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Defending the Title

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by Melinda Lyon

I had been awake for 28 hours and planned on staying awake at least 28 more. My stomach had rebelled from the quantities of liquids and solids I had consumed to keep my body going. I wondered how I was going to get out of the bathroom in Brest, never mind the 600 kilometers back to Paris. I was facing the second half of the 2003 Paris-Brest-Paris; where the real ride begins.

In 1999 I was an unknown American when I entered PBP, for the second time. I rode for a fast time and happened to be in first place right from the beginning of the ride. Being in first place gives one a certain ego boost that can chase away some of the pain and suffering of such a long ride. I was being cheered as the Premiere Feminine at all of the checkpoints. This would perk me up to try and keep the pace up. The elation of being first at such a prestigious event, stayed with me for the four years. At PBP 2003 I really wanted to repeat as the first female finisher..

On August 15, I left for Paris with my strong New England riding partners, John Jurczynski, Ted Lapinski, and Glen Slater. We had two days to get the bikes tuned up and rest up. We selected the 8pm/80hr start on Monday night. There were 1000 people starting in this group, so we got there at 6pm to ensure safer and faster placement towards the front. In that endless two hours, I glanced around and found several very fit looking women in the starting enclosure.

At 8pm the gun fired and we were off. The first hour was quite hectic so my main concern was simply staying upright on the bike. We were riding fast but we soon settled down into a more reasonable pace. Twilight settled in and we had the great feeling of being in a huge peloton with the sun setting over the French countryside. I tried to relax and draft the massive group. I looked around to see two Italian women with a large group of Italian men around them. There were also a couple of French woman. Somewhere in the pack was one other American woman, Ann Crossland from Colorado. She had a support crew and a very experienced fast male pacer.

I had chosen to do the ride unsupported as I have always done in the past. I prefer to do the ride as a true randonneur, carrying what I need and getting my own food and water at the controls. I used the two American bag drops for extra food and clothes. If it meant losing to a supported woman, I would still do it unsupported. This looked like a distinct possibility this year. When I arrived at a control, the other women would be out on the road at least ten minutes ahead of me. They were all slower riders than I am, so I would catch them on the road, only to lose ground at the next control.

There were at least five women within an hour of each other and they all appeared to have support. Their teams knew who I was and where I was. I, on the other hand, was on my own to keep tabs on them. I was constantly guessing who was ahead of me and by how much.

After 400K I gave up on "racing" this ride because it was tiring me out. I was out of energy, dehydrated and despondent over the possibility of being first woman. If I was going to finish at all, it had to be at my own pace and finishing first might just come from outlasting the others. I had ridden enough 1200k's to know that there was still a long way to go.

My emotions were buoyed somewhat at the secret control beyond Loudeac, where I was told that I was in second place. In my earlier bout of depression I had convinced myself that I must be in 4th or 5th place and losing ground. All of the women seemed stronger and had great support. In reality, all but one of them had also slowed down due to the earlier fast pace. I still had no idea who was out front and didn't know by how much time, but I continued to ride steadily through the hills and ridges of western Brittany.

At Carhaix my time was similar to my 1999 time and I was feeling better. It was a cool, sunny, beautiful afternoon. My riding partners from home had shrunk by one. John J. had a bad first 24 hours and had dropped back. Ted and Glen were still going strong so we rode on to Brest together. We had picked up another New England friend, Ernie Landry, and he rode with us through that day and the next night.

Shortly after leaving Carhaix, we passed a French woman riding very slowly. Could this be the elusive first place woman? I would only know when I got to Brest and was given my position. Aglimmer of hope was rekindled.

The ride into Brest was uneventful but seemed to take forever. Finally we crossed the bridge over the bay into Brest and rode up the long hill to the control and I was met with the news that I was in first place. (Later, I found out that this was incorrect information.) An ever-increasing upset stomach sent me into the bathroom soon after my arrival quickly tempered this news. Ted, Glen and Ernie got sandwiches and Cokes. I managed half a sandwich and some coffee to refill my now empty stomach and we were on our way again. While we were eating I saw at least two women check in and quickly leave. First place was a fleeting thing. I would have to earn it back.

The difference in the competition from 1999 was striking. I was within 15 minutes of my 1999 time at Brest, but in 1999 I had a solid hour over the second place woman. This year there were 5 women right there within a few minutes of each other. The pressure I put on myself this time was upsetting my stomach.

Leaving Brest with the setting sun at our backs, I looked up ahead and could see at least two women a mile up climbing the gradual hill out of town. We started out with some riders from California but they quickly decided not to give me any extra help. They wanted the West Coast female to get the victory. All I had worked for was slipping away. The evening looked grim. I was now using water infused with Alka Seltzer as an energy drink to calm my stomach.

Back in Carhaix the guys wanted a real meal--I wanted to put my head down and see if my stomach would settle. After 20 minutes we were back on the road, moving slowly but moving forward. One last trip to the side of the road for my upset stomach and I was actually feeling better. I had eaten almost no food and limited water for the past few hours, but my emergency systems were kicking in and I was going to finish this baby as best I could.

