By Scott Dickson
Early this past summer, a friend of ours who lives in France warned us that certain French teams would do anything to prevent me from finishing at the front in PBP this year. "Expect the unexpected" he said. There would be a reduced number of officials this year, which would open the door for ques- tionable activities. The 1999 PBP 80 hour group started much like those in the past. After brief introductions and instructions, a record 781 riders set off at 8pm with the sun setting on the warm Monday evening. The drivers of the lead vehicles must have misunderstood the instructions about leading the group out of town. From the stadium to Elancourt, we averaged less than 23 kph (14 mph). Nobody dared pass the lead vehicle for fear of picking up a 1hr time penalty. Finally, we were cut loose at the bottom of the hill in Elancourt to set our own pace. That was the last time we would see a lead vehicle. The freedom to fly felt so good. The pack immediately lengthened to accommodate the increased speed. For the next 200 km, the swarming peloton rolled along filling the entire road as riders advanced up both sides while the middle flowed back. It required an incredible effort to remain near the front. Whenever a car or truck approached the group from the front, the peloton would squeeze together forcing riders to rapidly reduce their speed. The sound of howling brakes often filled the night air, and was occasionally punctuated by a crash. The aggressive riding in the 80 hour group is a result of the need to enter and exit the controls very quickly in order to remain in the lead group. The increased danger of the 80hr group is a result of the tremendous growth of the field.
After Villaines, the lead group was reduced to 70 riders (most being well supported) who were quick to check in, pick up their provisions, and strong enough to chase their way back to the front. Shortly after Villaines, the lead group came upon a truck with bright lights. The driver informed us that the road ahead was impassable, and that we must turn right. We made the turn and continued on for a few kilometers until arriving at an intersection where we stopped to discuss the next move, as there was no arrow to indicate the way. Many riders took advantage of the brief stop to relieve themselves under the light of a nearly full moon. Upon arriving at Fougeres, our lead group entered a roundabout with no arrow showing the way, so we proceeded straight ahead. We soon picked up more arrows, but these indicated the route out of town. As we approached the edge of town, we realized that a crucial arrow had been missing at the roundabout, so we returned in an attempt to find the correct route to the control. At the Fougeres control, we learned that 12-15 riders had checked in 45 minutes earlier. Is it a coincidence that the words detour and sabotage are of French origin?
Our group continued on in hopes of absorbing the new leaders. After each control, our group grew smaller as riders were pulling out for rest. In western France, with no officials present to monitor activities, we witnessed a number of French riders receiving assistance from cars and nonregistered riders on the course. Finally, unable to make up the time difference on the leaders, I finished in 45:44 for 1243 km with 8 riders finishing ahead.
PBP has a grand tradition and is the ultimate test of endurance and stamina. Participants spend endless hours training and large sums of money to enter PBP. Everybody has a personal goal, to finish with the leaders, improve their performance, or to simply finish within the allowed time. In past PBPs, there was always a lead vehicle present to establish the lead group. In light of the irregularities that occurred in 1999, I would not recommend entering PBP with the goal of winning unless there is an increase in on-course monitoring. Furthermore, the 80 hour group has become so large and dangerous since 1991, I would not recommend entering it in 2003 unless something is done to reduce its number. Regardless of the outcome, the 1999 PBP provided many pleasures, such as the appreciative fans and the camaraderie of riding with friends through the challenging terrain of western France.
PBP 79, 83, 87, 91, 95, 99
Editor's Note: Scott Dickson has been the first American male finisher at PBP since 1979. Scott shared that distinction with Dennis Hearst in 1995.