Sunday, September 1, 2019

PBP - The Ride

After all the pre-ride drama, now it was just about time to get on with it. Marcia and I took several leisurely walks into Rambouillet and saw a number of friends there. Always one of the joys of Grand Randonnees - seeing friends that I've made around the world. One night we also went over to Huttopia and had dinner with friends from Australia. A wonderful evening and fun to catch up and talk about rides past and future. We also had dinner with Eric and Kathy and enjoyed comparing plans about the upcoming ride.

Pin exchange done!

It'll take more than a little rain to dampen our spirits!
A whole crew of good friends here!

The day of bike inspection and registration dawned much colder with rain. My pre-selected time was 10:15 so I left Les Viviales at about 9:15 for the 5K ride over. It seems others got there a bit earlier ;-)

I went through bike inspection then over to the registration building to pick up my packet and the jerseys I ordered then wandered around for a bit chatting with friends. Marcia had texted me that she'd come over so I spent some time looking for her during which I missed the RUSA group photo. Oh well, no American Randonneur cover for me :-(

Unusually for me, I'd slept pretty well the night before. After finishing registration, I rode back to the hotel, did a little bit of last minute faffing about then laid down and took a nap before going out for a light meal. 

I was in group J - 18:15 start. I once again slept pretty well then took a few short naps so I started the ride pretty well rested. That's one of the things that I like about a night start. Typically, for a more usual 4-5 AM start I won't sleep at all and start the ride sleep deprived. Even if I don't sleep well during the night, with a night start there's plenty of time for napping during the day.

With everything on the bike, I headed over to the start.

Ready to roll!
Although the start seemed every bit as chaotic as the registration, people at least seemed to be paying a bit more attention to their start time and not getting there too early. I guess nobody wanted to stand around for hours on end. When I arrived, I saw H-I-J-K plates and cut into the line with the I-J group. We self-sorted somewhat and I ended up with my friend Rob Tulloh right at the boundary between the two groups. We walked forward until the place where we got our brevet cards stamped then rode a short stretch to where a small boy was holding up a sign "I". They let Rob go through (and that was the last time I saw him) but stopped me. I was then at the front of the J group when they let us go through up to the actual start where I was 2nd in line - where I wanted to be.
Lining up for the start
Soon enough, they counted us down "5-4-3-2-1" and we were off at last!

As I said in my previous post, my goals weren't very lofty - finish inside the time limit and enjoy the ride. One of the things I was most concerned about for the entirety of the ride was getting caught up in a crash by large crowds of tired/inexperienced riders so I was determined that I wasn't going to be part of any pacelines and I stuck to that for the entire ride. I was actually rather pleased with how quickly the crowds thinned out at the start and for the most part I was able to ride with decent space around me the entire ride.

Rather than go through a rather boring day by day report, I'll comment briefly on some things that stand out as I write this a little over a week after finishing the ride.

The cold

It got really cold at night! I had plenty of stuff to put on, the gear I was wearing/carrying was good for a temperature range of mid-30's F and up. Here's what I had with the stuff I used in bold:
  1. Rapha early winter jacket
  2. Showers Pass rain jacket - I can layer this over the Rapha jacket. It flaps a bit when I'm wearing it by itself but that's a small price to pay for being able to have another layer.
  3. Reflective vest - I can layer this over both the Showers Pass and Rapha.
  4. Leg warmers
  5. Sun sleeves - I generally find these to be more useful/flexible than arm warmers. When it's cool but not cold they're just enough to take the edge off. When it's cold, they're an additional layer under a jacket. When it's hot, I pull them down (I only carry them for warmth, not for UV mitigation - I use sunscreen for that).
  6. Heavy and light finger gloves, fingerless gloves.
  7. Hat
  8. Neck gaiter that I can pull up over my head in balaclava fashion.
  9. Castelli Tempesti rain knickers.
  10. Showers Pass rain pants (in drop bag).
  11. Gore booties.
  12. Pearl Izumi toe covers. I wore these for a bit but decided the booties were more functional and not too hot so I just wore them when it was cool/cold.
For the most part, I was comfortable with the stuff that I wore. As the night wore on and I got increasingly tired I found that I'd get cold easily between 4 AM and sunrise but was comfortable enough when I was moving.

