Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Four Days of Paris-Brest-Paris

 I passed up going to PBP in 2007 despite qualifying with a series of brevets.  Among other things it was largely a lack of confidence that prevented me from committing to the ride.  As it turned out the bad weather that year would result in a high percentage of abandoning.  In that light I never regretted my decision to stay home.  I had four years to gain the knowledge and skills needed to enter with confidence.  I set my sights on the 2011 PBP as a long term goal.  I dramatically increased my training mileage as well as the number of long rides I took on.  I would complete a double series in 2010 as well as a 1,000 kilometer. Also, I repeated the double series in 2011.  When 400k rides started to feel easy it dawned on me that I might be up for the challenge of Paris-Brest.  With the encouragement of friends and the unflagging support of my family I signed up for the ride on the first day of registration. I continued to train relentlessly all the while working out my travel plans.  My friend Jon agreed to ride together and share hotel rooms.  Jon completed the ride in 2007 and speaks French quite well, which was a bonus for me who speaks French not at all.  The pieces all seemed to be falling into place.  I was still plenty nervous, but I had gained a degree of self-assuredness that was lacking in 2007.

Bike selection

Two days before the ride at the Stadium where PBP would start
The easiest bike to travel with is my Bike Friday - Pocket Rocket.  It folds and fits inside a normal size piece of luggage.  It’s easy to transport through airports and incurs no extra baggage charges.  Since acquiring the bike early in the season I trained substantially with it.  After completing the very hilly Catskill 600k on the 20 inch wheeled wonder I felt the bike had earned its ticket to Paris.  It proved to be a competent machine.  I noticed little difference in comfort or performance from my larger wheeled bikes. 

The Ride Plan

Deciding on our strategy for this 1200k was no easy task.  We would need to take some sleep along the way.  The options for sleeping on PBP are numerous.  First, there are dormitories provided at nominal cost available at most controls. The drawback is that the dorm can be noisy with exhausted bodies snoring, grunting and making other distracting sounds.  Not everyone can fall asleep in that environment.  Speaking for myself I can only do so when at the point of total exhaustion, reached on the later days of the ride when the cumulative sleep deprivation has really set in.  The other PBP sleep favorite is ditch napping.  Using a space blanket or bivey sack to grab some shut eye, when the need arises, at any appealing spot on the side of the road.  Finally, there is the hotel stop.  Reserving hotel rooms in the towns along the way is a good way to get quality sleep and a comfortable shower.

We would choose the hotel stop plan as our primary means of sleep.   The dorms and ditches would be an emergency back-up.  After much discussion it was settled that we would attempt to make the village of Carhaix, 325 miles into the ride, before sleeping the first time.  I was nervous about going so far without sleep.  The ride start was scheduled for 6pm Sunday.  If things went smoothly we would reach the hotel at almost 11pm on Monday night.  I didn’t want to think about what would happen if things didn’t go smoothly.  We booked a second hotel on the return trip in the village of Quedilliac, 517 miles into the ride.  It was anticipated that we would arrive between 10-11pm on Monday.  For the final 245 miles we would take sleep, if needed, wherever we could find a suitable place.  We anticipated finishing the ride in the 85 hour time frame, depending on how much additional sleep was needed.

The Start
Christine and myself suffering at the start
Shane and other New Jersey riders at the start

We learned that the first wave of starters for the 90 hour group would be 6pm with subsequent wave starts of 400-500 riders every twenty minutes thereafter until the entire field was away.  Our desire was to be in that first wave to utilize the maximum daylight available and arrive at our first sleep stop as early as possible.  Since the wave starts were on a first come first served basis we decided to arrive early.  At 3pm Jon, Christine and myself were on the street outside the Droits de Homme Gymnasium to be placed in cue for the start.  To our surprise there were hundreds of riders already there and more arriving every minute.  Our vision of a pleasant time lolling about and chatting with fellow participants was simply not coming true.  The day was quite hot with bright sun.  As we were joined by other New Jersey riders, Shane, Roy, Rob and Rene, we realized in order to hold our place in line we must stand in the street with our bikes.  There was very little shade to be had as we gradually inched our way forward into the stadium.  The special bike start, consisting of tandems, recumbents, and hand cycles, took place at 5:30pm.  After which we were admitted to the track inside the stadium.  A feeble attempt was made by organizers to supply some water to the waiting cyclists, but they ran out quickly and no further attempt was made. The worst of it was as time passed we realized for all our suffering we would not be in the first wave of starters.  Two groups left before us putting our start at 7:20pm, more than four hours after our arrival.  I was quite soured on the event by the cruelty of the starting procedure.  Surely there must be a way to organize the departure of riders without subjecting everyone to such a grueling ordeal just prior to beginning a 1200k.  However, all of this was quickly forgotten when the gun sounded and our group was released to the streets. The road leading away from the stadium was blocked from traffic and we were rolling down a four lane highway with no cars.  Furthermore, there were spectators lined up on the sidewalks, and gathered on the overpasses. To my astonishment, they were applauding, cheering, waving flags and yelling various phrases of encouragement.  We were flying along like the peleton of the Tour de France with the crowds giving us no less respect than that given to the idolized tour riders.  It was an experience unlike any other, one that will surely stay with me for a long time. 

