The Paris Brest Paris 2011 really started for me back in December 2002. After losing the use of my legs , my right arm, as well as the ability to speak, I was finally diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) in 2001. After a year of therapy I found that the only type of physical activity I could do was biking and swimming. While the training km’s and my confidence level were building, I began looking for a challenge, something meaningful that would pit me against my disease. Don’t get me wrong, people with MS can be challenged frequently everyday just to do the ordinary tasks that one must do to live, but deep down inside, I felt my body could do more. So, even with all the doubt and fear, I owed it to myself to give something “Big” a try. I found out about Paris Brest Paris (PBP) simply by chance after reading a cycling magazine I picked up at a newsstand and that was all I needed to start me on my way. I completed my first PBP in 2003 and my second in 2007. Now after 2 PBP’s and 11 years of having MS I decided that the 2011 event was going to be different.
The 2011 PBP had a new pre-registration process requiring riders to complete a 1000km ride in 2010 to be guaranteed a spot. So, in September of 2010 I traveled with my friends to Sicily for a non-stop 1000km ride. I had already completed this ride once before, but having had two attacks with my MS in 2010 and having logged just under 2000 km of riding for the entire year, I was a little worried that I may not be able to finish it. I dug deep into my cycling experience from the last 8 years, and with my group of friends, I made it to the end. I could now pre-register for the 2011 PBP and had a guaranteed spot as long as I completed the qualifying rides.
The winter months from November to March is always a period during the year in which MS acts up. Why I don’t know and either do my doctors, but every year I get sick to the point where I’m completely unable to walk. With that in mind, I decided that after coming back from Sicily I would try to ride or swim 6 days a week through the winter months hoping that if I kept my body moving, I could avoid an attack. This was my idea not my doctor’s. As the winter months passed I kind of felt that a major attack was not going to happen, I felt good, really good. So, it seems that I may have found another way to fight the disease by simply continuing to keep moving in the winter months. I think as the disease evolves you must evolve with it, if you can. Even so, I know what will happen within my body if my disease progresses, it may be very likely that at some point I won’t be able to ride my bike any longer, but for now, we are riding.
The first Sunday in March we had our first 200km qualifying ride here in Italy, it was nice to see friends of mine again. After completing the 200km in 7 hours and 40 minutes my friend Paolo Bronzetti could see that I was in better shape than usual and suggested that we go do PBP and ride it under 70 hours. Now Paolo is a fast rider, a lot faster than I, and at first I said you are crazy, there’s no way I can do it under 70 hours. In 2003 it took me 88 hours, in 2007 89 hours and 20 minutes (90 hrs is the limit), so he was essentially saying that I would have to take almost a day off of my total time!! So it was decided, we were going to attempt to go under 70 hours which is 22 hours less than my previous best PBP performance.
In 2001 I used to get up and run with my golden retriever Scott before starting to work. Then on June 26, 2001 after our run I was doing some stretching in the yard and I fell down to the ground just like someone had shot my legs out from under me. When I tried to get up I noticed that my right arm wasn’t responding. I laid there on the grass with Scott looking at me, I didn’t know what had happened, but an enormous twinge of fear shot through my body. What is wrong with me?
Monday, August 22, 2011 at 0300, Paolo and I woke up and had breakfast at the hotel. We were up early because we opted for the 84 hour start which leaves at 0500. We felt that this start would be a little less crowded and we could also get an extra night’s sleep. While the other riders were riding or waiting to start on Sunday, Paolo and I had dinner and went to bed at 2100. We left the hotel at 0415 and headed down to the start. The first thing I noticed was that the number of riders compared to the Sunday start was noticeably less, plus, the people watching the start and the atmosphere was very relaxed. Paolo and I discussed our feelings and felt that we were not nervous at all and that our emotions were well under control. I hate to say it, but it simply felt like another day at the office. I think it was because of our previous experience, the plan that we had put together, and above all, the fact we had total confidence in our gear certainly put our minds at ease. In 2005 I went to ride the London-Edinburgh-London ride not knowing that under prolonged periods of cold and rain my MS symptoms could kick in. Half way through the ride near the Scottish border my left leg stopped working and I had to stop. Now, having Gore Bike Wear as my sponsor and riding through the 2007 PBP with it’s 80 hours of rain and finishing the London Edinburgh London in 2008 I had complete confidence in the gear that Gore sent us. Paolo and I always joke about my disease, we call it the monster and when it starts raining as it did in London, Sicily and now Paris, we say that the monster is following us and is out to get me.
