Bruce Berg
August 2003

Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) was undoubtedly the most challenging sporting event I've ever attempted. It was also by far, I mean really far, the most unique and wonderful cycling experience of my life, 3-1/2 days of cycling unlike anything I've ever experienced.

Where else would you find a family in the middle of the night, standing beside the road offering you coffee, water, sodas or food? Or a small community out having a party beside the road and urging you to stop and talk, eat or drink while they played music? How about an elderly grandmother beside the road urging you to drink the whole liter of orange juice she just gave you because she knows you have to be dehydrated? Can you imagine someone at a lonely rural intersection at 3:00 am, stopping traffic on a major highway for you? Where else have you ridden with over 4,000 cyclists speaking more languages than is imaginable, and yet where probably about a third of them speak at least some English?

I have to admit there were moments when I wondered why I was out there riding 1,200 kilometers (750 miles, which actually turned into 780) in under 90 hours. There was definitely some discomfort. By the end, my butt really hurt, but I knew the pain was temporary. My right shoulder hurt, but that was only because I had surgery last fall. By far the biggest problem was simply being really, really tired for the last 24 hours. I knew my brain was just not working very well. The neurons just weren't firing. Getting by with less than 6 hours of sleep in four nights and three days is far outside the range of my experience.

I decided on the easiest start, taking advantage of the full 90 hours. This meant leaving at 10:00 pm on Monday with about 2,600 other riders. From riding the 600 k qualification brevet, I knew I'd have no problem staying awake for the first night and the following day. I started with Dan Brekke, (a new GPC member). We agreed we'd start together but wouldn't stay together if it wasn't working for either of us. The start was under an arch, probably eight riders wide, the blaring French PA system calling out last minute instructions in French and English and leading the crowd in a countdown dix,! There were about two thousand people cheering us on at the start. Bunches of people were there at intersections, cheering us on for several kilometers. In fact, there were people cheering us on with "Bon Courage" or "Allez, Allez " or "Au Revoir" for the next 750 miles.

For the first night, Dan and I rode amazingly strongly. Passing almost everyone without even trying! I was concerned we were overdoing it, but never felt better. We joined up with an Englishman and a Dane and made a team that was on a roll, at least until the Englishman led us off course. Not smart riding. After about 10 kilometers, we called a halt to our engine and retraced our steps until we rejoined the official course. 20 unproductive kilometers but it was over. The three of us renewed our high output engine and re-passed those we had passed earlier. The first real control (check in point) wasn't until almost mile 136 at Villaines La Juhel where we arrived about 9:00 on Tuesday morning. We were definitely ready to refuel and stopped at a patisserie and then went to the control where I ate more.

Tuesday was largely a blur of small, incredibly charming villages and riding with Dan. I do remember four teenagers, offering food and drinks. They seemed quite excited to have us stop. One young woman understand English fairly well, and happily translated what we said to the three guys. We had coffee, juice, cookies. I gave them a postcard from Berkeley, Dan got his water bottles filled. We headed off, after our first wonderful encounter with the local people who are so incredibly supportive of this event.

Late that evening, we got to the control at Ludeac (mile 281). Here we had a late dinner. By this time I'd already downed 7 or 8 sandwich jambon (half a baguette with ham on it), took showers, and changed clothes and decided to head for the next control.

We headed out through twisting roads. By now, the riders weren't so close together so we really had to find our own way. About 2:00 am, we were going through a wonderful, hilly town and found that it was a unannounced control. We checked in. We got coffee to fortify us for the remaining miles to the next control. I took one sip of coffee and said, " Let's take a nap". Dan eagerly agreed to a two-hour nap. We slept on pads at the gym where the control was. It was cold on the floor, but sleep came easily and the alarm came way too soon. I was still eager to get up and going. By now it was 4:30 and really cold out, in the low 40's. We needed a climb to warm us up, but we were at a walled town built on the top of a big hill for protection, so we had a nice long descent. Cold! Soon, the predawn glow gave us a sense of warmth long before the sun provided real warmth. Dawn may be the hardest time to get on the bike, but nothing comes close to seeing and feeling the world slowly come awake with incredible yellow-orange glows around you.

Wednesday morning, we know we'll arrive in Brest and from there, each kilometer would bring us closer to home. The country we rode through was beautiful, more open here and rolling. We could see how much the architecture had changed since we left Normandy. By mid-morning, we were beginning the last big climb before the descent to the coast. When we reached the pass, we saw the Atlantic Ocean to the south and the entrance to the English Channel to the north, breathtaking beyond belief. In the mid-ground, we saw the road slowly descending towards Brest, 25-30 miles away. We continued and eventually found ourselves crossing a stunning, huge stone arch bridge for pedestrians and bicycles, which is adjacent to a new and very impressive cable stayed bridge. We stopped and took pictures of each other. We know we've reached Brest!

We cross the bridge and head uphill towards the control, facing an 8-10% grade that goes on for over a mile. This turns out to be, by far, the steepest climb of the ride. We check in at the control and are offered our first free beer or wine (some of the Europeans have been drinking at each control. Some have also been smoking!). We skip the drinks, fill up our water bottles and try without success to call and let our mates know we've made it to the turn around.

We headed back towards the pass, which we know is nothing but uphill. Then we get to a wonderful town we passed on the way in, we stop for lunch at a local bar and eat sandwiches enjoying the town and talking with some other riders before heading out.

