Paris – Brest – Paris
Part 1 - Training and Preparation
Our director and resident randonneur Pete Kelsey recently completed one of the most famous audax races in the world: Paris-Brest-Paris. It’s not his first rodeo and he’s certainly learnt a lot from his previous endurance efforts. “I did PBP back in 2011 and loved it, but probably more relevant for this edition was the LEL (London Edinburgh London 1400km) ride I did in 2017. This would be my fifth ride of 1000Km+ and I’d done a lot of work early in the year increasing my speed, so faster, shorter training rides and high intensity wattbike / power sessions in the gym. I’d also looked to increase my fat-burning capabilities using fasted training rides. I was hoping this strategy would help me ride longer & stronger and avoid dips in form I’ve suffered on longer rides in the past”.
Training for PBP starts early to get the body used to the outrageous distances covered in such a short amount of time. “I decided to go to Italy at the end of April for a 1200km ride which would make up my qualification for PBP (the ride was effectively 2x600km events back to back). That was pretty early to hitting those distances so I trained pretty hard from January, putting in around 600-800km month on the road plus gym work. The ride in Italy went well, I felt strong and had no physical issues except for a sore back which I put down to lack of miles at the time. After Italy I did some low intensity riding with friends and had a few weekends off for family / social events. PBP is in the middle of August so it can be a real struggle to stay on top of your fitness all the way through the Summer. I managed two 300km shakedown rides in July and early August as final preparation”.
With a ride this long, the mental fitness needed is arguably more taxing than the physical fitness to keep the legs turning. “Yes, you need a certain level of fitness, and to ride quickly probably also need the right physiological profile but for most it’s about getting round in under the 90hr time limit. Once you’ve exhausted yourself in the first day or so it’s almost entirely a mental challenge, pushing yourself beyond your natural limits in terms of sleep and effort. Experience helps, but you know there will be times when you will be willing the miles away and the trick is to just accept that, but to also know that the feeling won’t last and you can recover your mojo later in the ride. Just keep riding, control to control, and reset each time.”
The idea of a shakedown ride pre-race for most of us is a gentle tap for an hour or two, keeping the legs spinning and maybe doing a couple of openers. The prep for PBP? Just a casual 600km jaunt nearly the entire length of England. “Actually it didn’t go well at all. I’d planned a 600km overnight ride to Newcastle but I couldn’t arrange a return train so reduced it to a 300km day ride. I picked up a slow puncture and later damaged my rims hitting a pothole. I was using aerobars on that ride but decided against them for PBP as they cluttered the cockpit too much. Riding long distances solo is always challenging but even on a ride like PBP with 6500 other riders you will find yourself alone so it’s all good preparation”.
Making sure your bike is set up correctly for such a long event is crucial. Balancing performance with comfort is hugely important as small nagging issues can become overwhelming over such a duration. Pete used his Trek Emonda SL with 50cm deep Bontrager wheels. Usually the bike is a spritely 7.5kg but for PBP it was over 12kg fully laden with gear. “I’d changed to 25mm tubeless for the ride in Italy and that went well but I seemed to pick up punctures in both tyres on my return. I ended up fitting new tubeless tyres just before PBP and these lasted the race without needing any re-inflating. I had a small seat post pack with tools/ spares and a large Restrap frame bag with clothing, food and batteries. I had two sets of light front and back plus an emergency set, and a head torch.”
Part 2 - The Race
PBP is race where you can pack relatively light. However, you still need to cover all your bases in terms of weatherproofing. “I only had one set of clothing for the race, the new Milltag Forest Pro Jersey and Pro Bibs. In addition I had a Milltag LS base layer which was needed every night, Milltag black rain jacket and the PBP official Reflex gilet, all of which were worn in the early morning when temperatures dipped to 4C. Additionally, I had long finger gloves, Joy Division cap, shoe covers and knee warmers. The only spare kit I carried was an extra pair of socks, luxury! I think I took it down to the bare minimum and used / wore everything I carried which is how it should be. I was concerned about not having a change of jersey and bibs but I had a shower every morning before the start which helps, it wasn’t too hot on the ride which kept the sweat / stink factor down but would have washed the kit if required. Most of my previous distance rides have had the option of a drop bag so this was my first experience of the fully self-supported ethic.”
