Paris-Brest-Paris 2007 ended today. I heard rumors about the dropout rate for the 5,300 or so starters: that as many as 2,000 riders didn’t complete the course. That compares to something like 600 for the 2003 event. The difference was the weather. Conditions four years ago were sunny and calm, as close to perfect as you could imagine, though I’ve heard some complain that early morning temperatures, which got down to about 40, weren’t to their liking. This year, the rain did people in. It started early and continued, and I’m sure some people rode through showers even as they finished today. People got wet and cold and just lost the ability to go on or had old injuries flare up because of the conditions; of course, some were wet and cold and could have gone on but thought a little too long and hard on the question “why in the world am I doing this?”
But the thing that you have to keep in mind is not the number of people who did not finish, but the number who did: three thousand or more. Three thousand. Making allowances for the fact there are some riders out there who cheerfully face rain and cold and think nothing of it, even on a four-day marathon ride, that’s a whole lot of people who stayed committed to finishing. Congratulations isn’t a big enough word.
So I suggested a couple days ago that one of the advantages of finishing early — I mean not finishing — was that I was still clear-headed enough to maintain some of the impressions that formed when I was out there. So, before I head back home in the morning, here are a few of them (follow the link below; there are pictures that go along with some of this at: ):
The start: The Paris-Brest-Paris launch area is as close as you come in cycling to a mosh pit. Yes, a well-behaved mosh pit, but still: thousands and thousands of riders and their machines jammed into small walkways and other narrow spaces, all the while still jockeying for position. The start for our group, which had a 90-hour time limit, was set at 9:30 p.m. But that time was really only the start of the start. So many people choose the 90-hour start (the other options are 80 hours and 84 hours) that the group is released in waves; and this year, the waves would be consist of 500 to 600 riders turned loose every 20 minutes. Knowing all that, a small group of Northern California riders, about half a dozen of us, went to the starting area just before 7 p.m. The area was already mobbed. We heard, but didn’t see, the 80-hour starters begin, in three waves of their own, beginning at 8 p.m. We heard the commotion for the departure of the “special bikes” — recumbents and faired machines and the like — and tandems at 9 p.m. People were screaming, fireworks were going off, and someone was playing the Breton pipes — similar to the Irish uillean pipes — in recognition of the fact we were headed to Britanny. Then, after having our bikes checked out for working lights, we were shuffled very slowly into the big traffic circle that serves as the starting area. As it started to get dark, someone pointed out that a traffic safety tape had been pulled across the road in back of us, meaning that we would be in the first group of 90-hour riders to hit the road at 9:30. We were surrounded by hundreds or thousands of people. There were fire breathers entertaining the crowd (why fire breathers? I don’t know. But in the cloudy dusk the effect was spectacular). A guy on the P.A. system worked the crowd, but I can’t tell you what he was saying. Finally we got a countdown, and we headed out through the big gray inflated arch on the road to Brest, 360 miles or so away.
Riding: People were so packed together at the start that I spent most of the first couple hundred yards with my right foot clicked into my pedal and my left pushing me along. But then we were clear of the traffic circle and heading down a ramp onto a route that would take us through a series of small suburbs into the countryside. For the first five kilometers, people were gathered on the roadside, in traffic circles, and on overpasses, cheering us on. We heard two expressions over and over, bon courage and bonne route, with the occasional bon voyage thrown in. From one group of spectators someone called “bon courage!” and I said what I nearly always say, “Merci.” I heard the voice reply, “You’re welcome” in a cheery Midwestern accent.
My ‘strategy’: My plan was no plan. When I rode PBP in 2003, I went out pretty fast with a friend, Bruce Berg. That worked out OK, but we lost a lot of whatever small advantage we gained by going off-route just 80 kilometers into the event. That only cost us 20 minutes or so, but by then hundreds of people we’d just passed had rolled by again. I believe I”m stronger than I was in 2003, and definitely more experienced; but I didn’t really have a road map for how I wanted this ride to go. The one idea I had in the back of my mind was how nice it would be to have to ride through only three nights — the start night, Monday night/Tuesday morning, then Tuesday/Wednesday and Wednesday/Thursday — and finish late Thursday night. The reasoning is simple: That last night on the road is brutally fatiguing. And, as Bruce mentioned often, since getting caught up in crowds at the PBP controls (checkpoints and food stops) is a major time drain, getting out ahead of the main pack of riders and staying there would be important if one wanted to finish so early.
But getting out in front would mean riding hard, and how foolhardy do you have to be to go out at the beginning of a four-day event and ride near your limits? I sensed I could ride pretty fast without killing myself, but I had no way of knowing how long I could make that stick until we got on the road. In other words, I wasn’t committed to anything rash, but I wasn’t committed to holding back, either.
[To be continued…]