This is my attempt at a practical guide to riding PBP, based on what I could remember from the 2015 Paris-Brest-Paris.
Now that I’ve regained use of the majority of my fingers, it’s time to start sharing the wonderful experience we had in France. Seriously, for the first two weeks after the ride I couldn’t even use the nail clipper on my own. Handlebar palsy is a heartless vixen.
I enjoyed the moment and couldn’t be bothered with taking too many pictures. Plus I wanted to preserve my phone’s battery because I was afraid I wouldn’t hear the alarm en route. So not all of the photo’s here are my own. Thanks to my fellow riders for sharing theirs.
1230 divided by 78 gives you just under 16km/h. Which doesn’t sound like much. But when last have you been on the go for almost 80 hours, while doing exercise?
I associate with James May. He likes perpendicular air vents in a car. I like structure. There are a lot of words below — enough to justify a little table of contents, so that you know what you’re in for:
|1. Look forward to
4. Eating time
5. The plan
6. The ride
7. The aftermath
12. What I did right
13. What I did wrong
14. What’s next
Things to look forward to
The French get cycling
They just do. Unlike SA, there are very few, if any, yellow lanes on the rural roads. But the cars will patiently back up behind you. Here the vehicles are innocent until proven guilty. Some of the big trucks drove rather fast, even through small towns, but they won’t push you off the road.
The roads are near perfect. The majority of it is smoother than Ben Kingsley’s head. With such low rolling resistance it feels like you can free forever — just add a bit of weight and gain some momentum.
Café & gâteau
In the middle of the night, in the middle of a small French town, in the middle of nowhere — you’d be greeted by a friendly French family serving you coffee & cake, without asking anything in return. They understand what you are going through. And they support you.
As the ride progress you’ll encounter more of these friendly roadside helpers, offering a variety of snacks. Some just ask for a postcard when you’re back home. Others have a little box for donations. The longer I cycled, the more I started craving fruit, and these roadside stalls were invaluable.
Getting to PBP is not an overnight process. It starts long before you realise you want to do it. Maybe with your first double century. Or doing qualifying brevets unknowingly. Some participants even ended up going unintentionally. But when you arrive in Paris and cycle around on the French roads it just feels right. Like it was meant to be.
It’s European summer. Hot and somewhat humid, with the odd thunder shower — but still pretty nippy at night, so make sure you have enough warm gear. I intentionally left my full fingered gloves at the hotel, but during the ride I wished I hadn’t. We were lucky not to encounter any rain en route, but the guys finishing one day later got wet.
The days are long and it’s lovely outside. The sun sets late and you can probably cycle without using your light till around 21:30. Have a look here. Sample below for Brest.
Skip through this if you’re a seasoned traveler. I’ve included links to all you need at the end of the article.
I used Capago in CPT and it took 3 days to have my visa in hand. Very efficient. So was my wife, who did all the paperwork. As I haven’t finalised anything other than my flights at the time of the appointment, I used booking.com to make a reservation (no deposit & no cancellation fee) with the intention of cancelling it afterwards, just to have proof of accommodation for the visa app. It worked like a charm and I’ll definitely use it again.
Flights & trains
I booked on Emirates from CPT via DXB to CDG. Going there felt quick enough, but coming back we had a long stopover in Dubai — over 42ºC outside, but we never left the airport (read: mall). The French RER trains are geared for bicycles, with sufficient luggage space on the end of each coach. It’s handy to have the map on your phone. Grab it from parisbytrain.com.
Arriving in France
Getting around in a first world country is a cinch. We hopped of the plane at and onto the RER/Ile de France train, followed the blue line to where it crosses with the yellow line, and then just one stop further to our destination at Igny. The train trip was €15. You buy tickets at the machine, no more complicated than the Gautrain, just more stops.
Everywhere. They sure like to spray things. And it’s not just a collection of badly drawn male organs under bridges. The take pride in their work. I liked it. But then again, I can’t read French, so I might be in the same league as a conservative foreigner hopping around to lyrics of Die Antwoord.
Gone are the days where you have to exchange cash at the airport and be bent over by admin fees. I just swiped my Capitec card, same as in SA. Zero fees at point of sale terminals and R45 for cash withdrawals. They do the conversion from EUR to ZAR immediately, at spot plus 2 basis points.
I followed suit and bought a French sim for €20 on Bouygues Télécom, with unlimited local calls & sms’s, around ½hr international calls and enough data to make whatsapp calls for the whole trip. There was data reception whenever I switched on my phone, including the countryside, so no hassles there.
Learn some French. Or don’t.
I’m stubborn and deliberately arrived without knowing a word of French. Just be courteous, look sincere, and start your conversations in Afrikaans. Thereafter you can start waving and pointing like an ape. The French certainly aren’t as antagonistic as one is led to believe.
You also pick up repeated phrases on billboards and signs rather quickly, so navigating isn’t that difficult – even though they couldn’t be bothered with English on any rail/road sign. And in Paris there is no shortage of English. I have since expanded my French vocabulary to this extensive and sadly, exhaustive list:
- Sortie — exit
- Billet — tickets
- Gare — station
- Allez — come on
- Bonne route — good ride
- Bon courage — good luck
- Jambon et fromage — ham & cheese
You really don’t need more than this.
