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Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Paris-Brest-Paris - Sharing the Experience

PBP – Experience

Wow - where to begin?  I guess the beginning...

When did my desire to complete Paris-Brest-Paris first originate?  I would say it was when I entered Carey 'Chappy' Chappelle’s  pain cave last year after completing the 2018 Creemore Classic.  I had just completed a 400 km ride in 24 hours with some other crazy road warriors: Matt McFarlane, Rick Meloche, Tim O’Callahan, Brenda Wiechers, Paul Slavchenko, and Chappy.   After a tight 3 hours of sleep in Chappy's basement, I hit the shower. As I exited the bathroom, I behled what I came to call  the 'pain cave': a room with Carey’s Computrainer set-up, and around it a makeshift shrine, of sorts, to PBP.  What PBPwas, I didn't really know, but in 2003, 2007, 2011 and 2015 Chappy had 
participated – pictures, race numbers, jerseys... all were hung there as mementos of each time he'd gone.  I was intrigued, and tucked it away wondering if I could be ready to participate in the coming year; could I take part in this extraordinary event that happens every 4 years?

I was on the fence; I didn’t know if I could pull it off.  I let it sit and marinate for a while.  But it seems that PBP was looking for me. I wasn’t really thinking much about it until I completed a nutritional consult for Gordon from Nova Scotia. He was looking for a boost in his nutrition for an event he was preparing to do: Paris-Brest-Paris.  Gordon put the event to the front of my mind, again  – going 1200 km in less then 90 hrs sounded epic, and it was something I felt would stretch my limits.  Having completed the Creemore Classic (an official 400 km event) allowed me to sign up early and align start times with some friends that had committed to the 2019 event.  My friends, Tim, Brenda, Carey, Matt, and Dick Felton had all received start times similar to my 18:15.  And then, I was pre-registered! (From January 2019 through to July, I was required to complete the 4 qualifying rides to turn this “pre-registration” into an official registration. If you're interested, the 4 qualifying rides and links to previous blog entries that capture the full journey to PBP. can be found below.)

200 km Brevet - Rondeau Rando

400 km Brevet - Greek Experience

300 km Brevet - Tour of Detroit

600 km Brevet - Rondeau Rando

2019 Paris-Brest-Paris - Le Grand Event!

(Pardon my French)

I left for France on Wednesday, Aug 14th, and arrived early morning the next day at Charles de Gualle airport.  You know, when traveling with your bike, it's always great  to set eyes on and in the bike box when you reach your final destination.   About 12 hours prior, I  had packed up this box (pictured) with all I felt I would need to successfully complete the biggest ride of my life.

While retrieving my bike box from the oversize luggage area, I ran into another Ontario rider, Mark Nickel. After some casual dialogue, we learned that we were traveling to the same area near the starting line in Rambouillet. Knowing I had a rental car reserved at the airport, I asked Mark if he wanted to see if we could fit the two bike boxes and luggage in (you never know with European-sized cars).  The Fiat 500L turned out to be perfect for the two of us; we had good conversation and he helped me to navigate around Paris and  the surrounding smaller villages.  Along the way, Mark mentioned an Ontario rider that he would be staying with - Larry Optis, and he said that he was quite a competitive rider.  He told me how Larry had done Race Across America (RAAM), and that he had completed a recent double century (320 km) at an average pace of over 38 km/hr – crazy!  I knew I would look him up later as I'm really interested in the long endurance races, and I always want to learn more.  After dropping Mark off, I was onward to Les Essarts-le-Roi where Dick Felton had arranged a full year in advance for us all to share a large townhouse. I was happy to be part of it, and what a feeling when I got there and was greeted by the gang of friendly faces along with one new one - John Cumming from Ilderton.  Matt and his wife Erin would arrive the next day, and then Hannah and Mathias (our RV crew) we to arrive on Saturday morning.  The place was perfect: 4 bathrooms, plenty of bedrooms, and courtyard where we traded stories, beer and wine in the days before and after the event - what an awesome place.

