Monday, August 29, 2011


by Charlie Bladon

The Paris-Brest-Paris was conceived in 1891 as a cycle race of 1200km between the French capital and the western tip of Brittany and back. It predated the Tour de France by two years but differed because, whereas the Tour was a stage race with overnight stops, the PBP was non-stop. Initially it was run only every 10 years as professional riders could forget about the rest of their season if they participated, so hard it was. In the 1960’s it became an amateur event for the same reason.

Today, it is run every four years and participants must qualify by completing a series of 200, 300, 400 and 600km rides within designated timescales. The PBP is 1230km and 90 hours are allowed, which include any stops for any reason. Entrants have a book which they get stamped at roughly 90km intervals as proof of passage, and food and beds are available at these ‘controls’. Bearing in mind that at each control (18 in total) you will be queuing for an hour to get your card stamped, get food and get water, and the time allowance is suddenly being eaten away significantly.

I opted for the 6pm start on Sunday 21 August. This actually meant a 7.40pm start as they set you off in waves. This was just as well, however, as I had 2 punctures whilst waiting for the off – my first in over 6 months! It was incredibly hot and there was no shade, so all 5,000 participants were glad to get going and get a bit of a breeze in their face. Riding out of Paris the police closed off side roads, spectators lined the streets and the bridges overhead were crowded with well-wishers; quite an experience in a country where cycling is revered.

The first overnight stage was incredible; all you can see is a line of red rear lights snaking its way across northern France in front of you; behind, a similar line of headlights. The initial speeds are high as everyone rides in groups, and the first 220km were covered in a record time for me. After this, things start to settle down as people find their own pace. The emphasis is very much on making steady progress, and it is not a race. Having so many riders around always makes it easy to get into a group going at you own pace which makes life easier.

Whilst support cars are allowed, most riders see self sufficiency as part of the challenge and carry everything they need in a saddlebag. When the weather turned thundery on the first afternoon after about 400km, I was glad of my heavy waterproofs. Coming back the other way were the handful of semi professionals who do treat it as a race – no such luxury for them, so they got completely soaked. It was amazing to think they had already covered 800km and would finish in a time of about 48 hours. They have full support teams at the controls, who feed, massage and apply soothing creams all at the same time to minimise time spent stationary.

As with all endurance events there are good times and bad. Sometimes I could hardly turn the pedals, yet five minutes later would be feeling stronger than ever. There didn’t seem to be any logic to this, and unfortunately an enforced stop in the form of a control would often come as I was going well. However it is vital to refuel and the controls all had canteens where the normal diet was soup, rice or pasta with chicken and rice pudding. After eating you push your tray away and get your head down on the table for as long as possible – which means 15 or 20 minutes. These power naps stave off complete exhaustion and freshen you up enough just enough for the next stage. At one control I was lucky to get an hour’s sleep, but that was the most and the total was about 7 ½ hours over the four nights. Sometimes you just have to stop by the side of the road for ten minutes, and throughout the day and night you see riders fast asleep wherever you look.

The arrival in Brest was an important psychological point for me as it marked an equalling of my previous longest ride (600km) and also the turning point. From now on it was a straight road back to Paris. I got there at lunchtime on Tuesday, had a quick sleep and turned around.

The weather had now improved slightly but fatigue was well and truly setting in. However there was a very slight tailwind which was nice, but getting to the end of each stage was progressively harder. What really made the difference was the support the locals give; the route itself is very pleasant but nothing special, but at every junction people are there cheering you on, offering coffee, water and cakes and wanting to a part of the big event. Children make massive posters which adorn their villages, and communities come together for a day and night of celebration. Every single rider gets a massive cheer, regardless of whether you’re bowling along feeling great or really struggling; for the French, the fact that you even contemplate taking on the challenge is enough for them to encourage you loudly and enthusiastically.

The physical fatigue becomes matched by the mental; the mind starts playing tricks and night time shadows turn into interesting shapes. Hallucinations are commonplace as the brain tries to make sense of what is around it, when rational thought says you cannot possibly have been pedalling continuously for three days and more. For my part, the highlight of my hallucinations was seeing Scooby Doo at the side of the road.

The last night was arduous, seemingly uphill for about 8 hours. I am sure it wasn’t really. Riding through the night is a special experience, quiet with only the noise of your tyres on the tarmac. When dawn came across the wheat fields west of Paris and the penultimate control was reached a party atmosphere ensued; relief that all the training was going to pay off and that Paris would be reached in time. The last 65km into Paris were a joy; the arrival incredible and emotional. I arrived at 12.28pm, meaning I had covered the 1230km in 88 hours 48 minutes.

