and the day on the return trip was mostly rainy, and even when it did not rain the spray from the road ensured that I remained wet. The pain in the shins that subdued somewhat after the 6 hours rest and stayed under control during the day, was getting stronger towards the evening. At the end of the day I didn't fell sleepy, so after coming to Fougères at 23:01, I decided to carry on through the night. Just as I left the town, my left knee started to hurt. I thought it would pass, but the pain remained and slowed me down. I also underestimated my need for sleep. Very soon I had to fight hard to keep my eyes open and there were more and more frequent moments of black-outs. After I caught myself just at the point of going over the edge of the road, I knew it's time to rest. At around 02:20 I laid down in the grass of the park in some small village and my brain immediately switched to unconscious mode. I was waken by cold. I took a look at the watch: I slept 28 minutes.

Dead asleep at Villanes-La-Juhel control point.
That was enough to clear the mind and I remained vigilant until the next control stop, Villanes-La-Juhel, at 05:56. There I took an hour and a half of break, sleeping on the floor in the cantina. I hoped that the pain in the legs would reduce, but the next morning it was quick to come back. At the beginning of the last 250 km I even though there was a possibility to quit if my legs would totally fall apart. But after I made 80 km with hurting knee and shins, I knew I could make another 80 and another 80 and the last bit to the finish, just if I am patient enough. The last 12 hours and 200 km were a slow slog, grinding the teeth over now visibly swollen knee and watching everybody overtaking me as I struggled toward the end. I took the fourth quick sleep of half an hour by the side of the road to regain full consciousness. The people by the road were cheering me as ever, encouraging me and making it look like I am a hero, although in this last stage I felt more like an ugly duckling. At least it didn't rain the last day, it was a fine weather all the way to the finish line where I came at 20:00, making the Paris-Brest-Paris in exactly 3 days (72:00 hours).

My bike parked at the finish of PBP.

Third day, on the way back from Brest.
Overall, my PBP was an exceptional experience. By some strange coincidence the PBP route, with its innumerable little climbs and descents, was a mirror image of the 100 cols tour, the tour that I've completed just few days before and that I loved so much. Both beautiful stories complement each other and make this year a fantastic cycling part in my life that will be hard to repeat.

How to survive PBP (and even enjoy it)
Here are some thoughts and tips about riding PBP, based on my experiences.
  • First, completing PBP is not difficult, let alone impossible.
  • The key point is the motivation. You have to be clear why you want to do it. I must admit that I had many doubts when riding the qualification brevets, especially the shorter ones (200, 300 and 400 km). When my back started to hurt or my arse was in blisters and I couldn't find a comfortable spot on the seat, I started to ask myself about the point of doing all that. On PBP however, I never had a moment of doubt, even if riding was not always easy. Completing PBP is a major achievement in any cyclist's life and that should be good enough motivation. I found it much  harder to motivate myself for the shorter, qualifying brevets.
  • Choosing the bicycle is essential, of course. Start with the bicycle that you are comfortable with and do all the qualifying brevets with it. Make adjustments if need be. It is of course a bad idea to ride PBP with totally different bike.
  • Equipment. Skin ointment for your back side. Good front light. A head torch is useful when following directional arrows, looking at computer, fixing something, ect. You don't need much clothes. Apart from shorts and jersey that you are wearing, you only need reflective jacket, rain shell and possibly a warm base layer (merino should be good). I also had a second pair of shorts, which I didn't use, but they might save the ride if you have problems with blisters on your back side (some advise to wear two pair of shorts in that case). Mudguards are usefull to keep your bottom and feet dry. Wrap your feet in cling foil during the rain. You don't need any camping equipment (tent, sleeping bag, pad, ...). As you may expect, I recommend to go ultralight.
  • There's no need for support crew on PBP. All the control points have all the facilities that you need: water, food, toilets, places to sleep, medical assistance, bicycle mechanical repairs. You will only loose time if, after stoping to stamp your brevet card at the control point, you stop again at your support place.
  • Ride the brevet at your own pace. It is a very bad thing to try to follow the quicker riders, and then get exhausted prematurely. You'll have plenty of opportunities to catch up with the group of your pace, and even more opportunities to be on the lead.
  • I don't recommend to ride PBP as a part of the group, unless it's the group you know very well and the group rules are well defined and clear from the start. For example: what will the group do if one of the members has a major breakdown or becomes ill?  In a group, there is always a degree of competition. PBP is not a race and if you are not prepared for the competition, riding in a competitive group may ruin you. In a group there will always be compromises, discussions, decisions that may not suit you. The benefit of drafting in a group is, in my opinion, much exaggerated. In general, a group is always as quick as the slowest member. If not, it falls appart. I've seen a couple of groups fall apart, and some friendships end. 
  • Don't plan ahead where or when you will stop or sleep. You will know when you are too tired to continue. At that point take a short sleep. If you can carry on till the next control point, so much better, but just a crash in the grass by the road for half an hour can make miracles. You only need one hour of sleep to regain full consciousness.
  • Food and water. No problems either. Everything can be bought at the control points and in boulangeries, epiceries or small markets along the route. No need to carry any more than what fits in one jersey's pocket.
  • Take breaks. At the end of the ride, when my shins hurt so much that I could barely walk, I was cursing the long walking distances at the control points between the bike park, stamping point, restaurant and toilets.  But now, I think this was made deliberately, to allow the riders to take an active break off the cycling routine. Standing on pedals at regular intervals is also good for your back side.
  • Train before PBP. Come to the PBP in the best cycling shape - it will be much easier and enjoyable to complete it. You don't have to train for large distances. Just train for overall strength.
  • Last, but not least: enjoy. Don't make a self-torture out of PBP by trying to break yours or someone else's record. PBP is very well organized, there's a huge international army of similarly minded cycling people and the support of the residents is so encouraging that you've got all the ingredients to make it an enjoyable experience.