When responding one of my emails, Rob correctly pointed out that we were indeed going to cycle Paris-Brest-Paris, not Paris-Breast-Paris.
Getting to PBP is not an overnight process. It starts long before you realize you it… Perhaps it was with your first double century. Or unknowingly completing qualifying brevets. Some of our riders even went unintentionally.
Below are some tongue-in-the-cheek thoughts on PBP, including highlights, traveling, language barrier, training, packing, eating, drinking, thinking, feeling, afterwards, tips for next time — and nowadays it seems no list is complete without zombies.
When you arrive in Paris and cycling on those roads just feels right, like it was meant to be. The French get cycling and these are a couple of things I appreciated.
Safety. Unlike in South Africa there very few, if any, yellow lanes in rural France. But vehicles will patiently back up behind you, because drivers are held accountable.
Surface. Many roads are near perfect and some are even smoother than Ben Kingsley’s head. With such low rolling resistance it felt like I could free forever. Bliss.
Support. Visualize the following. Long past midnight in a small town in the middle of the French countryside is a whole family enthusiastically serving home-made café et gateau to cyclists outside their house, wanting nothing in return. Amazing.
Summer time. It was hot and slightly humid, but still cold enough at night to justify taking enough warm layers. I intentionally left my full fingered gloves at the hotel and during realized this was a mistake. We were also lucky not to encounter serious rain, but the guys finishing a day later got drenched.
Daylight. We had some lovely long days under the European sun, which sets late enough that you could cycle without a light till well after 9pm.
Rollers. The elevation profile suits me to a tee and I carried enough speed on the downhills to simply add a few pedal strokes in order to clear the next one, keeping great momentum.
The biggest climb was just before the half-way mark. It felt easier on the way back, but it could have been because I was happy to be returning to Paris.
This was my first time cycling in Europe and traveling was part of the adventure.
Schengen. I used Capago and got the visa within just three days. Very efficient. So was my wife, who did all the paperwork. This was my first (but certainly not last) time using booking.com for a no-deposit-and-free-cancellation booking to prove accommodation.
Flights. I booked on Emirates from Cape Town via Dubai and traveled with Gerhard and Wimpie. Going there was a quick walk-through but coming back we had a long stop. It was 42 degrees outside but we never left the airport (mall).
Trains. Île de France. The RER trains are geared for bicycles and have sufficient luggage space on the end of each coach. It’s handy to have the map on your phone. Get one here.
Arriving. Getting around in a first world country is a cinch. We hopped of the plane, bought train tickets for €15 at the machine, followed the blue line to the yellow line and just one stop later was our destination at Igny.
Cashless. Gone are the days of exchanging forex at the airport and being bent over by admin fees. I just swiped a card, same as at home. And used an ATM once or twice. Capitec has zero fees at point of sale terminals and do instant currency conversions at spot plus two basis points.
Sim-card. Bought one for €20 on Bouygues Télécom with unlimited local calls and texts and enough data for WhatsApp calls abroad. There was reception whenever I switched on the phone, even in the countryside.
Graffiti. Everywhere. And it’s not just a collection of badly drawn male organs under bridges. The take pride in their work and I liked it. But then again I can’t read French so might be the same as a conservative foreigner hopping around to lyrics of Die Antwoord.
What language barrier?
Learn French. Or not. I deliberately arrived without knowing a single word. Just be courteous, look sincere and start your conversations in Afrikaans. Thereafter you can start waving and pointing like an ape.
They certainly aren’t as antagonistic as we are led to believe, especially if you are on a bicycle. 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
- Pression — draught
You really don’t need more than this.
Get comfortable. With 70rpm and 20km/h (or 3 min/km) you turn the pedals 210 times every kilometer, or over 250,000 times on PBP. Suddenly small things make a huge difference.
Wimpie set the bar when it comes to training, doing over 1000km in some weeks. I think his final week of tapering contained more miles than all my training combined. Less is more or more is less?
I planned 1200km over twelve days of 100km each, but life happened and I ended up doing just six 100km rides over the course of two weeks. Not ideal, but not over-trained either.
How do you prepare for this long in the saddle? Maybe you don’t have to put in a millions of miles in training. Just arrive with a reasonable level of fitness, be comfortable on your bicycle, know there will be some discomfort and sleep deprivation and focus on the positives. Consider the following —
- As a first-timer I didn’t know the route, which was perfect, as every turn revealed something new to keep my mind occupied. No monotony, keeps you awake.
