Since I am a goal oriented person I try to come up with something new to learn, accomplished or conquer in the form of a project every now and then. It may be anything from learning how to communicate in Spanish or how to pilot a plane, to learning how to play the trombone (one of my less successful goals, by the way) or biking across the United States.
My main project this year (besides working as a doctor during my summer break for the first time) was a long distance ride in France, called Paris-Brest-Paris, which I prepared for pretty much during all spring and summer.
To qualify for PBP you must complete a series of 200 km, 300 km, 400 km and 600 km rides by the end of June, each within a set time limit (13h30, 20h, 27h and 40h respectively). They are called brevets.
PBP itself means little over 1200km on a bike in less than 90 hours. 90 hours of pain, joy, madness, celebration, fantasy, solidarity and solitude, racing and struggling against the wind, the cold, the sleep, and the lack of energy…. It is, in the words of the PBP tradition, le bâton de marechal du cyclo, le défi ultime (the crowning of a cyclist’s career, the ultimate challenge). It takes place every 4 years and this year there were little over 4000 participants, 50:50 French and foreigners. Only 268 particpants were female.
Warm up and break downI decided early on that the best way to get in shape, besides the brevets, would be an intense warm-up training tour during 6 days in northern Spain, up in the mountains about an hour northwest from Barcelona. For more detailed information visit: Volta Cicloturista del Cor de Catalunya.
Boy, was I right about the warm-up part. In early August the entire southern Europe was suffering from an incredible heat wave. People were dying like flies in Spain and France, and the temperature never failed to exceed 40 degrees C, as I was down there hauling my bike up the endless climbs in the Pyrenean mountains.
Not too surprisingly, it turned out that the cycling, a part from the heat, was much harder than I had imagined. Every day consisted of 2-3 longer climbsof 10-20 km each. This meant we were mostly riding up hill or down hill. We only got to do some good pack riding on the very first day when we rode towards the mountains from a town called Manresa. The majority of the riders were much stronger than me and all together there were only 4 riding women, in a group of 96 participants.
By the end of the tour, I got absolutely knocked out and ended up missing the last day of riding. I don’t know if my illness was due to the hot climate and constant dehydration, the hard riding for several days in a row or simply an evil Spanish bacterium in my food. Either way, my stomach completelygave up on me. I had diarrhoea for 4 days in a row, combined with high fevers and body ache. I could not eat or drink anything without having to run for the bathroom.
I stayed in bed, with the shades down, discovered the blessing of air-conditioning, and survived on warm decarbonised Coke and salty crackers. This “near to death”-experience occurred only a week before the PBP. Besides from feeling lousy, I lost several kilos. Normally I wouldn’t have minded, since I most definitely have a few to spare. In this case, though, I was quite convinced that using up my energy depots a week before the actual ride started wasn’t the best preparation for an endurance test like PBP. When I recovered enough to move from the toilet seat to the drivers seat, I fled the country and its germs.
After an overnight stop and some duty-free shopping in Andorra, and endless driving on expensive toll roads in France, I arrived in southern Paris, St-Quentin-en-Yvelines, where the start of Paris-Brest-Paris takes place.
I was actually a few days ahead of my travelling schedule and I tried my best to use that extra time to relax as much as possible and get my stomach back in order. When the rest of the group arrived, two days later, I was feeling a lot better. But I hadn’t been on my bike for over a week and still hadn’t had a proper meal (one of the most essential things when it comes to long distance cycling). However, the inspiration I got from the rest of the group, made me decide not to give up on the ride, not without starting anyway. I told myself, I had to give it a try before quitting. And who knew, maybe those lost kilos would work to my advantage in the hills?!
As I was waiting for my full recovery, with increasing frustration, I did some lastminute changes (which I’ve heard you’re never supposed to do), regarding the equipment to be carried on the bike during the ride. I decided that the bag I had used on the 600 km brevet in Sweden was way to heavy. A decision I should have made much earlier, since I had developed severe knee pain during that ride. Instead, I somehow imagined I would be fine on the PBP ride (talk about illogical repression).
However, 3 days before the ride, I realized on a quick spin to town how incredibly heavy that particular bag was, with its rack mounting and soft padding. Since I had found out that there would be a van, from another Swedish cycling club, placed at Loudeac about 445 km and 761 km into the ride, I simply decided to put on a smaller bag and leave a change of cloths in the van, instead of being fully self-supported.
After having experienced the hills on the PBP-course (from two directions), I can only establish that this was the best decision I could have made; in order to enable my body to last the entire 1200 km. But, maybe I would have felt differently if it had started to rain, with my rain jacket in Paris and my change of cloths several hundred kilometres away?
