Road biking, dirt road riding on Frankenbike, tandem riding, group riding, time trialing, randonneuring - I love to ride, and I love to write. As I've traveled along on two wheels, I've learned one thing: Expect Adventure. Join me on the journey!

Betty Jean Jordan

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Paris-Brest-Paris 2019

Wow!  Paris-Brest-Paris!  Hands down, this was the physically hardest thing I ever did, but I’m so glad I got to do it.  PBP is an epic, 1200-km brevet held every four years in France.  It’s the Olympics of randonneuring.  PBP isn’t a race, but I had to complete it within 90 hours.  I did it in 86 hours, 32 minutes, and 48 seconds.  Woo hoo!

During my ride I came up with this succinct description of PBP: Slow-motion suffering with lots of highlights.  If you want all the details, keep reading.  If you don’t want to read the whole thing, which probably will take you about as long as it did for me to complete PBP, you might check the section headings and read only the parts that interest you.  Much of my writing is primarily for my own enjoyment anyway; I figure that if I’m ever stuck in a nursing home, I can go back and read about my previous adventures.

The Road to PBP

The first PBP was in 1891, the early days of cycling.  Originally, PBP included both racers and amateur riders.  This format continued every 10 years through 1951, except when PBP was held in 1948 instead of 1941 because of World War II.  PBP became an amateur-only event in 1956.  It was held every five years until 1971, when it switched to a four-year cycle.

Why did I decide to undertake this grueling exercise in sleep deprivation?  I didn’t just wake up one day and say, “Hey, I think I’ll do PBP.”  It has been an interesting yet unplanned path for me.  I’ve been riding a lot for about 25 years and started racing about 12 years ago.  Then, in 2012 I had a serious crash in a road race.  It was a long, tedious recovery.  I gave up mass-start races but still wanted to challenge myself on the bike.  In gratitude for my recovery, I decided to ride a century (100-mile ride) a month throughout 2013 on behalf of 12 charities, which I called A Year of Centuries.  During my June century, I met a nice guy named David who told me about randonneuring, a type of long-distance self-supported cycling.  It sounded interesting, but I just mentally filed it because at the time I was focused on A Year of Centuries.  Later that year, I was looking for an organized ride for December when I found the Silk Sheets 200K brevet, hosted by the Audax Atlanta Club of Randonneurs USA (RUSA).  Oh, yeah – I remember that guy at my June century telling me about randonneuring.  200 km is just a little longer than a century, and it seemed like the perfect grand finale to A Year of Centuries.  From there, I just kept randonneuring.

I heard about PBP soon after I started randonneuring, but it wasn’t on my radar screen at first.  I was getting comfortable with 200K and 300K brevets with a 400K or two thrown into the mix.  Then, I became part of a four-person women’s team in the 2015 Race Across America (RAAM).  That was also a PBP year.  Between my Audax Atlanta friends talking up PBP and my doing RAAM, PBP almost inevitably became my next cycling goal.

I did my first 600K in April 2016 with my eye on PBP 2019.  That was a very hard ride, but I specifically remember finishing that 600K and thinking, “I can do a 1200K.”  PBP was still nearly 3½ years away; I was glad for time to get more 400Ks and 600Ks under my belt.

Your PBP preregistration date is determined by the longest brevet you do the previous year.  Having done a 600K in 2018, I was in pretty good shape for preregistration.  Not as good as those who had done a 1000K or a 1200K, but I didn’t need to worry.  Once I preregistered in January, I had to qualify by doing a 200K, 300K, 400K, and 600K between January and July 1 of this year.  I was grateful to get all my qualifying rides done by the end of March.  Thank you so much to my RBA Wayne for front-end loading the 2019 Audax Atlanta brevet schedule!

I kept up my endurance with my regular monthly brevets and permanents.  Tuesday Worlds and some interval training on my own gave me some intensity training.  Besides preparing physically, there were lots of logistics.  Robert, my wonderful husband/soigneur, did so much on that end.  He booked our flights and lodging, including an Airbnb for me in Bécherel, about halfway between Paris and Brest.  Amazingly, this Airbnb was only about 500 m from the PBP course!  I also have to give a huge shout-out to my mechanic Nate at Bike Tech in Macon, who pretty much completely overhauled my Trek Domane, my randonneuring bicycle, for PBP.  I had absolutely no mechanical issues on PBP, which was a huge relief, especially with so many other logistics.


Robert and I flew into Paris.  We arrived on a Friday morning, giving us a little over a day to explore the city.  Mostly, we walked around.

My soigneur
Arc de Triomph!  I sent this one to The Monticello News.
I wonder if I can get an invitation to their wedding next May for an excuse to come back to Paris.

Statue of Joan of Arc. Our Paris hotel was very near here.

Panoramic photo of Palais Garnier, the Paris Opera House. It has inspired the architecture of other opera houses around the world. Even the dome of the Macon City Auditorium seems to be based on Palais Garnier.
Charcuterie and cheese with Bordeaux. Sublime.

Ferris wheel right outside our hotel
I love the French flags on this ride.

Parisien haute couture
Le Chat Noir was open from 1881 to 1897 and is thought to be the first modern cabaret. I got this souvenir magnet, and I also sent a Le Chat Noir postcard to Ashes the World’s Best Office Cat.

We tried to go to the Louvre, but we didn’t know you have to order tickets online ahead of time.  We stood at the entrance trying to order tickets and literally saw the last few disappearing before our very eyes.  Fortunately, we had a much easier time getting our art fix at the end of the trip in Aix-en-Provence (more details in that section).

PBP: Check-In and Other Preparations

Around noon on Saturday, Robert and I took an Uber to Rambouillet, the start location of PBP on the southwest side of Paris.  Our Uber driver was Jalel.  I’m amazed when I think about how many people made my PBP experience possible, including this kind man from Tunisia.

Robert and I had not been able to get a hotel room in Rambouillet, and so we stayed in Maintenon, about 30 km away.  Jalel took us to our hotel in Maintenon, where we dropped our luggage, and then took us to Rambouillet.

I had shipped my bicycle through Bike Flights.  Although this was more expensive than taking it with me on the plane, it kept me (i.e., Robert) from having to haul my bicycle in its box through airports, on trains, and in taxis/Ubers.  Robert would have been ill, which would have made me ill.  In other words, Bike Flights was totally worth it.

