PBP Part 3 – Sleeper

00:30, 19 Aug – Loudéac, 780km

I woke before the alarms rang – in fact remarkably close to the original time of midnight to which they’d been set. It was still a solid 3.5 hours of decent sleep, and the shower had already worked it’s magic – leaning against the tiles, eyes closed whilst a torrent of hot water washed over me until I was something close to fully awake.

I have a strong recollection of dithering around rather a lot. The usual chores were easy – swapping out batteries, including this time the Garmin’s AAs just in case. But once dressed I needed to pack up my drop bag, and for some reason this totally baffled me. Kit was strewn all over the small desk and both beds and eventually I just gave up trying to figure it out and stuffed whatever seemed worn or now surplus into the backpack.

The last item needing my attention was the card marked “Open at 2nd drop bag“. It didn’t have quite the laugh-out-loud value as the previous one but it was precious nevertheless. A favourite photo from this year’s Junior Argus. It was my turn to try and make Ben proud and, to keep that in my thoughts, I put the card in the plastic wallet so I’d see it every time I took out my brevet card.

Standing outside it was significantly warmer than the previous night. Stupidly I’d fully packed my saddle bag and now needed to unpack it to retrieve the small bottle of lube. Needless to say that with the time approaching 1am the chain got the most cursory of wipes and a liberal squirt of fresh lube. It was now a rather oily mess, but it ought to smooth out the few missed shifts that had crept in over the final stretches the day before. My OCD fully kicked in before getting going – checking  the room several times before tossing the key inside and making sure the door locked behind me.

The backpack wasn’t heavy or cumbersome, but I was glad the control was nearby. It felt a little odd to be leaving the hotel behind as I made my way back to the town. This was it – the final stretch – and what I was now wearing or had in my saddle bag would have to be sufficient. Not needing a stamp, I swung left one roundabout earlier in the hope of finding a back entrance to the control. It was a good guess – although I was rather surprised to wander through the top gate with no checks. Within a few minutes I’d visited the bag drop area, ditched the backpack in roughly the spot I’d collected it from, and rolled out again this time via the official fenced off channel leading out of the control.

01:30, 19 Aug – Loudéac:

Approaching the roundabout at the end of the closed off section I glanced down at the Garmin. The time shown on the small screen was a very pleasing sight. I was starting my 3rd night on the road with roughly 2.5 hours in the bank. Even better was that the “race out, tour back” philosophy of PBP meant I was sure to pick up extra time today even if I took it easy. Many things could still go wrong but for now my ride was in great shape.

I spied a lone red tail light as the route went under a busy highway, and started to gradually climb. It was a glorious night to be riding – still, cool rather than cold, and the roads was almost deserted apart from small pockets of riders here and there. For a while I took it very gently, careful to let the legs warm up properly. The road was mostly uphill too – winding it’s way slowly towards various red lights in the sky which I guessed were probably wind-farms, power cables, masts or some-such. It was impossible to ignore that I still needed to reverse all 450km of that first leg. It was a little daunting, but I felt good – no significant aches, and yesterday’s fatigue was gone.

The exact sequence of events over the next section is a bit of a blur to me although I remember very clearly a lot of surprisingly fast riding. In the warmer night air and quiet roads at some point the energy I’d been missing the day before surged back into my legs. I found myself standing and charging at each small rise, and thundering down the descents that followed. It was exhilarating stuff and at times felt almost effortless as I preserved my momentum across the rolling landscape. I made two short stops, although the order of them is now a bit vague. The first I think was for a very welcome and perfectly timed cup of coffee at a tiny roadside stall hosted by an elderly local. The other was under the orange street lamps of a small town to quickly eat a Pronutro bar.

The pace I was pushing into the wheels brought up the next official food stop quicker than I’d expected.

04:15, 19 Aug – Quedillac: 

The few towns we’d passed through had shown little signs of life, so I pulled into the food stop rather than risk not finding anything open before the next control. It proved a good call – they were well stocked with supplies and there was no queue. I quickly grabbed a large glass bowl of coffee and two croissants and headed to a table. I sat opposite another English rider – I forget which of us arrived first. We chatted about the previous leg, apparently both of us had been enjoying the fast riding. I have a vague feeling he may also have been called Rob, but I may have imagined that.

