Paris-Brest-Paris - the full report

Here's the full story on my experience at Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP). Or at least a fuller story. So much happens in 80+ hours of bicycling like mad, the full story would be unbearably long, like PBP itself, in a way.

In short, PBP is the oldest bike event in the world that is still run, dating from 1891. Run every four years, it is now a timed "event," technically not a race, but everyone gets a time, and there are people who care a great deal about the finishing times. The course is from Paris to Brest, mostly along secondary roads, then back to Paris. Total length is 1230 km. (764 miles.) The course must be completed in 90 hours. Sleeping is allowed, but the clock does not stop for any reason. PBP is considered by many the greatest true amateur bike event in the world, and a stern test of endurance, skill, and determination.

For our trip, we rented an apartment in Paris, a quiet place on an enclosed courtyard, a few minutes' walk from the Arc de Triomphe. I've often wondered what life was like behind the big doors these courtyards have to the street. In this case, life was pleasant and very quiet, a contrast to the vibrant urban scene a few feet away. (At right, the entrance to our courtyard, which has a street address, a bit like a soi in Thailand.)

This meant I took a train to the start. I rode my bike to the train station, down the Champs Élysées. It was great to ride down the street I think of as the finale for the Tour de France. I arrived at the start line about 5:00 PM, by chance ending up in a group of about a dozen Seattle people.

The start of PBP is in waves, beginning at 6:00 PM. We ended up starting at 8:00 PM, and the three hours from when I arrived to the start were actually the hardest, mostly because of the heat. It was about 95 degrees Fahrenheit, with no shade. Friends and family went and got us water, or else we would have used it up and started with no water. (At right: Team Seattle baking in the sun. L-R RBA Mark Thomas, Vincent Muoneke, Dan Jensen in dark hat looking down, Corey Thompson, Andy Speier in green hat.)

At about 7:30, we had our brevet cards processed and we went into the starting chute. There were several speeches. I was next to Narayan Krishnamoorthy, contemplating how long the speeches would last. At long last, the speeches stopped. And then we got a shorter version in English. In fact, the waves had to start 20 minutes apart. A nice jazz band might have been more entertaining, but speeches filled up the time, and the speakers were certainly enthusiastic. Of course, we were eager to be on the road and blow some of the stink off, so it seemed like forever.

Finally, at 8:00, we started. Many riders worry about crowding at the start, but it wasn't near as crowded as the start for STP, for example. I rather enjoyed the start. There were crowds all along, kids sticking their hands out for a side-five, people cheering. "This won't last," I told myself. I was wrong. Except for a few very lonely roads, mostly in the forest, we were cheered pretty much everywhere, day and night. (At right, my view of the starting line.)

They had the roads closed for us for a few kilometers, so as soon as things settled down a little, I started trying to get some work done. The weather report for Paris didn't look good for Monday, so I wanted to bank some miles in good weather. I ended up in a group with some Seattle guys I knew, including Steve DeGroot whom I rode the last day of the Tahuya Hills 600 with, and Ray McFall, whom I also met on that 600. I started pulling a paceline at about 30 km/h. That sounds fast, but conditions were good and I wasn't sure they'd last. Mitch Schoenfeld was right behind me, and pulled the paceline after I peeled off. Wind was light and in fact we had a bit of a tailwind. The weather had cooled to the point where I was comfortable in just shorts and a light jersey. (I didn't add a layer all night.) And no rain. Moderate rain doesn't slow you down much, but even light rain often comes with wind, which in this case would have been a headwind.

I had another reason to hurry: since I had been among the last starters, I had something like 4,000 riders ahead of me. I was worried about lines at controls, and lines for food. I still had my 90 hours to finish, but there is usually a big bolus of riders very close to the time limit the whole ride, and I didn't think I could stay behind them the whole time, so getting out in front of as many of them as possible early seemed like a reasonable risk to take. In retrospect, I'll never know whether it was a good risk to take.

