(For PBP Rookies)
by Bill Bryant
For most randonneurs, their first trip to PBP is an eye-opening experience. They will learn a lot about themselves--especially their personal fortitude--and they will also learn a lot about this legendary event. Through various newsletter and handbook articles and website information, RUSA HQ has tried to help our American rookies as much as possible, as have our RBAs. The pre-ride packet sent to entrants by the Audax Club Parisien will explain a good bit too. Still, many first-time PBP riders will find there are some confusing things about the Big Ride that will surprise them. In no particular order, here are a few items that come to mind:
- The route sheet will be very different from what you are used to on American brevets and century rides. Hard to explain, but once you see it, you'll understand what I mean. However, the route is well marked with arrows and I've ridden PBP twice without using the route sheets at all. (During the first night of my 1983 PBP, I got lost on my own, but was soon turned around by a friendly passerby. Then a few hours later, the large pack I was in--with nearly all French riders--strayed off course again. After that, I've been vigilant for the PBP arrows at every road junction and haven't gotten lost since.
- The route arrows are rectangular signs wired to lampposts, fences, buildings, etc. They are not painted on the road, as you'll often find at US events. So, if your bike's headlights only shine on the ground, spotting the arrows will be difficult. At the last PBP I used a helmet lamp along with the required fixed headlamps on the handlebars and spotting the arrows was very easy.
- Since 1991, the ACP has used various routes for the first and last miles leaving and entering St. Quentin-en-Yvelines. Strangely, they are often not on the route sheet! It seems the ACP has had some trouble working with the municipal authorities about exactly which local roads around the busy start/finish area are suitable for the event. Yet, many editions of PBP later, they don't seem to feel a need to update their route sheet to help the riders. Nonetheless, leaving St. Quentin-en-Yvelines during PBP is very easy: merely follow the huge packs of riders you started with! However, the return four days later can be confusing and frustrating to weary randonneurs, especially if they practiced beforehand using the official route sheet. If they are near the final control's closing time trouble could ensue. What to do? Despite the convoluted route in 1999, I just followed the arrows and eventually got to the finish line okay despite knowing the route sheet offered a much quicker way (roughly 20 minutes less) to the final control.
- For the typical 90-hour or 84-hour group rider, stopping at Loudéac makes a lot of sense. Many randonneurs will rest there on the way out Tuesday night (444 kms), stop there again on the way back Wednesday night (760 kms), and then take potluck somewhere along the way, such as Mortagne-au-Perche (1063 kms) late Thursday/early Friday morning. However, if you stop at Loudéac on Tuesday for a sleep, you'll awaken with stiff muscles-and then have to immediately tackle some of the steepest climbs on the route. Ouch! If you can press on to Carhaix before you take an extended break, that would be better. (Note that this is easy to say, much harder to do. The night start in Paris and Loudéac's long lines for food can really slow one's overall pace getting to Carhaix.)
- The PBP route has about 10,000 meters (or, 31,000 feet) of vertical gain. Luckily, no one particular ascent is all that bad, such as BMB's infamous Middlebury Gap or aptly named Mount Terrible. In general, at PBP you will find that if the climb is steep, the length will be short; if the climb is long the gradient will be gentle. You will, however, find no long stretches of flat ground at PBP; the route is undulating the entire way and it will, obviously, become progressively harder as you grow increasingly weary.
- If you take the Special Machines start (tandems and recumbents) fifteen minutes before either the regular 90-hour group on Monday evening or the 84-hour group on Tuesday morning, remember to subtract 15 minutes from the control closing times in your route book. In 1999, the ACP issued the same route book to the "specials" as it did the solo bike start, and this could happen again in 2003. (If in doubt this August, check with a solo bike rider's route book.) Note, however, the event computer was "on time" and calculated the "specials" had 15 minutes less than their route books showed-a tough situation for sleepy riders near the cut-off.
- On the outbound ride, the first control at Mortagne-au-Perche is a "Contrôle ravitaillement", which means it offers food and drink, but it is not an official control point. Don't waste time searching for the place to get your route book stamped--there isn't one! Remember, though, that it is a regular control on the return trip and you must sign in.
- For the 80 and 90-hour starters on Monday evening, they will find no stores between the start and Mortagne. Be sure to carry enough food and drink for 90 hilly miles. (If you run short of water, at about 82 kilometers from the start the churchyard cemetery in Chateauneuf-en-Thymerais has a water tap some thirsty randonneurs have made use of in the past.)
- The current PBP course is not entirely an out-and-back route as it is often described. Along with some deviations in the first and last few miles in St. Quentin-en-Yvelines (previously mentioned), there are also some substantial route differences between Carhaix and Brest, going both ways. In essence, it is somewhat like a figure-eight, with the middle of the "eight" being the lovely little village of Sizun. (A great place, by the way, for a fueling stop midway between Carhaix and Brest.) The trip from Carhaix to Brest usually takes a little longer than the return from Brest to Carhaix. This region contains numerous steep climbs on the route as well as the long drag up both sides of Roc Trevezel, so one's riding speed will likely drop when doing the arduous Carhaix-Brest-Carhaix hundred-mile "century".