Paris-Brest-Paris at the lead, unsupported

Copyright Henry Kingman, 2000

This story was written on March 1, 2000 for publication in the Rusa Journal.

At the beginning, Paris-Brest et Retour was conceived as an epreuve of independent long-distance bicycle travel. In his pseudonymous letters to the editor proposing the event, Jean sans Terre -- really Petit Journal editor Pierre Giffard -- wrote of self-sufficient riders carrying their own food and clothing. From the beginning, however, few if any of the most athletic riders felt as compelled to prove the merits of the bicycle as they did to prove themselves under the pretext of proving their sponsors' equipment. Giffard, too, ultimately subjugated this original stated goal to the over-arching goal of promoting his newspaper. Thus, the event has been lessened by on-course support and, probably starting with the 1901 edition, the encroachment of stinky motor vehicles in what is supposed to be a bicyling event.

From the sentence above, you may have surmised that I am no fan of the automobile. Surely none in this era can look upon "progress" as a completely unmitigated blessing, but I think bicyclists in particular are pushed toward ambivalence. Beneficiaries on the one hand of perhaps the most elegant artifact the industrial revolution has yet produced, we are left on the other to put that artifact to use in an atmosphere made increasingly hostile by industrial proliferation.

If you ask me, cars suck. They are killing us three different ways. The source of more than 50 percent of all air pollution and greenhouse gasses, cars also rob us of a physicality that ought to be our birthright as undomesticated animals. If that were not enough, cars are the single biggest killer of Americans in their prime, snuffing out more U.S. citizens each year in auto accidents (45,000) than died in military service in the entire 20th century.

Yet, despite these obvious evils, cars are as much a part of most cyclists lives as are their very bicycles. Can you imagine? The cognitive discord is staggering.

At the front, PBP itself is choked with illegal support vehicles and infested with rude, aggressive "support" people who drive from controle to controle. During each edition, riders are run down by cars. And all of that seems to seem just fine and proper to most everyone. Well, there is probably no point in just preaching against it. People are more addicted to the comforts of their cars than to any drug. But I, for one, would never ask someone to drive a car just so I could go for a bike ride.

In real professional road races, granted, cars are one thing. Without cars, employers and managers would be hard-pressed to communicate their instructions to their employees.

But if, as the ACP claims, PBP is not a race, then it is supposed to be an amateur athletic event. From the origins of the Olympics in ancient Greece, amateur sports were meant as an idealized social microcosm in which the highest ideals and capabilities of humans could be demonstrated for public appreciation. Surely cars can play little part in expressing the highest ideals and capabilities of a long-distance bicyclist.

Okay, sermon out of the way, I'll tell my story of riding the 1999 PBP as the first unsupported male rider. (The first unsupported female was also the first female, Melinda Lyon, who finished in ____).

I finished PBP in 49 hours 35 minutes as the 42nd finisher. I'll discuss my history, preparation and experience in France.

I have a long history of doing crazy long races. From the Race Across Australia to Iditabike to the Leadville 100, I've done many of the more interesting marathon challenges. However, I've been pretty inactive for the last couple of years. Working for a will do that to you.

My training goal centered around specificity. I didn't have time to put in the big miles, so I just tried to ride each brevet as well as I could. I rode seven brevets in all, including three 600k's and a millennium, a 1,000km. I ate regular food, but always tried to stay with the leaders or at least close. I rode a Bridgestone X0-1 with Continental Town and Country tires. These $22 tires are some of the heaviest tires you can get. My pair was two years old before the brevets and they're still going strong.

I also tried to catch the Tuesday Polo Fields training crit in Golden Gate Park. Sitting in with the big heavy wheels was difficult at first, but after half a dozen races I could hang pretty well and even make some of the breaks. With those heavy tires the sprints were pretty much off-limits, however. Doing some high-quality speed work is the most important thing when training for an ultra-endurance race, in my opinion.

As the event approached, I decided I wanted to ride a regular road bike in PBP. When you are doing a group ride, it is just better to have the same equipment as everyone else.

I called Grant Petersen and ordered a Rivendell Long Low. It arrived a couple of days before I left for France. With the help of a friend, I put it together, paying a lot of attention to getting the fit just right. I had three different stems on there before settling on one. Once it was dialed, a went for a very fast solo ride, bonked after 40 miles, bought $28 worth of groceries and ate them all. The bike was a dream.

I arrived in Paris just as the eclipse was peaking. An acquaintance recognized me in baggage claim and offered to let me stay with her in the penthouse she had just leased for three months in the tenth. What luck!

On the downside, my panniers were stolen when I emerged from the Metro stop on the way from the airport. I had set down my bike box and bags for just a second to walk around the corner and check a street sign. I felt pretty stupid.

