PBP 2003 Fini

Disclaimer: The photographs here are mostly courtesy of Joe "Escargot" Keenan, Mike "Silk Hope" Dayton and Maindru Photo

Someday, the airlines may move people as efficiently and elegantly as does the Audax Club Parisien, but never with the same sense of dignity. As I sit here at Philly Intl waiting for my re-booked flight, with no clue as to the location of my baggage and bike, I must have patience: after all, cycling is more than 100 years mature, and PBP celebrated 100 years 4 years ago, while air travel just hit 100 this year.

Ah, to return from Paris-Brest-et-retour, still wearing bike shorts no less, as I fill "Laptop Lane" (this is pretty sweet, actually) with the exotic aroma of rancid Vaseline and perspiration (not sure if this is what Shadrack had in mind when he asked me to pick up a bottle of cologne in Paris)…I still wear the ACP T-shirt which commanded so much respect and admiration on the Parisian streets, but I'll change to the wicked Black and White Maillot Bretagne for my arrival in RDU, sure to raise a few eyebrows at security—"Don't worry, I'm not really one of those 'Bretagne Separatist Extremists', " I'll reassure them.

If you do not know what "PBP" is, you might want to check out the brief article by Gary Smith

Table of contents
Sat - 16 Aug: Things that could go wrong…
Sun - 17 Aug: If at first you don't succeed…
Mon - 18 Aug: In Paris, have bike…
Tue - 19 Aug: "The road goes on for ever and the party never ends…"
Wed - 20 Aug: Loudeac au Brest, et retour—Safe at First base…Steal Second!
Thu - 21 Aug: (Creedence:) "Oh Lord, stuck in Loudeac again…"
Fri - 22 Aug: The triumphant return of the "Ancien"
Sat and Sun - 23/24 Aug: Epilogue

Saturday - 16 Aug: Things that could go wrong…

One week and two days earlier I'd clicked <Send> on my Out-Of-Office email and headed home on the Beacon fixed-gear, after checking with Gilbert as to the readiness of the Koga-Miyata touring bike. "Your flight is in the AFTERnoon, right" Gilbert asked?

Ok, so I'll go home and pack a few things and in the morning pick up a head-mounted LED lamp from the outdoor store and a bicycle box from Amtrak. Saturday morning, having added those items to my kit (Ibuprofen, Tums, Rolaids, Pepcid AC, "Fisherman's Friend" throat lozenges, "Icy Hot" muscle ointment, wristwatch, Band-Aids (to protect cold nipples from chaffing), Echinacea and a few vitamins) I dropped by Gilbert's to box up the bike. He was putting on the finishing touches and just about ready for a test ride, but a sudden thunderstorm and downpour nixed the test ride. So we boxed it up and picked up Glenn so that he could drop me off at the airport.

The airport check-in went smoothly enough and after watching security cut my box open, slide the bike out upside-down, and unstrap the trunk bag for x-raying, I proceeded through passenger security to the departure gate. I thought "NOW the wheels are REALLY rolling with an unstoppable momentum—Paris is inevitable." as I settled down to a sandwich and a couple of beers. Chet Buell came by to say "hello"—poor fellow, he'd been scheduled to fly out two days ago but got bumped by the big New York-Canada Power Failure that hit at exactly the wrong time for his flight. We're on our way now though! I just wish my plane would show up…okay here it is, 40 minutes late…that's going to hurt my 60-minute layover, but no sense worrying about that now—go ahead, board and stow your stuff—here's an overhead nook just right sized for your helmet—how convenient!

Forty-five minutes after we pull away from the gate, the pilot announces that we're going back to the gate so that we can "stretch our legs". Back in the terminal, suddenly they're squawking at us that we can't just waltz back into the plane whenever we want. They send passengers intent on certain destinations running down the hall to catch the flight to Charlotte, but the internationals are sent downstairs to see the ticket agent—who rebooks us for tomorrow. She treated me well, even found a way to hold my bike for tomorrow, so I went outside to wait for the bus, which never arrived because TTA shuts down early on Saturdays. Glenn to the rescue again.

Arrghh—Should I just bail on the whole deal and get a travel voucher?
Back home, I look for info on London-Edinburgh-London.

Sunday - 17 Aug: If at first you don't succeed…

Sunday morning I thought about my helmet, still in the overhead storage of the plane that eventually went to Philly three hours late, and picked up a replacement helmet from Gilbert before heading out for the second try at the airport, realizing I should've insisted on taking the delayed flight to Philly —spending the night in the Philly airport if necessary. They had set me up on a slightly later flight from Philly to Paris so I made a quick dash down to baggage handling to file a claim on the lost helmet. Running back to the terminal I got to observe the gatekeepers comically begging the passengers on the flight bound for Rome to come out of wherever they were hiding (the airport bars?) and get on their plane.

Sat next to a salt-and-pepper haired Parisian gentleman with his three small children and wife on the other end. "I hope they are not a problem," he told me, but they were delightful. He's coming back from a vacation in South Carolina and is surprised that I'm making this trip just to ride PBP and fly straight back. "We don't get much vacation," I explain. He nods, "Ah…but we actually work more you know." He says that though Europeans get more vacation, from what he's observed, they work longer hours—No time for golfing or cycling after work.

Monday - 18 Aug: In Paris, have bike…

Charles de Gaulle airport is a fantastic arrangement of a tall circular rotundas with satellite pods and atriums and post-modern mazes of people-movers whirring through clear plastic tubes at odd angles and organic patterns. It must've looked spectacular in the architectural drawings, but now it needs cleaning and painting and the people-mover suddenly dumps you into a motionless crowd of people with luggage and strollers desperate to present their passport to a solitary inspector.