Bike Flights shipped my bike to Culture Vélo Cycles Jacky, a bike shop in Rambouillet.  My sister Donna, who is fluent in French, paved the way for me by contacting Jeremy at the bike shop.  (Merci beaucoup, Donna!)  Jeremy was incredibly helpful.  He built my bike back up after it arrived at the shop and had it waiting for me at bike check-in in Rambouillet.  I can’t say enough good things about Jeremy and Culture Vélo Cycles Jacky.

The PBP staging area, including bike check-in, was at Bergerie Nationale.  Audax Club Parisien is the mothership randonneuring club that hosts PBP.

A little refreshment at Bergerie Nationale

This ain’t no triathlon! Bicycles lined up at check-in

It was fun checking out all the variations of rides. These enclosed recumbents were like rockets when they passed me on the route.
Cool tower where PBP participants could store their luggage during the event
A common sight for me - Robert checking the Interwebs for directions, translations, etc.

After so much preparation, I’m finally here!
I had been a little concerned about not being able to speak French, but I found that bonjour (hello/good day), merci (thank you), and pardon got me a long way.  Still, there were several funny language incidents.  The guy who checked my bike doesn’t speak much English.  He asked me if I speak French.  Non.  Then he asked me if I play the piano.  I play a (very) little and wondered how he knew that.  Then I realized he asked if I speak Italiano.  Ha ha - even less than I play the piano.

Robert and I then headed back to Maintenon.  We called another Uber.  This time our driver was Sinthujan.  He is a native of France, but his parents immigrated from Sri Lanka.  I was truly feeling like the whole world was helping me with PBP!  It turns out that Rambouillet is the outer limit of Uber availability near Paris.  Maintenon, even farther west, lies outside of this range.  Therefore, Sinthujan agreed to pick Robert and me back up on Sunday in Maintenon so that I could return to Rambouillet for my PBP start.

Back in Maintenon on Saturday evening, Robert and I walked through the beautiful town.  Although Maintenon is not part of Brittany, this graceful old church is similar to the many village cathedrals I saw while riding through Brittany in western France.

We also noticed how even everyday, functional things in France have a certain beauty.  These stones prevent cars from driving up on the curb.  They are part of the overall artistry of France that you can just feel in your soul.

Our first order of business that evening was finding some aspirin or equivalent for Robert, whose back was bothering him a bit.  We were baffled that we hadn’t been able to find an open pharmacie (French spelling) in Paris that morning, but the city doesn’t even begin to awaken until at least 10:00 AM.  (By and large, Europe is not on the same early-morning schedule as us American athletes.)  We didn’t have any greater hope of finding an open pharmacie in Maintenon.  However, we did find a small grocery store.  The shopkeeper was very friendly but didn’t speak English.  Robert had his Google translator, but we didn’t get anywhere with aspirin or Tylenol.  I suggested he try analgesic, but he said “I’m not trying anything that starts with ‘anal’.”  The shopkeeper finally got it when I pointed to my head and said, “Owwww!”

It was getting pretty late, and we hadn’t had dinner.  We found a restaurant and ordered pizza.  I deferred to Robert, so we got the Americana pizza. I guess a mini beef patty in the middle and white bread toast on the side made it American.

A teenage girl was going to be our server, but she handed us off to a teenage boy when she found out we don’t speak French.  Both teenagers were so cute.  Robert and I split a banana split (ha ha) for dessert.  It was huge.  Robert and I joked with the girl, via Google translator, “Hey, we ordered the large!”  She texted back via the translator, “That’s as big as we make them.”  Robert responded via translator that it was a joke, and then she laughed.

Sinthujan picked us up as scheduled early Sunday afternoon.  We had plenty of time to get my bike situated and have a meal before my 5:45 PM start.

My last meal before the ride started was at a restaurant called Napoleon’s.
Making my way to the starting area
I was so glad I got to see my Audax Atlanta rando buddy Brian before the start! He’s a PBP veteran and gave me a great gift, a flashing light (shaped like Hermes’s foot, no less) to help me find my bike at night at the controls. It’s hard to find your bike again when you park it among dozens or hundreds of others. The light was a huge help and was not something I had thought of.

I was also so glad to see my Audax Atlanta rando buddy Robert N.!

I was in start group H.  Here we are lined up, ready to go!

PBP: The Ride

A volunteer stamped my brevet card, and I was off!

I had been cautioned that things could be really squirrely as riders headed out in a flush of adrenaline.  I was particularly alert during the first few kilometers.  Fortunately, I didn’t feel very hemmed in or experience any close calls.  The riders around me soon spread out comfortably.

It was a beautiful late afternoon and evening.  France is at a higher latitude than Georgia, and so the August days there are about as long as the summer solstice at home.  I remember the angle of the sunlight and the lovely hues of the French countryside in those fresh, early hours of PBP.  I didn’t take many photos during my actual ride because I always had my eye on the clock, but I took lots of mental pictures.

After a couple of hours, I knew I needed to eat something.  I didn’t want to dip into my supply of Clif Bars just yet.  Lo and behold, the route came to a small town where people greeted us enthusiastically and had food and drinks for sale at sidewalk tables.  I bought a Coke and a sandwich – rocket fuel!  I drank the Coke quickly right there and took the sandwich with me.  French sandwiches are served on a small baguette that can be easily eaten while riding or conveniently stored in a jersey pocket.  The PBP sandwiches typically were ham, cheese, or ham and cheese.  I chose a cheese sandwich, which turned out to be brie – just delicious.  As I chewed my sandwich while rolling out of town, I saw two boys who were about 10 or 12 years old riding their bicycles.  One of them popped a wheelie.  The other one saw me eating my sandwich and called out, “Bon appétit!”  It doesn’t get any better than that.

As another rider put it, PBP is like one long day that ebbs and flows.  The sun rises, and the sun sets, but the snatches of sleep at odd hours make it hard to keep track of time normally.  Therefore, instead of trying to tell about the rest of my ride chronologically, I’ll describe it by topic.  First, I’ll describe my approach to equipment and other logistics.  Then, I’ll tell about the more difficult aspects of PBP.  Finally, I’ll share the more enjoyable aspects of PBP, which definitely outweigh the hard parts.  (Randonesia is already setting in…)

Equipment and Logistics

A drop bag service was available, but I opted to carry everything on my bicycle with me.  This saved me time because I didn’t have to locate my bag along the route and eliminated the possibility of my bag getting lost.  On the other hand, I had to be judicious about what I carried with me.  My Yogi Bear picnic basket bag is definitely large, but I had to pare down my initial packing list.  For example, I carried only one extra kit instead of the two I had originally planned to take.  Overall, however, my setup worked well.

