Paris Brest Paris - PBP 2011 - Ride Report

Last night I dreamt I had to sleep for 1230 hours.  I was doing well, managing to go back to sleep if I momentarily woke up.  The rules were clear.  If caught using alarms, time penalties will follow!   Then my alarm clock went off!!

Me at the start - photo by John Spooner
But it is true that the PBP 2011 rider's dossier was full of do's and don'ts, time penalties and disqualification warnings.  I wonder how many were enforced.

I was talking with a rider who went for a fast time and had a support crew.  He was relaying the story of how his daughter in the support vehicle was distraught after a navigation challenge, where they had to use the PBP course for a little while.  "Support vehicles are forbidden on the riders' route.  If not observed, a penalty of 2 hours will be given to the rider."

Two of the Faccombes riding through 'Avenue Support'.
A view like this became the signal of a control nearby.
Riders are to obey the traffic law also, of course.  I did find myself veering towards the other side of the road a couple of times.  The Wednesday night was the hardest for me. Since the previous control, I hadn't been feeling well.  The food hadn't been as agreeable as before.  And Manotea had kindly warned us not to use the tap to fill the water bottles, since the the water was 'decidedly dodgy'.  Still, the thought of dodgy water in my bidon and the smell of country pig manure all night was adding to my nausea.  I was getting delirious with ill feelings and the dozies.  I wanted to be one of the many people taking a nap along the road.  Ray and I did take a rest against a garage door at some stage.  Top tip, said Ray, always rest in a built up area, not out in the open.  And my left shin started to play up also.  Top tip, said Ray, if your injury can heal within three months, carry on cycling.

Getting to Dreux was like coming out of a dark tunnel.  Dreux was great!  A light, airy, spacey gymnasium.  The smell of freshly baked pastry, the coffee was good.  Only 65km to go, with plenty of time and the sun coming out.  We were coming back into civilisation.  I remember a similar feeling when reaching Middleton Tyas on LEL.

The first 1000km went very well.  I was feeling strong.  Didn't find the climbing too hard.  I was loving it, with time to enjoy the road side support and time to take pictures.

The road side support was absolutely wonderful.  There was one particular stall that will stay in my mind.  They had put up a tent as big as the space available could take. It was a big tent, but sparsely used inside.  A 14 year old was running the show and taking everything very seriously.  Every need of a rider was attended to with highest priority, urgency, and even  panic. You would see him, hands in the air, striding across the floor, covering the 'golden triangle' of front bench, coffee urn at the back and food trestle on the side.  It was as if he was drawing the Haus vom Nikolaus with his strides, over and over again:

Haus vom Nikolaus (from wiki)
This was particularly well demonstrated when an unusual request came in, which was for a 5 mm spanner.  Fortunately the french word for spanner didn't need to be found, because 'un cinque' is nothing else but a 5 mm spanner. Here we go, hands in the air, striding across to the fourth corner where two men were drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes.  'Un cinque!!!'.  The two men were quite happy sitting there, observing, clearly not understanding the urgency needed in helping these PBP'ers.  The 14 year old magnified his efforts, by redrawing the Haus vom Nikolaus, now waving his arms like a windmill, the whites of his eyes showing and shouting at the top of his voice 'Jules! Un cinque!!!'.  Hope the chain was mended in the end.  Shame I couldn't stay any longer.

Everywhere, all the time, the road side support was present.  In the middle of the night, in remote areas, in the middle of a roundabout, in hot sunshine, in thunderstorms.  I said 'Merci' as often as I could.  Coming out of a control in the middle of the night, I was again amazed at their commitment of supporting the PBPers.  I was a bit a head of myself this time and said 'Merci' before the usual 'Bon Courage' was heard.  Hope the lamppost appreciated it!

I was curious as to the motivation of the locals to come and support us, giving water, coffee, cake for free or for a token donation.  I got a variety of answers.  The most beautiful one being: 'Mais c'est le Paris Brest!'.

Here are some other answers:
  • to be part of this big event
  • because there is nothing else to do
  • so that the children can use their English
  • because grandma started the tradition
  • because we've done this since 1983
  • to generate business for the cafe across the road
I overheard some interesting conversations!  Like this: Did you see that light? What light? The white light.   On which bike? No, you fool, white light from lighting.  When was that, Sunday?  Oh, eh, about 85 miles and two hours sleep ago. Oh, that must be the day before then, Monday.  Yes, that's right. No, I didn't see it.  Anyway, it's going to rain they say.  What do you mean, it's going to rain.  Look at yourself, you are soaking wet.  He he, yeah, I forgot.  Did you see the red lights?  Oh yes, the ones that went up and down? No, the ones that disappeared.

Maybe it is just me.  Maybe I was in earshot of four conversations, and I just stitched them together like this.