Intermingled baggage from Philladelphie and Madrid ascends from unseen depths dropping to stainless steel snaking conveyers numbers 29 through 31. Clear a passage for the trio of camouflaged machine-gun toting gendermine, then the oversize-baggage cart with the boxed bicycle finally shows up.

Decision time—ride from the airport, train, bus or…? Since I'm already 27 hours behind schedule, I drag the box outside and stuff it into the hold of the Air France bus (Greyhound/Trailways sized vehicle) headed toward Montparnasse. I dozed a bit on the bus and then tried to get my bearings…where is this "Gare du Lyon" on the map? Is it the same as "Gare du Nord"? I get up at one point to confirm my bearings and discover that I AM NOW at Montparnasse! Time to disembark. Rip open the Amtrak box, put on the pedals and bags, ride up the block—ooops!—tighten down the stem and then strike out for Port d'Orleans.

In a roundabout I peer up an alley and there's the Eiffel Tower—Wow! What a landmark. A lady passerby directs me down another alley which takes me to a greenway and eventually across the beltline (La Périphérique) at which point I turn east and locate the Formule 1 hotel by it's proximity to the large circular glass Judo center.

The only other time I stayed in Paris, I stayed in one of many large old buildings—a two star hotel—that was just wonderful with large windows that opened—for €65 euros/night. This was the opposite—an ultra-modern establishment with small windows that did not open, but fun in it's own gadget-geek way, for €35 euros/night. No apparent automobile parking (it's underground—Paris knows that parking lots are ugly, waste space, promote sprawl and discourage foot travel) and we wheel our bikes right into our rooms.

I took my room, then checked-in with Sridhar, who had set everything up for me to get a late bike inspection. Sridhar had been in town a couple of days and learned all the ins and outs of the subway and regional rail routes and even warmed up by finding and cycling his own route from Paris to Saint Quentin and back, taking a tiny fraction of the time the desk clerk had estimated. I rearranged my belongings into "hotel stuff" and a drop-bag and we set out for St Quentin. Our subway ride toward the regional rail line at St. Michel is going along smooth as silk when Sridhar notices I'm no longer carrying my drop-bag. Uh oh. Left it at the station. We double back, but no-go, it's gone, so I'm riding sans drop-bag. Another good reason to pack all the really important stuff in the pannier. We make it to St Quentin and Sridhar tries to hook up with the drop-bag man, but to no avail. There was a ninety-minute window that shut sixty minutes ago. Now we're both riding without drop-bags, but hey, drop-bags are for wimps anyway, right?

Pre-ride supper is excellent. The Paris-Brest-Paris pastries are heavenly. Some say the pastries were named for the train that used to run the Paris-Brest-Paris route. The staff carefully guard the fromage—you can pick ONE—but help yourself to the wine and espresso. You can see how tired I looked prior to the ride! I felt good though! I think this was a pre-espresso moment—I hadn't realized how much I needed coffee at the time!

There's some really interesting machines to check out here—some will be on the ride, others not.

10:00pm rolls around and we follow the sound of bagpipes back to the start at Gymnase des Droits de l'Homme (Gymnasium of the rights of Man). Park the bikes and walk through the building to do the first "control" magnetic-card swipe time thing, then mosey on back outside, use the johns and get in line with your bike. We hit the road at 10:47pm and they stripe our cards to indicate we get an extra 45 minutes, should we need it.

The ride takes us out through city streets in a huge pack of eager cyclists. It feels like Critical Mass as we're directed through traffic lights and local cyclists jump on to join the fun. Then we turn through a city park with deep dives and steep climbs through which the pack momentum hurls us. Nearing midnight, we find ourselves crossing a high plain with recently harvested fields stretching to a flat black horizon under a moonless sky, then a long boulevard lined with symmetrically placed sycamores. Around midnight we surge into a village (Nogent la Roi) of stone and concrete buildings and suddenly there are lights and cyclists pulling out because there's a bakery handing out fresh bread and drinks to the cyclists. Grab a bite (heavenly!) look around—there's a bicycle and mannequin on the roof, illuminated and motorized, then hop back on the velo-train. Hours later (probably about 4am?), on a winding road through dark woods we're suddenly at the first (optional) stop—Montagne au Perche (140km from the start).

Tuesday - 19 Aug: "The road goes on for ever and the party never ends…"

There had been talk that the wisest thing to do would be to forego this sure-to-be-crowded stop. But after 140km of running with the pack, it was time. Restrooms, coffee bar (pouring beer and wine too), even an email kiosk…must resist…THIS could be a REAL time killer! Cafeteria?!? While the clock ticks? Hey, you've got another 84 hours and you'll have to eat sometime—might as well, since you've already stopped. And look at these guys with their eyes closed and their heads on the table! Come on guys—we're just getting started! But maybe they know what they're doing—grab the Zs when you can. Well, if they can sleep, I can at least eat. As I'm finishing off my haricots (green beans) and pommes de terre (potatoes, but literally "apples of the earth"), here comes Sridhar—glad to see he's looking so happy and energetic. I put him in the food line and he sends me on.

We're in Normandie (Normandy), the north of France, across the channel from England. Apple orchards abound—they make a fine Apple Brandy here, called Calvados. You can smell ripe apples from the roadside.

Now get this: After pulling out of the pack and having a full meal I walk outside to find…the pack STILL going by! It's that FREAKING big! Just jump back in and away we go! Over hills, through twists and turns chains slinging across cassettes in the noir and a support van rolls through the night blasting out Queen's "We will, we will, ROCK YOU! (boom-booh-bah, boom-boom-bah!)".

