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.
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).
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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).
6:45PM and we made our way up to the starting area.
7:00PM and we were off. I had until 1PM on Thursday to make it to Brest and back.