Wednesday, January 21, 2009

8/20/2007 to 8/24/2007 -- Paris Brest Paris

This is late, I know. I originally wrote it for publication in a magazine that shall remain nameless. I talked with them about writing a piece on my PBP experiences in early 2008, with an eye to publishing the article in the summer. I worked hard on the piece, and met the spring deadline. After submitting the article, I found the editorial staff at this magazine perversely uninterested in working with me. After months of trying to work with them, I gave up. So I'm sharing the result here. I hope you enjoy it. -Michael

Just outside the little town of Corlay, on the Bretagne Peninsula in northwestern France, I stand under the cover of a tree, waiting for the rain to slacken. My friend Philippe Andre is across the road, talking in French with a local man. They chat amiably for a little while before Phil comes back across the road to join me under the branches. The fellow is out in the weather, standing in front of his cottage in the countryside, a spectator to the 16th Paris-Brest-Paris grand randonnée. He has a table with candy bars and snacks for sale, but he offers coffee, juice, and encouragement for free.

The sport of randonneuring adopted Paris-Brest-Paris soon after it began as a 1200 km race in 1891. Today, it has become the equivalent of randonneuring’s Olympic Games. While grand randonnées are now held all over the world, what makes Paris-Brest-Paris unique is the people. The ride attracts thousands of riders from all over the world to share the challenge of pedaling halfway across France and back in less than 90 hours; no other randonneuring event draws so many people from such diverse backgrounds. The non-competitive nature of the event encourages a spirit of cooperation, and the challenge it presents instills a sense of camaraderie in the participants. But in addition to the esprit de corps felt by the riders, the ride is also highlighted by the warmth of the French people who participate as volunteers and spectators. I had pedaled 700 km to Corlay, through dreary fog, dark night, and torrential rain. Out there with me at every corner in every little village there had been one or more French spectators to shout “Allez!” or “Bon courage,” to offer a hot drink, or to point out a tricky turn. There is no better country on Earth in which to hold this event. If you are crazy enough to ride your bike 750 miles to Brest and back in four days, the French will love you for it.

Phil speaks French, and is naturally more outgoing than I am, but even across the language barrier I fully appreciate the material and spiritual support being offered by the man across the road. Phil relays to me some of the details of their conversation. He has been coming out to watch PBP roll by his front door for years, and now he’s selling the candy to raise money for his daughter’s school. We share a candy bar that Phil bought and plot our next move. It’s late in the afternoon, and the weather seems to have transitioned from intermittent showers into something more sustained.

I’d started out in Paris in the sloppy gloom at 9 PM on Monday night, two days earlier. While there had been respites from the rain, they had been of the one-step-forward-and-two-steps-back variety, and by the time I had covered 400 kilometers I was soaked. That’s when I’d met up with Philippe, as we had arranged to before the ride. Last night’s ride with him had been reasonably pleasant, and was followed by a drizzly and atmospheric morning through some of the undomesticated parts of Bretagne near the charming lakeside village of Huelgoat. Just when I’d started wondering if the sun ever shone on France, we broke through into a warm summer day on the descent from Roc Trevezel, 40 kilometers from our turn-around point in Brest.

Of course, Brest was just that: our turn-around point; we had to go back the way we came. All that awful weather that we had punched through to get out to the coast was still between us and Paris. We climbed out of Brest and back up the Roc in sunshine, and we were greeted by a face full of wind and rain at the top. We fought through increasingly persistent showers all the way to Carhaix, took a break, and then pushed on in hopes of hitting the 2/3rd mark at Loudeac before the day was too far gone. We had been riding with a pair of Englishmen for a few kilometers, and when we’d hit Corlay, they’d continued on while Phil and I stopped for shelter and refreshment.

I tell Phil that I think that the damp is just a passing shower, just as we’d experienced ever since the Roc. But the sky is socked in from horizon to horizon and the patches of blue sky we’d seen closer to the coast are just a happy memory. Still, the rain eases after a dramatic entrance. The branches spare us from the worst of it, but it’s obviously not going to stop any time soon. We’re cooling off, and it’s time to get back to business of pedaling.

