Paris-Brest-Paris, or PBP, is the granddaddy of long-distance, or endurance cycling, and perhaps of all modern endurance sports. It began in 1891 as a challenge of man and machine, over 1200 km (750 mi) of dirt and gravel roads from Paris, west to the Brittany coast and back. Originally conceived as an event that would be run every ten years, as no one would consider doing it twice, the advent of better bikes, more pavement, and popularity turned it into an every-four-year event. Clashes between proponents of the supported racers and unsupported non-professionals eventually led to a split with one faction becoming the Tour de France, and the unsupported riders remaining as PBP. The 2019 edition was considered the 19th edition. In short, the sport of randonneuring and PBP date themselves to the advent of the pneumatic tired “safety” bikes, and to the challenges and the freedom offered by these elegant machines. Thus, there’s a bit of a steam-punk, niche-sport attitude that makes this a bit unique among other cycling venues.
While randonneuring is inclusive and welcoming to new riders, the path to participation in major events such as PBP is daunting. First, riders must find a local club offering a series of shorter rides, called brevets, stepping from 200 km to 300, 400, then 600 km. Riders will stop at controls, usually 24 hr convenience stores, to have a card validated with the time of arrival. Riders must meet time constraints based on a minimum speed to remain qualified as an official finisher. Support between controls is strictly forbidden, although riders may assist other riders and can stop at any store or café they spot along the way. Riders can navigate via cue cards, although electronic files are usually available as well. One will not find painted arrows and well-stocked food stations every few miles, as you might expect on a club or charity ride. Exploring the area along the route is part of the experience. Becoming competent at navigation, nutrition, bike maintenance, and time management allows one to participate even when their bike riding skills alone are less than stellar.
As old as PBP is, the participation of Americans in any great number has been a more recent occurrence. The few that braved PBP 1975 came back with tales that were picked up by the biking magazines, and a larger group went off in 1979. A less than stellar completion rate and a desire to grow the sport encouraged the American contingent to develop better preparation and qualifying events. One such event, Bike Across Missouri, caught my attention. Billed as a 540-mile, three-day bike ride, the event promised a challenge far beyond the club centuries and double centuries I had known. I was one of the last finishers of the 1981 edition, dealing with multiple flats, lighting issues, and a broken rear shifter cable before limping in. In 1982, I rode much better, and having encouraged several friends to join me, got to ride an additional loop at the end, making this my first 1000k (625 mi) bike ride.
In 1983, my friend, Steve Krueger decided he wanted to do PBP. Steve was an ardent touring cyclist, having ridden around the world before returning to Kansas City. I had encouraged him to try the double century ride organized by the St Louis AYH club, and then BAM’82. One of the PBP qualifiers was the John Marino Open, the first RAAM qualifier, in Hemet, CA. Four KC riders, Steve and myself, and the Felkners, Gary and Jerry, made the trek. I ended up qualifying, and then riding and finishing RAAM’83, with Steve, Gary and Jerry in support. Steve, after sitting for three weeks in a support vehicle, flew immediately to Paris and finished PBP ’83 in about 64 hrs. This was quite an incredible year for all of us, as well as for our numerous supporters in KC.
After RAAM, my enthusiasm for distance cycling began to ebb. I didn’t particularly enjoy the “race” aspect, and felt that the demands placed upon crew, and the potential danger, was discomforting. Steve and Gary returned to the JMO and qualified in 1984, while I dropped out of contention to serve as a potential crew member. My life changed dramatically when I married Sara, my chief cook and cheerleader from RAAM, and moved from KC to Annville, PA., where we helped start a local bike club. While I still rode the annual century rides, I stopped riding double centuries altogether about 1990. We returned to KC in 1995, now with four kids, and I didn’t get active with the KCBC again, just doing an occasional century, usually the “Summer Breeze”, which Steve had created.
In 2011, I heard that a friend, Dave Mathews, was to be riding PBP along with Bob Burns, the local “RBA”. Until then, I didn’t know about RUSA, the local club, or the brevet series. I followed Dave’s progress online, and listened as he and Bob made a presentation at the bike club Christmas banquet. Against my better judgement, having only ridden a 100 mi ride in Aug, then 25 miles at the most a few times since, I signed up for a 200k late March, 2012. I was elated at being in the middle of the pack! I came out for the 300k. Again, an awesome experience. The 400k was more daunting, as I realized I hadn’t ridden that far in a day in almost 30 years. Driven by adrenalin and fear, I was one of the first riders back. I was old and heavy, riding a 35 yr old steel commuter ten-speed, but I was totally in love with this new sport and with the new people that encouraged me along the way. In 2013, I rode my first 600k, a two-day ride in IA, and in 2014, signed up for the Colorado High Country 1200k. I’m grateful to the KC Audax riders that encouraged me, and the RUSA staff and leaders that made this all possible.
