By Wayne Dunlap
Hill Country Randonneurs Austin, Texas
The ride is a 1200k (750 miles) out-and-back course to Brest from the town of St Quentin-en-Yvelines, a town about 10 miles south west of Paris. The ride takes place once every 4 years. There is a 90 hour time limit; the ride starts on a Monday evening at 10pm and finishes on Friday at 4pm. In order to participate, one must complete a brevet series. These are rides sanctioned by the people who put on PBP, and consist of a 200k (125 miles), 300k (188 miles), 400k (250 miles), and 600k (375 miles) ride. All these rides have to be completed within designated time limits.
PBP is a big event, both for the town where it starts in St Quentin, and also for all the small towns along the way. It attracts over 4,000 riders from around the world. The town of St. Quentin has posters all over the place proclaiming the event (many of the surrounding towns also have these posters). The number of French riders is limited to 1,000. The country with the next largest contingent is the US, with 483.
There is a travel agency, Des Peres travel that runs PBP tours. The owner of Des Peres, Claus Clausssin, books all the rooms in all hotels in St. Quentin ahead of time, giving him a monopoly. So if you want a room near the start, you need to talk to Claus. He does the same thing with hotels along the route that are near the rest stops. Claus also runs the only bag-drop. He will take a bag (for 35 euros) to one of 2 rest stops (called Controls) on the course.
Claus is a German who lived in Paris for more than 20 years. He loves the city and he loves cycling. He is very approachable and always in a good mood. He is also a very good businessman. My guess is that he makes a great deal of profit from PBP.
Having no other choice, I planned my trip through Claus. I got a hotel room close the start, close to shopping and a bike store. I also paid to have a bag taken to each of the bag drop locations.
I arrived on Friday; coming on this trip with me was my brother, Wes. I arrived in the afternoon, and many people were already here. Many of them I had seen on my brevets. The hotel was bustling with people checking in and unpacking bicycles. It became clear very early on, that staying in this hotel, Champanile, was a mistake because for 3 days people would be focused on the event, which just adds to the pressure.
When Monday came, I was as ready as I could be. I was having sleeping problems and had not slept for more than 4 hours any night since I had arrived. That worried me, but there was nothing I could do about it. At about 8pm, 2 hours before the start, I went to get my bike to head to the pre-ride dinner and then the start. I found I had a flat tire. I was already feeling time pressure, as it seemed everyone headed to the start around 7pm. I was now worried that there was something wrong with the tire or the wheel. I quickly changed the tire and headed to dinner. The dinner place was fairly empty, which I found surprising given that it was run by the ride organizers. I ate and headed off to the start. On the way, within sight of the start, I got another flat tire. Now I was anxious about getting to the start. I changed the tire and was on my way. I arrive at the start at 9:10pm, 50 minutes before it began, plenty of time.
At the start there was a huge crowd of people. The system was to gather everyone in this stadium and release people in waves of roughly 500. While waiting in line I met Tom, who was from Virginia. It was his first time as well. It was while standing in line, that I realized my bicycle computer battery had died. Luckily I had 2 spares. I was planning on recording the entire ride, and to do that required 3 bicycle computers to have enough memory to hold all the data for such a long ride.
We were led into a stadium packed with cyclist. It was an amazing sight. All I could view as I headed on to the soccer field was a sea of bicycle helmets. I passed time in line by talking with my new acquaintance Tom. I told him of my plan to ride all the way to Brest without sleeping, then sleeping 8 hours, riding half way back, sleeping 8 hours again and then finishing the ride. I figured it would take me 30 hours to reach Brest; I would finish around 4am Friday morning – 76 hours total. This plan would quickly be revised.
I soon noticed that we were near the back of the line. There were only a few hundred people behind us, but thousands ahead of us. We were the last group to leave. It was 10:48pm.
The start was incredible. The roads were lined with people shouting and cheering. I was riding with Tom in a large group. We would go under overpasses, and people would be standing on the overpass cheering. I had the feeling of being a celebrity. After 16 minutes of riding PBP, I got yet another flat tire. Tom pulled over with me and handed me an inner tube (I was worried, since I had already used one getting to the start). If this problem continued I would have real problems. Tom went on his way, and I tried to patch the tube. The problem was with my rim tape, so I figured that the patch, being thick, would prevent the problem. Well the patch didn’t hold, so I took a piece of tin foil, placed it over the lemish in the rim tape and proceeded to put in a new tube.
