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Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Mystic 8 Ball (aka Life After PBP)

Rather obviously my 51st birthday was a considerably quieter affair than last year's raucous celebrations. In amongst this year's carefully chosen gifts was one that has found a prominent space on my desk: the Mystic 8 Ball now resides under my monitor, close at hand to help out with all manner of day to day decisions.  Believing in higher cosmic powers and being of a generally more spiritual nature than me, Yoli looks at the answers it gives in a literal sense. Whereas with a love of games (and in particular poker) acquired from my father, I view it's responses as pure chance - but curiously, this does not diminish their value. Random as the answer may be, it forces me to think more deeply about the question - especially where I disagree with the result. Despite having diametrically opposing views, we both derive a similar level of fun and value from giving it a shake and peering into it to see what it says on the burning question of the moment.

All of which brings me to that topic I've been avoiding so far - "What next?". It's a question I've been asked a few times over the weeks since PBP, especially by friends on the regular weekly club rides. The answer handed out so far is that I've promised Yoli and Ben a year off from any seriously crazy and time consuming cycling adventures. Whilst completely true, it would be a little disingenuous to pass that off as the answer here. The PBP dream was years in the making, and despite having no declared goal it would be impossible to pretend there isn't a list of potential cycling adventures, some of which have already reached the infatuation stage. So here is that list, and what the 8 ball had to say when asked about them.

Race Across America (RAAM)

RAAM came onto my radar quite soon after finishing LEL. I forget the exact Facebook thread, but basically one of the LEL riders (Shusannah Pillinger) was training towards RAAM the following year. As with PBP, I found myself rapidly reading up on the event. But where PBP had seemed crazy but strangely doable, RAAM was a whole new level of insanity - Ultra Cycling. It was simultaneously terrifying and mesmerizing, and much like Joe Simpson's account of the North Face of the Eiger from The Beckoning Silence, it was impossible not to imagine oneself into the story. So many aspects of RAAM involved my greatest areas of limitation (pace, riding in heat, altitude, Shermer's Neck) that I tried to dismiss it from my mind. But as PBP preparations moved on, I started to question whether any of those limitations were absolutes: I was getting faster; riding qualifiers through the South African summer forced me to deal with heat better; and my neck problems hadn't returned. The gulf between my performance and that needed for a RAAM attempt was still there, but I was starting to consider how to bridge it rather than just staring at it in awe.

Very few solo riders have finished RAAM in the 32 years which it has been running. A significant factor is of course the enormous physical and mental performance needed to complete it - typically the failure rate in solo riders each year is 50% or higher. But that is really only part of the answer. In my opinion a significant factor in the small number of finishers is much simpler - very few actually get to the start line because of the huge cost of taking part. And therein lies my bigger problem. As well as the task of training and preparing properly to have a realistic chance of finishing, I'd need to find money to get a support crew of 8 to 9 people to California, hire 2 or 3 vehicles, and get them and me 3,000 miles across America. The budget needed to get one rider across one continent could easily reach a staggering fifty thousand dollars or more. Needless to say, it's unlikely my family would agree to me spending ten year's worth of luxury holiday money on one bike ride. And sadly I'd have to agree with them.

The voices urging you towards a crazy ride aren't so easily silenced by such everyday practicalities though. For now it remains a distant dream, but the shadowy corners of my brain continue to contemplate ways in which my efforts might add sufficient value to some brand or company that in return they may help me finance an attempt (or two) at RAAM.  

But enough of logic and reason, let's see what answer the 8 Ball gave when posed the question "will I finish RAAM?. Yoli and I both laughed out laughed out loud at that - both of us knowing that my grinding persistence does have a habit of making ridiculous ideas become reality.

Silver State 508

I'm going to stick on the theme of RAAM for a moment because, when first gripped with the idea, I started looking at where and when you could do qualifiers. For quite a while I pondered the Deccan Cliffhanger, a significant reason being what had motivated Shu to ride it - to get conditioned to riding in heat. In truth though, if you pick the pick the right day and location you can ride in forty degree heat without ever leaving South Africa. And although the notion of a ride in India still sort of appeals, it possibly isn't the most practical choice.

It didn't take long before the idea of combining a work visit with a qualifying ride came to mind, as had worked so well for LEL. Shu's account of the Race Around Ireland made that sound way too hard as the next step, and I wasn't sold on the idea of a TT based qualifier riding around the same track for 24 hours either. With those two discounted my attention turned from the UK office to our US office in Sausalito, the  likely location for our annual management meeting in September 2016. Initially things seemed too good to be true - a Northern California qualifier was held in 2014 which started in Sacramento. But that disappeared from the calendar in 2015, and looking again I stumbled across the Silver State 508.

Even with RAAM itself in the background until funding can be found, the Silver State 508 has stuck with me. Several of the qualifiers (I could name No Country for Old Men in Texas) seem to stand out as rides with a true spirit of adventure, proper endurance tests against a harsh yet beautiful landscape. And that's the reason the Silver State 508 is still on my list - it's impossible to ignore that completing it would qualify me for RAAM, but the ride itself is what grabs me. A 508 mile race out from Reno, across the Nevada desert passing through occasional wooden fronted towns that look like sets from a cowboy movie, before turning around and racing back - what's not too like!

So here's what the 8 Ball had to say on the idea. Not quite the answer I would have liked to be honest, but it forced me to think about whether I really wanted to do the ride for it's own sake and not just because of it's association with RAAM. I can honestly say, after since seeing the pictures and reading accounts of this year's edition that answer is yes. And therein lies the value of the 8 Ball - the real answer lies in the person asking the question. 

Trans-Continental Cycle Race (TCR)

And finally we come to the most recent addition to my "big rides" wish list. I first heard about TCR over a year ago but didn't give it much thought. As I started to realise any RAAM attempt could be some way off (if ever), TCR 2015 was just beginning and caught my attention again. I think what grabbed me on a second look was the simple ethos at the heart of the ride - TCR is as much about cycling as possible, with as little else to distract from that. So where on RAAM getting a rider across a continent involves this massive logistical challenge with huge expense and an unpleasantly large environmental footprint, TCR takes a more direct route - get on your bike and ride across the damned continent on your own. The continent this time being Europe (there is also a Trans America), and the rules being few and simple - no outside support, and private re-supply i.e. you find what you need on the way. Not unlike an Audax in fact, except as with RAAM drafting and otherwise helping fellow riders is forbidden, at least if you are in the solo racer category. There is a "pairs" category should you wish to ride it with a friend, although quite how that would work out on a ride of more than 4,000km over two weeks I'm not entirely sure.

That last aspect is perhaps the one area which I'm less than 100% sure on. Although I love riding alone, I enjoy it most when done in the company of others - a paradox which long Audaxes resolve to perfection. Aside from phone calls home, a TCR attempt could be an very lonely affair. I was still in love with the idea when I posed the question to the 8 Ball - and it was only the response which forced me to look deeper inside at whether it was truly a ride I would enjoy. I like the answer though, I'm not going to bet against it either - it's a definite maybe for 2017.

Is that really all?

Of course not, there's at least two local single stage marathons I've yet to ride: Desert Dash Namibia; and The Munga. The first of these appeals very much to me, and it's great to see that a new sponsor has been found (Nedbank) to keep the annual Windhoek to Swakopmund 24hour race across the desert going. It's a ride I'll definitely try and get a place on some day. The second, for reasons it's hard to define, has yet to really strike a chord. A 1,000km non stop race across the Karoo ought to be right up my alley, but even with the drastically reduced price the formula still doesn't quite grab me.

For this year though I need to come back to that promise of more family time for Yoli and Ben. Rather conveniently, less time cycling could be just what I need as the next stage of preparation towards RAAM or TCR. I definitely need to increase my riding pace to do well at either of those, so more concentrated interval work, and shorter faster races  could server all of us perfectly.

Friday, 21 August 2015

PBP - Epilogue

I forget which one of the Cape Randonneurs described the meal provided at the Arrivée as worthy of army canteen rations but the description was completely accurate. The chicken was bland and the pasta limp, but I ate it all the same. My body needed the fuel and I couldn't be bothered to go out in the rain searching for something more palatable. On the table in front of me was my plastic wallet. All this now contained was the photo of me and Ben, and a small slip of white paper saying something like "Well Done" - it may have indicated my finish time on it somewhere too. The actual brevet card was now part of the ACP process, collected up after being stamped, hopefully to be returned at the end of the year with finishing medal and other paraphernalia.

I gave up on the pasta and ate the muffin instead. It was thick and sticky, like those you get at filling station counters, quote an expiry date closer to the end of the universe. Crammed onto the long wooden benches all around were groups of riders celebrating and taking pictures of their friends. I felt a little sad not to have finished with some of the other Cape riders and been able to celebrate together. I made up for this with a few messages to Yoli after which, with nothing more for me at the velodrome I headed back to the bike park. I was looking forward to my hotel, a comfy bed, and a long sleep.

A handful of other riders were making their way soggily up the ramp, the rain continuing to fall. The ending may have been a rather damp ending but conversation was lively and spirits high as we rolled towards the road where it had all started. Even with some quite heavy downpours, it was really quite pleasant to make my way back to the hotel - for the first time in four days there was no time pressure, I could just amble along. Also odd was to see cars and pedestrians going about their ordinary Thursday business - I was just another cyclist again, no more cheers of encouragement. It was all wonderfully normally.

Back at the hotel I dumped my bike in the conference room - the plastic sheeting which it had been covered with now made perfect sense as all around were filthy, dripping machines. I needed sleep, but I needed to reward myself too. I quickly checked into my new family room (with space for Ben and Yoli who would be arriving later) and headed to the bar. It may have been mid-morning, but I was due a beer. Several of the staff from the hotel congratulated me as I sat enjoying probably the best glass of Leffe I've ever tasted. It was exactly like every other glass of Leffe of course, but I wasn't, and this moment wasn't.

The beer worked it's magic, my eyelids grew heavy and I trudged off to the room. After showering some of the stink off, there was one last card to open before sleeping. The envelope read "open at the end of your ride" (or something similar). Inside was a hand-made treat that Yoli and Ben had constructed for me. I drifted into unconsciousness with the biggest smile on my face.

I was out cold until Yoli and Ben arrived at the hotel around 3pm. I was pretty sleepy for most of the rest of the day too, although I do remember we went for a nice evening meal back at my favourite pizza cafe back in St-Quentin center. I was quite surprised how recovered I felt by the next morning - the pain from my knee had eased considerably, and a good night's sleep had chased off the worst of the fatigue. Whilst Yoli visited nearby Versailles I tackled the final bicycle related act of my PBP - dismantling Jolly and packing her back down into the bike box. Ben sat playing games on  my tablet as I pottered, cleaning some of the worst of the crud off with wipes before stowing parts in their respective spaces. I felt a strong desire to leave the registration plates on the bike, but they wouldn't stay on when back home so I snipped the cable ties and stashed them with my other memorabilia from the ride.

