Paris-Brest-Paris twin brother
PBP and LEL are definitely linked. The former takes place every 4 years, the latter too. Next PBP is in 2015. Next LEL is in 2017. Every two years, one has a good old "more than 1000k" brevet to do over here in western Europe. On the paper, the two events look the same, the elevation is similare (about 12 000 meters, that is 35 000 feet), the distance is a bit longer for the UK version, 880 miles vs 760 miles for the French one. It's different but still in the same category. Concerning weather, one could argue it's better in France, but those who did PBP in 2007 might disagree.
In practice, there are fondamental differences : there's much fewer people in LEL. Even if this year they refused entries (unusual for an event which, not that long ago, had only 250 cyclists registered...) it's still not as "industrial" as the "Brest". Small detail which has its importance too : no signs on the road. And, if you quit, you're on your own. Globally, LEL is more about loneliness and autonomy, while PBP is a great popular event. It could change, but for now, this is how it is.
As far as I'm concerned, the major difference is that PBP represents only 2 nights on the bike, while LEL corresponds to 3 nights on the bike. And this is a hell of a difference.
Minimalist - but right - training
Following my problems at the French Ultra Festival (6-days) I did not trained the way I wanted to. Globally, the second half of May plus June was a plain zero miles logged period, as far as running is concerned (which is very rare, for me) and not much on the bike, since I was afraid I would prevent the injury from getting fixed. So well, on D-day, July 28th, I have cycled only about 2 500 miles since January 1st. To take the start of a more than 800 miles event, this is not exactly what one would expect. Probably just enough, but not more. I do not have the choice anyway, it's that, or nothing.
Concerning the bike, I ride my good old Cannondale Synapse, and carry a little (water-proof!) front-bag with a 7 liters capacity and filled my two drop bags with warm clothes.
I chose to start early, at 5:30 am, an "option" which was offered by mail and targetted at people aiming at about "70 hours". At the time I read that mail, I thought I was in this category. After my tendinosis from the 6-days, and my shortened training, I'm not so sure I belong to this, but as I had planned family vacation after the race, and needed to be back on wednesday, ideally at noon, if I can scratch half an hour and arrive slightly earlier, it's already a good deal.
So well, we start. About thirty of us. The pace is a little strong for me, but I manage to follow that rythm witjout getting it the red zone. I decide it's a good option to follow that group, at least until the next checkpoint, about 60 miles ahead.
Adventure is just around the corner
What I just love in all those brevets, is their capacity to provide unexpected events. You get out for 300 miles or more, you can be sure "something" is going to happen. Wether it's a flat tire, a mechanical problem, an extraordinary meeting, there's *always* a surprise.
Indeed, after 25 miles on the road, the unexpected stuff is this remark from a guy coming from Quebec, informing me that my rear tire is "falling apart". Wow, I don't want it to blow up, so I stop right away and thank him for the warning. I then figure out my tire is just fine, no problem, no nothing. Oh great, this must be humour imported from Quebec, thanks guy, really! I still try and understand. OK, he must have been talking - I think - about my spare tire, which I put under my saddle "just in case" and is, this is true, in an akward position, that might lead people to think it's going to fall... So that was a nice gesture from that guy to inform me. Now, since I'm stopped for real, I might as well fix this potential problem, so I decide to block the tire with the small lock I carry in case I need to shop arround for a few minutes, and which is also placed under my saddle.
Very bright idea!
But look, to do this, I need to open the lock, so I need to pull out the key, which is in my wallet, which is in a back pocket, pocket in which I also put my glasses. At this very moment I also wear glasses, but they are sunglasses (I always need to wear some glasses, else I can't see).
Back on the road.
I switch my GPS on. It was off because I was saving batteries, and had no need for it since I was in a formed group with no hope to take the lead, as I was without any doubt not one of the strong men.
So I'm cruising around, and check, just mechanically, that everything is in my pockets. I always check out various things, I think I'm just close to have some "OCD" and Valérie sometimes makes fun about this. But as a matter of facts, my glasses are gone. I quickly figure out the various consequences. No "white" glasses -> no bike at night. No night ride -> 4 to 8 hours lost per day. Spanned over 3 days, this is about 20 hours. Almost a complete day off. What a disaster!
