Wednesday, August 28, 2019

PBP 2019, As I Saw it



Let me start by saying that I wrote this report mainly for my own reading pleasure in old age, and to capture some detail in case I ride it again (which I plan to). It is long and detailed, perhaps you will find it mundane in places. But some have asked me to make it available. If you’d like to read it, you are welcome and I am honored that you would do so.

Next - Clint Provenza is entirely responsible for this experience. The “Godfather” of our local bike club, Severna Park Peloton, he came up alongside me back in 2011 during a 115 mile club ride to Ocean City MD for a “get to know you” conversation.  He asked me if I rode centuries (I did), and told me that if I rode just 10 miles more than we were riding that day, I could join something called Randonneurs USA (RUSA) and start riding 200Ks with many of that day’s riders.  I could graduate to longer rides, and eventually he’d get me in shape for this thing called Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP), which he had done in 2007. I went for it - the next month was my first brevet, quickly followed by Fleches, R-12s, Super Randonneur series, route ownership, RUSA Cup, and the 1400K London-Edinburgh-London (LEL) 2017. But despite all that I didn’t do PBP 2015 because I was starting a new job and I wanted to do LEL instead. I wasn’t planning on doing it at all after completing LEL (which had been my bucket list ride) but one day Clint said I should have a PBP on my riding resume, and over time I came to believe that he was right.

PREPARATION

I really enjoy planning long rides in detail, maybe more than riding them, so in mid-2018 I dusted off my LEL checklist and notes and started working PBP 2019. Significant developments since LEL:

           A new bike.  My 2000 Trek 5500 was 18 years old, the carbon frame was showing its age, and had been through some trauma, so I was losing confidence in its reliability on a long ride (I’m a reliability geek, I try to minimize the chances of being stranded in the boonies with a broken bike). Also, I had suffered searing lower back pain on LEL and wanted a better fit. Finally, the Trek was a racing bike at heart, and I wanted a bike with randonneuring in its DNA - stable steering, fender and rack attachments, external cable routing, reliable, tough yet comfortable frame, serviceable in the field.  I opted for a titanium-framed Seven Axiom SLX and outfitted it with wider, flatter, more comfortable bars, bar-end shifters (for reliability and less reach than my old bike’s down tube shifters), 28mm tires, rear rack so that I could stop carrying all my junk in my Camelbak Mule, and an Infinity saddle (which doesn’t work for everyone, but is the best I’ve ever ridden). I also moved my electrical system (SON dynohub, B&M IQ-X headlight, and USB WERK charger) over from my Trek.

           I’d go it alone. Initially I planned to buddy up with another rider but those plans fell through.  Besides, I read a ton of 2015 PBP ride reports, with most authors subscribed to the same “Ride Your Ride” philosophy I tend to follow on long rides. They almost all eventually separated from those they started with.  Clint and I did stay buddied up for LEL, but I know he was stronger than me, waited for me, and I held him back. Besides, with over 6000 riders, you aren’t really “Going it alone”. You can engage in all sorts of “promiscuous riding”  - hanging out with whoever suits your pace at any moment. I would later join forces with Bob Counts, but his start time was 2h45m behind mine so our collaboration was purely logistical and I rode PBP entirely at my pace.

           No drop bags. The services I could find sounded like more trouble/expense than they were worth, and previous riders had wasted time finding their bags or found them in the rain.  Besides, on LEL I learned I didn’t need all the junk in my drop bags.  I probably already knew I would skip drop bags when I spec’ed my new bike, because the rear rack gave me the capacity to carry what I needed.  I bought a cool Bontrager rear bag that was not only bigger than my old Camelbak or seat post bag, but also had zip-out panniers that gave me all the volume I’d ever need. I also didn’t realize it until after I got rid of the Camelbak that all that weight I had been carrying on my back translated to more weight being supported by my butt/saddle contact point.  Getting rid of the Camelbak would help with saddle soreness.

Preparations got thrown off track quickly when the start location was changed.  I had booked a room right at the start venue (the Ibis Velodrome hotel in St Quentin) - IT DOESN’T GET ANY BETTER THAN THAT!!!! - but the start location changed to Rambouillet.  With very little lodging nearby and not getting the word of the change fast enough I missed the chance to book anything there, so I kept my hotel at the old start and planned to either take the train, drive my rental car, or ride my bike the 30K to the start. That would change for the better later.

One thing that did go my way was getting the earliest start time in the 90 hour group.    I wanted to start in front of the thousands of riders in the 90 hour “bulge” to avoid crowds at controls, and planned to stay in front as long as I could hold them off. I didn’t savor the evening start that came with 90 hours, but had done it before on Lap of the Lake 1000K. And my hotel offered 4PM late checkout. Also, having needed 89+ hours for my only other 1200K I wanted all the time I could get. Preregistration order was based on you longest ride the previous season, and having done both a 1000K and 1200K in 2018 I was in the first group to preregister.  I set up my PBP registration account before preregistration opened, so I preregistered right when it opened. Only the (very fast) 80 hour riders would be ahead of me, and I’d never see most of them again, so in essence I would be in the lead wave onto the course.

