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By Mark Johnson
Reading PBP’95 FIRST may naturally leave you with a different perception of this indescribable experience. Why? ’95 was my first personal undertaking of such an immense challenge and it was certainly “a great adventure”. I therefore encourage you to read the ’95 story as it is REALLY part of the ’99 story!
I was fortunate in ’95 to share the experience and reach a successful completion with my wife Sue on a tandem, an experience we shall carry with us forever. In ’97, we were blessed with the arrival of Courtney which curtailed the practicality of Sue training for such an event in the near future.
With experience comes wisdom and realistic expectations, both in preparation and throughout the event. At the start of PBP’99 I knew what was at hand, what needed to be done, and had a heightened confidence level resultant of my previous learning experience. I also had more base miles, a well thought out lighting system and a strong and capable stoker, Julie, with whom I had shared many tandem miles. The previous experience was communicated and shared with here which only bolstered her enthusiasm!
Enjoy this story but consider reading PBP’95 first!
The ’99 Story:
Our first hurdle was over after the four of us arrived at Kansas City International airport with our boxed Co-Motion Speedster Al (Big Al and then Roadster in later years) tandem. Strangely enough, even though our seat reservations were together, our seat assignments were scattered about the plane. Once we were able to get the family unit in close proximity we were able to relax and breath a sigh of relief. This problem was to plague us again later but little did we know it at the time.
The seven time zone difference combined with the eight hour flight from Chicago, not to mention the other many hours spent flying from K.C. and in preparation, often seem to be one of the toughest portions of participating in PBP. The hours of sitting, walking, standing and carrying luggage do not agree with my body while cycling with its smooth non-jarring rhythmic motion makes me feel so much better and actually assists in making many physical things go away. Fortunately my four-wheeled dolly, the same one used in ’95, worked very well and all lifting and dragging of the tandem was avoided during our airport adventures.
CAN YOU SAY JET LAG?
Our arrival in Paris went very smoothly, or at least so it seemed, in our sleep deprived state. We were expecting to deal with loading a tandem in a bus as per our ’95 experience but our travel agent obviously learned from the earlier mistake and commissioned a truck to handle the transport. Whew! -- I was not looking forward to wrestling a tandem through the front door of a bus and over the top of the seats again!
Not everything went as smoothly as anticipated given our arrival in France was sans tandem thanks to the efficiency of Air France…NOT! After multiple phone calls and some major prodding, expression of great concern about being able to participate in this great event in their country, the tandem was delivered very late the day of our arrival.
Unfortunately we did miss out on riding the first day, a ride we longed for given it helps work out the kinks, both mental an physical, of travel and insures a better night's sleep.
Courtney, our 22 month old, did exceptionally well on the long flight and during the trip in general. Her internal clock was a bit off the first night after awakening at 2:00 a.m. France time and she let it be known to her little world that she wanted a shower! Uuugggghhhhh! At 4:30 a.m. I relented to her persistence since going back to sleep was certainly out of the question! Trying to convince our little one that it was night-night time was not working nor was informing her that when the sun came up that it would be morning and shower time. She knew what time it was! Just ask her!
The attendance of riders at the Hotel Grill Campanile was literally increasing by the hour. With great excitement and anticipation of riding in the French countryside, we assembled our tandem which thankfully arrived safe and sound. Removing our tandem from the “bike store room” is another story given that early in does not necessarily equal early out now that over 100 other bicycles and their storage containers filled the room.
We rode four different 20 to 65 mile rides to learn what we anticipated to be the start and finish of the course with America's four time winner Scott Dickson. Having the opportunity to ride with the legendary 'Dickson' was a huge inspiration for us both. We quickly learned that the cue sheets were basically worthless since any interpretation possible was akin to a mind or video pursuit game hence we began to rely on memory, experience and the input of those who had done the event other years times.
