This was going to be a simple blog about my trip to France and my attempt at the PBP 1,200 cycle but it turned out to be so much more, much much more, so strap in and I’ll begin……
Regular readers will know that this year I was attempting the Paris – Brest – Paris (PBP) cycle, a 1,200 kilometre ride in France which had to be completed within 90 hours. I had trained hard for this event, completed all the qualifiers and worked hard on my kit and nutrition. I was ready! Well, as ready as I would ever be anyway.
I was going to sail across from Rosslare with the car on the Tuesday with my Audax partner in crime Kate and then drive to a campsite near the start, a total trip I estimated of about 28 hours!
That was the plan…. but the Monday before was when things started to go ‘tits up!’…. on a final testing ride with all my kit and luggage I was aware of a very disturbing creak coming from my front wheel dynamo. This was very much a worry as the dynamo controls all my lighting system and gives me the ability to charge my GPS and my phone whilst cycling. Immediate investigation was needed….. upon inspection the hub had completely disintegrated inside, it looked like water damage. Now was the time to panic… I did not have the time to get it repaired or replaced so I made the decision to change the wheel and go old school with battery powered lights, I literally had no choice.
So after some eleventh hour mechanics, some repacking of bags and a purchase of a wheel barrow of AA batteries I was ready to set off….. The following morning I loaded everything into the car, put the bike on the roof and I was off. I was meeting Kate in Bantry and we were travelling together to save costs. The idea was to put Kate’s bike rack on my roof with mine so we could carry both bikes on the roof… however, Kate had forgotten the key to take her rack off (this mistake however was to prove invaluable and saved our bacon, I will explain later). After some frantic head scratching we managed to borrow a bike rack for the back of the car and we were finally on our way, France here we come….!
The rest of the journey to France was uneventful, long but uneventful….. the french do love a toll though, I will say that. We arrived at the campsite late in the evening on Wednesday, found out pitches and put up our tents. The lead up to the event was fairly tense as I was concerned about my light but there was nothing I could do about it, the wheel I had used had loose bearings and I wasn’t sure it would last. The campsite was booked out, it seemed, with everyone doing PBP. Every nationality was there and it was great catching up with old friends and making new ones. The campsite was quiet enough too, so one could try and relax. That was until the mad Aussies arrived, what a great bunch…..they had the right idea, they weren’t taking it too seriously and were just enjoying themselves. Met up with Sarah, another Aussie whom I had cycled with on the MF1,200 last year and she introduced me to some great guys.
I was due to start my cycle at 6pm on the Sunday and as I rolled to the start line, I was beginning to feel a lot more confident …..and then we were off….. PBP is a very surreal event as you see all sorts; strange bikes, people in fancy dress, people with music blaring from their bikes, I even saw one lady cycling in Jeans! They were Levis of course!
The french people were so friendly towards us, they set up impromptu coffee stops at almost every village and they seemed to be manned 24/7, just when you were at a low ebb at 3am, you would come across a small stall at the side of the road giving out free coffee and cake.
I had fallen asleep on a footpath in a small village, this in itself is not unusual as the whole route is littered with sleeping bodies. But what was unusual was being gently woken by an elderly man telling me he had a spare bed I could use if I needed to. I declined as I was against the clock but it was, I am told, a typical act of French generosity. They also encouraged us in every village or town, day and night and the bakers that opened at 4am selling hot croissants and pain au chocolats were to die for, I almost forgot I had a massive cycle to do! I was even congratulated mid way through my cycle to Brest by some random french dude as I sat quietly eating my lunch in an out the way cafe, I’m not sure why he was congratulating me, I’d like to think it was for my cycling prowess but I was not thinking straight at the time so it could have been for anything, maybe he wasn’t even congratulating me at all!
Then at 300k more disaster…. my saddle broke, I made some make shift repairs but it was like I was sitting on a hot razor blade with a permanent wedgie. The rest of the cycle was usual Audax affair; I won’t bore you with the details, but basically it was non stop hills with various catnaps along the way. No proper sleep, dealing with almost freezing night temperatures, extreme fatigue coupled with almost falling asleep on the bike, at one point I even had the idea that if I closed one eye at a time then I could get half sleep, it was a very silly idea but the term for this silly thinking is called ‘Rando brain’ short for randonneur brain, to be honest a lot of the cycle was a blur and I keep getting flashbacks and suddenly remember stuff that happened, but I will say it was tough, oh my god, so tough! The PBP has the reputation of being one of the toughest cycling events out there and now I know why and don’t even get me started on the 23k climb out of Brest!
……So that was PBP, it was an interesting journey that started about a year ago and culminated in a cycle at the end of it. But one, sadly I didn’t complete, I only got as far as 1,022 kilometres before I got even more bad luck and I started to get Shermer’s Neck and made the decision to pull out. Basically, Shermer’s neck is when the neck muscles give up and one can no longer lift their head up. There are many Heath Robinson contraptions and methods one can use to hold the neck up, but it wasn’t shit or bust for me and I felt my health was more important, so I reluctantly withdrew with just under 200k remaining.
It was sad but also a great experience and I learnt a lot of things that I can carry forward to the next time.…….. Will there be a next time? That I’m not sure, it was tough, very tough, I went to places I had never been to before both physically and mentally and to be honest it was scary. I was fitter and better trained than I had ever been for any other event but sometimes there are things you just can’t plan or cater for that go wrong and force you to stop.
