Monday, September 19, 2011

Back to the start

There is wonder and excitement upon experiencing something for the first time. Memories are laid down, and in later years called back up again in the telling of a tale. Even so, approaching something with the benefit of experience, and a measure of focused preparation can often times make the return seem like a new experience itself. I learned this so well this past August when the four year wait concluded and the 17th edition of Paris, Brest et retour was about to begin.

Starting in August of 2007 while still in France, and continuing and building over the next four years I prepared myself in the best way I knew how, and in what ever ways I could for PBP 2011. I left France four years ago struggling a bit to be positive about the experience of PBP 2007, and four years seemed too much like an eternity. In so many ways I had a fantastic experience back then, no doubt about that, but those experiences were also at war with the emotions of having fallen short. True also was the realization that I had made mistakes in my approach to the challenge. Some of those realizations would take a long time to develop however, because I didn't recognize them at the time as mistakes, not for some time anyway.

It is obvious of course that if one wants to successfully complete a long ride, then riding frequently and riding continuously would be part of the preparation. This blog has many write ups of long rides so I won't recount those here. If a short list of the other aspects of preparation for completing PBP is needed, here goes: Learn French, solve nutritional issues, mitigate sleeping issues, learn to be self dependent on the bike. Learning French is obvious, right? The more I could understand signage, directions, conversations, the better off I'd be. I have trouble learning a language because of my difficulty in hearing the language. The more I could hear it though, and learn the cadence, the better I'd understand just what was going on. To address this, I took once-a-week classes at the local Alliance Francaise. This would actually help address an aspect of the last point on the list above, but more about that in later installments. Solving nutritional issues and mitigating sleep issues were both chemically assisted in part, but not entirely. One huge mistake I made in 2007 was in the eating department. Despite the offerings at all the controls, I tried to only eat from the stash I brought with me, thinking that I couldn't tolerate or just didn't like what was offered at the control restaurants. To put a finer point on the nutritional mistake, I approached PBP with no plan there at all. To fix this however, it is a difficult task at best to change one's eating tastes, so the easier way to go is to identify the overlap between what you do like and what is offered, and go for that in a big way.

Sleep is a huge aspect to address when preparing for any brevet 600km or longer. At this point, I pretty much have all the data I need to know that I do better when I start a long brevet shortly after a night's sleep. I went back and forth on the decision to start the 90 hour group or the 84 hour group. My hesitation was largely that I didn't think I was fast enough to finish in 84 hours. The morning start was very attractive, but did I have the speed for this? My decision was finally made to take the 84 hour start *only* because of the morning start. I would have felt better about this choice if I had been riding better all year prior to PBP, but that didn't come to be. July, the final full month for preparation, turned out to be mostly ok, but mixed in that I had plenty of miles, and I had some really good rides where I felt my form really taking shape. I also had at least one clunker of a ride on the double brevet weekend and actually had to DNF on the first day by stopping after 200km at the overnight location instead of doing the full 300km for that day. In the end I put my money on being well rested before the start, remembering the 90 hour evening start in 2007 where napping mid day proved impossible and only frustrated me more than relaxed me.

The final piece of this four part puzzle? Learning to be self dependent. What does this mean? Ah, for me, it meant being more content on my own and never letting the inability to keep up to someone else be discouraging. I've always been able to handle any mechanical issue that might crop up. Flat tires were absolutely no problem, I've fixed those hundreds of times over the many years I've ridden. Through the years I've weeded out certain types of parts and certain practices in maintaining my bike and what remains is well beyond reliable. I know my bikes well and that certainly helps in getting to the finish of a ride. So it is not the physical here, rather it is the mental part of being self dependent. Some riders do well when left to ride a long brevet on their own through the night or into the next day. There are some that even seek that out. I was never one of those riders and always just preferred to be with others. When I tried to ride several different 1200km rides, and found myself dropped and on my own early, it affected me and while I won't say it was a factor in not finishing those rides, it didn't do me any good. Since 2007 though this slowly changed. The old saying is that nothing breeds success like success, and becoming the faster rider in the groups I rode in before bred that success. Now I can simply back off, pace other riders and in the end the rides become better for me when I finish not feeling all trashed.

Of all these aspects to getting ready, it is this last one that played the biggest role, engulfing and overshadowing all the others, and the realization of this was profound.