My riding buddy and stoker extraordinaire, Julie, had completed each brevet qualifier with me on the tandem. We found ourselves in France, fully qualified for PBP but with no real plan as the start of this event was drawing near. We did agree on one thing and that was to ride and ride fast getting the most out of daylight as possible thus minimizing our time in the dark. Our daylight riding goal seemed reasonable enough in itself and we chose to start in the Monday night 90 hour group at 9:45 on August 23rd. Other choices would have involved self-imposed time penalties such as the 80-hour group which started just ahead of us at 8:00 p.m. or the 84-hour group which started at something like 4:45 the following morning. We chose the 90-hour group as a safety measure not wanting self imposed penalties and realizing that much can go wrong mechanically, physically, or with the weather and the odds of trouble actually double on a tandem!. We felt it unwise to have a self imposed time constraint.
We did plan on riding a minimum of 280 miles through the first night and the following day. But there really is no choice at this point given the time cutoffs for the "controles" are structured in such a way that this distance must be completed before one can sleep. Rumor has it that the powers to be have found that if riders sleep prior to this point that their chances of a successful completion diminishes significantly.
Allow me to digress for a moment since my participation in '95 PBP, with my wife Sue, permitted vital insight into better preparation for this year's event. In '95 we found our lighting system to be totally inadequate once the first hour of battery drain had passed thanks to the straight line descending power loss curve (voltage drop) provided by alkaline cells. We also had very insufficient lighting for the long fast hills, any fog that may develop and for narrow dark curvy tree lined country lanes devoid of paint markings and usable contrast. Night riding after being awake for over 30 hours on the narrow winding dark tree lined country lanes with a weak light is nerve racking to say the least, highly stressful and very exhausting. My desire was to eliminate or minimize this problem!
Through the personal help of Willie Hunt and Marty Goodman, M.D., individuals met on the internet, I was able to devise a light weight, although expensive lighting system which provided an excellent power to weight ratio. We had the luxury of having 15 watts for illuminating the 35-40 mph descents and low contrast narrow country lanes devoid of paint markings. The system worked so well and provided enough illumination that we never found it necessary to brake on the long fast descents unlike in ’95 when it seemed we burned the brakes for miles! We also used a second 5 watt system for general cruising which was more than sufficient for dark country riding on well-marked roads with little or no ambient light.
The light system utilized a 5W BLT lightweight resin body helmet mounted headlight with a user friendly toggle switch, a 5W NiteRider narrow focal spot bulb powered by two AA battery packs wired in parallel which simply went in my back pocket. Follow this so far? Don't worry, it will get better!
The two AA battery packs were taped together to form a single unit. Each contained six Eveready lithium photo batteries wired in series providing a total of 9 volts per pack. The two packs were wired in parallel thus doubling the run time. The total of 9 volts supplied by the two packs was channeled through Willie's LVR3 voltage regulator which was designed to permit switchable voltage, i.e., 4.8V, 6.0V or 6.5V.
Mathematically we were able to get 6 hours of continuous light from this system. Utilization of the voltage regulator provides the exact same illumination from beginning to end unlike the common alkaline problem of starting with a bright light that dims rapidly and continues to dim until the lamp is useless. And interestingly enough, unregulated alkalines will still have current in them but it is worthless unless you run the batteries in series and incorporate Willie's LVR3 regulator which provides the output voltage needed for the bulb.
The second system and backup system per PBP requirements was a lightweight quick disconnect BLT handlebar mount light containing a NiteRider 15W narrow focal spot bulb. This light was powered by a separate battery pack mounted under the captain seat in an old tubular tire bag. This system also utilized an LVR3 voltage regulator and mathematically I was able to get 2.7 hours of continuous use.
Many thanks go to Marty and Willie for solving a problem so crucial to a successful safe event. It was truly a night and day difference comparing the '95 event to the '99 one. We ALL thank you! To provide a further indication of lighting ability of our system, over the course of the ride there were many riders using the well touted Lumotec and Schmidt dyno hub that followed us not because of the draft but so they could see where they were going at a reasonable speed!
In '95, I suffered from electrolyte imbalance with resultant muscle damage, spasms, etc. despite staying well hydrated. I read on the web about Steve Born's record setting west to east Texas crossing followed by his experience on a RAAM crew. After contacting Steve, he promptly sent me the supplements he used personally and supplied to others for use in very intense efforts, all with reported highly favorable results. I ordered them thinking I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. It was certainly worth a shot to give this a try in light of my previous experience!
