PBP Check-In Party

A carnival atmosphere filled the air at Le Vélodrome National de Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines on Saturday as several thousand PBP riders from around the world arrived to complete the check-in process.

I sat by the entry point to Vélodrome and watched cyclists from the U.S., UK, Ireland, Russia, Singapore, Australia, Norway, Germany, and many more countries approach with expectant and excited expressions.  Two gendarmes posted here directed riders around a big field toward the Velodrome entrance.

This was a day for checking out other bikes and meeting up with old and new friends.  I saw lots of racing bikes, a triple (a tandem complicates things more than I can handle–how do you deal with three different people on one machine), a trike, and a whole tribe of  velomobiles.

I finally met Mike Dayton, RUSA president, in person.  Since we work so closely on American Randonneur, it’s strange that it’s taken nearly two years for us to meet.  We talked briefly about the next issue, but neither one of us was prepared to spend much time on business this day.  I also briefly met Dan Driscoll from Texas and Vinnie Muoneke from Seattle…guys I’ve talked with on email about articles for AR.  I said hi to Santa Cruz ride organizer Bill Bryant on his way to help Lois Springsteen with some issue about her bike.  Of course the NJ contingent was there in their new striking jerseys.  One woman who passed by me while I was hanging out at the entrance seemed determined to put off being a grungy cyclist for as long as possible.  She walked away from the velodrome in spiked heels and stylish street clothes, wheeling her bike along.  I assume she planned to change into more suitable kit for the ride.

Groups gathered for photos, the NJ randos and the whole US contingent being among them.  Lots of smiles and cheers accompanied the photo taking.  A lone food truck in the field was selling jambon et beurre sandwiches as well as beer…but this good cheer was not alcohol-inspired.  The pre-event excitement was intense and catchy.

Even on the roads surrounding the velodrome, drivers seemed to know what was going on.  Many honked and did fist pumps as they passed, but they were expressing support and admiration rather than annoyance.

While these festivities filled the field outside the velodrome, the long and exhausting check-in process took place inside.  I snuck in for a couple of minutes…long lines of riders waiting to register jammed the area in the middle of the velodrome track.  It was definitely more fun outside.

PBP is such a big event and the participants speak so many languages and represent so many different cultures, that at first it seems surprising that the whole thing happens as efficiently as it does.  But then I think about the long history of PBP in France as well as the general appreciation and respect for cycling and cyclists, and it’s not so surprising that the French can make this event happen every four years.

It’s really something…what generosity of spirit.  To invite the whole world to come and ride bikes for four days through their villages and towns, and to support the riders and party with them as they do it.  It is amazing.





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Pre-PBP Afternoon With the NJ Riders

Lunch with some of the NJ PBP riders on Friday in Saint-Quentin-En-Yvelines was like other meals we’ve had together but also quite different.  We had all made our way to France to experience PBP–even if only from the sidelines for me–and this was a day of giddy anticipation, of learning our way around town, and French wine.    This was also a day during which my riding friends were willing themselves to relax while simultaneously obsessing about their bikes and gear to ensure that all would be in order.  Chilling out and gearing up at the same time…seemingly contradictory but quite natural parts of such an epic adventure.

We enjoyed a long and large lunch outdoors.  The pasta topped with live-looking crustaceans inspired jokes, laughter, and some disgust from those of us not as carnivorous.  Stories from previous PBPs and plans for post-PBP were woven into the conversation, too.  This is probably exactly the right way to spend those few days before a big ride when all you want is for it to start.  I’m not doing this ride, but I’ve been in this place and have trouble living with the unease of the waiting.  But good food and drink, friends, and the stories that encourage you: these things make the days of waiting bearable and bring you closer to those who are sharing this waiting and adventure with you.

After lunch we rode the first few miles of the route but it started to rain so we turned back. This was not a day when it was necessary to dig a little deeper and keep going no matter the weather.  No, this was was not that day, not yet.


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Pre-PBP: Hanging out with the Raschdorfs in London

We spent a few days with the Raschdorfs in London on our way to Paris.  It was lovely to visit, get to know the incredibly well-tempered Baby B a little bit, and ride in nearby Richmond Park with Katie.

katie and janice in the new NJ jerseys

Katie and I must have looked strange as we meandered through the park: Katie on the tandem, not only without a stoker, but also without back handlebars and saddle, and me on the Bike Friday.  We passed several herd of deer including large groups of stags with antlers that were as scary as they were impressive.


