Paris-Brest-Paris, a 765 mile randonnée
Reported by Martin and Ryan: Jay, Ryan and Martin flew to Paris to ride PBP, the world’s oldest still ongoing bike race, which is now a randonnée for amateurs. Martin finished in 57 hours 50 minutes (7th/451 Americans), and Jay and Ryan came in together in 68 hours, 12 minutes.
PBP was first held in 1891 as a pro race. It covers about 765 miles in a single stage. Sleep is optional. In the early 20th century, pros and amateurs raced together. With the advent of team cycling, short-stage races like the Tour de France took over: there were no opportunities for sprinters in PBP, and the workload was high for little income. So PBP morphed into today’s amateur event, held every four years. It’s simple: You start, check in at Contrôles where they stamp your brevet booklet with the time, and ride as fast as you can while stopping as little as possible. The Contrôles have Coke and Orangina as carb drinks, as well as jambon-beurres (ham & cheese on baguette) and pastry. There’s also a gym with cots where you can sleep for 4 Euros. The stages are (for short): St. Quentin – Villaines – Fougères – Tinteniac – Loudéac – Carhaix – Brest, with Dreux added just before Paris on the way back, and a rest-only break at St. Nicholas between Loudéac and Carhaix.
Well-prepared after Mike Fox's Iowa brevet qualifiers in April and May (see report on Brevet Week), we got to Paris a couple of days before the 31st PBP. Jay and Ryan stayed at the Cheval Rouge near Versailles, in a nice restaurant district. Martin was practical as usual, and picked the closest hotel to the finish so he could walk the bike home after the race. On Friday night we met at a little restaurant-bar that Jay and Ryan had found, and the French food was great. On Saturday, we met at registration and bike inspection, and put our bike numbers on the front and top tube. For the number (ca. 6000) of riders the PBP organizers hosted at the National Velodrome in St. Quentin-en-Yvelines, it was surprisingly not an all-day affair of continuous long lines. On race day, the weather prediction for Sunday-Wednesday was very favorable: sunny, 48 F at night to 75 F during the day, light winds. We had picked the earliest start, and were allotted start group D at 16:45 on Sunday, August 16.
Here follow the reports by Ryan & Jay, and Martin:
Ryan and Jay: At some point the start time was lost in translation, and Jay and I were late by 15 minutes for our start wave. The staff ushered us through to the front to catch the next wave. Martin was 15 minutes ahead of us with wave D.
Once started, it was a surreal ride through the Paris suburbs with thousands of cheering spectators. They lined all the roads and traffic circles for miles. I expected the enthusiasm of the crowd to peter out after the initial departure, but I was wrong. In fact throughout the entire ride to Brest and return to Paris, regardless of what time of day, there would be a cluster of French fans cheering you on, offering crepes, coffee, and water. As we started, we stayed near the front of our wave, because as anyone in a group ride knows, riding near the rear you suffer the “slinky phenomenon.” At approximately 15 miles in, someone lost a water bottle. One rider, against common sense, braked without alerting the group, causing a crash. Jay was unfortunately caught up in the crash and put into a ditch, where the bananas in his pocket succumbed to being bruised and squished. Better the bananas than Jay’s back. Jay was fortunately not injured and attributes this to his military parachutist training, performing countless Proper Landing Falls (PLF). The rest of the ride to the first control was fairly uneventful.
The first control at Villaines-la-Juhel is where we geared up for our first night of riding. At some point in the night it was obvious that Jay and I were riding different paces. We separated, not linking up until late afternoon the next day. The next control at Tinténiac was the shortest distance between controls and was welcome as fatigue started to set in and a good ol’ Coca-Cola recharge was needed. At the Loudéac control, on my way out I passed Jay as he was coming in to get stamped. On my way to the next control in Carhaix-Plouguer, the terrain changed from short, rolling climbs to longer and more arduous climbs. The terrain change combined with continuous fatigue and lack of sleep made the next 400 km to the coast and back the most difficult for me. About ~70 km to the coastal town of Brest, Martin and Jay caught up to me, and riding together made the journey to the halfway point more bearable. Late in the afternoon we arrived in Brest, fueled up, and began the return trip to Paris.