- Our local rides are with tiny numbers and I (like to) often cycle alone, but on PBP there are cyclists all around.
- The road surface is so smooth it has to be mentioned again. Less resistance means more fun.
- You can supposedly double your previous maximum distance and I had this covered having done four previous 600km rides.
PS, does this now mean we could do 2400km? Most definitely. Then 4000km across Europe. And 7000km across North America. We just don’t ride enough.
Our local Audax club have a full set of 200, 300, 400 and 600km BRM’s from January to April. We then decided to stage a 1000km test ride during winter, two months before Paris.
We all started the that ride in good faith, but everyone promptly abandoned after just the first leg of just about 440km. It was just too damn cold. So what was going to happen in France?
There are two distinct types of cyclists who arrive at PBP, minimalist racing snakes and the rest of us.
The former are mostly French and Italian. They know the route, carry as little as possible and have ample support, while the latter fear the worst and pack too much and lug around unnecessary weight.
No drop bags for me, thanks. During the last week before my flight I bought a nifty Topeak waterproof handlebar bag that fits seven liters of stuff. It worked like a charm and I didn’t have to worry about when and where to access a bag.
It contained two sets of cycling kit, suntan lotion, chamois to use as a quick-dry towel, toothbrush, cable ties, space blanket, bum cream, a few sachets of Rehidrat® and some energy gels.
I planned to do what I always did up until this stage, which is to take a couple of sandwiches for the first night and just buy the rest en route. Preferring real food over energy bars and gels, I don’t usually take the latter but would make an exception for PBP. Just in case.
Nigel Grey said last time he took a sachet of Rehidrat® every 100kms. This sounded like a great idea and I intended to do the same (but finished with a couple to spare).
With over 6000 cyclists each carrying a few euros it is a great opportunity for the local towns the share in your disposable income, albeit at controls or in-between. You won’t go hungry.
There was only one mishap — I had meal tickets for the Velodrome on the afternoon before the start and was lucky to arrive early as they quickly ran out of food and long lines of disappointed cyclists had to be turned away.
It soon became my most-used French word, referring to draught beer, something about pressure (if you order just a ‘beer’ it will be served in a bottle).
However, some of these are best left inside the keg. I recommend they stick to Bordeaux wines as there were a couple of beers that would be best enjoyed in a state of mild to severe dehydration.
Don’t overthink it
I intended for a Laissez-faire approach to the ride but my Excel OCD kicked it and I had to create a spreadsheet. You know, just to see where I’d be at what point during the ride.
There was a 90 hour time limit and I wanted to finish under 84 hours. I cycle quite comfortably at 25km/h, worst case 20km/h so the 1200 kilometers would take no more than 60 hours, which left 24 hours to play with.
I’ve heard you lose a lot of time at the controls because they are so congested and budgeted for 20 stops of ½ hour each, another 10 hours. Leaving 14 hours for sleep.
I thought around 5 hours each after 500km and 840km would do the trick, but my biggest fear was not being able to wake up at some point, because I am a notoriously bad snoozer.
It didn’t quite work out that way. Turns out you don’t need to sleep too much as a couple of well-placed power naps in lieu of longer hours work just as well.
This being my furthest ride at the time, I expected a couple of niggles afterwards. These were the ones worth remembering.
Cough. I should really start cycling with a buff. The air was cold enough for a decent amount of phlegm build-up over three nights. Consider taking along something like Amuco or ACC200 for relief.
Bum wasn’t too bad. Don’t get me wrong, after three days it feels like a piece of Lego clicking into your saddle, so there was enough standing. But that leads to more pressure on your feet again, always the contact points. I expected worse, so points here.
Feet. After cycling for an extended period and then walking through the streets of Paris while sightseeing, I felt it below. On the plane back my ankles had swollen up to fill the shoes of a Sasquatch and it looked like I was walking on two Eisbeins. Thoughts of deep vein thrombosis and blood clots crossed my mind, but after lots of water and feet in the air everything was back to normal.
Knees were a bit tender early on, but only because of the broken spokes and trying to save the rear wheel by only cycled in the saddle, no standing for about 200 kilometers. Neither kneecap popped out or hit someone in the eye. Happiness.
Nerves. Numb fingers (see handlebar tape below) and this time some numb feet as well. Maybe it is time for carbon soles. Halt, hammertoe.
