I’ll admit it, I rode Paris-Brest-Paris because I was supposed to. I rode PBP because to really be a randonneur you have to do PBP at least once. However, since starting randonneuring in 2007, I’ve told lots of other riders that PBP looks ok, but I’m really more interested in London-Edinburgh-London or Boston-Montreal-Boston. Now that I have finished P-B-P, I’ll admit I might have been wrong.
Having never travelled to Europe, I decided to do the safe thing and arrange my trip through Claus Claussen at Des Peres Travel. We arrived in Paris on Tuesday morning after an overnight, direct flight from Chicago.
My PBP drama occurred pre-ride. Putting my bike together in a sleep-deprived, jet-lagged state, I managed to cross-thread my rear derailleur hanger. Fortunately, my local bike shop mechanic had predicted such a problem and sent me to Paris with an extra. As the hanger for my bike is apparently fairly unique, his help may have saved my ride. The second problem I discovered was that one of the leads for my generator hub had come off and was lost in transit. After several frantic e-mails, I received offers of spare parts, a replacement light, and advice on parts I could use to fix the problem. With new parts in hand, I tracked down fellow rider and electrical engineer, Ron Selby, who was able to hook things back up and get the light running again. So by Thursday afternoon, my bike was ready to go.
I did the Friday morning informal pre-ride led by members of the Davis Bike Club. The ride covered the first 20-ish miles of the PBP route. This gave me a chance to get comfortable with the course and how roads and villages in France were laid out. I was really impressed with how 200 bicyclists could take over the road without any bad experiences with ticked off motorists. This was just a sign of things to come.
The first challenge of PBP 2011 was getting to the start line. I waited with hundreds or thousands of other riders on the track around the soccer field. Although this wait was close to two hours long, it went quickly as I chatted with friends, Bob Booth and Michele Brougher. As we baked in the sun, many riders including myself, began dipping into water bottles intended for the ride. Finally, around 7:30, my group was allowed into the start area. Minutes later, after several speeches that I could barely hear and couldn’t understand, we were given the go ahead to start. I took the start very conservatively because of stories I have heard of over-enthusiastic riders causing crashes in the opening kilometers of PBP. Fortunately, everyone in my wave took things very cautiously and I did not see any problems.
I found the spin out of Paris to be very emotional. Our wave received an escort out of town. Although I had heard stories of the spectator support of PBP, I was surprised to see the large number of spectators lined up along the roads, at the intersections, and across the highway overpasses. This is as close as I will ever come to being treated like a professional athlete. The opening kilometers of PBP passed almost effortlessly. Over the past few hours, I was concerned about running out of water. Just when I was started thinking that I would be out of water soon, we rolled into a small town where a line of residents were pouring water from 1 liter bottles to anyone who wanted it. I rolled up, held up my bottles and was refilled and rolling away within seconds. This spontaneous support brought to mind the words of another rider from the flight over. He said that “PBP is easier than most 1200s because everyone there wants to help you finish.” This was a theme that would recur throughout the ride. Another uniquely PBP experience happened around 11:30pm when we were passing through another small town and saw an elderly man sitting on a lawnchair serenading riders with an accordion. Most PBP reports from past PBP riders talk about the sight of thousands of red taillights extending to the horizon. Although definitely impressive, I think this observation has a chance to become a relic of PBPs past. For me, the reflective striping of the newly mandated vests outshone the traditional red lights. For hours early in the ride, this stretch of vests stretched as far as the eye could see.
I finally arrived at the first official food stop in Mortagne-au-Perche. After the relative quiet of the road, the congestion of the food stop was overwhelming. I was able to refill my bottles but food was a bigger issue. The line for the hot food was very long so I went to grab a jambon sandwich. Unfortunately, I was told that there would be a 20 minute wait for a sandwich. Instead, I gambled on a handful of French energy bars and a coke and took off for Villiaines. Villaines was also a flurry of activity when I arrived. I found the early controls to be very disorienting after the dark and quiet of the road. After checking in I went straight to the hot food line. I bought a huge plate of pasta with meat sauce, cheese, and lots of other goodies. A neat feature of the Villaines control was the teenagers who carried riders’ food trays across the parking lot to the dining area.
My memories of the section from Villaines to Fougeres to Tinteniac are largely of gently rolling terrain. Throughout the day, I would find myself in a group of 20-30 riders for miles at a time. Without rhyme or reason, the group would disintegrate and I would be riding mostly alone for awhile until another large group would spontaneously assemble. Overall, these groups seemed less conversational than domestic brevets I’ve ridden. It seemed that I rode for hours in various groups of non-English speaking riders.
I arrived in Loudeac shortly after 7:00pm on Monday evening. Once again, the control was overwhelming to me. The barricaded route from the road to the bike parking area was lined with cheering people 2 or 3 deep. I got my card stamped, changed clothes and resupplied from my drop bag. I decided to get food at a restaurant outside of the control to get away from the crowding of the control. I found a restaurant on what appeared to be Loudeac’s main street. When I went in I was the only person there except for the owner, who spoke no English, and her young son. Fortunately the menu was a picture board posted above the counter. I pointed to a picture of a chicken sandwich and fries. Unfortunately, the effort of the day had left me feeling nauseous so that I had a real hard time eating much of the meal. By the time I left, several other riders had come into the restaurant.
