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Paris-Brest-Paris 2015, part 2: Y ont-tu l’affaire les Armoricains!

It wasn’t until after I had finished Paris-Brest-Paris that I learned the term “full-value rider”, for someone who purposely takes as much of the 90-hour time limit as possible to finish, but this had been my plan all along. I had hoped to accomplish this not by going slowly, but by maximizing the amount of sleep I got and minimizing the amount of time wasted at controls, essentially the same game plan that worked out so well for me on this year’s 600km brevet.

But it wasn’t until I passed a long, but throughly miserable, night at Carhaix that I realized that PBP is not just a different game, but an entirely different league. I had many lessons to learn.

It started well enough – after a moment of panic where I was throroughly convinced I had gone off course, somewhere deep in the Argoat (not to be confused with the Ur Goat) before Maël-Carhaix, I was caught by a couple of Chinese riders and mustered up a mighty second wind that carried me all the way to the other Carhaix (-Plougeur), where the control was located in an immense lycée on the way into town, arriving not long after midnight.

My plan for full-value riding was to ride until this time the next two nights, eat a huge meal, sleep 3-4 hours, then get up at 5 and be on the road by 6. As I climbed the stairs to the cafeteria, I noticed that a lot of people were simply passed out in the hallway rather than using the designated sleeping place, which seemed odd to me – why sleep on a hard floor with no blanket (or a space blanket) when you could at least get a soft mat and a cover?

I then discovered that the meal service was extremely variable between controls. The option here was spaghetti with meat sauce. I asked if they might have a sauce without meat… no dice. Could I just have pasta with cheese and butter? I could… except they were out of cheese. Dejected, I shuffled away and grabbed some bread, a bottle of beer, and a stack of salads, some of which were admittedly pretty good.

Lesson learned: Don’t rely on the control food. In fact, you can probably save time by never eating at the controls (although I never had to deal with very long lines after Villaines, and the food at Dreux was exceptionally good). You may think that this is a problem because nothing else is open at night, but there will always be people along the road offering or selling cakes or crêpes or other stuff, even in the most improbable places at the most improbable hours!

The sleeping place was way on the other side of the huge parking lot that held our bikes and down a small hill. I had no towel for the shower, and the disposable one they supplied didn’t do a whole lot for me. As I hurried to the sleep room, damp and shivering, I discovered that they had no covers either … but don’t worry, someone will get up and you can take theirs, I was told! Conveniently, they were able to get me one right away. Except that it wasn’t a wool blanket like at Villaines, but a thin cotton sheet. I curled up into a tiny ball and hoped I wouldn’t die of hypothermia. I now understood why so many people had chosen just to crash out in the much warmer cafeteria.

Lesson learned: bring a blanket (at least a space blanket). Maybe a travel towel too, because the showers may or may not have something useful (and the velodrome at the end has nice showers, but no towels). But definitely, definitely bring toilet paper, because the toilets are guaranteed not to have any when you need it. (Like, at the start of the ride, for instance)

Suddenly, it was 5AM, and my alarm was going off at the same time I was being woken up by a volunteer (another lesson learned – don’t bother setting your alarm if you are in the sleeping area, because you paid for a wake-up, they know what they’re doing, and the noise will just annoy people). I pulled my stuff together and sprinted to the bike to stave off another attack of the shivers. I had no desire to stay any longer at this control than absolutely necessary – there would have to be a café, or something, on the way out of town.

It was a dark and foggy morning, but sure enough, the first café on the main street was open and serving hot, delicious espresso. A cute little dog ran back and forth between our legs, trying to herd us towards the bar. I had a couple of granola bars left which I had bought by the side of the road the night before, but I would need to get actual food soon – perhaps at a crêperie?

Climbing towards Roc'h Ruz

Roc’h Trevezel, not an actual climb.

The reward for a miserable night at Carhaix was a few hours of fantastic cycling on the remaining 89km to Brest. The elevation profile is misleading, since while this would take us to the highest point on PBP, the unnamed saddle between Roc’h Ruz and Roc’h Trevezel, it would also take us nearly 15km to get there, winding along a valley floor through a lush forest criss-crossed by hiking trails on the way up to Huelgoat (unfortunately not pronounced “hool-goat” but rather “uu-ehl-go-aht”), and then breaking through to the treeless highlands after La Feuillée.

After a brief photo session at the roundabout on the summit, it was time for the “descent” to Brest, which was so absurdly not steep that I actually had to pedal going downhill in order to stay above 30 km/h. I generally use that as the cutoff for when to get in and out of the full aero tuck, because as I like to say, gravity, like fuckin’ magnets, is free energy that comes from the earth! None of the dozens of crêperies of Huelgoat had been open when I passed through, but by the time I passed a particularly nice looking one on the way down, I was so focused on getting to Brest that I forgot about my breakfast plans. The party had not really gotten started in Sizun, so I admired the architecture briefly and pressed on. At the crossroads by La Martyre, I stopped at a roadside table where some friendly locals served me coffee and cake and gave me a card with their address and a tiny Gwenn-ha-du on a toothpick, after which I powered off again with my mind on Brest and, hopefully, a pâtisserie or two.

As I crossed the N164 and started the final descent to Brest, the air smelled like butter and sugar. A sign before the bridge over the Elorn promised free crêpes, but sadly they seem to have packed up and gone home by the time I made it there…

Achievement unlocked!

Achievement unlocked!

On the long climb up from sea level to the control in Brest, I spotted a pastry shop and ducked into further my quest for Breton delicacies. No kouign amman, but there was, miraculously, a little stack of delicious far breton made with prunes. Things were looking up, finally!

The atmosphere at the control was relaxed, as everyone seemed a little bit relieved at having made it to the halfway mark. I saw a number of other riders from the Montreal club, ate a “full French breakfast” (which is nothing like a full Irish breakfast) on the lawn with my erstwhile companions Ralph, Trevor, and Olivier C., and eventually laid down in the shade and caught perhaps the best 15 minutes of sleep I got on the whole ride.

Far breton (not to be confused with

Far breton (not to be confused with “farz” which is I guess some kind of Breton haggis-like substance)

By this point, the little creaking noise my bike made while climbing had turned into an intermittent dry crunch, and I checked in with the mechanic, who told me what I already knew (the bottom bracket had play in it, it was failing, and the bike still worked fine minus the awful noise) and offered me a random Campy sealed BB pulled out of a bin, which had clearly neither a JIS taper nor a 115mm axle. I would just have to live with that noise for the next 615km.

The traffic was quite heavy on the way out of Brest through the suburb of Guipavas, and though it cost me a huge amount of time to cross the street to check out the two pâtisseries I passed, it was thoroughly worth it, as I finally found an absurdly delicious pastry made of kouign amman dough wrapped around chocolate. I supplemented it with some bread and wandered over to the Lidl (which it turns out is kind of like Aldi, but cheaper) next door to stock up on bananas and goat cheese pucks. As I approached the single checkout line, my heart sank as I found myself behind 5 people pushing carts of what appeared to be several hundred euros worth of groceries… and no other way to exit the store, since it seems that one of the ways they cut costs is by making it impossible to exit the store without buying something!

Seeing the concerned look on my face, the entire lineup agreed that they should wave me to the front – “vous êtes en course, c’est le moins qu’on puisse faire!” Thanks, people of Guipavas!

Chocolate rolled in kouign amman pastry. OH yes.

Chocolate rolled in kouign amman pastry. OH yes.

Finally, after a good hour of niaisage (a word that is sadly lacking from the continental French vocabulary) I made it out of the suburbs of Brest. The sun was shining brightly, the fields and trees were green, and after some ups and downs I briefly even caught up with Casey, a Montreal rider in the 84-hour group, on a thrilling descent back to the valley of the Elorn. Of course, he was actually going much faster than me, since he had started 10 hours later.

I was now confronted with a problem I hadn’t had to deal with for the past 43 hours. To put it delicately, I was no longer constipated. Maybe it was the prunes in that far breton I ate? The problem here is that, while public toilets are nearly as common in rural France as they are in China, they are also about equally likely to be stocked with toilet paper – in other words, not at all. The bike traffic had become quite heavy, and as I repeatedly ducked into one toilet after another in Landerneau, I saw what seemed like most of the 90-hour group go by. Finally, I spotted a grocery store and tried to buy some paper there (as I should have done before the ride even started) and it had closed at 1PM! Not willing to lose any more time, I decided to ride on to Sizun, where I triumphantly marched into the 8-à-Huit on the main square and plunked down my hard-earned euros on a huge bottle of St-Yorre (slogan: Ça va fort, très fort!), yet another package of  cheese, and a pack of tissues.

Party time in Sizun

Party time in Sizun

As it turns out, China and rural France have one more thing in common: squat toilets. Luckily I had mastered the use of these during my recent trip to Beijing, and I appreciated the fact that in France, they actually have stalls, instead of being a row of holes in the floor where the locals while away the evening hours with their pants down, smoking and reading Weibo on their smartphones. As I repacked my saddle-bag outside, I personally witnessed several randonneurs recoiling in horror from the facilities, but in fact a squat toilet is much more hygenic than a sit-down one, and these ones at least were smartly designed such that the flush water flows over the foot-pads before going down the bowl, thus cleaning the whole thing at once.

Ironically, in Turkey, a squat toilet is called an alaturka tuvalet while a sit toilet is called alafranga tuvalet, meaning “Western toilet” but derived from the Italian word for… “French style“!

Even more ironically, the toilet in Sizun turned out to have a toilet paper dispenser right in the entrance.

Huh huh,

“Climbing” Roc’h Trevezel again. Also: “Boneur” (huh huh)

The party was now in full swing in Sizun, with riders camped out in front of all the cafés on the square. I had originally planned to be out of Brest well before noon and to ride to Tinténiac or possibly even Fougères before stopping to sleep at a reasonable hour (say, 1AM). Still clinging to my fantasy of riding PBP with a full night’s sleep between each stage, I headed out of town without checking out the local bakeries, which unfortunately were apparently quite good.

Feeling relieved and energized, I cranked my way up Roc’h Trévezel at a good pace, chatting with a French guy who was looking for bike touring advice for a trip to Québec. Disappointed at the food I’d eaten so far, I made the decision that I would definitely stop in Huelgoat at one of those crêperies on the way to Carhaix.  Little did I know that, for reasons unknown, the route going back doesn’t actually go through Huelgoat, nor does it go back down the gorgeous road through the Vallée de l’Argent. Instead, we continued straight on the frankly kind of awful D764 (even featuring a freeway-style interchange at one point). But worse yet, a lot of slower riders seemed to have missed the turn and were also coming the other way from Carhaix on this decidedly non-scenic route.

Back in Carhaix. Note the Breton-language sign on the business to the right!

Back in Carhaix. Note the Breton-language sign (Horolajer) on the business to the right! And, of course, more Breton flags.

Carhaix was a lot more exciting at 4 in the afternoon than it was at 5 in the morning. Now that the fog was gone and I could actually take a look around, I realized that Carhaix is something of a hotspot for Breton language and nationalism. From the “Breizh 5/5” sign on the way into town featuring a bunch of happy shiny ermine-people with département numbers on their shirts (most prominently number 44) to the “arabat parkañ” signs and a few businesses with bilingual or even Breton-only signs in their windows, this was the place that had the strongest feeling of being not quite in France.

I passed uneventfully through this and the next “secret” control at Maël-Carhaix, actually keeping my stops to a minimum for a change. Once again, the route was subtly different on the way back, which probably explains why it felt like I was lost the night before – there were no riders coming the other direction because they were on a different road! From St-Martin-des-Près onward, however, the two directions would be nearly identical all the way to Mortagne-au-Perche. For the moment, there were still a few riders going the other direction (some of whom were clearly wildly over the time limit).

In St-Martin-des-Près, we were welcomed by accordionists and a boisterous folk song, despite it being after 8PM already (clearly I was not going to make it to Fougères tonight). The outdoor bar was still set up and in full swing, and I wasn’t going to make the mistake of not stopping this time. My stomach revolted at the idea of fries, and the only other savory option was the infamous galette saucisse, so I settled on a crêpe with chocolate. And no cider, for the moment.

Breizh sunset 3/3 (in HDR this time)

Breizh sunset 2/2 (in HDR this time)

Although the sun had begun to set on the way into Loudéac, I was able to see the enormous hills that I had climbed in the dark the previous night, which made them much easier to bear despite the ever-louder creaking coming from my bottom bracket. The atmosphere at Loudéac was a lot more subdued than it had been the night before, and mercifully there wasn’t any music this time.  Still, I tried not to linger too long, still hoping to get to Tinténiac at 2 or 3 in the morning to sleep.

On the road out of Loudéac, I started to suffer from a combination of fatigue and terrible heartburn, likely brought on by a dietary indiscretion when leaving the control. I have become a fairly bad vegetarian as the years go on – not to say that I’m one of those people who is like “I’m vegetarian but I eat fish and chicken” or such – although actually I suppose I am, since I have long turned a blind eye to both fish sauce and chicken stock when eating at restaurants! But more to the point, when a singular eating experience involving meat presents itself, perhaps every 2 or 3 months, I’ll usually go for it, and in the end I usually decide that I like fake meat better anyway.  I have to say, though, the galette saucisse was pretty delicious (even though I broke at least 8 of the 10 commandments for eating it).

As I plodded along through the villages of La Chèze and Plumieux I felt worse and worse, desperately trying to keep myself awake with caffeinated energy gels and electrolyte drink. Finally, on the way into Ménéac, I saw an open garage door with a crowd sitting outside. I collapsed in one of the chairs and was offered hot coffee and far breton. A man gave me a slip of paper with an address, and started trying to explain something very slowly in English which made almost no sense to me in my state at the time. I stopped him to say “no, no, I speak French!” and, relieved, he explained that they offer people food and coffee in exchange for postcards from their home countries or cities. I knew right away that I would be sending them one of these excellent bike-themed cards from Montréal! I lingered for a while chatting and helping myself to more of the excellent far, now convinced that sadly, I would not make it further than Quédillac tonight.

When I eventually got to Quédillac, I dropped my bike on the rack in a most dramatic fashion and marched up to the food table to find… well, not much of anything, but I was able to get some yogurt, fruit, and a “cheese sandwich” consisting of a mini-baguette (a fairly good one) and some blocks of Swiss cheese.  Then, I noticed they were serving cider for 50 cents a glass out of an unmarked plastic bottle. Great. I’ll take two, please! It was already nearly 2AM, later than I had hoped but with ample time to get a good night’s sleep and make it the remaining 26km to Tinténiac before the cutoff (which was 9:42AM for my starting group). Unfortunately, this was not going to happen, because the sleeping area was full!  I was in no shape to continue, so I found a place on the floor in between a couple of other sleeping riders and laid down to get whatever sleep I could.

I left Quédillac somewhere around 3:30AM, unable to stay warm. Perhaps I would sleep at Tinténiac or Fougères. Either way, I had now completely given up on my idea of “a full night’s sleep”, or really, the idea of sleep in general. From now on, I would rest, not sleep.

Sun goes down, sun comes up...