With the mechanical work done, Ben and I grabbed a very welcome swim in the hotel pool. It was a glorious sunny day and the cool water soothed my muscles wonderfully. A beer bought by a couple of Randonneurs from Singapore capped off the morning almost perfectly, which I was sipping on just as Yoli arrived back. With an afternoon free we acted like any good tourists would, and went off to central Paris to enjoy the sights - and also get another beer of course, a proper sized one this time.

Spending time with my family really was the perfect way to celebrate the culmination of a three and a half year obsession with PBP. Without their love and patience I'd never have been able to prepare thoroughly enough to succeed at such an all encompassing physical and mental challenge. PBP was also the spark that inspired this blog, which begs the question what happens to it now? The immediate answer is that it's too early to tell. One thing I am certain of though - the end of PBP is not the end of my passion for riding, or writing. So watch this space ... the ride may be over, the journey most definitely is not.  

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

PBP Part 3 - Sleeper

00:30, 19 Aug - Loudéac, 780km

I woke before the alarms rang - in fact remarkably close to the original time of midnight to which they'd been set. It was still a solid 3.5 hours of decent sleep, and the shower had already worked it's magic - leaning against the tiles, eyes closed whilst a torrent of hot water washed over me until I was something close to fully awake.

I have a strong recollection of dithering around rather a lot. The usual chores were easy - swapping out batteries, including this time the Garmin's AAs just in case. But once dressed I needed to pack up my drop bag, and for some reason this totally baffled me. Kit was strewn all over the small desk and both beds and eventually I just gave up trying to figure it out and stuffed whatever seemed worn or now surplus into the backpack.

The last item needing my attention was the card marked "Open at 2nd drop bag". It didn't have quite the laugh-out-loud value as the previous one but it was precious nevertheless. A favourite photo from this year's Junior Argus. It was my turn to try and make Ben proud and, to keep that in my thoughts, I put the card in the plastic wallet so I'd see it every time I took out my brevet card.

Standing outside it was significantly warmer than the previous night. Stupidly I'd fully packed my saddle bag and now needed to unpack it to retrieve the small bottle of lube. Needless to say that with the time approaching 1am the chain got the most cursory of wipes and a liberal squirt of fresh lube. It was now a rather oily mess, but it ought to smooth out the few missed shifts that had crept in over the final stretches the day before. My OCD fully kicked in before getting going - checking  the room several times before tossing the key inside and making sure the door locked behind me.

The backpack wasn't heavy or cumbersome, but I was glad the control was nearby. It felt a little odd to be leaving the hotel behind as I made my way back to the town. This was it - the final stretch - and what I was now wearing or had in my saddle bag would have to be sufficient. Not needing a stamp, I swung left one roundabout earlier in the hope of finding a back entrance to the control. It was a good guess - although I was rather surprised to wander through the top gate with no checks. Within a few minutes I'd visited the bag drop area, ditched the backpack in roughly the spot I'd collected it from, and rolled out again this time via the official fenced off channel leading out of the control.

01:30, 19 Aug - Loudéac:

Approaching the roundabout at the end of the closed off section I glanced down at the Garmin. The time shown on the small screen was a very pleasing sight. I was starting my 3rd night on the road with roughly 2.5 hours in the bank. Even better was that the "race out, tour back" philosophy of PBP meant I was sure to pick up extra time today even if I took it easy. Many things could still go wrong but for now my ride was in great shape.

I spied a lone red tail light as the route went under a busy highway, and started to gradually climb. It was a glorious night to be riding - still, cool rather than cold, and the roads was almost deserted apart from small pockets of riders here and there. For a while I took it very gently, careful to let the legs warm up properly. The road was mostly uphill too - winding it's way slowly towards various red lights in the sky which I guessed were probably wind-farms, power cables, masts or some-such. It was impossible to ignore that I still needed to reverse all 450km of that first leg. It was a little daunting, but I felt good - no significant aches, and yesterday's fatigue was gone.

The exact sequence of events over the next section is a bit of a blur to me although I remember very clearly a lot of surprisingly fast riding. In the warmer night air and quiet roads at some point the energy I'd been missing the day before surged back into my legs. I found myself standing and charging at each small rise, and thundering down the descents that followed. It was exhilarating stuff and at times felt almost effortless as I preserved my momentum across the rolling landscape. I made two short stops, although the order of them is now a bit vague. The first I think was for a very welcome and perfectly timed cup of coffee at a tiny roadside stall hosted by an elderly local. The other was under the orange street lamps of a small town to quickly eat a Pronutro bar.

The pace I was pushing into the wheels brought up the next official food stop quicker than I'd expected.

04:15, 19 Aug - Quedillac: 

The few towns we'd passed through had shown little signs of life, so I pulled into the food stop rather than risk not finding anything open before the next control. It proved a good call - they were well stocked with supplies and there was no queue. I quickly grabbed a large glass bowl of coffee and two croissants and headed to a table. I sat opposite another English rider - I forget which of us arrived first. We chatted about the previous leg, apparently both of us had been enjoying the fast riding. I have a vague feeling he may also have been called Rob, but I may have imagined that.

It was a pleasant stop - 20 minutes for breakfast and some good conversation. I wasn't feeling any sense of urgency so far today as I slowly kitted up in the bike park and rolled back out. I really remember very little of the 25km or so to the next control. I can see from my GPS track it took a a bit over an hour, and I recognised a few places from the journey out - first of these being the cafe at the top of the hill after the food stop in the actual town of Quedillac. But beyond that it's just a blur of lanes and hills, and a vague recollection of a couple more roadside stalls, still being diligently manned to help out riders in need of supplies.

05:53, 19 Aug - Tinténiac, 865km

The brevet stamp took no more than a minute - sleeping bodies lined both sides of the snaking corridor to the exit. I did wonder if anyone I knew was lying there, but didn't look that closely. I'm not sure what I did with the other 17 minutes I spent at the control - it certainly did not involve eating. Water refills couldn't have accounted for more than 5 of those, so I must have faffed with my bike or clothes in some way. 

If my recollection of the last stage is vague, it's borderline non existent over the next few kilometers. The memories become a little less murky as the landscape emerged again, lit by a third dawn spent on the road. It was a beautiful morning for cycling - not a breath of wind and barely a cloud in the sky. Soon after I rode through a town I recalled from the route out, and just beyond the crossroads where Gerhard and I had become separated. Our route continued on a pretty country lane and somewhere just after the junction I heard a familiar voice call out from behind - it was Nico again, this time in the company of Barry Shaw (one of the Gauteng based Randonneurs). If I'd looked more closely at those sleeping bodies I might have seen them at the previous control as apparently, they had lain exactly where I'd walked. Another odd coincidence was that the last time I'd ridden with any of the South African riders was this same stretch of road two days ago. Most of our conversation is lost to me now - but I do recall catching up on the details of how Nico had recovered from the spoke breakages: replacement spokes by the mechanic in Mortagne-au-Perche; and then a whole replacement wheel from a Giant dealer on the approach to Villaines when yet more broke.

Before long the road ahead took a sweeping left curve up to a big roundabout at the start of the town. Two moments are burned indelibly into my brain from climbing this short ramp with the guys. The first of these happened at the bottom - I had a vivid recollection of a McDonalds nearby, and suggested to the guys we grab breakfast there. The second was much less welcome. Standing to power up the last few meters, pain shot through my right knee and I collapsed back onto the saddle. I nearly stalled out, barely managing to dump enough gears in time to keep spinning forward. Boy was I glad I'd messed around lubing my chain - one missed shift would have sent me sprawling into the ditch.

08:42, 19 Aug - Almost like Fougères (but with clean loos):

A girl who had been riding with the guys followed us across the roundabout, but as soon as she realised where we were heading shook her head and rode back out onto the route. I guess not everyone enjoys fast food even when it comes guilt free. With no such qualms, Nico, Barry and myself propped up our bikes and headed inside. What came next is pretty much the antithesis of any definition of "fast" though. The McD's was equipped with a new high tech self-server ordering system consisting of huge touch panel screens. It baffled all of us and, even with help, refused to offer all of the choices we craved. I ended up with another ruddy burger because none of the McMuffin variations seemed to come without egg. I can't remember if Nico managed to get his milk shake either - even with help from the assistant. It was a bit of a shambles really, although to be fair probably none of us were fully mentally equipped by this stage of the ride. Food did eventually arrive, it was tasty,  and enjoyed with the conversation and good company of riders from back home.

What happened next is undoubtedly the most bizarre few minutes of my ride, or any Audax ride for that matter. As I headed for the luxury of a clean toilet, some very non-standard McD’s music came blaring out over the PA – Rammstein’s Du Hast. Some moments later, my needs sorted, I opened the stall door into total darkness. Dark except for the two purple alien eyes that were glaring ominously back at me, thrash metal still blasting into my ears. I honestly thought I’d lost my mind, fallen asleep, or woken up. I couldn’t decide which, but I definitely wasn’t in Kansas anymore. The slightest motion of my hand resolved the scene in a way my sleep deprived brain could not – energy saving lights flickered on, and ahead were two urinals with some kind of UV sanitising light. Phew! As I left the toilet, the next tune was cued up on the PA - Nena's 99 Luftballons. Just a couple of month's back we'd sat around a campfire as our friend Riku's daugher practised her rendition of the English version for a school Idols competition. Coincidentally, Riku is also probably the biggest Rammstein fan on the planet. Rejoining the guys, I made a mental note to share this rather surreal McD's visit with him.

09:38, 19 Aug - Fougères, 919km

We rode the remaining 5km to the control and parked up our bikes together as we collected brevet stamps and topped up bottles. I knew my knee would not stand their pace beyond this though and told them to push on and not wait for me.

Alone in the bike park, what lay ahead suddenly hit me - 300km on a dodgy knee, and at least half of that distance significantly hilly. My "final section jinx" had struck again and all of a sudden my PBP had gone from remarkably smooth sailing to a battle against injury. At least having gone through it before on LEL, I knew as long as it remained just painful I should be able to slog through. But not really knowing much about ITB injuries (which Barry had pretty much confirmed this to be) also meant I didn't know if the knee would give up totally and end my ride. I contemplated visiting the medics. It probably would have been the smart move, but a nagging worry crept into my brain that they could force me to pull out of the ride. So instead, I took an Advil to dull the pain, and texted Yoli to pass on the less-than-good news. I made it clear in the message that I was carrying on and tried to avoid sounding downbeat. It was a thin facade though - I was downbeat as I rolled gingerly out of the control, spinning very light gears to avoid further stress.

The last thing I needed was a long hill which is, of course, exactly what the route put in front of me once we'd wound past a sprawling strip mall and out of the town. Over the course of the next 30km or so it became clear that I needed something more than just painkillers. Aside from the fact that I could only take so many in a day, the knee was beginning to wobble under the pressure of climbing. It was becoming more and more difficult to keep an even pedal stroke without my knee looping left and right making ugly figures of 8 rather than nice clean circles. I cursed myself for not packing some of those brightly coloured physio straps in my bag - they'd have taken up almost no space and seemed to be exactly what I needed. I started to daydream of finding a pharmacy that stocked, and knew how to apply them. It was pretty improbable, but maybe I'd get lucky and find one that had a knee brace or something else usable.