To sum the whole thing up, the ride from Paris to Brest and back to Paris is one of the worst things I have ever done. After some time to process the general suffering, sleep deprivation, body pains and bad memories, I must say, however, that it also is one of the best things I have ever done. It’s hard to explain how this contradiction can be, but the whole experience is just so far from anything I have ever done before.
The landscape was absolutely beautiful and I can assure you that in 600 km you will have time to experience quite a bit of variation as well! It was such an indescribable thrill to pass through all these little French villages filled with enthusiastic people, who probably never leave their homes and only meet with foreigners every 4 years, when crazy bike riders pass through on their bumpy roads.
People were constantly cheering along the roadsides, no matter what time of day, daytime as well as nighttime. In the countryside people would set up tables with drinks and refreshments in front of their houses. Offering by passers to stop and grab whatever they needed. I had not fully understood how big and impressive this ride was, until I experienced people’s reactions first hand.
Apart from the hospitality of the French, it was such a warm and friendly atmosphere on the road. Everybody did what he or she could to help other riders out, if it meant lending out a tool, giving away a Power Bar, taking a pull in the headwind or keeping somebody awake in the middle of the night. On top of this, I had numerous chats with lots of interesting and entertaining people, I rarely encounter in other sets of environments. But unfortunately, my French is non-existent, so I mainly experienced the foreigners’ side of the ride.
I met people from all over the world, Sweden, Denmark, Finland (one Finnish guy did the entire ride on a kick-bike!), Germany, Holland, Spain, Italy, France (of course), Great Britain, Australia, Canada and the USA. There were many more countries represented, but these are the nations I recall having conversations with.
As far as my riding went, I felt reasonably strong, physically, through most of the ride, except for when I got really tired. I found it very hard to stay focused and motivated when my sleep deprivation exceeded a certain limit. We started in the evening, at 10:30 PM, on Aug 18th. During that first night I did fine, but the next morning I got very sleepy (when I had been awake for 24 hours), about 250 km into the ride. I felt even more tired when I realized I wouldn’t be getting any sleep for the next 12 hours or 200 km. With this knowledge I was in terrible shape, mentally, for the next 50 km or so, till I laid down on the grass in Fougéres (306 km) for a power nap. Half an hour later I felt much better.
In Loudeac (445 km), where the van was parked, I decided to freshen up and get some sleep. Originally I had planned to ride till the next control, Carhaix (521 km), before going to bed. However, with the van and support crew around, it was far too tempting to stay here. Amazingly enough, I managed to spend more than 3 hours fooling around here before I went to sleep; standing in line for showers, showering and getting changed in less than 1 square meter, standing in line for food (at least 40 min!), eating, standing in line for a primitive version of a bed (which turned out to be all gone by the time I made it to the front of the line), walking back to the van, trying to find another place to sleep, dealing with my frustrations, etc. Eventually, I ended up sleeping in one of the seats in the van, which wasn’t such a great solution after all. The heat wave had left France a few days before the PBP-ride had started and during the ride the nights were unexpectedly cold (between 6-10 degrees C). Very few people had brought cloths for this kind of temperature, considering it had been over 30 degrees at night the week before. Hence, I was shivering in the van from 12 AM to 2 AM, getting disturbed constantly by other bikers passing by to get their stuff. At 2:30 AM I decided it was nothing but a waste of time trying to rest under those conditions. I grabbed something to eat, got dressed and mounted my bike sometime after 3 AM. The exact times are a bit blurry at this point. I was fine riding for the first hour or two in the cold and dark night. Then I became more and more tired by every minute, not knowing where I was or how much further till the next control. Luckily, I had found a group of people to ride with, which was a good thing in many aspects. For one thing, my lighting was way too insufficient for solo riding on dark French roads with no streetlights or reflective markers (Swedish summer nights are also much brighter!). I tried my best to stay awake and stick with the group. I did not feel like pulling over in the middle of nowhere and take a nap in a freezing ditch, like many other riders did at that time. My eyes kept closing and I felt nauseous…
In Carhaix (521 km), I had pasta for breakfast while watching the sunrise. I was almost too tired to eat, but I was starving and knew I had to supply plenty of slow carbohydrates, to regain enough energy depots to continue. After the meal I passed out on a cardboard-piece on the floor of the dining-hall. It might seem like a strange place to sleep, but I sure was in good company by others. I don’t know for how long I slept, probably an hour. When I woke up, I was shivering and felt miserably, partly because of exhaustion and partly because of the cold floor. I tried to be optimistic, only 80 km to the turn around point. Well, the actual distance this year was in fact 1230 km (615 + 615), which meant I had closer to 95 km to Brest. On my speedometer I logged 1250 km for the entire ride, due to a few wrong turns and circling in the towns. For this last section on the outbound ride, I hooked up with a very nice group from Sacramento, California (members of the Davis bike club). Going down to Brest, which is located by the Atlantic Ocean, meant lots of long relaxing descents. We stayed behind one of their tandems and were absolutely flying down the hills. This turned out to be one of the better sections of the ride. Climbing back up after a brief stop in Brest was not quite as much fun!
