Recently I posted a piece on an internet discussion list having to do with civility among cyclists. I made reference to several experiences I had in France while riding Paris-Brest-Paris in 2003. My hope was that people might connect the dots to conclude that if we observe simple courtesies in one or a number of facets of our daily existence then the practice might bleed across the lines into the other compartments we have for behavior. I’m not sure folks ‘got’ the point of the post, but I was surprised by the positive reception of my remarks about PBP.
PBP ‘03 had a profound effect on me, far more significant than I expected at this late stage of the game. I believe I was more impressionable in my 20’s than in my 50’s, and so the experience caused me to embark on some degree of introspection, oh, and also to document it in a ride report.
I am planning to ride PBP again in just a few months time. One concern is that this second ‘go round’ will blur my memories of ’03. I would like to think that the second time will be even more incredible than the first, but again, age or experience has allowed skepticism a more significant role in my thinking.
I’ve responded to a few requests to share this PBP ’03 ride report and so have decided to put it up here for public consumption. One of my favorite sayings from my community development efforts is “ya gotta put the hay down where the goats can get it”.
Here then is my PBP 03 ride report. I hope I don’t lead any one astray; there were a few not so enjoyable moments on that ride, but I believe that reward is often times commensurate with effort. For me, the harder the effort to achieve a goal, the sweeter the taste of success. Compared to the other 1200K randonnées I have ridden I think this was the most lovely.
Paris Brest Paris – Not so Fast!
PBP is a ride with great history, but more than that it is an event, a touch point for randonneurs. At PBP, you not only ride with people from all over the world, you also have a connection with the very earliest ‘hard men’, and women of cycling, you participate in one of the seminal events in the world of cycling.
My ‘strategy’ for the 15th edition of PBP had been all over the map since I committed to entering the event in winter of 12002-3. I had gotten swept up in the “get a good time” motivation and so shaped my training early to be as fast through the ride as I could. As time went on, the other side of my mind weighed in with the notion of trying to get more out of this ride than a fast time. As my training progressed, the argument for this approach gained more credence. After all, the difference between my fastest possible time and just finishing under the wire might be a total of 5 hours or so, and really, in comparison to the fastest times, it would not make much difference. But those hours, spent on the ride might allow me to gain more experiences, collect and participate in more stories and actually bring home with me more of the real trophies I was after, the stories, particularly if I wasn’t watching my time so closely.
So, in late spring I decided that my goals for the ride were essentially two fold: I definitely wanted to finish within the allotted time (90 hours for me); and I wanted to immerse myself in the experience as much as possible, take pictures, meet and talk with people, and bring back more of the experience. Please note, this is not an indictment of those who choose to shoot for a fast time, hats off to them, I just had a different motivation.
Waiting in the stadium for the start, the warm night air was filled with a sense of excitement. In the buzz of waiting riders, snatches of nervous laughter wafted across the crowd and I was surrounded by conversations in many different languages. I had not yet started and already I was ticking off parts of my second goal. Before we left, Sheila, Tracy, and Cathi came into the stadium and found us, I was really glad for that, it was obvious that, once our flight rolled, there would be little possibility of seeing us. At 10:00 there was a roar out in front of the stadium as the first wave rolled off into the night. It sent chills up my spine.
I was in the last wave of riders to go out. I was in fact at the back of the last wave, much closer to the last starter than the first starter. I checked my watch as I rolled across the line, it was 10:50. They said this time would be considered at the finish. From the start, people were lining the streets clapping, cheering and actually treating us as though we were heroes. The smiles on their faces gave the impression that it was as exciting for them as for us. I have to admit, I got a little misty, the enormity of all that went into this moment: my training, the support of all my friends and teammates, the effort of the organizers and the incredible sense of history that this ride evokes, it all go to me. Uh, oh yeah, my sense of thanks to God was mixed in there too. What a sense of release, to finally be in the event, no longer planning for, preparing for, or qualifying for. I’m riding PBP! Quickly the 500 or so in my ‘flight’ broke up into smaller groups, as few as 10 or 15 and as many as 50 or 60. In the first 30 K or so, all the intersections were managed by gendarmes, directing traffic, the lights and signs were ignored and the cyclists, for the moment had the absolute right of way. Contrary to what I was used to at home, motorists had their windows rolled down, and like the families on the streets offered us cheers of support, “Allez PBP!”, “bon Route!”, and “bon Courage!”
