Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Heaven in the Heartland: The Holy Kettle 205K

As I was frantically tying up loose ends and packing for a trip to Milwaukee, where my wife is working on her MFA this summer, I thought all hope for an R-12 was lost. Then it dawned on me to check the RUSA database to see if I could locate a suitable permanent route in the area. When I contacted Ted D., the owner of the Holy Kettle 205K, not only was he happy to accommodate my last-minute request, but he also offered to throw a bike loan into the bargain! While I figured I could arrange a rental from an LBS in the area (or ride on the Brompton I brought along to explore Milwaukee), Ted was more than happy to dial-in one of the beautiful machines in his collection to meet my exact specifications. So rather than ride some assembly-line special, I found myself enjoying the company of a gorgeous Rivendell complete with 650b balloon tires, bar-end shifters and handlebar bag. I felt like pinching myself at several points during the day in fear that I might be dreaming.

The Holy Kettle 205K gets its name from a mash-up of two of its most defining features. After leaving the northern edge of Milwaukee along the shore of Lake Michigan, the route heads due west to a church known as the Holy Hill Basilica, located high on an outcrop above the verdant farmland below. The climb up the "holy hill" gets one's attention, yet the rider is rewarded with a peaceful setting high above the troubles of the world. After a brief stop at this control, I rode back down to earth to continue my journey north through the Kettle Moraine region, a beautiful area left behind following the last ice age that features smooth rollers as far as the eye can see. The headwinds were manageable throughout the morning, but took a little bit of the joy out of riding through the picturesque expanse of farmlands I saw before me on this first half of the ride.

The northwestern corner of the route, located within the boundaries of the Kettle Moraine State Forest, requires some climbing along lightly traveled scenic highways to reach. The control is located at a small shop run by a kind and welcoming couple who had clearly seen a few cyclists riding through over the years. As the sun had been beating down on me for the past several hours, a bottle of cold Gatorade and an ice cream cone really hit the spot. Bottles filled, I headed out to the east again in search of Lake Michigan and the tailwinds I was sure to encounter along the way.

The ride east from the third control begins with a series of welcome descents away from the park and into the more open farmland below. The roads along this section are generally smooth and straight and afford the rider plentiful views of the countryside that contributes to Wisconsin's well-deserved reputation as America's Dairyland. The penultimate control is found in the small village of Oostburg, close to the banks of Lake Michigan. The last stretch of the route that follows is divided equally between paved rail trail and sections of Lake Shore Drive, which seemed to be a very popular after-work cycling destination as I passed dozens of cyclists heading north out of Milwaukee on this fine summer evening.

It occurred to me, as I rode this last section of the route, that I had not heard a car horn nor had I felt the slightest bit of hostility from anyone I met along my entire journey. It was as if cycling along these farm roads was perfectly natural. No one made me feel like I did not belong. Cars and trucks gave me a wide berth on the roads and people waited at stop lights to allow one another plenty of time to pass. No one appeared to be in a hurray and no one seemed filled with rage. The theme of this day was certainly rooted in Midwestern hospitality, from the bike I was riding to the roads I was crossing, everything seemed to be conspiring to improve the quality of my life. I feel as though I had been served a slice of randonneur heaven. Luckily, my wife's graduate program continues next summer; I will definitely be back.

As an added bonus on this 10-day trip to Milwaukee, I was able to watch a former student of mine race as a pro in the Downer Classic, one of several stages in the Tour of America's Dairyland. It was my first criterium and boy was it exciting! I only wish they had organized a Brompton category.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

A Tale of Diminishing Returns: The Blue Mountain 400K

I don't think I've ever clipped in for a long ride without wondering what I left behind. At the first turn on the recent Eastern PA Blue Mountain 400K, I realized that this time around it was my wallet. Now, I can scrounge and forage with the best of them, but a flask of Hammer Gel, a few Clif bars and two bottles of water really didn't strike me as a large enough stash of rations with which to set off on a 250-mile journey, so I turned back to collect my money and begin again. It would be some time before I reconnected with the group, but my ride through the misty early morning hours along the Delaware River was exceptionally beautiful and reminded me of why I love to get on my bike before dawn to see a world that most people don't even know exists.

