Double or Quits – An Opportunity That Comes Only Every 20 Years

Casper and MeFriends can lead you astray. It was only when I was booking leave and flights in early 2009 that it dawned on me that agreeing to suggestions by various friends meant I’d arranged to ride two 1200s and a 1400 over seven weeks. That led to completing an International Super Randonneur 1200km 3 Continent in under six months by tacking on Sydney Melbourne Alpine 1200 in November. Not having done anything quite this crazy before, it all seemed quite simple, so I happily bounced between randonnees and work.

In 2011, Dave Minter mooted what seemed to be something simpler, ride PBP Audax and PBP Randonneur in the same month. No problem, two rides not three in quick succession. However, a bit like 2009, the whole picture didn’t initially click fully into place. Rather than 14 days between rides, this time around there would only be 10 clear days between them. Oh dear…

Then the picture got a little complicated by my addiction to riding, particularly overseas. A friend in Texas was running the inaugural Texas 1200, so I put that on my list. Then a certain Mr Poulidor was having a celebration 400km UAF Audax ride. Hey, we’ll add that in as well. So May was now a challenging month, with the Texas Stampede Rando followed a week later by an Audax 400.

Then June became a bit crowded with riding a qualifying 600km randonnee for PBP Randonneur and then the Summer Arrow. Hey, July was going to be an easy month, so no problems for August.

However, as always, life gets complicated. To ride an Audax, you need ride captains. Two PBP Audax sessions had been scheduled and each ride needed three captains. The second session in August was when the ‘estrangers’ were riding, so we were riding it instead of the July session. A good mate of ours from Western Australia, Nick Dale, was going to ride the second session, so we chose to put the two PBPs together. So it kind of made sense that one of the ride captains was an English speaker. UAF President Bruno Danielzik contacted Dave to see if he would take this honour. Dave thought I would be a better fit, so it was agreed that I would be a Captaine de la Route.

Life had just got very challenging. Not only could I no longer do what I do best (lurk in the bunch), but also had the double responsibility of being the one of the first women to be a PBP Audax ride captain, along with Alexandrine Henry. A double whammy.

Then there was my bike; Casper the rather special little white Moulton. Being special meant that he arrived for Dave to put together a handful of weeks before PBP Audax. So, once all the technical issues with putting his kit on were resolved, this meant I only rode him for 400km prior to the start of PBP Audax. Add in another worry; would I be able to ride in the style expected of a ride captain on my little wheels?

Casper

So, to the start of PBP Audax – a night start. Not my favourite, but that’s how it goes. For PBP Randonneur, I was in the 5am start, so only one full night in August to ride (or so I thought at the time). PBP Randonneur 2007 is a legend in its own lunch hour for the quantity of rain that the sky emitted for four days. PBP Audax 2011 was starting in the same vein; big rain!

The start of a big ride is always nerve-racking but exciting. On an Audax the excitement factor is boosted as it has a Tour de France atmosphere with AMEC motorcycles leading the ride out and controlling the traffic, leading and following cars and vans for luggage and mechanical support. So, at 10pm we’re off, winding our way out of Montigny le Bretonneux in the dark in the rain into a headwind. Sounds not too bad, could be worse I guess, but I’m at the front, trying to keep the 22.5km pace but trying at the same time to keep things smooth and as easy as possible for the peloton. We have a long way to go and getting near to a 100% success rate is the name of the game.

The rain and headwind continues through to the breakfast stop. I’m already aware of one abandonné, the Dutch tandem but not the seriousness of the crash I ride around as we depart breakfast, which is the second abandonné, due to injury. The rain is kind enough to go home after breakfast, other than one more brief but violent downpour. The headwind loves us and persistently nags in our faces for the next two days to Brest. Keeping the 22.5kph riding average is not quite happening due to the wind and not enough strong riders to help at the front of the peloton. The ride into our first lunch stop at Domfront is chaos as it’s impossible to keep the group together on the gradients we are riding. Despite re-grouping, we end up in two groups which isn’t so bad as I’m in the front group and the other two captains are in the second, so ride rules are just about being complied with.

As I arrive at lunch there is a familiar face, Daniel Ropert, one of the UAF’s top ride captains. Although he will be riding with the vedettes on PBP randonneur, he is going to ride with us as an additional captain from Domfront to Brest and back. In the kilometres ahead, Daniel’s ability as a ride captain is going to be invaluable to the group, given the challenging nature of the route and the weather.

