PARIS-BREST-PARIS ON A FIXED GEAR?
Eleanor is a cyclist from Bristol with a passion for pushing the limits of cycling. We found out about her crazy plan to cycle a fixed gear bicycle from Paris to Brest and back again, and decided that we’d love to support her in this endeavour, by providing her with the bike to do it on. We caught up with Eleanor over a coffee to work out how and why this all came about...
The PBP first ran in 1891 as a 1200km (750mi) race from Paris to Brest and back, Paris-Brest-Paris is now the jewel in the crown of any endurance cyclist trying to prove their palmarès. The first ever PBP was won by France’s first ever major cycling star, Charles Torrent. He completed the event aboard a bike equipped with prototype pneumatic tyres given to him by Michelin.
16th August 2019 - Interview and photos by George
So how did you get started out in cycling?
My first bicycle was actually a Tricycle that my Mum bought for me as a toddler. That was followed by various hand me downs, but after a stinging nettle incident it was decided that I should have my own bike!
I grew up in rural Wales where everything was at least three miles away. My bicycle was invaluable to me so when I went to University obviously my Halfords mountain bike came with me!
As I explored further afield I realised I needed an upgrade so I found a beautiful steel Peugeot on Gumtree. I used this for the next five years whilst I was playing Rugby and Rowing. Five years on I was recovering from a knee injury, and cycling seemed like a good way to stay active and not risk twisting my knee, this coincided with a friend heading back to the states and selling their aluminium road bike. My local club, the Cowley Road Condors were running a series of Women’s Summer Sessions designed to get more women into road biking and I decided to go along. Three rides later I joined a 100k club ride, and I’ve never looked back!
How did you move on to starting to challenge yourself on the bike?
When I was finishing my PhD things weren't going to plan, I was commuting to a job in Swindon that I wasn't 100% happy in and my grandmother had died unexpectedly. My mental health was spiralling and I was self medicating as so many do with alcohol, wild nights out and generally not looking after myself. I wanted to rebalance my life but I needed a goal, something to work towards to force me to make the changes I needed. I'd dot watched the TCR that summer and the race had just captivated me. So less than a year after taking up road cycling I signed myself up! To a certain extent it worked, I stopped going out and getting bladdered, I'd be in bed early with my kit laid out ready for the following day. The TCR race itself was a bit too much pressure on my still unstable mental health and things got worse before they got better but I found my tonic and my people in the long distance community.
How did you go about finding a community within cycling?
I started online, I found my first club and their women's rides on facebook. Then when I moved to Bristol I also found the Audax Club online. I waited until I knew I could ride 200km before I turned up to a 50km Weds evening club ride! When I moved to Bristol I didn't know anyone so I was starting from scratch. The cycling community here really helped me settle in and made me feel like Bristol was home, you could say that the cycling community helped me feel a sense of belonging. Even now I refer to some of the guys as my Audax dads because they've always looked out for me on and off the bike. Living a long way from my mum and home friends, the cycling community has become my family.
What is Audaxing and how did you get into it?
Audax, or technically randonneuring, is riding a long distance in a pre-defined time limit based on a minimum average speed over the distance. It is non competitive and there is no finish order. The accomplishment is in finishing and because it's non competitive there is a huge camaraderie in the Audax world. I'm now into my third year of Audax riding and I've seen the fields change massively. In part because of the rising popularity of long distance riding and racing the fields have been getting younger and a greater number of women have been participating.
It is the original bike race. It first ran in 1891 and predates the Tour de France. It is run as a brevet which means riders are taking part as individuals and the emphasis is on self sufficiency. With over 7,000 cyclists due to take part this year, it’s the most popular yet in the history of the event! There is something very special about that. The whole region gets excited for it and there are roadside stalls and locals come out to line the route to celebrate and cheer on the riders. I don't think there is any other event that comes close in terms of numbers or atmosphere. Long distance riding has become hugely popular in the last few years so the 2019 edition is set to be pretty special!
Eleanor's bike: A Temple Cycles Classic Singlespeed, customised to suit her needs. More bike closeups below.
Do you have a target time? (maybe give a brief explanation of time rules)
I'm in the 90h wave and I intend to use as much of the time available as possible, what we call 'full value' riding. As so much of PBP is about the roadside support and community I want to be able to absorb as much of the atmosphere as possible. I've heard stories from people who have raced around and missed out on this and because it is my first PBP and so much is unpredictable when it comes to multi day riding I've decided to set my expectations of average speed pretty low!
