15. The Road To PBP

If you’re thinking at all about entering a race like TCR then a ride like Paris-Brest-Paris just has to happen along the way, along with some other rides. It only comes around every four years and that meant that 2023 would be the next opportunity for me. PBP is widely regarded as the world’s largest and most prestigious long-distance cycling event, there are around 8,000 riders participating in the 2023 edition, representing 40+ countries.

Entering PBP comes in two parts: First you register your interest, using your longest ride the previous season (2021-22) to determine when you can register your interest. The process for entering PBP began in January 2023.

Registration opens first for anybody who has ridden a BRM 1000k event the previous season. Then, every two weeks later it opens for those that have completed a 600k, 400k, 300k, 200k BRM. Two weeks after that, it opens to everyone else.

My longest validated ride was a 600k, so I was up frontish. This sort of happened by accident, I suddenly realised this after completing my first SR in the 2021-22 season that it would place me well for the pre-registration, and then I went about securing my second SR in the 2022-23 season so as to qualify.

The rides in order, you can click on these to go straight to that summary if you’re in a hurry:

I also threw in The Knights Templar 100 km ride, which was to be my brother’s first Audax, who, to my great pleasure had taken up cycling a relatively short time before and, after a steady start, was now beginning to show real flair for longer distances and rocketing up inclines as I sometimes have to huff and puff after him. The honeymoon period of me taking easy recovery rides out with him so that I didn’t drop him was too short. He has begun to make me suffer.

You might remember me mentioning my brother, Chris, in Phoenix Rising.

The Easter Arrow 400 was also on my to do list, having done this ride once before on gears, it was time to try it on the single speed bike, making it my longest single speed ride to date, my previous one being a 300 km ride.

So, a quick summary then, since all these distances have been ridden before and it would just be too dull recounting them in my usual overly-wordy fashion.

The Horsepower 200

I rode this with two other riders from my club, both great company and great riders, one being somebody of great interest in light of his quite frankly enormous cycling achievements, experience and modest nature. Meet Joss, one of our club members and ultra-distance cyclist and adventurer. It was single speed for Joss and I, with gears for Linda.

Linda, Joss and I started off in the cold at about -1C and it got colder, so we three picked our way carefully along the icy roads out of Dunmow, heading north to Snetterton, Norfolk. We took things very easy, which was nice but we found ourselves cutting it fine for the first control at Lavenham.

Linda kindly lifted the pace for us a few times and Joss and I managed to keep up, probably all thanks should go to Linda for getting us to control one on time.

The time deficit was made all the worse when we had a leisurely bite to eat only to realise our receipts didn’t have the all necessary information to validate the control. A quick jog down the road (in cleats) to the local shop fixed this.

The ride north went well, with a bit of a southerly headwind on the return. In any case, it was a good ride and the first of my PBP qualifiers were in the bag. Just under 11 hours 50 mins.

Green & Yellow Fields 300

My first stab at this ride after hearing about it many times from other riders. Starting at 0001 hrs, and lasting through the night and the next day. This was the 2nd of my PBP qualifiers. Again, the single speed was my weapon of choice for this ride.

Easy on the way north but a nagging headwind the whole way south and persistent rain for the closing hours. I found the perceived amount of climbing very tiring, especially added to the fact that I worked all day on Fri, so have been without sleep since 0700 on Friday to a late bedtime on the Saturday night. There wasn’t even that much climbing for a 300 but the sleep deprivation just got the better of me.

Still a very enjoyable ride overall and good to talk to people on the way around. I even met one rider that reads this blog, so that was very exciting. They said they liked the honestly of it, so I should say that even though I enjoyed this ride overall, I was glad to get to the finish and I may well have sworn more than once under my breath at the rain in the closing stages.

I’d had a little bit of back trouble since the week before, making things more uncomfortable than they should have been, but I pushed through as I was never really in too much pain.

Just over 16 and a half hours.

Fenland Friends 600

My 600 event for PBP qualification and on the geared bike, for a change.

There was a sustained headwind on the way north and then dead calm as we returned south. The wind gained strength during day two, resulting in another strong SE wind which seemed to be more easterly than northerly. It made much of the journey south hard work, especially the stage southeast to Red Lodge. The last stage back to Great Dunmow saw the wind on our side which was very much appreciated at that stage in the ride.

Sleep was scarce, due to all the bus shelters out of Lincoln being full up – it was a PBP qualifier, after all. I think I was about 450 km in before I got some rest under a tree, but this was short lived due to some kind of biblical itchy-insect invasion. I spotted a few riders from my club and headed off, catching them up after a while. We chatted briefly, and I pushed on.

Overall a great ride though – meeting new people, seeing new things but slightly slower than last year’s ride in terms of time taken.

The bus museum visited Whittlesey. So this was good to see with plenty of bus pictures littering my Strava feed!

Just shy of 36 hours.

Bare Bones 400

This will be the longest of the summaries, buckle up.

The last of my qualifiers, and certainly the hardest. Yep, this trumps the 600 even. Some will remember London-Wales-London, my first 400 km and the ride that broke me up so badly that it took two years for me to recover. Well, this time it did not disappoint.

Bare Bones 400 is more or less identical route-wise to LWL and described by the organiser thusly:

The Bare Bones is a challenge for people who value the ethos of audax – challenge, support and community.

Liam Fitzgerald

I arrived at the start, a field in Maple Cross and in good time for once and with an hour or so to kill, so I took my time in getting the bike out of the car and assembling it – gears for me this time after almost taking the single speed. I was self assured, having being broken by this very ride before, I now had lots more experience and was sure that this would be a walk in the park compared to some of my bigger rides. I was wrong.

