Check-inOn the train to St. Quentin, we met up with several randonneurs from the US. One, John Grogan, we would run into several times during and after the ride. This was also his first PBP and was his first year of randonneuring. His daughter was attending school in Oxford and he had lived in London for a number of years so had some good tips for Debby's trip there.
When we arrived, Debby took to a cab to the hotel with the bike box and I proceeded to the check-in and safety check with my bike. Even though my "official" entry documents were lost in the e-mail (skimmed off by the spam guard I suspect), I had no problems getting through the lines with my printouts from the PBP website with my frame number. Since it had been raining off and on all day, the safety check was cancelled.
First, it was nowhere near as close as Klaus (official US travel agent) inferred. Secondly, the skies let loose about a km from the gym with a hard driving rain (insert ominous foreshadowing music here!). I had my raincoat, but no rain pants and had not changed into bike clothes, since I thought the hotel was so close. So I literally slogged my way to the hotel where Debby patiently waited. We checked in, I wrung out my clothes and we headed back to Paris (direct on the train to Montparnasse) for more sight seeing.
Start to VillainesDebby and I went our separate ways Monday morning, she to London, and me to St. Quentin. I went to the hotel, dressed and rode back into town for a shakedown ride, early dinner and some grocery shopping. The town was really set up for the event, with thousands of riders and support teams. At the commercial center, they even had a bike valet where you checked your bike with an attendant. I enjoyed a nice pizza and beer and then went shopping to see what was available.
Two items of note: The chocolate milk and beans I lugged all the way from the states were available at the grocery store. Secondly, the CO2 cartridges we searched for all over Paris, were also available at the Go-sports ( like an Oshmans in the states) in St. Quentin. I had read in various literature that CO2 cartridges were considered hazardous cargo and couldn’t go in the bike box so I dutifully removed them planning to pick some up in Paris. Once we did find them, they weren’t cheap, about $3 each. When we checked the box at the Phoenix Airport, they asked me what was in it and threw it on the baggage belt. They didn’t even x-ray or check the box. On the way home I couldn’t part with those $3 cartridges, so I left them in the box without incident.
I returned to the hotel, completed my bike prep, ate a light dinner of beans and a tuna sandwich and hit the sack at 7pm. I was up at 3:30 for a breakfast of beans, chocolate milk, and Ensure. I checked out of the room and rode into town to check in at the controle and line up. I arrived at 4:30 and most of the 600 or so riders were already there for the 0500 start.
Check-in consists of swiping your electronic brevet card and the official stamping of your official brevet book (very much like a passport). We started nearly 15 minutes after 5, but I don't think any adjustments were made to the official times. I started near the back of the pack and kept working my way forward until I found groups going the right pace for me.
The ride was fairly uneventful until about 0900 when the first of the heavy rains hit. After stopping to pull on the raingear, the groups really spread out and I rode alone most of the way to Mortagne. This was not a controle outbound, and I had not planned to stop. But with the cold, I hurried in and pounded down the first two of what would be many cafes (coffee or espresso) on this ride.
After 2 or 3 cycles of French scattered showers; driving rain until you are soaked, wind until you are cold, clearing until you are almost dry, then repeat, I reached Villaines. The town looked like a Tour de France arrival town with spectators cheering those arriving and departing, a loudspeaker announcer going on and on (in French or course), balloons and banners. The sun had burned through and I checked in at 1525 and grabbed a coke, cafe, and sandwich. I didn't linger and was out of the controle in about 45 minutes. I was proceeding at my slow goal pace, losing many minutes to constant reconfiguring of rain gear due to changing conditions.
Villaines to LoudeacThe ride to the next control in Fourgeres was calm. With the 84 hour start, the 600 riders were spread all over the course, so I often rode alone. The lines at the controles were not bad at all. With the constant cross-winds, it didn't help that much to get in a pace line so I didn’t mind riding alone. I was in Fourgeres at 2002 and with plenty of daylight. I enjoyed a big meal of potatoes, chicken, soup, cafe and coke.
