After years of long distance cycling in Singapore with the AUDAX group I decided to try the Paris Brest Paris (PBP) race in 2011. The race is 1200km in length and it must be completed within 90 hours or a shorter 84 hour version. The PBP is usually the pinnacle in long distance cycling and it requires that you complete the full AUDAX series within a year of the race which includes a 200, 300, 400 and 600km ride. Everybody in this race is therefore pretty committed to long distance cycling.
I left Singapore on a Thursday night putting me in France early Friday morning ahead of the race start on Sunday night. It had been almost nine years since I had last been to France so I had forgotten what a mess the airport was there. It took me almost 1.5 hours to get my bags and bike box before I began the search for the ‘private van’ which was supposed to have a guy waiting with my name on a board. Needless to say he was not waiting in an ideal spot so that took a few phone calls and a trek through the airport with my luggage and bike box to finally find the guy….not fun.
After finally getting into the van and starting the hour long ride to Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines (where the race begins) things began to get better. The driver was actually a very nice guy and he was happy to speak French with me and remind me of a few words I had forgotten. He was actually better at being a French teacher than being a driver as he could not find the Holiday Inn in Saint-Quentin which means we were driving around for almost two hours (plus multiple phone calls) to actually find the place. His boss was calling him numerous times too and complaining about his time so the poor guy was under pressure from the ‘grand patron’ as well as having to listen to my very rusty French for a long time. Finally we arrived and I checked into my ‘spacious’ room. I am not sure why Europe is so backwards when it comes to hotel rooms but the room was miniature and the two ‘single’ beds were barely big enough to hold me. The other thing that was funny was that the rooms have no power outlets – there was only one power outlet with a strange plug type and that was not going to be good enough to charge my laptop, Garmin, iPad, etc.
After finally setting in I went and had lunch while I was waiting for my friend David Kolpak who was arriving from New York. Sipping a glass of French wine I had a laugh imagining what Kolpak would say when he arrived at this palace of a hotel. Kolpak is a rather particular fellow who likes his hotels 5+star and his travel business class or above. This would be a treat.
Kolpak finally arrived and it seemed that the few drinks he had on board the flight from the USA dulled his reaction to the hotel amenities. We decided to have a couple more cocktails and plan out our strategy for PBP. Jetlag, travel and cocktails all contributed to an early night on Friday so we could get up early to get things rolling on Saturday.
Early Saturday morning after putting our bikes together we decided to go and recon the local area to find the start line, some restaurants and whatever else Saint-Quentin had to offer. The small industrial city had been overcome with cyclists from all nations and the impact on the local economy must have been huge….especially Pino Pizza where I think we ate five times over a period of three days. Kolpak and I also wanted to hit a bike store and see the other hotel where the rest of the gang was staying.
The trick was to use our bikes for transport but not really go fast or do anything that would tire us out ahead of the race on Sunday. We slowly pedaled around the city. Cyclists were everywhere. The main street was lined with bikes and the outdoor restaurants were filled with cyclists who were carb loading in various formats for the big race. In addition to the cyclists, there were also smokers everywhere. Between the cyclists and the smokers, getting a seat was challenging. We managed to find the start line, some food and a bike shop on Saturday.
Sunday was the day of the big race. This was a day where you really did not want to do anything or be in bike clothes because you knew that you would need your energy for the next 3-4 days having to ride your bike. So rest and relaxing were in order. The only challenge with this is that I had woken up at 5am and the race only started at 9pm that evening. The Holiday Inn is not exciting enough to keep me occupied for an entire day so I had to figure out something to do and something that would require minimal energy usage and not include a bike. I was also a bit nervous as I had never ridden 1200 km before, with my longest ride being only 680km. The thing with long distance cycling is you just never know what your body may do (or not do). Anyhow I decided to get my stuff together and join the rest of the team at their hotel (Auberge Du Manet ) and check out of the Holiday Inn. There was a lot more activity here as the hotel was filled with cyclists from all over the place and there were many support crews including our own finalizing their preparations.
