by Scott Dickson, PBP Record Holder: '79, '83, '87' '91, '95, '99
With great fanfare this year's Tour de France is celebrating its 100th anniversary. Historians note that the idea for the Tour came from Paris-Brest-Paris, which was first run in 1891. I have ridden the past 6 PBPs, my first being in 1979 with only a handful of Americans. This year there are 468 Americans signed up ready to take the challenge. RUSA has done an excellent job promoting randonneuring and America's involvement in PBP.
The last 50-km of the 1979 PBP was perhaps the most difficult stretch that I ever encountered. The rolling-hills southwest of Paris seemed endless; I kept thinking that we should be at the finish by now. The combination of dehydration, low blood sugar, and sleep deprivation provided some unexpected entertainment in the form of hallucinations. I kept seeing an American cycling rival of mine ahead on the road. I quickly realized that he could not be there since he had never been to Europe. But no matter, he managed to stay out in front of me most of the way before disappearing near the finish. From this experience I learned about the importance of monitoring my eating and drinking during the event. Not much can be done to battle sleep deprivation, but maintaining blood sugar levels and remaining properly hydrated are factors that can be controlled. Overall, it is important to realize that PBP is likely to provide a period of extreme elation followed by a period of extreme depression. During a teammate's period of elation in the 1979 PBP, he attacked off the front and rode solo for 80 km. Later when his feelings of elation gave way to depression, he dropped out. These mood swings tend to be cyclic, so care should be taken so that they do not interfere with the long-term goal.
The 1987 PBP began in a cool rain. Around the 80-km mark I noticed my rear tire was going soft, so I got off the bike to change it. Because of the wet, cool conditions, my hands were slightly numb making it difficult to change the tire. After 8 minutes I was back on the road with little hope of ever seeing the front group again. This left me in a state of depression, since I had spent four years training for PBP and now my chance of finishing at the front was gone. I began to think about quitting and getting on the next plane home where I could forget about being an endurance cyclist and work on my Austin Healey and do things that normal guys do. The rain continued to fall and I felt chilled so I decided to jam for an hour to generate some heat to warm myself. Eventually I picked up a few other riders who had either dropped off the pace of the group or flatted in the rain. After 40 km of hard jamming, through the haze I caught a glimpse of a winding red ribbon ahead. It was the lead peloton in their red rain jackets. I made a final hard effort to rejoin the group and immediately felt a rising sense of euphoria, knowing that once again my goal of finishing in front was achievable. By the end of the event, I finished first, over an hour up on the closest chaser. This experience taught me that no matter how desperate a situation may appear, never give up on your goals.
Starting in the 78-hour start group in the 1979 PBP, I had no idea what awaited us at the first control. It turned out to be a madhouse. It all started about 5 km from the control when the pace picked up and the peloton formed into a long single line. It turned into a race to see who could get into the control first. At the control there was a lot of yelling from the support crews as they tried to locate their riders to guide them to the check-in and then the support vehicle. It turns out that getting into the control first is not simply a point of honor; it also allows the rider to get checked through quickly and make an early escape. It wasn't until the fourth or fifth control that the lead group began to settle down making the chase back on a bit shorter. Each PBP I made a conscious effort to improve my entry position into the controls to reduce the chasing, but it never totally eliminated the need to chase back on.
20 km into one PBP, my front light loosened and fell from the handlebars, smashing to the pavement. Although it was not yet dark, I knew that I would need a light before we reached the first control since a time penalty could be assessed for riding without lights while dark. As darkness fell, a roving official's car drove up and down the peloton to make certain that everybody's lights were on. I deftly slipped behind other riders shielding myself from view until we reached the first control where my support crew attached a new light. Since that incident I have used a redundant lighting system (2 separate lights). This not only provides a backup light in case of loss or failure, but it also allows a much longer time period without battery change since the lights can be periodically switched back and forth, thereby reducing power drainage.
After finishing my first PBP in 1979, I showered up and was taken out to dinner. After finishing the meal the hunger pangs quickly returned so I found it necessary to order another entire meal. There was a special relaxed feeling about dining while sitting, and not feeling rushed. Food now seemed to have so much more flavor and purpose. The next morning I awoke early, dressed, and rode the bike down to the Eiffel Tower to watch the sunrise. As Paris came to life, I was overcome by emotion realizing what I had accomplished. I had finished PBP, the ultimate Randonneur event, and in the second fastest time. Late during the second night in the 1991 PBP fellow American Dennis Hearst and I were working hard to maintain our breakaway gap on the chasing field. We had labored for hours in the dark without seeing a soul. As we passed through a tiny village we encountered a group of cheering fans waving an American flag and shouting phrases in broken English. Any idea that the French backed only their countrymen was quickly dispelled.
In retrospect, I wish I had gotten into Randonneuring and PBP earlier than 1979. Every time I have ridden PBP I have learned something new. Accumulating and applying that knowledge has made the next PBP easier and more enjoyable. The past six PBPs have provided many fond and some painful memories that have changed my life. I hope that PBP 2003 is a safe one for you and it will enrich your life leaving you with many lasting memories.