Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Three Brothers

This is a ‘first person’ account, not something I heard about from a buddy, or that a buddy heard about and later related to me. Three brothers, Brad, Kevin, and Jeff, had a very interesting PBP. I rode with them on and off and can attest that what you are about to read is true.

Brad and Jeff rode PBP 03 and had a pretty successful ride. Brad finished and Jeff got all the way out to Brest and back to Loudeac before he packed it in. I didn’t see much of them on the SIR rides in 2004, but I sort of dropped out of riding that year (post PBP let down, AND I got married!) In 05 I saw them a little more and then in 06 and 07 it was game on. It was clear that they were coming back to PBP. He never said so but I think Jeff had a little unfinished business to take care of.

Brother Kevin Lives in San Diego. I had never met him until we were introduced in the lobby of the Mercure in StQ, under less than ideal circumstances. Kevin got to Paris fine, but his bike took a detour, and unfortunately the airline had no idea where it had got to. This is always a high stress situation; not only are you concerned about “will my bike get here in time” but there is the joy of either trying to connect with the airlines via phone, or just heading back to out to CdG to talk with a live person. Kevin opted to go to the Airport and try the face to face approach, on several occasions. He got nothing but incredibly frustrated. As I monitored this development, it didn’t have the common hopeful development (“We’ve located your bike, it is in Cincinnati/Brussels/Bratislava but it will be here this afternoon/tomorrow/day after tomorrow/other”). What Kevin got instead was a constant stream of airline screw ups. They continually misidentified his name, his bike box description, his home city, and his itinerary. They did not inspire confidence which only heightens the stress as you watch the hours tick off.

Kevin is a man of action, not prone to being taken hostage by circumstances (an excellent attribute in a randonneur!) So Saturday he made a ‘take control’ decision. With the brothers in tow, he headed to the full service bike shop about 8K out of town and he bought and outfitted a whole new bike, complete with a new Brooks saddle. Right away I am thinking; “watch for this guy, he might be a good wheel to follow!” It was a good decision; his bike was nowhere to be found as we headed off to the start line Monday night.

I didn’t see much of the brothers Monday night, I think we began to leap frog on Tuesday, and rode together some on Wednesday. At every turn they looked strong to me and always full of smiles and laughter, these are guys who are genuinely enjoying life. We rode together a fair amount on Thursday. By this time you start to sort the wheat from the chaff and these guys looked to me like good bets to finish barring any surprises.

We were flagging a little coming into Fougeres on Thursday, I was riding with mutual friend Ray and as we approached the control I saw a sign for a café w/sandwiches. I suggested we just clock in at the control and bag the lines there and head to this café. Ray thought that sounded good. The brothers came in shortly so Ray rounded them up and the five of us headed out to the café.

The café turned out to be a neighborhood bar, “Bar Les Tilleurs” I think. The kind of place you might find in a working class neighborhood in Philly, or Portland, or St Louis. It was a family affair (complete with kids) patronized by locals; cheery, and smoky and very provincial. I think they all spoke less English than we spoke French, but we were accepted with open arms. They had a home made 50 gallon drum BBQ set up and were grilling something that made your typical polish sausage back home look like a weenie. I mean these things looked ‘authentic’. I wasn’t sure that a big greasy sausage was exactly the right thing at the time, they definitely did not have the bland Controle food thing going on but what the hey; when in Fougeres do as the Fougerians eh?

We ordered Gallets, essentially a dog wrapped in a crepe. It was really fun watching Jeff try to get an order to Madame. We also ordered Frites, BIG baskets of hot fries, these were not McD’s but the real thing; French Fries. They made ‘freedom fries’ look a little anemic.

I think it was while we were eating that I gave my semi-famous ‘tough it out’ speech. I allowed as how within a weeks time everyone would be saying how this was an epic ride, and within two weeks it would be declared the worst conditions for PBP in memory, while in fact we all knew it to be just another crappy rainy ride, just like back home. So I reasoned, those who finished this would have a pretty decent notch in their belts, and so on and so forth. Jeff told me later it was a spectacular pep talk. (Spectacular?)