Nearing the top of the pass we again came on a young Scandinavian who was doing PBP on a scooter. I could see that his shoes had been replaced since I first saw him. He pushed with one foot for two or three strokes and then switched feet. It seems unbelievably difficult. On the other hand, he's doing as well as we are. I have no idea how. He said he'd seen his speedometer at over 90 kph! For aerodynamics, he simply bent over at the waist so his back was horizontal. Way too scary for me.

In the evening, we rolled through some wonderful countryside and stopped at the ruins of an old castle with a large lake on one side, a steep hill on the other and the late afternoon orange light shining on the whole scene. Along with another rider, we stopped and took photographs, and rode through town. I then realize that Dan disappeared. It turns out he stopped at a roadside party with perhaps 25 people and live music. Then he ran into a grandmother who insisted he stop. Out of guilt he did and had a charming encounter with her. In hindsight, I'm envious, and wish I'd joined him.

When we rolled into Ludeac again, it was dark. We got our showers, clean clothes and food. It was over three hours before we are back on our bikes, I was impatient, but I certainly didn't want to ride into the night on my own. We didn't get more than 20 kilometers before we both realized we were really sleepy. We found a patch of grass beside the road and curled up for a 15 minute nap. It was cold, but what a wonderful rest. When my alarm went off we got up and back on the bikes. Perhaps about 30 kilometers later we came across the second secret control. By now, it was 3:30 am and we decided to get a couple of hours sleep. We ate a bit, laid down and it was 2-3/4 hours before I realized I didn't hear my alarm.

After hot coffee to warm and wake us, we started to roll. The cold dawn light slowly crept up on us as we rolled through farm fields. We started hearing birds and shortly after that, there were a few cars on the roads. By then, the sun is finally brought some warmth to my very cold body. Even my raincoat, headband and full fingered gloves hadn't kept me comfortable.

For lunch on Thursday we stopped and ate at a bar that had set up a grill outside under some trees. It was wonderful to sit there and talk with other cyclists who happened to find the place.

We headed out and within an hour I was feeling sleepy. Nothing like a big lunch, lots of exercise, warm sunny weather and very little sleep to induce an urgent desire to take a nap. I pulled in behind Dan and fought to stay awake. I thought of riding at least 15 miles to the next town and getting coffee. Then I thought of how effective the 15 minute nap had been the night before. I told Dan I was going to take a nap right there and that he should just go on. We both stopped, he took a leak and before he was back on his bike, I was asleep. I woke up to my alarm 15 minutes later and was back on my bike within a minute, feeling much better.

Almost immediately I hooked up with a Canadian and a group of four Danish riders. The Danes seemed to want to do all the pulling and I was happy to comply. When I rode into the next control, Villainies La Juhel around 5:30pm, I heard a loud "Dad" and knew it was Jamie and Linda. What a luscious feeling! A desire to cry almost overwhelmed me, but I had a few moments to compose myself before they could get to me. It was such a wonderful feeling to hug them and have them see me in the midst of this event. There were lots of riders around (a surprising number actually) and Linda gave me pastries as we went to eat. We talked as I ate at the rest stop cafeteria. This had been fun, but I'd been there a long time and needed to get rolling. As we neared my bike, we ran into Dan. We couldn't figure out how I got ahead of him, but he was just coming in to register and I was heading out, so we parted. For the ride from Villaines to Mortagne, I rode with two or three groups, mostly French and was again relegated to the back of the group. I rode with them for awhile and then wanted to increase my pace and so I passed them, riding on my own until I came upon another group that was moving at a comfortable pace. After dark, the etiquette seemd to reverse. European groups wanted me at the front all the time. It seems that the Europeans rarely put a lot of energy into lighting for this event and they all love to find the Americans who always seem to have good lighting. I was now their guy and they rode my wheel into Mortagne.

Shortly after I got into Mortagne, I saw Elaine Astrue, a friend from doing double centuries together. She had done the 84 hour start and caught up with me. We ate and set out for Nogent le Roi, the last control, sometime after 1:30am. There were very few riders out at this time of night. After always seeing other riders for over three days, it felt very lonely. For awhile, we had a group of French riding behind us but they finally passed when we stopped so Elaine could give me a caffeine pill to stay awake. It was a cold and incredibly dark, clear skied night that was magical as we rode along a ridge with amazing views. I began to think we were off route because there had been no other riders in sight for some time. Elaine was confident we were on route. Luckily, she was correct. We probably went 15 kilometers without any cross streets or villages or any indication we were on route. When we arrived at Nogent Le Roi, we ate and went to take a nap. It was about 5:30am. I set my alarm for 15 minutes because I wanted to meet Linda and James at the finish when I said I would. I realized that was very little sleep at this point in the ride but knew I had less than three hours of riding to the finish. When the alarm went off, I couldn't deal with it and reset it for another 15 minutes. I got up, put my stuff together, grabbed a bit of food and headed for the finish. I was now really feeling that I had just about made it. Getting back to the finish town went very quickly and I was hoping to be at the finish before 8:00am, however, the organizers had other ideas. I spent 45 minutes doing a tour of the village of San Quentin En Yvelines in rush hour traffic. It was very frustrating as the route signs were hidden by cars lined up at stop lights. I kept missing turns and having to backtrack when I realized I was off route. But, at 8:40 I rolled into the finish and Linda and James were there to greet and congratulate me. I was dazed and not too aware of what I'd really accomplished. It would be a couple of days before I really got it. While my early arrival at the finish was very quiet, I understand that those who arrived later in the day had crowds in the thousands cheering them and Karen Bonnett from Santa Rosa even got a motorcycle escort to the finish! Hmm, perhaps I should have slept in on Friday morning.

Editor's note: We also have Bruce's account of the qualifying Davis 600K Brevet in May.

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