Manitoba Randonneurs News and Stories

PBP 2023 - Aaron's story

Part 1: The Aftermath

Not much is written about what happens to you the days after you ride Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP), so let’s start there. It is Sunday night, August 27th, 2023, and I am writing this from bed on the coast of the Gulf of Tropez in Provence. For the record, a family beach vacation is the perfect thing to do to recover from PBP. Today was unusually cool and rainy, so we spent the day on a road trip to Cannes, exploring various sites, tidal pools, and other errata along the road with the kids.

It is also the first day where I have felt truly back to normal since finishing PBP. The pitting edema in my legs has resolved (never had that before) - I can see the veins and tendons in my feet again - and my shoes fit normally. A day or two of doing nothing other than sitting on the beach has allowed my aching muscles to go back to normal, and my Achilles is almost pain free. The grip strength in my hands has returned – I can crack my knuckles again and massage my neck. My sleep has returned, and I almost feel motivated to go ride a bike. I still get occasional tingling in my toes but I’m sure that will heal with time as well. Though if it doesn’t, it’s not like there is anything I can do about it anyways.

On the road to Cannes


I’m left reflecting on questions about how I got here, what I’ve just done and experienced, and what I am going to do going forwards. The last two of those I don’t have an answer for yet, but the first one I know.

Part 2: How I got Here

Older stories are easier to tell because your memory and mind have already decided on the narrative – of how to connect the different events together so that they make sense - and the story of me and randonneuring is a relatively old one. It starts at the tail end of my emergency medicine residency in 2015, back when I was still power-lifting, and the summer Sophie was born. I had bought my first bike and started commuting and riding for fun. I rode 20km to Assiniboine Park at 18kph and was exhausted... but I kept at it because it was amazing. I bought a road bike in 2017 and my first 100k ride came shortly after.

Long-rides had a particular allure for me, both for the personal challenge, as well as the adventure they always entailed. Even when you didn’t want one. That winter, I stumbled upon randonneuring (and the Manitoba Randonneurs) I think on Twitter of all places. In a bit of a coincidence, Sam Ehlers ran the club at that time, and he’d

First road bike

just done PBP in 2015. Sam and I had gone to high school together, sitting beside each other in several bands as we both played trumpet, though I hadn’t spoken to him since maybe 2003. At the time, the concept of riding your bike for 1200km seemed completely absurd and beyond plausibility. But I read his trip report on the club website with much interest, much like one might cozy up with a novel about Hillary and Norgay trying to climb Everest.  779573

After several months of hemming and hawing, I signed up for my first 200k in May of 2018. I had never ridden in a group before (nor more than 125km at once...), so it was a bit of a crash course in bike handling, etiquette, and how pacelines and echelons works; but experienced riders like Candy Badger, Mark Gray, Dwight Willoughby and Rob Smith were very patient with me, teaching me as the ride went on. I could only keep up with them until Ste Gen though – they were way too fast – but by that point I knew I could finish, so just plodded on by myself for the remainder of it, finishing in a bit under 10 hours. There was suffering... but it wasn’t as bad as I’d thought it might be and after a day of reflection I signed up for the Great Falls 300k, finishing that in just under 16 hours two weeks later. I had to dig a lot deeper to finish that ride, so that was it for me that year.

At that point, I had a vague notion that this was something I wanted to do more of, so I decided I needed to ride my bike more. I bought a trainer and rode my bike regularly through the winter for the first time, so when I did the 200k and 300k in April of 2019, they were so much easier than the year previously. So much so, that I decided to try and tackle the full series that year and signed up for my first 400k and 600k. I spent most of my time on those rides riding with Rob Smith as we rode at a similar pace. He was trying to get his series done so that he could go to PBP that year. My increased experience with long rides, coupled with talking to someone who was actually going to do this thing, started to make it somewhat possible to conceptualize riding your bike for 1200km. I told myself that if I was actually able to finish a 400k and 600k ride this year, that I would consider registering for PBP that summer. In the end, I wasn’t able to finish either the 400k or 600k though, DNFing on both. However, both attempts taught me a lot of valuable lessons about preparation and the mental headspace you need to be in for these long rides. They also taught me that I needed a better bike fit – I was regularly running into issues with a pinched nerve in my neck after these long rides, and Rob had mentioned he’d had good luck with getting a fit by James Dyker at Alter Ego. This ended up being a great decision, as for the past year or two, I’ve never had major issues with this again. Though I think increasing my core strength and sleeping with a flatter pillow at night also helped.

