This years’ PBP started after the 2003 PBP ended. I had so much fun in 2003 that I resolved to ride the 2007 PBP. By the middle of 2006, my interest was starting to wane, but because I had such a good time and the ride did not hurt that badly (I had no real difficult moments) I decided to start to plan for it. I had 2 problems. The first was where to do the qualifying rides (known as brevets). The second problem was that I did not want to ride PBP alone, like I did in 2003.
To qualify for PBP, one needs to ride a 200k (124 miles), a 300k (186 miles), a 400k (249 miles) and a 600k (373 miles). The issue was that they stopped having brevets in Austin at the beginning of 2006 because no one was willing organize them. So my options were either to volunteer to be the ride organizer for the Austin area or go to Dallas or Houston to do the rides. I was fine with Dallas or Houston except, since the rides start early in the morning, I would have to travel there the day before and stay over night, meaning one night away from the family, which I was eager to avoid. The problem with organizing the rides in Austin was that all the rides previously done in Austin required that I drive about an hour away. To make matters worse, there needs to be someone at the finish to check riders in, so if I were to finish 3 hours before everyone else, I would have to stand around for the 3 hours waiting for everyone else. These rides can be unsupported, meaning that I just hand the riders the directions for the route at the start, mark where the stores are along the route so that they can buy food and water and start pedaling. Things like rest stops (places where food is laid out for riders) or SAG vehicles (cars that drive the course to help riders with any problems) are optional on these rides. This meant I could run the rides without help if I was willing to wait for the last rider. Then I had an epiphany: what if I started the rides from my house? I would not have to drive anywhere, and I or my wife or one of my 4 kids would be home when people finished. So I became the ride coordinator in Austin with one caveat, I was only allowed to organized one 200k and one 300k ride since it was my first year, but at least I cut the number of traveling trips in half.
With that problem solved, I had to solve the problem of finding someone to ride with. The most obvious person to pick was a close friend of mine, Jonathan Berk. Jonathan and I have ridden many long rides together. Earlier in 2006 we rode two 200 hundred mile rides together and had a great time. Jonathan is a fascinating person that always has a unique view on things. I mentioned PBP to Jonathan, but clearly he had no interest in such an undertaking. Coincidentally, I went to Jonathan’s daughter batmitzfa in August of 2006, just about the time I had become the ride coordinator for Austin. At the reception I sat a table with a College friend of Jonathan’s, Jason Robertson. It turned out that Jason biked as well and mentioned that he would be coming to Austin in September and that Jonathan would be there also. When September came around, Jonathan, Jason and myself did a 30 mile ride in Austin. It was during this ride that I mentioned to Jason that I was planning on doing PBP.
Jason, unbeknownst to me became interested in giving it a try. In March he decided to ride the first qualifier. What was especially remarkable about this, it that it was the first time he had ridden over 100 miles. When Jonathan found out that Jason was doing the qualifying rides, he called me and said he was in. He had a few conditions though. The first was that we start in the morning; there are multiple start times one can sign up for in the event, most people chose the 10pm start because it gives riders the most time to finish the ride (90 hours). His next condition was that we stay in a hotel every night instead of at the rest stops (called controls), where many people sleep in cots, or on the floor. I was fine with these and so was Jason. I had solved both my problems.
With his mind made up, Jonathan went to work finding hotels. We had some back and forth on how many miles to ride each day. Jonathan successfully found hotels and came up with the following plan: Day 1 – ride 243 miles, Day 2 – Ride 210 miles (to Brest and back), day 3 ride 205 miles and day 4 ride 105 miles. This plan looked really good to me. Now all I had to do was to qualify.
When I organized my rides, some friends of mine, Alain Nimri and Dave Hargis volunteered to man a rest stop. While it was a miserable day, Alain, Dave and a friend of Alain’s, Mark, seemed to have a good time helping the riders.
When I mentioned to Alain our plan for PBP he asked if he could help. I suggested he could support us on the ride, and his eye lit up. What it means to support someone on this ride is that they meet the riders at the controls with food and clothes. The advantage of this is that the long lines at the controls for food are avoided (they can take up to 1 hour just to get food). The other advantage is that riders can grab clean clothes and only care the clothes they need to the next control. Jonathan loved the idea of a support vehicle. This was going to be a PBP done in style.
