Post mortem of a failed ride

The plan was to ride from Utrecht to Paris and back again in one go. The route was provided, and it covered 1000km. Having done the Styrkeprøven in 2011, totaling 540km in more difficult terrain, I considered this to be doable, with a 50% chance of success. I love challenges where the outcome hangs in the balance.

I find it near impossible to train for such events. I know from the Styrkeprøven that finishing is for the larger part a mental thing: how much discomfort can you stand over an extended period of time? After riding numerous 200+ km rides, I knew I’d be OK in the physical department. So how do you prepare mentally? I rode Milano-San Remo (300km), Strade Bianche (180km), and the Giro di Lombardia (210km) in 5 days, whereby each day the discomfort grew. That went well. I also rode 230km solo, even though I knew I’m capable of riding long distances on my own, as I rode the Styrkeprøven mostly (more than 500km) on my own.

So, what do you carry on such a trip? Well, 1000km sounds a lot, but when you’re doing 20km/h on average, that’s 50 hours, or two days. So food for two and one half days, and enough water bottles to get through the night, as very few shops are open at 3 in the morning in the country side… With good weather forecasts I decided to leave any rain gear at home, and reckoned that it wouldn’t get so cold at night I needed warmer clothing. I had one extra piece of clothing: a reflective jacket, as that’s mandatory in France when cycling at night (or so I’ve been told, but it makes good sense). I also had spare batteries for the Garmin and the lights.

So with all that (plus the regular items as phone, id card and insurance cards) stuffed in the six pockets of my shirt and wind jacket, plus three saddle bags, I set off from home in Amsterdam Zuidoost for Utrecht, where I’d team up with Daan for this adventure.

There were some problems when setting off for the trip. I chose to use my old Etrex Vista for this trip because of battery life-time. I also have two Edge 705’s and a Forerunner 305, but their combined life-time wouldn’t cover the trip, and as the Etrex uses regular batteries, I’d be able to replace them any time it was needed. The thing is, I hadn’t been using that unit for years, and I’d forgotten that it can only navigate on routes consisting of 50 points or less. All I could do is show the (thankfully) complete route on the basemap. But Daan has an Edge 800, so I didn’t worry too much.

Trouble began when 30km into the ride the Edge decided to take us for a detour. Where on my map it showed a direct route, Daan’s unit showed another course. The sources being different (mine a route, Daan’s a track), we just found it remarkable, but nothing more than that. But when at 5km away from “my” course it still was taking us away from that course. Even more, when restarting the navigational part, it suddenly couldn’t find the course anymore! As this was still (relatively) close to home, we could cope, but we wondered what if this were to happen further on…

And as you might already have guessed, it did happen later on, multiple times. So we navigated on my plot and the sun… which is less than ideal, I can assure you. If you have to go in one direction, and there happens to be a road that starts off in that direction, there’s no guarantee it will keep on doing so. And if there’s no obvious one, which one do you take, then? All in all, it was taking way more time to cover distances even though our actual speeds were above what I’d expected.

Then we hit Belgium. Belgium, with the bike path on one side of the road, very often having atrocious surfaces. I lost two of my four water bottles in a matter of hours. They’d gotten bumped out of the triathlon saddle-mounted bottle holder, and broke the top when they hit the ground. Not only does that ruin your mood, it also complicates logistics. I’d brought four bottles to have enough water to cover the night, but with half of the capacity gone, that was getting dicey. With a few more navigational issues causing us to loose a few hours on our time table, I started wondering if it were wise to push for Paris. I mentioned it to Daan, who went silent for some time, then told me I did have a point, and we’d assess the situation at our check point at Mons.

We arrived at Mons at 2:30 in the morning after riding 315km, taking us 17 hours rather than the 14 hours we’d expected to need for the 250km we’d have to cover. Extrapolating, we’d have to expect to ride some 200km more, resulting in an extra 10 hours of riding time. That may push us well into a third ride in the night. Both of us had ridden at night, but neither had ridden through the night. Putting yourself then in a position of having to ride through three nights might not be the wisest thing to do… Combined with the changed water carrying capacity, we decided it be wiser to return home rather than pushing on for Paris.

The return trip proved the hunch about navigational problems right, as we found ourselves off-course a couple of times, adding another 35km to our distance. I also ran into a battery problem. At the end of the night, my front light was burning two red LEDs, meaning the batteries were about to die. I had four spares, so that wasn’t a problem. But in the morning my GPS was also running out of its battery juice…. As by now we weren’t expecting to ride in the dark anymore, I took two out of the light, and put it in the GPS unit. And after 20+ hours of riding, our physical discomforts were increasing. Not only being saddle sore, but also getting painful hands and feet. We were fully expecting this, and could stand it reasonably well, but it all adds up. And at 21:00, we arrived in Utrecht. I had to ride home, taking another one and a half hour, roughly. And with the last drops of battery juice for lighting, I got home at 22:30. I’d ridden about 700km in 40 hours. In all, not too shabby.

Now, would we have made it to Paris had we not have had those navigational issues? I believe so. We were both feeling OK apart from being saddle sore, but that was bearable. Making it back would’ve been hard, but I think we’d manage it. We’d probably take a few more hours than we’d expected at the start, but I don’t think we’d be even close to a third time of riding in the dark. I needed some breaks after 24 hours, but in all that took less than an hour, and I felt like I’d be able to ride through another night without much difficulties. We’d certainly would’ve run into technical difficulties. I would’ve had problems with lighting, Daan with his GPS. My GPS would’ve run out of juice, too, leaving no backup for navigation.

Now, to pop the big question: was this a failed ride?

Yes and no. Yes in the sense that we didn’t make it to Paris. No in just about every other respect. Our bike handling after 30+ hours of riding was on par as when being fresh, we could still think clearly, and take the right decisions, eat and drink right through the end, and keep a good pace throughout. Plus we enjoyed not necessarily the ride, but the adventure.

In hindsight, I would’ve done a couple of things differently. I’d make more 200+ km rides, and doing a few of them back-to-back. I’d also put larger saddle bags on the bike, or just one big one. That wind jacket proved to be quite warm during the day. I’d also get longer lasting lighting. the power was OK, but its lifespan wasn’t. And I’d use the Edge, but with an external charger. And for last-resort routing, I’d make a list of places we have to pass.

Would I ride such a distance again? That’s an interesting question. After the Styrkeprøven I said I probably never would do such a thing again. Well, here I am. So much for that statement. Now, I’d say, maybe. I’m immune to the Paris-Brest-Paris virus, and I don’t subscribe to the Audax approach of riding, but I can see the challenge rides like that pose. For the time being, this goes on the get-it-right-the-next-time-but-there-is-no-hurry list.

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