So, here we go, another PBP. I’d always wanted to return after my flawed ride in 2011 (a bad saddle sore after the Mersey 24 had kept my mileage down in the weeks beforehand and a crash in the first stage badly affected the rest of my ride), and revisit some of the sights and sounds of this historic audax. A good amount of training in the spring and some decent qualifier riders had brought me into form at the beginning of June but I’d had a bit of achilles tendonitis and some fatigue after completing my 600k ride and took a few weeks easy. I missed the Newbury 12-hour as a result and didn’t enter the Mersey 24-hour as I didn’t feel quite ready for it.
By July I was almost clear of any achilles pain and ramped up the training – every weekend would see me heading out the door for a 300 or 400km ride. Just a little interval work and club TTs to fill in the weeks. The last week I just did some steady riding and then my favourite taster turbo session – 8x3min(with 3min recovery) – done nearly flat out and feeling pretty good. Time to go.
Bike + kit
Riding my Carbonzone bike earlier this year I had a puncture not too far from home but couldn’t pump up the spare tube because my minipump failed. This made me think about why I carry a minipump (the frame has curved tubes and any other type wouldn’t fit), when for long rides I use my winter bike, simply because a Zefal HPX high-pressure pump fits it so nicely. So I kept an eye out on eBay for nice frames with straight tubes and ended up buying a 2010 Trek Madone frame for not very much at all and then managing to get hold of a nearly-new Ultegra 11-speed groupset to go on it. I built it up 3 weeks before PBP and apart from having to change the handlebars (the first set I bought for the bike were an odd shape and gave me numb hands after an hour or two) it rode well, and more importantly, I could get a decent frame-fit pump on it, my Zefal. It might seem a bit bizarre to ride PBP on a practically new machine, but I was able to fit it exactly to the dimensions of my old bikes and I had 3 weeks to iron out any glitches. PBP was forecast to be dry, so I didn’t need the extra encumbrance of a mudguard-equipped bike. A last minute change of bar-tape, and fitting the 25c fat race tyres I’d had maturing in the shed for two seasons, and we were good to go. I had a slight wobble in the last week as to whether I’d ditch the dynohub and go for battery-powered lights and GPS but thought better of it – it might have 5W of drag, but the peace of mind was more than worth it.
Other kit that I’d saved/bought specifically for this event were: (i) Bontrager track mitts I found in an outdoor shop about 3 years ago – they have a shape I like and they stopped making them (I trashed my first pair in a 2011 road race spill), (ii) Giordana Silverline bibshorts – once I found these, lightweight, a thin breathable seatpad and minimal seams – I bought a second pair and always knew they were going to be my PBP shorts so I used them sparingly this year, (iii) an Ortleib saddlebag – not the biggest, at just less than 2 litres, but nice and light with enough space for spares and a loop where I could tie an emergency waterproof, (iv) socks – longer than my usual ones, to give my achilles a bit of compression, and very thin, to allow my feet to expand in my shoes and stave off the worst of Hot Foot, (v) Nike Poggio shoes – my favourite long-distance shoes, I’ve done all my long rides in these since LEL 2005), (vi) an Aspide Arrowhead saddle – not a modern classic, but it works for me, this is the same model I rode in LEL 2005, but a newer one, it most often resides on my TT bike but got swapped for this ride.
I arrived mid-afternoon on Saturday and after checking in at my motel, rode over to the fancy new National velodrome for the bike check and registration. All went OK, apart from my emergency front light not working (I have a little Smart light spare which runs off 2xAA cells) – I forgot I’d loaded the batteries the wrong way round so it didn’t turn on accidentally on the drive over. I faffed about a bit, said hello to a few fellow Auks, collected my brevet card and chip and my PBP reflective gilet (a bit of a big medium size) and then rode back to the motel via the town centre where I ran into a few other Auk stalwarts, just tucking into the first beer of the afternoon(!)
