Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Paris - Brest 2011 Adventure

Paris Brest Paris 2011 - The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

This new Randonneur has had quite the adventure at PBP 2011.

This was the greatest adventure of my life....the hardest thing I have ever done. The mental, physical and emotional endurance required reminded me of my Army boot camp days. I made it to 1050k of the 1230k distance (650 vs 750 miles) and quit when my seat beat my rear in their conflict. I could endure the pain no longer.... I DNFed, very sad and disappointed but had a great experience.

The Goal
Joining RUSA in Jan 2011, I heard about this 1200k PBP ride early in the year. That would be fun to try.... oh, it is only every 4 years, oh, it is August 2011...this year. Ummm. What is involved? Must qualify with 200, 300, 400 and 600k rides in 2011. I have never done more than 200k (125 miles) but lets try this thing out... wish is was in 2012 though.

Prep Work
Plan for the 4 qualifying rides starting in February and finished in May. Ok completed that... I can ride 600k.

Reading Long Distance Cycling, by Burke & Pavelka, and PBP 2011 Issue of American Randonneur - all sorts of info required for PBP: lights, bags, what to take, training, eating, drinking, sleeping, night riding.... I also drilled veteran randos with tons of rookie questions... they were all very helpful.

This was considered a high risk project...lots of things that could go wrong. Each area was critiqued and I tried to mitigate each one. My biggest concerns were... my longest ride was 600 and now I would be going 1200k and my stomach could be problematic.

Training - I could not fit in any longer than 600k rides, so based on Chet's advice I did a 100 to 125 miler each weekend for 8 weeks with a couple of back to back 200ks on Sat/Sunday. This really broke me down and near the end of training my legs were drained. However, the 3 weeks of taper worked wonders as the strength of 1200 miles came back just before PBP.

Gary got my bike in tip top shape and we packed it up ready for the trip.

Off to
Paris and St Quentin
The flight from RDU thru Boston to Paris leaves Wednesday afternoon and gets to Paris Thursday morning. There are lots of prayers the bike makes the connection when the first leg gets into Boston late. The first victory.... Robert and bike both make it to Paris in time... now lets look for Terminal 2E where bus/truck will take us to hotel in St Quentin.

Outside 2E dragging luggage/ bike and no sign of red bus. Go back into airport looking for 2E still can't find. Comes out other side, then 50 yards away see the red bus, cross thru barriers, get close to bus, then it's a movie scene: bus pulls away, Robert runs dragging bike/luggage, waving and shouting.... bus driver finally sees me and stops.... I catch up and notice bus is full of Asian ladies.... not Rando's. Sweaty Robert apologizes to driver and realizes the adventure has already started. Still lost at airport... not a good sign. Back into airport and trying to find correct exit....finally someone sees guy with bike and desperate look then points.... others with bikes are over there. Finally, finally there is bus. Get on and see Jerry's familiar face. What a welcomed sight!

Bike Party
Now at the hotel and its time to put bikes together. There are about 8 to 10 people outside the hotel on grass/parking lot in various stages of putting bikes together. What fun! Where are you from? Mostly Americans. Great socializing, laughing, no pressure, calm before the storm.... everyone helping others as needed. Guys are using bike pumps, struggling to get to 100 psi breaking into a sweat. Test riding their bikes, putting on lights, bags, adjusting seats, etc. Lawrence from Munich comes up to me and asks if I would like to use his floor pump.... great timing, absolutely.... just leave it in the bike room. I pump up my tires and do not get sweaty. Then notice I am the king for the moment..... all eyes are upon me....can I use that next? can I use that next? The floor pump is enjoyed by all!

The bike room.