We finished up and rolled out to a standing ovation, these folks were great. And with that we were on the long haul to Villanes. This in one of the longer stages, you are riding into the late afternoon/evening and you have about 900K in your legs so it takes determination.

Out of town we passed a very bad accident. (The ambulance had passed us fifteen minutes earlier) and as we were going by they were just putting O2 on the rider and starting chest compressions. From my EMT days I knew this was a very bad scenario. There was nothing for us to do so we rode on. We heard later that there was a fatality on the ride and I believe given the discussion of location this was that same situation.

As it got dark the brothers went ahead and I had a bad patch of riding. I blew a bulb in my E6, and I had ‘shifting issues’ (chain suck). At one point in the rain and dark I had a mess on the front der. Ron Himschoot pulled right over in the rainy dark offering assistance. Fortunately I was just getting things sorted out. I had lubed my chain earlier in the day and in hindsight I think I probably needed another shot of lube. It rained a lot on PBP this year.

I got into Villanes and saw no sign of the brothers or Ray, but knew that for me to be successful I needed to ride on to Mortagne. Given the time, I would not be able spend much time once I go there but I could worry about that once I got up the mountain to Mortagne, but stopping short of Mortagne would put my ride in jeopardy. I watered up, got a quick baguette for the H-bar bag and as I was getting ready to roll out I caught the eye of my old friend Dan T. I told him I was leaving and he said he’d ride out with me. We agreed to meet at the corner down past the controle.

I was behind my ’03 pace and remembered this was where I caught on with a group of Spaniards, it was lots of steady climbing and I had a great ride 4 years ago. I was not sure how I would do this time. Dan and I had a great ride out, I was feeling strong and we hooked up with a group of French riders, a couple very strong women and two or three guys. I just stayed back and paced with them.

This too is a pretty long stage and riding it at night, late in the ride I was sure somewhere along that stretch I would get sleepy. It happened after the junction of the D310 and D311, about 30 k from Mortagne. I was so frustrated, my computer had turned over to zeros so I just followed taillights. I kept thinking we should be getting close. When we rolled into Parfondeval I thought this must be it. There was a stand at the side of the road and I was desperate for coffee. “Café?” No they had just poured the last, DANG. I rolled through the town and came upon a sign announcing 12 K more to Mortagne! I got ticked and decided that rather than slog this out I was going to crank it up. Most of the riders I had been riding with earlier had left me in my sleepy section 26K ago. So I put my mind in time trial mode.

At 1:00am in the French countryside it is so dark you really can’t tell if you are riding at 12 kph or 25 kph. I just knew that I got the bike going at a pace that I figured I could maintain for an hour or so. Slowly taillights started appearing. It felt good to be reeling riders in and blowing by them. In my mind I could hear Phill Liggett and Paul Sherwin nattering on about how “this man has reached into his suitcase of courage and is riding the time trial of his life through the hills of Brittany!’ About 3K down the road someone jumped on my wheel and was hanging on. Then another rider hooked on. I decided to be nasty and start upping the pace a bit. Sanity visited my brain momentarily and I thought “don’t try to ride these guys off your wheel, just stick with the pace stupid!” After 5 minutes or so I drifted left and flicked my right elbow forward. The guy behind just pulled over behind me. I slowed down a little and waved him around. He got it this time and came around, the second guy followed. We rode together trading pulls for the remaining distance and it was fun to roll into the control with these two guys. We were all lathered up but laughing, two Frenchmen I think. The controle looked like so many others. Reminded me of the pictures we saw of the Katrina survivors at the convention center in NO. Wasted bodies lying every where.

