Author Topic: Paris Brest Paris 1999

Damon Peacock

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Paris Brest Paris 1999
« on: July 16, 2008 »
I’m reading a book called ‘The Discovery of France’ by Graham Robb. He makes a  number of interesting points. For instance the original Tour de France was the circuit made by the apprentices and journeymen of the various craft guilds as they honed their skills as bakers or stonemasons. He also details the mapping of France started by Cassini under Louis XV and carried on by his descendants. The virtue of Mr. Robbs’s book is that he is familiar with the terrain of the ‘Pays’ of France having made a number of cycle tours over many years. He sympathises with the travails of the surveyors as they erect their triangulation points across the unmeasured land to establish the baseline for their cartography. This struck a chord with me as I have been wondering recently what impact my wanderings have made upon the maps of my mind.

My first organised cycle rides were charity mass participation events, I remember doing the London Cambridge in the 1980s. I then did some very informal time-trialling around Harefield on the very edges of London. Moving back to Lancashire, I got a bit more serious about riding against the clock, doing 10 mile, 25 mile, 50 mile. 100 mile and 12 hour time trials. These rides tell you very little about the areas you ride through and a lot about your own strength, resolve and condition. What they told me was that I wasn’t any good, but that being fit made me feel better.

Training for long time trials consists of riding a long way as quickly as possible, there are people who can do this on their own, talk to them and you soon find that there are reasons why they are content with their own company. Most people respond best to a little structure and the littlest structure you can find is probably Audax. A date is set for a pre-determined ride of  from as little as 30 miles to over 750 miles. You turn up at a village hall, sometimes before dawn, and then follow a routesheet  between checkpoints to prove you’ve been round the course. Do enough of these and you will build up a baseline map in your mind of most of Britain and a very particular part of Western France.

Paris-Brest-Paris is the peak of this style of Audax riding known as ‘Randonee’, a 750 mile ride through Normandy and Brittany. When you first ride an ‘Audax’ there is a sense in which a distant mountain range appears on the horizon, you remark to a fellow rider that 200km is a long way to ride in a day and reference is made to having  to ride almost twice as far, every day for nearly 4 days. You don’t really take this in as you have no mental landscape in which to orientate this new vision of  applied wanderlust.

As you progress in hardening your mind and body to enable you to ride 300km 400km and 600km a web of incidents builds up like a sort of cycle borne Cleudo ‘Riding towards Bridlington, with John Radford, in a Hailstorm’ or ‘Into a headwind, under the banks of the Trent with Ian Hennessey’. If you are strong enough, young enough and tough enough, these vignettes mean little, you can power your way through 750 rainy and windy miles without much thought. But get a bit older, have a few setbacks and you find yourself drawing on your own inner world of pain, elation, hope, despair, resignation and Ibuprofen.

I used to be blessed, or was I cursed, with almost total recall, with memories as detailed as a GPS readout, with pictures, in three dimensions, but they tell a poor sort of story. Best to let time, the fourth dimension, do some editing, let those memories compete, let the strong ones drive out the weak and then look back to see if it meant anything.

The journey is a common motif in writing, from the Canterbury Tales to the works of  Michael Palin, travel provides a framework which we can cover in tales of our glory. In cycling the great narrative thread of the Tour de France, snaking its way across thousands of miles of road, is constructed purely to be written about. Those great acts of endurance were procured by the newspaper ‘L Equipe,’ as a kind of heroism to order. The Tour is almost a freak show to most observers, they can’t comprehend more than 100 miles in a day on a bicycle, it’s worthy of distant admiration, but we are unlikely to know anyone capable of such an act. So when you appear in the pub to tell your mates of your first 200km i.e. 125 miles ride, they find it hard to believe, you’ve probably got a photocopied page of a road atlas, which you used as a navigational backup with the route outlined in red felt pen, you put that on the table, and for a moment you’re Eddy Merckx or Lance Armstrong. What next they ask? If the journey is a metaphor for life, then you are now at a crossroads. You can do another 200km in less time in imitation of the heroes of the Tour, or you can let slip that there are longer rides, 300s 400s and the like. It’s a pivotal moment, take the former path and you are like a Hamster in a wheel, condemned to hours in a cold garage strapped to a turbo trainer, opt for the latter and you are trapped on an escalator which leads to one goal. Paris Brest Paris.

