1999 > Paris-Brest-Paris > Elaine's Report

Elaine Astrue's 1999 Paris-Brest-Paris Adventure

I finished PBP in the allotted time - 83 hours. I had 84, actually 85 after they gave all the riders an extra hour. It seems no one actually measured the course beforehand, and it was 1250 km, not 1200. (One extra hour doesn't seem sufficient to go 50km does it?) I knew there was no hurry at the end, so really took my time. Throughout the ride, I never pushed or hammered. That was probably one thing that went right. Another thing that went right was being part of the Davis Bike Club. It was like being part of a huge family out there in the French countryside. Seeing people I knew and just exchanging a comment or two gave me a real boost during the ride.

For me, it was not a difficult event in terms of biking, but difficult for other reasons. At the 5 AM start, I feel strong and happy, riding with other Davis people. It is warm, though - no need for a jacket or tights. Large packs of riders form and stay together for a few hours, but by late morning the packs thin out. I am riding by myself when a motorcycle pulls alongside. There are 2 riders and the passenger has a video camera and boom microphone. They stay for a few minutes, interviewing me - I have no idea what for. About 100K out, the spring in my right shift lever breaks. This keeps me from shifting well, or at all in some cases. I struggle with it, hoping it is just loose and will pop back in, for another 200K. It is also very hot and humid, which makes it hard to think straight and slows me down to what feels like a crawl. On the "chip seal" road surface, my rear fender is rattling against the brake and the nosecaps on both shifters are also loose, making a huge racket. Jim Bradbury helps me fix the fender problem (with corn pads!) and I secure the nosecaps with tiny strips of duct tape. Finally, at Fougeres a mechanic at the controle pronounces the lever dead. He installs a replacement lever - 900 FF ($160). This also means losing touch with my odometer, which is integrated with the shifters. Already several hours behind my schedule, I realize PBP might be over for me and think quickly "let's just see how far we can get today". I hope that the course is well marked (which turns out to be the case). Getting lost would be another huge time drain I now could not afford.

Riding out from Fougeres, I meet up with a 50-ish French rider named Serge and we take turns taking pulls (being in front) for about 100 miles. He is a strong rider and I am glad for the company. Conversation is tricky, because I speak very little French and he speaks pretty much no English. His bicycle is a serious machine, but all his other equipment seems very casual - cotton cycling shorts and a pink child's school backpack - probably his daughter's. Serge is a strong confident night rider, despite poor lights - we pass many, many cyclists. Later I imagined he must have been glad for my blazing American lights and Petzl headlamp, which really helped illuminate the many dark descents. It is a great feeling, arriving in Tinteniac at the Controle - I sing out the name. Pressing on, Serge explains that the little town St. Meen le Grand is the place where champagne used at the Tour de France comes from. As we pass through, I joke that it is not very 'grand' after all. We arrive at Loudeac at 2:30 AM, 4 hours behind schedule. Sleeping here was not the plan, but I am exhausted from events of the day. And it is crucial to take a shower ASAP because my clothes are full of salt from sweating in the heat. My skin is seriously irritated and stinging from rubbing against them - like prickly heat rash (this lasts the whole ride). I nap in Loudeac for 1.5 hours. Waking up, organizing my stuff and getting going after that takes a long time and is very difficult.

At this point, I am totally unsure whether I am still in the ride. Because my plan was to ride through the first night, I am now 6.5 hours behind schedule and not feeling very chipper. The fears are irrational, but I can't shake them. The effects of heat exhaustion are still with me from yesterday, and I feel panicked and discouraged. Riding through unfamiliar country far from home, I feel the urge to quit at intervals of about 15 minutes. An experienced Davis rider explains that as long as I reach Brest before the Controle closes, I am OK because after that the closing times are more liberal. We reach Brest around 3 that afternoon, 3 hours before it closes. Heading back, my spirits improve and thoughts of "maybe this is doable" start to replace "I'm doomed" thoughts. We also have a nice tailwind, which tells me that I didn't imagine the difficulty of the reverse direction. There is nothing like a tailwind to put me in a good mood. I am riding with a group that includes Jim Bradbury and the Pierre/Marsha tandem from Davis, and we are pushed up Roc Trevezel. The air is clear, fresh, and finally cool. Near the top I look behind me, and the late afternoon sun is pouring through a mass of clouds. The Brittany landscape spreads out below. Life is finally good.

That evening while riding between Carhaix and Loudeac I have a bad case of heartburn from some soup at the Brest Controle. This is my first ever heartburn experience and it is like being stabbed in the chest repeatedly. I have it for the rest of the ride and for a day afterward. The stomach acid burns my esophagus and it is hard to eat anything or even swallow. And one has to eat constantly on PBP. It is horrible. I can stave it off, though, for short periods of time by eating something non-acidic. My chocolate and mocha energy bars are now useless, so from now on, I eat what I can, whenever I can.

After another shower and 2.5 hour nap in Loudeac, I am back on the bike, enjoying some relatively flat, scenic countryside and the same tailwind as the day before. There is a boulangerie in a town we ride through and lots of cyclists stop. The boulangers are making pastries as fast as they can - they bring out a full, hot tray. I buy 2 or 3, and consume them quickly and directly from the bag on the sidewalk when a well-groomed local woman walks by. With a bemused smile on her face, she says to me, "Bon appetit!"

Despite all the mishaps, some things are great - the landscape is very beautiful. Farms and rolled haystacks. I call out "Bon jour" to many contented cows, goats and sheep. Picturesque towns and rolling green hills. (The only ugly part involves some intense pig and chicken smells while passing some of the farms. Yuk.) We ride through a lot of regional forests on the secondary roads, including the Foret de Rambouillet - very lovely.