At 720 km the sun was starting to set again. At this point I was riding with two Swedish guys, who wanted to wait for me on one hand, but on another hand insisted on us moving faster, since it was getting dark. I tried my best to push myself, but my legs weren’t feeling that fresh anymore. My body was certainly starting to become aware of the distance it had covered over the last two days and the suffering from lack of sleep was aggravating. In Carhaix (705 km), I had also thrown up most of the meal, I had forced down a few minutes earlier, out in the bicycle parking area. I totally grossed out a couple of supporters enjoying the atmosphere from a bench, but by then I had no longer any need to worry about manners. The stomach problems I had developed in Spain definitely didn’t make it easier to cope with this kind of riding; many hours on the bike, little sleep, a need for excessive amount of food and drinks, with very little time to digest. Not too surprisingly, I ended up getting a severe heartburn, which kept me from eating and drinking any larger amounts while on the bike. I had brought medication just in case to treat the worst symptoms, but at this point it seemed to have very little effect.
I spent the second night of sleep in Loudeac (781 km), where the van was parked. This far into the ride I no longer had any desire to waste more time on personal hygiene. I therefore only cleaned myself with a damp towel, put on a new set of cloths and lined up for a bed. This time I was number 8, out of the last 10, to get a bed. Well, referring to it as “a bed” is actually quite an exaggeration. It was more like a camping style mattress. It would have been nice with a pillow, but I was too tired to care. It would have been even nicer with a blanket, but other people had grabbed two blankets, because of the freezing temperatures at night. Instead, I passed out with my aluminium rescue blanket on top of me, to prevent the worst shivers from keeping me awake. At 4 AM, 3.5 hours later, it was time to get up…
This was one of the absolutely worst parts of PBP, having to wake up in the middle of the night, freezing and starving, only to get back on the bike and pedal for another day. Not being much of a morning person to start with, I really hated this part. That time of the day, it felt like my body had no strength and my mind had no will to continue this nightmare, but somehow I made it back on the bike. Swearing, but back on the bike… The most painful time on the bike for me was right before dusk, when it got really cold and humid. My entire bike would even start wobbling in the descents from the shivers of my body. Who would have guessed France could be that cold in the middle of August, especially after a heat wave?
Sometimes I was so fed up with the whole situation, regretting I had ever learned how to ride a bicycle. Hating myself for putting me through this horrible experience and hating all the cheerful people around me for being so annoying. Sometimes I got these incredible kicks, usually in the afternoons/early evenings, when I felt like I could keep going forever and that nothing would ever be able stop me. I was totally amazed to learn how fast you can ride after having completed a 1000 km within the last couple of days, with hardly any sleep. I was also amazed to learn how fast my mood could change, how fast my power could vanish, how long a climb can be when all you want to do is lie down and close your eyes, how much difference the pavement can make when you have a sore, stinging butt. On this third day, I ended up standing so much on the bike, due to my sore private parts, that I developed some kind of nerve damage on my left foot and lost sensitivity in three toes for several weeks after the ride. However, I would gladly have sacrificed the sensitivity in three more toes, if it meant my crouch would have been any less painful.
By midnight I was only 145 km from the finish. I was tempted to keep going, but none of the people I had been riding with wanted to come along. Everybody seemed to have scheduled a couple of hours of sleep in Mortagne and then ride in to Paris the next day. This was, without a doubt, the most sensible thing to do. I was just so fed up with the whole thing and could not wait to finish, but considering the insufficient lighting I had on my bike, I didn’t feel secure enough to continue on my own. What if I missed a turn and got lost in the middle of the night? What if I got as tired as that previous night and fell asleep on the bike this time? Riding in the dark means a lot more risk taking and I wasn’t ready to jeopardize what I had accomplished so far. I therefore did the sensible thing; I chickened out and stayed with the group. A decision I certainly didn’t regret.
In Mortagne (1085 km), I went straight for the line to get a bed and blanket (you pick up a few useful strategies along the route). I paid for the mattress, grabbed my blanket and went to the dining-hall for food. Now I was feeling even more nauseous and I was having serious problems getting anything down, due to painful heartburn and a cramping oesophagus. After this highly unpleasant meal, I could no wait to go to sleep. Guess how happy I was to find a middle aged Italian man sleeping on my 3 Euro mattress? Sure, the PBP-staff refunded me the money after having sold the same mattress twice, but the thing is, I would gladly have paid an extra 3 Euros to get a mattress to sleep on. That last night I ended up sleeping on the floor, but for a change, with a blanket to keep me warm. I felt close to dead 4 hours later when some staff-person tried to wake me up by shaking my body and pointing a flashlight in my face. 5 AM, time to get ready for the last 145 km.