The steps which lead to Paris are very simple. You have to ride qualifying distances of 200km 300km 400km and 600km before the end of June in order to ride the 1,200km of PBP as it is known, held at the time of the full moon closest to the end of August in a four year cycle which notionally stretches back to 1891. Back then the bicycle was an infant, and a journalist, Pierre Giffard, organised  PBP as an open event, without time limits, to show what that infant might become. His success was observed by one Henri Desgranges who organised a second, more competitive PBP in 1901. It was felt that no professional cyclist would train for such a long event more than once in his career, so ten years would be a decent interval. The railway and the telegraph enabled Desranges’ paper ‘L’Auto Velo’ to cover the event as it unwound, like a Cricket Test Match on wheels. One of the stranger aspects of the PBP to this day, is reading reports in newspapers covering something you are still struggling to complete. Desgranges saw the power in this and invented a serial version, in daily instalments, so that a cast of heroes and villains could be followed on a Tour of France, instigated in 1903. PBP continued to be run and from 1931 a section was organised for amateurs by the ‘Audax Club Parisien’, the current organisers of what is now a completely amateur event.

PBP, then, is a ride concocted to be written about, to capture the imagination and to amaze with the sheer audacity required to present yourself at the start, stating your bold intentions and staring down the possibility of failure. Google ‘Paris Brest Paris’ and the results peter out after 57 pages. It’s all too easy to imagine yourself on the starting line with those wise words from the web whispering in your ear, guiding your legs towards the undiscovered land of the return journey. You may have noticed that the longest qualifier is only half of the story that you hope to tell. Today I can sit at my screen and call up words, pictures and videos from around the globe, in 1999 I was guided by a few articles in a club magazine called ‘Arrivee’, and so was my partner Heather, the spirit of derring-do had seeped into our household and spread like an infection. There were now two of us set on the ‘Road to Paris’, at least there’d be two of us sharing the expenses, but what might be the other costs?

‘It’s about time’. A useful phrase, succinct, to the point, pithy you might say. You can use it as answer to any number of questions. ‘Why are you riding so fast?’ ‘Why don’t you just lie down and sleep?’ ‘Why are you bolting down that meal,? ‘Why are you out in this snowstorm /hailstorm / pavement cracking heat ?’ Or you can employ it as an expression of relief at a control after 100 miles into a wall of wind. Add a note of exasperation and it serves to sum up the feelings of a relative, friend or significant other, when you finally appear at the end of a ride and normal life can resume.

There’s a metronome in your legs, a clock in your heart and a calendar in your head as you qualify for PBP. The timetable it imposes takes familiar rides and dumps them up to a month earlier in the year. In Provence, Andalucia and the Italian Riviera this is fine, but in Manchester, London and Edinburgh, it is all cold hands, sweat condensing on the inside of a waterproof jacket, frozen starts, dark finishes and the clammy feel of neoprene overshoes. March is often a fairly dry month in England, I recall March 1999 in fair detail because I was doing some memorable work, real life had intruded with a bump on my preparations, that work had benefits and costs, I’ll tell you about it, but first I have a confession to make.

My name is Damon and I’m a deadline junkie. For some people a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. I’m only too happy to take that step, but I want a contract in my hand with a finish date, clear specifications and an indication of what the involvement of other parties might be, preferably none. I’d been contacted in mid-January, could I look at a motorway plantation thinning job between Shap and Carlisle, we’ll send you the milepost numbers, take a look at the job and give us a price.

A week later, Steve and I were making a start, 100 miles from home. Over the next 10 weeks I was nursing a wood chipper with a weeping head gasket, maintaining 4 chainsaws, employing up to 10 workers, organising the closure of lane one of the M6 and visiting the casualty department of Carlisle General Hospital (Just a nick, didn’t even need stitches), In the evening I’d take the chipper blades to be sharpened at our local 24 hour tool grinding service, (engineering is a mainstay of the local economy). Every morning I’d wake early with my pillows soaked in sweat after another restless night.

In the middle of all this we squeezed in our first qualifier, I limped round the Chirk 200 in a most unimpressive time. My work needs a fair amount of strength but little aerobic fitness, my condition was ebbing away and the only thing keeping me going was two hours a week of gym-based circuit training. Heather was doing alright, she was still slower than me, but faster than the previous year.

By the end of March we were celebrating in  the bar of the Pooley Bridge Inn at the head of Ullswater in the Lake District, we’d finished on time and I was in just the right frame of mind, time-focussed and mentally prepared to tough it out to the end. I was also the least fit I had been at the beginning of April for four years, so obviously we went skiing.

