Cycling Medals and Loose Screws


I’m more than willing to concede that I might occasionally have a screw come loose. I always have an ear out for the telltale rattle.

But what does that have to do with the picture above (click for larger images)? We’ll get to that.

What is depicted there, in all its dimly lit, slightly blurred, slow-shutter-speed glory, is a Randonneur 5000 medal. My name is engraved on it, meaning I earned it.

What is it? It’s the reward one gets for completing a series of long bike rides in randonneur mode.

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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.

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PBP: The Recap

Paris-Brest-Paris 2007 ended today. I heard rumors about the dropout rate for the 5,300 or so starters: that as many as 2,000 riders didn’t complete the course. That compares to something like 600 for the 2003 event. The difference was the weather. Conditions four years ago were sunny and calm, as close to perfect as you could imagine, though I’ve heard some complain that early morning temperatures, which got down to about 40, weren’t to their liking. This year, the rain did people in. It started early and continued, and I’m sure some people rode through showers even as they finished today. People got wet and cold and just lost the ability to go on or had old injuries flare up because of the conditions; of course, some were wet and cold and could have gone on but thought a little too long and hard on the question “why in the world am I doing this?”

But the thing that you have to keep in mind is not the number of people who did not finish, but the number who did: three thousand or more. Three thousand. Making allowances for the fact there are some riders out there who cheerfully face rain and cold and think nothing of it, even on a four-day marathon ride, that’s a whole lot of people who stayed committed to finishing. Congratulations isn’t a big enough word.

So I suggested a couple days ago that one of the advantages of finishing early — I mean not finishing — was that I was still clear-headed enough to maintain some of the impressions that formed when I was out there. So, before I head back home in the morning, here are a few of them (follow the link below; there are pictures that go along with some of this at: ):

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My PBP Notebook


I should probably be brought up on charges for using a Talking Heads lyric as a headline. But that’s the good thing about being a Catholic, even a lapsed one — the prospect of Purgatory to mend all trespasses.

So: I’m writing, and it’s not Friday, so what gives? I didn’t make it through the ride. Rain and a tender achilles tendon, not necessarily in that order, caused me to drop out just under a third of the way through. I’m a little disappointed, but not crushed. I’m not limping today, and I’m not riding in the recurring downpour I’ve heard outside the hotel all day. That, and chocolate milk and Pringles, have made this day better than yesterday. A lot of people have DNF’d because of the weather; the gentleman above, who hails from Ontario, Canada, is a fellow refugee on the morning TGV from Rennes to Paris.

One of the advantages of getting off the road is that my mind is still clear about what happened; it wasn’t so clear after having done the whole ride in 2003. So sooner rather than later, a full accounting of my little part of the ride will be forthcoming. And for all those still on the road, bonne route et bon courage.

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This Ain’t No Party, This Ain’t No Disco …

… this here is PBP. The start is in four hours. I’ll be back Friday and will try to check in again then, repetitive stress notwithstanding. I’m more or less ready. Here was the triumph of the day, then I’m going offline: I put new tires on my bike early this afternoon. Naturally, since I lack the foresight to wear gloves during the messy part — some day I will! — my hands were full of grease afterward. I didn’t bring any of the nifty Phil Wood hand cleaner I use at home, and was wondering whether I’d just have to wait till the grime wore off since soap does very little to remove the gunk. Then inspiration smiled on me: Why not try toothpaste along with the soap — it’s got some abrasive material in it and it’s kind of soapy, too? I can report that soap and toothpaste are an effective hand cleaner after playing with a bicycle chain.

OK — that’s it. Time to get ready to ride.

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Bike Non-Inspection


The Paris-Brest-Paris organizers say that about 5,300 riders are signed up for the four-day trek. Today was the day the whole crew was supposed to show up to have their bikes “inspected.” What that means in practice, based on my 2003 experience, is running each cyclist through a quick check to make sure they have working front and rear lights, spares for each, and the required reflective sash. Nominally the officials, who seem to come from local bike clubs, are supposed to make sure your machine is in good working order. But unless you show up with something obviously awry — a broken crank arm or a missing wheel, say — the inspection is cursory.

