PBP 2011 – the View from the Front

It was hard to comprehend why anyone would want to sleep on a mattress made of squeaky plastic egg boxes, but that’s the only way that I could describe the constant noise in the corner of the makeshift dormitory in Loudeac. There were several options at hand and none of them were particularly appealing. I could get the earplugs I had in my saddlebag for exactly such an occasion or do what I was supposed to be doing i.e. cycling. I had been on the road for about 32 hours and last saw a bed about 45 hours ago, but my 90 minute sleep break wasn’t all that I hoped it would be. Somehow I summoned up the strength to peel myself off the mattress and put back on the sodden clothing of the previous night, heading back out into the dark and continue on the last 450k of the adventure across Brittany and Normandy that is the Paris Brest Paris. On the way out I met Noel, who was well on his way to Brest and able to update me on the progress of several other Irish riders that he had met along the route. Everyone was tipping along well, this was going to be a good day. I had dry clothing with me but didn’t see much sense in changing into the dry ones while it was still flogging rain. That would be a treat for later in the day, after breakfast sounded good, this day was getting better by the minute.

Paul, Dave B, Dave Mc, Michael at the start line
Paul, Dave B, Dave Mc, Michael

The adventure had started at 16.30 on Sunday for myself, Dave Bayley, Dave McLoughlin and Michael Cassidy. We were at the back of the second wave of 500 riders taking the 80 hour option for completing the 1228k randonnee. The sign on process had gone fairly smoothly given the numbers to be processed and we weren’t interested in trying to get near the front, given the ever present sun it made more sense to stay towards the back and take advantage of the shade. My loose plan was to take things easy on the way out to Brest in order to feel good on the return, from previous experience I expected to be riding solo for about 800k. Heat was going to be a major player in this year’s event, the much talked about weekend storms had never materialised which probably meant that we would be getting a good wetting over the next few days.

After the fanfare we got moving through the sprawling suburbs of “la nouvelle ville”, which accounts for the first 15k of the route before reaching the open countryside. It was really important to stay focussed as this is where the bulk of the crashes take place. Riders, overexcited and twitchy do silly things and unfortunately there were several crashes in the first 10k. Although green jerseys were rare as hen’s teeth and easily identifiable there was no point trying to stay together as we all knew that something of this length needs to be ridden at your own pace. The earlier than normal start gave the 80hr group an extra 4.5 hours of daylight compared to the customary 1 hour before darkness, but I was beginning to think this advantage would be cancelled out by the heat. It was savage hot and the wind was blowing strong on right shoulders. Any plan of taking it easy on the first 600k was falling apart along the ever splintering group. Darkness couldn’t come soon enough and even the Australians were complaining about the heat.

The open countryside and strong crosswinds made staying with a group a necessity rather than a luxury as groups fragmented and reformed after every rise in the road. There was some crazy riding going on and people seemed to think that the roads were closed all the way to Brest and rode accordingly. It was easy to see which wheels were to be avoided, they were usually the ones who were trying way too hard to stay near the front and would have been better easing back and not wasting too much energy in the first few hours. But I guess people were getting swept away with the excitement of tearing along in such large numbers. 

Ronnie holding court
Ronnie holding court before 20:00 start
Niall and John at Dreux
Niall and John at team motivational talk

The first proper control is 220k into the ride but there’s an optional one at 140, where most people would need to refill bottles. I was feeling a worrying twinge of cramp after about 2 hours but decided to keep going and see if I could spin it out. From about 19.00hrs onwards people started miraculously appearing on the side of the road with garden hoses asking cyclists did they want a spray down. I was glad to take off my helmet and get a passing spray on the face. This was like manna from heaven and I dived into the curb to fill bottles.

The first control was reached in daylight and after a quick turnaround I set off solo into the looming darkness. The roads were more shaded on this section and the going became more pleasant. The wind hadn’t eased and when the first group comprising mainly French and Italians passed me I tagged onto the back. No one seemed prepared to go to the front and do some work so I took the initiative and did a good stretch. I probably did longer than I should have but when I pulled over several riders came through. Not everyone worked but as the night wore on more and more people would take their turn until eventually everyone would do their bit. This proved to be the pattern for the first night: leave a control solo, within a few minutes a group passes, do a long stint at the front and then more and more riders would join in. I’d normally be content doodling away on my own but was glad of the bit of shelter from the crosswind and extra light on the road is always appreciated. The French cyclists seemed to be the only nation to grasp the concept that it wasn’t a headwind but rather a crosswind and rode accordingly. As the night wore on the groups whittled down and I usually found myself with 8/10 locals and eventually there’d be a bit of banter to pass the night. I never once left a control with the same people I arrived with, mainly because they were eating at the controls while I was eating from my own supplies in my saddlebag. While I was carrying a lot of extra weight onboard the policy of looking after myself was paying dividends, all I needed for the first few hundred k’s was to do the paperwork and get water.