Damon Peacock

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Appendix 1 (Abstract)
« Reply #1 on: July 21, 2008 »
Qualifying event performance for Paris Brest Paris. Analysis and Enhancement.

Fig 1. Speed profile.
The Subject started from Dalmeny at 6am, for the first 21 km the subject averaged 25.2 kph, subsequent stages were covered as follows.
2. 24.7 kph
3. 21.32 kph
4. 20.74 kph
5. 19.07 kph
6. 24.39 kph
7. 7.76 kph
8. 14 kph
9. 17.24 kph

The average speed for the entire 600 km was 17.5 kph. The event was the Daylight and was a PBP qualifier. The uneven distribution of speed outcomes can be explained by a number of factors. Headwinds, metres of ascent, breaks for feeding and sleep all contributed to the lumpy speed profile. The proportionate dimunition of the speed for each stage was also dependent on the actual stage length, which varied between 21 km and 98 km. Other factors monitored were heart rate and nutrition, the spike at stage 6 can be tentatively linked to consumption of a Ginsters Pasty, 2.5 litres of Coca Cola, a jumbo size Mars bar, a portion of chips, a beefburger, and 5 Nutri Grain bars in this period, the lack of a control group limits the certainty of this hypothesis.
The target minimum mean accumulated velocity was 15kph. The presence of outcomes below the target velocity dictated periods spent at a pace largely above the target mean. Empirical factors pointed to a strategy of sustained effort in favourable conditions supported by strategic hyper-alimentation and hyper-caffeination. Psychiatric and Psychological contra-indications were largely absent, attrition of primary motivation by adverse environmental factors being less than anticipated.

The subject’s expressed preference for Paris Brest Paris was for an outcome within the zone of 75 to 85 hours, with an intermediate degree of cultural immersion. This outcome was 95% likely from current performance, but appreciation of local architectural forms might need to be sacrificed. Opportunities to inspect the built environment could be enhanced by a structured pre-event training plan.
Fig. 2. Training Targets.
10 miles at 25mph. Average Heart Rate 165 bpm.
25 miles at 23mph. Average Heart Rate 155 bpm.
360 miles at 15mph. Average Heart Rate 125 bpm.

It was noted that the subject had not been exposed to the potentially high temperatures of the PBP. Opportunities for exercise in 30 Degree plus temperatures should be sought.

The subject expressed a preference for axiomatic prescriptions. These were provided as follows.
1.   Make hay while the sun shines.
2.   Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.
3.   The early bird catches the worm.
4.   There’s nowt so queer as folk.
5.    I could stretch a mile, if it weren’t for coming back.
Select Bibliography.
Lots of really densely written books, which are unfortunately out of print, not in a library and are only fleetingly mentioned on obscure websites.

Damon Peacock

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« Reply #2 on: July 22, 2008 »
In preparing for PBP there is a puzzling gap between the qualifiers which must be completed by the end of June, and the event which is held towards the end of August.  There are almost two months to fret about your condition and preparedness. We decided to bridge this gap in a fun and varied way. We’d spend July preparing to ride the Mersey Roads 24 Hour time trial. At the beginning of August we would ride a 300 km. Audax starting at 2am. From there we would go straight to France to observe the total eclipse of the Sun. We’d do a few rides in France, so that Heather could get to grips with the language, shops and snack foods, then we’d come home, do some gentle rides and then return to France for PBP. I would finish PBP in about 75 hours, then sleep prior to Heather’s arrival at around 89 hours and then drive to a music festival in Presteigne in Mid Wales where she would be  singing in a choir. What could possibly go wrong?

July 1999 was hot. One Saturday we rode to Kendal and back, after 30 miles, Heather was in trouble with heat exhaustion, we countered this by hanging around the freezer cabinets in Booths supermarket in Carnforth and rummaging through the frozen vegetables.