At the start we lined up in the front with the faster riders, our plan was to get down to Villaines-la-Juhel at 220km with the fastest group and from there we would break off and find another group or just go on alone. We took off with the first group and got down to the 220km mark around 7 hours and 30 minutes which was pretty fast. So far, so good. Around noon the skies turned dark and it started pouring rain. Like I said, I had no fear because I was sure that this PBP is going to be different. Paolo got some text messages from friends who left at 1800 on Sunday and the weather was fine, so at this point Paolo and I came to the conclusion that the “Monster” must be buried once and for all. So, we headed down toward Brest without a firm ride plan, we would simply listen to our bodies and ride. The rain never stopped and we rode with our Gore-Tex jackets on for the entire day. As we pulled into Loudeac on 22-08 at 23:53 with an overall time of 18h 54min, it struck me that finishing within 70hrs just might in fact be possible! Looking back at my 2007 performance, I left 6 hours earlier and arrived 3 hours later. So, after 450km I was 9 hours ahead of 2007!
As soon as my wife came home we went to the doctor and had an MRI and other tests. As time went by my legs became numb and I decided to finally listen to my doctor and go to the hospital for tests. My most precious thing in my life is my wife Mimma and I can still remember her leaving me at the hospital “ I thought what is wrong with me?” After nine days and many tests , my legs were gone, couldn’t feel them anymore. The doctor told Mimma and I that I had Multiple Sclerosis.
Since the weather had turned very cold and the rain continued, Paolo and I decided to sleep 3 hours and then ride the 420km from Loudeac to Tinténiac(867km mark). We woke up, had a big breakfast at the Loudeac control and started riding with our rain jackets on heading toward Brest. I really believe that this is the hardest part of the course going from Loudeac-Brest-Loudeac, it is usually windy, cold and if it is going to rain anywhere on the route, it will certainly do so in this area. After leaving Loudeac, Paolo and I started passing the riders in the 90 hour group who left 11 hours before us, this really gave me confidence and I saw some surprised faces when people ask me what time I left and I said the 84 hour start. Going across the hills toward Brest, the temperature was kind of comfortable with a light drizzle and some dense fog. In my mind this was going to be the day of truth, if we could get back to Tinténiac at a descent hour and get some sleep, going under 70hrs could happen. We got down to Brest at 1150 which to me was pretty good considering that in 2003 and 2007 I got down there at 1300 and 1500 but I left 6 hours earlier. I was starting to feel tired, but in my mind this was still possible. Upon arriving at Brest I felt happy, but not as much as I did in 2003 and 2007 because my mind was set on getting turned back around toward Tinténiac, so we had to eat and get on the road. Paolo and I were starting to feel tired but we both knew that if we could get to the 867km marker and get some sleep, we could wake up and have 360km to go for a very possible sub-70hr finish. We headed back towards Paris pulled into Loudeac at 2045, now we had to really suck it up to do the 85km to get into Tinténiac to sleep. I have to say that Paolo and I were pretty locked in to what we had to do at this point I think if we would have had to go straight to Paris if necessary we would have.
After hearing those two words Multiple Sclerosis I at first thought that my life as I knew it was over. I kept trying to find the why, why me? I never hurt anybody, I believe in God, I love my family, I was searching for a reason, but in the end I came to the conclusion there isn’t any. Things happen for no clear reason and it is nobodies fault. After doing physical therapy at home I started getting my legs back to where I could walk. My first doctor told me now that I had MS I couldn’t walk too much, run, go to the beach or play baseball. God I thought to myself it is possible that it is over already without a fight? Slowly I was adapting to having MS, accepting the fact my body was different. I had two choices to sit on the couch and do nothing, or give it a go and confront the disease. I could try to find the motivation to move my body in a way that maybe it can’t find to move itself anymore. The challenge was on , I found the desire inside of me to confront the disease and I decided that I will fight it as long as I can.