It was a pleasant stop – 20 minutes for breakfast and some good conversation. I wasn’t feeling any sense of urgency so far today as I slowly kitted up in the bike park and rolled back out. I really remember very little of the 25km or so to the next control. I can see from my GPS track it took a a bit over an hour, and I recognised a few places from the journey out – first of these being the cafe at the top of the hill after the food stop in the actual town of Quedillac. But beyond that it’s just a blur of lanes and hills, and a vague recollection of a couple more roadside stalls, still being diligently manned to help out riders in need of supplies.

05:53, 19 Aug – Tinténiac, 865km

The brevet stamp took no more than a minute – sleeping bodies lined both sides of the snaking corridor to the exit. I did wonder if anyone I knew was lying there, but didn’t look that closely. I’m not sure what I did with the other 17 minutes I spent at the control – it certainly did not involve eating. Water refills couldn’t have accounted for more than 5 of those, so I must have faffed with my bike or clothes in some way.

If my recollection of the last stage is vague, it’s borderline non existent over the next few kilometers. The memories become a little less murky as the landscape emerged again, lit by a third dawn spent on the road. It was a beautiful morning for cycling – not a breath of wind and barely a cloud in the sky. Soon after I rode through a town I recalled from the route out, and just beyond the crossroads where Gerhard and I had become separated. Our route continued on a pretty country lane and somewhere just after the junction I heard a familiar voice call out from behind – it was Nico again, this time in the company of Barry Shaw (one of the Gauteng based Randonneurs). If I’d looked more closely at those sleeping bodies I might have seen them at the previous control as apparently, they had lain exactly where I’d walked. Another odd coincidence was that the last time I’d ridden with any of the South African riders was this same stretch of road two days ago. Most of our conversation is lost to me now – but I do recall catching up on the details of how Nico had recovered from the spoke breakages: replacement spokes by the mechanic in Mortagne-au-Perche; and then a whole replacement wheel from a Giant dealer on the approach to Villaines when yet more broke.

Before long the road ahead took a sweeping left curve up to a big roundabout at the start of the town. Two moments are burned indelibly into my brain from climbing this short ramp with the guys. The first of these happened at the bottom – I had a vivid recollection of a McDonalds nearby, and suggested to the guys we grab breakfast there. The second was much less welcome. Standing to power up the last few meters, pain shot through my right knee and I collapsed back onto the saddle. I nearly stalled out, barely managing to dump enough gears in time to keep spinning forward. Boy was I glad I’d messed around lubing my chain – one missed shift would have sent me sprawling into the ditch.

08:42, 19 Aug – Almost like Fougères (but with clean loos):

A girl who had been riding with the guys followed us across the roundabout, but as soon as she realised where we were heading shook her head and rode back out onto the route. I guess not everyone enjoys fast food even when it comes guilt free. With no such qualms, Nico, Barry and myself propped up our bikes and headed inside. What came next is pretty much the antithesis of any definition of “fast” though. The McD’s was equipped with a new high tech self-server ordering system consisting of huge touch panel screens. It baffled all of us and, even with help, refused to offer all of the choices we craved. I ended up with another ruddy burger because none of the McMuffin variations seemed to come without egg. I can’t remember if Nico managed to get his milk shake either – even with help from the assistant. It was a bit of a shambles really, although to be fair probably none of us were fully mentally equipped by this stage of the ride. Food did eventually arrive, it was tasty,  and enjoyed with the conversation and good company of riders from back home.