Prior to riding CHC’14, I decided I should upgrade to a more modern, reliable bike, more suited to this type of riding. That meant a wider range of gears, in particular, lower gears, racks, fenders, and better lighting. I opted to go with a custom build, working with Tom Kellogg at Spectrum Cycles, and a Ti frame. I trusted Tom entirely, even when he politely disagreed with almost all of my suggestions. To memorialize our disagreements, I had him faux paint a pair of downtube shifters for a touch of retro-humor. The process of working with such an incredibly talented craftsman and artist, and getting an awesome bike as well, has been a memorable part of my rando experience.
CHC’14 was an eye-opener for me. This ride was bigger, with over 50 riders, more diverse, with riders from all over the US and a few from other countries, and very well organized, with hotel sleeping arrangements each night, recommendations for food along the route, and volunteers tracking our progress. More so, the course was more beautiful than I could have imagined, and as we rode, the scenery would change, revealing even more beauty. Streams with whitewater rafters, check. Snow covered peaks, check. Rolling grasslands, check. Less than 100 miles into day one, I wanted to text my boss “Box up my stuff, I’m not coming back!” We also experienced severe weather, with hail, rain, lightning, strong winds, and yet again, more hail. I even got to ride with Kitty Goursolle, another RAAM'83 veteran and PBP finisher.
I discovered that for me, the multi-day rides brought a kind of joy, perhaps a mixture of serenity, peace, and thankfulness that I had never before experienced. I have done three 1200’s before PBP and at each one had found myself sobbing at times over the sheer joy of being able to do this. I find it utterly incredible that 36 years after declining my first opportunity to ride PBP, I am now a finisher. This sport, and this event in particular, does not care how old you are, or how fast you are, but just whether you are willing to test your ability to learn, adapt, and ride.
Deciding to go
For me, hardest part about a successful PBP completion is the decision to go. As an American, I thought I couldn’t get around in France not knowing the language, and wouldn’t be able to find food, restrooms, or water. In 1983, it was easy to be obstinate, and with RAAM, no reason to consider doing PBP. Four years later, I was a husband and father, and had decided to focus on those responsibilities. Jumping ahead to 2015, still feeling new to the sport, I rebuffed my RBA and said PBP’15 was too soon, I wasn’t ready, and still couldn’t speak French. But by 2019 I was retired, as fit as I was ever going to be, with the kids all out of college, and at age 63, maybe capable of just one attempt. The stories I had heard and read from those riding in 2015 were just too much. I had to try. Besides, they make it easy by asking you to “preregister” first, to secure a spot, then ride a brevet series before making a more significant financial commitment. Before you know it, I had secured a spot and was ready to go. To cement the deal, I told everyone I knew that I was going. Couldn’t back out now.
One daunting obstacle remained: I had never done international travel, so getting there and back, in time for the event, with my precious bike, seemed overwhelmingly difficult. To simplify, I immediately signed up for hotels through TravelHaus, a St. Louis Travel agency that had taken over the role from a different agent for the first time. They offered an airport shuttle and bag drop service, and even offered some rooms along the course. I wanted the full-PBP experience, sleeping in cots on gym floors, so opted out of rooms on the course. I tried to take advantage of their air options, which seemed pretty reasonable, only $900 round trip, but found that getting to one of the cities they serviced was just too daunting. I studied shipping charges using BikeFlights, and compared to airline bike charges. I studied bike box sizes against airline limitations. I eventually realized that I had enough miles on a credit card to secure a round trip ticket, with no extra charge for a bike box, and went that route. I acquired a used cardboard box from an LBS, reinforced it with Gorilla tape and shellacked it for water protection. TH then dropped a bomb on my plans, eliminating the airport shuttle service. I spent days examining options, such as Uber, cabs, bus and train. I downloaded a train map to the phone and finally felt ready to go.
Phone? Would my phone work in France? I planned to meet up with my friend Paul Toigo, and didn’t know if I would have cell service, or could text, or use map functions. My carrier, T-Mobile, was optimistic. “Might work.” They couldn’t say that the phone, a Motorola G6, was going to be compatible. I added “WhatsApp” calling and messaging app to communicate with family during the ride. The phone worked seamlessly.
I read countless blog posts from previous editions, and joined the blogs for the current PBP. I watched all 35 (and counting) YouTube posts from Eric Norris (campyonlyguy). I rode one additional 400k, and to keep my R12 intact, a 200k perm between the brevet series and PBP. I’m not one for “training” for events.
