Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) is one of the oldest continuously-held cycling events in the world. The first occurrence was in 1881, and the ride has been held every four years (with some interruptions due to war) since then. With a distance of over 1200 kilometers that must be covered in 90 hours or less, the ride is the great-grandfather of extreme cycling. In the year when the Paris-Brest-Paris is being held, aspiring riders must complete a series of qualifying rides between January and the end of June. These rides, also known as brevets follow rules set by the Audax Club of Paris (ACP). Those riding brevets stop at pre-determined points along the route, called controls, where they get proof of passing through the control, usually by having a brevet card marked with the time and signed by the person staffing the control. The qualifying brevets consist of 200 km, 300 km, 400 km and 600 km rides, which help prepare the rider for the big journey in August. It has been said by many that the 200 km ride teaches the fitness required, the 300 km teaches how and what to eat, the 400 km teaches night riding skills and the 600 km teaches how to sleep on a long brevet. Another term for these rides is randonnée, and practitioners of this type of cycling are known as randonneurs. Those who successfully complete a PBP earn the title ancien. What follows is my account of attempting to earn that title.
Before the ride begins, there are lots of things that need to happen – pack bike and gear, fly to France, get to lodging, set up bike, get bike inspected and complete registration. I also combined the trip for PBP with a family vacation, so I arrived in Paris the Wednesday before Saturday’s bike inspection and registration. There were lots of ups and downs between our Tuesday departure from JFK airport and the start of the ride, but I will skip most of that and start the account when some real cycling started.
The day before bike inspection, my friend and cycling teammate, Mark, and I put our families into a pair of Ubers in Paris and sent them off to Neauphle-Le-Vieux, a small village about 50 km west, where I had rented a house for the week. We met up with my friend Peter from San Francisco. A decade before Peter got me into riding long distances on a road bike and took me on my first brevet with the San Francisco Randonneurs. The three of us set off on bicycle towards the west.
Peter was staying in his brother’s apartment in the city. He planned on riding with us about halfway, having lunch and turning around. I had loaded onto my Garmin GPS directions to the rental house along with various other directions that I would need in the coming week. In my ignorance, I neglected to load French base maps, so the directions were fairly useless. No matter! We were beginning an adventure, and this little hiccough was easily handled with Google maps.
August 15th is a national holiday in France, so many businesses decided to take advantage of it and have a four day weekend. As we navigated through the western suburbs of Paris, we were having a hard time finding a place to have lunch. We finally found a cafe that was open and had a spot where we could keep an eye on our bicycles. The waiter informed us that because of the holiday, he could only offer us Croque Monsieur with frites. Fine! Perfect! Bring on the ham and cheese and fries and a small carafe of red wine, too! After a bit of a wait (it seemed that a trip to the supermarket across the way was needed to get the ingredients for our meal), the sandwiches and fries and wine were set on table, and we ate and chatted about the upcoming ride. Peter expressed that his biggest fear was losing his brother’s key to the apartment, as it was the only one that he had. Mark was worried about how he would deal with lack of sleep, and I was worried about my tires, one of which got damaged in transit from NY to France. That had me spending my first day in Paris frantically going from bike shop to bike shop in search for a replacement tubeless tire and sealant (not to be had). Those fears were forgotten as we talked about the ride ahead while we sipped espresso.
We finished our meal and went for our respective wallets to get money to pay the bill, and that is when Peter discovered that the key that he had thought was in his wallet was not in his wallet. Mild panic as he went through his pockets. Eyes becoming wide as we searched on, under and around the table. Real concern as he looked through the small bag on his bike. The key was not to be found. He had stopped in a bike shop before meeting us. Maybe it was there? A call to the shop but no luck. Still, Peter decided he had better go there and check for himself, so Mark and I wished him luck, told him that he had a place to stay with us if needed to, and we left for the house while Peter went in the opposite direction back towards Paris.
Mark and I headed out through the busy suburban streets. As we approached Versailles, the roads got a little calmer and bike paths became more frequent. We decided not to ride up all the way to the palace, but we did enjoy a nice view of it from about 500 meters away. As we continued on we found ourselves at the National Velodrome. Mark suggested that we stop and check it out, and I was game to see it. Luckily for us the national championship races were being held, and when we arrived there were some fans outside near food trucks, a few of whom noticed the bags on our bikes and asked us; “Paris-Brest?” “Oui!” I replied and one tall, thin gentleman enthusiastically wished me luck and then recounted how he was the first finisher in 2011. While I was chatting with him, Mark went inside the velodrome. He came out a few minutes later and told me, “They’re racing in there, and you can just walk in.” I set my bike against the glass wall of the building and went in to check it out. There was a crowd of spectators of maybe one hundred folks or so watching what appeared to be a group of junior racers. I watched the track racing for a bit and captured some on video for my Instagram story, but the concern that the bike that was to carry me 1200 km in the coming week was sitting outside unlocked cut my viewing short.
Outside was a gentleman on a green rando bike with a tan front bag, which looked a lot like the one of a person that I follow on Instagram. “Are you from San Francisco?” I asked him.
“Yes,” he replied slowly. He was clearly uncomfortable with English and my Japanese is almost non-existent.
“Us too! See you on the road to Brest!”
As we travelled further west, the landscape turned distinctly rural. As we rode through villages on small roads with raised cobbled center sections, the cars respectfully passed us with plenty of room. We saw a few randonneur looking types along the way, cycling or sitting by their bicycles in roadside cafes. The weather was as good as it could be, and every cyclist we saw had a big smile. After navigating through the towns of Neauphle-Le-Chateau and Neauphle-La-Ville we arrived at the rental house on the edge of Neauphle-Le-Vieux.
Our families had already settled in and chosen rooms. My kids, mother-in-law and wife and I had rooms on the second floor, and Mark and his wife, Diane, had the first floor bedroom. Perfect! They had also already been to the grocery store, and there was some food and wine waiting for us, but Mark and I decided we needed more for supper, so we got back on our bikes and pedaled the one and a half kilometers to the Carrefour supermarket and got some chicken, veggies and other goodies. We also stopped in the cheese shop and Mark got some cheese and wine. Back we went to the house to set up our bikes for the bike inspection on the following day.
While we were preparing the bikes, we started getting updates from Peter on his key situation. Text alerts lit up our phone: No luck at the bike shop. A neighbor let him into the building. Tried one locksmith then another. They could not guarantee they would not break the door. 1300 euros to try it.