The day of the 24 hour time trial dawn brightly, very brightly, at the start time of 2 pm, the temperature was 32 degrees Centigrade, we were doubly flustered as a delay on the M56 had given us little time to sign in and organise ourselves. I set off at an average of 20 mph, riding at a cadence of 95 rpm, I quickly drank my two 750 ml bottles, I expected to refill them at about 50 miles, which I duly did, I also drank the orange cordial handed up by helpers. At about 65 miles I stood up to breast a small rise without changing down and every muscle in both of my legs cramped simultaneously. I didn’t fall off, but it was a close thing, I limped to a garage cum shop, where I filled my bottles with water, bought a pound of salt in an orange plastic container with a white top, added about two tablespoonfuls of salt to one bottle, wet my hat, filled both my shoes with water, tipped 750 ml of water over my shirt, refilled my bottle, put the salt in my middle pocket and continued on my way. The feed station and the chance to pick up night clothes, came at 120 miles, by which time it was 9pm and it was cooling down. I picked up the pace a bit and did 196 miles in the first 12 hours. I had trouble with my lights in the night and that slowed me. I was immensely relieved to finish with a distance of 343miles. Little was said about my performance at the club night on the Monday after the event. Heather was congratulated on her 287.94 miles at her first attempt, if she could perform at the same level it implied that she would be able to reach Brest in about 36 hours with about 3 hours leeway for sleep, tight but doable.

The weather turned in August, as it usually does, and I fought my way up to Penrith on the Lakes 300 from Southport. The disappointing 24 had left me with strong legs and I was able to force my way through the headwind over Shap, but I was on the drops for almost 90 miles and six hours without a break. The ride back was a pleasure, the tailwind blew us past Ullswater, over Kirkstone Pass, past Windermere, down the Lyth Valley and on to Southport. I did the ride in good time and rode back the 20 miles home rather than wait for Heather. I was tired, but I also felt a little uncomfortable on the saddle.

The following day we set off for Newhaven, left the car there, and caught the SeaCat to Dieppe for the eclipse. I had felt a bit hot in the car and put it down to fatigue. On the SeaCat I rapidly became delirious as Heather tried to track down details of a campsite on the other side. On arrival in Dieppe it became clear that I had blood poisoning from a rapidly developing saddle boil. We left the ferry terminal and erected the tent on the first patch of turf we saw, a triangle of grass next to the road. An hour and a half  later a family from the ferry returned and asked if they could share our pitch, we had made the right call.
In the morning I could ride my bike by balancing on my left buttock after lowering the saddle slightly. We visited a pharmacy in Dieppe, but my vocabulary was inadequate for the task, so I started on 200mg of Ibuprofen every 4 hours and we headed 30km south to the line of totality at Neufchatel-en-Bray. Encouragingly, we met a German who had shifted to Normandy from Champagne as the forecast was better, then we squeezed onto the campsite which the staff insisted was full. I was in considerable discomfort, but this was a once in a lifetime experience, I bit my lip as Heather suggested we recce the adjacent hill for a good viewpoint. . We then had an early dinner to avoid the rush and I retired early with a bottle of red.

Eclipse day dawned cloudy, we rode to our recce’d viewpoint and found a crowd of about 300, it was still cloudy and there was a tense atmosphere. With a minute to go, the clouds parted and the Moon approached the Sun. Boisterous teenagers fell quiet, it grew darker, birds fell quiet, night seemed to fall, and camera flashes pinpointed the ridge 10 kilometres away. The disc of the Sun became a fiery ring and then suddenly dawn came, cocks crowed in the valley below, birds sang again and a single champagne cork popped. 300 French faces turned towards us with ‘Why didn’t we think of that?’ written all over them.
There where mylar lenses in the glasses on the examination couch in the hospital in Neufchatel, the Eclipse had deprived the staff of patients, so I walked straight in. The nurse spoke only French, but had a reassuring manner and I exposed my genital region to her with a confidence born of pain. The Doctor’s English was good and I soon learned that a boil was a Fouroncle, that it was a typical cycling injury and was known colloquially as a ‘third testicle’, the pain I felt arose from the compressed mass of bacteria which formed the lump and that it had also caused the elevated temperature and mild delerium I had felt. I told him about the Ibuprofen, and he complimented me on the strength of my stomach. He prescribed a powerful anti-biotic which he said would act on the bacteria, I asked him when I would be able to lance the boil, four or five days was the reply, maybe more.

Heather was philosophical as we hired a car to tour the line of totality. We visited Beauvais, Compiegne, Laon, Reims and the caves of the Mercier Champagne house in Epernay. When we should have been topping up our fitness, we were reduced to the role of tourists 20 years our senior. At some point my boil would burst and I might be able to ride my bike, in anticipation of the burst I had to buy some panty-liners, this could get messy. My sanitary protection made me feel secure as I quizzed the guide about the concrete beams in the roof structure of Reims Cathedral, installed after shelling in the First World War had destroyed the wooden originals. But in the back of my mind was the thought that PBP was only two weeks away and that matters were coming to a head.

