Paris Brest Paris

Andy Cox, 11/9/2007

Motivation

5 years ago, I graduated from University and found my way into the world of work. Somewhere along the way, my student decadence had caused me to put on weight and become a lot less active than I had been as a teenager. I was at the worst point nudging 15 and a half stone (98kg) and probably not too far away from full-on obesity and related health problems. I started to turn things around in 2004 with the purchase of my Concept2 rowing machine. As the weight came off, I began to get into using the machine in a big way and it provided my main form of exercise for over a year. In the summer of '05 on a whim, I went and tried sea rowing at the local rowing club. After a few tasters, I joined the club and by the September was taking part in my first race, the Thames Great River Race in London.

Over the following winter, I trained as part of a men's squad aiming to take part in the spring '06 Celtic Challenge rowing race from Arklow in the Irish Republic to my home town of Aberystwyth, Wales. On top of on-water rowing and continuing to use the machine, this involved a fair amount of circuit training and running. The one thing I got from this was a good level of base-fitness and a general enjoyment of doing exercise. At the eleventh hour, I was taken ill and had to pull out of the Celtic Challenge, but did go on to have a successful season of rowing. During this time I also dusted off my trusty road bike and did a couple of 10 mile time trials with the local cycling club.

For a while previously I'd been reading ride reports about the mysterious world of Audax riding on the uk.rec.cycling newsgroup and felt a rising urge to have a go. So following the end of the rowing season, in October '06 I joined Audax UK and took part in my first Audax event, a hilly 100km ride around the Brecon Beacons. I found this extremely enjoyable and managed to squeeze in my first 200 and another 100 by the end of that month. Everything from the 200 onwards was new territory as this had been my first ever ride in excess of 100 miles. More generally in Audax I found a way to find many new challenges to test my increasing fitness levels and by now was very much of the mindset that the more exercise I did, then the more I wanted to do.

On 1st November '06, the new Audax season began and realising the training value of Audax rides and in particular 200s, I set out to plan as full a calendar as I could accommodate whilst still continuing to do a lot of rowing. Somewhere along the way, I'd started to hear tales of some of the exploits of riders on the longer 300, 400 and 600km rides and also accounts of the legendary Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) ride which took place at 4 yearly intervals with the next edition due the following year in August '07. My thoughts at this stage didn't get much further than that it might be fun seeing if I could qualify.

Qualification & Training

The first target that I latched onto was the Randonneur Round The Year (RRTY) award which requires riders to complete at least one ride of 200km or greater in each calendar month for 12 consecutive months. This is an excellent way to find the motivation to keep going through the dark winter months. The majority of my early rides were organised by David Lewis on Cardiff Byways CC and involved a 2-3 hour drive ahead of the event start, usually at 7am from Tongwynlais to the north of Cardiff.

On the January ride I was joined by Jasmine, my better half and we rode the relatively flat route to Gloucester and back on our new tandem. This was a 200km qualifier for PBP and so my first tick in a box. After a few more 200s and some non-cycling stuff including trips to the British and Welsh indoor rowing championships (where I did nothing special), I was feeling strong and ready for the next challenge. At the beginning of April I rode Dai Harris' Bynea and Beyond 300km ride starting from Llanelli and travelling north to the southern edge of my home county of Ceredigion before heading West into Pembrokeshire and along the coast to St David's before going South-East back to Llanelli. I had the company of Robert John of Swansea Wheelers, a PBP veteran, for this ride and with good conditions we made it around in a very comfortable 12.5 hours. Another box was ticked for PBP qualification and I now needed to complete 400 and 600km events to qualify.

In early May, it was time to try 400km so together with my friend Andreas, bravely joining me on his second ever Audax, we headed to Chepstow for the Brevet Cymru 400km ride and a 6am start. The route took us North to Hay on Wye before heading West to New Quay via Builth Wells, Llandovery and Tregaron. As far a Tregaron, we were making really good time, but then things got a little lumpier and tiredness began to take its toll. We persevered and after a meal in New Quay turned in land climbing to Llanybydder and then climbing further to Llandovery. We made it this far in the daylight and from here it was time to light up and plod on to Abergavenny, Usk and then for the grand finale a big climb back into Chepstow. We made it back in just over 20 hours, exhausted but having managed to ride the whole way without needing a sleep stop. So another box ticked and just the 600 to go.

