Thursday, October 1, 2015

The third time around




I had been planning this trip to participate in Paris, Brest, Paris (PBP) since August of 2011, and back then, still buzzing from the experience of completing the full PBP route for the first time I had no idea of what would change for me before PBP 2015 would arrive and what I'd have to go through to get there. On the departure day for the trip, I found I was way behind in preparing despite ample time to get ready, and a mountain of good intentions to be ready. That left me feeling very stressed and uncomfortable.

Elaine Astrue had promised to do all the route finding for a pre-PBP shake down ride out to Rambouillet (a destination I hadn't visited on past trips, despite trying) once I arrived in France, and Jim Bradbury joined us for the day. That ride was fantastic. All the built up stress washed away and the route took me on entirely new-to-me roads and had the advantage of getting us out into rural landscape so much more quickly than does the official PBP route.

Despite that wonderful ride, plus another short ride over to Versailles (checking off another new experience) during the days leading up to PBP I felt off, so much so that I skipped joining the big group that rode out to Gambais along the official route on the Friday before the start. I had noticed some small bumps on my arms which at first I thought was poison oak or the French version of that and over the next few days those spread to my ankles and shins. I found out much later that there is no such French equivalent to poison oak, and at the time I did not directly connect this to my feeling "off". Mid-afternoon on Friday I finally roused myself from the torpor I was in and got out on the bike for my own short, Garmin directed recon of the first part of the course.

I was treated not to the sunshine of earlier in the week but instead to a passing storm cell, but it was timed such that I could wait it out in a small bus shelter out near Jouars. I was not alone in taking a late ride that day and ended up sharing the bus shelter with another rider, Robert, who was also from the Bay Area. I didn't mind the rain so much because I could see it would pass in minutes and I also had noticed that I wasn't enjoying direct sunshine so much anyway. Another data point that I'd fail to connect.

As in 2011, the bike check on Sunday was dramatically calmer than that the day before held for the 80 and 90 hour riders. The 84 hour riders are a much smaller group, and all the details of processing the riders had been worked out by then. I would spend the day resting, watching the day time starts for the 80 and 90 hour groups, eating a leisurely meal and then packing and getting a full night's sleep before my own 05:00 start on Monday. All the excitement of that Sunday was something I could watch and record but I was not compelled to participate, which was just fine with me.

Early Monday, a fair sized group of SFR riders gathered for the first wave of 84 hour start. Todd Teachout, Metin Uz, Gabrielle Friedly, Barry Schwartz, Rafael Gernez, Grant Haidinyak, Kris Jones, Elaine Astrue and possibly others were all in the same group, all close together, not quite at the front. In the dark we rolled out of the Velodrome driveway, on a tangent off of the traffic circle and through a sleeping St. Quentin and were cheered not by the hundreds and perhaps thousands of spectators of yesterday but by a few scattered dozens of spectators. I know this lack of fanfare will pay many dividends later, but while I see this as an advantage others see it as missing out on the very nature of what PBP has grown to become .

Despite best intentions of riding as a group, our knot of SFR riders got spread out among the other 300 riders in our start wave and we lost contact, then found only a few miles down the road that we were within yards of each other all along. I felt ok, but not great. I could certainly roll along and keep up with others but there was  no spark to my riding. My legs weren't dead or leaden, just lacking an ease of motion that should have been present on a peak event.This didn't alarm me because I knew that on a ride of this length, there will be many low points all followed by high points, both emotional and physical. There is always a high point ahead. I could have used more to eat early on that morning  but I made it to Mortagne-au-Perche where riders wouldn't need to get a stamp in their brevet card but where I knew there was food. A bowl of Purée, a plate of Potage and a Jambon and I'm topped off. Barry and Kris were outside ready to roll and I hurried to join them and we three rode together for many more miles.