To maximize the chance my bike wouldn’t get lost enroute, I wanted a direct flight from Dulles to Paris.  There were 2 options: United and Air France.  I had lots of miles on United from business travel, but not quite enough for a round trip. United would also charge a bike fee PLUS oversized baggage fee PLUS possibly an overweight fee for my bike, making it as expensive for my bike as for me.  I went with Air France, but took a risk: you need to reserve a spot for your bike on the flight and they took months to approve my request. To get my bike to the start, and to have a place to keep my bike box and other junk during the ride, I rented the smallest/cheapest car that would carry my bike box - a Renault Twingo. I checked out trains between St Quentin and Rambouillet and rules for bikes (permitted) and cost (3€) recognizing that for the ride the trains may be overloaded and I might have to ride my bike to and from Rambouillet.  I considered putting a French SIM card in my Verizon phone for connectivity during the ride, but after Christine tried it on a trip to the UK I opted for Verizon’s $10/ day international plan.  By using cellular data judiciously while in France it would not cost me much more, and it would save me the hassle of buying a SIM in France and having a different phone number.

 I upgraded much of my other equipment. I bought a cool Chums “wallet” that held my phone, my cash, my credits cards, even a pen and control card if it was folded in half.  Waterproof and smaller than a jersey pocket, it was a near perfect solution for carrying and organizing things on a ride.  No more ziplok bags in my pockets. It, plus the around-the-neck control card holder issued at PBP (which held my card plus my passport), really cleaned up my on-bike logistics.  My phone with its somewhat thick Otterbox Commuter case was a tight fit in the Chums, so I bought a cheap phone case at Five Below that was thinner, and sanded its glossy plastic backside so that it did not stick to the clear vinyl window of the Chums.  I bought some small waterproof bags to keep things dry inside my rear bag on my bike, although this might not be a big deal because my Bontrager rear bag also had an integrated rain cover that tested well in rainy conditions. I bought an emergency bivvy bag, essentially a sleeping bag made of space blanket material, about the size of a tennis ball when new and rolled up, for roadside naps if needed.  I purchased new VDO cycle computers as my old VDOs were dying one by one.  The only mistake I made in selecting these was, unlike the old ones, I could not pause them mid-ride to resync the mileage to actual mileage in the event of a wrong turn.  To remedy this, I rode PBP with my last remaining old VDO, along with a new one. In the end, I liked the new one better despite this difference.  I bought some Cygolite Hotrod tail lights, as they are bright and long lasting for their size.  I tested one, and it ran for 85 hours in night/steady mode - long enough to complete PBP without incurring the time penalty for not having a tail light.  I mounted 2 on my bike, and kept a third hidden in my rear bag in the event my mounted lights were lost or stolen. Theft did occur during this PBP, with many riders having their GPS receivers stolen at one control, despite only riders being allowed in bike parking areas, and volunteers watching bikes.

I experimented with more in-the-saddle snacks (an ongoing 7-year search for the right thing) and settled for Trader Joe’s Uncrystallized Candied Ginger for this event.

I wrote my ride plan based on actual day-by-day overall average speeds for expected conditions taken from control cards from my 4 previous 1000K and greater brevets (Day 1: 20kph, Day 2: 17kph, Day 3: 16kph, Day 4: 15kph). Because I wanted to minimize night time riding, my first day was going to be long.  I planned to do the classic two nights in Loudeac strategy, and my early start time would have stopping there 4:45PM outbound.  This yielded an estimate of 79.4 hours, finishing at 12:56 early Thursday morning. 

A lesson from LEL: I made a complete set of GPS routes for everywhere I expected to ride my bike, including getting to and from the start/finish and my Airbnb in Loudeac.

I learned rudimentary French using audiobooks during my daily 90 minutes of driving to/from work every day, and a little from Rosetta Stone (which wasn’t teaching me much that would be useful in the PBP scenario, mostly stuff like “the boy has an Apple”). Finally, I just made a list of what I thought would be useful (e.g., Do you have some water?”, “Where are the restrooms”, French numbers) and used Google translate to get the French equivalents. However, much of the time it was just instinct - 50 year old stuff I still remembered from French lessons in 4th and 5th grade. Thank you Madame Gelfan and Mme Smink!

I must have read 50-100 ride reports. One good compilation was on British Columbia Randonneurs website (http://www.randonneurs.bc.ca/pbp/main.html).  Eric Norris’s series of some 20-odd YouTube videos (campyonlyguy) contained lots of good advice for long rides that you might know already, but also had great PBP-specific tips on riding in the French countryside.

QUALIFICATION AND STAYING READY

The qualification rides (200K/300K/400K/600K), along with my son’s college graduation and three trips to the UK for business kept me busy during the spring, so much so that I had to drop Fleche from my schedule.  My favorite RUSA event, and the first time in 7 years I didn’t ride it. Training went well.  I set personal bests in the longer two qualifier rides, and set another personal best in the 400K that Chip, Earl, Calista, and I did in late July, 23 days before PBP, as a final training ride and a shakedown of my bike in final PBP configuration.  The highlight of that ride was Clint and Sherri Provenza surprising us outside Milton DE (Christine tracks my phone when I ride, and she cued them into my location) with freeze pops on that hot afternoon.  


