By Bill Bryant
It goes without saying that pedaling a bike 1200 kilometers in 90 hours is a very difficult thing to do and is no doubt why a Paris-Brest-Paris finisher's medal is so treasured by its owner. As someone wisely pointed out, if it was easy and everyone who started PBP finished, where would be the glory in such a crazy endeavor? True enough, but it is also equally true that there is a good bit of importance assigned to how many of each participating club's or country's riders arrive back in Paris successfully. This is a mark of how hardy or audacious their members are. Speed isn't the issue here, determination is. A lot of this probably stems from the acrimonious split in 1921 between the upstart "choose your own pace" Randonneurs of the Audax Club Parisien and the "always riding as a group" Union des Audax Cyclistes Parisiens (who would later evolve into the Union des Audax Français of modern times). At the 1931 PBP these two feuding clans faced off to prove that their version of randonneuring was best. The importance of having the lowest DNF rate seems to stem from this competition, which lasted well into the 1970s. Though the feud has died out in recent years, the widespread ethos of always striving for the lowest possible DNF rate seems to have remained in randonneuring. So, when one reads the statement from the Audax Club Parisien's website that claims "a PBP participant must permanently believe that to quit is the worst thing that may occur," understand that such beliefs are held dearly by many Randonneurs, even those born long after the events of 1921, or in other lands.
Of the 397 American Randonneurs and Randonneuses starting the 1999 Paris-Brest-Paris, 304 made it back to the finish successfully inside the time limit. That meant 93 riders, or 23.5%, from our contingent did not. Compared to the overall event DNF average of 17%, this was a poor performance, and put us alongside Norway and the Netherlands near the bottom of the national rankings. Only Austria, Bulgaria, and South Africa, all nations quite new to randonneuring, were significantly worse. (On the other hand, Italy and Germany, both similarly new to randonneuring as well, were excellent with a 9% DNF rate, so go figure.) Compared to the 1991 and 1995 PBPs, the only years when the American DNF average was better than the overall event failure rate, 1999 must be seen as something of a setback after some fine progress. RUSA sent these 93 members of "club Randonnée Abandonée" a survey in order to see if there was anything to be learned from them. Fifty riders took the time to respond and we at RUSA very much appreciate their efforts to help future American PBP riders build upon their experiences. While 50 respondents isn't a large enough number to give hard evidence or make strong conclusions, it does give some insights into what it was like to DNF at PBP. (It is important to note that often more than one reason was mentioned on the surveys for quitting.) We are most pleased that 76% of these good folk indicated that they wanted to return and try PBP again in 2003. While it is no substitute for the pride and satisfaction of completing the ride, perhaps they can take comfort in the old saying, "a person is only as great as the challenges he chooses to undertake." By this measure, they are all winners.
First, Tuesday's noticeably hot, muggy riding conditions were mentioned by 33% of our respondents as setting up body-management problems (dehydration, sickness) that eventually led to their pulling out. Among our injured respondents (29%), "Shermer Neck", Achilles tendons, knees, and saddle sores were mentioned the most often. Also included in this group were three tandem stokers who felt they could have finished but were, alas, forced to DNF when their teammates became either sick or injured. Overall, roughly two-thirds of our respondents mentioned illness or injury as the primary reasons for quitting.
For the other third of our respondents there were the other various situations that can affect the long distance rider such as crashes (8%) or severe mechanical breakdowns (4%). Interestingly, no one mentioned getting lost and losing gobs of time. However, too many of our respondents also listed things like low morale or enthusiasm, being mentally unprepared, or starting the ride seriously ill or injured (i.e., they probably shouldn't have started the ride at all). These kinds of items came up frequently (46%) in this group. Overall, when reading their various comments, one must wonder if a little more "never say die" determination or improved decision-making before and/or during the ride wouldn't have changed things for the better.
The aspect of having friends or clubmates on the ride for support came up fairly often, yet it presents a very curious paradox. Most American cyclists at PBP would readily tell you that loneliness, and the low morale it can lead to, is sometimes a considerable factor to overcome. It would certainly make sense that riding and chatting with some clubmates would be an asset during such a long ride, especially at night when a strong sense of isolation can set in. Yet, looking at the overall PBP finishing list, and then sorting it by American clubs, results in a most surprising outcome. Our unattached riders, who were lumped into the larger national "Randonneurs USA" group, rather than by a local club, did very well indeed. In fact, they did great: their overall failure rate was only 10%, a figure better than any other large US randonneuring club starting eight or more members, except one. The Springfield Bike Club of Missouri finished all eight of its riders who started PBP---BRAVO! Next was northern California's Davis Bike Club, the largest single club at the 1999 PBP with 80 riders, which had a 14% DNF rate. The Great Lakes Randonneurs did roughly the same as the overall 1999 PBP DNF rate with a count of 17.6%. The other large US clubs did not fare so well. The Potomac Pedalers had a 22% DNF rate, then the Rocky Mountain Cycle Club (28.7%), Seattle Randonneurs (31.8%), the New York Cycle Club (37.5%), and the Gateway Council AYH (37.5%) followed behind, only confirming this curious fact. What's going on here? Could it be that approaching this very arduous Randonnée requires more of a "lone wolf" approach to successfully deal with all its various challenges? Common sense and practical experience would argue against this, yet the figures are most intriguing, and are certainly food for thought.
