My memory is bugging me now. I was having a surprisingly fun conversation a couple of days ago, about movies and books and TV shows and the like. It was kind of like what one might expect for a first date, except of course that this wasn't a date. It was just a couple of people making friends in the middle of a huge endurance event that we were all doing together. And today I just cannot remember where, or when, or with whom I was having this conversation.
A lot of the London - Paris bike ride was like that. There were ~180 riders, split into 3 groups. Groups 2 and 3 were there for the ride, but not for the competition; group 1 was competing for jerseys, but when they were off their bikes they were as sociable as everyone else. There were fewer than 20 women along, so I had the usual trouble that everyone remembered my name and I remembered almost no one's name. Many of them began to look alike after a while, too -- short hair, dressed in Lycra, cyclist's build of one form or another, helmet. But they were almost all nice, most of them had the ability to chat pleasantly and take my mind off how tired I was, and quite a few of them were kind enough to give me a hand (literally -- putting a hand on my back to push me) up the hills, and make sure that I didn't fall out of the group.
The camaraderie hadn't begun on day 1. The groups hadn't really given any thought to working together, and the effect for group 3 (the "slow" group with whom I was riding) was that a few stronger riders (who really should have been in group 2, but didn't want the challenge) led the pack about a mile an hour faster than they should have, people like me fell behind, and a lot of riders were left to ride without any help or companionship. I got dropped on one of the first hills; one man did his best to ride me back up to the group, but no sooner had I been returned than another hill loomed and I was dropped again. "Sod it", I thought, "I am an Audax rider and I can damn well continue at my own pace." 40.5km in, the broom wagon pulled up in front of me, motioned me to the side of the road, and had me get in. I'd simply fallen too far behind. I was, I have to admit, pretty discouraged at this point, though I stayed philosophical about it. There was no way I was going to make it all the way to Portsmouth if I was riding to exhaustion with 120km to go.
We pulled up to the second-to-last rider; he narrowly avoided being pulled into the van as well. Within the next 20km, both he and another woman who had had a crash had been collected after all. Upon reflection, it is amazing to me that, with the support van so far back, not one rider stopped to wait with this woman after she'd crashed. It is a good synopsis of the problems that day. We all rode back up to some of the pack, and the other two got out; I stayed in, because I knew it was all uphill to lunch and I'd just fall ridiculously behind again.
After lunch, I was ready to ride again. There had been a lot of exhausted muttering from a lot of group 3 riders, but there was no one with the authority to keep the group together. I spent the entire afternoon session on the bike; I rode most of it alone, and almost none of it at the back of the pack. We must have been strung out over a kilometer or two. It's impossible to provide an escort in a situation like this, and the route wasn't as well signed as it could have been; in the end, four of us who had just clumped together had to ask directions from passersby in Portsmouth how to get to the ferry terminal.
Arrival at the terminal was a blessed relief. I spent a while not talking very much to anyone, but after groups 1 and 2 arrived, some of us collared Sven (the organizer) and pointed out the problems in our group. We were assured that the culprits who had been pushing the pace too high would get a talking to, and that in France we would have a lead car and more enforced group discipline. The rest of the afternoon saw us all hanging out in the ferry embarkation point for a couple of hours, until enough of our stuff had caught up with us that we could board. Once inside the terminal, a whole bunch of people made a beeline for the bar.
I'd never taken a ferry across the Channel before. This was one of those mini-cruise-ship sorts of ferries, and the company handled the organization of 200 cyclists, several support vehicles, and a lorry full of luggage reasonably well. I had a large dinner in the restaurant with two of my cabin-mates (Elaine and Megan), and crashed out pretty quickly. The rocking of the boat was a lovely way to be lulled to sleep.