2020 came... and so did our second child Elliott, followed by the first wave of COVID literally a few days later. I had been training regularly indoors all winter and was in the best shape of my life. It was at some point that winter when I’d finally decided I was going to tackle PBP no matter what in 2023. There wasn’t an exact day or event that lead to this conclusion, it was just more I started the winter considering it, and by the end I’d made up my mind. COVID restrictions delayed the start of the rando season, but it still happened eventually. The 200k and 300k came and went uneventfully, but then it was time for the 400k – completing this was still new territory for me. After a PTSD-inducing flat early in the ride, where Claudio Stasolla and Rob Smith killed thousands of mosquitoes while I frantically tried to change my tube as quickly as possible (I still ultimately counted over 100 mosquito bites on my ass because neither of them were willing to slap my ass I guess...), I was feeling pretty good. Until fatigue from working a bunch of overnights that week caught up with me coming into Morden and I died. I gave up and got a hotel to go get some sleep and called Karen Kwok to see if the family wanted to come out and rescue me... I mean, spend a day at the Discovery Center there... yes... but by the time I’d laid down for a few minutes I was already feeling a lot better. Looking at the closing times for the subsequent controls, I came up with a new plan where I’d rest for about 2 hours in Morden, but then continue onwards.

And so I did. And after digging very deep and riding in the dark for the first time, I limped back to the start a bit before 1am. I recall aggressively eating a quarter pounder immediately after this, but then there is a large memory gap for the next day or so. There was a lesson learned there about never making a decision to quit until you’ve at least eaten and rested for a bit. The 600k came and went relatively uneventfully (well, other than riding for several hours through apocalyptic rain that destroyed both my lights and my bottom bracket) and with that, I was a super randonneur for the first time.

By this time, I’d started approaching my preparation for PBP systematically. I read everything I could find about the event, watched all the YouTube videos that I think existed about it, and started making notes in a Word document about all the ideas I had, or potential problems I realized I needed a solution for (lighting? Is it better to start Sunday night and have 90h, or start Monday morning but only have 84h? Knowledge of the French language? Normal weather conditions at that time of year in that part of France? Etc.).

2021 and 2022 brought more successful brevets, completing my series each year, and collecting more experience along the way with things like weather (cold, heat, wind, pouring rain), equipment/gear, bike fit, nutrition, etc. Doing the full series every year for 4 years before PBP was a deliberate decision to try and build experience leading into PBP, and in retrospect, one of the best training decisions I’d made. It was a great way to build the sort of experience needed to deal with all of the various unpredictable things that come up on really long rides and are typically the reason you DNF – it’s rarely a matter of physical capabilities. There were many long hours spent riding with people like Weldon Penner, Dan Perry, Cody Claydon, Bradley Kulbaba, Claudio Stasiola, Shaun and Zach Hildebrandt, Dave Ristau, Gerry King, etc. and that was worth a lot too – there are many things to learn by talking to other riders, or even just watching them and what they do during these rides. People have all sorts of experiences and perspectives you would never even think of.

Those years I’d tried to complete an 1000k brevet as prep for PBP as well, but ran into issues on both. In 2021 it was physical and mental fatigue, having done the 400 and 600k back to back right before the 1000k, and in 2022 it was my old arch nemesis heat (and I was only saved by a friend of mine serendipitously being out in Roblin for a wedding that weekend). I still think trying to get an 1000k under your belt before PBP is a good idea... or at least going out and riding 100-200k the day after finishing a 600k.