Finally, I wanted to get to the control to change my bike shorts. Three hours sweating in the sun before we even started had left me wanting a fresh pair of bike shorts much sooner than I expected.

Steve had a minor mechanical and fell back without me noticing. (That's pretty normal. Even with a mirror, you spend much more time worrying about what's in front of you in a paceline than what's in back of you.) The paceline shattered when we came to some hills, so after a while it was just Ray and me. Usually there were a few riders around. We'd come up on groups from the previous wave and pass them. Once in a while a fast paceline would come up beind us, probably from the wave after us. Once or twice, we hopped on the back of one of these for a while.

We rode together for a long time, as the sun set on pretty little towns outside Paris, and then on through the night as the country became hillier. At some point, Ray and I got separated, and I rode on by myself.

I reached our first control of Villaines-la-Juhel at 5:00 AM, exactly 9 hours after I started, for an average pace of 24.5 km/h. Lines at the control were minimal. I got back on the road in about 30 minutes, even with a change of shorts.

This first night fit into a pattern. For the whole ride, I felt strongest during the nights, and weakest in the afternoons. I like riding at night, but this is not a pattern I've observed before. Residual jet lag? Side-effect of an evening start? I don't know.

I reached Fougeres, second control, at about 2:00 in the afternoon. I think it was there I saw Drew Buck for the first time. I'd heard of Drew before: for the last few PBPs, he's ridden an antique bicycle, in period costume. This time, he was on a 111 year-old French bicycle. It was a fixie, of course, with large wheels that made the gearing rather tall for the hills we were in. I'm sure it was rather heavy too. Drew was on a fine bicycle, but he was riding a rather different PBP than I was. I told Drew I'd seen his sister at the train station. She was worried about catching the start, since Drew started with the special bikes, 2.5 hours earlier than I did. (Right: Drew Buck's bike. That's my somewhat more modern ride in the background.)

We rolled into Loudeac to a crowd. I'm pretty sure the whole town was there. Shortly after we arrived, the first riders from the 80-hour start came through. The crowd let out a huge cheer. Pandemonium in the control while the race officials got the leaders in and out of the control as fast as possible. I saw Seattle rider Chris Ragsdale, but things were so chaotic that it wasn't clear what was going on and I didn't get a good look at him.

Loudeac was the earliest place I had considered stopping. When I was ready to go, I didn't feel sleepy, it wasn't dark yet, and the weather looked good, so I decided to press on. I had a nice rain jacket in a drop bag in Loudeac, but it didn't seem necessary. I decided to ride on to Saint Nicolas du Pelem, a non-control stop where I could eat and sleep if I wanted. I started out feeling indifferent, but the rolling hills soon put me in an aggressive mood. That, and a guy in a recumbent warning me to slow down because the country ahead was hilly. I'm sure he was just trying to be helpful, but I'm a Seattle boy: hills made me. See you in Saint Nicolas du Pelem if you get there before I leave. (I never saw him again.)

By now, I was seeing groups of 80-hour riders coming the other way, sometimes in large pacelines, sometimes in small groups. I reached Saint Nicolas du Pelem at dusk, hungry. I quickly ate my second dinner. There were beds available, but Carhaix was only 32 km away, and I wasn't really feeling sleepy, and it looked like a nice night.

Pretty much as soon as Saint Nicolas du Pelem was out of sight, a fierce electrical storm blew up. At first it looked like it would stay off to the south, but soon the lightning strikes were closer and I was spattered with rain. It looked like it could get ugly. Fortunately, the bats were out, and bats always lift my spirits, so I tried not to think about how wet I was probably going to be in a few minutes, and pressed on.

There are now many windmills in Western France, and they have red airplane warning lights at night. This stretch of road is memorable to me as lonely, with giant red-eyed cyclopes quite close, swinging their arms in the gloom, as bats flew silently all around. I passed a bike or two, but past Saint Nicolas du Pelem I remember only one person on that road, a man standing alone in the dark, who called out "7 km to Carhaix" in French. Merci. Merci boucoup, l'homme dans l'ombre.

