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Something, but almost nothing

Sous la forêt, la plage

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… la forêt ici a pris racine sur du sable, [et] l’humus, le sol vivant, ne sert qu’à recouvrir du sable … nous marchons par conséquent sur un désert souterrain qui n’aspire qu’à faire surface, qu’à se gondoler en dunes mobiles et majestueuses qui partiront un jour, vagues d’assaut minérales et arènes en mouvement, à la conquête du monde. Partout, et surtout ici, je ne vois qu’un désert en sursis.

Louis Hamelin, La Rage

An enduring feature of the foothills of the Laurentians are their vast sandpits, usually criss-crossed with quad tracks and barely concealed from the road behind a scraggly row of balsam fir or birch trees.  The mountains, now barely worthy of the name, were once taller than the Himalayas, but two million years of advancing and retreating glaciers first scraped away whatever semblance of topsoil may have existed, then ground down the underlying rock as well.  When the ice finally retreated, the lowlands of the Saint-Laurent and Lac Saint-Jean sat under a vast inland sea accumulating wobbly clay while the fringe of the uplands was stuck with a huge ridge of sand and gravel, but mostly sand, tracing an arc from Gatineau to Tadoussac, known as the Saint-Narcisse morainic complex.

All this means that as soon as you leave the pavement on a bike in the “North”, it becomes apparent that the term “gravel grinding” is not quite accurate.  Whereas in the prime gravel regions of the Eastern Townships you might encounter firm clay that turns to peanut butter in the rain (the sol argileux that will ironically give us one of the world’s great wine-making regions once we have thoroughly fucked up the climate for everyone else), in some parts of the Laurentians you’re more likely to flail wildly in loose sand in just about any weather.  Why would you do that, then?

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Certainly, “because you can”, and “because it’s hard, so it must be worth doing” are two valid answers.  But also, clearly, because the backcountry is beautiful, and for at least a week or two every year, it also has some of the greatest beaches in the world, the upside of all of that sand and a million shallow, nearly sterile lakes.

Long-time readers of this blog (all none of you) know that I’m slightly obsessed with place names, and that I consider the loss of indigenous place names to be a great tragedy.  So as I remark ironically that for me to talk about riding my bike with a packraft to the Lac des Îles is nearly meaningless since there are some eighty-odd lakes with that same name, not to mention the hundreds of Lacs en Coeur, Lacs Rond, Lacs en Croix, and so on and so forth, remember that these places all had different names in the not-so-distant past.  While some of these names were probably just as boring as the French and English ones, we know that many of them were and are a living repository of history and traditional knowledge.  On the other hand, naming a lake for its shape or its islands at least serves an informational and navigational purpose, unlike the frankly offensive practice of renaming things after some random white guy or a real or fictional Catholic saint:

Okay, if you don’t understand French or Innu-aimun then that might not have been all that informative either.

I had originally planned to go to the more imaginatively named Lac Sans Bout, but my limited vacation time put it slightly out of reach.  So instead, I carried the packraft on my back on pavement all the way from Montréal to the first campsite in the ZEC Lavigne where I camped for the night before setting off on a “gravel” adventure which I hoped would take me to the island paradise of my dreams.

If you bike into a ZEC by the main access road, you might be fooled into thinking that you can simply cruise along at near-pavement speeds on your 38mm wide tires like a common Jan Heine.  One peculiarity of a ZEC is that, unlike a national park, people live there.  Which means that, as everywhere else in Québec, they will drive their Civics, Yarises, and Versas to get there even in the most improbable weather conditions.  So, for the first few kilometres, the road will be remarkably good.  In fact, the road into the ZEC Lavigne from St-Côme is not only quite passable but downright beautiful.  On the map, though, you can see clearly where the road changes from red to orange, and that’s where the fun begins.

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I probably wasn’t doing myself any favors with the way my bike was set up – the really wide handlebars and all of my camping equipment (such as it was – actually just a hammock and a light sleeping bag) loaded on a porteur rack made it pretty difficult to keep the front wheel under control on steep uphills, many of which I ended up walking.  In general, though, the ZEC Lavigne has pretty good roads.  The ZEC des Nymphes, where I spent the afternoon after a quick stop in St-Zénon and a 10km slog down the 131 into the wind, is a different story.

The terrain here is low hills rather than 700-metre mountains and escarpments, and perhaps because of this it’s basically sand all the way down.  Route 2 (the roads are numbered in a ZEC) might be “suitable for cars” all the way in, as noted by a red line on the map, it’s not particularly enjoyable on a bike.  I learned to spot the particularly sandy parts, usually at the bottom of hills, ahead of time in order to anticipate the inevitable fishtailing and prepare to unclip and put a foot down if necessary.

If Route 2 was annoying, Route 3 was downright disheartening.  It started out with a series of steep, rocky hills, which were fun in their own way, but quickly degenerated into a series of long flat runs of deep sand, where it was impossible to make forward progress.  I found myself walking both the flats and the climbs and riding the brakes with both hands on the descents, gingerly picking my way around the large rocks.  It was starting to get late in the afternoon and I wasn’t finding any suitable campsites or water sources.  In the end I decided to turn around and try the other side of the lake.

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On the way out, I had noticed diamond-shaped pieces of coroplast tacked to the trees by the side of the road.  As it turned out, this was the semi-mythical Sentier Multifonctionnel which I’d been curious to ride for the last few years.  It seems that, unfortunately, it mostly follows sandy ZEC roads for a lot of its length, which would explain why people are mostly interested in skiing, dog-sledding, and riding fatbikes on it.  However, I noticed that at one point it broke away from the awful Route 3 and into the woods on a narrow double-track trail.  I followed this for a few hundred metres before turning around since I didn’t have a good map and my phone was quite low on battery power, but I was amazed at how easy it was to ride as opposed to the road.