From Nogent la Roi through Montagne au Perche, the roadside was decorated old bicycles festooned with flowers, emblazoned with Christmas lights and similar ornamentation.

Finally things wind down to a more cyclotouristic pace. We pass through another village and I'm marveling at how nicely new-urbanist it is…built-out right to the sidewalk and street, just like in Europe…uh duh…we're in Europe! (How did THEY know about new urbanism 200 years ago?) I climb a hill and come upon two riders who happen to be speaking English. And here, 100+ miles outside of Paris, in a remote French village, the topic of the conversation is…(could this be my first hallucination?)…Gilbert Anderson! No lie! They're talking about this cyclist from North Carolina who did the NJ and NY 600km brevets just for fun.

It's well past dawn when I hit Villeines La Juhel. Doesn't feel like breakfast, so after checking-in and applying some Vaseline to the nether regions, I grab a plate of brunch. Another cafeteria line, but they've planned several menu choices and laid it out on white boards in a grid fashion for the gastronomically challenged. Pretty cool. But I'm starting to get the sense that even in France it may be a good idea to seek out independent food providers instead of eating at the rest areas.

First indication of the difference in European toilette facilities—here the stalls do have doors, but the urinals are in the common area. Loudeac takes this one stop farther—the urinals are along the wall, on the outside of the building!

Getting close to the control closing time—I don't see Sridhar or anybody else that I know, but the crowd is SO large I could've easily missed them. Push on. Did I eat to much? I'm feeling sleepy…hot afternoon sun…better pull over and let the plan slip. Now way around it—the French countryside, the small farms with stone buildings that smell of ripe apples and warm hay-straw, they all whisper to you to "relax", "Lie down with us in the pastures" ten times more intoxicating than any silly sirens singing to Ulysses. I take a caffeine pill, set my new watch alarm for a ten minute snooze, shut the eyes and lay back in the fresh sun baked straw. Zzzzz…. An hour and a half later I wake up to find I had set the alarm to 10:36 *PM* instead of a.m.! Oh well, if I was *that* out of it, I probably needed the rest. Now that I'm refreshed, I can push a bit harder.

On the way to Fougeres, one by one I see at least three other cyclists taking siestas. The third in a particularly unflattering posture. Hey, I think I was snoozing in the same pose! I guess there'll be photos later…

Fougeres—I think this literally translates to Ferns. Probably ten miles before we get to this town, the roadside begins to be lined with Ferns. At one point there's a small bus shelter which has been seized and occupied by Ferns! We get close to town, then climb up into the town traffic and hit the control. I skip the cafeteria and just hit the "bar"…first beer of the ride…just one…take some time out before departing to talk to Joel Metz, the San Francisco cyclist riding a three speed and packing a full sized tent and sleeping bag. I believe he was probably the one talking about Gilbert earlier.

Lisa gives me (and my filth) a hug—apparently she saw me taking my siesta and was worried that might've been my downfall. It could've been, but I think I'm okay now, still better push on…take more time to relax on le retour.

I think this section from Fougeres to Tinteniac must be the relatively flat section—the section they had in mind when they said that Castle Rock Farm Road back home was comparable to the PBP route. We ride on comfortably toward Tinteniac but as we approach town, it begins to seem like a dump. From here, a trailer-park-in-the-swamp town like so many I've seen back in the U.S.. I believe this is where I start worrying about the Achilles Tendon in my right foot. It's not the pain that bothers me, but the thought that I could really damage something. I've never had this before.

I have an Orangina or two at the bar, then go through the cafeteria line—avoid dairy, on the suspicion that it makes me sleepy. Sit down with some folks I know from brevets just as they're getting up to head out. I wolf down my food and head out of town. Things get better in Tinteniac after leaving the control. Did TdFrance pass through here? I see names on the road—even Eric Zabel's! The evening sun is in my eyes so I switch to glasses, but that's worse. I feel energy coming on though and pick up my pace until I'm passing everybody and can't hold back. Before long I've caught up with the guys who were leaving Tinteniac as I was sitting down to eat! This point is not lost on them, and they join me for awhile. I slow a bit, but not much and then pick it back up again—I figure, when I've got it, I better USE it!

Then night falls and I find myself pretty much helpless. Bad eyes. I can't see the arrows at all and MUST fall in with a group to stay on course. I am a Lemming. I hope they don't mind that I don't take a turn at the front, but they're really better off not following me. We're not really going fast enough to worry about such matters though. I still haven't looked at the cue sheet once, though we're well over 200 miles into the course.

As the sun goes down, it starts getting a chilly and there's a bit of mist in the air. I'm glad to have brought the "Fisherman's Friend" throat lozenges and start taking them preemptively. Occasionally you'll see a bike going the other way—cycling is popular here and people cycle for sport, fun and transportation. Baguettes too—not a cliche—you see folks walking or cycling down the street with baguettes in arm everyday. Approaching Loudeac we confronted by an oncoming train of cyclists all with headlights blazing through the fog—it's the lead group! They zip past us headed back toward Paris. That's just about right—they should be twice our speed and this is the 1/3 point for us and would be the 2/3 point for the returning group. This could be disheartening if I'd hoped to be near that group, but it's reassuring because I had already assumed they'd be twice my speed.

Last leg before Loudeac—the standard first long-rest stop. If you can push on to Carhaix, it's wise to do so, but I know now that Loudeac is doable, but not more. At a roundabout, I see a group exit and one cyclist drops off, calling out to the others. There's some shouting in German and they turn back. I guess the guy had a flat? I follow a lone taillight into the woods. Passing that taillight, I see one more ahead. Passing that…no more. So I drop back. We go through some unmarked intersections and bunch up into a group of four off-course cyclists. The other are three locals, so I don't feel so bad, except that I'm kind of useless, not having any idea where my cue sheet is etc…except that I do remember exactly where we got off course. So we double back, get back on course and it's a long few miles into Loudeac.