Text Box: Another potential problem with riding PBP was simply hills. The average gradient at PBP is just under 1% (12,000m of climbing in 1220km). There’s almost nothing over 7%, but you’re almost always climbing at 2-5% or descending, especially once you get west of about Villaines. This is very different than Manitoba, where the largest hill on many rides is an overpass, or maybe a small piece of gravel you ride over. I had very little experience with actual climbing, so in 2022 I went all in and joined a supported trans-Pyrenees ride, which featured 21,000m of climbing and 900km of riding (2.3%) over 8 days... as well as some truly massive climbs (like

The   Tourmalet – 18km at 7.2% From the summit of The Tourmalet, looking back at where I've come

average gradient). By the end of this ride, I’d really figured out how to climb and was quite comfortable with it. It was also nice as I got a sense of what riding in rural France was like, and what sort of food and resources are available in small towns there.

(In retrospect, the one part of Manitoba that has fairly similar terrain to the parts of France PBP happens in, is the "30km between Wasagaming and Moon Lake, in RMNP. This stretch sits at "0.9% average gradient, and the style of hills and steepness is pretty similar to what I encountered in much of France. If you want to get a sense of what PBP is like, do the Dauphin 1000, or Moon Lake 600, and see how you feel on the second/third days when riding this stretch of road. Consider though that essentially the entire thing will be like this rather than just 30k. And also consider that this year, the "170km stretch between Brest and Loudeac on the return averaged 1.2 -1.4%, so almost 50% more climbing than even that stretch in RMNP.)

By the end of the season in 2022 I was feeling good. I was comfortable in my cycling ability as well my mental abilities to push through difficulties. But there were still a few weak spots. I hated riding into strong headwinds for long periods of time, I disliked riding alone, and I’d never ridden through the night – something that may need to happen during PBP. Because of the last one of those, when January came along and it was time to pre-register for PBP in 2023, I ultimately chose the 84h start time. With this, you can turn the event into three "400km days, with some sleep in Loudeac each night. This means you can plan to have a hotel in Loudeac to sleep in (rather than on a mat in a control, or in a ditch somewhere), and can have a drop bag in Loudeac with supplies for day 2 and 3 that you don’t need to carry along with you on your bike the whole way. However, it also means that you need to be physically capable of riding 440km on Day 1 and Day 3, with "4000m of climbing each day, in like less than 18-20ish hours of moving time (ie: less than 24h once you include stoppage time).

Text Box: Oak Ridge Moraine 400k With that in mind, and just wanting to be as physically strong as possible coming into PBP, I decided to start working with a coach. Dan had successfully worked with Nick Bergen the year before, as had one of the residents at work, and they both had good things to say about him. We chatted and the fit seemed to be good, so I started training with him in October of 2022. (I’d taken almost a full month off the bike after my trans-Pyrenees ride that year, as I’d come to realize that a few weeks of rest and time away from the bike every year was important to keep progressing.) Working with Nick was a great decision, as by early spring I was setting all-time personal power records. The 200-600k this year ended up being the easiest they’ve ever been for me as a result, and in the weeks before PBP I was comfortably cruising at 34kph for zone-2 work (as long as it wasn’t too hot out). I did my 400 and 600k rides solo this year and successfully got over that mental hurdle. And the 200k this year featured a brutal headwind for the last 70km, as did the middle stretch of the 600k... and I was able to push through both.

The one ripple to the plan for 2023 was that I had a conference out in Toronto the date of our 400k... but looking into things, the Toronto Randonneurs group

was actually running their Oak Ridges Moraine 400k while I was out there so I signed up for that, finishing it in a bit over 17 hours total time. This also ended up being a great decision, as there was actually elevation on that ride – about 0.9% average gradient, so very similar to a single day of my plan of attack for PBP.

Speaking of the plan. I’d made a spreadsheet with all the various controls and distances in it, and extensively played around with numbers for speed, stoppage time for each control, and sleep each night, to get a sense of what the event would end up being like. Based on my average moving speed for that 400k in Toronto, I figured a conservative assumption was a 27kph moving average the first day of PBP, and then 25kph for days 2 and 3. I’d heard that the controls can eat up a lot of time if you plan to eat/sleep/do anything there other than get a stamp, due to lots of time standing in line. So I budgeted 30min of stoppage time per control, with the assumption I would get most food outside the controls and eat it on the bike, and then have a large meal at my hotel each night and each morning. This would leave me with around five hours of sleep each night and have me finishing late in the evening on Wednesday in about 64 hours total. And if shit hit the fan, I would still have until 5pm on Thursday to finish.

