Paris-Brest-Paris 2015

Paris-Brest-Paris 2015 Phases 1 and 2, (the first 200 kms)

The 1200 kms ride held every four years could be viewed as a series of intertwined Episodes and Phases.

Witness the debauched release of energy as wave after wave of randonneurs forge their way through the first ten kilometres of lacklustre suburb in search of “La France Profonde”. Solemn promises made to oneself not to overexert are soon forgotten in the excitement of the bunch. It’s a stampede, pure and simple.

The countryside announces itself with an archetypal parallel line of poplars near the village of Ergal at 15 kms. The evening sun bathes the pedalling hordes in a soft golden glow, like a balm for the senses.

Wanton, lusty quest for speed has been somewhat replaced by shrewd judgement. Choose the right group to follow and you will speed along without effort…..free miles.

The guy with the green rucksack…he’s the one. Mustn’t lose his wheel. Shit, Pistol’s chain has come off…he’ll just have to chase back to the group. Man, I feel strong, an abundance of watts, I’m going to do a turn on the front….give Green Rucksack a break….earn my place in the group.

The troop swarm through Gambais, Faverolles and Tremblay-les-Villages before SavilleRowAlex and I stop briefly at Chateauneuf-en-Thymerais to refill our water bottles at 81 kms. Unbeknownst to us, Pistol has crept through…unseen and unheard.

Now it’s time to find more allies. A new phase has begun, a hillier one. A crazy-fast group storm by. Yes! Let’s do it. We latch on to the madness. The night sky is heavy with endorphins. The compulsory reflective vests give a ghostly feel to proceedings. Nobody has ever ridden this fast? Surely? Around Longny-au-Perche, after 120 kms, the hills break us up into a kaleidoscope of smashed ambitions. SavilleRow presses on to the first official refuelling stop at Mortagne, km 140, while Pistol and I suffer in dignified silence. A black hole of toil in the dark surroundings.

Phase 2 begins at 1 a.m with an 80 km ride to the first official control at Villaines-la-Juhel at km 221. It’s less frenetic than Phase 1 but the pace is still strong even if the libidinous energy of the first 50 klicks has been diluted by tiredness and hunger. A quick coffee stop at a little café in Saint-Paul le Gaultier perks us up and we attach ourselves to a fast moving group who drag us into Villaines where we happily squander time in pursuit of sustenance….agreeably provided in the form of a hot dog with mustard

To be continued….

Paris-Brest-Paris 2015 Phase 3

….continued

It is 6 a.m on Monday morning 17th August, and we are beyond the gravitational pull of Paris. Phases 1 and 2 have been punctuated with episodes of explosive riding in big bunches, increasingly tempered by controlled judgement in choosing the right group to follow.

We have ridden 221 kms through the night, but our communion with the soul of PBP lies further along the randonneur’s Road to Damascus. Departing cool and misty Villaines just as murky daylight exchanges greetings with the passing nightshift, we embark on Phase 3 of the journey. Subdued by fatigue, chilled by the cool air and, in Pistol’s case, ambushed by a cobbled central reservation, we plod on towards Croix-Barbe and the first proper climb of the ride up and over to Le Ribay.

In total contrast to the previous evening, the ascent of this hill is marked by a distinct absence of testosterone. A mantle of lassitude drapes the riders like a heavy cloak. This has become the drowsy episode.

But nothing lasts forever, and after a swift black coffee in Lassay-les-Chateaux, we join the D33 for the next 50 kilometres. A Japanese rider in full winter clothing speeds by, his bike adorned with deep section carbon wheels. The antidote to this speed machine soon presents itself in the form of an American rider astride a retro steel framed beauty with classic leather saddle and matching front and rear bags.

We chase East and West in a half-hearted manner, our collective energy masked by a stagnant film of lethargy. At Ambrieres-les-Vallees, The Wattmeister spies a large group of French riders just remounting after a group stop. This is AC Loudeac, a renowned Breton club of cyclotouristes. They resemble a forest of tough walnut trees with teak brown legs and chiselled features…chop one in half and count the rings…each ring denotes a long brevet ride. It is worth making the effort to latch on.

Their pace is ideal for the remaining 40 kms of this stage to Fougeres. This has evolved into a calm and reassuring episode as we approach the essence of PBP, embodied by the warmth of roadside support given day and night over the duration of the event.

The village of Gorron welcomes us with a huge bicycle sculpture and a parade of townsfolk either side of the road. Gently high five some of the kids and the spectators cheer ever harder that you have deigned to recognise them. It is an ongoing tradition and one of the small ways in which we can repay the onlookers for their support.

