The 15th Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) has been a quadrennial event since 1951, when it was restricted to amateur cyclists only. Prior to Õ51 it was both a professional and an amateur event, originating in 1891. Since 1951, 581 Americans have finished, most but once or twice. Nearly 460 Americans started this year out of an international field of 4,069. The Davis club sent 86 +/- riders. Prior to the group Davis photo, most of the 12 or 13 of us riding RexÕs assembled for a group photo of our own.
The first order of business upon arrival at the hotel in the Paris suburb where the ride begins was the reassembly of the bikes. The courtyard was amass with bike boxes, wheels, tools and frames in various stages of assembly. Once assembled, both the empty boxes and the bikes were stored in the first floor conference room of the hotel. Boxes were stacked floor to ceiling and then overflowed into the stairwell at each of the 5 levels to make room for more bikes. Tandems, singles, and recumbents Š all filled the room with barely enough room to enter. Going for a ride meant moving multiple bikes to reach yours.
Last minute strategizing or tales from previous rides were the topics of conversation over the next couple of days Š boring stuff for the non-riding family members amongst us. Short rides Saturday and Sunday confirmed what others had already discovered - which was how difficult negotiating the local roadways could be, since roundabout directions are identified by destination city rather than street names. On both rides I was unable to successfully navigate the course using only the route sheet. Other last minute preparations included assembling the 2 drop bags containing food, batteries and extra clothing that were prepositioned for us along the route for access both going and coming.
The heat wave that scorched Western Europe in early August and is blamed on 11,435 French deaths broke the day we arrived. A brief rainstorm occurred Sunday night but Monday through Friday were ideal conditions Š no rain, little wind and mild temperatures.
Registration, Sunday 17 August
The daylong registration was an event in itself. The bike and light check were perfunctory as was the signing in and pick-up of the brevet book and magnetic tracking card. You could not afford to lose either of these; so many wore them around their neck and tucked them inside their jersey. The real fun began when mingling with other clubs and nations Š swapping jerseys (including someoneÕs Terrible Two jersey) and making a few new friendships. Most riders were at least in their 30Õs Š many in the 50Õs plus and maybe 85% male. Also on exhibit were future rides Š the CanadianÕs Rocky Mountain 1200 K next July 21-25 and RandonneurÕs USA Boston-Montreal-Boston (BMB) held every non-PBP year in August, to name a few. There are also events in England, Sweden and Australia that I know of.
Day 1 Š The Start
I elected the 84-hour, 5 a.m. Tuesday start but most chose to leave with the 90-hour, 10 p.m. Monday group. I coerced my family into watching the tandems, recumbents, trikes and other specials leave 15 minutes before the singles, since I knew they wouldnÕt want to rise at 3 a.m. for my group. Quite a crowd had gathered. Most of the instructions were in French but it didnÕt matter anyway, as I found out the next morning, since back in the pack of 500 riders you couldnÕt hear anything anyway. We stayed around for the first wave of 500 singles at 10 p.m., and let the next 3 groups at 10:15, 10:30 and 10:45 fend for themselves.
One of the benefits of selecting the 5 a.m. start is the false premise that one can get some sleep the night before. What usually took me 5 minutes to fall asleep took 2 hours. Breakfast was 6 packs of oatmeal la Doug WiktorÕs regime with the help of the coffee maker in the room, followed later by 2 large fig (or so I thought when I bought them the day before) bars.
The start was about a kilometer away; and once arriving and having the card swiped and the book stamped, exit was forbidden. I chatted with a few friends, including some I wouldnÕt see again until after the ride.
