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You can choose one of three 'time slots' to start PBP. The 80 hour group is the first to leave, 4pm on Sunday, and this is where the fastest riders are, those that ride all the way through with no sleep, finishing in under 50 hours. The record is something like 42 hours! Other fast riders can choose this option too, and I know several from Rocky Mountain Cycling Club did. This group leaves first and mostly stays ahead of the other riders so they can get through the controls with little fuss. Next is the biggest group, the 90 hour group, leaving at 6pm Sunday. Finally, an intermediate 84 hour group leaves at 5am Monday morning.
This is the group Colin and I chose, mainly because the start time is similar to many of the rides we do here in the US, that start in the wee hours of the morning - so it was familiar territory. Riders are sent off in pelotons of 300 at a time, 10 minutes apart. Colin and I decided that we wanted to be in the first or second group to leave, so we figured we had to get there about 4am. A 2:15 wakeup call had us at the Gymnase des Droits de l'Homme at 3:50 and we were with the first 50 riders. Perfect.
An hour later we filed through to get our first control stamp, and lined up under the start banner. Then we were off, and the first 10 or 15 miles or so is all about surviving the Paris suburb road furniture, and there is a lot of it. Most of these riders are also racers and know how to ride in a peloton, so it wasn't too bad. As we got further out, the roads open up and the lead group began to get down to some serious riding. Colin and I made our way to the front 30 or so riders to make sure we would be in any group that began to separate itself off the front. Colin in fact rode in 4th or 5th position for much of the time. We had a pace car and motorcycles leading us through all the lights and intersections, that was pretty cool, like we were in some kind of big race or something!
Eventually, I looked around and counted about 25 or 30 lead riders, and we had left the rest behind. I was being careful monitoring my heart rate to make sure I didn't start too fast, which has been my downfall in the past, but also I had been practicing faster starts. Hit my pre-set limit a couple times on some of the longer rises, but not for long, and the pace felt really comfortable. I saw Colin take his turn on the front for a while, and thought that I'd like to do that too. Made my way up and eventually the last rider ahead of me pulled off at the end of his turn, and here I was, behind the motorcycles, leading our start group's peloton through the French countryside in one of the oldest bike races around. It was a pretty sureal feeling.
As dawn broke, we could start reading the jerseys of our fellow riders, and we had a nice diverse group. Prominent was a group of 4 or 5 Austrians in their country's special randonneur jersey, a similar number of Germans, at least one Brit and a Dutch, a handful of Italians, and many French and probably a Belgian or two. Colin and I represented Randonneurs USA.
As you can see from the data at the first checkpoint, we rode pretty fast, 30kmh for the first 200km+ (that's 18.5mph for the first 137 miles for the imperially-minded). In fact, at 100 miles, I saw our time was 4:58 - my first sub-5 hour century. But in a large group with no long or even steep hills, it felt easy. And that average includes a 5 minute resupply stop at 80 miles.
Support: For a randonneur event, you can only receive support at the designated checkpoints, not anywhere else along the route. If the riders run into trouble, they have to be able to make it to the next checkpoint to get any help from a support crew (though they can make their own way to a bike store or whatever they need along the way).
So Julie and Fred were providing support for Colin and me. They had a minivan loaded with supplies, registered and labeled as an official support vehicle. In PBP, because of the large number of riders, you are allowed to provide support within 5km either side of the control point. We decided that we wanted to have all our support before the controls, not after. And we had heard that it can be pretty chaotic, so we wanted to be a few km out, not right close in. To help identify the van, we heard that a distinctive flag was they key, so Fred took a Colorado state flag and adorned it with some PBP flair. He turned the central "C" of the flag into a coat of arms, with "Partager La Route" (Share the Road) inscribed in the "C", and a pair of spear-wielding marmots on either side. It was destinctive to say the least, and got many stares and comments from cyclists as they rode by.
So the routine went something like: within 5km of the control, Colin and I would begin to scan for the flag. It turned out that because we were at the front of out group, and Fred and Julie founds spots that were away from the crowds, it was easy to find them. They early supports were fast, simply an exchange of bottles and resupply of food items, maybe changing out some items of clothing. Then we were off to the control to get our cards officially stamped, then back on the route to the next control. We were usually fast enough to be back among the lead riders after the control - but after a couple of controls, the lead peloton was separated into a number of smaller groups.