I left town and joined two riders from Belgium. This was their first PBP. We worked well together and were able to enjoy some limited conversation in French, with a few words of English mixed in. We stayed together until we caught a larger group of American and Canadian riders. I was getting sleepy and dropped of the group in a small town where a local bar had set up a tent for the PBP. I had a cafe and got back on the road, probably around 0200.
I continued on alone and at about 0345 I had more difficultly staying awake. After nearly dozing off on the bike, I couldn't stay awake any longer and decided to take a nap at a bank parking lot I had come upon.
Crash! As I pulled in, my front wheel washed out on a wet granite curb and I hit the deck hard. I was able to dismount and take a step before I hit the pavement. That combined with the fact I was slowing saved my PBP. I hit hard on my shoulder and wrist.
Suffice it to say, that crash pumped me up with adrenaline and I could not nap, I rested 15 minutes, started to get cold and got back on the bike and headed for Loudeac. I arrived there, ate and was in the sac at 0430. I planned to sleep two hours until 0630. I awoke cold and wet, thinking it was 0630, when in fact it was only 0530. Since I was already up I decided to get warm in the cafeteria and have some food. I didn't eat much, had some coke, cafe and soup.
I was feeling tired and cold. Perhaps it was the rain, more likely the single hour of sleep, but this was a low point. I wasted too much time packing and repacking my drop bag and actually didn't leave the controle until 0800!
The route out of Loudeac is generally up as you hit the steeper portion of the event. The climbs are more sustained and for me was conducive to building some good rhythm. I noted at the sleep stop that I was not consuming my Ensure (yes the stuff you buy at Walgreen’s in powder form. I found it works best for me, better than the high-tech stuff the you get at the bike shops) and gels (power and cliff shots and blocks) at the pace I had planned.
Loudeac Brest Loudeac
I think I was loading up too much protein and local food, and didn't have the sugar on board to reload the glycogen stores to generate the necessary power. So outside Loudeac I made a concerted effort to slam at least one or two gels per hour, and it really paid off. About 2 hours out I started to get my legs back and had great power.
A group passed me and one asked if I wanted to share the work and make the next controle in 4 hours. By the time I worked out the translation they were away. I caught them on the next steep section, apologized for my slow translation time, and we agreed to work together. This was a group of 5 riders from an Audax club in Dijon France. This was their first PBP and 3 of us took turns at the front. The sun started to come out and my French was at its high point and we had a great ride. We hit and left the "surprise controle" (unannounced controle to prevent cheating) together and made the controle in Carhaix in less than 4 hours.
By now the 84 hour group had caught the 90 hour group and riding alone was rare. In Carhaix the sun came out and I put on sunscreen for the first time during the event. I pounded a gel and an Ensure and was out of the controle quickly, my new friends from Dijon stayed for breakfast. I was in and out of groups for the balance of the way into Brest. Enjoying the sun, steady climbs, and great scenery.
Upon arrival in Brest, you got a free drink (I selected coke), most Europeans seemed to drink beer and wine! I mounted up and headed out with the first tailwind of the event. I was holding 30kph (18mph) on the uphills. It was a welcome change. The sun disappeared and as we left the coast, we rode back into the rain. I hit the next controle at Carhaix at 1730 with 3.5 hours to spare, so I had dinner then set out for Loudeac.
Temperatures were dropping rapidly. The heavy rain hit at 2330 and I did not make Loudeac until 0310. I ate, grabbed two hours sleep, and left the controle a bit after it closed. Lots of riders were calling it quits, as the rain was coming down in sheets. When I left the controle two riders were being loaded into ambulances!
