A February Ride East of the Bois de Vincennes

Robert Chung
22 February 2001

With observations on hills, pace, etiquette, and the expectations of new riders.

When Magali first arrived in Berkeley years ago, she came armed with an addressbook filled with names of acquaintances of friends and friends of acquaintances. This came in handy when she faced a housing crisis and her mother's neighbor's friend's son turned out to be good for a month on a sofa. Later, she became quite close to her high-school-girlfriend's boyfriend's cousin's wife's sister. And this was years before "network" became a verb. I've always been fascinated with the attenuation of her contacts so naturally I thought that when we moved to Paris our world would be rich with sisters of ex-wives of second cousins thrice removed. I was somewhat disappointed, therefore, to learn that Dominique (my mother-in-law) has a first cousin who cycles. I don't know where you live but in the twisted little world I inhabit when things come together too easily you have to be suspicious. I wanted to toss him back as undersize and cast again but Magali quickly added that he was also her friend's first husband's older brother. I decided that was enough to keep him in play.

Daniel is just a year or two older than I, and lives quite near the Bois de Vincennes on the eastern side of Paris. Over the years he has accumulated a group of friends who ride and, I was told with the odd wonderment that the French use to describe individuals whose preferred recreation involves effort, on Sundays he rides upwards of 100 km. This sounded promising and I called him. He invited me to join a decide-and-ride any Sunday morning with an informal group of guys about our age (after probing a bit to make sure that I wasn't going to show up on a broken 10- speed with tennis shoes). He mentioned that they tended to average 25 to 28 kph and tried to be back by 1:00pm. Yikes. I had no idea what this meant because I didn't know what the terrain looked like, and I wasn't about to ask him his time around the Bears Loop, nor to give me altimeter readings, cumulative gain, and gradient data. Sometimes you just have to show up and ride and if you end up gritting your teeth, well, as Nietzche said on his second try, "That which does not kill me makes me want to inflict it on others." Besides, it makes for a better story.

On the third Saturday of February, the weather looked promising with a forecast that called for diminishing rain and temperatures that would soar well into the single digits (celsius; that's mid- to upper-40's in Fahrenheit). I called Daniel and made sure the ride was on for the next day. We were to meet at his place first (probably so he could eyeball me before the ride), then rendezvous with the others in the Bois de Vincennes for a 9:00 am start. I was still trying to get a handle on the pace thing, so I hit on the artifice of asking if I should carry food or carry money to buy food. "By all means, carry energy bars," he said. It occurred to me that he might have been trying to advise, "by every means, carry energy bars," so I continued carefully, "so you don't do much stopping for food?" I'd forgotten that there aren't 7-11's at every crossroads, and even if there were they'd be called 10-8's and be closed on Sunday. "No, we don't stop, we ride," Daniel patiently explained to the dense American.

At 8:50 we were still alone but then riders started appearing by ones and twos. Each new addition began a new round of handshakes and introductions, which I appreciated. 120 handshakes later (count 'em), sixteen of us were hanging around the parking lot with a wide assortment of vintages of bicycles and equipment. There were a couple of Pinarellos, an ancient Motobecane with 5-speed freewheel and toeclips, one Cannondale MTB encrusted with mud, and one brand-new carbon fiber Trek with spox wheels. Except for the Cannondale and the Trek, everyone else was riding a steel European bike. Three guys (including one of the Pinarellos) were using fenders. The riders were as varied as the bikes, thank goodness. I was afraid that I might be riding only with big dogs, but it looked like there were at least a couple of cocker spaniels, too. As best one could tell from looking, I felt like I wasn't far from the middle of the group. Most of these guys appeared to be just a few years to either side of 50 (though I can't be sure because I've always had some difficulty judging the ages of white people). Daniel did tell me that the guy using the MTB was one of the two strongest riders (along with Mr. Pinarello with fenders) and used it as a handicap to even things up. At exactly 9:01 by my watch, one of the riders wheeled off toward the east and everyone followed.

Frankly, the countryside to the east of Paris is not France at its most alluring, and the low overcast didn't help. Not that I'm particularly adept at chewing gum while I walk, but sometimes Paris can be so beautiful that I just have to stop and stand still because my heart won't accept anything new until it has recovered. That's not what was happening on this ride. The Marne River valley is still a working agricultural area and we're not talking Marin Agricultural Trust, we're talking Stockton asparagus fields. We wound our way through nondescript town after nondescript town at a moderate speed of perhaps 24 or 25 kph, almost always as one compact pack. When the group got split by traffic lights (which happened rarely since these guys pretty consistently run red lights and stop signs), the front group didn't slow down (as importantly, neither did they attack) -- the back group just picked up the pace a bit. The onus was clearly on the guys in the back to form up, not the guys at the front to back off.

Every kilometer or so there'd be a traffic circle or a crossroads and we kept changing direction. I would never be able to find my way back. An oddity for me was that although the terrain wasn't dead flat, the hills (such as they were) weren't particularly long or steep. We pedaled continuously, hardly ever rising from the saddle and never coasting. I felt like I was riding a fixed-gear. Forty-five minutes into the ride we were still cruising along at 24 or 25, still a compact pack. I was thinking, Hey, this ain't so bad, when Daniel motioned me forward and explained that this was the warm-up. That started me wondering what we were warming up for.