Test drive the start of the course
On Friday a group of US riders, 100 to 150 leave Hotel Campanile and plan to ride about 20 miles out then back on the course, loosen up legs and test drive newly put together bikes. What fun...meet people for all over US. Seems like 10 miles then we are in the country, lovely scenery. After 20 miles the leaders keep going.... that is enough for Robert and I turn back.... still a long line of riders going out. I ride about 3 miles to the first round about and not knowing the route stop, chill out and wait for the returning peloton. I am sitting by the side of the road, eating, drinking, enjoying people watching ....when a car pulls up next to me.... I give a big smile and my best Bonjour! Bonjour Monsieur, (then a lot of fast French)... and I respond" je ne sais pas, I am an American" We both smile, laugh and shake our heads.... he drives off looking to find directions. I feel proud to blend in and be mistaken as a local.... here comes peloton... back on bike for return trip to hotel.... the adventure has definitely started.

Lunch prior to start of ride. Starting on left, Robert, Branson, Jerry and Shay.

Palace of Versailles

After the group ride, a bunch of us have lunch at an outdoor restaurant, then Jerry, Branson and I ride about 5k over to the Palace of Versailles. We have a great bike tour of the grounds... enormous and gorgeous. On the way back we stop at a local bike shop for a couple of minor adjustments. The owner has a bike lift to transport bikes from the main floor up one floor to his shop.... very cool.
Palace of Versailles

Robert with the lake and palace in the back ground

The Bike Inspection at 930 am Sat
The French like their rules and their enforcement of them. My inspection is 930 am and it takes about 10 minutes to ride to the start / inspection / package pickup location. I go to bike room about 915, dig out my bike and for some reason squeeze both tires.... oh, no I have a flat. I am going to miss my official inspection time.... they will not let me ride PBP....crap. So, I change the tube as fast as possible, pedal like a demon and get to the inspection station late.... fortunately they are in a good mood and do not check my time..... bike passes and sent in to pick up packet with number, chip, etc. Chet told me that Murphy always hangs around Randonneuring events... getting a flat prior to going to the inspection.... not a good sign.

Robert at the start

My view of the start

The Big Ride

PBP ride itself was the greatest of adventures. From the companionship of the riders and the support of the local French residents to the beautiful countryside and the mental, physical and emotion stress endured by 5 days of continuous riding. A true test of oneself. The ride was divided into segments of riding with 20 or so riders (Seattle group), smaller groups (Lancaster 3 riders, Brittney 5 riders, Denmark 2 riders) and solo. There were easy times and the tough times. The hills in some sections were brutal. Fortunately, I am light and was well prepared for them as I normally was passing those around me. One night going thru forested hills in the rain was especially scary as the small road had no lines and the grass on both sides was the same level. I had a hard time distinguishing where the road was on the steep down hills. The next morning when the sun came up, the mist was so thick that I had to wipe my glasses about every 20 -30 seconds and this lasted for hours.

A view of the French country side

The locals had tables set for us with food and water and they were like an oasis in the sun. Some spoke a little English. They realized we were under the gun to continue and we both enjoyed the few moments we spent together. I did splurge at one village Saint-Martin de Pres. It was late at night and I needed a mental break. The village was having a party for us. In front of the local pub was a tent with outdoor kitchen, tables and even a DJ with music blasting. I stopped and had a local favorite buckwheat crepe and talked with the locals. Great time and pics.

Stopping along the route

Robert at Saint-Martin de Pres

Petite crash

The control areas are hectic with sleep deprived riders trying to optimize their time with required activities of getting card stamped, eating, stocking up for next leg, restroom, and maybe sleeping. As I pulled into a control on the second night an organizer guided me in to the main bike parking area, however neither of us saw another rider cutting thru the area and I ran into him. Down I went on my left side. Two workers rushed to pick me up. I shook my head, said I was ok and proceeded into the control. A couple of hours into the next leg I noticed stiffness in my left arm and leg. Later I noticed the left side of my bike was off and I was compensating. My shoe was rubbing on each turn of the crank and my seat was off. At the next control I explained the damage and left the mechanic to fix it while I was eating. I was lucky it was not serious.

