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PBP ride report (long)

Old 09-17-19, 11:35 PM
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samkl 
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PBP ride report (long)

It’s been a month, almost, which has given my brain enough time to process the insanity that was PBP. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way—yes, some of the insanity was bad, but some of it was good, too.

PBP was my first 1200k. I started randonneuring this season, and the 200k season opener I did in April was the longest ride I’d ever done. This whole season has been an incredible, challenging, rewarding learning experience.

I only found out at the end of June that I’d get to do PBP. I also only finished building up my PBP bike in July, a 1976 Austro Daimler Vent Noir that I modernized for rando service. I took that bike on a 1000k shortly after I built it and suffered a fair amount of leg pain. I suspected fit issues would be a problem on PBP, too. (More on that later…)

I signed up for the 84 hour group and quickly found a shared room in Rambouillet—an Airbnb that someone posted about on the Randon message board, which turned out to be a scam. Somehow, my roommate Robert found us a place at the Best Western in Ram with zero notice. We snapped it up immediately. Phew!

Anyway, onto the story.

Day 1

The start.

I started at 5am. I'd never been in such a big group. Completely surreal, like flowing along a river. I made quick time for the first 15 miles or so. Then I threw my chain, pulled over to fix it, rode solo for a bit, and caught up to another group. I think I threw my chain once more a short while later and a few more times during the ride. I suspected the FD had been jostled out of place on the flight over.

As the sun came up, the headwinds got stiffer. I was in a big group of 20 or 30 riders, so it wasn’t too bothersome. At some points I was riding alone, which was a challenge with the wind, but nothing out of the ordinary. We know headwinds here in Chicago! Eventually I caught up to other groups.

At Mortagne, the first stop, I stopped at a boulangerie to grab a sandwich--when, lo and behold, my riding buddy Brian pulled up. We planned to meet up at some point and ride the entire route together. He'd started with the 5:15 wave.

Brian and I headed to Fougères at a quick pace, riding with some cool people like Metin from San Francisco, on his fixed gear.

Brian was feeling extra peppy. He’s really strong and way fast generally, especially on the climbs, and wasn't holding back. He’d do this thing - which I found amusing at first, then exasperating - where he’d ride to the front of a group, pull everyone along, and then shoot off like a rocket once we hit a hill. As Brian would zoom up the hill, the riders behind would panic, stomp on the pedals, blow up, and drop off the back. At one point a group of Germans berated him. “You are trying to kill us!” they said, not in a good-natured way. Heh.

I soon lost my appetite for this pattern, and I knew it was not a good use of my energy. So I urged him to slow down. Eventually I backed off. Because he was going so fast, he would stop more often--maybe because he wanted a break, maybe because he was waiting up for me. Either way it worked out. We split up occasionally and did our own thing, meeting up at the controls. At a couple of them, I adjusted my seat because I had knee and IT band pain.


Castle in Fougeres.

We rode together into the night. At one point it rained, not too hard. Good exercise for the fenders.

After it stopped, we stumbled upon a roadside stand around midnight, where a lady was serving coffee and the most delicious pea soup I’ve ever had. As we ate, an American rider rolled up and asked the woman (who didn’t speak English) for water. “Agua, agua!” he said. “De l’eau?” she asked, gesturing towards a bottle of water. “No! Agua!” he insisted, much to her puzzlement. I intervened, and he got his water.

Brian was feeling tired, so I gave him some caffeine gum that Robert had given me in Rambouillet. I chewed a piece too. It helped.

We rolled into Loudeac a little later than planned—maybe 1:30am. Overall, Loudeac was awful. It was cold and I hadn’t brought leg warmers. It was jam packed with people, especially miserable-looking ones. Injured people crumpled on the ground under foil blankets; someone propped up on the bike rack puking on the cobblestones. Another guy wandered the courtyard, dry-heaving, his retching reverberating off the walls. The bathrooms were, of course, filthy beyond belief. It was a poignant display of human wretchedness. The vibe was very "World War I army hospital."

We ate, then I picked up my drop bag. In an unwise move, I decided to take a shower and then get a cot. Everything took forever: the lines for food, for the shower, for the bed. I changed into a t-shirt and shorts after the shower, rather than into the next day’s kit. That wasted a bunch of time. And then when I was led to my cot, I discovered the gymnasium wasn’t heated. It was 45 degrees, I was wet, and the blanket they gave me was some kind of gossamer thing. I didn’t fall asleep. In total, I think we stayed in Loudeac almost 6 hours. So much wasted time.


Day 2:

We left Loudeac around 7am. I had pain in my legs and was feeling generally stiff and sore, but I knew if I kept pushing I’d warm up. I encountered Robert, my Rambouillet roommate, whose cheerful demeanor put me in a better mood.