Day 2 dawned far too early for my liking, but I was feeling surprisingly good. The roll-out to breakfast calmed some of my nerves, the quiet word of encouragement from Nigel in the support van cheered me up, and the experience of riding along through road closures at a sensible pace set by a lead car, through the French countryside, was magnificent. I didn't even start to feel tired for 50km. All the stereotypes were true -- people would come out of their houses to shout "Bonjour," groups of kids in schoolyards would jump up and down behind the fence shouting "Allez allez allez!", and the drivers who were stopped for the road closures would wait patiently for us to pass. Once during the ride, my chain fell off. Now normally when this happens, I swear, unclip, and get grease all over my hands while I put the chain back on. Instead, I swore, shouted to let people behind me know I was slowing, unclipped, and Nigel came running out of the van to put my chain back on for me and give me a shove back up toward the rest of the group.
There were a few hills that saw some of us drop off the back of the group; when that happened, one of the motorcycle escorts would pick out the slowest rider, come up from behind, catch the rider around the waist, and drive the rider back up to the middle of the group. It is a whole lot of fun to be carried along by a motorbike going "wheeee!!!" uphill. Although I was invariably at the back of the pack on the uphills, I was quickly gaining a reputation as a demon descender. There was one particularly glorious twisty descent that went on for a couple of kilometers -- the riders were nicely spread out, and after resting at the back for about 15 seconds, I began to accelerate, picking off the clumps of riders one by one. I was probably doing twice the speed of some of them, and that short bit of the ride is one of my best memories.
Lunch was 106km along, and I was beginning to fade by that point. The weather was not great, and getting worse. A mix-up with the support vans meant that I didn't have my rain jacket, either. If it hadn't been for a nice man with a spare waterproof shell, I would have been utterly miserable in the afternoon.
18km into the afternoon, I was still feeling pretty tired and my left knee was starting to twinge. It occurred to me that I should probably get some ibuprofen for the knee, and then it occurred to me that I could not only have ibuprofen, but a chance to rest. It seemed like wimpiness to me, but like good sense to everyone else. Guess I have to go with the "good sense." I wasn't the only one having knee trouble, either; there were already two other riders in the van. At some point while I was resting, the van pulled over and all the riders passed by, and were greeted by the sight of me sitting down with a copy of Cycling Weekly on my lap, eating a spare rice pudding from lunch, looking like some kind of bon vivant. I try my best to entertain.
I knew there was a particularly nasty hill in the middle of the afternoon, so told myself (again, wimpiness or sense? You decide.) that I'd get out when most of the hill was behind us, as I wanted to prevent straining my knee as far as possible. I rode the final 42km to Alençon, where we were stopped at the side of the road for a couple of minutes to regroup, and I got inexplicably sent up to the front of the pack with some of the other women to lead us into town. That was kind of fun, leading the procession and all.
After dinner that evening (a fine feast in the restaurant next to the hotel) I went to see the on-site physio about my knee. It wasn't hurting badly, I said, but it had twinged a bit and I wanted to make sure I could get through the final day. The physio had me lie down on the mat, found where it hurt, and cheerfully put me through some of the most painful stretches I've ever had in my life. I guess that was cosmic revenge for wimping out of 30km of the afternoon. It's truly alarming how physios can start doing something to you, hear you say "oh my god OW that hurts", grin a little wider, and deepen the stretch. And then, as they do, remark pleasantly that this is the second most painful stretch that can be done to the human body. Gee, thanks.
After the traumatic physio experience I obviously needed more wine. I sat in the hotel bar for an hour or so talking to a pleasant and interesting man who turned out to be David Harmon, who is my favorite cycling commentator on British Eurosport. After a remarkably fun conversation that wandered from archaeology to the fun of speeding downhill to how weird a certain well-known pro rider gets when he's drunk, I turned down yet another glass of wine, turned down a bald-faced proposition from one of the French motorcycle riders ("Are you sleeping alone tonight? Would you like to not?" or something to that effect), and went to sleep.
My group had had such a good overall time on day 2 that we were allowed to sleep in for an extra hour, but it still meant fewer than six hours' sleep for me. By the morning of day 3 I was having a hard time even eating breakfast. I had told myself that I would allow myself a total of 100km in the van (which is the equivalent of skipping a single session), and I had used 70. I got caught on video camera before our departure looking completely fried. I don't know what I said to the camera, but it caused Antonia and Rachel, who witnessed the thing, to say things like "That was priceless!" I live in mild fear of seeing it now.