I don’t like the details. The devil hides there. Which is why I didn’t know these details and had to go and calculate it. But here’s some food for thought. If you cycle at a cadence of 70rpm and at a speed of 20kmh (so 3min per km) then you turn over the pedals 210 times every km. So for a 100km ride that would be 21,000 strokes. And over 1230km it equates to over 250,000 pedal strokes. Small things tend to start making a huge difference.
The Cape 1000
Our local club cycled a full series of 200, 300, 400 & 600km BRM’s each month from January till May. We then decided to stage a 1000km test ride, 2 months before PBP.
|PBP||1230 km||11,200 m||90 hours|
|Cape 1000||1000 km||9,500 m||75 hours|
We all started the test ride in good faith, but everyone promptly abandoned after just the 1st leg (around 440). It was just too damn cold. So what was going to happen in Paris?
Less is more
Not in Wimpie’s case. He set the bar, training over 1000km in some weeks, tapering towards the end. I think his final tapered week alone was more than what I trained in total.
My initial plans were to do 1200km, over 12 days, so 100km each. But life and work got in the way and I ended up doing just 6x 100km rides, spread over a period of two weeks. Not ideal. But definitely not overtrained. I also carried enough weight to survive for a month in the Sahara, so plenty of reserves.
How do you prepare for this long time in the saddle?
Maybe you don’t have to. Hear me out:
- On local rides we are very few cyclists. You end up in small groups or alone, so you’re used to doing all the work, whereas with PBP there’s hundreds of riders in sight.
- They say you can double your trained distance. So having done a, or preferably a few, 600kms, you should be able to do 1200. Does this now mean we could do 2400km?.
- Most importantly for first timers, you don’t know the route. Which is great. Around every corner there is something new. No monotony. It keeps you awake.
- The road surface is so smooth it has to be mentioned again. Less resistance. More fun. It feels like you can free forever.
I don’t think you can really train for this. Rather arrive fresh and well rested, with a reasonable level of fitness, and focus on the positives. There will be some pain and sleep deprivation. Try to ignore it and enjoy the ride.
The route profile looks worse than it is, because it is compressed. It was nothing like Alpe d’Huez, rather just endless rollers. Smaller ones. Which suited me quite well, because if you pick up momentum going down, and add a few strokes to clear the next hill, you keep on rolling just fine.
There was the one proper up & down, just before you turn at the half-way mark. Funny enough, coming back, the up leg felt easier than going down — but I’m sure that is just because you are so happy to be returning to Paris in stead of still cycling away from it towards Brest.
There are two distinct types of cyclists arriving at PBP. Racing snakes — mostly French, arriving with as little as possible, seeing as they have endless support en route. And the rest — almost always packing too much, fearing the worst, and having to lug around unnecessary weight. Don’t go overboard, you won’t die. Just have enough warm clothes, clean kit works wonders, a space blanket and some euros. The rest you can buy at controls, including bum cream.
To drop or not? I decided against it. During the last week before my flight I purchased a waterproof Topeak handlebar bag in which I could fit 7 litres worth of stuff. I loaded it with two sets of cycling kit, suntan lotion, chamois, toothbrush, cable ties, space blanket, chamois cream and a few sachets of Rehidrate and energy gels. It worked like a charm and I’m glad I didn’t have to bother with a drop bag, or worry that I might not find it.
What I ate
In short, plenty. Have a look.
I did the same as what I do on all the local rides — start off by taking a few sandwiches with me and then just buy food en route. I don’t usually have much use for energy gels or rehydrate sachets, as I prefer to eat real food and I drink enough not to dehidrate. But for I made an exception for PBP and took along a few gu’s just for in case.
Nigel Grey said that in 2011 he took a sachet of rehidrate every 100kms. This sounded like a great idea and I intended to do the same, but I still finished the event with a few to spare.
You won’t go hungry
There is more than enough food en route. At every stop. When I initially saw the descriptions of the controls on the PBP website, it looked like some would just be a stop and have no food or facilities. But this wasn’t the case. Remember, there are over 6000 cyclists, each carrying a few euros, so it is a great opportunity for the local towns the share in your disposable income.
Before the start
I had tickets for the meal at the Velodrome on the afternoon before the start. Luckily I arrived early, because they soon ran out of food. And some of what was meant to be on offer was still frozen by the time we had to dish up, so even the early birds were somewhat out of luck. Long lines of disappointed cyclists had to be turned away. Not the organisers’ best effort.
Seeing as I cycle from beer stop to beer stop, this was a term I frequently used. You mention it when ordering a beer, otherwise you get served something in a bottle. It refers to a draught, something about pressure. However, some of their beers are best left inside the keg — I’d recommend they stick to Bordeaux wines, as the local beers I tasted are best enjoyed in a state of mild to severe dehidration.
Breakfast of champions
Should have bought McDonald’s shares before I left for France. I had more junk food on this ride than I had during the first half of the year. But you can do so with guilt-free because everything gets used in your furnace during the 4 days of cycling.
