Memories of Paris-Brest-Paris, 2007

by Raymond Parker on August 22, 2011

in Adventure, Autobiography, Cycling, Photography, Randonneuring

bc-randonneurs-pbp-07
BC Randonneurs at PBP, 2007
(click to enlarge)

Preamble

I have struggled for four years now to record my experience of Paris-Brest-Paris, 2007, France’s most prestigious amateur cycling event.

As I post this, 2011 riders are well into their second day of the quadrennial 1200 kilometre randonnee. Some are on their way back, having reached the half-way mark, on the Atlantic coast at Brest.

As best as I can recall, here are the events of August 20-24, 2007.

Guyancourt, with its concrete and glass, looks like any modern commercial centre.

The true enormity of the event became clear, as we joined the crowd streaming onto Rond-point des Saules. There were over 5,000 of us this year.

At last, we were corralled into the the Gymnase des Droits de l’Homme, to shuffle around the perimeter of the playing field. Progress came by the centimetre, and it seemed from my position on the east margin of the stadium, that the opposite side were advancing by metres, an inequality that caused mumblings through the queue.

We entertained ourselves by performing a “wave” that rolled around the sea of cyclists.

As darkness fell over the stadium, a misty rain began to fall. A rustling of rainjackets ensued, followed by an uneasy silence, broken only by the slamming of porta-potty doors.

A deep bovine “Moooooooo!” arose from the sodden hoard. Others answered.

It was a joke spanning all language barriers. We all felt like cattle—herded to what fate it was not yet clear, except it was going to be wet. The rain picked up, driven by a gusty breeze.

The bike check, cancelled the previous day, was cursory. Yes, we had lights and wheels. There were none of the meticulous examinations I’d been led to expect. Under a makeshift awning, our books were stamped. It was 10:50pm, 80 minutes past the scheduled start for the 90 hour group.

We returned to the roundabout. Bagpipes moaned and fireworks disappeared into the low grey clouds, momentarily lighting their bellies from within.

The Ride

Marshals let off riders in “waves” of 500. Ours surged to the start line. The horn sounded, and as we gained speed, the road swam under us—a kaleidoscope of garish colour reflected on the wet tarmac.

A cadre of official cars and motorcycles paced us out of the city centre. We were the 16th Paris-Brest-Paris Randonnée!

Since I arrived in France unsure if I could sit on a saddle, tested only by a couple of 30km explorations around Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, these were intoxicating moments.

Veterans had warned me not to get swept up in the starting frenzy; we had 1200km to go. The first kilometres, along Avenue des Garennes, trend downhill and the giant peloton sped along at 40km/h. It seemed impossible to resist the whirring stampede. In the back of my mind we were already running behind, a worry that plagued many riders. Would our times be adjusted accordingly?

Fifteen years before, Nigel Philcox had described to me the phenomenon I now beheld for myself, a sight that can only truly be appreciated first-hand: thousands of red tail-lights, undulating over the landscape towards the horizon.

At times, this flickering snake of lights sends a daunting message about the route ahead. “Oh boy! Look where we have to go!”  We could see tell-tale tail-lights flickering red among the clouds. After the initial flats, every village seemed to precede or follow a sharp climb. Stone walls passed by, painted by dancing headlight beams.

The climbing raised the temperature inside my jacket. Its advertised “breathable” membrane failed its field test. I stopped to remove it as the rain eased.

The rain increased.

Shoulder-to-shoulder, the vast peloton squeezed into the narrow road through the Forest of Rambouillet. My rear mudflap and fenders, sheltered those behind from spray.

Unfortunately, few others had outfitted their machines with such frills. The air between sheets of falling rain was filled with rooster-tails, all lit splendidly by red and white sparkling light.

Through my fogged glasses, it all looked like a psychedelic light show from the ‘60s. I reminded myself that I was not hallucinating, that I was indeed speeding through a 200 square-kilometre forest in France, in the middle of the night. It was critical not to touch the wheel of a bike in front of me.