In the evening I took a stroll to the centre of St Cyr, where I was staying, and found a decent brasserie that served me spaghetti carbonara and a crème brûlée dessert. I washed it down with a couple of beers and watched riders spinning past, returning from their bike checks.
Sunday – start
I managed a reasonable night’s sleep (in comparison to 2011 where I hardly slept at all the night before with too many nerves) and after a leisurely breakfast drove over to the long-term multi-story car park we were using for “free” and then biked over to the velodrome. I’d paid for a lunch, but by the time it came for me to eat it I was hardly hungry, having eaten quite a bit in the last few days and not done much exercise. It was good to catch up with a few other auks though. I hear other riders were not as restrained as me, quelle surprise, and the buffet ran out before the last riders arrived for their meal later in the day. Then I went back to the car, unpacked my bike and gear, pumped up the tyres, oiled the chain, filled my bidons and set off back for the start queues.
I still had a couple of hours before my start time, so I lazed around on the grass while the PA wittered away. Remembering how hot it’d been in 2011, I had an extra water bottle to sip while I waited. Eventually it was time for the B wave to go to the starting pen. Once there, I took a selfie and had a bit of a chat with Alan Parkinson (SWRC – we’d ridden the first part of the Brevet Cymru 400 together), and we could hear the countdown as the A wave set off, with typical French unprecision, at 16:00:55. We rolled up to the start, and I dumped my spare water with a marshal, ready to go at 16:15:55.
Like 2011, those audaxers who’d ridden longer brevets the year before got priority on registration, however what not many of us had bargained-for was that we’d have priority on choosing which wave we started in (in previous years, all the 80-hour riders “Vedettes” have had to jostle their way to get into a particular wave – I’d started in the third one because I don’t have very sharp elbows). So if you’d done a 400k ride or longer, you could choose pretty much any wave. I picked B, because I didn’t want to get caught up in the madness of the first wave but what I hadn’t bargained for was that many, many strong riders were also in this wave as they’d missed all the slots in A due to not having ridden a long brevet in 2014. The B wave proved to be the fastest starting of them all – there were riders there only too keen to catch up with the A wave, 15 minutes in front, and they averaged +35km/h for the first 220km!
Off the start we were flying along, through broad streets at first and then into the suburbs of Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines. I was maybe 40th or 50th wheel, trying to keep up near the front and avoiding the accelerations and decelerations that always happen around roundabouts and corners when you’re further back in the bunch (“getting caught in the slinky”). My road racing experience was helping here. I had a slight slide on one roundabout – my tyres were a bit dusty from the start pens – but not too bad. After about 15km a rider about 10 places in front of me let the wheel in front go, he’d had enough already. I went through-and-off with a few others, although with the twists and turns it was tricky to get a good rhythm going. But it was hopeless, the strong group had gone. I’d been working over threshold for the first half hour and knew I had nothing to gain by continuing to do so. Half a km/h gained here would come back to bite me on the second day, so I sat in, shamelessly sucked the wheels ahead and took it easy. I ended up riding next to Mike Henley for a while – he’d ridden quite a bit of the Beast from the East 600k with me earlier in the year. We had a bit of a chat about how it was going – I warned him not to get too carried away in these open stages.
Our group was riding well, not too fast, and it was easy to keep up near the front without getting in the way of the really keen guys. Then, about 3 hours in, there was a rush of wheels down the outside – the fastest C riders had caught us. Mayhem broke out – we had twice as many riders in the bunch than the road would easily accommodate and when a car came the other way there were quite a few nasty squeezes. I heard a touch of wheels and a crash right behind me at one point but didn’t look around. Eventually I managed to find a bit of clear air and did a couple of jumps up the field, nearer the front and a comfier ride. We were really flying though – some of the small hills were costing me a lot of needless effort – but it was important to stay with this group as overall my power was staying nicely under control.