Conversations are good.  You seek them out in the end.  You eye up your prey ... will they talk? I found conversations harder to come buy than on LEL.  Surprising really since there are so many more riders on PBP.  I put it down to not seeing the same people as often as on LEL where you get to know the riders around you.  You just say a hello, see if they bite. Then 'ca va?', 'ok?', 'alles goed?'.  I usually like a quick chat, get to the point.  But not on PBP, I didn't mind if they got to the point via Biarritz or Brazil.  But I was always surprised when riders did not even return a hello.

Arabella and Marc called me down: 'Come and talk to us!'.  Can't remember what we talked about, but we linked up again later on, and stuck together for longer.  It was cozy.  Arabella's voice was soothing and she would start a gentle song when all went quiet.  They pulled me through a bad patch.  In fact, the Willesden team pulled me through all my bad patches.  It is amazing, how seeing familiar faces can lift your spirits so much.  Arabella and Marc had already helped me fix my dynamo fitting (the only mechanical I had).  It is a simple task enough, but having somebody hand you pre-cut tape, made me feel like a top notch surgeon in action.

I was in Ray's good company for much of the time.   We had a candle lit dinner for two, without the candles.  We had a three course meal without the desert.  We had a quiz without questions and certainly no answers.  And the top tips kept coming, such as never put anything down.  Always put it in something or on you.  This advice came after meeting Charlie for the second time.  He'd slept in the forest and left his camera behind.  However!  He went back to the spot after finishing PBP and found his camera still there.

Ray, le roi du PBP
When I was rained on for the second time, I got worried.  I was worried about getting cold at night.  I had to have something dry.  So I started my mobile drying launderette.  I had overshoes on the handlebars, gloves on my saddlebag, and a shirt tied around my waist.  So when it rained for the third time, I had dry gear to get wet again.  Perfect!  I didn't get cold, the nights were very  mild.  I even progressed to a stationary drying launderette when I had my tramp moment.  I put my dry clothes on for sleeping comfort and put my wet clothes on over the top, thinking that the heat of my body would dry out the outer layers.  This worked.  I was so impressed with this system I decided to do the same with my shorts when back on the road.  I overheated so badly, so quickly, that I had to stop and strip everything off again, including knee warmers.  I must have put them down somewhere, which we now know is a bad move.  Shame.  I had brought them along in the hope to meet Peter from Austria again.  He had lent me the knee warmers during LEL and I wanted to return them.  Ray was sorry also, because he found me easy to spot in a peleton: nobody else wears knee warmers like that.  Thank you Ray!

My eyes glaze over when people ask what my average speed was.  That is so not the point.  Compare that with people who take three days off work, spend time and money to be at the finish and shout: 'Els!  You did it!'.  That is what four friends did for me.  It was absolutely amazing.  I did think I was dreaming or back in Hanwell for a moment. They had created their own mini-PBP cycling tour and they had gone to extraordinary efforts to keep this a secret.  I had been so proud of my computer savvy, and now apparently security concious, mum, when she had asked how to delete caches and cookies off her iPad.  But it was only so as to prevent me coming across anything related to the PBP surprise.  It was particularly nice that Frank was around at that time, because he knows two of the friends, from his local cycling club.

Me and Frank - Frank having finished the day before!

Surprise: Rob, me, Fast Eddie and Bar Dave, Mandy taking picture
The tweets from friends, family and martinbrice were wonderful.  They can be a real pick-me-up.  I could always rely on the support from friends and family, but the unexpected support from the Fridays got me into my Tuesday Blues for sure.  Martinbrice's tweets started to work as a 'tweet digest'. He summarised what was going on in one of the CycleChat threads, which moved me to tears on reading it when back home.  Here is the link: Friday Night Ride to Paris-Brest-Paris.   It also gave me a fright when somebody wrote I had missed a control!

I had 12 hours sleep on the Thursday night, post PBP.  Woke up with a swollen face and double vision.  I found that if I held my head at a 3 dimensional 3 degrees, my eyes aligned enough to gain focus.  Louise and I exchanged emails and we were both taking ages getting our eyes into position.  Louise looked like she was inspecting the inside of her fringe from left to right and back again.

Thank you to Louise for the muscle rub.  My left leg had also swollen up considerably, despite the tape already provided by Liam.  The drive back to Belgium was OK when on the motorway, but in the road work traffic jams around Lille I stalled the car multiple times.  This is something I did not think about at all: what if I am not in a state to drive the car back home?  So my top tip would be to have at least one other person to share car driving duties with, or take public transport.

Other things I would do differently:
  • stamp, say hello and go
  • never worry about running out of water - road side support everywhere
  • eat outside of controls - better and more varied
  • just be aware of the most remote areas and stock up for those
  • sacrifice some speed for own lightweight sleeping mat and bag - had much better and longer sleep as tramp than I did in controls, or book a couple of hotels on the way
I'm still coming down from the experience, one week later.  My family did their utmost to make my 'coming back into reality' as easy as possible.  I fear it might have had the opposite effect, I was spoilt! We had a Paris Brest with champagne.  We talked PBP, then I slept.  Mum prepared steak and chips, with mayonnaise.  We talked PBP, then I slept.  We went out for a celebratory dinner.  We talked PBP, then I slept.  We had koffie koeken for breakfast.  Then it was time to leave for England.

