This atricle first appeared in the Journal of the International Randonneurs, Edition 1990
published March 1991.
In 1974, while spending the year working in France, I joined the cycling section of ASFLO (Association Sportive de la Faculté et les Laboratoires d'Orsay), the athletic association of the Université de Paris Sud. I had been been cycle touring on my own for four years and this was my first club. We went out every Sunday morning at a half hour past dawn and rode 50 to 100 kilometers, depending on the weather. The routes were not arrowed; we stayed together, taking turns pulling the peloton and regrouping after a climb spread us out. We would always stop for coffee at a café and be back home in time to wash up before the big Sunday lunch.
One Sunday morning in April I was picked up somewhat before dawn so I could ride with the club in a 200 km brevet that was leaving from the west side of Paris. I had not yet heard of Paris-Brest-Paris. I was assured that this ride would be fun and not hard. I'd once gone that far touring so I was willing to give it a try. About a dozen of us rode together. The weather was terrible, freezing rain. Marvelous crystalline structures formed on the beards of my friends. I take a while to warm up and this was not warming up weather. I felt really slow until lunch time. Lunch is a big deal in France. We went to a restaurant and sat down to a five course meal. I've never gotten used to these big meals in the middle of the day, especially when cycling, but it is part of being in France. I make one exception to observing local custom, I don't drink wine when cycling. When we hit the road, an hour and a half after stopping, I was a lot faster, relatively speaking. We finished the ride, together, in eleven hours and ten minutes.
We rode the 300 km brevet on May 18, one week after the official brevet. Our club ran an invitational rally on May 11, with 500 participants, and we had special permission to do the ride a week late. We joined the official route west of Paris and stopped at each café that had been a control point in the official brevet. Each time we were met with the same jokes about being somewhat late and each time the proprietor stamped our card's with the cafe's address stamp. The route (320 km from our starting point) was a big loop through Normandy. There are many river valleys with descents and climbs about two km long. It is fairly flat when you're on top but the winds were fierce. We stayed together just to fight the wind. We did 170 km before our very long lunch. The climbs out of the valleys felt a lot harder on the way back. Two of our members were having more trouble than I was. We waited at the top of each climb. I really hurt every time we stopped and started up again. Thirty km before the end, the two slow riders decided to finish the ride alone and the going got a little easier. We were back home at 8:45 PM, 17.5 hours after our start. The other two riders came in two hours later. I felt a certain pride at having made it, my first double century, but this wasn't my idea of fun.
When my comrades started planning for the 400 km brevet I was happy to note that I would be at a conference in Warwick, England the week before and couldn't make it back in time. I did ride over 400 km that weekend from Warwick to my village, Bures-sur-Yvette, southwest of Paris, but with a good night's sleep on the Southampton-Le Havre ferry. I brought back five Pletscher racks, on top of my own, as these were in great demand in France.
When I returned, everybody was talking about the upcoming 600 km brevet. I had no intention of going. Now comes a turning point. Remember those two riders who finished two hours behind the rest of us in the 300 km brevet? One of them finished the 400 km brevet! That did it. I knew I was going. We left Porte Dorée, near the southeast corner of Paris, at 6 AM. This time we did not plan to stay in one group. I rode the first day with two of my club members, Bernard and Claude. At the first control, we were making good time. (We had to replace some broken spokes on one of the bikes. They used lousy spokes and breaks were common. We always carried spares, taped to a seat stay, as well as a spoke wrench, a freewheel remover and big adjustable wrench.)
Bernard asked the organizers if I would be allowed to ride the Paris-Brest-Paris, assuming I finished the 600, even though I had not ridden the 400. The answer was "yes." Americans, at that time, were not required to ride the brevets but merely offer some proof that they were qualified. That's when I first found out about the PBP.
We made good time that day, riding with pelotons that were going at our speed. We passed a wedding party and one of the cyclists stopped, ran to the midst of the party, danced an vigorous dance, then resumed his brevet. It was a lovely route through the Champagne region. We had a support car. The drivers made arrangements for our meals and offered massages. I felt like an athlete.
When night and cold descended, a gnarled lump appeared in my lower back. Someone told me, later, that it was an inflamed ligament but I've never been sure. I know my body stopped working. My legs turned more and more slowly. Claude and Bernard were patient and finally decided that we could all use a nap. We found a haystack and curled up behind it, but, unfortunately, not in its lee. The wind did not help my back and when we started out again, three hours later, I could barely move. I sent my friends on and continued pedaling alone.