The Ride – Day # 1
New Jersey riders on the road - Day #1
With the adrenaline rush of the start fading and the scenery changing from city to country we settled into a nice rhythm over the rolling terrain.  The first stop would be 86 miles away in the town of Montage au Perch.  We were in the company of several other riders from home.  Shane, Roy, Patrick, Steve and Rene were all nearby. Our bright colored club jerseys made it easy to keep track of each other.  It was a very pleasant beginning to our adventure. 

Despite being in more rural surroundings people were still applauding and cheering for us.  As we would approach small villages there were impromptu road side stands with water and food, given gratis to any rider.  The level of support from the local people was unwavering.  Children would line up along the road for high fives, touché as they called it. All of it was great fun and much appreciated.    
As night fell we pulled off to don our reflective gear.  After which our group would gradually splinter apart as each fell into the pace that suited them best. Jon and I stayed together with Rene joining us for a good number of miles. When he spotted some riders from North Carolina that he knew he took off after them. We would not cross paths with Rene again.  The terrain would get a little hillier as we progressed along.  It seemed like every village we passed we would descend into it, only to climb back out.  At one steep hill Jon pulled off to the side thinking I was back a bit.  I was only about twenty yards behind and passed by him thinking he saw me. It later became clear he didn’t notice me. I rode for a while with him nowhere in sight.  I thought about stopping to wait for him, but it seemed more productive for both of us if I just pedaled softly.  I assumed he would eventually realize I was ahead and chase me down.  Steve and Roy passed by while I was in the soft pedal mode and confirmed Jon was looking for me.  I continued my soft pedaling with Jon eventually pulling alongside.   As our mileage neared the point where the rest stop was supposed to be we entered a village with riders crowded around an outdoor stand selling water.  We assumed this was the official PBP stop and found a spot to park our bikes.  We needed water, and food.  I went to the stand and asked to purchase two large bottles of water and was informed they ran out.  There was a café right behind where I asked again for water and was given the same answer.  I inquired about food and was told they had none.  I couldn’t believe that they were so ill prepared as there were a lot of riders coming behind us.  How could they not have food and water.  At that point I learned from one of the riders that we had not reached the official stop, it was two kilometers further.  We regrouped and headed to the correct facility which was totally uphill from this point.  I was relieved when we arrived to see that the place had a full cafeteria with hot and cold food and plenty of water. We spotted Christine in the food line.  The three of us enjoyed a sit down meal together.  After which we would not see her again for the remainder of the ride.  She would go on to complete the ride ahead of us.
The marker at Villanes-La-Juhel (392k to Brest) just prior to dawn
Feeling completely rejuvenated we headed out to the next stop which was an official control at the village of Villanes-La-Juhel, about 50 miles further.  We would encounter some heavier climbing over these next miles, all ridden in the darkness with flickering taillights up ahead pointing the way to go. I’d never been on a ride with so many other riders.  It made it easier to stay on route as the signs pointing the way to Brest were harder to see in the darkness.  Just prior to arriving at the control we came upon a pastry/bakery shop that was open.  There were other riders stopped there so we decided to stop. I purchased a “Pain de Raisin” which was still warm from the oven.  Sitting on the steps of the shop, with a small group of riders, I enjoyed the most delicious baked item I’ve ever eaten. For me those pre-dawn minutes at that small village pastry shop were one of the high points of the ride. We would then ride up to the control, just about one-kilometer further, to document our brevet cards. Daylight was breaking though as we racked our bikes.  Having just consumed food we only needed to document our brevet cards and refill water. However, before departing I would take a brief nap on a rolled up piece of carpet on the perimeter of the cafeteria. 