I'm not really keen on the segment between Mortagne and Villaines la Juhel (seemingly busier, less rural roads) and I found I needed to work just a little harder to keep the pace but it wasn't above a level I couldn't manage. One thing on my mind was the anticipation of the food. On a particularly hard ride my body may burn up to 10,000 calories a day. Food, and tons of it, will be very important for the next several days on PBP. In 2011 I had arrived in Villaines with the memory of 2007 and expected not to find anything to my liking. In 2007 I had left there not having eaten enough by half and it made the rest of the ride harder. Well no, it made it impossible.
In 2011, to my utter delight,  I found the food to be fabulous and (discreetly) ate piles of it. The difference between 2007 and 2011 was me of course, by 2011 having set aside my narrow food tastes in favor the need for fuel. In 2015 I was so looking forward to eating well again there and that is exactly how it turned out.

Up til then I had only handed out one or two of the SFR pins but from this point forward I kept a supply handy in a pocket and took the opportunities to pass them out when they came. In Villaines the dining hall set up is that local school children are tasked with carrying the tray for the rider and finding them a place to sit and using the opportunity to practice speaking English. I look forward to the controls as a place to interact and observe riders from around the world and Villaines has become my favorite control town for this reason of course but also because of the interest the town shows toward the riders.

Between Villaines and the next control in Fougeres I knew the terrain would get hillier but it also got much more scenic. Cost and reward. Before leaving town I had to stop though to put on a cover for the leather saddle as it had started to lightly rain. I never did don full rain gear, only the saddle cover. Leaving Villaines after a few kilometers there is a pretty long climb and I was happy to trade a small amount of being damp for the freedom of not wearing rain gear. Before Fourgeres I got caught in about 45 minutes of very mild rain, never falling hard enough to convince me to stop to put on a jacket or rain shoes.

I could tell that the rain would stop soon if I could just get out from under the edge of that little rain cell. The rain gods just toyed with me for some reason. I recalled as I tried to ride out from under that cloud that for three editions running, I had experienced rain on that same segment, but this time was the easiest to deal with. 2007: hours of dreary, wet skies before and after with the rain never heavy, never light. 2011: Biblical level downpours with enormous rain drops vaporizing upon impact with the pavement and black clouds and lightening showing you exactly which way the route would turn. 2015: light rain and the clear edge of the rain cell just 200 meters ahead. An ever moving 200 meters. It took 45 minutes to ride those 200 meters, as if Lucy Van Pelt controlled the clouds.

In many controls, the actual recording in the cards (handwritten times and a control specific stamp) is done in one place which might have a small cafe adjacent, but the main cafateria and dining for larger crowds of riders would be elsewhere. The Fougeres control might be where there is the most physical separation between those key locations. Most riders would get stamped first and then ride back to the cafeteria, but not all. I did not keep that in mind and on the slight down hill roll back to the cafeteria I began my left turn into the bike parking area just as another rider was speeding up to pass on the left. A small nick on my elbow and scuff on my shift lever was all that resulted from my fall, with the other rider staying upright. In the middle of his apology he stopped to say 'hey, nice bike by the way'. The collision was certainly half my fault and I feel I got off easy with the nick and minor scuff. Once upright and sorted out, I went in to the cafeteria and through the food line, ate and then decided to go through once more. Doing that allowed me to eat with Elaine, Michael Sokolsky, Barry, Kris, Gabby, Eric Norris and others who all arrived in Fourgeres a bit later than me.

Eric and I left together after what was for me an 2+ hour stop and we picked up Elaine at the edge of town and we three kept more or less together till well past dark. Fougeres is a long way from the half way point and yet very quickly we 84 hour starters (frame plate groups X, Y and Z) began to pass a number of riders from the S and T groups which had started 9+ hours before us. There were quite a number of them and they all were wearing what must have been every garment they had with them. They did not acknowledge us as we passed. The 'Thousand yard stare' would have been an improvement over the expressions they carried on their faces. And yet they rode on, and we would see many more of them later as we put Brest in our rear view mirror the next day. By Tinténiac, the weather had cleared more completely and I stopped just short of the control to perform a costume adjustment and to don reflective gear, letting Eric and Elaine go on while I got picked up by Kris passing by moments later in the last kilometers before the control. Another meal, of slightly larger than modest proportion, and we kitted up for night riding and set off in twilight with a very slight crescent moon setting.

