BRM 400KM Report: Longjumeau, France

Words and Images: Mark Hagan 


Map  *  Ride  *  Strategy  *  Equipment  *  Next

The Day is for honest men, The Night for thieves.


This is the one I’ve feared. On a primal level, I keep telling myself we aren’t designed for this kind of thing. The night, the darkness. Doubts and phobias replace confidence and logic. The 400KM distance is different. Too long to complete during the day, too short to split into 2. There are some positives. The afternoon start at 15:00, and a short train ride from home. Never underestimate the power of sleeping in your own bed with your daily routine before a big ride. However, the weather forecast isn’t looking great, and my anxiety of being alone has gotten the better of me (perhaps a topic better suited for my therapist). Will I find someone to ride with? Will anyone speak English? Did my registration reach the organizers in time? Can I physically ride 400km in one go?

 

There are many unknowns for this ride, and the biggest of them all is, what happens when it gets dark?

The Map


  • Distance: 402KM
  • Elevation: 2,200 Meters
  • Start: Longjumeau, France
  • Check Points: 5

The Ride


Aside from the occasional pleasantry, the conservation of energy is an unspoken, sacred oath taken in silence… I think I found my guys.

Please be dry. I start obsessing over the slightest spikes and dips in precipitation forecasts in the week leading in. Though I am proud of my aquatic completion of 300KM in abhorrent conditions, I feel entitled to… well, a free pass. However, the true randonneur isn’t a fair weather cyclist. If it calls for rain, the randonneur replies, where’s my rain jacket?

I arrive at the start and find registration tucked inside a sports complex. My pre-registration had indeed been processed, so it was an easy grab and go. Snatching a handful of cookies and a quick espresso, I’m out the door for one last bike fiddle. The organizers then check us for functioning lights, and the requisite “gilet jaune”, I have stowed in my bag.

3pm, time to roll. My legs feel comfortable for the first few kilometers. Even better, it seems the rain showers have missed us, for now. Nerves always seem to disappear once you get going and the mind flips the switch to riding instead of thinking. I pick my way forward and find the front. Thinking I’ve found a good group to sit in with. To my surprise, there is very little chit chat. That eases the nerves a bit, as I was not looking forward to exhausting my 10 minutes of French in the first 15 minutes on the road. It becomes clear after a few hours, no one is here to socialize, each of them on a mission. Aside from the occasional pleasantry, the conservation of energy is an unspoken, sacred oath taken in silence. If you want to chat, you are welcome to find another group. I think I found my guys.

The pace is uncomfortably high through the first checkpoint at kilometer 113. I’m in Zone 3 and 4 hanging on in the cross wind as our gruppetto of 15 churn away. There is no way I can keep this up for 400KM, I repeat to myself. The first checkpoint was closed, due to the proprietor having recently passed away. Morbidly ironic, we find a cemetery to refill our bottles with water. I can’t help but wonder, is our proprietor buried here? Another lesson I learn, is the value of experience. Many in this group were older than myself, maybe 10 to 30 years in some cases. They all held their own at this pace, but they also knew all the tricks. I would have never guessed to go into a cemetery to look for a water faucet. Later on, a fellow rider found a water source at 1am in a dark alley of a sleeping village. I felt like a student on this ride, soaking up years and countless kilometers of experience from my fellow randonneurs.

We grabbed a picture of the closed restaurant in lieu of a stamp and pushed on. Then the rain started and would not stop for the next few hours as the sun began to slip away. Pulling out our rain jackets and flicking on the lights, the blistering speed slightly relaxed for safety. Around 9pm, we reached the second checkpoint in Blois at kilometer 180, wet and hungry. The group at this point was whittled down to 11, as we stormed a local falafel joint and made an absolute mess. The owners weren’t angry, they almost seemed amused, and maybe grateful for the rush of business. Finishing my sandwich, I grabbed a dry-bag from my bike and changed out of my wet bibs, socks and base-layer. It felt wonderful to put on some fresh clothes at this point, and was the boost I needed to begin the nighttime odyssey.

 

We swerve around the damp road, avoiding transient frogs that have made their way to the roadside to answer that suicidal question.

No no no no! The group moved out before I was ready. One rider, Bixente, hung back and said we could catch them easily. I was happy he waited, but felt guilty for putting him in that position. The rain had eased off and the two of us set off in pursuit.

We rode hard, and we kept riding hard. I could feel that falafel coming back up from my stomach. 10 minutes, 20 minutes, 40 minutes go by, I am in Zone 4 and need to ease off. Where the hell did they go!? Astonished we haven’t caught them yet. The two of us enter a forested region that is pitch black. Our lights carving out a small bubble of safety from the silky black night that surrounds us. We swerve around the damp road, avoiding transient frogs that have made their way to the roadside to answer that suicidal question. A wild boar crosses in front of us and I catch the jovial squeal of his brothers beyond the reach of our protective bubble. My fear was coming true. The night had isolated us, and I was hurting now. The legs could not keep up this chase, but Bixente was insistent we would catch them. Just a little further he assured me, and maybe himself.