After being awake for more than 36 hours I decided that I needed to sleep. However, Martin and Jay convinced me [insert Martin’s famous peer-pressure] to push through and make it to Carhaix after sundown before laying down. We made it to Carhaix at 11:45pm. After a quick water bottle refill and another “only a few more miles” speech from Martin, we set off for Loudéac. Roughly 17 miles after leaving Carhaix we ran into a “secret” control. At this point I knew I wasn’t going to make the next control without some form of rest. Martin and Jay trudged on as I caught a couple hours of sleep. A cot with a light sleeping bag and already-used pillow felt like a five-star hotel. At this point, I’d like to say how fantastic the staff at these controls were. They were volunteering their time throughout all hours of the day and night to help weary cyclists. Awoken after my short and luxurious nap, I set off in the wee hours towards Loudéac, knowing that with every kilometer there would be less and less elevation changes. Checked and stamped at Loudéac, I needed some proper nutrition. Honey stingers and jambon-beurre sandwiches are only good for so many miles. Eggs and plain macaroni noodles with a cup of coffee were on the menu.
Leaving the cafeteria feeling rested and full, I noticed Jay’s bike was next to mine! At some point he peeled off from Martin around 3 AM in dire need of his own rest. I tracked him down in the control, and off we went towards Tinténiac and then Fougéres. Riding with your friend and teammate after an incessant 500 miles really helps the mental attitude. Riding throughout the day was great. We rode with someone from the “X” start group, who had left Paris 12 hours after us. That seemed to good to be true, and he realized he accidentally had ridden with us to Paris instead of Brest, since he was still outbound. The poor wretch turned around for an 830 mile total ride!
With time the hills were becoming less demanding and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. By 9 PM we were back in Villaines-la-Juhel, ready for more night riding. In this section, in the middle of the night, we came across a pub filled with Britons. Hearing English was an added relief when ordering a coffee and some snacks to make it through the rest of the night. Before reaching the next control in Mortagne-au-Perche, Jay and I decided that we needed to lay down briefly for some more sleep. I unpacked my space blanket to put on the ground and we used Jay’s blanket over the both of us. It reminded us both of our time in the army, sleeping on the ground before our next movement. A 20 minute nap turned into about an hour. We shook off the humid cold and continued on towards Dreux, the last control before Paris.
It was mid-morning when we reached Dreux. We had already accepted that we would probably be over 60 hours. Leaving Dreux, we hit our final wind knowing that we were so close to being finished and having that well earned, cold pint. The last 20 km felt like the end of a Wednesday Night Ride. We sprinted throughout the city and parks until we could see the top of the Vélodrome. We did it! We were finished! All in all, including riding through the controls, our total trip was over 770 miles. Our finishing time was 68 hours and 12 minutes. My sister and brother in law had made it just in time to watch us finish and help ferry us back to the hotel for a real shower.
First and foremost thank you to Martin and Jay for helping make this come to fruition. Thanks to all the countless volunteers. Thanks to my sister for helping me limp back to the hotel and help with medical supplies. Also, thank you to Kyle French for teaching me how to perform proper maintenance as well as Aaron Higley for giving me maintenance knowledge and helping to provide me with the appropriate tools necessary for this type of event.
Martin: I burned 29,000 kCal during this race, but long races are as much mental as physical. Based on my sustainable heart rate at two-man RAAM in 2013 and the elevation profile of PBP, I estimated I could finish in about 55 hours with favorable weather. My plan was to execute it like RAAM solo, for which I am signed up in 2016: Ride 300 miles, sleep a couple of hours in St. Nicholas; ride another 300 miles, sleep another couple of hours in Fougères; ride 165 miles to the Finish. See how I would feel after 2.5 days of RAAM. The plan was to eat jambon-beurres at Contrôles, and gel in-between. Drink would be one bottle of Coke and one bottle of Orangina, to mix it up a little. It’s good to have a food plan, to avoid wasting time while shopping.
In order to ride well at night, I strictly maintained my jetlag. That way I could ride through the night without getting tired (7 AM in Paris = midnight for me after a “day’s” hard riding). I slept until 2 PM Paris time the day of the race, got into my kit, and headed over to the start line at 16:00, where I watched group A take off. Then I got in line for my start corral, group D. I could not find Jay and Ryan, but it was a crowd of 300 at the start, and I was in the back because I did not want to wait in the corral for hours. Before I knew it, we were off at 16:45.
