My first PBP was in 1999, on a low recumbent trike, though I’ll be on a more conventional machine this time. I recovered the following account of my ride, originally written for the Audax UK magazine Arrivée, from a file in a long-obsolete version of Word. Enjoy… And apologies for the lack of pictures
It was when the small boy at the start mutely held out an autograph book for me to sign that I began to realise just how different Paris-Brest-Paris was going to be…
Simpson’s Travelling Circus
The initial omens had not been good. On the Thursday evening before PBP I’d caught a train to Winchester, then set out in fitful sunshine to ride to the ferry at Portsmouth. As the sun set fat raindrops began to spatter down, and before long I was riding through an apocalyptic thunderstorm. I reflected ruefully that a Trice XL, a low recumbent trike with a seat height of 8 inches, has many virtues but is not perhaps the ideal machine for riding through floodwater 6 inches deep. My headlight flickered and died as the dynamo roller began to aquaplane on the tyre. I switched on dynamo number two, which had never been known to slip. It slipped. I turned on one of the two CatEye Micro battery headlights mounted on the boom. This wasn’t good: I hadn’t even gone 20km and I was already down to lighting system number three. On top of which, I couldn’t have been wetter if I’d jumped in a swimming pool. Repeat after me: I am having fun, I am having fun…
There were around 60 raucous AUKs on the ferry, including Ian Hennessey, much to his own surprise since he’d been told this sailing was full and had been intending to catch an earlier boat. In the circumstances it was hard to remain grumpy. Even better, by next morning, when we arrived in Ouistreham, some of my kit had almost dried out. And the skies were clear. We assembled on the dockside for Uncle Noel Simpson’s Travelling Circus and Mystery Tour. The Greenspeed tandem trike (more generally known as le Grand Lit or the Bed), festooned with lights, bells, and luggage and flying the Union Jack, the tricolor, and the Jolly Roger, trundled out of the belly of the ship, making the first of innumerable less than unobtrusive entrances. Noel (bilingual jokes, cheerful invective, route-finding, comic business) was stoking while “my chauffeur” Pete Gifford (beatific grin) kept things pointed in the right direction, more or less. We set off at a relaxed pace on the wrong (left) side of the road. Mutterings from Noel about the large size of the group were swiftly resolved when he managed to lose half of it shortly after Pegasus Bridge.
We stopped for breakfast at a supermarket cafe. Noel was complaining bitterly about having forgotten his cycling shoes, and was having to ride in a pair of black leather Oxfords. For some reason the suggestion that he add to the English gentleman look by riding in a bowler hat and carrying an umbrella didn’t meet with approval, even when we pointed out he could use the umbrella to prod Pete. I retrieved a spare pair of SPD shoes from my luggage for Noel, glad to find a justification for the small mountain of bags on the back of the trike.
Noel’s route to Evreux was based on a simple principle: Draw a straight line between two points, and avoid it at all costs. As people got lost, reemerged at junctions from unexpected directions, and succumbed to the temptations of roadside cafes, the size of the group on the road would wax and wane. In Bernay we mislaid the Bed, so Ian, Ben Searle, and I set off briskly for the hotel, helped by an immense tractor that did a fine job of motor-pacing us at 36kph for 10km or so. In Evreux the antiseptic, semi-automated Formule 1 hotel, apparently left over from the set of Jacques Tati’s “Traffic,” soon took on a homelier air, with bikes littering the corridors.
The ride to St. Quentin was similarly circuitous and hilarious. After a leisurely picnic we lost the Bed again (or did it lose us?). We joined part of the PBP route for the last few km. I tried hard to concentrate on my surroundings, imagining riding this bit after 1200km. There was no sign of the fabled PBP arrows. Perhaps they hadn’t been installed yet.
The Purple Hedgehog
The Pavillon Bleu, also known, for reasons I never did quite fathom, as the Purple Hedgehog, was abuzz with AUKs. Ian needed some more spare bulbs for bike check purposes (there’s nothing like being prepared… Indeed, this was nothing like being prepared), so we strolled out to look for a bike shop. We soon found one. It contained a couple of rather distraught Americans. They had been out on a pre-PBP ride when their friend had been hit by a car. The friend was being patched up in hospital; meanwhile, they were trying to get his bike back into rideable condition. Aluminium frame, badly bent gear hanger—it didn’t look too hopeful.
Ian’s bike check was set for 09:45 on Sunday, mine for 15:45. I decided to go along with Ian and try my luck, despite the strict instructions to stick to your assigned time. I’d worried about the bike check, but in the event the scrutineers were too gobsmacked by the weirdness of the trike to pay too much attention to the number of spare bulbs I was carrying. Five, if you must know, not counting the four in headlights on the trike. And the two in my headtorch. Cunningly, the scrutineer put an ’X’ in indelible marker on my reflective belt, to ensure it couldn’t be recycled to a friend.
The large area in front of the gymnasium was covered in human-powered vehicles of every description, apart from small-wheeled shoppers and folding bikes. No, hang on, there was a Bike Friday. Tandems, a Moulton, road bikes, mountain bikes, beam bikes, titanium bikes, aluminium bikes, tourers (French and English), two-wheeled recumbents, a hand-powered recumbent trike… An elderly Frenchman homed in on the XL and asked to take a photograph or two, then began telling me in great detail of the recumbent he had built for himself, with both under-seat and above-seat steering. With a flourish he produced a photograph from his pocket. Yes, it was true. Strange, but true…
We collected our carnets de route and PBP waterbottle and shirt, then ambled round the various stands in the gymnasium. Purely out of interest, you understand, since my luggage was already bulging at the seams, and Ian’s saddlebag was a permanent affront to the laws of physics. (You’ve heard of self-inflating mattresses? Ian had self-inflating luggage… He would loosen a strap on his bag, there would be a faint pop, and the room would be instantly filled with stuff.) Upstairs we noticed a rather bizarre bike: A well-used tourer with an agricultural-looking but beautifully fashioned home-produced stem and a wooden rack. The head badge bore no name, just a cartoon rodent head. Elderly components, but a Schmidt dynamo. By a process of elimination (Do we recognise the bike? No, so it’s not an AUK. Is it a flashy racer? No, so probably not Italian or Spanish. Is it upright and equipped to carry improbable quantities of luggage? No, so therefore not Dutch. Are there half a dozen exactly like it in the immediate vicinity? No, so it’s not Danish. Etcetera) we tentatively identified it as American fundamentalist.