The route between Loudeac and Saint Nicholas du Pelem was the hilliest of the course. I recall numerous long, gradual climbs, several of which went on for 2 or 3 kilometers. As I approached Saint Nicholas du Pelem it started raining fairly hard with some thunder and lightning. By the time I actually arrived, it was raining very hard and the sky was lit up with frequent lightning. After eating I was wrestling with the decision about whether to stay and get a cot in Saint Nicholas du Pelem or try to get to my reserved hotel room in Carhaix. A gentleman who seemed to know told me that the thunderstorms had all moved away from the course and the route to Carhaix would be rainy but free from storms. That was all I needed to convince myself that a shower and clean bed beat a cot in a gym. Within 5 miles of leaving, I found myself in a torrential downpour with intense thunder and lightning all around. There really wasn’t anywhere to take shelter, so I kept riding. Just when I was thinking how insane it was to be riding in this storm, I was startled by cheers of “Allez, Allez” from two people standing alongside the road in the dark. I joined forces with an Italian rider over the last 10 miles or so into Carhaix as we shared the difficult job of locating route arrows in the dark, blinding rain. The rain finally let up as we reached Carhaix. I arrived at 12:30 am on Tuesday, quickly stamped my card, got back on my bike and went looking for my hotel. I had covered 320 miles in the 28 hours and 49 minutes since starting the ride. “Day 1” of PBP was over.
I slept for 3.5 hours, put on my wet clothes, ate a CLIF bar and rode off in the dark towards Brest. Very early on, I started the long gradual climb of Roc Trevezel, the highest point of PBP. A cold, dense fog deprived me of the much awaited views from the summit and created a very surreal riding experience. The damp ride into the beautiful town of Sizun was rewarded by a stop at a boulangerie for pastries and coffee. Apparently, this was as a common plan as there was a steady stream of riders through the shop during my entire stop. The fog lifted slightly as I arrived at the bridge in Brest for the photograph I had been waiting 4 years to take. It was a little anti-climactic to then get back on the bike and ride the meandering kilometers through Brest to the control. Within the last mile before the control, I caught up with Drew Bucke riding his 1901 bicycle. At Brest, I grabbed an unusual breakfast of a ham and cheese baguette, a soup bowl of hot chocolate and a beer.
Very little of the rest of day 2 stands out to me. It’s more a murky collection of partial memories. I stopped again in Sizun for a quick snack, finally got to enjoy the view from Roc Trevezel and managed to squeeze an entire packet of GU onto the side of my face, entirely missing my mouth. Trying to limit the sticky mess occupied 5-10 miles. I arrived back in Loudeac just before 7:30 on Tuesday night, had a big dinner and a beer, and checked into my hotel for another 3.5 hours of sleep. When I got up around 12:15 am to start “Day 3”, I had not yet formed my plan to ride the rest of PBP straight through.
Somewhere around Villaines, I figured out that if I had a good afternoon and evening I might be able to finish PBP in under 80 hours. I left Villaines feeling strong and focused on keeping up a steady pace. Within a couple of hours, I had one of my two real rough patches of the ride. I was really struggling and was seeing my 80 hour dream slipping away. Typical of my PBP experience, this is when the French people stepped up to help. First, was an older guy pouring water into bottles as fast as riders could hold them out. On a series of short, steep hills shortly after that was another family pouring cups of coffee and handing out more water. Within a couple more miles was an elementary school aged kid jogging alongside riders on a hill handing off handfuls of sugar cubes. The same hill featured another kid handing off fresh picked plums and a third handing off home grown peaches. By the time I rolled into Mortagne-au-Perche I was back on track for 80 hours.
After a couple of long climbs leaving Mortagne-au-Perche, including one where a French rider on a recumbent apparently fell asleep right next to me and tipped over at about 3 miles per hour, the route unexpectedly became pancake flat for the remaining miles to Dreux. The control at Dreux had the overpowering smell of baked pastries. The smell guided my appetite and I ate 3 different types of pastry.
The first portion of the final leg was flat and I was rolling along with a group of other Americans for the first time at PBP. About 25 kilometers from the finish, I lost the group when I had to answer the call of nature. As soon as I got back on the bike, it was like I had been over by a truck. I was hit with the worst bonk since I started randonneuring. Simply turning the pedals became a huge challenge. Although it wasn’t pretty and didn’t improve, I was able to keep moving just enough to make it to the finish at 2:42 am on Thursday morning for a final time of 79 hours and 2 minutes. I needed help getting my bike from the finish down the ramp to the bike parking area. Fortunately, a volunteer helped steady me and helped me down the ramp. For the second time at PBP, I had ridden over 25 hours without sleep.
Overall, PBP was an amazing experience. I went to PBP with 25 lapel pins in the shape of the state of Wisconsin. Throughout PBP I would stop to hand out the pins to kids I saw cheering alongside the road. Even though I couldn’t speak French, I thought these exchanges were lots of fun. Without fail, the kids’ eyes would light up. Often their parents would want to shake hands or take a picture. It really added a lot of fun to the ride.
Don’t ride PBP because you’re supposed to. Ride PBP because it’s an amazing experience and an amazing ride.