by Jan Heine
May 2000 - I am interviewing Roger Baumann, winner of Paris-Brest-Paris in 1956 for my magazine, Vintage Bicycle Quarterly. He talks about the strategy, the preparations and the friendships that characterized randonneuring in the 1950s. The long hours on the bike required to do PBP non-stop. The battle toward the end, when after days of riding in the rain, a second rider almost caught him, leading to a showdown on the last hill. Baumann prevailed. I had done Paris-Brest in 1999 at a leisurely pace, but Baumann planted the seed: I would attempt a "fast" PBP - "to do a time," as the French say. But how? I did not want a support car, and that would mean that after the first or second control, I would be off the back, by myself for the rest of the ride. On the other hand, tandems have a long tradition in Paris-Brest: they beat all the singles in the first three post-war editions (1948, 1951, 1956). Records established back then took decades to break. I like the teamwork aspect of tandems, and having somebody along on such a long ride is nice, too. A minor problem remains: finding a partner whose pedal stroke and strength matches mine, and who is interested in doing PBP.
May 2002 -On a trip to Toronto in 2002, I meet Jaye Haworth on a 300 km brevet. It is bitterly cold, with occasional snow flurries as we ride across the Canadian Shield. A hard ride. Jaye's smooth pedaling style impresses, and so does her power up the hills. I ask if she might be interested in a tandem ride for PBP.
September 2002 - Jaye comes to Seattle to try a tandem on a few hilly, long rides. Our pedaling strokes harmonize surprisingly well. We decide to attempt PBP on the tandem.
January 2003 - In a box, the rusty frame and various parts that used to be a 1948 René Herse tandem arrived in Seattle. I set to work to restore this pile into the gleaming machine it once had been and would have to be again to do PBP. Why a 1948 tandem rather than a modern machine? Comfort for the stoker due to the fat 35 mm tires and upright position. Comfort for the captain due to the stable, predictable handling. Being at ease on the bike means you can go fast. We update a few components: a generator hub powers a halogen front light, and we use clipless SPD-style pedals.
May 2003 - Jaye visits Seattle again. We ride the last qualifier (600k) together around the Olympic Peninsula. Things work well despite hours of solid rain. We are optimistic.
Monday,August 18, 9 a.m. - We are finally in Paris! A long heat wave has been replaced by rain. I am in St. Quentin, near the start of Paris-Brest-Paris to take photos of a 1940s superlight aluminum randonneur bike for my magazine. On the way to the train station, I see numerous cyclists with sour faces riding through the drizzle. The brown stripe on their backs explains their unhappiness: Their bikes lack fenders! Back in Paris, I extend our already huge fenders with a mudflap made from a plastic bottle. Better safe than sorry!
Monday, 9:45 p.m. - We are off! Behind a lead van, we roll through the suburbs, accompanied by some of the most interesting "special machines." Tandems, recumbents (one with auxiliary hand drive), small-wheeled bicycles, fully faired HPVs, even a scooter! Soon we leave the city and roll on the dark roads of the countryside. It is fun to ride the tandem again: the feeling of effortless power is intoxicating. We are rolling well with a dozen fast tandems. It is fun, but not everybody pulls through. A few times, we have to make a hard effort to return to the lead group.After the first hills near Nogent-le-Roi, things calm down: four fast all-male tandems are ahead, and we are in the second group together with 5 or 6 other teams.
Tuesday, 2 a.m. - The streets of Mortagne-au-Perche, are lined with hundreds of support cars - also those of the many "90-hour" riders who had started 15 minutes behind us. Instead, we buy a bottle of water at the control and are back on the road in less than 2 minutes. We have lost our previous companions, don't even know if they are ahead or behind us. After a while, we catch a tandem from our previous group. We ride together. Gérard and Didier, from St. Brieuc in Britanny, inform us that only one tandem still is ahead, but that we have passed all the others at the last food stop. So much for the advantage of support cars.
Tuesday, 5:30 a.m. - Villaines-la-Juhel, the first control. Roger Baumann volunteers here, and he greets us enthusiastically. When we last spoke, he asked when we would arrive here. I had told him "Approximately 5:30." He says he is impressed with our planning, even though we all know it is more coincidence than planning that got us here exactly on time.
Tuesday, 6:45 a.m. - "C'est bon pour le morale!" ("It's good for the morale") declares Didier from the back of the tandem next to us, as we watch the sun rise over the rolling hills. "C'est bon pour le morale" has been Didier's running joke for a while, whether it is passing large groups of 80-hour riders, or stretching our legs as we coast down the hills. Gérard, on the front, the younger of the two, is more taciturn. He prefers to talk about our pace, and advises us not to overdo it on the way to Brest. That is our plan indeed - we hope to arrive in Brest fresh and with lots of energy for the return trip. Gérard explains that they plan to stop for meals, but still hope to finish in 50-55 hours. In Tinténiac, they stop for breakfast. We continue.
