Tapping this out on my laptop, on a cold December night almost a year and a half since I completed Paris Brest, I might not be able to recall every twist and turn of the 1200km route, but if I let me mind drift, for even a split second, I am instantly back on the quiet roads of Brittany. I can vividly remember the butterflies in my stomach at the frenetic start, the pace lines shared with strangers from all corners of the globe, the morning fog hovering over the bucolic hills we seemed to climb endlessly, peaks and valleys of my own stamina, croissants and plates of pasta devoured, and most importantly the outpouring of support from the locals who lined the streets or filled the squares of the small towns and villages we passed through. PBP has that effect on you. It becomes not only an athletic milestone but also a marker that other life events are then filed away as happening either before PBP or after.
The event is steeped in tradition. Its origins predate the Tour de France by twelve years, with the first edition occurring in 1891. Coming to fruition during the “Heroic Age of Cycling”, when the bounds of human-plus-bicycle were still being explored, the riders set out to find just how far they could go, all in the name of selling newspapers and establishing the supremacy of the recently invented pneumatic bicycle tire over the antiquated solid rubber variety. After it’s first iteration, subscriptions to the Le Petit Journal –the organizer and title sponsor’s newspaper- went gangbusters. And Michelin took an early edge in the tire game as their rider stealthily passed and beat the Dunlop tire rider, who decided to sleep instead of pedaling through the third and final night of the race. Though the event was a successful enterprise for the sponsors, it was believed that the demanding endurance test would shave years off a rider’s life expectancy, so it was best to hold it only once every 10 years.
The professional series ran until 1951 when the pro riders simply stopped showing up because PBP’s grueling nature nullified any prize money one might win. The amateur series began in 1931. It too had a 10-year gap between events until a few decades worth of data had shown that maybe it wasn’t that physically detrimental, was then scheduled every five years, and then finally every four years.
Taking part in it ties one to this history while also bonding all of the participants since 1891 with the age-old self-questioning:
“Can I really ride my bike that far? Like really?
“Is my body going to hold up?
“Will my bike hold up?
“Or am I setting myself up for a spectacular failure on the other side of the world?
Then, a commonly held rationalization: “Well, at least the scenery will be beautiful.”
These were the thoughts that had led to quite a few sleepless nights in the final weeks before I departed for France. I was lucky that I was going into the event with some experience, having completed PBP in 2011, but there was a big question mark hanging over my form as I wasn’t able to prepare quite as well as I hoped. It had been a long winter in Colorado that year. Biweekly snow storms lingered on till early June, each one breaking any rhythm in training you were able to establish since the previous frigid disruption. I was also swamped with a demanding work schedule, splitting my time between Gallus and my machine shop job. I had done the requisite brevet series but a DNF on an audacious Super Randonneur 600km route a month before setting off for France had also severely knocked my confidence.
All I could do was accept the uncertainty and hope for the best. Maybe it was better to come in under cooked than over. Maybe living at altitude will give me that extra oomph and I will be super human with all the additional oxygen at sea level. Even a great build up wasn’t a guarantee for success in this kind of endeavor. One could post their best times during the qualifying rides and then eat the wrong thing or not sleep well or touch wheels with the person in front of you and it’s all over. This ain’t baseball, Bandini. This is randonneuring.
As I rolled along the cobbled streets of Montmarte to meet my club mate and good friend, Nate Hartokolis, the tranquility of the early hours of a Sunday morning in a Paris cleared of most of its residents because of the August vacations, helped calm the nerves and set the tone for the coming days. We made our way seamlessly across the city, passing by the Louvre and over the Seine, and hopped on a train at the Gare de Montparnasse bound for the start town Rambouillet. The location had changed from the previous host town of St. Quentin-En-Yvelines so this was a new experience for everyone. I didn’t know too much about Rambouillet other than the internet stated it was an historic sheep breeding center and that Rivendell has a bike model of the same name. After making the short ride from the train station we entered the forested grounds of the estate. A bit further east from Paris than St. Quentin it definitly had a more rural feel than the outer Parisian suburds.
