I found this story while looking through some old files this week. I was 28 at the time and had never heard of randonneuring when I saw an article in the League of American Wheelmen (now LAB) magazine about the event and it caught my imagination. At the time I was living in Canton, Ohio on a long term software contract. I had ridden perhaps a half dozen centuries at that point.
This article appeared in the Stark County Bicycling Club Newsletter in the fall of 1979. I have added a few comments, shown in italics.
1979 Paris-Brest-Paris – Rob Welsh
Paris-Brest-Paris is a 1200 km (750 miles) bicycle race/endurance ride held in France about every five years since the early 1900’s. This year 1,764 riders started the ride, including myself and 30 other Americans and Canadians. This marked only the second or third time that North Americans have officially entered, and was by far our best showing.
In order to qualify to ride, the cyclist must show evidence that he has completed a 200km, 300km, 400km and 600km ride within the current year. Official qualification rides were held in France for European entrants. North Americans were required to complete a 600km ride (in 40 hours or less) in Syracuse, NY, sponsored by Jim Konski, one of the founders of randonneuring in the US. We then had to supply a letter from our club president, verifying that the other qualifying rides had been completed (thanks Carol Messenger, Stark County Bicycling Club President).
I arranged a time with Jim Konski and drove up in late July. In 1979 The 600km qualifier ride in Syracuse was run like today’s permanent, so you could do it at any time. The French ACP organizers were very flexible about helping foreign riders make it to PBP. Coincidentally another rider was qualifying the same weekend and would turn out to be a huge influence on me during the qualification ride and later as we rode together through all of PBP. John Pixton of Philadelphia, is a 55 year old former USCF racer, champion and all around great guy. John is a Quaker and a professor of history at Penn State University. The 600k qualifier went well, we did the ride over two days, sleeping at our hotel in Syracuse and formed a great riding relationship. I didn’t realize until much later how much of a mentor John was for me in helping me with focus, positive mental attitude and persistence, in biking and life.
About 20 of us left as a group out of New York a week before the ride, which started on September 3rd. This gave us time to get used to French food (which was terrific) and to ride a little on the official race route. The first thing we noticed on the training rides was the steepness of the hills in the towns and villages. This fact became more noticeable during the race. Many of the villages we passed through were in the bottoms of river valleys. This made for a very thrilling charge into town, down the steep, narrow streets but usually left us with an equally steep, narrow climb up the other side of the valley. Often this effort was rewarded by the villagers who would applaud and cheer and shout directions to us as we went by.
Some of the villages were designated as checkpoints, usually at 50 mile intervals. Food and sleeping space could be obtained, and your support team, if you had one, could meet you. We were very
fortunate to have my parents, who were living in Scotland at the time, and John’s wife Laurama supporting us at several controls. On a long distance race/tour, having somebody look after your extra clothes and equipment and to feed, rub, comfort, encourage and revive your body and soul is definitely a big bonus. Neither of my parents ride bicycles (super sedentary types) but they showed a great deal of understanding and patience in dealing with tired, single-minded cyclists. Their contribution was greatly appreciated. They supplied us juices, peanut butter, crackers and bananas out of the trunk of their small car. At one control we all watched in envy as a group of French cyclists, supported by their club, were greeted by tables with white linen, chairs, cooking stoves, wine and a chef who prepared a several course meal served in style.
Amazingly, 88% of the riders completed the route in less than 90 hours. The best time overall was an unbelievable 44 hours. John and I finished in 75 hours which was in the top 25%. After two days of 230 and 200 mile rides, we rode the last 320 miles in 29 hours, finishing early on the third morning. It was quite cold so John and I stuffed magazines in our shirts and Adidas track suits to ward off the night chill. This was also our first experience with extended night riding. We slapped our checks and sang songs to each other to get us through the night. PBP was scheduled to coincide with a full moon and it was clear that night, which helped. John used a generator light that rubbed against the rear wheel. That was state of the art in those days. I had a 9 volt battery flashlight tied to the left handlerbar drop with a shock cord. It actually worked pretty well and had the extra benefit of being able to be moved around to find street signs. Amazingly it passed inspection. Also amazing was how poor these lights were compared to today.
Unfortunately several of the Americans did drop out. Almost without exception the problem was mental fatigue. Some of the riders had small problems early on in the race which undoubtedly contributed to their discouragement as the ride progressed. The ones that did complete the ride did very well. The best American time was 49 hours, with a few in the 50 and 60 hour brackets.
Paris-Brest-Paris was a terrific experience for all who entered. I believe more encouragement should be given to developing longer tour/racers in North American as a goal for those riders who have completed some century rides and would like to find out what their limits are. While the riders who complete the ride in the shortest possible time should be recognized, the main emphasis must be on the typical rider. I think many riders would be surprised at what they actually can do. A second benefit of such rides, if well publicized, would be more public acceptance of bicycles, in much the same manner as marathon are regarded.
Maybe someday a first time century rider will be cheered on by local people as he or she passes through their town.
The next year, in 1980, John and I rode in the first long distance brevet type event held in the US, the Bicycle Across Missouri 540 mile ride/race. Lon Haldeman won the race, the first of many long distance wins in his career. John Pixton passed away two years later, due to cancer. I got married in 1981 and left randonneuring for 27 years, until 2007.