Monday, September 5, 2011

My Solitary Paris-Brest-Paris

This is my recounting of the 2011 Paris-Brest-Paris bike ride as I remember it.  This may not be what actually happened. Extreme sleep deprivation made the memory of the ride seem surreal and dreamlike...maybe I didn't ride at all and just imagined it?

I think I started reading about the 1200 kilometer Grand Randonee called Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) sometime in 2006-or maybe a little bit before.  At the time the distance seemed incomprehensible in the time allotted to complete the ride.  But I couldn't help but be intrigued.  The more I read, the more I wanted to be a part of it.  Over the next months and years I started riding longer distances.  Indeed it was hard-and there was a lot to learn.  I rode my first 200K brevet in 2008, became a "Super Randonneur" for the first time in 2009, and qualified and signed up for PBP in 2011.  I've come a long ways from day dreaming about riding in France-to being on the verge of actually doing so. make a long story short, I started and finished PBP.  My first 1200K.  I rode the whole route (except for walking up a few of the steep hills near the end).  I started in the second wave of the 84 hour group at exactly 5:19 AM on Monday morning, August 22, 2011.  I was late getting done-finishing in 86 hours and 6 minutes (frame no. 8285).  I did manage to get my card stamped at every control-even as the wore out volunteers were packing everything up right behind me and souvenir hunters were scooping up the route signs before I had a chance to read them.  I'm satisfied that I finished, but determined to get back in 2015 and do better.  If nothing else, I acquired an immense amount of information that will help me next time-and God help me...there will be a next time!

I wasn't 100% when I left for France.  For reasons detailed in earlier posts in this blog, my world was turned a bit upside down starting in July after a successful qualifying campaign.  That being said, I was confident I could do the ride.

While I worried about the bike riding, my wife Brenda did a great job of taking care of the travel arrangements.  I left from Seattle on the 17th of August and arrived in Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines with no problems except jet lag.  Brenda couldn't accompany me due to work commitments.  Instead she arrived in France on Sunday, the day before my ride started.

After bike check and sign in on Sunday morning I began to make my way via the greater Paris public transportation system to get Brenda from Charles de Gaulle Airport.  Unfortunately, due to track closures, language barriers, and a comedy of errors, an approximately 3 hour round trip turned into an all day affair, complete with about 10 miles of walking and an indescribable level of stress, all on the hottest and most humid day of the whole trip. I got to share this experience with the Weible's from Missouri who were going to get a rental car to use as a support vehicle.  I was glad I had their company-or I would have been a bigger basket case than I was!  I manged to find Brenda at the airport, but ended up exhausted and getting to bed way too late on the night before the biggest ride of my life.  Not good!

Despite my exhaustion from the misadventures of the previous day, excitement about the ride never allowed for any deep sleep and I was up and at 'em at 2:30 AM, going over my stuff for the hundredth time making sure nothing important got left behind.  I rode over to the the start with fellow Montanan Ken Billingsley where we found a large group already lined up, including our other fellow Montanan Karel Stroethoff.  Brenda, and Ken's wife Heath, were there for some last minute pictures and video and to send us off with a good luck hug.  It was a festive atmosphere-even as a few rain drops started to fall.
My strategy at the start was to try and hang with a big group of riders and draft along.  I knew the pace would be high, but I counted on expending less energy in the draft of a large group instead of riding on my own.  The plan worked to perfection for the first 78K when the hills became too much for me and I had to let the group go.  From then until the Mortagne I was passed on every incline by dozens and dozens of riders.  The efforts of the previous day, along with the fast start, left my legs powerless.  I could do nothing but spin and hope for the best.

I recovered a bit after a too long rest stop at Mortagne, as the field thinned out considerably.  I was no longer being passed as often, but I knew I was already near the back of the pack.  This is when the rain started.  Sometimes as just drizzle, and other times in a thick dark cloud full of lightning and thunder.  Many times it felt like someone was standing over me with a garden hose on full blast. Twice I found myself delayed at the controls, Villaines-la-Juhel and Fougeres, as I waited out monsoon like downpours.  As one American rider passed me I exclaimed and he agreed-this wasn't fun anymore.

The rain let up as I rode through the night, mostly alone, but sometimes in the company of some French riders, and for awhile with fellow American Scott Ebbing from Ohio. I met Scott on our bus tour of Paris a couple of days before and it was really nice to have a familiar voice to talk to-for however short the time was.  I finally got to my planned overnight stop at Loudeac at about 7 AM.

After a change of clothes from my drop bag, a hot meal, and a 45 minute sleep break in Loudeac I was falling behind even further and had to push up the pace on the out-and-back to Brest.  I was making good time on the way to Carhaix when a wrong turn sent me 3 or 4 kilometers in the wrong direction.  I knew something was amiss when I stopped meeting cyclists on their return from Brest.  The mishap put me in late to Carhaix with no time to rest. 

When the outbound route rejoined the inbound route on the climb to Roc Trevezel on the way to Brest, the biggest hill on the whole ride, I encountered the awesome site of the bulk of the 90 hour riders, who had left the day before I did, on their way back.  It looked like a rolling party on wheels and I was waved to hundreds of times.  Even though they were headed the other way, I felt like I was part of something really big, instead of being on an isolated bike ride with a few dozen stragglers.  It was one of the few truly fun moments on the whole ride.

I rode well after Roc Trevezel and managed to get into Brest exactly one minute before the control closed.  Unfortunately, I was completely spent.  It would be the last time I would be on time the rest of the ride.  After a sandwich and Coke I laid my head down on the table for a few minutes until the control workers chased me out-they wanted to tear everything down and go home (understandably).  I was half-way done, but in terrible shape as I headed back toward Paris.