Somehow, Colin ended up in a ditch between Villaines-la-Juhel and Fougeres. We're not sure how it happened, but he overlapped wheels with me, I moved to follow the wheel in front of me, and he went down on the chip seal (yes, they have chip seal in France, too). Luckily it was still very wet, and he slid quickly into the grass, but not without a nice hole in the knee and road rash on his hip. The Frenchman we were riding with stopped and helped us back up, and the three of us continued on to Fougeres.
Apart from that, the rest of the day was fast and we arrived in Loudeac ahead of plan, about 9:30pm That's 280 miles in 16.5 hours. It was a great start for us, despite Colin's crash, and now it was necessary to get a few hours sleep in preparation for Day 2. We had a good hotel near the course, which catered to PBP riders by setting aside a conference room for all the bikes. Shower, recovery drink and a bite to eat, and it was lights out for another middle of the night wakeup call.
Did I mention the rain? From about 11am on Day 1, it rained lightly but consistently for about 6 or 7 hours. I stayed relatively dry and warm, but somehow it got to me. I got out of bed at 1:30am on Day 2 with a scratchy throat, a harbinger of the day to come. That combined with the fact that neither Colin or I got any actual sleep, and we were not off to a good start. As is so often the case, the first night's rest, or lack of, can determine the whole outcome of the ride.
We set out a little afer 2am, and joined a throng of red lights making their way west. It's hard to tell at night, but it seemed that Loudeac to Carhaix was very hilly. Good time to Carhaix, where we found Fred and Julie by the blinking red glow-lights they attached to the flag pole. Throat did not feel good, but the body was holding up, so I still had hope.
There was no rain, but soon after Carhaix, climbing the coastal hills toward Brest, we encountered a mist/fog so thick and persistent it soaked us as well as any rain would. That may have been the last straw, as I started to feel pretty poorly with the cold coming on and the lack of sleep. About 17 miles from Brest, we stopped to call Julie and let her know we'd probably be needing 20 or 30 mins of sleep in the van. Despite how we were feeling, we made Brest is good time, a cumulative 29hr20mins, pretty much right on track to break 60 hours.
Well, they didn't have the van ready for sleep, so we decided we'd do that at Carhaix. I was really not feeling well at this point, and Colin went on ahead in order to sleep more at the next stop. It was very hilly getting back over the coastal hills, and my average speed suffered along with my morale. 30 minutes of sleep in Carhaix was very welcome, but didn't do much for my cold. There was nothing to do but press on.
At this point, I could not stomach much food or liquid on the bike, and that's simply a death spiral for endurance riding. I would eat and drink as much as I could at the support points, and force down small quantities on the road, but it's a loosing caloric battle. Caught back up with Colin at Loudeac, and as well as support food, we had some pasta and soup provided at the official control. At this point, Colin was recovering well from the lack of sleep, but my cold was getting worse. Luckily, many of the villages we passed through set up big tents and sold all kinds of local foods to the riders, so I was able to stop a couple times for nutrition.
At Tinteneac, I made the decision to call it a day. We had a hotel at Fougeres for the night, but I decided I needed some real sleep to kick the cold - so Colin rode to Fougeres while I took the van. Hopefully I would sleep well and wake up refreshed, go back to Tinteneac, then pick up Colin in Fougeres, and we'd be off. But in trying to take my electrolytes and other supplements, the gag reflex kicked in, and suddenly I was emptying what was left in my stomach in the hotel sink. It was going to be a long final 3rd of PBP.
I awoke hungry from 5 1/2 hours of good sleep. Throat was still scratchy, but I felt rested and ready to go. Ate breakfast gingerly, just to be safe, and Fred drove me back to Tinteniac, where I resumed the ride by first going through the control. I started slowly to be sure I was fully warmed up, and suddenly I was really enjoying being on the bike again! It was the first sunny day, puffy clouds in the sky, and lots of people were in a good mood with sights set on Paris. Started off with an Englishman, and we hooked up with an Aussie, and then gathered in 3 Seattle randonneurs. The 6 of us Anglais formed a nice steady rotating pace line, and before long we had a throng of cyclists sitting on our wake - it was kind of fun leading all the Euros through the French countryside.
