Paris-Brest-Paris 2019

PBP. Where to even start.

Maybe first with a warning. Or maybe a word of caution of what you’re about to read. This isn’t a ‘hero’s tale,’ or even a summary of how magnificent PBP was. It was hard. Very hard. Harder than I expected. And I suffered through a lot of it. Yes there were highlights and good times. But there was no laughter, which was a very different ride for me. So, like all of my blogs, this is the truth about PBP from my perspective. You don’t have to agree with it, and maybe your story is different.

But this is mine.

The days before

On the lead-up to PBP the advice had been to rest rest rest. No long rides, no pushing myself. Get to PBP as thoroughly rested and recovered as I possibly could be. So I tried. I really did. For the 5 weeks leading up to PBP I didn’t ride any one ride longer than 4-5 hours. I watched a lot of my mates do long prep rides and I wondered if I was doing the right thing. I wondered if I was losing my edge, losing fitness, losing… well, losing my mind really. It was very hard to stay resting while everyone was still riding.

And to be fair I wasn’t really resting that well either. The European heat wave was nearly bang on top of us as we travelled along, so my nights were restless and my days far too warm. So I felt edgy, cranky, and tired. Not a great lead up at all really, but it was what it was.

A couple days before PBP started we drove up to Rambouillet and met up with many of the Australian team members for the group pic, chats, and a few beers.

Lots of banter and advice was thrown around, but the consistent thing people kept saying to me was that I was going to smash it. I was so fit, so strong, and so ready. And given PBP was an “easy 1200” I had it in the bag. With this mental prep, I went into bike check the next day feeling pretty good.

Until I saw ALL THE PEOPLE.

My bike check was for 10:30, and the email sent out earlier had said not to get there much earlier or later than this time. Ha, rookie error. It seemed people started arriving hours before their bike check to wait in line, so it took me nearly 2 hours to get through to bike check. So that was two hours of standing in a line up in the rain. And trying to let the nerves wash over me and not build up and overwhelm me. I ran into a few familiar faces (and had a few people come up to me who recognised me from posts on Instagram and wanted to say hello) which was pretty cool.

But did I mention all the people?

I read updates on social media later on of people taking pics of all the ‘weird bikes,’ meeting up with friends from around the world, and generally loving bike check in. For me it was a bit of a nightmare, a press of human bodies everywhere while I tried to stay focused in the chaos of what I needed to do, and not to forget anything. The idea of hanging around, looking in the shops and buying PBP stuff went right out the window and I escaped as soon as I could.

The off

Surprisingly the two nights before PBP I slept really well, which is rare for me as I don’t usually sleep before event day. But my brain and body were in harmony for once and I slept soundly the night before. Getting up late in the morning I had breakfast, double checked I had everything packed, and then laid down again for some more rest. My starting time was 16:30 and I was going to ride through the night, so I wanted to sleep as much as I could before I set off.

Arriving in Rambouillet (where PBP started from this year) I rode up to the gate and got an Aussie Aussie Aussie cheer from one of the people who recognised me from my Sydney-Melbourne ride a couple years back. Posing in front of the giant Australian flag, I then set off to find the start line. And got lost… and had to double back to figure out where I needed to wait.

Finding the section where all of Group C was, I snuck in from the side and chatted with a couple of gentlemen from the UK as we waited for our start. It was all very much “hurry up and wait” mentality: the gates were opened, and we ‘rushed’ to get in the queue to get our brevet stamped with the ‘start’ stamp, then ‘rushed’ again to get to the starting line, only to wait again for awhile with the hot sun beating down on us.

Finally it was 16:28 and the call was made to get ready to start… and we were off! I had heard that it was a very good idea to try and stay with the big group for as long as possible as they would tow you along with great speed and not much work. As long as you could avoid crashing and other disasters that could easily arise from too many inexperienced bunch riders and too much adrenaline and testosterone.

But the pack was not doing me any favours. The concentration it was taking to try and stay in the pack, combined with watching EVERYONE around me doing really dumb things (seriously, HOLD YOUR FREAKING LINE!) meant I didn’t really feel comfortable riding close to anyone’s wheel to get the benefits of drafting, and was just working really hard to stay in the group (The first 50 km we rode at 30km/h average). But hang with them I did, because I could feel that headwind the second I dropped too far off.

After about 70km or so I decided that this group thing wasn’t suiting me at all, and that I would most likely pop if I tried to keep this up, so I dropped off the bunch with the assumption that there would be a group right behind me that I could tag on to. Which there wasn’t: I had hung on so long that we had left a lot of the bunch behind us. So I found a couple guys to work with, including a chap from the UK called Paul, and the three of us rode into the first stop together at 118kms.

Hindsight/Reflection

I got very very lucky that I didn’t have an accident or rip my legs off in this section. I don’t think that hanging with the bunch benefited me all that much, and I should have dropped off from that mess a lot earlier instead of letting my ego keep me there for longer than I should have been. I’ve ridden in a few bunches before (the Woodend Velos work in bunches for a lot of the group rides, and when I raced I’ve done bunch riding before) and when they work they are incredibly efficient, fast, and beneficial. This was just a debacle of bikes, high vis, and messy riding, and made for a very rough start to PBP as I had to constantly stay on high alert to keep track of what was going on around me. I’ve never experienced any Audax ride like this before, and it really made me reconsider where my head was at. The guys kept talking about this group being the ‘racers’ and I think that got to me. Oh! We were racing!! Okay then I’ll smash this out and ride like the wind and push my heartrate up.

Dumb Tiffo. Really dumb. Repeat after me: this is NOT a race. This is NOT a race. And you still have just under 500km left to ride today.