I turn back and try and get them. My bet follows: since I've put the GPS on just when I was stopped, the trace should start at the exact place I lost my glasses. And it works. I find them, on the side of the road, ready to be flatten-out by the next truck. I think I when backwards for a bit less than half a mile, and globally, I've lost 10 to 15 minutes. For sure, I won't see the head group again, but at least, I got my glasses.
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Cyclist
I soon get some company, another guy who started at 5:30 am, but for some reason did not follow the leading group pace. We chat. My English is good enough to exchange with almost any English speaker. This guy has some deep cycling history. I leave him just before the checkpoint.
At this checkpoint, very nice surprise: there's plenty too drink, eat, it's simply the long-distance cyclist paradise! I did not really check that point before leaving, even thought I would need to find shops myself along the road. But no, everything is here, at hand, and free (slight difference with PBP, here, once you've paid the registration fees, food is free, whereas at PBP, you pay an extra for it, those sayings about Scottish guys being greedy are plain bullshit!). I enjoy this comfort but not too much, as there's some still a long way to go.
Then, I ride on my own. I have no idea how I would have done without the GPS. Nothing is marked on the road, no signs - this, I expected - but in some cases, deep in the country, the road numbers are not even mentionned. This is a real problem. But well, I have the GPS, so I use it.
The great flat section among canals and swamps is not my favorite, but when I reach this bridge accross a hudge river - as a barely litterate French, I have no idea what this is called, after a quick Internet search I think it's the Humber - I really appreciate the scenery. I enjoy it.
It's now dark and I ride with my lights on. I go from one checkpoint to another. I did slow down - after 200 miles, it's no surprise the pace is altered - and the now hilly profile does not really help.
I think it's by that time that at a checkpoint - typicall context, a school is reserved for us, with its restaurant open - to joke with one of the ladies in charge. She offers me something that did not raise any interest in me but also some "Chinese chicken". I'm about to ask for this but at the last minute I figure out something is wrong: "how can I have garantees this chicken is really chinese?". Facing my perfect logic, she has to admit that no, this chicken ain't really chinese, it's a plain English chicken (I've been fooled!), cooked the Chinese way. This being said, the chicken is delicious, in a general manner, everything was really tasty, and there was plenty.
I stop to snooze a little bit, and ask to be woken up at 2:30 am, that's to say 20 minutes ahead. There's nobody, I'm still one of the first cyclists (my early start...) and many riders, I think, try to skip this first night and not sleep at all. After that small break, I'm back again.
The second day will be marked by two memorables feats. First: it's raining. Between almost unnoticeable (but humid!) rain to instant showers, one can, from time to time, see a bit of blue sky. But not too much. Dawn was just unforgettable. The sun went up in a foggy atmosphere, in a hilly, somewhat elevated place, just before Brampton, lost in the middle of the clouds. I'm riding with a Russian guy which is having liver problems (no kidding!) and is not moving as fast as he would like to. He's just as fast as I can go, ha ha ha.
Details, the devil is in the details
Everything could be fine, the rain is OK, the rather poor road surface is OK, but still, I'm experiencing chaffing problems. Like the stupid I can sometimes be, I forgot all my creams in France. I did buy some random stuff in a drugstore just before the start, but well, not that great. And now, after 30 hours, it's all evaporated, I'm dry. Or no, well, I'm not dry, but wet with rain and perspiration, and I'm trying to figure out a realistic way to ride for 500 more miles like this. Everything is doable, for sure, by clenching one's teeth, one can accomplish miracles, but I usually don't enjoy suffering. At some point I pass a little shop, which happens to also act as a Post Office (to give you an idea of how dense shops are in this area...) and knowing no better, I give it a try and stop. Do you have vaseline? He does! I buy three little doses of it, walk a few steps, and spread it between my legs. Wow, that feels better. Here I go again!
When I stopped, I've been passed by an English guy, Chris, and he decides to ride with me for a while. We occasionnaly get our own, but still have the opportunity to ride a few miles together. A nice guy.
Then I'm on my own again. The last miles before Edinburgh are quite nice, beautiful landscape, but the road is packed with cars and trucks, and as a side not the surface is quite uneven, more precisely, it costs more effort, on this surface, to reach a given speed, than on a perfect smooth surface. My bike frame is however good enough to filter vibrations and offer a reasonnable comfort. Luckily, the wind is blowing in our backs since the start. I do not want to think about the return way to London. Showers + wind in my face + 450 miles already = 10 miles per hour average. Well, we'll see, the wind can disappear, or its direction might change, who knows.