Nothing else. No back or neck pain. In fact, at the end I could still swivel my head like that girl from The Exorcist. Not bad for someone who’s never done a bike setup and can’t even tell you the height of his saddle.
But I did get a slight cold about a week after the ride. There’s no denying that the whole exercise is taxing on your system first time round. Airmune’s & Corenza’s to the rescue.
Tips for next time
Would I do it again? Off course, it’s a great experience and a must-do for any long distance cycling enthusiast. Some remarked it is held only every four years in order to give your body time to recover, but wasn’t anything like that.
Silent night. I bunked with Wimpie, what a character. The night before the race, 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 much for me arriving at the start line well-rested.
Baby-steps. After his 2011 ride, Nigel suggested to that I reset my trip computer after each control and just focus on the next stop. And don’t think ‘I’ve done 30km, still 1200 to go’ — that’s crazy talk, you’ll end up in a strait-jacket.
Handlebar tape. I wanted to add another layer before leaving for France, but forgot. Having experienced a pinched ulnar nerve on previous long rides I knew what to expect, but PBP was like hitting the reset button and experiencing it for the first time again. Remember. Gel tape. Any tape. More tape.
Bombs. You can’t fly with CO2 canisters (which is a good thing, considering the near-cow-death incident we’ve had with a rogue bomb when cycling back from Malmesbury) and everything was sold out at registration, so get some beforehand. And remember the petrol stations only go up to 5.5 bar.
Chamois. Pack one if you plan to shower. Like the one used to dry your car with. It’s small and convenient and necessary as the controls can get messy and wet. After a shower and fresh kit you feel like a new person. It almost works better than sleep.
Toothbrush. After many gels and energy drinks your mouth deserves a break. You’ll feel refreshed and ready to go. And clip your toe nails, because no-one wants to pull them off like potato chips afterwards. Don’t cause yourself unnecessary pain.
Clothes at the finish. I got back after midnight, went for a hot shower at the Velodrome and changed into a clean pair of cycling kit. Shorts and flip-flops would have been perfect, but not the end of the world. Just a nice to have.
This side up. I bought a hardshell bikesafe and it worked fine, albeit heavy and bulky to navigate up a flight of stairs at the train station. But poor Wimpie, using exactly the same, still suffered the fate of ACSA (or their French equivalent) —
Someone had flipped his case onto its side and promptly piled on as much baggage as possible. Upon arriving in Cape Town, Wimpie collected a concave bikesafe with a complimentary crack in his carbon fork.
And the cost?
At an exchange rate of R14.50 it was around €1450 or R21k. Includes entry, €130. Visa R1500. Flights R9500. Train R700. Sim-card €20. Two nights accommodation before (shared) R500 and after (single) R1100. Restaurants R1500. And I took €300 on the bicycle, of which €75 went for the new wheel.
A collection of two-wheeled zombies
There were so many. But these are the ones that left an impression.The French arrive with racing bikes and very little else, enjoying plenty of patriotism en route. Curiously, I got the impression that they had to sit in front when go through towns. But always friendly and inquisitive upon spotting the SA flag, Afrique du Sud. Generally, the Asians are very well kitted out and carrying every conceivable gadget. Saw many preferring to sleep on the roadside rather than at controls, or it just looked that way, given the numbers. 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, as we just had McDonald’s for breakfast a short while ago. He was on his way. Americans have taken to Randonneuring en masse and they look the part, with laid back bikes, Brookes saddles and traditional gear. Also didn’t seem to be in much of a hurry, rather soaking up the whole experience. Italians were talkative and plentiful. The group I saw most had three ladies among the guys. Also shared that weird non-competitive moment with them during the last stage. Luck of the Irish. One group stayed in our hotel, but the chap who left his skewer spring on the floor after assembling his bike was probably not as lucky. They were great fun, experienced and and we cycled together to the start. Much obliged. Germans didn’t share too many words, but were visibly efficient. And solitary, from my experience. G’day mate. Funny enough I didn’t notice many Aussies, or a single Kiwi for that matter.
Despite the lack of sleep I didn’t see a single rider agitated with another and it was great to see all people from all nations across the globe unite in this monumental ride.
Looking back, cycling was the easy part. Coming from abroad, we didn’t just hop on a bicycle to the start. It takes two days to fly to Paris and sort your gear plus the same on the way back. But it is so worth it and you return home with a sense of accomplishment.