2003 > Paris-Brest-Paris > Don's Report
Four Days in August: Adventures of a PBP Rookie
"90 hours to ride, 90 days to write the trip report"
August 18, 2003 D/3/750 - Team Bikeaholics rides Paris-Brest-Paris Join Don Bennett (firstname.lastname@example.org) at 10pm in St. Quentin en Yvelines, just outside of Paris, for an express tour of the Normandy and Brittany regions of France. We'll stop every 50 miles or so, and should make it back to Paris by about midday Friday. Those of you who wish to minimize your night riding can wait until 5am Tuesday to start. Any riders in a real hurry can make arrangements to start at 8pm. Pre-registration required.
Stats: Distance: 770 mi Climbing: 35,000 ft Elapsed time: 89:32 Weather: perfect - 60-82F daytime, no rain Bike: no mechanical problems; Guts: no stomach problems at all; Lodging: Off-site low-rent dorm room wasn't worth it; Date by which I rode my next 770mi: Nov. 29
Every four years, thousands of cyclists from around the world meet in Paris to participate in that rolling block-party commonly known as Paris-Brest-Paris. The atmosphere is festive, but the goal is serious. This year, 4000 randonneurs stepped up to the challenge of riding 750 miles in 90 hours or less. (3.75 days)
Thousands of French people gave truly amazing support and encouragement as the riders attempted to achieve a victory of the spirit over the flesh. (Others might say a triumph of willpower over common sense :-)).
Anyone who has ridden with me knows that I find a ride incomplete without stops for photo-ops, coffee, lunch or basking on a sunny wall. In short, I don't like to be rushed. So what would inspire me to attempt such a ride?
Every so often, you have to push yourself right up to the edge to find out just where the edges are. The longer brevets such as Paris-Brest-Paris strip away the comforts and conveniences of everyday life and let you find out just what you can accomplish under extreme circumstances. Paris-Brest-Paris alone lets you do this in the company of thousands of other riders. You also get a personalized medal.
A brevet is not a race. The vast majority of riders are competing against their own expectations rather than each other. My goal was simple: to achieve a sub-ninety hour finish, while maximizing stops for food, photo-ops, and sleep. Little did I know just how close to that 90 hour time limit I would be...
What path did I take to reach the starting line at the Gymnase des Droits le L'Homme in St. Quentin en Yvelines?
I first toyed with the idea of doing PBP in 1999. My downfall that year turned out to be a viciously hot day on the date of the 400k combined with lack of sensible pacing in the morning. At 10:30pm, the BikeVan went by and Lee Mitchell asked me how it was going. The feelings of mild nausea I had felt for most of the day combined with longings for my prepaid hotel room to weaken my resolve. It would be hours before I would see another SAG, so I made a snap decision to pull the plug.
In 2000, I once again DNF'ed on a 400k brevet that followed the same route. Determined to find out if in fact I could actually finish a 400k and ride long into the night, I planned to ride the first loop of the 600k brevet a few weeks later. I thought the brevet would be organized as a 400k loop followed by a 200k loop. In reality, the route was split into a 500k loop followed by a 100k loop. By the time I finished 500k, it would have been a shame not to go ahead and finish the entire ride. That's how I finished a 600k brevet before ever finishing a 400k.
In the years that followed, I kept hearing stories about PBP:
"No matter how fast you ride, there are always a hundred other riders going the same pace" "The ride has fantastic support from the French people" "It's one big rolling block party"
I arrived in France on the Wednesday before the ride, toward the end of a record-setting heat wave. If the ride had been scheduled one week earlier, the title of this report might well have been: "Bicycles Bake in Brittany". We lucked out, and by the time the ride actually started, temperatures had cooled to the ideal range for someone who trains in the San Francisco Bay Area. (60-82F)
One piece of advice from Mark Wooldridge on the Randon list didn't survive my arrival in France. Mark said: "You're in Paris, it's exciting, and you don't want to sleep! You'll eventually pay for that, though the hallucinations were fun while they lasted..."
Advice like that sounds easy when reading it on your computer at home. However, upon arriving in France with lots of free time and no responsibilities, it proved to be a bit more difficult. Three consecutive nights of getting back to my hotel between midnight and 1am after hanging out with friends and playing tourist all day were beginning to take their toll.