Travel to Paris:
I have the good fortune to be friends with Paul Toigo, also from KC, who was riding his third TCR, which ended in Brest about a week before PBP. Paul offered to meet me at the airport and help transport the bike and gear to my hotel in SQY. Despite all the worrying, we all arrived at CDG airport in fine form Wedn AM and headed to the train station nearby. Paul had made an executive decision and had purchased two train passes that could be used on any line, or on any bus, for a week. This would facilitate getting to the start of the ride in Rambouillet, about 15 miles from the hotel and enable some tourist activity.
This seemed like really easy trip: RER B line from CDG to St Michele N/D in center city, then transfer to RER C going to SQY, where the station was just two blocks from the hotel. Unfortunately, while France goes on vacation in Aug, they do lots of maintenance on train lines, and a chunk of the C line was inoperable, including our station. We studied the map and exited early, taking the 4-line to Montparnasse, climbed several flights of stairs, walked about two city blocks, following Paul’s GoogleMap directions, then back underground for the N train to SQY. In effect, we rode three different train lines walking several blocks with my gear and a 50 lb bike box before getting to the hotel.
Pre-ride ActivitiesWe had a terrific lunch to celebrate, then hopped back on the train toward the Eiffel Tower to do a little sightseeing. By “toward”, I mean that we were on the ill-fated RER C line, which terminated about a mile from the tower itself. Distance athletes that we are, we walked the rest of the way, stopping at the tower to rest, marvel at the crowds, take a few pictures and ponder climbing the stairs to the top despite a bit of a sprinkle and threatening clouds. We opted not, and separated, with Paul heading to his hotel on the northwest side of Paris, and me heading to mine. I’ll have to admit that I had a little difficulty getting into the train station, squeezing past a gate that was probably there to deter my entry, but I made it onto the train just fine.
An adept traveler, Paul had chosen accommodations close to Victor Cycles, a high-quality bike shop in Paris. Indeed, the owner was a TCR veteran and was riding in PBP’19. They were also displaying a custom rando steed at the Concourse Bike Show at Rambouillet. Victor Cycles was doing some tune-up work on Paul’s bike, and he got to meet Fiona K, winner of TCR’19 and Bjorn Leonard while there. Quality time indeed!
|Paul, with Fiona and Bjorn, and Patrick Mahomes|
I had returned to the train station, and on to the hotel, by myself now. I was gaining confidence in my ability to navigate. At the hotel, I began a new pattern of life that would form the next several days. I found it easy to approach and join other riders and groups to talk about bikes, food, bike rides, and everything in between. (Is there much in between, really?) That evening, I joined another rider on a trip to the nearby Carrefour grocery store, where I bought real food, paid for in euros that I had recently acquired. We returned to the hotel and joined other riders eating their dinner on the patio. There were quite a few American and Australian cyclists here at the Campanile, so conversations were easy. I forget names and faces rather quickly, so I’m sure I introduced myself to a number of people more than once. Ce la vi.
On Thursday morning, I hustled off to find a Mass for the Feast of the Assumption. This is a massive holiday in France, with many businesses closed. This seemed odd, as most people don’t seem to observe this holiday at church. Regardless, afterwards, I met Karen and Greg, also from KC, who were doing a tandem tour through Europe before PBP. I had brought them a back-up headlight as theirs began acting up recently. We went to lunch, with K&G trying to add a few key words to my vocabulary. After they left, I returned to the hotel to begin to reassemble the bike. My concern about missing or broken parts were unwarranted, and the bike was operational quickly. Oddly, I felt no desire to thrash about on the roads nearby. They have no grid system to speak of, street names are often simply attached to nearby buildings, and traffic signs seem designed for mind-readers.
On Friday, my day revolved around a Travel Haus bag drop at 2 pm. I ran into Chris Scott, another recently transplanted KC rando, an experienced PBP rider. He had been misinformed about the location of the bag drop, and had been waiting with others at another hotel before coming to mine. As the time approached, a TH worker announced that the truck was about two blocks away, near another hotel, and we all trudged over and waited in what was now a huge line. It was nice to see so many familiar faces from previous 1200’s.
Later on Friday, I got to give the Spectrum a shake-out ride. If a few patches of cobblestones didn’t loosen lights and fenders, then a few hundred kilometers of pavement should be a snap. I rode to Versailles, just a few miles from the hotel, mostly on a bike path or lane. I couldn’t shake the idea that I was in FRANCE, on a bike! It all just seemed so unreal. I circled the palace and eventually came to a gate that allowed me to enter and ride through the gardens. Just amazing!
