An epic blog for an epic ride
On the day following Paris-Brest-Paris 2015, I literally hurt all over, neck muscles fatigued for sure, toes and hands have some numbness, eyes have bags weighted with sleep deprivation. And I’m happy.
Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) has been on my “bike it list” for quite sometime. I found it sometime in 2013 as I was scanning the Internet for epic rides. Reading about it in the randonneur blogs made me want to ride it, and I suppose one of the goals of this blog is to make you – if you’re at all contemplating it – want to ride to too.
PBP is special. It is the oldest, organized bicycle ride in the world, through France, and now it comes only once every four years. And I almost didn’t ride it this year. After RAAM last year when we decided to race the Race Across the West (RAW), I told my mom I wasn’t sure I could do both. RAW was important to me as it put a team from Team PH back on the map, and it meant racing with my friends again. But my mom pointed out that the events were a couple months apart, and encouraged me to do them both. You never know where you’ll be in health or life four years down the road. So it was decided. Live your dream. Make it happen.
Another reason PBP is special is the prep work. You have to qualify to get into the event by completing 200km, 300km, 400km and 600km rides (called brevets) the same year as the event. And to clinch a possibility of registering, ride a prequalifier of some distance the year prior (for me a 300km in NC). These rides help assure the rider is able to go the distance (over 1200km), and conquer the elevation (approximately 40,000 ft of climbing) of PBP.
I will admit that fitting in these rides was a challenge. Most of my events this year were done on sleep deprivation between traveling after work to get there in addition to the usual pre-race feeling of being amped up. Calvin’s Challenge was a race I raced short on sleep, as was every brevet except for the Ohio 600km (usually about 3-4h the night before). But to be honest, this probably prepared me as well for the event itself.
In addition to training prep there was also the prep work of learning how to take apart and pack my bike (thanks to Greg Flood) as well as – and this is very important – putting it back together again. Plus I will not even tell you (because I’ve almost lost count) how many backup pieces of everything I brought. Examples: backup tail lights that use batteries (3) back up tail lights from RAW that were awesome but charge via USB (a potential problem when you’re roughing it on the road), back up headlight battery packs (2), back up headlights (2). So much excess, but I just didn’t know and I wasn’t going to fail because of a bad tail light. Plus there is the nutrition I had to bring to accommodate special diet needs (gluten-free, plant-based) from powdered food to dried fruits and nuts; I was stoked. Read more about the gear (bike, bags, food, etc) here.
Despite all the prep I managed to leave arm warmers and knee warmers and gloves at home. I had looked at the Paris weather, but heard after getting here that in Brittany it tends to be damp and cold at night, so the expo outside the velodrome was clutch for picking up new layers. Note: If you do PBP, there is a great shop in Versailles called Summum Bike, and fabulous shops at the velodrome that help get all riders ready with last minute needs. But know you won’t be the only one looking for CO2 cartridges. Those are tough and wherever you can find them if you use them for flat tires, definitely pick them up as early as you can.
I was fortunate for many reasons to have my folks there. They recharged my back up battery packs for the headlight and carried all that obsessively packed extra gear I brought so I didn’t have to. They were an official car, so we were legit per the rules. Unlike RAAM races your crew cannot follow you on course, but they could meet me at the controles (the checkpoints) and restock me with my specific food needs as well as any bike needs that arose. They carried extra gear, but most importantly they carried extra cheer to propel me throughout the ride.
The Plan and a new PBP friend
The weekend before I had met with teammate Pascale, and we wrote out a plan to make sure this was do-able and make sure I knew a pace and benchmarks to hit to assure that I would finish. It was. But now I had a plan to work with and tweak. On the morning of registration I was eating breakfast and trying to sort out final details when I met a friendly randonneur from Northern California named Keith. And all of a sudden all these new questions came to my mind and he patiently answered each and everyone of them. Having done PBP twice before, he was experienced and – like many who return every 4 years – very passionate about the event. With his assistance, we made some last minute changes, including the decision to stop in Loudeac for a couple hours going out and back and split a hotel room there. It would save time to sleep in a place with a shower rather than go through a controle sleep stop that might have an hour-long line to sleep for an hour and a half. Plan set: Ride Paris to Loudeac, then Loudeac to Brest and back to Loudeac, then finish.
