Paris-Brest-Paris August 2011

A 1230 kilometre journey by bike from Guyancourt near Versailles, to the far western tip of France at Brest…. and back all within a 90 hour time limit. This event is so much more than a long bike ride.  The French people embrace us, the participants from 65 countries, with their roadside support. They honour us and our endeavour by their presence at all hours of the day and night. We return every four years to enjoy this great atmosphere which celebrates long distance cycling.

Starting with the last of the 90 hour group at 21.30 on a balmy Sunday evening, there is a frisson of anticipation in the air. We are not ‘going for a time’, I suspect that most of this large gathering are looking forward to savouring the unique hospitality of the French people as we traverse Normandy and Brittany. 5000 odd participants line up for the 17th Paris-Brest-Paris. Into which black hole has the time disappeared since the last renewal four years ago ? How quickly have the hours, minutes and seconds sped by as I have fretted over the bike, the tyres,  what clothes to take with, what tools to carry and all the other paraphernalia associated with cycling 1230kms in a maximum time of 90 hours.

But I have an ace up my sleeve. As an ‘ancien’ deux fois, I know that my morale will never drop due the uplifting support of the French people who will line the route, and the camaraderie and bonds with other riders that will be formed en route. Nevertheless, there is an edgy, nervous tension as we queue  for the 21.00 start. Small talk reveals lurking fears and worries. Many are recording the occasion on  digital cameras. A fellow rider has an incredibly loose spoke in his rear wheel  which I manage to tighten up and true before we pass through the start line. And then we are off at 21.20, into the gloaming. Mourijn, Emma and the Sudells are cheering like crazy as we approach the first roundabout. A great send off. But within 200 metres I have managed to unship my chain and get it stuck in the crank. To compound matters, I manage to break my map holder whilst dismounting from the bike. Oh Shame! Soothing words from Philip Sudell bring calm to bear on the situation, and within seconds the chain is back on the chainrings and we are chasing down the pack.

For the next 10 kms as the route takes us out of Paris’s magnetic field, we are clapped and cheered by roadside spectators and by others on flyovers  and bridges. A group of about 30 has formed, the pace is steady, but after all these months of waiting and training, it is hard to be conservative.  We ramp it up a notch and head out into the dimly lit villages on the edge of town.  Montigny, Trappes, Elancourt and Jouars come and go. Small groups of onlookers  in each town shout “ Bon courage!” and “ Bon route!”.   As we are submerged into proper darkness, the only sounds that can be heard are the musical strains of bicycle chains and rubber on tarmac. Montfort L’Amaury and the old Norman town of Gambais whizz by. The red lights of an earlier group can be spied in the distance. The leaders up the pace a touch and soon we are upon our prey. A bigger group forms, more villages are passed through, only to be re-visited in three days. Just after Gambais, a steep little hill smashes our  group to smithereens just as it has done to the waves of riders that have already come this way on this, the first day of Paris-Brest-Paris 2011.

And within a thousand breaths we are far out into the countryside, on our quest. Carefully laid plans have already been discarded. Groups come and go. The thrill of riding up to a peloton, sitting in on their coattails for a brief respite, and then feeling good enough to march straight on to the next throng of red lights, is a thrill that is hard to resist on a bike. The body feels no pain, the  logical mind is sedated with endorphins. To be “in the zone” is a wondrous experience. Just where does the brash energy and raw power come from? What is it for? How long will it last? Maybe it is the fruits of all the training and preparation, or maybe it is just wild excitement! Who gives a care? Just use it and enjoy it. After a couple of hours, some fellow riders have become recognisable. There’s the slim Contador look alike on a road bike with hub gear. He’s riding in uneven bursts, sometimes off the front and sometimes fading back. A big bald-headed guy with a Carradice bag has been powering along near the front and a sportive type cyclist with minimal gear has been sitting in third or fourth wheel for quite a few kilometres. We catch a huge group of riders and I hook up again with Aussie Paul McCrossin. This is his first PBP, but he’s a very strong boy and having a whale of a time. There must be one hundred randonneurs  at this party, carving their way through the darkness. Suddenly on a swift right hand downhill bend, one of the bikes goes down. The rider sits up quickly and is attended to by a couple of colleagues, but it looked bad. Several of the Phillipino girls from Davids Salon are in this group. Perhaps the group is too big, and a few of us press on and pull away after  Tremblay-les-Villages.

