Paul Rozelle’s Fixed Gear PBP 2011: An Epic Ride Deserves an Epic Report

Today TDR features fixed gear PBP ancien, Paul Rozelle. Paul was often riding within Felkerino’s and my vicinity, which made his story especially interesting to me. Paul spins (pun intended) an excellent report of his 84-hour PBP experience with his lively narrative.

Paul, leaving Fougers on Day 3 of PBP

Paul also documented his ride with a photoset, which may be found here.

Thanks, Paul, for sharing your fine story with The Daily Randonneur. I admire anybody who completes PBP, but to do it on fixed gear presents a whole different level of challenge.

Prologue

This was my second PBP. I rode in 2007 on a geared bike in the worst conditions – four days of rain, wind, and cold – in a generation. Despite some tough times, I was making plans to return for the next edition in 2011, even before that ride was over. I wanted to see France when it wasn’t soaked in rain and I also got the idea at PBP ’07 of doing long rides on a fixed-gear bike. Mostly, though, I just wanted to be a part of the pageantry and spectacle that is Paris-Brest-Paris. There is no cycling event in the world with more history and, to many, more prestige. Some consider PBP tougher than Le Tour: it’s one, 1230km stage. The pros complained about how tough PBP was and how preparing for and recovering from it ruined a whole racing season, so it was officially removed from the calendar and has been an amateur-only event since the 1950s. With all that history and lore, the whole experience is pretty magical.

The organizers expected a flood of riders in 2011, and for those who were determined to attend from the largest randonneuring countries (which would be subject to a cap on the number of riders they could send), the qualification process was effectively two years long. The world economy, though, intervened and the 2011 field was about the same size as in 2007. The U.S. didn’t fill its allotment of riders: fewer Americans participated in 2011 than rode in 2007, perhaps in part due to the healthy number of domestic 1200s that were offered (the restriction on offering a 1200K in a PBP year was lifted this year). The representation from East Asia, though, exploded. This was certainly the most diverse PBP ever held. It’s amazing to think that, at the current growth rate, some of the largest randonneuring countries in the world at PBP ’15 will be in Asia.

My plan was to ride conservatively and for fun, not time, just as I had in 2007. I gave up six hours of my 90-hour time limit right off the bat for the privilege of starting at 5am. I wanted to maximize daylight riding. I wanted to see France. I can ride in the dark in the U.S. anytime. Dark is dark. I hoped better weather would counter-balance the fact that I’d be on a fixed-gear and that I’d end up with about the same amount of rest on the ride as I had in 2007. I’d get between 12 and 15 hours of sleep, I hoped.

My recovery from Mont Ventoux (which I rode a few days prior to PBP) went better than I could have imagined. My back and upper body were back to normal by Sunday. My hands were quite sore, but the blisters didn’t materialize. With those pains mostly abated, though, I could now feel how wrecked my legs were. Saturday morning I rode into the starting town from Versailles, where I was staying, about 5 miles away. There is a big hill to climb in St. Cyr. I drilled it to see how my legs felt. They were not pleased. That little exercise convinced me to ride PBP in 48×18, the same gear I climbed Ventoux on. I felt my legs would thank me and that I’d minimize time out of the saddle, which would probably be best, too.

I had some doubts about my gearing, though, as I talked with other fixed-gear riders before the event. Among the Americans riding fixed, I’d be on one of the smaller gears. I knew a few guys on 74 gear inches, a few riding something in the high 70s, one person on 81”, and then there was Branson, who was going to have a go at the course in 89”. I talked with a lot of these guys the weekend before the start and thought that I might run a bigger gear. In 70”, I’d be spinning a lot. The flats and down-hills would hurt. I wouldn’t be able to spin fast enough, and comfortably enough, to participate in many of the pacelines that form in the 84-hour group. I was tempted to change.

Most of those dispensing wisdom on gearing – including both members of the only 2-person fixed-gear RAAM team, ever – were a lot more experienced than me. In the end, I tossed the big gears and a chain whip into the drop bag bound for Loudeac, 280 miles up the road. I’d stick to 48×18. If a bigger gear was truly a good idea for me, then it would still be a good idea on Day 2 and I’d make the change, if needed, then. Having pulled off Ventoux, I was feeling conservative. I didn’t want to push my luck, which I’d already pushed quite far.

Sunday is the official start of PBP. I went down to watch the pageantry and the 80-hour riders start. The pointy end of PBP rides like a criterium – one that lasts for 2 days. It was super-impressive to see these guys go off.

The 80-Hour Start

Most of the riders I knew were in the 90-hour group and I wished those I saw well and told them all, with a hearty laugh, that I didn’t want to see them again. They’d be half a day up the road by the time I started and if I caught them, it’d mean that their rides might not be going well. It was good to see everyone depart under warm, sunny, and clear skies unlike in 2007, where the start went off in a steady, cold rain. I then rode back to Versailles to get some sleep, stopping to pick up breakfast – bread, juice, and a Coke – on the way back to the hotel.

