2003 > Paris-Brest-Paris by Serendipity
Paris-Brest-Paris by Serendipity
An event that occurs only once every four years requires careful planning and preparation. The physical demands of riding a bicycle twelve hundred kilometers can only be met through meticulous training, intense mental preparation, the appropriate periodization of exercise and recovery, and a rigidly followed diet regimen to guarantee enough energy to complete the endeavor. Last minute, dashed together plans and a calloused disregard for course, self, and regulations are virtually guaranteed to result in failure. It's a good thing that luck can overcome anything. Despite repeated attempts to thwart myself, Paris-Brest-Paris was a wonderful, magical experience. The people I met, the spirit of the entire affair, the food, the coffee, and of course the riding all combined to make one of the greatest cycling experiences of my life. Not that I didn't try to foil myself at every turn.
The brevet series required for entry into PBP were a series of rides that I would have done eagerly in their own right. As it was, I made this precursor more difficult. The Friday before the final, 600K brevet I managed to be the guest of honor at a bicycle accident, and found myself unable to sit, lie down, or walk. By late that night I knew I wouldn't be doing the ride. A local friend assured me he would stay with me and together we could do the ride. I cobbled myself together and with no sleep the previous night I rode to the event with him. The fact that it was pouring rain and we were soaked through by the time we got to the starting area only seemed fitting.
Frequent stops to smear arnica gel on delicate areas of my anatomy seemed to keep me going. The ancient Aryuvedic texts clearly prescribe smearing lots of goopy stuff on bashed up body parts. At least that's what my translation reads. Frankly, there was no reason we should have finished, but we did. The last required ride was complete.
Then there was the registration process for PBP. I finally got around to getting the application out from my piles of papers, and was actually about to write my name on the first line of the forms, when I got called away on business. As I left town for a trip of several days duration, I realized I would not be able to complete the application prior to the deadline. From a hotel room somewhere in the mid-West I told my wife that maybe I would try again in four years.
She got on the phone the next morning, and contacted some of our stalwart DBC members. Judiciously editing a photo with her scissors, and using the information gleaned by talking to others, she completed and mailed the entire package off. Imagine my surprise when I called the next evening and was told "The application was sent off. The kids and I say you better have fun and do well in Paris!" Either her taste in men was seriously out of adjustment, or she had finally found a way to get rid of me for a week. Either way, it looked like PBP might be a reality after all.
When the confirmation arrived in the mail from Randonneurs USA, the enormity of it all began to sink in. I later received a large package from Audax Club Parisien, the French organization overseeing PBP registration. The information was overwhelming, even though it was in English. I made a mental note to be sure to read it later. There were too many other issues at hand to deal with, and riding my bike would be a wonderful way to relax and unwind after I took care of them.
Somehow those issues just wouldn't get taken care of. I was unable to do any preparation for PBP other than my normal riding. Luckily, my normal riding is abnormal by most accounts. Due to scheduling problems it is fairly haphazard, but the amorphous blob of my training log is large. Hopefully volume would make up for consistency and quality. I would find out shortly.
The Sunday before PBP there is a mandatory bike inspection at the start/finish outside of Paris. The Thursday previous to this I was still at work and then at home. I hastily packed up my folding Bike Friday into its suitcase and called Air France. Of course, the next afternoon's flight was oversold. Figuring it was still worth a try, I went to San Francisco International on Friday afternoon and checked in as a standby passenger. One hour prior to scheduled departure they began to call the standby passengers up one by one. Lo and behold, my name was eventually called as well. They took my Bike Friday, my only checked baggage, and issued me a ticket. All my other belongings and ride necessities were in my backpack, along with reading materials and other travel essentials. Traveling lightly is a pleasure all in itself.
Arriving at Charles De Gaulle Airport Saturday afternoon, the bleary eyed throngs of passengers disembarked. I was very lucky in that the seat I was assigned was set just far enough back from the seat in front that I could wedge my hip hard against my backrest, thereby allowing my knee cap to be driven forcefully into the back of the seat in front of me. How Boeing designed that measurement so exactingly to my physiognomy is a puzzle. Luckily for my seatmate, the three-hundred pound Belgian, beer was free and copious. I may have been a bit blearier and more sore than most, but I was glad to be there.