When Matt and Erin arrived on Friday, we learned his bike hadn’t.  This is everyone's nightmare when they travel with a bike. After countless hours on the phone with Norwegian Airlines, we learned it was unlikely the bike would arrive – we had no control of the situation.  What we did have control of was reaching out to the Randonneur Community on social media.  Dick Felton is a long time participant, so he posted about Matt’s situation and asked if folks could help in any way.  Incredibly, right away, a few bikes were offered up from this generous community. What turned out to be the best solution was offered up from someone who remembered that in the 2015 event, a Russian team of 4 all arrived without bikes, so a local bike shop called 'Decathalon' provided them all with new bikes for the 4 day event. All they had to do was replace the tires and brakes afterwards. How cool is that?!  Matt chose to pursue this option and it worked – he could get a new bike that was fitted to him without a huge financial burden – Decathalon came through  – they hooked him up on a great bike as a demo or trial. "Ride it for a week and let us know”.   He bought all his accessories that
he would need for the ride from them, as these were also in the bike box.  He was all set to go.

By the end of the day Friday, we all had our bikes set and gear/supplies packed and ready to go.  Registration and bike inspection was in Rambouillet around noon on Saturday for most of us.  Tim, Brenda and I decided to take the train on the rainy day to avoid messing the bike up too much and, most importantly,to avoid having wet shoes for the start the following day.  As is the case with most bigger events, you get to understand the enormity of it during the check-in process.  I knew this was the oldest cycling event (running since 1891 as a race and then since 1947 as an event), and that it  occurs every 4 years.  Our spirits were not dampened at all by the rain as we knew we had a good forecast coming.  The lines were long - first the bike inspection and then
onto race kit pick-up.  In between those lines, our timing was perfect to get in on the Canadian Rando picture.  We headed back to our home base for the final preparations, beer and more story telling.

Waking up on I will call it Event Day on Sunday was odd. Normally for Ironmans, marathons and cycling races, you get up at 5ish, get some simple carbs in you, some coffee, and gather yourself and gear to head to the race start.  This day was different as our start was at 18:15.  Oh  yeah - I almost forgot to tell you that we received possession of our support vehicle.  Tim had arranged for an amazing RV that would allow us to sleep comfortably when required along the 90 hr journey.   We got familiar with the RV and packed the essentials. We were now set. A couple of hours later, we took the train to the race start.  Once we arrived – we were awestruck by just what an enormous and incredible spectacle this was. 
We were a about 90 minutes early, so we just sat in the shade and took it all in until our 18:15 group was brought to the line.  The next step was to get the Rambouillet 'Depart stamp' on our pseudo-passports - the first stamp of 17 that would document the 1219 km journey to the town of Brest and back to Paris.  After months of training (10 000 km since January), planning and dreaming/visualizing, we were finally on our bikes and ready to do this thing.  Brenda, Tim and I were the only ones among our friends that were leaving with the 18:15 wave.  We were off!

I'm not sure how to capture the next 90 hours or so.  When I jotted this all down, I had had only 7.5 hours of sleep from Sunday morning until Thursday night at 10ish, so forgive me if the details... well, they are a little foggy.

I have learned through many an Ironman race that you never look at the whole race as one big lump;  you really have to break it up into manageable chunks. It would be completely demoralizing to say: “Okay, I only have 85 hours to go!”  So chunk it up I did: first step was to get to the feed station in Mortange at 118 km in.  We were  now firmly in the darkness of night. It was good to get another 3 bottles of my Custom Rando Blend mixed up. I also grabbed some cheese on a banquette, which became a staple during the event.  I was pleased to see Chappy and Matt here - it turned out that it was actually the last time I would see Matt (the fellow on the borrowed bike) until after the race – he road alone and well, never to be caught, proud of the way he rode the first time on the new bike.   From there, we were off for another 100 km to our first control at Vallaines-La-Juhel.  The ride was on dark, smooth country roads – perfect condition,  and they either went up or down, never flat!  What an amazing sight to see the red taillights of hundreds of bikes stretched miles up the road in the dark night.  For the most part Chappy, Brenda, Tim and I stayed together until we got to the 217 km mark at just after 05:00. (5 a.m.)  Again, we fuelled up and we were on to the next control in the beautiful Fougeres for 10:30 and then Tinteniac at 14:30.  At each stop we took a breather, fuelled up and got ready for the next step of the journey. I arrived at Loudeac at 19:45, and was happy with this. I had so far ridden a total of 445 km in 25.5 hours with no sleep.  I finally got into the RV and had my first sip of sleep, which was a total of 1.5 hrs! We got up at 12:30 a.m. to start riding again for 1 a.m.

