By Bill Bryant
Paris-Brest-Paris is the crown jewel of the randonneuring world. From a Monday through Friday in late August, it is the quadrennial "Olympic Games" of long-distance cycling that draws participants from the four corners of the globe. The host Audax Club Parisien is not large enough to put on PBP by itself and depends on the generosity of other French cycling clubs to pull it off. Along with regional clubs running the various controls along the route, many of the workers at the start/finish are not ACP members. No matter, a shared love of cycling, and especially for Paris-Brest-Paris, fuels their long-standing cooperation.
Though the actual ride begins on Monday evening (or Tuesday morning, depending on one's starting group), the festivities get under way on Sunday when each entrant must have his or her bicycle and lights inspected. If it passes, then riders can retrieve the documents, frame number and other materials needed to start the ride. For the first time, a handful of Americans would be among the army of volunteers processing the participants through the start/finish, located in the municipal gymnasium in Guyancourt.
I was excited, and a little nervous, to be sitting on the gym bleachers with about a hundred other volunteers from various cycling clubs from around the Paris region. Happily, I was also with four fellow RUSA members: Don Hamilton, Pierce Gafgen, and I had been recruited to help outside with the technical inspection for machines, while working inside the gym handing out ride documents would be Phyllis Hamilton and RUSA doyenne Jennifer Wise. The ACP's call for help from RUSA had been sent to Jennifer and Pierce earlier in the summer and we were all happy to be asked to join the effort. Still, without much to go on but past experience as riders, we all wondered what the day would bring.
The leaden skies and rain showers we encountered getting to the gym had not been welcome, but Don, Pierce and I are two-time PBP anciens and knew the tech inspection was conducted inside large tents on the far side of the soccer field; we'd likely stay dry during our day's toil. As we chatted in English before our briefing started, the five of us got a few curious looks from our new colleagues. Until 2007, this had been an all-French effort and they were no doubt curious about the interlopers now in their midst. Our RUSA shirts helped explain our presence at first, but these were soon covered up by our newly issued PBP "Organization" t-shirts that all workers were asked to wear.
Things got underway a little late, but Claude Lepertel welcomed us all and gave everyone their marching orders (in French, of course). At first most of her briefing was aimed toward the document table workers and what they needed to do in various situations. She also introduced some of the section chiefs the other workers could turn to if questions or problems arose. I recognized quite a few of the names, if not the faces, of many anciens and anciennes I had read about in past PBPs. Now a good bit older, these veterans were still participating in PBP as control officials, if only to help a new generation of riders earn their randonneuring spurs.
My command of French is not fluent, and much better with the written form than the spoken version. So, as the briefing shifted to the tech inspection, I perked up and paid close attention. But as I listened, some things were not making sense. Something was wrong, apparently due to the weather, but just why I could not make out. All the tech inspectors were directed to follow their section chief outside, so we three guys dutifully followed the others to the exit. As we departed, we got a too-mirthful "Stay dry, guys!" from the gals as they happily headed to a nearby table set up with the US riders' documents.
Before our group of about 25 controllers could get outside, we were stopped by an animated discussion among the ACP leaders. Apparently there was some hold-up. Don and Pierce asked me what was happening, but I couldn't get close enough to the conversation to make out exactly what was transpiring. No one was yelling, but there was apparently some disagreement as to what our group should be doing, and where. There was an air of distress among the listeners; we were running late and knew the first riders would show up soon; we'd better get to our stations tout de suite! I was looking forward to being in the tent for "Etrangers", where I could resume using English; I was getting pretty worn out trying to keep my French going.
Soon the group started moving again, but now to the front of the gymnasium and not toward the usual location of the tech inspection out back. What was happening? Where were our cozy tents, as used in past years? I hadn't seen any when we arrived in front earlier—were they going to have us set them up this year?
As we walked out into the rain, I worked myself next to the leader of the tech inspection and asked what was happening (in my lousy French). Surprise—no tents this year! And with the rain, all their plans were going down the drain. Apparently they were improvising "Plan B" on the fly since their original plan depended on dry skies. Yikes! Like me, Don and Pierce were not cheered by the news.