The first pause came at Mortagne-au-Perche. This was simply a feed stop. The famous animated bicyclist, perched above the boulangerie, looked as bedraggled as the rest of us, but it had a motor to keep its legs turning in all weather. The sidewalk was piled with flats of bottled water. I chugged one and stashed another in my rack trunk.

Unfathomably, the water in my bottles, filled at the motel and mixed with some kind of energy powder I bought at the nearby Decathlon, tasted like cattle. Consequently, I was not drinking enough.

Every big descent brought a great flock of randonneurs to my wheel, not so much because of my commodious mudflap, but likely to share the wide beam created by my generator-powered headlights.

Why invest in expensive lights, when you can follow someone who has?

“Whoah!” I learned, is a multilingual expression used when a cyclist enters at 50 km/h the bottomless shadow left as the rider whose light they’re following enters a bend.

As dawn broke weakly under a grey sky, I bumped into fellow BC Randonneur Leif Bjorseth. We had ridden together for a while out of Guyancourt but had lost contact dans le forêt.

We paused briefly to readjust our loads and shiver in the mist. We were eager to resume pedalling and warm up, in spite of fatigue.

We pulled into Villaines-la-Juhel control at 9:30. I’d just completed the hardest 221 kilometres of my life.

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Control “passport”

I had my book stamped and magnetic card swiped. Time to take stock … must rehydrate … eat something. I joined the coffee queue, slowly inching toward precious caffeine. “Café au lait, s’il vous plait,” I repeated to myself, practicing my rudimentary French.

My turn came. The coffee machine spluttered. The volunteer barista said something I could not understand, but by her expression I took it to mean “Sorry Monsieur, the espresso machine does not like you.”

I put my head down on a table and dozed for 15 minutes, waking up cold.

The sun made a brief appearance, lighting the cornfields. There’s a lot of corn in Mayenne, and wonderful window boxes abound, overflowing with day-glow pansies.

Writer and philosopher Lawrens van der Post once lamented the passing of the London window box as a last urban link to nature. In bucolic Mayenne, connection to the land and the joy of flowers endure.

Contrasting with sandstone and stucco, brightly-painted shutters are commonplace. I drank in the colour and the tepid sun.

My memory bank retains not a moment of my passage through the controls at Fougères and Tinténiac, and little of the territory between. The only evidence I retain of my presence in those towns are the control stamps in my PBP “passport.” Evidently, I passed through Fougères at 16:08 and signed through Tinténiac at 20:25, on August 22.

As we entered the village square of Corlay, a marshall directed us toward a building. It was a secret control. Officials there stamped our books, without noting the time.

A few weary souls slept on the wooden floor. I was tempted, but decided to answer the call of nature and get back on the road. Loudéac was not far away.

Endurance sports can play havoc with the digestive system. I’d been enduring a belly ache since Villaines. Someone, however, had it worse than me. I fled the toilette as fast as my cleated cycling shoes would carry me.

During the second night, we began to see the headlights of returning riders—those working as teams, with support at controls attending to every need. These were the randonneurs who would finish the ride in under 50 hours.

In the past (particularly 2003) some of these fast riders have been sanctioned by ACP for transgressing the spirit and rules of randonneuring—insulting control volunteers, and treating PBP as a race.

I was not racing. It was all I could do to to keep my eyes open, so I decided to employ a rest method recommended to me by Ken Bonner: stop at the side of the road, straddling your bike, put your head on the handlebars and snooze away. There’s no chance you’ll sleep too long. As soon as you fall into a deep sleep … you topple over.

The rain had returned in earnest as I reached Loudéac, the central control that splits PBP roughly into thirds. I’d ridden the first 448 kilometres and would sleep here. With 85km of riding, and whatever else may have happened along the way, I took 5 hours 27 minutes between clearing Tinténiac control and checking into Loudéac. It had taken me 25 hours 28 minutes to get here, not a stirling performance.

