My Road to the LCC “Tuff Butt” Award
Thanks to all my great cycling friends in the London Cycling Club, for awarding me the 2019 Male “Tuff Butt” award! It means a lot to me to know that many of you were following my progress on the Paris-Brest-Paris ride. I thought I would give you an account of my experiences at Paris-Brest-Paris, a unique bicycling event that brings together riders from around the world.
First, some history of Paris-Brest-Paris (1) :
“Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) is the oldest continuous bicycle event in the world, having been first run in 1891. It is 1230 km in length and involves over 11,000 metres of climbing. PBP begins just west of Paris (this year in Rambouillet) and extends west through Brittany to the port city of Brest and then continues back to Paris. PBP riders are not racing against each other, but against a time limit (90 hours for most riders). A rider’s Control Card is stamped at intermediate control points along the route to assure compliance with the route and the time limits.
Paris-Brest-Paris was originally conceived by Pierre Giffard, the editor of the newspaper Le Petit Journal who believed that an extreme bicycle race would pique the interest of readers and help to sell papers. In 1891 the newly developed Peugeot automobile was set to follow behind the 1891 PBP to determine if it could cover the distance of the race, which would make it the longest distance completed by a gas powered engine. The Peugeot prototype was successful but arrived in Paris six days after PBP winner Charles Terront.
Due to the magnitude of the undertaking, PBP was only held every 10 years. The second PBP in 1901 was so successful that a rival newspaper, l’Auto, created the Tour de France in 1903. PBP continued as a professional race with a cyclotourist component (including women) until 1951, when few professional cyclists were interested in racing that distance. However, it continues on as an amateur event, now held every four years.
It is an important cultural event in Brittany with multi-generational families lining the roadside to cheer on the riders with shouts of allez, bon courage and champion. Many families set up tables along the road where they provide the riders with water, coffee, cakes and crepes — a Breton specialty. Farmhouses along the route are open for tired riders to catch short naps. At the controls the Breton flag, accordion and traditional Breton bagpipes welcome in the riders. There is a celebrated French pastry that commemorates the event called a Paris Brest, which is made in the shape of a bicycle wheel. PBP is indeed a festive four-day celebration of cycling.
The rules of PBP have remained virtually unchanged since the beginning. A participant must qualify by riding a series of 200, 300, 400 and 600 km brevets by the end of June on the year of the ride. These qualifying rides are organized by cycling clubs worldwide that are affiliated with the organizing body in France, the Audax Club Parisien (ACP) and Randonneurs Mondiaux (RM). In Ontario, Randonneurs Ontario, founded in 1983, is sanctioned by ACP and RM to offer brevets throughout the cycling season. We even stage our own 1,200 km grand brevet every four years, the Granite Anvil that attracts riders from all over North America.”
My Paris Brest Paris 2019 Adventure …
Here are a few random thoughts and recollections from my PBP. While there were over 6,000 participants from more than 50 countries around the globe in this event, the experience is unique for each rider (because of different start times, ride approaches, and equipment). I should also point out that my recollections are strongly affected by randonnesia, a condition that affects randonneurs doing long brevets with very little sleep.
Before the ride …
I flew to Paris with fellow randonneur Carey, arriving on the Wednesday morning (My start time for PBP was 17:30 Sunday evening). This gave me several days to get adjusted to the time zone change, get my bike assembled and gear organized, and to “test” my bike in the surrounding countryside.
I was privileged to share a VRBO rental with a fine group of Ontario Randonneurs, in the small town of Les Essarts-le-Roi (about 13 km from the PBP Start location in Rambouillet). The VRBO had been arranged by Dick Felton, a PBP ancien. Dick’s PBP knowledge, enthusiasm, and encouragement were key to the success of several randonneurs over the coming days.
From Wednesday evening through Saturday, I bicycled over 150 km to explore Rambouillet, meet up with other Randonneurs arriving for PBP, and to try out local restaurants.
Getting Excited – Checking out the Start Location for PBP
Meeting up with Fellow Randonneurs (Dick F is on the left)
Saturday (the day before the ride start) was taken up with the official bike inspections and pick-up of ride documents. This was the only day of foul weather during my entire trip. Carey and I pedalled into Rambouillet in pouring rain, and stood in long queues of drenched cyclists. (Unfortunately we missed the scheduled Team Canada photo, because we were chasing down a possible bike rental for Matt, whose bicycle had been “lost” by Iceland Air!!). While cycling back to Les-Essarts-le-Roi, Carey’s bike “slid out from under him” on a very “greasy” downhill, and he landed hard on his side. Of course, he was more concerned with the state of his bicycle than his own health, and after a roadside repair in the pouring rain he was satisfied that he and his bike were fit for the PBP ride.