Start (0km) to Fougers (306km)

I was up at 3:40am and out the door a few minutes later. Versailles was quiet. Only a few other randonneurs were on the road, making their way, like me, to the 84-hour start. As close as Versailles is to the start, few people stay there. The majority of riders stay in Saint Quentain (“SQY,” for short), which is an unremarkable “new city.” It’s expensive, crowded, and with thousands of cyclists and their families converging on it, hectic. I had stayed in Plaisir, about 10km away, in 2007 and that was a great experience. Plaisir is a quiet country town. There’s little there. My kind of place. Still, I heard people rave about Versailles – the history of it plus proximity without the madness or cost – so I figured I’d give that a try this time. I’m sold. We’ll be back to Versailles in 2015.

Despite the hour, it was warm. My jacket was stowed in my bag, a rarity for nighttime riding in northern France. As I approached the start, more cyclists converged on the road into SQY until we had quite a mass entering the large gymnasium where PBP starts.

The start was the same as in 2007. You get lined up on the track, proceed through chutes, and your brevet card is stamped. In ’07, we started in one big wave of about 700 bikes. This time, though, that the organizers were going to break us up into waves spaced 15 or 20 minutes apart.

I looked for the other American fixed-gear riders, but didn’t see them. They were at the end of the field. I, too, wanted to stay at the back – the start of the ride is fast and I’d be in the way on my small gear – but I did want to get off in the first wave of bikes. Once I’m awake, I want to ride.

I connected with a few friends from the D.C. area I’d met on the Shenandoah 1200K in 2008. Andrea and Greg and I reminisced about that ride: the relentless hills and drinking Mexican Cokes and stuffing our jerseys with ice a mere 10 miles from the finish to combat record heat that had DNF’d about 50% of the field on that ride. Whatever lay in store for us, this wasn’t the ’08 Shenandoah 1200, which still sets the standard for what makes a difficult Grand Randonnee. Everyone was in high spirits and looking forward to getting under way.

Greg C. at the 84-Hour Start

After getting checked in, I saw a few more organizers counting people and so I moved past them and am glad I did. As I went past, they closed the entryway. I was the last in the first wave of riders.

Riders queue on a large street that feeds into an even larger roundabout. Friends and families lined the barrier, administering final well-wishes, taking photos, and relieving riders of gear and possessions that they decided not to take at the last second. PBP is perhaps the most international, diverse bicycle event in the world. I was standing in the midst of riders from Sweden, Denmark, Brazil, Australia, Japan, and Russia. Only about 450 of the 5,200 riders were Americans.

After a few minutes, the riders in front of me started moving. Everyone laughed. I guess we were officially underway. The start of the 84-hour group was as subdued as the start of the 80- and 90-hour groups was crazy. We rolled over the electronic timing mat and our PBP had begun, without ceremony.

In 2007, I was at the front of the field. The riding was super-fast. It was fun, but it was intense. I saw or heard a couple of crashes as riders failed to negotiate roundabouts, cobbles, suddenly narrowed streets, and each other. Bringing up the rear was a different, leisurely affair. We were quickly chopped up into gruppettos of two to five riders. 95% of the ride was up the road and out of sight, even before we got into the countryside. No worries.

Someone once said to me, commenting on the pace at the start of these rides, “You can’t ride a 1200K in the first hour.” So true. Throughout the weekend, the fixed-gear bike had attracted admiring attention. I was told there were 10 guys from the U.K. riding fixed. By my count, we had 7 Americans on fixed. (And, as far as I know, all of the fixed-gear riders this year were men. Ladies….? Training for 2015 starts now!) I’m sure there were others out there, but in a field of thousands we were a rare sight. A lot of the weekend was spent answering queries about gearing, experience, ride strategy and explaining why we were doing this on a fixed-gear. (Answer: Because it’s fun!) It was especially enjoyable to connect with other fixed-gear distance riders from around the country and world and compare notes and experiences. As I rode out of SQY, I continued to get positive comments and encouragement from people who noticed the bike.

All the good vibes helped keep me energized throughout the ride. You pick up some daylight around 6am as you enter the Rambouillet Forest and the terrain gets a bit lumpy in places. I’ve always enjoyed riding at this time of day. The sight of taillights stretching out to the horizon in the dawn light never gets old. All of the many small towns we rolled through were quiet. It was just the whir of bikes and chatter of riders as we moved ever deeper into the countryside.

About two hours in, I saw Chris, who was riding a recumbent. It’s tough to keep a ‘bent and a fixed-gear on the same pace, but we managed it for a short while. Soon after I saw Chris, I was overtaken by the leaders of the second wave of bikes, who had started at 5:20am. They were still fairly organized and moving quickly. Shortly after that, I saw Chris’ brother, Kevin, Tim (one of my Ohio buddies), and Jeff, three of the other Americans riding fixed who were all riding together, decked out in their stylish Gran Fondo Fixies jerseys. We exchanged reetings; I didn’t have the legs or the gears to hang.

This ride was playing out very differently than ’07, where I don’t think I ever rode alone. I’d been solo now for the majority of the ride, and there were even a few stretches where I was out of sight of any other bikes — a real rarity on PBP. I don’t mind riding solo, and riding a fixed-gear does result in more of it than if I were on a geared bike. Mostly, I was just being cautious. I had a pace and a cadence that felt good and I was reluctant to alter that for any reason, even if it meant I might have companionship and people to work a paceline with. I was definitely trying to recover from Ventoux on the bike.

