Friday, March 7, 2014

Super Brevet Summer


            When I described my cycling plans for the summer of 2013 to my friends, they said, politely, that they sounded “fun” and “challenging.”  They probably also thought that I was crazy, but they did not say so to my face.
            After completing my Super Randonneur series in Kentucky, Ohio and Georgia, my plan was to do two oversees grandes randonnées.  The first was London-Edinburgh-London (LEL), a 1400-kilometer ride that would take place from July 28 to August 2, 2013.  Then, two weeks later, I planned to do the Super Brevet Scandinavia (SBS), a 1200-kilometer ride that was to begin in Frederikshavn, Denmark on August 16, and was to end at midnight on August 19 in Kristiansand, Norway.
            But my plan was not simply to complete these two rides.  I would also ride my bicycle from the end of LEL to the beginning of SBS.  Thus, after riding 880 miles from London to Edinburgh and back, I would load my camping gear onto my bike and travel about 850 miles to Skagen, the resort city at the most northerly tip of Demark.  After a few days of rest in Skagen, I would ride about 25 miles south to Frederikshavn, and then about 745 miles over the next four days to Kristiansand, Norway.  After completing the Super Brevet, I would rest for a day, and then ride about 220 miles to Oslo, where I would board a plane back to Indianapolis.
            In total, then, my plan was to ride about 2800 miles over the course of one month, from late July to late August.
            I had several reasons for wanting to pull off this elaborate plan.  I completed Paris-Brest-Paris in 2011 (see my account in the Winter, 2011 issue of American Randonneur), but I had never undertaken two grandes randonnées in a year.  I looked forward to the challenge.
            Secondly, even as I have taken up randonneuring, I have continued to enjoy touring, and I go on several loaded trips each year.  I looked forward to the two-week tour that would take me from London to the tip of Denmark, and I liked the idea of combining randonneuring with touring in this way.
            Thirdly, I enjoy the self-sufficiency of bicycle travel.  I commute and do most of my daily travel by bicycle, and I wanted to see how far I could go on my own.  I relished the idea of covering a good swath of northern Europe by bicycle, unaided by the internal combustion engine or other machinery.
            So, at the end of July, I uncoupled my couplers, packed my bike, and boarded a plane from Indianapolis to London.  Once I arrived, I took the underground from Heathrow Airport to a hotel in a northern suburb of London, where I reassembled my bicycle.  I shipped my bike bag, via Royal Mail, to a hotel in Oslo, where I would end my four-week ride.
            The organizers of LEL had made arrangements for participants to stay at a campground near the start, so I rode there, and pitched my tent for the week.  This would give me a place to rest before and after the ride, as well as a place to store my belongings.  I registered, and then I rode back into London, where I spent the night in a cheap hotel so that I could take part in the Prologue, which went from Buckingham Palace to the start in Loughton.
            The ride itself was brilliant.  Like Paris-Brest-Paris, food and sleeping facilities were available at each of the controls, which were spaced 50 to 90 kilometers apart.  Unlike PBP, the registration fee—which was a very modest 219 pounds, or about $360—covered all of the food and services on the ride.  This meant that I and the other 1000 riders on LEL were well fed and sheltered for five days.
            The scenery on the ride was also varied and wonderful.  Once we crossed the massive bridge over the Humber River, the land turned lumpy, first in modest doses through Yorkshire, and then in more dramatic fashion as we climbed Yad Moss and entered Scotland.  The Devil’s Beeftub, just outside of Moffat, Scotland was one of the more memorable and memorably named climbs on the ride.
            And while there were not crowds cheering us along the route, as there are on PBP, there was an army of cheerful and ever-attentive volunteers at the controls, who saw to our every need.  At one point, I needed to replace a brake pad, and I was helped by a volunteer mechanic, who turned out to be Dave Yates, a well known frame builder in England. The spirit of the ride was incredible, and while it was quite different from PBP, it was equally memorable. 
            I finished LEL just after midnight on Friday morning, a little more than six hours ahead of the cut-off time.  I returned to my tent, had a nice long sleep, and spent the rest of the day, and much of the next morning trading stories with fellow finishers (one of whom broke his downtube in Scotland, had it welded by a local craftsman, and then finished the ride in good time). 
            At noon on Saturday, I loaded my bike again, and rode 70 miles north to Harwich, arriving just in time to board the ferry to Holland.  This was one of my few luxuries on the trip—I booked a sleeping berth, and purchased a three-course dinner and a big breakfast for the morning of our arrival.  Thus, I arrived at Hoek van Holland, near Rotterdam, feeling well rested and well fed, ready to begin the continental portion of my journey.
            One of the pleasures of touring in Europe is that many areas have municipal campgrounds, allowing you to enjoy the pleasures of the city while camping outdoors.  I stayed two nights at a very nice campground within the city limits of Amsterdam, paying about $15 per night.  I visited the Van Gogh House and other sites, and enjoyed two very pleasant summer days in Amsterdam, watching all the world pass by on a bicycle.
            On most days, I aimed to ride only about 100 miles, and so I had a fairly leisurely trip across the Netherlands and into Germany.  I stopped for two nights at what must be most immaculate and meticulously maintained campground in the world, in the city of Bremen, and enjoyed several walks in that delightful city. 
            As I approached the Danish border one night, I could not find a convenient campground.  So I rode through the night, stopping, rando-style, for a three-hour nap during a pouring rain in a German bus stop.  German bus stops, I found, were better set up for sleeping than many of the Super 8s I have stayed in during North American brevets.