Into the night

With that in mind I settled into a decent pace with Paul, and we set off into the night with a few other riders. My heart rate was still very very high, and I just couldn’t seem to calm it down. Paul mentioned that we were riding at the same pace, and maybe we could ride through the night together. I looked down at my Garmin: heart rate in the 160s. Same pace… gah I was dying. What was going on here?? I just smiled and said sure, why not, and hoped that I would settle down eventually.

We ended up hoping from group to group without really finding any one group with the right pacing, letting a few groups overtake us and overtaking a few ourselves, pulling into the first checkpoint in Villaines-La-Juhel just before 2am.

Where all they had to eat after I’d ridden 8 hours was pastry.

(Note: I’d had two Clif bars plus a baguette and a coke on the ride already)

Now don’t get me wrong. I love this kinda food. But after 8 hours of riding behind me and probably another four until the next checkpoint I was really craving some “real food.” So after getting my brevet card stamped, I loaded my plate up with a bowl of hot chocolate and a couple bits and pieces, ate my food, toped up my water bottles, re-applied chamois cream, and off we went.

And towards my ‘witching hour.’

For those who haven’t ridden overnight before, it’s a pretty surreal experience. Time loses meaning a bit, as your world shrinks down to the beam of light in front of you. I quite enjoy night riding, and find it rather peaceful. But I had one small worry.

The nods.

They hit me pretty solidly on my ‘practice 600’ with Thomas back in May (see the blog here if you’re interested) and while I didn’t quite fall off my bike napping, it was a close call. And I was even more concerned about ‘weaving all over the road’ in amongst so many other riders, so had already pre-thought out a plan to just pull over and nap if it got to that point. Paul had mentioned he got the sleepies too, so maybe we could just talk to each other through the night and try and stay awake. A good plan.

But alas, it wasn’t meant to be. With all the people around it was had to settle into that ‘peaceful drifting place’ as you had to constantly be watching the road ahead, as well as cognisant of the road behind (especially those velomobiles that would make quite the noise as they flew past!) so I didn’t get tired as my head was so busy looking around me all the time.

Then we got caught up in a bunch and our speed increased. I was tucked in behind some riders so was getting pulled along quite nicely, but not so for Paul, who was on the outside edge having to work a bit harder.

“The pace is a bit too hot for me” he called out. “Okay!” I yelled back and went to drop off… only to realise that the pace was actually quite good for me, so I stuck on and kept going, holding tight to the wheel in front of me who was a chap with the words “LOUDÉAC” across his backside. And off we went at what ended up being a perfect pace for me. Slower up the climbs so my heart rate didn’t sky rocket, and then ZOOM down the hills building up some great speed for the flatter bits. At first I thought I was the fifth rider in our little group, and was amazed at how close everyone was riding. And then I realised that the two on the front were on a tandem. THAT’S why the pace was so good! So the “five” of us weaved through groups on the descents and flats, and allowed them to overtake us on the climbs, and I worked smartly behind them up to checkpoint number 3.

(note: I followed up with Paul later, he finished in 74 hours 34 minutes)

Breve signed, water topped up, get some food, reapply chamois cream… ooooh that doesn’t feel good. Fark what was wrong down there? I’d “only” ridden 300kms and shouldn’t be hurting this badly? Quick check for chafing or sores… nothing. But man it hurt. Another handful of cream thrown on for good measure, and off to find where I had put my bike again.

Double checking I had everything and packing my bike up, a few of the volunteers came over for a chat. In French. Which was heaps fun to try and drag my school-girl French plus 12 months of Duolingo out of my sleepy brain to have this conversation. Eventually I realised they were asking where the group I was riding with was. Ahhh, no no, it’s just me. Tout seul? They asked in surprise. I nodded. Oooooh they all exclaimed, and with a few bon courages I was off. Only to see Fiona Kolbinger ride past and set off in front.

Repeat after me Tiffo: this is NOT a race. This is NOT a race!

Good morning, good morning!

The next stretch was only 54km and must be fairly unremarkable as I don’t remember it 🙂 But I do remember it felt pretty cold just before the sun finally came up, and that I arrived at the fourth checkpoint in Tinténiac shivering.

Brevet card, water, food, chamois cream, wince. Man there was something not quite right Find bike, keep riding. That had become my mantra. No messing around at controls, just get in, get what I needed, quick Instagram update, and get out. This checkpoint was also time to ‘reset the mind’: it wasn’t a 610km ride to Brest. It was a 360 and a 250, and I was now starting a new day.

But it didn’t mean that I wasn’t a bit tired around the edges.

To Loudéac and beyond!

Another leg, another chance to dance. And dancing I was: the “rando waltz” was coming on strong as I was starting to really hurt. But who cared about pain when there were so many people clapping and cheering along the roadside?! It really was incredible to see: families would line the roads with their kids, cheering ALLEZ ALLEZ! as you rode past. Groups of neighbours would have tables set out with water and food, just in case you were in need. And if you entered a town that had a rather steep climb to the centre (which I’m sure was every town we went through for the first 500km) you bet there would be people lined up at the top watching you (obviously not) struggle to get to the top, clapping as you approached, and yelling out words of encouragement as I rode past, fist in the air as I made sure I overtook some guy near the top, and a thumbs up and a wink to the kids who laughed as I went past.

Photo used with permission by Daniel Witzke

Yeah, this was magic.

Out on the roads between towns I found another tandem bike to follow as I knew their pacing would be spot on with mine, and off we went towards Checkpoint 5 in Loudéac at the 445km mark.

Riding in around lunch time I felt tired. Really tired. And HUNGRY!!! Apparently it was time for an extended break and time to eat all the food.