After 30 minutes or so I came upon my first randonneur repairing a flat by the side of the road. Establishing that he had all of the necessary tools, I continued on feeling noticeably more comfortable to be riding within the rando-fold. It was not long before I encountered several other randonneurs who were either currently or just recently dealing with issues that caused them delays. One of these was Jan D., who had just repaired a flat when we fell into riding at a common pace. My story made him realize that he too had forgotten his wallet and that combined with some unexpected house guests back in VT made him almost throw in the towel. He decided to hang in, though, and by the first control we ran into several other riders with whom we would spend large chunks of this brevet.

It was great to see volunteer Gil L. along the way with his broad smile and comforting knowledge of the route. By late morning, Gil was joined by Doug H. who eventually took over and hooked me up with some valuable chain lube in advance of the impending storm. The current Blue Mountain 400K route does not contain any particularly epic climbs, but like many of the the Eastern PA events, what it lacks in drama is made up for in choppy repetition. We stopped mid-day for lunch at a diner with table service and a nice outdoor seating area. The rains had held off, but the skies became more threatening as the day wore on so it was clear that we would get wet before too long. Doug, who had been tracking the storm on his phone, showed us a dramatic radar image of a wall of intense thunderstorms coming from the west.

The skies became increasingly ominous as we headed into the expansive farmlands of Lancaster County with the option to ditch into an available barn balancing the panic of being trapped in a thunderstorm out in open fields. Fortunately, the ominous skies never lived up to their full potential and we never suffered more than some passing showers throughout the event.

The group with whom I rode hovered between three and seven throughout the day, but ultimately settled into just Jan and me riding together for long stretches of the afternoon and evening. As luck would have it, I became extremely fatigued in the final hours of the ride and found myself having to stop every 20-30 minutes to close my eyes for fear of falling asleep on my bike. As a result, our pace slowed to a mere crawl and I felt increasingly sorry for Jan who hung in like a trooper to keep me from crossing the final stretches of the ride alone. It probably would have been more efficient to lie down for a proper nap, but each short rest provided the illusion that I would be able to carry on to the finish without sleeping.

As we slowly turned our cranks on the final approach to Quakertown, we saw lights approaching from the rear and were rejoined by two additional riders who had been following at a slightly slower pace. When we finally arrived at the hostel, the clock would confirm that it took us just over 24 hours to complete a ride I had planned to finish in 20. So much for muscle memory. I guess my lack of training and sleep during this busy spring caught up with me.

Up Next: the Catskills SR600 in two weeks. 30,000+ feet of climbing in 600K. What am I thinking?

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Old Saybrook 300K: Simply Perfect

How is it possible that I haven't posted anything to this blog since January? It certainly can't be due to my outrageous training schedule. Those plans didn't fall into place as I had hoped. I guess things just got busy around here with work and family and there didn't seem to be much to write about in the doldrums of winter. Now that spring is here, though, I feel reborn as a randonneur.  Recently, I was presented a nearly perfect brevet experience. The weather was ideal, the route was spectacular and well-suited to early spring riding and the company was quite pleasant.

I've wanted to ride the Old Saybrook 300K out of Westfield, MA for many years, but the timing never seemed to work out. This season, though, it fit into the spring calendar just perfectly. The route is advertised as "moderately hilly," but it seemed mostly flat to me as I pedaled with enthusiasm from the foothills of the Berkshires down to the Connecticut shore and back. While I haven't gotten out for as many long rides as I would have liked, perhaps it was the rest immediately before the event that left me feeling full of energy.

It was great to see Bill R. at the start, but I knew that with his sleek velomobile well-suited to the terrain this would be the last we saw of each other for the day. Little did I know that Bill would rack up a personal best on this route with a nearly 10-hour finish. After RBA Don P. said a few words to those assembled at the 6:00 am start, I quickly fell in with a spirited group at the front and hung on until just before the first control when I decided to back off the pace a bit to preserve my stores for the long ride ahead.

