Colorado High Country 1200K: The Best of the West

The year is at its end, and I realized this was as good a time as any to publish my story of the Colorado High Country 1200K from last summer.  It’s long, but I hope worth the read. MG posted her excellent story some weeks ago, see it here.

Without further ado, I give you:

Colorado High Country 1200K 2012: The Best of the West
by Ed Felker

The map of the days of the High Country 1200K.

The map of the days of the High Country 1200K.

After completing Paris-Brest-Paris last year, MG and I were on the fence about undertaking another long randonnee in 2012. They take a lot of preparation plus the time and expense of traveling to the event. We found the 2011 PBP trip rewarding, but also exhausting.

Then we forgot about all that as we considered the 2012 Colorado High Country 1200K. The route by organizer John Lee Ellis includes some of northern Colorado’s and southern Wyoming’s tallest passes, and offered a chance to combine randonneuring with some excellent sightseeing along the way.

As the July 9 start approached we watched the news reports about wildfires in Colorado and Wyoming, and the closure of roads on the planned route.

John quickly changed the route once because of the Poudre Canyon fire in Colorado, then changed it again because of a second fire in Wyoming. In the end we rode a third version that would get us around the known obstacles with an option to take Trail Ridge Road — the highest paved road in America — if a key segment through Poudre was closed.

MG and I arrived with half of our Co-Motion Speedster tandem on July 5 — one of two cases did not make the flight. This is no way to start a ride. I got up early the next morning and started pacing around the main road by host hotel, the Quality Inn in Louisville, Colo., outside Boulder, trying to work off some nervous worry.

A station wagon zoomed up and the driver asked me directions to the hotel, and I could see our case in the back. Much relief ensued. The bike came together without a hitch. More relief ensued!

For a test ride we went 15 miles under bright sunny skies to downtown Boulder that day with two other riders: Dave Cramer from Massachusetts and our old pal Bob Olsen from New York state.

Bob and Dave in downtown Boulder.

Bob and Dave in downtown Boulder.

(See all of my photos from the event here and MG’s here.)

We thoroughly enjoyed the roadie/hipster ambiance of Pearl Street’s coffee houses, bike shops and restaurants. Coffee plus a trip to Veccio’s super cool bike shop and lunch made for a mellow initial acclimation to the Colorado elevation.

Joe of Vecchio's and MG. He gave us free water bottles for the ride. Thanks Joe!

Joe of Vecchio’s and MG. He gave us free water bottles for the ride. Thanks Joe!

Yet there was still some concern about our ride to come. I was struggling with the remnants of a cold and a dry cough persisted that day and evening. By the next morning we had a talk about whether I might be too sick to ride.

We turned to a trusted source of medical knowledge — Dr. Google.

After matching the symptoms to the last stage of bronchitis on various medical sites, MG and I decided I was probably OK to ride. Sorry urgent care clinic, no fees for you today!

We tested this theory on Saturday with a hilly ride up Lefthand Canyon, north of Boulder, to see how I pedaled.

This ride needed a coffee boost, naturally, which I suspected would also help my condition — or at least lift my spirits. We returned to Ozo Coffee Roasters for yet another round of excellent espresso and espresso drinks.

Fortunately all went well, with the help of ibuprofen, which shrunk the swollen membranes in my lungs. We were good to go, though the cough would pop up here and there over the next few days.

Lots of roadies on the way up Lefthand Canyon.

Lots of roadies on the way up Lefthand Canyon.

More riders arrived on Saturday and Sunday, including our DC Randonneurs friend Bill Beck, amigo Jeff Bauer and a few other East Coasters. The 43 entrants showed John Lee their bikes and lights on Sunday evening, got brevet cards and cue sheets, and hunkered down for the 4 a.m. start on Monday. MG and I ordered pizza and tried to get that last few hours of shuteye.

Day One

After a few remarks by John Lee under a very light misting rain, the field rolled out of Louisville on the first day’s 220-mile segment to Saratoga, Wyo. via Laramie.

There was absolutely no shortage of adrenaline! Everyone stuck together across mostly flat and dry roads north toward Fort Collins and Loveland. MG and I pulled at the front on the downill sections and then dropped back after the roads leveled off. John Lee nicely greeted us roadside before Fort Collins after daybreak as we all steamed at a fast pace.

Tooling along on the way to Fort Collins at first light

Tooling along on the way to Fort Collins at first light

MG and I pulled over to de-layer after 30 miles and let the group go ahead. We caught a couple of stoplights in Fort Collins and grouped up with Vickie Tyer and some other folks who had adopted a similar moderate pace. A shower rolled through but stopped before we needed rain jackets.

Riders bolted through the quaint Vern’s control at LaPorte, where I wolfed down a quick espresso and a breakfast burrito. We took off again on US 287 to Laramie. The skies were partly cloudy and we had a tailwind to help with the gradual incline.

Long haul trucks rumbled past here and there but the traffic was light enough. This was our first introduction to the many miles of highway shoulders we would traverse the next four days.

We chatted with Chris Heg from Seattle, Bob Koen from Vancouver and Dave Cramer on this windswept road, and made a quick stop at a roadside oasis set up by volunteer Jim Kraychy at Virginia Dale to top off our water reserves.

MG, Jim and Dave at Jim's oasis near the Wyoming border.

MG, Jim and Dave at Jim’s oasis near the Wyoming border.

The air was exceptionally dry and the sun was coming out. Yes, we were officially riding our bikes in the open West!

After grinding up to the Wyoming state line with Dave, we flew solo into Laramie at 25 m.p.h., powered by a gradual descent and powerful tailwind. Downtown was hot and bustling as we stopped at a Subway, where Art and Dan Fuoco, and Rorie were pulled over.

Bill Beck arrived after us and we all pulled out together around 1 p.m. I looked longingly at the coffee shop across the street but resisted the urge to bolt in for an espresso. Subway ice tea would have to do. Oh, the sacrifices we make to stick to randonneur timetables!

The hot sun and southern crosswinds made the run to Centennial something of a chore, but we were happily distracted by the open range, bright blue skies and picturesque mountains ahead.

At Centennial riders were topping up supplies at the convenience store. A massive climb up Snowy Range Road loomed and nobody rushed out before refilling bottles and taking a few minutes break.

On the way to Centennial, Wyo.

On the way to Centennial, Wyo.

I took a photo of the Fuoco brothers and Rorie. After eating snacks and applying more sunscreen, MG and I started out toward the highest point of the four days — 10,700 feet — with more than 2,600 feet of climbing over 10 miles to conquer.

The effects of altitude intensified as we climbed. The thin air made us breathe harder for a given effort and kept us thirsty.

We traveled up, up, up over stairstep roads, in the vicinity of Mark Metcalf and Fred Hunley, who kept up a cheerful banter. Up through green meadows and tree stands, MG and I stood, cranked the pedals out of the saddle for awhile, sat down and panted, recovered, and repeated.

We really felt way out in the West on this segment.

This went on for about two hours as we spun our granny ring and shifted up and down the cogs. Temperatures dropped to the 50s as we rose and by the summit I was sweatsoaked, chilled and lightheaded.

On the long Snowy Range climb.

On the long Snowy Range climb.

After stopping to put on layers and eat a snack, the summit arrived and what a scene it was. Lakes, long-distance views and a dramatic, soaring bowl greeted us as we rolled through the saddle before starting the ascent to the western summit, which was actually another 100 feet higher, at 10,872.

A massive descent followed that was sheltered from updrafts and cross winds, and with no traffic to slow us, we bolted past a couple of riders on single bikes (hi Fred, hi Rorie!) on a thrilling dash to the valley. The curves were wide and gentle and in no time we were stopping again to take off layers as the road leveled and heat rose again.

The Fuocos and Rorie showed up, then Dave Cramer, and Mark and Fred rolled through. It was HOT at the lower elevation, and we got out of everything we donned at the top. A few big descending rollers over scrub land led us to the early evening out-and-back to a control in Riverside and then to the control hotel at Saratoga.

Riders streamed north from Riverside as we pedaled south. We didn’t know if the store would be open, but it was as we arrived.

I was a little disappointed to see people had already made the turn and were headed to the hotel, but tried not to let on to MG. The tandem captain’s job is to keep up a positive attitude, and there really wasn’t anything wrong.

MG and I sat outside and ate with some of our fellow riders, including Rod Geisert whose wife was supporting him at the controls. She nicely gave us bananas and we lit out in the low sunlight to tackle the 20 rolling miles back to Saratoga.

The setting sun illuminated the dry scrub and we caught up to Brent and Beth Myers on the only other tandem, a DaVinci.

Me, Beth and Brent on the way to Saratoga.

Me, Beth and Brent on the way to Saratoga.

They were riding strong and it took awhile for us to catch their wheel. A few pleasantries made the miles pass and in fading light the hotel appeared on the edge of Saratoga right at 9 p.m. — a much earlier arrival than we anticipated.

John Lee thoughtfully reserved the entire establishment. His helpful volunteer signed our cards and we were given a room at the front desk. Nearby stood two tables of hot and cold food being managed by another volunteer, who was serving up baked potatoes and chili. It was a perfect randonneur spread!

Riders sat outside eating in the twilight and swapped stories. We agreed to a 2 a.m. departure with Jeff B., Bill and Dave Campbell from Austin, Texas. Our work done for the day, we grabbed our drop bags and took bowls of food to our room to continue eating. After all that, we conked out for three blissful hours. Yes, three whole hours. This was our vacation, and we were intent on getting some sleep, ha ha!

Day Two

Our friend Roger Hillas says he has better legs on the odd-numbered days on a 1200K more than the evens. Fresh legs on Day 1 are followed by fatigue on Day 2. The legs seem to snap back on Day 3, but heavy fatigue on Day 4 makes that day a challenge (that is, if you don’t finish in three days or less — not us!).

Though the distance for the second day was to be shorter than the first, at 198 miles, we were to climb one major pass and ascend over a very tough section of rollers to the overnight hotel late in the day.

First off was the dreaded 100-Mile Climb. No kidding. The elevation profile showed a steady rise from Saratoga, at 6,791 feet, to the summit at Rabbit Ears Pass, some 105 miles away at 9,426 feet. We would then descend into Steamboat Springs for lunch.

Our group rolled out under twinkling stars and cool breezes back to Riverside, and then turned left on desolate Highway 230 for 59 miles to a morning control in Walden, Colo.

Temperatures fell into the low 50s, maybe upper 40s, as daylight approached. We rode in vests, long finger gloves, caps and leg coverings. It was lonely and cold, but being in a group helped us wile away the miles. A car shot past every so often, but not _ very _ often.

At the Colorado border we stopped for fun photos. The sun was up and we were back in Colorado, 264 miles done! Daybreak had come and it was a relief to be less than two hours away from Walden and breakfast.

We made it! MG, Dave, Me, and Bill. Photo by Jeff Bauer.

We made it! MG, Dave, Me, and Bill. Photo by Jeff Bauer.

There was no way to make fast time on this long stretch. The low-percentage climbing forced us to spin at a moderate pace in the teens, so we, Dave, Bill and Jeff just traded stories and rolled as best we could.

No more than a few vehicles passed by and we mostly rode down the center of the right lane through the scrubby ranch country. There was one big hill near the end of this segment to break the monotony, but the best strategy seemed to be to avoid eye contact with our odometers.

At the sleepy town of Walden, Jim greeted us at the hotel control. He signed our cards and we u-turned back to the Moose Creek Cafe for breakfast. Mark Thomas, Jimmy Williams and Tim Sullivan walked in and we proceeded to plow through pancakes and huevos rancheros.

The pancakes were as big as dinner plates and MG could not finish hers, nor could anyone else. Big country breakfasts, indeed.

Another 38 miles of steady gradual uphill plowing faced us to Rabbit Ears pass. The day got warmer and the sun stronger. We had burned in odd spots the day before and were learning that sunscreen did not last nearly as long at high elevations as we expected.

I wore a wicking hat given to me by Randy Mouri from his extra RAAM kit to protect my head, which had gotten red stripes through my helmet, and slathered sunscreen everywhere else, especially the back of my neck and forearms.

The ascent to Rabbit Ears was preceded by a smaller climb to 8,772-foot Muddy Pass, a point on the Continental Divide, under relentless sun. MG and I had to wave the group on as we slowed and slowed, finally pulling over to regroup in an absolutely shadeless spot before starting the long uphill grade.

This was a low point for us; the seated pedaling with no downhill coasting had sapped our legs and morale. Bill and Dave rolled on. Jeff had slowed earlier and passed us at a steady, easy pace.

It occurred to me again that we could not, should not, rush this ride — steady effort was the only game plan.

We followed Jeff up to the top of Rabbit Ears with a swarm of flies buzzing around us. I spent much of my time swatting away at them when we were not out of the saddle trying to keep up some kind of momentum.

Second summit of the event, at Rabbit Ears Pass. Courtesy MG.

Second summit of the event, at Rabbit Ears Pass. Courtesy MG.

The three of us stopped for fun photos at the summit sign and then proceeded over a set of rolling hills with steady car traffic before the big seven-mile, 7 percent drop to Steamboat Springs.

The road pitched down hard and I got in a low crouch for a fast run. Sadly the pavement had too many rough sections and the crosswinds were too strong to let the tandem fly.

Mark had stopped halfway down and we flew past, then a hard left bend with a guardrail approached very quickly and I grabbed the brakes for a rest stop before proceeding.

I hate stopping on a descent, but we were not the only ones to find this descent scary — riders later told us they braked often to control their speed. Welcome to the mountainous West!

I now understood the value of a tandem drum brake — our dual disks didn’t fail to stop us quickly or scrub speed, but I had to keep working them to safely negotiate the turns.

Off the descent, the approach to Steamboat on US 40 was hot and full of traffic. Mark turned off at the shopping center on the edge of town to eat but we went on to downtown for something more appetizing than McDonald’s.

The town center had plenty of places and we found a cafe with sidewalk seating. We tried to get Bill to join us by exchanging Twitter messages but he also stopped early. We watched him and other riders roll past our spot without noticing us.

Sandwiches and fries, with multiple glasses of ice tea, revived us. I tried to buy a bandana at the outdoors store nearby to protect my neck but gave up when all they had were some kind of crazy performance model that cost $15. I mean, should a bandana cost more than $3? Not in my world.

(I would find the bandana later that day that I had packed in the Carradice bag. This made me feel not so smart.)

Now at mile 346, we looked forward to passing the half-way point, only to be greeted by an rolling but hot and busy 25-mile run to the little town of Hayden.

Saddle soreness was getting the better of us. We stopped at a stand of trees to discreetly apply chamois creme and cool off, and saw Brent and Beth pulling out.

Then we had to stop at the first of two highway construction sections under blazing sun. As we approached, they and other riders ahead were allowed through before our side was blocked again, giving us a joyful (not!) 10 extra minutes to kill.

“Where are all the women?” joked the fellow controlling traffic. He also wanted to know why we were going to Hayden, only to backtrack partway to another road before turning to Oak Creek. Finally MG said, “the point of the ride is to go to all these towns!”

There you have it: randonnueuring, the abridged version.

We finally got the OK to proceed and passed along cliffs that were being netted to catch falling rocks.

A few miles later we saw cars gathering at a second work zone. MG and I hammered to get there before they proceeded. Through this section, we saw groups of riders going back towards Oak Creek after controlling in Hayden.

Once in town we saw the Myers at one store but we proceeded on to the second store as indicated on the cue sheet; both were acceptable. I oiled the grinding dry rear chain and we chugged down ice tea and ate some snacks. Tim Argo was there recovering from the heat and Rod pulled up, followed by Hugh Kimball.

Our plan was to get going fast and we lit out after 15 minutes or so, spying the Myers mounting up as we rode past their store stop. The work zone had closed up for the night and we had no construction stops on the way back to the turn onto Twenty Mile Road.

This was a picturesque former dirt road past a Peabody Coal mine that covered a set of intensely steep rollers, leading to a big pitch up 1,500 feet to 7,872 feet.

