By Jan Heine
Riding back toward of Paris across the vast agricultural plains that characterize the last leg of Paris-Brest-Paris, I saw a wall of black clouds ahead. With only 30 km to go in what had been one of the wettest Paris-Brest-Paris in recent decades, a little more rain was not going to deter me! I was making good time toward my goal of finishing in 50 hours or less. After battling crosswinds for days, I was enjoying a tailwind for a change! Things were going well, I had no aches or pains anywhere, and my bike was working as smoothly as it had when we left Paris two days earlier.
As I reached another indication of the route sheet, I calculated my average speed. However, despite my good progress, the average speed I needed to maintain kept increasing, from 24 km/h at Dreux to 26 km/h with 30 km to go. I was spinning my 48-17, so even though my 1973 Alex Singer was not equipped with a computer, I knew I was riding at about 30 km/h. Either the course was longer than the route sheet indicated, or I was losing more time on the hills than I thought.
Distracted by these thoughts, I had reached the endless hills that make up the last 20 km of Paris-Brest-Paris, and the clouds I had seen on the horizon. It was getting dark, and huge raindrops began to fall. Within a few hundred meters, I was in the middle of a thunderstorm like the ones I remember from Texas. In Texas, we sought shelter and waited until the rain abated, but even if I had wanted to stop, there was no shelter to be found in the forest. Without stopping, I put on my rain jacket, but even so, I was soaked to the skin within seconds. Sheets of water ran across the road, washing gravel and mud onto the pavement. Tree branches littered the road, and I knew that my only hope to remain warm was to increase my pace further. Which is what I had to do anyhow, if I wanted to reach the finish at the Human Rights Stadium before 10 P.M. The less is said about those last kilometers across the "ville nouvelle," the better. My easy spin was gone. I was pushing large gears. From each intersection to the next, it was a drag race, then I slowed while frantically looking for one of the scarce arrows to ensure that I remained on course. With less than a kilometer to go, I caught and passed another rider. I had no intention to "drop" him, but I did not want to lose precious time. When I reached the finish at 9:59, I was so out of breath that I hardly could stand any longer. It was nice to be welcomed by my parents and a number of friends from Paris.
That was the end of a memorable ride. Every four years, I eagerly anticipate riding Paris-Brest-Paris. The scenic back roads, along with the support of what appears to be the entire population of Normandy and Brittany, and seeing friends from all over the world, add up to a magic ride. 2007 was to be my third Paris-Brest. On my first ride, in 1999, I took my time, met many people on the road, slept for 5-6 hours every night, and reached Paris tired, but happy 75 hours after I started. 2003 turned out even better. Riding a tandem with Jaye Haworth, we had a wonderful ride for the first 800 km, greatly enjoying the teamwork and effortless speed as the tandem surged over one hill after another. The last hours were more difficult, but a trophy for the fastest mixed tandem amply rewarded our efforts.
In 2007, I decided to ride a single bike. Unlike a tandem team, which proceeds at its own speed, a single bike rider benefits greatly from teamwork and shelter in a group. However, staying with the lead group requires more than strong legs. At the controls, lead riders benefit from very efficient support crews that allow them to reduce their stops to an absolute minimum. Even though I am not fond of the idea of cycling with a support car, I quickly realized that if I wanted to stay with the lead group for any length of time, I would require support myself. Fortunately, my parents, who live in Germany, were quite excited about participating in the event and helping me. Instead of meeting me at every single control, we decided that they would sleep in Fougères and meet me on Tuesday morning. Then they would meet me at Loudéac and Carhaix, where they would await my return from Brest. This allowed them to get some rest and reduce their time on the road. Without such careful planning, the task of the support crew can be more exhausting than that of the rider. Furthermore, our choice of controls facilitated navigation, as the towns my parents visited all are lined up along the main road.
