Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Let's Ride

My start time was 7:15 pm. It was raining again Sunday morning when I got up, after having slept surprisingly well. I wanted to get to the start area early to see my friends off, and get some idea of how it all worked for when my start time rolled around. There was plenty of time to do that, and the rain was supposed to quit in the afternoon, so I wasn't too concerned. 


Il y avait de la pluie le jour du depart.

After breakfast, checking and double-checking all my gear, I was satisfied that I was as ready as I was going to be. The rain alternated between steady drizzle and occasional heavy downpour. Several times I started to leave when another deluge would pass over. Around noon a lively and talkative carload of picnickers arrived, along with the heaviest rain yet. So while Ina and Laura made coffee for everyone, I got to explain what I was doing standing on the porch of a fishing lodge in cycling costume.

With help from Ina and Laura I was able to explain what I was up to. They were suitably impressed, and wished me good luck. It was nice to hang around the porch with warm coffee and good company. But eventually the rain quit and the sun started peeking through, so I said au revoir and I set off toward Rambouillet.

I reunited with my friends from Montana at the hotel Mecure, the center of much activity. Everyone staying there was either riding PBP or knew someone who was. It was quite the scene. Over a late lunch we traded tales of our time in France thus far. We all seemed to be in good spirits, well rested and ready. 

The Montana crew, minus Karel; Me, Jason, Lane, and Ken (photo credit to Darcy)


Riders in waves of roughly 300 departed every 15 minutes all afternoon and evening, and again Monday morning. There was a large crowd of spectators on hand cheering them on. The grounds of the chateau were crawling with bikes and riders, lounging under trees or expending nervous energy in anticipation of their turn to go. The waiting sometimes is the hardest part.

Ken & I at pre-ride lunch. I had the "ham" (JK)
Lane would be the first of us to depart at 5:15, with Karel and then Jason following a little later. I would be the last of us to start Sunday, Ken would depart early Monday morning. and The skies were now clear and temperatures cool, just right for riding. A little headwind was blowing in from the east, but overall I thought conditions were nearly ideal.

Lane & I in the hotel lobby. (Darcy)

After seeing Jason depart I gravitated toward a few other Americans in the crowd. I don't remember their names unfortunately, but one was from San Luis Obispo and one from Seattle. A guy from San Francisco wandered by, looking for a tire pump bigger than the mini pump he packed for emergencies. I lent him my frame pump. We watched him work, restraining that innate male instinct to provide unsolicited advice. But the pressure became too much, and as relief, I remarked on how I hadn't checked my tires.

“With my luck, I'd break a valve stem or something,” I reasoned, to nods of agreement.

“If it ain't broke, don't fix it,” was the sage reply, or something similar along those lines.

I got my pump back, and that was that.


Wrangling 6,000-plus high-strung cyclists is no small task, but one which our French overseers would prove equal to. As an example, Riders were supposed to find the pen marked with their start group letter (mine was N), and amass there. From there we'd be lead, in orderly fashion, to the start. Sounds logical, right?

Jason & I jammed in with Karel in start pens (JK)

Instead I waited by the “taxiway” until I saw N's filing by, and jumped in. I was far from the only person to do this. The system works even when people don't follow directions!

As we processed slowly forward, I was surprised to hear my name from the crowd. Who should it be but my pal from the train station, Pierre! I was glad to see him again. Now I could give him one of the patches I'd made to hand out along the route, which I had forgotten the other night, and regretted. It seemed like the stars truly were aligning. I was feeling very good about the whole thing.

Passing through the starting checkpoint, still walking in slow procession, I got the first of many stamps applied to my card. From there the course widened, we rode over the official timing mats, down a chute, around a sharp left and out into a fine evening on the French countryside. It was really happening. Soaking it all in and generally feeling unstoppable, I could not imagine a better set of circumstances from which to start such an undertaking.

Predictably though, a mass-start of amateur cyclists is destined to feature chaos. On guard to that eventuality, I managed to avoid disaster when the rider directly in front of me lost his battery pack going around the first corner. It danced along the cobblestones, still tethered to the bike by its cord. Meanwhile its owner returned each enthusiastic attempt to bring this to his attention with equally enthusiastic waves to his adoring fans.

As the pack thinned and settled into groups of similar pace, I added a dash of smugness to my euphoria, as I congratulated myself for avoiding that embarrassing mishap. Unfortunately, smugness too goeth before a fall.

At first my aura of invincibility would not allow me to believe it. I literally hadn't had a flat tire in years! Nevertheless, it became harder and harder to keep the bike going straight, and I was forced to accept reality. My front tire was going flat. Being at the front of a small group, I dove off the road into the barrow pit.

The full saga of The Flat Tire is too tedious to recount here in detail, but rest assured that I will remember it vividly as long as I live. Things did not go well. The first spare tube I installed in the tire had a hole. My pump did not seem to be working right. The second tube mercifully seemed to hold air, but now I was without a good spare. I had been running the tires tubeless, and so the tire was filled with sealant. This sealant, combined with brake dust made an absolute mess of my hands. But it couldn't be helped. I wrapped my filthy hands around the freshly taped handlebars and set off again, some 45 minutes after flatting.