Today’s inspection was much different from 2003’s, though. It rained hard overnight. Since the inspection takes place in the grassy areas around a soccer pitch, the organizers apparently decided to cancel the inspection because it would quickly turn the grounds into a Woodstock-style mire. So everyone expecting to show up and prove they can light their way through northwestern France was just waved in and told to go pick up their ride documents and assorted paraphernalia: the route book and swipe card we must each produce at every checkpoint; number plates to put on our bikes and number stickers for our helmets; another number plate to identify us to the finish line photography service; and a medal awarded for finishing this year’s qualifying brevet series — and yeah, the medals are kind of cool.

Even though I’ve done this before, I felt a little overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of people converging on the gym where the checkin was held. Thousands of people. Thousands of bikes. I’m not big into what I’ll call bike porn — leering lustfully at all the amazing and amazingly expensive and amazingly well outfitted bicycles people tend to bring to these events — but you can’t help but notice all the beautiful paint jobs, frames by small custom builders, advanced lighting systems and beautifully inventive and/or tasteful racks and bags for carrying all the gear people will have to carry for the next three or four days.

I had a moment — well, it lasted maybe half an hour — in which the thought formed that everyone looked better prepared than me, better fitted out than me, more fit than me. It passed — this riding ain’t about the gear as long as you respect the demands of going out on the road for as long as you do on PBP. And that’s one thing you probably always have to keep asking yourself — whether you’re doing everything you need to do to give yourself a chance of succeeding. I never feel like I really know the answer to that until I’m out there.

The element of uncertainty for PBP 2007 is the weather. In 2003, France was still suffering under its historic heat wave the night before the ride began. A deluge overnight cooled everything down, and the four days of the event were as close to ideal as you might find and certainly better than you’d dare expect. The weather this year is very different: It’s wet and cool, and we’ve seen rain or a good threat of it every day. The forecast, as far as we can see it online, suggests the week ahead will be the same. I met someone the first day I was here who said, “We hope for the best and plan for the worst.” Um — sure. But the truth is I never look forward to riding in the rain; and I think everyone here wonders in the back of their mind how they’ll like going up and down the roads of Brittany if it really does rain every day. (Pictures from today’s check-in here.)

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Pre-Ride Ride


Four years ago, the Davis Bike Club’s huge contingent at Paris-Brest-Paris went out for a Saturday morning ride on the first 40 kilometers of the course. The Northern California contingent is a little splintered this year, with people having a chance to qualify in four different brevet series in the greater San Francisco Bay Area (which, for purposes of this discussion, includes Davis). A couple of the DBC veterans, Craig Robertson and Jennie Phillips, led a similar ride today. Beautiful, cool, breezy weather prevailed. It was nice to get on the road, even just for the morning. I’ve posted more photos here.

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Just a line from our hotel. It’s the Mercure, in Montigny le Bretonneux, one of the five towns that make up the “new town” suburb of St. Quentin en Yvelines, about 20 miles southwest of the center of Paris. I don’t believe Montigny or St. Quentin are among the places that suffered car-burnng riots among immigrant youths — was that last year or the year before? — but this part of it looks like a candidate. Lots of ’60s-era office and retail blocks that look worn today; lots of space for rent, significantly more than I noticed four years ago. The town center looks all the more bleak today for being deserted because of a national holiday, the Feast of the Assumption. Yeah — Virgin Mary worship right here in the heart of postmodern rationalism (if there is such a thing). Go figure.

Anyway, I got here in one piece; not without anxiety or minor travail, but I guess that’s just part of the drill for me taking a long trip away from the family. More later.

