Monday, September 19, 2011

My Paris-Brest-Paris

Paris-Brest-Paris is a 1200-kilometer ride that takes place every four years.  One of the established customs of the ride is that those who have completed it write a report of their experiences.  I completed the ride this year, and this is my contribution to the genre of the rider's report.

Vive le Velo, Vive la France, Vive le PBP!

            Participating in the Paris-Brest Paris ride in August, 2011, was one of the great experiences of my life.  Completing the 1200 kilometer course in 88 hours and 3 minutes (within the 90 hours allowed) is a source of great pride for me, and, depending on how I look at it, represents the culmination of a season, or three years, or a lifetime of effort as a cyclist.  Even more than a sense of personal accomplishment, however, I took away from the event a deep joy in joining more than 5000 cyclists from around the world who came to Paris to test themselves and to show what is possible on a bicycle.  Ultimately, PBP for me was about joining something much bigger than myself, and, in my small way, becoming a part of the history of a ride that stretches back to 1891.
            I enjoyed every part of the event, even the bureaucratic exercises that preceded the ride.  During the bicycle inspection and registration the day before the event, the excitement and the good spirits were palpable.  The volunteers who did the paperwork and directed the cyclists through the maze of check-points were invariably cheerful and generous, as they were throughout the four days of the ride.  The night before the ride began, there was a concert followed by a wonderfully well choreographed fireworks display to kick off the ride.  At the end of the show, the announcer shouted out, in the overly excited manner peculiar to French emcees, “Vive le velo, vive la France, vive le PBP!” 
            For me, as for many other riders, the actual beginning of the ride was all about waiting.  I slept in late the morning of the event, had a leisurely lunch and early dinner, and then ambled over to the starting line at about 5 p.m.  I was somewhat surprised to discover that I was near the end of the line of riders queued up for the 6 p.m. start, and this put me in the very last wave of 90-hour starters, who did not get underway until 8 p.m.  This was by far the hottest day of the ride, and by the time I reached the starting line, I had drunk much of the water I carried with me, and was still parched.
            But once we finally got rolling, all was well.  We had a motorcycle escort through the suburbs of Paris, and we all rode fast and with great spirit.  Those early hours introduced me to the many pleasures of PBP: spectators along the route yelling out “bonne route” and “bon courage” and giving us water and snacks, casual conversations in English and broken French with fellow randonneurs, and an unbroken line of red lights before me and white lights behind me.  If you are devoted to long-distance cycling, as I am, it doesn’t get better than this.
            The first full day of the ride was smooth sailing for me.  There were occasional periods of rain, but they weren’t heavy enough to require rain gear, and were generally refreshing.  I got used to working my way through the crush of spectators and riders at the controls, and developed a routine for getting my brevet card stamped, getting some food, filling my water bottles and getting off with reasonable efficiency.  Sooner than I expected, I arrived in Loudeac, 450 kilometers into the ride, feeling good and fresh.
            Here, though, I made a bit of a tactical error.  After getting my card stamped, eating a nice dinner, retrieving my drop bag and showering, I decided that I was feeling too good to stop for a rest, even though I had I had been on the road for nearly 24 hours without sleep.  I decided to go on to the sleep stop in Saint Nicolas-du-Pellem, 44 kilometers down the road, or possibly on to Carhaix, the next control, which was a further 32 kilometers.   In retrospect, I should have taken a cot in Loudeac, and had a nice sleep.
            Soon after I left Loudeac, there was a fantastic display of lightning, and it started pouring down rain.  Moreover, the road became very hilly, with sharp climbs and even sharper descents.  My greatest weakness as a randonneur is descending, particularly when I cannot see very well; I find myself braking down hills that others take at great speed.  This made the road to St. Nicolas very, very slow.  Luckily, Jerry, a very kind rider from North Carolina, stuck with me through this stretch.  He said that he wanted to stay with me because I had a GPS and could follow the route with confidence; in fact, though, I think that he saw that I was struggling to see the road and wanted to help me out.  This was one of many kindnesses I received during the ride.
            When we finally reached St. Nicolas, there were no more beds available, because so many riders were seeking shelter from the storm.  Eventually, I claimed some space on the floor of the dormitory, and lay down for three hours.  Unfortunately, I was unable to sleep, partly because I was wet and uncomfortable, and partly because there was a snoring fest of the sort I had never witnessed before.  One of the snorers seemed to be doing excavation deep under the surface of the earth, and the whole room reverberated with his efforts.
            While I did not get any sleep, I was grateful to discover, when I got up three hours later, that the rain had mostly stopped, and that the riding was much easier.  I did have some trouble, however, with heavy fog on the Roc Trevezel, the longest climb of the ride.  Actually, climbing was not a problem, but the fog made it difficult to see on the way down, and, as I had done the night before, I descended much more slowly than I wanted.  Eventually, though, I got to Brest, and found that I had spent only 39 of the 90 hours allotted to me.  I was happy with this time, and had a beer—my first and only during the ride.  (To the amusement of many of the Americans on PBP, there was beer and wine on offer at every control; it was an odd thing to contemplate this array of beverages at, say, 5 in the morning, after going days without sleep.)