I realized that there is a simple explanation for this: this trail was actually a very old road, built before the rise of powerful bulldozers and other machinery capable of stripping the topsoil to make a “smooth” and level surface suitable for motor vehicles.  But a few inches of topsoil, fed and maintained by the living forest, is the only thing holding the land together here.  Without it, everything reverts to a post-glacial wasteland of rocks and sand which swallows up any attempts to improve or stabilize it.  It’s not a desert, because a desert is only dry, not lifeless.

Stay tuned for more rambling about islands, packrafts, and rim brakes…

 

 

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Laisse-moi

Laisse-moi regarder par la fenêtre
Laisse-moi chercher la prochaine balise
Laisse-moi tourner la manivelle du destin
Laisse-moi ouvrir le sentier vers l’avenir
Laisse-moi
le temps
de transit

Collect-a-ZEC

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There’s something about an empty space on a map.

After a few years of cris-crossing the vast (and frankly somewhat boring) bottomlands of the St. Lawrence valley on bike tours and brevets de randonneur, I came across this article in Géo Plein Air, proposing a series of “backcountry” touring routes stretching from Saint-Michel-des-Saints all the way to Charlevoix.  Unfortunately this article leaves a lot of questions unanswered about the actual logistics of bike touring in the mountains and woods of Quebec, the first and foremost being… on what roads?

North of Montreal and east of the increasingly suburbanized A-15 corridor, the standard road map shows only a few spindly “fingers” grasping the edge of the Canadian Shield, seemingly leading nowhere: the 125 to St-Donat-de-Montcalm and the 131 to Saint-Michel-des-Saints.  And yet anyone who has ridden a bike on these, particularly on a long weekend, can attest to the fact that “nowhere” is a very popular destination, and will recognize the singular emotion I call shoulderfreude – the pleasure of cruising past several kilometers of cars, trucks, and boats waiting at the first traffic light on the 125 in Ste-Julienne.

Enlightened students of history know that an empty space on a map is never truly empty.  At best, the appearance of a void nourishes the pretension that in entering it one becomes part of a select club, the first or the few to have seen a supposedly untouched wilderness.  At worst, it feeds the delusion of terra nullius, willfully ignoring the evidence of indigenous occupation in order to take control of the land for some foreign king or country.  But archaeology and oral tradition tell us that there is no such thing as untouched wilderness, and there is no empty space on the map; all of North America has been inhabited at some point since the end of the last ice age.

Until the early 19th century, basically everything north of St-Jérôme (what we call le Nord even though it’s around the same latitude as southern France) was technically part of Quebec (falling south of a quite arbitrary line drawn in the Royal Proclamation of 1763), nominally “owned” by the British Crown, but in reality occupied as it had been for millennia by the Anicinape and Nehirowisiw peoples, and more recently by occasional fur traders.  At some point, fur went out of fashion and the British Navy needed more wood for boats, and this terra was rapidly made nullius by force in a wave of deforestation pushing relentlessly northwards, destroying the ecosystem that made it inhabitable.

The land here is young and fragile, only an inch or so of topsoil on top of rocks and sand, and legend has it the only thing that saved it from washing away was the omnipresence of the national tree of Quebec, the yellow birch (merisier), whose wood is too dense to float and was thus too costly to remove at a time when rivers were still the only means of transport.

Once the wildlife came back, the provincial government began to sell (and give away as political favors) hunting and fishing rights to rich Americans and exclusive private clubs, to the point where basically the entire area immediately north of the St. Lawrence and Ottawa valleys, from Témiscamingue in the west to Tadoussac in the east, was strictly off-limits to the public. The three different categories of nature reserves were established by successive attempts to restore public access.  While previous Liberal governments had bought out a few the private clubs, creating much of what we now know as the parcs nationaux and réserves fauniques of the Sépaq, in 1977 the Parti Québécois government simply revoked their right to control access to the territory, which was, after all, publicly owned land.  This was followed by the transformation of the remaining clubs into ZECs (zones d’exploitation contrôlées or “controlled harvest areas”), which are basically wildlife preserves managed by non-profit cooperatives of local hunters and fishers.

Hunting season is only a small part of the year, so the rest of the time, everyone is free to visit a ZEC.  Unlike national parks, you must sign in and sign out when you leave.  But also unlike national parks, the fees for entering a ZEC are only charged for motorized vehicles, because, quite sensibly, their purpose is to fund the maintenance of the road network.  As for the quality of this maintenance, well… there’s only one way to find out!  So a month or so back, sometime in the middle of the endless heatwave that may or may not be the new normal (as they say, it will ket wörse), I piled a bunch of camping gear on my bike and pointed the compass due North, with a tentative plan to make an arc from St-Côme to Mandeville through the ZEC Lavigne and Zec des Nymphes.  And to camp on an island, if possible.

To be continued

Paris-Brest-Paris 2015, part 3: Where in the Hell is Villaines-la-Juhel?

Un accueil chaleureux...

Un accueil chaleureux…

D’habitude j’écris plutôt en français sur des affaires de vélo, mais il me semblait utile de commencer mon récit du Paris-Brest-Paris Randonneur en anglais pour atteindre le plus grand public international. Il y a pourtant des petits détails qui manquent à l’appel dans la langue de Shakespeare.

Par exemple, un québécois qui fait du cyclotourisme en France sera vite frappé par sa riche toponymie. Fini l’interminable passage de Saint-Machin à Notre-dame-de-la-Patente en passant par East Nowheresville! Au-delà du génocide de la tradition orale autochtone qu’ont commis les commissions de toponymie en purgeant les “noms sauvages“, c’est aussi juste fucking plate se perdre dans un champ de maïs en Montérégie parce qu’il t’a fallu suivre le rang des Soixante-Neuf vers St-Marc au lieu du rang des Beauchemin vers Ste-Martine ou whatever. Chose qui n’arrivera jamais en France, merci. Chose qui passera pas mal inaperçu pour l’anglophone unilingue.

