Cycling Paris-Brest-Paris 750 miles In 66 Hours
I had ridden Boston-Montreal-Boston, another 750 mile endurance bike ride, and knew I’d have to live "Paris-Brest-Paris” for the next few months. This will make my regular riding more suspect than it was and if you don’t do the long distances like this enough, all your riding suffers a bit. The further you go, the slower you go.
I hadn’t expected to go to France. I couldn’t afford it, so I didn’t “gear up for it”. I rode some fairly local Brevets that were held in South Carolina just for the fun of it. I rode the 200 kilometer ride, the 300 kilometer ride, and the 400 kilometer ride. I thought that would be enough. I had no agenda for longer distance. Upon delivering a new bicycle to a friend of mine, I was talked into riding Paris-Brest-Paris. So, I went from doing one long distance event years ago, to “hurry up and get your act together for the ride of your life”. I didn’t really train for the first, which was Boston-Montreal-Boston. Assault On Mitchell organizer and friend, John Bryan, just called one day and said he had motel reservations and I should join him.
I was actually supposed to complete more qualifying events to even qualify for Paris-Brest-Paris. I talked the American contingency organizer into allowing me to skip the qualifying brevets because of my cycling/racing resume. Long distance cycling is a different game. Sleep deprivation and food are my "Achilles heel".
I took it on as another job. People continuously asked if I was exited to go to France. I don’t like the “highs and lows” that “excitement” can bring. I would like to stay “on an even keel”, just witness what is going on around me, and view myself from a distance while being an active participant at the same time. Besides, I had a bike shop, I had to work hard. I had to stay in some minimal, correct condition. I had to do some long rides in preparation for it. I had to plan the foods that I would eat during the event to make the ride easier or more successful. Regardless, there will be no pre-trip excitement for me, please. I was just going for another bike ride and it doesn’t make any difference if it’s Paris, France or Paris, Texas. However, at the same time, I knew I could not fail. This is a one chance shot. I couldn’t plan on a make-up-test.
If you ever get the chance to ride a bicycle in France, go ahead, study French, and ride the ride of your life. I tell of my experiences and even though I get genuine, positive responses, I know to a degree, it’s like explaining a great movie. We’ve heard the descriptions and adjectives before. I guess it’s best to stay on that “even keel” and occasionally dream of those enchanted lands of which travelers tell stories.
I was warned that the French were rude and did not like Americans. I wasn’t aware of meeting these people, if I did. If you are a cyclist, the French are more accommodating than Americans, by far.
I rode 750 miles of P-B-P plus an additional 150 miles while in France. I never heard a disparaging word from a motorist. The French always passed safely, giving a wide berth in the process.
For the 900 miles I rode in France the litter I saw was 5 empty Marlboro cigarette packs and one that I could not identify.
Paris, itself, may have too much air pollution. The buildings and monuments were being sand-blasted to remove the stains from carbon monoxide. Autos dominate Paris like so many cities, but hardly is there a place with so many cars, where a bicycle is respected more. Often it seemed there were no rules for driving and sometimes no white lines for lanes. It seemed chaotic to drive around the Arc De Triumph. However, as soon as a cyclist entered the scene, there was genuine concern and caution.
I would begin my ride with sleep deprivation. I went out on the streets of Paris the night before Paris-Brest-Paris. I ate well, but I was on my feet too long. We arrived back at our rooms after midnight. I didn’t think much about it as I planned to stay in bed all day after initially waking. I followed my plan but I didn’t expect my room-mates to rise, shower, and pack for their French adventure which was motoring around France. So doors were slamming, snaps snapping, zippers zipping, etc. I can’t remember what all went on but it was very important to them and sleep was out of the question for me.
Paris-Brest-Paris starts at night and you are required to have working lights with spare bulbs, batteries, battery chargers, and/or back-up lights front and rear. Your bike and gear must go through a bicycle inspection by the PBP staff.
You could choose between several start times. One made no sense and was the 86 hour start time and left many hours later than I cared to start. The most popular start time is 10 PM. Starting at 10 PM gives you the most allotted time to finish which is 90 hours. About 3500 riders start at this time.
I chose the 8PM start time which gives you the least allotted time to finish. About 750 registered riders started at this time. My reasoning was, and still is, that, starting at this time, a good cyclist can avoid the early, long waits at the many food stops/check points. The key words here are "check points". You are given a “passport” that will have to be stamped and timed to verify that you indeed were at this point and the time you were there. You are also given a card, just like a credit card, that must be swiped at each check-point. This is another proof/verification that you, indeed, "were there at that time". These check points are to insure the riders are not cutting the course short throughout the ride. There are also “mystery checkpoints” that keep the riders honest. Most checkpoints are noted so that you can have food, clothing, lights or whatever sent ahead. Knowing these points will help you control your resources.