Our support crew consisted of an RV (above) and a smaller van. The crew basically supports the group of riders but not directly on the course of the ride. It is actually forbidden for the support vehicles to ride on the course however there are areas where they can set up to support their riders along the way. Our crew was made up of a number of family members of Matti Chapeleau and was lead by his younger brother Guillaume.
There were a group of twelve of us from Singapore at this year’s PBP. This is amazing given that in 2007 there were only three people from Singapore attempting PBP. There is no doubt that long distance cycling is growing in popularity. Our team of eleven men and one woman were all capable riders who have braved long distances before in Singapore, Australia and the Philippines. The diversity of our team was similar to the vast international crowd at PBP. We had Brits, French, Singaporeans, Malaysians, Americans, Canadians and Filipinas in the squad.
We snapped a few photos with the team then headed to Pinos Pizza for our final meal before the start. The plan was to connect with the AUDAX Philippines Club at the beginning of the race.
The Filipino crew was mostly made up of women which was a nice change from the massive amounts of male riders that seemed to be at the event. The PBP actually attracts a unique crowd of people who ride an interesting type of bikes (road/recumbent, spaceship looking bikes, etc). We were guessing that the average age of the PBP riders was in the 50’s or 60’s, so obviously the crew from Singapore and Philippines were like spring chickens compared to the norm.
After dinner and the formalities of the team photos were done, it was time to race. We had to line up for the 9pm start outside of the main gymnasium. Luckily for us it was not nearly as hot as it was for the early staged starts in the afternoon. That said, it was still not that fun waiting around in line after already having spent the entire day to get the race started. Many of the team were saying how hard it was to wait around all day….a combination of nerves most likely and general impatience.
We were all sporting the AUDAX Singapore PBP Version jersey to start the event. Many groups from around the world had specially designed kits for this event and it was quite common for people to trade them with other international riders. The 9pm open start was releasing riders in groups of 25 so we had hoped to stay together as much as possible. Since night riding requires you to wear the neon vests it was tough to find your mates in a sea of neon later in the race. Luckily my main training partners (Dan Smith, Gareth Cooper and David Kolpak) all were in the same heat and remained together.
The Race Begins
After years of preparation, hours of waiting and numerous logistical efforts, the PBP finally began at 9pm. It was an exciting moment as we passed under the giant PBP balloon that signified the start line. We began coasting down the local streets of Saint – Quentin along with riders from other places. For the first ten kilometers or so we were going through the city so it was necessary to stop at lights. From the very beginning our team decided that we would just stay in the pack and save our energy for the multiday race. This was just one of many ‘best laid plans’ that would be broken throughout the PBP. Kolpak and I both were on the front of the group within five minutes and we realized we actually did not know where to go. In all the reading I had done about PBP, the writers always said they ‘followed a sea of red lights’….which is fine if you are in the group but not so good if you are at the front. Needless to say we let some other guy who looked like he knew what he was doing take over.
This first ‘stage’ was 140km to the rest station. The course had rest stations – a place to get food and rest, and they also had control stations – where you are timed and get a stamp and food if you like. The first rest station was at Montagne-au-Perche. As the time rolled on it became dark and we were exiting the city like streets for more remote forest laden roads. At one of the stop lights we met a group from Italy who were from Vincenza…..this is near where we cycle every year in Italy and I thought they may be good. I was right and we decided to hop on the Italian train for a nice distance at speeds slightly higher than our best laid plans had included. We rode with them for a while and then joined other groups up and down the hilly terrain. The excitement level was very high and we managed to all remain together arriving at the rest station. We were definitely going too fast as when we arrived I felt like a zombie and was ordering a Coke like I was having mental issues…you need to keep your pace slow to survive.
The rest stations and control stations were usually set up in gymnasium type buildings. They had food, drinks, and other cycling things that riders would typically need along the way of a big ride….including beer. Kolpak and I had one beer along the entire route along with this awesome sausage….actually it may have been ordinary but it was awesome when we had it. The stations were all staffed with volunteers who were amazing. Once you get very tired these people become super important and all along the entire route I was impressed with the people who worked at the race. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for all the riders…people would bump into you and cut the line and never say ‘excuse me’ at all….now I get that people may be tired but that is pretty basic human behaviour that should not be forgotten no matter how tired one gets.
