Thursday, March 26, 2009

PBP 2007, Part 5: Daylight, hills and yet more rain

The town of Villaines-la-Juhel has been a control on Paris, Brest et retour since 1979. The enthusiasm the town exhibits for this event may have been dampened somewhat by the rain, but it was clear to me that PBP was a special event there and special enough that I expect it will be part of PBP for years to come. Climbing out of town on my departure some time around 8am, I had put behind me more than 220 kilometers. The hills on the early part of the course were gradual, but from this point that would be much less the case. Beginning my cycling life in Southeastern Michigan, hills and long climbs became defined a certain way. Moving to Maryland, hills became something a bit more serious as steepness and length both increased, forcing my notion of climbing on a ride to expand. Changing coasts and landing in the Bay Area, the notion of elevation gain for the length of a ride was much more of a factor, and no two 100 mile rides could now be considered equal. Given the many opportunities for sustained climbing though, most of the routes for the qualifiying brevets in Northern California were designed to mimic the elevation gain on PBP so that there were no killer climbs where riders would work for 30 to 40 minutes to reach the crest, but instead there would be a relentless succession of smaller climbs.

Even though the sun had long been up, and my world was more than the short distance ahead that bicycle lights would illuminate, it still felt as if the rain and clouds were limiting what I might otherwise be able to see. Given a rare break from that a few hours after dawn, I finished one of the many short but certainly noticeable climbs and could see a longer way off to the north where the hills gradually rose a little higher, each hill only slightly taller than the one before it. This was one of the very few instances where I could see for some distance, and I noticed that none of the other riders were paying it much attention. The rain had ceased for a short time but these breaks were never long enough to ever begin drying out, and the one-two punch of energy loss due to chill from long soaked riding gear and the now continuous succession of hills made my progress seem like slow motion.

Through out the ride so far I had made an effort to keep eating, but having skipped something more substantial while in Villaines I had reached the point in the ride where I needed to eat more frequently or I would just need to stop. So I stopped and ate. Several times. After the first stop I could feel my energy level spike and I made up ground lost while stopped. The nature of a spike though, is that a drop in energy would follow and another stop would be needed. Some times, I'd see no other riders pass by while I rested, other times many riders would roll by and I'd catch the eye of some riders who made the effort to look away from the spot where they would be after 10 more meters. Those riders would no doubt be checking to see if I was more or less ok, and I was. More or less. Despite the long total of kilometers for this ride, stopping to look around and take in more than the roadway is important, and yet so hard to do. I'm hoping that with more experience at the longer distances, I can overcome the urge to keep rolling which comes from being uncertain I can finish. On this part of the course, as with all of the course, there were many towns and villages to pass through. Here they were spaced between 4 and 12 kilometers apart. Before I reached the next control however the distances between towns would increase to nearly 20 km. As during the night before, one town on this segment stood out in particular. The road surface, shops, homes and garage buildings in Lassay Les Chateaux all seemed to be incredibly well kept and the town affluent. In reading about the town long after returning home, I found out there was a castle or castles there but I never saw them. I do remember a lift in spirits just riding through this beautiful town, and of course the look on the faces of the men and women as I called out a 'Bon jour' as I rode by. They all looked at me as if I were nuts. I knew I couldn't argue the point then or now.

As I approached Gorron about 25 km later on this leg, it seemed a good place and time to stop and rest longer than the time it took to down a Clif Bar. My pockets were a disorganized mess and it was difficult to ride along one handed and sift with the other hand through all the clutter in each pocket, searching for the small bag of cashews I knew was in there, or the appricots that really go well just then. Gorron seemed to be very much different than all the other towns so far, but it may be that our route didn't take us into and really through the town. Gorron seemed much more spread out, and the buildings much more recent. I passed by a supermarché and pulled over and crossed back to the parking lot, stepping over a couple of curbs to do this. The store offered several advantages at the moment: food, a large overhang to escape the rain and lots of space underneath to spread out gear and repack. One reason for stopping was that I was certain I was nearly out of water and would need a refill before reaching Fougers, the next control. Inside the store, the aisles were empty of shoppers and the shelves and displays were mostly full of produce or canned goods, neither of which would help me but I found all I needed, bananas, water and a juice and made my way to the counter. The exchanges at checkout would all entail me looking closely at the register for the total and listening closely for the spoken words that should match that number, and a smile as I would hand over my change. Once outside I began the process of inventorying my gear and beginning to eat. Having bought two liters of bottled water to refill my camelbak, I now found the camelbak full, and I still had one full water bottle and second bottle only half empty. So much for being sure I was nearly out of fluids!

