By Adrian Harris
With well over 3500 entrants at this year's Paris-Brest-Paris, the several different start times did help to spread the riders out a bit. Officially, PBP is not a race, but a Randonnée. A Randonnée is more of a trial of self-sufficiency than a race. In fact, a Randonnée limits the speed you can travel by restricting the opening times of checkpoints. However, for PBP, course records are recognized, and the 8:00pm start is reserved for the "cracks" (as they are called in PBP lingo) who clearly have no regard for the official Randonnée designation.
Of the five start times (three for single bikes, two for tandems, tricycles, and recumbents), only two (8:00pm & 9:45pm) are unrestricted. Meaning you can go as fast as you like (but not too slowly). With the other start times, you are restricted as to the times you can arrive at a checkpoint -- this is to discourage racing.
Jodi Groesbeck and I registered for the 9:45pm tandem start because our objective was to beat the mixed tandem record of 49 hours 29 minutes (the fastest we could ride if we started with the 4:45am group would be 50 hours). This record has stood since 1951, when the course took a less hilly route to Brest and back: in 1975, the course was changed to avoid the increasing traffic of the main roads. 1951 was also the last year in which professionals were permitted in the race.
We set ourselves an ambitious target of 48 hours to fall well within the current record, not wanting a repeat of our close call at the National 24 this June. In that race, where only completed laps count towards your mileage, we had to ride our fastest lap at the end in order to beat the competition record. To have any chance of achieving our goal, we had to enlist the support of a crew to help us quickly through the many checkpoints (14 excluding the start and finish).
All the serious contenders have a crew. It is especially true with the solo riders, who can only remain in the lead group if they can clear the checkpoints at the same speed as their competition. However, the crew can only help at checkpoints, if they are discovered on the rider's route, their rider is assessed a time penalty.
Our crew had a familiar make up: Tricia Harris (my wife), Keith Williamson (mechanic extraordinaire), and Rick Andrew. Tricia and Keith have accompanied me on several distance events. Rick was recruited at the last minute as Jodi's assistant. Having a crewmember for each rider and a mechanic to take care of bike maintenance, lights, etc. is the ideal support for a speedy checkpoint exit. We are lucky not only to have a crew, but the best crew.
I won't bore you with the registration details other than to say it was much easier to execute than the instructions had indicated. Jodi and I were very apprehensive about the registration procedure, but it turned out to be easy. However, we did choose to get to the start very early, and we were very glad of that; the crowds of riders and spectators are quite incredible.
It was just getting dark as we made our way to the start line. We lined up early to avoid getting caught up in the crowds. All the riders assemble in a holding pen until 15 minutes before the start, at which time you are led to the line. We found a few people to speak with, which was good because we couldn't understand any of the starting line announcements (although they must have been good, because everyone was cheering).
Tricia, Keith, and Rick were also milling around talking to everyone, as well as giving us moral support. They came across a hand cyclist - the first ever to qualify for PBP. There were many recumbents, several tricycles (all Brits of course), and two (that we could see) fully faired recumbents.
You would be hard pushed to find our starting point, Saint Quentin-en-Yvelines, in any guidebook of France. The whole area has the appearance of an English "new town," with its superior traffic flow, wide streets, ample parking, but no character. The streets appear empty of commerce largely, as we discovered to our surprise, due to the existence of a whole underground world of shops and restaurants (it is possible that the population of France is actually double that reported in the census).
Luckily, it doesn't take long to get out of this area and into the rolling wooded area that takes you to Nogent-le-Roi, and then beyond towards the hills of Mortagne-au-Perche. It's dark, so it is not evident that we will be traveling through very pleasant French countryside.
The route travels principally through the French provinces of Normandy and Brittany. Americans perhaps better know Normandy for its beaches, over which the allied forces swarmed in 1944. But, further inland, Normandy is home to dense woodlands, tiny villages and isolated farmsteads dotted over the rolling (and sometimes steep) hills.
