Tim B at the start of PBP 2003Whenever there are 4,000 people all trying to do the same thing at the same time, there are inevitably lines. Such was the case at the Gymnasium des Droits du l'Homme, the starting point for PBP. You had to park your bike on a soccer field and walk into the gymnasium, where your magnetic card was swiped through the reader and your route book received its first stamp. This process was actually amazingly fast. We were actually in PBP officially as starters. From there we joined a typical French "line" for the start, which basically meant a huddled mass yearning to be free and ride their bikes into the night. There were about 3,000 people milling about on the field. We started in waves about 15 minutes apart; Tim (in the photo) and I left in the 10:45 PM wave.

There was a large crowd gathered around the inflatable arch over the street that marked the star/finish line. More crowds lined the streets as we rode out of St. Quentin-en-Yvelines, cheering on every rider. It was an amazing rush to see and to hear. Every corner was obvious from the people spread out along the road, so it was hard to get lost. The night was clear and warm, even just a little too warm in my wool jersey. The course twisted through the streets and groups formed, broke up and reformed. Tim got into a group ahead of mine, unbeknown to me, and I wasn't sure where he was.

Soon we were out of town into rural landscapes. At least I think we were, because all I could see was a pool of light in front of my bike and the taillights of the riders ahead of me. When the road went up, I could see hundreds and hundreds of red lights stretching into the distance. I eased into the rhythm of night riding, with it's compression of time and space. It was easy to ride with groups of people, guessing at their nationality from listening to conversations. I was alternately surrounded by Danes, Germans, Belgians, Australians, English, French and Americans. Each group had its own characteristics. I was disinclined to conversation myself, as I find riding at night to be a quiet and introspective experience.

We road through the Foret de Rambouillet, all but invisible in the night. The road rose and fell, twisted and turned, but there was little sense of any particular direction. It rarely felt like I was climbing; I'd shift down to a low gear and spin up hills past dozens of people, many of them out of the saddle a grunting their way along. I could mainly tell that we were climbing by the silence that fell on the others. I spun through the dark, feeling quite strong and fit. It was very encouraging. The night cooled off a bit, which was helpful. We alternated dark country riding with old towns with narrow winding streets, with names like Jouars, Nogent-le-Roi, Chateauneuf-en-Thymerais.

We had been warned to bring extra water as the 141 km/91 miles between St. Quentin and the controle ravitaillement at Mortagne au Perche would offer no opportunity to buy water. Accordingly I had an extra water bottle in my pocket in addition to the two on the bike. The initial warmth of the night had made me concerned about possibly running out before Mortagne. I needn't have worried, as suddenly there were French people by the side of the road with cases of bottled water. In one town, the local bike shop was open and handing out water and snacks. At crossroads, French people had driven out to cheer the riders along and point them down the correct turns. It was amazing! "Bon courage! Bonne route! Allez, allez!" filled the air as we rode by. Whole families were out at 3:00 in the morning to cheer on PBP. I had heard that this would be the case, but I had expected only a few people, not hundreds. It was incredibly energizing.

I got to Mortagne au Perche and the controle ravitaillement about 4:30 AM. I got in line to get some food and Tim spotted me. He'd been there maybe half an hour or so, was finished eating and getting ready to head out. We chatted for a bit and then Tim hit the road. I finished my meal and went outside to get my water bottles and refill them. I got on the bike and rolled down the hill out of Mortagne; with my damp clothing, it was very chilly and the downhill was unpleasantly long in that condition. It wasn't as bad as on the 400K brevet, but I did contemplate putting on my arm and knee warmers. Soon I was climbing again, however, and the coldness went away with the exertion. Dawn was approaching, with the sky behind me lightening ever so slightly. By La Hutte the sun was peeking over the horizon, lighting up western France to my eyes for the first time. In Averton I stopped at a patisserie and got a snack, then proceeded to the first controle, Villaines-la-Juhel.

