The 400 km Brevet OR, "Where the Rain Abstains from the Plains in Spain and Remains as the Pain of our Gain"
If I found a new level of exhaustion in the 300km brevet, then in the 400km I would make the acquaintance of acute fatigue, though it didn't seem very cute at the time. You might say we were shitty tired, but...er, I'll leave that part of the story to Lee. :o)
It was at this point in the qualifying series that I began to have a few nagging doubts as to whether I could do this thing. The history; A couple-few weeks before the 400km ride I experienced what my doctor later told me was a pinched nerve in my neck. For a few days I had been feeling like my left shoulder was sunburned, even though I had not been out in the sun nearly enough. Then, on the tail end of the Thursday night club ride I suddenly got a huge bolt of intense pain shooting down my left shoulder. It went away just as quickly, but every time I rotated my arm as if to stretch out my shoulder, BAM! By the time I was almost home, it got to the point that if I so much as moved my hand on the bars I would get a jolt like a finger in a light socket. I speak from experience there, but don't ask. So I figured the worst, but what the worst was I didn't have a clue. Suffice to say, I thought the whole trip was in danger. My nerves were laid to rest along with the rest of me when the doc essentially invoked the old cliche of if somehting hurts your arm, the don't do it. I didn't ride for a week or so, and generally took it easy, and wouldn't you know it, my arm stopped hurting.
On to the ride.
I was up at about 4am for a nice quick ride out to Geyserville and back, about 250 miles. There were clouds. Dark ones. I was not amused. The huge groups of the previous two, shorter brevets had thinned out a bit, and I began to come to the realization that this was a serious business, and the people who made it through today were serious about the business of getting to France too. It takes quite a person to get up way too early in the morning to go for a 16+ hour bike ride. It takes quite another to do so when it's cold and wet. It would end up being wet and cold(about 45-50 degrees) for the first 100 miles.
Big thanks went out to the tandem team of Lori and Jeff. (um, I may be getting his name wrong, which would be terrible after how far they pulled me, but we all know the stoker is the most important half of the tandem, right?) Anyway, they had the good sense to stop off at their favorite little coffee place in Fairfield for a bite and a warm up. Those of us who hadn't yet lost too much brain function from the conditions stopped with them. You should have seen the regular customers looking on bemused, bewilded, befuddled, and in many other words that begin with "b,e". They all had most likely hopped in their dry, warm cars for a quick jaunt out to the coffee shop only to find a small group of cyclists who had not only ridden there from Davis, but had another 200+ miles to ride that day. They must have had lots to speculate on during the commercial breaks of ET, or whatever people who don't have the sense to get out of doors watch. Times up, and we got back out into the driving sheets.
Thankfully, the sky took mercy on us around Calistoga. The group I was with was making pretty good time at this point, but I was getting a little worried because for about the last 8 miles into Calistoga I had begun to feel the beginning twinges in my arm of that pinched nerve. There would be no way I could ride with that for another 150 miles. It would surely get worse, and I'd have to drop out. That would make qualifying really tough as I would have to find an alternate 400km brevet to ride, if I could recover. So the paranoia began to creep in a bit. My group made quick work of the control and headed out, with me in, somewhat tentative, tow.
It was at this point that I learned the second powerful lesson for PBP, but in a roundabout way. Even before we broke the bounds of the Greater Calistoga Metropolitan Area, the air in my rear tire decided it would rather stay in the area instead of continuing on with me. Brilliant timing eh? It took me a while to get a new tube in and find the offending piece of road debris, which put me a good 5 minutes or so behind the others. No way I could catch up at that point. So I faced a 30 mile ride into headwinds all by my lonesome to get to the turnaround point control. After initailly cursing my bad luck, I decided to just take it mellow and ride my own speed, whatever felt comfortable. The amazing thing was, as soon as I got underway, taking it easy, my shoulder began to feel fine. A light came on that I was riding too hard with the group and that was tensing my neck and shoulders up, causing the pain. After realizing that, I knew I could finish the ride no problem. Who cares if I wound up having to ride the remaining 150 miles myself. I knew I coulld still finish within the time limit.
So this was the lesson. Ride Your Own Ride. If you feel you need to go slower than your buddies, go slower. Faster? Go faster. So not only was I incredibly relieved at that point, but I was about to ride into the Alexander Valley for the first time. To say it was beautiful would be an injustice, and I got to ride at my own pace, with the only sound being the whisper of the wind passing my ears, and enjoying every minute of it. Headwind be damned. I would end up being about 30 minutes behind the others by the time I got to Geyserville. Eh.
I took a nice long time at the control, determined not to hurry myself. There was a guy there whos day had ended with a crankarm broken in half. Taking a close look at it the way highway drivers gawk at an accident, I noticed the break was half dirty and half clean metal, showing it had been half way broken for a time. Small lesson there of keeping a sharp eye on your equipment. A broken crank arm would have been unthinkable to me, but on huge rides like this, and especially when you get to Paris, unthinkable stuff happens. It was about then that Lee rolled in, and I decided to wait for him and ride the rest of the way together. You know how they say hard work is its own reward? Bullshit! The hard work of riding into a headwind is not its own reward! A sweet tailwind is! Lee and I enjoyed our just reward for the next 60 miles or so.
By and by, night tripped and fell. We got over the climbs on Hwy 128 and back down into the valley for the final 40 mile slog home. Somewhere on Pleasants Valley Road Lees number came up in the flat tire lottery. About a mile later he became a two time winner. This is when fatigue started really settling in, putting its feet up on the coffee table, and making itself at home. Inbetween Vacaville and the finish I started getting really tired. Sleepy kinda tired. Thankfully, through past experience, I knew the feeling, and how much longer I could go before it would be dangerous to continue without stopping. The last 20 miles, being pancake flat would figure to be the easiest, but they were really the hardest due to their being flat long, dark stretches of road that could put a meth freak to sleep. I put into practice a tip learned from brevet veterans, and just concentrated on getting to the next intersection, then the next, and so on. I'd have gone nuts with impatience if I only thought of how far off the finish was, and how long it was taking to get there. At night it is easy to think you are rideng faster than you really are. I also took to using my old time trialling mantra of "sooner or later. you'll be done sooner or later". It worked like a charm as, sooner or later, we were done.
The 400km was in the books. It was time to go home and crash, and not think about the impending 600km ride.