We made the turn and started swapping places with Tim Argo. We’d spin up a climb to about 7,000 feet, then drop in a flash down a hill to 6,700 or lower, then climb again, on and on. The terrain was dramatic, all soft hills with horses grazing amidst rock outcroppings.

Climbing away from the coal mine.

Climbing away from the coal mine.

We passed by the mine and then the real steep stuff started — granny grinders, followed by twisting descents of a mile or so, then another grinder. Dark clouds gathered and threatened rain.

I watched the altimeter on the GPS and grimaced every time we topped a nasty little rise, knowing we were about to surrender our elevation gain.

We started the final grade up to the top and dropped into the granny for good. Here some fears started creeping in. I had inflamed my Achilles tendon at PBP and was scared to blow it up, but we had no choice other than to walk.

A stray rain drop fell and we alternated spinning and standing at a 5-6 m.p.h. pace. Tim’s chain failed to drop off the big ring at the bottom of the hill and he was behind us after he stopped to fix it, while Mark and Jeff B. were up the hill.

I used them both as rabbits and we gradually overtook Mark, then reached the easy pedaling Jeff just at the summit before the brief plunge together into Oak Creek. We arrived in dramatic fashion at the grocery store where Mark, Jimmy, Bill Beck and Dave C. were refueling, with a big “whoo!” of accomplishment for getting the tandem up that brute of a road.

Dave gave us a nice compliment about our tenacity (thanks Dave!) and we tried to recover our wits for the final miles into the overnight back in Steamboat. MG took some pictures and I staggered around.

The grocery store staff warned the other guys about a rough construction zone on the main road, but Mark T. had cleared an alternate route on the phone with John Lee that added a couple of miles but was preferable.

We left with Jeff and had a general idea where to go, but it took a knock on a resident’s door before we got around the pretty detour and back to the main road. There we still turned left instead of right, but Henk B. was on the roadside a little ways up, fixing a flat. “You’re going the wrong way!” he advised us. Oops!

We pulled into the control hotel at 8:30 p.m. Brent and Beth rolled in a few minutes later, which was good to see. Today had not been very tandem-friendly. I’d call it tandem-unfriendly!

Brent gave as a nice comment about keeping our momentum up on Twenty Mile Road, which was much appreciated. Only the tandem teams can understand the challenges of working together to get these big bikes over the steeps while staying coordinated and supportive of each other’s travails.

The breakfast area had been taken over as a feed zone with bar-b-que sandwiches, pop, potato salad, sandwich makings, and all sorts of goodies.

MG and I grabbed our drop bags and got up to the room, returned for food, and then tried to settle into bed quickly. This had been an exhausting day and we could think of little but showers and rest. We set another 2 a.m. departure time with Jeff and Dave.

Day Three

Volunteers Leslie and Dottie helped us get out the door with plenty of breakfast food — breakfast burritos, no less — and good cheer. I sat with Brent and contemplated the day ahead. We faced another 181 miles starting with Gore Pass at 9,527 feet and ending with Willow Creek Pass at 9,621 feet before a long descent back to Walden.

Dave and MG, ready to face Day Three.

Dave and MG, ready to face Day Three.

We first rode back to Oak Creek with Jeff B., Mark Thomas, Dave Campbell, and Jimmy, leaving around 2:30 a.m. The 34-mile ascent to Toponas got colder and colder, with brisk winds, and the store in Yampa was closed when we passed by. Thankfully we had plenty of water in our Camelbaks and food in our pockets.

The sun started rising as we began the gentle climb up Gore Pass, which actually leveled off and descended a bit before rising again to the summit. Only a few cars passed us. The road was ours.

I said to Mary that it was improbable that we’d ever traverse this lush mountain pass at daybreak if we were not on a randonee. This kind of riding brings us all together at wonderful places at remarkable (to some, insane) times of the day. I was grateful for the experience, even if we had to get up in the middle of the night.

Top of Gore Pass. Dave, Mark, me and MG.

Top of Gore Pass. Dave, Mark, me and MG.

At the summit we took congratulatory photos, then began the twisty, fast descent. With no speed advisories posted on the turns I was braking at first, until Jimmy bolted past on his sweet Gunnar tour bike.

An advanced descender, he led the way until the turns became more manageable for me, then we took the lead and both shot down the descent.

Mark and Dave rolled up as we hit the flats below. “You guys looked like you dropped down an elevator shaft!” Mark said. It was lot of fun to get a fast run down after having to brake on Rabbit Ears the day before.

Big rollers led us to Kremmling, 70 miles into the day without a break, and we stopped at the Moose Cafe to start devouring. A group of four riders was heading out of town as we parked our bikes — I think it was Tim Foon Feldman’s group. Laurent Chambard was at the grocery store, I recall, and others were in the vicinity.

We walked in around 8 a.m. past the local cowboys and retirees. I spied an espresso machine behind the counter and I said a quiet prayer of thanks. Nearly 48 hours had passed since my last double shot and those Cokes and ice teas only go so far.

Sitting under a large stuffed moose head mounted on the wall, we gathered for what was to be our only cooked food on the road that day. I ordered a big pancake plus eggs and hash browns and managed to down them all.

Dave bought a T-shirt for his daughter, which reminded me to call my own daughter to wish her a happy birthday.

After a fresh application of sunscreen and the ritual “taking off of layers,” off we went to historic Hot Sulfur Springs. A roadside marker said that the Old West-style, end-of-the-month-payday gunfights led to the town celebrating Halloween on Oct. 30 to protect the children! The tradition is observed still.

We rode through the sublime and steeply walled Byers Canyon, waving along the way to touring cyclists who were looking down on the rushing Colorado River.

Through Byers Canyon.

Through Byers Canyon.

Temperatures rose quickly into the 80s and a stop at a convenience store let us get ice and cold drinks as another pair of touring riders passed by.

Our group split up there. Dave and Mark rolled on as MG, Jeff and I lingered. More sunscreen. I had put on a bandana around my neck at this point (the one that was in our Carradice bag) to shield it from the intense sun. MG wore the white sunsleeves she had bought before the trip to stop any more sunburn on her arms.

Just as we made the turn towards Grand Lake, John Lee rolled up and stopped to say hello. We felt pretty good and had a nice conversation with him.

What a nice treat, before some hard work ensued getting to the next control. The skies were bright — really bright. I felt like I was in some kind of photo filter: EXTRA SUNNY.

After more ups than downs we arrived at Grand Lake, just below the rise to Trail Ridge Road. Ominous black clouds were gathering on the high mountain summits but we got only stray drops and some wind gusts off the lake. Riders leaving town in the other direction were smiling, which was a good sign.

The control store was a disappointment, though. We struggled to get something worthwhile to eat. The packaged sandwiches were expired and we had to make do with snacks, and the staff was largely indifferent to us. There was nowhere to sit inside or out and we had to linger in a corner by the bathrooms when a shower rolled through.

MG was a little cooked, as was I, and it took us a good 30 minutes to regroup. I took some Advil and a Sudafed to control a nasal drip that had been making my throat sore.

Jeff gave us some cough drops, which helped tremendously. Note to self — get some of these next time in the West. They allowed me to swallow without having to take a gulp of water every time.

By now a storm was brewing. Pills and drinks consumed, we got back on the road and started flying with a gusty tailwind blowing us back towards Granby. Summation: Awesome!

I recalled some downhills on the way into town, but if there were hills going back, we didn’t notice them, and our tandem with Jeff in tow shot back to the gas station in Granby at US 40 without much effort.

Riders were still headed toward Grand Lake and we waved to them, then found Art and Rorie fueling for the ride at the store. Tim Sullivan, Dave and Mark were there, getting ready to go on to Willow Creek Pass.

The food options were somewhat better and MG and I worked on a Coke, packaged turkey sandwiches and chips. Jeff went over to a stand in the parking lot and bought some kind of animal jerky. The winds were howling down the canyon under darkening skies.

I was sure we’d get slammed by rain in Willow Creek Pass but after a slow climb up the initial ascent, we entered a sweet, quiet valley of creeks and high peaks under clearing skies.

Surrounded by wooded hillsides, MG, Jeff and I swapped stories about past rides and quirky riding pals and gobbled up the miles on gently rollers.

Jeff climbing with us up Willow Creek Pass. Courtesy MG.

Jeff climbing with us up Willow Creek Pass. Courtesy MG.

I was having some trouble staying seated because I’d chosen a pair of Voler shorts that just weren’t working for me — I think I got the Wrong Trousers model — forcing us to stand up every so often, but nothing seemed wrong or bad or out of place.

It was a wonderful way to spend a Wednesday afternoon, scratchy chamois and all.

A three-mile pitch led us to the summit where John Lee was waiting, as he said he would be when we saw him earlier in the day. Jeff paused briefly and rolled on, and John Lee took our photo. “Downhill all the way from here,” he said cheerfully.

John Lee gave us welcome encouragement. And left out one little detail. Courtesy MG.

John Lee gave us welcome encouragement. And left out one little detail. Courtesy MG.

That should have been our first clue. Never believe the terrain description from anyone on a randonnee, especially the organizer!

We had visions of coasting all the way to Walden, and it certainly started out that way. But the descent eventually leveled off. We scooped up Jeff and set about polishing off the rest of the 30-mile stretch under puffy white clouds.

To our chagrin, the road was in really bad shape, with regularly spaced frost heave cracks across both lanes. Bump-bump. Bump-bump. Bump-bump we went.

A car passed once in while, but otherwise we had the road to ourselves and I wove the tandem trying to find a smooth line. It was a bummer but hey we were ahead of schedule, which made things better.

Walden appeared and we were at the hotel just past 7 p.m., the earliest we had gotten to the hotel yet.

A large room with kitchen was set up as a control room and John Lee’s volunteers were cooking up a frenzy. It was so early, people were sitting around have a great time as more riders rolled in.

MG and I got some awesome beans and rice and signed a big whiteboard indicating we’d be back for breakfast at 2 a.m.

I should have inquired when I overheard Jeff say, “so there’s no real reason to leave before 3?” or something to that effect. I knew we’d be awake after three hours, so in bed by 10 p.m. and up by 1, we’d go at 2 or else just kill time.

Food, showers, bed. Our room also had a kitchen, but we ignored that part. Another good day to ride, and more cherished sleep.

Day Four

I started waking up before the alarm, restless to get going. The fear of oversleeping always gets the better of me on brevets and radonnees, and this night was no different. We had a 30 mile ascent ahead and I wanted us to finish by mid-day.

Digging around in the drop bag, I considered how much cold weather gear to take. I figured I didn’t need more than my long finger gloves and some other items already in the Carradice, but I did put on light booties. These would come in very handy at the top of Cameron Pass.

I was relieved to get back into my favorite Gore shorts. My skin had one more day in it, I was certain, but good shorts and plenty of chamois butter would help a lot.

The rider board at the overnight control.

The rider board at the overnight control.

After breakfast in the control room, MG, I, Jeff, Dave, Bill and another rider whose name I forget rode off into the night around 2:30 a.m. The slope was relatively imperceptible at first but it was clear by our pace that we were headed uphill. Ken Bonner rolled past and we saw his taillights rise on the horizon.

A bright blanket of stars draped the sky, taking away all desire for daylight; we were the star-lit randonneurs, making our way through the Rockies without a care. At one point during a roadside stop MG looked up and noticed the Milky Way.

The climb was never steep, just long and steady, and all of a sudden I noticed dawn’s first light illuminating the crest of the mountains to the east as we neared the summit around 5 a.m. Somebody with better eyes than mine saw a family of moose off on the meadow and pointed them out.

A sense of accomplishment came over me. We had made it up the final big climb and with daylight coming, a terrific 120-mile (easy!) ride was ahead, right?

Not quite! We’d worked up good body heat coming up but now we we chilling fast. At the summit sign, still too dimly lit for good photos, MG and I stopped and put on everything we had.

For me that meant leg warmers, arm warmers, my Gore rain jacket, my vest over that, an earband and cap under my helmet.

We started down the rapid descent toward Poudre Canyon morning control in Rustic, some 26 miles away. The sun was pouring more and more light over the ridges to the east and the vistas were stunning. This was truly the mountain riding we had envisioned. We saw Jeff pulled over, taking photos of the canyon stream rushing down the mountainside.

I started to shiver badly, though, and had to pull over after a couple of sketchy turns. We started again, and the same thing happened again. My head was freezing from the wind chill as the bike rocketed at speeds of 40 m.p.h. and higher.

MG gave me her helmet cover, which helped greatly. I began to feel more confident, but then we rounded a corner at a moderate speed and there was a massive moose standing on the shoulder.

I put all I had into the levers and stopped us before crossing its path, not knowing if the great beast would turn left or right. If it charged us, well, who the heck knows. Hopefully our nighttime rando outfits were scary enough to prevent that line of attack!

Our antlered friend had no ill intent, however. It jumped up the slope and gandered away into the woods, we caught our breath and thanked the stars, and off we flew.

Everything good, right? No. The descent moderated and we had to start pedaling again here and there, but with less than 10 miles to go to the control, I began thinking about sleep.

Wouldn’t it feel good to get a nap there? Oh yeah, I thought. Can’t wait. MMMM. A nice warm nap.

And with that, I started nodding off on the bike. My eyelids started drooping. MG felt the bike shudder as I fought to concentrate on the road, then saw me begin shaking my head back and forth, trying to force my eyes to stay open.

The cold didn’t help. We rolled past a nice sunny spot into a shaded stretch, and a pulloff approached on the right. “Stopping! I have to sleep right now!” I shouted to MG.

Before she could protest, I got the bike off the road, climbed off and laid down on the cold pavement with my arms crossed. MG stood there with the tandem and noted strongly that we were in complete shade, there was nowhere to lean the bike, and, oh, it was freezing.

I peeked at my watch, said I’d be up in five minutes, and my eyes shut like bank vault doors. I drifted away immediately to a lovely place where I wasn’t fighting to stay awake. That place had really firm mattresses too, but comfy enough.

Critical stop-a roadside nap in the cold

Critical stop-a roadside nap in the cold

My slumber lasted less than two minutes when a cold gust prompted a full-body spasm, and I woke up with start. MG had her phone out, taking a photo of me sprawled on the roadside that she sent out on Twitter, with a note about her valiant captain or something. Oh, the dignity.

I jumped up, figuring I had put enough coins in the meter to get us to the control, where I could sleep again. MG shook her head at this sad rando spectacle and got back on the saddle.

We got to the control, dreaming of breakfast, and found it did not open for more than another hour. Sad feelings ensued. I wanted a Coke really, really strongly.

After standing around for awhile and chewing on a Clif bar, Tim Foon Feldman’s group rolled up, as did Bill, Jeff and Dave.

Tim told us to sign our own times on the cards and mark them “PC” for personal control, which was new to me, but with so many witnesses around and an RBA (Bill) among us, it sounded perfectly fine.

I was wide awake for some reason and off we all went down the canyon. Now the scent of burnt wood started to arise, and the farther down we proceeded, the stronger it became.

Burnt trees in Poudre Canyon.

Burnt trees in Poudre Canyon.

Rounding turn after turn, the magnitude of the Poudre Canyon fire became obvious. Whole hillsides were charred, or worse, cleared of all brush. Other sides were only charred — they appeared to be an odd gray, but the green of the few unscathed trees showed the difference.

At once, a magnificent and yet sobering section of the route. We had the rushing Cache La Poudre River rushing down the mountain and soaring hillsides and cliff walls, tempered by the signs of residents and businesses thanking the firefighters for saving their structures.

Dave, Bill and me at Poudre Canyon. Courtesy MG.

Dave, Bill and me at Poudre Canyon. Courtesy MG.

What should have been a busy summer weekday was mostly quiet, with public facilities mostly closed to visitors. Some rafting outfitters were driving up the canyon, but there was little tourist traffic.

Before getting to our final official control back at Vern’s, mile 690, Jeff flatted and we gladly stopped for a spell to relax. I tried to take in what we had done over the last three days and wish the high mountains goodbye.

