Paris-Brest-Paris 2019, a Ride Report by Matthew McFarlane


Mes Amies!
Erin and I are in France! It’s been a wild adventure getting to this point. Everyone expects the ‘red-eye’ to Europe to be challenging, but add on
the stress of such a long bike ride and a transfer in Iceland and it’s a bit
exhausting. 
France
When we arrived on the afternoon of the 16th, my bike didn’t show up. I was gutted. We waited around in the airport for a couple hours. Waiting, wishing, hoping. It didn’t come. Reports were filed and we got on the
train for the two hour trip to Les Essarts-Le-Roi bike-less for a cycling
event.

We spent the rest of the night on the phone and email trying to find my
bike. Turns out there wasn’t even tracking on it. The airline and the
airports didn’t even know where it was. Not even which country it was
in. I finally got a hold of someone who told me they found my bike and it would be in Paris at 1300 in the 17th. I went to bed stressed, exhausted,
and a little relieved.

In the morning I was trying to confirm my bike was Paris bound to land at 1300, when I found out that it was still in Canada. It wouldn’t make it to Paris for another 28 hours (time change / flight schedules / etc) and Paris is still a 5 hr round trip train ride. More panic. By this time I had slept, eaten, and had been watered. I was feeling gutted, but was trying to find a solution.

Dick, the man who’s done PBP and who rented the house here in Les Essarts, took to social media and texting friends. There were requests made for available bikes, rental bikes, no-longer-riding-the-PBP bikes. A few little leads but nothing fantastic. One of the texts was a note that four years ago, four people had their bikes stolen from their hotel and they had gone to a local bike shop and bought bikes to be returned after the event.
With this information Erin and I headed to a nearby town with a bike shop.

I went in and started google-translating with the 22 year-old manning the repair stand. I tried to rent a bike. I showed him the text. Florian’s face wrinkled. We google-translated more.

He tried to explain that I could borrow the bike for a week and return it. No deposit. No payment. Just ride it and return it. I had no idea what to say.

He pulled a bike off the wall, asked if it would fit, and started setting it up for me. We were floored. My saddle and pedals went on. The derailleurs adjusted.

I ran around the store, buying cages and bottles and bags to carry my stuff. In an hour we were out the door. A Triban RC500. A full load of bikepacking bags and determination. I had a bike. A bike that fit! I was over the moon. So thankful for the people in that shop. So thankful for Florian.

I spent the evening packing and repacking the bike. I cut down to the minimum stuff needed to survive the next few days. It wasn’t that hard. I didn’t have most of my stuff. I had bought a raincoat. I had bought a helmet. I had my fingerless gloves. I had my knee warmers. I hoped that would be enough. Dick warned about low night time temperatures heading into Brest. I was determined.

I went for a test ride. Erin said I came back with the biggest smile on my face. I had a bike. I rode in France. The PBP was a possibility.

The next day I headed to Rambouillet for a tech inspection in the pouring rain. I needed to get my loaner bike through inspection. The bike was brand new, with brand new tires and brakes. I wasn’t worried about that. I had poor strap-on lights with a pocket full of extra batteries. This was my worry. The inspection man inspected the bike. He tested my brakes. Then he pointed to my lights. I turned them all on, trying to show they’d be bright enough for the event. Bright enough to ride 10 hours through the night. He looked at them and smiled. I had passed tech. More relief.

I had a few hours to ride back to the house, dry out, sleep, get changed, and then line up in Rambouillet at 1800.

I lay down for some rest that afternoon. For the first time since I landed in France I actually thought about the event. All my thoughts so far had been just trying to find a bike, just trying to ride. Getting through one obstacle then the next. It was now almost time to ride. Only 1200k to go.

The Ride
The ride is a big ride. The first time it was held was in 1891 and it’s been occurring ever since. It’s now run every four years from the outskirts of Paris all the way to Brest on the Atlantic ocean. It’s 1200km long. It has over 11000m of climbing- Everest is less then 9000m. And if that wasn’t enough. You’ve only got 90 hours to complete it. Just under 4 days.

