A month have passed since the end of Paris-Brest-Paris 2019 and I am still reliving it almost every day.
Disclaimer: This post is not supporting racing during PBP. My goal this year was just different. I wanted to see what my current fitness level and limits are. To be honest, this was also preparation in order to attempt something even bigger next year. I would love to do Transcontinental if my application is approved or something else similar.
2019 has been good to me. I qualified again for Solo Race Across America with 410 miles (659 km) in 24 hours at Sebring, FL. My PBP qualifiers were all completed with Northern Virginia Randonneurs. Next year, we will have 1200 km ride and I am already excited.
I was able to go under 7 hours on а solo 200 km, then had a very nice 300 km with friends and a straight through (except few power naps) 600 km in 27h. I never finished the report on the 400 km qualifier, but do remember it being as hard as any 400 and at least i finished early and avoided nasty downpour.
Things were looking promising even with some training issues before PBP and missing 2 weeks in June in order to crew for Marko Baloh during his record breaking Race Across America. My index finger was still numb with damaged nerv from SVS 1200 the previous year. On top of that I had bad foot problem but the tissue and wound almost completely healed in time for PBP.
Paris Brest Paris is one of the most impressive bike events I have attended and I was so excited to do it again. It was so nice to meet with all of the Bulgarian riders. I don`t see them too often since my residency is in United States. We are always very supportive of one another.
There were also above 300 riders from India compared to 50 in 2015. This was to be expected with the big boom in Ultracycling there thanks to Divya Tate. Many were in contact with me on the web and was exciting to meet in person. Khusali and Tejas took me out for lunch and i really appreciate it. If you want to watch the short interview with Tejas Joshi, it can be found below.
Before the ride
There was the usual bike check one day before the event. I was commuting 20 miles from the hotel to the start almost every day after arriving in France. Add some sightseeing afterwards and I added 94 miles before the event plus 66 afterwards. It was very cool to meet many riders while commuting. I assume some had old reservations at St. Quentin en Yvelines before they knew the start of the event was changing.
I met Nedko Stanev from Varna during my commute. Another Bulgarian and a great person who came out during SVS – 1200km to support us.
The event was in new location – Bergerie Nationale Rambouillet. I didn’t like it as much as the Velodrome in 2015 but the organizers did their best. I had so much time after bike check and met many old friends while making some news ones.
Our 2019 RAAM family with Marko Baloh and Tom Guevara was also represented. Marko was in the B group starting 15 minutes behind me. Both finished successfully. Behind the scenes were also Irma and Elizabeth who were helping Marko and Tom.
It was raining during bike check and riders were sitting in the long lines for hours. I was certain that many might get sick before the event even starts. Luckily, I had one of the earliest time slots and the line was almost non existing.
Being likely one of the first with aero bars, the hawk eyes of the inspectors were all over them. They pulled a cardboard sign , placed it against my brake levers and gave me the ok. The rule was that they are not allowed to extend beyond the brake hoods. I opted for longer stem and reach on the bars but the setup was still not as comfortable due to the restrictions.
I then walked into the castle for my goodies bag . My favorite volunteer Shab was there so I snapped a quick photo.
The evening before the event I checked my bicycle one final time.
The ride. Day 1
The start was accompanied by huge crowd. My heart rate must have gone up in excitement. During this edition, I was in the A group and we were the very first to depart. Two more Bulgarians were in the same group. Such a pleasure to start together with Svetoslav Andreev and Daniel Donev representing KK Odesos Varna. My favorite town in Bulgaria. Two very experienced Randonneurs.
Some DC Randonneurs were also present at the start. Bob was in the 90 hour group, Chip in the 84 hour and Damon was starting with me.
Very soon a Peloton of about 100 riders formed and I was in the second large group behind. We had a lead car for the first maybe 10 to 15 miles so things were very quiet. The pace was enjoyable and relaxed. Perfect time to talk to one another and make friends while hopefully forming alliances to battle the wind.
