Vignettes from PBP

After a nervy start - holding back the adrenalin - we’re in open, undulating roads. Dave roams up and down, placing his troops in formation. “Colin: go over there. Danny: come here … everyone set, ok, now gently accelerate … that's good.” A year of my life given for this moment. Time ceases - the night syncopated only by calls of “up and over!” Glancing back, the mother of all pacelines behind us, white LEDs snaking over the horizon, then back up the previous hill and beyond that still. We are pulling hundreds, the 13 of us, across the dark countryside of France.

The moment I’ve been craving: our first stop at 1am. I’d ceased caffeine a month ago, to use it as a weapon, and this is my scheduled rebound hit. I squeeze a can of black gold and jet it into my mouth: the veins pulse, the mind expands, superpowers are activated - Popeye on spinach.

Midnight, around 850km, Leonard is weaving over the road. Concerned glances are exchanged, we convince him to pull over, two of us will chaperone. As he rolls to a stop his iron will fails and he keels over. Danny catches him, while I tend to more important matters and catch his bike. He takes a quick nap, we take in the night sky. Then a short hop to Tinteniac for a few hours rest. 250km later he actually makes it inside the Mortagne control before falling asleep on the dining room floor, so I guess that’s progress.

At a food stop, in a slowly-moving queue, I ask the volunteer attendant for a plate of plain white rice. Too hungry to be civilised, before I move two places I’ve already shovelled most of it into my face. Look up, the attendants are all laughing at me. Would monsieur like some more? As they say, audax is an eating contest with a bit of cycling thrown in.

In Villaines, the whole population is in the streets. “Huh, there seems to be a festival going on.” “YOU’re the festival, bozo!” I park the bike and run up the steps to get my card stamped. The crowd cheers and parts in front of me, the brevet card in my hand become the Olympic torch, carried across continents to the controller’s rubber stamp.

The words “chocolate milk” have been haunting me for hundreds of kilometers. We stop for a p$nct$re, and I see a shop up the road. Dash inside, the shopkeeper comes to my aide, and we communicate somehow. He leads me to a hidden stash of the good stuff, hands me the entire supply. Over to the checkout lane, everyone in queue jumps aside, the cashier completes his fastest ever transaction, and they almost put me on the bike and push me off, 60 seconds elapsed.

Afternoon heat, everyone’s tired, some want to go faster, some slower. An unspoken tension is simmering, close to boiling over. 1,000km riding with the group and I need some fresh air, so I peel off and Do My Own Thing. Some kids on the roadside cheering, so I stop and laugh with them, give them Orwell pins. A dude riding a tricycle, so I have an extended conversation on the Newtonian mechanics of cornering a vehicle that can’t actually lean over. Of course I don’t ask the silly question of “Why are you riding 1,200 km on a tricycle?” since the obvious reply would be “Why are you riding 1,200 km on a bicycle?” An Indonesian on a Brompton spinning furiously - I tell him I ride one of those to work daily but can’t imagine taking it so far. “Don’t imagine, just do it!” he cackles. A hill just steep & long enough, so I sprint up it, yeehaw! A rare flat road, so I put my head down and push - a spontaneous paceline materializes, rotates, and dissipates. Fellow cyclists from the corners of the earth; not a word spoken, yet everything shared. By the time I reach Mortagne at 1,100km the grin is back, all is wonderful and I’m ready to rejoin the group, and they pull in just behind.

At Dreux, just 45km left with many hours in hand. Colin and Tony were a bit behind and have been heroically catching up, so we wait for them as to all finish together. And here they are! High-fives all around, Colin for mayor and congratulations we made it, let’s chill for a bit to stretch out the fun. That was my big mistake.

No act of hubris goes unpunished. The Believer is not saved until both feet are in paradise, nor is the Audaxer until both wheels cross the finish line. Whether it was the extended stop, or the mind thinking it was time to switch things off, or perhaps just fatigue, my shoulders seize up in a “reverse Shermer’s neck”. I cannot bend forward, cannot reach the handlebar, or bottle, or especially the brakes. I can only sit bolt upright in the most un-aerodynamic pose, touch the bar tops with my finger tips, and look ridiculous. At junctions someone rides ahead and blocks traffic so I don’t have to stop. We’re approaching the end, lots of cycles on the road, but I can’t ride behind anyone (see above, no brakes) so the only option is to pass everyone. I can’t resist giving a faux regal wave as I cruise by, back ramrod straight and head held high, to bewildered looks of “what the…”

A few yards before the finish I roll to a stop and dismount, take a knee for a moment of gratitude. How could someone like me actually do something like PBP? It had gone from a wish, to a hope, to a possibility, to a plan. Many months of work. A team who all cared for and pushed each other. The achievement of a lifetime. Brush away the tears. I pick up my bike and carry her over the finish line. Yeehaw!

“This isn’t going to end well.” Words take form at the edge of consciousness. Open my eyes - I’m standing with Joe and Nicki, having fallen asleep mid-sentence, and they’re wondering when I'd collapse. Medals and meals and photographs have been taken. The clock has stopped ticking - we sit around under a tree forever.

Three weeks later the soreness and hunger have come and gone, the euphoria and depression have taken their turns. At the office, trying to find meaning in my day. What am I doing? Writing software to help one corporation count beans better/faster/stronger than some other corporation? Meetings, action items, bullet points… the mind wanders, dreaming back to days when I felt cold and heat and pain and glory... to be ALIVE!