Jim and Jay Yost rode through the villages of northwestern France on their bicycles recently, as spectators lined the streets and applauded, offered water and kept cafes open in the wee hours of the night for weary cyclists who might want a sandwich or drink.
The Yosts’ ride at times felt like that more famous bike race.
But they were riding the Paris-Brest-Paris — the oldest biking event in the world, an “everyman’s Tour de France.”
The 750-mile ride goes from the suburbs of Paris nearly straight west to Brest, on the west coast of France, and then back. It was originated in 1891 as a race, but Paris-Brest-Paris eventually became a randonneuring event — ridden for the love of cycling and with the intent of the riders being self-supporting between checkpoints. Although awards are given for the top finishers, it is not a race.
Jay Yost of Mahomet is a serious cyclist who heard about Paris-Brest-Paris from some cycling friends in 2007, the last time the ride was organized. (It occurs every four years.)
Jay does ultraracing on his bicycle, riding 12-hour events or those with a distance of more than 200 miles.
Jim, Jay’s father who lives in rural Seymour, is a runner, but he also cycles. And he loves France, having visited the country more than a dozen times. Jim proposed the two ride the Paris-Brest-Paris.
“We like France, and we like the French. I thought it was the best way to immerse ourselves in the French culture,” Jim said. “There are a lot of places we go where they don’t speak any English. It’s fun to go through these towns. It looks like the Tour de France. People are standing out on the roads, clapping and cheering for you.”
In order to do Paris-Brest-Paris, they had to qualify at several brevets, or shorter rides. Each rider must complete brevets of 200, 300, 400 and 600 kilometers (roughly 125, 186, 249 and 373 miles) within specific times and also within a certain range of dates.
The Yosts rode their brevets in Iowa, beginning in April.
Jay often cycles 400 to 500 miles a week and was used to long-distance rides. Jim hoped to continue his running, add some cycling and be in shape for the brevets. He figured out last fall that wasn’t going to work, and he would have to give up running temporarily for cycling.
By spring, he was riding 12 hours at a time, or distances between 100 and 200 miles.
At his last qualifying brevet in June — the 600-kilometer ride — Jim was hit by a car at 1:30 a.m., by a driver who was texting. He broke several ribs and thought he was done cycling.
But the trip had been planned, and a fellow cyclist and former Champaign-Urbana resident he met in Iowa urged him to try another 600-kilometer ride. Jim took three weeks off from cycling, then cycled a few times before heading to New York for a mid-July ride through the Catskill Mountains and Hudson River Valley.
“I had no idea how difficult that 600K was going to be,” he said, noting all his rides in Iowa were basically flat. “We climbed almost as much as Paris-Brest-Paris in half the distance.”
He walked his bike up several major climbs in the mountains and finished the ride with 17 minutes to spare before the qualifying time cutoff.
The Yosts headed to France in the second week of August, along with Jim’s brother Rick, who was also riding, and several other family members. They did their sightseeing before the ride started on Aug. 21.
More than 5,000 cyclists started the ride, including almost 600 Americans. The route is rural, and the scenery charming.
“There’s all these stone houses and chateaus and cows in all the fields,” Jim said.
He and Jay said the French treat the riders well. In every small town, there were at least a few people handing out water. Often, there was music in the square, and local cycling clubs set up stops with food and sleeping areas for the cyclists.
In addition, there were a dozen official checkpoints spread along the route, with food, drinks, cots to sleep on, bike mechanics and vendors selling cycling equipment or supplies.
“It’s set up perfectly to operate on your own. The whole idea of randonneuring is you’re self-supported,” Jay said, although riders are allowed to get aid from a support crew as well.
Jim described the route as gently rolling hills. But those hills could be deceptive. There were some gradual uphills that went on for miles, Jay said.
“It was tougher than I thought it would be,” he said.
Jay finished the ride in about 69 hours, and Rick finished in just over 90 hours.
Jim’s ride became difficult on the way back to Paris. The lack of sleep was catching up to him, and riding alone at night unnerved him, after his June accident. Every time he heard a car, he thought, “Oh please, don’t hit me.”
His bike computer also stopped working, so he didn’t know where he was in relation to the checkpoints. On Thursday morning, more than three days into the race, he thought he was just a few miles from the next checkpoint. When he asked, though, he was told it was 20 to 25 kilometers (roughly 12 to 15 miles) away.
“That just crushed me,” he said. “I was at a low point and got hit with how much further I had to go.”
He also knew he wouldn’t make the 90-hour cutoff time for official finishers. He dropped out with about 90 kilometers to go.
Jim said he won’t attempt the Paris-Brest-Paris again. But he’ll certainly be back to visit France. And he accomplished his goal of finding a new way of relating to the people there.
“I really did come back feeling more connected this time.”
Photos: Top, Jay and Jim Yost, in the cycling jerseys they had made for the ride. Photo by John Dixon. Bottom, Jay, left, rides through the French countryside during Paris-Brest-Paris in August. Photo provided by Jay Yost.