My Paris-Brest-Paris 2019 (mis)adventure is a bit of an odd thing if you consider my background. You see, people who know me will tell you that I am an introverted person who doesn’t like to travel. In fact, besides France, I have not travelled outside of my home country of Malaysia for… umpteen years, and yet here I am, jumping headfirst – solo – into a foreign country to participate in a cycling event spanning 1200km between the cities of Paris and Brest.
It’s even odder considering that I had just gotten into the world of audax and randonneuring in 2018, and then pre-qualified for PBP by the end of that same year. If I hadn’t scratched, this would have been some amazing zero-to-hero-styled success story that I would probably be bandying around for the rest of my life. And let’s not get into how I even learnt about audax in the first place; I’ll probably write something about that another time as there certainly is some autobiography-worthy material in there.
“Paris-Brest-Paris. In the world of randonneuring, this is the dream”
So, Paris-Brest-Paris. In the world of randonneuring, this is the dream. It’s sort of like the World Cup of football (soccer to you Americans), or the Olympics of athletics, the Tour de France of grand tour bicycle racing, the World Series of baseball… you get the idea. Getting into PBP itself requires some tough qualifications to match: completing a Super Randonneur series within the same year, consisting of four long distance rides (200km, 300km, 400km and 600km) sanctioned by randonneuring’s world governing body, the Audax Club Parisien.
I qualified relatively early, completing the Super Randonneur series for 2019 by the end of March, all organised by Audax Randonneurs Malaysia. After that, it was a matter of continued training and preparation, and also the various minutiae involved in travel: passport, hotel bookings, and flight plans.
By then practically all the hotels near the starting point – the town of Rambouillet, France – had been fully booked by the 6000+ participants of this year’s PBP. The two popular options were to either book a hotel in Paris and then take a train to Rambouillet, or to find accommodation in the smaller towns within riding distance of the starting point.
I went with the latter and managed to secure a little 3-star hotel called the Hôtel de la Chapelle en vallée de Chevreuse located about 20km away from Rambouillet. The distance seemed decent, pictures of the hotel obtained from Google Maps looked good, and reviews about the place were generally favourable. All seemed well so I booked the place, which had only 3 rooms left at the time, so I counted myself lucky.
Next up was flight. I was undecided on which airline to pick at first; after all, I had zero experience in this field and one of my major concerns was their policies on carrying bikes. My wife, however, has travelled with Emirates several times on her business trips so that sort of skewed my decision-making a bit. Anyway, once that decision was made, the process of booking the flight tickets were relatively easy (remember, this comes from someone who’s a completely newbie to the process): pick a flight with the most favourable departure and arrival time, also considering a short transit time if possible, then pick seats and that’s it! Oh, there was also the additional bit of calling customer service to inform them of my special luggage, but apart from that I had zero issues with the airline.
With all that out of the way, all I had to do was stay fit and healthy while continuing to train and build mileage for the ride.
The Journey to France
Fast forward to August 14, 2019. With my bike neatly packed in a Topeak Pakgo X hard case and the rest of my luggage in a hand carry-sized gym bag, I made my way to the Kuala Lumpur International Airport for an evening departure. Check-in was quick and smooth thanks to the online check-in system, and then I sort of lucked out when I got upgraded to a business class seat after boarding due to an overbooked flight, or at least that’s what I remembered. The business class seats were amazing; we had our own little cubicle-like space with plenty of room for my luggage and to stretch my legs.
Around seven hours of flying later and I was transiting at the Dubai airport. Again, at the gate my ticket was replaced with a business class ticket and again, I got to enjoy a very comfortable flight to the Charles de Gaulle airport in France. The arrival process was relatively quick; I suspect the French were expecting a lot of cyclists around this time, and indeed I spotted plenty from various nationalities while waiting for our bikes at the oversized baggage collection area.