With alarming ease, we got hopelessly lost on our way back to the Purple Hedgehog. If we could get this lost when we were bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, how were we going to find the finish after 1200 km? One four-lane road through an industrial estate looks much like another. A French rider saw us head-scratching over maps and went out of his way to set us back on the right road. He was stunned that Ian was riding “pignon fixe,” but seemed to accept the trike as a perfectly reasonable machine for PBP. One possible explanation: We passed numerous bus shelters adorned with huge posters advertising PBP and prominently featuring the Bed and Richard Loke’s Trice.
We spent some of the afternoon chatting to Werner Stettler of Lightspin and his partner, who were so keen to meet and talk with riders who were testing the Lightspin on PBP that they’d driven all the way from Switzerland. (I’d fitted the Trice with a Nordlicht dynamo as backup and a Lightspin as primary lighting system.) Werner and Co. are very serious about the product, and intent on developing it to fix any reported faults. They had already produced a roller in a different material designed to improve wet-weather performance, and were considering increasing the spring tension on the dynamo to the same end. I had the unusual privilege of having my dynamo installation checked and fine-tuned by the designer himself…
It was only a short ride from the Purple Hedgehog (dingy, a bit seedy, but indubitably French) to the “nouvelle ville” (glinting office blocks and fountains that might have been teleported straight from LA), but it was enough to experience culture shock of intercontinental proportions. Equipped only with vague directions from Noel (there was mention of steps and a lake) Ian and I set out ahead of the main foraging party of AUKs to find a restaurant for a meal on Sunday evening. Rather to our surprise, we swiftly found a long flight of steps leading down to a lake surrounded by restaurants. Which (rather less to our surprise) were all full of cyclists yammering away in a cacophony of languages. I wimped out of carrying the trike down to the bottom of the steps. As we were locking bike and trike at the top a German randonneur approached and began interrogating me politely but firmly about the XL. Was I riding the PBP? What was the name of this machine? When was I planning to finish? He was very bemused when I said I was planning to finish in under 90 hours. No, but what was my schedule? “Less than 90 hours,” I reiterated. The answer clearly did not compute. He reeled away, with smoke pouring from his ears…
We managed to get a table on the terrace of a crowded restaurant, and settled down to wait for John Miller. I noticed a ramp leading down to the lakeside opposite the steps, so when John arrived we went off to move the bike and trike round and down so they were in view. This also gave an opportunity to show off one of the XL’s party tricks—the ability to ride under barriers, rather than go round them. And to make a big entrance, of course.
Back at the restaurant, I overheard Waiter A tell Waiter B there was no bread left. Waiter B was exceedingly puzzled: “But I picked up 150 loaves this evening!” Fortunately pasta stocks seemed to be holding out. After a convivial meal, interrupted by frequent bursts of meeting and greeting as we spotted friends, we set off back to the hotel across the dimly lit lakeside. At this point my PBP almost came to an early end. Only at the last moment on my direct route to the exit did I twig that the shiny paving stones I was heading towards were actually, er, water (a finger of the lake, clearly the product of a major fit of architectural whimsy). I could just picture the report in Arrivée. This could be a PBP first: DNS (sunk).
I’ll draw a veil over the remainder of the evening. Suffice it to say that the bar at the Purple Hedgehog might conceivably have shown a modest profit that night.
Eve of Battle
I spent most of Monday morning packing and repacking my panniers for PBP. The routine, repeated ad infinitum, or was it ad nauseam, was this: I would “ruthlessly” jettison everything superfluous (or so I thought). Even so, the panniers would feel a bit heavier than I would have liked. So I would lay everything out on the floor again, try to cram another pair of socks (say) into the bag I was leaving at the hotel, and repack. What can I say? It passed the time.
Ian and I had decided against riding the Prologue on the grounds that (a) it was for people who hadn’t ridden to the start, unlike Tough Cookies such as us; (b) we’d get all sweaty before starting out on PBP, when we’d get all sweaty all over again; (c) Alain Prost???!!! Instead we would have a relaxing morning at the Purple Hedgehog packing and repacking our luggage, then go to the campsite in the park and doze there all afternoon.
We encountered the award presentation for the Prologue as we were riding to the campsite, and paused long enough to applaud Vicki Brown as she received her cup for youngest rider. She was sharing the stage with what appeared to be Jack Eason’s grandfather, who was wearing a T-shirt saying “Le Dernier Kilomètre.”
It was at the campsite cafe that we first heard the rumours about Drew Buck. It seemed he was riding PBP on a newly restored 1904 Pedersen, complete with basket on the front, vintage three-speed gears, and water bottles with corks in the top. Drew arrived, grinning a little sheepishly and wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat. The rumours were true… He admitted that he’d even considered using period carbide lamps, but had decided reluctantly to stick with a modern battery setup, in case of dehydration. The Pedersen was a show-stopper even before he lifted the hatch in the rear hub to show us the chunky cogs that provided his 3-speed gears. Drew was anticipating a very slow ride, but was blithely unconcerned about whether or not he finished.
Steve Abraham, on the other hand, was a bit jumpy. He was riding PBP (on 83 inch fixed) as a warmup for a 24-hour time trial and needed a quick ride in order to make it back to the UK in time. He announced he was going back to his tent to drink a bottle of wine to knock himself out so he would sleep soundly before the 84-hour start. Don’t try this at home, children…
We ate some pasta, just for a change, at the campsite cafe, then headed off to the Welsh encampment to doze away the afternoon. There was an eve of battle atmosphere. It felt as though someone should have been playing a plangent tune on the harmonica. Riders were fiddling with bikes and trundling to and fro to make sure gears were properly adjusted. We lolled on the grass, or in my case on the trike, and made desultory conversation. Dai Harris was worried about his knees. Jim Churton was beginning to regret that he wasn’t riding his Windcheetah trike. Dave Lewis was perfecting his Tarzan impression. The weather since our arrival in Caen had been pretty much perfect for cycling, but now the sky was veiled with cloud and it was becoming uncomfortably sultry. I was worried about dehydration, and kept swigging at my waterbottle so diligently I couldn’t doze for half-hourly trips to the toilet block.
Time was dragging. Because of traffic noise, I hadn’t slept well in the hotel, but I’d told myself this didn’t matter, I’d sleep all afternoon. Yet here I was still awake and chatting. Was I going to worry? Nah.