I had planned to pre-ride the entire course, but this unexpected turn of events meant a change in plans. I spent three days sprinting madly around Paris replacing everything I would need for the tour and race. Paris has many wonderful bike shops, and sprinting around amidst the leaded gas fumes and Galouise smoke was one of the highlights of the trip. I'm not kidding about that!

Three months before the PBP, I had switched to reading books set in Paris. I hung a Michelin map on the wall and checked all references to landmarks. Thus, when I arrived in Paris, I had the lay of the land and could often ride to a specific destination without having to check the map! I visited many literary landmarks, too, such as the Cafe Wepler.

Finally I had replaced the most important items, so I decided to take the train to Brest and ride the return leg of the course. In order to take the TGV, I needed a bike bag, so I fabricated one out of a giant piece of plastic that I took from a trash bin in a carpet warehouse.

Touring the course was among the highlights of the trip. During the PBP there is really not enough time to appreciate the splendid skies and ancient villages of Bretagne. My goal was to ramp up my metabolism while letting my legs recover from all the sprinting I had done. It was difficult to go slow, however. The bike seemed to have wings.

The first day I rode to Loudeac, a wonderful farm town full of warm and generous souls. Then it was on to Fougeres, a snooty over-touristed town with an incredible medieval chateau with much of the wall intact. Then I rode to Villaine La Juhel and spent a day resting there. At each of these places, the overarching goal was to spend more on dinner than on a bed. It was easily accomplished. Usually I ate at the hotel, dining on vegetables from a garden out back, on local seafood, and on the most wonderful variety of cheeses and wines. This is living!

Three days before PBP I rode 180 miles from Villaines La Juhel into Paris. I wanted to stop for the night, but couldn't find a hotel until I had ridden all the way back into Paris.

Then, the next night, I met an interesting woman and ended up staying awake all night again. Suddenly, PBP was one day away and I was tired and had a sore throat!

On the upside, I returned to the penthouse to find my luggage had been recovered! Someone had found the PBP papers and returned everything to ACP administrator Yanni Varouchaf. Yanni then called Jennifer Wise, who called San Francisco Brevet series co-conspirator Darryl Skrabak's wife, who called Darryl, who called the woman I was staying with.... and I got everything back except one green wool Swobo jersey!

Most of all, I was glad to get back my PBP number -- 593 -- which as a prime seemed full of good luck. Also of great importance were the 24 packages of GU, without which I couldn't have ridden in the lead pack for so long.

At the bike check, another piece of good luck: I overhead an administrator say in French that the gates to the staging area would open at 6:30. The info was good enough to get me into the first row for the start.

The pace, initially, was not nearly as fast as I expected. Everyone was considerably below cruising speed for the first 100 miles. Well, everyone decent, anyway. There were a ton of really rather bad riders out there huffing and puffing and riding as if it were a regular road race. You wanted to tell them, look, just give it up. There aren't going to be any breaks at this stage, and you aren't going to ride yourself into shape at this point. I heard four crashes, all behind me. I regretted opting for a cap instead of a helmet.

Early on, there was a mix-up over the route. It was the first of many. The most significant detour happened just after the Tintineac check. The lead group was directed off course, possibly by a fake official vehicle. I was just off the lead, because I had had to stop and buy water (remember, I had no support). Riding the correct course in total time trial mode, thinking I was a few minutes behind the lead group, I eventually gave up after about an hour. At this point, there was another unsupported rider with me, a really skinny Dutch guy. Passing a boulangerie, we decided to give it up and stop for baguette when, to our surprise, the big group overtook us! I jumped back on. Unfortunately, a group of twenty or thirty Frenchies had gone the right way all along and were now fifteen minutes up the road. Doubly unfortunately, we didn't discover the situation until the next controle, by which time they had built a significant lead.

Riding with Scott Dickson was a thrill, especially when he neutralized a break just before Loudeac. He had watched a half dozen riders sneak off the front one by one, and finally he decided to go after them. Instead of just chasing by himself, he riled up the group with a series of jumps, up-ping the pace and getting a lot of other riders to take strong pulls, including Daryn Dodge and ______ _________ of the Davis Bike Club.

Finally, at Loudeac, I had run out of GU and had to stop to buy some food. Thus ended my chances of finishing first without support.

As long as the only thing you need to buy is water, an unsupported rider can negotiate the controles and stay with the lead pack. Here is what you have to do. You have to be one of the very first riders into the controle or you will not have a chance. Then you have to go through and get your book stamped and card swiped. Next you have to discover where water is being sold. It may be some distance away from the stamp line. You have to have exact change for the water because there will probably not be anyone at the cash register yet. Leading riders are not expected to be buying anything. Then you have to fill your CamelBak, get your bike and chase back on. The other riders will have swiped their cards and been handed a musette bag and fresh bottles and have a head start of a minute or two. Your challenge will double on the way back, since you'll have to cut the line in front of a bunch of outbound zombies in order to get your water.

