By Chuck Bramwell
This was my first Paris-Brest-Paris and I will go to my grave still remembering so many things about it. Like the absolute excitement of the 80 hour start with great music, TV cameras rolling, thousands of spectators, motorcycle police leading guys out pumping with endorphins at full throttle. (I then went back to the Hotel and of course couldn't sleep for hours dreaming of this lead peloton flying down the course!!)
I will always remember the endless stream of red taillights as my buddy, TK Gardner, and I purposefully were the last in the 5:00am, 84hr Peloton. We couldn't see where the start of the peloton began ... it was way down the road in the darkness!! TK and I had a blast riding side by side through forests, small country villages, up steep hills, and around so many roundabouts. Thanks to the Police, we didn't even have to stop at any intersection for well over the first 200 miles!!
The forests were shockingly beautiful. The Roubaillet Forest was like the Redwoods in California ... surrounded by ferns everywhere. Trees that go up forever on both sides of the perfect road that weaves between them. We must have gone through a dozen beautiful forests like these!! As were so many things for me on PBP, this was a completely unexpected surprise.
I will always remember the passion the French have for cyclists, and the young children out cheering us on at 3:00am in the full moonlit night. Or the older ladies yelling "Bon Courage" out their windows with beautifully planted fresh flowers in every flower pot. The incredible beauty of the French Country villages had a big impact on me. I will always remember seeing the Chapel on the hill in the distance at night. Climbing up to the center. Weaving through the really neat bendy streets. Surrounded by buildings that were hundreds of years old. Having fun riding around the roundabouts. Riding by the Chapel always well lit up even at night. Then riding fast down the downhill on the way out of town. I have been on some Wild Roller Coasters but this was the most magnificent and fun Roller Coaster I have ever ridden!! (PAC Tour Ridge of the Rockies was a close second). The absolute silence in the night riding was shocking. I loved it. Hours with no cars anywhere. Only the sounds of crickets and wild things in the distance. Full moon nights. Perfect night weather. Just cycling shorts and jersey all night long!! Certainly, this was heaven.
I will always remember how hard it was. It was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. Period. It was the first time I had ridden past the 600K mark. Had to dig real deep. I learned a lot about myself and others. I learned a lot about what works for me nutritionally and what doesn't (lots more to follow here). I will also remember that all of the training really paid off. All of the long training rides that John Hughes recommended were remembered by my legs and body. The many 400 mile training weeks in July really did help. I felt good on the bike even on the third day (after working through some diarrhea that left me disoriented and weak). The hill repeats in training allowed me to motor up the endless steep hills. Some faster than others.
I will always remember riding side by side with John Hughes and Kim Freitas on Day 1 for over 200 miles. They may have not known it, but they took me to PBP University that day as they taught me by example how to conserve my energy for Day 2 and Day 3. At night, John was just fearless in the dark ... letting it rip at 40+ mph down the hills into total darkness. That night riding confidence really spread like a virus to me ... and I thought of John's big grin on his face as I rode with increased confidence at night on Day 2 and 3. Thanks John for all that you did to help me and so many others have a great experience over there. "Yo da #1 Coach!!"
I will always remember smelling the barn on PBP at about 100 miles out. Racing through the Roubaillet Forest in total darkness with some cyclists from Audax Australia. Sprinting for the last 30 miles through the final small villages and back into St. Quentin -- sometimes in my 53-11 gear and with my Heart Rate even climbing back up above 160!!??!! Seeing the Race Controllers on motorcycles zipping by us at 50+ MPH racing through the night. Tracking the last of the thousands of the reflective arrow signs tied to the street signs -- the arrows that pointed the way.
As I entered St. Quentin, my good friend Debbie Hennig was walking back to the hotel and yelled out, "Way to Go Chuck!!" I was so pumped when I got the finish that I nearly passed out!!