A long time ago (several months...) I considered doing some extra distance and use my being close to Edinburgh to go and see Alan Young, the unbelievable and awesomely reliable crew of William Sichel. This would have been a crazy idea. And by then way, the Edinburgh control point is one that you must push "until the end" to reach. Those who have been there know that the last miles are worth something.
So well, I don't wait for too long up there, and soon I'm on my way back to London. I think I stopped, on an average, about 25 minutes at each checkpoint. On one hand it's pretty long and inefficient. On the other hand, it's anyway better than what most other cyclists were doing. The proof: I never passed anyone on the road, whereas I was regularly passed by others, only they where pretty much always the same guys ;)
The beauty of Scotland
So well, I'm on my way back under a persistent rain, no big surprise. I heard there was some unusual heat on the Great Britain in July. I've experienced nothing like this in Scotland, there I got: rain, and wind. Only, the temperature was mild, I must at least acknowledge that. Colder, it would have be been even worse. Anyway, it rains, the road is steep. I've had better times. At this stage, I'm resignated, I'll have rain and wind in my face until London, this is how it goes. Too bad, "c'est la vie".
I often meet Yves, a French guy who is moving pretty fast, and is much faster than I am on the road - but I get back on him at checkpoints... - and we chat a little bit. This way back from Edinburgh is just so beautiful. The weather is a pain, but it's beautiful. So beautiful that after leaving a checkpoint, somewhat unhappy to be so wet, rain stops. And the sun just shows up. An unbelievable sun which lights this land with hills and pine trees, little rivers finding their ways trough wet grass and little swamps, it's just a magical view. A postcard I'd say, these few hours before dusk are a miracle. Just for that moment, it waas worth being there.
This being said, it's time to go home...
Night in white satin
On the way back, I enjoy Yves' company, the French man I met in Scotland, and we arrive in Brampton arround midnight. We meet people going the other way, northward, up Edinburgh. Good luck guys!
Here, I decide to sleep for a while. Night is calm and beautiful, one could even have some hope to count stars, let's leave bad weather to those Scotish specialists, and enjoy the British sun!
I take a shower - rare, but given my chaffing problems, I try to keep a minimum of hygiene - I fill my stomach with plenty of good food, and go to sleep. There's a line. I have to wait about 10 minutes that a bed is free (the fact that there are both people going South and North does not help, I think I chose the worst period to stop) and at last, I lie down and fall asleep. I request to be woken up at 2:30 am.
At 2:30 am, I'm on another planet. I was sleeping like a baby. The guy who tries and wake me up needs at least 3 full minutes to help me understand what's going on. Oh, yeah. Now I got it. LEL. 2:30. I'm supposed to ride. I must go again. I would have preferred a long lazy morning in bed, followed with bacon, sausages and all the modern comfort, but this is not for now.
I get ready and go out, happy and motivated.
It's a long way
My happiness and motivation is put under hard pressure when I soon get aware that... rain is back again! Curse those bloody English clouds! So I go again, and it's a very long hill that is awaiting for me, with a little gem in the middle of it, a paved section, very steep (15%, I'd say), slippery (rain!), which looked scary but was, in fact, quite easy to negociate.
I took the time to change clothes in Brampton, however I'm now wet again, at least on the lower parts of my body (legs...) and this is a problem, for the clothes I'm wearing are "cheap stuff", just old shorts which I put on anyway thinking that they had the big advantage to be dry. This advantage lasted 5 minutes. Now wet again with this crappy stuff on, trouble starts. Sorry about those gory details, but quite intimate part of my body is just swelling, all red, it hurts, it's ugly. I try and manage this by slightly changing my position on the bike. Later, I'll stop in a drugstore to by some other cream. I explain I'm having "chaffing issues". The cream is not bad, but I suspect I need more than a simple cream to fix the problem. I imagine the clothes that I have put in my drop bag in Pocklington could help, since they are of better quality. Until then, I have to cope with the pain... Funny enough: the lady in the drugstore gave me some coupon so that I can have a reduction, some pounds off my next buy in their shop. It's very nice to them, but since I probably won't come back until 4 years, I'm pretty sure to loose it.