Somewhere whilst having these thoughts another "Walker on a Burls" came up alongside and we started chatting (Charles Walker I think, from Australia). I already knew about him, and he about me because he'd met some of the other guys in Paris - Gideon and Ernst I think, who are also Titanium enthusiasts and hence tuned into our rather uncommon bike brand. He'd spotted my SA Flag jersey and easily caught up, my speed now having dropped down to a snail's pace at times.  We chatted about our bikes for a while, how we came to choose Justin Burls, and Audaxing in general. His was a very smart disc machine with Easton forks I think. I forget the rest of the spec, but clearly he was just as happy with his choice as I was.

Eventually I explained and apologised for my pathetic speed, and urged him to continue at his own pace rather than limp along with me. Soon after I rolled into a town I recognised. It was Gorron again, although with the main street closed for a big market there was no chance of temptation at the same bakery for more of those fruit tarts. I was just wondering if the detour had also taken me past the town's pharmacy and contemplating dismounting and walking back into the center when I spied what I thought was a green cross flashing dimly up ahead on the left. 

11:45, 19 Aug - Gorron (possibly the world's most helpful pharmacist): 

 I swung across the road and leant my bike outside the shop - where it would still be just visible from inside through the sliding glass door. I remember getting an amused look from a couple who were leaving, and hearing the sound of cheering and a band playing - or maybe just a lone trumpeter - a bit further along the road at the end of the town. I'd barely taken 3 steps into the shop before an enormously enthusiastic assistant came across to help me - I must confess, I did put on a bit of an exaggerated limp to make it obvious what I needed. It wasn't really necessary though - between my French and the pharmacist's English we quickly homed in on their selection of supports, and within minutes I was seated and trying on a knee brace. It was darned uncomfortable if I'm honest but, hobbling around in the shop, I could also feel it was giving just the level of support I'd been hoping for. I indicated this with the universal "thumbs-up" sign and was soon swiping my card in payment. Before leaving though, the assistant shoved handfuls of ice gel sachets in my direction. I rolled the brace down and rubbed one onto my knee, stuffing the rest in a jersey pocket. It was a bit of a silly place to put them - later in the ride, with a foggy brain, I came very close to eating one mistaking it for an energy gel.

I started out again slowly, getting my own personal cheer as I passed the band and headed out of town. The brace rubbed and chafed like hell, but the knee pain was considerably diminished - or maybe it was that the added discomfort of wearing it gave my mind something else to dwell on. Either way, I was able to push quite a bit harder on the uphills, and in between rest on the descents. Despite the irritation to my skin it was an improvement - I was making better progress and my knee no longer felt like it was going to give way on me. And with that out of my mind for now, I started to get hungry again.

Not much further on I came to a familiar dogleg in the road followed by a fast descent - I was back in the ridiculously picturesque town of Ambrières-les-Vallées. The road dipped down to a stream and swung left to cross it on an old bridge. I'd foolishly not stopped there for breakfast on the way out, a mistake that I wasn't going to make twice. I didn't really care what the food was like, the setting was sublime. The standard jambon baguettes were sitting on the bar, I needed something more to cheer me up though, and opted for a small pression (draught beer) to go with. I wasn't sure it was an entirely sensible idea, being so tired and sleep deprived, but at that moment it felt like exactly what was needed.

I sat outside, taking in the wonderful view, and relaxing over my beer and sandwich as other riders threaded their way through the S-bend, across the bridge and up again out of town. Quite a few did as I had and stopped, in the course of which I found myself sitting opposite a guy in a Scottish flag shirt with a chap in a Welsh shirt making his way to a table. I remember making a comment to the Scottish guy that it was a perfect scene for a joke - an Englishman, a Scotsman and a Welshman sitting at a bar. He laughed, but it occurs to me now he may just have done so out of politeness - the joke probably lost a bit of meaning with me in a South African flag jersey.

It was hard to tear myself away from such an idyllic spot but I couldn't afford to let my leg seize up so after around half an hour I started out again, slowly up the hill and out of the town. Part way up I passed a chap with his garage fully open and tables inside from which he was serving food and drinks to passing riders. I remembered seeing him stood there in the early morning on the way out - I wondered if he'd manned his little food station for the whole time since.

The roughly 40km or so to the next control took me a little over two hours. Not too bad really considering the terrain and my slowness up anything resembling a hill. Somewhere along the way I met a young English rider named Chapman and we rode together for a while. He was also struggling but it seemed to be more from a general lack of energy. It was clear from our conversation that he was normally a fast rider and a little dismayed and downbeat to find himself lagging behind his usual pace. I guessed that a lot of it was the mental fatigue such long events bring. Before we separated he asked if he could take a copy of my Garmin log for his records, his unit having died some time back. I wasn't entirely sure he'd remember my name but we did actually swap emails after the event, so clearly his memory was still functioning at least.

Over the last couple of kilometers to the control I vaguely remember seeing a blue and white Giant sign beside the road. I guessed this was probably the same sign Nico had spotted and followed to acquire the new rear wheel that saved his ride. 

15:25, 19 Aug - Villaines-la-Juhel, 1008km

I recall hearing a quote from someone along the lines of "prepare to feel like a Pro racer" about the approach to Villaines. They weren't wrong. The entire town was one huge street party and we were the guests of honour. Huge inflatable arches had sprung up either end of the street that was cordoned off for the control, and the fences both side were lined with cheering supporters. It honestly did feel and look like the finish of a Tour de France stage. I stopped to snap a picture, which sadly does not come close to doing it justice - the crowds behind the barriers inside the control were crammed in like sardines.

I stuck to the basics at the control - the obligatory brevet stamp, a top up of water, and a quick pee. Or I tried too stick to that at least. A very nice young girl tried repeatedly to lure me into the massage area on seeing my strapped up knee. I was tempted but in the back of my mind was a voice telling me not too - "it's manageable now, the pain's not too bad, don't risk making it worse and don't waste time." I listened to the voice and reluctantly declined, heading back to the bike and smearing on a fresh pack of ice gel under the brace before rolling out.

Just two more controls and a little over 200km to go. I started to believe again.

I knew the leg to the next control was going to be a tough one but that also, once done, the route beyond would become easier and less rolling (or at least that was how I'd remembered it). I figured the best plan was to break this section into two, with a stop for a rest and dinner somewhere around midway. As it happened, quite by chance I picked a town which I now see on the map is almost exactly half way. In other respects, it possibly wasn't such a great choice.  

17:10, 19 Aug - Fresnay-sur-Sarthe:

When the owner told me they weren't yet serving food but he'd see what he could do I should have
ridden on. It was a generous offer, but clearly it wasn't going to be quick. But the lure of a beer and a sit down on a wonderful sunny evening was too great so instead I lingered and watched the world (and PBP) go by as he busied off to find his chef.  Whilst waiting there one of a pair of Italian riders on the most superb vintage fixed gear bikes pulled up to get a beer. I struggle to imagine how they were going so well on such old machines and wearing heavy vintage woolen clothing too. Their setup and kit seemed remarkably authentic and quite wonderful - it must have been an absolute sod to wear and ride though. 

Eventually my dish of lasagna arrived. It was tasty and filling, but otherwise fairly standard. Gideon and Ernst rolled by as I was eating, stopped for a quick hello but I failed to talk them into a beer. They were clearly on a schedule - most likely meeting their support RV at the next control. Spending 40 minutes over a mediocre dinner wasn't an efficient choice on my part either, but I wasn't short of time so there was no value dwelling on it.

The stretch to the next control was every bit as tough as I was expecting - one hill after the next, some of them a lot steeper than my legs enjoyed. I stopped twice along the way. The first stop was initially in response to a desperate need for a pee, induced no doubt by that beer. Noticing the time though I also got in a quick call to update Yoli and say goodnight to Ben. It was just a few minutes off the bike, but in the early evening sunlight on a leafy stretch of lane with nothing in sight except farmland and passing riders it was also rather delightful. The second stop was just before the control to take off the knee brace. The chafing was now driving me insane and it seemed to have done it's work, the knee pain was considerably diminished. I was also feeling a little more confident after a message from Penny back home saying my ITB wouldn't tear, and however badly it hurt I could just keep going without worrying.

Somewhere along this section I also finally actually met Marcus Jackson Baker. After swapping numerous forum messages, and both of us having taken part in LEL this was the first time we'd actually ridden together. He sauntered alongside me at a leisurely pace on a very smart looking orange fixed gear bike and, after chatting a while, pulled slowly ahead. Even with the excuse of an injury he was putting my efforts with 22 gears and a freehub rather to shame. At some stage as we were riding together we came across Chapman, who Marcus clearly knew or had also met on the ride. 

Buildings came into view up ahead, the last rays of sunlight picking out rich brown and orange colours on the old facades lining the route into town. A last climb, a left turn, and then a short steep ramp that had me standing on the pedals and cursing I hadn't dropped one more gear - none of it mattered though, this was the control and most of the hard riding was now behind me.

20:42, 19 Aug - Mortagne-au-Perche, 1089km

Finally a control with no queue for food, it was impossible not to go and see what was on offer. For some reason, despite the sausage and mash looking good I ended up with yet more pasta. I wasn't really sure I was hungry but I must have been - it disappeared rapidly, along with some type of soda or other. I was feeling decidedly light headed and spaced out - the canteen was lined with sleeping bodies and I decided to try and grab a nap. After retrieving my saddle bag I found a spare space near one of the doorways. I lay there for a while, rolling over a couple of times. I was comfortable enough, and it wasn't especially noisy but I just couldn't drift off. Eventually I decided I was just wasting time - sleep was not going to come. I packed up, went back to the bar, and grabbed a coffee with two sugars. I still felt pretty crappy, but I was awake enough to push on - I could always have a nap by the road or at the next control if the dozies kicked in.

It was a bit of a waste of an hour and 15 minutes, but I was at least fed and refreshed as I headed out of the control. Whatever lay ahead, my fourth night on the road would be the last for this PBP. Despite feeling shabby I knew I had to make every effort to enjoy it, and make at least one more roadside stop on the way to savour the atmosphere properly for possibly the last time. 

The road dipped down and climbed out of several valleys - clearly my memory of it being flatter after the last control was somewhat flawed. My spirits were good though and it was wonderful riding - the smell of damp, lush forest all around as we crossed the bottom of each valley and wound up their wooded sides. None of the inclines were long, and the descents were fast and fun. As we crested the last of these and started to run downhill I spied a brightly lit stall that looked familiar. It was a much bigger affair, with an expansive table covered in food, chairs laid out and more people serving, but I was pretty sure it was the same family who'd served me my first coffee on the way out.  

