|PBP Stories - 2007||
My PBP adventure turned out exactly as I hoped it would: an official finish, no problems of any consequence, and I even had fun along the way! While other's accounts are filled with exciting tales of woe and suffering in the west of France, of sleep depravation and food poisoning, of physical and mechanical breakdown along the roads of Brittany, I have none of those stories to tell. So this is likely the shortest and most boring PBP account you'll read.
After a 22:00 start from Saint Quentin, it was such a relief to finally be underway. I spent the last year and a half training and preparing for this event and I'm actually doing it now! The adrenaline from the start stays with me through the entire night. The sight of hundreds of tail lights snaking off into the dark French countryside is something I'll never forget. I think of all these thousands of randonneurs; everyone has a story about how they got to here and everyone will have many more stories by the time we all get back to Paris. It starts raining and blowing about an hour into the ride and this will continue off and on, mostly on, through the entire distance, but the temperature is mild so it's bearable. Only in the last bit from Mortagne Au Perche on to the finish would I feel really uncomfortable from being wet for so long. I ride much of the night with Joe Llona who is great company along the way. I would be seeing Joe each of the next three days and ride back into Saint Quentin with him.
Early into the ride, around midnight, the pavement turns to cobblestones as the route enters a small village. I notice a man standing under a dim street lamp sliding his shoe back and forth on the sidewalk, making a scuffing sound. He is warning us, in a universal language, of a slipery spot on the sharp corner just ahead. This fellow could be home in bed, warm and dry, but here he is out here doing his small part for all of us riders, likely sparing several of us from a nasty spill at his corner. This sort of support from the locals will be repeated countless times over the next three and a half days; I begin to appreciate what a genuinely unique event this is.
Somewhere between Mortagne Au Perche (140K) and Villaines La Juhel (223K) I come upon several dozen riders stopped at an intersection. It seems there is confusion as to which way the route goes and riders are giving their opinions in 4 or 5 languages at once; meanwhile the knot of riders quickly becomes a hundred or more. A consensus is soon reached and off we go again into the rainy night, still on the proper course.
The kilometers fly by, villages appear abruptly out of the darkness and just as quickly slip past. I reach the control town of Villaines La Juhel shortly after sunrise, then Fougeres (311K) mid afternoon and Tinteniac (365K) by early evening. Is this a dream? No, I really am riding my bicycle through the French countryside, just as earlier generations of randouneers have done since 1891. I fall into a routine at each control along the way: park my bike, get my brevet card stamped and signed, get something to eat and drink, put some extra food in my pockets, use the bathroom, refill water bottles, reset the bike computer, and then off I go. This all takes at least a half hour, usually longer at each control.
The PBP route thus far seems best summed up in one word: hills. Lots of rolling hills, followed generally by some more hills, after which one would then enter into a rather hilly section of the course. I'm sure there are some flat stretches somewhere, but they seem few and far between. At least the top of each hill is easy to spot: most of the villages occupy a hilltop, and the church steeple always marks the highest ground. In the countryside many of the hilltops are crowned by a water tower, often visible from a kilometer or more away. It's said that Eskimos have twenty words to describe snow; In the Northwest we have as many to describe rain. I wonder how many words the French have for hills?
Loudeac (452K) is reached at 21:30 Tuesday night. I have a drop bag here, so after a hot meal, a shower and into fresh clothes I pay my 4 Euros and get a mattress on the floor of the gym for a three hour nap. My concerns about Loudeac being overcrowded and with long lines were unfounded; I spent perhaps fifteen minutes in line here. My plan had been to try to stay ahead of the main crush of riders at least to this point; it seems that I've done that. When I get up at 02:15 it's another story: the gym is full of sleeping and snoring randonneurs, the cafeteria is overrun and there are bodies scattered about everywhere, inside and out. Some people appear to have just sat down on any flat spot they could find and fallen fast asleep; many others are wrapped in foil space blankets, looking like weird alien pods deposited here and there. Altogether a truly surreal scene. Someone else described it as what Dante's Infernal must look like, only way colder. My thoughts exactly.
Heading towards Carhaix (529K), I notice the hills becoming a little steeper and longer. At the secret control town of Corlay I join up with Mark Thomas, Peter McKay, and Joe for a while but am soon dropped. For whatever reason I was struggling for a bit here but felt better again after cresting Roc Trevezel. As the route leaves Brittany and enters Normandy, the roads have dried out and the sun even makes an appearance for the first and last time on the ride. I manage to get some outer layers of clothing to dry out and pack them away. On the decent into Brest I ride with Patrick, a Parisian with very elegant style. He's on a beautiful Gilles Berthoud bike, is wearing classy Italian loafers, and looks as if he's just out for a pleasant morning spin. He is instantly my French cycling idol. So that I am not deceived by appearances Patrick abruptly drops me on the last steep uphill into Brest. I'll see Patrick again and ride with him on Thursday.