Damon Peacock

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Over the Top!
« Reply #3 on: July 23, 2008 »
My maternal grandmother was born in Accrington in the early1900s. During the First World War, ‘Pals Regiments’ were raised in many towns, so that friends could serve together. The Accrington Pals became the 11th Battalion of the East Lancashire Regiment. On 1st July 1916, 700 of the Pals were involved in the attack on the village of Serre, on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 235 were killed and 350 were wounded. Rumours that only six men had survived reached Accrington, there was a riot and the Town Hall was besieged. Like many women from Accrington my grandmother married fairly late as there was a shortage of men in her home town and she met my Grandfather when she moved away to work during the depression of the 1930s. My Mother somehow absorbed the fear of what can happen if you get swept up in too much martial fervour, she was happy that I had flat feet, those feet would stop the state whisking me away to war and I was never encouraged to join paramilitary organisations such as the scouts, even though Dad was more of a ‘joiner’ (He is actually a time served joiner.) with happy memories of camping trips with the scouts and North Lancs Clarion Cycling Club.  All this ‘back story’ explains my anarchistic streak and ambivalence to any form of structured activity.
It came as something of a surprise to me that I had drifted into Paris Brest Paris, it required me to be subject to scrutiny throughout the qualification  events and to a medical examination. I would soon be issued with something that looked suspiciously like a cross between identity papers and an Army paybook. At any moment  I expected to betray myself, like Gordon Jackson in ‘The Great Escape’ (something for the younger generation to Google), I’d say or do something which would so appal my freethinking alter ego, that I would collapse in helpless laughter at my earnestness, seek a roadside café and watch the passing parade with a beer in my hand. The only thing stopping me was my integrity as a contractor, once my moniker was on the dotted line, I just kept going till the end, come rain, come shine, Audaxes were an extension of that, a manifestation of the contractors ethos and a way of maintaining the condition and focus needed to take on projects with compressed deadlines. The fact that Heather was doing the same events, filling in all the entry forms and sending them off, having put them under my nose for signing may also have had a bearing.

PBP is run like a military operation, it has been used as an opportunity for Civil Defense organisations to get  some practice in treating waves of bewildered refugees, so the Gymnase des Droits de L’Homme in St Quentine-en-Yveslines on the edge of Paris looked like some sort of recruitment centre. Firstly we subjected our mounts to an inspection, along with our uniform of  high visibility jackets which were marked with a secret sign.

We then proceeded to pick up our papers armed with the passes for our now approved bicycles. We exchanged those papers and our confirmation of entry for our Brevet Card, a 12 page booklet, issued ‘under the patronage of Madame the Minister for Youth and Sport’ with room for my blood group, state of tetanus injection, allergies to medicines, current medical treatment and next of kin. We got a frameplate with a number for the bike and a sticker to affix to ourselves or the bike to identify us in photographs, no dog tags though.

Another queue formed for the shirts, uniform would not be compulsory, many chose to wear club shirts as a link with their Pals and to show their personal allegiance. I took one look at my PBP shirt’ (ludicrously oversized in 1999), the well ventilated material, the long body length and huge pockets and decided that this was the shirt for me. There were guards on the gates to the gym as we left at 11am on the Sunday morning. We were due to start at 9pm on the Monday, we rode to the hotel, dumped our stuff and set off for Paris, we inspected the giant Arch at La Defense, walked in the Tuilleries and dined in a Chinese Restaurant on the Rive Gauche. Heather felt tired after our outing, but what else was there to do. We slept as long as we could  in the morning, but the excitement made this difficult.

I occupied myself sewing up the sides of my shirt for a more figure hugging look and trying to fettle my bike without sabotaging it. I took it for a spin and decided that I would raise the handlebars to the maximum to improve comfort. I also had to decide which saddle to use. I had the saddle which had helped cause the ‘third testicle’ and one of Heather’s old ladies specific saddles, I was torn, so torn that I fitted Heather’s saddle and tied the other one to my saddlebag as a spare and talisman. I tested the saddle and noticed a creaking from the bottom bracket. The danger of the empty Monday on PBP is that you find things to occupy the time and worrying about kit is the number one favourite activity. I went to a bike shop to ask for an opinion and found it under siege from cycling’s legion of the ‘worried well’. The proprietor knew that he would never cure all the imaginary problems and was sensibly concentrating on selling lights, batteries and inner tubes.