Sun goes down, sun comes up…

I remember exactly nothing about the ride to Tinténiac, but apparently I managed to get there by 5:30AM, and I don’t think I stuck around much longer than necessary. Somewhere on the way out of town, I was treated to a glorious sunrise which instantly lifted my spirits and in hindsight was probably the reason I didn’t try to sleep more at the control. Satisfied, I turned off the road into the next available hayfield and laid down to sleep until 9AM or so, a deep and glorious sleep which left me wondering why I had ever bothered with the controls in the first place. Not only was I awake again and feeling refreshed, but even my heartburn was finally gone!

Let's look at that again, in HDR

Right before I passed out in a field somewhere…

My failure to get a proper night’s sleep had left me with a comfortable amount of “time in hand”. In fact, I had gotten so far caught up that I actually saw Trevor, who I hadn’t seen since Brest and figured was long gone, at the control at Fougères. I decided that today, I would not even bother trying to make good time. If there was food by the side of the road, I would stop for it. If there was a picture to be taken, I would take it. I even took a couple of small detours to check out museums and art exhibits (which turned out to be closed…) After giving up on all of the plans and strategies I had spent so long worrying about in the months before the ride, I realized that I was going to finish anyway, broken bottom bracket, saddle sores, and all.

Lesson learned.

Paris-Brest-Paris 2015, part 1: Les-brettoneux-qui-brettonnent

Oddly enough, the first “stage” of Paris-Brest-Paris Randonneur was the one that worried me the most. It would be 220km until the first control point at Villaines-la-Juhel and 140km before the food stop at Mortagne-au-Perche. Most of the riders I talked to planned to continue on through the night after Villaines, stopping to sleep wherever they happened to fall over from fatigue the next day, or perhaps at St-Nicolas-du-Pélem, the last stop before Brest. I knew from my Ottawa experience that this was not going to work for me, so I planned to ride to Villaines, stopping as little as possible while trying not to push myself too hard, especially on the flats. This was harder than I thought, but the heart rate monitor helped. I lost my starting partner Trevor off the front fairly early on and progressively fell further and further back until I found a group of cheerful Brits and Canadians from out west whose pace was comfortably relaxed.

The crowds that had gathered to see us off certainly tried to pump me up to go faster than I should have – right away I figured out my technique for giving high-fives to kids along the side of the road, who would demand them every couple of kilometres for the next 1200! As we left the agglomeration of Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, though, the crowds evaporated, and the rare towns we passed through mostly ignored our presence, which I found a little bit strange, but I just attributed to us being still too close to Paris for anybody to really care about some strange bike tour that happens every 4 years, or to everybody just being on vacation somewhere.

Traverse de l'Eure en route vers Mortagne-au-Perche

Traverse de l’Eure en route vers Mortagne-au-Perche

The earlier departure slots (starting at 5:30PM) were in great demand, and my 600km brevet from 2014 gave me the right to preregister for one of them, but I chose 7PM reasoning that I would have time to eat a good meal before leaving. In the end, this didn’t happen, but I was able to carry along some cheese and bananas left over from a picnic in the gardens of Versailles on the way to the start. This, along with the 3 Larabars I had brought over on the plane, was to be my salvation as, in addition to the towns being strangely deserted, there was almost nowhere to get food or water between the start and Mortagne-au-Perche, and the one or two cafés that had stayed open to welcome riders were mobbed with people.

The other nice thing about leaving later in the afternoon is that the landscape from Montfort-l’Amaury (km 23) to at least Senonches (km 96) is, well, kind of boring, and also quite flat with hardly any trees, hedges, or other windbreaks.  Leaving near dusk means that the wind is less of a factor, and there isn’t much to see in any case. I later learned that this region of France is known as the Beauce (and just as in Québec, the Beauce in France is also next door to the Maine) and it is principally known for being… an immense, flat plateau with no trees. It is also one of the first regions of France to have undergone remembrement, the consolidation of smaller, polyculture farms, usually separated by windbreaks, into massive monocultures. If it hadn’t been for the lovely architecture of the villages we passed through, I would have thought I was back in the Montérégie, or maybe in Iowa or Kansas.

Pause-pipi sous les phares du péloton

Pause-pipi sous les phares du peloton

I stopped exactly twice, once to pee by the side of the road, and once in a failed attempt to get a picture of the sign at the entrance to the town of Saint-Mard-de-Reno (for some reason I found this name hilarious), and to my surprise I made excellent time despite my efforts to keep my speed down, arriving in Mortagne before 12:30 AM. I was, however, quite hungry and irritable at this point. I took one look at the line for the cafeteria and decided to get a sandwich from the outdoor bar instead… but the only options were sausage and ham. Since I still had a bunch of cheese in my bag, I bought 2 sandwich breads and made myself a couple of sandwiches with that. After downing one with a Coke and stashing the other one for the road, I mixed up some more energy drink powder and set out for Villaines, eager to get away from the noise and chaos of this first stop.

The ride to Villaines was dark and quiet, without much to see, except that the hills and forests which had started after we finally exited the Beauce became more pronounced. As we entered the département of Mayenne, I started to see the first signs of real enthusiasm for PBP in the villages – all manner of banners, signs, and decorations encouraging us, and in particular, it seemed that each village had at least one and sometimes several residents who were themselves doing the ride. It felt a bit like the whole section for Paris up to Averton (the first village in the Mayenne) was really just a “transport stage”, or that the 200km it took to get this far was really the 5th brevet in the series of qualifiers, and having proved ourselves worthy, and sorted ourselves into groups, we were now ready to start the real event.

It helped that Villaines, both on the way out and the way back, was by far the best control. I got my control card stamped and headed straight to the cafeteria, which even explicitly offered a vegetarian option (and this was the last time I would see this…) After downing a huge plate of pasta, a small bottle of cider, and some Vichy water to calm my stomach, I headed to the dormitory to sleep for an hour and a half.  I was issued a wool blanket sown into a sleeping-bag and a place on the floor in one of several small rooms, with a wakeup scheduled for 6:45AM. It was simple but comfortable, and I laid down and tried my best to sleep, though my body clearly wanted to keep riding.

Repas végé à Vilaines... le dernier avant Dreux au retour :( Mais du bon cidre quand même!

Repas végé à Vilaines… le dernier avant Dreux au retour😦 Mais du bon cidre quand même!

As I hurried out of the dorm, handing my blanket to the volunteer who was on her way to wake me up, I noticed that the control had gone very quiet – clearly most of the other riders had chosen to continue on from here, riding through what remained of the night. I wondered if I had made the right choice. As I rode out of Villaines in the fog, through rolling fields and forests, I knew that I had, because I felt refreshed, and I was finally able to see the gorgeous countryside which I would have missed had I kept on in the dark.  More importantly, as I pulled into the village of Charchigné, I was able to stop at a table set up by the local bakery and buy a delicious pistachio éclair and some cheesy bread for the road. This was just the beginning of the non-stop festival of road food that awaited us for at least the next 800 km.

Départ de Vilaines dans le brouillard

Départ de Vilaines dans le brouillard

Beyond the beautiful scenery, it’s hard to do justice to the roadside spectacle that awaited us as we crossed the Mayenne. It helps that we were sharing part of the route with this year’s Tour de France, for which the locals had constructed all manner of 20-foot-tall bicycles and riders wearing yellow and polka-dot jerseys. Some of the TdF décor had clearly been repurposed for PBP by simply changing the banners (this may have been the case for the giant bike built out of hay bales, which now bore a banner encouraging a couple of locals who were riding PBP). Nonetheless, it gave the ride a delightful Alice-in-Wonderland feeling which made the kilometres fly by as I hurried excitedly from village to village wondering what kind of outlandish decorations I would see next.

Attention, le loup est dans les fougères...

Attention, le loup est dans les fougères…

By far my favorite was the tiny town of Loupfougères, not far outside Villaines, which was decorated to the hilt for its 3 PBP riders with life-sized puppet “spectators” in chairs and on propped-up bikes along its main street. I also liked the name of this town a lot, because it made me think of the silly post hoc names that were given to the numbered tracks on Ulver’s seminal second-wave black metal album Nattens Madrigal: Aatte hymnen til ulven i manen, like “Hymn VII: Of Wolf and Destiny”. I thought, perhaps there is an unreleased extra track somewhere called “Hymn IX: Of Wolf and Ferns” (loup et fougères)… This is just an example of the sort of elaborate, not particularly funny joke that I come up with in order to keep myself entertained on these long rides.

The route for stage 7 of this year’s Tour followed us from Lassay-les-Châteaux most of the way to Fougères. It’s no secret that I (and probably a good chunk of the audax/rando community) don’t follow pro cycling too closely and feel generally indifferent to the Tour de France. There are some historical roots to this – to me, the TdF and PBP represent the “two solitudes” of the sport, in France and elsewhere. Pierre Foglia, who I met briefly once while crossing the border by bike into Vermont, south of Freilighsburg, is famous for having written extensively about the Tour, and yet has only ever briefly mentioned Paris-Brest-Paris, in a column about the origins of the Tour de France. If it seems that PBP represents the egalitarian, republican (in the French sense of the word, which Americans can simply read as “democratic”) face of cycling, while the Tour and pro cycling in general have, in Foglia’s words, “always been very right-wing”, this may be no accident, as the Tour was born out of the refusal of the creator of PBP, Pierre Giffard, to take the nationalist, anti-semitic position of his main advertisers in the Dreyfus affair. L’Auto, the publication that came out of this dispute and which sponsored the Tour de France, was actually closed after WWII for having printed editorials favorable to the Nazi occupation.

The picture is, of course, a bit more complicated, as the format of qualifying brevets leading to PBP that we now know was actually created by Henri Desgranges, founder of the Tour de France along with the Audax movement. However, the PBP Randonneur that we ride today comes from yet another split in French cycling in the start of the 20th century, as the (confusingly named) Audax Club Parisien split from Desgranges over his disdain for multiple gears, which he dismissed as “fit only for invalids and women” (yup, what a great guy!) and reoriented itself towards the cyclotourisme movement.

It is, of course, doubtful that the local people who cheered both us and the pro riders of the Tour a month earlier cared much about any of this ancient history. From the warm reception we got and the endless signs in every village wishing “bon courage” from the local riders’ families to them “et tous les cyclistes” it seemed that, above all, we had entered a part of the world that takes the sport in all its forms seriously.

Château de Fougères vu par Google Photos

Château de Fougères vu à travers Google Photos

Fougères was the first control town in the region of Brittany (Bretagne or Breizh). Immediately after crossing the border into the region at the town of Le Loroux, I was greeted by a man waving an enormous Gwenn-ha-du (the omnipresent Breton flag) and asking me what part of France I was from. When I replied that I was from Québec, he exclaimed, with excitement “ah! les québecois sont comme des frères pour nous!” – a bit different from the usual “ah oui! nos cousins d’Amérique!” that one hears in France. In Brittany, apparently, you are upgraded from a cousin to a brother, which I suppose has a bit to do with a common history of Catholicism, language struggle, and occasionally blowing things up.

One might add that Bretons seem to love bicycles more than the rest of France in the same way that Quebecers love them more than the rest of Canada. So far I hadn’t seen any other riders on the road who weren’t also doing PBP, but from this point on they became more and more numerous.

I don’t remember much of anything about the control in Fougères on the way out. Since it apparently took me 3 hours to cover the 54km to Tinténiac, I must have eaten some food or rested for at least a little while, but it may have taken me that long just to buy a Coke, find some water and the bathrooms, and get stamped. On the Montréal brevets I prided myself on spending the least time at controls possible (so as to give more time for drinking beer!) and now I was beginning to understand the fabled “control time suck” that every single account of PBP warns about. Clearly along the way I stopped at a bakery, because it was here that I developed my technique for carrying food – place a baguette under the flap of the Carradice bag, tear pieces off of one side, push from the other side to dispense more bread!

The other reason I don’t remember much about the ride to Tinténiac is that it was mostly downhill and went by very quickly. At Tinténiac I hoped to find a pastry shop – I reasoned that, since I was now in Brittany, I would now be eating Kouign Amman and Far Breton until butter poured out of my eye sockets, right? I detoured onto the main street and saw that there was one which was most definitely closed for the holidays. The locals directed me to the strip mall beside the hypermarket (of course…), where I found a boulangerie-pâtisserie with a thoroughly average selection of the same bread and chocolatines (OOPS I MEAN PAINS AU CHOCOLAT) as everywhere else. But perhaps, I thought, with more or better butter? Disappointed but hungry, I bought one of each and then endured the hypermarket (where shopping is a baffling ordeal) to grab some bananas and pucks of ripened goat cheese for the road.

Typical French country market

Perhaps, I thought, it was just too late in the day (about 3:30PM), and all the good stuff sells out. Or perhaps I hadn’t gone “far” enough west yet? Either way, I became obsessed with finding the “good stuff” – le défi fut lancé! I now had a mission, quixotic as it was, which would probably end up costing me more time than all the control lines. But I would have my pastries. Or else.

At this point, graffiti on the pavement started to become abundant, possibly since we had briefly rejoined the route for next stage of the Tour de France. It seems that France is currently undergoing a pork crisis, and while ordinarily I would just make a joke about this is what happens to vegan straight-edgers when they go on tour in China (because… there is pork… in everything…), the graffiti was there to remind me that farmers are apparently committing suicide over this at an alarming rate, and that the government should dope nos prix (prop up our prices), and soon! Since I had lots of time to think, I started to wonder if the Kafkaesque system of supply management in Canada, where you have to buy a license on the market to tap a maple tree or milk a cow (going rate, tens of thousands per cow, apparently) or you get sued for millions of dollars, might not be such a bad thing. Ultimately, someone pays to support agricultural prices, whether it’s the farmer and the consumer (in Canada) or the taxpayer (in the US and Europe). At least in France the discussion over farm subsidies seems to take the form of protests and graffiti rather than rampant corruption in the political system like it does in the US.

As I inched further west, though, the graffiti began to change – instead of the laments of pig farmers, it began to prominently feature the letters BZH (for Breizh, i.e. Brittany), as in “BZH LIBRE” (clear enough) or the slightly milder, yet more cryptic “44 = BZH“.

Right outside of Tinténiac, the serious climbing began again, into the hilltop town of Bécherel (no word on whether you can ask the locals how to conjugate verbs, but it is apparently the city of books) and back down again. I was relatively shocked at how un-tired my legs were, though considering I was barely ⅓ of the way through the ride, I suppose it would be worse if it were the other way around! The three very large hills before Loudéac as the sun started to get lower in the sky had me worrying a bit more, and worse, I was starting to feel a bit bonked as I was funneled into the chaos of the Loudéac control, where some kind of danse party featuring the worst possible techno-reggae-party-rap music was in full swing. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough! Luckily, on the way out of town, as if put there on purpose to lift my spirits, I saw the first road sign indicating directions to Brest:

Brest or bust!

Brest or bust! (en sortant de Loudéac)

I later learned that this stage from Loudéac to Carhaix is considered the hardest part of PBP, which might explain why it was not only the first time I seriously contemplated quitting, but also the first time I experienced the panic of feeling completely lost and off-course (I wasn’t). The former happened on the truly excessive climb going into Merléac, while the latter was somewhere in the tangle of tiny roads between St-Nicolas-du-Pélem (the “secret” control for the way out) and Maël-Carhaix (the “secret” control for the way back, which was already set up when I passed it and thus not very secret, really).