My favorite section of the route was the state park we crossed on our way to the shore, which was peaceful and beautiful with the early spring sunshine cascading through the trees. The pavement felt like butter under my new tires. I'm a sucker for a ride with a destination and the Connecticut coast did not disappoint with deep blue water glistening in the mid-day sun. The rest stop at the turnaround just a few feet from the beach was maintained by a very enthusiastic group of cyclists from a local cycling club who pulled out all the stops to provide world-class care and feeding. After a tasty barbecue chicken sandwich, I was back on the road again.

I reunited at the controle with two of the fast riders I had been riding with earlier in the morning and we continued on together for the second half of the day. I had ridden with Simon and Jan on previous brevets and it was great to catch up as we enjoyed the weather and the route on our way back to Westfield. After the penultimate control, when we started to smell the barn, I could hardly contain my enthusiasm. Luckily, since I had held back a bit in the morning, I still had plenty of energy under the hood. As a result, I jumped to the front of our little group and laid the hammer down for the last 20 miles into Westfield.

I had privately set a goal of finishing within 13:30 as this was both my time on a different Westfield 300K route last year AND the time at which we were required to switch on lights and don reflective gear. These were both motivating enough to keep me going and I was pleased to end not only within my target time, but also without having to stop to set up my lights.

Up next: "The Return of the Five Boro Bike Tour" starring George and Elias

Sunday, January 24, 2016

My Lucky Day: No Snow as Far as the Eye Can See

As the latest Snowpocalype devastated our southern neighbors, we were blissfully spared her wrath. So while my Facebook feed filled with images of shovelers up to their waists in snow, I took to the roads to enjoy a brisk afternoon along the icy Hudson River. It's a bit late in the month to be riding a permanent route that I'm hoping to apply towards a P-12 award, so my nerves were percolating this week as the forecast for a snowstorm of Biblical proportions intensified. Having missed a P-12 award last year (presented by RUSA to riders who complete at least one permanent route between 100K and 200K each month for twelve consecutive months), I am determined to finish what I began this past October.

The sky was a lovely crystalline blue this afternoon and the ambient temperature hovered around freezing. With a slight 5-10 mph wind out of the northwest, any extra work was front-loaded into the first half of the ride as I made my way north to Red Hook. Along the way, I stopped at a waterfront park managed by Scenic Hudson, our local Hudson River preservation champions who had recently created a small teaching area right at the water's edge. The sign above is a helpful reminder of where we stand relative to our neighbors and my proximity to the river allowed me to see not only the historic lighthouse off in the distance, but also the various ice formations arriving at long last from the north.

The roads were generally quiet today, but there was some pedestrian activity at the Bard campus with students returning from winter break and in Rhinebeck, which always seems to enjoy a festive atmosphere. As I followed the riverside roads south of the village, though, I was often the only one in sight for long stretches, which suited me just fine. Perhaps the storms to our south kept the tourists and weekend warriors closer to home today. Even the Walkway Over the Hudson was quieter than usual for a Sunday in January. As a result, there were not many witnesses to see the magnificent ship being pushed northward by a strong tug as it made its way beneath the span on which I stood. While I completed the route successfully, in February I'll be sure to plan my P-12 ride in the first half of the month assuming the weather cooperates.

Friday, January 1, 2016

As 2015 Ends: My Festive 500 Recap

For the fifth year in a row, I've rung in the New Year by participating in a global cycling challenge sponsored by Rapha known as the "Festive 500." The premise is simple, log a minimum of 500 kilometers between Christmas and New Year's Eves and post evidence of your progress on Strava, Instagram, Twitter, etc. This year over 61,000 riders signed on (or at least clicked the "join challenge" button on Strava) yet fewer than 10,000 completed the challenge successfully.

As with most endurance training, it wasn't the distance on the bike that made the challenge so difficult, but rather finding the time to log the miles. Fortunately, my work schedule is very light at this time of year, but with my daughter home from college and various houseguests and holiday parties to contend with this week, I wasn't sure that a full day in the saddle would go over so well. As a result, I planned to get out for medium-sized rides over the course of five or six days. Unfortunately, I didn't follow the classic randonneuring strategy of front-loading my riding distance as a precaution against the unexpected. As a result, when a curveball arrived to derail my plans, I found myself with 250 kilometers left to ride in the final two days. Luckily, the weather (thanks to climate change and El Nino) cooperated so we were blessed with mild temperatures for most of the week and I was able to complete the challenge without too much difficulty.