Trooping through customs and immigration, I joined the multitudes at the baggage carousel. It was eons before the conveyor started moving and slowly baggage appeared, one by one, paraded before us on a shiny serpentine path. Tired as I was, it was a bit mesmerizing. It was easy to lose track of time, and that was fortunate, because an hour later I was still standing there with two other lucky passengers who had been selected for "trip from hell" status. The young man near me finally couldn't take it anymore and actually stuck his head behind the curtain into the working area behind baggage claim. His yelling and pleading in French achieved no result. No more luggage would be forthcoming. They wandered off in search of assistance, but even through my haze I could discern the gates to another level of hell, the Air France Baggage Service Office. I steeled myself, and hobbled along on the one knee that still had feeling in it so that I could enter the Pit of Despair.
Joining lines of the dispossessed plane people, I was shuttled among representatives and barely concerned individuals who knew almost as much English as I knew French. Dante could have used a few of these characters. Finally I engaged the services of a supervisor who was able to converse quite well with me in English. Numerous computer entries later, she informed me that there was no record of any problem with my suitcase. As there was no problem entered, the suitcase was clearly not lost or harmed. With no problem recorded, there was also no way to tell me where it was. Apparently, not knowing where the suitcase is and losing the suitcase are very different things. Phone calls, computer entries, and another hour of standing around later I was no closer to possessing my bicycle. I thanked her for her assistance, and told her that unfortunately I would be taking the Sunday afternoon flight back to San Francisco. Without my bicycle at the mandatory inspection, there was no point in my staying. Walking PBP was hardly in the cards. She was very sympathetic and told me she would do everything possible to get it to me at my hotel.
Visions of my bicycle being ripped from the suitcase by zealous security personnel at San Francisco Airport danced in my head as I boarded the train at the airport to get to my hotel. After determining that the bicycle was indeed a bicycle, they would be unable to get it to fit back in the case. I left complete instructions in the suitcase including photos of how it all fit together. It wouldn't matter, they'd never get it back in and would be forced to discard it off to the side rather than admit their culpability. As federal security agency employees, nothing would ever be heard about the incident. Perhaps years from now some investigative reporter would find a mole, Deep Stem, who would tell the truth about those dark endeavors. Navigating the French train system from Charles de Gaulle to San Quentin en Eveylines luckily demanded too much mental agility to allow me to become trapped in my fantasies.
Arriving at the hotel in the evening, I couldn't find my designated roommate. Exhausted and demoralized, I checked out my own room and quickly fell asleep dreaming about obtaining a second mortgage on my home so that I could purchase a bicycle in France, on a Sunday, during a national holiday, in a small town that I knew nothing about. Needless to say, I arose early and wearily. The French telephone system is very user friendly, unless one wishes to use it to make telephone calls. All the recorded voices are very pleasant, speak French clearly and distinctly enough so that even I can understand several words, and then disconnect you. It was beginning to dawn on me why so many people were purchasing cellular phones as they left the airport. Somehow I got through to Air France, reached an English speaking clerk, who informed quite happily for someone at six in the morning that they were doing everything they could for me, and as there was no problem with my luggage there was no way to tell me where it was. This still seemed like the crux of the problem to me, but perhaps I was not sufficiently acculturated as yet. I decided a bit of breakfast and about four cups of strong French coffee would help me adapt. By seven a.m. I was back on the phone with Air France and they told me they had a message to get my bicycle to me before two p.m. that afternoon. The supervisor had made of note of my inspection time at the PBP starting area, and apparently had taken it seriously. The next several hours were spent in a miasma of fear, worry, and commiseration with fellow travelers who had experienced problems.
Just after noon on that Sunday the hotel desk informed me that a special delivery service had dropped off something for me. It was my suitcase. Clearly opening it and reclosing it had been difficult, as instead of being latched it was bound with packing tape. On closer examination, only the front derailleur mount had been damaged, and it only slightly. In an hour or so I had everything together and raced off to the bicycle inspection. Nothing could possibly go wrong now.
This helped make my ride the fantastic thing it became. Difficulty qualifying, missing the registration, and getting on a flight at the last minute to arrive in the nick of time all paled in comparison to spending a day contemplating doing PBP without my bicycle. Finding it and being able to ride it after all was such a great relief that nothing else seemed to matter. Even accidents could no longer faze me. As I stood in front of the hotel mirror that night, trying to staunch the blood flowing down my face from a fresh head wound, all I could think was: "At least I have my bicycle." This was key to a successful PBP. From here on the focus was entirely positive. I still had acts of foolishness up my sleeves to try ruining things, but I also knew that everything was going to be just fine.