I will always remember my wife, Carol, and sons, Adam and Alex, being there for me at the finish. It was 12:30am Friday morning when I arrived and they had watched my ride step by step from the Start Line on the Minitel computer system that allowed them to see when I made it through each of the controls. It meant everything in the world to me for them to be there at the finish. To hear them congratulate me even before I could see them was something I'll long remember.
We decided early on that I would ride PBP without them supporting me at the controls. I hadn't seen them for 3 days but it seemed like 3 years in many ways. They had been overwhelmed by the beauty of Versailles and the Louvre.
I had been overwhelmed by the beauty of Mortagne, Villaines, Fougeres, Tinteniac, Loudeac, Carhaix, Brest and a network of a thousand little villages on small country roads. We were all overwhelmed. It was just a case of brain overload.
The bed felt real good that night. I remember Muffy Ritz saying in a Race Across America video that she was "going under the covers and not coming out for a week." I could relate to that big time.
I will long remember Mr. Lepertel tearing up at the Awards Meeting Friday night as he expressed his incredible love for this event. His passion was clear and felt very strongly across the language barrier -- I was crying all over the place as I thought of the many days, weeks, and months that he and his wife worked so hard on this year's PBP ... and 1995 ... and 1991 ... and 1987 .... and I'm not sure even how many he has headed up. 1,000 Volunteers. Just an amazing organization. So impressive. So important to the French nation. So impressive to the 3,700 Cyclists who came from all four corners of the world to participate.
However, of all of these memories, and of so many others that I haven't even written about yet, there is one that still chills me to the bone. Thursday, Day #3, was of course the hardest of the days. I was well into the Twilight Zone here. 90 Minutes of Sleep on Day 1 and 90 Minutes on Day 2 had left me "refreshed" but still many hours of sleep deprivation going into Day 3. Then the Stomach Cramps hit. Sylvester Stallone was punching me in the stomach. No power. This was the low point. As I headed for the Corn Fields for the 3rd time that morning, I remembered:
"A journey into nature Push yourself until the pain comes Until you think you can not survive And then go on Here the ego will let go Here you will be purified Here is the moment of true prayer Where you will feel the power of the universal language." (Eco-Challenge 1996)
Yes, here my ego did let go. I did feel the moment of true prayer. I decided it was time for a "Power Nap". I wasn't getting any power to the pedals. I looked for a nice grassy section of the side of the road. Sat my bike down. Laid on my Camelbak as a pillow. Set my Watch for 20 minutes. Fell asleep immediately. I was awoken by an angel in disguise driven by a nice french man in an official car. They had stopped to see if I was okay. She placed a Magnesium Tablet on my tongue then a Salt Tablet. She spoke beautiful English to me and beautiful French to the driver. Certainly this person was an angel in disguise. They both wanted to be sure that I was Okay. And ready to continue. They waited to see me mount my bike and cheered "Allez!!" (Go!!) to me.
From that point, everything changed for me. I felt better physically. More powerfully, it changed something in my soul. These folks really cared for me when I was below the lowest point. They picked me up and gave me a lift just when I needed it. I didn't expect anyone to come by ... it was such a nice surprise. They were so kind to me.
The next time I saw these folks was at the Awards meeting Friday night. There were thousands of people there. But the angel in disguise jumped right out at me. I went up to her after the meeting. With tears in my eyes, I thanked her and gave her a big hug. I was crying all over the place. I told her how much it meant to me for her to pick me up and get me rolling again. She was so happy to see me and so proud that I had finished. We both shared tears of joy for that one moment. It was a great moment in time for both of us.
I then noticed that her name tag read: "C. Lepertel". I don't know if my Angel in Disguise was the daughter or daughter-in-law of the Lepertels who have given so much to organizing Paris-Brest-Paris. But I do know that she helped me just when I needed it the most --- and I will not soon forget her kindness. Certainly, I have seen a glimpse of heaven. I loved Paris-Brest-Paris. It was the ride of my life.