What I really love about the timing of this challenge is that it falls after a time of rest and recovery just as planning for the year ahead begins in earnest. Reflecting on the past year and planning for the one to come are best done sitting in the saddle of a bicycle, so most of my hours on the bike this week involved remembering the highlights of 2015 and fantasizing about what the future holds. 2015 was an incredible year. Work and family could not be better and I was finally able to conquer a major life goal by completing Paris-Brest-Paris and thereby symbolically and fully returning to randonneuring following my 2010 accident. I have exciting plans for the year ahead and am very grateful that 2016 has finally arrived. 

Keep the rubber side down.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Avascular Necrosis: Two Words I Really Did NOT Want to Hear at the Doctor's Office

Well, the dreaded day has finally arrived. I was just diagnosed with a case of avascular necrosis of the left femur. While I knew this was a possibility, I was hopeful that I would be able to hide among the 70% of hip fracture patients that do not wind up in this category.

Avascular necrosis is a fancy way of saying bone death due to blood loss. In my case, the condition is the result of a femoral neck fracture I sustained when hit from behind by a car on a 1000K brevet in Eastern Pennsylvania in 2010. The femoral neck is the narrow section of bone that connects the "ball" of the femur with the rest of the leg bone and when mine was shattered the surgeon immediately put it back together with the addition of several pins and screws. [See lovely illustration below]. I've not regained the full range of motion I once had in my left hip, but pain has not really been a factor . . . until recently. Over the past year, I've noticed a subtle weakening of and soreness in my left hip that's particularly evident when I get up from sitting in a soft chair or the driver's seat of my car after a long drive. I haven't yet developed a pronounced limp, but increasingly it takes me a few steps to sort things out.

In cases of avascular necrosis, the bone slowly dies as the result of inadequate blood circulation. There's nothing to be done to slow, stop or reverse the process and eventually, the joint will simply collapse into more of a "block and socket" than a "ball and socket." The great news here is that my cycling is not dramatically affected and does not contribute to making the condition any worse. The bad news is that it's only a matter of time before I will need a total hip replacement. So what's next? Well, my orthopedist suggests that I continue to live my life and enjoy my time on the bike with the addition of some strengthening and stretching exercises to keep things strong and limber. I'll be heading back for a follow-up visit in a year unless I notice any dramatic changes and it may be 3-5 years (or longer!) before I need a new hip.

My goal this year is to continue to strengthen my overall performance on the bike. I hope to build greater endurance, speed and climbing fitness with the overall goal of strength and comfort rather than a podium finish. Floyd Landis may have been able to win the Tour de France on a broken hip, but I'm shooting for something a bit less dramatic (and less drug-fueled). While I was hoping that 50 was going to be the new 30, at least it looks like won't be the new 70.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

My Coffeeneuring Round-Up (2015)

Autumn is a lovely time to be alive in the Hudson Valley and this year was no exception. In fact, it's been one of the most spectacular years anyone seems to remember. Mild temperatures, dry weather and gorgeous foliage have all contributed to create pretty much ideal riding conditions. While work and family demands kept me off the bike more than I would have liked, I was still able to get out for some remarkable riding and the Coffeeneuring Challenge helped me to make this happen for a fifth year in a row.

Coffeeneuring helps us celebrate and enjoy not only the coming of fall, but also the restful transition between the intensity of summer riding and the buildup to base-training for the cycling season ahead. No wonder this global phenomenon is so popular!

Ride 1 (October 17)
The Mudd Puddle - New Paltz, New York
3 miles
Double espresso

An important autumn ritual involves bike maintenance at the end of a busy season of riding. I stopped at the Mudd Puddle, one of my favorite cafes in New Paltz, on my way to the Bicycle Depot to have them investigate some shifting trouble I was experiencing. Turns out I needed a whole new drive train. Maybe I should have had something stronger than a double espresso. Ack!

