Alex Piotrowski

Imago - Meditatio - Actio

Paris‑Brest‑Paris 18me édition

2015-08-16 to 08-20

Paris-Brest-Paris. Wow. I was there.

Despite hearing countless stories from numerous anciens, fully appreciating PBP required taking on the challenge myself. I was well aware that riders would be everywhere. I had heard that villagers would clap and cheer as we passed through at all hours of the day. I had even been warned that I would cry before it was over. Nonetheless, neither the magnitude of the event nor the degree of the emotional impact it would produce could sink in until I was there to experience it first hand.

Velodrome start

Queuing up for the start at the Velodrome National with Madison, WI randonneur Bob Booth.

And we're off!

And we're off!

Spectators give a warm send off.

Spectators give a warm send off.

A velomobile whizzes past.

All kinds of bikes accept the challenge. Here, a velomobile whizzes past.

Lots of taillights and even an ElliptiGo

Riding into the night, taillights shine ahead as far as the eye can see. From time to time, something out-of-the-ordinary sticks out from the crowd (notice the ElliptiGo on the right).

Lights glisten in the morning mist

Still riding through the dawn. Lights glisten in the morning mist.

Bikes decorate the spectator lined streets.

Bikes decorate the streets as villagers cheer on the passing riders.

At the control in Fougères I met up with Bob Booth. Though we both had planned on riding independently, we departed together to share in each other's company as long as our paces kept in tune. The conversation helped keep spirits up as we passed from village to village. Having someone to talk to also did wonders for staying alert without sleep.

Spectators clap as we pass by.  The Chateau de Fougeres stands in the background.

Riding along with Bob Booth. Spectators clap as we pass by. The Château de Fougères stands in the background.

Riding through the zombie hours

Despite a very refreshing sleep in Loudéac, the zombie hours still wear down on the spirits, but seeing a rider on the return leg to Paris shows us that we are at least getting closer to our turning point at Brest.

As we approach Brest, we more frequently encounter riders on the way back to Paris.

The light of the new day brought with it a refreshing boost. As we approach Brest, we more frequently encounter riders on the way back to Paris.

Pegasus and I at the bridge

Standing on the Pont Albert Louppe with Pegasus on the way into Brest. The Pont de I'Iroise shows through the fog in the background.

Arriving in Brest

We made it to the turning point! We're half way there!

Now Paris-bound, we encounter riders still heading to Brest.

Now Paris‑bound, we encounter riders still heading to Brest.

A rest stop in Sizun before the Roc Trevezel climb

A rest stop in Sizun before the Roc Trevezel climb. Now on the return, we make a point of stopping to enjoy the finer things.

A long time ancien regularly completes PBP on an historically appropriate bike for this ride.

A long time ancien regularly completes PBP on an historically appropriate bike for this ride.

Crepes for a postcard

Monsieur Paul Rogue and his helpers provide riders with a coffee and a crèpe at La Tannière, asking only for a postcard from home in return. I hope he enjoys the red American barn and the Wisconsin Holsteins.

Kids and riders both love the high fives

Kids and riders both love the high fives.

Somewhere in the last stretch approaching Villaines‑la‑Juhel, I had separated from Bob. It was a hilly section and we each needed to pedal as our own legs would allow. I don't think either of us had expected we'd have stuck together this long, but it had been a good run and made for a very enjoyable experience.

My legs were feeling extremely soft in this section, also, but as long as I kept turning the pedals, the dogs didn't bark too loudly. The legs certainly were tired, though. Nonetheless, I figured I'd be able to push through to at least Mortagne‑au‑Perche after a break at the control in Villaines‑la‑Juhel.

Arriving at the control, however, I had been completely been taken by surprise. Expecting the same crowd comprised predominantly of riders with a proportionately smaller number of control volunteers, I was astonished to see how the cheering spectators outnumbered riders and control workers combined. I could hear a PA system with an announcer, though I couldn't make out the announcements. Nonetheless, the energy was amazing. I felt quite teary-eyed as I rode into the control and searched for a place to park.

An unexpected welcome in Villaines la Juhel

An unexpected welcome in Villaines la Juhel.

