We’re so proud of all the PBP Cincy riders. Thank you for sharing Todd!
First run in 1891, the 1230-kilometer (760 mile) Paris-Brest-Paris, or “PBP” as it is commonly called, is a grueling test of human endurance and cycling ability. Organized every four years by the host Audax Club Parisien, Paris-Brest-Paris is the oldest bicycling event still run on a regular basis on the open road.
Beginning on the southern side of the French capital, it travels west 600 kilometers to the port city of Brest on the Atlantic Ocean and returns along the same route. Today’s randonneur cyclists have to face up to rough weather, endless hills, and pedaling around the clock. A 90-hour time limit ensures that only the hardiest randonneurs earn the prestigious PBP finisher’s medal and have their name entered into the event’s “Great Book” along with every other finisher going back to the very first PBP. To become a PBP ancien (or ancienne for the ladies) is to join a very elite group of cyclists who have successfully endured this mighty challenge. No longer a contest for professional racing cyclists (whose entry is now forbidden), PBP evolved into a timed randonnée or brevet for hard-riding amateurs during the middle part of the 20th century. The event is held in August every four years.
In order to qualify for “PBP”, the rider must complete 4 timed qualifying rides known as brevets in the months leading up to PBP. The distances are 200, 300, 400 and 600 kilometers. Overall time limits vary for each brevet according to the distance. These are non-stop, unsupported events where the clock doesn’t stop for any reason. You must finish within the time limit. I did my qualifying brevets in Kentucky. I enjoy riding in Kentucky, I like the brevet organizer and I like the riders. I have been riding brevets down there since 1998. It is just what I do. Before PBP I had logged over 10,000 miles on my bicycles. I had several very long training rides with the most notable being a ride back from the Winston-Salem, North Carolina area straight through about a month before PBP. I tended to duplicate the training that I had done before the previous PBP’s.
I had successfully completed PBP on my three previous attempts in 1999, 2003 and 2007 with times of 58 hours, 55 hours and 66 hours. My road to this PBP was filled with many obstacles. First, I had an elderly father whose health was deteriorating. I am the only relative in town to help him. The amount of time that I had to devote to him physically and emotionally was astronomical. Secondly, I have a son who is a lieutenant in the U.S. Army. It appeared that he may be deployed to a war zone while I was on PBP. If this were the case I would not be able to say goodbye to him if I did PBP. Some said I should do PBP anyway because I could see him when he got back. If he got back. Anyone who belittled me for my hesitation for committing to PBP while this was being decided certainly has no appreciation for the seriousness of the situation for our country and military. Ultimately his deployment was pushed back to well after PBP.
I had hoped to take my wife Kitty on this one as well. But when time came to commit everything with our son was still up in the air so we decided this wasn’t the time. It is just as well. Kitty can be a bad influence for my cycling. For me she is a major distraction and would take my mind off the business at hand which was riding my bicycle across France. Plus she would get in trouble with my credit cards on the Champs Elysees while I was out riding!
Paris-Brest-Paris has three starting groups. You pick the time within which you expect to finish. Your options are 80, 84 and 90 hours. I always choose the 80 hour group. It tends to be the fastest. You will see some high end racing bicycles in this group. It goes out as fast as any road race there is. Conversely, the 90 hour group has more of the touring type rider. But this is PBP and you may see a smattering of very odd cycling contraptions. As my PBP riding dental colleague Fred Heiselman says, “Some of those things look like they are from the Island of Misfit Toys.” One year a guy completed PBP on a push scooter — one legging it the whole way.