About this time a man came riding by. He yelled that he was in the bath room when they started the final wave of people. Now I really felt the pressure. I was now officially the rider in last place at PBP; OTB (off the back) of a peleton of 4,000 riders. I was ready to quit. I came 4,500 miles only to be plagued with problems. That combined with the pressure of all the hoopla made quitting seem like a very good option. Not only could I hold the distinction of being last, but could be the first person on the ride to abandon. Anyway, I changed the tire, but only put 40 lbs. of pressure in it, so that it would be less likely to puncture again if the rim tape was the problem.
As I got back on the bike, it occurred to me that I did not know the way; I was just following the pack. I had a route sheet, but reading it a night would be very slow going. I decided I would ride for an hour and see what happened; I figured I had nothing else to do. I started looking for markers. I found that the course was clearly marked with arrows on the sign post at each intersection. I would pass spectators every few hundred yards who would warn me of turns or just cheer me on. Soon I was away from civilization and riding through the country side of France. I found this very peaceful. I was riding alone, in France, on a crisp, clear night. Mars was very bright in the sky and hundreds of stars were out. At this point I decided I would continue and any more thoughts of abandoning had vanished.
I soon came to a forest. The trees were so tall and so close to the road, that it was hard to see the sky. The area was pitched black with no sign of civilization. The forest had a lot of strange animal noises. All I could think of was how much this resembled the forests in the movies where the Werewolf came out and ate somebody. This was getting spooky.
I soon passed a rider headed in the opposite direction. He yelled something to me in French. A minute later, I passed another rider, also heading in the opposite direction. He turned around and we spoke. He told me that the other rider thought he was going the wrong way, turned around and convinced him to do the same. I was pretty sure I was going the right way and suggested we ride together for a while. He was from England and had done the ride many times before. He said he always finished near the back. I rode with him for a few miles and then pulled away as he was moving very slowly. From this point on I felt much better, knowing that I had lost the claim to last place.
I was riding at an easy pace, trying to keep my heart rate under 130bps. That meant I was traveling somewhere between 12 and 16 mph, not very fast at all. Soon I came upon a small French town. It looked just like those 17th century European towns they show in movies with the cobble stone streets, hand painted wood signs, and stone buildings. I thought this was really impressive. I was struck by how old everything here is.
Soon I came to the hills; it was here that I first started to encounter tail lights of fellow riders. I saw this long line of tail lights stretching up the hill. It looked like there was no end to riders. From this point on, I would never be on the road unable to see other riders.
I passed many riders on the hills. By the time I got to the first control (at mile 87), there were many riders behind me. The controls were an interesting and frustrating experience. The first thing I did when I got there was get my card stamped and badge swiped. The badge swiping was to allow others to track my progress. The card was a backup, incase the computer system failed, to prove that I had been at all the controls.
After checking in, they had a variety of services. There was a restaurant, which was like a high school cafeteria where you form a line and pick what you want. There was a bike mechanic, there was a medical facility, and some of them had beds and showers. Everything cost money. As I learned at the first control, getting food would not be easy. There were huge lines. At the first control it took me 20 minutes just to get my food.
As I left the control, I looked for the mechanic, but none of the people who ran the control spoke English. So I decided to press on, even with my low-pressure tire.
On the way to the next control, I met a German girl and her father. They were riding PBP for the first time. She was only 19. I was very impressed that they would embark on something like this. The next control was at the 130 mile mark, as I discovered, it was usually 50 miles between controls. It took me 3 ½ to 4 ½ hours to go from control to control, depending on terrain. I found most people were like me, riding at a comfortable pace. There were a few pace lines, but most of them were 2 abreast so that people could converse while they rode.
At this control I met up with Bruce Berg, a friend I met on my first double in 2001 and rode most of the qualifying brevets with. He suggested a bakery down the street instead of the Control restaurant food. That way I could avoid the lines. On the way to the bakery was a bike store, so I popped in and got a new plastic wheel rim liner, just in case I needed it.
The bakery was really great. They had them in every town. They were inexpensive and had really good food. It was usually high in sugar – my no sugar rule was on hold for this ride. Taking advantage of this, I selected the pastries with the most sugar and fat; I figured I wanted to be efficient with my calories.