The trials and tribulations of qualifying, registering, getting to PBP and finding my bicycle were behind me. Just a few more official functions, inspections, and personal registrations awaited. Throngs of cyclists, spectators, curiosity seekers, friends and family descended on the large sports complex where the ride was administered from.
Many odd cycling machines were trooped to the inspection tents. While onlookers were curious, it turned out that the inspectors were barely fazed by my folding machine. They asked a few simple questions, wanted to see spare batteries, bulbs, and make sure that my lighting systems functioned properly. All told the inspection didn't take two minutes. Then the festival began in earnest. There was the usual bike event schwag, and cyclists from around the globe. Somewhere in the hordes flowing around and admiring each others' rigs I heard about a Prologue that would be held the next morning.
The Prologue was not limited to official PBP participants. All cyclists were invited to join in the fun on Monday morning. A motorcycle escort was to be assigned to each group of cyclists, and passing the lead escort would not be permitted. This enabled the somewhat orderly flow of thousands of cyclists around the five towns surrounding the start/finish of PBP. I managed to talk a few other DBC riders into attending this event. Thirty kilometers or so of warm up ride in the morning would be just the ticket.
At two a.m. the historic heat wave that had gripped France and most of Europe was broken by a line of energetic thunderstorms that swept in on a fast moving cold front that had caused substantial flooding in Spain. Luckily, the heaviest rains had abated by the time of the start of the prologue. The streets were soaked, but thousands showed up anyway. Perhaps the dampness had at least one positive effect for cyclists. The sound system over which the dignitaries were making their speeches began transmitting only intermittently. Political speech is capable of boring listeners in any language, and needs no interpretation. Soon waves of cyclists were riding off to the accompaniment of staccato syllables at random. There were road riders, tandem riders, folding bike riders, recumbent bike riders, cyclists in team kits, cyclists in baggy long pants, and cyclists in black coats and tall top hats. Words were scattered in many different languages, but the smiles were universally understood.
Too soon we were back at the hotel, gathered in the large meeting room we had been given as our official bike room. There we cleaned our bicycles, made last minute repairs, and discussed machines, rides, and all manner of cycling topics. A request for a bit of tape would be met swiftly by at least five offers of supplies. If a headset needed adjustment, tools would appear and advise would flow freely. A young woman from Massachusetts experienced derailleur problems, and was quickly deluged with parts, lubricants, tools, and offers of complete rebuilds there on the carpet. Don't worry, this is perfectly legal in France between consenting cyclists.
Once our bicycles were in order, we had to attend to ourselves. For most riders, the ride would begin that evening. A dinner was hosted by a local restaurant, but one look at the lines convinced our small group that we would burn more calories waiting for the meal than we could possibly consume. A local supermarket became our feeding ground, and we did ourselves proud. Then Peter, Richard and I realized we could make it over to the start/finish in time for the 8 p.m. start of the 80 hour group. We just had to watch them off.
Maneuvering to the front of the first turn, we had a birds eye view of the start. Richard got separated on one side by the motorcycles and barricades, and Peter and I were on the other. Somehow Peter and I had ended up with Richard's digital camera in the confusion. We started snapping photos, and watched the crowds around us go wild as the first group of five hundred riders started off. At the time, I did not realize there would be a second group of 80 hour starters fifteen minutes later. After the first group had gone off down the road, the crowd milled about and Peter and I met Richard again in the middle of the road. We would be starting the following morning at 5 a.m., and wanted to get back to the hotel and get to bed. I suggested we get out of there before the crowds really blocked the roads, and the other two agreed. I tossed Richard his camera, he stowed it away, and we hopped on our bikes to thread through the pedestrians between us and the first roundabout.
As we approached the roundabout I began to slow, then watched all the oncoming cars and people freeze. Peter yelled "They think we're in the race, they're giving way to us, let's go!" So, I did. Sure enough, everyone scrambled out of our way and began cheering our heroic ride to the hotel to go to bed.
I got in front and led the other two riders around the next turn and down onto the motorway. As we entered the highway the other vehicles seemingly couldn't get out of our way fast enough. They screeched to the sides of the four lane highway and yelled and clapped happily for us. As we went under overpasses crowds of screaming pedestrians cheered us. Here was a guy on a clown bike, obviously dropped by the field at the very start, struggling gamely to catch on with two teammates. Perhaps it is true that the French love an underdog. I waved back and started laughing out loud. The inaugural DBC ride to a nap at PBP had already reached international stardom.
As we turned toward our hotel the screaming of the crowd grew even more intense as they gesticulated in the opposite direction. They were sure we were going off course. We were still laughing a mile or two later when we finally reached the relative calm of the hotel.