I did PBP this year on a Lynskey R230 titanium bicycle with Dura Ace components. My wheels were some Dura Ace wheels with scandium rims. I used 53/39 chainrings and a 12-25 cassette. I rode Continental Grand Prix 4000 S 23 mm tires. There was nothing exotic about my set up. In my saddle bag I went very light. I carried two tubes, a small hand pump, a patch kit, a tire boot, a chain quick link, a fiber wheel spoke and a light and medium rain jacket. That was it. My front lights were two Planet Bike LED headlights powered by two AA lithium batteries. My rear lights were some cheap Bontrager ones. In my pockets I carried a plastic bag with money and ibuprofen and four baggies of “Spiz” powdered nutrition. I hoped that the Spiz would lessen my need to stop and eat while on the first part of the ride.
I do Paris-Brest-Paris completely unsupported. I did not have a support crew in an RV. I did not have a team riding with me to pull me a long. I did not have a riding partner. I didn’t even have a drop bag where your belongings could be placed at points along the route. It was just me. The majority in the lead group had some type of support. Most dramatic were some of the Germans. They had teams who would wait along the route for their rider doing PBP. They would then help the rider by allowing him to draft them. They would do this for a while then another group would take over. I chuckled several times on the ride at their appearance. They were all dressed in the same attire with German precision. They were very regimented. At times I wondered if I would hear them singing Deutschland Uber Alles as they rode by.
For me PBP would start on Sunday August 21 at 4 pm. I arrived in Paris on the Thursday before. I don’t really want to recover from jet lag before the ride. I figure I would be awake for nearly 60 hours. Not knowing what sleep cycle I should be on would be good. On Saturday August 20 I had my bike inspection and packet pick up. For some reason there was an issue with my packet. When I presented my documents there was a great furor. I got dragged around this large gymnasium to various people speaking very excited French to each other. Ultimately I ended up back to where I started and they gave me my packet. I still do not know what it was all about. But the hour it took me to get my packet, while others got theirs immediately, was very stressful.
Oh, and August 20 was also my 28th wedding anniversary. I had a nice romantic dinner at a streetside cafe — with Fred Heiselman!
I did not sleep particularly well the night before PBP. I never do. I tried to nap the morning before as much as I could. The staging area for the ride was scheduled to open at 2:30 pm. You want to get there early so you get a spot near the front of the pack. I got there well before 2:30 and was very close to the back. The 1800 riders of this 80 hour group were marshaled onto an asphalt track around a soccer field. It was 90 degrees and sunny. We were standing shoulder to shoulder with no opportunity to get water. We only had the water in our bottles. It was intolerably hot. And that is where I stood for over two hours. This was a very poor set up by the organizers.
I had been feeling queasy all morning before the ride. I wondered if I had some intestinal bug going on. The heat didn’t help any. Our group departed at 4:40 pm. It was a full forty minutes after the first wave. Our group took off as fast as any race I have ever been in. And from the start I was having trouble keeping up. My stomach felt horrible. I was sick. By the thirty mile point I was strongly considering quitting. I was off the back of the peloton with several other stragglers. We were the wretched refuse of the lead pack. As we went through a small town we passed a cafe. I stopped and went in. They had bottles of iced tea. I drank a bottle. It settled my stomach some. Maybe I could finish. On these long rides you know that if sometimes you can just hang in there a little longer the suffering will go away. Sometimes you just need to suck it up and get tough.
At 89 miles there was a water stop checkpoint or “controle.” It was simply a place to get food and water. In the past I would have skipped this one but with the heat I needed water badly. And I needed food. I tried to eat a baguette. I took one bite. I promptly threw it up. Uh oh, that isn’t good. That was the last solid food I ate on PBP. I drank a can of Coke and got back on the bike. I was in trouble.
The first real controle was at 139 miles. You would get off your bike and go into a building where a sensor would record the transmitter on your ankle. You would also get your brevet card stamped. This brevet card was a booklet in a plastic pouch hanging around your neck. This was the way PBP used to be recorded but now the brevet card served as a backup to the transmitter. But you had to get your brevet card stamped. And you could not lose it. At this controle I ditched the rest of my Spiz energy powder and drank another can of Coke. It was making my stomach feel a little better but certainly wasn’t providing me enough calories. But I had intentionally gained a little weight before PBP as over this long of a ride you are going to burn your fat stores.