That difference between touring and randonneuring always hits me on the last day of a 1200K. I tell myself to come back, to spend more time in the areas we ride through in such a relatively short time. This was our first trip together to Colorado and I started thinking about our possible routes when we next come to ride.

Bill gets a shot of the riders at Vern's.

Bill gets a shot of the riders at Vern’s.

At Vern’s our table and Tim’s started mowing through mounds of breakfast food, and John Lee came in to say hello and take some photos. I liked it that he was checking on us here and there during the ride — thanks John Lee!

A number of other riders showed up as we were getting ready to go, including the Mark Thomas group. In return for coming back to lower elevations we now had to accept hotter temperatures. Out came the sunscreen, away went all the cool weather gear.

The 60-mile run back to the finish was the normal herky-jerky pace that sets in on the last day, at least for this randonneur. Road construction in LaPorte had us making U-turns and riding sidewalks but we got through OK with no breakdowns.

Strong crosswinds in the 12-mile run on narrow Taft Hill Road nearly split our group of Bill, Dave, Jeff and us, and then more construction in Loveland jangled the nerves some more.

The timing was right for one last impromptu stop at the country/boutique store in Hygiene. We found a few riders there and more stopped in after us. Ice tea, chips, candy — at the last stop I always buy whatever I feel like. I figure I’ve earned it at that point.

Jeff flatted again leaving town and we waved on Bill and Dave. Mark Thomas and his group rode by, where he dryly observed that at least we were stopped in the shade.

Jeff gave up on the tire and put on his spare. I thought with some effort we could catch back up to Dave and Bill and finish together, and still beat the 83 hour mark.

It was just 20 miles, no problem! Ha ha!

MG and I put on our meager jets and did our best to ride hard all the way in. We and Jeff caught Mark’s group and rolled through on a downhill, and thought they’d sit on, but they let us go. The stoplights coming into Louisville broke our momentum but we made good progress nonetheless, though we never saw Bill and Dave.

Until, that is, we turned the last corner off Dillon Road at the hotel. Bill was stopped on the roadside across the street by Lowe’s hardware and waved us down.

“Dave wants to ride in together! He’s in the store getting a drink and he’ll be right out,” Bill said excitedly.

Dave came blazing out of the Lowe’s parking lot and in three pedal strokes we were at the hotel, along with the Mark Thomas/Tim Sullivan group. It was a sweet sentimental finish with Dave and Bill, after many good hours together over the last four days.

Jeff, me and MG with our finisher medals. Courtesy MG.

Jeff, me and MG with our finisher medals. Courtesy MG.

All done, MG and I gave each other a “way-to-go, glad-that’s-over” kiss, and turned in our cards. We came in at 82:52, just about what we expected with three night sleep stops. John Lee awarded us handsome finisher medals – a very nice touch.

I liked that we came in with plenty of time to spare and still with good legs. That’s not to say we were in excellent shape — my hands were bruised up and tingling, my seat was pretty tender from pressure soreness and my toes were a little numb from the out of the saddle climbing.

But overall we had a solid ride and a great time with our band of riding campanions. Where PBP is something of a free-for-all, the Colorado High Country was more like a fine outing with your best riding buddies over some of the most spectacular country in America.

Many thanks to Dave, Jeff, Bill, John Lee and his volunteers, and all the rest of the riders and helpers for making our CHC 1200 a truly memorable and satisfying randonnee.

And, let me express my gratitude to MG for her spirit, patience, trust, strength and determination. She’s the best stoker and riding partner one could ever want. Thanks, Love.


We didn’t realize it at the time, but a little ticking noise near MG’s seatpost during the ride was a more serious problem than we thought.

When I was taking the tandem apart the day after finishing I found a hairline crack in the top tube at the stoker seat tube junction. When we got back to Washington, our expert shop manager Charles at College Park Bikes immediately recognized it as such and we found another crack inside the seat tube.

They sent the frameset back to Co-Motion and the end result is that we agreed to a very generous credit toward a new Java 29er tandem that will let us run bigger tires.

We put more than 24,000 miles on the orange Speedster — many brevets, two 1200Ks and a 1000K, and thousands of touring miles. We were truly sad to see it go.

Goodbye trusty pal, it seems like we were just getting started. You finished on a high note, having traversed us over the peaks of the Colorado High Country 1200K. Well done.

So long, Speedster. You were a mighty steed. Courtesy MG.

So long, Speedster. You were a mighty steed. Courtesy MG.


Colorado High Country 1200K Initial report

MG and I had the good fortune of completing the Colorado High Country 1200K randonnee last Thursday with a great group of fellow randonneurs.

I would put this completion among the top rides we’ve undertaken as a tandem randonneuring team. We owe a lot to the support from organizer John Lee Ellis and his tireless volunteers. It was our third successful 1200K, coming less than a year after Paris-Brest-Paris.

We’ve begun posting our photos. Mine are here. MG has posted hers here and our fellow D.C. Randonneurs member (and RBA) Bill Beck has sets here.

Bill, MG and I also used Twitter to post updates on our progress, with the hashtag #HC1200. See all our Tweets here, no membership required.

Where PBP was a mass event that took stressful international travel and lots of attention to other riders, the HC1200 was downright relaxed. We took a relatively short direct flight from Washington to Denver on July 5, took a quick commuter bus ride from the airport to the hotel, and rode with just 40 other riders rather than the thousands in Paris.

The weather could hardly have been better. The only rain of note we saw was at the start in Louisville, outside Boulder, just before the start last Monday. An overnight shower abated just as we gathered in the predawn darkness for final comments by John before the first day’s stage to Wyoming.

John Lee provided evening and morning food at the hotel overnight control accommodations with the entry fee, taking away two other worries. We mostly just had to ride, control, eat and sleep — what could be easier?

We arrived each of the three evenings at sundown or a little earlier and departed between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. John Lee posted the arrival and departure times of the riders here.

The Co-Motion Speedster tandem rode well with our 700×32 Pasela Tourgurd tires and extras stuffed in a Carradice Nelson Longflap bag on the back. We rode with fenders but hardly needed them, with only a little drizzle over the four days. We had no involuntary tire deflations nor other mechanical problems.

The altitudes on the first day, at 10,800 feet over Snowy Range Road in Wyoming, were an issue for both of us. MG got some nausea and I got light-headed, but those problems cleared quickly as we descended. Other high points, including a 10,300-foot summit on the final day, gave us no problems other than a little headache for MG.

We both battled the intense UV and found we had to apply sunscreen much more often than on the East Coast; MG put on sunsleeves to keep her arms from burning. I had to put on a bandana to shield my neck.

The course was a mix of stunning forested climbs and vistas connected by long stretches of sparsely populated range lands with little vegetation. We spent many hours in a loose group 6-7 riders tooling along on gradually rising rural highways, then climbing through and over lush high passes before plunging back to the lower elevations.

Highlights included afternoon lunches in quaint Laramie, Wyo., and Steamboat Springs, two awesome country breakfasts, and a sublime sunrise journey through Gore Pass.

The final day we had a close encounter with a moose on the roadside (it bounded into the woods) and saw first-hand the ravages of forest fires. The stage started with an star-lit 30-mile night climb to Cameron Pass and then a descent after daybreak through chilly Poudre Canyon. Entire hillsides were scorched and the scent of burnt wood hung in the air.

The Poudre fire initially forced the first of a number of routing revisions John Lee made at the last minute to get riders around fire- and mudslide-related road closures in Colorado and Wyoming.

All in all the route worked well, with a few out-and-backs required to get the distance to 1200K. Despite having few roads to use, John Lee managed to keep the daily stages moderate — 220, 198, 181 and 148 miles respectively — even with the alterations.

The lack of rolling hills led us to adopt what I call “turtle tempo” riding — staying in the saddle and pushing a moderate pace without trying to fly down the road. Whenever we got a descent or truly flat section MG and I pressed the pedals, but the key to this ride was to pedal at a conversational pace and not worry much about the speedometer.

Nearly the entire field, made up of many experienced randonneurs, finished between 80 and 88 hours. That tells me the ride is geared toward a four-day experience and not to rushing through.

The only downside is that we spent more time on the saddle pedaling than a more rolling ride, and our seats and hands got pretty sore. On the third and fourth day we often stood on the pedals to get relief from the saddle. I moved my hands around the bars to lessen the soreness in my palms.

HC1200 is fairly tandem friendly, in that we and the other tandem team, Beth and Brent Myers of Denver, each finished with plenty of time to spare. We never ran low on gears except for the super-steep Twenty Mile Road into Steamboat, but as the name implies, it was not a long segment.

I’ve got a longer story in the works. For now I want to express my gratitude to John Lee and his volunteers, and to MG, for being a super-strong stoker and partner.

We had no tandem team meetings and were able to finish with some great riding pals (Jeff Bauer, Bill Beck, Dave Carpenter, Jimmy Williams, Mark Thomas and a bunch of other riders) with smiles on our faces. That’s the mark of a great event, right?

Our Paris-Brest-Paris 2011 by Tandem

We were quite flattered last fall when Mike Dayton, editor of American Randonneur, asked MG and me to write a joint article on our tandem ride at the Paris-Brest-Paris 1200K randonnee last August.

The article came out this month (thanks Mike!) and we’re able to re-publish it here at TDR.

On the road at Paris-Brest-Paris. Courtesy Michael Hansmann.

I had ridden PBP before on a single bike, but not on tandem. This was MG’s first PBP, so for both of us it was a new experience. Riding on tandem at PBP was an absolute blast, even during the difficult parts. We always had each other and lots of company along the way, and the French showered us with hospitality.

At one point on the last day my face hurt from laughing so much at the antics and jokes of our pals! The fun lasted all the way to the finish, offsetting our aches and sore spots.

We’ve enjoyed all the stories we have read about PBP. The course is the same but everyone’s experience is different, reflecting their own goals, challenges and circumstances. It was an honor to be part of the grande dame of randonneuring with our D.C. pals and riders from all over the world.

Thanks for reading and have a great week!

Our Paris-Brest-Paris 2011 by Tandem
by MG and Felkerino

Oct. 10, 2011

This year we rode our first Paris-Brest-Paris together on our Co-Motion tandem bike. We’ve been riding brevets for a few years now on tandem and previously completed two multi-day randonnees, so we were not new to tandem randonneuring.

Yet, PBP is the big show, with more than 5,000 randonneurs from all parts of the world participating, and all the pressures that come from a major time and money commitment.

This was Mary’s first PBP, so everything about the ride was new to her. It was Ed’s fourth, yet completing it on a tandem made it feel like a whole new PBP. Both of us were more than thrilled to have completed PBP on tandem, together. Here are a few of the reasons why — and a few of the challenges we had to overcome.

1. The “Special Bikes” early start.

We were the only American tandem team to choose the 84-hour time limit. As a tandem we got to start 15 minutes earlier than the single bikes, at 4:45 a.m., in a group of other tandems, trikes, velomobiles and recumbents. The 84-hour group is already the smallest, and our special bikes group smaller still — a few dozen in all. We enjoyed a stress-free ride out into the French countryside with a French tandem couple as our main companions, and then rode alone for another hour before the single bikes started overtaking us.

After four years, ready to go.

A rather mellow scene for the 84-hour special bikes.

2. Group riding — a big no-no.

The conventional wisdom at PBP is that you save energy by riding in the big groups that form along the way. Ha! We tried to stick with a fast bunch early on the first day for a few kilometers, only to find out that our momentum was totally out of sync with packs that take up all of the lane and more. After a scary moment trying to avoid crashing into the riders slowing on a hill, we realized that PBP was no place to draft on a tandem.

Another big pack passing by. Courtesy MG.

3. A tandem is the ultimate defense against bad weather.

When the big downpours hit us on the first day and evening, we knew that the tandem’s weight and momentum would allow us to plow through water and wind. We put down our heads and pedaled hard, pulling riders along the way behind us. The roads drained well and we just kept going, saving valuable time that would come in handy later.

It always rains some at PBP. We got a ton on the first day. Courtesy MG.

4. You’re never alone!

First, we had each other to while away the hours together — the very best thing about tandem randonneuring. But we also “met” a lot of folks who figured the tandem would provide a good pull down the road. Our friend Jon Gardner was our constant companion throughout and protected our rear wheel, but that didn’t stop many others from settling in behind for a segment here and there.

We spent our second day with a French rider, Guy Soudiere, who spoke as little English as we spoke French, but despite the language issues we formed a solid foursome. We also scooped up fellow Americans Jeff Bauer, Rob Hawks and others we knew from past rides but don’t get to see very often. If you like company, ride a tandem.

Jon G. kept the mood light and the drafters back.

Guy Soudiere, our companion for most of Day 2. Courtesy MG.

5. Tandems keep your piloting skills sharp.

An eight-foot long bike with two riders aboard, as you’d expect, rockets downhill and then slows on the uphills. That fact meant we needed a lot of running room on a descent or flat and we’re going to block the road a little on the uphills — often with riders trailing close behind.

Fortunately the 84-hour group represented the tail end of the event until the third day, when we started mixing in with some 90-hour riders, and there were not many groups to navigate around. Still, we got a lot of practice overtaking riders, giving them a clear “a gauche” as we approached, and backing off if we’d have to cross the center line.

6. You have your partner to share the highs — and the lows.

During an event as long as PBP, there are going to be times when one would rather lie down and sleep than get keep pedaling. One time for us was the return segment from Villaines to Mortagne.

We had arrived in Villaines in the early evening to a giant international randonneur festival, where the wonderful townspeople and volunteers gave us a huge lift.

MG at Fougeres.

But as night fell and we charged off toward Mortagne, the hills started to feel like mountains and Ed was suffering a little from sleep deprivation and an aching Achilles tendon. A couple of talkative riders felt we’d make a good audience for their views on politics and their life stories, which is mostly OK, except they would not pay attention and ended up blocking our momentum on the descents.

Mary shared those frustrations, but wasn’t experiencing the same pain or irritation. She helped things calm during this stretch, basically by telling me not to freak out. We arrived in Mortagne and did not lose our cool along the way. Helping each other through the highs and lows makes all the difference between enduring and enjoying the experience.

7. Tandems are popular.

Let’s face it, people are fascinated by tandems. They’re eye-catching. Kids think they are neat. People are curious about what it takes to ride together on the same bike. Tandems are a great conversation starter. Many times we would get an appreciative wave from a passing car or a heartfelt “courage!” as we passed through a town. You’re a bit of a parade on a tandem to begin with, and riding one at PBP takes that to a new level.

Tandems are cool! Courtesy MG.

We enjoyed the atmosphere at controls, and fed off the attention we got as a tandem couple. The French love cycling, they love romance, and the tandem combines both — provided you smile and avoid “tandem team meetings.” We did our best to return the love at the controls and felt better every time we rode on.

8. Tandems set their own pace. Sometimes you go slower, but other times you will go faster. It’s all OK.

On a tandem, if one person needs to stop, both people stop. Even if one person feels great and wants to push the pedals, if your partner needs to take it easy, you’re probably going to take it easy. When Ed developed an Achilles problem we had to ratchet back our pace over the last 500K to what his body could withstand and roll easily into the finish. I wanted to go faster, as I generally like to push the final miles. However, we had to modify our pace. That’s part of the deal on a tandem.

The Back-to-Back Tandem. We saw much of them. Courtesy MG.

On the other hand, the PBP course is replete with tandem-friendly parts. We took full advantage of the tandem’s momentum and sailed through fast segments whenever we could. Brest to Carhaix — fun! Tinteniac to Mortagne — even more fun! Motoring across the French countryside, completely in sync with each other, is a great memory.

9. You share the accomplishment.

When you set out to do something like PBP, you can put in all the work and focus into it that you like, but ultimately things have to fall into place “just so” to make it happen. Health. Work. Family. Completion of the brevets. Life must leave a space for PBP, and just getting to the starting line is a huge accomplishment.

Getting to the starting line with your tandem partner is a huge thrill because it took both of you, working together, to make it happen. Seeing all of our teamwork culminate at PBP was a huge payoff for so many months of cycling together.

The sun is out and we’re happy! Courtesy Antoinette Galon.

