Paris-Brest-Paris 2019, a Ride Report by John Cumming

John Cumming

My Paris Brest Paris 2019 Adventure …

Here are a few random thoughts and recollections from my PBP.  While there were over 6,000 participants from across the globe in this event, the experience is unique for each rider (because of different start times, ride approaches, and equipment).  I should also point out that my recollections are strongly affected by randonnesia, a condition that affects randonneurs doing long brevets with very little sleep. 

Before the ride …

                  I flew to Paris with fellow randonneur Carey, arriving on the Wednesday morning (My start time for PBP was 17:30 Sunday evening).  This gave me several days to get adjusted to the time zone change, get my bike assembled and gear organized, and to “test” my bike in the surrounding countryside.

                  I was privileged to share a VRBO rental with a fine group of Ontario Randonneurs,   in the small town of Les Essarts-le-Roi (about 13 km from the PBP Start location in Rambouillet).  The VRBO had been arranged by Dick Felton, a PBP ancien.   Dick’s PBP knowledge, enthusiasm, and encouragement were key to the success of several randonneurs over the coming days.

PBP HQ in Les-Essarts-le-Roi: Carey, Darcy, me, Matt and his wife Erin, Tim and Brenda
Bicycle assembly

     From Wednesday evening through Saturday, I bicycled over 150 km to explore Rambouillet, meet up with other Randonneurs arriving for PBP, and to try out local restaurants.

Getting Excited – Checking out the Start Location for PBP
Meeting up with Fellow Randonneurs (Dick F is on the left)

      Saturday (the day before the ride start) was taken up with the official bike inspections and pick-up of ride documents.  This was the only day of foul weather during my entire trip.  Carey and I pedalled into Rambouillet in pouring rain, and stood in long queues of drenched cyclists.  (Unfortunately we missed the scheduled Team Canada photo, because we were chasing down a possible bike rental for Matt, whose bicycle had been “lost” by Iceland Air!!).  While cycling back to Les-Essarts-le-Roi, Carey’s bike “slid out from under him” on a very “greasy” downhill, and he landed hard on his side.  Of course, he was more concerned with the state of his bicycle than his own health, and after a roadside repair in the pouring rain he was satisfied that he and his bike were fit for the PBP ride.

The Ride Itself …

     At 3:30 pm on ride day, I rode to PBP start location with Dick.  It was absolute chaos, with thousands of cyclists trying to figure out how the ride start was to occur.  I was in the “G” group, starting at 17:30.  The “F” group, starting 15 minutes ahead of us, was composed of all the “specialty” bicycles – tandems, recumbents, fat bikes, folding bikes, and velomobiles.  It was quite a spectacle as they paraded in front of us towards the starting arch.  (You can watch the departure of this group here)

Group “G” about to Start

                  I was pleased to run into Ben Schipper (from the Netherlands) and Matt Levy (from the US) who I had ridden with on last year’s Mac & Cheese 1200.  They were also starting in G group.  (I would cross paths with Ben several times during the ride)

After a few announcements (unintelligible even to French riders I expect), we departed the cobblestone entrance to Rambouillet castle and were on our way.  With pleasant evening temperatures and excellent roads, it was exciting to be finally riding in PBP.  I quickly caught up to many of the “oddball” cycles ahead of me, and was soon met by the waves of “fast” riders in groups H, I, J, etc.  As night fell, the long string of red lights in front of me (and white lights in my rear view mirror) was quite impressive.

                  My fellow Ontario riders (Carey, Dick, Matt, Darcy, Tim, and Brenda) were starting in groups 1 to 1.5 hours after mine.  While I had signed on with Carey, Darcy, and Tim & Brenda for a Support Camper Van (driven by Brenda’s daughter Hanna and her boyfriend Mathias), my earlier start limited my ability to make use of their great support (and the van bed and shower) at the controls. 

                  I’m told there were significant cross-winds on the first day of the ride, which impacted the ability of the fast riders to maintain peletons and apparently led to many early “DNF’s”.  I have absolutely no recollection of being bothered by the wind.

A few comments about my bike and gear…

Early in the ride, I realized my bike’s derailleur was not shifting down to the three lowest gears.  I could have taken a few minutes to diagnose the problem, or queued up to see a bike mechanic at one of the controls, but being constrained to the upper gears didn’t seem to bother me.  Although there are 12,000 metres of climbing in PBP, it is all very gradual (I don’t think I ever saw more than a 7% incline on my Garmin).  Climbing without the low gears felt good, and I think made me ride stronger throughout the whole course.  Aside from the derailleur problem, I had some very minor issues with brakes (squeaking brake pads) and headset (loosening and creaking).  But overall I was thrilled with how my y2k Litespeed held together, and delighted to have no flats.  I was amazed to see so many riders stopped along the route, repairing flats or other mechanical issues, especially in the first 200 km of the ride.

                  As is usual for me, my bike was heavily loaded (probably 5 kg or more above the average bike weight).  A base layer, rain gear, change of jersey & shorts, went completely unused.  Similarly an assortment of Clif Bars, Gels, and M&M’s just came along for the ride.  Two USB Power Packs went largely unused, with my dynamo charging hub handling lighting and Garmin-charging just fine.  My ride would have been easier (and faster) without so much baggage, but I’ll probably never learn to pack light!

Back to the ride …

                  I rode steadily through Sunday night and following day (stopping only at designated Controls and the occasional coffee stands set up by the locals). I arrived at the Loudeac control (445 km) about 9 pm Monday evening.  After a warm meal by the Camper Van, Tim & Brenda, Carey, and Darcy decided they would sleep until about 1 am.  I realized that if I joined them, I would be in jeopardy of not making the Carhaix control (76 km away) before the 5:15 am (for me) Closing time.  So I pushed on into the now-very-cold dark night.  On this stretch I was delighted to link up with Matt – he helped keep me awake, and my lighting helped him navigate some descents (The lighting he had purchased for the “loaner” bike he was riding was not great!).  Matt and I pulled into Carhaix at 2:30 am, and he wisely encouraged me to grab a few hours sleep.  With all of the “beds” at the control already filled, I pulled out my space blanket and “rando pillow” (i.e. inflatable plastic bag from 4L Box Wine) and lay down on the grass beside a few snoring randonneurs.  (My buddy Terry Payne will be delighted to know that I was able to fully experience the “true” nature of PBP!)