Everything was now set. Alain was busy reading everything he could on PBP, finding out the rules for SAG vehicles, drawing his route from control to control (SAG vehicles are not allowed on the course during the ride).
Since there were 3 of us riding, we realized we could add a 4th. A number of people we very impressed with the plan Jonathan had devised. He had gotten hotels at the right distances and close to the course. It just so happens that someone I met on the 600k also really liked our plan so I invited him to join us and we were 4. Clay also had the advantage that his wife and her sister would be supporting him on the ride.
Coming to Paris
In the weeks leading up to the event, Jonathan was communicating regularly and making sure we had taken care of every contingency. He suggested
that I take and extra set of wheels and he was going to take an extra bike. Because we had Mark and Alain going, we could take more stuff, and
Jonathan wanted to make sure we capitalized on that.
Jonathan, the coinsurer of comfort, felt that flying Business class would enable him to take an all night flight from San Francisco, get a full nights’ sleep on the plane, and arrive in Paris rested and ready to go. The only problem was that there were not any frequent flyer business class tickets available to Paris, so he got one to London. Then he bought a cheap British Airways ticked to Paris. He was very proud of his plan.
Jason, Jonathan, Alain, Mark and I arrived in Paris on Saturday. Jonathan was the last to arrive. He arrived without his luggage. Initially he was not worried. It would most likely be delivered to the hotel in the morning. This was the beginning of an ordeal that would take years off of all of our lives.
Sunday we all went to the bike inspection/rider check-in – Jonathan without his bike. On our way out of the hotel, the woman behind the desk said that she called British Airways, and that Jonathan’s bike was at the Paris airport and would be delivered today. Confident that the missing bike problem was solved, we headed to St. Quentin. It had been raining all day Sunday so when we got there, the bike inspection was cancelled. The rider check-in was still happening. There were 5600 riders signed up for the event. The check-in was held in a gymnasium, with a circle of tables set up in the middle for riders to check-in and vendors along the walls hawking their cycling wares. There were people from all over the world who there to check in. It was great place to people watch. Alain, the consummate photographer, was running around taking pictures everywhere; a theme that would continue throughout the trip.
After the check in, we arranged to meet up with Clay for lunch. At the restaurant, we would plan how we would handle the support logistics, go over the riding plan and work out any last minute details. We had a great lunch, everyone was in high spirits. Clay’s wife and Alain and Mark were comparing notes on their SAG plans. Alain had put together a notebook of maps, information for the hotels on the course, and the daily mileage with estimate arrival times and sleeping times. We discussed whether our plan was realistic at lunch. The plan was to have a full sit down dinner every night and get at least 5 hours sleep a night. A big issue on the ride was that the rules required that riders get to the controls by a certain time. So, by arriving ahead of the required times at consecutive controls, it is possible to get far enough ahead of the closing times to stop and sleep. Alain gave a notebook to Clay’s wife so that she could coordinate with Alain and Mark. We also worked out a meeting point for the next day.
When we got back to the hotel, Jonathan’s bike still had not arrived. We ate dinner and went to bed. I woke up the next morning to Jonathan in a frenzy. He was telling anyone who would listen that he needed his bike. All concerns for the cost of international calls were gone. He was laser focused on finding his bike. He called his wife, Rebecca, imploring her to make calls to help him. He was completely unaware that it was 1am in California and that he had woken her up. I was sympathetic to Jonathan. He had worked so hard, planned for every contingency, sent two bikes, only to have it all crumble at the last minute. It seemed so unfair. To make matters worse, the airlines were no help. They clearly had no idea where his bags were. Jonathan finally resolved to go to the airport and see if his luggage was there. Alain and Mark picked up the rental van and took a ranting Jonathan to the airport. We all thought it ironic that the man who brought 2 bikes, had none. His quest for business class came at a huge cost.
