Paris-Brest-Paris 1999


A Memoir by Kent Peterson


I don't know much French, but in preparation for PBP, I'd learned a few key phrases that I'd hoped would be enough to get me by. Now in the darkness of the first few hours of the 1999 Paris-Brest-Paris I'm stopped in the roadway with a large group of puzzled looking French riders. I can't follow the specifics of the conversation but one word comes through quite clearly: perdu!


Perdu, the French word for lost. For months back in the states I'd practiced the phrase "Je suis perdu!" (I am lost!) and now here I am perdu with an entire peloton of other riders. How did we get off course?


That seems to be one of the major topics of discussion but a more pressing concern is getting back on course. We wind up following the fellow who can yell in French the loudest and hope for the best.


We'd all started in the second wave of the 90 hour group, leaving Saint Quentin at 10:15 PM on Monday August 23rd. The really fast guys, the 80 hour riders had pulled out at 8:00 PM, the velo specials (recumbents and tandems) left at 9:45 PM. The first wave of 90 hour riders took off at 10:00 PM. Behind us was another wave of 90 hour riders and at 4:00 AM on Tuesday the 84 hour riders would start. The theory of the staggered starts is that the really fast riders can blast through while the controls are relatively clear and the rest of the field sorts itself out as the ride progresses.


Another theory is that you follow a route sheet and the glowing arrows (fleches) that mark the route. In practice you just follow the tail lights of the rider in front of you. This works great as long as somebody in the group actually keeps track of where you are going but in the heat of the moment and the dark of the night, it's easy to miss a turn.


But now we see a reassuring fleche. Sighs of relief are the same in any language. We're back on course and we roll into the darkness of the Normandie countryside.


PBP is a huge ride with thousands of cyclists from all over the world. First held in 1891, PBP is billed not as a race but as a test, a 1200 kilometer ride to be completed in 90 hours or less. Riders are basically self supported, carrying all they'll need for the journey on their bikes. A rider may accept help from a support crew at control points that punctuate the course at approximately 100 kilometer intervals but the use of a support crew is not encouraged. In addition to accepting help at the controls, a rider may live off the land, stopping at stores and cafes. We can also accept support from the French farmers and villagers we meet along the route. But one important thing to understand and remember is that the clock doesn't stop for sleep, for food breaks, for anything. For most of us, the goal is not to win, but to finish.


Of course there are some "racers", although professionals are not allowed in PBP. The truly fast have taken off in the 80 hour group, committing to a completion time at least ten hours faster than what I've signed up for. These riders will live on Gu, not sleep at all, and ride for speed. The fastest will be back at Saint Quentin in under 45 hours. In the odd logic of PBP, I find this fact comforting. It lets me tell myself that what I am doing is rational.


"Rational" in this case means that I've spent the past year of my life focussed on this event. I've crawled out of a warm bed at 2:00 AM on cold rainy Sunday mornings to ride 300 KM training rides in the Cascade mountains near my home. I've ridden hundreds of kilometers of qualifying brevets with other similarly demented individuals. I've obsessed over every detail of my bike, my lights, my clothing and my tools. It's perfectly rational to spend thousands of hours in training and thousands of dollars in transit to ride 1200 kilometers through a thoroughly foreign country.


I am here and I am riding.


An odd thing happened when I landed in France. In America, I'd never been able to think in kilometers. I'd tried switching my bike computer over to kilometers and riding my routes, but my brain was always converting to miles and I'd convinced myself the the years of logging miles were too deeply ingrained for me to ever be able to make the switch.


But when I unpacked my bike in France, I very simply switched the computer to kilometers and somehow my brain switched over. My hotel in Plaisir was a bit under 13 kilometers from the PBP start in Saint Quentin and I never even thought what that distance was in miles. I knew it in kilometers and I knew how long it would take to ride.


Similarly, my tiny knowledge of French made me a child again. I probably understood fewer words than your average intelligent French dog, but I was never thinking "Oh why don't you people speak English?" I was intent on figuring out how to get by with my minimal vocabulary and learn what new words I'd need to get by. This filled every day with tiny victories and wonderful discoveries. The simple act of walking into a bookstore and successfully buying a map was an accomplishment equal in my mind to independently inventing calculus.