Loudeac to St. QuentinOutside Loudeac, I again had trouble getting going. A big train of riders passed me so I jumped in. A group of Italians were working the front, I was in the middle, and group of French were in the back. They all were talking, so I didn't. We stayed together until we hit a secret controle outside Tinteniac. While the clouds never cleared, the rain eased and I was able to wear only my shorts, polypro tee and jersey.
I noticed during the rain that I was overheating and losing power in my raingear. By stripping down and moving fast I was able to hold a solid heart rate and generate some good speed. The weather was gray but dry. I made good time into Tinteniac (plus 1:25) and Fourgeres (plus 3:00) and had a nice time cushion. I was riding alone mostly, passing most riders and being passed by only a few. I was on top of my eating and had leg great power. There were lots of riders lying along the side of the road napping, wrapped in their Space Blankets.
I stopped at several cafe stands that locals set up along the route. For the promise of a postcard mailed from home, you could have all the cafe and cake you would like. Even with the rain, all along the route people would lean out windows, clap and cheer. It was very encouraging!
Loudeac to St. Quentin – The UglySomewhere between Fourgeres and Villaines my neck started to go. It was sore 30k outside Villaines so I decided to stop for dinner at a cafe in Ambriers les Ville. It was a great meal. I mentioned to two German riders who were also there eating how nice it was that the rain had stopped. As soon as the words crossed my lips I knew I was done.
As I left the café, it started to sprinkle. It was raining lightly when my neck was getting worse and I thought to make it last a little longer, and so I could see the road in the coming darkness, I should flip my handlebars to be able to sit more upright. Halfway through the operation, the skies opened to the strongest downpour yet. It was a race against hypothermia and I knew it. It took an hour but I was able to get the bars rigged and get back on the bike. Unfortunately, this section was downhill, the wind was in my face and I was shivering uncontrollably. I pulled off and put on my dry long sleeve polypro shirt over my poly tee. Next, my jersey, vest, jacket, hood and balaclava went on. I was wearing every item on the bike!
I got back on and hit the bottom of the hill and was able to generate heat to stay warm on the uphill. My neck got worse. I needed to stay upright to "balance" my head on my shoulders. So I rode sitting up, no handed for many kilometers. I descended sitting on the top tube so I could get some relief. I hit Villaines controle with only 2 hours to spare, checked in and went right to the medical controle.
The doctor spoke little English, but he said it was a frequent injury; it was muscle, not nerve damage. I could continue. He gave me an equivalent of a super Advil and Tylenol. He said sleep would likely make it worse as it would stiffen. He had a paramedic give me a massage with warming lotion that was heavenly.
I decided it was better to risk a stiff neck in the morning, rather than crash again tonight, so I headed for the dormir for a 90 minute nap. That was all I could afford with my time cushion.I awoke, ate, and got back on the bike. I was taking Advils like M&M’s and doing everything to keep moving. I thought that weight on my helmet was adding to the pain. So, I removed my headlamp, to lighten it. This meant however that it would be more difficult to track my progress in terms of speed time and distance since it was still very dark. I rode the next several hours just trying to stay moving.
I was not gaining time like I had hoped. In fact, as the sun came up I would have trouble making the Mortagne controle before it closed. I hammered the last 10k and arrived 3 minutes late. However, a two hour grace had been added to the intermediate controles to compensate for the weather, so officially I was still OK. I ate, rested, and went to the medial control to get checked. This one did not have a doctor but the paramedic there massaged my neck and it gave me some relief.
Loudeac to St. Quentin – The GoodMeanwhile, Mike Rollinson, long-time friend, cyclist, brother, and prayer warrior, aware of my predicament from my e mail updates, e mailed me a suggestion he had heard about from Race Across America riders with the same neck problem (Shermers). They use a harness from their waist, up the spine, attached to the front of the helmet to get some support. He said, if you could find a cord, it works; he rigged one up in his garage to prove it!
