by Amy Rafferty
When I saw the Abominable Snowmonster standing by the side of the road in a French farmer's cornfield just after sunset, I knew it was a good time to do a quick systems check.
Speed: 16 mph, reasonable for the terrain. Eating: halfway through a bottle of Perpetuem, maintaining 200 calories per hour. Bicycle contact points: no numbness in hands or feet, no saddle sores. Alertness: not too bad, actually; that Starbucks Doubleshot from my drop bag back in Loudeac some two hours earlier had really done the trick. Balance: fine on the bike, though I had noticed a tendency to wobble while walking on my last stop. Conversational coherence: well, I'm riding alone, no way to check that one. Vision: pretty good--- no tunnel vision yet...though there was that hallucination a few seconds ago.
I looked up and to the left. The Abominable Snowmonster was still there, nearly as scary as he was when I was 6 years old, and now a bit closer.
I decided to have a little talk with myself. "Amy," I said, "you're beginning the third night of PBP, the event you've been obsessing on for the past two years. You rode straight through the first night. The dortoires were full in Carhaix, so you slept 90 minutes on the lawn in the dead of night yesterday (or was that today?) and woke up freezing. The cafeteria was out of coffee when you woke up, so you've been overcompensating by drinking coffee at every stop since then. This is PBP, not `Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.' It's not even snowing, and even if it were, what on Earth would the Abominable Snowmonster be doing in France? There must be something in that field that your sleep-deprived, over-caffeinated brain is morphing into a hallucination. Just see what it is when you get close, and when you're done with this ride, think about seeing a therapist, because this subconscious Snowmonster thing can't be good."
I looked up again, and the Snowmonster was even closer. I could see his broad shoulders and relatively smallish head hovering over the cornfield, but thankfully, the rest of his body was hidden. I was a little scared, but I kept reminding myself it was all a hallucination. My legs kept turning the pedals over and over, because that's what they were trained to do. Then, at last, the image started to blur, and when I was nearly even with it I was able to see that the Snowmonster was actually the backside of a triangular roadsign.
I was simultaneously relieved and concerned. While it was a good thing that I didn't have to worry about villainous TV characters coming to life in the French countryside, my brain was clearly not working as it should. I needed some sleep, even though I didn't actually feel that tired. I started scouting convenient nooks in the fields and trees by the road, but nothing appealed to me.
Soon I arrived in the next village, Meneac. I went past the church and main square and past a group of spectators having dinner in a building on the corner. I thought of asking if they knew of somewhere I could take a nap, but pride got the better of me, and I continued on. Before the end of town, I found what looked like the perfect spot: a bench perched neatly on the sidewalk under a streetlight. I lay down, bundled up in my jacket, inserted my ear plugs and shut my eyes.
Try as I might, sleep would not come. I dozed a bit, and my mind wandered along those strange paths of thought that lead to sleep, but real sleep eluded me. The road was slightly downhill at my bench, and the noise of bikes whizzing by one at a time, along with the occasional well-meaning "Ça va?" was just enough to keep me awake.
After some 30 or 45 minutes I gave up and tried to go on. But now I was having trouble balancing my bike, and my peripheral vision was melting into a fog. As I left town, I checked my speedometer: I was going 8 mph on flat ground. I decided I needed some help. I turned around and wobbled back to the corner where I had seen the spectators. They were gone, but I was relieved to see some PBP officials in reflective vests standing on the corner. One of them looked remarkably like the pictures I'd seen of Monsieur Lepertel, the longtime director of PBP, but this I attributed to sleep deprivation. I asked Monsieur Lepertel's double in my broken French if he might help me find somewhere quiet to sleep.
The official turned immediately to an older gentleman standing next to him. This man seemed delighted to help a rider, and conveniently, it was his house we were standing in front of. He told me he had ridden PBP when he was younger. He brought my bike into the glass entryway of his house, and he kept apologizing for the condition of his home. I tried to reassure him that any quiet place would be heaven to me, that I was very grateful because just a few minutes ago I had been trying to sleep on a bench, and that I was so exhausted I wouldn't remember anything about the cleanliness of his house anyway. He escorted me up a narrow, winding stairway to a small room with a bare mattress. I lay down, put in my ear plugs and relaxed. It took some concentration, but I was able to slow my mind down enough to let sleep come.
