Paris-Brest-Paris 2003

In 1891, Pierre Giffard, a French journalist, came up with the idea of a 1200 kilometer (750 mile) bicycle event going from Paris to Brest on the Atlantic Ocean and returning to Paris as a way to promote cycling in his country. The winning time that year was 71h 35m, set by Charles Terront. The event has held once every ten years until 1941 when it was postponed until 1948 due to the German occupation. Since 1971, the Paris-Brest-Paris has been held every four years and hosted by the Audax Club Parisien, a French randonneuring society. This year, the challenge is to complete the 750 mile round trip under a 90 hour time limit.

Because of the difficulty of the PBP, cyclists are required to complete a series of four "brevets" in order to qualify. The traditional brevet series consists of 200K (125 mile), 300K (190 mile), 400K (250 mile) and 600K (375 mile) events, with time limits of less than a day for all but the 600K which has a 40-hour limit. Brevet series are held all over the world by local organizations to provide cyclists with the opportunity to qualify. In the United States, the national organization is called Randonneurs USA, and in eastern Massachusetts they sanction the annual Boston Brevet Series.

As spring approached this year it became clear that I was not going to lose my job in time to do a long bike ride over the summer. I decided instead to try to get as far as I could in the Boston Brevet Series as it seemed like the best way to cram as much bicycling as possible into the weekends. I was joined in this lunacy by my good friend Max Poletto, a strong cyclist with a spectacularly high pain threshhold.

In the beginning, I had no intention of riding the PBP; in fact, I didn't even realize that 2003 was a PBP year until April (in years when PBP doesn't run, local organizations do events of their own -- in Massachusetts they run Boston-Montreal-Boston). However, these things take on a perverse logic of their own -- once you've finished, for example, the 300K event you feel compelled to attempt the 400K just to find out if you can really do it. And once you've done all four and qualified for the PBP, it seems obligatory to go on and attempt that (ride reports from the 300K, 400K and 600K events are on my website). Thus I found myself in mid-August having broken every previous personal record and frantically preparing for the most audacious cycling event I have ever attempted, with a trip to France thrown in just to complicate the logistics.

I made all my arrangements through a travel agent who specializes in bringing Americans to the PBP (Claus Claussen of Des Peres Travel); that meant most of the logistics were taken care of for me. There were no more than the usual number of snafus getting to France (mostly due to the disruption of the airline schedules caused by the power blackout in the northeastern United States), and about half a day after leaving Boston on a Thursday evening I found myself on a Friday afternoon in a hotel conference room in Saint Quentin-en-Yvelines along with dozens of other American cyclists reassembling our bicycles.

Saint Quentin-en-Yvelines is a dreary town. It was created out of the whole cloth by the French government to provide affordable housing for people who had been priced out of the Paris real estate market. SQY is what you get when you let urban planners design a town from scratch: here a village, there a commercial center. What is lacking is the normal organic growth, the soul and the spirit, that results from centuries of human activity in one place.

As I was putting my bicycle back together in the hotel in SQY, someone pointed out a notable machine leaning against the wall. It was a fairly beaten-up Rivendell sans derailleur. The owner had three cogs on the cassette with 13, 14 and 15 teeth and a single 42-tooth chain ring. Since there were no derailleurs, the rider couldn't shift without getting off the bike, loosening the rear wheel and moving the chain by hand. With such a close range of gears and such difficulty moving between them, it was clear that this guy was going to ride the PBP in one gear. The bicycle belonged to Lon Haldeman, my childhood hero.

Lon Haldeman's bicycle

In 1982 Lon Haldeman won the first "Race Across America", sprinting from Huntington Beach, California to Atlantic City, New Jersey in 9 days, 20 hours and 2 minutes. His record would be broken (first by Peter Penseyres in 1986 with a time of 8d 9h 47m then again by Michael Secrest in 1990 with a time of 7d 23h 16m), but he would nonetheless remain in that category of cyclists that can only be described as superhuman.

Lon Haldeman

Taped to the top-tube of the Lon's Rivendell was a list of all the PBP controles and their closing times. Why would a cyclist as powerful as him worry about the closing times of the controles? Well, it turned out he was planning to do the whole ride in daylight. By taking the 84 hour start (at 5 AM Tuesday morning) he would have only a few hours of night riding, and at his speed he could reasonably expect to make it to Loudeac before dark while the rest of us were consuming the whole 24 hours from 10 PM Monday until 10 PM Tuesday.