At some point before dawn I found myself in a group of Catalan cyclists along with a Japanese cyclist who I ran across several times right up to the finish. We clipped along nicely on the flats but anytime the road started to rise the pace rose and rose until they were dropping their own mates. Then there’d be a regrouping, but only until the next hill. The Japanese guy really struggled to hang on but always managed to somehow. It was nice having the extra lights on the road, but all this attacking was going to blow my lights. I let them go on the next climb and rode into Fougeres solo, reminding myself to stick to my own game plan. Everyone has their own approach to riding audax events i.e. use the maximum time and ride around comfortably, ride hard always and spend a long time in the controls or ride steady keeping breaks to a limit. I’d put myself firmly in the latter camp. By the time I left the control the same guys were still sitting around drinking coffee.

Fast-moving Catalonians
Fast-moving Catalonians

Dawn to Dusk

Activity was starting to thin out on the road and the further along I rode the lonelier the road became. It was nice leaving Fougeres as the next 90 minutes would see the first signs of daylight and a new day dawning. I was still wearing shorts and jersey as the need for arm/leg warmers never arose, this was a first for me and another experience to chalk up as a cyclists. I rode to the next control solo and contented. Dawn brings on the witching hour and is always my lowest point so I took the time in Loudeac to have a wash, sit down and eat something solid washed down by a cup of coffee. This was all done in the hope of trying to convince my mind that it hadn’t been cycling all night and would be fresh and ready to go when I rolled out of the control to daylight. The first few minutes back on the bike were very sluggish as is often the case after a break, but this heavy feeling wasn’t going to go away anytime soon, no matter how much caffeine was consumed at breakfast. No caffeine had passed my lips for about 2 weeks but it seemed like the illusion was not going to work this time. The terrain is quite hilly for this stretch, time seems to be grinding to a standstill as I pass a group of cyclists and they pass me. This happens several times but it gives me something to think about other than the all encompassing feeling of total tiredness I’m stuck in. It’s always bemusing how you wait all night for daybreak and then when it finally rumbles around you feel your body sinks to depths that you feel it will never rise from again. But rise it does, so there’s nothing to do but soldier on and appreciate the previous 16 hours. A shock to the system is what I need to restart me so when Tom from Denver passes by quickly I decide to follow. The chat and change in pace seemed to do the job as body and brain slowly reboot back to life, somewhere up the road our ways part, but I greatly valued the stimulus Tom provided, whether he knew it or not.

The last section into Brest is fairly lumpy but is still fresh in my mind as I had ridden the Brest Paris section on my trip from the Rosslare Roscoff ferry. There are random groups of riders scattered around each lost in their own little world of tiredness, but I appear to be riding ok as I pass many cyclists on the many climbs. Tom passes me again, but I stay where I am as I’d rather keep my own pace on the hilly sections. Eventually the long awaited descent into Brest materialises leading to the iconic Pont Albert Louppe, an impressive structure reserved for cyclists and pedestrians. The control in Brest is quite central necessitating a never ending drag through the port and the rude awakening of riding in heavy traffic for the first time in 24 hours. 

Eoghan, Andreas and Andy reach Brest
Eoghan, Andreas and Andy reach Brest

I was always planning to eat dinner in Brest and gather my thoughts before turning, but the control is scattered over several buildings and the stop ends up costing me a lot more time than planned. The whole population of Sizun seemed to have decamped into marquees to provide an unofficial control for riders and in retrospect I should have headed back the 30k or so to here to eat and save myself some time. I guess in my mind I wanted to stop in Brest for the symbolisms of reaching the Atlantic, another lesson for next time. The rain clouds are amassing when I meet Michael who plans to turn in Brest and ride the 85k back to Carhaix to get some sleep. My heart goes out to Michael as this is a bumpy section and he will be doing it in darkness and more than likely rain. Further on I see Jim Fitzpatrick on the far side of the road tipping along nicely with a big grin, things are looking good for the Irish contingent. By now there’s a steady stream of cyclists on the opposite side of the road and the last hours of daylight are spent looking out for familiar faces.

