BC Stories

BC Randonneurs Cycling Club

This story was submitted to the BC Randonneur newsletter, October 2007

There and back again
Tales from PBP 2007
by Bob Koen

All photos except the first are courtesy of Karen Smith. Title courtesy of JRR Tolkien.

The first night
PBP 2007 was a perfect bicycle ride for me. For the first kilometer that is. My fortunes steadily declined for the next 1226 kilometers.

The ride started off well enough. I had hoped to be at either the front or the back of the pack for the beginning of the ride to lessen the chances of being involved in a bad pileup during the early stages, and my wish came true. I managed to get the pole position for the fifth wave of riders in the 90 hour start group. All I had to do was stay right behind the pace car until it peeled off and hope that the pack had thinned out by then.

The pace was very fast and I was elated to finally be under way. At the 1 km mark I suffered my first mechanical problem. I downshifted and nothing happened. The return lever on my Campy shifter was not pulling on the cable. I had just replaced the cable so I didn't think that it could be broken. I felt the cable along the downtube and could feel that it was still under tension. I debated with myself whether I should turn around (since I was still in St. Quentin) and look for a mechanic back at the start area. I decided against that idea, reasoning that the bike was still rideable, so I should ride. After all, this was the third brevet this year where I was reduced to riding a 3 speed bike and I was getting used to it. Also, I wasn't sure if the problem would be easily fixable. If I was doomed to fail at PBP due to a mechanical issue I wanted it to be as far down the road as possible. I wasn't keen to set the record for the earliest PBP DNF ever. So I carried on into the night and concentrated on enjoying the experience for as long as it might last.

The rain that had begun while waiting for the start soon quit and it became a pleasant night. The experience of blasting through the night at a fast pace with so many other riders was exhilarating, and sometimes terrifying. At one point I was in a paceline which was passing a double paceline on a downhill section. There were at least 30 riders participating in this little exercise when we were all passed by an ultra low recumbent. This character had no more than 3 feet of roadway to maneuver on and was travelling in excess of 40 kmh. The fog line was his lane. One small wobble by any of those 30 plus riders (none of whom knew he was coming) and a bad accident would have occurred. It was one of the most dangerous things I have ever seen done on a bicycle. I remember thinking "Welcome to France, the death sport capital of the world. They think differently here, be careful".

A few hours later I was elated to discover that my shifter was working again. That elation was short lived as it soon quit working again and I was stuck in high gear again. I was starting to clue in to the fact that high gear was the problem. A while later the shifting came back again, so I shifted to a middle gear and left it there. Now at least I had a decent gear range for my three speed bike. The hills got more serious as we neared Mortagne Au Perche so I started using the low gears and found that they worked OK. So long as I stayed out of high gear the shifter seemed to be fine.

Later on in the ride I discovered that if I forgot and shifted to high gear then I could get the shifter to engage again if I stood the bike on its rear wheel and thumped the shifter with my hand. So that's how I dealt with the broken shifter for the rest of the ride. During the days I would just glance at my rear derailleur to see if it was safe to shift up. During the nights I counted shifts. I eventually got pretty good at it. And I learned to spin more at higher speeds.

The first day and second night
I got some bonus kilometers in during this stretch. Two Frenchmen and I either misinterpreted a volunteers signal, or simply got misdirected down the wrong road. Fortunately they figured out our error after a few kilometers and then we worked together to find the way back to the course. We gained 6 kilometers during this little excursion. The rain began again about an hour before reaching Mortagne Au Perche. This time it was a serious rain storm. I was drenched and miserable when I reached the control, so much so that I procrastinated for quite a while before heading back out into the storm. I finally left and headed west into Brittany.

It dried up for some periods during the day, but during those periods the winds picked up to compensate for the dryness. The route passed through was some very lovely countryside and incredibly beautiful villages that really lifted my spirits. Each village had a church and each one was architecturally unique and they were all amazing. I was finally cycling through the French countryside and it was living up to its reputation. France lived up to its reputation for being beautiful, but fell far short of its reputation for having great weather.

I was also very impressed with the quality of the roads. The road surfaces were rough in many places as advertised, especially as we got farther west. But I never saw a crack or pothole anywhere on my travels in France. I am pretty keenly aware of road surfaces after my crash in this year's Fleche when I dropped into a keeper crack on Highway 1in the dark. France puts BC to shame for the quality of its roads.