I checked in and got two Perriers and a bowl of coffee. I knew I needed to catch a nap here but I was desperately afraid of falling asleep and I didn’t want to go to the trouble of getting a sleep in the gym for just a half hour. I was really in need of a friend. I was just putting my head down on the table to try to at least rest when Kevin rolled in. He congratulated me on getting there. He said they had napped at Villanes. We agreed to leave in about a half hour and they promised to wake me. I laid out on the wet hard linoleum in the glare of the florescent lights with the din of a public train station. I was asleep in a nanosecond.

It was about that same amount of time later (or so it seemed) when Kevin was waking me up and saying lets get a move on. We schooled up outside the control, it was pretty light as we started our ride to Dreux. One of the controle workers ordered me to turn on my headlight (the same thing happened on ’03) no argument from me, it’s easy to flick the lights on.

The steep descents went pretty well, nice not to have to start with another climb, my legs were really stiff and I knew it would take me some time to warm up. I was thankful that it was not as cold this time as last. Back in 03, as Ray and I left the control we came upon a bad accident, but the road was clear this time. Lots of riders; the urgency of riders knowing they have to keep moving in order to get to StQ. Wordless, and tired but all working toward a common goal and all watching out for each other. One mistake and you could be taken out, or take someone else out.

We rolled down the hills, and at the bottom of one of the descents there was a sharp left turn across a bridge. There were a couple motorcycles attending to a downed rider, we rode on and started up the next climb. Ray was behind me and Jeff was ahead, Brad and Kevin were up the road.

I heard a loud report, like a crack, and looked up in time to see Jeff doing a wild and frantic one legged ballet, trying to avoid falling. He had one foot clipped in and one down and was tottering on the brink. I figured he had just come unclipped, something came skittering my way. At first I thought it was just a light or something off the bike. I looked down and saw that it was his right pedal. I looked back up to see him looking up the road trying to clip in where there was no pedal. I shouted several times, got his attention and he looked down, puzzled to see no pedal sticking out of the crank arm. He looked up at me a bit at a loss. Ray picked up the pedal and Jeff rolled down to where we were.

At this point your brain is pretty scrambled. Most of your available gray matter is focused on how far to the next control, what time it is, and the minimum speed you must maintain to get to the next controle in time. In this state that calculation feels more complex than Einstein’s theory of relativity.

I’m usually petty fair at jury rigging but there was no McGyver for this. The pedal spindle had snapped and this was no place for one legging it, even Lance would have needed the neutral support. We talked briefly and considered the options. There really were very few options to consider. I suggested that he roll back down to the motos and get them to either haul him back to Mortagne or find some one who would. I expected Jeff to be in rough mental shape. One moment you are just a century away from accomplishing something really big, and the next moment you are on a sinking boat alone in the middle of the ocean. I had him figured exactly wrong. He said “You guys go on, I’ll figure some way to finish this thing!” He said it with such conviction that it momentarily lifted my spirits. It was the right stuff at that moment. I figured if he didn’t get a finish it would not be for lack of trying.

We rode on and for a bit I felt really empty. I just could not figure in my mind how he was going to pull it off. But there was enough climbing that I could not allow myself to dwell on it. I had my own little mountain to climb. That night, back in the hotel in StQ I learned how this story played out:

A mutual acquaintance, Mike W rode past Jeff and learning of the situation he rode on and connected with Kevin and Brad. Brad knew almost instantaneously that he was going to go back, find his brother and help him figure how he was going to finish this thing. He called and left a message on Jeff’s phone.

Jeff flagged the first car to come along; a young woman who knew no English, he knew no French. Some how he convinced her that she was going to transport him and his bike back along the route. At first she thought he had said 4 kilometers but as things progressed he impressed upon her 24K! It all worked out and she got him back to Mortagne.

At Mortagne, Jeff desperately looked for mechanical assistance or some solution to his dilemma. The shop guy was closing up, didn’t have any pedals and really didn’t seem too sympathetic to Jeff’s plight. Jeff later told me that at that point he was looking for a bike, ANY bike; Mamare’s old velo with the basket for the baguettes, any bike he could borrow, rent, buy, steal …whatever. He really had the determination. Our mutual friend Jon M pitched in trying to find some way to remedy the situation.