I was also starting to get nervous about my preparation. I had only done one ride over 120mi since mid-May. That wasn't the plan, I just kept DNFing anything longer for one reason or another. My total mileage was OK, but would the lack of longer rides come back to haunt me?
Lisa apparently had some concerns of her own; she mentioned a dream in which a canoeing section had been unexpectedly added to make the ride more challenging.
Any stories told after the start of the actual ride not captured on my camera may or may not bear a resemblance to events that actually occured and people actually encountered.
Monday/Tuesday: Guyancourt -> Loudeac:
At around 7:30pm, I wandered over to the start area to watch the 8pm departure of the fast riders.
After two hours of waiting in the various holding areas, by 10:30pm it was time to roll! The bagpipes were playing, the crowds were cheering, and we were off. Bon courage! Bon route! For the first 10km, the streets were packed with crowds cheering us on our way. Even into the early morning hours, dozens of people would gather on the corners of every town and village to cheer the passing riders.
After an hour or so, Michael & Susan passed me. I rode with them quite a bit during the brevet series this year and was comfortable with their pace, so I dropped in behind them and used them as pacers for most of the morning hours. The fringes of Susan's hair took on an eerie red glow from the light of hundreds of red taillights.
For the first 100 miles, the ride reminded me of the start of the Davis Double - lots of riders riding in close quarters and lots of pace lines. Although I saw no crashes, a surprising number of riders were making dangerous lane changes that verged on the reckless.
Just as the sky was starting to lighten up a bit, I hooked up with the rest of the Team Bikeaholics 90hr contingent: Team Captain Lisa, Morale Officer Ken, and Team Timekeeper Ron.
Sitting in the first official control at Villaines la Juhel, I passed through a brief mental fog. I was wearing bike clothes, so I must be on a bike ride, but for a few moments I couldn't quite place exactly where I was. Ah yes... this is France ... so this must be ... Paris-Brest-Paris!
Each town from Villaines to Fougeres was filled with supportive people. The town of Gorron set up its own unofficial full-service rest stop. About 5 minutes after leaving Gorron, I hit the bottom of my Camelbak. I didn't have enough water to reach Fougeres, so I was going to have to rely upon the help of one of those impromptu aid stations. Sure enough, not too far down the road I found a family giving away juice, coffee, and some really wonderful gateau from a table they had set up at the side of the road.
The stretch of road from Fougeres to Tinteniac is 36 miles of rolling hills. They shouldn't have been too hard, but they trashed me. I must not have been eating properly, because I found myself in a strange square wave energy pattern: for 10 minutes, I'd feel great; for another 10 minutes, I'd feel weak and powerless. This went on for about an hour, until suddenly the red warning indicators came on:
RED ALERT. LEFT KNEE FAILURE IMMINENT. IMMEDIATE FULL STOP.
This was really serious. I didn't quite know what to think. I had only ridden 200 miles, how could this be happening??? My knees hadn't bothered me for years, but this felt like it could mean the end of the ride.
After two ibuprofen and 10 minutes of gingerly limping around, the knee tentatively consented to continued forward progress. Before moving down the road, an inspection of the seat post revealed that the seat was about 1/8" lower than it should have been, no doubt due to poor reassembly by a tired and jet-lagged mechanic.
I continued down the road at a gentle pace. By the time I reached the control at Tinteniac, the left knee was flashing only an occasional yellow warning light, and after a few hours it consented to quietly finish the ride. If only all my other body parts had been so amenable...
Shortly before midnight, I arrived in Loudeac. I grabbed my drop bag and rode over to the dorm. Climbing the stairs to my 4th floor dormitory accommodations, sleeping on the ground under a space blanket was starting to look pretty good. In addition, it would have been a kindness to the other people with whom I shared the dorm. Did I mention that there were no doors in the doorways? After I had been asleep for an hour or so, someone came to my doorway and asked me to roll over - the sound of my snoring was echoing up and down the hallway and keeping people awake.