What happened next is undoubtedly the most bizarre few minutes of my ride, or any Audax ride for that matter. As I headed for the luxury of a clean toilet, some very non-standard McD’s music came blaring out over the PA – Rammstein’s Du Hast. Some moments later, my needs sorted, I opened the stall door into total darkness. Dark except for the two purple alien eyes that were glaring ominously back at me, thrash metal still blasting into my ears. I honestly thought I’d lost my mind, fallen asleep, or woken up. I couldn’t decide which, but I definitely wasn’t in Kansas anymore. The slightest motion of my hand resolved the scene in a way my sleep deprived brain could not – energy saving lights flickered on, and ahead were two urinals with some kind of UV sanitising light. Phew! As I left the toilet, the next tune was cued up on the PA – Nena’s 99 Luftballons. Just a couple of month’s back we’d sat around a campfire as our friend Riku’s daugher practised her rendition of the English version for a school Idols competition. Coincidentally, Riku is also probably the biggest Rammstein fan on the planet. Rejoining the guys, I made a mental note to share this rather surreal McD’s visit with him.

09:38, 19 Aug – Fougères, 919km

We rode the remaining 5km to the control and parked up our bikes together as we collected brevet stamps and topped up bottles. I knew my knee would not stand their pace beyond this though and told them to push on and not wait for me.

Alone in the bike park, what lay ahead suddenly hit me – 300km on a dodgy knee, and at least half of that distance significantly hilly. My “final section jinx” had struck again and all of a sudden my PBP had gone from remarkably smooth sailing to a battle against injury. At least having gone through it before on LEL, I knew as long as it remained just painful I should be able to slog through. But not really knowing much about ITB injuries (which Barry had pretty much confirmed this to be) also meant I didn’t know if the knee would give up totally and end my ride. I contemplated visiting the medics. It probably would have been the smart move, but a nagging worry crept into my brain that they could force me to pull out of the ride. So instead, I took an Advil to dull the pain, and texted Yoli to pass on the less-than-good news. I made it clear in the message that I was carrying on and tried to avoid sounding downbeat. It was a thin facade though – I was downbeat as I rolled gingerly out of the control, spinning very light gears to avoid further stress.

The last thing I needed was a long hill which is, of course, exactly what the route put in front of me once we’d wound past a sprawling strip mall and out of the town. Over the course of the next 30km or so it became clear that I needed something more than just painkillers. Aside from the fact that I could only take so many in a day, the knee was beginning to wobble under the pressure of climbing. It was becoming more and more difficult to keep an even pedal stroke without my knee looping left and right making ugly figures of 8 rather than nice clean circles. I cursed myself for not packing some of those brightly coloured physio straps in my bag – they’d have taken up almost no space and seemed to be exactly what I needed. I started to daydream of finding a pharmacy that stocked, and knew how to apply them. It was pretty improbable, but maybe I’d get lucky and find one that had a knee brace or something else usable.

Somewhere whilst having these thoughts another “Walker on a Burls” came up alongside and we started chatting (Charles Walker I think, from Australia). I already knew about him, and he about me because he’d met some of the other guys in Paris – Gideon and Ernst I think, who are also Titanium enthusiasts and hence tuned into our rather uncommon bike brand. He’d spotted my SA Flag jersey and easily caught up, my speed now having dropped down to a snail’s pace at times.  We chatted about our bikes for a while, how we came to choose Justin Burls, and Audaxing in general. His was a very smart disc machine with Easton forks I think. I forget the rest of the spec, but clearly he was just as happy with his choice as I was.

Eventually I explained and apologised for my pathetic speed, and urged him to continue at his own pace rather than limp along with me. Soon after I rolled into a town I recognised. It was Gorron again, although with the main street closed for a big market there was no chance of temptation at the same bakery for more of those fruit tarts. I was just wondering if the detour had also taken me past the town’s pharmacy and contemplating dismounting and walking back into the center when I spied what I thought was a green cross flashing dimly up ahead on the left.