We set off through the verdant French countryside. Brittany is the land of cream, and Philippe remarks that the abundant cows are easily the healthiest looking animals he’s ever seen. At times, the roads are so smooth that I can feel the imperfections in my front wheel. So in spite of the damp, we manage to maintain a strong pace. We take turns at the front as we traverse the undulating countryside.

Phil and I had only ever ridden together twice before Paris-Brest-Paris, but those two rides totaled 1600 km. We spent most of each of those rides together, sitting on each other’s wheels, drafting each other’s slipstreams. In covering all that distance, we’ve found that we’re well suited to riding together in spite of a host of differences. I’m 33 while Phil is 50. Phil has been randonneuring his whole life, but I did my first brevet just the year before. Phil rides a conventional bike, where I prefer a recumbent. We work well together because our strengths and goals are complementary. Philippe is a very strong rider who stays within himself. A veteran of 3 previous 1200 km randonees, several super randonneur series, and years of racing, he knows himself and his capabilities well enough that he never gets himself into trouble by going anaerobic for too long and blowing up his legs. He’s also opportunistic about finding people of similar strength to share a paceline with. I may be strong, but my record of pacing myself appropriately isn’t as good as Phil’s. I am used to logging long miles solo, which gives me an all-day motor.

As we roll along stone walls and hedgerows, past fields, and through forests, I spend a fair amount of time out front. My Bacchetta Aero recumbent doesn’t push as much air out of the way as a conventional bike does, but Phil’s got a really good aero tuck, and he’s able to make the most of my draft. With my head so far back it’s easy for us to chat, and as an added bonus he can see over me to the scenery ahead pretty easily. Phil takes the lead from time to time to give me a rest, and just naturally gets ahead of me on many climbs, while I pace us through rollers and across flatlands. On prolonged descents, I pull to the front and Phil puts his head down, gets into the bottom of his drops and hangs on tenaciously. We make our way towards the next controle at Loudeac; me taking advantage of Philippe’s experience, and Phil getting the benefit of my young legs.

I mention to Phil how well we work together. “Well, true. But these are long rides,” He responds. “There usually comes a time when maybe you’re feeling good and you want to go on and your riding partner wants to rest, or vice versa. And that’s the time you’ve got to go off and ride your own ride. You’ll know it when the time comes, and of course every randonneur understands it. There’re no hard feelings.” Ultimately, though randonneuring can be a cooperative endeavor, at the end of the day, it is a personal challenge. It’s about what you yourself can bear, and how your own capabilities match up to the task of the long ride.

We’re getting closer to Loudeac, and a pair of Italians overtakes us as we ride along the top of a ridge that seems familiar from the previous night’s outbound leg. These guys are nuts; each is carrying just what will fit in his jersey pockets, neither has fenders, and one’s riding without a helmet. They’re going just a little faster than we are, so we share the road for a while. As the four of us slalom through a tiny hilltop village, the sky opens up. We fly down the hillside as the road becomes a river. At the bottom, the Italians pull away as I soft-pedal, waiting for Phil. The sun goes down as Phil and I cover the last few kilometers into town.

The controle looks like a refugee camp. Riders are everywhere, most moving deliberately; some not moving at all, sleeping under silver foil space blankets. Wadded-up cyclists, discarded to the corners of the cafeteria. The rain has settled thickly on the courtyard, falling on several hundred parked bicycles. A volunteer tells us that it hasn’t really let up since the beginning of the ride, 48 hours ago.

It’s Wednesday night. Even though I haven’t put two hours of sleep together since Saturday, I move with a purpose. My first and most important task is to get my control card stamped, registering my arrival time. If you don’t get your card stamped, or if you lose it, you’re just a lunatic riding through the country. Registering at each checkpoint verifies that you have completed the course as designated and have done so in the allotted time. When I have my card stamped, I visit the cafeteria and purchase a tray full of food: Potatoes, soup, chicken, bananas, rice pudding. And coffee. The French do the best terrible coffee ever. It’s darkly roasted and steeped with the grounds in a stainless steel tray. It’s strong and dark and muscular and caramel sweet, and it’s served in a cereal bowl. You can measure its effectiveness in terms of hundreds of miles pedaled per pint.