My expectations at the start of any big ride are similar – crashes, falling bottles and unsafe riding. Luckily , there was no crashes but few falling bottles for sure. There was also some pushing around that was not so safe. My goal was to stay on the outside of the pack and not in the middle in order to avoid pile ups. I would hate to be sandwiched and eaten up that early 🙂 In the midst of these emotions, I forgot to turn the GPS on for the first 20 miles or so.
Sadly , what I expected happened right in front of my eyes. Fellow rider saddle bag dismounted about 10 bike lengths ahead of me. I turned immediate left and luckily the bag bounced into the ground and went to the right. It could have been over for me. The rider continue with risking everyone else safety and stopped in the middle of the road to get his bag. With hundred of riders coming from behind with above 20 Mph ! ! ! Not sure if anyone behind fell down but i hoped they were ok. I screamed at him to get off the road and kept going.
My club-mate Damon Taaffe was also in the same group and we were riding close to one another for a brief moment. I noticed interesting feature on My Wahoo GPS – his name keep popping up on my screen and I can see his exact location. How cool was that! Some other Strava friends appeared as well even though I did not know them personally.
At his point, I realized that staying in such a big group was going to be a problem. Having the headwind makes sense to stay and help one another draft but in reality it was rather unsafe. Going through the first few small towns, tiny roads, traffic circles and so on, the Peloton was not the most efficient and safe on adjusting quickly to single or double file in order to squeeze in. I decided to pull a bolt attack and attempted to rejoin forces with a smalled group up the road. I definitely used too much energy doing so and was faced with some serious headwind alone, but if i have to do it again, ill do the same thing. All of my 24h races were non-drafting so I was used to it and just embraced it. Nobody responded to my move so I was on my own. I was on my own.
Marko Baloh started 15 minutes behind me and I was expecting him to come by any moment now. I was almost 40 miles into the ride when he appeared next to me. He gave me a tap on the shoulder while I was suffering on my own and asked:
Hey, how are you doing ? How many riders are in front of you ?
I told him that it wasn’t more than 100 and he just vanished in the distance. He was also gunning ahead solo.
After interviewing him (see below) few days after the event, he shared that his experience was similar to mine and riders were not really working together resulting in slower progress. Besides one Velomobile, Marko and two others were the first upright finishers at PBP 2019. His time – 44h48min.
Most riders were just trying to hide behind and use the draft. So it makes sense that he attacked as well. It looks like in most fast groups of 30 to 50 riders only few were willing to do the work at the front.
I also knew that my bolt move wont last long. We have seen it times and times during all Grand Tours. My motivation was just different and not camera time or glory. If i had help by at least few riders the chances would have been way higher to stay away. In fact, about 20 miles later , the group behind caught up to me. As they were approaching from behind , I slowed down. Rejoining would have saved me some energy going forward after all.
My arrival at Villaines-La-Juhel was after 8h5min in the saddle and the highest average speed for the entire course – 26.84 km/h. This is also my favorite control. It looked and felt like the Tour De France was coming by. Huge crowd , Inflatable Arch and services to die for! The announcer was mentioning Bulgaria on the microphone as I approached. I wish I understood any of it so I can respond 🙂 I do appreciate the love there. It was definitely one of the best moments during the event!
In my group at this time was the RM Representative for Bulgaria – Lazar Vladislavov. He is of the most accomplished Randonneurs in the world with 29 finishes. Lazar is also one of my 1st teachers and inspiration in the early 2000 – 2001. Later on, we lost one another as we were getting mixed up with different groups. In fact, he started 15 minutes behind me so his progress was pretty good. He actually did tell me and the other 2 Bulgarians in the A group that he will see us soon as he is passing along 🙂 Lazar is also the organizer of Sofia – Varna- Sofia 1200 km with 17 finishes in that ride alone. Come to Bulgaria and give it a go!
I was in peace with the reality of facing headwinds all the way to Brest. There was nothing i can do to stop it so why worry about it. I did spent too much time on the aerobars and paid for it later on. My goal was to get there as fast as possible and put some time in the bank for anything that might happen later on. Typically, I was in and out of controls within 5 minutes, just getting a stamp and filling up my 3 water bottles.
