Wednesday, 31 August 2011

PBP 2011. Part 2- The Ride

But back to that queue in St Quentin. As I stood there I suddenly realised that the huge goal I had set myself and spent all those months focused on to the exclusion of all else had been simply to qualify and get to Paris. I had never actually set completing PBP itself as my target. As we rode out of the city in a huge peleton with crowds waving and cheering at us I felt like a fraud. I had done what I had set out to do, and I knew that never in a million years could I have turned round at the end of my 600 and ridden it again a second time. If I was going to fail then it made sense to cut out the pain and the struggle in the middle and ride back to the hotel. But it wasn't just about me anymore. While the goal and the drive to do it were my own, there were people who seemed to genuinely care about what I was doing. Many of them I had left behind in England to watch the progress from a website, but one of them (Simon) had rashly decided to ride it by my side to look after me despite the fact he could have done it much faster (and with more sleep) on his own. During the first 50km I fought an internal battle with myself, and eventually decided I owed it to everyone who had believed in me to give it my best shot. I would try to get a decent distance into the ride so I felt invested in finishing it and then see how I felt.

The first stage to Mortagne-au-Perche is 140km long, and by 90km my water bottles were empty because of how hot it had been waiting at the start. The lure of a cafe that stayed open late into the night for the riders was great. Having gone cold-caffeine-turkey for 2 weeks pre-PBP that cup of coffee was probably the best I have ever tasted in my life. I was able to keep up a good moving pace of 27kph for most of that stage. However by the time we reached Villaines-la-Juhel (222k) at about 6.30am the next morning I was virtually bonking. This control resembled a huge street party, and I am reliably informed there was live music playing in the street, but strangely I have no memory of this from either the outbound or return journeys. I can remember walking around in a daze looking for something to eat, and finding a bar of soap on a rope hanging near a hosepipe that reminded me of something my dad had in the 70's. It was the last soap I was to see anywhere for at least the next 400km.

Early morning both before and after dawn was the time of day that I suffered most during the ride, I got cold and my brain and body pretty much stopped working rendering me a useless jabbering wreck (well ok, more so than usual). We had already built up a decent 4 hour time buffer, but it needed to be more to get some sleep the following night. Riding through a second night without sleep would be seriously bad news. As we pressed on to Fougeres (311k) and then Tinteniac (364k) it seemed clear that the plan to get through controls in around 40-50 minutes just wasn't working. On a ride of this size with thousands of riders the controls themselves are huge, involving walking between bike parking areas and buildings for card stamping and then other buildings for eating, and then hunting for the 3 toilets that all 5000 riders are sharing, and queuing there too. Being female was actually a huge disadvantage in that respect. At one stage I rode for a staggering 50km looking for somewhere I could stop to pee and not be seen from the road, and there was nowhere.

Late on the second evening as we arrived at leudeac (449k) the weather suddenly started to turn. the sky went black, thunder and lightening started, and the heavens opened. We had a dilemma: It was actually a bit early to stop and sleep, because it was only 10pm and so if we took 4 hours sleep we would be setting off at 2am to ride one of the hilliest sections of the ride in the pitch dark and rain, and then potentially need to ride on for a further 24 hours before sleeping again. We had also really hoped to get to Carhaix at 525k to sleep, but in these conditions with me feeling so cold and tired that 76k could take most of the night. We decided to compromise and press on to the optional rest stop at St Nicholas-du-Pelem (493k) where we could sleep the most miserable cold hours of the wet night away. As we left Leudeac and begun the ascent up the hillside, everything was plunged into darkness as the power went down. Occasional flashes of lightening lit up the hills ahead giving me a very unwanted glimpse of the climbs to come. I had known PBP wasn't flat, but this reminded me of one of Ian Hennessy's audax's in Devon! 