On Saturday, I decided to take my bike out for a shake-down. I had no map and no idea where I was going, so my plan was to ride a few blocks around town just to make sure no critical components were going to fall off the bicycle. But when I went out I saw a group of cyclists doing much the same thing, and I couldn't pass up the opportunity to jump on Lon Haldeman's wheel. I ended up putting in about forty miles that way.

Drafting Lon Haldeman (on the right)

Sunday was the bicycle inspection. I'm very much impressed by the different notions of safe bicycling practiced by different cultures. The French make a very big deal of requiring that your bicycle should be equipped with lights, that you must carry three spare bulbs for both the front and rear lights, and that you must wear a reflective vest at night. All of these seem like sensible requirements since a very large part of the riding will be done in the dark countryside of Brittany.

Inpsection chaos

However, the French permit a very wide latitude in interpreting these requirements. For example, a flashlight taped to the handlebars is considered to be an adequate headlight. Many of the French won't even bother to turn it on except when they are rolling downhill -- they prefer to depend on the lights of surronding cyclists to illuminate the road. Perhaps most surprising to Americans, the typical European cyclist despises helmets and they are not required for PBP.

The bicycle inspection also brings out the cultural differences in bicycles. Every nationality has its stereotype. Americans have the lightest, most high-tech and most expensive machines that are more suitable for track racing than randonneuring. The British will inevitably ride something that is excessively overweight or otherwise absurd in some fashion. The French will ride whatever old bicycle they happen to pull out of the garage. My friends inform me that I will be mistaken for a Brit riding my Bob Jackson touring bike. Certainly, I am more sympathetic to the British notion of an apropriate machine for this sort of event than to that of my compatriots.

There were also some wonderfully weird machines (mostly British) that came out on display during the bicycle inspection. David Minter, an Australian living in Tamworth, Staffordshire in the UK and member of the Veteran Cycle Club, rode a 1965 Kirby-built Moulton Stowaway with a Sachs two-speed hub (I wonder if he had to use both speeds). There was also a Barron upright tandem tricycle and a recumbant tandem tricycle, both propelled by powerful pairs of Brits. By far the weirdest entry was a Finn on a scooter.

David Minter with his 1965 Kirby-built Moulton Stowaway

Recumbant tandem tricycle at the inspection.

Barron tandem tricycle at the Fougeres controle.

Barron tandem tricycle piloted by Pat Kenny and Pete Gifford.

Michael Bridgeland of London with his Merican

Chip Coldwell of Boston with his Bob Jackson

But there were also some really beautiful machines fielded for the event. There were marvelous French machines built specifically for randonneuring by the houses of Gilles Berthoud, Pierre Perrin and Alex Singer as well as British machines from the likes of Bob Jackson, Dave Yates, Mercian and Thorn (DGW will be pleased to learn that a Thorn triplet was entered). I didn't pay much attention to the American bikes as they had far too much titanium and carbon-fiber for my taste.

Monday is the day the event starts, with an 80-hour start at 8 PM, and then the 90-hour start at 10 PM. I spent the day hanging around the hotel, checking over my bicycle and trying to get some sleep in the afternoon. Finally, I went to a dinner organized for the event at a restaurant (Les Quadrants) near the start, then went to watch the 80-hour start. As soon as they were out of the gate, it was time to queue up for the 90-hour start at 10 PM. One inevitably ends up spending about two hours waiting in the soccer field behind the gymnasium waiting for the start.

The crowd at the Gymnase des Droits de l'Homme watching the 80-hour start.

Cyclists at the starting line waiting for the 80-hour start.

The start itself is a strange experience. Cyclists are sent out in waves; for the 90-hour group the first wave leaves at 10:00 PM, followed by additional waves at 15-minute intervals until the whole field is on the road. I was in the 10:15 group, which meant I was pretty near to the middle. Unlike the United States, there is essentially no urban sprawl in France, and once you cross the boundary of a village or city you are instantly in the countryside. Then there are no lights except those carried by the cyclists themselves until the next village. One sees a long line of red tail lights in front snaking off to the horizon, stars overhead and nothing but shadows around. It is a strangely beautiful sight.