Upon arriving at the airport Jonathan immediately located his back up bicycle but his main bike was still in London. Jonathan’s highly animated monolog to people, who only spoke French, was not getting anywhere. Alain, recognizing Jonathan’s strained state, stepped in and calmed Jonathan down. Jonathan, realizing that his methods were ineffective, collected himself and used the subdued approach to talk the woman at the airport and explain the importance of getting his other bike. His charms were successful and the woman was able to work wonders and by the evening we were all in Saint Quentin, with bikes. This was just one of many times Alain would come to our rescue.
The hotel in Saint Quentin was an ETAP, a European hotel chain owned by Motel 6. It was a marvel of modern business. It was a completely automated hotel. Guests check in by punching their confirmation number into a machine in the foyer. The machine then spits out a piece of paper with a special code that can be used to enter the lobby and to enter your room. I loved the hotel for its minimalist yet sufficient comfort.
The Start - Day 1
At the starting area we tried to find Clay, but the spot we designated was roped off, so we picked a spot near and waited. There were about 700 people so it was hard to find any one person. While I was looking for Clay, Jonathan noticed that something was wrong with his front wheel. He needed a new one. Just as we realized this, the riders started moving. We called Alain and Mark, woke them up, and arranged a spot to meet to get the wheel. It looked like we were going to be the last riders to start; it would be the second time this had happened to me. Alain showed up and we put the new wheel on (it turned out Jonathan’s strategy to carry a lot of extra equipment paid off). It was just like one of those flat changes at the Tour de France and we were off.
As we went back to where the start was, it was clear that the ride had not yet begun, the organizers were merely moving the riders up to the starting line. We got moving at about 5:15am. Initially the riding was great. Because of our start time, we did not have the streets lined with people cheering us on as in 2003, but there were still a few people out. There is nothing more exhilarating then riding with an international group through the streets of France. The fact that there is 1200km to go to the finish on adds to the mood.
Riding was going well for the first few hours until the rain started. I remember thinking that I was not having any fun; riding sleep deprived in the rain with 1200km to go. This was the closest I would come to quitting the whole time. As we came to the first control, we realized the first flaw in our plan; it was hard for Alain and Mark to find the controls. We called Alain to find him searching for the control. So we ate at the control, after we had finished, Alain, Mark and the van arrived. We were wet and cold and looking for dry clothes. The situation was a bit stressful because Alain and Mark were not quite sure what to do and still a bit flustered from not being able to find the control. Even with the chaos, we were able to get changed and get going. It was clear we would need a better system. We decided that Alain would text message me with their location before we got to each control.
As we headed to the next control, the weather cleared a bit, and we met various riders. We were doing a good job of keep the pace low, but even so, we were moving faster then most of the riders. As we come upon riders we would chat about where they were from, etc.(if they spoke English). It was on this stretch that we met Peter. Peter lived in the states but he was from Holland originally. He was very pleasant and told some good stories.
As we came to the next control, Alain and Mark flagged us down as we were passing the van. This time they had a spread of food with sandwiches ready to go, fruit, pretzels, nuts, etc. This was very efficient. This was when I realized how great having our own SAG vehicle was going to be.
When riding a long time on the bike, a big concern is saddle sores. These are pimple-like things that develop anywhere your bottom rubs against the saddle. There are various crèmes on the market that cyclists apply before getting saddle sores to prevent them from coming. It was at this control that Jonathan started looking for his “ass butter”. Both Mark and Alain were baffled, having no clue what he was talking about. Mostly what I remember about this stop is standing there, eating a sandwich and hearing someone with a British accent shouting “Where is my ass butter?” This scene would be replayed at each control for the next 4 days, getting funnier each time. By the end of the ride, Alain could do a perfect Jonathan imitation.
After a few minutes we left the van and headed to the actual control. It was here that the officials would stamp the rider’s card to prove they had been there. The control was in the town of Villaines and they were very proud to be a stop on PBP. They had big banners, a large arch and an announcer announcing riders as they entered, usually by making reference to something on the rider’s jersey. People were crowded around the control cheering riders on. One felt like a celebrity on the red carpet.
During the ride to the next control we met two riders Jason had done his brevets with in Ohio, Hal and Jeff. We chatted and rode with them on and off to the next control.