The Ride Itself …
At 3:30 pm on ride day, I rode to PBP start location with Dick. It was absolute chaos, with thousands of cyclists trying to figure out how the ride start was to occur. I was in the “G” group, starting at 17:30. The “F” group, starting 15 minutes ahead of us, was composed of all the “specialty” bicycles – tandems, recumbents, fat bikes, folding bikes, and velomobiles. It was quite a spectacle as they paraded in front of us towards the starting arch. (You can watch the departure of the F group here).
Group “G” about to Start
I was pleased to run into Ben Schipper (from the Netherlands) and Matt Levy (from the US) who I had ridden with on last year’s Mac & Cheese 1200. They were also starting in G group. (I would cross paths with Ben several times during the ride)
After a few announcements (unintelligible even to French riders I expect), we departed the cobblestone entrance to Rambouillet castle and were on our way. With pleasant evening temperatures and excellent roads, it was exciting to be finally riding in PBP.
I quickly caught up to many of the “oddball” cycles ahead of me, and was soon met by the waves of “fast” riders in groups H, I, J, etc. As night fell, the long string of red lights in front of me (and white lights in my rear view mirror) was quite impressive.
My fellow Ontario riders (Carey, Dick, Matt, Darcy, Tim, and Brenda) were starting in groups 1 to 1.5 hours after mine. While I had signed on with Carey, Darcy, and Tim & Brenda for a Support Camper Van (driven by Brenda’s daughter Hanna and her boyfriend Mathias), my earlier start limited my ability to make use of their great support (and the van bed and shower) at the controls.
I’m told there were significant cross-winds on the first day of the ride, which impacted the ability of the fast riders to maintain peletons and apparently led to many early “DNF’s”. I have absolutely no recollection of being bothered by the wind.
A few comments about my bike and gear…
Early in the ride, I realized my bike’s derailleur was not shifting down to the three lowest gears. I could have taken a few minutes to diagnose the problem, or queued up to see a bike mechanic at one of the controls, but being constrained to the upper gears didn’t seem to bother me. Although there are 11,000 metres of climbing in PBP, it is all very gradual (I don’t think I ever saw more than a 7% incline on my Garmin). Climbing without the low gears felt good, and I think made me ride stronger throughout the whole course. Aside from the derailleur problem, I had some very minor issues with brakes (squeaking brake pads) and headset (loosening and creaking). But overall I was thrilled with how my y2k Litespeed held together, and delighted to have no flats. I was amazed to see so many riders stopped along the route, repairing flats or other mechanical issues, especially in the first 200 km of the ride.
As is usual for me, my bike was heavily loaded (probably 5 kg or more above the average bike weight). A base layer, rain gear, change of jersey & shorts, went completely unused. Similarly an assortment of Clif Bars, Gels, and M&M’s just came along for the ride. Two USB Power Packs went largely unused, with my dynamo charging hub handling lighting and Garmin-charging just fine. My ride would have been easier (and faster) without so much baggage, but I’ll probably never learn to pack light!
Back to the ride …
I rode steadily through Sunday night and following day (stopping only at designated Controls and the occasional coffee stands set up by the locals). I arrived at the Loudeac control (445 km) about 9 pm Monday evening. After a warm meal by the Camper Van, Tim & Brenda, Carey, and Darcy decided they would sleep until about 1 am. I realized that if I joined them, I would be in jeopardy of not making the Carhaix control (76 km away) before the 5:15 am (for me) Closing time. So I pushed on into the now-very-cold dark night. On this stretch I was delighted to link up with Matt – he helped keep me awake, and my lighting helped him navigate some descents (The lighting he had purchased for the “loaner” bike he was riding was not great!). Matt and I pulled into Carhaix at 2:30 am, and he wisely encouraged me to grab a few hours sleep. With all of the “beds” at the control already filled, I pulled out my space blanket and “rando pillow” (i.e. inflatable plastic bag from 4L Box Wine) and lay down on the grass beside a few snoring randonneurs. (My buddy Terry Payne will be delighted to know that I was able to fully experience the “true” nature of PBP!)
I awoke two hours later, drenched from condensation on the inside of my space blanket and with the definite feeling that I was getting a cold. I was soon back on the bike, and heading for Brest 90 km away.