I got to Carhaix just as it started really raining. In fact, I got very lucky. People even 10 minutes behind me had to pull off the road, sometimes with minimal cover, as a full-on thunderstorm soaked the road and anyone on it, while lightning struck frighteningly close.

In Carhaix, I was told there were now no beds in Brest. Not like I particularly wanted to tackle Roc'h Trevezel, the only part of the ride that really deserves the term "mountain pass," in the dark. Furthermore in a downpour with only my emergency rain vest. Furthermore with no sleep. Furthermore during an electrical storm on a road where people have more than occasionally been killed by lightning. But then, to get to Brest, and either have to ditch nap or turn right around and do it again?

Thus began my only experience with PBP organization that was not wholly positive and resembled the stereotype of French bureaucracy. The process of getting a bed in Carhaix, unlike at every other control, seemed to involve a long debate in French among a half dozen volunteers, consultation of both a computer and a paper spreadsheet, and many calculations and incantations on scraps of paper. I am not in the least exaggerating. There were maybe 8 people in line ahead of me, and it took me 40 minutes to reach the front of the line. At which point, there were no beds available. In fact, it transpired that there were dozens of beds available, but no blankets. Most of us had clothing adequate (if not ideal) for a a cold and wet night out of doors. A blanket was really almost a hindrance. Suddenly, the bed assignment process became as efficient as the Paris Metro at rush hour, and I was pleasantly unconscious on an air mattress, sans couverture.

When I woke up 4 hours later, I ran into Steve DeGroot. Steve had been a little behind me, and had been hammered by the storm. He came to a little town, where a cafe was open all night. He got something to eat and dried out a little. The people there offered him a bed in the back, so he slept for a few hours and started out the next morning, meeting up with me in Carhaix about 5 AM on Tuesday. We rode to Brest together. It started out dark and a little foggy. As we got to the peak of Roc'h Trevezel, it became really foggy, to the point where I wondered whether even my big light was enough. I expected the fog to thin once the sun came up, but if anything it got thicker.

We reached the pass in heavy fog. We saw several people asleep (or at least not moving), wrapped in space blankets near the pass. It looked like a miserable if not dangerous way to spend the night. As we descended, the fog thinned enough that we didn't have to ride the brakes the whole way down.

And that was the big Roc, but we still had 30 km yet to ride to get to Breast, and it was coastline, so hardly flat. And by now we had a headwind. Everybody I talked to said the stage into Brest was the hardest.

Brest is a gritty seaport. Refineries and oil and gas tankers seem to be important businesses. Much of the town comprises remarkably tedious buildings in doubtful repair. Still, there is a nice castle, and they're putting a streetcar through town. Plus, I always take a perverse pleasure in filthy industrial districts, so I didn't mind riding through one on the way in to the control.

I saw Drew Buck again at Brest. I think he must have done less sleeping than me. I had made up 2.5 hours on him in the first 400 km, but thereafter our times were similar. Plus, I was always catching up to him after sleeping. Sleep or no, he looked awfully chipper for a guy who had just finished a hilly stage in his single tall gear.

Steve and I ran into Steve Davis. The three of us decided to ride together back to Carhaix and see how it went. We had a pleasant conversation on many things, as I recall.

The ride back to Carhaix was less dire. The route was less steep that way. Also, our headwind was now a tailwind and at the pass it was really blowing. The people coming up the other way looked uniformly miserable. (Except one cheerful fellow, go figure.) Given the time, they were going to have to kick it up to make Brest before the control closed, and now they had to kick it up into the teeth of an awful lot of breeze they probably weren't expecting.

Well, we moved along well enough. From here to almost the end, we were on roads we'd already seen. We were on the way back, a cheerful thought.

Somehow, Steve Davis got ahead, while Steve DeGroot and I thought he was behind. We were worried about him, so we waited about 10 minutes at the bottom of a hill. When no approaching riders reported a crash or mechanical, we decided he must have slipped past us. Back in Carhaix, we saw him, and the mystery was solved.