By the time we got to the next control, Foguers, Alain and Mark had a system and things were working well. We did not have to deal with the food lines at the controls and we could drop off or pick up clothes as needed. The weather would go from drizzle to cloudy to clear. The wind was a head or cross wind most of the way and, up until this point, Jason, Jonathan, and I were riding together, but not in any large groups to speak of.
As we were en-route to the next control, we came across Jeff again. At this point we had about 50 miles to go to the hotel. Jeff was riding alone; Hal had gone on ahead. Jeff joined our group and now we were back to 4. As we came to the hotel, Alain and Mark had everything prepared. All of our bags were in the rooms and there was dinner waiting. A nice salad topped with smoked salmon - very tasty. When Jeff saw the luxurious treatment he said “I think I have died and gone to heaven”. A far cry from waiting 45 minutes to get a cot in a gym set up by the ride organizers with 200 people snoring around you, the way most people do it. Jonathan’s plan was working nicely.
To Brest - Day 2
Jonathan suggested that we needed to find a pace line so that we could make up some time. A pace line, for the most part, is a bunch of riders riding in a group. Groups tend to go faster because there are more people to push the wind (wind resistance is the major factor in speed). We ended up in a pace line, but it reminded me of a pace line at the Tour de France where one by one riders drop off. First, Jason stopped to remove his rain jacket; we were going so fast there was no way he could catch up. Then Jeff, while switching gears, knocked his chain off the end of his gears, so he had to stop to put it on. Normally a 1 minute process, but in this case it was long enough that we wouldn’t see him again that day. We started a long climb and the pace was brutal. It was more like a short training ride. I hung on for the climb and so did Jonathan. When we got to the top and the decent started, the 3 people in front that were driving the pace kept hammering. It was at this point that I realized I needed to back off. I was going way too hard for too long., so I slowed to let them continue without me, knowing I would pay later for the effort I had just put out. Jonathan ended up stopping and waiting for me and we rode together to into Brest.
Brest is a port City, much bigger then the small hamlets we had been riding through on the way there. Brest is located on the Brittany Coast with spectacular views of the water. Riding through Brest was hilly, but no one really noticed it because of the excitement of reaching our destination.
The 4 of us regrouped in Brest around the “Where is my ass butter?” routine, and began our return to Paris. On the ride back to Carhaix we met Peter again. He told us that all the control closing times had been extended by 2 hours because of the weather. Knowing we were going to get in late which meant less sleep, Jonathan was ecstatic. This news meant we could sleep an extra hour tonight and still have plenty of buffer in the morning to make it to the next control (Loudeac).
Soon after we left Peter, I heard an infamous “ting” which meant I had broken a spoke on my front wheel. I quickly pulled out my spoke wrench, and trued the wheel as best I could and we moved on. Jonathan sent the text message “Wayne broker spoke please take front whell out of ritchey box and inflate this” to Alain and Mark. About 10 minutes later I heard another “ting”; this time it was my back wheel. Another quick check and we were off. Jonathan had just sent a second message “Now he needs rEar weheel too” when I got a flat tire.
As we were fixing the flat, a woman, seeing us on the side of the road as a good excuse to stop and rest, pulled up and began chatting as I fixed the tire. She had a very noticeable hole in the back of her shorts. This is much like someone you don’t know having some food stuck in their teeth. So I was not sure we should say anything. Jonathan, having had very little sleep little self control (much like when I get hungry) just blurted out “You have a hole in your shorts in a very noticeable place.” She claimed the shorts were new and could not understand it, although she had felt a draft, and always seemed to be leading the pace lines. We asked her if she was using any ointment to prevent saddle sores. She replied that she was using Laniseptic, a common product used to treat bed sores in hospitals. We pointed out that Laniseptic was petroleum based and dissolves lycra, the cause of the hole in her new pants.