First, where is my drop bag? Walking around the courtyard, I finally located the backpack with my change of clothes, extra food, tools, even a spare saddle.

It was at the edge of an awning, soaking wet. I shouldered it and headed for the control entrance. I was not impressed with the US-based drop-bag service.

Being the central control, Loudéac soon becomes a hub of hubbub, with riders from both directions trying to refuel, sleep, repair bikes and themselves. Signs of attrition are everywhere, with riders curled up in every corner, shivering under silver space blankets.

There was concern, expressed in a babel of languages, for a chap sitting outside on the steps in just a cycling strip—no jacket or tights—staring vacantly into the night, unresponsive to questions.

Soon an ambulance arrived. Medics loaded him onto a stretcher, still in the sitting position he seemed frozen in.

I gave up trying to navigate the lunacy of Loudéac, especially the sleeping arrangements. Having eaten and changed into a fresh (wet) set of clothes, I returned to the rainy courtyard. Looking out at the hectare of bicycles, I had a moment of panic. Where did I put my bike?

My orange Ciclo stood out under the lights. Before I could remount, there was the matter of the headlight bulb that burned out earlier in the evening.

I pulled spares from a plastic 35mm film canister, packed with cotton wool.

  • Unscrew lens. Check.
  • Get new halogen bulb from kit. Check.
  • Remove blown bulb. Check.
  • Replace with new bulb. Check.

I turned on both headlights and spun the front wheel. Still one headlight. Had I put the old bulb back in?

Removing the bulb again, I examined it. Yes, it was burned-out—the filament was grey.

The rain bounced around on the glistening asphalt, as I reached onto the verge, plucked a stalk of grass and tied it around the dead bulb. Where had I put the other one?

I took another and fitted it into the light socket, carefully replacing the lens.

Voila! I had two headlights again. I’d need them.

I rode carefully, repeating to myself in a commanding tone “Concentrate!” trying to keep myself occupied with arithmetic. What time is it? When does the next control close? 10:25. How far is it? 76km.  How much of a buffer do I have?

Can’t calculate. Time for another handlebar nap.

Deep into Brittany, signposts now carried French and the Celtic Breton language. Brezhoneg has seen as many ups and downs as this road; once the lingua franca of nobility, it ended up as the patois of peasants. Despite the apparent bilingualism, it has no official status.

As we’ve seen, this is the land of the “éacs”—Médréac, Ménéac Merléac. It was, if I remember, the latter village that gave me my transcendent moment at PBP 2007.

Asked to describe PBP, one ancien quipped, “Climb a hill, pass a stone church, repeat.” Emerging from another rainstorm, I pedalled toward a distant steeple, rising above mist-shrouded trees.

Turning a corner, bordered by tall hedgerows, I fumbled under my jacket sleeve to find my watch. It was 5am. Owls hooted from the roadside bushes. On the hilltop, a lone church bell clanged in a stone steeple.

“I won’t forget this. Five o’clock. Owls. Church bells. France.”

“This is why I came.”

bel-air
Rain, Bel Air
(click to enlarge)

I checked into Carhaix-Plouguer at 10:30am, staying just long enough to refuel, before rejoining the stream with an American chap I’d bumped into a couple of times since Loudéac.

We discussed the horrid conditions at the control toilettes, having both forsaken them. The plan was to find a clean bistro or bar and take advantage of their facilities. None came.

At a bend in the road, we hiked into a stony woodland. Many others had seen it as a place to relieve themselves. We trod carefully.

Roc’h Trevezel (384m), the second peak of the Breton part of the Armorican Massif in the Monts d’Arrée, is another legendary feature of PBP. The climbing begins in earnest at the village of Huelgoat.

The weather had finally cleared. Breaking out of the forest onto a wide plateau, we were amongst purple heather and jagged stone, blasted by the quartering wind we’d been fighting for the last 500 kilometres. We could see all the way to the Atlantic.

