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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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).
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.