by Mary Gersema
Many people who start randonneuring already know about Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP), but when I joined RUSA in 2004, I only knew what a fleche was. I had no clue there were these events called brevets, a thing called a Super Randonneur series, or Grand Randonnees.
After meeting my randonneur- and now real-life spouse, Ed, I learned about all of these things. I also learned about a ride called PBP. How awesome it is to ride in France, how people cheer for you, how randonneurs from all over the world participate, how difficult PBP is to explain in words (despite Ed’s fervent efforts).
Even after all of Ed’s raving, PBP still seemed like an extravagant and unnecessary indulgence. “There are lots of good roads and rides to do right here in the United States of America,” I said. “What’s so special about PBP?”
Ed’s response was always, “You’ll see,” which would just make me crazy inside. Finally, I relented to all of Ed’s enthusiasm. We agreed to ride PBP on tandem in 2011 and began to plan our lives accordingly.
August arrived, and we went to France for the big randonneur dance. We adjusted to the time zone, assembled the bike, packed and repacked drop bags, and took the Co-Motion out for a couple of shakedown rides.
More and more riders arrived each day. Everywhere I looked there were randonneurs and bicycles. Townspeople came up to us when they’d see us out on the bike and ask us about our upcoming ride, wishing us “Bonne route!”
Bike inspection was like the randonneur world’s fair. The bike inspection area teemed with riders and bikes: tandems; recumbents; upright trikes; recumbent trikes; steel frames; carbon fiber; and titanium steeds. I’d never seen so many interesting bicycles in one place. People wore their country or club jerseys, and had group photos taken beneath the PBP sign hanging above the Start/Finish line. I heard snippets of many different languages. Smiles, well wishes, and pre-ride jitters abounded. It was beautiful.
Since Ed and I were in the 84-hour group, which did not start until 5 a.m. the following morning, we went with our friend Jon Gardner to watch the 80- and 90-hour riders begin. The start looked like a gigantic randonneur picnic. Riders were scattered all over the place, some sitting, some standing, some waiting to go through the tunnel into the gymnasium. Heads turned as the Velomobiles entered the starting area. Rider Drew Buck walked through the crowd on his 1900 Peugeot to join the other “special bikes” (which got a 15 minute head start on the other riders), and everyone around him started applauding.
When it seemed like the excitement level couldn’t get any higher and that the pre-ride announcements would never stop, PBP began for the 80- and 90-hour riders. It was a virtual explosion of energy! Jon, Ed, and I moved to a street close to our hotel to watch everyone pass, and I could not stop hopping up and down. Go riders, go!
Randonneurs were dispatched in waves spaced 20 minutes apart, and each group was accompanied by a motorcycle escort until they reached the edges of town. We peered anxiously down the street, ears keenly anticipating the sound of the motorcycles to let us know when the next groups would be upon us.
After watching the first waves of riders pass, we returned to our hotel for a few hours of uneasy sleep, awaking without the need for an alarm. As I readied for the ride, I thought about how the 80- and 90-hour groups were well into PBP by this point. That helped motivate me to the 84-hour starting line.
Because we were riding tandem, we were considered a “special bike” and began the ride 15 minutes in front of the main 84-hour group. The 84-hour start was a stark contrast to the previous evening’s groups. It was still pre-dawn, and the riders were pretty subdued. No enthusiastic crowds gathered to see us off; and most of the town was still in bed.
People were talking in hushed voices, as though if we spoke in a normal tone we might get in trouble or wake up the town. Our friend Steve, who had come to support his wife Andrea, quietly wished us good luck, as did Dale, a fellow randonneur and friend of Ed’s from Columbia, Missouri.
Only three other tandems started in the 84-hour group. A couple of upright trikes, maybe 20 recumbents, and a Velomobile or two were among us. Ed said it felt more similar to a quiet brevet start at home than PBP. Neither of us would have been surprised if the ride organizers had told us “Watch out for potholes on blah blah blah street. Don’t forget to buy something at all the controls. Call me if you abandon. Good luck, everybody!”