I had to sit upright with one hand pressing the lump on my back. I used my lowest gear and moved very slowly, about 5 kph. Our support car came by to see if I wanted to quit. I refused. One of our members, Jacques, was still behind me. He was our only member to have ridden the 1971 PBP. He now had a full-time job and was working on a degree at night. He hadn't done very much riding that spring and had not done any of the earlier brevets. I figured that as long as Jacques was behind me, I was not being an excessive burden to the drivers and could continue.
Jacques did catch up, about 100 km before Paris. When our drivers told me he was not far behind, I told my back that it had better start working. The sun helped. As the fog broke and the air warmed, I found I could make 15 to 20 kph, on the flat. We rode on together. Our styles were completely different. He liked to take a two minute break every five km and it took me about three km to stop hurting every time we started up. He also constantly suggested that I quit. Having made it that far, I thought nothing could stop me. . . I had forgotten about the pavé. The last fourteen km into Paris were paved in cobblestone (pavé). Every stone hurt. The rough terrain did in my freewheel too. A few kilometers from the end, I found that I had to pedal a turn backward to make the freewheel latch just to get one turn forward. Jacques continued his suggestions that I quit. I only became more determined. I'm grateful to Jacques; I would never have finished without him. He knew the route. It was not well marked. We finished in 39 hours. I was mentioned in "L'Equipe," the French national sports newspaper -- for being last in the event.
My work in France was to continue for another year. By now, I knew I wanted to ride the PBP, sometime. I decided the chances were small that I'd ever get through the brevets again, so there was no choice but to go for it in 1975. I wanted to do some serious training but I had other obligations that summer. I had to spend six weeks in the US. In Boston I got out for one 75 mile ride and a few 20 mile rides. In New York, visiting my parents, I had no bicycle. Neighbors lent me an old postman's bike. I did two 15 mile rides and a 25 mile ride, carrying the rusted out chain guard on the return trip.
I returned to France two weeks before the PBP. The first week I worked in the mornings and evenings and rode 100 km each afternoon. I did one trip in the middle. On Wednesday, I rode 200 km to the Loire valley and visited old friends who ran the youth hostel at Montlivault. On Thursday I rode back. The next week I took my Holdsworth in for repairs. It needed a new bottom bracket. They did the work for free when they found out I was planning to ride the PBP. The days I did have the bike, I rode no more than 30 km, at a gentle pace. People who seemed in the know suggested this, and I thought it was sound advice. A little riding would prevent saddle sores; a lot might wear you out.
The weekend before the big event, I packed my TA handlebar bag. I had a rain cape, two sewups, rim tape, spare batteries and bulbs, tools including a spoke wrench, freewheel remover, and a big adjustable wrench. I had glucose tablets, something like Gatorade powder, pâtes de fruits (fruit jellies), a kilo of prunes (to combat one of the problems during the 600 km brevet that I forgot to mention), and . . . a chicken, whole and roasted. I also prepared a bag for the support vans with two more sewups, spare cycling clothes, and hairbrush, toothbrush, etc.
Claude gave me a wonderful flashlight holder he'd made and decided not to use. It plugs into the end of my handlebar. I bought a warm-up suit with zippers on the legs. I strapped it to my Pletscher rack. I got the cobbler to tighten my cleats. I tried to rotate my sleeping hours so that I could sleep well into Monday before the 4 PM start. No luck, I was picked up at 9 AM so the ASFLO participants could have a hearty lunch together.
As one last preparation, I told a couple of people what I was planning to do. I picked them specially as people to whom I had no intent of reporting failure.
That year, 666 cyclists started. There were 21 women, 17 riding solo and 4 stoking tandems. I had never seen so many bicycles in one place. I picked up my control book. It had a hand-drawn American flag and a typed English translation of the rules. I found out that seven other Americans were starting.
We had two support vans for the eight ASFLO participants. They had beds and kitchens. I was really impressed. We were expected to ride in pairs. I was to ride with Jacques. I wondered how I would bear up to 1200 km of suggestions that I quit. But, as we neared the departure time, I was told that the organizers wanted the women , tandems, and tricycles to start fifteen minutes early (counted in our times) so that viewers would know we were there. I was delighted at the chance to start out at my own pace. I found two other women who had ridden the Paris 600 and we started out together . They hung back, refusing to get exhausted in the early stretches. I was disappointed at being in the rear so soon, but I enjoyed the company, riding along three abreast. One of them said she liked to rest on the climbs, her weakness, and force herself on the flats where she was naturally stronger. We fell far behind on the steep hills leaving Paris.