Riding the PBP is a process of progressing from one controle to the next. Typically there are about 80 kilometers (50 miles) between controles, except for the first controle, Mortagne au Perche, which is at 141 kilometers (88 miles). I reached it at about 6 AM on Tuesday. The controles are the means of monitoring the progress of the riders as well as providing them with support. You must check in at each one and get your brevet card stamped, and then you can go to the buffet. Because this is France, every controle also has a bar serving wine and beer, and many of the French cyclists will avail themselves of this service. Abstemious Americans such as myself stayed on the wagon for the duration of the randonneur.

Paris-Brest-Paris Controles

Guyancort00Aug 18 22:15
Mortagne au Perche14188
Villaines la Juhel223139Aug 19 08:31
Fougeres311193Aug 19 13:37
Tinteniac366227Aug 19 17:16
Loudeac452281Aug 19 21:44
Carhaix-Plouguer529329Aug 20 08:30
Brest615382Aug 20 14:17
Carhaix-Plouguer696432Aug 20 18:59
Loudeac773480Aug 20 23:30
Tinteniac859534Aug 21 05:52
Fougeres914568Aug 21 12:13
Villaines La Juhel1002623Aug 21 18:08
Mortagne au Perche1084674Aug 21 23:40
Nogent le Roi1167725Aug 22 07:48
Guyancourt1225761Aug 22 11:33

The countryside in Brittany is everywhere hilly but nowhere steep. The entire PBP is a succession of long rollers with ruling grades of about six or seven percent. It is a considerable amount of climbing, which came as a shock to some of the cyclists from Florida, but for one such as myself who qualified in Massachusetts the climbing was not particularly challenging. In addition, the French roads were in superb condition. I had heard that there are no potholes in France, and although this is not literally true, they certainly keep their roads in much better shape than those in Massachusetts.

Cycling the P-B-P in Brittany means being greeted as a hero by all the locals along the way. At every town, people would be out to watch the cyclists go by. Some would move their tables outside and eat dinner where they could watch us pass. Many, many, of them would set up tables from which they could hand out water and food to passing cyclists. Bicycles decorated with flowers and lights were put out on display to welcome us and everyone you encourtered would cheer you on with cries of "Bon courage! Bonne route! Al-lez! Al-lez! Al-lez!" Even the drivers were considerate and patiently waited for minutes behind large pelotons of P-B-P cyclists before passing. I was very impressed by the contrast with the way cyclists are greeted in America, but French cyclists informed me that this attitude toward cyclists was not, in fact, universal to France but was unique to Brittany. Brittany was the home of such cycling heros as Bernard Hinault, and their pride in his accomplishments has made them sympathetic to other cyclists.

At one point during the day Tuesday, a Brit from the Willesden Cycle Club came up behind me, took one look at my Bob Jackson with toeclips and downtube shifters, and asked "So what part of the country are you from?" I provoked quite a surprised look when I replied "Massachusetts"; indeed, as predicted I had been mistaken for a Brit by a Brit. My friends in the V-CC would have been proud.

I arrived at Loudeac at 9:40 PM on Tuesday, 281 miles and almost 24 hours after leaving Saint Quentin en Yvelines. Loudeac is a very strategically placed controle; a typical way of riding the PBP is to ride to Loudeac, sleep there for a while, then do a round trip to Brest and back to Loudeac (about 200 miles), sleep some more, and then return to Saint Quentin en Yvelines, probably making one additional sleep stop along the way. The travel agent provided a bag drop to Loudeac, and having heard that the dortoir (dormitory) at Loudeac fills up quickly, I arranged to have my tent and sleeping bag dropped there. The notion was, I would not have to depend on getting a space in the dortoir but could just pitch my tent in the grass at the controle and get some sleep even if the weather was foul.

As I was waiting in line for the buffet at Loudeac, a French man on crutches wearing civilian clothes (and therefore obviously not a cyclist) struck up a conversation with me. My French is pretty weak, but I managed to make myself understood. Eventually, much to my surprise, he invited me and three French cyclists to stay at his home in Loudeac for the night. His house was only a few blocks from the controle, a beautiful stone manor house built in 1769. As if it weren't already enough to provide us with a place to sleep, Bernard Aubin (which was his name, he gave me his card) also made an enormous breakfast for us all at four in the morning.