The next few kms to Chateauneuf-en-Thymerais are reasonably flat and open. Once again there is a large group about 800m ahead. We seem to be catching them rapidly, a bit too rapidly actually, they have stopped for a group piss! Must be a French club team.  We have nearly completed 90kms in just over 3 hours. My water bottles are nearly empty, and the cool night air lapping gently against bare arms and legs suggests that additional clothing will be required. The Sports Bar in Chateauneuf is closed. However  its neon lights still illuminate the main street.  But it is never closed to us randonneurs, the proprietors are only too happy to re-fill our bottles, sell us coffee and look after us every four years. A few minutes off the bike to gear up, eat up and stretch out. Another big group comes along, can’t miss this one! Paul and brother Mark are in this posse, as we set off towards Senonches through the French cornfields. I’m feeling really sleepy as the congregation plods on. The fact is that they are just too slow! They miss a left turn and suddenly we are a smaller group, galvanised into wakefulness by having to do a bit more work. After Senonches we hit the hills on the way to Longny-au-Perche. It’s tough going after the flatlands, Paul and Mark are really quite strong, and their steady pace on the hills overhauls many other riders. I hang onto them for dear life and finally begin to find some climbing legs. Don’t want to burn out though and settle down to keep my own pace. Some tough little pulls after Longny, and then the lights of the fortress town of Mortagne, at 140kms, can be seen twinkling in the distance like the tassles on a lap dancer’s titties. Mortagne is our first proper food and water control, though it is not necessary to get the card stamped.

It’s pretty crowded and we have covered the distance in just over 5 hours. It’s now 2.35 a.m. I planned a 15 minute stop. Now things have changed, as my riding partner Philip Sudell does not arrive until 3.10. He’s not feeling too good and it’s important that Paul and Mark  get on with their ride, so they split. Philip needs time, but we’ve sacrificed quite a lot at this early stage, even though we have caught riders who started 90 minutes ahead of us. We leave Mortagne at 3.50, but it’s soon clear that Philip is struggling with tiredness. After 24kms we crash out for a 25 minute sleep near a roundabout at Mamers. A little refreshed we tackle the hilly drags beyond Mamers. Ideally we would have been here 2 hours ago, but we are a two man team and we will face the vicissitudes of the ride in tandem. That’s all well and good, but I am dying for a coffee, and the café at Fresnay -sur-Sarthe beckons.

Ploughing on steadily we reach the long straight road leading up the rise to the sharp right hand turn to Villaines. The café sits on the corner, and the coffee tastes good. Briefly out of the bubble that is PBP, we can sit and watch the exertions of our brethren. Most look bushed after a night on the road, and some come to join us for breakfast. I pay the bill and tell the owner that we’ll be back at 10p.m on Wednesday. It’s a rolling profile to Villaines-la-Juhel at 221kms. The pain in my knee disappears when I pedal and comes back when I freewheel. How strange is that? Easy to cure though…..just keep pedalling! I am not a particularly strong cyclist, but enjoy a really good spell into the control and arrive there a few minutes before Philip. Even at 8.20 in the morning, there is a good crowd and a great reception. We are honoured by the townspeople. It dispels our tiredness and lifts our spirits. All the volunteers are cheerful and positive. They are on our side. Another breakfast, attention to personal hygiene and clothing modifications taken care of, and we are on our way traversing more rolling terrain. There’s  a good climb awaiting us at Hardanges, and many riders attack it rather too soon.  It leads to the dangerous crossroads at Le Ribay followed by the bumpy surface and hilly road to Charchigne. It starts to rain and we dodge into a bar in Lassay-les-Chateau for more coffee and a chinwag with LEL organiser Danial, and fixed gear hero Alex. On with the waterproofs and out into the weather. It has become a pretty grim experience now. Even the mayor of Gorron has taken shelter.

At Levare there is a makeshift gazebo at the top of a windy and wet hill. Two young girls are handing out terrific tasting coffee and biscuits from their temporary sanctuary. Selfless and cheerful, they embody the supporters’ spirit of PBP. Sufficiently re-fuelled on the high octane caffeine, Philip and I make relentless progress despite the poor conditions. We hit the control at Fougeres at 13.20. Not a bad ride considering we had a couple of stops on the way. But the stops add lustre to the whole adventure. It’s not just about the cycling!