This plan almost fell apart back in January though. Once I’d confirmed my pre-registration on January 28th for a 5am departure time (wave W) in the 84h group, I started looking into a hotel for the nights in Loudeac and for the days before in Rambouillet... and quickly realized they’d essentially all been booked already! Inquiries on the various Facebook groups for PBP, and through some Canadian rando clubs lead me to a company (JFT cycling) that was reselling hotel rooms in Loudeac, and still had one left, which I immediately snapped up. That same company also offered a bag-drop service to Loudeac which solved that piece of the puzzle too. Rambouillet was trickier and ultimately I could only get a hotel there the Sunday night before my Monday morning start, meaning I’d have to stay in Paris proper and then find my way out to Rambouillet somehow Sunday morning for check-in.

By the end of July, everything was set and done. I’d finished my series, converted my pre-registration into a registration, sorted out all the surprisingly complicated logistics of flights, trains, hotels, bike transportation, and was in great shape starting a taper leading into the event. Everything I could do to prepare was done, and I was just biding my time, waiting for things to start.

Part 3: Murphy’s Law

We arrived in Paris on Wednesday, August 16th. This was mostly deliberate, as I wanted enough time before the ride started to adjust to the time change, and in case any issues came up with transporting my bike with Air Canada. Afterall, on a previous occasion back in 2019, Air Canada had completely lost my bike somewhere in Seattle, ultimately just providing me with the cash value to replace it. On the off chance that this happened again, I wanted enough lead time to sort out the logistics of getting a completely different bike in a foreign country.

I say mostly deliberate, because we were actually supposed to arrive in Paris on Tuesday, August 15th. We got to the Winnipeg airport late Monday morning to catch our flight to Montreal and then to Paris. Unfortunately, shortly after getting through security, it was announced that the plane had mechanical issues and the flight to Montreal would be cancelled. Oh no wait, they changed their minds and it’s just delayed by 4 hours. This was problematic as it meant that we would miss our connecting flight to Paris. Air Canada staff were very helpful and managed to rebook us on a flight from Montreal to Paris that departed later in the evening, and we then commenced the process of entertaining two young children in an airport for 4 hours.

Three hours later, an overhead announcement was made that the flight to Montreal had been cancelled outright. No further comments were made. None of the other people in the same situation as us reacted. Somewhat confused, I wandered up to the gate agent to clarify that the flight had in fact been cancelled... with

the implication that we would be unable to catch our connecting flight, which they confirmed. So we wandered into the Air Canada service line again (ahead of the rush this time, as many people took a long time to figure out the consequences of this for whatever reason). While waiting, we got email notification that we had automatically been rescheduled for a flight leaving Winnipeg tomorrow morning, and would then transfer through Toronto to Paris. This was less than ideal as by now we just wanted to get out of Winnipeg and make some sort of eastward progress. The Air Canada agent was again very helpful and managed to schedule us for a flight to Montreal that would leave around 9pm, gave us vouchers for a hotel to stay in Montreal overnight, and then got us a seat on a plane from Montreal to Paris the next day. Given this at least got us out of Winnipeg that night, we went with it. The only problem was that all of our checked baggage had been spit out onto the luggage pick-up area. So I had to leave the departures zone, pick up all of our checked luggage, re-check it, and go through security again while Karen and the kids waited inside. The agent at the over-sized luggage drop off did a double-take when he saw me and my bike for the second time that day.

After a painful day in the airport, and the new flight to Montreal being delayed by an hour, we finally arrived in Montreal a bit after midnight. The hotel was... questionable, but somewhere to sleep. And then, after another entire day at the airport (in Montreal this time), we caught our flight to Paris uneventfully and were off.

After a seven-hour “overnight” flight with a questionable amount of sleep and two exhausted children, we landed in Paris early in the morning on Wednesday. We got our luggage and were waiting for my bike at the over-sized luggage area. And waiting. This is not unexpected as it usually takes a while for the oversized bags to come off the plane. There were a couple other Canadians waiting with us who were also waiting for bikes – they were also doing PBP! But then their bikes came, and they went, and we were still there, and my bike wasn’t.

