As soon as I crossed the finish line and finally got off the bike I knew I was going to find it extremely difficult to write the final part of this story. In truth so much had happened along the way, it was so compressed, so physically and mentally brutal that I just could not write an extensive report.

Although we had two solo riders starting at a earlier time and the remainder attempting it in a group we were still all caught up in different places on the same road. Ken's journey through the treatment rooms of the PBP was an epic tale. Tony and Colin balancing on the clock for long periods. The rest of us with bruises, punctures, exhaustion and various body parts wearing out. The only way to get the full picture is for everyone to tell their PBP story. Here is my fatigue, confused attempt.

Sunday 18th Aug had long been a red-letter day for me and now, finally, here it was!  A good breakfast, pack up bags to vacate the room, pump tires, check the weather. Later in the morning I went to Mass with Tony and Leonard and in a lovely little cameo of what was to come, the Priest welcomed us warmly. When he discovered we were cycling in PBP he introduced us to the entire congregation to wish us Bon Voyage. It was a a hint of the level of support we were to experience from the locals over the next few days!

Usually before any sportive I sleep badly and I’m a bundle of nerves, continually checking the bike, packing and repacking clothes, or any items I think I will need. It was the last couple of hours - my roomie had gone already, having an earlier start time. I was there alone - just me, my bike and bags all packed away in the van Nothing to do but make nervous checks of stuff I had already checked. For the first time in my life I didn’t bother. I knew it was all fine, the bike was perfect, I was in possibly the best form in my life. For once I did nothing, I was relaxed and ready to face a challenge that was so far beyond anything I had ever done. Thankfully I really enjoyed these last few hours because when I got on the bike everything changed.

Pre-event bike check

Audaxing does funny things to your perception of distances you cycle and the 25K to the start line of a 1200K event was not even mentioned as we set off. We had cycled the route there and back the day before for the bike inspection. These two days could not be more different, the Saturday had nonstop rain, Sunday was perfect sunshine. We arrived at Rambouillet and sorted ourselves into the starting pens for "U" numbers, then filtered through the control, Brevet Card stamped and on to the start line. At 2045 we were off, our first leg being a "mere" 525K cycle to Carhaix with a couple of hours breaks scheduled in between.

On the start line!

Soon it was dark, and it was just a line of red lights into the night. Our first stop was Mortagne au Perche for 15 minutes which stretched a bit longer than planned due to the logistics in just getting 11 people through a busy control. It takes time and 15 mins was probably a little ambitious. It is difficult of being really disciplined at the breaks and more so when they are all new to you and you dont know where you are. Every moment wasted at a break ultimately eats into the time you get to sleep. It was a constant battle  and one that was often lost just due to small but very good reasons. A wake up call not given to a sleeping rider, a queue for the toilets a busy food hall, not being able to fins a bike in the bike park, can’t find the van in the car park, an injury needs attention, punctures, broken gear cables - all legitimate reasons but all taking time.

It is said for a successful PBP you should race to Brest and cruise to Paris and so it was with us cycling on to control after control - card stamped, grab what we needed and go. Often schools with big canteens and each stop had an army of volunteers to support the participants. It was chaos but always organised chaos. From volunteers minding the bike parks to young school kids using their language skills as translators. Local bike shops had spare parts and mechanics to fix bikes at all the controls and always people cheering and encouraging. These are small towns in France, populations of about 3000 people and you would probably normally never see them and yet for four complete days, sandwich bars, restaurants, beds, repairs, medical attention is available to the Randonneuers on their journey. It is an amazing community effort to see and a privilege to experience.