                  I awoke two hours later, drenched from condensation on the inside of my space blanket and with the definite feeling that I was getting a cold.  I was soon back on the bike, and heading for Brest 90 km away. 

                  I only took a few minutes to enjoy the beautiful bridge and seascape in Brest, before fuelling up at the Control and turning around to head back toward Paris.  The climb out of Brest was not as bad as I feared when descending into Brest, and it was interesting to observe the waves of cyclists now riding towards me (still on their way to Brest).  I was delighted to see Dick, riding his steady consistent pace, who gave his usual shout of encouragement.

                  Much of the rest of Tuesday was a “blur” – steady riding with occasional stops for coffee, cake, plums, and other goodies offered by the friendly villagers along the route.  (I found it hard to “fly by” people who were so enthusiastic and supportive – especially young kids looking for a “high five”).  I arrived back in Loudeac Control (783 km)  at 9 pm.  After getting my Card stamped, I located the Support van, had a warm plate of Chicken Shawarma served up by Hanna & Mathias, and crawled into the back for a couple of hours sleep (My van buddies were a couple of hours behind me, so I knew I’d be getting up and on the road when they rolled in for their shower & sleep). 

Support Camper Van — a welcome sight at a couple of controls

                  Back on the road after 2 hours sleep on a real mattress.  I think it was Tinteniac control where I again met up with Ben from the Netherlands.  He reported that his seat post had broken, and he was forced to ride standing up for 30 km to the next control!  He confessed that he was worried about our being able to finish in time, noting that there seemed to be very few “G” riders in our midst.  (I would learn later that a Florida randonneur acquaintance was forced to abandon because of a broken seat post.  The bicycle mechanic at the Control didn’t have a right-size replacement!)

With the sun coming up as I rode from Tinteniac towards Fougeres, I was amazed how good I felt physically.  My legs were not complaining, and my butt was perfectly comfortable in my Brooks leather saddle.  Although I didn’t “feel” tired, I knew my lack of sleep was messing with my consciousness.  I kept having the strangest feeling of “déjà vu”, wondering how it could be that everything was so familiar.  (Had I been fully rested, I would have realized that I was cycling the same roads I’d been on just 48 hours earlier, and of course they should look familiar!). 

The ride back into Villaines-la-Juhel (1012 km) was one of my most amazing experiences in PBP: after hours of steady climbs and descents under a hot August sun, I turned the corner to be greeted by hundreds of cheering villagers as I rode through the Control welcome arch.  The entire town was swept up in a festival celebrating PBP – musicians, displays, beer tents, and constant cheering as riders entered or departed the control (This video will give you a sense of the celebration, and how “special” you feel as a cyclist being involved in this).   I truly regretted that I could only enjoy this for a few minutes, before pushing on to finish the final 200 km.

Riding into the darkness after leaving Mortagne-au-Perche (1097 km), I was no longer trusting my navigating skills (even worrying that somehow I had missed a Secret Control).  I was only wearing one layer (plus my reflective vest) and the temperature was down into single digits – I didn’t dare stop and put on more clothing, for fear of losing sight of red lights ahead.  There seemed to be no discernable features or landmarks, and I felt like we were riding around in circles. 

Around 11 pm, I finally pulled over at a poorly lit intersection and got off the bike.  A randonneur from Bellingham Washington stopped and said that I looked a bit wobbly.  He gave me one of his Espresso energy Gels (which thankfully “kicked in” quickly), and reassured me that we were indeed on the right course for the final Control (even opening my Control Card, to show that only one stamp was missing before the finish).  Keeping his red rear light in my sights, I followed him through the pitch black into Dreux, arriving just after midnight.  Wolfing down the fine Control food fare (sausage or pasta – I can’t remember which) and a cold beer, I realized (for the first time really) that I now had plenty of time “in the bank” to successfully complete the ride.  I pulled out my space blanket and rando pillow, and fell asleep beside some rolled-up carpet in a corner of the noisy control building.  Strangely, my son Dave handed me a cup of hot coffee as I crawled under the space blanket (not my only encounter with people and objects not really there, during the ride!)

 I woke up (with the help of my smart phone alarm) shortly before dawn, and set off to ride the final 45 km back to Rambouillet.  (There had, by the way, been a last-minute change to the official route due to some road construction.  Although I had the revised route loaded on my Garmin, I wasn’t trusting it.  I would also find out later that friends back home, following my progress on my Spotwalla Page, were wondering if I was lost!)

Riding towards the Finish in Rambouillet

With a beautiful sunrise ahead of me, I rode the final kilometres into Rambouillet.  The end of the ride was rather anti-climactic.  Unlike Villaines-la-Juhel, there weren’t a lot of people around when I crossed the finish line at 7:41 am. But the “pings” of congratulatory texts from family members, thousands of kilometres away, who were staying up late to know that I had finished, was wonderfully rewarding.  Somewhat less rewarding was the morning meal offered to the returning cycling gods …

I bicycled 1200km for this??!!?

Knowing my Ontario buddies were a couple of hours from finishing, and craving a shower, I got back on my bike and rode the 15 km back to Les-Essarts-le-Roi.  Although I couldn’t recall a single bone in my body complaining during the PBP ride, my shoulder muscles tightened up severely during the short ride back to the VRBO. 

Looking like I need to sleep
My PBP Control Card

After the Ride …

                  Refreshed after a shower and a nap, I joined other Ontario Randonneurs for a celebratory dinner in St. Quentin en Yvelines (a much better meal than at the start of the day!)

Randonneurs Ontario, Post PBP Dinner

                  After one more relaxing night in Les-Essarts-le-Roi to celebrate fellow randonneur Tim’s birthday, Carey and I packed up our bikes, and relocated to a hotel in Cachan, just south of Paris.

Post-Script (and a few stats)

                  The day after flying back to Ontario, Carey texted to tell me that he’d gone to the hospital for an x-ray, and had in fact broken a rib on the day of the bike check!

