From Randonneur Rookie to PBP 2015: An Interview with Eric Williams
This brevet season Felkerino and I had the great pleasure of getting to know Eric Williams, member of #BikeDC and the D.C. Randonneurs.
In Eric’s first year of randonneuring, he completed a Super Randonneur series, a 1000K brevet, and Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP). And he just keeps on riding. He has the rando fever!
Eric’s enthusiasm for riding is infectious, and I’m so glad he’s part of our rando scene. We recently talked about how he became interested in randonneuring, his first year of riding brevets, and his recent PBP experience.
You were riding a lot of miles before you started randonneuring, but what was the longest ride you had done until you began riding brevets, and what made you want to give randonneuring a try?
Until the summer of 2014, I hadn’t been riding a lot. I mainly commuted to work a few times a week– three miles each way– and went on an occasional shop ride with Proteus. That summer my daughter went to Alabama to stay with her mother, and I suddenly had a lot of time on my hands.
I knew my cousin Jarred had gotten into cycling and I was really inspired when I heard he had completed a TransAmerica bike tour. We hadn’t seen each other for almost 10 years, so I decided to purchase a touring bike and take a quick trip up to Boston (via car).
Jarred and I then rode 100 miles with camping gear and all from Barnstable to Provincetown and back to Brewster, where we camped out for the night. That was my first century. I’d hardly say it was easy, but I knew right then that longer rides are for me.
I headed back to Maryland and decided to ride the GAP & C&O Canal from Pittsburgh to D.C. I really wanted to do this alone and fully self-supported.
A few friends drove me up, dropped me off, and said see you later. I completed the trip in four days, with lots of rain. Having never even camped alone before, this was very challenging for me.
I rode the Sea Gull Century, because why not? It sounded fun. Fun it was, but the feeling of accomplishment paled in comparison.
I had recently met Rod Smith (#BikeDC legend), and he mentioned that he had ridden 140 miles the day before. I remember thinking, “That’s impossible!”
I had always thought of the century as the end-all ride, the long one. This simple limit conversation really opened my eyes and probably changed my life forever.
Sometime after this I told my friend Ben Bassett from Proteus that I wanted to do more longer rides, but didn’t want to be as well-cared for or supported like organized centuries. He mentioned the D.C. Randonneurs and I signed up for the Flatbread 200K ride they put on every November.
In preparation for the Flatbread 200K, I met up with Rod at the BicycleSPACE Hills of Anacostia ride. We decided to keep riding. That day we road 140 miles together. I’ll never forget it.
How did the brevets inform your decision to ride PBP?
It wasn’t until sometime just before the Flatbread in November 2014 that I heard of PBP. I remember thinking how insane that sounded– ride 1200K in 90 hours or less.
I decided I would ride the Super Randonneur series and not worry about this PBP thing. I’d work up the 400K and see what happened. I just kept wanting more.
It was through talking to Carol Bell and Chris Mento during the Team Carnivore Flèche about PBP that I realized it was possible, and I could do it if I wanted.
As soon as I completed the D.C. Randonneurs 600K in June, I knew I could do it and I wanted to. I registered that night when I got home. I couldn’t wait for the chance to really test myself.
I know you rode a 1000K in the months leading up to PBP. Do you think that helped you prepare?
Ahhh, the 1000K. This would turn out the be a lot harder than PBP in a very biblical sense. I don’t think I needed the miles but I was concerned I didn’t have to sleeping experience needed for a 1200K having only ever ridden one 600K (one overnight ride).
The 1000K was a triple loop ride that started and ended at the same place each day. This would give me a great opportunity to learn how to sleep quickly and still manage to ride 200 miles the next day.
As it turned out, the second day was one of the wettest days on record. I can’t remember it ever raining that hard.
Forget that we would be summitting mountain passes on bicycles. I learned a lot on this ride from rando veteran Jerry Phelps and Dr. John from North Carolina. We had about 640 miles to discuss life and other valuable rando lessons.
