Paris Brest Paris 2015
How can something this difficult be this much fun?
You just keep going until you arrive. And if you do it right, you enjoy almost every mile of it. – Jan Heine
Dix… Neuf… Huit…
The pre-ride chatter died away and the sound of two hundred riders clicking shoes into pedals could be heard.
The enormous crowds of onlookers that cheered the riders the day before were gone, only a handful of volunteers and family members were there to watch the final group to start Paris-Brest-Paris 2015 roll out.
There were no pre-ride instructions for the 84 hour group. No music or speeches blaring over the loudspeakers.
Troi… Deux… Un…
And then we were slowly rolling through the starting gates, riding through the pre-dawn darkness with two hundred other riders in high-viz vests, the last wave of the almost 6,000 riders that would ride Paris-Brest-Paris in 2015. As we rounded the first bend, I realized that we had done what we had set out to accomplish.
We were here.
Km 0 (Mile 0) Hour 0
After four years of planning and training we had made it to PBP. It would be great to finish, preferably within the time limit, but that was secondary to just being able to take part in this incredible event. Our goal was just to ride PBP, and here we were riding. Now that we had accomplished our goal, there was nothing left to do but keep pedaling and see how the ride turned out.
Neither Stacy nor I like brevets that start at night, finding that we get little sleep the day before the ride despite attempts to nap. We tend to get sleepy around 2:00 in the morning whether we start in the morning or in the evening, so we prefer to start early in the morning and get a full day’s run first. That meant we’d have to start with the 84 hour group, the only group that started in the morning, and we would have 6 fewer hours to finish PBP than that majority of the riders who had 90.
Would that turn out to be a mistake?
“Conservative pacing, cheerful optimism, and appreciative awareness can be important ingredients in Paris-Brest-Paris.”
This would not be our first 1200K brevet, so the distance wasn’t something that would be untested, but we would need to ride considerably faster than we did before. Our fitness levels were very good, having just completed the difficult “100 Cols Tocht”, 2500 miles and 201 French Cols, over 200,000 feet of climbing in 30 days, a ride that featured the great climbs of the Tour de France – Ventoux, Galibier, Tourmalet, etc. We then spent 10 days in Paris to rest, recover and enjoy the city with just 14 days between the two big rides. While not 100% certain, we thought we had a pretty good chance of successfully finishing PBP within the time limit.
Another big plus of selecting the 84 hour start is we would avoid the dreaded “bulge” – the huge mass of riders that would overwhelm the controls and and would mean standing in line for everything from getting our brevet cards stamped, to eating, getting a cot to sleep in, or even using the restroom. On the other hand there was a chance that we’d miss out on experiencing the almost inconceivable enormity of the event.
Check in was a breeze as there were no lines and we had plenty of time to chat with the volunteers. They must have been exhausted after helping thousands of riders register, many of whom spoke no French at all. Despite all this the volunteers were cheerful and encouraging.
Since we started towards the back of the pack, and rode at a moderate pace, we soon found ourselves near the back of group Z, and apart from a handful of slower riders, or those who had stopped in the first few miles with mechanical problems or flats, there were almost 6,000 riders in front of us. Nowhere to go but up!
Our moderate pace left us riding alone with just a few riders to be seen ahead ahead and a few behind. Not too different from a brevet in California really, but quite different from what we had expected from the accounts of PBP we had heard from other riders.
After several years of carrying, but not eating food between controls I’ve found that just eating at controls or picking up something along the way worked just fine for me. Stacy had only had a couple “emergency” cookies in her handlebar bag so after a few hours of riding we were getting hungry and stopped at a boulangerie-pâtisserie and cafe for a quick snack and cup of coffee. We began passing other riders who were either taking longer breaks at the roadside cafes than we were or were beginning to slow after the excitement of the start began to fade.