As we transitioned through the suburban areas and into the farm country, riders grouped according to their paces, and conversations were struck. The rollers reminded us not to go out too fast; there was plenty of challenge ahead, though it was hard to keep the energy in check.
It must have been similar to what if felt like when the Roman legions marched off to war centuries ago. All were filled with a sense of adventure and possibilities, what would we look like on the return trip in four days time?
I rode on and off with a young British rider, Niles, whom I had met the day before on the train back to Paris from St Quentin. He had just had his bike inspected and I was wearing my PBP T shirt, so we compared notes, like me, he was a first timer. What are the odds that 24 hours later, riding among 4,000 participants he and I would randomly connect on the route? PBP is like that.
I had been concerned about the distance from the start to the first control, a food stop actually. Mortagne Au Perche. A distance of 141K, I was not sure if we would be able to get water along the way. Let all know that getting water on this stretch is not a problem. Though there were almost no commercial services available, many people along the route had set up tables and were offering “l’eau”, and “café”. I had not brought along enough food however. I should have packed a couple sandwiches; all I had were liquid nutrition and energy bars.
When we got into Mortagne, I took the time to eat. The line was not long. My riding partners had brought sandwiches so I made quick work of a plate of pasta, and a bowl of rice pudding. Note to self; next time bring a sandwich or other sufficient food for this leg from St Quentin to Mortagne. I put a baguette in my jersey pocket for later. This was the infamous Jambon et Burre baguette, more on this little gem later.
Villaines La Juhel (223K) was a festive scene, the town had turned out for this in numbers and we received heroes’ cheers rolling in. I was efficient in the control but once again I ate a big meal: Pasta, mashed potatoes, a chicken breast, spinach and bread. I was a little concerned to be eating so much, but my body was telling me to do so, as the ride went on, this turned out to the right thing to do.
At Fugeres (311K) I was feeling the effects of slight dehydration. I had debated about bringing the camelback, but was glad I had, I just needed to be sure to go through that and then to the bottles. Between Fougeres and Tinteniac (311) I bonked during the middle of the day. I stopped at a park bench, in a little village and ate a cliff bar and downed a bottle of Sustained Energy, then got back on the bike, for a gradual recovery. It was here that Charlene from Canada overtook me. We rode along together for a bit and I wanted to ride with her but I knew better than to push the recovery. I knew I’d get my legs back but I did not want to put myself more into deficit, so let her go. I wondered if we would see each other again.
I had a bad situation in Tinteniac (366K). It was very hot and late in the day, the sun was low, almost blinding at times and I really wanted to get off the bike, cool down, get a bit of a rest and get something to eat. Traffic was bad, the turn into the control was very busy and a little confused with just a couple too many control helpers. Here I should note that I think being part of the local organizing effort in the villages appears to be a bit of an honor or a position of prestige. Throughout the controles, you see lots of elderly ladies and gentlemen in official yellow PBP event staff T-shirts. Not all of them appear to have an official function. But you figure out very quickly “who’s who” when you ask a question or find yourself in the wrong place. Those who don’t have any authority quickly direct you to those who do, or in some cases you hear a referee whistle, that always gets every ones attention and identifies persons of authority immediately.
