After three years of waiting I was finally at the point of no return: I had ridden my four qualifying rides, successfully entered Paris-Brest-Paris along with 6000 other riders from around the world, and I was on my way.
Note: this article is as much a note-to-self for 2019 as it is an article for others to read. I have perhaps taken some liberty with the level of detail, but hopefully for those who don't like to wade through others' reports, the numerous photos will offset the challenge!
To make things a little spicier, I had decided to ride the 380km to Paris, via the Newhaven-Dieppe ferry crossing, along with a number of other riders. Some took the Wednesday crossing and then took two days to ride from Dieppe to Paris. I opted for the Thursday crossing, figuring that 180km in one day is an easy day on the bike, given I'd already ridden 4000km in the season on brevets alone.
It all changed on the day, though: a combination of work and weather meant I let the train take the strain at least as far as Brighton, and then I rode 20km or so along the Under-Cliff Path to Newhaven. This turned out to be a bit of an error of judgement: while the path was flat, it was covered in white run-off from the cliffs above, and my shiny clean Brompton was now covered in white stuff
A number of us had arranged to meet up for dinner at The Flying Fish pub a couple of miles from the port. When I arrived, at about 8.30, Hackney Adam had just arrived and Marcus, Martin, Pichy, and John Snook with his vélomobile. Joe, another Adam, Dave Minter and George on the tandem all arrived and we had a pleasant evening, before setting off for the port for our 11pm sailing. It happened that Joe didn't have a hotel for after arriving back in St Quentin having ridden PBP — I had a spare and we swapped details.
At the port there was a large gathering of cyclists heading for Paris and they quickly opened up a check-in lane just for us and processed us all through quickly. It was quite a sight with all the bikes leant against the fence in the dark and riders milling around in hi-viz. They sent us onto the boat first, and it was an unusual feeling to ride up the metal ramp and thru the boat to the far end, where we piled out bikes one on top of the other and tied them to the bulkhead with a couple of pieces of sketchy old rope!
The overnight crossing was an experience: I tried to sleep in a chair, but it was significantly uncomfortable. So I broke out my bivi bag and sleep mat and found a corner of floor to snooze on, but the air-con kept me cold, so I went back to my seat — I must've had only an hour or so's proper sleep, not a good start before PBP!
We disembarked into a cold, dark morning. I had created my own route using the Avenue Verte to get much of the way to St Quentin-en-Yvelines, but I didn't want to force it onto the group, which contained several anciens who had more experience of French riding than me (who had none at all). So we followed Marcus' route, which almost immediately took us off route (damnable auto-routing on Google Maps, apparently), losing the Dave&George tandem with one of the Adams on their wheel, but we eventually found ourselves back on route. Marcus had said he thought the Avenue Verte was a loose surface, which after the previous days' heavy rain would now be too soft to ride, so we opted for the road parallel to it.
The point about the Avenue Verte is that it's a disused rail line, and so follows a constant, gentle gradient along the valley floor. The road, on the other hand, follows the contours of the land and we were constantly either climbing or falling.
The roads were whisper smooth and the pace was pretty keen for such an early hour — at one point Martin took the front and upped the pace riding 27kph uphill, and riders started dropping off the back, so I rode up beside him and asked him to drop the pace; I chatted with him for a while to try to keep the pace steady, but slower. It didn't last long, though. What astounded me was the pace of the four fixed-wheel riders in our groupetto up the hills: it was hard to keep up with them on the climbs and at the top they didn't let up and just rode off down the other side. It was only by virtue of gears that I could hook back on down the descents. Marcus later pointed out that fixie riders have a natural cadence and they must continue at that cadence up hills in order to maintain momentum and avoid stalling. They also can't go quite as quick down hills, because they spin out once the speed gets too high.
After 1h40m and 38km of riding we pulled up in Neufchâtel-en-Bray for some croissants and coffee — we met the tandem and Adam there. A lovely spot to stop and the coffee and croissants were delicieuse, but some weird cows on the roundabout …
On the restart it became clear that the pace was too hot for me, particularly up the hills — and the extra 6kg or so of hotel luggage wasn't helping! — so just before Serqueux I said my goodbyes and dropped off the back, aiming for a leisurely ride to Paris on my own, following the route I'd researched. We crossed the Avenue Verte at this point and a rider popped out and set off to chase the group down. Another rider, on a recumbent, also pulled out of a side road, but was far more leisurely and seemed my kind of riding buddy. We introduced ourselves — it turned out to be Garry von Broad or broken-frame fame, someone I've ridden with before but never actually met.