            As I was riding out of Brest, early on Tuesday afternoon, the weather cleared up, and I was stunned by the scenery that had been concealed by fog the previous day.  I could see layers and layers of hills, in variegated shades of green, off into the distance.  I also had the pleasure of traveling down the Roc at a good speed, and, while I was beginning to feel tired, I made steady progress back to Loudeac.  I again got clean cycling kit from my drop bag, and had a wonderful shower and a good feed.  This time, though, I decided to correct my earlier mistake, and booked a cot in Loudeac for a three-hour sleep.  Sadly, though, the earth-moving snorer got there before me, and, again, I was unable to sleep because of the noise in the hall.
            While I was short on sleep, I felt good leaving Loudeac early the next morning.  Wednesday, the last full day, was the most beautiful day of the ride.  The temperature was cool but pleasant; there was no rain and mostly blue skies.  Also, as we got closer to Paris, and most of my fellow riders realized that they were going to complete the ride, their spirits rose, and the rolling community that is PBP became progressively more festive.  In many ways, Wednesday was my favorite day of the ride, and I remember thinking to myself how sad I would be when it all ended.
            At the same time, however, Wednesday also brought me challenges.  For one thing, my lack of sleep was catching up with me.  At Tinteniac, I had a wonderful breakfast of mashed potatoes and chicken, after which I crawled under the table at which I had just eaten, and slept for two hours.  (This is the unspoken rule of the latter stages of PBP—sleep whenever and wherever you can.) This turned out to be my only real sleep of the ride, and, while I felt better, my sleep tank was still severely depleted.  When I got to the next control, Fougeres, I ate another good meal, and stretched out on the grass for an hour.  I didn’t sleep this time, and I knew the next stages would be difficult.  Even so, I made my way, albeit slowly, to Villaines-la-Juhel, which is only a bit more than 200 kilometers from the end.
            Then things got really tough.  The stretch between Villaine and Mortagne-au-Perche is quite lumpy.  I felt pretty good as I tackled the first hills, but I was slowing perceptibly, and, as night came, I got sleepier.  The same was happening to other riders.  As I rode along, I saw cyclists sprawled out along the road next to their bikes.  It was quite apocalyptic, and it looked like hordes of cyclists had been asphyxiated by an invisible but deadly gas.  Eventually, I fell too, and pulled out my space blanket for 15 minutes of kip along the road.  This time, the stop brought me no real comfort, and when I started out again, I felt worse than when I lay down.  But I went on.
            Eventually, I came to a small village, and, for the first time, I stopped at one of the many stands set up for cyclists.  I had a wonderful coffee and cake.  It was so good, in fact, that I decided to have another round, but when I looked for my wallet to pay, I found that it was gone.  Riding a long randonnee requires you to keep track of lots of important stuff, and thus far I had done well.  But in my sleepiness I had gotten sloppy, and I probably lost my wallet when I stopped along the road for my 15-minute rest.  All of my cash and all of my credit cards were in the wallet, but I did still have my brevet card and passport.
            This was my bleakest moment.  Here I was, in the middle of god-knows-where, France, so tired that I could not think straight, and without the means to feed myself.  Everything on PBP costs something—three euros for a shower, four for a cot, and ten for a proper meal--and I now had less than a euro on me.  For the first time, I allowed myself to think that I might not finish the ride.  I sat down by the side of a dark road, despondent and unsure what to do next.
            But this was also my moment of rejuvenation.  I gave myself a good talking to, and reminded myself that I had come here to complete this ride, and I must not let anything—especially not anything as trivial as losing a wallet—stop me from finishing.  I took stock of my food and realized that I probably had enough energy bars and Hammer tablets to see me to Paris, even though they tasted worse than cardboard to me.  I also realized that there would be people along the road who would give me more palatable food for free.  I rode on.
            I continued to struggle with the hills, but then something wonderful and unexpected happened.  At the top of a tough hill, in the pitch dark, I came upon a group of people gathered around a camper, some of them riders, and some of them not.  A jovial man was passing out coffee and cake.  I drank a cup of coffee that tasted better to me than any I had before (and I drink a lot of coffee).  I had some cake, and that, too, made me feel better.  I wanted to move on, but the man insisted that I sit for a bit in a chair he brought out for me.  He told me that he and his wife had ridden PBP many times before, but were now too old to do it, and wanted to help other riders.  They had chosen this spot to set up their camper because they always found it the most difficult of the ride.  I looked around for his wife, but there was no woman in the group.  Later, he embraced another man, and, while I was too groggy to know for sure, I inferred that they were a gay couple, and that this was, for them, a kind of coming out party in the mostly masculine, sometimes masochistic world of randonneuring.