Loudeac. I better hit the sack. I lay the bike down and rearrange baggage—My, but it's cold out here! Should I have a beer? There seems to be pandemonium at the entrance to the sleep area, so I slide over to the cafeteria to see if there's a bench were I can grab some shut-eye, even if I don't buy a meal. There are two dozen guys WAY ahead of me. In one corner of the room there are guys snoozing in chairs and aisles. I grab a seat at a table where two guys are eating and put my head in my arms hoping not to snore too loud. When I wake up, those same guys that were eating have simply pushed their trays to the side and joined me in the land of Nod!

But my lumbar is killing me! I get up to hit the proper beds, be careful, somebody has stretched out for the night RIGHT under my chair! It's better now at l'couchages—3 euros and tell the guy with the chalk at the giant black board what time I need awakening—«Cinq Heure». The lady at the table hands me a number. I wait in line a few minutes and a kindly French gentlemen with a flashlight ushers me through a curtain to my assigned cot, avec blanket. Put my belongings under the cot (Reminiscent of a hurricane shelter) and slip my rolled-up bivvy sack under my neck instead of a pillow—perfect fit—I'm asleep in two winks.

In the morning I'm greeted to an uncannily pleasant awakening. A French gentleman gives me a light rap on the breast bone and whispers, «Monsieur, Cinq Heure». It's somehow an indescribably pleasant arousal.

Wednesday - 20 Aug: Loudeac au Brest, et retour—Safe at First base…Steal Second!

Breakfast in the Cafeteria includes coffee served in cereal bowls. Then head back out on the pre-dawn route. Through a bit of urbanity and then into a seemingly low marsh land? Glasses on, can't see too good and still feeling sluggish and cold. Somehow there is a sense of having crossed onto a peninsula—a more maritime area—though I believe the seas are still hundreds of miles away. I start feeling my strength coming back as the sun rises and the terrain also rises. The first secret control. Now we're seeing good number of returning riders. I switch into my contacts and must be feeling pretty darn good because I remember being distinctly in the mood to clown around. The steep climbs into the control probably helped lift my spirits. It's actually the downhills that scare me because I fear I'll have to climb them later when I'm tired. And we get a doozy of a downhill next. This must be that "Roc Trévezel" on the profile?

Though it seemed the route markers were rather stingy with arrows at many points, on the roads to Carhaix-Plougher they've even gone so far as to put up big neon-pink signs spelling out "CARHAIX →"! Maybe there's been stuff like that all along and I just now noticed? Some chilly early morning climbing and look at these cyclists sprawled out asleep on the side of the road! Have they been there all night? They've no covers—not even anything on their heads—not even a helmet! Are they still alive? Will they continue the ride?

I get behind Scottish guy riding fixed-gear—yellow jersey with red lions: "Audax Ecosse". I grab his wheel and shift to a gear close to his and begin riding as though fixed—no coasting. We hit a steep climb and he just goes right up while the derailleur bikes downshift and slow. I stay on him, but hill steepens again and I can't keep up, so I pull off with a mad clashing of chain and sprocket as my derailleur sputters. He glances back and then he's gone.

At Carhaix, we pull in to a high school. I walk around a bit. Don't want the cafeteria—I've already decided I'd rather stop at the Esso station up the road. Grab a short shut-eye on a bench between the restrooms and the cafeteria. Then head back out. Tired but ready to slam down the final leg to Brest. This pannier sure is heavy…what if I left it here? I know I'll be back here before dark, and it's not going to rain, so I move the night/rain gear, pedal wrench and other things I won't need to the pannier and set it aside along one of the walkways. I push out and then pull into the Esso station. I can't quite figure out how to ask if they have an ATM machine ("Dispensor") but they accept Visa so I get the things I need, lemonade, bottled water and something vital that I can't recall right now. Somehow there's a "beach" feel here—maybe just the intensity of the sun and the hopeful thoughts of the Atlantic? Plus, we're in a more built-up area now instead of the charming French villages. I chat with the attendants as much as the language barrier allows.

We push on and hit a national forest and begin climbing. Appalachia, it seems like. Not Mt. Mitchell, nor the steepest grades leading up the BRP, but definitely mountainous by my standards. THIS must be the "Roc Trévezel". Up, up and up. There's European vacationers motoring up here with their VTTs (Velos tout terra, Mountain bikes) in tow. We come to a small village, Huelgoat, in the Monts d'Arrée—what a great place to stop for pastries. But I push on, saving the rewards for le retour. What a climb to get to the ocean! We go up more, and I'm feeling good in the climb. We hit an intersection with a larger highway were we rejoin route with the returning cyclists. Up some more. A highway with those extra lanes on the uphills for slow moving vehicles. Slow moving vehicle, that's me—This lane's *mine*. The vegetation thins and we're on a high plain were winds off the Atlantic cut across the heather. THIS MUST be the "Roc Trévezel"!

On the descent I hear a yell—there goes Chet and Cindy on the tandem headed back au Paris! Judging by Chet's voice, they're feeling remarkably well climbing to the top of this big descent into which I'm now diving. Down, down, down. A few more ups and downs. Some cyclist who's got a gig distributing "Lite Spin" generators wants to know if I know the whereabouts of "Mr. Smith" from Charlotte. Sorry, no.