It was nighttime now and I was passing more riders. One thing that is exceptional about Paris-Brest-Paris is the French people. We would be riding through these little beautiful French towns in the middle of the night and there would be people out cheering us on as if it were the Tour de France. I never grew tired of that. It was just so cool. And they treated me very well. I never had a problem. At one controle the volunteer said something to me in French. I had no idea what he said so I shrugged my shoulders and said, “I don’t know. I am a stupid American.” He laughed and told me I was not a stupid American but a “Good American.” At one point I was passed by a car coming the other way with a girl hanging out the window yelling “fromage.” Cheese? It dawned on me what she meant when we came upon a photographer up the road.
But the French have some quirks as well. At one controle to buy my Coca-Cola I gave the money to one person who gave me a ticket. I then gave that ticket to a guy standing right next to the money taker and he gave me my Coke. And he threw the ticket away! What? And the French love to smoke. Wow, it is worse than in Kentucky.
As morning came I found myself riding with a thirty year old Russian rocket engineer. He was doing IT work as the Russians “weren’t building many rockets anymore.” We were going at a pretty good clip. Drinking a can of Coke or Sprite every 60 miles or so at a controle seemed to be working. I was feeling somewhat better and started mooing at cows or bahing at sheep. The Russian found this hilarious. Each time we would pass farm animals he wanted me to bah or moo. He would just laugh and laugh. I was happy to oblige him as it passed the time.
I must say the road quality was much worse than on previous PBP’s. No pot holes but most of the route had been chip and sealed with a chip about the size of a rough marble. It was definitely not smooth. And then you would have the cobblestones inside every town. Also out on the Brittany peninsula we started coming across these huge animal feed trucks just roaring down these narrow two lane roads. It was quite nerve racking as they passed you closely. I never did see any police on the route but I did see the PBP motorcycle escorts repeatedly.
Part of the PBP route was on the Tour de France route. We saw painted words of encouragement on the road. The only one I remember was “Cadel – Good Day Mate!”
I got into Brest after about 25 hours of riding. With the bad stomach I was very happy with this. The approach to Brest was awful as they routed us in through the industrial district and it was rush hour. I was happy to be done with that section. The weather had been ok on the ride out. There was a headwind from the northwest most of the day but that is what you usually encounter. We had had no rain — yet.
I left Brest with a rider from Vancouver, Canada who was a journalist and we added more to our group as we made it back to the controle at Carhaix. After Carhaix I ended up as the sole English speaker in a group of Italian riders. I was in for an interesting night.
In the distance I could see flashes of lightning as I left Carhaix in the dark. Soon heavy rain was on us but it was a warm rain. This section of the course is particularly hilly and these Italians could climb like crazy. And they were fearless, make that insane, on the descents. It was raining hard and they were descending in the dark at nearly 50 mph. I was the most cautious and was always the slowest down the hill. But then I would have to work like a dog to catch back up to them. After a few of these I threw caution to the wind. I would aim for where their red taillights would be and just let it fly. Forget the brakes. And I would pray that there was nothing on the descent between me and where their taillight was. I had become a crazy Italian. One lightning strike hit very close to us. It was a flash with an immediate bang. I said to one of them, “Hey, they’re shooting at us.” He started at me blankly. It amused me though.
Nearly four hours later we pulled into Loudeac. I hadn’t seen an American almost all day. As I was walking out of the controle at around 2 am I passed by a great rider from Cleveland — Tim Carroll. We started talking like we were running into each other in the middle of Ohio. Tim was still outbound to Brest and I was inbound to Paris. Tim ended up finishing with a fine time of 78 hours and 40 minutes. It was nice to run into him particularly in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere.
Tuesday turned out to have very pleasant weather with sun most of the day. My stomach was starting to not like all the soda pop but the thought of putting something else in it made me want to throw up. As the day wore on I started running into more of the German teams. There were an awful lot of riders not officially taking part in PBP who were helping riders who were.