What are you doing about sleep?
I'm taking a silk liner and a warm jacket. I'd like to take advantage of the organised sleep controls as much as possible but I know that in previous editions some of these have been chaotic and/or oversubscribed, so I want to be able to take advantage of park bench and bus stop naps if necessary. Although with around 7,000 riders spread out between Paris and Brest it’s likely that all the good bivvy spots will be occupied!
1200km is a long way. what’ve you done to lead up to this point?
This is my third year of long distance riding, aside from the 1,600km I rode on TCRno5 before I scratched. I've done three super randonneur series (200, 300, 400 and 600km) and last summer the 1000km Mille Cymru. That was a tough one. With over 16,000m of elevation that was the closest I've pushed myself to my limit and come out the other side. That's given me a new reference point for 'hard' and I'm hoping I don't have to dig that deep for PBP, but it I do I know I've got it in me.
How have you been getting on with the bike?
Initially I was really impressed with how light it was for a steel bike! It's amazing how much a few derailleurs can weigh! What I've really fallen in love with is riding fixed for climbing. I used to mentally check out when the tarmac started to rise, chuck the chain in the granny gear and fight myself the whole uncomfortable way up. When you have no granny gear you can't fight it and I've got a lot faster at climbing as a result! Of course it isn't all about speed and I'll probably miss my granny ring at points but I have fallen in love with the simplicity of riding fixed. As bike gear has got better and better we've developed a tendency to obsess over it. Which tyres, di2, gearing, frame material. There is something very refreshing about stripping it all back.
Dynamo lighting on Eleanor's bike so she can ride through the night.
How is riding fixed different and how is it going to make it harder?
The main challenge is that your legs don't get any respite. They're constantly twiddling away and while the direct drive helps when you're on the flat the descents can be hard work! I've found my saddle height needs to be a lot lower than on a geared bike to protect my hamstrings on the downhill.
In order to finish in time you are going to have to ride throughout the night, what are you doing about lights?
I invested in my first dynamo 2 years ago and I now feel lost without it. Although there are loads of great battery powered lights out there I don't think you can beat a dynamo for reliability and peace of mind. There is also something very satisfying about powering your lights with your pedalling. For this bike Temple had a beautiful set of wheels built by Ryan and the Son dynamo is so efficient there is no noticeable drag or reduction in speed. I'll take a back up head-torch though in case I have to mend a puncture in the dark!
What are some must haves to take with you on longer rides?
Lanolin ointment - the kind used by breastfeeding mothers. It’s great for wind and sun exposed lips and saddle sore or any skin irritation. A battery pack - to keep my gps and phone charged. Toolkit - multitool, inner tubes, patches, tyre lever, sushi fish filled with lube, some cable ties and duct tape. I switched from a minipump to a frame pump for major grandad points. Spork - with so many fast food and petrol station meals plastic packaging is hard to avoid so at least by carrying my own cutlery I'm trying to reduce my footprint. Merino boxers - as soon as I know I've stopped for the day I get my chamois off. Boxers mean I can maintain some modesty at the sleep stops and air my cheeks at the same time!
Favourite Audax snacks?
Pork pies! I started with Soreen but found that the constant sugar made my mouth come out in ulcers so I try to stick to savoury as much as possible. I'm looking forward to the French roadside snacks although I'm not sure they'll be as pocket friendly as pork pies!
What have you learned testing yourself on these longer rides?
No matter how many times you take on long distances the magnitude of the ride is always scary. I've learned not to think about the total distance but to view the event as a number of shorter rides between each control. When the next control is 70-100km away that is the distance that I will focus on. So long as I can keep the cranks turning then that figure gets smaller. As with many things in life overthinking it doesn't help! I've also learned that I always have more left in the tank than I think. When you have no other option than to keep going it is amazing what reserves you can find within yourself. We're tougher than we think!
Any advice for anyone looking to challenge themselves?
Cliche but just go for it! Use whatever techniques you need to to break down the barriers: rope a friend in, start smaller and local, borrow kit, have a bailout plan. Be compassionate towards yourself, it will be difficult and there will be uncomfortable moments as you venture outside of your comfort zone. This is why you wanted to challenge yourself in the first place!
Here at Temple, we're really excited to be supporting Eleanor on this incredible challenge. We wonder how many of the riders in the PBP will be attempting it on a steel frame fixed gear bicycle! It will be a truly remarkable achievement.
If you would like to follow Eleanor’s progress, you can though her instagram @elmcthunderthighs