Finally at 8:00 pm we talked by phone, albeit briefly thanks to the dying battery on Peter’s phone. Peter’s two biggest concerns at moment were passing the bike inspection the following day and getting sleep that night. We had extra lights, which would get Peter through bike inspection, so the only thing to worry about was a place to sleep. Worst case was that he could ride out and stay with us. I offered to call some hotels and get him a room, which he agreed to. But before I could do so, I received a text from him that there was a hotel next to his brother’s apartment building that had a room for less than a hundred euros, and he would be staying there. I bid Peter good night and joined my family for a delicious chicken dinner.
The next morning as I was cleaning the gravel off of my tires, I dislodged an embedded pebble, and a geyser of air and sealant spewed out. Dagnabit! I removed the tire and took it outside to hose off the sealant. It was pouring rain. Great. That’ll make for a fun ride to bike inspection at Rambouillet. I mounted the tire on the wheel, put in an inner tube and finished mounting the tire with just a bit of difficulty. My hope of riding tubeless came to an end. I made a note that if I ever did this ride again, I would bring sealant and spare tires.
We got a message from Peter that he would meet us in Rambouillet. With bikes ready to go, Mark and I headed out for the 16 mile trip to Rambouillet. As we got closer to Rambouillet, more and more cyclists were on the road. The rain was coming down on and off, and most people were riding fairly carefully because of the slick condition of the roads. As we approached the sheep close where bike inspection and registration was being held, we traversed gravel paths, broken asphalt and cobbled sections. “Psssshhhht!” went my rear tire just as we got near to the bike inspection line. I went into the bike park, hung my bike by its saddle and changed the tube. Ten minutes later we were in line. In front of us was a woman holding her bike with one hand and a large saddle bag with the other. “Do you know how to get this on?” she asked me. Ruh-roh! Part of the inspection entailed ensuring bags were secured. Mark held my bike as I attempted to attach her bag in a moving line. We finally got it on, just as Peter texted us that he was at the back of the line. We told him to come up to us to get the lights, but he did not want to cut, and there was no way Mark and I were going to go back 200 cyclists behind. After much prodding, Peter joined us and we went to the task of removing Mark’s spare light and attaching it on Peter’s bike, which proved more difficult than the saddle bag task we were just doing. In addition, the rain really started coming down. I was all decked out in rain gear from head to toe, but my companions were not as well covered, especially Peter, whose rain gear was locked in a Parisian apartment. We finally made it into the tent for bike inspection. Turn on the lights. Check. Spin the wheels and brake. Check. Tug on the bags. Check. You’re good to register. Yay!
We had to put our bikes in the mud bog of a bike park area and head into a sheep barn for registration. The registration was divided by language and by starting group. We went to the “S” English area, and I received my packet from a charming lady with a Scandinavian accent. There were volunteers from all over the world, and they were all so nice! We went to the bike park and said good-bye to Peter, who was to take the train back to Paris. Mark and I started back to the house and got about 3 kilometers from bike registration when “Pssssshhhht!” went my back tire again. Dagnabit! The boot that I used on the back tire to protect the tube obviously wasn’t good enough! Mark rode back to registration, where a temporary bike shop was set up, so that he could get a tire, and I started half walking, half jogging back towards him. Fifteen minutes later, I was inside the gates when I saw Mark riding towards me with a new Continental GP5000 tire. I removed the old tire, put in a new tube, and Mark and I struggled mightily to get the new tire onto the rim. After twenty minutes of effort, we finally got it on, pumped up and set off again. It was only three o’clock, so we were still ahead of when I thought we would be leaving, and despite the rain and the tire woes, we were both in a really good mood. We were about halfway home and riding on a bike path alongside N10, when we came to an intersection that had a turn and a cobbled entranced back onto the path. As I started the turn and my wheel touch the cobbles, my front slid out and down I went onto the asphalt. Ouch! I sprung up knowing that I was all full of adrenaline, and silently (maybe audibly) prayed that I wasn’t seriously hurt. As I checked my bicycle, I made a mental check of myself (I could feel road rash on my left hand, left elbow, left knee and left ankle, and I knew I struck my helmeted head). The left shifter needed to be straightened on the handlebar and it was scraped up, but otherwise the bike was A-OK, and I felt fine, too.
We rode another three kilometers when Mark’s tire went “Psssssshhhht!” Dagnab these wet roads with their extra-flattening powers! We changed the tube, and got back on the road, arriving just as the rain stopped. We quickly hosed off the road dirt off of our drive trains, stripped out of the wet clothes, stuffed our shoes with paper, and headed for the showers. While sitting down to a big pasta dinner cooked by Mark’s wife, Diane, we got a text from Peter. He had paid to fly two of his niece’s friends out from Dublin with a spare key. His nightmare was over, and he was in the apartment. Joy! I tried to stay up late so that I could sleep late as we had an evening start time at 8:15 pm the next day, but I was too sleepy after the trials of the day, and I was fast asleep by 11:00 pm.
I woke up at 10:00 am. My mother-in-law cooked me up scrambled eggs, which I ate along with lots of bread and cheese. I repacked all of my bags, cleaned my drive train (again), checked the lights and clicked my Garmin into its holder. It was 11:30 am and my bike was ready to go. I changed the paper out of the shoes for dry paper and prayed that the shoes would be dry before we left. My warm “waterproof” gloves were still soaked and there was little hope of them drying out before we had to leave. A little after noon the rain stopped and a bit of sun came out, so we put our shoes and gloves out on the patio for some solar-assisted drying. With little other to do, I basically paced around and tried to keep my excitement down. I tried to lie down for a nap, but that wasn’t going to happen. We had planned on leaving at 5:00 pm, but I convinced Mark to leave at 4:00 pm in case we had any incidents along the way.
We had our pictures taken, gave and received hugs and kisses, and off we rode towards Rambouillet. I was trying to navigate the shortest route instead of the easy direct route that was one mile longer. Big mistake. The shortest route had us going over muddy tracks, and after the flats of the day before, we were having none of that. We came across a couple on motor assisted e-bikes, who also happened to be a little lost and going to Rambouillet. They were French and out for a Sunday ride in the country. The male of the duo indicated for us to follow him, so we motor paced behind him at 25 kilometers per hour. Eventually, we came to the outskirts of Rambouillet, and he pointed us in the direction of the sheepfold. We finally arrived after a 20 mile ride. My short route actually had us ride four extra miles. We dropped the bikes off in the bike park and went to the tent for the pre-ride dinner. It was chicken, pasta, bread, cheese, shredded cheese, an apple tart and a weird vegetable jello of broccoli, turnips and carrots. Ewww!