Luggage in hand, bike case rolling beside me, I headed out to hail a taxi to take me to my hotel and this would be my first sticker shock of the trip. Judging by the distance and by how fast the meter moved, I was looking at an estimated trip cost of 2€ per kilometer. At present conversion rate, that amounts to RM9.20/km. Ouch. In retrospect, I should have studied the various methods of transportation in France better as I could probably have taken a train to the town of Chevreuse, and only then take a taxi to cover the remaining 3km to the hotel. But oh well… we live and learn.
The next bit of shock was the hotel. Now before I get into the details, don’t get me wrong: I’m not criticizing this hotel in a negative way but rather trying to point out a rather huge mismatch in expectations, but mostly on my part. You see, from what I gathered during my stay, the Hôtel de la Chapelle is a family-owned business and therefore lacks certain amenities that bigger, tourist-styled hotels have including restaurants, room service, laundry and the like. It was most certainly a culture shock for me. They serve breakfast at 11.50€ per meal, and also provide dinner at 20€ provided you inform them before 5:00pm (and only on weekdays), but outside of that, I am basically fending for myself and handled my own meals and laundry independently.
“In retrospect, I could probably have bought better food”
So my first day in France was spent setting up my bike, and then riding about 7km north to a Carrefour Market to buy back some food. My dinner consisted of a cold ham sandwich, some bread, some really large bananas (well, at least by Malaysian standard) and some orange juice. In retrospect, I could probably have bought better food, and more, but this was my first time in France and my bike was secured only by a simple travel wire lock outside so I didn’t want to take any chances and just shopped as quickly as I could.
Tomorrow I would go and visit Rambouillet to learn the route, explore the town and get used to cycling in France.
Tour de Rambouillet
This was a day of exciting discoveries, or at least that’s the best way that I can summarize it.
The first order of the day was to get to Rambouillet, so I fired up my Garmin Edge 1030 cycling computer and loaded up the route that I had prepared via RideWithGPS. Unfortunately, instead of leading me along the most obvious and direct roads, it took me along a merry little side path with little detours into a small community, complete with park and lake with birds and the like. While the scenery was nice, but this wasn’t the route I’d love to use for my daily “commute”. And so I quickly gave up on the premade route and just used my eyes as well as some referencing via Google Maps to find my way onto the D906 that leads right into Rambouillet.
Another thing I learnt on this first trip is that French mornings are cold! Due to the lack of laundry service, I had the idea of saving up my cycling kit and just ride with casuals – t-shirt and cargo pants – and without gloves. The result: cold fingers; lesson learnt. My subsequent trips were done in proper cycling kit and cold weather protection.
The town of Rambouillet itself was bustling with activity. The closer I got to the Château de Rambouillet, the more cyclists I met who all had the same idea as I: scout out the town, look for the starting point, and do tourist-y stuff like visiting tourist attractions and taking pictures. I met a group of riders from Thailand and had a brief chat before heading off for more exploration. I met a Filipino and his wife who were searching for a bike shop and mechanic to help true his disc brake. Incidentally, I too was looking for a bike shop to buy some supplies – some CO2 canisters and chain lube – and we ended up at Intersport, just a short distance south of Rambouillet.
This was probably my most enjoyable day in France. The weather was good. I went places. I took plenty of photos. I got to meet some of the randonneurs from various countries.
After lunch outside a café, with the aid of a translation app on my phone to place my order, I tried to navigate back to the hotel on my own and almost made it perfectly, save for one minor detour that added around 4km to the journey. On the bright side, I got to see more of the countryside this way!
Cold, Wet, Windy Days
The weather forecast for the following two days predicted rain, and it was not wrong. My third day in France was also a free day for me, but it was bike check day for a large number of the Malaysian randonneuring contingent. You see, I registered for the 84-hour group which starts at 5:00am on August 19, so my bike check was on August 18. Most of the Malaysians, however, opted for the 90-hour group which starts in the evening of August 18, so their bike check is a day earlier than mine. They had planned for a group photo session that day, and so I rode into the rain to meet them.