While stopped here, though I had the chance to speak with another rider, a rider from Sweden and like so many other riders from that part of the world, he spoke English as well as his native tongue. Like me, the lure of a well stocked store and a convenient place to get out of the rain was too much of a lure. We spoke about the distance to the next control, and a little about his having ridden PBP in 2003. He left though and I finished my repacking job and followed a few minutes later. The terrain here seemed to be much flatter than what I had crossed recently, but flatter wasn't flat entirely. Instead, it seemed that the roadway was on a very slight incline. Along this section I passed through another small village and on the approach there was a family with a table set with coffee and cups. A rider was stopped there and I really couldn't tell if this stand was set up by a family waiting for their rider. I didn't want to stop, thinking they were there for any rider that came along, and then be wrong. I regret not taking more opportunities to interact. It is my nature both to be too timid to take these opportunities and to regret later caving into that first reaction.

To this day, I really don't have a good sense for how the approach to Fougeres plays out. My memory is of taking a course that would appear to be a spiral into and out of the town, and at one point, the only place where I went off course, I left an (unusually busy) traffic circle too early when the correct course would have had me come 300+ degrees around from my original direction. Of course, at that very moment the rain doubled, then tripled in intensity. On the edge of town I had stopped to eat once more, even knowing I was possibly minutes away from the control, and just let the pouring rain soak me. I wasn't defeated by this, but instead I knew it didn't matter, didn't change anything from an hour ago, or an hour from now. At Fougeres, the layout of the control is such that the dining hall is near the entry way, but the actual control is held in a building that was a bike ride, not a walk, away. I first stopped to figure out where to go and then made my way to the control to present my card. The hall had a feel that suggested to me that the rush had come and gone. Bill Bryant, from Santa Cruz was there and wanting badly to talk to someone I knew I asked him how far behind the crowds I was. I was pretty stunned to find out that the real swell of riders had yet to arrive. Bill had other duties to attend to, and I needed to get something to eat. In the bike lot near the dining hall I found another Dave Yates bike, though not quite like mine. I very much wanted to change out of my sodden clothes, thinking that the change would both warm me up and improve my mindset. With the rain coming down in buckets at the moment, where I was standing was not the place to pull that off. The dining hall had a long covered walkway leading to another building and while that seemed packed with bikes already, I went looking to see if there was space for just one more. There was, at the far end, and I used that space to change and decide if I wanted to eat here or later on the road. While the food lines looked to be 60 minutes long, it was still a bad decision to leave and eat later. This is a bad decision I always seem to repeat, and I should learn, but again, I left without sitting down to a meal using the break in the rain that had appeared as the reason for departing.

(All photos except the one below are from: http://pbpvillaines.free.fr/Pages/Page_Photos/pbp2007web/)

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

PBP 2007, Part 4: A meager dawn

More than once, I've found myself cycling at 4:00am, though it is an unaccustomed time for me to be part way through a ride. My first ride through the night was in April of 2004 on the San Francisco Randonneurs Fleche. From that time until PBP 2007, I had ridden through the night only five other times. Though cold temperatures were often a prominent feature of the weather, none of those occasions included rain, and in each of those other experiences I had the luxury of having at least one and often several good friends with me. This situation on PBP, alone in a crowd, riding into and out of several new days put me far enough out of context that I really wasn't thinking so much what time of day it was, or when daybreak might come. Instead, I focused on the moment at hand.

With the passing of many kilometers the tightness of the various packs and the sheer number of other riders had lessened. To be sure, there were always other riders to see ahead and behind, but no longer were we riding two or three abreast. The lighting on my bike stood out even more at this point as I would pass or be passed by other ridrs, and especially so when I used both of the E6 headlights I had mounted. I had heard stories from previous editions of PBP where a rider with especially good lights would often attract a number of other riders, sharing the better visibility. I didn't see this happening nearby me, and I know it was the rain. The rain had all but killed conversations as each rider seemed hyper-focused on just turning the pedals.