The supplements arrived just before leaving for France so a real life tolerance test was not feasible. I premixed Gatorade in baggies and dumped the capsule contents of the various supplements in with the sports drink. The supplements contained salt, from a variety of sources, vitamin C, calcium, magnesium, potassium, etc. I knew this carried a certain degree of tolerance risk but recalling the experience some four years previous, I really felt there was little choice.
Long into the ride I realized that Steve Borne was really on to something. While taking the supplements and basically eating everything in sight at the controles, there were times I simply marveled at how good my legs felt despite having ridden over 500 miles, a truly incredible unexpected feeling! Thanks Steve for your assistance in this area!
The other problem in '95, aside from going too hard at times, was sitting on the saddle. I sustained major tissue damage riding a conventional saddle despite wearing the padded Andiamo underwear in addition to regular riding shorts. But, much to my amazement, the Terry men's liberator used this year, helped greatly especially when combined with wearing two padded layers between me and the seat.
The ’95 event really had its ups and downs, agonies and rewards but the degree of physical problems experienced caused me to say I would never do PBP again. Somewhere and sometime with the passage of time one goes into what has been termed by a friend as the “stupid phase” but it only sets in after you start to forget the pain and suffering! After the event is over and with a passage of time, thoughts keep surfacing and nagging away as to how one can improve upon the ride, the experience and the overall time. This is truly the beginnings of our friend's recognition of the "stupid phase!"
My apologies for the lengthy digression and lighting technical mumbo jumbo but in my mind it IS part of the ride.
Back to the ride...!!
We started shortly before 10 p.m. with a group reserved for tandems and special bikes including tricycles and recumbents. Right from the beginning, things did not go as planned. The story told to us later was that our lead car or motorcycles took us off course which immediately added 11 kilometers to the ride distance throwing off our cue sheets right from the beginning -- as if they were worth anything in the first place!
The course markings were via arrows on vinylized cardboard signs. Even knowing what to anticipate from the previous event, I found myself searching for an arrow, any arrow and we rode for 15-20 miles before spotting the first one! We quickly discovered that they added a reflective tip to the arrow this year, the only welcome improvement thus far over the previous running of PBP.
A '95 PBP ARROW
The arrows were on 10 inch rectangular signs and placement was totally unpredictable and dependant upon which local club accepted the task of marking the course. Consistency in numbers and placement was sorely lacking evident by my right turn into a parking lot in this one town! A spectator was seen heading to the misplaced arrow after my incident which was probably not the first witnessed.
I missed an arrow at Mere, which added about two kilometers to our ride. I knew a tandem was behind us about one eighth mile and it literally disappeared. When we hit a stretch of unrelenting cobblestones I had very strong suspicions as to what had happened. To make matters worse, we found ourselves in unfamiliar territory since they actually took us on a different road than we had learned from the cue sheet while on three pre-event jaunts to this same area. Yes, the cue sheets proved to have little value for the intended application. Oooops… repeating myself here!
THINGS GO BETTER WITH COKE!
The darkness was fading rapidly as we approached Villaines-La-Juel, our first real control at the 125 mile point. Our battery pack, after some 7.5 hours of use with the 5W bulb was exhausted with about 20 minutes of darkness remaining. We were very pleased that the 12 AA lithiums exceeded our expectations while running primarily on the 6V setting. I must admit to cheating a bit by turning off the 5W during the short times we had the 15W in use and also cutting back the voltage to 4.8V during those few short moments we were behind another rider. These efforts helped conserve the batteries to a degree but it was also necessary to prevent self-inflicted blindness resultant of the reflective vests of other riders we would catch and pass. Wow – the eyes become so sensitive after being in the dark for hours!
On our way to Loudeac, we were fortunate to work with another tandem for a few miles but lost them at the Tinteniac controle. We really wanted to share the work with another compatible tandem team, something sorely lacking in what had been a solo effort thus far.
We caught up with two Co-Motion tandems from the East Coast of the U.S. sporting Softride beams. Pamela and John were on one and their friends, whose names escape me, were on the other. It was great riding a few miles with other tandems, especially this skillful group, which provided very pleasant company and elevated our motivation. Our pace line was interrupted thanks to a big lug on a single bike that kept interrupting the flow of the tandems hence we did not stay together.