The thunder and lightning started about 2 hours before darkness followed by the inevitable rain but it didn’t get particularly cold. About 10 minutes after the added control of St Nicolas du Pelem the skies opened up and I was wet to the bone before having a chance to cape up properly. The rain was bouncing off the road with rivers flowing everywhere, when a pile of red lights appeared all over the road. This looked like a nasty crash, but as I got close saw that it was only a group of cyclists who had dropped their bikes to seek shelter in the forest. Assuming rain that heavy couldn’t last long I jumped under a tree to join the raggle taggle bunch. After a few minutes the unspoken concensus seemed to be that it was as wet in the forest as on the road and everyone crawled out of the meagre shelter and pressed on. It was only about 25k to the next control, but the one thing that I dreaded started to happen. The “noddies” whereby you can’t stay awake and your head keeps dropping as you fall asleep for a few milliseconds. Personally I always reckon that this is the worst hardship that a cyclist will ever experience on two wheels. If it wasn’t raining I would have snoozed on the side of the road but it was too wet for this luxury. There was nothing to do but press on, spurred on by the proximity of the control. My biggest fear was sleeping on the bike and crossing the line into the wall of oncoming cyclists, who by now were coming in such a steady flow that it appeared like a 100 watt halogen light was shining into your face without any way of turning it off. Over the years of riding PBP, lighting technology has improved radically, but at this point I was cursing the very technology that had made the cyclists lot easier. I put on a cap to try and get some sort of screening effect from the glare, realising that even if I could stay awake the prospect of facing the lights was nearly worse. About 10k from the control someone was offering coffee and biscuits out of his garage to tiring riders . Stopping so close to the control felt wrong as I hadn’t stopped at any of the hundreds of families or villages offering free rest and sustenance, nor had I taken time to stop at the 4 extra controls laid on by the organisers this year to try alleviate queuing and provide more sleeping space. Strangely enough the young guy staying up all night to give people coffee wasn’t a cyclist himself, which made the gesture all the more impressive.    

Local Supporters Levare
Local Supporters – Levare
Coffee Stop Levare
Coffee Stop – Levare
Makeshift Dortoir Ambrieres
Makeshift Dortoir – Ambrieres
Local Supporters Night Time
Day and night, both old and young turn out to offer support and encouragement

The final 10k to Loudeac felt like a 100k.It was only midnight but pushing on didn’t seem like a wise option. No one seemed to have the wherewithal to leave the control and there were bodies scattered everywhere trying to grab some sleep on the floor, on the tables, under the tables and draped on top of benches. I picked my way over to the dormitory requesting a 03.00hrs wakeup call which gave me about 95 minutes in a Red Cross bed.

Riders asleep at a control
Still Life

A long day day’s journey into night

Two bowls of soup made do for an improvised breakfast, it was still flogging rain while the ever present thunder and lightning made for a dramatic way to start the day. The road was sheathed in mist as the rain evaporated on the warm tarmac and it was fairly eerie travelling along the by now empty roads. Occasionally a rider would pass on the opposite side of the road and somehow I managed to recognise Jim Hopper and Edwin Hargraves and holler a greeting. Two legendary tricyclists with an impressive cycling background between them, both were easy to spot on their 3 wheelers. I was feeling fresh and starting to warm to the new day.

Eventually daylight broke through the mist and I met Dave at Tinteniac. We had both been at Loudeac at the same time but our paths hadn’t crossed. Departing together we were able to clip along nicely aided by a bit of a tailwind with 360k remaining. I was feeling good and with quick turnarounds at the controls we chipped away nicely at the distance. Only a handful of riders passed us all day and we picked up a lot of stragglers as the day wore on. Most were complaining of sore knees, more than likely caused by pushing too hard on the way out to Brest. We were like the United Nations picking up riders from all over the world and carrying them to the next control the whole day long.


Mortagne au Perche is always a great control, very spacious and modern with as good a selection of food as you’d expect at a restaurant. Our plan was to eat something solid here thereby allowing us to push through the penultimate control at Dreux snappily. While stocking up, a welcome text came through from home. Brief and to the point it was the one that mattered the most during the past few days and nights – “all Irish through Brest”. This was music to my ears, obviously there was still a long way to go but clearing Brest is always a massive psychological boost and put Ireland in a positive position. Leaving Mortagne around 18.00hrs the road contains some cruel climbs but we managed to form a nice little group with an Italian and Swedish rider and stay together over the top. This was to everyone’s benefit as after the initial climbs the road is pan flat and we were able to share the workload and get to the penultimate control in daylight. The presence of a busy motorway to our right was proof that Paris was looming. I knew this last section quite well, but we still managed to get lost about 20k out despite the fact that I had seen this stretch of road twice in the last week. This cost us about 15 minutes, but we seemed to be victims of malicious sign thieves/twisters, as several people made the same mistake that night until the organisers resigned the area. By the time we hit the suburbs for the never ending last 15k the group had swollen to about 12 riders. People were finding renewed energy and trying to sprint away but I was content to doodle in. By the finish it was still the same group as we must have negotiated at least 25 traffic lights most of which were red allowing me to reattach myself back onto the group. We were in just after midnight, after a quick update on the rest of the Irish contingent it was off to the marquee to find something to eat and maybe have a drink. 