Ride 2 (October 18)
Fika - New York City
8 miles
Black coffee and a blueberry muffin

While I had to work in NYC on this particular Sunday, I made sure to stop off for a coffee and a muffin on my way downtown from Grand Central. I was finally able to justify an annual CitiBike membership now that the network has spread above 59th Street and riding in NYC never gets old. It may have been the most expensive cup of coffee in this series, but it sure hit the spot.

Ride 3 (October 24)
Minnewaska State Park - New Paltz, New York
25 miles
Hot chocolate and chocolate covered macaroons

My daughter arrived home for a week-long college break just as the leaves reached peak form. I took the opportunity to swap my road tires for a pair of Clement 35mm cyclocross tires and we hit the gorgeous carriage trails in Minnewaska State Park to enjoy the season in all its glory. Since there were no coffee shops for miles around, we decided to fill a Thermos with hot chocolate and brought along some gourmet chocolate macaroons for nourishment.

Ride 4 (October 25)
The Apple Bin - Esopus, New York
14 miles
Black coffee and an apple cider donut.

One of the several short rides I was able to fit in this fall brought me to the local Apple Bin farm stand where I was able to enjoy a hot cup of black coffee and a fresh apple cider donut, one of their seasonal specialities.

Ride 5 (October 31)
The Bakery - New Paltz, New York
51 miles
Black coffee and a classic black and white

On my longest ride in the series, I arranged to meet up with my friend Doug, a fellow PBP ancien, to explore the carriage trails in Mohonk Preserve while discussing our travels to Paris in August. On the way home, I stopped at The Bakery in the village of New Paltz for a hot cup of coffee and a classic black and white cookie just in time to see the award-winning pumpkins in the annual Halloween pumpkin contest.

Ride 6 (November 14)
Slabsides - West Park, New York
4 miles
Black coffee

I spent the penultimate day of the challenge blowing thousands of leaves off my lawn with a rented leaf blower. As a result, there was no time for riding until sundown when I grabbed my bike, a light and some coffee and headed for the top of the ridge behind my house to the site of John Burroughs' rustic Slabsides cabin to watch the sun set.

Ride 7 (November 15)
Shaupeneak Ridge - Esopus, New York
10 miles
Black coffee

I spent the final day of the challenge on some important seasonal house chores, but I was also able to get in one final ride up Shaupeneak Ridge as the sun fell low in the sky. Thank goodness for the Coffeeshop Without Walls rule or I would not have made it this year! Thanks too, MG, for all of your Coffeeneuring leadership. Onward to 2016!

Monday, September 7, 2015

Paris~Brest~Paris as Seen in the Rear View Mirror

To say that my recollections of Paris~Brest~Paris are impressionistic is as clich├ęd as it is true. I have many memories, some vivid, some faint, but they are not tied together neatly into a linear time sequence despite my best efforts to reconstruct a logical narrative of my adventures. This has been one of the most challenging writing assignments I’ve faced since sophomore year in high school. How do I capture the magic of PBP? Where do I start? How do I end? Ultimately, I’ve chosen to present my memories in a thematic fashion to try to make some sense of the whole experience while leaving the chronology behind.

As I’ve written many times before, PBP was a goal toward which I have worked for many years. After being struck by a car in 2010 while training for PBP 2011, I was faced with many months of hospitalization and rehabilitation and a long period of rebuilding both strength and technique so that by 2015 the time for redemption had finally arrived. This exceptionally long build-up to the event turned out to be both a blessing and a curse. It was a blessing in that I was singularly focused on completing the ride within the timeframe I set out for myself and careful and deliberate in my planning, but it was also a curse in that it was bound to disappoint in some areas as my long-held fantasies met reality.

To maximize my comfort and the likelihood of success, I selected to ride with the 84-hour group, which provided me with a morning start time of 5:00 am. Not only did this mean that I'd sacrifice six hours on the road, but I'd also traded the opportunity to ride along with the large and festive group of 90-hour riders. As a result, I was not surprised that my ride was somewhat more solitary than I would have liked at times as there were fewer than 500 riders in the 84-hour start as opposed to more than 5000 in the 90-hour group. This was both good and bad. It was good because there was barely any congestion at the controls and bad because some of the exuberance of the event itself was undoubtedly dialed down with only 1/10 the number of riders on the roads.