Two together, one bike. Courtesy Andrea M.

Tandeming is not for everyone, and getting the two-wheeled beast to Paris, and then to Brest and back, was no small endeavor. Yet we were rewarded throughout PBP with great luck, the best of French hospitality, and the company of many friends old and new.

Congratulations to all who participated in PBP. We were thrilled to share it with you.

Chip Adams’ PBP2011: The Clock Never Stops

The Clock Never Stops
Paris-Brest-Paris 2011
By Chip Adams
Nov. 7, 2011

Day One: Back to Ride Again

A little over 4 years ago, maybe closer to 5 years, Clint Provenza went to work trying to convince me to do a 750-mile bike ride in 3 ½ days with him. They called it PBP. I told him, “no way.” If you know Clint, of course you know he never stops trying; and, of course, I eventually agreed to the absurdity. And in 2007, we rode it, along with Jim Levitt. Anyone who knows me knows I’ve been thinking about and planning for the 2011 PBP pretty much since the 2007 PBP ended.

I couldn’t get it out of my head. I just couldn’t wait to go back for another go at it. So I was very excited to get going again. Unfortunately, Clint couldn’t make this one, nor would Jim. But Clif was in and as excited as I to ride this epic bike event.

Four years later, back again.

We got to Paris about a week before the ride and pretty much ate and rode our way around Paris. Bill Fischer, from NY, had also gotten in a few days earlier and he was an integral part of our group and the ride. So Monday, August 21, 3:45 am, we three met and headed over to the start, and lined up around the track with a few hundred of our newest riding mates.

I was excited and a little nervous, hoping that I hadn’t forgotten anything that I would need for this 84-hour, 760-mile, out to Brest and back, bike ride. I was hoping I had the right combination of clothing, etc., and wondering whether or not I got it all right in my drop bag bound for Loudeac.

It turned out that we forgot our waterproof cue sheets that Dave Provine had made for us, but then I remembered that in 2007 they did a very good job marking the course. Around us were some DC Rand folk — Roger Hillas and Joe Brown and a little farther back were Greg Conderacci and Andrea Matney.

We finally began to move through the control and got cards signed and ankle chips activated. But, we still weren’t ready to roll — more waiting out on the road. It was very exciting being there and feeling the energy of the riders and the crowd. A lot of riders’ families and friends, and many locals, came out to see the start.

I even saw a rider who was bringing his dog along. He had made a large basket attached to the handlebars so that his dog could see the road and the other riders. The dog appeared to be having a great time and the rider’s family was there to see them off. I assumed the dog would eventually be handed off to them.

And, we were off! It was a pretty fast start but we managed to keep together. We had some sprinkles and the forecast had showers and thunderstorms in it, but we never thought it would rain all day and night. The sprinkles didn’t hang around long, but the sky was threatening most of the morning.

Through about 40 miles we had a group of about 30 riders and our little group of 3 was still intact. We were within reach of the first stop in Mortagne Au Perche, about mile 90, and I was feeling pretty good. So, I decided to hang with a group going into Mortagne, but I pulled up short of the control to stop at a bakery.

I thought it would be a great start to eating. I waited for Bill and Clif for a few minutes and in we went. Wow, they had some fantastic looking pastries, but no coffee! I know, what bakery doesn’t have coffee, right? Well, it turns out that most, if not all, of the bakeries in France don’t have coffee. Go figure. Still not sure where you get it! Maybe it was just the bakeries we went in – which happened to be a lot! Anyway, we made short work of that and on to the control.

Clouds that would turn to rain.

It was raining as we came into the control. I found coffee – a bowl of it. Oh yes, and a baguette for the road. We lost Bill, but found Joe Brown, Ed and Mary, and Greg and Andrea, so we had a good-sized group of the DC Rand together. A little while later, Joe flatted and Clif and I stayed with him to help get him back on the road.

By the time we were back on the road, some very ominous storm clouds were on the horizon. Within the hour we were reaching for our raingear. The rain was heavy and stayed with us into early afternoon as we came into the control at Villaines, mile 137. This was the first time-stamp control and it was a badly needed stop.

Even though I was wearing my plastic rain shell, I was wet to the skin and feeling pretty low. Everything I had with me I was wearing, which didn’t provide any comforting thoughts about what might lie ahead if the temperature dropped during the night and the rain and storms continued. Bill found us, and we headed to the chow line. Now I was cold and shivering and it was really the very lowest moment of the whole ride. I dropped about $100 on a base layer and socks, which I never used.

As we were leaving, we noted the number of town folk that had come out to support the riders. It was a very good feeling to have the support. But I’d have to say the story line of the day was the rain. Though it had stopped, a thunderstorm quickly found us just after leaving the control. We rode out of that one into another one an hour or so later. The sun came out somewhere but was quickly swallowed up by another round of storms as we approached the control in Fougeres.

In spite of all the rain, we were enjoying the ride and moving quickly as we came into town. We didn’t waste any time in the control. We cleared out to find some dinner at, yes, another bakery. You’re probably starting to see a trend. Bakeries usually had ready-made sandwiches so they were pretty quick. We were now about 197 miles into the ride and still had another 85 -90 miles to go to Loudeac, our stopping point for the day. The rain had stopped and it was looking like it might stay away as we rolled on.

The next control, Tinteniac, was about 35 miles. However, about 10 miles from the control, the rain got us again. We pulled in around 9:00 pm in the midst of a good rain and an unexpectedly huge crowd. After checking in, we managed to make our way to the chow line and had a nice dinner. 235 miles down. As we were leaving, the lead riders were coming into the control.

They had already made it to Brest and were heading back to Paris, meaning they were 300 miles in front of us. Unbelievable! However, they did have a 13-hour advantage on us and likely every one of them was being supported on the road by friends and family. This meant they didn’t carry anything on the bike and ate at their support vehicle, etc. Still impressive, though!

Shortly after leaving the control, I starting noticing differences in the way my bike was handling and I suggested we stop to look at it. I couldn’t find anything wrong and Bill thought it might just be the rack on the back which was making the bike feel loose. Yeah, I thought that must be what it was too, so we pressed on. A little while later I was starting to get really sleepy and I proposed to Bill and Clif that they ride on; I would just take a 10-minute power nap and get back on the road.

We all decided to keep going. At some point Clif accelerated around a group of riders and I didn’t see him again until I checked in at the hotel a couple hours later. Bill and I rode together for a while until I came upon some nice people who had set up a table of coffee and cake, so I stopped while Bill kept going. It hit me as I was standing there taking in caffeine and calories: it was the middle of the night, in the middle of some small town in the middle of France. This is the kind of experience I was looking for. How good could it get!

Nighttime in another quaint French village.

Onward, and the rain came — again — and then . . . my light went out. It was really not going to be problem since I had another one — my good light, my IXON IQ. But, there was a problem. The rain had gotten in and all the light would do was flicker. I spent 15 or more minutes trying to dry it out and even tried new batteries, but got nothing more than flickers. I still had a helmet light, but that was a far cry from what I really needed.

Since it was only 15 more miles to the hotel I figured I could handle that. I was hoping this one didn’t go out. I would be up the creek for a couple of reasons. First, it was so dark and rainy I couldn’t see the road. And, if the light did go out and some ride official saw me, he would stop me and make me fix it before going on. He could even invoke some time penalty on me if he wanted to for a safety violation. However, none of that occurred and I continued toward the control.

The good part was that I was no longer sleepy, since the sheer concentration it took to see the rain soaked and unmarked road was enough to wake me up. Bill had made a wrong turn along the way, but figured it out and caught up to me with about 3 miles to the control. We rode in together and agreed to a 6:30 am departure. I got in the hotel around 2:30 am, about 20 minutes after Clif.

Day Two: A good ride to Brest, but the return is not so simple.

Three hours later the alarm clocks went off. I have to say that three hours of sleep is nowhere near the amount needed after a 280-mile bike ride, but it’s amazing how the body and mind work together on something of this magnitude. Clif and I were a little late hooking up with Bill, but we found him just before leaving town.

From here to Carhaix was about 50 miles and the terrain became really choppy with a fair amount of time out of the saddle. We ran into a few DC Rand people and rode with them for a few miles, but by then I knew we were closing in on the Carhaix control and I felt like putting the hammer down. We had a fast paceline of 5 or 6 riders into the control for a brief lunch. Bill left the control a little before we did and said he would soft-pedal. I don’t think he did. It took about 30 miles and we were closing in on Brest before we finally caught him. I’m not sure but he may have been trying to get away from us! Nice try, Bill!

Nearing the control at Brest.

It was great finally getting to Brest, but the ride took us on a circuitous route around the port area, and though it only added a few miles, it seemed like it took forever to get to the control. We rolled in at 3:45 pm Tuesday, the halfway point of the ride. Once there, though, we stayed for little over an hour. We all occupied our times in different ways. Clif got a quick nap on a real cot. I think Bill got a shower and some real food. I got my power nap sitting upright in a chair leaning against a wall.

I awoke to a guy with a big camera in my face. It was about 5:00 pm when we finally hit the street and put the control behind us. Now, what Clif and I needed was food. There was none at the control. Bill had found some a short walk from the control. We decided that we would keep our eyes open for something on the road.

Unfortunately, it was nearly 20 more miles later – another hour or so after leaving. We didn’t know it at the time, but not eating earlier had become a critical factor in how the rest of our ride would go. Though I was able to eat and take in needed calories, Clif could not.

We left the restaurant in two very different mental and physical states: I had eaten and was ready to roll at the fastest speed possible, but Clif had eaten nothing, was in a calorie-deficit condition, and had a nagging stomach issue.

On the way back to Carhaix.

A couple of miles out of town, I could sense the two different mindsets as we thought about the road ahead. We agreed that I would go on at my pace and he would get to the next town and find a pharmacy for his ailment. He would evaluate his condition at that time, being mindful of the controls’ closing times. At Brest, we were a little over 4 hours ahead of closing, so it seemed he had some time to work with.

So, off I went, haunted about my decision – was it the right one? Should I have just slowed down a little and reevaluated everything? However, a decision had been made and it was too late to change it. The good part was that I was totally hooked up and riding at a pretty good pace. I couldn’t believe how strong I felt. A few riders hopped on my wheel, but none held it for long.

On Roc Trevezel, about a 6-7 mile ascent, I passed some rider who yelled up to me, asking what my secret was — how I was riding so easily? I told him I was eating and sleeping well. I don’t think he believed me because he just started laughing. Oh yeah, and I trained with the Severna Park Peloton!

All the way back to Carhaix my bike had been making really weird noises but now was fairly quiet, so I thought maybe everything would be OK, after all. I made it into Carhaix at 9:00 pm, just before dark on day two. I found a few familiar faces, but didn’t hang around to chit-chat very long. I remember thinking – the absurdity of it all. Why was I doing this? But, in the middle of something like this, you don’t want to think too much. Just ride!

So, I found some good things to eat, scarfed them down, and got out of there immediately before total darkness set in. There were only 50 miles back to Loudeac and if I kept the press on, I could get there around 2:00 am and get a few more hours of sleep! I wondered how Clif was doing.

I was still working with one bike light so I used my helmet light for as long as I could, which turned out to be not very long. I was making decent time, but I was starting to get into some pretty good rollers. My bike was chiming in again, a little more loudly than before, especially when I stood up on the cranks.

I made a note that I would stop by the mechanic’s tent in Loudeac before leaving in the morning. My thinking was that the bottom bracket had washed out from the rain on day 1, or maybe it was something simple and the mechanic could quiet it down a bit. I arrived back in Loudeac at 1:45 am on Wednesday, about 15 minutes earlier than expected. I had been really attacking the hills so the early arrival was rewarding.

I got to the room and received a note from Clif to take his bag to the bag pick-up point since he wouldn’t make it back in time. I packed everything and set a 6:00 am wake-up. Some more welcome news was that my good IXON IQ light was now dried out and appeared to be working correctly.

Day Three: A Discovery and A Rescue

The final wake-up! From here, I would ride according to my original plan, which was to ride back to Paris without any more sleep stops. All drop-bags needed to be in the pick-up area before 7:00 am. I pushed the heck out of the 7:00 am time limit, and on the way over to the control, I had a minor crash. Actually, I just sort of fell over.

I came around too sharp of a corner and because of my bag which was stretched over Clif’s, it just rolled off and could not get my foot off of the pedal in time. I think all the rain had washed out any lubrication and my foot would not twist out.

The good part is that everyone got to see it! That’s right. It was the kind of thing that if witnessing, you would ask yourself, “how did the knucklehead even make it this far?” The same sort of thing happened to me about 10 miles from the end while stopping at a light.

Anyway, I made the bag area in time, but missed Bill. The last time I saw him around Brest, we had agreed to 7:00 am out of Loudeac. But, I did stop at the mechanic’s tent as planned and here started the most crucial, potentially ride-ending, part of my PBP.

The source of all that noise.

I described the noise and what I was feeling and experiencing. They did a lot of different things: pulled wheels, lubed skewers, removed and lubed chain ring bolts, sprayed lube on all moving parts, tightened pedals. I was about to say, don’t worry about it, when they found the problem.

I was using a top tube bag that hung down and rested against the downtube. They unstrapped it and exposed a crack in the downtube that went nearly around. A cracked frame! I could only stare at it and wonder if I could make it back OK with the frame like that. I had tape, plastic ties…and, more tape.

I was motioning that I would just take the bike, but the mechanic was saying something to me that I couldn’t make out. Roger Hillas, who happened to be there, said it sounded like they might have a loaner bike.

One of the people explained that I could take it to their Paris bike shop after the completion of the ride. At first it didn’t sound like a good option, but the more they explained it, I just said let’s go with it.

Pascal Mace, the mechanic and shop owner, signaled for me to follow him. He, his helper and I jumped in his truck and drove to his bike shop. I had the big picture about what we were going to do and so did Pascal, but we needed some detail and, unfortunately, neither of us could speak the other’s language.

I needed an interpreter. I thought of Claus, our travel consultant, but couldn’t find his number, so I called Clif. I also needed to know how Clif was doing. He had Claus’s number, and I learned that Clif was on the road and making good time towards Loudeac. After explaining my situation to Claus I gave the phone to Pascal.

Five minutes later, we had it worked out. I would ride the bike to Paris and complete PBP, and the next day take it to Pascal’s Paris bike shop and give it to the folks there. My bike frame would be mailed to that location by Friday. It was now Wednesday morning and if all went according to plan, I would finish on Thursday well ahead of the 84-hour time. Perfect!

Unfortunately, the clock was still ticking. The Loudeac control closed at 7:00 am and though I had checked in 5 hours and 15 minutes earlier, I was now behind. However, my head was now totally around what was going on.

The Substitute awaits its rider.

Pascal measured all of the settings on my bike, one of his guys brought in a partial bike, and they rapidly started swapping my parts over to the loaner frame. My bike turned into a skeleton as my cranks, wheels, and seat went over.

What didn’t get swapped over was my stem. I can’t remember why exactly, but the impact would be later realized. Looking back at my bike, I could only stare at this crack that went around almost the entire circumference of the downtube. It could have been extremely bad had it actually broken while I was riding. I was feeling very lucky and blessed that it hadn’t broken somewhere on the road from Carhaix the previous night.

About 9:45 am, Wednesday, the bike was ready for a test ride. I rode around the parking lot and was happy with it. We swapped over my frame number and I was ready to roll. I tried to pay Pascal for the bike and his labor, but he wouldn’t allow me. I asked for directions back to the control, but he motioned for us all to get back in the vehicle. He would drive us back to the control.

Back at the control, Pascal spoke to an official at the control and explained my situation. I showed him my control card, which showed a check-in over 8 hours prior. This control was not a problem, but the upcoming controls could be. The official made a note and I assumed he was doing so in the event that time became an issue for me.

Pascal disappeared for a moment and came back with a bicycle, motioning me to follow him. We went out the back way from the control and were making a bunch of turns when I started seeing the familiar signs pointing me to Paris. I pulled up to Pascal as he was pointing me to the course. I thanked him and told him I would return his bike in Paris. He had probably just saved my PBP!

