Eric Norris is a bike racer, but going fast in a crowded, hectic peloton is not his thing.
A 56-year-old city planner who lives in Carmichael, Norris likes to go far, as in all over California, up and down the coast or, starting Sunday, pedaling along 770 miles of roads in France in a prestigious amateur race called Paris-Brest-Paris.
It’s decidedly different than the Tour de France you may have watched in July, that big-budget three-week stage race replete with huge crowds lining the streets, team cars loaded with spare bikes, mountaintop finishes and plenty of high-speed crashes.
Held once every four years for more than a century, Paris-Brest-Paris, or PBP, has grown into a legendary endurance cycling and cultural event. Serious riders from all over the world, called randonneurs, vie for entry by qualifying in officially sanctioned events known as brevets or randonnées.
The randonneur is steeped in tradition. The bikes tend to be classic in style – more steel than carbon fiber – and the ethos is one of self-sufficiency. Riders make their own repairs along the way, whether it’s patching a flat, replacing a broken spoke or repairing a snapped chain.
The checkpoints along the way are not computerized. GPS and Strava? They’re much too 21st century. Randonneurs are given an old-fashioned booklet, or brevet card, that must be stamped by an official (or, in low-budget qualifying events, you might be asked to buy something at a Safeway and save the time-stamped receipt).
For Norris, who has finished Paris-Brest-Paris twice (2007 and 2011), riding on and on, from the early hours of the morning well past darkness at night, is its own challenge. Though he, too, is a traditionalist – he’s riding a handmade steel bike and refers to the distance in kilometers (the race is 1,200 kilometers) – he also embraces technology. He found a short-term apartment in Paris via Airbnb. He’ll have a digital video camera mounted to his bike and will use his iPhone to provide live Twitter updates with photos and video of the race. His handle is @campyonlyguy.
There are expected to be 6,000 riders in the race, with a staggered start in three waves, beginning Saturday. Last time, Norris finished the race in 79 hours, including brief stops to sleep along the way.
Norris has been riding and competing for so long that his training these days is nothing out of the ordinary. He’ll ride 100 miles or so a week, though he’ll occasionally break loose with a 200-mile ride. Several years ago, he and some cycling-obsessed pals rode across the country in a fundraiser dubbed “The Big Fix” – because they were all riding fixed-gear bikes.
Because Paris-Brest-Paris happens every four years, Norris has time to embrace the event and plan for the next one.
“For me, it’s the culture and the experience more than anything else,” Norris said. “There are plenty of other 1,200s. The Davis Bike Club does one up to Oregon and back. They’re all over the country. I haven’t done those, partly because it wouldn’t be PBP. For one thing, with PBP you’re in France, which is a cycling-crazed country.
“It’s the French people. As you’re riding along, because the ride has gone over the same general course for decades, you’ll have families that set up a little card table in front of their house, and they’ll have coffee or tea, water and cookies, and it’s all free. You can be out there riding in the rain in the middle of the night, and there will be a husband and wife standing in front of their house under an umbrella and they’ll be clapping for you as you go by. That’s what makes that ride so special. You’re in the French countryside and the French people are doing everything they can to keep you going.”
Norris, who is married with grown children, is making the trip to Paris on his own. But once the race starts, he’ll likely find riders of similar caliber and ride as a group. Drafting behind a fellow cyclist and sharing the load at the front can save energy.
Though it’s popular to assume the French disdain all things American, Norris says that’s not his experience, at least during PBP.
“If you’re on a bike, they love you,” he said.