                  Several members of our Ontario Group did not finish PBP.  Dick Felton, who has successfully completed several previous PBP’s (including 2015, where he finished the ride with several broken ribs and fingers after falling asleep on his bicycle in the last few hundred km’s!) realized his pace was too slow, and abandoned after the return to Carhaix (close to 700 km).  Tim encountered derailleur/shifter problems, and abandoned his second PBP attempt after Fougeres (923 km).  In spite of their disappointment, both Dick and Tim remained positive and supportive of their fellow riders, and immediately began talking about PBP 2023!  Darcy, Brenda, Matt & I were of course ecstatic (and I think somewhat humbled) to have been successful in our first PBP attempt, and Carey, completing his fifth PBP, declared it was “the best ever”. 

                  From unofficial results: of 107 Canadian riders, 25 DNF’d ( “Did Not Finish”), and 6 finished over time limit.  Although actual time is meaningless (i.e. doesn’t matter how much faster you finish as long as you finish in time) my time was 53rd out of the 76 successful Canadians.

                  I did take my GoPro on the ride, and have some “hand held” video that I will try to edit.  I will also receive the official DVD, that I will pass on to anyone who would like to watch.  On YouTube, you will find a number of videos posted by both successful and unsuccessful participants.  One of my favourites is from Adam Watkins, a rider from Bristol England, who rode PBP on a “Fixie”!  Adam started 45 minutes after me, and finished in 87.5 hours ( ~ 2.4 hours after me), so his ride (and the droll observations he makes in his YouTube video) were somewhat similar to my own.  An even more professional short video that really captures the event is this one by Ryan Hamilton.  And the Jan Heine blog article gives a great summary by several seasoned PBP anciens.   Another great ride report was posted by fellow Ontario Randonneur Martin Cooper

                  In conclusion, I’d like to thank everyone (especially my long-sufferring “better half” Jane), for all the support and encouragement along the way.  This truly was a once-in-a-lifetime “bucket list” item for me, and I’m sincerely grateful to have been able to experience it.  It really is not possible to describe the warm reception you receive as a PBP cyclist, nor to fully explain the unique personal challenge that is Paris-Brest-Paris!

Cheers,

John

Paris-Brest-Paris 2019, Ride Report by Charles Horslin

I’d first heard about PBP way back in 2011 or thereabouts, but didn’t complete my first brevet until 2015… I tried to do a whole series that year and thought if I could do that I’d try PBP then. I had to abandon my first 600K in 2015 due to poor fit causing leg issues. This probably turned out to be a good thing since I would go on to finish a 600K in 2016, and then I did the Ontario 1200K (The Granite Anvil). In 2018 I did the Ottawa Devil’s Week (kinda hilly!) and went on to try the Cascades 1200 in Washington State but I had to DNF as I thought I’d hurt my Achilles tendon.

In 2019 I started Devil’s week but chose to skip the 400K since it was similar to the 300K and had just as miserable weather. Then I DNF’d my first 600K due to some painful saddle sores that had started from riding in the rain and afterward I was thinking about abandoning my registration and skipping this whole thing… it turned out that it had been a bit of a rocky road to get to PBP 2019 but I managed to finish a different 600K. I decided to do an additional 600K and a 1000K brevet in early August before going to PBP. Thankfully the DNF earlier in the season probably helped build my resolve and strength. I felt confident in my training and had worked out all my issues with bike fit and saddle sores. I bought a nice pair of castelli rain pants to avoid riding with wet shorts… so naturally I didn’t get any rain on PBP.

I booked a direct flight on Air Transat and put my bike in a plastic bag since I didn’t have any place to store a bike box and I was thinking of riding right from the airport across Paris. When I landed it was overcast so I unpacked my bike and took a train into central France and rode the 35km to my hotel, passing the Louvre and the Eifel tower along the way. I also rode through Versailles and saw the palace but didn’t stop to see anything else. I was surprised at how hilly it was getting to my hotel in Montigny-le-Bretonneux. My hotel was a 20 minute walk from a huge grocery store in the town of Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, otherwise there was nothing else around. There were other cyclists staying there, including a fellow Ontario rider!

The start for PBP had been at the French National velodrome in Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines but they moved it farther out of the Paris Metro area to a place called Rambouillet which is the home of the national sheep farm. This town was also part of the Tour de France this year so they left all the bike decorations up for us! Thankfully this was the last town on the suburban trains coming from Paris so it was easy to get to. I remember people online saying the trains would be overflowing but there was plenty of room for everyone.

The bike check/registration happened on the Saturday before the ride start (three possible time choices: 90, 84 & 80h) The 90/80 hour groups all started on Sunday evening and 84h groups left on Monday morning. 84h bike check/reg was also on Sunday. Saturday was really rainy so I chose to take the train to the bike check instead of riding as I’d originally planned… I still ended up standing around in the rain for an hour or so as it chaotic despite having signed up for a bike check time. I missed the Canadian/Ontario riders photo so I just got my packet and left town after dropping off my bags for a drop bag service that would provide me clean clothes along the route instead of having to carry all my changes of clothes. I also threw a bunch of granola bars in the dropbags so I could have something besides baguettes to eat on the route. I had worried about finding enough vegan stuff to eat as French food is very meat-centric.

Unlike most brevets, this one doesn’t require the use of a GPS track or a cue sheet since the route is well signed in most places. I had the tracks loaded as I found them useful at night time to alert me to turns and to figure out how far the next control was. They were also useful for riding in the heavy fog we encountered during the first two nights as I could at least have an idea of which way the roads were turning, visibility was probably only 50m or so. I remember feeling really alone during the second night/third morning when the fog was thickest for me.

The weather on the ride was favourable, though I had been training in hotter weather so I found the cold a bit much, I had enough gear with me to be able to adapt to the range of 3-30C temperatures that we encountered. The fog that we rode through was really thick so it soaked every surface with water. There was a headwind on the way out to Brest, thankfully it was not a strong one but it was constant so it did grind me down a little more than I’d have liked. It was almost a perfect westerly wind so the route offered little relief from it. The weather on the return leg was even better without any real winds, rain, or fog on the last night it made for very pleasant riding.