Like all big events (RAAM or RAW, or marathons if you’ve done them) there is a certain pageantry in registration. And here it was even more so. This event had over 5,000 cyclists from all over the world, and we registered in shifts at the National Velodrome in Saint Quentin en Yvelines. After having the bike check out and getting my official stamp that it was PBP-legal, I went to the velodrome where I was greeted by a volunteer named Deena from the USA. She gave me one more piece of advice: “Ride happy,” so my mantra became “Ride safe, ride strong, ride happy.” And then headed to the table for documents adorned with flags so you could find your language. A wonderful French woman greeted me, gave me the official booklet, and wished me the best on my ride. When I asked if I could take her picture she said “2 euro” and laughed.
She gave me one more piece of advice: “Ride happy,” so my mantra became “Ride safe, ride strong, ride happy.”
After getting all my gear, I headed back to the hotel. Time to rest and just get ready – final planning work for our team. After we finished sorting out the driving directions for my folks, we walked to the starting line to see off Keith and other riders in the Sunday night group, then enjoyed a dinner at Kampai in Versailles, our new local favorite sushi place (vegan roll was delicious), the night before, and then got to bed.
Starting in the largest peloton of my life
I woke up before 4AM to get to the starting line. Packed up, ate breakfast, said goodbyes to my folks then off.
We gathered in corrals by the letter of our starting group. I was to go off at 5:15. Excitement built as we rolled to the starting line, then the countdown: dix-neuf-huit-sept-six-cinq-quatre-trois-deux-un …
And we rolled off! Led by motorcycle escorts I was riding in a peloton of at least 200 people, cruising through the streets of the outskirts of Paris at 5:15 AM. And you know how in the Tour de France the peloton will flow around a roundabout like water around a rock in a stream? Yeah we did that.
And you know how in the Tour de France the peloton will flow around a roundabout like water around a rock in a stream? Yeah we did that.
The early morning was quiet, as we got out of the city quickly and just the sound of bikes clicking gears and very little talk. It was peaceful. I had again entered “the bubble,” where nothing else matters but the bike. It is one of my favorite places to be in the world, and I’d be there for the next 3 days.
For the first 220km it was rather quiet. There were no controles as the group needed time to spread out. In this silence, my mind filled in with Phil Liggett’s announcing the event: “Did you see that, Paul? She is looking strong with still 50 kilometers to go… and many more to go after that.”
PBP is really about people
So okay, imagine riding in a bike event with 5000+ people from all over the world: France, England, Germany, Spain, Mexico, China, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, Hong Kong, Sweden, the Netherlands, Russia, of course a large contingent from the USA, and more. So many languages being spoken. Often you ride in a group without really talking but you’re definitely together, and later in the ride you’re suffering together the way distance cyclists do, and enjoying it, the way cyclists do. Everyone has a story of why they’re there, who they are, what they do. And we all have come here at this point, at this time, to conquer this ride.
As the peloton woke up, the silence began to dissipate. I would ride next to riders and look at their number plate for the flag of their country and try to greet them if I could. If they spoke English, Spanish or Japanese, I’d be able to converse with them. “Buenos dias.” “Gambatte ne!” If another language, I’d offer a “bon jour,” assuming the host country’s language would be our common tongue this ride.
I rode with so many cool people, including:
– the powerful smiling Russian who waited for me to hop on his wheel, then worked together later in the race.
– the group of Brits from north of London with whom we pacelined behind a tractor at one point while it was waiting to get ahead of other riders. Discussions included France, Tour de France and Froome, agriculture and healthy living with comparisons between France and the US/UK.
– Peta from London (now; she grew up in South Africa) who had raced for years and is super fabulous on the bike.
– The 3 Spanish men (from Catalan to be exact) who raced with me out of Brest, up le côte de la Feuillée and DOWN in the smoothest, fastest 45-50 km/h paceline all the way to Carhaix. From Carhaix to Brest we rode into the night, at a more relaxed pace, and as the sun set and our ride was now illuminated by our bike headlights, my ears delighted in beautiful spoken Spanish into the night.
– The next morning out of Loudeac I met up with a Frenchman and Englishman on the way to Montagne au Perche. The Englishman lived in Paris and worked as a French translator. The Frenchman ran a bike shop near where he lived. During the ride, my legs started to feel the repercussions of having blazed the countryside the day before, so I asked the translator how to say Jens Voigt’s famous saying “Shut up, legs,” in French. Afraid the Frenchman would hear this out of context I asked him to explain it to him to know why I was asking. Later in the ride, Pascal (the Frenchman) rides along side me, turns to me and says in English: “Shut up, legs.” And I smiled. My work was done.
