Friday, July 1, 2011

The Big Eight

ARA Nordbayern/Fränkische Alb, Große Acht durch Bayern 1000k, June 23-26, 2011

Wikipedia's disambiguation page of "Big Eight" has currently 13 entries, including four in Sports; but the Große Acht durch Bayern is not there. Even a search for "Große Acht" doesn't show the brainchild of Karl Weimann (click on Über mich on the sidebar of on the first page. Clearly, it is not yet famous enough. A good reason to write about it on my blog.

Karl Weimann: "Randonneurfeeling pur!!!"

Ever since I learned about it, some four or five years ago, I considered it a "must do." Only, I had two problems: a) I couldn't figure out a way to fit the required transatlantic trip into my constrained vacation schedule, and b) I wasn't ready for its level of difficulty (over 30000 ft of elevation gain, much of it on very steep hills; plus infamous navigational challenges and unpredictable weather patterns). But this year, with my "catch-up" stay in Europe over the summer, it finally became one of my top three goals (next to Paris-Brest-Paris and the Mille du Sud). Over the last years, without even talking about it, this goal motivated me to patiently build up the required stamina, including the ability to ride over 600 difficult kilometers without sleep stop - because I had the first loop of the Big Eight in mind!

I had the good fortune to benefit from a carpooling arrangement from Southern France to the start/finish in Osterdorf and back with Sophie. With her outstanding global randonneuring experience (not to mention her completion of the Big Eight, two years ago) and a good measure of philosophical consensus, she was the ideal travel companion for the randonneur apprentice. However, I would be on my own during the ride; regardless of her modesty and her abnegation of any competitive spirit, she is still riding in a different league.

The day before the big trip Cannes - Osterdorf, at the Auberge Provençale:
Joseph - Ghislaine - Sophie - Ghislaine's sister Christiane

The adventure started before we even arrived. A terrible storm had passed through southern Bavaria just minutes before us; if we had driven any faster during the day, we would have been in trouble! Even so, the deep layer of leaves and branches torn down from the trees by egg-sized hail made a big impression - until we got stuck in a labyrinth of narrow country roads, blocked in all directions by fallen trees, which made an even bigger impression.

A car driver ahead of us seemingly lost his mind and drove off across a meadow. We escaped narrowly by setting the venerable Citroën Xm's suspension into high clearance mode and making her wade through a closed section of submerged road construction while puzzled villagers looked at us in disbelief. On arrival in Osterdorf, we recovered from the stress with an Andechser Dunkel at the Enten Stub'n, a nearby restaurant where we shared dinner with the iconic brevet organizers Karl and Heidi and half a dozen other randonneurs.

Weather was perfect on Thursday morning at the 10 a.m. start, when Karl sent off 79 riders, himself included. Twenty more had registered and later cancelled; the storm on the day before must have had to do with it. I felt good and rolled along with various smaller groups, changing alliances according to the upheavals caused by the first climbs. However, I noticed how I would have missed several turns during the first hour already, had I not had the help from various companions who knew better. One of them, Frank, was about to accomplish his 10th finish of the Big Eight in ten consecutive participations - he had only missed the first edition because he was not a randonneur yet!

Before the start at the Alte Schule in Osterdorf

Early in the afternoon, the predicted rain set in and accompanied us for several hours. No big deal - I was well equipped and optimistic about the weather forecast for the next days. Later in the afternoon, I ended up riding alone, ever so often leapfrogging other riders who stopped to take pictures of the alpine skyline. My goal was to arrive at the open control in Bad Tölz before darkness (235 km in just a little over 11 hours), and I succeeded. I picked a traditional Wirtshaus for a generous traditional dinner with a traditional dark beer, and I texted home "Life is good!" Too bad it cost me half an hour more than I had budgeted, but I didn't regret it. I would need a solid sustenance for the night ahead.

I should resist the temptation to give a chronological account of the ride - 1044 km is just a little too long for that! But the first night was special. First, I managed to get lost a little earlier than good for the morale - well before arriving in Nußdorf with its "Turn left when the road makes a right turn" instruction. In darkness, any navigational challenges are multiplied. To begin with, I should admit that over time, I have lost much of my good sense of orientation (don't know why). Then, the sustained pedaling effort seems to make the brain hypoxic (at least mine). This is a problem when the instructions in the route sheet are coded in a way that requires puzzle-solving skills and a flawless short-term memory (you can find lines that translate into something like "turn right after 400m, then again after 300m, and turn left 1.8 km later"). Obviously, this type of route sheet coding doesn't take into account that some people (like me) sometimes let their minds drift off into uncontrolled psychoanalytical areas while riding their bike. But I was extremely careful when looking out for that tiny little sign Duftbräu - because this was one of the more outrageous climbs on the route (I didn't know yet how many of them were still to come!).