My problem was a combination of poor management at the control and flawed thinking that comes with the early onset of exhaustion and hunger. As I turned into the control, I was directed to the “run in chute”. So far so good. There was a bit of confusion at this point, lots of supporters and bystanders sort of clogging the way, and a fellow in a yellow T-shirt was standing to one side holding up a strip of flagging or what I call’ “crime scene tape” between two barriers and waving a rider ahead of me through. Thinking this was the way to go I followed and was soon in the stream of riders. We went through a couple commercial parking lots and were soon back on a street. At this point I got a little nervous, this didn’t seem right, most of the controls are in a school or college. But back on the street, squinting into the sun I had to pay attention to avoid getting run over or knocking someone down. My mind went into high gear and erected a plausible explanation. This is what the brain does when it is not getting the required supply of glucose (my brain any way): 10 cents worth of data and a million dollars worth of analysis will usually support a flawed conclusion. I tend to loose the big picture and get lost in the details. Sort of reminiscent of my time in the 60’s when there were other ‘distractions’ to play tricks on the mind. Perhaps there was an accident or a bad traffic situation they had routed us around and the control would be just ahead. 5K down the road when we passed the “Leaving Tinteniac” sign I panicked. I sprinted up to the rider in front of me, a stylish Italian on a nice Pinerello and in my best American pidgin, asked “Controle Tinteniac ahead or behind?” He gave me a look and jerked his thumb to the rear. Major bummer. On my way back to Tinteniac, I passed Peg and Brian, my riding partners; they went on, as they should. In haste to get time back, I ate very little, (jambon et burre, baguette) watered up and went out quickly (judgment error #2).
The Jambon et burre is either a bane or a blessing depending on the rider. It’s a small baguette with thinly sliced ham, dressed only with butter. For me it was great, similar to my secret rando weapon back home, the convenience store white bread sandwich. You know, Wonderbread, American cheese and some form of mystery meat. Others riding PBP didn’t find it so wonderful. You have to be careful eating these. Too big a bite, not enough chew time and the thing could swell up in your throat like a big plug. A day or so into the ride those of us of the Baguette league might be identified by butter stain in the outside jersey pocket.
Things were better once the sun went down. I elected to continue riding through dusk before putting on my night gear. It was still very warm and I had ridden through the previous night with shorts and short sleeved jersey, putting on arm warmers just before dawn. I was on with a mixed group of Danes and Brits, I was some how able to keep their pace. The Danes are very steady, and up till now most have been stronger riders than me. I felt good, actually thought I was perhaps getting stronger as the ride wore on (Me and Jan Ulrich, Ja!)
At the top of a long climb we pulled over to ‘dress up’. It was just going dark, a beautiful orange sky, another village on the crest of a ridge ahead was sky lighted, the steeple of the church clearly standing out, a Kodak moment for sure. I was packing disposable cameras and taking pictures along the route. I hope they turn out well, I struggled with the right camera system to take along. Riding into the dark I was buoyed at the thought that Loudeac (452K) was my next stop, and I would have a chance to shower change and get a couple hours sleep.
In the villages we passed through there was a festive atmosphere, kids were shouting encouragement, the folks lining the streets were standing or sitting on chairs they brought out and clapping, just clapping and smiling. People hung out the windows of upper floor apartments shouting encouragement. Water and coffee were offered at every corner. In the smaller villages, locals were out in the roundabouts warning us of the rough pave’, or directing motor traffic to allow us to ride through without interruption. Clearly, PBP was a part of their fabric of life, a season or event they looked forward to, and I felt honored and humbled at the same time to be the recipient of their warm affection and encouragement, to be just a little part of this very big thing.
At about 11:00 pm, approximately 24 hours after my start, I was riding alone, through a long stretch of farm and wood land. In the far distance I could see taillights and what looked like headlights approaching. As they drew nearer I could see that this was not a car but a pace line of riders, the first returnees! They came fast and steady, most wore clear plastic capes or Assos jackets. Each was back lit by the rider behind and the jackets diffused the light, making them glow, they appeared as ghosts out of the mists. It was a stunning vision. They were riding a perfect paceline; fast, efficient, and silent, just the sound of gears turning over and heavy breathing. After 24 hours of riding, I had covered approximately 400K, and they were over 800K into the ride. Truly amazing, these were the riders who people came out to see. They deserved the adulation, they would not be stopping for café or pane au chocolat.