Anyhow at Montagne’-au-Perche we all decided that we need to tone the speed down as we had 450km to achieve in the first day to arrive at our hotel in Loudeac. We also met up with Jean Francois (JF), our AUDAX leader, who joined us for the ride to Loudeac. The ride through the night was exhilarating and a bit scary. We were descending at 60+km/hour into roads we could not really see around riders we did not really know. The riding terrain however was beautiful and it only got better as the daylight appeared. Before hitting Loudeac we hit a few of the control stations and stopped a couple of times for food and water.
Arriving in Loudeac
We arrived at 630PM on Monday evening in Loudeac after riding 451km that day. We were all pretty tired and most of us realized that we forgot to pack clothes and shoes in our travel bags (with that stuff remaining at the Auberge du Manet back in Saint-Quentin). Therefore it meant that we could not venture far from the hotel in Loudeac for food. It also meant that we had to wear bike clothes to dinner. We showered, ate, and fell immediately asleep after a long day in the saddle. The plan was to leave immediately at 4am to begin the ride to the half way mark at Brest. JF, who has done this ride many times, was smarter to leave earlier…it was one of the many lessons he would teach us about this long distance race.
It was freezing when we woke up and it was then that I regretted not packing my long pants or my 3/4 pants for the ride. Sunday in Saint-Quentin was very hot and the weather forecasts all looked warm for the 3-4 days…..I did not need any pants I thought. This was a big mistake and I was very cold as we set out early in the morning to Brest. The Loudeac to Carhaix stage was apparently the hardest (which is what someone told me after the fact) and it was very hard. Needless to say we had to stop for food after 42km as I was definitely in a zone that required more energy. We stopped at a muddy little tent where Kolpak fell in love with crepes and gave multiple tres biens to the lady chef.
At this point I was wondering about how we were progressing. It seemed that many more people were coming against us returning from Brest then going out to Brest. Were we slow? I began to think that we stayed too long in Loudeac (6:30pm – 4:30am) as there were many riders already on the ride back to Paris. We also took very long breaks whereas experienced folks like JF would quickly come in, eat, and go.
The controls were now becoming littered with people sleeping all over the place. People would eat, then plant their face right into the table and sleep. In addition, when you were walking around trying to find a seat, you had to keep your eyes on the ground as well in order to avoid stepping on sleeping riders. The stations were like human carnage. I remembered in Loudeac there were a number of people completely knocked out and this one old fellow saying ‘this is where PBP really begins’. Well if he was with us up the road I am not sure what he would have said as people really looked like hell. In addition to the control stations, people also slept outside. You would literally be riding along and see some guy lying on the side of the road beside his bike completely asleep. If you saw this normally you would stop for fear that they had been hit, but really everybody was doing this.
The People of PBP
Wow did we ever meet a load of interesting people along the way. We found a decent sized group to sit with for a while which included a guy from northern England. While most of the people were complaining about the weather, he noted this was normal for him. A relatively young fellow, he sported a massive brown beard and a funny cycling hat in lieu of a helmet. Probably the funniest thing was that he was riding the PBP on a single speed bike, and it was a heavy looking steel type that would make the ride very hard. He also seemed to have no fear drafting large trucks downhill at excessive speeds in the fog….death wish maybe? Along the same route we also met the ‘guy with the blue shorts’…he was a great pace setter and Kolpak and I happily joined their bunch for a while. He was doing an excellent job at towing us and then he blew up. We dropped him.
A whole bunch of things happened on the way to Brest however I cannot remember all the details. By this point we had been riding for 39 hours and things were all getting a bit fuzzy. I do know that it felt great to arrive in Brest knowing that we had completed more than half of the ride. We shot in and out of the control center and then began the hunt for our support RV to fuel up.
