Thursday, September 01, 2011

Paris-Brest-Paris the Support Report

The calm before the storm

I can not deny that the P-B-P and helping TSK has been difficult for a Trep who is not too sufficient at sacrifice.  However, I can not deny that I have enjoyed making up for all the times TSK has been a spectator and put-upon helper in my sporting activities.  It has taken me back to my childood, being the proud support team offering encouragement to everyone and refuge, food and companionship and most importantly, coffee, to my special competitor.
Certificate of insanity
I am imensely honoured to send him on his way at each control.  I will be particularly so today when he returns from Brest this afternoon, having riden further than ever before.  I have been warned that 600 - 700 km will be mentally tough.  I remember my first 200km ride.  When leaving the 160km checkpoint a whole 12 months after we returned from the Canada trip was the furthest I had ever ridden in one go.

So this is how PBP turned out for me:

Sunday 21st August 2011 16:00-01:00
Pre-race shopping in theUK

The pre-hotel at Saclay (Novotel) was comfortable, quiet and enjoyable.  Some Brits got tired of the laxadasical French attitude of the staff and were toffee nosed and complaining.

We enjoyed our dinner, delivered to our table in a relaxed time frame and went out to the Boulangerie for breakfast, making coffee in the room using the cafetiere from the vanu.

Registration for PBP went smoothly and we took the opportunity to turn it into a warm-up ride with me blazing a pace into a headwind through the cornfields and TSK spinning along behind with all his paperwork and regulation kit in his Caradice.

Pre-PBP warmup


Start day began relaxed.  I dropped Andrew off on a side street to ride down to the start then set off to find somewhere more suitable to park - in trees by a river park - nice and cool.  I met up with TSK and we dozed in the shade for a while before watching the first wave depart at 4pm. An announcement that car #2088 had to move or it would be impounded by the police filled me with dread.  Was my "terribly good yet quite deserted" parking spot actually illegal?  My car number was 0288 but I was only half-listening to the
Bike servicing.  Where you're are asked to remove illegal equipment
announcement.  In the end car number 2088 delayed the start of the race by 5 minutes as it was broken down right in the race route.  Friends from YACF joked, "leave it where it is, we'll ride around it - just like we have been doing for the last 4 years leading up to today".

It was a very angry first wave pack that finally departed at 5:05 having been standing confined to areas of open sunshine for over 2 hours in 37 degree heat.

First wave fervour

We lined up to enter the stadium for final bike checks at 4:30pm.  Officials cleared a path through for the constant stream of special bikes that were due next.  We had a great view of some lovely machines.

Yes, this is Wakefield Tri
Billy no gears.  Actually, there is one more - it involves back pedalling.

Just as Andrew was allowed in, he got hungry so my first task of the week was to find a sandwich and some munchies to feed him as he passed out of bike check and lined up behind the second wave to start.
Eating, not starting

A good 20 minutes of standing out in the sun.  For once it was not team Pamplemouse that had the startline puncture but a guy from West Brom.  That aside, it was a truly international feel to the startline.

Russia, Brazil and Sheffield

Other competitors come from China, Canada, India, Japan, America, Holland, Germany, Italy.  Poland and the Philipines set up an Audax club Mondial and rides in their countries purely for the purpose of qualifying and entering PBP this year.  Of course, Wakefield tri were there and we bumped into a guy from Sheffield dressed in a Columbia jersey because it was the only one he owned with a full-length zip on.

Au revoir Paris

Once I'd snapped the departure photo I headed to the van, thankful it was still there and I hadn't been impounded.  I changed out of sweaty lycra into a cooler skirt.  However, it was so hot I stayed in my bra top, didn't bother with a tee and stepped out of the bike shoes into sandals.

I drove out along the N12 to Millemont where I cycled out to try and catch a view of the riders passing by.  I just popped my helmet on but stuck with the skirt, bra and sandals for a more refreshing ride, thinking I'd only be out for 10 minutes or so.  This was regretable as I left the map in the car, got lost and spent an entire hour retracing my pedal strokes.  When I returned to the vanu I was more sweaty and had very tired legs from riding on SPD pedals in sandals. 

Having not seen a single rider, I headed for Mortagne au Perce where I arrived about 11pm to a party atmosphere in the main square.  This was the first control for most people.  Me, I was in the mood for a sleep so I found a lovely backstreet partking lot and went to join the cheering when I was summoned by a sleepy TSK heading into town at 1am.