We all skipped stopping at the non-control food stop in Quédillac and in the darkness a larger, international group formed. Conversation died off as both the group grew larger and the darkness became more complete. Riding at night always feels faster than you actually travel and I kept invoking the back light on my Garmin just to be sure. We did have a fairly nice pace going though, thanks in large part to two members of the group that filtered up to the front and were content to stay there and pull the pack at a pretry good clip. I credited Elaine for finding just the right peleton for this leg of the route. Robert Sexton had joined us earlier and after Eric had stopped to shift fluids Robert dropped off too and I tailed off the back where I felt a little safer and less of a hazard to others, but keeping Elaine in sight the whole while. Things would get a little chaotic when our pack would catch another and we would need to sort things out as we passed. This always required a short sprint each time when I would suddenly realize a gap had formed. In 2011 this segment was the scene of very intense and troubling thunderstorms for the group I was in (Jack Holmgren, David Walker, Ed Yu and myself) but this time the sky was littered with stars. Four years before this segment hammered me, but this time I rolled along much more at ease. Around about La Chèze Kris and Barry caught our group. First Barry and then Kris would roll off ahead and then fall back and rejoin us. We were much nearer to Loudeac now and I was content to maintain a steady pace for the rest of the leg. Part of that contentedness mentioned was because I knew I was well ahead of 2011's pace. Once in the control at Loudeac we split up with Barry and I getting drop bags and heading off to rooms at the Hotel Voyagers, spotting Andrew de Andrade and Anton Brammer before leaving. Those two were on their way out of the control around 01:30. This arrival time for me was several hours earlier than four years before and I intended to spend all that time gained by sleeping longer this time.

After nearly six hours off the bike I returned to the control just after dawn to see if I could find any familiar faces and Eric and Elaine were there and we left town as a group. I continued to use my arrival and departure times from 2011 as a yardstick of my progress and while I was leaving Loudeac a little later than in 2011, I felt confident that I'd make back all the extra time that I had spent sleeping. Perhaps the hardest leg on PBP is the segment between Loudeac to Carhaix in either direction, because the hills are more frequent and while never long using Bay Area standards, they are steep. Our group handled them well. In Saint-Nicolas-du-Pélem we needed to stop as this was anot outbound  secret control and I took the opportunity to have another Jambon. Finishing up business before departing I ran into Theo Rolfe who was on his return to Paris. Theo gave me an update on several other SIR riders that I knew and after wishing each other well we each went our own way.

For what seemed to me to be the only time on the entire ride it began to warm up a bit as the fog of the morning began to clear. Carhaix, the next control, was another chance to eat which we took and our group left town and passed the point where the outbound and inbound routes separated. Though hillier, this portion of the route was a big (and welcome) change from the agricultural landscape we had traveled through before. From Carhaix we went northwest toward and through Huelgoat which passes park land along the way. Elaine challenged me to pronounce the name Huelgoat, but I knew better than to even try. Chris Selby Smith from the UK, who had joined us earlier came through though and nailed the pronunciation. The route would later rejoin the inbound leg as the outbound leg began the modest climb up to Le Roc Trevezal in the Monts d'Arrée. Earlier in the day I had finally noticed the return of the spark in my riding and I decided to let it fly on the climb and then descent into Sizun. On the climb and descent is where the 84 hour riders can catch a glimpse and yell hello to friends doing the 90 hour start. I saw quite a number along here including Lois Springsteen, Peg Miller, Kitty, Gabe and Ian riding together, and several others whose jersey I could spot but I wouldn't make the connection until comparing notes long after the finish.

