Straight on at roundabout

What is Paris Brest Paris?
August 9, 2009, 8:16 pm
Filed under: PBP, Rambling nonsense, Why

I first heard about Paris-Brest-Paris, or PBP, about ten years ago when I’d only just started riding my bike on the roads and entering organised events.

I’d joined Audax UK and got a copy of the the magazine Arrivé and there was a story of someone’s epic 1,200 bike ride from Paris to Brest on the tip of Britanny and back again – within the 90 hour time limit.

I think that’s equivalent of riding from London to Lands End and back and then returning to Basingstoke (give or take a bit).

Like most people I thought that sort of ride was all but impossible – what sort of person in their right minds gets on a bike on a Monday evening in August and rides almost solidly until Friday?  They grab sleep where they can, but it has to come out of the 90 hour allowance….

But, every four years, quite a few people give it a go – four to five thousand people turn up from all over the world to give it a go in fact.

And if they didn’t demand that riders qualify by riding shorter distances earlier in the year I guess quite a lot more would turn up on the start line.

You can read all about the history of the ride and about some of the heroics of the past – before the days of lightweight bikes, lycra and sensible nutrition – on the official website run by the organising body L’Audax Club Parisiene.

If you are thinking of riding PBP (which is probably within the reach of anyone who is reasonably fit, has a bit of time to train and has an understanding family) there are a few things you need to do to get you to the start line.

Firstly you have to qualify – which is both entirely achievable for a novice and an endless source of bragging rights.

Qualification entails completing a ‘Super Randonneur’ series of rides in the first half of the year.  This means that you have to ride events of 200, 300, 400 and 600 kilometres – an impressive achievement in itself.

Finding such rides in the UK isn’t too much of a challenge – most weekends there are Audax UK sponsored events all over the place.  Book early to avoid disappointment and you’ll be in.

Once you’ve completed your rides and all your workmates are convinced that you are both super human and bonkers you get a doctors’ certificate, pay an entry fee and you’re on the road to Paris in August.

The first year I qualified I didn’t ride PBP – too much pressure at work meant it would have been rather unfair to ask my family and as 2003 turned out to be one of the hottest Augusts on record I was rather glad to have stayed at home.

I’m not sure why I had a crack at in 2007 (one of the wettest Augusts on record) but I’m glad I did.

PBP StartWhen you’re a slightly overweight 45 year old there’s a tendency to find a challenge.  I’m never really got running so marathons were out and somehow those charity rides to Paris never really appealed (I thought I was too lazy to raise the minimum sponsorship!).

But I suppose I got rather sucked in.  I started doing the shorter rides and each time you discover that you can actually manage 200k, then 300K and even 600k you are left begging the question… ‘I wonder…what is 1200k like???’

There’s certainly very little competitive element to it all.  There are few badges and nobody cheats because there really isn’t any point.  As my old house master would have said: ‘you’re only cheating yourself’.

For me, it’s a personal test.  I clearly have an unresolved issue with quitting or giving up too soon and even though my CV bears testament to my lack of patience with pointless jobs or stupid bosses, I take a perverse pleasure at hanging on in there on in the drizzle 300k into a 400k ride.   And I get disproportionately depressed when I climb on a train back to the start having ‘packed’ early.

I’m not sure if it’s the same for other audaxers but that’s about it for me.

If you are thinking about a major challenge for 2011 – one that you can build up to – then PBP is worth thinking about.

Liam FitzPatrick

How it all started
August 7, 2009, 7:42 am
Filed under: Rides

Getting into the car park at the DIY store at 5.30 in the morning should have been easy.  But for some reason it was shut, there were no lights on anywhere.  I started thinking that I’d dragged myself out of bed on a cold Wednesday morning in February by mistake.

But as I pulled around the corner into a service road, I found a way into the car park and, in the dark, began to see cyclists in ones and twos unloading bikes from their cars.  A couple of cycle lamps shining through the light drizzle confirmed that I was in the right place – or maybe that depends on your perspective.