Both Nate and I had registered for the 84 hour time limit since the start time was more similar to when our rides in Colorado normally begin. It is also less popular than the 90 hour and 80 hour starts so there is also less of a crowd to have to navigate on the road and in the controls. We had the mandatory bike inspection on the same day as most riders would depart, but our start wouldn’t be till the following morning. My bike received far more scrutiny than I thought it warranted. The inspectors told me that my German made dynamo tail light wasn’t bright enough and didn’t like the fact I didn’t have a backup light. I think they were in cahoots with the bike shop that had a tent set up with last minute parts as I was made to purchase a battery tail light from them. The hardware didn’t quite fit the seat stays so it was unceremoniously duct taped onto my frame. A very uncouth addition to my otherwise meticulously designed and crafted steed. C’est la vie. At least it passed the inspection and I was able to receive the entrant package with frame badges and brevet card.
We hung around for a little while, enjoying sandwiches while taking in the scene. Our bikes were leaning against a wall not too far from the picnic table where we were seated, and seemed to be causing quite the stir. Nate has a frame that I made, an even more refined build than my own. Beyond the traditional lugged construction and full rando setup with fenders, racks and handlebar bags (still an oddity even at PBP), the fact that my bike was pink and Nate’s was lavender made them pretty eye catching. We had a good chuckle every time we saw someone pass by the bikes, do a double take, walk back, and take out a phone or camera and start snapping away photos.
After an hour or so we made our way to check in at the hotel we were staying at for the night. It seemed like a large contingent of the San Francisco Randonneurs were staying at the same hotel and many of them were hanging outside at the hotel courtyard bar. I ran into a few people I had met when I did an SFR brevet a few years ago, along with meeting some internet friends for the first time. In addition to catching up with them, it also turned into a bit of a mini custom bike show as the SFR riders have impeccable taste in bikes with plenty of excellent builders in their area to choose from.
The first wave of riders were taking off at 4:00 pm, so we made our way back to the starting grounds. The first group to depart the riders in the 80 hour time limit, who would be “competing” for the honors of posting the fastest time. Many of these riders would do the whole ride with no sleep, but most likely had some personal support at the controls instead of having to get food from the potentially crowded food canteens.
The 80 hour group was followed by riders participating as part of the Concours de Machines, essentially a framebuilding competition with builders having to meet certain criteria and have specific features on their bikes. The 1200km route was the “riding test”. This was the first time the event was being held in conjunction with PBP, though it was similar to the Challenge de Constructeurs that awarded the bicycle maker that had the top placed riders, usually a sweep for Rene Herse. I need less rules in my life, not more, and riding PBP in any capacity was more of a test than anyone could hope for, so the thought of participating in the Concours had zero appeal to me personally. I did enjoy having a look at the various bikes that were entered. Alex Singer had a classic randonneuse finished in their quintessential chrome plating and paired with modern components. Corey Thompson’s had lush fillet brazed and coupled tandem that he and has wife Stephanie would pilot. Cycles Victoire presented a contemporary but elegant and well crafted rig, blending traditional framebuilding techniques with modern materials and design treatments. I believe they went on to win the competition.
The Concours riders were followed by the “special” bikes, tandems, recumbents and hand cycles . I got to wave at my friends Pat and Cecily as they rolled out on their trusty Bilenky tandem. We made our way further back through the 90 hour waves to find our RMCC club mates, the majority of them leaving in the same wave. After wishing them luck and snapping a few photos we headed back into the town for an early dinner of crepes. Back in the hotel we organized our gear and it lights out around 8pm.