I begin to tire again as we approach Brest. During WWII, Brest became a U-boat base and was then mostly destroyed by Allied bombing. Being relatively recently rebuilt, I'd read that it's ugly compared to the ancient French villages through which we traveled. There is a good stretch of sufficiently nasty highway, then we cross a bridge and hit the famous landmark. There's a newer bridge parallel to our's—one of fantastic parallel diagonal cable construction. (I think there's a smaller one like it in Richmond VA). The old bridge remains as a pedestrian, cycles and more bridge. Unlike in the U.S., this bridge is NOT closed to motorized traffic—we safely share the bridge with motor scooters and even a large (John Deere?) tractor. No cars crossed our secondary bridge while I was on it, but I think some did right behind me—as long as they're willing to obey the 30mph speed limit and be courteous to other users, why not?

We head through some suburbia and into town and then up a long steep hill with bike lane and into the Brest control. I see the overhead electric wires of the TGV heading back to Paris here, and I'm really, really tempted. I've already seen the route, why repeat it? But I think of all the extra effort that so many have put in to see me onto this ride and figure I'll get a chance to see some of the dark sections with daylight this time.

Take my first shower. I pay the man, get my towel and reach for the door to lady's shower. He stops me, so I offer him an extra five Euro and motion again toward the lady's shower—he gives me light punch on the shoulder. Hit the men's shower and peel off the lycra. YOW! That water is hot! Towel off and slap on some Icy-Hot—funny, before I had marveled that I didn't feel anything applying the stuff, now that I'm applying it to hot clean skin, it burns! Grab a beer and about three Oranginas and start le "retour" feeling pretty darn good.

I must've been feeling great here—the heat of they day past—I come through a roundabout in Landerneau and look up the alley at a bike shop and detour into it. I park the Miyata outside Guy Le Gal's shop and waltz in introducing myself to his wife and looking to buy a nice jersey and shorts to replace what I'd lost in my drop-bag. They want me to try stuff on, but I'm so filthy. Guy introduces me to another PBP rider from California who's getting his shifters adjusted. He wants to know how I found the place. "It's right off the route" says I, but he'll have nothing of that—he got directions in Brest and it's several blocks off the route. I'm glad he reminded me, else I might've headed off in the wrong direction. He splits and Guy shows me around the place, in back, upstairs, his LOOK bike, his backlog of work (his assistant is on holiday). He pulls up the PBP results on the web to show me that some Frenchmen have just completed the ride. I buy a jersey and bibs made in Bretagne and he throws in a cap and water bottle. I promise to wear the cap when I cross the finish at Paris, and head out.

This is living. I'm on le retour and have time to enjoy. I stop at a café for ice cream and get lemonade for the water bottles then carve through the downtown curves before racing along looking for those hills—we do the climb where I saw Chet and Cindy and I'm looking for the mountain village of Huelgoat were I'll stop for pastries, but we bypass all that and take a MUCH flatter route. That's fine by me too! Carhaix before dark, and then into Loudeac for the second big sleep.

Wheel into Carhaix and…horror of horrors!…my pannier is not be found! I check around, to the point of annoying the staffers at the control, read the message board, leave messages, try to buy a jacket or at least a reflective sash—no dice. Too much time wasted. Let's go, Allons, mes Amis!

I get a bit tired before reaching Loudeac—I guess it's understandable that those last few miles before a destination are always the ones that seem to stretch out. It's also amazing how traveling a route only once can create such a sense of familiarity in the mind. It's not as strong here as in the states, where subtle things are more normalized. Back into Loudeac—learned my lesson: no sleeping in the Cafeteria this time—grab the same spot of pavement as on the outward trip to lay my bike down, though it's much less crowded this time, and head for the cot. 3am check in—I should get up at 5am, but it'd be nice to sleep to 6am, and then there'd be sunlight. Monsieur agrees, seis heure is more civil, so seis heure it is. Another enchantingly simple awakening, «Monsieur, Seis Heure,» and I'm ready to go again!

Thursday - 21 Aug: (Creedence:) "Oh Lord, stuck in Loudeac again…"

Heading east, we pass through the nicer part of Tinteniac first, past the "Zabel" graffiti and then into the control. It's another hot and sunny afternoon. Will I make it?. Activities are clearly winding down, the cafeteria selections are running a bit spartan now. The tendons are getting tender in the backs of both my ankles now - it's not the pain that bothers me, but the thought that something could tear. I've never had this before on any ride, but other riders tell me they have, and survived, so that's a relief. That afternoon sun coming into the control was a bit much, but it's subsiding now, and though my tendons have seen better days, I feel okay. I'm just going to take it steady as she goes and enjoy the ride without straining those tendons unnecessarily. I find a local wrench and get as much info as can from him regarding these Bretagne flags—they have the stripes and fields similar to the U.S. flag but (1) They're black and white and (2) Instead of stars on the field, there's some kind of…trees? He tells me this flag is much older than the U.S.. The symbols are of heraldry. The things that look like trees are represent an animal called a "H'ermine"—it might be what we call a "mink" in English?

Next stop is Fougeres, near the eastern edge of Bretagne, or perhaps western Normandie? The ride goes well enough, mostly flat but not without hills. I seem to be on time, at least I don't seem to be worried about time. Just a bit before town I see one cyclist suddenly going the wrong way—"Is the control back there?" he shouts. I don't think so, but…he's not waiting for an answer…poor guy, overcome by panic. I'm just going on memory, which has been wrong before, but I'm pretty confident we've got a few more turns before the control.

