Paris-Brest-Parisby Steve Rice
This past August, approximately 4000 cyclists from all over the globe converged on a suburb of Paris for the 15th edition of Paris-Brest-Paris. In the world of endurance cycling, PBP is viewed as the premier event. There are longer events and physically tougher events, but none have the history and prestige of PBP.
I was extremely nervous and anxious in the days leading up to the start. My plan was to arrive in Paris on the Friday before the Monday night start. You are required to undergo a bicycle inspection on Sunday and I had planned to go for a 40-50-mile ride on Saturday to get used to riding in France. As my plane touched down in Detroit, I was feeling good. I had talked Northwest out of charging me extra for my bike and had even upgraded myself to business class. This feeling of elation was soon replaced by a feeling of hopelessness. I had landed in Detroit 15 minutes after the August 15th blackout had begun. I hoped that the blackout would be short-lived, but I ended up staying in the Detroit airport for 25 hours. When we finally left Friday afternoon, we first flew to Memphis for water and food before traveling to Paris.
I had made arrangements for transportation from the airport to my hotel near the start, but I was now on my own to make it to St. Quentin. I ran into a rider from Colorado in the same situation as me. Fortunately, I had been to Paris before and was familiar with the train system. We headed off with our bike cases and luggage and without too much difficulty, we arrived in St. Quentin. This was our first experience with the French population. Neither of us knew where our hotels were and had planned to take a taxi from the train station. Unfortunately, there were none available on Saturday afternoon. So in typical randonneur fashion, we began walking. In just a few minutes, a French man driving a small truck stopped and asked if we needed help. He knew where my hotel was and he sent me walking a few hundred meters down the road. My traveling companion loaded his bike and luggage in the truck and was quickly delivered to his hotel 8 km from town. This was just the beginning of a series of endless acts of kindness by the French.
Relieved to finally be at my hotel, I was greeted by fellow Mad Dog Stephen Royse and BCC members Johnny Bertrand, Steve Wyatt and Gay Williams. I hurriedly reassembled my bike and was able to take it on a test ride as the sun set. Saturday night was when the nervousness began to take hold again. Would my bike pass inspection? Had I trained enough? All of these other people around me seem so much better prepared than me. Will I run out of water in the first segment? Will I get sick? Can I finish?
Sunday morning brought bike inspection and sign-in. This was my first look at many of the non-American riders. I saw small groups of Italians and Danes that looked like they had been given a weeks vacation from their pro teams. This did not help my nervousness. When I finally reached the front of the inspection line, a smallish French inspectioneer attempted to remove everything except for the paint from my bike. He was displeased with the attachment of my Carradice [bag], but he finally relented and gave me the coveted approval. In retrospective, I think that perhaps I was overly concerned. I did not hear of anybody failing the inspection. After quickly collecting my paperwork, I headed back to the hotel.
After a leisurely ride into Paris with Jeff Bauer, I began packing and repacking all of the items I was going to carry as well as place into a drop bag, which I could access at about the 440-km and the 780-km points of the ride. I had planned to do very little on Monday since the ride did not start until 10:00 PM. I found myself repacking multiple times and making several trips to the mega-mart for last minute supplies. Then the dehydration fear took over again. I drank about 4 liters of water Monday afternoon and found creative ways to carry enough water to float a small boat. The first opportunity to get water is about 85 miles from the start. I’m not really used to riding centuries without stopping for water or food so I think nervous was a bit of an understatement. I was petrified of becoming dehydrated in the first stage of the ride. I had my Camelbak with two liters. I had two one-liter water bottles in my cages. I had a two-liter bottle in my Carradice and another two-liter bottle in my jersey. I figured that six liters of water should get me through. Once again, I was overly concerned; I used about two liters in the first night and dumped what I didn’t need to get my load down to a manageable size.
Once the ride was underway, I was amazed at the crowds on the side of the road cheering us on. I am used to the typical American response from non-cyclists of “Get off the road.” The French shouts of “Bon Courage” and “Bonne Route” were energizing. It was a bit intimidating to be riding in peletons of 200 to 300 riders in the middle of the night on unfamiliar roads. Steve Royse and I eventually increased our speed and began bridging from one peleton to another. Every now and then I would hear the sounds of a crash behind us but not wanting to be in the next crash, I remained focused on the riders and road ahead of me. As we neared the first checkpoint, I had begun riding with a German rider and had become separated from Steve. Even though our communication was limited, the German and I worked together well and the last few miles into Mortagne quickly passed.
