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Paris-Brest-Paris 2011

Riding 1200 km in one go would seem to be beyond a fairly indifferent cyclist such as myself, but the Paris Brest Paris is an event that is both much greater and somehow more achievable than you might expect.

The format is crucial. The distance (1225km) and the time limit (90 hours) make this an event which although arduous, is within the reach of any regular cyclist. Mainly you have to want to do it, the rest of it is just management; of time, of your body, your equipment, your bicycle. You may not get everything right, but with planning and awareness, you can cover most eventualities. On the day, it becomes mostly a question of avoiding problems; don't get ill, don't ride off the road, don't get injured, don't waste time, don't get lost.

To qualify, you have to do a ride at each of the distances 200k, 300k, 400k and 600k. I had enjoyed the qualifiers in spite of the terrible weather conditions that everybody has experienced this summer. 200k and 300k can both be done in a day, but are long enough to give an idea of the thrill of Audaxing; it's the sense of distance covered and the places you can see while travelling using only the resources of your own body. Longer distances require riding through the night. I was particularly surprised by how much fun the 600k rides were. I had been quite afraid of this distance, so much beyond what most cyclists ever attempt, I had found 400k hard and expected the longer distance to be worse. It wasn't, it was just different. The distance allows a little more time for sleep, making it more like two long day rides, and the sense of distance adds so much excitement to the experience.

I did two 600k rides, partly to cover myself against failure in any of the other rides, partly to toughen myself up, and partly just because I was enjoying myself so much. The "Beast form the East" was a gruelling slog across southern England in a rain storm. I loved it. The "Daylight" covered Scotland from Edinburgh up to the west coast past Fort William. After "the Beast" this was easy, and the light, and the mountains and the sea, and the feeling of covering a landscape so varied and so steeped in history made this an unforgettable experience.

So a few short Sunday rides before the big event and I was feeling as ready as I think I could be. Only when you get to the start of the event you discover the scale of the operation. Its like a blockbuster film, or an army going to war.

There are 5300 riders, of all ages and backgrounds, they are a multi-national kaleidoscope of club colours, languages and cycling styles. Noisy Italians in their distinctive white club kit, boisterous North Americans, polite Canadians, young Swedes all in blue and yellow, motley Brits, and of course many French in their local club colours, many of them from towns and villages along the route. There are participants from more than 30 countries including riders from Russia, Jamaica, Japan and Finland.

Then there are the 1500 volunteers, whose contribution is as impressive as the riders, they serve full meals around the clock, at speed, to hungry and impatient cyclists. They provide beds, showers, mechanical services and support and encouragement - volunteers at the early controls might work through four consecutive nights, all for fun and for the glory of "Paris Brest"!