On Saturday, Rambouillet would be buzzing with activity. RUSA planned a group picture at 10:45 am. I was slated for registration and inspection at 2:15 pm. As it was raining on and off, I joined the dozens of riders taking the train to Rambouillet. From the station, it was a few miles of riding through this quaint, picturesque town, to the start. Upon entering the park, I found myself at the end of a long line of cyclists. I waited patiently, wondering what exactly we were waiting for, knowing I was missing the photo opportunity and the chance to meet and greet RUSA dignitaries. After about an hour, we had moved close enough for me to realize that this was, in fact, the line for inspections. A local volunteer approached me and asked to see my registration form. He pointed to the time- 2:15 pm, and to his watch. I’m too early. I shouldn’t be in this line! I put my ignorance of the language to good use. Where was I supposed to go? He eventually shrugged and moved on. The riders near me suggested I stay in line so I did, and slid easily through inspection. Oddly, I didn’t see him interrogate anyone else.
Bike inspection took just a few seconds, as they looked for operable lights, then pushed laterally against water bottle cages. I was allowed to move the bike to the secured corral, and proceed to registration. After a much shorter wait in line. I received a bag of goodies: a PBP water bottle, reflective vest, wrist band, plastic pouch lanyard for my control card, the control card itself, a frame number with electronic chip, a second frame number to make it easier for the photographer to identify you, and a food coupon good for a meal Sunday afternoon before the ride. I also got a beautiful PBP jersey (extra $$) that turned out to be exceptionally small. As another rider put it “You’re SUPPOSED to see your belly button!”
Despite the rain, there were a smattering of display tents in the area. One was from Idealle leather saddles. Helmut, maker of some beautiful saddle bags for loaded touring. Alex Singer, one of the most esteemed bike fabricators in the world, and Victor Cycles. As I was admiring the Victor display, they pointed me towards the Concourse show, where their best bike would be found. At this point, Paul Toigo was passing through inspection, so I joined up with him and we went into the show.
Now in this tent, we were treated to a feast of virtuosity in design and execution that I could barely comprehend. The bikes here, about twenty, were being judged both by us, and by people with vastly more knowledge than I’ll ever possess. There was an Alex Singer, a Victor, a Rossman. Jan Heine from Bicycle Quarterly was there. These show bikes had specific criteria to meet, including integrated lights and fenders. The bikes were both gorgeous and functional. I believe they were all steel, and some had downtube shifters. Several of these bikes would be ridden on PBP, with the builders getting extra credit for a sub-80 hr finish.
Leaving the show with Paul, I took a turn towards the actual Chateau at Rambouillet. I rode around the small castle, finding a beautifully manicured garden with a lake and numerous paths. This looked like an exceptional place to come and nap before the ride start Sunday evening. I left, took the train back to SQY, and joined others heading to dinner.
Sunday came with a lot of nervous energy. Given a 6:15 pm start, I had time for a relaxing, extended breakfast, packed up the bike and stashed everything else in the carry-on, which the hotel stored for my return. On the bike, I had pre-arranged plastic bags. One had powdered energy, two Spiz, two maltodextrins for the first 280 mi leg, a change of clothes that I expected to wear on the last day, rain pants, my Gore-Tex jacket, a long sleeve tee and tights. An extra tee and tights were in the drop bag, as well as day 2 and 3 clothing, and more powders for future stages. After all the rain on Saturday, there was just a slight chance of rain for the duration of the ride. I wore my RUSA PBP jersey and my new wind vest. I devoured my pre-ride meal, then headed towards the start area to try and nap before the start. Turns out, surrounded by thousands of avid cyclists, friends and fans, mid-day rest does not come so easily.
It became apparent that each wave of 300 riders would be staged on opposite sides of the park exit road. The unusual vehicles, enclosed recumbents, tandems, a triple, left about 5 pm. Waves of 90 hr riders followed 15 minutes apart. I was in the J-group, at 6:15 pm. There, I ran into Spencer Klaassen, our RBA, a fixed-gear enthusiast who had encouraged me to try these longer events. He was staying and riding with a group from Seattle, all extraordinarily capable riders and leaders within RUSA. Our line approached the start line, where a chip reader would record our exit. First, we got our control card signed. I rolled across the line, put my card away, and looked around to see how the mass start portion, and perhaps last-minute instructions would take place. Instead, I realized that all of the riders were streaming up the road towards Brest. The ride was on!
