Laurens ten Dam soldiers on after crashing and landing on his face during Stage 14 of this year’s Tour de France. Photo by Koen Van Weel/AFP – Getty Images
The commissaire was twitchy. His pre-race briefing stressed a disapproval of straying across the central road lines; we were to remain squeezed onto the left hand side only. Eighty riders trying to race on just a few metres of tarmac.
Unfortunately this enthusiastic interpretation of the rules didn’t bring about safer racing, it only made us more uneasy. Chances were still being taken, on blind bends, and on the climbs when the bunch naturally fans across the road as the pace slows. Of course, some riders were clearly intent on taking more risks than others.
The circuit we were racing includes one main descent – it’s fast and the road is twisty, but it can be taken at speed without requiring the brakes. Approaching it for the first time in the race I had worked my way into the first five or so in the bunch, supposedly the safest place to be. Unfortunately that doesn’t account for the leading rider misjudging a corner at high speed.
At 55kph I saw his back wheel lock up, his bike fishtail as he fought to make it around the right hand bend. The bushes lining the left of the road appeared to offer a soft landing, but carrying such speed it only rebuffed him back across the road, and sent him sprawling across our paths.
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…
Thomas Löfkvist of Team Sky displays some sharp lines. Photo by Camille McMillan – watch out for his forthcoming pro cycling reportage project The Collarbone.
I bear the marks of my biker’s tan… It’s my second skin. I derive neither shame nor glory from it. I take it on, and, with the first rays of the spring sun, I put down another layer.
One day I was at the pool and a kid yelled at me: ‘Hey pops, you forgot your bike!’
It’s hard to stay incognito. – Paul Fournel, Need for the Bike
By now your friends, family and work colleagues already think you’re strange with that peculiar obsession with cycling you have. But that doesn’t stop them from stifling a giggle when they first notice that the deep brown tan on your arms mysteriously ends at the wrist – the classic cycling mitt tan line. Do they suspect the other tanning horrors that lurk beneath your shirtsleeves?
Races are won and lost on the hairpin bend at Crystal Palace. Photo by Andy Waterman
It’s difficult to understand how some people’s favourite season is not summer. In terms of racing there’s more on offer than at any other time of the year; living in London it’s easily possible to race three times a week if you so wanted, and that’s not to mention time trialling and sportives (if you’re that way inclined). Racing after work is possible because of the longer evenings, and Tuesday night alone there’s the choice of either Hillingdon or Crystal Palace. But for me the only choice is Palace.
I remember in my first year of racing I didn’t stray far from Hillingdon; as a fourth cat your racing options are fairly limited anyway, but I’d heard stories about Palace. About the crazy narrow course. That’s in a public park with dog walkers straying onto the road. The chaos as the various concurrent races mingle and tangle, and all the confusion that ensues. But bored of circling a flat featureless track out by an industrial park at the end of the bordering-on-hostile Uxbridge Road, I gathered my courage and headed one evening instead to south east London… I’d never enjoyed myself so much during a race than during that first taste of Palace – sprinting out of every corner, tentatively getting to grips with the tricky bends. I regretted listening to the nay-sayers and the doom mongers, and for not racing there sooner.
How many times does the thought cross your mind? “I wish this could just end right now”, as the elastic to the wheel in front starts to stretch further and further, and the effort to close it gets more and more painful. A puncture, a broken spoke, something innocuous but definitive. A noble end, an irrefutable excuse. “Not a crash, nothing painful, just an end.”
And then it finally happens, the shameful truth emerges – the legs inadequate, the heart too weak, the line of riders drift away. Shoulders bowed, head hung low – you’ve been dropped.
Did it ever happen to Mercx? Did anyone ever have ‘The Cannibal’ for breakfast? Was Hinault ever humiliated, anyone ever lick his plate clean? Did that guy who beat you and the rest of the field on Sunday ever grovel in the wheels of stronger riders, ever ride himself into the ground only to finish dead last – or not finish at all? After all, we’re all human – right?
The full version of this article appears in issue 5 of The Ride Journal - visit their website to order a copy or to find your nearest stockist. Illustration by Robin Boyden
After a restless night, I hear my alarm go off. Still dark outside, but I was already awake anyway. Lying still, I strain to listen to the weather, for the tapping of rain against the window or the signs of a stiff breeze disturbing the leaves of the trees. It’s early season and it’s race day.
Hitching a lift with a team-mate, we survey the skies over the motorway as we leave the city and head out into the countryside. Rain might mean a last-minute change of kit, or could determine how the race is won. We chat nervously trying to predict how the racing will unfold, recalling the difficulty of certain climbs and the vagaries of the particular circuit. Our destination is race headquarters at a country village hall. It could be Loxwood, Alfold, Bletchingley or Wisborough – all names conjuring images of a quaint Britishness distant to our everyday metropolitan lives.
On arrival, the ritual begins: signing on, the pinning of numbers, several toilet visits. We change in the drafty hall on plastic chairs common to municipal buildings, notices for Women’s Institute meetings and toddler playgroups are dotted about the walls. In the corner is the familiar counter serving tea. Laid out is a spread of homemade cakes and sandwiches of cheap bread and simple fillings. The race officials warm and feed themselves in anticipation of the hours standing on cold road corners, or of monitoring the race from the front seat of the commissaire’s car. The racers will revive themselves a few hours from now, cradling cups of hot tea in shivering hands, faces spattered in road grime.