BRM 600KM Report: Andrésy, France

Words: Mark Hagan /  Images: Mark Hagan, Michal Kramarczyk


Map  *  Ride  *  Strategy  *  Equipment  *  Next

Everyone has a plan, ‘till they get punched in the mouth.


This could have ended much worse. I was physically ready for a 600KM BRM, but mentally, not so much. Lately, I have had a lot on the mind. None of which had to do with cycling. At times, preparing for this ride was a welcome distraction, and at others, just another weight. This dichotomy is probably true of any challenge worth its salt. In many ways, I had less to worry about. The weather was favorable, the legs ready, and I was more comfortable with the process. In other ways, I was less prepared, maybe too comfortable, maybe too confident. After 3 difficult BRM’s, I felt like the harder I pushed, the better things worked out. Maybe it was time for a wake up call. On June 8, 2019, I lined up for my final Paris-Brest-Paris qualifier, the 600KM BRM. It was time for the brevet to push me back.

The Map


  • Distance: 602KM
  • Elevation: 4,500 Meters
  • Start: Andrésy, France
  • Check Points: 6

The Ride


People don’t come here to be seen, they come here because they have to. Quietly chasing life.

I let down my guard. I’ve been told that the 400km distance is more difficult than the 600. The timeline and overnight portion seems to create more stress in that smaller package. Let me save you 10 minutes of reading and tell you, that’s bullsh*t. The 600 BRM is harder. With 400km already in your legs, neck, brain, saddle sores and guts, you have 200km left to go. It’s just science. But that did not stop me from thinking I could wrestle the bike for 24 hours and call it a day. Having completed the 400km BRM 3 weeks prior, and in a time that dangerously boosted my confidence, I unconsciously felt this 600 BRM was a formality. The icing on the cake was a 25kph tailwind for the entire first half! The cycling gods seemed to be setting me up, I just couldn’t see it coming.

Andrésy is a quick 40 minute train ride from Paris but the 6AM start meant sleeping closer to the depart. So I booked an AirBnB and plunged into a pasta coma the night before. Though the weather was brisk, a brilliant sunrise welcomed us as we started our expedition towards Belgium. I had a couple of choices for BRM’s on this weekend. One which followed many of the same roads as Paris-Brest-Paris, and spent the first day going west. I decided on the ride from Andrésy instead, for 2 reasons. The halfway turnaround and checkpoint was on the iconic Kapelmuur in Flanders. And like I mentioned, we would have a howling tailwind heading east for the first 300km courtesy of a hurricane like storm sweeping across Europe. Luck isn’t a strong enough word, as the day before saw frigid temperatures and violent thunderstorms. Saturday morning we woke to clear, but blustery skies.

As we rolled into the countryside, I quickly found a group of 10 with a solid tempo and we rode the tailwind to a 30kph pace for hour after hour. The general consensus was that many people were going to ride through the night, and not stop to sleep. This too was my plan. I started to chat with a couple of guys, Vincent and Michal, they intended on stopping in Tournai for the evening to sleep, 360km into the route. I tucked that piece of information away and thought it to be a good backup plan if things went south for me.

These roads are painfully beautiful. North eastern France doesn’t get the attention it deserves, but it gets the attention it wants. There are no vineyards, no mountains, no lakes, few forests; but it has farms and sky and wind. Maybe it’s something embedded deep in my psyche, these oceans of wheat and fields carved by hand. They remind me of growing up, in rural Pennsylvania. This is where the work gets done. As much as I love the mountains, it’s difficult to feel I am a part of them. Like their urban counterparts, I’m a tourist among nature’s skyscrapers. Out here, in the agrarian factories, you pay your dues. People don’t come here to be seen, they come here because they have to. Quietly chasing life.

We cross into Belgium and arrive at our checkpoint on the Kapelmuur. Having a fully loaded bike makes the 9 percent average over the cobbled stones harder than I remember. Having visited 2 years ago, it’s difficulty is cartoonish. Michal gave me an out, reminding me I did not have 300km in my legs last time. I will gladly take this excuse should I be questioned on my sub-Cancellaran Strava segment. We reach the Muur at 6pm, only 12 hours into the ride. I haven’t abandoned riding through the night, but I know what is about to come. The tailwind which filled my head and legs with fictional hope, was about to become my brutal reality. As we left the hilltop chapel and made our way towards Tournai, that’s when all my plans evaporated. Time to get punched in the mouth.

Food on the bike becomes an automated ritual devoid of hope. In this sandwich, I felt humanity again.

4 of us continued on, I had made a pact with myself. I will eat at the next checkpoint, 60KM away in Tournai and decide what to do, sleep or ride. This was a mistake. It meant I was not committed or prepared for either decision. As we salmoned upstream into the bluster, it became increasingly obvious I could not ride through the night. I realized that by sticking with riders who were measuring their effort to end the day with sleep, this was not compatible with the effort I should have been doing. The irony though, I preferred to ride with Vincent and Michal. It made the long hours a bit more enjoyable. So the dilemma was set.

Change my objective, to ride with this group and enjoy the route more. Or stick with my objective, ride alone most likely, and suffer a bit more mentally on the road.

Once the wind extracted all of my resources on the way to Tournai, the decision was made for me. I had to sleep and recover. However, I did not have a plan for WHERE to sleep. By sheer luck, I managed to grab the last bed in a hostel that was fully booked when we arrived.