We arrived at the one-third point, Loudeac at 6:30 p.m., some 280 miles later, clocked in, ate, changed clothes, and headed for the next control 50 miles away. Our brief stay in Loudeac was not without incident however. While we were eating one rider passed out standing in line and hit the concrete floor taking his tray of food with him all resulting in a tremendous sound. He was thankfully revived and came to in short order.
We exhausted our daylight and thanks to the 15W light, we were able to make good time through the steep hills and curvy country lanes, an area I dreaded after riding through it in the fog with poor lights in ‘95.
Julie, for some reason, was literally falling asleep on the back of the tandem after only 315 miles in the saddle and being up for some 30 hours straight! Go figure! She never stopped adding power though and conversation successfully revived her alertness, at least to the point of making it to Carhaix without worrying about her falling off!
Our first leg went exactly as planned since we utilized every minute of daylight. Our rooms at Carhaix faced the street and the street lamps in front of the "controle" which provided dim light through the windows. Having awakened a couple of times throughout the night and peering out into the darkness, I would fall back asleep. The last time I awakened it was 8:00 and by 9:00 we had eaten breakfast and headed out. Starting this late was certainly not part of our plan!
Riders that had ridden through the night with little or no nap were now catching us evident by the formation of long food lines, something we had thus far escaped. We ran into Bob and Jackie, fellow participants from our area, and learned that they had to wait in Loudeac for one hour and 15 minutes to get food and that five people passed out while in line! They finally started handing out sugar cubes in desperation to keep more people from loosing consciousness! Dehydration and low blood sugar was taking its toll on many at this point since the temperature the first day was well into the eighties.
We continued our westward movement with overcast skies and on sloppy roads resultant of predawn drizzle which muddied up not only our tandem but our attitude. We marveled at how riders could wear arm warmers, leg warmers and wind jackets in the 60-62 degree early morning temperature. We were in shorts and short sleeves and sweating! But then again, they may have been so tired that energy expenditure was minimal after riding all night.
Most of our riding continued to be by ourselves without the benefit of working with a pace line or other tandems. Riding with others really makes the time pass and provides a welcome relief given the pace is generally higher, it permits coasting from time to time and there are those wonderful more frequent moments when you get a butt break!
My impression from PBP ‘95 was that the stretch from Carhaix to Brest was the toughest due to the hill terrain but this year seemed significantly different as the altered route did not climb to the top of the barren wind swept "Telegraph Hill". In ‘95 a secret controle awaited us in the cold wind driven light rain, something one will never forget!
We crossed the bridge into Brest and stopped for a picture of the bay or inlet from the Atlantic Ocean. We made a conscious effort to stop and take more pictures during this year's event since only one was taken in '95 from this same bridge, something we later regretted... ...but we were hurting too bad and did not have the energy to even get the camera out!
COMING INTO BREST
We filled our bellies at the long awaited destination of Brest, hooked up with a tandem from California and headed out for the long climb that started our trek back east. This couple, from the Davis Bike Club, was strong, really strong! They pushed the pace up the never-ending climb that further intensified a few miles out of Brest. They really put the hurt on us, something we all no doubt paid for later, but we just had to stick with them! The course thankfully followed a main road and we arrived at Carhaix with plenty of time to make it to Loudeac during daylight. I was finally going to see this part of the country in daylight!
Astonishingly, and after our late start, we arrived at Loudeac with one hour of light remaining. I was really wound up and ready to continue, especially after starting two hours later than desired, but I had concerns about Julie falling asleep on the back and could not recall how difficult the next 54 miles would be so we opted for a sleep break.
To make up for the previous day's late start, we left with one hour of darkness remaining. Unfortunately I only got about 1.5 hours of sleep despite being off the bike 9 hours. Why you may ask. Rider after rider would clomp, stumble and drag their sorry tired butts down the hardwood floor hall wearing cleats! And, they would resell the rooms over and over. The hotel personnel would check to see if a room was vacant by unlocking and opening the door and take note of whether there was anyone in the bed! And for this we paid a great deal of money? Sleep deprivation was not part of the plan at this point!
