2003 PBP: A Novice's Account
By Owen Richards

Hyperbole et Revelation

Before the first night and day were through, this novice realized those hyperbolic tales had been understated: moon rising over twisting trails of red taillights, sun rising over misty fields & allees of poplars, ancient spires signaling the next village, families lining the route crying 'bon courage', courteous motorists waiting patiently as cyclists ride four abreast.... Oui, on ne peut pas imaginer en les Etats Unis.... mais il y un autre revelation: il n'y a pas de 7-11's!

August 18-22, 2003 marked the 15th running of "Paris-Brest-Paris": first held in 1891 with 206 riders, this year's event drew over 4000 participants from around the world, including quite a few newcomers unfamiliar with local customs. What most american novices are unprepared for is the absolute dearth of chain stores along the route: nary a McDonalds or Starbucks to be found. On arriving in these old stone villages, the only dietary offerings are in etrange single-purpose shops called boulangeries, creperies, patisseries.... Alors, on doit abandonner les preconceptions et manger comme les francais....


The Bretagne people especially have a strong affection for this ride: bicycling is a way of life; local heros are Tour de France winners; even grandmeres et enfants turn out to enjoy the spectacle. More telling though: there is a pastry named for the ride. I sampled my first 'Paris-Brest' just hours before the ride's start: joining Cindy & Georges Yates and Amy & Robin Pieper at the pre-ride dinner, our trays piled high with carbo-loaded delicacies, a highlight was this donut-shaped confection. The 'Paris-Brest' is shaped like a bicycle tire, pumped to bursting with chocolate cream, sprinkled with powdered sugar. Cindy explained (hey she's a novice too...how does she know this stuff?) that the crumbled almonds represent the macadam fragments one's tires accumulate over the course of the ride. We would soon test this analogy....

Auspicious Parti

Seven of us (Mark Thomas, Peter McKay, Bill Dussler, Dave Read, Greg Cox, Greg from Chicago, and myself) arrived together at the starting area about 9pm, joining the hordes of 90-hour 'cyclotouristes' crowding toward the 10pm starting gate. The mood was festive as the speedy 80 hour 'etoile' group (literally stars) had just departed, and everyone was anxious to hit the road. The heat wave had broken, last night's torrential rains had passed, the moon would soon be rising: all signs were auspicious! A french couple with fenderless bikes (un autre revelation: fenders are far from 'de rigeur' if one is not from Seattle) offered further assurance: 'pas de pluie mais sans doubt un peu du vent' - the prediction would hold true -- not a drop of rain & only some mild wind, mostly tail toward the end...

Finally making it out of the gate at 10:45pm with the fourth increment of 90-hour riders, the most basic lesson of Randonneuring 101 was soon set aside: racing into the moonlight at full tilt, we simply could not withstand the adrenaline rush of the endless string of taillights winding into the distance. Bill D noted a feature of PBP: always one more rabbit just ahead. Spending much of the night streaming past riders from the earlier starting groups, we eventually spread out at our own paces and reached the first control after dawn - Villanes-la-Juhel at km 221. Mark T, Peter, and Greg from Chi, anciens all, had already arrived, explored the closest boulangeries, and were preparing to set off again. Seeking more substance, I joined Greg Cox at the crowded control's breakfast line -- jambon omelette & baguettes, rice pudding, jus d'orange, cafe -- by all semblances a full repast, though I soon realized an important 'je ne sais quoi' was missed....

Pain Au Chocolat

Back on the road with a full stomach, I still struggled to regain momentum & soon stopped at the first available shop, one of these non-convenience stores lacking in variety, a boulangerie crowded with fellow cyclists. One of the few offerings: 'pain au chocolat', a croissant-like chocolate-filled bread still warm from the oven. The existential irony of 'pain au chocolat' is lost in the speaking -- yes, the word for bread is 'pain' but pronounced 'paa'. Practicing this phrase would become increasingly important as the ride progressed.

Restoked on several of these twinkie substitutes, I soon caught up with Mark T, Peter M, and the Gregs. The highlight of the next stretch was another non-convenience store with limited fare: a roadside creperie that Mark T led us to, in a small village near Tintenniac. Oblivious to the entrepreneurial opportunities, these folks were offering free crepes, rice pudding, broth, and cafe au lait, in exchange for an eventual postcard from one's hometown -- 'pas mal' as they say -- not a bad trade, though one could not help wondering how long this establishment would stay in business on our side of the ocean! Weaned of my 'convenience store' expectations, I reluctantly remounted for the ride to the next control.

At Tintenniac, reverting to control food, I sampled another jambon baguette, followed by a panic attack after losing one of my cleats while walking around the parking lot. After an extended search, I inquired about a replacement at the bike repair facility and discovered that the 5-year old son of a volunteer had found the cleat. Mon Dieux, things were looking up! (Also losing a glove at this stop, I purchased a new pair, complete with 'Bretagne' emblazened across the back, a popular label when waved in response to bystanders encouraging us along the route. The other well-received salut which I tested a few times: "Aurevoir jus'que 2007!" )

With reattached cleat and new gloves, I joined Greg Cox who had been napping on the pavement under close scrutiny of two Bretagne grandmeres. We caught up with Mark T, Peter & Greg at the next village where they had stopped for additional replenishment - pizza and drinks were on order. Greg and I joined them briefly, then pushed on toward Loudeac where a hotel awaited; enjoyed a fine stretch drafting behind a well paced Danish peloton; and eventually arrived about 9pm in Loudeac, km 448. Reconnecting with the Mark T & Co, we made our way to the hotel & settled in for a long 4 hours rest, exactly 24 hrs after starting the ride. After a fine sampling of jus, croissants, & cafe laid out by the hotelier, we were back on the bikes again by 4am.