Continuing our look at the "club sort", more questions are raised regarding success at PBP. The next two, and last, large contingents on our list, the Badwater Boys Club from southern California (54% DNF) and the West Palm Beach Bicycle Club (56.5% DNF) from southern Florida, both held their brevets very early in the year. Hot weather in those regions can make cycling long events dangerous, hence they do early brevets series which are being completed about the time most other series are just getting started. Could it be that maintaining the required training over the extra months lead to a loss of enthusiasm and/or dedication by many of the riders? Were their brevet courses too easy? Or did the lack of experienced PBP veterans amongst the brevet entrants prevent the rookies from fully appreciating the rigors of the main event? Looking at our survey responses, all these reasons seem to be valid. Several of our Florida respondents reported being surprised at how hilly PBP was, and how their flat region offered nothing in the way of proper preparation. Had some "anciens" told them about the never-ending hills at PBP this might have been avoided. (This is one reason the Davis Bike Club holds an early-season randonneuring seminar each year to help its new riders. More than a few DBC rookies who finished PBP mentioned how helpful the seminar had been in getting them mentally ready.) But in any case, there is a problem with the explanation of riders not feeling ready for all the hills and/or the heat. Randonneurs from Finland, who all come from a very flat country that doesn't see too many hot days, complete each PBP (probably complaining the whole time about all the heat and climbing) with an outstanding success rate. It is almost always around 100% for their contingent. One Finn, writing on the Randon e-mail list, explained that none of his compatriots wants to be the first among their countrymen to DNF, so they keep riding despite their misery. Nonetheless, American riders coming from flat areas should probably undertake a multi-day summer bike tour in a hilly region prior to PBP (or any other 1000- or 1200-kilometer Randonnée) to build up their climbing abilities. Similarly, those from cooler climates in the north should spend extra time getting acclimated to cycling in heat and humidity.
Finally, the issue of one-year qualifying versus two-year needs discussion. Prior to the mandatory two-year qualifying plan for American PBP rookies imposed by the International Randonneurs, the US riders' failure rate at PBP was always worse, sometimes shockingly so (as in the 1987 debacle of 46% DNF), than the overall event failure rate. In 1991 and 1995, reflecting the much-maligned two-year plan, this figure was noticeably improved. But it was also believed that the huge burden of an extra year of brevets stifled the growth of randonneuring on our shores (note also the drop in American riders at PBP between 1991 and 1995: 398 versus 283).
Randonneurs USA grew out of this dissatisfaction with IR and we at RUSA still very much believe that American Randonneurs are perfectly capable of meeting, or exceeding, the overall event success rate and do not need an extra year of brevets. Events at the 1999 PBP seemed to have indicated otherwise, but please note that when RUSA was formed in August of 1998, most rookies had already done their first year of qualifying. So, proponents of the two-year plan who want to gloat will have to think again. Of our respondents, fully 78% had done two years' worth of brevets, or were previous PBP veterans and finishers.
Our long-term goal at RUSA is for the American contingent to finish each PBP at least as well as the average of the other countries, if not better. There is no reason why we shouldn't be as successful as they are. As foreigners, it is true we have the extra burden of dealing with lengthy air travel, unfamiliar culture, language, foods, and the like. But so do many other Randonneurs from countries besides France---and barely half the riders these days are from the host nation. For example, look at the Australians. In no way could they be seen as having any sort of advantage in dealing with PBP's challenges compared to Americans, yet they seem to have a tough, do-or-die attitude that earns them an excellent completion rate at each PBP. More Americans would do well to emulate the Aussies' determination and grit.
In conclusion, many Americans have earned a good reputation at PBP in terms of fast individual performances, such as those by Scott Dickson, Dennis Hearst, Susan Notorangelo, Kay Ryschon, Melinda Lyon, and all the rest.
As a group, we must find ways for more of our riders to complete the event. Had 26 of the 93 US riders who DNF'd somehow found the inner strength to finish, we would have matched the overall event success rate. Better preparation, both physical and mental, and more personal resolve by all involved in the 2003 campaign will go a long way toward reaching our goal of closing the gap.