Leaving the control from another direction we passed many sidewalk cafes in the village.  The outdoor tables were filled with riders eating breakfast.  We concluded that it was more efficient and better to eat at village eateries than wait in line for the mediocre control food.  The trick was to know in advance where the places were.  Mostly, we either did not know where to stop, or passed by at night when places were closed. 
Jon and myself at Lindl
The terrain was more moderate heading to Fougeres (55 miles away).  We were riding along at a comfortable steady pace.  We encountered some light rain showers off and on prompting me to wear my rain jacket.  After some time had passed Jon seemed to get quieter and more sluggish than usual.  Typically, his mood is exuberant and he normally has unlimited energy.  I asked if he was okay.  He confessed to feeling a little off.  Soon after he said he thought he could use some food if we passed by someplace.  Almost magically we came upon a Lindl market, which we learned is a chain of discount food stores in France.  A few other riders were stopped there.  I felt somewhat hungry myself as the sugary pastry breakfast didn’t have a lot of staying power.  We purchased yogurt, cookies and fresh fruit.  The food was ridiculously inexpensive, lending credibility to the discount theme of the place.  However, there were no spoons available to eat the yogurt with.  Some innovation would be needed to get the product from the container into ones mouth.  As it turned out the lack of spoons was not a concern.  The yogurt of France was of a different texture, more liquefied than the yogurt at home and a bit tastier in my opinion.  It could be sipped right from the container like a thick milkshake. Sitting outside the market on a covered patio of sorts I enjoyed pouring the yogurt onto cookies consuming the two products together. Combined with the fruit it made for a fine meal. Patrick stopped in shortly after us and joined in on the frivolity.  He took our photos later commenting that he had captured my image with yogurt on my nose.  I rated our stop at the Lindl market as another unexpected high point on the journey.
Tired riders sleeping in the road

Continuing on, the day would remain fairly overcast and cool.  This region of France is known for cool rainy weather during the summer months.  Surely, more rain would find us somewhere along the way, but for now the riding was pleasant.  We would arrive at Fourgers (mile 192) at the lunch hour.  Patrick was with us at the control. Jon went off to find a place to nap while Patrick and I waited in line for food from the control cafeteria.  After eating I took a table nap with head on folded arms until Jon returned.  We re-grouped and headed out en-route to Tinteniac which was 55 miles further.  Patrick would ride with us at times, then either zoom ahead or stop off unexpectedly.  He seemed to be riding in a very carefree style.  It was clear he was having a great time.  We enjoyed his company for the times he was with us, which would be numerous.  
"Mellow Yellow...Quite Rightly"

We covered the next section fairly efficiently.  Jon seemed to be feeling a little better, but said he was not really right.  He was sure he had a fever.  He confessed to having come close to abandoning at the last control.  I then realized he was really dealing with something, which caused me to be concerned. Despite that, he was riding okay.  Our arrival at Tinteniac (mile 225) was uneventful.  It was late afternoon (about 4pm).  We would grab some control food, refresh water, then head out to the next stop Loudeac 53 miles away.  While making our way there I began mentally calculating when we might arrive at our sleep stop which was still 100 miles away.  We were about three hours behind our ride plan, which would now have us arriving at about 2am. I was doubtful we would make it without some cat naps along the way.  It became clear to me this would be along day. 

Night fall came along this leg of the ride and with it the tiredness that one would expect from having been without sleep for more than a twenty-four hour period.  The terrain was a mixture of rolling to hilly.  Despite being ill Jon was still proficient at climbing.  In my tired state I simply did my best to keep from falling too far back.  We managed to keep ourselves awake, mostly by talking to other riders.  This interaction would force the brain into some state of alertness.  It worked especially well with riders from other countries who were capable at English but spoke with an accent.  The concentration needed to process the dialog was more intense bringing one to an even higher state of mental acuity.

