"We continued to climb higher and higher into the early hours of Tuesday morning as I battled drowsiness and fatigue and watched my team mates Alan and Andy edge further and further away. We'd ridden for 30 hours straight before a brief 2 hour nap at Saint-Nicolas-du-Pelem but this hadn't helped and I was struggling for the first time on the ride. The sun was rising as we climbed further and higher and despite falling asleep numerous times on this winding climb I eventually reached the top. We were now enroute to Brest - the halfway mark and turnaround point. I felt that the next 15 hours of riding into the heat of a second full day and a third consecutive night would make or break me. The chase was on...."
Rewind to the start of this adventure and it was over a year ago that friend and fellow ElliptiGO enthusiast Idai Makaya mooted the idea to a couple of us about riding Paris Brest Paris (PBP). I hadn't heard about this ride before and most haven't because despite it being the oldest long distance Audax ride in the international calendar unless you are in the know when it comes to Audax they simply don't shout about it to outsiders. This epitomises the spirit of Audax which is just to get on with it with the minimum of fuss. No bravado or egos here. Just a quiet determination to get the job done. Without vocally committing myself to taking on PBP last summer I knew it was something too good to pass up especially as this event only takes place every four years.
So what is PBP?
As the full name hints it's an out and back route from the outskirts of Paris (Trappes in Saint-Quentin) heading West through Northern France to Brest on the coast of Brittany. It is 1230km (765 miles) with 33,000ft of ascent and a strict 90 hour time limit. Cut off times at the controls enroute also keep you honest and thus dictate, especially for those on ElliptiGOs (the slowest bike out there!), just how much time you can afford to stop, eat and sleep. In two words.... not enough!
|PBP route and elevation profile|
We'd all chosen different modes of travel to arrive in Paris. My chosen method was a white van hence I became White Van Man for a week :-) It worked out perfectly being able to transport four ElliptiGO' in the back plus Andy (from Preston), and Jim (from the US). Logistics were spot on and we soon all found ourselves in an industrial suburb of Paris which served its purpose. With the actual event not starting for the 'Special Bikes' until Sunday 17:15 before most of the main field of 5000+ cyclists following, we had the whole weekend to chill (in the summer heat), register and complete bike check on the Saturday and generally wait around.
|In the queue for bike check and registration|
|All smiling at PBP registration in the Velodrome|
|Grant Strong (MK Cycling) working his magic on my ElliptiGO new hydraulic front disc brake|
|A thing of pure beauty! Thank you Mr Nuttall!!|
|Pre-PBP night meal!|
The day was here and most of it was spent trying to not consume energy by walking or riding from place to place. I hung around the hotel, had breakfast, packed and repacked my stuff as the 4 day forecast showed very little chance of rain and warm days and nights throughout.
|The bare essentials plus Kevin the minion!|
|En-route to the start - Paris Brest Paris 2015|
|Team ElliptiGO on the start line - Paris Brest Paris 2015|
The ElliptiGO's feature in this video at 2:10 and again at 4:40.
After a bit of fiddling with garmins, water bottles and small talk we counted down from 10 and were off. The atmosphere was euphoric and truly uplifting with hundreds of people cheering us on our way. The ElliptiGOs were getting a lot of attention and I was beaming ear to ear loving every second. The early miles took us out of town heading west with supporters lining the road side cheering us on.
|The start: 16 August - Paris Brest Paris 2015|
|Just 1225km to GO! - Paris Brest Paris 2015|
My tactics were very simple for the first day. Keep the perceived effort to the bare minimum and don't do anything silly. As a result I resisted the urge to keep right up with the guys on the front of ElliptiGO pack. And as I suspected just a few miles up the road the whole pack (minus Billy and Carl) would reform. The reason for the absence of Billy is because he came here to do something more bold and was targeting an 80 hour finish. Carl on the other hand was suffering mechanical issues with gear selection due to a worn out gear cable. He had changed the hub the day before but didn't inspect the cable properly nor did he get Grant to look at it. Luckily Carl was carrying a spare cable so we left him on the roadside to change it. What the group could not afford was lost time so instead anyone falling off the back of the group for whatever reason they would need to find that time up and close the gap. Otherwise the average group speed is seriously impacted giving us even more work to do.