I learned to work French cash machines, eat French food and find my way on French streets. Of course, there was much I didn't understand but I was learning that I could get by. I could do this.


My lovely wife knew far more French than I and while I'd be out riding she would fearlessly explore Paris. She would see paintings and cathedrals and gargoyles. I'd see four thousand tail lights and a hundred small villages along the road from Paris to Brest and back.


Now I'm on the road, my phrase book back at the hotel and all I know had better be all I'd need. I feel great.


We are out of the suburbs of Paris now and out into the countryside of Normandie. The roads are incredibly smooth, the night is incredibly dark and we are a small rolling city of cyclists. At times I see a glow of lights up ahead and think we are coming into a town but it turns out to only be a cluster of bike head and tail-lights.


In the dark of the Normandie forest we pass many riders and are passed by others. On one climb, we roll by the most special of the velo specials, a fellow cranking his way over the course on an arm-powered trike.


It's a long way to the first control and somewhere in the night there is a small village and a bar that is open. Many riders choose to press on but many of us choose to stop. Back in the states I never drink Coca Cola but here "Coca, si vous plait!" and a few francs is all I need to refuel and recharge.


It's the small hours of the morning and there are very few cars on the road. But even in the middle of the night, there are French farmers and villagers waiting by the road side, encouraging us as we pass. "Bon Courage!" they call and "Bon Route!". The Anciens of PBP had told me about this but hearing about it and living it are two very different things.


In the dark it's hard to tell the nationality of riders, but certain rules of thumb are true more often than not. Americans are on the techno bikes with awesome lights. The French are riding older bikes at a consistent pace and they tend to have feeble lights. The Brits have mud guards, big Carradice saddle bags and dynamo-powered lights. Another safe bet is that if a bike is odd, it's pilot is a Brit. Many of the recumbents, the fixed gear bikes, and the trikes have British riders.


I'm bundled up against the cool night air in my trusty brown wool sweater which covers my Seattle jersey and effectively masks my nationality. Add the fact that I'm riding a Bike Friday that looks suspiciously like a Moulton in the dark and you'll understand why I found myself in variants of the same conversation many times in the course of PBP. I'd be riding along, either passing or being passed by someone and he'd look over and say "English?" I'd reply "No, American!" and my companion would look doubtful. I wound up meeting a lot of the British riders this way.


The classiest fellow on all of PBP was Drew Buck, a Brit riding a 1904 Dursley Pedersen. When I first saw him the first night, I wrongly assumed he was riding one of the modern Pedersen replicas. Another fellow set me straight -- Drew's bike is a lovingly restored 1904 three-speed. Later, at one of the controls, I had a chance to chat briefly with Drew and he showed me the beautiful, almost clock-like gear mechanism. Drew rode with great style, carrying all his provisions in a wicker basket on the front of his bike.


At 4:30 AM, I pull into the feeding stop at Mortagne Au Perche. On the outbound leg of PBP this technically isn't a control point, but it does give me my first indication of what the controls will be like. It's crowded, loud and busy. I munch one of my granola bars and buy an Orangina. I leave at 4:55 AM and somehow I don't feel very rested by this rest stop.


I keep riding, waiting for sunrise. I begin to feel quite tired and the thought of a quick nap keeps bubbling to the top of my list of things to do. I tell myself that if I see a good place to stop, I'll rest for a bit. A bit later, I see a nice gate in front of a small farm house. I pull over and sleep for ten minutes.


The nap was wonderful and now I'm alert, back on the road and the sun is up. I'm thinking about the time because in PBP you not only have to finish in a set amount of time, you also have to hit the control points within certain time limits. I always want to have some time "in the bank" to allow for mechanical problems, getting lost, rough terrain or other unforeseen circumstances.


I reach the control at Villaines La Juhel at 9:08 AM. I now have a three hour buffer built up and this control is lovely and well organized. I have my booklet stamped and my mag card scanned and I have a nice lunch at the "self", a self-serve buffet. I get all of this done within the space of an hour. I see some of the other Seattle riders here and they ask how I'm doing. "Great," I reply, "I'm living the dream!"