The French people are amazing. Bicycle sculptures line the route - I remember one near Nogent leaning against a fence, adorned with brightly-colored paper flowers. Some towns put up banners saying 'Bienvenue Paris-Brest!' People line the roads and cheer you, even when you're not near a Controle. They set up tables with water and lemonade and cake - free. They offer coffee and places to nap at night. One woman was sitting in a chair in her front yard at 2 AM in this little village, watching the riders go by. Young kids hold out their hands for you to slap as you pass. Groups of 2, 3, 4 men stand where the road meets their driveway to nod at you and assess you and wish you "Bonne route!" (good trip). I waved and answered them all because it helped prolong the positive feeling. On my way back, between Fougeres and Villaines (still 200 miles from Paris) I stop to get water from a farmer on the side of the road and he yells for his wife to get it. She brings water from the house and fills my bottle - then looks me in the eye and says quietly "Courage, Madame". It is so simple and direct and sincere - she seems to know what is involved and what is needed to continue. It takes effort not to burst into tears. (The tears were a low blood sugar thing.)

At dusk the third day, I reach Villaines la Juhel. There is a festive atmosphere at the controle - lots of spectators and gendarmes controlling traffic. One of the spectators has a little shepherd puppy - I pet her a little and she crawls into my lap and licks my face! The cafeteria is plastered with handmade posters for PBP by the schoolchildren. I eat a good, big meal and feel much more optimistic. Villaines is only 200K (120 miles) from Paris, and I have 20 hours to get there. Barring another major mechanical or medical breakdown, I realize for the first time that I have hope of making it back to Paris. To get to this point required riding 1000K with only vague hope, and abandoning my plan almost from the very beginning. For most of that time, it was all about surviving.

While eating in Villaines I also see my friends from Sonoma, Donn and Tom, for the first time. We rode the 1998 brevets together, and this year the Fleche Velo in snow, hail and incredible wind. They took the 90 hour start so I have gained 7 hours on their group. It cheers me up a great deal to see them, and also further reassures me about possibly finishing because they are such strong riders and never give up.

The next leg is hilly and dark. We are on a major route between towns but the road is deserted. Deserted, that is, except for many dark, motionless lumps by the side of the road - cyclists sacked out. It is a bizarre sight. A French rider who speaks very little English engages me in conversation, and I am glad for it. His ingenious method is to recite all the English he knows - days of the week, numbers, and so on, in sequence. I correct or prompt him as necessary, and chime in with French equivalents. He stumbles on many of the English weirdnesses, and I try to make fun of the French way of saying eighty - 'quatre-vingt', or 'four twenties'. Not sure the joke comes across. It is easy to lose people in the darkness, which wipes away all distinguishing characteristics. This night, there are almost no taillights to follow. I begin to shiver a little on the many steep descents and begin to lose my nerve a little. After three nights of using mostly a sense of adventure to navigate, I wonder how much longer I can last. It seems to take forever but at 3 AM Mortagne au Perche (80 miles from Paris) is a welcome sight. I eat but decide not to nap there because the end is so close. Unfortunately, after only 4 hours sleep in 72 hours, exhaustion is quietly closing in. I take caffeine tablets but they have no effect, and coffee is out of the question because of the heartburn. From 8-10 AM I don't remember riding at all (asleep at the wheel!), and wake up only when a pack of French riders closes in around me. The leader gets my attention and raises both his hands up to one side of his head, indicating I should consider getting some sleep! After that I go down for a 45 minute nap at the last Controle. In true comfort and luxury on some bleachers in a gym, but it is perfect. When I wake up, I have forgotten I am in France! It takes a while for it all to filter back into my conscious mind.

The last day is a blur - I don't recognize the area from being there a few days earlier. Instead, I hang onto objective reality - the number of kilometers from the last Controle to Paris versus total hours left. Another rider and I had calculated that a certain average speed would do it, and I just keep spot-checking my speedo. The idea of pushing just to get a better time seems really stupid. A man standing by the road in the Foret de Rambouillet calls out "trente-quatre kilometres!" twice. He wants me to understand that I am almost there. A cyclist comes along, points to some houses scattered over rolling pastures and says to me "Paris". It is starting to get more populated, so I take his word for it. The final 15 kms wind indirectly through weird remote Parisian suburbs. We are already way over the total mileage, and the graffiti'd buildings and endless busy boulevards are hard to bear at this point. Every trafffic light is red! By the time I arrive at the finish I am in a foul mood and a bit of a stupor. The Controle is badly-marked, there are people everywhere and a dirt slope to negotiate. I manage to get my card swiped and receive a single dark red rose. It still doesn't sink in that I am done. Everyone wants to hug me or take a picture, and I don't want to be touched. Danny asks me what I want to do and I say "go back to the hotel and get out of these clothes!" I fall asleep on the lawn, waiting for him to come back with the car. Then I fall asleep in the car on the way to the hotel, in the bed after showering, and at the dinner table after eating. Being an ultramarathon cyclist sure is glamorous!

Now that I'm all caught up on sleep, it's hard to be proud of my performance. This spring I did really well on the difficult Davis brevets, but this was not even close to the PBP experience I had wanted. Seems like during the ride, I just went from crisis to crisis. Also, when things go wrong like that at the start of any endurance event, the event gets geometrically harder over time. When multiple things go wrong, they really compete for your limited attention. I knew this when the shifter broke - knew that I had only a wall of difficulty ahead of me. After finishing, I was sure I would never want to do PBP again. But I like ultracycling - and what other goal is there? Maybe 4 years will be long enough to forget the physical pain and the heartache.

And that's what happened.


P.S. Two weeks later I went for a 40-mile ride to Woodside and back - and it seemed really, really short! 

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