            I was surprised to find southern Denmark to be very hilly—I had always thought of that country as perfectly flat, and just a few feet above sea level.  I sprained an ankle hauling my loaded bike up one of these hills, and it was swollen and a bit bothersome for the rest of my trip. 
On the other hand, though, I found camping in Denmark to be fabulous.  Every small town had a small campground, and with only 20 or 30 kilometers between towns, I did not have to decide in advance where I would stop for the night.  I knew that, whenever I was tired and wanted to settle down for the night, I would find a campsite.  And Danish campgrounds, like German ones, were clean and well equipped. Not only did they have kitchens with stoves, pots and refrigerators, but they also had baby baths.  I did not have any babies with me, but I was happy to be in campgrounds that addressed everyone’s needs so well.
The touring portion of my journey ended in Skagen, the most northerly point in Denmark. I camped near where the Baltic and North Seas come together.  Because of its peculiar northern light and its barren beaches, Skagen has long been a Mecca for tourists and artists.  It proved an ideal place to rest before my last challenge.
Like LEL, the Super Brevet Scandinavia was very well organized, but it was also very different in character.  There were about 90 of us on SBS, and we stopped each night at the same hotel, and left each morning at the same time.  This meant that the fast and slow riders came together every day, and this, in turn, created a special kind of camaraderie among the riders.
Unlike my experience on LEL, I had some mechanical problems on SBS.  At one point, my chain over-shifted and got stuck in that inconvenient gap between my spokes and my cassette; it took a very kind Dane about an hour to coax it out with a screwdriver and hammer.  He broke a spoke in the process. 
Then, on the second night of the ride, my front light quit working, and I had lost my back-up light on LEL (this was one problem with doing two rides back-to-back rides—I did not have the chance to replenish my equipment).  This meant that I was stuck in the darkest corner of Sweden without a way forward.  But fellow riders soon came along and lit the way for me during that night, and, the following night, another rider lent me his back-up light.
On the final day of the ride, my GPS stopped working (a fate that seems to befall all Garmin Edge users at some point) just when the navigation got complicated in Norway.  Luckily, though, I was able to join up with some Danish riders, and we managed to finish, with just 30 minutes to spare.
I had been an exchange student in Norway when I was 16 years old, and I had not been back in 38 years.  It was thrilling to return, and I enjoyed trying out my very rusty Norwegian each time I stopped for food or directions.
I was surprised, though, to discover that Norway had grown some massive hills in my absence.  I knew, of course, that there were mountains in the north and in the center of Norway, and I had been to some of them, but I was unprepared for the long, long climbs of 8 to 10 percent grade on the road to Kristiansand.
Because of the difficult climbs, I did not completely fulfill my plan by riding 220 miles to Oslo.  I was tired and I could not bear the thought of climbing some of the same hills I had done on SBS.  So I took a train for about 100 miles, thereby avoiding some of the most difficult hills.
Nevertheless, I managed to get to Oslo under my own steam, and was reunited with the bike bag I had sent from London.  I went to the Munch Museum, Vigeland Park, and some other places I remembered from my exchange student days.  Then I packed up my bike, and flew home to Indianapolis.
My summer adventures brought me many rewards.  I was able to complete two great randonneuring events, and I made many new friends and had many great experiences along the way.  I rode about 2700 miles on my bicycle, and enjoyed the independence and freedom that come with such a long trip.
I also enjoyed crossing boundaries on my bike, watching England become Scotland, the Netherlands become Germany, and Germany become Denmark.  In one way, borders are fixed and absolute; you can identify the exact moment when you leave Sweden and enter Norway.  As I experienced them on my bicycle, however, borders were much more fuzzy, and it was fun to track the gradual and sometimes subtle changes in language, food and street design that signaled that I was leaving one country and entering another.
My trip also allowed me to experience some of the best cycling infrastructure in the world.  I have cycled through the Netherlands several times, and have always enjoyed the completely separate set of paths for cyclist throughout that country.  Cycling in the Netherlands is rather slow, however, because you have to stop at many intersections and ask for permission to cross the street by pressing a button.  I was surprised at how well cyclists were accommodated in Germany, and at how many Germans used their bicycles for shopping and for errands.  In many places in Germany, I traveled on cycle tracks far out into the countryside.  But I found the cycling infrastructure in Denmark to be the absolute best.  While cyclists are generally separated from cars, as in the Netherlands, they are also on equal footing with cars, and you do not have to press buttons at intersections to get permission to cross.  The Danish system for cyclists is fast, efficient and safe.
I also found great pleasure in connecting randonneuring with touring on my trip.  As Jan Heine has shown in excellent four-part history of randonneuring (Bicycle Quarterly, vols. 8-10), the origins of the sport lie in bicycle touring in late nineteenth-century France.  And, of course, Paris-Brest-Paris is still operated under the auspices of the Fédération Française de Cyclotourisme.  I felt that, in my trip, I combined two styles of riding that belong together.
I enjoyed every part of my trip, but I doubt that I will try to repeat it in 2017, when LEL and SBS come up again.  Instead, I will continue to look for new and different opportunities for combining randonneuring events, and for combining randonneuring with touring.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Budweiser Is My Enemy


