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PBP 1999 - The Best and Worst

by Pamela Blalock


Rather than a blow by blow recount of our fabulous ride on PBP in 1999, this is our list of the best, worst and most interesting controls and such that we encountered on PBP (in my own not so humble opinion, of course). John and I spent a fair amount of time at the controls, about an hour each at most of them and 5-6 hours at the two where we slept, providing me with adequate qualifications for making this assessment!

A little background

For PBP in 1999, we rode our tandem equipped with a bar bag, trunk bag and two small panniers. We kept our camera, control cards, passports, wallets and a small amount of on the bike food in the bag bag, which John removed and carried into each control as we checked in. This bar bag was decorated with the tassles that accompany ice cream desserts all over France. Control staff always guessed we were on tandem. Maybe it was having the two photo numbers on the front, and not actually the whimsical tassles.

Tools, spares, and maps (essentials that didn't need to be accessible on the move - or in a control) were kept in the trunk bag, which stayed on the bike - no need to haul that stuff into controls. We also each had a small pannier, packed with extra shorts, rain and cold weather gear, including jacket, jersey knee and leg warmers, gloves, overshoes - things I'd have missed if I really needed them. They also held some basic toiletries and very compact silk sleep sacs to go between us and the very scratchy horse-hair blankets found at the sleep controls. The panniers could easily be removed and carried into controls where we slept, but we left them on for the shorter stops - just pulling out or storing various items as we needed them. We did not use bag drops or hotels, choosing to eat and sleep at controls, living off the land as much as we could.

Since we took the 9:45 p.m. tandem start, so we found ourselves in between crowds for the most part, This worked quite well for us. We never encountered long lines, and found all the staff at the controls very friendly and helpful.


We ate at every control. With one notable exception, cafeterias worked great for the less adept at French among us, as I could simply point to what I wanted to eat, and say, "je voudrais cette, s'il vous plait."

Best Coffee - Loudeac. This was the first place we finally got a grande cafe au lait in a soup bowl. Prior to that we only got little shots of espresso. After Loudeac we learned to say grande and hold our hands out wide! We were always rewarded with delicious and potent coffee, which woke me up when I needed it! NO American coffee has ever worked as well!

Best Soup - Tintineac. My best food memories from '91 were soup and sandwiches at Tintineac. I used an all preprocessed chemical liquid diet that year, but had my first proper food in Tintineac. The soup there was just as good as I had remembered from 1991. And I was much happier with eating real food throughout the event this time around! Highly recommended.

Best Chicken - Fougeres. We arrived in Fougeres-outbound in the early hours of the morning, after riding all night. While others were ordering omelettes - as it was around breakfast time, I looked at the poulet, pointed and of course said "s'il vous plait." It was moist and delicious. The perfect breakfast.

Worst Chicken - Loudeac. Here the chicken was a bit dry, but the mashed potatoes were melt in your mouth delicious.

Most awkward cafeteria - Brest. One could get coffee and sandwiches in the main building, but I couldn't figure out where to get hot food. I later found out that I was supposed to go to a table, say what I wanted (no looking and pointing), pay in advance, get a ticket and then go up stairs and across a courtyard to collect the meal. This wasn't at all obvious to me, but I admit that I was a bit tired at that point. This was closely followed by St. Quentin en Yvelines - why was there no real food at the finish? There were some sandwiches, but I could only get sodas one cup at a time, and nothing hot. We did eventually discover we could buy bottles of Champagne - so we did! We shared the bottle with Team Ireland (John being an official a member of the team, while I get honorary membership, based on marriage) and a few other friends we made along the way.

Showers and loos

Best toilet seats - Villaine La Juhel - the only one with actual seats - maybe someone can explain to why none of the others had seats!

Most interesting toilets - Carhaix - holes in floor with foot prints to indicate where to place your feet - They did FLUSH, so they must be modern! We found most public toilets in rural France are this way, but we always refer to them as Carhaix style loos! These are also the best reason to use recessed cleat walkable cycling shoes! They can be quite slipperly and there is no way I would put used cleat covers back into my pocket!


Best Public Showers - Loudeac - here, there was a hose and a bucket, and folks stripped down and stood in the large bucket and got hosed down! I didn't actually try to take a shower here, but did enjoy the show. A lack of proper foresight had this operation slightly uphill from the toilets, so folks got to cross a vast stream of shower drainoff to reach a loo!

Best "private" shower - Fougeres - the door was marked "Femmes", and a control worker actually kicked out the men who were showering there, so I could have a shower in privacy. To be fair to these men, they had been apparently directed to this shower by another control worker, and later tracked me down to offer an apology. They had one of those wonderful motorcycle escorts translate for them. It was very sweet. This control even offered towels with the fee for a shower!

Worst showers where I tried - Brest - had showers available, but did not have any towels for rent. I had remembered being able to rent towels in '91, so I had left my pack towel in Paris. I can't comment on any others as we didn't try any where else.