00:24, 20 Aug - roadside stall in Senonches:

I gratefully accepted the chair which I was ushered towards, and then a cup of vegetable soup, soon after followed by a second cup. Riders came and went as I sat relaxing and enjoying the soup. I only stopped for around 15 minutes but they were some of the most enjoyable of the ride so far -  such generous hospitality in the middle of the night a full four days after we'd passed this spot previously.

Riding out again the road finally flattened out into the rolling pastures I'd remembered. To head towards Dreux we must have diverted from the outbound route at some point, but the terrain was similar - fast, and predominantly downhill in this direction. The cool air combined with the higher speed was a great relief, helping keep me awake and alert as we rushed through the night. Every now and then a few drops of rain fell from now cloud-heavy skies but they never quite became even a proper shower.

An orange glow of city lights eventually appeared on the horizon - but riding towards them I felt my concentration wandering for the first time. Despite our speed we hardly seemed to be making any progress towards them. Time seemed to slow down, and the scenery almost froze into an unchanging picture. My eyes blurred and tiny but noticeable gaps started to appear in my consciousness. I was watching a movie reel that had been slowed down to reveal the blank space in between each frame. I was beginning to doze off, just kilometers outside of the last control. This was not good. I shook my head a few times, stood on the pedals and picked up my pace in an effort to keep awake. I tucked alongside a fellow rider and focused on keeping a straight path alongside his. It was just enough to get me to the streetlights ahead, where we swung right and down a stretch of main highway, luckily empty at this late hour. At the bottom we swung off the highway and onto some kind of cycle path which wound back and forth through a park until finally depositing us on a suburban road. It was a huge relief to see barriers and marshals ahead. I'd avoided falling asleep at the wheel by the smallest of margins and made it to the control. 

02:26, 20 Aug - Dreux, 1166km

This was it, my last control and I felt - well - truly dreadful to be honest. I wandered aimlessly looking for a space to park my bike. Eventually a marshal put a steadying hand on my shoulder and guided me to lean it against the railing of a bridge over a small stream. I trudged into the control, fumbled around getting my card stamped, loaded a tray with coffee and food and sank into the nearest available chair. It was more than 24 hours since I'd left Loudéac - my body was in reasonable shape, but mentally I was shattered.

I really wasn't sure what to do. The logical thing with time in hand would have been to go into the dormitory and get a couple of hours proper sleep. But a voice inside was telling me it was a bad plan - the ghost of that near disastrous Market Rasen stop on LEL probably still haunting me. I didn't want to lie down and risk that again. So instead I set my alarm 45 minutes ahead, quickly drank another coffee, leant my arms onto the table and slumped forward to rest my head on them. All around were snoozing riders doing the same - it wasn't exactly comfortable but my eyes did close for a while although not nearly the full time I'd set on the watch.

My mind was still hazy when I woke up, but I had no doubt what I needed to do. One more coffee went down and I picked up a Red Bull for my bag just in case I became dozy again later. Another hour and half stop and no real sleep - my efficiency through controls was long gone. Back at my bike I ate a snack bar, and stashed another in my pocket for the ride back.  And then it hit me - the one thing that would really help me keep awake - clearer vision! Having carried my glasses the whole way, it was now time to use them. I dropped my contact lenses into the stream below and put them on. The effect was miraculous - feeling instantly more alert I topped up water bottles, mounted up and rolled out of the control. Only 65km lay between me and the finish of my PBP dream. I could do this.

As the wheels picked up speed through the town I found myself riding alongside an English randonneur named Paul Revell. He very kindly agreed to let me ride with him in case I started drifting off again. It turned out we also vaguely knew each other from online discussions on YACF. Over the next few kilometers the company and conversation was excellent, more than enough distraction to keep the dozies at bay. It was clearly a bit too distracting as a bit further along the road we missed both a sign for Paris and my Garmin track. We were riding across open farmland, flat and fast, and in the wrong direction. We realised our mistake at a T-junction - I think Paul wanted to punch me at my insistence we stuck to the rules and backtracked to the point of our error. Paul's printed route sheet clearly showed a much shorter option to rejoin the route but we did the right thing, and in the process racked up 15 or 20km extra and added "getting lost" to our PBP experience.

Dawn saw us re-entering the Rambouillet forest - and here, rather obviously, those lovely fast downhills from the way out became a less welcomed chain of wooded climbs, at least a couple of which were just that bit too long and steep to be comfortable. We were nearly home though, and a combination of adrenaline and good spirits were more than a match for them. The roads all around were very wet although the rain didn't reach us until we hit open farmland and rode back up that long straight avenue of poplars where our escort had left us on the first evening. Paul was stretching his legs a bit now and gaps opened a couple of times. I thanked him for the company but said he must push on, I wanted to try and message or call Yoli anyhow - I wasn't sure if I'd let her know that I'd reached and left Dreux earlier.

The roads were busy now with rush hour traffic - and ahead was my second wobbling and wandering rider. She seemed blissfully unaware of how close the speeding cars were passing at times. As I pulled alongside I called across to stay awake and be careful. I think she swore at me, although I couldn't really hear what she said - I'd clearly pissed her off, but at least she was awake now. I pulled over a little further ahead, rain was falling properly now and there was no signal on my phone. Standing around getting wet was not appealing so I typed a text that I hoped would send when there was coverage again and set off for the final 10km of my ride.

There was no near-dead horse this time - just rain, roadspray, and unpleasantly heavy traffic. None of which mattered though - I had enough time in hand to carry my bike to the finish from here if I needed too. Eventually we swung around a loop of road at the top of which were marshals who signaled us left and off the road. We joined a cycle track through a park - I didn't recognise the scenery, but I knew that we were very close to the end. I was pretty certain this park ran all the way back to the velodrome.

As the path swung left the finish line came into view. Bizarrely, I saw the chain snap on one of the bikes just ahead of me. The rider must have been pretty pissed off, but he was just meters from the end and it wasn't going to make any real difference now. I stood up and, in the pouring rain, pushed for the banners ahead. It took a fair amount of concentration to twist up the last little path and take the sharp and narrow bend at the top. The barriers both sides were lined with people, the crowds weren't huge but they cheered us all enthusiastically. My wheels rolled freely down to the marquee ahead and the end of my PBP - it didn't quite feel real. It still doesn't feel quite real. After three and a half years of dreaming I was here, I'd done it!

With no more time pressure I dithered massively finding a space in the bike park. Finally I headed towards the velodrome to get my card stamped. On the way I called Yoli to deliver the simplest of messages which I knew would mean as much to her as it did to me:

"Je suis un Anciens"

My official time was 84:52, inside the cutoff by some 5 hours which is all that really mattered. I'd have just have happily taken 5 minutes inside the cutoff. I'd spent about 61 hours riding, had around 6.5 hours of sleep, and spent probably 1 hour getting lost. The roughly 16 hours remaining let's just say I spent thoroughly enjoying myself (others might call it faffing).

Click here to continue to Epilogue

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

PBP Part 2 - Slow Train To The Coast

00:00, 18 Aug - Loudéac, 448km

I can't remember whether I opened it before going to sleep or after waking up but the card Yoli and Ben had made for me which read "Open at 1st drop bag" made me laugh so much I nearly wet myself. It was a real boost to the spirits.

I've mentioned it before on this blog but I love riding at night - still, cool air, quiet roads and peaceful riding. It's a big advantage on any long Audax ride but particularly this one when, an hour ago, multiple alarms went off all around my room. Some of these were placed intentionally out of reach so I couldn't just roll over and mute them. The various ringing bells dragged me up from possibly the deepest sleep I've ever experienced mid-ride. I was so dead to the world it took me a couple of minutes to properly come too and even remember where I was. Before heading to the shower I sent Peter a quick message - there was still about 3.5 hours in hand over the control cut-off, meaning he could still use the hotel room if he was nearby. As the powerful downpour from a hot shower restored me I patted myself on the back once again for planning ahead and booking this hotel last September. It seemed ridiculously early at the time, but I know they were fully booked not long after.

I faffed around quite a lot getting ready. Fresh contact lenses went in, Sudocreme was liberally applied to the undercarriage, and on went fresh clean kit - thermal vest for the cold night, and William's old-style jersey on top which had a fairly generous cut. The new-style slim cut jersey went in the saddle pack to wear later when it warmed up. Body all sorted, I started on the bike - swapping out the front light battery pack, leaving the used one in the hotel room on charge. As a precaution I put fresh AAAs in the rear light I'd been using - they should have plenty left, but it save me needing to think about changing them en-route. Finally I reset the Garmin and loaded up the track for the next leg. Just before heading out I checked my messages but nothing from Peter - I messaged again saying I was leaving but would keep an eye out for him on the road.

It was a great feeling rolling past the control around midnight with 2.5 hours in the bank -  it was unpleasantly cold though, and I cursed leaving my leg warmers back in Paris. As I wound through the town my mind went over the day ahead and started to form a plan. It was just short of 350km out to Brest and back to Loudeac - a welcome relief to have 100km less riding than yesterday. I resolved to take it much easier and give the legs and body a bit of a break. They had looked after me well the previous day, now it was my turn to look after them. Somewhere between 18 and 20 hours to be back in Loudeac seemed a decent target - it would allow a considerably more relaxed pace, with time to enjoy some cafe stops along the way.

I hadn't really intended that first cafe stop to happen so soon, but within half an hour of starting out I rolled through a sleepy little town called Trevé and spied two other riders sat at tables enjoying coffee and croissants. Setting off with no coffee or breakfast had troubled me, and this was too good to pass up. I dashed inside and ordered two pain-au-chocolats and a coffee - possibly two coffees, I forget. I sat at a free table outside with a stupid grin on my face - this was exactly the sort of day I'd planned, enjoying whatever I chanced upon along the way. A few other riders obviously had the same thought as they saw me there and by the time I started out again several other tables were now full. It was 15 well spent minutes, the perfect start to the day.

The riding was just as rolling as the day before - pretty much continuously up and down. Clearly another day of hill intervals lay ahead. A steady flow of headlights were passing now, already on their way back to Paris. I wondered if my front light was as blinding as theirs - I suspect it probably was. One upside of the cold was it gave no incentive to be lazy, lifting the effort a shade on the hills being about the only way I could warm myself up a little.

Having breakfasted already I had intended to bounce the official food stop, but the organizers had other plans. This was our first secret control - and marshals were funneled us towards bike stands and the brevet station. 

02:35, 18 Aug - St Nicolas-du-Pelem, 492km

It was a record control for me - I was stamped, topped up, and through the control in 5 minutes. Talk about getting my faffing under control! I did spend another 7 or so minutes beside the road just beyond the town though taking a pee and donning more warm gear. Out came thin beanie, on went warm gloves, and my PBP gilet went on over the top of my jacket. It was just enough to get me vaguely warm. My legs were still freezing in just cycle shorts, but at least my feet, body, hands and head were warm. It was just about enough. Someone later told me they'd recorded a low of zero degrees in the middle of this night. I'm not sure how true that is, but the temperature was definitely very low single digits. Fumbling around in the dark I made a rookie mistake and let the heavily loaded bike slip out of my hands - scoring a gash on my leg as the chain-ring gave me a nasty bite. 