Surprisingly, I was able to sleep relatively well, feeling refreshed and ready to go when I awoke. We got our bikes together and checked out of the hotel, making it to the starting area a little before 5 a.m. One of the many advantages of the 84 hour start is that it is far less popular than the 90 hour so there wasn’t the hours long wait to roll out. We were in the second wave and after receiving our first stamp in the brevet card the grand journey began in earnest. The road through the National Sheepfold of Rambouillet was more akin to the width of a bike path, so everyone was being relatively cautious as we snaked our way out of the grounds. As soon as we hit the actual road, caution was thrown to the wind, and even in the darkness of the early morning, the pace promptly picked up.
Unless your goal is to do the whole ride solely under your own effort, the smart move is to take advantage of speed achieved riding in a large group, especially for the opening kilometers. That said, it can be a sketchy affair as it was still dark, on unfamiliar roads with people you have never ridden with before. Luckily, it was the beginning of the ride and most people were still relatively alert. Even in the dark I was able to spot an internet friend’s Mercian with it’s distinctive barber shop pole stripes running along the seat tube. I still only know the rider by his online moniker, Diagnoliste, derived from the Diagonale de France ( collection of five diagonal randonneur routes that crisscross the full length of France). We chatted about bikes, riding, and a little bit about our normal lives off the bike, but with things being a bit hectic and my eagerness to stay hitched to whatever fast wheels were around, it was cut a bit brief after a quick acceleration from the front of the group.
About an hour after the start the sun began to rise and with it a little bit of the nervous energy began to abate, resulting in the pace being ratcheted up a couple more notches. This, however, was short lived. Not that much later, after a quick right turn and small rise in the road, everyone slammed on their brakes. Once we started moving again and got to the top of the rise, there was five or six people on the side of the road that appeared to have had a pretty bad crash. They all looked dazed, holding their heads, bloody elbows and knees, trying to comprehend what had just happened while also assessing the damage. Not even 50km into the ride, it was over for a quite a few of them. A few riders had stopped to provide assistance, while the rest of the group continued on, albeit with a renewed sense of caution.
After about a 120 km we made it to the first stop in Mortagne-au-Perche. Though not an official control on the way out to Brest, it was still set up with food and support. Once again, the benefits of the 84 hour group were evident as there was no line to the boxes of croissants and coffee that were graciously laid out in the cafeteria. After a decent snack, Nate and I hopped back on our bikes, catching a glimpse of our club mate, Ray, rolling out a little bit a head of us. A little bit further down the road we caught up with Ray, and now had our own little Colorado randonneur group. We continued to try to hold onto the wheels of the faster riders but it was a becoming evident that randonneurs were not very good at riding in a peloton as most are used to riding solo or in a very small group most of the time. I am good at keeping a steady pace but whenever there was a big acceleration from a new rider taking over in the front (probably with something to prove), I would be shot out the back of the group, especially if it was right after my turn pulling in the front.
A few kilometers from the first official control in Villaines-La-Juhel, such an acceleration completely dislodged me from the group. Nate and Ray were able to hang on with the faster riders. I thought to myself “Well, at least it was nice riding with my friends for the first 200km. I hope they enjoy the rest of their ride.” When I rolled into the control, they were both still standing by the bike racks. I told them that I thought that was the last I would see them. The same thing had crossed their minds, but told me that the whole group was shattered not that much later by someone going to fast. 200km into the ride it was time to eat a proper lunch and Villaines-La-Juhel is known for having some of the best hospitality during PBP so we were properly taken care of by the volunteers.
Back on the bikes, Ray became the road captain and proposed that we kept things organized between the 3 of us -short pulls so no one person would get worn out and not chasing after people that were trying to upset our rhythm. This proved to work quite well and we ended up with probably a half dozen other riders following our lead. A few of them were able to see how we were riding and when they decided to take a turn at the front didn’t try to blow up the group. Ray, however, had a hard time following his own declaration of doing short pulls. After a particularly long turn in the front, as I took over for him I said “Hey Ray, what happened to doing short pulls?” Clearly enjoying himself, he shot me a wry smile as he drifted to the back of the group.