At the end of May, I made my way to Chepstow for the Brian Chapman Memorial 600km ride, organised by Mark Rigby. The route for this headed West to Aberystwyth on familiar roads before turning North to Dolgellau the main control for the event where sleeping facilities are provided, then North up to Anglesey via the Llanberis pass (the road past Snowdon) then back to Dolgellau from there heading inland to Newtown and back to Chepstow via Monmouth. I started this ride far to fast trying to sit at the back of the lead group and by the time 100km had elapsed was riding on my own occasionally passing or being passed by other riders. I made it to Aberystwyth by lunchtime on the Saturday and with some quick controlling in Dolgellau was on the return leg from Anglesey by the time it got dark. I was lucky enough to get about 4 hours sleep in the youth hostel before heading onto Newtown. About half way between Newtown and Monmouth, I teamed up with another rider, Andy Hamlyn and we had a pleasant ride to the finish following the Wye as it meanders down stream to Chepstow and finishing in about 36 hours, some 4 hours in hand on the maximum permitted time. So that was it, exhausted as I was I had qualified for PBP and now had to do some soul searching as to whether I wanted to go for it.

A few more 200km rides including some homebrew DIY 200s based around Aberystwyth and in many cases ridden with Jasmine on the tandem and my mind was made up, I was going to go for it as in the words of others I didn't want to spend the next 4 years wishing I had. So a bit of form filling, a note from the doctor and I was committed.

The Bike & Equipment

I picked up a Dolan Audax frame in the January sales and had built this into a bike with a fair few new components and some of the more recent upgrades to my previous faithful steed such as wheels and pedals. For lighting I had chosen a front wheel built around an ultra-efficient SON hub dynamo together with a Solidlight LED front light and a battery driven rear LED light. This is the bike that I had completed all of the longer qualifiers on and it was set up with comfort in mind. After the 600k ride, I'd suffered from a residual numbness in my finger tips and aching wrists, so prior to heading off to France I fitted a taller stem and some new bar tape with gel inserts underneath. I also added a rear luggage rack as I was intending on using panniers to carry stuff around PBP rather than the large saddle bag used in the qualifiers.

Whilst there are several ways to organise the logistics for PBP, I had elected to take the traditional British approach of self-supporting for the ride, so I did not arrange to have bag drops of clean clothes and supplies along the route. I also planned to sleep outdoors as and when the need arose in order to avoid the noisy and over-crowded controls, so together with sufficient tools, tubes, cables, a spare tyre and extra clothing, I also carried an inflatable camping mat, bivi bag and compact pillow.

Getting to Paris

Another traditionally British approach to PBP is to ride to the start of the event. I had planned a route to the start from Aberystwyth taking 3 days and covering just over 200km on each day. On the Thursday before PBP I set off from Aber in quite nasty wet conditions which at that point I thought I'd be leaving behind. My route took me to Builth Wells, Abergavenny, Usk, up the big hill to Chepstow, over the old Severn Bridge, then onto my parents place in Bradford on Avon taking a northerly route on the English side to avoid Bristol and Bath. As I neared Builth, the rain started to ease off so I unzipped my top slightly to cool down. The next thing I knew I had a searing pain from my chest and it turned out a rather nasty wasp sting! So after not a particularly good start I stopped for a bite to eat and had a more successful afternoon as the weather improved. I made it to Bradford on Avon in the last of the daylight and had a good feed and a well-earned sleep.

Day two's route took me from Bradford into Bath and then along the A4 as far as Newbury where I turned South East to Farnham. From there it was a South Westerly route to Portsmouth and the ferry. A bit of a strange route you may note, but I needed to exceed 200km for it to qualify as a proper DIY ride. Leaving Bradford, I decided to leave behind my bib tights, boots and one of my long sleeved tops in favour of cycling sandals and shorts. Here's a picture of me as I left:

Leaving Bradford on Avon
Me leaving Bradford on Avon en route to France. (click on image to enlarge)

The ride as far as Newbury was very pleasant and the weather was a lot more pleasant than the previous day. The roads to Farnham were rather busier and there were a few examples of sterling driving along the way, but I survived and was soon heading on towards Portsmouth. This was OK until my route put me onto the A3 dual carriageway. The light was beginning to fail at this point, so I donned reflective gear and lights and tried to ride as defensively as I could particularly when avoiding fast cars on entrance and exit ramps. Eventually the A3 became the A3(M) and I found myself riding on urban roads in the suburbs of Portsmouth. Once nearing the city proper, I joined a network of cycle paths that I followed first to Southsea for a bite to eat on the prom and then back to the ferry port. At one point I was chased by a hoody-wearing chav who looked like he wanted to mug me, but he soon got tired and dropped off the back much to my relief.