Tuesday, 2:10 p.m. - We reach Loudéac,one-third of the way. For every participant, this is an accomplishment, but for us, the high school grounds hold a special attraction: my parents, on vacation in Brittany, are meeting us here with food and encouragement. After 450 kilometers on the bike, countless Clif Bars and Ensure Plus, this is very welcome. We sit down in folding chairs and eat delicious pasta, rice and string beans from the cafeteria. We replenish our handlebar bag with food for the next 400 km, and set off after 30 minutes of rest.
Tuesday, 3:30 p.m. -"Ding-ding!" I ring the bell mounted to the stem of the tandem (all Herse randonneur bikes were so equipped). Refreshed from our stop in Loudéac, we pass large groups of riders on the long climbs toward Carhaix. We are in the true heart of Brittany, home to many French cycling champions. A few hours earlier, we passed a museum dedicated to Louison Bobet, winner of the Tour de France in 1953, 1954, and 1955. In the villages, people sit in front of their picturesque houses and encourage us and the other riders. When a local rider passes, the excitement increases with shouts of encouragement. On the long false flats between Saint Lubin and Carhaix, I am surprised when oncoming cars veer off the pavement onto the grass. When I look back, I see more than 30 cyclists forming an echelon behind our rear wheel, taking up the entire road. We don't mind people drafting, in fact, a peloton this large creates a moving air mass that pushes us along.
Tuesday, 8:30 p.m. - As we cross the magnificent bridge into Brest, the bay and harbor are bathed in the golden light of the setting sun. After tough headwinds during the last hours, we feel a huge sense of accomplishment: we have cycled to the westernmost tip of France in just 23 hours. It would be nice to stop and enjoy the scenery, but we want to be out of Brest before it gets dark. So we rush to the control, check in, and leave as darkness falls. We ride slowly on the way out of town, making sure we don't miss an arrow.
Tuesday, 10 p.m. - Finally, we reach the great ridge of the Roc Trevezel. In the dark, the ascent seemed endless. We saw the lights atop the giant mast above us for a long time... The following miles on the main road in the dark are boring, the silence is broken only when huge trucks pass us in a blur of lights and noise.
Wednesday, 2 a.m. - A procession of lights is moving toward us in the hills between Carhaix and Loudéac. Cyclists - one after another - on their way to Brest. The moon is hanging low over the horizon, illuminating this dream-like scene. On the downhills, we race toward them, hoping nobody will start veering across the narrow road on the climbs. Fortunately, they all are well-behaved, and their lights show us the way on the twisty roads. At up to 70 km/h, the descents are exhilarating, probably even more so for John, a rider from Boston, who has asked to stay on our wheel during the night.
Wednesday, 6:45 a.m. - The sun rises for the second time on this ride. Finally the night is over. We have had a hard time keeping the speed up, and are behind schedule. With the warmth of the new day, we speed up a bit and regain some of the time lost during the night. We cross paths with the last riders on their way to Brest, then ride alone for long stretches
Wednesday, 3 p.m. - The going is tough. The hills between Villaines-la-Juhel and Mortagne-au-Perche, so insignificant on the way out, are now difficult, long, and relentless. The fact that many other riders have slowed even more does not console us. We are having a hard time. In Mortagne, we share the control with only two other riders. We take an unscheduled meal break, because the Clif Bars just won't go down any longer.
Wednesday, 8:45 p.m. - As our third night on the road begins, I am having a hard time. In the evening light, hedges and trees take on strange shapes, and I see tractors and farm equipment. We stop in the next village, and I close my eyes for a few minutes, lying down on the sidewalk. A man comes from a neighboring house, and asks if we'd like a cup of coffee or some food.
Wednesday, 10:30 p.m - Things improve. No more hills. We enter a little village. Eight or nine people stand by the roadside behind tables loaded with food and water. We don't need anything, but we know they won't see another cyclist for an hour or so. So we stop, chat a bit, eat home-made cake and fill our bottles.
Thursday, 2:44 a.m. - We made it. The last kilometers seem endless. One hill after another. The road turned and twisted, until we completely lost our bearings. But we made it. We are the second tandem overall, the first mixed tandem. We are tired and worn out. The excitement of the people greeting us - my parents, Roger Baumann and others - is not really appreciated. The last hours were too hard to feel good about the ride. That will come later.
See Vintage Bicycle Quarterly (http://www.mindspring.com/~heine/bikesite/bikesite/) for full details and photos of our 2003 PBP story.