From Loudeac, we stayed together through to the secret control at St Nicholas and then Carhaix-Plouguer at the 521 km mark at around 5 a.m. Tuesday morning.  After getting our pseudo-passport stamped, I walked into a restaurant, where to my shock, I could see folks sleeping everywhere - anywhere there was open floor space, right there on the terrazzo concrete floor.  I was gobsmacked!  It looked like a scene from the old TV show, Mash.  Brenda Tim and I had some hot soup, bread and a coffee –  the perfect tonic to prepare us for the next leg of the journey; it would giveus the needed jolt to make the 90 km push to Brest  - the halfway point.  But you know what they say about the best laid plans...  all of a sudden my desire to sleep was greater than anything else, and that concrete floor that I thought was a crazy place to sleep moments ago, now seemed like a perfect resting point.  I told Brenda and Tim that I would catch with them up on the road to Brest.  So I simply found a clear patch of concrete floor, set my timer to go off in 40 minutes (why 40 I have no idea – it seemed right).  I woke up with a pain in my neck, a cramp in my foot, but surprisingly ready to go.  That was until I got outside.  My body temperature had dropped during the nap and the outside temperature was around 4°C with a dense fog – the dampness in the air was killer.  You know those camping mornings in Spring when it's too cold to leave your sleeping bag in the morning?  Yeah.  When I looked at the forecasts ahead of my travel, they forecasted 11°C as the lows in Paris and Brest.  Okay - doable. But experiencing lows of 1-4°C each morning with the
dampness was just not a good time.  It tested my mettle, I'll tell you that.  Instantly when I went outside I was chilled to the bone, shivering violently, shaking and teeth chattering.  I had long, light tights over my kit, and long sleeves with a Gore-Tex jacket, but no gloves nor head covering other than the cycling cap (I was glad that I at least had that).  I knew that I had to get on the bike and pedal hard to build some heat.  10-15 minutes later, I had built the heat back up and I was comfortable again. I did pass Chappy, Brenda and Tim, and I let them know I was going to ride my pace, and that I would see them in Brest.  I was a bit conflicted riding out on my own, but what I came to know of this journey is it is hard to ride with others.  Riding styles, the peaks and valleys that we each go through - they never really align. You kinda have to fight this beast alone.

I hit the halfway point in Brest just before 11 a.m. on Tuesday morning.  As I came in over the bridge, I just had to stop for pictures.  Getting the control card signed – this is always a moment of
pride: you get the card stamped, and you feel accomplished.  As always – when I arrived at the RV, Mathias and Hannah had food for me and took care of preparing my 3 bottles of fuel: typically 2 Customs and a Cold Brew.  These kids were amazing! I'm not sure they knew what they had signed up for, but they were champs. They took it very seriously and made every effort to make us successful. I'm ever grateful!

Whew! The climb out of Brest was long but manageable. I quite enjoyed the climbing, but it began to dawn on me that I hadn't taken any lights with me and that I would not see the RV until Loudeac.  What was I thinking?! I would have to really hustle to make it there in the light.  There is this very  long stretch back to Carhaix-Plouguer – a single road with no real distractions and lots of climbing: on this day, it just seemed to go on forever. With the need for sleep pulling at me, I decided to take my first road-side snooze. Folks, it is surprising how absolutely wonderful a patch of grass can feel. I simply put my bike down, took stuff out of pockets, and covered by face to avoid a sunburn. I think I was out for 40 minutes.  Incredible also is how these micro-sleeps can recharge you: you aren’t sleepy anymore and your pace instantly increases – amazing!  My riding since Tintineac was largely alone; I think I had more time when I wasn’t riding as compared to the riders near me. I was always riding with more pace - something to consider for the future. Maybe I can limit my stops/time at stops but maintain my pace.  The rest of the way to the second secret control at St Nicolas was enjoyable but nothing to report on.  These secret controls are to keep people honest. They are, by nature, not announced, so it forces folks to stay on course.