I stopped at a farm lot and had café and plums fresh from the garden. The coffee was good (no milk though). They spoke no English, and I spoke less French however we were able to exchange pleasantries. In French, a woman of my age asked the distance to Loudeac. Young Jean the farm boy volunteered that it was approximately 14K. I knew better and by showing him my que sheet, he was able to see that his village, Illefaut was actually more like 40K from Loudeac. He was excited to recognize his village name listed on the que sheet. I was feeling weary. I rolled off to the next quiet spot I could find and sat down against a wall for a 5 minute rest. Before sleeping, I downed about a half a flask of hammer gel espresso. I figured, leaning up against a wall I could not sleep long but was worried none the less. What seemed less than a minute later I awoke with a start. Once I focused my eyes I could se that I had slept for 15 minutes! I was surprised that the time went by so quickly, but the coffee and gel were doing the job, and now I was anxious to get back on the bike. Funny the effect caffeine has on my mind. Things just seem so much better, I am more optimistic, it really is a drug.
Soon a fast group of Americans (the ones who talk the loudest) came along and I hooked on with them. They were flying, maybe 25 KPH, I was not sure I could hang with them but figured if I could, I’d save some time. A bit later we passed Terry Z and Bob Brudvik. I knew they were SIR riders, fenders and mudflaps! They were morning starters so had covered the distance in about half the time I had. They hooked on for the run into Loudeac. I felt great and finished to Loudeac with flair …. and a sweat!
Cathi, Dan and Nancy were there at the finish to cheer me (I was really surprised) and it was a good thing, finding my way to the lodging would have been near impossible on my own. Cathi motor paced me the 3K to the sleeping quarters.
These quarters were not what was promised by Claus, it was difficult but I just made do. A shower and a sandwich (Thanks so much Tracy!) and off to sleep in a bunk. In no time at all I was up and rolling again with Brian and Peg. It was still dark and we were on our way to Brest, it was cold and damp out. Figure 2 to 3 hours sleep.
They say PBP does not really start until Loudeac. I had this built up in my mind as the hardest part. More climbs, more intense climbs, and still going away from the finish. While it may be the more punishing segment, I also think it is the most beautiful. Here you are deep into Brittany, and you see some of the unique character of the region. From the graffiti (‘Liberez Jose’, and Liberte’, Equalite’, et Fraternite’?’’), and home made monuments to independence you can see that there is a deep seated independence here and a degree of resentment toward the Republic. The architecture and cathedrals also show more of a Spanish or Moorish influence. It was nice to climb into forests, with lakes and streams, the country here was really beautiful. I’m more comfortable with trees and forests than endless farm country.
We were quickly into Carhaix (529K). It was a beautiful town, I expected the control to be more crowded. Out of the night clothes, a quick bite and we were away. The climb to Le Roc was great, I stopped to help Peter Beeson tighten up his light, rode with lots of people along these climbs, at a more sociable pace, but still, I felt I was actually getting stronger.
The descent to Brest (615K) was enormous, we kept descending and by this time I almost disliked descents, knowing that the end of every descent means the start of another climb. Brest was crowded and I was very hot, even though I was wearing my sleeveless jersey. I saw homey here and he had a long face on. He explained he had a couple broken spokes and the wheel had been sitting at the mechanic’s for an hour already. I wanted to do something but could think of nothing. I tried to be quick but still we spent a little time there. Peg got a quick nap and Brian really wanted to. I had another big meal, and to quote my favorite stock picker, Ms Martha, “it was a good thing”.
Climbing out of Brest was not as bad as I had feared though the traffic in the town was a bother. I rode with an Englishmen who explained some of the traffic customs in Europe He said that in England, lights and signs were mandatory, as they are in America. In France they are advisory, thus no citations for running a red light, but have an accident and you pay dearly. In Italy he said, the lights are purely for decoration, they just love the blinking colors, but have no effect on driving. (He said it, not me).