Starts went on through the night as the specials from the 90 hour group, and then the 90 hour group themselves began the ride. They were separated into groups of five hundred riders, and started at fifteen minute intervals. At 1130 p.m. they were still starting riders. At 3 a.m. we met for breakfast, last minute preparations, and then off to the start ourselves. The 84 hour group had only one start, at 5 a.m. There may have been five hundred of us or so. The group set a terrific pace out of town, and soon we were flying along through the countryside beside a river and through small towns in the darkness. The riders were good, and turns pulling were taken fairly evenly through the early morning hours. Many good wheels to follow were about, and I noticed no crashes or other problems. At one point I heard yelling behind me as pulled for a group. I recognized "meme chose" and "vous etes" and managed to piece together the rest of what was yelled over the next mile or so. I had dropped something! My Sponge Bob Square Pants bandana was no longer at my side. I must have dropped it after wiping myself. I carried it for my youngest daughter, who absolutely adores Sponge Bob. There was no going back for it in the darkness. What a pity. Stacy from Colorado had admired it during the Prologue yesterday morning, and she and I and her friends had several good laughs about Sponge Bob.
As the sun rose I discovered my computer was having difficulty picking up its wireless signal from the front wheel. I stopped repeatedly to make adjustments, and soon was behind the group. When I finally got it working properly and was setting a good pace with another group to catch back on I flatted. At least the sun was fully up now. Changing the tube didn't take long, and I was back on the road. Route finding was simple. Not only was the entire course well marked, but there were plenty of riders ahead to follow through the open country. In each town people were out to cheer us on, and it was obvious at every turn which way to go. The weather was excellent, and I had a wonderful morning as I made my way toward the first outbound control at Villaines La Juhel, about 138 miles from the start. There I met Steve and Peggy on their tandem, Karen on her single bike, and a few other DBC riders. There were crowds of people about, but I felt good and wanted to keep riding. After checking in and getting fresh bottles I remounted and was off.
It wasn't long before I was overtaken by a very fast paceline of older Danes. I say this only to distinguish them from the younger, more talkative group of Danes I also encountered. All of these riders, both groups, were clothed in the same uniform jerseys, shorts, socks, and mostly the same shoes. Europeans apparently take club affiliation rather more seriously than we do. In any event, I attempt to accelerate, and they were happy for a brief period to ride along with my anemic pace. As they began a rather unusual, at least to me, double paceline rotation, I attempted to follow along. A gap appeared next to me between Danish riders. I motioned for the rider in the rear to close the gap, but he remained steady. After a minute or so, I moved in to fill the line. I had been told by others before I left that many European clubs/teams were not particularly welcoming to strangers, and I didn't want to impose. I tried English, French, German, Spanish, and the two words of Danish I know. I never got a response. We flowed along in a rapid paceline, racing past other riders on the road, and somehow I was able to maintain my position in the group. Soon it became apparent that it wasn't just me, these Danish hammer men weren't saying a word to each other. Each of them had legs with larger circumferences than my body, but they simply pedaled along in stony silence with a very infrequent hand gesture from what I took to be their leader. After twenty minutes or so, I found I could not maintain their pace and as I drifted to the back I fell off.
For a change, it was nice to ride alone for a few minutes. It was only a few minutes, however, before Fabrizio caught up to me. Fabrizio is a wonderful Italian gentleman I had met at the hotel, who with his broken English and my bastardized Italian (Spanish words spoken really loudly and the inflection changed at will) were able to communicate mutual sadness at my lost bicycle. I inquired after his health, as I saw his left arm was rather in a state of disrepair. He told me that in the 84 hour group behind me two friends had met at the head of a paceline, sat up to shake hands, and crashed. He was unfortunately directly behind them and had crashed after riding over them. I invited him to my wheel, and we hung together for awhile, chatting about relative family values between Italy and the United States. I probably didn't put up a very good verbal fight, because Italy won. The surrender was most amicable.
As I had recovered sufficiently, I took my leave from Fabrizio. Wishing him well at the next control I rode off the front only to be overtaken by the same group of Danes yet again. They rode with me, made a gap, and welcomed me in physically and not verbally. This was a little strange. I approached the apparent leader of the group and demanded an explanation in a variety of languages, gestures, and bizarre bodily sounds. He responded by shaking two fingers, and going "phfft phfft" with his lips. I took this to mean his group had experienced two flat tires. This seemed reasonable, and I continued to ride with them in silence as we passed rider after rider.