Garry was riding a homemade steel 'bent that he had thrown together earlier in the year for PBP when he decided to ride. It was interesting to see how he'd put it together and some of his design decisions, including the homemade carbon handlbar
We watched the group turn left ahead, but my quieter route went straight on. Garry and I stopped for a quick discussion and agreed that the quieter route would probably be nicer, especially as we would be able to ride side-by-side for longer and chat. This turned out to be a good thing, because my route did indeed take to the lanes parallel to the main roads and they were far more interesting and scenic, although possibly also a little more scenic, which Garry did mention once or twice. The route did take us through villages that looked like they hadn't changed much in a century, with chateaux everywhere and very little traffic — it was a lovely route.
The weather had cleared and we spent the day riding in bright sunshine — I should've stopped to put sun cream on, but like a silly boy I neglected to do so, something I would regret a week later when my skin peeled off
We were going well and didn't feel the need to stop for a big lunch, so we dined al fresco at a supermarket in Sérifontaine, to the amusement of the locals, since neither of us was on a proper bike.
Further on we headed into Gisors and picked up a couple of stray PBP entrants looking lost. As we rode through the town, I could see a group of cyclists in my helmet mirror catching us — it turned out to be the group, who had stopped for a long lunch, allowing us to pass them. We rode with them for a mile or two, but eventually we rode off the back up the hill out of Gisors and let them get on with it: they were heading on the main D915 trunk road, whereas we turned right at the top of the hill back into the lanes. By now the wind had picked up and it was making it that bit harder to ride.
When I put my route together, I had taken a great deal of care to check most of the route. Unfortunately, Google Maps sometimes like to route cyclists along footpaths, and two of these went straight across the middle of fields! We skirted around them: I did at least have a complete set of OpenStreemMap (OSM) maps for northern France.
Garry and I agreed we weren't trying to set any records on the ride, so we set an easy pace. I had an unfortunate clipless-moment at one point, as I was unable to rotate my heel to unclip for some reason — cramps caused by dehydration possibly — and went down onto the pavement. No damage, just a few scratches. And a bruised ego
The route starts to get hilly before the crossing of la Seine at Meulan-en-Yvelines, and up the other side of the valley, but since Garry was on a 'bent then there was no urgency to the climbing, which suited me fine.
At les Alluets-le-Roi the weather looked to be changing and an enormous rain front stood directly across our path a couple of kilometres away. We stopped to put 'proofs on, but by the time we'd done that the front had moved away, so stopped and took them off again.
However, by the time we reached the outskirts of Plaisir, within 15km of our destination, the heavens opened and we definitely needed to 'proof-up — the road became a river and we stood at the top of a hill, in our waterproofs, watching the carnage. The rain abated and we continued, and it wasn't long before we stopped one final time to remove the jackets. Shortly after that our ways parted and Garry headed off into Plaisir to his hotel.
I had a hairy moment getting from Plaisir into Trappes: they are reconfiguring the D30/N12 junction and the temporary roads clearly weren't designed with cyclists in mind! I raced the traffic to try to avoid any unsafe overtakes from behind and came out the other side unscathed.
I tried to use the PBP route to get to my hotel, but discovered why the beginning had changed this year: the road was completely dug up edge-to-edge and was impassable to all but pedestrians. I bumped into another UK rider, John I think, who knew me better than I knew him. I also passed a New Jersey Randonneurs audax group — complete with captain and whistle — heading the other way through Trappes.
Before long I was at my hotel — the F1 in Trappes. A quick check in — lots of hand-waving and rubbish French — and I was able to think about food.
Overall the journey was 180km and I had taken exactly 11 hours to get there, with an average moving pace of 21kph — that's quite slow for me, but I put that down to the extra weight on the bike, and being fairly out of shape since riding my final 600km qualifier in May, three months earlier.
FWIW, that evening I was able to buy a sponge and wash the bike outside the hotel, so spanky clean again. And I met up with Rog for dinner in the centre of Trappes
Would I ride down again?
Certainly: it adds to the pre-PBP build-up and the extra days away from work helped to get me into the mood for PBP I think the three-day ride is a bit much, and I was happy with riding just two days. However, I think it's weather-dependent and so if it's going to be a rainy ride to Paris then there's no point in getting all the kit soaked with little chance to dry properly, and so it would then be better to use the train, as I did for the UK leg this year.
I would also remind myself in four years time that I wasn't so sure the group riding was worth it over a decent route, as it seemed the group had a main-road bash to Paris, whereas Garry and I enjoyed a much more scenic route on quieter back roads, which ended up being almost exactly the same distance, yet much more enjoyable.
And don't forget: you didn't use half the things you took with you for the hotel, so don't bother taking them next time, save some weight!