I climbed most of the way to Le Roc with Peg, but in the last few K I could not keep with her. At the top I took yet more pictures and struck up a conversation with a local farmer. He explained that he made his living raising between 50 and 100 beef cattle. Times for the beef industry in France are really rough (BSE) but he showed the stiff upper lip. He made a point of showing off the pristine waters of the lakes and streams, the area is some sort of nature preserve and he proudly proclaimed that the nuclear power plant in the distance was shut down “fini” he said.
Brian caught me on the descent, we rode into Carhaix (696K) together where we met up with Peg. Brian was tired and elected to take a nap here, I was tired too but Peg was ready to go and I chose to ride with her. We took off with Peter Beeson whom we had passed, sleeping by the side of the road on the climb to Le Roc.
We rode off into the night with a large group of Englishmen. We went strong with them for quite a way but they were too strong for us and soon we were on our own. Stretches between Carhaix and Loudeac are very dark (forest) and poorly signed. We were at times able to see taillights and follow them but the route makers were not the best so we had to creep in parts of this section. On the outskirts of Loudeac I bonked again. I had a jambon et burre baguette in my bag so alternately choked that down while trying to push through the hills in town. I rolled up to the finish about 2am I think. Peg had come back to look for me, bless her heart. I was ok, just needed a little more steam in the boiler to get to the finish.
This time the digs were as Claus had promised. Cathy bucked my bag and helped me find my room. My exhaustion was reminiscent of my younger days as a fire fighter with the USFS; Too tired really to make sensible decisions. Some food and then a bath (no shower in the room). The bath was problematic. I was so exhausted I kept falling asleep, and put off getting out for fear that I actually wouldn’t be able to get out of the tub
Then some random rearranging of my gear and I was in bed for a couple hours of sleep.
3 hours later I was leaving Loudeac (773K). Peg and Brian had left a few minutes ahead of me. Cathi helped me out the door of the hotel, and stopped me as I started the wrong way! This could have been disastrous and would be significant later. I thought how fortunate it was that she had taken the time to see me out of the garage door.
I started fast but realized it was very cold and I was very stiff. If I was going to catch Peg and Brian it would probably not happen because I was going fast. Again, PBP is in some ways a war of attrition, and conservation of energy is a significant element in a success strategy. Sort of like chess, you need to strategically sacrifice your pawns to preserve the Queen. Imagine my surprise, an hour and a half later when Peg rode up behind me! She had left the hotel going the wrong way! Five minutes later we rolled up on Brian, WHO ALSO HAD LEFT THE HOTEL GOING THE WRONG WAY! We probably rode together for 5 minutes when on a climb I shifted off onto the bottom bracket. It took me awhile to get untangled, a half hour later I was up to Brian again who also was also having shifting problems, Peg had gone ahead. We rode together for awhile and discussed strategy. We were both suffering but knowing that we were two thirds of the way home, and with every pedal stroke getting closer to the finish was real motivation.
Brian was trying to avoid using his little ring so I would drop him on the climbs, this was unusual, normally he climbs away from me. I chocked it up to his shifting problems and the feeling that I was getting stronger. He caught on again and we compared notes, I dropped him on the next climb and rolled into a secret control ahead. Peg was there, we talked briefly and she left. I waited a bit there but could spare no more time, I never saw Brian again.
On this stretch from Loudeac to Tinteniac there was a beautiful sunrise that put us through lots of little villages. As we rolled through the towns, the smells from the Patisseries were intoxicating! I stopped for a croissant chocolat. Exquisite, fresh from the oven. I am not much for sweets, especially in the morning. If you told me I’d like bread and chocolate in the morning I would have scoffed, but this is not Wonder bread and M&M’s. It is a good thing I don’t live in rural France, I’d probably weigh 450 pounds!