Coucher de soleil en Bretagne profonde

Coucher de soleil en Bretagne profonde

I was so wiped out by the climbs from Loudéac to Merléac that I barely noticed the non-stop party that was now underway at St-Martin-des-Près, with its roadside bar serving frites and galette saucisses. My mind was now fixated on one objective: getting to Carhaix so I could go to sleep. The sun had gone down and it was starting to get quite cold. The other riders had now thinned out enough that it became rarer and rarer to see a trail of red lights ahead (instead, there were the red lights of wind turbines on the tops of the hills, like sirens trying to lure me off course). And finally, somewhere near Carhaix, all the signs started to bear strange inscriptions in an alien language … no, I was not hallucinating, I had finally entered Basse-Bretagne, where the Breton language (Brezhoneg) clings to life, at least on road signs. If I had come looking for dépaysement, perhaps I had finally found it.

Paris-Brest-Paris 2015, part 0: Les-moulineux-qui-moulinent

https://www.strava.com/activities/368131851

I landed in Paris at the tail end of a massive heat wave that was sweeping across Europe. As I wobbled out of Roissypôle on my hastily deplaned and ill-adjusted bike, sweat immediately started to soak the back of my shirt beneath the backpack that held all of my non-cycling clothes and other travel necessities.

Impossible de ne pas lire

Impossible de ne pas lire “noyer le chat”. Le pauvre ti-minou…

Thankfully, the airport WiFi was fast and reliable and I was able to preload the map of Paris as well as the web page detailing the route in my phone… still, my first objective was to make it to a cell phone store to buy a prepaid SIM card, and apparently there was a brand-new shopping mall “conveniently” located somewhere behind the cargo areas of the airport and directly on my route into the city. Not only that, but it had … “bike shelters” … and a “bike path” leading to those racks (and abruptly stopping as soon as it hit the road, some 3 metres away).

Not a promising start as far as bike infrastructure is concerned...

Not a promising start as far as bike infrastructure is concerned…

I couldn’t exactly figure out how these racks were supposed to be used, but luckily, I had a cable as well as a U-lock, and given the general lack of interest in these bike racks (though I found a scooter parked on the other one on my way out) I was able to lock my bike up in a relatively secure and non-damaging fashion.

Seine-Saint-Denis style!

Seine-Saint-Denis style!

Unfortunately this was all for naught, because the cell phone store in the mall was, amazingly enough, sold out of SIM cards. I thus proceeded into Paris along what was, as promised, a very pleasant route, passing through some open fields followed by a brief mish-mash of low-rent suburbia (but nothing as scary as every single hip-hop track ever written in French had led me to believe) and very nice forest parks, then finally the long, leisurely ride down the Canal de l’Ourcq, past a motley crew of youth on kayaks, assorted locals fishing with beers in hand, and the occasional kitted-out racing cyclist. As I approached Paris, the canal-side houses of Sevran and Les-Pavillons-sous-bois, with their shutters closed to keep out the mid-day heat, gave way to industrial zones covered in an ever-increasing density of graffiti. Finally, after passing over the canal and through a short detour past an immense SNCF facility full of shiny TGVs, the canal started to be populated with floating restaurants and the buildings around became very new and very big. After passing under a wide, low freeway bridge followed by a sleek new tramway, a sign quietly mentioned, as if in passing, that I was now in Paris. I had arrived!

Paris 19

Paris 19

My AirBnB host for the next two nights in Paris was Fred, who rented me one room of his two-room apartment in rue Keller, Paris 11. I had chosen this place partly because it was on the ground floor with a courtyard where I could lock up my bike without having to carry it up and down the 4 or 5 flights of stairs leading to a more typical Paris apartment. Plus, Fred had a cat named Youppi, so he was obviously a Montreal Expos fan.

Youppi!

As it turned out, the cat was not actually named after the amorphous fuzzball mascot (and it wasn’t even orange), but Fred had lived in Montreal for some time while attending UdeM, and more interestingly, had also worke for the Voir at the same time as none other than local blowhard Richard “Sangria” Martineau. We spent a pleasant soirée arrosée chatting over beers and dinner at a couple of local cafés and his friend’s techno record store. Despite the strange tourist-overrun / ghost-town atmosphere of Paris in August, I found myself quite liking the city already.

Youppi

Also Youppi!

The next day, I set out to find a few specific stores as well as to explore the city in general. I decided that it wasn’t worth the trouble to take my own bike (and risk flat tires, theft, etc) so I signed up for 24 hours of Vélib’. I am an unapologetic Bixi fan, but the Vélib’ system is pretty much better in every way. The bikes have fast tires and real frickin’ baskets but even better, they have a small built-in cable lock and key which allows you to make a quick stop without having to find a docking station and risk losing the bike (this, I discovered, is a real problem in the uphill areas of Paris like Belleville – even late at night in August, a bike docked in an empty at the top of a hill will quickly be taken and used to ride downhill, with no hope of return). But the truly great thing is that Vélib’ costs… €1.70 for 24 hours. Which is less than a single one-way trip on Bixi. Needless to say, I got my €1.70 worth.

Not only can you ride a bike in the bus lanes in Paris (except on Magenta), but you can run (some) red lights too.

Not only can you ride a bike in the bus lanes in Paris (except on Magenta), but you can run (some) red lights too.

I had planned to meet with Trevor and my cousin Max, who was coincidentally in town on a US State Department mission (no, really, he was), to eat what the Internet and Anthony Bourdain claim is the best falafel in France, if not the world, but I had forgotten that it was Friday night and the place in question was most definitely kosher. On the way from the Vélib’ station I ran a gauntlet of beshtreimeled young men looking to make some mitzvah by inviting me to the local Chabad house, if only I were Jewish… Then, it started to rain.

We settled for a typically overpriced (although I remembered later that when considering restaurant prices in France versus Québec, it’s necessary to subtract 15% tax and 15% tip from the price printed on the menu…) sit-down dinner at the decidedly more secular falafel place across the street.

My bike’s headset had been binding (“indexing”) a bit on my last ride, and before I left, I loosened it up a bit in order to fix my steering – unfortunately it seemed a bit too loose, and I also wanted to try to get a spare folding tire for the road. I hadn’t anticipated that, while most things in Paris are closed for most of August, everything is closed on the 15th of August, the fête de l’Assomption which is oddly still a big deal in the country that invented laïcité. Fred determined that the Décathlon (a sort of Sports Experts or Dick’s) in Bercy, just across the Seine in a newly redeveloped part of town that oddly looks a lot like Vancouver, was in fact open, and that in any case, he needed a new taillight on his own bike, so we headed there to get it taken care of before I set out for the PBP registration and bike inspection in Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines.

No time for this... sad :(

No time for this… sad😦

I couldn’t find the 28mm folding tire that I was hoping for, so I decided to put my faith in the French road system (usually a safe bet) and hope my tires weren’t too beat up from all the Vermont gravel and Québec “pavement”. I had changed them right before the 600km brevet so they had maybe 1500km on them at the most, and only one flat so far. The mechanic tweaked my headset a bit, but as I rode off, I still felt a sort of curious shaking feeling as I went over bumps… Probably something bouncing in my handlebar bag, I thought, and quickly forgot about it again.

https://www.strava.com/activities/369310390

I waved goodbye to Fred and set off along the left bank of the Seine heading west.  I had hoped to stop in Versailles to meet up with Trevor at the place we were staying for the night, but after a leisurely cruise through the city and the obligatory photo opportunity at the Eiffel Tower, it ŵas nearly time for my bike inspection, so I stopped riding at the Javel station and fought my way through the hordes of tourists (who, luckily, were on the other RER C that goes straight to Versailles Palace) to the platform for the train to Saint-Quentin, which was empty… except for 5 other PBP riders! It was at this point that the excitement started to set in – until now I had just been on holiday in Paris, but from now on, I was here to ride Paris-Brest-Paris.

1230 km.

In 90 hours.

With 6000 other people.

As I got off the train at Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines I discovered that Trevor had also had a late start and ended up on the same train as me. We followed a random local on a mountain bike who volunteered to lead us to the Vélodrome National, the starting point for the ride and the site of today’s bike inspection and registration. The bike path led us up over an autoroute and around a huge roundabout with a fountain in the middle, where volunteers waved us on to the lineup for the bike inspection. We inched forward with a steady stream of other riders until we reached the first layer of registration, where a small sticker with our registration number was placed on our top tubes. Next, we were directed through a tent where our brakes and lights were checked, and only then were we allowed to park our bikes, in a huge corral, before entering the velodrome to register.

The first of many lines...

The first of many lines…

This process of standing in lines to go stand in other lines was to be a recurring theme throughout the ride, but the registration process was by far the most tedious example. First, we lined up to receive a bag with a couple of tourist brochures in it (and maybe something important, but I forget). Next, we lined up behind a long table with a series of flags on it… until we realized that the flags were there to indicate which volunteers spoke which languages, and assuming that they all spoke French, we quickly ditched the line and just went straight to the next one who looked available. Here we were issued our personalized brevet card (actually a booklet) and a card with punch-out tickets for the official reflective vest, jersey, and whatever else we might have pre-ordered when registering. As we moved on from this table, we were sorted into two lines: a really short one for people who only got the vest, and a staggeringly long one for those who ordered a jersey. Unfortunately, I ordered a jersey (which I never ended up wearing).

After a couple of hours of this, we finally headed back to retrieve our bikes. There was supposedly a photo for all the Canadian riders, but it was getting quite late in the afternoon and with no food on site we were getting desperately hungry. Holding out hope that the Carrefour in the mall across the tracks from the velodrome would be open on August 15th, we biked over to find a debauched scene of drunken Spanish and British riders who had invaded all of the restaurants on the town “square” (really just a roundabout). Luckily, the hypermarket was still open, but in our state of hunger and confusion we couldn’t seem to find the food among the various clothes, dishes, tools, and other random discount goods. As we were about to give up and join the party at the pizza place outside, I asked a security guard if there was a supermarket nearby. Laughing, he informed me that all I had to do was go down the escalator to the food section!

We loaded up on a couple more 1€ cans of 1664, bread, and cheese, and went out on the square to eat, drink, and watch the evolving circus of partiers and other riders whizzing by. It may have been heightened by hunger and the confusion of the registration process, but I couldn’t help remarking the oppressive and sterile architecture of this suburban “new town“. In the end, though, I realized that this particularly French type of awful suburbia is still infintely preferable to, say, the Quartier Dix30, with its open oceans of parking. Even if the “Centre Saint-Quentin” is basically a hypermarket and a shopping mall, the parking has mostly been tastefully hidden underground, and the train station, with trains every 10-20 minutes into Paris, is right next door. We have a long way to go here before we can even reach this level of “transit-oriented development”.

Familiar street names in Versailles...

Familiar street names in Versailles…

Ironically, Versailles, where we headed back to for the night, is itself a “new town”, largely built from scratch for Louis XIV, and it shows in the perfect rectilinear grid of its historic neighbourhoods. Our host, Anne-Laure, had a 3½ carved out of the attic of one of the bourgeois apartment blocks, with bunk beds and plenty of space for the bikes. We spent a few hours wandering around the town, and bought another load of groceries and a couple more beers for our second meal of the afternoon. I was unable to resist the charm of French cider in a 1.5L plastic bottle, and equally unable to contemplate drinking it the night before PBP! We had also reserved the night after the ride at Anne-Laure’s place, and thus we were able to keep the cider cold for post-PBP celebration.

Loaded up and ready to roll!

Loaded up and ready to roll!

The next day, we tried, and failed, to sleep in, and finally decided to take our time biking out to SQY, a mere 9km from Versailles. We ate a seriously overpriced, but all-you-can-eat (and we did have all we could eat) brunch in town, then made a final trip to the store for another load of bread, cheese, and fruit, which we snacked on in the palace garden on a pleasant detour along the way. What we didn’t realize is that there is basically only one way in or out of the palace domain, and we ended up backtracking most of the way to Versailles in order to get back out on the road! Thankfully our start time wasn’t until 7PM, so there was plenty of time in hand.

https://www.strava.com/activities/370351756

Once again, the vélodrome was swarmed with people, as we crowded the sidelines of the starting gate to watch the successive waves of riders depart. In what was to become another recurring theme, I discovered that absolutely none of the porta-potties were supplied with toilet paper, which threatened to seriously ruin my afternoon until I was able to beg some off a better-prepared rider in line. Luckily, I made it out of there just in time to see the “special bikes” start. We had seen the ElliptiGOs (strange upright “walking bike” contraptions) lined up outside Centre Saint-Quentin the day before but assumed that they were not at all related to PBP, but lo and behold, here they were, with riders on them, about to spend the next 90 hours rocking back and forth to Brest and back. And I would keep seeing them nearly though the whole ride, as their riders’ sheer will-power and refusal to stop compensated for their disadvantages in weight, aerodynamics, and mechanical efficiency!

At last, we made our way to the waiting areas from which we would be “released” 15 minutes before our start time. Most of the other Québecois riders had already started in earlier waves, or were riding in the 80 or 84-hour groups. The sky was threatening to the east, but the forecasts assured us that no rain would fall for the next few days (and I hoped they were correct, since I unwisely left my raingear behind when packing the bike).

Waiting in the shadow of the very shiny new velodrome

Waiting in the shadow of the very shiny new velodrome

6:45PM and we made our way up to the starting area.

OMG, I am really doing this

OMG, I am really doing this

7:00PM and we were off. I had until 1PM on Thursday to make it to Brest and back.

Paris-Brest-Paris 2015, prologue

Riding Paris-Brest-Paris Randonneur for me this year came in the middle of an absurdly hectic month of globe-trotting travel. The last week of July, I travelled to Beijing for a week to attend ACL 2015. The morning after my return flight landed in Montreal, I jumped on the bike again (after a couple weeks of not riding) to meet MJ in Vermont, where she had just spent a week taking a weaving class.

China. Yup.

China. Yup.

My main goal was to ride over the pass whose name I don’t actually know, north of Jay Peak, on route 105, on the way to our friends’ house in Marshfield. To make things more “fun”, I would climb Joy Hill on the way there, and for a moment I had also contemplated going all-out and criss-crossing back and forth across the Green Mountains via route 242 and 58 before continuing southward. Seeing as I had just flown back from the other side of the world and slept a mere 5 hours, I figured that I would see how I felt when I got to Jay, where I would turn to go back up over the mountain. As expected, it no longer seemed like a very good idea at that point, mainly because I wanted to get to Marshfield before dark.

https://www.strava.com/activities/358333496

As it turns out, I was also cultivating the beginnings of a particularly tenacious sinus infection, no doubt brought on by the combination of Chinese air pollution, sleep deprivation, and three large climbs, all on gravel roads, over 220km of otherwise leisurely riding. In any case, I made it in around 7:15PM and had a nice weekend in Vermont, including the most excellent Northeast Kingdom trifecta of the Bread&Puppet Circus, swimming in Crystal Lake, and pizza at Parker Pie, before returning to Montreal.

Border Crossings, Collect them All!

Border Crossings, Collect them All!

I had to remove the front wheel from my bike to fit it in the Toyota Matrix MJ had rented for her trip, and when I pulled it out and reassembled it I noticed that the quick-release, when opened, still inexplicably failed to clear the fork ends. Not thinking much of it, I unscrewed it a bit until it had the necessary clearance. Oh well, maybe it just tightened up somehow in the car, I thought, and quickly forgot about it.

