I was lying on the lawn at the finish of the 1979 Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP). Other riders asked my wife in French. “Why isn’t he having a free beer?”
“He’s exhausted and his butt is very sore.” She responded in French.
“He should have put le bifteck in his shorts.” i.e., stuck a raw piece of beef on the chamois in my shorts. No thank you!
I rode my bike back to our hotel and collapsed on the bed, too tired to undress and take a shower.
In the spring of 1979 I had read an article by Creig Hoyt, MD from San Francisco about Paris-Brest-Paris. He was one of four Americans to finish the 1975 PBP. PBP is about 1200 km (745 miles), although the exact distance varies. Riders have to finish PBP within a specified time limit, which includes all time off the bike. This sounded like a grand adventure in France. And it was to Brest. And then it wasn’t.
Here are the seven mistakes I can remember.
Jim Konski was a lifelong cyclist. In 1975 he made his first attempt at PBP but didn’t finish and then founded International Randonneurs, arguably the start of randonneuring in the US. He returned again to PBP in 1979 and succeeded in getting his PBP medal in 1983.
I corresponded with Konski about how to get into PBP. He told me that in 1979 for the first time prospective riders had to complete four qualifying rides called brevets within time limits:
13:30 hours for the 200 KM (125 miles): Ray, Stan and I rode our annual spring event, the 200 KM Mt. Hamilton Challenge.
20 hours for the 300 KM (187 miles): We rode the Davis Double Century.
27 hours for the 400 KM (250 miles): We rode the Mt. Lassen DC and for the additional 50 miles I rode around Lake Almanor a second time.
Mistake #1. On the 50-mile loop my saddle felt too low so I stopped, raised it a bit and retightened the Campy seat post bolt … and broke it. I rode standing to the little town of Westwood and bought a roll of adhesive tape, which I wrapped around the seat post. And every five miles or so I rewrapped the tape. Despite the mechanical I finished in 15 hours just as dusk was fading. Never work on your bike during an event and risk breaking something.
40 Hours for the 600 KM (372 miles): I recruited Ray and Stan to help me be inventive. I rode the Davis DC route and they met me where the aid stations were on the DC. We started at 6 a.m. and finished about 6 p.m. We had a hotel room and slept until about midnight. Then we started north on the flat frontage road along I-5. They met me a couple of times and after about 85 miles we turned south.
Mistake #2. PBP probably had about 35,000 ft. of climbing in ’79. The Davis DC had about 8,000 ft. as I remember. My 600 KM with only 8,000 ft. had less than 50% of the climbing of 600 KM in PBP. My final preparation brevet should have simulated PBP.
I sent Konski letters confirming I’d done the ride, which were signed by the organizers of the first three rides and Ray for the 600 KM.
Participants in PBP could choose one of three start times. As I remember I started at 10 a.m. with a group that had 84 hours to finish. I was on my Alex Singer, a French custom bike, which gave me cred. I started at my California DC pace riding with a strong group. I decided to pull through to the front and share the work. The French team at the front made it clear I was disrupting their rotation and didn’t belong there. I dropped back. A rider reached into his jersey pocket, gave me something wrapped in foil and patted me on the back. A drumstick.
My headlight was an REI climbing headlamp powered with two 3 volt lithium batteries. I’d strapped it to the handlebars. That night the riders welcomed me at the front because of my bright light.
PBP has a series of controls where riders must check in and which provide food, showers, a mechanic, and a floor to sleep on.
My wife took the train to meet me at a hotel at Loudeac control, about 450 km (275 miles) into PBP. My qualifying 400 KM took about 15 hours so we estimated about 15 – 16 hours to Loudeac. I would be there between 1 and 2 a.m. Wrong. She found me wandering the streets after dawn looking for the hotel. After a dinner of bread and cheese, four hours of sleep, and a breakfast of croissants and jam, I got on the bike about 10 a.m., having wasted five hours of daylight.
When I started pedaling my legs started talking back and I was riding noticeably slower.
Mistake #3: I had left Paris riding at my California double century pace, not pacing myself for the equivalent of almost four back-to-back double centuries. I went out too fast – the right group was somewhere behind me. Now I recommend riders train at the pace they expect to ride on the way back from Brest and to start PBP at this pace.
