Paris-Brest-Paris: A Perspective
I've been getting these guy's newsletters now for a few years, and this is by far the best newsletter yet. Ed Pavelka, one of the guys who produces this newsletter every Thursday participated in the PBP, and I have to say, this is one of the best stories I've read about road racing (although I know it's not a race, but still a race against time).
1. Ed's Letter from Paris-Brest-Paris
I finished my third PBP 20 hours ago.
Now, I'm writing this in my hotel room in the Paris suburb
of Saint Quentin en Yvelines, sitting on the requisite pillow.
I just packed my bike for the long flight home.
Joleen has taken the train to Versailles for a day of
sightseeing. I'd planned to go with her. That was before the
ride. After 773 miles, I'm not so interested in being on my
feet today. Or even wearing pants.
So I thought this would be a good time to tell you about
what just happened.
A Ride Apart
I've done a few bike rides in my day. Nothing compares with
If you ever think about riding it, here's just some of what
you'll be in for.
PBP is organized to the nth degree. Protocol is everything.
It's sort of militaristic but with courtesy. However, if you
break key rules even by accident, sorry, you receive a time
penalty or are disqualified. With 4,093 riders from more
than 20 countries, it must be this way to maintain order.
The objective of PBP is easy. You ride due west from the
outskirts of Paris to the seaside city of Brest. Then you
ride back. Cyclists have been doing this about once every
4 years since 1891, except when there were world wars.
The reality of PBP is hard. It isn't a race, but you must
complete the distance within the time limit for the group
you've chosen to ride with -- 80, 84 or 90 hours. Otherwise,
your name will not be added to PBP's Great Book of anciens
(official finishers) and that would be a shame.
You must have your magnetic card swiped and your route book
stamped at 15 checkpoints ("controls"). There are also a couple
of secret controls -- just to make sure no one tries a shortcut.
It's the French
There are similar randonnees, including North America's
Boston-Montreal-Boston and the shorter brevet rides used for
But those aren't in France. The French people are what make
PBP so special.
You will never feel more important as a cyclist than when
riding this event.
You get respect from the hundreds of officials and
volunteers. Maybe that's to be expected. PBP is their job,
after all. But politeness and good humor at 3 a.m.? On the
third night? Don't these people ever get crabby?
The French citizens simply blow you away. The course passes
through dozens of ancient but pristine villages with their
landmark cathedrals. Townsfolk put up welcome signs and set
out old bikes, decorated as art.
Then they applaud and call encouragement as you pass. Little
kids, grandmothers and everyone between. Not pitty-pat
clapping, but with enthusiasm. They bring chairs and watch
riders for hours, even along remote stretches of country
roads. Sometimes they offer drinks and will accept nothing
I was climbing a hill at sunset on the third evening, in
rustic farmland before the control town of Fougeres. At the
top on the left, barely off the road, was yet another
centuries-old stone house. Out of nowhere I heard, "Bon
I glanced over to see a young women in red, framed in the
darkness of a wide-open downstairs window, as beautiful as
a portrait. She was smiling. She couldn't have been more
than 10 feet away.
No other riders were in sight ahead or behind. Was she
standing there, waiting to say hello to everyone who
eventually rode past? Why would she care?
If you want to feel like someone special, ride PBP.
Official results will be released in January. And riders are
still finishing as I'm writing this. So I can't share many
facts and figures other than my own.
Word has it, though, that a front group of six Europeans
finished in a blazing 42 hours and 40 minutes, averaging
17.9 mph (28.8 kph). They were the remains of the several
dozen riders who go from the ***. These guys have support
crews at each control and turn PBP into a road race, albeit
with 15 mandatory stops.
Can you imagine riding almost 800 hilly miles that fast with
no sleep? It's especially incomprehensible for those of us
plodding and nodding far behind.
Great news for the 459-rider-strong "American Team!"
Melinda Lyon of Boxford, MA, was the first female finisher
for the second consecutive PBP.
One thing that helped everyone's pace was the best weather
riders could hope for.
The brutal heat wave that plagued France through most of the
summer and killed 10,000 citizens (and gave Lance fits in
the Tour) finally broke four days before PBP.
It was partly sunny during the event with daily highs in the
70s (F), then clear and cool overnight. My cyclecomputer's
thermometer showed 51 degrees at dawn on the second
morning and 46 on the third. I don't believe one drop of rain
fell on this PBP.
What wind there was seemed from the rear or side, most
noticeably on the return. I felt a true headwind only a couple
of times and then just briefly. From the chatter I'm hearing,
the conditions helped many riders to good performances.
In Praise of the 'Purple Pill'
I'm with the majority who are smiling.
