Paris-Brest-Paris 2015 “Now I travel” by Peter Müller

Wow, what a trip it has been! As well-known British cyclist and blogger Marcus said: “PBP is the ace!”

My biggest surprise was how relatively little I was hassled by not finishing my 2015 PBP. Yup, a big fat DNF! And yes I felt very, very sorry for myself when it became clear that I could not finish it and the medics pulled me out of the PBP for health reasons (twice: at 1009km and at 1090km).  Worse was that my legs were not too bad at this stage. My nether regions – well that’s another story…

The preparation leading-up to PBP was along the lines of “it’s impossible to do, but what would it take if one pursues this madness”. A great challenge and so much was learned and so much was achieved. All of which enriches one’s own personal life.

Arriving in Paris with your fellow South Africans and in the midst of the international cycling community (+-65 countries) was just great fun, mixed with a healthy dose of nervousness and a tiny bit of naked fear.

The event itself, well, there was so much to it, and some of it becomes blurred due to exhaustion and lack of sleep, so just a few PBP nuggets:

The start: great vibe and very special (our own Argus Cycle Tour start is much slicker in organisation. PBP is run by volunteers).

Sleep: it is one of the key PBP success components on how one manages one’s own sleep. Luckily I can come-by with little sleep if I need to. Catnaps worked very well for me. Even during the two nights after the PBP, I had very little sleep as I was coughing throughout the night (Bron, sadly, can attest to that).

Hallucination: not on the first night nor on the second night (way too cold), sometime during the third night most cyclist benefit from some wonderful and weird hallucinations. Road lines become sheep or ships, red lights wink at you, and sometimes it is difficult to distinguish what was a discussion with a fellow cyclist or a just a thought or a dream during a rest.

General on-the-road-wisdom says: just enjoy it, but don’t fall asleep on your bike. Mine continued after the event – clear as crystal I can remember the damage done to my bike’s front fork, how I let my fingernails run along the cracked damage, how I discussed it with another cyclist while packing it into the bike-bag outside the hotel and how lucky I was to have come that far with that damage. And Presto – back in SA all damage was gone and just in my mind.

French countryside: great! Loved it. Cycling through this beautiful country was the best way to experience it. This is what I came for – and I got tons of it!

Every 5 to 10km there was a village, many old buildings, small twisted roads, and much history at every corner. I read-up on some of it before I left. From a 2000 year old Roman city, to a 1000 year old medieval castle, to Viking/Normandy history, to Joan of Arc who made France the victors at the end of the Hundred Year War, only to be burnt at the stake the following year. Few cyclists would have been aware that the small forest we cycled through just before/after Fougeres is a famous Druid forest (Just think of Asterix’s druid Getafix).

French country side Mk.11: Roads are good. Car drivers are great – they are really not hassled to wait for cyclists till they can safely overtake you. And they all see you. And they all think that’s just great that you are doing the PBP (Hero for a day!)

French countryside Mk.111: no street lights! Most small villages have almost no street lights and the houses have no outside lights – it’s really dark out there. Good batteries for your bike lights are a must. And it gets cold during the night, and damp due to fog, lots of fog. During the second night we really froze.

And what’s with the country’s wildlife – I saw no wild animals and heard no animals making any noises during the night. Just a few birds and one dead cat. And no dogs barked, except one who barked at a dead cat (yes that cat).  Maybe we South Africans are just spoilt with our wildlife and nature.

Cyclists overtaking cyclists: one is continuously overtaken by other cyclists and one overtakes many cyclists as well. Mainly due to differences in stops/rest/eating. I/we had this situation where I was overtaken by very fast cyclists – about 50 or so separate individuals, but these very same individuals overtook me about 30 times during the PBP. So they ride very fast plus have frequent stops. Me and others started to speculate what they stopped for – definitely for good meals, maybe some sleep, maybe a visit or ten at a friend/wife/mistress/girlfriend? We (the slower cyclists) had time on hand to contemplate numerous possibilities and permutations.

Food: yes and no. Yes there is plenty of food at the control points and sometimes along the route. And most of it was good. But what was not clear to non-Francophiles is that 1) at least half of the shops are closed as it was vacation month and the shop owners all go away for a month; 2) that the few open shops only open for a limited number of hours and close during lunchtime; 3) and they don’t stock too many items…

Bakeries are good-to-excellent… if they are open. So it is important to always eat plus take some food with you for the next few hours of cycling.

