A short Saturday bike ride for Dale Lougee of Athol is 65 miles around the Quabbin Reservoir. He's a randonneur -- the French cycling term means "super-tourist" -- who'll be on the starting line tomorrow in Paris for the world's premier randonee.
Paris-Brest-Paris is a 1,200-kilometer (750-mile) ride that's held once every four years and draws more than 4,000 amateur cyclists from all over the world. It's not a race, but there's a 90-hour time limit.
Lougee, 48, will bike about 18 hours a day for nearly four days to complete the ride, using a battery-operated headlight at night. He qualified for the event by completing a series of brevets (literally, "diplomas") -- 200 kilometers (130 miles) in 14 hours, 300 kilometers (185 miles) in 20 hours, 400 kilometers (250 miles) in 24 hours and 600 kilometers (375 miles) in 40 hours -- and riding the Boston-Montreal-Boston randonee in 1993.
Lougee finished the 750-mile round trip to Montreal in 82.5 hours and hears PBP is "not as tough." Both rides have more than 30,000 feet of climbing, but the American one has steeper hills, including Middlebury Gap in Vermont's Green Mountains.
An inspector at Starrett Co. in Athol, which makes precision measuring tools for industry, Lougee typically bikes 300 to 350 miles a week on a 9-year-old Cannondale "that's going to get retired next year." He tries to do short rides on work days and centuries (100-milers) on weekends.
He became a serious cyclist about 10 years ago and after finding that he could knock off centuries pretty easily, he looked for a new challenge. Paris-Brest-Paris was there, the way Mount Everest is there for mountain climbers.
"Somebody has thrown up this challenge," he said. "We're not racers, so if you're not going for speed, you've got to go for endurance ... You do have to maintain a certain pace, because each checkpoint is only open certain hours."
Paris-Brest-Paris was first held in 1891 with a 10-day time limit. Doctors condemned the idea as sheer lunacy. "The bicycle in such overdoses will kill the rider just as surely as an overdose of arsenic," one medical expert of the time wrote. But cyclists proved him wrong, and a tradition was born. There's even a pastry named the Paris-Brest, available in any good French bakery.
In the rainy 1987 PBP, the first finishers in every category were Americans, but overall the Yanks made a dismal showing. About half of them dropped out, compared to a 10 percent dropout rate among riders from other nations, Lougee said. That led the Audax Club Parisien, organizer of the ride, to stiffen the eligibility requirements for Americans. Boston-Montreal-Boston, fashioned after the French event, became a serious training ground, and the American completion rate in the 1991 PBP was one of the highest.
Lougee, who is president of the recreational cycling club Franklin-Hampshire Freewheelers, said before his flight to Paris last Wednesday that he was anxious about traveling overseas with his bike but confident about the ride.
"I'm going to feel a lot more comfortable when I get on the starting line, because then I'm in my element," he said. "I've done BMB, and I've been through the qualifier series three times now, so I know what's expected of me, I know what I'm capable of, and I've read every magazine article on these things."
He doesn't have a support van but he's well equipped, with a comfortable new saddle and lightweight helmet, plenty of Gatorade mix and spare headlight batteries for the supply drop 250 miles into the ride, and a large Camelbak -- a rectangular water carrier worn like a knapsack, with a long straw extending over the shoulder, that holds more than two quarts.
About a dozen New Englanders flew to Paris last week to ride PBP, according to Dave Jordan of Arlington, organizer of the Boston Brevet Series. Melinda Lyon of Boxford, the first female finisher in last year's Boston-Montreal-Boston with a time of 62 hours, 54 minutes, is expected to finish quickly, perhaps in less than 60 hours, Jordan said.
Warren Sass of Woods Hole is riding PBP for his fifth time, and will get a special medal if he completes the event. Charlie Lamb of Boston, a founder of the Boston Brevet Series and Boston-Montreal-Boston, is entering PBP for the third time, with Jordan driving his support van. And 1990 Race Across America winner Nancy Raposo of Nashua, N.H., is doing her second PBP.
Lougee, the only entrant from Central Massachusetts, hopes to find other riders going his pace. "I will not ride alone," he said. "Alone, you have too much time to think and you tend to dwell too much on the aches and pains.
"I know it's going to be tough; I know I'm going to be hurting; I know I'm going to be exhausted," he continued. "But all I have to do is follow the route ... and there's going to be 4,000 other people doing it."
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