I wrote what has become quite a popular post on the 2011 PBP experiences and whether they met with my expectations. That article was included in the PBP finishers magazine and seemed to resonate with quite a few people as to how PBP feels the first time around.
I was always worried that the second time around PBP things wouldn’t be quite as exciting and fun, that the novelty would somehow have worn off. I am pleased to say I probably had more fun than even 2011!
The short version of this is that I had a great time, I used much more of the time available, didn’t over-stretch myself and really did enjoy it all. It was a completely different experience to 2011 and will live with me forever.
So what did I do that I didn’t do in 2011?
Spoke with people
It surprises some people that I class myself as very shy and introverted; but I think I am even though, like many shy people, I can be quite loud and gregarious amongst people I know. I am uncomfortable around new people and find talking with people quite challenging. Certainly in 2011, I didn’t chat much with people – I was new to long distance riding and very much felt it! What could I contribute to conversations with multiple PBP finishers etc.? So I sort of just got on with riding and didn’t stop much.
So, this time, okay, I have a bit more confidence about my own riding and have, seemingly, helped/inspired some people with both the TV program last year and the packing articles for PBP (I had so many people thank me for those which was lovely considering it was done more for my own benefit than theirs!).
I was also on a slightly funny bike (fixed wheel), so that naturally strikes up conversations with the curious and those on similar machines (I met, chatted and rode with a bunch of fixers from across the World on the ride).
Part of the great thing about PBP is meeting people from around the world and finding out want inspires them to come and ride this crazy ride. For us, it’s a matter of hopping on the ferry or Eurostar and we’re there. Many riders must spend several thousand pounds and a huge amount of time to get there. The pressure to complete must be huge if you’ve spend so much time and money!
Anyway, I am still a shy and socially awkward guy – but I do try!
Very sociable ride down
Whilst I had ridden down in 2011, it was only with one other rider – mainly as there weren’t that many people on our ferry heading down and partly, again, I really didn’t know anyone back then.
This year, I suggested meeting up in a pub that a group who’d ridden down the night before had identified and about a dozen riders turned up and ate dinner before heading onto the 11pm ferry. There was probably around 18-20 PBP riders on the ferry in total but I knew it would be impossible to try and agree even a route, let alone trying to get that amount of people to stick together. After a bit of initial shaking out, we ended up as a group of 8 riders following my route down to Paris. 4 of us were on fixed, so it was nice that we were able to dictate the pace slightly. The group was made up of some riders I knew well and others I had only met that night.
The pace was nice and the route worked out to be lovely (more luck than judgement). We had two coffee stops, a very leisurely lunch stop and a beer stop and stuck together until we crossed the Seine at Poissy and started to diverge towards our separate hotels etc.
It set the stage for an enjoyable ride and I spent some good chunks of the actual ride with Joe who I’d met on the ride down.
The ride down is one of the best parts I think. No stress and it eases you into the holiday as you make your way down to Paris. I would very much like to take two days over it next time (as many do) and really take it steady (the two-dayers tend to take an even nicer route and ride about 100km each day whereas we rode about 180km into Paris).
As you will read later, the ride back was special as well!
Had a hotel booked
Way back at the start of the year, my wife was considering giving PBP a go on the tandem. Various things were going on that meant this didn’t pan out – but, based on that plan, I had booked a hotel in Loudeac for the 2nd and 3rd nights.
Despite the tandem plan not happening, I stuck with the hotel. I was a little concerned as I like to have flexibility on a ride and basically, ride until I am ready to drop. This meant I had to stop at certain points. As I was on a faster schedule than that planned for on a tandem, it also meant I was at the hotel at non-ideal times and I had a lot more night riding than I’d planned (leaving hotel at 1-3am and riding through the night, rather than arriving at a suitable control around 11pm and sleeping until 4-5am).
It turned out great and was one of the weirder experiences of the whole ride – to step away from the bubble of PBP makes you realise just how crazy it is. There is noise and chaos from the start until the end – to suddenly be in a quiet hotel with clean sheets and a hot shower is quite something.
Some people suggested on Facebook that using a hotel was somehow contrary to the whole ‘endurance challenge’ element of PBP – &%^* them. Whilst it is a challenge, it is also just a bike ride and for some of us, our primary summer holiday. Why not enjoy it and have a little luxury in our lives? I’ve done enough rides in utter misery to know that there’s more to life to sleeping in a ditch and being all hair shirt about these things (a very British way to tackle long-distance riding).
