PBP Stories - 2003

BC Randonneurs Cycling Club

This story originally appeared in our newsletter, 'BC Randonneur', February 2004.

PBP 2003: La grand'Adventure!
by E. W. (Wim) Kok


PBP 2003 is history. Proudly and humbly I can say that I am now part of it, as much as it is part of me. Inseparable. It's in the gut. I'm smitten! What follows is an attempt to recount this adventure. Unfortunately it is incomplete, because I can't recall it all. Too many impressions, some very vivid, many moments of elation, enjoyment pur sang, the people, the camaraderie, le paysage francais. Others so raw emotionally, that is almost too painful to remember, but I'm getting ahead of myself. Some images have become so fused, that they've left me confused as to what happened where, and when. A pity, but alas! Others have completely vanished. Gone into oblivion. All I can say is that I have to return and cycle it again in 2007. This account then covers the preparation, the intermezzo of anticipation, PBP 2003 itself, and some final musings.


Preparation began a few years ago, when I started doing brevets, including the RM 1200 in 2002 (Veni, Vidi, Vici: My first RM1200). Winter training involved long-track speed-skating and
cross-country skiing. Furthermore our local bike club held roller-training sessions three times a week. Admittedly, I usually made only two of them, where we were subjected to the rigor of Troy Jakobsen's Spinerval videos with sprints, hill climbs, time trials and other simulations. These work quite well, though his comments like "you're not working hard enough pal" can certainly be insulting, especially at moments when everyone's just dripping from sweat. In March 2003 my new bike arrived, a Marinoni Ciclo. Steel frame, STI shifters, 3 x 10 transmission (53-42-30 and 13-27), and a carbon fibre fork for smoother riding. Very spiffy looking, I might add. By April it was road riding with frequent 30 km distances, followed by 50 and 100 km populaires. Mid April I rode the Camrose 200 brevet near Edmonton with 4 Alberta randonneurs (including two PBP anciens) in 8:47 hours under ideal conditions (7 hours on the bike, the rest eating, loafing and socializing). Three more brevets followed in the Peace region, including a cold and snowy 200 km, and windy 300 and 400 km brevets. The latter two were completed solo, which they say is good for character building. For the final PBP qualifier, I signed up for the Vancouver Island 600, scheduled only a week after my 400 km. Although I didn't feel fully recovered, it took some 36 hours, including 14 hours of cycling in steady rain at 12 0C. More character building! We were among the first in BC to qualify for PBP (First Blood). Elation!

The Intermezzo: Anticipation and Staying Fit

After qualifying in late May, the challenge was of course to stay fit and motivated for the next three months. While the brevet schedule offered all kinds of distances, I stuck to shorter rides of 30 to 50 kilometers, including hill climbs, a couple of bike races and time trials with the local bike club. Some of the training was hit and miss, due to the lack of time, too much work and a litany of other excuses, worthy of an A+. In early July I did a couple of 160 km training rides spaced one week apart on a 'roller-coaster' course. They felt good. In late July we took a ten-day holiday without cycling. Instead, physical labour and relaxation did the trick. I must admit that after the holidays I was tempted to sign up for the Alberta PBP Hell-Week, held only three weeks before PBP. This involved doing four brevets (300-200-300-200 km) in as many days. Just this nagging feeling: "did I train enough? Would more distance be better?" I resisted and did not go. In retrospect, inertia proved to be a good thing. I figured that doing too much shortly before PBP could be counterproductive.

Instead I did short stuff, speed work, hills and medium distances. Eric Ferguson's training plan, with his recommendation to 'take no prisoners' after qualifying for PBP proved excellent advice (Big Ones and Training Schedule) . I guess Churchill's response to the question if he ever felt like exercising was: "when I have that urge, I just lay down till it goes away" should also apply to the cycling urge during the final pre-PBP weeks.