The difference between the relatively small tandem group and the immense group of single riders became obvious as soon as I showed up at 5:45 P.M., more than two hours before the start. With more than 1500 riders taking this start time, there already was a very long line. For the next two hours, I stood in a line that was not moving. Fortunately, it did not rain, but later start groups got wet and cold before their first pedal stroke toward Brest. Chatting with other riders from various countries made the time go by quickly, but it was a relief nonetheless when the starting gun sounded at 8:03 P.M. We were off in the first wave! My road racing experience came in handy as riders began to fight for positions near the front that allowed them to ride through turns and narrow spots on the road with little slowing. Unlike in U.S. road races, the "centerline rule" was not respected, and riders often moved up in the left lane, even in blind turns. If a car came the other way, general mayhem ensued, with much locking up of wheels and shouts of panic. These first hours on the road were quite stressful.
Darkness fell as our huge peloton snaked its way across the plains west of Paris. On the approach to the first food stop in Mortagne-au-Perche, the pace increased on the uphill as riders jostled for good positions. I stayed at the front, even though I did not plan to stop. As we raced through the ancient streets of the town, well-placed support crews handed musette bags to the riders around me. We continued without stopping. Our group now was significantly smaller than before. I had planned to bring enough supplies from the start to ride the 311 km to Fougères, where my parents were to meet me with food and drink. However, the night was warmer than expected, and I drank more than planned. With my supplies dwindling, I decided to refill at the first control of Villaines-la-Juhel. I knew this would be a difficult control to navigate, because the large number of riders would overwhelm the officials sweeping the cards and stamping the books. Thus, it was imperative to be among the first riders to reach the control. Of course, the other riders in the group had the same thoughts, and the pace increased significantly during the uphill approach to Villaines.
My 1973 Alex Singer randonneur bike certainly was not the lightest bike in the group, but it climbs very well. Thus, I was among the first 7 or 8 riders as we approached the control. Officials had erected a road block with only enough space for a single rider to walk their bike through. As a result, a stampede resulted, with cyclists being pushed against the barriers by those coming after them. Bikes were crashing into each other. Officials, riders and support crews were shouting. Some riders even tried to climb over the barriers. Despite this mayhem, I made it through the barriers fine, parked my bike and had my card swiped. I was greeted by my friend Roger Baumann. He had been the fastest single-bike rider in PBP 1956, and went on to complete 10 Paris-Brest-Paris. Tonight, he was watching the event unfold at this control.
I needed water, and was happy to see a counter where drinks were sold. I approached with a Euro in hand, hoping to get a water bottle and leave without losing much time. Alas, the four people at the stand all were busy looking for a bottle opener. Mindful of the bad reputation of the first riders, I resisted the temptation to grab a bottle of water and leave my money on the table, especially since I was wearing a jersey that clearly stated my being a "Seattle Randonneur." After about 45 seconds, I left without water, got on my bike and pedaled off into the night. I quickly caught a few stragglers. Upon leaving town, we saw the lead group, now down to perhaps 25 riders, about half a mile ahead. They had increased the pace, obviously hoping that most "dropped" riders would not be able to rejoin. On a long false-flat, I made a desperate effort to bridge the gap. About half-way across, I picked up a rider who was stuck in this no-man's land, unable to reach the group by himself. I slowed to let him get on my wheel, and with another great effort, I made it almost to the lead group. Then the other rider took over, and we were back. Four days later, in one of the most gratifying moments of this PBP, the other rider thanked me for pulling him back to the lead group. He managed to stay with them to the finish, and told me that he would not have been able to bridge the gap alone.
Fearful of being caught behind a split in the pack, I rode through the group toward the front. A strong crosswind was blowing, but only two riders were willing to take pulls. Being at the front, I took my pull. When I was done, nobody pulled through. It felt like a Category V peloton where everybody is afraid of getting dropped and nobody dares to take an initiative. It got worse during the next descent. Most riders had very poor lights that may have met the requirements of the rule book, but did little to illuminate the road. As a result, the descending was more than cautious, with everybody riding the brakes. My Schmidt E6 light illuminated the road much better, allowing me to pull ahead on the descents. This meant that I was at the front of the pack again, battling the strong crosswind. With nobody willing to pull through, it was rather frustrating indeed. I soon slowed deliberately to find a more comfortable spot toward the rear of the pack. However, the comfort was relative, as many riders lacked bike handling skills. Several times, riders touched wheels around me. Then there was a crash that involved three riders riding behind and next to me. A few kilometers further, another crash involved four or five riders around me. One hit my thigh before crashing onto the pavement, launching me onto the grassy verge of the road.