Another twenty minutes with these Danish muscle men, and I was cooked. I dropped off the back as before, and rested as I caught onto other groups of cyclists. In another half an hour the same Danes caught me from behind. This was getting weird. They wouldn't talk, there were never any other foreign riders with them, but they would catch me and I would become part of their group. What did those two Danish words I learned really mean? Was I consigning myself to some future obligation I may not be eager to fulfill? How could they keep catching me from behind without my ever passing them?
Dropping off the back as I tired, I had no answers to these questions. As the day wore on they caught, absorbed, and dropped a few more times. I finally decided that they would hammer on ahead, hide in the bushes, and then wait for the stupid American on the kid's bike to pass them before they would remount and ride off to help their poor retarded stepchild. Clearly I had been adopted by a group of hammerhead Danish mutes. This was not very high on my list of PBP goals to accomplish, but it was a lot of fun.
Between repeated Danish captures and other fun Italian, French, German, and even a few Anglo riders I rode mostly through that first evening. Word throughout the riders was that Loudeac would be the best place to rest. Being a professional at sleep deprivation, that seemed all right by me, and after many photo opportunities and stops for baguettes and coffee along the road, I finally stopped there at about 2 a.m. on Wednesday. Surprisingly, they were able to find me a cot to sleep in at the designated area at the control. Three tries later, they actually found me a cot that was empty. Fifteen minutes later I was serenaded to sleeplessness by the sounds of multilingual vomiting. First one would start, and after copious coughing and hacking followed by gut expulsion, another would begin. As there was about half of an inch between cots, I was fascinated at imagining just where the outflow was going. When the officials came to wake me one and one half hours later (at my request) I was still awake, and already dressed. I made a mental note to never stop at Loudeac for rest again. I didn't eat breakfast there, just hopped on my bike, drank my tasteless energy drinks, and pedaled off for Carhaix.
Carhaix was a much better control, and I would consider sleeping there in the future. Frankly, the side of the road would suit me just fine as it apparently did many another cyclist, but I am substantially less fastidious than most. There were a few climbs between Loudeac and Carhaix, but nothing seemed really difficult. Stopping for coffee on the side of the road when need be, eating cheese and bread, it all seemed idyllic to me in my foggy state. At Carhaix I stopped to eat a real meal, mostly consisting of carrot salad, cabbage salad, bread, and more cheese. Being a vegetarian in rural France wasn't difficult, but it was a little boring at the controls. At least their soup was good and without viand.
As I caught on to a group or two between Carhaix and Brest, someone remarked that we would be in plenty of time before the control closed. I innocently asked them which control they meant. "Brest, of course!" was the surprised reply. "You mean they close it today?" I asked very surprised. Apparently, reading the PBP instruction materials would have been a good idea. Do you remember me mentioning that earlier in this story? I certainly didn't remember to do it. Apparently, one has to arrive in Brest by a certain time. I just pedaled along happily, no route sheet in hand, figuring I'd follow the signs and everyone else. Who cares about times anyway? At least I had my bicycle.
Cruising into Brest I knew I was growing fatigued. I'd ridden with a couple of British Columbian Randonneurs most of the way, until I lost them on the rollers between the large hill (called mountain in France) and the coast. Hey, those of used to Santa Cruz may not be good at climbing, but at least we know a real mountain when we see one. My pace had been stronger than I would like, but the lines at the Brest control for food and drink were so long that I decided to press on. It was a beautiful day. The sun was out, people were sunbathing on the beaches, it was far too lovely to spend indoors waiting in line.
I became a little confused departing Brest, and was too stupid to realize this was the beginning of my running out of blood glycogen. The bonk was beginning to hit me. I spun the pedals as my mental capacity diminished by the minute. Luckily, my paltry navigational skills were not the first abilities to depart. I stayed on the route, and made it to the last decent sized town before the major climb between Brest and the northern French countryside. I pulled off at a likely looking café, dismounted, and approached.
"C'est ferme" said a voice behind me. I turned and saw a young woman and a young man. They looked at me curiously after she had spoken. "Closed" she repeated, this time in English. I stared dumbly, knowing how to say "Merci beaucoup" but unable to pull my swollen tongue away from the roof of my mouth. "If you are hungry, I will make you a sandwich. Please come with us?" she said, again in English. I pried my tongue loose, thanked her in French, and indicated I would continue further into town looking for food and water. So much for the French being unfriendly!