Wednesday: Loudeac -> Loudeac: The Brittany Loop
This was my favorite day of the entire ride. After leaving Loudeac, the day started on a most wonderful footing when upon entering the first village, a cluster of bicycles leaning against a wall marked the location of a bakery that had just opened. Stopping to investigate, I discovered that the boulanger had just taken fresh gateau au chocolat out of the oven, where it was being swarmed over by hungry cyclists. The gateau was being rationed, and I purchased my full allotment. It was good enough to make the entire trip to France worthwhile!
I saw Elaine crashed out sleeping on the side of the road, the first rider from the 84hr start group that I recognized. I saw Elaine pass me. I said hi to Elaine, but I don't think she heard me. About this time, I saw a number of the faster DBC riders starting back on their return trip. [Note: Elaine says that wasn't her at all. That would certainly explain why she didn't respond to "Hi Elaine!"]
Entering the control at Carhaix, there was a large handwritten cardboard sign on the wall with the train schedule back to Paris. It seemed to me that they were making it just a little too easy to bail out! When I saw Elaine at the Carhaix control, she seemed much more personable; I guess she just needed some breakfast and coffee. [I did talk to a woman I thought was Elaine here, but maybe it was someone I only thought I knew...]
Leaving Carhaix, Bill Bryant advised me not to stop until I reached Sizun. Fat chance.
I rode with Evelyn for a little while out of Carhaix. She dropped me as soon as we started to climb. I had been carrying some little yellow pills with me for a day and a half, and was about to find out if they would really work. One Vivarin tablet after twelve weeks of abstinence from caffeine was an amazing thing: I rocketed up Roc Trevesal!
The view from the top of Roc Trevesal was the best of the entire trip. At the top of the Roc, you're crossing a ridgeline with panoramic views to the north and south. I made ample use of the photo-op. A party-like mood ensued from the top of the Roc down into Sizun, as I greeted a number of familiar faces from the Davis Bike Club who were already on their return trip.
Sizun was a great little village to stop in for a bite to eat, to hang out, and to watch the passing cyclists. There were several dining establishments on the town square, but be careful: Don't take a sandwich from the shop across the street and then park yourself at a sidewalk table in front of the bar. Even though I didn't really understand her French, I understood the message the waitress was trying to communicate. She seemed less than pleased that I was sitting at one of her tables but hadn't purchased anything from the bar. I ordered a sandwich and a drink which seemed to smooth things over.
As soon as I reached Brest, I knew the ride was in the bag. Things were going fine and hauling my butt back to Paris was a mere detail.
Leaving Brest, I jumped on the tail of a group of Dutch and Norwegian riders. We sailed all the way back to Sizun, where I waved au revoir to my riding companions and stopped again for a dinner break.
Sunset from the top of the Roc was beautiful, but the lengthening shadows reminded me that perhaps I should focus a little less on taking pictures and a little more on moving down the road.
I arrived back in Carhaix just as Ken & Lisa were leaving. Lisa looked pretty happy, but Ken didn't seem particularly cheerful. I made a sad face when it became evident that Lisa didn't want to hang out at the control together for a while. I must have looked truly forlorn, as she gave me sympathetic hug. However, my request for a goodnight kiss was rebuffed with the comment that I smelled too bad.
If this had been a regular brevet, it would have been a long, lonely slog through the night to the next control; However, this was Paris-Brest-Paris. After miles of riding on small backroads leaving Carhaix, I was for the first time beginning to have serious doubts as to whether or not I was still on course. I then stumbled upon a French version of Brigadoon. Every four years, an Italian family appears out of the mist for a single day near the village of Kerdou'ch along an otherwise deserted roadside to serve coffee and snacks to grateful and confused cyclists.
Fortified with sugar and caffeine, I continued down the road to the next impromptu stop. At 4am, I arrived at le Terais San Hubert where the doors were open around the clock to support the overnight cycling crowd. After a bowl of soup, it was over the last few hills before dropping back down into the bright lights of Loudeac.
Back in Loudeac, it was a slog back up the 4 flights of stairs, grumble grumble grumble, a short nap, and a so-called shower. Back down the stairs. Ride back to the control, wearing my duffel bag as a backpack. Drop the drop bag, and onward!
Thursday: Loudeac -> Mortagne au Perche
Lunchtime. It can't be far to Tinteniac, but I've got to eat now. I've stopped at the top of a hill to sit and eat a sandwich that I've been carrying I-have-no-idea how long. If only I had an Orangina. Tiring of telling passing riders that I'm OK, I continue the last few miles to Tinteniac.