Riders are required to have front and rear lights.  My front light is powered by a dynamo hub on my front wheel – super convenient.  I also carried a battery powered front light as backup.  I had three rear lights with rechargeable batteries.  The rear light clipped to a mount securely attached to the back of my rack.

Again, my mechanic Nate deserves a big chunk of credit for my completing PBP successfully.  He took everything on my bicycle apart and cleaned it, replaced the cables, lubed everything, and put on new Gatorskin tires.  He also installed a charger in my stem.  This charger has a USB port that allows me to charge devices directly from my front wheel dynamo hub.

I was reluctant to charge my bike computer directly from my stem charger because of my naturally varying power output through the dynamo hub.  Instead, I connected the stem charger to one of two rechargeable batteries I carried.  Then, I charged my bike computer, rear lights, and phone from the rechargeable batteries.  I carried three micro USB charger cables in addition to my phone charger cable.  This system worked great.  Also, I didn’t have to use the rechargeable batteries as much as I anticipated because I also got to recharge devices directly at my two stops at the Airbnb in Bécherel.

I had uploaded the route to my Wahoo bike computer ahead of time, but I wound up not needing it for navigation.  I used it only to record my ride data.  The course was well marked with arrow signs the entire way.  The signs on the way out said “Brest,” and the signs on the way back in said “Paris.”  The arrows had reflective material, making them easy to detect at night.  I came to think of those arrow signs as my friends.  I had heard stories of riders toward the end of PBP taking arrow signs as souvenirs, causing other riders to miss turns.  Fortunately, this didn’t happen to me.  I think I was ahead of “the bulge” toward the end.  Additionally, I read that the organizers purposely printed extra arrow signs for riders who wanted to keep one.

One of my experienced rando buddies had recommended carrying an emergency blanket.  I’m so glad I followed this advice.  I took along the shrink-wrapped, silver emergency blanket from my car’s first aid kit.  The blanket weighed next to nothing and took up almost no space in my bag.  I was very glad to have it during my several roadsides snoozes.

I embrace my nerdiness.  It came in handy because of the pacing spreadsheet I made ahead of time:

I knew my brain would be too foggy to do serious rate/time/distance calculations during the ride itself.  I referred to my spreadsheet often, and it gave me a sense of calm about staying on track.  My average speeds on the spreadsheet incorporate sleep time.  To follow my schedule, go down the rows for the outbound trip and up the rows for the return trip.  (Dreaux and Mortagne-au-Perche were controls, i.e., checkpoints, only on the return trip.  Quedillac was a supply stop only, not a control.  St. Nicolas-de-Pelem turned out to be a secret control.)  I thought I had been fairly conservative in my calculations.  For most of the first half, I was somewhat ahead of schedule.  However, for the rest of my ride, I was quite close to my calculated times.  Fortunately, I had built in another time buffer at the end. 

A last bit of advice I’m glad I took was to carry small mementos to give to the people along the route.  Several years ago, my cycling friend Mike, who retired from the U.S. Postal Service, had given me a bunch of pins.  Each one is shaped like a stamp, reads “USA,” and depicts a cyclist.  Perfect!  I was afraid I didn’t have enough of the stamp pins, and so I supplemented them with some City of Monticello, GA pins and some Georgia Chain Gang pins from Neil, one of my Audax Atlanta rando buddies.  Kids and adults alike along the PBP route seemed excited when I gave them a token of my appreciation for their hospitality and encouragement.

Audax Club Parisien provided several helpful items at check-in.  One was a reflective vest.  A reflective vest is always required for nighttime riding, but because they provided one to each rider, this was one less thing I had to bring from home.  Additionally, they gave each rider a heavy-duty plastic pouch on a lanyard.  I kept my brevet card and other valuables in this pouch, safely tucking it between my base layer and jersey.

Enter Sandman

The hardest part of PBP was sleep deprivation.  I thought I had somewhat of a feel for what this would be like from the 600K’s I had done, but PBP was much harder.  Over the approximately 3½ days that I was on the road, I slept a total of about 11 hours.  Most of this was in stretches of 1 to 1½ hours.

Later, I discovered that I was a relative Rip Van Winkle.  Many riders got three or fewer hours of sleep total.  On Wednesday morning, about 2½ days into PBP, I caught up with my friend Brad from Audax Atlanta.  Brad typically rides slower than I do, and his start group had been 45 minutes after mine.  Therefore, I was very surprised, although happy, to see him.  I soon learned the reason.  At that point he had slept only one hour.  One.  Hour.  I don’t see how that’s even physically possible.  I suppose that’s the only way slower riders can complete PBP within the 90-hour time limit.  By the way, I was thrilled to find out later that Brad, too, finished PBP successfully.  He did it in just over 89 hours – less than one hour to spare!

Truly, I underestimated just how little sleep is involved in PBP.  The farther I went, the more frequently I saw riders catching a few z’s on the side of the road, in a field, or under a tree.  I found myself evaluating their choice of sleep spot.  (The best was a grassy area between a fenced in cow pasture and some woods.)  Other times, riders laid their heads down at the tables at controls.

My first sleep was at my Bécherel Airbnb on the way out to Brest.  By the time I arrived there, I had been awake about 36 hours.  I took a much-needed shower, rinsed out my kit to put back on at my return visit, and lay down.  Just then, I got a text from Robert.  He was in Bécherel!  He was staying fairly nearby in Rennes and had ridden his rental bicycle to see me!  The timing was perfect even though I only had a few moments to say hello.  I was too tired to get out of bed, and so I texted him back and told him to let himself in.  He came upstairs and gave me a kiss before I fell asleep.  It was like a fairytale.

I had set my alarm for a 3-hour sleep, but I woke up after only 1½ hours.  No time to waste – I put on my clean kit and got back on the road as quickly as possible.