Don M. at PBPThe road funneled into a narrow street with high stone walls on either side. You parked your bike and climbed up stairs to the controle, which was a simple one-room affair. Getting your card swiped and book stamped took but a second, and the volunteers were handing out key chains with the town's name and emblem on them. Leaving the controle without getting any food, the line being too long and slow and in any case having just eaten a fairly large meal only a few hours earlier, I went in search of water and to answer the call of nature. That accomplished, I walked back to my bike. The press of people in the street was amazing, with town dignitaries and citizens mingling with the riders under a huge green inflatable arch. There I ran into Don (that's him in the photo), who was just arriving. Heading out of the controle I was back into the French countryside but now able to see it. It was truly rolling country, with basically no flat road or terrain anywhere to be seen. There's nothing like this around where I live, the area having largely been scoured flat by glaciers in the last ice age. This part of France was more like the driftless area in northwestern Iowa and southern Wisconsin.

I caught up with a group of about 10 riders of differing nationalities, mostly French, and rode with them for an hour or two. Between Loupfougeres and Le Ribay, we passed the first set of official photographers on a small rise. They were actually an obstacle in the road and it was somewhat difficult to avoid running one of them over. The group wasn't very cohesive and eventually I left some behind while others rode away from me. I wasn't feeling quite as good in the sun as I had felt at night and I was starting to get a little concerned that my left knee pain was returning and my right Achilles pain as well. I stopped and rubbed some arnica massage oil into them and took another naprosyn. Rolling over the terrain, I noticed my rear wheel was getting progressively less true and starting to make odd little noises. I reached Fougeres (311 km/194 miles) about 2:00 PM, officially checking in at 2:10 (or 14h10, as it is written in my route book). There I found that there was a bike mechanic at the controle and I gave him my bike to see if he could get the wheel better. I walked from the controle to the restaurant, and while standing in line I met up with Tim, who was on his way out of the controle. He'd had about a nap, couldn't sleep very well, and elected to push on.

After eating, I walked back over to the controle. My bike was leaning against the back wall of the work area. I picked up the back end and spun the wheel. The wheel was now no longer hitting the brake blocks. Before I could check the spoke tension, a different mechanic spotted me and took a look. In a jiffy he had the wheel out of the bike, and my French was bad enough that I couldn't tell him that the other mechanic had already worked on it. He indicated 5 minutes, so I walked around for a bit. It took him 30 minutes. I finally got my bike back and rode out of the controle; I hadn't gotten 500 meters before I found that my wheel was at the edge of total collapse with a large number of spokes totally slack! I turned around and went back to the controle. Yet another mechanic sized up the wheel and had another go at it, taking drastic action with a rubber mallet at one point. Yikes! However, they got the wheel true enough to go through the brakes and the spoke tension seemed acceptable. The clock was ticking, I'd lost over 2 hours at Fougeres and I was getting desperate to get back on the road. Chalk up another one to the legacy left to me by Northwest Airline's baggage manglers.

From Fougeres it was a short hop of 55 km/34 miles to the next controle at Tinteniac-Random photo from PBP which should have taken just over 2 hours and had me there at about 4:30, instead of 6:54 which was my official check-in time. I can barely remember the controle, other than that it was small, efficient, and had a train schedule on the wall and a list of the numbers of people who had abandoned there. I grabbed a bite to eat and got back on the road, heading- as the saying goes- into the sunset. As the sun went down, my knee and Achilles pain seemed to go away. I felt more alert and stronger and enjoyed riding through the dusk. Somewhere around Medreac, the road looped to the left around a field. In the middle of the field stood a giant buffalo, 40 feet tall if it was an inch, silhouetted against the evening sky. I was astonished and had to blink and shake my head. I realized it was just a tree, albeit suggestively shaped. For a moment I contemplated the creativity of some French farmer who had decided to create a giant topiary buffalo in his field. After a couple of minutes, the total absurdity of the idea dawned on me and I burst out laughing at myself. I had something from one of my water bottles and ate part of the jambon et beurre sandwich I had in my pocket, just in case dehydration and/or hunger were the culprits.

