Paris-Brest 2007

My friend Chip Coldwell likes to remind me—often when we are climbing a steep hill or struggling against a headwind—that I once claimed, in regard to cycling, that “if you're not suffering, you're just wasting tires.” That was tongue-in-cheek, of course, a spoof on the US Marines' adolescent slogan, “Pain is the feeling of weakness leaving the body,” and on the “death rides” that dot the California cycling calendar. Nonetheless, if you take my statement at face value, then never have I worn bicycle tires more purposefully, with less waste, than in my failed attempt to complete Paris-Brest-Paris 2007.

I arrived in Brest on Wednesday morning, 36 hours after leaving Paris, after my slowest 600K ever. I had had almost no sleep in 72 hours, and I was riding a new bike that was too small for me. My butt was chafed raw and my hands were so numb that I could no longer feed myself (“Numbness is the feeling of pain leaving the body”). I was near the time limit, and no longer confident that I could return to Paris within the required 80-hour cutoff. Strangest of all, I felt little emotion: I was exhausted and blank. I simply wanted to sleep and to have the pain end. For the first time on a major randonnee, I quit.

Two months later I'm still disappointed, but parts of my right hand continue to be numb. I think that in the same situation I would make the same decision again. I weighed the benefits of continuing—an unscarred ego, memories of epic suffering—against the physical injuries and misery, and decided that continuing made no sense.

Trouble started soon after I arrived in Paris. My bicycle, I was told, had missed the connection in London, and would arrive on a later flight. I shrugged off this inconvenience and headed downtown to meet Chip and other Boston friends whom I hadn't seen in almost a year. Then I spent Sunday alternately waiting and calling British Airways. The story kept changing—the bike had been found, ... oh no it hadn't—but the tone was uniformly impatient and a little arrogant. Calling from the US, my wife had no better luck.

Sunday afternoon I picked up my registration materials in the hope that the bicyle would materialize the following morning. That night I could not sleep, all too aware that fewer than 20 hours before the start I still had no bike. In the morning BA reported no progress; the bike was lost. I left the hotel room tired and dejected, ready to abandon. But as I approached the start I understood that I could not give up so easily. Too much time and effort had gone into being here. I'd borrow a bike, or even buy a new one and try to resell it later.

And so, after much running around in SPD bike shoes (the only pair I had with me), I found myself at the Cycles Jacky bike shop with Thierry Voet, son of the Jacky Voet who opened the shop forty years ago. Thierry had finished PBP himself (on a tandem, in under 50 hours!), and empathized completely. The best he could find for me was a 58cm carbon fiber Cannondale Synapse, far smaller than the 68cm bike that I usually ride, but a better fit than anything else I'd seen that morning. We chose a longer stem and the widest available racing saddle (still much narrower than my customary Brooks B-17), then fenders, lights, bags, tools. We worked feverishly to assemble and adjust everything. In the end, Thierry offered me a big discount, drove me to the start, and wished me luck. I could not have asked for better service nor, on such short notice, a better bike. If you ever find yourself in need of a bike shop west of Paris, do yourself a favor and visit .

It was almost 4pm now, two hours until we had to start lining up for the 8pm start. Chip and the other New England randonneurs had pooled their resources to provide me with all that British Airways had lost: electrolyte supplements, assorted energy bars, ibuprofen, caffeine pills, spare batteries... I felt the love. Overjoyed at having found a reasonable bike, I was a bundle of manic energy. I felt tired but unstoppable: I trembled with excitement. I wolfed down a late lunch—a whole baguette, a big chunk of cheese, fruit and cookies and yogurt—took a shower, and, with Chip's help, made final adjustments to the new bicycle. Just before 6pm, Chip and I rode to the start.

The start of the 80-hour field was enormous, five waves of 500 riders departing at 15-minute intervals. We assembled behind metal barricades on the track inside the Stade des Droits de l'Homme. A few feet away, behind a chainlink fence, spectators came to see their loved ones off. Two women brought last-minute sandwiches to their husbands—Italians, of course. I was in line together with Chip and Jeff Scornavacca, but as we merged with another line we found ourselves, by chance, in the company of much of the Boston brevet crowd: Chris Candiello, Dustin Baker, Glen Slater, Bengt Schneider, Joel Laino, Justin Brooke. All of us were in the second wave, scheduled to depart at 8:15. It was almost worth buying a new bike just to see the looks—laughter, hilarious disbelief—on my friends' faces. Max "wool and downtube shifters" Poletto astride indexed 20-speed carbon? Surely, the end of time is upon us!

The scene at the starting line was wonderful: cheering crowds, fireworks, bagpipers from Bretagne playing a haunting tune. Dark clouds sailed overhead and flags snapped in the wind. At 8:15pm a gun fired and we were off: slowly at first, wobbling dangerously, then faster and faster, four or five abreast, crowds of spectators against the barricades on either side. There were a couple crashes, a man by the side of the road fixing a flat tire already, police blocking intersections, people honking their car horns and cheering and yelling "Bon courage!" I pressed hard on the pedals and the carbon bike reacted like a rocket ship. I tucked in behind Glen and ahead of Jeff, and the cheering crowds flew by at almost 50Km/h. The adrenaline rush was incredible.

