PBP Stories - 2003

The Ride of My Life - 2003 Paris Brest Paris
Or the tour of the town on a hill with a church to a town on a hill with a church

by Mike Fulton

First, I want to thank the people that really made this ride of a lifetime special: my wife Terri who supported me all the way; Bob Fourney who taught me the most about ultramarathoning; Chris Grealish who taught me to plan for the low times and visualize the result; dad and Aunt Joanne who gave up a week's time, were awesome at every checkpoint, and hardly slept; Gary Koenig who brought PBP to the Colorado consciousness; and everyone in the Rocky Mountain Cycle Club who ever rode with me on long distance rides.

The day of the ride, Bob told me the 80 hour start was divided into two groups, so I arrived at the start earlier than I wanted to. It was hot in the sun waiting for the start with 500 other nervous riders. As I waited, someone mentioned getting his card stamped. I had almost forgotten to get it stamped: automatic disqualification. Everyone crowded together, and we had to wait. I saw Chris, Jim, and Glen. Bob was starting 15 minutes back with Ann Crossland. Finally, the time ticked down, and we were OFF! Right away the lead car went the wrong way around the traffic circle. Without the lead car to slow us down, we were going 27 miles per hour right away, so I was immediately at maximum heart rate. Luckily I was half way back in the peleton when part of the front group went the wrong way. I don't know how they turned around.

We came to one of the first challenges, the town of Elancourt. It's a fast, narrow descent with lots of speed bumps. PBP must be a favorite for the locals as so many lights, water bottles, pumps, and so forth not properly clamped down come off on this hill. Suddenly on a descent, there was a crash to my immediate right. I was in perfect position to the left. As I passed them, they were flying through the air twisting onto their backs. Close call. Chris said, "What a shame to end your year that way". Surprisingly, one of the men involved in the crash would finish seventh overall. Suddenly a tire blew somewhere, and each of us jumped up and down on his bike to feel for the squishy tire. Eventually someone raised his hand, worked his way to the outside, and prepared for a lot of chasing. PBP is like that - you have to have a lot of things go right to finish well. Martin Paul asked me what my plan was. He said his plan was a sub 48-hour ride. I told him I just hoped to finish. My hope was to do better than that, but your main goal has to be to finish.

We got to Mortagne au Perche, the first feed zone, and at our pre-arranged meeting place, my dad and aunt gave me a new Camelback, bottles, a musette bag, and I tore off. I was gapped by an eighth mile or more to the group and chased really hard to get back on. Chris and I sat at the back, gulped in air, and attempted to get our heart rates down, happy to be there. Prior to the feed zone there were over 250 riders. Bike lights shone as far as the eye could see. Now we were down to 100.

Suddenly I felt a piece of tape float across my face. It was the tape holding together the broken frame from my clear glasses. Then a while later, another let loose. As we got towards Villaines, the tempo started to increase until we were racing through town. What a mess at the control; crews and riders were everywhere. I ran in my cleats for the stairs to the control. There were men at the gates saying "doucement, doucement", which must mean slowly. I attempted to push past one of them, and he grabbed and held me while letting 20 others go past. He must have held me for 20 seconds. I figured that was the end of my PBP. I wouldn't be able to get back to the front this time. Finally he let me go. I checked through, ran out the exit, and found my bike and crew. When Joanne put my musette bag on, the lens fell out of my broken glasses. I picked it up and rode off. After another extremely hard effort much longer this time, I caught the peleton. We were now down to 35. I was elated. Chris and I were still there, the only Americans left. In the group were French, Danish, German and Italians. Just by looking, you could tell their nationalities. I took the glass lens and carefully placed it back in the broken frame, hoping it would stay. After Fougeres, we were down to 28.

We arrived in Tintineac, and I peed for what seemed like hours. A woman walked by, but I could not have cared less. We rolled into Loudeac, and the group took another five minutes, which I spent in the bathroom, until Joanne yelled, "Mike, they're leaving". I tore out of the checkpoint with no one in sight. I came around the corner, and there they were, stopped, all peeing on the side of the road. I began to feel that my stomach would keep me from doing well, and started to mentally prepare for getting dropped, but kept saying "this is my year".

On the leg to Carhaix there are some very steep climbs. I started each climb in the front of the group, and slipped back, managing to keep contact. On one of the major climbs, when I got to the back, I saw Chris, and he was in difficulty. In the same place I had been dropped in '95, Chris and I lost contact with the group, along with several others. Because I had slid back through the pack, I was able to chase back on down the hill.

They took another five minutes in Carhaix, which I spent in the women's bathroom with the door open for all to see as there was no light that worked. Again I heard, "Mike, they're leaving". Other than my intestinal problems, I was having the ride of my life. Due to the lack of food, I felt at times that I would get dropped if they went really hard. Luckily they never did drop me.

The climb through Huelgoat and up Rock Trevezel is always long and hard, and I assumed I would come off the peleton, but suddenly we were at the top, so I dove for the ditch for bathroom break number six on the day, then chased back on. We were filmed by a TV3 car with a camera, then a man on the back of a motorcycle came by. Everyone thought that was cool and waved to them.

Because of my stomach, I gave up on Sustained Energy from Carhaix to Brest, drinking water the whole way. I decided to try Orangina; it had gotten me to the finish in '99. My Dad had to jump a chain link fence (at age 67) and run across a field to meet us with Orangina just as we rolled in. We had arrived in Brest in very fast time: 3:55 pm for 19 hours 55 minutes for 375 miles, averaging 18.8 miles per hour. My Dad went to pump up my back wheel and by mistake screwed the valve all the way out, so the tire went flat. A bystander rushed over, helped him find the valve, screwed it back in, pumped up the tire, and they were ready when I came out.

