How I ended up starting, and then finishing, the world’s most historic Randonnée
By Sheni Jiwa
So this is my story of my longest ride to date and, like the ride, it’s very long but I hope interesting enough for you to reach the end.
It was whilst riding my first 200km Audax, the Isle of Wight Onshore/Offshore event in September 2014 that I first heard of “PBP”. Riding along in a Chippenham Wheelers group listening to Jason Webb, Dylan Spencer and Bryan Atkins chatting about their big plans for PBP 2015……..that’s where it all started for me. After a bit of research I soon realised that PBP was probably the most historic cycling event in the world, going way back to 1891 when it was first conceived as a race to promote a French newspaper.
There’s a brief history in this blog, courtesy of Strava:
The challenge is to ride from Paris to Brest and back to Paris again, a distance of 1230km in less than 90 hours. Some people target even faster times with the option of 84 and even 80 hour targets.
The event only runs once every 4 years. The next event was set for 16-20th August 2015.
I soon realised that just to get to the start line of PBP would be a challenge for me – I would have to qualify as a “Super Randonneur” by riding a series of 200,300, 400 and 600km Audax events in the early part of this year, know as “Brevets”. Riding a SR series helps to build your fitness and gets you used to long distance riding. It helps you to learn how your body responds to the inherent stresses; you also have to adapt to night riding and above all learn how to be totally self-reliant on your bike.
Having never ridden more than 200km before this year, the SR series was a big challenge for me. I have always believed the mantra that anyone can ride 50% further than the furthest they have ridden before, so 300km ought to be possible. But could I do 400km and how on earth could I manage 600km? I have always enjoyed setting myself a challenge, however daunting, so I decided to join Audax UK and signed up for the events. My attitude was just to prepare for one ride at a time and see how it went, before looking too much at the route for the next one. If I could get through the SR series I might just contemplate entering for PBP. In February, at the start of the SR series, entering PBP was a long way off and still a distant dream.
I found each SR ride demanding but in different ways, nearly always finishing just an hour or so within the time limit to qualify for the Brevet, but each time I felt stronger and more confident in my ability. My 300km was the excellent Heart of England, starting from Cirencester and heading north towards Coventry and back again, but riding with an injured knee meant a slow time for me, but I did it, finishing at 1am, an hour inside the limit. The 400km was perhaps the toughest – the Brevet Cymru, cold, wet, windy, very hilly and my first experience of riding through the night and feeling quite ill at one very low point. For the 600km I opted for the Bryan Chapman Memorial, riding from Chepstow up to and through Snowdonia and across the Menai Bridge into Anglesey and then back to Chepstow again. That was a brilliant event with really well organised controls, but somehow I ended up only getting a couple of hours sleep. When I arrived back at Chepstow after the 600 I knew I had done enough to qualify to enter PBP! More importantly, by stretching my distance I had gained the belief and desire to go further still. The decision was made, I was going to enter.
The qualification and registration process for PBP is quite complicated, but run with superb efficiency by the organisers, the Audax Club Parisien (ACP). After a few weeks my qualifying SR brevet numbers had all been “homologated” by ACP and recorded on their website. As soon as the registration window opened I applied and was accepted to join the greatest Randonnée in the world!
I would be in the company of five other Wheelers, all of us now Super Randonneurs and all of us were doing PBP for the first time: Jason Webb, Bryan Atkins, Dylan Spencer, James Bradbury and Kate Churchill.
The next couple of months flew past. The advice we had from ACP was to keep riding, but not necessarily really long distances, but more intense efforts. I maintained my fitness with the odd sportive and the occasional hilly ride, mixed up with Tuesday night sessions at Castle Combe Circuit and the Sunday Leisure Rides. Had I done enough? Had I done too much? It was hard to know. How should I prepare my bike for the big ride, what lights should I use? What should I pack in my saddlebag and what shouldn’t I pack? So much to think about! Advice from my fellow randonneurs was invaluable and much appreciated. Audax UK was also a mine of PBP information with discussion threads in their Facebook group on every aspect of the event.
And so, in the middle of August, we all made our way to Paris……
Most of us were staying in and around beautiful Versailles, where PBP was starting from the new National Velodrome of France.
The day before the ride started (Saturday) we were all required to attend for registration and bike inspection. The main registration area was in the middle of the indoor velodrome track, an amazing setting. The place was full of randonneurs from all over the world – 6000 in total, all of them Super Randonneurs and from no less than 66 countries and most were wearing their national jerseys.
We marvelled at the number of riders from the Far East, seeing jerseys from Japan, China, Taiwan, Korea to name just a few. There was a large contingent who had made the journey from India. The Russians had a lot of riders, I even saw jerseys from Kamchatka, the far eastern tip of Russia. Of course just about every European country was represented and the US, Canada, Australia, Brazil and South Africa were all there in good numbers too. The buzz of excitement in the velodrome was incredible, amazing to see people from different countries renewing acquaintances from previous PBPs. Jason and I soaked up the atmosphere, briefly seeing Kate as she arrived to join the queue.