My involvement in long distance riding began with the Davis Double Century in 2000. I started well before dawn because the day would be hot, and going the full 200 miles was an uncertain thing. I've done that ride nine times now and on each one, dawn was a significant memory. Davis is in California's Central Valley, and the early morning May sky nearly always features a view of the mountains in the Sierra, backlit by the rising sun. So often the dawn would be a pronounced transition from black, to dark blue, to blue. The first dawn on PBP was nothing like that. There was dark, then less dark, then gloom. I do recall the moment of transition from less dark to gloom though. The terrain was undulating, and I rolled down into a ravine like portion of the landscape and riding up out of it it felt brighter, I could see further ahead, I could see more riders, and see both riders and terrain more distinctly. If nothing else, then, the gloom afforded me the chance to indulge in a favorite pastime while riding long distances: gawk at bicycles and bike gear (something I did before the ride start and again after the finish).

The remaining kilometers ahead before reaching the first control were dwindling now, and though I could now easily see my odometer I remained unsure of how long it might take and how far it really was until I reached Villaines-la-Juhel. Still eager to talk to someone, anyone, it had been hours since I had seen an American rider. On a series of hills, two French riders approached and passed me, both riding Alex Singer bicycles. These are bicycles that I very much admire and I really wanted to converse with their riders. I began by speaking English. "Very nice bicycles!" In return, a very gruff "En français!" with no hint of a "s'il vous plaît" at all. The tone carried the message and slightly stunned, I drifted back. Drifting back was easy at this point as I was tired and felt these riders were a bit stronger than I was and had the advantage of each other's company (though they didn't seem to take full advantage of that by either conversing or by drafting). I mulled it over and struggled to form the most basic of French sentences that would convey that I really liked their bicycles and wanted to talk to them about it. Rather than take offense, I decided to just smile and try again. Increasing speed and catching up to these riders once more, I began "Alex Singer trey ..." I quit at the first harumph. I could have been both stunned and insulted that the rider simply would not look at me or help further a conversation. Instead I did the best thing I could at the moment. On the next hill I dropped those riders and never looked back.

I knew better than to assume that this experience summed up the French. These two riders were in stark contrast to the many villagers and townspeople along the route who cheered on all the riders with a "bon courage" or "bon route", and offered coffee or water, even going so far as to take riders into their homes and feed them. Nevertheless, I made good use of the surge provided by this exchange and soon reached the control. Aha! This was where all the riders had gone. The place seemed mobbed as I first found the long narrow street where ranks of bicycles were parked. It seemed I had to ride forever to find the open racks, but once there I could see many more racks left open for what must be a well expected glut of riders. I rode to the far end of the full racks and then a bit further so I could leave my bike leaning against the railing out of the way. I didn't really trust leaving a wheel in the wooden rack, fearing it would tip over, making a taco of the wheel. Boy, it felt good to get off the bike and walk back to the check-in area where my brevet booklet would get it's first stamp. After getting my stamp and having my card swiped I wandered around taking care of a few things, including scouting out some food and a hot drink. In doing so, I ran into Ken Shoemaker and Theresa Lynch, two riders from back home in California. I also ran into Tim Houck, another rider from back home. By this time though I felt I had spent too much time at the control and should be going and it seemed these riders had just arrived. I made the long walk back to my bike and suited up to leave (that is me in the photo in the yellow jersey, with my back to the photographer, and my bike is beneath the red banner/flag on the right. I think that is Gregg Bleakney I'm talking to.)

Leaving the control I ran into Mark Thomas and Peter McKay, both from Washington, passing them as we left town, and moments later Tim passed me, riding strong enough that I knew I had no chance of keeping up. The energy I had regained resting in the control seemed to flow away and Mark and Peter rolled past me. I wasn't up to the opportunity of riding with people I knew, but the fact of daylight made up for that. Now I was able to see more of all the riders and the countryside all around. Provided of course that the rain would hold off. Ah, but that too didn't hold up after the break at the control.