Leaving Tinteniac, I was determined to catch up to Osman and Judy on their tandem, convinced they had left only minutes before I did. I was surfing over the rollers, but I couldn't pull them in. Suddenly, all became clear: the reason I couldn't catch them was that I left the control before they did. As they zipped by, I didn't have the energy to drop in behind them as they passed, having blown everything I had to spare trying to "catch up".
Leaving Fougeres, another shortfall with my planning was becoming painfully evident: the saddle/shorts/ointment/butt combination that had worked so well for distances up to 600k was now asking "Are we there yet?" with every pedal stroke. Application of ointment no longer helped. I dreamed of the gel saddle cover I once owned that made it feel as if I were sitting on a bowl of Jello. After each stop, my butt would take 5 or 10 minutes to re-adapt to life on the saddle.
Just out of Fougeres, a crowd of cyclists on the right marked the location of the ROUGE Paul "Postcard Control". Paul was one of the many supportive French people serving the passing riders. Paul collects postcards from around the world, so he asked each rider who stopped to send him one. I had some wonderful rice pudding, and then it was back on the saddle again. [And eventually sent him a Palo Alto postcard]
The road from Villaines to Mortagne was magical. Riding into the night for the final time, I started with Evelyn across the darkened landscape. The road started a gentle climb; my mood became dream-like. At the of the rise was an open plain with Mars shining in the sky above us. A small village appeared in the distance, and then in the village there was an all-night bar. Dozens of bicycles were parked outside. The bar was packed with riders; I had a hot chocolate and a sandwich. A little quick arithmetic showed that we really needed to get out butts in gear if we were going to make the cutoff at Mortagne. Leaving the bar, we hammered across the plain and soon came to a screaming descent, one where the NiteHawk finally paid off.
The NiteHawk was starting to feel pretty heavy on my head, so I eventually stopped and took it off my helmet. Somewhere back up the hill I had just come down, I could hear the sound of an ambulance in the distance.
Checking into the control at Mortagne, I meant to nap for 45 minutes, grab some breakfast, and head on down the road.
Friday: Mortagne au Perche -> Guyancourt
"Perhaps the reason things don't seem to be going according
Disaster. My "Shake Awake", a vibrating alarm I had planned to use to wake me when napping at controls, was on the fritz. I was wearing every layer of clothing I had with me, and the accumulated sweat caused the "Shake Awake" to short out. I had armed a couple of beeping devices to wake myself up, but neither was powerful enough to overcome my sleep deficit. Lacking a device with the nuclear-strength alarm of my Nokia cell phone, I overslept by almost an hour.
After grabbing a quick breakfast, I got back on the bike to start the trek to Nogent le Roi. As I started to turn the pedals, I felt about as lively as road kill. As I crept up the first hill out of Mortagne, I realized I had another serious problem: I could just barely hold my head up high enough to see where I was going. I had heard of Shermer's neck before, but this was the first time I had been one of its victims.
A quick assessment of the situation: I've ridden over 1000km. It's only ~80km to the next control and ~140km to the finish. However, I can't hold my head up and I can barely turn the pedals. Each hill out of Mortagne is a struggle; I don't remember it being like this way back on Tuesday morning!
A stark realization comes to me: I've come all the way to France to do this ride that has been the focus of my training all year, but I'm creeping down the highway too slowly to make it to the next control before the time cutoff. I'm not going to make it.
Accepting that I was not going to make it filled me with a strange serenity. I had come too far to simply stop, so I just kept turning the pedals and enjoyed the passing countryside.
To improve the situation a little bit, I took off my helmet when climbing. Many of the Europeans didn't use a helmet at all, so I figured that I could at least take the weight off my head when climbing.
Before the ride, I had a chance meeting with Craig Wilson. We talked about the 2001 Gold Rush Randonnee, and discussed solutions he had tried for Shermer's neck. After trying a variety of things, he found that the only thing that worked for him was rotating the handlebars up so he could sit in a more upright position. (Thanks for the tip!) As a Gold Rush SAG driver, I remembered some of the more visible failures, like taping a large plastic jug under his chin.
