PBP Recap – It is long like the event; )
PBP 2015 – The Adventures of John, Ann & Larry!
As promised, I am writing this recap of our experience at Paris-Brest-Paris on the return flight home from France. Over the course of this event and during the months of preparation to get to the start, whether an individual rides PBP fast, slow or doesn’t finish, the rider will most likely feel just about the full spectrum of highs and lows that life can throw at them. During this recap, I will not say much about what it takes to get to the starting line of PBP, but I will say, as difficult as the event can be, it could easily be argued that the preparation for the event is even harder.
As far as I know, PBP results have not been posted yet and because of the many staggered waves it is hard to know exactly where you finished until results are official. That being said, the faster riders tend to start in the earlier waves…so you can get a pretty good idea of how well you performed without the official results.
In a nutshell, Ann and I (Larry Shaper too!) are very happy with our performance at PBP 2015. The event had more highs and lows than you could imagine in the 51 hours and 49 minutes that it took us to get to the finish. When we finished, we were told that we were the first American finishers (on any type of bike) and also the first tandem overall (male, female or mixed). We were very lucky to do as well as we did, but also a little unlucky as far as getting the mixed tandem record goes.
We feel we were physically and mentally prepared and our tandem performed well enough to get the mixed tandem record of 49 hours and 3 minutes, set in 1999. Unfortunately, sometimes it takes a little more than being prepared and capable.
The first problem for us in our wave of special bikes (wave six) was that there wasn’t anyone in that group that planned to ride at even close to our pace. At the start we rode briefly with a nice couple from California, but their goal was only 61 hours. We worked with them until we started catching up with the solo riders from the five waves in front of us (at roughly 80 miles). We skipped the first water stop at 87 miles and did our first century in 5 hours, 20 mph. It was nice to have carrots/riders from the previous waves to chase throughout the first night, but we didn’t have many opportunities to sit in a pace line to conserve energy. Tandems are generally faster on the flats and down hills and slower when climbing than solo bikes. As a result, tandems tend to get used by solo riders. We pull them on the flats and down hills and they go at a faster pace than is efficient for us on the climbs. That being said, we either pulled or rode solo for more than 90% of the event. With over 6,000 riders out there, we had hoped for the reverse, 10% pulling and 90% sitting in a pace line. FYI, the faster solo group often has a pace line of 100 or more riders all the way to Brest, the halfway point.
Since the record year (1999), there are several thousand more riders participating in PBP. More participants causes it to take longer to get through the sixteen control stations and quite often the controls, restrooms, food areas and parking areas for our support vehicle were located great distances apart. We found it nearly impossible to get out of a control in less than 15 minutes, most were much longer.
Despite those issues, Ann and I still made it to Brest in 22 hours and 8 minutes, more than two hours ahead of the pace needed to set the record. At about this time, because of a couple of timing issues and a lack of easily accessible food, we ended up riding a little further than we should have on too few calories. The result was a low energy period (a minor bonk) from the Carhaix control to the Loudeac control. Unfortunately, this coincided with two events that nearly had me pull the plug on continuing. As the second night of riding came upon us, large numbers of riders were now approaching us in the opposite direction. I expected that and told Ann that this should make it easier to stay awake and follow the course at night. However, I was surprised to find that lighting systems used by riders today have improved drastically from when I did this event 12 years ago. The result was literally blinding. The section where this first occurred was on narrow, hilly roads that did not have any painted lines. We found ourselves stopping often because I could not see anything in front of me. While this was occurring, cars were also using this same narrow road. I assumed they were having great difficulty seeing and making their way through this maze of riders as well. Shortly after a car squeezed by Ann and I, we came upon a group of stopped cyclists, a pile of bicycles and that same car. All were hovering over a cyclist laying face down in the road with a pool of blood around his head. He was not moving and didn’t appear to be breathing. In my low energy and sleep-deprived state, I quickly came to the conclusion that he was no longer with us and immediately started thinking about our own safety, especially Ann’s safety. It was my suggestion for her to do this event with me so I started feeling like her safety was slipping out of my control, given the poor visibility circumstances. We made our way to the next control, at a snails pace, and after taking care of our brevet cards and eating some food we had a serious conversation with Larry Shaper. The three of us debated the pros and cons of continuing for what seemed like a long time. Not knowing how much longer this stream of high-beam cyclists would continue, I was fairly certain that it wasn’t safe to go on, but suggested that Ann and I take a five minute nap to see if our perspectives would change. Larry wisely let us sleep for longer. Ann and I woke up about 45 minutes later. I was still ready to pull the plug, but Ann said that she understood the risks and wanted to continue. It was very cold out so we put on just about all of our bicycle clothing and decided we would ride to the next control (37 miles away) and then re-evaluate the situation at that time.
That decision saved the ride. After an hour or two the number of cyclists coming in the opposite direction started thinning out and once daylight hit our energy level and attitudes were greatly improved.
When we started back up in the cold, we knew we had lost the chance at the record and that even a time of under 56 hours and 40 minutes (to become a member of the Charly Miller Society) would be a stretch. However, as we arrived at each control, we began to feel stronger and stronger. Volunteers at the controls would tell Ann that she was the first female (first femme) to come through. They would applaud her and follow her around until we headed off on the bike again. Even though our average speed was not as high as it was in the first 150 miles, relative to other riders we were flying. In the last 150 miles I don’t believe anyone passed us and (if they could keep up) they would just sit on our wheel for as long as they could. One very strong young Russian rider (who finished with us) even paid us a couple of complements in broken English. He said “very impressive” and” max 10” with a grateful smile on his face. In addition to the young Russia, a Frenchman named Guy, an Austrian named Eric and a very cheerful Dutchman thanked us profusely after the finish for helping them achieve impressive times.
This was certainly an event that Ann and I will remember and be proud of for the rest of our lives. Our heartfelt thanks go out to those that helped us get to PBP. Our one man support crew, Larry Shaper, who performed and navigated the country roads of Brittany like a seasoned Tour de France crew person. Mike Bombara and Slade Warner at Rhino Bike Works…they transformed our Cannondale T1 Tandem (The Pain Train) into a reliable mileage eating machine. We had zero mechanical issues while pedaling over 800 miles in France! Kathy Wheeler and all of the Rockywold-Deephaven Staff for keeping the RDC ship sailing while I was away. The RDC Board of Directors for their wisdom in knowing when they have a strong enough team to allow a member of their staff an occasional sabbatical to follow their dreams and passions from time to time. And, thank you to all of our family and friends for your supportive words of encouragement via Facebook, email, phone calls and by saying so face to face. Those words were a big part of the reason we kept going when we were at our lowest of lows.
John and Ann
P.S. Our recovery day in Paris was very special too!