I wanted and expected to sleep during the day of the "start" of Paris-Brest-Paris to start as fresh as possible. With most cycling events that are well thought out, you work hard for weeks to “peak” at the proper time. The last week before the event you rest. I believe this makes you so well rested that sleep is not so necessary but rest and keeping the legs elevated are. Before the Assault on Mount Mitchell 100 plus miles uphill, Bridge to Bridge 100 plus miles uphill, Cross Florida 170 miles, and other ride/races, sleep is out of the question the night before. I’ve roomed with seasoned racers, one seasoned racer many times, and we’ve talked until after midnight before most of them. It isn’t because we’ve nervous or anxious. This is old hat for us.
On the starting line the 750 registered riders, plus a couple hundred renegades, were on the starting line shoulder to shoulder. There were so many people older than I. My grandfathers have been deceased for decades and I realized that I was becoming my own grandpa at 46 years of age. But looking over the riders, I saw my grandfather with his white hair, his smile, and his size. There were so many of these physically fit grandfathers here and they were starting with the faster 80 hour group instead of betting the safer bet with the 90 hour group. I can look back now and see that in a small, unconscious way, I underestimated these strong and fast men.
Minutes before the gun, a bilingual Frenchman I had talked to at sign-in, came up to me asking for my name and for identification. After producing my international passport, he handed me my credit cards I had dropped on the bathroom floor. Out of all these people he found me.
The pack of riders were like a large balloon filled to the max, ready to be released to fly, swirl across the winding hilly roads of the most beautiful country, and fulfill the dreams of any cyclist.
Crowds were all over the start. Families and friends were wishing their loved ones well. The sea of spectators sent us off as though we were in the Tour De France. If I were not so conscious of riding safely, and for the moment, fast, I could have been emotionally overcome.
Miles and miles of crowds were in every beautiful village after beautiful village, and every person in them seemed to be shouting “Bon courage!”, meaning- "good ride!"
Fast we were, as we were more than 25 miles per hour. The sea of riders split and split, until we were a pack of 50 or so to our first checkpoint at about the 88 mile mark.
Montagne au Perche was filled with spectators shouting encouragement. A quick check-in and water fill-up and I was back on the road. I started out slowly and alone but there will always be someone coming along.
Sure enough, I jumped on the rear of about 10 riders. I began having upper back and left arm pain that still haunts me today. The pain would last through the night and until I replaced the pain with more problems.
Somewhere between Villaines la Juhel, 136 miles, and Fourgeres, there was a lone, dark farm-house with shutters opened. Passing this house at about 3:00 AM, a woman shouted from her bed, “Bon courage!”
Our group dwindled to four as we came into Fourgeres at 188 miles. I ate a sandwich with French bread. It was morning and I was feeling a great need for sleep. I rode slowly out of Fourgeres alone hoping to digest my sandwich. However, I was enjoying the daylight and scenery that night-time didn’t give me. It was beautiful, rolling countryside with cattle, sheep, and quaint farmhouses broken up occasionally by beautiful villages you could see in the distance. The villages were always at the top of a hill with the church steeples ascending above the towns. Each church and village seemed to be prettier than the last. Homes would become flower shows. Children and adults would man their own water stops for the riders. God bless them, as we needed them.
Tinteniac and 220 miles and I was doing fine. I waited for a small Spanish man who must have been very beat catching up to me. He never took a pull at the front.
The next obstacle was Loudeac, 274 miles. I was fine. I pulled a large group and pulled away from them a few times. For the last 5 miles into Loudeac I was a mess. I suppose it was heat exhaustion. I was light headed. I immediately went to the food line where I bought 4 drinks and a fruit cup. I went outside and lay down. Soon there were people standing around me and 4 young beautiful angels carried me off on a stretcher. They forced me to lie still while 3 of them massaged me simultaneously. Finally I could take no more of this and returned to my bike.
Now I was riding really, very slowly. I could not ride with any speed at all. I wasn’t thinking correctly as I left Loudeac. I left my night, or cold riding clothes behind. I badly mis-figured that I would make it to Brest and the turn-around before it got coldest. Loudeac was the best strategic point for picking up and leaving clothes, food, etc. I didn’t make it to Brest before it was very dark and very cold. That would be about 200 miles and I was well below 15 miles an hour. Starting out from Loudeac, I was pitifully slow. I was soon caught by an American named Joe who was riding almost as badly as I.
In Carhaix, 320 miles, Joe and I picked up John, another American. We were soon climbing as though we were in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina.