Between Tinteniac and Quedillac we caught a little bit of rain. It didn’t really affect how we were riding, but between the sun going down and the damp coastal climate it meant that our clothes weren’t going to dry out any time soon. We got into Loudeac at about 12:45 AM. Sitting at 445km into the ride, it is a popular place to catch a little bit of sleep. I was still feeling pretty good and was almost leaning towards riding on till at least the next control. Both Nate and Ray were wanting to stay in Loudeac till the morning. I decided to see how I felt after I ate before deciding to either keep going solo or stay with them (the smarter choice).
We headed into the canteen for some dinner. While we were loading up our food trays, a man about 20 feet away from us collapsed to the ground. Someone called out for a doctor and the next thing we know, Ray is running over to the man. He checks for a pulse and then immediately starts performing CPR. Time seemed to slow down while Ray was trying to revive the guy. It seemed like several minutes but it probably only took a minute or two for the medics that were parked outside to rush in and take over. Shortly thereafter the man seemed more conscious and was carried away by the medics.
After we had our food trays piled with food and were seated at one of the tables, Ray told us that he was recently retired physician. He said that the man had a very weak pulse when he first checked and was pretty concerned but now didn’t seem too fazed by the event. I don’t know about Nate, but I was still in shock from almost seeing someone die. I decided it wasn’t a good idea to continue on solo for the night. Once we finished our meal, we headed to the sleeping area, essentially a large gymnasium with rows of cots and sleeping mats. We were ushered to our area by a volunteer and asked what time we wanted be woken up at. Three hours of sleep seemed like a good balance of time off the bike and getting decent enough shut eye.
Unfortunately, the draft from being in a cot and damp clothes meant that I was absolutely freezing even under the heavy wool blanket. That, coupled with still being shaken up from seeing the rider collapsing in the cafeteria, I didn’t sleep a wink. We were woken at 4 by a volunteer and it seemed like neither Ray or Nate had slept very well either. Still, resting the legs for a few hours was beneficial. We headed to our bikes and spent a little time organizing our various gear.
We set off in the early morning darkness. I was reassured that I had made the right decision not riding off by myself as the terrain seemed like a convoluted collections of hills that seemed to endlessly climb, twist and turn, drop down and rise again. Even with some time off the bike it seemed confusing. I was glad I was still riding with my RMCC buds. Daylight broke, and as the morning fog lifted, it gave us a better glimpse of the rollercoaster like terrain that we were navigating. We made it to the “secret” control in the small village of St. Nicolas-du-Pelem and enjoyed a hearty breakfast and quite a few coffees, which helped making us feel more awake and ready to meet the day’s challenges.
The next control in Carhaix-Plouguer came quickly after St. Nicholas so we were hoping for a quick stop as we didn’t need to eat so soon after our breakfast stop. Nate and I did need to make a pit stop at the bathroom. This turned out to being the biggest loss of time during the whole ride as there was only one toilet in the whole facility and as you can imagine, there were a lot of people lined up to use it. If there could be a silver lining to having to wait to use a toilet for 30 minutes it was that I spotted my friend Bradford (also a framebuilder) waiting in the back of the queue. He was in the 80 hour group so was on the return leg of the ride. Not exactly the best place to have a conversation but nice enough to run into him.
Back on the bikes, we relished the bright sun and the near-cloudless sky and the fact that we were less than 100km from the turnaround in Brest. Seeing more and more riders passing us in the opposite direction also provided an extra boost as we tackled the relentlessly hilly route. About halfway to Brest, perched on top of a hill, is the small town Sizun. It is a tough climb on either side of the route and the town square, straddling the road, is always set up with tents with food and beverages and party atmosphere. This makes for a great place to run into friends heading both towards Brest and on the way back. This was the same place where I first met my Italian friend Roberto during my ride in 2011, whom has since become a great friend. As soon as we approached the square we spotted our club mates Paul and Vernon. As Ray chatted with them, I saw my friend Jeff Newberry, from Texas, sitting on the other side of the road munching on a giant slice of pizza. He graciously tore of a chunk of pizza and shared it with me and we chatted about bikes as he had just gotten a new randonneur bike from Corey Thompson. Back in my Texas days, when I was just starting to get into randonneuring, if you turned up to brevet on a steel bike people would ask you “Do you know Jeff Newberry?” I had the pleasure of doing some long rides with Jeff during those years and it is always fun running into him.