By this point the riders were very much spread out and I was anxious about going off-course. It seemed like kilometers went by without any course markings even at intersections, and I adopted a policy of "if in doubt, go straight." It seemed to work. I began to catch people again and continued to feel stronger and stronger. Around Meneac a couple of families were making coffee for the riders. I stopped out of curiosity but didn't stay long as I don't drink coffee. A couple of Americans from California, Michael and Susan, caught me and I jumped on their wheels. We set a rollicking pace into Loudeac, which appeared to be approached from the most roundabout way possible. It started to get rather frustrating, in fact, as we would see the lights of the town to our left, then our right, then almost behind us, etc. However, thanks to the pace setting of Michael and Susan, we pulled in to the controle at Loudeac just before midnight. I had covered the 86 km from Tinteniac to Loudeac in about 3 hours, averaging about 28 km/h (about 18 mph), and I was very pleased about that and my confidence was much improved. I felt great and thought I would be able to finish, if things kept on like they had between Tinteniac and Loudeac.

I parked my bike and wandered around looking for the check-in point, standing in line and finally getting my card stamped at 12:10 (0h10 in French time). The controle was chaotic, with at least a thousand bikes and riders, and with services located in different buildings around the parking lot. I found where to get my route book stamped and accomplished that, then went in search of my drop bag. That was actually easy. As I stood looking for the showers, trying to see where the dortoir was, etc., Tim came up. He'd been there about 3 hours and was getting ready to leave to ride to Carhaix-Plouguer. Again he had found sleep somewhat elusive.

I went to take a shower only to find that the towels promised by the organizers were not available, and that there was no hot water. All this for only 2 Euros. I took a shower anyway, drying myself off with my wool undershirt. Changed into fresh clothes, I felt much better. From there I went to the dortoir to see about getting some sleep, only to find the practical problem of having thousands of people looking for somewhere to sleep but having only 300 beds to put them in. People were being turned away, and one American was literally stamping his feet in anger about the situation. I decided to try calmly waiting, and after about 20 minutes I was shown to a bed. Scheduling a 4:30 wakeup, I went to bed at 1:30 and was asleep in minutes. I was mistakenly awakened by volunteers twice, but was gently shaken into consciousness at 4:30 sharp. I felt rested and refreshed, much to my amazement. I finished dressing and went out to find breakfast. At 5:45 I was back on the road.

Contrary to yesterday, the night warmed up near dawn and I was soon finding I was overdressed on the hills leading out of Loudeac. I stopped to peel off a layer, and then resumed riding. The sky was getting light to my right, and eventually I figured out that we were going to Brest by first riding to the northeast out of Loudeac! It turned out that the organizers wanted to make sure we didn't miss any of the hills between Loudeac and Carhaix. I settled in with a small group that included a pair of older French men (older than me, anyhow) on a tandem. They were a superb team to watch, climbing smoothly and almost as fast as the single bikes. I was happy to note that I was again climbing well and that the pain in my left knee and right Achilles was still absent. We rolled up and down the large hills through Treve, St.-Martin-de-Pres, etc. As the sun came up, I saw that the architecture and layout of the farms was different than I had seen further east. This was Hinault country!

After about 55 km, I began to notice a different knee pain, this time on the outside of both knees. Each pedal stroke became painful, with pains shooting down my shins. I geared down and it didn't help. I stood up to climb and it didn't help. I took naprosyn and it didn't help. I rubbed in some arnica massage oil and it didn't help. I took more naprosyn. I got off the bike and stretched and tried resting for a while. That didn't help. With every kilometer the pain got worse. I was riding up the hills at 4 mph, wincing with pain. The roads were lovely but I really didn't see them. Riders passed me as they hurried to Carhaix to make sure they made the cutoff time of 10:55 AM. I tried to calculate how much time I had and whether I'd be able to make it. I crawled through Saint Lubin and Mael-Carhaix, and crept into Carhaix with an hour to spare, checking in at 9:59 AM. It had taken me three and a quarter hours to rude the 77 km from Loudeac to Carhaix, between the hills and the pain- an average of 23 km/h (15 mph). My confidence, so high at Loudeac, had taken a big hit.