From the heights of Roc’h Trevezel, the route descends through cornfields, to Rue de L’Argoat, between blue-shuttered stone cottages, into the centre of picturesque Sizun.

The street was bustling with randonneurs, many waiting to have their portraits taken in front of the beautiful granite arches of the church. I headed straight for the Supermarche, where I bought more food and water than I could possibly carry. I scoffed a pastry, glugged a Coke, filled my water bottles, and gave the rest away. I could smell the sea.

The bridge into Brest—representing the halfway point of this great randonnée—is familiar to most PBP hopefuls. Now I was riding over it in the sunshine, just like in photos I’d seen of the iconic crossing.

The route descends to makes a wide arc around the bay, past boats bobbing in the harbour, before climbing steeply back up Rue du Château to the control. What evil had possessed the organizers?

But the street was lined with welcoming crowds.

“Bravo!” they cried. Or, if you looked like me, “Courage! Courage!”

Free booze. All survivors arriving at the Brest control get a complimentary drink ticket. I opted for a beer, set my watch alarm for an hour later, and lay down on the floor.

I awoke after two hours and lurched out into the blinding daylight. Out on the lawn, Leif Bjorseth was preparing to leave. He waited while I pulled myself together.

I was becoming concerned with an increasingly painful crick in my neck as we began the long climb back out of Brest, this time northeast, to the agricultural centre of Landerneau, on the banks of the Elorn River.

I removed my helmet as we pushed to Sizun, in the last light. This gave me some relief, but I began to suspect the malady dreaded by marathon cyclists: Shermer’s neck. I’d never suffered from it, but had heard rumours about its effects and seen photographs of the contraptions ultra cyclists have contrived to support their heads. Mine began to feel as though it weighed 50 kilos.

A bright moon rose over the trees as Leif and I climbed Roc’h Trevezel. No longer able to hold up my head at all, I was reduced to clinging to his back wheel, staring at his mudflap that bore the question, scrawled in indelible pen, “Are we having fun yet?”

By the time we reached Carhaix, the taunt would be indelibly seared into my brain.

In the meantime, we stopped on the barren summit to don warm clothes for the chilly descent.

Leif began talking to himself in clipped sentences.

Holy crap! My only hope of a safe return to Carhaix had gone mad. I lifted my head with my hand to see my riding partner talking into his palm. He had a tiny digital voice recorder he was feeding with cues, to document what might otherwise evaporate into the night.

On the long descent, I found that by sitting upright, steadying my handlebars with fingertips, I could balance my wobbly noggin, as long as I kept it upright. Any deviance from the vertical and it flopped forward, leaving my chin on my chest and the road ahead obscured. This was unnerving at 50 km/h.

I was relieved to get back to Carhaix in one piece. I handed my card to be swiped and my booklet to be stamped. It was 23:50—49 hours since leaving Guyancourt.

I hung on to the hope that I could recover and get back on the bike. If I could just make it to Loudéac ….

I reported to the first-aid station. “Mon cou est douloureux.”

A young man massaged my neck. I left his care despondent, except for the fact that I was not the only randonneur walking around Carhaix control, staring at my feet.

I sat at a table with other BC Randonneurs, finally comprehending that a time adjustment would be applied. I could join this group and set out into the night.

What was I thinking? I’d barely averted disaster on the last descent. In the final analysis, after all the years I’d dreamed and all I had endured to get here, it was after all just a bicycle ride. I would accept a DNF rather than endanger myself and others to continue.

Once I’d made the decision, there was nothing else to do but find a bed.

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Control Stamps

The Aftermath

I slept until 10am, awaking to find the control grounds looking like the aftermath of a rock festival, littered with abandoned clothing and other detritus.

A small group of abandonnées gathered, discussing the logistics of the return. We located the control administrator, who kindly offered to lead us to the train station in his car.

