I’ve been fossicking in the cyber skip again and recovered my account of the 2003 Paris-Brest-Paris. As in 1999, I rode a recumbent trike, but this time it was even lower and considerably lighter.
Conventional wisdom suggests that, as a general rule, tricycles operate better when they have three wheels. Sometimes conventional wisdom is right, even when it comes to unconventional machines. Which is why, with 36 hours to go before I set off for the start of Paris-Brest-Paris, I was giving serious thought to panicking. Not panicking in a low-key, unobtrusive way. No, what I had in mind was a complete, full-blown, carpet-chewing wig-out. I might even pummel the floor. Why? Ah, well…
Conventional wisdom–again–suggests that before a major event like PBP it’s a good idea to have a shakedown ride or two on the Machine You’re Going To Use. Accordingly, I’d decided to ride my ICE Micro recumbent trike on Annemarie Manley’s Birthday Rides 200 from Warmwell, eight days before my departure for Paris. It proved to be a boiling hot day and a scenic ride. The bumpy climb to the lunchtime control put paid to my improvised second rear light bracket. Never mind, I thought, that’s what a shakedown ride is for–the day is wasted if nothing falls off (rider excepted, of course). Taking a leaf out of Shawn Shaw’s book, Annemarie had managed to find a 20-percent climb on the Somerset Levels (All together now: Levels? Ha!), and took us up Piddle Lane out of Cerne Abbas. As I was winching the trike up the lower slopes of Piddle Lane, I encountered a tweedy gentleman coming down. “It’s very steep, you know,” he said, with a concerned air. My computer was registering a heady 4.5 kph as I crested the climb. A couple of minutes later, on the switchback ridge road to Dorchester, it was recording 76 kph and my whooping was audible in the Channel Islands. With a few km to go to the finish, there was a big bang from my nearside front wheel. I was puzzled, since this happened on smooth tarmac, and I wasn’t aware of hitting anything. Two spokes had broken. Hmm, this was a wheel that had led a life of depravity in the gutters and had been seriously trashed when I allowed a friend to test-ride the trike. With PBP looming, it was time for a new wheel. I’d better get in touch with ICE.
Thursday, the next day: I call ICE and explain the problem. ICE have rims coming out of their ears–maybe that’s not the ideal turn of phrase–but no hubs like mine in stock, since they’re now producing their own model. As time is short, we decide on a two-pronged approach. ICE order a new Hope hub, which should arrive on Friday, and I pack off my old hub for a rebuild in case the new hub doesn’t turn up. I relax, and try to devise a way of attaching a PBP frame plate to the Micro.
Monday: I get a call from Neil at ICE. The new hub hasn’t turned up. The old hub hasn’t turned up. The new hub is definitely (no, really) promised for tomorrow. ICE will mount a raiding party on the local post office in the hope of tracking down the hub I mailed. One way or another, they’ll get a rebuilt wheel couriered to me on Tuesday.
Tuesday: Neil calls. With difficulty, my hub has been prised from the tightly clenched fingers of Falmouth post office. The rebuilt wheel should arrive first thing on Wednesday.
Wednesday: I tell the reception staff at work that I’m expecting an important package. They tell me to contact Ray in Stores. Ray, it transpires, could give lessons in elusiveness to the Scarlet Pimpernel. They seek him here… They seek him there… They give it up as a bad job and go and have a cup of tea in the canteen instead. Ray doesn’t answer the phone. His door is firmly locked even at times when it’s advertised as being open. Evidently he’s rather keener on Goods In than Goods Out. It’s at this point that a panic-stricken wig-out loomed.
Eventually, by the cunning expedient of going down to Stores at a time when they’re supposed to be closed, I catch Ray with his door open. Challenged, he reluctantly admits he may have a package for me, gesturing vaguely towards a large heap of cobwebbed boxes marked “Urgent.” I seize my booty and flee.
The wheel fitted straight away. To my relief, no fiddling with shims was required to get the brake pads aligned with the disc. I swapped the durable but spongy Schwalbe Marathon tyres for free-rolling Kevlar Bromptons, checked all the bolts on the trike (except one–see below) for tightness, put fresh lithium AAs in the two CatEye Micros on the boom and the CatEye rear light, and managed to attach my PBP frame number to the top of the rear rack via a cat’s cradle of zip ties. I rode down the road to check the alignment of the battery headlights and Busch and Muller front light, now driven by an S6 dynamo rather than my old LightSpin. Since there’s a lot of vibration on poor roads on the trike, I’d araldited front and rear lights to their brackets. Just as a precaution.
Pre-PBP Thursday dawned. There were three wheels on my wagon. To my surprise, with no more than a modicum of swearing and jumping up and down, I managed to compress my luggage to the point where it would fit in the two Ortlieb Front Roller panniers I was carrying on the trike’s rear rack. Even more to my surprise, it was still sunny when I set off to rendezvous with Tom Hanley at Reading station. Tom’s Virgin train from Scotland arrived pretty much on time (sometimes surprise is not remotely an adequate word), and we set off for Basingstoke to hook up with Robert Watson for the rest of the ride to Portsmouth.
In Alresford we happened upon Rick Cutler, hacking away like an elderly vagrant with the cough he’d brought back as an unwanted souvenir of the Tour de France centenary audax, and Phil Chadwick, who was riding fixed as always. Phil had contrived to lose his wallet somewhere between Lambourn and Alresford. In those circumstances I’d have been gibbering quietly in a secluded corner. Phil was marching up and down with his mobile clamped to his ear, cancelling cards and calmly persuading his wife to drive out to meet him at Portsmouth with emergency plastic. I was extremely impressed… Especially with the wife-persuading bit.
Just before Portsmouth, on the climb after Southwick, I noticed a strange creak-cum-squeak on the trike. Had the binder bolts on the front mudguards loosened? No, the mudguard seemed fine. I decided to check things out at the ferry terminal.
I abruptly revised that decision on the descent into Portsmouth when it became clear that the nearside front tyre was contacting the mudguards. At 50 kph… I was almost sure I could see smoke. I pulled into a bus stop. This was very strange–the mudguard was perfectly secure. But (embarrassed cough) the wheel wasn’t. The trike was attempting to revert to its two-wheeled state. I’d evidently not fully tightened the nearside axle bolt when I fitted the new wheel. Doh!
As I was setting off again I encountered Robert, who, puzzled by my failure to come hurtling and hooting past on the descent in classic trike style, had considerately retraced to see if there was a problem.
The crewmen on the ferry car deck were mildly bemused at the invasion of seventy or so bikes and trikes, some more conventional than others. They reacted as bemused ferry crewmen will in such circumstances, by breaking out emergency supplies of hairy nylon rope and lashing all the machines together in one big tangle. The bar staff on the ferry, on the other hand, were plainly delighted at the invasion of thirsty cyclists.
It was an entertaining two-day ride to St. Quentin. Every few minutes Paul Whitehead loudly proclaimed the joys of relaxed cycle-touring, such as we were doing, and wondered why everyone kept on talking about Monday evening. Was there some kind of bike event on then?
The Formule 1 in Evreux partially answered the question of what had happened to the people in Sangatte when the camp was closed. Paul, Robert, the trike, and I all managed to shoehorn ourselves into a room. I slept well, despite someone attempting, according to Robert, to break into the room. When we arrived in Trappes, we found that every bus shelter bore a poster advertising PBP and prominently featuring Banana Bob Thomas, with his trademark startled expression and yellow faired Kingcycle.