We joined the long line of cyclists waiting to start. I chatted with a guy from Canada and with a group of guys from Spain, who were impressed with my Spanish until I told them that I lived in Spain for a couple of years. “You should be able to speak it well,” one of them told me. There was a lot of concern that the line wouldn’t move fast enough for us to make the start time. We were in the “S” group and it seemed that the line was not moving at all. Peter, who had signed up for the “S” group, was put into the “Q” group at registration. What!?! They were to leave a half hour before our group, and he decided that he would wait to leave with us. OK, extra pressure because now the finish time calculus had as finishing in 88.5 hours instead of 90. At 8:05 pm the line started moving quickly. Minutes later my brevet card was stamped, Peter was spotted and off we went to the starting area. At 8:15 pm on the dot we were signaled to depart.
We started strong and quickly found a small group that seemed to be at our pace between 25 and 30 kilometers per hour. After 20 minutes or so we started to pass some of the slower R group riders. After 45 minutes the light started to quickly fade, so we turned on our lights and continued at a brisk pace. We had planned on maintaining between 20 and 25 kilometers per hour, which in the relatively flat terrain outside of Rambouillet and with the wind blocking effect of the group of riders, was a pace fairly easy to keep.
We had 217 km until the first real control, but we did not have to arrive until 10:43 am the following morning, so there was little pressure. We rode along, chatting with each other and with others around us. About 80 km into the ride, as I was chatting with some Philadelphia-based randonneurs, I noticed my rear tire was getting squishy. I said good bye to the Philly guys and pulled over to the side of the road. It seemed to be slow leak, so I pumped up my tire hoping to ride to a well-lit village to change out the tube. Two pumpings and 20 kilometers later, we rode into the center square of Longny-Au-Perche. It was well lit with a parking area and sidewalk where I could work out of the way of the other riders. I got my wheel off of the bike easily with Mark acting as a bike stand. As I was removing the tire, a rider came into the square, didn’t notice the corner curb and slammed into it, quickly going down with a big scraping noise. Peter ran over to him as the rider was getting up. He was big bearded guy from Brazil with a septum piercing and a giant smile. He told Peter that he was ok, but it looked like his derailleur hanger was toast. Fortunately, he had brought a spare! Peter rejoined our group as the Brazilian set to repairing his bike.
I searched the tire for any sign of the cause of the flat, and found nothing. I fit one edge of the tire onto the rim, positioned the new tube, and then I tried to get the other edge on. It was tough! I could not do it by myself, so Peter and Mark came over to help. The three of us grunting and levering away finally got the tire on, but when I went to pump it up, it seems we had damaged the inner tube with the tire levers. “Dagnabit!” is what I should have said, but saltier language spewed from my mouth as I grunted the tire off and the tube out. Another tube and another team effort led to better results, but not before more cussing and me making such a fuss that the crashed Brazilian came over to offer assistance. This made me feel 100% of the jackass that I was. Here someone with far worse problems than mine was calmly offering me help. I thanked him and told him that we got it, and a few minutes later the tire was on the wheel, and it pumped up just fine. The whole ordeal lasted one hour five minutes. Ugh! That was one hour five minutes that would have been better spent riding, eating or sleeping, but thus is the sport of randonneuring.
By this time it was a little after two thirty in the morning. We left the town square and immediately made a wrong turn. We pass some riders coming the other way, but somehow we did not realize that they were coming back from a wrong turn themselves. We rode for a couple of kilometers until we realized there was no one ahead of us or behind us – not a good sign. We turned around and found riders taking the turn right past the town square that we should have taken. “Why didn’t those other riders say something?” we asked each other. No use dwelling on that, we were already behind schedule and wrong turns did not help.
As we rode along we could see riders wrapped in their foil emergency blankets sleeping in doorways, ditches, along walls and in bus shelters. It was pretty cold, very dark and we were all very sleepy. As the terrain started to get more hilly, we perked up. The cold air on the downhills was invigorating.
After a bit of a climb, we reached Mortagne-Au-Perche, the first services area (place with food, drink, mechanics and dorms), at 2:30 am. A quick trip to the rest rooms followed by water bottle filling and grabbing some food from the outside stall and we were back off riding down the hill into the dark. We passed through sleeping villages and by dark fields, all punctuated with foil-wrapped cyclists trying to sleep. I half wanted to yell at them, “Wake up! It’s too soon to be resting! We’re not even to the first control!”
After a few more hours of pedaling, we realized that we hadn’t seen any taillights in front of us for a longer period than was usual. We stopped on the side of the road for a few minutes to see if there was anyone behind us, but there was nothing but black darkness, so we turned around. Just as we got to the point where we could see others taking the the sharp turn right that we should have taken a few cyclists who had missed the turn approach us. “Turn around, folks!” I shouted. It ended up that we added 4 kilometers to our journey thanks to missing a turn. Some of those arrows were hard to see at night, what with streaming eyes from the cold and the placement of the signs that sometimes were not in the path of our headlamps. Back on course, the lack of sleep was starting to affect all three of us. We stayed awake by first discussing if it is true that “it is always darkest before the dawn,” and then by discussing what to call that phrase. Axiom? Simile? Metaphor? Figure of speech? As we went through the list I found myself hoping for the actual dawn, and soon after daybreak began.
I could see the sun start to peak over the tree line to the east, so I pulled over to take a “wheelie,” which is what I call the photographs that I often take through the spokes, using my wheel as a frame for the picture. Less than an hour later we arrived at the first control in Villaines-la-Juhel. Bikes parked, we followed the Control signs to the room where ten or so volunteers were seated, ready to stamp and sign our brevet cards. We went to what we thought was the restaurant area, but it was more of a canteen with coffee, soda, water, croissants and a tart that was filled with apple sauce. I was hoping for something more substantial, but I made do with what there was. One half an hour later after entering the control area we were leaving it.
We stopped in Le Ribay, where I had a galette saucisse while my companions filled water bottles, and then after another hour of riding, we stopped in Gorron for something more substantial to eat. I thought the piles of dirty dishes on empty tables outside meant that one particular restaurant would be a good place to go. If they were so busy serving food that they were behind in clearing the tables, it must be a good place, right? It ended up being surprisingly nasty, but we ate as much of the greasy food as we could while bees and flies swarmed around us at our sunlit roadside table. We hopped back on our bikes. Destination; Fougères.
We arrived at Fougères a little after noon, got the cards stamped and signed, and went our separate ways to take care of various personal business. I was looking forward to napping on the grass outside. As I was lying in the grass in full sun, I realized that I had no sunscreen, and getting a burn was not going to help me complete my mission, so I went to find a place to lie down inside. I saw Mark outside by our bikes and told him where I was going. I found an empty bench outside of the shower area and lay down for a quick nap. A half hour later I received a “Wakey wakey” text from Mark. I felt great! I hopped up and went outside to meet my friends. Once there I found out that they were not really sure where I was or when I would be out. This was the first instance that I found that the more sleepy a person is, the harder it is to process information. I thought to myself that I need to remember this fact, but being so sleepy meant that I would continue to miscommunicate, misunderstand and generally act like a dolt for the rest of the journey.