The route heads through the rolling countryside of Northern France full of wind farms and small towns. The 300km from Brest to Fougeres ratchets up the climbing as you enter Normandy and heap towards lump Brittany. The Roc Treugel is the main climb before Brest, with the gentle slopes slowly sapping the legs rather than bludgeoning you. The course is essentially an out and back but it was made very challenging by a persistent headwind on the way out to Brest. “The start is fast and furious but you need to stay alert as the groups yo-yo and compress. I enjoyed the first night once the groups thinned out and the pace eased into something more sustainable. I had some physical issues (see below) but rode well at times early on day 2, returning from Brest. One good memory; i was in group of 3 Brits, all strong riders riding back at around the 850km mark. We were passed by four germans, all young, big rulers so we jumped on there wheel. We took a tow from them but they were slower on the hills so we all shared the work and picked up another 20 or 30 more riders as we blasted along at 40kmh. We hit a roundabout and I was at the front, and immediately the road rose for approx 400m at around 7-8%. I was feeling strong so pushed hard on the hill to thin out the group, when I turned round the whole group was 100m behind me. We had a slight tailwind so pushed on and made them chase me for 5km, no free rides in this game!”
“It's always good to finish but the best parts of the ride are invariably the moments of interaction with fellow riders, and with the wonderful people who engage with the ride and the riders. I rode with lots of great riders who helped pass the miles, friends old and new but my favourite moment was stopping at a roadside garage at midnight somewhere on the last night. A family had set up an impromptu feed station with coffee, biscuits, cake & chocolate, all gratis. There were 2 or 3 prone bodies in the back and a general air of conviviality and warmth. I was joined by group of jolly Belgians and we all rode off into the night together, restored and full of faith in human kindness. PBP is really a great 2- wheeled carnival but made special by the passion and warmth of the people who come out to cheer and support the riders along the way. Chapeau to the people of Northern France who make this great race such a special event.”
The group camaraderie and cosmopolitan makeup of the race was certainly a bonus but the physical toll of the race started to catch up to Pete after a couple of route deviations and knee trouble. “I missed a turn on the first night and went off-route. I rode an extra 18km to get back on track, not good. I missed a good, fast -moving train travelling into the headwind early on the 2nd morning whilst I was repacking my bag, I ended up riding solo for 50km and developed a left knee (ITB) issue on that section pushing too big a gear after 350km. I didn’t feel great first thing on the return from Brest but my knee problem seem to ease on the climb over Le Roc. I really started to suffer with knee and back problems towards the end of day 2 and by the start of day 3, even though I only had 200km to go my race was run. I couldn’t hold any wheels so rode solo feeling a little grumpy, riding one legged to protect my left knee from more damage.”
“I didn’t have set plan but knew in order to get a good time (I was aiming for 65 hours) I needed to get to Brest and then head back before stopping. I got to Brest in 28 hours, just before 9pm but knee pain and fighting the headwinds left me too tired to continue at that point. I rode 627km the first day, 404km the second and 214 to the finish. The start was relatively easy physically but mentally taxing, I enjoy night riding so don’t find that a major challenge, but it gets tougher the deeper you go in the race. I’m a light sleeper so find it hard to sleep even when I do lie down which makes getting up and getting going taxing as I never feel that rested. Physically I picked up some strain injuries but part from that actually felt fit / strong most of whole ride. The food offer is not great on PBP so I missed the 3 course meals I was consuming on LEL, there only so far you can go on baguettes and croissants.”
Finally, and most importantly, we were all desperate to know how our bibs and jersey fared in such rigorous testing. “Both performed excellently, the pro jersey in particular felt great and drew a few admiring comments. I’d lost a bit of weight preparing for the ride which definitely benefits both the look and feel of the jersey. The bibs are tried and trusted, super comfortable and the pad is perfect for multi-day rides. The rain jacket was a great addition as it provides good warmth / wind proofing even though the ride was almost entirely rain-free, and packs down relatively small which is useful as space was at a premium. It’s important to me that the Milltag kit performs to a high level, I’ve riding long distances events for 10 years, longer than Milltag and have tried to use this experience to develop the products functionality and durability.The quality of construction has always been excellent, but developments in performance fabrics has really allowed us to create some exceptional products, and the pro jersey, the pro bibs and rain jacket are right at the top of that development arc.”
You can see more of the event in this video.
You can see for yourself how comfortable our pro range is by checking it out here.