Sunday, bike check day, in St. Quentin was great fun. Disregarding our ostensibly different bike check times, Paul and I headed down to the Gymnase des Droits de l’Homme (can anywhere in the UK boast a Human Rights Sports Hall?) immediately after the unseemly scrum that resulted from the failure of mine host at the Pavillon Bleu to appreciate that the 70 cyclists staying at his hotel would, er, actually require breakfast shortly after waking. Or at any rate before lunchtime. That same day, if at all possible.
Comparing notes after the bike check, it became apparent that the precise form that this took depended on the whim of the team of checkers. Mine–three cheery elderly souls–dutifully checked my back light, my two battery front lights, and my dynamo front light, but simply inquired politely whether I had spare bulbs and batteries (I did). Other people had to show their bulbs. Some testers rattled lights and displayed a close interest in bottle cages (bottle cages??!). Some checked brakes.
After Paul and I had collected our brevet cards, swipe cards, and rather snug ACP jerseys, we spent a happy hour or two examining the bikes in the parking area, greeting long-lost friends, expounding the virtues of recumbent trikes in French and English (well, OK, that was just me), and generally soaking up the vibe. Paul’s only fear was that he might be spotted by ex-Chairman Rocco and press-ganged into service as a domestique in Rocco’s Rocket, so periodically, on sighting a Willesden jersey, he would dive behind the nearest bike stand and lie low.
Robert too turned up, having successfully passed scrutiny at the bike check, and we headed off to the grandly styled PBP Village. This proved to be a series of intriguing ethnic food stalls, a bar or two, a couple of deserted tents manned by local cycle clubs, and a roped-off arena in which people in silly costumes were doing a variety of silly things on silly bikes. It was rather good fun. A compere was yammering over the PA, whipping the audience into a frenzy of indifference. In one corner of the field a small crowd stood around the Hunting/Johnston Trice X2 recumbent tandem trike, chatting animatedly and pointing in disbelief. I ate something spicy and Vietnamese, which was excellent. Paul munched his way through a large selection of cheeses. Robert spotted that free glasses of wine were on offer near the arena. We shimmied over, trying to look suave, like (say) VIPs entitled to free drinks.
Eventually, with reluctance, I tore myself away and headed back to the hotel. People were fussing over their bikes in the function room, which had been pressed into service as a garage. Ian Spenser, who had crashed shortly after disembarking from the ferry, had eventually found someone to fix–well, sort of fix, -ish–the damaged hydraulic front brake line on his Kingcycle. The famous Jim Hopper, whose qualifying series had been scotched by a broken collar bone, had managed to secure an entry for his sixth PBP and was fettling his equally famous red Longstaff upright trike. Pat Hurt had inveigled a mechanic into cannibalising a wheel on a children’s bike to repair damage to a front wheel of his ICE Monster. There were rumours that the Buck/Winter/Abraham triplet had been sighted. Looking round, I spotted a titanium recumbent bike, a couple of Kingcycles, numerous stripped-down road bikes, laden tourers, lots of custom audax bikes, several fixed-wheel bikes, a Windcheetah, Dave Minter’s two-speed vintage Moulton, tandems, the X2, and, making a late entrance through the sliding doors (to a round of applause), the Kenny/Gifford upright tandem trike. The variety of machines on PBP is remarkable, and I was pleased to see AUK maintaining its proud tradition of funny bikes.
Monday dragged. Paul and I rose early, and came tantalisingly close to extracting an adequate breakfast from the chaos in the dining room. Paul was keen to ride the prologue. Having ridden over 300 km to the start, I opted out, despite the incentive (ahem!) of a free T shirt, instead verifying that I could squeeze my PBP luggage into a single pannier and trying to sleep. For lunch I picnicked in the function room on a sandwich from the local bakery, making desultory conversation with various preoccupied riders, then headed upstairs in another largely futile attempt to sleep. I abandoned the attempt at about five, showered, then, feeling faintly like a medieval knight donning armour before a joust, put on my cycling kit and AUK jersey. (It’s a very good idea to wear identifiable national kit on PBP, so people have some idea of what language to address you in, and your compatriots can cheer–or jeer, as appropriate–at the finish.)
It was a colourful scene at Les Quadrants, the office cafeteria where the pre-event blowout is served. I parked the Micro next to Barry Sercombe’s trike, and enjoyed a succession of meet-and-greet moments in the meal queue with, among others, Dave Lewis and George Hanna, both on the 80-hour start. The atmosphere at the meal was odd, simultaneously buzzy and abstracted. Lucy Rutter looked worried. I thought I saw a silent Chris Avery, but dismissed the idea as a premature hallucination.
As I approached the start I was hailed by Jean-Philippe Battu from Grenoble, who had visited me last autumn, lured by the siren appeal of the trike. He was keen for another test ride, but now was not the moment. “Afterwards, Jean-Philippe,” I said firmly.
There was the usual scrimmage of cycles at the entrance to the Gymnase. Cunningly, I positioned myself behind the Hunting/Johnston X2. I don’t know whether you’ve seen the famous photo of the impressively hairy Mike Hunting posing next to an almost equally impressively hairy stuffed wild boar which is wearing an understandably peeved expression–being a) deceased, and b) full of sawdust. Mike is normally among the most mild-mannered (if hirsute) of woodland creatures, but, as the scrimmage continued, I couldn’t help noticing that he was beginning to paw the ground and snort. Eventually, with a roar, he pointed the trike into the melee. As the tandem skittled bodies to right and left–perhaps I exaggerate slightly–I stuck close to its back wheel and muttered apologetically about being on the 21:45 start. We popped out of the throng just in front of the gymnasium like champagne corks on a Formula One podium.
Last time round my PBP almost failed at the outset. In the excitement I nearly forgot to get my card swiped and carte de route stamped at the start. That was a mistake I wasn’t going to nearly make twice… In contrast to 1999, when in order to gain access to the start enclosure for funny machines I’d had to elbow my way through crowds and hoick the trike over a fence, this time the Départ vélos speciaux was clearly signposted and easily accessible.
The enclosure seemed rather large. It soon became evident why. There were far more recumbents, tandems, and oddball machines than in 1999. Among the exotica were a couple of Quest fully faired trikes, one a yellow torpedo, the other an orange torpedo. The bouncy Dutch pilot of the orange one announced he was aiming for a very fast ride. There was a three-wheeled Leitra velomobile with a fully enclosed cockpit, almost certainly the only machine on PBP to boast a windscreen wiper; a two-wheeled recumbent with a clearly home-built composite shell whose lower edges were crudely unfinished; an Easy Racers ‘bent bike with fabric fairing; large numbers of low recumbent bikes; a smattering of upright trikes (all from the UK–what a surprise!); Richard Loke on a prototype Airnimal recumbent; Patrick Field on his Burrows Ratcatcher bike with tailbox and canted back wheel; Rob Webb on his Orbit Ross complete with surround-sound home entertainment system (an exaggeration, but only just); short-wheelbase tandems; long-wheelbase tandems; and a tandem whose main frame was wound about with electroluminescent tubing for maximum psychedelic effect. Not to mention the triplet (it’ll only encourage them).