The next control was Loudéac.  I decided to take another short sleep there.  Like most controls, it had a couchage, or designated sleeping area, which was a gym with rows of cots.  It cost a few well-worth-it euros.  You’d tell the volunteers how long you wanted to sleep or what time you wanted to get up, and they would wake you.  Amazing.

My first experience here with a couchage was pretty funny.  These particular volunteers didn’t speak English.  There was a “clock” made from a paper plate with moveable hands so that you could tell them how long you wanted to sleep.  I was a little confused at first because the interior of the clock also showed 15, 30, and 45 minutes.  Was I limited to only 1 hour of sleep?  I wanted to sleep for 1½ hours.  It was about 7:30 PM, and so I wanted to get up at 9:00 PM.  How could I convey this information?  Although I don’t speak French, I can count to 10 in French.  I tried “neuf PM.”  Apparently, that’s not how you tell time in French.  Fortunately, a few moments later, another rider who spoke both English and French came up, and he helped ensure I was telling the volunteers the correct time when I wanted to get up.  Then, after all that, I slept only 1 hour, waking up on my own.  Time to get back on the road.

After a couple of hours riding in the dark, I got sleepy again.  Neither of my first two sleeps had been very restful.  The route frequently went through small villages.  The bigger towns had cathedrals.  I thought to myself, if the next town has a cathedral, I’ll stop there for another nap.  Sure enough, I found the perfect sleep spot.  The cathedral in the next town had an enclosed courtyard.  I propped my bicycle against a tree, snapped a quick photo when I noticed the moon in the background, and lay down on a bench with my emergency blanket.

That was the first real sleep I got; I didn’t wake up until my phone alarm went off an hour and a half later.  Interestingly, when I got back on my bicycle, it was only about a mile to a secret control.  I was in Saint Nicolas-du-Pelem.

I took another roadside sleep, about 45 minutes long, shortly before sunrise.  Soon after I got back on the road, I saw a family on the side of the road with refreshments for the riders.  I stopped and then realized that they mainly had coffee.  I don’t like coffee, but I got some partly not to be rude and partly because I was still fatigued.  Desperate times call for desperate measures.

I made it to Brest – half way there!

The iconic bridge at Brest! Cars cross on the cable stayed bridge. I’m taking this photo from another bridge for bicycles and pedestrians.
I started the return trip toward Paris.  A couple of hours later, I wanted to sleep again.  I found a small roadside park with a copse of trees that offered a little privacy.  I lay on the ground with my emergency blanket wrapped around me.  Once again, I woke up before my phone alarm went off, about an hour later.  As I awoke, I felt a few drops fall on me.  At the same time, I became aware of a terrible odor.  My first thought was that the city park employees were spraying pesticide on me.  Then, I realized that the drops were probably dew from the trees.  Furthermore, the terrible odor was me!

My next sleep was a return to the couchage in Loudéac.  This time I slept the entire hour and a half that I told the volunteers.  A nice man gently tapped my leg to awaken me.  I gasped and jumped about three feet, startling him just as badly.  He apologized profusely, saying, “Excuse moi!”  The volunteers were simply amazing and took on some of the most unusual jobs.

I rode through the night, arriving back at the Airbnb in Bécherel around 4:30 AM.  Paulette, the Airbnb owner, was incredibly kind and accommodating of my odd hours.  I had let her know my second stop would be during the wee hours, and so she left the door unlocked for me.  I got a solid three hours of sleep – my longest stint during PBP.

I was doing well on my schedule, but I only wanted to stop for one more sleep if possible.  I did manage that, sleeping for the last time at the control in Mortagne-au-Perche.  I arrived there sometime around midnight on my last overnight stretch.  That was one of my lowest points of the ride.  Tired and cold, I parked my bike and said loudly to no one in particular, “Will someone please just shoot me now?”  No one obliged, but I got the feeling the sentiment was shared.  There might have been an official couchage, but I opted to join the throng in the cafeteria.  Bodies were lined along the entire perimeter of the room.  They looked like battlefield casualties.  I found about half a space on the hard floor and curled up into a ball so that my legs wouldn’t block the walkway.  I laid my head on my rolled-up jacket and covered my face with my reflective vest.  I set my phone alarm for one hour but yet again woke up before it went off, about 45 minutes later.  When I awoke, I heard the guy next to me snoring.  It sounded like an airplane taking off.  As I became more alert, I saw another guy standing near me, checking his phone.  We looked at each other and both started to crack up.

When I found myself getting sleepy while I was riding, I used one of my tried-and-true tricks from my longer brevets.  I sang, mostly TV theme songs because that’s all that seems to come to mind in these situations.  (Laverne & Shirley – Making Our Dreams Come True – is a great motivator!)  Fortunately, on PBP I was usually by myself when I had to sing.  Not that I really cared at that point if anyone heard me.  Actually, I’m surprised I didn’t hear anyone else singing to stay awake.

Cold as Ice

A close second on PBP difficulties was the nighttime cold.  I had checked the forecasts for Rambouillet and Brest.  Both indicated highs in the 70s and lows in the 50s (Fahrenheit).  I was prepared for temperatures in the 50s: base layer, arm and knee warmers (my legs are short, and so my knee warmers are more like leg warmers), long-fingered gloves, and an ear warmer headband.  In reality, overnight lows were in the 40s or maybe even the 30s.  I nearly froze.

Later, I read about particular weather conditions that made the nights unusually cold during PBP.  It was clear and windless, allowing cold air from higher altitudes to sink.  This cold air follows the path of least resistance, i.e., the roads and streams, where flow is least impeded.  Therefore, the coldest air was flowing toward us as we climbed, and then we descended into very cold, wet air.

Although just about any conditions are ridable with the appropriate clothing and gear, I’ll take heat over cold any day.  The nighttime cold during PBP was a particular shock to my system, having come from temperatures in the 90s at home.  I simply had to make do with what I had.  I couldn’t do anything but keep riding.  It came down to mind over matter, particularly the last night.

I think a lot on long rides, but it was different on PBP.  The intensity and duration reduced everything to an almost primal mind-body connection.  Somehow, I had to keep myself from focusing on the cold.  The only thing that helped was singing out loud.  I don't remember most of the songs I sang, but I insisted to myself that they be classic rock.  Maybe classic rock has better cold-fighting powers than TV theme songs.  I had to be able to remember the lyrics (challenging at that point), and they had to be sing-able a cappella (knocking out most progressive rock, my favorite genre).  One of the few songs I do remember singing was Summer of ‘69 by Bryan Adams.  From now on, whenever I hear that one, it will remind me of riding across Brittany in the middle of the night.