Into Tinteniac (859K) was better this time, I felt strong and confident. I saw Charlene from Canada here. She was having trouble with her handlebar bag and had devised a system for piling all her stuff (no mean feat) onto her rear rack. Her rear bag looked like the empire state building after the holocaust. I gave her my spare water, offered a hand full of zip ties, wished her luck and went on my way.
It was here that I also saw John Little and Sarah Galazan. Sarah had been sick from the start and I was very surprised to see her still in the game. I gave her encouragement, she seemed doubtful but committed to taking it one control at a time which seemed to be working. I briefly thought back the months to the Peninsula 600K we rode together to qualify for PBP. We were changed now, like battle worn veterans, compared to young recruits.
366K to go is both intimidating and liberating. The finish is tantalizingly there in front of you, but much like a mirage in the desert. You have to be careful, to get to the finish you still have to cross the desert. At this stage my mental defenses go up. I know I get unstable, I actually have balance problems off the bike deeper into the ride, and the constant vigilance that comes from knowing you are one foolish move, one second of inattention from going down and prematurely ending your ride takes a toll. I rode lots of this segment to Fugeres solo, at times I hooked up with other solos, but much was on my own. Here I saw the old women of the farms tooling into the towns on their bicycles, or on the way home with their baskets loaded with produce and the ever present baguette. I passed up several photo ops of this scene and I regret it. I did not want to be the voyeuristic American but really wanted documentation that this France, of rural stone cottages and barns, religious monuments and mamare on her velo to and from the market really does exist, it is not just a poster in a travel agents’ office.
I ate big again in Fougeres (914K). I took a little time here, I went to the controle office and checked with the computer for Brian,. At first I jumped for joy, as the fellow said he had checked through Tinteniac, but a moment later he said he had made a mistake and he was last checked through Loudeac. I had a sinking feeling but knew not to wait. In the cafeteria they had rice and it was great with beef gravy. I was hot but I was buoyed with the notion that I was ticking off the miles. 311K to go that was less than STP, no problem! (Obviously I’d had another cup of coffee!).
From Fugeres to Villaines La Juhel was a beautiful ride. I got into a rhythm, including the climbs. I just monitored my HR and stayed hydrated and picked off riders left and right. Now you start to see people in bad shape. Bad limping pedal strokes, people struggling to find a comfortable position on the saddle where there is no comfort, and those with the beginnings of Schirmers neck. A couple riders already sporting neck braces, reminded me that anything can happen. I had developed a saddle sore from sliding forward on the saddle, I stopped and made an adjustment to see if I could get myself back on the saddle.
The little village of La Hutte I think was especially beautiful. A large castle above a river crossing below, a sharp turn onto the bridge and a wonderful ice cream shop, (got a pic here in front of the cathedral).
Into Villaines La Juhel (1002K) the town was rocking! It was just getting dark and I knew I needed to press on to Mortagne before I slept. I went to the computer after checking at the controle to learn what I could of Brian. He reported that “the rider Monsieur List was fini, abandoned”. It hit me hard; I sat down, had a Perrier and cried for a bit.
At the cafeteria I was treated like some sort of returning war hero. I was exhausted and a little off balance, I’m sure they were probably thinking: “This one, should we allow him to eat or send him to the infirmary?” I got to the food line just as the day shift volunteers were being fed. No problem I thought, but a little old man comes running through the crowd and insists, “Ah non, monsieur, you must go to the head of the line!” He whisks me ahead of the workers in their yellow shirts, carries my tray for me, gets me soup, won’t give me the tray but insists I go through the line picking the entrees I desire while he loads them onto the tray. Then leads me to the cashier, where I pay. Once paid, the cashier motions me to stay and calls for little Claudette. A cute little school girl possible 12 or 13 comes up, gets my tray and leads me to a seat in the cafeteria. She’s beaming in her new school dress. Due to the fatigue, I’m on the verge of tears.