Long story short, the 1000K completely trashed me and actually made me think I wouldn’t be recovered in time for PBP. Looking back, I think it was the right decision to ride the 1000K and I’m proud to be one of five people to complete that ride.
What had you heard about PBP prior to going, and how did your ride experience live up to what you’d heard?
I had always heard that PBP would include cheering locals, classic steel, hardcore racers, and every manner of cyclist known to man.
Simply put, I had heard that PBP is the greatest cycling event in the world. And yes, it lived up to that in every way and more.
A lot of times something can be exaggerated or talked up so much that when you get there it’s a complete letdown. This wasn’t the case with PBP, and I knew it the minute I got off the airplane.
What were some of the highlights of PBP?
On the first day sometime just before dusk, probably around 200+ miles into the ride, I stopped to give three local children D.C. Randonneurs pins. The children looked so happy– a pure joy kind of happiness. The father stood there looking at me like, “Did he really just stop? He needs to be riding.”
He and some other guy ran over to me, picked me up, placed me back on my saddle, and started running me up the hill. I couldn’t believe it. It was the most exciting moment of my life, them laughing hysterically as they pushed me.
Otherwise, riding with people for all over the world, meeting new friends, realizing just how widespread and close the randonneuring community is. Seeing my friends from DCR throughout the ride. These were all great moments.
And actually pulling with people who have completed RAAM. I didn’t know I was strong enough to ride with these cyclists. I pushed myself harder than ever before and enjoyed every second.
The third day was really a highlight, probably because I expected it to be a low point. Other than a lot of ankle pain, I felt great and was riding faster and stronger than ever before. It was amazing to finish a ride like this feeling strong.
And, in addition to the feeling of finishing, seeing my daughter and my sister waiting for me at the finish line, was amazing. I was so proud that my daughter could be there to share that moment with me.
Did you experience any lows or difficult times?
There were two times I felt utterly horrible during the ride. During the first night I decided I would ride all the way to Carhaix-Plougers. That’s about 330 miles.
Sometime at about 3 a.m. I started catching up to the tail end of the 90-hour group. Suddenly I was riding through about 1,000 people zig-zagging all about the road.
People were sleeping any and everywhere, including on the road surface– not cool. The energy was gone. These people had been on the bike for about 36 hours.
It really affected me and it hit me. I was tired. It’s interesting how energy is contagious, or how the lack thereof can also be contagious.
Those ditches started looking really cozy! This would probably the most tired I’ve ever felt.
I knew if I just kept on it I would get through. I had a hotel with a bed and shower, I just had to get there.
The second low point was when I woke up the following morning. I had slept from 6 a.m to 9 a.m., and I woke up in a confused state. I didn’t stop for a second to think “What do I need?”
I just jumped on the bike and started riding again. About 20 miles down the road, I realized I could hardly even turn the pedals. I remember thinking, “What’s wrong with me? What did I do?”
I realized I never ate breakfast. The calorie depletion from the day before struck hard and I was bonkers!
I managed to push through about 100K, to Brest, where I had a huge meal and sat down for a while. Everything was better then.
You completed PBP in 68 hours, right, a fast time considering most people have 90 hours to complete the full distance. You took the 84-hour start, but in addition to that, how did you approach riding PBP (miles per day of riding, sleep stops, food, etc.) and did you have a time goal?
I didn’t have a specific time goal, other than I would aim for 74 hours. That left 10 in reserve, which would be important for mechanical or body failure!
I booked a hotel in Carhaix and Fougeres. I thought if I could make it 330 miles the first day, I would be in a great position. The second day would be a hard 250 miles, with lots of climbing back to Fougeres. This would set me up for an easy last day of 190 miles.
I already knew I could function fine on 3 hours of sleep a day as long as I was tired when I went to sleep (that wouldn’t be a problem!). I knew if I pushed through the first night that meant pushing through the second as well.