The overnight ferry from Portsmouth to Oistreham delivered me to France bright and early and I was pleasantly surprised to have been able to shower on board before getting my head down for about 5 hours sleep and finding time for a light breakfast before docking. My first surprise of the day was that Oistreham is a fair old trek from Caen where I had elected to start my 3rd and final DIY 200. An hour later I was through Caen and having been uninspired by the paper directions, heading for my next port of call in the town of Orbec navigating using the goto function on my GPS unit. The weather was very pleasant and with a brief stop for sun cream, I was soon rolling into Orbec after making good progress on fairly flat roads. Once again, my paper directions weren't up to much and I used to GPS to pick my way to Dreux, which I knew would be the final stop on PBP when bound for Paris in just under a week's time.

In Dreux, I had a slight drama in that my SPD cleat became detached from my sandal and stuck in the pedal with me looking at the threaded end of the securing bolts. Much to the bemusement of some locals, I sat on the steps of a bank for about 20 minutes de-tensioning the pedal in order to release the cleat. I was soon rolling again and heading for my final control point in Versailles. At this point, the navigation got worst, as the road signs kept pointing me to the N12 route which this near to Paris had long sections on which bikes were prohibited. With a certain amount of trial and error, I steadily progressed towards Versailles, eventually stumbling onto the pre-planned route of my paper directions just as the batteries on the GPS finally threw their hat in. There was one big climb and then I was rolling towards Versailles, ultimately passing the palace just as the daylight faded.

I had a little trouble finding my hotel, the Holiday Inn in Jouey En Josas as it was the one place I'd neglected to set a GPS waypoint to, but with a little luck and a brief conversation with a local I finally rolled into the hotel at about 22:30. I'd just missed the closing time for room service, so after a quick bath collapsed into bed feeling fairly exhausted.

Before The Start

Not realising how long it would take to get to Paris on the Saturday, I'd opted for an early bike check on the Sunday, so had an uncomfortably early start. After a generous breakfast in the hotel, I set off into a wet morning to ride the 7km to the gymnasium in Guyancourt which hosts the start and finish of PBP. There was a thick drizzle in the air and it distracted me into cycling about ½ mile on the wrong side of the road. Luckily a curious look at some painted arrows in the road caused me to realise my mistake before meeting any cars and I quickly crossed to the right hand side. Being slightly tight for time and to avoid a big climb back into Versailles, I resorted to the GPS to find the shortest route to Guyancourt. This ended up taking me through a succession of increasingly muddy and bumpy forest paths, some of which were quite overgrown. I eventually emerged onto a motorway exit slip and managed to pedal back to safety before being spotted by any gendarmes. I rolled into the gymnasium and my mood didn't improve when I discovered that the organisers had suspended the bike check due to the rain and that I needn't have rushed to get there. I gathered my documents, cycling top and free bottle, spoke to a few Brits and was soon heading back to the hotel. I slept for most of the rest of the day, getting up briefly in the evening for a steak dinner in the hotel restaurant before retiring for an early light and more sleep.

The following morning, I had a late breakfast and then having failed to negotiate a late check-out with the hotel had to pack and clear out by midday. I now had 9½ hours to kill before the start, so gently headed for Guyancourt, this time finding the on-road route thanks to a couple of pointers from an American rider at the hotel. I had a gentle ride around the town area hoping to bump into some Brits, but it would appear that most were hiding away on the campsite. Camping before and after the ride was one tradition I had decided to forego since whilst I enjoy doing it, it would have meant less opportunity for quality sleep, which I knew I would be in desperate need of. After a coffee and a cake in Guyancourt, I headed over to the gymnasium and the start area. There wasn't a lot going on at this point in the day, but there was plenty of fast food, so I camped out on one of the grass banks and took on as much food and drink as I comfortably could manage.