As we rolled into the first village and feed station, Mortagne-au-Perche, supported riders peeled off left and right to their campervans and by the time I’d got to the actual control I was about 5th in line from that group! I desperately needed a pee and a top up of my bottles, and I stopped to buy a couple of energy bars from the Overstims stall before donning my reflective gilet and armwarmers, switching on my lights, and heading back out on the road 6:40 later (It was a big help to be able to remember the layout of the controls from 2011 to get through them in the most efficient manner. The Tandem Things have done a blog post of exactly that). Just as I was leaving, Mike Henley rolled in, he must’ve got caught behind the crash I’d heard.
Sunday night – racing
I worked hard out of the Mortagne control – I could see bunches of riders ahead, and wanted to team up with them. This was a pattern for the first night – I’d lose time to supported riders in the controls and then have to work hard for 15 minutes to get back to a good working group. Sometimes I’d ride past a little group of three or four riders but if they looked like they weren’t going well I’d drop them and work my way up to the next. Sometimes it can just suck your energy and motivation to have two or three guys twiddling along in your slipstream.
I soon found myself in a group with Paul O’Donoghue from Ireland. He was trying to get the guys to go through and off, and for a while we were doing a pretty good job, but then with about an hour left to the next control we got buzzed by about 20 fast riders from the D wave and from then on we just sat in while they powered along. A few kilometres before Villaines, we passed a massive illuminated blue-and-red Carrefour sign, in the distance off to the left. Up until this point I’d completely forgotten it from 4 years ago, but now it came back to me, weird how your memory works.
The next couple of controls went in much the same pattern – work hard out of the control, get into a group (usually with Paul O’D) – until I got to Tinteniac (363km). By then the groups were thinning out, riders were getting tired already. In 2011 I got to Tinteniac in the early morning light, this time it was still 5am and dark (I had my 2011 schedule taped to the top tube). I teamed up with a South African rider here. He was riding a bit too strongly for me but up the long climb to Bécherel (we caught a French rider her who assured us the that top was only 200m further, but of course, the real summit is beyond the village) and beyond on the way through Quedillac (389km) we scooped up a few more riders so we had a group about a dozen strong. There’s a left turn on to a main road not long afterwards and as we were at the front of the group we got across OK but the others were held up by a bit of traffic. One guy jumped across (he barely had any visible lights – just a couple of tiny elastic-band city lights – how did he get through the bike check like that?), but as we were the three strongest from that groupetto we were always going to pull away from them.
The SA guy was concerned that we still had nearly 55km left to ride to Loudeac as a 2- or maybe 3-up but I told him not to panic. We rode steadily and with about 15km left on the stage caught a sizeable group. It was good to sit-in for a bit before taking a few turns on the front. I led us into Loudeac, a rambling control, at 448km.
Monday – a mostly solo effort to Brest
The next stage has got some tricky climbs and twists and turns its way to Carhaix. I’d lost all my company now and just rode steadily, not wanting to overexert myself on the climbs (and keeping half an eye on my powermeter readout). I was mostly passing individual riders who’d overcooked it on the first night, although I was in turn passed by a strong rider with an “E” start number but he was one of very few. I found myself in a better little group after a while and we stopped at a “secret” control at St Nicholas du Pelem for 3 minutes before riding onwards. There were a couple of little Spanish guys here who were going well on the lumps and bumps. I think I was going through a bit of a low patch but after a longer stop at Carhaix for rice puddings (the younger Spanish guy rode past me as I walked back to my bike with my bidons, saying, half-jokingly “hurry up, we’re leaving”, I guess he thought me a bit of a wheelsucker.), I felt much better after the stop and caught them soon after the control, and the boot was soon on the other foot as I towed them up the first 15km of the climb through Huelgoat, a nice steady 200-220W showing on my powermeter.