Ultan, Dave, Paul at the Arrivee
Ultan (AUK, but from Drogheda), Dave Mc and Paul at the arrivée

There weren’t many people around as the vast majority of the field were still plugging away and it wasn’t worth anyone’s while hanging around to greet so few riders trickling in through the long night. Towards the end of the event there would be several hundred supporters cheering in all finishers and doing their best to make them feel special. It was left to Dave, Ultan, Tomas (Sweden) and myself to organise our own soiree. At some point during the night the Japanese rider who I had met the first night came in for his complimentary beer and quickly fell asleep. After rolling off the bench for the first time we put him back on the bench only for him to fall off again. It was hard to summon up the energy to lift him up the second time but we were saved as the guys at the restaurant looked after him this time. Jim came in around 03.30 but passed on his complimentary drink so we never met. I don’t know how long we stayed but it was bright when we were riding back to the hotel. There was a motorway nearby and I had to keep reminding myself that the lorry drivers mightn’t be as full of joys of spring as we were.

Despite 3 nights of sleep deprivation I only managed to sleep for less than 3 hours but every cloud has a silver lining as I managed to catch breakfast before it finished. I made my way back to the start as Michael was scheduled to finish mid morning, but owing to the different start times it was unlikely that any other Irish finishers would be coming in until the following day. All that remained to be done was hang around the finish renewing acquaintances and chat to the various finishers as they tootled in. There’s a good buzz around the place with the various nationalities all waiting eagerly to count their riders in. It was a real celebration of cycling to see all the different national jerseys coming in on trikes, recumbents, triples, hand powered recumbents, rowing bikes, tandem trikes and a decommissioned Swiss Army bike to mention just a few .The bulk of the Irish riders finished quite close together which was great as we were practically all together at the finish.

All told there were 51 countries present at Paris Brest and it was heartening to see so many new countries represented (India, Puerto Rico) alongside the traditional cycling nations. We had 21 starters with 21 finishers with one rider finishing outside his time limit. This was the 7th time Irish cyclists had participated at PBP, out of the 14 riders who qualified in Ireland only 5 had ridden before. Out of 5002 starters there were 4068 finishers, this was a bit disappointing as conditions were fairly good. I wasted a fair bit of time here and there, but you’re never done learning and I’ll probably waste more the next time around. We did well as a country and once again punched above our weight. Paris Brest Paris, August 2015 – as good a way to spend 89hrs59mins59secs cycling as you’ll ever find!  

Aidan hangs his jersey on his handlebars to dry it.
Aidan dries his jersey in preparation for the run in to Paris.
John O'Sullivan crosses the finish line
Another successful PBP for Irish cyclists

Finishers who qualified in Ireland:

  • BARRY Eoghan (Audax Ireland)
  • BAYLEY Dave (Audax Ireland)
  • CASSIDY Michael (Dromara CC)
  • CAULFIELD Aidan (Audax Ireland)
  • DIAMOND Niall (Audax Ireland)
  • FARRELLY Marc (Audax Ireland)
  • FITZPATRICK Jim (Marble City CC)
  • KAVANAGH Andy (Sorrento CC)
  • McLOUGHLIN Dave (Orwell Wheelers)
  • McNAMARA Noel (Audax Ireland)
  • MOORE Ronnie (Audax Ireland)
  • O’DONOGHUE Paul (Audax Ireland)
  • O’SULLIVAN John (Audax Ireland)
  • O’SULLIVAN Kevin (Audax Ireland)
  • REDMOND Jim (Barrow Wheelers)
  • VOIGT Andreas (Audax Ireland)

Finishers who qualified outside Ireland:

  • BRUTON Joe (Fredrikshof I.F, Sweden)
  • BURGESS Phelim (A.R.A Brandenburg, Germany)
  • COPELAND Cathal (Audax Luxembourg, Luxembourg)
  • LEAHY Patrick (Seattle International Randonneurs, U.S.A)
  • COYLE Ultan (Audax UK, United Kingdom)
  • WHEELER Pippa (F) (Exeter Wheelers, United Kingdom)

– Paul O’Donoghue

Long-distance cycling in Ireland