Don’t overthink it
There is a 90 hour time limit. I know I cycle around 25kmh, say 20kmh worst case. So 1200kms will take up 60 hours. I wanted to be done within 84. Which leaves 24 hours to play with. I’ve heard you lose a lot of time at the controls. So I budgeted for 20 stops of ½ hour each, another 10 hours. Leaving me with 14 hours for sleep.
I thought I’d stop at 500kms and again at 840kms to sleep for say 5 hours each. It didn’t quite work out that way. And it turns out you don’t need to sleep too much. A few well placed power naps in lieu of longer hours work just as well. My biggest fear was not being able to wake up at some point, because I am a notoriously bad snoozer.
Practice what you preach
Even with my intended laissez faire approach to the ride, my Excel OCD kicked in and I had to create a spreadsheet. Just to see where I’d be at what point during the ride. This was the only page I took with me on the ride. (Oh, and a little picture of my wife. You never know).
This was the hardest part to jot down, because somewhere in the middle, the details were a little fuzzy.
Gerhard was in the same start group as me. It was great to see a familiar face. We were chatting away in the start chute, both keen to get going with this journey into the unknown.
Ever since we left SA four days ago I was anxious to get started. The last 2 days were murder, just hanging around, waiting for this moment. The atmosphere is tangible — you know you’re taking part in something special.
Announcements finished. Countries recognized. Countdown complete. Finally, it happened. We rolled through the massive arch and over the timing mats. People lined the streets for miles on end. It felt more like an Argus than an Audax.
The pace was brisk. Faster than I thought it would be, especially given that there’s still 1200km ahead. Everyone seemed to be fueled by the same combination of nerves and excitement.
After a while we left the buildings behind, turned right through a lane of trees, and riders started to settle a bit, even though we were still going strong. Maybe the sunset had a calming effect.
What are the odds
I was sitting in front of a bunch and suddenly it happened. My first flat. Front wheel. A fish hook. Can you believe it. In the middle of nowhere. You can fit new wheels for PBP, but you cannot prevent a random occurrence such as this.
I didn’t have any bombs with me as they were sold out at the start, so knew this was going to be a longer repair stop, requiring the employment of my old faithful Lezyne hand pump. I patiently & calmly struggled in the dark to get everything sorted and was on my way again. After what felt like half an hour, I was on the road again. By now Gerhard was long gone.
It can only get better
Or could it? Few kms later I heard a gut-wrenched sound. Ping — a spoke snapped. I was afraid this would happen. Which is why I had a complete wheel rebuild just before PBP. New spokes and stronger nipples and I had the tension checked independently as well.
I had a peek and saw that the spoke had snapped right in the middle, which I found odd. A few centimeters of electrical tape to fasten each broken end to the adjacent spoke and I was off again. But ever so slightly nervous.
A few more kms. And another ominous ping. The second spoke also snapped in the middle. By now I was getting anxious. The wheel was buckled to such an extent that it couldn’t turn without the brake calipers fully opened.
I was now in limp home mode and had to get to a mechanic. Fearing more spokes would snap if I put too much pressure on the wheel, I continued cycling seated only. Progress was slow and climbing unpleasant.
Rob passed me from behind. He was sympathetic but there was nothing that either of us could do. His tales of other riders being helped out of similar situations were reassuring. Even so, while cycling side by side, spoke number three also snapped…
Was the universe trying to tell me something? We spend a lot of time and effort to get here. And now, even before getting to the first checkpoint, the future of my PBP was looking grim.
With a full array of spare spokes with me and just needed to get to get here and find someone that can help me to fit them. I vaguely remember Rob telling me that the name has some connection to elevation, so we were about to climb up to the checkpoint. Sitting down and using my granny gear, I lost him going up.
Arriving at the checkpoint, I immediately made for the mechanics. Off course, there was a queue. The owner didn’t speak a word of English, but my problem was easy enough to point out. He frowned. I waited. Luckily there was an enthusiastic younger helper and we understood each other slightly better.
I wanted to buy a new wheel, fearing that we might only waste time to fit the new spokes and then they’ll just start snapping in quick succession once more — surely there must have been damage to the rim. But they were the only guys in town and had no wheels. So I waited for the spokes to be fitted.
Peter came over and offered me something to eat and drink. I also saw Ernst & Gideon. This was only a checkpoint, not a control point, so no need to sign the brevet card.
Roughly an hour later they managed to turn my pretzel into something that resembled a wheel again. I still needed a new one, but at least I was now in better shape to tackle the next 80kms to the first official control.
Peter cycled with me all the way from Mortagne to Villaines. We had some great coffee stops at locals and I remember large highway-like sections of smooth tar. I love cycling at night. You focus on only the necessary. The roads are quiet. And the kilometers seem to tick by quickly.
10km before Villianes La Juhel there was a blue Giant board next to the road indicating that there are mechanics at the control point. I was ecstatic. Upon arrival I first had my card signed, then return to the mechanics and quickly bought a wheel from a friendly guy with perfect command of the Queen’s English.
I still had to wait my turn and while the mechanics were busy, Peter and I went for a proper three course sit down meal, coffee, beer, and a 20min cat nap. Very efficient. It was early-morning as we walked over to collect my bike
The basic, silver, entry-level Shimano wheel set me back a mere €65 (plus 10 for labour). Bargain. On the road again. I was feeling great.