Eventually we decided it was time to head for “Les Quadrants,” the cafeteria where the pre-event meal was being provided. The huge queue of cyclists outside the restaurant was being admitted in club-sized chunks. Inside, pasta was being doled out in industrial quantities to rather preoccupied riders (if I was anything to go by). We sat with Annemarie, Bill, Peter Loakes, and other members of the Wessex contingent. Try as I might I couldn’t get my banter to work.
Then it was off to the start itself. Now there were not only hordes of cyclists, but crowds of people by the roadside. After a few more formalities I was in the Gymnase des Droits de l’Homme, manhandling the trike into the holding pen for the 21.45 departure (trikes, tandems, recumbents, and other weird stuff. Hello, Drew!). Now there was an opportunity to meet some Internet acquaintances: A lean Aussie with a Greenspeed race trike that was even lower than the XL introduced himself: Ian Humphries. The skinny American on the Festina recumbent bike must be Zach Kaplan. Another American, Van Epps, was riding an arm-powered trike. He was very edgy. I could understand this; the thought of riding even to the local shops by arm power was daunting enough. Ian, Zach, and I talked recumbents and PBP tactics for a while, then Ian said: “Don’t we have to get our cards stamped before the start?” Oh yes, now you come to mention it. We trooped sheepishly off into the gymnasium to get the departure control stamp. This could have been a very embarrassing omission…
All I wanted now was to be on the road. At least the XL gave me a comfortable seat to hang around on. Eventually we were moved from the holding pen. It was at this point that a small boy handed me his autograph book. At first I thought he couldn’t be serious, but one look at his grave expression showed otherwise. I signed with as much of a flourish as I could muster.
I hadn’t been entirely honest with my German friend the previous evening when I said I didn’t have a plan for the event. Besides my usual plan—ride as long as seems feasible, sleep as little as you feel you can get away with, and finish if at all possible before the cutoff time—I had a couple of other aims: Try not to get passed by too many people before Mortagne, and stay out of trouble. This might not amount to a Keith Smallwood-style schedule, but it was a start anyhow.
Unfortunately, the last element in my plan was jettisoned when, after an interlude of speechmaking, the starting hooter blared out. I proceeded with due caution at least as far as the roundabout immediately beyond the start. People were cheering and clapping, so naturally I immediately succumbed to testosterone poisoning and set off down the road at a ludicrous speed. I was aware of applauding crowds at every junction and overbridge. No sign of any arrows marking the route, but police and marshals ensured riders had priority. I have a blurry recollection of blasting past Dai and Ron. After a little while I found myself in a small cohesive pack of tandems in which I and a short-wheelbase recumbent bike with a tail fairing (probably Douglas Carnall, I think) served as jokers. Aware I was so low as to be useless as a pacemaker to a normal recumbent bike, let alone a conventional machine, I sat at the end of the file and hammered along.
Abruptly we made the transition from lit urban roads to stygian dark. For the first time I became conscious of PBP arrows at the junctions. Unfortunately the reflective part of the arrows was an equilateral triangle, and it was hard to determine which way an arrow was actually pointing as I approached. A double triangle or triangle-with-a-tail would have been more helpful.
I was still holding on to my tandem group, though the route was becoming a bit hillier and, from the sweat dripping from my chin, I was aware I was working, um, quite hard. It was still very warm, and, despite my afternoon of water-drinking, I felt I was probably not drinking quite as much as I ought to have been.
The descent through the forest to Gambaiseul was entertaining, though the vicious cobbled speed bumps (shouts of “Ralentisseurs!”) in the village were less so. Upon landing after a brief flight I was relieved to find that nothing had grounded on the XL. Or, for that matter, on me. After a quick grope under the seat—of the trike, I hasten to add—I established I hadn’t even lost my second waterbottle from the underseat cage. It was around this time that I encountered a French tandem team that was very struck by the XL. I conducted a short seminar on the pros and cons of recumbent trikes on a ride like PBP. It was a bit difficult to think of cons, but I did my best. Really. Then we hit a descent. Exit tricyclist, cackling like a loon…
A tandem approached from behind, travelling at approximately Mach 2: the Bayley/Blalock rocket. I surfed on the slipstream for a while, then, along with a very short-wheelbase French tandem (if the stoker wasn’t very friendly with the captain at the start of PBP, he would have been by the end), thought better of it.
After Nogent-Le-Roi small groups of leading riders from the 22:00 start began to catch me. A gappy dotted line of red LEDs stretched to the horizon across undulating moonlit fields. I was still working hard, and not quite sure whether I was actually enjoying myself, but I wouldn’t have missed this for anything.
In the small hours I plodded up a long drag. There were buildings at the top. As I rode past I was stunned to hear applause and cheers from a group of people parked at the summit. Even out here there were still marshals, whether official or voluntary, at every major junction. The terrain became hillier on the approach to Mortagne. On a fast descent through dark woods I supplemented the 3-watt headlight, driven by my Lightspin, with one of the two CatEye Micros mounted on the derailleur post. The resulting light was greatly appreciated by a rider on an upright. He was probably French, I think (lamps emitting a faint glimmer equivalent to a couple of off-colour glow-worms in a smoked glass jar), and he wheel-sucked desperately until the next climb. When he overtook, of course.
The night was warm and the road was lumpy. Just as I finished the last of my water I encountered a roadside water stop run by a local cycling club, and pulled in with my tongue hanging out. The food stop was just a few more kilometres.
Though for the last couple of days I’d done little but eat, to the extent that I felt like Monty Python’s Mr. Creosote by the time I set out on PBP (I couldn’t have guaranteed not to explode if someone had offered me so much as a wafer-thin mint at the start), I was now hungry so cast aside thoughts of charging straight through Mortagne. After all, I reminded myself, I was doing this for the experience.
I was surprised to find that my average speed to this point was only a little under 30kph—unheard-of on the trike over this sort of distance. Queues were short at the feeding station, and after a good meal I dozed for a few minutes at the table. Ian Hennessey arrived, so we set out together on the next leg.