Our next stop was the control at Tinténiac, which we were very much looking forward to because just a few kilometers beyond that town was a hotel room bed and shower waiting for our arrival. It took over three hours for us to reach the control, which was another sign that the sleep deprivation was getting to us. This time we navigated our way through the control much more quickly than the last one. Shortly after arriving we were on our way to Bécherel where our hotel room awaited. It was a lovely stone building in a lovely stone town. It seemed that we were the only guests in the small hotel. The owner greeted us and directed us to put our bikes in the back garden next to a shed and a covered well. The garden was patrolled by cats of various ages, including two incredibly cute kittens. Unfortunately, we did not have much time to spend at the hotel because we needed to get to Loudéac before our control closing time. This meant a quick shower, an hour and a half nap, and back on our bikes.
Just as we started to leave, rain began to fall, so we quickly went back into our bags for rain gear. My sleep-deprived brain prevented me from finding my rain gloves, so with a small temper tantrum I hopped on my bike wearing thin gloves as the rain started bringing the temperature down. The rain stopped just as night began to fall. It seemed like just an hour ago we were riding through the night, and here it was night again! The temperature kept falling, which was not too much of issue for me or my companions as we had the clothes to handle the chill. Well, I still could not find my gloves, but the thin full-fingered gloves I was wearing offered at least some protection from the chill of the night. We passed others who did not seem to be handling the cold as well as my companions and I were. I travel to India a lot for work, so I made a point to speak to the Indian riders as we passed them. They were unanimous in expressing their concerns about the cold. Many of them had taken their emergency blankets and fashioned a base layer under their jackets and helmets. Even though I had traveled from hot and humid Virginia to France, much of my spring and summer was spent in Seattle and Northern California, so I was used to riding in the chilly weather. I silently hoped for the best for those folks from hotter climes. They were clearly suffering.
We reached Loudéac a little after midnight. After going through the control, we went to the restaurant area. Bodies were everywhere – in the halls against the walls, under tables, head down on tables and between the tables. It turned out that Mark and Peter had not really slept in the hotel, and they were completely exhausted, so we decided that we would eat and have a table nap. Peter found a spot in the corner, and asked me to wake him in 45 minutes. Mark and I ate, and then Mark put his head down on the table, while I fiddled with charging my GPS and my watch and spending time communicating with those back home over social media (in retrospect a completely silly thing to do). Soon it was time to go, but I couldn’t reach Peter as there were other sleeping cyclists between me and his corner lair. So I went over to the start of the canteen line, grabbed a tray, made my way back across the minefield of sleeping randonneurs and gave Peter a few hearty whacks with the tray, all to the amusement of a volunteer who watched the whole undertaking. Peter roused quickly and with a smile on his face. Mark was not smiling but in good spirits even if he did not really sleep, and the three of us picked our way outside to grab the bikes and head to Carhaix.
After two and half hours of riding in the cold dark we rode up a hill into Saint-Martin-de-Prés where galette saucisse, crepes sucre, cider and other Breton delicacies were being sold from a tent on the side of the road. They also had grill of some sort with a roaring fire. Mark spied an empty bench in a tent that housed tables and told us that he needed a few minutes to sleep. Peter and I went to the fire to warm up, and while standing there noticed the similarities in look between the Breton volunteers and our own Irish relatives. Peter, who grew up in Limerick, said that we could easily plop the beer drinking volunteers near us into an Irish village, and no one would think them to be out of place. I noticed a statue next to the fiery brazier, and saw that it was a memorial to those lost in World War I. I saw many of these memorials, which reminded me of the Civil War memorials that are in almost every town in Virginia, but this was the first one that I had time to examine. Having studied both the American Civil War and the First World War with great interest, I lost myself in thought about those young men giving their lives in conflicts that meant something very different to them in their time than what we modern people can conceive.
Before I got too far down that track, Peter reminded me that we should get going, so we woke up Mark and continued on to Carhaix. There was a services-only stop at Saint-Nicolas-du-Pélem, which we decided that we would bypass; however, as we approached two volunteers with flashlights directed us into a small bike park while almost shouting “Secret control!” So we stopped, got stamped and got a quick snack before heading off to Carhaix. As we rode we were getting more and more sleepy. Mark was concerned that his sleepiness would be dangerous, so we decided that we would try to sleep for a few hours in Carhaix. All of us this stopping meant that despite our quick pace while on the road, we were cutting close to missing intermediate control times. We spent a lot of our time on the bikes doing calculations, trying to figure how to get a few more hours of sleep. We also discussed if intermediate control times mattered. We had heard conflicting information, and it added stress to our tired minds.
We arrived in Carhaix at daybreak, and after going through the control with our cards we headed to the dormitory, which seemed to be located a mile away (in reality it was a few hundred meters), and I groused about not being able to ride our bikes instead of walking. When we got to the dormitory, we were greeted by friendly volunteers who asked if we wanted a bed and a shower (just a bed, please), checked our wrist bands, took our money and led us to our cots, where they gave us a sort of sleeping bag that seemed to be made out of paper fiber. I had removed my saddle bag’s dry bag from its carrier to use as a pillow, so I plopped that down on the cot, crawled into the thin paper cocoon, stretched out on the nylon cot and immediately fell asleep. I awoke one minute before my alarm was set to go off (I had heard stories of the volunteers sometimes messing up wake times), and I turned it off just as the prompt volunteer approached my cot to wake me. I felt refreshed, but my stomach was quite sour. I went to the cafeteria, where I bought soup with bread, cheese, butter, riz au lait ( a sort of rice pudding), some sort of prune custard cake, coffee and Orangina. My stomach rebelled a bit at the cheese, but the soup, bread and butter and riz au lait were very soothing. I ended up not drinking any of the coffee out of fear of further upsetting my tummy. The sun was up and the air was starting to warm just a bit as we left for Brest.
I was very much looking forward to this part of the journey, not only because it led to the halfway point, but also because it had the biggest climb of the route. I sort of like climbing, but I really like descending, and I knew from the elevation profile that I studied before the ride that we would have a nice long descent. We rode through the morning and the road seemed to be going more up than down. We pulled over to remove jackets and leg warmers and continued up the hill. Soon we could see the big antenna that perched on top of the hill, and moments later we were on the long descent that I had read about it. As we descended I noted to Peter that this hill seemed to be like a big White’s Grade (a hill on a popular bike route in Marin County, California), and it would be much easier climbing coming back than it was going out. He responded with hopes of that being true.