They fell off the pace towards the top, and all the way over the Roc Trevezel and down the other side I was feeling good. Riding steadily and passing riders – I still wasn’t finding anyone here who wasn’t a bit blown by the early pace. There were groups of two or three, trundling along with A or B numbers on their bikes but none strong enough to form a good partnership with. I cheered the lone leader coming back the other way, up the long climb. About 10 minutes behind him was a large group of chasers, he was going to have a hard time holding them off (but of course, he did, amazingly – see the link towards the end of this blog).
I eventually caught about half a dozen riders with about 15km to go to Brest and decided to sit in with them for a bit. A couple of the riders I’d previously passed caught us, and one of them, Axel, a German with an old SRM powermeter on his bike, told me I was stronger than them and should go ahead but I was quite happy to bide my time. Before he was dropped, he rode up alongside me, slapped me on the back and said “friend, you are riding too strongly for me, I have to let you go, good luck with your PBP”. (I later realised that this Axel is the same guy who set up this comprehensive PBP results website: http://axel-koenig.com/results/pbp2015, and finished in 49:30, so he found some serious speed in the second half of the ride: looks like he was behind me to Tinteniac and then picked up the fast John Barkman train home that I missed while I was napping.)
Although the ride to the new control in Brest (614km) was much more straightforward than last time’s meander through the docks (I was nearly 2 hours up on my past schedule at 22h54) the control itself was still rambling, like 2011. I couldn’t face tottering to the restaurant on my cleated shoes for food and just bought some energy bars and topped up one bottle with emergency carbo drink for the energy before heading back out 11 minutes later. I jumped past a 4-up of Seattle Randonneurs and then back out into the country, to face the long climb through Sizun and up to Roc Trevezel again. In Sizun I picked up a cooked French guy. He stuck to my wheel for maybe 5km before blowing up – and further up the climb I passed another four riders being paced up the climb by a French guy in the same jersey as one of his followers, but who was clearly not a PBP rider (tut tut). One or two of them jumped on to my wheel and at the top I gathered a couple more wheelsuckers. On the descent we caught a German guy and then another Seattle Randonneur, so I had about six riders on my wheel. I didn’t mind, I was feeling good. The American and the German occasionally took turns, all good.
As we rolled back into Carhaix, one of them (an Italian) thanked me for the tow. The canteen here was in full swing, ready to cater for the bulk of 90-hour riders still on their way out to Brest. They had some tempting looking spaghetti bolognese and I was hungry after bouncing the previous control so I stopped for a feed. A couple of Brits had a little chat with me before I headed back out (sorry, I forgot your names if you’re reading this, one of you had a Kingston Wheelers jersey on).
Not long afterwards, there was another “secret” control, and here I was surprised to find Matt Scholes who I know from having ridden quite a few UK audaxes with:
He said he was cooked from the pace of the A wave, and I was happy to take it easy along this stretch so we rode together, through St Nicholas du Pelem (no control stamp this time), and back over the climbs to Loudeac (780km), past a bit of a party going on at St Martin du Pres. It was getting dark and about 20km out from Loudeac we stopped to put on our reflective gear and armwarmers and turn on our lights. It was quite tricky to ride this narrow lane with the bright lights of the 90-hour group coming towards us so it was nice to get to the wider roads on the run into the control. Oddly we didn’t see any other riders going in our direction on this stage – they were either ahead, powering along in groups, or behind, cooked, I guess. It was around here in 2011 that my ride went off the rails, so from now on the schedule taped to my top tube was going to be pretty much useless. I was trying to guess how long I could keep pushing, and whether I’d suffer from not stopping (many times, a brief stop will revive your pace and you’ll finish faster than if you’d struggled on – it does depend how close you are to your personal sleep deficit limit though). Was 54 hours (or less) possible?