            Budweiser is my enemy.
            It’s not because they make insipid beer.  Although there is that.
            And it’s not because they prevent a far better Czech beer, also named Budweiser, from being marketed in the United States.  Although there is that.
            No, Budweiser is my enemy because they produce a sizeable percentage of the glass that ends up in my tires and the tires of many other cyclists.
            Few people understand the gnawing, daily menace that broken glass poses for urban cyclists.  A single bottle of the sort that Budweiser generously spreads throughout our city can shatter into enough pieces to puncture hundreds of bicycle tires.  And broken bottles are everywhere.
            Flat tires have been a constant during my twenty-plus years of commuting by bicycle.  Sometimes I have flats for three or four days in a row, and sometimes I go for months without a puncture, but the threat of flats never disappears.
            Over the years, I have tried all the products marketed to bicyclists for avoiding flats.  For years, I put a thick orange rubber strap, called “Mr. Tuffy,” between my tire and my inner tube.  The idea was that Mr. Tuffy would stop glass or any other sharp object that might go through the tire from reaching the more fragile inner-tube.  Unfortunately, Mr. Tuffy was not tough enough, and I continued to have many flat tires even with his help.
            I also went through a Goo phase.  Goo is a viscous, fluorescent-green product that you squeeze into your inner tube before you inflate it.  When a sharp object pierces the inner tube, Goo is supposed to rush to the site, congeal around the puncture, and stop the air from escaping, and thereby prevent a flat tire.  I found that Goo turned the inside of my tires fluorescent green, but did little to stop flat tires.   I eventually tossed Goo onto the scrapheap of failed cycling remedies, together with Mr. Tuffy.
            Steel-belted radials have made flat tires a rarity among motorists, but there is no equivalent for cyclists.  Given their narrowness, and given the need to keep weight down, it is simply not practical to line bicycle tires with steel mesh.  Consequently, cyclists will never be as impervious to glass as motorists.
            The best solution I have found is to mount Ultra Gatorskins on my bike.  These German made tires are expensive, at $50 each, but they are lined with Kevlar, which is supposedly also used for bullet-proof vests and canoes.  Even with this added protection, however, I figure that I lose two tires prematurely each year to glass, as well as 10 inner-tubes and numerous patch kits.
            Thus, I put my Glass Tax at about $150 per year. 
            My other strategy for dealing with glass is to pick it up as soon as I see it.  I have noticed that a bottle left on the street or bicycle path inevitably breaks, and, over time, fractures into more and more small pieces that can puncture more and more tires.  And glass, once broken, never goes away on its own. 
            So I always carry in my bicycle pannier a dustpan and brush, and I sweep up glass whenever I see it.  Once or twice a year, I also sweep the sidewalk along the 30th Street Bridge, which I ride almost every day on my way to work. 
            My campaign to eliminate glass from my path has brought me into close contact with much of the high-test vodka, cheap gin and rotgut wine on the market today.  But more than half of the intact bottles and broken glass I pick up is Budweiser brown.  Hence my enmity.
            Motorists frequently complain about the bad behavior of cyclists.  They ride the wrong way down a one-way street, they fly through red stop lights, and they recklessly endanger themselves and others.
            Certainly, such behavior happens altogether too often, and cyclists need to clean up their act.  But I wish that motorists were equally aware of their own transgressions, and the ways in which they thoughtlessly use their power against cyclists.
            Some of the actions motorists take against cyclists are explicit and unmistakable.  When a motorist yells at me, “get off the road,” or honks when I am riding in a perfectly legal and reasonable way, the message is clear.
            Other messages are less direct but equally pointed.  If automobiles were as vulnerable to glass as bicycles, broken bottles would not be tolerated, and motorists would not be allowed to heave spent Budweisers out their windows with impunity.
            Broken glass is just one other way in which cyclists are told that they are not welcome on our streets.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Ballard, Cycling and our Shared Environment

On November 8, 2011, citizens in Indianapolis will vote for mayor in a contest between Greg Ballard, the incumbent Republican, and Melina Kennedy, his Democratic challenger.  This is my commentary on the election from a cyclist's point of view.