At dinner, the problems start as riders who had been trying hard to keep towards the front of the peloton show the effects of their exertions. Between dinner and breakfast, Alexandrine and Nick, both doctors, attend to collapsing riders and send several of them to hospital for further checks. All are released from hospital in good health but out of the ride.

The ride from Saint Brieuc to Brest starts in a muddle. Unbeknown to me at the time, our number 1 captain has abandonné and the peloton leaves without me, Dave or Nick as there is now nobody controlling the ride. The route sheet is a bare bones affair (riders are meant to follow the motos for navigation) and Dave and I wind up heading in the wrong direction and losing 2 hours off-route. Nick manages to go in the correct direction and gets back to the peloton. A day and night of navigational challenges ensues as we chase down the group into the headwind. Following a route on a GPX is easy, using one to navigate without any route or track is difficult but it makes the difference in getting us to Brest.

Brest

During the chase, our mini peloton grows to three as we pick up Yves, one of the French riders in Morlaix. We don’t know how he got detached from the peloton, but do know that he really wants to get to Brest. Another rider was with Yves but he has definitely decided to pull out and backtracks to Saint Brieuc. We make Brest and the official control. Bruno is now aware of what is going on and has very kindly organised food for us here as we have missed them by just over an hour. We set off back to Saint Brieuc, the next night’s sleep stop. Unfortunately the route is not an out-and-back and navigation is still a problem. The wind has now dropped, so the longed-for back wind isn’t there, but life is much easier without a head wind. We gain on the bunch along the open road but lose all of that and more while trying to navigate. Riding through the night, we’re desperately not thinking that we could be asleep in a nice warm hotel bed. As we enter Saint Brieuc, panic sets in. The peloton is about to leave but we make it just in the nick of time. I grab a quick bowl of cereal, load my pockets with dried fruit, a feed bottle with coffee and head outside to take my place at the front of the peloton. Dave is safely tucked in at the back of the peloton, taking the opportunity to draft for a change. The French respect an escapade with a dash of courage, so we are reinstated in the ride, our double PBP quest is still one.

Having coffee in my feed bottle works a treat in stopping the sleep gods from finding me. The day is sunny and the wind is kindly. Lunch is back at Domfront where we bid a fond farewell to Daniel. The rest of the day through to our sleep stop at Mortagne au Perche is great riding. We bend the ride rules at little on the wonderful super-fast descents into Sees as we just can’t resist zipping down them. The peloton breaks into two for a short time, but each has a captain, so we’re OK.

Nick & Dave, PBP audax

We leave Mortagne au Perche a little before dawn after a good sleep. There is confusion again with the peloton moving off a little early without much warning. Nick goes to find Dave to make sure he doesn’t get left behind. I can sit second in line at the front of the peloton until the last 60km stage. Then Alexandrine and I go to the front to lead the peloton to the finish, an Audax tradition. There are no other women behind us as the other three ladies rode in the first session. We arrive at the finish, everyone resplendent in their PBP Audax jerseys. Lots of congratulations pass between riders, Yves is especially pleased to have finished. Then showers and out of lycra for the post-ride celebration dinner. Alexandrine and I are presented with beautiful bunches of flowers, as is Madame Herubel, one of the indefatigable organisers.

PBP audax finish, Jan-Eric, me & Dave

It is only post-ride that we find out how many riders failed to complete this session, including our Irish friend Charles Copeland and Marinas Van Kuilenburg from the Netherlands. This is quite unusual for an Audax. It turns out that this has happened once before, at PBP Audax in 1976 when heat caused riders to abandonné in much greater numbers than normal, despite every effort from the Captains.

Onto Eurostar, back to London to clean bikes, to wash kit and to put our feet up until the start of PBP Randonneur in 10 days.

Back on the start line, this time at St Quentin en Yvelines, one sports stadium away from the Audax start. Deja vu; it’s dark at 5am and it’s going to be wet with a headwind, although it takes some time before the rain actually strikes. Unlike the smooth organised bunch of an Audax, a randonnee peloton is sometimes disorganised and a little worrying to ride in. Eventually things settle down and a mini peloton is formed, mainly comprising little wheels and Australians. The group is me, Dave Minter, Greg Lansom and Rod Quintrell, the first three on little wheels and the latter three Aussies. We battle through the lightning and thunderstorms of our first night on the road.

