30 August 2007

"Suck it up mate, ride it in"

And so begins the saga of Paris-Brest-Paris 2007...

  1. steady persistence in a course of action, a purpose, a state, etc., esp. in spite of difficulties, obstacles, or discouragement.

  2. continuance in a state of grace to the end, leading to eternal salvation.

Getting to France was a fairly easy experience, inexpensive plane tickets for Bob Brudvik and myself and a little hotel arranging and we were on our way. We arrived on 17 August, fairly rested after the long flight (where I met my friend Angelica and her husband Scott on their way to South Africa - big surprise!). We met my father at the CDG airport and he helped us schlep bike boxes and luggage from Terminal 1 to the RER B, then Metro 10 and to RER C into St. Quentin en Yvelines (under 10 euros for the trip).

Arriving at 11:30 a.m., we were ready to get on with the tasks before the ride, including rebuilding bikes and eating a copious amount of food. The first dinner was with the "doctors"; Ken, Vic and Tom at Pizza Pino, our usual hangout at the Campanile. The wait staff were all wearing Paris-Brest grey and black jerseys, so you get the idea that this event has some real impact on the local economy. First night's sleep was welcome.

Group ride to Montfort l'Amaury

Had breakfast with Bob, Ray, Peter and Mark, then headed out for a nice ride to Montfort l'Amaury, a beautiful little town on the route about 25 km west. We pillaged the boulangerie and strolled the wonderful church next door, then headed up to the ancient castle at the top of the town. (Cell towers up there were camouflaged as pine trees; why can't such ideas be used in the US?) We then headed back and I got a bit lost on the run in to the finish, but no worries. Met my Dad for lunch, a delicious bacon and pasta cream dish. Later, we found a room for my him and we were set. Later on we met Emily and Jake from Boston area (riding fixed) and we had some beers in the lobby. My Dad was also the proud owner of a white and lemon green fendered city bike we'd gotten at GoSport for him to cruise around on.

Dad's new cruiser

Sunday 19 August - Breakfast with Steve and Peggy Rex along with Mark, Bob and Peter was an amusing start to the day. A little rain caused the organizers to forgo the bike check, so we got our papers and brevet cards in the massive cavern of the Gymnase des Droits de l'Homme. I finally ran into Martin Newstead from the UK who I'd met on Raid Pyrenee 2003 and he was looking fit and ready. (I hadn't ridden more than 100 miles a week and typically much less for the preceding 8 weeks, so my fitness would come in the first two days of PBP I figured).

Martin signs in

Loads of bikes of every sort covered the track outside. Saw Gregg Bleakney who had the cool job of taking photos of all the US riders during the event and meeting Rob Hawks on his Dave Yates from CA. Lots of excitement in the air and I could hardly think straight with all the people and input! We took our SIR group photo, which took dozens of attempts, but we did it. The topic for many was weather, but I rather enjoyed the prospect of rain knowing that heat would be far more challenging for me.

Many group photos ensued outside the hotel and I was happily surprised by Steve from Australia, another droggie from the Raid. We scoot up for a few Pelforths with Michael Huber and my Dad and then head out for food. Pino was packed and Peggy's invite to dinner proved impossible to accomplish. We ended up at a little bar/cafe Steve had been to before and had a really wonderful, humorous evening! A perfect pre-ride night.

Monday 20 August - Couldn't sleep past 4 a.m., so I got up and watched the wind-lashed rain pounding down in the courtyard. This was not going to be the nice weather ride many wanted. I felt good and was more than prepared for nasty weather, so it was fine with me. Took a 3 hour nap and then started to get anxious for the first time when the start was about 4 hours away. Steve, my Dad and I ate dinner and then it was time to go. The start for the 80-hour riders was pretty dry, but by the time we entered the field around 9 p.m., rain was threatening and within 10 minutes of our leaving at 10:30 p.m. it was pouring. C'est la vie! I lost all the SIR folks I was with, but that's par for the course and I ride alone anyway, so I kept in with the Russian, Danish, Swedish and British riders. Met a CA rider named Dan (who I told we'd meet again) and we headed out into the long, wet night.