I found that rotating the handlebars all the way made braking a little too weird for me, but a partial rotation that allowed me to operate the brakes and shifters in a near-normal manner took just enough load off my neck.
Riding through fields and forests at the only pace I was capable of, I accepted that I would get back when I got back; all urgency had been drained from my system. PBP had become a grand form of bicycle touring without all of the bothersome stops one usually takes for things like setting up camp and sleeping.
After riding for about 45 minutes, my body finally started to kick in with a little bit of real power. About that time, Lulu and Charlie from New Jersey passed me at a pace that I could just hang on to. I jumped on behind them and sucked wheel for dear life. They pulled me about half the remaining distance to Nogent, until they had to stop for coffee. At that point, I hooked up with a couple of other guys and we rode together until we were about 2 miles out of Nogent. They tired and dropped back, leaving me to hammer the final couple of miles into the control. Time: 11:57am, which by my calculations left me 3 minutes to spare. [Really, 18 min. - I was unsure of my start group until months later]
After my close encounter with the time clock, did I learn my lesson and get through the control at Nogent-le-Roi any faster? Nooooo! I spent some time in First Aid trying to get a neck support that I had seen a few people walking around with. While waiting, I entertained the worker's kids with with my standard litany of tricks. It seemed they had never seen anyone spin a cafeteria tray on their finger before. The First Aid staff was busy with more serious cases and the wait was beginning to endanger my finish, so I opted to continue down the road without supplemental neck support.
Upon entering Greater St. Quentin, I was quite surprised to see Evelyn riding the other direction. She left Nogent about the time I arrived, and I was surprised she was already on the way back to her hotel. The end must be closer than I thought! I said hi to her, but she ignored me for some reason.
In the final half kilometer to the finish, I made a wrong turn! I followed another rider too far around a traffic circle. He was just a cyclist on his way home, not a PBP rider! He turned me around and pointed me back toward the gym, and it didn't delay me by more than a few minutes.
After checking in at the finish, I called Debbie with my quick ride summary: I'm exhausted, my feet hurt, my butt is chaffed, I can't hold my head up; Yeah, I had a great time!
Looking back on it, several parts of the ride have a certain dream-like quality.
Paris-Brest-Paris has a special appeal above and beyond any other 1200km brevet (he says never having done any other): it is an incredibly powerful feeling to be in the company of 4000 other riders being cheered by thousands of spectators who think that riding 1200km is a perfectly fine thing to set out to do.
PBP rookie DON BENNETT, upon returning from Paris, spent 3 weeks suffering from the cold of the decade just when he was beginning to think that he was invincible. He still gets a silly grin on his face when he thinks back to those days in August.
Team Captain LISA ANTONINO and Morale Officer KEN STRAUB finished their second PBP, this time on singles. Immediately following the ride, Lisa was the victim of some sort of serious French virus, while Ken's continued existence has only been confirmed by a handful of electronic communications.
KENNETH HOLLOWAY, CRAIG ROBERTSON, and TODD TEACHOUT rode Audax-style with a small group and finished over a day before Don. They ignored Don's suggestion for bonus miles, opting instead to drink beer and watch riders come in. Don's suggestion: After finishing, ride the course in reverse and see how many controls they could reach while they are still open to the 90hr group.
After touring in France for a month in record-setting heat, the cool weather of PBP came as a welcome relief to ELAINE ASTRUE.
PAUL GUTTENBERG had more adventures getting to the starting line than on the ride. You can read about them on the Team Bikeaholics web site.
RON PORAT won the "Best Use of Technology" award for tracking his friends en route by calling home on his GSM cell phone and having reports relayed to him from the ACP rider tracking web site.
TOM LAWRENCE caught a virus just before the ride and was unable to finish.
Associate Bikeaholic PAUL RIES finished the ride audax-style with 7 other friends from NYC Audax.
JEAN-PHILIPPE BATTU was granted an honorary membership in Team Bikeaholics when he passed the test for incurable bikeaholics on the web site and demonstrated a propensity for taking pictures during PBP.
Ride officials credited EVELYN BUSCHWITZ with an official finish, aided in part by Don's sighting near the end, in spite of her advanced experiments with sleep deprivation.