The first 12 km was auto paced and the lead pack of 200 to 300 where I found myself was doing 18 to 22 mph. Once the car left us, the pace quickened to 22 to 25 mph and it constantly alternated between hammer mode and grabbing a handful of brakes, 3 to 4 abreast at times, but comfortably spaced. It was a sea of red lights, each following the one before, hoping the leaders were following the course markers because I know I didnÕt let my eyes stray to locate them. IÕm told there were crashes behind me but I only witnessed one a few bikes in front of me (that only took the one fellow down). But opportunities for mishap abounded what with a hairpin turn at the bottom of a steep descent, islands in the roadway, constricting roadways, cobbles and just nervous energy. One Brit remarked that the pace was that of a 200 km event, not a 1200 km. I found myself moving ever closer to the front all the time whenever the pace dipped below 20 mph or when most would seem to coast down the descents sitting up; quite the opposite how most of us ride the foothills and the Sierras. The pack remained intact until just before the first feed stop at 141 km (87 miles) but I only made it 140 km (now in second position) before the ŌfigsÕ forced me to seek the refuge of the bushes. I polished off a third fig bar at the rest stop (along with another pit stop), then realized that figs and prunes look amazingly alike, even in France, and sure enough, the ŌPÕ word was on the wrapper. I tossed the last 2 bars but the damage was done (and would continue for another 100 miles and a few more rest stops). At least I could see the humor of it all; but also knew that I really needed to rehydrate (138 miles on 2 water bottles and 2 Spiz bottles) and pile on the carbs. A key part of rides of this distance is facing the inevitable adversity, whether it manifests itself as a physical or mechanical affliction or both, and working through it. After the first stop we regrouped and rode comfortably at about 18 to 20 mph with a few Davis friends. One town had decorated old bicycles with colorful pom-poms. Mark Gunther, in trying to snap a picture, rode his Rex off the road and into a ditch but kept it upright. After restarting, it wasnÕt long before we noticed his right fork was bent inward, the tire missing the downtube itself but close enough to graze the downtube cables. At the next rest stop, we caught up with Steve Rex who thought it could be straightened safely. Fortunately a shop in town did so while we ate lunch. Mark finished the ride on it.
The checkpoints were usually about 50 miles apart, which would translate to about 4 hours of riding. The controlles were usually at schools. Upon reaching the controlle, the first order of business was always to check in and have the book stamped. The restrooms were inside as well. The cafeteria became the feed zone. The fare for sale usually consisted of chicken, rice, pasta, mashed potatoes, vegetables and bread. Coffee was always served in soup bowls, not cups. Drinks were water, soda, beer and wine. The beer and wine were as much for the riders as the volunteers and was quite popular. Breakfasts would also feature croissants and juice and more coffee.
It was difficult to get out of a controlle in less than 45 minutes if the stop included purchasing and eating food at a table and it was easy to lose track of time. And as the days and nights rolled on, every task off the bike seemed to take longer.
Unless one can ride 250 miles of rolling terrain in 14 hours, some night riding is necessary, usually a lot. For the more than 2,200 riders that elected the 90 hour start at 10 p.m. Monday evening, it meant 9 hours of night riding the first night alone. And all of them would need also to do some additional night riding the second night before sleeping. For many of us in the 5 a.m. start, we would only ride the first 2 hours in the dark but needed to continue past midnight to reach the first major rest area at Loudeac (280 miles). What made this seem so normal was the volume of riders with the same goal. Red taillights would be visible off into the distance, until obscured by some hill or curve. What added novelty would be the townspeople in the villages, who at all hours of the night cheered us on and made sure we stayed on course. Winding through the old villages was always a treat. And it was impossible to pass through a town in the wee morning hours and bypass a bar with dozens of bikes lining both sides of the street and not stop, stay for a coffee and chat. In one town the locals were barbequing sausages for the riders. Others would leave bottled water out with a note in French to help yourself (at least thatÕs what I think it said).
Cycling Through the Central and Western French Countryside
The route wound through the countryside on 2-lane roads from village to village, separated sometimes by only a few kilometers, with pasture or plowed fields in between. The effects of the heat the previous two weeks was evident from the brown corn stalks and the prematurely withered fields of sunflowers. I can count on one hand the number of squirrels and rabbits I saw the entire ride, including all the night riding; and the only road kill was a bird or two. (Come to think of it, rabbit is a typical menu item.) The grass shoulders were often mowed but never a clipping on the roadway. An English rider told me it was a French law that the pavement be swept after the shoulders were mowed. I had no flats and only rarely did I see anyone stopped and repairing a puncture. The road surfaces were very good throughout.
One would usually be able to foresee the location of the next town, the first object coming within sight above the tree tops being the church steeple. Many of the buildings in the smaller villages were made of stone.
The route was very well marked with reflective arrows fastened to signposts and the like. Not once did I need to refer to the route sheet. When I was in doubt, there was either a local person there to direct me or the taillights of others to follow. Traffic always yielded to cyclists, even when riding 2 or 3 abreast. Never did I hear an impatient honk and only once did a car fail to pass with a wide berth. The first 85 miles we took up the entire lane, made no effort to squeeze into anything less and yielded no ground to traffic. Vehicles simply waited until it was safe to pass. I purposely left my mirror in the hotel and didnÕt once wish I had worn it. Helmets were optional but most chose to wear one.