I went to the Croix Rouge to see if there was anything they could do. A therapist massaged my legs with an anti-inflammatory creme. I went to get something to eat and to give the creme some time to work. Walking was painful and climbing stairs was worse. After breakfast, I waited around some more and took another naprosyn. I ran into Martin Fahje, on his way back from Brest, and asked his advice. He suggested carrying on and also suggested getting more of the creme. I went back to the Croix Rouge to find out the name so I could go to a pharmacy, and discovered I could buy a tube right there. E5.20 later I had a tube of my own in my pocket and I was on my way to Brest.

From the controle, it was downhill out of Carhaix for quite a ways. Carhaix was a bustling town and looked quite prosperous. Out of town the road quickly became pastoral again, and I began to climb. Slowly and painfully I rode up to Poullaquen, 11 km from Carhaix. At the top of the hill I was barely able to go fast enough to remain upright and I was angry. I had plenty of energy, plenty of fitness, I felt rested and had everything I needed to complete PBP. Except pain-free knees. By this time it was like someone was clawing my legs with every pedal stroke. I sat down at the town sign to put on more creme and rest a bit, hoping that would help. I took yet another naprosyn, making a total of 950 mg in 6 hours- above the recommended dose on the bottle and rather above the maximum dose in the PDR, at the rate I was going. An elderly man came over to me and, finding I didn't speak French, signed his concern that I was tired and that I could have a nap at his house. He seemed so kind and I did my best to say "mal des genous" and point at my knees, which wasn't going to be fixed by a nap.

I knew I wasn't going to finish. I knew I wasn't going to even make it to Brest before the controle closed. I got back on my bike and rode across Poullaquen to look at the terrain; if it looked easier than what I'd already been over, I figured I'd go to the halfway point if I accomplished nothing else. From what I could see, the road was no better ahead (in fact, I later found out, the highest climb on the route is between Poullaquen and Brest). Bitterly I turned around. Halfway across Poullaquen, I stopped. I couldn't quit! I didn't come to France to fail! I had to go on. I turned around and rode back to the edge of town and looked down the road. I knew it was impossible but I didn't want to admit it. I tossed a coin, best out of three, to try to help make up my mind. Abandonment won. I still stood there, not wanting to believe I couldn't finish the ride. After dithering like this for about 30 minutes, I surrendered and turned back to Carhaix.

The ride back was excruciating both in terms of my knees and my emotions. Tears of frustration escaped me, anger sizzled through me, but as I climbed the hill back through Carhaix to the controle I knew that I was making the right decision. There was no way to tough it out and finish in time. It made me feel a little better, but then the townspeople of Carhaix started applauding me as I rode through town. That made me feel much, much worse. Noting my plodding pace, one woman called out "Monsieur, etez-vous fatiguée?" All I could do was nod and say "oui." It took me over two hours to ride 22 km, half of which was downhill. At the controle, I cut off my number plate and walked into the room where the officials were. I handed them my route book, card, number plate and neck pouch and said "terminée." They looked startled, and one of them asked (in English) "are you tired?" I replied "no" and pointed to my knees. "Knee pain." He looked puzzled so I tried "Mal des genous." He asked how I planned to get back to Paris. I didn't know, having formulated a vague plan of renting a car. He explained that this would not be possible, and explained the train schedule to me. Offering me a ride to the train station, he gave me some time to eat lunch and to compose myself. As of 1:32 PM (13h32) my PBP was done.

