Back in 2015, despite having very little long-distance cycling experience under my belt, I decided to enter the 1200km Paris-Brest-Paris Audax (PBP) without really knowing what I was letting myself in for.
Although I’d been dabbling with audax for a couple of years, I’d always limited myself to 200km events. I was regularly cycling with my club at weekends and had completed some longish cycle tours around Europe but I was getting a little bit bored of not having a focus to my training. I’m very goal oriented and if I don’t have something to work towards I can lose motivation easily, so I was in the right frame of mind to take on a bigger challenge.
When I turned up at my first 200km audax of the year in February 2015, someone asked me if I was riding it as a ‘PBP qualifer’. I nearly choked on my pre-ride cuppa and said, “don’t be daft! 1200km? I’ve never ridden more than 200k in one go.”
But that throwaway conversation planted a little seed in my head. These people didn’t really look any different to me and they weren’t riding any faster than I was. If they thought that they were up to riding 1200km in 90 hours, then why couldn’t I?
The following day, I took a look at the PBP registration site, found out what date I could register with my 200 from the previous year and made my decision to have a crack at it. The rest, as they say, is history. I discovered that I enjoy this crazy world of riding my bike a very long way and was pleasantly surprised to find out that my body, and mind, were capable of operating on a lot less sleep I’d ever imagined possible.
I entered the 90-hour category, along with my friend Andy who accompanied me all the way, and we finished in 88 hours and 15 minutes. At that time, it was absolutely the hardest thing I’d ever done in my life and it’s still up there to be honest. During the final 200km I managed to injure my left leg so badly that I could barely walk for two weeks afterwards but, despite all that, I knew immediately that I wanted to do it all again in four years time.
So, Four years on, and four years older, that’s exactly what I’m doing.
To be honest, I’m not too phased by those extra four years. A couple of years ago, when Julie and I were training for the Transcontinental Race, I began to panic a bit about age-related loss of fitness so I signed up for regular, high-intensity, indoor interval sessions with a coach. These sessions, a couple of times a week, have definitely helped with my overall average speed. So even though I am four years older, and although I’m on the wrong side of 45 to be making massive gains, I’m still managing to knock out a slightly faster overall riding speed than I was back in 2015.
Along with older, one thing I most definitely am is wiser. I now understand how my body will feel at different times throughout the distance and I know myself well enough to know that there’ll be some high highs and some low lows and, importantly, that both of those states – and everything in between – are temporary. My coming to terms with the range of emotional states I go through on a long ride, and developing the resilience to push on through the darker moments, has been a positive learning experience and one that I’ve been able to carry forward to help with situations in my everyday life and improve my overall mental health.
In short, I feel like I’m ready for it, physically and mentally.
So far my 2019, along with every other PBP hopeful, has been all about the qualifying rides. In order to take part in PBP all riders must complete a series of 200, 300, 400 and 600km rides in an allotted time window between January and June.
To make my PBP journey as enjoyable and memorable as possible I decided that, rather than sticking to the local events that I’ve ridden before, I would try to choose qualifying rides that I’d not previously entered, in unfamiliar locations. This has ended up being a really good decision as I’ve discovered new areas to ride all across the UK from the highlands of Scotland to the New Forest. I’ve discovered new routes that I’ll be able to use again and I’ve met lots of lovely people, many of which I hope to see again in Paris.
My road to PBP – what and where
The 200 – Yorkshire Grit
Most of these roads weren’t so new to me but I was just really keen on getting my qualifers started, so picked an early January event organised by my club, VC167. It’s a flat course from Darlington to York and back that follows main roads and A1 service roads, all of which get gritted in bad weather, hence the name
The weather was pretty benign for the time of year and the wind wasn’t very strong. I got in with a fast group on the way back, managed to more or less hang on until the finish and ended up riding my fastest 200 of the year. We were back for 5.15pm – this never happens to me!
The 300 – 3 Down
Almost all of the 3 Down was uncharted territory for me. Starting in Chalfont St. Peter the route took us through the Chilterns, Buckinhgamshire and Hampshire, along country lanes and through pretty thatch-roofed villages down to the New Forest and back again. The controls were on the outward leg were really well organised – we even had our very own barista at the control in Stockbridge.