Along with a personal best 1000K time the previous fall, all indications were that I was ready physically. I might have overtrained a bit before LEL, so I didn’t do much after that final ride, just a 200K the following weekend and short club rides up until the final week. And attend the DC Rand sendoff Party at the Hillas’.



TRAVEL

In early July Bob Counts and I came to the realization that we had both lost our original ride buddies and each had a complete set of reservations, so we decided to join forces and share reservations.  He had the best start/finish accommodations (in the start town of Rambouillet versus mine 18 miles away), and I had the best on-route accommodations (in Ludeac, 300 meters off the route versus miles outside of town on just the route out but off the return route).  And I had a rental car to make the hour trip between the airport and the start/finish.

I packed the Sunday before PBP, and packed the stuff I use every day and rechecked against my checklist on Tuesday. The pack out was: bike box with only my helmet in it (to stay below 50 lbs), my clothes and bike pedals/parts/tools in a carry-on sized suitcase, my rear-rack bike bag packed to the gills, and a backpack with my drink bottles, iPad, charger, phones, and paperwork.  Wednesday I drove to Dulles for my flight. I caught several breaks - no beltway traffic, a parking spot by the parking shuttle bus stop, an empty parking shuttle bus for me to wrestle my stuff into/out of, and Air France didn’t charge me the $150 bicycle fee.  Perhaps because the flight is shared with Delta, which had just eliminated it's bicycle fees.



On the down side, we sat on the plane for 2 hours waiting to take off due to weather in the northeast.  Everything on Air France wad bilingual French/English, to my relief. I must look French - the flight attendants seemed to guess who the Americans were and address them in English, but they always addressed me in French.

Near the end of the flight I saw that we were passing Brest. It was the better part of an hour, in a jet plane, before we landed in Paris.  This was going to be a long bike ride… 

After landing at Charles de Gaulle Airport things got confusing. I followed the crowd following the “baggage” signs and ended up at a train stop.  There were announcements to ensure you had all your baggage, and signs implying baggage claim was there (M gates), but I didn’t see any baggage claim. I skipped the first train just to look around some more, but there was no baggage claim.  The train ran between M, L, and K gates, and the sign also indicated baggage claim was in K. So I got on, and was pleased that nobody got off at L, and everyone got off at K.  After clearing customs, we were in baggage claim. After a short wait, during which I got 300€ from an ATM (I might haver gotten ripped off on the exchange rate), I had both my bike box and my checked bag (and had carried on my backpack and bike bag). After some more guessing I found the rental car place and was pleased to find all my stuff fit in the small Opel (Corsa?) rental car I had reserved.  I originally reserved a smaller one, but went up one size when I teamed up with Bob, there looked to be plenty of room for his stuff also.  

A quick requalification on manual transmission and it was time to drive. My phone GPS wasn’t working when I left the airport, but I had studied the route to my hotel while waiting for the flight in Dulles, so I got on the road from memory until GPS finally kicked in.  It took me a slightly different route than the A1-A86-A13-A12 sequence that Google Maps showed me before the flight, through some town to make the jump from A86 to A13, but it got me to my hotel.

The hotel had no reception parking, in fact no open parking outside at all, so I pulled into its underground garage. That proved to be the right answer.  I successfully cancelled all but one night since we were headed to Bobs Airbnb the next day, and got a 4PM late checkout. I then went to my room and crashed for 3 hours to sleep off the redeye. When I woke up I studied how to navigate picking up Bob at the airport, and texted with him about the rendezvous plan. I then did whatever bike assembly I could with the bike still fitting in its box.  Around 4 I was getting hungry, not having eaten since the flight, so I walked into town in search of some local flavor.  I skipped McDonalds and Burger King for a little restaurant, but after having a beer there I found out they were not serving food that day.  

No food for you today

So I walked around and found all the restaurants closed, either because it was August or it was Assumption Day (15th of the month, every year I’m told), so I ended up in McD’s because I was starving at that point. On the way back I spotted a rider in the RUSA PBP jersey with a couple other American riders.  He was from Kansas City, and pointed out a supermarket that was open (Carrefour's).  I went there and bought a box of coconut macaroons for dessert/breakfast, as well as a large bottle of Leffe Rituel to celebrate the end of the ride, if i could resist drinking it that long. 

Motivation

I also had to buy a reusable shopping bag there - no freebies - which I used several times during my stay. On the way back to the hotel I found more PBP riders, Malaysian I believe. The only bit of common language between us: “PBP”.

On Friday I headed to the airport to collect Bob, watching the sun rise behind the Eiffel Tower while driving


The pickup came off without a hitch (I had learned a lot about the airport in the last 24 hours). He was hungry, so we went into Saint Quentin for food, but once again ended up at McDonalds (does this town ever come alive? Maybe it’s still that “take August off” thing.) Back at the hotel I was able to grab a free parking spot at the hotel (the night before had cost me 13€, even with 12 hours validated) them Bob and I crashed in my room until he had to turn in his drop bag at 2. We checked out at 2, and I caught another break when the hotel didn’t charge me the 20€ late checkout fee they should have.  Additionally, all our stuff fit comfortably in the car.  