There was a surprise check-point at the top of Col De Tradudon. This was only 1184 feet but it was hard enough. Cold and shivering, we were greeted with French music and the best soup I could remember. At this point, my brain was inactive though. We were given hot chocolate. A Frenchman asked me if I could speak French. I apologized. He was very kind and reminded me that I was a long way from home. Yes, I should have studied French. It didn’t occur to me to tell him that it was almost a freak accident my being here. This was Brittany and home to Bernard Hinault. I asked where Hinault lived. The Frenchman replied enthusiastically that Hinault lived about 11 kilometers away.
I was now riding much better than my fellow companions. I was recovering and they were suffering more. On one of the descents toward Brest, John and Joe were too far back. I couldn’t see them. I had to go. About 15 miles from Brest I lost my soup and hot chocolate. As I was heaving beside the road, a group of riders came whizzing by. I reacted quickly and caught them. Soon a Frenchman and I would be pulling the group and then pulling away from them. The Frenchman and I rode into Brest together. For the rest of PBP we would keep catching up to each other. We spoke a lot but never knowing what each other said. But we were friends.
I remember being a little disappointed that I would not see Brest in the daytime. Any disappointment was swept away as we rode across the last bridge into Brest. The city was lit up and much of the water around it. It was a masterpiece.
Brest, 375 miles, and the turn-around was accomplished in just over 28 hours. I had to shut my eyes for just a bit. I lay down on the floor. I thought I set a clock to wake me in 2 hours. It didn’t go off. Someone woke me to tell me there were cots for sleeping, as if I needed one. I felt an urgency to continue. I have no idea how long I slept.
I had left my warm clothes behind in Loudeac because of this temporary insanity which would last for at least the rest of the ride. I realize that a different insanity had occurred long ago.
I made a vest out of huge garbage bags before leaving Brest. I was very, very cold indeed.
There is definitely a morale booster, on any ride, once you have half of it done. The sun was soon barely up but it was warmer than the dark. I rode alone for most of the trip back to Carhaix and enjoyed the views. I may as well. I don’t know when I’ll be back! I had ridden 425 miles now with 325 to go. It was very simple what my diet would be. I could continue to ride eating “Squeezies”, a fruit flavored gooey substance in tubes, or I could throw up my shoes. I don’t mean “on my shoes”. I mean that I would not be surprised if my shoes came out.
I rationed my Squeezies to 1 per hour. I didn’t get dropped for a long time.
On the Paris side of Carhaix an Irishman named Steve and a German named Elber were powdering their bottoms in the buff beside the road. I whistled at them and kept going. They would tell me later back in Paris that they felt like they had biscuits in there. They were tall bike mechanics working in Germany. Mechanics there work for free as apprentices before becoming paid mechanics, they would tell me. One of my fondest memories on PBP was when they came by me and Elber said, "Oh-ho! The man with the machine!” Steve followed up with, “Yes! When I grow up I want to be just like him!” My Serotta got great reviews.
Now it’s Loudeac again, 472 miles and around midday of the second day.
I would make short stops at the checkpoints and squeeze my Squeezies. A lot of riders would be at checkpoints when I arrived, and leaving before they did, I would not see them again. I was riding well, drinking a lot of water, and squeezing.
Quite a few miles out of Loudeac I rode with 2 Frenchmen. The older of the two was carrying a large bag on his rear rack. You have to admire these guys that are carrying that much extra weight and are still taxing you. His rear tire was sagging from lack of air as well. I pointed this out but they were aware. We traded pulls at the front to Tinteniac, 525 miles and 225 to go.
I left Tinteniac alone, just stopping for the check-in and water. This is my favorite time of day for riding, evening. I caught up with another Irishman riding a large 3-wheeler. PBP is held every 4 years and he had gotten his medal for finishing four years earlier. With this ride, he would not finish. Heat would be his the number one enemy.
I was riding well but taking in the countryside too. I love their water tanks. They resembled huge mushrooms. There was a locked door with stairs or possibly an elevator on the inside, but no climbing on the outside of this water-tower.
It was very common to see older people, possibly retired, riding their bikes. Most of their commuting bikes were three speeds with upright bars. Beautiful!
Sometimes the tall hedges would hide the mailboxes. Quite often the mailboxes would be in archways leading to the homes. I saw a beehive built into the hedge away from the road and home.
I rode on to Fourgeres alone. It was now 557 miles behind and 200 to go, if I don’t go the wrong way.
It was nearing sunset. I had an emotional moment. I cried aloud that I would not see my father again in this life.
I soon jumped on the rear of two more Frenchmen and we worked together for miles. We stopped in the center and at the top of one village where a local man set up refreshments for the riders every year. I gulped coffee and cake as the French riders were in a hurry. I tried to pay the kind man, but he would not hear of it. He did this every year and just wanted a postcard from wherever a rider came.