Day 1: Start to Loudeac (0 – 449K)
We rolled out with the special bikes, and spent a short time criss-crossing with a few others, including one eye-catching back-to-back recumbent tandem. That bike was so curious. I could not help looking at it as it passed. The captain faced forward and the stoker faced backward. It had what I told Ed was the “baby stroller” effect. As it passed, your eyes would gaze over at the stoker, and she would gaze back, pedaling away.
After 20K of back and forth with other bikes, the tandems and recumbents dispersed and Ed and I ended up riding by ourselves through the French countryside without any other riders in sight. First, the quiet start, now this. It really was anticlimactic. I could have ridden like this at home. What about the cheering townspeople I was told about? The roadside stands of espresso? The other riders’ taillights glimmering off ahead of me, lighting up the darkness? This was not the PBP I envisioned.
It felt like we rode by ourselves forever, though it was probably only 60K or so. The towns were still in a sleepy state, and though no one was about we could see evidence of previous randonneurs that had passed through, such as overstuffed trash cans and the occasional dropped glove or arm warmer.
Finally, the first of the 84-hour groups passed us. I saw a rider speeding by on a Surly Cross-Check and both Ed and I said “I like your bike. How do you like that bike?”
The rider looked back at us, paused for a second, and shouted “Everything you say…” Another pause. “Makes no sense!” He then raced away. I wondered how many other randonneurs wished they had said something like that to Ed and me at some point on a ride, but were too polite to do so.
A quiet start, riding by ourselves, and then talking to another rider who said that I made no sense. Yeah, this PBP was pretty awesome so far.
Gradually, more and more groups of riders caught us, would say “Bonjour” (or not) and ride by. The sun turned the sky brighter, and although it was not sunny, it was a pleasant morning. It felt good to be around others. This was more like the PBP propaganda I’d heard.
We tried to hang with a group that included several people from Seattle. They were moving at a lively pace, and we thought it would be a good challenge to try to keep up with them. We were also tired of riding by ourselves, and wanted a part of the PBP action.
We zipped through a French village, having a great time. We reached the outskirts of town and quickly reverted to country roads. There were two pacelines on our right, and then bikes, including us, scattered to the left of them.
As we tried to stay with the group, the back-to-back tandem rode by. Even before it completely passed us, I sensed this could be bad. The baby stroller effect is extremely powerful. A person can hardly keep themselves from looking over at the stoker’s tilted face and pedaling legs. That’s what we did, and in that brief moment of inattention, Ed touched the wheel in front of him.
The bike lurched to the left. Ed pulled his left foot out to try to adjust the balance of the bike. The bike lurched to the right. I felt the strain on my opposite shoulder. The tandem was out of control, carving its own path. I was sure we were going down, and that we’d be trampled by the bikes behind us. “Oh God,” I thought. I never in a million years imagined that we would crash. This was not part of my PBP plan.
The bike surged back to center itself and, miraculously, we did not fall. I was certain that God had reached two hands directly out of the sky, placed one top of each of our heads, and somehow physically righted us. I could not believe we had stayed upright. Ed and I recognized we were getting a second chance to finish this ride, and we were not going to blow it. We backed far away from the group.
The post-adrenaline rush from our near-miss kept us moving energetically to Mortagne, at 140K. As we approached the stop, we saw several familiar faces, including Joe Brown, Chip Adams, Clif Dierking, Roger Hillas, Andrea Matney, and Greg Conderacci. I grabbed an omelette and mashed potatoes (purée in French). It was an odd combination, but it hit the spot.
We ended up riding out of Mortagne together with the D.C. crew and shared some good miles as a group. It felt like a local brevet, only it happened to be taking place in France. We took photos and chatted a bit before the group spread out.
The weather started taking a turn for the worse, spitting on us and gradually turning to rain. The temperatures were still warm, though, so the rain did not deter our progress too much. It was more annoying than anything.
Ed and I rode along and spent some time riding with Ian Shopland of Seattle. He told us that some of the Seattle riders had spent the past few YEARS training in an effort to join the Charly Miller Society by completing PBP in less than 56 hours and 40 minutes. Ian mentioned some of the Charly Miller aspirants and I went pale. They were the randonneurs we’d been riding alongside during our epic wobble.