Whilst we were queuing the members of Audax Club Bristol walked into the hall, wearing their very nice individually numbered jerseys. There was much posing about and banter on the new ACB jerseys, a very nice design indeed. The whole registration process lasted a couple of hours, including the all-important moment of trying on and posing for photos in our own PBP 2015 jerseys. We then headed out into the afternoon and, with the main event due to start on Sunday evening, there was plenty of time to relax and enjoy ourselves.
Some decided to rest up for the next day, whilst Jason and I opted to ride into Paris with our friend Robyn for a bit of sightseeing. We rode along the banks of the Seine, past the Princess Diana Memorial, Place de la Concorde and then up to Montmartre and the cobbled climb to the beautiful church, Sacré-Cœur. A delicious pizza meal in a back street Parisian restaurant and then back on our bikes down into the heart of the city, past the Pompidou Centre and along the Seine for the obligatory photos at the Eifel Tower. We met a group of young British cyclists drinking champagne at the Eifel Tower who had just completed a charity ride from London to Paris and chatted for a few minutes, congratulating them on their achievement. They asked us what we were doing in our Chippenham Wheeler jerseys, when we told them about PBP they looked at us with incredulity.
Riding around the Parisian city roads was quite an experience, but we seemed to manage as there were a good number of well-marked cycling lanes to follow. It was now getting late and thinking about resting our legs we wheeled our bikes onto a RER train back to Versailles for a good night’s sleep before the big day.
The Grand Depart of PBP started late on Sunday afternoon. We all had our own start times, staggered through the late afternoon and early evening, except Dylan who had ambitiously signed up for the 84 hour target so would be starting on Monday morning. I was in the 17.45 start wave with Jason and Bryan.
Lining up in the starting pen was a big moment for all of us, here we all were after the culmination of months and in some cases years of anticipation. Jason had waited four years for this moment having missed PBP in 2011 due to an injury, where he acted as a support to Simon Matthews and Andy Vidler. The unfortunate news for Jason this time was that his left shifter had stopped working and the mechanics couldn’t do anything about it, meaning he would need to ride the 1230km in a single ring. Fair play to Jason, he wasn’t at all phased by this; nothing was going to stop him completing this ride after waiting four years!
When the time came, after many multi-lingual speeches by the ACP officials, we rolled across the start line with hundreds of other riders, to applause from families, friends and local supporters who were thronged along the sides of the road for the first few miles.
It was a carnival of cycling with just about every kind of wheeled velo you could imagine…. recumbent bikes, tricycles, colourful bullet-shaped human powered vehicles and even elliptical cycles, which combine running motion with cycling. In fact 7 or 8 riders from Team ElliptiGo, mostly from the UK, were making a first appearance at PBP with the aim of setting a world record for elliptical cycling – they were a huge hit with the supporters along the whole ride, most of whom I’m sure had never seen such unusual cycles before.
The first 2-300km went very quickly. The mass peloton of randonneurs, most of us fuelled by the excitement of the Grand Depart, flew along the roads west towards Brest at a brisk pace. I knew I was riding too hard but was enjoying myself too much on the smooth, fast rolling roads. “Settle in to what you know” shouted Jason Webb as he passed me……..wise words which I really should have listened too!
I arrived at the first control after 140km, not an official control point but a massive college restaurant serving a wide range of hot food. Refuelling on soup, omelette and ride pudding I felt I was ready to push on through the night.
PBP is an endurance cycling challenge, designed to test your ability to manage your body through long days and nights in the saddle. Starting on Sunday evening meant most people riding all the way through the night, and that’s what happened to me. Riders were still bunched together at this point so I found myself in a huge peloton of reflective yellow vests (compulsory at night for PBP). We rolled on through the night, stopping at the control at Villanes in the middle of the night and then onwards into the dawn.
I had set myself a target of riding through until lunchtime on Monday before stopping to sleep but somewhere on the road to Fougeres at 310km I completely ran out of energy, a combination of riding too hard and lack of sleep. I couldn’t eat anything so had no choice but to lie down on the floor in the control to sleep for an hour. That did me the power of good and I then refuelled with a hearty veggie lasagne and another ride pud to recharge the batteries. This gave me the strength to push on to the next control.
The controls were spaced about every 80km, typically at local colleges where the organisers could cater for the thousands of riders. It was quite time consuming getting around the controls, parking your bike in the designated area, finding the control station to record my timing chip and get my brevet card stamped and then the inevitable queues for food and toilets. What struck me though was the sheer number of volunteers running the controls all through the day and night and their cheerful greetings. I read somewhere the event had something like 2000 volunteers to make it run smoothly, all of them wonderful people!