Rounding a bend (event photo-Maindru)

I am not one to plan my rides down to the minute as so many randonneurs do. That might sound ironic to some, considering. Stuff happens, you have to be adaptable. But I did have a general idea of what I thought I could get away with. Having never done a ride this long before, I figured I'd have to play it mostly by ear anyway.

One thing I did not want to do was let adrenaline get the best of me and go out of the gate too hot. After the flat, this went out the window too. Partly it was because my pride was hurt. Partly because I felt I had lost so much time. I was still feeling pretty upbeat, all things considered. It was evening, my favorite time to ride. I started jumping in behind each passing group, going faster and faster. Around sunset I got into a group of a dozen or so riders going suitably fast. These were my first tastes of riding in a peloton, and it was a blast.

I hung with this group until we passed through a village where a bar had set up shop out on the street. I stopped to go in and try to wash the brake and sealant grime from my hands. It wouldn't come off, and I would have that reminder of the flat for the rest of the ride.

Back outside the atmosphere was pretty chaotic. The sound of many languages, the sight of headlights and taillights coming and going, and sometimes getting tangled in doing so. I bought a big sandwich, and gave my tire a quick squeeze before hitting the road again. Maybe a bit soft? Nah, probably just paranoia. I jumped on and took off.

Back on the road, ham and butter baguette in hand, I was flying again. By picking up or being picked up by other riders, I eventually ended up in a group of half a dozen, going faster than practically everyone else on the road at that time. We seemed well matched but in particular, one rider with a distinctive bike and I were taking the most and longest pulls on the front. He at one point pulled up even with me and we had a brief exchange, I think he said his name was Lionel from Grenoble.

I've been told that there were headwinds that first night and next day, but I honestly don't remember them. I'd never before ridden that hard, that far. I was on the verge of cramping at times, which I did think may come back to bite me later. But I didn't care. It was exhilarating.

I wanted to stick with this group until the first stop at Mortagne-au-Perche. I looked forward to trading some attaboys with Lionel and the others, but somewhere short of town I lost them. It was dark and getting cold. There were riders stopping everywhere to put on more layers, sometimes even in the road. I think we lost our synch and got separated.


Mortagne was not a mandatory stop, but I needed a break so I pulled in. I also wanted to check my tire even though things seemed to be OK. As I maneuvered into the parking lot I had a suspicion that something was amiss. The steering seemed a bit soft and squirmy. Not good, but it was to dark to tell without a close look. Upon inspection I found bubbles of sealant around the valve stem.

A chill ran down my spine. I quickly ran through all the implications this symptom could have. I would ordinarily diagnose it to be Pretty Bad. But I held out hope. It could just be the expanding tube displacing sealant through the only hole in the rim, and pretty harmless. Or not. Probably not. I decided not to panic just yet, go have a snack, cool off and come back to it.

On returning to the bike, I found the front tire was now definitely soft. An attempt to get a suitable tube from the mechanic there was fruitless, but I was able to buy a tube for a vastly different size of tire. I reasoned (hoped) this would be better than nothing in an emergency.

I had been unforgivably stupid and lazy to not check my spare tubes, and I was frustrated with myself. But I knew that I would have time to kick myself later. What was needed now was focus and a complete determination to make one of these damn tubes hold air. It sounds stupid but in that moment my whole world was in those two inner tubes.

The tube that was in the tire had an extremely small hole somewhere, which I could not find. It was too noisy to hear and too dark to see. I still had the first tube and I could easily find the leak in it, but a patch would not stick, probably due to sealant residue. So I went back over the other tube again, taking a painful amount of time, but still could not find the leak. It was looking more and more like the end of the line for me. I spent a minute cursing my stupid bike, this stupid ride, my stupid self, pretty much everything in sight.

I collected myself for one last desperate attempt at patching the first tube. I cleaned the area thoroughly and applied another patch. This one, finally appeared to be holding, to my great relief. My pump was working again also, so I had to take back all the unkind things I had thought about the guy from San Francisco who had borrowed it back at the start.

Once again it was at least another 45 minutes lost. It was around midnight now. The sky was clear and the moon was bright. So I rode on, admiring the night sky and the moonlit countryside. Gradually I began enjoying myself again.




After a few hours on the road riding solo, a German guy pulled up next to me me and asked if I was cold. I had not packed any warm gear, and I was riding with bare arms. It wasn't cold by Montana standards, and I wasn't cold. But I wasn't exactly warm either.

We got to talking and chatted away several hours to Villaines-la-Juhel, covering every topic under the sun. I learned that he's an optical engineer. Working often in Boston had honed his English to near perfection. He once almost won a race with an e-bike. We of course covered Politics. We spent a fair amount of time discussing German humor. After awhile I looked back and realized we had attracted a crowd. There were probably a dozen or more riders taking advantage of our slipstream, while we yammered away at the front.

At Villaines I got a couple pastries and an infamous coffee-in-a-bowl and had breakfast with my new friend. After fifteen minutes or so, a few of his companions had caught up and were ready to go. I wasn't quite ready, so we said goodbye and good luck. By the time I got going again, the sun was warming the Eastern horizon.

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