Seattle’s Chris Ragsdale 5th @ 2011 Paris-Brest-Paris

Race Report

To set the stage, here are some comments from Chris’ Facebook page:

Matthew M:

Urs K:
Chris I love that you chased after the leaders after the mishap. Would have been easy to sit up and just cruise home. You are such a wonderful fighter! Have a sleep, numerous croissant, and see you soon! My best to all the SIR riders.

As Martin Criminale has noted, the word “epic” is beyond cliché, but I don’t know how else you’d describe Chris Ragsdale‘s account of the 2011 Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP). The legendary PBP is a 1200km (745+ miles) event that occurs every 4 years, and this year started on August 21st. 63 Seattle Randonneurs toed the starting line this year. This was Chris’ first attempt at the PBP and he planned to finish in the first group, or even finish first overall.

Although randoneurring events are not technically races, they are timed: each participant carries a card that gets signed by an official at each time station, or control. Which for ambitious athletes like Chris is an extremely subtle distinction: As you’ll read below it was GAME ON for over 44 hours. Chris’ time this year was the third fastest ever by an American, even though he made a navigational error and covered an additional 40km.

Here is Chris’ version of events:
In order to get a good position at the crowded start area, I arrived 4 hours early and waited outside the stadium. Ouch. For the next several hours there was quite a bit of confusion about where we should line up, and we frantically raced back and forth between different entrances as the officials seemed to change their minds. Eventually, when the officials finally did open the correct gate I sprinted for a good position in the stadium. After a quick bathroom break I got in line to get my official PBP card signed, and again sprinted into the next group and made up more places in the crowd. When the officials finally dropped the ribbon and let us move to the actual start my sprint saved me again, and I got a position about 4 rows back dead center at the start line. We stood there cooking in the sun for the final 30 minutes before the start. I took the opportunity to get in a final pre-race pee–in a bottle–and passed it to the friendly spectators on the sidelines!

Be very afraid of that tattoo on Chris* right calf.
I was supported by an awesome crew from London: Tarik and Damien. We had been in touch for months beforehand planning and working on logistics and spreadsheets. We also got invaluable beta from Scott Dickson and Dennis Hearst, who were the last Americans to stay with the lead pack in 2007. Their help made it possible for Tarik, Damien and me to do this. Aside: Scott Dickson is life-long racer who dominated both national level racing and PBP during the eighties and early nineties. Hearst mentored under Dickson. Dickson finished 1st at PBP several times, and the two finished together in in 1995 and 1999 was Dickson’s last year. Dickson also has the reputation as the man with the most miles on a bike EVER.

FINALLY we were off! We made a pretty good pace but certainly not the full race effort I expected. I was easily able to stay near the front, and held a position in the front 20. There were a few crashes in first 10K or so, but fortunately I only heard them happen behind me. About 50 K in I met Bryce and Billy, the other Americans hoping for good times. Bryce and I spent a good amount of time on the front where the group’s pace was not all that fast. After a while I noticed Bryce’s rear deraileur cable was inside of the rear triangle and riding on the cassette. I told him and we talked through a plan for him to race off the front a hundred yards, stop, pull his wheel fix the cable and rejoin the group. The next time I saw Bryce was about 700K later on the return from Brest. I later realized that he needed to do quite a bit more than to pull his wheel to do the fix.

The lead group was moving alright, but there was a wicked head/cross wind so we echeloned across the entire road, though pulled back to our side when we encountered oncoming traffic. At one point during this section we heard a motor bike honking and it flew past a car pulling a small flat bed trailer. At the same time there was also an oncoming car. The car pulling the trailer quickly cut in front of us and the trailer whipped into the lead pack and took out the guy right next to me. He went down fast and hard and I was a shocked by the whole ordeal. One of the Fench guys on the front flagged down the motor bike and told him, but the car just drove away. For whatever reason the motorbike stayed with us and didn’t go after the car to get its license number. I felt horrified.

Chris and the masses at the start of the 2011 Paris-Brest-Paris.
Well, pretty much all the way out to Brest was a bunch of the same. We were huge group, but nobody really wanted to work. I spent a whole bunch of time on the front because I felt great and I preferred to stay safe. The only exception was during the final 5k when the group turned into 50+ heroes who all wanted to be the first through the control. As a result, the controls were sketchy and dangerous with guys went down at almost every one. My tactic was to stay at the front, come into the control, and find my crew by looking for a hand-held strobe light I had given them. I put a green lens cover on it to make it even more identifiable. I had to push my way through the other crews and people, hand them my bike, run inside, get my card signed and run out, grab my bike and go. This was all easier said than done. The lead bunch had at least 100 riders early on, and each of them had a crew between 2 and 4, plus there were spectators. The crowds at the early controls totaled maybe 300, with everyone screaming in different languages. It was CHAOS!!!!

Next was Fougères, which I referred to as the battle of Fougères, or FUBAR Fougères. We were headed into the control with a few K to go, and things were getting hot like a standard crit race. Two motor bikes were leading us into a turn when one went left and the other went right. The left side of the pack went right and the right went left. Bikes collided, there was cracking, scraping, and screaming. I think I will be haunted by nightmares of this for years to come. Somehow I make it through the madness unscathed and sprinted for the control.