Late at night, high up at the Duftbräu 
(Photo: Sophie)

I found that sign, was proud of myself, and proceeded to climb up an incredibly steep paved narrow path, so steep I resigned myself to pushing the bike, which was still hard enough. Maybe 200 vertical meters later: dead-end! This path ended up in a narrow hiking trail which would have required to carry the bicycle on longer and even steeper stretches - and probably get lost in the woods for good! So, I turned around and was relieved to find two other riders standing at the junction where I had made the wrong turn; they knew the way. (In fact, I could have avoided the mistake by observing the distances on the route sheet more scrupulously; but a slight rain had set in again, and this made it more difficult to read the instructions under the helmet light. And, remember the hypoxic brain!). Of course, I got lost again after the long downhill. Eventually, I saw a woman push a bicycle on the sidewalk: she started distributing mail in the little town around 4 a.m. and was friendly enough to help me out. I arrived at the control in Bernau at daybreak and caught up with a bunch of bleary-eyed randonneurs there. They left before I was ready, however, and so I continued alone.

As I said, I had been looking forward to riding this 1000 km brevet through Bavaria for several years. I considered including in this report an account of the flashbacks that punctuated my progression (but then it would have become a book). It was fascinating to experience the conflicting feelings of being a stranger in my own home country. I thought that emphasizing and reviving the memories from 45 years ago (when I last rode the bicycle over those roads, be it in lengthy road races or while touring with my little brothers or alone) would help me resolve the mental discomfort. But instead, it only led to more instances of taking the wrong turn when I instinctively followed the road travelled as a youth rather than the route sheet!

So, you will understand how happy I was when a little later on that Friday morning, Karl caught up with me: he would know his own route, and I just had to follow him and would never get lost again! - It turned out that we would stay together until the finish, and that more than once he did get a little lost himself, too ... which is a way for me to buy back some of my own blunders. But, let me say it loud and clear: I would have never finished the ride without Karl; I would have never even attempted the second loop without him!

Overall, we had a great time. We harmonized pretty well. He was generally stronger than I, but he suffered from severe hip pain and consequential side effects, and this handicap evened the playing field - until it turned into a major road block for him. I still cannot fathom how he managed to finish, with a smile on his face and abounding with jokes (except when he thought nobody would observe him), while being nearly unable to lift his leg over the bicycle after each stop.

The way back to Osterdorf was geographically interesting and rewarding, but very demanding physically, with its sustained and sometimes violent headwind and a lot of steep climbing (30000 ft of elevation gain have to come from somewhere!). We arrived around 2 a.m., just when Sophie was ready to set out alone for the second loop. Our sleep break would have to be much shorter than hers (I reckoned about two hours), because there was another control closure pending on Saturday noon!

I changed gloves after the first loop - too many miles!

That early morning, I acknowledged a gentle tailwind on initially fairly easy roads and credited both for the illusion of being in good shape. When the "regularly scheduled" climbs started, I stayed cautious and explained to Karl how my lighter body weight penalizes my power/weight ratio more than his when we add luggage as necessary for the long distances. As I learned later that day, I was just rationalizing away a lack of confidence in my abilities and an unjustified fear of blowing up.

Karl suddenly broke the cable for the front derailleur (inside the STI shifter) and decided after some tinkering and experimentation that he would rather continue on the smallest chainring than losing more time trying to fix it. Less than half an hour later, at the top of a climb, we saw two riders wait for us: Frank (the one who was on his 10th participation and finish!) and Tom, a talented mechanic. They had learned about Karl's mishap from riders who had passed us earlier and caught up with them, and decided to wait for him and fix it (not without a healthy dose of ribbing). And then they stayed with Karl and me to the finish!