The rest of the ride to Carhaix was uneventful. At Carhaix, we verified that the 2 hour extension was indeed true. I put 2 new wheels on my bike and we were off. Soon after leaving Carhaix, we ran into a group from Maryland. We started talking to them about where they were from and what they did. Among them were a husband and wife that were physicists. I asked them to explain relativity to me, figuring I would not have such an opportunity again. At about this time it started raining, not drizzling like before, but real hard rain. The conversation was lively and interesting so the rain went unnoticed until we were passing the town with our hotel. We thanked them for the ride and peeled off to look for our hotel. By now it was 1 am and, with no conversation, the rain was becoming an issue. We rode up and down the streets in search of the hotel, but with no success. We called Alain, wandering the streets trying to follow his directions. Finally we saw Mark waving a flashlight. By now it was 1:30, we had spent a half of an hour in the rain looking for the hotel. Cold and wet, we showered, changed and got another 4 hours sleep. At this point our tempers were short and demands on the SAG crew were increasing. Alain and Mark were getting less sleep then we were.
The Return - Day 3
I walked into the restaurant - it looked like a center for refugees. People were passed out all over the place. Those that were awake had a dazed and confused look about them. We sat down and ate next to some guys who were riding single speed bicycles. Riding 761 miles with 1 gear is a feat.
With no sign of Clay, we got going about 9:30am. About 25 miles outside of Loudeac we came upon a secret control. Secret controls are controls that are not listed on the route ahead of time. They are to insure that people do not cheat. At the secret control, Jeff and Jason wanted to stop for soup. Jonathan and I wanted to press on because it was going to be a long day and the late start meant getting much sleep time tonight would be difficult. It was last time we would see Jason and Jeff this day.
Riding along we came upon a French cyclist. He was from Paris and spoke a little English. Jonathan told him how much he enjoyed Paris. The subject of the beautiful women of Paris came up, and the cyclist said that the best thing about the women of Paris is that they were all available. For the rest of the trip anytime we saw a beautiful Parisian woman the joke was that she is available.
Jonathan and I were riding just after sunset and the rain started again. It had been raining on and off all day. The course became hilly and my lights were running out of power, so they were not very bright. Descending became treacherous to the point where I told Jonathan I was going to drop back and ride with someone with bright lights. Just as Jonathan and I slowed down, a man and a woman with great lights came up to us. We rode with them so that we could see. They were from Sweden. The woman, Christine, was studying to be a psychologist. Jonathan mentioned his wife was a psychologist, and that set off a conversation that would get us to the next control. At one point in the conversation, Jonathan asked Christine why she wanted to be a psychologist, and she said it would take a long time to explain. Jonathan quickly replied that the one thing we had plenty of was time. Christine was very worried about making the controls on time. Jonathan told her about the 2 hour extension at all the controls, but she was skeptical. When we got to the next control (Villaines), Jonathan went with Christine to ask the official about the 2 hour extension. This official said there were no extensions and that the original times held. The news was disconcerting to us both, but Jonathan took it especially hard, given his concern for sleep.
With this new information and 30 miles to go to the hotel we made a hasty retreat. Now after riding for as long as we had, our patience with each other was beginning to run thin. Jonathan had to know if the official at the control was right because he wanted more time to sleep. My take was we should assume the official was correct and not risk getting pulled from the course for missing a control on time. In the end, Jonathan begrudgingly agreed with me, although he cursed the French for most of the ride to the hotel.
The 30 miles to the hotel were not easy miles. Jonathan and I were constantly passing riders. The terrain was just hill after hill with no end in sight. And the hills were steeper then most of what we had encountered earlier. The mood was one of melancholy. Very little conversation and what conversation there was usually centered around how far it was to the next control.
It was on this stretch that we ran into a man we had met on the way to the check in on Sunday. He had a bike from the 1940’s. It had 2 gears, one for the flats and one for the hills. To ride the gear on the flats, he pedaled normally. To use the hill gear, he would pedal backwards. When we came upon him, he was climbing and pedaling backwards. It was the weirdest thing to watch. He has slept a total of 1 hour the whole ride. He was British and still in good spirits and had plenty of good stories to tell.
We arrived at the town where the hotel was at 1 am. After another 30 minutes of looking for the hotel, we finally found it. Realizing that we had to get going by 4:45am, we quickly showered and went to bed. When we got up, Jason and Jeff had just arrived at the hotel. With no time to sleep, they were just going to shower and start going again. The plan was to meet up at the next control. Apparently Jason had forgotten to eat and suffered for much of the last 30 miles. Uncertain he could finish, his attitude was more of “I’ll try my best”. Jeff was a great partner and stayed with Jason through this rough time.