In the central plaza I found several places open, and there in the middle of the courtyard I filled up on pizza bread and pomme frites (what we call "French Fries", actually a Belgian invention) served in the traditional manner, with mayonnaise. We are talking very large, heaping plates here. As it was a slow afternoon, I attracted a few of the other store owners in the area to my table to question me politely and examine my bicycle. Between stuffing my face and drinking huge amounts of water, I did politely mumble a few brief explanations.
Filled up and satisfied, I headed back toward Carhaix. There's nothing like a warm day, a full stomach, and a couple of days without sleep to help a cyclist rest. The only problem was that I was riding my bicycle uphill. As I faded and my eyelids kept shutting, I realized this would never do. A small town loomed atop the next hill, and I summoned all my willpower to keep me awake until I reached it.
The town was indeed small. I don't recall a road sign on entering it, but then again I was hypoglycemic, tired, and stupid. I stopped at the first bar I saw. I dropped my bike against the window, stumbled inside, and requested a grand coffee noir. An old Breton at the bar turned to stare at me. He seemed to be well in his cups, but maybe it was just me. He tried to talk to me, but I could only grasp a word here and there. He gesticulated, pointed, grabbed me, and made quite a ruckus in the bar. As my coffee was brought, replete with four sugar cubes on the side, he continued on with the other bar patrons. They couldn't get enough of me, despite the fact I had little idea of what was going on, other than the fact I was glad the attention was keeping me awake. I never put sugar in my coffee, but I used all four cubes in that bar. Soon they started to make sense to me. They knew I was doing PBP, they knew I was bonking, and they wanted to get me fixed up and back on the road right now. When I left that bar I was fully hydrated, fueled, and wired for sound. Hot stimulants and simple sugars do wonders. That was the lowest point of my entire ride, and in some ways the highest. People who I didn't know and couldn't understand had pitched together to help a falling apart cyclist, because that's an easy thing to understand and they love it.
I cruised up and over the rise to Carhaix happy as a lark, whistling and literally dancing on the pedals. People would pull their cars over to the side of the road and cheer as I went by. Little children pressed their faces to the windows of the vehicles they were parked in and stared in wonder at my passing while their parents clapped. I had more offers of water and food than I could possibly accept.
Climbing to the crest I caught up with a German cyclist who was apparently experiencing knee difficulties. After four surgeries myself, I could be appropriately sympathetic. We took each other's photos, and pressed on. I blasted through the Carhaix control, checking in and leaving in short order. I was feeling good and wanted to be on the road. A rider from Colorado and I road along together, sharing jokes and ride experiences as the sun set. Loudeac was a short stop for me as well. I will not willingly subject myself to a longer stop there again. Keeping moving as it grew colder worked well for me, and I didn't even put on my jacket as midnight approached.
For a time I rode along with Alpo, a Finnish rider on a push-bike. A push-bike may be called a "scooter" by the uninitiated, but it is a very fancy scooter indeed. There are no pedals, a low platform, and one progresses by pushing off along the ground. I asked Alpo ("My name is Alpo, I like dog food, and I chase bikes!" he told me) how he did it, and he told me "Three pushes left, stand, three pushes right, stand." I asked how he handled the hills, and he said "Three pushes left, stand, three pushes right, stand, only much faster!" On the downhill, he and I passed everyone else we came across. He would tuck in behind his handlebar, and he was so low to the ground it was everything I could do to stay with him.
Reaching Tinteniac, I decided to really rest. This was a much better control for my purposes. A real bed, a cold shower, and plenty of food. After about two hours or so I was on my way and feeling as good as I did at the start. The weather remained beautiful, and I caught up with John and Tim from the DBC. John speaks French quite well, and both he and Tim are quite good riders. They are both more competitive than I, and at a stop discussed the possibilities of beating each other with bats instead of subjecting themselves to this ride. While the notion was humorous, I really didn't get it until I rode along with them for a bit. They set a tremendous pace, and I was glad for the help, but I missed stopping at the various roadside amenities that were offered.
Families, neighborhoods, and sometimes it seemed entire villages turned out to greet the PBP riders. There were children with billboard menus, tables laden with treats, water and coffee, in some places there was even musical entertainment and dancing. All this was freely offered to the riders by the farms and communities we passed through. My lazy influence may have been partially to blame, but we ended up stopping at enough of these affairs that by the time noon rolled around we were too full to either stop or pedal very decently any longer. Pedal we did, though, and I ended up soon coming upon Ulli.
