By Arran Pearson
It is not well known but within the club are a bunch of intrepid souls (let’s just call them fools) for whom a RTI is something that you do as a warm up before breakfast and if it doesn’t involve at least one border crossing and multiple stops at godforsaken petrol stations then its almost not worth putting the ride on Strava! These are the riders who moonlight with the Singapore Audax club – the local branch of a Paris based organization of cyclists dedicated to the art of ‘going long’.
Audax is based on the ideals of self sufficiency and riding over an established route within a pre-determined time. The objective is to finish within the stated cutoff time – generally its worked out to be approximately 15km/hr which sounds easy until you remember that this also includes rest time.
This year saw the 18th running of the most famous Audax event – the 1200km (actually 1230 – the 30 is important) Paris-Brest-Paris which has been running since 1891 and is the longest running cycling event in existence with the current every four year format being started in 1931. Participants have up to 90 hours to complete the course (unless you’re a complete nutter and have self selected the 84 or 80 hour cutoffs) – if you’re a minute late then you DNF. Ouch.
In order to qualify to ride PBP you have to have completed a 200, 300, 400 and 600 km Audax ride within the 12 months preceding – so no matter the bike and the err… body type on display, all riders (over 6000 of them) have been able to successfully complete the qualifying rides making PBP one of the largest gathering of cycling crazies on the planet.
Andy Bennet, Andrew Philippou, John Cross and I along with some 20 others from the Singapore Audax club all arrived in Paris at least a day before and spent some time getting acclimatized (unsuccessfully – Europe has a different definition of Summer to Singapore) before lining up at our designated start time of 19:45 Sunday night. Our plan was to keep our group together until Brest (1/2 way) and then re-assess depending on how we all felt.
Ok, so that plan lasted about 15 minutes as our start wave (some 400 cyclists) quickly sorted out depending on the preferred speed. With 1200+ km to travel and a strong wind blasting into our faces getting into a nice big group soon became more important than trying to keep track of where various individuals were. By the first checkpoint (130km in) Andy Bennet and I had lost track of Andrew and John and decided to grab a quick snack and just push on – the other plan of sticking to a nice steady 22-25km/h was also out the window as we went through 130km in a touch under 4 hours!
The second checkpoint came and went and by now the pace had settled a bit and the ride was actually enjoyable – the larger groups had mostly broken up and it was simply a line of red lights stretching out into the dark as far as the eye could see only broken up every now again by brief sections through small villages where no matter what time of the day or night, locals were sitting out in front of their houses shouting ‘Allez’ and providing water and snacks to hungry riders – an amazing display of hospitality from a country which, lets be honest, is not necessarily known for the warmth of its people!
Night became dawn became day and whilst there are no super long or steep hills, the countryside is best described as ‘rolling’ – you were either ascending or descending the entire ride (in total there’s approximately 11500m of elevation gain in the ride).
Andy and I had our first major rest stop at about the 450km mark (dinner on the second day) and I stupidly decided to push on rather than take the option of a rest in the hotel room we’d booked. This section was quite awful – some real climbing and the toll of more than 24hrs or so in the saddle weighed on me and I had more than one moment where I seriously considered pulling out. Luckily the ANZA social media squad was on the case and had picked up the despondency in a couple of my posts and were rallying hard which, along with a well rested Andy catching me got me through to the next stop at about the 520km mark where I finally had a refreshing 3hr sleep.
From there it was a mostly downhill run into Brest only spoilt by the sight of people riding up the hill we were riding down… nothing spoils a long descent more than knowing that in a couple of hours you’re going to be riding back up!
After more food in Brest (650km in under 34 hrs) Andy and I were off again on the return trip. We even managed to collect another member of our group who had hit a car earlier in the race and decided to ride with us back to Paris rather than going down into Brest (he still did more than 1000km despite a slipped disk and the accident!).
By now, everything had become routine. Get to the checkpoint, register, eat more food than feels comfortable and then head off and try and ignore the pain until everything warms up again – I don’t know about the others but the worst times for me were the ½ hour or so immediately after a checkpoint. Everything hurt and anything that was in contact with the bike hurt more!
The one remedy to sore joints though was to get into a position where you had to concentrate so hard that everything else faded away – for me this came in the form of a three man race team that passed me at about the 1100 km mark… I was alone (ate to much at the previous checkpoint trying to refuel and had been dropped like a stone), I was tired and even though the end was ‘in sight’ it was still a good 4 hours away! But then, a team raced past and I decided to try and jump on the back… well turned out to be a ride reminiscent of an East Coast blast as we sped along narrow bumpy road at about 40km/h in the dark. Funny the pain in my nether regions was completely forgotten by this point in the quest to simply hang on!
A quick snack at the last checkpoint (where I managed to find Andy again and persuade him that I needed just a little sit before heading out again) and it was off for the remaining 60km for what looked like a relatively easy final potter. So. Garmin elevation maps lie people! This had some of the steepest climbs of the whole course and most of that was in the final 30km. Nice.
Anyway Andy and I crossed the line together in 79hrs at about 3am in the morning. The final horror was that the finishing point had run out of beer… oh well! The funny part was that the conversation for the last 30km was about how stupid we were and that we would never do this again however, by lunch time the next day this had morphed into what we would do differently the next time and who would be up for London-Edinburgh-London in 2017!
PBP is a truly tough ride – actually a lot tougher than I had imagined it to be but it is one of the best experiences I’ve had on a bicycle. You see its not just a silly bunch of nutters riding bikes a long way… lining the entire route are local villagers who have dragged the family out (usually along with a bunch of cheese, pastries, coffee water and baguettes for passing cyclists) just to see and cheer you on. At least 3 of the villages which weren’t hosting checkpoints had small fairs running to welcome the passing crowds and the villages that hosted a checkpoint had gone all out to make you feel welcome. Additionally the ride attracts all nationalities, bikes and body types – it truly shows what a diverse hobby we have and best of all… everyone is in a good mood!
Even for those not inclined to ride it, visiting the area during PBP time is quite special. Who knows, I may see you there in four years?