International Moultoneers

Getting through controls is relatively easy as the vedettes and touriste groups were set off so far ahead of our randonneur group this time. All the controls are good, but I do miss the four course lunches and dinners with wine of PBP Audax. Our little group stays together for most of the ride, which is one of my highlights of this PBP. After leaving Fougeres, in the rain and dusk on the way out to Brest, we all ride our own ride. I manage to exchange drafting two french guys for my Garmin-assisted navigation to Tinteniac. With the heavy rain, we can’t see the arrows but the Garmin works a treat. The little wheels/Aussie bunch regroups at the next control, Tintiniac, and from there on some of us may yo-yo in and out of the bunch at times but on the whole we stick together to Brest and all the way through till the last full day of riding.

Somewhere after leaving Loudeac on the return, most of the group stops to put on sunscreen, not needed much till then. I’m at the front and by the time I find they are gone, waiting is pointless. I have a tailwind, the sun on me and deploy the big ring. Riding through the green numbers of the 90 hour riders enables me to catch up with friends, which makes for a wonderful day a-wheel.

At Villaines la Juhel, Yves from PBP Audax, is in the crowd cheering us on. I feel like a Tour de France rider stopping to greet the family and taking photographs before heading off. At the canteen, I find more friends to talk to and the ride starts to feel like a holiday. I set off for the final night ride to Mortagne au Perche with AUK’s Jim Gresty but unlike PBP Audax, I’m not descending into the control but climbing. Then Edwin Hargreaves, another AUK rider joins us on his trike. Stopping at my first ad-hoc coffee stop of the ride, Jim is tired so we leave him to have a nap while Edwin and I set off into the sea of tail lights and start to party. Well, party in randonneur terms anyway, catching and dropping riders uphill and down. Many do a double-take as on one side of the centreline, a trike rushes past and on the other, the little wheels of the Moulton. We fail to catch Jim Hopper, the other AUK trikie, but find him at the control.

Meeting up with old friends, PBP Rando

Dave catches up at Mortagne au Perche, where we have time for a couple of hours sleep before the run in to the finish. We set off to the penultimate control of Dreux and enjoy the undemanding riding as dawn breaks. There we meet up with Jim and Edwin again. It’s Jim’s 8th PBP, the first UK rider to reach this tally, all on trike. Audax fashion, we form a ‘posse du honour’ to escort him to the finish, collecting a bunch of ‘waifs and strays’ happy to follow some disciplined wheels. We arrive at the finish with time in hand and with plenty of spectators giving the finish atmosphere that only PBP Randonneur has. After handing in brevet cards, through to the back of the stadium and there is the icing on the PBP cake. Bruno, Daniel and Maurice plus other good friends from PBP Audax are waiting to celebrate with us.

Riding to the finish, PBP rano

Without Dave, I wouldn’t have known about PBP Audax, so would have never had the privilege to ride this rare double, along with Nick Dale who had done his PBP Randonneur with the vedettes. Daniel and a handful of other French riders also completed the double to join the first French riders to complete back-to-back Audax and Randonneur PBPs 40 years ago.

Getting involved with Audax has been and continues to be a wonderful journey that has let me ride with and make friends with French riders that would never have happened by just randonneuring. PBP Randonneur is a great and unique ride and next time I’ll be back for a fourth PBP Randonneur but for me, PBP Audax is the ride that really stands out and the one I enjoyed the most in 2011, despite the unscheduled night ride. The camaraderie of the peloton riding hard but helping each other to finish a tough challenge adds something extra. Riding in the big group has all the pleasure of a road race without the nerviness and without a need to sprint at the end of the day. Top it off with the motos and lead car and you feel like a Tour de France rider. A stark contrast to PBP Randonneur where so many people ride almost solo. Convivial hour-plus lunches and dinners with the Audax group is certainly different to the canteen queues and snatched meals of the randonnee

PBP rano numberBoth PBPs have to feature in a long distance rider’s wish list. The next PBP Audax is in 2016, so something to pencil into your diary having warmed up with PBP Randonneur in 2015.

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