Sophomore Jinx. So, Paris-Brest-Paris. Big ride. 760 miles this year. I was worried that my performance last time was adrenaline-fueled, fear of not finishing driving me through hours of night riding with little sleep. I had put in a ton of miles in 2011, and this time I followed John Hughes' same training program, but with fewer miles, especially during the last couple of months. I felt stronger at the beginning of this ride, certainly well-rested, but a nagging fear that I hadn't done enough long rides festered at the back of my brain.
Nevertheless I was in the second wave of starters The weather was forecast to be perfect: 70 degrees, slightly overcast, light wind. The ride started fast, and we wound through roundabouts and traffic islands, wary of riding with unknown compadres in the dark. Finally we hit the countryside, the motorcycle escorts were gone, and we settled in.on Sunday morning at 5:15am.
After the sun rose I found that I was repeatedly passing and then being passed by a German on a beautiful carbon Canyon bike. I settled into a nice pace and found the German behind me along with his friend, a German woman. Soon our threesome settled into a large pack of riders, and we luxuriated in it, effortlessly cruising along at 20mph. I started talking to the woman in German and found out that she had completed London-Edinburgh-London, a 1400km event similar to PBP, but limited to far fewer participants - evidently a strong rider, and I resolved to stay with these two, even as we stopped for a nature call and lost our lovely group.
I stayed with the Germans until mile 90 and our first stop, an unofficial one, but much appreciated for a quick bathroom break, water bottle fill and a munched sandwich. Unfortunately I lost my riding companions, but the weather was good, and there were plenty of others on the road. I soon found another group with two Belgian riders at the front. Once again we settled in at a steady 20 mph, and the miles flowed by quickly. After a bit I looked to take a turn at the front, but realized that nobody was sharing the work, and the Belgians seemed unconcerned by their position. Finally I made my way to the front, thanking our leaders, who laughed and said, fine, I could buy them a beer for their work. Then, after I complimented one on his beautiful wheels he told me that his mechanic used to be Lance Armstrong's favorite mechanic, and the Belgian went to him not only for his flawless work but neverending stories of Lance's outrageousness.
Once again after a control stop I found myself riding solo. The skies were clouding, and I laughed to myself, thinking of the beautiful three day forecast I saw pre-ride. Within an hour there were alternating showers and sun, but the warm temperatures made them bearable. By evening I was slowing down, getting passed, and generally feeling down. I had reached the point where Clif bars no longer tasted good, so I cracked open a gel. Almost immediately I felt and rode better, and I doubly resolved to eat more and keep the gels going as I needed them. So far I had avoided the crowds and eaten quick ham and butter baguettes at the stops. They tasted fantastic, sat well in my stomach, and required no waiting in line to procure. I supplemented this with Sword ginger citrus drink mix in my bottles, a nice addition of carbohydrates and sodium, which kept me cramp-free for the entire ride. The only issue was whether this was enough calories to keep moving.
Finally around 10pm I pulled into the stop at Loudeac, pretty much the 1/3 point at 448km. This was a traditional sleep stop and the crowds were huge. This was also the location of my drop bag, so I quickly changed, ate a mountain of mashed potatoes, and resolved to get to the next control. Almost immediately I met two Californians, who were hell-bent to get to the next stop, and we flew through the night, bombing down hills and generally having way too much fun for three sleep-starved riders.
Unfortunately we pulled into the next stop and were immediately told that there was an hour wait for a cot in the sleeping area. Now what? I nibbled on some food, laid on a bench for a few minutes, but the commotion around me was continuous, so I got up, drank a large coffee, got back on the bike, and pulled out into the COLD. Suddenly it was chilly: mid-40's, and the low blood sugar hit me with powerful shivers on the bike. I struggled to keep a hold of the bars and tried to spin to get the blood flowing. Luckily I had packed an extra thin wool base layer, and slowly I began to warm up. The coffee kicked in, and I resolved to eat something at the next stop, caffeinate and plow through until morning. The only snag in the plan turned out to be the pea soup fog in the early hours before dawn. Many riders slowed way down, but I found it eerily beautiful and charged through, despite the dampness that made the cold even more bone-chilling. The sun finally rose, and I found myself in Brest the next morning, munching on, what else, a ham and butter sandwich and some wonderful soup.
The day turned out to be gorgeous, and I spun along feeling great, though knowing that sleepiness was going to creep in sooner or later. While riding along a rare flat stretch an older gentleman on a beautiful lugged steel bike appeared on my wheel. He drafted for a bit, then sprinted forward and took his turn at the front. A few moments later he indicated that he was done, my cue to come to the front, which I did, grateful for a break in the monotonous solo riding. When he sprinted forward to take his turn again I looked down to see on his placard what country he was from. He had no placard! He was just out for a nice morning ride and thought we could trade pulls for a while. Deciding that a risk for disqualification really wasn't worth the fun, I drifted back and watched him pull forward toward the next unsuspecting rider.