The crash opened a gap ahead of me, and this time, the peloton increased its pace to take advantage of the situation. I was not looking forward to another 980 km in a peloton like this. More importantly, I was not sure whether my legs could sustain another hard effort. Finally, I was out of water. So I let the peloton go, and thus abandoned my hopes to finish Paris-Brest-Paris with the lead group after only 240 km on the road. I rode with an Austrian rider who had been caught out similarly. As we entered a small village, I saw a woman at the window of her house. I asked her for water, and she offered me a glass of orange juice as well. As I left her kitchen, a second group of riders sped by. After a quick chase, I joined that group. Several experienced riders had imposed some sense of order, and the riding was less stressful than in the first group. The crosswinds had picked up, but even so, only a few riders were willing to take pulls, while most rode strung out behind the lead riders in positions that did not offer any protection from the wind. A rotating echelon would have been far more efficient, but this would have required equal effort from all riders. It was clear that most in this group were unwilling to share the work. We reached Fougères, and agreed on a five-minute stop. My parents were at the designated spot, and quickly replaced my bottles and handed me the food I had requested. Despite our agreement, I saw several riders leave in a hurry, and joined them at the exit of the town.
Night changed to an overcast day as we rode across the rolling terrain toward Tinténiac. A spectator shouted that we were 4 minutes behind the lead group. Clearly, the lead group was as disorganized as before, and we were catching up! Just then, my front tire started to feel squishy, and within a few seconds, it went completely flat.
After removing a long, sharp piece of glass from the tire, I replaced the tube. As I was pumping up the tire, I saw yet another group speed toward me. However, by the time I had reinstalled the wheel, they had passed me and reached the horizon. With the crosswind blowing harder than ever, I knew I would not be able to catch them without expending energy that I would need later in the ride. After all, Paris-Brest-Paris only had started. Things decidedly were not going as planned, and it was time to switch to "Plan B." Plan B was the schedule I had worked out in case I had to ride by myself. While I was disappointed by this turn of events, I also was relieved to be away from the groups, no longer risking crashes and being able to ride at my own, constant pace.
I spent the next half hour recovering from my earlier efforts, trying to find my rhythm. The crosswinds were discouraging, but as the French tend to say: "Il faut faire avec." (You'll have to work with it.) Just then, I saw a centuries-old farm by the roadside, with a sign "Chambre d'hôtes" (Bed & Breakfast). It was a lovely setting, amidst meadows and trees. I was tempted to ask whether they had a room available. I imagined sitting by the fire, reading a book and drinking hot cocoa. I could continue the ride when the rain had stopped, as a cyclotourist instead of a randonneur. Instead, I decided to continue, and to return with my family at a later stage to enjoy this lovely region at a more leisurely pace.
The decision to continue was somehow empowering, and I was feeling much better when I reached Tinténiac, where I saw Keith Fraser from British Columbia. Unfortunately, he was not feeling well, and was unable to keep up on the hills that followed. After a while, I saw a rider behind, who was approaching slowly. I stopped and stretched to let him catch up. Alain was an older rider, clearly very experienced in this type of event. Not a very strong climber, he had been caught out by the Villaines control. Soon we were joined by a third rider, from Italy, who was riding unsupported. Working together made it much easier to deal with the crosswinds.
At the control in Loudéac, a spectator came up to me and asked whether I was Jan Heine. Upon my affirmation, he introduced himself as Gérard— the stoker of the male tandem team with whom we had ridden in Paris-Brest-Paris 2003 for 200 km during the first night, and whose humor had made time and distance fly by! It was a great to see him again, and to be reminded of more joyful times during Paris-Brest-Paris.