Monday 22nd August 2011 01:00- 18:00
We got an hours kip together then he set off on his way.  It wasn't a scheduled sleep but he was so blown out from the hot day before.  It's a pitty I didn't get to see more of Mortagne.  I was needed for 09:30 breakfast appointment at Fougeres so I decided to get up and go at 6am.  It was just getting light - this is good to know.
Transition bike park a la vanu

The N12 switches between motorway status (2 lane dual carriageway or more, hard shoulder, offlane services) to what we'd call A-road which mianders from 50 kph through towns or trundling single carriageways through countryside (90kph) with crappy parking places.  Desperate for speed and convenience and taking a moment, I spent most drives longing for motorway services but on this case, eventually resorted to a Patisserie when they opened just outside Fougeres at Ernee.  

TSK was 2 hours behind schedule giving me the oppotunity to rearrange all our stuff and brew cofee.  The parking at Fougeres was enough for me to spread out and sleep for a while. Now in between large groups of riders, space opened in carparks closer to the control and I shifeted us to a sheltered spot out of the rain as it began to fall.  

I walked up to the control to see TSK arrive and cheer on other riders who seemed genuinely happy that someone was prepared to sit in the rain and encourage them.  
Soggy in Fougeres

TSK did eat some brekfast baked goods but now 11:30am he was craving more.  As I hadn't had time to shop, we resorted to tinned baked beans and tuna I bought from the dodgy corner shop on Saturday evening.  I ate the leftovers for lunch.  Such is the sacrificial life of race support.

Aware that I have a long and more complicated journey ahead including some of that shopping, I head off straight away. 

Combourg seems to be the showcase venue for the organisers to deliver the best of Britany to the visiting nations.  It is a nice enough place but diverting through it to get onto a very poxy road to Tremblay presents a challenge to many of us and an international convoy of campervans amuses the locals by rallying around various different routes alternately following eachother then breaking away from the pack, only to meet eachother coming in different directions.  I find my way out by nipping trhough the town centre where a no-entry barrier has not been restored and find myself driving up the cobbled high street passing a street cleaner going the wrong way down a one way street.
The picturesque lake at Combourg
On the right road finally, I sopt for second lunch overlooking Combourg lake.  I'm too tired to take a picture - and this is just the start.  I am too tired to enjoy this place.  I have still missed the official route but I get a message from TSK to say he's fine at Tintineac so I stick with the D795 which is fast and just crosses the rider's course in a different place, much to the confusion of the marshalls as I pass by.  

I take the turn for Hede as this is a town on my list but it's litterally a dead end.  A frenchman in a PBP cambpervan shrugs at me and I indicate to go back down the hill.  From Hede to Bedee I fight my way along the D80 and D68, muddling through villages with too many roundabouts and therefore U-turns.  Finally I get on the N12 again and drive for some time before admitting my brain is fucked and I need an hours' sleep.  I am only about 6 minutes from Loudeac.  

I'm exhaused when I get going again and a sign says 38km to Loudeac.  I've only missed a turn and undone all that good work fighting my way south.  I'm not the only one and pip my horn at other confused PBP motorists as I pass by.  The french like to sign roads going in completely different directions to places which seem similar (at least, they start with the same letter and that's about as similar as it needs to be to confuse you when you've only had 4 hours sleep).

Monday 22nd August 2011 18:00 - 00:23

Eventually I get to Loudeac and see riders passing below so I pull into the Leader Price supermarket and cook dinner.  Essentially this is for me as TSK needs to sleep when he arraives at 8pm.  I enjoy chatting and cooking with other supporters in an area where the supermarket has taken the time and effort to segment a section of the carpark for us so that we don't clash with regular shoppers or the HGVs doing middle of the night deliveries.  

It starts to rain so I pack everything away.  I meet TSK at the roundabout at the bottom of the hilll and he sleeps for only 3 hours in an attempt to make up for the very hot start and time lost at Mortagne.  It thunders and lightens whilst we're sleeping and I'm glad he's not out in it (never mind him being glad he's not out in it).  When he gets up to go again I decide it's only 10pm I might as well get up and get ahead of him.  I feed him pasta that I made earlier.

Tuesday 23rd August 2011 00:23 - 08:30
At Carhaix I enter the first campervan park I find, the carpark of a tyre garage where about 23 vans are parked, waiting for their riders.  I sneak a spot right by the bay doors where no beastly large camper will fit and try to be as quiet as possible as there is a tent pitched nearby and by the look of a bike on a rack, the tent is occupied.  

TSK arrives at Carhaix at 2am and I meet him in case he needs a sleep but he's eager to push on to Brest and that's fine with me.  We eat some breakfast in the control together amongst sweaty and sleeping people.  I try to enjoy the romance of the moment.