After dropping off Bob's drop bag, we drove to the start town of Rambouillet, passing Georgi Stoychev and others riding down the highway.  We got into our Airbnb and promptly built our bikes. 



We then headed out looking for dinner - which again proved elusive. For the second night in a row we ended up on a place with good beer but not serving the food on their menu. While enjoying our beer we chatted with a group of UK random including a lady who goes by Brevetbird on social media, and I spotted Chip Adams who immediately caught my attention in his distinctive Severna Park Peloton jersey. 



We also talked a while with Eric Norris of YouTube fame (mentioned above), who said there was a pizza joint open up the street.  We went to said pizza joint and ordered, only to meet Eric and daughter Sarah picking up their pizza.  He invited us to join him for dinner at his beautiful Airbnb across the street, which we did.  He also provided the beer for the dinner. Because the word was out that the final stage of PBP had been rerouted, we returned to our Airbnb to download the updated GPS file to our receivers.

REGISTRATION

Our Airbnb was right across the street from the Rambouillet train station, from which emerged hundreds of cyclists every day.



Saturday was registration day.  We started off by looking for breakfast, finding an open air market where we found quiche, baked goods, cheeses, as well as seafoods, meats, almost everything you might want to eat.  



It was raining, so we went into the same cafe as last night to have something to drink while we ate our breakfast. 

Afterwards Bob went to the registration area to be in the RUSA group picture, but I skipped it because it was raining and turnout was probably going to be light. Because food was becoming a problem, and the start was the next day (a Sunday), I went grocery shopping at the small Carrefour's in town to ensure I had enough to eat before the ride. I then went to registration, riding in the rain in full rain gear.  It seemed like overkill at the time, since rain was light, but registration involved standing in the rain for most of an hour and the rain intensified so those with me who were underdressed (nearly everyone) were suffering. The rain intensity was cyclical, and the line was longest when the rain was hardest, and vice versa, because whenever the rain would stop and people would head over to registration it would be raining hard again by the time they got there.



I saw Shab there, someone I’m always delighted to run across. If you ride these big international events, she will be there.



I also chatted with LEL organizer Danial Webb, and finally got to see the legendary Lois Springsteen in the flesh working as a volunteer. She was busy doing bike inspections in the rain so I didn’t introduce myself.  Although my start time was 1730, my control card said my start window opened at 1715. I finally figured out that this wasn’t LEL, where your card’s timing for controls was specific to your start time.  The PBP card has a range of opening and closing times, and a page on their website tells you how to calculate your timing based on your start time. I calculated my times on the hard copy printout I brought with me, and snapped a photo so I had them in my phone if needed. It would be something I looked at regularly, especially late in the ride.



We went out to meet with a group Bob had lunch with: Misha and her brother Luke, Chris and his wife from NC (his wife was the volunteer who got me my stuff at check in), Vinny a gregarious Nigerian fellow from Seattle Rand, and a gregarious Brit named Malcom that we swept up along the way.  We ate dinner at a creperie, our first real meal in France. Mine was a "butcher's steak" (hamburger) crepe, and it was very good.  We had a great time trying to communicate with the waiter and generally just yukking it up, until we closed the place. Chris introduced us to the Google Translate app, which uses you phone’s camera to almost magically translate text, in this case the menu.

THE RIDE

The next morning it looked clear as we got up around 8:30 and headed into town to find breakfast on a Sunday morning. We were pleased to find a cafe that had loads of baked goods, and met a couple of Danes - one of whom had a velomobile parked out front with a canopy and a seat in the back for his infant child (with its own window). There was also a very chatty Brit named Gary who gave Bob a pair of pants that he needed, and another Brit who lived in San Francisco.  We walked back in pouring rain, and I ate a salad I bought the day before and went down for a nap until 3, trying to sleep until right before the start.



I had been watching the weather forecast closely, deciding on whether or not to mount my fenders and bring my rain pants. The forecast was for clear weather, so I left those behind (it was the correct decision). I got to the start about an hour before my 5:30PM time, and was glad I did.  It was total confusion, with riders from all start groups just milling around mixed together, with the occasional official making an impassioned plea for the crowd to move somewhere else so the next start group could sign in and get to the start box before their start time. There was very little in the rider instructions on what we were to do here.  After parking my bike and walking around a bit it I figured out that there were two roads that were supposed to serve as feeders to one road that took the start group to the start, and that the next couple of groups to start were to form up on the feeders.  My group G was in the way of F getting to the start, so we pushed off the road into the trees to let F get by.  Then it was our turn to head for the start, sign in at tables along the way, get into the start box.


