A Paris-Brest-Paris Primer
So most of you know by now that the Paris-Brest-Paris ride (“PBP”) is a 1200 kilometer (760 mile) ride starting in a suburb just south of Paris, continuing to the coastal city of Brest and back to the start. Each rider can choose from one of three starting groups, depending on one’s expected finish time: 80 (the fastest riders), 90 (the maximum), and 84 hours.
I chose the 84-hour group thinking that I should still be able to comfortably finish in the time allotted and also that the 5am starting time seemed more like all the other rides I had done in the past (as opposed to the 6-7pm start time for the 90 hour group). I also thought that since the 84 hour group was much smaller than the 90 hour one, there would conceivably be smaller lines at the controls (mandated stops) for food, bathroom, etc.
My Bike & Equipment
I rode on my custom Lynskey Cooper titanium bike. It’s a pretty traditional sport-touring frame, but I ordered it with lengthened chainstays, both for a bit more comfort and stability, and also for the ability to run Continental 700x28 GP 4 Season tires with SKS fenders. Components are Campagnolo Super Record, with a compact 50/34 crankset and a 12-29 cassette. I won’t evangelize, but I love Campy, and the new 11 speed is a dream, and for a relentless spinner like me, the compact gearing is wonderful.
My only Shimano concessions are brakes, which are long reach to accommodate fenders and wide tires, and SPD-SL pedals. I used a Carradice Barley bag with a Bagman rack. Saddle is a Brooks B-17, punched and laced for extra firmness and to accommodate my thighs. Front wheel is a Schmidt hub laced to a DT Swiss hub, powering a Schmidt Edelux headlight. Rear wheel is a bombproof Campagnolo Eurus.
It was difficult on Sunday night watching the other riders pack up and take off, while I returned to the hotel and tried to get some sleep for the 3:30am wake-up call. Half of a benadryl and a glass of wine didn’t seem to help at all, and I tossed and turned until I woke just before the watch went off.
The Start (5 a.m. on Monday)
I took it as a good omen though that the hotel staff had set out breakfast early, so I was able to get some bread and cheese and coffee before setting out on the quick ride to the start. I joined the mass of riders and quickly was funneled out to the starting line in the first wave of riders. I recognized a good friend, Scott, just behind and tried to wait for him, but a French official quickly shooed me into the line, and we were off into the night.
I usually feel pretty awful at the beginning of rides, so I wasn’t too fearful when the pack took off quickly and my legs felt like lead. I figured I would just spin a bit and wait for Scott to catch up. Soon I was riding by myself and peering through the intersections to see the signs marking the course.
A Penalty (Not a Great Way to Start!)
At one roundabout I paused after a few particularly harsh cobblestones. A rider behind me rattled off in French that my taillight was out. I thanked him and switched on my backup one, but he continued his loud, staccato French and made cutting noises with his hands. I realized that he was telling me that I had just had a time penalty imposed for riding without a taillight. Now I would have to finish in 83 hours. I took off in a rush of adrenaline.
Part of me was embarrassed, part a little pissed that the guy sat there riding behind me, saw the bump and then pounced without a warning. Luckily, another part of me realized that it probably wouldn’t make any difference, and I should just try to put it out of my head. So, I pushed a little harder and started to warm up and feel a bit better. Finally, I started seeing riders in front of me and that encouraged me. Now things were feeling a bit more comfortable, and I settled into a nice pace as the dawn slowly started to peek over the horizon.
The First Few Control Stops – and the Rain
I continued on into the morning, knowing that this would be a longer stretch, but a little nervous at reaching the first control, having heard horror stories about huge lines for everything. Also, it had begun to rain steadily. Nevertheless, the optional first control was not crowded, and I was pleased to get in, fill my bottles, pee and get out in only 10 minutes.
It was still raining, and I just wanted to put in as many miles in the daylight as I could. Along the way I saw a recumbent tandem, where the riders sat back-to-back. It was pretty disconcerting to come up to them, while the woman in the back just stared at me, facing backwards as she was. Soon she began to whistle some sort of classical tune, staring at me the whole time. For some reason it drove me crazy, and I finally sprinted ahead over the hill.