From all of the previous blogs, I was wary of joining the massive pacelines full of adrenaline-filled racer-types with dubious skills and sketchy etiquette behavior. Turns out, that was the least of my worries, as those folks were already far ahead of me. I was content to plunk away at my own pace, easily passing many solo riders, and occasionally being passed by others. After about 30 minutes, I caught up with Spencer’s pack, easily rambling up the road, swapping stories and enjoying the moment. I stopped to change some clothing, then spent the next twenty minutes catching them again. About that point, a wave of riders from the next group passed ours, possibly while we were passing riders from the group before us. I felt uncomfortable in the confusion and decided to just ride my own pace from here on out. I wanted to see as much countryside as I could, and watching out for other cyclists was just too stressful for me.
Our first control, Mortagne at 118 km, 73 mi, was merely a food stop. We did not get our cards stamped here, when outbound. I watered up and left, probably about midnight. I recalled the advice was to not stop here at all if possible. The first real control was Villaianes la Juhel at 217 km, 135 mi. I expected to arrive about 4 to 5am, but had calculated 6:30am for family to follow my progress. Instead, I found myself in desperate need of multiple sleep breaks overnight, and I actually arrived at nearly 7am. While I had expected that the ride would begin with a long “Stage 1” a strong 277 miles to Loudeac, I suddenly felt that stage 1 was behind me, and this new stage, where I was considerably more tired, was going to be much harder than expected.
|Day 2 Pastry stop in beautiful town|
I got to Carhaix about 8am, had my card signed, and went directly to the cots. They were astonished that I only wanted 30 minutes sleep, but that was all I thought I could afford. I didn’t realize that I was already 2 hrs beyond closing time for my group at this control. (The reason for my confusion was that our control cards listed a closing time for each control based on the last wave of riders, and not the time for my actual wave. I had a list of closing times on the bike, for my wave, but assumed that the organizers had changed them, and that the card was correct.) I woke myself at 50 minutes, wondering what happened to my 30 min wake-up call. Leaving the room, where about a dozen other riders were sleeping, I found that the volunteers, their table, and the log book were all gone. I quickly left, and it didn’t dawn on me until later that the other riders could be in jeopardy.
There are several scenic highlights as we near Brest. The first is the Roc Trevezel, a fairly gradual climb to an area with scenic overlooks on both sides of the road. The second is the iconic bridge toward the harbor at Sizun. While we all take turns getting our picture taken, and taking pictures of others, we turn our back to the harbor, which leads to the Atlantic, and home. Instead, we continue to Brest, then turn back east to Paris.
Coming into Brest, I was still blissfully ignorant of the time deficit I was running. Fortunately, it seemed to hover about 2 to 2 ½ hours, and over 5 hours past my estimate. Eventually I found out that the organizers were not DQ’ing riders for missed time at intermediate controls, provided that the 90 hr final control was reached. Leaving Brest, I realized that it had taken me 44 hrs to get there, and that a 90 hr completion time was certainly questionable. I also realized that the headwinds we had faced for the first half would be tailwinds for a bit, probably becoming cross or headwinds by the end. The tailwinds should help for a while.
Unfortunately, it didn’t help my sleep situation. I took another nap, probably in Tinteniac, on a dorm bed in a quiet room by myself, a real luxury, waking again after about 40 min. I found that I could only ride so far after a short nap, maybe 1-2 hrs, before getting too sleepy to proceed safely. Roadside naps during the day were comfortable enough, but at night, the temps dropped below 40 degrees, so sleeping effectively on the road was a challenge. I paid close attention to the temperatures, as sometimes it seemed colder at the crest of a hill, while other times it seemed colder in the valley. I wanted to avoid cold rest stops as much as possible. I could tell that I rode well, when alert, by how quickly I approached and passed other riders. When I started to fade, my speed diminished, and when I awoke from a short nap, my riding was ponderous.
I ran into Michele Brougher from the Mac & Cheese 1200k at Loudeac inbound. She reassured me that I still had plenty of time for a successful completion. I was tempted to wait a bit and leave with her group, but realized that I would probably not get far before my next sleep stop, and didn’t want them to be held up. I was still over 3 hrs in the hole at Fougeres, with 200 mi to go. I wasn’t too stressed, since I had 21 hrs to ride it. It was just impossible to predict how much time I would need to be sleeping off the bike.
At Villaianes, 127 to the finish and 16 hrs to go, things would have seemed do-able but for the fact I was entering the last night. I had still not had a significant sleep break, anything over an hour, much less than the three-hour sleep breaks I’m accustomed to. I didn’t realize that I had somehow taken almost two hours off my time deficit between Fougeres and Villainies. Unfortunately, I then needed three roadside naps before reaching the town of Mamers, just 30 miles away. At one of those, I fell asleep before setting an alarm, and got about an hour of sleep. I knew I didn’t have so much time in the bank, and now really doubted my ability to finish this on time.