Not much later we were joined by a few riders, and we formed a pace line, a riding formation that allows for decreased effort by increased aerodynamic efficiency. One of the riders was an older, Swedish gentleman and he drove us forward with gruff commands and eye rolls, much to the delight of Peter, Mark and me. Our pace line varied in number, and after twenty minutes or so and after some sketchy riding by some of those in the line, Peter, Mark and I decided it would be better to not be riding with this group, and we soft pedaled to drop off of the back. A bit before 1:00 pm we approach the bridge into Brest and stopped to take the mandatory PBP photo, and then we headed into Brest, where we were greeted with a small rain shower. We popped under a bus shelter to put on rain jackets, and by the time we were back on the road, the rain stopped. Whatever! We were almost to the halfway point, and fifteen minutes later we were crossing the timing mat.
We decided to eat in town, but we still wound up taking a lot of time at the control. Our brains were tired, and we were not communicating well with each other, which meant a lot of searching for each other and wasted effort. Fortunately, we recognized that we were tired and did not take out frustrations on each other. We had decided from the beginning that we were going to stick together, so bickering was not an option. We headed out and saw a crepe shop. Perfect! Mark and Peter went into the shop, which ended up being a place that produced crepes in bulk, sort of like a donut shop, and it had no tables or chairs. It definitely was not a place where I wanted to eat, but by the time I got inside to see what kind of place it was, Mark and Peter had already bought a beer from the cooler and a package of crepes. No matter! They packed their drinks and food onto their bikes, and we went looking for a better option. After a few fruitless stops (was every restaurant closed for vacation?) we found a sandwich/pastry shop a few hundred meters up the road. We ordered their special sandwich/pastry/drink combo and sat at a table to enjoy our meals. One of the girls behind the counter was even so kind as to open Mark’s and Peter’s beer bottles with her Bic lighter. I ate half of a delicious ground beef with spicy cheese sauce on a soft, long roll and washed it down with a coke. Yum! I then found their bathroom, which was clean, spacious and well-stocked. This place was great! Mark and Peter finished their beers, and we headed back outside to our bikes. I stowed the half of sandwich in my handlebar-mounted feedbag, and my eclair in the front bag. I knew I would be enjoying both of those items later.
We were heading east! Hooray! I was hoping for a big tail wind after riding through the headwind out to Brest, but the wind seemed to disappear and then when it reappeared, it seemed to be strong cross wind from the north. No matter! We were on a return trip to Carhaix, where we planned to get a few more hours sleep, and where I planned to get a shower. As I suspected, the climb up the hill outside of Brest was much easier going than coming, and soon we found ourselves at the big antenna on the top of the hill again. At 6:15 pm we arrived at Carhaix and once again headed for the dormitories. I got my paper cocoon and a few thin towels for the shower, and set myself down on the nylon cot, but this time, sleep escaped me. I lay there for about an hour, and when I sat up, I saw that Mark was also awake. It turned out Peter could not sleep either, so we decided to head out earlier than planned. I took a quick shower, and by the time I got back into the dormitory for my things, Peter and Mark were ready to go. We stopped for a quick bite to eat, and then it was back on the bikes again for another stop at Loudéac.
It was cold again that night, and I was certain the north wind was not helping anything. I had on leg warmers, arm warmers under my rain jacket, a buff that Mark had given me around my neck, my rain jacket hood under my helmet, full-fingered gloves (where were those darn waterproof gloves?!?) and the PBP reflective vest over my jacket, and still I could feel the cold. Fortunately it was not too bad, and the effort of climbing the rolling hills kept me somewhat warm. We decided we would try to get a few hours sleep in Loudéac, after having failed to do so in Carhaix. We approached Saint-Nicolas-du-Pélem, and I wondered if we would have to stop this time, or if the secret control was only on the outbound leg. The question was answered by volunteers guiding us into the control again. We got our cards stamped, and we headed into the canteen, where local high school kids were serving a dense, yellow cake for free. Thanks, high school kids! I grabbed three slices, and they held up amazingly well after I dipped them into my coffee. Belly full, I headed outside where I found Mark and Peter waiting, and we started for Loudéac.
We rolled across the timing mat in Loudéac at 2:35 am and headed to the dorm. This time we were greeted with real cloth blankets, and when we entered the sleeping area we could see that instead of nylon cots there were thick mattresses on the floor. Luxury! I propped my dry bag at the end of the bed, plopped myself down and fell fast asleep.
Three hours later a volunteer woke me. I felt pretty refreshed, enough so that I remembered to turn off my alarm before it went off and woke those still sleeping. After a quick bite to eat, we grabbed our bikes, but before leaving the control, we asked an American lady who was there supporting her husband to take our picture. She cheerily complied. After giving her our thanks and her husband our best wishes, we left the control. On to Tinténiac! The morning air was brisk, but the sun was out and the wind was not too bad. After the good mattresses we were feeling pretty fine. I had a ham and butter on baguette in my feedbag, which I nibbled as we pedaled along. After a few hours we entered Illifaut, where there was a vendor under a tent selling coffee, croissants and some of the most delicious chocolate doughnuts that I have ever tasted. We had only stopped because Peter was looking for a bathroom, and here it turned out to be some of the best food that I had on the journey. I chatted with a nice lady from Illinois, who had held onto our wheels for part of the way to Illifaut. After exchanging facts about where we were from we settled on the most common topic of conversation that I had with other randonneurs – how much did intermediate control times matter?
Back on the road for another few hours and we were in Tinténiac again, arriving at noon. Despite the sun being high in the sky, we all felt like zombies. We slowly made our way to control to food to restroom to bike. The clock was ticking, and we were feeling the pressure. I was especially nervous because I had already flatted. I knew that it took great effort to mount my tires. Also, my front derailleur was starting to act up. I figured it was cable stretch, and I tightened the cable a bit before we headed to Fougères.
As we rode along, my front derailleur became less and less responsive. I should have stopped and examined the bike, but my exhausted brain was not reasoning well. I tightened the cable a bit more as I rode. As it was not shifting down into the small chainring, I decide the safest thing would be not to downshift until seeing a mechanic at the next control. I knew I was strong enough to muscle over the hills, but I did not consider the strain that I was putting on my already strained tendons. I felt a bit of a twinge in my left heel, but I ignored it. One cannot consider every twinge and pain on a long bike ride!
We arrived in Fougères at a little after 3:00 pm on Wednesday. I headed straight to the mechanic. I was excited about the prospect of using the French bicycle vocabulary that I had studied in preparation for this ride, but an English speaking volunteer intercepted me and led me to the mechanic. While the mechanic adjusted my derailleur, the volunteer, Wendy, made me promise her that I would make it to Paris. “Oh, I am going to make it,” I responded.