And I thought that was the end of my french adventure… but round the corner more bad luck awaited: with only one nights recovery we had packed up our tents and set off back to the ferry, we were an hour into our five hour drive when all the lights on the car dash starting blinking and suddenly lost all electrics. We were on the main motorway so I took the first turning off I could and ended up in an industrial estate where I killed the engine, popped the bonnet and tried to see what was what. There didn’t seem to be anything glaringly obvious but then I’m no mechanic, well not one of combustion engines anyway. I suggested we crack on as we had a ferry to catch, but the car was having none of it and refused to start. Now we were up the proverbial brown creek. After some frantic googling we found a number of the breakdown recovery and with very little french tried to tell them where we were. So we waited…. and waited….and waited, after about five hours I rang again but only to have the phone put down on me. More frantic googling and after several calls, one to the ferry postponing our sailing, and after more hang ups a company agreed to come out to us. So we waited and waited some more…..After nearly a further three hours a tow truck appeared, the driver had no English, put the car on the back of the truck, piled us in the back and promptly dropped us off at a local hotel and disappeared with my car into the night. What the fuck just happened I asked? Not sure if I was still on the PBP or dreaming. The hotelier came out and showed us to our rooms, he unfortunately did not speak English and sadly did not understand out pitiful attempt at conversing in his native language, he was excellent however at the art of shoulder shrugging. Surely it couldn’t get any worse? And with an opinion that it would all work out in the morning I went to bed.
The following morning, after breakfast we decided we would try and locate the garage using our bikes as transport. Using google maps we had an idea of where the garage was and set off, we promptly got lost! I saw a couple walking towards me, and again with broken french asked if they spoke English, great news they did. I asked for directions to the garage but alas they were not locals and did not know, they then introduced themselves as Jehovah’s Witnesses and asked if I had a few moments to talk….. I kid you not, you just couldn’t write it could you? We finally found the garage where there was more shoulder shrugging (I thought he was related to the hotelier), and was told the car needed a part and it may take a while but being the weekend nothing could happen until Monday anyway. That’s what we thought he said. We cycled back to the hotel resigned to the fact that we were going to spend another few days in France, it wasn’t too bad, at least we had a hotel, or so we thought. On arrival back at the hotel we found our bags packed and out in reception and we were promptly handed a list of other hotels with lots of shrugging accompanied by the word ‘non’ being repeated over and over again. He was fully booked and had no room for us.
More frantic calls, more hang ups, more googling, more google translate, lots of head scratching and even more swearing! It felt like it was a hopeless situation, there didn’t seem to be any empathy, no help at all… what happen to the friendliness, the generously we had experienced on the PBP? It was like we had walked into a different time and place altogether.
That was when a couple overheard our plight, in walks our saviours … Françoise and Jean Jacques who had excellent English and booked us a hotel and ordered us a taxi, so with a parting glare at Mr Shrugalot we were off again, but this time we had a plan, no car but a plan! Françoise agreed to meet us at the garage Monday to help with the language barrier, what lovely people, faith in humanity was restored once again.
Okay, so this is where I am just going to list the events as they occurred, to be honest it was a traumatic time and not one I want to dwell on but the events went something like this:
- Monday; Meeting at the garage, car will be ready Tuesday midday, it needs a new alternator.
- Tuesday; went to garage at half eleven, car not ready will be ready at three as there was something else wrong with it. At this point I should mention that lunch is between twelve and two and absolutely nothing happens during this time. Arrived back at two thirty and waited, and waited and waited some more. At 5 pm I was informed that car wouldn’t be ready until Wednesday morning at a cost of €815.
- Wednesday; arrived at garage mid morning, car still not ready, yet another fault found and car is in a different garage, one that has a diagnostic tool, car ready Thursday at an additional cost of another €500. Françoise and Jean Jacques arrived and invited us to their place for lunch. Phone call to Ferry to reschedule.
- Thursday; yet another problem with the car, another part ordered, hopefully car will be ready Friday.
- Friday; morning, car not ready, another part needed, this is definitely the part don’t worry car will be ready at three. …. car not ready at three, Françoise arrives and the decision is made to leave the car, get trains to Cherbourg and come back as foot passengers on Sunday. The next few hours are spent with Françoise driving us to the hotel to collect our luggage, to the other garage to clear out all our belongings and we were invited to stay at their house (what lovely people, did I mention that?). We packed what we could carry, put the rest in storage in one of their barns and did what anyone else would do in that situation…. we went out for a hearty dinner with a few bottles of wine. They put us up for the night, organised train tickets and using the bike rack (I said it would be invaluable) they dropped us at the train station. Without their help, kindness and generosity I firmly believe we would still be there and we are very much indebted to them.
- Saturday; Three trains to Cherbourg using our bikes as luggage trollies and yet another hotel.
- Sunday; ferry to Rosslare to arrive Monday morning where Kates husband Owen made a 600 kilometer round trip on Monday to collect us…. thank you Owen.
And that is where the story ends, word is from the garage that the car will be another week as yet another part is needed but you know what, they can keep it, I haven’t paid them anything yet, I won’t be going back. I am sure that in the future, way in the future, I will look back and laugh about it but right now it’s hard to.
So what have I learned? I learned a lot about myself, I learned that on the whole people are good natured and kind with a few exceptions and I also learnt that the French, although they have great food and wine and even better coffee, they don’t like to use toilet seats!