            In general, I hold the position that friends don’t let friends vote Republican.
            I myself once voted for Dick Lugar when he had an especially weak opponent, but soon regretted my vote when he played an unsavory role in prolonging the impeachment of Bill Clinton.  Lugar’s reputation for independence and courage has long been exaggerated.  But that’s a topic for another day.
            As I look ahead to the upcoming mayoral race, however, I think I may very well vote Republican, and I may do so without regret.
            The main reason that I would vote to re-elect Mayor Ballard is that I am an avid and devoted cyclist.  I commute to work by bicycle, and I use a bicycle for nearly all of my day-to-day transportation.  And during my twenty-plus years of riding in Indianapolis, more progress has been made to improve cycling under Mayor Ballard than under all of the previous mayors combined.
            When Ballard became mayor, three years ago, Indianapolis had only a single decrepit and out-of-the-way bicycle lane along Lafayette Road in the northwest corner of the city.  Now, we have over thirty miles of bicycle lanes, and we will have another thirty by the end of this year.  These lanes are actually useful, and get cyclists to places they might want to go along New York, Michigan and Illinois streets downtown, and along Madison on the southeast side and Lafayette Road on the northwest side.
            Yes, I know that these lanes have been criticized by motorists and cyclists alike.  Some motorists believe that they own our streets, and are unwilling to give up a square inch to anyone not burning gasoline.  Moreover, they resent the vast sums of city funds being wasted on cycling.
            Some cyclists, for their part, complain that the lanes are too narrow and are poorly designed.  A few go so far as to say that the lanes should be shunned altogether, and that cyclists should “claim the [entire] lane” for their own safety.
            Both criticisms are, in my opinion, wrong-headed.   Our bicycle lanes have come at a very modest cost to taxpayers, and cyclists deserve a place on our roads.  One could always wish for wider and better designed lanes, but I have found our lanes to be adequate.  And the occasions when a cyclist should “claim the lane” for safety are rare; in general, cyclists, like other slower-moving traffic, should stay to the right.  It is much easier to stay to the right if one has the protection of a bike lane.
            As an intrepid and determined cyclist, I rode along Allisonville Road long before it had a dedicated bike lane.  The lane that went in there last year makes me more comfortable riding along this busy thoroughfare, and it gives me the feeling that I have a place in the road.  More importantly, the bike lane makes it more likely that others will use their bicycles for commuting and shopping.
            When I mentioned to a friend that I was thinking about voting for Ballard because of his cycling record, she accused me of being a “single-issue” voter. 
            That’s a fair enough criticism, but for me this single issue is a very big one.  Moreover, it is connected to a number of other areas where Mayor Ballard has been doing good work.  He has established an office of sustainability, and, in a variety of ways, has worked quietly to make Indianapolis a more environmentally responsible city. 
In addition to bike lanes, I am seeing new sidewalks and facilities for pedestrians go into parts of the city that have never had them before.  For Ballard, bike lanes seem to fit into a broader plan about improving the environment of Indianapolis for everyone.
            I keep waiting for Melina Kennedy to announce her own ambitious plans to build upon and enhance the city’s plans for pedestrians and cyclists.  So far, I have been sorely disappointed.
            If Kennedy’s main claim to the mayorship is that she was a protégé of Bart Peterson’s, then she has little credibility in this area.   Peterson inherited the Monon Trail and a far-reaching plan for greenways development from Stephen Goldsmith and Ray Irvin, and he let the momentum die.  In fact, I could not point to a single thing that Bart Peterson did to improve the environment of our city.
            On a national level, voting for Republicans seems, increasingly, to mean voting against evolution, against the rights of women, against a sensible response to global warming, and, ultimately, against the common good.
            In Indianapolis, by contrast, voting for a Republican might mean voting for a more humane and liveable city.

Monday, September 19, 2011

My Paris-Brest-Paris

Paris-Brest-Paris is a 1200-kilometer ride that takes place every four years.  One of the established customs of the ride is that those who have completed it write a report of their experiences.  I completed the ride this year, and this is my contribution to the genre of the rider's report.


Vive le Velo, Vive la France, Vive le PBP!