After leaving Sizun there was one last big climb before you start dropping down into Brest. The road was chock full of randonneurs in both directions, quite the sight to see. I got a little separated from Ray and Nate, but they were gracious enough to wait for me at the top of the climb and we began the descent together. Once we entered the city limits of Brest things slowed down as we had to navigate the traffic. A few kilometers away from the control Nate dropped back from Ray and I. Moments later I hear them call out “My knees really hurt! You guys go on without me!” Nate is a very strong rider and this level of discomfort was a new sensation to them. We weren’t about to leave them right before the control so we slowed down and rolled in together.
The control was an absolute circus. Luckily they had put the area where you get your brevet card stamped in a tent outside so we didn’t have to fight through the crowds to get that taken care of. I did spot my friend Preston’s Gallus bike on one of the bike racks, but unfortunately did not see him. Instead of trying to eat at the control, we opted for a quick bathroom stop and then set off to find the bakery Jeff had gotten his pizza from and was apparently just off the route. After devouring a couple of slices and getting a sandwich for the road, we began the return leg.
\We meandered through the outskirts of Brest and then began the long climb that essentially lasted all the way back to Sizun. About halfway there I spotted my friend CJ from Philadelphia. He told us that our friend Shawn had been in an accident and had to DNF but didn’t know the details. He also said that Preston and other friends he was riding with were just a bit further ahead and that we would probably see them soon. It was nice seeing a friend out on the road, but after a few minutes of catching up CJ dropped back to ride at his own pace and we pushed on.
Not that much later we saw Preston stopped at the side of the road talking with Shawn. With heavy traffic from both the riders and cars, it was an inopportune place for all us to stop so we had no choice but to keep going. We figured Preston wouldn’t be too far behind us when we got to Sizun so decided to wait on him there. Preston is from Olympia, WA but was good friends with the Philly crew and was mainly riding with them. While we were waiting for him, we also saw our other Philly friends Nick and Ryan. Once Preston arrived he filled us in on what had happened to Shawn. A rider had fallen right in front of him, causing him to crash. His ribs were hurt but the only way for him to get back to Paris was to at least ride into Brest and then take the train back.
After soaking in the atmosphere and hospitality a little bit more we all rolled out together. It sounded like Preston and the Philly crew had a bit of a tough start since they were in one of the later 90 hour waves and were essentially forced to ride through the first night without any sleep if they wanted to cover a substantial distance in the early part of the event. Nate, Ray and myself were feeling pretty fresh so we lead the way and did our best to give them a good pull to Carhaix-Plouguer, letting them rest a bit but still cover some ground quickly. The rolling terrain made for a swift pace as you could bomb down the descents and carry that momentum on the inclines. If I wasn’t so focused on keeping the pace steady and down right relishing in the solid rando-punk group we had assembled, I would have easily shed a tear or two as Nate and Preston were also on Gallus bikes. As a framebuilder and randonneur, there could be no greater sense of accomplishment as riding Paris Brest with other people also riding bikes that you made. I was also really proud of all of them for finding this weird sport and making it to PBP. When I did the ride in 2011, at the age of 29, I was the 3rd youngest person out of the 5000 riders. Other than Ray, the four of them were even younger than I was at my first foray in randonneuring.
