Friday, February 27, 2009

2007 PBP, Part 1: Arrival and departure

On the Sunday before the start of the 2007 Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) Randonnee, a large number of Northern California riders gathered after the mandatory, but this year much abbreviated, bike inspection. We sat at a cafe, indoors alas, and tried to ignore the falling rain outside. My friend Reid made a waggish remark about the experience we were about to have. He said that doing Paris-Brest-Paris in the rain could be quite easily simulated at home by standing in a cold shower in bicycling clothing while ripping up $100 bills. I thought about this remark and in the the long, dark hours of the first night's ride through the French countryside, and with the rain beginning to pelt us once more, I came to the conclusion that the analogy was inadequate. What was missing in the comment was that it failed to include any mention of first having to stand in line to get into the cold shower.

Having now commented on the inadequacies of the analogy (and pausing briefly to state that I completed only a bit more than a third of the PBP route) I think it only fair to also mention just how important the analogy is. The huge value I get from this amusing perspective is one of contrast, because the memories I've taken away from my participation in PBP couldn't be more opposed to this image and mood of a rider sullenly trudging through the drill, subjecting him or herself to miserable conditions with an air of fatalism. For me, this trip was fantastic. There is no other way I can see it. I'll try to be brief and summarize the whole trip, but keep in mind that there is so much more to my memories of attending PBP than what I can include here.

Our flight from San Francisco arrived in Paris at 11:30 am local time on Friday the 17th of August. We were in the second of two waves of cyclists arriving from the States, most of whom used the Des Peres Travel agency which specializes in arrangements for cycling trips, especially for PBP. There were several hotels where the riders stayed in St. Quentin, but the Hotel Gris Campanille seemed to be the focus of much of the pre-ride energy. The hotel was almost entirely taken up by PBP riders from the US. That afternoon the patio outside the hotel lobby was filled with riders unpacking their bikes from the shipping crates and assembling them as chat filled the air. That evening I had the first of a series of wonderful meals shared with several good riding friends also on the trip.

Saturday morning was devoted to a shake down ride that covered the first 35+ km of the PBP route. The destination was Gambais, and the course would be evenly divided between suburban terrain and open countryside dotted with small villages. As we rode the latter half of this outbound route I describe here, I was in cycling heaven. The weather was mild, the skies clear, the roads smooth well beyond the reality of riding in Northern California, and the landscape through La forĂȘt de Rambouillet and on out to Gambais was *exactly* the image I had of riding through France. We returned to St. Quentin after a ride of about 45 miles and afterward, my friends Bruce and Kevin went with me into Paris for the afternoon. We walked around the heart of Paris on both sides of the Seine, and returned via the Left Bank to the foot of the Eiffel Tower, all the while getting an architect's perspective on all the structures we saw.

Sunday's big goal was two-fold: getting registered and our bikes inspected, and getting group photos taken. By 1pm, we had accomplished both (though actual bike inspection was postponed) but then we had to fill the rest of the gaps through the day by organizing gear, double checking the bike, and ignoring the steady rain. At this point the weather forecasts seemed less than unanimous in the fine details but generally consistent in the dismal outline for the full week, with the potential for clearing coming perhaps by Friday.

I have a hazy memory of most of Monday leading up to the evening start. At some point I spent yet more time deciding on supplies specifically to address the long nighttime ride between controls where services would be nonexistent. Dried apricots, salted whole cashews and some cheese and apple slices on baggettes fought for the remaining space in my Carridice bag.

Jack, Dan, Bruce, Kevin, Donn, Jim, Todd and I gathered at the Mercure Hotel in the early evening for the short ride to the start area. With most of the 5100+ registered riders opting for the 90 hour start, organizers would need to divide the mass into approximately 500 rider waves, each starting about 20-30 minutes apart. We had arrived at the start many hours before the first 90 hour start time, but even still there were over 400 riders in line ahead of us. It was at this moment, as we stood a stones throw from the pedestrian tunnel that led us under the traffic circle on the verge of the start area at the Gymnase des droits de l'homme that I realized I had somehow put my backup headlight somewhere other than where it should be, which was on my bike. I decided that I could live without it because I also had a helmet lamp, though it wasn't as bright. Then, to my horror I also found out that my taillights were missing. These I could not live without. I needed those to pass through even the minimal bike inspection that was ahead.