That spark I now felt in my legs would stay with me the entire way back to Paris, and I flew on the way into Brest. It all seemed downhill but it was a little maddening being able to see the destination from the hills outside of town and then have it take an eternity to finally reach the control as the route seemed to meander through the outlaying villages. Crossing the foot bridge with the landmark Pont de l'Iroise to our right was a kick but there was still more miles to ride before I could stop. In 2011 I was pretty disappointed with the control set up in Brest, and even though this was a new location (I think actually a return to a location used in the past) it was a lackluster dining experience. The food was the most expensive at this control, and by far the least appealing (though keep in mind I did say I was a fussy eater). I found Kris and Barry there, just ahead of me in the food line and Eric, Elaine and Chris S.S. came in just a bit later. The latter three and I left the control as a group and climbed back out of town together. After a few miles though it was clear we weren't climbing at the same rate so I let my legs find their comfort zone and I pushed ahead. I had a motive for doing so. In 2011, riding with Ed Yu, I had stopped in the town of Sizun and had a beer at the Cafe. I had arrived in town with that one thought which baffled me then but it turned out to be the perfect thing. This time, I was unsure I could convince any of my fellow riders to stop for beer so going ahead allowed me to zip in, down a glass and hopefully exit in time to catch them for the climb up Le Roc. Chris and Elaine managed to get by as I stopped but Eric was outside when I came out of the cafe. He wasn't quite ready to drop into the rolling pace so I went ahead to catch the others. By the time I reached Elaine though I had a good head of steam going and I just kept at it. The climb was just as easy this year as in 2011, but this time I knew where the summit was whereas in 2011 the ease of the climb was a surprise.

On the descent I passed a group of riders and noticed one I had supported when I worked the last DBC Gold Rush Randonee two years back. I had set as a goal the objective of seeing more, interacting more, doing more on this PBP so I slowed down to let the group catch up and I chatted briefly with the rider from St. Petersburg. It was only much later that I realized that a couple of riders in her group were from Ukraine (make of the mixing of Russians and Ukrainians in today's Eastern European international climate what you will) but down the road when I next saw the iconic Ukrainian trident on a jersey I slowed down again to chat. (My wife is Ukrainian-American, and had only days before returned from a trip to Ukraine). Yaroslav informed me that owing to my wife's heritage she must be the perfect wife. We exchanged information about the groups we were with and I then rolled on.

Going into Carhaix I finally caught Chris S.S.. We rolled into the control together and then exchanged intel on the other riders we had spotted that we both knew. Chris decided he really wasn't hungry and took off and Kris, Barry and I later rolled out together to ride across a landscape painted in the light of the golden hour. Four years before it was full on dark when I left this control so I had regained time those extra hours I spent sleeping the night before. The stretch ahead was the reverse portion of what many consider the hardest section, which would be made harder by it being dark. I was still feeling really good and after a time our group spread out and lost contact with each other, first as we caught other packs of riders, then as our respective paces became out of synch. As the rollers hit and then got bigger I left behind a number of packs and for a while I'd be concerned that the groups behind were using my tail light to inform them of the route while I myself was only 80% sure I was going the correct way, so I had to pay much more strict attention to the route markers. After a while I bridged the gap between the large clumps of riders and could then follow their lights. There became so many riders that it was slow going trying to pass. In the dark tired riders began to let their guards down, too much in my estimation. Very often, I'd see a rider far to the left, well over the center of the road and invariably they'd turn out to be from the UK, Japan, Australia or some other country that drives on that side of the road. Perhaps in their weariness they sought comfort in that placement on the roadway, forgetting they were no longer home. Other riders, too tired to think properly, would just stop in the middle of the road and become the boulder in the middle of a stream as the current of moving riders flowed around them.

I arrived in Loudeac at 00:40, nearly four hours ahead of my 2011 pace and headed straight to the hotel. I was surprised to find Kevin in our shared room. With Kevin in the 90 hour group, and me in the 84, we assumed we'd never meet. Coming into town I had noticed that there was a welt on the back of my neck and one on my right cheek. I thought Kevin said it looked like a sty which confused me as I thought those were related to eyes. Either way, it was getting painful. Once he left and I set about cleaning up I found that I had red welts all over my arms and legs and across my lower back, basically anywhere there were gripper bands on my cycling clothes or a particular point of close contact with clothing. I wasn't happy about this, but the thing was I still felt strong and was riding well so I crashed for the night.