Right before arriving at the control, I spotted a sign for the grocery store chain, Biocoop, and told Preston that I had read online that they had a big selection of vegan food. Without even saying a word, Preston peels out from the group and b-lines for the store. We made it to the control, got our cards stamped, making sure to avoid the long lines at the toilet and waited in the bike corral for Preston to come back from Biocoop. Clearly starving for some vegan eats, he was ecstatic when he finally appeared. With a huge smile on his face he exclaimed “Oh man, they had so much good stuff in there. I got sandwiches! I got vegan yogurt! Chocolate and fruit!” Preston needed some time to devour his treats and Ryan and Nick were in no rush to roll out so we bid them farewell.
Back on the road, Nate was apparently feeling pretty spritely and went on an absolute tear. From Carhaix-Plouguer to St. Nicolas-du-Pelem they lead the whole time. We attracted a large group of free loaders that were happy to hop onto a fast wheel. Even if someone wanted to take a turn at the front, Nate kept ratcheting it up that all we could do was try to hang on. When we arrived at St. Nicolas a few of the riders that had managed to hold on the whole time were so in awe of Nate’s pace that they requested taking selfies with them.
Night was beginning to fall as we left the control. This was the same segment that we had rode in the dark early that morning and was appearing to be just as difficult to navigate on the return leg. Maybe my senses were scrambled from the lack of sleep and being over 750km into the ride, but it seemed very different the second time around. The endless climbs and twists and turns were still there but we seemed to go through villages that I didn’t recall and everything just seemed harder. At one point we started a rather quick and technical descent on what seemed to be a paved tractor path. Narrow and bumpy, with quick turns that were hard to see, it was a bit nerve racking and I was very happy to see the town lights of Loudeac when we finally emerged out of the dark and foreboding country roads.
It was after midnight when we got to the control. 780km and over 40 hours into the ride, there wasn’t any question that Loudeac would once again be our overnight rest stop. We headed into the cafeteria for some dinner. Ray didn’t have to revive anyone this time and when it was time to get a place in the sleeping area we made sure to request a sleeping pad instead of a cot to avoid a possible cold draft disrupting our sleep. We all seemed to get a full three hours of proper sleep this time. Slightly more refreshed than we had been, we were on our bikes a little after 4:00 in the morning and hooked up with a group leaving the control. The sun rose, revealing another foggy morning. Between the fatigue and trying to focus on riding in a group, Nate and I hadn’t noticed for some time that Ray was no longer in the pack. Figuring he was taking a bathroom break, we sat up and drifted back from the group, riding at a slower pace so he could catch back up to us. Eventually we made it to the control in Quedillac, enjoyed a leisurely breakfast, and there was still no sign of Ray.
We were both concerned but also eager to keep pressing forward. We assured ourselves in the fact that Ray was both a very experienced rider and also aware of his own limits so he would either pull through on whatever difficulties he was having or be smart enough to stop. After two days of riding with Ray, with him essentially being the captain and guiding both Nate and myself through some difficult moments, it was hard to roll out not knowing what had happened but we didn’t have much choice. It was not until after we returned to Colorado and had a post PBP party with our club that we find out that Ray was feeling ill that morning and had to stop to sort himself out before continuing. He did recover and finished the ride within the time limit.
As we made our way to Tinteniac, the rigors of the road were really starting to take it’s toll. The morning fog had lifted and the temperature seemed a bit warmer than the previous days as the sun began to shine. This amplified the pain and fatigue that was setting in. While navigating the traffic in Fougeres, I dropped a chain and got separated from Nate. It proved difficult to deal with trying to get the chain back on the drivetrain. I eventually made it into the control, feeling almost nauseous and pretty beat. As I was setting my bike down outside the control, Irving, from San Francisco and part of the Boyz On the Hoods crew, approached me and handed me a stack of BOH stickers and a “Stoken” patch. It was just the kind of thing, at the right moment, to uplift me and save me from the downward spiral that I was about to fall victim to.
