As the group ahead of me braked suddenly, I felt a bump from behind and heard the sound of a bike crashing. My fellow rider Simon wheeled past me and signalled me to stop. I came to a halt by the side of the road, stepped off, took a look at my bike’s rear end and … shock! The derailleur was in pieces and, even worse, the gear hanger had been sheared off. This bike would not go anywhere soon. Out! Finished! My Paris-Brest-Paris was over after only eight kilometres. Four years of training, preparation and anticipation, all in vain. It was Sunday, the 21st of August, 2011, about a quarter to five in the afternoon.
Two days before me and my wife Petra had arrived at our hotel in St.Cyr l’Ecole after a nine hour car journey from Munich that had been unproblematic but incredibly hot and boring. The hotel was already filled with other riders: a group from Denmark, another one from Italy including Fermo Rigamonti and Tony Lonero of 1001 Miglia fame, the KBCK riders from Sweden and my British friends from the Brian Chapman Memorial. Martin, Simon, George and John had taken the Eurostar from London to Paris and arrived a bit earlier. John knew the KBCK group quite well and the rest of the evening was spent socialising over couscous and lots of alcohol. Saturday morning the registration went without a hitch. We had arrived at the Gymnase des Droits de l’Homme early enough to get through before the big crowds and I had even guessed the proper size of my official jersey right. However, the rest of the day did not go quite so well. We went out for a short tour of the first and last sections of the ride in order to acquaint ourselves with the surroundings and have some lunch in the process. But the blasting heat well into the thirties made life difficult and somehow we ended up not rested at all after a day of actually doing nothing. Add a long walk necessary to get to a very mediocre and time consuming dinner and a hotel room so hot sleeping became very difficult.
Sleep or no sleep, the great day came. I was a bit tired but otherwise well prepared. From the winter rides over washboard ice on studded tyres to the post-qualifier preparation rides of July and August I had trained well. I had bettered my personal best on every single qualifying brevet by several hours. I was as physically fit as never before in all my life, my bike was in perfect condition, my kit carefully selected. I was ready. Ready for a last takeaway pizza under a tree in front of the Gymnase, ready for a very long wait under the blazing sun as we lined up for the start around the football field (I had brought some extra small bottles of water). Ready for a very nervous neutralised start. I had been warned in advance that several hundred hyper-motivated and itchy riders could make for a dangerous time. Time dragged on. The official start came and went with nothing happening. We later learned that a parked car had caused an obstruction in the route. Eventually the first group started. More waiting. It was hot, very hot. In fact I would attribute most of the earlier DNFs (Did not finish) in the ride to cases of sunstroke. Finally, the seconds were counted down for our group and at 16:24 we were off at last.
We passed the first dangerous points of narrowing roads and metal road furniture without problems. Going behind the pace car was surprisingly slow. Upon entering and leaving intersections and roundabouts blocked for our passage the field compacted and stretched like a bungee cord, the sudden changes in speed required absolute concentration. As we traversed Trappes, the field abruptly slowed down again. It was at this moment that I felt a sudden bump and heard somebody go down. For a second I felt totally unaffected by all this but then I found out about my new situation. As far as PBP was concerned, the bike was a wreck. I looked to see who it was who had crashed into me. It was Martin, of all people. As the field suddenly braked he had momentarily been distracted, hit me from behind and crashed on the road. He had some bruised knees and elbows but seemed otherwise alright. His bike had suffered a bit though, A shifter was twisted and the front wheel would not rotate through the brake pads. While Martin got his bike running again, I started thinking feverishly about a Plan B. A gear hanger is not a spare any bike dealer has in stock, particularly for a bike that is sold over the Internet only. Buy a new bike? It was Sunday and by the time the shops opened on Monday it would be too late. Go around and ask if anyone had a spare bike? Unlikely. First I had to get back to the start, though. Eight kilometres is quite a walk even when not pushing a broken bike in the blistering heat. I took my cell phone out and gave my wife a call, asking her to see if she could get some advice from the organising staff. I would walk back and call again once I got back to the start.
The section of the route where the accident happened had been mostly void of spectators, the interested people in this region most likely had gone directly to the start. However, one man who had come to see us go by approached me and offered me a lift back to the start in his car. I accepted gladly. He told me that his uncle had also prepared for PBP but had broken his collarbone a week before the event when everything had been set up for the ride. He diligently navigated around all the road closures and quickly dropped me off one block down from the start. I was (and am) extremely thankful for his help. The enthusiasm of the people for PBP goes a long way. Luckily, he would not be the only one to help me with my problem and due to the combined effort and assistance of numerous people, all of which had never seen me before, things were looking up again. A German randonneur who came by as I unloaded my bike from the car pointed out that on a similar incident in 2007 a rider had shortened his chain and turned his bike into a single speeder. A single speed bike. Hmmm, that might be an option if all else fails. The organisation staff was helpful, too, entering a note into my brevet book that my start time would change to 5:00 Monday morning. Another young volunteer helped me through the barricades out of the start compound to the sales area of Cycles Jacky who had sold accessories during and after the bike check and fortunately had not yet finished dismantling their displays. After a quick assessment of the situation and finding out that the gear hanger of my wife’s bike (also a Canyon) was of a different type, they simply asked me whether I wanted them to set up my wife’s bike for me? Riding on Petra’s bike? I had not thought of that. The best wife in the world agreed to give it a try and together we started to convert a 52cm bike into something usable for a 56cm rider. A longer stem was fitted and the seat post drawn out as far as could be responsibly done. My saddle was mounted to the seat post, her pedals exchanged for mine and I gave it a try. The riding position was OK, the handlebars a bit narrow and the 170mm crank arm would be unusual. But I could ride this thing. It worked! I had a bike again! Big thanks once more, especially to my wife. If she had not come along I would have been in a fix indeed.
The rest of the evening was spent fitting my accessories (bottle holders, pump, seat post bag, start numbers et al.) on my temporary vehicle. Preparations for the morning start procedure followed. It would be another night of little sleep, but never mind. Tony Lonero had seen us and enquired as to the reasons for my quick return to the hotel. Once I had told him he offered me to join his group when they went to start the next morning themselves. I accepted and a few hours later I left the hotel a second time after a very short night. The controllers at the start did not make a fuss at all, and after waiting a short while in a bunch that was far more relaxed than the one the afternoon before, we were unceremoniously sent out on our way. I was riding PBP. Again. Better luck this time!