My friend David Wilcox and I were invited this year to ride Paris Brest Paris (PBP) for Rene Herse Cycles. 763 miles, 35,000 feet elevation, and with about 6000 other participants. We took 47 hours of ride time to do it and slept for 5 hours total. We slept an hour in a real bed, 3.5 hours on a floor, and the rest on the side of a cornfield. Somehow, another 20 hours disappeared during the ride - I think mostly eating plates of plain pasta and pastries and sitting with glazed eyes. Generally, there are riders who are trying to race the fastest cumulative time possible and riders who are on their own schedule. I’ve heard that there are two PBPs: The Race and the Ride. But that’s not true - there are many. Each experience is unique.
I’ve seen now lots of comments from the other riders - often with the gist of, "I’m still processing what happened"….
I’m also still processing this ride and event. This story is an attempt to make sense of it. But first, what is PBP?
I think the best description, at least from my point of view, is that it is more of a tradition and festival than a bike ride. Some people choose to race it and some people choose to enjoy it. There’s a lot to enjoy about it, but it is a hard experience - both mentally and physically. It can be a war zone, it can be a carnival, it can be a spectacle, it can be a rolling excuse to eat endless cafeteria meals. It’s an event that is large enough to encompass what you as a participant bring to it and decide to draw from it. The stage is half way across France and back again. That’s the context. The history of the event is easily available, so I won’t touch on that.
The course itself was heavily windswept, fairly nondescript, very hilly, and often beautiful. Not always though. This is a working class course, not a tourist attraction. You are a guest visiting people’s homes and families. They are welcoming you into their village and they don’t care if you are first or last. Cycling of this nature in France is seen as a noble pursuit. Even if those cheering you aren’t cyclists themselves, someone in their family is. Their grandfather told them stories and these stories are reinvented during the cycling season that takes these roads over.
You are cheered by cars, by elderly ladies in wicker chairs by the side of the road, by small children, by teenagers who in the USA would think you are dumb. You are cheered by the countless selfless volunteers, by the doctors awake at 3AM to see if you’re ok, by the boys sitting on a fence in the darkness of the countryside to see you roll by in the cold night — by literally everyone and everything you come across in this journey.
These cheers are meaningful. You are suffering, and each ‘allez allez’, brings a smile to your face, and as an American, surprise that it is even possible to be so welcomed in another country. I have traveled a lot. I’ve been to France more times than I can remember at this point, and I’ve never seen this warmth before. My perception of the French people is forever changed from riding Paris Brest Paris.
There are dark times too. These are the conflicted internal struggles. Confronting your own weakness and reveling in your own strength. Technically, this ride is not good for your body. The amount of calories going in, burned in the fire, the pastries thrown into the furnace, eating 20 plates of plain pasta. What does it mean? Sleeping on a floor with no pillow, thin blanket, still wearing the same bike shorts that you started in 2 days earlier. Shivering in the cold. So cold at 4AM. These moments leave you with questions not answers. With empathy for those who don’t have homes. For those that for them, this is their daily struggle. To live on the streets. Being a randonneur or randonneuse seems to glorify this suffering in some fashion that I don’t really relate to. Don’t want to understand. It might be offensive in some nature to me, but I’m still a bit unsure. I have questions about motivations.
Where I live, there are so many homeless people next to my house, so this imagery is my daily life. We don’t have government healthcare. We don’t feel supported in any way by the System. This imagery is so strangely similar to what I saw on PBP. Yet abstracted. Applauded.
And yet, with empathy - you can deepen your compassion. This rando-suffering is temporary, a window into another way of living that in our antiseptic society we don’t confront. When you don’t sleep, your mind will betray you. When you tax your body, your body will confront you. Where are the boundaries, the lines that denote good from bad? You will step over them them and see what’s there.
The sequence of stages was like this:
We started near the front of the event in the third group to depart. They stage people in peloton sized groups of a few hundred which leave every fifteen minutes. It was a full-on race at the beginning. We were expecting that having been warned. 15 mph head and cross winds, fighting for position. Echelons spread across both lanes with oncoming traffic on open roads. Street furniture. Traffic circles. Chaotic and fast. When I looked at the average speed after a while we were averaging 26mph into those winds. On a particularly exposed section of road the crosswinds split the pack into 3 groups. We were in the third, trying to stay together.