By this time I reached the next control, and I was pleased to see a huge row of faucets for water and a long line of port-a-potties. That elation soon was gone when I opened the first door – just a hole and a pair of footprints molded into the plastic. Ugh. A quick cup of coffee and a pastry, and I set off, feeling quick despite the rain. The rollers through the countryside were never ending, and I reached the next control knowing that my long stretch of eating Clif bars was over. Thankfully the cafeteria was not too crowded and had a nice selection of food. I settled on a big bowl of rice and chicken.
As I left the control the clouds were massing again with loud rumbles of thunder. It was dusk, and I was nervous about getting cold in the dark, as I had all of my clothes on: jersey, bibs, wool arm and knee warmers and waterproof jacket. I knew if I could keep moving to the stop at Loudeac, where I could access my drop bag, I’d be OK if things got cooler, but I had to keep moving through the rain. For a brief moment I thought about stopping as the lightning flashed and the thunder boomed all around me.
Suddenly I saw a group of riders stopped in front of me at an intersection. A French policeman was standing in front of a road closed sign, arms crossed shaking his head. A couple of French riders were animatedly trying to get the guy to understand that we had to go on. Finally, the policeman rapidfire described a detour, and we all took off, frantic to stay together. The rain was coming down in sheets now, and we passed pig farm after pig farm, while I tried not to think of what was splashing up from all over the road onto my bottles.
Now we were back on course and came to a “secret” control, not on the schedule, but requiring a stop as well. A bowl of warm, thick potage (split pea soup) was a godsend, and I quickly moved on.
The fastest riders were beginning to come past in the other direction, already on the way back. Somehow it was comforting in the dark, as I was beginning to get a bit drowsy, coming up on the 440km point and the control in Loudeac. I promised myself a stop here, and I had a big plate of whipped potatoes and chicken. Now another thunderstorm hit as I was curled on a bench under an awning and tried to nap, but the lights and noise were too much.
The rain ended, and I thought if I’m not sleeping, and it’s not raining, I should just continue on. There was another optional control only 25 miles on if I got tired. So, I changed clothes and headed out into the 2am darkness, while the riders in front of me were reduced to pinpoints of red light in the distance.
The Dark, Dark Night (and Some Crazy French Riders)
Now the riding became surreal. The remote roads we were on were absolutely dark. It was impossible to tell if the road graded up or down, except that it suddenly became easier or harder to pedal. The only sounds were the grind of pedals, the whirr of generators and an occasional rattle over the rough roads.
Without a reference point it was difficult to even tell one’s speed. Then, suddenly, I would enter a village filled with blinding lights and groups of people, clapping and yelling “Bon Courage”. Then, just as suddenly, back into the still darkness. This repeated over and over until the first pink tinges appeared at the horizon.
While I was mostly riding on and off with individuals, I came onto a large group of French riders rolling along at a nice pace and joined them.
Within five minutes everything felt wrong. All the rules I knew about riding with a group had no bearing here: people were passing on the right and left. Some were leading at the front, then just as quickly dropping back, and there seemed to be a leader of the group. Whenever a rider came from the other direction, he would yell “Badabadabada. A droit”, and everyone would shift to the right of the lane, then just as quickly resume their weird formation.
I couldn’t take it, so I slowly dropped back, realizing that a British rider had also slipped in, then out, of the formation with me. “What was that?” he asked me. “I have no idea,” I replied, and we watched them carry on ahead of us.
Getting to Brest (the Half-Way Point)…
Another control and meal and I was back out on the stretch toward Brest. Now we hit some long, foggy climbs with traffic whizzing by, and the road continued to roll all the way to the bridge to Brest, where I stopped to take a picture.
Getting to the control turned out to be a mess, as the traffic was fierce and the roads were rough winding through the city itself. While we had had groups on the side of the road cheering us on for most of the last 36 hours, there were only speeding cars around us now.
The control was cramped, and there were two bathroom stalls for the entire group of us – a line snaked out into the next room. Thankfully they had placed gym mats on the floor of the makeshift cafeteria, after a bit of food, I laid down for a delicious half hour nap.
I woke up refreshed and ready to get out of Brest quickly and steeled myself to deal with the hills I knew were coming. I resolved to just spin the hills, and try to go a bit faster on the flats, and this seemed to help, as I was feeling better.
The dry conditions certainly helped as well. A quick meal at the Carhaix control, and I was feeling a bit woozy, watching the newly massing clouds. Crash! A rider standing behind me fell, completely unconscious, onto a cart full of cafeteria trays. Soon he was surrounded by volunteers. Time to leave!
