By Bill Bryant
Tandems have been part of the Audax Club Parisien's Randonneur version of Paris-Brest-Paris since the very first one in 1931. Modern riders may be surprised to learn PBP wins have been earned by powerful mens teams in 1948, 1951, and 1956; in those years the first riders to arrive back in Paris were aboard a tandem, not solo bikes. Similarly, fast finishing times, if not overall victory, have gone to tandem teams with male and female riders. For many years the excellent performance in 1951 of René Gillet and Odett Serrin set the standard for mixed tandems. Their time of 49 hours, 26 minutes has been approached, but never beaten until this year when the team of Jodi Groesbeck and Adrian Harris set a new PBP record in this category. These fast RUSA riders completed the 1200-kilometer course after only 49 hours, 3 minutes on the road.
At the complete other end of the PBP tandem spectrum were Lois Springsteen and myself. Aside from starting in the same group as Jodi and Adrian, and riding a tandem, we didn't share much else in common and our PBP experience would be quite different. If Adrian and Jodi were the first mixed tandem team to finish the 1999 PBP, we were probably going to be one of the very last, if we could make it at all. Not noted for our riding speed, we would rely on determination, long randonneuring experience, and modest riding abilities to get us through this grueling event. Lois had completed the 1991 and 1995 events, while I was a finisher of the 1983 PBP. In the long 16-year interval I've put on weight and currently lug around a lot more fat than then, definitely not a recommended strategy for successful randonneuring!
After all the months of preparation and years of anticipation, it was Monday evening and we assembled for our 9:45 PBP start with other tandems, recumbents, trikes, and any other special machines in the 90-hour group. The excitement among us was palpable and when the flag dropped most riders shot off like there was prize money one kilometer down the road. My immediate goal was to start us safely and avoid all the near-misses among the wobbly recumbent riders getting themselves underway. We dodged a few close scrapes and generally rode hard for about five kilometers to get a little breathing room. In short order the really fast machines were disappearing into the night, while we rode steadily and picked off the slower rigs who had gone out too quickly. The large number of cheering spectators along the route made it all the more fun, and we really enjoyed the first few kilometers.
The rest of Monday's night ride went equally well. The full moon was bright and made cycling through the majestic French countryside sublime, while lovely strings of red tail lights showed us the way ahead. After Nogent-le-Roi we started being overtaken by large packs of solo riders and we spent many happy miles among them, drafting shamelessly over hill and dale. We rode steadily, not overextending our meager resources, but still trying to cover the kilometers as efficiently as possible. We stopped once around midnight to put on tights for the cooling night air, but mostly we just kept pedaling. Some long climbs announced the approach to Mortagne-au-Perche and we lost the draft of our group. After a quick stop to refill water bottles, we left this chaotic control and got back to work. Dawn broke on our way to Villaines-la-Juhel, where we stopped for breakfast at 7:45 am.
Tuesday was a good day of cycling, though by early morning we knew it would be hot. Indeed, as we passed through Fougeres at midday, and then Tinteniac at 5:25 P.M., it was clear the heat was really slowing us down. We made several unwanted stops in villages to find cold drinks, but with France being an "ice-free-zone", we had to settle for merely cool or tepid ones. Still, the persistent head-winds were gentle, the scenery gorgeous, the roads smooth, the motorists passed safely, and the many local inhabitants gathered along the roadside offering 3600 crazy cyclists water were a delight that make PBP so special.
At Loudéac, after 25 hours on the road and one-third of the event completed, we pulled in a little before 11 P.M. We ate at the self (this was our first long wait in any PBP food line), cleaned up, and changed into fresh clothes from the drop bags. After that we spread out our space blankets onto the grass lawn for some much-wanted sleep. We didn't bother taking the time looking into getting a bed or waiting in line since the evening air wasn't too cold. In Loudéac we also saw the first of the fast riders blaze through on their return leg to Paris. Hell, we'd be lucky if we were even back to this place in another 24 hours! After two fitful hours of sleep we got going again at 3 am. Wednesday. Our morale was good, but ascending the steep climbs leaving Loudéac with stiff muscles was really a struggle. Apparently these miserable hills were tough for others too; after only an hour or so of hard riding we came across a small village café that was doing a booming business serving food and coffee to dozens of weary Randonneurs. Around this time we also saw the first tandems go by in the other direction, Adrian and Jodi undoubtedly among them, but in the dark we couldn't recognize the riders.