The ride wasn't perfect for me. Some things went great, some
not so great. But overall, it was certainly the best I've ever
felt in PBP. I owe it to the "secret weapon" I alluded to
That would be Nexium, the "purple pill," a prescription
medicine for preventing acid reflux. I took a 40-mg capsule
during each of the four days before PBP, then one cap
every 12 hours during.
It let me eat like a pig at each control's cafeteria but
suffer none of the incessant hiccups, vomit burps and
searing acid reflux that plagued my other two PBPs.
Even with so many foods uncommon to my system (including
more ham in three days than I'd eaten in the previous 30
years), everything digested quietly during the 50 miles or
so between controls.
If you suffer heartburn while eating on long rides, I encourage
you to ask your doc for a sample of Nexium. Give it a try. It's
a medical miracle in my book.
I figure I burned 40,000 calories during PBP. I'll bet I ate
enough to replace nearly every one of them. How wonderful to
be able to digest food comfortably and never come close to
running out of energy.
First Time for Everything
On the downside, darn it -- I couldn't use all that fuel to
full advantage. That is, to get to Brest and back in the
range of my previous times (57 hours, 35 minutes in '91 and
63:45 in '99).
My stomach was great, but my right knee was in trouble as
early as mile 120. Of course, this is a knee that had never
given me one moment of difficulty in 32 years of cycling!
At first it felt as if the knee had a "funny bone" and
something whacked it. Tingly and weak. This morphed into
steadily worsening pain, right where the end of my
quadriceps' vastus medialis meets the kneecap.
Why? And what now?
I had plenty of time to ponder. The slower I went, the
longer PBP got.
At the Carhaix control -- the last one before Brest and 328
miles from the start -- I was still averaging 17.4 mph. But
I could no longer pedal out of the saddle. I was wincing in
my 30x28-tooth granny gear on hills that I should have been
cruising over in the middle ring. An older gent in a Banesto
jersey rolled past. I couldn't press the pedals hard enough
to stay with him.
I finally reached Brest at 11 p.m., having taken so long to
ride the 53 miles from Carhaix that my overall average had
fallen to 16.9 mph. (I'll leave it to you math whizzes to
figure out how slow I was going for that to happen.)
My time to the turnaround was 26:45. I was still on schedule
to meet my sub-64-hour goal. But the way I was limping, I
wasn't sure if I'd be able to pedal even one stroke back
toward Paris after a sleep break. Would time off the bike
help my knee, or would it become swollen and tighter?
There was no rush now. I decided to rest for 8 hours instead
Plane, Train or Automobile?
Departing Brest at dawn, my plan was to make it back to
Carhaix and hopefully to the next control at Loudeac. That's
where the Americans had an aid station. I could communicate
and get help -- or a train to Paris.
The catch was that the 101-mile stretch between Brest and
Loudeac is the hilliest in PBP.
I babied the knee, using 30x28 on anything that felt remotely
like an incline. I might have been the slowest rider on the road
that morning. My climbing speed hovered at 6 mph. My average
to Carhaix was 13.2 mph, and then 13.4 to Loudeac.
But hey, at least I was riding! My knee started feeling better
and tolerating a moderate effort. After Loudeac, I was again
seeing 18 mph on flatter stretches. Thanks to 600 mg of
ibuprofen every 4 hours, the window of pain-free pedaling had
After so many slow miles and big meals, I had lots of energy.
In fact, I was feeling very good. I'd spent far too long in Brest
and noodling at 13 mph to make 64 hours possible, but maybe
I could still break 70.
It's important to have a target, even if it's a moving one.
I planned to ride all night and get my next sleep after
finishing. It was tough, though. Distances between controls
seem interminable during the third night. It's desolate in
the country. Villages are asleep. It's cold and black and
eyes begin to droop. Everyone rides slower than they're
At around 1:30 a.m., plodding toward the control at
Villaines la Juhel, my knee blew again in the time it took
from one pedal stroke to the next. Kaboom! It instantly felt
as painful and powerless as during that stretch into Brest
the previous night.
My moan was so loud it startled a cow.
I arrived in Villaines at 2:45 a.m. Only 140 miles remained,
but it was futile to stay on the bike.
I decided to sleep till daybreak, then try my luck. But
after only an hour, I woke up feeling refreshed. I swallowed
one more Nexium, 3 more Advil, a ham-and-cheese omelet,
rice, soup, 2 yogurts and 2 croissants. Then I waddled to the
bike and got moving. Seventy hours was still a possibility.
I had on everything I'd packed to ward off the pre-dawn
46-degree chill. It was barely enough. I was one frosty slug for
the next couple of hours.
The sun brought warmth and ol' granny was good to my knee
again. The first time I rode PBP, I used a 39x26 low gear.
