Eric Ahlvin PBP 2007


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Today is the day. I woke up automagically at eight and went to breakfast with the Washingtonians (riders from DC). I completed my final equipment selection and packing. I decided to wear my "Oregon" jersey and put EWEB and MVBC in the drop bag. The drop bag went on the truck and there was time for a short rest before I checked out of my room at noon and lived out of a suitcase the rest of the day.

Clint Preventa is still missing his bike and gear. He has finally given up on the British Airlines and is going to plan B. He's going to ride the bike of the guy who busted a collarbone and is taking donations for the rest of his gear. I chipped in knee warmers and Lantiseptic. That made the decision of whether to wear tights or knee warmers easy; one less thing to carry.

I rode into St Quentin for lunch and just beat the rain back to the hotel. I camped out in the lobby for the rest of the afternoon with my book and some other riders. No bed to sleep in, but the tension is building so I probably wouldn't have been able to sleep anyway. We're all just killing time, waiting for the start.

John Kramer and Cindy came down around 7pm and after the "pre-ride" photo op John and I headed into town. We'd signed up for the "pre-ride dinner". It was the first of many experiences of waiting in line for a French cafeteria meal. The line was huge, but the food was good and I had plenty. I was a little worried about the food settling before the start, but went with the concept of a calorie reserve. We chatted with some Canadians in their late 70's in line and a couple of Australians at dinner. After wolfing down our dinner (PBP food motto: eat plenty, often and fast) we rode to the start line.

We arrived at the start around 8:30 (45 minutes before the first wave) and the line was already completely around the track. It became clear we would be in a later wave at the start. We chatted with some Bulgarians and distributed our first pins as we slowly worked our way around the track.

At 9:15 the first group left and we slowly inched forward. Several more waves were launched and we finally reached the front at around 11pm, just as it started to drizzle. It increased in intensity and the rain gear came out, got put away and finally got put on permanently as we reached the front. The departure control was several older white haired women who swiped our magnetic cards, stamped the Brevet card and wished us "Bonne route". They wrote in a start time of 11:10, which would be the starting point for our 90 hours. Our start delay would be credited to us at the end of the ride. We were held briefly in a tunnel then sent forward to the actual start line. We queued again at the start line to listen to the instructions and then some interminable speeches from the mayor, club president, etc. There was a huge crowd of spectators and they were enthusiastic despite the light rain that was falling. At last the gun went off and we rolled across the starting line at about 11:10.

We cruised out of town with a police escort and people at all the intersections to stop traffic and wave us through. The stories of being in a stream of lights stretching to the horizon are true. Looking ahead it was all red lights and in the mirror all white headlights. The speed out of town was steady, with groups forming and re-forming. We took the freeway for a short time and then quickly got onto the small roads. Route markings didn't matter; there were always red tail lights ahead. We'd started at the very back of the 90 hour group and the 84 hour group wouldn't start until 5 the next morning. We probably started 4500 people back from the front, with only a thousand behind us. Even as we passed people, we'd always have a crowd around us. As we moved away from Paris, and beyond commuting distance, the villages were further apart. The rain stopped after midnight and I started to overheat on the hills, so I removed my raingear and lost John in the crowd. The terrain was a series of gentle hills, with a river or stream between each pair of hills. The villages were at the bridges, or the hill tops, or both. After having vacationed in the Loire valley just south of here (with a car), I thought this would be a pretty flat ride. I didn't read the ride reports that said there were 30,000 feet of climbing until the trip over. (After the ride my altimeter said 10029 meters of total climbing). Very few of the hills were short enough to be "rollers", they all required using low gears to get over them.

The hills separated people so I had a chance to chat as I caught up and passed people, keeping my eyes skinned for John. Eventually I found him and we rode more or less together for the remainder of the ride. We kept the pace steady, but slow enough that we'd be able to last the whole distance. Average speed on the bike was 20 to 25 kph, but time off the bike dropped the overall average well down. There were a lot of Americans sprinkled through the group, but also people of every other nationality.

The French people by the side of the road were especially friendly. As we rolled through rural France at three in the morning we'd come on individuals and small groups cheering us on with "Bon courage", "Bon route", "Allez, allez". In many of the village canters there would be a tent selling water and other drinks with a few Randos and a lot of locals partying. As we rolled through the night toward Mortagne au Perche the skies cleared and the stars came out. There was a tailwind, the hills were mild and we were making good time. The riders were still tightly grouped, so I could see a string of red tail lights that went for miles. I'd dried out from the initial rain at the start, things were going great and it promised to be a fun ride.