I had driven the five miles to Ruislip from Rickmansworth in Hertfordshire to ride a bike further than I ever had before.  I was going to cycle 200 kilometres – about 124 miles – in one day.  It’s a distance I’ve ridden dozens of times since then, but on that morning it looked like an undertaking of herculean proportions.

Not that a look at the other participants would have given you the impression that some epic physical endeavour was about to take place.

There were no film crews, no medical tents and no hint of anyone even waving us off.  Just around 40 or so cyclists of all shapes and sizes.

And looking at these athletes themselves wouldn’t have given much of a clue about the events that were about to unfold.  Certainly few of the bikes on show looked like high performance machines and hardly anyone was dressed in what would have looked like state of the art sportswear.

I’m pretty certain that I saw one man wearing Dunlop Green Flash plimsolls.

Unlike the London Marathon or other sports there was little ceremony about our starting.

Standing under the one working streetlight was the organiser, a man called Rocco Richardson, handing out the cards which each rider would need to get stamped at various points on the ride.  Without any ceremony, he told us to stick the competed cards through his front door when we’d finished and then I swear he walked off.

No representatives from the emergency services, no St Johns Ambulance volunteers, no portaloos and no sign of that bloke who turns up at all major sporting events waving an England Flag and looking a bit of a prat with the union-jack umbrella.

That was it.  This was the big start to my first 200k Audax ride and, to put it rather bluntly, I felt a bit cheated.

I’d spend several weeks fretting about this ride, I’d scrutinised Rocco’s handwritten route sheet and traced the roads up into Oxfordshire, I’d spent hours planning what to take with me and checking that everything on my bike worked.

And that was all we got.  No civic sending-off, or even a weak cheer.

We pulled out of the car park of Focus DIY and headed down towards the A40. And away.

I’ve since learned that Rocco Richardson is something of a legend when it come to organising rides.  His route sheets are famous for being handwritten and simple.  He doesn’t organise tea and cakes – you pay your two or three quid, he provides a route and gets your entry card validated by the governing body and that’s your lot.

Which is actually the perfect example of an audax cycle ride.  No frills, simple long distance cycling.

The reality is that outside the relatively small community of people who ride Audax events, these challenges have little meaning and few people have a realistic understanding of what they represent.  By contrast many people have an insight into marathon running or into professional sport because they have experience of long distance running or of playing a team game.  Non-cyclists are often put off by the seemingly epic distances involved – and audax riders delight in playing down the imagined heroics required to pedal even the shorter distances.

I am not entirely sure why I do it.  And, I can certainly no longer really remember what I was doing on that cold February morning in 2003.

My diary notes that 2003 was one of the years in which Paris-Brest-Paris was being organised and that I wanted to qualify to ride in it.  I had read about this 1200k ride with its 90 hour time limit that attracted people from all over the world.  In order to enter I would need to have qualified as a ‘Super Randonneur’ – a journey that began with a 200k jaunt into Oxfordshire.

In reality, my ambition was only to qualify.  At the start of the year, the very idea of going to Paris was completely ridiculous – although the thought of me completing a 600k ride was probably no less absurd.

I had only graduated to owning a racing bike a couple of weeks previously after my hybrid cycle had died.  And although I’d entered audax rides before I had never gone over 100k in a day.  But within a few minutes of leaving the car park, I didn’t have any doubts at all about turning back.

The ride started in much the same way that many rides do – with the exception that Rocco’s route took us along busy main roads to High Wycombe as the weekday morning traffic built up.

However, most of the riders stay reasonably close to each other – the field normally takes a few miles to stretch out and there is a certain pleasure in group riding when everyone is still fresh.

As we dropped down the main road from Gerrards Cross a rider started chatting to me – apparently he had come over from Holland for the ride.  When he mentioned that he’d competed in a speed skating marathon the previous weekend I started to wonder what sort of company I was keeping.

Gradually the traffic thinned and we dropped into a steady rhythm with a third rider, climbing out of West Wycombe up towards Stokenchurch on the top of the Chilterns.  And I found I could keep up with these guys.  In fact I overtook the third rider, on his impressive-looking bike and led him to the top of the hill.  On my new bike, with its steel racing frame and high road gearing I was pulling comfortably up a hill that I had never ridden before – and which I would normally have never have dreamt of cycling.