Monday night – a mad group, a nap and then more solo
At Loudeac Matt said he’d try to get a rest. It was absolutely rammed with 90-hour riders heading out to Brest though, so I jumped the queue for coffees, bought two and quickly downed them. There was no chance of any real, quick, food here, so another carbo sachet went in a bottle and I picked up a few energy bars from the Overstims man at the exit. They’re not the greatest bars, but they would do (I discovered that the Salée cereal bar is a bit salty in taste – this is a good thing on a ride of this distance, it keeps my taste buds refreshed and makes me a little thirsty).
On the ride out of town I picked up a couple of riders in the dark. We rode along together for a kilometre or two and then a group of five German and Swedish riders came sweeping past. There was a scrabble for wheels. They were absolutely flying and must’ve had a longer, more refreshing break at Loudeac than me where I’d leapfrogged them! Me and a Spanish guy were hanging on by our coat-tails. We passed a few bedraggled ones and twos, but no one else had the legs to jump in. Eventually, somewhere near Illifaut I let them go. At the time it felt like I’d ridden longer with them, but perhaps it was only 15km. The Spanish guy on my wheel failed to jump around me and I think he was a bit pissed off with me for letting that train go but I was getting tired and didn’t want to be dangerous to this group – my concentration was not so good, even if my legs were still OK. That fast group eventually swept up John Barkman along this stretch, and he rode to a storming finish with the remains of it. Had I started with the A wave, I’d have been in a position to follow those wheels. Lesson learnt.
It was getting very cold in the dips along here, and I was starting to feel dozy – I’d been on the move for 36 hours. The Spanish guy wasn’t much help, he was pulling a bit on the flats but as soon as we hit any sort of drag I was towing him along. (Looking at the results later, he was on the “E” wave start, so he must’ve caned it to catch me up, no wonder he had nothing left.) We skipped the sleep/food stop at Quedillac – it’s not a control and for a fast time it’s only worth stopping if you’re getting your card stamped at the same time – which was where John B got picked up by the fast group I think, and after the slog up to the transmitter mast outside Bécherel – even in the night you can see it’s red twinkling lights for kilometres away, taunting you – rolled into Tinteniac (867km). It was 2:10am. John was just preparing to leave. I said hi, although he was busy gathering the group together I think. He was chewing some gum; I was envious of that, it’s a good way to keep you awake, gives you something to do. Looking at the time splits later I noticed that Rimas Grigenas, who I know well from rides in the south east (“ZigZag” on the forums, we’d done a large part of the Beast from the East 600k together), was also passing through Tinteniac around here although I never saw him. Riding in his native Lithuanian colours he finished in 49:36.
I bought another ham baguette and a couple of coffees before donning my waterproof jacket, for warmth. I couldn’t find a dorm to sleep in, so I set my alarm for 20 minutes and dozed in the marquee, under a space heater. When I came to, surprisingly I didn’t feel too bad. I swapped my rear light for a fresh spare as the batteries were going in the first one, and headed out into the night – a short 54km leg to Fougeres.
I could see the lights and reflective jackets of a little group ahead and pressed on to join them. They were going OK, but after 5km I realised I was doing most of the work. I was feeling good after my nap and I jumped away. Another half hour passed and then I caught another group. I went through them pretty quickly too. One guy stuck to my wheel for a short while but then I lost him through a twisty down-and-up and not long afterwards the lights of Fougeres (921km) were in view.
At the checkpoint the “bar” was closed, so after getting my card stamped I rode over to the canteen for some coffees and a croissant or three. Through the window I could see the groups I’d passed earlier rolling in but I didn’t wait too long. I took off my jacket and quickly headed out. I caught up with two riders here on the twists and turns out of town. One was riding very smoothly, but the other taller rider was doing that pedal, pedal, stand … thing that meant he was surely too saddle-sore to do much seated cycling (and with +300km still to go, poor guy). He was riding a really nice bike with some carbon Zipp wheels, and yet, was carrying a rucksack, which is such a no-no at this distance: let the bike do the carrying. He did a sort of exaggerated swing over to the centre of the road so he could eyeball me. “Yeah, whatever”, I thought. I just tagged along behind for a kilometre or two, feeling my way.