The Start. I spent four days in St. Quetin before the ride connecting with old friends and making new ones as we prepared for the big event, but I only recognized a few faces at the start. We were released exactly at 5:00 on Monday morning and the first ninety minutes or so of the ride were shrouded in darkness, so I maintained a small buffer between myself and other riders to ensure that none of us got into an accident as the field began to stretch out. The excitement of an early morning group start always seems to lead to an elevated pace and this ride was no exception. I tried to refrain from riding full out, but it was hard to contain my enthusiasm and so I spun along with a group of fairly fast riders even though I knew that my pace was not sustainable over the long term. Watching the taillights ahead in the distance, it was easy to gauge the shape of the route as we wove our way through suburbs and then farmland in our westward march toward Brest. As dawn broke across expansive fields, the crisp air made us feel good to be alive and lucky to be part of this grand tradition.

The Riders. While I knew very few riders in the 84-hour start, one of the riders I did know was Keith C. with whom I rode a 400K out of Rochester this spring. Keith was in the 5:15 start and I knew it was only a matter of time before he caught up with me as his pace is brisk and his legs are strong. It was shortly before the first control that I heard Keith’s familiar voice, and it was nice to catch up with one another so many miles from our last encounter in the Finger Lakes. We rode together for a spell, but I knew that Keith’s pace would soon surpass mine and as it was still very early in the ride I wanted to protect my reserves. We ran into each other at several points along the route, though, and it was always a pleasure to see Keith and his friend Kristen who was providing support. Their good cheer and generosity of spirit was a real lift along the way.

It was not until well into the second day (or early in the third day), that I met up with NJ Rando stalwart Paul S. who was riding alone as well after becoming separated from his two riding partners, one of whom was riding a bit faster and one of whom was riding a bit slower. This meet-up came at a very good time for both of us as our energy was flagging and good conversation and companionship was a real morale booster. As it turned out, Paul and I rode together for a big chunk of the middle section of the ride. I’m a bit foggy on when exactly we teamed up, but we rode together until the stage between Villaines and Mortagne when I urged Paul to catch up with his riding partner Chris who was resting at the Mortagne control. It was a good thing that Paul took off, as my pace was grinding to a near standstill on what became one of the slowest and most molasses-like stretches of the ride for me.

The Spectators. The route between Paris and Brest is beautiful and very pleasant to ride. The roads are well paved and quiet, the hills are never too severe and the rollers and small villages provide interesting yet predictable variety. More memorable than the terrain, however, are the amazing French people who line the roads and occupy the villages along the way. Never in my life have I experienced such enthusiasm, support, encouragement and love from perfect strangers. Cycling has a long and storied history in France and the enthusiasm for PBP seems like the exact inverse of the typical reaction cyclists receive in the USA, where we are generally scorned and treated like trespassers on our own roads.

In contrast, the Bretons revere cycling in general and PBP in particular. It was possible to feel like a celebrity riding with enthusiastic families lining the streets, cheering us on, and offering us food, drink and words of encouragement at every turn. At times, I found myself weeping as a result of the pure joy, gratitude, and pride I felt to be a part of this amazing cultural and historical phenomenon. It felt like I was a part of something truly important. At times, the relationship between the riders and spectators and volunteers seemed actually symbiotic. We needed and derived energy from them just as they needed and derived energy from us. We reinforced each other in ways that brought joy and satisfaction to us all.

The Controls. Approaching the control at Villaines was especially thrilling as spectators lined the roads and cheered our progress on both the outbound and inbound legs. Early on the first day this was my first experience with what would become fairly typical in the layout of a French control. I quickly discovered that the various services were pretty spread out with the control point at one location, bathrooms in another, water in another and food in yet another. Luckily I did not need to rest or visit health services as these were in different spaces as well. One could burn up considerable time in a situation like this without even realizing it, and we did not even experience the delays and lines that plague the large bulge of 90-hour riders since they had long past this point. 

The Iron Rider beautifully and aptly described the route in his blog as a “charm bracelet of small quiet French towns linked by long and winding roads that border spacious golden fields.” This pattern with its predictable variation was both comforting and enjoyable. Entering a village was always a thrill with surprises around each corner, gorgeous historic buildings of all shapes and sizes and deeply appreciative locals around every corner. No one seems to mention the nearly unbearable stench of manure throughout the agricultural sections of the ride, but this was another reason I looked forward to the break that the villages provided.