11:45, 19 Aug – Gorron (possibly the world’s most helpful pharmacist): 

I swung across the road and leant my bike outside the shop – where it would still be just visible from inside through the sliding glass door. I remember getting an amused look from a couple who were leaving, and hearing the sound of cheering and a band playing – or maybe just a lone trumpeter – a bit further along the road at the end of the town. I’d barely taken 3 steps into the shop before an enormously enthusiastic assistant came across to help me – I must confess, I did put on a bit of an exaggerated limp to make it obvious what I needed. It wasn’t really necessary though – between my French and the pharmacist’s English we quickly homed in on their selection of supports, and within minutes I was seated and trying on a knee brace. It was darned uncomfortable if I’m honest but, hobbling around in the shop, I could also feel it was giving just the level of support I’d been hoping for. I indicated this with the universal “thumbs-up” sign and was soon swiping my card in payment. Before leaving though, the assistant shoved handfuls of ice gel sachets in my direction. I rolled the brace down and rubbed one onto my knee, stuffing the rest in a jersey pocket. It was a bit of a silly place to put them – later in the ride, with a foggy brain, I came very close to eating one mistaking it for an energy gel.

I started out again slowly, getting my own personal cheer as I passed the band and headed out of town. The brace rubbed and chafed like hell, but the knee pain was considerably diminished – or maybe it was that the added discomfort of wearing it gave my mind something else to dwell on. Either way, I was able to push quite a bit harder on the uphills, and in between rest on the descents. Despite the irritation to my skin it was an improvement – I was making better progress and my knee no longer felt like it was going to give way on me. And with that out of my mind for now, I started to get hungry again.

Not much further on I came to a familiar dogleg in the road followed by a fast descent – I was back in the ridiculously picturesque town of Ambrières-les-Vallées. The road dipped down to a stream and swung left to cross it on an old bridge. I’d foolishly not stopped there for breakfast on the way out, a mistake that I wasn’t going to make twice. I didn’t really care what the food was like, the setting was sublime. The standard jambon baguettes were sitting on the bar, I needed something more to cheer me up though, and opted for a small pression (draught beer) to go with. I wasn’t sure it was an entirely sensible idea, being so tired and sleep deprived, but at that moment it felt like exactly what was needed.

I sat outside, taking in the wonderful view, and relaxing over my beer and sandwich as other riders threaded their way through the S-bend, across the bridge and up again out of town. Quite a few did as I had and stopped, in the course of which I found myself sitting opposite a guy in a Scottish flag shirt with a chap in a Welsh shirt making his way to a table. I remember making a comment to the Scottish guy that it was a perfect scene for a joke – an Englishman, a Scotsman and a Welshman sitting at a bar. He laughed, but it occurs to me now he may just have done so out of politeness – the joke probably lost a bit of meaning with me in a South African flag jersey.

It was hard to tear myself away from such an idyllic spot but I couldn’t afford to let my leg seize up so after around half an hour I started out again, slowly up the hill and out of the town. Part way up I passed a chap with his garage fully open and tables inside from which he was serving food and drinks to passing riders. I remembered seeing him stood there in the early morning on the way out – I wondered if he’d manned his little food station for the whole time since.

The roughly 40km or so to the next control took me a little over two hours. Not too bad really considering the terrain and my slowness up anything resembling a hill. Somewhere along the way I met a young English rider named Chapman and we rode together for a while. He was also struggling but it seemed to be more from a general lack of energy. It was clear from our conversation that he was normally a fast rider and a little dismayed and downbeat to find himself lagging behind his usual pace. I guessed that a lot of it was the mental fatigue such long events bring. Before we separated he asked if he could take a copy of my Garmin log for his records, his unit having died some time back. I wasn’t entirely sure he’d remember my name but we did actually swap emails after the event, so clearly his memory was still functioning at least.

Over the last couple of kilometers to the control I vaguely remember seeing a blue and white Giant sign beside the road. I guessed this was probably the same sign Nico had spotted and followed to acquire the new rear wheel that saved his ride.

15:25, 19 Aug – Villaines-la-Juhel, 1008km

I recall hearing a quote from someone along the lines of “prepare to feel like a Pro racer” about the approach to Villaines. They weren’t wrong. The entire town was one huge street party and we were the guests of honour. Huge inflatable arches had sprung up either end of the street that was cordoned off for the control, and the fences both side were lined with cheering supporters. It honestly did feel and look like the finish of a Tour de France stage. I stopped to snap a picture, which sadly does not come close to doing it justice – the crowds behind the barriers inside the control were crammed in like sardines.