Our first sleep stop was Carhaix at 521K but due to various reasons our 6/7-hour stop was down to about 4 hours. I had just ridden a distance I had never even contemplated when I first joined Orwell. I had something to eat and a bottle of beer because I thought it might make me sleep better before crashing in someone’s spare bedroom, Danny was already asleep on the floor. Three hours later it was a struggle to get my legs turning again. I swear at the top of the pedal stroke my legs had forgotten to push down. The early morning was misty and very cold, I seriously wondered if anyone had died from exposure as we passed several riders asleep at the side of the road. Sleeping in a ditch or doorway within two kilometres of the resources of a control is mind boggling, just proving that when tired how wacky decision making can be. It soon warmed up though, as it was about a 30Km gentle upward road to the Mast that donates the highest point of the PBP. From there it is almost a 50Km descent to Brest and the iconic bridge photo. It was a quick turnaround in Brest and back up that hill to the mast, a "gentle" 50K drag.

Halfway - the bridge at Brest!

Leonard got it into his head to put a bit of pace into the climb during the last 20Km to the top and John went after him, I had to go then and last saw Dave going past me very easily. We were all pushing it a bit and I admit it was pretty satisfying passing so many people to the summit and then relaxing at the few tables with local people giving water to any cyclists who stopped . It was also testament to Dave’s training program, that we were able to have a little “give it a lash” moment at the 650 mark. We were all displaying much better levels of fitness than our peers all around.

It was head down for the rest of the day as our goal was Tinteniac - 869 and sleep. Unwinding our way along the route we had followed the previous day. I started to get confused at the controls, although different I could not remember the sequence or is this a rest stop or just a quick stop. It was also weird because some you were now seeing in the day light where ten hours ago you were there in the dark. Some I just couldn't remember at all!  Our routine developed as the event wore on - it was run in, fill the VeloRevolution musette with what was needed and quickly back on the bike. VeloRevolution, who supply our club kit, had given us the musettes and they turned out to be seriously useful!

Tinteniac was a great place to sleep, dorm bed, 1 hairy blanket, no pillows, showers, it was luxury. Sleeping areas are set aside, often just a mat in a quite gym. Sports halls with showers ,food kitchens with hot food or a quick sandwich stop for those in a rush. It was crazy but humbling how entire communities mobilise to see the riders through. Always a kind word, always encouragement and always good humour.

We had some Orwell enamel badges made before we left Ireland and they were a perfect way to say thank you for the little kindnesses we all experienced on the journey. Every time I handed one to some helper, they at first thought I was trying to give them a tip and were very strong about saying no. Then they realised it was a Cycling Club badge so were very happy to accept. The whole ethos of the volunteers is not about reward but giving to and supporting the riders.

Sleeping quarters

I had a perfect Orwell badge moment at the gates to the control waiting with Leonard for the group to form and leave. I had a conversation with a woman who had come down to the control to cheer and applaud the cyclists with her family. I told her I was amazed at the support, she was just amazed that every four years the World comes to Brest and ordinary people do this extraordinary cycle, how could she not give every encouragement. I thanked her and gave her young son one of the badges we had commissioned.

The roads were generally very good by our standards, but as with most sportives the standard of cycling varied a lot - some of the cyclists group riding skills were dreadful. I had several terrifying moments thanks to some random acts of stupidity. I can still see in my mind’s eye the horror on one spectators face as she looked back up the hill at a hundred cyclists trying to avoid one cyclist who just stopped dead in the road as the peloton swept through the town square.

Irish Corner PBP style

Another outstanding memory is that we even ended up with our own Irish Corner of support! Last year Danny was befriended by the Mooneys - a family who live on the course and this year we dropped in to a wonderful breakfast of everything and porridge. They even had a beautiful Dublin Flag for Danny, it was amazing. Much thanks to Paul, Eithne and Dee for their hospitality. We even got a Orwell shout out one day in pure Irish tones from two cyclist out for a spin.

Passing through the countryside was beautiful, the people who live on the route sit on walls, cafes set chairs by their gates always applauding the continuous stream of riders. The terrain is “ rolling hills” - seriously its hill after hill after hill. Nothing that will kill you but at times it felt like Laragh to Hollywood repeats for a hundred and fifty kilometres.