And this is a dream come true. Cycling in France is amazing. We are the kings of the road. The French people are cheering us on and the drivers are courteous and skillful. If they can't pass you, they won't. They will hang back patiently until it is safe to pass and they don't honk their horns. If they can pass you, however and they can clear by even a centimeter, they will pass at top speed. It's a bit disconcerting at first but my awe at the skill of French drivers increases with every passing kilometer.


Even the French dogs are different than American dogs. In general, they do not bark as we pass and they never give chase. The only dogs that bark are the ones locked behind gates. If a French dog is out, you may safely assume it is a civilized dog.


We are now cycling through hilly farmland. It's not very steep and in general the hills aren't long, but the countryside is virtually never level. My Bike Friday climbs very well and I've trained in the Cascade mountains so I'm really enjoying the ride. But the sun is beating down and it's getting very warm. As the day progresses, I peal off layers until I'm down to my shorts and jersey. I tie my bandana to the back of my helmet to keep the sun off my neck.


At one point I run out of water but at the next village there are French children calling out "de l'eau" so I stop and they fill my bottles. The local water is wonderful and tastes even better as the temperature climbs.


It's really getting hot now and by the time I pull into Forgeres at 2:00 PM, I'm thinking more about thirst than hunger. I buy and drink three cans of orange juice and get a couple of big bottles of water. I spend 50 minutes at this control.


Whenever I stop, I get quizzed about the Bike Friday. The French people love the bike, calling it the "petit velo" (little bike) and many of them ask is I have to pedal harder because of the little wheels. I point to the big front sprocket and assure them that it is a "bon petit velo" (good little bike) and do a pantomime of how the bike can fold up to fit in a suitcase. Many people take pictures of the bike. When I'm stopped at places with my friends who have recumbents, I see that Bike Friday and the recumbents get about the same amount of attention. We'd probably only get slightly more attention paid to us if we'd chosen to ride PBP naked!


I'm seeing people I know at almost every stop but I'm really not riding with any specific group. Like I'd done on the qualifying brevets, I'm riding my own ride and sticking to a pace that feels right for me. This means I sometimes I stop to eat and other times I eat on the bike. In my saddlebag and the pockets of my Camelbak I have fig newtons, granola bars and cashews.


I pull into the next control at Tinteniac at 6:00 PM. It's really warm and I'm anxiously awaiting the cool of the night. I spend 50 minutes at the control and then I'm off again. With the heat, I'm drinking lots of juice and eating very little.


At 11:25 PM, I pull into Loudeac. In the past 25 hours, I've cycled 460 kilometers and slept for ten minutes. I've got five hours of time in the bank and I could really use a nap. There's a big line to get into the sleeping space in the gymnasium, so I grab my space blanket out of my saddle bag, find a spot on the grass and sleep next to my bike and a few hundred other riders.


I wake up three hours later. It's cold now and my stomach decides to toss what remains of the six OJs I'd guzzled the day before. After barfing behind a bush, I feel much better. I go over the RUSA drop bag area, get my bag, change the batteries in my lights and replenish my supply of granola bars. I'm doing the ride basically unsupported, but I did decide to use the RUSA bag drop here for food, spare clothes and batteries.


The line for breakfast is long but not too long so I get something to eat. I see Ken Krichman at breakfast. He'd pulled in sometime after me and hasn't slept. He's spacey and indecisive about waiting in the food line. I'm not as hungry as I'd thought and offer him some of my stuff but he declines. I'm about to head out with a good portion of my breakfast uneaten but a French worker at the control is insistent that I at least finish my bowl of coffee. "Cafe, c'est bon!" he insists. I drink down the coffee and do feel better. I eat more of my fruit and yogurt. But time is running out and I get back on the road. It's 3:40 AM.


Out on the road it's both dark and foggy. This far into the ride, things have thinned out and I'm riding alone. Eventually I realize I haven't seen a fleche for a while. I note the road I'm on, D35. I pull over and check my route sheet. D35 is one of the PBP roads all right, but I should've been on it for a kilometer and then turned onto D53. I think I've been on D35 for several kilometers, but I'm not sure.


A trike zips on by me. Given that it's an odd vehicle, I figure it's rider is English but before I can yell out "I think you're going the wrong way!", he's gone. But now a truck pulls up beside me. The driver rolls down his window and casually asks "Perdu?"