We got into the start box about 5 minutes before the start, then we were off.  Things were interesting right from the start.  Several bikes pulled off the road for flats or other mechanicals right off the bat.  There was a lot of adrenaline flowing and I resisted the urge to jump on fast trains, especially since the first 3 stages were the longest 3 of the ride.  I saw Hamid and Misha go by on some of these trains, but I rode my ride with groups going as fast I thought I should be going this early.  This was a marathon, not a sprint. Actually, it was about 30 marathons.

I soon realized that I had forgotten to apply chamois butter before starting the ride, something I would do later behind a hedge in the dark.  I also realized that I forgot to bring my power adapter and phone charger, but this was no big deal because I can also charge my phone from by dynohub. I also wished that I had brought a banana with me, as these recently started working for me, especially under hot conditions. It was somewhat warm and I started sweating early in the ride, to the point that it was affecting my eyesight, so while riding I removed my helmet, put on a sweat band, and put my helmet back on.  That sweatband would be on my head the rest of the ride, regardless of temperature, sometimes serving as an eyeshade for short naps. We were riding into a headwind for the first day or so and it would sap me at times, but not as much as the headwind on the final miserable day of LEL did.

The scenery and the friendliness of the people that everybody commented on in ride reports was borne out in the first few hours of riding. You really did see Mom, Dad, the kids, and grandma on the side of the route in the little towns cheering and kids looking for high fives from riders. All hours of the day or night. An accordion player. One kid collected rider autographs.  Amazing.

It was about 25K into the ride before I saw the first rider from the group that started before us, 50K until saw the first rider from the group after us (H), and 75K until I saw the first rider from two groups after us (I).

I talked a bit with Bulgarian guy named Nikola who started the conversation because he was also riding a Seven, the only two I ever saw there.  He spoke great English and said he had gone to college in upstate New York.
     
I came up on Brazilian rider.  He grinned at me for a second as if to say "watch this", then started blasting “TNT” by AC/DC through speakers on his bike, followed by other classic rock songs.  He would respectfully turn off the music as we passed through a village.

During a nature break I pulled out my bottle of Perpetuem.  I had been concerned that I might not find enough to eat during the first night, so I made a concentrated bottle of this stuff that had the consistency of pancake batter. It was equal volumes powder and water, and it felt great in my stomach and kept me energized.  A successful experiment, I wish I had more (although mixing it this concentrated would be difficult on the road because it clumps). I went through about 8 oz in the first 100K, another 8 oz at the first food stop, and the rest during the second 100K.  I mixed it in my oldest most decrepit bottle so I could discard it when empty.  

Once darkness fell you could see long lines of red tail lights and identical reflective vests (everybody got one as part of the ride) climbing up the long hills heading into Mortagne. Must have seen 200 at one point. On the plus side it was quite the visual effect. On the minus side it showed you when there was a big climb coming (I don’t want to know until I’m on it, don’t want to get psyched out). Now I understand why Gardner said Mortagne must be French for mountain.

I hit the first services on the route, the food stop at Mortagne (118K) around 10:30 PM after 5 hours of riding. It was not very crowded - I was still ahead of the majority of the riders due to my start time. I was hungry, and got a great plate of pasta and meat sauce, Orangina (a new drink for me, something I drank many times during the trip) and 2 bananas (to make up for the banana I wish I had on the bike – I would take them on the road with me).  I paid, then realized I had no utinsels, so I went back to the start of the serving line with my tray, grabbed them, then walked past the cashiers and sat at a table to eat.  I was immediately questioned by a volunteer who saw me walk past the cashier without paying, which I resolved by taking him back to the cashier I had previously paid. I spotted Jeff Newberry, the Texas randonneur I had met in the Blue Ridge to Bay 1200K last May in my neck of the woods.



At 4:01 AM I rolled into Villaines, completing a respectable 9h30m 200K to that point.  The weather had been great, and I now saw riders from groups C through K. Approaching Villaines I saw a large group of riders coming onto the course, as if they were returning from getting lost. The route had signs directing each turn on the course, each about the size of a shoebox lid. They were visible to me by day, but at night the only visible part was the reflective head of the arrow, about 3” on a side.  I suspect these riders missed one of these signs.  I had not planned to use GPS for this ride, but the signs were hard to see and I was glad that I had the route loaded and ready to go – I used GPS the rest of the ride.  



The Villaines control was more crowded, but there were no real delays for food here or anywhere else the rest of the ride.  Here and back in Mortagne I saw people stopping for food at local establishments, maybe because this was the smart thing to do to avoid delays in previous PBPs, but it was not necessary this time. Later most experienced riders would comment that the long lines from past years were gone this time. 



I was starting to see people sleeping on the side of the road, and at the Villaines control. I saw Hamid and Misha in Villaines. I wasn’t too hungry, so I just had 2 Cokes and finished my Perpetuem. Later I ate my 2 bananas on the road.

I had a humorous interaction with another rider after Villaines.  He was wearing the RUSA PBP jersey, so I asked him where he was from. He said “Northern Virginia, I am the RBA”. It was Hamid!  It was the last time I would see him during the ride, but I would see his wife Shab many times at controls.