“In the autumn when we do the big Willesden Road ride we come up here seven times’ the third rider added cheerfully as we hit the top.  I’ve ridden that hill dozens of times since that day I went up with Ivo Meissen and Dennis Favey, even doing it on my lovely, light as a feather carbon bike.  But I have never felt as comfortable on that hill since – despite the fact that I was melting inside my cheap watherproof jacket and the cold was making my eyes run.

I guess if that had been a horrible experience I would never have come back for more.  I wonder if drug users who have a bad experience the first time they experiment go on to become addicts?  I’m pretty certain that a crap day in the saddle back then would have been the end of my audax career.

But it wasn’t.  For some reason known only to the demons of cycling they were gentle with me.  I can only assume it was part of a plan to draw me into their world of torment.

Perhaps they also conspired to give me two great companions that day – who by chance were both members of the same cycling club – the Willesden.

In the toilets at Cherwell Valley Services, there are assorted riders taking off shoes and socks and there a full body washes going on all over the place.  And this is only a 200k ride.

There were quiet a few more great moments on that ride.  As the drizzle worked its way inside my jacket, Dennis announced at the top of a particularly nasty hill, “Remember, a bad day’s cycling stiil beats a great day at work”.

Which amused Ivo, who it turns out is a postman: “a day cycling is usually a bad day at work as well for me…”

We talked about riding PBP and how I said I was just planning on getting my SR that year.

“Sure” said Ivo, “you’re going to qualify in June and then not enter?  And not turn up?  Who do you think you’re kidding?”

Most of the route back towards Ruislip managed to avoid big hills.  We cut between the folds in the Chilterns at Wendover and we slipped up from the Vale of Aylesbury and then rolled down towards Amersham and home.  Dennis didn’t complain when I nearly ran him off the road.

Finally, sitting in a petrol station we fill out the last bits on our soggy brevet cards which Ivo volunteers to take to Rocco’s house (it turns out he’s staying the night).

And home to a hero’s welcome after only 10 hours and 19 minutes (including stops).  Nowadays, I realise that’s a pretty fast 200 so I suspect it was a fairly gentle ride.

I took the next day off work – but I was pretty surprised at how untired I felt.

And I was hooked.  Ahead of me was the next challenge – a 300 kilometre ride which inexorably would lead to a 400, and then a 600 and eventually drag me to the start line for Paris Brest Paris in 2007.

Liam FitzPatrick

What am I on about?
August 4, 2009, 7:08 pm
Filed under: Audax information, Why

Riding my bike is my hobby.  Riding it long distances is my obsession.

For anyone not familiar with the world of Audax riding a visit to is a good place to start.  There you can see details of tens of rides that happen every weekend all over the UK.  There are rides varying in distance from 50km to 600km or even more.

It works, like this.  You sign up for a ride and pay a pathetic sum of about £3 and you get sent a route sheet.  Then you turn up at the appointed hour on the designated day at a remote rural village hall somewhere and meet a bunch of other riders.  You’ll be given a ‘brevet’ card and you ride your bike.

The route has to be ridden between a maximum (no racing!) and a minimum speed – the time limit is generous enough to allow tea stops and even the odd snooze on a bus shelter if needed.  And to ensure that you have ridden the right distance you have to get your card stamped at certain points (usually a tea shop somewhere).

And that’s it.  Well apart from the fact that you get to meet some interesting people and to see some of the most amazing parts of the country.

And the routesheet?  Ah, well that takes some getting used to.  It’s written in a funny sort of code that simply tells you, step by step, where to go.  R@T means turn right when you get to a T-junction, R@T (effectively SO) means “this road ends on the corner of another road, you’ll be turning right, but really you’re going straight on” and SO at RAB means… Straight on at the next roundabout…

Log on to the Audax site and find a ride to try out…we might meet up ‘up the road’