It's been four years since my fateful Paris-Brest-Paris 2011 ride. A ride that saw me finish in a respectable 86 hours and 6 minutes, except that I had signed up for the 84 hour start. Thus no finisher's medal and a listing that simply shows me as hors délai (outside the time). Though I'm sure no one else cared, this has bugged me greatly. I've probably thought about it every day since. As the statement above shows, I was determined to go back and do better...and by better I mean not necessarily faster, but being recognized as an on-time finisher. I also wanted a better experience. I wanted to be in the big group, talk to more people, see more of the crowds on the road, and sample more of the food made along the way. I didn't get much of that when I fell off the back of the 84 hour group.
So I got myself qualified, signed up for the 90 hour start, and made the trip back to France in August of 2015. This time, instead of going over separately due to work schedules, Brenda and I were on the same plane and we were joined by our kids Stephanie and Jackson. Since both kids are grown, this was a rare opportunity for our little family to be together again.
My start in Group M left at 18:45 (6:45 PM) on Sunday evening. Many groups had already left and more were gathered and getting ready to go. It was a festive atmosphere. The new start location at the National Velodrome in St. Quentin-en-Yvelines just outside of Paris added a little more big time to the event, but it was the cheering crowds as we rolled out that made it so special. I haven't been cheered like that since my high school basketball glory days almost 30 years ago. It was a goose bump producing moment. Its certainly something few amateur cyclists, even very accomplished ones, get to experience.
|Karel Stroethoff and me in the starting paddock|
A cool night gave way to a beautiful day on Monday and I was feeling very good. Sleep before the ride made all the difference. In 2011 I got about 4 hours of tossing and turning before the 5 AM start. In 2015 I took a big nap on Saturday after my bike check, and slept off my jet lag for 11.5 hours on Saturday night and Sunday morning. I woke up a little before noon and noodled around until it was time to head for the Velodrome on Sunday afternoon. So when I got to Loudeac at 18:45 on Monday, exactly 24 hours after I started I was still not sleepy. After replenishing from my drop bag and getting a minor drive train adjustment from the mechanic, I set off for St. Nicolas du Pelem which I had in mind as my sleep break with the idea of potentially getting all the way to Carhaix if I was still feeling good.
|The whole town of Loudeac was there to see us|
The plan to get to Carhaix went out the window when I hit the first hills out of Loudeac. I don't remember much about this stretch from 2011, maybe I subconsciously deleted it from memory, but it was tough. The hills got steeper and quite long in places. As we passed through a village I asked some road side fans if the road ever goes down. A man shouted back in perfect English that it does down in just a little ways. He was right...only it went right back up again. So it took me a long time to cover the 27 or so miles to Saint Nicholas du Pelem, it had gotten dark, and I was ready for a break. The control was quite busy, but they had cots available so I checked in and asked to be woken up in 3 hours.
I didn't sleep great, but I did sleep. In fact they woke me up 15 minutes late. That was okay I thought, I still had some time in the bank. As I sat down to the rather unappealing breakfast of pot roast that they were serving (I would have killed for some pancakes and bacon) I saw Sam Collins from Jackson, Wyoming wandering through. Sam rode his qualifying series with us here in Montana and he was staying with us in our Airbnb apartment in Versailles. It was nice to see a familiar and friendly, albeit tired looking, face. Sam had just woken from a shorter nap. He had started an hour later than me so he had even more time in the bank. We rode out of St. Nicholas together into a chilly, damp and foggy morning, but very happy to have those hills out of Loudeac already done.
|A not quite wide awake Sam Collins in St. Nicolas du Pelem|
Seeing cyclists in reflective gear in the predawn fog is a pretty trippy experience, especially when they are standing or laying down on the side of the road. They looked like skeletons in the mist.