The Finish - Day 4
Jeff decided to push on while we ate breakfast; we were now back to our original 3 riders. With Jason’s wheel repaired by the control bike mechanics, we started off for the last control before the finish. Along the way, Jason had to go the bathroom. We found a bathroom in a little park with a pond. It was a peaceful place, with a father and son fishing on the far shore of the pond. At this point I was out of Cliff bars (energy food) so I started to eat some dried apricots that I picked up at the previous control. The apricots worked wonders and we were at the next control by 11:30am. We had 42 miles to go and 5.5 hours to get there.
We left the final control riding with a group of other riders. As we started to climb a hill, one of the riders just fell down. There was no obvious cause, he probably just fell asleep. I was becoming wary of riding in a group. Everyone was tired and people were swerving all over the place. Just as I was thinking this, the guy next to me swerved right in front of me and I hit him. Neither of us went down, but his bicycle pump was jammed into his rear wheel. We pulled over and I was trying to help him when course officials pulled up. Out of no where, I suddenly had a strong urge to go to the bathroom. I quickly excused myself and looked for the nearest bar or restaurant. I ran into a nearby bar and made it just in time. As I was walking out of the bathroom, Jason and Jonathan noticed a plate of pate and asked if they could have 2 pate sandwiched. The bartender made the sandwiches and gave them to Jason and Jonathan free of charge.
We got back on the road and soon were in another group. Jonathan, at this point, was non-stop energy. He was talking to everyone he passed. He would ask where they were from and independent of what they said, he would say it was one of the greatest places in the world. He would always have a story about how he was born there or how it was next to the place he was married, etc. It was very impressive and a pleasure to watch. At one point, riding in a group, the person next to me, not knowing if I spoke English and not knowing Jonathan was with me, raised his hand and made a flapping motion, suggesting that Jonathan was non-stop chatter. I responded by saying that it made the time go faster and was much better then riding in silence. The person agreed.
Soon after this, a strange thing happened. I started to cry. I was uncontrollably blubbering with no explanation. The person next to me was trying to figure out what was going on. The sleep deprivation must have been taking its toll on me. The spell lasted about 10 minutes.
Within 30 minutes of our last stop, I had an incredible urge to the bathroom again. This pattern would continue for the rest of the ride. After I stopped this time, Jonathan was way ahead. I sprinted and caught up to Jason. This would be the way the ride ended. I stopped twice more before we finished, each time sprinting to get back to Jason. Jason called it “squirt and sprint” riding. Jason and I crossed the finish together at about 3:30 pm waiting another 30 minutes to check in at the final control.
All in all, we survived quite well. We each had numbness in our hands and Jason and I had numbness in a very private place. We were all sleepy and eager to get back to the hotel. The plan was to take the train to Paris and ride from the train station to the hotel. All three of us were falling asleep on the train. We got to Paris and had to ride our bikes through city traffic a mile or two. Riding in city traffic really wakes one up.
Finally back at the hotel, our ordeal was over. Usually, after these long, arduous rides, I never want to ride again. By the next day, Jonathan had already decided he was riding it again in 2011. He committed that he would be able to speak French fluently by then and had resolved himself to take a 1 year sabbatical and move to Paris. What is really impressive about Jonathan is his unending energy. He never seems to slow down. At the end when everyone was struggling, Jonathan was there with another great story. His moods are contagious and he always brought a smile to face of the riders around him. I have no doubt that he will be able to speak French in 2011.
Alain and Mark were tireless. With each control we became more demanding, but their spirits never waned. They were focused on the task of supporting us and did a top notch job. Each day they would add something special to the control. At one stop they had a freshly made salad. They were our photographer, dry cleaner, waiter, and bicycle mechanic all in one. They took pictures along the way and posted them on the internet for our friends and families. We could not have asked for a better SAG team.
The most inspiring part of the ride was Jason. He had not ridden his bike over 100 miles until March of this year, and he was able to finish the ride. He had a real low point, but did not give up, making the finish that much more satisfying.
For myself, I just could not stop thinking about how much my wife, Emily, would have enjoyed Paris. I had been away from Em and the kids for 10 days and I was ready to go home. I will probably be back in 2011.