In the 8 years since I rode PBP in 2011, I have told many aspiring randonneurs that all the stories they’ve heard about PBP are understated. Through those years, my memories of what makes PBP special have become worn and faded. After finishing PBP again this year, I came to the realization that even my own stories and memories of PBP paled in comparison to the real thing. I left for Paris fairly confident that this would likely be my last PBP. There are so many other great rides out there it’s hard to justify wasting more than 2 trips on the same event. The farther I pedaled into Bretagne, the more open I became to a return trip.
My approach to PBP ran counter to most of the advice you hear about the ride. I went to the start with only the most general idea of a ride plan. While many riders I know had detailed spreadsheets outlining their projected pace and allotted times for various rest stops, my “spreadsheet” consisted of a list of controls with their closing times and hotel reservations at Carhaix outbound and Loudeac on the return. Everything else was going to be decided on the fly. I hoped to find a balance between moving briskly and pausing to enjoy the unique experiences of PBP. I also ignored the conventional wisdom about eating at controls at PBP. I ate almost all of my meals in the cafeteria portion of controls and I think it worked for me. I never waited more than 15 minutes from starting the line to sitting at a table. When I did go away from the control for a meal, I found that it took longer and I had a harder time finding something that I wanted to eat. It may just have been where I was in the pack, but the controls worked for me.
The hotel I shared before the ride with Rob Welsh was located about 11 miles from the start on the main train line for Paris. I was a little concerned about finding a spot on the train so I decided to just ride to the start. My gentle hour long spin towards the start allowed me to collect my thoughts and get mentally prepared before encountering the mass of riders and nervous energy in Rambouillet.
Although the staging was a bit chaotic and was without any discernible system, I really enjoyed the new start location in Rambouillet.
Within minutes of the start, and before the goosebumps had even subsided, we were riding on scenic, wooded country roads. My group of riders moved out pretty cautiously without any crazy riding. The first 50 or so miles rolled by easily.
Shortly after dark, I started feeling the squishy feeling of a softening rear tire. At first, I thought I was just being paranoid. A couple miles later it was clear that I had a flat tire. I pulled to the side of the road and clumsily changed the tire. Probably because of the jitters tied to this big event, it seemed to take forever to change. I finally got rolling again and everything seemed to be going well. About 30 miles later, and roughly 5 miles before the stop in Mortagne-au-Perche, the squishy sensation was back. I decided that it was a slow leak and that I would rather change the flat at the control, so I added air and pressed forward. It must have been a “faster leak” than I thought, so I had to stop one more time to add air. I finally gave up on that approach about a quarter mile from the control and walked in. As I was walking to the control a local lady yelled across the street asking if I was ok and what she could do to help. She seemed satisfied when I informed her that I was fine and just had a flat tire. At the control, I ran into Jonas, who had been separated from his group. I was a little rattled from the tire problems so talking with Jonas while I changed the tube and tire really helped calm me down.
Jonas and I rolled out of Mortagne together. The combination of riding with Jonas and the adrenaline from feeling like I was behind schedule was a magic. For the next 50 miles or so we flew through huge groups of riders. My main memory from this section is the sensation of flying past an endless stream of red tail lights. In what would be a recurring event at PBP, I was talking with Jonas and then minutes later he was gone, not to be seen again. I later learned he had decided to back off and spin in to the control at Villaines-la-Juhel. The section after Villaines featured a couple of really picturesque spots. One was the chateau at Lassay-les-Chateaux, where I went off course by a hundred yards to explore what I thought would be a pretty spot. The other was the river crossing at Ambrieres-les-Vallees. At Ambrieres-les-Vallees,
I caught up with Spencer and Cap’n Ende, a couple of friends I had been hoping to run across. Unfortunately, they were just leaving as I arrived, so we only exchanged a couple of brief comments. I would join them later in the morning after grabbing the wheels of a couple of fast moving, Japanese riders who pulled me along through the crowd.