It was an overcast morning and there was a bit of a tailwind, which was entirely wasted on a fixed-gear. It was warm, but cooler than the last few days, which had seen temperatures in the 80s and 90s. I had polished off the rest of my bread — how French is it to ride along with a baguette stuffed in your jersey pocket? — and was nearly through both bottles of water. I should have stopped, but pressed on, stupidly thinking that Mortagne-au-Perche was just up the road. I don’t recommend riding 140km on 2 bottles of water and half a baguette. That’s the Jean Valjean program, and it’s a recipe for disaster. By the time I got there, I was famished and irritated with myself for so poorly managing my nutrition and hydration right at the start.

Mortagne is not an official control — you don’t have to stop there. It mainly exists so that riders with crew can take support without having to cover the monster distance of 220km all the way to Villains-la-Juehl before connecting with their crew. I didn’t have any crew, but I did have a need for liberal amounts of calories and caffeine and some time to let all of that get into my bloodstream. The French like to take their coffee in bowls — not cups – which is a delivery mechanism I wholly approve of. The nice lady at the bar wanted to give me a cup, seeing that I was American, and I was happy that I negotiated successfully for a bowl with my limited French. I also polished off some yogurt, a jambon et buerre sandwich and two Cokes.

Bowls of Coffee on PBP

Before long, I was back at it, but not before speaking at length with a local man and his young son who had come down to watch the riders at the control. I couldn’t help but thinking that in a decade this kid would almost certainly be out there riding PBP. I hoped that I’d be there, too.

You start to pick up more rolling terrain as you head west. We had also picked up some weather. It was raining, but to the south, just a few miles away, we could see that it was a nice, sunny day. Poofy, non- threatening clouds dotted the blue sky. Rays of sun warmed the lush green hills. But we were getting wet. And directly ahead lie a scene every Floridian is familiar with: a wall of pitch black clouds that, as we approached, greeted us with flashes of lightning and peals of thunder.

At some point on this stretch, I rode with Ian from Seattle, who had been a part of the raucous fraternity party that was the Last Chance 1200K in 2009. Ian had briefly been with a big Seattle group that was attempting to ride an audax-style “Charly Miller.”

Charly Miller was the first American to ride PBP, completing the second edition in 1901 in 56:40, which was good enough for fifth place. Unlike his competitors, Miller rode totally unsupported and had some tough mechanical problems. His never-say-die attitude so impressed the French that they honor his effort by presenting any American who beats Miller’s finish time with a special award. Six Americans won the prestigious Award in 2007 (out of over 500 entrants), and only 26 have ever done it on single bikes (four tandem teams have won it). Anyway, about 10 riders from Seattle were going for it, all together, which is definitely the way to approach a ride like that.

I think it was along this stretch that I also rode with three Germans who were cycling together. They were trying for a 65-hour ride and didn’t plan on sleeping much. I took a position at the front and the other three would rotate around to ride beside me and we enjoyed chatting away the miles. Subjects ranged from excesses at Rammstein concerts to cycling and, of course, the weather. I was pleased that I had enough rusty college German to carry some of the conversation in their language. This was their first PBP, so I briefed them on what lay up the road.

It was now decidedly raining. Showers, at first, but then a steady rain. We could still see sun both to the north and south, but it was a constant, soaking rain where we were. “Why are we not riding over there?” became a constant refrain. The temperature had cooled a bit, but it was still in the high-60s. Up head, we could see a pretty good electrical storm firing up.

Eventually, we came to Villaines-la-Juehl (220km), which is the first official control. Not much was going on here due to the lousy weather. I put on all my clothes before I got chilled — I was soaked — and got checked in. I’d covered the distance in 9:09. I was on pace.

Villaines is my favorite control on PBP. The food is good and they have local kids carry your dining tray to your table. It’s not just a nice touch. It keeps tired randonneurs from careening down the sloping ramp from the cafeteria to the dining hall, spilling food and themselves everywhere. The kids decorate the dining hall with all kinds of PBP-related pictures and art, which is very cool.

I had a fairly leisurely meal of pasta Bolognese and more caffeine. By the time I was done, it was just pouring and storming outside. I was warm and had mostly dried out, so it was tough to head back out in that.

I don’t recall much of the next leg to Fougers (306km) beyond how ridiculous the storm was. It was right overhead and just unloading on us. Some of the lightning strikes were of the flash-boom! variety and a few of the bolts dissolved into sparks and explosions, which was beautiful but a bit unnerving. Rain came down in sheets and some of the roads were flooded. Velocity Deep Vs really catch cross-wind, but they especially get deflected by several inches of water and mud pouring out of some farmer’s field onto the road. I rode most of this stretch with Ed from San Francisco, a strong, young, enthusiastic rider who was fairly new to the sport and who was impressed with the rain. Ed’s good companionship took my mind off the lousy weather for a few hours.