After turning around at Brest (615K) I finally get to enjoy a few sections with a tailwind, but it doesn't last. Most of the way back to Saint Quentin will be with a crosswind. Returning to Loudeac I ride with Robin Piper, Mark Roberts, and Joe again at various times. It's around this time that I start giving up eating at the Controls, even though some of it was quite good, and doing what I observe most of the French riders doing, which is eating at cafes, patisseries, and roadside stands along the way. The later are my favorite. For the remainder of the ride I'll indulge in a few beers and wines, and even sit down to a complete steak dinner (can't remember where) all with no apparent ill effects.
I'm back in Loudeac (773K) at 22:10 Wednesday night and am showered, changed, fed, and down for a nap by 23:50. At my requested time (03:00) a kindly looking old French gentleman is touching my shoulder and speaking softly in French to me. I don't know what he's saying but this is surely an agreeable way to be woken up. I walk over to the door and look outside to see that it's raining buckets, think about it for a very short moment, and go right back to bed. I get six hours of sleep in Loudeac tonight, which I know is a really decadent thing to do at PBP, but it sure feels good.
Thursday morning and after having two huge omelets I'm on the road out of Loudeac at 07:00 on dry roads. It's raining again within 10 minutes. No matter - this is to be one of my best days ever on a bicycle. I feel strong and totally comfortable on the bike. I'm staying in the drops for long stretches and almost never using my small chain-ring. On the up-hills I pass literally hundreds of other riders. As Lance would say, I'm having a "no chain" day. The French countryside goes whizzing past me and between Fougeres (914K) and Villaines La Juhel (1002K) I have the pleasure of riding and chatting with Drew Buck on his two speed "Johnny Onion" bike (actually a 1920 Hirondelle Retro-Directe, entirely original and unrestored) for a while. This is Drew's fourth PBP on vintage equipment; as he says he has a reputation to uphold nowadays. One has to admire his style; also he's a pretty fast rider on that old thing!
Of course this couldn't last. I was feeling so good that I thought I could make it all the way to the finish in one long push, but it was not to be. I walked into the control at Mortagne Au Perche (1084K) at around midnight with every intention of getting in and out in 30 minutes or so. All of a sudden I'm seeing double and can barely stand up without hanging onto something. So it's time for another nap. This time I'm on the hard cafeteria floor, very uncomfortable, and get about two hours of fitful sleep. I am now one of those weird alien pods wrapped in a space blanket that I saw in Loudeac two nights ago. I find out later there were beds to be had here but I was apparently too befuddled to have figured that out.
As I'm leaving the control at Mortagne Au Perche I run into Joe yet again and at 03:20 Friday morning we head out together into the night. The final 144K through Dreux (1161K) and onto the finish is mostly uneventful. I spend large parts of this section trying to figure out in my head what my finishing time will be but the brain just can no longer do simple arithmetic at this point. A highlight is riding my Rambouillet through the Forest of Rambouillet, which of course calls for a photo stop. After being pain free up to this point on the ride, now just about everything is sore, especially my feet which have been wet for three days now.
Joe and I ride into the suburbs of Paris and through what seem like never ending red lights through Saint Quentin. After waiting obediently at the first two lights our group of tired randonneurs adopts the Italian attitude and regards the rest of the red lights as merely "suggestions". All of a sudden the finish line appears and at 11:07 Friday I'm a PBP "ancien", an official finisher in a little over 85 hours. (Official time: 85:04) I've ridden across France and back 1240 kilometers according to my bike computer (Official distance: 1228K) through some of the worst conditions in the long history of this event. I shared the experience with 5,300 randonneurs from 44 countries and countless hospitable French folk along the way. The personal satisfaction of having completed an epic event like PBP is beyond my ability to put into words. I DNF'd on my only previous attempt at the distance (Cascade 1200 '06) so it makes this all that much sweeter.
Thanks to the many riders along the way who offered encouragement and camaraderie: Joe, Robin, Mark, Peter, Patrick, Guy, Drew, Steve, Jean, and others. And beaucoup merci to the thousands of French volunteers and spectators, without whom Paris-Brest-Paris would not be what it is. Bravo!
I had done it. I was PBP bound. The rest of June was spent letting my shoulder heal up; July was spent training like hell; and August on trip preparations and getting to France. So in the end perhaps I do have a rousing PBP tale to tell, even if the all the exciting parts happened far away and many months before I stood on the start line on a rainy August evening in France.