It was still dark, but we were now definitely in the thick of the field. No longer was there a dotted line of light over the hills; now a continuous river of red LEDs snaked into the distance. The bunch was at least two abreast. Riders were still a bit testosterone-crazed, and there was enough jittery riding to make me very glad I was on the XL. To maintain station in the pack I was having to brake on the downhills, but I also seemed to be climbing faster than many, then having to brake. I could see that Ian too was becoming irked by the way he was being prevented from maintaining his rhythm on fixed. After a while on a descent Ian swung onto the “wrong” side of the road and began bunch-hopping. I followed suit.
This was the point, I think, when I stopped viewing the big bunches as a hindrance and potential danger and started viewing them as a source of Big Fun. Ian would swoosh past a stream of riders, his legs a blur. Then I would swoosh past, reclining on my chaise longue. We would maintain momentum uphill as long as possible; a few of the riders we had just overtaken would pass us; then it was on to the next descent and time for more swooshing.
Eventually, to my great regret, we encountered a closed level crossing at the foot of a hill. After this I found it hard to regain the same rhythm, especially as the terrain became rather hillier. Or perhaps I was running short of fuel. Not long after this I passed Zach, riding one of the two machines on PBP as low as the XL.
Battling Through the Bulge
The first sign I was approaching the control at Villaines-la-Juhel was the number of support vehicles parked by the roadside. People were lining the streets and clapping, and the closed road that served as the axis of the control complex was thronged with riders and spectators. As at all the controls, the check-in point was separate from the food, so, if you wanted to, you could log in and get back on the road with minimum delay. I didn’t want to. I breakfasted well, not to say hugely, on potato puree, vegetables, rice pudding, and sundry other stuff. The food was excellent—hey, I was in France! I emerged and politely elbowed my way through the knot of onlookers gawping at the trike. There ensued a conversation that was to be repeated many times over the next 1,000 km. “How do you steer? (With the handlebars under the seat.) Isn’t it hard work up hills? (Anything but, though you do climb a little more slowly.) What’s it like on the flat? (Heh heh.) What about downhill? (Heh heh heh heh heh.)” The lighting on the XL was also a source of wonderment: Two Cateye Micros, two Busch and Muller headlights, two dynamos, look at how that Lightspin roller spins! I explained that the trike was very quick on descents, so I had lighting to allow me to ride downhill at 60 kph or more at night. And also uphill rather more slowly, of course…
On the leg from Villaines to Fougères it began to get very hot indeed, so I donned my Buff—a tube of stretchy fabric that can serve as sweatband or various forms of headgear, some more embarrassing than others. I was opting for the simpler and more embarrassing end of the spectrum. Ian referred to the Buff dismissively as my “headsock,” but I preferred to think of it more as a fairing. It pins my ears back at least, which must be worth a couple of kph… The first section of this stage was quite hilly, so water was running low by the time we reached Gorron. We stopped at a cafe, had a sandwich and drank large quantities of lemonade, then ventured back out into the sizzling sun. Getting into the PBP spirit, the citizens of Gorron had constructed a large roadside effigy of a cyclist. Or else someone had spiked my lemonade.
The control at Fougères was so busy that, by unspoken agreement, Ian and I just got our cards swiped and carnets stamped, then rode off to find a cafe. Just round the corner, as it turned out. After more lemonade, coffee, and omelette, plus in my case a brief interval of coma, head on the table, which caused some amusement to the other customers, we set out again into the baking afternoon.
Dehydration was clearly a serious threat, and it was difficult to drink enough while riding, so we made a number of quick lemonade stops at village stores, garages, and cafes. The heat was evidently taking a toll on some riders, and the terrain was becoming very recumbent- (and fixer-) friendly, so we began to have a little fun ambushing bunches. The high point was catching a group of fifteen or so Italians on gaudy road bikes just as they started to climb out of a dip. Their consternation as Ian whipped past on his slightly scabby fixed-wheel bike was compounded when I came spinning frenziedly by.
Like Fougères, Tinténiac seemed busy, so, rather than eat at the control, we just checked in and got straight back on the road, with the intention of finding a cafe soon. At a junction at the top—we thought— of the climb to Béchérel a bar was promising refreshment to randonneurs. Dripping with sweat, we tottered in for coffee, lemonade, and a sandwich. And more lemonade. Then some more lemonade. I subsided onto the table for a while. Ivo Miesen arrived, complaining of the heat and an upset stomach. Tim and Pauline Wainwright arrived, complaining of the heat. We wondered who else we might see if we hung around, then decided reluctantly to set out again.
It soon transpired that the junction wasn’t anywhere near the top of the climb. Ian, able to cheat by honking, charged off up the hill while I twiddled a rather smaller gear and marvelled at the number of bookshops. (I later discovered Béchérel is a centre of the second-hand and antiquarian book trade in France.) Once the climb was over, I engaged grin and high gear and bashed off in pursuit of Ian.
To no avail. He’d vanished. A small town (St. Méen?) was full of cafes with clusters of bikes outside, but I couldn’t spot the fixed, so I rode on. The light was beginning to fade a little. A French couple overtook me on a climb. The woman scolded me for not having my lights on: Wasn’t I afraid of being squashed by a lorry? No, they give me a wide berth because I’m a strange sight, I explained. She rode off, tutting. I noticed her lights weren’t on. A few minutes later I decided it was time for lights and reflective belt, and pulled off the road at a junction. This had the effect of causing the next half-dozen riders to stop also, an excellent illustration of the Sheep Effect. You know the sort of thing… I’m in a queue at a control, wondering what to eat. The person in front of me makes their choice. “I’ll h-a-a-ave wh-a-a-a-t he’s h-a-a-a-ving,” I find myself bleating. “Th-a-a-a-t looks good,” someone behind me says. The Sheep Effect is also responsible for more excursions off route than eccentric route sheets. Personally I find I become more ovine the further I ride. I’ll be completely stuck if I ever encounter a cattle grid after 1,000 km. Oh baaa….
It was a beautiful evening to be on the road. This was Brittany, and it seemed that every household knew—and cared—that PBP was on. Families, normally three generations at least, were seated facing the road, or dining in their gardens, and applauded as we went by. There were shouts of “Bon courage!” and “Bonne route!” And quite a few cries of “Tiens!” as people spotted the trike. Children on bikes would chase for a few metres. Other kids stood by the roadside to get a high-five from the randonneurs as they rode past. Every few kilometres families had set up roadside stands offering water, coffee, and food. This was starting to feel more like a royal progress than an endurance cycling event.