We were soon making our first group stop to put on out PBP high vis vests that are compulsory on French roads at night. The sight of 100 of cyclists stretched far into night in front and behind us was fantastic. It was still warm as we rode through the night on the rolling smooth tarmac on tree lined forest and country roads.
|Getting kitted up for the night|
And before we move on back to the ride my last observation about the controls and a huge disappointment was access to drinking water for filling water bottles. PBP is a huge international cycling event with 6000 people taking part. There was absolutely no excuse for what we had to endure by filling up our bottles at almost all 14 control points enroute from the toilet taps!! There were no water bowsers, large canisters or outside main water taps for filling bottles. This for me was very poor and was both unhygienic and another time waster.
|An ElliptiGO herd at night! - Paris Brest Paris 2015|
From this point on I'm really unable to give a blow by blow, control by control account of the ride because its all a big blur!! So all I can do is pick out the major events that do stick out in my mind and try to get across the highs and lows of the next 3 days of riding and how it all unfolded for me. I'll say it here and now though that my words won't do this ride any justice. It was just too big in scale and enormity to wrestle down on paper. Its a ride that wants to leap off the page at every turn and not be tied down to a few ramblings from me.
As we rolled on through villages and small towns it was very evident that there was a huge sense of pride and passion from the French people about this ride. Many houses had set up roadside stalls at all times of the day to cater for us serving hot drinks and cake, and filling water bottles. When they spotted the ElliptiGO it always got looks of amazement and a barrage of French questions when I stopped. I would just smile, point and show how the elliptical mechanism worked. Magnificent, Bravo and Bon Voyage were common responses. This all made me smile and just a 3 minute stop really helped to break up the ride. I noticed in the group that no one else was stopping for these road side breaks early on so it then required me to catch up after and exert a little extra energy.
We arrived at Fougeres (310km) at 11:20am. Six of us were still together (myself, Idai, Alan, Andy, Bill and Jim). Jim and I were always hanging back off the pace at the front which would fluctuate up and down whilst we maintain an even pace expending less energy than the others. No memories of Fougeres. Undoubtedly it involved more queuing and filling water bottles from toilets. Yuck.
The first few controls of PBP were spread apart but now they were getting more consistent with typically 50-80km between each control. So the pattern for the rest of the ride was to just focus on the next section only, reach the control and assess then whether it was a longer stop to eat something substantial or bounce through. And so it continued. The plan for Monday and in to the night was to cover at least 448km to Loudeac before the first sleep stop, or push on to St Nicholas at 489km. Our pace was good so this is what we did pushing into the second night and arriving at St Nicholas at 10:30pm. By this point the six of us had now split with myself riding with Alan and Andy ahead of Idai, Bill and Jim who came into Loudeac an hour behind us.
The sleep stop at St Nicolas was very welcome indeed. We'd been riding since 5:15pm on Sunday so we on our feet for almost 30 hours with the only rest bite coming when queuing at controls for food! The beds were very well organised letting the attendant know what time you wanted to be woken up with it captured on a big chart. We agreed on 2hrs sleep before hitting the road again. The luxury! The hall was huge with over 400 beds all numbered filling the gymnasium which resembled a morgue with bodies motionless covered head to toe with white sheets. My head hit the pillow (my bag) and I was out for the count. Two seconds later and I was being tapped on the shoulder by one of the volunteers. My time was up already! Argh...
We set off into the night at 1am for the next control in Carhaix (525km). The conditions were great for night riding with just my removable extra sleeves keeping me warm. The hills had started way before this stage but now they were becoming more frequent and longer. We had all assumed northern France was undulating but not this hilly! Whilst I knew the numbers (11,000m of ascent) riding it was different and meant the average pace slowed with every rise. There were also plenty of long downhill sections too to recover.
|Extra sleeves for the night and the reflective vest visibly working well!|
Back now to the incessant climbs between Carhaix and Brest (614km). These were without doubt the toughest moments on my whole PBP ride. It was a culmination of a few factors that put me at my lowest ebb. Firstly the two hours of sleep did little to revive me, and I was very sleepy riding into the very early hours of the morning. Plus at sun rise I always feel in my most fatigued state. We weren't yet half way through PBP and everyone was going quicker than me on the climbs (or so it seemed). Alan and Andy were up ahead slowly pulling away from me up the never ending climb and then out of sight completely. I stopped every 1km or so on the climb and put my head on the handlebar and closed my eyes for some rest. 1 or 2 minutes would pass then I would hop back on and carry on up. This prevented me from falling completely off the ElliptiGO asleep which I was in danger of doing all the way up the climb. I remember now that I also had a dull ache in my right shoulder which prevented me from getting any kind of fast rhythm going. I knew the bad spell would end, I just didn't know when.