Feeling confident that I had a new rim liner, I pumped up my tire to full pressure and was on my way. About a mile out of town, I got another flat. I pulled over to the side of the rode and sat down. Little did I know, some type of weed grows in France that has fuzz on it. When you touch the fuzz it caused an excruciating burning sensation, which I discovered when I put my knee on the plant. I put on my new rim liner and was on my way. But now my knee was in pain from the weed. The pain would subside in the next few hours.
The riding was a lot of fun. All the roads were well maintained and very smooth. No pot holes or glass to be seen. We would be riding along in the country then we would encounter a hill. The hills were rarely steep, but they did last for a kilometer or 2. Every 10 or 15 kilometers, when you climbed a hill, there would be a small town. All towns seemed to have a pub and a bakery. Many of them were decorated with fancy bicycles and signs welcoming cyclists. In every town, people would be out clapping and cheering you on. Many times they would offer water and food. On the way out to Brest, I saw very few cyclists stop.
On the country roads, we would encounter people every few miles cheering us on. As cars passed, they would honk. It was not a “get out of the way” honk as one encounters in the US. It was a honk of support usually followed by a cheer or positive hand gesture as they passed by.
The next control was significant because it was half way to Brest. I reached it at about 3pm on Tuesday. This time it took about 30 minutes to get food. From here on out most Controls would take an hour or more. It seemed I was right in the heart of most of the riders in PBP. Now I know why everyone warned me about the Controls.
On the next stretch, I came across some riders from Santa Cruz. Their names were Pat and Nick, they were school teachers and had done the Davis Bike Club brevets, the same brevets I had done. Nick had a huge bandage on his arm. He had fallen asleep while riding, waking up only as he was about to hit the pavement. His calf and elbow were pretty well banged up. This would become a common problem among riders on the course. We continued to talk and they were moving a good pace; they were about my speed. We would ride most of PBP together from here on.
We rode through controls until we got to Loudeac at the 279 mile mark. It was 11:20pm on Tuesday and Pat and Nick convinced me that I should sleep before continuing on to Brest. Standing in line for food, I agreed. It took 60 minutes to get food, by the time we were done eating it would be 12:45 am.
Sleeping at the Controls is an interesting thing. They have a gym lined with rows and rows of army-type cots. You pay them 3 Euros and they lead you to a spot with a small flashlight. You tell them when you want to be woken up, and they come around and shake your foot at the designated time. The minute someone left a bed, someone else was put in it.
At Loudeac they were very disorganized. First of all, they only had 300 beds, and there were at least 1,000 people at the control. The temperature outside was in the low 40’s. Even so, because there were no beds, people were sleeping in the Restaurant, in hallways, or anywhere else they could find. Many people slept outside with one of those Mylar “space blankets”. They looked like large baked potatoes. Talking to someone later, he claimed space blankets worked, but that it was still very cold sleeping outside.
We were very lucky because 30 people requested to be woken at 1:00. Pat, Nick, and I waited the 15 minutes and all got beds. The plan was to sleep 3 hours and then get started again, so we told them to wake us at 4am. I was lead to a cot and fell asleep within seconds. The next thing I knew, I was being woken up. I grabbed my things and stumbled out of the gym, as I was leaving, I looked at the clock. It was 2am. I immediately told them I had 2 more hours, meanwhile they had just given my cot away. They quickly fixed their error and I was sleeping again. The next time they woke me up, I went through the same process only to find that it was 3am. Finally, I woke up on my own at 10 minutes to 4.
Pat and Nick were ready and we were on the road by 4:30. The plan was to ride 100 miles to Brest and then back to Loudeac. We figured it would take about 16 hours.
The ride out to Brest was great. There were some beautiful climbs through a village that was built on a hillside. These were the longest climbs of the ride, but nothing was very steep; mostly grades of 5-7%. Every once in a while we would come across someone sleeping on the side of the road. Sometimes they had space blankets, sometimes not. It was during this stretch that we saw a rider in front of us fall over into a ditch on the side of the road. He said he was fine and that he had taken his eyes off the road. We surmised that he really had fallen asleep.