“But you must promise.”
“Okay! I promise!”
“When you get to the finish, you will be overcome and cry. Do not worry about it. It is okay to be emotional.”
“Okay, Wendy, thanks for the help and the advice!”
Bike repaired, I set it near the table where Overstim dietary supplements were being sold, and I went to grab some food and water. After I ate, I saw a text saying that Mark was trying to nap at the same shower area where I had had such a good rest. A fifteen minute nap seemed like a good idea to me, so I found an empty bench and closed my eyes. I arose feeling sort of refreshed, and I saw that Peter and Mark had texted me that they were in the restaurant and almost ready to leave. I looked around what I thought was the restaurant (it was actually the canteen), and I could not find them. What the heck?!? After a few texts and more than a few minutes, I finally understood that the restaurant was in a different building. Stupid sleep brain was not functioning well! No matter! On to Villaines-la-Juhel!
My left achilles was really starting to hurt – I mean really hurt. It felt worse as I climbed, so I tried to only pedal with my right leg while climbing, which didn’t make the pain go away, but I didn’t feel the pain getting worse. After a few hours, though, the pain had gone on long enough that on the hills I dropped behind Mark and Peter so they would not hear my groans and cries. I had had similar pain with my right Achilles during the 600km qualifier, which at the time I thought might have been due to a too tight reflective ankle band that we were required to wear at night. My ankle bands were decidedly loose this time, so there was another issue at play. Reflecting on the 600km qualifier, I realized the strain suffered then was probably due to trying to hold the wheel of a stronger rider twenty years my junior as opposed to tight ankle bands, and this current strain was due to muscling up hills instead of spinning. I was feeling super low when we arrived in Le Ribay, and I was very thankful when one of my companions suggested that we stop at the same tent where we had stopped on our first morning. The atmosphere was very different this time around. It seemed the entire village was hanging out at the corner, drinking beer and wine, blasting music and enthusiastically cheering on the riders. The riders were moving slowly and most looked pretty beat. Did I look that bad? Probably. Throughout the day I heard riders bemoan the fact that they were out of time, and there were riders around me that were definitely on the edge of not finishing. Would I be one of them? I was feeling quite sorry for myself, when Peter sat down across from me with a Paris-Brest pastry on his plate. I had been wanting one of those since the ride had started and there one was in all of its glory! I went into the tent, and ordered one. The gentleman that took my order told me that he would bring it out to me so that I could get off of my feet. A few minutes later, there it was in front me. I took a bite. It was amazingly delicious, and I vowed that I would only eat a Paris-Brest pastry while riding the Paris-Brest-Paris ride. After a few more bites I had a vision of my mother, who is an amazing pastry maker, serving me a Paris-Brest, so I amended my vow to include eating any Paris-Brest made by momma. Feeling a whole lot better, I got back on the bike.
I was able keep up with Mark and Peter, and I later found out they had no idea I was suffering. Good! When we arrived in Villaines-la-Juhel it was just starting to get dark, and once again, it seemed like the whole town was out, but this town was much bigger, and the party much larger. Someone was announcing over a loudspeaker. There was music blasting. Kids were walking around with painted faces. And then there were the riders, blank-faced, shuffling, lost-looking riders. I heard a few more say that there was no way to reach Rambouillet in time. We went into the canteen and found slim pickings, but we got a few croissants and some Cokes. I headed off to the restrooms that were in a building across the road from the canteen. After coming back from there, I ran into to Peter, who had a concerned look on his face.
“I can’t find my bike.”
“I know where they are. Follow me.”
We walked over to where the bikes were parked, and Mark soon joined us. As I was putting on warmer clothing for the upcoming chilly night ride, a few people wearing blue shirts with “Support Crew” printed on them started gathering the bikes that were parked near Mark’s bike. One of them grabbed Mark’s bike, and Mark quickly jumped up and grabbed it back. That gave us a topic of conversation, and we rode into the night talking about what it would be like to do this ride with a support crew beyond the many volunteers that made the ride possible. I wondered if the crew was gathering bikes of those who had abandoned the ride. I knew that the cold nights and hilly terrain were taking a terrible toll on many of the riders from Asia for they told me so themselves. “Don’t abandon, don’t abandon, don’t abandon,” I silently repeated to myself.
My ankle still hurt a bit, but I no longer had the urge to wince or cry. Once again the night air became cold, and we settled into a quick pace with a few other riders. One was an Englishman who had recently moved to the Netherlands, and he and I talked about good places to take my family to eat when I got back to Paris. As we talked, I found that my front derailleur would no longer shift down to the smaller chain ring. Dagnabit! I knew that we had some good hills ahead of us, including the steep climb into the control at Mortagne-au-Perche. I bid the English fellow good-bye, and I told my companions that the old issue was back. We came to a hill, and I click my lever to downshift. Thunk! The chain moved to the lower ring. As I climbed the hill I hoped that I would be able to shift to the big ring. Slink! The chain moved up to the big ring. My tired brain thought that maybe the problem had fixed itself, as if that ever happened with anything mechanical!
We kept moving, climbing and descending hills, and sometimes the chain would move from one ring to the other, and sometimes it refused to budge. Perhaps I was cross-chaining? I tried to make sure the chain was in the middle gear on the cassette before shifting, Sometimes it would work, sometimes not. I put it in the lowest gear. Sometimes it would work, sometimes not. By the time we got to Mamers, my stress level was high, and my ankle singing. As we entered town we saw a tent with lots of yellow-vested cyclists milling about, so we decided to stop. The local cycling club had set up a free canteen with soup, bread, cake and chocolate. What joy! I asked what kind of soup it was, and the kind eyed gentleman behind the serving table responded, “Soupe!” I wanted to make sure there was no meat so that Peter, who is vegetarian, could have some.
“Il y a de la viande dans la soupe?” I asked.
We retired to a table to enjoy our soup and cake and chocolate. I could not help overhearing a man with an English accent saying, “I know that you say that you won’t finish, but why don’t we rest here for a few hours.” “I am not going on,” replied an English woman’s voice.
“I know you can’t go on, but maybe I can take the bike and make it.”
“You are NOT leaving me here.”
I quickly swallowed down my soup, and took my chocolate and cake out to my bike. Peter had preceded me by a few seconds and Mark quickly followed. We had been overhearing a couple that we think had been together on a tandem, and there was no way we wanted to be around for the rest of that discussion.