Km 136 (Mile 85) Hour 6
Although it was not a control on the outbound leg of PBP, we stopped for lunch in Mortagne-au-Perche, a beautiful little town and birthplace of writer/philosopher Alain (Émile Chartier) who said:
“In short, the important thing is to get started. No matter how; then there will be time to ask yourself where you are going.”- Alain (Émile Chartier)
Well Alain, we had already started in Paris and since the question was raised I suppose we were going to Loudeac where we planned to sleep for a few hours. The big picture was to ride to Brest and back to Paris of course, but I’ve found that keeping day-size chunks of the ride in my head was more manageable than thinking about the whole 1200k ride. I remember reading Ron Himschoot’s advice to treat riding PBP like eating an elephant – one bite at a time. Or one turn of the pedals.
At Mortagne we could see evidence of the huge number of riders who had come this way. An enormous parking area for bikes was there, but it was mostly empty when we arrived. There was no wait for food or assistance, and the volunteers were cheerful and relaxed, and we enjoyed having time to talk with them. The stop was decorated with humorous drawings by the local randonneuring club, the Randonneurs du Perche, who were volunteering at the rest stop.
If you look a the first photo you can see the volunteers at the snack area set up in the parking lot – bike parking area. They had croissants and sandwiches and also coffee and beer on tap.
At PBP there was beer at every stop.
It was available both on tap in the bar area set up outside and also in bottles in the restaurant. They also had bottles of wine.
The Germans and English tended to go for the beer. The French usually opted for wine with their meals.
The Americans were mostly horrified by the idea of drinking alcohol on a brevet and stuck to their powdered electrolyte sports drinks. We had fun trying everything and we skipped the sports drinks opting for more tasty options.
Volunteers directed us out of the stop and back onto the road towards Brest. Eventually we met up with San Francisco randonneur Larry Sokolsky, which surprised us since he is a very strong rider. It turned out that he had broken a crank and had spent quite a bit of time getting it repaired. A local had driven Larry to several bike shops to track down a replacement, but without success. Eventually, he drove Larry back to his place and gave him a mountain bike crank that while not perfect, would work. They got it installed and Larry was able to continue his ride.
It was a pleasure to ride with Larry the rest of the day and late into the evening. We separated just before Loudeac when our pace started to slow and he wanted to press on to the control. Stacy and I had a hotel booked and we planned to sleep a few hours in Loudeac. Our drop bag is bright yellow and it was easy to spot in the huge pile of bags. After retrieving the drop bag we made our way to the hotel for showers and a few hours sleep. We decided to stay in Loudeac until the control closed to get as much rest as possible, then ride to Brest and return to Loudeac for the second night’s sleep.
The second morning was bright and sunny, much nicer than the overcast of the first morning. Stacy and I were once again near the back of the field since we had stayed at Loudeac as long as possible. The control was not crowded, and we didn’t see huge numbers of randonneurs until we neared the long gradual climb of Roc Trevezel and saw the bulk of the 90 hour riders returning from Brest. We could now see for the first time the enormity of the ride. There was an endless line of riders as far as the eye could see, in both directions. As we rode along, we entertained ourselves by looking for familiar faces in the stream of riders and calling out to those we knew.
As we neared the summit, the line of riders still showed no signs of ending. When we hit the downhill portion, instead of hammering down the other side we took it easy and continued to look for friends as we coasted.
Still the line of riders continued, all the way down the hill and to the bridge leading into Brest before it began to taper off. Most of those riders started 12 hours before we did, but now they were only a few hours ahead. Hopefully we could catch up with them before we reached Paris, it would be good to ride with some of our rando friends.
The Brest control was nearly deserted and almost closed by the time we reached it, but we made it in under 36 hours, Stacy’s fastest 600K ever and in her words, not by choice. The 84 hour start is especially difficult because the outbound route only allows for 36 hours to reach Brest. We ran into Don “Brown Bear” Bennet in Brest. Don’s a strong rider we got to ride with on the California Gold Rush Randonnee 1200K in 2013 and on last year’s 3CR 1000K. Don was also riding with the 84 hour group. He wasn’t quite ready to leave when we were, so we headed out with the intention of reaching Loudeac again before sleeping. It didn’t quite work out that way, since we got sleepy when we reached Carhaix. Rather than press on while drowsy, we rented cots in the dormitory and got some much needed rest.