Tuesday morning – quiet riding, warming up
The smaller, smoother rider stopped at the side of the road to adjust something as we were leaving town, and then I was left with Mr Zipps. We did a bit of easy through and off, I was sure the smoother rider would catch us again but he never did. We got to a long drag, and sure enough, Zipp’s pedalling style couldn’t cope and I just pulled away. After ten minutes I looked over my shoulder on a long straight and couldn’t see either of them behind.
The next 70km are along the D33. It’s just gently rolling and rather straight. The sun was coming up behind some low cloud and I was starting to warm through. I felt like I was going pretty well along here, I guess I was doing about 26km/h on the flat, not too bad. At one point I glanced over my shoulder and could see a bright light cresting a rise behind me. At first I thought it was the two riders I’d dropped earlier but about a minute later a white velomobile screamed past, going about twice my speed. The road passes the infamous roadside stall at La Tanniere, but of course, at this time of the morning and only Vedettes on the road, it was firmly shut. A few trucks passed me at speed, but they gave me a wide berth, thankfully.
The last 20km to Villaines-la-Juhel are not so nice. The route takes a dogleg to the south, so that we can cross the busy N12 at the Le Ribay crossroads. The roads around here are roughly surfaced and constantly up and down. Each village church spire marks another little “peak” before you descend again. Wind turbines in the distance seem to take an age to get closer. I passed the Spanish guy from Tinteniac here – he’d stopped in a verge for a quick nap and made the international signal for “knackered” to me as I rode past. At Le Ribay the marshals were mostly asleep, there was just one interested local to snap my picture as I rode up, so I made the crossing myself. It was pretty quiet at 9am. I stopped for a pee and to take off my jacket shortly afterwards, and then here was just one more long climb to Hardanges and a few little rollers into Villaines (1009km).
Villaines was very quiet – even the tannoyed announcer had little to say (this is a town that loves PBP, they even have a dedicated website). I had a little stop for a custard tart and some pastries and some more coffee in the canteen (in the two PBPs I have ridden I have yet to walk across the lane where we park our bikes and visit the cyclist’s restaurant). There were a few riders faffing about here who’d clearly abandoned and I overtook two more abandonees shortly after leaving the control. I didn’t really have much energy left now, but wasn’t riding so badly. The sun was out, although it wasn’t too fierce, ideal conditions really. The first 20km or so are gently rolling and then there’s a sharp corner in Fresney-sur-Sarthe (we short-cut it on the way out) and on to the very straight D310 towards Mamers. The road climbs slowly here before the fast descent into Mamers itself. Right in the middle of town there was an impromptu feed-stop. It sort of looked official, so I asked if it was a “secret” and I should get a stamp? Turned out, no, the guys were just handing out free food, I thanked them but I didn’t really need to stop here.
On the steep climb out of town I could see another rider in a red jersey ahead. He was riding steadily and I never really got up to him before we got to the climb up to Mortagne-au-Perche. The last 150m to the control required bottom gear, just about the only time I used it.
Tuesday afternoon – a 2-up to the finish
Another top up of bottles and I propped up the bar while I stopped for yet more coffee, croissants and a banana. I didn’t want to sit down for fear I might find it too comfortable. As I was leaving, an Austrian rider in the red jersey that I’d spotted earlier was just leaving his supporter and joked with me that we’d better get moving. His name was Gerd and I ended up riding the last 140km with him. I remembered this section from 2011 – night had just fallen that time and the first half of this road has a number of longish climbs through wooded hillsides, which was a bit demoralising. In daylight they were not so forbidding. Gerd said he’d take the lead on the climbs as he had a powermeter (a powertap hub) to pace us, although I pointed out to him that I had one too! It was funny, but whatever power Gerd had self-selected for climbing seemed to produce the same uphill speed as my self-selected limit of 200W (Gerd was a bit taller than me so I guess a little stronger).