At about 19:00, I made my way to the tunnel area and started to queue with the first of the 90 hour starters, hoping to get away as promptly as possible and to get the adventure underway.

The Ride Itself

For safety reasons, the start is broken into groups of about 5-600 riders, each staggered by about 20 minutes. This makes sense given the size of the event and on this occasion about 5300 competitors spread over the 3 possible start times with the majority opting for the 90 hour start on the Monday evening as I had done. Despite some tactical queuing, I just missed out on the first group, but did comfortably make it into the second.

We were soon called forward to the start line and for the first time, I became aware of the promised carnival atmosphere. There were people on stilts, a Breton piper and a really massive crowd of well-wishers lining either side of the start line. After a few cheers and other encouragement, it was soon time to go and at 21:50 we started rolling.

It was a tight group and there were two fallers within the first couple of hundred yards. Luckily I managed to navigate around this and was soon part of a smaller group heading out of Paris on closed roads. There were crowds of locals on bridges, at the sides of the road and lining every junction and many shouts of 'bon route'. After about half an hour, the lead car and motorbikes pulled away and the fast train of cyclists headed out into the night.

All was going well for about 40km, until we came to a crossroads with no route sign. One of the French guys shouted to turn left and off we hammered. After a while, we caught what I'd assumed was the back of group 1 and the train got faster and faster until low and behold we came back to the same crossroads again. It transpires that we had managed to miss a way-marked right turn twice and as a consequence wasted about 25km and best part of an hour. A little back-tracking behind an official car and we were put back on route.

It started to rain and this got progressively heavier as the night went on. The sight of the endless stream of red rear lights snaking away over the hills ahead was something to behold and the view of white lights to the rear was equally impressive. There was a water stop at about 100km, and shortly afterwards I pulled to one side to eat some flapjack this gave me a bit of renewed energy and I was soon back on the road heading for the first official control. This stage in the ride was where you really felt the immensity of the field, with various disparate groups riding anything up to 4 abreast and often crossing onto the left had side to overtake each other. There were occasional cars overtaking and having to do some pretty heroic moves to pass the never ending stream of riders.

At 140km and in the early hours of Tuesday, I rolled into Mortagne au Perche and the first control. I wasted time queuing for hot food in the market place getting to watch an American immediately in front of me get the last of it. Having got cold from stopping, I carried on up the road to the official control and wolfed down a couple of hot dogs and a coffee. This was a refreshment control only on the outbound journey. Whilst the stop for food was welcome, stopping moving had caused me to get quite cold and to notice how wet I was.

Once more into the night and I was OK once the blood got flowing again. The stream of red lights going over the hills miles into the distance was quite surreal. I managed to get through the early hours and associated tiredness quite well until at about 5am, the dozies hit and with the unrelenting rain, I started looking for a dry spot for a brief doze. I eventually found a roofed marketplace in one of the towns en-route, so it was out with my camping mat and bivi bag and I got my head down for an hour, until the first of the daylight and the consequent stirring of locals bought me back to reality. This stop turned out to be a bad move as I was suffering from slight exposure when I awoke and I think this was the closest I came to giving up.

Once I'd packed my sleeping gear and got back on the bike, I began to feel better and a feed stop in a boulangerie a couple of towns further on had me feeling a little better about things. The rain abated slightly and I headed onwards to the first proper control at 220km - Villaines La Juhel. Here I had a rather nice steak and sautéed potatoes (they did these specially when my French let me down and I asked for the wrong thing instead of mash!). After a comfort break and fresh water, I swiped my magnetic card at just before 11am. There were an awful lot of onlookers at this control and I was once again struck by the size of the event.

I found myself getting psychologically stronger from this point onwards, as the biggest single step of the journey was behind me and at every control from this point onwards I gained another stamp on my paper brevet card (the official record of passage on all Audax-typed rides). I got another 50km or so behind me, passing through the first of many official photography points along the way and then stopped in a café for a well-earned 'Café au Lait'. A little later, I stopped at a 'huit à 8' and bought a large quantity of cheap milk chocolate to consume between meals at various points over the next couple of days.