            As I sat there, they asked me where I came from.  “The U.S.” I said.  “Where in the U.S.,” they asked.  “Indiana,” I said.  Just then, another rider came up, proclaiming, “my back is killing me.”  My hosts asked, “Where are you from?”  “Indiana,” he answered.  I was astonished to hear this.  There were only six riders on PBP from Indiana, and I had a passing acquaintance with four of the other five.  As I looked at this figure arriving in the middle of the night, I realized that he was Phil Carroll, with whom I had ridden a few hours of my last 600K of the season in June in southern Wisconsin.  He got off and joined the party.  As we talked about our experiences, I told him about losing my wallet.  “Do you want some money?” he asked.  “Sure,” I said, “ten euros would see me to the end.”  He pulled out a wad of cash, handed me a 50-euro bill, and said, “If you don’t pay me back, I won’t lend you money again.”
            I am not a religious person, but as I left that warm, bright place and threw myself again into the dark, I felt blessed.  A bit earlier, I was worried that I might not finish the ride.  Now, I felt so enveloped in generosity and good will that I could not fail to finish.
            With lifted spirits, then, I arrived in Mortagne, which was the next-to-the-last control, about 120 kilometers from the finish line.  I did a quick calculation, and realized that I had at least three hours to spare.  I again had a nice meal (as you can see, eating was a big part of my PBP experience), and I decided to take a cot for an hour, spending freely from the 50-euro treasure Phil Carroll had given me.  I don’t remember a lot of snoring this time, but I still couldn’t sleep; my mind was too occupied with the experiences of the night and with my approaching arrival in Paris to shut down.  
            I left Mortagne a bit after 3 a.m., which gave me almost 11 hours to cover the last 120 kilometers.  I was grateful when the route began to flatten out, and I reached Dreux, the last control, without incident.  The last 50 kilometers seemed like a victory lap; there were a few sharp hills coming into Paris, but I scarcely even noticed them.  I, and the people I was riding with at this point, knew that nothing could stop us from finishing.
            I crossed the finish line a few minutes after noon, almost two hours before the limit.  I stumbled through the formalities, got my free beer, and sat under a tree for an hour or so with a group of riders from San Francisco.  One of them said, “this is the Olympics of randonneuring, and we just did it, man.”  I thought there was some truth to that, but I fell asleep before I could say anything in response.
            After I picked myself up and headed home, I rode for a while with a Belgian rider, who had also just finished, and was on his way back to his hotel.  I asked him if he would do PBP again, and he responded, without hesitation, “Why would I want to ruin a perfect ride?”  As I talked to him, it became clear that the ride had gone so well for him that he did not want to endanger his good memories of the event by doing it again, and perhaps creating less happy memories.  I completely understood what he was saying, but I had the opposite response.  I had enjoyed myself so much—even when the going was difficult--that I wanted to do it again, as soon as possible.  But I will have to wait another four years.
            At 52, I am, to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, an old man, and yet a young randonneur.  (To be clear, I should say here that Jefferson was talking about gardening, not randonneuring).  I only started the sport three seasons ago, after I was hit by a car and broke my leg.  As I was recovering from the surgery, which involved putting my tibia back together with nine screws and a metal plate, I resolved to not allow the accident to stop me, and to embrace cycling all the more fervently.  At that point, most of my cycling experience was as a commuter, relying on a bicycle for most of my day-to-day travel, although I had discovered in my early forties that I could ride long distances if I set my mind to it.  Randonneuring seemed at the time both a challenge and a logical extension of the kind of cycling I had done my whole life. (I also received an insurance settlement as a result of my accident that allowed me to buy the equipment and pay for the travel that comes with randonneuring.)
            I learned a lot during my first two years as a randonneur, sometimes through failure.  In my very first year, I attempted London-Edinburg-London, a 1400-kilometer ride that goes through some very hilly stretches in northern England and Scotland.  On the way back from Edinburgh, I got washed out by a severe storm, lost my way, and Did Not Finish.  The following year, I again tried a long ride, the Lowlands 1200, which went around the Netherlands and through a bit of Germany and Belgium.  This time, I had a bad rear wheel that kept losing a spoke and going out of true.  Halfway through the ride, I managed to buy a new wheel, but had lost so time much that, again, I Did Not Finish.  My success in PBP came, I believe, as a result of those two failures, and of all that I had learned in the dozen or so shorter rides I had completed.
            One of the things I love most about randonneuring is its emphasis upon self-reliance.  Unlike some other forms of cycling, you don’t generally have a car following you during a randonneuring event (although some elite riders did have such support on PBP), and you have to figure out how to do things on your own.  In my three years of randonneuring, I have become a far better mechanic, navigator and rider than I was when I started.  And, strange as it is to say this at my age, I think I have also gained emotional maturity.  In particular, I don’t think that I could have coped as well with the loss of my wallet and managed to carry on when I started randonneuring two years ago.
