"Well at least it is supposed to be warmer," I reassure myself as the wind forecasts for Saturday reach the 20 mph. mark. 400K: it seems so improbable, so well, far. When I talk to non-randonneurs about my plans, they look at me as if I have lost my marbles and perhaps I have. Some even believe I am lying. At least I am not alone in my insanity. Steve Rice informs me that 31 people have registered for this ride. Of that number, 30 will start and 29 will be successful. Once again people are coming from different states and even from Canada. 400K: according to many the most difficult brevet distance in a series.
Susan has invited me to stay at their home the night before the event as the ride will start at 4:00 a.m. and I have a bit over an hours drive to the start. I have been hesitant to accept due to my occasional insomnia and have considered the motel, but she is gracious and allows me to make the call on Thursday. I have slept well all week, so I accept only to find myself sleeping three to four hours on Thursday night. "Oh, well," I tell myself, "perhaps that means I will sleep tonight." And I do. Not long after arriving, I am in a comfy, albeit strange bed listening to the first crack of thunder. "How peculiar," I think, the last time I slept in that bed, the night before Johnny's 300K last year, it stormed. And that is my last conscious thoughts before surrendering to blessed sleep.
My bike is ready. With no need for lots of extra clothing, I have decided to go light and forego carrying my carradice. I have added a larger saddle bag and handlebar bag and will stuff my pockets with any excess clothing. I have tools, tubes, and a folding tire. I often think I carry a lot, but later in the ride I will learn that I have nothing compared to Dave, but I am skipping ahead of myself.
The day dawns. Well, not really, as it is still dark outside and will be for a few hours after the ride begins, but the day begins anyway. I eat breakfast and head out with my brown bag of small sandwiches that Susan thoughtfully provided for the ride. Dave and Steve are already gone as I, the slug a bed who greedily snatched every moment of sleep, leave the house, this time without mowing down the mailbox as is my wont. I arrive and test my lights to be sure they are leveled right. If the light is set too high, I can't see well enough directly in front of my wheel, and if it is set too low, I will outrun my light on the down hills. Everything seems to be working. There is a large crowd and it seems I can feel the nervousness and excitement in the air. I see Alex Meade and ask if he is going to PBP this year, and he says he doesn't think so. I commiserate with his indecision saying that it is a lot of money. He says that for him it is not the money that is causing second thoughts; it is the recovery period afterward. I will ponder this during the ride, a ride I had not intended to make until I had thoroughly committed to riding PBP. I still, however, have not made a firm decision.
Registration time for PBP is drawing short, however, with preferred registration opening today and lasting for only two weeks. After today I really must make a decision. Life has just been throwing the normal curve balls at me, but I am not so young and adaptable as I once may have been. Retirement looms, and I know that with the age difference and my husband's health issues, I will probably spend much of that time alone and with one income and I don't want to be a drain on anyone. And if I am honest with myself, like Alex, it is not just the money that causes me to hesitate. The physical demands of a ride like PBP are tremendous, and I am not a spring chicken anymore. I think yet again of a picture I saw of my friend, Greg Z., and the look in his eyes, and I recognize that separation from the self, the sinking deep within during a long distance event. I ask myself if I want to go back there. And then there is the travel. It is not that I don't like to travel, but being alone in a strange land and not knowing the language is uncomfortable for me. If everyone spoke English, it would not be a problem: the inability to communicate haunts me. When I am with others it is wonderful, seeing new sights and experiencing new things; but alone it terrifies me. Such a big baby this woman who rides the most rural of roads in unknown areas with no fear. Last PBP I was lucky enough to run into Alex at the airport. I didn't know him then, but he identified another rider, me, by the t-shirt Claus had sent. In the Chicago airport, there are lots of us with Claus PBP shirts. This year, however, I have decided to forego Claus if I go as far as air flights.
Before you know it, the lot of us are rolling out of the motel parking lot onto the dark roads. Once we leave the city lights, it seems there are stars everywhere shining brilliantly. I think of a quote that I like, author unknown: “I haven't a clue as to how my story will end. But that's all right. When you set out on a journey and night covers the road, you don't conclude the road has vanished. And how else could we discover the stars.” I notice Steve Rice slowing and I wonder what is wrong. He tells me that his light is not working. Once or twice he thinks it is fixed, only to have it die again as we take off. I offer him the light off of my handlebar, but he takes one of Mark R.'s knowing that Mark has two. I don't envy him, riding so many night hours with just a handlebar light. He will make the wise decision to stay with others with better lights for most of the night riding. I think how much I like night riding, this gliding through the dark surrounded by sounds that sometimes you can identify and sometimes you can't, and how I will mourn it for my night vision is another thing that age is gradually stealing from me as it eventually will steal these special friends and our rides together. I am wise enough to know that endings bring new beginnings, but I am also wise enough to know that won't hold true forever and that endings will come more quickly. I spend a moment treasuring what I have, these friends, the awakening world, a husband who not only loves but cherishes me.