At 310km I rolled into the next control at Fougeres, swiping my card at 3:30pm, and this time seeing how busy it was didn't hang around to eat anything. A relatively short stage to Tinteniac followed, and I started to notice riders flaked out on the side of the road tired-out from 18 hours in the saddle. I had an argument with some French riders about my lack of a casque (helmet), but my French didn't get much further then telling them that I thought they were dangerous and not for me. Luckily I wasn't feeling too tired myself and a stop for two more hot dogs and a large coffee at an unofficial roadside control helped to keep my spirits up. I reached Tinteniac (365km) at 6:45pm and again seeing how busy the control was didn't loiter for long, just stopping for long enough to get more water.

I now wanted to press on to Loudeac, and get the most out of the remaining daylight. I never had a strictly detailed schedule for the ride, but one of my main principles was to make as much use of the daylight as possible and to only ever sleep in the dark, when I feel the effects of tiredness most anyway. For a large part of this stage, I towed a French guy called Arnaud who was too broken to do a lot other than be towed, he was a really nice lad, but didn't speak a lot of English and my rusty French was just about enough to exchange a few pleasantries over what was one of the flatter stages. There were a few die-hard supporters braving the rain to offer free coffee at the roadside, but we pressed on as dusk was beginning to settle around us. Arnaud insisted on buying me a Café au Lait in one of the roadside tabacs about 30km out of Loudeac and I was sorry to lose his company when passing through a large group a while later.

Just before Loudeac, I passed the lead group of Vedettes (the fastest group which have an 80 hour window in which to complete the ride) heading back to Paris having made Brest some time during the preceding afternoon, which was somewhat depressing. It was raining steadily as I rolled into the control (450km) at about 11pm and there were an awful lot of people around as the faster returning 80 hour and medium-slow 90 hour riders had all arrived in the control at the same time. Not feeling hungry, I decided to join the queue for the dormitory feeling like I needed to some quality sleep before going much further. It took about an hour to get through the queue, but I was eventually lead to a mattress and managed to get my head down for 4½ hours, of restless sleep. This was a cold and noisy place to sleep and I'd woken naturally an hour before my booked wake up call. I'd soon climbed back into my wet clothes and was rolling onwards shortly before the official closing time for this control of 5am.

A couple of hours of riding in the darkness followed with more rain, but as the dawn came things seemed a little less bleak. Today was Wednesday and I started to loosely plan the day, deciding that I wanted to get to Brest by 2pm which would put me at 40 hours elapsed time and leave a reasonable buffer for my inevitable slowing down on the return journey. I stopped briefly for a stamp at the first 'secret' control of the ride, but pressed on fairly shortly afterwards. I'd experimented with various combinations of sandals, socks and neoprene overshoes up until this point, but the chafing on my wet feet was not doing me any good and not wanting to get trench foot later on, I decided to just use the sandals bare-footed from here on. I had a breakfast of croissants and pain au chocolat at a roadside boulangerie and then pressed onto Carhaix-Plougher (525km), swiping through this penultimate control to Brest at 9:30am and once again not hanging around to do anything more than fill my bottles with water.

After another 20km I stopped for some flapjack and 20km after that found a pleasant café for a quick Café au Lait. Before long I was grinding up the hill to Roc Trevezél, the only significant climb of the whole ride and notable for some fairly large lorries rocketing past a little too close for comfort. The weather got a lot better here and I changed to my short sleeved top before pressing onto Brest. There was a notable headwind to Brest, but I started to feel stronger, not least due to shedding my long trousers and coat for the first time since Paris. The bridge before Brest was spectacular, but conscious of my target to arrive by 2pm, I didn't stop to take photos and pressed on to the control, including a grind up a fairly lumpy hill in Brest itself. I swiped through the Best control (615km) at 13:52, with 8 minutes in hand on my target, so once more I high-tailed it through the control only stopping long enough for fresh water. So at over half distance, I'd hit a major psychological goal and every km from here put me closer to Paris. I was also on uncharted territory, having exceeded my previous longest-ever ride.