Completely heart-broken at this point, I made my way over to the luggage services area at Charles de Gaulle and started filling out the paperwork for missing baggage. The AirTag we had left in the bike bag showed that the bike was still in Montreal - I knew that the most likely thing was that it would show up at some point in the next few days, but still, I felt terrible. On the taxi ride to our hotel, I started making inquiries into whether anyone in Paris had a bike they could lend me, or if they knew somewhere where I could rent or even buy a bike.

However, we noticed during that taxi ride that the last ping from the AirTag was over 8 hours ago, which is odd, as you’d expect more recent pings if it was still somewhere near other people. And looking more closely at exactly where it was at the Montreal Airport, it was next to a departure gate. And the time of the last ping was close to when the flight from Montreal to Paris after ours would leave... though had occurred 40 minutes after the scheduled departure time. Some quick google searching showed that second Paris-bound flight had actually left from that exact gate, and that it had been delayed by 38 minutes! In addition, my parents were on that plane (they were coming out to France to see me off at the start), and it was due to land in maybe 10 minutes!

10 minutes later, we get a new ping from the AirTag at Charles de Gaulle airport. I messaged my parents and they went to the oversized luggage area... and they found it there! No word ever arrived from Air Canada or the airport that the bike had arrived, so I have no idea what would have happened if it wasn’t for the AirTag we’d placed in the case. Later than day, my parents brought it to our hotel, and I was reunited with my bike. Exhausted from both travelling and the emotional roller coaster, I went to bed early, deferring reassembling my bike to the next day.

And that was definitely the right decision to make. As I started assembling the bike in the courtyard of our hotel the next afternoon, I quickly realized that the guide pulley, and the screw that attaches it to the rear derailleur were completely missing. Somehow they had fallen out of the bike box during transport and were now gone forever.

This is obviously a problem as the bike is unrideable without a guide pulley. And while a new guide pulley would in theory be relatively cheap and easy to source, the screw for it would probably be more problematic. Google Maps told me there were multiple bike stores within walking distance (we were in central Paris), so I departed on a mission. The first bike shop was completely closed due to August holidays. The second bike shop had a set of pulleys which I bought, but no screw. The third bike shop I went to also had no screw. Somewhat exasperated at this point after walking 4km in 34C weather, I asked them if they had any idea if there was anywhere in town where I could find this screw – they suggested Cycles Laurent. Google Maps (on my now almost dead phone) showed that this would be a bit of a walk... but I really had no alternative at this point.

Text Box: Bike assembled and ready to go Thirty minutes later I staggered into Cycles Laurent presyncopal and dripping in sweat, all hope invested into this last chance. The worker at the store had a somewhat skeptical look on his face as I told him that I have a problem and needed his help – he replied that he also has problems. Not a promising start. I hash together with some mangled and saltatory French that I am in town to ride in PBP and I somehow lost the screw for my guide pulley, and was wondering if they may have one to purchase. He sighs, and says something in French to his colleague that I don’t understand. His colleague responds to the effect of “check the stash of broken derailleurs.” This is promising. He goes into the back, and a minute later comes back with the screw I need! He wasn’t going to charge me for it, so I decided to buy a jersey from them instead. I eventually make it back to the hotel, several hours and the better part of 10km of walking later. I finished assembling my bike, took a nice long cold shower, and celebrate by drinking the entire bottle of champagne that came with our hotel room.

Note: this was a mistake. I am too old to do that now and woke up so hungover. The last time I’d had more than three drinks in a night was probably a decade ago. This made the VO2 intervals I did for my training ride at the Hippodrome in Paris the next day very difficult. 3/10, do not recommend.

Part 4: In the Zone

The events during the actual ride are unfortunately the hardest to tell, because the story breaks down. There was simply too much that happened during those three days for my brain to make sense of things. And things are further complicated by the fact that near the end, I wasn’t even certain what was happening around me anymore due to sleep deprivation and some degree of resulting psychosis. But let’s start with the more certain parts.