Jeff tried frantically to call our RBA, (he didn’t have his number and didn’t realize that he too had not yet finished.) At this point he notices that brother Brad has left a message. He called him back and Brad proposed that they swap bikes. Jeff knows that with this strategy only one of them was going to finish, and he realizes that his brother is proposing to sacrifice his own ride so that Jeff could have the opportunity to finish. Jeff told me it was/is the nicest gift he has ever received. Jeff had mixed feelings; he knew that Brad really wanted him to finish, but he also considered that Brad was 1100K into something he badly wanted also. After a moments’ consideration he accepted the offer. Now Jeff needed to find a ride back out to the course.

He found a car with a teenager in it and attempted to explain his plight. The lad went off to find someone to drive. This turned out to be Alain Lepertel, son of Robert Lepertel who is widely credited with keeping PBP alive during its less popular days. Sensing the need (and no doubt the drama) Alain pitched in with great haste. He granted Jeff 2.5 hours credit (against 3 hours off the bike) and drove him out to where Brad was, they exchanged bikes (and shoes). He wished Jeff bon courage and then he drove Brad back to Mortagne.

Note I mentioned exchanging shoes. Brad and Jeff had different pedals, and so the expedient thing to do at that point was to exchange shoes. Brad wears about a size 12, Jeff's feet are a size larger. Imagine riding the last 200K of a 1200K in shoes that are a size or so too small. Jeff told me that he spent about 10 minutes off the bike, approximately 10 miles out from the finish madly trying to loosen the shoes. They were the newer Sidi’s and he could not figure out how the red levers worked. He had inadvertently over tightened them trying to loosen them! He was perilously close to his finish time so he just sucked it up and rode to the finish, feet no doubt screaming all the way.

Jeff made it to the finish in 89:43.

Saturday morning when I met Brad in the hotel lobby he had the biggest grin a guy could. We shared a big bear hug, it was an incredible moment.

By Sunday as I was getting ready to depart, Kevin reported that the airline still had no idea where his lost bike was. He said that riding PBP was not the preferred method for breaking in a new Brooks saddle, but things were otherwise fine, he had finished his PBP as well. As of this writing (three weeks later) the airline still has no clue as to the whereabouts of his lost bike.

This is a classic PBP story. If I was a fiction writer I wouldn’t make this up, it’s too unbelievable. Sometimes truth is just better than fiction when it comes to stories.

What I learned from this is that if you want it bad enough there is a good chance that you will find a way to achieve your goal. Like Henry Ford said, whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re probably right. I will remember this the next time I have a bloody nose, or a sore butt or just a temporary lapse in commitment.


  1. Amen, and Amen. Well done. What an experience. And myself with just a measly 200k to my credit. Perchance to dream of 2011. I do recall riding home froma ride with my front der. hanging on the chain... pic someplace back in my blog...
    jim Rudnicki, Layton, UT.

  2. Thanks for the kind words Jim.

    I'm thinking of a piece called "Heroes of PBP". There are always a ton of stories about people who have gone to incredible lengths to finish PBP, as well as some terribly heartbreaking stories of folks who didn't finish.


    I rode out to Monfort L'Amaury on Saturday with a bunch of others. On the way back a rider fell and broke his wrist. So two days before it started his PBP was over. So close and yet so far.

    By the way, your photos are fantastic! And thanks to your blog I went to the site for the Yellwstone Randonneurs. I'll have to get down there for some of their rides, really beautiful.

  3. Thanks for the terrific rendition of a classic PBP story Paul. I had the honor of waiting at the finish line with Brad and Kevin as each moment anxiously ticked by. Seeing a very tired but victorious Jeff greeted by a hugely grinning Brad was a moment to treasure. Amy Pieper