And have a nap. I was getting rather sleepy after all that food, and the tiredness was also increased by the pain that I was in, which wasn’t helping. So shoes off and feet up on a chair, and the alarm set for 7 minutes, I tipped my head against the wall for a short shut eye.

And then hit snooze and grabbed another 7 minute power nap.

Getting up from my chair I felt very very slow. And sore. There was something rather ouchy happening in my knicks and it didn’t feel quite right. But it wasn’t going to solve itself by me standing there and staring awkwardly at my crotch, so applying yet another handful of chamois cream I cowboy walked back over to my bike for the next leg. Oh, the plan for today? I was riding to Brest. First “day” was the full 612km leg. Brest or bust!

STOP! Secret Control

Pedal, pedal, pedal. Fark this was getting sore, and my own head was not really the distraction I needed. I can hang out in the “pain cave” of my mind for an awfully long time, but it isn’t my preference. I tried to start up conversations with people on the road, but it required a little bit of luck: first I needed to look at their jersey, or the flag on their bike tag to try and identify where they were from. And then of course that person would have to want to have a chat. Many times this ended up being a “where are you from, Canada? No, Australia. But your tag says Canada” etc etc. Eventually I learned how to say “I was born in Canada but I live in Australia” in French, which expedited this conversation at checkpoints as I had a few confused looks from those around me.

But I ended up going for long sections without seeing many riders, or seeing many riders that wanted to talk.

I had gone quiet. Very quiet.

And then I met Daniel.

Photo by Daniel Witzke (finishing time 73 hours 24 minutes)

Daniel, from Germany, was also riding his first PBP, and was also riding to Brest on his first leg. So we rode along quite contentedly together, until we got flagged into the ‘secret control’ at Nicolas-Du-Pelem, which was supposed to just be a food/water stop.

Extra stamp for me then! And a chance to sit down for more food and chats with Daniel before we eased ourselves back onto the bike for the next leg to Carhaix. Well, I eased myself on to the bike. Daniel looked like he had just started riding that morning and was fresh as a daisy.

One more leg, and we were in Carhaix. At this point we had 520km in our legs, and most of that had been with a fairly steady headwind. Nothing apocalyptic… but nothing silent either. Just steady. ALL. DAY. LONG.

90km to go… all headwind. HOORAY!!

Brevet card stamp. Water. Food. Chamois cream. Swearing. What the actual %&@# was going on down there? I didn’t even want to look at that stage, but it was unlike anything I’d ever had before, so just whacked on another handful of cream and headed out again.

Brest or bust

After about 10-20km it was clear that Daniel ‘froggy legs’ was feeling super good so off he went from the front of the pack and I didn’t see him again. So I ended up settling in with two American chaps, Wes and Branson, who were quite happy riding the same pace I was at. Well, ish. Branson was on a fixie (fixed gear bike) so was a little quicker up the start of the hills as he’d have to build momentum, and would have to spin like a little hamster on the downhills to keep up. But on average, we worked well together on what felt like a never ending climb towards Brest.

Gah how much longer was this climb going to be? I was really looking forward to going down this one tomorrow on my way back towards Paris that’s for sure! After an eternity we were finally at the top, and there was, yet again, a crowd of wonderful people at the top with tents, flags, and cheers. One women yelled out that she had “Coka!” (Coca Cola) and Wes decided that was a fabulous idea, so yelled at Branson and I to stop and take a break before our final flight into Brest.

Like a French Mary Poppins with EVERYTHING possible in these bags. Possibly even had the kitchen sink in here.

Absolutely cracking idea as we met this wonderful woman who was extremely enthusiastic about supporting the riders. She had almost everything you could possibly imagine in these cloth bags, so the three of us settled in for some cheese, chips, eggs from her chickens, and of course, cans of Coke. Reinvigorated, we headed towards Brest… with 10km of glorious, wonderful, DOWNHILL!!!

Though half way downhill it did occur to me that I’d have to face this in reverse the next morning on the way out of Brest…

But who cares now right? Live in the mofo moment and enjoy the free speed, swerving corners, and the joy of getting some speed happening with over 600km in the legs. As we began crossing the bridge into Brest, we could see lots of riders pulled over at various points along the bridge taking pictures. The three of us pulled over and I started lining up the bike for the “money shot” of arriving in Brest. Branson pulled up alongside me and said come on Tiff, I’ll take a pic of you. I handed him my phone, and he went to line up the pic. Hold on, no portrait mode? He tsked at me, and then took a few pictures with his phone, then airdropped them to me as we stood there. 21st century skills right there. However, Wes had started up the road (presumably to line up some sleeping accommodation for the two of them at the control) so Branson and I took a few more shots, and then headed towards the control.

Photo by Branson Kimball (finishing time 73 hours 21 min)

Where we got a little bit lost. Seriously, no signs? HERE?? We’d found that a few times along the route: when we really needed to see an arrow to point the way, they didn’t seem to be there. Even though many had suggested otherwise, I found having the course loaded into my GPS was super handy. So, switching screens to the map (and assisted by other riders yelling out from further up the road) we headed in the right direction. And up yet another climb…totally what we all needed at the end of the day!

As we approached the control I could hear quite a lot of commotion, and as we got closer I realised that commotion was for me! My husband Max and our two kids were madly waving flags and yelling out their special Tiffo chant:

Allez Tiffany! Allez Australie! Allez Tiffany! Allez Australie!!

Wooohoo! I had made it! Riding across the checkpoint sensor, and yelling back at my family that I would be just a minute, I parked my bike, ran (hahaha oh how we laughed) into the checkpoint to get my final stamp of the first booklet page, then headed back to find my family and get myself to our accommodation for the night (just around the corner).