This far into the ride it took some coaxing to get the legs moving again after any stop. Based on how they had been feeling just prior to arriving at Villaines, I was expecting that I'd really have to ease back into pedaling mode when I left. On departing, however, I felt surprisingly fresh. The winds were favorable, which certainly helped, but it couldn't have possibly accounted for this sudden boost in power. The next section to Mortagne‑au‑Perch flew by. I credit the crowd and its cheering for tapping into a hidden adrenaline store.

How better to show appreciation for France than with an Eiffel Tower helmet?

How better to celebrate the return to Paris than with an Eiffel Tower helmet?

Feeling as I did going to Mortagne‑au‑Perch, it only made sense to push on for 77 kilometers more (nearly 48 miles) to Dreux. From there, the end was only 64 kilometers (roughly 40 miles) away. I figured after getting to Dreux, I'd have enough time for a nap, and then could arrive at the finish at daylight.

At Mortagne, I encountered Minnesota Randonneur Jonas Nygaard who had been riding with another of his Swedish countrymen, Stephan. The three of us pushed off as the last remaining twilight faded. Unlike the previous two nights, which were fairly chilly if not downright cold, it was warm and muggy. Combined with the signifiant climbing on this stretch, we didn't have to worry about being cold. In fact, at the top of one hill we had to stop for wardrobe adjustments to keep from overheating.

At one point, an off-course warning from the GPS saved us from bonus miles. Throughout the ride it had been so easy to follow taillights, but it still was necessary to validate the correct path. We shouted a warning to each other to recheck at the intersection, but in the dark seemed to lose track of who was who and we separated momentarily. Fortunately, we were able to regroup at a coffee stop set up by fans in the next village after the nearly missed turn. The coffee did wonders, too, as the length of time awake on limited sleep was beginning to take its toll. Though we simply couldn't count the bikes present in the larger wave, our immediate group got larger for the second leg after the stop. An Irishman (whose name I can't accurately recall) and a French woman, Bridgitte, joined in on the conversation. The “International House of Languages” feel added to the experience; Swedish, English, and French (the latter two in a variety of accents) carried us through the remaining kilometers to Dreux.

Somehow, instead of napping in Dreux, I agreed when Jonas suggested we push onto the end. The food at Dreux looked appetizing and went down easy. After eating as much as I could and drinking even more caffeine, I was ready for the final push.

Riding through the night

The next stop is the finish, but we still have to ride through another night. Here, I'm again riding with Bob Booth. Billy from Jersey pumps away on the ElliptiGo. We band together for a while, keeping each other awake through conversation.

Ironically, I ended up leaving the control with Bob Booth, who was riding along with an ElliptiGo rider, Billy, from the Bailiwick of Jersey. I wasn't in any hurry, and the conversation, including an abbreviated Channel Islands lesson, was great for fighting off the Sandman during the dark of night after not having slept in 24 hours.

Riding a section of the victory lap with Bob was welcome, too, after having ridden the lion's share of the event together. Eventually, though, I found it too difficult to maintain the slower pace of the ElliptiGo, and continued on by myself.

Shortly thereafter, it started to rain. On the warm night, the rain felt rather pleasant, and helped remedy the stickiness of the humidity, not to mention the welcome assistance it provided in staying alert. The final kilometers flew by through the more urban streets of Montigny‑le‑Bretonneux and Saint Quentin‑en‑Yvelines. Crossing the finish before sunrise at dawn's twilight was a bit of an anticlimax after encountering such large crowds during the afternoon of the previous day, but that didn't diminish the emotion bursting out from the inside.

Anticlimactic finish in the rain at morning twilight.

After encountering all the crowds earlier, arriving at the finish in the rain at morning twilight felt rather anticlimactic. Nonetheless, the powerful emotion I was feeling was nearly overwhelming as such an epic adventure came to a close.

After getting back to Stevens Point and resuming «real life», at first, it almost felt like the experience was all a dream. The whole idea of riding six thousand people riding bicycles half way across France and back in less than four days just doesn't sound possible. Fortunately, after a little more time the reality of the situation sank in. This experience was real, extremely real, and in fact, belongs as one of the most significant experiences in my life. I can only imaginge what it would take to top the Paris-Brest-Paris experience. Honestly, I'm not sure I want to know.

Ride Details: Part 1 | Part 2