Upon our approach to the village of Loudeac thunder could be heard off in the distance.  As we arrived at the control the thunder was accompanied by lightning flashes and soon after a deluge of rain.  Safely indoors we forced down some of the cafeteria food, which was beginning to get a little boring.  All the while the mother of all thunder storms raged outside.  Given our level of exhaustion, and the fact that it was about 10pm, we decided to purchase cots in the dormitory and attempt to get some sleep.  We agreed on a 1 ½ hour rest after which we would push on to the hotel to sleep a bit more.  Only a small number of cots were occupied inside the large gymnasium which featured more than one-hundred of them.  I was shown to a cot next to one occupied by the loudest snoring human I’ve ever heard.  Chewbacca would have been a more pleasant roommate.  Given the noise level it took 45 minutes for me to fall asleep.  We were awakened by the control volunteers at the time we requested.  I felt somewhat refreshed.  Fortunately, It was no longer raining so we hastily departed the control headed for Carhaix some 47 miles further. 
More tired riders sleeping in the village
Lots of climbing would take place on this section. The hills were of the short steep variety and seemingly never ending.  We encountered Tim Bol, the RBA from Central Florida, with a small group of riders from his region.  Tim remembered me from early in the season when I traveled to Florida on two occasions. We chatted for a bit with both of us commenting about the hills we were dealing with.  His group had found shelter during the storm in a garage and had managed to sleep there. We stayed with them for about twenty miles to the village of Saint-Nicholas-du-Pelem, where they stopped for food.  Jon and I continued over more hilly terrain to the control in Carhaix.  Our hotel was just past the control. I was looking forward to a shower and some additional sleep.  We grabbed a quick snack before leaving the control then rode to the hotel in town.  It was about 5:30am when we arrived. Roy and Shane were riding by en-route to Brest.  They stopped to see if we were okay.  They had put some time on us so we didn’t expect to see them until after the finish.  We checked into the hotel and were kindly shown a place to store our bikes.  We planned to leave the next morning at 8am. Despite thirty-three hours having passed since the start of the ride this would mark the end of day one.

The Ride – Day # 2
Jon racking up the miles

Our day would begin at 7:30am.  I dressed in fresh bike clothes retrieved from the shared drop bag we had at the Loudeac control.  With the previous night’s shower and additional two hours of sleep I was feeling more confident about our plan to ride 300k today. The hotel provided a great breakfast of crepes, croissants and yogurt. Jon appeared to be feeling better as we ate he talked excitedly about riding to the next control in Brest (the half-way point). I was glad for his enthusiasm.  We pushed off from the hotel shortly after 8am in a misty fog. Fortunately, the temperature was warm enough that we were comfortable.  Brest is a coastal city and a major seaport on the Atlantic.  It stands 58 miles from our hotel and is somewhat of a milestone as it would represent the 600k point.  From there onward our direction of travel would be back towards Paris and the finish.  The terrain is hilly with large rollers as well as the largest single climb of the ride which is called Roc Travezel.  We encountered many New Jersey riders on the way there.  Patrick was with us off and on as was Dan Aaron and Paul Murray who we encountered at most controls.  We rode through the misty conditions into the village of Sizun.  The place was really jumping as there were riders from the earlier waves coming through on the return.  We took a break at the village.  There was a small market where I purchased yogurt, fruit, and cookies.  This had become my food of choice outside the controls.  Jon and Patrick went across the street to get an espresso at the café.  I sat on the steps outside the market thoroughly enjoying the food, the sights, and the sounds of the place. 
The village of Sizun in full swing
Back underway the terrain was mostly the same to the famous suspension bridge just outside the city of Brest.  We would cross into the city via a pedestrian bridge just parallel to the unique looking auto bridge.  Once in the city we were routed through an industrial area on the waterfront.  New Jersey rider Roy Yates described it as Elizabeth, NJ without the refinery.  We then were routed uphill to the control on some busy roads. The climb through the city streets went on for quite a bit.  For the first time since arriving in France it appeared that drivers were annoyed that we were there.  The people of the city appeared too busy to care about the event.  The applause and cheers I had grown accustomed to was noticeably absent.  I was grateful to be off the road when we arrived at the control somewhat after 12pm.
Patrick at the bridge to Brest

 A bowl of soup and French bread was enjoyed as was the company of a number of riders from home.  Dan asked me if there was a train back to Paris as he was thinking of giving it up here.  I really didn’t know if there was, but I told him he should try going a bit further before making a final decision.  Dan had been through a lot to get here, having been hit by a car on a brevet in July of 2010.  He had multiple surgeries which finally resulted in a full hip replacement.  An ensuing infection dramatically slowed his recovery.  Despite being off the bike for such a long time and without his full range of motion he completed a full brevet series in New Jersey to qualify for Paris-Brest.  I really was rooting for him to finish.      
Jon leaving town
We left the city via a somewhat different route which was a bit shorter than the ride in.  Once outside Brest the route was the same.   We would climb all the same hills in the reverse direction.  It was a good feeling to be headed back.  We had 46 hours in which to complete the 600 kilometers to the finish.  I liked our chances at that point.  After a few miles of climbing I noticed Jon was taking the hills very well.  Even though he was sick he had not lost his renowned ability to climb.  As for myself I was a bit sluggish, slogging the Bike Friday up the bigger rises.  It was about 200k to our sleep stop with most of the route being hilly.  I was sure Jon could complete that distance two hours faster than me.  If he would agree to go on without me he would get more sleep which might help him recover from whatever he had.  I proposed the idea to him.  He pondered for a bit and agreed to go on.  Patrick was willing to accompany him for at least some of the way.  I assured Jon that I would be able to find my way to our hotel in Quedilliac.  With that I watched him and Patrick attack the next hill flying over the top.  It would be many hours before I would see him again. 