Joseph, Tom and Karl at the top of the Erzloch Anhöhe (1.7 km at 17% or so)
Photo: Frank

We had some of the most beautiful areas of the whole route ahead of us (I promised myself to come back there with my wife, one day, for some vacation days!), but also some of the most demanding climbing. Somehow, the units of measurement for the steepness of slopes change over time on a long ride; on the third day and after 750 km, what was 14 % initially (already more than enough when it goes on and on for a couple of km) now felt like 24%. I was still adequately intimidated by those climbs and voluntarily let myself drop back on each of them - until I said to myself, later in the afternoon, after a snack-and-beer stop, "What the heck!" and set an imaginary personal record on that reputable Wichsenstein road (17%), climbing faster than my companions in the process. Wow - I improved on the third day of the ride?! (Alternatively, one might want to consider the possibility that Bavarian beer acts like a natural doping for me ...)

View towards Wichsenstein
(Photo: public domain)

The route was meandering and meandering over wonderfully smooth trails along rivers - pure pleasure! -  and ever so often found yet another absurdly steep hill to struggle over. Karl admitted not without pride that he has always been a fan of extremely hard climbs, and that his brevet route design follows his own ambitions. As if any route in this region was not already hard enough all by itself!

The last night was hard. The steep climbs and slow descents (they were dangerous on the dark, narrow and now again wet roads) made our average speed drop below the required minimum between controls, and we desperately needed a minimum of sleep to keep the bicycle under control while the headlights reflected themselves hypnotically in the falling rain. Several times we stopped, leaned against a street sign post or similar to avoid falling over, and closed the eyes for a minute. And then we had to press on. I was not the only one truly exhausted when we arrived at the penultimate control Oberpfälzer Alb Süd (km 912) around 5 a.m., only minutes before control closure. And then I passed out for an hour under a table.

The time limit for a 1000 km brevet is 75 hours, corresponding to Sunday 1 p.m. in this case. Our little group included Frank who aimed for his 10th "Big Eight" finish and clearly didn't want to miss it. Karl himself had suffered so much over the last days that it would have been really unfair to deny him a finish within the time limit. I pretended that I didn't mind that much; I was already very satisfied with what I had experienced and achieved so far; but this was only half true. Of course I wanted to become an "official finisher" - and I started worrying about us cutting it too close. The road was still difficult, and I ended up becoming paranoid in my mental calculations of average speed and projected arrival time, and distrustful of Karl's and Frank's reassuring estimates (they did know the region, distances and times like their pocket, whereas I continued taking "links" for "rechts" on the route sheet, causing all kinds of trouble to my companions). But suddenly, less than an hour from Altdorf at km 1009, which was designated as a check-in control for people who were too close to the time limit to ride through to Osterdorf at km 1044 (this doesn't include all the "bonus miles" ...), my calculations started matching their estimates, and we finished the 1009 km distance together with 40 minutes to spare. Now we had the luxury to restore ourselves properly before riding back to the "real finish" in Osterdorf.

With Karl at the finish in Osterdorf
(Photo: Sophie)

As so often after a long distance, the joy and satisfaction over the accomplishment didn't sink in until later. I had to make a conscious effort to tell myself that I had moved up to a new level in my randonneuring career. Only about half of the starters finished - and I was among them! And (barring exceptionally bad atmospheric conditions), Sophie confirmed my hunch that this 1000k was more difficult than both PBP or even the Mille du Sud ...


Sophie made her photos available to illustrate my blog - thanks!

Towards Seeshaupt / Starnberger See


Towards Bad Tölz


Early morning, towards Ampfing


Between Wörth/Isar and Kelheim/Donau

The Befreiungshalle in Kelheim

Frankendorf: Franconians most beautiful village 

The Wiesent river (between Gössweinstein and Waischenfeld)

Hohenmirsberger Platte

"Backdoor access" to Autobahn rest stop and control
Fränkische Schweiz - Pegnitz

Soon after that: another bicycling paradise!

(each time you see an illuminated building high up, chances are you'll have to climb up there!)

That's where Sophie slept in the night from Saturday to Sunday: a communal bread oven
(nearby Berching)

1 comment:

  1. Hallo Josef
    Great report for a great achievement ! It was a wonderful, very hard, but also very rewarding experience. The apprentice who graduated from Big Bavarian Eight, will match his next top goals for sure.
    I enjoyed travelling in your company. Thank you for writing such nice things about me and for making me discover the Andechser Dunkel !