Unfortunately, I had just lost about 3 hours. And now the challenge was to ride the 53 miles to the next control in Tinteniac in the 3 hours left before it closed. Doable, but I would need to haul —! Or, as some would say, tap-it-out!

As I was riding along I was passing a few riders, feeling pretty good. I just couldn’t believe everything that had happened in the last few hours. I had met some great people who dedicated their time for me so that I could finish. I’ll never forget them or the experience.

About 10 miles later I had a bit of a scare. I came into a small town and my drivetrain bound up while downshifting around a corner. I thought I might have stretched the chain or cable, or both. I just couldn’t get it smoothly into any gear even after a little cable adjustment.

I began looking for a bike shop, but I finally figured it out. The problem was that we used my cranks (53/39) and my cog set (11-28), but we used the chain that was on the loaner bike. It was a little too short when I was in the 3 lowest gears. I learned to shift earlier into the right chain ring, but the whole affair cost me about 20 minutes and likely the next control cutoff.

I called Clif to see how he was doing; he was doing well, about 40-50 miles behind. I fretted a moment about possibly having made a wrong turn because I couldn’t see any more riders. I took the time to make a handlebar adjustment. I was beginning to wish I could have used my stem. Another rider went by. I wasn’t lost, after all.

A little later a rider came up to me and started talking to me in French, but I couldn’t understand. I realized he was a local rider, but not on PBP. He was on a high-end bike (Definitive), shaved legs, and was wearing, I learned later, his racing team kit.

David, looking clean in his team kit.

I gave him a RUSA pin and assumed he would ride on, but he was telling me something. I think I was telling him, OK, OK, merci, merci. Of course I didn’t know what he was saying until I turned into the secret control. I think that’s what he was telling me. He turned in with me. I’m not sure, but I may have gotten to this control after it closed.

I used some more time to make another adjustment. My transducer had been installed on the wrong fork so I switched it back and changed Miles to Kilometers on my computer to make it easier tracking distances between controls.

As I was preparing to leave, the guy I rode in with indicated that he would like to ride with me for a while. That was fine with me and sounded fun! I learned his name was David.

We had a great big tailwind and we just attacked the road. We kept trying conversation and some of my Rosetta Stone–French level 1 was starting to pay off. We rode together for the next 25-30 miles towards Tinteniac, taking turns on the front.

I learned that he was on a race team and on a training ride. Occasionally, when he was on the front, he would ask, “ce bon (this good)?” I would just smile and say, “Oui, ce bon.” Again, Rosetta Stone! I also learned that he had done PBP in a prior year, possibly more than one.

As we got close to Tinteniac, he indicated he was going to turn around. He wished me well and handed me a couple of energy bars. Riding with David was one of the highlights of the day. I couldn’t believe how my day was going. First, a cracked frame and now covering about 30 miles in just over an hour. Maybe I could even make the control in time.

The control at Tinteniac closed at 1:04 pm and I got there at 1:17. I wasn’t quite sure how that was going to work out – whether I would be DQ’d or what. I ate with the volunteers, who all looked happy, probably because the control was closed and their work was almost done. At least somebody was happy the control was closed!

But I was late and getting later the longer I sat there. I crammed in calories and got back on the bike as soon as possible. However, shortly after leaving, my arms and neck really began hurting because the handlebar stem was too short and flat. I found that I had to keep switching arms or sitting up to relieve the stress on my neck, and knew I couldn’t keep doing that for 200+ miles.

I then remembered that there was a bike shop somewhere up ahead, although I couldn’t remember exactly where. Soon I came into the town of Dinge and found my bike shop. I picked out a longer stem that stretched me out farther and asked for as much spacer as the bike shop guy could find to lift me up a little bit, relieving the strain on my neck. 47 Euro and 45 minutes later, I was rolling again.

I stopped four or five more times for adjustments and finally I felt my bike may be just about as comfortable as I could make it. These would be my last adjustments, but total time combined since discovering my cracked frame had mounted up to over 4 hours.

At least now I was starting to find my rhythm. I believe if I hadn’t stopped to take photos of the fortress/castle in Fougeres, I would have made the control in time instead of being 4 minutes late, at 4:59 pm Wednesday. A bottle of water and a bowl of coffee and I was out of there. I was certain that that would be the last control that I would be late getting to.

Villaines La Juhel, the next control, was 60 miles ahead and I had a tailwind. I was in high gear and so was my confidence. Barring anything bad happening, I would make the control with time to spare. Though I didn’t eat anything at Fougeres, I was certain I’d find plenty to eat by stopping at the roadside tables that many of the locals had set up.

Snack Time!

I stopped once for a coffee, water bottle top-off and some cake and cookies. Sometime later I came across a pear tree hanging over a wall and helped myself to a few pears. They were fantastic and exactly what I needed.

Just before sunset, and within a couple of miles of Villaines, I stopped to call Clif. He had checked in at a hotel in Fougeres, about 60 miles behind me. He was feeling well, but needed some rest.

I arrived in Villaines at 9:30 pm as darkness was closing in amid what seemed like a town celebration. Finally, I had made up some real time and was ahead of the Control closing time by 1 hour and 43 minutes. It was very festive and people were applauding as riders came into town. I felt like a celebrity of sorts. Some riders were actually being interviewed.

After a big dinner, I went back out into the crowd and starting getting ready for my all-night ride. People were pointing and waving. It was a lot of fun and made all the riders feel great. It was an excellent way to ride out of town. There were 137 miles remaining and I hoped to get in by late morning.

Day Four: Back to Paris — literally!

I was feeling strong and my IXON light was shining brightly as I moved out into the countryside. I found myself riding in a fairly large group of riders, and that was OK for a while because I was starting to see fewer of the signs directing us back to Paris. I would just ride in the group for a while to make sure I didn’t make any wrong turns.

But as the night wore on the road got straighter, I began to see lights way up the road and decided to take the pace up a little. I was able to get a cup of coffee somewhere along the way, but the caffeine had no impact. So, when I started seeing things that weren’t there, I decided to stop.

I knew that I would probably have to get a power nap. I believe it was about 15 minutes, but I really don’t know. It could have lasted longer, but whatever it was, it was enough.

Back on the bike, I made it into Mortagne Au Perche sometime around 3:00 am. I think I was now about 3 hours ahead of the control close time. I saw a few familiar faces and found Bill Fischer. He had taken a 3-hour nap and was preparing to leave soon. I grabbed a little something to eat and filled water bottles.

In at Dreux.

Out on the road heading to Dreux, the terrain became very hilly, but I felt strong and somehow rested. Bill and I were passing everyone on the hills. I thought to myself, I love this compact crank. What a difference it makes in my climbing. I remembered how well I was climbing the night before as I was approaching Villaines.

It wasn’t until the ride was over that I realized it wasn’t a compact crank after all. The loaner bike had my drivetrain. Duh! Anyway, it was all working for me. At least for now.

At dawn on Thursday, the terrain had flattened and we were flying down the road. But, my eyes became very heavy – again — and I decided to pull over. I simply leaned back against a hedgerow and shut down. That’s right, another power nap. Felt great for a while and then someone was yelling at me from a car. I waved to him and just said I’m OK — PBP! He shook his head and wished me bon route.

Ten minutes was all I needed and back on the bike. Lucky thing the guy was yelling at me – I could have slept longer. About 70 miles to go to the finish; however, the next 10-15 miles were totally miserable. The road surface was extremely rough and flat.

I rolled into the Dreux control at 8:01, barely hanging on. The good part is that I was now 3 hrs, 30 minutes on the right side of the clock. Inside the control I could tell I wasn’t the only one just hanging on. Bodies were everywhere. I found Bill and after a quick breakfast, we moved back out on the road.

The last 10 miles seemed as if they took forever. We were trying to get into the final control before 12:00 pm, but a bunch of traffic lights slowed us down. I came around the last turn and saw the crowd gathered at the finish line. Then I heard a familiar voice calling, “Jip, Jip.” It was Pascal! I pulled over and hugged the guy for saving my PBP. He wanted to know if the bike did OK. It was great, I told him, and that without him I couldn’t have finished this PBP.

It was over! 79H 07M. 4 hours, 53 minutes before the cut-off. 40 minutes earlier than 2007.

I had one more piece of work to get done. I needed to find someone to trade PBP jerseys with. I wanted a German jersey and found someone willing, but he was XL and I was medium. I tried an Italian, but settled for a photo with him. I tried the Japanese guy. Nothing.

Jersey Swap!

Then I found him – from the Netherlands. Heck, he was even older than I. He wanted to know why I wanted his jersey. I told him it was tradition. He said this was his 4th PBP and he had never swapped jerseys with anyone. But then he said, “what the heck”, and we did the swap.

So, he’s got an American RUSA jersey and I have one from the Netherlands. I was in my jersey for 30 hours but couldn’t smell a thing. Sure smelled his, though! I wonder how he liked mine! We got back to the hotel and checked in. Time for a nap. Also time to wash my new jersey!


On Friday, I called the bike shop in Paris and arranged to deliver their frame and to get mine. I called a taxi and worked out a price for him to wait for us in Paris. It was lunch time when we arrived (1:40 pm) so we had to wait a little while for the mechanic to get back.

So long and thanks, faithful steed.

We went next door for a quick lunch and by the time we were finished and walked back over to the bike shop, he had my cranks out of the loaner bike and handed me all of my stuff. Again, there was no charge. I still cannot believe that nobody was charging me for anything. It was so amazing and so appreciated. The only cost was the trip into Paris.

On Friday night we had a great post-ride dinner at a small restaurant nearby. Le Resto. It was a perfect way to celebrate the end of this epic ride. We also learned that our flights to Dulles had been canceled because of hurricane Irene.

Though our flights had been canceled, the bus still pulled away from the hotel on schedule to go to the airport. Clif, Bob, Chris, and I stayed behind instead of dealing with endless time in airports here and in the US. We thought everybody would likely get stuck in airports in the US, but not make it to Dulles – it was closed.

Des Peres Travel arranged for a Monday departure, but Clif was the workhorse. He got us reservations out of Paris on Sunday. We spent Saturday hanging around the hotel eating cheese, bread, sausage, and tasting fine French wine.

On Sunday, after a 3-hour check-in, we were on our way back to DC.
My 2011 PBP is now an everlasting memory. It was, in fact, as epic as I thought it would be. I met some really wonderful people and had a lot of fun riding and eating my way around Paris. It was a blast to ride so many hours with Clif and Bill and to sample so many bakeries and bread shops.

My cracked frame, though at the time seemingly catastrophic, has left me with one of my fondest experiences and memories on a bike, thanks to Pascal in Loudeac and his desire to help me get back on the road. It is something I’ll never forget and I will forever be indebted to him.

In the end, though I had lost over 4 hours of time, there was no additional time provided to me by the ride officials. I had been on track for a 73-75 hour finish, but in light of what happened I’ll take the 79 hours and the memories that were provided and be thankful for the finish.

Regrets: that Clif finished after the cut-off. And, that my good friend Clint could not be there this year to ride it with us.
But, my biggest regret is that I left Katie here to deal with not only a hurricane, but also an earthquake! Wow, an earthquake! Who would have thought? That hurricane? That was just not fair. Talk about bad timing!

PBP 2015? Who’s in?

PBP Rewind: Nick Bull’s PBP2011 Story

Today we start our next PBP story, told over four days by our own Nick Bull of the D.C. Randonneurs.

George Moore and Nick at Versailles.

Paris-Brest-Paris 2011: Fini, Finalement!
by Nicholas Bull

DC Randonneurs at PBP (courtesy Maile N.)

Leading up to PBP

This is my second PBP. The first was the somewhat-rainy 2007 PBP. For that one, I had left the U.S. with a cold, which turned to pneumonia during the ride, compounded by tearing a chest-wall muscle coughing too hard somewhere near Carhaix on the way out. Even so, I made it to Dreux, 40 miles from the end, but at that point decided to DNF when it became clear that I would arrive many hours after the time limit. Despite all that, I had a great time riding an event that is truly a peak life-experience. While the pneumonia and tough weather certainly slowed me down, my post-ride analysis said that if I had started the ride ten pounds lighter I could have finished in time. So this time I started ten pounds lighter, though that was somewhat offset by being four years older.

Thursday, Aug 18th, 2011

The first 24 hours of my PBP trip got me from Seattle to the Campanile, arriving mid-afternoon. On the first flight, I spent 11 hours sitting next to someone with a cold, giving me fearful memories of 2007, but fortunately as it turns out, I didn’t catch it. At the Campanile, assembling my bike under skies that threatened rain, I raced with a woman who was assembling a Ritchey breakaway. We both completed assembly within a minute of each other–which is an indirect way of saying she beat me!

I and George Moore (my training partner for much of the year) joined Maile Neel and some others for an Indian dinner. When the waiter brought out silverware he dropped my fork on the ground, picked it up, brushed it off, then tried to hand it to me. Not confidence inspiring. But the dinner was reasonably good and did not result in food poisoning.

Friday, Aug 19th

After 10 hrs of sleep, I ate breakfast with George, slept another 4 hrs, then we cycled out to Monfort L’Amaury and had an Orangina. On the way back, I stopped to true my wheel and discovered a bent spoke. Roger Hillas came by as we were stopped.

The cathedral in Monfort L'Amaury

We bought dinner at the Carrefour (following the example of Ed Felker and Mary Gersema). The Carrefour is like the biggest gourmet Safeway you’ve ever seen, combined with a Walmart. We had a rotisserie chicken, broccoli and carrots with hummus, some fresh currants that we didn’t like, creme brulee that we did like, and a bottle of port. 24 euros and no one dropped my fork on the ground.

Saturday, Aug 20th

Bike inspection became unexpectedly difficult when I discovered that I needed my “dossier”. My failure to heed instructions lead to a long wait on a bench in an official part of the gymnase building while I waited for “Gerard” to print my dossier. As Gerard walked by empty-handed for the umpteenth time, he patted my shoulder sympathetically. Eventually the precious dossier arrived and I ran and took my bike through inspection.

The DCR photo was somewhat chaotic. At a few minutes before ten, other groups were getting photos taken and the space in front of the sign was completely congested. All but a few DCR randos were milling within 20 yards of the sign, some looking like they might drift away unless we created a mass with enough gravitational pull. So we gathered everyone, assaulted the square, and pushed our way in to get the photo. Just as we finished, some MIA’s arrived so we took more photos. Then as those wound up, more DCR’s arrived so we regrouped for another set of photos. At least with that many photos, something should turn out!

After a trip to Versailles, with a long ride around the lake, we rode back and had an afternoon nap. Packed drop bags, then got dinner from the Carrefour–pate, baguette, shrimp, broccoli and hummus, apple, creme brullet, and chocolate mousse. We had planned to go somewhere for a beer but were too full.

George Moore and Nick at Versailles.

Had a very fitful sleep, unable to sleep at first while plagued by thoughts of what had been left undone (need to fill out the health info on my brevet card!), what might go wrong (that little squeak as I’m riding–bearing failure imminent?), and all the little and big things I’ve not done well in life. Then after finally drowsing off, wakened by a lightning storm and heavy rain. Eventually, I woke at 7:30 to a lovely, pastel dawn with wispy clouds.

Shown below is the ride plan. Distances in miles, climbing in feet. “Climb/C” is feet of climbing per hundred miles on the given leg. “BigClmb” is the total climbing on climbs over 400 feet in the given leg. “Slp” is Sleep. DropDead means you’d better speed up.

The best laid plans of mice and men...

Sunday, Aug 21st (day that PBP starts)

After breakfast, we napped fitfully before a mandatory noon checkout from the hotel. Discovered that everything is closed, so no dinner from the Carrefour today (nor could we cool down in the frozen food section when the afternoon temperature was in the low 90’s).

After checking out, George and I found a small grocery store that was open and bought some lunch. I was going to buy a water bottle since once we’re in line at the stadium we won’t be able to get any water. But I bumped into Chris Heg (who I rode the Seattle 1000Km with in Aug 2010) and he had an extra water bottle which he gave me.