"Oui!" I reply. "D53?" I ask. The trucker points back the way I'd come. "Merci beaucoup!" I say as I turn around. I figure the trucker would catch up with the triker and set him straight before he got too far off course.


I backtrack to where I'd missed my turn and find not only fleches but other riders. I'm back on course. I realize the problem is that my bike headlight lights the road but not the fleches beside the road. I have a small flashlight with me, so I tie that to my helmet. This gives me a beam that goes where I look and this helps me stay on course.


At 6:25 AM in the town of Corlay there is a secret control. I'm there very briefly and then ride on toward Carhaix. There is a brief thunderstorm which I welcome. Being from the Seattle area, I'm completely equipped to ride in the rain and after yesterday's heat, I'm very thankful for any clouds or rain.


I reach Carhaix at 8:24 AM. Because I'd slept at Loudeac and gotten perdu in the early morning my time buffer is down to under two hours. I only spend 30 minutes at this control before heading out again.


There has been a lot of talk about some big hill between Carhaix and Brest, so I am nervous. The terrain is still unrelentingly rolling and yes there does seem to be a general gentle climb, but surely this can't be the "wall" I'd been warned about. This is nothing. This can't be the hill.


The terrain keeps going up, but it's nothing like the mountain passes I'm used to from my training. At one point I'm alongside an Englishman and I ask him if this is the hill. "I'm not sure," he jokes, "I think the hill is like a secret control and they move it from year to year!" We continue climbing. It begins to rain again and various riders pull over to don rain gear but this looks to me like rain I can ride through quickly, so I press on. Sure enough, in five minutes the rain stops.


Now I see something that brings joy to my heart, a giant radio antenna. They always put antennas at the highest point of land so I know I'm at the top. The back side of the hill is also gentle and rolling. I know that later today I'll be climbing back up anything I'm descending now, so I'm glad to see that this also isn't anything extreme.


Now we are seeing Bretagne in all her glory. The town of Sizun like the dozens of small towns we'd already passed through only more so. The old church is older, the town square more picturesque, the cafe more inviting. I'm anxious to get to Brest, but I have to stop and take pictures. I vow I'll stop in Sizun on my way back.


Coming into Brest is breath-taking. I stop and convince a French rider to take my picture with the beautiful Brest suspension bridge in the background. Then I'm back on my bike and on to the control.


I check into the Brest control at 1:01 PM. I've built my time buffer back up to about three and a half hours. At this control they give you a coupon for a free drink and I have a Coke and a quick conversation with a French fan. He doesn't speak English but we talk about the bike and where I'm from. He explains that he has some relative in Florida (I couldn't quite figure out the relation) and that when he was younger he'd been in the merchant marine and sailed to the Gulf of Mexico and various ports in Texas then through the Panama Canal and up the west coast as far as Seattle and Vancouver, BC. He wishes me "bon route!" and I'm on the road again. I'd spent 21 minutes at this control, but I figure I have a snack stop in Sizun.


Back at Sizun, I go into a market and get my favorite snack: a liter of milk and a chocolate bar. I'm also looking over the ice cream snacks and the lady who runs the market sees me looking and points to a particular ice cream bar. "C'est bon!" she says. I take her review seriously and buy the ice cream bar. As I'm checking out a German rider is behind me in line. "You American," he says, "with your chocolate and your milk. I will have my beer!" And sure enough, he's buying two giant bottles of beer. Whatever fuels your ride.


Outside the market I find a patch of shade and eat the best ice cream bar ever made. It's a caramel flavored ice cream covered with chocolate and indeed "c'est bon!" I down the milk and a good bit of the chocolate bar but I realize I can't eat it all. I see a British rider and ask him if he'd like some chocolate, explaining that I can't eat it all now and that I know it would melt on the ride. He takes the chocolate and trades me some of the biscuits he's just bought.


I'm feeling good and riding strong. The climb back over the hill is fine and I pull into the Carhaix control at 5:58 PM with about five and half hours in the bank. At the Carhaix control I chat with Jan Heine, another Seattle rider. Jan is very strong and faster than me. Even though we are at the same control at the same time, I'm pretty sure he started with the 84 hour group, so he's basically 6 hours ahead of me at this point. But we are really just racing against ourselves and living the dream. Ever since Brest, my confidence has been high. I've seen the course now, I'm feeling good and my bike is working well. I just have to keep an eye on the time and try not to make any stupid mistakes. I spend 17 minutes at this control.