Memory proves right this time. The control shows up soon enough after entering town. This is the spot where I last saw Lisa and where I chatted with Joel. I park the bike and check-in. This could be another beer break. Time to try to find some night clothes though. The staffers introduce me to a fellow who teaches English. He gets me to an ATM machine ("dispensor") to get some Euros and I'm able to purchase a sleeveless wind-vest and clean, dry Rabbobank bibbers. I've got leg warmers. The staffers tell me they're not going to DQ me for lack of a reflective sash at this point—if I feel okay riding with out, that's good enough. I'd like a light, better to see the signs, but that's not available. Then Lisa shows up again! "What do you need?" she asks—she's here to make SURE I make it. No doubt of finishing now! I shower up and change into my new clothes before striking out.

Miles up the road I remember the headlamp I just borrowed from Lisa is still hanging in the shower room. Arrghh! That's two headlamps I loose before ever using either one! The course continues and as the evening hours approach I'm feeling pretty strong and pick up some really good speed. I pass a lot of bikes, feeling perhaps a bit rude, but I feel that when I'm feeling strong, I'd better not forsake the opportunity. Getting out ahead by myself, I occasionally have to stop to check my bearings and it's always surprising how quickly those you passed come back up on you. Maybe passing them encourages them to pick it up a notch? Hey, there's a great idea—I usually have more water bottle holders than water bottles—here's a cyclist riding along with a jar of peanut butter in one water bottle cage! The course gets steeper with some fast descents into the shadows that keep me thinking, "I SURE hope we're going the right way." On a hilltop, a cyclist stopped with a camera calls out, "Do you SEE that sunset!?!" I look behind and it really is marvelous, but I keep going and arrive in Villaines la Juhel around midnight.

The atmosphere is festive in Villaines la Juhel tonight. There's plenty of riders napping under the bright lights. I go straight to the bar down three Oranginas. Proudly give directions from memory to another rider regarding the layout (Go across the street—restaurant to the left, showers to the right). Grab a bite myself—«Harricots and potatoes, merci», but no to the eggs this time, then I'd better hit the road because it'll likely be 5:00am when I get to the next control!

On through the night! In a "Fresh Air" episode called "Hands on a Hard Body" Ira Glass interviews a Texan who won a Chevy Hard-body Truck by being the last man standing in a "keep your hand on the truck" competition that went on for days (and nights). In a southern drawl, the victor says, "After 24 hours, you begin to loose your mind. And let me tell you something: The Mind is Powerful thing." I like to repeat this, "The My-ahnd is a Pawrawful thang" when I feel that giddy hallucinating sensation commence. And this was clearly to be the night of surrealistic cycling. No hope at all of following the directions, I try to get bearings from the stars. The North Star looks very high on the horizon and we seem to be traveling northeast. East is good. I'm not sure about the north part. The crescent moon rises to the left of the road. I'm following groups of French speakers and sometimes Aussies, and they seem confident, and quick paced. I think they're enjoying the cooler air. There's long straight stretches of what seems like larger highways. We're occasionally passed by eighteen wheelers. Then the moon is on our right! I'm confused, are we headed farther north? I wish I'd looked at some star chart of the August sky over France before leaving home. We race on, and an eighteen wheeler passes us going up a hill. Then there's a LOT of red lights at the top of the hill—has the eighteen wheeler hit somebody I wonder? No! It's a bunch of folks who're staffing a roadside table at 3am for our benefit! I stop, though I don't need anything, I'm just choked up with gratitude and wonder. These people probably have to go to work in a few hours, but here they are handing out free refreshments to us!

All along the route, the children giving water or cookies, the families brewing coffee in the middle of the night, and the crowds applauding and shouting "Bravo!" as we passed were unbelievable. In the middle of the night I was sad to think that these people would get a very different reception in my country.

We move on and into a roundabout. A van driver tells us we've got 25km to go—I thought it was less. We push on and the terrain becomes more rugged but the pack is larger. Lots of taillights to follow. Often they stretch out ahead and up toward the sky. Straight roads and climbing. Some sudden turns and drops down into a river valley. Should be there soon now… We enter a sleeping village and plummet down a hill. Just before the bottom we miss a turn but two cyclists waiting at the corner call us back. It's a sharp turn and easy to miss. What good fortune to have those two call us back. A few hundred meters up the road there's a café open where throngs of noisy cheerful cyclists are having coffee, wine, beer and pastries there. Through open doors light, warmth and laughter spills out into the dark streets. I walk through, but can't afford the time to stay—brief chat with some Aussies in the parking lot across the street and then onward. Got to make Montagne au Perche by 5am—there won't be much time for rest even at that.

The roads are straight and smoothe, the night dark and cool. Every 200 ft or so there's another bike by the side of the road with it's lights on and the cyclist sprawled haphazardly in the grass or snuggled into a ditch. I understand guerilla camping, but in our country we must be careful to turn the lights off well before leaving the roadway, lest we be noticed, as we crawl into the woods to hide. And it's too cool out to sleep without tent or bag. And some of these guys are just a few miles before or after a control!

A tired mind becomes a shape shifter, I start seeing off in the distance those large green reflective highway signs that you see on Interstates in the U.S., but they never get any closer. Eventually I realize those signs have red taillights—it's the other riders that somehow look like signs to my tired mind. The thing that disturbs me most is being confused about the pavement markings—I was able to figure out the funny curved arrows pointing the wrong way—they signal that the "passing zone" is ending and it's time to get back in your lane, but now they're not quite right—too far to the left instead of being in the center. More disturbing is the lines. Why is there a single solid white line down the middle?!? And why are the "fog lines" at the edge of the road (along the shoulder) DASHED? Are there no standards in this country? Or does this mean something that I cannot grasp?