Sam and I chatted away for a long time, scarcely noticing that we were attracting a bit of peloton behind us. That was okay, after all the wheel sucking I did yesterday it was my turn to do some pulling-as long as they were willing to go as slow as us. Some of the route signs to Brest started to turn up missing, but by this time we were constantly meeting 80 hour riders and fast 90 hour riders returning from Brest so when in doubt we just waited for someone to come along. I'm not sure, but I may have even saw Karel Stroethoff from Missoula go by. Karel and I started in the same group back at the Velodrome, but he was out of site right out of the gate and riding much faster than me, as his 76 hour finish time would attest.
|Sam Collins burning up the road on the way to Brest|
The climb over Roc Trevezel, the highest point on the route was easy and the descent was fun. Throughout this ride I climbed slow, but descended like a stone, so I was always getting passed and then passing the same people. The only person on the ride that I found that went downhill faster than me was Sam, so I just tucked in behind him and we flew. The descents of PBP were always great fun. Nothing too technical with a few round-a-bouts thrown in to swerve through. That was the payoff for all the climbing we had to do.
Crossing the bridge into Brest is quite a site. It was a beautiful day and the water below was a glorious blue. Lots of people posing for pictures, including me. Then to the control where we were cheered at the entrance by another big crowd. Halfway done. So far so good.
|On the bike/ped bridge entering Brest|
We must have hit the Brest control at the peak of the bulge-that period when the bulk of the 90 hour riders go through. It was busy. The line for the cafeteria wrapped around the building. Sam wanted to get a nap on the grass and I wanted to get going so we parted ways for the time being. I found a little bakery/deli type place with a bunch of bikes around it on the way out of town where I got to use my French to order some lunch. Then it was up some big hills, including Roc Trevezel again on the way to Carhaix with one quick stop in Sizun to get some cafe au lait and make a slight saddle tilt adjustment. Sizun really rolls out the red carpet for PBP and there were randonneurs everywhere enjoying their hospitality.
|Sizun. A very popular town on the route|
Carhaix was picked over like an old piece of road kill as it gets hit hard by riders coming and going-not a sandwich to be had in the place. No loss, a little bakery in the very next town had the best pain au chocolate I've ever had. I also got myself a sandwich and was good to go as the sun started setting. The plan was to get to Loudeac to access my drop bag, refresh and clean up and then press on to either Quedillac or Tinteniac for a sleep break. The only problem was, with all the hills in between, and me being a little too good to myself with bakery stops the time I had in the bank was evaporating. Sleepiness hadn't hit yet, but I was slowing way down.
I got to Loudeac at midnight and after filling my tray in the cafeteria I saw Sam walking through. He couldn't sleep in Brest, but now was in bad need of a nap. While eating I looked over the tables and was very surprised to see fellow Montana randonneur Ken Billingsley just sitting down. Ken left the Velodrome at 5 AM Monday morning, about 10 hours and 15 minutes after me. I was glad to see him and that he was doing so well, but it was a concern that he was able to catch me so soon. I felt like I was riding well, but I was slower than I thought I was. I'm afraid I was pretty cranky, but I'm sure Sam and Ken forgave me and they gave me lots of encouragement.
After cleaning up and changing my kit, I had a couple hours in the bank. A little nap on that bench won't hurt. It's chilly outside, there's lots of people around making noise, no need to set an alarm. With my drop bag as a pillow I laid down just to rest my eyes for 15 minutes or so. I woke up over an hour later. Oops. So much for a long sleep break in Tinteniac, I have less than a half hour in the bank. Time to get going. I was starting to worry.
On one of the first round-a-bouts out of Loudeac I came across Corey, Andy, and Mike (I hope I got his name right) of the Seattle Randonneurs. This was a great comfort. They left the same time I did so their finishing control closed the same time as me. They didn't seem too worried about running out of time-we just needed to keep moving. We had a nice ride on this part of the route which isn't quite so hilly and in short order we were in Quedillac for a bol of cafe au lait. At this point the ride is pretty much fueled on cafe au lait. I just wish the French understood the concept of large because their servings of cafe au lait were just way, way too small.
At daybreak on Wednesday morning we were almost to Tinteniac when sleepiness which I had avoided almost the entire ride, hit me like a two ton brick. I was starting to dream while on the bike in a pre-sleep state which is very dangerous. When I got to the control at Tinteniac I needed a nap, bad. I still didn't have much time and I didn't trust myself to wake up, so I paid 7 euros at the dormir for a bed and a wake up call in a half an hour. This turned out to be a pretty plush stop. They led me to a room all to myself and I was out like a light...and awoken in what seemed like an instant. I was really groggy and not 100% sure where I was. I had to remind myself that I was indeed in France and I needed to get back on my bike.