I was left with mixed feelings about this. On one hand, it added an additional health risk that I didn’t really have to take. I ended up not getting to the photo session; there was a lot of confusion all round, what with thousands of people attending to their bike checks, and with the cold, wet and windy weather on top of that. But on the other hand, I managed to meet up with two of my fellow randonneurs Teh and Joanne. In addition to that, they introduced me to a Chinese restaurant, the Le Bon Chinois, with good (and familiar) food, plus a takeaway set which also settled my dinner for the day.
So while I can’t say that the day was all bad, I can’t say that it was a good day either.
The next day, August 18, was my bike check day and it was still raining. French rain lasts forever, apparently. On the way out of the hotel I met a Dutch randonneur who was also staying at the same hotel. We decided to ride together to our bike check. It was nice to have some company for a change, which balanced out the heavy winds and rain that struck on the way towards Rambouillet.
The bike check for the 84-hour group wasn’t as crowded as yesterday’s, which had both 80-hour and 90-hour groups gathering for their respective sessions. After going through the process of getting my bike examined, and then picking up my brevet card, bike numbers, jerseys, safety vest and other documents, I had a difficult choice to make. I had purchased a sleep package for the night when I registered for PBP, so my original plan was to hang around until nightfall, sleep and then get ready for my ride tomorrow morning. However, the rain put a damper on that plan and I was yearning for a hot shower back at the hotel.
So I would ride back to my hotel and get some rest. After that, my two choices were to either sleep at the hotel and then ride to the starting point at 3:00am in the morning, or ride back to Rambouillet in the evening and take advantage of the sleep package. I opted for the latter because I had also purchased the meal package there, so that conveniently settles my dinner and breakfast plans. Things started to go downhill from here onwards.
During my ride back to Rambouillet, I encountered my first puncture. It wasn’t particularly difficult to fix, but it did mean that I was now short of one spare inner tube; I typically carry three spares for ultra-long distance rides such as this, so being down by one isn’t too worrisome. I tried to find a replacement at the bike mechanic booth near the starting point, but they seemed to be out of 700c tubes with 80mm valves.
After dinner, I went to look for the location of the sleeping area and was led to the Bergerie nationale de Rambouillet. While waiting for the sleeping rooms to open, I had a chat with a German who was waiting for his start time in the 90h group. His group was the last to start which, according to him, was more relaxing as he wouldn’t be caught up with the rest of the riders heading out. What’s amazing is that he rode to France from Germany. This was his first PBP, but he wanted to take it safe and easy and do it with the 90h group.
“I wasn’t in the proper attire to deal with the cold”
Once I got to my allotted cot, I was sorely disappointed. The cot itself was fine, the pillow was decent, but the blanket was such a small and thin piece of cloth that it might as well not be there. In retrospect, it was just a 10€ package so what as I expecting? But on the other hand, they gave out thicker and much more effective blankets at a cheaper price at Villaines-la-Juhel where I would eventually scratch, so I am still convinced that this was a lousy deal.
I tried to make the best of the situation and dozed off for what seemed like a very short time. Maybe 1-2 hours tops, before being awoken by the biting cold of the night. I wasn’t in the proper attire to deal with the cold: just my cycling jersey and bibshorts. My jacket, insulated gilet and leg warmers were all stashed away in the saddle bag of my bike, outside, and I didn’t feel like braving the cold to go fetch them. I probably should have, but hindsight is 20/20. I tried to tough it out by hiding underneath the pitiful excuse of a blanket that was supplied, but as far as I recall I did not get any more proper sleep after this episode.
The Start and The End
By 3:00am the alarm tones of mobile phones began to ring all around. It was time to get up and prepare for the upcoming ride. I spent the time putting on my cold weather gear while also trying to warm myself up underneath the hand dryer in the toilet. Breakfast was served at the adjacent white tent where the bike checks had been performed the previous days. They had hot coffee, but strangely served in a bowl rather than a cup. After that, a very short ride over to the starting point where the long line of riders had already started to form.
The start of the ride was different from what I was used to. First we pushed our bikes through a staging area where someone would stamp our brevet cards. After that, we’d wait for the clock to reach our designated starting time, and that’s 5:00am for me. People were lined out all around the starting gate, cheering us as we headed out onto the road and immediately onto the very first climb of the route.