Donc je vous fera ci-dessous une récapitulation francisante, deux ans plus tard, de ma randonnée jusqu’aux points de suspension de mon dernier billet à ce sujet (on dirait quelque part dans un champ de foin en Bretagne, pas loin de Tinténiac). Et je vous parlera de toponymie, car c’est de ça que je me suis aussi parlé pendant mon Paris-Brest-Paris, souvent à voix haute, pour éloigner le sommeil et me distraire de mes fesses en feu et mon pédalier de marde qui faisait ckrrkkr-krkk-rkrkr sur environ mille kilomètres. Mais il n’y a pas que la toponymie dans la vie.

Il y a aussi la pâtisserie.

Et le cidre.

Le bilan des deux premiers jours et trois nuits du PBP se résume à: deux bières, une bouteille de cidre, deux verres de cidre, six baguettines, un demi-paquet de Boursin, quatre crottins de chèvre, un pot de “Madame Loïk” (genre de fromage à la crème Liberté mais fabriqué à Longueuil-sur-Ille au lieu de Longueil-sur-Mer), des pâtes, encore des pâtes, environ 7000m de D+, huit heures de sommeil, encore plus d’heures de gossage aux contrôles ainsi qu’à la recherche d’un kouign amman (plus difficile d’en trouver en Bretagne qu’à Montréal, étonnamment), 70 km/h en descendant vers Landerneau, l’ascension du Roc’h Trevezel accomplie entièrement sur le gros plateau, un hypermarché, un Lidl, plusieurs bananes, du grelottement en masse pendant une nuit glaciale à Carhaix, des panneaux de route en breton, patati, patata, une galette saucisse, une crêpe.

I. C’est Dingé ton truc mon pote!

Les français ont des claviers AZERTY qui ne leur permettent pas de taper des accents sur les majuscules. Donc, ils ont pris l’habitude de les omettre un peu partout, même sur les panneaux de route. Cela fait en sorte que les milliers de villages dont le nom se termine en -É ont l’air de terminer en -E. Mais pourquoi tous ces villages-é, sourtout en Mayenne et Ille-et-Vilaine? On en a croisé une bonne dizaine, de Broué à Dingé en passant par Beaucé, Chantrigné, Brecé, alouette. (alouetté?).

En effet il s’agit d’une indice de la frontière linguistique entre le normand et le gallo, langue de la famille romaine qu’on parlait en Bretagne quand on ne parlait pas breton. Et moi qui pensais que tous ces noms en -ac faisait partie d’un passé celtique comme les personnages d’Astérix… mais non, au contraire, cette terminaison est la version gallo du latin -acum, comme on nommait les villes un peu partout. J’ignore ce que ça veut dire. Je suis aussi trop paresseux pour aller chercher sur Wikipédia pour vous, cher lecteur. En tout cas les normands ont transformé ça en -é mais l’original a été retenu partout dans la partie latinisante de la Bretagne, qu’on aura passée lorsque les villages en -ac cèdent la place aux villages en ker-…

II. C’est rigole l’eau, surtout en Bretagne!

Une rigole, c’est un genre de canal ou de fossé, et il y a un temps où les Français en ont creusé un peu partout dans l’intérieur de la Bretagne. Il semble que ça sert désormais à faire du vélo de montagne (du VTT en France… voilà de quoi faire de beaux malentendus transatlantiques…) ou quelque chose.

III. Charchigne… le jackpot de la beigne

Ce qui est vraiment le fun sur le Paris-Brest, c’est tout le monde qui est venu au bord de la route pour te saluer ou te vendre ou simplement t’offrir toute sorte de truc à manger et à boire.

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Treve de plaisanterie!  Pas le temps de niaiser!

Bien sûr l’endroit s’appelait « Charchigné » mais je trouve que le manque d’accent le donne un air de casino.  Et c’est là, un peu passé Villaines-la-Juhel, qu’une pâtisserie/boulangerie s’est posé une table le premier matin du Paris-Brest pour me vendre des beignes et du pain bien meilleur que ce que j’ai pu trouver aux contrôles.  C’est un conseil que j’ai appris un peu trop tard – il ne faut pas trop se soucier de l’alimentation sur Paris-Brest car il y aura toujours (même à 3h du matin) quelqu’un pour te vendre ou t’offrir quelque chose de bon.  Parfois pour quelques euros et parfois même juste pour la promesse d’une carte postale!

IV. On peut-tu encore croiser des Tremblay en Randonnai?

En partant de l’aéroport Charles-de-Gaulle (Roissy) à vélo, on est vite surpris de se trouver dans la municipalité qui porte le nom très ironique de Tremblay-en-France. Ils sont fous ces Français! Tout le monde sait que les Tremblay, ça vient du Saguenay, ou peut-être de Charlevoix, j’en sais pas trop. Voyons, qu’est-ce qu’ils font là-bas en France?

En plus, on est au milieu d’une de ces supposées zones de non-droit dont les politiciens américains et leurs admirateurs québécois caqo-meuto-conservateurs nous parlent sans cesse… le très épeurant 93. Je m’attendais à me faire voler avant d’être forcé de convertir à l’islam dans l’espace d’un kilomètre, mais pour la plupart je n’ai vu que des champs. Quelques épis de maïs m’ont quand même épié d’une manière quasi-menaçante…

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Très déçu par l’absence criant de pitbulls en train de mordre des kalach suspendues dans l’air ici à S.E.V.R.A.N.

Pour descendre à Paris j’ai du passer par quelques boisés et longer un genre de canal Lachine mais sans odeur d’égout, pour finir dans une agglomération de condos et anciens bâtiments industriels transformés en bureaux, le tout marqué par de plus en plus fortes concentrations de graffitis très colorés. En fait ça ressemblait pas mal à ce qu’on trouve en rentrant à Montréal de l’aéroport Pierre-Eliot-Trudeau (Dorval) à vélo.

(pour ceux qui ont manqué la joke dans la photo précédente)

Un « tremblay », comme j’ai appris plus tard (merci Wikipédia!), c’est tout simplement une forêt de … trembles. Facepalm! Et la région archi-plate et parfaite pour faire pousser du maïs et des aéroports qui entoure le nord-est de Paris s’appelle, étrangement, le « pays de France ». Mais l’histoire n’arrête pas là, parce que nos Tremblay nationaux et nationales sont vraiment parties* d’un tremblay, quelque part en France. Et on allait passer justement par là en route vers Brest!