            But what PBP taught me this year takes me in the opposite direction, and reminds me of how important other people are to what we do.  As I reflect on my experiences, I think of Jerry, who rode with me through that storm, of the generous French man who was passing out coffee and cake on the way to Mortagne, and of Phil Carroll, who handed me 50 euros on that dark road without blinking an eye in hesitation.  I also think of the many kind people along the way who offered me water, stamped my brevet card, and cheered me on.  And, perhaps most of all, I think of the French family I stayed with before and after the event.
            Indeed, one of the luckiest things I did for PBP was to arrange to stay with a family.  More or less on a whim, I responded to a posting on the website for PBP where riders could request housing and residents and hotels could offer housing to riders.  Because my wife could not join me in Paris, I thought that I might enjoy staying with a family, rather than in a hotel, and that this might make the experience more personal.  I had not imagined, however, that I would meet such generous people as the Rosselle family, or that they would take such good care of me.
            Olivier and Marie Agnes Rosselle took me in sight unseen. They gave me an extremely comfortable place to stay, just three kilometers from the start-line, for the two days before and the two days after the event. They fed me wonderful food, and gave me excellent wine, much of it from Bourgogne, where they had grown up.  They washed my clothes.  They gave me money to help me to get home after I lost my wallet.  Olivier, who is a physical therapist by training, gave me a leg massage after I finished the ride, and this helped me to recover without the knots in my leg muscles that usually follow such a long ride.  He also drove me to the airport when I left, thus solving the last cash-flow problem following from the loss of my wallet.
            As I was experiencing the generosity of the Rosselle family, and as I have thought about it since, I have often wondered why they took such extraordinary steps to help me, and to make the experience so special.  Part of the reason, certainly, is that they are inherently generous people.  Another part of the reason is that helping me gave them a way to participate in an event that was important to their community; eight years ago, they had done the same for a pair of Italian riders they housed before and after PBP.   In addition, I found in the Rosselles a love of sport that one often finds among the French which does not depend on the heroic efforts of superstars; they are capable, as were the many spectators along the route, of appreciating the near-geriatric efforts of a 52-year-old cyclist who is quite determined but who practically crawls along some portions of the route.
            As apt as these explanations are, however, I think the deeper explanation for the generosity of the Rosselles lies in something that Olivier said to me about doing PBP during the first of several meals we shared: “You have to follow your dreams.”  This is not my natural way of speaking; I am a taciturn Midwesterner, and am much more at home with the wry understatement of Phil Carroll’s “if you don’t pay me back, I will not lend you money again.”  But Olivier was certainly right, and doing PBP was about the realization of several different dreams I have had.  Moreover, he possesses a kind of wisdom that sometimes eludes me, for he understands that we rely upon others to help us to realize our dreams.  However proud we might be of our self-reliance, we can’t do it all on our own.
            At the end of the day, then, I am filled with humility and gratitude after completing PBP.  I am grateful to the Rosselles.  I am grateful to all of the volunteers, and to all of the people who offered me water and food along the way.  I am grateful to my wife for supporting me and putting up with my increasingly crazy cycling habits.  I am grateful for everything I learned and everything I experienced during that wonderful week at the end of August, 2011.  And I am grateful to have been a part of this great event.
            Vive le velo, vive la France, et vive le PBP!

Postscript: Two weeks after I returned home to Indiana, my wallet arrived in the mail.  The return address indicated that it was sent to me by a woman in Barcelona.  There was no note in the envelope, but the wallet contained all of the cash and all of the credit cards I had when I lost it.  I don’t know what to say about this final act of kindness, except that it fit in with everything I felt and experienced during PBP, and somehow completed the story for me.


  1. Yours was a fabulous experience, and this write up absolutely does it justice. Well done sir!

  2. Wow. Thanks for sharing this with all of us! Very moving.

  3. Well written and thoughtful. I'm happy it went so well for you. Thanks!

  4. One of the best PBP write-ups I have read! Amazing story and an amazing experience for you. Thank you for sharing your story.

  5. Excellent write-up. One of the best I've read so far. Thanks.

  6. Wow Bill, the emotion of losing (and recovering) your wallet and of the absolute hospitality of your French 'family' gives us lots of reason to believe in our crazy species! And it's great that your string of DNFs is over! Well done!

  7. Nice report Bill, I felt like I was there again. That's fantastic about your wallet.

    Rick Cosaro

  8. Bill, you write so well, and your account makes me think I could (and should) ride PBP in 2015 at age 55. Thank you for sharing a wonderful image of France and it's citizens.

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