Another particularly close call was when a guy just ahead of me crossed wheels and went down. I was going right into him and was pretty sure there was no way I could avoid crashing. I hit his leg and jumped into the air, the guy behind me went over his bars and hit my rear wheel which was airborne at the time. Somehow I rolled out of it?!?! I have no idea how I stayed up.

As you can imagine, there was a bit of politics going on in our lead bunch. Last year’s winner Christoph and about 4 of his buddies were in the lead pack and basically running the show. Anytime I tried to pick up the pace a bit during the first night they would get in front of me and slow things down. As we went into the controls after Fougères they created a wall at the front to try to keep the craziness to a minimum. Generally it was known that they were running our group and not everyone was ok with it.

Going into Brest one guy rode through the pack and announced a 15-minute break at Brest. I ask Christoph about it. He just said to be careful and watch out for yourself. At that point I had earned a bit of respect from Christoph and his guys for the amount of work I was doing. They knew I was there for the long haul and could help them out, so they were willing to help me as needed. I had no intention of stopping at Brest. I got my card signed and got out of there. About 5 others did the same and as we rolled up the hill out of town we talked and decided that maybe we should wait. I tried to get a few of them to go but they said they couldn’t and didn’t feel all that great. So we waited.

Chris battling fatigue: Only 300 miles to go!
During the big climb out of Brest, the biggest climb of the ride, I went to the front and tried to thin the herd a bit but after a while was shut down again by Christoph. Oh well. I had gotten rid of some of them and felt we were getting closer to having a manageable group. Between Carhaix and Loudiac another Frenchman had his own plan and attacked the group. I was at at the back at the time and it took me a minute to realize what was happening. We were on these very winding and hilly back roads with riders coming the other direction. I quickly responded and yelled to Mark and Patrice who were able to get on my wheel and I drug us up to the front. The attack was still on and some of the guys just ahead of me were allowing small gaps to open so I went right to the wheel of the guy attacking and just planted myself there. We raced through the hills for between one to two hours. At no time did I feel under pressure and after a while I wanted to let the others know just how good I felt. So I attacked hard up a short climb down the other side and up another. I looked back and nothing. Nobody was in sight. So I waited and smiled as they rolled up. I rejoined the pack and said: “just needed you to know what was possible.” Pretty cocky I know, but ultra racing is as much a mental game as a physical one, and I wanted everyone to know I had a full deck of cards left to play.

Shortly after all this we started to see a thunderstorm ahead, and we quickly started to get drenched. We were riding through a torrential downpour with lightning everywhere. The group was now about 20 in a double paceline riding through the pouring rain. I knew this was super dangerous and really started to question my wisdom, so I went to the rear of the group and sat 10 ft off the back during the worst of the rain. We came to a major accident and the officials rerouted us. The lead car took us up a super steep short climb and after a few kilmoeters we were at the next control. I changed jerseys and threw on a jacket and knee warmers and was off into the second night.

By this time we had dropped Christoph, but his best mates Mark and Patrice were still with us. As we went into the control Mark mentioned he was going to wait for Chrostophe. I had no intention of waiting for anyone.

After the control we were riding pretty well and I started to spend even more time on the front now that we have gapped off many riders, and I wanted to keep our group as small as possible without me riding alone at this point. I was on the front and hammering hard, slowing up at the top of each roller so the group could reattach. We had two motor cycles with us at the time and about 17 (?) riders. We had been rolling with one motor bike ahead and one behind for quite a while. After a while I began to realize that I hadn’t seen a course sign in some time. We came up to a major intersection and it was un-posted. I stopped and the riders started yacking. One of them asked the motor bikes. Sure enough we had been going the wrong way. I couldn’t talk to anyone but just followed back the way we came. I felt a bit guilty but not really: With two motorbikes and 17 other riders I couldn’t take all the blame for our navigation error. We had gone about 20K off course and had to pedal 20K back, which made for a bunch of wasted time.

A bit of disappointment on Chris* face as he and Belgian rider Alex (frame no.1983) arrive in 44hrs 36min. Photo: Damien Breen
Since I felt a bit guilty, I let someone else set the pace for a while. Unfortunately the pace was well below what I wanted, so eventually I just pushed to the front and went for it again. We got into the next control to find out that 6 (?) had been through about 20 minutes ahead of us. I instantly told my crew I was going to ditch my useless group and try to bridge up to the group ahead. As we reassembled the group out of the control I sat up and announced I’m going to bridge, and if anyone thinks they can come now’s the time. Then I point, point, point, “allez!, allez!, allez!” and I take off. Nobody comes. I kinda figured this was going to happen and thought that was for the best, but I wanted to give them the chance.