The vanu car park is eerily quiet and I'm frustrated that my longest break without driving (as TSK goes to Brest and back) falls on a time when I need sleep but I look on it as a great opportunity for a lie-in before I do something for me and I go to sleep easily despite the fact that I'm parked on private property.

I haven't set an alarm and wake to the owner of the tyre shop arriving for work.  Most of the 23 campers that were there last night have thankfully left but still, the owner seems perplexed that 10 campervans are all needing tyres at the same time and he looks nervously around the car park.  I leave to go and eat my breakfast and get some me-time somewhere more private.

Tuesday23rd August 2011 08:30 - 19:30
God bless you St Katherine

I randomly drive down Carhaix streets in search of a leisure centre before concluding that if I can't find a pool (following signs) I'm too tired to enjoy swimming training so I randomly drive into the countryside.  Finally I stumble on the pretty St Katherine's church where there's a parking space for the Vanu and a wide, fast-flowing river in which to rinse out some of TSK's clothes and my body (support crews are not allowed to use the participant's showers so I declare it the only race where the suport gets more manky than the riders). 

My dreams of skinny dipping are shattered by the arrival of 3 lads fishing but I still manage to do laundry medieval style and have a Timotei-moment hair wash in the river.  I wash my upper body with my bra on (yes the same one!) and paddle in my shorts which gets rid of about 3 days stickiness.  I felt I deserved a full change of clothing and sat back for a few hours of writing, dozing and making coffee whilst the laundry blew about in the breeze.  A respecful walk around St Katherine then drove back to Carhaix to get a parking spot with the support crews.

When I returned to Carhaix, most riders had already left for Brest, some of their support crews going with them so only the return journeyers were left.  I managed to claim an obvious spot on the roundabout right below control and adorned the gate posts with a Norton Wheelers jersey and a carrot-shaped plastic dog toy I'd picked up earlier from the supermarket so that TSK could spot me whilst I was cooking dinner.

By the time he arrived I had everything packed away and the bed made and had been cheering riders for half an hour.  He climbed in bed for an hour at 4pm and I stayed out cheering because it seemed to make people smile.  He didn't want anything to eat and set off to use the facilities at the control.  I saw from the race plan how far it was to the control we were next supposed to meet so I jogged up with a packed dinner and a box of fruit juice - only one of which was taken as he promised to eat at the riders' control in between Carhaix and Loudeac.  I wondered if they had dancing girls there.

There was little point in me standing around at 6pm so I started the drive to Loudeac where I arrived at 19:30.  

Tuesday23rd August 2011 19:30 - 00:00

Loudeac on la rentree came across as a completely different town.  I parked at the end of a bridlepath / disused railway called le petit train vert.  I parked there mostly because there were toilets but also because I had some me-time left.  The toilet was closed but at least the bridlepath made for a nice run route around town for me to see some riders (most of whom recognised me as a cyclist from previous cheering or from the tan lines well below the extent of my running shorts).  On my recce of the town I discovered I'd parked only 2 streets beck from the control main drag where there was a service lane filled with campervans. I tried shopping in town where I saw this amazing mozaic fish and lady (which I imagined to be like my swim in Ullswater in two weeks time).  I resorted to filling  the water bottles in control then drove down to get a convenient parking spot as darkenss fell and we began to cheer riders in.

The local club seemed to be taking part so a long chain of spectators had sprung up along the inbound lane to control.  It was 9:30 pm and most riders were fairly with-it, waving to the cheers as they arrived.  One man nodded his way down the line and we soon realised he wasn't checking his bike, he was grtadually nodding off.
Time for a well-deserved douche
Everyone screamed at him to wake up and he just about managed to see the marshall at the end of the coridor and make the turn into control as the crowd started to part, just in case he didn't make it.

TSK left with his towel to shower in control.   As I walked away, a lady on a recumbent was concerned that she had a wobble in her her front hub.  "Can you feel that?" she asked me in French.  I gave the wheel a good shake in its fork.  "Je crois que c'est le peur" I said, "I think it's the fear".  

She seemed content with the answer and set off on her way.

TSK and I went to bed.

Wednesday 24th August 2011 00:00 -16:30

Mill cottages
One hours sleep for TSK and 6 interupted ones for me as I received updates on TSK's progress.  When my alarm went off at 6am I drank TSK's left over coffee (well stewed in a thermal mug) then set off for the wild navigation of Combourg and rural Britany.  It was easier on the way back and I sat and ate breakfast and took the pictures that I missed on the way in.

I was close to Tintineac when TSK texted me at 6:26am so we changed out a back tyre that was starting to go threadbare and I drove on to Fougeres.

