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.