blocks

Follow or subscribe to our blog to get notifications of updates to this site
as well as more frequent insightful, pithy commentary

 

bike logo

 

Loading

Paris Brest Paris 1991

by Pamela Blalock

 

Background

Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) is a long distance bike ride over a route of approximately 1200 kilometers (750 miles) between Paris and Brest and back. It is held every 4 years, and attracts riders from all over the world. The time limit is 90 hours. The clock never stops, not for sleeping, eating, repairs, or anything else. Riders should be self-supported - carrying what they need. Limited personal support is allowed at checkpoints only, which are about 100 Km apart. Personal support vehicles are not allowed on route. Their route intersects the cycling route only at controls.

1991 marked the 100th anniversary of this ride. In the early years, the ride was held every 10 years. Later it became more frequent: every 5 years, and currently is held every 4 years. Initially it was a professional race, but in the last half century has been the domain of amateurs.

My ride

403 (46 female) Americans entered Paris-Brest-Paris in 1991. We all had our reasons for coming, but the word I heard most often was obsession. Several, like myself had come to Paris in 1987 and had not completed the ride. This time we would finish. There were lots of newcomers and many veterans. Our time goals varied, but the basic goal was to finish. As we met and socialized at the Fiapad, a cross between a hotel and a youth hostel, where most Americans were staying, we talked about how we got to this point and what our plans were.

We had all been working toward this goal for two years. In order to attempt PBP as an American, a rider had to complete a series of brevets of 200, 300, 400, and 600 km two years in a row prior to the event. A 1000 km event was strongly encouraged. The qualifiers were held at various places throughout the country.

I had worked for 6 years. I first found out about PBP in 1986. I qualified for and attempted the ride in 87. I had 8 flat tires in the first 80 miles. I was unprepared for the rain and the cold, and my spirit was broken by the two hundred mile mark, so I abandoned. A lot of Americans joined me. It was because so many Americans abandoned in 87 that we had to do two years of qualifiers.

In 1988, I completed Boston-Montreal-Boston, a ride run in the same format as PBP, but apparently that accomplishment was just not enough for me. I had to return to Paris and complete PBP. I worried constantly in the weeks before the ride about how I might handle a second defeat. I had told so many people. Why had I done that? Of course this may have helped keep me on the bike and moving forward more than anything else.

I had met lots of the riders at qualifiers and other training rides, or PBP in 87. And I made lots of new friends on this ride. Some I just know as the person who helped me on a particular part of the course and others became lifelong friends. As we hung out or rode or rested before the start of the ride, we talked a lot about equipment and our past experiences on qualifiers or other rides. The discussions centered around lights, tires, clothing, repairs, gearing, difficulty of rides, and training. Of course we all thought our own qualifiers were the toughest. Hills and headwinds, rain, cold, hot, cars, dogs, potholes are all an integral part of any qualifier. A non-cyclist eavesdropping on a conversation would have surely thought we were on the lunatic fringe.

"Why did you start doing this?" was also a common question. I've been asked that many times by non-cyclists and they always gave me a baffled look as I tried to explain the fun and challenge of the challenge and succeeding despite hardship. It was great to be with so many people who understood. And were as obsessed with completing this ride as I was.

We arrived 6 days before the start of the ride. This gave us time to put the bikes back together, go for shakedown rides, and do some sightseeing while adjusting to the time change. Some people continued riding long hard rides right up to the start of the ride. I did about 30 miles a day, and then did a lot of sightseeing. Others were paranoid about going out at all before the ride, and never left the hotel.

Al, Carl, Matt, Rick and I had ridden a lot together on the qualifiers and seemed to have similar speeds and styles. One of my memories from 1987 was coming into controls and seeing these little tailgate parties as whole families joined in to support their rider. Some had elegant tables and dinners set up. Others were more primitive. But I decided I could use an advantage like that. The 5 of us decided to share a crew. Dave and Gray put up with us for 4 days, so they could enjoy spending time in Paris before and after the ride. There main duty was to get the rental care, carrying our extra clothes and food from control to control, and of course offer moral support. Having two folks in the car made it much easier for navigating and definitely more enjoyable. Crewing really can be pretty boring, so I truly appreciate what they did, and how hard it was.