Brest could be a nice tourist spot with things to do however we only stopped to snap a quick photo, quick bite at our support RV, and on the road again. The support crew were amazing. Guillaume and the team had whipped up some hot soup, found some locally grown amazing strawberries, and packed us full of nutrition for the road before we departed. The hills around Brest were huge….this was surely the hardest part of the course I thought.
Kolpak and I powered on heading back to Loudeac. Basically the ride for our day was from Loudeac – Brest – Loudeac, which would provide us with 360km of riding over tough terrain. This actually was hard because we had done 451km of rough terrain the day before. By the way, this whole course was tough….like Bintan (Indonesia) but with bigger hills, bigger winds and of course many more kilometers. It was only in the daylight that I realized the size of the hills from Loudeac to Carhaix. Given that we had done the route in pitch dark earlier that morning, I did not have the full awareness of how big they were. No wonder why I was so hungry after only 42km of riding that morning. We were pulling through a village with only 30km to go that day and we smelled the best BBQ ever….we decided to stop for some sausages and a beer before making the final push into Loudeac.
Leaving Loudeac I remembered going down many hills. One of the challenges when you do a course like this is that when you go down a hill, you realize that later you will go up that hill. These hills were very much in my mind during our final push….looking at my Garmin I figured we had five kilometers of hills to climb before getting off the bike for much needed rest in Loudeac. We followed the illuminated arrows and popped out in front of our hotel….no hills…not sure how that happened but I was definitely happy.
We stayed at the same hotel in Loudeac as we did on the way out. We had now completed almost 800km of the race and we were all feeling good…and tired. JF was the first to set off around 2:30am and Kolpak and I departed at 3am. The British contingent (Gareth and Dan) opted for more sleep and left Loudeac at 4am. At this point the group of 12 was all in various stages of the race based on pace and resting time. The checkpoint in Loudeac showed only 448km to go, so that was a nice thing to boost our spirits.
Debacle and Why I love French People
If you have ever done a race that has a time limit you can understand the stresses of anything that is unplanned. I was feeling very good at Montagne-au-Perche on the way back to Paris. I had just had a nice meal, restocked all my bike energy supplies, and was still riding in daylight as I headed to Dreux. I left the control and was traveling through the village when I heard the common cheers of Allez and Bravo. Exiting the village there were some huge descents and after speeding down them it was time to climb. A quick shift into an easier gear and kaboom….three spokes broke, wheel done….I was stressed. At this point our support van was more than eight hours behind me and I had no idea what to do. I did not have any spokes….and I was not at the control station I just left (where they have mechanics and a bike shop). I panicked…could not fix this….was my PBP over? I started walking and then I saw some other group support vehicles. ‘Parlez vous Anglais?’ I asked…this was no time for me to be speaking French as I was totally nervous and scared. ‘Non, je ne parle pas Anglais’ was the response….but they understood my issue based on my pointing and frantic behaviour. At this stage I had ridden 1102km of a 1230km ride….who would not be stressed. I needed some spokes…. I made my way back to the control center at Montagne-au-Perche and in all honestly I was lucky I was not further away from it. Phew….I arrived at the bike shop however the mechanic said he could not fix my wheel…he did not have the spokes and the wheel was not safe to ride. Frantic Behaviour v2 began. One of the translators from the control station came over to help. ‘Can I buy a new wheel?’ I asked. She translated…the mechanic looked around a bit…then said in French ‘yes but it will be expensive.’…..ok I thought, do it. ‘Oh yeah, how much?’….Euro 185. Done.
Within 60 minutes I had broken three spokes, managed to get to the control center, bought a wheel, changed the wheel, and departed down the same road I had traveled just an hour ago. When leaving the village I saw the Filipino contingent in civilian clothes and was wondering if they had finished already…that would have been fast. Anyhow my mind was shattered by this point and I was just happy to be on the road again.
The translator quickly helped me get what I needed to get me back on course! Thank you madame!