Many people commented that it was a mistake to do a 1000K only two weeks before but I didn’t really notice any problems from it and it allowed me to completely test my bike setup as well as make sure the new cables and stuff all worked perfectly. I had no flats or any other bike troubles to speak of… I did have to turn the barrel adjusters on my front shifter a few times but otherwise it the bike was mechanically flawless. Every control also had a professional mechanic on duty 24h a day which is comforting to know. Tubes, tires and other stuff is for sale at the controls.

Nutrition along the route is available at the controls, which are typically in schools or other community centres. Each control is run by a local cycling club so the food varied a little bit but I could count on plain pasta, baguettes, coke, fruit, coffee, veggies, and sometimes other treats. Vegetarians would have an easier time since there is basically butter or eggs in every French baked good. They sold beer and wine at the controls as well yogourts and other things. Many times there were fruit cups or apple sauce. Some controls had veggie sauce but a lot of times it had meat in it or there was a heavy cream sauce. Others told me the sauces were a bit bland but I think that’s probably on purpose so folks don’t get too much tummy trouble from spices and whatnot. I worried too much about finding food and could have relied almost completely on baguettes but the granola bars I packed were a nice change of pace. Next time I go I’ll make a point of stopping at the grocery stores to get some vegan cheese since that’s a thing in France too.

The control points also have a gymnasium or other room full of cots or mats for sleeping. There is small fee charged for this service and they don’t provide ear plugs or anything. I hadn’t had good experiences trying to sleep in a similar setup in 2018 so I reserved an airbnb in Loudeac for two nights so I could have my own shower and bed. I didn’t get great sleep either night but it was nice to be clean and rest in the quiet for a few hours each night. I had figured if I needed more sleep on the third night I would be tired enough to sleep at a control and I did so in Mortagne-au-Perche where I got the best 90 minutes of sleep I had during the entire ride.

Many riders bring “space blankets” and just sleep on the side of the road but that doesn’t appeal to me… though I did stop and sleep on a nice wooden bench for 20 minutes a few hours after I left Loudeac on the return leg as I was feeling really tired and wasn’t making much progress. I saw many riders weaving and bobbing as they had long past the point of exhaustion… I didn’t want to crash or get too wobbly so it was time. The difference I felt after the 20 minute nap was remarkable and I was able to ride above a 20km/h after this where before I was struggling to keep a 15km/h going.

The countryside in Brittany is pretty hilly, though the grades are pretty gentle and the climbs tend to be long so it isn’t difficult climbing but I required discipline to keep the intensity in check. I also took advantage of my hefty stature to enjoy fast descents that usually followed every climb. At night one would reach the top of a climb and turn a corner only to see a long line of taillights slowly snaking up the next climb a few km away! The only real sections of flatter terrain were the ~100km close to the start/finish, especially the last leg from Dreux to Rambouillet seemed especially flat to me.

The diversity of riders on this ride cannot be compared to anything I’ve ever seen before… people from all over the world come to this ride and this year was the biggest field they’ve ever had. I had the pleasure of riding with people from many different countries and on all sorts of bikes. I saw fat bikes, tandems, recumbents, velo-mobiles, folding bikes and plenty of very sweet road bikes. There were fixed gear riders and folks on classic rigs from all time periods. Some people were riding the bikes on hybrids and carrying knap-sacks. I know people finished on all kinds of bikes so pretty much anything human-powered with a transmission can used for randonneuring. In 2015 there was one dude that finished PBP on a kickbike.

Most of the scenery on the ride was very pretty though it was a bit repetitive at times… every town seemed to have a church on a hilltop and some winding roads going to it. There were lots of beautiful roads though and unlike southern Ontario very few of them went in straight lines for very long. Fields of corn and bales of hay were common sights outside of the cities. My favourite part of the ride for scenery is between Carhaix and Brest, where there is climbing up to the Roc’h Trevezel, one of the higher points in Brittany. The climb wasn’t steep in places but it was fairly similar to climbing up Hockley Valley in Ontario; though it was a bit longer and climbed higher, the grades were never extreme. The views were more expansive than Ontario too; it wasn’t very humid so visibility was good.

My ride started at 18:45 and we got our stamps and were out of the gates going like bats out of hell. The excitement and adrenaline of the mass starts as well as the strong groups made it difficult not to ride a bit on the hard side during the first 100km as everyone bounced and jostled between the big groups. Things settled down after the sun went down and the first stop at Mortagne-au-Perche, 117km into the ride. This wasn’t an official control so one didn’t need to stop but I chose to stop and eat something since I was hungry and wasn’t going to make the next ~100km on granola bars alone. Cokes, pasta and some bread filled me up and there was some fruit salad and other goodies I ate here. I hadn’t expected to find any food or water before this point but did snag a baguette from some people selling pop and sandwiches in a village.

The first official control, at Villaines-la-Juhel was busy as many people were eating and sleeping. I didn’t know there was a separate cafeteria at this control so I ate at the quick-food line and had some baguettes, a bol de cafe and coca (Slang for coca-cola in France). I was kind of tired so I spent a bit more time than I’d have liked at this stop but given the 90h time limit I wasn’t worried about the control times at this point in the ride… next time I might try and build up a bigger cushion for sleeping now that I’ve done this once. This control also had enough rental toilets so there wasn’t a wait to use them.

The next control, at 306km, was Fougères and I had a drop bag at this stop. I needed to stop and get my change of clothes to carry with me to my airbnb in Loudeac. I had rode passed the drop bag stop and thus had to backtrack a few km to find it. I probably wasted an hour screwing around here and in hindsight it might have been better to just have one drop in Loudeac but I’d heard too many bad reviews about the American company that ran that service. Other countries seem to run their own drop-bag service but that requires a lot effort as well renting a truck and having a driver so I can’t see anyone doing it for the 50 Canadians that might use it.

Loudeac was at ~450km and I spent a lot longer getting there than I’d hoped but I made it to my airbnb by 9pm, and even had time before that to stop and get a vegan pizza at dominos. Across the street from the control was a brasserie that I walked into since I though the sign also said restaurant, but the bartender said they didn’t have food and he was the one that pointed me in the direction of the pizza. Another patron at the bar saw the Canadian flag and bought me a “demi” of 1664 and they chatted with me, asking about the ride and what I thought of France so far… the bartender complimented my French and the guy that bought my pint quipped that my French was better than his English and everyone got a good chuckle out of that. I had so many little encounters like this one along the way, speaking enough French to converse with people really helped me at controls and being able to chat with folks was such a boost to my spirits!