I made Fougers in 13:20, which for me is good time for a 300K. I had dinner and a bit of a rest. It was still pouring. I could see from tweets coming from riders up the road that we would have heavy rain for the next 100 miles.

Fougers (306km) to Loudeac (448km)

Between Fougers and Tinteniac (360km), I began to fall off the pace. I had made Tinteniac in daylight in 2007. I was behind that schedule now, arriving there at 9:25pm. There was a huge crowd gathered at the control in Tinteniac because the leaders would be coming through soon, on their way back from Brest – they were 600km up the road! I had a second dinner, tried not to shiver too much, and quickly headed out.

On the way to my bike, I saw the leaders arrive. Chris Ragsdale, an American from Seattle, was among them – there were maybe a dozen guys left – and I gave him an “Allez!” as he ran to get his card stamped at the control. The crowd, hundreds strong, enthusiastically greeted the arrival of the leaders, despite the downpour.

Back on the road, traffic was sparse. It seemed like a lot of riders were hunkered down in Tinteniac, not wanting to go back out in the dark and rain. After a few kilometers, I came upon Pet’r from Uzbekistan, the only rider from his country at PBP. This guy was incredible. He was riding a department-store bike. Fat tires. Straight bars. All kinds of stuff strapped to his bike. He didn’t appear to have cycling clothes – he was wearing a cycling jersey but the rest of his kit looked like mountaineering garb. Still, Pet’r was an animal.

He’d stand up and just attack every hill, putting significant distance into me. He’d pause at the top and we’d ride together until the next rise, where this would be repeated. We chatted as much as our limited language skills permitted.

After an hour or so, Pet’r needed to change the batteries in his light, which was a mountaineering headlamp. I stopped to help him. He made quick work of the project, after which he pulled out of his bag – I am not making this up – a 5-pound jar of Uzbek honey that he’d brought from home. This wasn’t a commercial product; it had come right off some farm. How he’d gotten that through French customs was beyond me, but it tasted divine. We ate honey together by the side of the road, in the dark, in the rain, for a few minutes. After a few spoonfuls each — he had a large, stainless steel serving spoon as the delivery device — he stowed the honey. What else was in that bag? We soldiered on.

Pet’r was in the 90-hour group, which meant that I was somewhere between 9 and 11 hours up the road from him. I’d begun to catch 90- hour riders around Tinteniac. I feared that many of these folks’ rides were in trouble. They were, or were about to be, declared out of time. I could not figure out why Pet’r was in this situation. He was making great time on the bike, was in high spirits, and had made quick, professional work of his battery change. I was determined to keep riding with this guy. If anyone deserved to finish PBP, I thought that he did.

We came to Quedilliac (390km) in short order. Quedilliac was a secret control designed to ensure that riders stayed on the route. It was also set up for riders to stop and sleep there, and many were taking advantage of the opportunity. Normally, stopping at about 400km is a good idea for me on a 1200K. I’d planned to go to Loudeac, though, and I wanted to stick to the plan. I didn’t want to “borrow against” time in my budget on the first day unless I needed to. Other than being wet and cold when I was stopped, I otherwise felt fine. I had two bowls of coffee and some bread. It was going to be a very long night.

Pet’r and I ate together at Quedilliac, but somewhere before Loudeac(448km) we parted ways. He’d slowed down quite a bit. Perhaps the honey buzz had worn off; more likely he’d had little sleep on Sunday night and was working on 36 hours without real rest. As much as I wanted to keep pace with him and support him, I had to let him go and continue on. I was already hours behind where I wanted to be. As it was, I’d either be getting very little sleep or I’d be departing the overnight control late, neither of which was a great idea.

I rode big chunks of this next section by myself. Exchanging greetings with riders at the pointy end of the 80-hour group going the opposite direction helped pass the miles. I thought about these guys out there time-trialing, alone in the dark, with 800K in their legs and no sleep. Man, I thought, at least I’m not in that position!

About an hour before Loudeac, I came upon David and Maria, who were also in the 90-hour group. David is a friend from Ohio and is one of the founders of Randonneurs USA. He’s in his third decade of randonneuring and is one of the guys I want to be when I grow up: smart, experienced, witty, and always in good spirits. Maria is from Florida and is new this year to doing long rides, and here she was at PBP. We rode together for a while. They were going to make the Loudeaccontrol in time, but just barely. They were delayed by Maria having a broken cleat and having to ride the quite hilly terrain going into Loudeac without foot retention on one pedal. I didn’t learn this until later; you’d have never known from her sunny disposition and strong pace that she was battling through a tough equipment failure.

I finally got to Loudeac at 2:47am, nearly three hours after I planned to arrive. At least the rain had finally stopped, dissolving into a fine fog and mist. I entertained the idea of continuing on – I wasn’t tired and I thought, “At least I can ride some without getting rained on.” There were lots of bikes and riders at the control, but it wasn’t the zoo that it had been in 2007. Many folks were just heading out after having rested. I saw Jeff and Tim in the cafeteria; I wasn’t that far behind them, which made me feel better about my pace.

