This ride couldn't be more different than the 2003 version. How many riders decide to ride PBP on the Sunday before registration? Probably a few like me. I was still debating the idea with my fellow OR Randonneurs at the Down the Drain 200. Del and Mike Bingle kept on saying you want to do it, go on. What devils they are. So the next day when I found a ticket on United Airlines for 50,000 frequent flier miles I thought oh s_ _t all the doors are opening up. Work was slow, I had entered the event just in case, I had a place to stay in Paris, and I knew the ropes. I reserved a room at my favorite Breton hotel near Loudeac. But I still debated. I had just returned from a three week vacation to France with Jill and frankly I was tired of international airports, cramped airplanes, and tourists. What about Business class? 80,000 miles?? OK, Let's GO!
I had a nice little house on the west side of Paris 20 minutes from Saint Quentin by train to myself as the owner, my friend, was still on vacation. In fact the whole neighborhood seemed on vacation. It was hard to find a pain au chocolate because all but one local boulangerie was closed for the month of August for vacation. I did find plenty of fine quality food and managed to cook for myself all my days in Paris. Beats eating out and way cheaper too.
Monday August 20th soon came around. Michael Wolfe came over to the house about lunch time to hang out and take a nap before the evening start. We had our last supper together and headed for the train for Saint Quentin. We saw the first waves of 80hour riders go off at 8:00 pm and then Michael was soon off at 9:00 pm to start with the tandems and velos a coucher(that's the french description of a recumbent). Now for the 4000 or so 9:30pm 90hour riders. We go off in waves of 500 riders at 15 minute intervals. I lucked out and ended up in the first wave fifth row. Oh my word, I looked around and picked out some good wheels to follow. I only had 50 riders in front of me, and I expected some jockeying for the front right from the start based on 2003. The start wasn't too bad actually, but I still wanted to be at the front ASAP to avoid an early crash in traffic. Out of the third turn I was third row with four riders left in front behind the pace car that escorts us out of Saint Quentin up to the 13Km mark. And that's where I stayed just freaking out that I was at the front of this mad horde of velos.
When the pace car pulled off the speed went up to about 34 to 36km per hour and I couldn't resist to play at the front. At about 30km I was 6th wheel, when the 7th wheel lost control of his bike on a speed bump and crashed hard in front of the rest of the field. I don't know if anyone else fell, but I just thought how close to the front do you need to be for security. Note to self: Know where is completely safe especially at night on foreign roads. After about an hour of mixing it up at the front I realized what a nut case I am and that this was not sustainable. So I decided to back off into the pack and chill. Still riding in the front 20 I thought about dropping way back, but I was having way too much fun. After a few hours I noticed a table beside the road and a family serving bottled water to passing riders. I pulled out of the pack for a bottle and then chased back on only to hit one of those nasty speed bumps myself. The bike was making a few noises after that that concerned me more than riding with the lead group. We just passed 100Km with this group at an average speed of 30.5kph. That was with a 13km neutral start. That's as fast as I go on a 100km training ride with the boys back home without a ten pound bag on board. So I decided to let them go at 105km. There were only 30 riders left in the group when I watched them sadly disappear into the night.
I felt strangely alone now with the odd recumbent and tandem on the road with me. I stopped to take off my rain jacket as I was wet from the inside more than from the outside. The weather was good for me at this point: the roads were wet, but the rain was behind me for now. When I stopped no one was around and it was soooo dark that I thought I was lost and off course. Minutes passed by until I saw a couple riders to confirm I was ok. Phew! Minutes later I hooked up with what seemed to be a solid group of tandems. Nice! ...soon after I noticed a sign that did not include Mortagne (our next destination), so I started looking back for lights, no lights, no lights, I stopped, no lights. The tandems disappeared into the night and so I retraced our route back 3km to the course and now I'm back in the field again. At least I won't get lost for awhile with all these other riders around.
