“No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.” ~John Donne
Paris-Brest-Paris. How does one even begin to write about an experience which is so big, so daunting, so intimate and yet so completely impersonal as to be utterly overwhelming and life changing? 6000 riders from all over the world coalesced in one location with the same goal – pedal a bicycle 1230 kilometers from Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines to Brest and back in less than 90 hours. For some it was a personal goal; for some, a matter of national pride; for some, a training ground for even bigger events; for others the biggest event of a lifetime. Every imaginable type of self-powered two wheeled vehicle was there from racing bikes to Elipti-gos, fixed gears, mountain bikes, touring bikes, even a few folding Bromptions. These intrepid riders would embark on a journey which would cover four nights and three days, testing the will and spirit of every one.
For me, it began inauspiciously. The week before I left for France had been a miserable morass of office internet malfunction, banking mishaps, patient crises, and an abrupt need to fire my bike mechanic of four years and find another on short order that could help install fenders on my small framed bike on almost no notice. While waiting for my flight from San Diego I had a brilliant idea to put a lock code on my cell phone in case it got lost in Europe and I set up an “easy” code which I promptly forgot by the time I landed in Minneapolis. After multiple attempts to unlock my screen, I watched in helpless horror as my phone powered down and wiped itself clean, SD card and all – a great security feature if your phone is really lost or stolen, and now a HUGE pain in my rear end. By the time I met my buddy for this adventure, I had my phone restarted, had logged back in to Google, and a few of my apps were downloading through airport WiFi. I boarded my flight to Paris with a half configured phone and no idea if I would be able to communicate with anyone once I landed.
After a thankfully uneventful flight which included too little sleep, my companion and I began navigation from the airport to St. Quentin-en-Yvelines. Our plan was to take the train which would cost more than 200 Euros less than a taxi. Two women carrying two bicycles, two huge bags, and assorted carry-on luggage amounting to over 200 lb of gear were a site to behold as we lugged all of our stuff through the RER line into Paris. It would have been relatively easy – one station change and minimal walking – except that the RER C line was closed about halfway to where we needed to go. While the Paris Metro could get us there it required multiple train changes, each attached to hiking up a flight of stairs, trekking across the station and then descending to another platform, no small feat with all we were carrying. The men of Paris demonstrated that chivalry is not yet dead, offering to help with carrying up and down the stairs. We finally arrived in St. Quentin-en-Yvelines and opted for a taxi rather than the bus for the last 3 kilometers. We were hot and exhausted by the time we reached our hotel, but excitement got the better of us and we freshened up and got back on the train to Paris for an evening of sightseeing.
Thursday morning I slept clear through breakfast, waking at 10:30. The hotel was kind enough to produce a cup of coffee and a croissant for me despite the late hour. Once fed, I set about putting my bike together. Mine survived the TSA intact, but my friend’s was missing a rear skewer and one of the bolts which secures her front rack. Finding a skewer for her became a two day scavenger hunt. Many businesses in Paris close down for summer vacation during the month of August, and we found bike shop after bike shop with shuttered windows and a “fermé pour Août” sign on their doors. Finally, someone in our hotel pointed out there was an open bike shop in town, about a ten minute walk away. They saved the day with a skewer for her and a spare tire for me.
With both bikes fully assembled, we took our first ride in France on Friday afternoon, a brief sojourn to the PBP start to figure out where we needed to go for rider check-in on Saturday and for the start on Sunday. We were not the only ones with this idea, and the velodrome was crowded with people and bikes from all over the world. We took turns running into people we know and it didn’t take long for the afternoon to slide into evening. We had plans to meet another rider and his family for dinner in Versailles, and we had just barely enough time to change clothes and head out for our meeting.
The food in France is incredible. Cured meats, cheeses, bread, fruit, pastries, everything is beautifully prepared and a feast for the senses. The lunches at our hotel were simple but delicious – salad, roasted chicken, chocolate cake. Salmon rillettes, pasta carbonara, peach gazpacho. In Versailles, I had lamb: thinly sliced, cooked rare, with a side of creamy, cheesy, au gratin potatoes. The others had beef tartare, duck confit, and steak, all cooked to perfection and paired with a glorious house red wine.
Rider check-in on Saturday afternoon was a time to see and be seen. We met riders from Ireland, Quatar, India, Finland, New Zealand, Australia, Catalunia, Denmark, Korea, japan, Austria, China, the UK, and more. Seattle, San Francisco, and New Jersey had the most US riders. We picked up our rider packets, figured out where to go for the start, and spent the afternoon schmoozing with other riders, soaking up the infectious energy of nervous anticipation which pervaded the air. Back at our hotel, we finished our preparations – front and rear bags loaded with food, warm layers, electrolytes, our brevet cards. Lights installed and working. Brake calipers closed, tires inflated, helmets at the ready.
A night start is difficult – what do you do with yourself all day? You don’t want to expend any energy, you need to rest but can’t. Adrenaline is your constant companion, but there can be no release until the event begins. We ate breakfast. And lunch. And snacks. And a light dinner. We napped by our bikes, and three in a bed. We checked and rechecked our gear. Finally, it was time and we said goodbye to our hotel and rode the 3 kilometers to the start. We watched the “special bikes” depart, and it was time for us to line up to await our turn.
Instructions and safety reminders were given in multiple languages, and finally the countdown was complete and our group was rolling under the starting line and onto the course. Several hundred riders, clipped into pedals attached to every imaginable type of bicycle. Crowds lined the streets cheering us on, wishing “bon route” and “courage” as we pedaled. I expected the fanfare to last only a kilometer or two but people lined the street for miles in lawn chairs and at dinner tables set up along the road. Everywhere we passed people called out to us, many remarking on my San Diego Randonneurs jersey. This jersey proved to be a conversation starter for the whole ride…