At least we didn’t get any rain during PBP.  I’m very thankful for that because conditions were hard enough otherwise.  I’m not sure how I would have dealt with the rain on top of everything else.

Ain’t No Mountain High Enough

I had been told that the terrain on PBP was mostly rolling hills.  Therefore, I expected PBP to be somewhat like the roads I regularly ride in Middle Georgia.  It wasn’t.  The eastern portion of the route was relatively flat, but there was pretty serious climbing in Brittany to the west.  Grades were often 4% or more for a half-mile to a mile at a time.  It was like doing segments of Neels Gap in North Georgia, over and over.

Such climbs wouldn’t be too big a deal on a regular ride, but they were incessant on PBP.  I like Brad’s description he gave me while we rode together: “My legs are saying, ‘OK, this is what we do now.’”

Overall, there were more than 40,000 ft of climbing.  For comparison, Mt. Everest is about 29,029 ft high.

And Bad Mistakes…I’ve Made a Few

I made several mistakes during PBP.  Thankfully, none were catastrophic.  The worst was…I lost my brevet card!  I must have left it on the table when I was taking one of the few pictures of my ride, the flags at Fougères.

When I got to the next control, Tinténiac, I realized I didn't have my card.  This was a major panic because according to the rules, you're disqualified if you lose your card.  I thought I had read that official times were being taken from our timing chips and that cards were just a backup, but I still thought I might be disqualified.  I told the volunteers at the control.  They were so nice and said they could make me a new card because, sure enough, they could pull up my electronic times on their computer.  They said to give them a few minutes, go get something to eat, and come back.  When I returned, they gave me back my original brevet card!  Someone had found it and turned it in.  When I got back home, I found this picture of myself on the PBP Facebook page.  I’m expressing my extreme gratitude to the anonymous person who turned in my card!

Perhaps I was able to pay it forward later in the ride.  A guy behind me in the food line at Mortagne-au-Perche didn't have enough cash for his meal, so I covered it for him.  He was very grateful and wanted to track me down later, but I told him not to worry about it.  That's what we do - look out for each other.

My next worst mistake was missing the return control in Carhaix-Plouguer.  Good thing I was aware enough of the road signs to realize that I was leaving the Carhaix-Plouguer city limits.  Fortunately, I had gone just a few extra miles.  I backtracked to the control and lost only about 30 minutes total.  I reconstructed in my mind what happened.  I took a wrong turn from a roundabout.  That’s because just before the roundabout, someone had called out to me that my jacket was hanging down off my bicycle. It had been secured under bungee cords on top of my bike bag but came loose.  In my flustered state from fixing that issue, I must have missed the proper exit from the roundabout.

For a while I thought I had lost my ride data from the first 542 miles.  I had been diligent about keeping my Wahoo charged; it’s well designed such that you can continue recording data while charging.  However, I forgot to charge my Wahoo the second time I was at the Airbnb at Bécherel.  Just as I was about to roll out, I realized that it was at about 3% power, and it was trying to recover my ride data to that point.  Ack!  If it’s not on Strava, you didn’t really do the ride, did you?  Ha!  That’s definitely not true for PBP.  I let the potentially lost data roll off my back; it was much more important to focus on the finish and have my control times recorded correctly.  In the meantime, I used the Strava app on my phone to record the remaining 226 miles.  And to my delight, later in Aix-en-Provence, I was able to upload those first 542 miles to Strava!  Somehow my Wahoo didn’t upload the elevation data for that portion, but at least I got the distance data.

My other significant error was accidentally breaking one of the arms off of my glasses.  D’oh!  I did it early in the ride while I was fooling with one of the connector cables to my Wahoo on its mount.  I still managed OK because my ear warmer headband held my glasses in place.  I had some electrical tape with me and would have tried to tape the arm back on, but somehow I lost the arm, too.  Most of the time during the day, I wore my contacts, but I wore my glasses at night.  Sometimes I rode with my cycling sunglasses over my regular glasses – haute couture!


I’ve pretty much decided that there is no bad food in France.  I had some excellent meals before and after PBP, but even the food at the controls during PBP was quite good and very reasonably priced.  I ate a lot of sandwiches, croissants, and pain au chocolat and drank a lot of Coca-Colas.  I got fresh fruit as much as possible and discovered a delicious caramel yogurt.  Soup, spaghetti, and fish were warm and filling.  I even ate tabbouleh, paella, and beef bourguignon!

Convenience stores are nonexistent in rural Brittany.  However, it's easy to find a café, restaurant, or patisserie (bakery) in most towns, at least during the day.  Additionally, the French people who live along the PBP route are legendary for their hospitality.  Many offer food and beverages to the riders, sometimes even for free.  I availed myself of their generosity a number of times.  One of the most memorable stops was on my last night.  This was during one of the worst stretches when I had to fight the cold so hard.  I knew I needed food.  I came to a village, but nothing was open in the town in the middle of the night.  However, the kind residents set up a tent with refreshments.  I had a cup of some kind of delicious soup (mostly broth), some prunes, and a few pieces of dark chocolate.  That might sound like an odd combination, but it tasted so good!

The most memorable thing I ate during PBP was in a small village.  I saw a patisserie and stopped for a treat.  What to get?  The eclairs looked good, but I had already had several of those while I was in France.  Interestingly, all the eclairs had chocolate filling as well as a chocolate glaze.  They certainly were delicious, but they didn’t have the custard filling I was expecting.  At this patisserie I chose a delectable looking, cream-filled wonder.  I can’t remember or find the name of it now, but it was round and made of light, flaky choux pastry.  Best of all, it had that elusive custard filling.  I sat on the sidewalk outside the patisserie, relishing my unknown-name pastry.  I thought, “This is what I came to France for.”


Most of PBP is in Brittany, a region of northwestern France.  I must admit that I knew nothing about Brittany before doing PBP.  I’ve read a little online since then.  What a fascinating place!