The plan

As I mentioned in my previous post, I have a spreadsheet that I use that takes distance and climbing between controls as inputs and calculates my average speed. I use this to calculate arrival times at controls/overnights and to put together an overall plan. Although I do carry an abbreviated version with me on the ride for reference, for the most part I don't pay much attention to it letting the conditions and how I'm feeling dictate how I ride and how long I stop. It is useful though to be able to quickly see what impact e.g., taking an hour longer at an overnight will have on subsequent arrival/departure times.

A couple of other key parts to the plan were to minimize time at the controls. I started each day with two sandwiches and a number of energy bars, gels, etc. When I got to a control, I'd get my card signed and then have a look at the food line. If there were more than 5 people in line I'd pass and buy one or two Cokes - never a line for those. I would then stop on the side of the road somewhere and eat. Zero time spent waiting at the controls. Not huge but it adds up. I did end up eating at the controls at Saint Nicolas du Pelem, Carhaix and Brest.

A second very important part that I have to acknowledge is the wonderful support that Marcia provided. When I got to an overnight she'd already checked in to our lodging and bought dinner/breakfast so all I had to do was go to our lodging where I'd shower while she made food. Shower, eat, bed. The amount of time this saved me was huge not to mention I got to eat good food and get some good sleep. One of the many reasons why she's the light of my life!

So how did I do relative to plan?
As you can see, I was ahead of schedule in to Loudeac on the first day - this despite a headwind that started at 5 AM and lasted the rest of the way in to the overnight. I was somewhat behind plan on the second day, 54 minutes later into the second overnight than I'd planned, and 3:40 behind plan on the 3rd day - this was by choice. I had a decent amount of time in hand so just elected to make somewhat longer stops. I made this up somewhat on the 4th day and finished about 2 hours over my plan. Not bad for a 1200K.

Along the way

Some things that stand out during the ride.

Late night on day one

Very late on the first night (about 4 AM) I was getting low on water. I saw a couple of guys ahead with a table set up giving out water. It was really cold and they'd been hitting the "antifreeze" pretty hard...

I got my water bottles filled and they asked me where I was from. I'd learned earlier not to even bother saying "Wisconsin" since nobody knew where that was (in fairness, I can't identify the location of more than 2-3 French departments) so I said "United States". I then pulled out a couple of the pins I had made (more on that below) that had "Wisconsin Cycling" on them and gave them the pins. 

Our friendship moved to the next level ;-) Every minute or so one of them would say "Eau" and I'd say "compleat". They offered gateau but I wasn't hungry. They became increasingly frustrated that I didn't want anything else. Finally, they offered a banana and I took one so everybody was happy. I said adieu and I'd see them on the retour (I didn't - they were likely hung over).

A scary near miss

While on the descent down Roc'h Trevezel into Brest I was about 10 feet behind and just to the right of the rider in front of me. We were going about 50 KPH and as it happens, I was looking at him and everything seemed normal - going straight, both hands on the hoods, not messing around with bags, GPS, etc., when all of a sudden he went to sleep! He fell over sideways and crashed hard and it was all I could do to avoid hitting him. I swerved and then braked hard once I'd missed him to see if he needed help but saw in my mirror that 3 riders behind me had already stopped so I went on. This was probably the scariest incident I experienced on the ride.

Another scary near miss

Another incident that I saw that could have been a real disaster happened on day 3 on the way into Villaines -la-Juhel. A large group of 25-30 riders passed me (remember, no pacelines for me) as I neared the crest of one of the endless long climbs on that part of the route. A commercial van was behind them and I saw one of the riders at the back wave the van on so it pulled around to pass - straight into the path of an oncoming commercial van! Fortunately, the oncoming van had a place where it could pull over and avoid either a head on collision or the passing van crashing into the group. In one paragraph I've just explained why no pacelines for me at PBP.

A lasting memory

I had passed through a small village. I didn't really need anything so I didn't stop. As I was leaving, I saw a family that had set up a table to give out water and snacks. Since they were at the exit of the village and most riders who needed anything had already stopped they weren't getting a lot of action. The family included two young boys, aged about 9-10 and one of the boys was in a wheelchair.

For those who've never done PBP, kids of a certain age love to hold out their hands to exchange slaps with passing riders and that was the case here - both of the kids were holding their hands out. I got the first one but missed the boy in the wheelchair.

That wouldn't do.