Arrived back at the hotel in Fougeres and scarfed down more food. I was able to take food and water on the bike again, but made sure I stocked up at the van. Colin had not slept too much, but was well enough to press on to Paris unsupported, leaving Julie and Fred to support me. He was clearly stronger than me at this point, and waiting for me would not have done him any good. And I was fine with it as I could go at a slower pace without feelilng guilty! Turns out for most of the day I was matching Colin's pace anyway, as I was feeling so much better - the endurance training and also living at altitude were paying dividends today. My average speed increased, and though sub-60 was out of the question, it looked like sub-70 was still in the cards.
However, between Villaines-La-Juhel and Mortagne-au-Perche, the nausea started to creep back, and I couldn't eat much on the bike. I took advantage of the food and drink in the villages along the way, but it was soon clear that I was not over my cold. After Mortagne, I started to crash pretty hard, feeling sleepy and nauseous. About 11pm I was climbing through a dark forest with no moonlight, and it seemed like I was the only person on earth. At the top of the hill, there was a crossroads with a war monument, and a handful of cheery villagers were offering coffee, tea and biscuits - "Gratuit! Free!" I stopped for a cup of tea, and decided I really needed to be horizontal for a few minutes, so I took off my helmet and curled up in the shadow of the monument for 20 minutes of sleep. I had left my rear lights blinking, and someone kindly came over and turned them off. I imagine I looked like so many other riders that I had passed, lying comatose by the side of the road like so much PBP flotsam and jetsam.
I got up feeling better, but it was clear I wasn't going past Dreux tonight, despite wanting to finish sub-70. I reminded myself that Goal #2 was to have fun and get the most out of the PBP experience - and those last 40 miles in the middle of the night, feeling sick, were going to be miserable and not accomplish anything, certainly not Goal #2. And right after I had made up my mind to sleep in Dreux, I got out of the saddle to strech my back, and the extra effort put the nausea over the edge - I quickly had to skid over to the side of the road, dismount, prop my self over the bike, and wretch for 10 minutes. Definitely sleeping in Dreux.
Made my way as best I could to the control where Fred and Julie were waiting. After all my good time earlier in the day, this last leg was desperately slow. Got a change of clothes, and told Fred and Julie to go to the hotel at the finish to sleep (Colin had arrived just a couple of hours earlier, finishing in 66 hours or so) and meet me there tomorrow morning. And literally seconds after they left, as I was walking into the gym/dormitory, I had to wretch again. The attendant was very nice and sent one of the staff EMTs to look after me. They had a full infirmary set up to deal with all kinds of physical problems, mostly saddle sores, and they had a few cots set aside there, so I got a 'private ward' instead of the huge dormitory, which looked like a scene from Alien, with cocoons of snoring cyclists stretching away into the gloom.
Last Day! Really, an extra day as the sleep in Dreux was not planned, but necessary. Another 5 or so hours of sleep, some soup, yogurt, bread and butter, coffee and Orangina, and I was ready for the final forty miles. This last section is much flatter than the rest of the route, and it was another fine day, and though I still had the cold, my spirits were high. Saw many people that I had seen over the past couple of days, some were dragging in, most were upbeat and excited to finish. Even being sick, there weren't many who were faster than me up the climbs - thank you Colorado! The most frustrating thing was dealing with all the traffic lights as we approached the urban center - after 3 days of roundabouts, the cyclist's best friend, having to actually stop at an intersection was annoying. You could hear the crowds at the Gymnase about half a mile away, and they thronged the approach to the final roundabout, and huge cheers and applause would go up for every rider as they rode in and under the finish kite. It was an incredible way to finish, and I'm so glad I did not push through the previous night. Parked the bike, and joined the line for the final control stamp, a "congratulations", and "see you next time!"
Found Fred, Julie and Colin, with lots of hugs all around. Shower and 90 minute nap, and much was right with the world again.
So I figure I've ridden three different PBPs in one: 1) I raced, and raced well - apparently I was the 3rd fastest RMCC rider to Loudeac the first night in 16h20m, just too bad I couldn't hold it. 2) I toured, and had a lot of fun chatting with riders, setting up pace lines, stopping for food and drink with the locals, taking photos from the bike, and generally enjoying riding through France. 3) I survived - getting sick turned it into an epic, and forcing myself to keep going through the misery and nausea was the hardest thing I've ever done. And in the end, I finished! With a pretty decent time of 78h30m-ish despite the illness. I guess I now have the title of Ancien (a PBP finisher), and my name goes in the Big Book of finishers, dating back to 1891. Quite an honor for riding a bike around the northwest corner of France. A bientot!