I then set my alarm to go off in 4 hours and 30 minutes later: I only wanted to stop for 5 hours, and figured 30 minutes would be enough to get myself ready in the morning. I then unpacked the top of my bike bag, grabbed my Day 2 bag, and repacked it so my bike was all ready to roll in the morning. I then peeled off my rather icky bike kit and stuffed it in a large ziplock bag for washing later on. Then jumped in the shower.

And then screamed.

Something was most definitely wrong with my nether regions. It was time to pull out the ‘big guns’: the white wine vinegar.

Not. Even. Kidding.

This stuff is magic: I’d had one of the guys I used to ride with swear by it, saying it “saved his marriage” and I’ve used it since then. It feels like death, but it clears up any infection or cuts that might be sustained ‘down there’ and the next morning you can actually function.

So on went the vinegar.

Cue even more screaming. That poor pillow was taking a lot of abuse as I smothered it over my face in an effort to muffle the noise. I could hear my kids distress from the other room (them: what’s wrong with Mummy? Max: Vinegar time. Them: ah. That makes sense then). Not my first rodeo kids.

After finally calming down, Max brought me a bowl of “homemade” minestrone that he had fashioned from a few supermarket items, and it was perfect. I settled down and tried to catch a couple hours sleep before my alarm went off, which it did far too early for me, so I set another 30 minutes rest time, figuring I could make it up at controls along the way.

Part 2: Onwards and upwards

After a bit of faffing I got rolling around 4:30am and rode the couple hundred metres back to the control to get back en route. A bit of handwaving to indicate I was heading to Paris and not into the control, I was sent off with cheers of Allez Allez as I made my way solo into the dark of the early morning hours. I felt like I had been hit by a truck, but knew (or hoped?) that eventually I would warm up and feel a bit better. Or at least not feel much worse.

Time behind: 30 minutes

One of the interesting things about a ride of this size is that in the dark there are almost always lights around you. I could see a couple of red lights ahead, but wasn’t quite sure if I was up for “chasing the bunny” quite yet (see the Geelong Flyer blog on the bunny chasing story if you’re interested). After I got out of Brest and started heading back along the main road, I could see red lights in the distance in front of me, and white lights on the other side of the road coming towards me. Being alone yet surrounded by lights as the sun came up was a pretty amazing sight, and one that will stick with me on this journey.

The climb out of Brest wasn’t anything to worry about, which is what Simon Maddison had told me over beers a couple nights before we started. It was nice to have that confirmed, and I was quite happy to warm the legs up with a nice steady climb. And it was an absolute stunner of a morning. But as soon as I cleared the coast the temperature dropped, so I pulled over and grabbed another layer of clothing. That mist was cold!!

Cresting over the top I could see caravans parked on both sides of the road with tables of food and water set out for the riders set up again by people just wanting to help out and be a part of it. I chose a caravan manned by a young girl and her dad, and chatted with them briefly as I ate a piece of cake. Smiling and thanking them, I headed off for the downhill that I had been looking forward to, and made my way back to Carhaix for the first checkpoint of the day.

Time behind: 43 minutes

At Carhaix I decided it would be rude not to at least try a Paris-Brest pastry, so I grabbed a coffee and settled in for a quick break (after, yup, you guessed it, brevet card stamped, water bottles topped up, and then afterwards more chamois cream applied *dear god in heaven the pain!*).

The next stretch to Loudéac was 90km, which felt a lot like 90km of hurt. I was deep in the pain cave and needed to stay in there. No chatting, no taking pics, no nothing. Just me, owning my pain as best I could. Passing by Saint-Nicolas-du-Pélem someone had spray painted signs on the road passing the way, which was handy as I sort of felt like I had lost my way.

I was digging deep. Really deep.

And finally, the control point arrived. Taking a selfie revealed how I was feeling, so I posted on Instagram a pretty honest analysis of how I was getting through the ride.

It wasn’t pretty. But I was still moving forward, and that’s all I could do.

Time behind: 38 minutes.

One great thing though was all the enthusiastic dot watching cheers that I was getting from all over the world: one of the benefits of living and traveling overseas was that there was always someone awake and watching. Every time I pulled into a checkpoint (brevet card stamped, water bottles filled, food, chamois creme,) to stop for food I would have messages of support coming through. I had only turned WhatsApp and Instagram notifications on during PBP, but that was enough. And it was enough not to feel completely alone, because as I’ve written before, I’m not naturally a lone wolf. But due to circumstances beyond my control that’s how I was riding this one. And I had been solo for a long time.

Solo. And lonely. But not alone. Not with all the people I knew were ‘watching’ me as I travelled across France on my journey back to Paris.

I don’t care how you get here, just get here if you can

Over the next section my Garmin ticked past the 800km mark, which meant I was three quarters of the way done the entire event, and well over half way done my day.

And heeeeeey, finally some other riders! A group whizzed up around me, and I ended up getting drafted along with them. I decided the pace suited me pretty well, so I looked over, smiled and got a smile and a nod back, and I was in the bunch.

In the bunch with Meaghan Hackinen, who recently finished the NorthCape 4000 in 5th place. And also the first (and only) time I rode with a solo female cyclist.

Rolling along felt pretty painful, but at least it was distracting to see other wheels around me as we rolled along. There was a food stop at Quedilliac that I had allocated 25 minutes stopped to (on my timing spreadsheet for the day) but we were flying along so well that no one stopped. With cheers of Allez Allez! ringing in our ears, we waved and blew past the food stop on our way to Tinteniac, And there was the 25 minutes I had lost with my sleep in made up for. YES!!!

