Nick’s 2015 Paris-Brest-Paris: Had We But World Enough and Time

We’re heading into the spring riding season, and as we do the dreams of big rides take shape. To help stoke the flames of our big ride plans, I’m featuring friend and fellow D.C. Randonneur Nick Bull’s PBP story, “Had We But World Enough and Time.”

Nick’s story gives the reader an inside look at PBP, as well as a glimpse of the pressures we deal with when tackling multi-day rides. Nick’s dedication to his PBP preparation as well as his tenacity during the event helped him pedal successfully to another PBP finish. Well done, Nick, and thank you for sharing your story with us!

Preparations: Unfinished Business

Deciding to go back to PBP in 2015 was tough — PBP 2011 was such a perfect ride that it seemed like I was courting disappointment to go back. But ultimately I decided I had two pieces of unfinished business.

First, after PBP in 2007, I ran out of time to ride the Normandy D-Day beaches as planned. Second, during PBP in 2011 I was so intent on finishing that I didn’t “stop and smell the roses”–so when I realized that I had passed the crepe stand in La Tanniere, I didn’t turn back for a crepe, instead I thought “I don’t have time for that” and kept on pedaling.

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I decided to return to PBP with four goals: Ride safely (which means stop for a nap anytime I feel snoozy); Ride a little more like a tourist and stop when there’s something interesting; If reasonably possible, finish PBP in time.

Planning and training for PBP itself included six months of hard training and parsimonious eating to lose weight (this time I’ll keep it off for sure!!!).

Packing-up yielded only one surprise: For many years I’ve ridden with my handlebars level with the saddle, but over the last year I have adjusted my saddle down about an inch so the bars are relatively higher. I decided that when I put the bike back together I’d drop the bars 1/4″, thinking this would improve aerodynamics and pedaling efficiency.

The trip to Paris was trouble-free. Bike inspection was a breeze. Getting D.C. Randonneurs together for a group photo was like herding cats! So we have at least three “group” photos.

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PBP: “Paris” to Loudeac

The start of PBP was so trouble-free that it almost didn’t seem like PBP. I rolled out with George Winkert, Mike Wali, and Bob Counts. The French countryside was magnificent, the ville de fleury was flowery, the early evening light was exquisite. The French people are so enthusiastic it’s hard not to put on a burst of speed every time someone cheers you on. Calista Phillips came up and we both rode with our forearms on our handlebrs for a bit. I met riders from Minnesota and California and we chatted for a bit.

When dusk came, Bob Counts and I stopped to night-up, and I noticed the electrical connector on my taillight was loose. As I tried to get tighten it, it fell off in my hand. Not good! But I had two battery taillights just in case, so we rode on and I didn’t try to fix it.

Ride Your Own Ride

George and I had agreed that we’d ride together if convenient, but that we’d each ride our own rides. For me that means–keep an even, consistent pace and minimize stoppage time; not wait at controls for others but instead soft-pedal and figure they’d catch up.

When George and the others rode hard to join a pace line about 50 miles in, I decided to let them go. About 10 miles later they were all stopped at a cafe. I rode on, expecting to see them later. I did see Calista Phillips shortly after, surprising considering how fast she is.

Don’t Change Anything Before a Big Ride

Somewhere around this point I noticed my shoulders were aching and realized that yet again that in lowering my handlebars I had made the stupid, rookie mistake of changing something (anything!) before a long ride.

I concluded that when I got to Mortagne I’d have to disassemble the stem from the steering tube and raise it back up. It’s somewhat harrowing to make such a major adjustment in the field, to say the least!

As soon as I got back on my bike it was instantly obvious that I’d made the right call, the shoulder pain was gone. The miles to Villaine went by fast and I was efficient at refilling bottles and getting my card stamped.