The controle holds other delights. In particular, Philippe and I have access to our drop bag here, which means fresh clothes. We greedily root through the sack. I put together two completely fresh sets of riding attire: one for now, and one to go in my bike’s seat bag. Before I change, though, I take advantage of the available showers. It’s not that I’m exactly dying to get under more falling water, but the promise of warmth and getting clean of my accumulated grime and sweat is just too good to pass up. I emerge, and begin packing up my bike, anxious to be on the road. Prior to the ride, I reserved a hotel room in Fougeres (130 kilometers down the road) for this night, and visions of a warm dry bed are dancing in my head. My momentum and sense of purpose are still carrying me, and leave me somewhat insensible.

“Are you getting ready to go?” Phil asks.

“I’m done. I’m going.” I reply. But I’ve mistaken his meaning. I thought he was asking me when I’d be packed up and ready to hit the road. It turns out he’s asking if I’m hell-bent on continuing on right now in the awful weather.

He mistakes my declaration for determination. “Well, if that’s how you feel about it, go on, but I’m staying here. There are some very nice looking dorms, and I’m going to get some sleep.” Sleep. That brings me back to Earth. I look around and think about it. It really is raining. And I am getting tired. I’m going on 86 hours with very little sleep. I could use a lie-down…

Yeah, ok.

As it turns out, Phil saw some other dorms, or something. The dorm we are put in features beat-up old mattresses on the floor of a gymnasium, with the rain hammering down on the sheet-metal roof overhead. This is accompanied by the drone of randonneurs snoring in 12 different languages. But it doesn’t matter. We put in a wake up call for 4 hours later, they lead us to our pallets, and I have scarcely lain down and drawn the blanket up to my chin before I am unconscious.


Awake, um. (Look at my watch.) One and a half hours later. Okay. I feel pretty rested. Calm. Not worried at all about having woken up. I have another two hours and change until my wakeup call. If I get back to sleep before then, great. Otherwise, I guess I didn’t really need it, did I? I’ll probably get back to sleep, though. It’s peaceful. The snoring has all stopped, so that won’t keep me awake. Heck, I can’t even hear the rain on the roof anymore…

I sit bolt upright. In Loudeac, where it’s rained since the beginning of the event, at 1:30 in the morning, the rain has stopped. And I’m awake and feeling refreshed. This is it: it’s time for me to go. I get up, and silently, purposefully gather my belongings.

I think to Philippe. Should I wake him? No, of course not. Phil has ridden strongly the whole time we’ve been together, but he’d gotten far less sleep during the previous night than he’d planned because of me, and he had reported nearly drowsing off on the bike a couple of times. He needs to let his body tell him when to get up, not me.

Which means that, as Philippe predicted it would be, my ride has been reduced to its most elemental components: me and my bicycle, striving with the road and the weather.

Without a moment to lose, I’m back on the road. I ride quickly, under the premise that if it’s been raining non-stop in Loudeac until this moment, then there’s no telling how long this break will last. I want to put as much distance between me and the town as I can before the deluge resumes.

Even at 2 AM, there are plenty of riders on the road; dozens of red fireflies mark the course ahead of me. But night riding tends to distort ones’ perceptions of space, time, and speed, and this is ground that I am covering at night for the second time. I have few stable points of reference. The kilometers are rolling by; just it’s hard to tell how fast.

I’m halfway through the stage when the rain returns from its coffee break in the form of a steady and annoying drizzle. Then, just as it intensifies, outside of the little town of Illifaut, there’s a sign diverting riders to a community center in a copse of trees. It’s a secret controle, to keep riders honest. I park my bike and go in to get my card stamped.

One of the most difficult parts of really long randonneuring events is going back out, into the rain, wind, or night. On my first overnight brevet, it took a major effort of will to leave a controle at midnight to pedal those dark roads alone. I’ve since learned how to keep moving, though, and how to not let myself transition from riding mode to resting mode. I don’t linger at the controle, staying only long enough to slurp down a cup of pottage before I’m back on my bike.