Sleep. Managing sleep throughout the 3-1/2 days of PBP seemed at times to be a much greater challenge than pedaling my bicycle for 1200 kilometers. There never seemed to be enough time for rest and as my margin of time shrank, my time for rest shrank just when I needed it most. Things started out well enough, but they eroded considerably over the course of the event, as I will describe. On the first night, I held to my plan to cycle the 278 miles to Loudeac before sleeping. I rolled into the control at 2:19 am, about an hour and 19 minutes behind schedule. 

After checking into the control, I grabbed a little food, showered, changed clothes and signed up to sleep for 3 hours. The sleep area at Loudeac, fondly referred to as the “disco morgue” by several of my friends, was an amazing example of French organization and efficiency in action. Riders interested in sleeping simply pay a few Euros, indicate the time they wish to be awakened and place full trust into the hands of complete strangers to find them in a numbered cot among hundreds of other snoring and farting riders in a darkened room that resembles a large airplane hangar. Once I surrendered myself to this arrangement, I got some of the best sleep I can recall. After nodding off immediately, I shot bolt upright certain that I had overslept only to discover after dressing and running out the door that I had awakened 30 minutes before my appointed time. Oh well.

Following my long sleep at Loudeac on the first night, my sleeps got shorter and more frequent. Throughout the first two days, I was able to maintain a time cushion of over two hours. This lasted through to Loudeac at mile 485 on the return leg of the journey at which point I had reduced my buffer to less than an hour. It was from this point forward that I felt as if the clock controlled my every decision.

The Dark Times. While most of the ride felt like a magical adventure, a few sections were downright unpleasant. These times were dark both literally and metaphorically. I fully expected periods of great physical and emotional difficulty from my previous experience on long rides, but no matter how much this is anticipated, when the dark times hit, they can be somewhat overwhelming. While I generally love riding at night with the unique perspective on the world that this time affords, it can also be difficult, especially when riding on very little sleep.

The most challenging section for me came on the third night as I was beginning to feel like I was running on fumes having slept so little in the preceding days. Sleep depravation was wearing me down just as the coffee was losing it’s staying power, just as I was running up against control closures, just as I needed to ride through some pretty hills sections. As my time margin shrank, my ability to sleep or even to rest decreased dramatically. This had a snowball effect that was hard to correct. I was fighting off sleep as I rode and increasingly found myself taking 20-30 minute catnaps at tables hunched over my cell phone alarm.

To make matters worse, I began to hallucinate a bit as I rode through the stretch between Villaines and Mortagne. One of my emergency measures was to take a caffeine tablet that Paul offered me since there was no coffee at hand. As it turned out, my body responded very well to this intervention and I was chatting away in no time without a care in the world. I also swapped out my old contact lenses (that had become foggy and distracting since I had left them in for over 24-hours) with my glasses that I had luckily thrown into my trunk bag at the last minute as an afterthought. 

While these techniques helped me stabilize my safety and feel better about riding this stretch, my pace had slowed to a real crawl, which did not help my secondary problem of riding much too close to control closure times. When I snapped to attention and realized the combined impact of riding slowly, climbing hills and stopping periodically, I realized that it was entirely possible that without a concerted effort, I could easily run out of time. I dug deep into my reserves and began to chant (literally and out loud) the mantra “Relentless. Forward. Motion.” It is a phrase I attribute to my friend Susan O. who tells me it is one she learned from Mark T. himself.

Whatever the original source, I found this simple reminder to be remarkably helpful. Even slow progress in a forward direction is helpful while any time off the bike is potentially destructive. This mantra allowed me to focus on the only thing that mattered (moving steadily forward) and remove the things that did not matter (lack of comfort, sleepiness, the big questions related to WHY in the hell I was doing this, etc.) from my mind in a way that contributed to my success.