Finally however I reached the top and above the mist below to our left that was hugging the tops of nearby hills and treetops. There was definite relief but the total distance still to cover was preying on my mind. I rolled down the long descent free wheeling all the way. Then the person I Ieast expected to see popped up over my left shoulder with a cheery hello. It was Billy! I couldn't understand why and how he was here as I thought he was miles ahead. Possibly even having breakfast in Brest by now. Billy is a fast rider but he commented that he also needed the sleep, unlike it seems, Idai who could just keep going. So now Idai was leading the pack with Alan and Andy in front of me somewhere, Billy level pegging with me but looking very fresh, and somewhere behind Bill and Jim. I could only assume Carl was in front but had no idea.
Seeing Billy was useful in that it showed I was on pace and actually doing very well. It just didn't feel like it. Billy didn't hang around and shot off to hunt down the others. I was awakening now and spurred on by the fact we were approaching a small town called Sizun that Billy mentioned where I could get breakfast and coffee. Nice!!
|Selfie enroute to Brest|
|Obviously the oxygenated sea air had got to my head!|
|Lovely lovely Brest|
|Stats at half way in Brest although stopped time is not accurate!|
|PBP Brevet card - Stamps complete to Brest!|
Walking out to the bikes and who should be standing there - Bill! But no Jim. He had mentioned in Brest that due to being unable to eat anything and keep it down that he was probably going to have to call it a day in Carhaix at 700km. Jim had pretty much survived on Coke for 700k! Bill wasn't in a good way st Loudeac and had only been able to grab 30 minutes sleep. We both grabbed a grilled sausage in a roll to keep fuelled and waited for Alan and Andy who duly arrived. We were now 4 again! Yay :-) I was feeling great. The sleep had done me the world of good as we rolled on to Quedillac for an early 4am breakfast stop. Bill grabbed a quick nap whilst we ate soup and a coffee.
You have probably noticed by now that a lot revolved around refuelling at stops which was essential to keeping going. By now we were very use to the controls and what to expect. The volunteers were working tirelessly for up to 48hrs straight so I was more chilled out by now and accepted the requiring queuing and grateful to them being there at all.
As an aside one aspect of the ride I haven't mentioned yet was our roaming ElliptiGO mechanic Grant Strong. Grant was supporting the whole team and meeting us roadside at the main controls every 100k or so. He checked over our bikes and ensured we kept rolling. An extra benefit was access to preprepared drop bags which I was using to replenish my onboard supplies of pain au chocolat and Red Bull. That stuff is rocket fuel and kept me moving forward.
Night soon turned into day and another sunrise and soon we were thinking about the final day of riding. The 90 hour cut off finished at 11:15am on Thursday. In my mind Thursday morning was just an extension of Wednesday and by thinking about it in this way it felt like we were finally heading for the finish. But the drama was only just beginning and the danger of thinking about the finish is that you almost find yourself dismissing the 400km that we still had to ride.
The way that the cut offs are arranged on PBP is that you have longer to get back from Brest as you will naturally slow. So it was 43 hrs out and 47 hrs back. Half the group actually made it to Brest in under 40 hrs giving them 50 hrs back. Sounds very comfortable when you think about it like that and by lunchtime on Wednesday we were wondering how we were going to use all this extra time allocation. We were at Fougeres having lunch and by my calculations on the spreadsheet we had 6hrs in hand to ride the next 55k section. Easy. I was even thinking about how another 2 or 3hr sleep that night would be nice. But the distance remaining and time somehow didn't add up. And no one else spotted it. It wasn't 55k we had to ride but 55 miles. The spreadsheet downloaded from someone else on the web had both Km and miles. I'd only just noticed this now. I walked over to the others who were basking in the midday sun and gave them the news. We had gone from having all this time on our hands to suddenly being up against the cut offs. Normally 6hrs would be plenty to cover 55miles but the route ahead was hilly. We knew the average speed we had been riding throughout the last 2 days and I explained to the others that if we just continued that speed we would be fine. In one ear and out the other... Everyone shot off in a bit of a panic! Andy was soon out of sight, and Bill (despite a lack of sleep) was riding really strongly. Alan and I held a slightly more even pace. I enjoyed the adventure and dare I say it sudden danger facing us. I knew we would make it with plenty of time to spare but it definitely added to the excitement.
The next stop was Villaines-la-Juhel at 1008km. A major milestone in the ride! We made it to the control at 6pm with an hour to spare. On the way out to Brest Villaines was very quiet with nothing going on. Coming back it was a totally different atmospheres. The town was buzzing with hundreds of people lining the streets and a festival of cycling taking place. We all parked up in different places as there was little room on the narrow street with bikes strewn everywhere. As with all other controls we got our brevet cards stamped first as proof of passage. Water bottles filled and then we chilled out for 20 minutes in the hall with a bite to eat.
