My girlfriend often jokes that I have the special ability to give any mundane scenario a grave moral dimension, to always be “ethically distraught” as she puts it. Such was the case with deciding whether or not to ride Paris-Brest-Paris. Could I really justify the enormous environmental cost of international air travel, just for the sake of a bicycle ride? And as of November, I was decided: I could not justify it, I would not ride.
Kyle K. was my best friend in high school. His special ability was to turn any situation into an absurd comedy. One of my fondest memories with him is of a road trip (by car) we took to see The Styrenes in Cleveland, Ohio. After the show we both had to be back to Lansing, Michigan for college finals. Exhausted, but with miles to go, we decided that we would sing to stay awake. Kyle had the stroke of genius that we would not just sing any songs, but sing the same song, over and over again. So that was how I came to sing “There’s A Man In Jerusalem” by the Southern Jubilee Singers for six hours straight.
Kyle and I had a great fight over the diverging courses our lives were taking, and as of his death in December we hadn’t spoken in over six years. My biggest regret in 29 years of life is having never reached out to him to patch things up. It pains me to conceive of the friendship I deprived myself of, on the basis of pride and stubbornness. These revelations and more forced me to reconsider my decision to pass on Paris-Brest-Paris. It is a tired trope, but perhaps one that everyone needs reminding of: life can be taken from you at any time, without warning and for no reason. What truly matters in life are the friendships we make, and the joyous times we have. When the time for pre-registration arrived, and I saw my friends discussing their start times on social media, I realized that there was no choice: I had to ride the event.
I determined that flexibility and spontaneity, rather than obsessive preparation, would be my ethos for this trip. In the face of so much foreignness, it seemed to me that it would be near impossible to predict what challenges might arise. It would be better, I reasoned, to embrace the adventure. As I wrapped up the assembly of my bike inside Charles De Gaulle Airport, I received my first text on my European SIM card from Preston (a relief, it worked!), “Me shawn and Bate are at a coffee shop. We are gonna hit the Singer shop soon.” So, all my luggage in tow, I headed straight for the legendary shop in Levallois.
I delighted in the glorious chaos of the workshop. Perhaps my own workshop could someday look so perfectly worn in. We loitered outside the shop catching up; and, it seemed that every ten minutes or so somebody else would show up on a classic randonneur bike to pay their respects. I had the feeling that this was a truly unique convergence. None of it had been prearranged, this was simply the place to be for fans of classic bicycles.
My ride to the hotel took me through several beautiful parks, surprisingly empty of people. In America, artifacts such as these statues would be regarded as a major destination; but, in Paris they were just another sight along the way.
It was raining when I awoke the next morning, and I determined to take the RER commuter rail line out to bike check in Rambouillet. At the train station, I struggled to get my bicycle through the turnstile, until a woman took pity on me and attempted to guide me with gestures. There was a secret passage below that allowed access to the platform. As I stepped on the the train I sighed in relief at the sight of other cyclists. Just to be safe, I asked “Rambouillet?” The other cyclist grinned and shook his head no, “Paris.” What terrible luck, these cyclists were returning from bike check, and I was on the train in the wrong direction!
Over breakfast, the next morning, my friend Sourav and I finally had a moment to relax and discuss life. Up until that moment the logistics of getting ready had absorbed every bit of my attention, and it was nice to take deep breath before starting my epic journey. One of the joys of randonneuring is making friends from all around the country (and the world). We may not see each other all the time, but when we do, there is always a lot to discuss! After breakfast, I departed again for Rambouillet, where riders were beginning to gather at the Hotel Mercure. My start time was 18:00, and I had a few hours to kill. At the hotel bar, I didn’t see any coffee pots, so I asked for an “Americano.” To my surprise, the bar tender started mixing up a cocktail. “Café?” I fearfully asked. The bartender laughed, “ah!” as he abandoned the cocktail glass in favor of the espresso machine.
It is here, at the starting line, that my story will, I fear, become significantly less linear. Sleep deprivation has that effect. As I rolled out, and saw my friends cheering, I called out to Shawn and Preston, “Vegan Punks PBP!” They wouldn’t be starting for a few hours yet, but I held onto hope that we would meet out on the road. For now, my mission was to catch Luke and Misha, thirty minutes ahead of me.
I hadn’t coordinated start times with any of my friends (maybe a good idea next time), but I quickly found riders that I had met on brevets earlier in the year. We rolled through our first village at sunset, still in a fairly large group. The level of excitement was high, and our pace was fast.
