By Matt Strassberg
During PBP no matter how many languages you speak and how accomplished a conversationalist you are, there is ample time and then some for introspection. Introspection, like most other things, is usually best in moderation. Even when you are enjoying yourself by spending a few days doing something you love, can your wandering mind lead you astray?
At the start of the ride, your feelings of excitement override any underlying apprehension about the challenge that lies ahead. What could be better than riding across the beautiful French countryside with 5,000 of your closest friends (well at least 5,000 like minded individuals). Spectators applaud your effort and their cheers make you feel like you could ride forever. You think to yourself, it doesn't get better than this.
But at some point between the euphoric hours riding all day and all night, many randonneurs have a moment of truth when they ask themselves why. Why am I pushing my body to the limit, why am I doing this again, why can't I be satisfied riding a bike for a few hours like a normal person?
Sometimes this moment of doubt occurs even though you are feeling fine and riding at a good pace. At this stage these philosophical questions are benign. Soon you turn your attention back to the beautiful landscape, the feeling of speed, and the camaraderie of the randonneuring community. Quickly you find yourself back in the randonneur's groove.
Other times the questioning may arise during a moment of weakness caused by sleep deprivation, a bonk, or physical pain. Although the first doubts may creep into your mind, most often with some rest and food the issue passes and you return to your groove. Perhaps you think to yourself this is not the time for deep thought, but promise to think about those philosophical questions before you register for another grueling event.
But what do you do when those nasty questions stay with you because the pain just won't go away. Soon you start asking how long can one ride with persistent pain or how long should one ride with persistent pain? I have heard randonneurs repeat a general rule (often attributed to Lon Haldeman) that if you think the pain will likely go away within 2 weeks, keep going. Given all the time and energy necessary to prepare for PBP, I was willing to extend the recovery time to a few months.
But determining how long any pain will linger is equal parts art, science and guessing. The determination is even more difficult because by the time pain arises, you are usually well into the ride and mental clarity and rational decision-making are usually severely compromised, if not absent.
Every randonneur suffers from some physical ailments during a long brevet. I was not immune to this rule. My back began aching around Carhaix on the outbound journey. I tried to focus on other things, but whenever I pedaled the pain was present and constant. Those philosophical questions haunted me. I began to question whether I could make it all the way back to Paris. At times I even questioned whether I could make it to Brest.
Then I focused on the fact that every randonneur was dealing with his or her own adversity. I remembered the other 1200k brevets that I'd completed and how in the end, hearing about other rider's struggles and triumphs helped put my own effort into perspective. Despite what I thought at the time, my issues were always minor compared to others who overcame challenges that seemed insurmountable to me.
My back hurt, but I could still ride. Due to the trying weather conditions this year, many riders suffered conditions such as hypothermia that did not allow them the luxury of deciding whether to push on.
In Brest I tried to jerrybuild a contraption out of a used inner tube and tire to alleviate my back pain by pulling my lumbar region forward while I was riding. Even with diminished mental faculties due to sleep deprivation, riding with an elastic belt around my waist connected to the stem of the bike seemed a dangerous enough undertaking to be a candidate for the Darwin awards given to people who do stupid things that lead to their demise.
I pushed on without the belt accepting that my back would hurt throughout the rest of the ride. Fortunately, I recognized that the memory of completing another PBP would last a lifetime compared to a day and a half of back pain. For most of the return trip, I had to get off the bike every few miles to stretch. But I tried to think positively and realized that since I could no longer ride hard, I could forget about setting a personal best and visit all the food stands along the route and enjoy the ride more.
PBP would not be as personally rewarding if it did not pose incredible challenges. To me the beauty of PBP lies in the stories of persistence and fortitude that enable the riders to overcome the challenges. Every rider attempting to meet the challenges of a 1200k brevet endures hardship. Some people talk about the hardships, and some do not.
The week after returning from PBP, my father-in-law passed away at age 89. While he would have never dreamed of riding PBP, he commuted by bike through New England winters for years before bike commuting was popular. He was a hardy person who endured many physical challenges but never complained about anything, even during the years when his body began to fail him. He would have been a terrific randonneur, enduring whatever hardships came his way without articulating a single negative thought.
After my other 1200k brevets, I said that it was a positive and rewarding experience that I don't want to repeat. Somehow, this sentiment faded as the memories of the difficulties became distant and the challenge of another 1200k brevet became irresistible. Before PBP even began this year, I prematurely said that this would be my last 1200k brevet.
Sure enough, two weeks after PBP my back was feeling noticeably better. Shortly after that I began hedging on my promise to be stop riding 1200k brevets. Nobody really believed me anyway and now I am open to riding PBP in 2011.
I may never be able to satisfactorily answer the question why I do it. I know that randonneuring meets my need to challenge myself while doing something I love, but without the extra baggage of competition. PBP also reminds me that motivation can be more important than talent, and that a little talent and a whole lot of motivation can take you a long way on the roads of France and on your own personal journey. Finally and perhaps most importantly, even when it hurts, PBP is incredibly fun and rewarding.
Even if I can't adequately articulate why I do it, I hope to continue randonneuring until my body tells me it's time to stop in no uncertain terms. If I do ride in 2011, although I will never be a hardy and taciturn New Englander like my father-in-law, I will try and keep my comments over my personal hardships (sometimes known as whining) to a minimum.