Looking back at the 10:30 p.m. starters

Tuesday 21 August - I felt great. Numerous languages created a cacophony of sound amid the hissing tires and brake squeals as the wave snaked its way from St. Quentin to the first unofficial control in Mortagne au Perche at 140 km.

Tuesday morning's wet streets

I had enough food stashed to get to Villanes la Juhel, so I only stopped to top off bottles and kept going. Enjoyed the company of Ralph and Carol on their tandem since Fresnay sur Sarthe where I had stopped for a "planair" pastry and a Coke. Carol had calculated all the hills, gradients and heights, so they knew what they needed for each leg. I just hung on for the downhills! Arrived in Villanes la Juhel before 9:30 a.m. and had skipped the main food lines for a petit dejeuner of soup and jambon sandwich in the bar. Rode out with Emily and Jake, but their fixed and my multiple gears soon separated us.

First control madness in Villanes la Juhel

Leaving Villanes la Juhel

Rode hard to Fougeres, thinking about getting a little rest there before continuing to Carhaix. The rain continued off and on and I was thoroughly soaked, but the wool SIR jerseys did their magic and I was comfortable. Very fortunate that the air temps were never cold, even at night and no booties were needed, my feet were wet but never chilled. They even dried out a bit in the wind when it wasn't raining! My "plan", loose as it was, was two-fold. One, finish the ride. Two, don't get hurt. To accomplish that I never pushed myself very hard so as not to blow up. The first 20 hours I could feel my left Achilles acting up, and that tempered any out of the saddle sprinting I might have entertained in the first day's excitement. After that period, I didn't have any problems with it. Quick stop in Fougeres.

Rain riders

On the way to Fougeres

Made it to Tinteniac in the day time and was feeling great still. The 84 hour riders were already showing up and I had the pleasure of seeing Amy, Lola and Robin at the tent where we shared some soup/mashed potatoes and a good chat. Joel Metz was there too and the rain had stopped. Robin and I rode together from there and flew for the next 40 km pulling a stack of riders toward Loudeac, but I had to beg off and return to my "safe" mode to save the body. Robin was looking fab and caught a fast train as it came by. The last hour or two into Loudeac I was feeling very sleepy, so I was happy when the control came.

Somewhere near Dinge I had the pleasure of running into Jan-Olov Jansson from the iBOB/Touring lists and we had a few nice kms of chatting about all things bike-related, including the Audux PBP he rode in 2006 with 6 other Swedes. A very nice experience and of all places to meet! We would see each other a few times during the ride. Below are a few of the cafes I stopped at along the way. This year, the goal was to enjoy the ride and that included many stops for treats...saw Owen a few times and it was nice to meet his friend Andy from Atlanta (who could be my twin according to Owen!)

"Ok, one pastry"

"I need a cafe au lait with that"

"Jambon et frommage, oui!"

Wednesday 22 August - In Loudeac I ran into Shane and Matt while eating my riz et poisson. They were looking a bit road weary, as did we all. They headed off for sleep and I laid down for a nap on the table. An hour or so later I woke up with every limb asleep!! I felt like a block of wood and it took a good fifteen minutes to get up. I must have looked pathetic, flailing my useless arms like some rag doll. Saw Peg and Steve and they were looking good. More rain through the night, but I still felt good though tired. The sleep had helped to get my brain focused and so it was just a matter of turning the pedals. The night was wet and a little windy.

Navigating roundabouts: very amusing

Carhaix-Plouguer was busy, but I made it through pretty quickly...things already getting a bit foggy memory-wise. Greg Bleakney was out taking photos on the moto and we had a good chat as he took shots through the night. It was very cool and must have been interesting for him to see all the different facets of riders and conditions in a short time. It's what makes a long ride like this fascinating, as during any hour of the night or day, riders go though all sorts of changes in attitude, health, and weather. What you see or feel at one point will be totally different the next. I hooked up with some folks for the run into Brest and a rider came by saying that Jason Wenstrom was just a bit behind me on one of the climbs. We finally met up and I met Tom from PBP 2003 again too! What a surprise. He was looking really fresh and asked about Bob who just then passed us on his way back from Brest on the downhill from Roc Trevezel! Coincidence?? Anyway, Jason, Tom and I did a steady pace up the climb and down the other side, anxious to get to the turnaround point.