We started with a large group of tandems that sped along the flat streets of Saint Quentin escorted by a van and some motorcycles. We kept out of trouble, Jodi as captain, near the front of the pack. After fifteen miles or so, we ascended a few gradual climbs that split the group. Very soon, Jodi and I were left with three male tandems with no one else in sight.
This was a fun ride. Our speed was high and we were rolling smoothly. We had some trouble to keep pace on the hills, but on the whole I felt we were riding within ourselves. It is 88 miles to the first stop at Mortagne-au-Perche, so we had plenty of time to discuss how quickly we must clear the checkpoint to remain in the pack.
As the only non-French speaking tandem in the group, we were left out of the little conversation there was. I felt a little uncomfortable being an outsider, and thought the group may make an effort to shake us off -- but that fear was misfounded. The atmosphere lightened for us, when one of the tandem riders turned and said, "are you Zhodi?" My belief that Jodi was only a legend in the USA had been dispelled!
Another amazing thing about the early miles is that we were already passing some of the 8:00pm start group -- the fast group! In fact, we even saw someone asleep (or at least I think he was asleep) on the side of the road after just 60 miles!
Mortagne-au-Perche, which will be our first stop, is the former capital of the département of Le Perche-Orne. This area, which is famous for its pershons horses, is a "happy blending of forests, rivers, and farmlands, dotted with ancient manor houses and the occasional abbey." I know this, not because I was lazing about at the back of the tandem sight seeing, but because Tricia and I toured this area by tandem several years earlier.
We took the last climb up to the Mortagne-au-Perche checkpoint at good pace. Over the last few miles, the tandem group had eased the pace slightly, and I was confident that we could stay with them for at least another section or two.
We came up on the crowds awaiting their riders, and then the nightmare began... Our crew was nowhere to be seen. We rode up and down shouting for Tricia and Keith (but not Rick for some reason -- sorry Rick). The other tandems left as we continued our search. We even spoke with a couple who had seen our crew parked nearby earlier on.
We wasted 20 minutes before we found out that we hadn't actually reached the checkpoint, which was 1km further down the road. When we finally got to the checkpoint, our crew was dutifully waiting there. Even though our crew had done exactly what they had promised, "polite" was not a word I would use to describe our interaction with them.
There was a party atmosphere, and the entire village had come out to welcome the riders, but we were in no party mood. Not even the lively "black pudding fair," which is held here in March, would have calmed my temper. I am usually a bit curt at checkpoints, but losing the tandem group had left me (and Jodi, I believe) in a mood that put both our crew and us in an early state of depression.
We rode on our own from that point. Every so often we would acquire a solo rider who would sit on our wheel after we passed them. We always waste a considerable amount of energy trying to drop these interlopers. Even though there is no harm done to us, Jodi and I suffer equally from mentally "pulling" these riders along.
The checkpoint at Villaines-la-Juhel passed without incident. We had resigned ourselves to riding the remainder of the route without assistance from other tandems. I know our crew didn't talk much between Mortagne-au-Perche and Villaines-la-Juhel, but our mishap was now forgotten.
The next checkpoint, at Fougeres, lies near the eastern border of Brittany. Brittany (or Little Britain as it was once known) commands a strong sense of independence, supported by history. The Celtic British (who also populate Cornwall and Wales) fled across the sea from the (rather annoying) Saxons to populate this region. Except for a brief 50-year period, the Bretons successfully defended their isolation from the Franks (French) right up until 1514, when the Breton duchess, Anne, married a French king.
The approach to Tinteniac from Fougeres was memorable only for its lack of hills -- a welcome break from constant rollers. By the time we reached Tinteniac, we were well into daylight, so it was time to make our first position change. As usual, I found it difficult to regain responsibility for steering. After 230 miles of gripping a fixed pair of handlebars, I find it difficult to even approximate a straight line on the bike. However, after a few miles, I settled in.
We are once again back on the hills, but making steady progress. We had a goal for reaching Brest no later than 22 ½ hours after leaving Saint Quentin-en-Yvelines, and we looked on target.