We were, he must have thought, refreshed after a good night’s sleep. We hung desperately in the car’s slipstream as we careened through the streets of Carhaix at breakneck speed.

The train was jammed with weary warriors retreating from the front … or rather the back. Conductors thought nothing of jamming bikes between cars with as much force as it took to lodge them securely.

An overnight in Rennes, written into the tickets issued at Carhaix, and the expenses involved, were avoided thanks to a savvy Swiss.

New tickets were issued and I joined a friendly Bostonian for a delicious Vietnamese meal. Back on the train, tall tales resumed.

“I saw a guy demanding coffee from a roadside bush.”

What about the comatose riders on the climb back from Brest?

“I told a guy who was weaving from one side of the road to the other ‘You should get some sleep,’” the Bostonian recounted. “He bolted upright, looked at me and said, ‘I was!’”

Arriving in Plaisir le Clayes, at 1:00am, it took me a while to exit the roundabout. After several revolutions, I got my bearings and found the trail back to Le Pavillion de Gatines.  It was locked and shuttered.

Back along Rue Pierre Curie, there was the 24-hour Hotel Formula 1, a steel box with an automated check-in system—pop in your credit card and voila! Unfortunately, my wife Amanda had our only credit card. As far as I knew, she was still in Angouléme, visiting her uncle.

After some time spent staring blankly at the glass door as if it would take pity on me, a young man wandered into the lobby. He responded to my gesticulations and let me in.

He didn’t speak English, but repeated a phrase I took to be Slavic as he directed me and my bicycle down a corridor lined with other bikes, and ushered me into a tiny room at its far end.

A group of handsome youths sprawled on adjacent beds. One particularly striking chap with page-boy black hair looked as though he had descended straight from the heights of Mount Olympus.

On the top bunk, quietly observing, an older but equally fit woman reclined, dressed in a white track suit. When she did speak, her tone was authoritative.

“Получите ему сосиску!”

Evidently, this meant “Get him a sausage!” because one of the young men jumped up and delivered a plump delicacy into my hands.

“Человеку нужен чай,” she added. Sausage and tea; just what the doctor ordered, for this I learned through hand-signals and snippets of English was the position she held on the Russian team.

After the Russian repast, I located and convinced the concierge to accept my paper Euros in lieu of plastic and moved into my own cubicle, where I slept like a randonneur. Does anyone sleep more justly?

The next morning, I tested the plastic self-cleaning shower booth (It reminded me of the “Orgasmotron” in Woody Allen’s Sleeper), before wandering back to the Pavillion des Gatines, where fellow DNFs and early finishers were gathering for pain au chocolate and café.

Chapters: «|1|2|3|4|5|6|7|8

Follow PBP 2011 riders | BC Randonneurs at PBP 2011

Randobarf August 22, 2011 at 7:50 pm

Ray, your trip to France was worth it just for this hilarious blog entry! Shermer’s Neck is not funny but your keen observations reveal that PBP is an orgy of riotous comedy and masochistic terror and not just an orgy of masochistic terror!

Raymond Parker August 23, 2011 at 3:37 pm

Thanks, rando. Completing my PBP ’07 “memoir” has given me some kind of finish, even if it’s 4 years later and half way round the world from France.

For most riders, I’d guess PBP is a comedy of errors. It just depends how many of the errors you can laugh about.

Ben Staggs September 16, 2011 at 9:09 pm

Good writing Raymond. Did me an absolute world of good, 2011 was a dnf for me and many others, c’est le vie. It is enough to be there and attempt it.

Raymond Parker September 17, 2011 at 9:33 am

Thanks, Ben. I’m glad it cheered you up.

I still sometimes second-guess some of my decisions, as I’ve done in chapter 8. Please feel free to add to comments there any experiences you think might be useful to other readers.

After all though, I also feel I gave it my best, in a year that didn’t exactly cooperate with my plans.

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