As you can see from Meaghan’s back pocket, she was packing “heat” in the form of a baguette. I decided that was a fantastic idea, and also one that would allow me a bit of time saving rolling through the next control at Tinténiac. So as soon as I arrived I went into “action” : brevet card stamped, water bottle shake… second one should be fine, chamois creme applied (so. much. not. right. down. there. #^%$ing h#!!), baguettes shoved in the back pocket, two cans of coke poured into my other water bottle… picture for instagram of course, and quickly back on the bike before my body could scream at me even louder that this was not a good idea and we really didn’t want to be riding anymore.

Time behind: 18 minutes

I slowly rolled out of the control, and settled into a pace that was easy enough for me to eat. Because as tempting as choking on a dry baguette and dying on the side of the road was at this point, I needed to keep moving. Because I was now on a mission to get to Fougères where my family and friends were waiting to join me for dinner! But that bottle full of coke was gone far too quickly, leaving me with not much water left at all. Thank goodness for French road angels, who I knew would most likely be along this route. And voila! At the top of one of the climbs was a bucket full of bottles of water. Merci beaucoup!!

But I was hurting. Really hurting. There seemed to be a stabbing pain just between my shoulder blades, and I had an overwhelming urge to lie down just to get some relief. But MUST GET TO FOUGÈRES because once I arrived I knew I could stop for the first time today. And whatever time I ‘wasted’ at this control didn’t matter as it was my last stop before Villaines-La-Juhel where I would be resting for the night.

I then saw some riders up ahead, and seemed to be gaining on them. Well that was a change! I’d been overtaken so many times today and hadn’t passed anyone! Looked like someone was even slower than me…. oh.

Yes that’s right folks. Even in struggletown I was still faster, even if only just, than a 10 year old on a bike.

It turned out that they were one of the PBP riders kids, and their friend was riding them on this stretch of the road so that they could ride with their Dad! So cool!!

But… so not cool. Because you can’t receive “outside support” on this ride. I tried in my ‘best French’ along with hand waving to explain this to the lovely gentleman who wanted to ride with them, and then dropped back behind them. A smart idea, because about 2 minutes later the “PBP police” came whizzing by on their bikes to have a word with their Dad.

Turns out he couldn’t ride with them. So off he went off the front, and I let them go ahead of me just a bit while I let my food settle. And then once the hills started rolling again on the small climbs into the next checkpoint I overtook them. Mostly because I was standing a lot at this point to get my bum off the bike, so I was glad for an excuse to climb for a bit.

I can’t be 100% certain, but I would guess my arrival into Fougères was probably the noisiest one they had had all day. Possibly all event. Three adults and four enthusiastic kids armed with Australian flags sure does make a lot of noise, and there were many grins from the ‘crowd’ as I limped into the control.

With hugs for the kids and from the adults (seriously? I’m so gross why do you want to hug me?!?!!? Also… don’t let go too quickly as I may just fall over) I tried to unpack my bike and make sure I stuck to my routine… which went right out the window with all the noise and excitement. So much so that I went into the control (brevet card stamped first!) and forgot my water bottles. And my wallet. So instead of making me limp back to my bike, Max went back and topped up my bottles for me. But the idea of food at this point did not look nearly as appealing as the floor did, so off I waddled ‘cowboy style’ over to the wall and laid down, feet up on the wall, back and shoulders flat against the floor. My neck and shoulders were really starting to hurt.

Max came over for a chat. “How’re ya doing Tiffo?” he asked. I just looked at him. “That good eh?” I slowly nodded. “Just one more control and you’re done for the day” he promised, and I gave him a weak smile. My friend Lew came over to have a chat as well. “You’re walking kinda funny” he observed. “Feeling okay? I haven’t seen anyone around here walking like you are” I suggested that perhaps while accurate, his observation wasn’t particularly helpful, and he chuckled. “You’re not dead yet if you’re still making jokes.” Sad smile. “You may feel like you’re a mess, but you are a machine! Hang in there!!”

After quite awhile I slowly rolled over, got up, and headed back to the table to try and get some food in me. A quick look at my giant pot of chamois creme revealed potential trouble: I was nearly out. And still had 290km to go. Joy. Just then a guy walked up to me with a big smile. Hey! You made it! He grinned, and then unzipped his jacket to show me his jersey. I grinned back and he walked away.

Max and Lew looked at me with surprise. I just shrugged. I get that all the time I said, and smiled. That’s right, I had NO IDEA what just happened (and to be fair my tired brain took another hour before it let me know that ‘that guy’ was the man riding with the kids that had chatted to me earlier, and was showing me his jersey because he thought I’d recognise it).

I could see the adults starting to look nervously at each other. What? I asked. You need to get going Tiffo they suggested, can’t sit here all day. I just looked at them. Guys, this is the first time all day that I’ve properly sat down and had a break, I’ve been pushing through controls all day just so I could spend some time with you guys. They smiled. And then told me to get back on the bike.

Time behind: 11 minutes

Do not go gentle into that good night

It was dark by the time I left to ride the last 90km of the day. I had suggested to Max that given my speeds it would take me around 4.5 hours to complete this last leg, and that realistically he should expect me around 2am, so about 20 minutes after my spreadsheet suggested. I was feeling physically terrible, but mentally pretty good as I was still relatively close to my anticipated time, so my “A game goal” was still feasible.

But did I mention that physically it had all gone to s#*!?

As I rode along in the darkness, my head started to drop. I’d raise my eyes to the horizon and the road in front of me… and then it would drop down again. Damn, I thought, I must be super tired right now. Maybe a short nap on the side of the road would be a good idea? I started staring longingly at patches of grass, mentally assessing the feasibility of their level of comfort. I rode through another village and waved weakly at the couple standing in the darkness cheering on riders, and decided that “that” patch of grass up there alongside a stone wall looked pretty perfect. I could still see the lights from the village, but was just outside where they were shining.