I passed racers from the back until I was riding with people doing my target speed, 20 mph. A group of about 20 soon formed, and we rode to the first food stop through hilly woods outside Paris. At Fougères, I rode out alone. I picked up a few people, and a few people caught us and stayed, and soon we had a big group again, working the hills at an average of 16 mph. This pattern would repeat during a quiet night ride, interspersed with chatting and occasional pulls at the front. It was convenient to speak French, German, Spanish and English, as that covered pretty much everyone in the peloton. Between Loudéac and Carhaix I put in my planned sleep break in St. Nicholas from 3-5 AM jetlag time (10-noon local time), knowing that Jay and Ryan would pass me there because Jay told me he’d ride until he could not go on. I got up refreshed, having slept well. On to Carhaix, I mostly climbed on my own, occasionally pulling little groups up hills until they disappeared in the back. Thus I found Jay working up a climb, and our team began to link up. I found out that Jay and Ryan started 15 minutes late because they had mixed up the start time. Jay picked up the pace after we met, and we zipped along until we passed Ryan. Now the trio was working together over the long climbs and descents between Carhaix and Brest. The Atlantic Ocean came into view! (see photo)
At Brest, I had a real meal of chicken and pasta as a mid-race treat, and off we were to Paris. We quietly alternated pulls on the steep hills out of Brest through the night. Eventually, Ryan got too tired to carry on safely, and went to sleep. Jay soon followed in St. Nicholas, around 02:00 local time. This was their first sleep. I was well-rested and it was day in my jet-lagged time zone, so I rode on. Now came the roughest part of the whole ride for me: the hills between St. Nicholas and Tinteniac were dark, ice-cold and foggy, with no sufficiently fast rider in sight to form a group. When the still-outbound riders were on the same road as I, blinding headlights made it hard to see the road. When they were not, I had to slow to a crawl at every intersection to avoid missing a directional arrow. It was slow progress, and I lost three hours from my ride plan between Carhaix and Tinteniac.
At Tinteniac, the tide turned in my favor. I met up with a really strong German rider: I was doing a fast pull at the front of a little group, and when I looked back only he was left on my wheel. From then on, the tables turned. Even on his wheel, I was far enough above aerobic threshold that I knew this could go on for 2-3 hours at most. Occasionally I would pull up on his side to chat, and then fall back again. Once in Fougéres in the late morning, I made the executive decision to cut my 2nd sleep period back because I was feeling great. It turned out to be a good decision. After letting go of my super-fast German friend, I rode alone. I saw an unconscious Australian cyclist who had collapsed on the road, attended by race personnel and passers-by. Soon thereafter a group passed me at the right speed, about 20 mph on the flats. In it were Jens from Norway (who had done RAAM!) and Annemiek from Holland (the women's race leader). This group worked together well, everyone taking turns pulling, and chatting to get to know one another. We even stopped for a cup of soup at some place Annemiek knew, not because we needed food, just to chat. We zipped through Villaines and Mortagne, to Dreux.
At Dreux, I let Jens and Annemiek go: The group was in a hurry to get her to the finish, and I really needed to stretch my back for several minutes. It was hurting ferociously despite an ibuprofen I bummed from Jens. I would say that PBP is as hard on the body as two-man RAAM, even though it’s half the distance: aerobars (forbidden at PBP) make a huge difference in back comfort, for me at least. I started the final stage alone, until three riders caught me. Then I picked up the pace and stayed with them. The big hills before Élancourt are really a sadistic addition to PBP: climb after climb up to 3500 ft after you’ve already ridden 750 miles!
The finish of such races is an anticlimax because one gets so tired: a beep on a timing mat, and a few clapping spectators waiting for friends at 2 AM. I turned in my stamped brevet booklet as proof that I had done the course. I found Jens and Annemiek, who were heading out. Then I rode a painful 500 meters to my hotel, showered, and fell asleep. I didn’t feel the elation until I watched the finish line the next afternoon, when the 70 hour finishers were coming in.
It’s an amazing race (or rather, timed ride). The French are real cycling enthusiasts, they treat the sport more like we treat basketball. I must have said “Merci” 1000 times to cheering spectators on the side of the road. I rode with old friends and made new friends. It’s less lonely than RAAM – but I think I’ll stick with aerobar-legal races for distances over 400 miles. I learned something new to me: What I used to think of as tired legs after a few 100 miles is purely psychological. With the fast group as motivator, I was able to ride as strong at the end as at the beginning, but not when I was alone. Anyone who can conjure this mental state alone has a big edge in endurance events. Now I know it is possible to do, I just have to figure out how.