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9.5.4 Paris-Brest-Paris Part 4


This article is from the Misc Bicycles FAQs, by various authors.

9.5.4 Paris-Brest-Paris Part 4

My ride

403 Americans had entered Paris-Brest-Paris. I was one of 46 female
randonneurs to make the trip over from the US. We all had our reasons
for coming, but the word I heard most often was obsession. Many, like
myself had come to Paris before and had failed. This time we would
not. There were lots of newcomers and several veterans. Our time
goals varied, but the real goal was to FINISH. Some riders would treat
this as a race. Others set goals of a certain time, or for a certain
amount of sleep, etc. We talked about our strategies. We all had our
ideas about how to ride, how far to go the first day, when to stop,
what to eat, how much sleep to get.

We had all been working toward this goal for two years. In order to
attempt PBP on the American team, a rider had to complete a series of
brevets of 200, 300, 400, and 600 km two years in a row prior to the
event. A 1000 km event was strongly encouraged. The qualifiers were
held at various places throughout the country.

I had worked for 6 years. I first found out about PBP in 1986. I
qualified for and attempted thr ride in 87. I had 8 flat tires in the
first 80 miles. I was unprepared for the rain and the cold, and my
spirit was broken by the two hundred mile mark, so I abandoned. The
following year I completed Boston-Montreal-Boston, a ride run in the
same format, but that was not enough. I had to return to Paris and
complete this ride. I worried constantly in the weeks before the ride
about how I would handle a second defeat. I had told so many people.
Why had I done that. This probably contributed more to keeping me
on the bike and moving forward than anything else.

Many of the riders had met at qualifiers and other training rides, or
previous PBP's over the years. And we made lots of new friends on this
ride. Some we just know as the person who helped me on a particular
part of the course and others we will have as lifelong friends.

We talked a lot about equipment and our past experiences on qualifiers
or other rides. The discusiions centered around lights, tires,
clothing, repairs, gearing, difficulty of rides, and training. Of
course we all thought our own rides were the toughest. Hills and
headwinds, rain, cold, hot, cars, dogs, potholes are all an integral
part of any qualifier. A non-cyclist eavesdropping on a conversation
would have surely thought we were on the lunatic fringe.

"Why did you start doing this?" was also a common question. I've been
asked that many times by non-PBP people and they always gave me a
baffled look as I tried to explain the fun and challenge of succeeding
despite hardship. It was great to be with so many people who
understood. And were as obsessed with completing this ride as I was.

We arrived 6 days before the start of the ride. This gave us time to
put the bikes back together, go for a shakedown ride, and do some
sightseeing while adjusting to the time change. Some people continued
riding long hard rides right up to the start of the ride. I did about
30 miles a day, and then did a lot of sightseeing. Others were
paranoid about going out at all before the ride, and never left the

My husband, Dave and a friend from NC, Gray, would be driving a
support car for me and 4 other riders I had met and ridden with in the
qualifiers. We all seemed to have similar riding styles, so we felt
this would work well. Basically they would carry extra clothes, food,
tools, and spare parts for us. And offer the ever important moral
support. I got a kiss from Dave at each checkpoint, which I greatly
looked forward too and kept me moving.

The ride started in Paris at the Hotel de Ville (the city hall) at 2pm
on Monday. We were to go there, and get the first stamp on the route
card, and ride from there to the real official start/finish line in
Saint Quentin en Yvelines, about 50 Km away. (this ride was optional
- the stamp was not, so we had to at least attend the ceremony) There
were lots of announcements and official proclamations (in French with
some translated to English) and the riders headed out. I, like many
others, took the train back to the hotel. I had hoped to get some more
sleep before the start of the ride. The ride would REALLY start at 10
pm for me. (There are three start times - 8pm for racers, with only 80
hours allowed, 10pm with 90 hrs, and 5am with 84 hours allowed) There
were 3700 riders total, with 2000 riders starting at 10pm. But it was
hot (no air conditioning) so I had the windows open. LOts of people
were running around at the last minute getting ready and making noise.
Rooms were made and cleaned at the hotel in the afternoon, and despite
the sign, IN FRENCH, on the door that said DO NOT DISTURB, I awoke to
the noise of a key turning in the lock, and then an "OOPS". But I was
also quite excited and unable to really sleep myself.