One other thing about the control in Montagne-au-Perche….I had asked another volunteer how many more check points there were. He checked with a few other guys and came back to say ‘there is one more in Dreux, then the final one in Saint-Quentin’. Great I thought….but before I could leave again he said ‘but this is the hardest stage with big hills’….why did he tell me that?
The hills were much bigger than I remembered. Many of the people I rode with said that it was a different route than was taken on the way to Brest and I believed it. The hills were longer and steeper. Only 70km to get to Dreux and at that point it was supposed to be ‘easy’. I was not sure because I would have had 1170km in my legs at that point in time. My Achilles were both killing from all the climbing. My left ankle was swollen, my hands were swollen and my butt was completely shot at this stage. Definitely running on all adrenaline at this time.
14km to go to get to Dreux and I was starting to get cold again. I had no support vehicle anywhere around so I decided to lift the pace and warm up until I reached the control at Dreux where I could get a warm coffee. I ran into two Aussies who liked the idea of a free pull as one of them was fighting against time to qualify. We rode in and had a quick coffee together and decided to do the final 65km stage together. Arriving at Dreux was amazing. There were very few riders there and when we walked in everybody applauded us. This was a great feeling and I am sure the boost to our spirits at this stage was helpful. The guy with the time pressure left first (cannot remember his name….was totally brain dead) and I rode alongside Tom. Tom had done PBP before and was a AUDAX guy from Canberra. He was also heading for a 68hour PBP so I knew he must have been good. Funny thing was I was actually riding with Tom and a bigger group 200km previously….a fast group.
Don’t’ Judge a Book by it’s Cover
The group I met Tom in earlier that day with 300km to go was led by an Australian guy with a massive steel bike. He also had a big flag hanging off the back of his bike and was joined by around 12 capable riders who were pushing paces of 35-40km/hour. This is crazy to do this pace in a long race but it was hard to resist the idea of getting some kilometers out of the way at a faster pace to give longer rest times or better finishing times….whatever suited best. Anyhow if you saw this guy riding along you would never guess he was a good rider. His bike was big and clunky, he looked like a tourist with a flag hanging out the back, and his fashions would have made Lee Greaves ill as nothing matched or coordinated. That said, he was Superman on the bike, much like Lundy is, crippling this group by always staying on the front and only rotating the 2nd spot. I was shattered but hung with them for 40km until the stop…nobody went with him afterwards though. We let him go.
One more stop….now we were on the road to Saint Quentin, the final stop of the 1230km distance. Tom and I never found the other guy but he did make it. Our pace was pretty quick as I think by this time we just wanted to get off the bikes and finish this race.
Allez, Allez, Allez
The French people admire the PBP and it was amazing to see the amount of people lining the road cheering on unknown riders along the entire route. There were many families who would set up small stops with drinks, coffee, cakes and other things for riders. The one I did stop at even had a bed for riders who needed a nap. I managed a coffee and some cake and realized that they were not charging for things. They simply gave me their address on a small card and asked me to send them a post card. Pretty neat stuff…people in small villages get to meet a very international crowd and at the same time provide super valuable nutrition and valuable motivational cheers to riders in PBP. Throughout the entire race people would pop out of nowhere to yell ‘Allez, Allez, Allez’ and ‘Bravo’. It definitely helped me continue on.
Longest 20km in My Life
My Garmin battery died after almost surviving the entire PBP (with some recharges). By that time I did not care as I knew we had much less that 65km to go and we had already been hammering along. I asked Tom a few times how many kilometers to go and then sometimes people on the street would yell out the remaining distances. ‘Vingt kilometres’ one man yelled…..I was so happy. Only 20km to go…..we plowed along. It was only what seemed like an hour later when I saw the sign saying 15km Arrivee that I was depressed….as I similarly was when I saw the 10km Arrivee and the 5km Arrivee signs. Finally we saw the finish line….I cannot remember much about it though.