The first night had been a struggle, since I’d been intent on making a quick start to avoid getting stuck at controls. From noon to nightfall, the first day had been a struggle as I attempted to stave off dehydration and sunstroke. But this was sheer delight.
Beds Are for Wimps
Loudéac was busy enough, but there were no queues in the restaurant. I loaded my tray with indecent quantities of food (mashed potato again featured prominently—ideal fuel since there was no need for any of that tiresome chewing: Just suck and go). Before long, to my immense surprise, Ian arrived; I’d assumed he was already at the control, if not in Carhaix. Sleep seemed an attractive idea, but in moderation: The night was made for riding. I laid my head on my arms on the table and dozed for a few minutes.
Refreshed, I emerged with Ian from the restaurant to survey the scene. Hundreds of bikes were leaning against specially installed fences in the yard. Only one (fixed-wheel) bike had a recumbent trike as a bikestand. A couple of hardy naked randonneurs were having a cold shower from a hosepipe, to universal indifference. Riders were arriving, milling around, leaving, fiddling with bikes. As we straggled out of the control in the dead of night the rider ahead of us turned right on a red light. Almost immediately there was an extremely cross shout of “Stop!” (in French, you understand) from the driver of a small van. I was alarmed: Was this a commissaire about to punish a violation of the code of the route? Had someone been sorbing with the urine? Or leaving bad memory? “Excuse me, is something wrong?” I asked nervously. “Yes—this isn’t the PBP route. You’re following the wrong arrows,” M. Angry said. “Follow me.” On closer inspection we realised we’d inadvertently followed arrows pointing the way to a motocross event…
After all the long straight roads, the tiny, twisting, hilly lanes were a stimulating change. I rode for a bit with Patrick Field on his Burrows Ratcatcher recumbent, with its oddly canted back wheel. Ian disappeared up a hill, then a few minutes later reappeared from behind with the small bunch he had just led off route. Then he vanished uphill again. Somewhere a considerable way above, the glow of sodium streetlights outshone the moonlight: a village on a hill. I wondered if we would be going there.
Yes, PBP was adhering to the first rule of audax routefinding: Head for the hills. It was a looong climb up to the village—Merléac, I think. But it was worth it. In the small hours a small cafe in the small square at the top was doing a brisk trade. Despite the time, the staff were cheery and welcoming. I parked the trike and plonked myself down at a table outside next to Ian. Lemonade (keep hydrated), a big coffee (keep awake), and a bowl of frites (you don’t seriously need a reason, do you?) seemed just the ticket. The entertainment was excellent. First Alastair Worsley arrived on his upright trike, staggered zombie-like to a table, and nodded out. Then we watched as Drew Buck honked into the square on his Pedersen. Shunning the cafe, he vanished into the shadows by the church opposite. A few moments later his legs projected from behind a flower tub as he flaked out for a few minutes. Jim Hopper, riding his upright trike on the 84-hour start, hammered past with barely a sideways glance.
It was a wrench to set out again. In Corlay there was a well-appointed secret control, but I wasn’t going to loiter. There seemed to be fewer hills now, but before long I was getting dozy. This is rather less of a problem on a recumbent trike than it is on a bike, and I managed to keep going for a longish stretch on a fairly major road. Not that there was any traffic around, fortunately. Then I was back on lanes, gradually acquiring a sizeable French fan club who stuck close to my rear wheel so they could fully appreciate my lighting. That was fine—it made no difference to me whether I was following another bike or leading a group, and the murmur of conversation was rather pleasant. Gradually my doziness began to pass off. Gradually my pace began to creep up. Gradually I became aware that there was no one on my wheel. The last few kilometres to Carhaix flew by. I stormed past a group of fifteen or so before Maël-Carhaix, then jumped another big bunch on the approaches to Carhaix, in the dawn light.
The idea of a proper French breakfast, with a croissant, fresh bread, and plenty of coffee, had been becoming increasingly attractive. Luckily enough, that was exactly what was on offer in the courtyard at Carhaix. This far into the ride, though, carrying a tray with a full bowl of coffee was a non-trivial task. Especially when you then had to sit down on the end of a bench which reared skywards when the other occupants left. Never mind. I mopped up the coffee swilling around the tray with bits of baguette.
George Hanna, on the 80-hour start, was at Carhaix, now on the return leg. Or was this his last leg? His knee had been taking a dim view of proceedings, but he was attempting to persuade it to see the error of its ways. I was sure he’d make it: He had the look of a man on a mission.
It began to rain. This was an incentive to spend a little extra time at the control changing clothes and having a thorough wash. Ian rolled up. Once again he’d contrived to overtake me en route yet end up behind me. After breakfasting he decided a bit of sleep was in order. I wanted to press on. I put on legwarmers and and Pertex top, and set out into the rain.
Which almost immediately stopped, I’m pleased to say. So I did likewise, and took off the waterproof. After a family holiday last year I knew the stretch from Carhaix to Roc Trévézel involved a good deal of steady climbing, so I was going to be generating plenty of heat. John Miller caught me a little way out of Carhaix, and we rode together for a while, exchanging impressions of PBP so far. John was interested in the XL (I’ve noticed how riders on upright bikes begin to gain a keen interest in recumbents after 500km or so. But I was mildly disappointed that no one had yet offered a swap). I still seemed to be having a good patch, so we found ourselves passing numerous riders as we ascended through the forest to Huelgoat, following the river as it tumbled over mossy boulders.
Shortly after Huelgoat a low yellow machine hove into view: Zach. We began chatting about our experiences on the ride—talking recumbents again. At intervals Zach would provide a bulletin on his heart rate. He was wearing a heart-rate monitor, mainly to ensure he didn’t make too much of an effort over the first couple of stages. I explained I allowed natural laziness to take care of that concern…
In contrast to many of the American riders, Zach was completely self-supported. His Festina is principally intended as a racing machine, but he’d cunningly managed to attach luggage in various creative places—an underseat bag, a bag suspended from the top of the seat, a small pannier on one side of the back wheel. His Festina, like the Trice XL, has BMX-size (406 ERTRO) wheels, which can make high gears a problem. He was running a single 67-tooth chainring, but had a Mountain Drive 2-speed bottom bracket gearbox. When he needed a low gear he tapped a button on the crank with his heel. And changed up several gears at the back, since bottom gear on the Mountain Drive is a 250 percent reduction. The resulting mismatch between crank speed and chainwheel speed was a very odd sight. Zach said that riders had been looking at the size of the chainring and saying in awed tones: “You must be really strong.”