            Participating in the Paris-Brest Paris ride in August, 2011, was one of the great experiences of my life.  Completing the 1200 kilometer course in 88 hours and 3 minutes (within the 90 hours allowed) is a source of great pride for me, and, depending on how I look at it, represents the culmination of a season, or three years, or a lifetime of effort as a cyclist.  Even more than a sense of personal accomplishment, however, I took away from the event a deep joy in joining more than 5000 cyclists from around the world who came to Paris to test themselves and to show what is possible on a bicycle.  Ultimately, PBP for me was about joining something much bigger than myself, and, in my small way, becoming a part of the history of a ride that stretches back to 1891.
            I enjoyed every part of the event, even the bureaucratic exercises that preceded the ride.  During the bicycle inspection and registration the day before the event, the excitement and the good spirits were palpable.  The volunteers who did the paperwork and directed the cyclists through the maze of check-points were invariably cheerful and generous, as they were throughout the four days of the ride.  The night before the ride began, there was a concert followed by a wonderfully well choreographed fireworks display to kick off the ride.  At the end of the show, the announcer shouted out, in the overly excited manner peculiar to French emcees, “Vive le velo, vive la France, vive le PBP!” 
            For me, as for many other riders, the actual beginning of the ride was all about waiting.  I slept in late the morning of the event, had a leisurely lunch and early dinner, and then ambled over to the starting line at about 5 p.m.  I was somewhat surprised to discover that I was near the end of the line of riders queued up for the 6 p.m. start, and this put me in the very last wave of 90-hour starters, who did not get underway until 8 p.m.  This was by far the hottest day of the ride, and by the time I reached the starting line, I had drunk much of the water I carried with me, and was still parched.
            But once we finally got rolling, all was well.  We had a motorcycle escort through the suburbs of Paris, and we all rode fast and with great spirit.  Those early hours introduced me to the many pleasures of PBP: spectators along the route yelling out “bonne route” and “bon courage” and giving us water and snacks, casual conversations in English and broken French with fellow randonneurs, and an unbroken line of red lights before me and white lights behind me.  If you are devoted to long-distance cycling, as I am, it doesn’t get better than this.
            The first full day of the ride was smooth sailing for me.  There were occasional periods of rain, but they weren’t heavy enough to require rain gear, and were generally refreshing.  I got used to working my way through the crush of spectators and riders at the controls, and developed a routine for getting my brevet card stamped, getting some food, filling my water bottles and getting off with reasonable efficiency.  Sooner than I expected, I arrived in Loudeac, 450 kilometers into the ride, feeling good and fresh.
            Here, though, I made a bit of a tactical error.  After getting my card stamped, eating a nice dinner, retrieving my drop bag and showering, I decided that I was feeling too good to stop for a rest, even though I had I had been on the road for nearly 24 hours without sleep.  I decided to go on to the sleep stop in Saint Nicolas-du-Pellem, 44 kilometers down the road, or possibly on to Carhaix, the next control, which was a further 32 kilometers.   In retrospect, I should have taken a cot in Loudeac, and had a nice sleep.
            Soon after I left Loudeac, there was a fantastic display of lightning, and it started pouring down rain.  Moreover, the road became very hilly, with sharp climbs and even sharper descents.  My greatest weakness as a randonneur is descending, particularly when I cannot see very well; I find myself braking down hills that others take at great speed.  This made the road to St. Nicolas very, very slow.  Luckily, Jerry, a very kind rider from North Carolina, stuck with me through this stretch.  He said that he wanted to stay with me because I had a GPS and could follow the route with confidence; in fact, though, I think that he saw that I was struggling to see the road and wanted to help me out.  This was one of many kindnesses I received during the ride.
            When we finally reached St. Nicolas, there were no more beds available, because so many riders were seeking shelter from the storm.  Eventually, I claimed some space on the floor of the dormitory, and lay down for three hours.  Unfortunately, I was unable to sleep, partly because I was wet and uncomfortable, and partly because there was a snoring fest of the sort I had never witnessed before.  One of the snorers seemed to be doing excavation deep under the surface of the earth, and the whole room reverberated with his efforts.
            While I did not get any sleep, I was grateful to discover, when I got up three hours later, that the rain had mostly stopped, and that the riding was much easier.  I did have some trouble, however, with heavy fog on the Roc Trevezel, the longest climb of the ride.  Actually, climbing was not a problem, but the fog made it difficult to see on the way down, and, as I had done the night before, I descended much more slowly than I wanted.  Eventually, though, I got to Brest, and found that I had spent only 39 of the 90 hours allotted to me.  I was happy with this time, and had a beer—my first and only during the ride.  (To the amusement of many of the Americans on PBP, there was beer and wine on offer at every control; it was an odd thing to contemplate this array of beverages at, say, 5 in the morning, after going days without sleep.)
            As I was riding out of Brest, early on Tuesday afternoon, the weather cleared up, and I was stunned by the scenery that had been concealed by fog the previous day.  I could see layers and layers of hills, in variegated shades of green, off into the distance.  I also had the pleasure of traveling down the Roc at a good speed, and, while I was beginning to feel tired, I made steady progress back to Loudeac.  I again got clean cycling kit from my drop bag, and had a wonderful shower and a good feed.  This time, though, I decided to correct my earlier mistake, and booked a cot in Loudeac for a three-hour sleep.  Sadly, though, the earth-moving snorer got there before me, and, again, I was unable to sleep because of the noise in the hall.
            While I was short on sleep, I felt good leaving Loudeac early the next morning.  Wednesday, the last full day, was the most beautiful day of the ride.  The temperature was cool but pleasant; there was no rain and mostly blue skies.  Also, as we got closer to Paris, and most of my fellow riders realized that they were going to complete the ride, their spirits rose, and the rolling community that is PBP became progressively more festive.  In many ways, Wednesday was my favorite day of the ride, and I remember thinking to myself how sad I would be when it all ended.