By the time I reach fougeres its 7:45 am and I can't be arsed to put the bed up  and make coffee so I go into the Super U (turning out to be our ride sponsors) cafe and chat with the Barista.  I do a little shopping then take a nap in the van.  The next thing I know, TSK is ringing me.  "I'm in a car park sleeping", I say. Thankfully I find the riders' route and follow them to do some nifty parking on the road to control. TSK just wants to get rid of some stuff and pick up snacks.  I cry, "Go away, I don't like you any more, stop ringing me".  Well, I'm awake now, I may as well go to Villaines la Juhel.

Approaching Villaines through Loupfougeres the traffic suddenly ground to a halt and one of the spectators began making gestures to a motorist that a rider had fallen off.

As I understand what the ride is and what the riders are going through and I understand both English and French and a little first aid I decided I'd rather park and help than sit in a traffic jam so I make a parking lot of some business's yard and find dutch man lying in the road with a head injury - a 2.5 inch bruised bump on his forehead and a lovely gash.

His head is resting on his helmet and apprently it wasn't on his head when he crashed.  In deed he speaks  no French and the spectators speak no English so between us we get the message cross to the ambulance crew about his name, Marcus Minihold, his condition and, according to the spectators, that he lost conciense for about 10 seconds.  I'm helped to make him comfortable by replacing his helmet with my knees and we joke that he's resorting to extreme measures just for a lie down.

I am heartened by the English competitor who stops because he's seem my Sheffield Tri top to check if we need a French Translator.  Poor Marcus has clearly lost concentration for just long enough to hit the cobbles on the central reservation whith a wheel.  He's determined that he's fine but not too quick to jump back on his bike either - or stand up for that matter.

After strapping him to a stretcher the ambulance crew ask me to explain that they're taking him to hospital for an x-ray, to which he said, "Why? I'm OK".  All I could think of to say was, "so they can check you out is all".  At this point I started feeling guilty, that he'd be ok and be forced to abandon or miss his time cut off.  I convinved myself it was the better worst case, compared with putting him back on his bike and finding out he'd dropped dead from a brain haemorrage just outside Fougeres.

I arrange with the race official, now directing traffic, that I will take the bike to control for the rider to collect when he is well.  [Post ride note, the rider finished though his speed before his crash was around 18km/hr and fell to a steady 15.5kph for the rest of the event].

TSK had ridden past just as I was strapping Marcus Miniholds's bike to the rack of the Vanu and I caught him up on the road with a "see you there".  In fact he beat me to the line as I tried to persuade French officials to take ownership of a bike that I had no interest in keeping for myself (frame too small).

Wednesday 24th August 2011 16:30 - 19:30

TSK and I sat under a tree in Villaines swapping stories in the afternoon sun and getting our photo taken by the local journo (still not appeared, we must've looked rough).  Andrew killed some time till 4:30pm to avoid the warm weather that was reoccurring then set off on his way for Fougeres.  I rallied around some minor roads then eventually joined the N12 again into Mortagne au Perche.

I arrived in good spirits, did some cooking and set the bed up.  The sausages I bought turned out to be pretty spicy.

TSK: Do I really have to put these back on?
I don't fancy them and they're certainly not race food so they go in the bin and I set the lentils out to heat up if necessary.  I'm in more or less the same spot as the outward bound so I have a soft spot for this pretty, quiet town.  I bump into an English couple I last saw at Carhaix.  They are supporting his best friend who is due in around 2am.  In fact my first question when I see him on his own is, "is your wife still here or has she left you?".

Decorative velos at Mortagne au Perche

The square is prettily decorated at Mortagne and I fill the bottles before TSK arrives.  He climbs in for what I expect to be a 5 hour sleep but he's still playing catch-up and only wants 2 hours.

Whilst he's in bed, I give his bike a clean inspired by an italian team I saw earlier and reinforced by the quantity of dirt that comes off the front wheel when I change his second tyre of the PBP.  He has a 5mm x 20mm flap of rubber hanging off the contact surface, exposing the beading beneath.  That's got to be annoying.

Brake dust and gravel removed, chain superficially cleaned in oil, dried and re-oiled and deraileur goo shaved off, it is midnight when I get to bed.  When TSK gets up he's hungry so I heat up my dinner from last night and he eats two batches and a desert of cereal complemented by Lychees and a toffee puddindg.  He TSK leaves soon after.

Thursday th August 2011 00:00 - Finish

The last thing I do before going back to sleep is decide how long I want to get to sleep before leaving for the next control.  TSK says he doesn't need me at Dreux and has taken the clothes and supplies with him that he needs to get to Paris.

Do I want to NOT be there if he does need me?  No.

