Imagine a 780-mile Critical Mass with 35,000 feet of climbing lasting 2-4 days and nights and you've got some sense of what it's like to ride P-B-P.
Held every four years, it's the biggest deal on the crowded European cyclotouring calendar. It starts slowly, paced by a car and some motorcycles. Everyone sports their coolest cycling regalia. You see tricycles, tandem triples and quads, recumbents, single-speeds, high-wheelers... maybe a 1904 Pederson from Holland.
Many ride Audax style, as a club. Big groups ride in matching clothes, arms entwined as they pass around enormous chocolate bars.
In all, there are 3,500 riders starting in four waves. At 8 p.m. you have about 1,000 riders who plan to go as fast as they can and finish in less than 80 hours. At 9:45 you have the tandems, HPVs and recumbents. At 10 p.m. you have nearly 2,000 people who, for the most part, look at P.B.P. as a fast tour. They stop for picnics and naps, take pictures and finish in 90 hours or less. Finally, at 5 a.m., you have the 84-hour group, a band of 'tweeners who want to ride less at night.
Supporting all these riders are a series of "controles" where you can buy water and food, arrange for a timed nap, take a shower, work on your bike, check the whereabouts of your friends through MiniTel -- a whole range of distractions from the bike. Stopping is mandatory, if only to get your ID card swiped and road book stamped.
Nearly everyone in the fast group is also supported by friends, family or club members who drive a separate but nearby route. The support-car route intersects the course at each of the contoles, where access is allowed.
My goal was to ride the fast group without a car, yet finish well anyway.
The challenge is that controles are set up for large crowds, not for speed. You have to check in, run 100 yards to buy some water, and possibly go to a third location if you need food. Meanwhile, supported riders have handed bikes to crews to have the bottles changed, swiped their cards, and set out on the road again, musette bags over shoulders.
I had an enormous Camelback H.A.W.G. with nearly five pounds of water/CarboPlex and another couple pounds of clothing, GU and MetaRX bars. This meant I only needed to do business at every second or third control. That, coupled with some (for me) fortuitous navigational errors by the lead pack, let me stay up with the Dickson group for the first third of the course.
Scott Dickson had won the previous three editions of PBP -- this year, mixups over the course possibly involving a fake officials car took him out of the lead early on.
Riding with Dickson, a barrel-chested, corn-husker-voiced Iowan, was a big thrill for me, especially when he neutralized a break just before Loudeac. After watching six or seven French riders sneak off the front one by one, he made a series of sprints, riling everyone and exciting the pace. It was smarter than just chasing by himself.
Dickson, 48, just got his PhD in Geography, specializing in toxic cleanup of some kind. "I'll have to get a real job soon," he said.
When I bought water at Loudeac I finally lost the Dickson group, but there were enough stragglers that I had excellent company most of the time. Robert Grunzdle, a forestry laborer in Arkansas who built his own bike, was amazing in the Bretagne hills. "They're not as steep as the Ozarks," he said.
A number of French riders adopted me at various points. They would hardly let me take a pull. Maybe they were being protective of the foreign guest. Or maybe they were just arrogant, I couldn't tell. Truly, the French are great riders.
The biggest lift on the way back was getting passed by Bob Fourney in the Lightning HPV. Bob's affability and wisdom -- he won RAAM about three times, I think -- always rub off when he passes you. Drafting the Lightning is difficult, but it was hilly enough around Tintineac that I hung for an hour or so.
It rained at dusk the second night just long enough to put a full rainbow over the rising nearly full moon. Then the next morning a brief lightning storm rattled us on the way up some big hill.
Nearing Mortagne au Perche, a tail wind and 35 degree temperatures kept us baking up the steep climbs. Bless the people along the route with cold water and coffee. And whomever handed me that 1500ml bottle of citric soda at the controle.
I finally finished in just under 50 hours, with Robert Grundzle and three distinguished French riders with previous top-20 PBP finishes. We finished mid-40s. Dickson had finished 10th many hours earlier.
As PBP is 108 years old, I was especially proud of using a very traditional bike, a lugged Rivendell frame with full fenders, generator lights, reliable Top Touring tires, six-speed freewheel with downtube friction shifting, non-aero levers and Brooks saddle.
One tradition I broke was not having a support vehicle, and while I was proud to be the first unsupported finisher, I also worried about seeming the aggressive, ugly American at the controles, goading volunteers into hustling on my behalf. At least I spoke French.
PBP is a lot of work to prepare for and ride, but the memories that last are sure to be good. If you go, my advice is 1) Brush up on your French, 2) Go a week early and ride from Brest in to Paris on the course so you'll have a chance to appreciate the striking skies and landscapes of Bretagne and Normandy, the picturesque villages, medieval chateaux, the exceptional cuisine of French restaurants, and the modest comforts of inexpensive country inns, 3) Before and after the ride, stay right in Paris, not in the suburbs, and eat street food in the Latin Quarter when possible, and, finally, 4) Skip the support car, unless of course you have friends, family or club members who really want to go for a drive and participate in the experience!