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In a world of ever-expanding opportunities to do insane things on your bicycle, Paris Brest Paris still stands out. Held every fourth year in late August, PBP is a chance to experience physical pain and exhaustion, sleep deprivation and nausea on some of western France's most picturesque roadways. And what is your reward for finishing? A prestige that is unmatched in ultra-endurance sporting events the world over, and limitless bragging rights over your randonneur friends back home.
In a sense the distinction is a curious one because there are other 1200 km randonnées around the world where the physical experience of the ride is comparable to PBP. And yet PBP is unique in its allure.
Certainly the scale of the event attracts attention, but what distinguishes PBP is really its history and traditions. PBP occupies a special place in the French psyche, and this is not just for the cyclists - villagers are there at the roadside to cheer and encourage the riders day and night. Well into my third night, we passed through a village where people were out in front of their houses still offering encouragement - the children were cheering loudly while grown-ups sipped wine and toasted the riders as they passed.
PBP was first run in 1891, which gives it the distinction of being slightly older than the Tour de France. In the early years, PBP was a race but it was open to all cyclists: 'tourists', amateurs, as well as fully supported pros. Gradually though, fashions in professional road racing switched away from 'continuous' multi-day races like PBP, towards single-day and stage races. By the 1960s the pros had stopped coming to PBP and the event had become strictly for randonneurs, and strictly amateur.
For the elite randonneurs, PBP remains a race and tremendous prestige is attached to being the first finisher. Three-time winner American Scott Dickson has become a celebrity in distance cycling circles. For the 700+ riders in the '80 hour', 8 p.m. start group, there is no lower time limit - no restriction on how early a rider can reach a control. Ride officials in vans marshal the high-speed lead and chase groups through the course. Support crews are waiting at the controls to speed their riders through by catering to their food, fluid, clothing and equipment demands.
And yet this is not the PBP that most riders experience. For most, 'going the distance' within the time limit is triumph enough. But PBP is no picnic and finishing is not always in the cards. Of the 3600 starters this year (the stated entry cap of 3500 riders was stretched slightly), there were 25 riders from BC including 19 successful finishers, one injury abandon, and five riders who were eclipsed by the time limit.
Sometimes, when the dust settles, it is the heroic failures that stand out. An experienced randonneur, with numerous 600s and the Rocky Mt. 1200 on his cycling resume, Jim Gorton, was not a rider that anyone would have expected not to finish. But Jim developed knee problems at around 400 km. By 630 km the pain had reached a point where his damaged right leg could not be used. Was it courage or folly that urged Jim to continue? For an additional 170 km, through the hills of Brittany, Jim pressed on with his right leg balanced on a catch point on his rear rack and his left leg still cranking, but becoming ever more engorged. It was only a matter of time before Jim rode his left leg into the ground as well. In the end he was picked up by the roving ride officials who stripped the number from his bike, confiscated his control card, and drove him to the next control where he scrounged a ride back to Paris.
Of course there were noteworthy successes as well. First among these are the remarkable achievements of Deirdre Arscott who is now one of only two Canadians to have completed PBP four times (the other is Brian Leier from Manitoba). Deirdre is now also the first Canadian to have earned four Super 5000 pins. Three other BC riders (Ken Bonner, Keith Fraser, and Manfred Kuchenmuller) joined the select group of three-time PBP finishers.
You might not think that nationalist politics would play much of a role at PBP, but in fact they were very evident, and served to further complicate the subtle dynamics of paceline etiquette. Actually I received nothing but good will from the French riders with whom I rode, but this was always after it was discovered where I was from. "Vous êtes Canadien, pas Americain C'est bon" is how one French rider bluntly expressed it. Anti-American sentiment was noticeably high amongst French riders. The consensus among non-French riders was that there were two reasons for this: Scott Dickson and Lance Armstrong.
The French riders themselves inspired hostility from just about every non-French rider I rode with. This was principally, I think, because they were so well supported. While we were all loaded down with tools, clothes, batteries, and food, sporting three-day stubble and jerseys that would make a skunk blush, many French riders carried only miniature tool and tube wedges, seemed always to be in clean (and colour coordinated) shorts and jerseys, and even seemed to be clean shaven. Is it possible, we wondered, that they were even shaving their legs at the controls? "I could dance up those hills too if I had to carry so little gear, and had a masseuse waiting for me at the next control" fumed one German rider.
And then sometimes the battles have more to do with personalities than nationalities. I watched one of Canada's fastest randonneurs, Michael Lau from Ottawa, engage in an uphill sprint with a Danish rider to the control at the hilltop town of Mortagne au Perche. They were playing out a feud that had apparently begun the night before. It was an exercise which had no strategic purpose for either rider - all of us spent the next 20 minutes over a relaxed brunch in the control cafeteria.
But my strongest memory of PBP '99 was more personal. My 'PBP moment' happened on my final night as I was riding at a modest pace with a group of five French riders under a full moon so bright we barely needed our lights. My goal of a 60-hour PBP was already a forgotten dream, and my riding companions seemed just as content to enjoy the tranquillity of a relaxed ride on a perfect night.
It came on me pretty gradually, but the stomach virus that was to haunt me for the next ten days was taking hold. Later that night I found myself crouching at the roadside, slightly delirious, with an ache in the pit of my stomach and overwhelming nausea. No, I didn't feel so great. On the other hand, even then I realized that this was my 'PBP moment'. Philosophical reflections were churning in my head as violently as the undigested macaroni, rice, and tapioca in my stomach. Look how far I've come, I mused... look how far my bike has taken me. Could I have pictured myself here (in this ditch during Paris Brest Paris) ten years ago, as I was dusting off my old ten-speed and deciding to rekindle my interest in cycling? Finally my journey is complete, I thought, as I wiped something which may have been tapioca from my cycling shoes- finally, I'm a real cyclist.
© Copyright 1999, Eric Fergusson