Day 1 (continued) Š Paris to Loudeac (280 miles)
On our trek towards Loudeac and sleep, sometime around 1 or 2 a.m. and somewhere in the midst of odd songs, the lead riders were returning to Paris (from their 8 p.m. Monday start, about 29 hours before), their headlights appearing from over the hilltops ahead. We quickly tired of shouting encouraging ŅallezÓ at them and, following MarkÕs example, instead shouted nonsensical sounds for our own amusement.
Peter Burnett and I were having trouble remaining awake for the last 15 km or so but the others wanted no part in stopping to sleep so close to our goal. So he and I decided a 15 minute power nap was OK. He set his watch; we lay off the road in a field and before I knew it he was calling me to wake up. Much refreshed, we made it into Loudeac about 3:05 a.m. Wednesday, the others had arrived about 20 minutes before. Business first, we checked into the controlle; then I found my room (about 1 mile distant) while Peter found a not-so-comfortable spot on the floor in the controlle. I decided to forego a meal in favor of rest.
Day 2 Š Loudeac to Brest and back (199 miles)
The wake up call came in 3 hours as requested (6:30 a.m.), followed by a shower, new shorts and a day-old jersey. First thing I noticed was the empty feeling inside from foregoing dinner and thought this a precipitous start to a 200 mile day and nothing at breakfast looked particularly appetizing. The planned departure of 7:30 a.m. stretched to 7:40 a.m.
The early course featured hills to test the legs, followed by an unmarked controlle stop (to prevent short-cutting the course), then a must stop at a patisserie for the first of several caf-clairs. I would catch my friends on the climbs only to fall back while stopping to take photos. About 2 hours from the turnaround at Brest I saw friends Derek Eukel and Craig Wilson, making the return trek. They had started at 10 p.m. Monday and were determined not to let me catch them (which they had no problem doing given as strong as they are). Karen Bonnett and I pulled into Brest about 4:30 p.m. and were given a free drink coupon. I put mine to use on a beer and realized what a great choice it was. It really was refreshing.
We had a nice group of 4 or 5 leaving Brest just before 6:00 p.m. It stayed light until nearly 10 p.m. We raced into the midway controlle on the return leg just before dark. Maybe it was the late hour, maybe just the cowboy in us. But riding through the small Brittany roads with remnants of hedge rows lining either side and the constant rolling terrain, Peter, Ford Greene and I filled the role to perfection, lassoing groups of tail lights on the slopes ahead, sprinting forward, with Mark and Karen laughing at our antics, then having to stop for nature or to change batteries (it didnÕt matter), getting passed back up and repeating the process with the same riders as victims. The energy was contagious and we had great fun. We did stop for a coffee at one bar but passed up the barbequed sausages at another because the line was too long and the night too cold and old. We were a tired bunch that arrived at Loudeac for the second time around at 2:10 a.m. Thursday. This time I made myself eat before resting and treated myself to another beer.
Day 3 Š Loudeac to Mortagne (193 miles)
Another 3 hour rest, another shower, another clean pair of shorts but the same old jersey. Another meal of the same sort then back on the bike.
I think it was along this next leg another rider and I, in non-verbal communication, began working a paceline. We were directed into another unmarked controlle where I learned his name (Eduardo) and nationality (Spanish). He spoke no English and my Spanish is even worse than my French. This stop was another opportunity for another bowl of coffee and a croissant. On the exit, a woman was playing the accordian.
One of my photo stops was for a picture of 2 cute little girls along the road offering water to anyone. An Australian had stopped to have his camelbak refilled. He and I struck up a conversation; or rather, I was thoroughly amused listening to his stories of riding in his homeland. Seems Australian drivers are very much like their American counterparts, regardless which side of the road they drive on.
In the late afternoonÕs warm sun I caught myself starting to doze on the bike and drift off my line as I was approaching a town. This particular town is noted for one man who has over the years assembled a wall of postcards that international riders have sent him from their hometowns in exchange for a caf and a crpe. I was given a slip of paper with his mailing address along with a magical cup of caffeine that renewed me until the next controlle at Villaines at 8:50 p.m. From the size of the crowd, it appeared the whole town turned out to join in the fun. I couldnÕt afford a long rest here as the next controlle 82 km ahead in Mortagne closed at 7:05 a.m. And given the energy I arrived in town with, I felt this leg was easily doable. So I readied my lights and made up another batch of Spiz for dinner and left. I found myself flying up the hills, chasing taillights again and using them to assure myself I was still on course. Somewhere in the middle of this were another town and another open bar.