If that's all I had this time, I really would have had to finish on
Instead, I finished like a train.
Pounding to Paris
After the second-to-last control, the course gets flatter
and there was a tailwind. I was well nourished and hadn't
used much energy since my nap in Villaines. It was time to
start pressing the pedals. Even if the knee couldn't take
it, there was no way I wouldn't reach Paris.
The hinge twinged now and again, but it held together. I'm
so glad, because I felt great and craved going hard. I'd had
strong finishes in both previous PBPs. I didn't want this
one to end in a whimper.
It's surreal when you ride so far (700 miles), climb so much
(35,000 vertical feet), sleep so little (7 hours) and yet
are still able to light the afterburners for 75 final miles,
jamming hills and time trialing flats like when fresh for a
training ride. How does it happen?
I don't know. I'm just glad it does. My knee and my Nexium
and I finished in 67:10 -- and I didn't want to stop!
It was a satisfying end to a long roller-coaster of a ride. But
deep down, I know I'm going to have a hollow feeling about this
PBP, wondering "what if" my knee had worked as well as my
I'd love to find out. I think I hear 2007 calling my name.
Riding PBP is like boxing. Even if you succeed, you still
take your lumps.
During the days right after, you can easily tell who rode.
They're walking like cowboys, wincing on stairs and easing
themselves in and out of chairs.
As in past PBPs, I got a bit dinged. Here's the kind of damage
that happens when you're brave enough (crazy enough?) to ride
---Hand numbness. The first two fingers on my right hand
are dead to the world. Strangely, the numbness didn't arrive
until hours after I finished. Based on experience, I don't
expect feeling to return for 3-4 months.
---Foot pain. I suffered only mild and transitory "hot
foot," so my pups are in pretty good shape. I'd battled
painful burning and numbness throughout the season. The
thing that helped most was going up in shoe size to give my
feet room to swell (as feet always do on long rides) without
---Saddle trauma. My crotch is a mess. It's not black and
blue like after previous PBPs, but it's swollen and has seeping
abrasions. They'll dry up in a couple of days. Meanwhile,
Second Skin keeps them from sticking to clothing.
Despite this damage, liberal use of Chamois BUTT'r and
Aquaphor -- plus the ibuprofen I was taking for my knee --
kept my crotch pretty comfortable during the ride. I used a
Brooks B17 leather saddle and wore Boure Elite and Pearl
Izumi Attack shorts.
---Fatigued triceps. My arms are super sore. Even with 9,000
training miles leading to PBP, they weren't strong enough to
endure so much time in the riding position. During the final 12
hours, it was hard to hold myself up with one arm while reaching
for a bottle or food with the other. I found the best support with
a split grip -- putting the brake lever hoods between my index
and middle fingers.
---Chapped lips and sore mouth. Simply from sun exposure
and consuming so much food -- including the ubiquitous
---Raspy cough and phlegm. From lots of deep breathing in
air that was as chilly as the mid 40s (F) overnight.
---Sore knees. Even without a mystery affliction like mine,
knees get sore on PBP. It's a lumpy course with hundreds of
short climbs and a few long grinds. This, plus the distance,
stresses knees to a degree riders never experience in such a
short period. I figure I was making my 320,000th pedal stroke
as I reached the finish.
Goodbye, Old Friend
This PBP was my last ride on a bike that was originally
built for PBP '91.
Back then, it was one of a kind -- a titanium Spectrum
custom designed by Tom Kellogg and built by Merlin.
Twelve years ago virtually all Ti bikes were racing bikes.
But this one had ample clearance for wide tires, braze-ons
for racks and fenders, and bosses for three cages.
I rode "Spec" in 3 PBPs, 50 brevets and countless
long-distance training rides and events. Twice I pedaled it
across the U.S. on PAC Tour.
When stripped of racks and fenders, it could perform as well
as any racing bike I've owned. It carried me to a record in
the 277-mile time trial across New York.
The frame could probably go on forever. But it's hamstrung
by a proprietary, small-diameter bottom bracket (remember
that Merlin miscue?), making it impossible to upgrade the
crankset. It has an old Shimano 105 triple and an 8-speed
rear end. Some components are as old as the frame itself.
I've gotten my money's worth, that's for sure. It's time to
give "Spec" a place of honor on my workshop wall. It's been
part of so many great memories that I couldn't just turn it
I can't emotionally replace this bike, but I do need a similar
one for the type of riding it was made for.
I wonder what's next.
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Paris-Brest-Paris will be held again in 2007. For more
information, visit the website of Randonneurs USA, the U.S.
affiliate of the French organization, at www.rusa.org. PBP's
official website is www.audax-club-parisien.com.
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Copyright <c> 2001-2003 RBR Publishing Company