Pembrokeshire Velo

Paris Brest Paris 2019

August 31, 2019

Richard Coomer lost his PBP virginity in 2019, this is how it happened.

What on earth was I thinking when I thought this was a good idea? The summary of my thoughts for quite a significant proportion of, and for a few days after, the 19th Paris Brest Paris (PBP). This historic race was held over 1200 km (750 miles) in mid August 2019 and I was there as the sole Pembs Velo rider. It had all seemed such a good idea up until around 2 weeks to go. A prestigious race held every 4 years, like the Olympics and World Championships for long-distance cycling rolled into one. A unique atmosphere, generous loud roadside support and cheering “allez allez” and “bonne courage” in small villages in the middle of the night, more race than audax, thousands of participants from across the World, new acquaintances and friendships forged through shared suffering. It was all of this and more. Why wouldn’t you want to ride?

The run up to PBP had been 1.5 years in the making, ensuring qualifying rides had been completed for the necessary pre-registration in 2018 and then qualification in 2019. Riding 25 wet miles the day before to attend bike inspection and sign on, amongst hundreds of other cyclists, took up much of the day. By late afternoon the rain had stopped, the bike was re-cleaned ready with its numbers and timing chip attached, kit dried out: the scene was set.

From a crowd-lined starting chute, PBP starts riders in waves of 100 – 150 every 15 minutes. With the baking sun, loud pumping music and a constant excitable French public address compere, it felt like I was starting a Sportive. I almost forgot the 1200 km ahead. I was in the last wave of the 80-hour vedette’s (racer’s) groups, starting at 5.15pm on Sunday afternoon. The 90-hour groups would follow, with the 84-hour groups Monday morning. It was a bit of a last minute rush thanks to the sheer volume of cyclists (over 6000 starters), meaning a hurried lunch and a mad dash to my starting area. The shock of actually cycling soon gave way to concentration as the group set up a blistering pace through the first 100 km. I almost lost it just 8 km in when a rider 2 in front of me lost both bottles hitting a bump: he apparently thought it was ok to jam both brakes on – not ideal in a chaingang situation. Freewheeling along in a peloton at 40 kph just 50 km into a 1200 km ride seemed like madness even by my standards, but nothing is normal at PBP.

The mind is very good at remembering positives and forgetting the negatives. In this case, just how long it takes to ride a distinctly grippy rolling 600 km to Brest. Cycling right through Sunday night and Monday wasn’t as difficult as it had sounded beforehand. Groups seemed to form after each control stop until after 300 km; then it was solo riding. I started with a loose plan of getting to Brest and seeing how I felt, ideally making it back at least 1 stop before sleeping. I arrived in Brest around 7.30 pm Monday, 26 hours in and slightly later than planned. Never mind, after food and a rest I felt fine to set off cycling again to get back to Carhaix, keeping to plan. It was a different matter by 2 am Tuesday morning, 41 hours after last waking up, when keeping my eyes focused on the road became a serious issue. Rookie error no.1 became clear when I walked into the dining room to find the entire place stuffed with cyclists. They were either sitting or sleeping in every available space. It hadn’t been like this back at 5 pm! I realized (too late) that this was the ’90 hour bulge’ – the first of the later cyclists on their way to Brest. No question of a bed, stupid to even ask. I ate my food and hot bedded a space on the floor by the wall, wrapping myself in a space blanket for 1 hour of “sleep”. I felt ok again after that and set off to the next stop at Loudeac. The bitterly cold foggy Breton early morning took its toll and another 1.5 hours sleep was needed when I arrived, again shared with a few random strangers on the floor of a fire escape next to the restaurant. No alarm clock was needed, the concrete floor forcing me up through numbness.

As the trip back went by, the importance of controlling mental state became ever clearer. Mornings, sunshine, company to chat to – English and latterly French, dredging up half forgotten Moroccan French– meant no pain, strong fast legs, no issue at all. Solo riding, evenings and nighttime – cue return of aches and pains, weak legs and general suffering. I slept another hour in Villaines in the early hours of Wednesday, celebrating my third night out with my first on a mattress . I vaguely remember that I had a sports massage of some very tired legs and a decent dinner beforehand. Over the rest of Wednesday morning I got back to Paris, riding with a friendly electrician from Brest. We joked he needed to start his own race Brest Paris Brest. Who would have thought I could have enough French to cope with hours of chat? He was a gentleman and seemed to forgive my dreadful grammar in return for plenty of time trialling ‘contra la montre’ on the front, sharing the increasing headwind.

Riding back into Rambouillet castle at the finish was always going to be slightly anticlimactic, but the sense of relief to stop cycling was overwhelming. Finishing on Wednesday lunchtime in time for a bonus night’s sleep and all-you-can-eat hotel breakfast buffet, was the reward I had craved. Others were still cycling 24 hours later! We had been blessed with dry predominantly sunny weather, so it could have been much harder. I finished in 67 hours 56 minutes, respectable for a first time, though I noted that I had only been cycling for 50 hours despite only 5 hours sleeping. Clearly there is scope to cut down the remaining 12 hours I must have spent eating, non-sleep resting and faffing. Riding PBP is perhaps the perfect embodiment type 2 fun: a huge list of positive memories crowded out at the time by the mental issues of surviving, suffering and getting to the finish. Roll on 2023 team Velos?

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