John bade us farewell and tromped off after a while. Zach was excellent company, and it was pleasant to chat to someone on the same level… We barely noticed the climb of Roc Trévézel, apart from the abrupt change to bleak moorland vegetation. The views at the top were spectacular, with shafts of sunlight cutting through lowering clouds. Naturally (for PBP), several spectators were waiting at the summit to cheer us on.
I don’t care how much you enjoyed the descent into Sizun, I enjoyed it more. And was able to take in more of the scenery on the way down, while waving to familiar faces as they climbed out of Brest: Hello Steve, hello Keith… It became evident that while the XL on its own caused consternation among the travelling public, XL plus Festina was a traffic-stopper.
ACP had laid on extra hills on the run into Brest, the weather was becoming hot and humid again, and I was still wearing my leg-warmers. I was sure it wasn’t this far from Roc Trévézel into Brest. I did my best to recall the geography of this bit of Brittany, and failed, then forgot these minor discomforts as they shrank into insignificance compared with the thrill of crossing the elegant suspension bridge across the estuary.
The traffic and exhaust fumes on the final climb were unpleasant, but soon forgotten as we rode into the control. I was almost becoming blasé about the applause by now. Almost. Well actually not at all.
There seemed to be even more people milling around at Brest than at earlier controls, and the cacophony in the hall was indescribable. I spotted a bar, but couldn’t see where the food was. Simple tasks were becoming complicated as fatigue and sleep deprivation began to take their toll. I saw a rider hobbling along on Look cleats with a tray of food, then missing his footing as he descended some steps. Ouch… The restaurant system here was novel: There was a stall in the corner at which you purchased tickets for your food, sight unseen. Then you trekked across a large courtyard to the dining room. Dave Collins, whom I’d last seen in a very hyped-up state on the first (or was it the second?) night, was there, now back to his normal laid-back self.
Inspired by thoughts that we were halfway home, or halfway to Paris at any rate, Zach and I headed back to our steeds. As usual, there was a knot of interested spectators, and, as usual, departure was delayed by a question-and-answer session. (The “Good grief, it’s a recumbent”/“Tiens, c’est un vélo couché” factor probably added a minimum of 15 and usually more like 30 minutes to turnaround time at controls. Not that I’m complaining—it was an excellent way of meeting people.) After a brief photo call we escaped back into the urban traffic.
As I recall it, much of the route to Sizun seemed to have been sponsored by Descents-R-Us. I saw a maximum of 76kph, blurrily. The XL was marginally slower than the Festina on the long straight downhills, but brief bursts of frenetic pedalling were enough to close the gap. There was plenty of opportunity to practice the Recumbent Tuck: Move forward on the seat, slouch down, rest one hand in your lap, steer with the other, and point your toes into the slipstream. While trying not to grin, of course.
Zach and I chatted our way back up Roc Trévézel. In sweltering heat we passed the American rider on his homebuilt recumbent trike with a fabric fairing, only his head visible (a boil-in-the-bag randonneur?). Zach observed that this trike appeared quicker uphill than down. But to ride PBP on a machine that was not just homemade but your own design was quite something…. We stopped briefly for water at a local cycling club’s stall, which was at exactly the right point in the climb, then set off again, passing several upright riders towards the summit. Where, needless to say, there were still applauding spectators.
The inward route back to Carhaix took the main road, which was a bit of a pity since I’d been looking forward to the road through the forest again. At the control some riders were definitely looking a bit frayed round the edges now. I saw an American sit down with his meal, take a mouthful, and start puking over his tray. Mmm, appetising. We had a quick stop then set off for Loudéac, in daylight this time.
It was a glorious early evening. I was surprised to encounter the occasional rider still heading for Brest—surely they would be out of time? I was even more surprised a few kilometres later when the puking American sped past, hanging grimly onto the wheel of a tandem. We rode steadily on through tree-shaded lanes, the sun on our back (and maybe the wind too; it’s hard to tell on the trike). This was definitely one of the prettiest sections of the whole ride. Somewhere around Merléac, as the light was fading, we hooked up with a small mixed-nationality group including Dave Collins and other AUKs. On the approach to Loudéac a French rider wearing a Loudéac CC shirt rode purposefully to the head of the bunch and navigated us at high speed to the control, then vanished before I could thank him. Time for more food and—what was that other thing? Oh yes, sleep.
Beds Are for Wimps (Again)
Zach was still traumatised by the recollection of the synchronised snoring he’d encountered in the Loudéac dormitory on the outward leg, so was intent on sleeping on the grass. We agreed to set out again at 2am. Zach went off to find his sleeping quarters, and I laid my head on the table. (Brief interval of unconsciousness.)
I became dimly aware I was being addressed. With great reluctance I opened my eyes. It was Ian. “How’s it going?” he said chirpily. I seemed to have lost the power of speech. “Fnuurgh fnaargh,” I said, and blanked out again.
French voices drifted through the fog of sleep. Why were they talking French? I must be in France. Why was I in France? PBP, of course…
The thought jolted me into a ghastly parody of action. I lurched to my feet, knocking my chair over and startling the two women chatting at the other end of the table. Speech was still not an option, so I gave them a hideous leer of apology and staggered off like one of Dr. Frankenstein’s less successful prototypes.
It wasn’t yet 1am. I became uncomfortably aware that the chamois in my shorts seemed to have turned to sandpaper. Time for a wash and a change. Refreshed and wakeful, I decided it would be a good idea to locate Zach. Every patch of grass was covered in foil-wrapped randonneurs, but I eventually found him outside the infirmery, dead to the world. I settled on the restaurant verandah overlooking the courtyard with a large bowl of coffee. The hosepipe shower still seemed popular with the hardier element. A rider arrived, got off his bike, then collapsed and had to be helped to the first aid station. Jim Churton and Rose, making good time on the 84-hour start, paused for a chat. Rose was in “Never again!” mode, but didn’t have far to go before a night’s sleep in a cosy tent cunningly pitched at a site just off the route.
At the appointed hour I went to rouse Zach. This was easier said than done, but I managed it in the end, at the cost of slight hoarseness, and we set off again not too long after our intended time. Bizarrely, within a few kilometres I bonked severely, though I’d eaten a substantial meal not many hours before, so we pulled off the road and I ate a couple of energy bars. Zach too tucked in to some of his stocks—it seemed he’d started PBP carrying 30 Clif bars, which he managed to salt away in much less luggage than me. Mind you, he wore the same clothing (longs!) the whole way.
