Now that I’ve regained use of my fingers, it’s time to share 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.
First, the numbers: 1230 over 78 is around 16km/h (including stops), which doesn’t sound like much. But when last have you been on the go for almost 80 hours while doing exercise? Given that I almost didn’t reach the first check point, I’m very chuffed with the result. This is what happened.
Ever since we left South Africa I was anxious to get started. It would be my longest ride at the time and I was about to learn a few things.
Hanging around before the start for two days was too long, but the atmosphere atmosphere is tangible and you know you are taking part in one of the ultimate cycling privileges.
Gerhard was in the same start group as me. It was great to see a familiar face and we were chatting away in the start chute, both keen to get going with this journey into the unknown.
0km. Paris. 16-Aug 18:46
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 expected, especially with 1200km still to come. Everyone was fueled by the same combination of nerves and excitement.
After a while we left the buildings behind and turned right, through a lane of trees. Riders started to settle, but 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 — a fish hook through the front tyre, can you believe it? You can fit new wheels for the race, but you can’t prevent a random occurrence such as this.
With no CO2 bombs with me (as they were sold out at the start), I knew this was going to be a longer repair stop, requiring the employment of my old faithful Lezyne hand pump.
I patiently and calmly struggled in the dark to get everything sorted before setting off. After what felt like half an hour, I was back on the road again. By now Gerhard was long gone.
It can only get better
Or could it? Few kilometers later I heard a gut-wrenched sound. Ping — a spoke snapped. I was silently afraid this would happen. Which is why I had a complete wheel rebuild just before PBP, complete with new spokes, stronger nipples and independent checks.
I took a peek and saw the spoke had snapped right in the middle, which is 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.
Then 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 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.
I vaguely remember Rob telling me that the name has some connection to elevation, meaning we were about to climb up to the checkpoint. Sitting down and in granny gear, I lost him going up.
With a full array of spare spokes with me, I just needed someone that could fit them. 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 the two if us understood each other slightly better.
I wanted to buy a new wheel, fearing that we might be wasting time replacing spokes that might continue to snap in quick succession shortly after — surely there must have been damage to the rim. But they were the only guys in town and had no wheels on offer, so I waited for the spokes to be fitted.
Peter came over and offered something to eat and drink. I also saw Ernst & Gideon. This was only a checkpoint, not a control point and there was no need to sign the brevet card.
An hour later they managed to turn my pretzel into something that resembled a wheel. I still needed a new one, but at least I’m able to tackle the next 80kms to the first official control.
221km. Villaines. 17-Aug 06:19
Peter cycled with me all the way from Mortagne to Villaines. We had some great coffee stops at friendly locals and I remember large highway-like sections of smooth tar. I love cycling at night.
Ten kilometers before Villaines-la-Juhel there was a blue Giant board next to the road indicating that there are mechanics at the control. I was ecstatic. After signing the card I returned to the mechanics and bought a wheel from a friendly chap with perfect command of the Queen’s English.
I still had to wait my turn. While the mechanics were busy, Peter and I went for a proper three course sit down meal, including coffee, beer and a 20 minute catnap. Very efficient.
It was early-morning as I walked over to collect the bicycle. The basic, silver, entry-level Shimano wheel was a mere €65 (plus €10 for labour). Bargain. On the road again. I was feeling great.
310km. Fougeres. 17-Aug 12:04
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 plan. This was what PBP was supposed to feel like.
364km. Tinteniac. 17-Aug 15:42
My first mistake. Somewhere in the middle while coming out of the control, I promptly turned left instead of right and started going back to Paris.
Only when I was completely out of the town it dawned on me that I’ve just come down this hill I was now climbing. At the same time two officials arrived on motorbikes and signaled me back. Bugger.
What a silly way to throw away more time while trying to claw some back. Back to square one. Focus, man.
449km. Loudeac. 17-Aug 20:29
This was the first milestone. Many would use this control to sleep. I arrived with the sun was setting in the distance and made a quick call to inform Valerida of my progress. Also sure I saw Gerrit Pretorius and exchanged a few words.
After some faffing around I sampled a saucisse galet (weak attempt at a boereworsrol) and a small beer in a plastic cup. But not before standing in a very long queue, only to arrive in front and learn they only accept tokens.
So off to the token-queue, before returning to the food-queue and then the beer-queue. There was a lot of queuing. This was my most inefficient stop of the ride.
Nico thought it was a great idea to have a nap at Saint Nic. Only referring to myself in the third person for word play, but an alter ego who can pedal on my behalf doesn’t sound half bad.
This was around 500km in and after all my adventure so far it was time for a well deserved nap. I reckoned half an hour should be enough.
I had a three course PBP meal, went back for more fruit, then looked for a spot to lie down. There were beds where volunteers could wake you up, but was also am inevitable 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. I squeezed into the corner after moving some limbs attached to the zombies around me.