We went to the McDonalds to have a cool place to sit, but no AC so it was warm. We ate a snack and then tried to snooze on the bench seats for an hour. But you couldn’t roll over without waking yourself up, and besides there was someone playing a computer game that involved repeated police sirens every few minutes. Eventually we got annoyed enough that we decided to go to the gymnase to try to find a place to sleep. Our plan was to find a spot in the shade in the grounds of the gymnase and then try to sleep until 8pm and only then go get in line to ride. By waiting until the last groups of 90-hour riders, we figured we could avoid standing in line for hours.

We got there at about 3pm and lay down in the shade in the field where the safety inspection had taken place. With earplugs and black eyeshade, I could almost trick myself into snoozing, but it was a very fitful sleep and it seemed as though I never slept for more than five minutes before popping awake again. Eventually after a couple of hours of this I decided to see what was happening in the gymnase, and the “specials” (tandems and recumbents) were leaving and I got to wave to John Mazur and Cindy Piotrowski.

As I walked back to sleep in the field some more, I noticed a line of bikes filing in through a gap in the fence, where a PBP official was checking cards, so I asked someone what was going on and he said it was the 6pm start group. Since people were getting in the line from both directions, I ran back to our field, woke George up, and then we ran back down with our bikes, joined the line, and ten minutes later we were standing next to the soccer field, inside the gymnase along with hundreds of other cyclists in the hot, hot sun. Amazingly, Carol Bell was there, too. Meanwhile, I still had a 700-page novel stuffed in my handlebar bag, along with a CD I had bought for Tom Reeder’s wife, Ruth, and her friend Marcia. Needless to say, I was not enthusiastic about carrying these to Loudeac where Ruth would have my drop bag. So I frantically tried to phone them to try to figure out where they could intercept me and get the book and CD, while simultaneously trying to roll forward in line and stay with George, only to discover that the signal had cut out as we rolled forward so now I had to have George hold (and roll) my bike while I ran up to the fence, a few feet higher. Ay carumba!

Ride Start: George (foreground) and Carol Bell (middle-right).

By 5:42 we had filed outside the stadium and it was clear that I wasn’t going to find Ruth in time so I put the book and CD at the base of a lamppost and called Ruth to tell her where it was. George and I were near the back of the 6pm starting group, so when they made a “separation” between our group and the next one behind, we moved back to the very back of our start group to try to avoid accidents. After an interminable few minutes, we were off, George and I together.

On our way, Nick and George (Courtesy E. Felker).

We cruised through the outer suburbs–Ed and Mary were at a roundabout taking photos–and for the first some miles we were waved through all the intersections, but by Elancourt we were on our own. It was nice to be starting in the daytime so we could see the villages and wave to all the villagers who were cheering us on.

Who are these people drafting me? (photo Maindru)

Elancourt, a couple of days before PBP.

Soon the sun was setting and it was a beautiful, long sunset. But then we were all waved to stop by PBP officials who told us sternly to put on our vests. Good thing, because in the excitement (and heat) we had forgotten to.

Sunset, with George in the foreground.

It got dark and we rode on and on. George’s plan was to eat at Mortagne and my plan was to continue through and live off my Sustained Energy protein/maltodextrin drink and homemade maltodextrin “Kiwigel”. So at some stage, George surged ahead to make time to eat, but after a little while I caught back up with him somehow, and then we got split up again but now I was a little ahead. After I came in to Mortagne, I saw George come in, but he didn’t see me in the dark, and by the time I had finished making up a bottle of Sustained Energy, I couldn’t find him. As usual, the one thing that every rider needs — water — was not immediately obvious. Only after finding a “Translator” was I able to get the attention of the barman, who grudgingly filled my bottle.

Monday, August 22nd

After eighteen minutes at Mortagne, I left at 00:37, three minutes ahead of schedule. It was still pretty warm out, so I was still in shorts and short-sleeved shirt. Rolling out of Mortagne, I was by myself for quite awhile, but then eventually riders started coming up. I rode in the tandem vortex of John and Cindi for quite awhile, but then Ron and Barb Anderson of New Jersey came up on their tandem and I rode with them for awhile. Eventually it got chilly so I stopped to put on more clothes, refill the Sustained Energy, and move some bottles of Kiwigel from the Carradice saddlebag to the Gilles Berthoud handlebar bag. To my disgust, the Kiwigel bottles had come open (probably with the pressure changes on the plane) and had leaked everywhere, and the plastic bag they were in was open and partially upside down, so the Kiwigel was stuck all over inside the Carradice. Fortunately, everything else was in plastic bags, but it meant that everything was a gooey disgusting mess. I cleaned it up somewhat with water bottles, but there’s only so much you can do. Meanwhile, I had noticed that a tandem had stopped behind me. It was Ron and Barb, who had also stopped to get some warm clothes on and because Ron was feeling a little nauseous. I rolled out again into the dark and eventually finished my first 200Km in about 9h26m and continued on by myself into Villaines, arriving at 4:39 about 12 minutes behind schedule.

Me at night (photo Maindru).

At Villaines, I found that the bike “racks” couldn’t handle my 650Bx38 tires, so had to squeeze in to find something to lean the bike on. Then I couldn’t find the control itself, so wasted some time wandering around trying to find it. At least I found water while I was wandering–it was outdoors, sort of a “water manifold” supplied by a rubber hose. When I got back to my bike, I realized that it’d be smart to get all the Kiwigel cleaned up, so I took all the gooey plastic bags out of my Carradice and schlepped them back up to the manifold and cleaned it all up. At least Kiwigel washes off easily! Despite all of this wandering, I was only a couple of minutes longer than planned at the control, so set out only a few minutes late, just before 5:00 am.

After Villaines, I was starting to feel the hard pace we’d been riding and my legs were feeling dead. I was surprised at just how hard the terrain was, it seemed like endless ups and downs. A few minutes before dawn, just after riding through Charchigne, I was feeling just the slightest bit drowsy. So I decided to go for a ten minute nap, figuring it would clear the cobwebs and then the sun would wake me up for the day. After 11 minutes of stoppage time, I rolled into the new dawn feeling refreshed and energetic. It didn’t take long for the energetic part to wear off, but I still kept a fairly decent pace and finished my first 300Km in 15h3m.

Somewhere along the way, George Moore had come up so we were riding together some of the time. He would accelerate ahead every so often, but I didn’t have the energy to keep up so I let him go, but then not too long after he’d be soft pedaling or I’d see him by the side of the road. So we came in to Fougeres together at about 9:30, half an hour behind schedule. I decided I’d better abandon my plan for an all-Sustained Energy/Kiwigel diet and eat a real meal, a big bowl of soup, some ham and a mound of mashed potatoes. So that pushed the stop even longer and we left just under an hour late.

Fougeres castle.

But the megabreakfast did the trick, and I felt great heading toward Tinteniac. George and I were drafting other riders some of the time, and leading pacelines some of the time, and then Jim Logan came up and the three of us were rotating at the front of a paceline that grew. But then we hit hills, and Jim and I were at the front and kept up the pace, and lost George and the rest of the paceline. Eventually I told Jim I was going to let him go, and eased off until George came up. Our moving average pace on this leg was just under 15mph, so we made up a little time.

But we still came in to Tinteniac nearly an hour late and the cafeteria line was long so we decided to ride on and find somewhere to eat. But then we saw a jambon baguette stand on the way out of the control, so we grabbed one of those. George can’t eat while riding so we sat and ate, and then rolled out. But in only a few hundred yards, we decided we needed to eat more, so we found a bakery. With all the stoppage, we were now an hour and twenty minutes behind schedule. The secret control in Quedillac seems to have stopped us for twenty minutes, God only knows what we were doing. Nonetheless, we passed the 400Km point at 21h46m, which is not a bad pace. It was drizzling just slightly at times.

Definitely not the Arlington, Va. Town Hall.

By the time we came in to Loudeac at about 6:30, we were nearly 1h40m behind schedule. It was very nice to see Ruth and Marcia. We did not control fast. We ate, which meant a long line. Then George went to his drop bag while I went to the bathroom, which meant a trip all the way across the parking lot. Then I went back to the other side and got my drop bag and transferred food and supplies for the next 400Km. I got my clean clothes, which meant another trip across the parking lot to the bathroom to change, being very careful not to touch anything in the bathroom. So by the time we left Loudeac, we were now 2-1/2 hours late. And we were heading toward the toughest terrain of the ride, between Loudeac and Brest.

I think our plan was to try to push on to the new sleep stop at Saint Nicolas du Pelem or even all the way to Carhaix. But five miles after Loudeac, George was sleepy, and since it was dusk I figured that this was as good a time to sleep as any, so we pulled over in Treve and spread out our space-blanket bivouac sacs on a nice little berm next to the side of the road and a line of bushes and trees. It was warm, so I slept on top of my bivy until it started drizzling, so I got inside, and it was very peaceful with the raindrops pitter-pattering on my bag. But then I noticed thunder in the distance and the thunder was moving toward us. Finally, I woke up enough to realize that an aluminized plastic bag was not the place to be in a lightning storm so I woke George up and we skedaddled. Somehow it seemed to be safer riding our bikes in the lightning than lying in an aluminized bag!

Riding in the storm, there was a lot of lightning in all directions, but none of it was very close. But it was raining so hard that we were definitely slowed down quite a bit. It was hard to see the edges of the road and this section was quite hilly so we had to creep along on the descents. A couple of miles after Corlay, around midnight, I got a flat tire and fixed it on the front steps of an abandoned building. I used the old trick of just swapping in a brand new innertube and tire, rather than taking time to figure out what caused the flat (and as I write this in early October, I still haven’t got around to inspecting that tire!).

Day Two: Tuesday, August 23rd

We continued on into the rain, and the next section of the ride had quite a bit of climbing and George seemed a little more energetic, since he’d scoot on ahead on the climbs but then I’d catch him awhile later. There were quite a few other riders around, and we passed them several times but then either George or I had to stop for some reason and they’d catch us.

But they were descending pretty cautiously so we’d catch them again. It was very claustrophobic feeling riding in the dark in the rain with other riders a little too close for comfort.

Finally we arrived at Carhaix a little after 2 am, many hours behind schedule (but having had a bit of sleep earlier than planned). We rolled out about an hour late, just before 3 am. By now we were only about 15 minutes ahead of our “Drop Dead Departure Time” — the time at which we would need to ride faster than expected for the rest of the ride if we were going to have any hope of sleeping after that. But at least it had stopped raining.

Ten miles after Carhaix, we had been doing a lot of climbing and were tired and decided we needed a short nap. Just after crossing L’aulne river, we pulled over onto a little gravel cul-de-sac where we spent forty minutes having a snooze. I just lay on the gravel, since my clothes were damper than the ground. We hadn’t noticed that as we crossed the river, the GPS had beeped to say that we were starting the 860′ climb up the Roc Trevezel!

After we started again, it was a little misty out and at some stage George zoomed on ahead up a hill. But a few minutes later he was standing by the road and I asked if he was OK and if it was OK to keep soft-pedaling. He said something that didn’t seem like “No” or “Wait”, so I kept going because I just didn’t have the energy to stop and start again, and I figured I’d see him soon.

As I climbed, the mist turned into dense fog. I remembered from 2007 that there was a lot of “approach” climbing before the “real” climb up the Roc, and I thought I was on the approach climb but I was surprised how long it was, and worried how much more difficult the Roc would be. I talked with other fog-shrouded cyclists as they passed me or I passed them. And then my GPS lit up and displayed the message “Top of Roc.” That explains it!

Coming off the top, I now had to ride the brakes pretty hard at times because of the fog. After about four miles of descending my hands were sore and I was starting to feel drowsy as I came into a little town (Commana), so I decided on a snooze. As I pulled over next to a wall, there was a woman walking her dog across the street and she waved and I waved back as I lay down.

I took a little nap under a willow and then I was woken up by a car driving through the gate in “my” wall and the driver waved and said I should go back to sleep, no need to get up. But it was time to go, I had had my 11m40s nap!

I rode on into the mist but by the time I arrived in Sizun, five miles later, I was feeling quite sleepy again and decided I had better have a longer stop. Fortunately, I saw a Credit Agricole ATM foyer and it was not totally full up, with three randonneurs sleeping on the floor. Just as I was getting settled with my earplugs and black eyemask another randonneur started to come in only this guy was trying to get his bike in with him and was making a clatter. I waved to him not to bring his bike in but he insisted on it, so … whatever!

I took my nap and slept for about half an hour and then rolled out of town, by now somewhat desperate to pee. After leaving town I stopped in a field and when I came back out, there was George Moore by my bike. It turns out, he had taken a nap where I last saw him.

We rode on together but after about ten minutes, George said he had to stop for another nap. I said “See you in Brest” and continued along. An hour later, as I came into a village I recognized the steeple and remembered from 2007 that there was a little bathroom “chateau” on the left. An elderly woman waved to me as I came up and said the bathroom was closed, but I stopped anyway and when the door opened, she gave me a very Gallic shrug.

By now it was 8:20 in the morning and I was still about 15 miles out of Brest. This was a section that in 2007 had seemed interminable and I had really bogged down, but this time it was OK. Still a long ride in to Brest, but soon enough I was crossing the bridge in the heavy mist.

Bridge to Brest in fog

The route this time continued down by the waterfront but we couldn’t really see much, and it started drizzling. I was riding with some Canadian randonneurs. There was light traffic on the roads, but not too bad. After a long time by the waterfront we turned right and rode up the Rue du Chateau past some old fortifications. I sort of knew what was coming but hoped it wasn’t, but, yes, we had to climb a mile, and what seemed like a very big climb but actually is only 230 feet.

Chilly and damp, down by the waterfront.

But finally, the magnificent Brest control, arriving about 2-1/2 hours late, still this was a 38h27m pace for a 600Km. Not great, but not too bad, and well ahead of where I was in 2007. I discovered that I had lost my bifocal bicycle glasses somewhere along the way, which made it difficult to read my Blackberry, but otherwise not really a problem.

After controlling in one building, we had to go to another building to get water, then still another to get food (where I ate briefly with Maile and John and Cindy), and finally a fourth building to go to the bathroom.

There was a long line for the bathroom, because with 5,000 randonneurs you just couldn’t possibly need more than two stalls. So I decided to continue on and find a bathroom further down the road. Despite all this wandering around between buildings, I controlled a little faster than expected and started making up some time, leaving at about 10am.

After a stop at a bakery that didn’t have a bathroom, I found a bar, which I figured would have to have one, and it was a traditional French “stand on the inverted feet and squat” toilet. Nothing to hold on to, which I think might be challenging at the best of times, but after 39 hours on the bike and in slippery mountain bike shoes it was highly non-trivial.

Coming back out of town, I rode back up the Roc with an English randonneur and we had a nice chat and stayed together on the descent for quite a while. But he was a faster rider so soon I was by myself again.

Top of the Roc Trevezel, on the return, still in fog.

Somewhere along the way, I had an insight about the previous day — that after I had eaten all the salty food at Fougeres that I had ridden really strongly on the next section. It occurred to me that I needed to eat more electrolytes, not just when I was feeling crampy, but more regularly to avoid cramps. This was probably a ride-saving realization, because afterwards I no longer was having problems feeling like my legs were dead, and started to pick up time.

By midafternoon it got quite warm, but not too bad in my wool jersey and shorts. I was making good time on my new regimen of eating an Endurolyte about every hour, drinking Sustained Energy and Kiwigel, and at every other control stopping for a real meal. By Carhaix, I had made up ten minutes.

Still, I noticed quite often that I’d find myself halfway between controls wishing I were at the control and then I’d wonder why. It’s not that I was uncomfortable, sleepy, or anything else — just basically a certain level of anxiety about whether something was going to happen before the control and that would be it, the end of my ride. So I had to keep reminding myself to just enjoy the moment.

Somewhere before Saint Nicolas du Pelem, Cindy and John caught me and I hopped in to their tandem vortex. At Saint Nicolas, I called Jan to say hello, and she mentioned that an American rider had apparently been killed in an accident. Depressing news. She also said that George had stopped with a broken spoke, which seemed a little confusing since normally that would not be a big issue.