After a light dinner and a cup of cafe to get me jump started, Dave,
Gray and I loaded up the rental car, and headed for the start. We
missed the 8pm start, which made getting in a little easier. Dave and
Gray were concerned about traffic and making it to the first control,
so they headed out, once I aws all set. I rolled into the stadium and
found Carl and Matt, who I would try to ride with. I checked in, and
on the way out someone called my name and gave me a glow in the dark
necklace to wear that night. I'm still not sure who this was. I
wandered around the stadium, took some pictures, waited in line for
the bathrooms and tried to contain my excitement. There were lots of
announcements being made over the load speakers, so trying to get a
little sleep was hopeless. One announcement was translated and that
was that the ride would start in three waves, about 20 minutes apart,
at the request of the police. Riders would be compensated for the
delay. Basically every rider was given an extra hour.

Looking aroung the crowd of 2000 I saw some familiar faces, and lots
of new ones. The helmeted riders tended to speak English. Mostly under
helmets were Americans, English, Australians, Norwegians, Danes, and
Suedes. A few of the French donned hairnets, and some even had
hardshell helmets, but mostly just hats. The bikes were different too.
The Americans had flashy new bikes with aero bars and fancy new fangled
gadgets. Many of the French bikes looked old and worn, but fast and
reliable. Looking around at those non-helmeted heads, I noticed a lot
of white hair. The average age of the rides was quite high. Many of these
rides have done this ride over and over again. These white haired men
were also the ones I would find myself riding with a lot, as they took
a special interest in trying to help American women!

I ended up being one of the last people to roll out of the stadium.
We actually started moving around 10:30pm. This worked well, because I
was able to warm up gradually. I took it fairly easy for the first 20
km and then took off. I was always left behind on the qualifiers
because I would not blow out of the patking lot, so it was nice to
have this time to warm up.

The route had been changed significantly from previous routes and the
manner of marking was different. In the past arrows were placed on the
roads and easily visible from a bike at night. This time the arrows
were off to the side on poles and sticks. This was not a problem until
late in the ride. For the first few hundred kilometers, there was an
endless string of taillights to follow. All traffic was stopped along
the route and crossing the route for the firt 100 km. After that the
field broke up more and blocking the roads wasn't necessary. The new
route went along more rural roads than in the past. This created a few
problems. First there are no 7-11 type stores, so riders depended on
bars and restaurants for drinks and food in the middle of the night.
The more rural route meant there were fewer of these and the fact that
the route was new meant that fewer still were open in the wee hours of
the morning. I also think there were fewer spectators and well
wishers than in previous years, because people living along the route
weren't really aware of the ride. Also the secondary roads had steeper
grades and rougher pavement than the more primary roads used in the
past. Many veterans said the course was much harder.

We talked up a storm all night, partly to stay awake, and partly
because of the excitement of meeting new people. I drafted off of
every tandem I could. I'd roll up behind and introduce myself, and ask
where they were from and the conversation went from there. I rode
behind a tandem I had met before in 1987. The stoker, Scott, is blind,
and yet I watched him put the bike completely back together when we
arrived in Paris. I then found a tandem from Chicago, and one from
Scotland and one from DC. I did a little pulling too, at least when no
tandems were around. There were 59 in the ride, so it was usually easy
to find one. There were also two triplets, which I only saw at the
start and finish and lots of tricycles, mostly from England. I rode
with and passed and was passed by riders I had met over the years. I
rode with Rose, who I had met on a double to the Cape, and John who I
met on Double Trouble, and Doug from Boston and John from NY, and John
from NC, and John from ... (hmmm, John seems to be a popular name for
long distance cyclists) It was really great seeing so many familiar
faces in such a large crowd.

The ride was really becoming fun. All my apprehension was starting to
fade into the past. The first 400Km flew by. The night was quite cool
and I used tights and arm warmers and adrenaline to stay warm. I
stopped for cafe also. This is basically an ounce of two of coffee,
but 20 times stronger. It worked well to wake me up, but didn't have
the bad side affect of making me search for a bathroom soon
afterwards. As the sun rose, so did the temperature and the humidity.
By late afternoon, it was high 80's, maybe low 90's.