            At the same time, however, Wednesday also brought me challenges.  For one thing, my lack of sleep was catching up with me.  At Tinteniac, I had a wonderful breakfast of mashed potatoes and chicken, after which I crawled under the table at which I had just eaten, and slept for two hours.  (This is the unspoken rule of the latter stages of PBP—sleep whenever and wherever you can.) This turned out to be my only real sleep of the ride, and, while I felt better, my sleep tank was still severely depleted.  When I got to the next control, Fougeres, I ate another good meal, and stretched out on the grass for an hour.  I didn’t sleep this time, and I knew the next stages would be difficult.  Even so, I made my way, albeit slowly, to Villaines-la-Juhel, which is only a bit more than 200 kilometers from the end.
            Then things got really tough.  The stretch between Villaine and Mortagne-au-Perche is quite lumpy.  I felt pretty good as I tackled the first hills, but I was slowing perceptibly, and, as night came, I got sleepier.  The same was happening to other riders.  As I rode along, I saw cyclists sprawled out along the road next to their bikes.  It was quite apocalyptic, and it looked like hordes of cyclists had been asphyxiated by an invisible but deadly gas.  Eventually, I fell too, and pulled out my space blanket for 15 minutes of kip along the road.  This time, the stop brought me no real comfort, and when I started out again, I felt worse than when I lay down.  But I went on.
            Eventually, I came to a small village, and, for the first time, I stopped at one of the many stands set up for cyclists.  I had a wonderful coffee and cake.  It was so good, in fact, that I decided to have another round, but when I looked for my wallet to pay, I found that it was gone.  Riding a long randonnee requires you to keep track of lots of important stuff, and thus far I had done well.  But in my sleepiness I had gotten sloppy, and I probably lost my wallet when I stopped along the road for my 15-minute rest.  All of my cash and all of my credit cards were in the wallet, but I did still have my brevet card and passport.
            This was my bleakest moment.  Here I was, in the middle of god-knows-where, France, so tired that I could not think straight, and without the means to feed myself.  Everything on PBP costs something—three euros for a shower, four for a cot, and ten for a proper meal--and I now had less than a euro on me.  For the first time, I allowed myself to think that I might not finish the ride.  I sat down by the side of a dark road, despondent and unsure what to do next.
            But this was also my moment of rejuvenation.  I gave myself a good talking to, and reminded myself that I had come here to complete this ride, and I must not let anything—especially not anything as trivial as losing a wallet—stop me from finishing.  I took stock of my food and realized that I probably had enough energy bars and Hammer tablets to see me to Paris, even though they tasted worse than cardboard to me.  I also realized that there would be people along the road who would give me more palatable food for free.  I rode on.
            I continued to struggle with the hills, but then something wonderful and unexpected happened.  At the top of a tough hill, in the pitch dark, I came upon a group of people gathered around a camper, some of them riders, and some of them not.  A jovial man was passing out coffee and cake.  I drank a cup of coffee that tasted better to me than any I had before (and I drink a lot of coffee).  I had some cake, and that, too, made me feel better.  I wanted to move on, but the man insisted that I sit for a bit in a chair he brought out for me.  He told me that he and his wife had ridden PBP many times before, but were now too old to do it, and wanted to help other riders.  They had chosen this spot to set up their camper because they always found it the most difficult of the ride.  I looked around for his wife, but there was no woman in the group.  Later, he embraced another man, and, while I was too groggy to know for sure, I inferred that they were a gay couple, and that this was, for them, a kind of coming out party in the mostly masculine, sometimes masochistic world of randonneuring.
            As I sat there, they asked me where I came from.  “The U.S.” I said.  “Where in the U.S.,” they asked.  “Indiana,” I said.  Just then, another rider came up, proclaiming, “my back is killing me.”  My hosts asked, “Where are you from?”  “Indiana,” he answered.  I was astonished to hear this.  There were only six riders on PBP from Indiana, and I had a passing acquaintance with four of the other five.  As I looked at this figure arriving in the middle of the night, I realized that he was Phil Carroll, with whom I had ridden a few hours of my last 600K of the season in June in southern Wisconsin.  He got off and joined the party.  As we talked about our experiences, I told him about losing my wallet.  “Do you want some money?” he asked.  “Sure,” I said, “ten euros would see me to the end.”  He pulled out a wad of cash, handed me a 50-euro bill, and said, “If you don’t pay me back, I won’t lend you money again.”
            I am not a religious person, but as I left that warm, bright place and threw myself again into the dark, I felt blessed.  A bit earlier, I was worried that I might not finish the ride.  Now, I felt so enveloped in generosity and good will that I could not fail to finish.
            With lifted spirits, then, I arrived in Mortagne, which was the next-to-the-last control, about 120 kilometers from the finish line.  I did a quick calculation, and realized that I had at least three hours to spare.  I again had a nice meal (as you can see, eating was a big part of my PBP experience), and I decided to take a cot for an hour, spending freely from the 50-euro treasure Phil Carroll had given me.  I don’t remember a lot of snoring this time, but I still couldn’t sleep; my mind was too occupied with the experiences of the night and with my approaching arrival in Paris to shut down.  
            I left Mortagne a bit after 3 a.m., which gave me almost 11 hours to cover the last 120 kilometers.  I was grateful when the route began to flatten out, and I reached Dreux, the last control, without incident.  The last 50 kilometers seemed like a victory lap; there were a few sharp hills coming into Paris, but I scarcely even noticed them.  I, and the people I was riding with at this point, knew that nothing could stop us from finishing.
            I crossed the finish line a few minutes after noon, almost two hours before the limit.  I stumbled through the formalities, got my free beer, and sat under a tree for an hour or so with a group of riders from San Francisco.  One of them said, “this is the Olympics of randonneuring, and we just did it, man.”  I thought there was some truth to that, but I fell asleep before I could say anything in response.
