Meeting of Super Randonneurs
I’d imagined the meeting venue at Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines1, 26 km southwest of Paris, to be a rather chaotic scene, with 5000 cyclists, representing about 50 nations coming from all over the world and assembling here for the great cycling event held once every four years. But no, it turned out that things happened in an orderly and relaxed manner. The bike check and registration process was smooth.
So it gave plenty of time to take photos and interact with other cyclists.
For me, a first-timer, it was an eye-opener indeed. Observing the myriad varieties of bicycles, tricycles & special bikes2 and the various set-ups & add-on contraptions, I could only conclude that there are 101 ways to ride the PBP.
Upon registration, we received our cycling pack which enclosed a unique and exquisitely designed Super Randonneur medal–an award presented by Audax Club Parisien to each of the participant, who would have completed all the qualifying brevets3 in the 12 months before the registration date. I thought it was the best memento we could receive in recognition of what we had achieved up till then.
But then, we were well aware of the challenges ahead–a randonnee of 1230 km in 90 hours is a different ball game. Based on historical records, about 1 in 6, or even 1 in 5 in more adverse circumstances, would not be able to make it to the finishing line within the official cut-off time.4
The ultimate challenge
Hills, there were non-ending number of them, wonder if anyone kept count. They were not really steep, but the long climb just debilitated you slowly.
Weather, I had been warned, could change drastically. We set off on Sunday evening, and enjoyed the nice cool air for the next 24 hours or so. Everyone was in good mood.
On Monday night, flashes of lightning and crashes of thunder in the distant started to weigh down the spirits of all those struggling to reach the next control point. It didn’t help that many were starting to feel the physical and mental stress that was gradually built up from long hours of continuous cycling.
Rain finally came pouring down, together with strong gusts of wind. Depending on your location at the point in time, you might endure different degree of suffering. I later found out some of the cyclists escaped unscathed, or even totally unaware of the thunderstorm, having found a safe shelter and slept through the night. At the other extreme, there were those who bore the full brunt of the brutal forces of the elements, so severe that they were forced to call it quit. Imagining the whole spectrum between the two extremes, it was quite a surrealistic experience.
Fortunately for me, I was not around the epicentre of the storm and was spared from the worst ordeal. Even that, the aftermath of the thunderstorm could still be felt kilometres away and many hours after it happened. In spite of wearing four layers of clothing5, I was still trembling with cold for nearly an hour. During and after the ride, I could feel a tingling numbness on the soft tissue of the extremities, especially the toes. It took about 5 weeks to recover completely.
Cold. Coping with cold was especially challenging for those coming from tropical countries. Someone observed that the success rate of cyclists from the warmer countries was dismal6 compared with those from countries with colder climate. But I believe with consciencious training and preparation, including acquiring the appropriate clothing, the level of discomfort could be minimised7.
Sleep. The toughest challenge, for even the most experienced cyclist, was to keep going for extended hours, when the body system kept switching to ‘Sleep’ mode. Like an Energiser battery, there was only so much you can draw the power from, before it got depleted. My ‘battery power’ would last me 26 h 15 min over a distance of 449 km before it eventually got depleted8.
Pain with pleasure
All the challenges aside, there were many pleasurable aspects of the event which made it an experience of a life time.
Places. The route from Paris to Brest is certainly one of the most scenic, bringing us to many picturesque places. Only wish I could stay a little longer or pose for more photos at all those places. What a pity I often had to rush from one control point to another, making sure I didn’t miss the qualifying time. On a couple of occasions, I went past too quickly a scenic location and had to backtrack a few hundred metres to take a few snapshots.
People. It is common to have family members, friends and supportors at the start/end of any sportive event. But I believe it is only in this classic cycling event that you got to meet your ardent supporters–strangers that you met for the first time–everywhere along the route, cheering you on with Allez! Allez!, Bravo! and other encouraging words, to which I responded gleefully with Merci! (one of a handful of useful French words I had picked up during my short stay in France.)
Amazingly, these supporters were there for you any hour of the day and the night (yes, even after midnight and in the dawn hours!), rain or shine!
There were even families waiting by the road side offering food and drinks to any fatigued cyclist who happened to pass by.
Heroes. Whereas there were friends who thought people like me were a little insane to have even contemplated participating in such a physically and mentally gruelling activity, these folks treated us like real heroes, inviting us to write a few lines on their guest books and sign them autographs. It was such a rare opportunity to enjoy four days of large-than-life experience.
There were, in fact, quite a few larger-than-life figures I personally encountered among the heroes/heroines:
For an amateur leisure cyclist like me, the mere qualification for the participation in Paris-Brest-Paris 2011 was itself a monumental achievement. To complete the ride in 89 h 32 min, within the official cut-off time, that was euphoric. Becoming an incidental legend, being the first Singaporean to have participated in this grand cycling event, it was simply overwhelming.
It was indeed a great journey of learning and discovery, culminating in the PBP. I enjoyed the camaraderie built up among our group of riders over the year long training and preparation. All the wonderful people I met from the hardworking volunteers & support crew to the friendly and encouraging locals, and participants from all over the world, had made an indelible mark on this memorable event.
Will I do it again?
I am now an ancien?9 in the PBP ‘big book’. Been there, done it. So will I be doing it again in 2015?10
End March 2012, the long-awaited medal, together with the brevet card (in a small booklet) finally arrived in my letter box.
1 Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines has been the starting and finishing point for the Paris-Brest-Paris since 1991, the centenary year of the event.
2 Article 8: Rules for Bikes states that “any machine with two or three wheels steered by a handlebar and propelled by muscle power via a transmission consisting of one or several chainrings may be used.”
3 The distances of the qualifying brevets are 200 km, 300 km, 400 km & 600 km, normally with time limits of 13.5 h, 20 h, 27 h & 40 h respectively, but these may vary from country to country.
4 This year, 18.8% DNF within the official cut-off time of 90 hours. In 2007, when the weather was one of the worst ever, 27.6% DNF, worse than 1 in 4.
5 The four layers are: base layer, cycling jersey, rain jacket, safety reflector jacket.
6 Statistics for this year (finished within 90 hours): Costa Rica 0% (0/1), Philippines 7.7% (1/13), India 13.3% (2/15), Brazil 50% (27/54). But then China 0% (0/12), Singapore 80% (8/10). Source: PBP results by country by a techie. Here, you could view the success rate of the cyclists from all the participating countries.
7 Additional items to fend off the cold: arm warmers, leg warmers, shoe covers, rainproof cap, balaclava, …
8 My endurance level for continuous cycling without sleep seemed to have gone up one notch, from the previous record of 425 km in 24 h in Perth-Albany-Perth, October 2010.
9 a veteran; a Paris-Brest-Paris male finisher (an ancienne is a female finisher)