At Mamers, the town square was bustling with activity as we had seen many other places along the ride. A helper asked in English how I was doing and I said I needed sleep. He pointed to a massive stone building across the street and said there were cots and toilets inside. I said, no, not enough time, I would sleep in the parking lot. I wandered around, then went to the building he had pointed to, and sat down on the steps, leaned against the building, and closed my eyes. In a short time, I heard a heavy wooden door being pushed open behind me, and a rider, perhaps from Italy, came out, tapped me on the shoulder, and pointed to the inside. “Cots, toilets”, he indicated. I said I was fine, but he pulled, led, or maybe carried me in. The room was dark, warm and quiet. It was the most beautiful place on the planet, Heaven on Earth. In seconds, I was fast asleep, with no alarm set, and nobody to wake me up. I suppose I was really cooked.
After about 40 minutes, the two coffees I had consumed must have kicked in and I woke up, gathered my belongings and left. Leaving town, I assumed I was now too far beyond the closing times to finish. Riding without GPS or odometer, I wasn’t really aware of how far we were to the next control. Hoping to make the best of it, I connected with a rider wearing an SFR vest and we chatted for a bit. Then we started pace-lining, picking up speed, then adding a third rider. We rocketed along like this, changing off the lead every 20-30 seconds, all the way to Mortagne. I can’t remember ever riding as fast as we did that night. I lost track of them in the corral and didn’t remember names or badge numbers. After downing two more coffees, I looked for them, then left, unsure if they were ahead or behind. I could now see that I had 8 hrs to ride 76 miles. If I didn’t need much more sleep, a successful completion was now do-able. I have tried to find that rider, to thank him and be assured that he finished well. I used the SFR PBP google group to no avail. I have considered the possibility that this was my guardian angel bringing me safely to the next control.
I continued on in good form towards the penultimate control at Dreux, just 28 miles from the finish. I recall getting tired again, as dawn approached, and tried to mimic a rider I saw sleeping on the narrow slab of concrete that formed a small bridge over a creek. I then decided that I should see how well my mylar emergency blanket would work. I’ve had this in my handlebar bag on every ride since CHC’14. After several minutes, I had it partially unfolded, with layers of plastic stuck together and several long slits which had previously been folds. Pretty useless. I was glad to realize that it wouldn’t have helped much the previous nights, when I should have first tried it. Sleeping on a bridge, so close to passing cyclists was another mistake. The constant rushing sound was another distraction. I moved on. Shortly after, I encountered Spencer Klaassen, still riding with John Ende, Mark Thomas and their entire crew, as I think they caught up to me. I was still wearing my Le Society de Adrian Hands jersey that I had switched into at Loudeac outbound. I knew that if I finished with this group, I would earn the right to wear this jersey as a proud official member. We experienced a beautiful sunrise on this stretch, with many riders stopping to take pictures. My family, all at their computers at 1 am local time, was overjoyed to see me arriving at Dreux with Spencer. They had seen me tracking 2 to 3 hrs behind him, indeed two hours behind at Mortagne, just 48 miles ago, so they never expected this recovery. In fact, as his group was also targeting the 88:55 (or greater) completion, they most likely got two extra hours in a café, or two extra hours of sleep at Mortagne.
Nevertheless, I left Dreux with 4 hrs to do 28 miles, enough time for another tasty pastry stop. I was back to Rambouillet in time to make a quick call home to let them know that while I was done, I would wait about 30 minutes to cross the finish line with the other LSAH members. Then I got to call home, occasionally trying contain the sobs as I recounted the events of the last several days. It would be another hour and a half before I wondered about where I would go to get the card signed and submitted. I didn’t see anyone giving directions, and in all of the excitement at the finish line, it sure felt like we were done.
From the time I woke up in KC to bedding down in my hotel in France, I had flown in two planes, crossed one ocean, had my passport stamped, ridden on five different trains, walked several miles to and from the Eiffel Tower, eaten real French food (Andouillette Sausage) and beer, acquired euros, bought food at an actual grocery store, and met numerous awesome, friendly people. What a day!
One of the first people I met at SQY was Tom Gee, doing his 9th PBP. Tom’s name was familiar. He had lived in St. Louis, and was an early BAM rider. Turns out, he also raced against Dennis Scott, one of my RAAM crew members, indeed the only “real bike racer” on our team. Tom noted that he held the MO State Junior Time Trial Record for a while, maybe thirty minutes, until Dennis broke his record. Yeah, he remembers Dennis. Tom DNF’ed due to neck problems with only about 200 miles to go.