The ride from Carhaix to Loudeac is nice. The day has been partly cloudy and not nearly as hot as yesterday. I stop at Corlay, the site of this morning's secret control, and buy a creamy caramel pudding snack. I can't find a plastic spoon, I don't know the French word for spoon and the French store clerk isn't about to voluntarily give me a spoon. I wind up eating the pudding with my plastic insurance card.


I reach the Loudeac control at 10:07 PM with more than seven hours to spare. The lines are shorter now and I buy a grilled sausage wrapped in a crepe and book myself into the gymnasium for a nap.


This sleeping arangement, which I'd skipped last night because of the long lines, is very nice. I pay six francs and tell the people running the place that I'd like to be woken at 2:00 AM. A fellow guides me through the darkened gym with a flashlight to one of the hundreds of foam pads laid out on the floor. I take of my shoes, helmet and Camelbak, curl up in a blanket and I'm asleep in seconds. Three and a half hours later, right on schedule, someone firmly shakes me awake. I leave the gym and see that the lines at the "self" aren't too long so I go and get breakfast.


I have breakfast with Duane Wright, another rider from the Seattle area. After breakfast, I go over to the drop bag area and change the batteries in my lights. I also change my shorts and socks. At 3:33 AM I'm rolling again.


At 6:20 AM, I'm routed into the second secret control. I have a little something to eat and drink and linger a bit here. There are some other Seattle riders here taking quick power naps and I figure it might be worthwhile to grab a quick ten minute snooze. My internal clock is very reliable in general but this time I let the ten minutes stretch to twenty. I wake up feeling quite refreshed and roll out into the morning.


At 8:21 AM I'm at the Tinteniac control. Since I'd slept at Loudeac and the secret control, my time buffer is back down to under four hours but I'm feeling good and I'm not worried. I've gotten more efficient about using my time at the controls and in 24 minutes I'm rolling again.


As usual, there are fans along the course with de l'eau and chocolate and words of encouragement. I stop at one point to get some water and chocolate and while I'm paused I tighten up my left shifter which had gotten slightly loose. One of the kids there asks "English?" and I reply "No, American!" The kid grins, points at me and says "Armstrong!" I smile, point to myself, shake my head and say, "No Armstrong!" If the French people begrudge Lance Armstrong winning this year's Tour de France, I sure didn't see any evidence of it. In fact, I saw no anti-American sentiment at all. The fans were out there, night and day, cheering us all on, no matter what country we'd come from.


Today is beautiful, the terrain is rolling and I don't feel like I'm on the longest ride of my life. It's a beautiful day for a bike ride and I'm riding my bike. What could be more natural?


I'm passing a lot of people now, including a couple packs of Seattle riders. At one point I see the only other Bike Friday I was to see on this trip. I chat briefly with the Bike Friday rider before rolling on.


I reach the control at Fourgeres at 11:25 AM. My buffer is up to five hours and I have lunch with an American who is waiting to have his wheel fixed and we discuss the merits of riding straight through to Saint Quentin versus stopping for one more night's sleep. Zach Kaplan and I had had the same discussion at an earlier control. More sleep is appealing and finishing later in the day on Friday will mean more cheering fans and the spectacle of the big finish. But even those of us who signed up not to race, but to survive, still see the appeal of a low overall time. I'm beginning to think I can finish in under eighty hours and that is a mighty tempting goal.


I'm back on the road at 12:25 PM. I'm still feeling strong and passing riders, but many people are passing me. And a lot of the folks passing me started six hours behind me, so of course it's all relative. And some of these riders whizzing by are old French men or young women or sturdy Brits cranking away on fixed gear bikes. It's a race, it's an event, it's amazing. I pass riders sleeping by the side of the road and see others who I know haven't slept at all. We ride onward, together and alone, on toward Saint Quentin on the outskirts of Paris.


A bit before the next control at Villaines La Juhel I see a kid, maybe ten years old, riding a tiny Gintane racing bike. He's not a PBP rider, he's a fan. He's racing us as we come into town and he's fast. He flits between groups of riders with a big grin on his face and I have a feeling a few years from now he's going to be one of those guys kicking our butts from Paris to Brest and back.