Spoon in Mouth
I think I was in Brest. The food line was relatively long and when I got my turn I picked up too much food - mashed potatoes, some kind of meat, soup, carrot salad, another salad, fruit cocktail and a coke. I saw Ian and welcomed his friendly face sitting across from him. As I parked my rear, I realized I was fatigued, needed sleep, just dropped bike off at mechanic and when I looked at all that food, my stomach turned..... not in mood to eat. I sat there not moving, hearing 2 or 3 conversations in different languages around me and gazing off. Finally I muttered...I am not hungry. Apparently Ian had picked up on this. He looked me straight in the eye and said slowly "Put your spoon in your mouth" Still eyes to eyes, no blinking, I did not flinch and stared back. Ian knew I heard him and that it still did not sink in. He repeated the same words at the same speed "Put your spoon in your mouth". After a continued pause, finally I understood... OK time to eat. The mashed potatoes and fruit cocktail tasted ok while everything else was a struggle. Ian, I did not tell you I appreciated this, but a big Thank You for that help!

The Quiet Italian

Leaving Villaines-la-Juhel the last night after a 30 minute nap there seemed to be no one around me. Off I go with the same pain I had coming into the control. No miracles had occurred. After about 25k I am climbing a hill and see lights coming up from the valley on the other side. As I crest the hill and start down I am riding directly into high beams...not able to see and it being a steep down slope, I slam on the brakes stopping in time not to run into the vehicle. I am waved around the vehicle and told all is ok. As I continue I see on my right a man with a beard laying in the road with his head laying down hill and covered to his neck with a blanket. He looked very peaceful, but something was not right. 50 meters down the hill, I see his bike in the ditch with its lights on. Then it hit me.... no one was attending him....very sad. Later I found out he was from Italy.

The Wolf and the Toilet
After seeing the Quiet Italian I was shook and figured to avoid his same demise I would stop and take a short nap. It looked like a deserted house in the middle of fields. Stopping and pulling out my bivvy bag as it was cold, I climbed into the bag and laid on the ground. As I started to sleep, I heard this unique sound like a long howl.....not believing my ears, I sat up and heard it again. It was real. I did not want the Wolf to eat me in a field in the middle of France. I got back on the bike, the pain was still there and pedaled to the next village looking for someplace safe. Public toilettes...yes, that might work. Luckily for me it was open and the tile floor was very soft. Before I closed my eyes I put my feet to the door as I noticed it opened both ways. I did not want the Wolf to come in.

The Pain and Agony of Defeat
When the struggle between my rear and my seat started I am not sure. It turned from uncomfortable to unbearable pain as the miles turned from 200 to 400 to 600 miles. I tried to minimize the pain by changing seat positions and leaning the bike to one side. Since having good shorts and tested seat, I did not think this would be a problem however with many hours in the rain and Murphy around it proved to be my downfall.

My speed deteriorated and breaks were more frequent as the pain increased. I realized I was making noises out loud as I sat or tried to stand.....very embarrassing but I could not hold it in. I fought to solder on as I represented NC and USA plus I had told many of my friends and work team members who were following my progress.

I stopped at a restaurant for food and requested croissants and coffee noticing a car parked with 2 bikes on top. Two men came over to my table and we chatted... them in Russian and me in English. They had to quit the day before due to knee problems and one's wife had picked them up. It was great to have someone to talk to. After stuffing down my food and coffee, saying good bye to the Russians I set out again.

I went another 20 to 30k then realized I could not continue. I stopped by the side of the road in the middle of the country side and had a discussion with myself. The outcome did not change.... I could not figure out how to continue.... yes I was ready to quit, DNF, abandon the PBP. The decision was made, get over the disappointment....now what in the world was I to do?

This was taken at the place I ended my PBP ride. Very appropriate.... fields of sunflowers.... death ones.

My Heros

Walking my bike, I waved at any car that was bigger than a VW. That did not work. Then over the hill I see a car with 2 bikes on top......I just stare.... they slowed down and stopped. It is the Russian family I had talked to in the last village. They came to rescue me. They all jumped out....one was looking at a map for the nearest train station, one was removing a bike and loading mine on the roof, one was giving me an orange and putting me in the car. They left one bike, the Grandfather and their daughter on the side of the road as they drove me 17k to the nearest city with a train. I was overwhelmed by their attitude and assistance.

When we arrived at the train station Denis brought my bike in and his wife took me by the arm into the station and would not leave until I had a solid plan to get me back to the start. I got their address and after hugs I walked to the train very dejected but very, very fortunate.