Getting There: Traveling to Europe

Early August I traveled to the Netherlands to visit my family and to acclimatize. The latter was no luxury, since the much talked about heat wave baked most of Western Europe. Temperatures soared to 35 0C, day after day. I did a couple of 50 km rides at a good pace in those temperatures, relaxed for a few days. Then I covered 100-120 km each day for three days in a row, starting early in the morning, so that I would beat the heat and finish by noon and. Again the distances were long enough to signal the body not to get lazy, but short enough not to get fatigued. Wednesday before PBP I took the Thalys from Rotterdam to Paris. When I arrived at Gare du Nord, it was so hot that I decided to take a fast and expensive cab ride to the hotel in Plaisir (55 Euros). Upon arrival I met many PBP compatriots, assembled the bike and took a reassuring spin to the start site. The next morning, and every morning thereafter, the hotel treated us to incredible breakfasts. Merci beaucoup! In the next few days we visited the Palace at Versailles, and frequented shopping hangouts such as Auchun and Decathalon for some last minute purchases. On Friday we explored the first 60 km of the PBP course from Plaisir to Nogent le Roi. We had a chance to get a feel for the roads and countryside. Cycling back was a blast, especially when sprinting uphill near Montfort l'Amaury. Too bad we could not have earned points for a fictitious King of the Mountain jersey. There was lot of torque in my legs. It felt great, and I knew that I was ready for PBP. Clyde, Phil and Mike thanks for the fun on this stretch.

The bike check on Sunday was a pretty painless affair. Earlier, someone had 'heard' that LED lights would not be acceptable. Rumours? Or a case of PBP angst? But there was no need to panic. In less than two minutes the bike check was done, so was the actual registration at the Gymnase. Very efficient!

Unfortunately the weather remained hot. Then came Monday morning with the best newspaper headline I'd seen in a long time: "Le canule est casse!" The heat wave has been broken. Hurrah. There was a collective sigh of relief for the thousands of organizers, volunteers and participants. The 30 km prologue through Saint Quentin-en-Yvelines that morning took place under foggy and drizzly conditions. I don't think anyone was sad about that. That evening, I saw the most colorful group of randonneurs (and their machines) lining up for a proverbial last supper. We stuck around to watch the departure of two waves of the 80-hour group. That was impressive and exciting. Wow. Our turn would be next. Time to head back to the hotel for a few winks.

St Quentin-en-Yvelines (Km 0.00): We Are Off!!!

At 3:00 am the alarm sounded. A light breakfast, a few more details, and we cycled through the empty streets to the start some 10 km away. When we arrived, many cyclists had already assembled. At 4:45 am tandems, recumbents and tricycles vanished in the dark. At 5:00 am the air horn sounded and we were off!

The clock had started ticking. What to do next? Our mission: to complete twelve hundred and twenty five kilometers in 84 hours. The clock wouldn't stop until we were back from the round trip to Brest in Brittany at the Atlantic coast. Little did many know what lay ahead, other than steady work, little sleep, great scenery and camaraderie.

A pilot car guided us through town in the early morning hours. Adrenalin and legs were pumping furiously, creating a high pace. I guess many were worried that they would be left behind. Soon les anciens, previous PBP finishers, settled in at their own pace. They had seen it all before. Been there, done that. The mad rush to the front of the pack to get to Brest tout de suite. But Brest is a long way, and there are many clicks and hills between here and there. No need to get excited. After all, one also has to make it back. Finishing PBP means not only completing the first hills and kilometers, but also the last ones. That's the biggest challenge. There is absolutely no need to beat yourself up in the first hour, but it is ooooh-so tempting to latch on to a fast bunch. By the time the pack got to Montfort, it was stretched substantially. The hammerheads were gone and sanity started to prevail, in so far that is possible in PBP.

After Montfort we cruised through rolling terrain, small villages originating from much earlier times, and the peaceful forests of Rambouillet. Between 7:00 and 7:30 am we descended into Nogent le Roi (km 57), a cool place with very old buildings. After the ascent out of Nogent, we were soon traversing through a drought-stricken countryside. Fields with dried-up corn, its leaves rustling with the slightest breeze. Shriveled-up tournesols, sunflowers, that no longer followed the sun, because they couldn't. C'etait tres triste! In between we passed through many small settlements, too many to remember, too impressive to forget though. I must return to absorb and to savour the flavour. The buildings, the architecture, the landscaping, the flowers. People walking home with fresh baguettes wrapped in white paper under their arms, ready to have lunch, encouraging us, waving, wishing us bon courage et voyage and many other good things. And so we moved along, arriving at noon in Mortagne au Perche (Km 141)(The times noted here are estimates only, until the official control card verifies the exact time) While this place was a controle ravitallement, little food was available. Later we learnt that great food was served across the road.