There were almost no cars on the road that night, but the standard of riding out there was appalling. It seemed to be de rigeur to ride slap bang down the white line in the middle of the road, at a speed that definitely needed overtaking, forcing me to spend most of my time riding on the wrong side of the road. I started to feel a bit manic from the tiredness and began haranguing the selfish riders for a while using my best French obscenities. After a while I realised a good proportion of them were American, but that might have been for the best really. At some point on this road Simon and I became separated. The surreal thunder, lightning and rain in the dark while tired led my mind into some dark places, and I slowly became convinced that something bad must have happened to him since he had been behind me and had not yet overtaken me. Finding his mobile off when I finally got a signal didn't do much to settle my nerves. Eventually the only riders out there seemed to be a group of Americans on the verge of losing their marbles. They shouted out to each other constantly and couldn't string a sentence together. A female one occasionally started singing until another told her to shut up. I thought I could see a UFO up the hill in front of me, it was silently approaching with lights all over it. I braced myself for the impact as it seemed to be taking up the whole width of the road and the lights were so bright it was blinding me, but suddenly I saw it was made up of perhaps 30 bikes. It was a peleton of vedettes (80 hour riders who had had an earlier start time) on their way back from Brest already. 

I came up behind a rider who was moving slowly and very erratically and was afraid to pass him on either side because there was no response whatsoever when I spoke to him. Suddenly as another group of vedettes came towards us he veered to the left of the road, one leg hanging down with the foot off the pedal, and was swallowed up into the mass of lights. There were shouts but he reappeared out of the back of them still upright, and continued to meander around the road oblivious to the carnage he had nearly caused. I tried speaking to him in every language I knew (that took about 10 seconds) and could get no answer so eventually I took to riding a few feet behind him bitching at him like a fish wife, hoping that it would not be possible for him to fall asleep while I was doing this. 

After a few miles I realised that if I continued at this slow pace for long my sleep buffer would disappear. As I left him behind alone in the dark I hoped that when he crashed it would be a soft landing into the grass and no one would get hurt. When I heard the terrible news in the morning that an American rider had been killed by a lorry during the night I was horrified. It turned out not to be the guy I had ridden with, but what kind of monster had I become that I had abandoned someone in that state on their own in the dark just to get to the next control quicker?

When I arrived at St Nic (493k) I was not in a very good place mentally. Simon was outside looking for me, neither of us had realised he had passed me at some point on the road. He wasn't functioning much better than me at that stage and had (in a confused state) forgotten that douche means shower and not bed in French, and had just wandered into the shower rooms demanding to know if anyone had seen a femme in there. The French volunteers had looked at him aghast and sadly shook their heads. The full hilarity of this was not to hit us until the following day. 

The office managing the hundreds of army camp beds in the sports hall was a scene of utter chaos. The volunteers there spoke no English, and by that stage I spoke pretty much no English either. French was even more of a problem. Arm waving and jabbering at each other for about half an hour, they eventually came to the conclusion they didn't know if beds 607 and 608 were taken or not, but they thought maybe not so they would take us to them. My sense of humour got up and left the building at wasting half an hour of potential sleep time watching this ludicrous pantomime. Somewhere behind us in the queue for beds was Alex from Bristol who didn't seem very impressed either. Eventually we asked for a wake up call in 4 hours time and collapsed soaking wet into bed. I set my phone alarm too because I didn't entirely trust them. When they shook me awake what seemed like 5 minutes later I thought they had messed up, but a check of the phone revealed the horrible truth that it was actually time to get up and get on the road. 

We had decided that rather than eat breakfast there, with only 32k to go to get to Carhaix we would quaff an energy gel and leave before we got too cold. I opened a new packet of free Wiggle Harribo. The rain had turned into a drizzle and we rolled into Carhaix before it was light. Initially after the sleep I had felt very very tired, but the daylight and Brest being only 93k away now gave me a lift. The Tuesday day section of the ride turned out to be one of the high points. We took time out to stop and take photos and chat to Fungus (Ray) on the bridge at Brest, and then bounced the control after card stamping to avoid a hideous queue for the worst food seen yet to stumble across a fantastic little restaurant around the corner for the best meal and coffees of the ride. I felt like I was temporarily rejoining the human race, and the bathroom actually had a toilet seat, soap and an air blade hand drier! We had made Brest (618k) in a shade under 40 hours, a bit slower than I would have liked due to faffage in controls not riding pace, but we had managed 4 hours sleep and a couple of cat naps and still had 3.5 hours in hand. I remembered the wise words of Drew Buck who had said that once you get to Brest, just turn on round and keep riding, those who stay too long sometimes don't make it back.