Back at the bikes Andy and I were together but we had lost Alan and Bill. I'd spent some time changing into fresh clothes and freshening up with baby wipes! We assumed because we couldn't spot their bikes that they had gone ahead. We just wanted to GO but Andy had attracted the attention of the two French press people who were keen to interview us live. We obliged and rode to the big arch over the road where they were waiting. They asked a few questions about the ElliptiGOs. We replied in English and they translated for the crowds over the loud speakers. We got a great reception as we left under the arch to begin the last 220k of PBP.
I tried to phone Bill to find out where they were but no luck. I turned out they were still at the control but we didn't know this then. Andy wasn't in a good way as we left Villaines. He had been increasingly leaning to the left whilst riding and was having some major back issues. We agreed I would press ahead and Andy would try and 'manage' the injury at a slower pace but it wasn't looking good. It turned out this is unfortunately where Andy's ride ended. He'd ridden over 1000k so it was a real shame that he was thwarted with 200k to go.
I was back alone on the road again and had a feeling this is how it would be now all the way to the finish. I thought I was chasing down Alan and Bill so upped the pace gradually and focused on the task at hand. In terms of the cut offs I had 16 hrs to cover the remaining 220km. This seems very comfortable in the cold light of day as I sit here tapping away on my phone. But after 74 hours of riding, 1008km covered, and just 5 hrs sleep nothing seems clear or easy.
What I did know is that the terrain wasn't on my side. The final couple of stages were extremely undulating with some big climbs. There was nothing more I could do other than just ride and so this is what I did riding deep into the night. Physically I was doing fine and I had actually been quite surprised how easy on the body PBP was on an ElliptiGO. Whilst the climbs were long none of them were steep which is what really batters the quads on the GO. However it was tough mentally to simply keep without the chance to really relax. I would often watch with envy at the other cyclists who could coast along 3-4mph quicker than the ElliptiGO with little perceived effort and use the extra time gained to stop at cafés and restaurants and savour more of what the locals had to offer.
The ElliptiGO inherently changes the PBP experience from how it was conceived and how 95% cyclists approach it. It remains a tour of Northern France but one which is a constant race against time for the ElliptiGOer. And now back to this race.
I arrived at Mortagne-au-Perche at 11:30pm 1.5hrs behind the 88hr schedule. However I was still hoping to get at least a hour of sleep. I'd been going for 22 hrs since the night before and had covered 300km. I looked for other ElliptiGOs but there were none. I asked a chap where the beds were located and he asked what my cut off time was for Paris. 11:15am I replied. He said in that case I had better get going because the hills continued. He didn't know of course that I was on an ElliptiGO so the suggestion that he thought I was up against it and that I was on a conventional bike immediately concerned me. 11.5hrs seemed plenty to cover the remaining 140km but it certainly wasn't worth the risk for 1 hour sleep.
And with that I conceded that I wouldn't be sleeping and rode into the final night for a dawn finish and 30hrs of continuous riding. This of course all happened over a week ago now and I've learnt that its all too easy to view such things with rose-tinted spectacles once you've regained a sense of normality again. But I can say that back then as I battled up one climb to the next with the tiredness all consuming it was tough going. My legs were fine but my mind was elsewhere dreaming of crossing the finish line.
Bill is famous in ElliptiGO circles for having the most gadgets even adorning his handlebars which included two garmins, phone, various bags and a loudspeaker for pumping out the tunes. Riding alongside Bill in the early stages we enjoyed music from pretty much every era which can be quite uplifting on a long ride. The reason for mentioning this is that as I struggled to stay awake on one particular long climb it occurred to me that I of course had loads of music on my phone which thanks to my new Dynamo hub was fully charged. I pulled over and put the phone onto loud speaker at full blast and cranked out the Foo Fighters :-) it was just what I needed and gave me an extra spring in my step. I hadn't been moving any slower than all the cyclists on the climbs and now that I had the Foo's for company I was flying (seemingly so) up the climbs. It didn't completely stave of the tiredness but was a boost. What I really needed was caffeine! There's gotta be a late night friendly local along this stretch somewhere. And low and behold my prayers were answers. As we reached the top of this extremely long climb we entered a small village and there was a gazebo with loads of people standing, sitting and laying around. Perfect! This is what made PBP so special for me to once again be on the receiving and of such kindness in my hour of need. I love the French!! And I love their coffee!! And their Cake!! Two cups later and some social interaction and I was with it again. From here on in it should have been an easy 100k to the finish and it would have been if it wasn't for the darkening clouds above. The rain came which shouldn't have caused any problens however my slick skinny racing Durano tyres were proving very sketchy in the wet with the rear of the EllliptiGO all over the road. I had to significantly reduce my speed to a crawl to keep it heading straight. And the descents weren't fun!