The ride was uneventful from Mortagne to Tinteniac. I slowed way down to my usual pace of 25km per hour, I stopped at all the controls to eat as much as possible. I did not experience the long lines that later starters ran into. I was well ahead of the hordes. I remained alert through the lush countryside. The weather in Brittany and Normandy has been cold and wet all summer. The roads were wet and I was glad to have my fenders, I was a little cold at times, more from the sweat produced by my rain gear. I wore heavy duty leg warmers throughout the whole ride to protect my knees from the effects of the cold, wind, and wet. There was a moderate headwind during the daylight hours.
Then the rain came down in bucket loads for a full hour between Tinteniac and my hotel where I was to meet up with Michael. I didn't care. I was laughing as I flew downhill out of Tinteniac. I knew I was going to have a hot shower soon, warm clothes out of my caradice bag, a warm meal, and sleep. Is that all you've got I was thinking. Note to self: beware of overconfidence.
I was very happy to see a familiar face at the hotel. Michael had in fact been there for an hour and half drying out his clothes with a hair dryer. This is where speaking the language is worth gold. Madame, I asking the hotel patron, is there a store where we may dry our clothes? No was the response, but I will dry your clothes in our machine and I can wash them as well. Michael was pretty happy about this part, so was I. It was 3:30 in the afternoon Tuesday and the restaurant was closed, but again the french helped secure a big plate of pasta for each of us, some ham, and a glass of white wine to relax and celebrate 390km completed. We slept a couple hours until Michael couldn't stand my snoring anymore. Note to Michael: Earplugs.
We hit the road at 8:30pm Tuesday and rode through the night arriving in Brest together at 10:30 the next morning. We had a gorgeous view of the Port of Brest in full sunshine. The weather during the 40 or 50kms into and out of Brest were vintage 2003. Really Nice! But now I began to have some problems staying awake. I was running off the road a few times only to awake from the rough of the road's shoulder under my wheels. I took a 15 minute nap at Carhaix, but I don't remember if that was on the way out or on the way back. Ok, It's obvious that I'm in a fog during this bit, but I'm pounding down the food at the controls and everything else is going real well. We return to Loudeac by 9:00pm to eat and sleep. We covered about 390kms in 24 hours. That was probably 6 hours off the bike eating/resting and 18 hours riding. No complaints other than everything seems to be in slow motion.
At 11:00pm Wednesday it was pouring with rain at Loudeac. Michael with some persuasion and I checked into the infamous dorm at Loudeac to sleep until we woke up or the rain stopped. Michael woke up at 1:40 am when the rain stopped and was off to the races. I woke up 20 minutes later. I left Loudeac about 2:30am following some tough dutchmen. I say that because these guys had nothing but a tube in their jersey pocket, no helmets, no leggings. They were friggin monster strong. I thought I might catch up to Michael following these guys. Remember how I was laughing about the rain between Tinteniac and Loudeac on the way out. Well its cold 9 degrees Celsius, its raining on and off, its really dark, helmet headlight malfuctions, one of two E6 headlights malfuctions, and I've just snapped my rear derailleur cable 36kms past Loudeac and 48kms from Tinteniac. Oh boy I'm not laughing now. The next two hours is a hill interval session like no other. I actually had a replacement cable with me, but I had never attempted to replace the cable myself. I wasn't about to do it now. So I block off one rear cog with the derailleur to give me a 39 x 14 at the secret control that I came across. The controllers said the hills weren't too bad, but there was one bad one leading back into Tintineac. I'll never laugh on that hill again, I'll never say another word. Made it to T, found the mechanic who for 10 euros fixed my bike while I ate another meal of mashed potatoes, fish, soup, rice pudding, cheese, and fruit. I would have paid any price to fix my bike.