With the confidence of the new wheel and the warmth of the morning sunshine I picked up the pace and tried to get back to my original time budget. This was what PBP was supposed to feel like.
My first mistake. Somewhere in the middle. Coming out of the control I promptly turned left instead of right and started following the arrows back to Paris. Only when I was completely out of the town and back up the long hill I noticed no one around me. Then two officials approached on motorbikes and signaled that I was going the wrong way. Bugger.
What a silly way to through away an hour. And it happened just as I was making up for lost time. Back to square one. Focus, man.
This was the first milestone. As far as I could remember, a lot of South Africans would have used this as a spot to sleep. I got here as the sun was setting in the distance. Think I made a whatsapp call home to inform Valerida of my progress. I’m also sure I saw Gerrit Pretorius and exchanged a few words.
After some faffing around I sampled their saucisse galet (weak attempt at a boereworsrol) together with a small beer in a plastic cup. Maybe it was better than I remember, but I stood in a queue for the food, only to be pointed to a caravan were I should have bought tokens first. Another queue. And then back to the food queue again. Luckily the beer queue was short. This was the most inefficient stop I made all PBP.
Rather fitting, Nico thought it was a great idea to have a nap at Saint Nic. I’m only referring to myself in the third person for the word play here, but an alter ego who can do the pedaling on my behalf doesn’t sound half bad.
This was at around 500km and after all my adventures since setting off, it was time for a well deserved nap. I thought 30min should be enough.
I had a three course PBP meal, went back for more fruit, and then looked for a spot to lie down. This checkpoint had beds where volunteers could wake you up, but there was also a queue for same.
I spotted a hidden gem — a garage-sized room adjacent to the dining room, filled with cyclists who didn’t want to wait in line. There always room for one more. So I squeezed into the corner after moving around some limbs attached to the zombies around me to make space.
It was freezing outside and this was a very welcome rest, other for the fact that the room had a motion-sensing light that went on with a loud click almost every second minute. Most of the time it was my fault, as I couldn’t get my lie in that tiny space. At some level I was glad that I didn’t fall straight into REM sleep, for the fear of not hearing my alarm. I snooze like a corpse.
I cannot remember exactly where, but somewhere between Loudeac & Carhaix I witnessed something I wish I hadn’t. Even before getting there you sensed something was amiss. A couple of ambulances passed us on a long and gradual climb. Eventually we came around a corner on a steep section where we saw paramedics violently trying to resuscitate a rider.
No-one said a word after this. It was a tragic sight. I couldn’t make out whether there was a crash, whether someone else was involved, or whether the guy had a heart attack. I’ve looked online, but haven’t read anything relating to this incident yet.
Arrived early-morning. It was rather cold outside and I was looking forward to a shower and some fresh kit. Coming in to the control they had a terrace with the flags of every country represented at the event. Nice touch. Even nicer was to see Rob’s bike underneath the SA flag. I have been cycling alone for ages and could do with some conversation.
This was the last control before the halfway mark, and a busy one at that. It was quite a walk to get to the showers. I took my merry time, but every minute was worth it. I felt absolutely great afterwards. By the time I got back to the bikes, Rob’s was gone. Now for the last stretch of slightly under a 100kms to Brest.
The last stretch to the halfway mark included the biggest downhill of the ride. Good fun. I also noticed plenty of camper vans at the top, just before we started the last descent.
At the bottom, in Brest, you follow a path parallel to the highway for the last bit down to the water. You’ll cross next to the Pont de l’Iroise suspension bridge, pretty spectacular. Be sure to snap a picture on your way in because you don’t come back over the bridge again.
I arrived at the halfway mark late morning. A rather uneventful affair. I expected more. Or maybe I just didn’t understand all the commotion because of the language barrier. I wasn’t in the mood for another round of PBP food so only signed my card, filled my bottles and headed back out.
Pizza time. I found a Domino’s opening it’s doors on may way out of Brest. I stopped so fast that both brake cables must have stretched. I placed their first order for the day. By the time it was ready, the place was crawling with cyclists. Very impressed with myself — I started a small revolution.
It was now after 12pm. Before setting off I quickly checked my phone, curious to see where the others were. I saw that Gerhard arrived in Brest before 8am, so he must have been far away by now.
The big climb was waiting, but I was on my way back to Paris and very happy in the saddle. Life is good.
Somewhere on the hills I noticed a commotion. A sleepy rider fell off his bike. Or bumped a car. I wasn’t sure, but it didn’t look serious. The chap just needed some sleep or some coffee. I was also getting tired so this prompted me to have a 20min cat nap on the grass at a picnic spot next to the road. It worked wonders. The climbs even felt much easier than I envisaged from the bottom.
When I came through Saint-Nicolas-du-Pélem on my way back to Paris it was daylight and now I noticed it was a kindergarten school setup. Vastly different to the image I had from the first round when I was trying to sleep here under that motion sensing light .
This time I arrived at Loudeac just half an hour later then on the out leg, now 9pm. I looked for a restaurant on my way to the control, but wasn’t really committed and ended up eating another French hot dog with a tiny beer.