Unfortunately the Carhaix control, which had a great selection of food on the outbound route, now had nothing left to eat. Nada. Zilch. I guess that’s one thing to keep in mind when choosing the 84 hour start. No problem, we’d get food at the next control. While we were napping the control volunteers rounded up a pot of soup that they served the riders when they awoke. That was unexpected, but very welcome. Merci!
We got back to Loudeac later than we had planned, and headed back to the hotel once more for another shower and some more sleep. It was morning when we got up to continue and mentally at least it felt like starting fresh. We were closing out the controls to get as much rest as possible and so far we felt great. There was only 450 km to go and we had all day today and until tomorrow afternoon to get there.
Eventually we caught up with an 84 hour group going our pace that had some familiar faces in it. Bruno, a German rider we had ridden with briefly the first day. Rene Dodge, new to randonneuring but riding as fresh as if she was doing a Saturday morning club ride. Robert Sexton, a very strong rider of the sort I admire most. Strong enough to have finished much faster, he chose instead to embrace one of the central tenets of randonneuring – camaraderie – and worked to keep a group together and riding well. Robert was doing the majority of the pulling. A rider from India was in our group as well as Michael Sokolsky, Larry’s brother. We had hoped to eventually meet up with Larry again on the second day, but found out later that he had DNF’d at Loudeac. Bummer.
The group was well matched and the miles flew past as we chatted. Eventually we got to the control at the town Fougères, famous for it’s castle. As we rolled into the control we spotted a bar with a barbeque set up in front with some sausages on the grill. They looked great, so we decided as a group to get our brevet cards stamped and return here for a snack.
The spicy sausages were a local specialty a “gallete saucisse”, served wrapped in a crepe. A couple of those and a cold beer were the perfect afternoon snack on a long ride. The waiter had asked what we’d like in English and when I answered in French he apologized and said he hadn’t realized I was French. Poor guy, he must have been really tired from cooking to be fooled by my limited French.
The lunch stop was judged to be a complete success and we rolled out again feeling refreshed. The other the riders wanted to stop at a grocery store and get some supplies, but Stacy and I decided to keep riding at an easy pace and let them catch up later. We’ve found that momentum can work for or against you, and what worked for us was to keep moving as long as we felt good. We planned to ride as far as we could until we got sleepy and then get some sleep at the next control.
One of our favorite parts of PBP was the support and encouragement of the locals in the small villages we passed through. There were decorations and hand-written signs of encouragement. There were people standing on the side of the road cheering and calling out encouragement to the riders.
Kids would line up with their palms out for a high-five as the riders rolled past. People would set up tables in front of their house and offer snacks and drinks to the riders.
Sometimes the support was even more elaborate as in the town of Tanniere where a rest stop was erected with tarps and chairs where they served homemade crepes and coffee. We had to stop. It was great to take a break from the saddle and chat with the townspeople who had worked so hard to help the riders. We gave them “San Francisco Randonneur” pins as tokens of our thanks and waited for our group to catch up with us so that we could share this amazing stop with them.
Eventually the group caught back up to us and once again the miles drifted by as we chatted. In the distance I could see a rider I thought I recognized. Turned out to be Clyde Butt, another SFR rider that we had ridden with on Gold Rush. As we got nearer we could see that Clyde was in pain. It turned out that he had crashed on the first day and was having a hard time. He rode with us for a while, then dropped back and let us ride on ahead without him.
That evening we rode into Villaines (km 1000) where the town made the riders feel like Tour-de-France professionals. There were barriers set up the sides of the roads with locals who cheered the riders as they rode up. There were inflatable arches to ride under and an announcer on a microphone who narrated the approach and did interviews with the riders. In the control, after you ordered your food the local kids would carry your tray for you and escort you to the gymnasium which had been converted into a dining area. If you ever want to feel like a celebrity, just ride PBP and stop in Villaines.