The 2019 edition of the PBP had about 7000 entrants. You can enter for three different time limits. 90 hours for the touristes, 84 hours for the randonneurs, and 80 hours for the vedettes. Having no idea what it would take to ride 1200km or 11000m of elevation or both, I entered the 90h group. It is by far the largest group.

Carey and I rode slowly to the start. We had a 14k ride through a few little villages to get to the Chateau and the start of the ride. The sun was shining. It was now a beautiful day and the weather over the next few days looked to be fantastic.

When we got to the start line there were so many people. The crowds were huge. There were ordinary bicycles. There were tandems. I saw fixed gears and even a fat bike. Everyone was cheering. I had never been involved in anything like it. Carey and I lined up in the “I” group and just watched in amazement at all the people.

My first stop was Chateauneuf-en-Thymerais. This is a little town before the first control. The sun was setting, I was already getting hungry, and the procession of cyclists was flying through. On the edge of town was a little tent. A grandfather was cheering the riders on and slowly pouring water into everyone’s water bottles from 3L jugs hauled from the house by the grandchildren. Bon route! Bon courage! The town had a couple stands set up. I bought a jambon-fromage and an ice tea and munched at the side of the road watching the event. It was great. I ran into Carey again and we took off into the evening.

The sun set over rural france. We streamed through small village after small village and into the first control. Mortagne-au-Perche. There were hundreds of bikes with number plates on them. People going in every direction and the smell of grilled meat. I was hungry. I threw my bike aside and found a counter with a guy selling sandwiches. It was perfect.
Over the past 120k I was starting to deal with my riding position on the Triban. This was expected and mostly ignored. I knew the bike wasn’t going to fit just right and I took the time to drop the saddle a touch and rode off into that dark.

This was my first night shift. The first time I realized how bad my lights were. The first time I realized just how much I was in the dark. I rode along only see a small dim spot in front of me and glad for the moonlight over top of me. There was no traffic. It was quiet with just the hum of bikes passing bikes. It was great. and dark.

One of the things that started to stand out to me that first night was how much the French people love cycling. I’d be riding along at 2 – 3 – 4 in the morning and I’d come up on a family standing at the side of the rode cheering us on. I’d see couples with the trunk of their car open and a pot of coffee or a case of water. I’d see kids, grandparents, clubs, and whole villages out cheering us on. It was incredible. I hit Villaines-La-Juhel just before first light. Control card. Water. Food. I don’t even remember what I ate, but I ate. and lots. The sun was about to rise, and I found new energy. I had 240k to ride before my first sleep and I had the warm sunlight to get me through.

Fougeres, 306km. Lasagna. Melon. Banana. Of course a croissant. Tinteniac. 360km. A man was playing a clarinet. A woman playing an accordion. I bought some fruit for the afternoon.

Finally. Loudeac. 440km. A night and a day. 24 hours of cycling. I’m tired. I found a dormitory, paid 5E, and asked the man to wake me at 10. He wrote 2200 down on a little board and asked me to confirm the correct time. He smiled and left. The dorm had clear panels in the ceiling and I was warned four years ago that it was hot and bright, and I’d have trouble sleeping. I was out moments after I got my shoes off.

10pm. Ready for the night shift. My second night. I knew it was going to be dark again. My lights would plague my night. Just as I was rolling out of town I spotted and RV with a big Canada flag on the hood. It was the other Huron Chapter Randonneurs. They had just bedded down. I ate half a cold pizza with a big smile of my face. The perfect fuel for a night shift in rural France!

La Harmoye. A party set up in the middle of the night under the tower of another church. Saint Nicolas-Du-Pelem. 488km. Carhaix 521km. People sleeping everywhere. It’s hard to navigate the controls for the bodies. Last stop before the Atlantic!

After Carhaix I was getting drowsy. It was 5am and I still needed to descend to Brest. In the dark. At 4’C. I was wobbling all over the road. I remembered my space blanket and found a little spot in the grass. I set the timer on my phone for 12 minutes. I was asleep instantly.