Is it the fatigue, or the poignancy of this moment, this bridging of cultures? I’ve ridden my bicycle right into a strange world that has existed for a very long time. Here I’m accepted as more than just a stranger on a bicycle. I’m some sort of distant kin, different but connected. It’s just all so bound in tradition and honor that I feel a sense of duty to finish this thing out. So many people going out of their way to help me achieve what I thought was a personal goal, but I am learning, is really a small part of something much bigger.
Fed and somewhat rested I’m back out to the bike and ready to go. The festive atmosphere, bright lights and music entice me to stay, but it is late now and I need to press on. I hope to find a group to ride with. Solo in the dark can be punishing when you are very tired. I catch on with a small group of Americans, a guy on a beautiful Rivendel, I stroke him about his bike hoping to get in his good graces. Just on the way out of town I’m having trouble clipping in. The last street light and I have to decide if it’s good enough to go, or should I stop and check this out in the light? I elect to stop, and it’s a good thing I did because my right cleat was loose, all three screws are still there so I get it as close to aligned as possible and tighten it down. I watch as the taillights disappear into the dark. It’s uphill; I have no power to catch back on.
As I start up the hill into the dark, I hear another group coming behind. From the language and the softness of the voices I can tell they are Italians or Spaniards. They are generally not too receptive to solo riders, but they tolerate me as long as I stay at the back. I think they actually appreciate my light, a Schmidt E6. They’re good riders but deign to put anything extraneous on their bikes and so ride with what I think is poor lighting. At the back there are a few other Americans and some Brits as well. The Spaniards take the lead in double pace line and lead straight as arrows and just at the upper limits of the pace I can sustain. I think if I can keep with these guys the ride to Mortagne should go well. It’s only 165K but lots of climbing and lots of riding through the country in the dark. I’m able to ride with them and again feeling like I’m actually getting stronger. My only concern is that when they bark out their commands I really don’t know what to do so I’m pretty vigilant. We stop at one point for one of their riders who has dropped his chain, I go up the road half a kilometer to stay out of the way, one of the Brits goes with me. We stop to wait and I comment on their beautiful riding and he says they are great to ride with so long as you don’t try to pull at the front. I know what that’s about from my Team Fish days at STP. At one point in one of the villages we miss a turn. Stopping at a roundabout, there is much discussion back and forth and three riders go out three different routes as the rest of us wait. In three minutes time they are all back and we know which way to go, excellent team work! We steam through climbs and rip through the chicanes in the villages; these are the tricky parts, riding a pack on these narrow streets with brief stretches of cobble and roundabouts. Locals are there even at the late hour to direct us and the traffic. At one point we overtake a solo rider who upon figuring out what’s up, speeds ahead. I can tell by the leaning tower of pizza on her rear rack that it is Charlene. She scoots ahead, and is off the front, but the pack is relentless in its steady progression and 10 minutes later we are on her again. As they say at Microsoft, resistance is futile! The groupetto slides smoothly to her left and as we pass, I say hi, just to let her know I’m in this group. 10 minutes later she motors up along side and we climb together through the mountains with the help of the Spaniards.
We enter a deserted little village and, just on the way out of town we come to an abrupt echelon left stop. There is a small brasserie, Choki, and it’s clear that these guys have been here before and this is an obligatory stop. Fine with me, a coffee, or a wine or whatever works. I have coffee, Charlene gets a frommage sandwich and lays down out side in the street (there are lots of riders lying in the street). He Spaniards crowd the bar and boisterously go for the wine. I finish my coffee and am antsy, more so for the coffee, but I really am enjoying riding with these guys. The atmosphere here is great, camaraderie among the nations! Wandering out from the back of the pub comes one of my team mates, Ray McFall. He looks like death warmed over, but upon seeing a friendly face he lights up. He was tired when he rolled in and, seeing this, the proprietor took him aside and said there is a cot in the back, go lay down and we’ll wake you in an hour. He’s ready to go and wants me to go with him. I explain the situation but he really wants to go and I know he’s a strong rider so take my chances with Ray. We catch some taillights going out and are on the way. Soon we are on top of a broad high plain, there is a bone white crescent moon hanging low in the sky. It is an incredibly beautiful night for riding. Ray and I trade pulls with a guy on a recumbent and in no time at all we are rolling into Mortagne (1084K).