The Final Push to Paris. After that long uphill slog through the dark third night, I finally arrived in Mortagne with time to spare, which was a huge morale booster. With 28 minutes until the cutoff and dawn not far away, I was able to eat, charge my phone and take a short nap before heading off for Dreaux, the penultimate control another 50 miles down the road. I picked up the pace considerably with renewed energy and excitement knowing that Paris was less than 100 miles away. At times, I was hammering along at 20 miles an hour and even as a light rain came, my spirits were not dampened. When I arrived a Dreaux, the rains had stopped and the sun began to poke its way through the clouds. I had also increased my buffer to almost 1 hour and 15 minutes so the time pressure was greatly reduced. 

In fact, as a result of some curious route calculus, I found that I had almost 6 hours to ride 40 miles and so timing out was no longer a serious concern. My dream was about to become a reality; I would make it back to Paris within 84 hours. I could feel the stress leaving my body. That was until about 45 minutes after leaving Dreaux, when I heard the telltale sound of air quickly escaping from my tire and pulled to the side of the road only to watch dozens of riders zoom on grateful not to be sharing in my fate. It was remarkably time-consuming to change the rear (why is it always the rear?) tire as my mind and fingers were not working at peak efficiency. I decided to swap out the entire tire rather than simply change the tube just to be sure that I wouldn’t develop another puncture from the culprit that had caused the current flat. In all, it took me almost 25 minutes to change the tire, but I was then back on the road with a light tailwind at my back. What I had envisioned as a fast and triumphant victory march all the way to Paris, though, was now a fairly gentle and mostly solitary ride plagued by a (probably irrational) concern that I might run into additional mechanical troubles that would claw deeper into my time buffer. 

As it turned out, I did not experience any further trouble and crossed the finish line 82 hours and 33 minutes after I set off, which left me with almost 90 minutes in the bank. While this was MUCH too close for comfort and leaves tremendous room for improvement, I had achieved my goal. What did it feel like to finish? Was I elated? Was I disappointed? In all honesty, it was a bit of an anti-climax. Since the large bulge of 90-hour riders finished hours earlier as a result of their Sunday night start, I ended my ride without much company, fanfare or enthusiasm. It would take over 24 hours (10 of which I was sleeping) for me to begin to put the ride and my accomplishment into some sort of perspective. Only in the days that followed, as I caught up on my sleep and began to feel like myself again and share in the excitement of others, was I bathed in a feeling of great satisfaction and excitement.

Postscript. I lost sleep in the days leading up to PBP, nervous that I had given myself a 6-hour handicap in exchange for a morning start, but reflecting back on it I think I would make the same selection again. While I missed out on some of the fanfare, I don’t particularly like crowds and beginning with a morning start got me off on the right foot. The general pace of the 84-hour riders was brisk and familiar and with additional training and a knowledge of the course, I think it will be possible to shave several hours off my time, while also affording myself the opportunity to stop more often between controls to enjoy Brittany’s culture and culinary riches more fully.

The most peculiar sensation I felt during the ride as I approached Paris on the return leg, though, was a feeling of relief. It’s not easy to hold onto a goal for such a very long time. In a weird way I feel like completing PBP has actually set me free. I’m no longer that guy with a single-minded goal on the horizon. I no longer feel the need to worry about whether I can ride long brevets again with my reconstituted physical condition following my accident. I was so fixated on FINISHING the event that dialing in speed and strategy was not really so high a priority. Successfully completing PBP feels like the end of an era and the beginning of a new one with the future unknown and the sky as the limit.

One of the fairly disorienting outcomes of a serious injury is coming to terms with one’s new strength and ability in the aftermath. In 2010, I was actually training for a Charly Miller (sub 56:40) finish at PBP. Whether or not that would have been possible, I doubt that such a performance is in my future at this point. Now that I have a solid 1200K finish behind me, though, I’m eager to test the new limits of my speed and climbing strength. Having just transitioned into my 50s this year, I'm eager to consider ways to make this my strongest decade yet as a cyclist. In fact, I just ordered a copy of Joe Friel’s recent book Fast After 50 for advice. 

Two things I know for sure, I am back and I’ll be back. I’d like to include a final word of gratitude to my loving wife and family for their eternal support and confidence in me and to all of my friends - thanks for your ongoing patience.