My interactions with the French people in the controls, at stores and along the route were definitely the highlights of the ride for me. I had planned to stop and enjoy the roadside offerings whenever I could and I ended up spending a lot of time chatting with people along the way. My French isn’t that great since I’ve been out of school for over 20 years but it started to come back and I could have basic conversations about where I was from and how much people’s support meant to me. I have some postcards to send now as some folks wouldn’t take money or donations and only asked for a postcard in return for the coffee and treats offered.

In Loudeac I slept, showered and went back to the control for more food for “breakfast” at 3am and ended up running into Dick Felton who started at the same time I did. He was cold and had been riding through the night… pretty sure he needed the breakfast as much if not more than me! We parted ways after that and unfortunately he would later abandon the ride… I’m sad he abandoned as he was a great encouragement for me to get to Paris as we did two 600K rides together… but I was also glad, in a way, he chose to abandon; in 2015 he fell asleep on the bike and broke some ribs… still finished the ride but was really lucky he didn’t have worse injuries!

The ride from Loudeac to Carhaix was probably the lowest point for my morale, the thick fog had appeared and I was soaked from condensation. My jacket was no longer water resistant in way whatsoever.  My average speed was dropping like a rock and I was starting to shiver as well… I thought about quitting here but there’s not really any place to go except the next control or the previous one… due to the sleep stop, extra time spent eating, and the slow pace leaving Loudeac I was worried about the next control’s closing time and decided the only way to get warm was to work harder. I started going much harder (but still relatively slow) up the hills and would pedal through the descents instead of just tucking and coasting as I had been. An hour or so of this I was starting to feel warmer. I had made up most of the lost time, though I was still a bit late coming into what turned out to be a secret control (it was listed as a food stop) so I got some quick food and used the can, and set off for Carhaix trying to make up more time. The twilight of dawn had started to appear and I was getting quite close to Carhaix so I would be okay for closing time but I didn’t let up the pace as it was still quite cold. I know Canadians are supposed to be used to the cold but I spent most of the summer anticipating a 35-40° heatwave and did a lot of riding in the heat. The lowest temperature I saw on this stretch was around 4C, much chillier than forecast on the French weather service, but they only gave temperatures for the larger towns so of course the countryside would be a bit cooler… the clear skies meant that cold air from higher altitudes just fell right to the ground at night and would only start rising again once the sun had been out for a while. As has been my experience on other overnight rides, the appearance of the sun really drives away the sleepiness and I would soon awaken completely and feel generally quite good as long there was some sunshine.

When I left Carhaix I ended up riding with a group from Southern France, Cyclo Club Mornac Seudre. I had a hard time understanding their French as their accent was a bit different than the standard Parisien one they taught us in school (Why we didn’t learn in a more Québecois accent is beyond me) . They weren’t riding in a very tight group or rotated in a paceline, but it was a bit more organized than most of the “blobs” I encountered on the road so I stuck with them until Brest. They had some strong riders and I did some turns at the front too. I think they appreciated that I tried to talk to them in French and that I helped out a bit, especially on the descents… there was another big guy in their group that was taller than me so we’d lead the charge on the downhills.

Coming into Brest the ride goes over the older bridge beside the highway bridge, and it’s a cable-stayed bridge so it’s kind of scenic. I stopped for some photos here and lost the guys from Mornac Seudre. The streets in Brest were busy as it’s a bigger city and a busy industrial port as well. The route doesn’t quite get down to sea level but it was pretty close!

On the way back out of Brest I’d run into two riders from Ottawa and we rode together back up the Roc’h Trevezel, with JungAh leading the charge… she’s a very strong rider and was pulling not only me and Peter but sometimes a few others up the hill. I helped out a bit when I could and told her to hang on once we reached the top but she couldn’t keep up the 70k/h I was probably going down the big descents, and Peter was starting to feel sick at this point… when we reached the control in Carhaix we ended up splitting up at this point but would continue bumping into each other on the way back to Paris.

I ended up bouncing around between groups and solo riding on the way back to Loudeac and my airbnb. This time I didn’t get any pizza but I had a bunch of food with me so I quickly got a stamp and headed off to my airbnb. Unfortunately I got a bit lost trying to find it and wasted a bit of time riding around town. I got another 3 hours of low quality sleep but I appreciated the warm shower almost as much as the quiet. I returned to the control for some warm breakfast before leaving town.

The next official stop was a food/support control at 843km called Quédillac. I didn’t stop here on the way out but since it was another cold morning and I was feeling sluggish I decided to stop and get some warm food. I had a tough slog getting there and even made a wrong turn and did 1.5km of bonus work. Another rider followed me and I managed to communicate the fact we were off-course to him despite no common language. Another rider blew past us going the wrong way and ignored both of us yelling in whatever languages we knew… they’d realize eventually after a few km of not seeing any riders…hopefully.

I was very close to the cutoff time getting into Tinténiac but I didn’t care… my attitude was to keep riding and they could take my control card from me if I was heading into hors delais territory. I don’t think they do take people’s card unless you are clearly incapacitated or do something so outrageous that you’re DQ’d on the spot. I don’t remember much of the ride to Tinténiac but it was morning on the 21st and warming up nicely. There were sometimes palm trees growing in the towns and people’s front yards… I’d seen them on the way out and meant to stop and take pictures but I didn’t want to slow my roll.  Also along this stretch was a village set up with massive grills cooking sausage gallettes which did kind of smell good and gross at the same time. I did convince them to hook me up with a baguette and coffee though, I explained I couldn’t eat greasy foods on the ride and they understood. I told the guy I’d get enough fat after the ride and he seemed pleased at that approach to recovery.

Fougères was the next stop at 923km and I was starting to feel that finishing under 90 hours was a real possibility. I felt strong at this point and was loving the ride. I’d been leapfrogging some of the other Huron Chapter riders for the entire ride but they’d started 45 minutes ahead of me so it was usually just arriving at a control as they were leaving but we hooked up in Fougères. They had a registered support vehicle and I sat with them on the roadside for a bit, shared a beer with them and then set off for my dropbag. I decided to get some food from the grocery store before leaving town as I wanted something a bit different and got lucky and found some vegan cheese slices. They were top-notch stuff and made the baguettes at the next control very tasty.