            After I picked myself up and headed home, I rode for a while with a Belgian rider, who had also just finished, and was on his way back to his hotel.  I asked him if he would do PBP again, and he responded, without hesitation, “Why would I want to ruin a perfect ride?”  As I talked to him, it became clear that the ride had gone so well for him that he did not want to endanger his good memories of the event by doing it again, and perhaps creating less happy memories.  I completely understood what he was saying, but I had the opposite response.  I had enjoyed myself so much—even when the going was difficult--that I wanted to do it again, as soon as possible.  But I will have to wait another four years.
            At 52, I am, to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, an old man, and yet a young randonneur.  (To be clear, I should say here that Jefferson was talking about gardening, not randonneuring).  I only started the sport three seasons ago, after I was hit by a car and broke my leg.  As I was recovering from the surgery, which involved putting my tibia back together with nine screws and a metal plate, I resolved to not allow the accident to stop me, and to embrace cycling all the more fervently.  At that point, most of my cycling experience was as a commuter, relying on a bicycle for most of my day-to-day travel, although I had discovered in my early forties that I could ride long distances if I set my mind to it.  Randonneuring seemed at the time both a challenge and a logical extension of the kind of cycling I had done my whole life. (I also received an insurance settlement as a result of my accident that allowed me to buy the equipment and pay for the travel that comes with randonneuring.)
            I learned a lot during my first two years as a randonneur, sometimes through failure.  In my very first year, I attempted London-Edinburg-London, a 1400-kilometer ride that goes through some very hilly stretches in northern England and Scotland.  On the way back from Edinburgh, I got washed out by a severe storm, lost my way, and Did Not Finish.  The following year, I again tried a long ride, the Lowlands 1200, which went around the Netherlands and through a bit of Germany and Belgium.  This time, I had a bad rear wheel that kept losing a spoke and going out of true.  Halfway through the ride, I managed to buy a new wheel, but had lost so time much that, again, I Did Not Finish.  My success in PBP came, I believe, as a result of those two failures, and of all that I had learned in the dozen or so shorter rides I had completed.
            One of the things I love most about randonneuring is its emphasis upon self-reliance.  Unlike some other forms of cycling, you don’t generally have a car following you during a randonneuring event (although some elite riders did have such support on PBP), and you have to figure out how to do things on your own.  In my three years of randonneuring, I have become a far better mechanic, navigator and rider than I was when I started.  And, strange as it is to say this at my age, I think I have also gained emotional maturity.  In particular, I don’t think that I could have coped as well with the loss of my wallet and managed to carry on when I started randonneuring two years ago.
            But what PBP taught me this year takes me in the opposite direction, and reminds me of how important other people are to what we do.  As I reflect on my experiences, I think of Jerry, who rode with me through that storm, of the generous French man who was passing out coffee and cake on the way to Mortagne, and of Phil Carroll, who handed me 50 euros on that dark road without blinking an eye in hesitation.  I also think of the many kind people along the way who offered me water, stamped my brevet card, and cheered me on.  And, perhaps most of all, I think of the French family I stayed with before and after the event.
            Indeed, one of the luckiest things I did for PBP was to arrange to stay with a family.  More or less on a whim, I responded to a posting on the website for PBP where riders could request housing and residents and hotels could offer housing to riders.  Because my wife could not join me in Paris, I thought that I might enjoy staying with a family, rather than in a hotel, and that this might make the experience more personal.  I had not imagined, however, that I would meet such generous people as the Rosselle family, or that they would take such good care of me.
            Olivier and Marie Agnes Rosselle took me in sight unseen. They gave me an extremely comfortable place to stay, just three kilometers from the start-line, for the two days before and the two days after the event. They fed me wonderful food, and gave me excellent wine, much of it from Bourgogne, where they had grown up.  They washed my clothes.  They gave me money to help me to get home after I lost my wallet.  Olivier, who is a physical therapist by training, gave me a leg massage after I finished the ride, and this helped me to recover without the knots in my leg muscles that usually follow such a long ride.  He also drove me to the airport when I left, thus solving the last cash-flow problem following from the loss of my wallet.
            As I was experiencing the generosity of the Rosselle family, and as I have thought about it since, I have often wondered why they took such extraordinary steps to help me, and to make the experience so special.  Part of the reason, certainly, is that they are inherently generous people.  Another part of the reason is that helping me gave them a way to participate in an event that was important to their community; eight years ago, they had done the same for a pair of Italian riders they housed before and after PBP.   In addition, I found in the Rosselles a love of sport that one often finds among the French which does not depend on the heroic efforts of superstars; they are capable, as were the many spectators along the route, of appreciating the near-geriatric efforts of a 52-year-old cyclist who is quite determined but who practically crawls along some portions of the route.
            As apt as these explanations are, however, I think the deeper explanation for the generosity of the Rosselles lies in something that Olivier said to me about doing PBP during the first of several meals we shared: “You have to follow your dreams.”  This is not my natural way of speaking; I am a taciturn Midwesterner, and am much more at home with the wry understatement of Phil Carroll’s “if you don’t pay me back, I will not lend you money again.”  But Olivier was certainly right, and doing PBP was about the realization of several different dreams I have had.  Moreover, he possesses a kind of wisdom that sometimes eludes me, for he understands that we rely upon others to help us to realize our dreams.  However proud we might be of our self-reliance, we can’t do it all on our own.
            At the end of the day, then, I am filled with humility and gratitude after completing PBP.  I am grateful to the Rosselles.  I am grateful to all of the volunteers, and to all of the people who offered me water and food along the way.  I am grateful to my wife for supporting me and putting up with my increasingly crazy cycling habits.  I am grateful for everything I learned and everything I experienced during that wonderful week at the end of August, 2011.  And I am grateful to have been a part of this great event.
            Vive le velo, vive la France, et vive le PBP!