“That’s your ego.” Michal declares to me in his Polish earnestness. I had been pouting over my burger and fries at dinner, feeling sorry for myself about not riding on. He was right. Was I disappointed in not executing my plan? Disappointed in not having a better plan? Or disappointed I shared that plan, and came up short? It was probably some combination of all of these things, but, why was I disappointed? I was on track to finish this last test, in good company and I lucked out in finding a place to sleep. Still though, the ego was there, gnawing at me. I did not have the legs to keep going, I did not have the mindset to keep going. The brevet punched me in my mouth and this was the moment I needed to focus the most. I was exactly where I should be. That’s what I needed to hear. That’s what I needed to tell my deaf ego.

The next morning, I peeled myself out of the top bunk, already dressed in a clean set of bibs and baselayer. I was looking forward to today. 240km stood between me and the start line in Rambouillet. Today was going to hurt, there was no hiding from that. No matter how hard I got hit in the mouth today, that’s what I wanted, that was the plan. The wind calmed overnight and we pushed away from Tournai with clear skies and tired legs at 6am. I spent the better part of 50km on the front with Vincent and Michal in tow. They dragged me into Tournai through the headwind the night before so I felt obliged to offer some kind of respite while they warmed up their engines.

Stopping with 140km remaining, we are cooked. We stop for giant sandwiches in a crowded boulangerie and see other randonneurs come through town, most likely on the same death march. The sandwich, in any other circumstances, would have been regretful. But it filled a literal and metaphorical hole in me. Eating food at a table is a luxury I will never take for granted again. Food on the bike becomes an automated ritual devoid of hope. In this sandwich, I felt humanity again. Despite its complete lack of moistness and flavor.

Into the maw we return. The soreness turns into pain and the pain into flashes of light. My knee, my back, my neck, are now bulbs on my cerebral Christmas tree. I hang onto the wheels, not daring to lose them for a moment. I take a pull out of anger. Then another one, a longer one. I should have worn my mouth guard I think to myself, I’m grinding away on my teeth.

 

We get closer and closer to Andrésy and the terrain turns into an EKG of peaks and valleys. The delirium turns playful. We start racing each other up the hills! Vincent and I turn our empty tanks into scrap and trade digs on a switchback laden 2.5km climb. Unsurprisingly, my attacks merely act as lead-out as Vincent dances away to glory in the final 200 meters. Until next time!

 

Back into the suburban forest of the Parisian outskirts, we creep back into Andrésy and collect our final stamps. The 600KM is complete, and so are my qualifiers for Paris-Brest-Paris. More lessons learned, and physical limits discovered. I am once again fortunate to have completed this test in relatively good health. More importantly, in the company of strong, patient and supportive riders. Thanks again to Michal and Vincent, see you guys in Rambouillet!

Strategy


I’m now accepting sponsorships. I will never be a pro cyclist, but if they ever start professional hand wringing, a moisturizing company would be well served. Sub-sponsored, or “presented by” a toilet tissue company also has terrific synergy potential.

The big question with a 600KM BRM is, will you ride or will you sleep? I intended to ride, but failed in pacing myself for that strategy. I instead opted to ride with a fast group, bolstered by a tailwind. This in turn, burned all of my matches. By the time I reached the 360km checkpoint, I HAD to sleep. Since I did not plan for this, it put me in a bad headspace by the end of day 1. If I decided from the outset I would sleep, I would have reserved a place ahead of time, or packed a sleeping bag. I was lucky to find a bed to sleep, but relying on luck is a terrible strategy.

 

Being prepared physically, and mentally, for a change in plans is the best lesson I learned. I will bring a sleeping bag with me for PBP, and possibly book ahead to shower 1 or 2 places. Not everyone needs this type of luxury, but for me, these are important milestones to look forward to and put me in a better headspace at the end and beginning of a day. Understanding what you need to put you in a positive place, is one of the crucial steps in preparing for brevet riding. Separating the ego and your pride is the difficult part. Accepting that you can’t ride non-stop for 24 hours was my block. I learned it the hard way.

Many of the same strategies though I carried over from the other BRM’s. I pre-registered to expedite checking in. I found a group which was enjoyable to ride with. My on the bike nutrition was ample and varied. I also spent an entire day repacking bearings on my bike, changing tires and dialing in my drivetrain. I had 100 percent confidence in my machine and it performed flawlessly. I did not worry about anything on the bike for 600KM, that peace of mind is a priceless currency.

Equipment


My setup was nearly identical to my 400km Brevet. That said, I could have packed a few additional items if my strategy was more solid. If I knew I was stopping to sleep, I would have packed a light sleeping bag, and additional layer of clothing in the event I had to sleep outside. One additional consideration was another rear light. During my bike check before the ride, organizers recommended I carry 2 red tail lights. Many of the essential items though are the same.

600KM Equipment List

  • Bike: 2018 Cannondale Synapse HM Disc
  • Gearing: 50/34,12/28
  • Tires: 32c Continental GP 5000 tubeless
  • Top tube bag
  • Frame bag
  • Saddle bag w/ dry bag
  • 2 X 750ml water bottles + 500ml bottle for overnight water
  • Nutrition for 18 hours (one energy bar or gel per hour)
  • Electrolyte/ Calorie Tabs
  • Extra gloves, base-layer, socks
  • 800 lumen front light / spare commuter light
  • Rear red light
  • Battery pack
  • Wahoo ELEMNT GPS computer, 1 spare 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, regular eyeglasses if needed

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