The process of getting from central Paris to Rambouillet seemed complicated. You could take a local train, but maybe needed to buy tickets in person (?), but bikes weren’t allowed, but maybe they were... so I said screw it and decided to just ride there. It was only 55km anyways. I loaded my bike and bags up for PBP itself, then put everything else for the hotel Sunday night into Sophie’s dinosaur backpack and started my ride to Rambouillet. Riding in Paris is frankly hot garbage due to cobblestones, disjointed and poorly signed bikepaths, traffic and oblivious tourists (like me); but once you pass Versailles, the roads are very nice. I arrived at the Bergerie Nationale for check-in and received my frame badge and various other swag, then headed over to my hotel for the night.

Bike ready to go with frame badge


Upon unpacking I realized I’d forgotten to bring my sandals, leaving me with only my SPD shoes to walk around town in. This was a nuisance as I needed to get lunch, supper, as well as buy breakfast for tomorrow morning (the hotel laughed when I asked if they would have any food available at 3:30am). This ended up being a very busy afternoon with essentially no down time from when I arrived, until when I went to bed shortly before 8pm.

At 3:15am my alarm went off. I’d actually managed to sleep quite well and felt basically fresh despite the early hour. This was highly unusual as I normally sleep terribly the night before big rides, so I took this as a good omen. In addition, the somewhat maladaptive anxious-excitement I’d been feeling the past few days had transformed overnight into a feeling of calm and focus – I was in the zone. When I was younger, I never had any problems getting into this mindset; but since COVID, I’d been having more anxiety in general, and wasn’t sure I could still do it – apparently my brain still remembered how.

I scarfed down three of the croissants I’d bought the day before while (unironically) listening to DragonForce, and strapped the fourth to my saddle bag as an on-bike snack. I’d had high hopes of weaning myself off the 5­10 cups of coffee a day I normally drink before PBP... which of course I never even bothered trying to do, so I had some instant coffee I’d brought, then hit the road.

We were supposed to be at the start for around 4am – the only problem was there were no instructions on exactly where at the start we were supposed to go (Bergerie Nationale is a large area). However, given that there were several thousand people starting this morning, and hundreds of volunteers around, I didn’t expect this to be an issue, and it wasn’t.

Over the next hour there was a lot of standing still in a group, then walking a bit, then standing again. We had our bike/light/reflective vest check, then made our way towards the actual start line, where the ~250 of us in wave W queued up. I was at the front, and looking back behind me hundreds of cyclists stretched back into the night, all wearing neon-yellow reflective vests. If the weather had been cold or rainy, this would have been an absolutely miserable process.

Text Box: Looking back from the start My parents had gotten up at a very early hour to come see me off, and we talked for a bit as we were waiting to go. However, my mind was fully focused on the imminent start of the ride, so I wasn’t really able to have a meaningful conversation. There was a small stage at the starting line with an MC cranking out loud music and talking about various things that I don’t remember anymore. I do recall that it was someone in our waves birthday, and he had all of us sing happy birthday to them.

We counted down the last ten seconds until 5am on the giant electronic clock, and then we were off. The first 10k were moto-paced at “30kph” (reality: random speeds between 15-35kph) to help dissuade people from riding recklessly... however, it was immediately clear to me that this not successful. I came into the ride having no interest in riding with the front group, as I had wanted to generously pace myself. However, many riders were either too excited or too inexperienced with riding in a large group, and frankly their riding terrified me and I wanted to be nowhere near them. The riders at the front seemed to be safer and more predictable, so I decided to stay up there. Part of rando is knowing how to be flexible and when you need to deviate from your game plan.

The first two hours of riding passed in a blur of darkness and red taillights at a frantic pace reaching 40+kph at times. I only start to have snapshots of memories again as the sky started to lighten and dawn began. Golden fields, yellow vests, a touch of mist, and continuously passing recumbent and tandem bikes (the special bike wave had started 15 minutes before ours). “Don’t forget to eat. Don’t forget to drink. Don’t forget to stretch. Don’t go into the red.” I continued to stay near the front as we settled into a ~30-34kph pace, which was feeling sustainable. If there’s any parts of Manitoba that the first few hundred km of PBP remind me of, it’s the stretch between Notre Dame and Manitou - fields of crops and gentle rolling hills. But, no canola. And the roads don’t just go in a straight line, and the fields aren’t all perfect squares. And the land is left somewhat wild along the roadside, so trees provide some shelter from any wind or sun.