I set my alarm for 10 minutes, pulled my buff up and over my eyes, and laid down for a short nap. But fark it had gotten cold all of a sudden, and after a few minutes sleep I awoke shivering. Propping myself up to a sitting position, I rested my head on my knees and tried to sleep for the next 5 minutes until my alarm went off. Only to find that while I had been dozing, a lovely couple had seen me from the window in their home and decided to come over and check on me. So lovely… but then more time wasted trying to explain to them that yes I was okay, yes I was tired, no I didn’t need food, yes their offer of a bed to sleep in was VERY tempting but I needed to push on. Merci Merci au revoir and I was back on the bike.

And my head started dropping again.

There’s “not ideal” and then there’s “dangerous”, and in hindsight I was riding a very fine line between the two. I first started riding by just propping my chin up on my right fist, but the pain in my arm, shoulder, and back as they took the additional strain meant that this was not a sustainable strategy. And the exhaustion, combined with intense physical pain, was taking a hard toll on my mental state of mind.

And then I saw the light.

I rolled into Rogue Paul’s creperie in the same way that knights from days of yore rode into Camelot: a city that they had only heard about and didn’t believe could be real. As I got off my bike, a young girl came over and smiled at me as she took my bike and propped it against the wall. I stumbled over to the counter: coffee? Crepes? Sugar? Yes. I replied, and near instantaneously I had a crepe full of sugar and a coffee in my hands. Inhaling both, I felt life creep back into my weary soul. Raising my eyes a little, I could see that someone had placed themself directly in front of me. I looked up and made eye contact: “C’est toi!” they exclaimed happily. Ummmm…. yes, it’s me? Ahhh it’s you!! The guy from earlier with the kids (and who had flashed me his jersey at the last control point). He was hanging out at the control and was super excited that I had made it. Rapidly speaking in French to all around him, he gestured excitedly at me.

Let’s just say that one coffee and a crepe combined with an exhausted mental state did not make me a better French speaker. But somehow I was able to follow along with him, and I repeated some of the phrases slowly back to him, asking him to explain in English.

He said he was telling them about this ‘solo warrior woman’ who he had ridden with who was riding PBP all by herself and had smashed him up the hills. I just smiled. Smashed eh? But it did the trick, they all gathered around me excitedly, and I got another coffee and crepe. Smiling over at the young lady who brought my bike back over again, I left to cheers of Bon Courage and off again into the night I went.

Only to have my head drop again after 500m.

Right, we needed a better strategy then continuously holding my head up with my hand. Setting the Garmin to map mode, I noted that if the road ahead of me was straight, I really didn’t need to see it. So I could let my head drop, and as long as I kept the white lines of the road in my peripheral vision I was riding in a relatively straight line. I also found that if I stood up on the bike, the new position would lift my head enough that I could see the road ahead. Okay, so now I had the flats and the hill climbs sorted. Check the road. Head down. Take 10 breaths and count each one. Lift my head up with my chin, assess the road in front. Head down, 10 breaths, lift head up with chin, check road. Repeat.

But on the descents this wasn’t ideal, and I had to strain to try and hold my head up to see ahead of me. So I figured I didn’t really need to pedal downhill, and that I could coast it and prop my chin up the entire time for some relief. Slipping my body slightly off the saddle so that my right knee came up a little higher, I propped by elbow on my knee, and my head on my chin. Instant relief!! It looked something like this:

Photo by Douglas O’Brien from Canada – IMGP2543, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41150509

I was channeling “Le Penseur” by Rodin, albeit with clothes on. Quite a few layers on actually, it was fairly chilly again. I’m sure I looked very philosophical as I whizzed downhills at 45km/h, pondering the mysteries of life as I learned how to be an excellent one handed descender the dark.

But it kept me moving, even if I was going slower than a wet week.

Putting a playlist on my phone and playing the music from my back pocket (headphones are illegal in France) I pondered my way through many little villages in the early hours of the morning. I’m sure the music that I’d chosen wasn’t really appropriate to be playing at that time of day, though one could easily ask what kind of music would be okay. But it kept me awake, and it kept me moving. One more hot chocolate at a roadside party to keep me moving as I hoped from street party to street party, attempting not to descend into madness as I made my way forward.

And finally I arrived in Villaines. At 3:45am. About 2 hours after I had suggested I would get in. My “A-game” time was now shot to pieces as it had me leaving again at 6:30. I tried to explain to Max what was happening to me as I ate the pot noodles he lovingly made me, and we made an assessment that perhaps I needed some rest. Knowing I had set aside 8 hours for emergencies, I agreed to this plan and we set the alarm for a little later in the morning, hoping to get me on the road before 9am.

I was even too tired to scream in the shower.

I can’t even describe the intensity of the desire I had to NOT get back on my bike and do this again tomorrow.

Time behind Plan A: 2 hours 12 minutes

Time left to complete Plan B: 18.5 hours

Distance completed: 1013km, with 206km left to ride.

Speaking words of wisdom, let it be

The alarm went off and I looked at Max through my swollen puffy eyes. Come on Tiffo, let’s go down and get some breakfast. Our Air BnB host was absolutely lovely as she brought us coffee and croissants, homemade yogurt and jams, and I tried to put some food in me and muster some enthusiasm fore the day. I felt like someone had driven an icepick into the back of my shoulder blades, and let’s not even mention the fact I just could not sit down on the bike.

At. All.