Sometime after Carhaix we started riding with Kirsten and Andy from Boston. We chatted about bike fit. Because I knew mine was bad—I was in a lot of pain in my legs. Kirsten eyeballed my right leg and told me it was .5 inches longer than my left. “I can totally see it,” she said. Uh huh. Meanwhile, Brian went a bit ahead, and I caught up with him at a roadside stand or two.

Then, at some point before Brest, I experienced a new type of pain in my legs: the top of my ankle, where my shin meets my foot.

This was a big moment. In my exhausted state, I thought it’d be a great idea to tie my reflective RUSA ankle bands over the sore part of my ankle. The idea, in my semi-delirious mind, was that the ankle bands would act as compression straps. That seemed like a term I’d heard before, “compression strap,” which I imagined would support my tendons or ligaments or whatever and prevent them from getting injured. So I took my ankle bands and velcro’d them down as tightly as I could around my ankle, like a tourniquet, where I kept them… for the next ~350 miles.

I’ve since learned this was an incredibly terrible idea and could’ve caused permanent damage and maybe even killed me due to a blood clot or the build-up of toxins in my foot. Point is, don’t do this. Oy vey!

The ankle strap did get rid of the pain, but I found when I got off the bike at controls I couldn’t walk. My ankle would not bend. I couldn’t even unclip from the pedal, which, at the time, I thought was a result of my ankle injury. Now I wonder if it was a result of my ankle straps cutting off blood to my foot.

I arrived in Brest discouraged. I couldn’t bend my ankle at all, and the pain while walking was considerable. I contemplated that I might not be able to finish the ride.

Lucky for me, Brian, Andy, and Kirsten quickly hopped on their bikes, giving me little time to wallow. We had a huge, long downhill into Brest, so I was dreading the climb out—but it turned out to be not bad. My spirits improved, and I felt proud and tuff that I was continuing in spite of my physical condition.

Brian, Andy and I rode together for the next 10 hours or so. Andy was a steady, good-natured riding partner, and regaled us with stories of working on Martha’s Vineyard as a teenager. Our goal was Loudeac, where we hoped to sleep for a couple hours. After sundown, fatigue started to set in. We took a perfect nap in a small town against an embankment. Still, it was cold and I only had shorts (Brian too), so I didn’t want to stop too much. But a couple hours later, Brian said he was about to fall asleep on the bike and needed to take another nap. At this point, it was really cold, maybe in the 30s, and I really didn’t want to stop. But Brian was taking a nap no matter what, and I thought it far better to stick together. So we took out our emergency blankets and slept. Andy didn’t have an emergency blanket and continued on.

As we laid down, I cursed my emergency blanket, which was too small to keep me warm. Frustrated, I told Brian I was leaving and left. I forged ahead, climbing a big hill for a mile or two (at which point I discovered we had napped in a valley, where it was 10 degrees colder--oops). Suddenly I was overcome with guilt. Had I left Brian to freeze to death at the bottom of a valley? Newspaper headlines blared in my head: "Left to Die By a Fellow Randonneur" and the like. That didn't seem in the spirit of the sport. So I turned around, descended the hill, and got him. We continued on our way, and it was only ~30 miles to Loudeac.

We later discovered Andy dropped out with severe knee pain, which is too bad.

Once we arrived in Loudeac, it was far later than we anticipated—I think 5 or 6am. We had planned to sleep for two hours but ended up just napping for 30 minutes. We were confused by the control closing times printed on our brevet cards. It seemed like we were cutting it close, which we’d never experienced before, and were a little stressed out. Later I discovered that those times didn’t apply to us or something? I still don’t understand, frankly.


Day 3/4:

The chronology here gets sketchy. We got up, changed into a new kit, and continued. I don’t remember much of this day. At one point in the afternoon, before we descended into… Tinteniac? my front derailleur exploded. This was about mile 475 or 500. I was suffering from shifting problems the whole ride, I think because the FD was damaged on the flight over. I removed it and continued in the small ring. My high gear was 34-12, which was good for a top speed of 17 or 18.


Removing my dead 1976 Dura Ace derailleur.

The rest of that day is fuzzy. It was night; we encountered many sleep-deprived cyclists swerving all over the road. Scary. We rode with Alex from Portland, an amateur framebuilder. Our plan was to get into Villaines, sleep for 45 minutes, and then leave at midnight to do the last 127.5 miles. We ate, but could only find croissants. (Apparently there was another cafeteria that we missed.) I also tried to get medical treatment for my leg, which consisted of someone rubbing lotion on it. Didn’t do anything.