The next morning I dropped off my bag and rolled out of town feeling pretty good. I mis-played a couple things with my Garmin and had to restart it once more (restart in Brest because I thought I had very little power left but in fact had 82% charge, and a reset in Loudeac when I hit the stop button in error and could not remember how to back out of that). I passed Kris and Barry along the way and heard they had gone off course the night before adding 9 miles to their total. Our paces were not a great fit so I rode on. Early in the day I came across Yaroslav, the Ukrainian rider from the day before. He was looking very forlorn and was convinced he would not make the finish. We spoke for a while and I offered him a caffeine pill which at first he declined and then realized it was silly to pass on that. Within about 15 minutes I could tell he was a different rider. In a short while were were hopping on to pace lines and he had much more spark in his riding. We stopped at the food stop in Quédillac and while topping of the tanks we were interviewed by Damon Peacock, again this year making a video of PBP. He recalled my name as a Facebook friend and we spent some time chatting. A short while after leaving the control we were passed by him on motorcycle filming along the way.

Yaroslav and I parted company after the Tinteneac control and from there on I would ride solo though I'd see other SFR riders along the way. I had hoped to have a meal with someone at Fougeres but no luck, and took a quick nap on the berm between the bike parking and driveway outside the cafeteria. This need for a nap happened much earlier than in 2011, but I felt it would do me good. I recall from 2011 having a huge burst of energy leaving Fougeres and charging up the hills as the route leaves town. It took a bit longer but that same fire came back this time too. I looked forward to the unofficial crepe/postcard control up ahead, and even though I wasn't hungry it was a chance to mingle and interact. A crowd of riders were there and I convinced Andy Stockman and Elaine to stop and enjoy it. I found the SFR postcard I had sent years before among the other US postcards. That was sort of a kick spotting that.

The route from Fougeres makes its way back to Villianes via the same big hills encountered out bound and this terrain had a tendency to first bunch up the riders and then spread them out on the ensuing descent. I had passed and called out a hello to Greg Merritt along the way who looked to be having a fine ride. The closer I got to the control though, the more my thoughts turned to food and once there I found Ryan Thompson and Bill Green in the dining hall and sat with them for the meal. Upon leaving, I decided I needed some sleep even though it was full daylight out. I had a big time buffer over my schedule so spending an hour sleeping was an easy sell. In 2011, I left that control in the dark along with hundreds of other riders. This time I was nearly alone in the late daylight. After a modest climb there are a couple of small villages that we passed through, each with hand made signs of support for the riders, some offering a cot or refreshments. There were also groups of locals clapping as riders passed by. Like all the other spectators I had seen before, I waved and greeted them which always caused an increase in their animation. It was like magic and it gave me energy right back. I rode up the somewhat steeper hill leaving the second of those small towns and partway up the climb realized that there were a couple of things I could address back in the village that I might not get a chance to do for a long while. So I turned back down hill and upon arriving I totally confused the group I had just waved to minutes before. I tried to convey to them my needs, totally botching the pronunciation of Toilette, but I really knew where to find it from passing through moments ago and I went there as I heard them tell me Paris was in the other direction. Once all that was taken care of I rode past once more and this time simply said "doublivee say" and this time there was mutual understanding.

I didn't like the stretch ahead when outbound because of the traffic, and even with out the traffic I didn't much care for it in the darkness so I focused on finding a good pace and interacting with other riders when I could. The latter proved unattainable as conversation diminished the later and more dark it became. I knew it would get hillier the closer I got to Mortagne-au-Perche but this time there were many more locals on the side of the road, which I attributed to it being earlier in the evening than when I passed there four years before.