I spied Luke’s handlebar bag outside this pizza place in Mortagne-Au-Perche. Peering in, it looked as if an outlaw motorcycle gang had rolled into town. People were sitting, standing, sleeping, gesturing, wildly shouting, and devouring every scrap of food in sight. Walking in, I felt a great sense of accomplishment: I had achieved my first goal! Regrettably, there was not much food for me here (I am vegan and have celiac disease). I satisfied myself with half a bag of granola, a coke, and some fries bummed off another rider. Before long, we departed into the first dark night. Riding behind me, I heard Vinnie singing to himself,
In your eyes
The light the heat
In your eyes
I am complete
My energy gave out somewhere before the first control at Villaines-La-Juhel, and my stomach ached terribly (I later learned that many riders had similar symptoms). Sadly, I had to let my friends go, and I lay down for thirty minutes. It would have been easy to forget that I was anywhere at all during the night, until the sun rose over the village of Ambrières. These villages were like no place I had ever been before: a strange magic place. I found a cafe that morning, and ordered a large plate of fries. The proprietors were wonderfully grumpy. I met a rider from the Phillipines who told me of his club’s great collection of classic bicycles. I would love to see that collection, if only I had exchanged info with him!
I rode slowly for much of the day, hoping to catch my friends who had started at 20:00, and we finally met up shortly before the third control of Tinteniac. We swapped tips on vegan snacks in the French countryside, and Preston shared with me his coca-cola gummies. Nick shared the tip of ordering a bowl of rice, and dumping it into your vegetable soup (!). This tip alone, I feel, may have saved my ride. We planned to stop at a hotel shortly after Quédillac and get a bit of rest before the next night. I had an afterthought to check when my next control cutoff was, and to my dismay it was coming up. I asked my friends for permission to forget about getting credit for the ride, so that I could just ride at their pace. “No!” Shawn said, as he urged me down the road. Preston, Shawn, CJ, Ryan, and Nick retired to their hotel, and I lumbered down the lonely road.
Luckily, my loneliness did not last long. Emerging from an underpass just before Loudeac, I heard my name shouted from behind me. It was Misha, Luke, and Robert again! In my mind, we were headed into the wild for this next stretch. We rode under a big yellow moon and I noticed for the first time on this ride how many stars I could see. I also felt that my strength had finally returned. I remember trying to keep up with Luke as he sprinted up the rollers, trying to maintain momentum. I bumped into my friends from San Francisco, Ben, Irving, Ian, and Carlin. We crested a hill and came upon a relief station situated at a little village crossroads. It seems to me now that there was music and strings of lights, and that it felt like a party. Everybody was just a little crazy from the sleep deprivation, but our spirits were high. We were finally getting somewhere, and it seemed that nothing could stop us now.
A ditch nap separated me from my gang, shortly before the big climb in between Carhaix and Brest. Somehow I managed to catch them before the turn around, and we posed triumphantly for photos next to the iconic Pont de l'Iroise.
They gave us a PBP sticker at the control, and I felt a false sense of completion. I was forty hours in, and in desperate need of sleep. I awoke after an hour of sleep with a strange sense of panic. Where was I? Had I slept too long? I found a restaurant called “Tacos Time” and headed over in hopes of beans and rice. The owner looked at me like I was crazy, “no riz. Burgers.” I cannot for the life of me figure out why the place was called “Tacos Time,” however I managed to get another plate of fries.
The wind was now at my back, and I was having a blast. The rollers from the night before felt like hours of glorious descent in this direction. There seemed to be spectators everywhere, and there was even somebody watching from a hang glider. I stopped to drink a coke with one of the spectators, and another rider stopped with me. We did not speak, I don’t know if he spoke English, but there was an unspoken look, and we clinked our cans of soda.
I encountered Shawn in the little town of Sizun. He had gotten into a crash and was not feeling well enough to finish the ride. Despite the circumstances, he was in very good spirits. I admired his good attitude. I caught Preston again before Carhaix. I remember that we shook hands and agreed to do Cascade 1200 next year. We talked about how rolling through the villages at night makes you feel like you’re in one of those sports car races. How the roads have such a feel, and a flow. We were beginning to go nuts. We had been hoping to get all the way to Loudeac before sleeping, but it was not to be. I started getting the “nod-offs” around midnight, and had to stop for a ditch nap.
Later that night I bumped into Nate and Jeremy from Denver, and spent the night riding with them. Jeremy is an experienced framebuilder, and I wish we would have had a chance to talk shop; but, our pace was so fast that I didn’t dare stray from the paceline. I met Preston again at daybreak in Tinteniac. How had we gotten separated last night? What had happened? Neither of us seemed to really know.