Since Katie had completed her training regimen, this little ramble was everything that a training ride is not: slow, relaxed, a ride during which conversation and viewing scenery took precedence.

On our last full day in England, Jayne and I spent an afternoon and evening being tourists in London.  Because they are kind and generous people, and/or because they wanted us as far away as possible the day before the road/ferry expedition from London to Paris, the Raschdorfs bought us tickets to the Globe for Wednesday night.  We spent a day as tourists in a city that bears up well under the pressure of mobs of people from all over the world.  The sites are as amazing as you imagine them to be, bus tour operators are solicitous, and restaurant servers are gracious.  The photo below was snapped from our river-side table at Cote Brasserie near London Bridge.  Great place to hang out for a leisurely lunch.


Before the play, we had a light dinner and a couple of half pints at The Swan, a pub located next to the Globe.  From the deck, we had a(nother) view of the Thames and the Millennium Bridge.


Such a short visit certainly makes me look forward to the time when we can return and see not only more of London but also some of the rest of England.  Of course, we would also visit with the Raschdorfs, if they would have us again, even though I’d rather see them back at home.  It’s good to see them doing well, but traveling far for short visits with friends or family can almost make you miss them more somehow.  Still, if you’ve got to travel to see people, London is a pretty interesting place for all of that to happen.


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On our way

We should board the flight to Heathrow in about 30 minutes.

J and J at the airport

I’m finishing a cup of airport coffee, but I couldn’t buy the tasteless, soft croissant as I am already looking forward to the flaky and buttery version in Paris.  Even though I’m not riding PBP, I plan to eat my share of Pain au chocolat.

Posts on FB and the randon listserv indicate that some PBP aspirants are already in Paris while others are busy trying to fit their bicycles into bike cases, perhaps with the help of YouTube instructions?  I’m traveling with my Bike Friday, which I’ve packed so many times in the past few years that I know all I need to do is sit down next to it with a couple of allen wrenches and start dismantling, folding and packing the bits into their felt envelopes.  Less nerve-wracking than packing a full-size bike for a 750-mile ride.

For us, a few days in London before traveling to PBP with friends Katie, Rich, and Bianca.  Fish and chips, a bacon butty (not!), and a few beers.  A little time with our friends.

Then the excitement of PBP…well, from the sidelines anyway.  Looking forward to seeing all my riding pals off from Paris.

Safe travels everyone, and may you arrive with your bike.


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Doin’ the Gambol from Grumpy’s

The gas station and convenience store don’t even belong to Grumpy anymore, not that I’m sure I ever met Grumpy when he (?) purportedly owned the place.  Still, I know he is no longer running things because the big sign outside says “Under New Management,” and below that is the promise that hoagies will return on July 13, and that Broaster Chickens are available until 9:30pm.  Grumpy never had broaster chickens; that much I’m sure of.

When I did the ride last weekend, I saw no evidence of hoagies or “broasting” chickens, and the management still treats customers in a rather casual manner.  Don’t expect to be greeted or thanked for your business.  Nope, not here.  Maybe Grumpy left his customer service manual for the new owners.

This time of the year it’s best to start early because there’s nearly 4000′ of climbing in this 105K ride, and the hardest part comes in the first fifteen miles.  Once I’m at the entrance to Bear Creek Ski Resort though, I know I’ve done the hardest climb, at least until the long one about 11 miles before the finish.

If you’re a fan of courses with short cue sheets, this one will appeal as the first 30 miles are on one road.  After that, there is a bit of winding through beautiful and quiet farm country on roads with watery names like Swamp Creek Road and Swamp Picnic Road. Come to think of it, you also pass Camp Laughing Waters on New Hanover Square Rd.  On Swamp Creek Road, there is a farm with an old barn, the front of which has recently been repainted:

Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco

I paid more attention this time to this Mail Pouch Barn because I had just seen another one (also freshly repainted) in New Jersey while on a ride with my friend Chris.  I wonder if there is some sort of campaign to restore barns advertising Mail Pouch tobacco?

This was one of those rides that is hard to write about, sort of, because no suffering was involved.  It’s always easier to write about suffering, but this was a beautiful day, with views of just about every possible shade of green, and enough climbing to make me feel like I’d done a respectable ride when I pulled back in to Grumpy’s parking lot.

