PBP Stories - 1995

BC Randonneurs Cycling Club

This story originally appeared in our newsletter, 'BC Randonneur', March 1996.

Are We There Yet? (PBP 1995)
by Ken Bonner

I sit on a lone chair in the middle of a cavernous gymnasium. Tears of exhaustion well up in my eyes. I would like to arise and return to my hotel room in Versailles, only 5 km away, but my body will not respond. A Frenchmen approaches and asks "Fatigué?" He looks concerned. I manage to convince him I am not about to die, and after a few moments he drifts off … and so do I - mentally speaking!

It is with a certain internal confidence that I arrive 1 1/2 hours early for the 8:00 pm start. This is my second P-B-P, so I know the routine and think that the route will be familiar.

I find Keith Fraser and Ted Milner from Vancouver (known fondly as the Terminator Twins) at the front of the line. Unlike myself with 25 pounds of food, batteries, and clothing, they have motorized support and are equipped like the rest of the French as if out for a week-end club ride. I resist the urge to let the air out of their tires!

For close to 45 minutes, the gates are closed and the crowd of approximately 650 riders becomes tighter and tighter. The excitement is palpable. Well-wishers are yelling to their friends in the ride. It is hot. We drink. Other riders push into us, but the gates keep us from going anywhere. Words in various languages abound around us.

Finally the gates open and we rush forward, only to stop again at the official start about 200 meters away. After what seems an eternity of speeches and instructions in French (there is a detour somewhere up ahead) we are told to go … and there is a mad scramble to get ahead of the hundreds of riders behind us.

We are up to 55-60 kph in a flash, and I attempt to keep a safety zone around me, but it is futile. Within a couple of kilometers, there is shouting up ahead and some high-pitched squeals. Looking up, I see pieces of bicycle flying through the air! The next moments are full of panic - 1,198 kilometers to go and I don't want to end up injured or have a smashed bike! In a flash we are past the injured riders who are dragging themselves and their bikes off the roadway. The acrid smell of burned rubber permeates the air.

Within another couple of kilometers we go through the same exercise all over again. In fact, although there are no more crashes, over the first 140 km there are innumerable encounters with stopped cars and trucks which cause the peloton to come to a virtual halt while everyone funnels by.

Eighty (80) km into the ride. It is dark and hot. I am thirsty. I suck on my Camelbak. Think "thirsty" - and no water! Oh well, only 60 km more to the first checkpoint.

In '91 there was a "brasserie" open along the way, I will get a drink there. Soon I recognize the town with the brasserie, but for some reason, it is closed up tight. Within a few kilometers, the dreaded "Bonk" strikes! I am in between riders and as the bonk grabs me, my legs feel leaden and I swear I will never never enter a long ride again!

One hundred forty (140) km and Mortagne au Perche (first checkpoint) is finally in my sights. After 45 minutes of drinking and gorging I feel better and head for Brest. I am about an hour behind my '91 time, and hurtle through the darkness trying to make up the lost minutes. On a fast descent, I pass a rider at an intersection. Whoever it is, he is either resting or consulting his map. I hurry to catch up to some taillights I saw earlier. After an hour and a hill the size of the Malahat, I have not seen any more cyclists. Am I lost? Some cyclists are coming towards me. I wave them down. They don't speak English, but apparently we should be going back. They carry on, while I ponder the big hill I just traversed.

Three more cyclists come along. They indicate the way I was already going was the right direction. They are French, and I don't want to go over the hill again, so I join them. After another hour and repeated stops to "conference" (my contribution is my small penlight on the map and instructions!) we arrive at the outskirts of a large city, Alencon. At 2:00 am it is very inviting. However, it quickly becomes apparent we are two hours off course! (Should have guessed as much when so many transport trucks were screaming by, but being rando-types we have only considered one course of action - go forward!) Despondent, we turn our bikes around, eventually to join the slower members of our 8:00 pm group. The story of the hare comes to mind.