End of Part 4

Thursday, March 5, 2009

PBP 2007, Part 3: Hours til dawn

By the time I arrived in France for this trip, I had listened to numerous PBP stories, hearing most of them while riding the qualifying brevets that spring. Spending yet more time with other riders in the days leading up to the start, I heard many new stories and it was becoming difficult to arrange the data points I acquired in a geographically correct order. This was especially hard when my grasp of French geography was tenuous at best. I had just ridden through a town larger than most so far, with a well lit and inviting cafe surrounded by cyclists. I saw no one I knew and felt compelled to keep moving, at the same time regretting passing up the stop. The route led through town, and then climbed up away from the center. Was this Mortagne-au-Perche? Wasn't there supposed to be a large church at the top of the hill outside of town? Maybe there was a church atop a hill outside some town somewhere ahead but it wasn't here, not unless the village church was to be found in the middle of the forest. Realizing that I was most likely confusing the details of more than one locale from more than one story, I instead focused on the climb before me. This I felt I could master.

Until this point, I had always been able to see a rider or two, or more often a dozen, ahead of me and could also tell that there were several riders just behind me. While I didn't feel all that strong just at this point, somehow I had outpaced all the other riders nearby as we went uphill from the village center. The darkness in between villages in the open fields was no comparison to the darkness I now found in the forest I was passing through. The light from my headlamp playing on the branches of the trees as they met over the middle of the roadway accentuated the impression of a riding through a tunnel. Lacking much sunlight during the day, this part of the route probably never warmed up much and now the chill helped produce visible exhalations. Without riders I could see ahead of me to confirm I was on the right path, I began to wonder if I was going the right way. There were no turns I could have taken so I must be on the right road, but doubt was gaining hold. A car approached from ahead, and strangely it's mere presence seemed menacing. This was the exact point at which I wished I had a fellow rider from back home to ride with. Instead, I decided to take any chance to talk with another rider that came my way.

The climb up into the forest had separated me from all the other riders nearby, but finally the ride through the forest ended after a long but slightly downhill run, itself followed by one more climb. Unlike the previous climb, this one tended to bunch up the other riders and again I was connected to the pack. The special velos had started in the wave just before the wave I was in, and all along the route up to this point I was catching and passing some of the recumbents and tandems that had a head start. While this was somewhat puzzling, that I should catch those riders on terrain that should really favor them, I didn't dwell on overmuch. Catching up to one of those riders though offered me my first chance to chat. I was paying attention to the jerseys of the riders I would come upon, using that as a clue about what language they might speak. One of the recumbent riders was wearing a familiar jersey, or so I thought so I asked him where he was from. I was right about him being from the U.S., but not at all about him being local to where I came from. He was from the East Coast, not quite as far from Northern California as one could get and still be a fellow countryman. As I matched his speed as we chatted, numerous other riders began to surround us. With more rain falling and it being hours til dawn, our primary effort needed to be directed toward riding in the pack and our brief conversation ended.

Heading into the next village a small pack of riders caught the group I was with and as they passed, I got my first contact with a fellow rider from the Bay Area. Keith Beato, who had started in a later wave, heard me call out and as I sped up a little he slowed down a little to say hello. He had seen no other riders we both knew and I let him know what I knew about who was ahead of me. While I would much rather have ridden with someone I knew, very much so, the fact that Keith had closed the gap between our start times plus the fact that I could tell it was an effort to match his pace meant that I'd be riding alone in a crowd for a while longer. Keith rolled on and I settled back into a pace more likely to allow me to reach Loudeac, the one-third-way point where I had a room waiting and a planned rest.