We decided it would be smarter to stop at a local restaurant then to eat in a Control, after the horrid experience we had the night before. We stopped into a pub where an American cyclist spoke French and was kind enough to order for us. I had an incredible meal; it was some type of duck. After eating we headed the final 30km to Brest. On the way, I began to have cable problems. It was difficult to shift my rear derailleur. I sped up, and got to Brest before Nick and Pat so they would not have to wait for me to get it fixed.
I got to the Brest Control at 2:30pm on Wednesday. At the Control, the mechanic fixed my bike and by 3:45 we were headed for home. The ride back to Loudeac was uneventful. We did notice more and more people were out offering food and drink.
We got to Loudeac at 2am. Again, there were no beds. We were trying to find a place to sleep when I saw Claus, the travel agent. I knew he had booked hotel rooms for people along the course, so I asked him if he could get a room for the three of us. He said I was in luck. Someone had cancelled and he had a room. It was only 80 Euros. The way I was feeling then, 80 Euros was a bargain. The hotel was a block away, after we ate, we headed to the hotel. They had taken a conference room and stuck 3 mattresses on the floor. Shrewd move by Claus, but I was fine with it. That room, at that moment, looked better than a room at the Four Seasons. There was the added advantage of a shower down the hall. We all showered and slept for 3 hours.
We were up and on the road by 6:10am. It was Thursday. We had 32 hours to ride the final 279 miles. The plan was to ride to Mortagne, a Control/Town about 195 miles away. We would sleep there for an hour and then make the final push for St. Quentin and the finish about 84 miles beyond.
All along we would see riders in front of us and behind us. We were never alone. We would ride with some of them for a while. Meeting many people, we often came across the same person or group of people many times. There were many people like us, who had acquaintances or a friend or 2 on the ride. There were also many groups which rode together the whole time as a team. This was common among the Germans, Danes, and French. Of the three, the Danes were the most open to mingling with others. When riding in a pack, you had about a one in four chance that the person next you spoke English. There were large contingents from England and Australia. They were always very sociable. From the US, there were large groups from Colorado and Florida, but by far the largest contingent was from California and the Davis bike club, the group with whom I had done my qualifying brevets. We were almost always riding in a group.
It was on this stretch that 2 things became apparent; one was that it was a mistake to shower. The second was that most of the English speaking people on the ride were politically far to the left. Showering was a mistake because now we could smell everyone else; I much preferred the blissful ignorance before the shower. As for the political situation, it made for some very interesting conversation. There was one climb of about 6km and 2000 ft, where Pat, myself, and some other cyclists were discussing political views. The discussion got very lively, and the people began to refer to it as cycling's' version of talk radio. The next thing I knew people were thanking us for getting them up the hill. I looked back and we had been pulling for a pace line of about 20 cyclists. And to boot, I think I convinced half of them that Arnold would make a great Governor of California.
It was now that I began noticing that there were bodies strewn all over the side of the road. Cyclists were taking any opportunity they could to sleep. This was not a bad idea; sleeping in the middle of the day on the grass where there was no competition for beds. But it looked like someone had spread knock–out gas throughout the area. People were now stopping more often at tables set up by local residents to pass out coffee, food, and water. It seemed if one cyclist stopped, soon there was a whole mob stopped. It was like no one wanted to be the first to stop. It was at one of these that a nice man was handing out freshly made crepes. He had a board with postcards from all over the world. He handed everyone a slip of paper with his address on it and requested that we send him a postcard from our home town. He apparently does this for every PBP.
It was not unusual to pass the local town pub and see a few bikes parked outside with the cyclists inside at the bar sharing a beer. One rider told us that he had passed a pub with a bicycle parked outside and the rider was inside shooting pool with the locals.
It was soon after this stop that I had one of the best experiences of the ride. Nick and I were riding along talking to a woman from Colorado (Pat had gone on ahead) when we saw a large group of twenty riders ahead of us. We sped up to join the group. Others began doing the same. Soon the group grew to about 200 riders. We were 4 abreast taking up a whole lane and we were so long that it was problematic for cars to pass. At one point, someone in the pack asked “has anyone needed to pedal in the last 15 minutes?” We were cruising along at an average speed of 18mph, with the Danes doing most of the pulling. I met all kinds of people. One person, Anna, was from Sweden. If she finished, she would be only the 4th Swedish woman to have completed PBP.