The day wore on with wind and rain. I passed through the controls at Villains La Juhel, Fougers, and Tintineac without incident. But I was going slower than I would have liked. At each control I got some food and then tried to take a 10 minute nap in a chair in the cafeteria. I never spent more than half an hour at a control and rode steadily between controls. Yet I arrived at Loudeac after midnight, 25h15 after leaving St. Quentin. This was much slower than I had hoped to ride this stretch. It meant that I could only afford 2 hours of sleep if I wanted to leave the control by the3:30 am closing time. In fact I could have left at 4:50 since I had an hour and 20 minutes in hand because of starting in the fifth wave, but I wanted to save that time in case I really needed it later in the ride.

I found a spot in a storage room behind the cafeteria and laid down on my thermarest for a sleep. In fact I slept a bit less than 2 hours. Nervous energy and the fear of sleeping in and missing a control got me moving. I left Loudeac just about 3:30 am and then had some breakfast at a community feed station in a small hilltop village about an hour later. Shortly after that I hit the first secret control of the ride in Corlay. There aren't any shortcuts that I know of that would create a need for a secret control here. The obvious intent was to catch riders who slept in at Loudeac.

Second day and third night
About this point I met up with a friend that I had ridden with for most of the Glacier 1000K earlier in the year. I couldn't keep up to her and she was soon far up the road. Several BC riders came by that I normally ride slightly faster than, but they also left me behind. I was clearly not doing well. I reached the Carhaix control and had some food. I moved through fairly quickly and left with the BC riders, but was soon left behind again. It was clear that I needed some rest. It was pretty windy at this point so I kept my eye open for a spot that might be sheltered. I didn't find anything really suitable, so finally stopped at a gravel parking lot at an intersection. I got out my space blanket and laid down on a strip of grass at the back of the lot. I wrapped up completely in the space blanket, but the wind kept flapping the material and preventing me from dozing. Then I heard a car drive right up to me. I couldn't see out of my cocoon and could only pray that they would stop before running me over. Stop they did, about 5 feet from my head. Car doors opened, camera shutters clicked, car doors slammed shut, and the car drove off. It was clear that I wasn't going to get my nap there. So I got up, stuffed the space blanket into my rack pack, and got back on my bike.

Then magic happened. A Canadian jersey appeared in a group going by just as I got going again. It was Grant Riis from Regina. I didn't know him at the time, but we struck up a conversation and the miles started flying by. The energy that I had been lacking returned in force and I started making really good time. I motored up the Roc Trevezal and after a while Grant dropped back. I rode for a while beside a pace line that included Susan Barr, someone else that I normally cannot keep pace with. I flew over the Roc and descended to Sizun. There I met up with the Canadian group that I got separated from back at Carhaix and we had lunch together in arguably the prettiest town on the route. I got going shortly before them and had one of the best rides of my life from there into Brest. I was passing pacelines and maintaining a steady 30 km an hour on my own. I didn't know where the energy was coming from, but I wanted to make good use of it while I had it.

Canadians at Sizun

I arrived in Brest at 2:36 pm, 39:46 after leaving St. Quentin. This was therefore my slowest 600 ever, eclipsing by more than an hour my previous worst time. That record had been set in the spring after several weeks of being sick with the flu and doing very little riding. But I came to France healthy, strong, and fit, and was turning in consistently fast times (for me) in my recent training rides. And it was all falling apart in France for no reason I could think of. Sure the weather was bad, but it wasn't THAT bad.

I had some food and a beer in Brest and headed back from whence I came. The magic was still in my legs and I made good time over the Roc and back to Carhaix. I even gained a bit on the control closing time in this stretch but I knew that night was coming. The pace always slows down dramatically for me at night.

I had dinner in Carhaix with Karen, Manfred, Ivan, Ron, and John and Sarah. Up until this point I had been riding solo for most of the time, but Karen was ready to go at the same time as I so we decided to team up for the stretch back to Loudeac. We got going about an hour before dark. The weather had been good for most of this day, but that did not last. It started raining almost immediately, and by dark it was positively pissing. Neither of us likes pacelining at night, so we kept a little distance from each other, but kept in sight. Then I looked back at one point and Karen wasn't there. I stopped under a street light so she could see me easily, and waited for her to arrive. I waited for 10 or 15 minutes and still no Karen. I contemplated going back to look for her, but was worried that she had stopped to put on a raincoat and so I missed her going by because I didn't know what her raincoat looked like. Finally I just got going again. I knew that Karen could take care of herself, being a far more experienced Randonneur that I.