To arrive at that one-third point, though, there were many kilometers to cover, and many of those still to be ridden in the dark. From this point onward during the remaining night-time riding I was surrounded by other riders. I cared not if those other riders spoke English. Simply the sound of other conversations was good. Finally arriving at Mortange-au-Perche some time after 03:00, I mistook the road-side stand in the town center for the Contrôle ravitaillement (supply control). The rain had eased at this point and was no more than a sprinkle. Many of the riders stopped here and the stand was swarmed by hungry and thirsty riders. I needed the break and I needed water and wanted to get off the bike and buy a bottle. Just getting to the table was a struggle as riders crowded in, shouted out their orders and did what they could to get the attention of the overwhelmed staff behind the tables. Those poor souls were pulled in several directions at once and it took forever for anyone reluctant to be pushy to get their attention. "mai j'ai un peu d'eau s'il vous plaît?" Often, a worker there would turn to get what I ordered and upon turning back the bottle would be grabbed by someone else and money shoved into their hands. I did get my water and spent time just rearranging items in my bag, taking a quick bite to eat as well. Though many riders passed through, pausing or stopping, I didn't recognize anyone.

I finally remounted my bike when the rain began to come down a little harder. Imagine the surprise when I found the official supply control just a kilometer away. The activity seen at the food vendor's stand in the town center was totally absent at the official control. Here, bikes were parked everywhere, hundreds of them, but few riders seemed to be around at all. Those that were seemed to be moving with no great haste. I parked and walked indoors and was a bit lost as to why I was stopping, and my confusion showed to the woman greeting the riders upon their entry. It was warm inside, and riders filled all the tables available. I scanned the crowd and saw no one I knew and in fact saw no one I could identify as a countryman. Some riders were drinking beer, which is something I can do after a ride, but not during. As I'm still in search of the perfect source of energy on a ride, maybe I'll consider this in the future, but right then, it did not appeal to me. After doing one circuit of the hall, I went back outside where it was raining more heavily, got back on my bike and began to pedal just to get some warmth back.

Note: I'd like to thank Ivo Miesen for the use of his photos. Ivo's PBP photo album can be found here: http://fotoalbum.dds.nl/ivo_m/pbp2007

End of Part 3

Monday, March 2, 2009

2007 PBP, Part 2: Into the night

Over the years I've heard so many stories of Paris, Brest et Retour and I was slightly disappointed that the rain had seemingly suppressed the crowd size and enthusiasm. This was a mistaken impression though. After the gun signaled our start as our bundle of 500 riders spread out with each meter we now covered I could see that hundreds of spectators were stationed all along the route for the first dozen kilometers through the contiguous communes that help make up Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines. I could tell by the faces I passed on the roadside that while spectators were scanning the riders for familiar faces, they also were intent on cheering for everyone riding by. Even if this particular experience were isolated to this one point on the ride, I knew I would remember it for a long, long time. This respect and appreciation for the cyclists however, would play out over and over again and at all times through the day and night.

Having done a ride in the daylight that covered the several dozen kilometers of the route I knew very well that with rain soaked streets and hundreds of riders surrounding me it was best to be very cautious. (I heard later of a somewhat spectacular accident at kilometer 10 on the route and can only be glad that there weren't more of those stories to be told.) Even still, with the early roads closed to the other kind of traffic there were stretches of multiple lane roadway where passing wouldn't be such a risk. Bit by bit, the amount of street light illumination lessened and ever so slightly the number of buildings decreased. Early on I made the decision to drop off of Bruce and Dan's pace, and I had lost track of pretty much everyone else I had started with. I knew Bruce and Dan were just ahead and figured everyone else that I knew was also (save for Kevin, and the other riders I knew that chose later start times), but at the same time I knew I had passed many other riders and was somewhere in the first quarter of our start wave. I had a pretty good sense of where I was in the world based on the short, exploratory ride we did on Saturday, but I would reach the extent of that knowledge once we passed Gambais.

The darkness robbed the landscape of detail and all that was left was the roadway the short distance ahead that my lights and those of my fellow riders could illuminate. The darkness also took away any sense of the contours that the road bed crossed so instead of that input I concentrated on all the riders nearby, and while I couldn't understand one tenth of what was spoken around me, the overheard conversations still had meaning. After passing through the center of the village of Gambais, I would be riding beyond the extent of my meager local knowledge and the villages and towns for some time would become much further apart and much smaller. Just outside of Gambais, where the roadway had risen a bit to stand above the fields to the north I pulled off the road and collected my thoughts as I ate a Clif bar. The rain had temporarily lessened at this point and while I could not see the horizon, I could sense that we were now in a much more open country side. Perhaps the darkness just seemed that much more complete. While before the overheard conversations had been more energetic and upbeat, it seems clear looking back that this is where everyone began to look more inward.