I rode on through the afternoon, meeting up with James Bradbury somewhere after Tinteniac. We enjoyed a good number of miles together at a brisk pace before easing back. Unfortunately by the time we reached Loudeac 450km at 9.00pm James was suffering from low energy like I had earlier in the day, so it was his turn to rest and recover whilst I had another big meal (so hungry!) and then soldiered on into the night. That was the last time I was to see James who after waking realised he would not make his closing time at Brest, so turned back to Paris still managing to complete 900km, a major achievement by anyone’s standards. James I am sure will return stronger in 2019 to complete a successful PBP.
I had set myself the target of sleeping in the dormitory at the next control, St.Nicholas du Pelem. When I reached St.Nicholas in the middle of the night I started to realise that I couldn’t really afford to sleep long. I had spent so much time faffing about at the earlier controls that I was under pressure to get to Brest. I booked into the dorm and asked to be woken after an hour. The dorm was nothing more than a large hall with sleeping mats although with the other 100 or so riders sleeping in the place it sounded more like a farmyard! I was glad I had brought ear plugs, advice I had read a few weeks before.
An hour later, as I had requested, I was given a gentle nudge by a volunteer to wake me up. I was freezing cold but knew I had to get back on the saddle. I grabbed a hot chocolate and croissant and headed back outside into the dark.
By 5.30am I was in Carhaix, 525km completed and feeling good. Time for a second breakfast and then onto the next stage to Brest. It was a cold, misty ride through the dawn. Thankfully I had leg warmers and a Goretex jacket to keep me warm, but I felt really sorry for some of the riders from warmer countries like India and the Philippines. For them PBP must have been an even greater challenge, coping with cold they are not used too. At one point I was riding along chatting with an Indonesian rider, who was wearing a full face mask with holes cut out for his eyes, nose and mouth!
The early morning sun brought a warm welcome as I pedalled into the far west of Brittany. A long, long climb up and across the beautiful Parc Regional d’Armorique was followed by an equally long descent into Brest, arriving in clear blue skies and crystal clear calm blue sea. 618km done, I had made it half way!
I grabbed 30 minutes of sleep outside on the grass at the Brest control, knowing that’s all I could afford, and then it was time to turn around and head back to Paris. I checked my phone for messages to discover that David Else, on holiday in the area, had called into Carhaix control in the morning to look out for passing Chippenham Wheelers. I had passed through earlier and missed him but was uplifted by the virtual support, thanks David!
By now I had realised I was spending far too much time in the controls so on my ride back I determined to make more use of boulangeries, shops and cafes along the roadside from which to refuel. Also, perhaps the greatest thing about PBP and the reason so many people keep coming back is the sheer number of supporters that set up little roadside refuelling stops outside their own houses all across France. Families cheered “Bon Courage”, “Bonne Route” and “Bravo” as we rode past, but some of them invited us to stop for coffee, crepes and cake given to us for no charge at all. Some families even had more vigorous refreshments on offer, including the local Calvados. This is the real magic of PBP, the generosity of people along the route is quite incredible. Even in the middle of the night, at 4am I came across people offering me coffee and cheering me along my way back to Paris.
The route is perfectly signposted the whole way from Paris to Brest and back again, so navigation really isn’t an issue, but occasionally as I approached someone in the night, just for fun I would ask “Cette direction pour Paris?” which was typically met with shouts of “Oui, oui, oui! Allez! Allez! Allez!” There is something very special about PBP, almost a respect in the history and traditions that brings out the best in the French supporters. They are what make the event what it is and why people travel from all over the world to experience the magic of PBP time and time again.
Towns and villages were decorated with bikes of every colour, even fields had huge banners hanging over haystacks wishing the riders “Bon Courage”. Some towns seemed to have little parties going along to celebrate the event. At times it felt like we were riding an extreme endurance event whilst the French were having a party to celebrate, they certainly lifted our spirits when we were finding it hard going.
In one of those villages on the way back to Paris I stopped and bought some fruit and sandwiches from a shop and sat outside with other riders enjoying the village party, only to see Dylan ride past in the opposite direction heading to Brest after starting 12 hours later than me. We saw each other and I shouted something along the lines of “Keep going, see you in Paris!”
Somewhere along the way, with little more than 3 hours sleep over 3 nights I began to feel disorientated and had to ask a lady at a control “Quel jour est on?” I think she said it was Wednesday and that is where my ride took a turn for the worst. I was beginning to lose the feeling in my hands and saddle soreness was kicking in. The ride through Wednesday afternoon was arduous and by the time I reached the control at Mortagne-au-Perche I was in need of help from the medics for a massage of my hands to get some feeling back. I did enough to overcome the saddle pain with an extra pair of shorts, chamois cream and ibuprofen and that kept me going. A quick 10 minute nap lying in the corner of the control hall with countless other snoozing randonneurs and then back into the night for the penultimate and, for me, the hardest stage.