1/2 Beer and No Food
We rolled into the final stop just after midnight which meant there were very few fans there and just a bunch of tired riders. The feeling was great…..after dismounting our bikes they people had to hold many riders up or take their bikes from them to prevent them from tipping over. We proceeded over the final line to get our stamps in our passbook and then received a coupon for a free drink and a Bravo letter. I stumbled over to the drink place….and got a well deserved Heineken beer. There was also great food being cooked but I honestly could not stand up to go and order anything. I looked over at the people in the food line hoping someone would realize this and help me but no luck. I sat there with my beer and called my wife. I was completely dead.
After normalizing slightly I had no idea how to get back to the hotel. The five kilometer distance was striking fear in me. There we no taxis in sight and our support van was more than 12 hours behind. I sipped my beer to strategize my plans for getting back to a shower and a bed. Finally I decided that I would ride home because the desire for showering and sleeping far overcame my tiredness. I mounted my bike and started the long journey back. I could not sit down so I had to do the entire ride out of the saddle…which was tiring. Pulling into the Auberge du Manet I hit some road furniture and almost went tumbling down. Not sure how but I managed to stay upright which was pretty amazing. I arrived at the hotel where they had no food (but gave me a beer), showered and went to bed. The guy at the hotel was from Senegal and he asked me ‘why are you out riding your bike so late’….I told him I had just done PBP and he replied ‘what is that?’.
After finishing I had no clue about the accomplishment because I was far too tired. After having slept and showering three times I woke up around 11am and decided to go with JF to watch the rest of the gang finish up. The time cut off was at 3pm so I know we would see some brave efforts for people trying to get in on time. JF, Henny (his wife) and I drove to the finish line to see our friends finish. Surprisingly, it was actually fun to see anybody finish. People young and old, from countries all over were slogging across the line in the heat of mid day. It was absolutely amazing. Some of the people were definitely over 70 years old. The level of achievement was incredible….think they just rode 1200km in a matter of days. It finally hit me when I saw the only female member of our team cross the line. Carmela Serina crossed the finish line with tears in her eyes, probably from pain, but surely from the emotional feeling one gets when accomplishing something so challenging.
Other impressive feats were that Heng Ooi Khiang (OK) and Lawrence Loh (Dogman) represented the first ever Singaporean and Malaysians to complete the PBP. In addition to being their first countrymen to cross the line, they also have both come a long way in their cycling efforts. It was just a while back that they would struggle on much shorter distances, so it was really great to see them elevate and meet this challenge. Congrats gents!
Matti, whose family was running our support team, also did a great job finishing the race in style with the Singapore flag draped around his neck. Matti had agreed to do the PBP with his father as a gift to his father for his birthday. Only a few months ago Matti was struggling to do a 400km ride, so he has improved tremendously and has done a great job.
Congratulations to Dan Smith! He did an amazing job entertaining us with his stories and for keeping the humour alive on what can otherwise be a long hard and grumpy experience.
Congratulations to Gareth Cooper who sported a beard and made our team look more like the average age of the standard PBPer. Gareth was incredibly strong and no doubt all the beef pies he has eaten have made him a master at descending. He is going to shave soon.
Congrats and thanks to David Kolpak who was my main training partner during the past year. I could not have done this without you.
Congratulations to all the team….job well done. Of course that team includes our wonderful support team lead by Guillaume. At each of our stops the support crew was very positive, providing massages, hot food, encouragement and other great stuff to keep the AUDAX Singapore Train moving along!
A very special thanks to Jean Francois Torrelle. Thank you for introducing me to the wonderful world of long distance cycling, for arranging PBP, and the many AUDAX rides over the years. This was definitely one of the best cycling experiences of my life and I look forward to riding PBP with you in 2015. It is amazing you have been able to build up such an organization in Singapore and delivered such a big team to PBP this year.
All of the team have been training for months to get to PBP. Countless hours on the bike, logistics planning and financial costs all surmounting to this moment. This ride would have tested new limits in most of the riders….I definitely hit some new highs and lows along the way. It was an incredible experience.
International Aspect of PBP
PBP is truly international racing at its best. There were Germans, Italians, Canadians, Americans, Indians, Japanese, Taiwanese, Chinese, Polish, Russian, Australian, New Zealand, French, Singapore and Filipino riders! (and many more)