I figured we were only a half an hour away or so to the next control, where we decided we would try to get another three hours sleep. As we started ascending up to Mortagne-au-Perche, my derailleur no longer shifted at all. It was easier for me to go faster to try to spin than it was to go the pace that Peter and Mark were keeping in a more appropriate gear, so I told them that I would see them at the control, and I slowly started to pull away from them. The last bit into the control was at least a ten percent grade, and I was pretty frazzled by the time I parked my bike. I decided it was more important to get sleep than go to the mechanic, so I started to get my stuff together for going into the dormitory. I had been in the bike park for a minute or two when Peter and Mark arrived. Peter decided he wanted to get a beer before bed, so Mark and I headed over to the dormitory.
The sleeping arrangement was not nearly as plush as what we had at the last dorm. I was shown to a mat that was maybe a quarter of an inch thick. There was a scratchy looking blanket in a pile on the floor next to the mat. The sounds and smells of people who had been on the road for seventy-plus hours filled the room. Unfazed, I threw my makeshift pillow and myself onto the floor and tried to go to sleep. As I was lying on the floor, all sorts of fragmented thoughts fleeted through my head, words, sounds, flashes of color. “Dying or insane?” popped into my head, and then I sensed a bright light. Is this the light you see when you are dying? Will I die on a floor in France? I heard a creaking sound, and I realized the bright light came from the opening and closing dormitory door, which was just a few feet away from my head. I tried to calm my mind and sleep, but sleep would not come, so I decided to get up earlier than planned and grab a shower. I went back outside to the table where the shower and dormitory volunteers sat, and asked for a towel and soap while offering my payment. “We have no hot water left, so you can shower for free.” Ugh! Maybe the cold water would revive me, so I headed into the shower area and stripped out of the clothes that I had been wearing for the past three days. When I got under the shower head I found that the water was hot. Awesome! I washed, dried myself off as best as I could with the small towel and changed into a clean kit. I also discovered my warm and waterproof gloves in my dry bag. At least they weren’t lost!
Mark also could not sleep, so he took advantage of the time by cleaning up and changing while I went to the mechanic’s tent. A young man grabbed my bike, and asked me if he could ride it before adjusting it. Of course! So, he took off, came back minutes later, threw the bike up on the stand, made an adjustment, hopped on the bike again and rode off, coming back a minute later, made another adjustment, back on the bike, back on the stand, et voila!
“How much do I pay?” I asked in my drowsy French.
“Rien. Bon route!”
I found Mark and Peter in the restaurant. I got some turkey with rice and a Coke and joined my friends at the table. I couldn’t choke down the turkey, but the gravy-soaked rice went down easily. Food in belly and fixed bike in parking area, I was feeling far more positive about my prospects than I had just a few hours before. We gathered our things and made our way to the bikes and shortly thereafter shivered our way down the hill away from the control. As we descended I could feel a familiar squishiness in my rear tire. Dagnabit!
“I flatted!” I cried out to my companions.
Worry joined exhaustion on their faces as I pulled to the opposite side of the road so as to be out of the way of those descending the hill behind me. Once again, we worked as a team and I quickly removed the thru axle and the wheel and fairly quickly removed the tire. Another inspection of the tire revealed no piercing culprit, nor could I find anything wrong with the rim tape or spokes. Hmmmm. After some tugging and pulling I was able to get one side of the tire onto the rim. I carefully mounted the tube, and then my companions and I went to trying to get the other edge of the tire onto the rim. This time the whole operation only took 25 minutes, but it was 25 minutes fraught with worry. What if I flatted again? I figured we had maybe an hour to spare before being out of time overall, and I was especially concerned about not making the intermediate cutoff at the control at Dreux.
“Don’t worry about it! We got this!” Mark told me as we started out again.
I was thrilled to find out that my ankle pain was gone, but just as I was about to announce this to my friends, Peter informed us that both of his ankles were giving him great deal of pain. Oh no! It was especially bad for him when he was riding uphill. Even though the rest of the route was relatively flatter than the days before, it still was quite hilly, and Peter, who is a very good climber, was having some difficulty on the long, low-grade climbs. I worried again about the time, but I reminded myself how my friends stuck with me through my difficulties. I told myself that there was no way I would abandon them.
The sun come up in front of us and made quite a beautiful sparkle on the wet fields. As it became more light I could feel myself finally warming up. After riding for a little more than an hour, we entered Longny-au-Perche, the town where we struggled with my tire that first evening of the ride.
“Don’t look!” Mark called out to me as we passed the square, and I averted my eyes so as not to turn into a pillar of sealant.
When we were a few kilometers outside of Senonches, a burly rider in some sort of Irish kit passed on our left. He was followed by a group of six riders in an orderly pace line. We hopped onto the end of the line, and soon we were cruising across the countryside in excess of 30 kilometers per hour. The Irishman pulled to the side of the line and gestured to four of the riders that were up front with him. He dropped back and cut in front of a rider that was a couple of places ahead of me. I knew then that we had crashed his party, but I didn’t care. I was going to take advantage of the free speed offered by the superior aerodynamics of the pace line, and he would have to pry me off with a crowbar. As we entered Senonches things got a bit hectic. A tractor was in front of us, and I was with the front part of the pace line that made it past the tractor. I turned around and saw that my friends had not, so I dropped back to rejoin them. Stranded near them was one of the Irishman’s group, an Englishman, who was yelling desperately for his leader, “Paul! Paul!” (I think that was the name he was yelling), which I could hear as I dropped behind him to join my friends.
I really wanted to get some more of that free speed, and I made a face and head gesture to Mark that showed him my intention. Mark and Peter dropped in behind me, and my fear and worry gave me a burst of power that drove me ahead. As I passed the Englishman I yelled, “Hop on!” and the four of us surged forward to close the hundred meter gap between us and the Irishman’s pace line.
After what seemed like an eternity but was probably 30 seconds of sprinting, we rejoined the line. I was spent! I needed to drop to the back of the line to recover, so I yelled to Mark to bridge as I pulled out. So now Mark had to burn a match to close the three meter hole that I left, which may not seem like a lot, but after over 700 miles of riding and six hours of sleep, it was no small effort.
“Thanks, mate!” the Englishman called to me as I dropped behind him.
We rolled along for another twenty minutes at 32 kilometers per hour, and we made up a lot of time. Soon I found myself third from the front behind the Englishman. As the lead rider pulled off, the Englishman surged to 36 kilometers per hour. What the heck is he doing? He led for about a minute and then pulled off, leaving me to take my turn. I ever so slowly started to drop back to original pace, but I did not want to abruptly slow as that would be worse for the line than maintaining a too high of pace. I had been at the head for about a minute when the Irishman powered his way up next to me, pointed up me with his index finger and moving his hand backwards, made a “get out” gesture with his thumb. Ok! I dropped off of the front and joined my friends at the back of the line. Mark was beat from bridging the gap, and Peter’s ankles still were hurting, so we decided to let the train roll on without us.