*remarquez, cher lecteur ou lectrice, que cette phrase est doublement inclusive, juste pour faire chier Christian Rioux.

V. Perché en haut de la Mortagne

Si le Québécois lambda connaît une région de la France hors de Paris, les chances sont bonnes qu’il s’agit du Perche. Parce que les chances sont bonnes que ce Québécois s’appelle Tremblay et sont ancêtre est donc parti de là. En fait plusieurs patronymes du Canada tirent leur origine d’un Percheron qui s’est tanné de l’Ancien Régime et trouvait ça donc ben le fun d’aller s’installer dans la région de Québec. Il s’appelait peut-être Paul ou Pierre mais il viendra ici pour faire des Adélard, des Onésime, des Angélique, et des Francine qui engendreront à leur tour des Kéven, des Steeve, des Cynthia, et des Marie-Fleur.

J’aimerais écrire davantage sur la beauté de ce pays du Perche, avec ses majestueuses forêts (de trembles ou pas) et ses beaux chevaux robustes et élégants, mais il faisait noir dans les deux directions quand j’y ai passé, alors je n’ai strictement rien vu.

VI. Sainte-Marde-de-Réno-Dépôt

Je n’ai vraiment rien d’autre à dire, à part que, j’ai bien aimé faire des jokes plates sur le noms des lieux dans ma tête pour passer à travers 1225km de vélo. Je trouve ça triste que Saint-Mard n’a jamais fait partie de tous ces saints plus ou moins réels qui ont marqué le paysage québécois. Maintenant, il se trouve sûrement au ciel en train de chiller avec Sainte-Émélie-de-l’Énergie et Saint-Calixte-de-Kilkenny. Ils ont probablement parti une ligue de pétanque. Où peut-être il est en couple avec Saint-Michel-des-Saints qui, lui aussi, a vraiment existé.

Non, je vous niaise, car Dieu n’existe pas (au moins, il n’en existe aucune preuve véridique) et la vie éternelle non plus. Fait que, d’une certaine manière, tous les saints sont faux. Sorry!

VII. C’est donc ben plate le drouais…

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C’est ouf mon pote!

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Je l’ai bien mérité!

VIII. …jusqu’à ce que la pluie te coupe l’Élancourt

Ce qui m’a vraiment surpris sur ce Paris-Brest-Paris, c’est qu’il n’y avait aucune pluie jusqu’à la toute fin.  Une chance que je n’avait pas apporté un manteau vraiment imperméable.  J’avais dormi sous une table dans la cafétéria à Dreux jusqu’à l’aube en pensant reprendre un peu de force (il me restait aussi beaucoup de temps pour boucler les 60km qui restaient).  Malheureusement la pluie a eu la même idée que moi.

Le jeu de pédalier commençait à sérieusement m’énerver à ce point et les dernières heures m’ont parues très, très longues – heureusement, après la plaine très ennuyante du pays drouais, on a eu droit à une forêt domaniale et quelques belles montées pour se garder au chaud.  Par contre, les automobilistes sont devenus beaucoup moins courtois et les gens dans les villages, assez méfiants à l’égard des cyclistes, probablement sous l’effet de se trouver dans la troisième ou quatrième couronne de Paris.

Les cyclistes taïwanais ont vraiment eu l’affaire en matière de technologie – j’en ai vu qui avait même des tablettes fixées sur le guidon et alimentés par leur dynamo (en passant, le dynamo taïwanais SP et le chargeur Sinewave m’avaient très bien servi tout le long du P-B-P).  Après me faire doubler par un gars avec un assemblage de bébelles électroniques jumelé à un système de haut-parleurs pour l’accompagner avec de la musique, je me suis dit, pourquoi pas en faire pareil avec mon téléphone.  C’était donc sur un air faible de Freewheel Burning par Judas Priest que je suis rentré dans la grande région de Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines.

La fin d’un Paris-Brest est assez décevant, surtout si l’on met presque 90h à le faire.  Les douches ont manqué de serviettes et on faisait la file pour un repas industriel réchauffé.  Pas de trouble car une grosse bouteille plastique de cidre m’attendait à l’AirBnB à Versailles!  Malheureusement, après m’être réuni avec Trevor (qui avait terminé 4-5 heurs avant moi, ayant sagement choisi de ne pas dormir à Dreux) et mangé presque toute la bouffe qui nous restait, il fallait me pointer à CDG (Roissy) vers 9h le lendemain.  Je n’étais pas sur d’être capable d’amener mon vélo sur le RER A car c’était en heure de pointe, et j’avais échoué à passer la barrière, mais heureusement le préposé qui m’a aidé … était lui aussi un ancien de Paris-Brest-Paris, qui m’a raconté l’enfer pluvieux de l’édition 2007.

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Ça c’est donc ben ouf!  Ma chéfour est toute étép!

En arrivant à Montréal avec mon vélo j’ai empoigné une tige de la fourche pour enlever la roue avant … pour constater qu’elle était complètement décalée et sur le point de détacher de la tige de direction.  Coudonc, j’avais fait 1225+ kilomètres de vélo avec une fourche craquée et un jeu de pédalier pété.  Et je le referais, sans hésitation!

Tout-inclus dans le Nord

J’ai enfin essayé une des sorties de ski de fond la Boutique Courir.  Alors que dans la région de Montréal une triste dizaine de centimètres de neige gisait au sol, dans le parc des Laurentides il y avait presqu’un mètre.  Étant donné que, avec la voiture et le billet de ski, ça me coûte déjà environ 40$ pour skier au parc du Mont St-Bruno (la seule place proche d’ici qui a réussi à ouvrir tous ses sentiers), un petit 59$ TTC pour aller skier près de Québec ça allait de soi.