I stuck to the basics at the control – the obligatory brevet stamp, a top up of water, and a quick pee. Or I tried too stick to that at least. A very nice young girl tried repeatedly to lure me into the massage area on seeing my strapped up knee. I was tempted but in the back of my mind was a voice telling me not too – “it’s manageable now, the pain’s not too bad, don’t risk making it worse and don’t waste time.” I listened to the voice and reluctantly declined, heading back to the bike and smearing on a fresh pack of ice gel under the brace before rolling out.

Just two more controls and a little over 200km to go. I started to believe again.

I knew the leg to the next control was going to be a tough one but that also, once done, the route beyond would become easier and less rolling (or at least that was how I’d remembered it). I figured the best plan was to break this section into two, with a stop for a rest and dinner somewhere around midway. As it happened, quite by chance I picked a town which I now see on the map is almost exactly half way. In other respects, it possibly wasn’t such a great choice.

17:10, 19 Aug – Fresnay-sur-Sarthe:

When the owner told me they weren’t yet serving food but he’d see what he could do I should have
ridden on. It was a generous offer, but clearly it wasn’t going to be quick. But the lure of a beer and a sit down on a wonderful sunny evening was too great so instead I lingered and watched the world (and PBP) go by as he busied off to find his chef.  Whilst waiting there one of a pair of Italian riders on the most superb vintage fixed gear bikes pulled up to get a beer. I struggle to imagine how they were going so well on such old machines and wearing heavy vintage woolen clothing too. Their setup and kit seemed remarkably authentic and quite wonderful – it must have been an absolute sod to wear and ride though.

Eventually my dish of lasagna arrived. It was tasty and filling, but otherwise fairly standard. Gideon and Ernst rolled by as I was eating, stopped for a quick hello but I failed to talk them into a beer. They were clearly on a schedule – most likely meeting their support RV at the next control. Spending 40 minutes over a mediocre dinner wasn’t an efficient choice on my part either, but I wasn’t short of time so there was no value dwelling on it.

The stretch to the next control was every bit as tough as I was expecting – one hill after the next, some of them a lot steeper than my legs enjoyed. I stopped twice along the way. The first stop was initially in response to a desperate need for a pee, induced no doubt by that beer. Noticing the time though I also got in a quick call to update Yoli and say goodnight to Ben. It was just a few minutes off the bike, but in the early evening sunlight on a leafy stretch of lane with nothing in sight except farmland and passing riders it was also rather delightful. The second stop was just before the control to take off the knee brace. The chafing was now driving me insane and it seemed to have done it’s work, the knee pain was considerably diminished. I was also feeling a little more confident after a message from Penny back home saying my ITB wouldn’t tear, and however badly it hurt I could just keep going without worrying.

Somewhere along this section I also finally actually met Marcus Jackson Baker. After swapping numerous forum messages, and both of us having taken part in LEL this was the first time we’d actually ridden together. He sauntered alongside me at a leisurely pace on a very smart looking orange fixed gear bike and, after chatting a while, pulled slowly ahead. Even with the excuse of an injury he was putting my efforts with 22 gears and a freehub rather to shame. At some stage as we were riding together we came across Chapman, who Marcus clearly knew or had also met on the ride.

Buildings came into view up ahead, the last rays of sunlight picking out rich brown and orange colours on the old facades lining the route into town. A last climb, a left turn, and then a short steep ramp that had me standing on the pedals and cursing I hadn’t dropped one more gear – none of it mattered though, this was the control and most of the hard riding was now behind me.

20:42, 19 Aug – Mortagne-au-Perche, 1089km

Finally a control with no queue for food, it was impossible not to go and see what was on offer. For some reason, despite the sausage and mash looking good I ended up with yet more pasta. I wasn’t really sure I was hungry but I must have been – it disappeared rapidly, along with some type of soda or other. I was feeling decidedly light headed and spaced out – the canteen was lined with sleeping bodies and I decided to try and grab a nap. After retrieving my saddle bag I found a spare space near one of the doorways. I lay there for a while, rolling over a couple of times. I was comfortable enough, and it wasn’t especially noisy but I just couldn’t drift off. Eventually I decided I was just wasting time – sleep was not going to come. I packed up, went back to the bar, and grabbed a coffee with two sugars. I still felt pretty crappy, but I was awake enough to push on – I could always have a nap by the road or at the next control if the dozies kicked in.