Eat Proper Meals

Then I decided that I had better follow through with the major lesson I had learned from PBP in 2011: STOP AT EVERY OTHER CONTROL TO EAT A PROPER MEAL. Once I found the cafeteria, it had a 100-foot long line outside it, longer than I’d ever seen at PBP, but I figured that regardless I should just bite the bullet and wait in line because it is important to STOP AT EVERY OTHER CONTROL TO EAT A PROPER MEAL.

Also, I figured for sure George and Mike would come up while I was stopped and it’d be nice to ride with them. It took me almost 40 minutes to get and wolf down my dinner, but because I had arrived ahead of schedule, I left right about on time. Still no Mike and George, though. Maybe they passed me while I was stopped? I decided to ride a little harder to try to catch them.

After Villaines, I vaguely remember riding fast with others who were riding fast in the dark. But as I saw dawn coming up, I was looking for the sleep spot where I stopped in 2011. I wanted to do the same trick I had done then: Pull off just before dawn, catch fifteen or twenty minutes of sleep, wake up as the sun was coming up, and trick my body into thinking I’d gotten a full night’s sleep.

I must have ridden right by the 2011 spot, but instead found a lovely little spot up a driveway near a gate near La Fortinier. I parked my bike on one side of the driveway, and lay down for a lovely little sleep on what looked like chip-seal painted white. Nonetheless, I woke up refreshed and raring to go.

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Riding through the French villages was wonderful as always. It’s so inspiring to have all of the children out there cheering and wanting to slap your hand. At Fougeres, I tried to do a faster control, but had forgotten that the layout has you park your bike at the rack, only to discover that the control itself is several hundred yards away. I think I rode in with some California randos including Kitty Goursolle, but somehow we became separated.

Big Meals Are a Timesink!

After hiking to and from the control, then taking my bike over to the cafeteria, I spent ages waiting in line for the one bathroom activity that is harder to do in the woods, then waited in an even longer line for the “Quick” cafeteria. Yee Gods! Another 35 minutes to get done what should take 10 minutes!

Leaving Fougeres I was about half hour behind schedule, but not worried. I took my time drinking in the views of the castle and stopping to take photos. By Tinteniac, I had made up a little time, and controlled in only 17 minutes, leaving on schedule.

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Loudeac to Brest

Loudeac was another time sink, taking 70 minutes just to control and EAT A BIG MEAL. Despite being a scheduled sleep stop, I didn’t feel particularly sleepy, so decided to press on. It was quite lovely out and I figured that I could make it to the sleep stop at St Nicolas du Pelem, or at worst sleep by the side of the road.

The riding was idyllic in balmy temperatures with the lovely sunset colors painted on all the hills. As I was riding along, I chatted with riders who I passed or who passed me, and discovered that every single rider was planning to stop at St Nicolas.

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The Complexities of Roadside Snoozing 

I knew I wouldn’t be able to make it to Carhaix without sleep, so when I saw a little picnic ground I pulled over planning to get a good sleep–my goal was three hours.

The picnic ground was in a V made by two roads, one of which had all the village houses across from it, and the other was a sunken road with 15-foot drop-off, quite a steep berm. I spread out my space blanket/cocoon near the drop off, trying to be quiet because there was another randonneur sleeping 30 feet away.

Trying to lay out a space blanket quietly does not work, but I set it out with as little noise as I could, lay down on top, and it was lovely and warm. I soon dropped off to sleep, only to wake up an hour later, shivering, because the temperature had dropped fifteen degrees when the sun went down.

I crawled into the cocoon but I was shivering so hard that it was triggering little muscle cramps. I ate a bunch of electrolyte pills, tried to relax, and figured I would warm up soon. A few minutes passed, and it became abundantly clear that I’d slept enough to not be able to fall asleep again. With only an hour of sleep, I packed everything back up and pressed on to St Nicolas, where I figured I had better stop to get some proper sleep.