Soon I found myself drifting off while pedaling, and though I was able to get a Coke in short order, I resolved to get to Loudeac and sleep no matter what. When I finally did reach there, it was early evening, still light, and it felt wrong to sleep during the daylight, but I knew that this was the perfect opportunity. A shower was required to use the cots, so I showered, put on clean clothes from my drop bag, ate a huge meal with a bottle of cider and settled into one of the cots. I remember wondering how long it would take to fall asleep and then being awakened, three hours later. I pushed myself toward the cafeteria, ate breakfast and a huge cup of coffee and headed out into the night. Almost immediately I saw a pair of cyclists, one leading the other off the road slowly, and asking if he could dismount on his own. "Everything OK?" I called out. "Yeah," the Dutch rider replied. "He doesn't know where he is." I rode on feeling spooked by the previous scene.
The coffee worked well for a while, but I found myself stopping at the next optional control for another sandwich and coffee, just to get me through until dawn. The next control was a repeat, but the sun was up, and I felt locked in to a steady pace, not too fast, but moving well. I saw a group in the distance and struggled to make it to them, before settling in, content to sit in the slipstream for a while. I took a pull and then settled back, hoping to show the Italians I was with that I was willing to work for my place in their group. Another pull and I was feeling better, but I had dropped my group. Ah, well, I continued on, glad to feel energized. At the next control I happened to be ready to leave when I realized the Italians were next to me and I heard them refer to "that American". I have no idea in what context I was referred to, but it greatly amused me.
Next came a hilly section, and the sun had risen, leaving last night's shivery cold a distant memory. At the bottom of a hill a farmer family had set up a table with a cooker, and the wife was cooking crêpes, two skillets at a time, and rapidly flipping them onto plates toward her husband and son. The son would quickly sprinkle sugar on them, fold them into quarters and hand them to us, piping hot. The husband explained that they were free, but any donations for them or the Coke and coffee would At that point I handed over 2 euros and thanked them profusely. This got me to the next control, and I tried to placate my grumbling stomach with two sandwiches and a baguette. Our bikes were in a corral surrounded by spectators, and as I was mixing my drink they peered over muttering about what I was mixing. I looked up, and with the straightest face I could manage I said "Methamphetamine". They stared silently, and I got up and left.be greatly appreciated.
Now the eagerness was starting to take over as finishing seemed in reach. It was sunny with only a light breeze, and I hit the second-to-last control ready to go even though they had sullied my baguette with paté in addition to the ham and butter. A nice change or a bombshell in my stomach? I remembered the next stretch to the last control before the finish as being very difficult in the dark: endless ups and downs and difficult to read intersections. Now I was climbing the long hills slowly and starting to feel the fatigue of the last 650 miles, despite the gorgeous scenery. The road seemed to be a tunnel through the dense forest and traffic was nonexistent. Once again I ate a gel and marveled at how quickly my spirits rose, though I was still disturbed at how slow I seemed to be going. After a bit I was riding with a group of three. I started a conversation with an Australian, and we ended up chatting for miles. Finally I asked how fast we were going. 20 by my computer, he said. My computer read 16. Apparently the generator hub powering my light played havoc with the wireless signal. Suddenly I didn't feel so bad.
Just then a tandem went flying by, rapidly followed by a group eager to stay in their slipstream. My group eagerly latched on, and I tried to stay with them, but I had no kick. All of my 90 hour groupmates had started 12 hours before me, and had something left. I watched them disappear into the distance and my Australian friend gave a quick glance back, but knew that the draft from the tandem was too sweet to let go.
I arrived at the last control and found my riding buddy just ahead of me in the line. He apologized profusely and offered to ride to the end, which I greatly appreciated. Although I was eager to ride the last forty miles and finish, I sat down with a coffee and a plate of carbs. Many riders were heading straight for the draft beer, and as wonderful as it looked, I knew that the darkness outside would be doubly hard to manage after a beer. My Aussie friend seemed to be thinking the same thing as he offered to buy the first beer at the finish. With that we immediately left the control and headed back out into the early evening darkness only to find no directional signs. We meandered around the last marked turn, gradually picking up more and more lost riders until a local young man on a bike said, "Hey, I know the way. Here, I show you." Sure enough he led us on an unmarked right turn, down a couple of miles until we saw a welcome turn sign.
We were back on course now with a large group, and we meandered through strange roads cut through agricultural fields, then back to narrow roads in quiet villages. The combination repeated over and over until we felt as if we were in a surreal black and white movie. The fact that we were surrounded by Italian riders talking rapidfire only increased the surrealism. Suddenly we were climbing, and I recognized the last miles of the course. I had become separated from my Australian friend, but he appeared miraculously, and we finished the last few miles together. A hot meal awaited us at the finish, but the stone-faced vendors announced that they had run out of beer. We were crestfallen, but happy to finish nonetheless. I finally turned my smart phone back on only to find urgent texts from Amy wondering if I was OK, as computer issues had left large gaps in my online progress. I reassured her that I was in fact all right, and I thought of the 2011 finish, where I had collapsed onto the gym floor to sleep for a couple of hours. This time I felt strangely mellow, though not sleepy. I got back onto the bike, rode the last couple miles to our lodgings, showered, and slept like the dead, grateful to be horizontal and motionless.