It’s been nearly an hour and a half since we last saw the group. My stomach is killing me from the effort and my pulls become shorter and weaker. I turn to tell Bixente to go on without me, and I prepare to ride alone through the night.

That’s not Bixente?! What’s that sound? It’s the group! I’m too exhausted to even react.

“Mark!” he calls out, in equal parts disbelief and relief. I can only shake my head and let out a muffled chortle. It seems the group stopped somewhere before leaving the village after our falafel checkpoint. THEY were chasing us for the last 90 minutes. The two escapees making a bridge to nowhere.

I slide back into the group and recover for the next couple hours. The pace has also considerably dropped and I’m able to eat and drink again. The sky cleared as the night settled in, revealing a brilliant full moon. The next hour just melts into the next as we enjoy a slight tailwind for the final 150km, assisting my tired legs, head and dimming lights. There are no more cars on the road, only us. The only sounds coming from the occasional freewheel and the hum of tires on the now dry roads. In this moment of concentration, with soreness setting into the knees, I find energy to keep pressing on the pedals. I can sense the body nearing its capacity, but the mind has not.

You can’t keep this pace up, you can’t ride in this rain again, you can’t catch that group, you can’t go through the night. All of these thoughts became as common as eating and drinking, but still I pedaled. The moment you realize doubt is flexible, you want to see how far you can bend the world.

The remaining 8 of us reach the lumpy terrain of the Chevreuse Natural Park as the mist gathers around sunlit pastures. We’ve made it, back to the start, just before 7am. In a time I didn’t think was possible, just under 16 hours. We get our final stamps, and after a few cups of hot chocolate and high fives, I sorely make my way back to the train and home. I’ll spend the next few days resting and eating to make up for my 10,000 calorie effort and sleep deprivation. Getting through this distance has given me the boost I needed to look forward to the next challenge, instead of fear it.

Strategy


This was uncharted territory for me in a lot of ways. I was unsure of so many things, which made this the most anxious of the BRM’s thus far. I did know 3 truths however. I need to be fueled, seen and comfortable.

Fueled was the easy part. I know how often I need to eat, and I also know I can’t eat the same thing over and over. So I packed a variety of nutrition that included homemade puffed quinoa treats, granola bars, isotonic gels and energy bars. A solid rotation kept the stomach happy for the most part and also gave me something to think about choosing between snacks. I also used high calorie dissolvable tabs for my water, out of energy and taste necessity.

To be seen was a multi-pronged attack. Along with the required yellow jacket, I packed a high-viz orange vest and over socks. For lights, I have a very powerful battery operated 800 lumen front torch that can light up the darkest roads. I packed a smaller city commuter light as well for the twilight hours to conserve the big gun for the night. My rear light was a standard commuter light that can last a solid 8 hours while blinking. I also tried very hard to find and stay in a group. This was by far the safest course of action, even if it meant exerting myself further than I anticipated.

Lastly, I wanted to be comfortable. I assumed I was looking at a 20 hour day, and the weather did not look good. I packed in my dry bag a change of bibs, base-layer and socks. I managed to change into them around the halfway point after the worst of the rainy weather. The bibs were important for 2 reasons. Avoiding saddle sores from riding in damp shorts for hours, and it was a terrific boost to the moral to get into something dry and warm.

Though it can never be relied upon, finding someone or a group to ride with is certainly the best strategy for a ride through the night. It made every aspect of the 400km better.

Equipment


I was almost in bikepacking mode for this BRM, with a complement of bags. Though the weight does start to add up, I feel being prepared puts your mind at ease more than worrying about another kilo. Building on my choices for the 300KM Brevet , the conditions again influenced my loadout and learning from the past, I was pretty happy with the following essentials.

400KM Equipment List

  • Top tube bag
  • Frame bag
  • Saddle bag w/ dry bag
  • 2 X 750ml water bottles
  • Nutrition for 18 hours (one energy bar or gel per hour)
  • Electrolyte/ Calorie Tabs
  • Extra gloves, base-layer, socks, shoe covers
  • 800 lumen front light / spare commuter light
  • Rear red light
  • Battery pack
  • Wahoo ELEMNT GPS computer
  • Tool roll w/ patches, multi-tool, spare link, inner tubes, chain lube, etc.
  • Hand pump
  • Waterproof pouch for money and phone
  • Small toiletry bag with aspirin, chamois cream, tissues, spare contact lens
  • Yellow eyeglass lens for night riding

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