An hour and a half later, I was still surviving, so I mentally put off my 30km rest until the afternoon. There were about five men in the group who had given themselves the task of helping the strugglers up the hills, and I had assistance every time I needed it. Whenever one of these guys got me to the top, they would egg me on to use my Leet Descending Skillz to get back up to the front. How could I refuse? I was enormously relieved to make it to lunch, and as I sat there with my food feeling my blood sugar rise again, it began to dawn on me that we were 100km from the end. Why, that was nearly double digits.
There was a slight but persistent downhill grade for the first half of the afternoon, which helped ease me through. By the time we got to the slight but persistent uphill grade that I had been dreading, I had warmed up again and barely noticed it. This was when I began to realize that I was going to pull off riding for the entire day. About 30km from the end, the motorbikes rolled up to let us know that we'd soon be pulling up to the meeting point. Groups 1 and 2 were there waiting for us, and the plan was for us to all roll into Versailles together. There was one more energy-sapping hill before the end, so I can proudly say that I was the last across the line to the final meeting point. Go me, Lanterne Rouge of L2P 2007.
After a quick rest, several small cakes and biscuits, and a lot of energy drink, we all set out together. On the last big uphill slog of the day, as I started falling behind, I got a helping hand on my left from a rider named Ken. A few meters on, I got another helping hand on my right, and started whizzing up through the group with my tag-team of assistance, amid a series of very amused comments from the other riders about the escort I was getting. I thanked them incoherently when we got to the top, but never had a chance to see who the rider to my right had been. Later, in the hotel bar, I got asked if I knew that it was Sean Kelly helping me up. Then I got the piss roundly taken out of me when it became clear that I'd had no idea. ("I hope you said thank you!!")
So there you go, my brag of the event is that now I've been helped up a hill during a road cyclign event by Sean Kelly. In retrospect, how astonishingly cool was that?
The rest of the way into Versailles was a downhill run. Did I mention I'm good at descending? Yeah. Every now and then I would see one of the flash group 1 riders sail down the outside of the peloton to get up to the front. Eventually I thought, you know, what's stopping me? So I picked my way to the outside of the group, and accelerated a little. I passed maybe 100 riders. Then after losing some ground on an up, I did it again. Passed a few more riders. About 5km from the finish, I made it all the way to the front. (Well, behind the jersey holders, of course -- I'm not that stupid.) Once I was at the front, I was damned if I would be left behind again, so I gave the few remaining lumps everything I could possibly muster, and crossed the final timing strip in the top 15. In the process, I had extended my reputation as a descender well beyond group 3. Hurrah once again for gender ratios -- how else would I have been so easily recognizable as I flew past everyone?
One of the advantages to being first into the hotel drive was that I was early into my room, early into the shower, and early into the physios' clinic, where I had a much-needed back massage and some more painful hamstring stretching. After the award ceremony and a bunch of picture-taking, I went out to dinner with a large group, but I was so tired that I had to leave midway through dessert. The walk back revived me just enough that I had a glass of champagne in the hotel bar with some of the same guys I'd been drinking with the night before, and then I went up to my hotel room secure in the knowledge that I could sleep for ten hours if I liked.
Sunday was a lovely leisurely day -- breakfast in the hotel until 11, then a taxi to a cafe off the Champs-Elysees where thirty or forty of us hung around until it was time to make our way to the Gare du Nord and our train. I took the Metro with my new friend Griselda, rather than waiting on the genial disorganization of getting taxis for 40 people. I arrived in time to snag a bottle of Chablis in the duty-free shop, and spent most of the train journey listening to David Harmon tell stories about cycling personalities and what it's like to commentate something like the Tour de France, listening to him and Nick and Malcolm swap banter about saddles and shorts and pros that they knew, and enjoying the feeling of almost being one of the guys.
The big question of the day was "Will you do it again next year?" I think it's becoming rapidly clear that yes, of course I will. Hills be damned.