8pm Monday: the 16th edition of PBP leaves Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines. I went for a brisk 8 mile walking tour of Paris in the morning, then went back to the hotel and got four hours of sleep. I caught the train to St Quentin and joined a huge crowd of cyclists at the start area. As 8 oclock approached, the excitement of the crowd grew, and at 8 a cannon was fired and the ride was on. If you’ve managed to make it this far in my narrative, you won’t be surprised to find out that there was a little snafu.
The speeches wind down, the cannon fires, and the crowd I was in didn’t move. Not even an inch. Though I knew that the 8 oclock group would go in a couple of waves, so as not to crowd the roads, I expected some forward motion. There was none. It turned out that I was standing in the 90 hour group, which was not scheduled to leave for a couple hours.
With some panic I pulled the old salmon routine and made my way backwards through the crowd at the start line, which was the third and final wave of my group. I managed to make it backward, turn around, get back through bike check, get my control card stamped and get back into the group with enough time for my heart rate to get back to a normal range before we started.
Next thing, the cannon fired and off we went.
It was awesome. Our pack was probably 300 people, the intersections were controlled for miles and we literally rolled into the sunset. Finally I was riding through France. With people who knew where they were going.
We passed fields of sunflowers. We ripped through little towns with skinny streets that would barely qualify as alleys back home. Luckily I was in the front of our grupetto, because more than once I heard bikes sliding across the ground behind as we passed over traffic circles.
After 20 miles it was getting fairly dim, and of course I got a flat. It was no problem fixing it, but my grupetto was long gone, and three others had passed while I pumped up my tire. The prospect of going solo for the next 2-300k until fast riders from the 90 hour group caught me was not enchanting, to say the least. I mounted up and started picking off single riders in front of me, but couldn’t get a group together. until…
Italians! God bless em! I had steeled myself to a long solo stretch when a group of three Italians overtook me. I hopped on, and 37 miles later we rode ourselves into a pack of about 100 riders “ I swear I was riding with most of the Italian contingent “ Â¾ of them had matching Randonneur Italia kit. I was finally able to put my early ride strategy to work and promptly sat in. The remainder of the night was great. We rolled along at a decent pace, and in the distance I could see the lights of a couple other groups just like ours. Until at least 2AM there were regular groups of villagers standing in front of their houses or the local bars just cheering us on. And there truly is nothing like rolling through a little town at 3 in the morning and having your riding mates bust out into song in Italian. I have no idea what they were singing about, but god was it cool!
This was what I had come for.