The next stop, unplanned, is at the bottom of a valley, Hammond's Creeks, when Dave has a flat tire. Of course it is the rear wheel. It is still dark and the other riders in our group stop and point their lights so that Dave can see to fix it. While I have not been cold while moving, it is freezing down here. Mark looks at his thermometer. I tell him not to tell me until later. Knowing the temperature will only make it worse. As Dave finishes up the large muscles in my thighs begin to spasm from the cold and I know that if I don't get moving I am going to be in trouble. Luckily he is ready to go. Just a bit up the road we pass Jody and Steve pulled over at the side of the road. They also have had some type of problem and have stopped for a repair. I feel guilty not stopping, but I know that my body needs to keep moving to keep warm. I did not dress for long stops or for this temperature. Weather predictions were forties to sixties. Mark will later tell me it was 28 degrees. Jody will later tell me they suffered through three flats and some chain suck. These things are bad enough on a century or shorter ride; they make you feel cursed on a 400K.
Unlike the earlier brevets, the first control in the 200 and 300, Lawrenceburg, is no longer a control; we ride on without stopping. For those who don't understand the term controls, at the start of a brevet you are given a card that must be signed at each control to confirm that you have indeed passed that way. I have plenty of water and the sandwiches as well as other things to eat. I am trying to pay better attention to making myself eat and drink and to practicing this on the bike, and it pays off. Today I feel pretty good up until the last fifty miles, and that was a mental weariness. The first control arrives fairly quickly, and as usual we are in and out quickly. The wind is picking up, and I when I find myself going up an incline at 25 mph without breathing hard I know the return trip is going to be difficult. Earlier in the ride I told Mark that my plan was to try to stick with two or more riders if possible without going anaerobic so that we could take turns with the wind. The cross winds are wicked at times and I find myself putting pressure on the handlebars to stabilize the front wheel. At least the sun is shining and I am not wet.
At one point we pass a field made beautiful by some type of purple flower. There are daffodils and forsythia bushes with their golden branches dancing in the wind. White petals off some type of tree cover the ground like confetti in places and make me think of weddings. The fields are turning brilliantly green and the trees have that tinge where they flirt with leafing out, green bleeding timidly from the branches. We pass two riders at the side of the road. As usual, we ride slowly and ask if they have what they need to make repairs. "No," one man replies. "I am done. I broke my pedal." A few moments later, it turns out that Dave King has an extra pedal, the exact kind that man was using. Dave gives it to the man and he is able to continue. What are the odds? What all does Dave carry in his carradice? I think that I should be using mine to get used to the extra weight, but today I am glad that I did not.
We push onward and the miles fall behind us. Somewhere along the way prior to the second control we find Mark is no longer with us. As we are leaving, he is making his way into the control. We had decided not to eat a meal until the turn around. I worry about him trying to make his way alone into the wind that is going to batter us, but I know I need to stay with the group. I feel strong, but not strong enough to shepherd another rider alone into the wind.
When we reach the turn around point, we run into Chris Quirey eating a sandwich at the control. It looks tasty. Despite this, we decide to eat at the Subway across the street. It was a mistake in 2007 and is a mistake again today. We spend what seems to be an eternity waiting in line to get our sandwiches. I find this particularly irritating as I just am not a big Subway fan. Then we are back on the road to grind up a huge climb, probably one of the few climbs I have ever seen where the grade is actually posted by the side of the road along with the truck warning signs.
As I suspected, the wind at times is fierce, slapping and tugging at me. I begin to see the weariness on the faces of those riding with me. While it is better than the weather on the 300K, the wind and distance are taking their toll. When it is my turn to pull, I try to stay on the front for at least two miles but I feel my strength waning. The guys think we will feel better if we eat something, so we end up at Dairy Queen. I don't feel particularly hungry for anything on the menu, but I force myself to down a cheeseburger and some fries. For some reason I am craving chicken, but I go along with the crowd.
Before you know it we are at the last stop. It is the control that is no longer a control, but we are tired. I insist on sitting for a bit. Tim is there with his fixed gear. But we will never get back by sitting, and after a moment's rest we are back at it. It is dark and we have once again donned our reflective gear and turned on our lights. Despite his poor light, Steve surges ahead feeling stronger than the rest of us. I begin to feel weak, but with the wind I know I must hold the group. It has died down some, but at this point molehills feel like mountains. I finally decide to try a caffeinated energy gel I had brought, and I am amazed at how it revives me. Still, when we pull into the motel I am glad to be there. Those last 37 miles were like a death march. It will be good to get home to my own bed and to smell like a girl again.