Postscript: Two weeks after I returned home to Indiana, my wallet arrived in the mail.  The return address indicated that it was sent to me by a woman in Barcelona.  There was no note in the envelope, but the wallet contained all of the cash and all of the credit cards I had when I lost it.  I don’t know what to say about this final act of kindness, except that it fit in with everything I felt and experienced during PBP, and somehow completed the story for me.

The Cyclist Sets Out

As I launch "The Cyclist," I am acutely aware that the world has little need for another blog.  At the same time, though, I recognize in myself the motivation that has led bloggers, and other periodical writers before them, to burden the world with their scribbling: I feel that I have something to say, and I want to create for myself a place to say it.

In giving this blog the title "The Cyclist," I do not mean to confine myself to the discussion of cycling, even though this is an important part of who I am and what I do.  Rather, I wish to borrow the ambulatory  metaphor that Samuel Johnson used in the series of essays that he wrote in the 18th century under the titles The Rambler, The Adventurer, and The Idler.  These were not essays about walking, but, rather, walking was the fictional premise for the essays.  In the course of his essays, he took up topics that he might think about on a long walk.  Memorable essays dealt the state of fiction during his day, the purpose of poetry, and what it means to grow old.

By the same token, then, I aim to take up in these essays the things I might think about on a long bike ride.    If you read very far into this blog, you will learn that I am a randonneur, and go on some very long bike rides.  And, while I do not claim to be as learned or as imaginative as Samuel Johnson, who was universally known "Dr. Johnson" even though he lacked a college degree, I do hope to be able to take up a wide range of topics in the course of my rides.

Without further introduction or delay, then, I start my ride.