Shortly after this I entered the dramatic hill country between Corlay and Loudeac. The rain was coming down in buckets by this point. My primary concern however was my brakes. I gradually lost the ability to stop my bike, especially on the downhills. As the night wore on it got to the point where I couldn't even slow myself down on the descents. I adopted the technique of waiting at the start of a descent until another rider or group of riders went by. I would watch them do the descent so I could tell if there were any turns, and how long of a descent it was. Then I would wait for the coast to clear before bombing down the hill with my heart in my throat and a prayer in my mind. I have excellent lights on my bike, but they weren't up to the task of lighting those wet roads enough to give me any confidence. At one point I descended a very steep stretch in one of the hill towns by slaloming down the hill much as a skier would. I made short, tight turns down the street and checked my speed by going slightly uphill at the apex of each turn.

At no point during this awful night did it occur to me that I should get out my tools and try to adjust my brakes. My brain was so addled by lack of sleep and two days and nights of exertion that such a simple and straightforward idea never entered my head.

Somehow I managed to get back to Loudeac in one piece. It had taken an awfully long time to do the leg from Carhaix due to the dark, rain, and braking adventures. As I left the check-in I ran into Karen arriving at the control a few minutes after me. She had had a malfunction of her Schmidt headlight and had stopped to try to fix it at the point where we became separated. It was intermittently working and not working. She never managed to fix it and so ended up doing those same awful descents with intermittent lighting. We agreed to meet for breakfast after 2 hours of sleep and headed for the cots.

Cat Cat Maniacs
Two hours of sleep was not enough, but it was all we could afford at the time. The plan was to ride quickly, finally get a bit ahead of the clock, and get some more sleep later in the day. We had some breakfast with Ron, Manfred, Jaques, and Ivan. There were sleeping bodies everywhere, many in very uncomfortable positions. It was pretty clear that I wasn't the only suffering soul in this part of France. Looking through the photos later convinces me that I was in much better shape than many of the folks that I saw then and for the rest of the way back to St. Quentin.

We aren't sure who the sleeper is, or who drank the bottle of wine.

Would you buy a used car from these characters?

About an hour after leaving Loudeac we stopped for a minute to adjust clothing in the little burg of Meneac (pronounced "maniac", my personal favorite place name of the entire route). There was an open door at a place that looked like a mechanics garage, so we ducked in to do our business out of the rain. While Karen was around the back taking care of some other business I was greeted by a woman in a housecoat. She was clearly thrilled to have some PBP'ers stop in her garage and invited us in. Pretty soon she had brewed a pot of coffee and a pot of tea for us and brought out some food. She also collected a couple more passers by and we soon had a nice little party going. She only spoke French and my French is dismal. She kept mentioning "Cat Cat du Meneac" and we weren't sure what she was talking about. Finally Karen figured it out. We had stumbled into the clubhouse of the Meneac 4x4 club (4X4 in French is "Quatre Quatre", or "cat cat" to sleep deprived wanderers in the early morning hours). Soon after that she had out the photo albums and was showing us pictures of her dogs, etc. We ate a lot of her food, drank the entire pot of coffee, and had a really nice respite from our toils for perhaps 45 minutes. Then we thanked her profusely and headed back out into the rain.

The last leg of the trip
The rest of the day was spent trying hard, but without success, to get ahead of the clock. We made it to Tinteniac in good time, but then spent an hour and a half there. I took my bike to the mechanics to get my brake pads replaced, thinking they could do a much better and quicker job than I. I was quite wrong about that. It took two of them a full hour to do the job, with occasional consulting services from the chief mechanic. Then we spent another large chunk of time at the Fougeres control while we waited for the mechanics there to figure out the intricacies of installing the batteries into a light that Karen bought, followed by the even more difficult task of installing it onto the bike. All this for a light that turned out to be completely useless. Fortunately, Karen ran into a Brazilian that she knew who was abandoning the ride at that point. He graciously gave her his light and this saved the day (the night actually) for her.