At Villaines a kid guided me to a bed in a hot room. I laid down and fell asleep, supposedly for 45 minutes. But after 45 minutes, I was still asleep! No one woke me up! I spontaneously awoke after an hour, looked at my watch, panicked, and ran out of the place. Thankfully, no one woke up Brian, either, who I found outside in a similarly panicked state. We were relieved. But Alex was gone.

After Villaines, Brian and I were in great spirits. We thought the ride was pretty much over, even though we had 200k to go. We conquered PBP! We had bon courage! We started waxing about the good job we did, how each of us is such a terrific, smart rider, how nothing could stand in our way. This, it turned out, was premature, and wore off after a few hours. The climb into Mortagne was cold and slow going, and our spirits dampened. Dozens of randonneurs lined the road, napping. We too took a roadside nap. We were zonked. An hour or two later, Brian wanted to take another nap. This time I declined and told him I’d meet him at the control, which I did. He arrived about 30 minutes after I did, and I napped while he ate.


Nice sunrise. Note the notorious ankle straps around my right ankle. Photo from Brian.

Leaving Mortagne at about 6:45am, I felt awful. My legs were completely stiff. I knew that I just needed to keep riding and eventually I’d warm up. But boy was I slow—if I was going 10 miles an hour I’d be shocked. I could only laugh at how pathetic I felt. But I did warm up eventually, after two rough hours.

As the sun came out, I felt better. We were behind where we thought we’d be, which caused my adrenaline to kick in. Brian bonked around this time; he ate some sugar and took a nap, which quickly solved it. While he did, a photo crew on a motorcycle pulled up to take pictures of him sleeping. A woman in an SUV stopped to ask if he was okay. Odd, but par for the PBP course.

Going into Dreux I felt great, and pulled a group of 6 or 7 for 20 miles into the control. One of the guys thanked me and told me he’d buy me a beer in Rambouillet, which restored some morale lost in the slow slog out of Mortagne.

Dreux to Rambouillet was a little slower, but pleasant. At this point we knew we’d make it, and the adrenaline wore off. As we pulled into the castle, I sped ahead of Brian. Crossing the finish line I was very happy—“He looks so happy,” remarked a bystander. My girlfriend was waiting there. As I crossed, she yelled, “Don’t stop! Keep going!” because the finish line was actually around the corner. (Of course, this being noncompetitive, it didn’t matter, but I appreciated the sentiment.) I finished in 80:53, slower than my hope of under 80 hours, but well in time for the 84-hour cutoff.


After

At the finish, we ate some sausage and French fries and ice cream (my mouth was sore from all the baguettes), ran into some other Great Lakes Randonneurs people, and hung out.

After, I had to ride another few miles to the Best Western to pack up my bike, since my girlfriend and I were staying at a different hotel in Paris that night. That really sucked. She did most of the packing because I was half vegetable.

The next day, I woke up with my lower leg swollen to twice its normal size. Went to the American Hospital, got an x-ray, and was diagnosed with periostitis. I was prescribed lots of prednisone which reduced swelling, allowed me to hobble around, and made me feel like a million bucks. I had to be off the bike for 4 weeks, and up until last week I had two divots in my shin from my ankle straps. Creepy. Even now I’m not completely recovered.

It’s hard to describe what an incredible adventure it was. It seems cliché to call it epic, but it was, in the truest sense, epic. Already I can’t wait until 2023.


Lessons

Yours may vary, obviously:





  1. I risked big disaster with my bike fit issues. I was cheap, not wanting to spend the $300. Well, now I’m paying $500 on French medical care, $100 on US medical care, and $300 on a bike fit.
  2. I spent way too much time off the bike. My moving average was 13.9mph. That equates to 55 hours on the bike, which means I spent ~26 off the bike, out of which I only got 2 hours of actual sleep. We stopped too much, especially relatively close to controls. This adds time in the stop itself, and also in the time it takes to warm up after being off the bike (especially if you're sore).
  3. I shouldn’t have stopped in Loudeac. Better to go to Carhaix, perhaps to Brest on the first day. We also shouldn’t have pushed ourselves so much up the hills on day 1.
  4. I wish I brought more food on the bike. Sometimes we wasted time stopping at roadside stands because we needed food, and had no choice but to wait in long lines. I got sick of croissants and ham sandwiches.
  5. Drop bags add complexity and stress, cost time, and don’t provide much benefit. I was thinking I’d change clothes every day. That was silly. I could do the whole thing in a wool jersey and two pairs of bibs. The one good thing is that it allowed me to resupply on Skittles and Chex mix.
  6. The GLR "Bleeding Rando" series was terrific prep for PBP. Without it, I think I'd have been overwhelmed by the amount of climbing.
  7. Leg warmers! And more caffeine gum. It was great, but I only had a few pieces.

