27 August 2007

Paris-Brest-Paris 2007

Now I've had a couple of days to sleep and let it all sink in and it was a great experience. This is how the ride unfolded for me:

Ted, Dave and I stayed in our hotel room until late monday afternoon, then had a shower and checked out of the hotel. We then rode to the start area (5 km from the hotel) and had dinner. They had a nice BBQ going in the starting area. We watched the 80-hour riders depart, then got in line for our start (90 hours, departing 21.30 monday evening). We were in line for roughly 2 hours before we got through to the final check-in and had our brevet card stamped for the first time. There was 3000 starters in our group and we were sent off in waves of 500 riders with 20 minute intervals between waves. We ended up in the 3rd wave, departing 22.10. Sylvain, Mark and Michael was in that wave as well. A firecracker at 22.10 marked the official start of our wave and we rode under the start arch and out onto the highway, being escorted by police for the first 15 km - riding straight through all traffic lights as all traffic was brought to a hold for us. Neat! The escort left after 15 km when we approached more open countryside and we were on our own. I was riding with Ted; Dave had already taken off and we had lost sight of Sylvain, Mark and Michael.

It started to rain very very heavily approximately 5 km after we left but we were already dressed up in full wet weather gear as it had been raining on and off all night. But lots of people stopped to put on wet weather gear so we made some easy progress, ranking wise... I was surprised to see all the people with defects during the first 50-80 km or so. When it started raining people simply stopped left and right with flat tires and all kinds of other defects. Ted and I saw one guy who was taking his cassette apart in the middle of the night and another guy who was fooling around with his bottom bracket. I know you generally get more flats when it rains, but it was just unreal to see so many people with flats, I think I saw the first in less than 5 k's! I learned later that Michael was riding with the same front tire as he had used in 2003, which I thought was quite brave! (he had no flats, as far as I know). Maybe the ones we saw were riding with the same tires as last time as well... Regardless, it was a neat sight to see the red taillights in front of you stretching out for miles and miles like a giant serpent winding its way across the landscape. Looking back over your shoulder you could only see white frontlights for miles back as well. An amazing sight.

Anyway, after about 70 km we came to the first of many, many bakeries that were open during the night to sell croissants, pain du chocolat and all kinds of other goodies to the cyclists. It was packed with cyclists so Ted and I just pushed on. I was really sleepy at this time and had problems staying awake. At one point I did fall asleep proper while cycling and woke up when I was riding on the grass next to the road, being slapped in the face by twigs and branches from the trees next to the road! Anyway, we continued to the first 'offical' stop, after 140 km, at Mortagne-au-Perche. We had Spaghetti Bolognaise there and sat for about 45 minutes to try to get warm and dry up a bit. We left again at 5.30 in the morning and continued - in the rain - to the first control at Villaines-au-Juhel at 222 km. We were there somewhere between 10 and 11 am and I was surprised to see that it had taken us 12 hours to cover 222 km. But it just goes to show how horrible the weather was, the rain and headwind slowing everybody down tremendously. Ted and I got separated at this control because of the sheer number of cyclists here. Anyway, he was only planning to go another 100 k or so, to the Tinteniac control (no 4), whereas I was planning to go to Loudeac control (no 5), and hook up with Mark and Michael there for some sleep. I left alone (in the rain! and headwind!) and tried to hook up with whoever was out there. However, it turned out that I was better off alone instead of in a group, as most people were going quite slow. At one point I was riding with some Italians but they were just all over the road and couldn't ride their bikes straight so it was very difficult to stay on their wheels... I then just took off and left them behind. The weather got a little better towards the evening with slightly less rain and I was feeling stronger. The first 222 km had been quite difficult, I thought, but after Villaines, where I had numerous croissants, I felt a lot stronger and made a lot of progress. In the last 220 km to Loudeac control I think I was only passed a handful of times whereas I passed hundreds of riders.