03:55, 18 Aug - Somewhere Random:

The road took a dog-leg left and right through a small town just before the next control. As the right bend of the main street straightened out I saw a banner and flashing lights pointing up a narrow paved alley, with a board next to it advertising drinks and food. Quickly checking it was clear behind, I grabbed handfuls of brake and pulled up sharp to look down the alley. A 100m away was a brightly lit collection of benches, tables and umbrellas. With no intention of eating at the control up ahead this seemed like an ideal stop for breakfast. I guess more accurately a 2nd breakfast, but who was counting. The plan was for an easier day, meaning there was no need to rush past inviting looking little stops. I rolled up the alley, lent my bike against the wall and wandered towards the family running the stall.

There was a short handwritten menu with various tarts etc but I fancied something a little bigger, so in my limited French asked if they could do me a sandwich - "avez vous baguette Jambon-Fromage?". Instantly nodding a girl I guessed was the daughter ran inside to start making me one. With the chilly air I wasn't remotely sleepy and so asked if they could make a "chocolat-chaud" to warm me up. They ushered me to a chair and table whilst another reached for cups and hot water. I sat there munching a deliciously fresh sandwich and sipping on the wonderfully sweet hot chocolate. Despite looking like an ordinary house this was clearly a boulangerie - an enormously welcoming one. They asked me how I was going (at least I think that's what they said) and I did my best to reply that I was doing great, and the food and drink were lovely. I also managed to learn the name of the town (Mael-Carhaix), and that the control was only another 10km further on. Although our conversation was limited, I was stupidly pleased to have managed it entirely with my limited schoolboy French. There was really only two sad parts to this wonderful little stop: having to pack up and leave; and that more hadn't also spotted their sign and taken the time to enjoy the warm hospitality this family had laid on at such a ridiculous hour of the morning. As I headed back down the alley I did my best to rectify this, telling the riders I saw passing what a lovely stop it was and well worth the visit. They all just looked at me blankly and rode on - their loss!

04:38, 18 Aug - Carhaix-Plouguer, 526km

Well fed and watered by the stop just before I made this another zero-faffing control - in and out in 5 minutes, despite the usual long and meandering layout which required a bit of wandering around.

It was impossible to ignore that the next control was Brest, the halfway point. Once we turned around we'd start to follow signs saying "Paris". Rolling out of Carhaix I did a quick bit of mental arithmetic - this leg was just under 90km, meaning that dawn would break somewhere around midway to the coast. With no great rush, and no real desire to ride it all in one go, I figured a stop for breakfast around 40 or 50km down the road somewhere sounded like a good idea. OK, yes, technically this would be my 3rd breakfast of the morning but once again, it was planning ahead. Taking fuel on board early would mean no need to queue for any at Brest. Including a stop, I figured I'd probably reach the control in around 5 hours - even with today's more relaxed pace, this would still be well ahead of any timing I'd dared dream of.

The first faint rays of light revealed what a stunningly beautiful landscape the unceasing hills were leading us through. We wound through the village of Huelgoat, in the dim grey light it looked stunning, an impressive looking church looming up on one side and somewhere a line of trees traversing a steep hill with a large lake down below. I made a mental note to stop on the way back when there was more light and take some photos. Soon after we swung right onto a main road -  faster, and much less pleasant. It was wide enough that the speeding traffic never really bothered us, but it was soulless after the lovely lanes. One long dull rise, red tail lights of riders ahead, white headlights of returning riders coming the other way. The long drag climbed steadily up and up. A mast ahead clearly indicated the top we were aiming towards and eventually, at a crossing with another road, the climb leveled out. Very briefly we were running along the top of a high hillside, with glimpses of coastline beyond. Somewhere, down there, was Brest.

Parked alongside the road and in lay-bys were numerous RVs, some with riders stopped. I was a little confused by this (and still am). Brest may have been close but we were definitely not within the last few kilometers of the control where support would be allowed. They might have been locals supported any riders needing help, but a few definitely seemed more like family or friends. I dismissed the thought - perhaps this was designated as an official area for support if parking nearer the control was limited. It would have been a rather flagrant abuse of the Audax ethos if not, but either way it didn't really bother me. I was riding my ride, and they were riding theirs - no one else really polices our rides aside from ourselves.

The sun was fully up as my wheels picked up speed and ran down a long descent to the flat coastal plain below.  It was fast, fun, and still rather cold - the whole time passing a steady stream of riders slogging back up the climb. On a ride of mostly rolling hills this was something approaching a proper climb - Roc'h Trevezel. I tried to stop my mind dwelling on the thought I'd also need to climb back up it later, when it was also likely to be much warmer too. As kilometer after kilometer of fast and effortless riding whizzed by it was simply impossible not to realize that a heavy price would be exacted later for the free ride.

Beyond the small hamlet of Commana came a somewhat bigger town. A large hotel on the right was filled with riders and bikes and a smaller cafe on the left was also busy but with a few spaces. Guessing there was maybe 35km to the control this was an ideal time to stop. I quickly parked up and headed inside to warm up.

07:15, 18 Aug - Sizun:

What a relief. The cafe was warm, there was a free chair at the bar, and although it was busy with other riders the staff were friendly and efficient. With no more than a nod in their direction I was quickly served a large and excellent cup of cafe-au-lait plus a pain-au-chocolat. I think it was a kind of breakfast special for riders - the slip said something like "formule" and showed a ridiculously small price. It was exactly what body and mind needed. I contemplated having a second, but I really didn't need either the food or the caffeine. Reluctantly I gave up the warmth of the bar, visited the loo and headed out - donning gloves and warm gear as I left. As I pottered around I noticed the registration plate attached to a bike that was just pulling up. It had a South African flag on it - but it wasn't a machine I recognised. Quickly scanning the name I saw it was Gerrit Visser, already on his way back I think. We exchanged hellos and quick updates on how we were going before he headed inside and I mounted up, looking forward to this final outbound stretch.

We continued along a main road, now busy with morning rush hour traffic - including quite a few trucks, most of which waited patiently behind our group until it was safe to overtake. A very small number didn't though, passing uncomfortably close and scarily fast. The same applied to cars too - the majority were extremely careful, but the few which weren't gave real cause for concern. We were clearly on one of the main arteries to Brest and it was not particularly pleasant - in fact it was rather too reminiscent of heading into Edinburgh, the LEL turn-around point, at rush-hour. The road ahead gradually rose up, riders the other way enjoying a brief respite before the big hill which they would all know was coming. Just in front of me a guy in a red jersey on a silver coloured bike was wobbling around all over the road. I wasn't sure if he was falling asleep or fiddling with things on his bike, but every now and then he took a sudden lurch left or right and grabbed large handfuls of bar to bring it on track. In the process he often over-corrected and veered violently to the opposite side. I really did not want to go any slower or faster, but sitting behind this guy was a recipe for disaster. If he didn't end up in the ditch, he was under serious risk of straying into the path of one of the cars racing past. I had no choice - standing on the pedals, I urged my weary legs to push some power into the back wheel, and passed him. I knew he wouldn't thank me, but I called to him to pay attention or take a break as I went past. I've no idea whether he understood or listened to me, but at least I had tried to wake him up.

I was very pleased when our route left the main road at a junction a little further ahead - marshals signalling us to turn left. I clearly wasn't paying attention here because at the time I did not notice that riders coming back were rejoining a route split here - it would have answered a question that was going to nag me on the way back. Anyhow, for now I just enjoyed the quieter lane even if it did send us some more hills to roll over. The knowledge that not far ahead was the control helped a bit, as did the lush green woods lining the hillside and folding over the top of our path. It was rather beautiful. Ever since entering Brittany we'd been passing dual language road-signs, each town having it's Breton name in italics underneath the modern French name. It reminded me of Ireland in more ways than just that - many of the local names felt as if they shared some common linguistic root to gaelic. A few were also quite amusing, at least to me in my road weary state - Loperhet (Breton: Loperc'hed) sounded to me like "lop-her-head", maybe an ancient site of witch beheadings!

Our route took a 90 degree turn left and started to head downhill, running parallel to a main highway on our right hand side. The towers of a bridge could be seen up ahead - this was clearly the final descent into Brest. They surely weren't going to take us onto the busy highway to get across the bridge though - maybe there was some kind of cycle-way, similar to the Humber Bridge on LEL. The approach became even more reminiscent of that section as we swung left into a park at the bottom, bollards preventing cars traveling further. But the reality which unfolded in front was far more delightful than a climb up onto a bike path. We were being taken across the old bridge, now pedestrianised and running right alongside and a little below the massive modern suspension bridge carrying the highway. Only the tops of it's twin towers and supporting cables were visible rising out of the thick fog bank - making it appear to be floating next to us in the morning sunlight. Like many riders around me I stopped to take photos. Once I realised where we were, I also recalled reading a forum post that we would only cross this bridge on the way into Brest. So this was going to be the only chance to capture a memory of the wonderful scene. I made sure to get a shot of me in my William's Bike Shop shirt too. It had been my turnaround jersey in Edinburgh, and it felt especially significant to be wearing it again today. Will's wheels were still rolling fast and true 600km into this adventure and I had absolute faith in them, despite that being a dangerous thought - the puncture and buckling fairies have a knack of hearing over-confident brainwaves.

We wound through a much longer stretch of suburb and then town than I was expecting. The surface in places was quite patchy and poor - so far we'd mostly been blessed with good smooth tar. A couple of short sections had cycle lanes I seem to recall, but mainly we jostled with morning traffic on not-always wide roads. Eventually we crossed some tram tracks, and the route swung a couple more turns before marshals and a large inflatable arch finally signaled that this was it - the somewhat dreaded halfway control!

09:33, 18 Aug - Brest, 614km

I dithered around rather more than the last few controls, managing to lose 30 minutes somewhere. OK, I did fill bottles, get card stamped, put on sunscreen, and quickly phone Yoli to let her know the news. I also ate the other half of the baguette from the Mael-Carhaix stop - still fresh, but I knew it wouldn't be enough to keep my rumbling stomach quiet for long. What I was really craving was a big bowl of Spag Bog. I was pretty sure they'd have some form of pasta at the control, but couldn't face the idea of wasting more time queuing to find out. I snapped a quick picture of my now fully stamped outbound brevet card page, stashed my gear, and rolled out. It was daunting to think we had to ride every one of those kilometers again, but at least for now it was very pleasant riding. 

As we crossed the tram tracks again some kind of electrical interference must have upset my Garmin - a few meters on I noticed the screen was blank and it was off. At first I figured maybe the battery had died prematurely, but switching it back on again showed a full set of bars on the battery meter. It was only later that a spike from the overhead power lines struck me as a possible cause. Having checked it regularly, there didn't seem anything else wrong.The Garmin wasn't the only thing misbehaving. My body compass was badly thrown off by the minimal sleep over the last two and a half days. Knowing we didn't cross the bridge again, I was expecting our route to swing right and south back, but it went the opposite way, bearing left and north through different suburbs. The roads were too busy to mess around looking down at the Garmin - plus I find having too big picture of what lies ahead distracts from the task of pedaling the stretch of road directly in front of me.  So I rode on a little baffled.