Everything went fine until the Control before Mortagne, Villaines. We left the control at Villaines (130 miles to go) to ride the final 50 miles of the day at about 7pm on Thursday. Pat and Nick must have been having a rough time because they were going very slowly. I stayed with them but found it very difficult to go at such a slow pace (I think we were averaging 8-10 miles per hour). It took us 5 ½ hours to ride this section.
We finally reached Mortagne at about 12:30 am. Here we ate and slept for 1 ½ hours. The sleeping facilities were much better organized. At this point the miles and lack of sleep were taking their toll. Neither Nick nor I slept very well.
We were up and on the road by 3:30, starting the final 84 miles with one Control between here and the finish. We were with a pack of French riders and one other American who spoke some French. Soon we saw cyclists coming towards us. They did not speak English, but we assumed we had gone the wrong way. We headed back to the last town we encountered about 3 miles back. At the town, a man said that we could go over the hill and end up back on the course. The French immediately were off and up the hill. We began to follow, but realized that this was not really the course. We finally ran into someone who pointed out where we left the official course. It was only 1 km from where we were. It would be longer then the route taken by the French cyclists, but none of us wanted to risk disqualification. We found the turn, but saw many cyclists heading the wrong way. Everyone just follows the tail light in front of them. We finally convinced a few people to turn and the tail light line started heading the right way. It works much like a line of ants.
This road was especially smooth. Nick and Pat were going faster then the night before, but still much slower then we had in the past. After a few miles I noticed they were no longer behind me. With 20 miles to go to the next control and never really having pushed myself the entire ride, I decide to just get back as soon as possible. I really picked up the pace. I was passing many cyclists and soon noticed I had collected a Dane somewhere along the way. He said to me “you are a very strong rider”. Well of course that meant I had to go faster, to prove him right (my ego seems to always screw things up). I caught up to a group of Danes 3 miles from the then next control and followed them in.
After 30 minutes at the control and no sign of Nick or Pat, I decided to do the last 36 miles alone. I took it easy for the first 10 miles, but soon I was back into pushing myself hard. This section was very hilly and the climbs seemed a bit steeper then most we had encounter previously. But it was uneventful and I finished at 11:30, 84 hours, 42 minutes from when I started.
At the finish, Wes was there to cheer me on and to take a picture of my withered, exhausted body. All I waned to do was sleep and floss. My knees hurt, my tongue was swollen and my saddle sores had saddle sores.
When I began this journey, I said I would do this only once. Everyone told me how difficult it was and how hard it would be. My conclusion is that it was a lot of fun. This surprised even me, especially considering my goal-oriented attitude. It was like being a celebrity for a week. I enjoyed meeting the other cyclists, being with such a diverse group of people with a similar goal. It also gave me a view of France that few people see. I have immense respect for the French culture and the French people. They were always friendly and supportive. These are people who celebrate the virtues of life. Life for them is for living, not for time management.
In the end, I have been on a number of rides I found more difficult, but none as much fun or as rewarding. Both my wife and brother contributed greatly to make this possible and I am forever in their debt. Who knows, perhaps I’ll return in 2007.
Update: November 1, 2003
Nick and Pat both finished about an hour and a half after I did.
Through a wild stroke of luck, I ran into Tom (the man at the start who gave me an inner tube) during a century in Austin sponsored by the Lance Armstrong Foundation called the Ride for the Roses. I was stopped on the side of the rode and someone pulled up and said “I know you”. I instantly recognized the voice as Tom’s. Tom and I rode together for a while and he recounted his experience. He spent most of the time at the back by himself on PBP. He was getting to each of the rest stops just ahead of the cut-off times. Finally, with about 100 miles to go, he missed the next to last cut-off time and was not allowed to finish. He said the ride was not that hard, but not finishing was emotionally painful. So painful, in fact, that he regrets ever having tried and cringes anytime people ask him how it went. He is now in training for 2007, hoping to finish the ride and put this behind him. He said he is telling everyone who is thinking about doing it, not to do it unless they are sure they can finish. For Tom, it took so much commitment and sacrifice to train for PBP, that defeat was absolutely devastating. Unfortunate, because he was a pleasure to ride with and, without him and his support, I probably would have turned back after the flat at the start.
PBP Stories - 2003