The control at Fougeres has a good canteen, offering a varied menu. So, it was tuna and rice, and turkey casserole and rice, followed by rice pudding…..oh, and absolutely loads to drink. Yes, it’s not just about the cycling. The windows have steamed up and  it’s not going to be easy to brave the elements, especially after  the punishment my stomach has just taken. The next leg to Tinteniac is a short one of only 55kms. The first half is spent sedately burning fat, and the second half includes some serious pursuit cycling with the San Francisco kids.  A second lunch at 5 O’clock follows, or is it tea? We are joined by Manuel and Sylvia from Costa Rica. It’s a swiftish turnaround and we are back on the road to Loudeac. The climb to Becherel beckons. The sun belatedly burns off the rainclouds, and we are blessed with a perfect late summer’s afternoon. The town of Medreac looms at the top of another Breton hill, then a descent to Quedillac, where we are surprised by a secret control. This exists to ensure that participants stick to the given route. A brief stop to take in yet more fluids and we set sail for St. Meen -le-Grand where the local cycling club have a permanently manned tent in front of the town hall. Philip and I stop for a kebab and chips. Old habits die hard. I love cycling, it’s true. But boy do I like eating! The food is good and it will allow us to ‘bounce’ the big control at Loudeac in 40kms time. It’s a steady climb to Meneac and then a scintillating 40km per hour 10km descent to Trinite-la-Pohoet, followed by…. a climb up to Plumieux and a long drag into the breeze adjacent to the flashing red lights of the wind turbines.

On the way we are passed in the opposite direction by the lead group as they return from Brest. They have covered an amazing 800kms in 28 hours. At La Cheze the sky blackens like a coating of fresh tarmacadam. The world has been turned upside down. Philip makes a good call and we don waterproofs just before the mother of all electrical storms strikes in surround sound and 3D. It teems down with just 15kms until the safe  haven of Loudeac. It is 10 O’clock at night. The reception at Loudeac is truly magnificent. I feel like I have won the Tour de France, such is the ovation of the crowd. Bike parking has to be taken seriously. It would be so easy to lose one’s steed among the hundreds stood here. Outside cooking stalls are sprinkled about the control. The aroma of barbecued meat hangs in the air. Fortunately the rain’s intensity has eased. Card stamped, yoghurts devoured, Perrier imbibed and water bottles topped up, we depart for Carhaix Plougeur. We leave behind  a cauldron of fatigue. There is an emptiness as we ride through the narrow gauntlet of metal barriers which form the entrance and exit to the control, but streetside we are once again buoyed by the exhortations of the locals as we speed off towards the small village of Treve.

I have never seen this leg in daylight, so no different this time. It’s a lumpy ride. The narrow lanes and tiny villages suggest a deeply rural area.  The course requires some navigational skills on the way to enchantingly named Uzel. A long, long climb ensues, maybe 6kms, and steepening on the approach to the town of Merleac. The townsfolk here have mimicked the traditional tented bar at St. Martin du Pre, and we settle down to some potage and coffee. The drizzle is persistent and a constant line of cyclists on the return leg from Carhaix make the ride a tiring one. Philip and I are beginning to ride erratically so we find a wet, grassy verge and settle down for some shuteye. This is becoming a tough stretch and we need to make use of the extra control at St. Nicholas du Pelem.  Our arrival there in heavy rain is an eyeopener. There are hundreds of bikes here. Obviously many riders have re-evaluated their plans because of the weather. A quick coffee later and we are back on the bikes and riding westwards in the deluge. Phil and I are going pretty strongly compared to the riders around us, of whom there are admittedly not too many. We criss-cross atmospheric narrow lanes next to giant wind turbines shrouded in mist.