We stopped at the food only control at Mortagne to grab a quick bite to eat. Coming out of the cafeteria, the rain turned hard and steady. The hills also got longer and steeper. The climbs were not memorably difficult but the descents in the dark, with heavy rain and fogged glasses were exciting (in a terrifying way). It was easy to stay awake on the descents because of the attention required to stay on the road. The red tail lights ahead provided needed guidance through the curves, but the world beyond the cone of light from the headlights was invisible.

The heavy rain came and went, but was never gone long enough to allow me to completely dry out. Many of the riders rode the event on "racing" bikes without fenders and with marginal raingear, but most of the riders from the Pacific Northwest were better prepared for rain. I had full fenders with mudflaps on the bike. I used a Showers Pass rain jacket, wool long sleeve undershirt (no jersey while wearing the rain jacket), bibshorts, tights, wool socks, touring shoes and overbooties, and fingerless gloves with windstopper overgloves. It worked well except for the booties which kept the moisture in, and the gloves which became saturated. Luckily the temperature at night only got down to around 10C (50F), so hypothermia wasn't an issue while we kept riding, and climbing.

We arrived at the first official control at Villaines la Juhel at 9:45 am. The control featured tables with pairs of officials to swipe the magnetic card, stamp the Brevet card and enter the time in the Brevet card. It was fairly efficient, with short lines and it was absolutely essential to get the stamp to prove you'd done the whole ride. The controles were set up in high schools or community centers and all offered similar amenities; a restaurant, a bar, an infirmary, a dormitory, showers and a bike shop with repair facilities. Rain jackets were a hot item in the bike shops this year. The quality and cleanliness of the facilities varied considerably and we suffered from being late starters and towards the rear of the stream of riders. The school toilets were used rather than porta-potties, and there was always a line; consequently, just at the edge of each village there was almost always a group of cyclist using the bushes after they departed the control.

It became our practice at the controles to get stamped as quickly as possible, get in the cafeteria queue immediately, eat a full meal (dessert first, soup, entrée and main course) and buy a large water bottle, refill water bottles and head out of town. All the time off the bikes in the queues was recovery time, but we longed for horizontal recovery time, actually sleeping. Our objective was to finish, with as much sleep as possible during the ride rather than the fastest time possible. So we kept a high but sustainable pace while on the bike, hustled through the controles and tried to build margin relative to the time cuts that we could invest in sleeping.

Our objective for the second night was to sleep at Loudeac, 450 km into the ride. We'd sent our drop bags to Loudeac and planned to use them on the way out and back. We arrived at 11 pm, after being on the road for about 24 hours. We took care of the essentials, the stamp and a large solid meal then had a shower, changed into fresh dry clothes and looked for the dormitories. It was an hour wait for a spot in the dormitory, so instead I took my Z-rest sleeping pad and blanket and looked for a dry place to lay down. Most of the dry spots were already gone but I found a spot under the eaves and settled down for an hour of sleep. I woke briefly when somebody rolled a bike over my foot, then was up for the day at 2 am when my alarm went off. It had stopped raining, but the roads were still wet as we saddled up for the next leg.

The hills between Loudeac and Brest were longer and steeper. There were lots of oncoming descending headlights as we climbed; people who were already on their way back from Brest. There was a real risk of a head on collision if one of the descending riders were to doze off. We climbed steadily, stopping occasionally in a village for coffee or a bite to eat. I was carrying bike food, but ate very little of it since we were going at a low enough exertion level that we could digest "real" food, and it tasted way better. We perked up when the sun rose. This was an "up" portion of the ride for me as we were approaching the half way point, the weather was steadily improving and I enjoy going up hill. We had breakfast at the Carhaix controle and I got an hour of sleep in the dormitory, which also improved my spirits. We got back on the bikes and on the road in improving weather. John ran low on energy on one of the big hills after Carhaix. Some caffeinated Hammer Gel helped perk him up, and he resolved to increase his calorie intake. We added a meal stop for pasta in a restaurant in Commana and the friendly and speedy service, clean surroundings free of snoring Randos and excellent food made us resolve to "eat out more often".

After Commana it was mostly downhill with a strong headwind to Brest. We rolled down to the river and had a couple of celebratory photos with the famous suspension bridge in the background. It was sunny and very windy on the bridge and we heard later about a Rando taking his helmet off and losing it to the wind and then the river. The controle was located sadistically at the highest point in the city, and there was a really party atmosphere when we finally arrived. It was sunny and people were hanging out on the grass. We arrived about 2:15 pm, and the deadline at the controle was 6:45 pm, so we had about four and a half hours of margin at the halfway point. We made a quick stop at Brest and got on the road again, trying to get even more margin and invest it in sleep at Loudeac. A brisk tailwind and sunny weather sped us on the return trip. About this point I saw Dave Kamp, the other rider from Corvallis, riding the other way, outbound towards Brest. He did an 84 hour start so I did some math in my head and figured he was close, or beyond the time cuts. The intermediate time cuts had been relaxed by four hours because of the weather and the high rate of abandonments, but the final times weren't being relaxed, and I thought Dave would have a hard time beating the final cut.

