Preparation went well. All the qualifier brevets I rode had a lot of elevation to cover. I had over 8000 km in the legs. The bike had had its yearly maintenance. The bag setup was fine. If anything, I was ready for my second Paris Brest Paris, the legendary 1200 km ride.
As it goes with second times, you have a rough idea, some memories of how the ride goes. But I have to admit I forgot a lot as well. For instance, the length and the grade of some of those climbs surprised me again. Luckily other things were exactly as I’d remembered: the camaraderie leading up to the start, the ever-present cheering and support by locals along the road and the feeling of living truly in the moment. As from the start I reset my focus to three simple tasks: ride, eat and sleep. I took pictures along the way and shot some short videos, but I couldn’t be bothered with posting on social media for instance. Only the odd message home left my smartphone during those 3 days of being on the road. It felt good.
An advantage of starting my second PBP was that I truly enjoyed every second of it, even the nervous first 50 km of the ride, when the wind was giving everyone a hard time trying to hang on to a good spot in the bunch. It was good fun.
I started in the G group, along with quite a few Belgians, amongst whom my main man Karel who was anxious to start his first PBP. Other Belgians included the randonneurs.be president Frank and two of our ladies, Ilse and Liesbeth. They would all finish in time (congrats!).
So we were chatting up as all of a sudden we started. I was not aware we were about to start. So I quickly reset my gps as we started pedalling and off we were. Compared to 4 years ago I must say the new start location was far better and made for a less nervous first few kilometers. With the short hill directly after leaving the ‘Bergerie Nationale’ the group got stretched out a bit as well. I liked that.
As I said, enjoyed the racy first part a lot. Also because along the way I already high fived a lot of spectators. Atmosphere was great. And then I had to stop to pee. As I set of a minute later there were no more other riders in sight. The group I was in was obviously gone, but apart from a lonely tandem there was no one coming up behind me either. Very odd feeling after just 50 km in a ride with over 6000 participants. So I rode on by myself for almost an hour before a group started closing in on me. And not totally unexpected it was Frank leading the pack. I was happy to stick with Frank for the remaining kilometers to Mortagne. We reached Mortagne at nightfall.
Karel, Frank and I rode together to Villaines, the first control on the way out. Nice pace, enjoying the nighttime calm, the star lit sky, the bright moon, big group forming behind us... A rather uneventful stage.
At Villaines I somehow lost my buddies after getting the control stamp. Thought they were already outside when they were not. Ate the food that I had prepared for the night, filled my bottles. And as they still hadn’t returned to their bikes I decided to already move on towards Fougères. Figured they would catch up by the time we got to Fougères.
Just like last time the nightride towards Fougères proved to be a tough one. Started with great legs and found an English rider with whom I took turns at the head. Riding a great pace, understanding each other without saying a word. Loved it. With 40 km to go to Fougères however, I decided to stop for a quick snack, just to avoid bonking later on. As I stood there I saw Frank pass me in a small group. Tried to catch them, but failed. Somehow, I did not drop into a good pace again and started struggling somewhat. That’s when I met Carol, born in New-Zealand living in the States. We had a lovely chat and before we knew it we reached Fougères at dawn. Thank you Carol! Was great talking to you.
In Fougères I ate a lot and met up with Frank again and my other main man Olivier (who passed me on the way to Fougères without me noticing). Frank was going to take a quick nap. Taking into account the headwind, Olivier and I decided to try and ride together. And so started a long day in the saddle towards Brest, taking turns up front and trying to find good groups to ride with. Between Tinteniac and Carhaix we spent a lot of time riding with two Americans (Minnesota randonneurs if I remember correctly) who were riding very strong. With the offer of helping out by doing our part of the work on the front, we were welcome to ride along.
With this steady pace we managed to reach the top of Roc’H Trevezel as the sun set. Magical moment. Olivier stopped for the night in Sizun. I pushed on and reached Brest at 23h. 610 km done, time for some sleep. Compared to 4 years ago (when I had to wait for over an hour for a bed) the dorm was now very well organized. Within 15 minutes I had a bed for the night. I slept very well and got up at 4. Ate a lot again and just before 5 I was on my way to Paris.