Wednesday saw cooler temperatures, but it also saw us deteriorating. Lois, clearly fatigued, was still riding pretty well under the circumstances. A persistent loss of appetite from Tuesday's heat meant I couldn't take in enough calories to ride effectively. But we soldiered on, reaching the turnaround at Brest at 2:15pm. Any feeling of happiness was tempered by the fact that we felt too hammered for how far we'd come. And 40.5 hours for cycling 600 kilometers was way too slow for us to feel optimistic. Also, even though we'd never become lost, my odometer was measuring the distances between checkpoints as overly long, and this worried us since it now seemed we had much more than the official 1204 kilometers to ride in the prescribed 90hr limit. It was looking more like 1240! Merde!
At Brest we joined some of our Davis Bike Club pals for the return trip and that helped a lot, so too the strong tailwinds coming off the Atlantic. Still, it was a very tired tandem team that staggered back into Loudéac at 1:30am, Thursday. We repeated our eating and cleaning chores, but this time, with a colder night in the offing, we didn't want to sleep outdoors. After a twenty-minute wait, we found beds and settled in for some much-needed rest amongst the smelly, snoring mob. Only 90 minutes later, sharp pain in both knees woke me up. After trying to ignore this ominous sign, I reluctantly arose to make space for other weary riders and went outside. I took a big dose of ibuprophen and waited for Lois to get up an hour later. I learned from bag-drop chief Claus Claussen that the ACP was aware of the course distance problem and was extending the closing times for all the remaining contrôes an extra hour. A good thing, but it still might not be enough for back-of-the-pack duffers like us.
A little before 6am Thursday, we resumed our weary slog toward Paris. Behind us were two-thirds of the distance. Could we cover the remainder successfully? With us was our longtime randonneuring comrade Kim Freitas, excellent company as always, but now our laggardly pace was just too slow for her to maintain. Eventually Kim reluctantly bade us good luck and farewell, just like survivors rowing away from the doomed Titanic. My knees were really complaining but I didn't tell Lois how worried I was; hopefully they'd come around as the day went on. Indeed, they did, but they were never pain-free the rest of the ride. Worse, though, were our bottoms. We'd not brought enough Bag Balm along and were learning the hard way that one really has to trowel it on to avoid the painful crotch irritation that comes from riding a tandem 1200k. But there was nothing else to do but keep pedaling east. The sooner we finished, the sooner we could stop.
And so, we wearily passed through the not-so-secret contrôe at Quedillac, then Tinteniac, Fougeres, and finally, Villaines-la-Juhel for a late dinner at 10:30pm Thursday evening. As before, the riding conditions continued to be excellent and the French people wonderful hosts, but we were too darn tired to really enjoy them fully. Worse still was the horrifying thought that we might arrive in Paris too late to earn our medals! Onward we limped, until 2am Friday, when I needed to stop and take a quick snooze to restore some of my alertness. Alas, disaster struck!
After letting me sleep my requested 20 minutes at the noisy crossroads of La Hutte, Lois tried waking me, to no avail. She tried again. Finally, some vigorous shaking brought me out of a bottomless sleep but I was definitely not awake. Moments later, hearing the welcome voices of a gaggle of our DBC friends, she hustled me onto the bike, but I didn't fully comprehend what was happening. Somehow, like a befuddled old-time six-day bike racer thrown back onto the track, I instinctively knew to pedal, but beyond that, not much else! Along came our friends Pierre, Marcia, Amy, and Dan and we tried staying with them. Or, rather, Lois kept urging me to keep up, but inside my very fuzzy head it was all chaos. I was in a serious sleep-deprived state and it seemed I had only a fraction of my normal faculties to guide myself through the strange circumstances in which I now found myself. Lois maintains my bike handling during this frightful episode was absolutely rock-solid and, despite my odd, robotic speech patterns, she never feared for our safety. Well, I certainly did! At times I wondered if I'd had a stroke, but the remorseless PBP clock continued to tick, and onward we rode into the wee hours of Friday morning. Seeing the numerous bodies of sleeping Randonneurs passed out in grotesque poses to either side of the road didn't help my fragile outlook. A few were still partially astride their bikes and they looked a little too much like accident victims.
We somehow made it to Mortagne-au-Perche by 5:30am, about 20 minutes outside the elimination window, but with the extra hour granted by the ACP, we were still alive. But only just! After we checked in, Lois put me down on the cement floor alongside some other sleeping riders. She then scouted up some help to repair two broken spokes in our back wheel; the contrôe mechanic jumped into the fray with much vigor and soon sent Lois to eat and rest. She sought out John Hughes and described our predicament to him. John, no stranger to grueling RAAM races, told her to let me sleep as long as she dared, and then get me eating as much as possible while rolling on the bike. He felt the prolonged cycling without sufficient calories and sleep was no doubt the reason behind my extreme (even by PBP standards) fatigue. So, getting no sleep herself, Lois ate, packed some food for me, and went to retrieve the tandem. The mechanic had finished his repair, but in typical PBP camaraderie, refused any payment and wished her sincere good luck and told her to be brave. Thus armed, Lois woke me up and off we went at 7:45 am.