I had a beer and a meal and then retrieved my drop bag and headed to the showers to get cleaned up and changed into dry clothes. There was hot water – unlike 2007! – and it took triple the normal shower time to get 280 miles of road grime off of me. Pulling a fresh kit from the drop bag, I noticed the chain whip and bigger gears. The thought never entered my mind to change gearing. I was doing ok, but was far from certain that I would complete this ride. I felt that putting on a bigger gear now would have been reckless folly.

Fresh and changed, I decided to stop for the night rather than press my luck. Jeff and Tim were continuing on. I could join them. Or ride with plenty of other people who were headed out. But I knew it was best for me, in the long-run, to rest now rather than to get into trouble in the middle of nowhere in an hour or two when I finally felt tired.

I got a cot and asked to be woken at 6:30am, which would give me 3 hours of sleep and leave a 2-hour window before the control closed. I’d be two hours behind my plan, and I’d have an hour less than the amount of sleep I’d budgeted. It was far from ideal, but I’d have to make the best of it. Considering the conditions, I felt things could be worse.

I was dutifully awoken at 6:30am and marched off to the cafeteria to eat again. You just can’t eat enough on these rides. Pet’r was there, absorbed in conversation with a Russian rider. We greeted each other and said our goodbyes. I figured he must be DNF’ing to still be there, which was sad. He was clearly enjoying himself, though, which is what this is all about, after all.

I was on the road a bit after 7am. Departing Loudeac, the control was nearly vacant. I felt good, all things considered. I was at the tail end of the bike ride.

Loudeac (448km) and back to Loudeac (782km)

The second day of PBP is tough. Coming out of Loudeac, there’s a climb that tries to tear your legs off. You then get dealt one leg-breaker after another, it seems, all the way to Carhaix (525km). I rode most of this section at night in 2007, so this time around in the light of day I could see how silly some of the hills were. None are big, but many are steep. It’s death by a thousand cuts. There’s nothing for it but to pick a cadence that will get you up and over without pushing your heart rate too high. I recall very little of this section. I was just focused on riding. There was a heavy, soaking fog that would not burn off until mid-morning. We had occasional rain showers, but there would be no soaking rain like the previous day. My cycling shoes were still waterlogged, though. I’d have wet feet the entire ride.

I made Carhaix at 11:05am. David and Maria were there and I ate with them. They still looked good but had not slept much. Solving Maria’s cleat problem had chewed up precious time that they did not have. Still, they were in great spirits and continuing on toward Brest. 1200Ks have a way of highlighting the strength, determination, and character of the human spirit.

When I left Carhaix, the fog had lifted and it was going to be a nice day. More light tailwinds would be wasted on me. From Carhaix to Sizun (578km), you get more hills. This is a very pretty section of the ride. Brittany is just beautiful. There is one big climb on PBP – something called “Le Roc.” It goes up maybe 1,000 feet but it takes 15km to do it, so the climb is quite easy (as long as you’re not wrecked when you get to it). I misremembered where this climb was. For some reason, I thought it came after Sizun. I was most of the way up it before realizing my error. I was especially excited at the top to notice a shift in the wind, which was now a slight headwind that would prove useful in checking my speed down the other side and avoid a lot of painful spinning and braking.

Sizun has an interesting town square that was full of resting cyclists and tourists. There’s a little grocery where I bought provisions for making lunch – quicker and cheaper than a café. I snacked with some other riders who had a similar idea. The final stretch to Brest goes quickly.

I rode a bit with a Frenchman who appreciated the bike and wanted to hear all about Ventoux. I managed the best I could in French. He had just completed PBP Audax, which is totally separate from the randonneur version of PBP. Everyone rides together at a constant pace. Meals and rests are taken together and a route captain sets the pace and makes sure the group sticks to the time table. PBP Audax is held every five years. In 2011, both rides occurred in the same year and there were some who were doing both rides, which is a serious accomplishment. That’s on the to-do list. Very few Americans have ever ridden PBP Audax.

The view coming into Brest (618km) is impressive. You see the harbor and the coastline stretching out to the North Atlantic. Our own Skyway Bridge over Tampa Bay is modeled after the cable-stay bridge spanning the harbor. Apparently, Bob Graham (our then-Governor) saw it while visiting Brest and liked the design, and that’s how we ended up with the new Skyway (after the old one was knocked down by an errant ship in a storm).

The bridge in Brest, though is tiny compared to the Skyway. Still, it makes for a good photo backdrop, and I had a Swedish rider snap my picture. I then chatted with some locals who marvel atthe bike and noticed the Ventoux placard and wanted all the details on that adventure, too.

The IRO in Brest

After a few minutes I was back on the bike and on my way to the control. We rode along the harbor and passed some very interesting, old defense works before climbing into the city. Some would later complain about this route (it was urban and trafficy). I actually enjoyed it quite a bit. Riding through a real, working city is a cycling experience I have always enjoyed. It was rush hour and the streets were clogged with people, many of whom paused to applaud as we rode by.