The weather continued to be nice, with a gibbous moon behind us to keep us company. It wasn’t cold, I wore only my jersey, shorts, and reflective vest that night. Traffic was very light, at most 10 cars all night.  At dawn traffic started to pick up, perhaps because it was Monday morning. I was a little disappointed that, like LEL, it seemed like 95% of the riders were passing me. However, I finished in the ~50% who successfully completed that ride, so I tried to not let it bother me.  Perhaps they were passing me and stopping, passing and stopping. I was keeping up with my ride plan – within an hour of it until the last day – so how I was doing relative to my progress towards the finish was all that really mattered.

The sun rose on the second day. The only time I felt the bonk coming on was prior to Fougeres, but my candied ginger snacks pulled me out of it. I arrived in Fougeres at 8:25AM, tying a personal best for 300K at 14h40m along the way. An interesting control – no water spigots. I was told to purchase water or get hot water out of the men’s room taps.  Speaking of the men’s room, there were only 2 commodes for over 6000 riders.  And this was the only place in the ride I felt I lost time because of waiting in line.  For some reason, the guys immediately ahead of me each took about 10 minutes in the stalls. Why? Perhaps because there was a small wash sink in each stall and they decided to sponge bath in there rather than walk across campus and pay for a shower.  Just speculation on my part.



I hit the Tinteniac control (360K – minimum fleche distance) at 11:40AM. I saw Shab as I was rolling out of the control and stopped to talk for a moment.  


Shab got me in Tinteniac...
She was looking for her husband Hamid, and I told her I had passed him sometime last night. I would see her several more times in various controls.  I narrowly averted disaster about 50 yards further down the road.  My night glasses fell out of my rear bag’s unzipped pocket, and two cars behind me each missed running over them by an inch or so. Without them, I’d wear my sunglasses at night (if that were possible). 

The terrain was getting more extreme, and I noticed that after the first day I still can’t climb to save my life. The last 2 controls before my sleep stop were Quedillac (386K) and Loudeac (445K).  


...and again in Loudeac!
2K after the Loudeac control was our Airbnb, just 300m off the route, and I collected food items at these last two controls so that I had something to eat after sleeping. After getting a big pre-sleep meal at Loudeac around 5:00 PM with Jeff Newberry, it was off to the Airbnb, following a GPS route I made to get me there. This first riding day had lasted 24 hours.

My never-worn SPP socks made the steps to bedrooms on the second floor as slick as ice, which I believe caused me to slip and injure my right knee.  It was a little panful upon departing, but worked itself out after a couple hours.  I quickly showered, washed my clothing in the bathroom sink and hung it to dry (to economize I only packed one replacement kit), unloaded anything I didn’t need for the coming day (I’d be returning here the next evening) and got down to sleep. There were no curtains on the windows, but there were working external shutters, which I figured out and closed. I set the phone alarm for 3 hours, but was done sleeping after 2.  Since I was an hour behind my ride plan, that put me back on schedule.  Bob, who had started 2h45m behind me had not yet arrived. I ate the food I had gathered earlier, and set off in the fading daylight for the next riding day.  From my front door I could see the other riders headed down the route - what a great location!

My legs felt great. I was passing everybody now, especially on climbs.  I found Olaf Storbeck along the way, the guy who had photographed Clint and me at LEL and who was the volunteer coordinator for the coming LEL 2021.  We talked for miles, mostly about his role as LEL 2012 Volunteer Coordinator, until we got separated on a big hill.

There was a food stop at Saint Nicolas at 488K that I hit at 11:10PM which was also the outbound secret control (it would be the inbound as well), then the busy control at Carhaix at 521K that I hit at 1:04AM. There was now two-way traffic at controls as riders had made it to Brest and were now heading inbound as well.



After Carhaix there was a light in my helmet mirror that I realized was the rising moon. It was cold this evening.  I put on my rain jacket and knee warmers and put the hood on under my helmet.  Eventually I zipped everything up.  Later reports would say it was in the upper 30’s at night the rest of the ride. There was a steady stream of riders headed back to Paris on the other side of the road. The terrain was getting hillier, but not excessively, when suddenly in the darkness I recognized the large radio tower that told me I was almost on the summit of Roc’h Trevezel. It was the highest point of the ride, but the climb to it had not been excessively steep. I was pleased that the “big climb” was already behind me without even realizing it.

Perhaps it was from climbing the Roc’h, and maybe the fast descent off it, but I was getting very cold and very sleepy. I thought about napping on the side of the road, but I pressed on hoping for some civilization so I could nap indoors.  I had my emergency bivvy, but had seen others that had been used and never again could be rolled up as compactly as when new.  I really wanted to avoid that if I could. Shortly I rolled into Sizun, and found a small family-operated roadside water and coffee stop.  However, the guy in front of me got the last of the coffee. I tried napping in one of their lawn chairs, but it didn’t work, so I rolled on.  Less than a mile later I found an all-night cafĂ© – PERFECT!  I put my helmet on a table and ordered a coffee. There was a rough looking young dude in there – tats and piercings everywhere (will never forget the cord hanging out of his ear lobe) – who seemed to be giving me a hard time at the bar, but it turned out he was apologizing (in French) for having gotten in my way.  He insisted I sit at the bar stool he thought he had blocked me from, and despite me pointing at my helmet at the table he insisted I sit at the bar, so I did while I drank my Americano. Then I moved to the table, set my phone alarm, and took a table nap for about 20 minutes, awaking warm and clear headed. Although I always set my phone alarm, not once during the ride did I sleep until it went off. Adrenaline? Fear?