I arrived in Mortagne about 2:00 a.m. Friday, too tired to continue without food and rest and with sufficient time in the bank for both. The food was served in one gymnasium while the adjacent gym contained nothing but mattresses from end to end. For 3 Ū one could rent a mattress as soon as someone else vacated it. After a short wait, several of us were escorted inside. What a sight as your eyes became adjusted to the semi-darkness. The guide would signal you to a particular mattress. Other workersÕ sole task was to record your desired wake-up time and then move down the aisle ways waking their snoring flock. IÕd asked for a 3-1/2 rest but awoke after only 2 hours so got up at 4:45 a.m., still wearing the same shorts from the day before and the same jersey that was fast becoming my second skin. The cafeteria-gymnasium was part full of riders eschewing the mattresses and sleeping on the floor or with their heads on the table. More coffee, croissants and whatever, then it was time to go.
Day 4 Š Mortagne to Paris (98 miles)
I started back at it at 5:30 a.m. but didnÕt make it even to dawn before a caf appeared as a brief respite from the chill. This time a chocolat chaud (hot chocolate) sounded good but it soon was gone and the road and the finish beckoned. I also had a desire to stop at a certain bakery that was the subject of a story in hospitality from the Õ99 PBP. Other riders had the same intent as the line formed outside the door.
Approaching the final controlle it was evident some riders were faring better than others. I saw my first case of ShermerÕs neck on one old fellow whose friends were giving him directions while he was craning his head to the right as best he could to see.
The fatigue started to catch up to me on the last leg until a pace line led by a couple of Danes doing all the pulling went by. I quickened my pace and instantly felt better and more alert, though also in the paceline was another case of ShermerÕs neck who ignored the not-so-subtle remarks from one rider that he didnÕt belong there. I guess IÕd had enough of the danger as well; so when we came to an extended climb into the Ramboullet Forest, I attacked the hill and rode off the front alone.
The advantage to a mid-day finish (1:44 p.m. Friday) meant a small crowd to applaud your efforts and family to share the experience. It was a momentary shock to hand over the brevet book at the final check-in and not be handed it back, but instead a coupon for another drink.
Whole segments between controlles are a blank. But other moments are very fresh. There were moments of discomfort like a raspy throat from Day 3 on, like finding the ever-decreasing sweet spot on the saddle after a break, and the fatigue late at night. But far and away this was the ride of the year. The countryside, the towns, the international field of riders, the hammer-fest first 87 miles, the new friendships formed with guys like Peter, Ford, Frank Preyer of Victoria, Australia, Barry and others from England, sharing this experience with old friends, the late night cafs, the pastry, chasing taillights, riding strong on Day 4 Š all are wonderful memories.
For some, a quick finish time is important. Contrary to my nature, for me, on this ride, the experiences were paramount. I could see electing the 90-hour start and having the luxury of time to enjoy the ambiance more.
The year 2007 is a good long while off for an encore, but will be made all the more enjoyable by having to wait to relive certain memories, revive forgotten others and create new ones.
Total elapsed time for the ride was 80-3/4 hours, 8-1/2 hours of which were spent sleeping. As my computer reset itself several times, best I can calculate is my time on the bike was in the range of 54 hours. I had no nausea whatsoever, no bonks, some fatigue occasionally late at night, usually when riding alone, the aforementioned, self-induced diarrhea, and no mechanical problems. Now nearly two weeks after the ride, a few of my fingertips are still slightly numb and all of my toes feel like theyÕve been injected with Novocain. The head cold that started within hours after the finish is gone but for a slight cough. I finished about 5 pounds lighter than when I started.
Following check-in were reunions with others not seen since Monday night or Tuesday morning and sharing experiences, saying goodbye to some and making plans for future rides with others.
At dinner the day after the ride I sat next to Pauline and Kenneth from Omaha, age 59, who were the entire Nebraska contingent. She too had ShermerÕs neck for the last 160 miles and described the various remedies that all seemed to work for a brief time, then someone else would have another suggestion. But she finished. She said she did a very stupid thing when she skirted around a downed railroad crossing guard when not seeing a train approaching. After safely crossing she looked back to see the tail cars of a 200 mph bullet train speed by, quite a change from the slow freights in Omaha.
A female Davis rider made it to the finish with less than an hour to spare but was so disoriented that she went to her hotel instead and failed to check in at the last controlle. She in essence abandoned the ride and DNFed.