Ahead lay 141 kilometers to cover before the clock stopped at 5 P.M. Could we do it? The good news was that the rest stop had allowed my mind to clear; the bad news was that neither of us had much strength left and three of our four knees were in rough shape. But the Davis Bike Club admits no crybabies and we rode resolutely onward. There were frequent stops to apply more salves to our raw posteriors, and we climbed the hills at a dishearteningly slow pace. Though we'd never been this close to elimination in any previous PBP, we instinctively knew our chances of a successful finish were slipping away like sand through an hourglass. And now that I had regained my senses, Lois was starting to sag noticeably herself. In the little village of Senoches I spied a boulangerie alongside a bar and called a halt. Lois sleepily protested yet another stop, but I quickly sent her to buy a half- dozen pain-au-chocolates, while I got us some strong, caffeine-laden French coffee. After gulping down our coffee, we rode slowly, munching on the pastries. In short order we could feel the surge of energy and our pace increased noticeably for a couple of hours. By the time we reached the penultimate contrôle at Nogent-le-Roi we'd ridden ourselves back into the event and our spirits rose.
Another quick meal followed with some of our best DBC friends; unfortunately we couldn't stay long enough to enjoy their company. After a light lunch for the contrôle's skimpy offerings to the tail-end randonneurs, we were soon back on the bike, only this time it was for the final push to Paris! We had 60 fairly easy kilometers to go, but our wristwatches didn't offer any comfort. Near Conde-sur-Vesgre we stopped briefly at the top of a small hill to finish off our last packet of cookies and reapply more butt ointment. Nearly ready to retake the route, I happened to look up just in time to see a sleepy Randonneur coming off the road headed straight at us! Yikes! I planted my feet, lowered my shoulders, and deflected his charge enough to make him miss Lois and the tandem. Not wanting him to crash, instead I pushed him at the wooden fence behind us, which absorbed most of his energy as he slid along it, quickly coming to a to a halt. Woken up from his slumbers, he now panicked and thrashed about in his pedals. Holding him up against the fence, I yelled at him to stop fighting, and when he did I unfastened his shoes so he could dismount in his socks. Taking a moment to collect himself, he then showed me how worn out his cleats were from all the walking at contrôles and apologized for causing us such a bother. I admonished him to take a quick nap before riding onward, but don't know if he did. Soon we were riding swiftly away from that guy. Sheesh! A bike-riding kamikaze! What next?
In another few kilometers we were back to Gambais, and onto the familiar part of the route we'd learned prior to the event. We began to think we just might make it but cycling can sometimes be a cruel sport with more disappointment than joy: A short while later, after cresting a hill in the forest of Rambouillet, I shifted the front gears like a dunce and utterly jammed the chain between the crankarm and outer chainwheel. We coasted to a halt and realized our PBP dream might be coming to a sorry end. There was a distinctly crestfallen look on Lois' face, while I emitted a flurry of curses that turned the air blue. I knew we were in big trouble as I contemplated the lengthy repair that lay in store so, rather than doing a proper job with tools, I decided to try brute force as my first course of action. Pulling hard, I couldn't get it free. Damn, it was stuck fast. Yanking again with greater desperation, I gave it a mighty upward heave that suddenly toppled me backward onto the grassy road shoulder. Success! The chain was free and we were riding again after only a brief stop, we weren't finished yet!
Thankfully, the rest of the ride was less eventful, and we joined up with a group of seven other solo riders during the last hour of the event. Among us we had five Americans (including our pal Amy Rafferty), a Dutch rider, and three Frenchmen. Fueled now by adrenaline and a tinge of fear, we all kept up an urgent pace since we knew we were on the ragged edge of disaster, a simple puncture now could still spell ruin. Despite some bizarre, lengthy rerouting of the course near the end that was truly bewildering to tired riders who had studied the route carefully beforehand, we finally made it to the PBP finish line at the gymnasium in Guyancourt.
Sore, sleepy, scruffy, smelly, and utterly exhausted, Lois and I were also elated beyond words and a few tears were shed in the final kilometer. We happily rolled up the finishing ramp into the welcoming arms of our cheering DBC friends who'd been waiting for the last members of our flock to arrive. Surprising myself by the strength of the emotions, I punched the air with my clenched fist---hurrah! Best of all was doing the ride with my wonderful wife, Lois; I couldn't have asked for a better teammate and, ignoring the clock ever so briefly, we kissed and embraced before walking into the contrôle to sign in one last time. It turned out that we were a single minute inside the final cutoff. Much too close for comfort---we'll try to do better in 2003---but it was good enough and we could go home with our heads held high. Click for photos of Lois & Bill's PBP adventure.
Santa Cruz, CA