Public support: Just great! They all come out, even at 3am and many offer coffee/cake/water. (They have been doing this for 124 years!)

Event support: self-sufficiency is key to Audax events. i.e. look after yourself on the road. At the control points the volunteers are great and much is offered. Some control points are like a carnival.

The other cyclists: Many are not young, but nearly all are very serious cyclists and most must have been great athletes in their younger years. The experience level with PBP participants is very high. Very few accidents, despite the large number of riders, the distance, and the massive sleep deprivation. I suspect that more cyclists crashed because of falling asleep on the bike than by crashing into each other by being reckless.

Is it a hard ride?: Yes, much harder than we thought. All the advice we received was that it is “just” rolling hills (a cyclist’s lie). More like hill-interval training for 2/3 of the way. Despite choosing a bike with low gearing (compact, 12-28), lowest gear was needed on a frequent base. Some walked up those steep tarred country roads. The stats of 12 000m of climbing should have been a hint of things to come.

How easy is it to just ride day-in-day-out: Actually not easy. I struggled to get into the groove during the first 100km. Despite doing all those longer preparation rides, once past the first 24 hours it becomes harder. After day 2-3 I got my second wind and felt good again. Getting back into the saddle after a stop is the really hard part – neither the body nor the mind is willing.

Getting back to the start: So there I was sitting in the middle of France, coughing like an ancient two-stroke moped, feverish, sleep deprived and exhausted. At the next control the medic made it clear – no further. They also gave me many, many words in French which were lost on me; also I was just too sick to pay much attention. Most of what took place during those hours is very blurry in my memory.

Outside Mortagne I met another rider whose PBP ride was also coming to an end. We got chatting and he offered me a ride back to Paris (he phoned his wife who was on the way to fetch him). Much appreciated! As luck would have it, they stayed at the same hotel where I was and where my luggage was kept. Slept during the car trip. At the hotel I called a taxi and surprisingly packed my bikebag in just 30min. Fetched my drop-bag and was with Bron in central Paris by late afternoon – sick like a dog.

My body post PBP: Fever stopped after 24 hours; chest still hassling a bit but worst was over within 48 hours; stomach fine; stiff legs for 3 days. Pinched nerves in two fingers – ongoing; blisters on my right hand. Bum still in pain, getting better. Lost a few kgs. Sleep patterns changed. Satisfying fitness.

My bike post PBP: started with a nearly new bike; all cables/tyres/tubes/brakes and some bearings changed before the PBP. A few cables and brakes needed replacing after the PBP due to heavy use. Imaginary damage to my front forks. Some damage to my left mtb shoes while nearly/partially crashing on a steep downhill in the dark. No punctures.

What went wrong on my own PBP: wasted too much time at the control points; Day 2: stomach problems and not being able to keep food down resulting in low energy levels for the next 12 hours, which cost me more time. Day 3-4: started to develop a chest infection and a fever during the night. Some damage to frail male ego. Sometimes struggled to find a cycling group/bunch that suited me.

What went right on my own PBP: very pleased that I was able to recover from the stomach problems (day 2). Despite being sick at the end, my legs still had some go in them (not too much). Having had previous problems with my knees, I was very careful regarding them. Also no neck, lower back, feet or eye problems – was careful re my posture and changing my hand/body position – which worked well.

Equipment, drop-bag, bike stuff, clothing, and nutrition worked generally well and the careful preparation payed off.

What I loved most: For me this was my journey, a cycling & traveling challenge. I really loved the preparations leading up to it and the actual doing it (plan/explore/experience/reflect/grow). Maybe that was why my DNF did not hurt for that long because the finish was just one of many components.

What I did after the PBP: ignore my suffering & strict instructions to Bron not to ask me how I am/am I tired/need some rest. But rather to feed me coffee and muti. We walked for the next 4 days all over Paris, saw the Louvre and many other spots. Ate great food. Then I went to visit my sister outside Nice.

Advice to anyone wanting to do a PBP: sorry, already too late; if you have read this far, the PBP idea will stick in your mind. You might get therapy, booze might work too. But the PBP bug will linger in your thoughts…