The good weather held for a while after Brest and I pushed hard to make the most of the following wind. The road back to Carhaix was a bit of a roller coaster and I found myself pushing big gears and climbing on the drop handlebars to try and conserve as much momentum as possible. It took just over 4 hours to make it back for my second visit to Carhaix-Plougher (699km) with me swiping through at 6pm. Out of habit more than anything else, I watered-up and made it out of this control ASAP. I wanted to get back to Loudeac today if at all possible, as this would put me roughly two thirds of the way through the ride. It started to rain again on the way out of Carhaix, so after a friendly German cyclist directed me to the shelter of somebody's garage, I donned my still damp wet weather gear once more and carried on with the journey.

About half way back to Loudeac, I stopped at a bakery for a coca cola, some pain au chocolat and some 'pain de compagne' (bread of the locality). This was very filling, but the bread was hard to eat and I saved about a third of it for later consumption. I rode for a while on this section with one of the Cardiff Byways guys who was riding a fixed-wheel machine, I was glad of the company and the time passed quickly. Shortly before Loudeac, there was another heavy deluge of rain and my thoughts of pressing further today evaporated. I swiped into the control (775km) at 10pm and once again joined the dormitory queue which this time was a lot shorter. I managed 3 hours sleep here, but it was once again cold and noisy, so at about 2:30am I got back into my wet clobber and headed off into the night. It was still raining and fairly miserable, but I'd spotted a secret control for returning riders on the outbound leg, so knew that I only had to make it about 40km until my next rest. I made it to this secret control a little before 5am and still feeling tired had a couple of hot chocolates, followed by another 2 hours of sleep on the floor of the hall. This took me through to about 7am and dawn, so I'd managed to keep to the 'only sleep during darkness' rule for a little longer.

So with two thirds of the ride behind me, I set out to the next control at Tinteniac. I was shortly joined by an American rider from Tennessee (I never did catch his name) who apologised for wheel sucking, but was clearly having a worst time of it than I was. It transpired that he had been unable to eat anything for the previous 2 days and I was amazed that he was still going. We stopped at a road-side control where I had coffee and croissants in one of the intermediate towns. Unfortunately the pastry that my American companion tried to eat disagreed with him and he was unable to keep it down. We rode together all of the way to Tinteniac, although I did have to wait in a couple of places to stay together. I swiped through just before 10am with 858km now under my belt. In time honoured fashion, I bounced the control stopping for nothing other than fresh water.

From Tinteniac it was a relatively short run to Fougeres and I again rode with the American chap. After about 10km, he was spent and bid me farewell as he left the route looking for a field to lie down in. I would have liked to have made sure he was alright, but with something like PBP there are times when you just have to press on for the sake of number 1. The run to Fougeres was fairly civilized and I swiped through at 12:20 with 912km under my belt. I stopped for a quick chat with a British chap who I'd talked to on the ferry to France and who was combining a cycle camping holiday with some roadside photography. With my mug shot added to his collection, I pressed on. Things were beginning to dry out at this point and I was in fairly good spirits.

The next leg took me to Villaines La Juhel again. I rode with a number of Brits at different points on this leg and stopped at a couple of roadside controls for free coffee, crepes and cakes. The French locals really are amazing and their enthusiasm for the event is part of what makes it so special. I took the details of one lady to send a postcard for their PBP wall of fame. Riding into Villaines was the best reception to date with a massive number of spectators cheering each new arrival. I swiped in at 5pm, having reached the 1000km mark. Still feeling strong, I decided to press on to Mortagne au Perche where I intended to form my plan for finishing the ride.

It started to rain again during this leg, but I didn't bother to put longs back on, preferring the free movement of my shorts. Good progress was made and by 9pm I'd made it to Mortagne (1082km) and swiped in. I downed a couple of hot dogs, some hot chocolate and took stock of what to do next. I was feeling mentally wide awake and strong and was half of the mind to push on for a dawn finish in Paris, however I'd been really hammering up the various short climbs to Mortagne whilst pulling my weight forward on the drop handlebars. My lower back and knees felt like they needed a rest, so I decided to get my head down and at 9:30 checked into the dormitory with a 5am wake-up call. This technically broke the 'only sleep when it's dark' rule, but only just. All was well until I awoke at about 2am to the sound of a Scandinavian rider snoring loudly in my ear. Awake and with my body feeling better, I decided it was time to press onto Dreux and the final control before Paris.