Gently rolling countryside unwound before us in the gathering dusk, church steeples and power lines in the distance. We dropped down a fast descent into the cool darkness of the forest of Rambouillet, then out into more open fields, farms, villages. In front of every home people cheered: men leaned into the road and clapped and shouted "Allez! Allez!", children in pajamas peered from bedroom windows, pretty women made eye contact for an instant. It was madness, and I couldn't slow down. The crowds ahead of us thinned out until Glen and Jeff and I were almost alone, then slowly they grew again. Maybe, one rider at a time, Glen and Jeff and I had passed through the 8:15pm group and reached the tail of the 8pm wave? I don't know. It was night now, and when we crested a hill the winding road ahead appeared as a stream of red lights, hundreds of bicycles reaching to the horizon. With some exceptions, riders' bike skills were superlative, and the draft unlike anything I had ever experienced.

At the Mortagne contrôle, after 140Km, our average speed was 32Km/h. I had a soda and an energy bar and we waited for the rest of the Boston group to join us. We all left Mortagne together, chilled by the stop but in good spirits. I still felt strong, seemingly able to float away from my friends effortlessly on the climbs. Whether it was the unusually light bike or the manic exhilaration of being on the open road when hours earlier I had expected to abandon, it's not every day that I can drop Chip and hardly break a sweat. At one point our group split up: Chip and Justin fell behind on a climb, and those of us ahead took a wrong turn. Fortunately we ran into some Frenchmen who were lost too, taciturn but equipped with good maps. By coincidence all of us arrived at the same time at Villaines (222Km), where we also picked up Bryan Johnson.

The third leg, to Fougères (307Km), was where my ride began to unravel. As the sun rose over misty fields on Tuesday I caught myself drifting across the road a few times. I hadn't slept much since Sunday morning, and the 48 hours of sleep deprivation, combined with a night of hard, poorly paced riding, was taking its toll. Worse, I was no longer comfortable on my new bike. My position on the small frame was, by necessity, overly aggressive, with an extended seat post and low handlebars. It had made for fast riding during the first night, but now my butt was sore and eletric tingling radiated throughout my hands.

Moderately damp overnight conditions gave way to steady rain driven by a west wind. By Tinténiac my feet felt like blocks of wood and my hands had become useless claws. I had trouble operating the STI shifters and could no longer unwrap an energy bar. I prayed that a large meal at Tinténiac would be enough for the 85Km ride to Loudéac, but it wasn't. I started to fade. My friends noticed, stopped, and Chris Candiello (I think) lent me his gloves. Once again I felt the love, but it wasn't enough. My hands did not regain feeling, and a few kilometers before Loudéac I bonked completely and saw the group pull away over the top of a hill. I arrived at the checkpoint only minutes after them, but my confidence was shattered.

Over a damp, somber dinner in Loudéac, Glen, who had completed the previous three editions of PBP, announced that he was abandoning. The wind and cold rain were simply too much; he was having no fun. I contemplated quitting too, but Chip would have none of that. If I was tired or hungry, he would ride at my pace and keep me company while the rest of the group rode ahead. I couldn't dissuade him, and I didn't really want to, either. Before we left, I took advantage of a break in the rain to change into a dry jersey. Naturally, the drizzle resumed even as I stood momentarily bare-chested in the checkpoint parking lot.

I am very grateful to Chip for riding with me all the way from Loudéac to Brest. By Loudéac I was tired (like everyone else), semi-incapacitated, and most of all, despondent. I didn't want to quit, but my mind was no longer focused on finishing. Although I wasn't willing to admit it to myself yet, the ride was lost in my head. I was a numb, pathetic mess of soggy wool and lycra, and it says something about Chip's patience and friendship that he endured my company for a whole night.

In Carhaix we slept for a couple of hours. The cot I collapsed onto was still fragrant with the cyclist who had preceded me, and snoring and coughing rose all around us in the cavernous gym, but I couldn't have slept more soundly had we been at the Ritz. After the nap I felt better for some time, and kept up with Chip's brisk pace to the top of Roc Trévezel, the biggest climb of PBP. But on the descent I finally fell apart completely: darkness, heavy rain on slick pavement, headlights of oncoming cars, cyclists all around me jockeying for position in the turns, some of them weaving dangerously. Through my numb hands I could not get a secure grip on the handlebars. I was terrified. The whole idea of riding a bike non-stop for three days suddenly seemed inane.

Under a pale pre-dawn sky Chip and I took a ten-minute nap in a bus stop shelter. His wristwatch alarm woke us, and without a word we returned to our bikes and headed down towards the coast through small towns where everyone was still asleep. Finally we reached the outskirts of Brest, the spectacular Iroise Bridge over the estuary of the Elorn, the small final climb before the contrôle. When I put my foot down on the grass in Brest I knew that I would not be pedaling back to Paris. The recent descent had shaken me, I was faint with hunger—eating on the bike had become no easier—and I felt that I was doing real damage to hands and groin. We were just half an hour ahead of the time cut-off, the result of hour-long stops with the Boston group early in the ride, and my collapse in the later part. I had no desire to ride alone, and didn't want to burden Chip any longer.

So we had breakfast together, bread and jam and big bowls of café au lait, and then Chip disappearead alone down the road to Paris. The officials at the contrôle did not want to accept my resignation: they told me to sleep for a while, because due to the exceptional weather the time limit had been extended by two hours. I collapsed on the gym floor for an hour, but when I woke up I felt no better. I apologized to the volunteers—what I was doing felt insufferably pathetic—and turned in my brevet card. I cycled slowly to the train station. The next train for Paris would leave in three hours.

Some photos of mine leading up to the start are here. Chip's album contains a funny photo of me in my manic energized state before the start. And here is a shot of just my bike, highlighting the relative positions of saddle and handlebar.