I was out on the dark road again. The freezing temperatures still dominated most of the riding at night. During this section I got totally surprised and furious to discover how hilly the terrain was. I knew I had passed through here before, going the other way, but I could not recall any of the hills we encountered this time. The fact that it was getting light made it even more obvious how long the climbs were and how many hills there were ahead of us. I’m not famous for being a perky person in the mornings, but this understanding definitely tipped me over the edge. The combination of what I had been through these past days and the fact that I had expected a fairly flat and simple ride from here on, put me in the most barbaric mood I’ve been in since… puberty.
Closer to the last control, Nogent-Le-Roi, things started to get better again. The terrain was flatter, the temperature was warmer now that the sun was out and I was slowly recovering from my morning temper. In this area I met a crazy guy from England. When he noticed I jumped on his wheel, he started to go faster and faster. I took this as a hint that he might not be interested in company. When I let go, he slowed down and waited for me and the same procedure repeated itself. In one of the smaller villages, when he was forced to slow down, I asked him if he enjoyed racing early in the morning. He said: – “Only if I have somebody on my wheel. It’s so much better training when you’re getting chased, than when you’re doing the speed work outs on your own”. Makes sense, but who worries about speed work outs with less than 80 km to finish a 1230 km ride?!? All I could think about was recovery!
In Nogent-Le-Roi (1173 km), I only stayed long enough to squeeze down a small yoghurt and a doughnut. I had had it with this ride. St-Quentin-en-Yvelines, which meant the end of this ride from hell, was now less than 60 km away. I wasn’t going to prolong the suffering more than necessary. I think it was around 11:10 AM when I started that last leg. A few hills and turns later, I started to feel euphoric about what I soon was about to accomplish. With this euphoria came power and energy. These last kilometres were among the fastest during my entire ride. Sure, there are not quite as many hills closer to Paris, but I felt light as a feather as I was speeding along. I passed group after group, on my own, and felt stronger than ever. Everybody was going slower than me, it seemed. I was dying to end this ride and I gladly sacrificed every last bit of energy to get to the finish line as soon as possible. In one of the downhills I was caught by a triple-bike with three guys from England, with whom I had ridden the night before. It was frightening to see how fast they could go in the descents and on the flats, on that enormous bike. I really had to work hard to keep up with them, but fortunately they were not quite as fast in the climbs, which gave me some time to recover.
The last few kilometres of the ride were without a doubt the most fun. At this point I knew I would be able to make it. The weather was nice and warm and I felt great. I think this is when I subconsciously changed my mind about doing this ride again. For 1180 km I had been thinking; “this is the first and last time I ever do a ride of this distance over this few days, especially with this many hills. Never again!” Getting to the finish and being greeted by club members, who had either finished before me or abandoned the ride early, was a marvellous feeling that gave me a sweet taste from the whole PBP-experience. Sitting on the ground absolutely exhausted, but at the same time absolutely satisfied, surrounded by likeminded, gave me such a warm and happy feeling. That’s when I realized I would probably put myself through the same suffer and struggle again, 4 years from now, just to be able to relive that happy feeling once again.
In St-Quentin-en-Yvelines we stayed at a shitty and expensive hotel (worst combination possible). One of the few advantages, though, was its location less than 2 km from the finishing area. At the hotel I had a very thorough shower. It felt like I would never smell decent and nice again. Another advantage of the hotel was its proximity to the best biking restaurant there is, Mc Donald’s. Despite the short distance I allowed myself to go there by car. Never has a chicken burger with fries tasted that great, even in combination with heartburns and oesophagus cramps. As I was nibbling on the last couple of fries, I was almost falling asleep over the table. I could not get back to the hotel fast enough to splurge in a real bed, with both a pillow and a blanket…ZZZzzzzzz….
Me, only a few minutes after I made it across the finishline as the 4th out of 5 Swedish women to complete the PBP, ever!
Personal PBP facts
The hard facts of my PBP-ride are that I finished in 87 hours and 10 minutes. Not a fantastic result by any means, but considering that I had not been able to put more than 6300 km on my bike in 2003 before the ride, that it was my first 1200 km ride, and last but not least, that I was in such a terrible condition only one week before the ride started, I’m very happy just to have finished! During these 87 hours I managed to squeeze in about 11 hours of scattered sleep and another 23 hours of fooling-around time (eating, chatting, relaxing, standing in line, etc). This really seems like a lot afterwards, and I can’t explain how it happened, but I guess it’s hard to be efficient when you’re mentally and physically exhausted. Hence, my total riding time was little over 53 hours; with an average speed around 23 km/h.