At Loudeac (760k) our friend Glen needed to sleep so we bid him goodbye. Ted, Ernie and I took off. Dawn broke by the time we reached Tinteniac and I was back to numero uno! The others must have slept somewhere and my persistence was paying off. We had lost Ernie to a sleep break so it was just Ted helping me fight the battle. Our friends Bryan Johnson, Brad Tanner and Ernie Landry came into the control and said "Melinda - get the hell out of here!" The other women were right on our tails. With 350k to go it is difficult to sprint in, but we were going to try our best.

The sun was up and it looked like a warm day with a headwind rising. Steady pace, keep going. That was our mantra. At Fougeres (900k) Ann Crossland's crew studied our every movement. I am not sure if they knew before there Ann was competing against an unsupported rider, but they knew it now. They were probably amazed to see the defending champ fill her own water bottles. And what was that fizzy stuff in those water bottles? A new magic energy drink? And who was her mysterious partner guzzling Cokes and grumbling about his craving for a burger and fries? Ted, at 209 pounds, needs constant feeding and watering to keep going. He has become accustomed to the buffets of free food that Jennifer Wise offers on BMB. The jambon croissants weren't doing it for him.

As the day grew warmer, Ted started to fade. He had trouble pulling, then trouble thinking clearly. I was concerned that he had developed hypoglycemia or heat stroke. We stopped and I fed him my GU packets and some electrolyte caps. We waved down a ride marshal who got us some cold water. Ted recovered but was never the same. We rode out of Villaines together but he had trouble keeping the pace. I started to pull away from him into the wind even though he is a much better headwind and flatland rider than I am. I had to go.

I was all alone up and down the hot hills into Mortagne au Perche. I was starting to become paranoid and desperate. All of the hard work, early mornings and miles of training all summer and I wanted it to count for something. I was constantly looking in my rear view mirror for the expected sight of a large, well-organized group with that familiar sight of a small woman tucked tight in the middle. Who would it be? The Italian group? Americans? Or would the French reappear? I had no chance of staying ahead of a strong group into this wind. The pressure lead to an enormous headache which I am sure was exacerbated by dehydration. My last hope was to latch onto whoever went by and settle for a tie for first place.

I zoomed in and out of the Mortarge au Perche controle with just a bathroom stop, card check and water refill. Ted came and I told him I really needed to get out fast. He hustled and wasn't too far after me out of the checkpoint. Then, on the uphill was a lone rider who I recognized. It was John Jurczinski climbing the hill in front of me. I hadn't seen him in 24 hours but there he was. He had somehow passed us during the night and was now setting a great pace for me. Within ten minutes of my catching up with John, a group of ten Frenchmen came blasting down a hill and we grabbed on. I went from being completely alone to having a full fledged escort for the last 80 miles.

Ted even perked up enough to ride with this group for a short time but soon faded again. John and I decided stuck with the French group. They were well organized and hell, they were French, they must know the way back. We sped along in the darkness on our way into the last checkpoint at Nogent Le Roi. There was a large crowd there cheering for us. We checked in quickly. I got a peach and some water from the food area. John came over and started whooping, hollering and hugging me. I had no idea what his problem was. He kept saying "Look at the time, isn't this great? You must be so happy!" I thought sarcastically "Yeah, I am now watching midnight strike for the third night in a row. Isn't this super?" Finally we figured out the problem. With the large crowds out front John assumed we were back at Guyancourt and finished with the ride. He had no idea that this checkpoint was there, still 60k from the finish. I told the locals what was going on and they got a chuckle out of it.

Ever so slowly we climbed the hill out of the control and pedalled those last painful miles. I was feeling better about finishing as first woman because we hadn't seen anybody behind us in a while and we were riding steadily with our new French friends. We were all so sore and tired that the pace was erratic. No one could sit on the saddle with any comfort.

I had the worse saddle sores ever and was miserable. I also had developed back spasms, which were making it difficult to stand on the bike. When the pace picked up, they would physically push me to the middle of the group so I could stay with them. Being French does not make one an expert in navigation in France we soon learned. At 1am, we were lost in the suburbs. I had stopped looking for arrows and just followed the crowd. Suddenly we all just stopped. Cell phones appeared out of nowhere and calls were being made to find the route. I don't know who they heck they called, but sure enough we were soon blasting down the road.

We got off course again, and more calls were made. Finally we arrived in town and went round several rotaries and ramps. I thought that we might go on all night. I recognized the mess from my two previous PBPs so was not that surprised. I had ridden in with Frenchmen before and it is a distinct advantage to have them around at 2am to yell into apartment windows and ask for directions. After endlessly circumnavigating Guyancourt in the dark I arrived at the finish in a time of 54:48. Not my best time, but it was clear that I had repeated as The Premiere Feminine.

The next female finisher was three hours back. Everyone had slowed down and unbeknownst to me, I had a comfortable lead. The American woman dropped out with 220k to go. After three days of lead switching and hard riding, I had prevailed with experience, endurance and guts. I finished alongside John Jurczynski. Ted finished a few hours later with Bryan Johnson. All of my other New England friends finished well, including Elizabeth Wicks..

The DNF rate for New Englanders was close to, if not, One.. Glen had the most fun. He slept and ate his way through the final 400K to finish in 64 hours. My thanks to all these guys who have been very supportive, even when I got tired, impatient and downright nasty. I couldn't have pushed so hard if they weren't counting on me to do so. Congratulations to our New England contingent. All of those PBP qualifying rides that started at 4am in the rain, fog and freezing temperatures, must have made us all tough enough to finish anything.


Revision: September 30, 2014
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