My diet was straight GU Roctane as a primary food source and Skratch Labs for Hydration. Thanks to both companies and their awesome product. There was no feeling of dehydration, fatigue or hunger. I just added some Vitamin C and Amino Acids as well. I actually returned with half of my Skratch and GU products after the ride. This was about 4 lbs extra that i carried 750 miles and were slowing me down. Lesson learned.
Things did not change much from here on and after some steady pacing, I arrived in Fougeres in a little less than 12hours. It was around 4 in the morning and extremely cold. It must have been around 40 Farenheit ( 4 C ). My speed decreased by 3 km/h but that was understandable due to cycling during the night.
At sunrise, I arrived in Tintenac and the sky was glorious. So far all the controls were practically empty, therefore my plan was working. The next control was Loudeac at 445 km after the start. I made it there at 10 in the morning after 18 hours of riding.
This was also the typical sleep stop for most riders but my plans were different this year. I lost valuable time here at PBP 2015 and was not going to repeat this mistake again. If I go to sleep here, once I wake up was going to be packed with people and bikes. The plan was to stay ahead of the madness, or at least until Brest.
I purposely trained straight through 600 km this year to see how my body will respond during PBP. My expectations were to arrive in Brest in 25 to 28 hours but this wind was slowing my progress.
After one day of pedaling, I was under 40 miles from Brest in the town of Sizun.
Further down, I got excited going up Roc Travelzel and decided to ramp up the tempo. On the ascent, nobody came from behind to take me over and I passed about 5 to 10 riders. Just like in 2015, the wind on the top of the hill was kind of crazy but all the spectators made is more tolerable. There were at least 20 cars and RVs lined up while waiting for their riders. I descended towards Brest under good amount of cheers !
Upon reaching the famous bridge, I got excited and took few pictures that will always be treasured. The wind was so brutal that it was hard to keep the bicycle upright and I almost fell down. From here on, I remember that steady climb with some traffic is coming before the control.
My arrival time in Brest was 18:06 or 26 hours after the start. Mission accomplished! It was time for the first proper meal , shower and some well deserved sleep. The food at the control was great and few beers was my award for arriving on time during daylight.
After dinner I went straight to my hotel room. It was 0.5 km from the control and very time efficient. Well, except the fact that I was not able to figure out how to turn the lights on 🙂 there was also some noise until I fell asleep. Perhaps I was close to the staircase. It took me forever to go to sleep and I ended up going down for a about 2.5 hours or even less. The goal was 4 hours but ill take it. At this time, I knew that I have very little chance of finishing under 60 hours or even closer to Charlie Miller time. My speed on the way back was going to decrease but there was no reason to stress out.
The second ascent up Roc Travelzel was during the night as I left Brest around 11pm. Things were more challenging this time around as they weren’t many riders ahead or behind me. What was challenging was the crazy traffic in the other direction with all the riders heading towards Brest. Some had about 5 headlights and they were pointing so high up that I was blinded every 10 seconds. But a progress is a progress. . .
My body was feeling good, well rested and I was in a good mood. The only issue so far was the grinding noise from my rear wheel while coasting. I just decided to ignore it otherwise I was allowing it to mess with my mental state. I didn’t find anything wrong upon taking a closer look so I kept on moving.
The temperature hit rock bottom of 39 Farenheit ( 4C ) and I was freezing. It was really hard to break and shift the gears. Luckily, I had some surgical gloves as a emergency and placing them under my gloves saved the night. I was also riding with a power couple blasting loud music and wearing Alex Singer Jerseys. That was the wining ticket for this night.
Upon arriving at Carhaix for a second time, I bumped into Plamen from Varna not far from the bathroom where I filled up on water. Sadly, one of the only options for water at many controls. This is also the reason I like local businesses or volunteers between controls. He looked pretty exhausted and was telling me that he was going to sleep before heading towards Brest.
To my surprise Lazar was also there sleeping comfortably on the floor. This was the last time I would see him as my advantage was increasing by the minute. I am assuming that instead of sleeping in Brest , he pushed further to Carhaix.