23 hours after the start. Last town before Brest about 100 km away. The leaders enter town. There are nine of them, and eventually, they make a pact to finish together which they do in a record time of 43 hours and 20 minutes. I learn later that Keith and Ted have been part of this group, but Ted eventually drops out at 700 km with a bad knee, and I Keith gets lost for a time (still finishing in an impressive 50 hours!)

Saddle sores are plaguing me and I finally stop to slather ointment on the affected parts. I also dump some of my powdered foods. Secret checkpoint at the top of the mountain before we start the gradual downhill to Brest. It is dusk, the wind is cold. Finally, the checkpoint at Brest!

All the checkpoints have food to purchase. At Brest, they even have crème caramel! On the bike again. It is midnight and it is foggy. I am now 3 1/2 hours behind my So much for a p.r. I eventually see a taillight through the fog and catch up to it. The taillight is attached to a bike ridden by a young Dane who informs me, in our ensuing discussion, that he works in an abattoir. You meet some of the most interesting people on randonnées!

900 km. I have gained some time. Had one flat tire a couple of hours ago. A French farmer fixed it for me! Turns out he is an avid road racer! It's 4:00 pm of the second day. I am brimming with energy, the day is sunny, I am riding past medieval farms, vineyards on either side, and I have a tailwind! In no time I come to the next checkpoint, and actually run up the stairs to have my time card signed. The energy surge stays with me to Mortagne au Perche. In my enthusiasm, I don't get any food. I live to regret this hasty decision! But don't judge me too harshly, it is only 140 km to the finish.

It starts to rain. It is midnight (again, third time). No sleep for about 56 hours. A few of the directional arrows appear to be missing, or I miss them in the dark and rain. I am checking my instruction at every intersection, and this slows me down considerably. I come to a small village in the mountains and find a brasserie still open. I go inside. The locals are smoking, playing cards, and generally enjoying themselves. There is a sudden silence as I stagger through the doors with my BRITISH COLUMBIA jersey dripping wet. I manage to order a Croque Monsieur (grilled ham and cheese sandwich) and a diluted "juicy" drink. Wolfing this down, I leave. I believe they thought they were having a "close encounter"!

I catch up to a small group of riders, which eventually becomes a group of seven. Up, up we climb through the dripping darkness. Down, down we zoom through the dripping darkness. Searching, searching we patiently try to find the right route out of town. We repeat this pattern for what seems an eternity. We come to the next checkpoint.

I want to sleep, but the group is going on. I join them. We are all sleepy now. We keep a greater distance from each other. Riders drift to the back and then eventually race to catch up. We are getting close to the finish. It is becoming light. The routine starts again.

Up a hill, down a hill, through a nice suburban area … up a hill, down a hill, through a nice suburban area. Are we there yet? Are we there yet? The thought is going through all our minds, if not for the directional arrows it seems as if we are going up and down the same hill, over and over and over and over and over!

Someone realizes we are just about there, and we could beat 59 hours if we pick up speed. It is a race to the finish! What red lights? What trucks? Around a corner and there it is, the recreation gymnasium complex we left so long ago! I stagger through an open gymnasium door with my bike - "Je me regrette monsieur" … have to go around the gymnasium to the playing field.

My card is stamped. 59 hours and 15 minutes. Seven hours faster than '91. No sleep for 72 hours. I am tired! I find a quiet corner and lie down. Helmet and Camelbak still on, I am dead to the world. An hour later, an Australian comes along and points out that there is a "quiet" room in which to sleep. Staggering into the room, I encounter bodies stretched out on tumbling mats. I join them for the next two hours.

I am sitting in the middle of a cavernous gymnasium. My eyes fill with tears of fatigue. The Frenchman inquiring as to my health has drifted off. Was it only 2 1/2 days ago that we started this adventure? I don't want to think anymore. I want a warm bath, a warm shower and a soft bed. With an incredible mental effort, I will my body to rise, and stagger out to my bike.

Will I be back for the 1999 P B-P? You bet I will!

© Copyright 1996, Ken Bonner