Something, but almost nothing

Month: September, 2015

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

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.


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.


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.

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.

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

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

Waiting in the shadow of the very shiny new velodrome

Waiting in the shadow of the very shiny new velodrome

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

OMG, I am really doing this

OMG, I am really doing this

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

Paris-Brest-Paris 2015, prologue

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

China. Yup.

China. Yup.

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

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

Border Crossings, Collect them All!

Border Crossings, Collect them All!

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

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

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

Ready to go in the bag!

Ready to go in the bag!

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

Recombobulation Area at PBP T3

Recombobulation Area at CDG T3

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

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

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