This was one of my longest rides in the dark of the whole ride, but I managed to stay awake and stopped at a bakery in one of the towns along the way for Croissants and Pain au Chocolat. As I pressed on, there were an awful lot of exhausted bodies sleeping in space blankets at the side of the road. I caught up with a British rider (and again didn't catch his name), but we had a pleasant ride into Dreux (1156km), where I swiped in at just after 5am. This control was relatively quiet, so I had more Croissants and Pain au Chocolat and some hot chocolate, then headed out for the grand finale. Leaving Dreux, the early light of day-break was beginning to show and I then end was very much in sight.

Somewhere during this final leg, I started to get stomach cramps and was feeling slightly unwell. I put this to the back on my mind, and just tried to grind on to Paris on auto-pilot. This worked relatively well, although I lost a lot of time in about the final 15km. The return route to the gymnasium takes riders through an never-ending stream of traffic lights, all of which seem to turn red at the sight of a tired rider. Still, a few cheers from onlookers and I was soon approaching the final roundabout. There was a sizeable crowd of onlookers and Gendarmes stopped the traffic whilst I was marshalled into the gymnasium compound. I quickly parked the bike and headed into the control inside of the gymnasium. Luckily there wasn't much of a queue and I swiped through at 9:49am having covered the full 1225km in a time of 83:59.

The atmosphere at the finish was as much of a carnival as the start, but I was feeling not well, and after a shower went to lie down in the dormitory upstairs. Within an hour, I was being sick repeatedly. I managed to gingerly make it to my hotel in the early afternoon and spent the next day fighting sickness and diarrhoea whilst trying to sleep.

Getting Home

My illness put pay to my plans for 3 x 200km rides to get home, so on Saturday I took the bike to the nearest station to try and secure passage for me plus bike to Caen. This I was told (wrongly) couldn't be done without me disassembling the bike into a box. I therefore resolved to ride as far towards Caen as my empty body could propel me, resorting to taxi travel to complete the journey. Luckily however I was saved this expense when I called into a rural station about 30km West of Paris and found a much more helpful member of staff who sold me a ticket to Caen with 1 change. This was most welcome, as I don't think that my body would have got me much further. From Caen it was a 20km crawl along the dual carriageway to Oistrehem and the ferry.

At the Ferry I ran into some British riders from Derby Mercury Cycling Club and we shared war stories and tea on the way back to Portsmouth. We hit Portsmouth at dawn and after a carefully eaten bacon sandwich and coffee, went our separate ways at Portsmouth railway station. Much to my dismay, after about half an hour of travel, I found myself offloaded in Romsey in favour of someone with a bike reservation. The next train through also had full bike racks, but I managed to convince the conductor to let me squeeze the bike in and made it to Salisbury. I'd had enough at this point, so rather than spend the day hoping for a train with bike facilities got my parents to come and get me.

I rested for a day in Bradford on Avon, and returned to Aberystwyth on bank holiday Monday with my good lady who had turned out to get me in the car.

The Recovery

At the time of writing, some 3 weeks have elapsed since PBP. I've managed to recover most of my sleep debt now, by a combination of early nights and lazy mornings and have been back to eating normally for about a week. Probably mostly due to my illness, I lost 1 stone of body weight whilst in France and weighed in at 11 stone (70kg) on my return home. I've managed to put some weight back on, but am still half a stone lighter than I used to be. My other problem is a residual numbness in my finger tips. I suspect that this will take a few weeks to sort itself out.

What Next?

Well, upon reflection, I've bettered my greatest physical achievements a half dozen times over the last year or so. I think what I'd like to do from here on is to build up to one long ride per year along the lines of PBP.

In 2008, I'd like to try one of a couple of possible 1200km rides in North America. The flagship British event London-Edinburgh-London takes place in 2009 (1400km). I'll find something in 2010 and in 2011 I would very much like to have another go at PBP.

Final Word

Since getting back, I've read a number of tales of woe from other PBP hopefuls who got into difficulty on the road and weren't able to complete it. I consider myself very lucky that I didn't get ill until finishing the ride and am very sympathetic to those who weren't so lucky. Better luck next time!

AC

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