Oh God! That is just great! The Seattle randonneurs might never let us ride with them again, I thought. Fortunately, though, nobody crashed, everyone’s dreams were still intact, and ultimately those Seattle riders did become part of the Charly Miller Society. Congratulations, boys! Glad we did not get in your way.
On we pedaled to the control in Villaines, which was fairly dismal due to the damp conditions. Everywhere I went, I left a puddle of water behind me. I felt better when I saw Jack Holmgren from San Francisco. He gave me one of the San Francisco magnets he had brought to distribute as souvenirs and said, “Keep it if you’re selfish, and give it to a child if you’re not.” Thank you, Jack. That magnet looks so nice on my refrigerator.
Jack also advised me that the “Lara Bar Fairy” had visited our tandem. He said something about the “Clif Bar Fairy” having the day off or something. A-HA! During 2006, Ed and I had ridden the Cascade 1200K and someone had left Clif Bars on our saddles on the last day of the ride. I always wondered who had done it, but never found out. Finally, a five-year mystery solved! I may have been soaked and leaving puddles in my path, but seeing Jack really lifted my spirits.
Ed and I slid back on the bike and into the rain, which was coming and going in bands. During the showers, we noticed that the cows in the nearby pastures would huddle under trees and as the rain let up, they would resume their scattered positions throughout the field. We called this the “bovine-ometer,” and whenever we saw cows distributed in a pasture, we would speak hopefully about the rain letting up. The bovine-ometer was pretty unreliable, but it helped make the miles go by and gave us something to talk about.
As the afternoon wore on, the weather gods decided that rain was insufficient to make our ride interesting and they started throwing in the occasional lightning bolt. I thought of an on-line conversation I’d read. “What do you do when you’re out riding and you see lightning? Do you keep going or do you stop?”
When I had been sitting in my office following the thread, I thought, “What a stupid question. Of course you stop. Is this seriously a question?” While I still think “What do you do when you’re out riding and you see lightning?” is a stupid question, I now know the answer to what I would do. I would not stop. I’d keep riding! That’s right, Mom and Dad, another sound piece of advice gone by the wayside.
I thought a lot about my parents during this segment which, I’ll have you know, lasted for about 100K, or until we reached Tinteniac. I thought about how, if they were watching all of us press on in this weather, they’d just be shaking their heads. We really had no business being out there in these unnerving thunderstorms. The road conditions were ok, but the proximity of the lightning was a completely different matter. Yet there we were, fully grown men and women, pedaling on like idiots.
Pedal pedal pedal. Kerblam! Lightning tearing across the sky. Off in the distance, we could see a small patch of blue, but the route kept turning us away from it. Rain pelted us. Droplets ricocheted off of Ed’s jacket like little bullets right onto my face. Ow! Ow ow! This was ridiculous. Still we kept pedaling, fearing that if we stopped we would get chilled and lose precious time toward the controls.
We were sopping when we reached Tinteniac, but the rain then began to let up. We still saw lightning, but I think it made all of the riders happy to know that the flashes were off in the distance for a change.
I sloshed over to the bathroom. By this time in the ride, I was totally confused as to which areas were dedicated to men and which to women, since the ride organizers converted most of the bathrooms at all of the controls into male bathrooms. I was washing my hands and heard Clif ask me “Mary, why are you using the men’s restroom?” What? I took a little glance around (a little one, ok?) and realized that yes, I was indeed in the men’s bathrooms. Ick. I had bigger issues on my mind, though, so I just sighed and kept washing my hands. That’s the life of a woman rider on PBP.
After Tinteniac, we caught up to Jeff Bauer from Nashville and Tim from Ohio and rode a while with them. The terrain started to get choppy though, and that, combined with the fact that we were on tandem while Jeff and Tim were both riding fixed, made riding together difficult.
Jeff informed me that we had a bunch of people trying to draft us. “Are you serious?” I said and turned to look back. I had not been paying attention and failed to understand the point, given that we were mostly going uphill. Note to riders inexperienced with drafting a tandem. Drafting works better on flats and downhills. It was great to see Jeff and to get to talk with Tim, but with all of these dynamics, we all ended up going our own paces.