Not long after this stop the hallucinations started. Zach was wearing a tabard with a couple of vertical strips of reflective material, and the back of his helmet had some more reflective strips. In my headlights the effect of these, combined with the vents in his helmet, was of a hallowe’en lantern dancing down the road. I had a cunning plan. I would give Zach a tow, thereby avoiding the hallucination. Unfortunately Zach complained he was being dazzled by my taillights and the reflective panels on my panniers. So we settled on a less than optimally efficient side-by-side formation, and I told him about the electric eels and UFOs he could expect to see on Edinburgh-London, if my experience was anything to go by…
Before Tinténiac there was a secret control. Mmm, hot chocolate and pain au chocolat, with chocolate on the side. Patrick Field was here, positively thrumming with the thrill of PBP. Zach and I were beginning to entertain thoughts of a relatively fast time (for people who hadn’t set out to do a time at all, that is). I fell into conversation with a French couple who had ridden PBP before. They were most insistent we should aim for a daylight finish, since it would be much more atmospheric. Oh all right then.
As we approached Tinténiac in the early morning light I was feeling dozy. I saw Zach veer over onto the left side of the road on a descent. Maybe he was sleepy too. At the control we ate, then I crashed out on the table for a few minutes while Zach went off to find a patch of grass. I ambled downstairs and encountered Rocco, who warned me of the perfidiousness of carbon forks, a propos of a mangled pair at the bike repair station. I caught sight of Jim Hopper, who almost appeared to be enjoying himself. Where had Zach gone? He was under a tree, snoring gently. There was no hurry. I sat down and did a little people-watching until he surfaced.
Ratbike, and a Good Patch
When we returned to our machines Zach greeted an acquaintance from San Francisco who was dressed in a somewhat unorthodox style: Implausibly hairy sweater and what appeared to be a pair of heavy duty gardening gloves. That wasn’t all he was wearing, of course. The wooden rack on his bike was familiar: It was the “American fundamentalist” tourer I’d seen it on bike check day. I complimented him on his machine and mentioned I’d noticed it earlier. It transpired it’s known as Ratbike, logically enough.
Between Tinténiac and Fougères I was caught by Dave Lewis, who was wearing the kind of grin that more usually goes with riding a recumbent. On a descent we watched in amazement as Zach rode no-hands at 50 kph, his arms flung wide. Short-wheelbase recumbents are known, as in notorious, for handling that is responsive if you’re enjoying it, twitchy if you’re not. Hands-off riding is not generally an option, let alone hands-off riding at that kind of speed. The Festina seems an impressively stable machine. The rest of this section of PBP is more or less a total blank, except for a lingering impression of being sent on a very circuitous route to the control so we had every opportunity to take in the sights of the town. Though it’s a picturesque place, this was a bit tedious, since it’s hard to thread through traffic on the trike. Ivo, now wearing a Willesden shirt, popped up to take a picture as we approached the control.
The control was busy, but service in the restaurant was amazingly efficient. We had only a few minutes or so to wait in the queue. Which was just as well, since we were surrounded and jostled by a rather large, possibly Belgian contingent whose vocal and gnome-like bearded ringleader was enthusiastically puffing on a particularly vile-smelling pipe. The food here seemed spectacularly good, but by this stage in a ride my judgment may get a bit wonky. I still fondly remember the sandwiches at the petrol station in Lincoln I ate on Edinburgh-London (the sandwiches I ate, not the petrol station I ate—I’ve never yet got quite that hungry). Ben Searle joined us in the dining room. He’d had one or two problems (melting lights, that sort of thing) and was feeling a bit sore, but both he and the Bike Ben Built were still going strong.
As I applied sun cream in the car park before setting out again I was congratulating myself on how relatively compos mentis I was. All things considered. Then Ben came up with my tum bag, which I’d left in the restaurant. It contained trivial stuff, like, er, all my money, credit cards, etc. Thanks, Ben…
We towed an appreciative French tandem up the climb out of Fougères. Duncan Archard, looking implausibly fresh, caught us and asked whether we’d seen Pedals. Not since the start. Then, thanks to the slingshot effect of a dip, I found myself closing on a familiar skinny figure honking his fixed gear up the next rise. The momentum lasted just far enough for me to greet Pedals and tell him that Duncan was close behind.
There were still groups of spectators cheering us on and offering food and water. Occasionally a local rider would join us for a little way. Zach and I were both definitely having a good patch, and the speed was creeping up, and up, and up. We barreled through a village where a local cycling club had a roadside stall, and a rider sprinted after us, hanging on grimly for several km during which we didn’t drop below 38kph. Eventually a rise brought the pace down a bit. Our heroic wheelsucker (I don’t think there’s much of a windshadow from two low recumbents) turned out to be a lad of eleven. Good grief… I asked who his favourite professional was: Stéphane Heulot, who just happened to be local.
Heat and dehydration forced a stop in Ambrières. Zach sought a cash machine, while I spent a long while umm-ing and err-ing in a small supermarket before buying a litre of milk. Oh dear, the dreaded mental paralysis was setting in… It felt very strange to stand in the queue with what I can only describe as normal people. (I can barely begin to imagine how they might have described me.) I was very smelly, so I increased the cheesiness of my grin in a probably futile attempt to compensate.
Hills and Brain Fade
It seemed a hot and hilly slog to Villaines, and for once I was glad to see the lines of support vehicles parked along the road since they meant the control was nearby. Very considerately, the organisers had ensured that there was a ramp down to the restaurant rather than those pesky steps. By this stage riders had devised some very quirky forms of locomotion. Brian Morris had developed a definite list. We sat with Annemarie and Bill and chatted for a while, then set off for Mortagne, where we planned to have a short sleep before tackling the last however far it was.