The steady pace sculls away at the distance between Gorron and Fougeres. Club Loudeac have towed a large group over many kilometres. This has been the recharging episode before Phase 4.

To be continued..

Paris-Brest-Paris 2015 Phase 4, Commitment. Fougeres 310kms to Carhaix 526kms.

The road to Fougeres is dotted with reminders that Stage 7 of the 2015 Tour de France finished here in July.

Muswell Hill Peloton’s representatives, The Wattmeister, Pistol Pete and SavilleRowAlex had been on the road long enough for a bit of stubble to adorn their rugged chins. After a revitalising stop at the control, the trio exited the comparitively traffic-choked town via a series of roundabouts and hills.

A pattern was emerging out of the mayhem. Pistol and Alex would drop The Wattmeister in the first 5 kms of every stage while the ageing sprinter sulked at the rear, messing around with his cleats, digesting his food and generally behaving in a Garboesque manner.

As the trio spread out, the Seattle Randonneur/Italian Grupetto/Stages Powermeter express steamed by. It seemed worth the considerable effort to hitch a ride. Now, we were more than in a state of involvement in this PBP, we were in a state of commitment.

“NO!!” shouted Pistol.

“YES!! We must!” insisted The Wattmeister…..and we did. It was worth every burnt match in the effort to jump on. The big rouleur, Mark from Seattle, carved out a rapid 35 kms aided and abetted by the Stages crew before a ‘rest’ stop brought the train to a sudden halt near Sens de Bretagne.

Confidence high and suitably revved up, the MHP boys dragged the remaining group through Feins and Dingé with the assistance of a gnarled French rider who looked like a participant, but did not appear to have a frame number. A game of cat and mouse ensued as we took turns on the front, eventually shelling out all other followers.

Presently we were apprehended by a large group of what appeared to be youngsters, well, compared to Pistol and The Wattmeister. Mostly Ukrainians, they were stamping out a rapid rhythm. This only served to galvanise the maverick French rider into a bold breakaway bid about 2 kms from the Tinteniac sign.

Alex quickly responded, and The Wattmeister. realising that in fact this was a race to the sign and NOT an audax, set off in hot pursuit. The Frenchman made the mistake of continually looking over his shoulder and forfeited his advantage to a rampant SavillRowAlex with The Wattmeister close up in second. Pistol started his sprint after the finish line and carried on oblivious into the centre of town.

A quick bounce in and out of the Tinteniac followed by lunch in Becherel, 9 kms away at the top of a large hill. With the Tinteniac Sprint Episode firmly behind us, we loitered for an hour or so in the company of a French couple whose son was forced to withdraw with a broken rear derailleur hanger. Very sad.

It had become a hot and sultry afternoon, our tyres stuck to the road through Loscouet-sur-Meu and Illifault. Presently we were joined by four cyclotouristes from the Bubry area of Brittany. This was their patch. To whichever group of templates we use in the UK to judge the typical ‘strong’ cyclist, we must add these men of the Bubry club.

They assumed an identical posture on the bike. Solid brown legs punching away on the pedals. Very strong on the relentless climbs before Loudeac, always verbally checking that their group was intact. We exchanged a few friendly words and did a bit on the front, but they really didn’t need our help as we rode further away from Paris and into Brittany.

We lost contact with them when The Wattmeister suffered a sudden puncture/split tyre about 300m from the Loudeac control at 445 kms.

Loudeac is the personification of PBP. A raucous welcome is ensured on entry to this boiling cauldron of humanity. People mill about in the control as the airwaves are peppered with cheers and shouts of encouragement for both arriving and departing riders. We hastened on our way, eager to reach Carhaix-Plougeur before midnight.

Now in the very thick of the ride, we were confronted with the hilliest section so far. It was a fine evening with far reaching views over the Breton countryside. After 27 kms into the stage we stopped at St. Martin-des-Prés for moules frites. A band played traditional Breton music non stop while the villagers simultaneously looked after us and enjoyed the spectacle.

After letting the food digest, we rolled through the suitably rolling terrain whilst the sun set low on the horizon. At this moment, it was easy to feel good.

We chanced upon new and exhilarating episode after Plouvenez-Quintin at the 500 kms mark. It was another of those spur of the moment decisions. As darkness consumed the light, we were passed by half a dozen hard riding souls. Tacking on, the airwaves crackled once again with human powered electricity.