I went to the bar set up outside the controle and had an ice-cold, hoppy beer. It was delicious. Then I sat down in the shade and watched people coming and going, hoping that I wouldn't see Tim on his way back from Brest. As a group was saddling up to leave, I started crying and couldn't stop for a while. But I was done with this PBP and there as nothing I could do about it, and the tears dried up. After that I felt better. I noticed a lovely Pierre Perrin randoneuse leaning against the hedge, and as I was admiring it the owner came up. He spoke excellent English and was very proud of his bike. He showed off the details that distinguish the bikes made especially for this type of riding, and then he was off back to Paris. He left me feeling much less like an outcast. I consoled myself with the thought that better riders than I had dropped out of PBP in the past.

About 3:00 PM, the helpful volunteer gave me a ride to the train station and explained my situation to the station master. I bought my ticket on the TER regional train ("a very small train" my benefactor kept saying) to Guingamp, a TGV ticket from Guingamp to Gare Montparnasse in Paris, and an RER ticket from Montparnasse to St. Quentin-en-Yvelines. While I was waiting, four other riders came in who had also abandoned and were on their way back to St. Quentin. Their situations were also difficult: an American woman who could not sit on her saddle and rode from Loudeac to Carhaix standing and also vomiting for two hours of that ride; an Englishman with a bad knee like mine; another Englishman whose problems I don't recall; an American whose neck had gone flaccid and who couldn't hold his head up (I was to see a number of people with this problem, called Shermer neck); and another American who was simply exhausted. So there were five of us to keep company on the way back to Paris.

TERAbout 4:00 PM we loaded our bikes onto the "train." (Photo swiped from here)The TER from Carhaix was indeed a small train, a combination engine and passenger car about the size of an American school bus on train wheels. The driver sat up front with a throttle, brake and manual transmission. It was a delightful 45 minute ride to Guingamp, where we unloaded the bikes and found our platform for the TGV to Paris. Normally the TGV will not take bikes unless they are bagged in a "housse a velo" but they put our bikes in a small storage compartment without demur. I suppose they understood the situation. We found our seats- or so we thought- and the train rolled out of Guingamp about 15 minutes after we got there. We chatted for a while , but the group broke up when the rightful owners of the seats came to claim them. One of the Englishmen and I found different seats and chatted all the way to Paris about various topics.

We arrived in Montparnasse about 9:00 or 9:15 PM, having had a lovely trip. Someone came with a key so that we could get our bikes out, and we went in search of the RER train to St. Quentin. Several of my compatriots hopped onto one car with their bikes, and to avoid crowding the good citizens of Paris the Englishman and I went to another car. Someone walking down the voie said "there is a special place for bikes, follow me." We walked with him to the very front end of the train, where he showed us where to put our bikes and ourselves. Then he popped through a small access door and got ready to drive the train! We arrived in St. Quentin about 9:45 PM. Scattering to our various hotels we bid each other goodnight. I walked back to the Campanile, getting there about 10:00 PM and by 10:10 I was in my room. A shower (cold, unfortunately- the French don't seem to keep the water heaters on 24 hours a day) and I was in bed by 11:00, sound asleep.

Thursday I awoke stiff and sore. I showered again and walked into the Espace St. Quentin to the Paul's patisserie for some breakfast. I treated myself to an Anglaise aux Abricots and brioche aux raisins. Then I walked over to the Carrefour to buy some deodorant, toothpaste and a toothbrush- mine still being in my drop bag in Loudeac and not due back until Friday afternoon. I also bought some yogurt, fruit and a brush. Appetite sated, grooming done, teeth brushed (ooh, did I appreciate that!), I rested some more and read for a while. Hunger prodded at me, and I went to the creperie for lunch. I scouted out the Carrefour to see what I might get to celebrate Tim's completion of PBP and then walked back to the Hotel Campanile. There I ran into Martin's girlfriend, Sharon, and her mother. I spent much of the afternoon chatting with them. Sharon showed me where there was free Internet access to check on Martin and Tim, so we were able to track their progress and estimate when they'd arrive. I guessed Tim would get it about 6:00 AM on Friday morning. I did some more reading and repaired some of the damage to my bike case (two of the casters had actually fallen off and a third was nearly off; fortunately the local Bricorama had exact replacements). For supper I bought a salad, bread, cheese, raisin/almond mix, yogurt, pears and apples.