The terrain was nice and flat, and the weather very fair as we rolled by field after field. The flat terrain offered far views of the route ahead, and I could make out what appeared to be an ambulance pulled well off of the road in the distance. I silently prayed that it was not for a hurt rider, but as we drew closer I could see a bicycle near the ambulance. It was a grim reminder that even this close to the end, the ride had its challenges to overcome.
We reached the control at Dreux around 9:30 am. I felt pretty good because our goal was to get to Rambouillet at 1:45 pm, which was Peter’s group’s cutoff time, and it seemed very likely that we could do that with a fairly easy effort. During the previous days we had met up with Metin, a friend of Peter’s from the San Francisco Randonneur club, who was riding on fixie. During our conversations, he spoke of the importance of maintaining “control hygiene”; that is, one should spend time at controls getting stamped, eating, sleeping and using the restroom, preferably doubling up activities whenever possible. If one is riding with a group, then members of the group should divide and conquer the tasks whenever possible, especially when procuring food and drink. Mark, Peter and I, three newbies who had vowed to stick together, were absolutely horrible at control hygiene, and we knew it. Finally in Dreux, though, it all came together, and we were in and out of the control in twenty minutes, which was a record for us. One of the tasks that I had at the control was to completely inflate my rear tire, so I went to the mechanic’s tent to use the floor pump. I grabbed the pump, but two volunteers came up to me, and one grabbing my bike and the other the pump, took on the task of inflating my tires.
“Six?” one of them asked me referring to what bar the tire should be inflated.
“Quatre!?! Non! Six” and he proceeded to pump up my tire. He is the mechanic, right? I gave him my thanks, took the bike and met my friends outside of the tent. Let’s go!
We left Dreux in high spirits. It really looked like we were going to make it. We kept up a good pace of about 25 kilometers per hour and entered the town of Merangle when I could feel my rear tire get squishy. Dagnabit! We pulled up onto a sidewalk near a patisserie. Mark went into the shop to get some pain au chocolat, while Peter and I discussed the tire situation.
“I think it is a slow leak. I should just keep pumping it up until the end,” I told Peter.
“Yes, that is the best. Better than wrestling with that tire.”
I pumped up my tire with the mini pump and checked my watch. What is taking Mark so long? It had only been maybe three minutes, but the prospect of being 30 kilometers away from the end with a leaking inner tube and a tough-to-mount tire had me as skittish as a hen.
“I am going to slow roll out, and you guys can catch up with me,” I told Peter.
“Don’t slow roll. Go as fast as you can. We will still catch you,” he responded.
Great advice! I figured they would catch up with me the next time I had to pull over to pump, or if not then, soon after, so off I took. For the first time in 86 hours our trio separated.
. . . .
Alone I sprint up to 30 kilometers per hour, ringing my bell and shouting “on your left please” as I pass other cyclists. After almost two kilometers, the tire is squishy to a point that I pull over to pump it again. Many of the riders whom I had just passed ride by as I frantically pump the mini pump. Many of them call out with offers to help, which I refuse. I decide to put a big smile on my face so the passing riders would know that I am ok. Tire re-inflated, I hop on my bike and sprint again, passing many of the riders that I had passed before. Two kilometers later I am back on the side of the road, pumping at the mini pump. The passing and pumping continue, and I keep expecting to see Mark and Peter, but instead, I see the same group of riders that are going at a speed that has me pass them as I sprint and has them pass me as I pump. Finally I am approaching the gates into the bergerie at Rambouillet. The route has us pass through the parking area, and there are many people walking in the road that I have to navigate around.
“Excuse me! Excuse me!” I shout as I ring my bell. The rough road is doing a number on my leaking tube, and I stop to pump. I am so close to the end, and I want to ride all the way. I know there will be cobbles to traverse, so I am hoping to find a floor pump to get the tires inflated enough to make it all the way to the end.
“Does anyone have a floor pump? Pompe? Floor pump please!” I shout as I ride past campers and caravans.
An English lady shouts out to me, “We have one!” and yells to a man behind a van to come with a pump. He comes up with a long, hand pump, the kind that one finds mounted under the top tube on classic steel bicycles.
“Thanks, sir,” I tell him. “I can take it from here.”
“No, no, you’re tired, and I can do this properly,” he responds and starts pumping.
I feel the tire with my hand, and I say, “This is great! This is enough. Thanks!”
“No, I am going to do a proper job. I own a bike shop, and I know what I am doing. You see, everyone complains about the tube, but what is happening is that every time you hit a bump near the valve, air leaks out.” (At least that is what I think he says. I am pretty frantic at this point.)
Just then Peter comes by. “There you are. See you at the finish!” he calls out.
“Where’s Mark? I ask. He points ahead, and I can see Mark fifty meters further up the road.
Finally, my pumping savior releases the pump from the valve and bids me congratulations. “Thanks so much!” I say as I hop onto my bike and sprint after Peter. I catch him just before the timing mat, and he says, “Go ahead.”
“No, you go ahead. You waited for us at the beginning.”
“No, you go ahead. You had so much trouble getting here.” So I cross the mat just before Peter, and make my way along the cobbles and into the close where the finishers do a small lap.
. . . .
Wendy, the English speaking volunteer in Fougères, was right. Tears were in my eyes and a huge lump in my throat as I rode the loop, but I choked them back before meeting a volunteer, who handed me a cup of water. Another volunteer motioned for me to get off of my bike, and he walked me to the bike park and then to the tent for the final stamp and review of my brevet card. I was led to a kind-faced American woman, who stamped my card, inspected the other stamps, told me that the card would be mailed to me. She placed the finishers medal around my neck. What joy! Peter, Mark and I left the tent, and I found someone to take our picture before going to get the finishers’ meal. We grabbed our food, and I went out to get us beers; however, the beer had run out and there was only cider, so I got a bottle and rejoined my friends. After several toasts and finishing the meal, we bid farewell to Peter, who was going to take the train back to Paris, and Mark and I got back on our bikes and made the 25 kilometer journey back to our rental house in Neauphle-le-Vieux, stopping every couple of kilometers to pump up my tire.
When we arrived at the house, our wives greeted us with champagne. Yay! My mother-in-law and my kids came out and with big smiles on their faces. I went upstairs, removed my kit and jumped into the shower. Emerging somewhat clean, I put on my swimsuit and went straight for the pool. Plunge! Splash! I emerged from the pool moments later, walked over to the patio area where Mark, his wife, my mother-in-law and my wife were waiting. I almost lost my footing as I walked over to them, but I caught myself and sat myself down in a chair that was placed in a sunny spot near the champagne and a plate of bread and cheese. My wife handed me a glass of champagne, and we all toasted the ride. I was done!