We agree to eat, sleep for an hour in the gym and meet back at the bikes at 6:00. After eating (more rice pudding, yum!) I go to the gym, tell them my wake up time and am escorted to a mattress. I lay down thinking, I’m probably not going to get much sleep out of concern for being late, but a few moments later, a woman is shaking me awake from a deep sleep to say it’s time for me to go. I’m up and about ready to go but suddenly there is an undeniable urge to visit the toilette. 10 minutes and about 10 pounds later I’m really ready to ride. Ray is just righting his bike and says he was just getting ready to leave. I ask for time for a cup of coffee, and he says take your time. I get a great cuppa, and then we are away just as it is getting light. No need for reflective gear I think, the control gives me a side long glance as we are going out but I shrug and point to the east where the sun will soon be over the horizon, he smiles and waves me through.
It’s really cold and coming out of Mortagne (1082K) there is a lot of descending over rough roads. As we are headed down we hear a siren in the distance and Ray says “gee, I wonder what that’s for”. It can mean only one thing, rider down. Just as we are going out of the town and the hill drops sharply there is the ambulance in the middle of the road. I suggest to Ray that he mark the time: If we are held up along the route for emergencies, there is the possibility to add the time back. In the dim morning mist I can make out the rider, sprawled lifeless on the rough pavement. They are covering him up with a blanket and preparing to load him onto a gurney. He’s not moving. I rethink my strategy for making up time by bombing the descents into Nogent. What a horrible way to end your ride.
Now I’m in that state where I can see how far I have to go, and I can see how much time I have, but my mind is incapable of that complicated mathematical equation: distance divided by time, to come up with rate (or is it the other way around?) What I call my reptile brain state. The more I struggle with this, the more I get worried, and so arrive at the conclusion that, in order to get to Nogent within the time limit I just need to go “fast as hell”! I settle back and watch my HR, I see that I can keep from blowing by keeping it at or under 25KPH. I feel so strong, and am going so well, I really am at the point of believing, absent catastrophe, I’m going to finish this thing!
About half way into Nogent I warm up, and strip off the long sleeve jersey and leg warmers. The sun is up and my brain has warmed enough that I realize I have plenty of time to get to Nogent. I throttle back and watch the scenery slide by as the sun rises. Riders look punished, but most have that look of confidence.
About 10K out of Nogent I role up on Charlene again. She’s looking a bit haggard, says she’s having digestion problems. I offer a cliff bar and she perks up. Rather than dig through the handle barbag on the roll I suggest we pull over, I also have a banana and offer that which she attacks. She gets it about half way down and takes on that green bloom that can mean only one thing. I immediately move off a step or two thinking I really don’t want any part of this banana back. This makes her laugh, but she keeps it down and a few minutes later we are rolling into Nogent (1167K)! There is a real sense of elation here, a party atmosphere! I try to find a phone and am offered a cell phone from other SIR riders, I call Cathi’s number and ask her to let Sheila know I’m going to make it.
I wanted to wait for Ron since he got me to Mortagne, as I do, more SIR riders come in. We agree to all ride in together. I probably should have just left, I was ready, and they wanted to eat and I am sure I was a pain with my ‘hurry up lets go’ chant. But it all worked out, we came in as a group supporting one of the riders who was having stomach trouble.
It was a wonderful experience. I have only scratched the surface with this description. I have tons of other vignettes to relate, and I plan to. You’ll probably get sick of hearing them, if so, do let me know.
Before I went to France I wondered how Americans would be received. I must say, as hard as George junior has tried to muck up relations, the real international relations, person to person are in great shape. The French, in fact all the people I met were gracious, wonderful inviting folks. I only hope I was as good an ambassador as they.