We had crepes in Commana and they fuelled us into Carhaix. A quick meal stop and we got back on our bikes just as it began to rain heavily again. Intermittent heavy rain showers turned to a steady drizzle, as night fell and we climbed the series of hills between Carhaix and Loudeac. The climbs weren't bad, but they were punctuated by another series of terrifying downhills in the rain, in the dark. The stream of riders was pretty well spread out, but they were still useful as pathfinders down the hills. Many of the riders were getting dangerously sleep deprived and it was on a descent in this leg that I saw an Italian fall asleep while descending and start to veer off the road. There weren't cushioning blackberries like the Pacific Northwest, just a narrow shoulder then hard Breton granite. I was descending about 40kph and overtaking him on his left when he started to make gentle s turns on the road and then onto the shoulder. His compatriots were in a line behind him and yelled at him to wake up. He woke up and applied the brakes and I flashed past. I didn't hear a crash so I assume he was able to stop. It was too rainy for ditch naps, so people had to tough it out to the next controle even if they were sleep deprived.

I had two Cateye EL 530 1.5 W LED lights mounted on the fork. They were adequate for the descents, when I remembered to turn them on. One had fresh batteries and was brighter, and I just turned it on for descents. In the dark it was hard to tell the slope and sometimes the speed would build up to the point I didn't want to take my hands off the bars before I would notice and put on the brighter light. It was a sign of sleep deprivation that I made the same mistake several times and didn't just leave the bright light on. I'd usually just find another rider with a better light and ride near them. Eventually I reached the last village before Loudeac and waited for John. He caught up after a few minutes and said "Sorry I was slower, I must have zoned out on the descent".

We arrived in Loudeac at 2:30 am and after checking in at the control and a large meal John went in search of his hotel room. If there was space, I'd sleep on his floor. Meanwhile, I shoved my tray aside and put my head down on the table. John woke me up after getting his instructions to the hotel Les Routiers. I had my pad and blanket, but luckily another Rando was checking out so I got his room. It had a spare unused bed. I had a hot shower and a very welcome three hours of sleep in an actual bed.

When I woke up I heard my friend from Bend, Verson's voice and ran into him in the restaurant. The proprietors opened it especially for us and made breakfast to order, no menu involved; fried eggs and pasta, coffee, bread and jam and croissants. The cook was very friendly and we gave her some pins. She ran home quickly to get some pins for us, and then offered to drive us to the controle. We declined and then promptly got lost on the way to the controle. We finally found it and got on the road at around 7:30. We were refreshed and on our way home.

The extended sleep stop put us behind the original intermediate control deadline, so we'd have to keep a steady pace to get back some margin relative to the end time. I used the cheat sheet of times and distances I'd prepared in advance and figured we'd need 13.3 kph including stops, or maintain 20kph while on the bike with no more than 6 hours of off bike time. It was definitely doable if we didn't "hit the wall". John reminded me "when you hit the wall, you hit it hard". So far the ride had gone pretty much according to plan, perhaps with more queueing time than expected, but with a good on-bike speed. We were going over terrain we'd ridden on the way out, and we knew the worst of the hills were behind us. Our objective was to beat the 20kph on bike time and earn back some more sleep time.

It was raining as we left Loudeac, but it was already light and the weather improved through the day. It never really got warm and sunny enough to dry out my shoes but the rain jacket and wool undershirt kept my core warm and dry. We made good time on the moderate hills and our spirits were good. The weather was improving and we were well past the halfway point and confident of finishing.

We met a guy from Chicago with a "stop this endless war" bumper sticker and had a good chat about politics and philosophy. We rolled together into a village between Tinteniac and Fougeres and shared a pot of excellent soup and a pizza. We gave away more pins and had enough time in the bank to stop several times for coffee on the way to Fougeres. People had set up stands and sold or gave away for "donations" coffee, water and home made baked goods. There were often kids practicing their English and they appreciated the pins. Sometimes they would give out postcards and just ask for it to be mailed back with a stamp. The people were very friendly and seemed to be delighted to have international bicyclists cycling by their door. There were also lots of people just standing by the side of the road, watching the stream of bicyclists passing by and shouting encouragement "Bon courage", "Bon route", "Allez".