Stopped for a lovely second breakfast in Sizun and made it to the top of le Roc at sunrise. Magical again. Crossing vast amounts of riders who were making their way to Brest. The goal for the day was to reach Fougères (at around 900km) and get some sleep there. During the day Olivier closed the gap on me again. Together we teamed up with a young French guy who was riding very strong. We reached Fougères in good time. As we rolled into the control Olivier noticed his rear tyre was going flat. No problem, he’d fix it in the morning before setting off again. Time for some sleep first.
Sorry enough, sleeping at Fougères turned out to be a disaster. Four years ago you got a wool blanket, this time you got a space blanket. In a room with 9 to 10 randonneurs those things made a lot of noise. As a result I didn’t sleep for one minute. In retrospect, I should have left earlier and pushed on. Lying there felt like a waste of time. We got up at 3. I ate a lot as Olivier fixed his rear tyre. Our French partner also had a bad night and decided to get going with us again.
The three of us set of in a strong pace, picking up a lot of other riders. However, the fun was short lived as Olivier’s rear tyre went flat again. So there we are, on a roundabout in the dark. Getting cold fast. Not ideal to say the least. Luckily there were some spectators near and one came to check if he could help out. And he had a floor pump! Hooray! Still, the tyre change took longer than expected as we did not find a piece of stone or glass in the tyre. Consequently Olivier decided to put on a new tyre. And so another problem manifested itself: it would not fit the rim. In the mean time I did manage to find a little piece of glass in the original tyre: we could use it again without worries. The lucky break we needed to get going again. Time to warm up by trying to fly up a climb. By the time we almost reached Villaines I had to let Olivier and our French buddy ride as I could not keep up the pace on the last ascents before the control. In Villaines I ate a lot again, because the best part of the riding is the eating :-) Around 200 km left to go.
What I remember of the stage to Mortagne is that it was hard! I could not keep up with Olivier as we reached the hills of the Perche region. As I approached the control in Mortagne I felt really nackered. I was even thinking of taking a short nap. But food first, a lot of it of course. Met up with Olivier again and talked a bit with Babs (Frank’s wife) which lifted my spirits. Felt a lot better as I went back out to the bike. As I left the control building Karel just arrived. We hadn’t seen each other since I left Villaines on the way out to Brest. He put in a terrific effort to close the gap on Olivier and me. It further lifted my spirits. And it also became clear that the three of us would finish closely together.
Olivier left 5 minutes before I set off for Dreux. Karel needed a decent meal and would follow asap. I felt really good. I had power again! Saddle sores were starting to manifest itself, but nothing dramatic. I was picking up a lot of riders and made good speed once the Perche hills were behind us. Coming into Dreux I damned the crappy road surface (that hurt!). In the control I met up with Olivier again. As the two of us left Dreux, we knew we would get to the finish before dark. Great!
The last few kilometers to the finish were so much better than those of the previous edition: nice and calm forest roads. However, arriving at the Bergerie was a bit of a disappointment as we had to navigate through a busy parking lot in order to get to the finish, with lots of riders coming back in the other direction. Over the huge cobbles, through the gravel courtyard, done! Yes, done! 74h34m. 2 hours faster than four years ago. I am a happy randonneur.
Enjoyed the meal offered by the organisation. It tasted great, as did the beer. Karel arrived just a little later. The Randonneurs Leuven reunited. An hour after finishing we were glad to be able to take the train back to our Airbnb. My legs were feeling like concrete blocks. I even had trouble to get out of a chair. After my first shower since the start I hit bed and slept like a baby. Gratitude.
The next day we went back to the Bergerie to share in the joy of other Belgians reaching the finish. It was great to see all of them and share stories. A lovely way to end a beautiful ride.
See you all in four years.