Faster and faster we rode until a solid group of six were overhauled by an Italian pocket rocket female rider. Unbelievable! Our speed went up from 36 km per to 40 km per hour as she smashed her way through the darkness. We upped our game and shared the workload, frantically making the calculations as to whether it could be sustained or even if it was really happening. Frame number P207, Angela Zizza,  you were incredible, and for the MHP trio, this episode was one of the highlights of PBP.

We arrived in Carhaix at 23:15 for a well earned sleep.

Paris-Brest-Paris 2015. Phase 5 Consolidation

If there was a category for snoring on Strava, then Muswell Hill Peloton would feature near the top of the leaderboard. Pistol, a Kiwi, emerged from his tent wearing a piupiu.

Queues for the showers in the control obliged The Wattmeister to self-administer a bed bath with wet wipes. Alex ate the breakfast of three sumo wrestlers.

Suitably refreshed and looked after by Vicky and Tom, Alex’s girlfriend and father-in-law, we set off for Brest at dawn on the wrong route out of Carhaix. It soon became transparently obvious that we we off-course by the absence of ever present bike lights and reflective jackets. Retracing our pedal strokes, uphill naturally, we rejoined the ribbon of randonneurs.

On the first day, we had laid the foundations for a comfortable ride with good time management and strong riding. Faced with the second day and physical afflictions levied by riding 525 kms, we were looking at a ride of 340 kms which would take us back to Tinteniac by midnight.

A large posse freewheeled down to Poullaouen before the gentle 24 kms ascent of Roc’h Trevezel, the highest point of the ride, via ancient forests of the Monts d’Arrées. This was a meditative episode.

Several hundred cyclists composed an harmonious but subdued symphony, as tarmac glided under rubber with a delicate whooosh, punctuated occasionally by the percussion of a gear change or a muted cough.

At La Feuilee, we joined the main road and continued to climb. The mood changed slightly as the symphony began its second movement. Some of the ‘players’ began to up the tempo from adagio to allegro. There being no conductor for this particular orchestra, it was up to the individual to determine the beat.

We summited at a gallop. The score read attacca….straight on to the next movement….and we did, evolving into a full on capriccioso of the descent to the town of Sizun, 52 kms into the stage. All the time, riders were passing by on the opposite carriageway, making their way back from Brest.

After too long a break in Sizun, but nonetheless an enjoyable one, The Wattmeister badgered Pistol and Alex to continue the drive to consolidate our gains. Within 90 minutes we were crossing the Pont Albert Louppe on the outskirts of Brest, and tackling the infernal climb of Rue du Quimper which leads to the town centre.

Alex skipped away, and The Wattmeister, desperately trying to summon the form which won him King of the Mountains jersey in the 1982 Fenlands Classic, gave more chase than a middle-aged man should be capable of after 615 kms in the saddle.

Pistol, all resolve and efficiency, bounced Brest. Alex and I showered, faffed, chatted and oozed away the precious minutes. The air weighed hot and heavy as we departed the control in pursuit of Pistol. Despite our regular interludes, the time schedule was being met in reasonable fashion. Up and over Le Queff from Landerneau at a steady pace allowed us the reward of a quick top-up in Sizun and a happy reunion with Pistol, (who bought a box of 4 Magnums, and donated the extra one to a lady from Hackney).

There followed a blissful return back up and over the Roc’h. SavilleRow and The Wattmeister set a beautiful cadence for a squadron of international riders, Strava Click, over 42 minutes and 14 kms.

Approaching the top of the climb, The Wattmeister attempted to wrest the KOM jersey from Alex with a spirited attack, but the younger man, who has never failed a drugs test, came by to claim a famous victory.

Controlling quickly at Carhaix, the trio split up on the road to Loudeac as Pistol battled the “demons in his derriere”, while The Wattmeister saved himself for the tough last 15 kms of the stage and Alex danced away on the pedals in the form of his life. We fell in and out of some strong riding groups on this stage as the relentless hills exacted a toll on our ruined legs and simultaneously whittled down the field into ones and twos.

Nevertheless, The Wattmeister knows this part of the ride very well, and he managed to extract a few extra watts hidden away in the depths of his being as good progress was made in the final 20 kms from Merleac to peg back Alex’s advantage on the road… to almost nada at the control.

What a welcome we received at Loudeac, lifted and buoyed by the rampant energy and revitalised by soup, soup and more soup, we departed with happy but heavy hearts.

Pistol had something to prove to himself. He locked on to several pelotons and rode them down. As dusk enveloped us, we climbed up to Meneac, passed through Illifault, where, in the darkness it seemed that every villager was cheering us from outside the church, and marched on to St. Meen le Grand. Only 29 kms to go to Tinteniac and we would be there well before midnight.