For some reason (Hmm… What have I done?) AUK accounted for most of the unfaired recumbent trikes I saw at the start. Besides the X2, the ICE contingent comprised Barry, Pat, and me. Roger Gibson, composed as ever, was riding the last pre-ICE Trice. There was John Ward on his elegant Windcheetah with carbon tail fairing. There was Peter Weiss from Oz on his slightly less elegant MR Swiftlet with a home-brew yellow coroplast tailbox. Otherwise Ian Humphries and the other laid-back Aussies were on two wheels, generally at low altitude.
I chatted to Ian, recalling our near-failure to get our cards stamped before the start in 1999. Overhearing, a couple of American tandemists exchanged alarmed looks and rushed off into the Gymnase.
After an eon or two, during which I could sense my attempts at conversation becoming more and more distracted, we were beckoned forward to the start line, which featured an inflatable arch worthy of the Tour de France and an enthusiastic–possibly overenthusiastic–Breton bagpipe band. While photographers flocked around the X2, I listened to the announcements. Apparently somebody was riding PBP on a “patinette.” I was puzzled–that was a scooter, not a Liam Gallagher posing-around-London Vespa but a child’s kick-along machine. There was a public appeal for a replacement front wheel for Andy Corless, on the 80-hour start, who’d suffered a crash after a few km.
A klaxon sounded, the bagpipes blared again, and we were off, amid a firework display of camera flashes and thunderous applause from the crowd. On closed roads, the route took us through the St. Quentin conurbation, with crowds cheering on every bridge and at the roadside. I wanted to ride quickly, but not too quickly. In the circumstances it was hard to keep the adrenalin in check. After following the Kenny/Gifford upright tandem trike down one twisty suburban descent I complimented Pete on his balletic grace as he leaned through the bends. “It’s completely unnecessary, of course,” he said. “But you’ve got to put on a show.”
We were doing that, all right. And the spectators were clapping and pointing the way at every junction. It was a shock to emerge from the lit roads onto lanes and to have to look for arrows. The arrows, it soon transpired, weren’t an improvement on 1999: Only the head, an equilateral triangle, was reflective, and it was hard to spot the non-reflective tail.
The faster tandems and fastest recumbents dwindled into the distance. Let them dwindle… I concentrated on getting into the Trike Zone, maintaining a steady-state effort, a fast spin, and a Zen-like indifference to whether I was overtaker or overtakee. For a while I would pass the electroluminescent tandem, then be passed by it a few minutes later. On one climb the Leitra came silently and spookily past, its pilot invisible. I passed the Leitra at the summit. It was parked, with the canopy open. The pilot seemed to be fanning himself vigorously. (I met him at the finish. Our communication was slightly hampered by the fact that we didn’t share a language, but, even so, I gathered two things: He’d finished quite quickly. And, er, never again, thanks all the same.)
Though the hour was late and we were now in the wilds, there were spectators applauding and shouting “Bon courage” in every hamlet and at the top of every hill. And there were quite a few hills. I knew PBP was hilly–after all, I’d ridden it before. But this was hillier than I remembered, and I was on the flat bit of the route, I thought.
After Nogent I was, briefly, on my own. Then the quickest riders on the 22:00 start began to come by, moving so fast I didn’t so much as consider getting a tow. I was in the Trike Zone, remember. Occasionally someone said “Hello, Pete” to the top of my head as they whizzed past.
The climbs were getting bigger as I approached Mortagne. Which also meant bigger downhills and wider grins. But a couple of times my dynamo headlight cut out briefly. Never mind, I’d investigate when I stopped.
I’d half-considered not halting for food at Mortagne, but after 140 km I felt like a break, especially as the control was scarcely congested. I filled my bottles, bought a plate of pasta and sauce, some fruit juice, yoghurt, and a big bottle of Badoit mineral water, and sat at a table in the huge hall. Before long Richard turned up, to my surprise, since I’d last seen him passing me. Chris Avery sat down opposite. Besides being one of the most notorious sources of cheesy jokes in AUK, many of them at his own expense, Chris is a walking–well, more usually pedalling–encyclopedia of mechanical information. I mentioned the headlight problem. Crisply–I’m sorry, Chrisply–he asked what dynamo I was using. I told him. “Ah yes,” he said, “with a LightSpin or an S6 that generally indicates a loose connection.” Then he was gone, regally bequeathing us various food items he’d bought but didn’t feel like eating.
This was doubly strange. Plates left by Chris are generally empty–not just licked clean, but often partially consumed into the bargain. And I knew that there were no loose connections, because I’d just carefully installed the dynamo. I’d investigate later.
I plugged myself back into the stream of bikes snaking over the hills. Before long the roads, hitherto smooth, became anything but. As I was jolting downhill at high speed, there was a clatter and the road was plunged into darkness. Braking, I groped under the seat: The dynamo was still there. I groped on the boom: The business end of the headlight wasn’t. Ah… There seemed little chance that I’d be able to find the reflector undamaged if I retraced, so I switched on one of my battery front lights and kept on pedalling. Not so much a loose connection as a loose reflector, I mused, recalling belatedly that I’d lost a B&M front light on my upright in similar circumstances and vowing henceforth to use Duck tape on anything illumination-related I couldn’t glue permanently into place.
The loss of the dynamo light wasn’t mission-critical, I reasoned. I had two CatEye Micros on the boom plus 10 lithium AA batteries in my pannier. Onward, and (as it turned out) upward!
There’s generally a moment just before dawn when my eyelids grow heavy and I develop a tendency to try to freewheel even if I’m travelling at 15 kph on a flat road. The sky was lightening as this moment arrived. I saw a sign for a picnic area. From long experience, I know that the only cure for a bout of the dozies is, logically enough, a doze. I pulled off into the layby, unclipped, and, right there on the seat of the trike, fell into a fitful snooze.
Taken individually, the bicycle is a silent machine, as we all know. (Always excepting Paul Whitehead’s bike, which ever since the Brimstone has been making a strange creaking noise which Paul declares is the bearings in the rear hub and cheerfully ignores.) A PBP first-night bunch, on the other hand, creates an unholy racket as it thrums past, say, a slumbering tricyclist. Which is why, before very long, the slumbering tricyclist experimentally opens half an eyelid, sees that the sky is now light, discovers he is now awake, and casts off again into the river of bikes.
It was breakfast time when I rolled into the control complex at Villaines-la-Juhel, a street in the village cordoned off from non-bike traffic. The joint was jumping. Music was pumping from the PA system. Crowds of spectators were milling round and applauding riders as they arrived. Photographers were bustling about. Amid the standard chorus of “Tiens! C’est génial, ça,” I halted the trike just in front of the control, stood up with a flourish (easier said than done after 200 km of hard pedalling on a trike as low as the Micro), got my card swiped and carte de route stamped, and went off in search of food.
The breakfast queue took a while, but I didn’t mind–everyone was doing their best and I was enjoying the break. I joined Sheila Simpson and Ray Smith at a table. One of the pleasures of PBP is running into people at controls. Metaphorically speaking… Literal collisions are to be avoided, especially when carrying a laden tray.
A soupy night had given way to a humid day. I applied sunscreen while fielding questions about the trike, then set off for what I expected would be quite a lumpy leg to Fougéres. Even after 200-plus km, I didn’t quite feel that I’d got properly under way. It was a long event, I mused–drat, that was exactly what I’d been trying not to remember–so at some point I’d ride myself into form. Probably. Possibly.
