...this is the kind of stuff I'd post on it.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Paris-Brest-Paris 2011

Well, as you may or may not have heard, I managed to find my way through the 1230 kilometers of Paris-Brest-Paris in less than 90 hours, thereby cementing my status as an ancien.  Thankfully I didn't ruin my body or my bike, and I felt stronger than I thought I would over the course of the ride.  It was, without a doubt, the most amazing thing I've ever done on two wheels, and the entire experience was so massive, so overwhelming, it's been hard for me to condense it into a bloggable format.  Doing something in chronological order wouldn't work either, especially since many of the days, towns and controls have blended together into one bug lump of memories.

With that said, there are definite highlights that stick out in my mind:

Being cheered by scores of local villagers and townspeople, at all hours of the day and night:
Our fans
My first ever "flower hand-up", from one of the many young children that cheered us on.

I'd heard stories that the French residents along the route would line the tiny streets of their towns and villages to cheer the cyclists along, but I had filed them away as exaggerations.  Well, it turns out they were all true.  Not only did we get cheered, encouraged, and applauded for a solid 3.5 days on the road, but we got offers of cookies, coffee, places to sleep, even flowers.  I kid you not.  There is absolutely no way this would ever happen in the US.  Cheers of "allez, allez" and "bon courage" stuck out among countless French phrases I didn't recognize.  All of them sounded equally beautiful to my ears, and the emotional impact of each one can't be overstated.  The French are a wonderful people, and they sure know how to treat a cyclist.  

Riding through a massive thunder and lightning storm in the middle of the night:

The second night of our journey, we decided to leave the crowded control at Loudeac, and press on further to Carhaix before catching a few hours of sleep.  Shortly after we left, lightning began flashing all around us, and the booms of thunder gradually grew closer and closer.  Before long, we were in a full-on deluge, the likes of which this Seattleite hasn't seen in ages.  Pounding rain had every inch of us soaked, and each descent became a white-knuckled test of both courage and brakepads.  The nervous chatter of cyclists of every tongue, the flashes of lightning, the crack of thunder, and the sheer insanity of it all was complete sensory overload.  I still get goosebumps thinking about it.

Luckily, we all had wool to keep us warm and reliable generator-powered lights to show us the way.  We gave up our plan to reach Carhaix that night, stopping in Saint Nicolas-du-PĂ©lem to get some rest.  The gym was out of cots and blankets, so we used an air mattress and paper towels instead.

Pristine roads, without a sliver of glass or pothole to be seen:

In the entire 1230km, with close to 5000 people on the roads, I saw maybe 2 flats being changed.  Even the most remote roads we rode on seemed to have been paved, swept, and groomed shortly before our arrival.  Being from Seattle, I'm used to riding while surrounded by gorgeous scenery (and France had it in spades), but gorgeous roads too?  We joked throughout the ride that we were so spoiled we might have to retire from American randonneuring, and only ride in France.

Amazing baguette sandwiches and pastries at every turn:
jambon et buerre - should have translated to "filling and delicious"
Tasty, no matter what speed you're going
My ride was pretty much fueled by these two items.  Cheap, ubiquitous, and delicious.  I've always needed to eat more "real food" then many of my fellow randonneurs, and luckily that was much easier to do in France than in the US.  Even though France hasn't figured out how to make a decent cup of coffee, they've got the food thing down.  The crappy convenience store food I'm used to having to eat was replaced with fresh bread and pastries.  At one point, I looked down and found a blob of butter on my stem.  YES.

Great scenery:
This was the "typical" town scene
Not your usual American small town
This is normally a pre-requisite for any long brevet, since you have to have something to help you pass the time on the bike.  The scenery of PBP was not only gorgeous, but unlike anything we were used to seeing.  The formula for the many, many tiny towns we rode through in Brittany seemed to be something like this: take a hill, build a medieval stone church on top, surround that with a small square,  a few businesses, and a dense smattering of stone houses, surround with a wall.  The term "suburban sprawl" had no meaning during 99% of the ride, which meant that when we weren't riding through an adorable little town, were were in pristine countryside.