Twenty minutes later we finally hit a moderate little hill, in distance and grade (but not in scenery) sort of like the part of Wildcat from El Toyonal up to Inspiration Point. Of course, at the time I was climbing it I didn't know how long or steep it would be. All I knew was that the pack fractured. I reached what I learned was the top exactly in eighth place, which reaffirmed that I was about middle-of- the-pack. It plateau'd out and about a kilometer later there was a traffic circle. The fastest riders were circling around and around waiting for the slowest riders, but the wait wasn't long before we were 16 again. We took off and just before 11:00 or so we made a three-minute group pee stop. Very impressive, watching a line of ten guys standing with their backs to the road.

A few minutes later we came to a T in the road and suddenly eight of the guys turned right. I was talking with Claude, the Cannondale MTB rider, and must have looked startled. He reassured, "we go to the left," and I could see Daniel going that way, too. As casually as I could I caught up to Daniel and, feigning nonchalance, asked what just happened. He pointed his thumb over his shoulder and said, "Short way." He pointed ahead and said, "Long way." Merde (as a sign of my advancing bilingualism, I actually thought, "Merde"). I had no idea where we were or where we were going, but at least when we got there I'd know we'd taken the long way. Worse, a quick scan confirmed that it was the lap dogs who had turned right. Somehow I'd gotten slotted in with the big dogs and if any of these guys wanted payback for EuroDisney I was dead meat.

Like a lobster dropped in a pot of cold water, it took me a while to realize that I was getting cooked. We had picked up the pace a little and now were averaging 32 to 35 kph in a paceline. Jacques, the Pinarello with fenders guy, and Claude, on his muddy Cannondale, were rotating at the front but they let the rest of us suck wheel at the back. I wasn't about to argue, and I wouldn't have known which way to go at the next crossroads anyway. I still didn't know if we were headed away from Paris or if we were on the return, and the crossroads roulette didn't help.

We finally hit a hill about the length and grade of the middle mile of Old Tunnel Road. Mr. Brand-new-carbon-fiber- Trek started to falter and I went around. When we got to the top, I looked back and he wasn't to be seen. (Note to self: try not to show up for a ride with an expensive bike and cheap legs). The rest of the guys were still rolling, so I sprinted up to Claude and reported that we were short a guy. He looked at me and said, "Yes, well, sometimes guys can't handle the pace and they get dropped." Holy moley. When we went left the whole tenor of the ride had changed. Then he pointed out that we'd slowed to 24 kph to give the guy a chance to catch us. After about 5 minutes, however, he hadn't caught back on and the pace returned to 33 kph. I asked Claude if the guy knew how to get back. With that maddening but universal Gallic shrug he answered, "if he doesn't, his bike will." I decided it might be a good time to stick to the wheel in front of me.

A little while later I got a double whammy when we hit some rolling hills at the same time that we turned into the wind. While negotiating one of the innumerable traffic circles, the guy in front of me slid out and I managed to swing clear with at least three centimeters to spare. The spill wasn't serious and after crowding around to check him out, one of the guys told him that the best thing was that he wasn't hurt; the second best thing was that he hadn't taken out any other riders with him. Man, this was a tough group. It was tough enough that I was surprised when it dawned on me that I had somehow evolved into a protected rider, possibly because Daniel told them that it was bad luck to kill the American on his first ride (that's for the second ride), but probably because they could tell that I was starting to flag. Just like in a race, protection didn't mean that they slowed down the group, it meant that they formed a double echelon with me always on the leeward side. Above about 16 mph, air resistance becomes the largest single component of power drain so hiding in the wind shadow is a nice boost.

It was while in double echelon that Daniel mentioned that the plan was to do about 110 km. Phew. Finally I had an idea what was happening. Since we'd already done about 80, I knew we must have been heading back to Paris. I felt a little better, a very little. We still had a couple of short hills to do, and I confess that as a protected rider I got a couple of pushes. I consider this a gift to my hosts, letting them demonstrate the obvious superiority of the French. Whatever. When at last we reached the bridge over the Marne just 10 km from the Bois de Vincennes, waiting for us were the eight riders who had taken the "short way." Now I understood why we had never stopped, and why we had to force the pace. The final 10 km were a coda.

We made it back at 1:10pm, 4:09 in elapsed time and 4:05 registered on my cyclecomputer as riding time. When Daniel said they don't stop, he wasn't kidding. That's 26 kph for elapsed time. The riders dispersed immediately to join their families for the traditional Sunday afternoon meal, which explained why the 1:00pm return was so important. This is a country that takes its lunch seriously. I had as uneventful a return to the 14th Arrondissement as is possible in Paris traffic, making my total for the day 130 km. I'm not at all sure about altitude gain, but I wouldn't be surprised if 600 meters was in the right ballpark.