Still with a sense that I wasn’t quite firing on all cylinders, I toiled sweatily up the latest in a long series of long drags, passing a rider on a low recumbent bike who asked plaintively: “Why are you going so fast?” Fast??!! On an event like PBP it’s a safe bet that there will always be someone who’s having a worse patch than you are. On the other hand, there will always be hundreds of riders who will steam past as though you’re standing still. Unless your name is Gethin Butler.
Villaines to Fougères was indeed pretty hilly. There was lots of roadside support in Gorron and subsequent villages, but I was keen to keep going. The upshot? In blazing heat, I arrived at Fougéres and did the swipe-and-stamp thing. A queue of cyclists was lined up outside the restaurant. I couldn’t face queuing. The choice was: Pedal 50 metres down the road and dine at the café that I knew was there (I’d used it in 1999), or eat an energy bar and flake out in the shade of a tree. The tree had it…
Eventually I roused myself and set off, conscious that I hadn’t eaten nearly enough to fuel me for a standard PBP stage of 80-plus km. Never mind, I’d certainly soon find a boulangerie or café. Naturally, I ignored all the boulangeries and cafés in Fougères itself–they were much too close to the control.
You know how every village in France, however small, has a bakery? The villages along the PBP route after Fougères are an exception. What was more, in contrast to the leg from Villaines, there was nobody by the roadside offering support, whether moral or edible, to passing randonneurs. Such as me… With stomach grumbling–actually, my stomach wasn’t the only thing grumbling–I pedalled grumpily and increasingly slowly through picturesque hamlets, glowering sourly at every shopfront. In one village cheering kids on a corner managed to raise only a sort of snarl, which M. Maindru’s photographers duly captured on film.
Appropriately enough, it was in Sens-de-Bretagne that I eventually saw sense, and diverged 100m from the route to find a bakery, emerging with one pain aux raisins, one chausson aux pommes, two cans of Orangina, and an altogether sunnier disposition. Three riders from New York were picnicking outside and discussing their schedules. Ah yes, a schedule… I knew there was something I’d forgotten. Far from having a schedule, I now didn’t even have a working computer–vibration had shaken the sensor loose so it was dangling from the steering arm, and I’d found the absence of speed readout so soothing that I hadn’t bothered to retighten the screw.
A missing or ill-sited arrow led to a brief excursion off route before Dingé. With a small group I found myself at an arrowless T junction. The left turn was signposted for Dingé. A quick check of the PBP route summary dangling round my neck confirmed that we needed to go through Dingé, so I headed left. The Americans in the group were keen to retrace, fearing that there might be a secret control. I tried to reassure them–any secret control would probably be somewhere after Loudéac.
Tinténiac was reasonably quiet. A quick stop: I skated up cleat-unfriendly stairs to the self-service restaurant and hoovered down a bucketful or two of carbohydrate-rich gloop, then skidded back down to the trike.
If the steady climb to Bécherel in warm sunshine registered 8 on the Fun-O-Meter, the descent had the needle swinging into the red zone. At 11 on the Fun-O-Meter there is a real danger of permanent rearrangement of the facial muscles. I tried–believe me, I tried–not to grin like a host on a particularly cheesy game-show. I failed…
The route was heading for the setting sun, which made the road hard to see even though I was wearing shades. I steered with one hand while shielding my eyes with the other, easy enough on the trike. Sean Flynn rode by and told me I was going well. No, I said, I’m just trundling along. After a while I popped out from the lanes onto an impressively smooth D-road, and found myself cranking the trike up to a brisk cruise. Make that very brisk. I began to catch small groups of riders and pass them. Hmm, perhaps Sean was right.
A motorbike came slowly past. The pillion passenger was wielding a professional video camera, and pointing it at me. Tsk, he was getting me from my worse side. The cameraman essayed a few Tour de France-style shots, holding the camera just above the tarmac, zoomed down the road then allowed me to catch up, and displayed keen interest when I had to do my bottle-swapping routine: Remove empty bottle from cage below right side of seat and place between teeth; remove full bottle from cage below left side of seat, plonk on stomach, then pick up with right hand and insert into right cage; put empty bottle into left cage.
Eventually the cameraman tore himself away, and I tore on. The headlong–I’m sorry, make that “footlong”–descent to La Chèze was a hoot, albeit a chilly hoot now that the last glimmers of sun had disappeared over the horizon. As I scooted through the village the lead group shot by in the opposite direction, already heading for Paris at stunning speed. Well, that was me put in my place then. On a minor rise just before Loudéac I caught the triplet. Steve Abraham, on the back, seemed in high good humour; Nigel, in the middle, had the slightly dazed air of someone who has recently been whacked smartly across the chops with a large halibut; Drew was piloting, wearing his Lucky Hat, a Superman T shirt, and an expression of manic glee. They were clearly in good shape, though, disconcertingly enough even for an observer, the triplet was flexing visibly on the climb.
Loudéac was chaos. At least it was atmospheric chaos, and I could park the trike anywhere. I checked in at the control and headed for the restaurant. The queue extended beyond the doors, but I needed both food and a bit of sleep–going on without both would be a bad idea. No, make that a Bad Idea. As the queue moved into the building, there was an abrupt transition from evening chill to stuffy, overheated interior. I was chatting to a PBP first-timer I’d met at the Pavillon Bleu when I began to feel weird, dizzy and light-headed. I tried squatting down briefly. No good. Hazily, I was conscious that if I didn’t sit down soon I’d soon be unconscious. “Feeling a bit funny,” I said in a strangulated voice, and flopped down against the wall. A moment or two later there was a crash as a rider further back in the queue fainted and fell, banging his head, fortunately not seriously.
After a few minutes I was feeling better. In a spirit of empirical enquiry, I stood up. I didn’t instantly fall down again, which was a bit of a plus, all things considered. My friend, who in the meantime had advanced a depressingly small distance in the queue, beckoned me to join him. I did.
All in all, I reckon it took an hour or more to get served. Never mind, I was aiming only to complete PBP in comfortable time, on a comfortable machine.
I sucked down the latest portions of tasty slop in rather less time than it had taken me to get them. Now for sleep: There had been a queue outside the dormitory when I arrived. The restaurant was warm, and the floor was soft and pillowy. Well, to be boringly factual, the floor wasn’t anything of the sort, but that wasn’t going to come between me and some quality Zzzzzzzs. I subsided gently floorwards.
When I woke, there were four human legs and two table legs in my immediate field of vision. Some way north of my right ear, muffled by the table top, transatlantic voices were discussing schedules and bag drops. What was the time? I had no idea. No watch, and my mobile was somewhere at the bottom of my pannier. What was my name? Pass… I surfaced from beneath the table like the Creature From the Black Lagoon surfacing from, er, the Black Lagoon. The bag-droppers found time in their schedule to look quizzically at me. I lurched outside.
It was still inkily dark. Good, so I hadn’t slept too long. But it was cold enough that, after rummaging in my pannier for night-time clothing, I retired to the warmth of the restaurant to put it on.
Experiencing the “powerful feelings of reluctance” that, according to the illustrious Dr Konopka (whom God preserve, of Utrecht), are a sign of extreme exertion, or in this case of mild effort at an unsocial hour accompanied by convulsive shivering, I set out for Carhaix. Slowly.
By the top of the climb out of Loudéac I was feeling feeble. Somehow, though before my brief sleep I’d eaten enough to sustain the population of a medium-sized medieval town through a six-month siege, I was running on empty. I pulled in by the roadside and jammed an energy bar down my gullet. That should be enough to get me to the secret control that I hoped was somewhere between me and Carhaix, I told myself. If memory served, there were chips to be eaten before breakfast.