But let's come back to the hill, once on top of it, I take a look on my left side and see the arrival of some ski station equipment. Wow, this is not the Alps, but I bet in winter, weather is not your friend. During the downhill, I'm disturbed by the sun which is going through the trees, and makes some stroboscopic effet with speed. I fear I'm hypnotised and I stop several times, fearing I would fall asleep. The good news is that now, the weather is good, and it will stay that way until the end. Rain is finally gone.
Just after km 1000, I meet Chris (the English guy with which I took a short ride before Edinburgh) and he has just... broken his bike! A "litespeed" titanium frame falling apart. Hopefully, he has an assistance car, and one is bringing him a spare bike. Good thing this did not happen to me, for I have nothing as a spare bike over here.
Then an English rider, which is in the organisation team, and is with his bike on the course, takes a ride with me. We chat and chat. We talk about funny, original races. This guy knows about the Barkley! I told you those brevets were filled with nice guys. It's funny because he's worth something like 85h on PBP, but with over 600 miles in my legs, I can barely follow him. It seems to me he's such a great climber. I love this part of the route where we pass under the arches of some ancien castle. Lovely!
I do not remember exactly where it happened, but at "some point" my rear derailleur stopped working. Broken cable. Good joke. Hopefully, the hardest climbing was already done. With the help of a screwdriver I managed to block the chain on the 3rd speed, then I could still use my front derailleur. I just hoped the other cable would not break, with both broken, things could have become complicated.
Other problem (lesser problem) my bike started to make strange noises. Some unknown parts - I had never seen those on other bikes, it's related to my using a special Cannondale BBB box - where looking torn if not broken. I spraid oil on that, and it stopped squeeking. Hell, it's not even possible to bike 700 miles without having your bike falling apart.
About 200 miles from the end, just before the "hudge" (and beautiful) bridge sector, I joi Richard Léon - a French rider with an impressive bike history - who is faster than me - he started more than four hours after me - but after all, by now, we're together, and neither he nor I can go go very fast, and company does not harm.
He rides without a GPS, with the road-book instructions only. He does not even use a speedometer, no electronics, no nothing. I'm impressed, because he's just so efficient, he does not loose a minute. I also made my navigation "the old way" on other brevets, but never had this efficiency, we clearly do not play in the same field. This being said, my GPS helps us a couple of times, I'm pretty sure Richard would have finally found the right way, but with electronics, and what's more, with two persons checking the other's choices, one makes much less mistakes.
Night comes again. I managed to change clothes in Pocklington so I feel a little better, even if it's not perfect. To be clear, it hurts and hurts and I know that I'm going to walk like a cow-boy for three days. In Ireland, I should handle that problem a little better. We decide not to sleep at the checkpoint for when we're there, we're not tired enough. I propose we go and sleep "wherever we can" (bus stop, anything) the way we would do on a basic brevet, one with no official checkpoints. Here we go, he agrees, it's not raining anymore, let's use that chance to go a little faster.
We sleep in 3 different places. First a gas station, somewhat scary, hudge, but with seats. Then some other seats in a public parc. A little better but when we leave... we take the wrong way! Thanks to the GPS which told me we were going North. One should always be cautious when starting again after a half-refreshing sleep of 15 minutes. And finally we find hudge, comfortable seats, covered with some roof, the perfect spot. Only, I mess when setting up my alarm clock. It never rings. Luckily, I wake up naturally after 9 minutes, when I had set it for 10 minutes. Luck does help, sometimes. Richard is very sleepy when I wake him up. This night was hard. At some point, I've been woken up by my bike when it hit the grass beside the road. Scary... Hopefully, night is over.
Up and down
The end was, after all, much less boring than the night, with some nice hills in the last miles. I meet a Polish guy with which I started to chat in the first miles. He speaks a very good French! Richard was quite tired in the morning but now feels better. I'm not very strong, my 3-speed-only bike does not help, but I still manage to move on. Richard is surprised I can go "that fast" with only 2 500 miles since January 1st. I explain him that the 1 600 miles I did running do help too, and make a big difference.
The arrival is just nice and enjoyable. I miss the "less than 80h" limit, but who cares, the spirit, here, is not about absolute performance. And as an example, on the last checkpoint, we spent 20 minutes, when we could have skipped it in 2 minutes, but it was so packed with good, tempting food, that we could not resist. No way we could escape that.
I'm happy to finish under this beautiful sun. The story ends well, a nice story, with an unforgettable route, nice people met on the road, unexpected events just the way I like. Nothing to change, it was perfect!