My wardrobe changed considerably throughout the day. I started the
layers with a ladies one-peice shorts/top unit - that drew lots of
comments from the French men - although I haven't the foggiest idea
what they were saying. I then wore one of the 3 USA team jerseys I
had picked up before the ride, a pair of tights, arm warmers, and when
necessary a jacket and heavy gloves. I peeled and redressed as
necessary. I always had my rain jacket and tights with me. In 1987,
we had constant cold drizzle. In 91, we never saw a rain drop, but the
temperatures fluctuated from 40's in the early morning to 80's or
90's in the late afternoon. We also paid for the lack of rain with
two solid days of headwind!

A ride with 3500 men and 200 women makes bathrooms an interesting
thing. I certainly understand that we can't reserve the women's rooms
for women, but they could at least close the doors! The French don't
seem to have a lot of modesty when it comes to this. Most men simply
stopped on the side of the road and went. The French women didn't seem
to have a problem with walking into a men's room complete with urinals
to wait for a stall. But I'm a little shy!

However, being a woman on this ride had certain advantages. There were
certainly times, I felt I received preferential treatment because I
was female, and I never turned it down. This mainly involved getting
beds and blankets.

On the ride from Villaines La Juhel to Forgeres, I met a very nice man
from Norway, named Njelle. We talked a lot. His teammates were
somewhere behind him, due to a flat. He said was was thinking of
waiting for them when I rode by and decided I looked like nice
company. (BTW, he was also married) He encouraged me not to burn
myself out on the hills and we had a nice ride. We stopped when we
found a restaurant for another shot of cafe. His teammates caught us
there and we all rode into Fougeres together. They were wonderful. It
was so different from riding with American men. They really respected
me for being out there trying, but also wanted to help me out and take
care of me. They never let me pull, and they paced me up the hills, so
I would not burn out. And despite this, I did not feel like I was
being looked down on or treated as weak, but that I was respected and
admired for attempting this ride solo and they would do whatever to
help (because they knew, and so did I that I would be on my own a
great deal) At Fougeres we separated, because they were going to sit
down to eat and the sleep for an hour, and I wanted to continue on.
(Fougeres was 304 Km into the ride. I would not sleep until Loudeac at
445 Km) I made a brief visit to Red Cross to get my neck massaged a
little, and headed out.

I met up with Crista and Steve, a couple on a tandem that I had
drafted earlier in the ride, and we rode out together, along with Al,
one of my teammates. (5 of us shared a support crew - although we
rarely rode together) We had a great time riding into Tintineac
together. We were all still feeling quite good. At this checkpoint I
stopped into Red Cross for some work on my legs.

Each checkpoint was set up with the control, where a rider got his
route card stamped and his magnetic card read by a computer. Then
there were bathrooms, showers at some, beds, a cafeteria with hot
food, a mini bike shop with parts and a mechanic, and a red cross
center with volunteers to help with massgaes and first aid. I spent a
lot of time with the Red Cross and really appreciate the efforts they
made to keep people going. I made a small donation while there,
because I wasn't carrying much cash, but I'll be making another soon.
The volunteers all along the ride were wonderful, helpful, polite and

At Tintineac, a reporter and photographer approached me and asked me
where I was from. The reporter was looking for the youngest rider, an
18 year old female, and flattered me tremendously. But she was looking
for Jenny, who I had met earlier. I described this very blonde, very
bubbly young lady I had met at inspection and suggested that she might
be through soon. She was also looking for the oldest rider who was
rumored to be a 77 year old male. We think there was an error in the
date of birth though, because no one knew of an American rider that
old. I knew a 65 year old male, Richard, because I helped spark his
interest in this ride a few years earlier. I think Richard's family
would have prefered I had not! But two of his sons were also here

The reporter then asked me about the ride, and since I still felt
good, I said it was great! I was quite surprised how good I felt at
this point. They took my picture and promised to send a copy of the
article if they used it.