The rain abates as we smash on to Carhaix. On the outskirts of the town we manage to lose our way and spend a good few minutes retracing our pedal strokes. Finally we control at 03.30. Some 525kms into the ride in 30 hours at an average speed of 24.6 kms per hour moving speed. Dick Mason has parked the camper van nearby and after a meal of pasta bake, we squeeze in for a 3 hour kip and kit change. Dick wakes us up all too soon. We devour more high carb, low fat brekkie and set off just as it gets light. The next part of the ride takes in some sweet Breton forest near Huelgoat, and is generally but gently uphill all the way to the route’s highest point at Roc de Trevezel. After some phoney wars, a massive group forms on the climb, towed along by Club Loudeac. It is cool and quite misty with poor visibility, there is safety in numbers. On the descent to Sizun we are filmed by an official photographer leaning out of a Citroen Picasso in the middle of the bunch. Well, it made the cold plummet a tad more exciting. Hope they got the ‘Rapha’ logo after shelling out all that dosh! Now I like the town of Sizun very much indeed. Why? You ask. The reason is that it is situated about 55kms from Carhaix on the outward leg, so it is a very good place to stop for a coffee. There is a good choice of establishments. The townsfolk are neither too apathetic nor too excited to see us. It is as if PBP comes through here every week. It’s a  relaxed atmosphere. You are nearly at Brest, nearly half way, or you are on the way back from Brest, so just over half way. I could live in Sizun, it’s my kind of town. ( I left my sun hat there in 2003 and rode 14kms back to retrieve it. Felt great to revisit the town.)

Anyway, a Slovakian train was departing and it seemed impolite not to board. They most kindly dragged us all the way to Brest without too much fuss, and on the way we picked up some Yacf ‘faces’ . I would like to point out that I thanked them profusely for their untiring work, and that I couldn’t have got to the front if I had had an electric motor. They were fantastic. Lots of cyclists stopped to take photos from and of the splendid  bridge which sits astride the Celtic Sea. Ian Oliver and I ploughed on. We have photos from previous editions, taken in sunshine no less! Having arrived in Brest, the control must be nearby, yes? No! We endured a circuitous tour of the docks, trying to guess which magnificent artifice has been requisitioned for our benefit. Over railway tracks, into strongish breeze. Surely we must be nearly there?! Pressing on, a sign saying 3000metres. But not indicating that it is all uphill. Oh Sisyphus, the long distance randonneur shares your pain. Finally we arrive at the half way mark. A shower, taken quickly, but affording such an energising boost, is first on the cards. Then food and drink and the usual faffing about with kit. And very soon, Philip and I are returning to Paris. A big moment indeed. It is about midday on Tuesday, a mere 38 hours after our departure from Guyancourt.

A large group made up mostly of Americans negotiate the rolling roads via Landernau back to Carhaix via sweet Sizun. There is plenty of climbing on this leg, but  we’re swinging along nicely heading for the creperie in town. And sure enough, we arrive at the restaurant. I devour two galettes like a hungry animal. Philip is more  restrained, more human. But I have had a shower, so I smell better! The climb of the Roc beckons. It has warmed up, the low mist has been burned off.  There are great views to the North as the craggy ridge bears down on us. A crowd has gathered at the summit. This is a showman’s opportunity, so I give it some welly. “Il est fort!” shouts a man. “Comme electrique!” adds his partner. And 100 meters on I die a death. It’s a proper rollercoaster road to Carhaix. I confess to not feeling quite as magnificent as I had hoped, nor quite up to the standard of 2007, when I ripped the heart out of this road, (must work on the modesty angle). Therefore with about 15kms to go I found a grassy enclave and crashed out in the warm sunshine. Bliss! Must have been out for about 20 minutes, and it was a little difficult to get going. Nevertheless, I arrived at the control at Carhaix about twenty minutes behind Big Phil, who was ready to leave. I made a most rapid turnaround, but Mr. Sudell was on his way.

After about 2 kms I could see a big group about 800 metres in front of me. It seemed to be worth making the effort to “get on” to this peloton, so I pushed very hard up the hill to Le Moustoir. Contact made, Club Loudeac ferried us about 45kms to the town of Corlay, where they stopped for a club rest stop. On the way we passed Big Phil who had taken time out to star in a television interview with a local station.  Now it was only 10kms to the tented bar at St. Martin des Pres. A party had been underway since the first riders had come through early on Tuesday morning. For me, it was an important part of the whole ride to stop here and join in with the locals. And there was food! There was a super atmosphere in the tent. Singing, dancing, eating and drinking, all the while riders passing by and being cheered on their way. What a privilege to witness this outpouring of support. Big Phil arrived and enjoyed the craic, and soon we were speeding towards Loudeac, taking a measure of revenge against these roads which had tortured us on the previous night. The scenery was quite beautiful in the twilight with some panoramic vistas to both North and South. As night fell I pulled clear of our little company and raced to the control. What an exhilarating feeling to be able to produce such power after such a long way. There are loads of people clustered on the street near the town. They lifted me, and I was not going to disappoint them. I stormed to the finish of the stage as if all the teams of the Tour de France were chasing me down. It’s not a race, but it is a race! Where can an average 52 year man riding a bike get such a wonderful reception? And why not make the most of it?