The route becomes hillier and twists. I check my clock and find it's only advancing maybe 5 minutes for what seems to me must be half-an-hour. The odometer agrees with the clock, so I KNOW it must be a conspiracy! I force myself around a few curves and notice I'm only following about four taillights now. Uh oh. It was easily fifty taillights moments ago…how could this happen? Did they speed up? Or did they turn in?!? That must be it—I missed the control, they turned in, and these four fools struck out from the control for the next leg at 4am for god knows what reason.

Then, it's there—the big illuminated building that was the first control on the way out. Splendid sight. Time is 5:01am—excellent! Well, not by the original plan, but at least I haven't slipped from the latest revision. Not much time to sleep, and I'm not walking well, so it's STRAIGHT to bed. This time, instead of an older French gentleman ushering me to my cot, it's a sweet young lady showing me to my assigned mattress—this could be an even more pleasant awakening, which is good, because I won't get much sleep («seis heure et demi»—6:30am wake up).

Friday - 22 Aug: The triumphant return of the "Ancien"

Well, the demoiselle must've gone off duty by 6:30am, I don't recall the exact awakening but it wasn't so pleasant. Ugh it took me awhile to get going Friday morning. I wished I'd taken just an extra minute the night before to take an aspirin before bed. I don't really feel hungry, but I get a plate of food mostly to stall for time then finally get on the road. My stomach gets a bit queasy—could be the breakfast I didn't really want but I've got a feeling the Rolaids I swallowed preemptively isn't agreeing with me. A few miles of flats and then we enter some kind of protected forest. It reminds me of the Appalachians—not quite as steep, but close to the foothills steepness. The soil appears more sandy or loamy here than the Appalachians. Climbing, but…it's nice. There's this magic feeling I get near the top of climbs like this when some invisible magnetism seems to begin pulling me forward when I'm near the top. My speedometer just inexplicably begins rising. Either there's some sort of optical illusion and I'm really starting to descend when my eyes are telling me it's still uphill or maybe as the slope levels out my legs are still pushing with the same strength and the speed increases under reduced resistance. Either way, it's a lot of fun watching that speedometer climb five to ten mph unexpectedly!

Then we level off and begin to cross what seems like a high, treeless plateau. Harvested fields lie barren on either side. Occasionally we go through the park again. One small town and I pull over for a minute, but my stomach is too queasy to get off the bike. I'm unsure what type of terrain lies ahead so I push hard to keep myself at a point where I can make it in on time even if my average drops below 10mph.

The official motorcycle zips past and for the first time it really annoys me. I don't know if it's the same motorcycle and rider as earlier but this one is going too fast—what use does he think he is? And leaving a trail of nasty smelling fumes.

Rest stop at Nogent la Roi. Got to get something to soothe my stomach. Those sliced melons smell wonderful, but too sweet—I find what I need a ginger ale and a large sparkling water. I sit with an older Australian who advises me that the best thing to do for me bum is to double up on the padded shorts, yes sir. It's a bit warm, but it'll do your bum good. I promise to pull a filthy pair out of my laundry and slide 'em on over top.

Heading out of the rest stop I try to turn too large a gear and fall over into the ornamental bushes. A couple of staffers reach down and pull me upright. I laugh at myself and get underway. Mostly flat from here on in, then we hit some kind of a boulevard—not wide, but flat and straight and lined with perfectly spaced sycamores, reminds me of what a section of road west of Baton Rouge must've been like when it was new. There's cyclists asleep on the side of the road even HERE! With only a few hours to go!?! Should I wake them? No, if they've got a plan that allows for this, the last thing they need is some idiot disturbing them. We hit that city park that we shot through in darkness on Monday. Time is fine—I can average 8mph and still be in on time. We're all just rolling along soft pedaling and enjoying the tail end of the ride. The only danger now is being overcome by sleeplessness and I do slip off the side of the road once due to sunny afternoon drowsiness, but I shake myself out of it, take the first gel of the ride and get back on.

We leave the park and enter the suburbs. I've got time, even without using my extra 45 minutes. Should I stop to cut it closer? "Get my money's worth" out of the ride, as we jokingly call it. Nah, to tired—it would be to risky—I could still have a mechanical problem or cramp. I stop once at a Tabac to see if I can get some sunglasses—as much because I need sunglasses as just to keep the mind awake. Eventually we come up on the Sports center and I'm thinking "We're there!" but a cyclist heading the other way says "Only 20km to go!" "Only!?!" I think. Two motorcycles join us now, one stopping traffic at the intersections and the other sweeping. This is helpful. I look around at my fellow cyclists in this small group—this is it—these are my cohorts in completing PBP.

Chet and Cindy are at the roundabout to applaud our arrival. Later I learn they got in Thursday night. I park the bike around back and strike out to get myself into the first set of NON-CYCLING clothes in four days. The ride T-shirt is good, but no luck on finding non-cycling shorts. Over to the food/beer tent and several Kronenbourgs and one Heinekin later I'm talking to Joel. It turns out he never ended up using the tent and sleeping bag, but was still glad to have brought it. They're doing some kind of ceremony inside, but the buildings not air conditioned and I'm not about to go sit in some crowded bleachers so I check the luggage area for my lost equipment, get directions from the chamber of commerce folks and bike over to the rail station to catch the train back to St. Quentin.

Oh yeah, we rocked baby—if that doesn't prove it all night, I don't know what does!