I only took a few minutes to enjoy the beautiful bridge and seascape in Brest, before fuelling up at the Control and turning around to head back toward Paris. The climb out of Brest was not as bad as I feared when descending into Brest, and it was interesting to observe the waves of cyclists now riding towards me (still on their way to Brest). I was delighted to see Dick, riding his steady consistent pace, who gave his usual shout of encouragement.
Much of the rest of Tuesday was a “blur” – steady riding with occasional stops for coffee, cake, plums, and other goodies offered by the friendly villagers along the route. (I found it hard to “fly by” people who were so enthusiastic and supportive – especially young kids looking for a “high five”). I arrived back in Loudeac Control (783 km) at 9 pm. After getting my Card stamped, I located the Support van, had a warm plate of Chicken Shawarma served up by Hanna & Mathias, and crawled into the back for a couple of hours sleep (My van buddies were a couple of hours behind me, so I knew I’d be getting up and on the road when they rolled in for their shower & sleep).
Back on the road after 2 hours sleep on a real mattress. I think it was Tinteniac control where I again met up with Ben from the Netherlands. He reported that his seat post had broken, and he was forced to ride standing up for 30 km to the next control! He confessed that he was worried about our being able to finish in time, noting that there seemed to be very few “G” riders in our midst. (I would learn later that a Florida randonneur acquaintance was forced to abandon because of a broken seat post. The bicycle mechanic at the Control didn’t have a right-size replacement!)
With the sun coming up as I rode from Tinteniac towards Fougeres, I was amazed how good I felt physically. My legs were not complaining, and my butt was perfectly comfortable in my Brooks leather saddle. Although I didn’t “feel” tired, I knew my lack of sleep was messing with my consciousness. I kept having the strangest feeling of “déjà vu”, wondering how it could be that everything was so familiar. (Had I been fully rested, I would have realized that I was cycling the same roads I’d been on just 48 hours earlier, and of course they should look familiar!).
The ride back into Villaines-la-Juhel (1012 km) was one of my most amazing experiences in PBP: after hours of steady climbs and descents under a hot August sun, I turned the corner to be greeted by hundreds of cheering villagers as I rode through the Control welcome arch. The entire town was swept up in a festival celebrating PBP – musicians, displays, beer tents, and constant cheering as riders entered or departed the control (This video will give you a sense of the celebration, and how “special” you feel as a cyclist being involved in this). I truly regretted that I could only enjoy this for a few minutes, before pushing on to finish the final 200 km.
Riding into the darkness after leaving Mortagne-au-Perche (1097 km), I was no longer trusting my navigating skills (even worrying that somehow I had missed a Secret Control). I was only wearing one layer (plus my reflective vest) and the temperature was down into single digits – I didn’t dare stop and put on more clothing, for fear of losing sight of red lights ahead. There seemed to be no discernable features or landmarks, and I felt like we were riding around in circles.
Around 11 pm, I finally pulled over at a poorly lit intersection and got off the bike. A randonneur from Bellingham Washington stopped and said that I looked a bit wobbly. He gave me one of his Espresso energy Gels (which thankfully “kicked in” quickly), and reassured me that we were indeed on the right course for the final Control (even opening my Control Card, to show that only one stamp was missing before the finish). Keeping his red rear light in my sights, I followed him through the pitch black into Dreux, arriving just after midnight. Wolfing down the fine Control food fare (sausage or pasta – I can’t remember which) and a cold beer, I realized (for the first time really) that I now had plenty of time “in the bank” to successfully complete the ride. I pulled out my space blanket and rando pillow, and fell asleep beside some rolled-up carpet in a corner of the noisy control building. Strangely, my son Dave handed me a cup of hot coffee as I crawled under the space blanket (not my only encounter with people and objects not really there, during the ride!)
I woke up (with the help of my smart phone alarm) shortly before dawn, and set off to ride the final 45 km back to Rambouillet. (There had, by the way, been a last-minute change to the official route due to some road construction. Although I had the revised route loaded on my Garmin, I wasn’t trusting it. I would also find out later that friends back home, following my progress on my Spotwalla Page, were wondering if I was lost!)