I woke. confused. I checked my phone. My timer didn’t go off. I had no idea how long I had been sleeping at the top of that hill. I rolled my blanket up. Lashed it to the side of my saddle bag and descended, shivering, to Sizun. Sizun was beautiful. The sky had started to lighten, and the village was full of cyclists. I spotted a cafe that was open, found a wall to rest my bike, and tried to warm up with a chocolat-chaud and a croissant and an apple treat. The waitress had a big smile on her face and kept bringing me wonderful things to eat.  Merci, merci! I was almost in sight of the ocean. I had almost made it. I remember texting Erin. I was excited. Cold, but excited

I cycled on until I made it to the bridge at Brest. I couldn’t believe how emotional an arrival it was. I’m not, by nature, a terribly emotional person, but I was just floored at how far I had come and where I was standing.
Brest. 610km. It was 9 in the morning. I had the day in front of me. I was on my way home! Sizun. Second time in only a few hours. This time, two pieces of pizza, a macaron the size of a canadian donut, and some saucisson-sec for later. Carhaix. 693km. This time I notice the bunting hanging across the road celebrating the PBP.

I knew tonight was going to be long. I wanted to get as far as I could to maximize my daylight and minimize my lightless night-time riding. I found a nice warm field in the sun and had a 20 minute snooze. I tested my timer first. It was a wonderful cat-nap.

Loudeac. 783km. My knees were in a fair amount of pain by this time. I raised my seat a touch.
I found a couple of women at the side of the road. They were making crepes. Had coffee and water, and were cheering people on. Incredible hospitality.

I was shooting for Tinteniac. If I could sleep there, there was only 350km or so to go for the last day. I made it to Quedillac. There were lights on, and I saw a sign for food. I still had 25km to go to Tinteniac, but I was hungry. I go in. Ordered soup, bread, and who knows what else. Two dinners worth. That’s when I saw it. A sign for beds. I didn’t even know there was a dorm here. I asked the man if they had any beds left. They did. 4E later, I sunk into a six-inch block of foam to wake at 3am and the last day!

Tinteniac. 869km. Soup. Pork. Rice. Fruit. Coffee. Pie. A big smile on my face. My knees were feeling better after my sleep. Then I fell. Out of the blue. I wasn’t moving, I was in the bike lock-up area and all of a sudden I was on my side with my bike on top of me. Two guys ran over and helped pick both me and my bike up. I was fine. I had just landed on the grass. I had just lost my balance.

A family was trading coffee for postcards. Giving their address out on little pieces of paper.

Fougeres. 923km. Shortly after I ran into a guy I met my first time through Sizun. Pete and I rode together for a bit. We had started fifteen minutes apart, days ago. We had both realized that we were very close to breaking 80 hours. 80! We picked up speed.

At the side of the road a few families had got together and set up a stand with treats, coffee, water and fresh crepes. They were telling stories of previous PBPs and watching all the riders come through their little village.

We run into a man at the side of the road with a giant basket of plums. He had just picked them and was offering them to anyone who rode by. Merci monsieur!

Villaines-La-Juhel. 1012km. Picking up speed.

We pull into a man’s driveway. He has tables, chairs, and tents setup. My knees and ankles ache. I’m limping badly. He’s got some treats for us and gave me some drugs. I had never heard of it before, but Pete’s from the UK. They had that brand there. He said it they took it for headaches. I took the kind man’s medicine.

Shortly down the road I get a flat. I had some CO2 cartridges in my bag, but Pete had a pump. So I borrowed Pete’s pump and set to work in the early evening changing my flat. Before I knew it, I had an audience of five or six people and a dog. The one man kept helping me while the rest asked me about my ride, where I was from, how it was going. They invited me back to their place to use their floor pump instead of Pete’s little pump. Soon after, a man on a motorcycle and a woman with a camera show up and start taking pictures and notes. I wonder if my tube change made the local news?

Mortagne-Au-Perche 1097km. I’m hobbling now, and probably losing speed. I get my card signed, grabbed a sticky bun and headed back to the bike.

Dreux. 1174km.  I’ve got 50km to go, and the sun was setting. These last 50 were the longest of the ride. The last 50 are always the longest. Pete was sore and falling asleep. I was in so much pain, every pedal stroke hurt. I actually found riding reasonable fast with a fast cadence was the most comfortable, but it was a speed I wasn’t strong enough to maintain. We were riding around in the dark trying hard to find Rambouillet.