I don’t remember much about the ride to Brest except that it was hillier and harder than I’d anticipated. In Brest riders were enjoying full meals with carafes of wine. I had soup or something and bottled water and headed back to Loudeac. Loudeac – Brest – Loudeac was about 350 km, a little over a California double century. I rode those California doubles in about 12 hours so we estimated I’d be back in Loudeac in 13 – 14 hours. Wrong again. I remember getting to Loudeac in the wee hours of the night after 15 or 16 hours of riding.
Mistake #4: Poor planning. I’ve since learned the value of having several plans and encourage my clients to have several plans. The base case is the expected ride. They also make plans for a bad ride but still finishing within the time limit. If they’re having a poor ride then they can follow the poorer ride plan instead of freaking out. And they make an optimistic plan in case they have tailwinds and faster pace lines.
I managed to get on the road by mid-morning in Loudeac. The plan was to ride from Loudeac to Paris without a sleep break. This is when things got interesting. My plan was to eat food similar to what I ate on double centuries: sandwiches and fruit. The controls didn’t have fruit. By then I’d developed mouth sores and couldn’t eat the crusty bread of sandwiches. I ate soup and pasta at the controls but this wasn’t enough to fuel my legs for the rides of about 50 to 100 KM between the controls. Reflecting back I’d bonked and crashed into the wall of exhaustion, a new experience. On top of everything else, my skin was getting wrinkly and my legs seemed to be shrinking. My glycogen stores were empty so my body was metabolizing my muscle fibers into glucose, i.e., my muscles were shrinking.
Mistake #5. I assumed I could get the same food at controls in France as at rest stops in California. In the days before the Internet other than books about French cuisine, there were no good sources for info on French food. I should have realized I’d have to adapt. I should have eaten more at the controls and stopped at patisseries to eatthe Paris-Brest, a French dessert of delicate pastry and praline flavored cream that was high in energy.
I hooked up with a Brit who’d claimed to be the minimum age of 18 although he was only 17. We rode similar paces and talked to keep each other moving down the road. I had stashes of Excedrin and No-Doz, which we both used. I’d developed saddle sores but the Excedrin didn’t help.
Mistake #6. Carry a lubricant you’ve tested on training rides.
My wife had made me a nylon musette to carry gear, larger than the ones the pros use. For night riding I had a windbreaker and arm warmers, which weren’t enough. The cold helped keep me awake but we finally had to stop and dozed for a while on church steps.
Mistake #7. I assumed summer temps in France were like summer temps in California. And I hadn’t taken into account the effect of fatigue on my thermoregulatory system. Plan for different kinds of weather.
More pills. Part way up a climb, huge French cows suddenly started coming down the road toward us. What should I do? Ride back down to get away from them? And have to reclimb that part of the hill? Or keep going and hope I didn’t get stepped on. The adrenalin gave me energy and I climbed more quickly … and the cows turned into houses. PBP was getting very weird.
After dawn my buddy and I stopped at a café. He told me to take my windbreaker off so I’d have it to put on when we got on the road. But I was shivering and kept it on. We argued and then both stormed off on our bikes trying to drop each other. I now regret the fight and wish we had finished together after suffering through the night.
I finished in 73h 25m, one of the early American riders to finish PBP and well under the 84 hour cut-off. In 1979 1,881 riders started PBP and 1,574 finished.
PBP is run every four years. In 1983 the painful memories were still too powerful for me to think about going. Then I finished the ’87, ’91, ’95 and ’99 PBPs. In 1992 I set a course record in Boston-Montreal-Boston, covering 750 miles with 35,000 feet of climbing in 52 hours 35 minutes. In 2004 I rode the Rocky Mountain 1200 through the mountains of British Columbia and Alberta, a spectacular ride. This was the only time I saw a bear on a 1200K!
Training for a long-distance event requires many, many hours in the saddle. My interests changed to include mountain biking and cross-country skiing. I continued to ride on the road but not nearly as many hours as when I was training for 1200 KMs.
I wrote this column Anti-Aging: Nine Old Friends from Paris-Brest-Paris whose interests also changed and didn’t ride PBP 2023.
My Related eBooks
Endurance Training and Riding My three article bundle teaches you how to train effectively, eat correctly and ride an endurance ride.
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Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written over 40 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John’s full bio.