I rode with Spencer for the remaining miles to Tinteniac and into the control. While we were eating, Spencer got a text inviting us to a picnic that Mark Thomas had arranged with a local in town that Mark knew. I wasn’t really sure what to expect as we rolled towards the described house. When we arrived, a full-blown picnic had been organized in the backyard. The local hosts had arranged a spread of sausages, cheese, steak, pasta, beer, wine and cokes. Their backyard was a perfect counterpoint to the chaos of a PBP control. We lounged in the backyard for close to an hour snacking and telling stories. Before this stop I had been keeping an eye on the clock, conscious of the need to keep moving. This picnic was so cool, and so unique, that I was ready to stay all day.
Eventually, the party broke up and the journey towards Brest continued. I rode in a loose group with Spencer, Cap’n Ende, Mark Thomas, and Rick Blacker for a few more miles. Without really knowing how are why, eventually I was separated from the group and moved on alone. I arrived in Loudeac alone. Many riders plan to sleep at Loudeac but I had planned to continue another 45 miles or so to Carhaix. I was feeling really low on energy but the line for food at the control was pretty long, so I rode up the main street of Loudeac to a restaurant I had eaten at in 2011. Nothing on the menu looked good but I eventually settled on something like a plate of fried chicken bits in a pita type shell with fries and a couple of cokes. I can’t say it hit the spot but it was enough to get me moving. Shortly after leaving, I joined up with a nice guy from Stuttgart, Germany. We had a great conversation about politics, various aspects of the American and German legal systems, and various rides that we’d each done. The conversation helped the miles pass and got me over my low spot. I eventually arrived in Carhaix around 11 pm. I ate a quick dinner and rode to my hotel. I checked in and proceeded to drive the front desk clerk nuts. First, I couldn’t find the bike storage room, then I couldn’t find my room, then I couldn’t get the key to work, then I came back down to order a beer from her. I think she was pretty happy when I finally went to bed. The first leg was complete after roughly 325 miles and 28 hours.
I woke up after 3 ½ hours of sleep and began the long, cold climb up Roc Trevezel. Like 2011, the climb was done mostly in darkness and dawn came with a heavy fog. The section across the top of the ridge was the only section of the route where I encountered aggressive drivers. By normal standards, the driving would have seemed pretty normal. However, after miles of over deferential Breton drivers, it was a stark difference. After a freezing decent off of the Roc, I was in pretty low spirits and desperate to recharge in Sizun. I parked my bike next to the ancient church and walked to the boulangerie. I was really cold and out of energy. I ordered a coke, a pain au chocolate, and a Breton Apple Cake. Those were gone instantly so I went back for two more apple cakes. That seemed to do the trick.
I remember in 2011, the ride into Brest was an emotional ride. 2019 was the same. Seeing the suspension bridge at Brest is a huge moment in any PBP. The Bridge represents a huge accomplishment and represents the half way point of PBP. Like most riders, I stopped for photos and, at the request of some friends back home, did a Facebook Live recording from the Bridge.
Prior to riding PBP in 2011, I had the idea that it was tradition to have a beer in Brest, regardless of the time of day. So, when I got there, I had an early morning breakfast with coffee and beer. Turns out that no one else seemed to know about this tradition. This year after leaving the control, I went to a local restaurant for a brunch consisting of a cheeseburger, a pastry, and a Heineken. It might not be everyone’s tradition, but I guess it’s my tradition.
Leaving Brest, I met up with Keith Larson, a fellow Minnesota Randonneur. We climbed the Roc together and continued to ride together for most of the afternoon.
I had planned to stop at Loudeac, Keith was planning to keep moving. As luck would have it, Aussie friend, Leigh Paterson, was right behind me in the food line. We had dinner together before I rode off to my hotel for another 3 hours of sleep.