Initially the PBP route after Loudéac consists of narrow lanes and substantial hills. I proceeded with caution: No point in burning myself out at this early stage. Well, relatively early stage. The secret control proved to be in St. Martin des Prés. I checked in, then strolled over to the tent to get some food. Disaster: No more chips! But there was pasta, and, more to the point, there was coffee.
In the weeks before PBP I’d cut down on tea, and cut out coffee. In the days before PBP I’d shunned caffeine altogether. I sucked down the last of my pasta and took a sip of coffee… Remember the Boris Karloff version of Frankenstein? Inert, the grotesque form of the monster is laid out on the table. Lightning plays about the mountain top. At the doctor’s command, his faithful assistant Igor throws the switch and electricity courses through the monster’s body.
Then, of course, with a blood-curdling roar, the monster gets up, staggers over to his recumbent trike, and sets off down the road.
By the time I reached Corlay, a high-octane mix of pasta and coffee was surging through my veins. Which were throbbing slightly, come to think of it. The road was smooth and rolling. The trike was smooth and rolling. I caught an upright bunch, and stayed with the leaders as it fragmented on the gentle climbs. By the time I turned off the main road, I found myself amid a German group that was travelling quite quickly. The occasional 80-hour group travelling even quite quicklier in the opposite direction on the narrow lane added spice to our progress. But before I could pin down the German for “Bloody hell, watch it, they’re heading straight for us!” the road surface developed a nasty attack of craters and lumps, and I opted to go off the back and oscillate vertically on my own for a while.
The poor tarmac ended; the trike accelerated. As dawn broke, I whooshed past quite a few riders on the approaches to Carhaix. I wanted breakfast. After all, I’d only eaten five square meals and a couple of snacks in the last 24 hours. Scarcely enough to keep body and soul together…
Cheery and efficient helpers in a marquee at the control in Carhaix were dispensing breakfast to ravening randonneurs. Lugging a tray weighed down with baguette, croissant, a litre of orange juice, a litre of water, and a large bowl of coffee, I plonked myself down at the nearest vacant space on a table outside and speedily demolished breakfast. No time to linger: Brest beckoned. I set off cautiously (again).
Caution lasted as far as the start of the climb to Huelgoat, when I found myself riding away from the small French group I’d been with. A couple of riders came into view up the road. I swiftly overhauled them. Hmm, yes, after a bit more than 500 km, I was definitely having an official good patch. Might as well see how long it lasts. Long enough, as it turned out, for encounters of the overtaking kind with Mike Sadler and Sheila Simpson, among others. If I’d put a notch in the boom for every bike I passed on this stage, the bottom bracket would have fallen off long before the top of Roc Trévézel, and I’d not have been able to wave happily at Dave Cully, the Breton Brit, as I tromped past the refreshment stop he was providing at the summit.
Stopping was the last thing I had on my mind. Stomping–now that was more like it… Q: If I’d been able to pass all those bikes on the climb, how many more was I going to be able to bag on the descent? A: Lots. And then some. Hoo hoo, and indeed hee hee!
Contrary to what common sense might suggest, it’s not downhill all the way from the rock to the Brest control. In fact the route after Sizun is pretty hilly. I relished every vertical metre, whether upward or downward. The sun was smiling from a dazzlingly blue sky punctuated agreeably by the occasional fluffy white cloud. It was warm (but not too warm). The views were splendid. I passed numerous riders, and watched in my rear-view mirror as others bust a gut chasing the trike, only to fall tantalisingly short before the next descent.
One of the high points of the whole ride came quite close to sea level: The crossing of the Brest roadstead on a spectacular suspension bridge for pedestrians and cyclists. To the right was another elegant bridge for motorised traffic. To the left, a panorama of glittering water, dazzling white yachts, marinas, and Oceanopolis (where I remembered spending–scarcely credibly–a wet day with a sullen child. Does it rain in Brittany? Surely not).
After the long drag up to the Brest control, it was time for a small fanfare. Half way! Ta daaa!
Before doing the Swipe n’Guzzle at the control, I paused to coat the bits of me exposed to the (admiring) gaze of the public with P20 sunscreen. This is wonderfully effective stuff, but needs ideally to be applied an hour or so before exposure to the sun. On the other hand, it’s a once-a-day job, doesn’t melt on my forehead and make my eyes sting, and, unlike most sunscreens, doesn’t turn my skin into flypaper.
Patrick Field was festooning his Ratcatcher recumbent bike with the bits of kit he’d just washed in the shower, pointing out that Ratty made an excellent washing line as well as rolling sofa.
Duly anointed and swiped, I ambled over to the cafeteria and assembled a trayful of salad, liquid, and tasty carboslop. Mmm, carboslop! I surveyed the dining room. Everyone was buzzing at reaching the half-way point, and the sense of tension and urgency that had been perceptible at controls on the first day had evaporated. The air was filled with a haze composed of two parts mild euphoria to five parts sweaty cyclist.
After negotiating the traffic of the Brest conurbation in a loose, mostly AUK group, I caught my first sight of the famous “patinette” in action. The Finnish rider of the scooter, deftly alternating feet every couple of kicks in a way that would have taxed my coordination beyond breaking point, was climbing surprisingly quickly. Unfortunately for him, so was the Micro, and by the crest the gap had narrowed appreciably. The scooter descended swiftly, but was no match for the trike. Nothing was, at the moment. Eventually the switchback roads ended, and I began the long, steady ascent to Roc Trévézel. Time to exercise a little caution and twiddle. It was very hot, and at some point the minor devil in charge of payback was (I felt) going to present me with an invoice… Item: One (1) Good Patch, inc. 67 nonchalant passes downhill, 34 nonchalant passes uphill, much hooting and snickering. Price: Seventeen (17) hours of using the granny ring on every climb, veering dozily into ditches, and being capable of uttering only the syllable “Nnngh.”
In ones and twos, a few of the uprights I’d passed since Brest began to come by. I twiddled on, entertained by the oncoming stream of riders heading for the turn. Among many others, I spotted and hailed three of the other recumbent trikes: Barry, the Mike/Linda tandem, and Pat. The tandem and Pat were behind Mark Beauchamp–not the most relaxed place to be, unless Mark had discovered a hitherto unsuspected turn of speed. I emerged eventually from the shade of the trees. Ahead I could see the mast at the summit and, spread out invitingly along the road between the mast and me, a dozen and a half bikes and recumbents, including the riders who’d passed me on the climb. Hmm… I snicked up a gear, while maintaining my cadence. Legs and lungs felt OK. Right, try another gear. Still OK. Off we go then.
Among the things that nobody expects are: (1) the Spanish Inquisition; (2) to be passed on a climb by a recumbent trike; (3) to be tortured by a Comfy Chair–see (2). I reeled in bike after bike–Juvenile? Me???–and stormed over the crest of the climb almost too fast to register that Dave Cully was still out there, dispensing applause and encouragement.
Once again the PBP route sent us back to Carhaix via the main road rather than the more picturesque way through the forest. (This is presumably in order to avoid the theoretical hazard of a left turn onto the main road just before the town.) To add insult to injury, there were a few mildly tiresome climbs, involving exertion in full sun. On one of these I followed a tall American rider and was impressed to watch him hurtle down the ensuing descent in a neat tuck, his elbows on the tops and his hands clasped together as though on invisible tri-bars, maintaining a rock-steady line. His technique was impressive, but he considerately adopted a more conventional position on the bike as soon as he became aware of my presence.