We were having fun again, and the sun was out. I talked with my new friend Ryan, from Philadelphia, about how all of Europe had been clear cut long ago. What would this landscape look like if that had never happened? We were jamming to music on the stereo, and we even thought of stopping for a swim until we saw how murky the river was. We stopped at what felt like a French Walmart. It had an great selection of vegan food, and we feasted in the lobby of the supermarket. We had special European Doritos, that Ryan knew we should seek out. We had fake ice cream, and quinoa, and hummous and tofu.
The countryside almost looked like a battlefield, so numerous were the people sleeping on the roadside. I took a few portraits. Next time I will take more.
It was here, leaving Fougeres, that a very strange thing happened to me. I recall stopping with Preston for a ditch nap, but I don’t remember if we both woke up together. The next thing I remember was questioning who I was, and what I was doing. And the answer that I came up with was a strange one. I had been kidnapped by a French corporation. They were forcing me to ride across the country as a publicity stunt: to sell hemorrhoid cream! If I didn’t finish my ride in time, something terrible was going to happen to me. I’m not making this up, this was a real delusion I had. I was only brought out of it when a bee flew up my shirt and stung me. I pulled over to get a coke from some spectators and had the feeling of having been ripped from a dream by some invisible hand. Then I began to laugh hysterically at what a strange dream it had been.
Riding into Villaines-La-Juhel I met Bryan and Sam from Chicago. We talked custom bikes, and we talked about my plan to go to graduate school in the fall. We resolved to take an hours nap. I woke up two hours later when a drunk man woke me up to tell me that I looked cold. I had mixed up AM and PM on my alarms. Thank you rando gods! Who knows how long I would have slept otherwise? Realizing that time was no longer on my side, I hammered into the night.
Somewhere in this final night there was a support station where they were blasting Aqua’s “Barbie Girl.” That may have been the best moment in the entire ride. “Come on Barbie, let’s go party!” It was very cold that night, and I rode fast to stay warm. I rode with a tremendous descender from Slovenia, and I followed him closely so as not to lose him. It seemed to me that our tires on the asphalt sounded like a train rumbling down the tracks. There was a certain clarity to our adrenaline fueled madness. On this night, I did not get sleepy even once. A British rider told an amazing joke at one of the support stations, making fun of our President: I couldn’t retell it. I asked if I really had to return home at the end of the ride. He said that I did indeed have to go home, if only to bolster the numbers of the sane.
Delusion again took hold of me before Dreux. I had an intense feeling of déja vu and thought that some spirit had visited me to give special insight into our course. Leaving the control that morning, I encountered my friend from San Francisco who’s name I cannot recall (red bike, no helmet). He asked how I was doing, to which I responded “I AM OUT OF MY GODDAMNED MIND.” He said, “Yeah, me too!” And then a sense of calm came over me, and I knew that I would be able to finish the ride if I stuck with him.
We rolled into Rambouillet like a “ship of fools,” talking to ourselves and giddy to be so close to the end. One rider was apparently approaching her time limit, and was nonchalantly announcing to the group how much time she had remaining. I marveled as she announced that the time had passed, as if it didn’t mean a thing in the world to her. Perhaps someday I will be able to have such a good attitude about cycling. Our pace grew faster and faster as we approached the finish line, and all I could think of was a cold beverage. I finally arrived with thirty minutes to spare. I was anxious to go and get my card signed, but was informed that hugs come first.
Inside the tent, I couldn’t help but tear up as the volunteer hung the medal around my neck. My ride had been so much more challenging, more magical, and more rewarding than I had ever imagined it would be. Not only did I not spend my time riding alone, I managed to ride or hang out with with almost every single person I knew who was riding the event. I even caught Ian H. shortly after he finished his monumental ride in Charly Miller time on a fixed gear.
Although I had initially planned to split a room with Sourav out near Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, I was worried about my ability to handle the transit system the next morning. I decided to take a nap in Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, and then head to the airport and get a hotel room there for the night. I thought my trip was basically done, but PBP had one more bit of magic in store for me. As I rode my bike to make a connection between two different RER lines, I heard some voices in the crowd saying, “hey!” It was Preston, Shawn, and Ryan. In this whole giant city, we had somehow managed to bump into each other one more time. Shawn informed me that he was having trouble keeping the other two from mischief, so wild were they on lack of sleep. I picked up a huge order of avocado sushi, and we watched Paris nightlife unfold around us.