Friday, September 16, 2011

It didn't look exactly like this from back there

My point of reference is August, 2007. Going into Paris, Brest, Paris in 2007, I had heard many stories about the experience, but I knew nothing first hand. The experience of PBP 2007 for me was many things, but arching over all those things, what it amounted to was something incomplete. Looking back to 2007, while I learned a great many things from the experience both at the time as well as over time, I could only see PBP 2007 and any Grand Randonnée I attempted in one way: only a start.

A piece of advice I had been given in 2005 was that one way to prepare for PBP might be to complete a domestic 1000 or 1200km brevet. I acted on that advice and set out to ride the Gold Rush Randonnée that year. Result: I abandoned the ride in Oroville, CA, just barely 100 miles into the 750 mile route. I had a splitting headache and a broken rack held together by a substandard bolt and a few days later I was laid out flat with one of the worst bugs I've ever had. 2006 was a missed opportunity as I couldn't manage doing even a 600km owing to a bout of ITBS. 2007, in the end only provided the impetus for this blog, and still no finish in a grand randonnée. 2008 was an off year in all regards. In 2009, my best 600km ever was still far from perfect, but I gave the Gold Rush one more try. In three tries at the 1200km distance I had zero finishes. Like any moderately sane person, I did question whether cycling events of this nature were really what I wanted to do. I didn't have the answer to that and the related question of 'did I have it in me to complete the challenge'.

Time is said to heal all wounds, and time also provides new opportunities. 2010 proved to be a turning point for me as a randonneur. A very slow start to the year only allowed me to gain a lot of momentum, and on my club's Fort Bragg 600km, I had what would begin as a series of the best rides of my randonneuring life. The fulfilling thing about a series is that there is a next installment, and while the 600km that year was a breakthrough for me, it turned out to be a stepping stone for the next breakthrough. The Santa Cruz Randonneurs' Central Coast 1000km was that next breakthrough.

Finally finishing a brevet longer than 600km that itself built on a very successuful 600km earlier in the year gave me what I needed to be confident that I could complete the rides, and confident that this is what I was really interested in after all. Still, the plane flight to Paris in August of this year is not the only thing that got me to PBP 2011.

In early January of this year, I was still riding high on the success and conditioning of the 2010 riding season. The season opening brevet for me was the Santa Rosa Cyclists' Napa 200km and I rode it well, and rode it easy, sticking with a friend for much of the route. I can recall though the exact moment of finishing the brevet, and this funny tickle in my throat that caused a cough I could barely control through the post-ride meal on the Bear Republic Brewery patio with all the other riders. That next day was the start of bad cold, one where I gave up counting how long it lasted once I reached 24 days. I barely made it through the next 200km in February, and had no stamina on the Healdsburg 300km at the end of the month. A much smaller rebound cold in early March didn't stop me from joining about 30 other riders doing the Santa Rosa 300km in an all day rain. Though my bike took some wear and tear in the rough conditions, the ride proved to be a building block in that I finished in good spirits and more importantly in good health.

The next test in the qualification process was the 400km and I was lucky to do that ride on the Worker's Ride which resembled more a team event than a brevet. Carlos, Johh, Gabe, Bryan and I rode the whole event as a group and feeding on that camaraderie, I began to ride back into some of the form I lost in January. Yet one more head cold forced me to miss the Santa Rosa 400km, which I wanted to do in order to achieve a double Super Randonneur series for the year. I was well enough a week later to ride the SFR Fleche event, that wasn't a requirement for PBP qualification, it was a ride I didn't want to miss though. In early May the SFR Fort Bragg 600km came rolling around, which would be the final qualifier though not the final big ride I had planned for training. Alas, a broken saddle 160 miles into the ride caused me to DNF and re-mix all my planned rides.

What sometimes first appears as an impediment can often transform into an opportunity. Such was the case with this abbreviated ride on the SFR 600km. Instead of the SFR 600 and the Davis 600 to cap a double SR series, I signed up for the Santa Rosa 600km. This caused me to have to miss the Davis Double Century for the first time in 12 years, but the way things played out I was beyond pleased with this ride. It wasn't my fastest time and was darn close to my slowest, but in many ways it was without a doubt the funnest 600km I've ridden. I rode with Jason, Michael and Bryan for more than half the ride, spending most of the time just cracking up at the interactions of those three. For the remainder of the return leg, I spent some time with a couple riders finishing up the last hours before dawn and then I pushed through a long solo stretch. One might assume that all the flat tires I suffered on the ride would be viewed as a plague, but the final result was that it delayed me long enough for Peg and Sarah to roll by and with that we rode to finish the route, and again it was the best thing.