Baffled, getting rather too hot on the inclines, and also now needing to pee. I managed to waste another 5 minutes on a road-side stop, taking a leak and shedding layers. I also changed into my new style William's jersey which, being closer fitting, should be considerably cooler in the what promised to a warm day of riding ahead. I really should have sorted both of these needs out in the time spent faffing at the control, but they were sorted now.

A large river appeared on my right as we ran into the pretty town of Landernau, also choked with busy traffic. I cautiously weaved my way around the stationary cars, more than once nearly getting clipped by either impatient or just unobservant drivers. It was a big relief to finally hit a quiet stretch of road which swung right and across the river. It's glaringly obvious with a map in front of me now that we'd skirted north and just re-crossed the same river that the old bridge had carried us over the estuary mouth of earlier. But my tired brain just couldn't unravel things, it made such little sense to me that I concocted an alternate, completely ludicrous theory. Perhaps we weren't going to go back up the big climb after all. Perhaps the RVs parked on top were actually some official support point, and only the riders with support vehicles had to go that way. I did eventually realise there was no possible way my bizarre, altered reality version could be correct. I would have read at least something about it in the pre-ride materials, and there would need to have been alternate route signage to make it work too. But all of us were now following the same, single set of very welcomed signs saying "Paris".

And then the real truth appeared to unravel the mystery - we came to that fork in the road I'd not paid proper attention to earlier. Riders still heading into Brest were being marshaled across our path and onto the quieter country lane. As the small group I was with approached we were signaled straight through, back onto the busy main road and that slight decline I'd seen homeward bound riders freewheeling down a couple of hours earlier. I spotted one other tell-tale detail which would have solved the mystery earlier - we'd been on the D764 since leaving Landernau, which was the same road number all the way back, up and over Roc'h Trevezel.


I much preferred my version which magically avoided the climb that was now just a few kilometers along the road. Some rather better news did at least come my way before then.

12:00, 18 Aug - Sizun:

Several coincidences collided perfectly as I rolled back into Sizun. First of these was it was almost exactly midday, and here was a town with a restaurant for lunch. I spied the hotel up ahead but, as before, it looked busy. I glanced back to my right at the marquee in the hope it might be an alternative but, although people were eating inside, I couldn't see anywhere serving food. At that point the next coincidence happened - the exact moment I looked into this corner of the town square, a large van started up and drove out of it's parking space. Behind it was a restaurant with a single rider sitting eating, surrounded by empty tables. Clearly the van had blocked everyone's view of this little establishment. The final coincidence landed as I hurried over - the chap was eating the most delicious looking plate of Spag Bog with a side salad. I almost pinched myself to check that I hadn't drifted off into some idyllic dream. A quite improbable sequence of random events had delivered me to the exact plate of food I'd been lusting after and it was lunchtime. I didn't risk disturbing such a perfectly aligned universe and pointing to the plate immediately said "la même" (the same) to a waiter nearby, foregoing his attempts to bring me a menu. He also brought some strange local variant of Coke (Breizh Cola) too - which didn't taste half bad despite not being "the real thing". I felt a bit of an ignoramus when I realised later that Breizh is actually the breton word for the area we were cycling through (Brittany). At least a couple of other riders arrived and eyed my plate hungrily as I relaxed and enjoyed the sublime simplicity of a plate of pasta covered in delicious meaty sauce. 

The short ramp into Sizun signaled the start of the slog back up to the peak ahead. It dipped a couple of times in places, but mostly it was a slow long haul for the next 15km. Being long though also meant it wasn't especially steep. Even the final 5km that were all uphill never became a chore. Sitting there, spinning an easy gear, it was actually rather enjoyable. The slower speed gave a chance to look at the wonderful views, most of which had been lost on me earlier as I'd been focusing on the fast descent. It was a shade on the warm side though, and I was becoming quite hot and sweaty as the foot of the mast finally came into sight and I crested the top. I patted myself on the back for the timely kit change - the benefit of sweating into a close fitting jersey is that it immediately starts to act like your own built in air-conditioning, and I was now cooling down nicely. You'd expect tight clothes to be unpleasant for exercise in hot weather but actually the reverse is true, providing they are made of decent material which this clearly was.

My sense of direction was so badly blurred that for some reason I expected us to turn right back to Huelgoat. In fact, it was on our left - something I'm certain the signposts must have indicated but my brain ignored. Whichever side it was, we didn't turn and I lost my chance for a photograph of the pretty hamlet. Instead the route planners kept us on the D764. They had good intentions I'm sure - a faster, more direct and less hilly route back to Carhaix. But it was busy, the cars passing unnervingly fast, and worst of all it was dreary. I rode with an English rider along this stretch. As well as some nicely distracting conversation, he also saved at least a couple of my attempts to turn off this dismal, hot, black stretch of tar. There were no signs telling us to do so, and I'm reasonably sure my Garmin route didn't indicate we should - it was the by-product of an over-tired brain trying to take over and lure me somewhere more pleasant. The only saving grace of the temporarily ugly route was that it transported us quickly to the Carhaix control.

14:40, 18 Aug - Carhaix, 698km

On the outskirts of town I'd spotted Idai, one of the EliptiGO riders I knew from LEL, and I saw him again as I was leaving the brevet station. He commented how hot the afternoon was. He was right - it had gone beyond just a warm day, the temperature had climbed into the thirties and it was becoming uncomfortable. As we parted I said something about heading for the first ice-cream I saw. It wasn't far down the road, back in the town of Mael-Carhaix, where I spied a small local store which looked promising.

15:30, 18 Aug - Mael-Carhaix:

A fellow rider came in as I stood in front of the freezer cabinet choosing - or rather not choosing, since I left the shop with both a Magnum and something similar to a King Cone. I forget what soda I took - I have a vague recollection of it being an Orangina. I sat on a wall in the shade of the town's church and scoffed the lot. They tasted wonderful but it was a disastrous idea -  another rookie mistake, some kind of heat induced madness.

I expected to get underway and pick up speed on the way back to Loudéac, but just a few meters further on through the town a marshal ushered me right and into a secret control. I was surprised it was so close to the previous actual control, but I guess that was the point. If it surprised me, then it was a pretty good and unexpected secret.

15:45, 18 Aug - Mael-Carhaix, 708km

Chatting to someone after the ride (I forget who) they commented on the great food at the Mael-Carhaix control. I must have missed it, or maybe they'd meant the earlier proper control but either way I rode out with no more than the required brevet stamp. If there had actually been food, and if I'd found it maybe the next grueling 70km could have been averted. Not the distance, that had to be ridden of course. But the terrible mood with which I rode it was perhaps avoidable.

I forget exactly where along this stretch the slump set-in. I have a feeling it may have been a little after St-Nicholas du Pelem, now reverted to a food stop with the Paris-bound secret control already past. With no need of a brevet stamp I rode straight through and back onto the route. I may not remember the exact section where my spirits sagged, but I do vividly remember the stretch of road I was on at the time. The lane rolled down slightly and then rose up - hedges and a few trees lining both sides to the crest. It wasn't long or steep, in fact it was extremely gradual - but combined with over 700km of riding and limited sleep, enormous fatigue suddenly overtook me. My legs felt heavy, strength faded from them and I had no push left. I dropped onto my rear 28t cog and span incredibly slowly up the innocuous rise, other riders flashing past me.

A little further on a group of young children were serving drinks and snacks to passing riders from a small table outside their cottage. I stopped and gratefully took a fill up of cold water. My eyes surveyed the table and for a moment contemplated tossing some coins into their tin for one of the cakes or some sweets. Which is when my earlier mistake struck me. Instead of taking on proper fuel I'd loaded up on sugar an hour or so back which, once used up, had caused what I was now going through.  For the first time in years, I'd bonked. Realising this was both a relief and a huge downer. I knew if I kept myself well hydrated in the heat, and put some proper fuel in my body it would pass. I also knew that whatever I ate now would take several hours to kick in - meaning I was going to have to slog through it probably all the way back to Loudeac. It wasn't likely to improve until after I got back to my hotel. Bummer!

I skipped the sugary treats and rode on. Now, and roughly every 20 minutes over the next 2 hours I put in a Perpetuem Solids energy chew, in between taken the occasional mouthful of ProNutro bar. I'd much rather have sat down and eaten a proper meal, but these would deliver the right mix of carbs to kick start my engine again, which I could top off with a nice big burger before bed. It was easily the worst two and a half hours of my ride so far. The lanes and villages were still every bit as pretty but I barely noticed them - staring down at the road in front of me and grinding on. More than once I looked at the messages on my headset cap and frame sticker. I needed to remind myself that I'd get past this and that feeling grumpy and tired was not even close to a good enough reason to consider bailing. I wasn't considering bailing, not really, but I was battling the lazy demons. Rolling back up into Trevé I passed the cafe from my 1st breakfast earlier. The energy was slowly starting to return and as if to build on that I heard a familiar voice behind me. It was Phil Whitehurst, who I knew from LEL. Both of these were well timed and gave a very welcome boost over the final ramps back to the control.

19:25, 18 Aug - Loudéac, 780km

We chatted as we headed into the brevet station, and back in the bike park I got Phil to snap a picture of me in the new jersey. William had given it to me just before the ride so I had to show it actually being worn! That last stretch would have been hell if I'd been riding in poor quality kit, so it'd had a more than positive effect on my ride too. My hotel bed was beckoning so I bade Phil farewell, rolled out of the control and back up the short hill towards some sanctuary. The same girl was serving at McDonalds, busier this time with a couple of cars ahead of me in the queue. I doubt she recognised me as she handed over a double helping this time - two burgers and fries. No sense taking chances and under-fueling after the misery of that last section.

Back in the hotel I scoffed both burgers and one of the bags of fries and somewhere in between chatted to Yoli and Ben. It was a huge relief to get that day behind me - and even with the unwanted mental challenge I had zero reason to be unhappy. I was back in the hotel a little after 8pm, almost exactly the 20 hours I'd set as my target for the day. It hadn't been as easy as I'd hoped, but I'd banked plenty of extra time for a decent sleep now. I set the alarm for 3.5 hours ahead, around midnight although I vaguely recall getting back up a bit later to adjust it to 00:30. 

Click here to continue to Part 3

Sunday, 16 August 2015

PBP Part 1 - Overnight Express

PbP 2015 - départ de SQY dimanche 16 août

19:30, 16 Aug - Saint-Quentin en Yvellines, 0km
By the time Peter and I lined up at the start a couple of my plans had already gone astray in minor ways. Despite a comfy hotel room, I had lain awake for the afternoon unable to sleep. And misjudging what would be open on a Sunday in a Parisian suburb had killed off my idea of starting with a baguette or two in my bag. I was surprised to find myself rather unstressed by either of these though. The 36One and more recent 450km Audax had shown me that I could manage a 24 hour stint on the bike despite an evening start following a day of little sleep. Plus, in the absence of real food I had a couple of snack bars and my "emergency" Hammer energy chews. In fact even one of those bars had been generously donated by a Portsmouth based Randonneur (called Maisy I think?) who I'd met earlier in the pizza restaurant. At least skipping the organized meal had been a good call. A few other Audax UK riders were sat at nearby tables having given up when the promised (and paid for) velodrome meal failed to yield anything other than more queuing. Around an hour before my start time, I took my nicely stuffed belly over to the velodrome - rather glad of a waiter's premature removal of my plate, a mistake which had yielded a free tiramisu to top off the mostly eaten pizza.