Brest et Retour; Detour a la Turke

We were now in the heart of Bretagne-- the villages seemed even more striking, the road even more winding and narrow, the hills steeper and longer, sunrise even more spectacular...again the adrenaline kicked in -- today's ride a mere 330km round trip out to Brest and back to Loudeac. Having spent a fine morning chatting with various riders & sampling a few more in-convenient stores, we arrived in Brest around lunch time, after a long downhill to this burg by the sea. Over yet another control meal of jambon baguette, I reconnected with many other Seattlites -- all seemed to be doing very well. Halfway through and only 36 hours into the ride, there now seemed to be ample time to increase the sampling of local cuisine! Soon after the extended rise out of Brest, I connected with Mark Wolff, a mutual friend of another friend who could not make it to the ride; to compensate Mark and I bonded & stayed together the rest of the way, as we had compatible riding paces & a similar interest in maximizing the boulangerie investigations.

Just after dark, as we neared Loudeac, we passed through one village that stands out still - seemingly the entire populace filled tables in the central square, wine glasses raised & singing encouragement at the top of their lungs, enjoying the spectacle & camaraderie. We stopped in the next village to stretch, and I struck up a conversation with a group standing quietly in the dark, greeting passing cyclists - I asked in stumbling french how late they planned to stay, and they shrugged the shoulders and said "pas longtemps -- peut etre 2-3 heurs encore"....until midnight or so.

Arriving in Loudeac about 10:30pm, we were determined to avoid the Control's cafeteria fare; searched the town & eventually had an excellent meal at the Istanbul Cafe, the only restaurant still open (even in this relatively bustling ville, enthusiasm for the ride was not confused by commercialism - no shops stayed open past normal hours, despite the continual parade of potential customers). Still savoring our kebab, salade, et biere, we landed two of the last cots at the control's dimly lit dormatoire, and enjoyed 5 hours rest amid multitudes of snoring phantoms, arrayed like an infirmatoire de la guerre.

Encore des Attractions

After rousing showers, we continued on our way just before dawn, on empty stomachs, intent on assaulting the first boulangerie in sight. We actually had to press on for several hours, stopping first at several 'tabac/bars' that offered only cafe & biere, before finally finding a full fledged patisserie. After splurging on 'pain au choc's', we branched out to acquire a large brioche for the road. Although passing up the early morning alcoholic offerings, we did succumb to a few biere tastings as the day progressed, to make sure the carbo loading was covered and to honor those early PBP'ers. Stopping again at the postcard-exchange creperie, we noted it was still 'tres populaire' despite the limited variety.

Mark was riding a Holdsworth, a classic steel frame English bike, and is quite an aficionado of fine gear. It was fun to eavesdrop on his esoteric conversations with other riders of exotic/historic frames. Although I was riding a modern titanium frame, we both had full fenders, Brooks saddles, & well stuffed Carradice bags, and raised a few eyebrows as we spun past some stripped-down racer types on the uphills...

By nightfall though, those hills & bieres were taking their toll, the temps dipped steeply, my mouth was feeling like the petri dish Ken Carter had warned about, and I yearned for a few of those stress pills Kent had suggested... Just then, another roadside attraction loomed in the darkness at the crest of a particularly lengthy climb... a neighborhood tea party! Incroyable -- this supportive lot had decided it would be a nice idea to offer tea & biscuits through the night. Warmed and partially rejuvenated, we meandered on toward Montagne-au-Perche, km 1077, eventually arriving about 1:30am, too late to secure cots in the dormatoire, so settled instead for a "rest" in the brightly lit cafeteria. Mark dozed right off for 3 hours but I couldn't get past the bare concrete floors & commotion, so got up after 2 hours tossing, and gabbed with various Seattleites & others until Mark arose & we set off into the pre-dawn chill.

After some warming climbs, the last stretch was wonderfully less hilly than I recalled from the outward ride -- again we stopped at the first available boulangerie & stoked up for the final push. Throughout the morning, it was striking to see even on this last stretch riders laid out in the fields and leaning against lampposts for one last catnap. We eventually pulled across the finish line just after 2pm, comfortably 2 hours under the 90 hour limit. Oh well, guess we could've sampled a few more patisseries!

Apres Fini

After extended refueling & chatting with fellow 'anciens', I staggered back on the bike for the final strokes to the hotel. A leisurely bath and room service feast followed, with deep naps & packing interspersed through the night, prior to a morning departure for Paris. Disassembling the bike into it's travel case, I noticed the tires had accumulated souvenirs which looked suspiciously like crumbled almonds! I realized that despite the extensive investigations en route, I had not seen another 'Paris-Brest' confection since the pre-ride dinner...

After a luxurious morning taxi ride into Paris, I joined wife, son, and friends for breakfast - all were impressed with my capacity for 'pain au chocolat' consumption not only over petit dejeuner, but encore throughout the following days.

All week in Paris, as we wandered through the arrondissements, I wondered if I would encounter any acquaintances from the ride. Finally on our last morning before departure, we stopped in one last patisserie and I spotted an old friend: a little circular chocolate-filled pastry beckoned.... I placed my order avec grande panache: "un 'PARIS-BREST' s'il vous plait"!


PBP Stories - 2003