The remainder of the ride was impacted by serious sleep deprivation.  Waves of fatigue would roll over me at different times and I would actually find myself dreaming on the bike-very close to falling asleep.  This was scary and there was nothing I could do but pull over, find a driveway or wide spot and lay down, using my camel back for a pillow.  I took several of these little cat-naps-usually for about 10 or 15 minutes.  I did take a little longer nap on the lawn at Tinteniac, probably a half-hour before a control worker woke me to see if I was alright.  Good thing or I probably would have kept on sleeping.

The fatigue and drowsiness hit me hard day and night, but the night riding was especially hard.  In my mental state riding through the wooded areas of Brittany felt like riding in an endless dark cave. It was spooky and hard to navigate-especially on the roads with little or no center line or fog line.  It definitely slowed me down even more. I even got lost for a while between Brest and Carhaix-along with a French guy who was weaving all over the road. Getting into a town was so welcome as it felt just like exiting the cave.

Through all the second half of the route other riders would seem to appear out of nowhere, ride with me for a while and then disappear. Another weird experience was riding with one group of riders, and coming to a town or intersection only to find I was riding with someone else.  Very few of the stragglers spoke english and in my state I could not work out even the most rudimentary french.  When I did encounter some english speaking riders somewhere between Carhaix and Loudeac I'm afraid I chatted like a canary.  I hope I wasn't too annoying, but I was feeling pretty lonely at that point and needed someone to talk to.  But just like the others, those riders seemed to disappear into thin air.

Without a doubt the toughest section was between Villaines-La-Juhel and Mortagne.  This was in the middle of the third night.  The road was pretty deserted, and I needed to take a couple of short sleep breaks to keep from nodding off.  Sometime before daybreak I hit a big bump and started to feel my back tire going down-a classic pinch flat.  I've never had to change a tube in the dark, let alone with severe sleep deprivation.  I did get the new tube installed, but also managed to get my chain all tangled up in the derailleur when I tried to reinstall the wheel.  It took a considerable amount of time to get it sorted out.  I was awful glad to get moving again, only to discover that my rear end had decided it had had enough!  Excruciating saddle sores would be my constant companion the rest of the way.

I got to Mortagne early in the morning.  They were still there to stamp my card, but again everything was closing down.  I found a terrific bakery in town to get a couple of croissants for breakfast.  Also in Mortagne (or was it the next town-I can't remember) I got some salve from a pharmacy for my aching butt.  That helped but I stopped at another town pharmacy a few more kilometers down the road for more Advil.  A few mega doses of that numbed the pain just enough to keep going.

On the ride to Dreux the sun came out and it was very pleasant.  I rallied a bit at this point as the Advil took hold and the road flattened a bit.  In a town just before Dreux a volunteer flagged me around a corner and cheered me on to hurry up-Dreux would closing down in a half-hour!  I sort of time trialed the rest of the way, entering a deserted parking lot at the control.  I was greeted by two enthusiastic girls who spoke terrific english.  They led me to the control.  When I entered the building I was met with a round of applause from the volunteers still hanging around.  Apparently I was the last rider to get a brevet card stamped at this control.  I was really touched by the reception-it meant a lot after what I had been going through.

More riders appeared ahead of me on the final stretch from Dreux back to Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines .  I think some of them had bypassed the Dreux control.  One French rider on a recumbent was proudly carrying a direction sign on his bike.  The signs which marked the route were becoming harder and harder to find as souvenir hunters gathered them up.  Lucky for me I came across Tom Reeder from DC who was keeping an eye on a French rider with severe Shermer's Neck (a condition where the neck gives out and you can't hold your head up anymore).  They were riding slow-as I was at this point-and Tom knew the way back to the finish line.  We slowly rolled into the finish-me about 2 hours late.  There were still some folks hanging around and they were still there to accept my card.  I was glad to be done.  In a couple of hours I was in an almost coma like sleep back at the hotel.  I don't think I've ever slept so sound.
Just few comments about the ride:
  • It was way harder than I ever imagined.  I go about 6'5" and 200 pounds.  Hills are my kryptonite.  This route is nothing but hills.
  • French drivers are awesome.  They won't squeeze past you on the narrow roads.  They'll ride behind you for a long time until the on coming lane is clear-no yelling, honking, or throwing things.  It was amazing.
  • Imagine a country with no cyclist hating rednecks...that's France!
  • Riding through some village in the middle of the night and having someone standing along side the road cheering us on.  It was so amazing.  I felt like a rock star!
  • Others offered coffee and snacks.  I stopped at a few of these and it always hit the spot.  I wished I had the time to stop at more of them.
  • My brain played all sorts of tricks on me.  I had a strange sense of deja vu the whole trip-that I had ridden this route weeks before.  It was a really strange feeling.  I also had the sense that I was just going in circles instead of in a relatively straight line west and then back east.  After a while every village looked the same.
  • The 84 hour start was a mistake. I've never been fast, but I've never had any trouble with randonnering time limits.  My previous 600K's and 1000K were finsihed with hours to spare and with plenty of sleep.  But time just seemed to evaporate on PBP. Next time it's the 90 hour start-no matter what my form is.
  • Despite my fatigue at the finish I recovered well enough for Brenda and I to have a wonderful time touring Paris the next day.  We even hiked up to the top of the Arc de Triomphe-though my thighs were screaming.  It was also difficult sitting on the plastic seats on the boat tour, but I made it through.