Paris-Brest-Paris is very hilly. There’s rarely a moment where you can enjoy a nice, flat stretch of road. You’re either going up, or you’re going down. Many of the villages and towns are also atop a hill, so you’ll have to climb just to get to some semblance of civilization.
I’ll admit that the countryside is very nice. There are wheat fields, there are corn fields, there are windmills turning over at a distance. But it is the countryside and you will not find much out here. This is a stark difference from what I am used to in Malaysia; no matter where you were, rest assured you will find some random petrol station, 24-hour convenience store, mamak stall, or literally anything within some reasonable cycling distance. Along the PBP route, you’ll get none of that. If you’re in the middle of nowhere, you literally are in the middle of nowhere. Even the villages aren’t a reliable indicator of supply – you’ll sometimes pass through communities where shops are either closed, or you don’t find any useful shops at all.
“Everything seemed so enormous, so daunting”
Because of this, planning is absolutely important on such a ride and sometimes all the preparation, research and study does not prepare you for the real thing. I knew it would be a hilly route; I knew there wasn’t much in terms of food stops and needed to plan accordingly; I knew it would be cold and needed to be kitted out for it; yet everything seemed so enormous, so daunting, when you finally meet the challenge face-to-face.
But I don’t think any of that was the reason for my DNF. Perhaps they did contribute some miniscule amount, and over time all these miniscule portions everywhere, including the two days of rain and the unfamiliar food and the cold, added up. Regardless, I do not think that these issues were of any significance.
20km into the ride, I came across an Austrian who was trying to fix a flat. Now I don’t even know what compelled me to stop; perhaps it was because of my earlier puncture that I felt the need to offer help, or perhaps I was just looking for an excuse to take a short break. Whatever the reason, I wasn’t really of much help and ended up wasting time. You see, this Austrian had only one inner tube but the valve core was loose, so every time after pumping up the tire, the valve core would get stuck and come out together with the pump, invalidating all his efforts. He was using much larger tyres than I was, so I couldn’t offer him my spares. I thought my mini pump had a valve core tool to tighten the dastardly thing, but I remembered wrong. Regardless, precious time was wasted before I apologised to him for being unable to help and rode away.
“At this point I have accumulated nearly an hour of stopped time”
As we went through a little town somewhere around 40-50km I made another stop after spotting an open bakery. I was hungry, I bought three items and ate them all. At this point I have accumulated nearly an hour of stopped time, which is not good so early into the ride, compounded by my relatively slow pace due to the hilly nature of the route.
I arrived at Mortagne, a service checkpoint at approx. 11:15am. That’s 6h 15m to cover 118km, which is frankly abysmal. What’s worse, I spent a little over an hour there to eat, use their toilet, change some clothes (it was getting warm and I didn’t need my winter mask or jacket) and refill my water before moving on.
My next stop would be at a little bar called the Chez Isa Et Juju in the small community of Courgains, and that is where I believe all my problems came to a head, culminating in me scratching afterwards. To explain why I made a stop here, my ride strategy for any long distance audax or brevet is to map out potential food, supply or rest stops in between checkpoints. I would make longer stops at checkpoints, and shorter stops at these half-points. The Chez Isa Et Juju was on my radar as a half-point. I had some fruit juice as well as spaghetti, and only because that was the only thing they appeared to serve at that particular point in time. I didn’t feel good while eating the spaghetti, but for whatever reason I tried to finish it, convincing myself that I should load up on food as there would likely not be anything else from here until Villaines at 217km.
“Forcing myself to eat was probably my biggest mistake”
Forcing myself to eat was probably my biggest mistake, especially since the spaghetti was topped with some form of meat. Some kind of ham or maybe sliced luncheon meat, if I remember correctly. Meats often take longer to digest and, on tough ultras like PBP, the body tends to not like difficult foods accumulating in the stomach. Bear in mind that I am not saying that the food was lousy, but that it was the wrong choice of food for the circumstances. Some kilometers afterwards, I began paying the price for my mistake.