Riding on my own I suddenly took notice of how nice the day had become. The clouds and mist had blown away.  The views of the surrounding area were quite pleasant.  I settled into a comfortable pace over the hilly roads enjoying the sunshine and the scenery.  I stopped in Sizun for another yogurt where I came upon Bill Russell.  I had a four pack of small yogurts and consumed only two.  I gave the other two unopened ones to Bill before moving on.   I kept the same pace over the remaining miles to Carhaix.  I was conserving my energy knowing there was a long way to go.  I arrived at the control after 7pm in full daylight.  However nightfall was soon to be upon us.  I purchased some energy bars from a vendor inside the control.  It was the first pocket food I’d been able to find.  I pushed off without visiting the cafeteria.
One of many pace lines that were available

Night came quickly on this next section.  It was 50 miles to the next control in Loudeac.  Although, there was an optional stop in between, I hoped to be able to ride through.  I settled into the night riding mode.  It was an up and down affair consisting of some steeper climbs, although none very long.  I noticed that the directional signs, pointing the way to Paris, were much less visible in the dark.  Mostly, there were the taillights of other riders to follow.  But, on some occasions I would find myself alone.  I had to be careful descending fast not to blow past a turn.  This slowed me up some as I needed to be more conservative.  I managed to find my way to the optional control at Saint-Niicholas-du-Pelem, which I passed by without stopping.  The Loudeac control was now 28 miles away.  Hills would be the theme of the night as I continued on.  I was becoming quite sleepy.  At the point that I was really nervous about staying awake I encountered a rider on a Moulton, an English made folding bike.  He spoke with a British accent.  I engaged him in a lively conversation about what I have no idea.  The act of conversing with the friendly guy got me past the sleepy phase.  When Loudeac finally arrived I was hungry again.  I had eaten all the pocket food.  I did not want to spend a long time at the control.  I used the drop bag to get a fresh riding kit for the next day. The bike parking was packed so I assumed the food line would be long, but oddly there was no line.  I purchased a plate of mashed potatoes and water.  While eating at the table I was attempting to do the math on the remaining miles to the hotel.  I wanted to estimate my time of arrival. It was now after midnight and I knew I would need to sleep at some point.  Using my brevet card I calculated the distance at 52 miles. I had a pen but no paper, so I did the math on my forearm. With the current time quickly approaching 1am, I would not make the hotel until after the time we should leave. That would mean no time for any sleep.  I didn’t see how I would be able to do it.  I was resigning myself to being a DNF here at Loudeac, and wondering how I would get back to SQV.  Then, it occurred to me. Why stop riding?  I should be able to ride to the finish even if I ran out of time.  Later wave starts would still be on the route.  I would not be an official finisher, but I would have accomplished the primary goal of covering the distance.  It was what I came here to do.  So,  why not do it?  Secondarily, it solved the problem of finding an alternate way back.  I would make it there on my own. 

Leaving the control with renewed conviction I began the miles to the hotel.  I was worried about what Jon would do if my arrival was past the safe point to move on.  I was hoping he would continue on his way and finish within the time limit.  After riding for about 10 miles I started to re-think the numbers.  Our day was to be less than two-hundred total miles.  But the math done at the control would put me well over two hundred.  I looked again at the numbers I had written on my arm. Then it hit me.  The brevet card was in kilometers!  I was calculating the numbers as miles.  The distance was actually 38% less than I figured, which would be about 32 miles.  I was back in the game.  Although, I had resigned myself to finishing the ride out of time, I was far happier to be continuing with a reasonable shot at an official finish.  I pushed on passing through a few small villages.  Other riders were scattered around, but no one matched my pace.  Some were faster some slower, but, no one to ride along with for any amount of time.  I tried to have some verbal exchange with everyone I passed, or that passed me, to help me stay alert.  I finally arrived at the hotel well after 4am.  Jon had left me a note in the lobby with the room number.  The room was unlocked.  Jon was asleep.  Not wanting to disturb him I just changed into my night wear and got into bed. I would shower in the morning.  I fell asleep instantly and so ended day two.