We had a nice ride back through the hills from Carhaix to Loudeac, getting a look at the country in daylight. I expected the control at Loudeac to be quiet, since the fancy riders were long gone, but was surprised to see the whole town still at the control, still buzzing with excitement. I think I even saw familiar faces. Just like everywhere else, they cheered us wildly, despite us being just another bunch of guys on bikes.

I do not think I will ever get over the enthusiasm of the PBP crowds. Particularly as an American, when people in cars or on the street take any notice of you at all, it's almost always somewhere on the confusion-hostility spectrum. At PBP, cars trapped behind us honked as they passed, and the passengers waved through opened windows and yelled "Bon route!" to us. At PBP, I went from a lynchpin of social confict to a default cultural hero and defender of a grand tradition. Being relentlessly cheered and admired while you ride like mad for what seems like a month does odd things to one's worldview. I can see why people keep coming back to PBP.

By Loudeac, Steve and I had been riding 48 hours on no more than 4 hours of sleep. Naturally, we decided to press on. Tinteniac was 85 km away. That seemed a bit much, but there were beds in Quedillac only 60 km km away, which seemed manageable. We left Loudeac around dark.

Out of Loudeac, we rode with a guy from Japan. He didn't have much English, but seemed to be having a good ride. He eventually fell back on a hill.

It was about this time that my left leg started acting up. I'd noticed a little stiffness, but hadn't thought much of it. Little aches and pains come and go on rides like this. But on the way to Quedillac, it became clear that I was facing a more serious problem. I clearly had an inflamed tendon that was limiting the range of motion of my ankle. If it got much worse, then pedaling would become very complicated.

We made Quedillac, and agreed to stop for 4 hours. I took as much naproxen as I thought I could without it coming back up and keeping me awake. I fell asleep quickly to empty thoughts. The volunteer's touch woke me quickly, and I felt refreshed. My ankle, unfortunately, wasn't much different. More naproxen and we hit the road. At first I was awfully stiff, but felt much better as we got underway. Soon, we were in Tinteniac. I visited the medical tent there. They gave me ice, which probably did nothing, and told me that there was a real doctor in Fougeres, a mere 55 km down the road, who had access to anti-inflammatory cream. That lifted my spirits considerably. (Right: bike at Quedillac. Nice honeymooon. Drew Buck's bike was also here, as I recall.)

All I remember about the 3 hours to Fougeres was concluding that the odds were against me being able to finish. My ankle was generally swollen now, and if trends continued, my options became quite limited. I could pedal one-legged for perhaps 20 km. If it was the last 20 km and I had time, then that would be OK, but I had over 300 km (as long as STP, but much steeper) left to ride. That was too far for me to ride on one leg. If things got even a little worse, then it was over, 60 hours of reasonably good riding and four years of dreams notwithstanding.

At Fougeres, I could barely walk. I hobbled over to the medical tent. The volunteer EMT referred me to the doctor, who conferred with a more senior doctor. (The senior MD looked like 90% of French doctors I've ever met. They must take a class in how to dress and groom so to be immediately identifiable as a French MD.) The senior doctor manipulated my ankle, apparently to be sure it wasn't broken, and said something in French. The other doctor applied anti-inflammatory cream, then she said "well, good luck finishing." Great. Thanks. I'll see about that.

The anti-inflammatory cream seemed to help, so I felt a bit better from Fougeres to Villanes-la-Juhel. I went to the medical tent, but they did not have a doctor, and so could not prescribe anti-inflammatory cream. I fell asleep on the grass for 10 minutes waiting for Steve, then we got some food in a school gymnasium. The building was nothing fancy. Corrugated steel roof and walls. I imagine it is bitterly cold and drafty in winter. Villanes has a lovely castle, but not much money these days, I reckon. I looked at kid's art stuck on the walls, some of it quite good. I wondered what kind of life it was living in an ancient hilltop town in "deep France." Anyway, the crowd was crazy. Like everywhere, the whole town was there, watching us adjust our bikes in the control like fans at a formula one paddock. Nonstop commentary over a loudspeaker. It was literally unreal. (Right: "paddock" at Villanes. This picture doesn't really capture the scale and enthusiasm of the crowds.)