So I rolled on back to Loudeac, the drop bag, and another promised nap. It was 10pm, and I was ready for a meal and a bit of sleep. I went back for more mashed potatoes, and watched the Italians enjoying red wine with their dinner, the French white, the Germans and Austrians a beer, and thought, what the hell, I’m about to sleep, so I had a bottle of cold fermented cider (a specialty of the Brittany region). It tasted wonderful, and after a quick shower, I managed to secure a cot in the sleeping area.
I asked the volunteers to wake me at 3am, thinking I’d get 4 hours of sleep, but they understood it to mean wake me in 3 hours, so I slept like the dead and was awakened at 2am. Ah, well, breakfast and I was off into the dark.
It had always been explained to me to try to get sleep in one and one-half hour increments during these events, because that is one sleep cycle, and the body wakes up much more easily after a complete cycle than in the middle of one, so perhaps this was better anyway.
I rolled on back into the surreal night. Now I felt good. The air was cool, but dry, caffeine was kicking in, and a steady stream of bobbing red pinpricks marked the way ahead.
Then things got weird...
Hallucination, Mind Games, & Saddle Sores
The lack of reference points meant that changes in the grade of the road were felt, rather than seen, almost like riding a roller coaster with eyes closed. I started to feel the ups and downs in my stomach and inner ear.
Then I saw what looked like a tandem ahead with the rear rider standing on his saddle staring at me, while the front rider pedaled on. As I got closer it turned out to be just a regular rider, pedaling normally. Luckily, I think this was my only hallucination.
Riders were passed out on the side of the road, cocooned in space blankets, looking like they had just tumbled out onto the shoulder, bike and all, and slept where they landed. The geometric patterns of their reflectors both dazzled and captivated my sleep-deprived brain.
Thankfully, another secret control came up, and I took a welcome coffee break. This turned everything around. I managed to keep pedaling past dawn, through another control and I even allowed myself to think that I might actually finish this thing.
The next control turned out to be one that seemed to take forever to navigate. There were lines for everything, and by the time I had eaten I felt like I was moving through a fog. I put my head on the table and drifted off a couple of times. Finally I knew I had to get moving. I reapplied some chamois lube and set off… and fire lanced through my backside.
Whatever saddle sores were there got irritated by the lube, and I could not sit comfortably on the saddle. I moved around the best I could, but it was pretty hopeless, and I really began to despair that this was the end.
I stopped for a minute to shed my jacket and noticed that the laces on my brooks leather saddle had come unknotted. I retied them tighter and took off. Relief! It changed the shape of the saddle just enough that I could sit comfortably. I was elated.
Ahh. The sun had come out. I had temporarily conquered my saddle demons and escaped the black hole control. I started noticing the scenery around me: beautiful vegetable gardens (always with leeks, cabbage and carrots), flowers everywhere, and the most perfectly manicured hedges I’ve ever seen in my life. I reached the next control and ate a big bowl of macaroni and turkey. Gotta’ go.
It’s sunny. I’m flying along. After a couple of hours I started getting drowsy in the afternoon sun, so I stopped at a bar/café for a heavenly cup of espresso. I still felt full, though, and I was worried that my stomach wasn’t digesting anything.
More long climbs and I got to the next control, which was loud and overwhelming: a narrow street filled with screaming people and an announcer on a pa, who yelled your name and country of origin as you enter the control area. Gotta’ get out of here.
Now the mind games started: OK, 180 miles left at 15mph total, means only 12 more hours. Oooh, that’s finishing in the middle of the night. Should I sleep? Will I need to sleep? Just gotta’ get out of the control and back onto the road.
I risked a baguette with ham and butter and an Orangina, which tasted awesome. The road ascended to a gentle ridge around the town with gorgeous views of the valley to either side.
A Quick Friendship
Now I rode along and noticed an older man riding next to me at almost the same cadence, which surprised me, as I tend to spin a pretty fast cadence, even up hills, while most people tend to pedal less in a harder gear. We pedaled over some rollers, and he stayed right there, just behind me on the left.
It was oddly comforting riding together, and he seemed to pedal effortlessly. We approached a group of riders on a long gentle climb, and I realized that it would be easier to just pass them rather than try to slowly go around them, so I kicked it in up and over the hill.
I turned my head and my French companion was right there with a big grin on his face. So it went for a few more miles.