Leaving Fougères there was a nice long climb and the afternoon was getting quite warm, probably around 28C. I do like the heat and was feeling great going up this hill. I hooked back up with Brenda from Windsor as we rode together toward Villaines-la-Juhel. It was along this stretch that her husband told her he was going to abandon as the sleep deprivation and a mechanical were just too much to handle. It’s tough to have your partner abandon but Brenda is a strong rider and I wasn’t worried that she wouldn’t finish, I’d just hoped to be able to ride with her for a bit longer.

It was along this stretch that I also met up with Bob Kassel, the guy I rode the granite anvil 1200K with. We did that together since it was the pre-ride and we were the only ones. Needless to say we get along well and had a lot of fun trading jokes and barbs as well as catching up and chatting. I had done a fair bit of solo riding during this ride so it was really nice to have people to talk to! I think my jaw was a bit sore from flapping my mouth for so long!

Brenda decided to try and get a bit of sleep in Villaines-la-Juhel, 1012km into the ride, and I ate in the quick-food section but was still hungry so I wandered outside and ran into Carey from the Huron Chapter. We decided to get some food together and found our way to the restaurant section. This is the control that has young children volunteering to carry your tray to the table for you so that’s pretty cool. I also had some more beer here… I usually don’t drink but this was a sign in French for “local draught beer” so I had to try it… dunno what kind it was but it was a lot better than 1664 or Heineken that they were selling in cans. I ate a ton of food here and they had a full veggie meal that included real ratatouille as well as some other veggies and pasta. I also had another “bière locale” before finishing.

Evening was coming as we set out to Mortagne-au-Perche at 1097km. We had a good couple hours riding with some other folks and ran into a really nice rider from the San Fran area and we stuck together for a long while. Unfortunately I lost Brenda and Stacy before making it to Mortagne-au-Perche, as the climbs and cold were starting to take a bit of a toll on me and my useless jacket. I knew that I would need to sleep if I wanted to finish the ride so I found the sleeping area after getting my stamp, some food, and using the can at the control point. For 3 euro I got a mat in a dark gym and an old wool blanket. I had a bag of dirty kit from changing in Villaines-la-Juhel so that made a fine pillow and I was able to let my other useless jacket dry out a bunch while I got 90 minutes of amazingly deep sleep. I had brought earplugs with me which was great as there was a giant man snoring beside me that was as loud as a chainsaw. I kept pushing the earplugs in until I couldn’t hear him and wasn’t more than a few minutes drifting off. 

The ride from Mortagne-au-Perche to the last control of Dreux wasn’t too bad, the hills were starting to flatten out a little bit and we’d descend more than we’d climb along this stretch. The sunrise was welcome during this time and I once again felt alive basking in its warmth. Most riders were half zombie by this point and it was dangerous to follow too closely… many people couldn’t hold a line and people would just stop in the middle of the road too. Big blobs of riders would coalesce behind anyone doing a decent pace so I ended up with a few followers but no one wanted to work together so I just did my best to stay away from others.

In Crécy-Couve, on the way to Dreux, I got surrounded by a “blob” as we entered town and there was street furniture along the edge of the road. I tried to signal those behind to move over to the centre but one guy whipped around the first flower box and then rode straight into the next one. He looked like he landed right on his head and I was worried for him but he insisted he was fine and got back up and rode on. He ended up passing me a few km later as I stopped to get out of the giant blob after that crash. It wasn’t much farther along this stretch that I came upon a couple ambulances, the gendarmerie, paramedics, and some other people were attending to a rider lying in the ditch. I have to say I became a bit emotional seeing this, realizing it could have easily been me. I don’t know if a car hit him or what happened, since there was a car parked askew on the road. I didn’t stop to gawk or take photos (that’s a trashy thing to do), and didn’t want to pester the emergency workers with questions so I rode on.

The control in Dreux was mostly empty and also running low on food! I waited for some baguettes to be baked and got some cokes and coffee. I was only 30 minutes or so at this control but I did run into Guy from Ottawa here and he was worried about finishing but I tried to be encouraging and told him he was a strong rider and shouldn’t have any problems… plus it was mostly flat Dreux.

There was a big climb leaving Dreux but after that the ride felt pancake flat after all the hills I’d climbed by this point. I had until 12:45 to finish in under 90h and I left the control around 9:45 so I had three hours to cover 43km or so. The last leg had been changed a few days before the start due to unexpected construction so many people didn’t have a GPS track but the arrows along this stretch and the long line of riders made it easy to find the way. Dave Thompson had shared a gps track with turn-by-turns of this new section so I was prepared for this and didn’t have to worry about getting lost. I was feeling so good at this point since I knew I’d make it to the end under the time limit. I used this positive energy and set a decent pace for the last leg, averaging close to 25km/h, which was pretty quick for having ~1170km in the legs… I passed many people and heard one guy say to his buddy that nobody should have form that good after riding that far!

Getting into Rambouillet we came a slightly different way than we left so it was all new scenery except the last 3km. Most of the route went through some forests, including the “Domaine de la Butte Ronde” like a child I snickered, even though I know butte just means hill, not bum. I was taking the laughs any way I could get them! The last bit of the course before the finish line included a section of cobblestones and being on a bike made for Paris-Roubaix I hit them at speed and shuddered like a jackhammer across them. After that it was into the national sheep farm and through a mess of people, camper vans, and whatnot to get to the official timing matts and the tent where I could get my stamp, surrender my control card and pick up my medal.

The first draft of this report was written while still basking in the glow of making it to the end and feeling so strong at the last bit was really encouraging. I made a lot of good choices during the ride and felt like I’d trained properly and planned a good ride. The drop bags and the airbnb were good choices, though I could tweak that aspect of the ride and make it more efficient in the future. I would like to try and do an 84h start so that I can get more daytime riding as well as a good night’s sleep before-hand but there’s a lot less company on the roads so who knows!  It was an amazing experience and I don’t think there’s anything that compares for an amateur cyclist! I didn’t take as many pictures on this ride as I usually do since I was worried about time but I think I captured enough to give the reader an idea of how it is.