Joined by Doctor Andrew of the Willsden CC, a sense of urgency was thrust upon us. This new episode shall be known as The Storming of Becherel, and Pistol’s reputation for coming back from the brink of the abyss will be proclaimed from the rooftops for ever after.

As we hit the lower slopes of the climb in the company of about 25 others, Alex and Doctor drew steadily clear. The Wattmeister sat tight and Pistol started to moan. The twin red tail lights became smaller with each revolution of the pedals, but TW began to draw clear of the remainder of bobbing white lights. At one point, there was only darkness all around, with only a faint reminder that Alex and Doctor were up the road, and it looked as if Pistol was out of bullets.

NEVER underestimate this Kiwi’s propensity to suffer. His white light slowly winched its way up to TW’s wheel. Red lights in the distance began to get larger as we closed them down. Pistol crested the top of the climb at a full-on sprint with The Wattmeister, bloated with admiration and disbelief, as they proceeded to pass tens of riders on the rapid descent through La Baussaine down the D20 towards Tinteniac. Exhilarating, bonkers….the Dutch have a word for it….knettergek!

Elated, high and dripping with endorphins, we had successfully consolidated the previous day’s gains.

Paris-Brest-Paris 2015 Phase 6. The Third Day Tinteniac 866kms to Dreux 1165 kms.

It was difficult to calm down after the insane blast into Tinteniac, However, time constraints still existed and we needed to eat well, sleep well and organise ourselves well for the following day’s ride of 300 kms to Dreux.

Pistol donned his now customary piupiu, Alex tipped food into the black hole of his stomach and The Wattmeister reminisced to no particular audience over PBPs of years gone by.

After a healthy break of seven hours, the road hit us again. My word, forward motion was hard to come by, but salvation appeared in the form of two grizzled Frenchmen with whom we shared a cosy paceline of moderate speed, and it suited all and sundry until they peeled off for petit dejeuner at Sens de Bretagne.

They were immediately replaced by a super fast sextet who sucked the life out of Pistol and The Wattmeister but who towed Alex away to Fougeres like treasured booty. Pistol could live with the defeat, but The Wattmeister moped along in a huff with a bruised ego and tired legs. Pistol waited, but was chided by Garbo, “…go on without me, I vant to be alone..”

Eventually, another speeding crew of mixed nationalities cruised past. Pistol made the bridge while The Wattmeister’s systems happily shut down one by one as he watched them drift away into the distance.

But then something unexpected happened. Inspired by Pistol’s antics of the previous evening in the Storming of Becherel, The Wattmeister’s legs began to turn a little faster almost reluctantly, for his brain had not signed the agreement. He was propelled towards the escaping bunch which included an American tandem and some Austrian roadies. With the aid of a short delay at a ‘T’ junction they were back in his grasp. Pistol forced an antipodean chuckle when TW drew up alongside, which in turn coerced a wry smile from his riding partner. This was the “Inspired by Pistol” episode. To celebrate the reunion, we stopped for coffee and croissants just before the control.

Meanwhile, Alex’s fast group had put nearly 10 minutes into the older rouleurs. Nevertheless, we three turned around at the control in an orderly fashion and headed out towards Villaines-la-Juhel.

Now, the next episode of this remarkable ride was totally unexpected….especially in the light of the morning performance. We were passed by a big Dutchman riding a titanium bike with a belt/hub drive frame number C057. He was distinguished by a rather large backpack and a surfeit of watts….a very strong boy. There is a considerable climb out of Fougeres up to Mont Romain, with a succession of roller coaster hills all the way to Gorron, some 40 kms distant. The Dutch guy breezed past us, but he looked like a good wheel to follow, so The Wattmeister coaxed a bit of energy from somewhere and led the Muswell Hill trio up to his wheel.

A few others joined us, and we worked well for about 10 kilometres, whereupon a couple of tiny but powerful Italians commenced to boss the peloton. The road passed by quickly under our wheels, we were really attacking the draggy inclines and after a polite interlude, I decided to help out the Italians. This went OK. Pistol also contributed to the workload but it seemed to act as a catalyst for those riders who had been sitting in to endulge in a rare old tear-up.