I found Sam again at the control. He was feeling much better after a rough day the day before and he was very encouraging. He introduced me to Bob from New Jersey and the three of us set off for Fougeres. The nap must have did me some good because I had the energy to grab the wheels of a fast group of French riders and held on. They eventually dropped me on a steep hill, but in my defense, they must have had support at the controls because they weren't carrying any extra gear with them like I was. I wasn't alone for long as I heard an American voice ask me about my Montana State Bobcats jersey. It was David Weber from Minnesota. He snowboarded at Big Sky near my home in Montana. We chatted away and rode hard. He was trying to make up some time as well. We got to Fougeres in no time.
I probably wasted too much time in Fougeres, but it was one of the few controls with decent rest rooms and that was an opportunity I couldn't pass up. On the way out I briefly met Eric Peterson from Illinois. We had ridden some of the Crater Lake 1000K together back in 2010 and kept in touch via Facebook. Then Sam and Bob came along and we stopped at a little bar/restaurant type place where I ordered a couple of crepes. 300K to go.
More sleepiness on the way to Villaines la Juhel. I took a 15 minute sleep break under a tree, using my phone alarm to wake me up. A little farther down the road I heard sirens and pulled over to let an ambulance go by. After a while I came across a horrible scene as paramedics were giving CPR to a rider along side of the road. I said a prayer for him as I passed, but later heard there was a rider who died of a heart attack. It was a sobering reminder of just how fragile our existence is.
Almost to Villaines la Juhel and Ken catches me again. We ride together into what in my opinion is the neatest control on the whole ride. Villaines la Juhel was clean, had plenty of bathrooms and port-a-johns, and a grocery store just outside the control selling sandwiches. I was in good shape again. I rode out of town with a new found determination. There was only 220K to go, a distance I can usually do in 9 or 10 hours. I thought I could be done with this thing by 8 AM tomorrow morning if I kept riding and didn't take any long breaks.
|A woman saw me trying to take a selfie leaving Villaines. She offered to take my picture with her fancy camera and email it to me. The people of France are just the best when it comes to this ride!|
The good energy lasted for about 30 miles. I raced to catch a big group and drafted along. I met Greg from Wisconsin who was just about the most chatty and friendly guy I had ever ridden with. He gave me some NoDoze since I forgot mine in the drop bag back in Loudeac. I also rode up on Eric Peterson again and we had a nice chat. But I was starting to really wear down and after a while just had to ride my own slow pace as the route started getting very hilly again. I was cussing the hills as I rode into Mortagne au Perche in bad need of a break, but with not too much time to get one.
I found Ken again inside the control. He was going to take a sleep break. I didn't have the time for a proper sleep, but did put my head on the table for 15 minutes. Then it was time to get up and get going again. The dream of finishing early was out the window. Now I just wanted to get done within the time limit.
The road out of Mortagne au Perch was the hardest of the trip. I wasn't thinking clearly and starting to dream on the bike again. I took a sleep on the side of the road and a little later on a sidewalk in a small town. A road side stand miraculously appeared where they were giving away coffee. I had two with lots of sugar. But I was still having trouble shaking sleep.
Then it started to rain. Just a light drizzle at first but then a pretty healthy down pour. The weather had been so perfect the whole ride, why did it have to rain now! I was mad and getting worried. My progress since Mortagne au Perch had been slow due to the cat naps and coffee breaks. In working out the math it looked like I could be in danger of being late into the final control (note to self, stop trying to do math when you're sleep deprived. You screw it up every time). I went into emergency time trial mode as the morning came and the rains fell. I cursed it at the time, but I think the rain was a huge benefit. I was wet, but I wasn't at all cold and I got to the penultimate control at Dreux wide awake. I had about an hour in the bank, but didn't think there was time to get any food at the control. Fortunately I remembered I had a serving of soy protein powder in my bag, so I put that in a water bottle and took off. It actually didn't taste terrible-in fact it was kinda good.