After we left Saint Nicolas, I stayed with John and Cindy and we arrived at Loudeac around dusk, now only an hour and forty minutes behind schedule. Ruth and Marcia were supposed to be meeting me at Loudeac with my drop bag, but they weren’t there and I couldn’t reach them on my cell phone. Quite worrisome, but I had enough food left over to make it to Tinteniac and I figured we’d meet up there, text-messaging Ruth to try to make arrangements.

I stood around and waited for John and Cindy to do their drop bag, since we had agreed to stay together for safety during the night riding. Just as we were about to leave, I happened to look up the long row of bikes, and noticed a bag under a bench that looked very much like my drop bag. Yes indeed, there it was, along with a little note with my name on it! John and Cindy were very nice and waited for me.

Since I now was under pressure to get my drop bag stuff done, everything seemed to take forever. I discovered that the new batch of Kiwigel bottles had also leaked, and John was nice enough to take them somewhere and wash them while I changed into clean shorts. Meanwhile Cindy sent a text on my phone to let Ruth know I’d found the drop bag–and discovered a text from Ruth that said the drop bag was there. Hmm, maybe next time I’ll bring a spare pair of reading glasses. I decided to keep the wool jersey on for warmth overnight, and since the forecast was for temps in the low 70’s the next day.

All this faffing around just burned time, so it took 101 minutes to control and by the time we left, I was back to my 2-1/2 hour time deficit. And now with enough food to last the final 280 miles, my bike was very heavy and very overstuffed. But John and Cindy agreed not to sprint up hills so that I’d have the chance to catch them at the top and get back into the tandem vortex before the descent.

This worked well and we stayed together riding through the night and chatting. A “light sucker” latched on to us –someone whose primary illumination seemed to be several fireflies in a bottle, so he was using our lights to see by. It’s very disconcerting at night to know that there is someone right on your wheel but you can’t see them–you don’t even know which side he’s on if you have to have an emergency stop. I tried to drop him on the descents but he just hung right in there.

I was starting to feel a little drowsy and announced I was going to stop, pulled over, and firefly man pulled over as well and started to go lie down. That was enough to wake me up, I didn’t want him to wait for me and latch on again, so I hopped back on my bike and sprinted back to John and Cindy while the light-sucker snoozed.

Day Three: Wednesday, Aug 24th

We rode on and on into the night, up and down hills, past midnight, and eventually I started to get so drowsy that I decided to ride up next to them and chat. But soon I realized that I was starting to drift off while talking with John, which did not seem like a very safe thing, so I decided I had better take a nap even though we were only about twelve miles out of Tinteniac.

I stopped in the next little town, Medreac, and slept next to a building for fifteen minutes, which was all I needed to feel refreshed. Soon I arrived in Tinteniac, at 2 in the morning, about 2h20m behind schedule. While I was in line for food, I checked my blackberry, which I could just barely read because I’d lost my glasses. But I could read just enough to find out that the American rider who had died in the accident was Thai Pham, one of the new riders in our club who was a quiet, sweet man. Very sad. Way beyond very sad.

John and Cindy were surprised to see me so soon and we had a nice chat while we wolfed down some dinner. They asked if I knew how other riders were and I relayed the news about George’s spoke, but did not have the heart to tell them about Thai. They finished just a bit before me and I saw them just as they got checked in to the “dortoir” (dormitory) but by the time I got to the front of the line they said I would have to wait until 3 for a cot.

I decided to just go sleep on the floor, so I went back up to the cafeteria, lay down with my earplugs and mask, and despite my sadness about the news of Thai, fell quickly asleep. I set my little alarm clock but was worried that I wouldn’t hear it with the earplugs, but I figured someone else would and they’d come kick me. The floor was very hard, so I rolled over and over, thinking about Thai each time I woke up. Someone was snoring loudly so I rotated the other direction and crawled away a little bit. I slept for three hours and felt pretty refreshed so decided to roll on, leaving about two hours behind schedule and rolling out alone into the night.

Dawn of the third day.

French village at dawn.

I felt fairly sluggish to start with and was riding with a Brit and we had a nice chat. But at some stage I concluded that my saddle rails must have bent slightly because my saddle was feeling weird and it felt like it was tilted back, so I stopped and adjusted the angle a degree forward. That made me roll forward off my sitbones a little if I took my hands off the bars, but it still felt better.

I continued on, riding strong and arriving at Fougeres only an hour and a half behind schedule. Somewhere along the way I realized that my left hand was going numb, so I stopped and titled the saddle back a degree to where it had been to start with. It felt great that way and I realized that I had yet again made the classic rookie mistake of adjusting things that didn’t need to be adjusted on the ride!

Eventually I got to Villaines, now only 47 minutes behind schedule, controlling fast and leaving only 21 minutes behind schedule. At that stage, I was 140-some miles out of Paris, and thought there was a possibility I could get there in twelve hours if I could do it without sleeping.

Fougeres castle on the way back.

By mid-afternoon, it was quite hot and twenty miles down the road the heat was making me feel drowzy and the road had quite a bit of traffic so I decided to stop and take a ten-minute nap in a little roadside rest stop. Then somewhere in the next few miles, there was a very long hill, very exposed to the sun, and very hot, and at the top I stopped at a roadside stand to water up and eat a little pastry.

There was a British fellow there, who asked me how I liked my wool shirt in the heat. Hmm, I’d forgotten that I was wearing wool! His comment explained much.

Fields in Bretagne.

Villaines and a velomobile.

Big sky country in Bretagne.

PBP vests--highly visible, day or night.

I continued on, riding strong, but about two miles out of Mortagne I was overcome with drowsiness. Just two miles and I could barely keep my eyes open. I forced myself to press on and stay awake, singing ninety-nine bottles and using every trick I could think of to stay awake for ten minutes! I arrived at Mortagne almost half an hour ahead of schedule. I ate as big a dinner as I could stuff down, it took a long time to eat it, and then I paid for a cot and went to sleep, asking to be woken up in three hours. After a couple of hours I woke up and went for a pee and when I came back my blanket was gone. I got another blanket but then I couldn’t get back to sleep. I lay there for a bit and then looked up at a noise and saw that there was a woman two cots away standing there bottomless in the dim light, as she changed into clean shorts. I think it wasn’t as dark in there as she thought!

I rolled over and tried to sleep, but then it occurred to me that since the organizers had taken my blanket away, they’d probably recorded me as having already left, so they wouldn’t come wake me up. So I got up and rolled out before midnight, now an hour and a half ahead of schedule.

More fields in Bretagne.

Day Four: Thursday, August 25th

Riding in the dark, on nearly empty roads, the temperature was very pleasant and I was feeling pretty good. I drafted a group of mostly-Swedish and a few other randonneurs for quite a while until the Swedes stopped for a pee, and then I drafted behind the “other” randonneurs until I started to get chilly and stopped to put more clothes on.

Now I rode by myself for awhile, passing some and being passed by others, as I started to feel a little more drowzy. As I stopped in a little square in Brezolles to take a nap, I heard Pam Wright of Texas ride by, saying that her GPS had just come back on all by itself.

After a ten-minute nap, I was rejuvenated, and rode the last sixteen miles in to Dreux very hard. I was having a great time, singing to myself and enjoying the ride and the loose camaraderie of all the randonneurs riding through the night. An Italian started drafting me and we tried to chat a little bit, but he spoke almost no English and I speak no Italian and couldn’t seem to guess the Latinate words from my little knowledge of Spanish and French.

Eventually I got to Dreux at around 4am, an hour and twenty minutes ahead of schedule. I ate and said hi to Pam and went out to my bike and thought about just riding on, as called for in the ride plan. But I had plenty of time, and thoughts of Thai’s fate chastened me so I went back in to the control and found a place to lie down, set my alarm clock, and slept for an hour and forty minutes. I got up and ate a creme brulee and a pastry and headed out, now only four minutes ahead of schedule.

Leaving Dreux was emotional because that is where I DNF’d in 2007. Fortunately, someone had warned me about the big climb out of town, so I was prepared and just took it slow and easy. By this time my butt was feeling a little bruised from four days of pounding. My legs were feeling alright, but I just didn’t feel like riding hard, partly because it was a beautiful dawn and I was enjoying this part of the ride at my pokey little 12.5 miles an hour and I’d get to Paris all in good time as long as I kept on pedaling. I chatted with a Brit for awhile, he has been unemployed for three years and can’t find a job, poor guy.

Riders on the uplands past Dreux, dawn of the last day.

Dawn of the last day.

Soon I was riding by myself again, and the hills that had been barely noticeable on the first day were very noticeable now, but I just took them at an easy pace and no matter how long each took, eventually it was done and I was that much closer. I stopped in Elancourt as the day was warming and took off the arm and leg warmers. Then I was riding with Aussies again as we rode in the last few miles to Paris. I was feeling very good at this stage and was sprinting hard to make green lights, but then I’d get caught by a light and the Aussies would catch up.

In no time at all, it seemed, we were on the last road to the stadium and then we were coming in to the stadium and people were cheering. I had expected this to be a very emotional moment, but it wasn’t really, just a little bit flat because it was over and I was feeling so good that I’d have liked to have kept on going. I chatted with Pam Wright for a bit, and then went and controlled and walked to the beverage tent and got my free beer, and then saw Jim Logan on the way back to my bike, so we chatted for awhile.

I got some photos of myself with my bike and soon I was riding back to the hotel. George Moore called, he was on a train, having ridden on for a couple of days after abandoning back at Carhaix owing to sleep deprivation. I went to the Carrefour and bought lots of desserts, including a Paris-Brest pastry, and ate them all.


On Friday, I took my bike apart and got packed and then re-arranged flights to avoid the hurricane that was coming in to the East Coast on Saturday. Saturday, I had a long and very uncomfortable flight to Minneapolis and then after to DC, and then I was home again with the love of my life, Jan.

The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men Gang aft agley (Burns, To a Mouse, 1785)

With untold thanks to all those who helped me finish PBP — my wife Jan (from whom I learned much about more efficient cycling while riding the tandem together), my daughter Ellen (who said after PBP in 07, “You have to try again, Dad”), my son Simon (who can walk my legs off, so at least I can remain competitive in some realm), George Moore (who helped so much in training for this PBP), George Winkert (who helped so much in training for the last one, and who was along for the ride this time, even if he didn’t know it), Crista Borras and Lynn Kristianson (for putting together such great training rides), Bill Beck (for being such a great RBA), Ruth Reeder and Marcia (for being so encouraging and having my life-saving drop bag there when I needed it), Tom Reeder (who introduced me to randonneuring by saying “Would you be interested in being on our fleche team?”), Chris Heg (who was such a good companion on the SIR 1000Km last year, my “come back” ride), countless others from whom I have learned much, and the numerous and generous French countryfolk who are so unbelievably encouraging.

MG’s PBP2011 Story: You Have to Go to Know

by Mary Gersema
October, 2011


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.

Pre-PBP Group Ride to Chartres

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.

Felkerino and me, Bike Inspection

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.

Drew Buck gets some applause

Entering the gymnasium

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.

90-hour start of PBP

PBP 90-hour riders

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.

84-hour special bike start

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.

84-hour starting line. Shhh.

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.

The Back to Back Tandem

Real baby stroller (and baby) at the PBP start

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.

84-hour riders go by

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.

Bob B. and the Seattle contingent

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.

Chip, Clif, and Joe after Mortagne

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.

The Lara Bar fairy was here

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.

Bovine-ometer says no rain for now

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.

Roger and Jon on Day 2 of PBP

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.

Drew Buck gets on his 1900 Peugeot

Riders on the return route near the Roc

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.”

Guy, Felkerino, Jon, and me. Halfway… or so I thought

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.

Riding through Sizun with Guy

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.

Happy to be riding Day 3: Jon, Felkerino, and me

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.

Fabiorandonneur. He is a real person.

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.

Sunny skies and good riding on PBP

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.

High spirits in Villaines

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.

Puree, Omelette, a bowl of coffee, and a coke for breakfast. Hey, I’m on vacation.

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.”

Jon, after his coffee shop tumble.

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.

Randonneur napping on PBP

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.

Bill Russell in Dreux. Three Cokes should do it.

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.

More PBP scenery

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.

Happy finishers! Jon, Felkerino, and me.

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?

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.


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.


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.

Jack Holmgren’s PBP 2011: The Tale of the Magnets

The erudite Jack Holmgren of Oakland, who rides with the San Francisco Randonneurs, gave MG and me some wonderful encouragement during Paris-Brest-Paris. We got to know Jack during the Cascade 1200K in 2006, where he provided the same gentle, slightly wacky humor as we made our way around that monster.

This year at PBP we rode in the same vicinity with Jack throughout the event, in the 84-hour group, and Jack was always good for a chuckle about the crazy circumstances that come along with randonneuring.

Jack has honored TDR with his story from PBP. Rather than write about his entire event, however, Jack centers his story on the SFR refrigerator magnets he brought with him to hand out to friends and benefactors along the way. 

Jack’s San Francisco Randonneurs magnet. This little object is part of a great story.

Jack climbing the Roc Travezel. What a place to be!

The Magnets, by Jack Holmgren
September, 2011

Turns out you can go on-line and find an image you like and add words to that to create a design.  For the 2011 Paris-Brest-Paris Randonneur I found a 2-inch magnetic square picture of the Golden Gate Bridge.  To that I added “San Francisco Randonneurs.”

While they were meant as tokens of gratitude to be dispensed during PBP proper, some slipped away before I took the start.  In particular they connected me to the pivotal controle town of Loudeac in Brittany.  This magnetic attraction began before the ride, grew stronger during the ride, continued after the ride, and promises to continue doing so.

Jack at PBP 2011, looking great in the SFR jersey, magnets tucked away somewhere.

My friend Kevin Salyer drove out to Loudeac with me a few days before PBP to scout the route.  We styled ourselves the MacArthur Award Nominee Team as we had the genius idea of annotating route maps with the locations of bakeries and bars and the like.  Of course once we started driving the course it became clear that every town had a bakery and bar and there was no need for making note of this simple and obvious fact.

But we also wanted to cycle a bit of the course.  My chain had done some sort of a Triple Salchow in transit and despite my own and the efforts of several vastly more qualified individuals refused a return to normal.  So I was delighted when I walked into Cycles Mace in Loudeac to find a native son who spoke Canadian.

Jeff was a gem and was riding PBP as was Claris, the proprietress of Cycles Mace.  The local Loudeac cycling club, drawing from a population of no more than 10,000 inhabitants was fielding 45 riders.  This impressed as the San Francisco Randonneurs, drawing from a population region of between 5 million and 10 million, had only managed to equal Loudeac’s participation!

Several hours later I returned to find the Cycles Mace had solved the puzzle of my chain.  When I asked the cost of the repair they would not accept payment.  But the owner and the mechanic were delighted to receive the SFR magnets.

During PBP, 450 kilometers into the ride, I rolled into the Loudeac controle and gave the controle worker and her interpreter SFR magnets.  As I left the controle on the exciting bumpercar/cyclocross course I heard the mechanic who had saved my chain yelling at me.  When I stopped he came over and we hugged as he asked how his repair was holding up and I inquired about Claris and Jeff.

Time passed.

Somewhere after Druex I came upon a rider who was going too slowly to finish on time. He stared intently at his bottom bracket and it hit me that he was suffering from Shermer’s Neck.  He spoke only Japanese but I motioned for him to pull over. I flipped his handle bars up and ran an inner-tube thru his helmet and around his shoulders.  These improved his situation dramatically.

Up the road a bit I found a rider in a similar fix.  He was French and spoke a fair amount of English. Patrick was from Loudeac as I learned when I asked  him where he’d got his Cycles Mace cap.  His aging Peugeot was not a candidate for bar flipping as all the bolts were rusted tightly. I went to work on making his helmet fit properly and attaching an inner tube to his helmet and shoulders.  Apparently I was a tad too zealous as Patrick asked if I was trying to kill him.