The Frenchmen sped off. I chased and caught them. I had to sit on their rear wheels for a while. The chase hurt me. We caught two more riders and one strong man caught us. We had a few down-hills and the coffee was kicking in. It was dark now. The original two Frenchmen were dropped. Soon though, it would be the strong Frenchman and I. He didn’t seem to work well with others as he tried to drop me at every chance, even attacking from the rear. It was in this exchange of combative endeavors that we may have missed a turn.
I left a village alone after a coke and some bread. I should have stopped there for a nap. I was slow and sleep was overcoming me. I had descended every hill as fast as, or faster, than any rider around me, in daylight or darkness. Now I was having slight hallucinations. An animal jumped out and there was none. I saw arrows where there were none. I pulled over onto a rock infested driveway into a field. I lay on the rocks and I may have dozed. It may have been the kind of dozing when you think you’re awake the entire time, but possibly not. I could hear the hum of chains, freewheels, derailleurs, and bikes passing in the night. I could have slept for hours or not at all. I arose too paranoid to rest anymore. I need to finish.
Somewhere out here I lost a hat I borrowed from Woody Graham of Columbia, SC. I thought my hand was in my pocket. It wasn’t and I let it go. I knew I was losing it as I was losing it. I couldn’t stop myself.
Most of the ride was spent on trying to stay alert and ride safely, especially in the presence of others. A lot of time was spent absorbing as much beauty as possible. But when you ride alone at night you think of everything and anything to stay awake. I couldn’t remember the faces of people I knew. I’m almost embarrassed about it. I could almost put my daughter’s face together.
Somewhere out here I hooked up with a strong fellow that pulled me to a brasserie that was open all night for riders of Paris-Brest-Paris. I ate more cake and coffee. Nothing was working though. I knew I would sleep at the next rest-stop/check-point, if only for a few moments. What a joke this was I thought. I knew I wouldn’t care if I slept for a week.
In Villaines la Juhel, I had about 616 miles instead of 609. I didn’t miss anything to my knowledge but the mileage was above what it should have been. I had mashed potatoes and two hours of sleep on the floor. The hard surfaces are actually like having a massage. My back needed it.
I left with John Hughes, winner of Boston-Montreal-Boston in 1992. Now it’s 130 miles to go.
John stopped to remove clothing and I soft-pedaled for him to catch back up.
A large Frenchman was having trouble with terrible chain skipping. I waited at the top of a hill to check out his bike. He told me to forget about him as he had abandoned the ride a considerable time ago and was just riding back to Paris. I saw that his derailleur had gone into his spokes and had bent the inside of the derailleur cage. I suggested that he remove the rear wheel, lay the bike on the ground, and press on the cage with his foot. He thought it was a great idea but insisted I go on, and he would try it.
Soon I was rejoined by John Hughes. My rear-end had been hurting since day one. Now I was torn up. Most of the last 200 miles of PBP may have been spent standing up. John is strong and on all the flat roads he wanted me off his wheel. My butt and legs cried out for relief. Luckily we would not run out of hills and I could stand up naturally and not just on the flats. I was riding the hills better than John. I waited for him on every hill. My knees ached but I could ride hills.
I cannot remember Mortagne au Perche. I vaguely remember a checkpoint where we were in and out very quickly. This must have been the 665 mile mark with 91 or so to go. Less than 100 miles to go. Gee, what a paltry sum this is.
Still beautiful towns and countryside adorn our ride! We passed through more of the tree lined roads where a single row of trees line each side of the road. Two local riders passed us. One was wearing blue-jeans with a chamois sewn into the seat. It’s a postcard memory from start to finish.
I noticed that John would take deep gasps of air, to suppress the nausea, just as I had been doing.
One more checkpoint is before the finish at Nogent Le Roi. Now there is 46 miles to go. I can do this standing on my head.
My teeth longed for a toothbrush. My body cried out for a shower. My nose cried out for no more manure piles, smells of hay, or ammonia being released from my own body.
I spell relief: P-a-r-i-s!
I asked John if he wanted to sprint for the village limit signs. He declined. I assured him that this was today’s cycling joke.
Still, beautiful villages and scenery assure me of wonderful memories. A thatch fence gave privacy to one farmhouse. The beauty never ended. Great roads, great food, and friendly people are all I need.
We were riding on roads where champion cyclists rode.
About a kilometer from the finish line at Saint Quentin en Yvelines, and the end of this amazing sojourn, my chain came off the front sprockets and wedged between the sprockets and frame. John looked at my predicament and flew. I had quite a time making the repair. I didn’t want to scar the frame. Finally I put my foot on one end of the chain and stomped the other end.
The finish line was covered with spectators cheering every rider. But this time, they were cheering me. What a feeling it was! Someone took my bike and I walked across the large gymnasium floor to the last check-in table. The bilingual young man that returned my credit cards was there.
I was unable to think or speak coherently, but I was done.
I took 65 hours and 57 minutes.
It felt like 66 hours though.
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