The Orangina started working just in time to go back up Roc de Trevezel. For some reason the Roc always seems worse than it is, and we were at the top fairly quickly. It is a long slow down hill, and we started passing riders on their way to Brest. Some stopped and clapped for us or took pictures. They yelled, "Les premiers", the leaders. What a feeling! I exchanged yells with Fourney on his way to Brest.

Carhaix was busy with people bound for Brest. We screamed out of the checkpoint, and again everyone stopped to pee, so I rolled along slowly. At this point we were down to 15, so I asked the younger riders their ages. I was second youngest at 37. The youngest was 36, and one of the eventual winners was 57! On the side of the road there were more and more people clapping and yelling "les premiers". It was so emotional. I was with the group that would eventually win. It was the best feeling, and I choked up. There was the official car behind us with lights on, and a motorcycle or two, so we made quite a procession.

In Loudeac there was a huge group waiting for riders coming from and going to Brest. I had to pass some slow moving people on their way to Brest. So I yelled, "Attention, attention" and "Les premiers", and people just scattered, and yanked others out of the way. We were off for Tinteniac with the full procession of motorcycles and follow cars. I felt like Lance in the Tour. I felt the Orangina giving me stomach problems (deja vu '99), so I stopped using the Orangina and tried the rice. The rolling hills started taking their toll, but I was amazed how little food one really needed to ride at a fairly high effort. The French don't descend very quickly, so on one hill I went to the front to help drive the pace a little bit since my lighting was so much better than theirs. I got to the bottom of a comfortable descent and had a 200 yard gap. (Note to self: attack on a descent in '07.) On the return to Tinteniac, the group started looking haggard due to the effort and the cold.

We pulled into Tinteniac, got some clothes, then went to pee in the street. The cold was really tough and took a lot of energy. I fell asleep four times, jerking awake each time. The last time the bike was on an angle, and I jerked it back upright. How I didn't overlap a wheel and crash I don't know. I asked the Danish guy to talk to me to keep awake. It was freezing cold; it got down to 51, and I shook uncontrollably going down the big hills. The Dane ended up vomiting and had to abandon in Fougeres. In my sleep deprivation I didn't notice; the Dane morphed into the Belgian.

We got to Fougeres about 3:00 am, and we were down to 14. Suddenly the attacks started. The first was while I was peeing off the bike. The attacks would be up a little hill with a surge that was incredible. I was in the middle of the pack, would get gapped, the others would pass me, and we would catch the attack, then we would all go slow and rest. It was attack, rest, attack, rest. I got dropped a couple times and managed to chase back on down the hills. Because of my stomach problem, I was getting weaker. I was in awe of the attacks and started to feel for the first time that I was in way over my head. After a strong attack, I got gapped. I was sure I was off for good. Oh well, I had had a good ride. I settled into a sustainable pace and rode for about 10 minutes when I saw the show (bikes, motorcycles and car) ahead descending a long hill. I then made the biggest mistake of the ride: I chased back into the group. We started up a hill that looked like Everest, and I hit the wall. It was like I had gone into slow motion, but the world was in normal time. All the energy left my body, and I could barely turn the pedals. They rode away, and I was done. I sat on the side of the road to eat any food I could find in my pockets. Suddenly everything hurt. It took me probably 45 minutes to an hour to ride the eight miles to Villaines. Dad and Joanne met me, got me dressed warmly and changed for daytime riding, and gave me some Sustained Energy and tea. Everyone at the checkpoint watched and cheered me like I was a huge celebrity. I struggled off and caught a Californian who had abandoned after Villaines on the way to Brest. He pumped me up, saying "Keep that ride going. What a time you'll get. That's impressive".

The climb to Mortagne Au Perche is huge. I arrived in Mortagne at 11:01, 12 hours faster than in '99. I set off at a good clip. The back of my right knee started hurting, so I slid up on my seat. This section was very hard. The route was relatively flat, but there was a nasty side wind, and I could only manage14 to 16 miles per hour. I kept looking back, expecting to be caught at any time. I was hallucinating. I would see bikers everywhere, big statues that turned into bushes, intricate bike sculptures that were hedges, even one biker that was changing his tire that turned into a tree. Finally I went down all the side streets and back alleys, farm roads, and so forth, and arrived in Nugent le Roi, the last checkpoint. I was told I was number 14. I only had 40 miles left. On a big climb I was caught by four chasers. Relief washed over me as I realized they did not have frame plates. Several others would catch me, but not one had a frame plate.

When I got to the edge of town, I saw a sign: 15k to go. It was all within the city of Gyancourt. After no sleep and 750 miles to fight traffic for the last nine miles with no signs was torture. I came around the final roundabout to the gym, swiped my card, and was overcome with emotion. I had finished 13th in 45 hours 20 minutes as the first American! 14 hours faster than '99. It was definitely the highlight of my life. My Dad and Joanne met me; we were so elated! I felt great. The last minute addition of the gel saddle had saved my butt. My feet had a couple of pressure points, but thanks to the Smart Wool socks they felt great. The heels of my hands were definitely bruised, my right thumb was numb from shifting, but overall I was on top of the world! John Hughes congratulated me. I had exorcised the PBP demon, mainly by convincing myself that "this was my year", by envisioning the low spots before they happened, and by focusing on the result. I had a hard time composing myself, and I could barely talk to my wife Terri.

A huge thanks to dad and Joanne, especially for struggling through the second night, where they had not gone before. Thank you Terri for your support and encouragement. I couldn't have had the experience of a lifetime without you.