Ah well. After a 45 minute break, we left for Villaines la Juhel (223 km) the first official control. We arrived around 4:00 pm, time for a real meal. Being part of the 84 hour group had the advantage that most controls were quiet, thus eliminating waiting time and congestion. Soon we mounted our machines to ride via Javron, Lassay les Chateaux, Ambrieres les Vallees and other pretty places to reach Fougeres ( Km 311) at about 8:30 pm. After Fougeres night fell and we followed narrow roads in darkness, safety vests and lights on. The country-side became very quiet. Where fleches (route markers) were few and far between, it was sometimes hard to know if we were still en route. When doubts arose we were often reassured by moving red tail lights ahead of us as distant beacons. This is how the ride progressed to Tintineac (km 366), where we arrived at about midnight. After a sitdown meal onward via St. Meen le Grand, Merdrignac to Loudeac (km 452) . At one of these controls-- I can't recall which one -- we took an hour sleep break or so. Just outside Tintineac my bike chain started skipping. An apparent stiff link caused some concern. With help from others the problem was soon resolved. We passed through St Martin le Pres (km 487.5) , where the organizers surprised us with a secret control. We then followed a lot of hollow roads through a magnificent countryside via Corlay and St. Nicholas de Pelem to Carhaix-Plouguer (Km 529). Here I had the stiff chain link checked.

After a less than gentle treatment by a bike mechanic, the problem 'appeared' to be fixed. At least I thought so, for [t]his treatment almost meant the end of my PBP later in the ride. More about that later. Leaving Carhaix behind -- and below us -- we ascended the narrow winding road under hot conditions to Huelgoat. The scenery was very pretty. In this part of Brittany town signs are bilingual: Breton and French ( Bilingual Road Sign). Interesting both from a cultural, historical and political perspective. The steady climb up Roc Trevezel was not as tough as I had thought. Due to the elevation change, a totally different landscape emerged: windblown grasslands with magnificent views overlooking Britanny. We felt on top of the world and took a break and breather to enjoy the scenery.

Following the break we descended the long road down only reaching speeds up to about 50 - 55 kph. Why not faster, I wondered since I had reached higher speeds up to 85 kph during rides in the BC. The answer lay hidden in the grade. It was not all that steep, which was confirmed on our way back and up the Roc. Cruising through Sizun we then coasted - no pun intended - to Brest (Km 615). We had reached the halfway point. Crossing the Pont Albert Louppe in the coastal city was great. The views from and of this bridge were spectacular. Arthur Miller might find an inspiration here. At the Brest control (5:00 pm) I took a hot shower, supplied the body with necessary solids and liquids, relaxed for a while, and then back on the road by about 6:00 pm. The route back through the streets of Brest seemed never ending. Finally, the outskirts and a sense of 'we are going to make it' (to Paris) started to sink in. So far I had slept very little, but felt quite well. We maintained a good pace as we 'cyclo-scaled' the Roc from the Westside. Near the radio tower site at the top, every one stopped to put on warm clothes. The evening air cooled quickly, and the long descent ahead could cause quite a chill. We bypassed Huelgoat and 'slid' down into the control at Carhaix-Plouguer (Km 696) , where we collected another stamp, then onward in the dark, while moving distant red taillights kept us on track. By the time we reached Loudeac (Km 773) I started to feel tired, mainly because of lack of sleep. The temperatures were hovering around 7 0C, rather chilly. Dawn came about and with it a secret control at Illifaut; (Km 810) . It must have been about 6:30 am. This stop had some great food and very juicy peaches. A twenty minute-sleep on the floor was marvelous. Someone even provided a space blanket for cover. (Thanks Stephen, but where is the picture?). The power nap was just what I needed. Soon we hopped on the bikes and cycled to St Meen le Grand. Here a French cyclist rode up to us, started a conversation and proudly pointed out that we were in the birthplace of the great Louison Bobet, cycling legend, local son, and national hero, who won the Tour de France three times in a row: 1953, 1954 and 1955. That was half a century ago!!! I was barely old enough to learn to cycle. The town established a museum with all of Bobet's paraphernalia ( Musee Bobet). Unfortunately the rider did not mention this, otherwise we could/would have dropped in for a quick visit. We'll save that cycling history for next time. The cycling pace started to slow down a bitas we moved onward to Fougeres (km 914 km). As our need for rest breaks increased, we decided to stop for an extended meal.