Walking through the bike park, I saw Ernst & Gideon. What lovely coincidence. These guys do it right. The ride at a nice pace and sleep a lot. They were in good spirit. I was very excited about having two companions for the road ahead. I waited while they did their rounds and then we were off.
It was great cycling with the Bianchi Brothers. We kept a good pace and chatted all the way. My headlight battery was now on it’s last legs, having served me for 2½ nights. I stopped to swop it for another one, fumbled around in the dark, lost my cycling buddies and never saw them again.
If memory serves me right, Ernst & Gideon’s camper van was near Quadillac, where they planned to have a proper night’s rest. This was around the 840km mark. I also planned to get some sleep here, but was still felling great and wide awake and decided to carry right on.
By the time I got here it was time for some rest. I met up with Barry Shaw. It was great seeing him again as we did many rides together up in JHB and I haven’t seen him since we moved down to CPT. We grabbed a three course meal at the control point and afterwards just slid down underneath our tables for some sleep.
The room was very warm and inviting. I think we set the alarms for 6am. This was one of the longest naps I had on PBP. Unfortunately it wasn’t the best one, as I struggled quite a bit with some phlegm from all the cold night riding without a buff.
Rob must have Walkered right past us somewhere in the dining room, because he was also here around that time. We met him en route the next morning. And then there were 3. Spirits were high, we were going home.
We fantasized about McDonald’s earlier. As we approached the town I noticed an outlet and hooked a sharp right around the next circle. The McDonald’s was rather progressive. Orders were placed & paid for on electronic menu boards, while Du hast (Rammstein) was playing on the stereo. Rob even saw aliens in the bathroom.
Fully fed and enlightened, we carried on into town. Coming out of the control, I didn’t repeat my prior error, this time pointing in the right direction (and riding that stretch of tar for the third time). Not sure where, but we got split up somewhere after this.
Now there were only 300kms and 4 controls left. The next three controls turned out to be my fastest of the whole ride. I felt like I was getting stronger & stronger the further I went.
Before we got to Villaines I was in my element. It was around midday, warm, I was awake and riding mostly alone. Until a couple of Germans on racing bikes joined in. They didn’t say much, but you could see it wasn’t their first time on a bicycle, or PBP for that matter. They were from the Monday morning start group. After a long while the one chap said he couldn’t keep up the pace anymore and bailed. This spurred me on and the last bit towards the control felt faster still — even if only in my mind.
After having my control card signed I topped up my water bottles, had a my first coke (not a big fan, but appreciate the need for it), a coffee and three different pastries. Man, were they good. I sat in the same room as where Peter and I had a quick nap over 55 hours ago, and I wondered how his ride was going.
This was the control where I got my new wheel. On my way out I stopped by and thanked the mechanic. They seemed busy. I continued and had those same feelings of when I left this control the first time (albeit in the opposite direction). It was satisfied, humbled and thankful, for my PBP didn’t end as quick as what it looked like 1000kms ago. Bonne route.
On the way out this was just a stop. Now it was a control. I had my card signed and saw the inside of the building for the first time — as I spent my previous visit waiting outside at the mechanics.
I had some more pastries as it was the food group with the least amount of queuing and I was still looking to finish before 00:00. At this stage I was an hour behind Gerhard. We couldn’t ride together as planned, but I hoped we could finish together.
The stretch to Dreux was insane. I never thought I’d experience anything like it, definitely not after cycling for over 1100kms. Bunches formed and grew and the pace was frantic. Some clowns hopped over pavements (albeit lower ones) as we came into town. Settle people, settle.
I left my bike in the park next to the athletics track and made my way to the massive hall to have the card signed — for the last time. I quickly had some soup & fruit (lots of grapes). There was a thirtysomething non-cycling lady at a table nearby who kept looking at me.
When I left it was dark again. We slowly went up a hill, through a suburb. About five of each reached the top at the same time. There was some confusion as to which turn to take and we backtracked a bit. I was able to give a motorist some direction in life — they were looking for the control where we just came from.
A mere 5% of the total distance remained.
It was in this last segment where I experienced the most bizarre moment of the entire ride, while cycling with a bunch Italians and some of the same mad nutters that sprinted into Dreux. Suddenly no-one seemed to follow when you take the lead. They kept to themselves and ignored anyone else. I was trying to be polite and pull at the front. Other ‘outsiders’ also tried unsuccessfully. But nothing. At first I kind of respected whatever they were trying to do, but after a while I had enough and just got on with it.
I wanted to get back before 00:00, because I like round numbers. But the pace from the previous leg just wasn’t there. It felt like everyone raced to get to Dreux and that was it — as if this last stretch was sacred, like rolling to the finish line on the last day of the TdF.
This last 65km took longer than expected. And it contains some sneaky last climbs. You think you are pretty much home, but the velodrome just doesn’t want to appear. The distinct scent of approaching summer rains was in the air and I wanted to get home while it was still dry.
As we got closer to the end, one could sense a certain restlessness between the riders. We have been following the arrows for almost 1200kms, but all of a sudden guys started hesitating and pausing at intersections. Just keep following the road until you see an arrow and don’t turn off beforehand.