The predawn hours do provide a spectacle worthy of the experience. On our way to the next controle we marveled at the sight of so many taillights visible for miles as they shimmered in the predawn darkness, a memory also retained from four years previous. We were soon discovered a secret but welcome controle which served up drinks and warm soup. Sometimes secret controles are a very welcome surprise! We once again crossed paths with our sleep deprived friends Bob and Jackie and learned she was having significant knee problems. We wished them well, empathized with their plight especially after having been there myself, and continued our trek east.
We returned to Tinteniac and spotted Mike and Nancy Myers, also participants from our area, as they rolled in. We gave them a yell but did not have a chance to converse at this busy controle plus everyone was focused on the mission at hand! Later this day we were really rolling as we caught a group of single riders. We tagged onto them to take a welcome break. They appreciated our pulls and knew how to butter us up as they coaxed us into riding with them telling us how well they worked well with tandems. Their group of six gradually increased speed as the hormones took hold over everyone's beaten up sense, particularly noticeable after we did the tandem thing of rolling a couple of hills so we could get up the other side. We heard remarks like "you guys climb better than any other tandem we have seen out here!" Comments like that always provide a good boost! Their group of six gradually shattered down to a lonesome two plus us. Not long after our seemingly glorious run at speed, we no doubt all realized how senseless the effort was after spending 500 miles in the saddle!
At the next controle, Fougeres, we spotted Mike and Nancy rolling in once again as we were leaving. This couple performs like the Energizer bunny... ...they just keep on going and at a steady predictable pace.
We tempered our pace as we caught up with Josh and Doreen. Hopefully I recall her name correctly and the spelling... well, hmmm. These folks were great company as we shared stories and past history and the miles just seemed to roll by. The casual pace, due to knee problems experienced by Josh, proved to much for our rear ends given the increased weight on the saddle that takes place when riding slow and these areas were rather sensitive by this time. And to make matters worse, we were reaching the point we could not hammer along very far or long which just added more to the weight on the saddle and increased discomfort.
And then the unexpected happened, something no one would have predicted in France. Leaving a town, two cars passed us, slammed on the brakes and stopped to make a left turn leaving a fairly wide stretch of pavement available on the right to pass. It is virtually expected in France to have cyclists and motorcycles pass cars on either side at stoplights or whatever, or so we witnessed repeatedly. I thought little of riding through this natural passage on the right especially since the pavement remaining was certainly wide enough, there was no road on the right for traffic conflict, and no reason for anyone to go to the right. As we passed, the auto at the last second swerved the front end over to the edge of the pavement forcing us off the road onto the gravel narrow shoulder. As Josh put it, "That is the first aggressive move I have seen" referring to the driving habits witnessed in France.
We climbed into Mortagne and experienced the increasing effects of fatigue, reminiscent of '95. According to our vague unwritten plan, we should stop and sleep at this point after utilizing every minute of daylight on this long day. To make it in the remaining 85 miles that night we would have to complete something like 290 miles for the day. Our butts and other things (basically anything that touched the bike) were complaining loudly and frequently at this point. Did we stop and rest? Noooo...! After a brief discussion resembling something like, "let's get it over with...", we ate and headed out for the dark cold descent east of town.
Memory of this upcoming stretch from four years ago was about to serve me well. “Bundle up Julie!” I coaxed. “It is downhill, dark, fast and will be cold for several miles.” The descent out of town was exactly as anticipated as we shivered in the cold night air.
We found out later that Mike and Nancy had passed us somewhere and somehow by this point in time since they had some daylight left upon their departure. They probably passed us at the previous controle where they had a support vehicle waiting.
Screaming down a long grade through the cold damp night air with our 15W torch full ablaze, I spotted a flashlight waving and then a change from the darker light covered seal coat pavement to something very white! What the he.... I muttered as I grabbed for the brake levers with my less than reactive numb fingers. We slowed to probably 15 mph as we fishtailed through the fine, deep loose gravel resultant of a lame attempt at performing a “seal coat” to the road surface during the running of this ride.
I was muttering constantly for the next two miles as our fish-tailing continued and the fine grit infiltrated our chains, rings and cogs. I thought about how crazy and dangerous this entire situation was especially when it should have been 100% avoided!