Because we still had more than two hours to wait for our start, I kept my panic in check and decided to get out of line and race back to the hotel and search for my missing gear. After sharing my problem with several riders still at the hotel, I got three offers of taillights and just as I was trying to mount one of those on my bike, I found I had put all three missing lights in my jersey pocket. What a dope! Even still, this dope managed to return to the start, return all but one of the borrowed lights to their lender, and resume my place in line with my friends. That last bit was only due to a little smart thinking and a huge bit of luck. On my way back, by riding a loop away from the start area and then aiming back toward my destination on a different tack I found a side road, blocked off to auto traffic, leading to the traffic circle. With a cheer from my friends when I arrived back at the very spot I had left to recover my lights I knew they hadn't moved an inch in the 40 minutes I was away on my wild goose chase. Finding them again, as well as hearing their greeting was an immense relief and antidote to the tension that my gaffe plus waiting in line caused.

For the actual start at 9:30, we would end up about 40 meters from where we had waited but first we needed to circle way around the far side of the Gym and soccer field, and pass through the pinch point where the light check was done. The tension was not eased by the process of successively fitting X number of riders in a space that would only fit X minus two riders. During the inspection of my bike and gear, I was told I needed to wear my reflective sash over my camelback but otherwise I was passed. Bruce however found only at the point of inspection that his dynamo powered twin lights were simply not working. Luckily he had a double backup of lights and passed inspection, though he spent all the time until the fireworks signaling our start checking and rechecking his wiring with no solution to the problem. The final pinch point to negotiate was where our cards were swiped to register us for our start wave, and our group fragmented slightly here when we lost Kevin when the officials cut off the group forming the wave immediately after Todd and Dan passed that point.

For me this whole experience leading up to the start was overwhelming. Thousands of riders from all over the world were queuing up. The energy emitted by all the hundreds of gathered riders in this first 'wave' was like a humidity that we all existed within, both obscuring and becoming part of what we were viewing. Til this point I guess I had been in a language cocoon, conversing in English mostly with other Americans. Through this whole process of queuing up we mixed with riders from so many countries, and when I would hear English spoken outside our little group, it was with an accent of one kind or another. Rain fell in a halfhearted way off and on as we neared the 9:30pm start time. Jim most likely saw the anxiousness in my expression and tried deftly to simultaneously distract and assure me that this all would go well. That really helped and by the time the fireworks finally burst to signal our start a confidence was building and gaining the upper hand in my emotions.

End of part 1

What comes next after riding 449 km?

In August of 2007, I put my bike on a plane and along with several hundred other Americans, I flew to France to participate in the Paris, Brest et retour, the once every four years cyclo-touring event most commonly referred to in the US as 'PBP'. It is an understatement to say that my experience there was not what I was anticipating, but by any measure the trip and experience were simply fantastic, and it was fantastic in spite of near constant rain and in spite of falling far short of my goal.

I named this blog after the distance I was able to accomplish on PBP that year. I registered this blog shortly after returning from France on that trip, with the intention of chronicling my preparation for returning to PBP in 2011, in whatever form that 'preparation' would take. In the days, weeks and months just after PBP I thought often about the trip. Again, an understatement. For weeks, I had nightly dreams of the ride. I would frequently dream of riding up a gentle slope in some small village, taking care to not slip on the wet Pavé. The dream is not of an imaginary occurrence, but is a strong memory of a small snippet in time. I was surrounded by other cyclists, none of us speaking to anyone else, even if we would have spoken the same language. Rain was steadily falling. The narrow roadway and close buildings limited one's sight line to the river of wet cyclists ahead.

I began a write up of that ride, a write up that was evolving very nicely. I was pleased that I was finding the exact words to express my memories of that trip, but somehow, I put the write up aside, unfinished. The finished story was to become some of the initial postings to this blog, but 18 months later little progress has been made. Each year, in December and early in the following January I would always begin filling out my ride calendar for the new year, picking my favorite rides, hoping no conficts between rides or with family events would arise. This was always a fun activity, with the anticipation of adding new riding experiences to all those that came before, but somehow it wasn't any fun this past December.

Ah, but time passes. Maybe it was a worse case than usual of the winter blahs (a calendar year-long winter?), because as this winter, at least winter in Northern California, is becoming a thing of the past, my cycling interests are coming back to life. I'm getting energized once again about 'the next big ride'. I'm making plans, and doing what it takes to pull them off. And of course PBP is the biggest of those plans. PBP has again become a frequent topic on my mind, and two years off is not too early to begin preparing.

My plan is to add segments of my PBP write up, dated as it is now, as future 449 km blog entries, along with other ride write ups, photos and cycling oriented stories and comments. It's likely that not even my mom will read this blog, but maybe that's not why I'm going to do it.