With the chateau in sight, the end came soon. We congratulated each other. I realized that I wasn’t able to ride the 14km back to the house – I was in too much pain. The trains had also stopped running. I started asking around for a cab, a taxi. The first man I asked said that he could call a taxi, but it wouldn’t come. I looked at him and asked if I should then ride back to Les Essarts, and he told me that he didn’t recommend it. I found four other older Frenchmen at the bike lockup area. I asked them for a taxi, and the one man stuck up his finger and told me to follow him. We met a big, smokey man in an alley. He didn’t speak a word of English. I asked if mon velo et moi could get a ride to Les Essart and he nodded. In minutes I had said goodbye to Pete, pulled the front wheel off my bike, and was speeding down the highway in the back of a van.

When I made it back to the house, Erin was waiting and helped me out of the van. I soon collapsed into the couch at the house. I had done it and I was exhausted.

Exhausted. Broken. Unable to walk. 1224km. 11008m of climbing. 23 437 calories burned. 79 hours spent. About 7 of those sleep. I was ready for a break.

Even now the thing that stands out in my head is the generosity, friendliness and hospitality of the French people and their love of cycling. I have never felt so welcome standing in a strange town dressed in lycra and smelling a bit off. The food, the cheers, the encouragement and the smiles. The high-fives from the kids, and the constant calls of Bon Route! Bon Courage!

I now know why people keep riding the PBP.

Stories
One of the fun parts of PBP is all the stories you hear. During the ride, after the ride, and years later when the stories get told over and over again. Some of them get shorter while some of them get longer!

One of my favourites I heard the day after the event was when a bunch of us got together for dinner.

Tiago was riding through the night when his light started wobbling. At first he didn’t think much of it. As he rode along it started getting worse. It wouldn’t stay focused and centered on the rode in front of him. He reached down and tried to straighten it. It kept wobbling. He tried again. Tried to straighten it. Tired to tweak it. Nothing. It just kept getting worse and worse. He was having a hard time seeing the road. All of a sudden it let go completely. His light shone straight down. There was a spot lighting up the road right underneath him and he couldn’t see anything in front of him. He caught up with a few other riders with bright lights and managed his way to the control and the bike shop to get his light fixed up.

They found the problem. He had lost a bolt out of this light mount. They dug through bins and searched the shelves. Finally it looked like they had found the bolt they needed. It threaded in, but it turned out to be too short. The girl that was working there suddenly had an idea. She said that she had that exact bolt in her knee. Her prosthetic knee had the bolt needed. Tiago couldn’t believe it. She was offering the bolt out of her knee to fix his headlight mount. He refused. He couldn’t take the bolt out of her knee. She said she had an extra. He refused again. They dug through the bins a few more times until they bodged the light mount back together.

A bolt out of her prosthetic knee. For the love of cycling.

There are countless other stories. Everyone has them. Carey crashed the day before the ride and broke both his wheel and his rib and still completed PBP in less then 89 hours. Incredible! If only I was half as strong.

My friend Pete was riding along and his knee kept getting bigger and bigger. The more he rode, the more swollen his knee got. He had stopped in a few clinics at the controls, and there was nothing they did that seemed to work. The pain kept getting worse as well. Sitting in one of the controls, this Japanese man came up to him and said “You don’t need French medicine, you need Japanese medicine.” Before Pete knew it, the man had pulled a metal can out of his pocket and was spraying something all over Pete’s knees. He didn’t even realize what was going on, and before he could say anything, the man had walked off. Shortly after, Pete looked down and realized he couldn’t feel his knees anymore, and the swelling was going down. Japanese medicine!

Lastly are the stories that involve hallucinations. It seemed that everyone had one, and they all seemed to be hilarious. One man had Gordon Lightfoot bring him in. Another saw the flags of the world along both sides of the road. Someone saw trees growing. One saw monkeys in the trees, on the bikes. Everywhere. I wasn’t so lucky to experience any of these, but I love to hear the stories.

One thought on “Paris-Brest-Paris 2019, a Ride Report by Matthew McFarlane

  1. I still can’t fathom riding PBP on a loaner bike, your determination and grit to finish despite the challenges is the true randonneur spirit. Chapeau!

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