Of course, the control was near the top of a huge hill. I arrived at 4:48pm, way behind schedule but I had still covered the first half of the ride in 35:49. That’s not a great 600K time for me, especially for only getting 3 hours of sleep. I had a beer to celebrate the half-way point followed by a Coke because I still had a lot of riding to do. I usually feel good about getting to the turn-around of an out-and-back route. Each pedal stroke brings you closer to home. This time, though, I was facing the prospect of another very long night and little sleep. I felt fine, but I wasn’t too pumped up. I was all business on the bike. I felt like I needed to get this ride a bit more under control. I wasn’t anxious and I was definitely enjoying myself. I just wasn’t having the totally carefree ride across France I’d hoped and planned for.

I paused only briefly in Sizun to top off my bottles and pushed on to Carhaix. I went flying up, and then down, Le Roc. I pretty much had the climb and the descent all to myself. Carhaix (703km) came quickly, just after nightfall. I’d planned a leisurely dinner there, but the place looked pillaged. I’d caught back up to a lot of the 90-hour riders and the control was crowded with riders from both fields. I did what I could to get out of there quickly and back on the road.

I don’t particularly care for starting hilly, 50-mile rides at 10pm, but that’s what I had to do. I was able to make pretty good pace with a light tailwind that blew me up the hills. I had a good riding companion from England for a short while, but again, I was mostly on my own.

I was somewhere not too far from Loudeac (782km) when I began to get really tired. It was midnight. It was pitch black out. I was alone. And I could hardly stay awake. This had never happened to me. My usual tricks for entertainment and staying alert at night – eat, drink, sing, ride hard – didn’t work. This is ridiculous, I thought. But what are you going to do? I’ve got to rest. You can’t finish if you crash.

I pulled into some tiny town and walked around the side of some business there and lay down on the ground. I was out instantly. An hour or more later – I have no idea how long I was asleep – I was awake and feeling much better. I hopped back on the bike and carried on and was able to ride a strong pace. I pulled into Loudeac at 3:33am. Yuck. I felt fine but I was not where I wanted to be on my time. I ate something quickly, grabbed my drop bag, and headed straight for bed. I’d shower in the morning.

Loudeac (782km) to Mortagne-au-Perche (1090km)

I got another 3 hours of sleep in Loudeac and felt grand when I woke up. I felt even better after I showered, changed into new kit, and ate breakfast. But, I was leaving the control an hour after it closed for me. Definitely a risky practice. I was starting Day 3 at the very back of the ride, once again. The thought never entered my mind to put a bigger gear on. I was just too tired mentally to think about using a chain whip. All I wanted to do was ride and eat and sleep. I could handle those three things. Anything more taxed my brain too much.

Reasonably well rested, I could make good time on the bike. The clouds were clearing off and it looked like it would be a sunny, warm day. Once again, we had light tailwinds. I made a good pace to Illifault (819km), the second secret control, where I had a nice meal and good conversation with some folks from the D.C. club.

It was then off to Tinteniac (867km) on what would be among the favorite parts of PBP for me. I fell in with a group from Medreac who were riding together at a strong, consistent, disciplined pace and who graciously allowed me to ride with them (no doubt in equal parts due to the fixed-gear bike and to my enthusiasm for doing work at the front).

I was enjoying the camaraderie but I especially wanted to ride with these guys because I knew, from experience, what was about to happen. We were going to pass through the town of Medreac! The Bretons go nuts for their local guys riding PBP. I just had to see this. A few kilometers out from town, we encountered these guys’ teammates who were not riding PBP. They came out on the course, riding it backwards, looking for the team, and joined in the ride. It was what I imagine the last day of Le Tour to be like, with all kinds of on-the-bike celebration going on. Soon we were in town and the streets were filled with people to greet the team. It was all kinds of awesome revelry.

Medreac is close to Tinteniac, the control. Coming into Tinteniac, things got even more cool. These guys really upped the pace – it quickly became clear we’d be racing into town. The group got stripped down to me and a few others. We ripped through the narrow streets and roundabouts in town and then came to the large cattle chute heading into the control, about 200 meters from the “finish.” The control workers were egging us on. I gave the last two guys a lead-out – I had totally spun out 70” and we were going over 30mph! — and then got out of the way so they could settle it up before another large crowd ofenthusiastic locals who had been awaiting their arrival. I thanked the guy who was clearly the team “leader” profusely, in French, for letting me ride along with them and “experience PBP with a strong team from Brittany.” He returned the compliments. I’ve got a lot of great cycling memories, but this was near the top of the list. Riding with locals through their town on PBP is cycling at its best.

Thanks to these guys, I was in Tinteniac at 11:36am, with some time back in the bank. I got out of there quickly to keep it that way. Fougers comes next at 899km. For the life of me, I recall nothing of this stretch. It must have been uneventful, and I must have been riding well. I’ve seen a photo of myself at the Fougers control (thanks, MG!) and I look good.

Paul, leaving Fougers on Day 3 of PBP

I recall when it was taken I was outside, walking past a grassy area that was littered with resting randonneurs, many of whom didn’t look so good. I remember thinking as I walked by, “At least I’m not in that bad a shape; things could be a lot worse.”

