“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.”–Khalil Gibran
More than a Cycling Event
Paris Brest Paris – a bike ride to most, a timed ‘race’ to some but a physical and mental challenge for all 6000+ riders who come from all over the world to participate.
PBP is the longest continuing cycling event in the world (even older than the Tour). It has been held every 4 years since 1891 with riders being given a maximum of 90 hours to complete 1200+ km from Paris to Brest in the north west coast of France and back.
While it’s known as a cycling event, cyclists are only a small part of it. It is acually a socio-cultural event for an entire region of France. It is a proud celebration of the wonderful people of Bretagne, of a tradition that is steeped in their culture and values.
The ride is run by Audax Club Parisien with 2500 volunteers. But beyond this, there are thousands of people on the route. Families stay outside providing passing riders with water, drinks, food and places to rest. Local groups organise little support stops along the way, especially in difficult sections between checkpoints. Random people cheer riders as they pass. Cars horn tunes erratically and wave passing you or coming on the other side. Often, even in the middle of the night!
Some of the checkpoints felt like Iron Man finishes, with carnival atmospheres with crowds of locals cheering riders in. Locals and riders had massive halls to eat and drink together. These were important local events. While the riders came and left on their crazy journey, the locals stayed for longer, cheered, chatted and celebrated a long stading tradition.
No checkpoint was empty – there was support staff, food provisions, sleeping places and help even at 2 or 4am in the morning when even the sensible locals had gone to sleep.
I will never forget it and feel very proud and privilaged to have participated in it. Audax Club Parisien and the people of Bretagne (Brittany) have set an event that has no comparison in any sport that I know of.
My Plan and Execution of It
This was my 5th 1000km+ Audax ride. All of these were done in the normal format of riding a set distance per day as planned out by the organisers. The challenge of Audax is to finish within the time limit, not set your best time.
I knew PBP was different, as many of the Europeans also considered it a timed race of a sort (completely unofficially.). Mostly the race is against yourself. Unlike many of the other events, check points are open and manned for almost the entire period. You can ride the ride at any time you choose at any speed you want, as long as you are there at the checkpoint before it closes.
This means a lot of riders are attempting to do their best times. Many are competing against their friends, against the clock, against other countries and sometimes simply trying to do the fastest time. Some dont like this saying its not the normal Audax way. I say its cool, each to their own. Everyone riding PBP has their own goals and own challenges, lets not tell others what they should be doing or thinking.
I had vague goals of setting my best time for a 1k ride and of going for a record for the sub continent (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka etc). In the end, my top priority was the same as many – finish the ride safely and enjoy the experience.
This meant no crashes, no falls, no falling asleep on the bike – minimising risk was the most important thing on my mind. Your mind gets wobbly in an endurance event and so the actions of other riders just like your own can be chaotic, compensating for this was my plan.
My Planned Stops
I opted to ride the 1200km in 84 hours under the encouragement of friends. I’ve never ridden through the night, I have no fear of it after PBP, but it felt scary before that. Initially I planned to go to Loudeac and sleep there at the checkpoint. I changed this plan last minute and booked an AirBnB in Quedillac. A big thanks to my host Hubert, who gave me a wonderful place to stop over for 2 nights. Plan was:
Day 1- 386km, Day 2 – 460km, Day 3 – 250km or so, Day 4 – Last 136km or so. But I knew from previous experience to take it as it comes, to see how I feel and decide what to do depending on the riding conditions.
Day 2 would be the longest I’ve ever ridden in 24 hours as I had never done more than 430km in a single day and to do it on day 2 was scary. It was hard, but not as hard as I thought. PBP is different. I found people to ride with, there were always riders about at all times. I made friends with a German rider Matthias who actually shared my AirBnB for the the night in the end. He was planning to camp otherwise.
Going back I didnt sleep on Day 3, though I had brought a change of clothes and travel towel to sleep at a checkpoint. It seemed right to go on and set a good time. Meeting my friend Mudi from Australia for the last 2 sections cemented my decision as we rode back together.
There were headwinds going to Brest, didnt feel much tailwinds coming back. Experienced riders said it made this ride harder than most previous PBPs. Also it was freezing cold in the nights on all 3 nights, very unlike previous PBP’s am told.
I have no input on these as I have nothing to compare to and I was too high on the PBP spirit on most of Day 1 and 2. Hugging my friends when I met them on the journey (at least when not moving). Yelling out ‘merci beaucoup’ to random people who cheered as we passed. I rode with my mentors Ian and Katherine all of Day 1 forming groups with other rides. Day 2 was with unknown riders and forming little groups to ride with at times, though I rode a fair bit solo on Day 2.