I spent the next few days at work and the nights anxiously preparing for PBP. Trevor and I (and, it turns out, also at least 3 other riders from Montreal) were on the same flight to Paris on Wednesday night, and MJ volunteered to drive us out – conveniently, he owns a bike rack that fits well on the trunk of a Yaris from Communauto, so no wheel removal would be necessary!  I was very nervous about getting my bike on the plane – Air Transat assured us that they would have plastic bags on hand, and it was “pretty unlikely” that the cargo space on the flight would fill up, so we should just try to get there at least 3 hours early.

Finally, after work the next Wednesday, the moment of truth arrived. MJ, who is a genius at packing, had fit all my clothes and such in a backpack, with my handlebar bag inside my Carradice bag, which then fit inside a cloth grocery bag to carry on the plane. This setup was ideal for riding from the airport into Paris, I would simply have to install the two bike bags, put on the backpack, and go! And, to my great relief, everything about the flight over went smoothly (except for the flight itself, which actually went through some nasty turbulence). We snaked through a huge, but fast-moving, line, to the check-in counter, where we were given receipts to take to the cashier, who issued us bike bags and boarding passes in exchange for $30 each. The bikes then went in the bags and were dropped off at the oversized baggage counter, where they waved a magic wand over them, wrapped them in “CATSA INSPECTED” red tape, and assured us that we would find them in Paris 7 hours later.

Ready to go in the bag!

Ready to go in the bag!

Unfortunately, in the rush to get the bike in the bag, I failed to measure or otherwise note my seat and handlebar heights or the angle of my handlebars, and my bike felt a bit strange after putting it back together. Despite ending up in a strange topsy-turvy pile in an anonymous corner of the tiny, low-budget baggage claim room at terminal 3 of Roissy, it arrived relatively unscathed (except for a missing plastic cap on one of the bar-end shifters):

Recombobulation Area at PBP T3

Recombobulation Area at CDG T3

At the baggage claim area we saw Yves and Marie-Claude waiting for their bikes, which were meticulously disassembled, wrapped, and packed in pro bags… and which the guy at the oversize baggage counter apparently made them unpack and repack all over for inspection! Still, given carbon fibre’s reputation for failure when bumped or nicked, I would probably have done the same as them… Also on our flight were Olivier C, who we rode to Ottawa and back with, and another guy from elsewhere in Québec whose name I can’t remember. Good thing they didn’t run out of cargo space on the plane!

CDG Terminal 3 gets a bad rap but I really found it to be a superior experience to the one other time in my life I had to pass through this airport. Sure, the other terminals are grandiose works of modernist architectural genius, while T3 is a squat, one-story box made out of cinder blocks and sheet metal, or something like that, which looks like it belongs at a naval research station in Antarctica rather than at the main entry point to metropolitan France. On the other hand, as you step off the buses that shuttle you to the single sliding door which serves as the gate for all arriving flights, you walk between two slightly sad looking palm trees… palm trees! Not to mention that it takes all of 5 minutes to walk through passport control and out the front door of the terminal. More importantly, though, once you get out the front door, rather than being confronted with a spaghetti mess of on-ramps and off-ramps to the A1, you walk down a friendly covered pedestrian walkway to Roissypôle, from which you can take a bus to any number of illustrious destinations throughout Seine-Saint-Denis, but more importantly, from which you can also directly ride a bike into Paris on low-traffic roads and a very nice bike path.

Which is what I did (read all about it tomorrow…)

To Hull and Back

https://www.strava.com/activities/349713907

The “tourist” group for Paris-Brest-Paris starts between 5PM and 9PM on Sunday night, and since the time limits at the controls don’t stop running for sleep, this means that one should be prepared to ride most of the night as well as the next day in order to avoid a humiliating early disqualification. The evening ride I did from Chambord to La Tuque a few weeks back, while it certainly built character, wasn’t enough to prepare me for this, since I didn’t ride all the way through the night but stopped at 11:30 to get a good night’s sleep before continuing on the next morning around 7. With the BRM average minimum speed of 15 km/h I would have had to leave around 3 or 4AM…

So, when a friend suggested riding to Ottawa and back through the night, I figured it would be useful to tag along. In the end we had 4 riders, me, Trevor, Ralph, and Olivier, not surprisingly the same group that I rode with through the night on the 600km brevet last month. I found them to ride too fast for me during the day, although we ended up at the same place by nightfall since I generally don’t stop, and their nighttime pace (after riding 315km) suited me just fine. I was looking forward to riding in a group, not something that I usually do.

We made plans to meet at the Vaudreuil train station at 6:45PM. As Trevor and I got off the train, Ralph came riding up after an easy 10km downhill from St-Lazare. There was no sign of Olivier, but luckily we had his cell phone number and figured out that he was waiting for us at the Dorion train station (which is, technically, in Vaudreuil-Dorion, after all…) No problem, since we would have to backtrack that way a bit anyway to get out of town, we would find him at the McDonald’s by the bridge over the 40. We all downed coffee and ice cream to fuel us up and headed out, probably around 7:30.

Stopped just short of the top of Mont Rigaud to get this picture, so much for my Strava cred! And it's blurry...

Stopped just short of the top of Mont Rigaud to get this picture, so much for my Strava cred! And it’s blurry…

Instead of the normal way I go along Chemin de l’Anse to Rigaud, we climbed up from Hudson village to Route Harwood, descended into Rigaud, then took a “training” detour up Mont Rigaud and back down into Ontario on the other side along the very nice road on the other side of the Rigaud River. We stopped at Vankleek Hill a bit before 10PM. Zut, no V8 to be had (do they drink it in Ontario?) … I picked up an ice cream sandwich and some Gatorade instead.

The roads in Ontario were shockingly good so far. We headed down the 11 to L’Orignal from where we would follow the river for a while on the 24, which unbelievably even has a small paved shoulder (though it has detached from the road in places and the resulting crevasse of greenery is hazardous especially when riding in a group!). It was now quite dark, but we were still averaging over 30 km/h, riding in a paceline, with pulls of around 10-15 minutes each.  My heart rate monitor was on the blink so I was unsure if I was going too fast but decided to keep up this average anyway and worry about it later.

Ontario after dark

Ontario after dark

Eventually the river road dumped us out on the 17, which we had been trying to avoid. Luckily, the traffic was light, without trucks, since it was the middle of the night, and there is almost (but not really) a paved shoulder … maybe a few inches of asphalt. We tried for a little while to ride on “old highway 17” but it had the absolute worst pavement imaginable – gravel would have been better, as it seemed like it hadn’t been paved at least since the Mike Harris administration. We stayed on the 17 through Rockland. As we crossed the Ottawa city limits the road deteriorated dramatically, and paradoxically, Old Montreal Road, which we finally bailed onto in Cumberland, was not only quieter but much better paved. Finally we crested a hill and saw the lights of Orléans below us. I was starting to feel extremely irritable, which, at 180km, is a sure sign that the bonk is setting in. I pressed on, hoping that a good meal and some coffee would take care of it.

Some confusion on directions, a quiet cruise through suburban streets, and we were back on Montreal Road, with a bike lane, no less. It was getting close to 2AM and not even the Tim Horton’s were open… but a Pizza Pizza, strangely, was, so we stopped for a good half hour or so and rested up over pizza.

That’s when we saw the lightning.

We lingered over the radar map on my phone for a long time seeing if we could wait out the storm, which seemed to be only on the Quebec side of the river (since there was just a sprinkling of water on the ground), determined that we probably could, and headed out, making another stop at the next Tim’s for some coffee. It was now 3AM.

#teamselfie with Parliament Hill

#teamselfie with Parliament Hill

Vanier is apparently still Vanier, and Montreal Road showcases the finest of what it has to offer in terms of pawnshops and after-hours clubs. We managed to avoid getting beaten up or hit by cars or motorcycles and cruised up the bridge and down Rideau Street, which is strangely trashier (literally, there were bags of trash laying in the middle of the street and junk everywhere!) than I remember it. The Rideau Centre was under some kind of heavy-duty reconstruction and the whole scene was, at least to my sleep-deprived eyes, amazingly chaotic, particularly for Ottawa. A quick obligatory selfie with a view of Parliament Hill and we had arrived in Hull… for a few minutes. We took the bike path to Gatineau and got on rue St-Louis which eventually joins the 148 (I would have preferred rue Jacques-Cartier along the river, but there wasn’t much to see at this hour anyway). Drunk people were standing in the middle of the road arguing with cab drivers but otherwise there was no traffic to speak of all the way out of town.

Promptly, as we exited Gatineau, it began to rain. We debated whether to put on raingear and decided it would be a good idea. I also managed to convince the group to slow down to a rolling speed of around 26 km/h as the rain and the pavement were really starting to take their toll on me. I kept myself sane and awake by trying to avoid running over the hundreds of tiny frogs that would jump across the road as our headlights woke them up. Somewhere to the right were the vast marshes of the Ottawa River.

Thurso and Miserable

Thurso and Miserable

It continued to rain, sometimes fairly hard. My shoe covers were rapidly defeated and every part of me was now wet, with pools of water forming in the cuffs of my rainjacket (I guess this means it’s waterproof?) Somewhere between Masson and Thurso, Ralph remarked that we would be seeing the sun rise if it weren’t for all this rain, and sure enough it started to get light as we pulled in to Thurso. Nothing was open yet, but we idled under the awning in front of the local Dollarama for a few minutes as I ate my last energy bar.  Just as we were getting ready to leave, the rain started to get heavy again… we had no choice, so we pressed on, until we reached the Tim Horton’s in Papineauville where we stopped for breakfast for a good hour or so. I was so hungry that I ate two egg sandwiches and downed a large coffee – in fact I really had not recovered from bonking back in Ottawa, because the pace was too fast, maybe.

Leavnig Papineauville I thought that I felt better – the rain had stopped and the sun was even shining a little bit! Unfortunately, I soon found myself lagging far behind even our new reduced pace, and my stomach wasn’t too happy about that extra sandwich. The rest of the group may have been good at 27 km/h but I found it hard to hit 25. At a certain point, I thought I felt a strange dip in the road until I realized that I had just fallen asleep on my bike for a fraction of a second. I caught up with the group in the next town and informed them of the situation, and they agreed to slow down the pace a bit more, while Ralph gave me a super-caffeinated energy gel to wake me up.  This seemed to have minimally worked since, although I still couldn’t go very fast, I was definitely awake.

Sun coming out, finally

Sun coming out, finally

It was clear that I was the “boat anchor” of the group. Still, they graciously waited for me before getting too far ahead. The scenery on this part of the ride started to get really impressive – the Laurentians rise up from the completely flat valley floor in a sheer wall, the top of which was cut off by some low clouds, which made it more impressive, giving the impression of really large mountains that keep going above the clouds (this is not actually the case).

The North starts behind those clouds somewhere.

The North starts behind those clouds somewhere.

Another coffee stop in Grenville, and I finally got the idea to simply lay down on the pavement and take a nap outside Tim Horton’s. I may have managed to snooze for 10 minutes or so, and I woke up feeling quite a lot better, until I noticed that my rear tire had gone flat in the meantime. Still, 1600km before my first flat on this set of tires is nothing to complain about – I’ve found that inspecting them for embedded shards of glass helps prevent a lot of flats, which seem to happen only after the debris gets a chance to work its way into the tread for a while. This may have been the case here … a huge chunk of glass was visibly protruding from the rubber.

After patching up, it was just a short ride on a pretty nice bike path to get to Carillon and the familiar road through Kanesatake into Oka.  We dropped Ralph off at the ferry and sat around eating ice cream for a while. I had hoped to make it to Deux-Montagnes for the 12:00 train, but it was already almost 12 by the time we got to Oka, and although it’s actually a lot closer than I remember, there was no way to make it in time. Unfortunately the next train doesn’t run until 4PM… so Olivier rode off back to St-Laurent, while Trevor and I hung out in Oka for a while before heading into St-Eustache for a beer and poutine to close out the ride.

Recovery

Recovery

Riding in a group really isn’t something I like to do, and I’m thankful that the other three riders were so patient with me as I was essentially bonked for 10 hours (from 2AM to noon). For a long time I tried to find some secret of eating or drinking that would prevent this, but in the end, it’s simply a problem of riding too fast, outside the “fat-burning zone”. Once my muscles’ energy stores are gone, they are just gone. On the 600km brevet I was able to make it all the way to the 415km mark without any bonking simply by keeping my heart rate low (prompting everyone who passed me to ask if I was okay…) and still managed to average over 25km/h all the way to the 180km mark. It seems that this 25 is a good number to shoot for in the absence of my heart rate monitor.

Now, onward to Paris!

La Flèche brisée: du Lac au Fleuve, en passant par St-Tite

La genèse

Dans la profondeur du février le plus froid jamais enregistré à Montréal, j’ai eu l’idée de faire une Flèche Vélocio ce printemps avec un départ en train, pour éviter de faire un trajet en boucle (bizarre de flèche ça!) ou d’avoir besoin d’une voiture pour transporter les vélos. Malheureusement, les transports interurbains au Québec sont peu adaptés au transport des vélos, avec une exception: les trains de l’Abitibi et du Saguenay, dont celui qui m’a rapporté à Montréal après mon «mini-défi» de l’automne passé. Donc, le plan a été clair: On monte à Chambord en train, on revient à Montréal à vélo. On passe par La Tuque la nuit, Shawinigan le matin, Joliette le midi, et hop, on rejoint l’île en fin de journée pour un bon 425km en 24h.

Finalement, rien n’est jamais aussi simple qu’il ne paraît. D’abord, le train ne roule que les lundis, mercredis, et vendredis en direction nord, donc il faudrait prendre le vendredi en congé, alors que la Flèche doit avoir lieu le week-end de la fête des Patriotes (un lundi). Des coéquipiers potentiels n’ont pas aimé l’idée de dormir sur le train avant de rouler 24h sans sommeil (et ils ont eu raison, comme je me rendra compte), d’autant moins l’idée de passer à travers le parc (pour les non-québécois, cela veut dire la vaste forêt peu ou non habitée qui sépare les basses-terres du St-Laurent des colonies nordiques du Québec) la nuit sans être en mesure d’apprécier les paysages (et ils ont aussi eu raison sur ce point). Finalement, j’ai dû abandonner ce projet, et pour le mieux, car je n’avais guère envie de faire un autre 425km une semaine après le premier brevet de 300km de la saison.

Néanmoins, il me restait un aller simple Montréal-Chambord que j’avais déjà payé. Je me suis dit, pour éviter la fête du Canada, rien de mieux que s’évader au Royaume, et donc, j’ai changé ma réservation pour le 1 juillet. Question de ne pas me briser trop le corps ni l’esprit, j’ai décidé de m’arrêter à La Tuque pour la nuit avant de descendre par le parc en plein jour, avec un petit détour à St-Tite (oh que oui!) pour prendre une grosse poutine et une petite bière à la microbrasserie. S’il faisait beau, je me tenterais mes chances sur les routes forestières pour faire La Tuque à St-Tite, question d’être vraiment «dans le bois».