– After Mortagne au Perche I met up with a man from Ottawa. We shared stories about riding in France and in Canada. Later that evening I rode again with another man from England, a goat farmer who aside from talking cycling, explained to me his entrepreneurial vision for doing unique things with goat cheese in England.
PBP is also about the French love of cycling
In addition to riding with fellow riders, suffering together the way we all love to do, I also must mention the French people. I mean, in PBP, the French turn out, all along the course – all along the 1200km course. As you come up on a town, typically located on a hill with a church in the center, you’d see a group of people cheering “Allez! Bon courage!” Often people would be handing out water and coffee to passing riders. In the towns there would often be unofficial stops – tents set up by people with grills and even crepe hot plates, and wine and beer. It was like French tailgating.
When I headed back on the third afternoon I was suffering a lot of pain in my feet – hot foot as it’s called, which is a nerve pain that comes from compression/swelling/constant pressure, and for which the only relief is really getting off the pedals for a little bit. So when I saw the tents at the top of this climb in La Hutte, with a crowd of riders and townspeople and a sign saying “frites” I decided to stop. The frites were seriously like manna from Heaven. The people watching the race, serving up food and drinking beers, encapsulated the celebration of the bike
Later on the last evening when I was riding with another peloton of French, Germans and an Englishman, the group stopped at another 11PM roadside stop in Mamers, so I did as well. A five minute rest of the feet and five minutes to talk with the French who had been pointing at our bike frame number plates and calling out the countries of origin. It was a festival at midnight.
In France, so many people embrace cycling and cyclists, and so many ride themselves, that PBP feels like a tour in and of its own. Towns decorate with signs cheering on riders and bikes adorned with paper flowers or other decorations. And drivers pass with a huge berth and honk shouting “Allez!” Drivers will wait patiently behind a cyclist making a long slow climb up a hill on a two lane road before passing. No loud honking. Absolutely no driver aggression. Maybe a beep and cheer when passing. They see cyclists as brethren, indeed as many of their family members may be in that peloton themselves. It is kindness and commonality that bring us together in community. If you ride bikes, I highly suggest you put riding in France on your “bike it list.” If you drive cars, maybe it would be good to experience this civility of bike/car co-existence in France as well. It is beautiful.
Drivers will wait patiently behind a cyclist making a long slow climb up a hill on a two lane road before passing. No loud honking. Absolutely no driver aggression.
To the finish: This was no easy country ride
The ride from Villaines la Juhel to Mortagne au Perche had definitely been the most painful point of PBP for me. The hills were taking a toll not on my leg muscles but on my feet. My feet started to yell at me with each pedal stroke, and hurt to the point I would one-legged pedal for a bit. My neck muscles ached and my hands were turning numb. And the seat… Well although it was much better than I had anticipated it would be after 2.5 days, I felt it there too. When you ride long distances, it’s the contact points that begin to um, speak to you. The discomforts that we cyclists put ourselves through, it is a choice, I told myself. At times when you feel the pain you know what it feels like for the body to struggle and overcome. And in these moments I feel a connection, however subtle, to those who struggle with daily pain and discomforts of a chronic illness like PH. The truth is that for them it isn’t a choice, and I know that for people with PH, the discomforts often are not temporary. So I kept riding, because this was my choice.
Walking at the control, I was hobbling, trying not to put weight on the balls of my feet. All I wanted to do was get off my feet and shed my shoes. It was so humid inside where people were lying down that I found this inviting patch of pavement near the bikes with a slope to put my feet over my head. I laid down and slept for a bit until I felt rain sprinkling on my face, so I packed it in and went into the dorm. I checked my schedule and figured a sleep until 4:30 would suffice. I remember falling asleep on a mat on the floor in a gymnasium to the sounds of jersey zippers, cleats on the floor, and snores. The young boy woke me at my appointed 4:30 but I fell back asleep for another hour, then slowly and stiffly got up, got coffee, texted my folks and got my bike. Would I be able to ride again today?