Le problème, bien sûr, c’est que Québec, c’est loin.  Je suis parti à 6h15 de la maison et j’ai pris la 30 jusqu’à Berri-UQÀM où j’ai rencontré 4 ou 5 autre skieurs sur le quai de la ligne Jaune.  Une bonne quinzaine attendaient déjà à Longueuil.  Il faisait un beau -12 degrès avec un peu de neige quand on embarquait sur l’autocar.

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… trois heures plus tard …

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En fait c’est l’après-midi…

Non mais le trajet d’autobus a été assez sympathique.  Il venait même avec un petit jus et muffin.  J’ai vu Jean Robert du CVRM et on a jasé un peu vélo et ski.  J’ai tout essayé pour m’endormir mais ça n’a marché que sur la partie la plus belle du trajet… juste avant qu’on arrive au Camp Mercier.

J’ai souvent entendu que le seul vrai atout de ce centre de ski est qu’il reçoit des immenses quantités de neige, et j’ai été un peu déçu qu’il a été choisi au lieu du Mont Ste-Anne.  Le chalet d’accueil est quand même très … accueillant, avec une immense salle de fartage et même des fers fournis (mais aucune idée comment y régler la température car il s’agit de vulgaires fers à repasser!).  Ayant déjà préparé mes skis la veille je suis sorti tout de suite pour faire un peu de pas de patin, question de me “réchauffer” car il faisait environ -16.

J’avais pensé que, après une bonne centaine de kilomètres de ski à roulettes les derniers mois, le pas de patin sur des vrais skis de neige serait assez facile.  Et ça marchait, plus ou moins.  L’équilibre était très bon et j’ai bien réussi le pas de un sur le plat, même si la neige ne glissait pas vraiment bien.  Mais voilà que j’ai constaté que grimper sur l’asphalte ou le gravier fin sur des skis à roulette n’a vraiment rien à voir avec grimper sur une neige froide et abrasive… avec en plus des skis trop longs et probablement mal fartés.  J’étais surchauffé en “ta…” et je suis à peine retourné au chalet après un petit 4 km de galère!  Heureusement j’aurai 3h de route au retour pour regarder et analyser des vidéos de technique de grimpe en pas de patin, dont celle-ci que j’ai beaucoup appréciée avec son animateur … très animé:

En classique ça allait beaucoup mieux.  La glisse n’était encore pas trop au rendez-vous mais ça kickait super fort! J’ai failli faire la grande boucle de la 13-14 car je commençais à avoir très faim, donc j’ai coupé court par la 14A.

Mais elles sont comment les pistes?  Euh… comme c’est un établissement de la Sépaq, tout est très bien tracé, en double partout – du ski d’autoroute, on dirait.  Et comme c’est une Sépaq, tout est aussi plutôt facile.  Rien de très excitant ou en montée ou en descente.  Le parc du Mont Saint-Bruno est beaucoup plus amusant côté terrain.  L’attrait du Camp Mercier est d’abord la grosse neige partout, dans une vrai forêt boréale, car on est au-delà de 800m d’altitude pour la plupart.  On a même eu droit à une paire de geais gris qui se tenaient près du relais le Mésange (dont le nom…) et qui volaient des morceaux de barre tendre aux mains des skieurs!  Mais l’autre atout de ce centre est que, comme au parc du Mont-Tremblant, les sentiers sont aménagés en de très longues boucles, qui permettent de faire 20km ou plus d’un seul tour.  Malheureusement, j’ai été trop bunké pour faire plus que 26km total, qui donne un peu la sensation d’avoir gaspillé toute cette belle neige.

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Ce point de vue vous est présenté par Hydro-Québec

Ça bouffe toute la journée et même un peu de la nuit faire une sortie de même, alors j’aurais peut-être mieux fait juste d’aller au mont Saint-Bruno, ce que j’ai fini par faire le lendemain…  Lorsque les jours deviennent plus longs en janvier et les jambes sont plus aptes à faire 40-50km d’un coup je pense peut-être revenir et faire l’aller-retour à la Forêt Montmorency, car je n’ai aucune envie de refaire mon exploit de 80km sur le P’tit Train du Nord cette saison!

XC Ski, Car-Free (part 2)

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To recap the post from a few weeks ago (in French), not only are there some great places in Montreal where you can ski without having to drive, but with a bit of research and planning, it’s easy to get out of town to places with better conditions and longer trails.  In particular, one can easily take the STL 48 bus from metro Cartier to go to the Bois Duvernay, or the Galland bus to go to Val-David and its excellent Parc Régional.

Since then I’ve had the chance to take a Randonnée Adventure outing to the Parc National du Mont-Tremblant, a destination that really is totally inaccessible by public transportation, and which is well worth the trip.  The club is super friendly and very bilingual, as you might imagine since all the departure locations for their trips are in Westmount and NDG.  These pickup points are, however, very well chosen to correspond to the three metro lines: Atwater for the Green line, Snowdon for the Blue line, and Namur for the Orange line.  It was much faster for me to take the metro all the way to Namur than to get on the bus earlier.

The next weekend, I used the Galland ticket to Sainte-Adèle that I had lying around and tried out the network of cross-country and backcountry ski trails maintained by Plein-Air Sainte-Adèle.  It needs to be said: Sainte-Adèle’s ski network is free, and you get what you pay for.  Actually, you get quite a bit more than you pay for, because the 20 or so kilometres of groomed trails were very well cleared and marked and impeccably trackset.  I chipped in $10 on their website and would recommend others do the same.

The problem with Sainte-Adèle is that you probably brought your skis in a bag as well as a backpack full of food and extra clothes, and there’s no friendly chalet d’acceuil to park this stuff at (or, for that matter, to hang out by the fire at while you eat).  This isn’t always a problem, because the trail network starts at and was originally built and run by the Hôtel Le Chantecler, an easy 16-minute walk from the Galland bus stop.  While the hotel has lost most of its former glory as a ski-in-ski-out destination for the rich and powerful, it still has the facilities, like a locker room, which the concierge seemed perfectly willing to let me use… except…

As part of the whole “faded glory” thing, the hotel actually isn’t open all the time, and when I arrived on a Sunday, they informed me that they were closing down the hotel for the week at around noon.  Oh well.  It’s still a good place to stop in to pick up a free trail map and use the bathroom before heading out.  Just hide your stuff in some bushes, like I did (I will not say where).