Not getting anti-inflammatory cream in Villanes did not improve my attitude, to say the least, but the country was familiar and pretty, and it was evening, so as usual my mood soon improved. As it got darker, I felt stronger. I'm probably lucky Steve advised not pushing the pace too much, as I surely felt stronger than I really was.

Villanes was the first control on the way out, but on the way back there were 3 more between Villanes and the finish: a secret control, Mortagne-au-Perche, and Dreux. We hit the secret control at 11 pm. Free beer! Tempting, but we passed. We got to Mortagne at about 11:30. A short, fierce climb up to the control. Probably not as steep as it seemed, a sign that we were weaker than we realized.

I went to the medical tent. Again, no doctor, so no anti-inflammatory cream. This is the point where people start getting Shermer's neck, and that seemed to be the stock-in-trade of this facility. I gather they go through a fair number of neck braces here. I ran into one guy with Shermer's neck, but that was not the extent of his problems, he was convinced that someone had sabotaged his bike, and very agitated. He had surrendered his brevet card, which means he had abandoned, and was trying to get his brevet card back so he could continue. I tried to convince him that Shermer's neck was a matter of physics, not of will, but it was like two feverish four-year-olds trying to have a conversation. You say some words, and get different words back. I suggested massage of the front of his neck (sternocleidomastoid and scalenes muscles). He asked what else he could do, and I mentioned that, when all else fails, some people prop up their head with a water bottle attached to their stem.

At Villanes, I concluded that if I was finishing PBP, I was committing to between a few weeks and a few months for my leg to really recover. I decided it was worth it, as long as the situation didn't deteriorate too much. By now, I was used to the idea that a hobble was the best walk I could manage, and I was one bad dismount from the bike away from a DNF. I posted the picture at right on Facebook, with the message, "Pain is temporary, quitting is permanent." I made the posting as a personal commitment to press on, despite the difficulties. Several conversations with doctors convinced me that I wasn't doing permanent damage. Pain was information, nothing more. I would continue until I was unable, simple as that.

At Mortagne, Steve convinced me that 2 hours off my feet would do me good, and he didn't mind some sleep either, as he hadn't had three hours in a row unconscious since the morning before we started. No point resting my leg awake, so I rented a cot, promptly fell asleep, and awoke quickly at around 2:00 AM Wednesday.

While I slept, my ankle had become quite stiff. I couldn't even hobble properly. I got something to eat, and ran into some friends of the guy with Shermer's neck. He had succeeded in retrieving his brevet card, and had gone back out on the course. The whole situation seemed foreboding at best. [Postscript: I got email from this guy indirectly after I got back to Seattle. He did go back on the course. His Shermer's Neck did recur after a few hours, but he propped his head up with a water bottle and was able to finish.]

Stopping had been a disaster, it seemed, since I was just getting worse as time went on. But the air was cold, which was good, since I like the cold.

But my ankle seemed unworkable. I prepared as best I could and got back on the bike, Steven and I headed down a long descent into the night. So far so good, but you don't pedal steep descents.

The one rule for me on this PBP is that everything goes better at night. So for whatever reason, I loved that descent. I loved the old stone walls and the trees. When it came time to pedal, I discovered things were much better than I had realized. I had stiffened up as I slept, but apparently healed some as well. As the night wore on, I felt stronger and stronger. We rode through what seemed like a very remote forest, and some old, quiet towns, finally too late at night after too many days for many people to be out. Except, two boys in the dead of night handing out sugar cubes. And a child who I think snuck downstairs to watch the riders from a window. When I waved, the child waved back wildly. By the last 30 km to Dreux, I felt a fire in the furnace. I got down in the drops, and started pulling pacelines at 25-30 km.

