Words by Ana Martins
Last summer, I went to France for the iconic Paris-Brest-Paris bike ride. The ride is 1,230 km and participants have 90 hours to complete it. What a dream! I pedaled day and night alongside almost 6,000 cyclists of many nationalities. An entire country cheered us towards the beautiful city of Brest in proud Bretagne. Talk about a crazy adventure for a middle-aged mom, especially one who had never been an athlete…
Anticlimactically, let me begin at the end. No, sadly, I did not finish the ride. I reached my absolute physical and mental breaking point at 1,108 km, in Longy au Perche, after pedaling for a bit over 80 hours on 4 broken hours of sleep. I simply could not pedal anymore. If you are wondering “what a wimp,” “who would stop so close to the end?”, let me reassure you I handle pain – I’ve got two anesthesia free childbirths behind me to attest to it. Trust me, if I say it hurts, it is because it truly does so. There was so much pain, I just could not keep turning that pesky crank. Then I lost all feeling on my right hand. And the rain started. Pas reasonable de continuer. Tout simplesment.
This is, nevertheless, where the story actually begins – planning for 2019 has already started, should my health and finances allow me. No, I do not think I can ever finish in the 90 hours allowed. But that does not matter anymore. I am dazed, lured and drunk on Paris Brest magic.
The ride began three years ago when I got my faithful Seven Axiom with a small inheritance from my mother and guidance from best friends. Rediscovering bike riding brought me immense joy and cured the seasonal affected disorder acquired after moving from sunny Rio de Janeiro to not so sunny Seattle. Before my Seven, I mastered the 20 km range, and trusted 30 km was well within my grasp. PBP, however, required the completion of a series of rides that were 200 Km, 300km, 400 km and 600 km in the year PBP is offered. Hmmm, tricky…
With my Seven, I gradually increased distances, feeling comfortable in the 100 km category, and chasing the 200 and 300 km dreams. At the bike shop, Zac, Terry, Derek, Andrew and Jason fine tuned the equipment and treated me like my delusions were actual possibilities. “You can do this, Ana,” they cheered. Family, old friends, new rando friends, and coaches seemed to agree. Well, I completed the required series, Derek taught my daughter and me how to minimally disassemble, assemble and pack my bike (loaning me cool tools for the job) and off I went, all the way to Paris.
The day before the ride is bike check at the National Velodrome of France in the Paris suburb of Saint Quentin en Yveline. Officials hand out our ride numbers and make sure the bicycles meet safety standards. There, a world of cyclists opens up. Folks from Kazakhstan, Malta, a large group from Randonneurs USA, my dear Seattle International Randonneurs (SIR), and a surprising contingent from my native Brazil despite brutal exchange rates! And this is only bike check. The fun is yet to start!
Next day, we ride. Leaving in alphabetical waves, we pedal. Night. Day. Pedal. Few concerns: food, water, distance to next control, navigation. The countryside rolled by. Normandy, unfolding its landscape: gentle hills, picturesque farms, beautiful villages with magnificent little churches and old squares. Brittany arrives a bit harsher, louder mountains (it might just be my weaker legs), proud people passionate about the ride and cycling. Families on the road propelled us forward, offering food and beverages – pastries, hot chocolate, coffee, even at 2 am, when I was thinking all was lost. The power of people! And we pedaled on.
Dotting the French countryside, tired randonneurs nap (and pee!) everywhere. I was never alone. There was always a group ahead, a group behind, a familiar face from Seattle, with its distinct blue cycling jerseys. “Allez, Seattle!” A friend from SIR sustained a group of tired riders through hard night terrain solely on story telling and laughter. Thus we chugged along: up, down, forward, almost no flat stretch on this ride. I gave it all, but had to stop in Longy. As I sat drained, in the dark, rainy night, I cracked and cried that cry of deep, painful, exhaustion. The one so many of us know, of lost goals, lost causes, lost loved ones. Of being too broken to go on.
Then, Jean and Dominique, volunteers from Mortagne, rescued me. A Brazilian randonneur lifted my spirits as only a Brazilian can: “C’mon Ana, round the kilometers up, we basically finished….” A fellow randonneur USA gave me a pin from his club and Jean gave me a souvenir plaque, noting that LOVE and VELO have the same letters. Pure cycling magic at work: a community of people lifting one another. We – one for all, all for one – brought each other back to the beauty of the effort, the enormity of the ride, the childish, simple, pure joy of jumping on a bicycle and heading out there, on the power of our legs, and the companionship of the journey. What a big, beautiful ride we are all on! To think it began with friendship, a bicycle and my dear mom…