After we had mostly dried out from the showers of the day, the lightning started up again in earnest and in our vicinity. Unbelievable. I had held out such high hopes that we would at least make it to Loudeac dry, but it was not to be. Unable to outrun Mother Nature, we arrived in Loudeac amid more showers and lightning. Ah well, it makes a better story. Who would want a dry first day full of nothing but sunshine? Boring!
Day 2: Loudeac – Brest – Loudeac (449 – 782K)
It was a foggy and solitary departure out of Loudeac for Ed and me. We intersected with the occasional rider returning to Loudeac, but overall it was a quiet morning. We pedaled through some rolling terrain and steered the bike along toward the highest point on PBP, the Roc Trevezel.
Riders had said that PBP was hilly, but given that the only other rides I had done of a similar distance are the Cascade 1200K in Washington state and the Endless Mountains 1000K in Pennsylvania, I found PBP to be quite manageable. It was also a pretty tandem-friendly course, one of the most tandem-friendly courses I’ve ever ridden of any distance. Rollers you can almost top, no mountains, and not many steep grades. Sometimes we would have to grind up a short hill to reach the center of town or get over a roller, but not often.
We pedaled and pedaled and eventually caught up to a couple riders. Ed heard them chatting and realized they were our friends Jon Gardner and Roger Hillas.
After our rendezvous with Roger and Jon, the ride really picked up. We got no more rain, even though the remainder of the day was mostly cloudy. Roger dropped back after a while, but Jon, Ed, and I grouped up for the rest of PBP. You know what it’s like when you start riding with people and everything feels smooth and compatible? That’s how it was with Jon, Ed, and me. We chatted and pedaled away, and the miles rolled by.
Jon used to live in Washington, D.C, and moved to London several years ago. He and Ed started randonneuring back in 1997 or so. They had ridden PBP together in 1999. Twelve years later they were both back at PBP, with Ed attempting his fourth PBP and Jon his second.
Somewhere along the route, a French rider named Guy joined our randonneur posse for most of the second day. Guy wore a pink helmet, which made him easily distinguishable in a group, and he was an excellent rider. Both he and Jon had impressive drafting skills, and would expertly punch the pedals and jump on our wheel during the downhill sections.
Guy was from Brittany and spoke no English; Ed and I spoke no French. Jon spoke a little French so he became our translator, even though none of us talked very much with each other. It was mostly Jon, Ed, and me talking while Guy rode comfortably along.
We asked each other where we were from. Guy asked if Ed and I were married. At least, I think that’s what he asked. We found out how many PBPs each of us had done. We pretty much stuck to the basics, but it was very comfortable. Whenever we stopped at a control, we would arrange times to depart by either pointing at our watch hands or through Jon’s interpreting. I loved being able to ride so many miles together, despite the language difference. Our day spent with Guy is a great PBP memory.
We controlled in Carhaix and my bathroom issues kept manifesting. All biological systems were a go, but the logistical situation with the toilets was taking a toll. In Carhaix, for example, there was one bathroom stall for women. One! And, of course, when I got there, there was a line of four women. Why was there a line? Because the women only had access to one stall, while the men had access to all of the other restrooms in all of Carhaix. OK, maybe it wasn’t that bad, but it was pretty bad and it made me grumpy.
We left Carhaix, and found a pedaling party underway at the foot of the Roc Trevezel. Tons of people were descending off the Roc as we began our climb up. Everyone was in such high spirits, too, probably because they had made it to Brest and past the halfway point as well as the highest point of PBP. I realized later that they were probably also happy with the tailwind pushing them back toward Paris. We saw lots of familiar faces, including D.C. Randonneurs and tandem team Ron and Barb Anderson from New Jersey.
Gradually the crowd thinned and we were on our own. Back in 84-hour PBP-land. While not terribly hard, the section felt sloggy. I wanted to be in Brest, halfway done. At every bend in the road, I began looking for that bridge where everyone has their picture taken. The bridge was reluctant to make an appearance.
Finally, we arrived. Feeling festive, we all pulled our bikes to the side of the pedestrian bridge and took a few photos. People gave us words of encouragement. I wondered what the people were yelling to us. I understood the “Bonne courage,” and “Bonne chance,” but beyond that I had no idea.