I really was worried. I thought back to the last 60 km stretch in 2011. There were some big hills that I had to walk up. So I shot out of Dreux as fast as I could. After a big climb out of town the route zigs and zags across some open countryside. It's pretty flat at first so I put the hammer down with two Germans on my wheel. After pulling for a long time I slowed down and the Germans took over. I grabbed their wheel and pedaled for all I was worth. We rolled up on the some familiar looking blue Seattle Randonneurs shirts. It was Andy, Corey, and Mike, again along with Jeff Loomis. And again they didn't seem at all worried. I calmed down considerably, looked at the time and the distance and realized I was fine. When the big climbs in the Forest of Rambouillet came I motored right up, no need for walking. We chatted along as the route seemed to wander in every direction. Finally we started getting in the outskirts of Paris and the the surroundings started to look familiar. A few stop lights and a few round-a-bouts and the big buildings in Montigny le Bretonneux came into view. We got on a path and the Velodrome appeared. A small crowd cheered as we followed the path to cross the chip reader. My family was running across the parking lot to greet me with a big hug.
|Big finish line hug from Brenda|
I did it. I was in time. I was finally an official finisher of Paris-Brest-Paris!
I couldn't believe how good I felt. I wasn't sore or sleepy. Just happy and relieved. I even had the energy to ride my bike back to Versailles after enjoying some of the festivities in the Velodrome and grabbing a quick shower.
|The Champagne was a nice touch. Thanks family!|
I am so thankful for all those who encouraged me along the way. I was so motivated not to let them down. Finishing PBP is a moment I won't ever forget. Sharing that moment with my family-we'll you really can't ask for better than that!
Congrats to my guys-the guys who rode our Montana qualifying series. Karel, Ken, Sam and myself all had successful PBP's. A 100% record to help the American cause!
|Ken Billingsley with his wife Heath at the finish. Ken got done in 80 hours for his 7th PBP.|
A few random thoughts:
- My time of 87:59 was almost two hours slower than my time in 2011. However, I'm sure my riding time was faster in 2015. I don't know for sure because the wrong push of a button on my bike computer destroyed that data. The difference can be explained in the extra waiting I had to do at the controls. In 2011 I was so far behind that there were no crowds and no waiting, in 2015 there was a line for most everything-especially the restrooms.
- A fast time wasn't a big concern for me. I stated before the ride that I would be completely satisfied if my finish time was 89 hours 59 minutes and 59 seconds. I wanted to enjoy the ride and everything about it. I definitely was successful in that.
- I got nervous toward the end, but I always had some time in the bank (meaning time before the control closed) to sit down eat something or stop at a bakery or coffee stand along the way. I probably should have tried to be more efficient earlier so I could have gotten one more multi-hour sleep break after Loudeac on the way back.
- I was always hungry. This is a very good sign. It means everything is working as it should. Whenever I've lost my appetite on these long rides my performance suffers and it can lead to a DNF. On PBP I'd eat a bunch of food and find myself starving 30 miles down the road. I always had an energy bar or gel to compensate for that.
- It took me 24 hours to get to Loudeac on the way out. It took me 8 hours longer to go from Loudeac to the finish. That is all thanks to fatigue...and the hills. Oh my gosh the hills!
- I've read many reports that PBP is not a difficult route. I'm guessing most of those who say this are light. I weighed-in right at 200 pounds at the start. I don't carry as much as some, but my bike is heavier than most and I am heavier than most-so this very hilly route that is PBP is very difficult for me. That being said, there are plenty of guys my size that do this ride very, very quickly-so being big can't be an excuse. I need to work on my speed.
- I'm not a fan of a liquid diet, but on that last stretch from Dreux to the finish I was fueled by a serving of Hammer Nutrition's Vanilla Soy Protein power. I threw it in my bag almost as an afterthought-just in case I ran low on calories. I must say it really hit the spot. That might be one way to speed things up next time, maybe using a liquid diet on a few segments of the route to eliminate the need to stand in line for real food. Just a thought. I didn't need to go any faster-I was fast enough. But as I said, more sleep would have been nice.
- I can't believe how good I felt on the entire ride-other than the sleepiness. I felt better on the whole of PBP than I did on the second half of my 400K and 600K qualifiers. Our mountainous 300K two weeks before the event, and the rest I got afterwards set me up well.
- The people of France-who put this ride on, and come out to cheer us on, feed us, encourage us, and make us feel so welcome-I just can't thank them enough. They are amazing. They make this ride so special.
- Sam Weber, a reporter for my hometown newspaper the Belgrade News, did a very nice article about my ride.
We even had signs! Thanks again family!