Urban Paris

Paris-Brest-Paris 2019, Ride Report by Martin Cooper

by Martin Cooper

Martin Cooper, PBP 2019

Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) is the oldest continuous bicycle event in the world, having been first run in 1891. It is 1230 km in length and involves over 11,000 metres of climbing. PBP begins just west of Paris and extends west through Brittany to the port city of Brest and then continues back to Paris.

Paris-Brest-Paris was originally conceived by Pierre Giffard, the editor of the newspaper Le Petit Journal who believed that an extreme bicycle race would pique the interest of readers and help to sell papers. In 1891 the newly developed Peugeot automobile was set to follow behind the 1891 PBP to determine if it could cover the distance of the race, which would make it the longest distance completed by a gas powered engine. The Peugeot prototype was successful but arrived in Paris six days after PBP winner Charles Terront.

Waiting at the Start

Due to the magnitude of the undertaking, PBP was only held every 10 years.  The second PBP in 1901 was so successful that a rival newspaper, l’Auto, created the Tour de France in 1903.  PBP continued as a professional race with a cyclotourist component (including women) until 1951, when few professional cyclists were interested in racing that distance. However, it continues on as an amateur event, now held every four years.

It is an important cultural event in Brittany with multi-generational families lining the roadside to cheer on the riders with shouts of allez, bon courage and champion.  Many families set up tables along the road where they provide the riders with water, coffee, cakes and crepes — a Breton specialty. Farmhouses along the route are open for tired riders to catch short naps. At the controls the Breton flag, accordion and traditional Breton bagpipes welcome in the riders. There is a celebrated French pastry that commemorates the event called a Paris Brest, which is made in the shape of a bicycle wheel. PBP is indeed a festive four-day celebration of cycling.

The rules of PBP have remained virtually unchanged since the beginning. A participant must qualify by riding a series of 200, 300, 400 and 600 km brevets by the end of June on the year of the ride.  These qualifying rides are organized by cycling clubs worldwide that are affiliated with the organizing body in France, the Audax Club Parisien (ACP) and Randonneurs Mondiaux (RM).  In Ontario, Randonneurs Ontario, founded in 1983, is sanctioned by ACP and RM to offer brevets throughout the cycling season.   We even stage our own 1,200 km grand brevet every four years, the Granite Anvil that attracts riders from all over North America.  

I completed the qualifying rides by the end of May but had to continue riding long distances to maintain fitness. I rode several well-spaced 200 km brevets during the intervening months and two weeks before PBP I did a 1,000 km brevet, the Manitoulin 1000, which starts on Manitoulin Island and goes around Georgian Bay ending in Tobermory.  When I arrived in France I had already ridden close to 9,000 km in 2019, including my commute to work, a daily 40 km round trip.

The route must be followed exactly, and in order to verify this there are controls along the route where a brevet card has to be stamped with a time signature. Unlike most other brevets, navigation for PBP is not a problem as the route is signed and there are a lot of other cyclists, hopefully going in the right direction. Controls are also the only place where cyclists can be offered assistance, if they so wish. For the most part riders are self supported, which means you have to look after your own physical, nutritional and mechanical requirements. PBP has to be done within a 90-hour time limit. Any type of self-powered vehicle can be entered, including all manner and vintage of bicycles — recumbents, tricycles, velomobiles, tandems and triplets.

PBP 2019 started in Rambouillet west of Versailles in the Bergerie National or National sheepfold.  Due to limited accommodation in Rambouillet I stayed about 25 km from the start in Maurepas.  Arriving on Friday, two days before the start I assembled my bicycle and then headed to Rambouillet to stretch my legs and familiarize myself with Rambouillet. Near the start location I ran into Larry Optis from Ontario who was entered in Group A and for whom PBP is a race. We rode around together taking in the ambience of this charming town with its pavé (cobblestone) main street lined with cafes and bistros overflowing with PBP participants. This edition would have close to 7,000 participants from 66 different countries. Larry would be the first rider to reach Brest and ended up finishing in just over 55 hours.

Incognito in a Detroit Randonneurs Jersey, Casing out the Start

I returned the next day to Rambouillet in the pouring rain for my bike inspection, which was scheduled at 10:00 AM followed by the pick up of my registration package. At 2:00 PM the 100 or so Canadian participants were to gather for the traditional group photograph followed by a photo of the Ontario contingent, which numbered just over 30. As I had time between the bike inspection and the photo, and it was raining non-stop, I visited the Concours des Machines, which was an exhibition of specially hand built bicycles, all of which would be ridden in PBP.  The constructeurs, mostly French, were on hand to discuss their designs and explain all the features that they incorporated into their bicycles.

I headed back to my hotel in the rain to try to get a good night’s sleep as I was starting PBP at 8:00 PM the following evening.  Fortunately the rain stopped by noon on race day and by the time I arrived at the start at 6:00 PM the weather had cleared. I had dinner with Vytas Janusauskas from Ottawa, who was attempting his 5th  PBP and ran into Gerry Schilling  from Detroit, who I had ridden several brevets within Michigan.

Around 7:00 I made my way to the start and joined my group ‘R’, waiting with great excitement and anticipation to start this epic event. My plan was to ride through the night and all of the next day, arriving at the control in Loudeac at 450 km.  There I had booked a hotel close to the control where I would able to shower, wash my kit and sleep for 3-4 hours. I was planning to return to this hotel on the way back at 780 km for my third night where I would retrieve the clothes that I had washed and get some sleep.

I rolled through the starting gate and descended down a steep cobble stone path to the road where in the last hour of daylight I headed out into a light headwind at a steady pace towards Brest.  I knew it would be a long night of riding as the first control was over 200 km down the road, which translates for me as 10 hours of steady nighttime cycling. There was an intermediate food stop at which I planned to spend very little time. I arrived at the first control at Villaines-La Juhel at about 5:45 AM, some 9.5 hours after I had started.  Even though the forecasted low was 12C the temperature had dipped to 6C around dawn. Fortunately, I had brought just enough extra clothing to keep the chill out.

