PBP 2019

At’s a lang wye on a bike!

Paris – Brest – Paris is the jewel in the crown of the international Audax calendar, runs once every four years and demands that riders cover the 1200km route in a time limit of just 90 hours. Even the qualification criteria are challenging, requiring entrants to complete events of 200km, 300km, 400km and 600km in the same year as the event…

Had you been watching somewhere along the route this year, you’d have seen an Ythan top amongst the 5300 riders. James West’s account of his 2019 PBP journey follows!

I’ve been cycling intermittently and been a member of Ythan, since 2011. I became fascinated with some long distance events and rather naively entered London – Edinburgh –London in 2017. I made it to Edinburgh, then on the way back I fell off between Innerleithen and Eskdalemuir in the middle of the night, tired, cold and wet, with overshoes on. I missed my clip-in, my front wheel went into the ditch, my chest landed on my handlebars and I broke my ribs, with about 8 hours in hand at the time. 

My ribs took months to heal, I didn’t do enough training over the winter, and entered 2018 less fit than I had been for years, which meant a poor year, with very few events. Determined to improve on that I bought a smart trainer in the autumn, got a zwift subscription and began training seriously from about November. Zwift has been a revelation. I’ve never done any structured training before. Everything before was pretty much flat out, with my comfort zone being 30-50 miles as fast as I could muster on the day.

This year I’ve been more consistency than I have before, averaging around 1000km a month, counting turbo time and outdoors. I’ve put on around 30 watts and lost 6kgs or almost a stone, without really trying to lose weight. That certainly made a difference to PBP. Being thrawn can only carry you so far.

To get in for PBP you needed a pre-qualifying event last year, which I didn’t have, and a full Series Randonneur (SR) of 200, 300, 400 and 600 km events this year. The event filled up really quickly, but I decided the SR in itself was a worthwhile goal and set out to do it anyway. Ultimately many of the people who had paid a deposit either didn’t achieve the SR, or decided against the commitment and didn’t pay the balance, so the organisers opened an additional 1500 places. Crucially you didn’t need a pre-qualifier, just the SR, so I jumped as quickly as I could and got in.

The pressure was now really on. I had come out of my 600 qualifier with a niggling Achilles tendon and I wasn’t sure I could survive the distance. However having packed in on LEL I was clear I didn’t want another fail to my name. Where I was excited for weeks leading up to LEL, for PBP it was more a niggling concern.

An Audax is based on the clock starting when you cross the start line and finishing when you cross the finish line. Any time stopped, eating, sleeping, going the wrong way or queuing for food eats into your average speed. I had 90 hours to complete 1225 kilometres at an average 13.33km per hour. To make things even more complicated, in France there is a sliding scale, reducing the average as you go, so you have 42 hours to get to Brest and 48 to return. You have to meet your time target at each individual control. Miss a control time and your ride won’t be validated, even if you finish in 90 hours. So you have to build up a buffer before you can sleep.

I set off in group Q, around 300 of us at 19:45 on Sunday evening. We cycled through the night and most of the next day until I reached Quedillac at 386km. I decided to shower and sleep, had  2 hours sleep and got going intending to ride through the second night. However this was where my plan fell apart. It was very cold, my garmin was reading 4C, I was struggling to see in the dark, my knee was really playing up and I came close to giving up. I got to St Nicolas du Pelem, only 100k on from my last sleep at around 01:00 and grabbed a bed again. Another 3 hours sleep I got up, ate and left around 04:30, getting to Carhaix with only around an hour in hand. I then pressed on to Brest. That was a big day, around 355 kilometres in 22 hours, getting back to Quedillac at 2:20am the next morning. I had built up enough of a buffer for me to get another sleep and had 2 hours there then beef bourguignon for breakfast and off again at 05:00.

All of this time the pain was gradually building, with a sore backside, sore knee and intermittent pain from both Achilles. The sleep deprivation does strange things to your brain, which keeps telling you to stop. “There’s no shame in stopping.” “You made it to Brest and got a sticker, you don’t really need a medal.” “You don’t have enough hair to cycle in this cold weather, what if your head freezes?” “You’re injured, you have an excuse, what if your Achilles snaps?”

The next section to Tinteniac was where I really woke up to the importance of meeting the times. I was cycling with a lot of people who had started in groups ahead of me and who were closer to the time limit than I was. Two English guys ahead of me realised they had missed their time for Tinteniac and pulled into a layby to stop and give up. My thoughts were, that isn’t happening to me. There’s no way on this earth I’m doing 870km, over two-thirds of the way to give up like that. If I was going to stop I’d have done it on the second night when I wasn’t coping in the hills. As a result I tightened up my timing at the controls and kept going. I got to within 125km of the end, had another 2.5 hours sleep, then got going to the end. I finished in 86hours 15 minutes (still to be validated)

The whole experience was quite surreal, you enter a different world, or at least I did. I saw some terrible riding, people more or less falling asleep and wandering all over the road. I also saw some very good, but reckless riding. In the middle of the night, high in the hills, some guys set up two pace lines. They gradually wound it up to 50kmh as I tried to hold their tail. Descending in unknown hills in the dark, with variable lighting rigs at that speed had the potential to go badly wrong. They then went through some French villages at the same speed, ignoring giveway signs, stop signs etc. At that point it became too dangerous for me and I backed off.

The support from the locals was amazing. They lined the streets, gave free water, teas and coffees and cheered us on all the way. “Allez, allez, allez!” “Bon Courage!” Everywhere we went people just got off their bikes and went to sleep at the side of the road, when they couldn’t continue. Around 01:00 one night I saw a guy settling down to sleep in a church doorway. An old lady from across the street came out and offered him a pillow.

The timing system makes it a mental challenge as much as cycling one. People who can cope with less sleep and be quicker at controls can make up time on faster riders. My stats were something like 54 hours on the bike from a total of 86. Of those 32 ‘spare’ hours I had 9.5 hours sleep, spent at least 2 hours queuing for the toilet and 5 hours queuing for food. The rest was mainly eating, or sitting at controls with my brain on strike, sometimes spending 20 minutes staring at a half-empty plate of food.

Back to the title, when I told people I was cycling from Paris to Brest and back again the most common reply when I said it was 750 miles was “At’s a lang wye on a bike!” My response was: “It’s a lang wye onywye, whether you’re on a bike or not!

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