Mortagne was my introduction to the food service at the controls. The food was prepared and served by volunteers who used this event as a way to supplement their club’s coffers. Imagine a bake sale with pasta, mashed potatoes, yogurt, ham sandwiches, and plenty to drink. The food was good and it tasted better the longer I rode. The beverages fascinated me. Not a drop of a sports drink to be found. The usual list consisted of water, Coke, Orangina, beer, and wine. The French and Germans were drinking the wine and beer, while many Americans were opening small bags of powder and adding water. This is where I made my only bad decision of the ride. I opted for Orangina — a seemingly unobtrusive drink that tastes like carbonated, watered-down orange juice. The part that I was not aware of is that I believe Orangina contains about 70% concentrated sulfuric acid.
Riding into the second day is when I finally developed my rhythm. I had made copies of the route sheet and had planned to use the sheet as a means of occupying my mind during the ride. Looking for the next turn, calculating speeds and times in my head and converting from miles to kilometers and back are some of the things that I will do during long rides at home. I rarely looked at the route sheet. The course was so well marked that it was not needed and there was so much happening that I didn’t need to use it as a diversion. The second day was also when I learned how much the French enjoy this event and appreciate cyclists. Families would set up small sag stops on the side of the road. Need water? You could find someone waiting to supply it to you. You might also get a crepe or a bit of chocolate. There was a house that Steve and I stopped at early Wednesday morning that I will always remember. It was about 2 am and we were hungry and tired. We initially stopped to just get some water and to rest for a few minutes. Once we stopped, the residents of the house went to work. We received drinks immediately and then I had the tastiest sausage that I have ever eaten. There was a small grill set up cooking the sausages. Steve gave me one and then the homeowner cut a piece of a baguette for the sausage. The taste was unbelievable. It may have been the French version of an Oscar Meyer hot dog, but is will always remain the best sausage possible in my mind.
The next section was the most difficult for me. It involved climbing Roc Trevezel, the closest thing to a mountain in this part of France. Steve and I became separated in the night and it seemed that I would never reach the summit. I increased my speed and eventually made it to the top. Descending the other side, I became very cold and began to feel ill. Stopping for a few minutes, hoping that Steve would catch me, only made matters worse. I continued on towards Brest by myself. Thirty-three hours after I left Paris, I checked in at Brest. Still feeling sick, I found a dry spot near a tree and went to sleep. This was the only point in the ride that I felt like stopping. I had decided that I would only be eliminated by the clock. I would stay at the control until I felt that I could ride again and if this put me past a time limit, my ride would be over. In about two hours I awoke to find a note from Steve letting me know where he was. I managed to get a shower, quite possibly the hottest shower imaginable and had a couple of ham sandwiches. I was feeling a little better, but not great. I woke Steve up and told him that I was going to start but that I would be riding slowly and he would probably catch me before the next control. Fifteen miles and another sandwich later, I was feeling good and didn’t see Steve until the next control. It wasn’t until after the ride that I realized that it was the acidity of the Orangina that made me sick.
Even though I had over 300 miles left, I knew that I was going to make it at this point. It was here that I decided to really enjoy the ride back to Paris. I began to spend more time stopping to talk to the locals and the other riders. It seems that the English, and to some extent the Australians, have a knack at adding their own twists to the ride. One group of English were riding an old heavy triple bike. It was quite the sight to see them in their hats heading down the road like they were going to a picnic. Recumbents and recumbent tricycles seem to be very popular with the English as well.
Paul Rogue doesn’t ride in PBP, but he is probably the most well-known Frenchman to the riders of PBP. He resides on the PBP route and every four years he opens his garage and home to the riders of PBP. You can eat, sleep or just chat when you stop. All Paul asks is that you add a pin to the map to indicate where you are from and that you send him a postcard when you return home. He has hundreds of postcards on display from previous editions of PBP. I must have spent 20 minutes just inspecting his collection.
The final 15 km were the most mentally difficult of the entire ride. I was saddened by the knowledge that something I had focused on for an entire year was coming to an end while at the same time I was elated that I was able to successfully complete the ride. Steve Royse and I finished the 760 miles together 80 hours and 35 minutes after we started. In retrospect, I feel that my training in Kentucky did an excellent job of preparing me for the hills of France. Johnny Bertrand’s brevet series starting in Georgetown does an outstanding job of grooming riders for PBP. I can’t wait to do it again in 2007!
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web posted: 4 November 2003
last updated: 6 November 2003