Whether I do it again depends on how I approach 2019, but it was a very pleasant escape for a few hours on Tuesday and Wednesday nights.
Rode it on a fixed wheel bike
Once it became clear that a tandem attempt wasn’t on the cards, I wanted to do something different to 2011. I haven’t been riding as much as I wanted this year due to a large project with work, so I dismissed any thoughts of going for a time as the fitness wasn’t there.
I’d recently bought myself a much nicer fixed wheel bike that matches my geared Condor:
Riding the qualifiers on fixed was quite a leap for me. I have ridden fixed for commuting for 5 years or so, but never really more than about 100km on fixed. Everything felt like going back to basics and relearning how my body works and reacts to the stresses of riding long distances. Fixed is harder on the body for sure, but once you learn to manage it, then it’s a great way to mile munch.
PBP is a fabulous ride for a fixed wheel – the climbing is not steep and there’s not much flat stuff. The downhills could be troublesome as they are very long and shallow compared to much of the UK.
I loved riding it on fixed and other than the long descents never once wished for gears!
Aimed to have a good time, not to do a good time
In 2011, I didn’t really know anyone, I’d soaked up all the advice about not wasting time in controls and just kept on riding until I dropped and got around in a reasonably respectable 76 hours.
I knew I didn’t want to race around this time, partly as I knew I was lacking real fitness, partly as my wife was coming out to the finish (and I didn’t want her to have to come out in the middle of the night!) and partly as I knew I wanted to do all this stuff I am writing about here!
It’s easy to say that. But to stick to it, quite difficult! The first 220km flew by in 8 and a half hours. I’d got sucked into the speed of groups (where I could; being on fixed meant for a fairly difficult time hanging onto 40kph+ trains) and had got anger fueling my speed – I was getting increasingly pissed off at riding around geared riders and getting blocked on the hills by them etc.
Arriving at Villaines, I ended up chatting with someone who was in the process of packing for quite some time. Talking to them calmed me down and made me focus on the important stuff of having more fun! I tried to convince them not to pack, but they’d already made up their mind sadly.
I really did slow down from there. Not on the road, but just taking advantage of everything on offer and chatting and enjoying myself far too much!
In 2011, I had largely used controls for my food and drinks – I was way ahead of the bulge of the ride, so had empty controls to deal with. I really didn’t stop much outside of controls, other than the postcard man at La Tanniere (where I found my 2011 postcard this year:)
So this year, I stopped and ate/drank at many of the road-side stalls.
It is so humbling when families and whole villages come out and support us by offering food and drink, and even beds.
Many want nothing in return beyond a handshake and writing in a book where you’re from. Some will have a collection bowl and some of the villages operate as a commercial enterprise (though only charging a couple of Euros for some food etc.)
There was everything from the villages with bars and barbecues set up to people inviting you into their homes. All done with smiles and just exceptional kindness. This is PBP and France at it’s very best and is the experience I was looking for!
One of the houses remains one of my most memorable experiences of the whole PBP (though I can not remember exactly where it was other than between Loudeac and Carhaix on the way out!). I was a little hungry and saw a few people gathered around someone’s open garage and decided to stop. I was ushered into the gentleman’s back garden and took a seat at the table where a couple of other riders were relaxing. A huge bowl of really good coffee appeared and I then cut off a slice of the huge loaf of fresh (still warm!) bread on the table. A generous slab of unsalted butter was applied to the bread and I proceeded to eat just about the tastiest bread I have ever had in my life with the smooth clean butter on top. Just amazing. That really will stay with me for the rest of my life and is probably my top memory of PBP 2015. It sounds daft to say that eating a slice of bread and butter was my high point of the ride, but there’s much more to it than that. It’s the kindness and generosity that we’re offered as we ride.
Took lots of photos
I took more photos this time – partly because I had the time, and partly as I knew I wanted to save some memories. Interestingly, I didn’t use the small camera I carried as it really was a pain to get out of my bar bag etc. – it was all done with my iPhone. I will update the packing list articles to go through what I didn’t use, but that is one thing!
I also took some, but probably not enough, video footage on a GoPro. I will try and put something together with that.
Visited our predecessors
I love the history of PBP and how it is tied into the very fabric of cycling in general.
When I heard there was a plaque dedicated to the victor of the first PBP in 1891, I had to visit it. Charles Terront rode 1170km in 1891 in 71 hours and 16 minutes “sans repos” – just incredible. The plaque was at his last stop before Paris where he took on some food at the bar that stood there (now gone).