The main attraction of Sainte-Adèle is its enormous network of “historic” ungroomed backcountry trails which, in theory, allows you to ski all the way to Sainte-Agathe (on the west side of the 15) or … well … Sainte-Agathe (on the east side of the 15), but also to Morin-Heights, Saint-Adolphe-d’Howard, Val-Morin, Val-David, Sainte-Marguerite-du-Lac-Masson, and so on.  This network is unfortunately cut in half by the 15, with the only link (the Adéloise-Est and Whizzard-Nord) marked using a dashed line as “not recommended” on the map.  This is likely because the bridge crossing the Rivière du Nord may or may not currently exist (UPDATE: confirmed as of March 2017 that it definitely does not exist), but there are probably a bunch of “No Trespassing” signs thrown in for good measure.

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Property is Theft!

The network is also only tenuously connected to Morin-Heights.  The former Loup-Garou Nordique trail that linked the CCC and Western is now cut by, you guessed it, “No Trespassing” signs.  If Martine Ouellet can get the “right to roam” in her proposed constitution of an independent Québec, then all I can say is: sign me up.  Thankfully there’s a short and usually snow-covered stretch of road linking these trails that works almost as well.

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But don’t go off the road, or you’ll get shot and your body will never be found! (also: EN FRANÇAIS!)

This leaves the Rapide Blanc as the only official link between the two networks.  It is unfortunate that the backcountry trails are considered on the map to be uniformly difficult, because while some, like the Maple Leaf and the Fleur-de-Lys, are well-graded and quite pleasant on touring skis, and others, like the Western and the Munson, are a bit “olé-olé” but fundamentally doable, certain trails are basically impossible in fast snow conditions without specialized equipment (or perhaps using nylon climbing skins to go both up and downhill).  The Rapide Blanc is one of those trails.

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Yee-Haw!

So, in the end, I had a miserable day of skiing.  I skied the Loup-Garou (groomed – but watch out for the first descent which stops abruptly at a road crossing, because you will end up in the middle of that road, probably face-down in the gravel), the CCC, then down the road to the Western, to the (urgh) Rapide Blanc, then the Fleur-de-Lys, which took me back to the groomed network on the Adéloise-Ouest, which I skied all the way back to the hotel.  The snow was somehow fast, soft, and heavy at the same time.  I’m not a great descender to begin with but I ended up just stair-stepping up and down all the hills, which is less than fun on 200mm old-style backcountry touring skis (whose metal edges were uniquely useless in these conditions).  This meant that the whole thing took quite a lot longer than I expected and I was very worried about getting back before dark.

Nonetheless, the bus is fairly well timed, since it passes at 6:10PM (officially, but probably a bit later) and you probably don’t want to be skiing after 5PM or so anyway (in the end, I finished in the twilight at 5:20PM).  This gave me time to pack up my stuff and eat a poutine at the Friterie across the street from the bus stop.

I’m not sure I would go back.  From a logistic standpoint it isn’t awful.  The bus leaves you pretty close to the trails, at least the ones on the west side of the 15.  You have all day to ski and, if the conditions are good, a lot of very nice trails to ski on.  But you have to be absolutely self-sufficient, as there is no place to get food or water, no warming hut (there’s a hut but it has no “warming” and is apparently kind of dismal),  no patrols and possibly no other skiers on the trails (I didn’t see a single person on skis all day).  The smart thing to do would be to go the other direction on the Western and ski into the village centre of Morin-Heights, have lunch, then head back to Sainte-Adèle the same way.  I swore, somewhere on the CCC, that I would never go backcountry touring again…

…until the next time!

En ski de fond, sans ma voiture!

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Je me prépare pour un autre gros défi sportif, cette fois en ski de fond.

Comme je suis un partisan de la démotorisation, et je n’aime pas beaucoup conduire non plus, il est un peu gênant pour moi de pratiquer un sport qui, bien que non-motorisé, ne se fait pas en porte-à-porte comme le vélo ou la course à pied.  On ne peut pas tous habiter Val-David, Morin-Heights, ou Craftsbury, et je trouve que Gatineau (secteur Hull) n’a pas d’allure à part son merveilleux parc éponyme.

J’irai jusqu’à dire qu’il serait mieux si moins de personnes habitait les Laurentides, car c’est un environnement qui supporte mal la surpopulation humaine; il n’est pas pour rien que les autochtones du coin ont toujours été nomades jusqu’à ce que nous avons essayé de les faire disparaître à coup de colonisation, de pensionnats et de réserves.  Et oui, le développement immobilier a aussi beaucoup nui à l’ancien réseau de pistes patrimoniales. Que faire, alors, si l’on veut habiter une ville densément peuplée comme il faut, tout en glissant parfois sur une piste impeccablement tracé à travers une belle forêt, et tout ça sans se tapant l’enfer de la 15 ou les ponts de la Rive-Sud?

Heureusement, pour quelques semaines en janvier, on a des excellentes pistes des ski sur le Mont-Royal (lignes 80, 11, 29, 97, 129, 435) et une piste moyenne au parc Maisonneuve (lignes 97, 197, 139, 439, 27, 185, verte) qui sont plutôt faciles d’accès en métro ou en bus.  On peut même essayer d’y skier en décembre ou en février.  Parfois il y a de la neige, et parfois celle-là n’est pas trop piétiné et même un peu tracé.  La piste des berges à Verdun jouit d’un emplacement idéal, à quelques dizaines de mètres de la station de métro de l’Église et le Benelux Wellington pour l’après-ski.  Malheureusement, neige et berges du fleuve exposées au soleil et au vent ne font pas bon ménage, et on risque de skier sur la glace ou sur le gazon la plupart du temps.  Pour ce qui est de la track du CP… oublie juste ça.  C’est une piste de course à pied et de promenade de chiens.  On se fait facturer 145$ pour traverser la track et 0$ pour marcher dans les sillons de ski de fond.  Cherchez l’erreur!