Every Randonneur, to some extent, will address the hazards of riding at night with cycling gear of some sort. A variety of lights were on display, some good, some not so good but all in some way addressed the physical darkness all around. There is another hazard, which may just be a personal one, that lights can't seem to address. During daylight riding, there is an abundance of sources of input. During the night time though, you can't see as far down the road, you can't tell exactly what kind of vehicle is overtaking you, and you can't as easily focus on the landscape to either side of you. When you ride through towns, most of the buildings are shuttered. The danger then is that too much of the focus will now be on what is going on inside your head. This is where the hazard lay. What one really needs is a 'head' lamp to chase away all the dark thoughts inside your head. As Monday became Tuesday, and each rain squall was followed by another, I could easily have succumbed to this hazard and let misery write the soundtrack for images monopolized by rain and darkness. I'm not an outgoing person, especially in new situations and all of what surrounded me sure qualified as new.

After my brief break by the side of the road, I pushed on and regained my earlier momentum, passing again some of the riders I had seen earlier, while small waves of other riders passed me. The break in the rain after Gambais was over and the roadway, never in danger of drying out, was getting new puddles. I envied those riders who were obviously members of a group with that group surrounding them as we passed each other. It would have been wonderful to talk to someone at this point in the ride, if for nothing else than to share some of the sights the darkness allowed. At one point well outside of any of the small villages, the landscape undulated and cresting one high point in these undulations I could see miles ahead as the line of riders snaked across the lower section of fields and then climbed up the next modest hill. Desperate for visual input, I knew now that I was still close to the front of the 90 hour group. Cresting a small rise, I could see the lights of the lead riders glimmering dimly through the rain. They were less than two miles ahead, with a denser concentration of lights at the front, slowly fading to dimmer light behind. As quickly as that sight came, it disappeared as I rolled downhill. The sight of the lead group, which I doubt would have happened in the daylight gave me a little surge until the rain intensified once more and my hamstring, which I had tweaked a few weeks before, told me to back off. That hamstring was a worry I brought with me on the ride but I was able to keep the problem in check and it never really hindered my riding. Just the opposite, it was an effective warning bell to heed when my pace was too fast. Speed on the first night by itself would not get me back to Paris. I suspect though that I would not have even noticed the tender hamstring if it weren't for the constant rain and the overnight chill.

It was only while passing through the villages that I would have enough light to read my wristwatch, but then I didn't bother to check the time. There was too much activity to pay heed at that time and checking the time fell down the list, along with noting the names of the villages I passed through. None were like the small towns we rode through on the qualifiying brevets in Northern California, and I had not memorized the names or the order of the towns and villages the route would pass through. Most of these villages were compact, and with building styles that held a theme. For example, the stone fences from house to house would indicate a coordination when they were built. Sections of cobbles would present themselves near what I took to be the center of each village. Riding through one town that I believe was Nogent-le-roi was particularly memorable. Instead of the direct, straight through path, we wound through town, circling back and climbing in elevation along the way. Part way along there were PBP volunteers directing riders through the maze of streets. The lighting too was memorable, casting wonderful shadows as the riders passed by.

Joel Metz in Nogent-le-roi Photo courtesy of Gregg Bleakney, http://gbleakney.com

In one small village I pulled off to use the phone booth to call home. I could not find my calling card and decided I was taking too much time looking for it. Ten kilometers later, in the next village I decided that the rain was calling for more riding gear so I stopped near by someone changing a flat on their recumbent. In each village, regardless of the time, there was always some local or locals standing outside watching the procession. In this village, that role was left to one small and very aged man. He waited for a gap in the bicycle traffic (and in the wee small hours of the night this still took some time) and crossed over to talk to me. We communicated only to a small degree as he watched me unpack and repack my gear and eat. My hearing loss as I age, and his loss of teeth through the years would have made my understanding him difficult even if I were able to speak any French (which I can not, alas). After telling me what he wanted to tell me, he went over to the recumbent rider finishing up the repair of his flat tire. Even still, the exchange made me glad to be part of an event that was such a big deal in the French countryside.

End of Part 2