I told Ed and Jon, “I hope they’re not yelling ‘She’s not pedaling’ in French. They better not be! I did not come all this way to ride my bike and be told I’m not pedaling! That’s what rides at home are for.”
Whatever it was people were saying, we ended up really benefitting from their encouragement because it took quite a few more miles/kilometers to reach the Brest control. I thought we would be controlling in on the outskirts of town, but no, we went right into the heart of the city. And we did it during rush hour.
Living and working in Washington, D.C., Ed and I are accustomed to riding in rush hour traffic, but the tandem is a total drag to ride in an urban area. It takes more momentum to make that beast move along than it does a single bike, and once you get momentum it is tough to give it up. And with all the frequent stops, we were giving it up a lot. By the time we reached the Brest control, our festive mood had dissipated. We were tired and to top that off, our wheel had started making a disconcerting ticking noise that we could not diagnose.
Fortunately for Ed and me, though, we had a surprise waiting for us. Our Austrian friend, Michael, who we know from commuting around Washington, D.C., greeted us there! He had been asked to do a freelance photography gig at PBP by one of his German randonneur friends. Seeing Michael really lifted my spirits. It was a “small world” moment. Whoever would have imagined that one of our commuting buddies would end up being a PBP photographer?
We also saw Columbia, Missouri, Dale and asked him what he knew about wheels. Quite a lot, we discovered, as Dale was a bike mechanic in a previous life. He diagnosed that our ticking was coming from a spoke that had probably gotten dry from the rain. He oiled our spokes and sent us on our way. We had a silent bike for the remainder of the ride. I love it when that happens!
We made the control with plenty of time to spare, although you would never have known it by looking around the control. Brest was about to shut down. The 11-hour gap between the start times of the 80- and 90-hour groups and those of the 84-hour group made it feel like the 84-hour riders were in last place. This was not true in terms of actual time on the bike, but riding at the back of the pack for so much of the ride took a psychological toll.
Brest also posed bathroom issues. Basically, I had to sprint into the women’s bathroom before it was taken over by men. I lost my temper a little and said, “I am a woman using the women’s bathroom. Why do I have to fight for the use of the bathroom?” The ride organizers just looked at me, puzzled. Was I the Ugly Randonneuse? I don’t know. I only know that I wanted to be able to use the bathroom like everybody else, i.e., the men.
After my petulant bathroom incident, we left Brest, jerking the tandem through rush hour. We climbed away from the city and came upon some of the 90-hour riders who were now riding outside of the control limits. Some looked like they were not doing well, and others seemed to be in good spirits, trying to make time to the next control.
We passed through Sizun again, and Guy told us that the town was known for its architecture. Because of my non-existent French I could not understand why, but you could definitely tell that the buildings had a distinct look to them when compared to the architecture in other towns.
Climbing the Roc Trevezel for the second time, we ran into some Audax UK riders who talked about the power of the purée and omelette fare, and I joined in their praise of the unconventional meal. Whatever was in those omelettes and mashed potatoes, it was doing the trick for me on this ride. I wasn’t that excited to return home and tell everyone that I went to France and ate scrambled eggs and mashed potatoes the whole time, but during the ride it seemed like the right move.
We descended off of the Roc Trevezel with Jon and Guy on our wheel and entered Carhaix. We ate some more, and I noticed that I was really smelling bad. Riding your bike all day in humid weather will do that. Sheesh! I remarked on how awful I smelled and one of the people sitting beside me said that he thought the smell might not be me, but could quite possibly be him. I appreciated his volunteering to take the heat for the stinkiness, but assured him that I was the really stinky one. Most likely, we all were stinky. Randonneuring is a stinky enterprise, you know.
Night fell in Carhaix, and we readied for the night riding. The terrain took a turn toward the tandem-friendly and Ed and I went with it. We started pushing the pedals and flying through the night. It felt fantastic. Push the downhill, top the roller, push the next downhill, top the next rise, and so on. Thirty kilometers later, Ed decided to stop in Saint Nicolas for a bowl of coffee. I wanted to keep going, but if Ed needs coffee, he needs coffee. As we pulled over, I realized that we had a big group tagging along behind us. As we stopped, one British guy said to us “That was incredible! I want to go out and buy a tandem!”