I turned around, reached into my jersey pocket and gave them both one of the pins I had made up and a high five.
Their mother started to cry and kept patting me on the shoulder saying "merci". Their father offered me water, gateau and anything else they had on the table. I didn't need anything so I said "non". He then went into the house and brought out some rice pudding (which I love on a long ride!) and a spoon to eat it with.

I then posed for pictures with the kids and my bike (sadly, with their camera as I'd decided to leave mine in my drop bag that day).

A wonderful meeting that I'll never forget.

The coming of the dawn

There is something magical, spiritual, mystical, pick your favorite adjective about the dawn when you've been riding all night. This is especially true when the night has been cold. Those hours just before the dawn when everything is quiet, still and when the night is at its coldest seem unending. On one hand, they have a beauty of their own - quiet, the whole world is reduced to the beam of your headlight and tail lights in the distance. On the other, that's when it's coldest and although you feel like you're riding at a reasonable pace the GPS doesn't lie - you're crawling.

All that changes with the first light of dawn. My friend Patrick captured it well:
Here are a few shots of the dawn on the final morning. NB: I've added attribution where I knew the source of the photo but there are a couple whose provenance I don't know. If you're the photographer or you know who was, please leave a comment so I can give them credit for the beautiful pictures.

Photo by Luke Heller

The French

PBP is unparalleled in terms of the support that the community provides. I can't tell you how many times I was riding along through some small village in the middle of the night to the sound of applause - one person hanging out their window clapping as I went by at 4 in the morning. Just amazing! 

Seeing three generations (and sometimes four) on the side of the road offering water, cakes, beds, etc. I recall on the first night at 3:30 in the morning in the middle of nowhere a man and his son filling water bottles. They must have had a few hundred liter bottles of water. Just amazing. The kindness and support of the French was inspiring, humbling and very much appreciated.

OK, minor rant here. I saw a number of riders who basically just ignored the people clapping and cheering on the side of the road. Seriously? When was the last time anybody applauded anything you did? At 4 in the morning? These people have in some cases been standing there for hours, the least you can do is acknowledge their presence. Don't be a dick.

Here's a more conventional ride report:

Day One, Rambouillet to Loudeac: rode well all night and day. Arrived at Loudeac about an hour ahead of plan. Fought a headwind that started at 5 AM and lasted all day but rode strongly. Felt good all day. Got in to Loudeac about 17:00 and left at 02:00 (9 hours)
Day Two, Loudeac-Brest-Loudeac: felt like I was slogging all day. Near miss on the descent from Roc'h. Climb out of Brest wasn't bad at all, rather enjoyed it. Got in to Loudeac a little less than an hour behind plan. The obligatory bridge photo at Brest:
Photo by John Lee Ellis

Day three: Loudeac to Mortagne. 7 hours off the bike at Loudeac. The stretch into Villaines was probably the low point of the ride for me - it seemed like it was one long, 4% climb after another and it was HOT! I kept my morale up by going into "one step at a time" mode - get to Villaines then an overnight in Mortagne. Arrived in Mortagne about 9 PM feeling pretty good and seriously contemplated going on to the finish. This would have had me finishing at 2 AM in a little under 80 hours. In the end, I decided not to go on because (a) I had a room booked in Mortagne so why not use it? and (b) I didn't have anything booked at Rambouillet and didn't know whether they had sleeping facilities. The idea of a ditch nap after finishing wasn't all that appealing.

Day four: Mortagne to Rambouillet. Woke up feeling great, loved getting back on the road and the bit of climbing to warm up leaving Mortagne then enjoyed rolling along on the flat with Steve Rice and Dave King into Dreaux. Rode the last stretch by myself and briefly considered hanging around for a while to become an official member of the Adrian Hands society but the horse had the bit between it's teeth and smelled the barn (OK, enough with the western metaphors) so I rode on into the finish. My rear eTap battery went dead about 5K from the finish (not surprising given all of the climbing and requisite shifting on the brevet). I had a spare battery and thought about taking a minute or two to change it but decided hell with it and "dingled" in to the finish. Cheering crowds, a sketchy finish (nice loop through deep sand and gravel there ACP!) and done. Got my card signed and finishers medal (Wow! that's one big shiny medal!).
One happy guy!

Unofficial results

As I think I said at the beginning of this report or maybe the previous post, my goals for the ride weren't very lofty: finish inside the time limit, enjoy the ride.

Mission accomplished.