Simon and I at Brest:
 Fungus (Ray):

By early evening we were back in Carhaix (703k), where one of the Baxters coaches we had come to France on was parked up with some of our stuff on. It was great to get a change of shorts and socks, and  a 20 minute kip on the coach. We didn't stop at all at St Nic on the way back (it was a rest stop not a control) and carried on to Leudeac (782k). It is this section of the ride that is very blurry in my memory. I think it was Leudeac we slept for 3 hours at, but I'm not sure. When i arrived there I could see 3 of everything, and I was no longer able to eat any very solid food. For the rest of the ride I was to eat almost entirely soup and a bit of bread. Fortunately the controls did some very filling soups. The sports hall was very cold and drafty, even with a blanket it didn't stop cold air coming up through the bed from underneath and the sleep was not as good as the previous night's. Setting off I suffered from the same inability to thermo-regulate and get warm as I had previous early mornings, and it became a viscous circle of not being able to go quicker because my muscles were not working from the cold, but not able to get warm because I couldn't go quicker. Helen who is a doctor from YACF has since suggested that I have a high surface area to weight ratio meaning I get cold very easily, and have no insulation built in. I guess she must be right because few other people seemed to really find it cold.

By the time we got to Tinténiac (867k) I was approaching jabbering wreck stage again and I needed a cat nap on Simon's shoulder until the sun warmed me up a little. I had started to have some pain down the left side of my left calf in an area I didn't know I actually possessed any anatomical structures that could be painful. Worryingly I could hardly walk once I got off my bike. I took my first 2 vitamin I of the ride (ibuprofen). Setting off I realised that we now had very little time in hand, and we needed to either increase the pace a little or stop less. But it was the stops that were now keeping me going. A chance to sit down, nap for a few minutes and eat had become a huge luxury to look forward to for hours. As a small peleton of faster French riders came through (with no luggage and carbon framed bikes of course) I hopped onto one of their wheels and we sat with them averaging 27kph for the next 50k into Fougeres. I was surprised to find I could power up many of the rolling hills, and the riding was probably getting easier if anything and not harder. Despite not really being able to walk any more. I had read on YACF somewhere that one forumite planned to train for Brest-Paris by riding Paris-Brest. I felt like that was exactly what I had done. We lost the fast French peleton while stopped at the coach to get clean shorts in Fougeres (921k), but I felt like I was on a roll and for the first time I felt like I could actually finish the ride in time. There was only one more night to get through!

 Arriving in Villaines-la-Juhel (1009k) there were again locals having a party in the street. The tricky bit about this control was that you had to park you bike on the main street and then walk up a steep path to the control building. My legs felt like wobbly jelly and it proved very difficult to get up there. Getting down again was even more of a problem. As we left at dusk the whole place seemed to take on an other-worldly aura. The other side of the barriers our bikes were parked up against was a large crowd, and it felt like they were watching me like a creature in a zoo. They watched intently as I put on arm warmers, leg warmers and gilet. When I put in my ipod ear buds they seemed to gasp in horror. Fearing a lynching I jumped on my bike (well, more like hobbled onto it) and rode out of there as fast as I could into the night to the sound of Status Quo. I discovered that the cure for the riders-in-the-middle-of-the-road syndrome was to sing loudly and tunelessly as I approached them from behind, causing them to pull over to the right in surprise and horror. As a general rule we were riding above the average speed of other riders on the road, and more often than not if I looked behind me during the ride I would realise I was towing a small group who were trying to hang on. The night of the epic singing when I looked behind I saw no one.