Brittany is primarily agricultural.  The people seem to be mostly middle or working class.  In fact, these aspects made it seem a lot like my home in Middle Georgia.  The buildings are strikingly different, however.  Most of them are at least several hundred years old.  The multitude of villages are remnants of feudal times, when lords controlled large tracts of land and ruled over commoners.  Riding mile after mile through Brittany, the villages all started to look alike.  As a fellow rider from England remarked, it was like the movie Groundhog Day, riding through the same village over and over again.  His comment also gave me a new earworm for the ride, I Got You Babe.

I read that Brittany is one of six Celtic nations; in this case “nation” means a region with a distinct culture.  The other Celtic nations are Scotland, Ireland, Isle of Man, Wales, and Cornwall.  In each of these regions, a Celtic language is spoken to some extent.  Breton is the Celtic language still used in Brittany.  I noticed a number of road signs with wording in two languages on them.  I didn’t realize until after the fact that these were bilingual signs with both French and Breton.

Many people along the route waved a unique flag that reminded me of the U.S. flag.

It took me a while to catch on that this was the flag of Brittany.  Later, I read that its creator, Morvan Marchal, took inspiration from the U.S. flag, seen as a symbol of freedom.

Although I didn’t explicitly plan it, I’m so glad I got to see three such varied parts of France: Paris, Brittany, and (after PBP) Provence.  It’s easy to go to just the big cities – Paris in France, New York or Washington, D.C. in the U.S., or Atlanta in Georgia – and think you’re experiencing a particular place.  Not that Robert and I are super well-traveled, but when we go to other countries, we enjoy getting out in the countryside and doing less touristy things.  We get a much broader feel for the local culture that way.

I’ve Seen All Good People

It was a huge thrill to ride with nearly 7,000 other cyclists from all over the world, including all six inhabited continents.  Because I couldn’t communicate verbally with most of them, I mainly just enjoyed observing the vast array of countries represented.

Italian riders with their jersey pockets filled with sandwiches
In the cafeteria at one of the controls, I sat with a German man.  I remembered a few German words and phrases from high school.  His English was slightly better than my German.  We actually had a pretty decent conversation.

One afternoon I was riding down the road and heard a woman’s voice call out several times in a foreign language.  Yes, she was talking to me.  My first thought was, am I doing something unsafe or using bad cycling etiquette?  That wasn’t it at all.  She had noticed my jersey, which read Audax Atlanta, Georgia Randonneurs.  As she rode past me, I saw her Ukraine jersey and heard her say “Georgia.”  I called out, “USA!  The other Georgia!”  We both laughed.

Because it was important to me to maintain my own pace, whether faster or slower than anyone else, I rode the vast majority of PBP by myself.  However, I did ride a few times with other English-speaking riders.  I met a nice fellow named Owen from Seattle Randonneurs, who happens to be good friends with Andy in my Audax Atlanta club.  Owen snapped this photo and sent it to Andy, who sent it to me:

Thousands of volunteers, both French and other nationalities, made PBP possible.  Merci beaucoup!  They pointed the way at intersections, stamped our brevet cards, served food and drinks, and woke us at the couchages.  One of the most thankless jobs was quickly swabbing the toilet after each rider to make sure it was adequately clean for the next person.  Wow!

I remember so many French people who offered kindness along the way.  Paulette, the owner of the Airbnb in Bécherel, was so accommodating of my odd hours.  Also, she and her husband prepared a delicious breakfast for me before I left the second time:

A young boy guided me late one night when I almost made a wrong turn.  A man played a bagpipe on the side of the road in Brest.  A woman somewhere along the route played French music on an accordion. 

One of the biggest surprises was the second visit to the control at Villaines-la-Juhel.  They treated us like rock stars!  As I rolled into the control early that Wednesday evening, dozens of people – maybe hundreds – cheered for me!
I told myself to hold it together for now; I would allow myself to get all verklempt when I crossed the finish line in Rambouillet.

I parked my bike and headed toward the restaurant.  A girl who was about 12 years old asked me if I speak English.  I said yes, and she told me to follow her.  Skeptically, I followed.  Was she some kind of hustler?  I was embarrassed to realize I could be so cynical because it turned out she and scores of other young people were there simply to serve us riders.  They guided us to the serving line, held our trays, and led us down a red carpet (literally) to the dining tables.  I thought they were the rock stars for showing us riders such extravagant hospitality!

Before I left the wonderful control at Villaines-la-Juhel, I had to get a picture.  One of my life rules is never to pass up a photo op where you stick your face into something.

All along the route, I was surprised that most of the riders didn’t acknowledge the many French people cheering us on.  I made a point as much as possible to wave or say “Bonjour!” or “Merci!”  It was the least I could do to thank them for making the effort to come out and see us.  Besides, it gave me energy to interact with them this way.

This set the stage for one of my funniest experiences of PBP.  It was about 2:00 AM.  I heard a couple of people clapping for me and a few other riders nearby.  I couldn’t see these dedicated fans, but I called out into the darkness, “Merci!  Merci!”  Then, the clapping got louder.  Why were these people chasing me?!  Suddenly, a pony was running beside me!  I was hearing its hooves clack on the pavement.  It soon turned off onto a side road.  I laughed and said to whoever was riding near me, whether they could understand me or not, “I thought that was people clapping for us!”  A man responded in accented English, “Memories.”

Random Rando Thoughts

With so many hours in the saddle, I had plenty of time to think.  Despite the fatigue, I did have a few coherent(?) thoughts.

About 850 km into my ride, a runner passed in the opposite direction.  I thought to myself, “Poor bastard.”

It occurred to me that the teenagers in A Nightmare on Elm Street should do PBP because they can’t sleep anyway.

Sometimes I kept my brain occupied by converting the temperature from degrees Celsius to degrees Fahrenheit.  This was a particularly compelling exercise when I rode through a town in the middle of the night and saw a thermometer registering in the single digits.  What is that conversion anyway?  I knew it involved adding or subtracting 32 degrees and multiplying by 5/9 or 9/5.  I could reconstruct the formula using the boiling point of water: 100˚C or 212˚F.  212 ends in 2, so I probably need to start by subtracting 32.  That gives me 180.  180 is divisible by 9.  180 / 9 = 20.  Then, 20 x 5 is 100.  That was it!  ˚C = (˚F – 32) x 5/9.  Simply rearrange the equation to convert from ˚C to ˚F.  If the temperature in Celsius was divisible by 5, I could calculate the exact temperature in Fahrenheit (e.g., 5˚C = 41˚F).  Otherwise, I had to interpolate.  Regardless, it was cold out there!