On the way out, Mortagne at 120km is just a food/service stop, not a control. As much as I’d love to stay in the zone and just keep going straight past there, I knew it was unwise to not take at least a quick breather to refill bottles and whatnot. My motto on these rides is to “be kind to yourself” – if there is any uncertainty about what to do, always defer to the option that involves pushing yourself not as hard. We arrived in Mortagne in a bit under four hours, and I knew I needed to keep my stop time as low as possible – even an extra 10 minutes of stoppage time equates to undoing several hours of an extra 10-20 watts of work – and in 11 minutes I was back on the road again. There had been no communication or talking at all in our paceline about anything, let alone plans at or after Mortagne, so I’d just assumed I was on my own at this point. However, within a few minutes, myself, a Swiss rider, and an American had come across each other and started riding in a paceline. Over the next kilometers, we picked up more and more riders and soon the spicy-W-train was back, and we were flying through the French countryside at 32+ kph.

Time also flew by, and soon it was a bit before noon and we were at the first control in Villaines (203km), almost two-hours ahead of my planned pace. It had been about eight hours of riding by this point, so it was time for a proper break. The control was quiet, as the riders who departed Sunday night were all still ahead of us, and we were at the pointy end of the 84-hour group. Despite that, the controls are physically very large, and there is much walking around to do: from where you leave your bike, to the place to get your card stamped, to the washroom, to the water station, to the dining hall. Easily 5-10min just walking (make sure your biking shoes are comfortable to walk in...). While eating some croissants, I chatted briefly with the American rider from earlier. He was from New York and just recently starting doing rando rides. We both agreed that we needed to turn the pace down going forwards; but by this point it’d been almost 60 minutes at the control and I was anxious to get going again, so we went our separate ways. It was obvious that my 30-minutes per control assumption was maybe too optimistic – going forwards, I’d need to be even more cognizant of stoppage time at controls.

The spicy W-train


The next control would be Fougeres (293km). It’s early afternoon I’m riding solo, and it’s getting hot out, but thankfully not unbearably hot. Much of this stage passed by in an unremarkable thumb-smudge of afternoon sunniness, monotonous countryside, indistinguishable small towns, and rolling hills. I was also starting to pass the occasional rider who had departed in the Sunday night waves – they were already hours behind the time the Fougeres control would close for them... but they were still going. Maybe halfway to Fougeres, I was passed by a few riders on a climb... who I then caught up to again immediately on a small descent (I’d noticed by this point that I’m faster at descending than most other riders – some combination of weight, aero, and hubris I guess)... and with that I’d joined a spicy paceline again, going "32kph. These riders were mostly French and European and spoke comparatively little English compared to those I’d ridden with earlier. But thankfully most of the communication that needs to happen when riding in a group transcends words and is successfully transmitted with body language and occasional grunting.

Soon, it was mid-afternoon and we were in Fougeres, two-hours ahead of target pace. Now it was definitely hot out. Looking back at temperature records, it was 34C out at this point. This is well outside of historical norms for this part of France at this time of year, but in keeping with the predicted forecast I’d planned for. And of course, because it is France, none of the controls have any air-conditioning at all, so it is just as warm inside as outside. I go into the dining hall and it is a sauna with no air movement. I’d had some idea to eat a larger meal here... but they only had bananas available. So I quickly ate some bananas in the toasty hot dining hall (at least it’s out of the sun) and was back on the road again by myself in under 30 minutes. I am so thankful that I discovered maltodextrin-based drink mixes earlier this year, as that way with one bottle of water and one gel per hour, I was getting about 400 calories and "120g of carbs. Without it, calories would have been a problem at this point.

(Note: brand-name maltodextrin-based powders are expensive. And it is relatively cheap and easy to make them yourself from bulk. So I had planned to bring a few bags of this with me to France... however, a few weeks before leaving I had the realization that flying with several kilograms of unlabeled white powder in Ziplock bags is probably a terrible idea... so I ended up buying the expensive stuff to bring with me).