I was certainly looking forward to Villaines-la-Juehl again (1009km). Without the rain this time, it was a real festival atmosphere. Along this stretch I rode with several of the U.K. fixed-gear riders. They were all grouped closely together, and we exchanged stories of our experiences and talked about the usual fixed-gear stuff: gearing and how to handle the descents. One guy in particular, another fellow named Paul, was especially social and we had a delightful ride together.

We took a route into town that seemed different than in 2007 (either that or I was sleep-deprived then, or now, and didn’t recall it). It was a few kilometers long and parts of it were steep. I ran into John at the base of this climb and we rode it together. John is also a St. Pete guy. He’s a solo RAAM finisher and holds course records for a large number of events. John “took it easy” at the Michigan 24 this year and “only” rode 492 miles (which was still good enough for first place overall in a 400+ rider field). The dude is a stud. This was his first PBP, though. I proceeded to rib him about how I’d “run him down.”

John had a 12-hour head start on me, and here we were, riding together. He responded by smiling and saying somethinglike, “Let’s settle this right now,” and took off up the hill. “Oh, shit,” I thought, as I accelerated and matched his pace. He stopped and resumed a casual pace right as I realized he was going to kick my butt. We both had a good laugh. Of course, the only reason I had caught him was he was taking it super-easy. He wanted to get the full PBP experience, not race.

That’s one of the things I love about randonneuring. You can’t tell anything about someone based on their finish time. Here was a RAAM guy up against a control closing time. Was he weak? Slow? I was 12 hours ahead of him. But was I somehow faster than him? Or a stronger rider? Hell, no. The guys riding in 45 hours or less are clearly in a race, and the first guy is the strongest guy, at least for that day. Beyond that, though, finish times don’t mean a damn thing. Noncompetitive cycling at its finest.

Anyway, John was concerned about his pace and that he would not have any time to sleep at the remaining controls, lest he risk being declared out of time. He was right to be concerned: John and his riding companion were barely going to make Villaines within time. They badly needed rest, but if they took any, they’d get further behind. It’s a vicious cycle, one begun, in his case, by “too many French cafés.” They ended up riding it in, going straight through the night and finished PBP with 90 minutes to spare.

The party in Villaines was in full swing and I paused to watch Drew Buck from England being interviewed and photographed with his 107-year-old bike. Not a reproduction, mind you. The real deal, wooden rims and all. Drew will have to ride a Bronze Age unicycle in ’15 to top this year’s effort.

I had a huge meal and set back out, not long before sunset. I rode a bit with a woman who was doing the ride on a beach cruiser (with a Brooks saddle, of course!). She was wearing a dress and had a handlebar basket full of flowers. “The locals come out to support the event, so I might as well give them a show,” she explained. On top of all this, she was quicker up the hills than most everyone else who was more suitably equipped and attired. She had completed all of the paved Ventoux climbs, but did each of them *twice* in the same day so we passed the miles talking about our experiences on that wonderful mountain.

Villaines

It’s a long way from Villaines to Mortagne (1090km), where I planned to stop for the night. There are also some long and desolate stretches to get through. Needing to recharge, I stopped in some small town for coffee. There, I helped the “Godfather of Taiwanese Randonneuring” – the guy who single-handedly introduced the sport to his country – adjust his saddle height to cure a painful Achilles.

I then ran into Rod from Australia (but who was currently living in the U.K.), who came up to me and, out of the blue, said, “I got two questions for you.” “Shoot,” I said. “Do you want another coffee?” he asked. “Absolutely,” I replied. “And do you want to ride with us?” he said as he gestured in the direction of two other cyclists. One guy was Canadian, a guy from B.C. who I’d seen earlier in the ride and am sure I’d met before, though I cannot for the life of me recall his name now. Long rides will do that to your memory. The other guy was simply known as The Swede. Big dude…. from Sweden. Rod added, “There are requirements, though, if you want to ride with us.” “What are those?” I inquired. “Well, really you just have to be able to talk a lot of bullshit.” “I can handle that.” We finished our coffees and were off.

Rod had put together a disparate group of riders and was shepherding everyone along the course, trading off a faster pace for riding with an amicable group. Rod was like a cycling corgi – just keeping the herd moving down the road. The guy from B.C. and The Swede had apparently had a low point earlier but they were both riding strong now. Rod, for his part, was riding well below capacity, focused intently on just having a good time. I was surprised to learn that this was Rod’s first PBP, and first 1200K.

The bullshit included obligatory tales of previous rides and, more entertainingly, music and politics. This is the kind of guy you want for a night-riding companion. Never a dull moment.

By the time we got to Mortagne, it was late again, about 1:40am. Rod wanted an 80-hour finish and was thinking about getting short rest and then heading back out. I wanted no part of that and was intent on getting some real sleep and I’m afraid I convinced him to sack the 80-hour goal. We ate, skipped the shower, and opted for just under three hours’ sleep.

Mortagne (1090km) to Paris (1230km)

We awoke and, of course, ate again. The dawn pace out of Mortagne was fairly pedestrian. You know you’re riding slowly when you get passed by a guy who was pedaling with only one leg. His left crankarm was just hanging limp at 6 o’clock as he worked the right leg vigorously. Shit, I thought as the guy rode by, I ought to quit this sport and take up golf. Still, we had about 12 hours to cover 87 miles. It wasn’t in the bag yet, but barring total disaster, we were going to do this.