Eventually the area started looking familiar, or at least I thought so. We turned onto a path and headed down to the velodrome. What a lovely feeling. Crossing the finish line was just as uneventful as the halfway mark. But I was rather happy with myself. And I made it before the rain came down.
I should really learn how to cycle with a buff. The night air is cold, so after going through 3 evenings, you build up phlegm. Not ideal, but it happens. And it’s rather annoying to sit with that persistent cough. Maybe take along some ACC200 next time.
Not bad. Don’t get me wrong — after 3 days it feels like a piece of Lego that clicks in every time you you sit down on your saddle, so there was a lot of standing. But that works on you knees and feet again, so there is always a trade-off. Luckily I expected much worse, so points here.
I don’t walk a lot. So after cycling for an extended period and then walking through the streets of Paris while sightseeing, I could feel it below. On the plane back my feet had swollen up to fill the shoes of the Sasquatch — it looked like I was trying to walk on two Eisbeins. Thoughts of deep vein thrombosis and blood clots crossed my mind, but two days after arriving home everything was back to normal. Just put your feet up and drink lots of water.
They were a bit tender, even early on. But that might have been because I was forced to sit down for the bulk of the first 220km as not to put too much strain on my rear wheel and risk breaking it in half. In the end, my kneecaps never popped out or hit someone in the eye, so I’m happy.
It happened again. See handlebar tape below. And this time even some of my toes felt numb after the ride. Halt — Hammertoe.
And the rest
I never experienced any back pain or a stiff neck. Towards the end it still felt like I could turn my head like that girl from The Exorcist. I haven’t done a proper bike setup — couldn’t even tell you my saddle height. Maybe I was lucky. Maybe I couldn’t remember.
I did get a slight cold about a week after the event. There’s no denying that the whole exercise is taxing on your system. A few Airmune’s & Corenzas quickly fixed this.
Well done to all. Special mention the Chris who improved his own best time for SA to date with an hour, finishing in under 55. Gerrit Pretorius completed his 3rd PBP this year. Salim finished in spite of being in an accident just weeks before the event. And Peter, ever the gentleman, was forced by the medics to pull out after 1009km. And again after 1090km, because he snuck out the first time.
I believe Rob also spent some time at the medics. Ernst & Gideon set the example for maximising sleep & comfort en route. Wimpie’s sub 50 attempt went flying out the window with his own wheel troubles. And Kenneth treated the leg out to Brest like a time trail — we’ll have to put a brake on him.
In alphabetical order:
M016 - Nico Coetzee - 78:01 S020 - Ernst Engelbrecht - 86:46 E013 - Thys Erasmus - 75:49 S021 - Gideon Krige - 86:46 T024 - Gerrit Pretorius - 86:56 J049 - Salim Shaikjee - 92:15 N015 - Barry Shaw - 86:00 D006 - Wimpie vd Merwe - 61:08 M017 - Gerhard v Noordwyk - 79:08 B012 - Chris van Zyl - 54:56 E012 - Gerrit Visser - 76:29 R023 - Rob Walker - 84:52 R022 - Peter Muller - (1090km) G278 - Kenneth Wilson - (618km) B239 - Henk Venter - DNS
Based on stats for previous years (2015 not yet available at the time of writing), SA’s homologations (% finishers) were well above the global average. Told you we’re a tough lot.
A collection of two-wheeled zombies
There were so many. But these are the ones that left an impression.
The French. Racing bikes and very little else, they have so much support en route that they needn’t worry about excess weight. It was also curious to note than when travelling through towns, you almost got the impression that they had to be in front – that it was frowned upon by the crowd to see then sit behind the wheels of other nations and not lead the pack. I could be wrong. But they were certainly friendly and inquisitive after spotting the SA flag – Afrique du Sud.
The Asians. It seemed like they were all doing road tests for a magazine, each carrying almost every gadget imaginable. Very well kitted out. And preferring to sleep on the roadside rather than at controls. Or maybe it just looked that way, seeing as there were there in big numbers.
The British. A friendly lot. I thoroughly enjoyed their conversation. There were two in particular, who enquired whether I know one Rob Walker. Well yes indeed, we just had Mcdonalds for breakfast a short while ago. Rob was on his way.
The Americans. They have taken to Randonneuring en masse. And they look the part, with laid back bikes and Brookes saddles and traditional gear. They also didn’t seem to be in too much of a hurry, rather soaking up the whole experience.
The Italians. Talkative. And plentiful. The group I saw most had three ladies amongst the guys. I also shared on of the weirdest moments ever on my bike with some Italians during the very last stage of the event. Read on.
Luck of the Irish. There was an Irish group in our hotel. The chap who left his skewer spring lying on the floor after assembling his bike was probably not as lucky. But they were in great spirits, have done it before, and we cycled with them from the hotel to the start line. Much obliged.
The Germans. Didn’t share too many words. But they were visibly efficient. And solitary, from my experience.
G’day mate. Funny enough I didn’t notice a too many Aussies (or a single Kiwi, for that matter), even though there would have been quite a number of them.