It didn't take long for the first pelotons of male riders to arrive. I expected that we would join a passing group and make some speed. My two comrades were determined to continue at their pace. Annette Catherine, the eighteen year old American, passed also. She had not started fifteen minutes early. We shared a few words and she went on. I let a few more pelotons go by before I couldn't take it any longer. I said my good-byes and pulled in with the next group. I think this was the real fun of PBP (yes, the PBP was fun). The French know how to ride in pelotons; they are not dangerous. I always felt comfortable falling into place with a group of complete strangers. We rode fast, in double file with regular rotations, chatting all the way. I met people from all over France, a few from Great Britain, and two from the US.
The first control was 148.5 km out, in Logny-au-Perche. I arrived at 9:35 PM, five hours and fifty minutes after starting. The village held its annual festival to coincide with the PBP. There were lights, streamers, crowds, and a giant carousel. I'd made much better time than expected and only our three fastest riders had passed me. The peloton I'd arrived with stayed only long enough to get their cards stamped. I wanted to head out with them, but our driver said we had other riders close behind and asked that I wait. I stopped for twenty minutes, long enough to get a stamp on my card, a snack, water, and a leg massage. When others arrived, they wanted to rest a bit so I suggested that I start out alone, slowly, so I could warm up. I expected that they would catch up soon but it wasn't until Rennes that we crossed paths.
Between Logny and Rennes (Casson-Sévigné), I saw a lone rider at the side of the road, clutching his leg. He had a cramp in his calf that he couldn't get rid of. His club had gone on without him and he expected he would soon have to opt for a sag wagon. I stopped and showed him a climber's trick I'd learned while hanging onto a rock face with my fingernails. If you bend your toes toward your knee as hard as you can, the cramped muscle will stretch out and the pain subside. I suggested he ride with his toes up until the cramp was gone. We started out together but he didn't want to slow me down and sent me on.
I again found myself riding a long stretch alone. I spotted a single rider ahead and sped up to join him. When I caught up, he immediately stopped. I asked why and he told me he had no intention of pulling me along on his wheel and that he was going to stand there and wait for a passing peloton. I said I wasn't going to stand around and get stiff and that he could ride on my wheel if he wanted to, but if we cooperated and rode in relay we could probably make good time until other riders arrived. He agreed to try. We flew, arriving at Rennes without being passed. When we got there he told me he was really surprised at my speed. I had been working as hard as I could because I was so angry at him. That was dumb. My left thigh was now all lumpy and very sore. Massaging had no effect at loosening the lumps. I stayed for a long breakfast, this time by choice. Claude and another Claude arrived and continued on before me.
It was hard to imagine doing almost 850 km with a very painful thigh. The pain would lessen as I rode, but starting up, even after a short stop, was very difficult. I left Rennes alone and promptly got lost. It cost me about two km but I was soon heading for Lamballe, still alone. About half way there, a shout from a van let me know that the Claudes were eating lunch at the next restaurant on the right. I joined them, and eating at my American pace, finished with them.
We rode together to Lamballe and on to Guingamp where a van was waiting with dinner and beds. The plan was to sleep for three hours but after an hour's rest (none of us managed to sleep) the Claudes decided to hit the road. I didn't think it possible to get my body onto a bike at that moment and didn't want to slow them down so I decided to attempt to sleep. I asked the drivers to wake me in two hours, as originally planned. When I awoke, I found our drivers asleep. It was 2:30 AM, seven and a half hours after I had first hit the sack. I woke one of the drivers who was very apologetic. She insisted I eat breakfast. I left Guingamp in the dark, alone and sore, eight hours and forty-five minutes after I had arrived.
On the way to Morlaix, I saw many riders on their way back to Paris. I could only think of how they would get a good night's sleep long before I would. Suddenly, headlights shook me from my drowsiness and I was escorted to the side of the road, expecting to be frisked and arrested. It was one of those famous secret controls. All was in order and I was allowed to go on. I continued nibbling my chicken. I rode through Morlaix, with its lovely aqueduct, and onward to Brest. I arrived at the halfway point 41 hours and 50 minutes after my departure. I had hoped to beat my 39 hour time of the 600 km brevet, but it didn't matter, only 600 km to go. Neither of our vans was at the Brest control when I got there. I was very hungry. I finished my chicken and disposed of the bones.
Heading home felt better. I still hurt but now the riders on the other side of the road were still heading for Brest and I'd already been there. I pedaled slowly through Morlaix and back to Guingamp. I was still hungry and I knew there would be a van with homemade soup at the control. Ten minutes to Guingamp and "poof" a flat (one of many). An old woman ran out to help, excited to be part of the great event. She talked to me as I worked and thought about hot soup.