I arrived at Loudeac (449km) around 22.00 in the evening, 24 hours after having left Paris. I got my stamp and then went to the restaurant for a large dinner! As I finished and walked out of the restaurant Mark and Michael walked in so I sat down with them while they ate. We all agreed that it had been an extremely shitty day when it was best. I met some Danes I rode with in Mallorca in May and one of them were abandoning here because of the weather being to lousy. I never really thought of quitting it, too much time and effort and money spent on preparing for this, so damn it if I was going to quite just because the weather turned out to be like in Wales!! We went to the hotel where Mark and Michael had booked a room and went to bed. I slept on the floor with a blanket but was not stiff at all when I woke up after 5 hours of sleep. I felt relatively good and we went down to have breakfast - which began at 1 am during the two days when the hotel had PBP rider staying - great service :-) Then we took of in the early morning, in the dark and on wet roads (but no rain!). It was a slightly hilly ride out to the Carhaix control (520 km) and all the way we were meeting rider returning from Brest - a little bit depressing... Anyway, I arrived in Carhaix around 10 am and felt a bit wasted so sat down for a sandwich and a coke, then took off again (had lost Mark and Michael on the way). The weather now was a lot better,with sunshine and light winds so it was quite enjoyable to ride the last 90 km out to Brest. I had heard talk about a monster hill on the way to Brest but I didn't really notice any hills of significance. I guess my hill training here in Wales have paid off :-) There was one very long hill (20 k or so), but at a quite easy grade and I was going 18-22 k/hr up it most of the time. It wasn't until I was almost at the top I realised that this was what people had been talking about when they mentioned the big hill... There were lots of signs on the side of the road, cheering up some of the local riders who participated. A sign called out 'Brest or Bust!', which I though was quite funny.

I didn't spend much time in Brest as I wanted to get back to Loudeac in a reasonable time to get some sleep. On the way back I was surprised to keep meeting rider going towards Brest and some of them must have had a hard time reaching the control before it closed. The 'Brest or Bust' sign had now been changed to 'Paris or Bust!', which amused me. People really take an interest in this ride! I came back to Carhaix for my stamp and a quick sandwich. Then I pushed on for the last 90 k to Loudeac, hoping to made it in by 22.00 or so. But 20 k outside of Carhaix two cars collided in front of me (fender bender) and suddenly there was glass all over the road. There was a puff! and my front tire went flat. &%$!@$. My first spare tube turned out to be defect (!) but fortunately I had a second one which I put on after fooling around with the first for 30 minutes or so... It took me 45 minutes to be back on the road because I couldn't figure out why the spare tube didn't work... I had brand new Continental tires on and the glass cut my tire up, all the way through so had to put a boot in, which made for a slightly bumpy ride the last day and a half... The rain and wind started again about 45 k before Loudeac and it became really dark. It was quite a thrill to go down the hills towards Loudeac in pitch black darkness. I couldn't see much because I was wearing glasses instead of my contacts and the rain thus gave me a hard time. However, using my peripheral vision I could just make out the edges of the road, if I looked straight ahead so I just let the bike roll, although I really couldn't see if there was any potholes or such in the road... At the bottom of one particularly long downhill where I had been well in front of a group of 20-30 riders one of them came up to me afterwards and congratulated me for my 'honest lead, mate' (he was from Australia). He said they had just all been sitting well in the back waiting for me to drive off the road into the ditch, or wipe out on the slippery road, but they all appreciated me showing the way!

