The typical PBP rider is a 52 year old man. I’m one of those and I can tell you that life isn’t usually a lot of fun for us. I watched a BBC4 documentary about postcards and the people who collect them recently. That’s the sort of thing that 52 year old men do, watch BBC4 and collect postcards. Pipes and slippers have gone out of fashion of late, but we are the people of the shed, tinkering in comfy obscurity, and meeting our chums for a weekly pint of foaming real ale in the local pub.
Some of us fight against the dying of the light, and usually get a pitying reaction to our mid mid-life crisis. The best we can hope for is to club together with other like-minded souls and indulge in a hobby which gets us a mild ribbing from those around us.
So it is with Audax, we assemble in our village halls. We debate the relative merits of Shimano and Campagnolo. Then we do our rides, during which we might be pelted with eggs, or we might not. On the way round we eat pasties while seated on service station floors or we eat teacakes in cafes in faded seaside towns, while drinking tea together, in the afternoon of our lives.
We’re not all 52 year old men, but that’s the background hum and the wallpaper. The further away from a middle aged bloke on a steel framed lightweight tourer you are, the more interest you will generate. My films are populated with those exceptions, largely because the last thing that a 52 year old bloke on a bike wants to see is another 52 year old bloke on a bike. He likes to see a distant view of himself, climbing convincingly enough to suggest someone much younger, but that’s difficult to do for all the 52 year old blokes and they’re usually fairly happy with scenery and a much younger female subject.
The average PBP participant therefore is patronised for his eccentric hobby. On the road he’s invisible at best, and at worst he’s the target for low-level verbal abuse and physical assault. That’s discounting the usual hazards of being on the road at all.
At PBP you obviously get all the fellow feeling that you’d get at a postcard-collecting event, if you collected postcards. That buzz of being with folk who share your pastime. It’s a bonus that they’re often in pretty good physical shape, so the sight of them in Lycra is generally not too upsetting, and in many cases is deeply appealing. The registration phase has all the components of the first week at college, making friends, hanging out, drinking beer, listening to bands you’ve never heard of, settling in to your accommodation, socialising with the rest of the corridor. Unlike a University the final exams begin the day after you register.
This PBP they introduced a system of ‘free starts’ where you turn up and ride, this does enable you to witness the stilt-walkers, medieval strolling players, clowns and performance artists that the French like to have at public events. But only as a slightly distanced spectator. For the full effect it’s best to have eaten a meal three times larger than you normally would and queue for a few hours under the baking sun, deprived of water, before you are exposed to the entertainment. The French have an inbuilt advantage at this stage, they are bred to withstand a barrage of speeches from all and sundry, they can understand what’s being said by the Mayor of Loudeac, Tinteniac or wherever and they expect to see jugglers dressed as Ali Baba, because that’s what being French is about.
The tape finally drops and you’re on the road with what seems like four hundred other 52 year old white blokes in Lycra and a hundred assorted cyclists from every corner of the world. One much discussed chap brought 10 young women with him, they’d qualified from among the 4,000 employees in his chain of hairdressing salons in the Phillipines. David Charlton is not only the sponsor of ‘Team David’s Salon’, but also runs an ‘English Pub’ in Manila. His story made many feel they’d taken a wrong turning somewhere in their own lives.
TV cycling commentators always emphasise that it’s safest at the front of a big group, so I headed there, spotting the tiny 24 year old girl from Moscow I’d chatted to, she looked all of 12, and had a handy domestique to shepherd her to a space just behind the motorcycle escort and lead car. Everyone you pass seems to turn and cheer and shout ‘Bon Courage’ or some other words of encouragement, they must have done this for the five groups of riders that have already been through. Our 52 year old blokes find this amazing, and wonder how long there will be anyone to take this unusual amount of interest in them. Soon there are family groups beside the road dispensing water, soft drinks, coffee and biscuits, young children have been allowed to stay up way beyond their bedtime and applaud excitedly, farmers stand beside their cars at the end of tracks in the middle of nowhere. This goes on for the next three and a half days. Complete strangers cheer, provide free refreshments at 4am, stage parties involving whole villages and generally appreciate the appreciation-deprived. TV film crews pass on their motorbikes, at Brest there are newspapers pinned up which herald the arrival of the first riders the day before, and there are still people cheering at the side of the road.
All this attention acts as a drug, counteracting the effects of what is a real challenge after all. The calls of ‘Bon Courage’ are heartfelt, because ‘C’est dur- It is hard’, and hardest for those suffering at the back. The Bretons seem to have a special sympathy for the stragglers. The wayside shrines, chapels and calvaries make me feel like a pilgrim with a personal cross to bear, rather than an athlete in a contest with others. The greatest emotional support is given freely to those closest to the edge. It’s a very Catholic idea, and can be overwhelming to the wholly materialistic. A number of riders commented on being close to tears at the reception from the crowds at Villaines. At the heart of long distance cycling is a sense of self-denial, you mustn’t listen to the inner voice that’s shouting ‘Stop’. Having a continuous thin ribbon of supporters encouraging you to carry on is disconcerting and it can spoil you for the reality of the everyday, egg-hurling, world.
I suppose one way to avoid the come-down is to isolate PBP within a special bubble of its own. I wonder if that’s what motivates those who do it on unusual machines. The amount of public attention they command must make the euphoric effects of the attention that we 52 year old blokes feel seem pretty tame. Drew Buck commented that riders were constantly coming up to him, knowing his name and the details of his 2007 ride. I feel partly responsible for that, having made a short film about him. I was making a film again this year, which is what a lot of this metaphysical musing is about. I don’t know what the film is about until I know what PBP is about. For a grumpy 52 year old like me it’s about faith in humanity redeemed. That might strike a chord with that big section of riders who are much like me. But it’s also about a communion with a rising generation of new riders, one which is as likely to come from China, Taiwan, Russia, Brazil or India as from anywhere nearer my home. This game is about long distances after all.
I wonder what the next PBP will be like? I’ll be a 56 year old bloke, will that be the biggest group?
I've now finished editing my 2011 PBP film. It consists of an accesible 50 minute intial section, with subsequent sections covering the pre-start and start sections, the finish, finishers after 8am on the last day and interesting machines. The whole video is about 2 hours long.
The cost for the DVD is £15 inc p&p to the UK, £16 to Europe and £16.50 to the Rest of the world. Payment by PayPal using firstname.lastname@example.org
The High Definition Blu Ray version is £3 extra on those prices.
More details click here