Riders steadily arrived, nodding hello at me as they prepared for the ride ahead. There was some small talk between us regarding headwinds and 1800 soon rolled around, where we had a brief from Liam, the organiser and then we were off into the evening air as it turned slowly to darkness over the coming hours.

Controls were at Maple Cross (start); Woodstock; Teweksbury; Walford (info control); Chepstow; Membury; Henley; Maple Cross (Arrivée). I made sure to bring my handy laminated idiot card – great in the small hours when you’ve forgotten your name or how to use a biro.

Stage one was the easiest, and, while none of the stages had enough climbing to make an AAA rated event, the info sheet said: “… don’t think that you are in for a flat ride. The route goes through some hilly areas – the Chilterns, the Cotswolds, the Forest of Dean, and the Marlborough Downs.” Noteable steep gradients, were Yat Rock (192km) and the climb to the Somerset Monument (249km).

The Somerset Monument – Wikipedia

I met Lisa on the way to Woodstock, who was riding with Richard, who was a bit quicker than her so was heading off in front and waiting for her now and then. As it turned out, Lisa was quicker than me, a former Triathlete, but we stayed together for a good while before splitting up and then I saw her in Woodstock. She was great company and we passed a good few miles together.

Stanton St. John. Shortly after here, Lisa and I parted company. I think I stopped to adjust clothing

Anyway, I am getting ahead of myself. I was pleased with my average speed to Woodstock, about 21 km/h and arriving there at 2124, about 1.5 hours early. After a quick stop, it was off to Tewkesbury, for the same sort of distance but with a bit more elevation thrown in, averaging a slightly slower 17 km/h and arriving over 3.5 hours early.

The info control at Walford was next, and I hooked up with a few riders that were quicker than me (passing me earlier) as there was a road block to contend with

No way around the roadblock, so we reluctantly turned back

After a long and vertically challenging detour, we were all back on track, I stayed with these guys for a while but I think they left me before the Chepstow control which was where I begun to struggle, my average speed for that stage dropping to 14 km/h, which is danger territory – 15 km/h is the minimum speed you should keep to for the overall ride if you are to make it in time. I arrived there at 0810, 0840 being the cut off time. PBP hung in the balance.

Membury came next, another 88 km and my average for that stage was now at 13 km/h, getting there for 1442, with a cut off point at 1504. It occured to me then that I wasn’t going to make it. Thousands of kilometers in preparation for PBP and it was for nothing. What would I do?

Soon after, I met a couple of guys as I had stopped at the side of the road. It was hot, they laboured toward me, and I asked them how they were feeling: “Hanging”, said one. I told him I felt the same, and they offered for me to ride with them, which I did. After a short while, I got on the front, to shelter them and let them take a bit of cover by drafting me, it was the least I could do. We toiled together, and then I noticed the numbness in one of my feet – the same numbness that I had experienced on this ride before that put me out of action for two years back in 2018. I was horrified.

I loosened off my shoe, and put more work on the other foot, frantically wriggling my toes as I rode to try to restore feeling. I was saddle sore, exhausted and demoralised, but after a while I did notice that my two companions were slipping back. I slowed down for them, but they drifted back still and I then knew that I had to cut loose, a finish in time was currently out of the question; PBP was gone and this route had beaten me again but there was no sense in delaying things further.

I think I was about 20 km out of Henley when I realised that the numbness had significantly improved and that I felt more able to cope with the saddle soreness. My overall average speed was still forecasting a late finish, but I suddenly felt stronger. Looking a the Garmin, there were only two more significant climbs to go. From somewhere, and I do not know where, I found some energy, some positivity, some guts.

I said goodbye to my companions, under my breath, ignored the soreness and began to churn out some power. I got down on the drops and I started to fly, soon gaining on and overtaking riders up ahead. I smiled and wondered what would be. Could I dream here?

I had something, from somewhere and I was damned well using it, the terrain was pretty flat, with some undulations but easy to keep momentum, my average had started to rise as I squinted at the numbers on my Garmin, my eyes stinging with sweat, dry salt around my mouth but with some magic in my heart from somewhere.

I flew into Henley, parked the bike up and went into the first shop I found, quickly picking up some gum (I never chew gum), and asking the guy behind the counter; “Hi, sorry – do your receipts have ‘Henley’ on them?” “Yes”, the guy said and asked me why. I told him about the proof of passage as i made my way to the door. “Go, go, go then!” he said, with a smile and I left and got back on the bike. My average for that stage was up to nearly 17.5 km/h, arriving there at 1813, with a cut-off at 1908, meaning i had two hours for the last 37 km stage. Do-able.

I streamed through Henley, spotting my roadblock friends, and later, Lisa and Richard. I shouted hello as I passed, and they all responded.

I kept my head down, powering along and willing this magic to last until the end. I passed other riders and some got out of their saddles to catch me but I was too fast for them. Nobody could catch me. The final climb came, and I decided, with my lead, and the numbness I had had earlier, I should walk it, which I did.

I kept an eye behind me for competition and it was Lisa’s friend Richard who was the lone figure that I spotted working up that last climb in the heat. I congratulated him at the top and got on his wheel. Richard was quick, and we chatted and took turns on the front – we were flying.

Finally, we rolled into the finish about 1 hour before the 2100 cut-off. It was done; I had beaten it. That last stage clocked in at a 21.1 km/h average, pretty close to stage one, all those hours ago.

I got my brevet checked, Liam helping me make sense of my receipts as I was just too tired – thank you, Liam.

26 hours, that’s six and a half hours faster than I managed the same route in 2018.

2 thoughts on “15. The Road To PBP

    1. Ah, thank you, Anthony. It was good to have the company of you guys while we figured out that there was definitely no way around it, and the detour that followed – I’ll never forget that climb :O Say hi to Dave from me!

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