We ended up doing a rather informal 2-up, sometimes riding alongside each other, chatting about other long cycling events and ironman triathlons and so on. Eventually we topped out on the last climb and then the rest of this stage was a gentle descent into the Seine valley. There are a few twists and turns through some little villages but this part is pretty straightforward. Some of the road surfaces are rough tar-and-chip again, a bit hard on your contact points after 1100km in the saddle, I was thankful for my fat tyres. There was a much better stretch of road into Dreux this year though. I was feeling good and the draw of the last control was getting to me so I did a long, steady turn on the front here into a slight headwind and then we were soon into the last couple of bike path twists to the control. Gerd said he’d just stop for a pee and a coke, and I agreed the same. I had one energy bar left and could eat that if I felt hungry.
Last stage – a chase for sub-51
I got to the canteen first and bought us a couple of ice-cold cokes (and a pain chocolate for me). Man, they tasted great. When we returned to our bikes there was a little crowd around them – the marshals wanted to know all about the gear we were using, but we had to go – the last stage was waiting for us. Gerd thought we’d take two hours for the 65km (optimistic!), but I can remember doing a death crawl along this stretch last time with a little Italian guy – it took us over three hours. I compromised and said I though maybe 2½ hours this time?
The first 10 or 15 km are quite twisty and up and down, it’s hard to get a rhythm going, but then the roads open out and you’re back onto the plains we rode from Paris two days previously, dotted with the odd village or two. I started to do some maths in my head – we had about 50km to go and maybe I could nip under 51 hours with a solid 2-hour effort? Conditions were still good, there was hardly any wind. Gerd was not so keen as he’d started in the wave 15-minutes ahead of mine and 51 hours would require a superhuman effort. Nevertheless I started to push on a bit. We did less chatting and more through-and-off. I was riding the flats better, but Gerd was good on the climbs. Every time I tucked down on the drops though, I was going slightly cross-eyed with the fatigue and effort. It wasn’t so bad if I sat up on the hoods, but I wasn’t going to hit my target riding like that.
Somewhere on the road through Gambaiseuil we passed a flagging French rider with a “B” number. Although we didn’t say anything we both had the thought to burn him off and did a couple of hard turns up a long climb – no passengers here, thank you. But we didn’t make it stick and the French guy revived enough to get back on to our wheels on the next steady descent, unlike a couple of other “dead” riders we passed here.
He yo-yoed off the back of our 2-up for the next 10km or so until we were well past the “10km to the finish” sign (I’d forgotten there were countdown markers). Once we were into the city limits he started to take a few turns, hallelujah. Gerd had a little chat to him: turned out he knew the final route back to the Velodrome OK. He was, like me, keen to get under 51 hours and we raced though the streets of St Quentin, jumping amber lights, overtaking buses and getting frustrated by red lights. I could barely look straight ahead now – every time I tried hard I’d go really badly cross-eyed, and a number of times I was only able to judge gaps in the traffic, or the pace of our 3-up, by closing one eye.
We hit the last roundabout and were directed off towards the velodrome. There was a frantic last 2km sprint along the access road – the velodrome just wouldn’t come fast enough – I had no idea how much time we had in hand, I just went as hard as I could. I still lost the wheels in front here, but the other two were only ever 100m ahead. And then one last turn and we were onto the gravel track back to the check-in and across the timing mat! We freewheeled around the corner to the secure bike park, and then I remembered to stop my Garmin. I’d nipped under 51 hours by 5 minutes, official time 50:55:10. (2nd Brit home; Matt Scholes would later roll in in 53:30 to be the 3rd.)
Gerd and I were very happy. In 2011 he’d also been a 58-hour finisher, like me. This time we’d sliced a huge margin off that result, finishing in daylight on Tuesday rather than the middle of the night. It felt like a proper arrivée. Gerd’s supporters were there and took my photo, I remembered to take a selfie, very tired but happy.