The Ride Start

As part of the 100th anniversary celebration, the ride started in Paris at the Hotel de Ville (the city hall) at 2 P.M. on Monday. We were to go there, and get the first stamp for our route cards, and ride from there to the official start/finish line in Saint Quentin en Yvelines, about 50 Km away. This part of the ride was actually optional, but the stamp was not, so we had to at least attend the ceremony. There were lots of announcements and official proclamations. I, like many others, then took the train back to the hotel to try to get some sleep before the 10 PM start. There are three start times - 8pm for racers, with only 80 hours allowed, 10pm with 90 hours allowed, and 5am with 84 hours allowed. There were 3700 riders total, with 2000 riders starting at 10pm.

I got back to the Fiapad and it was quite warm, so I had the windows open. Lots of people were running around at the last minute getting ready and making noise. Rooms were made and cleaned in the afternoon, and despite the sign on the door,that said do not disturb (in French), I awoke to the noise of a key turning in the lock, and then an oops. But I was also so excited that I was unable to really sleep much at all.

After a light dinner and a cup of espresso to get me jump started, we loaded up the rental car, and headed for the start. We just missed the 8pm start, which made getting in a little easier. Dave and Gray were concerned about traffic and making it to the first control, so they left right away. I rolled into the stadium and found Carl and Matt. I checked in, and on the way out someone called my name and gave me a glow in the dark necklace to wear that night. I'm still not sure who this was. I wandered around the stadium, took some pictures, waited in line for the bathrooms and tried to contain my excitement. There were lots of announcements being made over the load speakers, so trying to get a little sleep was hopeless. One announcement was translated and that was that the ride would start in three waves, about 20 minutes apart, at the request of the police. Riders would be compensated for the delay. Basically every rider was given an extra hour.

Looking around the crowd of 2000 I saw some familiar faces, and lots of new ones. The helmeted riders tended to speak English. Mostly under helmets were Americans, English, Australians, Norwegians, Danes, and Swedes. A few of the French donned hairnets, and some even had hardshell helmets, but mostly just hats. The bikes were different too. Mostly the Americans had flashy new bikes with aero bars and fancy new fangled gadgets. Many of the French bikes looked old and tested, but fast and reliable. Looking around at those non-helmeted heads, I noticed a lot of white hair. The average age of the rides was quite high. Many of these rides have done this ride over and over again. These white haired men were also the ones I would find myself riding with a lot, as they seemed to take a special interest in American women!

I ended up being one of the last riders to roll out of the stadium. We started moving around 10:30pm. This worked well, because I was able to warm up gradually. I took it fairly easy for the first 20 km and then took off.

The route had been changed a bit from previous routes and the manner of marking was different. In 1987, arrows were placed on the roads and easily visible from a bike at night. This time many of the arrows were off to the side on poles and sticks. This was not a problem until late in the ride. For the first few hundred kilometers, there was an endless string of taillights to follow. All traffic was stopped along the route and crossing the route for the first 100 km. After that the field broke up more and stopping traffic wasn't necessary. The new route was a bit more rural than in the past. This created a few problems for me. The countryside is not littered with convenience stores, so riders depend on bars and restaurants for drinks and food in the middle of the night. The more rural route meant there were fewer of these. It also seemed there were fewer spectators and well wishers than I remembered.

We talked up a storm all night, partly to stay awake, and partly because of the excitement of meeting new people. I drafted off of every tandem I could. I'd roll up behind and introduce myself, and ask where they were from and the conversation went from there. I drafted a tandem team I had met before in 1987. The stoker, Scott, is blind, and yet I watched him reassemble the bike himself when we arrived in Paris. I then found a tandem from Chicago, and one from Scotland and one from DC. I did a little pulling too, at least when no tandems were around. There were 59 in the ride, so it was usually easy to find one. There were also two triplets, which I only saw at the start and finish and lots of tricycles, mostly from England. I rode with and passed and was passed by riders I had met over the years. I rode with Rose, who I had met on a double to Cape Cod, and John who I met on Double Trouble, and Doug from Boston and John from NY, and John from NC, and John from ... (hmmm, John seems to be a popular name for long distance cyclists) It was really great seeing so many familiar faces in such a large crowd. And occasionally I saw Al, Matt and Carl. But I didn't see Rick.

Daylight

The ride was really becoming fun. All my apprehension was starting to fade. The first 400 km flew by. The night was quite cool and I used tights and arm warmers and adrenaline to stay warm. I stopped for espresso also. As the sun rose, so did the temperature and the humidity. By late afternoon, it was high 80's, maybe low 90's. I changed to cold drinks.