Guy treated Jon, Ed, and me to bowls of coffee and crepes. We drank our coffees and made small talk. I had lost all sense of time by now; I only knew that we would keep pedaling until we reached the next overnight. Jon, Ed, and I were feeling good as we left, and we pressed and pressed to make time to Loudeac. Guy started falling back and told us not to wait for him. We reluctantly left Guy to ride his own ride as we made the most of our late-night energy surge over the rollers back to Loudeac.
Day 3: Loudeac to Mortagne (841 – 1090K)
By the third day, PBP had taken on a routine of sorts. Wake up, find Jon, eat, ride, eat, ride, eat, ride, ride, eat, sleep. It was a pretty simple life of ridiculously long days.
Everybody’s mood was upbeat as we rolled away from Loudeac. The sun sauntered up over the horizon, a gentle tailwind pushed us along, and we “only” had 450K to go. After all of the rain and dreariness of the past two days, I was extra appreciative.
The first part of our third morning was spent in the company of Rob Hawks, of the San Francisco Randonneurs. Rob was having a fantastic ride, and nothing you could do could shake him out of his good mood. He looked great, and maintained a nonstop beaming smile for the last two days of PBP.
We also intersected with Italian randonneur and flickr buddy Fabiorandonneur throughout the third morning. From the flickrverse to real life. Real life in France, no less. People I had only known previously via Twitter, flickr, or a blog were now our fellow riders. PBP was amazing.
Day 3 was full of fun. We rode a lot with other people (we had started to catch more of the 90-hour riders after Loudeac), regularly intersected with Roger Hillas, Joe Brown, and Paul Rozelle (who always seemed to be departing a control as we arrived), and the sunny day kept our spirits up. No cows clustered under any trees. The bovine-ometer indicated it was a perfect day to be on vacation and outside on your bike. I could actually see the towns and many people were out and about, cheering us. This was the kind of PBP weather and ambience I’d dreamed about.
When it seemed like we rode too long without talking and that our energy was dipping, Jon said, “Tell me a story!” ”
“What? Tell you what story?” I asked.
“Any story,” he said. “Just tell one.”
Ed told a story about running away from home when he was little, and I shared a story about being five years old and eating a piece of candy off the ground, even though my mother told me you were not supposed to do things like that. In a fit of regret about not following her direction, I had lied and told her that I’d stolen the piece of candy rather than admit I’d eaten it off the ground. (Bet you’re jealous you weren’t in our riding group, huh?) I liked Jon’s storytelling strategy, though at first it caught me off guard. These shared memories kept our group lively and interactive.
The towns looked lovely under clear skies. People milled about at the controls, we could park our bikes without having to worry about the saddles getting wet, and my eau de randonneur seemed to be slightly less sour with the sun to dry my sweat.
After controlling in Fougeres, we stopped a few kilometers outside of town at the famous crepes place, which makes crepes (surprise!) and provides drinks. Everything is free and, in exchange, you send them a postcard when you return from PBP. I didn’t see the point of stopping since we had just eaten and what more did I need than purée to get me down the road, but Ed said that he had ridden PBP three times and never stopped at this famous PBP spot. Today he was changing that.
I thought Ed had done everything there was to do on PBP. I liked knowing that, even after completing the event three times, aspects of this ride were new to him. And we were getting to share them together. (My apologies for the cheesy moment.)
Jon started a soliloquy about whether he was going to ride PBP for time or if he was going to ride for fun and not worry about time. We moseyed along while Jon debated his options. “Ride for fun? Ride for time? Ride through Mortagne and finish without sleeping again? What should I do?”
“Is this really a question?” I thought. If Jon had wanted to ride for time he would have dusted us days ago. We were the three musketeers. I was 99% certain Jon would continue to ride with us, unless somehow he got a third wind in Mortagne. We were all having too good of a time together. It seemed like a good ride over a fast ride was going to win the day.
An international randonneur party was underway in Villaines when we arrived. Adele”s “Rumor Has It” was blasting from a sound system and people were shouting encouragement to all of us. Lots of picture taking was going on. Villaines had even arranged for port-o-potties. I love you, Villaines! It was hard to believe this was the same sodden town from two days prior.