Tintiniac to Villaines: It was a relief to be whole again on the bike with all my gears and a 39x29. However, I was going off the road again several times nodding off and decided it was prudent to stop and sleep along the road like so many of us do. I found a covered porch on some public building and slept for 30 minutes or so. It helped. I stopped everywhere I could at the roadside restoration stops that the locals provided. As I was riding mostly alone, the conversation with the locals seemed to wake me up or was it the coffee and crepes. The people were so charming and kind it brings tears to my eyes when I think of them and how they encouraged us to continue when all I wanted to do was sleep in a ditch. Yea I visited the crepe Guy. I'll send him a postcard. Note to self: he knows the Blazers.
Villaines: I love Villaines at 1000kms completed. When you arrive there, you are made to feel like a rock star, or you just finished Alp d'Huez, the crowds were 3 deep around the bike pit. When I got off my bike I felt 10 feet tall. I went over and talked to the locals behind the barriers when I arrived and before I left. The energy they give you is almost overwhelming. I blasted out of Villaines for Mortagne. I nailed those hills with that familiar 39x14 for old times sake and blew by everyone in sight until I got to the bottom of the last climb to Mortagne. At 9:30pm Thursday I saw this guy standing beside the road forlorn looking just holding his bike up, looking depressed. I asked him if he was alright. He replied he was not. So I stopped to see what I could do. He said he was Creve (that's wiped out, no energy). He was without food. He was from the 80hr start group so he was like 7.5 hours ahead of me on the road. He had water and 2 kms to go to the control at Mortagne. I gave him a bar, I expressed that I thought he was doing very well indeed and that there was no need to panic, but if he couldn't ride his bike he must then walk to Mortagne. At Mortagne he could get a massage, eat, sleep, and then continue in the morning. No problem I'm thinking in 10 minutes he'll be back on his bike because no cyclist likes to walk. I informed the controllers of the mans situation and they sent a car out to check on him. Unfortunately #5180 abandoned at Mortagne as did about 1500 other riders along the route (30% DNF). It was a very hard year. The tribulations that everyone experiences were made that much more mentally challenging than usual because of the brutal weather from start to finish.
At about 11:00pm Thursday I returned to the road to Dreux. I had a horrific time trying to stay awake. If I had a space blanket I would have crashed beside the road. Instead I stopped numerous times to just close my eyes while I rested my head on the handlebars. it was 1 or 2 in the morning Friday. Finally, I'm in Dreux. Sleep is in order again for a couple hours. I could have used some motivation from Villains.
I left Dreux about 5:30 in the morning only to have a flat just as I'm hitting the road out of town. Its a rear of course. So I take care of it in about 25 minutes. Everything is in slow motion you know. I catch on to 3 Italians when I get back on the road, but I sense a problem with the rear tire. Like maybe the tire or tube is not properly on the rim. So I stop to check out the side walls of the tire, etc. Everything looked ok, I just didn't want to take any chances. Back on the road I see some lights in the distance that I chase. I thought it might be the Italians, but instead it's 3 Basques and 2 Dutchman going in circles around a roundabout. They're lost. I guess I am too. But, before I can do anything a car appears out of the night. The driver roles down his window and starts asking the Dutch boys where do they think they are, to which they reply that they are lost. They follow his car and we all follow them. When we get to the next traffic circle the guy roles down his window, points to the sign that points us back to Paris and says don't do it again. Here's the thing, those guys were speaking Dutch, and I'm certain I understood every word they said. Note to self: sleep deprivation may enhance foreign language skills.
Back on the road my young team of Basques and Dutch swept up the road until we had a sizable pack strung out across the long fields moving swiftly towards the finish. The first rays of the morning gave me goosebumps as I knew that now within 40kms of the finish we had made it, that we were riding strong and fast, that there would be no more fatigue before the end, only beaming smiles from myself and my young compatriots.
My goal was to finish while profiting from as much of the PBP experience as possible: I finished my second PBP in 83h13m. 9 hours more than 2003. I had some mechanical tribulations, a spot of fatigue, got lost a couple times, used every opportunity to meet the local people who support the PBP riders, and I used most of my 90hrs. I could have used more of the clock. So I guess there is room for improvement in 2011.
Bon Courage et Bonne Route