The Ride – Day # 3
Villagers cheering for the riders on Day 3      photo by Shane B.
I was awakened by Jon at about 6:30am. I jumped up to take a shower.  After which there was a breakfast tray of tasty croissants, pastries, and hot coffee in the room.  I ate while getting dressed.  Our goal was to depart as close to 7am as possible.  That would give us a safe time cushion to the next control at Tinteniac.  Eating, dressing, then packing my Carradice bag all took some time.  We left shortly after 7am, but still with plenty of time to cover the twenty miles to the control.  Jon said he slept well but had still not conquered whatever illness had hit him.  Medical help was available at the controls, but, he was afraid the Docs would take him off the ride if they found he had a fever.  Feeling somewhat rested we pushed through the pleasant morning and arrived at the control at 8:30am.  We indulged in a little more breakfast and discussed a strategy for the day. What we settled on was to try to make it to Montagne au Perch at mile 675. From our current position it would be about 138 miles. The day total would be 158, somewhat less than the prior day.  I was game to try it as it would leave only 87 miles remaining for the last day.  We had intentionally not reserved a hotel for the final night figuring we would just sleep at whatever control, or park bench, suited our situation best.

Leaving the control we found ourselves on familiar more moderate terrain.  We were en- route to Fougeres some 44 miles away.  At that moment I felt good and was riding comfortably.  Despite having well over 500 miles behind with minimal sleep I had no issues of any consequence.  In time that would change.   We came across the Lindl market where we stopped on Day one.  We decided to visit there again.  Yogurt, fruit and cookies were once again the most appealing items.  We sat and had a pleasant discussion with a rider from Budapest who was fluent in English.  He was well traveled and knew much about the US.  We left the market with one sleeve of cookies remaining which Jon held in his jersey pocket.  For some reason we both seemed to get hungrier than usual.  I was eating constantly.  Soon after the market stop we arrived at Fourgeres 571 miles into the ride.  We would top up fluids and eat lunch before moving on.  Our next stop was Villanes-La-Juhel, 54 miles away.

Back on the road I started thinking about how we were fairing time wise.  We were just managing to stay about three hours up on the closing times.  We would make a little time up then give it back at controls, or extra stops. I would have to say our riding was less efficient than what we would normally accomplish on a domestic brevet. The reason in part was the time spent at the controls.  It simply took a long time to negotiate through the various things one needed to do at these mammoth places.  The additional stops on the road took time as well.  Jon and I were also having highs and lows at opposite times.  He was climbing quite well most of the time and I was not. There were times when I felt like I could hammer the flatter sections when he was not up for it.  None the less it was well worth it to have someone to ride with.  I’m not at all sure I would have managed this well on my own.  Jon’s prior 1200k experience was invaluable. 

A huge reception awaited riders at Villanes-La-Juhel
We stopped at a bakery in a small village where I ate another pain ‘d raisin.  It was quite filling and tasty.   The last few miles to the control were hillier.  Jon was climbing well.  On a large climb I lost sight of him when he pulled ahead of a group of riders. I rode the rest of the way to the control on my own.  When I arrived I didn’t see him anywhere.  I got my brevet card stamped.  After which, I continued looking around for him with no success.  I called my wife at home asking her to check the PBP website to see if he checked in at the control.  All the riders wore ankle bands that electronically documented one’s arrival. This information was automatically posted to the website.  However, one needed the frame number to search the database. I could not remember his.  There was a way to find it on line but my tired brain was unable to communicate this by phone.  Frankly, I wasn’t sure I would be able to do it if I was at this moment sitting in front of a computer. I ended the call to home and continued to look for him.  Quite a bit of time had elapsed.  I was determining how long I should wait before moving on when I spotted him walking across the bike parking area. There was a restaurant across the street where he had gotten something to eat.  I sent a quick text message home stating that I had found him.  Then we left the control together headed for Montagne au Perch where we planned to take our final sleep of the ride.  That was 50 miles away.  We had about an hour and a half of daylight remaining.

I had become accustomed to the hilly terrain leading to and from the small villages in this region of France.  It would be more of the same to the next control.  Once daylight was gone the miles ticked off more slowly.  At this point the cumulative fatigue was mind numbing.  It was hard to hold a conversation, but I would try to do so to retain some level of alertness.  Jon was still not feeling right and mostly, he was kind of quiet.  At times attempts to engage him in conversation didn’t work very well.  He would talk a little, but then fall quiet again rather quickly.  He was dealing with his internal issues in the best manner that he could.  I wasn’t really sure how he was managing to keep going given his circumstances.  He never openly complained about anything.  When I’d inquire how he was doing he would just say “a little blah.”  I was pretty sure it was somewhat worse than his description.  I think he resigned himself to the fact that he was not going to feel good for the entire ride. Somehow, he found a way to cope with it.