At 6pm, we the condemned, rode into St Quentin for our hearty pre-paid meal. This was the prototype for our meals over the next few days, I did it justice. From there we went to queue to enter a holding area with inadequate facilities for 2,500 over-hydrated cyclists of both sexes. We inched forward to a gate in the boundary fence, then through a little tent, where our documents were checked and stamped with the time and out onto the road in a group of 500 riders. We were surrounded by relatives of the other riders and by well-wishers, there was music as we formed up into battle order, I gave Heather a kiss and we wished each other luck, we would soon be parted, a flare went up, illuminating the waiting troops, a moment later we went over the top, who would return in triumph and who would fall exhausted by the wayside? The next 90 hours would tell.

Damon Peacock

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Rouleurs against the world!
« Reply #4 on: July 24, 2008 »
A Rouleur is a type of cyclist who rarely attracts attention, they don’t have the explosive power of the sprinter, they don’t shine on the climbs and they are rarely the leaders of teams in the Tour de France. They are usually the servants of the flashier riders. They are generally the biggest riders on the team and what they do is seen as boring and menial. They shelter smaller riders against the wind and they fetch bottles from the team car. Occasionally they are let off the leash on the stages between the Pyrenees and the Alps, a sprinter usually tags along, works little and wins. Very occasionally, a Rouleur gets away and is remembered forever, like Eros Poli over the Ventoux.

In the early 1990s the Italian sprinter  Mario Cipolllini employed some of the greatest rouleurs to form a sort of praetorian guard who would sit on the front of the peloton and pull their sprinter along at more than 60 kph for the last 20 km of a race, they would shepherd Mario to within sprinting distance of the line and he’d shoot out and win. Initially the sponsors were the Italian supermarket Mercatone Uno, but when Saeco, a coffee machine manufacturer, took over, the ‘Red Train’was born.

My favourites were Poli and Fagnini, men the same height as me and nearly the same weight. Poli moved to Credit Agricole where he performed the lead out role for Frederic Moncassin, aided by another behemoth of cycling in the form of Magnus Backstedt. I’d watched my Rouleur heroes for years on the Tour de France, and occasionally, on an Audax, I would try to imitate their efforts in the company of other big lads, but Audaxes tend to be quite hilly and that usually breaks the group up, as I don’t climb at all. But in my fantasies I could see myself in a group of five or six taking turns to drive forward at speeds of over 25 mph.

Paris Brest Paris was finally on the road, for the first 25 kilometres a car controls the pace of the group and motorcycle outriders close the road junctions ahead of the groups, these groups consist of 500 riders and leave at 15 minute intervals, there are crowds cheering from the side of the road, accordion players lurk in village squares and there are family groups at the end of farm tracks in the middle of nowhere. The first stage of the ride is 219 kilometres to Villaines-la-Juhel. I had a game plan, I would try to ride at an average speed in excess of 25kph, this would build up a cushion of time to allow me to sleep later on.

The first stage was to get right up behind the lead car, this was fairly easily achieved, I’d practiced by starting late on the Manchester-Blackpool bike ride and forcing my way through 5,000 unpredictable leisure cyclists, excellent training. Stage 2 of the plan was to get on the wheel of anyone faster who came past. All the really fast riders were in a different group entirely, they were the Vedettes, they had 80 hours to complete PBP and the numbers on their frames were red, ours were green and we had 90 hours. First time riders mainly rode in our group, known as ‘Touristes’ they included a substantial number of Triathletes from the USA, these were easily identified by their backpacks, weird bikes and their constant 25 mph pace. Their broad swimmer’s shoulders punched a big hole through the heavy night air, my trick was to get on the wheel of one as they went over a rise and sit there until they dropped me on a hill, I played this game for a while until the supply dried up.

We were now in the Beauce, the breadbasket of Paris, Google it and the tourist office proposes the ‘Route de Ble’, The Wheat Trail, there are endless fields with huge grain silos, the roads cut across it with geometric precision, at one point we made a sharp and puzzling right hand turn, we were following arrows which marked every turn and these generated a continuous stream of red tail lights which snaked over the ridge 10 miles in the distance. Oddly a few lights didn’t take the right hand turn, but carried straight on.

