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?
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…
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.