It was another foggy morning but as we approached Dreux (1165km), it burned off and another perfect, sunny day (with more tailwind!) dawned. We arrived at the control at 9:44am. I realized as we arrived that Rod had a shot at making 80 hours. I didn’t care about my finish time – my only aims this year were to have fun and finish — but I knew he had wanted to make that mark, so I told him that if we left soon and rode fast, he might be able to do it. He was quite excited about this and we made quick work of the control and got back on the road. Franz from Germany somehow got joined up with us – I think Rod had ridden with him earlier in the event — so we had a threesome for the final 85km to the finish.

Franz was a real character. Apparently, he had tried to talk one of his friends into riding PBP with him, but the guy had begged off, complaining that he was too fat. They bet 24 liters of beer that Franz could not complete PBP at his friend’s weight. So Franz loaded up a touring bike with whatever the weight difference was. I can’t recall the number, but it was significant weight. Franz was about to complete PBP hauling many pounds of unnecessary crap across France twice. I’m sure he was looking forward to some of the best-tasting beer on the planet. Did I mention that Franz was 60 years old? Stud.

Finding a common riding pace was difficult. We didn’t have to kill it to make 80 hours, but we did have to be business-like. Franz would just lay it on in the towns and would go blasting up the hills. Rod would hammer through the countryside, but then Franz would be too trashed to keep up. It was like herding cats. Several times Franz implored us to go on without him, but I resisted, explaining in the best German I could muster – Alles zusammen! — that we were all going to finish together. I’d pace Franz up the hills and keep him motivated. Part of this included lying by omission about all the hills that remained. “What is this bullshit?” he’d yell, part-way up some steep climb in the Rambouillet Forest. “Aw, sorry about that. Forgot about that one,” I’d reply.

As in 2007, when we approached the finish we began to pick up a lot of spectators. Racing teams were also out riding the course backwards, applauding the riders. The last hour or two of PBP is a very special and moving experience. We were not fortunate enough to pick up a police escort into town, so we had some clock-watching and fingernail biting as the 80th hour approached. PBP finishes in a large traffic circle that’s lined with spectators. Rod’s and Franz’s families were there to greet them. At the end, you tender your brevet card for the final time. The lady at the table wrote “80:00” as the finish time. Mission accomplished.

PBP anciens at the finish

There’s celebratory beer and food as you watch others finish. I hung out for a few hours talking with others and taking in the scene. I chatted with a number of the U.S. and U.K. fixed-gear riders. So far as I could tell from talking with folks, every fixed-gear rider who started the event had completed it, an impressive accomplishment.

PBP: Epilogue

The best recovery from a 1200K is to ride the next day for a few hours. “Ouch,” you say. True, but it’s a lot more painful to do nothing. You’re going to be sore regardless. You want to not be stiff, too, and you want to spin some of that crap – lactic acid, dead muscle cells – out of your legs. A long walk is good. If your butt can take it, I think a ride is better. Hair of the dog.

With that in mind and with most of my gear already packed for Saturday’s return flight, I set off for Paris mid-day Friday. I proceeded to get hopelessly lost, despite an outstanding set of directions I’d been provided with. Not lost, really, it was more like I just wasn’t going where I wanted to or, rather, I wasn’t going there by a very efficient route. I eventually dead-reckoned my way to the Eifel Tower. I visited there for a bit and then rode up to L’Arc de Triumph and took an obligatory lap on the cobbles on the Champs d’Elysees. The cobbles weren’t bad at all, but playing in Parisian rush hour traffic in those huge roundabouts was completely insane. The secret to not dying is to take a line that’s way more inside than you think possible or prudent. Ride the roundabout like it’s got no traffic in it. There is no spoon. (That, and go as fast as humanly possible.)

At the Place de Concorde, I ran into the president of the FFCT, his wife, and several of his colleagues, who noticed my PBP jersey, the still-attached Ventoux placard, and the fixed-gear bike. We had a great conversation. He’d just completed his 10th PBP and 7th PBP Audax (like others, he’d done both this year). He’d also done the three paved routes on Ventoux in a day and wanted to hear all about what the forest road was like, especially on a fixed gear. We took a few pictures together and then I was off, back to Versailles. I was running out of daylight and although I had lights with me I didn’t want to try navigating this route in the dark.

I still managed to get hopelessly lost again. This time I added not just bonus miles, but some huge climbs, too. Brilliant. I managed to turn what should have been 20 miles of riding into a 50-mile day. Let me suggest that after you do something like this you then NOT go out for sushi. I was starving, and things got rather expensive.

I broke down the bike and early the next morning it was back to the U.S. on a flight that lasted nearly 12 hours due to a diversion to avoid Hurricane Irene. Plenty to time to write a very long ride report. Mea culpa.

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2 thoughts on “Paul Rozelle’s Fixed Gear PBP 2011: An Epic Ride Deserves an Epic Report

  1. You didn’t mention that he did the 3 paved and one dirt climb of Mt Ventoux on his fixed gear bike THREE DAYS before PBP! I bow down…

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