It was a bit of a waste of an hour and 15 minutes, but I was at least fed and refreshed as I headed out of the control. Whatever lay ahead, my fourth night on the road would be the last for this PBP. Despite feeling shabby I knew I had to make every effort to enjoy it, and make at least one more roadside stop on the way to savour the atmosphere properly for possibly the last time.

The road dipped down and climbed out of several valleys – clearly my memory of it being flatter after the last control was somewhat flawed. My spirits were good though and it was wonderful riding – the smell of damp, lush forest all around as we crossed the bottom of each valley and wound up their wooded sides. None of the inclines were long, and the descents were fast and fun. As we crested the last of these and started to run downhill I spied a brightly lit stall that looked familiar. It was a much bigger affair, with an expansive table covered in food, chairs laid out and more people serving, but I was pretty sure it was the same family who’d served me my first coffee on the way out.

00:24, 20 Aug – roadside stall in Senonches:

I gratefully accepted the chair which I was ushered towards, and then a cup of vegetable soup, soon after followed by a second cup. Riders came and went as I sat relaxing and enjoying the soup. I only stopped for around 15 minutes but they were some of the most enjoyable of the ride so far –  such generous hospitality in the middle of the night a full four days after we’d passed this spot previously.

Riding out again the road finally flattened out into the rolling pastures I’d remembered. To head towards Dreux we must have diverted from the outbound route at some point, but the terrain was similar – fast, and predominantly downhill in this direction. The cool air combined with the higher speed was a great relief, helping keep me awake and alert as we rushed through the night. Every now and then a few drops of rain fell from now cloud-heavy skies but they never quite became even a proper shower.

An orange glow of city lights eventually appeared on the horizon – but riding towards them I felt my concentration wandering for the first time. Despite our speed we hardly seemed to be making any progress towards them. Time seemed to slow down, and the scenery almost froze into an unchanging picture. My eyes blurred and tiny but noticeable gaps started to appear in my consciousness. I was watching a movie reel that had been slowed down to reveal the blank space in between each frame. I was beginning to doze off, just kilometers outside of the last control. This was not good. I shook my head a few times, stood on the pedals and picked up my pace in an effort to keep awake. I tucked alongside a fellow rider and focused on keeping a straight path alongside his. It was just enough to get me to the streetlights ahead, where we swung right and down a stretch of main highway, luckily empty at this late hour. At the bottom we swung off the highway and onto some kind of cycle path which wound back and forth through a park until finally depositing us on a suburban road. It was a huge relief to see barriers and marshals ahead. I’d avoided falling asleep at the wheel by the smallest of margins and made it to the control.

02:26, 20 Aug – Dreux, 1166km

This was it, my last control and I felt – well – truly dreadful to be honest. I wandered aimlessly looking for a space to park my bike. Eventually a marshal put a steadying hand on my shoulder and guided me to lean it against the railing of a bridge over a small stream. I trudged into the control, fumbled around getting my card stamped, loaded a tray with coffee and food and sank into the nearest available chair. It was more than 24 hours since I’d left Loudéac – my body was in reasonable shape, but mentally I was shattered.

I really wasn’t sure what to do. The logical thing with time in hand would have been to go into the dormitory and get a couple of hours proper sleep. But a voice inside was telling me it was a bad plan – the ghost of that near disastrous Market Rasen stop on LEL probably still haunting me. I didn’t want to lie down and risk that again. So instead I set my alarm 45 minutes ahead, quickly drank another coffee, leant my arms onto the table and slumped forward to rest my head on them. All around were snoozing riders doing the same – it wasn’t exactly comfortable but my eyes did close for a while although not nearly the full time I’d set on the watch.