I was blasting ahead faster than ever and riding ridiculously hard for any distance. Things are going well: I am still eating and drinking knowing I need to replenish what I’m burning up. After an hour or more into this stage I was still alone and again felt unsure if I was on course. I kept riding hard but it was killing me mentally: I needed to find a sign for confirmation that I was on track. I significantly slow down at every small intersection or group of buildings thinking there must be a sign and when there wasn’t I sprinted ahead to the next one trying not to lose the time I felt I was making on the leaders. Every once in a while I would reach a course sign, but then it would take what felt like way too long to find the next. It was driving me crazy. During this section I caught two riders who had fallen off the lead group. The lead was now 4.

The next control was a ghost town. There were maybe 10 French people on the side of the control, and my crew was nowhere to be seen. I ran in to get my card signed, ran out and yelled for my crew, but no reply. I grabbed my bike and contemplated what to do. I had plenty of food in my bag but not much for drinks in my bottles. I yelled to the French people on the side “water” but they didn’t understand. I grabbed my bottle and shook it yelling water!, water! A french lady ran up, grabbed my bottle, and took off running down the middle of the street. OH NO! I am thinking where is she going? She is still running two blocks later! Oh my god! I start looking at the others standing around and again: Water!, WATER! A French guy gives me a giant 1 liter bottle of water but it was too much to large for my cage. I open my one bottle and top it off just as I finally see the french lady running back. She had filled the bottle about 3/4 full, so I opened it and topped it off with the bottle from the other guy. Finally I blasted out of there!

About two blocks through town my crew drives up next to me all apologies: “Sorry man, you were way faster over that leg and we didn’t make it in time. What do you need?” I asked them to replace a water with a coke. I stopped for a minute then took off again determined to catch the leaders. I was racing like a maniac and feeling good. After about 45 minutes I was on a steep climb which I attacked in the big ring and was powering over for hours, but now I needed to down shift and spin. Sure enough I felt like the wind was taken out of my sails. All of a sudden felt hollow and fatigued–the first time the entire ride I felt this way. Damn it!

I consumed more calories, but knew it wasn’t going to be a super quick fix. I knew that in order to get out of this bonk I needed to back off the pace a bit and consume calories. This was at about 4:00am on the second night–the dead zone. The last couple hours before the sun rises is always the worst part of any ride for me. This dead zone happened to be on the second night which made it even harder. To stay awake I started doing math: “How many K to the next control? To the finish? How many hours till sunrise? How many K before sunrise? Dang, it I was hard to battle sleep all of a sudden. It just hit me so quickly. I was now nodding off and couldn’t keep the bike straight.

Chris with his support team (Damien Breen left, Tarik Djeddour right) Photo: Damien Breen

I decided to just lay down for 5 minutes to close my eyes. I threw the bike down, grabbed my computer to look at the time, and closed my eyes. All of a sudden I heard a cyclist go past. I jumped to my feet and saw that only 3 minutes had passed. I threw the computer back on the bike and sprinted ahead. He was moving at a good clip, and it took a decent effort to catch him. When I eventually caught him I realized it was one of the guys I had passed who had fallen off the lead pack. For the moment I felt good and was able to follow his wheel. Then the drowsiness set in again and I began falling of the pace a bit, but was able to close the gap at the top of each hill. I could not contribute to our pace making at all and I let him know: “If you want to go ahead–do it. I am not much help to you now but I’ll come around when the sun rises.” He said he was fine and that I could just contribute whatever I could. We worked together and pushed it out. As the sky started to lighten I was instantly energized. Almost like calories to my blood stream, I felt better by the minute. As the sun rose Alex and I significantly picked up the tempo. Each of us took long efforts on the front. We were both riding super strong and were able to power up the climbs in the big ring. It felt awesome. We arrived at the next control and learned that the gap had not changed.

Chris and another early finisher review the details of the event in the finish area. Photo: Damien Breen

At this point I was pretty sure we weren’t going to be able to bridge to the lead group but we were willing to try anyway. Alex and I hammered out the last two controls together. At the final control he needed to use “the big can” as he called it. I waited then we were off. The last section was fun a lot of fun. Alex and I were riding very well together and it felt like we were covering the ground faster than we did for this section on the way out. I felt great. Sure I was sore in every way imaginable, but it wasn’t limiting me and it didn’t have to mean anything. I was able to detach from my body’s signals and just perform.

Video of Chris and Alex finishing, and at the final control:

Alex and I crossed the line in 44:36, about 25 minutes behind the first group of 4. This was about the same gap they had a couple hundred K before when they took the lead. I ended up with a total of I269k instead of the 1230k I should have had. My avg was 29.5 KPH.

I felt great about the ride. No regrets: I rode hard and felt like I played my cards to my best ability at every point along the way. I feel as though I had 43 hours of feeling GREAT, and just less than 2 of suffering. Which is an extrordinary ratio. I would expect about 4 hours of not good out of any 24 hours. I think this was my strongest performance to date. I have had a few others I am proud of and feel very good about, but the combination of the distance, time, and the positive ratio of good to bad hours is what lead me to this.

Well that’s my story! Thanks again to all of those who helped make it possible especially Tarik and Damien for spending two day’s following me around with no sleep. I could not have done it without them.
Tarik and Damien both wrote great stories about the ride from their perspective:

Damien Breen’s report
Damien Breen’s Flickr Pics
Tarik Djeddour’s report

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