Recently, I told you a short story about my encounter with a little French boy during my participation in Paris-Brest-Paris 1995. I consider it to be my favorite of all of my experiences of the three PBP events I’ve participated in. Now, I want to tell you about what I think to be the most important. It happened during my first participation of Paris-Brest-Paris in 1991.
I arrived, with my friends, at the start of PBP in St. Quentin En Yvelines about 7:00p.m. Monday night. Our ride did not begin until 10:00 p.m. but we wanted to get there early to see the fastest riders in the 80 hour start. Already, there were hundreds of people along the route wanting to do the same. We had heard it was like the beginning of the Tour De France where the group takes off racing at speeds of 24m.p.h., or more, through the outskirts of Paris. Their goal is to be the fastest finisher. We were not disappointed.
The ride started immediately at 8:00 p.m. consisting of about seven hundred of the best endurance riders in the world. The gun sounded and the peloton seemed slow to pick up speed. Then, all of a sudden, they took off. They circled around a rondpont, made a right turn, and were off like a rocket. I had never seen riders ride so fast! This was all happening among cheers of “Bonne Route!”, “Bon Chance!”, “Bon Courage!” and “Allez à Brest!”
In no time they were out of sight.
My friend, Charlie Martin from Berea, Ohio (a PBP ancien) looked at me and wisely said, “You know, our start will be exactly the same.”
Now, it was time for our 90 hour group to enter the soccer field of the Gymnase des Droits de l’Hommes. It was about 8:30p.m. so we had plenty of time on our hands for the ten o’clock start. We all nervously checked and rechecked our bikes and equipment. I noticed the local Port-A-Potties were also getting repeated use. It started to grow dark.
Ten o’clock soon came and we were ready to start. Since our 90 hour group was so large, they divided us up into seven hundred riders each to start at fifteen minute intervals. I waited until the last group because I didn’t want to slow anybody down. I also figured there would be riders ahead of me that knew the route in the dark. I was hoping I could just keep up and wouldn’t get lost.
The first group moved from the soccer field to the starting line. At ten o’clock the gun sounded and they took off just like the 80 hour racers. Charlie was right, the start would be very fast.
Finally, it was our turn. We made it to the starting line, waited a couple of minutes, the gun sounded, and then we took off. I never rode so fast in my life! We made it around the rondpont, made the right turn, and were headed out of town amid cheers of “Bonne Route!”, “Bon Chance!”, and “Bon Courage!”. While we were racing along, I looked up ahead and there were French teenagers holding their arms out into the street hoping to get a “High Five” as the riders passed. I moved over to the right and gave a couple of them a “High Five” then realized this could dangerous, so I moved back to the middle of the pack and concentrated on getting out of town. I just wanted to stay with the group and not get lost in the dark.
The motorcycle escort broke away and we were soon out of town in total darkness. Once out of town, the pace settled down to a comfortable speed. We entered the French farmlands of newly harvested wheat and that is where my worries about getting lost in the dark vanished. You see, the road gradually rises upward snaking out of the Seine River Valley to the hills toward Mortagne Au Perche. That is where I saw the most incredible sight I ever saw in my life. It was a string of red bicycle taillights moving westward ever so slowly up ahead for as far as the eye could see.
Nothing but red bicycle taillights! It was just like a single strand of red lights around a Christmas tree.
There was no sound either. There were no cars, no wind, no barking dogs, just the whirring sound of the chains spinning through the sprockets and the clatter of the chain when a rider was shifting gears. There was the occasional conversation between riders in the darkness. Almost none of it was in English. These riders came from all over the world.
At about one thirty in the morning we approached a little town, Nogent Le Roi, next to a river. We made a right turn, then down a steep hill, crossed the river, and rode into the center of town. There, in the center of town, were a couple of street lights illuminating the locals who were there to cheer us on. Again we heard, “Bon Chance!”, “Bonne Route!”, and “Bon Courage!” We made a sharp left turn and there, on the corner, was a lone Frenchman slowly clapping. He was in the shadows so I could not see his face. All I could see was the red ash from his cigarette as we rode by. (It was just like a film-noire movie).
We headed up a hill out of town and were soon in the darkness again. The trees lined the roadway, so what light we had from the stars was minimal. As we were headed up the hill we passed a small farmhouse on the left with a five foot wall and a gate in the middle. As we slowly rode by, in total darkness, a young woman casually said “Bon Chance”, then a young man casually said, “Bon Courage”. I never saw them, I only heard their voices.
Around 2:00 a.m. the long hill proceeded to get steeper. The euphoria of the start had worn off and we were into some serious climbing. I was with a group of Frenchman and Spaniards but the only language they spoke was gasping and groaning as we climbed. This was my first encounter with the low points you experience on PBP. I was getting weaker and weaker. I truly had my doubts if I would ever be able to finish this ride.
The hill proceeded to get even steeper. We stood on the pedals for more power. Then there was a dilapidated farmhouse on the right, barely discernible. Trees overhung the roadway, there were no stars, there was no light coming from the farmhouse, it was totally dark. I thought we were all alone.
At this point, I was in total misery and I was ready to quit. I was in my first low point of the ride. I was just about to turn the last crank on my pedals and stop when I heard,
“May-dahms…. A May-suhrs……… Kone-tin-you-A.”
It was a little old French lady, somewhere in the dark near the gate. I never saw her. She had to be in her late eighties. At first, I thought someone was trying to open the squeaky old gate, but, it was her voice. She had been standing there waiting in total darkness for the riders as they struggled up the steepest part of the hill.
My mind quickly translated the English sounds into French words.
She said, “Mesdames…. et Messieurs……… Continuez.
Translated to English she said, “Ladies….and Gentlemen…… Keep going.”
At first she startled me, but then I realized, just when I was ready to quit and pack it all in, I had encountered my French guardian angel. She was there, in total darkness, making sure that I continue and was calmly telling me to never ever give up. And… at that moment… I didn’t quit.
I overcame the challenge, and I crested the hill. From there, I continued westward onto Brest. Her one word repeatedly haunting me throughout the ride, “Continuez”. Every time I struggled, every time the hill was too steep, every time I wanted to stop and rest, her one word would pop into my mind, “Continuez”. Keep going. It was because of her I finished the ride.
This is my story of one thing that happened during Paris-Brest-Paris 1991. It is important to me because of what we are all facing today. We are getting older and it is harder to get up and get moving each day. Some of us have had bouts with cancer. Some of us worry about our future or whether we can make it. Well, just remember the little old French lady, in the darkness, in the remote French countryside who said to me,
“Mesdames…..et Messieurs….. Continuez”.