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Ah, to be in Paris on a cycling
VICTORIA, B.C. -- While groups of children swam at Thetis lake, while a couple walked the Galloping Goose eating blackberries as they went, while hundreds of people commuted to work on bikes, while the sun rose early and set late, while all the usual things were at play in Victoria on a warm summer day in August, almost 4,000 cyclists rode from Paris to Brest and back again in less than 90 hours. Michael Poplawski was one of them. I called Poplawski a Randonneur Extraordinaire, but he laughs at this assessment. "I did a quick calculation this week," Poplawski says. "I have ridden about 8,300 km in official randonneur events since I started cycling." He went on to compare his mileage to Ken Bonner, another B.C. Randonneur, who has ridden 12,594 km.
The Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) event happens every four years and this year went from Aug. 18-22. Randonneuring is a form of endurance touring where cyclists must complete 100-km, 200-km, 400-km and 600- km rides before doing a 1,200-km tour. Each ride has a set time limit and participants collect a pin for completing each ride. The PBP event is one of the more popular randonneur events. Cyclists try to estimate their time of completion and ride with the 90-hour, 84-hour or 80-hour group. Poplawski chose the 90-hour group, as it was his first time, so left Paris at 10 p.m. on the night of Aug. 18. "It was insane -- I hadn't ridden through the night before. So slow, so many riders in such a small space with five or six abreast, as far as you can see ahead were red flashing lights, and behind head lights." says Poplawski of the first night. He rode from 10 until 11 the next night, a total of 452 km, and then slept at the first control station. He didn't ride non-stop for those first 25 hours; there was eating, rest-stops and a quick nap thrown in for good measure. "After 300 km, it's like the night of the living dead with riders just hanging off their bikes -- there are a lot of things you stop caring about," says Poplawski, adding that along the road two common sights were people sleeping and peeing.
The first PBP was held in 1891 as an official Audax Club Parisien race. Racers begin on the southwestern side of the French capital and ride 600 km to the port city of Brest, and then return the same way. Ninety hours is the maximum time limit and hardy randonneurs, who finish in that time, or less, get the PBP finisher's medal. It is no longer a professional race, though some of the randonneurs ride as if it is. "There's a mix of people," says Poplawski. From a team of six that finished in 43 hours to one woman who rode off the road over 15 times after falling asleep on her bike. Of the nearly four thousand participants, half were French and the rest were from 25 countries worldwide including 450 Americans and 80 Canadians (40 of which were from B.C.) making the PBP the most international of sport-touring events. On the third day of riding, Poplawski got up at 4 a.m. and rode until 10 p.m., a total of 328 km to Brest and back to the control station where he slept his first night. Day four he rode 310 km and on the last day rode 141 km, getting into Paris at 1:30 p.m. I talked to Poplawski the night before he left and one thing he was determined to do, other than finish, was not finish in the middle of the night -- he wanted a cheering welcome and he got one.
"At the last control I met Karen Smith and Bill Kitchen (two other B.C. riders) I thought I'd ride with them to finish, but I saw myself in the mirror for the first time in four days, so decided to shave," says Poplawski. One other thing he was expecting was to be handed as much wine as water by locals who cheered riders on. "There was wine and beer at the control stations," says Poplawski who stopped twice on the last day for pastry and tea with local French on-lookers. So, I'm left wondering if the PBP is like climbing Mt. Fuji - something your crazy not to do once and equally crazy if you do it twice, or is it more like the Tour de France. Poplawski's answer is a simple yes, he'd do it again. "One dream come true, it opens up bigger dreams. Four years ago I never thought I could do it," he says adding that next time he'll spend less time at the controls, go with the 84 hour group so he can start in daylight and cut his time down -- he rode for 51 hours, rested a total of 36. For more info on B.C. Randonneurs go to www.randonneurs.bc.ca.