Eventually though I reached the final control in Dreux (1165km) at 4:30am. I knew I had just under 7hrs in hand to ride the remaining 65km so could relax and have some breakfast. The control was a huge sports hall and had the best selection of food I'd seen on the whole PBP. I had a salad, fresh crossiants and of course coffee!! I sat, I ate, I smiled, I listened, and took it all in. I knew I had finished PBP. The last section would just happen as the previous 1165km had, slow and steady with no drama. Well that's what I hoped anyway.
What made me really smile was the conversation between three British cyclists on my table. They were chatting about the different cycling behaviour they witnessed on the road which was, lets just say, varied between different nationalities. But then one chap just said "And on one hill I got ElliptiGOed and I couldn't believe it". Haha you better believe it matey is what I thought with a wry smile. I decided not to identify myself to them but just take that moment with me. We had certainly made a name for ourselves on PBP.
The last section wasn't easy simply because I was so damn tired. Probably just like you are feeling now having got through this blog! Well imagine riding it. These reports can never convey quite what we went through to reach the end but I hope I at least given a taste of the challenge that is PBP.
The remaining miles wound through field after field after field before eventually reaching the outskirts of civilisation. It was still raining which did dampen the spirit ever so slightly. But I still had the tunes pumping and was nearly there. Before I knew it I was there... well almost. We entered a park which was the way we rode to the velodrome from our hotel. So I knew it was just 5km to go. I wondered who might be there at the end, if anybody. Idai and Billy had finished hours ago (judged by the updates we were getting from Grant) so were unlikely to be waiting around in the worsening conditions.
I rounded the corner could see the velodrome and there was Jim who I had started this adventure with 4 days ago and could now finish it with him too. Under different circumstances for him obviously but I was so happy to have a friendly face to greet me. Especially as the actual finish to PBP is such an anticlimax. There were a few people around who bless them were standing around in the rain clapping in finishers but apart from that not a lot. It was certainly no UTMB (Ultra Tour du Mont Blanc) finish line that's for sure. But that wasn't the point was it. The point was that 87 hrs and 28 minutes ago I was standing here at the start of PBP and looking to be amongst the first ever group of riders to complete Paris Brest Paris on an ElliptiGO. And now here I was standing in the rain at the finish having accomplished this feat. THAT was the point for me being here now, but it would just take a while for the fog to clear from my mind and for it all to sink in. I was just almighty glad it was over.
Jim in the right spot at the right time to capture my finish on video!
|The Finish - Paris Brest Paris 2015|
The graphs below have been created by some very clever people working in the field of information visualization and visual analytics. They have mapped every single rider's progress throughout PBP using the arrival times at the controls and plotting them all on a single graphic. The full searchable PBP2015 visualisation tool is available here.
The first graphic shows my overall position in PBP. The first significant peak is when we carried on riding beyond Loudeac to St Nicolas on the second night whilst many cyclists slept, and hence we overtook them. Of course we then slept at St Nicolas and were overtaken by roughly the same number of riders. I gradually gained places between Brest and Loudeac on the return leg before sleeping at Loudeac on the third night where the graph dips. I'm most particularly pleased with my final 250km from Villaines to the finish in Paris where I passed many hundreds of cyclists through the final night to finish higher up the field than I had throughout the ride.
This second graphic represents my time in hand throughout the ride. The line on the X-axis is zero hours in hand. It shows extremely well just how close the ElliptiGO's in general ride to the cut-offs with little time in hand despite how well we rode. This just shows how little room for error there was. Each time I slept we obviously dipped closer to the cut off. And interesting you can see at Tintiniac where we were very close to the zero hour line - This is where we had misjudged our time in hand and distance to the next control and were sitting around thinking we had all the time in the world! The final up curve is very pleasing and shows the effort I put in from Tintiniac to the finish riding for 30 hours straight.
Team ElliptiGO finish times
The finish times or distance achieved for each member of the PBP ElliptiGO team are below. Special mention must go to Idai who completed PBP in a quite astonishing sub 84 hours with just 1 hour of sleep. You can read his own account of PBP here.
Alan McDonogh 88:30
Andrew Nuttall 1008km
Billy Grace 85:39
Bill Pinnell 88:30
Carl Nanton 89:40
Jim Cremer 700km
Idai Makaya 83:38
Stuart Blofeld 87:28
|Brevet card stamped and dated to the finish!|
Strava upload of my ride here