Given that, and the fact that my batteries were dead, I saw no reason to leave before light. Even with John, one of the Willesden support crew, snoring loudly away next to me, I'd had about eight hours of sleep. It was wonderful, but it was also too much. By the time I left Mortagne, I'd been off my bike for ten hours, and my body had apparently assumed I'd come to my senses and decided not to abuse it any further. As a result, I was felt stiff for the first time on the ride, very much so, and my Achilles tendons ached severely from the way I had pounded up those hills at high speeds and gears on that last 80 km. stretch from Villaines to Mortagne (or maybe the constant dosage of iboprofen I'd been religiously taking every four hours had worn off during my eight hours of unconsciousness). I'd never felt those tendons hurt before, and I was pretty worried about it, since I'd heard of people damaging them enough from overstress to require surgery.
When it finally was light enough not to need to bother with the headlights, I left with Roger. It was our first time riding together, and we had a delightful time that last day.
Today's ride looked like it would be a piece of cake -- a mere 140 km. (87 miles) to the end, and until 4:00 pm to do it (actually, until 4:40, since our group had left Paris 40 minutes late). Actually, the problem was not getting there in time, but rather, trying not to get there until almost 4:00. We decided we would see if we could kill enough time during the day to get there as close to the deadline as possible, perhaps being the last ones to make the deadline. "After all" Roger added "if we ever do this again, it'll be that much easier to beat our last records!"
However, the riding conditions were almost our downfall. We were riding frequently across flat, harvested fields with a raging tailwind that was pushing us up to remarkable velocities. "Wouldn't you know it" I said "there's never a decent headwind when you need one!" (I'd heard that the last PBP in 1991 had a terrible headwind all the way back, and I can just imagine how miserable it must have been on the last day crossing those open fields). We decided we'd stop for a long breakfast when we got to the next checkpoint.
I had thought that Roger had been having trouble earlier in the ride keeping on pace, but he certainly showed no sign of it that day, showing tremendous sprinting power when he had to. After an hour or so, my Achilles tendons had begun to loosen up (or perhaps the iboprofen was kicking back in).
The PBP riders seemed to now be few and far between. Fairly frequently we saw prone bodies of sleeping cyclists by the side of the road, and I wondered if some of them would wake up in time to make it to Paris (it certainly would be a total bummer to be this close to the end and blow it by oversleeping). In one quaint village we passed through, a woman had her front window open and was handing out bowls of cafe au lait to cyclists. I was beginning to feel a bit nostalgic already, as this rolling four day mass therapy group for the obsessively compulsive cyclist was nearing its end! We had a wonderful day of riding, laughing a lot and enjoying each other's conversation as we shared some of our lives, and relaxing with the knowledge that we had this ride in the bag. I think if I ever ride PBP again, I cannot possibly reach that pleasure of knowing for the first time that I will have succeeded.
We pulled into the last checkpoint before Paris, Nogent Le Roi. I chatted with Noel Simpson, the head of the English Audax (i.e., randonneur) association who looked like a small version of Santa Claus and who was the stoker of a remarkable contraption we'd run into again and again on the ride: the tandem recumbent tricycle.
Affectionately known as the "repugnant," this aircraft carrier-sized machine hovered just inches above the ground (I wondered how it crossed the many speed bumps on the route), had 72 forward speeds, and attracted a huge crowd wherever it went. It was the one of the more amazing cycling creations I'd ever seen. It was also, according to Noel, the slowest. "I guess you'll hold the tandem recumbent tricycle record on PBP, both for the fastest and slowest" I commented. Noel agreed: "That's because no one will ever be daft enough to try something like this again." He did look comfortable, though, reclining on the back with his hands behind his head, urging Pete, his captain (whom he referred to as his "manservant"), onward. Noel managed to totally baffle one of the women staffing the control at Nogent by offering her 20 francs when she stamped his route card. "But that's what they charged back at the last place" he said, completely poker faced.
Roger and I left the checkpoint and rode into the village looking for a nice place to hang out and have a long breakfast. Nogent is a charming little village clustered around a small stream, and apparently was the major habitation close to the King's hunting forest. There were beautiful old half-timbered houses leaning crazily over the street, many of which appeared to have been successfully renovated inside into professional offices. We wandered into the cathedral, a rather unusual quasi-oval shaped structure with massive flying buttresses and nice stained glass, before enjoying a leisurely cafe and pastries. People would come up to us on the street enquiring if we were lost, since the center of the village was quite a few blocks off the PBP route.