About 90 minutes later, I awoke on my own. I ran a quick mental check: I knew exactly where I was, I was able to follow a train of thought without derailing into fantasy, and I didn't seem to be experiencing the paranoia the led to Snowmonster visions. It was time to go!
The house was completely dark. I decided to leave without bothering my host. When he showed me my room, I had noticed a pretty strong odor of wine coming from him, and I thought he'd be happier sleeping it off. Holding my shoes, I tiptoed down the spiral staircase and found my bike by the entrance. I put my shoes and helmet on and reached for the doorknob, only to discover there was no doorknob. The glass entryway had a hinged glass door, but instead of a doorknob there was only an empty keyhole.
As I searched the kitchen and living room in vain for a key, using my helmet-mounted headlight, I wondered if I was going to get an award for the most outlandish excuse for a DNF: held prisoner in a spectator's house. Finally I decided I had to wake my host up. But first I had to find him. I went upstairs to the room where I thought he told me he'd be, and it was empty. I stood still for a moment and listened. I heard snoring coming from a room downstairs. Back down I went, and I opened the door next to the kitchen. To my surprise, I found and elderly and very frail-looking woman, who stared in terror at me in my reflective gear and helmet light. I probably became her version of the Abominable Snowmonster. I couldn't begin to think about how to explain my situation to her and was very concerned that I might frighten her more if I tried---she looked like an invalid, and I don't think my host had told her I was there. Instinctively, I shut the door and continued my search.
There was only one room remaining upstairs, and I could now hear snoring emanating from it. I knocked carefully and called out "Monsieur, Monsieur." No response, so I opened the door. There was my host, lying fully clothed on top of his bed, sleeping deeply. I made some noise and called out with no luck. Finally I shook his shoulder. This disturbed his sleep, and he shouted out, grabbed violently at my arm and fell back asleep.
I really hated bothering him, and now I also worried that he had actually had quite a lot to drink and might not remember me if I did manage to wake him. I went back downstairs and looked for some means of escape. I managed to open a window in the kitchen above the sink. I could get out, but there was no way I could get my bike up and through it. I called out "M'aidez, m'aidez," through the window, but the spectators and officials I had seen earlier were long gone.
I steeled my resolve. "This is PBP," I told myself. "No way are you going to stay in this house until you run out of time. Go wake that guy up. If he doesn't remember offering you a place to stay, at least he doesn't look strong enough to hurt you."
I marched up those stairs, opened the door and shook my host until he woke up. At first he looked terrified, and then he looked angry to see an intruder, but after a few seconds he remembered who I was. He got up, went to the kitchen, turned on the stove and said "Café?" He wanted to make me coffee.
I think under any other circumstances, I would have gladly sat for a bit and chatted with him over a cup of coffee. It was so very kind of him to give a complete stranger a safe place to sleep in his home. Part of me still regrets not taking a few minutes to drink coffee with him and show my gratitude. But by now I was getting frantic. I had spent the better part of an hour trying to "escape" from his house. I just didn't have the wherewithal to sit and socialize. The instinct to keep riding no matter what, reinforced by two years of training, won out, and I told him I really needed to leave right away. "I think Tinteniac is closing soon," I said.
He told me not to worry: I had plenty of time to reach Tinteniac. But he also understood my frame of mind. After all, he was an ancien of PBP. He pulled the key out of his pocket where it had been all this time and unlocked the door. Before I could walk out he said "baissez-moi," so I gave him a kiss on each cheek. Then I remembered the postcards of my hometown I'd been carrying to give to people I'd met. I started fumbling in my frame bag to find one, and he tried to stop me, thinking I was trying to pay him for the room. "Non, non," I said, "une carte-postal... pour vous." I gave him one with a picture of a bicycle, explaining as best as I could that Davis, my hometown, had lots of bicycles because it's flat and the university students use them instead of cars to get around the campus. He seemed pleased with the souvenir and sent me on my way.
Needless to say, when I arrived at the control in Mortagne au Perche at sunset, I stopped and took full advantage of the dortoire. I didn't want any more hallucinations or adventures in unusual sleeping places.