I now embarked on stage three of my plan. This I called ‘trawling’. If you ride at a constant speed you exist in a bubble, faster riders pull ahead and slower riders fall behind. Potential companions and allies who are riding at a similar pace exist in similar bubbles, what tends to happen is that you fall into the pace of groups which you catch, these catch slower groups and the pace falls. This happens in the early morning when your concentration is at its ebb, but conditions are at their best for maximum effort, later it will be too hot. Trawling consists of consciously stripping slow moving groups of their fastest riders, you spot a group, reel it in, sit on the back for a bit to rest, then you go to the front and up the pace, the sign for the rider behind to come to the front is a flick of the left elbow, if they respond you know they speak the language of the Rouleur, gradually you increase the pace, until you ride off the front of the group, the routine is repeated until you have a sizable group of evenly matched riders, it is then usual to relax a bit to get to know the members of your bunch while the riders on the front maintain the pace.

These groups tend to break up as the route moves into the Perche. This is an area of hills and woods, pretty enough to be a Parc naturel regional but a bit heavy on my legs. I slackened off as I came into the first feed station at Mortagne, I had  a quick cup of coffee and a sandwich and noticed that beer was available. I was able to return to my trawling technique as we passed along the ridgeways of the Sarthe department and into the Mayenne, the roads were fairly quiet, the main traffic was farming related, milk tankers, livestock transporters and feed lorries. There is a short section which follows the busy D311 which serves as a short cut between the Autoroutes A11 and A28 and I’d counsel caution on this section. The crossing of the N138 is also potentially dangerous, but is well marshalled, it was about now that the scale of the operation started to dawn on me, there are about 1,500 volunteers involved in mounting PBP, the crossing at La Hutte on the N138 would be marshalled for 60 hours in total, it made me feel grateful and not a little humble.

The closer we came to Villaines-la-Juhel, the more I came to distrust my mileometer, I knew that the distance should be 219 km; in Fresnay-sur-Sarthe  I multiplied my milage of  137 by 8 and divided by 5 and it came to about 218 km, there was a sign to Villaines, it said 25 km. It formed a topic of conversation among our multinational group of conspicuously large cyclists, either we had all programmed our computers wrong by 10% or 25 km had appeared from nowhere. We also discussed who could roll downhill the fastest and what would be on the menu for breakfast. I rolled in to Villaines and checked in at the control, it was 7.55 am , I’d started at 10.30 am and covered 244km, this was just short of a 26kph average. But the route sheet said it was 219km and the deadlines were organised on that basis, so my official average speed was 23.25 kph. I was still way ahead of the minimum with 4 hrs 50 mins in hand, but what would happen to my partner Heather whose schedule was a lot tighter?

Damon Peacock

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Paris Brest Paris 1999
« Reply #5 on: July 25, 2008 »
One horse towns and the library of cheese

The Mayenne is a department in Normandy, a fairly large region noted for the guarded reticence and common sense of its population and for the lushness of its pastures, which support its famous dairy industry. The Mayenne has made some efforts to attract tourists to an area, which, while it is pretty in parts, is similar to other parts of Normandy, the principal attraction in these parts is ‘Lactopole’ a museum of the Dairy Industry, which has a world renowned ‘library of cheese’, exhibits of milk churns and bottles, the first ‘Tetra Pak’ machine in France and the largest collection of  Camenbert labels in the world. Park officials going after 27 elephants The Sun

It would be fair to say that PBP is the most excitement seen along most of its route. Villaines-la -Juhel was ‘en fete’ with all the paraphernalia of a Tour de France stage finish when I arrived. The town hall and the secondary school had been pressed into service to cater for the riders, this spread the facilities across both sides of the main street. Think back to the confusion you felt on your first day at secondary school, now imagine you had cycled 150 miles through the night to get there and that that half your fellow pupils didn’t speak your language and that the only interpreters were excited teenagers. All the articles I had read warned me that stopping at a control would probably cost me an hour, it didn’t really sink in until I experienced Villaines for the first time. The level of hospitality is overwhelming, they gave me a ball point pen and a stamped postcard showing the charms of Villaines, so that I could spread its fame among my nearest and dearest. The canteen was in full swing and I opted for a three course meal involving a turkey cutlet somewhere, I availed myself of the facilities, filled my bottles and rode on.