Sleeping facilities

We slept in Brest and Fougeres. Between the two, Fougeres wins hands down. The sleeping building was separate from the control and cafeteria, so it was nice and quiet. It was also split up into small rooms, based on preferred wakeup times, minimizing noise and disruption. Brest had one large building with sleeping on one side, control in the middle and cold food, coffee, showers and toilets on the other. Even with earplugs, the noise was almost deafening. Despite having been up for a couple of days, I barely slept 2 hours there. It is hard to imagine having trouble sleeping at that stage. The two hours was btrief, but quality sleep and enough to refresh me. We had packed silk sleep sacks and space blankets. The space blankets were never unfolded, but we used the sleep sacks. They were a godsend between me and the itchy horsehair blankets at Brest.


Decorations - Many of the controls had great decorations with art from local school children. Villaines la Juhel and Mortagne au Perche had the best displays. Mortagne au Perche edges out Villaines la Juhel for the best thanks to the two bikes complete with mechanical scare-crow operators pedaling them non-stop throughout the event. I had remembered this display from 1987 and 1991 as well.

Best freebee - Villaines la Juhel gave out postcards complete with stamps, so you could post off news of your ride along the way!

Best approach wall to a control - Mortagne au Perche followed closely by Brest. I'm glad we brought the low gears! We didn't need them on the course though, just getting into the control! John and others have told me that the climb to the control in Brest was brutal, but I have somehow blocked that one out!

Worst series of turns to navigate through to get to control - Fougeres, followed closely by Brest. Brest didn't have loads of turns, but the arrows were positioned in such a way as to be quite difficukt to spot at night..

Best spectators - Villaines la Juhel - here crowds were cheering people all the time. Although if you arrived at the same time as a local did, it was a good idea to get out of the way quickly. One comment on crowds. It was great to have folks cheering us along the way. It's one of the things that makes PBP so special, but it sure would be nice at the controls if non-riders would give riders priority for toilets, food, FRESH air and stairrails. There was an awful lot of smoking, and lots of people sitting on the stairs right next to the handrails, that I desprately needed to hold on to walking up and down stairs as I tried to keep my jelly legs operating properly!

Best arrows - What can I say here? The reflective heads sure were nice, but they were equilateral triangles, and the tails weren't reflective, so while they were visible from a long ways away thanks to the reflective head, we had to be pretty close to tell which direction they actually indicated. So next time, make the whole arrow reflective, please! Also speaking of those reflective arrow heads, I really began to worry as we left Loudeac, and many of the arrows were missing those reflective heads. Maybe the arrow budget had been stretched too thin! Fortunately arrows with reflective heads began reappearing after a few miles. But speaking of the arrow budget, it did seem like arrows were rationed in some places, or maybe it was just positioning. One thing we finally caught onto, was that straight ahead arrows were often placed parallel to the road, so without or without the reflective parts, didn't show up in our headlights. This is pretty typical for French road sign posting, but definitely hard for cyclists to see out at night, especially those stressed about getting lost and riding lots of extra kms. We noticed this most as we approached Brest in the wee hours of the morning. It did seem that arrows were put up by different local clubs, as the styles varied quite a bit throughout the course. So my suggestion to the ACP would be to recommend that arrows be placed FACING oncoming riders and their lights, and to be generous with them. My theory that they'd run out of arrows was dashed at the end where extra arrows were on sale. We bought two as souvenirs!

Best ride escorts - The motorcycles at the finish were great. Really great. Special thanks to the one who accompanied us in the last ten miles, especially after John took a wrong exit off the roundabout. The motorcycle came back around for US! Maybe it was that we were on a tandem or maybe my ear to ear smile charmed him. All I can say is it erased any memory that I may have had of this ride ever being tough, or hard or in anyway unpleasant. At the conclusion of every other 1200km I have done, I have said "never again". This time, I had already starting planning 2003!

Best cycling company
Well I may could get myself in trouble with this, but I'll try not to. Roy and Susan, our tandem friends from Connecticut accompanied us the first day all the way to Loudeac, where they wisely chose to sleep. We have done many long rides with these guys over the last two years, and they are great company. They are also incredibly modest about their strength and speed. It is great to have another tandem with which to ride. Tandems and singles can mix together, but often it's lots of work and awkward. It's always great to have another bike that rolls along in a similar style. This was one of the great things about the tandem start. We got tandem companions. We also thoroughly enjoyed riding with Derek and Kim from Australia, albeit for too brief a period of time. Derek and Kim, got knocked off their tandem early in the ride, as another bike took a sudden turn directly in front of them, after arrows seemingly appeared at the last minute. We were riding alongside them at the time, chatting away merrily. Kim was taking great pride in explaining all the fertility symbols she'd painted all over the tandem. This must win as best decorated bike, BTW. Anyway, showing the Australian gutsiness, they completed the ride, although Kim's hand was swollen enormously, as well as her knee and Derek's hip took quite a battering too! Finally there were a couple of French guys who were just too strong for us leaving Fougeres on the way back. We also saw them a bit on the remainder of the ride, and lots of smiles and nods were exchanged. Enough so that they offered us Champagne at the awards ceremony on Friday!