During the prologue I had ridden for a time with a German woman on a Birdy. For those unfamiliar, this is a rather unusual variety of folding bike, though it is available here in the States. I found out from her that her husband had ridden a Birdy up through his 400K brevet, but it had catastrophically failed on his 600K brevet, and so he had given up the thought of doing PBP on a folding bike. He and I had quite a German/English conversation about the virtues of various bicycles, folders, and treadle machines. He told me how difficult the French were to ride with, and when we came upon two French riders I asked them to join us as more of an experiment than anything else. The first rider I approached spoke rapid French to me, shook his head negatively, pointed to his knee, and pulled off to the side. I took this entire performance to mean "No thanks" in English. Ulli just looked at me and told me, essentially, that this proved his point. The French are weird.
Interestingly, the other Frenchman did end up joining us. He spoke no English, but the few words of French I knew and our common goal seemed to be enough. Ulli went along with our new group of three happily enough, but apparently with a bit of disdain. When we caught an Italian rider and I invited him along - thank you for your rudimentary education in your language, Fabrizio - Ulli seemed to almost glower, but took his turn at the front nonetheless. By and by we caught a slower paceline, I invited them to join in with what few various foreign words I knew, but received no response. As we passed, one rider jumped on and joined our rotation. Every time I tried to talk to him he shook his head vigorously in a negative fashion. Was this an escaped mental patient, a rider with sleep deprivation issues so tremendous that he was unsafe to ride with, or simply a crazed PBP rider with head shaking problems? I was able to position myself directly behind him to examine his kit and his bike, and soon found several national symbols that identified him as Bulgarian.
Here was the answer to the world peace, in a paceline, in the middle of the afternoon in rural France on a Thursday. We had a German, an Italian, a Frenchman, an American, and a Bulgarian. We couldn't carry on even the beginning of a conversation with each other. One of us refused to make any audible noises whatsoever. We were all working toward a common goal, we all got along, and we all passed the other groups working together but isolated by nationality. The United Nations doesn't need committees and conferences, they need bike rides. I've seen it and it works.
Somehow I got ahead of them climbing through one of the beautiful forest preserves, and then cruised through farm country. On the left hand side of the road I saw a large display set up expressly for PBP, and thought it would be an appropriate opportunity for another photo shoot. There were two other cyclists stopped there, so I dropped my bike on the edge of the field and attempted to leap the irrigation canal in my cycling shoes. I made it, mostly, and preserved what little of my dignity I had carried for the past fifty some odd hours. Clambering up the bank, I greeted the two men in French, but swiftly learned they were German. In a mixture of German and English we related stories, took pictures, and were soon greeted by some Frenchman who apparently owned the property.
Jean-Marie was not upset with us. Far from it. He absolutely insisted on taking each of our cameras and taking photos of us himself, after which he used his own camera to record us. He then blithely informed us that we were coming to his house for tea. I began to object, insisting that while his hospitality was wonderful, I really wanted to start riding again. He leapt across the drainage ditch, picked up my bike, and ran off toward his house. Hubert, one of the Germans, told me "He really wants us to go." I looked at the two Germans, shrugged my shoulders, and said "I guess I'm going to tea." Off we all trooped to high tea.
This wasn't simply a cuppa, oh no. There were cakes, fruits, breads, fruit juices, and excellent tea. When I casually remarked on how great the produce looked in this part of France, Jean-Marie produced a bowl of tomatoes from his garden. How could I refuse? As a true Davisite, I fancy myself quite the tomato connoisseur. Jean-Marie's were excellent, but I limited myself to four. We talked about the ride, the countryside, and how everything was going. It turns out that he was a course official, not only in charge of the Mortagne Au Perche control but an additional 200 kilometers of route as well. Those lights I kept seeing at night? People were indeed following us, as they did all riders out at night. They were not to interfere, but to monitor. As we had our tea, numerous drivers came and went from his kitchen with reports, questions, and suggestions. He managed it all, and entertained us as well. I did disappoint him by refusing to have a drink. The food, tea, and juice were great. I was afraid if I had something alcoholic I would get too comfortable and just go to sleep. We exchanged email addresses, I got to see pictures of his daughter's wedding, and we parted quite happily after an hour or so.