It was so windy that David’s leather mudflap was flapping like a caged bird, desperate to escape this torture. It did escape - right up into his rear wheel. The wheel pulled the flap so strongly up that the entire fender crumpled like a thin aluminum can being crushed by a boot. I heard the crunch behind me and got out of the pace line and pulled off. It took us a few minutes to unravel the dead fender from the bike, and somewhat guiltily - left it by the side of the road. At this point we were isolated in these hellish winds. Both pulling hard, taking short turns at the front. Attempting to chase back the time we had lost. It was bike racing. After some time we picked up another dropped rider who didn’t want to work with us. Then we felt another group coming up from behind and we jumped onto the rear of that group. It was a large one and David and I were separated in the pack. I rode near the front for safety, but once things had calmed down, drifted backwards to see where David was. He was gone, having stopped at some point to fill some water. After waiting for him on the side of the road for a while, we were again back at it and doing our best to move towards the first control. The endless strength of the wind, and the draining strength of our legs. The large packs of riders were ahead at this point and now we were with smaller groups or just by ourselves as the night came. In the darkness we rode hard. Sometimes at the front and sometimes the back. Some riders were good and most were bad. Very few were willing to help or work for others. Everyone knew what was coming, and for how long. Finally we reached the first control after 130 miles.
Having never been to PBP, we didn’t really understand where to go or what to do. We followed other riders into the area to get your card stamped by smiling volunteers, cheered by the sight of coffee and croissants. We ran into some of our friends at the control and tacitly decided that we weren’t going to hurry through it. It had been a very stressful and draining first stage and were in no rush to return to the road in the dark. But, after a short amount of time, we gathered our energy and returned to our bikes.
What happens at PBP is that when you reach a control you are generally in a group of riders. Over time during the stage you pick up people, or you are picked up. This means that on arrival, everyone tends to take their own time, which means that you then leave the control again alone. This pattern repeated itself throughout the night and into the next morning. Finally by the third control we realized that there was lots of food other than pastries. It wasn’t clear to us initially that the snacks by the officials area was the fast food. Each control also had a whole cafeteria somewhere on the grounds. This was somewhat obvious once we understood it, but was quite confusing at first. After we found that out we tended to eat a full meal between stops. I wish I had documented everything that I ate. I ate almost nothing of the many pounds of food I was carrying on the bike. The seduction of a warm meal was too great to resist. We were told initially that we’d need to bring all the ride food we’d need for the entire duration of the ride as the original plan was to stop only the most minimal amount of time. Having changed our plan to be more relaxed during the controls, all this extra food was mostly a waste of energy to cart around. I didn’t want to just throw it away though, so I lugged it all across France and back. Actually, I just ate one of the bars while typing this…
Morning came. Afternoon came. After about 300 miles or so we finally made a friend. Brendan was an Australian living in Denmark and a great rider. Now we were three. As we started to get near to Brest and our midway point, our friend Hahn caught up to us as well. Our small band was growing. The road into Brest was hard. It was a fairly busy highway with long climbs into very strong wind. Demoralizing, but also a sense that something was going to happen. A turning point in the story. The turning point of the ride. Promise of tailwinds and perhaps sleep. David bounded away on one of the larger climbs and Brendan and I chased him down into Brest. David picked up a few allies though, so catching him wasn’t possible. I thought perhaps that David had decided to catch up with our friend Jan, who was somewhere ahead of us. But, when Brendan and I strolled into the cafeteria, David was sitting there, mellow as usual, glazed over like a dead donut.
“What should we do now?”
It was about 9PM and getting dark. Riding through one night is ok. Riding through two in a row seemed unnecessary. We were reasonably fast to Brest, so the scene there itself was fairly quiet still. Brendan decided to head out into the night alone. We never saw him again. [Read Brendan's ride report here]
David looked at me and said,
“let’s take a shower and sleep a bit. Hour and a half?”
That seemed to be about the minimum reasonable time. I was quite worried that I wouldn’t be able to sleep at all, but after about 30 minutes I did drop off. Seemingly instantly, a smiling French face woke us again.
It was now 11PM. My body completely rejected the idea that we were going to actually go out into the night and ride. It had no choice but to comply though and off we went. Now in reverse, the night was cold. A bar was open and the bright light drew us in. I ordered 2 espressos and a Twix. Greatly cheered up, we hit the road. We saw space blanket clad figures in the night on benches, huddled in misery. Tinfoil ghouls and ghosts. We flew by people seemingly crawling up the hills with their fingernails. Clawing their way back to Paris.