Once again we booked a nap and got a couple more hours sleep. Neither of us had any trouble sleeping at the controls and next time we probably won’t bother with a hotel. Now we only had a little more than 200K to ride. We started seeing more and more riders who were having trouble staying awake. The sides of the roads were littered with randos wrapped in space blankets taking naps. Several riders had Shermer’s neck and were no longer able to hold their heads up and look where they were going.
Still we were cheered as we rode through each village. The French love an underdog and since we were at the tail-end of the riders we were perhaps cheered even more enthusiastically than those at the front of the ride. It never failed to lift our spirits and it’s something we’ll never forget. The roads in the villages were narrow and several times a car would ride up behind us but be unable to pass us safely. They would slowly follow us all the way through town and then when they reached a safe spot, all of the passengers would cheer out the windows as they passed.
“It’s a bunch of folks who’re staffing a roadside table at 3am for our benefit! I stop, though I don’t need anything, I’m just choked up with gratitude and wonder. These people probably have to go to work in a few hours, but here they are handing out free refreshments to us!
All along the route, the children giving water or cookies, the families brewing coffee in the middle of the night, and the crowds applauding and shouting ‘Bravo!’ as we passed were unbelievable.”
So far our strategy of sleeping when we got drowsy and closing out the controls to get enough rest was working great. We also had the benefit of being familiar with the layout of the controls since this was our second time through them and could get through them more efficiently. We kept plugging along and were happy to realize that we were both feeling great. The food at the controls was good and there was plenty of selection. Sleeping at the controls turned out to be no problem. Everything was flowing along nicely. We’d even had a slight tailwind almost all the way to Brest, which had reversed only in the last few hours and now continued to give us a gentle tailwind back towards Paris. Even the weather was great, unlike other editions of PBP that had days of rain. We had seen evidence of a few showers as we rode, but so far we had missed them all. Would our luck hold?
Nope. On the last evening it started to drizzle. Maybe it would stop. It didn’t, it started to rain. Maybe it would stop. Nope, it started to pour. We stopped under an awning at a small market that was open in the middle of the night to serve randonneurs. They had hot coffee which was very welcome and we put our rain jackets on. As we continued we saw riders still sleeping on the sides of the road, oblivious to the hard rain soaking them.
As we rode through the night I found myself getting hungry. Where would I find something to eat in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere? On PBP this was never a problem. In the next small town I stopped at a small table set up in front of a house where a handful of locals were offering riders homemade cake and coffee. The cake was fantastic, sort of a cheese-cake with fresh plums baked into it. As I thanked the locals and gave them pins I was once again reminded of what an incredible event PBP is and why riders come back again and again. How can something this difficult be this much fun?
The rain had petered out after a few hours and we were only damp instead of soaked when we arrived at Dreux the next morning.
The food, which had been good at all of the controls, was amazing at Dreux. Whoever they got to cater the control did a spectacular job and since we weren’t in a rush we lingered and enjoyed it fully. We shared a table with a randonneur from China who fortunately spoke very good English so we were able to communicate. He told us that China had sent over 50 riders to PBP this time, and will be hosting it’s first 1200K brevet next year.
Eventually we decided to press on, and since we only had about 90km to ride the question of whether we would finish in time was replaced by the certainty that we would, so we took our time and enjoyed talking with the volunteers on the way out of the control.
After riding for a while we caught up with Jack Holmgren, another San Francisco Randonneur and a delight to ride with. He had stopped several times to render assistance to other riders and would finish slightly outside of the 90 hour limit. Fortunately the rules allow a time bonus for helping riders in distress and Jack’s ride would still qualify.
As we rode through the flat farmland before the final hills in the forests of Rambouillet I got my first and only flat of the ride. I sent Stacy on ahead who had smelled the barn and wanted to have a sub-82 hour finish. I swapped out the punctured tube for a spare, then rode quickly to catch up again. Since there was no need to conserve energy with the end so near I pushed hard to see how fast I could ride. Instead of being weaker, I found as I had on other long rides that I felt stronger at the end than at the beginning. When I caught Stacy she was feeling good too so we upped the pace and fairly flew through the forest and over the last rollers back to the Velodrome.
We finished with a good buffer in 81 hours 42 minutes.