Snapshots (PBP 1995)
Perhaps it's hard for North Americans to understand how much cycling is a part of French culture. Imagine yourself in PBP, riding through that first night at breakneck speeds in groups of up to 100 riders, and in every village along the way the people are out cheering you on at 2 am, 3 am, and 4 am "Allez! Allez! Allez!" And on the way back from Brest imagine, in those same villages, eager ten-year-old kids with large containers ready to fill your water bottle. I remember one kid out there offering sugar cubes. Meanwhile their older brothers are out on their own bikes sometimes to pace you, but usually to make it clear who's faster. And the kilometers pass... resolve weakens, eyes glaze over, and those tendons of mine seem ready to snap with each bump in the road ... the French at the roadside understand your misery. "Allez! Allez! Allez!" becomes a heart felt "Bon Courage! Bon Courage!"
PBP did become pretty grim for me, but for a while I was exceeding my expectations it was adrenaline to be sure. At around 400 km I was riding with a pretty good group, a group I was feeling proprietary about. You see, on the hill coming out of Fougeres I caught up with a French rider, who helped me catch the four Norwegians, and the six of us caught several more French riders, and so on. So as we left the control at Tinteniac, I was buried in the middle of the pack of 20 riders sucking along at 34 kph. Everyone was comfortable, everyone was making good time not too slow, not too fast. There was a kind of "gentlemen's agreement" about the pace.
A little further down the road something unexpected happened. Ted pulls up on my left, Keith pulls up on my right yes really, Ted and Keith. Just imagine. Why weren't they hours up the road, drafting the pace car? I say something stupid like "what's gone wrong with you guys?" I find out that in fact quite a lot has gone wrong with their rides-missed turns, Ted's knee problem, uncooperative chase groups, lighting problems Ted sank further back into the pack, wounded, I thought. Keith moved up to the front. He was clearly strong - shopping around for a faster sub group perhaps.
For a long time nothing happened. All of a sudden Ted effortlessly slides up around the left side of the group heading straight for the front. I call out "Oh God, get ready", and scramble for position. No one around me takes notice. In fact only two riders seem to have grasped the significance of Ted sliding up to the front of the pack. When the hammer went down Keith was tight on Ted's down-wind left elbow, and I was in position number six in the first tier fanning across the road from shoulder to shoulder. For a while the group held, but not for long. Into a slight wind Ted was maintaining a 38, 39, km pace with one of his trademark pulls - very long, very sustained, very painful. The cracks were starting to show in this group I had taken such pains to build and nurture. And there was clearly tension, even anger - I could feel it all around me... what about our 'gentlemen's agreement', we've got 800 km to go, we need each other! A French rider near me was loudly and angrily cursing Ted, and I must admit I was cursing too. How dare Ted spoil my comfortable peloton!
Then as suddenly as the storm began, it was over. We caught another group of about 10 riders and Ted let up. I looked around and realized that the total group was still not much more than 20 there were casualties behind on this road. When the ted-hammer went down again ten minutes later, I wasn't ready. I was fried. I was soon dropped and I watched as others were dropped further up the road as we drew near to Loudéac.
Later Deirdre asked me why I, why we all, tried to keep pace when we knew the physical cost was so high. "Why didn't you just let them go?" I'm still thinking about that. Probably something to do with testosterone. But maybe it's something else... It sounds a bit cliche, but when you're 'living in the moment' like that, you don't really think, you just react. In this case I reacted myself into a near coma. In Loudéac I passed out on the Team USA's first aid cot for the rest of that morning.
Another picture perfect hilltop Breton town with mediaeval church and adjacent tavern; an old woman hanging laundry on the line over colorful flower boxes (I swear I saw her doing the same thing on the way out 30 hours ago); a windswept field merging with the road and I've seen this scene before in a Paris-Roubaix video. For a moment I'm Franco Ballerini, or Gilbert Duclos-Lasalle, but then I look down at my computer and it's reading 23, 22, 23 kph... with a tailwind.
And sometimes the scenery just hits you in the face the cows in the middle of the road just don't care that I'm losing valuable time; this beautiful Parisian suburb, the beautiful stonework walls and buildings, and those attractive cobblestone speed bumps ahead I wonder if they'll hurururur*#?%#@!t my tender tendons! Oh God, here comes another one.
And then at last, Guyancourt, the Paris suburb where this all began. It's all a bit of a blur. I remember something about champagne, Phil and Dave who finished at about the same time, my sister Kelly was there, vin rouge, Versailles, crepes with vin rouge, the Eiffel Tower with vin rouge For the flight home my ankles puffed up like balloons, my discomfort was extreme, and I swore I'd never put myself through this again. But then we landed and my mind was wandering " what about '99 what about '99?"
© Copyright 1996, Eric Fergusson