Early in the morning around 7 am, I was back in Loudeac. This time around it was a different story. There were hundreds or riders laying around, parking bikes, the lines were also crazy long. It was daylight and I was finally able to start recognizing familiar faces heading towards Brest. I bumped into DC Randonneurs extraordinary couple Mary ( read her great blog here ) and Ed ( his blog can be found here), plus Jerry , whom i followed through his crazy world cycling adventure the year before ( Follow Jerry IG here ).
They were a bit shocked to find out that I was already going back but that was understandable since they started with the 84h group way after me. I had nice meal here and headed out. Around this point I started to eat solid food because my body was craving it. The fatigue was slowly setting in and I always listen to my body. At least I try.
The speed was also slowly increasing. It was daylight, I was rested and even got a little bit of a tailwind.
It was actually a lot of fun to join forces with some very strong French riders. They were clearly in their 50s or 60s but were pedaling so strong. In general, it was pleasure to see many small cycling groups riding together in and around these little towns. I even noticed a group of about 7 riders being paced by a moto while training. How cool was that!
Somewhere in this section my eyes were starting to close up on me. I attempted to sleep few times but both were unsuccessful. I laid down , placed the helmet under my head, set the timer to 20 minutes but nothing. The second time was scary and hilarious at the same time. It was nice and sunny, so I found nice clean spot by the side of the road and wanted to just sleep. About 30 seconds later I was feeling very comfortable until i heard a loud bark.
Ohh s**t I said, look at this big white dog .
In less than 10 seconds , I was back on the road producing some significant power 🙂 I tried to sleep another two times until the end with no luck. Even the old trick from 2015 did not work – I was deep in the corn field using the large leaves as a mattress. What a waste of time that was. The only thing i got out of it is some dirt on my clothes 🙂 At the end I probably wasted 1.5 hours trying to sleep numerous times.
Things were looking pretty ugly towards Fougeres since I forgot how much climbing there was to be done in that section. My friend Shab Memar was volunteering at this control but sadly we missed each other. She told me that I was in such of a hurry after the ride and we didn’t even see one another.
At the end of day two I was after Chantigne in striking distance to Villaines-la-Juhel, or about 960 km.
I really wanted to get this done and this was evident by my speed. After Loudeac my speed increased from almost 18km/h to 20 in Tinteniac , 20.36 at Fougere and hit a peak at 22.62 once I reached Villaines-La-Juhel. My hope was to not ride entire night once again.
The second time at my favorite control things were looking very different. My neck was starting to slowly give up but I tried to not concentrate on that for the time being. I opted for a full meal. The volunteers at the restaurant were so nice and it reminded me of PBP 2015. There were so many great food options choose from. Riders were now behind me and not incoming any longer therefore the controls were empty. They even walked me to my table while carrying the food for me. I heard my country name on the microphone again. Maybe they were excited to see the first Bulgarian coming by on the way to the finish. Such a treat. I love you Villaines -La-Juhel volunteers.
It was after 18:00 o’clock and few hours after I departed the sun went down again. It took me 50 hours to get here and I only had 200 km to go. Typically, this takes me 8 hours or even less. At my current state however and more night riding coming up, it might take even 12.
This is where the real suffering began. My neck was completely gone and I was having hard time to keep my head up. To top it off, it was once again below 40 Farenheit ( 4 C ) . Luckily, I found another nice group of about 7 French riders and few Russian speaking randos as well.
We arrived at Mortagne-Au-Perche at 23:26. It took 5 hours for 85 km = Sufferfest. With plenty of time in the bank, I had to play it safe and listen to the body. I’ve done this kind of distances before and learned to listen to my body regardless of what goals I might have. Is not a race after all and safety + enjoyment is the culprit of these events.
A nice gentleman at the front was kind enough to translate for me, help me charge the GPS on his Laptop and explained to the medical staff that my neck muscle was completely gone. For a second they though that I was injured and quitting due to my poor French. I was assuring them that I have 25 hours left and all I needed was some sleep and muscle relaxer. They applied some miracle cream and I felt better immediately.
