Attracting more than 4,000 or so riders from a number of countries, it is a ride of over 1,200 kilometers (about 750 miles) that must be completed within 90 hours. You must reach designated checkpoints approximately 80 km. apart by certain deadlines as well, otherwise you are disqualified. It is not a race, and although there are some who do ride it as such (completing it in little more than 42 hours!), no professional racers are allowed. In many ways it resembles a cyclists' version of a runners marathon, with many doing it with the only goal being completion, or perhaps bettering their time from the last one.
I became interested in 1992 PBP after chancing upon an article about the 1991 ride. I've developed a passion for cycle touring over the years and have spent nearly every summer vacation over the past nine years touring, the last four abroad on a tandem. I've never been a particularly fast rider and do not have either the stamina or emotional makeup for racing, nor have I taken part in many organized cycling events or ever actively "trained". But I do know that really long distance cycling does something magical for me, and when I read about this seemingly insane ride that would involve riding at night to achieve as much as 440 km. (275 mi.) a day, something in me wanted to aim for the 1995 PBP, then some three years away. It seemed impossible -- the most I'd ever ridden was 240 kilometers in a day, and that was at the end of 9 weeks of touring when I was in my best shape, back in 1986 when I was 33. Could I actually ride far greater distances for four days at the age of 42? I decided I would just have to find out.
The New York City brevets had all started out in Manhattan, heading up though the suburbs and rural areas north of the City. They had anywhere from 8 to 20 riders, a number of them PBP veterans whose experience and advice was greatly helpful to me. Over the course of these rides I learned a great deal that prepared me for PBP.
One of the most vital aspects was understanding how to keep the body going over those distances. I'd ridden plenty of 100 mile rides, and by now knew that I can handle such a ride on little more than stored energy. But once I started crossing the 250 km. mark, I found out I couldn't fake it -- I had to get serious about keeping up the energy levels by figuring out how to continually resupply the calories and liquids to keep going. The second thing was the equipment -- what to carry, what clothing, what worked reliably, what didn't, especially lighting (more on all this at the end).
But perhaps the most important aspect was the realization that the most critical requirement was an unyielding determination. When your body is exhausted and your legs are saying "O.K., we've had more than enough" your mind has to be able to say "well, thank you for sharing that information, but we're just going on anyway." To me, that sort of sheer willpower is the only thing that kept me going during the longer brevets, when it was raining or hot and I was aware that there were hundreds of kilometers before me. A PBP veteran whom I became friends with during the brevets, Klaus Schreiber (a child psychiatrist in his 50s who disclaimed any professional understanding of adults) agreed with my thinking on this, noting that while the generally older age of the cyclists involved in this type of riding (randonneurs seemed to average around age 40) might be ascribed to a mass desire to prove to ourselves that we weren't totally over the hill, he felt that younger riders probably lacked the maturity (or perhaps better put, stubbornness) to stick with endurance events of this length.
After the 1994 brevet series, I decided at the last minute to try the Boston-Montreal-Boston ("BMB") ride, the U.S. equivalent of PBP that covers the same distance, albeit with perhaps only 130 riders. However, I arrived in Boston only a day or so after getting out of my sick bed from the flu, and after riding the first 40 miles from a 4 a.m. start in pouring rain, I knew right away once I starting hitting the first hills that I completely lacked the strength (much less the requisite willpower) to do that ride and dropped out -- apparently setting a record for the earliest dropout in the ten year history of BMB. That only made my determination to complete PBP that much stronger. Although I dropped out of BMB because of illness, I also knew I wanted to be stronger for PBP. Up to that point I was riding perhaps 5,000 km. (3,000 mi) a year, and I knew I needed to ride more the next season.
I started 1995 out of shape from a lot of inactivity that winter, plus extended recovery from a couple of broken ribs suffered in a late ski season accident. But I began commuting to my new job in the Bronx from Brooklyn nearly every day by bike, covering about 45 km. a day in crazy Manhattan traffic -- good for the muscles and reflexes, though probably not so good for the lungs. This was my primary training for PBP. It was training for my bike as well -- if it could hold up on NYC streets, it would hold up fine on PBP.
I put an inquiry out again on the internet looking for information on transportation from London to Paris. Within a day I had several responses, including one from Roger Mason of Cambridge, who said that the English Willesden Cycling Club was taking a vanload of cyclists down and had space for one more. Roger described himself as a 42 year old "born again" cyclist whose wife and daughter thought his newly rediscovered passion was crazy. As Margarita and my step-daughter thought this 42 year old was crazy as well for trying to do something like this, we seemed a perfect match, and when we later met I thought we even looked somewhat alike.
The Willesden club was a fun crew, a mix of PBP veterans and first time riders. Also along were three volunteers who would be our support crew: Diane, Janice and John (John's son was going to be riding too, but would meet us in Paris with his tandem tricycle!). They were quite welcoming, referring to me as "the fellow who surfed in on the internet," and offered to make me an honorary club member ("you can pop over for our Sunday rides"). We packed fourteen of us into a fairly small van, plus our luggage and bikes and tons of food like rice pudding, chocolate, etc. I felt like a kid being sent off to summer camp. We watched the sunset during the four hour channel crossing on the ferry to Dieppe, and this bunch of cyclists laid waste to the all-you-can-eat buffet dinner in the ship's restaurant, consuming prodigious amounts of dessert. Arriving in France at midnight, we drove out of town a ways and pulled over by the side of the road to sleep under the stars. As soon as we lay down it began to drizzle, and the whole group tried to make do under a tarp until it just got too ridiculous and we got back in the van and drove the rest of the way down to Paris, arriving at dawn Sunday at a campground in St. Quentin-en-Yvalines, the ultra-modern and seemingly soulless Parisian suburb where PBP would start.
That day, we all had to check in with the ride organizers (the "Audax Club Parisien") at the "Gymnase des Droits d'Homme" (Rights of Man Gym) where our bikes were inspected for adequate lighting and I picked up my route card and identification number tag. The tags were colored red, blue, or green according to whether one was in the 80, 84, or 90 hour groups. Most of the 4,000 plus riders would be in the 90 hour group starting at 10:00 p.m. on Monday, but the hot shots who were sure they could (or wanted to) finish within 80 hours would leave at 8:00 p.m., while a somewhat more cautious grouping, the "84 hour" group, would leave at 5 the next morning. There were some wild looking machines there, such as trikes, tandems, two triplets (3 person bikes), some recumbents, including two fully faired Lightning F-40s which look sort of like watermelon seeds and hold impressive speed records, and a tandem recumbent tricycle.
I spent much of the day hanging around the campground, which was an interesting scene as well, with cyclists from a variety of countries setting up camp. I went out to dinner that night with some of my cycling colleagues from the New York brevets I'd met up with, and we were joined by Lon Haldeman, a three time winner of the Race Across America (RAAM). I remarked to him that PBP (of which he was first in the men's tandem category in 1987) must seem like a grocery run to the corner store for him, but he assured me that it was quite a challenge, although his goal was to get a reasonable amount of sleep this time.