To subsist from GU alone, you have to eat between two and three packs an hour. If you want to finish PBP in 44 hours, at the lead, you'll need at least 100 packages of GU. As a relatively experienced ultramarathon rider, I have found nothing as effective as a diet of pure GU. It is expensive, but it works, without question. Obviously, the 24 packs I took was not nearly enough. Had I truly realized it was possible to be competitive without support I would have taken more GU and possibly been able to make a more serious effort at a good finish. Well, I would have needed more training, too.

From Loudeac, I rode much of the rest of the course alone. Robert Grunze rode with me for a while from Loudeac to Brest. Then I picked up with a group of French riders with top 20 finishes from the previous event.

One high-point came when I was passed by Bob Fourney in the Lightning HPV. Lightnings are hard to draft, but it is possible if you really hunker down. I rode with Bob for a couple of hours, buoyed by his usual array of jokes and stories. I hadn't seen Bob since we rode the second half of Iditabike together in 1994, and it was good to catch up a little. Eventually, I shorted out my light bulb and had let Bob go while making repairs.

I used a Schmidt's Original Nabendynamo, a wonderful device that is a big advantage over any other kind of lighting system. They are quite expensive, but are more than satisfactory in every other regard. The short was a product of my sloppy soldering, not any fault of the Schmidt's. The Schmidt's offered ample light for riding alone at night. I never got lost, though several times I did circle back to verify the course. You can't afford to take chances.

The run-in from Villaines La Juhel was quite hot, with temperatures of 38C and a slight tail wind that made the short steep hills hellish. Rolling into the last check, I found myself nearly unable to walk. My sore throat had also worked its way into my lungs, and I couldn't really talk, either. Fortunately, riding the bike was still relatively easy. Someone at the controle bought me a 1.5-liter bottle of citrus soda, which I drank nearly in one continuous gulp, Pele-style. Then it was back on the bike and on home. I finished in a group of five, including Robert Grunze, who joined us just near the end.

After the finish, I started to experience the signs of sleep deprivation. I had ridden without any sleep. I estimate I spent about an hour and half off the bike, but of course this time was the busiest as I was scarfing down food and buying supplies during this time.

I became disoriented riding from the finish to the RER station. It was about midnight. Then I took a taxi from the train station to the penthouse, where I slept for a long time.

A couple of days later, I went back out to San Quentin for the awards ceremony. I was disappointed but not surprised that no mention was made of the first unsupported rider. Yanni Varouchaf did tell me that I was the first that year by maybe 10 hours or something, and that my time was definitely a record for an unsupported finisher. I'd be surprised if that were true, however.

Scott Dickson wrote in the 1991 PBP Journal that, "It is necessary to have a support vehicle in order to finish in less than 50 hours." My experience shows that not only is this not true, it is certainly possible to win a race as short as PBP without any support whatsoever. With only minimal preparation and unfortunate mishaps in planning and execution, I was able to come reasonably close to the front. I have enough ultramarathon experience to see what is possible, and someone like John Stamstad, in his best years and maybe still, would mop up the field in PBP. He'd pass them when they stopped at their support cars for special sponge baths and short creme applications.

I hope other fast riders will take note and, when making the choice whether or not to put a stinky car out there, consider the amateur nature of PBP and the supposedly independent spirit of randonneuring. Face it, the days when PBP was an important race for professionals are over. It's just us wankers now.

PBP is clearly on the verge of a crisis in organization. The 1999 year saw several huge mistakes, including unclear route markings that unfortunately went a long way toward deciding the race since they kept three-time winner Scott Dickson out of contention. The 1999 course also worked out closer to 780 miles than the 757 it ought to be. The organizers need to make some changes in order to keep the event manageable for the growing number of participants.

Some have suggested that the ACP hire a professional event management team instead of the essentially all-volunteer effort they currently muster. But the first change I'd like to see is the institution of neutral support and the disallowance of support vehicles of all kinds. Only then can PBP be a truly sporting event in which all have a fair chance, car or no.

If that is too big a change, the organization ought at least to consider recognizing unsupported riders as a separate and worthy class, much as mountain bike riders are recognized with the Velo Tout Terrain category.

As riders, we can have a voice in shaping our event. I hope at least some of the fastest riders will show some leadership by demonstrating a preference for riding without support. Hardly any advantage is lost, much inspiring pride is won in the exchange and the course will be set for a future PBP in which all have an equal chance regardless of nationality or class.