Il fallait juste que le train soit à l’heure, pour avoir le maximum de lumière avant La Tuque… et qu’il fasse beau…

Le train

Je me suis pressé de partir à 7h15 pile pour ne pas rater le train, dont le départ était prévu pour 8h15 à la gare centrale. En théorie, il fallait présenter le vélo au comptoir de bagages avant 7h45, heure de l’embarquement. En pratique, puisqu’il n’y avait pas beaucoup de monde qui se pointait, on a attendu 8h pour embarquer. J’ai remarqué pourtant que la moitié des sièges étaient déjà réservés, et que deux canots se reposait déjà dans le wagon de bagages à côté de mon vélo.

“gare” d’Ahuntsic

Après le long contournement de la montagne par Montréal-Ouest, à la charmante «gare d’Ahuntsic» (quelques mètres d’asphalte à côté des rails dans un coin perdu proche de la rue St-Hubert) toute une foule attendait, vélos en main, pour nous rejoindre. Zut! J’aurais pu dormir encore une heure. Nullement besoin de se pointer à la gare centrale 30 minutes en avance, on embarque les vélos (et les canots, et les kayaks, et cetera) partout sur ce train! J’ignore s’il faut payer cash le cas échéant…

La particularité de ce train est qu’il arrête «dans le bois» presque n’importe où, chose que je n’ai pas vu au retour de Jonquière l’année passée, mais qu’il semblait aura lieu cette fois. Arrivera-t-on à Chambord avant le coucher du soleil?

Parmi les nouveaux arrivés il y avait une famille qui prenait le train à Rivière-à-Pierre pour rouler ensemble à Québec sur la piste cyclable, ce qui me semble une façon futée de faire Montréal-Québec. Leur idée de rejoindre Montréal par train m’inquiétait un peu, car à ce que je sache, il n’est pas possible de prendre son vélo à bord ce train! J’espère qu’ils se sont bien tirés finalement… surtout que, en montant dans le piedmont après Joliette, la pluie a commencé, et n’a pas lâché.

Viaduc de la rivière du Loup

Viaduc de la rivière du Loup

Le côté ouest (gauche) du train offre les meilleurs points de vue et c’est là que je me suis installé, le plus en avant possible, espérant de trouver un peu de solitude pour dormir. Malheureusement, une gang de bleuets matantes joueuses de cartes se sont installés juste en arrière et ont causé à volume 11 pendant toutes les 9 heures de voyage. Finalement je ne me suis endormi qu’en posant mes écouteurs avec le dernier album de Tragedy à fond, quelques minutes, dans le coin de Shawinigan.

La traversée du bois m’a gardé réveillé, car la rivière Batiscan et les lacs à l’infini qui l’entourent sont tout simplement spectaculaires. Le parc a beau être inhabité, il y a des camps et des chalets un peu partout, et on s’est arrêté quelques fois pour prendre des canotiers, qui débarqueront un peu plus tard pour redescendre la rivière – une excellente idée que j’aimerais un jour essayer!

Finalement, le bois ne nous a pas tant ralenti, mais avant y entrer, il a fallu attendre presque une heure pour un train de marchandises d’en sortir, et donc j’ai finalement débarqué à Chambord avec 1h30 de retard, vers 17h40. Il pleuvait une fine pluie encore. J’avais l’espoir qu’il finirait par finir bientôt. Oh que oui.

La nuit

https://www.strava.com/activities/337321295

Pas question de chercher le lac pour tremper ma roue arrière, il fallait partir tout de suite. J’ai rempli mes bouteilles et acheté un gros sac de fromage en crottes Boivin (pour récupérer après ma ride) et je me suis lancé sur le fameux «mur de Chambord», quelques kilomètres de montée pour atteindre le plateau laurentien. En haut de la première montée, j’ai arrêté juste le temps de regarder en arrière et prendre une photo. Piekouagami, le lac Plat des Ilnuatsh, aussi appelé Lac St-Jean (pour un Québec laïc, débarrassons-nous de ces infâmes toponymes religieux!) gisait en bas de la côte, découlant de la rivière Métabétchouan, sous une grisaille opprimante. La nuit sera longue.

Doom...

Doom…

J’ai eu la préséance d’appeler l’auberge de jeunesse à La Tuque pour leur aviser de mon arrivée tardive, en promettant de me pointer vers 23h. Il fallait faire vite alors! Dans le fond, j’avais vraiment peur de cette étape: 138km dont 110km d’autonomie complète (c.a.d. en plein milieu de nulle part sans personne), à partir de Lac-Bouchette. En planifiant la Flèche j’ai appris que l’accotement est serviable pour la plupart, ce que je commençais à douter car tout de suite en débutant ce long segment isolé, il y en avait pas. Pire encore, pas de téléphones, pas de service cellulaire, donc pas moyen de rejoindre ma douce pour la rassurer que j’étais encore en vie! Je me suis dit – s’il est trop pénible, je vire de bord, je retourne à Lac-Bouchette prendre un motel jusqu’à demain.

Je me suis aussi dit – si je ne réussis pas ici, comment ferai-je Paris-Brest-Paris? La pluie, la nuit – c’est presque assuré au PBP. Il n’y avait guère de trafic et la pluie restait très faible et fine. En plus, j’avais encore au moins deux heures de lumière grâce à ma situation nordique. J’espérais atteindre la halte routière, 34km avant La Tuque, à 22h. Je ne regardais presque pas ma FC, car je savais que 138km c’est pas assez long pour que je frappe le mur (ce qui m’arrive généralement aux 160-170 bornes si je me force trop). J’étais quand même surpris de voir que je battais 170 en roulant pas vraiment vite parfois. Serait-il de l’adrénaline? Ou tout simplement le sac Carradice un peu trop bourré de linge et bonbons?

Non, la route est juste constamment en montée sur un bon 50km. L’accotement est parfois lisse et large, parfois inexistant. Il m’est apparu sage de me tasser dans le gravier une ou deux fois quand deux véhicules se sont rencontrés à côté de moi. Malgré la pluie il faisait un bon 17 degrès, et mon cuissard en laine, mes bas de laine, et mon maillot de laine l’ont bien supporté. L’imperméable cheap et les couvre-chaussures tenaient aussi le coup. À chaque montée, je scrutais les montagnes sans fin à l’horizon. J’ai finalement traversé dans la région de la Mauricie, avec un asphalte supérieure et un large et fiable accotement en guise de bienvenue. Graduellement, ma peur s’est effritée… la lumière aussi.

All downhill and well-paved (and dark, and wet) from here...

All downhill and well-paved (and dark, and wet) from here…

Je ne l’ai pas remarqué tout de suite, mais j’ai aussi passé la ligne de partage des eaux – d’ici à La Tuque ça descendait lentement à côte de la rivière Bostonnais pour la plupart. Il n’y avait plus de montagnes à l’horizon, seulement une dense forêt et quelques lacs. Mes réserves d’eau étaient à sec juste avant que je dévale une grande côte et j’arrive à la halte routière, un véritable oasis avec des tables de pique-nique sous un toit et des salles de bain avec de l’eau potable! Il était 22h, avec 34km à faire, donc, pas possible d’arriver à 23h.

Il pleuvait encore, il faisait noire, et j’avais de la misère à désembuer mes lunettes. Le pire était les phares des voitures qui arrivent de l’autre sens, car ils m’éblouissait pendant un bon 5 secondes. J’ai appris qu’il fallait concentrer sur la ligne blanche pour garder sa position et sa vision. Malgré mes doutes, l’accotement continuait d’être très bon. Bientôt j’ai vu les premières signes de la civilisation – un panneau qui annonçait un arrêt d’autobus scolaire! Puis un abribus avec une lumière, puis une maison… Finalement les deux ponts couverts de La Bostonnais et même quelques commerces (fermés). Il ne restait qu’une poignée de kilomètres… et pour m’accueillir, une violente orage qui a complètement désarmé mes couvre-chaussures. J’ai remarqué un odeur fort de roadkill un peu partout et j’avais peur d’en devenir moi-même. Mais combien d’orignaux serait morts à côté de la route pour que ça pue de même?!

En entrant à La Tuque, j’ai eu la réponse en guise d’une énorme usine de pâte et papier, dont l’odeur m’a rappelé des voyages en Colombie-Britannique de mon enfance. La pluie s’est calmée et je me suis installé sous l’auvent d’une station de service pour consulter ma carte sur mon cell … tabarnouche, pas de service cellulaire à La Tuque! Je zigzaguais donc dans les rues de la petite ville à la recherche d’un autre être humain pour demander le chemin à la rue Brown, qui semblait être au nord de la ville, mais que je ne savais pas trouver. Au centre-ville, un ivrogne fumait devant la caisse populaire, repoussant d’abord mes salutations, mais enfin m’expliquant des directions peu compréhensibles mais assez simples – la lumière au fond, à droite, continue. J’ai boudé le chemin qui menait à l’usine, croisant un autre fêtard fumant sur le trottoir, qui m’a confirmé que j’étais sur la bonne piste.

Forfait tipi, non, ça ne me «tente» juste pas!

Forfait tipi de l’auberge jeunesse, non, ça ne me «tente» juste pas!

Une ou deux kilomètres de surplus et je suis arrivé, vers 23h30, heureusement on m’attendais encore, car je serai tout seul à l’auberge ce soir! Une grosse chambre, cuisine, douche (mais pas de serviette), etc, pour seulement 35$, moins cher qu’un camping rustique de la SÉPAQ, quoi. J’ai reparti mon linge sur le plancher de la chambre sous le ventilateur du plafond, avalé le sac de fromage en crottes, et me suis vite endormi pour ensuite réveiller vers 6h.

Le vent qui chasse la pluie

https://www.strava.com/activities/337958185

Le matin, il tombait encore une faible bruine. À part les bas encore trempés, mes mérinos avaient assez séché pendant la nuit et j’ai tout enfilé de nouveau. J’ai flâné dans la cuisine une bonne heure en buvant des allongés et mangeant des Cheerios avant de partir enfin à 7h20. En sortant j’ai scruté la cour avec ses gros tipis, heureusement j’ai opté pour la chambre au lieu de dormir dans la pluie! En traversant la ville encore désertée (qui ne puait plus, il semble que l’odeur est plus forte en temps de pluie) j’ai tombé sur une piste cyclable qui semblait mener au sud, donc je me suis embarqué. Ça commençait a monter vers la voie de contournement, avant de tourner et rentrer dans un très beau boisé à côté de la petite rivière Bostonnais. Un ruban d’asphalte serpentait entre les pins et les bouleaux pour enfin me déposer sur la rue principale juste avant de regagner la 155.

La Tuque's most excellent bike path

La Tuque’s most excellent bike path

Ayant vu l’état des routes en gravier après la pluie de la veille, il n’était aucunement question de prendre les chemins forestiers pour aller à St-Tite, un peu dommage car ce trajet est moins accidenté que la route nationale, qui monte et descend les flancs de la vallée à quelques points même si elle suit le cours de la rivière. Peu après rejoindre la grande route, j’ai finalement vu cette large rivière aux berges sablonneuses, la Tapiskwan Sipi dit rivière St-Maurice (encore il me semble qu’on devrait appeler les choses par leurs propres noms, tant qu’on les connaît!). Subitement je me suis rendu compte que je roulais sur une chaussée … sèche! Mais non, j’avais aussi le vent de dos au moins la moitié du temps. C’est peut-être la météo qui me récompense pour la soirée «arrosée» que je viens de passer.

Il y a plus de trafic au sud de La Tuque. Les camions de bois montent la rivière vides et descendent chargés de billots dans une sorte de drave moderne en continu. Heureusement il y a de l’espace à droite, malgré la présence de plusieurs bouts de bois et d’écorce sur l’accotement. Trois petites montagnes plus tard, il était déjà temps de me départir de la 155 pour prendre la 159 vers St-Tite.

La très belle route 159

La très belle route 159

Voilà une belle route! Elle traverse ce qui semble être une aire protégée, car j’y ai longé plusieurs lacs sans aucune trace de développement, rien que des impressionnantes falaises et des forêts mixtes de sapins, érables et bouleaux. Je me sentais presque aux Adirondacks ou au Vermont. Tout à coup la route a commencé à descendre à côte d’un ruisseau d’eau vive, puis les montagnes sont parti dans un clin d’œil, leur place cédée à un paysage bucolique de champs de pâturage et petits coteaux boisés.

J’étais sorti du bois.

La poutine et la poutine

Howdy!

Howdy!

Un cowboy en laiton m’accueille à St-Tite, sur ma monture en acier, comme dirait le célèbre chansonnier québécois Jonathan Bonne-Jovie. Ça faisait déjà quelques dizaines de kilomètres que je ne pense qu’à la poutine que je m’apprête à manger. Le village est très propre et beaucoup moins redneck qu’il m’a apparu depuis le train en descendant du Saguenay pendant le festival Western l’année passée. J’ai passé une bonne heure et demi à la brasserie À la Fût en dégustant deux bonne bières sures et une méga-poutine avec une sauce à la bière. J’étais pas mal sûr que j’allais en payer le prix…

Aussitôt parti de la ville sur la 153, j’ai dû enlever mes manches d’appoint et enfin mettre de la crème solaire, car il faisait presque chaud. La route est bonne mais un peu ennuyante, ça file tout droit à côté du chemin de fer sur plusieurs kilomètres. Seul moment marquant, l’égoportrait obligatoire avec le panneau annonçant le village d’Hérouxville, en faisant une blague plate sur la lapidation, la xénophobie, etc., que je vous épargnerai ici.

Quartier St-Marc, Shawinigan

Quartier St-Marc, Shawinigan

Finalement, j’ai atteint la banlieue de Shawinigan et descendu à la rivière pour traverser le pont Grand-Mère. J’essayais de rouler en mode relaxe, mais j’avais quand même mal au ventre. En traversant Grand-Mère j’ai vu beaucoup de beaux enseignes vintage sur la rue principale, c’avait vraiment l’air d’un Main Street américain. Ensuite, je me suis trouvé sur un très long tronçon de boulevard à quatre voies, mais sans beaucoup de trafic, qui menait à Shawinigan (secteur Shawinigan). Il semble que j’ai raté la rue principale, car je ne voyais qu’un quartier résidentiel avec des bizarres de plex détachés mais quand même avec des escaliers extérieurs vertigineux, dont un en colimaçon de quatre étages qui semblait être le seul accès à l’appartement en haut! Après la rue Summit, une descente étroite et abrupte m’a fait passer à côté de la nouvelle «shop» de la brasserie Trou du Diable, puis un une autre descente m’a plongé dans un bizarre de quartier industriel abandonné avant de finir à côté d’un grand bassin de la rivière, après lequel … il fallait tout remonter encore.

Proper sports nutrition

La poutine s’est vraiment fait sentir en grimpant. Le vent qui m’a poussé le long de la rivière en partant de La Tuque venait du nord-ouest (pas un nordet, pas un suroît, … un «noroît»? oui, un noroît!) donc pas forcément méchant mais m’a quand même ralenti un peu. J’ai d’abord pensé rejoindre Joliette par la 350 et quelques petites routes pour éviter le détour au nord vers St-Gabriel – mais ces routes étaient disparus de ma carte et je n’avais encore pas de service de données cellulaires. J’ai donc filé sur la 350, route immaculée et peu fréquentée mais un peu plate car elle côtoie la voie ferrée sur tout son long, sans pour autant prendre une décision. Des panneaux m’indiquaient constamment la direction de St-Élie-de-Caxton… j’avais encore mal au ventre mais aussi mal aux jambes. Finalement je me suis arrêter à Charette, vraisemblablement le village où ils ont passé le train dans Ésimésac au lieu de St-Élie, pour me détendre un peu avec un Pepsi. Il me semblait que la 349 serait le moyen le plus direct de rejoindre le fleuve, donc je me suis résolu de tourner au sud (pour un beau vent de dos et une longue descente) à St-Paulin.  En partant de Charette, j’ai entendu un sifflement de train, puis j’ai sprinté un peu pour voir … chouette! C’est le même train sur lequel j’ai monté à Chambord la veille!