Normandy countryside

I forgot about the 40 km of riding after the climb, so I used too much energy and had a vicious cramp in my right thigh. I have never had one of those before so I pulled over to drink and eat some Tums. A couple of grandparents and their grandkids had stopped for a picnic and we garbled our way through the language barrier. The grandpa just loved America! I gave them a pin from Port Townsend and took their photo:

Picnicking grandparents

Enter Brest on Wednesday

Made it to Brest about 2:30 p.m. - far later than the 9 a.m. from 2003. I ran into Damon Peacock (who I'd met in 2003) and he did some video of me coming into Brest and also some shots as I sent some of Steve Hameister's ashes into the sea from the bridge. Well Steve - you made it this far with me!

Control at Brest

Beautiful Sizun

Felt good and grabbed a quick drink before heading back out to get some real food back in Sizun, one of my favorite towns on the route. There I stopped and got some smoked ham, good cheese and fruit from the grocery. (This after ordering a few items that they could not heat for me, but I didn't understand until my savior Isabelle came by to ask if I needed help! She got me through it and I finally had some food). I met Isabelle and Jean-Philippe Battu on their Follier tandem and we had rode together and chatted for a long time. They knew Max from SIR from eight years ago and were absolutely delightful to ride with. Heck, I'd make a special trip over here just to do that! I hope to see them again soon.

Isabelle and Jean-Philippe Battu

Now the return...back to Carhaix-Plouguer and Loudeac. I was tired, but still felt quite good physically. A little more rain, of course, but that was par for the course. Nothing I had was dry anymore, so any attempt at getting dry was fruitless. Somewhere along the line I met up with Dan from the start again and had a pomme crepe, cafe and some pizza with him and his friends, which was an enjoyable break in the night.

Thursday 23 August - By the time I arrived in Loudeac at 2:00 a.m. all I wanted was food and sleep. The carnage was everywhere. Every possible warm and dry spot was taken by a wet body, and I had a difficult time even finding a place to park my bike. Finally stuck it behind the semi trailer near the bar. After getting my control cards signed and swiped, I made my way to the self-serve food and got a pear and soup to consume. I found a table near the door that idiots kept walking in through and leaving open. It was irritating and when Martin and Jim Churton showed up we had a serious conversation about certain riders lacking social skills. Exhaustion is no excuse for inconsiderate behavior!

Martin and Jim were off to a camp Jim's wife set-up about 20 km down the road for a rest and I would have stayed indoors except for the door issue. Too wet, cold and tired to try and find another spot inside, I grabbed my space bivy and headed for the far side of the building where only one other rider was. I pulled the rubber entry mat over to a darker spot out of the rain and crawled in. Already shivering, I hoped my food would soon add some heat. At least I had my wool cap and that helped as it was the only thing not totally drenched. Unbelievably, I slept for two hours. Woke up very cold, disoriented and still very wet. It took every once of energy to fold the blanket, gather my helmet and gloves and stumble awkwardly to the food line inside.


I ran into Joel and he looked beat. I stood shivering while waiting for some bangers and mash with an orange juice to wash it down. It took me a long time to get back to the bike and head out. At the time I thought this was my most difficult time on the ride, my brain was so slow. When I finally headed out all I thought of was making it to Fougeres and nothing else. It was a half hour before I began to warm up and could start to think again. The cold, wet sleep I had must have helped as I felt much better arriving in Fougeres; I don't remember Tinteniac at all!

The rain had ceased in the early afternoon and I pulled into Fougeres slightly drier than the day had begun. I met Martin and Jim again and we had dinner with Eric in the cafeteria. Omelet and frites, fruit cocktail with cafe au lait. Jim and his wife are the only foreigners to have ridden all the Diagonales de France; quite an accomplishment. The idea was intriguing to Eric, and a spirited discussion arose as to what it would take to be the first American to do so. Final consensus: know French. We all headed out to our bikes and I was about to leave when it dawned on me that I actually had one set of dry shorts and socks!! Yeah! I felt great and was ready to finish the 320 km back to St. Quentin.

Cow crossing halts progress!