Thank you Loudeac, I love you. A careful bike park, an efficient ‘bounce’ at the control and, reunited with TV star Philip Sudell, we depart and head off into the night. A brief note regarding the massive control that is Loudeac. Having eaten between controls, we can limit our time actually spent at the control. It is all too easy to waste precious time queuing, chatting and generally faffing about. In a way it is a shame to miss out on some of the dramas that are being played out, but we are good enough at passing time without the added distractions at the controls. I team up briefly with a Spanish rider who is under the impression that Loudeac was the last control of the entire ride. Erm, no! There are still six more including the finish. Once again, it ain’t flat. We are about 5 kms from Meneac when Phil decides to have a nap. I’m not at all sleepy, so we decide to split up temporarily. Once again, and most fortunately, I feel really strong and crack on to the secret control at Illifault. Some undulating lanes ensue, and then comes the charming little town of St. Meen-le- Grand, where earlier we had partaken of a superb kebab.

Three guys are manning the tent right in front of the Mairie. They invite me in for coffee and we have a most interesting conversation about the ride, and about their club’s contribution to the event. It’s about 1 O’clock in the morning and these guys are on a three hour shift, they lift my spirits. And now on to Tinteniac via Quedillac. It’s about 45kms. I am passed by a couple of riders and I can’t hold their wheels.  They are really shifting, but they don’t really pull away. So I follow their rear lights for a couple of hours, missing out on the sleep stop at Quedillac and trailing them up the hill to the telephone mast at Becherel. There’s a calmness in the air. My heart is beating rhythmically, my breathing is regular, my legs are pumping like pistons, but there is no pain, no feeling of abnormal effort. It feels like being in a cocoon of perfect physical effort, a bubble of exertion that just won’t burst. I can still see the pair of lights about 500m ahead on the long straight road to Tinteniac after the descent from Becherel. I can’t catch them, but they have really helped me to press on over the ribbon of tarmac that connects us.

It’s 3 a.m when I sign in at the big T. Dick has parked the van nearby, and Mark and Nicki Evans, registered to Philip, have brought their van on the way back from hols. Dick has cooked a wonderful pasta Bolognese and we all have a chat. Mark and Nicki are concerned for Philip, but I know that he will be absolutely fine, and he duly turns up an hour later. Meanwhile, I have three hours sleep in the van with Mr. Aspinall, a 70 year old legend. He’s only little and doesn’t take up too much space! In the morning, Nicki most kindly cooks us some super scrambled eggs, and Dick berates us for wasting time and messing up his spreadsheets! He loves us really. Just as we are about to depart, Philip performs a successful gear service on his wonderful titanium Enigma. Next stop, Fougeres, a mere 55kms. Before long we have stopped for coffee and morning ablutions at a café with wonderful facilities for this purpose. What a civilised pair we are! Soon we have made our way to the front of a group and selflessly drag them along for many kms. I really enjoy this section and a Frenchman most generously rides up and compliments us on our group riding. However a fast Danish train speeds by and, well to be honest , the temptation is just too great to resist. The reality is that they were just a bit too quick for yours truly, but they did drag me up to Doug Aspinall, and he and the two Phils arrived at Fougeres at 10.30. about 2 ½ hours for 55kms including a coffee stop. Not bad going.