In Loudeac, we are encouraged to find one of the three speedy male tandems -- the Cannondale of Jean-Michel - is still there. The riders are off the bike taking a massage. I walked up to them with the intention of asking them to leave with us, but decided against it when I saw they were nowhere near ready to leave. Jean-Michel is well known in this race, having ridden around 44 hours in 1995. Many riders and bystanders called his name as we rode by en route to Mortagne-au-Perche.
Carhaix Plouguer is the gateway to the département of Finistère. Here the Bretons cling most fervently to their language, folklore, and costume. From here to Brest, we pass some marvelous countryside, and remote, barren highland. The buildings are low and angular to the wind, and clinging to the land. We pass by the ancient forest where, as the legend tells, Arthur would go to rest. No rest for us though.
I continued as captain to Brest, where we arrived at 7:20pm (21 hours 35 minutes). The approach to Brest was somewhat depressing. We had hoped to get sight of the lead group returning to Paris, but the route differs for the incoming and outgoing riders for about 20-30 miles. Furthermore, the last few miles into Brest were miserable: heavy traffic, bad roads, and a steep ascent into the checkpoint were not encouraging.
I don't know where the time went, but it was 7:45pm by the time we left Brest with Jodi once again in the captain's seat. With one unplanned exception (see later), this was our longest checkpoint stop. However, we were still one-half hour up on my planned latest halfway time. Our pace had dropped considerably. To make our 48-hour target, we could slow no further. We just had to keep plodding on at the same pace. This is easier said than done when you still have 325 miles remaining, much of it at night, without likelihood of sleep.
The checkpoint at Carhaix Plouguer was buzzing on our return. There were 8:00pm starters still on their way to Brest, 8:00pm starters returning to Paris, and 5:00am starters on their way to Brest. I spotted John Hughes sitting down in the cafeteria, but I neglected to tell Jodi. I am always in a hurry at checkpoints, and didn't want to spend the time on pleasantries. Not that Jodi would have wasted any time; she was often ready to leave before me.
Once again, the night was made tolerable due to the tremendous support the town residents gave us as we passed through. Even at 3:00am there were villagers out to welcome us. Even young kids, who would look more at home with a can of spray paint and a priceless, historic relic, offered enthusiastic encouragement.
At Loudeac, we donned gel and sheepskin saddle covers. I could no longer tolerate my saddle, and I was running short of chamois butt'r. I can't imagine how we would have reached the end without the help of these instruments from Jodi's secret bike supplies. I truly believe that the stitching now found on many saddles (including mine) contributes to my deterioration. Between Loudeac and Tinteniac, we stopped in a beautiful, little town to lay down on the concrete sidewalk. We rested there for 15 minutes, but I doubt that either of us slept for more than five of them; I was too frightened that neither of us would wake up. However, this is a great way to appreciate the beauty and architecture of the French countryside.
We arrived in Tinteniac around 6:15am, with 225 miles remaining to the end. With our current pace of 7-hour centuries (including stops), and a 15-minute break here, we would arrive in Paris 48 hours 40 minutes after our start -- within the record, but behind our target. We would likely increase our speed over the last section, but not by much.
Just when things were going well, disaster struck. It was my turn to take the front of the tandem, so we replaced the seat posts again. When tightening the seat post collar bolt, the collar broke irreparably, and we did not have a replacement. Since then, everyone has told me that they carry a spare seat post collar or bolt, but I can't believe everyone is so well prepared. Keith tried to use a makeshift clamp from his toolbox, but it could not be tightened sufficiently to stop the seat from turning. There was a mechanic at the checkpoint, but he didn't have a spare either -- and I think he was asleep. At each 15-minute interval, I would recalculate our required speed to reach the end within the record. By 7:15am I had resigned myself to a DNF and a lengthy sleep break.
We were able to continue when Rick persuaded the mechanic to relinquish the seat post collar from his own mountain bike. Rick must have been quite persuasive because the mechanic was reluctant to give us any bike parts needed for a weekend race he was competing in, but by 7:30am we were back on the bike. I remained up front through Fougeres, but between Fougeres and Villaines-la-Juhel we weren't making very good progress. I suggested to Jodi that we switch positions again at the next checkpoint. Although Jodi was reluctant to take the front again so early, we actually ended up switching before the checkpoint. This required us to make several unnatural seat adjustments, which did not make for a comfortable ride. When we reached Villaines-la-Juhel, we switch "officially," which was far more comfortable. Our pace had picked up with Jodi on front, and with some hard work the record still looked possible.