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En Route

The purpose of this trip, to be examined and re-examined frequently, is Paris-Brest-Paris. You’ve heard it all before, but: One of the world’s great long-distance (750 miles or so), semi-recreational, semi-masochistical cycling events: It started in 1893, a decade before the Tour de France; licensed racers are not welcome, but it’s still a ride against the clock: The longest you get to do the ride, barring extraordinary circumstances, is 90 hours; the fastest anyone has ever done it is in the neighborhood of 42 hours. This year’s ride — it’s held every four years — starts next Monday, the 20th. I’ll be starting with the biggest group of riders, leaving at 9:30 p.m. from the western suburbs of Paris with the full 90 hours to work with; that means we have to be back at the finish at 3:30 p.m. Friday. Townspeople across France call out “bonne route” and “bon courage” to hearten the riders. In advance, I’d like to say thanks, French townspeople; I’ll need all the encouragement I can get.

This here flight: Air France Flight 7. Took off from John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens, New York at about 7:35 p.m. The flight’s supposed to take six hours and fifteen minutes. We’ve got an hour and a half to go. I’m riding in the back of a 777; I’ve got the seat in front of me shoved so far back that my laptop is sort of wedged into my abdomen. It’s a minimally ergonomic setup.

My perfect airline: Air France is OK. The cabin crew is sort of elegant, and it is not understaffed. They serve actual food, with free (and passably decent) wine, for dinner. They hand out bread rolls. But the airline is not perfect. They charged me $150 to put my bike on the plane. Four years ago when I did PBP, they just took it as my second piece of luggage and charged me nada. Or rien, to be true to the spirit of this thing. OK, so there goes a hundred and fifty bucks — oh, yeah, 300, since this is a round trip and I plan on bringing the bike back with me. That bike charge would not happen on my perfect airline.

My perfect airline, part deux: Did I tell you that the seat in front of me has been shoved so far back that I can barely move? That would not happen on my perfect airline. There’d be room enough between seats so that leaning back wouldn’t displace another passenger’s spleen. Either that, or the seats would not recline at all. Non-reclining seats would be bad news for the seat hog in front of me. You hear that, seat hog?

My perfect airline, part trois: The thrilling news is that I’m counting in French. The other news is that those little route tracker displays that have appeared on planes — mostly on international routes, I guess — have become more sophisticated. On Air France, they give you about a dozen different still and animated views of the plane’s position, along with the standard readouts on air speed and outside temperature, distance covered and time to arrival, and so on. Also, the basic maps they use are pretty much the same, with important cities like Nouakchott located (um — capital of Mauritania? I guess they speak French there). But one delightful addition to the maps of the Ocean Atlantique is the location of historic shipwrecks, complete with years they occurred — the Titanic, USS Thresher, Andrea Doria, and Bismarck have all shown up during the trip.

We’re passing south of Cork right now, the map says. An hour till we land. Forty-three below zero Fahrenheit outside, we’re at 38,000 feet, and the dawn is breaking. A baby’s squalling a few rows away, which is a bummer for its mere et pere; someone, no kidding, is calming the kid down by playing “Hey Mr. Tambourine Man” on a harmonica. That is all acceptable behavior on my perfect airline.

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Tuesday Notebook

Today’s best journal titles: Thorax and Chest, both encountered in the midst of a writing project.

Today’s top concern: Getting everything packed as I get ready to take my slow-motion, long-distance cycling thing on the road (translation: I’m leaving Berkeley for a cross-country road trip today; we’ll wind up in New York, where I’ll get on a plane for Paris-Brest-Paris).

Today’s related concern: Gas mileage. We’re renting a car to drive across the country. I’m bringing too much bike-related crap to do the smart thing and get a small, relatively fuel-efficient car. So I opted for a Subaru Outback, which is actually OK mileage- and emissions-wise. I booked it last week and showed up at the Hertz counter at the Oakland airport today to pick it up. My reserved car wasn’t ready because it turned out they had no Subaru Outbacks; when I complained — mildly, for me, mentioning that it was “weird” that there was no car since I made the reservation last week — I was told that the outlet was expecting an Outback but the current renter hadn’t returned it. Uh huh. It just so happened that they had a not-so-spanking new Toyota Highlander, non-hybrid version, ready to roll. So that’s what we’ve got. Crude oil just hit an all-time high today. Gas prices in the Bay Area are at about $3.10-$3.20 per gallon of regular, ethanol-doctored fuel. Big surprise — we’re going to get murdered on our gasoline bill.