We were shivering. Cornering on a descent I could feel my rear tire squishing too much. It was going flat. Stopping to add air, we immediately became chilled through. The air was damp and icy crystals formed on my wool knees.
“This is summer?”
Coming into the next control, Carhaix, business was booming. This is where both inbound and outbound riders converge. There were exactly two toilets for the men. It was a rando hellscape. Bodies everywhere, sleeping against the wills of their masters. And yet - this was some of the best food of all the controls. They’ve got style in Carhaix. I apologize to the volunteers there on behalf of what we subjected them too. My friend Ryan from Seattle, who was riding by himself, has the somewhat unique ability to instantly fall asleep instantly anywhere. He lay down on a bit of concrete and napped himself into functional shape. Incredible. He’s the most naturally talented rando I’ve met. This sleeping skill could be the best asset possible in this event. It started raining hard. We got the hell out of there.
The night was very long and as we neared a village, David was shivering a bit out of control. I gave him my jacket for a bit, but it was clear that things weren’t going well and we were slowing way down. We were being passed by riders we had dropped. We had to sprint on any hill just to warm up.
Spotting a 24hr ATM in a village square, we parked inside and waited for dawn. David found a used space blanked in the trash and immediately burrito’d himself to sleep. I took the first watch. Two adventurers in the wilds of a 2019 French village, swords at the ready at the first sign of trouble. A truck driver rolled by slowly, then reversed. A very amused looking face peered down at us and laughed. He gave us two thumbs up then drove off. I started laughing.
“We’ve got to go, I’m getting too cold to sit here any longer.”
The dawn had come.
There’s something about the rising sun that gives you strength. The miracle of light and warmth. Seeing the Earthly cycle in total, completing itself yet again. The earth reborn. It’s dramatic. I’m usually quite content with being asleep during it, not out on the road,. This wasn’t my first randeo though.
Now we were returning to where we had been. We knew where things were and where to go. It was all familiar and yet, quite surreal. We made some new friends. David and I have some amount of Spanish vocabulary, and rode with a few quite entertaining Spanish fellows for a while. We picked up Martin from Germany who was eating some snacks and listening to music while riding no hands. We had met him briefly at the previous control, so I asked him if he’d like to ride with us. We were motivated to move, to make some progress. He looked fast. Martin looked at our bikes, then at us, and said:
“Sure, looks good. Didn’t you leave the control after me?”
“Yeah, we were riding fairly hard back there.”
“Mmm. No one has caught me since I started. I only catch them.”
Hmmm. Looks like we might be getting in over our heads. That fact was confirmed when Martin hit the front. A real class rider, having just finishing the Transcontinental Race, he was super strong, but also very relaxed. It wasn’t a trait we’d yet come across in the people we’d met. Mostly we were just happy when people knew how to ride in a straight line, so riding with Martin was quite a treat. We started to drop riders in our group. Martin looked around and said,
“Everyone is on their hands and knees at this point. Let’s slow down.”
Agreed. Regardless, we made great time into the next control and made a plan to leave together after a short period of again working on my tire. Leaving the next control with just Martin and a lovely humble French fellow we had with us, the pace was high. Martin had slept for four hours in Brest and left hours after us at the very beginning and yet was here with us. That was impressive, but also telling. It was time to let him off the leash. Once on our own, David began almost drifting off to sleep while riding. We were slowing way down again. Our tailwind to Paris didn’t materialize. The winds had shifted and we were again getting pummeled.
“Let’s rest somewhere.”
Finding a patch of grass down a dirt road next to waving corn fields, we lay down and closed our eyes. It was late afternoon in the sun. The swishing sound of corn rustling, the blue sky, the fatigue. The aimless feeling of nothingnesses. Pointlessness. I made a pillow of my knee warmers and passed out. Waking up sometime later, we were cold. My tire was totally flat. We had no idea how much time had passed but it was now 5PM. Night was looming again. I couldn’t get my legs turning. Somewhat struggling, I rode on willpower only at 12 mph. The night was coming again. We rode through the beautiful town of Fougeres, mile 574. On the way out it was night and we didn’t realize there was a spectacular old castle to see, or what a beautiful town it was. Reaching the control, we had dinner. Or, err, lunch? Breakfast? Did it matter when every meal is the same plain pasta?
