A Whirl-Winn tour of France

Bob Winn - RYAN SCHIERLING/Staff Photo
Bob Winn
— image credit: RYAN SCHIERLING/Staff Photo

When Bainbridge Islander Bob Winn journeyed to France this past August, he undertook a challenge that only 850 Americans have ever completed successfully.

The 63-year-old Murden Cove resident is an avid cyclist, and has been since he started commuting to Seattle on two wheels over 30 years ago. But this past year, he turned his passion for cycling into one for the record books.

Winn rode in the Paris-Brest-Paris, a 750-mile bike race through the hills of France. And he completed the event in less than 90 hours, placing himself in the annals of amateur endurance cycling.

But it is not the glory that drove him to succeed.

“It’s the basic, and individual, challenge of riding,” Winn said. “I ride for the joy of riding.”

And what began as a commuting method became his passion.

“When I started at the UW (in 1967), the parking was horrible,” he said. “As a college student, it was just cheaper to ride. Since then, I have generally ridden more than I have driven in my life.”

His love of cycling escalated from there.

He and his wife Sharon were challenged by friends to ride from Seattle to Portland. Vacations became long treks on their bicycles across Vermont, California, and Alaska, in France, and on the isle of Crete.

“It is a lifestyle for them,” says B.I. Cycle owner Tom Clune. “They are bike riders.”

Winn’s training included daily 40-mile rides at 4:30 a.m., and long treks on weekends.

As a member of “Randonneurs USA,” a biking organization, he began the Bervet Series this year, a sequence of cycling races that increased in distance from 200 kilometers to 600.

Winn would train at any opportunity, Clune said.

“He is one of the few commuters that will actually ride extra miles for the fun of it in pouring rain or darkness if he’s early for the ferry,” Clune said. “I don’t know many other people who are willing to do that.”

And this past August, Winn felt he was ready: with a group of about 40 other Seattle-area cyclists, he flew to Paris with his Seven brand bike.

In the Paris-Brest-Paris, there is no “placing” at the finish line -- only if the ride is completed in less than 90 hours does the rider receive the designation of “completion.” And the grueling pace makes the PBP, as the riders call it, achievable only by the most in-shape and determined cyclists.

“You either have to cycle at a very fast pace, or you can’t sleep at all,” Winn said. “A big part of a longer race is managing your time effectively.”

Winn began the race at 10 p.m. during a late Parisian sunset. He rode his first leg through the night and into the next day, stopping only for brief food and drink breaks, and finally resting 23 hours later.

After a three-hour nap, he was up and racing again.

Surprisingly, his most sore areas were not his legs, but his arms and hands. In a race where there is 30,000 feet of elevation change, he was not ready for the constant gear-changing, and developed tendonitis in his right hand and numbness in his left.

Sleeping three hours after each leg, Winn biked two more 17-hour days.

“By the last day, I was pretty beat up,” Winn said. “But I knew I was going to finish, and that propelled me.”

He also credits the people of Paris, and the towns along the way, for helping him to stay focused.

“(The French people) are on every street corner, wishing you luck, through the entire ride, and even into the late hours of the night,” said Winn. “It is extremely uplifting.”

After four days of climbing and descending, from Paris to the coastal city of Brest, and then back to the French capital -- he’d finally finished, completing the roughly 750-mile race in around 86 hours.

Winn does not know his exact time, but for him it does not matter.

“The key is finishing under 90 hours,” he said.

Today, Winn continues his early morning rides, and his passion for riding has not subsided, even with his body still recovering from the P-B-P.

He has no plans to race again any time soon, but says that he has already started to think about biking in the next Paris-Brest-Paris, four years from now, when he will be 67.

“I would say there is a better than 50-50 chance that I’ll return to Paris for the next one.”

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