I hit Loudeac right at 9 pm, and luckily, it was still light (you get DQd if you ride without lights at night). At this point I had completed 793 km. I decided to put my head down, but not for too long as I wanted to be riding by 3:30 a.m.   In post-analysis, this is where I could have been more efficient, as I finished riding at 9, but I didn't get to sleep until 11:30 because I was trying to track down the whereabouts of the RV.  Tim, Brenda and Carey arrived later and we all caught up on some sleep.  As a group we were up and on the bikes by 3:30 a.m. and off to Tinteniac. We had to cover almost 100
km to the control point, and we made good time, getting there by 7:30 in the morning.  From here it was on to one of my favourite places along the route: Fougeres – beautiful churches, buildings and the people were great.  Mathias and Hannah were on route out of Fougeres. They hung around long enough to see Chappy roll in and bit later, Tim and Brenda.  Everyone was feeling the heat and the effects of the now 923 km.  At this point, there was some question as to whether Tim could go on. He was pretty badly dehydrated. As a group, we were not sure where the RV would end up.  I decided to set my sights on getting to Mortange – two controls and 185 km away.  It was close to 3 pm when I left with lots of work to do.  I didn’t want to have to complete more than the last two controls (122 km) on the final day (Thursday). We had to be finished up by 12:15 to make it official.  I decided to pack as if I
was going to the end with no RV support, so I took everything I would need: clothes, nutrition, lights and a power source, and left for Vallaines-La-Juhel (another favourite control).  An hour or so in, I was already getting sleepy, so I decided to take another nap along the route. At this stop, there were cots set up for riders, but the grass under the trees seemed perfect to me.  30 minutes here was exactly what I needed. Going forward, I had two instances when I rode with another rider – pushing 35 km/hr pace: a Columbian and later an Austrian. In both cases, we were impressed with one another and grateful to have the distraction, as well as someone to push the pace with.  Sometimes it just feels better going fast - there's less pressure on your butt, which (believe me) at 1000 km is feeling the effects.

At 18:35 on Wednesday night, I hit the control at Villaines-La-Juhel (1012 km).  I was super excited to be here, and there is such a great vibe at this control.  I grabbed a cheese baguette and a large bag of potato chips that I ended up sharing at a picnic table with a few Brits and Aussies.  I checked to see where Matt was - I was hoping I would see him before the end of the ride. Unfortunately he was already at the next check point, so I was going to have to wait until the end to see him.  Matt had an incredible ride, hopping on a new bike for the first time and riding 1200 km basically alone.  Another time, maybe in 2023, I will ride it the way Matt did: completely self-supported. Having the RV was a great way to complete my first PBP, but with the experience behind me, next time, I will look to manage my breaks more effectively and see if I can cover the distance in less than 70 hrs.

Now, fully nourished I was set to ride another 85 km before I would put my head down again, this time in the dormitories they had set up.

My ride to Mortagne was uneventful, it was a beautiful evening and I had a very manageable distance to cover off.  My only goal was was to hit the control, and have a couple of hours sleep so that I had 125 km to finish. Easy!  I arrived just after midnight. After getting my card signed, I grabbed a meal - a ton of pasta salad and cheese baguette. It's really incredible how great food can taste at times like this.  I went out to the get my bed at the make shift dormitories set up, just paying my 5 euros and positioning the clock hands to instruct them when to wake me. Just then,  I got a call from Hannah and Mathias. It turns out they are in town with the RV (unexpected). Tim pulled himself off the
course, and they had him and were going to be there shortly.  So I gave up my bed and made my way to meet the RV, hopped in, slept in my kit, and was up at 3 am to finish this thing.  Obviously I was gutted when I learned that Tim was unable to finish. It was the right call for him as he was fading in and out from severe dehydration- he made the wise decision to call it.  I hope to be there in 2023 to see Tim finish this thing!