It would take the better part of five hours to cover the fifty miles to Montage au Perch.  En-route we passed scads of riders sleeping just about everywhere.  I was quite ready for sleep when we arrived.  It was nearly 11:30pm. We grabbed a quick snack. After which, we immediately headed off to purchase our cots.  Thankfully, they were available.  Quite like our prior experience with the dormitories, lots of loud snoring could be heard.  However, this time it mattered not.  I was asleep the second my head went down, which brought about the end of day three.

The Ride – Day # 4
Jon with cafeteria food
I was awakened by the volunteer at 1:30am.  I slept soundly, but more sleep would have been better.  None the less I rose myself from the cot.  We headed off to grab a croissant, then went out to the bikes. Outside we came across Patrick once again.  Steve Yesko was there as well.  I also caught sight of Ron and Barb Anderson preparing to depart on the tandem.  This was the first time we’d seen them since the start.  When they were being shown into the stadium ahead of us for the specials bike start.

We departed the control together with Patrick and Steve. The next, and final, control before the finish would be Dreux, 47 miles away.  Our last day would consist of only 87 miles.  I was mentally comfortable with that number.  We’d pushed ourselves, racking up miles, in the prior days.  This short final day would be our reward for that effort.

As it was to arrive, so it was to leave.  Large hills would greet us immediately upon departing the control. Many riders were leaving at the same time. Our little group broke apart quickly.  Steve had lost sight of Patrick in the first mile.  I lost sight of Jon as well.  I assumed he was somewhere up ahead in a sea of taillights. The area outside the control had little around, except for highway overpasses and occasional industrial complexes.  What it did have were big hills.  After a few miles of up and down I had a sudden and overwhelming need to take a nature break.  I was now riding alone so there was no one to tell that I was going to have to stop.  When I spotted a somewhat private area I pulled off.  Once back underway I wondered when I would run into Jon again.  It was very dark in this area.  There were a lot of riders on the road.  It was possible to ride past someone familiar without even noticing.  The hills kept coming and I was doing my best to maintain a rhythm up a long upgrade when I heard someone behind call my name.  It was Ron Anderson piloting the purple Burley tandem.  I rode with Ron and Barb for a bit, chatting about the ride. They were doing a very pure PBP,  taking all their sleep without the benefit of hotels.  I salute anyone who manages this distance without amenities.  While entirely possible to endure with fewer comforts it is mentally more difficult.  The hotel stop is like an oasis which can be looked forward to for many miles.  A clean shower and a bed with clean sheets can be a slice of heaven interjected into what at times may be hellish circumstances.  On a long downgrade the purple Burley whizzed past me.  Eight miles into the leg the terrain flattened out as we passed through a wooded area.  It was very dark and I noticed my head light was not putting out much of a beam.  The batteries would need to be replaced.  I found a place to stop where there was a fencepost to lean my bike.  I noticed the tail light looked a little anemic as well.  I decided to change all the batteries including that in my helmet light so I wouldn’t have to stop again.  This took some time to accomplish the task in the darkness.  It was well worth the time investment as I resumed riding in the bright beams of properly functioning lights. 

As the flat terrain continued I noticed I had developed a pain and tightness in the upper back area between the shoulder blades.  It is a common problem spot on long rides and one I’ve dealt with before. I switched around my hand positions trying to find one that would relieve it.  The pain was less intense with the hands on the tops of the bars. I rode for a number of miles that way.  Occasionally, I would remove one hand from the bars for a few minutes which seemed to help.  Finally, whether from dealing with the pain, or just cumulative fatigue I became sleepy.  With no one to ride with I felt like I might nod off on the bike.  Noticing people sleeping on the grassy areas beside the road I decided to pull off.  Wrapping myself in my emergency space blanket I slept for 15 minutes.  It was my first ditch nap of PBP, which came at about 700 miles into the ride.  It was quite refreshing and enjoyable.  I resumed riding through the dark forested area grateful for the flat roads.  As I drew nearer to Dreux I noticed some lightening of the skies.  Daylight would not be too far away.  We did not stop at Dreux on the outbound portion of the ride.  It was a control on the return only.  The area was quite built up, although very quiet in the pre-dawn hours.  I wound up falling in step with a small group of Aussie riders for the last few miles.  They spoke English, at least I think it was.  None the less, their company was enjoyed and helpful to me while navigating into the control.  I headed straight to the officials table to get my brevet card stamped.  My official arrival time was noted as 6:26am. I was now 40 miles from the finish.