It was cold outside and this was a welcome rest, other for the motion-sensing light that went on with a loud click almost every minute. Most of the time it was my fault, as I wriggled around in that tiny space.
At some level I was glad not to fall straight into REM sleep, for the fear of not hearing my alarm. I snooze like a corpse. But soon enough I left the loudly snoring zombies behind and pedaled into the quiet night.
Somewhere before Carhaix, I saw something I wish I had not. You could sense something was amiss. A couple of ambulances passed us on a long and gradual climb. Coming around a corner on a steep section 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 it was a crash or a heart attack. I also searched only afterwards but didn’t find anything.
525km. Carhaix. 18-Aug 05:29
I arrived here early morning. It was cold outside and I was looking forward to a shower and some fresh kit. As you enter 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 the showers. I took my merry time, but every minute was worth it as I felt absolutely great afterwards. By the time I got back to the bikes, Rob’s was gone.
618km. Brest. 18-Aug 10:22
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 into Brest.
At the bottom we followed a path parallel to the highway all the way down to the water and crossed next to the Pont de l’Iroise suspension bridge, which is pretty spectacular. Be sure to snap a photo on the way in because we didn’t come back over the bridge again.
I arrived at the halfway mark late morning and it was a rather uneventful affair. Not in the mood for more PBP food I only had my card signed, filled my bottles and headed back to Paris.
Pizza time. When I found a Domino’s opening its doors on my way out of town, I stopped so fast that both brake cables must have stretched. I promptly placed their first order for the day and by the time it was ready, the place was crawling with cyclists. Very impressed with myself — I’ve started a small revolution.
It was now after 12pm. Before setting off I curiously checked my phone to see where the other riders were and saw that Gerhard arrived in Brest before 8am. He must have been far away by now.
The bigest climb was waiting, but I was on my way back to Paris and very happy in the saddle. Life is good.
703km. Carhaix. 18-Aug 16:49
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 too serious. He just needed some sleep or coffee.
I was also getting tired and this incident prompted me to have a 20 minute catnap on the grass at a picnic spot next to the road. It worked wonders. The climbs even felt easier than I envisaged from the bottom.
It was daylight when I came through Saint-Nicolas-du-Pélem again. Now I noticed it was a kindergarten school setup, vastly different to the image I had from the first round when trying to sleep here under that motion sensing light.
782km. Loudeac. 18-Aug 21:01
Now 9pm, I arrived at Loudeac just half an hour later then on the leg out. I spotted 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. hey are well-organised and sleep a lot. I was excited about having two companions for the road ahead and waited while they did their rounds before setting off.
It was great cycling with the Bianchi Brothers. We kept a good pace and chatted all the way. My headlight battery was on it’s last legs, after 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, their camper van was near Quadillac, where they planned to have a proper night’s rest. This was around the 840km mark. Initially my plan was also to sleep here, but I was still feeling great and wide awake and decided to carry on.
867km. Tinteniac. 19-Aug 02:15
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 Johannesburg and I haven’t seen him since we moved down to Cape Town.
The room was very warm and inviting and after a three course meal we simply slid down underneath our tables for a nap, setting the alarms for 6am.
This was one my longest naps on PBP. Unfortunately it wasn’t the best one, as I struggled with quite a bit with 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 three. Spirits were high, we were going home.
921km. Fougeres, 19-Aug 09:43
We fantasized about McDonald’s earlier. Approaching Fougeres, I noticed an outlet and hooked a sharp right around the next circle. They were rather progressive. We placed and paid for order 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 were my fastest s the further I went, the stronger I felt.
1009km. Villaines. 19-Aug 13:45
Before Villaines I was in my element. It was around midday and warm. I was wide awake and mostly cycling 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 to the control felt faster still — even if only in my mind.
After the control card shuffle I topped up water bottles, had my first coke (not a fan), a coffee and three different pastries. Man, were they good. I sat in the same room where Peter and I had a quick nap over 50 hours ago while waiting for the new wheel and I wondered how his ride was going.
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.
I was satisfied, humbled and thankful, for my PBP didn’t end as quickly as it could have over 1000 kilometers ago. Bonne route.
1090km. Mortagne. 19-Aug 17:28
The first time we came through here it was just a stop, but now it was a control point. 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.
Pastries were the food group with they least amount of queuing so those were the ones I chose, as I was still an hour behind Gerhard. We couldn’t ride together as planned, but I hoped we could finish together.
1165km. Dreux. 19-Aug 21:02
The stretch to Dreux was insane. I never thought I’d experience anything like it, definitely not after cycling for over 1100 kms. Bunches formed and grew and the pace was frantic. Some clowns hopped over pavements 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 and fruit (cravings). There was a thirty-something non-cycling lady at a table nearby who kept staring 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.