Fougeres has a great canteen serving good food, we availed ourselves of its culinary delights and I made use of the always empty disabled loo (not at the same time!). I cannot now recollect further happenings at this stop so will swiftly move on. The weather was quite fine with the promise of slight tailwind for the next stage. Phil and I set off together, but this was going to be my Queen stage. Very soon I cut loose and joined the Loudeac Club peleton for a short while, but the sap had risen and I decided to go it alone on this rolling terrain. A terrific passage followed, a world where there was no pain, only speed. The sort of speed that caused one American to cry out “Wow! It’s the Paris Express”, as I scythed through the packs of riders.  All the way from Laignelet to Charchigne about 60kms in total, the juice was turned on. I am sure that no one passed me on this stretch. Where it comes from, who knows, but I rejoice when it happens. I just wish that I could bottle it and sell it. All good things come to an end though, and by Charchigne I had to ease off. Fortunately, that good fellow and modern day Pickwickian character, Patrick Field, had parked up his recumbent outside a bar. He very kindly treated me to a Perrier, and we made merry with some local middle aged ladies, but only on the topic of PBP, I hasten to add,  if my wife manages to read this far. At this point a fellow member from my local gym, Julian Cole,  joined us, and another chap whose name I didn’t catch, but who looked in good nick for a 70 year old. But I digress. A big group came by, Julian soon caught them, Patrick had long departed and I was a little tardy in setting off.

Eventually I managed to catch them near the top of the climb at Hardanges, and we had a most sociable ride into Villaines. Wonderful Villaines. It was about 3.30 p.m. We approached a funnel of people, a vortex of sound, a warmth radiated off the crowd. They cheered us as if we were their sons and daughters returning unscathed from war in foreign parts. It was absolutely electric. The next few minutes were not to be rushed . We were separated by barriers, but the spectators were clearly interested in protocol. I was a complete tart, milking every observation by producing more and more stuff from my bag, which elicited Gallic comment s from the observers . I felt like I had won the Tour. Now Villaines had a very interesting Men’s or more correctly Homme’s  shower room. For a mere 3 euros one could hire a towel and some soap and share the Men’s shower room with half a dozen fully clothed women. Maybe their French was poor, or ‘Homme’ actually translates as ‘Woman’ , but it was an interesting situation after some 900 odd kms on the bike. Maybe not the fastest randonneur, but certainly one of the cleanest, I set off with Philip for the antepenultimate control at Mortagne-au –Perche.

The road immediately pitched through small valleys and pivoted over  great bulges in the land, all the way to the Super-U just outside the sharp left turn at Fresnay. We passed Chillmoister curled up in a green meadow in the foetal position. A man at total peace . We stocked up with more nourishment and were joined by some friendly Danes.  I was also looking forward to re-visiting the café situated on the sharp left  hand turn. It was a fine, warm evening and we spent 15 more minutes watching the riders pass by and exchanging banter with the locals (English get everywhere!). Finally we set off towards the next biggish town of Mamers, via the dangerous crossroads at La Hutte. I was keen to grab onto a group up ahead, but was disappointed to discover that the pace was quite pedestrian, so I set off alone for the next 20kms.  Descending into Mamers town centre at about 8 p.m, I suddenly felt very sleepy and espied a comfy looking concrete bench on the left hand trottoir. Having removed shoes, gloves, gilet but maintaining GB modesty at all times. I lay down on the hard but snug surface. A young woman approached and asked me into her house, ” Thank G-d! I thought, the hallucinations have started at last.” She explained that her father had once upon a time completed PBP and would like to have a chat.

Unfortunately, I had only planned a 15 minute snooze and could not factor in a French conversation into the break as I was barely compos mentis at the time. Regretfully, I declined the most kind invitation and noted that the mother or mother-in-law was clocking everything from the balcony. No offence was taken and within 0.1 second I was comatose. Awakening precisely 15 minutes later, I proceeded to put on all items of clothing which had previously been disrobed. Mounting the bike I blew a kiss to the mother/mother-in-law (it never does any harm) who had been selflessly watching my unsecured kit whilst I slept. Sweet solicitude, unasked for but given so freely. It’s what makes PBP so supremely great and makes us so humble. Now it was with some regret that I left Mamers, for  on the one hand there seemed to be a party tent set up near the centre, and on the other hand I knew that the next 24kms were quite brutal. However , the weather was kind and my spirits were good. It wasn’t the road that gave me problems, but my right eye was dying to have a nap all on its own, which was proving to be an impediment, as I can’t really see out of my left eye. Therefore I apologise to all inhabitants within 5kms south and west of Mortagne, who may have heard me madly shouting, “Keep the F-ck open!” as I careered up and down the hills. Oh, and what a cruel climb up to the town itself. We didn’t really deserve such a test , but some of the effort was allayed but the sight of a quite beautiful Norman town set upon a verdant hillside. Even the entrance to the control is up a very steep ramp. My eye had a mind of its own, so I donned sunglasses just in case an official suggest I make a visit to the medical room. I do confess to feeling mildly disorientated at this time, but put it down to tiredness and promptly found a cushy clear space on the lino floor.