Last edited by samkl; 09-21-19 at 03:28 PM.
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Old 09-18-19, 06:55 AM
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Great report. Based on my DNF experience, I too feel like getting more food on the bike is going to be an important time-saving strategy. Next time I'll also be looking at some sort of portable sleeping blanket/bag/kit/thing... most importantly it needs to be warm, packable and light.

I might also try using a drawstring bag (similar to the yellow ones they gave out with our documents and jerseys) for food storage. When empty, its presence is insignificant and has little to no weight and aero disadvantage; and it can sure store a ton of food -- as much as needed -- in a very accessible position.
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Old 09-18-19, 09:07 AM
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Congrats on finishing! Bike fit is so important for long distance.
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Old 09-18-19, 12:52 PM
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Originally Posted by atwl77 View Post
Great report. Based on my DNF experience, I too feel like getting more food on the bike is going to be an important time-saving strategy. Next time I'll also be looking at some sort of portable sleeping blanket/bag/kit/thing... most importantly it needs to be warm, packable and light.

I might also try using a drawstring bag (similar to the yellow ones they gave out with our documents and jerseys) for food storage. When empty, its presence is insignificant and has little to no weight and aero disadvantage; and it can sure store a ton of food -- as much as needed -- in a very accessible position.
I also wish I had more space to store food. I ended up stuffing ham sandwiches and croissants directly into the pockets my nice wool jersey. Thankfully it didn't get stained.

It was especially tough not being able to find sugary candy or Gatorade. All the sweet stuff had lots of butter. I read somewhere that they were selling sports drinks at some of the controls, but I didn't find any.
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Old 09-18-19, 02:03 PM
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Thanks for the report, very interesting. I have had that pain between the shin and the foot, it's really annoying. I definitely stopped too much at the roadside stands. I don't regret that very much. That stretch after Mortagne on the way back is a killer. I kept stopping to nap in 2011. The thing I couldn't believe was there were people sitting on my wheel even though I was so slow that I felt like I was going to fall over.

I bought a ton of sugary food at Carrefour beforehand and resupplied at the little grocery in Sizun on the way back. So I didn't miss American-style convenience stores too much. There was an American style convenience store on the way into Fougeres, I think. I almost bought a 6 pack of prepackaged ice cream cones a couple of times, the only thing that stopped me was the need to give away the rest. I really should have done it, somebody would have taken them and they cost less than $3. The thing I missed is that they don't refrigerate soda. I think I wasted 30 minutes total looking for refrigerated soda, which is stupid. The only place that had soda in a refrigerator was the patisserie near the control in Villaines.

I have a large randonneuring handlebar bag. It was almost all food. I also keep gloves and extra clothes in there temporarily. Anything I need to keep rolling

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Old 09-18-19, 02:18 PM
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I found some decent French candies too, they were nice and sour... there were lots of Haribo brand stuff in the grocery stores I stopped at. I got wandering around the giant Carrefour in Fougères, should have just stopped at the Lidl instead, it was a lot smaller. I got enough sugary liquid from all the pop they sold at the controls. I don't mind warm pop so it wasn't a problem for me. I saw the tables with sport drink powders and stuff at most of the controls.
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Old 09-18-19, 05:05 PM
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yeah, the "bike shops" at controls had stuff like that. The Carrefour in SQY had candy bars, lots of familiar ones. I was really hoping they had paydays, but no such luck. Should have imported some
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Old 09-18-19, 06:13 PM
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Sam,

It was nice to meet you and Brian the first day and ride for a bit. You guys were riding very strong on the climbs, even for me who has to sustain a harder effort uphill on fixed gear. That's why I was surprised to pass you on the climb out of Loudeac in the second day. Reading your story, it sounds like a tough ride. Some of the fit issues take a while to sort out, I remember lingering numbness in my fingers and toes after my first 1200k.
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Old 09-18-19, 09:11 PM
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Originally Posted by MetinUz View Post
Sam,

It was nice to meet you and Brian the first day and ride for a bit. You guys were riding very strong on the climbs, even for me who has to sustain a harder effort uphill on fixed gear. That's why I was surprised to pass you on the climb out of Loudeac in the second day. Reading your story, it sounds like a tough ride. Some of the fit issues take a while to sort out, I remember lingering numbness in my fingers and toes after my first 1200k.
Metin! Great riding with you. Yes, we pushed too hard and I knew it at the time. Looking back at the write-up, maybe I overemphasized the adversity. The experience was so profoundly positive that it's hard to express. I can't wait to do it again (on a better-fitting bike).
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