We got into Tinténiac at 0208 and I was relieved that it was now just a wake up and a 260km ride. We set the alarm to 0500, we really needed that 3 hours of sleep. Our feeling was that if we didn’t make a mistake, then this was really going to happen. When I awoke at 5 my legs and hands hurt, but I think that is pretty normal given the distance we had already ridden. Nevertheless, our spirits were high because going under 70 hours was in our grasp.
We left Tinténiac at about 0545 heading off to Fougères and the 921km point. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t tired, but Paolo, he was riding stronger today than the previous days. While I was moving along well, I couldn’t wait to claim a mental victory at the 1000km point knowing that I just had 200k to go and it would be over.
We pulled into Villaines-la-Juhel 1009km at 13:08. Now we were at the 200km mark and mentally I was ready to do the last 220km. We moved along slowly which I think was normal at this point. The temperature had risen and the heat was beginning to get to me as I was dressed a little heavily. Of all things, believe it or not at this point I was hoping for some rain!
Believe in Yourself
Since having MS I discovered that the doctors can give you all the drugs in the world, the therapist can make you do physical therapy, your friends and family can stand by you and give you support, but to me, the key to fighting the disease is you. You have to find that something in your heart to fight for to keep living, only you can do that, know one else. It has been 11 years now I have learned to depend on myself even when I am sick. When you are sick nobody knows how you feel only you do, so you have to find the motivation to keep yourself going because nobody else can do that for you. When I am down and not feeling well I think of a person a dear friend of mine someone who has always been there when I needed a helping hand. A person who fights on never giving up always giving 100% yes my best friend, Tony Lonero , yes Tony Lonero before he had MS.
Paolo and I with two controls and the finish line now in sight we’re really excited, I believed now this is going to happen. We rode into Mortagne-au-Perche at 1090km at 17:16 and we were now down to just one control, Dreux. The course in Parishas still provided 10,000 meters of hills to climb, but at this point the worse was behind us. As Paolo and I were moving toward Dreux we were feeling pretty good and in some parts we were rolling along at 40km. We pulled into Dreux to see some friends of ours who were waiting for us and they gave us a little celebration because they could see what was unfolding. Here we were at Dreux at 1165km it was 2100 with 64km to go, This was indeed going to happen and nothing was going to stop us now. I usually don’t like to talk about the final result but I told Paolo this last 64km is our victory lap, so lets enjoy it. As we headed off we saw some riders along the way, but for the most part we kept to ourselves not talking to much. I thought about my wife Mimma who has always been right there with me, sacrificing our time together so I could come to Paris for the third time. She understood I had a statement to make. I know it doesn’t mean much but I was on a mission to make a statement, one that people with diseases can do about the same things as normal people do and I learned what the cycling environment is very competitive like all other sports. I wanted to show people that if I really tried I could do more on the bike than just finish an event. A lot of people know me as the guy with MS, ex-baseball player that rides a bike and gets to the finish line and they feel sorry for me. I hope that by getting in under 70 hours they may look at me and those with MS a little differently.
A lot of things are born out of end, out of the finish line. My life as I knew it before MS is gone. I know I can’t go back but everyday I thank God that I have MS because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t have met a lot of the wonderful people that I have and I wouldn’t have discovered the inner strength that lies within me. So my life with MS is a new start that brings its new challenges but I look forward to confronting these challenges without fear and I will battle to the end to enjoy life’s most simplest pleasures.
Paolo and I arrived in Parisat 0034 for a total time of 67h 35min, it was done. In October Paolo and I talked about this goal and considering that in 2003 it took me 88 hours and in 2007 89h 20 minutes, I thought it was impossible. Taking on my disease head on and fighting it has really helped to take the fear out of my riding. I will always be the ex-baseball player with MS because I am not a pro cyclist this is true, but when I am out there just me and my bike against my disease I become motivated almost obsessed. This time I was in a war, I was not going to be stopped.
To try at all is to risk failure but to live we must.
Tony Lonero 67 hours 35 minutes PBP 2011
11 years Multiple Sclerosis