I set myself up for a late start the second and third day with a lot of night riding. I never thought I’d start a 400k at 10 a.m. but it worked out. I don’t mind riding at night, I rather enjoy it.
I ate three meals sitting down, and the rest of the food was all eaten on the bike. At each control I would pickup a few bananas, pain au chocolate, and a jambon sandwich.
Eating on the bike really saves a lot of time, not only because you are moving but because you never really get full. Using the energy as you replenish it seems to work better for my stomach than eating a large meal.
It wasn’t until the middle of the second day that I realized the faster I rode and the harder I climbed the more the locals would cheer for me. They fed me energy (and espresso!).
The more they got into it the harder I rode. I realized that my averages weren’t slowing down as I expected they would. At this rate I could do 68 hours comfortably. I wrapped up the second day at about 6 a.m. again and started out the third day by 10 a.m.
Some have said that the 84-hour group was somewhat lonely and lacked the fanfare of the 90- or 80-hour start. What were your thoughts about taking the 84-hour start at 5 a.m.– the morning after the 90- and 80-hour riders?
I think the 84-hour start was the right decision for me. Although I chose this to help out with the crowds at controls, I caught up to the 90-hour group very early in the ride and was met with probably even larger crowds. Being at the front of the 90-hour group would have probably allowed me to completely beat the crowds.
I was really nervous to be in the last starting group in a ride this long. In the back of my mind I thought, if I get dropped it’s going to be a long lonely ride.
The night before I started my ride, I decided to go to the 80-90 start and watch all the brave randonneurs depart. I rode back to my hotel with a German fellow I had just met. It turned out he had lived in Maryland for a few years.
On the way back to the hotel the streets were covered with spectators cheering for us. They thought we were riding in PBP!
This would be the most excitement I would see the entire ride, so yeah, I suppose the 84-hour start really does lack some fanfare. We laughed hysterically as we rode by waving to our fans. All the excitement left me unable to get a good night’s sleep.
The next morning St. Quentin looked like a scene from a zombie movie. The streets were empty, the lights were off, and there wasn’t a fan in site. In fact, I don’t think I saw a spectator until past noon that day.
Would you ride PBP again and why?
I would definitely ride PBP again. I never really understood why people ride it so many times until I was about halfway through the second day. I already wanted to ride it again and I hadn’t even finished yet.
It’s really hard to say why, exactly. Most of our brevets are very lonely at times. I’ve ridden well over 100 miles solo on a brevet that had 20-30 people riding it.
PBP didn’t feel like a brevet; it wasn’t the self supported challenge I had grown to love. It was something else entirely different filled with non-stop excitement. I don’t now if I’ll be there in 2019 but I will ride PBP again, and again, and again….
How would you summarize your first year of randonneuring and PBP?
My first year of randonneuring isn’t quite over yet but I think I got through the hardest parts. I’ve learned more about myself and grown as an individual more this year than the other 30 I’ve been around.
These long rides offer endless amounts of time to reflect on your decisions and to think about what you actually want out of life. I’ve met so many amazing people, seen so much amazing territory, and covered thousands of miles on my bike. This has been the greatest, most accomplished, year of my life.
To summarized PBP, “Christmas Eve”…
Last weekend I rode a 440K ride out into the Shenandoah Mountains. I realized while riding that I didn’t really have a goal to work towards. As a result, the ride felt somewhat less meaningful.
I would really like to continue randonneuring and I don’t see myself ever stopping. I plan to ride all the international brevets I can– London-Edinburgh-London, and the Miglia Italia, to list a couple.
However, I now know there’s a whole other level of crazy. I would like to attempt something like the TransAmerica or Transcontinental Race– maybe even the Tour Divide. These are unsupported bike packing races across the United States and Europe.
After riding PBP I believe I could ride 240 miles a day for two weeks straight. In fact it sounds like it would be a lot of “fun.”
What question did I forget to ask you that I should have?
I think you pretty well covered it. You never asked WHY, but then again if you have to ask why, this probably ain’t for you!