Oh well. Randonneurs are nothing but resilient, so we "sucked it up" and followed the group to our new station. The big news that hit us like a thunderbolt was that in order to speed things up, and get the riders out of the rain quicker, there would be no tech inspection this year. We would only be issuing numbered stickers that would be used to ensure the correct bicycle was taken away from the gym by its owner and not someone else. So, our job was relatively simple compared to earlier years, but since it was the first time this new system, and location, would be used at PBP we would all learning on the job.
No sooner did we get in position than riders started showing up. At first we three Americans were where the group had first been placed by our leaders, in an underground pedestrian tunnel that lead to the gym itself. By forcing the riders there with traffic cones at the start of a bike path, they'd have to pass by us in order to get to the bicycle parking. But general pandemonium seemed to be the order of the day as both riders and workers were unsure about what was happening, or how things should be done. The noisy echoes inside the tunnel didn't help things either.
Several of us soon became frustrated by the lack of organization and headed outside a little distance up the path before the tunnel. Thus, a combined Franco-American team of a dozen (impatient) controllers took the initiative and improvised a new check-in station encountered by riders before the one in the tunnel. We quickly divided ourselves and used our voices to divert English-speakers to our RUSA team, or directed French-speakers a few yards further to our French peers. It worked pretty well since most entrants spoke (to varying degrees) either French or English and things started moving better than we'd seen in the tunnel. Like Parisian traffic cops, we all yelled "Avancez!" from time to time and waved the riders forward.
Nonetheless, things went pretty well despite some minor hiccups and quite a number of riders were processed in the first hour. Most of the riders were more than a little surprised to learn there was no tech inspection and sometimes everyone's linguistic skills were put to the test while trying to make them understand. Passing the pre-ride tech-inspection is a hallowed PBP tradition; things did not always go smoothly since many riders were worried about not having the all-important sign-off from us. Compared to many others, quite a few of the Italian, Spanish, and Japanese entrants did not speak any English or French and they were often befuddled by the lack of a tech inspection. Whenever possible, we tried to enlist other riders as translators. Sometimes the path would be blocked by the sheer numbers of cyclists showing up at the same moment, but we sent the overflow to the other controllers still stationed inside the tunnel and (usually) kept things from stopping completely. There were a few frantic moments as we'd run low on the numbered stickers needed to keep the riders moving forward, but our section chief kept us supplied as best he could from the tunnel group. A few heavy showers put everyone inside the tunnel several times, but as soon as the rain let up, we'd return to our positions.
Overall, working the PBP tech control was enjoyable in a masochistic sort of way due to weather and long hours of standing. But it was a treat meeting so many riders, and especially our American contingent, or some of our foreign friends from the Randon chat list. So often we only see names on ride reports, brevet results, or e-mails, but now we could put a face to a name and greet our comrades in person, if only briefly. For the vast majority or riders, they took the changes in stride (once they understood us), but not in every case. One poor chap was so nervous about passing the all-important tech inspection that he was actually shaking, and the unexpected news that there wasn't one only made him tremble worse. I felt for the guy (obviously a PBP rookie)—at the first stop his pre-PBP expectations about what should happen were shot to hell! I pulled him aside and spent a little time explaining how different procedures worked, what to expect inside the gym, and where to find things, and mostly, to try to keep a cool head as PBP's inevitable surprises presented themselves. Once his jitters were quelled and normal breathing resumed, I sent him on his way.