La 349 n’est pas très bicycle friendly, sans accotement et mal pavé, mais peu importe car elle descend constamment, quelques centaines de mètres de dénivelé dans une vingtaine de kilomètres, pour vite atteindre Louiseville. Les panneaux annoncent que c’est le royaume du sarrasin, et je m’amuse en scrutant les champs pour essayer de savoir à quoi ressemblent des plantes de sarrasin… encore pas certain.

Oui, j’ai passé par Hérouxville et Louiseville. Je fais le tour de petits villages sans histoire en région avec des maires qui en fument du bon.

Who is Roy and why am I riding on his road?

La 138, bien que parfaitement sécuritaire, est plate à mourir dans ce coin, une ligne droite tracé à travers des champs ouverts au vent et de l’asphalte miteux. Le trafic va et vient constamment en cherchant les sorties de la 40, qu’on voit de plus en plus proche à sa gauche. Il fallait gagner la 40 pour que ça devienne tolérable pour les quelques petits kilomètres avant Berthierville, où j’ai mangé des salades à pâtes au Métro en jasant avec une paire de cyclotouristes ontariens qui visait faire … la route trans-Labrador! Étrangement ils ne portait pas beaucoup de bagages. Ils essayaient d’atteindre TR avant la tombée de la nuit, encore 60 km, donc ils n’ont pas traîné longtemps.

Enfin le fleuve...

Enfin le fleuve…

Il était maintenant vers 19h et j’avais envie au moins de toucher l’Île avant qu’il fasse noir. J’ai donc pesé sur le gaz un peu pour rouler un bon 27 km/h. Finalement j’ai vu le fleuve, avec des gros bateaux qui flottaient là-dessus et l’étrange carcasse de la vielle centrale au mazout de Tracy en mi-démantèlement. Il ne me restait que de compter les kilomètres pour Lanoraie, Lavaltrie, St-Sulpice… et finalement le calvaire de la rue Notre-Dame de Repentigny, interminable, avec une surface minée (bien pire que la rue Notre-Dame à Montréal!) et entouré de banlieue poche sur au moins une dizaine de bornes. J’avais maintenant aussi mal aux mains. Et au cou. Et au fesses. Vivement que ça se termine!

J’ai bien réussi mon défi de toucher l’Île. D’ici au métro c’est plus agréable, car on peut compter les avenues… 81e, 32e, 16e, etc, puis après avoir traversé les raffineries, c’est vraiment Montréal, une petite balade sur la rue Hochelaga et la petite montée à la station du métro… Et voilà. Le tour est bouclé!

Finished!

Finished!

Je ne suis pas certain que le retour en métro soit plus vite qu’à vélo, mais j’étais juste plus capable des nids-de-poule, des feux de circulation, des voitures. Je ne sais pas pourquoi mais ce petit voyage de 428 km a été plus dur que le brevet de 600 km, au moins mentalement – peut-être à cause de la pluie? Si je cherchais une formation pour Paris-Brest-Paris, j’espère l’avoir trouvé, mais j’ai surtout profité pour voir ce coin du Québec (la Haute-Mauricie) qui m’a fasciné depuis longtemps. Si je le faisais encore, soit je partirais d’un peu plus loin, genre Hébertville ou Jonquière, question de flâner un peu sur la plage au Lac et passer quelques kilomètres paisibles avant la montée sauvage dans le parc qui commence tout de suite à Chambord, soit je partirais de Lac-Bouchette ou Lizotte pour éviter la mauvaise route avant la ligne de la Mauricie et rouler un peu plus à la lumière dans cette très belle section de la 155… Mais je reviendrai plutôt avec mon vélo de camping et ses pneus 42-559 (26×1.5) pour faire les routes forestières entre La Tuque et Mont-Tremblant!

CVRM 600k brevet, 13/6/2015

Strava: Morning Ride

Unlike previous brevets, this time I was actually woken up by my alarm at 4:00 sharp. Crud! No time to lose, I had to be out the door by 4:15 at the latest to get to the starting point with a comfortable margin of error. Luckily, I had laid out my clothes, ground my coffee, and packed the bike the night before, and I flew out the door and down the stairs in a whirlwind, directly on schedule.

Two blocks down the street, I noticed a pleasant but unexpected sensation of wind blowing through my hair, and thought… 600 kilometers of unpredictable but predictably bad pavement? Riding down hills at 50 km/h in the middle of the night? I suppose I should turn around and get my helmet!

It was after 4:20 as I rolled out for the second time, and I crossed my fingers that the new tires I had installed two days ago hadn’t yet picked up any shards of glass. Crossing the Jacques-Cartier bridge with 20 minutes to spare, I finally started to relax again. The weather forecast was full of nothing but awesome (26 and 24 degrees, no rain, very little wind), and in my schedule of riding the brevet series in “tick-tock” fashion, this was to be the “tock” of riding slowly and sightseeing versus the “tick” of pushing myself to a personal record that had been my goal for the 400km and 200km brevets.

As with the 300km, I had one goal for this ride: beer.

More precisely, to make it to the sleep stop at Lennoxville before 3AM in the hopes of downing a small glass of beer to relax my muscles and ease me into slumber. Or, if this wasn’t possible, simply to eat the entire breakfast buffet at the Bishop’s University dining hall the next morning.

Unfortunately, a few fellow riders had been informed by phone (I got a garbled message from an 819 number that I summarily ignored) that there was to be no such buffet. So, beer it would be.

Heading out of Brossard into the rising sun

Heading out of Brossard into the rising sun

The whole group (twenty-some odd riders!) started out at a reasonable pace, rolling out Victoria/Lapinière and Grande-Allée. I pledged myself to obey the heart rate monitor and never, ever, to let it go above 140bpm except on hills (of which there would be none for at least 60km). So, as the peloton predictably sped up on the smooth pavement in Carignan, I purposely started to fall off the back, prompting Jean to ask me if I had bonked already! In the end I was able to hang on for a little while at a reasonable level of effort, until the last turn before Chambly, where the group of 10-15 that I was in sped up to a pace that, while perfectly sensible and even a bit slow for a 200km, is completely useless for a ride of this length. I knew that I was going to pass them all at the controls, anyway.

A few others had the same idea and dropped off with me, though Martin “defrag” apparently took it one step further and decided to ride the whole brevet in the small chainring! We watched the peloton climb over the canal de Chambly, shining in the early morning sun, and marveled at the size of the crowd that had showed up – as Martin said, “a peloton on a 600k is not something you see every day”!

Usually, a “road closed” sign means “you can ride here anyway, it’s just not suitable for cars”. And sometimes, as in the segment of the 208 between Compton and Martinsville on today’s ride, it means “the road is totally gone and don’t even bother trying”. Luckily, we had some news reports and even people on-site to confirm that. So I was a bit surprised to see another “road closed” barrier on the chemin des Dix-Terres just before Rougemont. This one, it turns out, was yet another kind of sign, which actually means “We finished building the bridge and put down some nice new pavement, we just didn’t get around to removing these concrete blocks and orange signs yet. Enjoy!”

St-Hilaire and Rougemont

St-Hilaire and Rougemont

I came across Gabriel fixing a flat, on a brand new tire, apparently. He had everything under control so I continued on to St-Césaire, now obsessively checking my (also brand new) tires. I punched in, filled my water bottles, and grabbed a carton of chocolate milk for the road.  I had been wavering on whether to take the bike path into Granby and finally decided that, since I was trying not to go fast, I should at least not add any additional distance.  In the end, the extra distance on the bike path is a grand total of 900 meters (this versus this) and the ride is much nicer. Oh well.

Montérégiade à Granby

I sipped my chocolate milk on the way out of town, crushed the carton and shoved it in my handlebar bag, and continued at my deliberate pace towards Granby. My average speed, despite the relaxed pace, was 27.7 km/h up to the first control. I decided that this tine I would reset the counter at each control to track the evolution of my speed across the brevet. At this point, the route would begin to go mostly uphill until Orford (130km, 368m) and I knew it would be a challenge not to push myself too hard. A few riders passed me here and there, asking me if I was okay… yes, just taking it easy!

It was 130 km to the next control at Compton, and I succeeded in doing the whole thing with only one stop, at the donut shop (Beignes Dora) outside of Eastman, where I bought a donut and, after some hesitation and a couple trips back and forth to the bike to gather up loose change, succumbed to the temptation of their cheese and spinach ciabattas. The bread was fresh out of the oven and still warm, and as I munched on it while rolling through the pass towards Orford I wished I had bought two of them.

J'ai poigné la beigne!

J’ai poigné la beigne!

This year, I was mentally prepared for the detour towards the Mont-Orford ski area (on the “141 south” which actually goes north for a few kilometers) and I made a point of using my 34×32 low gear on the climbs. Just as when I rode past the other side of the Orford park on the 400k brevet a few weeks back, I thought about the cross-country ski trip I took here in March and marveled at the transformation of the landscape from black and white to green all over in just a few months. The descent into Orford town was great fun, although my arms were starting to get tired from holding myself in a full aerodynamic tuck on the descents, and I found myself wishing I had been able to hold onto some of the upper-body strength I had developed from classic skiing all winter!

I sped through Magog and then let myself slow down again on the long false flat heading towards Ayer’s Cliff (which, along with nearby Moe’s River, puts the lie to the claim that apostrophes are not allowed in place names in Quebec!). The rodeo was in town, but unlike some of the bigger western festivals, there wasn’t much sign of it aside from a horse-drawn cart plodding down the 208 on the way out of town and a truck with some horses hanging out in the back.

The route was now entering what for me was the worst part of the ride last year – between Ayer’s Cliff and Cooksville, passing through Compton, everything looks easy on the map, but in actual fact, the climbs are steady and relentless as you go from 170m in Ayer’s Cliff up to over 450m before descending to Sawyerville on the 253. This year, armed with the knowledge that there would be climbing, I moderated my pace again and found the ride to be quite enjoyable, especially climbing the wooded valley up to the last hill before descending to Compton. I stopped for a few seconds to refill my water bottles at the fromagerie de la Station (which does not sell cheese curds) and rode into Compton with a bunch of fellow riders in tow who had caught up to me while I was stopped.

Mégantic on the horizon

Mégantic on the horizon

A week before the brevet, this area had been hit with an unprecedented amount of rain, flooding out and destroying a bunch of roads in the area between Compton and Coaticook. After some research and scouting, the route was changed, in my opinion, for the better, as we oh-so-sadly had to forego an extra 6km excursion to Martinville as well as two gratuitous climbs, in favor of simply continuing straight on chemin Moe’s-River after it stops being desginated as route 206. I have found it strange that the Montreal brevet routes will take such easily circumvented detours (see also the routing into Magog via the 141 and Orford instead of simply continuing straight on the 112…) without using a control to enforce them. Better yet would be to take the shortest practical route and simply go further, but oh well… Given that it isn’t a race, and most of us (I think) look at these rides as training for PBP or other things, there’s no good reason to cheat!

The two Martins (Doyon and Dugré) bailed into an inviting-looking bakery while I continued onto the official control at a dépanneur, with the intent of making a very quick stop before continuing on to Cooksville. I found Ralph, Trevor, and Olivier C. there, who I would continue to ride with off and on for the rest of the brevet, though mostly off, as their pace between stops was considerably faster than mine during the day.  After downing a V8 and a Coke in quick succession, I headed off to see how bad the flood damage was. The rivière Moe was still a raging torrent, and large sections of the road’s shoulder were destroyed or crumbling, but in general the road was in better condition than some of the ones we would face later on! Again, most everybody caught and passed me on the way up to the high point before Sawyerville, and I simply waved them by, having no desire to suffer on this section like I had before. In the end I did succeed in going very slow – my average speed between Compton and Cooksville was barely over 20 km/h! I did manage to catch a third Martin (Lemay) on one of the hills, who I wouldn’t see again until the next morning in Lennoxville.

In Cooksville I skipped the dépanneur, initially thinking I’d eat at the IGA, until I saw that there was a Subway down the road. I bought a foot-long veggie sub, saving half of it for later (not wanting to repeat the mistake I made at the end of the 400k of overeating and making myself sick!) and filling my water bottles with mountains of ice. Shortly before I left, Marc and someone whose name I forget stopped in to do the same. I left feeling refreshed and fully prepared to take on the notorious route 212, a mostly straight line traced directly across the flanks of mont Mégantic and the Appalachian foothills by the US border.

Mégantic from below

Mégantic from below

I don’t remember how many hills there are on the 212 between Cooksville and La Patrie, but I do know that it essentially goes uphill for 20km, and I also know that once you see the “wall” of Notre-Dame-des-Bois, there are exactly three large climbs before the descent to Woburn, where the route turns north towards the next control at Lac-Mégantic. I cranked past some other riders who had stopped at the dépanneur in NDB, intending to make it all the way to the top, where I would stop at the rest area and eat the other half of my sandwich. This rest area features a fairly spectacular view of mont Mégantic, along with such curiosities as a fake Métro station entrance and an interpretive sign which is cut out to exactly “frame” the skyline of the mountain.

Mégantic from above

Mégantic from above

At Woburn, I was now starting to feel fatigued, and I stopped to grab a V8 and some sour gummy sharks. I had forgotten that there are a number of small but annoying climbs on the road to Lac-Mégantic, which doesn’t exactly follow the lakeshore.  I hadn’t noticed last year, but the entire eastern side of the lake seems to belong to a giant private hunting club. I thought that there were previously signs for the mysterious Lac des Araignées (named not for any significant population of spiders but because its shape resembles one) but these seem to have disappeared. In general this section feels strangely remote, until finally the landscape opens up into fields and spectacular views on the lake and shortly after you descend into the rapidly growing south end of the town.

Somewhat shockingly, what used to be downtown Lac-Mégantic, on the left bank of the Chaudière river, is still a fenced-off landscape of slag heaps and excavation two years after it was annihilated by gross corporate negligence, and more specifically, a runaway train carrying explosive shale oil from the fracking wells of North Dakota. There is, however, a new bridge that connects the right bank with the newly built surrogate “downtown” along rue Papineau. Despite the sad suburban power-centre architecture of the place, it was buzzing with people walking around and even eating on terrasses, enjoying the perfect weather. I cut over to the old main street, stopping to pay my respects at the memorial for the 47 people killed in the explosion, then continued up rue Laval towards the “halfway” control (actually a bit over 320km) at (beurk) Tim Horton’s.