In St Nicolas, I grabbed a quick bite to eat, then spent five minutes looking for a sign to the “Dortoir” (dormitory). Finally, a PBP-ish official came over and asked what I was looking for. He asked where I had parked my bike. Of course I had parked it as close as possible to the control. No good, says the official, I have to move it further away, so we spent five minutes looking for a place.

We then spent five minutes walking to the Dortoir, which turns out to be located on the south coast of France. Five minutes in line. Five minutes walking to a cot and getting settled. There was a huge, red digital clock on the wall and I made a note of what time it should say when it was time for me to go.

Tired, Sleep a Little

I lay there and lay there and lay there, not falling asleep. Finally, I rolled over to look at the big clock to see if it was time to go … and the clock was switched off. I looked at my iPhone, but I must have been disoriented because I decided it must be time to go. I thought I had slept almost three hours, but in fact it was only about an hour and a half.

With fog and temperatures in the mid-40s, I pressed on to Carhaix. Once there, I figured I should EAT A BIG MEAL again, which meant 3/4 of an hour of stoppage. By now, I was over an hour behind schedule, somewhat behind on sleep, and what sleep I had gotten was crappy. I rolled out of town, soon to be overtaken by Carol Bell. I tried to keep up for a bit, but they were too fast for me, so I let them go.

So Tired, But Can’t Sleep

I was starting to feel quite drowsy so I took a caffeine pill. Pedal pedal pedal pedal, caffeine pill not working. I decided to pull off. I lay my bike down, took another caffeine pill, and crawled into the cocoon and wolfed down a PayDay bar and tried to sleep. But the bikes were whooshing by and the riders were all chatting and the bright lights kept making my eyes open.

I stuck my shoulders back out of the cocoon to get my earplugs and eye cover, only to discover that my bike was pointed away from me, so I had to either crawl out of the cocoon (tricky with bike shoes that might rip it–plus chilly) or crawl over the bike in the cocoon.I crawled over the bike and reached in and snagged the little baggie with the earplugs etc out of the handlebar bag, along with some gloves.

On my way back down to the ground, I slipped and leaned on my helmet, and something cracked. Oh well, something to deal with later. I crawled in to the cocoon again, only to discover that my gloves had disappeared. I couldn’t find them anywhere so I figured they were lying on the ground getting damp. Another thing to deal with when I got up. I tried to relax and go to sleep.

By now, the two caffeine pills had kicked in and it was like my eyelids had been pinned open. I got up to go, found my gloves in the bottom of the cocoon, and discovered that the auxiliary cue-sheet-reading helmet light was cracked off. Oh, well, how many times do you look at the cue sheet on PBP?!? Total stoppage time, 24 minutes, zero sleeping!

More Snoozies Call for a Nap Under the Willow Tree

I pressed on over the unremitting climbs between Carhaix and the Roc Trevezel, finally arriving at the Roc and riding hard up the long, gradual, and seemingly never-ending climb. Coming down from the Roc, it was just coming up dawn and I was starting to get snoozy when I reached a spot where I’d slept in 2011, next to a little wall under a willow tree.

I caught 20 minutes of shuteye and left feeling tremendously refreshed. On the way in to Brest, I rode with Kitty Goursolle and some Californians and we had a very pleasant ride, it really helped the time pass. I talked with Kitty about whether 1200s maybe are not a health-enhancing thing to do, and maybe this’ll be the last one. We had a great time taking photos on the bridge in to Brest.

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Arriving in Brest. Photo by Kitty
Falling Behind Schedule, and What About this Bathroom Situation?

By the time I got to Brest, I was now two hours behind schedule, what with all the time spent EATING BIG MEALS, and wasted trying to get ineffective sleep, or standing in line to take care of basic bodily functions for which the PBP planners seem incapable of making adequate provision (PBP needs more PORTA-POTTIES!). I bumped into Gardner and Theresa who told me that George and Mike had left Carhaix with them, so they were probably already through the control.