Saturday and Sunday - 23/24 Aug: Epilogue

After the I mentioned to another rider my desire to ride faster next time, because this time I had no time to "do things". "What sort of things?" he asks and I explain that I didn't have time to hang out, visit etc… "You're not supposed to!" he says. This depresses me a bit, and I have one last "low" even though the ride is over. I talk with a Valencian living in Paris at the food tent and tell him about my recent trip through Valencia, Riba-Roja, Beterra, l'Oronet and visiting the castle ruins at Serra. He objects to calling it the castle at Serra—I think he wants me to call it the Valencian castle. I'm sure if we're talking about the same castle. I talk to an older man who's slobbering over a Pinnerelo. The limited constraints of conversation with a bike component geek make it possible to communicate through the language barrier, but this doesn't lift my mood any. Back at the hotel, I leave Sridhar a note to please wake me when he gets in—he tries, but I'm too zonked.

I get up early the next morning though—ready to enjoy the final days in Paris. Breakfast at the hotel, then go help Sridhar get his bike into a storage area before he and Solveig board the train to see the coast of Normandy. I take the Métro back to port d'Orleans and wander south of le Périphérique, picking up some fruit and a half-pint of Calvados at a produce stand. Stop off at streetside Crepe vendor—oh man, this is the best eating I've done in Paris—these guys are wonderful. He cooks the crepe on one burner, then flips it to the other and loads it high with cheese, tomatoes and champignons (mushrooms). Then folds it into a triangle and wraps in paper. The edges are crisp and center tender—a can of Heineken—fantastique! Then I spend two hours doing the two things on which I'm loathe to waste vacation time: shopping and phone calls. The shopping is to get some clean clothes—score some stuff for real cheap at "Go Sport" including a nice back pack for 25 euros. Figuring out how to work the phones is non-trivial. I get Mike Dayton's phone number, ask him about dinner plans and invite myself to meet him at his hotel—good chance to test out riding with this big back pack. All the streets I want to take are one-way in the wrong direction, and, unlike in the U.S., you can't just go up a block and take the street that's one-way in the opposite direction. Paris is not on a grid.

I believe this these are the keys to traveling the Paris streets:

I meet an elderly gentleman out walking his dog. He gets excited about my "Audax" T-shirt. Communicates to me that his grandfather rode a 1400km Audax ride in Italy in 1904.

Mike's hotel, near the Luxembourg Gardens, looks very nice from the lobby—old building with hardwood floors and antiques, but we can't bring the bikes to the rooms so we store them in a narrow stairwell just off the lobby. The desk clerk provides us with Perrier and beer, then we go out for supper, walking, coffee and ice cream near the Pantheon. We watch the Eiffel Tower suddenly lit up with strobes, stop in at an Internet café. I had paid the other clerk for our beverages before leaving the hotel and this caused a problem—Apparently since the desk clerk offered them to us, it was not permitted that we should pay, and they insisted on refunding the money. Along the midnight ride back to my hotel, I stop along the way at one of those streetside produce stands (they're open until 1am) to get a juicy peach, bottle of red table wine and some Fromage and Brie to supplement the hotel breakfast.

Up at 7am on Sunday, breakfast then cycle with the backpack to Rochereau. Following the monument signs of course, no trouble getting to Rocherou, but then it takes me a few minutes to find the RER station. Somehow I purchase two tickets to the airport (did she think I was going round trip?). Board the RER-B (Blue line) headed toward CDG. My itinerary doesn't indicate whether my departure is from CDG-1 or CDG-2. I guess CDG-2. Wrong. That's 0 out of 2 times. Oh well, catch the shuttle—glad I'm not pressed for time. Request a bike box at the US Air desk and they phone downstairs. I unload my things and while I'm bent over the bike removing pedals I notice a giant bicycle logo—it's a bike box. Wow! That was fast. Then some guy is hauling it off—wait, no! Where are you going. But it's his box, mine hasn't arrived yet. When mine arrives I put the bike in, borrow some tape and seal up one end. The security staffer isn't really interested in looking at it, but the attendant insists so she dons her plastic glove and comes on over. Just then I remember the CO2 cartridges in the trunk bag and slip them out and into my pocket, ("clink"). I pass inspection and toss the two silver CO2 cartridges in the first ashtray I see.

They put me through first-class baggage check and I'm off to the gate—lots of sleep on the plane this time. In Philadelphia, customs is a hassle—the voice on the PA keeps telling U.S. passport holders to get in one set of lines, while the TSA guards insist on putting us in other lines. Eventually get through, then the oversize baggage handler tells me that there were no bikes on that flight. I know that's wrong—I know there was at least three (mine, Mike's and the French guy with the box at CDG), and Mike's already got his and gone through customs with it. About 45 minutes later they find out there's nobody at the bottom of the baggage elevator and then produce our bikes. I've been talking to the French guy—he's from Brittany, on his way to Quebec for mountain biking. Finally get through customs and recheck the bags—run like hell to get out of international, into domestic, through security again, down the "B" terminal—you're flight's been moved to "C", and it's boarding. Run like hell again, to "C" terminal. There's the gate. There's the plane, but they're boarded and the door is shut. Bang on the door. Attendant: "I don't know what you're doing down there, that plane is gone." "But I can see it." "The door's shut—it's gone." Okay, cool down, be polite, she gets me a seat on the next flight. Call home and report one final delay. Surprisingly my checked backpack and bike DID make the connection. I don my Bretagne jersey and cap for arrival. Padmini, Glenn, Gilbert, both Susans, Aaron and Shanti all greet me at the terminal and we celebrate at "Suchi's Hyderabad-style Restaurant".

Fantastic experience. I'll plan to be there again 2007. Even if I'm unable to ride for any reason, it's worth it just to go do support, hang-out, spectate, hand out water and bon-bons, …

(P.S.: Check out what Alpo Kuusisto rides!)

Also see Sridhar's photos.

More PBP 2003 Ride Reports and Photos.

Copyright © 2003 Adrian Hands.
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