The ride was going nicely, not as fast as last time, but I was physically in good shape and fairly rested. I ran into a BC rider and we motored along taking photos of each other before Le Louroux where we stopped at the famous La Tanneire crepe and cafe stop. Ran into Mike Norman and we chatted a bit. Then off again as evening approached.

La Tanneire crepe stand

And so it begins...near Gorron I started to feel a little queasy, which I just thought was normal for the length of time on the bike and all the food. In another few km I was really starting to go downhill and was overcome with waves of nausea. It was dark by now and the hills were getting more difficult as more effort meant feeling sicker. It started to rain. My body was telling me news I didn't want to hear and I couldn't even drink water without feeling like throwing up. In Loupfougeres I hurled violently while riding along a descent all over my right sleeve. I quickly pulled over and spent ten minutes dispensing every once of sustenance out on the side of the road. I overheard someone say in English, "oh, that doesn't look good", and by then I thought I was done with it. My head hurt, but I wanted to continue on, being so close to Villaines la Juhel. I needed to lie down and try and regroup.

Wrecked. That's all I felt. At the control I was shattered. From feeling so good to this in only 50 km. Dazed I found a place for my bike and stumbled into the control at 10:39 p.m. to get the card signed. I couldn't eat or drink and the smell of food in the facility made me feel worse. I propped myself in a corner and slept, but woke up stiff-necked and cold soon after. I went outside to be sick again and got my bivy. Back inside I found a place at a table and crawled inside the bivy, where I went to sleep immediately. Sometime later I woke up and quickly left to get some air; I didn't want to be sick inside. I knew I had to make it to Mortagne au Perche before the time cut, but once on the bike I went from moment to moment either getting sick or dry-heaving as I was already empty. Every sip of water came up with a vengence, so I stopped trying anymore. I was so very thirsty and could hardly talk to anyone.

Things get weird

The struggle for the next control became epic as I could only pedal with enough effort to move forward, but any more I'd feel terrible. I was glad only for the rain which seemed to wash me clean every hour. During this time I ran into Jake Kassen from Boston and we rode together a bit. I couldn't talk much and always felt like barfing. He was doing well and being with him took my mind off my stomach. At one point we were flying down through a small town and he mis-judged a corner and caught the curb near the cobbles. Down he went and a few of us stopped to see if he was injured. A few scrapes, but nothing major and very lucky not to hit the steel rails a few feet in. I stayed with him a while longer to make sure he was feeling OK, then had to go alone as I needed to use the downhills to recover some time.

Morning light came and I finally pulled into Mortagne au Perche at 6:26 a.m., nearly an hour after the close. Not only did I feel like shit, I'd also been knocked out of the ride officially. The control worker made the sign of getting my head lopped off, which I wouldn't have minded at the time actually. I decided to throw caution to the wind and ordered three Oranginas which I drank one after the other, not caring whether they came up again or not. Then I crawled into my bivy and slept for two hours straight.

When I awoke, control workers were tearing down everything and I wandered a bit aimlessly till I came upon Jeff Tilden who had broken a pedal a few kms out of the control. He was looking for a replacement or some way to make it in and I offered him my cleats and pedals, thinking I was done and would be taking a train anyway. We couldn't get his cleats off, so he called his brother Brad who would trade him his pedals and forgo his own ride to get Jeff to the finish. Bravo.

The control workers were very nice and I got the number for the Campanile to leave a message for my Dad with Jeff's cell phone. It was a cryptic message about looking for a train and not being on time. I found out later he got it from Peter and he and Bob hung out at the train station waiting for much of Friday. That was the part I felt worse about...my Dad waiting for me at the finish and me still 140 kms away. I felt I let him down and was still trying to imagine how this ride could have spiraled down so far. I stood with a few folks talking about trains when the defining moment of the day came.

An Aussie rider from the 84 hour group came up with a 90 hour friend he was nursing in and overheard our conversation. He looked me in the eye and just said "Suck it up mate, ride it in". And that was it. The perfect answer right there. Sure, I couldn't eat anything or drink much, but I sure as hell could still ride. Everything still worked. So, off I went.