Finally I said in my awful tired French that my name is Chris. He said that he is Roger. I asked if he had done PBP many times. He smiled and said, yes, he is 69 years old and this is his eighth time. I am stunned, and he is amused at my expression.
We reached the next to last control and he smiled one last time and said that this is where he’ll sleep. I hesitated for a moment, but seeing the riders flying away from the hive of activity that is the control somehow got me motivated.
I grabbed a coffee, a fistful of Mars candy bars and headed out into the night, determined to finish the ride by morning.
Almost Done – or, Am I?
I set out down a long descent, but noticed several riders hesitating, checking their cue sheets, their gps and their maps. The reflective signs that had confirmed the route for us for the last 1000km were nowhere to be seen.
I pedaled on, yet again on a stretch of inky black darkness, route undulating under me, then suddenly through a floodlit village where an official waved us around a corner.
I could hear him yelling at a stopped group of riders who were questioning the lack of signs: “You can’t expect us to mark every turn”. Well, you had done so up ‘til now. Why stop?
Suddenly a rider zoomed by me, whistled to his friends behind him and zoomed off. I figured he must know the route, so I hustled to stay with him.
Soon we were a group of 12, flying through the utter blackness. Evidently no signs meant no turns. The pace continued on at breakneck speed, as I watched the rider in front of me start to lurch to the left and right in front of me. Not good at this speed.
Then the rider at the front was replaced by his buddy, the pace quickened further, and I dropped back, watching their taillights zoom away into the darkness. No matter, as I spun along, watching anxiously for the lights ahead of the town of Dreux and the last control and trying not to think about how tantalizingly close to the end I was coming.
The last control was somber and quiet, and I wanted to leave as soon as possible, so I took off again into the night feeling a bit ragged. The signs were back, but it was becoming difficult to concentrate at every intersection to make sure that I stayed on course.
I managed to stay with another rider, and the two of us kept each other on course, until another rider zoomed past us. We took off after him, determined to keep his taillight in our vision.
We reached a steep climb into the area around the starting town. Now I could really feel the lack of food, and I was getting tired. I labored - just had to keep that rider in front of us in sight. The course led through the hills around the starting area, and we circled back around, seemingly in giant repeating loops.
Finally, spray-painted on the road was a message: 10km to go...!
Two Taiwanese riders were now in front of me, and I resolved to keep them in sight. 5km to go and we entered the city of St. Quentin proper. We were nearing the finish!
Suddenly, no riders were in front of me, and I had no idea where to go.
A sign reading Paris-Brest led me to an empty parking lot. I tried to circle back, but had lost my bearings in the night. I flagged down a woman and asked directions. Her husband was also finishing PBP, but she had no idea where the finish was. She pointed me in a direction and thought it was that way.
As I cruised over an overpass, I saw a group of riders beneath me. I lurched down to the street and joined the group. Finally! Then they admitted that they were also lost. Four others joined us, also lost.
We were tired and pissed. Finally we saw a sign and turned a corner into the finish area.
We were herded into a holding area where we stowed our bikes and led into the hall that served as the finish. Inside riders were sprawled sleeping everywhere. I turned in my card and promptly joined the others on the floor, easily passing out for an hour nap.
I was done, and after my nap I pedaled the last 2 miles to the hotel – standing the whole way, as my saddle chafing had finally hit the unbearable point. Everyone was up, eating breakfast and cheering as each rider made the slow trek to the front of the hotel.
A quick shower, a beaming hug and kiss from Amy, clapping and cheering from the hotel guests and staff, and I hit the bed for some of the most wonderful sleep I’ve enjoyed for a long time.
The Big Question
Will I do this ride again? Hard to say. It’s probably good that it only happens every four years. In true randonneur fashion I will forget the sleeplessness, the rough roads that caused my fingers and toes to still be numb two weeks after the event, and all the half-conscious stumbling around to find lines for food, restroom, etc.
I will remember flying through the dead, still night, and the earnest faces of villagers yelling “Bon Courage!”. Perhaps I will come up with new strategies to ride the ride faster and more comfortably.
All through the ride I kept thinking of those riders I met before the start who had done the ride five, six, seven times. What motivates them? Does the itch just start again after two or three years? Well, I know I have plenty of time to mull it over and see which memories get amplified and which get glossed over and selectively culled.
Who knows, I may be back at the starting line in 4 years, trying for 69 hours.