Later on that afternoon we made another stop in Ambrieres les Vallees overlooking the Varenne valley, definitely a great place for a holiday sometime in the future. For the time being however we wanted to make it to Villaines-la-Juhel (Km 1,002), where we arrived late that night. A quick meal and another snooze on the floor. We started off sometime before midnight with a group of 5 - 7 riders from BC, ready to enter the last and possibly toughest night of PBP. Knowing that there was a little over 200 kilometers to go to the finish line made us feel pumped. And that's when and where things seemed to go wrong. They say that somewhere in a long ride every rider hits a few low points. These are the so-called "meet thyself" experiences, and these are not necessarily very pretty. While we like to highlight successes, we may not be ready to admit when it does not go right. Let me explain here. I don't know exactly what happened. Whether it was the excitement of smelling the barn, the food we ate, the liquids we drank, but something came over us. Collectively and individually we must have lost our senses at that time, for we started to race!

Of course, we all know that this is not a smart thing to do at this point. Consolidation is critical. I ended up hooking off and started struggling on my own. This was probably the loneliest stretch of PBP. Fatigued, lack of sleep, low on energy, and almost drained, I continued more slowly. I was also upset that this was the result of letting the pace get carried away. Negative thoughts bubbled up. Emotionally raw and empty, I wondered if this was how riders prematurely end their PBP quest. A default situation! Up to that point it had been fun, and lots of it. PBP was the ride of my life and dreams. Now it seemed to all fall to pieces, including myself. The fun was gone. I felt abandoned, closer to crying than anything else. Oh God, was it ever tough at that moment. All I could think was that if everyone else wanted to race to Paris, so be it. But I would get there at my own pace, even if I had to crawl. Too stubborn to abandon, that consideration actually did not come up. I refused. Fortunately, the group stopped somewhere before, in or after La Hutte. It appeared that I wasn't the only one suffering. Everyone needed a break. Slowly I ate, drank, rearranged the frazzled emotions, and refocused. And this is where the camaraderie kicked in. One talks to others: listeners, who can and will sympathize with your pain and plight, those who understand personal suffering, because they have been there. Clyde, Darren, Dave and others provided that support needed on the 40 km stretch to Mortagne. The amount of my gratitude covers that distance, and then some. Thanks guys.

We continued at a saner pace. At a roadside stand where shrine-like cyclist images were lit-up, a group of middle aged French women served free coffee and food in the wee hours of the third PBP night. Talk about dedication, enthusiasm and Samaritan service for the suffering souls. As the ride continued, the road became more and more crowded. Ever since the return from Brest, riders from the 90 and 84-hour groups had blended. At this time danger also increased as packs formed with riders, who were fatigued, sleepy, and in many cases inexperienced in pack riding in the dark. Bodies and bikes were struggling. Some cycled in a weaving fashion, like drunken sailors staggering aimlessly, if that is possible on a bike. On some of the rather winding descents riders would go from the left to the right side of the road, obviously oblivious to any possible oncoming traffic. It was amazing that no mishaps occurred. Many a rider decided to stop and drop on their own volition, instead of getting surprised by gravity. There they lay, sprawled like bowling pins along the berm of the road, in open fields, on benches and other inviting places, zonked out in an attempt to recover for the final stretch (bodies on the roadside ). To an outsider it must have looked like a battlefield. Riders would suffer from hallucinations. In my case tall shrubs appeared like silhouettes of cowboys out of a western movie scene, sleepily leaning against a building, ready to move at the drop of a (cowboy) hat. Then there was a rider whose SON light system malfunctioned, resulting in his headlamp flickering continuously, creating this scene reminiscent of the sixties with its psychedelic effects. O'Leary would have been proud. Finally around 3:30 am we got into Mortagne-au-Perche (Km 1084).