So I pass up on sleeping for now and get up again to drive down the N12 in the dark.  Dreux is an old and complicated place so I'm glad I'm there at 1:30 am and not during any traffic hours.

I text him to let him know I'm there and sleeping.  He says to carry on to Paris but I sleep for a bit and he texts me he's through control at 4:30am and my alarm goes off.  I wait for a bit to wave him off and he seems to take for ages.  He's been contemplating a beer at Dreux so I make sure he's not passed out or just decided to get drunk instead of finishing.

I decide to press on as I don't want to get caught in Paris rushour in 2 hours time.  It might be French holidays but there's got to be some people left at work surely.  Apparently TSK sees the vanu disapear off up a side street - probably trying to get off the riders' route asap.

Dreux to Paris was, not surprisingly a blurr.

Paris was Hell.  I could not for the life of me remember where I was going or the name of the staium I was looking for so I couldn't even ask directions.  I repeated the route we'd done on our bikes several times, constantly forgetting a turning.  Then I became completely lost and began doing circuits again but this time on unfamiliar streets and bypasses.  I even turned the wrong way down a slip road in front of a police man who was (thankfully) preocupied with a lamp post which someone else had knocked over.

I did a shifty three point turn then took an exit which dropped me into a building site and then a carpark then a garage forecourt from which I eventually escaped.  Eventually I saw a stream of riders so I followed them again into an audacious parking spot, less than 50 m from the finish in the place where offices are just down right closed (and the parking is completely free of charge) in the month of August.

A canteen light was still on a timer on the other side of a glass wall, the occupants on holiday oblivious to the madness, mess and carnage going on outside their usual place of work.  Good job as a lot of people stopped at the bush outside for a pee.

I slept through the sunrise like a corpse for a whole hour before tentatively retracing the route to meet TSK  and other riders coming in.  Some tootled along at 10km/hr, others time-trialled down the dual carriageway doing bit-n-bit to slash a previous best or possibly to get in before the cut-off time.  No longer special to the busy people of Paris, the world was oblivious again to men on bikes and there were a few near misses as riders, used to quiet country roads, were thrust, tired, into the city with nothing but little A4-sized arrows to follow to the finish.

I peeled off, directing the riders to take their glory lap down the finishing lane.
Flags of the world and TSK with his precious finishing papers.

A tired TSK checked in in 86 hours 48 minutes.  He slept whilst I loaded the van then we both slept on the train for around 3 hours to Aix en Provence.  He continued to sleep all except for a short check-in time at the hotel and dinner-break until 9am the next day.
After...proud and satisfied TSK (I had to remind him to smile)
No idea who this old woman is
 For anyone who happens across this post, trying to find out whether they want to support a rider during the PBP, consider that I'm a resilient person with a reasonable competancy for driving on foreign roads and reading a map (sometimes more successfully than others).  Timing is crucial, knowing your rider is crucial.  They won't always need you.  They won't always seem grateful (but they will be).  You will want to put them in a plastic bag.  You will want to put yourself in a plastic bag!  You will want it to stop but you can't.  If you plan to be at every control, it takes all of the rider's time for you to pack up, shop, cook, clean up and make the bed in between controls.  Stay ahead of your rider and it will all work well.  Don't try to rush and always stop to sleep when you feel drowsy - even if it's the middle of the day.

Controls are only signposted on the riders' routes and you should avoid this route at all costs.  You are only allowed on the riders' route within 5km of the controls.  There's nothing to stop you riding out to the route but good luck with finding their route, never mind rendezvousing with someone on the move.

There are no campsites set up on the route (although I may have missed one in Carhaix). You are relying on the good will of local businesses and homeowners.  There's a lot of it about but it should not be taken for granted.  A happy "bonjour or bonsoir" goes a long way to persuading people that you're not going to steal from them or poo in their garden.

If you can afford it, the best way to see this ride is to hire a big, well equipped camper with a shower and toilet that you can enjoy at your own convenience.  You may wish to do what the germans did and set up a tent with a camp bed in it for your rider.  (If they happen to leave their feet outside the tent, do throw a tarp over them when it rains).


Anthony Doman said...

Thank you for doing this supporter's-eye-view (I found it via YACF). I really enjoyed your account.
This year I got to understand what it feels like because I drove backup to our PBP hopefuls in Cape Town. I rode it in 2007, but retired at 750 km, so my wife said she and a couple of friends would come over to France and support me when I did it again, which I am planning to do in 2015. Your account will certainly help persuade her of the wisdom of her offer... one way or the other.

Trep said...

Thanks Anthony. There's little guidance for drivers except for the described route.

I hope this persuades people it's a rewarding experience but helps them to do it safely and enjoy it for what it is.