After Fougeres it got very dark and rained very hard. Many of the cyclists had stopped in the towns we passed through, or were ahead of us in Villaines, so we were riding without a lot of company. Route finding became more difficult without a stream of red tail lights to follow. This was a hard leg, with uncertainty about the route, declining temperature, and a hard rain. It was the third night on the road and we had to keep pushing on. The rain made ditch naps unappealing, so we just had to push forward. We arrived in Villaines la Juhel at 10:45. The whole village seemed to be manning the control and there was a crowd shouting encouragement as we rolled into the bike parking. The encouragement helped a lot, but we also needed to get warm, refuel and get some rest. We had another large meal and then checked into the dormitory for an hour of sleep. I took off my wet shoes and socks and lay down on the mat for instant oblivion. When I was wakened an hour later, I told John "these dormitories are starting to smell really bad after three days". I put my wet shoes and socks back on and we headed for our bikes. It felt like there were rocks in my shoes, but I just wanted to get started. A block out of the control, I stopped on a doorstep to take the rocks out of my shoes and discovered where the bad smell was coming from. Wet socks and shoes for three days had caused the soles of my feet to turn into white prunes and begin to rot. I put on dry wool socks, but had no choice but to put the wet shoes back on. It wasn't raining and I hoped that my feet would dry out before there was permanent damage. For the rest of the ride, it felt like my shoes were lined with sharp rocks. The "no whining" button on the back of John's Carradice bag encouraged me to ignore the blister on my butt, the aches and pains in every muscle and my sore feet and just tough it out. At this point in the ride, we started seeing people with Shermers neck, people riding while standing, more and more people taking ditch naps or just sleeping while standing on their bikes. We were past the 1000km point and the stress was showing, but the end was also in sight. Just 200km to go.

The day warmed up and there was actually a little sun shine. Our sleep at Villaines had used up our margin relative to the deadline, so 20 kph and no more than an hour at each of the remaining controls would get us in just before the deadline. It didn't seem like a lot of margin, so between Mortagne and Dreux I sat on the front and pushed the pace up. This was one of the few relatively flat portions of the ride, so it was amenable to a fast steady pace. I stayed on the front and kept a steady pace of 25 to 30 kph as we gathered a line of people. Nobody else wanted to ride on the front at that pace so I just stayed there and rode steady to try to gain some margin and keep John in the group. We passed Verson but he had acquired a sore neck and a neck brace and couldn't hang with us, so we kept going. It was good to go hard with the end in sight and when I finally pulled off there were only four of us left and the Italian said "it was like riding behind a motor scooter". A great compliment and we now had the margin not to sweat the deadline for the rest of the ride. We even had enough time for a short nap at Dreux.

The last leg from Dreux was a celebration. We were confident of the finish and just needed to keep a steady pace and suffer for four more hours. The organizers picked a beautiful route through wealthy suburbs of Paris, but they also managed to pick up some of the steepest hills of the whole ride. It was on one of those steep hills, with 50km to go that my ride almost came to an end. I was passing a couple of Italians on their left, near the centerline, when one reached out to give the other one a friendly push up the hill. His hand slipped off his friends butt, and he veered out toward me. I was climbing steadily and couldn't move out of the way quickly enough. A crash or a broken wheel at this point could be the end of my ride. I felt his front tire on my rear wheel and heard it scraping along my fender, so I just leaned into him and kept the bike up. Bumping drills while coaching juniors paid off, but I was really angry that his goofing off almost cost me finishing the ride. He got a few choice words and I rode off up the hill. Later he came back and apologized, and by then I had cooled down enough to accept his apology.

It started sprinkling again as we rolled into St Quentin, a fitting end to a difficult ride made even more difficult by the weather. We took a serpentine route to the finish, through road construction and over a couple of highway overpasses that seemed like gratuitous bonus climbs thrown in at the end of the ride. There was a large crowd at the final roundabout on the way into the finish and they cheered and clapped. They were happy to see us and we were happy to be there. We chatted with other riders at the control while we waited to get our brevet cards stamped and collected.

The official time will eventually be published, but we ended up with about 88 hours used out of the 90 available. We took a few photos, grabbed our free drinks and headed home. The 5kms back to the hotel after stiffening up at the control were the most painful ones of the whole ride.

It was the longest and most difficult ride I've done. I felt confident in finishing throughout the ride, and the preparation and planning paid off. Riding with John Kramer also helped me to finish, his pacing and the wisdom he'd gained in multiple 1000km rides were both invaluable. The rain and cool weather increased the Did Not Finish (DNF) rate to 30%, and there were rumors of some serious injuries. I'm thankful for having completed the ride safely, for the opportunity to meet Randonneurs from all over the world, and especially for the opportunity to meet some of the friendly people of France.

My feet healed within a couple of days, I was back on the bike (riding slowly) after three days and the only lingering effect is some tingling in my fingers and toes that is slowly diminishing.