The insanity of Paris-Brest-Paris
“I't s just cycling and i love cycling,” becomes my mantra to calm the fear inside before starting the oldest and most famous brevet — 1200 km Paris-Brest-Paris. I soon find that the insane and difficult event is also quite fascinating.
But in the beginning there is fear. Even though i've covered a 3000+km Giro d'Estonia this year and also a series of qualification brevets this spring and summer i'm afraid of the unknown. Four days out in the road. Anything can happen. So the mantra kicks in.
Fortunately i'm not alone. There´s a team of six of us from Estonia to get a taste of PBP— Ain-Ivar Tupp, Ahto Vink, Rainer Punga, Tambet Tähepõld, Indrek Pak and Rivo Sarapik.
It is the first time to have a team of Estonians in the ride. As we are rookies we have selected a 90h time limit which is recommended for the first timers.
We set off 16th Aug at 19.45 and the pace is up from the start. Little too fast actually — partly because of the fresh legs and anxious minds but also the fact the course speeds downhill. That makes the bunch nervous — people searching gaps (which aren´t there) and speeding further away ahead. Just like at the Tour de France during the first week.
It results with almost a crash within the six of us. Fortunately everyone stays in the saddle but we have to say goodbye to one of the spokes, some nerve cells and the peloton we were in. No problem though. There´s soon another one coming from behind as we reach out of the towns and into the field.
It takes couple of hours, a flat and darkness to calm people rushing to Brest down. “No need to rush, let's ride our ride, safely to Brest and back,” we tell to each other.
As the night sets in the sight ahead and behind becomes just breathtaking — red and white lights pushing ahead for the same goal. For different reasons. We are one and I'm one of them. Powerful.
Another amazing thing is the amount of people lying and resting next to the road. You can´t miss anyone as everyone is wearing a reflective vest and bike lights are still on. Like christmas trees in the countryside. It´s the only place in the world where cyclist sleeping next to the road (sometimes in the drench or bush) is considered a hero not somebody who needs to deal with the police.
Then there are the locals — standing in the middle of nowhere (for us) and cheering everyone just like they were pros at a grand tour. “Bon courage”, “bon route”, “bonjour”. Some are offering free snacks and drinks.
As the ride progresses it also starts to represent ultimate freedom to me — you are a pilgrim on your way. When you need to rest — you just do it. When you feel like riding — you just do it. What a wonderful way of discovery and travel.
There is another factor besides the distance that makes PBP difficult — it´s the hills. Climbing is one thing but descending at 60 km/h hour in the middle of the night is another. A good headlight adds another 5 km/h. And praying for good luck that nothing nasty happens.
Even though headlights are a must (according to the rules) you can ride without a very bright one as there are hundreds of people around all the time — from lycra to wool cardigans, from carbon to steel, from 20s to 70s. 6000 of them from 65 different countries. 6000 ideas and visions of cycling, triumph and disaster.
Our, the Estonian team, tactic is simple — we ride together, wait for everyone at the top of the climb and we support each other. We have also a support car that can meet us at every control point (+/- 5 km from it). That turns out to be a luxury as we can leave a load of stuff on board — like things for sleeping and some food.
There is a food stop and stop for stamp in the brevet passport in every 80 km, plus some secret control points. As time soon looses it´s usual role, the rhythm of the ride takes over — ride until control point, eat, rest a bit and head on. Quite meditative.
It also make sense to keep moving — there are tens of people around us, snoozing off in the middle of a soup or pasta. Sit for too long and you become one of them.
Our plan A is to reach 520 in the first 24h, then rest and head on in the night. That plan changes as daily heat and the ascent drains some power out and we set a camp at 450 km mark in Loudeac, about 20h after start. We become part of the field sleepers. One of the fields become our beds until 1AM. I sleep as the head hits the pillow, the saddle bag. Best. Sleep. Ever.
Day 2 — Loudeac-Brest-Loudeac a.k.a 330 km.
Day 2 starts at 2AM with cooler breeze which is soon followed by fog. Even though a big chunk is already completed quite a lot is still ahead. I soon start to realize that riding in the darkness does us a favor — that adds variability to the ride and as soon as you get bored with the darkness, the sun rises and lights up the scenery.
When the size of the task is overwhelming in the beginning the arrival of the trance is what i've waited. I'm doing what i love and i get to do it many days in a row. Just that. Life becomes really simple. No news, no outside distractions. Just eat, ride, sleep. And repeat.
However it takes time for that mental state to kick in and i struggle a bit until reaching Brest but once most of the road is covered and the signs start to direct to Paris instead of Brest things start to ease up. I really start to love this thing.
That´s probably the biggest lesson i take from the ride — how to deal with the huge task. It's not the legs it's the head. There were people around me, having ridden less than me (about 10 000 km this season), sleeping in the drenches, not having support vehicle and team around him/her. These facts should have told me i was in a better situation than them. That i was going to be fine.