Having a great group of friends to ride with, who failed to piss me off, even after 100+ hours together:
Chris, enjoying some complimentary coffee outside a great boulangerie
Robert, showing his enthusiasm for the town we just rode through
If I think about the amount of time we spent before, during and after the ride, sometimes hot, sometimes cold, sometimes sleepy, sometimes elated, almost always smelly and uncomfortable, I'm amazed that we got along so well.  I'd be at most people's throats after far less, let me tell you.  Robert, Chris and I had ridden as a group for our entire 2011 brevet series leading up to PBP, so sticking together as a group was a natural choice.  While doing so inevitably meant more stops and a slower time, we were never in danger of falling behind the control schedule and our overall PBP "experience" was greater as a result of the awesome company.  Having someone to talk to also helps out immensely when the sleep deprivation catches up with you and the eyelids start to get heavy.

Representing Seattle with the help of a great club:
Riding out to PBP registration with Jan Heine and Hahn Rossman
The Seattle International Randonneurs really lived up to the "International" part of their name at PBP.  With something like 65 starters, we were by far the largest North American club present.  With our distinctive blue jerseys, we really stuck out and made an impression on the scene.  I got to hear "Seattle" pronounced with a huge variety of accents. Twice, I was approached by groups of Italian randos who said "SEATTLE RANDONNEURS!!!" and then insisted on having their pictures taken with me.  Who knew we were so popular?  It was pretty cool to see familiar faces in the middle of France, and I was even able to borrow a spare set of pedals from a fellow Seattle rando (thanks Mark!) after mine broke the night before PBP (after all the bike shops in Paris were closed, natch).

I keep getting asked if PBP was all that I hoped it would be, or whether I'll do it again in 4 years.  I struggle to answer each of those questions, mostly because the experience is still sinking in over 2 weeks later.  As with any brevet, there were thrilling highs (some of which I've described here) and deep lows (massive sleep deprivation, some sketchy bike-handlers).  The difference with PBP seems to be that each piece of the experience was magnified or larger-than-life in some way.  I think I'm going to be content to give the randonneuring a break for a bit, look through the rest of my photos and try to make sense of it all.


  1. Great read (and photos), Dylan ... and relatively prompt. It took me 4 years to write my memories of Paris-Brest-Paris 2007!

    I know what you mean about the "lump of memories" phenomenon; that's why it took me so long to untangle them. You might try "re-riding" some of the route on Google "Streetview." At the least it's fun to see some of those quaint villages from the comfort of your armchair.

  2. Thank you so much for writing this out. I'll never do anything like this myself so "vicariously thru you" is pretty dang awesome.

  3. I just stumbled upon your blog a few days ago - congrats for completing PBP, and thanks for such a descriptive post! A few questions, though: how did the Mercian work out? (I've been thinking of ordering one.) Is that a new low-trail fork?

  4. Great ride report! May I borrow the baguette image please (with credit)?

  5. Fantastic achievement and great report! congratulations!

  6. I have never done that kind of distance in one fell swoop before, but I did do some touring in France last summer on my folding bike and had such an awesome time. I think I will definitely be back - for the pastries, if nothing else!

  7. Dylan, I remember talking to you, and other Seattle riders with you. Because I remember all the tats. :)

    Here's a link to my 2011 PBP experience: http://www.cosaro4rides.com/blog/2011/08/31/pbp-2011-the-ride/

    Rick Cosaro

  8. Belated congrats on finishing! I did the 2007 edition and felt the same way - overwhelmed by the magnitude and support from the people lining the streets to cheer us on! So thrilled to have experienced such an amazing event. My biggest regret - hardly any photos! We had so much rain - I really didn't take any pictures. Didn't make it back in 2011 due to a crash in the preseason - perhaps another year will see me and my trusty bike make it back for another edition of PBP! Thanks for bringing back so many memories for me. I am finally sitting down to write about it after all those years. Seeing the photos - I can almost feel myself back on the road! Love your croissant at any speed - that is just brilliant!

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