It was two days, right? My perception of time was muddled. Riding 200-plus miles day after day will do that to a person. Was it really just yesterday that we’d been riding with Guy? Two days since we’d been soaked in Villaines?
It was tough to depart Villaines with all the booming tunes and fan support. But it was nearly 9:00 p.m., and we still had 75K to make it to our overnight destination of Mortagne. How many miles is that, you ask. I don’t know. Not only had my perception of time become warped, but I also lost my ability to convert kilometers to miles. I hadn’t used a cue sheet since the course was so well marked and Ed did such a good job giving me the skinny on our whereabouts. Jon and I started pestering Ed with “How many kilometers to blah town?” I kept asking Jon and Ed “How many miles is that?” It reminded me of car trips from childhood. “Are we there yet? How far is it?”
We encountered more new faces on the road as we continued to catch the 90-hour riders. As the fatigue from the past three days of riding and sleep deprivation set in and the last light of the day faded, the French countryside transformed into a randonneur napping ground. People were crashed out on benches or little bus stop shelters, which Ed called “bus stop hotels.” Shiny mylar blankets were peppered all along the roadside, with people wrapped up like baked potatoes for the night.
After a few miles (or kilometers, if you prefer), Ed decided he needed to take a moment to regroup. He stopped the tandem in a village and a father and daughter who had been watching the riders came up to us. They were French residents from St. Petersburg, Russia. The daughter said to us, “Isn’t it hard?”
We all nodded our heads and agreed. “Yes, it’s hard.”
She continued, “My father and I have been asking everyone why they do it. Why do you ride these rides?”
Jon shouted passionately, “BECAUSE IT’S FUN!” And then, in case she had not heard him, he repeated, “BECAUSE IT’S FUN!”
I had not realized the depth of Jon’s feelings about randonneuring and fun, and could not stop laughing. The father and daughter also seemed impressed with Jon’s enthusiasm, and the daughter rushed off to grab something for us. She returned with a quart-size plastic bag full of white powder.
“This is sports drink,” she said. “It will help keep you hydrated.”
“Thank you,” we answered. Jon and I engaged in a silent stare-down over who would carry the somewhat hefty “sports drink.” Hey, he was the one expounding on the fun that is PBP. However, Jon’s Carradice was full and I ultimately accepted the package on behalf of our group.
We continued into what I called the “march of the zombies.” It was the tail end of the 90-hours interspersed with 84-hour riders, and some people were really out of it. On one section, Ed and I had two people trying to race us down every descent while one rider talked incoherently and incessantly at us. We finally pulled over, and I took advantage of our stop to dump out the white powder. I’m sure it was harmless, but I did not want to take chances with what the stuff actually was, and I wanted to shed the bike of any unnecessary items.
Ed was totally annoyed with maneuvering the tandem through this nocturnal scene. Jon and I yapped away, and at one point I think Ed wanted to saw the bike in half and ride off for some quiet time. Jon and I settled down, though, and we kept navigating the zombie rush hour.
This is where I saw Sophie, the randonneuse doing PBP on a city bike. She was a surreal image, floating along beside us, wearing a dress, riding a bike with a sloping top tube, upright handlebars, a wicker basket, and little panniers. She looked effortless. I admired her for riding PBP on that bike and in a dress. I couldn’t imagine doing either of those things! Sophie was one tough rider.
Ed said that he thought all of us were going so slowly and weaving so much that we might all end up in a multi-bike pileup going 6 miles per hour. It seemed possible, but fortunately, it was not to be. We avoided anything too sketchy and hauled ourselves up a few hills into Mortagne. At least, it seemed like there were some hills, but after riding for 1090K it’s hard for my legs to accurately assess hilly.
Day 4: Mortagne to Saint Quentin en Villaines (1090 to 1230K)
I went to grab breakfast and heard a voice say, “Mary… purée!” I turned in the direction of the voice and saw Jack Holmgren, with a slightly deranged smile on his face, pointing his spoon at his mashed potatoes. It sounded good, so I grabbed my own plate of puree and eggs, and fueled for the final day.
We pedaled out of town, discussing how many kilometers remained. “140K,” Ed said.