I bought a coconut water, did a quick look around the store to see if the hoagies had really returned (I didn’t see them), and sat outside for a few minutes savoring the cold drink.  Then it was time to ride back up the hill to get home.

Just another lovely day on the bike.

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To Experience Paris-Brest-Paris Another Way

You don’t really need an excuse to go to Paris, I know.  However, when many of your randonneuring friends are signed up for Paris-Brest-Paris while you are not, well, then yes, you may have some explaining to do.  I’m going to Paris but not riding PBP because I did not have the mental strength this year to talk myself through the tough parts.

The Rolling Stones, “You can’t always get what you want….” is playing in my head as I write.  Yep, but if you try real hard, you just might get what you need.  Disappointment and self-recrimination were my initial responses to watching myself not show up for the PBP qualifying rides.  Each time, part of me saw myself riding the course– stopping for sandwiches at Wawa, turning on lights as the sun faded, riding the miles through the Pine Barrens in the dark with frogs making their startlingly loud music in the nearby swamps, drinking coffee at 1am to get through the next section–but something else in me just rebelled against what I needed to do to get to those scenes I imagined in my head.  I thought I wanted to ride the grand randonnee this year, but the degree of anxiety I experienced during the early qualifying rides erased any sense that it would be worthwhile and fun.  I wish it were otherwise, but it is what it is.

I decided that I still wanted to go to Paris, however.  I want to see the occasion that PBP is: hundreds of riders reassembling their bikes, the pre-ride chatter that is part excitement and part jitters, and the calm focus that will take over as wheels start to roll.  The army of volunteers that make the ride possible.  The waves of riders starting–some as evening approaches and some before sunrise–to the cheers of supporters.  And a few days later, with some work and luck, the return of PBP ancien(ne)s–their efforts a big success.  Some will be smiling, and some will be using everything they have, and more, to finish.  This is what I imagine.  I look forward to witnessing the real thing.

I want to support my friends as  they set off on their adventure to Brest and back, and if it works out, I will be there to congratulate them on their return.  I want to be part of this epic event even if it is just by being there to see and write about it.  I’ve read dozens of PBP ride reports; I even co-edited a book of PBP stories in 2011.  I’d like to see how reality compares with the impressions that fill my head.

I also look forward to taking in a little of Paris with my partner Jayne: a few cafes, a mandatory visit to Shakespeare and Company, and maybe two or three museums and parks.  Time together in Paris…having a vacation.  It sounds wonderful.  I know that PBP and my friends’ journeys will be in my head for those four days that they are on the roads between Paris and Brest, and that I will sometimes wish I were with them, but I feel lucky to be able to do this more relaxed trip this year.

And I’m slowly regaining my cycling mojo with shorter rides.  I’m also doing intervals and hill repeats for the first time ever and finding these exercises strangely enjoyable.  I look forward to seeing what cycling adventures the future holds.

I wish the very best to everyone doing PBP this year.


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Volunteering…a different side of randonneuring

Every randonneur should volunteer a bit of time with their local rando group not just because it’s important to share the responsibility for making sure the rides we love to do can continue to be offered, but also because the experience gives you a different view of our sport.

Here’s an example of what I mean.

NJ Randonneurs offered its 600K ride this past weekend, but the volunteers had been preparing for two to three weeks before riders wheeled out of the Day’s Inn parking lot at 4am last Saturday.  Organizers promise a clear and accurate cue sheet; for this ride, three different groups of volunteers rode and checked the route, all without receiving the support that the riders received on Saturday and Sunday.  Cue sheet tweaks, including new cue directions to the added sleep stop as well as to an alternate control in the Ocean City area, were discussed and made.

Being involved in this task, you think about what riders need along the route: what are the best places to stop, which are the safest and/or most scenic roads, where will  there be shade during hot summer afternoons, where are stores open at 2am?  Route planners answer all of these questions and more with the goal of providing the best experience possible for their randonneuring friends.  Having helped with this activity on other events makes me even more grateful for the thoughtful aspects of every route I ride.

Which stops will be supported?  Where are randonneurs most likely to need encouragement and support along the route?  Volunteering to be at a control to sign brevet cards gives you a strong sense of how valuable a little encouragement can be in a middle of a tough ride.  NJ volunteer Steve Hallett has great stories about how a few well-placed words have helped discouraged riders continue when they’re feeling like they can’t go on.