I saw no reason why the PBP folks could not and did not coordinate their efforts with the road crews. It seems they should have waited one stinking day until 3000 cyclists had completed this event.
We struggled the 50 or so miles to the final checkpoint after stopping every hour for a short butt break, something we decided to do during our "let's get it over with" effort. The lights of Paris were in sight as we were only 35 miles away. Interestingly enough, we had completed 1190KM of the purported 1200K ride. If only it was truly a 1200K ride we could have finished off the next 10K even if we had to walk it! We were now very tired, had very sore behinds and a very much needed rest was inevitable especially since we were not out to set any records. We grabbed a bite to eat and slept on gym mats under the bright lights with all the noise and foot traffic for four hours. We struggled to leave at first light… to get it over with!
For the first time we donned our arm warmers, leg warmers and wind jackets while starting off in the morning daylight hours. The depletion of our energy level at this point was significant whereby it was difficult to generate enough heat to stay warm in the 60 degree air. But… …after climbing the first two grades, we found ourselves over dressed and in hindsight suffering the first 20 minutes or so would have been a better option.
The final leg of PBP turned out to be a parade through town which added significant unneeded mileage. The final leg of the course was getting frustrating with all the meandering, particularly so knowing we were way over on distance. Sue and Courtney were a welcome site as they were waiting for us at the finish line. The technology had improved to where they were able to monitor our controle times via a phone system setup by the PBP folks hence Sue was able to, with her riding experience, calculate our anticipated return…….and accurately so!
We ended up with 776 miles, a 16.2 riding average and some 47.9 hours on the bike out of the 84 hours total time. Interestingly enough, we completed the purported 1200K distance in about 75 hours but as it turned out the event was 60K too long, something we nor anyone else on the ride needed.
We were glad for the event to be over and all in all we were in remarkably good shape as compared to the '95 experience.
Rumor had it that they added one hour for the increased mileage which in my opinion is far short of the compensation needed for many slower riders. An image of an older lady remains imbedded in my mind as I last saw her Friday morning after she had apparently ridden all night. She was struggling up a slight incline with a cadence of about 36 (not a typo) while making light groaning sounds. She completed the 1200K or 740 miles within the 90 hours but I saw no reason for her to have to attempt 776 miles in 91 hours given no one could. The extra 26 miles or 60K would literally take her hours at the speed she was going!
So... ...between taking us off course, the gravel on a 40 mph descent, the increased mileage causing many to be disqualified that actually finished the purported distance on time, the excessively long lines at Loudeac tied up by non riders (60% in line were not riders) and the ridiculous parade through town which added more mileage to something that had already gone askew, I would say there is ample room for improvement by the organizers. They have put on this event so many times that one would think they could get it right by now. The event, from an organizational standpoint, did not live up to my expectations which were based on my ’95 experience.
To top everything off, Scott Dickson, a four time previous first place finisher, was denied his opportunity to finish ahead of everyone due to a stacked deck. Word has it that Scott, and probably 18 others, were led 30KM off course by an official looking car plus his support crew members were repeatedly and by all appearances intentionally given misdirections at controles. Rumor from the most reliable source possible includes a story of two being dropped from the pack only to mysteriously appear ahead of them a couple hundred miles later down the road! Hmmm.... ...and it has been reported that support crews were on the course illegally giving food to the French riders. A support crew member also overheard a French conversation which stated that they were going to make sure that an American did not win this year. Guess who arrived first! Two Frenchman... ... imagine that! These are bits and pieces we gathered so if you want the total scoop you would be best served to get it from those that were actually there in the lead group.
Hopefully Scott and others have an avenue of formal protest. At the very least the world should know. What ever happened to scruples, ethics and the code of honor? Evidently some of the French think differently especially after Scott's four previous wins and Lance Armstrong's win. Why not compete fairly?
We had a great event all things considered. Thanks go to Willie, Marty, and Steve for their insight and guidance. Most importantly thanks go to my wife for support during training and to Julie for making it a successful and safe event.
It will not take me two months to recover from this particular PBP as Courtney and I rode the mountain bike with her special seat and windshield 11 miles yesterday and had a great time. There is NO way that would have happened during the first month following the event in 1995.
There is 2003???????? Brain warp... Brain warp... Brain warp...