It was France in August and it was also hot during the day and cold at night. I was lucky I just happened to have packed long fingered gloves and some leg warmers. I even wore two pairs of socks one of the nights. Then a few hours after sun up I’m peeling everything off. I had a tube of Lidl sunscreen which literally saved my life as I burn with out it. I just managed to squeeze enough out of the tube to cover myself on the three days but still finished with my lips sunburnt.

With all the suffering aside you continually get these wonderful moments of support, I will never forget the feeling of cycling into Villaines la Juhel down a narrow street, people lined up both sides and cheering every rider to the stop, shaking your hand and applauding you as you walk up the steps to the control, it’s almost embarrassing! Two mins later a 12-year-old girl is directing me to the restaurant before running off and helping the next rider. Or the time I was very slowly getting off the floor and this elderly lady put her arm around me to encourage me along through my tiredness

Wednesday was my toughest day, I was sun burnt and frazzled from the temperatures of the previous days. I had only about five hours sleep in total and I was suffering on slow hills with my foot and right Achilles tendon - I was having to stop frequently to stretch it out. I would carry on up the road as the rest of the group stopped for a quick water break because I didn't want the group to stop every fifteen mins or so on my account. My Garmin battery had died days ago so I had no idea of speed or distance, I was just trying to roughly judge how far and how long to the next control. 

Later that day I just lay on the busy dining hall floor for a minute in Mortagne au Perche and Dave woke me up to see if I wanted to carry on or sleep. Leonard said it was as natural as lying down and just falling asleep on O’Connell Street. There were bodies everywhere and no one bats an eyelid.  The group was beginning to unravel and were a bit all over the place by this stage. Tony and Colin were back down the road a bit too close to the clock. Leonard Ken and Kashif stayed at Mortagne au Perche just simply too tired to ride on and by now Ken was getting some treatment at nearly every control.

40 or possibly 50 winks!

It was a reduced group that headed off to Dreux and we splintered even more over the night. I was the first to crack on this stretch, I got off the bike to change a battery for my head light and suddenly just felt awful. I had a good wretch in a hedge - one of those hope that you will get sick and feel less awful moments! The others waited a good bit as I had just disappeared. No sooner were we back together then it was Michael's turn, he too was just plain exhausted and took a couple of stops, we all lost contact at this point. I spent a while going up and back this Roman road looking for Michael. Val and Tara were up ahead but stopping a lot waiting for catch ups, somehow, I passed them in the dark and they just appeared behind me as we pulled in together at Dreux. John and Dave floated in ahead of Val and Tara but behind Michael who caught a large group to the control. Snakes and Ladders at PBP!

It was now three thirty, we had 50K to go to the finish line and we knew we would make it. We had a few beers and a glass of wine to celebrate. Then it was time for some sleep on a gym mat in a big sports hall. I even had that sickening moment of leaving my Brevet Card behind me in the showers. Panic over when thankfully it was still hanging there when I got back ten minutes later.

Waking up before my alarm call the next morning was a killer! I was awake but could only see the rows of tired humans looking like a field of tin foil wrapped aliens. As they slowly struggled and tried to get out they became even more alien like, bent and stiff from too little sleep and too much cycling, breaking out of their metallic chrysalis.

I put on my Orwell PBP Jersey - the special ones we had made for the event to finish it out. I admit I put it on with some pride because I knew that if I had not completed the distance, I would have given the jersey to someone who had. I just could not have put it on.

Getting ready for the home stretch

The group was just assembling at the van, Nicky was there, his usual helpful and cheerful self, getting us all sorted, when Colin Tony, Ken, Kashif and Leonard all rocked up from Mortagne au Perche. The gang was almost all back together again! Joe meanwhile had cycled through the night and slept in a ditch at the finish in Rambouillet,  afraid that if he had stopped that he wouldnt get going again. He was first there but waited so we could all cross the line together. Once again, we splintered into several groups as we made our way to the finish.  More hills and traffic lights did it for Val and I as we basically went into TT mode to the finish.