The Villaines to Mortagne-au-Perche (1090k) section is the lumpiest of the ride, and so we were expecting a long hard night. My body pretty much did what it was told (it shut up and kept pedalling, Jens Voigt style), but my BRANE had other plans. The previous day Simon had told a kind of joke about a bumble bee he had found dead in the snow in his garden one February when there had been a mild period followed by snow. Having come out of hibernation, been born, or whatever it is bees do in the spring it had thought to itself "oh bollocks" and dropped dead. Whilst under normal circumstances this might not seem particularly funny (especially for the bee), on that night it was totally hilarious, and at one stage I was laughing so much I couldn't steer in a straight line. I would then go quiet for a while and then suddenly start off laughing again. Now, a friend of ours from YACF 'Mr Larrington' had a bit of an episode in this same location on a previous PBP, where he was found in a confused state and hospitalised for several days utterly convinced he was the Major of Mortagne-au-Perche. Simon decided that there were probably 3 stages to that kind of insanity, and I was currently approaching Mortagne in about stage 2. Just the mention of the word 'bee' had me catatonic with laughter. Lest I suddenly decide I was Boris Johnson or something even worse, we decided to take a chance and sleep right up to our control closing time. This gave us less than 2 hours sleep there, but it was likely that come the dawn I would slow down anyway, and I had been fighting the dozies a lot for the past few hours. 

Leaving Mortagne with only 140k to go but just the wrong side of the time limit it suddenly seemed like a really risky strategy. Simon remembered that only the first 20k or so were hilly then the terrain became very flat. We found a nice patisserie open in a village very early in the morning where we could eat a fresh warm pain au chocolat in the warm. The owner brought out plastic chairs for us to sit on. The locals looked very perplexed to see a line of dishevelled cyclists lining up to eat up all the stock at that time of the morning. 

The flat section into Dreux was indeed flat, and Dreux lived up to it's name. It was so Dreux. The kamikaze drivers there reminded me of the ones in Bridgwater back home. At one stage riding alone on the flat when Simon had got ahead of me on some previous hill I looked behind me to see some 30 riders stretched out single file behind me. After some 30k they were still sitting there, with no one feeling inclined to take a turn on the front. I gradually slowed down and down to see what they would do. One by one they got the hump and had to overtake me and carry on, but one guy slowed right down to 8kph behind me then followed me across the road into the hedge where I planned to reapply chamois cream. I gave him the death stare and he rode off looking confused. Later on I realised that he had Schirmer's neck and couldn't hold his head up, so maybe that was why he seemed so desperate to stay on my wheel. 

By the time we reached Dreux (1165k) we had over an hour back in hand. At the speed we were riding it would have been fairly easy to finish sub 88 hours. However I was harbouring a desire to join a secret society, ever since I had seen Damon Peacock in his hideously tie-died jersey. To qualify for membership of La Société Adrian Hands member list  you have to do only one thing, finish PBP in the same or greater time (88:55) that Adrian did in 2003. Adrian died this year from the neurodegenerative disease that prevented him from finishing the ride in 2007, but his ethos of enjoying every minute of the ride and not going for the fastest time is inspiring. Simon had no similar desire to join this elite Société but kindly humoured me by joining me in wasting time sleeping in the grass on the last 30k to make sure we finished with just under the hour to spare. 

I was delighted to see Tewdric who built my Sabbath for me in his garage last February on the final run into St Quentin (he had finished earlier and was now going back to join others for a drink). I rolled in at 1030km in 89h 06m and relaxed with a glass of wine on a grassy knoll that had been taken over by YACFers.

Since finishing the ride it has taken me much longer than I had thought to recover. The next day my legs and ankles swelled up massively where they remained for the following 2 days. I've been sleeping for over 12 hours a day and yet still feeling exhausted. All 5 of my toes on my right foot and the 2 biggest toes on my left foot are numb with occasional pins and needles. Similar to a lot of the finishers I developed a fluey cold that some people believe is the immune system reacting to what it's been through. Perhaps the worst of all is the loss of a purpose and goal in life, because I can no longer remember what I was thinking about and doing before I ever heard of PBP! I suspect that like the swollen ankles, this anticlimatic affliction will prove to be temporary.

Freaky swollen feet and ankles:


  1. Excellent write up feline. Very well done on your achievement. One week on, and I'm still not capable of putting the experience into words. So again, very well done to you for your early write up!

  2. Lara, please forgive my pedantic SOH. I loved the idea of a viscous circle! Is that when you feel like you're cycling through treacle? ;)
    Great write-up BTW!