Before you could say, “my other bike is a Cervelo”, we were hurtling along, cresting the hill at the village of Hercé at 50 kms ph to the wild applause of several excited villagers who were no doubt expecting to be offering encouragement to knackered randonneurs, not their crazed and delusional doppelgangers. This hyperactivity could not last, and market day in Gorron slowed us down… but we had experienced a sensational thrill after 950 kms of riding. La Romagne to Gorron

Now Alex had scheduled a UK job interview by telephone, so he needed to be in Villaines by a certain time in order to guarantee phone reception. Meanwhile, The Wattmeister sloped off the back of the peloton in Ambrieres-les-Vallees to refill water bottles while reflecting on what had just occurred. Pistol had the same idea, and on entering a boulangerie in Chantrigne, was tickled to find the big backpack carrying Dutchman lying prone on the floor of the shop…épuisé.

We re-grouped after Villaines. Alex in the midst of his interview, The Wattmeister having slept under a tree, and Pistol having excited the libido of a lady who owns a restaurant in the square. Leaving Alex to secure a job, Pistol and I attached ourselves to a leisurely team of gnarly but friendly French cyclotouristes with whom we pottered along for about 40 kms before the descent to Mamers split the group asunder. The local cycle club, CC Saosnois, traditionally provide free food and drink in the market place, and The Wattmeister had forged a tenuous friendship with one of their number in 2011.

The leisurely episode came to a quiet close, and Alex rejoined us with 24 rolling kms to Mortagne-au-Perche. We now had 80 more kms to cover before our proposed sleep stop at Dreux, or we could choose to ride to the finish without a stop. There seemed little point in a 2 a.m finish just to post a better time, so we resolved indeed to hole up at Dreux.

The landscape after Mortagne bucks and weaves as it crosses the Perche, before levelling out around Senonches, traversing vast cornfields with little cover in the event of wind or rain. But we were fortunate. It was a lovey warm evening. and our arrival in Dreux was hastened by a tidy little chaingang of around 10 riders, only spoiled by Pistol’s insistence in coming through before time and a puncture in the dark for The Wattmeister with about 12 kms of the stage left to go.

With 1165 kms completed, we had successfully rounded off Phase 6, The Clincher. Barring accidents, Phase 7, The Finale would be a breeze.

Paris-Brest-Paris 2015. Final Phase 65 kms

Eschewing the opportunity to sleep in a bed for the last night….like Young SavilleRowAlex, Pistol and The Wattmeister opted for an al fresco patch of concrete near the entrance to the Dreux control, made a little more comfortable with the aid of a couple of mattresses preceded by a few bottles of beer.

Sleep came and went in waves of semi-consciousness as riders arrived during the night. Each one was applauded and cheered throughout the witching hour almost as if they had won the Tour de France itself. The interested and compassionate disposition of the supporters lies at the very heart of everything that is great about Paris-Brest-Paris.

After the mellow night, morning traipsed along guiltily, pregnant with precipitation. We had so far been extremely fortunate with the weather conditions, but now it was fated to rain on our parade.

Baking Ben from Muswell Hill, who started with the 84 hour group on Monday morning, had caught us up and preferred to sleep in a nearby ditch rather than join Pistol and I on the concrete. Such a traditionalist!

Many, many riders had slept at Dreux, one of the alternatives being to finish in Paris in the middle of the night. Thus, there were once again long convoys of cyclists garbed in reflective wet weather gear as they headed eastwards through Sainte-Gemme-Moronval, Mezieres-en-Drouais, Broue and Bourdonne before the piquant little climb near Gambais.

On Sunday night, we had been keen to jump from group to group in order to speed away from Paris, but this was a rather more sober affair. Some riders were clearly suffering badly with sleep deprivation, saddle sores and physical exhaustion. Therefore, all of us drifted along steadily like a huge herd of bison, taking care at all times not to startle the infirm or weaker members of our number with unnecessary displays of zeal nor to leave them toiling alone to battle their demons.

Eventually, we entered the suburbs of Elancourt and Trappes before being ushered into the traffic-free park which led to the finish at the Velodrome Nationale. The rain was persistent and there was a distinct chill in the air, however, many hundreds of people had lined up to give us all a rousing cheer as we approached the line. Despite having won the Tour of Trotters Bottom in 1985, this was a very moving experience for The Wattmeister and his two excellent companions Pistol and Alex.

Perhaps it is only after the event that the enormity of the enterprise truly sinks in, as on the road much time is spent concentrating on the wheels around; wheeler-dealing with the mind and the body to coax more effort; willing the kilometres to decrease quickly: but all the while, we are honoured by the roadside support and the patience of the volunteers without whose time and effort none of this would be possible.

For some riders, time is important, but for all of us, taking part is the true reward.

https://www.strava.com/activities/374304396