Then it was on to Brest (610K).  I crossed the bridge that everyone stops on for a selfie, but it was dark so I just kept rolling.  I got lost for a minute at the far end of the bridge, then discovered the climb to the control was just as Gardner had described – one of the most annoying climbs of the whole ride.  I arrived at 7:00AM, setting a personal best for 600K along the way.  Once there I received a message from Bob that he had abandoned shortly after leaving Loudeac and was now returning to our Airbnb in Loudeac to sleep. He was having serious sleep problems. I took another short table nap in Brest, the halfway point of the ride, then set off to Paris into a rising sun.


The start of the return trip
Somewhere on the Roc’h I got sleepy again, so I pulled off the road in the sunny late morning, reclined against a grassy embankment, pulled my hood over my eyes, and napped for 20 minutes. 

Atop the Roc'h


After that It was Carhaix again (693K) at 1:00PM, and St Nicolas to gather food again for the overnight in Loudeac.  I was back in Loudeac (783K) around 7:00PM, stopping at the Airbnb to sleep before hitting the control 2K further down the route. It had been about a 22 hour riding day, with three naps. I remember the approach to Loudeac as being pretty hilly.

There was no sign of Bob – he was done sleeping, gone, and headed east for Rambouillet. This time I slept the full 3 hours, ate my food, gathered up all my stuff, secured the Airbnb, and headed into town to control and eat some more. When I controlled there, I had only 1h39m left in the bank, but it was a calculated risk to sleep before controlling. I would soon be putting lots back in because of the 12kph pace of the final day, even while slipping from 1 hour behind my ride plan to 4 hours behind by the finish.  Build in a time buffer - that saved my bacon at LEL.

I left Ludeac riding into a rising moon. As the night chilled again I stopped to zip up my clothing. While stopped I heard the unmistakable sound of a large group of riders coming up behind me. I turned to see: a rider in the front escorted by security motorcycle, a security vehicle behind them, then a tight group of maybe 50-100 riders moving smartly down the road.  As they were where I was, so this couldn’t have been some elite rider with an entourage.  Later some speculated that it might have been the PBP Youth Ride. 

I had a healthy appetite now, so I stopped at the Quedillac food stop (843K) around 2:00AM and ate some more. I was really feeling good at this point.


Somewhere after Tinteniac (869K, 3:50AM) I was joined by a silent rider who would not leave me alone. He drafted me when I was fast, sat on my quarter when not. I pulled behind a stopped garbage truck and he went by, but then he got back on again.  He was in group D group, 45 minutes less time than me, so maybe he was trying to leverage me to keep moving.  I later caught a train and never saw him again.

For the second time in three days I arrived in Fougeres (923K) in the morning (7:12 AM). Again, the two stalls in the men’s room were a time waster. I would find out later that day when Bob texted me that he was sleeping right there in Fougeres when I passed through, which then put me ahead of him for the return to Rambouillet.  I had previously asked him to ensure the key to our Airbnb in Rambouillet was in the key box when I got there.  We mused that it was now my responsibility. I got a 20 minute nap on a yoga mat on the floor.

Somewhere after that is when it started happening again – that thing from LEL.  To me, it looked like the riders ahead of me were leaning to the right.  What was really happening was my own brand of Shermers neck – head leaning to the left. That, plus the lack of sleep, messes with my sense of vertical.  The whole world tilts right, even when I hold my head vertical, sometimes making it hard to get rolling on my bike.

Around noon I was getting very loopy and unsteady, having a hard time separating reality from dreamland.  I stopped for a roadside nap on a grassy spot next to a cornfield under a tree, out of sight of other riders. Perfect (or so I though). Upon laying on the ground I felt my right arm stinging and saw ants on it.  I brushed them off and fell asleep.  20 minutes later I awoke to find ants all over that arm, which was all red and irritated.  I brushed them off and got rolling again (clear headed as always after a short nap).  As I was rolling down the road I felt a sting just below my navel – I had missed one ant. But I dispatched it without having to stop my bike. 

On the approach to Villaines (1012K, 2:14 PM) I remembered one ride report I had read: “Time to feel like a Pro”.  And it was – hundreds of spectators, noise, commotion, banners.  A little girl in a green t-shirt asked if I wanted to eat, and she then proceeded to fill up a tray with whatever I wanted and seat me at a table to eat. Riz au lait, cheese, chicken and taters, and enough other stuff to make it a large meal. I gave her a couple Euros in return.  On the way out spectators watched me entirely unload my rear bag looking fruitlessly for my phone charging cable.  I then put my phone in airplane mode to conserve battery, only to take it back out a little down the road fearing that the loss of “Find Friends” position reporting would cause Christine to think I had been in an accident. The cord turned up later.