Le Paris Brest, from Mr Durand's in Maison-Lafitte.
There were times when I looked at PBP from the sky.  I could see a trail of red lights making its way to Brest, then curl around and trace back to Paris.  I started to think of PBP as a social organism that appears in full flight every four years. The reflector V shape on the PBP vests were conspicuous when worn by a group of riders, gliding by in the dark, as if a swarm of moths.  The 'Reflector Backed Constant Red', is what I started calling PBP.   The volunteers had part in this too, they are like the house bees in a honeybee colony.  They welcome you in, they have all the information, they have the directions to food, to water, to sleep, to showers, to Brest, to Paris.  The sense is altruistic, the purpose is for everybody to make it to Brest and back to Paris.  And why?  Parce que c'est le Paris Brest!

Other memory triggers:
  • Setting off with the Faccombes (Chillmoister, keeks and LEE), my soul mates for much of the PBP journey
  • Water towers signify a climb and a descend
  • Feeling like a racing  pigeon with chip band on my ankle (maybe not racing!)
  • It is all about getting to the next control, and when you get to the next control it is all about getting back on the bike
  • Seeing somebody cycle into a ditch across the other side of the road
  • Chatting with 6500, the 'flower' women.
  • Chatting with the American on fixed
  • Getting into the habit of shouting 'Brest', when leaving controls, to make sure you're sent the right way.  The marshals ask also: Paris? Brest?.  It was quite a moment, when at Brest, for the first time, with no other option, and without real need, I said 'Paris'! 
  • Big thank you to Jan Geerts for organising accommodation and meals, and for the company
  • Etienne asked me if I would do PBP again. I hesitated.  'That is a good sign', he said.
  • How quickly things can turn, you feel good and strong for 3 days, but not being able to eat and a wear and tear injury can make things tough within a couple of hours.
  • Ray ordering me to stop! To mark another milestone of 1200km.
  • Why is PBP an additional 30 km?  A few miles could be cut out getting into Brest, no?
  • Big big thank you to the Willesden crew!!
  • Missing George Swain and Erwin
  • I had been looking forward to the Haus vom Nikolaus on the way back, but trade was absorbed by a more westerly tent.  The 14 year old was sitting, legs crossed, arms folded, pondering how he can ever win the return leg business.  I'll do PBP 2015 just for this tent, if only I could remember its location!
Photos are on the slideshow .... forever?  Because we now have the answer to what cycling life is like after LEL.  It means doing PBP! Just in case ... PBP Photos

Other write ups and photo links:
Rapha: note the last photo! PBP 2011 Four Journeys
Dylan: Dylan PBP
Feline's ride report: Feline PBP
Smileboxes - these capture the mood brilliantly - thanks to my sister Kris
  Preparing for PBP
  Home welcome
  Celebratory dinner
YACF photo thread: PBP 2011 photos
YACF ride report thread: PBP 2011 ride reports


  1. Door je tweets en wat je vertelde wisten we al veel over PBP, maar je verslag en de foto's over jouw ervaringen en dat van andere deelnemers is de kers op de taart.
    We zullen nog dikwijls je blog herlezen en je foto's herbekijken...
    Bravo voor je prestatie en voor het super verslag.
    Nu goed je left shin verzorgen hé!!!
    Meim en Peip
    xxx xxx

    Meim en Peip xxx xxx

  2. I think there's no hope for you now if you come up with sentences such as 'The first 1000km went very well.'

    Well done Els.

  3. JS: I have a long way to go before I'll say 'I only warm up after a 1000'!

    Thanks for comment J.

  4. Such a surprise to see you in Reigate! Didn't have time for the grey cells to register a Well Done!

    Am in simple awe of your photographic prowess. But having to do 1230km just to create just one amazing slideshow is surely a dedication too far. Trust the shin is getting better. See you soon.


  5. Unbelievable what a distance of 1230kms between two towns can do to cycling people who dedicate a whole lifestyle to accomplish such event in 4 days once in 4 years.It must be feeling like wanting to built Rome in 4 weeks or getting over the Alpes with elephants in 2 weeks!!
    And they weren 't mad either! So it's all about a battle between human abilty and competence against nature,concering fears, darkness, cold, and rain...( not to win the battle but to survive on a bike just for FUN!)
    I am pleased your first 1000 kms were FUN, the last 230 were fun too but you were too tired to remember!Pleased your eyes are rolling okay :)again and the shin is back to normal too.Next PBP, I'll join you.Trainng starts in 2013? Kris xxx

  6. What a great race, wish I was there to support you guys.. Congrats!

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