I found Nate after getting my brevet card stamped. Though Irving’s gesture had helped raise my spirits mentally, my body didn’t care too much about getting some stickers and this was very apparent upon leaving Fougeres. My knees were starting to hurt and I was once again feeling a bit sick from the heat and fatigue. Nate’s knees were starting to bother them again. Our pace was a bit of crawl as we climbed out of the town. A little bit down the road we saw a house with a few tables set up with food and beverages for the riders. This is customary along the route but we had yet to partake in the hospitality that the locals so graciously offer. Deciding that we need to experience this at least once during the ride we decided to stop. The home owner presented us with cakes and fruit and just about any beverage you could imagine. Nate is really into gardening and told the owner that they had really admired her garden. Nate was then whisked off for a tour of the grounds while I stood by the food devouring more cake. When they returned, the woman asked us for our rider badge numbers and said that she would look up our results and if we returned in 2023 would put a sign out with our names on it to welcome us back.
Before leaving, I spotted a bottle of Aspirin and asked if I could have some in hopes that it would help with the pain in my knees. She then offered up a tube of some type of muscle cream and said to try it. I lathered some on and Nate did the same. 5 minutes down the road, the pain had completely subsided. It felt like we had brand new legs. We decided that we needed to procure more of this magical ointment and in the next town promptly stopped at a pharmacy to find some. Not knowing what it was called, we explained as best we could to the young clerk what we were looking for. He replied “I know exactly what you are looking for,” and returned a couple minutes with a tube.
Courtesy of our pain free legs, we were able to hop in with a really fast, large group and hang on for quite some time. Eventually someone broke the group apart by pushing the pace a little too high. When we dropped back to ride at our own pace we were joined by Ian, an internet friend and Boyz on the Hoods member. We chatted about bikes as he was on one of the early versions of the Box Dog Bikes “Pelican”, one the first US-made production randonneur bikes. He slowed down a little bit before the control in Villanes-la-Juhel to wait on his friends. As we cruised in, it seemed like the whole town was out and it was a very festive atmosphere. An announcer called out the riders’ numbers on a loud speaker as they arrived and each time the crowd would cheer. A thousand kilometers and 60 hours into the ride, the outpouring of support was extremely heart warming.
With only 200km left and feeling relatively good, we covered the next 100km to Mortagne-au-Perche at a decent clip. The scene at the control was a far cry from the one we had experienced at the beginning of the ride. Every table in the cafeteria was full and it was quite boisterous. Luckily there wasn’t much of a line to get food and when looking for somewhere to sit we spotted some of our RMCC club mates and joined them. After eating we lingered outside, waiting to see if we would leave with our club mates. As it was deep into the ride, everyone was operating at a different capacity, so as much as we wanted to ride with them, after applying a little more of the muscle cream we headed out on our own. We were also making really good time, and it looked as if we kept going at this pace there was a solid chance that we could finish the ride in under 72 hours.
Nate is generally a much stronger rider than I am, and I think we were both surprised that we had rode nearly the whole time together. For most of the event Nate had done the lion’s share of the work and I simply did my best to hold on. On the way to Dreux Nate was starting to lose some pep. There was a little role reversal and I found myself leading us along. Energy tends to come in waves in a endeavor like this, and now nearing the end of the ride I happened to find an extra gear and was pushing things along at a nice speed. We even had a quite a few riders latch on. At one point I spotted my friend Jen from Arizona and stepped out of the group and slowed down so I could say hello to her. I thought the other riders would simply roll on ahead as I chatted with her but apparently they were very happy with how I was pulling them along so literally all of them slowed down and waited for us to finish our conversation before I resumed my duties at the front.
It was nearly 3 o’clock in the morning when we arrived in Dreux. As we walked towards the control, our club RBA, John Lee, was on his way back to his bike. Even this far into the ride and at such a late hour, he had his signature beaming smile spread across his face and wished us luck for the final stretch of the ride. To make a decent time in PBP, a rider must ride through the night with no sleep at least one of the three nights. As we had stopped the first two nights to sleep for a few hours, this was the night that we would have to press on, especially since we were only 45km from the finish. We did take a 15 minute power nap by simply putting our heads down on the dining hall table after finishing our meal. When our alarm went off and we raised our heads, we both shot each other a look of utter dismay about the prospect of having to get back on the bikes with no actual sleep. After glancing at the time, it was also apparent that the window of getting in under 72 hours was closing fast.