You’ve probably heard of small towns that are speed traps; i.e., they rigorously enforce speed limits on cars as a source of revenue.  Ludowici, GA is one such speed trap.  I don’t know that I’ve ever even been through Ludowici, but its reputation is known far and wide.  Well, have you ever heard of a cycling speed trap?  I found one on PBP in the town of Dingé.  Fortunately, I didn’t get caught.  I stopped at the top of a hill in the middle of town to take off my jacket in the warming day.  About 20 meters down the hill was a stop sign, where two police officers were standing.  A few local people stood near the top of the hill and called out vigorously to the cyclists to stop at the stop sign.  I did so, even putting a foot down.  I said “merci” to the officers and rolled on.  I might not have been so deliberate about my stop if I hadn’t just started up after taking off my jacket.  Shortly thereafter, a Belgian woman told me about the speed trap as she rode by.  She said that several of her friends had been fined for not stopping.  They had to pay 50 euros – on the spot!  Yikes.

I thoroughly enjoyed the pastoral landscape of Brittany.  One cow particularly caught my eye.  It was the most beautiful cream color with darker brown spots.  Most notably, it seemed to have unusually long legs.  Was this some type of exotic French cow?  Later, I did some online research on French breeds of cows.  I couldn’t find any long-legged cows.  Maybe I only imagined I saw a particularly beautiful cow with long legs.  Or maybe I had seen Bugs Bunny in drag.

One time I tried to perk myself up by having a conversation with myself.  Out loud.  It went like this:

  • Me: "So, tell me how you got into this crazy adventure."
  • Myself: "Well, one day my brains fell out."
  • I: "I think that's the end of this conversation."

Sometimes I definitely wasn’t thinking coherently.  For a while on Tuesday morning, I was convinced that I had only one or two hours to spare.  Then, I reviewed my trusty spreadsheet schedule and realized that I had miscalculated by 12 hours.  I couldn’t dillydally, but no need to worry.

As a person of faith, I often pray during long rides.  Prayer is really just a type of thinking.  During PBP I found my prayers reduced to, “Lord, please get me through this.”  The day after I finished PBP, I saw this installment of Coffee with Jesus, a comic strip I follow on Facebook and a main source of theology for me these days.  This really resonated with me.

We Are the Champions

I made it through that last, extra tough overnight stretch between Mortagne-au-Perche and Dreaux.  It felt so good to get out of the cold for a bit at Dreaux.  Two things motivated me to get back on the road: it would start getting warmer as the sun came up, and there was only one more control – the finish in Rambouillet!  I left Dreaux a little after 6:00 AM.  I had about 30 miles to go.  Even at my slow PBP pace, about 13 mph, I should make it to Rambouillet in less than  hours, well before my 11:45 AM cutoff.

Most of the remaining route was relatively flat, and the rising sun lifted my spirits.  I was going to do this, and I was almost there!

On the approach to Rambouillet, I recognized a few landmarks that I had seen on the way out.  That had been only about 3½ days ago, but it seemed a lot longer.  I remembered the cobblestones near Bergerie Nationale.  A lot of people were milling around, but few paid much attention as I crossed the finish line.  Although it was anticlimactic, especially compared to the cheering crowds at Villaines-la-Juhel the evening before, I didn’t mind.  I did it!  And I wasn’t even verklempt.

Robert found me almost immediately.  I kissed him quickly and went to get my brevet card stamped one last time.  An older French man put a medal around my neck.  Then, he smiled at me and gave me a big hug.  That was one of the best hugs I ever had!

I’m so honored and thrilled to have successfully finished PBP with all its punishments, joys, and traditions.  I understand that later I’ll receive a packet with all the PBP 2019 statistics sliced and diced every which way.  A few figures I do have already:

  • 474 U.S. riders registered for PBP 2019, but not all of these started the event.  Some percentage also DNFed.  Of the 474 U.S. riders who registered, 61 (12.87%) are women.
  • Since 1975, the percentage of women finishers at PBP from all countries has always been less than 6%.  I expect that 2019 will have a similar percentage.
Thank you again to Robert, my Audax Atlanta club, Audax Club Parisien, Nate, Jeremy, my Uber drivers, all the volunteers, the people of France, and everyone who cheered me on!  I couldn’t have done PBP without each of you.  I went into this planning for it to be my only time doing PBP.  It’s a huge commitment of time and energy.  Also, Robert was super supportive, but it will be a long time before I ask him to make such an effort on my behalf again.  Knowing that this was probably my one shot at PBP was also a great motivator to finish successfully.

Going back to my initial question: why would someone voluntarily do something as difficult as PBP?  I read one randonneur's response: "If you have to ask, you don't understand."  That's supposed to be funny, but I think the question is legitimate.  In the first few days after PBP, I pondered it.  Here's my answer:

PBP is tough and gritty.  It gives you satisfaction when you persevere and overcome setbacks.  You get to share the journey with a bunch of fascinating other people.  You give and receive help and love along the way.  The scenery is beautiful.  There is joy.  It's like a microcosm of life in 90 hours.

Ride on!


Robert had stayed in Rambouillet the night before my PBP finish.  I had plenty of time to take a (marvelous) shower at his hotel room before checkout time.  We then headed for Aix-en-Provence in southern France.  I've wanted to visit Provence for years, ever since I read a beautiful article about it in National Geographic.  The balmy Mediterranean climate was also quite welcome to my post-PBP chilled bones.

A big bonus was that our friend Christian and his girlfriend Eugenia live in Aix-en-Provence.  Robert and I have known Christian since he was a teenager in Macon.  When Robert and I first started riding with the Macon cycling group, Christian's dad Dave was one of the first people I got to know.  Dave told me about what a good cyclist Christian was.  I figured that was typical dad bragging, but Christian was the real deal.  He was on the USA Cycling Under-23 (U23) team and continued for a while as a pro.  Now, Christian is a cycling coach with clients around the world.  He can work from anywhere - why not Provence?  Actually, he landed there because Eugenia, who is from Colombia, got a job in Aix-en-Provence.

We also met up with our good friend Bill and his two adult daughters, Bryn and Sky.  Bill, Bryn, and Sky went with Robert and me on our trip to Mallorca a couple of years ago.  They are great traveling companions.