A moment of reflection

A moment of reflection

The town’s municipal library was also destroyed in the tragedy, but a new “Médiathèque“, as libraries are being called these days, was fairly rapidly opened to take its place, its collection made up of a huge number of donated books. What is most remarkable to me about this library to me is that it is named after none other than the late writer Nelly Arcan, who was born Isabelle Fortier in Lac-Mégantic. It is impossible to imagine a small town in the rural USA or Canada naming its library after a local native, no matter how famous or talented, best known for writing a book named “Whore”! For some reason this was the thought that stuck in my head as I climbed the long hill towards the control, along with a strange feeling of affection for this ugly duckling of a town, with its wide, treeless boulevards and clapboard ville-champignon architecture, nestled in a setting of spectacular natural beauty.

Tim Hortons’ food is as terrible as I remember it. The donut shop was clearly understaffed, with two teenagers running back and forth like headless chickens behind the counter. I had arrived ahead of schedule due to spectacular efficiency at the controls, and though I still pretended that I wasn’t looking to set any records, I was anxious to get out sooner rather than later, before dark at the very least. Around 8:30 I put my shoes back on, filled up my water bottles, and headed up the rest of the hill.  As I passed the Fromagerie la Chaudière I thought to myself, there’s no way it would still be open, is there…? And yet, through the window, I saw people at the counter, so I rode up to look, and was stunned to find that it was open until 9. I contemplated the ice cream briefly but settled on two bags of cheese curds, one plain and one barbecue, which I figured would make a good “recovery” meal after my arrival at Lennoxville.

One for the road

One for the road

In theory, the whole section from Nantes, the next town up the 161 from Lac-Mégantic and the place where the death train rolled downhill from, to Cookshire, is predominantly downhill, and despite the darkness (and, this being an official dark sky preserve, it is extremely dark) and 320km in the legs, ought to go by pretty quickly. My only fear was that the tailwind we had enjoyed going east would now be hitting me in the face, but it had simply vanished as the sun went down. Last year, however, this section was anything but quick, and although I had left Lac-Mégantic at a reasonable hour, before 10:00, I didn’t make it to Lennoxville until 4:30AM! As I coasted down one hill after another between Nantes and Milan, I realized why this was – last year, out of some combination of masochism and extreme cheapskate-ness, I was using a sidewall generator for my lights, which drastically slowed me down on the descents and sapped my energy on the flats and climbs. This year, with superior technology, the kilometers seemed to melt away before me, and it wasn’t until after Milan that Ralph, Trevor, and Olivier finally caught up to me, after having watched my taillight go up and down the hills for the last hour. It was good to have some company, although at one point, while trying to avoid a passing car, a pothole, and another rider, I nearly hit a porcupine that had the bad idea to sit on the shoulder of the 214!

As we left Scotstown on a seemingly endless climb out of the valley of the Rivière au Saumon (which, oddly is called “aux Saumons” upstream in La Patrie – guess there is only one salmon left by the time it gets to Scotstown!), the glow of Sherbrooke appeared on the horizon – we had clearly left the dark sky preserve. Soon, we found ourselves back in civilization, merging onto the 108 for the long, fast, but somewhat treacherous descent into Cookshire, where we paused for a few minutes at the top of the hill on the way out of town. Only 19km left to the sleep stop, and it was not even midnight… I would get my beer after all! The distance signs on the 108 played tricks on us as they started out by giving the distance to Lennoxville (now a borough of Sherbrooke) as “Sherbrooke” and then inexplicably switched to giving the distance to the original city of Sherbrooke itself, some 6km further. Finally, the broadcast towers and the lights of the city appeared as we crested a hill, and we coasted down to the next control, arriving at 12:45. My riding partners headed off to sleep, while I noticed that even the Subway was still open, and stopped in to grab a sandwich to go before heading across the street to the Golden Lion for a pint to celebrate having made such good time.

Achievement unlocked!

Achievement unlocked!

The pub was full of a handful people at a fairly advanced state of obnoxiousness, but I grabbed a quiet stool at the bar and asked the bartender what their lowest alcohol beer was. Since the response was some kind of blueberry flavoured atrocity, I opted for the “Best Bitter” instead, without reading the description of it on the beer menu. Unfortunately, the brewer seems to have taken the name of this beer style a bit too literally and pumped the bitterness up to astronomical levels, totally overwhelming any trace of malt flavour and throwing in a good dose of diacetyl to top it off. Nonetheless, I grunted my way through half of the pint until my leg muscles went into a pleasant state of relaxation, then headed back to the Bishop’s University dorms to catch a few hours of sleep and a shower.

Before parting ways at the control we had talked about meeting up a bit after 6AM but without any conclusive plan. I woke up straight away with the morning light around 5 and lounged around in bed, contemplating the possibility of waiting for the complimentary breakfast, which may or may not have been served at 8. Restless, I got up and showered and headed out the door instead, figuring that the others would soon catch up to me anyway. In town I noticed that the Valentine was open already and serving breakfast, so I stopped and ordered some scrambled eggs and coffee. Upon turning on my phone I saw a text message from Trevor and invited him and the others to join me, which they did  just a few minutes later. As we ate, we saw Marin Lemay roll through the intersection and up the huge hill leading out of Lennoxville. We all set out together at around 7:15 and quickly caught up to him somewhere in the maze of roads on the way to Magog, making a solid group of 5 riders. The sky was still clear and there was absolutely no wind to speak of, and I felt really pretty good as we rolled up and down the hills and finally hit the 112 and the long flat stretch to Magog.

Before the wall, gazing upon Orford

Before the wall, gazing upon Orford

Riding this sort of long flat stretch in a group seems to be a huge problem for me, and I forgot that I had wisely chosen to split from the peloton at the start of the ride for just this reason. As we pressed on to Magog at a speed that, despite my heart rate monitor’s insistence to the contrary, was a bit outside my comfort zone, I started to feel the intense feeling of irritability that means that I’ve just exhausted my energy reserves. I suggested we stop at the supermarket in Magog so that we could remove our jackets and I could revive myself, which I attempted to do by, even more unwisely, chugging first a grape pop (200 calories) and then an orange pop (210 calories), the kind of insanely unhealthy beverages that I would never even look at under normal circumstances.  This produced an immediate sensation of relief, followed by a creeping malaise that followed me out of Magog and punched me in the gut at the top of the impressively steep Southière climb. Though I had no problem on this short, sharp grade, as I turned onto the chemin des Pères, the other riders in the group seemed to magically float away from me, leaving me limping along on this roller-coaster of a road, tremendously popular with cyclists, that, just like the road into Lac-Mégantic, approximates but does not in any way follow the shoreline of Lac Memphrémagog. The views of the lake and mount Owl’s Head were spectacular, but I was feeling pretty pathetic.

I stopped at the rest area before Bolton Pass to pee and, since I no longer had any group to ride with, resolved to push through the rest of the brevet in full-on “Energizer Bunny” mode, slowly, but without stopping.Since I was riding so slowly, with my heart rate barely pushing 120, I reasoned that I wouldn’t really need to eat much, in any case. My butt was starting to hurt quite a lot. I was ready for the ride to be over. In the end, I stopped in Cowansville for the control, where I ate a bagel, in St-Césaire for the seemingly obligatory bathroom break (something about this town…), and at the same dépanneur in Marieville where I revived myself with a Pepsi last year, except that this time around I sipped a V8 and watched a couple more riders pass me by. At this point I started to have other problems – not only were my sitbones sore but my hands had also gotten sore from all of the broken pavement. At one point on the Yamaska River road, I hit a pothole, letting loose a loud and long stream of profanity, only to be promptly passed by a group of riders who had caught up to me after the last control. Oops! How embarrassing…

Another bloody Tim Horton's. Almost done.

Another bloody Tim Horton’s. Almost done.

On the way out of Chambly I forced myself to pick up the pace, knowing that in any case I was almost done, but my efforts were foiled by what seemed like every single traffic light in St-Hubert and Brossard conspiring against me. Nonetheless, I had texted my wife, who graciously agreed to pick me up at the end of the ride, that I would be arriving at 4:15, and remarkably, I was able to make this time almost to the minute! My official arrival at the last control, a couple kilometers before the starting point, was 4:05PM, for a total time of 35:05, a good 3 hours faster than last year.

It seems that, despite my idea of “tick-tock” scheduling of a fast brevet with a relaxed one, it has been on the supposedly “relaxed” rides involving beer that I’ve made the biggest improvements in my time since the year before. There must be a lesson about proper pacing in this somewhere… In the end, my average speed between controls went steadily down from 27 to 20 km/h up until Lac-Mégantic, but then rebounded somewhat to around 22 for the rest of the ride, which of course makes sense since it was predominantly downhill.

Having an overall time goal for a 600k brevet is, I think, kind of futile unless you plan to ride the whole thing straight through without sleeping, in which case you need to be fast enough to do it in not much more than 24 hours. In theory, this is achievable, if you keep time at the controls to a minimum, since it’s only an average of 25 km/h. However, the whole section from Compton to Lac-Mégantic is legitimately very difficult, and I don’t see how I could reasonably maintain an average of 25 without an immense amount of training. I’m already a reasonably fast climber, and it would be no problem to ride that fast in and of itself, but it would come at the cost of being able to do the following 280km, at least at any reasonable pace!

Even though there is no PBP next year, this ride is for me a significant achievement in itself, and, aside from the sore hands, butt, and shoulder, a very enjoyable way to see a large amount of really beautiful countryside. I don’t think I’ll do it in 24 hours next year, but I do think I’ll try to get even more sleep in Lennoxville!

It is sort of about the bike

I’m certainly not the first to do it, but it’s become a bit of a hobby of mine to ride Bixi up the Voie Camilien-Houde1, the “only hill” in Montreal, which local sport cyclists are doomed, Sisyphus-like2, to climb hundreds or thousands of times a year for lack of any other nearby place to train…

Usually I do it at a pretty leisurely pace, in the first gear, which I find to be more than adequate for what is after all only a 6% average grade (a few sections are a bit steeper). I haven’t really managed to convince anyone else that this is a pleasant experience, but I find it to be one – the upright position on the Bixi encourages me to take in the view as I pass the Belvédère, which is really quite impressive, given that this is a 750-foot tall mountain in the middle of an essentially flat island not far above sea level.

I was interested to see what an all-out effort (as in, a sustained heart rate over 170 bpm) would get me in terms of a time, compared to the 6:00 minutes that I’ve gotten myself down to on my road bike, which is not particularly lightweight. In comparison, the Bixi:

  • Weighs 18kg (40lbs) versus 12kg (26lbs)
  • Has 47-559 (26×1.9) tires (actually not sure on the width) with thick tread, versus supple 28-622 (700x28c) tires
  • Has a cheap Shimano dynamo hub and lights that are always on, versus a light, efficient SP dynamo hub and switchable lights
  • Has 3-speed internal hub gearing, versus 14-speed derailleur gearing
  • Does not have clipless pedals, obviously, and doesn’t have toe clips or straps either
  • Has upright flat bars with no equivalent to the “on the hoods” position that works best for climbing out of the saddle

I found that the gears on the Bixi are not spaced very well for this kind of effort – I usually climb the first curve of CH standing, in the same gear that I will then use for the long shallow grade that follows it. However, in the Bixi’s 3rd gear, I found myself on the verge of stalling, unable to get much leverage to keep the bike going forward (the handlebar position probably contributed to this since I wasn’t able to use my upper body as effectively to push on the pedals).

My usual strategy is to downshift the front derailleur around the second “no parking” sign after the shallow straightaway, as this is where the climb starts to get steep again – I then climb seated in this gear until near the top, when I sprint, spinning it out and subsequently upshifting and standing up again.  This doesn’t work on a Bixi, of course.  I dropped to the second gear a bit before the sign and had to alternate between climbing standing and seated as it was again just a bit too high for the slope.  It may also be an issue with the handlebar position, as even when climbing seated, the upper body helps to counterbalance the force applied to the pedals (this is one of the ways in which cycling is very different from cross-country skiing, where the upper body is directly used to create forward motion during the glide phase!)

I was unfortunately working too hard to take in the view. Again, because of the handlebars, I was forced to lean forward quite a bit when climbing out of the saddle, so I mostly saw the road surface.  It also started to rain at this point.

As I rounded the last corner, I made a feeble effort to sprint to the finish line, not bothering to upshift. A refreshing wind cooled me off as I descended the other side sitting straight up on the Bixi.  After I arrived at work, Strava informed me that I had made a time of 7:39 on the hill. Given that this was from a cold start, as opposed to the usual “slingshot” coming down Boulevard Mont-Royal, I would guess that a fair comparison to my personal record would be more like 7:25.

In general, I like to believe that sports equipment is not very important. For example, since last season, I lost 10 pounds, which almost certainly contributed to me improving my best time on CH from 6:27 to 6:00, despite riding the same heavy bike.  However, my experience with a pair of slow skis on the Morin-Heights Loppet in February, where after powering past a bunch of people during the first (uphill) 10km, I was simply unable to keep up with anyone in the long downhill sections towards the finish, made me question this (and also immediately rush out to buy a pair of faster skis).

A Bixi is a pretty extreme case, but it’s clear that, strictly speaking, it is kind of about the bike. All of the handicaps mentioned above added up to a roughly 25% decrease in performance, and this is in a situation where wind resistance is not even in play. The more interesting question, which I can’t answer here, is the relative contribution of the various features of a Bixi, except for one: the weight difference between my road bike and a Bixi is only a bit more than my weight loss since last year, and yet the Bixi is still a whole minute slower than my best time on my road bike with those extra 10 pounds on my body!

What this points to is that a light bike feels nice, and it certainly will make you a bit faster, but there are many other things to consider: rolling resistance, internal drag from a cheap generator hub, and maybe most importantly, gearing, fit, and riding technique!

1. It is interesting that Camilien Houde’s opposition to conscription during WWII has led readers of English Wikipedia (myself included) to believe he was a bit of a fascist, while French Wikipedia points out that in actual fact he was the longtime political adversary of both the overt fascist Adrien Arcand and the quasi-fascist nationalist Maurice Duplessis (though he reconciled with the latter in his final term as mayor, at the height of the Grande Noirceur, the “darkest hour before the dawn” if you will, in the 50s).

2. Again with the Sisyphus. One might think that I only know one character from Greek mythology (and one would be correct).

Éole et fils: brevet de randonneur de 400km

https://www.strava.com/activities/310471059

Je me suis réveillé à 3h45 pile, 15 minutes avant le réveille-matin, comme d’habitude. J’avais pourtant planifié mon départ rigoureusement, ayant même moulu du café la veille pour me faire un expresso sans perturber le sommeil de ma femme. On annonçait 3 degrés ce matin et, bien que mon thermomètre en affichait encore 5, je savais qu’il ferait beaucoup plus froid après avoir franchi le pont Jacques-Cartier. J’hésitais entre le chandail en laine et les manches d’appoint (merci au site web de MEC pour m’avoir appris le français pour arm-warmers!). Finalement j’ai pris les manches en me disant que je les enlèverai assez bientôt de toute façon et j’avais pas envie d’embarrasser mon sac de guidon avec trop de linge.

On annonçait quand même 17 degrés, n’est-ce pas?

Avec juste un petit vent de 11 km/h avec rafales à 33. Rien de majeur.