The next move was to get another proper meal and enjoy a beer ( actually two ). Very soon after that I was in horizontal position. The goal was to sleep and give my neck some rest. Few hours later I was up and ready to go. It was once again extremely cold as i left around 2 in the morning.
The last 120 km were the most challenging 120 km I ever did on a bicycle. I had to occasionally hold my neck up. Going uphill was easy and I was just resting my hands on the aero bar cups but going down not so much. You naturally face down and that was making things worse. I was descending off the saddle just to offset the angle and be able to see the road. It took me 4.5 hours for the next 75 km. Ouch!
The positive moment during this section was my group consisting of strong French riders. So strong and inspiring. We exchanged at the front and shared the workload. They knew every possible place with volunteers and we made few crucial stops. My favorite was a nice tent with outdoor heater, hot coffee, soup , chocolate and pastries. What a treat. I was almost frozen so this was perfect timing.
The sunset was setting and the end was near. We reached Dreux at 6:31 in the morning. Time for my last proper meal before the finish line. The control was a bit empty and things were moving very fast. I didn’t want to waste much time, ate and pressed on for the final stretch.
The last section was changed a day before the start due to construction and there was a bit of a confusion. We were at this intersection, the cue sheets were directing us one way, the GPS and arrows another. Few Motos came from behind and we asked what is the proper direction. They took this very serious to the point that they start making phone calls to the organizers. We were just sitting for about 20 minutes and I was not so happy about it. This actually made me finish above 65 hours but that was not so important at the moment. Finishing safely and immediately was ! We all agreed on the direction eventually and pressed on.
This stretch was no fun as the road was very busy. It was work day, early in the morning and traffic was substantial. My neck was also giving me a lot of hell.
Three hours after I left Dreux I crossed the finish line. There were not that many spectators at the time and the setup at the finish line was not my favorite. We were directed inside the castle in a circle before crossing the timing mat. However, there was dirt and cobblestones. I really felt like unclipping and walking but there is no glory in walking your bicycle after a 1200km, is it ? I am sure many felt that way and pedaled on but it was very risky. Not the perfect finish location but I was so elated it was over.
I finished first among all Bulgarians with the second and third ( Lazar ) over 4 hours behind me. Besides that , Bulgaria had the 4th best finishing rate and only 2 DNF. 20 starting and 18 finishing. Congratulations !
If you have patience for my long Movie – here it is. You might find the second half more entertaining as more action builds up. Enjoy
Immediately after the ride , I made few videos with brief summary. I sound a bit disappointed after not finishing under 60 hours and making few mistakes. Now that everything is over with, I am happy with my performance considering the circumstances. Never give up !
You might also enjoy the short interview with one of the Velomobile pilots – Bill Russell. I found him waiting at the finish for the 89th hour before he can cross the line in order to enter the Adrian Hands Society. His picturesque description of PBP is amazing.
It was also pleasure to wait and see the finish of my dear friend Hamid Akbarian. He took longer than expected not knowing that his hub generator was seizing and making him work extra. He is one of the only 2 USA Randonneurs finishing the Grand Tour of Italy ( 4 consecutive years of Tough Grand Randonees). Hamid is also RBA of Northern VA Randonneurs and organizing a 1200 km ride in 2020. Come join us.
Thank you Shab for the nice treatment after the ride. I admit, smiling was very challenging with a swollen face 🙂
Favorite equipment – My Infinity Bike seat. Used by a lot of world class Ultracyclists during races such as Race Across America. Marko broke the 50-59 age RAAM group record this year on Infinity Bike Seat. If you decide to purchase one, make sure to use the code Georgi at checkout to save $20.
Least Favorite Equipment – The Wahoo Bolt GPS. It was my 3rd unit after already replacing it twice. The main issue was that it was constantly freezing. About 35 miles did not record. When frozen, you have to reset it and then it takes up to 15 minutes to reload the existing file. It happened at least 5 times and it was very annoying.
Next Up is the World TT Championship in Borrego Springs ,CA. Ride on !