The rest of the ride into Tinteniac, and the rest of the night, goes slowly. It’s just a matter of grit, and keeping the pedals turning. If I keep pedaling, I will finish, eventually. I pass through Quedillac, where Phil and I had met up a day and a half ago. It took me 16 hours to get here from Paris on the outbound leg, but I’m expecting it to take a lot longer in the reverse direction. I gut out the climb up to Becherel, and on the descent on the other side of town, the thick sky begins to emanate a murky light. I’m in a daze as I pull up to the controle in Tinteniac in what little daylight manages to penetrate the clouds.

I perform my tasks at the controle by rote. Fortunately, I’m well versed in the requirements, and I get through with very little engagement necessary from my brain. The lion’s share of the time I spend is in shoveling the calories I need to keep going into my gullet. Once I’ve wrapped up my business, I take a short pause in hopes that there will be a break in the rain, but without any expectation of it actually happening. I go find my bike and once again, I’m rolling.

Fortunately, with the coming of the day the temperature has risen, and even in spite of the wet, I am comfortable in my wool jersey without a jacket. My recumbent seat provides insulation from my hindquarters to the bottom of my neck, doing a good job of keeping my core warm. This means that I don’t have to choose between being soaked with cold rain or soaked with sweat anymore.

The next leg is a scant 54 kilometers, and it goes by quickly, though it doesn’t feel like it. I’m sluggish, riding off the hangover of having ridden through the previous night (hair of the dog!) I am in a fairly dismal state, certainly not in anything like a comfort zone, but I have found an equilibrium. My energy level is good and I’m not feeling any particular pain, but I am pretty consistently wet and I’m mentally fatigued. It is encouraging to recognize sections from the outbound trip, though – the TGV tracks near Dinge, the river crossing at Vieux-Vy-sur-Couesnon, and the flat, straight section just before Romagne. As the route enters the outskirts of Fougeres, it finds its way along backroads, and then suddenly drops into a creek drainage. I have to go through the painful process of winching my way up out of it again before arriving at the controle.

I take care of my duties in Fougeres, and in the interest of maintaining my all-important momentum, dismiss the idea tempting idea of trying to check into my hotel room for an hour or two. I leave a note for Phil, bidding him good ride and good luck, and I get the mechanics at the controle to apply more lubrication to my chain. That’s one frequently overlooked detail in riding really long rides: you can do enough distance in a single ride to pass maintenance milestones. I often put fresh lube on my chain around every 400 miles, which was 150 rainy miles ago. One could wear a new pair of tires down to the threads on a ride like PBP.

When I set out again, I’m energized. I’ve finally shaken off the exertions of the previous night, the full light of day has chased away my drowsiness, a fresh dose of calories is making its way through my bloodstream, and my drivetrain is once again working at peak efficiency.

My recumbent shines on this leg, eating up the rolling hills and cruising on the flat ground. I find that randonneuring and recumbents are a natural match. A comfortable seat is a must-have on a 100+ mile ride, and the aerodynamic benefit of a low-profile position is maximized in a sport where we spend so much time riding alone. Plus, a heads-up position eliminates the threat of Shermer’s Neck, and offers a first-rate view of the countryside. As randonneurs tend to ride sturdier, better equipped bicycles than racers, the drawback of recumbents’ increased mass over diamond frame bicycles is minimized.

I arrive in Villaines-la-Juhel to a hero’s welcome. The approach to the control winds downhill through the streets of the town, so I’m feeling fast and strong as I complete the stage, and for several blocks before it there are banners, balloons, and barricades holding back cheering spectators. I feel like a Tour de France winner as my arrival is announced by the bombastic fellow with the PA, and this isn’t even the end of the ride.

I can smell the barn at this point, though. I’m hanging on by a thread, but the draw of the finish line continues to carry me. I get a huge plate of noodles in the cafeteria, and chat with a British fellow who encourages me to do London-Edinburgh-London. I nod politely without really considering the idea; this is exactly the wrong time to entertain another 1400 kilometers of riding.

It’s the middle of the afternoon and I set out once again, cranking my bicycle uphill as the road climbs up to a ridge. My energy level is holding, but has fallen somewhat from its previous high. The country around Villaines is less domesticated than I’ve seen to this point, owing to the more mountainous terrain, and I have the road to myself for long stretches at a time. The solitude puts my head in a strange place.