As we rode into the 4th night just about everyone seemed to be suffering from extreme sleep deprivation. Many riders just stopped and lay down to sleep on the grass verges, wrapped in silver survival wraps. I saw bodies lying every few hundred yards with bikes alongside, their red lights still glowing in the grass. It was really weird seeing people like that, some possibly giving up on their ride against the clock.
After a particularly long climb I stopped at the top for a breather. Another rider stopped next to me, leaned over his handlebars and within seconds fell asleep and keeled over with a crash. I helped the poor fellow to his feet; he was from Greece, riding his first PBP like me. He took a caffeine pill, offered by an American rider who stopped to help. We continued the ride together until the American sped off to catch his friends. I kept talking to the Greek chap to help keep him awake until the caffeine kicked in. He was fine after that and we eventually settled back into our own ride pace and drifted apart.
Eventually the sleep deprivation got to me too and I started to feel like I was hallucinating. In front of me I could see nothing but red lights, seemingly floating upwards into the sky and all I could hear was the swish of wheels and pedals around me. I was getting a feeling of riding through a continuous dark tunnel and began to feel quite dangerous, so pulled over and poured cold water over my face and down my back. I was to repeat this several times over the next few miles, until I came through a village with the most wonderful family serving the best coffee I ever tasted outside their house. I stopped and chatted with them, they wanted to know where I had come from and what I felt about PBP. It must have been the middle of the night but even their children were still up and eager to talk. Their kindness was enough to re-energise me and get me through that low point. My body clock re-set itself for the 4th time and my internal dialogue switched to thoughts of reaching the finish.
My arrival into the penultimate control station at Dreux 1165km at 6.45am on Thursday was met with the first rain of the ride, but I really didn’t mind. I stuffed a Paris-Brest-Paris hazelnut cream filled bun into my mouth (yes, the event has its own traditional calorie filled cake named after it, how brilliant is that?!) I downed another coffee and kicked for Paris. I had made good time through the night and now knew, with only 65km left to go, I could finish this thing within the 90 hours.
On the final stage of any ride I always seem to get a boost of adrenalin which helps me finish strong. Thursday morning was no exception. I charged along the roads finding the strength in my legs to fly past group after group of riders. How did my legs get like this I asked myself?! It felt fantastic and as I rode the final k’s toward the velodrome finish my thoughts turned to whether any of my Wheeler friends might still be there?
I crossed the finish line after 88 hours and 49 minutes, achieving my target of a “full value” ride. I parked the bike up and walked into the velodrome to be greated by cheers from Jason, Bryan and Robyn. It was quite an emotional moment after the journey we had all been on. They had finished in the middle of the night with really impressive times, Jason at just over 80 hours and Bryan at 78 hours. I didn’t see Kate but she had finished in 79 hours. Later in the day, Dylan, who had set himself an ambitious 84 hour target crossed the finish line in just over 81 hours. Mission accomplished!
I powered up my phone to receive countless messages from my wife, Lucy and people back home who had been tracking my journey across France via the PBP website. Some lovely messages, which I very much appreciated.
I didn’t hang around at the finish, too worried I’d fall asleep and keel over like the Greek chap, so I headed back to my hotel for a much needed afternoon sleep. Despite the fact we could have all slept for 24 hours we could not let the evening pass by without commemorating our achievements in the usual style. Jason, Dylan, Robyn and I headed into Versailles for a celebratory dinner and recovery drinks. Since Dylan had started in the Monday morning wave he only finished on Thursday afternoon so took his endurance to whole new level by coming out to party without even having a recovery sleep! Chapeau Dylan!
I can honestly say that PBP has been the most incredible cycling experience in my life. I can see why people from across the world travel all the way to France every 4 years. It’s not the riding that makes it the brilliant event that it is, but the incredible people you meet along the journey.
The 19th edition will be held in 2019, with pre-qualifying probably starting in 2018. For most UK randonneurs ambitions now shift to the next monument event, London-Edinburgh-London in 2017.
After only riding my first 200km last year, I hope anyone reading this can see that, with the right advice, long distance riding is within your reach. You need a few 100 mile rides under your belt first, a certain sense of adventure but above all the determination to succeed. If you have that then anything is possible. In fact, if you have managed to read this far, then I suspect you already have the endurance ability to succeed!
I want to finish by thanking all the people who guided and advised me on my long journey to PBP and my lovely family for letting me go on this incredible adventure and putting up with the long training rides every other weekend. There are far too many to mention but Jason Webb, Bryan Atkins and Dylan Spencer all gave me the inspiration, encouragement and advice that made me believe I could so this, so thank you guys. Bon courage to you all for the next long bike ride!
[There are photos to accompany this article at the following link – ]