PBP: The Recap (Part Deux)

Weeks ago, I started an account and left off when I got to discussing my strategy, which was no strategy at all: ride and see what happens. That’s an easy enough place to take up the thread:

Neutralized: At the start, riding hard is really out of the question. First, there’s the big pack of riders that you don’t want to tangle with; then, for the first 15 kilometers, a pace car leads the starting pack through the suburban streets leading out into the farms and pastureland to the west. In race parlance, the start is neutralized, so no one goes too crazy. That was good, because the way we all bunched up whenever anyone slowed was a little alarming. By the time we were turned loose to ride at whatever pace we pleased, our pack had strung itself out enough that I wasn’t worried too much about crowding and safety.

There’s no such thing as ‘dry’ : The skies looked threatening at the starting carrefour, but no rain fell. But within a few kilometers, we were riding on streets that looked like they had gotten fresh showers. And it was only 10 kilometers or so before we were riding through our first rain of PBP ’07. People who ride in in the rain know that as long as you insist on staying on your bike, there’s really nothing you can do to stay dry. Even the best, high-tech stay-dry gear can’t do that. I think the problem is that fabrics like Gore-Tex are engineered to keep large water droplets (rain) out while magically allowing the plentiful water vapor in your perspiration to escape. There might be some magic laboratory where that works, but what happens in the real world — or at least on a bicycle with someone working reasonably hard — is that the exercising body simply gives off too much water vapor for the fabric to handle. The net result is that while the rain might not be getting in, your sweat’s not all getting out, and you get good and wet in a hurry. So, given the current state of the art, you can’t keep yourself dry in the rain. So your goal, with whatever jacket, jersey, tights and helmet and shoe covers you wear, is to stay warm; warm, wet and uncomfortable beats cold, wet and miserable any day of the week.

As it happens, rain was part of the three of the four brevets I rode to qualify for PBP. On the 200, it rained hard the night before the ride and the roads were very wet. On the 300, a storm rolled in on our outbound leg and we rode much of the final two-thirds of the event, about 120 miles, in a gale-driven rain. The 400 was dry and clear and featured a very clammy and cold (foggy, 37 degrees) all-night ride. The 600 was a rain epic, with a storm that was very reliably forecast all week long showing up and dumping on the 375-mile course, from San Francisco to Fort Bragg and back, for anywhere from 12 to 18 hours depending on where in the pack you happened to be. Ironically, the fastest riders got the most rain; I wasn’t one of the fastest: when I got to the halfway point, in Fort Bragg, I ate, got a motel room and slept all night; when I got back on the road again at dawn, the sky was clear and the return trip was tiring but dry and delightful.

Of course, all that experience riding in the rain was helpful. For instance, I’ve learned over the past few years that some type of fenders are indispensable, because unfendered wheels turn out to be amazingly efficient at directing a cold, soaking stream of water onto various body parts. Also, fenders keep your bike reasonably free of grit and general road filth. And if you have someone riding behind you, and you have a decent mudflap hanging off that rear fender, you can keep them from getting rooster-tailed in the face (I ride with clip-on fenders, which do an OK job at keeping water off me, a less than wonderful job at keeping the grit and filth at bay, and are absolutely lousy in terms of suppressing rooster tails; at one very rainy point of PBP, I rode behind Bruce, who also uses clip-ons, and thought I was going to drown).

So that’s the experience and wisdom I brought to the roads in France when the skies started to open up. By the way, in French, rain is pluie. It rhymes with “fooey.”

Dramatis personae: I’ve mentioned that I was riding with Bruce from the start, but that’s not a complete accounting. Among the 500 to 600 riders in the first wave were a small group of people I had met or ridden with the past several years: Rob Hawks, who was doing his first PBP; Kevin Foley, also a PBP rookie; Jim Bradbury, Donn King and Todd Teachout — Todd was the organizer of the San Francisco-area brevets for the past several years — all attempting their third PBP. Elsewhere in that mass of thousands of cyclists were a host of randonneurs with whom I’ve shared memorable rides: Veronica Tunucci, Jack Holmgren, Marty Kaplan, Mark Behning, Charlie Jonas, Elaine Astrue, Peter Morrissey, Michael Tigges, Susan Jacobsen, Paul Guttenberg, and Keith Beato. There were many, many others I’ve gotten to know in passing (or them passing me), too. This is one of the ways PBP was different from 2003 — the sheer number of people I knew on the course and the history I shared with them. In ’03, I knew only a handful of riders and had ridden very little with most of them.

Deja vu: Here’s another thing that was different. The road was familiar. I don’t mean familiar in the way that you know all the turns, potholes and unchained dogs on a regular route. But still: Even though I rode over the course only twice — outbound and inbound — in 2003, I saw much as we rode west that I remembered and even started to anticipate: roadside bicycle displays, the bus shelter where I napped for 15 minutes on my way in to the finish, certain stretches of road and turns on the course. One place I was looking for in particular was the place where Bruce and I, along with two or three other riders, veered off the course for about five kilometers and cost ourselves a good half hour of good strong first-night riding. I kept thinking, “There it is,” but was never sure if I had seen the right spot. Finally, I did see it: I was just in back of a couple of recumbents; at a left-hand bend, a side road went off to the right. I looked hard for the directional arrow; it was pointing left. The two recumbents, though, went right. I shouted “Arrete! Arrete! A gauche, a gauche!” — my best attempt at “Stop! Stop! To the left, to the left!” Oh, yeah — I also said it in English. One or the other worked, because the guys stopped and turned around.

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