PBP Stories - 2003

BC Randonneurs Cycling Club

This story originally appeared in our newsletter, 'BC Randonneur', February 2003.

D.N.F.@P.B.P.fr (PBP 2003)
by Stella Meades

When Sandy completed P.B.P. in 1999 he said it had been the hardest thing he had ever done and he was never going to do it again. I had been at the finish that year watching the riders come in and remembered very clearly seeing what the effects of the ride were. But knowing Sandy I was not too surprised this last spring to hear him making serious noises about riding it again. I had never completed a brevet series and thought I would join him and see what happened. The furthest I had ridden thus far as a randonneur was the 300 km and a fleche in 2001. After the spring 200 brevet I began reading articles on P.B.P. and caught up in Sandy's enthusiasm began to be interested. I kept my thoughts quiet, telling myself to smarten up, this was well beyond my capabilities, we had done very little riding the year before, I was too old etc. etc. But the idea of doing P.B.P. would not go away. I read Ron Himshoot's article "Eating an Elephant" with his advice to people planning to ride P.B.P. I then plucked up my courage and told Stephen Hinde. He greeted my announcement with a slight pause then said "We'll see you at the start line then in August".

We eventually finished the brevets but I found them very difficult. The 400 km with our 10pm start showed me how much I hate night riding and a night-time start: abandoning the Island 600 at 300 Km in Port Alberni, soaked through and cold, showed me how much I hate wet hilly rides: completing the last-chance 600 in Kamloops with forty degree heat showed me - well you get the picture. At my advanced age wisdom should have been clicking in, but it was nowhere to be seen. Plans went ahead, flights booked, money paid and the registration was completed for P.B.P. 2003.

Three weeks, three days, two hours and forty minutes before we were due to leave for France Sandy fell off a ladder and broke his right arm. He sat in Nanaimo Hospital emergency department telling the Doctor he had to be ready to ride 1200 km on August 18th. The Doctor looked at me pityingly, wondering how I managed with a husband in the throes of dementia.

I learnt quite a lot about myself in the next few weeks. If Sandy really was unable to start on August 18th I would just have to do it alone. I found that riding and changing tires on my own was possible but rather lonely. But I underestimated my husband. One of Sandy's strongest assets is a bull headed determination. He refused to contemplate not going to France so on August 1st we left for Beaune where Sandy's son and his family lived.

We arrived just in time to experience the most horrific heat wave that France had had for many years. Fortunately we were offered the use of an old stone house with probably the only air conditioned bedroom in Burgundy, if we would look after the owner's dog. It was just what we needed. Sandy spent the first few days sleeping in that wonderful bedroom and on August 7th rode his bike four kilometers around the ring road in Beaune. He rode a little more every day and on August 11th we started the 400 km ride to Plaisir. The 102 plus degree heat dogged us for three days and keeping hydrated after the middle of the day was impossible. On the fourth day we woke to a wonderful thunderstorm, rain poured down. I swore I would never complain about riding in rain again.

On arriving in Plaisir I began to feel excitement for the first time. Up until this point there had been an air of unreality about the whole adventure, but we were here and it looked as though we would actually be at the start on Monday night. I passed the bike check with no problems, although Sandy had to do some hard talking to get his bike through -"where were the replacement light bulbs for your L.E.D. lights?" I decided to ride the prologue on Monday morning as a means of calming my anxiety and to help me sleep in the afternoon. We enjoyed the ride but it neither calmed me nor helped me sleep, I was having a hard time not feeling intimidated by the sheer number of riders and their obviously stronger riding abilities. I was assailed with a lack of confidence, reinforced by my feeling that I really had a cheek being here at all, and who was I to imagine I could ride 1200km in 90 hours? Sandy worked his usual magic though and helped me regain my equilibrium.

We watched the 8pm starters and it was wonderful to actually be there and be a part of this amazing event. We joined the long snake of riders making their way towards the 10pm start. When we approached the start line we were in a group of about 50 riders who were stopped by mistake. After about three minutes of rather frantic discussions between officials we were allowed to leave. This was to our advantage as we left with a very small group, one anxiety dealt with.