I'm at the Villaines La Juhel control from 4:15 PM to 5:05 PM. I see Seattle rider Tom Brett pulling out as I'm pulling in. At this control they give us a post card and a pen so I jot a quick note to my parents before I leave. On my way out of town I see the racer kid and tell him in my basic French that he is "bon cyclo-sportif!" I'm pretty sure that's a compliment. I add, in English, "you are strong, like Armstrong!" He grins at me like he'd just won the Tour.


I make it to the next control at Mortagne Au Perche at 9:01 PM, just as the daylight is fading. I spend thirty-four minutes at this control, snacking and setting up for the night. It's cooling down now so I put on my wool sweater before heading out.


Shortly before midnight I stop when I hear someone yell out "cafe!". I'm enjoying the coffee and trying to explain my bike when another fellow comes over from across the street and asks (in French) if that's a Bike Friday I'm riding. I say "oui" and then he says in perfect American English "Wow, that's one of the older ones, isn't it?" It turns out he's an American expatriate Bike Friday owner himself. He goes on to explain to the coffee guy about the bike. It's one of those amazing "small world" experiences. Of course, I have kilometers to go before I sleep, so I thank my new friends for the coffee and conversation and ride off into the night.


I'm looking for a pack of riders now. I could use more sets of lights to help me spot the fleches and the aerodynamic advantage of a peloton would be welcome as well. A strong looking pack had blown by the coffee stop a few minutes ago and I think maybe I can chase them down.


I ride until I see the tail lights ahead. I push beyond my comfortable pace. It seems to take a long time, but it's only a few minutes before I close the gap and tuck in behind the last rider. The pack is moving swiftly with the smooth precision of a team. I'm sure they're not American and they don't look French or British either. One of the riders looks back at me.


"English?" he asks.


"American," I reply. He nods, points to himself and says "Spaniard." It's clear to both of us that we've exhaustively mapped our linguistic common ground.


And I am exhausted. Chasing down this Spanish pack has taken almost all my reserves and my energy is dropping. Damn, it's a shame to have worked so hard to catch this pack and not be able to hang with them. But it is looking like I'm going to get blown out the back. I begin to drift away.


But my new friend sees me struggling and says something in Spanish to the rest of the pack. Their pace drops slightly, almost imperceptibly, but just enough. Mon ami at the back makes a quick motion with his hand, the universal symbol for "come on, you can do it!" I punch the pedals and feel the welcome respite of my bike rejoining the peloton's slipstream. We quickly climb back up to full cruising speed. If a man were to cry at a moment like this, the darkness would keep his companions from noticing and the cool night air would quickly dry his tears.


We ride for a couple of hours and hit the control at Nogent Le Roi at full speed. My Spanish friends take a break here but I have eighty hours within my grasp. No explanation is expected or necessary. With a wholly inadequate "merci beaucoup!" I hit the road in search of the next set of tail lights.


It doesn't take long to find another group. These riders appear to be French but the kilometers have taken their toll. Their pace is slower than mine. I try to ride with them but I find myself always drifting to the front. When I try to increase the pace, the peloton just drifts away behind me. I ease up, wanting the extra eyes and lights to help me pick out the fleches in the darkness.


Normandie is flatter than Bretagne and on a flattish section of road I see another set of tail lights up ahead. They're a good ways ahead, but I think I can bridge the distance. My bon petit velo and I hurl through the darkness. One of the other riders jumps on my tail and we chase down the new pack. We catch them on the next climb.


After my experience with the Spaniards, I'd been careful not to burn all my reserves in the chase. I settle into this new pack and I'm feeling pretty good. We're a dozen riders and as near as I can tell, everyone but me is French. I try taking my turn at the front but it quickly becomes clear that two of the other riders are the leaders and they are happy to set the pace. We settle in for the ride.


This peloton is good. The pace is very consistent, not slowing much on the climbs, not going too fast on the descents. I've got the best lights of the bunch, which isn't saying much. My helmet light helps to highlight the roadside arrows. We roll on kilometer by kilometer, fleche by fleche.