Finally reaching Guingamp, it was wonderful to sit down and eat. As usual, I wanted to eat quickly and be off, but as usual, lunch was long. This time I was asked to wait because Bernard was not far off and it would be better for the drivers, and probably us too, if we could stay together for the rest of the ride. At Lamballe, we stopped for an hour to repair Bernard's lights. It was night again. We had arranged for a van to be at the side of the road about half way to Rennes. I never understood why this was acceptable though other out of control area interactions with support vehicles were illegal. We slept three hours and forty-five minutes, ate, and set out again in the early morning. In this stretch, we met another American, James Konski. The three of us arrived together at Rennes.
From Lamballe to Rennes, Bernard had felt fitter than I did, and had taken most of the time up front. Then something miraculous happened. Six hundred kilometers after they appeared, the lumps in my thigh vanished; the pain was gone. We continued, sometimes side-by-side chatting, sometimes in relay, through Laval to Pré-en-Pail. For much of this stretch, we rode with four riders from Troyes. I had met them in Morlaix and it was fun to meet again. They had decided to do the entire ride together. There is a cup given to the club that has the most riders arriving essentially together at the finish and controls. I was impressed by their effort as by then I understood just how hard it is to keep up with someone faster than you or to wait up for someone slower when you are working so close to your limits. They were good company with silly jokes and songs. They wanted to stop at a restaurant, shudder. With not much over 200 km left, I just wanted to go on while my eyes would stay open. Our drivers came by and said "eat." Once again, under slight duress, I found myself sitting down to a long French meal.
On the way over the hills to Logny-au-Perche, we heard news of the tragic accident that had left one cyclist dead and another paralyzed. The official rules stated that between Rambouillet and the finish, you were allowed to have a support vehicle follow you to light the road, should you be there after dark. With the news of the accident, the organizers asked the drivers to please stay with their riders through the entire night. Bernard and I arrived at Chateauneuf-au-Thimerais, the last control before Paris, at 1:10 AM with two drivers who were as exhausted as we were. We all needed sleep. We were led to a room with an old double bed. Bernard and I took the bed while our drivers slept on some mats on the floor. This time, I fell asleep immediately. One hour and fifteen minutes later, as we had requested, we were awakened. Slightly refreshed, we set out on the final stretch.
We clocked in at the finish at 8:25 AM. My time was 88 hours 40 minutes Bernard's was 88 Hours 25 minutes - he had started fifteen minutes later. I sat down in a car, put my feet on the dash board closed my eyes and grinned.
Jacques finished too, in 89 hours 46 minutes. A total of 559 riders finished, among them all eight ASFLO participants. Our fastest rider was thirty-sixth overall, 54 hours 8 minutes The two women I started with made it as far as Brest and both dropped out. Catherine Anette finished in 83 hours 28 minutes and the Troyens finished in 87 hours 2 minutes. The next spring, a man ran up to me at a local rally and thanked me; he was the man with the cramp. He had finished after all, in 77 hours.
I never did need my spoke wrench, freewheel remover, or big adjustable wrench. I did use all four sewups and when I got a fifth flat during the last night I was given a spare wheel . My toothbrush and hairbrush were always in the wrong van. I ate all the prunes the first day but they didn't take effect until the third day. I slept a total of thirteen and a half hours, much more than I had planned to. I didn't keep track of how many hours I spent eating, but it seemed like on awful lot. Oh well, many people go to France just for that.
The president of our university had large medals made up and presented them to the eight of us in person. The next year, many women joined our club, including Bernard's wife, and Claude's wife and daughter. Bernard finished the PBP in 1979 and 1983, but ankle trouble made him drop out in 1987. His wife, Janine, rode all the brevets in 1987 but didn't try the PBP. Instead, she took up distance running and completed a 100 km brevet in eleven hours. Claude became mayor of his village shortly after the 1975 PBP and politics have since occupied much of his former cycling time. I came back to the US in the fall of 1976. A smashed clavicle kept me from riding for ten months but I eventually rode my only official century as well as a couple of double centuries. I met my husband, Sheldon Brown, on a Charles River Wheelmen ride and we now have two children, Tova, nine, and George, seven*. We ride together on a pair of kiddyback tandems that Sheldon built. If health and interest hold out, I hope that Tova and I will ride the PBP together in 1999.
As a parting word to those of you who plan to ride the PBP for the first time: add some French to your training program. The conversation and camaraderie should not be missed. Good luck and Bonne Route!
* When I first wrote this article. They are now both in their thirties and they both still to prefer music, dancing, drawing, writing, and math to cycling.
No, I didn't make it to the PBP in 1999, but maybe some year...
Last Updated: by Harriet Fell