For some reason every couple of hours my GPS receiver would go into a 10 second countdown to powering down, which you could override if you noticed it.  Once I did not, and had to restart it.  I was hesitant to make any changes to my equipment before the ride, so I lived with it until after the ride and I updated its software.

Sometime later that afternoon, after passing up many of them this ride, I stopped in the little concession in the center of some town to get water.  There were locals there, food, music, a party in the town square. 



As the sun was getting close to setting for the last time (I figured I would finish in darkness) I decided I needed to take a couple pictures of the countryside.  I stopped and dropped to one knee to take some pictures with my phone and knee started stinging.  What’s wrong with this place? Every time I touch the ground I get stung!



I got to Mortagne (1097K) at 8:17 PM after some healthy climbing into town.  On the way out one rider said the hilly stuff was behind us now, which wasn’t quite true.  There were still a couple big climbs coming out of town, with a group of spectators at the top of perhaps the biggest one.  I didn’t recognize the language (Italian?), but a man in the group seemed to be telling the riders that this was the last hill. And it essentially was. Some hard-to-come-by flatness would complete the route.

I stopped for one last nap around midnight, thinking an earlier nap was better before it got too cold.  I laid down on the ground and bundled up as best I could, with my sweat band over my eyes to cover them from the lights of the bikes rolling by.  I could hear the voices of the riders, even a couple walking around me. Although I shivered occasionally, I didn’t feel cold.  I still didn’t want to open my bivvy bag, my situation wasn't quite that bad.  On previous nights I speculated that the skies must be amazing here because of the lack of light pollution, but my headlight provided it's own pollution. I realized here was a chance to check it out.  Pulling my sweat band eye shade away from my eyes and pulling out my glasses from my jacket's breat pocket, I saw the most star-ful sky I had seen in decades.  Done sleeping, I got up and got back on my bike, but had a hard time getting going because of the vertigo that my neck problem was causing.

I arrived in Dreux (1174K), the penultimate control, at 2:06 AM, just 45K from the finish.  I knew I had a realistic shot of finishing inside of 84 hours, the time limit Clint thought I should have signed up for, and wanted to prepare for that final leg.  I took another 20 minute table nap, my 4thnap since my sleep stop in Ludeac over a day ago, and had a cup of coffee (only my second of the ride).  I rolled out of Dreux with a crystal-clear head, a man possessed with rolling up the final stage and finishing this thing before 84 hours. 

The ride was a rocket sled on rails, full throttle the whole way (in actuality I was only doing about 12 mph over this flat stretch - late in a long ride things look faster than they really are!)  A Malaysian guy joined me who spoke very broken English and was having some trouble navigating (no GPS, reliant on signs).  He stayed with me, following me for navigation, but at one point said something about wanting to slow down, then he stopped. I didn’t want to slow down, but when he stopped I got a little concerned, so I circled back to see what the problem was. No problem…HE WAS PLAYING WITH HIS PHONE!!  Later dude, you’re never more than 30 seconds from the next rider coming by, you’ll have someone else to follow shortly. 

The rest of the ride into Rambouillet was uneventful. There was nobody in streets when I finished, just after 5:00 AM with a time of 83h31m, and turned in my completed card. Although I finished 4 hours later than I estimated that I would, it was a personal best for 1200K by 6 hours. The other personal bests along the way were by minutes.


Despite the neck injury and outward appearance, ecstatic.

It had been a 31 hour riding day, with only four 20 minute naps along the way.  As soon as I turned in my card I experienced the same thing as at the end of LEL – the feeling of the remaining energy in my system just drain away (as the adrenaline turned off for the first time in 3 ½ days). Like a bouncy house collapsing on itself as soon as the fan is turned off.  They had a free meal for the finishers, lightly attended at this early hour.


I rode home, exhausted, and contemplated going straight to bed without showering, but that was too gross even when this tired.  I'm glad I showered - the hot water I stood in for the next 20 minutes felt so good on my injured neck.

Six hours later I woke up, drank that beer, and greeted Bob as he arrived. Over the next 2 days I slept a lot, went for a recovery ride, hung out with other riders, dropped Bob off for his flight home, and packed my bike.  As a farewell present, Air France did not charge me the $150 bike fee, again.  Not sure why, and didn't ask.

With Hamid (Northern Virginia RBA) and Vinny (Seattle Randonneurs) after some sleep
 Things to do differently next time?

1. One or 2 bags of snack food, no more.  A couple bottles worth of Gatorade powder, no more.  10 or so Gu packs, no more. 1-2 ounces of sunscreen, no more. I hauled way too many consumables over the course all the way to the finish.

2. Now that I proved I can finish in under 84 hours, sign up for 90 hours again and spend more time enjoying the local flavor on the side of the road.

3. Bring full fingered gloves for the cold nights.

4. Try to get a better exchange rate on Euros.

5. Finish in daylight. It was cold, dark and lonely at the finish.

6. Train more for climbing. It was more than expected.

7. And open the damned bivvy bag and use it. For crying out loud you cheapskate, a new one is only $15!