Accompanying Chris Ragsdale to the start of Paris-Brest-Paris 2011.
We arrived in Paris from London at midnight; eight hours later we met Chris Ragsdale for the first time. Tarik (of Etape Reine Cycling) and myself were to be a two-man crew in his attempt to clock the fastest time at Paris-Brest-Paris 2011. Chris is a multiple US 24 hour champion and world record holder for the 1,000km. This was his first time attempting the 1,200km event, it was our first time crewing. Despite our research none of us had a real idea of what to expect – the following two days and nights were to expose our naivety.
Paris-Brest-Paris is the world’s oldest cycling event. From 1891 until 1951 it was ran as a professional race, but since then it has been classed as a randoneur open only to amateurs. But forget all your preconceptions about Audax and long distance cycling with its image of old men in beards and sandals, P-B-P is still a race for those at the front, and still as competitive and fiercely fought than ever.
The fastest riders will tackle the 1,200km without breaking for sleep, aiming to finish within about 45 hours. The only stopping will be at the control points spread along the route, mostly 50-80km apart. At these controls each rider must get his brevet card stamped, and they are also the only opportunities for his support team to offer their assistance, being barred from entering the riders’ route at any other point.
On Sunday morning we headed to the start in Versailles from our hotel in central Paris. Chris needed to be there four hours early simply to get a good starting position. That’s an additional four hours of stress that I’m sure Chris could well do without. After he’d talked us through all his spare kit, attached his rear mudguard in anticipation of the forecast rain, discussed his drinks preferences and how much food he’ll need between each control (calculated on the basis of approximately 300kcals per hour), we set off ahead of the riders to gather supplies and set up ready for the first feed stop at Mortagne-au-Perche, 140km away.
On Sunday over 4,000 hardy souls – and not all with beards and sandals – will prepare to embark on the granddaddy of all Audax cycling events, the 1,200km Paris-Brest-Paris. To just get to this point each rider will have had to do a series of qualifying events of ever-increasing distances – brevets of 200, 300, 400 and 600km. Some will be aiming simply to return to Paris within the cut off time allowance of ninety hours – no mean feat in itself. But others will be vying for the prestige of a fast finish time; riding practically non-stop and battling through sleep deprivation. They’ll cover the distance in under 45 hours – a challenge that will be as much mental as it will be physical.
For Kingston Wheeler club mate Richard Evans, this will be his third time at Paris-Brest-Paris, having ridden the previous two editions in 2003 and 2007 (the event is only held once every four years). I asked him about what first attracted him to ultra distance cycling, what has him coming back for more, and whether his previous experiences have taught him some important lessons in how to ride such mind boggling distances…
The riders took to the start line, the public came out to line the route, drivers found themselves caught in lines of traffic jams; after years of being encouraged to ‘Back the Bid’, Sunday’s London-Surrey Classic gave Londoners and its neighbours a first taste of what it might be like to play host to the Olympics next year.
As the enthusiastic bidding by the British public for bad seats at esoteric events had indicated, we have a massive appetite for large sporting events in this country – for many yesterday this would have been their first experience of watching a road race. Brought out by curiosity perhaps, interested to see what all the fuss was about. Or possibly eager to get the 2012 Olympics started early. The crowds came out to watch a handful of top pros contest a slightly unexciting race, on an unchallenging course over a shortened distance. But any shortcomings in the racing didn’t detract from the enthusiasm from those on the road side.