All in good spirit. I haven’t once seen any rider agitated at another, despite the lack of sleep. Everyone shared the same ordeal and it was great to see riders from across the globe working together.
One day in Paris
Friday. We only had one discretionary day before flying back to SA. Florence came to meet us at the Igny train station. Wimpie & Gerhard was staying in a hotel close to the airport that evening, so she accompanied them there to drop off their bags. I was still staying in Igny for the evening so wasted no time in getting to the middle of Paris.
Javel. I hopped onto the RER from Igny to Javel. When you exit the station, you turn and see the Eiffel a few kms away. I walked there in stead of taking the inner city trains. Great day outside. There were hundreds of people queuing underneath the tower, waiting to go up. I had no intention of joining them and rather hopped onto a red doubledecker bus. Touristy, I know, but a great way to rest your feet.
Djy. Close to the opera house, 3 ladies joined the bus in the row behind me. I suspected they had indulged in vin rouge shortly before. Their accent was instantly recognisable as Afrikaans-English. One of them was looking for an extra plug for her headset and I promptly replied with “ag, druk hom sommer daar agter jou kop in”. Great laughs.
Abundance. I saw many nice things. A fountain. A church. A concert hall. A palace. A garden. Lots of buildings. And a place with a glass pyramid outside and a painting-that-looks-back-at-you inside. With the fear of boring you, I’m going to mention just the top three.
Eiffel. Gustave is the name that was printed on the teddy bear I brought my wife. His tower is also 300m high and was the world’s tallest building for 41 years. Started 28th January 1887, opened on 31st March 1889 and was an immediate success, covering construction costs in year 1.
Arc. At the end of the Champs-Elysees you’ll find the 50m high Arc de Triomphe, completed in 1836 and commemorating fallen French soldiers from the revolution and under Napoleon (who never saw the completion because he was exiled and died on St Helena in 1821).
Hunchback. Our lady, the Notre Dame is the centre of Paris, ‘km zero’. Catholic cathedral. Gothic architecture. Cornerstone laid in 1163 and took 185 yrs to build so has many different influences, completed in 1345. Victor Hugo wrote about Quasimodo & Esmeralda in 1831.
Late lunch. I met up with Flo, Gerhard & Wimpie for a sit-down meal. Great chips, but I do a much better steak. Afterwards I got a bottle of proper bubble for Valerida. We then strolled around for a while, before departing on our seperate ways.
[insert pic] Wimpie, Nico & Gerhard in front of the L’Hôtel des Invalides. Napoleon’s remains is somewhere inside. And the cannons on the lawn are those he took from others.
What does it cost?
On the event
The exchange rate was around R14½ for 1€ at the time, so we are looking at around R21k or €1450. This includes the entry, €130. Visa R1500. Flights & insurance R9500. Train trips R700. French sim card €20. Hotel 2 nights before, shared, R500. Hotel 2 nights afterwords, single, R1100. Other food & card payments, R1500. And I took €300 to use en route (of which €75 went for the new wheel & repairs).
On the bike
If you don’t have a handlebar bag or bike travel case then these need to be added. Maybe an extra light. Plus the usual suspects like energy gels, Rehidrate, tubes, spares, spokes, hanger and new tyres. And a service before & after. Thanks to the guys at BMT Stellenbosch.
It’s a monumental ride. Make a plan to get there. You won’t regret it.
What I did right
Don’t take yourself too seriously. You are there to enjoy it. Above all else, stay safe. It’s just cycling.
Probably the single most valuable tip I can pass on is the one I got from Nigel Grey after his 2011 PBP. Reset your trip computer after each control. Just focus on the next control. Not the end. And don’t think “I’ve done 100, I have 1130 to go”. That is crazy talk. You’ll end up in a strait-jacket.
Pack a chamois
Like the one you use to wash your car. You can shower with it and use it to dry yourself afterwards. It is small and light and won’t take up too much space. I don’t notice any towels during or after the PBP controls, so a chamois becomes essential. And after a shower and some fresh kit you feel like a new person — it almost worked better than sleep.
Oh, and remember some TP. I wanted to take a roll from the hotel before the ride, forgot to do so, and ended up not needing any en route either. Maybe I was just lucky. Also note that at numerous controls they simply hose down the toilets in between visitors, so everything on the inside is soaking wet. I know the ladies complained quite a bit.
The small things
Pack a toothbrush for your shower stop. After numerous energy drinks and gels your mouth deserves a break. You’ll feel refreshed and ready to go. And clip your nails. I did. Because no-one wants to pull off toe-nails like potato chips. Don’t cause yourself unnecessary pain.
All being said
Looking back, the cycling was the easy part. Coming from South Africa, we don’t just hop on a ferry or cycle down to the start line. It takes 2 days to get to Paris and get your things sorted. And the same on the way back. But you do return home with a certain sense of accomplishment.
What I would change
I bunked with Wimpie van der Merwe. What a character. I thoroughly enjoyed his stories. View his achievements on Impact Solutions. But on the evening before the start of PBP (so just when you’d like to catch up on a last great night’s sleep), he took some sleeping pills, popped in his ear buds and promptly continued to rip the plaster off the walls.