The full moon gives great light in the farms and villages but now we are in the depths of the Normandie forest where the trees overhang the road and all but block the sky. As we ride the silence is shattered by a great howl from somewhere in the darkness. We all look at each other and share the same thoughts: French countryside, full moon, a howl in the night...Loup-garou, the werewolf. Things that you easily dismiss as legend, superstition or imagination in the light of day become that which is most real in the darkness. We quicken our pace.


Later, on yet an other climb, I hear the unmistakable sounds of a missed shift and French swearing. "Merde!" one of the riders cries as he shudders to a halt.


We all stop.


I take the opportunity to dive into my secret stash: chocolate covered espresso beans. In less than a minute, the misbehaving derailleur is whipped into shape and we are rolling again. With a quick swig from my Camelbak, I down the espresso beans.


The pace quickens. Four riders are shelled out the back but the espresso kicks in and I stay with the leaders. We are out of the woods now, werewolves and villages behind us, Paris ahead. The roads are city roads now, not the perfect tracks we'd grown accustom to. One rider hits a rough seam of pavement and we hear the sickening hiss of a tire loosing air.


We all stop.


We look at the tire. Do we stay or do we go? Each of us is internally debating the etiquette of the peloton. One of the strongest riders makes the call. He points to his watch and simply says "Pay Bay Pay!". We understand. He and his companion take off into the darkness, I glance at one of the other riders. He nods. We give chase and quickly catch the others. Now we are four.


The roads to San Quentin are deserted, we are riding in the no man's time -- slower than the fast riders, faster than the slow. Hours earlier, there were cheering crowds, hours later they'll be here again. But for now it's four tired men riding steadily onward in the moonlit night.


The French riders are always gentlemen, stopping for every red light, never letting urgency become impatience. We follow the fleches and turn the pedals with a clockwork rhythm as precise as our machines. I steal a glance at my watch. There is plenty of time. Much of me wants to stop, to rest, to have this be a happy memory that I'll recount to friends. But another part of me says keep riding, this is home, the truest home you'll ever know...


Suddenly, we are pulling into the circle at Saint Quentin. Now there are some hearty fans applauding and cheering. Now we are off the bikes and we complete the ritual. The cards are scanned, the booklets stamped. We're done.


I've lost track of one of the riders but the two who led us in are right here. We're tired, we're happy, we're done. We hug each other. I take their pictures, they take mine. I give them my most sincere "Merci beaucoup!" and we each go our own ways.


It's 5:27 AM on Friday August 27th 1999. I've just finished PBP in 79 hours 12 minutes. I'm tired and it's dark and I don't feel quite like riding the nearly 13 kilometers back to my hotel in Ville de Plaisir right now.


I wander over to the photography booth and buy a couple of the photos they'd taken of me on the course. One shows me early on the first day, looking strong, happy and American. The second shows me later on. I'm wearing my wool sweater to ward off the night chill and the distance shows in my eyes. I no longer look American, I look like a Randonneur. I could be from anywhere. Hell with that wool sweater and that eccentric little bike, I could easily be mistaken for a Brit!


The hall is filled with sleeping PBP riders. A Randonneur can sleep anywhere. I find a comfy spot under a table and sleep until dawn. I wake and check the finishing roster, which is being appended every 20 minutes or so as more riders come in. I note the names of the riders in my finishing pack: Claude Canut, Bernard Aussillou and Jean-Louis Willecocq.


I scan backwards on the list, looking for the names of riders I know. There, finishing nearly an hour ahead of me, I see Tom Brett's name. But Titanium Tom had started six hours after me in the eighty four hour group. Quite a ride!


"See anyone you know?" The voice at my side belongs to Tom Brett himself. He's showered and rested and smiling. I look at the simple computer printout and try to picture how it will be when these names are added to the Book of the Anciens. I see some names I know and the names of some of my friends are missing. They are still on the course or perhaps they've fallen away, victims of the heat or the hills or poor luck or not enough training. But the names on the list, the Anciens, I know them. They are my brothers and sisters of the wheel, the ones who ride and ride and then sleep anywhere and wake to ride some more.


We have returned, but the ride is not over, it's never over. For we are Anciens. On the road we have learned much and forgotten much and the distance has made us tired and it has made us strong. Now I have kilometers to ride and a woman to see and a bed to sleep in. I ride through the morning traffic and I'm a commuter going home. But every ride and every rest is part of this great journey.


I'm not going home.


I am home.