I spent as little time as possible at the control, had my card stamped refilled my bottles and avoided the long line-up for food and water. I would be able to find food along the route.  The day was clear, although the headwind coming from the west had been picking up to 20km per hour. For a short time I rode with a group to get out of the wind but decided I would rather look at the scenery than the rear end of the person in front of me.  Also, as the ride progressed I didn’t want to be close to sleep-deprived cyclists of unknown skill. I would ride this one on my own. Later on in the ride a cyclist riding in my draft crashed because he didn’t realize that the white line along the edge of road was actually a raised stone border. 

Fougeres

I arrived at the Fougeres control at 10:30 AM.  Fougeres, which means fern in French, is one of my favourite PBP villages with its large 12th century castle, Chateau Fougeres, which is surrounded by a moat.  All along the route flowers are in bloom, especially in the villages, including hedges of purple and red hydrangea.

After some 22 hours of cycling (at around 6:30 PM), I arrived in Loudeac where I had my brevet card stamped and then rode over to the hotel for a much-anticipated rest. As I headed out of the control to the hotel, a volunteer told me I was going the wrong way.  I told him that I was going to the Hotel Le France for some sleep. He said: “Make sure you don’t sleep in.” I checked in and the proprietor Jean Francois told me that I was the second cyclist to arrive, which made me feel pretty good but I am not sure why as I didn’t know when the others started or even who they were. I said to him, you know it’s not a race.  He asked me if he could get me anything and I told him a cold beer would be great, “and, oh yea, I have two alarms set but if I am not down by 11:30 PM please wake me up.” I showered, washed my kit, and slept for a solid 3-4 hours.

The hotel was serving breakfast starting at 10:00 PM, so I had a great breakfast at midnight, grabbed some food for the road and headed out into the night. I felt rested and excited to be heading for Brest in the wee hours of the morning. Towards dawn the temperature went down to a chilly 3C, although the head wind had diminished considerably.  I was anticipating a tail wind after the turn around at Brest that would propel me all the back to Paris.

Astride the Plougastel Bridge

Crossing the famous Plougastel Bridge going into Brest, I stopped for the obligatory photo. It had turned into a glorious morning and I arrived at the control in Brest at 10:00 in the morning. On my way in I noticed that I was having trouble shifting out of my large chain ring, which would become a major problem climbing out of Brest.  I took my bike over to the mechanic who said it would take a half hour to look at. So I wandered over to the control restaurant where I enjoyed a good lunch. I also ran into Ben Schipper from the Netherlands. I had ridden a 1200km brevet with him in Michigan and Wisconsin. Ben was enjoying the ride, but said this was likely to be his last. Surprised, I asked why and he told me that he was 76 and that the next PBP he would be 80.  I had thought he was around the same age as me.  I returned to retrieve my bike. As it turned out the problem was caused by my derailleur cable being pinched by my decaleur, which is special device that secures my handlebar bag, which with all the gear, food and clothing probably weighed 15 lbs. I also carried a rear seat bag that held my rain gear, insulated vest and a spare tire.

The ride out of Brest involves one of the longest climbs of PBP but rewards with a spectacular view of the surrounding countryside. I stopped in a small café filled with cyclists and ordered a pizza, half of which I ate and the rest I had wrapped up to eat later. As I made my way back to Paris, I tried to console myself that, despite the distance, there would no longer be a headwind. The more I rode, however, the more it appeared that the wind had changed direction and was now coming from the east. At least it had diminished considerably.  I arrived back at Loudeac at 780km around 10:00 PM and went to the hotel where Jean Francois had a cold Leffe waiting for me and told that I was the third cyclist to arrive. I showered, slept for about 3-4 hours, put on my clean and dry kit, ate breakfast, and headed out into the darkness around 3:00 AM.  Again the temperature went down to 3C, and in addition to my hub generator powered lights, I used the Garmin computer on my bicycle to help anticipate turns in the road as well as gentle climbs and descents.  Sometimes on a gentle climb in the dark it is difficult to tell whether you are going up hill or down or if your legs are tired.

I continued riding through the dark arriving at the Tinteneac control at 7:00 AM.  There I had my first control meal as the field of riders had become strung out resulting in fewer riders and no more line ups for food. I quickly ate what I thought was an excellent beef bourgogne.  As the control was not heated I left as soon as I was finished eating.

I had booked a hotel at around 1,000 km for my final overnight in Villaines-La Juhel but when I arrived there at 6:00 PM. I felt good and didn’t want to waste daylight hours by sleeping.  At this control there were hundreds of people lining the street cheering, bands playing and you had the feeling that you were almost done. I ran into Dave Thompson from Ontario and Jerry Christiensen from Wisconsin who had been riding together from the start.  I have done many long rides with Dave and the three of us rode together on the Granite Anvil 1200 in 2017.  They told me they were heading to the next control where they were planning to get some rest. I decided to join them and ride with them to the finish.  We arrived at the next control in Mortagne-Au-Perche at 10:00 PM.  We had something to eat and I found a spot on the cafeteria floor, rolled up my vest for a pillow, covered my eyes with my windbreaker, and slept the sleep of the dead for a solid 1.5 hours.  Feeling refreshed, we left the control at around 1:00 AM, immediately launching into a precarious and chilling descent and ending up in a little village where we stopped to get some breakfast and more importantly, coffee. Shortly after dawn we arrived at Dreux, the last control before the end.  The day was glorious as we covered the last leg into Rambouillet arriving at around10:30 AM,  86 hours, 39 minutes after I started.  We were presented with our medals and then led to a tent where the victory meal was being served.  Later in the evening I joined the Ontario group for dinner where we recounted the trials, tribulations, glory and beauty of the preceding of PBP.

PBP is indeed an amazing event, and the ultimate cycling festival, but make no mistake, it is also a beast of a ride with its extreme distance, climbing, limited support and time limit.  Approximately 25% of the participants don’t finish or don’t finish within the time limit.  To finish PBP is to be part of cycling history – your name is inscribed in the official record book of this legendary event and feel that you have truly earned the designation Ancien.

With Ben Schipper
With Ontario Friends, David Thompson, Bob Kassel, and Brenda Wiechers