Almost as soon as I arrived I bumped into Peter Muller and Gerrit Pretorious, and we rolled down to our respective chutes. We stood there in the perfect evening weather - still nicely warm and with the slightest breeze. The clock slowly ticked away as we waited. The last minute decisions piled up on top of the mountain of plans made over the past months and years. They were no longer current - the endless TODO lists were closed, a now unchangeable history of preparations for the ride ahead. Good or bad, right or wrong, remembered or forgotten, whatever I had with me now would have to suffice one way or another. Around 15 minutes before our start slot, we shuffled out of the bike park and up the ramp towards the velodrome proper. Eventually, the seemingly endless babble from the announcer tailed off as he ran out of things to say, the last Mexican wave rolled overhead, the countdown hit zero, and the air all around was filled with the sound of wheels whirring into life and cleats clicking into pedals. A lump formed in my throat - this was it.

PbP 2015 - départ de SQY dimanche 16 aoûtWe swung right out of the velodrome and onto the dual carriageway heading back towards Saint-Quentin center. The early roads were closed, allowing Peter and I to ride two up. I remember making some comment on how unreal it seemed to finally be starting out on this adventure after our first discussion about it as we climbed Bainskloof all those years back on the Cape Monster. As we reached the main square I saw Daniel Webb, the LEL organizer, standing in the middle island of the road cheering riders on. I'm not sure if he actually recognised me or just the LEL jersey, but I vaguely thought I heard him call out "Rob!" as we rode past. The Garmin display may not have yet been showing even a single kilometer traveled, but this was all very real. This was our PBP, right here, and right now.

As predicted on YACF threads the pace was fast, way too fast really - something I'm sure Peter or I remarked on. We went with it though, there didn't seem much point riding intentionally slow and losing out on some early time gains whilst drafting large fast bunches. In fact, our entire start group was pretty much one huge bunch - the backs of riders clad in yellow hi-viz PBP gilets as far ahead as the eye could see. Aside from the crowds lining either side of the street cheering in French, and riding on the wrong side of the road, it felt a little like the start of a very long Cape Argus.


Holy crap, the forums had been spot on about the dangers of street furniture in the early stages too. I'd strayed ever so slightly left and come within centimeters of wiping out on a low concrete bollard placed in the middle of the road on a roundabout approach. Sure enough, as promised, none of the riders in front had bothered to indicate it. I dropped back a shade and resolved to be a lot more attentive to my path - ending my ride without even leaving Paris was unthinkable. Somewhere in the jostling and surging groups Peter and I got disconnected. It wasn't a big deal, some time back we'd agreed we each had to ride our own ride, but it was a bit of a shame to lose his company this early on. In one of the last stretches of the suburb I passed Maisy again, and soon after the road turned slightly downhill and the group's speed raced even higher. Alongside the road at the bottom of this stretch was a stark reminder of the risk of speed in tight groups - emergency crews were attending to a downed rider, presumably part of an earlier accident. Somewhere around this area a single emaciated horse was standing in a field - it looked to be on it's last legs. Rather more bizarrely, the name of the hamlet just along the road was Cheval Mort. Surely the locals weren't keeping an intentionally half starved animal just to match the name of the town? I did wonder if maybe it was the name of some odd local delicacy, but even in a country which gave us culinary delights such as snails, frogs legs and foie gras that seemed just as unlikely. Later in the ride, I'd have put this down as a hallucination, but so early on I'm pretty sure it was really there, just some random coincidence.

PbP 2015 - départ de SQY dimanche 16 aoûtAll of a sudden, the city was gone - our route became a country lane meandering across open farmland, dotted here and there with old, quaint buildings rather than high density housing. Just up ahead our bunch were taking a right angle bend and running down through a stunning avenue line with tall poplar trees. It was the first and last time our escort car was visible as it signed off and left us at the bottom of the avenue. I began to seriously question those who'd commented on the lack of scenery on our route - we were only just starting and already it was lovely. Just up ahead I spied Peter. It was a bit of a surprise as I'd thought he had dropped back, but a very welcome one at that. We exchanged words on how lovely the ride was becoming before settling into a steady riding rhythm. Whatever we'd thought of the scenery so far though it was about to become even more sublime as our route entered a heavily wooded section, the forest at Rambouillet, damp and wonderful smelling after recent rains. The terrain didn't hurt either - long fast downhills around sweeping bends. Somewhere in the middle of this section the woodland gave way to a gorgeous village before diving back into the trees again. We might have been going fast earlier, but now we were flying. At some stage this ride was sure to get harder, but for now it was rapid and effortless.

The last rays of sun gradually faded, and bike lights started to light up around us. We switched ours on just in time, literally one or two curves before we passed marshals checking and calling out to those not yet on. They didn't seem to be handing out penalties at this point - although a rumour quickly spread through the field about riders having been penalised for short cutting a roundabout in the wrong direction. Darkness brought on another scene much discussed on PBP forums - the endless stream of lights ahead. Again, this was completely accurate. Although riding bunches had now spread out, whenever the route ran straight (which it often did) all that could be seen ahead was a continuous snake of red tail lights, either rising up to the top of the next gradual incline, or descending into and out of a shallow dip. It was mesmerizing.

The countryside was now fairly open, which allowed a slight but troublesome breeze to hamper our progress slightly. I forget whether Peter or I commented that we should find a bunch to work with, but we both agreed it was a sound plan. Perhaps two hundred meters ahead a small group was swinging right off a roundabout. I commented that we looked to be gradually overhauling them and so without lifting our effort too much, we should be able to reach them and start sheltering from the wind in turns. In fact, by the time we reached the group it had already begun to splinter, but other fast riders were joining from behind and soon enough we were charging along again with a decent bunch of riders to share the effort against the wind. With tight and fast riding I didn't dare mess around looking at my Garmin, but the pace was high - I guessed it was well above 30km/h for much of the time. The exact makeup and lead riders changed as we wound through various small towns and villages, but there always seemed to be a group of some kind as we left each town for open countryside again, even if not the same one we had entered the urban stretch riding with. It was exhilaratingly quick riding - not something I was expecting from a long Audax, even though I'd been cautioned to expect a fast pace early on.

Around 22:30, Châteauneuf-en-Thymerais, 80km:

Marcus JB (amongst others) had promised a town with an open sports bar around the 80km mark, and sure enough up ahead in the main street riders were gathered filling water bottles and grabbing cans of coke from a table outside a cafe. Inside were more riders filling bottles, and a few drinking cups of coffee. Much as I fancied a coffee I didn't really want a long stop waiting for one this early in the ride. Peter and I agreed we'd top up bottles, visit the loo and get back under way keeping an eye out for a less busy coffee option on the next stretch.  A quick glance at the Garmin was both pleasing and a little worrying - 3 hours to cover 80km was definitely not Audax pace.

The events of the next section are something of a blur. I remember spying a roadside coffee stall, which looking back at my Garmin track seems to have been in a town called Senonches. I was both craving caffeine by now and also keen to indulge in another much fabled PBP experience. In the middle of the night, a family were out on their driveway with a little stall serving free coffees, soups, juices and cakes to any passing riding who needed them for no other reason that this was Paris-Brest-Paris, and these riders were a part of this historic event. All along the route we had been cheered on with cries of Bon Courage!, Bonne Route! and many other greetings but this was beyond all of that - the generosity and admiration shown to us was really rather humbling.

I'd tried to hail Peter to stop but must have missed him. I set off again at a high pace to try and catch him - which I did after a few kilometers. We rode together again for quite a way, drafting a couple of fast groups. Somewhere though we got split again for the last time. I did come across Nico just outside the food stop in Mortagne-au-Perche. He was not in great spirits. One tyre had managed to find the most bizarre of objects to puncture on - a fishing hook of all things. Rather more serious were the two broken spokes his rear wheel was now carrying. His knees were starting to get sore from all the seated climbing to preserve the wheel but it wasn't enough, just on the outskirts of town the sickening twang of a third spoke breaking rang out. His disappointment and anger were evident - I suspect he thought his PBP might be over before it even started. I did my best to re-assure him that the food control ahead would have a mechanic who should be able to either replace the spokes, or better still supply him with a new wheel or rim. On the last short steep incline to the stop I pulled into a space between two parked cars to check he was OK, but despite waiting for a few minutes I couldn't see him. Just before the climb he'd called out he was 10m off my wheel, but he must have stopped or passed me. Mounting up again I rode into the food control alone - I was worried for him but in truth there was little practical I could do. My spare spokes wouldn't fit his wheels and I really didn't have the skills to fit them anyway. He would definitely get to the mechanics station and hopefully they'd patch him up enough to keep his ride alive.

01:30, 17 Aug - Mortagne-au-Perche, 140km

One glance at the long line for hot food inside the control was enough to convince me it was likely to be a serious waste of time so I headed to a circular cabin outdoors dishing out sodas, beers and baguettes. It took me a while to suss out the counter with the shortest queue, and rather surprisingly I was leaving just a few minutes later with two ham baguettes and a coke. I figured the extra one would either save me queuing at another stall along the road, or else avoid Peter or Nico queuing if I saw either of them again in the bike park. Neither of them could be far behind, or ahead. The first baguette was really rather delicious - fresh cooked real ham, thick velvety butter and yeasty soft bread. At some point as I chewed, and in an order I now forget, I saw Gideon and Ernst and Salim. We didn't chat long, but all of them seemed to be having a good ride so far. Not having seen either Nico or Peter though, the extra baguette remained stashed in my jacket pocket as I prepared to start off again. Before doing so I had my first taste of PBP toilets. Already quite stinky even this early in the ride, and with a slippery floor made even more dangerous by the absence of any form of working lighting. I was glad I'd stuck to my guns and stayed with touring shoes - proper road cleats could have been lethal.

I'd managed to limit my time at the control to 30 minutes and get food and drink in the process. Not exactly fast, but by my usual standards it was a level of magnitude less faff than I usually manage. I'd even scored some extra supplies in the process. It may have been around 2am, but I was smiling as the wheels began to turn again. A nagging worry persisted over Nico though - it was a long way to come to have a mechanical end the dream so early. I hoped the wrenches at the control had got him sorted. It was a harsh wake-up call for my own ride. Despite much better preparations than LEL, and a lot more practice pacing myself, a finish was far from certain with so many factors outside my control. The only way to avoid failure was to make sure I savoured every moment and experience of the ride. Finish or not, I was riding my PBP and needed to make the journey everything it could possibly be.  