Carhaix–another control, another tray full of sloppy carbohydrates, another litre of Badoit and fruit juice. For the umpteenth time, I encountered Patrick Wadsworth, a recent graduate of the Shawn Shaw Academy of Vertical Cycling, also known as the Wessex Series. Like me, he was enjoying himself hugely, having honed his inability to notice gradients of an uphill persuasion over many kilometres of gritty but picturesque West Country lanes. It’s been said before–not that a consideration like that is going to stop me from saying it again, oh no–that hilly rides are the best preparation for PBP.
Still bathed in warm sunshine though encrusted in a light but crunchy coating of dried sweat, I set off for the trundle back to Loudéac, in no kind of hurry. Soon after Carhaix, I passed a group of AUKs at a junction, initially failing to recognise Gerry Goldsmith. Well, I’m not used to looking up to her… On a tree-shaded road I encountered Mike Friday, one of the substantial group of Brits on fixed and thus a man to reckon with, being manifestly even madder than me. A pair of motorcycle marshals shimmered past, and, like a couple of Jeeves on wheels, smilingly ushered me over a major junction so I didn’t have to so much as drop down a gear. By a house on a quiet lane three small girls, arranged in descending order of height, were waiting intently by the roadside. As I approached, small girl number one clapped briskly three times, then, in a well drilled routine, they each held out a hand for a high five as I passed. Or in this case a low five…
On the rolling road to Corlay I fell in for a while with a couple of French riders. Typically, both were from the same town, and were riding together, though one was clearly feeling much peppier than the other. The peppier rider was fascinated by the trike. “Isn’t it hard work uphill?” he asked. No, I said, you just use low gears and spin. It’s like riding a tandem. We chatted on, until M. Peppy noticed that his companion had dropped off the back on a climb and elected to wait for him.
I was startled to discover that Corlay boasted rather an attractive château. On reflection, though, this was the first time I’d passed through in daylight. The light lasted through almost all the laney section to Loudéac. In gathering dusk I climbed to Trévé and found that the entire village had been transformed into a throbbing disco in our honour. People were waving from windows and bars. Briefly I regretted that I wasn’t wearing anything spangly…
Loudéac was less chaotic now, but still very busy. I excelled myself on the gloop front by slopping potato soup over pureed potatoes and slurping down the resultant gunge. Disgustingly, I fear.
One of the knacks on long events is knowing how knackered you are and when to stop for sleep. Go one control too far and you can find yourself having the kind of bad time that provides a fund of anecdotes (friends for the boring with) that will last for years: Did I tell you about the time I tried to drape myself over a five-barred gate to sleep? Did I tell you about the time I slept on a table in a pub garden? Did I tell you about the time I slept in a phone box? Etcetera.
Accordingly, I monitored my vital signs carefully while scouring my moustache for stray bits of puree. I was still awake-ish and alert-ish, and the night was yet young (though possibly conscious of the approach of middle age and beginning to fret about its pension plan). Plus it was only 90 km or so to Tinténiac, a mere bagatelle to a highly strained athlete such as myself. I marched purposefully out into the yard and, having sampled the temperature outside, marched purposefully back into the restaurant with an armful of warm clothing.
I reemerged to find a knot of elderly locals clustered round the trike. Drat! Now was not the time for a trike conversation. I nodded tersely, attempting to imply that I was resolutely monolingual in something like Klingon or Khosa click language, and began delving in the pannier for my headtorch. A running commentary began: “He’s looking for something… That’s an unusual torch! What else is he looking for? He’s got some batteries. He’s putting them in his front light. He’s put the old batteries in that bin. Now he’s repacking his bag. Look, he’s carrying a tyre in the straps…” Yes, and steam is beginning to escape from his ears. I sat on the trike, clipped in, and was off, saying (in Klingon): “If you’ll excuse me, gentlemen, I’m in a bit of a hurry.”
That was not strictly true–I was continuing to adopt a policy of starting each stage slowly, then speeding up or not, as the fancy took me. Also, I had a vivid memory of descending at high speed into La Chèze on the outward leg, which seemed to imply a bit of a climb on the way back. I followed a couple of Dutch low-rider recumbents down into La Chèze, where we caught a small group of uprights. The climb proved easy–there was a strange mismatch between the amount of descending I recalled and the amount of climbing I was having to do. An unexpected bonus… It was a cold, clear, still night. Implausible numbers of stars filled the sky. A meteor arced across the heavens. Hello sky, hello stars! Help, I was turning into Fotherington-Thomas, who, as any fule kno, is wet and a weed.
In Illifaut I was flagged into a secret control by a cheerful man waving a torch. Apart from the helpers, I seemed to be the only person awake; randonneurs were stretched out on mats, snoring gently, and others were sagging sideways as they dozed at tables. Unfortunately I’d just missed out on the last portion of cake, but there was plenty of coffee. I thought I overheard one of the helpers say something about the triplet, so I butted in and asked for news, explaining that I knew the riders. The helper said that the triplet had just arrived in Loudéac. Excellent! “Are your friends in the habit of riding events on a triplet?” he asked gravely. “No, they’re in the habit of doing stupid things,” I said, citing in evidence, m’lud: a) riding a Dursley-Pedersen in 1999; b) being inexplicably fond of riding an enormous fixed gear; and c) having agreed to ride a triplet with people deranged enough to think that a) and b) were excellent ideas.
With the coffee still coursing through my system, I headed back to the trike for the final push to Tinténiac and sleep. The caffeine gave me a great enthusiasm for pedalling fast towards the horizon, but a bizarre reluctance to do anything complicated like deviate from a straight line. In Quédillac this led me to try to visit the station, until I spotted the ‘X’ sign marking a wrong turn. A few junctions later I couldn’t see any arrow, so followed my caffeine-fuelled default policy of going straight on, fast. I knew instantly I’d gone wrong–the road was very narrow, and my offside wheel was scattering gravel. I couldn’t remember any roads like this on the outward leg. Nevertheless I rode on, especially as it was uphill. I might encounter another arrow. You never know. No–I knew. Eventually I did a seventeen-point turn in the lane and returned to the junction. Tail lights were visible to the right, and my headtorch picked out a route confirmation arrow. How had I gone wrong? Memo to self: Please engage brain before turning pedals…
The approach to Bécherel would have been slightly mind-bending even for a mind less bent than mine. Above, the sky was a vault full of stars, not all of them stationary… In the distance, a tall radio mast carried two bright white lights which were flashing out of sync in a way that was scrambling my synapses every time I was incautious enough to notice it. The night was cold. Tendrils of mist were hovering above the road and curling round my head as I pedalled on. This was a night of Magic with a capital M–I was deeply grateful I hadn’t missed all this for the sake of something trivial like, er, sleep. Still, after a shivery plummet from Bécherel I was woozily pleased to arrive at the control.
In a daze I ate soup and bread in the restaurant, dropping the bread into the soup. I wasn’t sure I had the energy to chew anything, but I could still suck feebly. A couple of smashed randonneurs sat silently at tables, staring vacantly into the middle distance. Ah, so that’s what I look like. The silence was disturbed only by the occasional snore and rustle of a space blanket. Now for sleep. The restaurant was cosily warm, so no need to go through the complication of finding somewhere proper to doss down. I found a vacant spot beneath a table, removed my shoes and enough outer garments to scrunch into an improvised pillow, and lay down for a few hours of the deep and dreamless.