Back on the road I took my leave of Johnny and Hubert, the two German riders, and went on up to Montagne Au Perche. I had no need to linger there for food and drink, as I was now quite satiated. In the late afternoon sun I made for Nogent Le Roi, the final control before the finish. I caught on to Lucas and Jessica for a bit on their classic Peugot tandem. They had apparently overslept at a control, and decided just to ride back to the start rather than continue. They were in good spirits, as was Kevin on his single. Kevin runs the brevet series out of San Luis Obispo, and has just about the best randonneur attitude of anyone I have met. He was having a great time, enjoying his ride, the country, the people he met, and his whole darn life. If there is anyone more upbeat than him, they must be on some serious medication. He was high on bicycles, and it was infectious. I had a great time riding and taking pictures with them, but finally left as I decided I would finish that night after all. I was too close to want to take another extended nap.
Before that last control, however, the need for dinner raised its ravenous head. I found a hotel and swiftly ordered up a wonderful meal and several rounds of coffee. A group of three French riders that I had passed only a bit before pulled in behind me and ordered as well. Between them and a young man at the bar any language difficulties in this small town were quickly resolved. As darkness fell we rolled on to the final control, and felt warm and healthy. It was odd, but at this point I think I felt better than at any other point in the ride. I was used to the bike, and after over sixty hours I should have been. I had enough food and water in me. There was no danger of doing without caffeine, my drug of choice, and the only sore spot I had developed was a bruise on my left hip that wasn't going to get any worse as far as I could tell. I was feeling so good that I decided to catch on to a group with a fast tandem that I saw up ahead.
When I caught them, I found Roland again. He was safely ensconced on Rich and Mark's wheel, two DBC riders from Sacramento that were setting a blistering pace. Roland, however, had seen his physical problems migrate from his knee to his voice box. This was good fortune indeed. He and I have always bantered back and forth, but now every time he tried to answer me, all I had to do was turn around to the group and ask "Does anyone else hear that croaking? Are there a lot of toads in France this time of year?" Roland can sure use a lot of expletives for a peaceful hippy-type guy from Bolinas.
Our group powered over the short climbs on the way to the finish, and then managed to find it's way through the multitude of turns in the suburbs on the way to the finish. Even at one a.m., there were people out in the town that would clap and point and help us on to the finish. It was truly amazing and gratifying.
A big dinner, photos, and a celebratory drink followed our official signing in. I then remounted and rode to my hotel room for a real shower and real sleep in a real bed. Friday morning my buddy's fiancé knocked on the door to inquire after her intended. I told her he was still out on the course, as I had seen him yesterday afternoon, and still seemed interested her after over one thousand kilometers. I thought it would still be several hours before his return, but I would be happy to give her details after I really woke up and had some coffee. Did I mention I really like coffee?
I entered the breakfast room to begin my feeding frenzy and caffeine dosage, when what should I see in the middle of the room but a wicker basket with a Sponge Bob Square Pants bandana sticking out of it? There could not be two of these in all of France. It had to be mine. I had no idea how it happened, but I picked it up and pocketed it. Later I was to learn that Stacy from Colorado had found it in on the road, recognized it, and picked it up. When she ended up abandoning the ride, her friends blamed it on the extra weight of my bandana. She refused to surrender it, however, and carried it all the way back to the hotel where she lost it in her tiredness and confusion. I don't know who put it in the breakfast room, but it was just another one of those acts of serendipity that it found its way back to me.
Celebrating the ride at the finish line with bottles of wine, cheese, grapes and bread was only fitting as we watched the last riders complete PBP 2003. We were giddy, happy, and ready to eat for days on end. The crowds screaming and clapping as the final cyclists came into the gymnasium echoed our feelings, and expressed them more eloquently than we were able to. One rider crossed the finish line and had to be helped off his bike. Others finished, dismounted, and then were helped to the check-in. Most finished happily, cheering along with the crowd and ready to party. Sleep came easily that night, and the next day I was on an airplane back to San Francisco. I was leaving PBP.
The emotions, the riding, and the people are something that won't leave me. Paris-Brest-Paris was an amazing experience. It wasn't just for the riders. Everyone it touched, and everyone that participated, shared in the energy, the joy, and the togetherness that the bicycle brings. Politics, war, economics, and personalities all took a back seat to celebrating human power, courage, and the velomachine. Many more thousands of people enjoyed this event than the cyclists themselves. One doesn't need to ride PBP to go there and have a great time. Whether it is curiosity about France, an interest in bicycles, or just the opportunity to be part of some grand adventure, there are plenty of ways to be involved with PBP. Riding the event or not, everyone should consider the next PBP as a once in a lifetime chance at a celebration of greatness that transcends the barriers we so normally consider formidable. If this is not a sufficient lure, did I mention they have great coffee?
-Paul "Riding For Caffeine, Sometimes In The Right Places" Guttenberg