by Pat Cole
On Thursday, August 14, 2003, I was at JFK airport in New York on my way to Paris with my tandem partner, Jay Ambroson. We were about to embark upon a journey that has been four years in the making: riding Paris-Brest-Paris. There have been four seasons of brevets, PAC Tour, the Iowa 24 hour, BMB along the way. Each one a challenge and special in its own way, but this was the big one. The event that was at the heart of all this crazy long-distance cycling. PBP was always on the radar screen and our long-range goal.
August 14, was also the date of another very unusual event. A big power outage that affected much of the eastern seaboard was on its way. We arrived at JFK to be greeted by some 20 other long-distance cyclists on their way to PBP. It was great to see so many familiar faces from various events. We cued up to check in. Ten minutes after Jay and I checked in, boarding passes safely in hand, the power went out. At first, speculation was that the problem was some computer system failure. The reality of an extensive power outage was soon made known.
The next 21 hours would be spent in the airport waiting. The airport made for a very colorful scene. Bodies are littered everywhere. Small children in pajamas and port-a-cribs were setting up house. The adults are not quite as comfortable. Pepperidge Farm cookies and water served by Air France employees are on the menu for dinner, with marble floors acting as beds. Randonneurs getting in a little pre PBP practice, sleeping in strange and uncomfortable places and breaking into stashes of energy bars as the food situation at the airport became bleaker. The airport was running on an emergency generator so we did have a small amount of light and occasional, hard to understand announcements were made over a loudspeaker system. As the hours passed, the temperature rose, water was in short supply, food supplies dwindled and the bathrooms became very inhospitable. This had all the markings of an endurance event.
The next day, with the lights still out, at approximately 6 am, Air France begins the process of re-checking passengers in. We are to retrieve our previously checked luggage and re-check it. Air France employees are now manually inspecting bags. We scour the airport looking for our bags, at various stages of check-in. The tandem is easily found. It was in our sights all along. We have spent a good portion of the evening watching a rather portly Air France employee using the case as chair. Good news, Jay finds his bag sitting on the stalled conveyor belt behind the check in counter. I am not so fortunate. My bag is nowhere to be found. Conversations with the Air France team reveal that it is probably inside the conveyor belt system, out of sight and out of reach until power is returned. Mike Delillo, five-time PBP ancien also has the same problem. We make numerous offers to head GI Joe style into the luggage conveyor but this is prohibited. We are told that the bags will be retrieved when power returns and sent to Paris on later flight.
Finally at about 1PM on Friday afternoon, sleep deprived, hungry, and wee bit testy, we are in flight to Paris. At this point everyone is very thankful to be headed closer to our destination. Spirits are good and we are still confident that the missing bags will get to Paris in time for the ride. After all, we will arrive in Paris early Saturday morning and will be taking the 90 hour start on Monday night at 10PM, plenty of time. At least this is what the hopeful part of me thinks. The other small but often loud voice is thinking differently. This voice is filled with panic, surveying all the gear that is contained in that missing bag. Cycling shorts, shoes, jerseys, obscenely big container of Endurox, Clif bars, raincoat, leg/arm warmers. Then there is the small pharmacy, Motrin, Imodium, Pepcid, Vivarin, Endurolytes sunscreen and on & on. I do have my helmet, however. This is safely packed in my carry-on and will come in handy for banging my head against the wall during the future conversations I am to have with Air France concerning the lost luggage.
After arriving at our hotel at 4am on Saturday, the next few days are spent in a flurry of anxious activity. Preparing for the ride, assembling the tandem, and making numerous phone calls to Air France. We offer to go to the airport to look through the lost bags and rescue the bag ourselves but the customer service crew at Air France assures us that this is unnecessary and useless. They can confirm one thing however; yes the luggage is lost. Now we are wavering on the issue of attempting to re-accumulate all that is missing and necessary for the ride. Do we start shopping madly or will the bag get there? I am not relishing the fact of wearing new shorts and shoes for the first time on 1200K. Having had saddle sores and Achilles issues in the past add to this unease. We make attempts to track down some cycling stores in the event of the worst case scenario only to be met with more bad news. It is a banking holiday in France and many of the stores are closed for the weekend and through Monday.
Time is running out and the bag is nowhere to be found The mad shopping and borrowing begin. The randonneurs prove to be a generous group. Offers of gear, and rides to Paris abound. The very kind and patient Annaline and Robert Dinklemann take Mike Delillo and me into Paris in search of cycling shops. The French are truly on holiday with all of the specialty cycling shops closed. Our best find is a Decathalon chain store, the equivalent of a Sports Authority. It is now Monday morning and I am out of time. I purchase a pair of very large inexpensive cycling shoes and Look cleats. The fact that with two pairs of socks I can lift my foot out of these shoes without unbuckling troubles me a little. I tell myself that this will come in handy for the predictable swollen feet of long-distance. I get arm warmers, tights and a vest that fit reasonably well - but still no shorts.
I return to the hotel still naively hopeful that the bag will be there. Air France informed us Monday morning that the bag had been located and would be delivered to the hotel by 5pm on Monday. This turns out to be an empty promise. Still no bag. The reality begins to sink in that I will have to this ride without my familiar and personal gear.
The fact that I am doing this ride on a tandem further complicates the issue. It would be one thing to decide not to start if that decision only impacted me but that is not the case. This is Jay's ride too. He has been training and anticipating this for four years. He has been thoroughly supportive throughout his whole ordeal. He assures me that the decision to do the ride is mine and he will accept whatever conclusion I come to.
So after some tears and numerous pep talks from Jay we are ready to do the ride. Outfitted with cycling shorts borrowed from the very generous Linda McAdams and my inexpensive but ill-fitting shoes, we are ready to take on the much-anticipated 1200K. I try to forget the frantic ordeal of the past few days and to focus on this event, having yet another adventure with my partner on this well traveled tandem, getting this ride done and having some fun. Fortunately, the spectacular weather, the beautiful scenery of the countryside, the camaraderie of so many like-minded cyclists, the support and spirit of the lovely French people make this easy. What an experience, unique and unforgettable. The start alone was almost worth the all the training and effort. Certainly a surreal experience to be surrounded by all those bicycles, the seemingly endless stream of red taillights ahead.
Halfway to Brest, I was to experience the generosity of randonneurs yet again. At Loudeac we were waiting for Claus Claussen to direct us to our hotel for the night when we met Kay Ogden. There was much confusion and delay at this bag drop and while waiting we got to talking. My lost luggage story came up and Kay kindly gave me a brand new pair of cycling shorts. Just my size too.
We finish the ride on Friday afternoon around 1pm, in about 88 hours. Slow and unsteady at times, but reaching our goal of finishing. The missing piece of luggage greeted us upon our arrival back at our hotel. It was delivered early Friday morning, just in time to put on a flight to New York. No packing was necessary.