Pale dawn light was streaming through the windows when I woke. Creakily, I sat up. The room was strewn with bodies in poses suggesting total prostration. It looked like footage from the TV appeal in the aftermath of some major disaster. A photographer was stealthily padding about, taking pictures of the victims. I dressed myself in my pillow, put on my shoes, and rose unsteadily to my feet.
Gerry Goldsmith and companions were eating breakfast at a table nearby, looking improbably perky. I went off in search of food and (not looking improbably perky) joined them. It soon became apparent that my so-called coffee was not going to provide any help on the perkiness front. I hadn’t realised it was still possible to obtain powdered instant coffee, though, judging by the (absence of) taste, this might well have come from a tin that had been gathering dust at the back of a cupboard for a couple of decades.
A twinge as I carried my breakfast tray downstairs reminded me of something I’d been ignoring for the whole of the previous day. For some bizarre reason, the chamois in my shorts had decided to abrade the skin at the top of my right thigh, with painful results. If I’d wanted to experience pain, I’d have ridden my bike. It was clearly time to break out the Emergency Shorts.
I’d packed them as an afterthought, in case the pre-PBP heatwave lasted. They were thin, lightweight, baggy, and mesh-lined, to facilitate the free circulation of air. Around what, I leave to your imagination. They were more practical as recumbent wear than a kilt, but it was a pretty close contest.
I retrieved my washbag and the Emergency Shorts from the trike, and went off to the loo to ablute and don my comedy cycling outfit. When I reemerged I saw the triplet, but was puzzled to find that it was now black rather than red. “I thought the triplet was red. There must be two of them,” I said to a passing AUK, who gave me a pitying glance and said: “It’s a tandem.” Concentrating very hard, I did a swift recount of the saddles–one, two. Oh, it was a tandem after all. That explained the change of colour at any rate. The scooter was also parked outside the control. It was hard to confuse that at least with anything else.
Squinting into the low sun, I pedalled off with the unfamiliar sensation of chilly morning air wafting around my nether regions. The terrain was easy. For a few kilometres I trundled along with a bunchlet from a French small-town cycling club, from Mayenne, I think. “Look out, guys, mind you don’t step on it!” one wag in the bunch called out as the trike came by. The senior rider in the group engaged me in amiable conversation about the trike and periodically called his companions to order when one upped the pace unduly. To no avail. After a while someone shot off the front and what Paul (Where was he? Had he been press-ganged into the Rocket after all?) would refer to as a real burn-up began. My companion heaved a world-weary sigh, said “They’re off again,” and set off in pursuit. I pootled on. Today I was in recovery mode.
All that has stuck in my mind about my stop at Fougères is that I was pleased with myself for remembering to ride up to the control rather than park the trike at the bottom and walk. Fougères is very spread-out, even for a PBP control. I stopped; I ate; I encountered Patrick again; I set off.
After the initial climb out of the town, the next section proved to be an easier proposition heading east than it had done heading west. There’s a lot of roadside support between Fougères and Ambrières-les-Vallées, but I was intent on making steady progress and found myself reluctant to stop between controls, despite the simmering heat. In a hamlet beyond Gorron a boy on the verge was handing up–or in my case handing down–delicious biscuits to passing riders.
Dazed by the sun, I considered stopping in Ambrières but decided against it. After all, it was only 40 km to the next control. “Only” 40 lumpy, grumpy, broiling, sweaty km, as it turned out. As I climbed through one village (Le Ribay or thereabouts) a couple of elderly club cyclists, with faces like shelled walnuts and calves like maps of the London Underground, were lying in ambush. Walnut number one eyed the trike, firmly declared “That looks like hard work,” then rode up to a woman a little way ahead and began propelling her gallantly up the hill, with a hand in the small of her back. She didn’t look to me as though she wanted to be propelled, gallantly or otherwise.
Before much further a long hot climb had me in bottom gear for the first time in almost 1,000 km. I had no recollection of having done this bit of the route in reverse a couple of days earlier, or of having winched my way up this hill four years previously. Which is not, of course, to say that I hadn’t done both.
With relief, I reached Villaines-la-Juhel, checked in, and went off in search of food. There was a delightful touch at the control restaurant, where a bevy of small children was waiting at the cash desk and gravely carried my tray of food and bottles of drink down into the dining hall while I tottered along behind.
I didn’t linger unduly, as I was beginning to entertain ideas of reaching Mortagne by nightfall. On the way out of the town I fell into conversation with the woman I’d earlier seen enduring an unwanted boost uphill near Le Ribay: Amy Rafferty, from Davis Bike Club in California. Amy, who spoke little French, told me of her adventure the previous night, which had involved a bout of the dozies, a kind offer of a place to rest, a well-refreshed host snoring away, and a locked door. She’d managed to get out, obviously… We chatted about rides we’d done and about the difficulties of audaxing in the States–AUKs are spoilt for choice with over 400 events in a compact island. Amy was a demon descender who in a full tuck could almost keep pace with the trike. She claimed she could feel a benefit from latching onto the back wheel of the Micro. It was a very small benefit, but then the Micro is a very small (but perfectly formed) trike.
The occasional sizable bunch came by, riding steadily enough, but not as steadily as me. I managed to resist the temptation to grab a tow. So did Amy, mostly. The climbs drifted past in slow motion. After Mamers I was definitely beginning to struggle a bit. Stupidly, I passed up several opportunities for roadside snacks–after all, there was not far to go to Mortagne. With a handful of km remaining, I told Amy to go on and stopped to put on my reflective waistcoat and switch on a back light. It wasn’t yet dark, but something told me I wasn’t going to be setting any speed records on the final push to the control. Not record high speeds, anyhow.
So it proved. Now in the clammy grip of a full-blown attack of the bonk, I crawled my way up to the control, parked the trike, checked in, and grabbed a trayload of gloop. I’d lost all motivation to continue, temporarily I hoped. Amy went off to get some sleep, after arranging a tentative rendezvous for 1:30-ish. I finished eating and slumped forward onto the table.
I was woken by the sound of Phil Chadwick effervescing loudly. Experimentally I pried open a bleary eyelid. Phil was on a high, bouncing in his seat, talking nineteen to the dozen, and trying to cheer up John-Paul Lambhorth, who had a black eye and a bandaged forehead and was occasionally wincing and asking plaintively for painkillers. Not that I was going to let that interfere with my current mood of self-pity. It was clear that Phil had gone native–he was drinking wine with his meal. He gave me an appraising glance, cheerfully said “You look rough,” and offered me some wine. I was more in the mood for a whine, though. Phil instructed me firmly but tiggerishly to go and get some sleep in the dormitory. Zombie-like, I obeyed.
In the queue outside the dormitory I encountered Robert, for the first time in the ride. He wasn’t his normal cheerful self, but then I wasn’t mine either. He was nursing a sore knee—I had no such excuse. A bed was €3. The woman at the desk watched as I fumbled with small change in the dark, then extracted €2.50 from the coins in my palm, said “That’ll do,” and asked me when I wanted to be woken. A helper ushered me into the dormitory.
Serried rows of mattresses stretched into the distance in the vast, dimly lit hangar, most bearing a huddled or sprawling rider. It was blissfully warm. I collapsed in a heap on the vacant mattress indicated by the helper. It was blissfully soft too. There was a strange sound in the dormitory: Hundreds of rasping and whistling snores blending to produce an oddly soothing kind of white noise. I flaked out.