Alors, si on veut faire du ski, du bon ski, et oui, sans sa voiture (ou celle d’un autre, ou en location), que faire au juste?  Voici quatre options et une cinquième possibilité.  Un bon sac à skis facilite beaucoup les déplacements en autobus et métro.  J’ai aussi trouvé utile d’apporter un gros sac à dos avec des vêtements de rechange et un petit sac à dos pour faire du ski, que je rentre dans le gros sac jusqu’en arrivant aux pistes.  Cela pourrait être plus difficile s’il n’existe pas de chalet d’accueil, comme à Sainte-Adèle.

Option “tout inclus dans le Sud”: Boutique Courir ou Randonnée Aventure

Des sorties organisées existe chaque fin de semaine qui comprennent un autobus nolisé et parfois aussi de l’hébergement et de la nourriture.  Je n’ai pas encore essayé, mais des amis on fait quelques sorties avec Randonnée Aventure qu’ils ont bien aimées.  Les sorties de Boutique Courir visitent les meilleurs centre de ski de fond au Québec (et fort probablement au monde) comme le Camp Mercier / Forêt Montmorency et le Mont Sainte-Anne.  C’est quand même trois heures d’autobus de chaque direction alors il faut avoir du temps libre.

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Le bel autobus pas mal convivial de Randonnée Aventure

Le prix est beaucoup moins cher que prendre une voiture (même sa propre voiture si tous les coûts sont comptés…)

MISE À JOUR: Je viens de faire une sortie avec Randonnée Aventure et je le conseille sans hésiter. Nous sommes allés au Parc National du Mont-Tremblant, une destination incomparable qui n’est pas du tout accessible sans voiture, pour 45$ incluant l’accès au parc et aux pistes.  Les gens du club sont très sympathiques et il y en a plusieurs qui font aussi le marathon du ski (dont certains qui sont Coureurs des Bois Or)

Option “free if your time is worthless“: Cap-St-Jacques

Le parc-nature du Cap St-Jacques est le seul parc à Montréal à part le Mont-Royal qui propose un réseau de ski de fond qui vaut la peine de s’y rendre.  Et pourtant… c’est fucking loin surtout en autobus de la STM.  Dans le meilleur des mondes, si on habite à côté du métro… ça prend quand même une heure et demi.  Mais c’est complètement, cent pour cent grâtos avec une passe mensuelle de la STM, autant pour le ski que pour les transports, et le paysage qu’on voit de l’autobus (prison de Bordeaux, vieux Ste-Geneviève) est assez intéressant.

Le bois de Liesse s’y trouve en chemin, et c’est plutôt beau, mais il propose un réseau assez petit de sentiers et l’ambiance est un peu gâchée par le bruit de la 13 qui s’entend à plusieurs endroits.  Or, c’est presque aussi long de s’y rendre en autobus qu’au Cap St-Jacques car il faut quand même faire la correspondance entre la 69 et la 68.

Option “finalement c’est pas si pire que ça Laval”: Bois Duvernay

J’ai déjà été membre du club Coureurs des Boisés, qui gère les pistes du Bois Duvernay dans la zone agricole de Laval (un coin méconnu de plusieurs montréalais), mais jusqu’à récemment je m’y suis toujours rendu en voiture de Communauto, un trajet qui prend à peine 30 minutes du Plateau et encore moins de Rosemont.

Cependant, ça peut quand même couter cher, surtout si on veut skier plusieurs heures, et le stationnement déborde souvent quand les conditions sont belles en fin de semaine.  Avec l’aide de l’application Transit j’ai découvert l’autobus 48 de la STL, qui se rend de la station Cartier jusqu’au-déla du (ark) Méga-Centre (ark) Val-des-Brises, à moins d’un kilomètre du bois Duvernay.  Selon Google Maps, c’est un peu plus d’une heure de la station Mont-Royal.  De l’arrêt d’autobus au coin du rang du Haut-Saint-François à l’accueil du centre de ski est à peu près 10 minutes de marche.  En hiver il vaut mieux marcher sur le côté nord du rang car l’accotement y est déneigé.

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Voilà à quoi ressemble le rang à partir de l’arrêt d’autobus.

Une autre option intéressante est que, en tant que membre du club (ce qui ne coûte que $60 par saison, beaucoup moins qu’une passe de la Sépaq), on n’a pas besoin de passer par l’accueil pour s’embarquer sur les pistes, et on peut donc accéder au bois depuis l’arrêt d’autobus au coin de l’Empereur et des Ambassadeurs.  En marchant vers le nord sur des Ambassadeurs, on passe par une très courte voie d’accès d’Hydro-Québec qui mène à la montée Rouville.  Ensuite, on traverse un petit ruisseau et on prend à gauche sur un chemin de quad et de motoneige qui fait un petit raccourci vers le rang Saint-Elzéar.  Il faut simplement continuer tout droit sur ce chemin pour joindre la piste 3 du centre de ski.  C’est même possible de le faire en pas de patin car la surface est de la neige damée, sans aucune roche.  Il ne faut absolument pas penser à le faire sans être membre, car non seulement c’est vraiment pas fin envers un super beau centre de ski et ses bénévoles, mais les pistes sont aussi très bien patrouillées.  Attention, le chemin de quad n’est pas le “chemin Duvernay” qui se trouve sur Google Maps, qui n’existe pas (du moins en hiver).  Il se trouve juste à l’ouest de l’intersection de la montée Rouville et le rang Saint-Elzéar.