I think I jinxed myself because the next segment hurt. It had become
quite warm and we found ourselves with a headwind. Al and I stayed
together for a while. He would ride up ahead and stop for a catnap. I
suggested we stop for cafe. We met some riders from Toronto at the
restaurant. We began discussing the douches (showers) at Loudeac. The
idea of a shower pulled me into town just before dark. But when I
asked for a shower they said no showers for women. I was so hot and
probably a little dehydrated and all I wanted was a shower and I broke
down. They carted me off to Red Cross for a massage and water and
Vitamin C, while Dave went into town looking for a hotel room. After
finding nothing available, I went back and asked for a bed. The very
nice man at the bed counter led me off to a private room with a sink
and a bed. Most other beds were in cubicle like stalls. I then walked
down the hall and discovered ... a SHOWER! So I snuck in and had the
best shower of my life. I slept for about 5 hours and got up feeling
fresh. The other riders had come in later and were at the support car
getting ready, when I rolled out, headed for Carhaix, at 3am.

As I mentioned before, this route was a great deal more rural than in
the past, with less towns and less houses. There were very no people
along the route this night. I found myself falling asleep a few times,
with no other English speakers around to talk to. I finally found an
open restaurant and stopped for cafe. I was able to get cafe, but when
I asked for a Schweppes, the woman refused to wait on me. I was living
on Ultra Energy (UE) - a completely liquid diet, and cafe, and I
really needed to settle my stomach. I left feeling very depressed.
When I got into Carhaix, Dave had not arrived. By the time I had
downed a cup of cafe au lait (coffee with milk), Dave arrived. The
fifth rider was taking more time at checkpoints and was going to make
things close for us to see the crew when we got in. We would make
arrangements to skip a checkpoint here and there to try to accomodate
us all. (If I ever share a crew again, I will make sure all our riding
styles are similar!) I got fresh UE and dumped some of my spare
lights for the trip to Brest. Riders are required to keep at least
one set of lights on at all times, so I hade a small light mounted on
the front fork, but my other two headlights spent the daylight hours
in the car. Just before I left I stepped into a restaurant and asked
for schweppes and was again denied. I walked out in tears, not quite
knowing what the problem was. Several kms later I was able to get a
drink with no problem, and I had none after that.

The only times I really had doubts about my ability to finish this
ride were at times like these, when the language barrier caused me not
to be able to get something I needed, and I ended up drained
emotionally. This ride is 90% mental, and little things can really
break the spirit. Of course little things can really boost the spirit

The assault on Brest involved climbing The Roc, which would be
followed by 40Km of downhill, and the some nasty rollers into town.
This area was beautiful. We flew in. I saw many riders heading back
out of town. When I arrived, I found Al, and Carl and Matt - the other
two riders in the group, but no crew. I borrowed a UE from another
crew and then ran into friends who had started at 5am and had now
caught us (making up the 7 hours) We walked down to the cafeteria, and
talked a while. I saw Njelle there and he looked rough, but still
strong. I had seen his teammates just outside. As I was about to leave,
I found Dave and Gray. They had not expected us so quickly and were
having lunch. We headed out to the car, and I found the others and
prepared to head back into the wind and over the Roc.

This wind would be with us for the remainder of the ride. It never
died down. At night I think it became stronger, but it kept the rain
away. I started the slow ascent in an easy gear and felt myself grow
stronger as I climbed. I saw many riders still coming in to town.
Every little town has a enormous Church in the center, and the one
half way up the Roc was no exception. I stopped to take pictures of
this church and of one of the many French riders stopping for a beer
along the way. When I reached the top, I felt incredible. I knew I
could finish the ride. I pushed way too hard back into Carhaix and
Loudeac and paid for it with pain in my back the next day. I picked up
my spare lights and warm clothes in Carhaix, since it would get dark
and cool before I reached Loudeac. The final miles into Loudeac were
just after dusk and quite confusing. Our group had about 50 riders and
we checked for arrows constantly. We avoided getting lost narrowly,
and made it in.

Dave had asked about beds for all of us, and had been told there were
none, so he had the car ready for me. However when I asked, they found
me a bed. I stopped by Red Cross for some work on my back, and bedded
down for 4 hours. This was 772 Km into the ride. I think that I got a
bed because I was female, and despite my desire to keep things equal,
I wasn't about to turn down that bed!


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