Which was kind of okay, as it meant that I could see the road in front of me. For about 1km and then my neck collapsed again.

The only way is forward. And the only way I could move forward was with the same strategy as I had the night before. Ten breaths at a time. One road section at a time. My Garmin would say “in 6.5km turn left” and my entire world would be reduced to riding those 6.5km. I couldn’t look any further ahead than that. Eventually all those “6.5km” stretches added up and I reached the first checkpoint of my day in Mortagne-au-Perch.

Brevet. Water. Food. No chamois creme as it was all gone by this point.

“Not just working my cute angles 🙈 but legitimately how I’m getting though this ride. Neck is so tired it doesn’t want to hold my head up anymore, so I’m “self supporting” as much as can.
120km to go.”

The feedback on Instagram suggested what I’d been scared to think of for awhile now: Shermer’s neck.

Simply put, Shermer’s Neck is a condition where the neck muscles fail from fatigue and can no longer support the head. It is not gradual either; after feeling the first symptoms, the neck will usually stop functioning within two hours.

https://www.welovecycling.com/wide/2017/08/10/creepiest-cycling-condition-shermers-neck/

Two hours later I had had enough. I was still 30km from the next checkpoint in Dreux, and the pain coupled with exhaustion just overtook me. Making sure no other riders were around, I pulled over on the side of the road.

And lost it.

Like, LOST IT.

I raged. I raged in frustration. In anger. In pain. I raged at the road conditions (seriously, what’s with all the freaking potholes!?). I raged that my body was failing me. And I screamed and cried that I just wanted it to be over.

Didn’t take any selfies of that one.Okay Tiffo. Deep breaths. If you can just figure out how to ride with two hands on the handlebars you’ll get moving a lot faster. How can you get your head supported while not using your hands? I looked down. Water bottle. Brilliant!

I emptied one of my water bottles and took the lid off. Turning it upside down, I unzipped my top and propped it against my chest. Instant relief… and better yet I had two hands! And power back! Wooo hooo we were on the move!!

And then another @#%$#^&^%*^%&*^%#$%@#$!@# french pothole. Bang, off goes the water bottle and down goes my head.

Another mild losing of my s#*! on the side of the road.

Come on Tiffo, what would MacGyver do? I sat and thought. And thought. And thought some more. And stared at my saddle bag in hopes that the answer would come to me.

And it did. Taking one of my arm warmers, I fashioned a sling by tying it across my bra straps. Then using the buff I had for overnight warmth, I rolled it up and used it as a cushion. The sling helped keep the water bottle high enough that my head wouldn’t drop, and using my top zipped up meant I could even stand for a bit without it dropping down again.

When you’re going through hell, a Hells500 buff will get you home.

Time to time trial. My speed increased on average by 2km/h, and I flew into the checkpoint that I never thought I’d reach.

Parking my bike, a lovely woman ran up to me and asked if she could take a photo. Something in my eyes must have alerted her, and she asked quietly “ça va?”. And I burst into tears. I cried. I ugly cried. And I couldn’t stop. It had taken me 4.5 hours to ride 78km, and upon reaching Dreux I knew that I could do it. I could reach the end of PBP.

And once I started crying I couldn’t stop.

Volunteers appeared from everywhere, asking if I needed help. If I had an emergency. If I needed a doctor. If I needed to sleep. I just kept saying that I was okay, just tired over and over and over again as I got my brevet card stamped and walked inside the building.

Turning my phone on messages were flying in from everywhere as people realised how close I was to the finish.

And at this point I didn’t care how awful I looked. I peeled my knicks off my unbelievable sore lady bits and walked, legs near fully spread and knicks held as far away from me as possible, to get some food and a drink.

And ran into an Australian angel. Who sat with me and talked for nearly an hour until I had gathered up enough courage to continue the fight.

After I was feeling more composed, I went back outside to get my bike, and the same woman asked if she could now take a picture, promising that she’d send it to me via Facebook messenger later. Which she did.

Arm across my chest to hide the weird looking sling contraption still attached to my bra

All roads lead to Paris

The last 40km is a blur. A blur of pain. Of determination. Of shear will power to keep moving forward. And of me swearing quite profusely at the French road conditions. Who knew the f-word could be conjugated and strung together in so many different ways?

For the last year all roads have led to France. Every training ride. Every qualifier. Every test ride.
And now, finally, I’m on the very last road to Paris.

The last section of the route had been changed the week before, and while I had loaded it into my Garmin it had an error in the file, so I was riding ‘blind’ hoping that I was heading in the right direction. While I could lift my head a little higher by shrugging my shoulders, I still couldn’t really see more than a couple metres in front of me, so it was quite literally head down get it done over these last kms.

And then I was close. Very close. The streets changed to tree lined, and I could see cars parked alongside the road. I pulled over to check the distance left, and figured I was close enough to remove my mock neck brace. Yes, my ego was NOT going to allow me to complete PBP like this.

Yes, I know. Stupid ego.

So I unhooked the water bottle, sling, and tucked everything away and headed towards the finish line. Which to be honest was a bit anti-climatic. Getting into Dreux was really the biggest fight I had, so arriving at the finish line was, for me, a given. Also, the never ending meander through the caravan parks, through pedestrians, through riders coming back the other way, and through the campground was super frustrating. WHERE WAS THE FINISH LINE ALREADY??

My Garmin had re-found the route and let me know it was about 700m away, so I pulled over to text Max and co to let them know I was close. So they better get ready as I was coming in!!

Up, up, up, there it was! I could see the finish line arching across the road… and I was through! Chin in hand, I rolled my way through the banner… only to realise that the checkpoint sensors weren’t there and I needed to keep going. So up and out of the saddle I went (so that I could see in front of me!) and over the cobbles.