My wardrobe changed as well. I started the layers with a ladies one-piece racer back suit - which in the heat of the day was all I wore. It drew lots of comments from the French men - although I haven't the foggiest idea what they were saying. I then wore one of the 3 USA jerseys I had picked up before the ride, a pair of tights, arm warmers, and when necessary a jacket and heavy gloves. I peeled and added layers as necessary. I always had my rain jacket and tights with me. In 1987, we had constant cold drizzle. In 91, we never saw a rain drop, but the temperatures fluctuated from 40's in the early morning to 80's or 90's in the late afternoon. We did pay for the lack of rain with two solid days of headwind!

A ride with 3500 men and 200 women makes toilets interesting. I certainly understand that the women's rooms would be overrun with men, but they could at least close the doors! French men don't seem to have a lot of modesty when it comes to this. Most simply stopped on the edge of the road and went - they didn't even step away from the bike. The French women also didn't seem to have a problem with walking into a men's room complete with urinals to wait for a stall. But I'm a little shy!

However, being a woman on this ride did have certain advantages. There were certainly times that I felt I received preferential treatment because I was female, and I never turned it down. This mainly involved getting a bed or blanket.

On the ride from Villaines La Juhel to Forgeres, I met a very nice man from Norway, named Njelle. We talked a lot. His clubmates were somewhere behind him, due to a flat. He said was was thinking of waiting for them when I rode by and decided I looked like nice company. He encouraged me not to burn myself out on the hills and we had a nice ride. We stopped when we found a restaurant for another shot of espresso. His clubmates caught us there and we all rode into Fougeres together. At Fougeres we separated, because they were going to sit down to eat and the sleep for an hour, and I wanted to continue on. (Fougeres was 304 Km into the ride. I would not sleep until Loudeac at 445 Km) I did make a brief visit to Red Cross to get my neck massaged a little, and then headed out.

I met up with Crista and Steve, a tandem couple that I had met earlier in the ride, and we rode out together, along with Al. We had a great time riding into Tintineac together. We were all still feeling quite good. At this checkpoint I took advantage of the Red Cross for some work on my legs.

Each checkpoint was set up with the control, where a rider got his route card stamped and his magnetic card read by a computer. There were toilets, beds, showers, a cafeteria with hot food, a mini bike shop with parts and a mechanic, and a Red Cross center with volunteers to help with massages and first aid. I took full advantage of the massages at the Red Cross and really appreciate the efforts they made to keep people going. The volunteers all along the ride were wonderful, helpful, polite and encouraging.

At Tintineac, a reporter and photographer approached me and asked me where I was from. The reporter was looking for the youngest rider, an 18 year old female, and flattered me tremendously suggesting I might be 18. The rider she sought was Jenny, who I had met earlier. I described the blonde energetic young lady I had met at inspection and suggested that she might be through soon. She was also looking for the oldest American rider who was rumored to be a 77 year old male. We think there was an error in the date of birth though, because no one knew of an American rider that old. I knew Richard, a 65 year old rider, whom I had helped spark interest in this ride a few years earlier. I think Richard's wife would have preferred I had not! But two of his sons were also here riding, making it a family event.

Sleep

The reporter then asked me about my ride, and since I still felt good, I said it was great! I was quite surprised how good I felt at this point. I think I jinxed myself because the next segment hurt. It had become quite warm and we found ourselves with a headwind. Al and I stayed together for a while. He would ride up ahead and stop for a catnap. I suggested we stop for espresso. We met some riders from Toronto at the restaurant. We began discussing the showers at Loudeac. The idea of a shower pulled me into town just before dark. But when I asked for a shower they said no showers for women. Apparently the shower facility was a big open space, with no privacy. I was so hot and probably a little dehydrated and all I wanted was a shower and I broke down. They carted me off to Red Cross for a massage and water and Vitamin C. I then went back and asked about a bed. The very nice man at the bed counter led me off to a private room with a sink and a bed. Most other beds were in cubicle like stalls. I then walked down the hall and discovered ... a shower! So I snuck in and had the best shower of my life. I slept for about 5 hours and got up feeling fresh. Carl and Matt had come in later and were at the car getting ready, when I rolled out, headed for Carhaix, at 3am.