As we conquer hills in different speeds and there is always a reason to wait for someone i set my tempo according to the slowest. No need to rush. I start watching the scenery and talking with fellow riders.
Soon i know that the 1200 km ride in South-Korea is wonderful (hillier but empty roads as cars speed on highways), why people come back to PBP (a Scottish gentleman explains: last time in 2007 the weather was awful, i wanted to try it with sun etc), i get loads of compliments about my jersey (Isadore Apparel) and share some good words myself. There is 6000 different views on cycling, overcoming oneself and i´m at a perfect spot to get a part of that.
As kilometers pass, day 2 ends again in Loudeac after completing 780 km. Time for another 5–6 hours of sleep.
Day 3 — Loudeac to Mortagne-en-Perche a.k.a 310 km.
Day 3 starts at 3AM. The amount of cyclists coming and leaving the control point hasn´t changed overnight. We head into the fog and another 300km in mind.
That is the morning i make the only mistake which is a really hard moment for me. I avoid gluten as it messes up with my stomach but there wasn´t anything better to eat at the control so i chose a pasta.
After inhaling it (that's the common speed the food disappears from the plate at PBP) a blanket fell over me and the next two hours were the only ones of suffering during the ride. Struggling to stay awake and not fall asleep in the saddle. The upside is i find out how the guys and gals riding zig-zags are feeling.
We reach Mortagne-au-Perche, having covered 1090 km, for the night. We set the tent out right next to the parking lot of the bikes where people constantly arrive and leave. That doesn´t bother my dreams.
Day 4 — Mortagne-au-Perche to Saint-Quentin-En-Ivelines a.k.a 140 km.
The last day is run on emotions. 140 km is normally a decent ride but at PBP just a piece of cake. The last slice. Even though the rain starts to fall with the light there are still people sleeping by the road.
Six rainy hours later and we are back where we started almost four days ago. When the start was a big deal, in the front of the Velodrome at Montigny-le-Bretonneux with a huge crowd the finish is a much quieter event.
At first it makes us amazed — why would the organizers make fun at us, leading us off the road to the back of the velodrome like no big deal. Later i understand that it represents the idea of the ride. It´s not a race. It´s a ride. And the destination is not the most important. The journey is.
So when I first thought PBP is an insane thing to ride — long, unpredictable, exhausting. Now i see that for a cycling enthusiast it would be insane not to ride it. I want to come back in 2019.
5 tips how to enjoy PBP
Use time wisely.
90h time limit would be suitable for a first timer because the ride is long and there´s lots of space for surprises and error. Even though we slept every night for few hours, as we travelled fast enough (25–27 km/h) to fit in the time limit, we spent as much as necessary but as little as possible.
For example, making a stop for stamps and eating in the controls lasted max 30 minutes, having a bite in-between the points 5–10 minutes.
Body has needs.
We slept 5–6 hours every night. It is tempting to skip the sleeping part and just ride. It can save time but also create new risks like falling a sleep in the saddle, crashing and not completing the ride. A common injury at PBP is a broken collarbone after falling from the saddle with sleep deprivation. Sleep also helps with decision making — skip the hours of eyes closed and you are more prone to mistakes.
As the ride takes you through the day, night, rain and sunshine, it´s wise to pack the most universal pieces of clothing possible. You don´t want to overpack as carring that extra weight up in the mountains take extra energy. I found it useful to use clothes made of merino wool — this material is a great insulator and also doesn´t let you overheat during the day.
That´s why there was no need to bring extra, long sleeved jersey for the night, i just added arm warmers and a base layer to the jersey. Knee warmers and shoe covers for the legs.
Logistics is taken care of.
There´s roughly 80 km between service points where you need to stamp your brevet passport, can sleep (in bed), have a shower, and eat a warm meal which usually costs 5–7 euros. Stopping roadside in a supermarket may be a better choice for food — cheaper and more to choose from. For example it was difficult for me to feed myself as i don ´t eat gluten and am plant based.
The best catering we had was in the last control point, 60 km from Paris in Dreux. Fresh, warm and crispy croissants from the oven and fresh local fruit with reasonable prices (1 euro per bunch of grapes).
There is also a chance for shower (1–3 euros) at the controls. A small luxury after a day in the saddle but makes things look a lot better when you can clean yourself from dust from the road and sweat.
It´s wise to have the route printed out with you but there is really no need for GPS as the destination is guided with the signs (reflective so visible at night as well).
How often you can take several days and do what you love? PBP takes you outside for several days with likeminded people. There are hundreds of volunteers helping to put this together and the treat everyone like hero. No matter how many people they have talked, treated and met before you.
There are also thousands of people next to the road waving, wishing well and even sharing drink-food (sometimes for free) with the riders. PBP seemed to be equally important to them as it was for the cyclists.
PBP is not a race so use all the time you have. Soon it will be over and you back at your desk wishing to be outside.