WHO PUTS COBBLES AT THE FINISH LINE?

My neck was bopping around like a limp chicken at this point, but I knew if I tried to take my hand off the handlebars or slowed down even a little bit there was a good chance I’d fall off my bike. I could hear Max yelling behind me but I couldn’t turn to look.

Finally I was past the cobbles, and I felt … wet? Turns out Lew had been chasing me down with a bottle of champagne and he finally caught me on the cobbles and got to hose me down.

Finally crossing the sensors, I stopped, and put my foot off the bike. Max ran over with the camera as Lew hit me with the champagne one more time and the kids screamed their heads off. Max then put the phone down and gave me a monster hug.

That finishers feeling: 76 hours and 38 minutes

After wine soaked hugs all around, I walked over to the tent to get my final brevet card stamped. On my walk over, Damian ran over with yells of YOU LEGEND. Daniel had waited around at the finish line to cheer me in as well. Sam (who rode part of the Geelong Flyer 1000 with us) wasn’t able to finish PBP himself so stuck around to see me finish. And other people clapped as I walked past. I felt like a legend.

Final Stats

  • Distance: 1224.59km with 11,318 vertical
  • Elapsed time: 76 hours 38 minutes
  • Moving time: 54 hours 20 minutes
  • Average speed: 22.5 km/h
  • Average heart rate: 130
  • Calories burnt: 16,347
  • Average temperature: 16 degrees
    • Highest temperature: 33 degrees
    • Lowest temperature: 6 degrees

Post-script

Would I do it again? What was wrong with my saddle area? Will my neck be okay? Those are the three most common questions that keep coming up.

Would I do it again? Probably too soon to ask, the randonesia hasn’t kicked in yet. But Damian is already planning for 2023, so chances are if we can make it work we’ll do it again. But maybe this time I’ll take a bit more time and try and enjoy it more.

Saddle area: while I’m ‘not that kind of doctor’ my best guess is that I had labial hypertrophy, which was exacerbated by the cut out in my saddle. Pressure causes swelling and once things are out of balance, a vicious cycle can quickly exasperate the problem and cause major discomfort. Every time I stood up off the saddle those last 200km I ripped a layer of skin off as I tried to get my chamois away from my body. I had this from about 300 kms, so imagine riding for another 900+kms and you’ll start to grasp what was going on. Or maybe not. In fact, I’m hoping you never understand the pain that was happening, because I don’t know if I’d wish that on anyone. But let’s just say I’ll be doing some new saddle testing when I get back home. Because it’s been over a week and I’m still sore.

https://www.cyclinguk.org/saddlepain

And my neck? It’s been 10 days since PBP and it’s still tired. I can now go for an entire day without having to rest it against a wall though, so every day it gets a little better. But again, it’s something that I’ll be looking at with my osteo and massage therapist when I get home. Because the bruise under my chin from the water bottle isn’t something I want to repeat either.

But we all know it’s not worth me saying never again. Because I say that all the time.

And I never really mean it.

Caption by grade cycling

31 thoughts on “Paris-Brest-Paris 2019

Add yours

  1. Gasp! I’m exhausted already.
    I’ve read a lot of stories about PBP and this one has a bigger affect due to knowing you.
    Guts and determination.
    Be sure I’ll be pointing others to this remarkable story.
    Thank you Tiffany Winchester.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ingrown hairs n saddle saws, and I can’t sit down in the saddle but I simply can’t believe that you didn’t give up, given what you had to endure. Oh Tiff thanks for this account. I really needed to hear it and now I feel so shy of you. I have such respect for you, I could cry. Words simply can’t fathom what you have accomplished, what you are capable of. And here was I worried about your foot!!! I think it’s not the distance, it’s the pain you endured. It’s a remarkable person who can do that. I’m so sorry it happened but finishing is a catch in the bag. A big fish. Done. What ever you do or don’t do. I still can’t believe it. Love you and Thankyou. A real life super hero. Wow. 😮💥

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I loved reading your story.
    Thanks for sharing.
    I was along these roads to support my brother, and I am since then overwhelmed by the human stories inside the ride. Like yours.
    Congrats and respect, Tiffany.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Congratulations on your ride. Your mental and physical fortitude, determination, and grit are inspiring; a model for conquering whatever hurdles life puts in our way. Thank you for sharing your story.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Awesome, Tiffany- super ride report! It was my honor to meet you and share some of that epic ride with you. Wish I would have met your family but maybe next time? À bientôt

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Most detailed and expressive PBP report I’ve ever read. Congratulations on overcoming (nearly) insurmountable pain. You did it!!! The 2nd PBP is easier. Go for it.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Gosh Tiffany, that was a hell of an epic ride! Chapeau. Congratulations on a hard-earned and fast finish at Paris-Brest-Paris. During the event I saw four types of neck braces being used. Since Shermer’s Neck seems so difficult to prevent, I had a contingency plan to hold my head up, but thankfully never needed it. My posture is more upright than yours, based on photos of your bike (handlebar height to saddle height). That might make a difference. Not sure if this helped, but I wired lead fishing weights to the underside of the brim of my helmet. Kept them there for months and removed them just before PBP. You clearly have a Super family!! It must have been great to see loved ones at some controls. Again, well done madam. Great write-up.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Joseph, interesting technique with the extra weight training! So hard to say what went wrong with PBP, as the long rides I’d done before with the same set up never had the same issues (and I’ve done a 1200 since then with the exact setup and no issues). May have just been unlucky, or a whole bunch of 1% differences added up. Thanks for the congrats, much appreciated!

      Like

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