I had previously covered this leg in the depths of the first night of riding. The lack of sleep combined with everything that has transpired since has left a gaping hole in my memory where this stretch of road should be. The cocktail of physical exertion and sleep deprivation has left my perception with little chance of finding purchase on some recognizable landmark. And the eerie feeling that this road should contain some measure of familiarity for me and yet it simply doesn’t is deeply unsettling. If sleep plays a role in cementing a day’s experiences in one’s long term memory, then given how little sleep I’ve had, perhaps these hours of my life have dissipated before they could be indexed properly. Now, returning to this place is not the same as the experience of riding the road for the first time; I can feel the contours of the gap in my recollection in much the way that I imagine an amputee might have a sense of where an arm used to be.

I pass through Mamers, a larger town that does inspire a spark of recognition, and as I’m climbing out of it, the clouds thicken ominously. For most of the day, the rain has been holding off – nothing but the occasional drizzle to keep me from getting too complacent. The air is warm enough to have dried me off, and I’ve been enjoying not being clammy for several hours. Then the sky opens up and lets loose a deluge.

“This is what I do for fun!” I tell myself. I begin to wonder what drives me to it. In the previous 2 years, I’ve gone from centuries to 150 mile rides, to a full brevet series, to the Furnace Creek 508 and Race Across Oregon, to the 1000 km Portland-Glacier brevet, to this. In 2006, I rode the most difficult ride I’d ever attempted in September, only to surpass it twice in a month. Am I looking for my limits? And if spending a week in the rain without sleep pedaling 1200 kilometers isn’t more than I can stand, then just what sort of misery will I have to put myself through before I say, “No more!” What could putting myself through that get me?

I am absolutely drowning in the last few kilometers into Mortagne-au-Perche. I don’t stop to put on a jacket because I’m afraid that I’ll cool off if I stop and get out of my seat, and anyway, what good would putting a jacket on over a soggy jersey do? Water is cascading down the road to the town, and riding up it reminds me of a salmon swimming upstream.

I stagger into the controle shell shocked. There are things that I have to do, I know it, but I’m a dripping, sallow eyed zombie. Somehow, my card is stamped, my water bottles refilled. I visit the cafeteria, and they’re running low on food. I change into my last dry set of clothes.

Early in a ride, I have options: I can hit a section hard or back off, I can find a buddy to ride with and spend a little extra energy to stay with him if he’s stronger on the hills, I have sandwiches and cans of Ensure if I need calories on the road. Now, the bag of tricks is empty – no more food in my bag, and no more glycogen in my legs. I have no more cards to play, no more resources except sheer, blind, mule-headed stubbornness.

But that's the nice thing about stubbornness; when you have it, it's the last thing to desert you.

I’ve finished my meal and am staring at my plate, trying to work myself up to go back out on the road. It’s just 140 kilometers to go, now. Not even 85 miles. You’ve left to go on an 85 miler after breakfast and been back home for lunch. C’mon, Michael.

I overhear someone address his friends at the next table, “Did you see outside? Yeah, the rain’s stopped and the sun is shining.”

My fork has not yet hit the table before I’m back on my bike and pedaling.


Blogger Jim said...


Always enjoy your posts and this one is exceptional! Thanks very much for putting it up on your blog. What an experience!


4:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...




9:13 AM  
Blogger Jim said...

I loved the ride report, Michael!

2:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You captured the essence of PBP. Stubborn and a little hungry, you appreciate the finish line more than if relaxed and fed. It starts as any old bike ride and becomes the challenge you expected. And more. I took the 84hr start thinking I've done this before, I know what's involved, and then on account of the weather conditions and my poor preparation, had to press hard in the closing kilometers to make my 83:59 finish.

11:00 AM  
Blogger Vik said...

hola Michael what was your PBP time? I'm trying to see what the a strong bent rider would ride that event in just to get a bracket on what is feasible.

Now that I live on the wet coast training and riding brevets is a lot more appealing than the late winter start the rando season necessitated in Alberta.

3:52 PM  

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