I reached the final checkpoint at Dreux with some Italians. The one had “Shermer neck” where his neck muscles had given up and could not support his head. He had tied an inner tube to his head and over his back down to his saddle in order to pull his head back to keep it up. Somewhere along the way they stopped to adjust it and I went on alone.
I was getting very sleepy at this point. I had been up nearly 60 hours straight. It was getting dark. But it was only thirty miles or so to the end. I could make it. Somewhere in the darkness I got passed by some more Germans. They really startled me as I was probably sleep riding. But it woke me up enough to get in. I arrived at the end, the Gymnase des Droites de l’Homme, shortly after the Germans. It was just after 10 pm. My time was a little over 54 hours.
There was a commotion at the walkway to the gym. I was totally out of it and couldn’t make out what was going on. I said to a volunteer, “Check in?” and he told me “Electronique, electronique.” Nothing really registered in my head at this point. The Germans were turned away from the gym and went back out to the roundabout in front of the gym. For some reason, I went with them. And then they started riding back out on the course. And for some reason, I went with them. I had been awake for 60 hours. I was mentally gone.
I must have ridden with those Germans for seven miles or so before I wondered what the heck I was doing. I tried to remember what had just happened the best I could. I remember the volunteer saying “electronique.” I must’ve finished the ride and here I am putting on bonus miles. I was crazy. So, I made my way, somehow, back to my hotel.
The clerk at the hotel buys the first one back there a drink. I walked in and, as he has done for the previous three PBP’s, bought me a drink. It was a Coke. I downed it and went into my room and plopped on the bed. After while I got up and was looking in the mirror as I started to peel off my jersey. As I took it off I noticed my brevet card still hanging around my neck. I thought, that’s funny, they have always taken those in the past. Then it dawned on me. I wonder if I really checked in.
I ran to the phone and called Kitty. She answered and immediately said, ‘Honey, why haven’t you checked in at the finish?” I said, “Aw nuts, I will call you right back.” I put my stuff back on and rushed out of the hotel throwing my room key at the clerk as I left. I sprinted the five miles back to the finish. They allowed me to go down the walkway into the gym where my transmitter was recorded and my brevet card stamped and kept. 57 hours and 18 minutes. Whoops.
In hindsight with some sleep it is easy to see what happened. The Germans were turned away because they were not officially on the ride. I was just too out of it to know what was going on. I had been awake for 60 hours. I have talked to other riders who had hallucinations. Some said that they were riding to see the queen and things like that. Lack of sleep does funny things. But I made it through alive. One American rider did not. A rider from Virginia went head on into one of those huge feed trucks out on the Brittany peninsula. He was obliterated.
The other Cincinnati riders did well. Chris Scott, who works at Jim’s Bicycle Shop, turned in a time of 72 hours and 10 minutes. My buddy Fred Heiselman, who after PBP went into Paris and bought every bottle of wine, turned in a time of 73 hours and 30 minutes. Scott Ebbing, of the Cincinnati Cycle Club, bailed out on the outbound leg near Loudeac. Early reports show the DNF rate as over 20%.
Will I do it again? I have done four. Is there something else I need to prove? That two hour wait in the sun without water before the start is intolerable. The road surfaces are also very poor. And the organizers will need to address those large trucks out near Brest or else more riders will die. And for some reason the logistics of getting there with my bicycle was very difficult this time.
Physically I am great shape after this one. I have no saddle sores or numbness of the extremities. I am losing my big toe nails. That is it.
For me this PBP was particularly gratifying. I battled through some severe stomach issues and still had a very fast time. I would expect my time is in the top couple hundred of the nearly 5000 who participated. And this is without support of any kind. But I am glad it is over. PBP is a lot of hard work. I really don’t enjoy the actual riding of PBP. But I enjoy having ridden PBP.