I really remember very little about the next 80km section. A rider beside me in the queue for baguettes had warned me that it got much hillier and that was definitely true. The long and fast flowing straights for now were replaced with a solid procession of rolling hills, often quite sharp but short climbs and rapid descents. The legs were still quite fresh so it didn't become a problem, but it was a little concerning how much tougher it was going to feel in 1,000km time. My recollections of this stage are so hazy that it's only by checking my GPX file that I can see I didn't make any stops along this part, it was one straight blast to the first control. I do definitely recall hopping onto a  fast train being driven mostly by a handful of guys in Colombian club jerseys - although this bit could have also happened on the leg into Mortagne. Either way, the pace was simply mental - 35 to 40km/h at times. I even remember getting a guilt trip at sucking their wheels and taking at least a couple of long turns on the front, and holding that pace. It was a completely crazy thing to do so early in a long distance event, but heck it was fun too - a mad express train hurtling through the dark.

05:30, 17 Aug - Villaines-la-Juhel, 220km

My first proper control on PBP - something of a milestone. Wooden bike racks lined the narrow street through the control. I walked quite a way before finding a space but luckily it was close to the steps up to the brevet station. There was practically no queue to get my card stamped, but rather a long line at the cafe just beyond. I went off towards a restaurant sign I'd seen on the other side of the street.

I could see through the windows the line there was even longer, but a small sign to the right said "cafe" or "bar", I forget which. I headed in. The line was much shorter but having stood a while was not really moving. I realised everyone ahead was looking for sandwiches and the staff were waiting for bread. I jumped the line and grabbed two identical sized glass bowls - one containing coffee and the other soup. By the time I sat down I'd forgotten which was which, and it wasn't easy to tell without actually drinking them. Luckily neither tasted too bad, and I also ate about half of the spare baguette from the last stop. It was actually a pretty big hall, filled with lines of tables around half of which were full. Gradually more and more people were filtering in, clearly also running out of patience in other queues. After a short break, I packed up and wandered out again - at least a little refreshed.

Yet another unpleasant loo experience - this was a little cleaner, but no more pleasant smelling. Even more off-putting was that a hose attached to the sink was apparently the water station. I really wasn't sure this was a good idea with my well-known weak stomach, but I needed a refill. I sniffed and tasted the liquid delivered, and it was surprisingly free of bad odour or taste. I just hoped no bugs were lurking in it.

It was quite a long walk back to the bike - I'd been warned that controls could be quite spread out. Kitting up and rolling out I was dismayed to see that I'd wasted an hour achieving so little. I resolved that from now on, I'd only use controls to fill up my water bottles and get the essential card stamp. Food and everything else I'd try and find en-route to save time and hopefully get something a little more appetising.

Back on the road, a grey dawn crept in over the next hour. A damp heavy mist lay across the fields all around and it was also rather chilly. I was surprised at how many riders had chosen to sleep on the verge by the roadside - partly because of how damp and cold it was, but also because none of them could have much more time in hand than me. It had never occurred to me to sleep so soon in the ride but I guess if they were faster riders they'd now zoom off ahead and make up whatever time they needed. Many were in the stages of packing up and readying to head out - a few were quite well equipped with bivvy bags and even sleeping bags. Others had seemed to have just laid  where they fell, back lights left on to warn other riders to move on before taking a pee. One chap had found a dry and presumably warm cow shed to sleep in. None of us smelt great by now, but he would probably be somewhat riper than the rest of us.

The roads continued to roll, and somewhere around here at a T-junction in a small town I spied a popup stall, it's white tablecloths being spread with freshly baked croissants. Quite what possessed me to ride on I do not know - having just eaten I was thinking proper breakfast should wait a while. But I ought to have realised that the same scene was happening at the same time along the road, and riders ahead of me would be cleaning out the supplies before I got there. Sure enough, that was exactly what happened.

After a couple of failures I finally found a bakery in Gorron which had something left. It wasn't the pain-au-chocolat I was hoping for though. All I managed to score was two fancy fruit tarts - one strawberry, and one pear. They were sweet, sticky and delicious, but they didn't satisfy the craving for croissants. Each was gone in about one mouthful too - I did smile at the thought they might be the only thing close to fruit I'd eat on the whole ride.

The mist started to lift on the next section to the control - the hillside now long straight sections, mostly rising gradually but sometimes steeper. It was beginning to warm up as the route dived on a long downhill into the large town up ahead.

10:30, 17 Aug - Fougeres, 309km

15 hours elapsed to this point, with more than 2 hours of stops. It was still way above my endurance pace, but I was feeling OK and it was great to be making such good progress. If you worked on moving speed, Marcus' prediction that we'd do our fastest 300km was proving extremely accurate.

Around 20 minutes later I was leaving the control. I'd got my card stamped, filled up water, ditched my jacket and thermal now the day was warming up, filled up water bottles, and put some sun cream on. I was starting to get my level of faffing down to manageable levels.

TDF decor Somewhere along the next section I met up with fellow Cape Randonneur Gerhard Van Noordwyk. We rode together for quite a while. I remember him mentioning something was troubling him a little - chest I think - and that he was avoiding his big ring as a result. I think I replied with that I was going well but hungry and wanting some proper food. We passed through a number of villages together, many on this section were still wearing the decorations from the Tour de France, which had come along this part of the route a month back. A few of these had been re-purposed and had PBP banners added. Eventually we got separated, I think it was at a crossroads where our lane crossed a main road.

I stopped at a village shop a bit further on in a town which I now see from my Strava map was called Dinge. The shop was quite small, but I finally managed to score that pain-au-chocolat. It was a pleasure to sit outside in the shade of a now beautiful afternoon watching riders swing through the main street. I kept an eye out expecting to see Gerhard come past, but I guessed he was already ahead. I definitely ate and drank something else there too, but I forget what. A lady popped a head out of the house next to the bench I and a fellow rider were sitting on. I thought she was going to bend our ears about my bike leaning against her door, but instead she brought out a bucket to put our trash in. She smiled and sat it down next to us.

From here it was a fast and mostly downhill stretch to the next control.

13:50, 17 Aug - Tinteniac, 363km

I had to pinch myself at this stage. The next leg was a long one at just under 90km, but that was all which lay between me and my hotel and planned sleep stop. Thanks to our overnight speed I was so far ahead of even my most optimistic scheduled it was a little crazy. I'd figured getting there by 9:30pm would have been manageable, but barring mechanicals I looked set to be there hours earlier than that.

The control seemed fairly standard - the restaurant wasn't remotely close to the bike park so I didn't even bother to go and check the queue or what they had. Even with messing around having to go back to my bike to collect water bottles which I'd forgotten, I was through the control in 18 minutes. Plenty of time to stop somewhere on the next stretch to get a bite to eat before the next control.

Soon after leaving the control it became obvious that the slope I was riding up was actually going to be a fairly sizeable climb. I forget whether I saw a mast, water tower or possibly both - but it was obvious that they were somewhere near the top and it was a fairly long climb up from where I was now. Cresting the top it was clear this was far from the last - the landscape ahead was more than rolling, forested hills and in between deep shaded hollows that disappeared out of view. It wasn't far to the control, but it wasn't going to be easy riding either.

There was a food stop at Quédillac which I wasn't planning on using but by coincidence as I rolled through the town at the top of the hill above the stop I spied an open bar with tables outside and a few people eating and drinking. I pulled over, dashed inside and asked for a coffee and whatever was the quickest food they could make. This turned out to be a fairly standard ham and cheese sandwich made with white sliced bread - and some salad. Nothing special but tasty, and the coffee was excellent - dark and strong. With no fear over calories I tossed in a sugar for that extra punch. On the next table was an English couple plus female friend who, I learned, had her husband also riding PBP and expected through any moment. We chatted a bit, and the guy said he had decided he must do the ride someday having sat there taking in the festival. I did my best to dissuade him with tales of how tough it was but it was pointless - the bug had bitten him just as it did me 3.5 years back. He was hooked.

The next 70km odd to Loudéac were every bit as tough as the view had suggested, taking me close on 3 hours.

   18:08 - HOLY CRAP!

That is a time which was instantly and indelibly burnt into my brain. The next control was just up ahead - a decent result for me but at exactly this time I was served up a strong reminder of what a mediocre achievement it really was. For this was the precise moment when the lead peloton passed going the other way. Sure, they may have started a couple of hours before me, but they were now around 350km ahead and already on their way home. Their train was absolutely motoring and as if to hammer home the cycling talent they had on-board there was a chap close to the tail sitting upright, hands off his bars stretching out, and singing as they flew by. It was as if he was making no effort at all - which, quite possibly by his standards, was actually the case.

Nothing could disappoint me though. I was riding to my plan, within my own levels of fitness and ability. It was my fastest ever 450km, a full hour under the 24 I hadn't dared dream of making and 3 hours less than a time I'd have settled for. It was a great start. I imagined that guy on the back singing was probably also pretty pleased with how his ride was going.

18:30, 17 Aug - Loudéac, 448km

Even dithering around trying to find the bag drop area, and then locate my bag I was through and out of the control in 14 minutes - perhaps urged on by the lure of the hotel bed nearby. I was glad I'd programmed an extra waypoint and route into the Garmin to find my way there. It ended up much closer than I'd expected, taking just a few minutes to get there. Even the short rise up out of the town which I was expecting proved very slight. I rode past the hotel as intended and into the drive-thru lane of the McDonalds next door. The cashier looked amused to see a cyclist at her window - I'm guessing I may not have been the first to come through. I was soon wheeling off to reception to check in with bag of cheeseburger and fries in hand. The evening sky was gradually turning orange, and as I rolled through the parking lot more riders were beginning to arrive, and others were sitting on benches near the main hotel block. It was a wonderful calm escape from the madness of the main controls.

Checkin was quick and easy thanks to Nadine. She'd been super patient with all my dumb emails over reservations so it was nice to actually meet her all these months later. It was a huge relief that the booking had all worked out. Not quite as expected though, she explained reception closed at 9pm. I was glad I hadn't known that out on the road - the pressure of a deadline to get there would have been an unwanted stress. It was a bit of a stumbling block for Peter sharing my room though. I tried to call him but his phone was off so I sent a couple of messages and hoped he'd get them.

The room was small, clean and basic - just enough space to wheel the bike in, two comfortable looking single beds, and a decent looking shower. It was ideal. I scoffed the burger and dialed Yoli for a quick chat with her and Ben. As it turned out they'd also had a great day at Euro Disney, although the details of our conversation are now lost to me. I didn't have the energy to shower, and figured it would be better anyway as a way to wake up later. So I set the alarm for 11pm, a bit more than 3 hours ahead, ditched my contact lenses, cleaned my teeth and sank into the bed, somewhat dazed and utterly exhausted. I was a little worried about how I'd manage to get up and ride again in three hours. But the worry didn't last long, I soon drifted off into absolute unconsciousness.

Click here to continue to Part 2