The weather was sunny and mild for March but a strong north-westerly wind made the open expanse of the New forest pretty tough-going for the first few kilometres of the return leg. I’d never visited the New Forest before and it was a real treat to pedal past the wild ponies just hanging out at the side of the road and experience a very different landscape to that of the North.
The route back took us through more thatched villages and quiet lanes before nightfall. It’s always a bit of a trade-off with winter audaxes because once it’s dark the best option is a straightforward, main road route to follow but that can often mean more traffic. This route had a good mix of main roads and quieter lanes around the back of Slough to guide us back to the finish.
I’m already thinking of ways to modify this route slightly to turn it into a ferry port trip from Sheffield.
The 400 – Hellfire Corner
Without a doubt one of the most beautiful audaxes I’ve ever ridden, but also the coldest! Thankfully I was pretty well-prepared as I’d packed my full puffer jacket and an extra long-sleeved top just in case I got stuck somewhere remote. These roads weren’t all new to me as I’ve been to the north coast of Scotland many times, but it is one of my most favourite places on the planet and the opportunity to cram almost all of it into one ride was too good to miss.
Although I knew other people riding, I’d decided to ride this one solo as I wanted to ride it at my own pace and stop to take photographs whenever I wanted without holding anyone else up. During the day the sun shone and I had to resist the temptation to stop at every photo opportunity but as the sun set the temperature plummeted to well below zero.
All of the controls were spaced just the right distance apart but the final control at Ullapool Yacht Club was an absolute lifesaver – beans and cheese on toast has never tasted so good! Lots of very cold and tired riders were huddled into one small room trying to warm up just enough to brave the road up and over toward Inverness and on to the finish in Dingwall.
My tyres turned white as they picked up a layer of frost from the road during the 15km descent down to Garve and, despite wearing three pairs of gloves, I had to duck into a public toilet at Rogie Falls just to try and get some blood back into my fingertips so that I could change gear properly. After the long, freezing descent, the final couple of short climbs back over to the finish warmed me up a little but I was still really glad to make it back to the community centre where I promptly fell asleep at the dining table until we had to leave at 8.30am.
For more photos of the route take a look at my previous post.
The 600 – Tour of Borders and Galloway
Andy Berne’s new event was the qualifier that I’d been looking forward to the most. I love riding the deserted Border roads and have done a couple of 400s in the area previously, but I’d not done any riding in Galloway so the 100km loop in the middle of the ride would be new territory for me and I was looking forward to some spectacular forest and moorland scenery.
The weather had other ideas though and by the time I’d reached the Borders and climbed up and over the Grey Mare’s Tail the mist had settled in and skies darkened with the promise of rain. I missed the first bout of heavy rain while grabbing a couple of hours sleep at Lockerbie truck stop and managed to make it all the way to Dumfries before getting a proper soaking.
The rain continued to come down heavy for most of Sunday morning, so when I found a bunch of my clubmates taking shelter in a cafe at New Galloway I joined them and we spent a good hour drinking coffee and putting off the inevitable.
The section from New Galloway back to Dumfries on remote moorland roads should have been the most stunning part of the ride, and the part that I was really looking forward to, but the mist was so low and thick that we didn’t get to see very much of it at all, in fact we could barely see each other. All I remember is a set of challenging little climbs and a long descent that took up a lot of concentration due to the wet conditions.
We were all a little worried about making the cut thanks to our earlier extra-long coffee stop but, once back over the border, we were blessed with a tailwind for the whole of the length of the Military Road, making this arrow-straight, tarmac roller coaster an absolute joy to ride.
By the time we reached the final pull (or pulls) over the Ryals we’d made up our lost time and our flagging spirits were well and truly revived.
This is one that I’m just going to have to come back and ride again because I still want to see that 100km loop in the middle.
As well as the above qualifiers I also entered a reserve audax of every distance as a back-up, just in case something went wrong, and I’ve ended up riding all but one of those too. It’s been a really good experience to ride a couple of extra longer-distance events in different conditions and have to opportunity to try out different food and sleep strategies without the added pressure of needing to finish.
Now, between July and August, the important thing is to keep up the distance and maintain the endurance base that I’ve steadily built back up over the past six months while trying to ensure that I stay injury-free and don’t overdo it. Let’s see how that goes – fingers crossed!