I woke and rummaged for my phone to find out the time: Just after three. I’d asked to be roused at four, but not only was I wide awake, I was raring to go. So I went.
Outside it was very chilly, so I collected armwarmers, legwarmers, and my windproof top from the trike and headed back into the warmth of the restaurant. As I was wearing my Emergency Shorts, the legwarmers presented a dilemma. Should I tuck the baggy shorts into the top of the legwarmers, for the full Elizabethan doublet and hose look, or leave the shorts flapping free and risk frostbite south of the Equator?
To stave off any future bout of the dozies, I drank some coffee, then chatted briefly to Pete Gifford and Pat Kenny, who had just arrived. It was now about four–time to go.
When I returned to the trike I found a note taped to the boom. M. Henri Plessiet was “interested in the tricycle” and asked me to call him. Now was perhaps not the ideal moment to make a phone call… I stashed the note in my wallet and pedalled off.
Before long I realised it was even chillier outside the town, and I’d forgotten to put on my gloves. Could I be bothered to stop and do so? Nope. A stream of taillights marked the course through the hills and helped keep me on route at one point, when I overshot a turn on a descent. Towards the foot of a long climb Paul Whitehead tromped by, wrestling with his usual infeasibly big gear. In the tones of a wheedling toddler, he said: “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” and rode off, sniggering. The creak of his rear hub receded into the dark.
The section after Mortagne on the return is one of the lumpier bits of PBP, but I was enjoying myself again. The climbs seemed easy, and the descents, as always on the trike, were pure pleasure. If there was a fly–more accurately, several flies–in the ointment, it was that my shorts were serving as air scoops on the downhills and funnelling icy air and small, startled creatures of the night into my crotch.
Oddly, as I reached the plain around Châteauneuf en Thymerais and the sky began to lighten, the temperature fell even further. Cryogenic suspension became a real prospect. I could envision controllers having to chip me free of the trike in Nogent. I was reduced to riding with first one hand, then the other stuffed under my armpit. I could always stop and get my gloves–no, I still couldn’t be bothered.
Daybreak brought another of the moments that will be etched forever in my mind. The arrow-straight road cut through dense forest, slashing a V in the black silhouette of trees on the horizon. Above, the clear sky shaded from violet-blue to peach. Lights danced like fireflies at the base of the V. Red fireflies…
In celebration of reaching the last control, I relaxed my strict gloop-only, no-chewing policy on food: potato gratin, green beans, cheese omelette, and a dessert selected from a vast array. I ended up at a table with a group of French riders, who were enjoying a little red wine with breakfast and offered me some. I declined with thanks and said I was saving alcohol for the finish. (Turning down another drink? What was wrong with me?)
Outside I enountered Ian Weatherill, who was looking fretful. He’d lost his puncture kit and spare tube and was feeling deflated, so I pointed him in the direction of the Dépannage tent. Then it was off again.
By this stage most riders were looking a bit ragged, and quite a few seemed reluctant to sit on the saddle. (One Brit had remarked to me earlier: “At least you don’t feel as though you’ve been dipping your arse in a tank of piranhas.” Fair comment, I thought…) Lots of riders were taking breaks by the roadside. Me, I trundled happily on, concentrating hard on spotting the arrows marking the rather convoluted route. As I granny-geared my way up the steep climb in the forest after Gambaiseul, I heard clanking and cheering. The source became apparent as I crested the ramp–a knot of applauding spectators, including one who was enthusiastically brandishing a cow bell.
After threading my way through the suburbs, on the approaches to St Quentin, I found myself alongside the yellow Quest velomobile on a climb. “Have you had a good ride?” I asked politely. There was a lengthy pause. “PBP is very hilly,” its pilot said with a haunted look. Especially when you have to winch 30-plus kilograms of yellow torpedo up every hill, I suppose.
I exercised impressive amounts of self-control on the approach to the finish. I didn’t dive off on the direct route down the cycle path near the Pavillon Bleu. I stopped at red lights. I did the full tour of the business district, as indicated by the arrows on the road. And I didn’t even do two circuits of the Rond Point des Saules to milk the applause at the finish…
This was my second PBP. I’d enjoyed the first so much that I feared an anticlimax second time around. What can I say? The fear was misplaced. Roll on 2007!
As on Edinburgh-London in 2001, I rode my ICE Trice Micro recumbent trike. This is very low and narrow, with a reclined carbon fibre seat which provides a remarkable degree of comfort and a firm platform for spirited pedalling (on the occasions when I’m in the mood for it). Complete with rack, mudguards, and lights, it weighs, well, not very much really: about 14 kg.
On PBP 1999 I rode an ICE Trice XL. The Micro was substantially quicker over the ground than the XL, and I was able to translate this extra speed into extra sleep, with the result that, after the first night, I suffered no doziness on the road.
My Micro has Brompton-size wheels (349); current Micros have Birdy-size wheels (355). The effective diameter of both is pretty much the same. I have a standard Ultegra triple chainset, with a 9-26 Shimano Capreo 9-speed cassette on a Capreo hub at the rear, giving a gear range from 19 to 95 inches. This worked out very well, and I find this setup greatly preferable to the Schlumpf Speed Drive, double chainset, and 11-27 block with which the Micro was originally equipped. Brakes are hydraulic Hope mini discs on the front wheels (which have required no attention at all–which is just as well, really), plus a V-brake as a parking brake on the back wheel.
Lighting is taken care of by a couple of CatEye Micros mounted to a Minoura Space Grip on the boom. (I glued the CatEyes to their brackets because they tended to vibrate.) My main headlight in theory was a 3-watt B&M jobbie driven by an S6 dynamo, but the business end of the light jumped ship on the first night, as you’ll know if you’ve been paying attention. You have been paying attention, haven’t you? The S6 worked well, for the brief time it was called upon. I had lithium batteries in the CatEyes, which I used one at a time. With my pattern of riding, I seemed to get through one set of batteries per night. My back light was a CatEye TL-AU100BS; the batteries died just as I arrived in Nogent. For arrow-spotting and as emergency backup, I also carried a Petzl Duo headtorch, which combines LEDs and a halogen bulb.
In the single Ortlieb Front Roller pannier on my rear rack on PBP I carried: two spare pairs of shorts, plus the Emergency Shorts that caused dogs to bark and small children to jeer; a spare jersey; arm warmers, leg warmers, a lightweight Pertex top, and my reflective waistcoat, when I wasn’t wearing these; a long-sleeve thermal; gloves; a small toilet bag with shampoo, toothbrush, and toothpaste; some bum cream, and a few Nurofen, just in case; a small pack of moist wipes; P20 sun goo; three spare inner tubes; puncture kit; spare bulbs (in an old puncture kit); spare rear light; 10 lithium AA batteries (the number diminished as I went on); Cool Tool; allen keys; VAR tyre levers; a few zip ties; tyre boot; Swiss Army knife; and a few energy bars. I threaded a spare tyre through the straps of the pannier. I carried a lightweight Altura waterproof in a pouch velcroed to the rack. I didn’t take any maps, but did have a copy of the PBP route summary in a small Ortlieb document case around my neck. I wore a backwards bum bag to carry my wallet, tissues, cap, Buff, lip salve, sunglasses, and other stuff that I might need en route.