The landscape reminded me of parts of the Cotswolds, pretty little stone cottages, copses and incised valleys, there were a number of steep little rises and the official photographers had positioned themselves on one of the steepest, so as to capture the riders at a low speed with the requisite scowl of effort. There was a photographer on either side of the road, each seated on a low stool, they used a powerful flash to isolate their subjects from a background of hedges and slightly yellowing grass. I have the pictures from the three sites where the Maindry studio took their photos. The surprise is how much better they look than the pictures from 2007. A hundred and fifty years of developments had brought photography to a high point and the images speak to me of the peak of the old analogue ways before the final onslaught of the digital tide. They also show that the tarmac was melting under our wheels, there’s a slight sheen to my face and the zip on my jersey gapes open. I was sweating but it dried immediately, my hat looks slightly damp, it helped keep me cool by retaining some of the sweat, there are two bottles on my bike, one has water in it and the other a darker liquid, probably Coca Cola. My helmet for night wear hangs from my bag as does the spare saddle which proved a conversation piece.

I soon established a technique for coping with the heat, the bottles on the bike were filled with drinks for salt replacement, and of course, Coca Cola. Local people had set up stalls by the side of the road at fairly regular intervals, these dispensed water and biscuits and were largely staffed by 12 year olds. I would stop every hour, pour a bottle of water into my hat and over my shoulders, I would then drink a litre of water, eat as many of the biscuits as seemed polite, leave a 10 franc piece and bid farewell to the usually dumbstruck youngsters.

Each successive control is tackled with greater certainty as you progress along the route, you learn not to try to walk around the campus of whatever school or technical college has been pressed into service, but to follow the directions to the control, here your book is stamped and your magnetic card is swiped, then you ride to find the toilets and then the canteen. It’s like a motorway service station with a compulsory check in, but no RAC man trying to sell you membership. The really experienced just check in and then find a supermarket or a café to stock up with food, but I was a neophyte and there was something mesmeric about the controls which forced me to linger.

Fougeres at 305km marked our entry into Brittany, it has a castle and partially intact medieval walls, we saw none of this as we passed car showrooms and a branch of Mc Donalds, compared to the area we had passed through it seemed like a small city, its population in 1999 was 21,779. Brittany is characterised by its underlying geology, the granite rock on which it stands comes in a variety of colours, most of them grey. As in other granite areas, such as Aberdeen, the architecture is ornamented and has a timeless quality deriving from the indestructible nature of granite when used for building.

The countryside also has a distinctive quality, as in parts of South West England, the hedges stand on earth banks faced with granite, the hedges themselves consist largely of shrubs and Sweet Chestnut and show signs of being managed for firewood. Agriculture seems less intensive than in Normandy, partly due to the less favourable geology and climate, but I did detect similarities between the differences found between the Celtic fringes of the UK and their Anglo-Saxon neighbours. Brittany was obviously a different place.

Tinteniac; population 2,434; 359 km from the start; 3.14 pm; Tuesday 24th August 1999, was where I saw my first stretcher case, a shivering, ashen faced casualty under a blanket was being carried off for treatment. This was the hottest part of the day and care was needed to avoid heat exhaustion. Tinteniac was the first control where it was possible to ride flat out all the way to the entrance. This was dangerous, while you are moving on the bike you are being cooled, stop without a cooling down period at a lowered pace and you will find yourself in trouble.

All the controls offer either a quick snack or a full canteen. I opted for a cheese and ham baguette and then lay in the shade of a tree for an hour. 

The temperature was falling and I was able to press on a bit more in company with other riders, a fellow Brit pointed out that we were now passing red numbered Vedettes, the fast riders who had set off  two and a half hours earlier than us, we still seemed to be recording distances 25 km further than predicted, so the computer must have been calibrated correctly, the route had become a bit more rolling, we had passed the base of a television mast, a sign that the route was embracing rather than avoiding the local hills, but there were extensive flat section which forced the pace and by Loudeac I had covered 293 miles in 22 hours and 13 minutes. The average pace was slightly above 21 kph and I had 7 hours and 47 minutes in hand, I’d had one hours shuteye in 40 hours; it was time to sleep. I checked in at the Dortoir, there was a big board marked in squares and my number was entered and cross referenced with the number of a bed, I was asked how long I wanted to sleep for, two and a half hours I replied, it all looked very promising. I was a bit disappointed to be led to a blanket laid on the gymnasium floor with another blanket to cover myself, I don’t remember a pillow,  I probably used my bag and clothes. I fell into a fitful sleep with my legs still twitching and looked forward to my next slap up feed.