Robert and I took a train from Rambouillet to Paris, where we transferred to another train to Aix-en-Provence.  Not surprisingly, I slept most of the way.  When we arrived in Aix-en-Provence, Robert and I took an Uber to an Airbnb.  Bill, Bryn, and Sky had already checked in.  That evening, I thoroughly enjoyed my first real meal post-PBP: salad Nicoise, escargo, and rosé (a specialty of Provence).

The next few days, I enjoyed exploring Aix-en-Provence and generally taking it easy.  Although I didn't feel like napping during the day as I expected, it felt good simply to lie on the sofa, reading and relaxing between jaunts around town.

On Friday Bryn, Sky, and I visited Musée Granet while Bill and Robert went for a ride on their rented bicycles.  This museum is adjacent to the Church of Saint-Jean-de-Malte, which was built in the 13th century.

In addition to Musée Granet’s permanent exhibit that includes artists like Cézanne, Picasso, and Rembrandt, it has a temporary exhibit with paintings by French artist Fabienne Verdier.

Abstract art usually isn’t my thing, but this artist really intrigues me.  This trip and PBP have been such a strong reminder that every person goes through life and sees the world differently, which is a wonderful thing.  The key is to be aware of that and try to learn from others’ perspectives.  I’ll never see the world the same way this artist does, but I’m glad she tries to share her outlook.  All this came out of the fact that I happened to read the description of her replacing her paintbrush handle with bicycle handlebars (toward bottom of this photo):

Some of Fabienne Verdier’s art created with the bicycle handlebar brush
A second section of the museum is in a repurposed portion of the church.

When we left the museum, I met Bill and Robert at a coffee shop.  On the walk back to the Airbnb, we checked out some of the artistry that infuses everyday French life.  This is the largest and most elaborate of the many fountains near our Airbnb.  Water sprays from fish mouths and swans ridden by (I think) cherubs.  Pairs of lions with clamshells between them encircle the fountain.  The fountain also has a sensor that turns off the water when wind speed gets too high.
Even the security chain the surrounds the fountain has a fleur-de-lis motif:
This statue represents industry and art.  I can see how being surrounded by art could greatly influence a person’s worldview.  I’m reminded of my favorite Rush song, Cygnus X-1 Book II: Hemispheres, which examines the necessary balance between the left brain and the right brain (reason and love).
That evening we all met up with Christian and Eugenia for dinner.  I felt festive in the beret that some good friends back home gave me before PBP:
On the way to the restaurant, we walked past this ornate tower adjacent to a government building. 
As we walked around after dinner, we heard a lot of live music from various plazas.  This band was playing a salsa type of music.  Earlier in the evening we heard particularly intriguing music right near our Airbnb; it sounded like cello and didgeridoo of all things.
Christian and Eugenia showed us some ancient Roman ruins that lie beneath Aix-en-Provence.  These were discovered only recently when a particular plaza was being reconstructed.  The excavation was halted until those in charge could figure out what to do.  They left the ruins in place and covered them with glass panels that you can walk on and view the ruins.  What an innovative way to preserve the ruins!
The next morning we visited the market.  A smaller market with primarily clothes is held daily.  A larger market is added on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays that has the most beautiful, fresh food.

If it lives in the sea, this market has it.  I took this photo of sardines in honor of one of my favorite protein sources on brevets.
That afternoon, while Bill and his daughters drove their rental car to several vineyards, Robert and I visited another museum.  As the afternoon faded to evening, we heard more beautiful live music from the various plazas.
We spent Sunday, our last full day in France, visiting Mont Ventoux, "The Giant of Provence."  This highest peak in Provence is one of the signature climbs that is often included in the Tour de France.  It was painful not to join Christian Bill, and Robert, but I didn’t have a bicycle.  (The bike shop in Rambouillet is shipping my PBP bike home.)  I could have rented a bicycle, but maybe it’s for the best that I didn’t.  I developed tendinitis in my right arm from shifting gears so much during PBP.  It probably needed to rest.  I still enjoyed seeing this iconic mountain.
Christian, Bill, and Robert about to begin the climb up Mont Ventoux.

There are several routes to the top of Mont Ventoux.  The guys went up the Tom Simpson route.
Tower at the top of Mont Ventoux
Bill passing another guy at the top of Mont Ventoux. You go, Bill!
Allez, Robert!
Bill, Robert, and Christian at the top of Mont Ventoux
Christian and Eugenia
Remembering the climb up Brasstown Bald that several of us Middle Georgians did back during the Tour de Georgia
Christian, Robert, and Bill taking a break after the climb up Mont Ventoux
The top of Mont Ventoux is like a moonscape because the elevation and wind prevent much vegetation from growing.  (Ventoux means windy in French.)  The mistral, a cold, dry, northerly wind common in southern France and neighboring regions, makes the summit especially windy.  Wind speeds as high as 320 km/h (200 mph) have been recorded.  The wind blows at over 90 km/h (56 mph) for 240 days a year.

We stopped at the memorial to Tom Simpson, who died on the climb up Mont Ventoux in the 1967 Tour de France.  “Put me back on my bike.”

Bedoin is the town at the bottom of this side of Mont Ventoux.  It's definitely a tourist town, but it has a cool vibe from all the cycling shops.  We had lunch at an excellent restaurant. This map made of coffee beans, displayed on a mirror, says hello in several of the world’s languages.

Back in Aix-en-Provence, we had our last dinner of the trip.  I was jonesin’ for some fromage. I also had to get some more rosé.

My meal was bigger than my head, and so I took leftovers home in a chien box, which I had for breakfast the next morning before we left.

We finally got a photo of the whole travel crew at the end:

Sky, Robert, me (holding the chien box from my fromage feast), Bill, and Bryn
Au revoir, France...


  1. marvelous story my strong friend. Hoping you're never in a nursing home and have to have this read to remember but if you do, you'll be amazed at yourself. Ride on!

  2. https://youtu.be/2MJX6XQUYA4
    Thanks for the great write up. Sleep in 3 hour chunks does it for me, otherwise I'm wasting my time.

  3. Wonderful blog BJ! Thanks for taking me along for the ride!! What an adventure - congratulations!!


  4. really enjoyed your blog. Thanks for posting.
    ~Brad (Winnipeg)