Eventually I managed to walk to the velodrome where I could get my final validation stamp, hand in my timing chip and have a bit of a sit down, but not before I bumped into John Barkman again, just as he was leaving with a team-mate. He’d done a fantastic 48:51, fastest UK rider ever (and unsupported)! It turned out that the benign conditions had also produced the fastest modern time for PBP, broken by one rider coming in at 42:26, holding off a strong pack of 16 riders almost an hour behind. (I later found out this rider, Björn Lenhard, was also unsupported – a truly phenomenal performance. His account is here, he had it translated into English and posted on YACF, worth a read!)
After I collected my bike and topped up my bottles with some water I still had enough energy to ride very slowly back to my car, parked about 2km away. It was 8pm and I needed to find a place to stay (originally I was just going to camp out at the velodrome – they had showers and a quiet room there). Back at the car park a guy came up to me to ask me how I’d got on and I explained that I’d been riding day and night for 51 hours. I don’t think he believed me.
I drove back to the motel I’d stayed in three nights before and got a room there. It was nice to have somewhere to shower, and quiet and comfortable to sleep, and while I caught up with the news on my mobile phone I sipped a few beers I’d bought from the garage outside although it wasn’t long before I was fast asleep! Next day I rearranged my Eurotunnel crossing and then had a steady drive home, getting back to the UK before the evening rush hour on the M25. It was raining hard when I turned back into my street, welcome home to Oxford.
Total distance/time: 1232km/50:55:10 (24.2km/h).
Position: 69th/5844 (at the moment, provisional results and stage splits are here: http://axel-koenig.com/results/pbp2015), 2nd Brit home, probably in the top-5 fastest UK riders ever.
Time at controls = 4:20:30 (including a 20-minute nap at Tinteniac on the way back)
Time moving between controls = 46:34:40 (26.5km/h)
Heart rate = average 115, max 168
Average power = 127W
(for reference, my Strava data is here, including heart rate and power. My Garmin 810 was set to record laps at 100km but suffered three “freezes” en route which I managed to reset on the move so the data is compete. I sat-in for the first 100km, saving a lot of energy, and worked hardest in the second and third 100km sections – see the “laps“. There is also an obvious increase in effort in the sections over the Roc Trevezel, both out and back, where I was feeling good, and a bit of extra effort in the last 50km when I knew the finish line was in sight.)
There is a really good photoblog from Jered and Ashley Gruber on Strava Stories here.
For a flavour of the event, just search Flickr for Paris Brest 2015.
Matt Scholes’ excellent photos are here: Flickr. (Matt took a few other photos of me: here, here and here, but this is the one that really captures it for me. His whole photo album in Flickr is worth a look, he’s really good at capturing the whole ride, and on the move too!)
Jenny Oh Hatfield (I don’t know who that is) seems to have logged some good pictures here: Flickr.
And this flickr account seems to have some official photos from the start and finish, a list of albums is here: agglosqy.
Amazingly, no saddle soreness. I wore just one pair of very comfortable bibshorts and regularly re-applied chamois creme which did the trick, plus the odd ibruprofen or two to stave off any aches (I got through six tablets in the final 24 hours). My sit bones were a little bit bruised for the following week, that’s all.
My fingertips went very numb. That’s as much to do with two cold nights’ riding as much as two days in the saddle. Two weeks later they’re still not quite right, but getting there.
Cracked lips. 36 hours after I got back my lips completely cracked up – bloody and sore. Too much exposure, they took a week to heal up. I got some strange looks at work, and eating and drinking was hard for a few days.
Fatigue. I was constantly tired and hungry for a week and it wasn’t until the second weekend following that I felt I’d caught up on lost sleep. However, I found that my ability to push hard on the pedals returned quickly and I seem to be as strong now, 2 weeks later, as I was before.