Le petit dejeuner at Loudeac. Eric, Jean, Dominique and our host Bernard Aubin.

I set off from Loudeac in the company of the three French cyclists I spent the night with: Eric, Jean and Dominique. As we were approaching Carhaix, I noticed a high-pitched squeaking sound coming from my bicycle. It continued even if I wasn't pedaling, so I knew it wasn't coming from the chain, and therefore must be in one of the wheels. Two weeks before coming to France, I had started a double century training ride but had to drop out after 150 miles when my rear wheel bearing exploded and spilled its guts on the road. I had taken the wheel to see my favorite mechanic in Roslindale, and he replaced the bearing but warned me that he had had serious problems with the replacements failing after only a couple hundred miles. He strongly encouraged me to carry a spare, because even if I didn't have the tools to replace it myself I could get help from a mechanic at one of the controles.

We made it to Carhaix, the last controle before Brest, and for whatever reason I completely forgot about the squeak and failed to visit the mechanic. The road out of Carhaix is a tremendous downhill, and at the bottom I noticed that my squeak had turned into a squeak and loud clicking. Fearing for my bearing, I decided to turn back to Carhaix (going back up the downhill) and see the mechanic after all, and wished my French companions good luck. They did not expect to see me again.

After climbing back up to Carhaix I went straight to the mechanic. He spoke no English, so I got a chance to learn some new French vocabulary. The French word for "bearing" is "roulement". That's fairly easy to remember, since "rouler" means "to roll" and "une roue" is "a wheel". Perhaps an interesting cultural difference that the English word for this part focuses on its weight-bearing property, whereas the French word focuses on how it gives the wheel its rolling property. Anyway, I managed to explain my problem and without the spare bearing I would have been forced to buy a new wheel. As it was, the mechanic was able to get me back on the road with the old wheel and the whole experience only cost me about an hour.

So I left Carhaix for the second time headed for Brest, this time alone. The weather was fine, the riding was beautiful and I was making pretty good time. I was riding right in the middle of the P-B-P, so there were always cyclists around me. Pelotons would form spontaneously, sometimes growing to hundreds of cyclists, but between Carhaix and Brest I would plug along at my own speed. From time to time a cyclist would latch onto my rear wheel and stick with me for a while, or I would find another English speaker to have a conversation with. There were about 460 Americans and 400 British cyclists plus a good number from Canada, Australia and other former British colonies, so the chances that a cyclist chosen at random from the field of 4000 would be a native English speaker were pretty good.

I rested just a little while at Brest before turning back and heading to Carhaix. I was spending over an hour at every controle along the way, and it was starting to become clear to me that I needed to be more efficient. I resolved to spend no more than a half-hour at Carhaix on the return: just long enough to check in, eat something, fill my water bottles and get moving again. But five minutes after leaving Carhaix I noticed that I had forgotten my bottles at the controle cafe, so I doubled back to retrieve them. Who should I run into when I got there but the same three French cyclists (Jean, Eric and Dominique) that I had arrived at Carhaix with on the way out.

We left Carhaix together with the intention of riding solid all the way to Tinteniac and then sleeping there. I did my best to try to keep up with their conversation, which was entirely in French, but I discovered just how hard it is to be competent in a foreign language when you are in a state of extreme fatigue. Most of it I simply did not follow; the conversation floated around me and I only occassionally contributed to it when directly interrogated. I vowed to spend the time until the next Paris-Brest-Paris improving my French language skills.

Having come 281 miles to Loudeac on the first day, Tinteniac at 253 miles was an audacious second day goal for me, especially considering that I had scarcely had four hours of sleep in the previous 48. As night fell and we continued riding, I started having more and more difficulty staying awake. The headlight on my bicycle illuminates only a small area ahead and it kept dancing around as the bicycle meandered. Since there is no urban sprawl, there are also no streetlights between villages, and I found my mind grouping for a stationary frame of reference, but the dancing headlight deprived me of it. Fatigue became more and more irresistable, and although I could force my eyes to stay open I would notice that road signs and trees would start to melt into a dreamlike state. I was starting to hallucinate.

Fearing that I would fall asleep during a downhill, I realized that the only way I would stay awake was to get the juices flowing. I started to push harder and to really hammer up the hills. The adrenaline kicked in as I took the lead and I got the bicycle wound up. I could hear my prowess praised in French as we pounded out the miles, riding like we were out for a weekend joyride. We rolled into Tinteniac at about 4 in the morning, and got a room in the dormitory.