I had no real physical or mental issues all of the first 2 days except for riding the first 107km with a seat that was an inch shorter than it should be. I fixed this at the first checkpoint. Lesson: do a proper test ride before the ride, unlike me.
Day 3 would have been the same and I would have easily finished 3 or 4 hours faster than I had planned. But I made a couple of mistakes – my new helmet, which was only about 3 months old, sat too low on my head. I had been straining my neck and shoulders more than was ideal to have a full view ahead. During the last 2 sections my neck and shoulder muscles started to hurt horribly and I had to stop many times to massage them and change my neck position.
Secondly, the soles of my feet started to hurt badly. I had new shoes and soles to avoid toe pain issue (kind of a hot foot) – but it seems I have an issue with nerve pain due to constant pressure. It’s something I’m looking into – it only happened to me in PBP. This also meant I had to stop many times and rest the feet, without the shoes.
The effect of these issues was that we stopped many times more than I would have liked and rode slower than was ideal. The stops meant we cooled down a lot and warming up again was very hard. Not ideal, but you have to suck it up and play it out carefully I knew. Making sure not to injure oneself, but handling a bit of suffering is what endurance cycling is all about.
I relied on Garmin maps for the entire ride and they served me well. Most of Day 1 and 2 there were people around me riding as well, the map was more of a guide. However, during the very last section in the early hours of the morning we found a surprise. The route had been changed.
An Austrian rider just ahead realised it first, the signs pointed differently to the Garmin map. We had a chat and was told it had been changed only last week on facebook. We decided to try following the signs and at one point were riding in the wrong direction completely. Luckily a volunteer drove past and told us this. Atleast gestured enough for us to realise.
Our Austrian friend tried to download the map and we wasted a good 1-2 hours extra on this last section alone. In the end we got back on course and were soon passed by a small German group I rode with during the previous day. The leader who was a well known organiser in Germany, was completing his 5th PBP. We folowed them for a while at a proper riding pace, my pains were all forgotten. The way they ride is an example to all on how to ride as a group in an endurance event, amazingly efficient, always checking signs, signalling and safe. They stopped to go to the bathroom and we must have been 20k from the finish.
We began a time-trial to the finish, myself and Mudi, putting the foot down and riding through the last section like many we had ridden in the past. Blood pumping, flying through the rolling hills in the dark. You would never know we had done 1200km in 3 days. Our Austrian friend hung on, amazed at this burst. We hit a massive section of cobbles in the dark at speed but luckily stayed upright. A few km away we rode through the finish line.
The three of us finished together. There were no big crowds, but volunteers congratulated us as did fellow riders who were dribbling in. We sat down and ate together and were given our medals. We were relieved and thrilled.
Our German group came in and joined us for dinner with other riders. The leader and I had a chat, he said the most poignant thing I will remember from the ride. “We are so lucky to be able to do this and enjoy it. But dont get obsessed by it, always keep a balance between cycling and other things in life.”
Pondering this I said goodbye to Mudi and the volunteers and rode to my hotel for the night, 5.3km away. In my tired state with a full belly, it took me more than an hour to find the hotel. Only I could manage to get lost in Rambouillet itself.
Thanks to my wife, Dilini, for her huge support despite the many inconvieniences! She provides amazing support and brings balance and a burning spirit of adventure and common sense to my life.
Thanks also to Pete Coleman for all the eq and help with the bikestuff that allowed me to complete the ride successfully, my two mums and dads who support me in everything I do, Audax Australia, my close cycling friends like Howard, Bec, Ian, Katherine, Soufiane, Kerri-Ann, Michael and Mudi and fellow riders who I trained with and the many international riders who I rode with (especially my newfound German friend Matthias).
I will never forget my mentors Ian and Katherine who took me under their wing four years ago and slowly made an endurance rider of a newbie cyclist.
Thanks also to Audax Club Parisien and most of all the people of Bretagne for sharing your special occasion with me, a random soul with crazy dreams from the other side of the world.
Vive le Sri Lanka!
I wanted to set the fastest time for a rider from the subcontinent (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka etc). With this in mind I finished the ride in 72 hours overall including time off the bike and sleep. I hope this encourages others from the region to participate and break this record.
Distance: 1234km, Elevation: 12,000m (approx)
Total Time: 72 hours, 14 minutes
Moving Time: 52 hours, 13 minutes
Average moving speed: 23.6km/h
Strava link – https://www.strava.com/activities/2647988060