I felt a little hopeless, I knew I was behind schedule, but it was demoralizing that I was now so far behind that i was behind the two I’d hoped to ride with. Then as I was leaving the control I remembered that Bill Beck was keeping an online tracking sheet, so I went on-line with my iPhone and discovered that although I was listed as controlling at Brest, neither George nor Mike had controlled there yet, and in fact had left Carhaix well after me.

Brest to Loudeac

After Brest, the route goes through many small towns before re-climbing the Roc, and it was a lovely day and sunny and warm. The sort of weather that makes you feel a little drowsy.

When I saw a pretty little spot off the road and near a stream, I decided to get another few minutes of shut-eye. It was the first, fairly extended and effective sleep that I’d had, an hour. I figured for sure I’d see Mike and George when I woke up, but no. Maybe they’d passed me?

Losing More Time = Unfavorable Math

I crested the Roc and rode over the undulations to Carhaix and ate another BIG MEAL, and by the time I left I was 3-1/2 hours behind schedule. Have I mentioned that my schedule had me arriving at 88 hours, with only two to spare? The math was looking a little unfavorable. However, I was hoping I could make up time by controlling faster.

On the route in to Loudeac, riders seemed to be just flashing by me, taking steep, sandy corners at an unbelievable speed. My post-ride analysis shows that this was the only section where my moving speed was appreciably below forecast. Somewhere I encountered Chris Heg who was having a hard, hard time because of his cold.

NO MORE BIG MEALS

In Loudeac, I ate a BIG MEAL, and sat with the North Carolina boys, Mike Dayton, Ian Hands, and others. I told them how far I was behind schedule, now almost four hours, and they said “What are you doing here? The cafeteria is the biggest time-sink in the universe” (or something like that).

I decided “No more BIG MEALS, I don’t have time!” But first I needed to get some sleep, so I went looking for the Dortoir, which apparently has no signs. Eventually I found my way to the Dortoir, which had a line around the block so I decided to just roll on and find a spot on the road. I changed into clean shorts, put on my arm and leg warmers and long-sleeved jersey, and hit the road.

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Loudeac to “Paris”: Had we but world enough and time …

I needed to find a sleep stop. Soon. And as I was riding along, four hours behind schedule, I started thinking about a line from an Andrew Marvell poem, To His Coy Mistress, “Had we but world enough and time”.

That line seemed like it was starting to be the story of my PBP. I had world enough–maybe too much–but not enough time!

Perfecting the Rando Nap Technique

About five miles after Loudeac I found a picnic ground and stopped to sleep. This time I angled the bike toward me, got everything I could reasonably expect to need including every available item of clothing, crawled into the cocoon, forced down some candy bars, and conked out.

Every so often I’d wake up just enough to roll over, and every time I did this the condensation from my breath rained down inside the cocoon. No problem, I’m wearing my raincoat! After a couple of hours I woke up but really felt like I could use a little more, so I slept another twenty minutes. Best sleep in days!

I hopped back onto my bike, riding into the interminable darkness and hills. After a long time of this, I heard someone say “I love ze fat Americans, they are so good to draft behind.” And I thought “Hey, they speak pretty good English, maybe we can chat.” Then the rider came up and it was Mike Wali! We chatted for a while, then Mike pulled ahead and I couldn’t keep up.

A little later, I caught him in Illifaut where he was preparing to lie down on the sidewalk and catch forty winks. I joined him but we woke up soon after, maybe ten minutes, and rolled on out into the frigid countryside again.

The Rando Feather Bed

Mike soon dropped me, and I was feeling terminally drowsy so I stopped in a school-bus shelter and got a half hour snooze. At first I lay on the bench seat, but I was scared I would roll off and hit the ground hard, so I just lay down on the concrete. Mm, rando feather bed!

I continued on to Quedillac where I got another fifteen minutes sleep on the floor. I vaguely remember looking at the barbecue there, but there was a long line so I rolled on. Chris Heg came in as I left. The bad news is that at this point, I was five hours behind schedule, with less than 400km to go.