Again at dusk, we rolled off into the night. The next control was at Villaines-la-Juhel which meant we were nearly back. Nearly back meant 130 miles to go. That sounded short at this point. It was 56 hours since we had begun. I went to the bathroom and when I came out I couldn’t find David. I looked everywhere but he had disappeared. His bike was still there, so I knew he was somewhere. I was again confused at this control with all the different buildings. David had found the restaurant - which I never found - and had accidentally passed out at a table. Finally as I was checking the sleeping area for the second time he emerged. We decided we’d not ride through the night again. It was too cold. We were too depressed. And frankly, we just didn’t see the point of it. We decided we’d like to finish within the 80 hour time limit, but beyond that, what did it actually matter? Maybe I would of been more motivated had I known my friends were watching our dots move across France. We showered and were led to a sleeping room by the most charming 10 year old boy. The volunteers of PBP deserve a book to themselves. They were the shining stars of our universe. Kind and helpful despite us not being able to speak any French. Despite this, this was a hard moment.
It was very cold there and the thin wool blanket without a pillow wasn’t enough. Huddled in misery in the dark, surrounded by snores and a loud ticking clock I despaired that I’d not be able to sleep. Shoving my ear plugs nearly into my brain, somehow the snores receded enough to allow me to drift off. I was woken up at different points by people coming and going. Randos shining bike lights into the room. Just as I discovered that my neighbor had left, and left an extra blanket behind him, another boy came and showed us a glowing phone that said: 6AM. Apparently 4 hours had passed since we checked in. I must have slept.
The run for home.
Dawn yet again. We eventually removed our jackets. Now our ride resembled a normal ride of somewhat ‘normal’ duration. My wife texted me saying:
“Go my sweetheart, wow only 130 miles left. You can eat 130 miles for breakfast in your rides at home.”
It was a beautiful morning. After some time, we passed a fellow with a sign on the back of his bike: “Laid back Rich”. Richard Powers. At first I thought it meant, I’m rich and laid back. Hmm, ok. Turning around a bit later, Rich was on our wheel. Wearing teva sandals and zero pretension, Rich was the real deal. A true English gentleman and strong enough to drop us on any climb in his sandals. Never left the big ring. Probably just has the little ring for a classic look. We rode with Rich till the next control and quite enjoyed his company. He had ridden around the world and wrote a book about it. I’m definitely going to order that when I get home. We couldn’t find him after getting our cards signed, so we rode on again just the two of us.
Now things were getting social — and cheerful. The end was coming and everyone’s spirits were high. We rolled by a Frenchman named Ludovic on a Santa Cruz Stigmata, with 1x Gevenelle and Rene Herse Barlow Pass tires. Say what? Gevenelle? In France? I haven’t said anything about people’s bikes in this story, but they were 99% road bikes on road tires. The romantic 650b look is really at this point an American phenomena, and is totally absent in Europe as far as I can tell. As Ludovic clarified, the French throw the 650b wheels in the trash. In any case, seeing a French rider on what looked like a Portland bike was heartwarming to me. He was the only rider besides myself that I saw running a 1x setup. He was also the only rider we saw that had tires approaching our sizes. I was on 48’s and David on 44’s. At first we thought he was quite a tranquil mellow rider, but then we realized he never drafted. It was a strong headwind again. Ludovic was riding circles around us. As in actually riding around us in circles. He was great. The hammer dropped. Ludovic was a mad animal from Normandy.
We picked up another fellow named John (from North Carolina) riding solo, deep in his aero bars, and the four of us crushed it into the final control: Dreux.
Our friends Bradford (from Boston) and Nate (from San Francisco) were just about to leave when we rolled in - but they agreed to wait for us so we could all finish together. Ludovic didn’t want to rush but I encouraged him to choke down his food and go. I finally tried the famous Paris Brest Paris pastry as well! Delicious! It was very light with some kind of creamy filling. Went down smooth.
Finally we were ready. 90 degrees outside and summer had returned. The final 20 miles to Rambouillet. Crosswinds, headwind, and maybe a tailwind? Maybe? We were moving fast. Now finally after all these endless miles of isolation we had found our team and the pace was on fire. Ludovic hit the front and we all just put our heads down and held on. He dragged us literally most of the way there.
Suddenly the road became familiar and we hit the cobblestones into town at close to 30mph. The hard right turn into the finishing straight and cheers of the crowd. It was over. What had just happened?
By Ryan Francesconi
Photos by Ryan Francesconi and David Wilcox