At the time I didn’t attribute my sudden condition with the spaghetti (hindsight and all that jazz), but I realised that sometime was terribly wrong. The best that I can describe the problem is like having a lump of air stuck in the throat just below the Adam’s apple. If I tried to drink water, that lumpy feeling would intensify, making me feel like vomiting. Likewise I couldn’t cycle at any moderate or high intensity, as doing anything strenuous like that also made me feel like vomiting. The only thing I could think of was to slowly, lightly pedal all the way to the next checkpoint: Villaines-la-Juhel. That’s at the 217km mark, or nearly 60km of riding to go. It was a slow and suffering slog, but somehow I pushed on and made it.
By the time I reached Villaines it was already 6:00pm. At that time all I could think of was to end the ride, and then regretting and second-guessing that decision many, many times afterwards. But now that I had over a month to think about it, I think that it was for the best. Even if I could continue on, I would already be at a very bad time deficit and would have to ride non-stop, possibly through the night without sleep, to make it to the next 2-3 checkpoints within reasonable time. There was also no guarantee that the lumpy, nauseous feeling would not come back, and if it did in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere, and out in the freezing cold, I would be in serious trouble.
Once I had informed the officials that I would be scratching, I went to the infirmary to get checked up. The medics prescribed paracetamol and some sort of lozenge to suck on, which seemed to help with the lumpy feeling. I was then taken to the cafeteria for dinner, then shower, then to the sleeping area with a very nice, warm and thick blanket. A far cry from Rambouillet’s “sleeping package”.
The next morning, they had arranged for a taxi to bring me, a German, and another Thai or Filipino (I don’t remember exactly) to the nearest train station at Sillé-le-Guillaume. However, only me and the German got into the taxi as the other guy decided he would ride to Brest instead. On the way to the train station, we passed another PBP rider heading towards Villaines. He must be one of the very fast ones, among the fastest to finish.
The German and I had a little chat while waiting for the train at Sillé-le-Guillaume. He didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak German, so again it was mobile phone translation to the rescue! Apparently this was his fourth PBP; he did fine those last few times but suffered from indigestion this year.
On the train I spotted a group of randonneurs from India. At the time I felt relieved that I wasn’t the only one who scratched. PBP is indeed very hard if you aren’t accustomed to the climate and the culture here.
The train stopped at Le Mans where we had to get off and transit onto another train that took us all the way back to Rambouillet. There I briefly contemplated hailing a taxi to take me back to the hotel, but not knowing how that even works (seriously, is there a place you wait for a taxi? Do you wave a passing one down? I don’t know), I decided to just ride back. I was already feeling better and was confident I could do a little over 20km without problems.
“I never came to France to tour; I came for PBP”
At this point, I have been advised/encouraged to spend the rest of my stay in France to actually tour and visit the place. For most tourists, that was a brilliant idea. But I’m the introverted, does-not-like-to-travel type of person. I never came to France to tour; I came for PBP, so after scratching I had nothing left to do here and didn’t want to hang around doing nothing for the remainder of my trip. I managed to reschedule my flight and informed the hotel that I would be checking out early. There was a minor early checkout penalty to pay, but at that point I didn’t really care. I just wanted out.
That night I decided to try the hotel dinner, just to see what sort of food they would prepare. It was also because I did not want to go out and search for food, so a hotel dinner was the most convenient option.
In the morning, the hotel called a taxi to take me to the airport. Another 120+€ down the drain. A quick check-in, short wait for the flight, and I was on my way back to Malaysia.
And so that’s my PBP story. Not any of the glamourous sufferfests that you’re likely to read from other PBP finishers. But I think it helps me put things down to rest, to know where I did wrong and what I could have done better, so that I will come back in 2023 stronger, tougher, more ready. And that’s what I am going to do from now until 2023:
Train to be strong and tough.
Train to be ready to finish what I started.
See you in France 2023!