At my first in-town pit stop, the first night, I pulled up onto the sidewalk near a group of young kids. One watched as I filled my water bottle with powdered maltodextrin, turning his cell phone to flashlight mode to help me. He then poured bottled water into my bottle and cheered me on as I departed. This my first brush with the kindness and generosity of the people along the route, and there were many more to follow.
The showers at Loudeac were an experience. When I first looked, the line was so long, I abandoned and went to try and sleep instead. When I went back, there was no line, so getting in was easy. The building had a room with a table to register and pay for the shower, and get a towel. That led to the next room, a changing area with benches and hooks. I was undressing when I realized I was in direct view of the ladies at the registration table. I shifted to a new spot a few feet away. A few minutes later, the lady herself walked through our changing area, apparently helping another volunteer. The shower area itself was communal, with several heads along one wall, towel hooks on the other, and about 3 inches of water on the floor, which sloped down to a fairly clogged drain. You push a button to get about 20 seconds of perfectly warm spray. I left really refreshed, it seemed, ready to ride on to Carhaix.
Nobody ever mentions the manure. Coming from Kansas, I’m not usually bothered by that smell, but here, it was pervasive, ever present. At times, I felt I was never going to shed that smell. It was as if I was swimming in it. Would I eventually need to burn my beautiful LSAH jersey? My taste buds associated that smell with my chocolaty Spiz, making me reluctant to reach for a bottle.
I tried to get some rest at most controls, but it wasn’t that easy. Some have huge festivals, with fans clapping for each rider leaving or entering. Some have live music being amplified and delivered about the venue. Some have broadcast announcers desperate to fill each second with earnest information. It seemed at times that the fans are there to encourage our desire to remain in a sleep-deprived state for as long as possible. Yeah, bring it on! (No, please don't- there are people sleeping everywhere!)
Waiting at Rambouillet with the other LSAH riders, before riding to the finish line, Spencer tried to introduce me to Ian Hands, Adrian’s son, who was standing right next to me, but who I didn’t recognize. I was able to stammer out an, “Oh, we met at Mac & Cheese”, when a more appropriate response would have been “OMG! OMG! You, who just finished PBP riding fixed gear, in a Charly Miller time, something not done since Charly himself! OMG!” I was clearly out of sorts. While on the course, days ago, a lady came up and introduced herself to me as the wife of a rider who had been riding with Ian earlier. She saw my jersey, and just wanted to say what a nice young man Ian is. As a father, I consider that a real tribute to Adrian as well.
On the train to SQY after the ride, I was talking to a fellow cyclist from Italy. (“Roma”, he said.) At one point, he asked us what our bikes weighed. I sort of stammered, “I have no idea.” With all the stuff I carry, the weight of the bike is irrelevant. He jumped up and excitedly shook my hand. I noticed that his bike was a Schwinn, maybe a Passport. It didn’t look very high-end, but it was adorned with aerobars and GPS attachments. He just seemed really pleased that he was with riders that didn’t care that much about such stuff. PBP is so much more about the riders and their efforts than about the bikes themselves.
Back at the hotel, I listened as many riders told of their experiences. Many had not finished on time. One rider tearfully told about the dozens of times he had stopped to hand out club pins to the kids who reached out to slap our hands or help fill water bottles in the towns along the route. He knew he was losing time, but these interactions became more important than a successful completion, and he had no regrets.
Back at the hotel, I listened as many riders told of their experiences. Many had not finished on time. One rider tearfully told about the dozens of times he had stopped to hand out club pins to the kids who reached out to slap our hands or help fill water bottles in the towns along the route. He knew he was losing time, but these interactions became more important than a successful completion, and he had no regrets.
I clearly underestimated the effect of an evening start and my ability to adapt. In hindsight, I should have tried caffeine pills or mint/menthol gums. I saw riders heading to pharmacies, but I assumed that was just for pain meds. In general, I’m not keen on medicating myself into lucidity, but I hadn’t considered how small a cup of coffee or can of Coke would get served on this ride. At Tinteniac or Loudeac outbound, I should have gotten a cot no matter what, and had at least 90 min quality rest. A 90 min nap the first night might have made all the difference, even that early in the ride. The ditch naps that I took on previous rides were pretty effective at getting me on to the motel, but at PBP, in the cold, they seemed to do very little. I am truly surprised and baffled about how poorly I made decisions about sleep, especially after falling into this deficit.
I really envied the bivy sleepers on quiet roads or in parks. With the large number of riders and limited cot space, perhaps this will be a recommendation. Note that it seems that quite a few riders find motels or beds off-course, and many others will eat and sleep in mini-campers parked near the controls. The concept of “unsupported” means something different in Europe.