Honestly, it gets to be a bit of a blur at this point, but as far as I remember, I got up, made sure I had my nutrition, lights, cycling gloves (borrowed) and decided to head out.  As I was leaving, I saw Chappy and Brenda, thrilled that they were still pushing on.  The first chunk for what remained was about 77 km. I think I left at 3:30 am.  Dark, damp and cold sums it up.  I chunked it up; I knew the first part of this segment was all uphill, and that it might have been the most sustained climbing we had. I actually managed this well.  Well, what goes up must come down... it was time to 'enjoy' the downhill (really a stretch to say I enjoyed this, careening down a hill at 60 km/hr in the dark and cold; it's more apt to say that I endured it).  I actually narrowly avoided a terrible mishap when my light/battery pack came loose.  Rather than getting caught in my spokes and sending my into a devastating crash, it instead got hit by a spoke and snapped off - flying harmlessly off the bike into the dark night.

Later in the ride the sun was beginning to rise - an epic morning! I was only 20 km from the next
control with nice, flat, smooth roads and the rising sun!  I arrived at Dreux at 7:15 a.m.

At this control, I was in no hurry (remember, it's not a race), so I happily waited in line for some food and coffee.  I wanted the air to warm up a bit before I hit the road again.  I had until 12:15 pm to finish with just over 40 km to go.  I got out on the road likely at 8:30 a.m, making my way through the city and back out on the county roads.  Unbelievably (well, maybe not), I was extremely drowsy again.  I could barely keep my eyes open. It was the first time in 85 hours I had felt it this strongly.  I did not want to stop and nap now - I was too close to the finish.  I stopped at the side of the road.  Another rider experiencing the same problem pulled up.  He decided to nap, but I instead decided to take my outer layer off and ride in shorts and long sleeves.  My logic was that I would have to pedal hard to stay warm, that would keep me awake.  Well friends, that (plus some singing at the top of my lungs) did the trick.

The last 10 km seemed like we were riding in a great big park with beautiful rolling hills. It was hitting me - I was almost done.  I was of course glad to be done, but a little sad at the same time. Done... arriving at the finish line in Rambouillet was so anti-climatic.  I was done.  It was over.

I'm not sure how you are supposed to feel after completing 1200 km in 87 hours and 41 minutes,  but I felt pretty darn good.  I ditched the bike, got my last control card signed, and grabbed my medal.  Getting the card at every control was so satisfying, but especially so for this last one.  My mind was then on to breakfast, which I throughly enjoyed despite feeling waves of emotions. I cried into my delicious eggs. I'm not really sure why this happens, but I always get like that at the end of Ironman competitions as well.

Shortly after I finished, Brenda and Chappy rolled in.  Mathias, Hannah, Tim, Brenda, Chappy and I all had a celebratory beer and somehow all crammed into the RV, bikes and all to head back to our townhouse.  Once there, I literally peeled off the cycling kit I had been wearing for the last 48 hrs.  Of course I had some sore spots on my 'undercarriage' (as Ed Veal puts it) but I faired pretty well!  Showers were definitely in order and then we all went downstairs and began swapping stories.  We managed to stay awake for the planned Randonneur Ontario dinner. I was good to be with the 30 others, but by 10 p.m, it was pretty tough to keep our eyes open.

This was all in all, an absolute epic journey.  I truly loved all the preparation, the lead up, the ride and the aftermath.  I will be back for more of the same - hopefully in 2023!

When I returned to Windsor,  CBC radio contacted me. They had heard that I was involved in some silliness overseas and wanted to chat about it.  Tony Doucette is an incredible interviewer, and I really enjoyed spending the time in studio with him.  Here is what we had to say.

If you ever want to talk about the event, perhaps your thinking of tackling it contact me directly - I would love to help!

- Darcy Haggith, President, Infinit Nutrition Canada