Leaving Nogent, we entered some cool green forests, and Roger remarked that it was around here that Louis the 16th had learned of the Bastille Day uprising.
Maybe ten miles from the end, I was passed by a small cluster of cyclists, including one who's number tag was "1." I sprinted to catch up with them, and discovered that the rider was none other than Scott Dickson, who had come in first during the previous two PBPs and, along with a group of eight other riders this time, had just set a new record this year: 43 hours and 20 minutes. Already back in Paris for two days, Scott was just out for an afternoon ride! I congratulated him on his new record, and we chatted for a while, but as he was going considerable faster than I wanted to I jokingly told him I'd have to let him go ahead because he was messing up my attempt to come in last. But at least I could claim that I'd ridden into Paris on PBP with one of the winners (albeit two days later!).
Another rider with Dickson told me some of the details of Dickson's ride. It seems that Dickson had been unable to break away from the lead pack, and when they reached Villaines, the group conferenced and decided to work together to set a new record, virtually sprinting the remaining 220 km. in some ridiculously short time. Apparently, the pack was so impressed by Dickson's pulling efforts that they mutually agreed to drop back slightly and let him cross the line first, although all of them were credited with the same time. Even more amazing, though, was the first woman rider in, Brigitte Kerhouet, who broke the old women's record by something like nine or ten hours when she came in at 44:14.
Meanwhile, Roger and I were having increasing concern that we would get to Paris far too soon, and started looking for a nice restaurant to kill off a few hours. Ultimately, we finally found a place maybe a mile or so from the end, as we left "old" France and reentered the creepy modernity of St. Quentin. It was a bit late for lunch, but the restaurant put something nice together for us, and we split a bottle of wine, then desert, then cognac. We managed to kill about two hours, and were definitely feeling no pain, although we began to wonder if we might blow the 90 hour deadline by passing out drunk under the table. It seemed utterly unreal that we were still part of some sort of massive timed athletic event going on outside!
So at about 3:35 we decided we really ought to leave. I stuck the empty wine bottle in the water bottle cage on my bike as a souvenir. We were definitely weaving a bit and barely managed to avoid ending our PBP by colliding with each other during the last mile. Only we discovered that our calculations were a bit off and we actually had several kilometers still to go, so we did almost blow the deadline! Finally we rode into the circle outside the gymnasium. Margarita ran up to me with some wild flowers she'd picked along the road and a very wonderful kiss. It indeed turned out that she and Ilsa, Klaus's wife, had only gotten there just minutes ago, so my timing had been just about perfect. I felt just fine, relaxed, and utterly content. Except that a number of French men kept coming up to me pointing at their watches and gesturing frantically for me to go in to the gym and get clocked in before 4:00. "Monsieur, attention, le temps! Allez! Vite!" (Yo, jerk, go check in, you're almost out of time!) "Pas de problem, j'ai encore onze minutes" (I've still eleven minutes, no hassle).
So I rode into the gym and turned in my route card, racking up a stunning time of 89 hours and 49 minutes. I had hoped to be the last, but even among the several hundred U.S. riders there was one guy who managed to outdo me and come in at exactly 90:00. But then, he was from southern Florida, and probably had more trouble on the hills!
Margarita and I walked to a hotel nearby, where I had one of the most wonderful and long-awaited showers of my life, washing off 1,200 kilometers of weariness and dirt. All in all, I felt pretty good, and a bunch of us went out to dinner that night, although some of us were having a bit of trouble keeping our heads from dropping into our plates of pasta as sleep deprivation and red wine began to interact. The next day, however, I woke up with golfball-size bags under my eyes, and at the end of the long ride back to London squeezed into the van with my legs folded under me my ankles swelled up to small balloons. I'm not sure what specifically caused this, though it seemed a pretty common malady among PBP riders, perhaps from the iboprofen or just plain overdoing it. All was well in a few days, however.
Looking back on it, especially that last day, it all seemed like great fun. I actually only rode for a little over 50 hours (my average riding speed was slightly over 24 km/h or 15 mph) which meant that I spent nearly half the ride off the bike, eating, sleeping, or playing tourist. Indeed, perhaps I set some sort of record for the most sleep -- a record I'll just have to break when I come back in 1999!