However disheartened we were from the lack of sleep and missing our “goal”, we were pleasantly surprised to see Jen waiting for us when went to get our bikes. She asked if she could ride with us for the final stretch and we gladly welcomed her. Though it is the shortest leg of the event, I remembered from my ride in 2011 that this last section was one of the most arduous and this time was proving no different. Beyond the sheer exhaustion that had set in a long time ago, the terrain embodied the rolling and twisting nature of the region. Done in the dark, all sense of direction is lost as the roads seems to double back on themselves, as if we were riding along a giant snake. As we approached the final kilometers outside Rambouillet, the road started to flatten and the sun rose. Nate was energized by the daylight and said to us “Hey, I am feeling pretty good. I’ll pull us in the rest of the way,” and upped the pace a bit. I was eager to simply savoir the final stretch. As much as I wanted to finish the ride with a good time, I also didn’t want it to be over. I wanted to take in every last drop of those roads, the experience, the time shared with so many of my friends. Once you crossed the finish line you couldn’t come back for a second helping, everything was left on the road. Nate and Jen noticed that I had fallen back, slowed down and obliged my desire for a casual cruise in.
We entered the grounds of the estate at a little after 6 in the morning, bouncing along the cobbled path leading up to the final control. At such an early hour, with only a few volunteers and handful riders lingering around, the scene was quite anticlimactic for finishing such a huge undertaking. In hindsight, the atmosphere was of little importance. It would take days, if not weeks, to process those 73 hours spent rambling across Brittany. Hell, over a year later, I am still thinking about it constantly. After getting our brevet cards stamped for the final time, we headed into the food tent to get our complimentary finishers’ meal and beer. All three of us had opted for the veggie option but it proved to be as lackluster as the low-spirited ambience. After a few spoonfuls we concluded that it was time to part ways. Nate was eager to get back to Paris to join his partner Amelia. Jen had a hotel room booked in Rambouillet and was hoping to find a cot in the dormitory. With the exhaustion from the ride and having ridden through the night we could not muster more words than a simple and subdued “That was great. See you guys soon.”
I was lucky enough to find a cot in the dorm, and as I was ready to collapse, had no problem falling asleep even amongst a cacophony of snoring and farts from the the 50 or so randonneurs also sharing the room. My body clock was all sorts out of whack and I only slept three or so hours, awakening around 10 in the morning, though I did feel pretty refreshed. I went in search for some coffee and breakfast to appease my ravenous stomach that was screaming for calories. I was in no rush to get back to Paris as I could not meet my friends that I was staying with till later in the afternoon. I decided to hang out and watch the riders come in. With each hour that passed, the crowd grew larger and more festive. It certainly made up for the paltry reception we had received the night before and I was glad that I had stuck around to experience this.
I ran into my friends Pat, Cecily and Shawn along with a friend they had met during the ride, Robbie from Scotland, who, it turns out, had chatted with me about framebuilding online a few months back. As we looked for other friends crossing the finish line, Cecily, Robbie and myself decided to indulge in some French cider while Pat and Shawn sipped on Perrier. First to roll in was the Boyz on the Hoodz SF crew. About 30 minutes later Preston, Nick, Ryan and CJ rolled in, all separated by a few minutes each. I was even more excited for them than I had been for myself as it was their first time completing PBP. I waited for them to return after getting their cards signed.
Everyone was so exhausted and out of it that other than exchanging a few words of congratulations there wasn’t much capacity for conversation. Having seen them cross the finish in good order, I figured it was time to make my way to the train station. Aboard, I did my best not to fall asleep, but the journey seemed to take forever. With the warm summer air enveloping the train car, the cider beginning to wear off and fatigue no longer masked by the jubilant finish line crowds, I had no choice but to close my eyes.