Worst Tandem Company - an unknown single bike rider. Somewhere on the way to Loudeac, we hooked up with Mark and Julie, who also happened to be on a CoMotion tandem. Since Roy and Susan and John and I also were riding on CoMotions, we naturally felt an affinity and tried to ride together. Unfortunately this one single bike, kept latching on to whichever tandem took the lead, and THEN refused to pull through when they pulled off waiting for the next tandem to pull through, when he'd repeat this same behavior. Basically it meant the tandem that had just taken a pull could not get a good tandem draft as reward. We finally gave up in disgust and stopped for water. Actually we needed water and the kids were so great standing out by the side of the road for hours offering water and hoping someone would stop.

Best stuffed company - P.B. Bear. He was being drafted by the very chatty and raunchy joke telling Chris Avery. If only I could remember some of those jokes now. P.B. Bear was likely the only "participant" who actually wore his SR medal throughout the ride.

Best tandem appreciating single bikes - At some point on the way back from Brest, we passed a couple of singles on the down side of a roller. We played the back and forth game briefly, until they decided to enjoy the tandem draft to Carhaix - where they bought us drinks! We saw them a bit throughout the return, and they rejoined us for the final leg, helping greatly with navigation as they were local. They also took the best shot of us on the tandem with our camera!

Best jerseys - The Germans. And I got one. I took three jerseys to trade. The Autralian Kangaroo was also pretty cool, but I couldn't find anyone willing to trade. They ended up placing another order, so I got one later.. I also managed to get a Danish jersey, and another from a local French club. Let me just suggest if you wan't a Danish jersey, bring size 5 jerseys to trade. These guys aren't petite. I did find one fellow who agreed to swap for a size 3 BMB jersey! It might fit a Danish toddler!

Best atmosphere - Everywhere. PBP is like no others. The drivers treated us with respect. The locals cheered for us, and offered us water and coffee when we desparately needed it, and even when we didn't. We just couldn't stop everywhere and actually finish the ride in time, Still, I felt guilty for NOT stopping more. The bloomin' bikes in villages throughout were so cool. Don't expect to see this anywhere but France!

Best section for riding - Loudeac to Tintineac, coming back. There were a billion little towns in between these two controls, each on top of a mountain, each with a church that we could see from the previous town, and knew we had to climb. We were prepared for this section to be brutal. Yet it was the most tandem friendly section of the ride, with incredible rollers that we just powered up, getting faster and feeling stronger the more we did it. Poor Tim, the single biker who'd joined up with us, was amazed by the speed we held, especially as we claimed at the start that it would not be tandem friendly!

Best welcoming committee - John Dalton. Our hotel was 10 miles from the finish, and I actually wasn't looking forward to the additional mileage! John Dalton is an Irish ex-patriot living in Belgium. He had driven out to translate for his Belgian friends at the RM meeting. He decided to meet us at the finish and graciously offered to give us a lift back. Thank goodness for S&S couplers! We were able to disconnect the front third of the tandem to fit the big bike into his tiny transit van.

Things we forgot and needed the most - Petzl headtorch and ibuprofen. Even after writing an article for Ultra Cycling on PBP lighting, and recommending this headtorch, we forgot to bring one. And having 4 at home, we held off buying a fifth. These things can be crucial for finding arrows at night. We will never forget one again. I also can't believe I forgot to bring any sort of anti-inflammatory drugs. Somewhat early on, I was starting to have some pain around my knees, and decided some ibuprofen would be nice. I asked at the Croix Rouge, and was told I'd need a doctor's prescription. I found my doctor, Roy, who didn't give me a prescription, but did give me 4 Alleve tablets, which got me through the remainder of the trip. I later found out that one can get ibuprofen tablets in pharmacies without a prescription, but they are kept in the back (not out on a shelf) and you just have to ask.

Things we hauled around the course and didn't really need, but were happy to have anyway since conditions could have been very different - Wool jersey, rain jacket, overshoes, legwarmers, gloves and headband. We were lingering over coffee in Brest when the only rain we saw on the event came down, so we missed it. Otherwise conditions in 1999, were pretty darn good, albeit a bit hot during the day. The sun is quite intense there and (unlike New England) there wasn't much shade, so it felt hot to us most days. The temps did drop at night, and my knee warmers and armwarmers saw lots of use then.

Well that's enough reminiscing for now. Hopefully there were more bests than worsts.For my fellow riders, I hope you enjoyed this little reminder and it brought back fond memories for you. For those who haven't done PBP, I simply can't recommend it enough. If lots of this article doesn't make sense to you, then do the next PBP- it will become clear. There is nothing else out there like PBP. PBP is simply the BEST!


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