I felt like it was Apollo 13 and the NASA engineers had the solution, all I needed was a cord. I couldn't find one, but as I was looking for one at the bike shop, it hit me-- inner tubes, better than a cord because they are dynamic and will absorb road shock. One cut and looped through the helmet, and attached to the second around my chest and Camelback harness. It took an hour, but I got it together.
A Frenchman came up and asked if he could photograph my rig. He had the same problem and wanted a record of the solution. I was so happy with the support, I gladly allowed him to click away. I asked him to take a few shots with my camera and I was on my way.
The only problem, the controle closed 1:40 ago, I would need to make that up and build a cushion in case of mechanical like a flat tire. I did the math. It was possible to make up the time. The harness at least allowed me to see further ahead and descend without having to sit up. It provided only support, no relief from the pain. I knew I would finish; I did not know if I could keep moving and stay motivated knowing it would be 8 hours before I could lie down and stop the pain. I caught an American rider resigned to not making the time cutoff. I left him in a hurry.
I pounded gels and Advil like candy. I remember there being a long run before the next control without a village, so I pulled into a town for some fortification. I had been riding for more than an hour and I promised my self if I could hold over 22kph for that hour I could get a cafe. I saw a bar, almost crashing and spraining my ankle on the dismount; I ran in and ordered 2 cappuccinos. I had the bar maid refill my bottles, and slammed down the cappuccinos.
Another rider was in the bar reading a paper. He had abandoned and was waiting for a ride. He was Danish and said "bon courage bon courage...you must finish" then he motioned me to get the hell out of there and I did!
Soon there after, I was working my way though the carnage that was the tail end of the event. Lots of riders, most in varying degrees of difficulty, suffering toward Paris. I can't recall if they caught me or I caught them, but I joined with David Lewis and Anne Learmonth from Great Britain. We were evenly paced and started working together.
We introduced ourselves and agreed we could make if we could hold 22kph through the next controle to the end, we could make it. A few others joined and dropped off but we stayed together making easy English conversation that made the miles go by. They also did not seem to be bothered by my riding no handed (so I could sit up) in our little pace line if I was in 2nd or 3rd position (a big pace line faux paux). We hit Dreux right at the close, making up the 1:40 I was behind.
We still had 5 hours of riding so we ate at the Dreux controle and left one hour behind. David and Anne had ridden PBP three and two time previous and they were confident we would make it. Dave and Anne met on a previous PBP and are now married. They are members of the Cardiff Byways Audax club, and while there were quite a few of them riding the PBP, they had dropped off the pace to recollect the place they actually meet on the route some years ago.
Near the end of the course, there are some very steep grades. I was starting to come apart on the largest one and powered up to the top just to make the pain stop and waited for Dave and Anne. Of course there was a crowd of locals there watching and David explained in French my unusual headdress and neck condition. A man walked up and asked to look at my neck and asked if he could massage it. I said sure. He gave me a 2 min massage while I was slouched over my bike. He would have gone longer but I knew I needed to keep moving. David and Anne waited! I knew then we were going to make it.
As we neared the finish line, David gave me a Cardiff hat and made me an honorary member of the Cardiff Club. We crossed the line together with 22 min to spare.
We found the rest of the Cardiff club and enjoyed laughs, toasted our success with a cold beer, and regaled in stories from our adventure. We traded jerseys and contact information and headed our separate ways after several heartfelt group hugs.
What a ride!Was this an epic ride? What is an epic?
With apologies to Lonnie “Epic” Wolfe, I think an adventure with highs that can only be measured by the depths of the lows becomes epic.
Shouts of "bon courage," visions of locals standing in the rain, wind, dark, and cold clapping and cheering and offering drinks and support provided high points all along the way. Also, support of friends who endured my e-mail updates, following my progress, and provided moral support along the way provided 'virtual' support to keep going.
The best indicator of an epic: Old and new friends helping you when you are at your lowest, becoming the hands and feet of the Almighty God to carry you to the finish.
Yes this was an epic.
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