Riding towards the Finish in Rambouillet
With a beautiful sunrise ahead of me, I rode the final kilometres into Rambouillet. The end of the ride was rather anti-climactic. Unlike Villaines-la-Juhel, there weren’t a lot of people around when I crossed the finish line at 7:41 am. But the “pings” of congratulatory texts from family members, thousands of kilometres away, who were staying up late to know that I had finished, was wonderfully rewarding. Somewhat less rewarding was the morning meal offered to the returning cycling gods …
Knowing my Ontario buddies were a couple of hours from finishing, and craving a shower, I got back on my bike and rode the 15 km back to Les-Essarts-le-Roi. Although I couldn’t recall a single bone in my body complaining during the PBP ride, my shoulder muscles tightened up severely during the short ride back to the VRBO.
Looking like I need to sleep
After the Ride …
Refreshed after a shower and a nap, I joined other Ontario Randonneurs for a celebratory dinner in St. Quentin en Yvelines (a much better meal than at the start of the day!)
After one more relaxing night in Les-Essarts-le-Roi to celebrate fellow randonneur Tim’s birthday, Carey and I packed up our bikes, and relocated to a hotel in Cachan, just south of Paris.
Post-Script (and a few stats)
The day after flying back to Ontario, Carey texted to tell me that he’d gone to the hospital for an x-ray, and had in fact broken a rib on the day of the bike check!
Several members of our Ontario Group did not finish PBP. Dick Felton, who has successfully completed several previous PBP’s (including 2015, where he finished the ride with several broken ribs and fingers after falling asleep on his bicycle in the last few hundred km’s!) realized his pace was too slow, and abandoned after the return to Carhaix (close to 700 km). Tim encountered derailleur/shifter problems, and abandoned his second PBP attempt after Fougeres (923 km). In spite of their disappointment, both Dick and Tim remained positive and supportive of their fellow riders, and immediately began talking about PBP 2023! Darcy, Brenda, Matt & I were of course ecstatic (and I think somewhat humbled) to have been successful in our first PBP attempt, and Carey, completing his fifth PBP, declared it was “the best ever”.
From unofficial results: of 107 Canadian riders, 25 DNF’d ( “Did Not Finish”), and 6 finished over time limit. Although actual time is meaningless (i.e. doesn't matter how much faster you finish as long as you finish in time) my time was 53rd out of the 76 successful Canadians.
I did take my GoPro on the ride, and have some “hand held” video that I will try to edit. I will also receive the official DVD, that I will pass on to anyone who would like to watch. On YouTube, you will find a number of videos posted by both successful and unsuccessful participants. One of my favourites is from Adam Watkins, a rider from Bristol England, who rode PBP on a “Fixie”! Adam started 45 minutes after me, and finished in 87.5 hours ( ~ 2.4 hours after me), so his ride (and the droll observations he makes in his YouTube video) were somewhat similar to my own. An even more professional short video that really captures the event is this one by Ryan Hamilton. And the Jan Heine blog article gives a great summary by several seasoned PBP anciens. Another great ride report was posted by fellow Ontario Randonneur Martin Cooper.
I just came across some PBP2019 Videos posted on Youtube by a Japanese Randonneur (Hisao Kariya). I was quite delighted to see his “PBP2019 Start to Mortagne au Perche on board Group G”, because Group G was my starting group (17:30 pm). This video covers the entire first 10% of PBP. Checking the unofficial PBP control times, I found that Hisao started 26 seconds after me (17:30:45 vs 17:30:19) and finished PBP less than an hour before me, so his videos very much reflect my ride. In the video noted above, you can see Hisao pass me at 6:21, and if you watch his entire 4-hour video you’ll get a good feel for my PBP experience!
Hisao also captured the thrill of arriving at Villaines-la-Juhel (1,012 km) [He arrived there less than an hour after me (15:42 vs 14:44)] – and the much more low key PBP finish [He arrived just before me (6:58 am vs 7:41 am)]. I did not get video of either of these events, so it’s great to find Hisao’s videos.
One note to my London Cycling Club friends: As an LCC member (ie having OCA insurance), you are eligible to participate in one Randonneurs Ontario ride during the year without having to join Randonneurs Ontario. So if you think you might like to try long distance cycling (maybe with a view to participating in PBP 2023!), this gives you the opportunity.
In conclusion, I’d like to thank everyone (especially my long-suffering “better half” Jane), for all the support and encouragement along the way. This truly was a once-in-a-lifetime “bucket list” item for me, and I’m sincerely grateful to have been able to experience it. It really is not possible to describe the warm reception you receive as a PBP cyclist, nor to fully explain the unique personal challenge that is Paris-Brest-Paris!