I left Loudeac at around 1:30 am. The overnight hours were memorable to me for several reasons. First, I really felt strong and was riding well. Second, I was surprised at the number of people cheering from the sidewalks and open windows of the small towns we passed. As the night moved towards sunrise, it seemed to get colder and colder and colder. Reports were that the temps dipped into the upper 30’s or low 40’s, I was wearing all the clothes I had and was still pretty chilled. Just when the cold was starting to get to me, we rolled into a small town that had some kind of all night food stand going.
I stopped and had a coke and a galette saucisse. Honestly, I had no idea what it was when I ordered it, and probably wouldn’t have ordered it if I knew what it was. Turned out to be some kind of sausage, like a hard brat, wrapped in a crepe. After each bite, I thought to myself, “ok, that’s enough of that.” But I ate the whole thing and it worked to get me through another low spot.
The rest of the day was a blur of small French towns built on hills and beautiful hilltop churches.
The afternoon sun heated up and pesky headwinds did a really good job of zapping my energy. I stopped at one family “aid stop” in Ambrieres-les-Vallees because I had been seeing signs “advertising” the stop for 15 kilometers. I was really curious to see who would take the time to advertise that they were giving away free stuff. Not surprisingly, the people were very friendly and had all kinds of food and drink for riders. They also had a mattress with blankets and pillows in the back of the garage in case a rider needed a nap. I took a good break there before moving on.
The crazy cheering and noise of the Villaines control was overwhelming. One thing I really like about Villaines is the tradition of local children carrying rider’s trays through the food line and across the courtyard to the eating area. The young fellow who carried my tray was very friendly but I think I loaded up the tray with about the limit of what he could carry.
Villaines to Mortagne was the toughest section of the ride for me. I was low on energy, the sun was beating down, and the headwind was still there. About halfway though section, I stopped in a bar for a coke and ended up meeting with a Canadian ride from Alberta. We ended up riding together all the way to Mortagne. Having some company and conversation was a godsend.
I left Mortagne just as it was getting dark, knowing that I only had about 75 miles to go. I still hadn’t decided if I was going to ride in or look for a place to sleep. The miles out of Mortagne seemed really hard. From 2011, I remembered a couple of moderate uphills but this felt like I was climbing a huge mountain. My mind was shocked awake when near the top, in the total darkness, a group of people alongside the road started cheering. Another food stop at a bar in some small town, and I limped into Dreux in a very tired, grumpy mood. The stop at Dreux is only about 25 miles from the finish. But it was 2 am, I was very sleepy, and in no mood to go on. Instead, I asked to be directed to the sleeping area and asked to be woken up at 3:30. The sleeping area turned out to be a disappointment. I was led to a hard gym style mat with no blanket or pillow. I wrapped up some clothes to make a pillow and laid down to sleep. I caught a couple of quick winks before the temperature seemed to drop about 20 degrees. I woke up just before 3 and decided that was good enough. When I walked out for breakfast, I saw Leigh eating with another Aussie. After breakfast, Leigh and I decided to ride in together. The 25 miles rolled nicely in the dark and Leigh and I had a nice conversation. Can’t begin to tell you what we talked about, but it was a pleasant way to finish the ride. The only excitement was a seemingly missing arrow in Rambouillet that confused us for a few minutes before arriving at the finish. As the banner came into sight, we were jarred awake by some serious cobblestones and directed to take a weird lap through a sandy, cobblestoned courtyard before hitting the official finish line. My finish time was listed as 83:37.
Although I’ve rambled on now for several pages, I find that PBP is an event that is really hard to sum up in a ride report. My memory of the ride is much more a collection of blurry memories and little stories that don’t really fit together into a linear narrative. The things that stand out to me are the overwhelming support of the people along the route. Entire families that sit outside day and night with bottles of water or packages of cookies to give to tired riders. The bunches of kids that stand alongside the road to exchange high fives with passing riders.
The signs and elaborate displays encouraging riders to keep going. It seems that everyone you come in contact with while riding PBP wants to help you succeed. PBP is an amazing and unique event.