First things first, meant getting the card stamped, then slow refueling and then time for another snooze. Slept on the floor again; amazing how good a hard floor feels. It must have been about 4:30 am that we set out from Mortagne. Scores of cyclists on well lit machines ascended yet another hill. Merely half hour into the ride, a rattling sound, and suddenly no more power transmission. The chain had broken. A sinking feeling came over me. A broken chain, a broken dream? Not reaching Paris in time seemed a distinct possibility. Is this what the event had come to? So close, yet so far. Luckily Clyde had a chain tool, and after removing a link or two, we got it working again. Hurrah. There is mercy and help when one needs it most. The upside of stopping to fix the chain was that I had a chance to observe and absorb this endless serpentine of moving headlights crawling up the hill. Not a word was spoken. Hundreds of randos inched up the endless hill. Not a sound. Yet one could sense the silent groans and grunts. Determined, fatigued, focused. Tenaciously moving forward, upward, and toward the goal: Paris. Rotate, push, breath in, breath out. Silent suffering in the dark of night, close to the edge, yet driven to achieve. Silent conversations with oneself: dialogues or doubts, monologues or mutter. Who or what would prevail? In silence and struggle we found this common bond. Luctor et emergo.

So we pushed onward through Longny au Perche, Senonches, Chateauneuf-en-Thymerais to the control at Nogent-le-Roi (Km 1,168) where we checked in at 9:07 am. We had a quick meal, checked our watches. With 57 km left, we decided to keep a pace of 25 kph and see if we could finish in less than 80 hours. Not too fast, because we knew that the finish would be reached before long. The weather was beautiful. The roads were very familiar now. The hill at Montfort, which a week ago we had attacked with a vengeance worthy a pro-cyclist, was now conquered more slowly. I had to make full use of the granny gears. I did not think that I would have to go that low, shifting I mean. The last few kilometers through the suburbs of Paris, and finally le Gymnase Drotis de l'Homme in St. Quentin (Km 1,225) Arrived at the last control at 12:28 pm, 79:28 after we left the same place. Some 4.5 hours within the 84-hour time limit. Wow. Veni vidi vici.

Post Mortem: Alive and Well to Tell it

In the months since PBP, I have had a chance to reflect on this event. It was in one word marvelous, which can only be attributed to one essential component: people. Whether is the organizers who did a superb job, the volunteers who were never too tired to help, the kids along the road cheering us on, displaying the Canadian stickers we'd given them, the French people awake at all hours of the night providing food and drink. It is the people who made it happen. I won't forget the encouragement of someone playing the harmonica, the decorated towns and bicycles, painted road signs for the local heros et tous les autres, the cheers in the dark. Fellow riders sharing experiences, Harold and Dan's excitement for this event, which they had completed many years before. What else can I say about my fellow 'homo cycliens' (with due apologies to the latinists). Your support was great. All this has left an impression as big as completing the event.

In response to the question would I ride PBP again, I can only repeat what I said right after the event: oui! How would I ride it next time and what would I change. I would not make many changes in my training plan. I would not change the overall ride strategy. In the preparation for this event, Clyde from Vancouver and I decided to ride together in this event. This I think worked out quite well. I would highly encourage anyone to ride with a buddy, someone who has the same goal and capabilities. I did the same - albeit by default - in the RM 1200 in 2002. I'd probably sign up again for the 84-hour group, mainly because of the less congested controls on the way out. The things I'd change involve actually executing the meal plan. My plan was to use liquid food during the ride and solids at the controls. I stuck to this plan on the way out, but lapsed on the way back. This could have become problematic and I think that it did contribute to my first low point in the ride. Many pharmacies in France do carry EnsurePlus equivalent foods, so one can always buy it en route. In terms of gear I probably carried too much on the bike, however in case of ugly weather, I would have needed it. Yes, and the next time I will carry the chain tool which I left inadvertently at home. I also need to learn to take more power naps during the breaks. This I think is critical especially in the second half of the event. There were a few physical effects from the ride. Disturbed sleep patterns were re-established quite quickly. The insatiable appetite however took a bit longer to manage. A light tingling in the fingers did last until about Christmas.

Mentally and psychologically I am still thinking a lot about the event, the experience, the people. A wonderful event! A deep appreciation for the ability to do this. Why? I did because I could. Appreciation must go to Driekje, my wife and family, BC Randonneurs and Blizzard Bike Club members and others who offered encouragement. I wish you all could have been there. To the group who stuck together on the Vancouver Island 600, the 'wet' coast brevet in May 2003. This was the test. One realizes that the individual achievement is really the result of the convergence of the efforts of so many. My first PBP left an indelible mark. For me a dream come true. PBP, ma reve, c'est une realite! I would like to be part of PBP again in 2007, only three years and 6 months away. Au revoir!

© Copyright 2003, E. W. (Wim) Kok