I quickly found Jon in the cafeteria with a small group of friendly faces.  Among them was Dan Aaron.  I was pleased to see he had continued the ride. Jon was apologetic that we lost contact on the last section.  He had waited for me at one point, but when I didn’t arrive he thought I might be up ahead.  I certainly understood this as I spent time off the bike attending to various needs.  It was certainly reasonable for him to continue to the control and I told him not to worry about it.  I was glad he made it safely.  He was looking reasonably well and alert.  It seemed likely we would finish the event together as we’d originally planned.  I enjoyed a fresh croissant and cup of tea.  The French really know how to make bread.  After devouring the breakfast we headed out for the final section.  Daylight once again brought us a nice cool, clear morning.   We had 40 miles to the finish at Saint-Quentin-en-Yvellines.
The long and winding road to the finish

From Dreux we would ride on some flat terrain for a number of miles then it would change to somewhat more hilly.  The section included one steep pitch, which was quite a challenge to weary legs.  Some riders were resorting to walking up, although most managed to stay on the bike.  Jon climbed it quite well with me slightly behind.  From that point the hills were not substantial in grade or distance.  I became excited when the roads began looking familiar.  We had ridden this part on the Davis Bike Club pre-ride two days before the event.  We were really getting close.  I looked at my watch then proposed to Jon that we try to make it under the 87 hour mark by picking up the pace a little.  He didn’t seem too enthused about the idea, but didn’t object to it.  My strength is light rolling terrain.  I can pull along a decent pace for some time.  I took the front and increased the speed, but when I looked back Jon was not on the wheel.  After a few tries to get things going with the same result I concluded that he didn’t feel well and this was a stupid idea on my part.  What was the difference when we got in as long as it was before the 90 hour time limit.  Jon was simply too polite to tell me that my plan was dumb.  It took me awhile to realize it on my own.  I settled in to comfortably enjoy the last of the ride.  I noticed my upper back no longer hurt.

The Finish
Inside the stadium at the Finish

As we entered the city limits we would be directed on a circuitous route.  It was Thursday morning so there was some traffic around.  The stop lights were numerous and the timing had us waiting for most of them.  The crowds who had cheered for us so enthusiastically at the start were nowhere to be found.  It was a work day and people were busy.  Actually, it mattered not at all.  I was filled with good feelings for myself and everyone. I was grateful for the company of Jon and all the riders I knew, or just met along the way.  Even the time I spent riding alone was fulfilling.  As with most things that are painfully hard the mind simply chooses to remember the enjoyment.  I couldn’t recall feeling pain.
Jon's Bianchi and Mellow Yellow - Job Done
Jon, Dan and I rode the final few miles through the city together arriving at the stadium, along with a few other riders not known to us.  A roar could be heard from just outside.  To my surprise there was a crowd gathered inside. They responded by loudly cheering for us as we entered the complex.  It was another memorable moment, preceded by hundreds of other moments which remain burned into my memory.

 Inside the stadium we documented our finish with the ride officials.  Our time was 87 hours and 24 minutes.  We found a few other riders from home and posed for a photo.  A nice French rider took it for us.  There was a food tent which I took advantage of.  Then there was the task of packing up and riding the 7 kilometers back to our hotel in Voisin.  Upon arrival there we checked in to our room.  I showered and headed to bed.  Despite it being early afternoon I was asleep the moment I hit the pillow.  So ended day number four. 


I am sure the PBP adventure is about different things to different people.  For me the experience was cathartic.  The 1200 kilometers covered during the event represented only a part of the process. What I had to do to get there was equally important.  There were many self-imposed barriers in my way. The largest being fear.  Somehow, over the years I had developed numerous phobias.  I was uncomfortable with airplanes, trains, elevators, and, roller coasters.  I systematically exposed myself to the very things that bothered me.  I went out of my way to ride trains, elevators and roller coasters. I forced myself to be calm while partaking in these activities.  In some cases exposing myself to the point where things actually became routine, sometimes even boring.  However, The final frontier was flying.  I had not taken an airplane trip in over twenty-five years.  It was anxiety producing for me to simply purchase my ticket.  I continued with the other activities assuring myself that a roller coaster ride was far more intense than that of a trip on a commercial airliner.  When the day came to travel to France I was able to walk on the plane and strap myself in the seat.  I actually enjoyed the rush of the take-off, and the landing.  The rest of the flight was fairly mild.  On the return trip home I was seated next to a young lady who was very nervous.  At one point when the plane dipped unexpectedly she grabbed my arm in fear.  I told her calmly that everything was okay.  And, it really was.