There were 88 miles between us and a new mixed tandem record. There is a final checkpoint at Nogent-le-Roi, but support crews are not allowed there. So, we must carry enough food to get us to the end. Also, if we are on schedule, we will likely need our lights for an hour or two. Well, I think I may have overstressed our need for food and lighting. We left Mortagne-au-Perche with enough food and drink to feed the entire pershons horse population for a week. It is rare that I am in possession of so much food, except when helping Tricia with the grocery shopping.
Furthermore, we were adorned with sufficient lighting and spare batteries to power the whole of France for a night. We struggled up the first serious climb -- which came up on us rather quickly -- with our newfound weight. We descended off this climb with such momentum that I was concerned that Keith hadn't also fitted the tandem with a third brake to compensate for the additional weight!
I am sitting at the back of the tandem with a large camel back, pockets stuffed with food and batteries, and a musette bag filled to the brim with regional delicacies. My face is being forced into the bulging pockets of Jodi's jersey by her (rather large) helmet that I am wearing, to which a heavy Petzl lighting system is fixed. This is not a good time to find out that Jodi's helmet, which I am wearing, can only be comfortably worn over a cap. There are thousands of exposed Velcro hooks digging into my forehead under the weight of the lighting system. To add to my discomfort, I have a severe pain above my left eye, and am feeling nauseated. I feel like fainting, and am concerned that I will not complete the remainder of the journey. I calculated the cost of the helmet and lighting system, but never asked Jodi if I could ditch the whole system.
Several miles later, I discovered that half of the rock lock system was pushed underneath the rear of the helmet, pushing against my head. After I readjusted the helmet, the pain I was suffering immediately disappeared. However, the weight we were carrying was still a problem, so I started eating the largest items in the musette bag, and ditched a waterbottle.
By the time we got to Nogent-le-Roi, the road flattened out, and the weight reduced slightly. I became a little over confident at the Nogent-le-Roi checkpoint, and wasted about 10 minutes filling my camel back and dining on fruit and crème caramel.
We proceeded cautiously from Nogent-le-Roi to Saint Quentin-en-Yvelines, not wanting to miss a direction arrow that would foil our record attempt. We did actually get lost for 10 minutes, when an arrow took us off the advertised route, but we found our way back without too much distress.
Somehow, somewhere, our wealth of time began to disintegrate. The last 15km advertised on the route sheet continued for some 30km! Toward the end, Jodi pulled us up to 25mph to ensure that we didn't miss the record, and a motor scooter -- complete with father and son -- ensured we didn't get lost over the final 5km.
Meanwhile, our crew was anxiously awaiting our arrival in Saint Quentin-en-Yvelines. They apparently went through a period of depression when the 48 hour mark expired, since I had neglected to tell them the time of the existing record. This explains why Tricia was so calm when we finished; she was is no hurry to help us to the check-in at the final checkpoint.
Our finish time of 49 hours, 3 minutes beat the old record by 26 minutes -- quite sufficient time for comfort. We didn't achieve our 48-hour target, but that can be explained by our mechanical trouble in Tinteniac. Our plan to share the captain role was somewhat one sided. Jodi captained for almost 900km of the 1220km total.
With help from our crew, we occasionally indulged in the checkpoint food. However, for the most part, we were fueled by Camembert, peanut butter, or potato chip sandwiches; Ensure; croissants; soup; chicken and noodles; cookies; crackers; crêpes; and lots of coffee.
I can't speak for Jodi, but this was the most satisfying achievement of our joint cycling career which includes tandem course records for: the National 24 hour in Grand Rapids, Michigan; Land's End to John O'Groats in Britain; and some excellent times for the Boston Brevet Series. And now, the Paris-Brest-Paris Mixed Tandem PBP Record, as well.