As I mentioned before, this route seemed a lot more rural than in 1987, with fewer towns and less houses. There were very no people along the route this night. I found myself falling asleep a few times, with no other English speakers around to talk to. I finally found an open restaurant and stopped for coffee. I was able to get coffee, but when I tried to get some fizzzy water, the waitress seemed to not want to help me. My command of French is not very good, so I still don't know what happened.. I was living on Ultra Energy - one of those high tech liquid diets, and espresso. My stomach was unsettled, and I really wanted fizzy water. I left feeling very depressed. When I got into Carhaix, Dave and Gray had not arrived. By the time I had downed a cup of cafe au lait, they arrived. Rick was taking more time at checkpoints and was going to make things hard for Dave and Gray to support 4 riders relatively close together with one much further back.. We decided to skip a checkpoint here and there to try to accommodate us all. I got more of my liquid diet and dumped some of my spare lights for the trip to Brest. Riders must keep at least one set of lights on at all times, so I kept one, but my other two headlights spent the daylight hours in the car.(I was probably carrying too many lights!)

Just before leaving the control, I did try again to get fizzy water, but still with no luck. The only times I really had doubts about my ability to finish this ride were at times like these, when the language barrier caused me not to be able to get something I needed, and I ended up a bit drained emotionally. This ride is 90% mental, and little things can really break the spirit. Of course other little things can really boost the spirit too!

Halfway

The assault on Brest involved climbing The Roc, which would be followed by 40Km of downhill, and the some nasty rollers into town. This area was beautiful. We flew in. I saw many riders heading back out of town. When I arrived, I found Al, and Carl and Matt, but no Dave or Gray. I borrowed a packet of Ultra Energy from another rider's crew and then ran into friends who had started at 5am and had now caught us (making up the 7 hours) We walked down to the cafeteria, and talked a while. I saw Njelle there and he looked rough, but still strong. I had seen his clubmates just outside. As I was about to leave, I bumped into Dave and Gray. They had not expected us so quickly and were having lunch. We headed out to the car, and I found the others and prepared to head back into the wind and over the Roc.

This headwind would be with us for the remainder of the ride. It never died down. At night I think it became stronger, but it did keep the rain away. I started the slow ascent in an easy gear and felt myself grow stronger as I climbed. I saw many riders still coming in to town. Every little town has a big church with a tall steeple in the center, and the one half way up the Roc was no exception. I stopped to take pictures of this church and of one of the many French riders stopping for a beer along the way. When I reached the top, I felt incredible. I knew I could finish the ride. I pushed way too hard back into Carhaix and paid for it with pain in my back the next day. I picked up my spare lights and warm clothes in Carhaix, since it would get dark and cool before I reached Loudeac. The final miles into Loudeac were just after dusk and quite confusing. Our group had about 50 riders and we checked for arrows constantly. We avoided getting lost narrowly, and made it in.

I stopped by Red Cross for some work on my back, and then got 4 hours of sleep.

Another Dawn

The next morning, I rode into Tintineac, and had my only solid food of the ride. The soup smelled so good that I had soup and a velo sandwich - ham and egg I think. We headed back to the car for fresh supplies. Al, Carl, Matt and I had come into the checkpoint roughly at the same time. We all decided it was a good time to brush our teeth. It was almost a sensual experience. Our crew shaved while we were cleaning up. I've heard a lot of the French riders shave every morning, but then they also drink a lot of beer and smoke cigarettes along the way! We took pictures of our impromptu beside the road hygiene efforts. We also sang happy birthday to Dave, who turned 32 that day, as off key and offbeat as possible. And then we headed out. I found myself adopted by Bernard on this segment. Bernard had picked up Frederick, a very young rider, earlier in the morning as his companion, and was now adding me to the fold. Bernard spoke a little English and with my few words of French we had a great time. I had remembered this section as being easy on the way out, but that was adrenaline. This was up and down. We rode almost all the way into Fougeres together, but I stopped at the castle to take pictures. There in the middle of town was this incredible castle complete with a moat. Dave and Gray took a little tour of it after we left. I'm looking forward to seeing the pictures and maybe going back there for a real tour someday myself.

Bernard and I got back together at the checkpoint and took pictures. We saw each other a few more times along the way, including at the finish line.

Carl rolled in soon afterwards and we decided to ride into Villaines La Juhel together. This segment was constant up and down, but also was the best because of the little kids. Every kilometer or so we would come upon a group with cold water, sugar cubes, fruit, and cheers. They loved doing handoffs and running along beside us, or just slapping our hands. It was the highlight of the ride, although I worried I would knock one over when I slapped a hand. This was one of those little things that helps the psyche!