We ran across Drew Buck one last time. I asked how he was feeling, and he said "up against it." He asked how far to Dreux. When I told him 24 km, he didn't seem pleased. (Drew ended up digging deep and finishing with less than half an hour to spare.)

It started getting light as we approached Dreux, our fourth sunrise since we started. At this point, I was beginning to believe I was going to make it. With 10 hours of sleep total, I felt focused and alert. We had 8 hours left to do less than 4 hours of riding. My ankle wasn't getting better, but it didn't seem to be getting worse, either.

Dreux is an old Roman town, with some quite old bits, and some newer development that appears nicely done. It's a small town like those we went through to the West, but there is obviously more money here. The control was a sports center. At Dreux, we met up again with Steve Davis. Mark Thomas, our RBA, was there, as was Andy Speier (who didn't sleep a wink during the whole ride), Joe Platzner, and Corey Thompson, all Seattle boys. We decided to ride to the finish together. (Right: Dreux control.)

We started out on the road. I quickly pulled over to call Aki and tell her my estimated finish time. In my haste and confusion, I called my Paris landlady by mistake, but she seemed not at all distressed, and promised to call Aki and tell her.

The last 65 km is comparatively flat, through pretty forest and a few small towns. It was mid-morning. The sun was out. Conditions were beautiful. My ankle was flexible enough that I could stand on the pedals for the few hills, which were short and mostly in the shade. There were even a few fun downhills to carve through. We passed old (Roman?) roads with straight lines of trees, fields, and forests. And still, of course, groups of people on the side of the road, clapping and cheering like mad.

The suburbs right around St ­Quentin en­ Yvelines are not the prettiest, but there are some nice parks, and besides everything was wrapped in morning sunshine and soon to be done. We finished as a group in 87 hours, 31 minutes, almost 2.5 hours to spare. Not as fast as I'd expected, but a finish is a finish, and under the circumstances, I was very happy. (Right: finishing as a group with friends from Team Seattle. You can see my bike headlight.)

I'd wondered how I'd feel at the end, either overwhelmed with emotion or calm with exaustion? I ended up somewhere in-betweeen, pleased by the good fortune of finishing with friends.

Aki and Sven saw me finish. I didn't know for sure if they'd be there, and there was a big noisy crowd, so I didn't pick them out. But they found me in the control and helped me get everything sorted.

Then I got a glass of wine from the finishers tent. I missed the closing celebration, because it was logistically too much, given my ankle, so I missed the jersey trade and still have my Seattle one. Oh well, I didn't go to Paris to trade jerseys, I went to see if I had an ancien in me. Turns out I did. So there's that.


Netiva said...

Nice adventure Eric.
A few years back Joel and I crewed a 7-day AIDS vaccine ride in Europe from Amsterdam to Paris. Your story reminds me of those days. I wrote a bit about it too on my site at www.Netiva.net/AIDS.htm if you'd like to check it.
Cheers. Netiva

Anonymous said...

Impressive ride! Congratulations on achieving your goal and your sticktoitiveness.

Ryan D said...

Congrats on an epic ride. Glad Darcy forwarded the link. Well written account - felt like I was there peering over your shoulders as you rode it! Has the ankle recovered?


Erik Nilsson said...

The ankle seems to be mending. There is a lot of swelling, but no real damage. Thanks

Linda I said...

Enjoyed you taking us through your Paris-Brest-Paris ride. What an incredible experience. Congratulations on a ride of a lifetime, Erik! Well done.

chrisheg said...

Nice write up, Eric. It's funny how you can be so close on that ride and rarely see each other. We were leapfrogging each other after Loudeac on the return when your knee was giving you trouble. I was with Steve Davis minutes before you saw him at Dreux but convinced myself that he had already left so I headed out solo.

Erik Nilsson said...

Chris: Thanks. Yeah it's interesting close we were were the whole ride. I had a similar reaction after reading your writeup here

I also ran across Team Soft Like Kitten a few times, but I'm not exactly sure where. I passed them at some point, and they were hanging out at the finish when I got there.