The beauty never stops

The road to Dreux is rolling and the terrain becomes easy as you head back to the finish. I was emotional and went through bouts of feeling really bad about things, to anger at not making the time cut. Some tears, some pain, interspersed with nausea and a growing problem with the runs. Great: two exits, no waiting. The time plodded on as I went from fast paced time-trialing to stops in the woods, to moments of dry-heaving. It was like a nightmare that would never end, but the rain had pretty much ceased, so my clothes started to dry. Not all is lost.

I met up with a very tired looking Frenchman and we traded pulls into the control. They were pretty much closed up by then, about 3 p.m., but managed to sign cards. I ate an apple, a pear and a banana; my first food since Fougeres nearly 250 km ago. I could drink small sips of water every half hour and keep it down, so that at least helped. I ran into Mitchell, who was mad at the world and basically told him to keep moving. There was not much else to do. The end was in sight and I just wanted to be finished. A woman in Marsanceux clapped as I went by and gave me an apple.

Lonely Dreux control

Despite the troubles, I enjoyed the final kms, knowing that I had actually ridden in and did not quit. The final 25 km went quickly till a flat in the Rambouillet forest and another only 2km from the finish. I pulled in the Gymnase des Droits de l'Homme to some applause from the few folks left at 9:51 p.m. and was done. What a journey.

Sleepy riders litter the roads

Found Bob and Michael helping someone pack their bike, they were all clean and happy. We strolled back to the hotel, where I wanted to see my Dad and let him know I was OK. I finally found him in his room and he treated me to some bread, cheese and a glass of wine. It was my first sustenance in many hours and felt good, even if I knew it might not stay down. I showered and went to bed. It was nice to have my Dad there and I know he felt better too. It's hard to be a parent sometimes...

The final sweet towns

Thanks to the unknown Aussie for putting it all in perspective. I owe you one mate. And to my father: thanks for sharing some of this grand event with me, I Love You.

Was it a difficult ride? For me, only the food poisoning or whatever it was really made the ride challenging. The rest is all part and parcel of a 1200 km. They are long events and present issues you can never totally plan for. The temperatures were warm and I'd rather be wet than too hot. As my 2nd PBP finish, I was much more comfortable with everything and the 3rd should be another good time!

Follow the dog...

Lessons Learned: no more need for saddle balm; just good fitting shorts. Gloves are not always your friends. Riding within your means is just good sense. Write down rider numbers when meeting folks and be better about note-taking (though I improved on this ten-fold compared to 2003). Learn to speak more French!

Equipment: I rode unsupported with my modified Rivendell Canti-Romulus with 9sp DT shifters and front Berthoud bag and rear Jandd Mountain Wedge III. Everything worked perfectly. The Gran Bois 700x30 tires were awesome, only my stash of tubes were bad! I carried a small umbrella for the whole ride, but never used it....

A small quiet ceremony with me, Michael Huber and Bob Brudvik as we place Steve Hameister's ashes in the flower beds of Rond-Point de Saules at the PBP finish. He finished the ride and his spirit lives on.


cyclofiend said...

John -
Great writeup and excellent photos. Sorry to hear that it was such a trial, but a wonderful tale. Hang in there and best of luck!

-- Jim

Rob said...


It was a pleasure to have met you in person after having exchanged email over the years. I didn't fare as well as you in my quest to ride and finish PBP, but I had a blast and look forward to seeing you in France in four years, and better still perhaps we'll ride together before then.

I had heard many tales of riding PBP from all my friends, but riding it is the only way to really understand what it means. I am simply blown away by the respect and kindness of the locals along the route. The intensity of the start was amazing too, and I have to admit it was a bit overwhelming.

Until we meet again, bon route!

rob hawks
velo #3377

jeanpba said...

Dear Jon

We were very pleased to meet you in person in Sizun! Isabelle enjoyed to help you in the bakery because it was not possible to warm your meal. we rode together on the roof of PBP, Roc Trevezel during a moment where it didn't rain ! In the descent, you stayed behind the tandem, but we have large tyres and we reached (only) 60,7 kms in the descent ! After we stopped for a bush stop and arrived together in Carhaix.
You are very brave to have finish this PBP, even after the time limit. If I was the manager of PBP, I would homologate your ride !
We hope to meet you again in 2011.
Take care, cheers !

Jean-Philippe Battu (7014)