It was 9 AM the next day when we got up and 10 by the time we got moving again. It was, in retrospect, a mistake to push on past Loudeac, since we could have slept there in darkness there instead of burning daylight at Tinteniac. Our goal this time was to press on all the way to the finish. Given the late start, it was not an entirely reasonable one, but at a mere 227 miles it would be the shortest "day" of the ride.

Once again, we were spending altogether too much time at the controles. It seems to me that it is better to be very efficient at the intermediate controles and to use the time you save sleeping. We spent more than an hour and a half at Villaines, and a similar amount of time at Mortagne au Perche, so it was well after midnight by the time we left Mortagne au Perche with only 140 miles to show for ourselves for the day so far.

Before leaving for France, I had heard that there was a heat wave and that thousands of people were dying as a result. I figured it was safe to leave my cold-weather gear at home. During the day, temperatures were a very pleasant 80 degrees or so, but just as soon as the sun went down, the temperature would drop quickly, bottoming out in the 50s in the wee hours of the morning. I wasn't having trouble with the cold temperatures while we were climbing, but the downhills would give me a chill, especially as my metabolism had been through such an ordeal it was happy to shut down at the first indication that there might be rest. To complicate matters, my achilles tendons were starting to ache and the fatigue that had made cycling so difficult the previous night was worse this time. For the first time on the ride, I was really starting to suffer.

The others were showing signs of wear, too. We were taking long breaks in the villages along the way, and the French started debating whether we should stop beside the road and just sleep for a few hours. Finally, in Senonches, they decided to do just that. I knew I would be in trouble if I did, since if I stopped riding I would start getting chilled within ten minutes, but one of the French riders had an extra emergency survival blanket (really just an alluminized sheet of plastic) that he could loan me. So we pulled over into someone's garage and bedded down on the gravel.

I only slept about half an hour, but after one hour the French wanted to get going again. I just couldn't face riding in the dark, and I told them to go ahead without me. "J'attends le Soleil," I told them, and they went ahead without me. I didn't sleep any more, but just sat there wrapped in plastic waiting for the Sun to rise.

As I waited, another cyclist stopped nearby and I heard the sound of crinkling plastic as he wrapped himself in his own survival blanket. Slowly the sky brightened, and finally I got going again, slowly at first, then picking up speed as I came into the flat lands that surround Paris. There was only one controle, Nogent le Roi, before the end, and I made my stay there relatively brief. (For reasons I don't understand, the electronic tracking system did not record my stop at Nogent le Roi, but I very definitely did check in there. I even have a witness: a Canadian cyclist, Phil Piltch, who was staying at my hotel in SQY and who did the 84 hour start caught up with me there. I learned later that this technical snafu caused some worry among the people who were tracking me via the Audax Club Parisien website, but at the time it seemed like a very routine controle.)

It was about 11:30 on Friday when I arrived at the finish. There was a crowd (composed largely of cyclists who had already finished) cheering us on as we came in, and a free glass of wine when you did get there. I was in no condition for alcohol (although I admire the French liver), and just handed in my brevet card and headed for the hotel. It was about 2 PM by the time I was checked in and back in my room. After a shower, I figured to take a short nap and then go back to the finish to watch the ceremonies. It was 7 AM the next morning (15 hours later) when I woke up.

In retrospect, I would say that I made three identifiable mistakes on this ride, none of which proved fatal:

  1. On the return, overrunning Loudeac and going on to Tinteniac. I might as well have slept in Loudeac while it was dark instead of in Tinteniac while it was light.
  2. Also on the return, overrunning Mortagne and going on to Senonches. There was no way I was in any condition to make it to the finish that night; I didn't even make it to the next controle.
  3. Most importantly: not bringing cold weather clothing!

Nonetheless, I think the Paris-Brest-Paris was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I am totally hooked, and planning to go back in 2007 if it is at all possible. In the meantime, I'm going to study the French language and try to do some local 1200Ks, namely the Boston-Montreal-Boston that runs in years when there's no P-B-P.

Stay tuned!

Like Boy Scouts collecting merit badges,
randonneurs collect brevet medals.