There were also large crowds in Villaines La Juhel. They cheered every time a rider or group came in. It was like being at the finish, except there were more km ahead. I stopped at Red Cross this time, because my throat was getting sore most likely from talking too much, but I felt so bad from the ride, I was concerned. They gave me some lozenges and I headed out. Carl, Matt, Al and I rode the next segment together as it got dark and very cold. The wind beat us constantly. The trees loomed overhead and looked like giant monsters from a distance. I was happy to be riding with my friends. We made it into to Mortagne au Perche around midnight. I found a bed and stopped by Red Cross, as usual. My feet were starting to go numb and my butt was getting a little sore. They took great care of me, as usual and I went off to sleep. I rose a little later than I wanted to and moved a little slower, but I only had 141 km left and until 5pm to do them. The line for the toilets was quite long. I bundled up because it was really cold out and tried to pour some coffee and Ultra Energy into myself. I ran into Steve, a rider from Maine, who I had met earlier, and he offered me a caffeine tablet. It worked great, I didn't have to stop for espresso that morning.

The Final Day

I rolled out in the bitter cold wearing most of my winter gear. I had my one piece shorts/top, a thermax sweater, my tights, a wool sweater, my rain jacket and my heavy gloves. I shed the heavy gloves and jacket fairly soon, but stayed in the rest most of the morning. I began to really feel confident and that's when I missed a turn, along with lots of other riders. We rode 8-10 km before discovering our mistake. Then I started to panic. I felt I had jinxed myself again by getting too confident. I made it to the checkpoint OK, but I was so tense that my neck was giving out. I could barely hold my head up.

At the final control before the finish, I changed into my victory jersey - a jersey with a champagne bottle uncorked that I had bought last fall and saved for the ride. Even though Carl had left an hour before me, he had not come through. Dave was quite concerned. We decided he had the same problems that I had had with arrows in the dark, or was at one of the many restaurants along the way having breakfast.

As it turned out, I wasn't the only one in our group to get lost. Carl had also missed a turn and did an extra 50 Km, along with another large group of riders. But I heard Carl was chipper as ever, and didn't seem to mind his detour.

Even though it was only 57 km to the finish, I refused to think that I had made it until I walked into the control and handed over my card and route sheet. I rode along and talked with lots of riders, and the excitement was incredible. We rode into a cheering crowd of supporters and checked in. The tears were welling up as I came in and when they handed me a rose, the waterworks started. I had finally completed this ride, with the help of an awful lot of people along the way, including Dave and Gray, the red cross volunteers, Carl, Matt, Al, and Rick, Njelle and the other Norwegians, Bernard and Frederick, the rider who pulled me into Nogent le Roi, the kids with the water, all the tandems, and all the other people I drafted along the way, Steve with the No-Doz and encouraging words ("you look awful"), my riding partners over the years, and Gilbert who got me addicted to this type of stuff 6 years ago, and all the riders I met along the way here who inspired me to keep going. I accept this medal on their behalf!

By the way, you may notice that I have not mentioned a single flat tire or mechanical problem, and that is because this ride was trouble free, unlike my attempt in 1987. I carried all those heavy tools and spares and never needed them. Of course I will continue to carry those same tools and spares!

I looked around for my friends. Some had already come in and others were on the road. I joined the cheering crowd to greet people as they came in. Carl came in soon after I did. Matt and Al had already arrived. Rick, the final rider in our group of 5 made it in 3 minutes before official cutoff.

I also saw a few riders who had quit for various reasons. We talked about the long road to 95 that now lay ahead of them. I know. I abandoned in 87 and had spent the last 4 years focused on this ride and avenging my defeat. What a wonderful feeling it was to finally do that. Just getting to the start line of PBP is an incredible accomplishment and certainly should not be diminished in any way.

Other riders continued to roll in well into the night. Not official finishers, but finishers!!!

There were two triplets on the ride, and the second rolled in 4 hours after the cutoff time to a thunderous round of applause. I was still around for the awards ceremony. The first male and female riders were presented and lots of French was spoken on the loud speakers. I was running on adrenaline at this point and figuring out French wasn't working well. We eventually headed back to our hotel, but even then I could not sleep. Several of us sat up reliving our ride. I said that night I would not come back, but I will.