I chatted with other people who'd abandoned and also with Sharon. Many people found the hills too much. I thought the hills were fine in terms of my fitness and preparation, but my knees didn't like them. I wondered if the hard fast approach into Loudeac chasing Michael and Susan was in part to blame, and that perhaps I should have ridden a more sedate pace. It felt so good at the time! I think I developed iliotibial band tendinitis in both knees, which will hopefully resolve quickly (10 days later I can ride 35 miles slowly with very little discomfort, but the knees still hurt if I'm in too big a gear when climbing).

Sharon noted that some people had complained that Martin's brevet series was too hilly. After riding in PBP, I'd have to say that it would not be possible for the brevets to be too hilly. There is no flat riding in PBP, it is relentlessly hilly and you'd might as well get used to riding that kind of terrain. In retrospect, I thought Martin did an excellent job in finding suitable terrain in an area that is largely flat. I certainly felt prepared for the event as a result of the Minnesota brevets. I think that the routes could be even hillier, now that I've seen the terrain the PBP uses, although that would be hard to do with Rochester as a starting point. In my case, I think that better use of the 8 weeks between the end of the brevets and PBP might have helped prevent my knee problems. I did some 200 km/125 mile rides on the weekends in addition to my usual 80 km/50 mile rides three times in the middle of the week; I think that doing 200 km rides alternating with 300 km rides on the weekends, or doing back-to-back 200 km rides on the weekends would have been better preparation than I did. I think my body might have better adapted to the stress of the exceptional mileage one necessarily encounters on PBP.

Tim B official photo Tim (one of his official PBP photos) arrived at the hotel about 6:30 AM Friday morning, tired but in fine spirits. Tim ate some of the food I had in the room. We chatted for a bit about the experience and then I went back to sleep and Tim went to bed for a good night's sleep for the first time since we left Minneapolis. I woke up late, about 10:00 AM, and went out to the Carrefour to buy some wine, a saucisse champignon, an organic whole wheat baguette and a wedge of Epouesse (fromage) for a celebratory picnic. Tim got a good few hours sleep, and then we rode slowly over to the Gymnase Droits de l'Homme where we met up with Don and another Minnesota rider. We had a pique-nique, shopped for souvenirs, looked at bikes and generally soaked up the atmosphere of the finish of PBP.

I'll have to let Tim speak for his own experiences. In my case, what I remember about PBP is the support and camaraderie between the riders and the approachability they had. All were willing to share their experience about riding this event, and all respected the determination and dedication it takes to prepare for and enter such an event. They all understood what it means to abandon, and no one made me feel any less for not having been able to finish. The fantastic support of the French people, standing out in the middle of nowhere at some crossroads, at 4:00 in the morning, just to cheer on the randonneurs remains a heartwarming memory. I don't know if they know just how much that means to the riders. They brought cases of bottled water, food, coffee and an incredible generosity of spirit. I remember the rider lost in St. Quentin, whom we found looking for the train station on our way back from the finish. We were going right by it, it was no more than 50 meters out of our way, so we guided him to it. As we rode away he called after us, "I still love the Americans." And I love the French.

Paris-Brest-Paris 2003

Minnesota finishers:

Robert Alwin 76:63
Charles Breer 65:49
Tim Bruns 78:58
Daniel Dunn 88:50
Martin Fahje 68:59
Thomas Gould 83:59
Kelly Krajnik 88:46
Foster Renwick 75:26
William Taylor 88:46

Minnesota non-finishers:

Harold Brull
Don McCall
Tim McNamara
Thomas Miller
Bob Tomkins

Let me know if I've missed you or gotten your time wrong!

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