Along this stretch I figured I passed 30-40 riders for each rider that passed me. It was only upon reaching the control and stopping that I realized the cool night air was what kept my skin from driving me nuts. I spent quite a while at that control eating a pile of food, chatting with Tim Woundenberg, Ron Smith, and Jenny Oh and trying not to scratch my arms and legs. This control was packed and there was a line for cots and simply no space on the floor in the cafeteria or hallways to lay down. I did two circuits of the entire indoors before I finally found a spot at all and it really turned out that it was perfect: no light and enough space for me to lay down and still be well out of the way of foot traffic. I got a fairly long nap and that plus all the food was plenty to get me to the next control. I recall being pretty hammered upon arriving in Dreux in 2011, as well as having an extremely tender behind. This time though I was far more alert and energetic relatively speaking and I had no saddle issues, just this maddening rash and welts to deal with. That was beginning to get the better of me, and is what prompted me to ride on with out eating (I wasn't hungry at all but wasn't turned off by food). I had bought two big cans of Orangina, but only drank one and gave the other back. I returned to my bike and left Dreux before daybreak and got outside of town before it became light enough and just outside of town I was up high enough to spot a weather cell chasing us. I could tell it was rain and wanted so badly to outrun it but that didn't happen. The drops were minimal at first and took a long time to build but build they did.

Just before Gambais I came up on a group of SFR riders, including Jenny, Eric Larsen, Metin, Theresa and perhaps someone else. My skin and the rashes were ruining my mood and if I stayed with them the only thing I'd talk about would be the rash and who the hell would want to listen to that so I sped around and decided to try to reach the medical tent at the finish as soon as I could, thinking that might provide relief. I met Jon Beckham along the way and we briefly chatted before I rolled on again. The closer to the finish I got, the more it began to rain and the more we'd go through villages with cobbles and traffic islands and other hazards so I slowed down a bit to better and more safely traverse those sections. At one traffic circle I had caught up with a group and knowing full well they were going off course I still followed them as if I were linked to them, but with just a little uncertainty that I might be wrong. Nope, they were, and my impulse was right. They all turned around when they saw me do so but I never saw them again after I regained the route. Out once more in open fields on straight roads I noticed the motorists passing the other way would wave and salute the riders they knew were so close to the finish of a very long ride.

The final section into the finish is considerably different than in years past, and considerably better. The route heads through a park of sorts and uses a closed road to reach the velodrome from the backside. At the very end, down a gravel path on the way to the bike corral was the chip reader that would record my finish but just as I turned on to that path I saw Julia Walker. It was good to see a familiar face and know that someone I knew would see me finish. Beyond the chip reader the bike parking area was chaos. It was raining hard and everyone was trying to find a place under the roof to park their bike. I could only find a spot on the sloped ramp for the BMX bikes and didn't know first what to do. I solved that dilemma by sitting down to have a good cry. Getting that out of my system, I went over to the velodrome, got my stamp, surrendered my card and looked around for someone I knew. Gabby and Carl and several others were on hand but soon I was on my own again and after figuring out how to get out of there I found the medical tent. Earlier, I had been told by others that what I had were bed bug bites and that I'd need to boil my clothes if I wanted to save them and toss out my luggage. I had dark visions of all the work I'd be doing before leaving for home and the hassle I'd have in getting a new room and the worry I'd have thinking I was just exposing myself to more bed bugs. The rash turned out to just be an allergic reaction, possibly triggered by stress (remember the departure from the Bay Area?) and heat and humidity which I'm unused to in the Bay Area.
Days later, the welts are healing and I only had a few marks to show for that small misery, but all the good memories of my riding companions over the days and even more so all the people I interacted with along the way will last a lot longer. Seeing the kids out there supporting the riders was a huge boost. I loved that. I also got a big charge out of waving hello to *all* the spectators along the way.
I posted on Facebook that I think I'm cured, cured of wanting to do PBP again. Nobody bought that then, and less than a week later I was pretty sure I'll be back for at least one more go at it. Today, I'm certain of it.




This banner absolutely worked! (photo by Jenny Oh Hatfield)







2 comments:

dhk said...

thank you for the write-up. the more I read these things, the more I think I want to do it.

but: disappointed you didn't provide more color on the beer.

Lisa said...

Aw. Bed bugs. I'm glad you got to enjoy the race, at least it helped you forget about the bites.

And reading your report, it looked like you really enjoyed it. So it's no surprise that nobody believed you when you said you aren't gonna do it again! :)