My mind was still hazy when I woke up, but I had no doubt what I needed to do. One more coffee went down and I picked up a Red Bull for my bag just in case I became dozy again later. Another hour and half stop and no real sleep – my efficiency through controls was long gone. Back at my bike I ate a snack bar, and stashed another in my pocket for the ride back.  And then it hit me – the one thing that would really help me keep awake – clearer vision! Having carried my glasses the whole way, it was now time to use them. I dropped my contact lenses into the stream below and put them on. The effect was miraculous – feeling instantly more alert I topped up water bottles, mounted up and rolled out of the control. Only 65km lay between me and the finish of my PBP dream. I could do this.

As the wheels picked up speed through the town I found myself riding alongside an English randonneur named Paul Revell. He very kindly agreed to let me ride with him in case I started drifting off again. It turned out we also vaguely knew each other from online discussions on YACF. Over the next few kilometers the company and conversation was excellent, more than enough distraction to keep the dozies at bay. It was clearly a bit too distracting as a bit further along the road we missed both a sign for Paris and my Garmin track. We were riding across open farmland, flat and fast, and in the wrong direction. We realised our mistake at a T-junction – I think Paul wanted to punch me at my insistence we stuck to the rules and backtracked to the point of our error. Paul’s printed route sheet clearly showed a much shorter option to rejoin the route but we did the right thing, and in the process racked up 15 or 20km extra and added “getting lost” to our PBP experience.

Dawn saw us re-entering the Rambouillet forest – and here, rather obviously, those lovely fast downhills from the way out became a less welcomed chain of wooded climbs, at least a couple of which were just that bit too long and steep to be comfortable. We were nearly home though, and a combination of adrenaline and good spirits were more than a match for them. The roads all around were very wet although the rain didn’t reach us until we hit open farmland and rode back up that long straight avenue of poplars where our escort had left us on the first evening. Paul was stretching his legs a bit now and gaps opened a couple of times. I thanked him for the company but said he must push on, I wanted to try and message or call Yoli anyhow – I wasn’t sure if I’d let her know that I’d reached and left Dreux earlier.

The roads were busy now with rush hour traffic – and ahead was my second wobbling and wandering rider. She seemed blissfully unaware of how close the speeding cars were passing at times. As I pulled alongside I called across to stay awake and be careful. I think she swore at me, although I couldn’t really hear what she said – I’d clearly pissed her off, but at least she was awake now. I pulled over a little further ahead, rain was falling properly now and there was no signal on my phone. Standing around getting wet was not appealing so I typed a text that I hoped would send when there was coverage again and set off for the final 10km of my ride.

There was no near-dead horse this time – just rain, roadspray, and unpleasantly heavy traffic. None of which mattered though – I had enough time in hand to carry my bike to the finish from here if I needed too. Eventually we swung around a loop of road at the top of which were marshals who signaled us left and off the road. We joined a cycle track through a park – I didn’t recognise the scenery, but I knew that we were very close to the end. I was pretty certain this park ran all the way back to the velodrome.

As the path swung left the finish line came into view. Bizarrely, I saw the chain snap on one of the bikes just ahead of me. The rider must have been pretty pissed off, but he was just meters from the end and it wasn’t going to make any real difference now. I stood up and, in the pouring rain, pushed for the banners ahead. It took a fair amount of concentration to twist up the last little path and take the sharp and narrow bend at the top. The barriers both sides were lined with people, the crowds weren’t huge but they cheered us all enthusiastically. My wheels rolled freely down to the marquee ahead and the end of my PBP – it didn’t quite feel real. It still doesn’t feel quite real. After three and a half years of dreaming I was here, I’d done it!

With no more time pressure I dithered massively finding a space in the bike park. Finally I headed towards the velodrome to get my card stamped. On the way I called Yoli to deliver the simplest of messages which I knew would mean as much to her as it did to me:

Je suis un Anciens

My official time was 84:52, inside the cutoff by some 5 hours which is all that really mattered. I’d have just have happily taken 5 minutes inside the cutoff. I’d spent about 61 hours riding, had around 6.5 hours of sleep, and spent probably 1 hour getting lost. The roughly 16 hours remaining let’s just say I spent thoroughly enjoying myself (others might call it faffing).

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