Time was running out so I suggested Patrick follow my wheel to the finish.  We worked out basic signals and made our way towards the finish as the grains drained the hourglass.

On our way we came across two fellows from the same club, The Haute Alps of Somewhere.  One had Shermer’s Neck but knew what was happening as he’d had it in 2007.  He couldn’t rotate his bars due to the cables but had fashioned an ingenious, artistic, and ineffectual cervical collar out of newspaper and plastic bags.  He declined my inner-tube invitation but joined our “Shermer’s Neck Pace Line.”

As we proceeded at a slow and careful pace through  the suburbs our gruppo grew as many riders had so very little left that they had slowed to a Shermer’s Neck speed.

We finished on time.  The Japanese rider thanked me with the poignant, profound, and profuse thanks with which people of his culture transfer affection.  I gave him and Patrick a magnet.  I will see them again, this I know.

George Moore’s PBP 2011: A Good Ride, Outside the Limits

D.C. Randonneur George Moore put in a valiant effort at Paris-Brest-Paris this year, fighting off sleep deprivation until it got the better of him on the way back from Brest. George wisely put safety first and got in a long sleep at Carhaix that put him out the running for a medal, but he then put in two more days of riding to Villaines, all off the clock, before taking the train back to Paris.

George’s story reminds us that it’s OK to go for it, even if we’re not always guaranteed the outcome we expect. Sometimes, that’s when the magic happens. Thanks for a great story George!

George, far right, front row, with other D.C. Randonneurs at PBP 2011.

Well, as you probably know, I didn’t finish PBP. Several of you have asked for some report of what happened. Here it is.

If you never try things you might fail at, life would be more boring. I wish I had finished PBP, but at least I had fun trying , And I did finish 650 miles out of 750 miles (86%).

The part of the ride to Brest and back to Carhaix-Plouguer (when I was still within time limits) was fun. PBP has a carnival atmosphere with loads of riders, and people beside the road shouting support.

I enjoyed much of this and I’m glad I experienced it. But I was also uncomfortable with so many riders around. I worry about a collision with another bike, and don’t like big crowds. The second night was also very dark, with hours of rain and fog in the morning — both limited visibility and slowed progress.

I was particularly concerned about a bike collision in the rain, when brakes aren’t functioning well and visibility is poor. Still, I mostly enjoyed this part of the ride.

I had some minor stomach issues around Carhaix going out. I think I ate too fast, not chewing enough and my body didn’t like that. You don’t want more details, but it only lasted about 15 minutes.

A long ride like PBP with its time limit always turns around managing sleep deprivation (unless you are a faster rider than most). I had failed to finish a 1000K ride earlier, mostly because of lack of sleep, but succeeded on a second attempt.

Sleep on PBP was hard to manage because of the night start — you don’t begin fresh. Because of that the American club (RUSA) recommended not sleeping until the second night. I tried this strategy, more or less, and it didn’t work for me.

By the time I got to Brest, I had tried to sleep by the side of the road at least 4 times that I can count, but they were all too short to give me real rest (1 hour each). None were comfortable enough to provide peaceful sleep. So, by the time I got to Brest, I was having real trouble staying awake and/or analyzing what to do.

I did get 90 minutes of good sleep at Brest. By the time I got back to Carhaix, I just wanted sleep, and I slept 12 hours. This disqualified me.

I got up the next day with the sun, and really enjoyed riding the next two days with no time limits. I knew I was disqualified, so now I was just riding for fun. I lost a spoke on the first section, but was able to repair it faster than a flat. I was nice to see this section of land during the day.

It was much less hilly than it had seemed at night. At Loudéac the control volunteers were having a cookout and gave the riders coming through a warm welcome, gallete suacisse (spicy Breton sausage wrapped in a buckwheat crepe — great), wine, and lots of encouragement to keep going.

I also met Clif Dierking from my DC Randonneurs club. We exchanged stories and a few supplies. It raised my spirits to see Clif. There were also still supporters beside the road. I came by one farmhouse about 6 AM, short of water.

The window opened, and I held up my water bottle. Several family members came out to help me fill up my bottles. Other families had left food by their driveways. Three teenage siblings offered orange juice and pastries. People were great.

By Tinténiac, the volunteers just wanted to go home. I rode from Tinténiac to Villaines-la-Juhel with Dave Fairweather from Australia; with an overnight at a hotel in Fougères, getting another 7-8 hours of great sleep.

We reached Fougères about midday, almost the end of my ride. I could have ridden to the finish, but I wanted to get back in time to collect my drop-bags and get packed for my flight to the UK. I was feeling time pressure again, and not enjoying that.

So in Villaines, I had a big meal, and rode off-course to the train station in Alençon (navigating with my GPS). When I boarded the train I had finished 650 miles, approximately within the PBP time limits. Not the 750 I had started to do, but not totally shabby either. I enjoyed both parts of the ride in different ways.

I took the train from Alençon to Le Mans to Versailles, and rode the bike from Versailles back to the hotel (another 5-6 miles).

My bike, a Boulder Bike All-Road, treated me really well on the ride. I had purchased it around the first of the year for its comfort (wide tires, front bag, full fenders, etc.). I finished the ride without any significant hand or foot numbness, or bottom abrasions — a new experience. I had only two minor mechanical problems.

I failed to tighten a brake cable adequately when I put the bike back together. I had to repair this in Fougères. There is a clip of me doing this from French TV that Joan Oppel found.

And the broken spoke, which was easily repaired on the road.

Geo on French TV, fixing that spoke in no time flat.

When I got back to Paris, I found that one of our club members, Thai Pham — a quiet, determined, steady rider — was tragically killed by a truck about 7 PM on the 22nd. There is very little information about what happened. I met his lovely close-knit family back in Falls Church, Va., after I returned.

There is so little one can do to help. As far as I know, there were no other significant injuries on the ride, with involved roughly 5,000 riders, and something like 350,000 miles of riding.

Before I left for France, I had accepted that I might not finish the ride, but that I would have fun either way. Maybe that was a bad Idea (in terms of finishing), but I did have fun. I’ll worry about another try at a 1200K later! Today, I’ve got to get my equipment sorted out; and think about Thai, his family and the wonderful people I met in France.


Ride pictures are at:
Pictures from my trip to the UK are at:

Jeff Bauer’s Fixed Gear PBP 2011

We’ve mostly gotten to know Jeff Bauer of Nashville from his tandem riding with Mary Crawley, a regular at the D.C. Randonneurs rides. They rode PBP on tandem four years ago and BMB before that.

This year, Jeff reprised his fixed gear team Race Across America feat of strength by riding PBP on fixed, again with some of his pals from the Nashville scene. Jeff has written up his ride, describing the highs and lows of sticking to one ever-spinning cog to Brest and back, all in under 74 hours.

Jeff and MG, fresh off the flight to Paris.

Jeff leading our group back from a pre-ride outing to Chartres.

Thanks for your story Jeff!

My 2011 Paris-Brest-Paris ride was meant to be maintenance-free, because I had elected to ride it on my fixed-gear bike. Through a series of somewhat comic mishaps, I’d had more mechanical problems than my previous two PBP rides (2003, 2007) combined.

Actually four of us who’d participated in the Natchez Trace 1000K ride last year (Kevin Kaiser, Tim Carroll, Steve Philips and I) formed a mutual suicide pact to ride Paris-Brest-Paris on our fixed-gear bikes. As part of our training, we each rode a complete brevet series fixed: 200K, 300K, 400K, 600K. The hills we climbed on these rides would be much tougher than anything we’d
encounter in France.

My first indication that all would not be free of mechanicals occurred one week prior to our PBP departure. On a 200K night ride, I managed to wrap my chain around the rear cog on a descent, locking up the rear wheel and skidding downhill on the edges of the wheel rim. A new wheel was built around the Surly hub, but no time was left to put enough miles on it and retension the spokes.

5am at the 84-hour start, Tim, Kevin and I waited in the infield bleachers, determined to be the last riders out the gate. We wore matching “Gran Fondo Fixie” jerseys, somewhat obscured by our reflective vests. A light rain started just before we began our ride, guaranteeing wet roads, so I was happy that I’d made a late decision to install fenders. At the back of the pack, the riding was muted and we could gradually worked our way up groups of slower riders, becoming easier in the daylight hours. We received compliments from other riders on our decision to ride PBP fixed.

About 25 kilometers before we reached Mortagne-Au-Perche, we stopped at a Tabac and caged a free top-off on our water bottles. This would save us time bypassing the first optional control, since we had plenty of food to last until Villaines-La-Juhel (220 Km). Unfortunately, we’d gotten used to following the riders ahead of us instead of scouting for the well-placed signs pointing toward Brest. The net result is we’d added 6-7 bonus miles, in addition to lost time checking our the cue sheets to get us back on route. Not an auspicious start on our first leg.

With more wary eyes, we made it into Villaines in good time. I stopped at a market just before the control to buy some bananas, meeting Tim and Kevin at the bike racks. We were soon on the road again, under grey and drizzling skies.

Inbound into Fougeres, my wheels slid on a round-about and my front wheel bumped into a curb. Aside from minor abrasions, no damage to myself or the bike. Tim assisted me in changing my tire, then we waited together in an automated bank enclosure for the heavy downpour to pass through.

We regrouped with Kevin down the road, though well before Loudeac I was riding mostly without Tim and Kevin. At some point in the ride, we were experienced different energy levels and it’s better for me to ride at my own pace.

As the day wore on, I experienced a second flat, then discovered that my CO2 device had jammed. My backup hand pump got me going until I arrived at the next control where I could borrow a floor pump. I also got the mechanic to un-jam the CO2 inflater with his bike clamp.

I rode into Loudeac with the DC tandem couple Ed and Mary. We had problems with other riders crowding around the tandem, even though we weren’t going fast enough for there to be any draft advantage. I stopped in Loudeac long enough to eat some hot food and replace tubes/cartridges from my drop bag. Got the mechanic to un-jam my cartridge inflater.

More hard rain, but kept on moving through the night to Carhaix. At 450 Km, many people make Loudeac their first sleep break, but I prefer to keep on riding and bank extra time. I swallowed my first Expresso Gu of the ride, then stopped to take a roadside nap while waiting for the caffeine to kick in.

An hour later my front wheel got squishy again and I’d determined something in the tire was causing a slow leak. After spending some fruitless time examining the tire with my fingers for debris, I swapped it with my spare tire. Once again in Carhaix, I got a mechanic to un-jam my CO2 with a clamp, then purchased a replacement cartridge and tube. He did not have any spare tires for sale, however.

Leaving the muddy field of Carhaix in the daylight was invigorating as I was looking forward to climbing up Roc Trevezel. I took off my vest and arm warmers for the climb, but it was cool and misty and I might as well had left them on. On top of the Roc it was foggy and impossible to see anything, but I fulfilled my promise to Peter Lee by spreading the ashes of our late friend and PBP ancien of 2007. Jeff Sammons would spread another container of Peter’s ashes later in the day.

The route took a slightly different approach to the Brest control compared to years past. In Brest, I started a standard ritual of drinking a Coke, a beer (non-alcoholic, preferred) and grabbing a ham sandwich to go. This seemed to get carbs, caffeine, and liquid back into my system quickly, while giving me time to casually nosh on a chewy sandwich at my leisure. I left Brest in a light shower, but soon the sun appeared through the clouds.

On the way out of Brest, I rode with a couple of fixed-gear Brits, geared lower than me (48×17), but who could spin like crazy downhill. One of them, Ashley, asked if I’d seen an antique bike with wooden rims. This was his father, Drew Buck, who’d also ridden a crazy two-gear antique in 2007 (Onion Johnny). I also spent a happy hour with a Belgium rider discussing Coen Brothers movies — he’d seen them all.

On the way to Carhaix, I ran into Tom Gee, a fellow Tennessee randonneur and six-time PBP ancien, currently riding his 7th! We agreed to ride through the night back to Loudeac together. On the route we passed a group of Florida riders (Tim, Lisa and Larry) and slowed down to ride a while in their company. About halfway back to Loudeac, we stopped at an outside cafe. I wasn’t hungry, but Tom agree to eat quickly an get back on the road. Tim, Lisa, and Larry were riding at a more leisurely pace, but I wanted to get back to Loudeac, where I could take a decent sleep break.

About this time my main generator light stopped working. I had a spare LED Cateye, but it just put out enough light to be barely legal. Tom Gee was kind enough to allow me to ride in his wake, so I didn’t lose much time on our way to Loudeac. On the way I talked Tom into staying with me the hotel shared by Jeff Sammons. Fortunately we met Jeff departing the control just a we were walking to the hotel, so there was no problem of occupying the same room together. After a shower, a nap and a quick breakfast, Tom and I rode through the pre-dawn hours toward Tinteniac, arriving an hour after daylight.

Although our plan was to ride out together, we somehow missed each other in the crowd an rode separately. At first I was a bit sluggish, then picked up enough to hop on a fast peloton.

Although I didn’t think I could keep pace on my fixed-gear bike, somehow the two previous days of riding had loosened my legs to spin fast enough not to get dropped in the short descents. Most of this section was flat to rolling anyway, and the paceline work kept my mind off my saddle discomfort.

Rolling into Fougeres was fortuitous as I encountered Kevin Kaiser who generously loaned me his backup light, a powerful DiNotte running off of 4 AA batteries. I intend to make this my next backup light. I also ran into Tim Carroll. Each of them offered to ride with me, but I didn’t want to have them wait up for me. I wasn’t sure where and when I was going to stop (for sleep or otherwise) and felt I would frustrate anyone who wanted to ride together. Also, at this point nobody is riding alone during PBP.

On the way to Villaines, I rode with a German rider, swapping stories about previous PBP rides. Tim Carroll stopped me at a village, offering me frozen ice cream on a stick — a perfect ride treat. Upon arriving at Villaines, I saw Steve Phillips for the first time along with Tim Carroll. They both offered to ride with me, but I was not very coherent. With only 220K left, there’s a tendency to think of Villaines as “almost finished”. I knew I was already pretty far into sleep debt and might have to take multiple roadside naps to finish safely.

Most of the ride to Mortagne-Au-Perche was a blur. I rode in with a 90-hour Austrian who wanted to carry on a conversion, but his limited English was hurting my brain. He wanted to ride out together; I needed a break from the mental activity of trying to converse with him. After the ride Jeff Sammons, David Rudy and Steve Phillips claimed I stopped by and said hello, but I have absolutely no recollection of seeing them there.

There’s some tough climbing out of Mortagne and it wasn’t unusual to see some tired riders slumped over their bars. I probably took at least one sleep break on the way to Dreux. Once again, I went through my routine of ordering a Coke, a beer (though I had to convince the volunteer they stocked ‘Sans Alcohol’) and a sandwich. It was chilly leaving Dreux. I knew I couldn’t make it all the way to the finish without another sleep break, but for some reason didn’t want to take a nap in the Dreux control.

Only 40 miles left, but twice I got off the bike to take roadside naps. With 25 Km left in the ride, I heard an ominous clicking noise from the rear drive train. Please don’t let it be the bottom bracket, thinking of Bill Glass’s ruined 1000K last year. I checked the drive train, rear wheel spokes and chain, but could find no obvious problem. As I was riding fixed, there was no way to gear down and relieve the tension. Once I saw a 10Km sign, my anxiety was over. I knew I could walk the final 6 miles of the ride if necessary. Afterwards in the daylight, Steve Phillips noticed a fracture in my bike chain. A single chain plate had kept me riding through the final miles of PBP.

Total mechanical frustrations:

– 3 flats
– 1 tire
– main bike light on second night
– bike computer failure
– CO2 inflator jammed
– fractured chain

Final time: 73h34m

Despite the heavy rains of the first day and various mechanical issues, I had a great ride. Everywhere I stopped, people where most complimentary on my effort to ride PBP fixed, probably not aware there were dozens of other riders similarly provisioned.

I’m not sure what bike I’ll be riding, but I fully intend to be back in France in 2015. Until then, Bon Chance!

Jeff Bauer
Nashville, Tennessee