Many times, I’ve sat outside a Wawa store for hours, checking riders through.  Even though Wawa provides a good food selection and restrooms, it’s nice to be able to provide  water for refilling bottles, maybe some sort of a food treat, and a quick signature on the card so that riders don’t have to mess with receipts.  Providing a point of contact is probably even more important.  It’s nice for riders to know that they are being cared for, to know that their progress around the course is being noted, and that support is there if something goes wrong.

I was also touched by the photos on NJ Randonneurs’ FB page of David Eisenberg’s children helping him staff the penultimate control.  The photo of his daughter Rivkah signing Nigel’s brevet card is just plain sweet.  One of the best parts of volunteering is that you get to feel how you’re working together with so many others to make an event run as smoothly as it can for the participants.  You don’t see all of the other volunteers, typically, but you have a sense of camaraderie, very much like the feeling of doing a ride with others.

On the NJ 600, I was stationed at the East Creek Cabins sleep stop  that served about 30 riders between 6pm Saturday night and 6am Sunday morning.   A few of the riders, those at the very front, made quick stops and left, most without eating anything at all.  For these riders, our presence was appreciated, I’m sure, but they didn’t need much and were focused on taking care of essential business and getting back on the road.  Riders arriving later, looking fatigued, some feeling queazy, many hurting just a little bit, these riders benefitted from the encouragement, food, and the opportunity to rest.  I watched a few dazed riders just stand in front of the tables of food, seemingly unable to understand what was there let alone decide what to eat.  I know the feeling…I’ve been in that state.  It seemed to help a few of them to simply point out the possibilities and ask them what they could or wanted to eat at that point.

The East Creek Cabin stint was pretty long (2pm Saturday to 6:30am Sunday), but I have several lovely memories, different from those created while riding, but just as priceless.  Before our RBA Joe arrived, Dawn Engstrom and I had unloaded my car and arranged the dining area of the cabin as well as the kitchen.  When Joe arrived, he had some different ideas for set-up, ideas that I resisted at first (those of you who know me will find this hard to believe I’m sure!) but when the space was all laid out as Joe envisioned it, I have to admit it worked well.  I learned a valuable lesson (again) there (yes, it takes longer for some of us)…listen more, and better, Janice.

Memories with riders: Bill Russell, big grin on his face and in a rush to get back on the road.  Bob Torres and Nigel Greene looking really tired when they came through the door.  Quiet.  Serious.  Ready to eat and sleep in order to find the strength to finish the ride.  Bill Schwarz also looking tired, but taking time for a cup of tea and a short conversation before he went to his bunk.  Our conversation interrupted several times when I got up to help lost-looking riders.  Bill getting up from bed because he couldn’t sleep but then going back to give it another go.  I hope he got a little rest.  Interrupted conversation as well with the always-smiling Patrick Chin-Hong.  Wishing all of the riders a safe rest of their journey, but from inside the cabin because I had encountered my first mosquito right after arriving and I was not interested in being mosquito breakfast.

Periodically we heard from Laurent who stationed himself for long, lone stints at a couple of the controls.  I’m not sure how many hours he spent at the Hammonton Wawa, but based on my visits to that particular location, I’m sure his presence there was appreciated, and I’m equally sure that it was not easy on him.  Judging from the photo of him back at the Day’s Inn, I know he had a long couple of days.

I’ve spent some time at “Arrivee” controls, but not so much.  When Leroy Varga was finishing his qualifying series for the 2007 PBP, many of us made a point to be there to congratulate him and cheer him on his way to Paris, to attempt PBP at the age of 80.  I have certainly been the recipient of enthusiastic congratulations and have appreciated the reception committees that spend hours waiting for riders’ arrivals.  Last weekend, the first rider finished in something over 21 hours while the last rider used almost all of the allowed time.  That riders were welcomed back to the Day’s Inn over such a span of time is a tribute to the sitz bones  and patience of some of our NJ rando friends.  There are some tired but cheerful volunteer faces in the Days Inn photos.

So why volunteer to help with a ride or two in your area?  Well, for the some of the same reasons that you ride…. The camaraderie and the sense of accomplishment.  And the feeling that you’ve done something to help friends achieve their goals.  It really doesn’t get much better than that.

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