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Passage entre la banlieue de marde (avenue des Ambassadeurs) et le secteur agricole (montée Rouville/rang du Haut-Saint-François)

Il ne faut pas avoir peur des autobus de la STL.  Le seul reproche qu’on peut leur faire c’est qu’ils ne passent pas très souvent les fins de semaine.  Par contre, le système Synchro qui localise les autobus par GPS fonctionne depuis plusieurs ans et la STL a même eu le bon sens de fournir ses données à Transit pour qu’on puisse planifier son trajet en temps réel.  Aucune chance que le bus ne se pointe pas ou qu’il arrive en avance, comme à Montréal, et les correspondances entre bus fonctionnent par le biais d’immenses terminus reliées aux stations de métro.  J’ai presque l’impression d’être dans une gare de banlieue française, ce qui explique peut-être le dernier film de Xavier Dolan.  Les titres de la STL se chargent sur une carte OPUS, mais il faut utiliser les machines du terminus STL (en haut de l’escalier à la station Cartier) car celles de la STM sont défectueuses en cette matière.  Ce qui fait encore grincer c’est que ni la CAM de la STM, ni le titre de la STL, ni même le paquet de 10 passages de la STM (dafuq!) marchent pour revenir à Montréal sur le métro.  Il faut payer un aller simple à 3,25 $. Gracieusement, la STM vient tout juste de nous permettre aussi d’utiliser les titres allez-retour pour revenir de Laval et Longueuil, ce qui permet d’épargner un gros 50 sous.

On fait du bon ski classique au bois Duvernay.  C’est peut-être un des seuls endroits sur l’île Jésus avec un peu de relief (mais vraiment pas beaucoup) mais l’attrait est surtout la majestueuse forêt d’érables et de hêtres et les étroites pistes sinueuses qui sont méticuleusement tracés à une seule voie entre les arbres.  Il y a aussi l’étrange boisé “Blair Witch” des pistes 3 et 5, composé de petits arbustes et brousses tordus, que d’habitude je trouve glauque, mais après une tempête de verglas ça devient un endroit magique et scintillant.  Il faut absolument le voir.

Option “de luxe”: Val-David

Durant l’âge héroïque du ski de fond au Québec, on a pris le “p’tit train du nord”, qui fut un vrai train, de Montréal pour se rendre à Mont-Rolland, Val-Morin, Val-David, ou Sainte-Agathe puis ensuite s’embarquer sur le réseau de pistes qu’on appelle maintenant “patrimoniales” ou “historiques”.  Le train n’est plus, mais il s’est fait remplacer par une longue piste de ski, plate à mourir en ski classique, mais qui a le mérite de rester ouverte jusqu’en avril.  Malheureusement, il est devenu hors question de prendre ce “train” à partir de Montréal car il ne commence qu’à Saint-Jérôme (et souvent à Prévost, à cause des changements climatiques).  Le vrai train continue de se rendre jusqu’à Saint-Jérôme, mais pas très souvent (il semble que l’AMT a même annulé le service de fin de semaine dernièrement).

Or, tout n’est pas perdu, car il y a l’autobus Galland qui fait deux ou trois aller-retours par jour tout le long de la 117 de Montréal jusqu’à Mont-Laurier.  Il est possible d’embarquer soit à la gare d’autobus de Montréal, soit au terminus Cartier à Laval, qui est en fait un peu plus facile d’accès du métro (station Cartier) et quelques dollars moins cher (plus que les 3$ qu’il prend de retourner de Laval en métro).

Le hic, c’est que la 117 n’est pas très rapprochée des centres de ski de fond, sauf à deux endroits: Val-David et Sainte-Adèle.  Dernièrement, j’ai pris l’autobus à Val-David pour y passer deux nuits à l’excellent Auberge-Microbrasserie Le Baril Roulant et faire du ski dans le parc régional Val-David Val-Morin (autrement appellé “Far Hills”). L’auberge possède deux cartes d’accès pour le parc qu’il prête à ses visiteurs (premier arrivé, premier servi).  Puisqu’il est situé directement à côté du P’tit Train du Nord, qui traverse le centre du village, et mène à deux points d’accès au parc régional de l’autre côté du village, il est vraiment possible de faire du ski de fond de porte à porte sans être propriétaire d’un chalet.  C’est comme un rêve.

L’autobus coûte environ 45$ aller-retour de Montréal à Val-David et dépose ses passagers au Marché Gariépy, tout près du coin de la 117 et la rue de l’Église (qui est la rue principale du village).  C’est une marche agréable d’une quinzaine de minutes sur la rue de l’Église et la rue de l’Académie pour atteindre l’auberge, car on déneige les trottoirs à Val-David, au moins là ou ils existent.  Toutefois, un trajet encore plus court existe qui passe par le chemin de l’Île et un adorable pont piéton muni de poésie et œuvres d’art (on est bien à Val-David).

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Val-David vue du pont piéton. Selon l’inscription: “venez sans caméra, ce monde est vrai d’une rive à l’autre”.  En tant que millénial manqué je ne pouvait pas me passer de prendre une photo. Désolé.

Or, il est tout à fait possible de prendre l’autobus de Montréal le matin, marcher directement au P’tit Train, skier jusqu’au parc régional, faire une journée de ski, et revenir le soir après une bonne bière (voici l’horaire – on part de Montréal à 7h30, on arrive à Val-David à 9h45, et on revient à 18h).  En tant que petit empire, il existe aussi une brasserie du Baril Roulant sur la rue de l’Église.  Le village possède aussi quelques restaurants, dont le Jack Rabbit, qui ont l’air un peu trop chic pour des skieurs tout en sueur, mais on ne sait jamais…

Option “Jackrabbit”: Sainte-Adèle

Le départ des pistes de Sainte-Adèle, secteur ouest, se trouve à 1,5 km de l’arrêt de l’autobus Galland (attention, la carte ci-haut date de 2012 – celle de 2017 est ici).  Le réseau est gratuit d’accès et comporte une poignée de pistes tracées ainsi que l’accès au grand réseau de pistes historiques non-tracéees (tant qu’il existe encore…) qui permet de skier jusqu’à Sainte-Agathe en passant par Morin-Heights et Saint-Adolphe.  Il semble qu’un accès plus proche est aussi possible en skiant sur le lac Rond et en montant l’ancien piste de ski alpin de l’hôtel le Chantecler.

J’essaierai ces pistes la fin de semaine prochaine et j’en ferait un billet de blogue!

Bon ski à tous et toutes!

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.