En faisant ma mise au point du vélo j’ai pris soin d’enlever tous les fragments de verre coincés dans mes pneus ainsi que boucher les lacérations dans la bande de roulement avec de la «Amazing Goop», n’ayant pas envie d’une autre crevaison à la 10e borne comme sur le 300. En roulant vers le départ j’avais les doigts croisés très serrés… même si je suis parti à 4h15, j’étais pas sur d’arriver à temps si je pognais un flat. Heureusement la Goop a très bien tenu toute la journée, je pense même à faire pareil avant le 600 km, question de garder mes nouveaux pneus pour Paris-Brest-Paris!

Toute une gang de malades mentaux au stationnement, 27 en total, j’ai appris plus tard! Les habitués sont tous là, et surtout ceux qui visent Paris-Brest, faut passer les brevets le plus tôt possible pour avoir une marge de manœuvre…

Contrairement au 300 où je visais juste une ride relaxe ponctuée d’une bière, je me suis mis au défi de battre mon temps assez surprenant de 18h36 de l’année passée (où je me suis dit que je serais heureux d’être sous la barre de 20h). Après tout c’est comme 100 km de plat, 100 km de montagnes, 100 km de vallons, et 100 km de descente. Donc une fois la Scenic est passée c’est facile, quoi. Faut juste pas se forcer trop sur le premier 200 km, quoi.

On part en flèche (mais pas en Flèche Vélocio!) avec un très fort vent dans le dos. Je roule facilement à 35 km/h et plus à la tête du deuxième groupe (les fusées Marion ayant déjà décollé) avec une FC entre 140 et 150, ce que j’avais jugé assez lente pour ne pas m’épuiser… erreur! J’amuse les autres en sautant les dos d’âne à Richelieu style Napoléon Dynamite:


Ever take it off any sweet jumps?

On tourne vers le Sud en sortant de la ville et soudainement le rythme est un peu trop vite pour moi, je laisse tout le monde s’éloigner et je roule tout seul, mais quand même assez rapidement, car je me suis dit «faut profiter du vent tant qu’il reste de mon bord». Erreur! Je rattrape Casey, qui avait fait une courte pause pour enlever ses jambières (il faillait chercher un peu plus loin que la site web de MEC pour trouver cette traduction de leg-warmers…) et on roule ensemble un bon bout. Surprise, il vient lui aussi d’Alberta, comme tout le monde qui parle anglais, il me semble. Dès la première colline on rattrape la gang et on les drop presque immédiatement, eux qui ont la fâcheuse habitude de pédaler dans les descentes – pourquoi?

Arrivé à Frelighsburg et départ même avant 8h30, je fais ma pause très courte comme d’habitude. J’achète deux sacs de fromage skouik-skouik pour la route et je suis Martin “Defrag” en partant vers la Joy Hill. Il est un peu plus vite que moi mais je roulerai plus ou moins avec lui le reste de la journée. Pour le moment mes réserves d’énergie semblent correctes. Je mange, je bois du Tang, je grimpe Joy Hill et Scenic en 34×26 avec une FC vers 160 et je me sens bien. Je porte encore les manches d’appoint et les jambières, et mes orteils sont encore un peu gelés.

Descente de la Scenic, je dépasse brièvement Olivier, car non seulement je ne pédale pas dans les descentes, mais je ne freine pas non plus! La vallée Mississquoi s’est transformé en tunnel de vent et je file encore très vite sans me forcer du tout… mais je me rends compte que je ne suis plus correct. Les jambes ont mal et la FC ne dépasse plus 130. Je me dis qu’il faut simplement manger et boire plus, je récupère en selle, c’est ça, profites-en du vent pour relaxer. Je n’arrête même pas à Mansonville… la tête dans le sable, tout va bien, pas de souci! Les Marion me dépassent (wow, j’avais une avance même sur eux! chic!) mais c’est pas grave, ils sont des machines. En outre, il fait beau.

Le vent commence à tourner.

Je manque d’eau.

Sisyphus-Image-01C

Les côtes de Knowlton Landing sont vraiment pénibles, je me souviens. J’arrive à la 245 et c’est clair, je suis bonké solide, et il faut encore me taper Bolton Pass, qui malgré son nom n’a rien d’un col, mais s’est quand même transformé lui aussi en tunnel de vent, cette fois de face. Misère… Martin me rattrape avant Knowlton et, en voyant mon état, me suggère d’arrêter au IGA, ce que je fais le temps de caler un Pepsi et finalement remplir mes gourdes. Je me convainc que je me sens mieux et ça tient, plus ou moins, jusqu’à Sutton.

J’ai un peu de vertige. Je cale un V8 et je mange. Je repars très vite, encore pensant me debonker en selle. Partir à 13h55 c’est vraiment un bon temps! Même si je trouve le parcours du 400 archi-niaiseux, c’est génial de pouvoir saluer tout le monde en partant de Sutton tandis qu’ils y arrivent. J’ai peut-être l’air en forme mais je me sens encore un peu bonké, la FC ne dépasse pas 120 et les cuisses me brûlent encore. Récupération en selle pour du vrai sur ce tronçon, je réduis ma vitesse à environ 20 km/h et finalement je traverse la 10 et j’atteigne le «Motel-Dépanneur» de Waterloo pour prendre mon égoportrait habituel avec le drôle de ver de terre sur leur pancarte.

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Martin repart un peu avant moi et je me dis que je ne le verrait plus avant St-Césaire. J’enfourche encore ma vielle selle Avocet (qui me convient mieux que toutes les Brooks que j’ai eu de ma vie, étrangement) et je me pointe, finalement, vers Eastman, 80 km après avoir vu la pancarte «Eastman 15km». Osti de parcours de marde! Néanmoins j’ai le vent dans le dos et je me sens bien, mon sac est rempli de toute sorte de bonbons surettes et je me suis remis du bonk, finalement.

Tourne sur Chemin Georges-Bonaille, c’est beaucoup plus agréable que l’année passée. Je m’amuse en remarquant que le mont Chauve est vraiment chauve. C’est impressionnant comme le paysage a changé depuis que je suis passé par ici en ski en mi-Mars – on est passé de noir et blanc au vert partout. Et voilà, le fin fond du rang A, j’arrive à la 220 et je m’apprête à affronter le vent.


DOOOOOM!

Je monte à 10 km/h, je rentre dans un mur de vent, et je descends la côte en me cachant derrière le guidon le mieux possible… pour remonter encore. Ça me fait souvenir les brevets en Ohio qui ne comportait que ce genre de chemin … sur 200 km. On est-tu bien au Québec. Pause-pipi à Sainte-Anne-de-la-Patente, encore de côte, mais finalement j’arrive à Warden, je tourne, c’est effectivement très beau le petit chemin vers Shefford.

Et voilà, ce à quoi je m’attendais, la 112 et les 100 km de «descente». C’est beau, ça roule vite, et voilà… Martin, qui a raté le virage à Warden et ainsi ajouté 3 km à son brevet. J’ai donc quelqu’un pour m’accompagner à St-Césaire!

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Miraculeusement, Éole décide de nous quitter dès le coucher du soleil! On file donc bien vite au contrôle, 25 km/h, comme si on n’avait pas déjà fait 330 km de route. Je m’empresse d’arriver au Subway car j’ai vraiment, mais comme vraiment besoin d’une toilette – en sortant de la salle de bain je me retrouve dans une longue file d’attente pour mon sandwich – zut!

Un souper agréable avec Martin, on ne traîne pas trop longtemps car il fait déjà froid. Je mets encore mes manches d’appoint. J’avais avalé un peu trop vite mon sandwich et en passant un dépanneur à Rougemont je me sens en besoin d’être dépanné, donc je laisse partir Martin, qui finira dans 17h59, et je prends un Coke et une somme sur le banc de pique-nique quelques minutes, le temps de calmer mon estomac. Il semble bien fonctionner car je repars en forme, roulant facilement à 25 km/h jusqu’à Chambly et encore plus vite à travers! Des ados roulent à vélo sur le bord de la 112 sans lumières et j’évite de justesse de leur rentrer dedans…

Je n’ai jamais été aussi heureux de me retrouver à Longueuil. Je me mets à chanter à voix haute:

Tellement heureux que je me retiens de sacrer en faisant la boucle insensée dans Brossard qui sert juste à prolonger le brevet de quelques kilomètres. Je termine mon brevet dans 18h14 et je me paye une beigne avant rentrer à Montréal juste après minuit. La vie est belle!

Pour le 600 je n’ai qu’un objectif: pas de bonk.

Dunham beer ride (a.k.a. CVRM 300k brevet)

https://www.strava.com/activities/301374065

The ultimate goal of all this biking this year is to do Paris-Brest-Paris, which I have been wanting to ride since at least 2007. Nonetheless I’ve tried to set myself some small goals for the qualifying brevets and accompanying training.  For the 200k my main goal was not to bonk, but also to do it in under 8 hours. For the 600k I’m hoping to get to the sleep control by midnight. But for the 300k I had a much more important goal: to stop at the Brasserie Dunham and drink a beer.

The ride started out promising, with a good twenty or so riders lined up in the parking lot, mostly the usual suspects (since one does not simply walk into the Eastern Townships … without having already done at least a good 200k). No sign of the rain we were promised but the wind was a bit stronger than expected – I began to dread a repeat of last year’s ride when it started blasting in my face at the 190k mark, just after turning west on the 104 to come down out of the mountains, and caused me to struggle the whole way back to Montreal.

We rolled out rather slowly at first, twiddling along at 25-27 km/h through the empty boulevards of Brossard, until we turned onto chemin de Salaberry and caught the tailwind, at which point the group accelerated quite a lot and strangely failed to slow down after turning onto Grande-Ligne with the wind blowing from the front-side.  The lead group spread out diagonally across the entire road and there simply wasn’t any room to get in the wind shadow.  With my heart rate monitor showing 160+ I decided I’d had enough and dropped back, cursing the weather gods and settling into a reasonable pace along with a few other stragglers. As luck would have it we caught up with the group at the traffic light for the 35 anyway!

After an exhilarating tailwind-propelled run through the industrial park of Chambly at 45 km/h, things spread out a bit and, although the wind was annoying, it was mostly from the side and didn’t cause me any serious problems. The 112 in this direction is starting to look a little worn out and there is a lot of debris on the shoulder, so I was grateful for the turn into Marieville… until my bike started to feel a little “soft”. Schezbzflat! The culprit was rapidly located – a very sharp chip of slate, probably picked up on the shoulder of the 112, but I foolishly decided to patch the flat instead of replacing the tube. My patch glue was thick and dried-out and the first patch failed to hold, so I lost a good 15 minutes, watching every single other rider go by from the side of the road. Unlike the 200k, this was going to be another solo ride for me… I resolved that I would not stop for more than 5 minutes at the controls until I got to Dunham, whereupon I would eat, drink, and be merry, and have a relaxing ride back to Montreal.

NO SLEEP TILL DUNHAM!

So it was that I spent 10 hours looking over my shoulder to see if my tire was deflating, and looking over my other shoulder to make sure nobody could hear me talking to myself. I very nearly caught a group of riders at the giant cross where the route leaves the 112, but they took a wrong turn, continuing on the bike path instead of the rang de la Grande-Barbue (the name of this road always makes me think of a 6-foot tall bearded drag queen, but I guess it’s actually… a kind of fish?)

tournez à droite sur le chemin Conchita-Wurst?

tournez à droite sur le chemin Conchita-Wurst?

After this point things became pretty uneventful. I planned and executed my control stops with laser-like precision (locate cheese curds, purchase cheese curds, refill water bottles, get back on bike). After Knowlton the packs of cyclosportifs started to come out by the hundreds. I saw an idiot driver cut off and nearly crash into a cyclist at a right turn, and for some reason the only thing I could think to yell at the driver was “mets tes esti de flashers mon tabarnac” though clearly not using his turn signal was the least of his problems… While riding down Bolton Pass a group passed in the opposite direction and I heard a woman telling the other riders that “c’est du monde qui fait des brevets de 200, 300 km pour Paris-Brest”. Indeed!

Just as the climb of Covey Hill defines the 200k route, the climb of Route Scenic defines the 300k. Of course, on this ride there are actually a bunch of other hills, but this one is the most notorious. As I hoped, I found it considerably easier than last year, though I purposely didn’t try to set any personal records and kept my heart rate under 160 for most of it. I finally got cooled off by a passing shower near the summit, and decided to take it easy on the descent into Abercorn since I was unsure of the road conditions. At Sutton I finally caught up with Trevor, Martin “Defrag”, Jim, and Samuel, then quickly took off again mentioning that I’d be having a pint and lunch (at 3PM…) in Dunham if anyone cared to join me. As it happened they caught me just as I was turning left into the parking lot for the brewery, and I waved to them from my comfy chair in the cozy alcove-terrasse that looks out onto the main road from the brewpub.  They would end up finishing a good 35 minutes ahead of me, about the same amount of time I spent in Dunham (though they rode much faster).

Guess which one is Scenic

Guess which one is Scenic

Despite having already eaten a good quantity of cheese curds, I really had my heart set on poutine, but it was not to be as the kitchen was not open. The waitress helpfully directed me to the sandwich shop next door where I picked up what will probably be the best végé-pâté sandwich of my life, and I settled down at my table with a pint of BMW (Berliner Melon Weisse), a 3.8% alcohol, sour beer, which is just perfect for 215 km into a brevet with another 100 to go (incidentally the very same beer that I drank here on my ride back from the Vermont Brewer’s Festival). I had hoped to see some more riders go by, but it seemed like everyone else was much further behind the group of four that I had seen at Sutton.

The lovely portal-terrasse of Dunham

The lovely portal-terrasse of Dunham

At 3:30 I felt just fine and decided to head off again, thinking I might even make a pretty good time if the wind didn’t cause any problems. Amazingly, there was almost no wind at all! There was however one small problem, which was that I was completely out of food. Since I had the heart rate monitor I decided to try to ride in “fat-burning zone” (under 130 bpm) in the hope of conserving energy. The strategy seemed to work, and luckily so, since this was a long stretch with not even a dépanneur in sight. Finally, after the voie de contournement of Farnham, I popped into a gas station, plunked down a can of Pepsi, a bottle of fake V8 (Oasis 10-legumes – it has 2 more vegetables!), and a bag of barbecue cheese curds, and declared to the cashier that I needed sugar, salt, and caffeine, and I needed it now.

With my stores replenished, the ride along the Yamaska River to St-Césaire was an absolute delight under the hot afternoon sun. I decided that I’d simply punch in quick at the gas station, grab a couple bags of candy, and head on out, but I ended up spending a good 5 minutes waiting for some guy to buy a couple of lottery tickets, then decide he wanted a couple more, then a couple more… and then some cigarettes… and then COME ON!!! Back to the 112 for me. Really starting to hate this road. I thought I might take the bike path from Chambly but decided to just stick it out on the road, which actually does get a lot better at that point anyway. For a while it looked as if I would be able to cleverly thread my way through the thunderstorms, but in Richelieu the rain came on heavy and I took refuge under the overhang of a garage, where, luckily, there was a soda machine and a nice bench to sit on.  After 10 minutes the rain let up and the cool air sped me back through the endless suburbs to the final control.

Recovery!

Recovery!

Finished! In 13 hours and 51 minutes, no less, a good hour faster than last year! For the 400 we’ll see if I can survive it in under 18 hours – last year was 18:36 which I found remarkably fast. I think I’ll get some new tires between now and then… and keep riding up and down the one hill in Montreal, eternally…