I found it usually pretty easy to get through controls. Some had very slow food lines, in which you needed to stay put, even if you just wanted a coffee or coke. Some had long bathroom lines. At others, it was hard to find a place to eat because so many riders were sleeping on or under the tables. I tried sleeping under a table once, for the full PBP experience. Really one of my better naps. Sometimes, I lost valuable minutes trying to remember where I left my bike. I’ve often had dreams about this, but here at PBP, I always found it, eventually.
|View from down under|
I was a little surprised to see trash, like energy bar wrappers or GU containers on the road. Even saw a discarded mylar blanket in a field nearby. Given the number of riders, it wasn’t a lot of trash, but it was noticeable. Even worse though, I found a half empty blister-pack of pills near a farm house. Not thinking clearly, I looked at the package to see if I could identify it, (Caffeine?) but couldn’t, then tossed it into the brush on the other side of a ditch. I regret not taking and disposing of them properly. Unless they were dropped inadvertently, there is no excuse for leaving pills along the roadside. On another occasion, I saw a rider relieving himself in a bush in front of a house at the edge of town. Really, with miles of countryside, he needs to go in someone’s front yard? I think riders need to agree to a code of etiquette before being allowed to register for this event.
I’m stunned to think about how little solid food I consumed on this ride. I bought a huge ham sandwich, took two bites, and carried it for a few hundred miles before trashing it. I had a chicken and couscous dish, slathered with a tomato paste sauce, had a few bites and trashed the rest. At Carhaix inbound, I grabbed a fast food hotdog, tubular fuel, one of my favorite ride meals. I just wanted the simplest dog, but got one slathered in catsup, mayo, and a bbq sauce. The slender little sausage was sliced in half to help fill the bun. A real disappointment that took over a half hour off the clock. I did get a nice bit of pastry every day. I had 1-2 servings of Spiz each day, plus maltodextrin for nutrition and calories, and I never felt hungry, but I should have needed much more. I did find this picture of food, but I can’t recall where, or when I may have eaten it. It’s not impossible that my tiredness and poor riding, and poor decision making was tied to a lack of fuel. I just never felt that I needed more fuel, and I don’t know if it was the tiredness or lack of fuel that disrupted my ability to make good decisions.
This event is simply so amazing- the international flavor, the kindness and generosity of the hosts and volunteers, the support and encouragement of fellow cyclists. There are probably some tweaks that could make the ride safer and more accessible to people like me. There are clearly many fairly new riders, people with less international experience, and many old riders. Preliminary results show that nearly 30% of the starters did not finish, or didn't finish in their allotted time. There are certainly things I would personally do differently to make it easier.
Following the many rider reports that have been posted, I’m struck by how many riders found themselves in tenuous positions, dealing with unexpected situations, like the cold overnights, the unrelenting headwind, the unforgiving clock, overwhelming tiredness, leg or neck pain, saddle sore issues, mechanical issues or crashes. Many strong riders have self-selected impediments, such as fixed-gear bikes, or vintage bikes, while many others bear characteristics such as relatively old age or lack of experience or ability. I loved the idea that this event is open to anyone willing to meet the entry requirements. This ride forces us all to push through our adversity in ways I’ve never experienced.
We are energized by the enthusiasm of the crowds that greet us as we wheel through towns, and overwhelmed by the generosity of families in the countryside, stocking tables with water and snacks, often given away at no cost. The ride celebrates tenacity and unrelenting effort. It’s impossible to ignore the magnitude of this experience when you see other grown men sobbing as they accept their medals or hug their friends and family. I would like to encourage any distance cyclist who, like me, found a number of reasons that they couldn't do this, to try to find a way to make this a reality. But you might not want to wait until you get really old, like I did. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to participate in and successfully complete PBP’19.
|Comparing real closing times, my expectations, to my actual times and to Spencer's actual times|
enjoyed reading your report Gary...Congratulations on your finishReplyDelete
Thank you Gary this was fun to sample a bit of PBP through your eyesReplyDelete
This is a huge achievement and a pleasure to read, Gary! Proud to have shared some miles with you over the journey toward your successful P-B-P! Now... Four years from now... We shall see what comes next!ReplyDelete
This is a very good account of this epic event Gary! Love the photos. PBP is so big in cycling history that I plan to go and see it as a spectator and supporter, probably in 2027. The local people are what make it so special. The incredible kindness and generosity of families in the villages, and the selfless efforts of sleep-deprived volunteers are unforgettable. Thank you for sharing your memories. JT #G180.ReplyDelete