I visited it on the morning before setting off and hopefully gained a little strength from this amazing achievement.
Shared some of PBP experiences with my wife
Even though a tandem attempt didn’t work out, I was really excited that my wife, Cass, was able to come out to the finish and experience some of the chaos and excitement of PBP! She came and cheered us in and that was a brilliant feeling!
We spent some time in Paris before beginning our own mini-tour back to the UK – a fabulous couple of days in glorious sunshine on day 1 (32 degrees – a bit much) and pouring rain on day 2!
It was a brilliant end to a brilliant week and I was so pleased she was there with me!
Helped people out
I had many people come up to me and thank me for the packing articles, so I hope I have helped out a lot of people (and not just in the UK, the site stats show several country forums etc. have hooked onto the articles!).
Beyond that, I hope I was able to offer advice and encouragement to several riders who were going through their darker moments and just needed a couple of words to point them in the right direction.
One rider in particular though will probably be the biggest memory of PBP 2015. Nick Wilkinson was riding PBP on his Brompton. He has already ridden LEL on it, so wasn’t new to riding a long way on a bike designed to take you to the train station!
As I was taking my time and generally relaxing, I passed a number of riders quite a few times as I’d been hanging around somewhere. I always tried to be cheery and say hello whenever I passed the same person for the 300th time.
Nick came in for a bit of ribbing from me for riding on a toy bike. All taken in the spirit it was intended and I am sure he knows I have massive respect for him riding such a distance on a totally unsuitable machine.
As the ride went on, he was clearly getting into bother with sleep. I saw him looking blitzed at a couple of controls and had to give him the advice to ignore closing times on the controls. He was convinced he had to be on the road before the closing time in order to make it to the next control in time. I did some maths with him and hopefully showed him that sleep and leaving after closing time would still have him at the next control in time.
By the next time I saw him, with 140km to go, sometime in the middle of the night (I’d slept for a while there) he was in a bit of a mess again and was confused and stressing about sleep and timing etc. – he spent too much time talking and stressing about lack of sleep until both myself and Dave Minter told him to shut up and grab a cat nap!
At Dreux (60km to go), he really did look like something the cat had dragged in. He was broken. Beyond tired, he looked awful and was a bit out of it. I sat him down and told him to grab some sleep whilst I got him some food and water and filled his bottles etc.
I got him to eat the soup and drink a bit and then get more sleep.
He was tight on time and in the state he was in, I wasn’t sure he’d make it. As I still had several hours in hand to get to the finish (I had set off a couple of hours after Nick), I offered to escort him to the finish and make sure he kept on pace.
Unfortunately to add insult to injury, the weather had taken a major turn for the worse and the rain was tipping down, and was cold with it!
What followed was 3-4 hours of riding in pouring rain, trying to keep someone awake, moving and out of trouble – all whilst getting colder and colder as I was riding far slower than I might normally do so.
Fortunately, in some ways, Nick’s Garmin ran out of batteries, so he now didn’t have access to the numbers. This meant he just focussed on pedalling and I gave him occasional updates on our speed.
After a while, things were starting to look better and better – we were ahead of schedule and would hopefully get him in with 45 minutes to spare.
Closer and closer we got, until we finally hit the velodrome – all within time.
I think the photo taken of me is one of relief! (thanks to Dean for it!). I will get some photos of Nick and I at the end from Cass’ camera as well.
Nick was battered and needed some help with getting food etc., before heading to take what I hope was a good long sleep!
It felt great to have helped someone achieve their goals despite having looked pretty shakey.
We stick together and look after each other as there are not many people in the World who truly understand what we do and why we do it. I’ve hopefully made a friend for life there with a bond that just can’t be created in everyday circumstances.
PBP 2015 was an amazing experience overall. Much, much better than I had hoped for. Relaxing and taking my time meant I got to do all this stuff. I still have a hankering to test myself and go for a proper time, but equally, I have seen how much fun taking my time is.
2019 is a way away, I can’t see me not being in Paris for PBP though. Assuming I have the health and the wealth, it just seems that I couldn’t bear to miss it as the experience is just so wild.
I will sort out more photos and video etc. and add to the post over the coming days.
My Strava file for the ride (there is some corruption in the first 200km – but it’s mostly there and the elapsed time is right, but distance is a little shorter): https://www.strava.com/activities/376266085