After intermittent rain all night and morning, rain began to fall in earnest on the next leg toward Carhaix. Our group of three worked well together, and we reached Carhaix mostly recovered from our earlier efforts. My parents had befriended Alain's wife, who supported her husband with a rented RV. As we arrived, one of the groups who had been ahead was ready to leave, and our Italian friend decided to join them. Alain and I were in no such rush: we had caught this group once, and we would see them again. Before long, we reached the Roc Trevezel under menacing skies, but we could see sunshine on the city of Brest below. The descent was quick, and before too long, we crossed the magnificent Pont Albert Louppe. The afternoon haze made the bay less impressive than it had been in 2003, when we passed just as the sun set. At the control, we saw numerous riders, including our Italian friend. After about 8 minutes, our group of three commenced the return journey, while most riders from the earlier group still remained at the control. As so often, we had passed riders not on the road, but at controls.
Unlike previous PBP rides, this time I felt a sense of relief that we had covered more than half the distance, that the end was approaching. The evening was warm, the roads were dry, the landscape pretty, there was little traffic and we now had a slight tailwind that pushed us up the hill, requiring only moderate effort on our part. The scenery was beautiful, and life was good. Toward the top, I saw several friends coming the other way, first Melinda Lyon from Boston, then fellow Seattle Randonneurs Brian Ohlemeier and Ryan Hamilton. A little further, an oncoming rider shouted "Bonne route, Jan!" It was Alain Collongues, a friend from Paris and fellow Alex Singer rider. It was great to see my friends looking good and in good spirits.
Then the course split, with the return leg taking the main road where the outbound ride had been on small back roads, and we were alone again. Just before dark, we reached Carhaix. We agreed on a long 15-minute stop. My parents had obtained soup and noodles from the cafeteria, which was a welcome change from the Ensure Plus meal replacement and energy bars I had consumed until then. With very little temperature variation between day and night, I never removed or added clothes, but my mother's brief massage of my legs, back and neck was extremely welcome. Then we departed into the falling night.
On the leg toward Loudéac, we began to see increasing numbers of cyclists coming the other way. On the downhills, the other two riders in my group began to have confidence in my powerful lights and followed my wheel rather than riding their brakes. I greatly enjoyed this stretch. The tree-lined, winding roads made the riding interesting, and every so often, the outline of an old farmhouse would appear by the roadside in the darkness.
Loudéac was less crowded than expected. With the cutoff time for the 90-hour riders only a little over two hours away, this did not bode well for the DNF rate, as many riders obviously had not yet reached this control. We stopped for just 10 minutes, but Alain decided he needed sleep. So my still nameless Italian friend and I continued alone. Communication was sketchy, as my Italian consists of ten words, and his English had deteriorated as the ride wore on. After a short while, he appeared to indicate that he needed a bathroom, and I tried to explain that we should take care of this once we left the village we were traversing. Some miscommunication must have ensued, as he suddenly yelled "Ciao." and was gone. I rolled slowly for a while, hoping he would catch up, but never saw him again. So I continued alone.
I now saw more and more riders coming the other way. For about an hour, there was an almost uninterrupted procession of bikes. Then the road emptied, and I reached the second secret control near Illifaut. Only returning riders had to check in here, so I was the only rider there. Even at 4 A.M., the volunteers were extremely enthusiastic, and it was with renewed vigor that I climbed the last hills toward Tinténiac. I reached Tinténiac in the first light of the morning, as the wind picked up again. The control was almost deserted, except for a number of riders who had dropped out. The cafeteria was closed, but I managed to obtain a bottle of water before getting back on the road.
The wind now was howling. Being relatively tall and not very powerful, crosswinds are the bane of my cycling existence. The road turned northward, resulting in a 45-degree crosswind, the worst possible configuration. Riding alone in this inhospitable environment, I reached the low point of my ride. And then the rain started again. This ride appeared endless. I was tired, yet Paris was more than 320 km (200 miles) away. This was not fun any longer!