The surprising answer – yes. After 3 hours off the feet were so much better, and now I paid better attention to my pedal stroke and placement to keep them intact. I wasn’t going to grind away today as much but rather focus on form and not exacerbating pressure points. I also rode by a lovely place called Aux delices de senonches in the town of Senonches, saw mashed potatoes in the window and had to stop. With a proper warm breakfast I was ready and now headed onto Dreux. Except that I wasn’t. I headed out of the charcuterie and heard another German yelling after me: “Stop! Wrong way!” He rode with me back to the course (I was off course before the charcuterie) and said “we all finish today.” I thanked him, noted the kindness again of strangers, and made my way out of the village.
I thanked him, noted the kindness again of strangers, and made my way out of the village.
On the way to Dreux the rain turned into a downpour, to which I smiled and thought, “This is PBP,“ and noted that the nature of this experience went up one more notch. I was drenched through when I arrived in Dreux, but it cooled my feet prophylactically I thought, so I was happy. At the penultimate controle with my folks I waited just a brief bit, feet up, planning the finishing stretch. Last food, then back to the bike, with the rain now stopped, I was ready to polish off the last 64 km.
Paris neared and the boulevards of trees and roundabouts came more frequently. My pace quickened. Feet were good so I started to go a little faster then found myself on a full-on solo time trial into the city itself. It felt great to air it out and get fast, and I just kept moving. This was familiar now, as just a few days prior we had drifted out as a neon yellow peloton in those early morning hours.
I came around into the finish, seeing the velodrome now and people clapping as I approached. Smiling wide, final control inside the velodrome, now just a bit of a walk from the bike. I ran into Jerry from North Carolina, and walked into the velodrome, swapping stories and smiling about what just all had happened. After getting my final stamp and signature, the book was turned in. I drank a celebratory Orangina with Jerry then set off to find my folks. We were to finish this adventure together. Outside the velodrome, we took time for final photos, and then swapped jerseys with a rider named Haruko from Japan, and then headed back to our hotel.
We got back to the hotel, I literally took the best shower ever, then I got out and settled down to contact friends back at home. What I found was this amazing amount of support online and on the Team PHenomenal Hope page, in emails and in texts. I cannot truly express how much it all meant to me. No wonder that during the ride I never really thought about quitting or feared not finishing – there was this powerful energy pushing me along from the community and team back home. It made a difference – it may have been the difference – and I thank you.
The satisfaction of completing 1,230km in France in under 84 hours, the thrill of experiencing this with thousands of enthusiasts from all over the world, the gratitude of having felt time and again the kindness of strangers all made PBP truly memorable. And on top of that, having ridden with my folks there along the way and with the amazing support of people back at home, well it is an experience I will never forget.
Thank you for riding with me in France, and racing with Team PHenomenal Hope to make a difference in the lives of those with PH. It continues to be a privilege to race with our sponsors and supporters and most of all the PH community.
Finally, thank you to all who generously donated to our Paris-Brest-Paris fundraising campaign. Together in this campaign we raised over $2 per kilometer – $2853 to date – to be donated to PHA for research and patient services!
In addition I’d like to send out a few extra special thank you’s to some people without whom I would not have gotten to the starting line:
- My coach, Jim Bruskewitz, who continues to give me the tools to take on some incredible rides.
- My teammates, who supported me – especially Pascale for helping me plan and make this do-able, and Peter for helping me work through work/life balance.
- Three people who got me though some major issues to get to the starting line: Dr. Brad Klueber, De Novo Pittsburgh Chiropractic & Health and Dana Twigg, massage therapist – If you have any musculoskeletal issues, give these people a call. Also a huge shout out to Glenn Pawlak, Big Bang Bicycles, who spent a lot of time addressing fit issues and making adjustments, without which I doubt I would have finished.
- Greg Flood, who literally got me (and my bike) to the airport to get to the starting line
- All the amazing randonneur mentors along the way, answering questions on rides and random emails – especially Jim Logan and Dan Blumenthal, Western Pennsylvania Wheelmen, Tony Goodnight, Bicycle for Life in North Carolina, Mary Gersemalina, author of Chasing Mailboxes who inspired me early on with her blog, and in the DC ride with her husband totally helped me get to the finish line, Dave Roderick and Ohio Randonneurs, Jose Ferrero and Keith Beato, San Francisco Randonneurs. I hope one day to pay all this forward and help more new people in randonneuring and ultracycling.
- My friends and PHriends – seriously you have no idea how awesome it was to share this with you. Your support meant more than you’ll ever know.
- Most of all: My parents. Thank you for encouraging me to not only take this on, but being there with me. Riding PBP with you there truly made this the ride of a lifetime.