I have never heard such enthusiastic snoring before. It sounded like a choir of demons. So choose your hotel partner carefully. Or be the first to fall asleep. Because you don’t want to be on the PBP start line in an already sleep deprived state. I made a mental note to bring my own ear buds next time.
I wanted to add another layer of handlebar tape before leaving SA, but forgot. From the 600km rides I know you get handlebar palsy because of pinching your ulner nerve continuously. The more often you do long rides, the more you get used to it. However, PBP was like hitting the reset button and experiencing it for the first time again. Remember. Gel tape. Any tape. More tape.
If you use these, then you know you cannot fly with them. And after having first hand experience of what happens when they accidentally go off (just ask Theunis & the ladies from the 300km BRM in May). I’m rather glad it’s not allowed on planes.
But by the time we arrived at the Velodrome for bike check, every bomb was already sold. And the same went for every control we visited. So if you use these, buy them early, or at a bike shop, or be prepared to use your pump. Oh, and even if you have a presta/schrader adapter, the petrol stations only go up to 5.5bar, which is insufficient.
Clothes for afterwards
I didn’t bother with a drop bag, but a clean change of normal clothes would have been nice right at the end. I finished after midnight, then went for a hot shower at the Velodrome and had to change into a clean pair of cycling kit — board shorts and flipflops would have been much more accommodating at that stage. But not the end of the world. Just a nice to have.
Coming back, flying from Paris to Dubai and waiting on DXB for 8 hours before connecting to SA was a bit of a drag. If your budget allows it then consider rewarding yourself with a direct flight back.
Lights, camera, action
If you like taking pictures, consider taking GoPro to capture some memories. Having something mounted on your helmet or handlebar is much easier than fiddling around with your phone. And a proper dynamo-hub-type-light might save some weight as you don’t have to lug around a bunch of batteries and backups; plus you can have an USB charging point on your bike. Be your own power source. I only realised the popularity and effectiveness of these on PBP.
This side up
I bought a proper hardshell bike box before the event, bikesafe.co.za. It worked like a charm. But poor Wimpie, who had exactly the same, still suffered the fate of ACSA (or their French equivalent). Someone had flipped his hardshell case off its wheels, onto its side, and promptly piled on as much baggage as possible. So he picked up a concave bike box in CPT. Cracked fork and more.
If this had to happen on the way there then it would have been a disaster. Moral of the story — ‘fragile’ stickers aren’t enough. Next time you need to ensure that even Stevie Wonder would be able to ascertain the direction in which the box should be stored. Maybe spray painting neon arrows on the side would do the trick. And have insurance.
Would I do it again?
In a heartbeart. It’s a great experience. And you recover quicker than you think. You body is a stubborn thing. Some say that PBP is only held every 4 years because it is long enough to forget the pain and enter again. Next time I won’t be so stressed about the cycling and would like to add a proper holiday afterwards.
Short term, R-5000
In completing PBP we’ve crossed the biggest hurdle towards the R-5000 award. To qualify for this, you must complete a full series of ACP brevets (200, 300, 400, 600, and 1000km), a PBP, a Flèche Vélocio or similar, plus additionals BRM’s to bring the total distance up 5000 km, within a 4 year period. Read more on RUSA & ACP. So now its time for an official SA 1000km BRM, plus a Flèche.
Long term, LEL 2017
The 1400+km London-Edinburg-London, within a 120hr time limit. Entries open mid-September 2015. Book your spot. Compared to PBP, there are quite a few upsides to LEL — from what I’ve been told, it’s in English; food and sleeping facilities and bag drops are included; and if time was going to be an issue, you get more of it. I’m looking forward to this one.
A Big Thanks
My better half. Valerida, without your prodding I certainly wouldn’t have gone. There were a whole range of obstacles that you simply ignored. And you pack like a machine. Love you.
My family. Randonneuring takes time. You cannot do this without a proper support structure. Endless gratitude for my many me-hours.
Eddie & Jean. Edward Thomlinson is the father of Audax South Africa. Which makes Jean the mother thereof. Without them I wouldn’t have known about randonneuring.
Rob & Yolandi. For being the ‘Eddie for the Western Cape’. People don’t always realise the many hours involved in route planning and event admin. And he does it for the love of cycling. Time for the R-5000.
Florence Brugnon. For taking care of us in France, and translating where we fell short, which was every sentence. I’m sure you saved us from many ‘special ingredients’ in our food. Come learn to surf in sunny South Africa.
Fellow SA riders. This is an individual event. But we all went over there as South Africans. And I thoroughly enjoyed cycling & travelling with each one of you.
Last but not least. Eugene, Daniel, Derek & Gary. You weren’t there, but you all played a part. And you make this hobby fun.
- AudaxSA – audaxsa.co.za
- PBP – paris-brest-paris.org
- LEL – londonedinburghlondon.com
- RUSA – rusa.org
- YACF – yacf.co.uk/forum
- Flights – cheapflights.co.za
- Hotels – booking.com
- Schengen – capago.eu
- Train map – rer
- Marcus – marcusjb.com
- Rob – justkeeppedalling.com
I didn’t use strava to record anything, but here is Rob’s: https://www.strava.com/activities/375330944