In August, Gregg Bleakney
and I traveled to France for what turned out to be a ten day epic poem to cycling. Our mission was to photograph the Paris-Brest-Paris Randonee
(PBP) from beginning to end. For over 100 hours (save about 16 hours of sleep - some in a B&B, some in a hotel, some on a park bench), day and night, we followed the thousands cyclists from around the world as they traversed the countryside of Normandy and Brittany. We thought our sleepless documentary expedition from a motorcycle was quite the accomplishment, but it paled in comparison to what we witnessed — the great magic of what is possible on a bicycle and the seemingly limitless French love for bicycling.
The PBP is held every four years. 2007 brought over 5000 riders to this Superbowl of endurance cycling. The goal of the PBP is to bicycle from Paris to Brest (1200 km. / 750 mi.) and back in less than 90 hours. That means riders have to average 320 km./200 mi. every 24 hr. period. To put it in a NW perspective, that's almost four Seattle to Portland races in less than four days. There are no professionals, no prizes (save for a t-shirt and a finishers' medal) and the entire event is staffed by volunteers. It is the largest amateur endurance event of its kind in the world.
To describe the challenges these riders faced is easy, rain (my guess - 60% of the time - I remember dumping a cup of water from my boot at one of our stops), wind, darkness, sleeplessness, fatigue, exhaustion, irritability, soreness ...add any synonym for suffering. To describe the mood and spirit of the event, its participants and volunteers is not so easy. Everywhere, I witnessed joy, camaraderie and celebration. Everywhere the randonneurs passed they were cheered, by those of all ages and all means. Drivers caught in traffic jams behind pelotons - cheered. Children sitting on curbs and window sills in every country village - cheered, clapped and sang. I saw children running across fields to hand water bottles and snacks to oncoming riders. Locals in most villages hosted festivals to feed and fête all who passed. Everywhere there were heroes. Ordinary heroes? Seemingly, for the average PBP participant's age is 47, yet some were 70 years old and others, while younger, came in all shapes and sizes — not what anyone would imagine as endurance athletes. They were extraordinary. If 70 year-olds could finish the PBP, I imagined I could too — something prior to witnessing the PBP, would have never crossed my mind. Somehow, this suspended state of disbelief becomes the equivalent of a license to believe in magic. Indeed, the PBP is magic.
Each moment I consumed was a poem to the love for cycling, to the simple heroism in physical challenge, to the joy in shared athletic pursuit and to the wonder of being welcome and celebrated in a foreign land. The beauty of the countryside and the constant waves of affection (even for us on the motorcycle) became a balm for all that is mundane. Our every encounter with cyclists, a window into the sublime territory of raw motivation, will and pleasure — I never tired of catching the next peloton of riders, and the next, and the next...
On the train returning to Paris, Gregg and I met some PBP participants. I described to them the poetry I had witnessed. Their initial reaction seemed dull — they were exhausted. As I continued my revelry about the magnificence of their heroism, one remarked, "I could listen to you for hours." He was in tears. So was I.
In celebration and honor of all those PBP participants, the volunteers and hospitable citizens of Paris, Brittany and Normandy, Gregg
has posted the fruits of our photo expedition at www.parisbrestparisphoto.com
To the left is Drew Buck. Drew completed the entire PBP on this 1920's French Hirondelle (Swallow brand), two-speed, Retro Direct
. Yes, 1200 km. on a 70-plus, year-old bicycle, in less than 90 hours — just one of the many pages of PBP poetry for all to celebrate.