Of course, it was at that moment we had to get a puncture! On this flat straight Roman road with a deep ditch at the side, we could not even get off the road to fix it and there was no getting the tire off the rim. It was as though the heat and 1178 kilometres of use had made the tire super soft and sticky. A stranger stopped his van beside us, explained he owned a bike shop and he would fix it. Several mins later, a lot of effort spent, and with two specialised leavers from his tool box the tire was off. A quick tube change, more tire leavers and grunting to get it back on, track pump to finish it odd then we were almost on our way.  But first a quick photo or two with his kids who were in the van and a few Orwell Badges of thanks. He though Val was trying to pay him for his help and he was saying no, then realised it was a Club Badge his smile was bigger than his six-year-old son.

PBP puncture repair rescue

During this entire time, we had created a traffic jam by blocking a complete lane and forcing lots of bikes into the morning traffic! This is Paris, big city, busy lives yet not one driver honked a horn such is the regard for this event.

Finally, we arrived, and we all crossed the line together for a well-earned meal and celebration beer. It’s a chunky medal, we will get the Brevet Card in a few months and the control stamps are a wonderful record, you also get a souvenir direction sign. A few photos on the podium, of team Orwell and the Irish finishers. Finally we just sat in the shade of a tree and enjoyed the atmosphere of riders finishing before we got on our bikes to cycle to the railway station to catch the train to the hotel.

A very well deserved beer

So what was it like? It was tough, really tough. I have never, ever gotten close to the physical and mental anguish I endured over the few days. I think we all had our difficult moments and somehow, we all dragged ourselves through them. My emotions shifted from despair to exaltation and I was continually humbled by the support along the way. Normally I throw the medals etc into my “drawer of mediocrity” Not this one I already have a framed montage on my wall of medal, direction sign, bike numbers, stickers, PBP bag, wrist band and when I get the Brevet card it will go into it too.

Between ordinary people riding an extraordinary distance against the clock, with the extraordinary support and generosity of the communities along the route, the Paris Brest Paris, simply displays the human spirit at its best. To take part is a trial and a joy.

I know I would never had made it without Dave Mc's experience to guide me I’m not sure many in the group would have either, for myself I would have made too many mistakes. From preparation to execution his plan and knowledge was always spot on. It was a unique PBP achievement on his part, to mentor 11 middling club cyclists, successfully through this extreme cycling event. I’m not sure anyone has ever done it before. There were plenty of people in the Audax world said it was not possible.

Coach, Mentor and Mechanic - Dave Mc in action

Would I recommend PBP to anyone? Absolutely not because it is possibly foolish to ask your mind and body to go through that. Three weeks later my finger tips are still tingling from the battering on the handle bars. My foot is still experiencing the odd painful spasm. My sleep patterns are all over the place and I’m still processing the journey in my head. Over a few beers on the ferry I described the PBP as a safe place to get to on a PTSD recovery program. Still interested? I would suggest look at it and think of all the reasons not to do it and after that process if you are still curious, then maybe.

Twenty minutes after I had crossed the finish line in Paris I’m sitting with a bottle of local cider, picking at some food, happy out with the Orwell gang. I see this tall American arriving at the control. The Americans have this hipster approach to Audaxing - hand built steel bikes, Marino wool jerseys, front bags of waxed cotton, all very retro and charming. It was his beautiful American Randonnée wool jersey which caught my eye. It was solid blue with white going across the chest, the white band was dissected with a thin red stripe. He really stood out, tall maybe few years older than me looking very healthy and distinguished. He turned around and he had three gold stars embroidered over the left-hand breast of the jersey. It made me think three gold stars would look good on an Orwell PBP jersey.................

Andrew proving yet again that he can sleep anywhere!

Editors note: Thanks to Andrew for all the articles he has written this year in the lead up to and after PBP. Between work, training and focusing on this event I'm sure the last thing he needed was to be talked into writing a PBP series!  Personally I can't wait to see what madness he decides to get up to next year and I'm 100% certain that there will be an Orwell jersey in 2027 with 3 stars on it as I still firmly believe "he is nuts"! 

Lets leave the final word to Andrew himself with the help of video guru Leonard......