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Tinteniac, Fougeres, and Villaines are a blur. I know I was riding with Nigel Greene and Katie Raschdorf for a while, but they eventually rode on. Since I had decided I wasn’t going to STOP AND EAT A BIG MEAL EVER AGAIN, I bought something like five baguettes avec jambon y fromage in Tinteniac, ate them as I rode, then resupplied whenever I got down to two.

Leaving Tinteniac, my time deficit was down to four hours. By Fougeres, 3.4 hours.

No Big Meals, but Treats and More Treats

I left Fougeres and then felt snoozy so I pulled off and had a nice, 45-minute nap in the sun, until a little rain shower blew over. I think the crepe stop is somewhere along the way here, and I stopped and ate a crepe that couldn’t be beat.

I should have asked for another but didn’t want to seem greedy! What was I thinking? Some little while later, there was a fairly large tent in a village square and I stopped and they were giving away food. I ate several different kinds of cakes and rolls. Fabulous!

I think it was in these controls that I started encountering Hamid Akbarian’s wife, Shab, and occasionally Mike’s wife, Angie cheering me on at the controls. As soon as I got to the control in Villaines, I carried my bike up some stairs, rolled up to the control itself, and leaned my bike against the wall.

By this state I was out of caffeine pills and wanted to get more just in case, so I went to the Medecin who said they don’t have caffeine pills in France. Anywhere. Wow! By the time I left Villaines, my time deficit was down to 2.4 hours.

I rode very hard along this section, right at the limit, for mile after mile. I was trying to make up time, yes, but also it was just great fun to be riding as hard as I could. I rode with Narayan Krishnamurthy for a while, and he was fun to talk with. I rode with some other SIR (Seattle) riders but I can’t remember whom.

Something Purple Levitates Nick’s Head Right Off

At some stage, I was riding with Andy Speier and we saw a roadside stand that had gallon bottles of something purple. I had heard of Calvados and I thought that’s what it might be.

Even so, one small sip levitated the top of my head right off. Instant trepannation! I had another small sip and decided I had better roll on. I left Andy drinking a little more of it. The next few miles had a certain strange kind of energy to them.

Eating Away the Time Deficit

Eventually I got to Mortagne. Coming in to Mortagne, my time deficit was down to 2 hours. I bought more baguettes avec jambon y fromage and then went to get some sleep. It was hot in the dortoir so I took off a layer.

The sleeping mats were two millimeters thick. Nonetheless, I got a solid 2-1/2 hours of sleep, waking up just before the PBP volunteer came by to wake me. I scrabbled my gear together and went out into the surprisingly-warm air. Fast controlling plus a bit less than the scheduled sleep at Mortagne meant that I was leaving only 45 minutes behind schedule.

What’s a 1200K Without Some Kind of Light Issue?

Unfortunately, once I got going I realized my front light wasn’t coming on. I pressed this button and that button, but nothing seemed to work. So I stopped and dug out my spare helmet light and velcroed it to the handlebars. Almost as good as the dynamo light, but still disconcerting.

A mile or so later I tried the “on” button for my headlight and lo and behold it came on. Who knows what I was doing wrong? Meanwhile, the hills after Mortagne are quite impressive, particularly in the dark because you can’t see where they end. It was warm and humid so I was starting to really sweat. I quickly disrobed to my lycra layer, and was on my way again.

Back at PBP and the Chip-Seal to Dreux Was Ready for Me

After the huge rollers, I was very-much looking forward to the smooth, flat road leading in to Dreux, as I remembered it from 2011. HA! This was the worst chip-seal job I’ve ever seen. Every yard or so, there were holes in the chip-seal down to the original surface. And the holes were not in a predictable line, easy to avoid.

My butt was seriously complaining in this section, the only time it was really noticeable on PBP. I realized that to make it more comfortable, I needed to speed up. I just didn’t have the umph to do it. All the pacelines that passed were so much faster, I couldn’t jump on.