“How many miles is that?” Something like 85, Jon and Ed reported. 85? We can do that! We pedaled five miles and Jon and Ed decided they wanted to stop for espresso. “Really, guys? Really?” I was annoyed because I smelled the finish and my legs were feeling good. “Let’s get going!”
Ed said he wanted espresso and he wanted us to act civilized. Being civilized on brevets is a frequent topic with Ed and me. For us, it means stopping instead of forcing yourself along like a machine; it means taking time to talk to others; it means getting sleep when you can. It means drinking a cup of coffee if you feel like having one. This was how we had ridden PBP so far, and Ed was not about to change our strategy on the final run-in.
We entered a boulangerie that had a couple of locals in it, and all of us ordered double espressos. Jon went to sit and wait for his drink. He completely missed the bench and ended up in a heap on the floor and in fits of laughter. So much for civilized. The locals looked at Jon like he was completely crazy and the owner asked if Jon was drunk. “No,” we answered. “He’s just uncoordinated.”
The espresso seemed to do the trick for Ed’s alertness and we saddled up again. Ed’s ankle had begun to bother him the day before, and by Day 4 it was really hurting. We backed off our pace to see if that would alleviate some of his pain. It was a bummer to know that Ed was going to finish the ride injured, but I had become so focused on finishing that I did not care if I had to go up front and captain the tandem myself while Ed propped up his feet and read the paper. We were going to be official PBP finishers.
We traversed the forgiving terrain of the country roads, passing more baked potato people, or as Andrea Matney called them, burritos. Much of our final day was spent in the company of Andrea, Greg Conderacci, Joe Brown, Roger Hillas, and Bill Russell.
Bill flew by us en route to the Dreux control. We caught up to him in Dreux and he said, “I’m going to make it. I didn’t think I was going to make it.” Apparently, somebody he had been riding with had inspired him to continue to strive to be an official PBP finisher, and it had worked its magic. I loved Bill’s smile and determination, and found it hard to imagine that he had ever been at the threshold of not finishing.
Even though we were 84-hour riders, the last day of PBP again felt like we were riding in last place. Dreux was quiet and the volunteers looked about ready to head for home. Overall, I was glad we chose the 84-hour start, as it maximized the daytime riding, but the lack of fanfare and riding toward the rear of the group were a letdown. That said, the 84-hour riders were a fun bunch and it felt like we were on a mini-PBP ride within PBP.
Jon, Ed, and I continued our mellow pace and my body thanked me for it. I could not believe I’d been riding for four days. I felt awesome. Had I not been pedaling? Ha ha, don’t answer that! I think the mellow tandem-friendly course helped me sustain my energy for the duration of the ride. That came in handy, as it allowed me to push on the final rollers in the Rambouillet Forest before reaching the finish in San Quentin en Villaines.
As we left the Rambouillet Forest behind and entered town, I had a moment of wishing we were at the finish and simultaneously wishing the ride would not end.
Ed pumped his fist excitedly as we rode the final blocks of our 1230K. He was ecstatic. We all were. Our group exchanged high fives and I couldn’t stop smiling and feeling grateful about having had the opportunity to ride PBP.
I felt so happy that we’d survived the epic wobble, avoided any lightning bolts, and been treated to two full days of sunshine and perfect weather. With the exception of our squeaky spokes and a cable replacement, we had no mechanical issues. We’d been able to get sufficient sleep each night. and completed the ride in a comfortable 81 hours and 25 minutes. My body felt great. The only casualty of the ride had been Ed’s ankle, which would take some weeks to heal.
Finally, I understood just what a big deal PBP is to the randonneuring community, and I realized that it was a big deal to me, too. Ed and I had worked hard to be part of this event. We both dedicated ourselves to over a year of preparation and training, completed the official rides to qualify, and invested the time and money to make the trip a reality. It was rewarding to see our efforts culminate at PBP.
As soon as I stepped off the bike, I thought, “I would do PBP again. I’ll return in four years, if at all possible.” (And if you know Ed, you know we’ll try to make it possible!) The tandem-friendly terrain, the organizational support, international presence of randonneurs, and the friendliness of the French people make for an irresistible 1200K combination.
I hate to admit it, but Ed was right after all. I can’t explain it. You have to be there to truly know.
See you in 2015?