Or, there was the unlucky couple from Florida who had only just gotten their (lost) bike cases from the airlines and they were dropped off in front of us by taxi. They were required to pass tech inspection with operational bicycles, but I didn't think it was a time to rigidly stick to the rules since by now it was afternoon and closing time was drawing near. After all, why should we care about unassembled bikes if there was no longer any tech inspection to perform? We were under strict instructions to only let riders through in the normal fashion, but in this case, and in a second identical situation an hour later with a different American couple with similar airline woes, we "looked the other way" and issued them their all-important stickers—on the outside of their bike boxes—despite a few hard looks from a French controller nearby. (I think he ratted us out; later we got a scolding by our section boss. This once, I was happy to not be fluent in French.) In any case, I know from long years of experience that the ACP really does want everyone to have a successful PBP and will often offer a lot of help to stranded riders. For our two couples running late with bike assembly, I hoped that this was still true, and indeed it was. Happily, things turned out fine and both couples retrieved their rider packets successfully and could then go to their hotels to assemble their bicycles in the evening. (And as it turned out, the ACP allowed an unusual Monday morning check-in for entrants running really late, once again demonstrating that despite any bureaucratic image PBP might have, it is essentially a wonderful event run by cyclists for cyclists.)
It was fun to look at all the various machines that riders had selected to ride PBP upon. Even though they share the common goal of riding 1200 hilly kilometers in a very short amount of time, their approaches do vary to a surprising degree. Having been at each PBP since 1995 (along with my first in 1983), I wasn't terribly surprised by any of the bicycles I saw, but felt there were increasingly more racing bikes at this PBP than in earlier editions. It seems more and more randonneurs do not use bicycles with fenders, or low gearing, or steel frames—I suppose "the times are changing" despite the timeless challenge that is PBP. This seems especially true for the Continentals, who nowadays favor doing brevets on racing machines more at home at the Tour de France than a bike better suited to such a long randonnée. The Brits, of course, had more fenders in their group due to their island's climate, and I think many of their frames were more influenced by "touring" than "racing" compared to other Europeans. For our Americans, there is a profound mix between the racing and touring camps, but if anything, I'd say I saw more French-inspired classic randonneuring machines with American, British, Australian, or Canadian owners than French ones!
Probably the best part of the day came when my sweetie Lois showed up for her tech inspection. I kept an eye out for her burgundy Steve Rex among the waves of riders that passed our station. Lois was obviously surprised to see me there—I'd kept the whole thing a secret and she'd thought I was out riding that Sunday morning with Pierce. After Lois got processed in the gym, she returned. At midday we had been told to take turns for a lunch break, so the two of us went upstairs for a special luncheon arranged for the volunteers, and other VIPs like Lois. We also got a chance to visit with our good friend Jean-Gualbert Faburel of the ACP. "J-G" is more than a trans-Atlantic pen-pal to us; he and Lois have homologated every single ACP brevet ridden in America since the start of the 2004 season. In addition, Jean-Gualbert works tirelessly in Paris to help RUSA in myriad ways and he and I are often in communication on one thing or another. Sometimes he works so much for our sport that I worry if the guy gets enough sleep. (Jean-Gualbert is truly amazing; despite his ceaseless labors processing all the foreign brevet results each year for the ACP and working as the club's Vice-President, he also worked like a Trojan to help the PBP organizing committee in various ways for the 18 months leading up to the Big Ride. Throughout it all, he remains calm and is never anything less than a gentleman. Jean-Gualbert and his wife Genevieve are good riders too, and darned fast ones. They cranked out PBP this year in less than 57 hours.)
From our upstairs dining room, we looked out over the vast sea of riders mobbing the gymnasium floor below. Seeing all those riders, I wondered if Jean-Gualbert and Lois were happy to have a break from their relentless results-processing chores. But I think their smiles came from something more personally satisfying than that. Here, spread before us was ample evidence of what, and who we'd all been working for. From our lofty perch I observed Jennifer and Phyllis working hard to get each American his or her ride packet, just as was happening at so many other places inside and outside the gym, and for no other reason than the simple desire to help their fellow randonneurs. The bustling panorama spread out before us was, despite outward appearances to the contrary, sublime.
There would be more hours of work after our brief lunch, and then an all-too short gathering of our American RBAs in the late afternoon. I'm afraid I was pretty worn-out by then and wasn't fully able to enjoy, or participate in that meeting. But all in all, it was a rewarding day in a variety of ways. Much more than when I was a rider at PBP, this time I got to "peek behind the curtain" and get a glimpse of the organizational aspect of PBP, and the selfless volunteers who make it all happen for the participants.