Off we went into the night. As I had thought we would be riding with hundreds of other riders it was disconcerting to be almost alone. We had bought radio-telephones to keep in touch with each other. Although they had worked well on training rides they were not working well now and began to be an annoying extra thing to deal with. We decided to put them away, something we were to regret later. Sandy was urging me to grab onto small pelatons but they were all either faster than us or we were faster than them. One fast group overtook us and I overheard Tina Hoeben and Sarah Tennant commenting to each other on the nice pace they were keeping. Eventually we found a good group and began to fly along. Unfortunately, we soon lost each other in the crowd and each became worried about the other. Our plan, if we lost each other, had been to continue on to the next control but somehow in the night this was forgotten and our comedy of errors was about to begin. At first I thought Sandy was in front of me (because he usually is) but as I rode further on and there was no sign of him I began to wonder if he was in fact behind and his arm was causing him problems. I stopped a couple of times calling out to passing cyclists "is that you Sandy?" - no answer, so each time I rode on still hoping he was up ahead. Meanwhile, behind me, Sandy thinking I was behind him (as I usually am) decided to turn around thinking perhaps I had ended up in a ditch or worse! After a couple of kilometers he came to his senses, decided to stop worrying, and turned around hoping to find me up ahead. As I stopped for the third time, calling out plaintively for my husband, to my great relief he appeared out of the night. Feeling very relieved but aware we had now lost precious time, we rode on to Mortagne

We had planned on stopping in Mortagne for food, and as I filled my tray to overflowing we met Val White. She had been mostly riding alone through the night and was feeling in need of company. As we set off for Villaines the sun was coming up and we were already way behind our planned time. Never mind I thought, it is daylight and we will soon make up this lost time. Earlier in the year I had asked Sandy what the ride was like in respect to hills and he had remembered that it was "hilly in parts". As we rode up and down those endless hills he said he had completely forgotten how many there were. I also remembered reading an article that said the real hills only start after Loudeac. Never mind, I thought, I will soon be able to have a nap in Villaines. Sandy's son Geoff was supporting us and as we rode into Villaines we saw him waiting near the control. I ate the most wonderful bowl of muesli I had ever had, and half a cantaloup and then napped for ten minutes. I am not sure what Sandy did but when I woke up, feeling somewhat stunned, we set of for Fougeres. At first I just felt tired, but expected it to pass, then a lead like feeling began to creep over me. I ate some graham crackers, drank some French power drink and kept on. The temperature began to rise and I was getting very hot in my nighttime riding gear. At my age, I had been told, the hot sweats of menopause should be well gone but not so. I stopped at the side of the road and began to desperately pull off my wet, clammy clothes. Modesty was flung to the wind and passing motorists were treated to quite a sight. Back on the bike I felt a little better, but before long my body felt more leaden than ever. I had bonked once before on the 400 Km brevet but had managed to overcome it, this time nothing was working. My brain could not get passed the thoughts that there would be no sleep between here and the finish and that I was holding Sandy back. I knew from experience that, for me, the 300 km point is the most vulnerable part of a brevet. Where was the self -fortitude I had promised myself? - where was the strength of will I had visualised coming to my rescue? - all had completely vanished and now lay mixed in the dust of this French road. With Sandy gradually pulling away and the next hill looming as a nightmare to be got through I realised my adventure was possibly coming to a very premature end. About 20 km outside Fougeres I pulled up beside Sandy who was waiting at the side of the road. We had agreed before leaving Canada that if one of us abandoned the other would keep on. I told him what I had decided, reminded him of our agreement, and urged him to go on. He then told me that he was having trouble with his arm and elbow, this made it difficult to stand and because of this he was already experiencing seat problems. He told me he was also coming to the realisation that he would eventually have to abandon. What a terrible moment, we stood there crying in each other's arms trying to console each other. We rode on to the next small village and called Geoff to tell him to come and pick us up. While we waited, drinking beer, we saw Barb Henning ride by; we cheered her on and watched the other cyclists go by. Some were obviously struggling and would have trouble reaching the next control with much time to spare. Then we realised that the 5am starters were appearing and they were flying by. At this point we were just feeling numb. While we were loading the bikes onto the van, Danelle Laidlaw and John Bates stopped for a few minutes and commiserated with us. We spent that night in Rennes. As we lay in bed all we could feel was relief and we slept like babes.

After we arrived home at the end of August I kept waking in the night in panic thinking I had to get on my bike and ride. I sleep-walked a few times, waking up in the kitchen not knowing where I was. When I did wake a feeling of relief would wash over me and I would crawl back into bed and sleep. But gradually a time of reckoning began, disappointment over having to abandon would not leave me. I remembered all the good things about qualifying and starting the ride, the French people out at midnight calling out encouragement, the great feeling of going into the first control at Villaines, the two young girls giving us water near Fougeres and much more - but the disappointment settled like a weight in my chest. So one day I asked myself what would make me feel better and I realised the only answer was to try again. Earlier in this article I had said that at my age wisdom should kick in - maybe after four years it will.

© Copyright 2003, Stella Meades