It’s difficult to remember every detail of the ride, but the over-riding memory is of the fantastic support which creates a very special atmosphere and means people come back time and time again despite the deprivations involved. My hands and feet are still numb, legs swollen and Achilles hurting, and cushions are appreciated when sitting down, but I’ll be back in four years.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

More Madness

Saturday evening saw the successful running of the seventh Maiden Newten Madness, a popular multi terrain 10k race organised by Maiden Newton Runners. On a cool and slightly damp summer evening 111 runners completed the testing course.

First home was Yeovil Town's Paul Rose, absent from last year's race through injury but returning this year in a blaze of glory, recording an excellent time of 39.17. Just half a minute behind him was James Prentice from South West Road Runner's and in third place unattached runner Carl Fountain, who finished in 41.51.

The veteran men finished in reverse order, the first V60 was 5th overall, the ever sprightly Clive Harwood from Crewkerne Running Club; the first V50, having only just celebrated his 50th birthday, was Yeovil's Mike Harvey, in 6th place overall and the first V40, also from Yeovil was Phil Waites in 7th position.

Hot on their heels was the first lady, Sian Thomas, in 9th place overall and a winning time of 44.18, with Jessica Riley from Sale Harriers in 2nd place and Kelly Matthews 3rd in 49.09. Yeovil Town Road Running Club picked up another trophy as Paula Goddard was the first V35 home, with unattached runners Gwen Burns and Liz Baker being first V45 and first V55 respectively.

Although there was no official trophy for the V70 category Rob Panter from Egdon Heath Harriers was awarded a bottle of wine for being the first 70 year old over the line in an excellent time of 53.38.

During the presentation by Club Chairman Phil England, special mention was made of three runners who have completed all seven races so far, James Dovey, George Lawson and Nigel Arthur, who hopefully will continue to support the event as a vague promise was made that a special memento may be awarded if any of them reach ten consecutive events.

Thanks as always go to all the volunteers and helpers who ensure that the race is so well organised, especially to those Maiden Newton Runners who multi task by helping and running and the first of these home, having successfully arranged the car park, was Dave Carnell, who ran the race in celebration of his 34th wedding anniversary!

The course records of 37.49 set by Bertie Powell in 2009 and 43.31 by Stephanie Slade in 2008 remain unbroken....but the challenge remains for the 2012 event.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Shave Cross

For those who have never come across this race (easily done – you need good navigational skills just to find the start), this is a low key mainly on road race. The start and finish are in a field. I was there to return the cup which I’d won last year, due more to lack of competition than any speed on my part. Having done the Seaview last week, and spending the week collecting and playing with my new bike, I was fairly relaxed about taking part. Richard had accompanied me – well, someone has to drive if I’m map reading – but he wasn’t running. Dave C was also there and finished in an impressive 14th position. I started somewhere near the back, chatting as usual, and forgot to start my watch, also forgetting that they don’t record the finish times, but I think it was about 41 minutes. After the initial lap and a half of the field we set off up the road, Richard had passed on an enigmatic “she’s only 25 seconds ahead”. However “she” wasn’t the only one and I managed to get past her and a Bridport lady, and was feeling good until a lady in a pink vest cruised past. The first half of the course is generally uphill, but on a short downhill I got ahead of her again, only for her to go past on the next hill. However I knew that after the water station there is a good downhill so put in a good effort to keep her in sight. Luckily she stopped at the water station, my turn to cruise past, and I really legged it down the hill, head down arms working. And she didn’t come past. After a mile and a half we turned onto an unmade track and up to a field gate, this slowed me a bit, but then there was a nice grassy slope to run down. Still no pink vest although I thought I could hear footsteps behind, but I wouldn’t turn and look. Through the last gap in the hedge and into the finish field and there was Richard who ran alongside for a while before imparting the news that there was a lady just behind me. I gave it my best, but I’ve never been much good at sprint finishes and sure enough as we turned for the last 100 yards up hill to the finish she went past (quite easily!!) and got to the line a few seconds ahead.

When I got my breath back and looked at the finishing positions board I was surprised to find that there was only the lady in the pink vest ahead of me so she was first overall and I was first female vet again. (Not counting a female junior who was way ahead of both of us). I’m still getting over the shock, for 1.5 miles I had actually been first lady in the race. This position is usually reserved for much speedier “fast skinny birds”!! So no quick getaway for us this evening. Harry Moore was competing – there is a prize for oldest competitor, so we waited for him to cross the finish line before prize-giving could start. The cup will be off to the engraving shop again.