Shortage of sleep was now placing a layer of cotton wool between me and the world, though I wasn’t—yet—feeling dozy. We passed an upright rider who was seated on the crossbar and visibly wincing with each turn of the pedals. An elderly Frenchman on a resplendent tourer watched Zach pass then offered me a learned technical critique of his pedalling style. I explained that some recumbent riders prefer to set their cleats further back than normal. My style seemed to pass muster, or else he was too polite to criticise me to my face. Or, given the discrepancy between our relative heights, to the top of my head, I suppose…
As Zach and I paused by the roadside to put on our reflective belts and lights, Brian came slowly by. He was listing on the bike too. We trundled on. This leg became lumpier as it went on (few of us could say otherwise). I realised I’d spent the first day or so of the ride saying, every hour: “It’s a lot hillier than I was expecting.” Since then the hills had barely registered. Now I began to notice them again. We were riding in an upright bunch, mostly American, I think. They seemed a bit sluggish on the climbs and were unconsciously baulking us on the descents, but, cocooned as I was in cotton wool, I couldn’t quite bring myself to do anything about the situation. Eventually, on a descent, I snapped. I turned on every available light, tromped past, and kept on pushing (relatively speaking) until the control. Marshals flagged us off the road, up an abrupt but very short climb that had me in the granny ring for the first time in 1,100 km.
In the food queue here Zach began chatting to a relaxed American who, he told me later, was the legendary Lon Haldeman, now apparently serving as a kind of tour guide. While riding PBP, of course. Ian showed up, and we agreed to rendezvous at 1am to set off again. I was keen to wash and change into a clean AUK jersey. This seemed a major priority, even at the expense of sleep time. Just as well, since it took quite a while to work my way to the front of the queue for the washbasin in the loo.
The hall in Mortagne was very large. Snoring bodies lined the wall and encroached into the interior, under tables, on chairs. I found a vacant spot and lay down to sleep. I took the precaution of setting my mini-alarm, but I woke in 45 minutes anyhow.
Zach, Ian, and I set off together. I have no linear memory of this section. My mental film seems to have been shot by an avant-garde director with a great fondness for jump cuts. A long, steady climb through trees, no sound except rhythmic breathing. A lot of silence. Motorcyclists waving torches. A few kilometres of unmade road. Drifts of fine white gravel. Jettisoned batteries and carbohydrate gel wrappers strewn over the tarmac. Foil-wrapped randonneurs littering the verges. Flat roads. Flat roads?!
At some point, as the sky was beginning to lighten, Ian dematerialised: Missing, believed snoring in a field. Zach and I pressed on to Nogent-Le-Roi, where I had the best breakfast of the ride. I was delighted to see Drew arrive at the control. He and the 1904 Pedersen were still going strong, though for most of the ride he’d only had one usable gear—fortunately the middle one of the three he’d set out with.
The finish beckoned. Zach and I headed out on the final leg. Zach was keen to hammer it, but Captain Sensible here was even keener to avoid going off route—something told me I could manage this with very little encouragement in my present state. We found ourselves riding with a small group from Seattle. There was a certain amount of good-natured mockery of the recumbents, but it passed over our heads. Since it’s common “knowledge” that recumbents can’t climb, we upped the pace on a beautifully surfaced ascent through the forest and opened up a satisfying gap. Then (aargh!) the road went vertical for a bit, so it was time to grovel in the granny gear for only the second time on PBP. We passed a group of local cyclists snacking at the roadside who cheered, applauded, and asked, a propos of the trike: “Isn’t it hard work?” No, I said, for the last time on the ride. I was pedalling with mixed feelings: I was strangely reluctant to reach St. Quentin, because that would mean the end of the PBP experience.
Traffic was very heavy on the interminable approach to the finish along a series of featureless and indistinguishable dual carriageway roads. An impatient truck in a queue of vehicles came within a whisker of splatting my offside wheel. Several times I was compelled to wait in traffic as bikes were able to thread through narrow gaps, but Zach was very patient. We’d not ridden all this way together not to finish together.
There is something very strange about the photo that Andy Lander-Stowe took of me as I finished PBP. Though I’m on a recumbent trike, I’m not grinning. In fact, if you look very closely, you might spot a suspicious dampness about the eye…
A lot of statistics about my PBP are missing. I didn’t wear a watch. I didn’t check opening or closing times of controls. I have no idea how fast I rode on average. I have no clue how long I slept. But I do know how many painkillers I consumed in 1,260km: None. After riding PBP on the Trice XL I had no aches and pains apart from mild tingling in the soles of the feet. I was perfectly happy to get back on the trike the next morning to ride 240km to Ouistreham. With a fully functional grin…
I rode a Trice XL recumbent trike, kindly loaned by Rob Hague of Westcountry Recumbents. This was essentially standard spec: Shimano 105 triple chainset plus 11-32 nine-speed block to give a gear range of 19-95 inches. On a Shawn Shaw ride I would probably have appreciated an 11-34 block. The top end may appear low, but I find I can spin extremely fast on a recumbent trike. The seat angle on the XL is adjustable; I rode fully reclined at about 35 degrees, which proved blissfully comfortable. My luggage for PBP was carried in two Ortlieb front-roller panniers on the rear rack. I also wore a bum bag, swivelled round to the front for obvious reasons, to carry wallet, sunglasses, and so forth. I marked the route on pages torn from a Michelin road atlas, and carried these in an Ortlieb document pouch suspended from the seat lacing (in the whole of PBP I never even considered looking at the maps). Around my neck I had the PBP folder containing my carnet de route and swipe card, plus another, smaller Ortlieb pouch with my passport and the PBP route sheet (again, I never consulted this).
The XL had two neat brazed-on dynamo mounts on the seatstays. My PBP lighting was provided by a Lightspin dynamo driving a 3-watt oval Busch and Muller headlight (with standlight) mounted on the derailleur boom. The Lightspin worked faultlessly. Drag was imperceptible. I was only able to tell that the dynamo was engaged because the roller thrummed as it ran across the maker’s name incised into my rear tyre; otherwise it would have been totally silent.
As backup, I had a Nordlicht dynamo driving another similar headlight mounted on the boom. I didn’t use this at all on PBP.
In the top of the derailleur boom I had a T-shaped light mount made by the U.S. recumbent manufacturers Vision, to which I fitted two Cateye Micro headlights, fuelled by lithium AA batteries. I switched on one or both Cateyes for fast descents or whenever I felt a need for more light. I didn’t have to replace the batteries for either during PBP. I carried a headtorch but never used it.
Two Vistalites mounted side-by-side on the rear rack took care of back lighting. I also attempted to glue webbing straps to my panniers so I could mount a Knightlight on each, but one end of each strap became detached. Back to the drawing board…