We rode on through the day and into the evening. We rode for a while before Villaines with John and Sarah. John was having a terrible struggle by this point with Shermer's neck. He hadn't seen the horizon from the seat of his bike in many kilometers. But he was still moving. Shortly before Villaines the skies opened up with the most intense rain of the entire ride. This shower subsided by the time we got to the control, but we were pretty drenched when we got there. We had some dinner and got ready to go again. That's when we discovered that it had gotten intensely cold after the rain storm. We were both shivering badly while getting ready to go. We ducked back inside and had a serious discussion about abandoning the ride. This was mostly my doing. I was concerned that there would be some serious consequences if either of us got a mechanical breakdown when it was that cold and we were that wet. I think now that it was just mental fatigue and the cold snap was simply the straw that almost broke the camels back. This was probably the lowest point on the ride for me.

We finally decided that we had to go and that we could always turn back if it was simply too cold. Getting going was the hard part. Once we were on our way again we never thought about quitting again. And it also warmed up considerably. The cold snap was a cell of cold air that passed through on the tail end of the rainstorm. Apparently it happens frequently in that area. The weather improved through the night and we had decent weather for the next stage into Mortagne Au Perche. I don't think either of us had the strength to deal with more bad weather after that and fortunately we didn't need to. Instead of bad weather, I got another mechanical failure here. A screw fell out that held the cleat to the bottom of my shoe. I tightened down the one remaining screw and hoped it would last till I got to Mortagne. It didn't and the result was that I had a lot of float as my shoe just spun around the cleat. I couldn't get the shoe out of the pedal by the time I arrived in Mortagne. I should have just wheeled the whole arrangement into the mechanics shop but didn't. I tried to get my shoe out of the pedal and finally managed to do so by ripping the remaining screw out of my shoe. Now I had the cleat still in the pedal and a bigger mess than I started with. I had visions of finishing the ride with my shoe duct taped to the pedal. The mechanic at this control was good and he soon had me fixed up and ready to ride again.

We hadn't made good time on this leg and arrived at Mortagne 20 minutes after the official closing time. We had both left St. Quentin later than the first wave, so didn't officially miss the control closing time, but this was the first control where either of us was dipping into that reserve time. Worse, we heard a rumor at this control to the effect that we had to get to the next control at Dreux at the appointed time. The rumors for much of the previous day had been that there was extra time being granted due to the atrocious weather. Now the rumor was that that extra time was no longer being granted. At this point Karen had a little crying session and said what I heard as "we aren't going to make it". This really bothered me because I thought that the going would be easy from here on in. I envisioned another 20 km or so of hills and then a flat cruise back to St. Quentin. But now I had a highly experienced veteran of PBP telling me that we weren't going to make it. I gave up my plans for a short nap and we headed out. Karen has since told me that what she said was "they aren't going to make it" and that she was emotional over all the people sleeping on, under, and near the tables. She thought that they were all in trouble because of the unexpected reversal of the previous rumors of extra time.

I was motivated now, and so was Karen. We tore out of Mortagne and started into the surprisingly large hills at the beginning of that stage to Dreux. At the bottom of one of these descents we came upon an accident scene. A body was splayed out in the road with several riders gathered around. The person lying on the road seemed pretty seriously hurt. There was plenty of help at hand so we carried on. Later we came upon a similar accident with a rider down in the middle of an intersection. I talked to that fellow at the finish; he had simply fallen asleep on his bike and crashed. He had a neck collar on when I talked to him. The crash had ended his PBP ride.

The section between Mortagne and Dreux was the worst part of the ride for me. There were the big hills at the start that really slowed us down and made it uncertain that we would get to the next control on time. Then we got out into the flat farmland, but the road surface became awful. The chip seal here would do Whatcom County proud. I rode much of this section standing up. The clock was ticking, I was hurting, and Dreux didn't seem to be getting any closer. There were bodies on the road, bodies in the ditches, and sirens wailing in the background. It occurred to me that this was getting to be a lot more like a war than a bike ride.

Finally we came to an intersection where someone was holding up a sign that said "2.5 km to go". It was at least 7 km before we finally got to the control, and seemed to take forever. We made it with 10 minutes left before the control closing time. We checked in and I headed straight for the infirmary and showed the medic my butt and pleaded for help. There wasn't much that he could do that I wasn't able to do myself. He put on some cream and a big thick pad and said "Bon courage".