I came in to the control around 23.30, went for dinner and then to the hotel. Mark and Michael showed up half an hour or so later. We slept for another 5 hours and left around 6.30 in the morning, minimizing the night riding. The target for this second last days was Mortagne-au-Perche, only 144 km from the finish, so we only had to cover about 300 km this day, as Loudeac was 449 km from Paris. It was relatively uneventful until we got to Fougeres (290 km before Paris), where we met Ted, whom I hadn't seen since Tuesday morning (this was Thursday afternoon). He was considering abandoning because of his achilles tendons really bothering him. He went to see the doctor and in the meantime Mark, Michael and I went for lunch at a German restaurant. We had an awesome lunch (I had sauerkraut, their speciality, yummy!) and then left for Villaines, last control before Mortagne-au-Perche. We met Ted there, who had recovered somewhat and now was somewhat certain that he could make it home. We had a big dinner and then left for Mortagne-au-Perche in the rain and pitch black darkness.

The rain cleared after a bit and then I really enjoyed the stretch of road to Mortagne. It was on a kind of a plateau with small rolling hills, the stars and the moon was out and there was red taillights all over the road in front of you. An amazing sight. I tired somewhat around midnight and my speed dropped from 25 to 15-18 k/hr and I felt I was in for a long haul the last 20 or so k to Mortagne. Suddenly Michael arrived out of nowhere (we had all got separated 10 k or so out of Villaines) and asked where everybody else was. I said I had no idea and then Michael just took off. That inspired me so I sat out to follow him and much to my surprise I was capable of keeping of with his 30-35 k/hr speed the last 15 k in to Mortagne. It was a thrill, as we must have passed hundreds of riders those last 15 k's, alll going 10-20 k/hr just plodding along in the night. We blew by them and it looked as if they were standing still. Out of the corner of my eyes I could see most of them turning their heads as we passed them, probably wondering what the hell that was. Nobody tried to follow us as we were going twice as fast as them so nobody could get on our wheels. That was quite a thrill and I'm sure we covered those last 10 k in 20-25 minutes or less. Into the control and then we sat down and waited for Mark who arrived 5 mins later. He had been going fast too, playing games with the people he passed in that he had been riding with his generator lights switched off, only using his Cateye. Then, when he was 10 feet behind somebody and pulling out to pass them he would swithch on the lights to surprise them and then he just blew by them.

Anyway, we went to the hotel and slept for 1 hr 45 minutes (!) Then we got up and left for breakfast at the control. We left with 5 hours to get to the seond last control at Dreux, 85 km away. I was a bit nervous about the time because there were some serious rollers in the first 20 k or so, but then the road flattened and I found myself cruisng at 28k the last two hours. In the end I made it to Dreux two hours before closing time so I had lots of time to spare. Then it was on to the last 69 km into Paris. I thought they were long, and I didn't really enjoy them very much until I was about 15-20 km out - I just wanted to finish! I was kind of slow going but 35 km out there was a short, but very steep hill. At the top of it there was a couple of spectators with a big cow bell which they rang for everybody and that gave me a boost. Suddenly i was going 30+ and passing people by the dozen. i kept going like that all the way into St. Quentin (final control) where they most exciting thing was that I arrived into the finish line completely alone. There was probably 2000 people standing there in the roundabout and when I arrived they all started cheering and screaming and yelling - just at me! That was by far the coolest experience during the entire ride, and also one of the most thrilling in my life so far. I was wearing my Canada jersey and they were yelling 'Canada' and 'Bravo' from all sides. Flags were waving and I was waving back at people. It only lasted for 10 seconds or so but I'd do it all again tomorrow if I could be guaranteed that I'd arrive alone again and to that kind of welcome! I parked the bike and got my last stamp at 13.02 for a total of 86 hrs 52mins for 1227 km. Awesome. Ted arrived 50 mins later and Mark and Michael an hour after me. Tres cool, as they say in France.

I went back to the hotel where Ted and Dave (who'd arrived at 2 am Friday morning) were packing up their bikes. I packed up my bike, we had a few beers and then fell asleep. Up at 6 am next morning, I had a quick beer before breakfast and then we ate breakfast for 45 minutes before we took a taxi to the train station (me) and airport (Ted, Dave). I was home in bangor at 21.10 Saturday evening, with virtually no pains or swollen body parts whatsoever - strange but nice!