I arrived at Versailles about 3 hours later and lucky for me I knew the way back due to our pre ride tour. I walked my bike thru the town to the outskirts and then mounted for the 5 k back to the start.

With head down I entered the control and turned in my card. Abandoned was written in as the time. I had covered 1050 of 1200k (650 of 750 miles). DNFed...hard to stomach. A trip to the Doctor was next... I realized I was a broken man when the French Dr and Assistant were looking at my bare ass and I was jumping as he felt my problem area.

My card stamped from Paris to Brest

My return route with controls missing

I did think to look at the professional photos that were taken on the ride. Retrieving my bike I slowly headed out the gate for my last PBP activity. Then a smile came to my face, my world just changed.... how could this be? My Russian friends were waiting outside the gate just to ensure I made it back. What love! I was overwhelmed again...how can people from a different country that did not know I existed yesterday go out of their way to help me? Tears and hugs and thank goodness I thought of taking pictures of my Heros. What a beautiful ending to a painful and disappointing adventure!

My Russian heros

Potential updates:
The tractor and the french rider
Attacking the Orange in public
Post PBP stress syndrome

The Good
- all my friends pre ride support, the French people providing encouragement, food and drink, my Russian Heros and the PBP Adventure
The Bad - the physical pain, disappointment of DNF and the death of PBP riders
and the Ugly - what the French Doctor saw

Robert Bergeron Sep 5, 2011


  1. Robert,
    Keep the installments coming ... very interesting.

    - Bob

  2. Robert -

    your post / story made me smile, it made me laugh, it made me want to cry.

    I'm going to see if I can do some "magic", and force this to be the most recent post.


  3. Robert,

    1000K with a serious case of diaper rash (or was it hamburger butt?), is nothing to sneeze at (actually sneezing probably hurt too much).


  4. Awesome account of an epic ride! Great job on the ride and the writing!


  5. Ro-ber(silent t),
    Congratulations on this significant accomplishment. In my humble opinion, no need to be bummed by not finishing. Just starting something like this is a lot to be proud of.
    p.s. having trouble with my blogger id so have to go with the anomo method.

  6. Proud to have ridden with you on P-B-P, Robert.

  7. Amazing ride, Robert, congratulations. It was great to meet you in France! Gary and I kept tracking you when we got back to Paris to see how things were going for you. Sorry that you had to abandon, you did such an amazing ride. Wasn't it an incredible experience??!! I am wondering whether the younger Russian gentleman of your heros may be the Russian rider that Gary, Chloe, and I helped out Sunday night/Monday early a.m. He had a flat and his pump was broken, so we pulled over to help him with one of ours. It was dark, and we were all wearing helmets, but when I saw your photo it reminded me of him.

  8. An experience of a lifetime. We are proud of all you accomplished and admire what it took to get you there and what it took while you were there. There are forces in nature that cause all sorts of things and likely for a very good reason. We are so happy you are home safe and so happy you are our friend. BRAVO!

  9. Btw, Robert, I assumed the "soft tile floor" reference was specifically for / to me -- or at least you knew I would understand and appreciate the comment (tying to our May 600 Currie post office lobby comfortable "beds"). I think that none of the "Irregulars" understand ... but many randos will / do. I meant to tell you this the first time you told that anecdote ... but you were on a roll ... so I never got the words out.

    As you know, I've heard you tell that anecdote to several new audiences ... each time I wanted to tell you the above ... but each new audience has been as enthralled as I was that first time ... and it was not appropriate to interrupt.

    Borrowing a phrase from Dean (with some modification): Let's ride soon.


  10. Robert, Great job. We are proud of you. I was eating with you in Brest but wolfed my food down as I was looking for Mike and Jimmy and Jerry. Ian must have replaced me at the table. I can't believe we were all that close together after 600k. That is freaky! Anyway I have 4 words of advice for you, Lan-ti-sep-tic!!! It is God's gift to Randos everywhere. Hope to see you back for your successful completion in 2015. It should be a blast. Cap'n