In this last segment I experienced the most bizarre moment of the entire ride, while cycling with a bunch Italians and some of the blokes who sprinted into Dreux.
I was trying to be polite and pull at the front. No-one followed. Time and again. They kept to themselves. Other outsiders also tried, unsuccessfully. But nothing. At first I respected what they were trying to do, but soon got bored and cycled off in front.
I wanted to get back before midnight, 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 the last bit was sacred — dare I say like the last day of the Tour?
1230km. Finish. 20-Aug 00:47
The last stretch had some sneaky climbs and 65km took longer than expected. So close, but the Velodrome just doesn’t want to appear. With the distinct scent of approaching summer rains in the air, I wanted to get home while it was still dry.
One could sense a certain restlessness between the riders. All of a sudden guys started hesitating and pausing at intersections. Just follow the road and only turn when you see an arrow. Exactly what we’ve been doing for the last 1200 kilometers.
Things 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 chuffed with myself and back before the rain came down.
I didn’t record anything, but here is Rob’s Strava.
Well done to all, especially Chris who improved his own best time for a South African with an hour, finishing under 55 hours. Gerrit Pretorius completed his third PBP and Salim finished in spite of an accident just weeks before.
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 and Gideon set the bar for maximising sleep and comfort. Wimpie’s sub-50 attempt went rolling out the door with his own wheel trouble. And Kenneth treated the leg out to Brest like a time trail — we’ll have to put a brake on him.
South African homologations were well above the global average.
- B012 Chris van Zyl — 54:56
- D006 Wimpie vd Merwe — 61:08
- E013 Thys Erasmus — 75:49
- E012 Gerrit Visser — 76:29
- M016 Nico Coetzee — 78:01
- M017 Gerhard v Noordwyk — 79:08
- R023 Rob Walker — 84:52
- N015 Barry Shaw — 86:00
- S020 Ernst Engelbrecht — 86:46
- S021 Gideon Krige — 86:46
- T024 Gerrit Pretorius — 86:56
- J049 Salim Shaikjee — 92:15
- R022 Peter Muller — (1090km)
- G278 Kenneth Wilson — (618km)
- B239 Henk Venter — DNS
One day in Paris
We had one discretionary day before flying home. Florence met us at the Igny train station. Wimpie and Gerhard stayed closer to the airport that evening and she assisted them in dropping their bags.
I was still staying in Igny for the evening and wasted no time in getting to the middle of Paris, hopping on the RER from Igny to Javel. When you exit the station the Eiffel is just a few kilometers away.
Great day for a walk through the city. There were hundreds of people queuing underneath the tower, waiting to go up. I had no intention of joining them, rather opting for a red double-decker bus. Touristy, I know, but a great way to rest your feet.
Close to the opera house, three ladies joined the bus and settled in the seats behind me. I suspect the indulged in vin rouge shortly before. ‘Djy’, their accents instantly recognisable as Afrikaans-English. One was looking for a headset plug and I promptly replied with “ag druk hom sommer daar agter jou kop in”. Great laughs.
I saw many nice things that day. A fountain. A church. A concert hall. A palace. A garden. Old 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’ll only mention the top three —
Eiffel. Gustave is the name on the teddy I brought Valerida — his tower is also 300 meters high and was the tallest building for 41 years. After two years of construction it opened on the last day of March 1889 and was an instant hit, covering costs in year one.
Arc. At the end of the Champs-Elysees is the 50 meter Arc de Triomphe, completed in 1836, commemorating fallen soldiers from the Revolution and under Napoleon (who never saw completion as he was exiled and died on St Helena in 1821).
Hunchback‘s residence, the Notre Dame is ‘km zero’ in Paris. It’s a Catholic cathedral with Gothic architecture that took 185 years to build (1163 to 1345) so has many influences. Victor Hugo was the one who wrote about Quasimodo and Esmeralda in 1831.
After the history lesson I met up with Flo, Gerhard and Wimpie for a late lunch. Then a photo in front of the L’Hôtel des Invalides, where Napoleon’s remains remain inside (and the cannons on the lawn are those he took from others).
We then strolled in search of a for a bottle of champagne for Valerida, before departing on our separate ways.
As always, to my better half for prodding me, family for standing in with time, Eddie for two decades of AudaxSA, Rob for all the behind the scenes and fellow local Randonneurs for good times. Eugene, Daniel, Derek and Gary — you weren’t there, but you all played a part. Next time.
Special mention to 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.
Short term, R-5000. In completing PBP we’ve crossed the biggest hurdle towards this reward. Now its time for an official South African 1000km BRM, plus a Flèche.
Long term, LEL. Compared to PBP there are quite a few upsides to it’s English cousin from what I’ve heard, being all-English, all-inclusive with food and beds and drops bags plus more time. And who knows, if Ollie le Roux can do an Ironman maybe so can I.