Only Five Minutes Off Pace!

As I came into a left-turn in a village, a paceline slowed down and I hopped on. Soon we were hitting 20 to 25mph and the road was much more comfortable. Eventually the pace line stopped for a nature break, so I continued on with a few pace-line remnants and we kept going hard.

Soon we were in Dreux, where I ate a ton of food. Despite spending 40 minutes stopped, here, I still made up time relative to schedule, departing Dreux only five minutes behind schedule.

In each long ride, some rain must fall
In each long ride, some rain must fall
Finally, I Get to Use My Rain Gear!

Not long after Dreux, Roger Hillas came up and we chatted as it started to drizzle, then pour. I stopped to put all my rain gear on and Roger left me. From here to the end, my sole focus was on avoiding flats.

Though I had enough time in the bank to deal with a flat, or even two, I knew that it would be pretty demoralizing to lose my buffer and be dealing with flat tires. So I was praying as hard as I could that it suited God’s purpose that I didn’t get a flat. Somehow the traffic lights during the last few miles did not seem as badly synchronized as in 2011, so it didn’t seem like I had to wait much.

The final few miles on the bike path through a park were so pleasant, I deliberately slowed down to savor the last few miles. I remember I was laughing at the humor of the French bicycle gods to slap us around a bit and dump rain on us for the final few hours, just so we knew how nice they’d been before.

Arrivée, Ahead of Planned Pace!

Soon enough, I was finished with PBP 2015, finishing in 87hours and 53 minutes, just slightly ahead of planned completion at 88 hours.

A couple of days later, I was feeling substantially recovered, and went on a huge adventure (for me at least) of riding 100 miles of loaded bicycle-camping-touring along the Normandy, D-Day coastline. But that’s another story…

At the finish!
At the finish!
Post-Ride Analysis

My ride plan cheat-sheet is shown here. I kept this in the map-case of my handlebar bag so I could keep track of how I was doing. My plan was to get nine hours of sleep (Slp) in three, three-hour chunks.

The graph here shows excess time above the ride plan, in four categories: Excess stoppage time outside controls, excess stoppage at controls, excess moving time, and excess sleep time

By Quedillac, my ride statistics showed 5 hours behind schedule, of which 72 minutes was excess stoppage time outside controls, 84 minutes was excess time in controls, 54 minutes was because of slower-than-forecast riding, and 90 minutes was “extra” sleep time (though much of that was just making up for the crappy sleep on the way out to Brest).

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By the end, I had turned these around to 6 minutes ahead of schedule, of which only 15 minutes was excess stoppage time outside controls, 84 minutes less stoppage time than planned in controls, 42 minutes less time on the bike than planned (faster-than-expected) riding speed, and 105 minutes “extra” sleep time.

What saved my ride was getting stoppage time under control, particularly at controls, and riding a little harder than might have been expected at the end of a 1200k. As it turns out, I did have world enough and time.

2 thoughts on “Nick’s 2015 Paris-Brest-Paris: Had We But World Enough and Time

  1. Very nice report Nick. What a great adventure! We got lucky on weather, for sure. The fog was a bit dangerous for me one morning. My PBP did not go according to plan, but it worked out in the end. I got only five hours sleep over the four+ days. Hotels along the way were a time-sink for me. And I kept arriving at controles which had run out of food (or I did not know where to look). Brest did not have enough bathrooms, I agree. The event was unusual for me because I did not talk to anyone much or ride long with anyone I knew. It was like being in a strange zone — with thousands of people around, but none that I knew. It is not an exaggeration to say that this event changed me. All the hype; the stories; the level of difficulty; the French supporters; the food, sleep deprivation — all true. The experience was all that I had heard, and that I had built-up in my mind. That, and more.
    See you in 2019 in Paris, I hope.
    PBP # L008

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