Then I realized that I had no excuse to feel so miserable. My legs were spinning smoothly. I had no aches or pains. My bike was working perfectly. I realized that I owed it to my parents waiting at the next control, to my friends and training partners not to slacken the pace, but to continue in a way that would make them proud. I consulted my watch and my schedule. I was a bit behind "Plan B," but if I worked hard, 50 hours might just be possible. With this realization, I arched my back, put my hands into the drops of the handlebars, and increased my speed as I headed toward Fougères. As so often, riding fast was easier than riding slowly, and my mood improved.
At Fougères, it was nice to see my parents again, and Alain's wife was there to tell me that he had slept only 30 minutes and had reached Tinténiac only 15 minutes behind me. I decided to wait for him, as the company would make riding in the crosswind more pleasant. He arrived soon enough, and we left Fougères together. We made good time on our way to Villaines-la-Juhel. Alain had calculated that we could finish the ride in 48 hours, but I knew that his estimate was optimistic. We agreed on 50 hours, but I saw that he was antsy to try and go faster. He had lived entirely off various Overstim's liquid nutrition products, but I encouraged him to eat some soup at the next control before we headed out into the rain again. On the flat, busy roads that followed, Alain closely hugged the right edge of the road, and with the northerly wind coming from the left, I found no shelter and finally could not keep up the pace any longer. I dropped back. I was surprised to see him stopped a few kilometers down the road – he wanted to say good-bye. As he drew ahead slowly, I was disappointed that we no longer could work together, but explaining the intricacies of drafting in crosswinds after 1000 km on the road would have been difficult.
I arrived at Mortagne-au-Perche just after Alain had left, feeling much better as the finish approached. I felt confident that I could approach my goal of 50 hours, so the stop was short. The country changed to beautiful wooded hills, and the road snaked its way through this lovely landscape, which was dotted in places with farms and villages. I was surprised to see spectators along the route, considering that the first riders had passed several hours earlier, and we stragglers were spread rather thinly over the terrain. One person standing by the roadside yelled "10 Minutes," which made me re-double my efforts on the many long hills, hoping to catch Alain, who usually climbed slower than me. Finally, I saw a rider in the distance as the road flattened out. Spinning my 48-19, it did not take very long to catch him. But the rider was not Alain! It was a young rider from Brittany, who had been dropped from the lead group. He was looking ill at ease in the rain on his fender-less carbon bike, and with no clothes except a short-sleeve jersey and shorts. Figuring that I could use all the help I could get, I told him to stay on my wheel until he felt better, but after a few hundred yards, he no longer could keep up and soon was out of sight.
At Dreux, my shortest stop since the first two controls had me back on the road after less than 5 minutes. Thinking that it was only 68.5 km to Paris made me dig deep on the hills around Dreux. A sign for the Climb of Chérisy reminded me of Roger Baumann, who in 1956 had ridden most of the distance in the lead by himself, battling similar winds and rain. Back then, a challenger had approached Baumann from behind, and for a long time, both riders had raced toward Paris within sight of each other, one unable to catch the other, the other unable to speed away from the former. The "Côte de Chérisy" was the scene of the final showdown. Baumann prevailed to arrive first in Paris.
Today, there was nobody in sight either ahead or behind, and my challenge was beating the clock. On the endless plains that followed, tailwinds and crosswinds followed in close succession, requiring a lot of effort and shifting of gears to keep the speed up. And then I saw the black clouds on the horizon mentioned at the onset of this report...
Post-script: The ten riders finishing in the lead group finished at 4:47 P.M., a little more than 5 hours before me. However, one of them, Michel Mingant, had started in the second wave, and thus had spent 15 minutes fewer on the road. As a result, his was the fastest time. According to the volunteers, I was the 30th rider to arrive, and my official time appears to have been exactly 50:00 hours. Alain finished 5 minutes ahead of me and our Italian friend about 40 minutes behind. For the last 450 km, we had ridden close to each other without being able to team up for any significant portions of time.