June was a funny month in the Bay Area, with rare late spring rainstorms scuttling the Davis Overnight. That month I had barely 60% of my mileage in May and as it turned out the same 60% of the mileage I'd have in July. Needing to keep riding and knowing the best way to do that was in the company of other riders SFR ended up packing the July schedule with several 200 and 300km brevets. During a four week period extending into August, SFR had six brevets: A double brevet weekend, the Davis Overnight rescheduled for July, the Old Cazadero 300km and a new 200km, the Morgan Territory 200k. I managed to ride three of those and worked the rest of them. During this time I was having some really great, though much shorter rides that were shoe-horned into the open gaps of my personal schedule.

Closing out my riding before the trip to France, I rode a permanent with Bryan C. going from Berkeley to Davis, and one last run on a favorite, very local route in the East Bay Hills. As so often is the case, reality turned out to be far short of dreams but while I didn't do all the rides I had hoped to do, and I wasn't as fit as I wanted to be I did see a lot of improvement and progress past the setbacks from early in the year. On top of that, there was a great deal of improvement and progress over the last four years. Saying 'I'm as ready as I'll ever be' might focus too much on what I didn't get done in preparing. It served me much better I think to focus on what I did get done. An eagerness and a calm replaced the nervousness I felt four years before. I was really ready. Or so I thought.

Part 3

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The journey is more than the road upon which I traveled

Shortly after addressing the more urgent unpacking details upon returning from PBP 2011, having found an unanticipated moment of quiet I settled in front of the computer and sifted through the early messages from my fellow travelers, and also quite a number of congratulatory postings from friends who had followed the event electronically. I was not the first to upload my photos from the ride and post them so many of these messages had links to albums or even specific single photos. One such post on a social network contained a photo taken by a then unknown to me photographer, of me on the bike at mid day, with much more than a hint of a smile on my face. It took me several viewings before I could place the image within my memories of any of the 1230 kilometers of the course. With some context now supplied, I set to work trying to recall the circumstances surrounding me at the time, such as what I was thinking when the photo was taken. That really wasn't a hard task at all. Though many kilometers remained before the finish, I knew I was thinking, not at all for the first time, that I would finish. All I needed to do was imagine crossing the finish line, and if I could stop there, a huge smile would form on my face. More often though, I'd just burst out in laughter. Two weeks later, just thinking about that concluding moment, that beep from the recording mat, and that smile is there in an instant.

This photo of me as I near the Tinténiac control on the return route turns out to mean a great deal to me. The meaning is two-fold as well. It is clear (to me at any rate) that the photo captures me absolutely enjoying the moment, and enjoying it as completely as I can. With hindsight from two weeks later, though, I know now what that rider in the photo could not: the best was still to come. Imagine then, enjoying something so thoroughly, and then the experience just gets better.

If you have read the notes that describe this blog, you then know that this was not my first attempt at PBP. In 2007, I fell a long way short of finishing. For the following four years, nearly everything I did cycling related was to prepare for a return to France and to take another shot at Paris, Brest et retour. While falling short of obsessive, my preparation was many faceted, and only grew in determination as the four years passed. I felt I was addressing all the shortcomings of the attempt in 2007. I felt by 2011 I was a better randonneur than in 2007. I believed I knew what I wanted to achieve and I felt I had learned how to achieve that. The second meaning that the photo gives to me though is that despite all my preparation and the strong convictions that gave me, I simply had no real idea what finishing this time would mean to me. Finding out just what finishing did mean to me turned out to be stunning.

In my posts on this blog, I try to move beyond a recitation of riding stats and grocery lists of what I ate. Given that, some of my posts get lengthy and by some standards verbose. Paris, Brest, Paris is just not a one-post-experience, so I plan to deliver the story in segments over time (mostly as I finish them), and this post is then a preface. PBP is also not the sum of the route itself and for me the ride began long before that pre-dawn start on August 22nd and did not end at mid-day on August 25th.

Part two