We turned it around in Dreux in fairly fast time and got back on the road. We were back in the company of Manfred and Ivan by this point, but due to a mixup in communication over who was where we soon got separated again. The weather was mostly reasonable this day although there were some rain showers in the afternoon. I was hoping for decent weather for the end because I had ridden most of the ride in a raincoat. It seemed important to me to finish the ride with my Canadian jersey showing, and not as some anonymous rider from somewhere dragging his sorry behind (although I did have a pretty sorry behind) back to civilization. I got my wish and we managed to finish in between afternoon rain showers.

The finish turned out to be one of the highlights of the ride for me. About 10 or 15 km out we got into a pack of riders and picked up a motorcycle police escort to the finish line. The policeman would stop traffic at traffic lights so we could go racing through. Then he would hop on his motorcycle and race ahead to the next intersection so that he could stop traffic there. He had a huge grin on his face each time he raced past us. Meanwhile the peloton that he was shepherding got up to a thirty plus km/hour pace and motored into St. Quentin. This was exhilerating, but also completely terrifying as I contemplated the concept of a large contingent of cyclists who mostly hadn't slept in the previous day or two bunch sprinting through crowded streets at high rates of speed. Shortly before the end we sprinted through a turn where a cyclist was gathering up the debris from the crash he had suffered when he missed the turn.

We finally made it back into St. Quentin and arrived at the gymnasium where the grand adventure had begun less than 4 days earlier. There were several shouts of "Go Canada" from the crowds near the finish. I think I got a little bit of an idea of how it must feel to win the Tour De France. Michel was there to greet us, although he seemed more excited to see Karen than he was to see me. He took our bikes and we got in the final lineup to get our control cards stamped. When we finally got through the long line our check in time was 15:28 or 89 hours and 58 minutes after the opening gun. This was cutting it close, but with the time removed for the wait at the start after the first wave went my official time looked like 88:38 and Karen's was 89:38. Later on we found out that there was an additional 20 minutes taken off in the final official times, likely to take into account the long lineups at the end.

Final Analysis
I rode over 1250 kilometers (including going back and forth from the motel) on 4 hours of sleep. Since this ride starts at night I ended up getting those 4 hours of sleep over a span of 111 hours. This is nowhere near enough to stay alert. I am sure that I was simply lucky that I did not have an accident during the last day of the ride. I rode past the aftermath of several accidents, and I saw a few more cases that were accidents waiting to happen, but just hadn't happened yet. I have since heard an unconfirmed rumor of a death on the stretch between Fougeres and Dreux. On this stretch I had passed and briefly talked to a fellow that was clearly asleep on his bike when I rode up. I hope he wasn't the accident victim.

I ate 6 full meals in the last "day" of the ride, plus all the food that the Cat Cat lady brought out, plus a crepe at La Tanniere. Maintaining caloric intake at adequate levels is not a problem at PBP.

I trained hard for this event. I was in the best shape of my bicycling career when I started the ride. But it was barely enough to get me through given the weather and the mechanical issues that I had to deal with. Had the weather been better I might have been able to get in a few ditch naps and been more alert near the end as a result.

Should I have ridden solo for the entire ride? I think that I may have finished earlier if I had, or perhaps I would have gotten more sleep. My riding partner was equal to me in riding speed, but it is a fact that two travel more slowly than one, three more slowly than two, etc. You need to be very diligent with your time when riding an event like this in the company of others or the time bleeds away. Having someone to talk to can be critical to staying awake during those long hours on the bike late at night. And for me, I think the experience was more pleasant thanks to having someone to share it with.

PBP is the premier event in the world of randonneuring. The people who qualify for this event are not the type to quit easily, and few if any do. I saw John and Sarah at the Villaines control where they finally had to throw in the towel. The degree of pain and suffering that they endured to get to that point boggles my mind. In the end I think that they made the right decision. Several others that I saw later in the ride did not make the right decision given their personal circumstances, and paid the price accordingly. This bicycle ride is a serious undertaking for many of the riders even under good conditions. When the conditions turn ugly, as they did in 2007, it can be very serious indeed.


© Copyright 2007, Bob Koen