After about 15 minutes prime sleep, I awoke starving hungry and dying of thirst. This was soon remedied by stuffing two delectable jambon baguettes, loving coated with unsalted butter into the bottomless pit which was formerly my stomach. This solid feast was washed down with tea, coffee, Perrier and Coca Cola in no particular order. I am not too fussy at this stage of proceedings. It was about 9.30 in the evening, and out of the blue, Paul and Mark appeared, closely followed by Philip Sudell. The Musketeers were together again! What happened next, I cannot remember, but perhaps Philip and I set off  before the Aussie brothers. It was chilly, and very dark. We chanced upon a pair of cyclists in difficulties and we able to offer some assistance in replacing a spoke and truing a rear wheel. Good deed done, we set about conquering the hills thereabouts. And my, there are some stinkers! Eventually and none too quickly, we arrived at Longny-au- Perche . I had another quick nap for about 2 minutes before being joined by Philip. Another incline out of the village finally sapped the strength in my legs, and we plodded on through the night. After about 10kms, at Marchainville, I just had to have a lie down on the wet grass under a tree. It was probably precisely the spot where the villagers exercise  their dogs, so I was careful! Philip continued with the ramshackle group. After about 20 minutes I awoke to the dulcet and familiar twang of Australian accents passing by on the road. A quick re-mount and I chased down Mark and Paul, and admit to being very happy to see them. We ambled onwards towards La Ferte-Vidame (are not these names evocative and so French?). Mark suggested that we raise the pace, so I put on a steady burst for a few kms, feeling quite smug , with the two boys tucked in behind me. All of a sudden, young Paul decides that we should be racing, not randonneuring, and the next  30 odd kms becomes a post midnight tear-up. We overtake everybody including a couple of strong looking riders, who are going well. Philip Sudell latches on, and on the outskirts of Dreux, our next control, through the flatlands without a breath of wind, the big man proceeds to set a fast tempo which has me and Mark on the edge.

The approach to Dreux is almost as circuitous as the one to Brest, but finally we drop down to the safe haven to be met by Mr. Mason who is settling very nicely into the role of ubersupporter. The van is parked in a large car park and as it is a warm night, I elect to sleep al fresco on a lounger while Doug and Philip reside inside. The atmosphere is chilled and unpressured. We could press on to Paris, only 65kms away, and arrive at 6 in the morning, but the forecast is for a fine day, and we will enjoy a leisurely ride to the finish with plenty of time in hand. After another shower and final change of kit, our grupetto, minus Doug who is doing his own thing, set off for the final leg. It’s a chatty, relaxed band of brothers. There are some hills, but we no longer really notice them . The landscape is pleasant, it’s hard to imagine that we are so close to a major capital city. We pass through Gambais and stop for a lovely coffee, watching the riders pass by and engaging in banter with neighbouring tables. Finally we regroup at a roundabout about 5kms from the finish.

There is one last slight hiccup as Phil misses a green light and we draw away, but as we approach the finish we spread out across the road and the biggest cheers come from the Sudells and the Magnus’ based in the centre of the roundabout. A truly fantastic reception after an unforgettable odyssey.   It’s not quite finished. After riding 10kms back to the campsite!! We were treated to a feast of a breakfast by Jo and Mourijn. In the evening we enjoyed the company of Dick, Mark, Paul, Phil Nelson (54 1/2hour ride) and our families for another banquet. It was as wonderful a reward as could be imagined. Some facts and figures: 1243kms ridden 86 hours 18 minutes 53.16 hours on the bike 33 hours and 2 minutes off bike 23.38kms per hour average on bike Amount eaten.—–Phenomenal Amount slept….. approximately 9 hours. 3 showers taken. Approx start weight.         83 kilos Approx end weight           79.5 kilos Weight in February 2011 88.5 kilos  

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