By Nicole Honda
Quite a number of American randonneurs and randonneuses have ridden Paris-Brest-Paris, but only a handful have ridden a French brevet put on by a regional club, and it is a very different experience. Last July, RUSA member Nicole Honda of California completed a 1000-kilometer brevet in the Champagne region of France, starting and ending in Troyes. Here's her report:
Friday, high noon, five hours to the start of my first 1000k. I watch the rain pouring down and wonder why I traveled across the world to do a brevet in France. I feel pretty low about my chances for success: No sag, no route markings, no drop bags, no support. Predictions of unrelenting rain. Very rusty high school French. I should just order a nice bottle of wine and forget all about the whole thing. But I love to travel, I love to ride, I love to put the two together. And the worst thing that could happen was that I would fail, and I'd rather fail in the French countryside than in my own backyard.
It's 5 p.m., and the sky has miraculously cleared. The ride organizer greets me and the other four riders (yes, that makes five total) with coffee and chocolate. His wife had gone off to my hotel to fetch me because they were afraid I couldn't find the brevet start. What nice folks. After much talk, none of which I understood, it was time to roll out. And, as usual, the minute I click in, all is right with the world. Let it rain! Let them speak French! I'm here to ride.
We started as a group. Cars honked their greetings along the road, no rain yet. At about 9 p.m., we stop to eat and fill our water bottles. I was told to stock up since there was limited water at night and no food. We ate in a little bar. One guy, an eight-time PBP finisher, ordered a beer.
Back on the road, in the dark. The roads are quiet, few cars to bother us. The cars give cyclists lots of room so I felt very safe. Two riders were ahead of me and the other two had stopped for coffee about an hour after dinner. I would pick up the guys ahead of me at some point and, after that, I was never alone at night again. The French riders were absolutely fantastic in that regard. I have been left all alone at night on rides 10-20 times this size in the US.
Friday turned into Saturday. At about 3 a.m. it started to rain. By 7 a.m. when the bars opened, I was desperate for a hot café au lait and some pain au chocolat, still warm from the oven. Yum. But setting back out in the rain was less than yummy.
Jean-Pierre, the guy I was riding with at the time, tried to point out the historical and interesting sights, but I have to admit that I wasn't very interested during the downpour. When it finally cleared up to scattered showers, I noticed how lovely the route was. All night we had ridden through a forest. Now we were passing through cute old towns with carved stones that had dates like 1572 carved on them. Everything was old, and so rural. There weren't even many medium-sized towns on the route, mostly small villages, and no crowded roads during the whole brevet. We passed over rivers, saw chateaux on the hillsides, passed through rolling fields of wheat—it was incredible. The brevet route was a big loop so every kilometer brought new views.
By the end of the first day, I had settled in with Didier, a nice guy from Orleans. The rest of the riders never caught us again and Didier and I stuck together until the end.
I started to become accustomed to the "French way" of brevet riding. Where I normally try to spend as little time off the bike as possible, here each stop is about an hour, either in a restaurant for a three-course meal, or in a bar or café where you chat with the locals. I used this time to rest my head on the table, fingering me as a foreigner for sure!
The second night was hard. I hadn't slept the first night and was hallucinating by Saturday night. We stopped to sleep in a barn, but it was so cold I slept just over an hour. But even such a short rest was refreshing, and at least pedaling keeps you warm!
The second day was Sunday and we were hard pressed to find lunch, since stores are closed and we didn't pass through too many towns. We finally ate pastries from a bakery. By dinner time, I was ready for my three-course meal, and several Cokes. Since the rain had stopped, I had a chance to appreciate the scenery and enjoy the beautiful French countryside.
The third night was the worst! We climbed from dinner until about 6 a.m. the next morning. We had long steady grades followed by long steady descents, all night long. From about 9 p.m. it rained. For several hours there we were in the heart of a lightning storm and had to take shelter two separate times. Believe me, we were the biggest, most metallic things out in those French fields! And the route map, at this point, was no help. We were on tiny rural roads, circling the town squares in little villages two or three times to find the right direction to the next village. By midnight I was really cranky and forced Didier to stop. We tried to sleep in a bus shelter but I was too cold and wet to get more than another hour of rest. I was miserable and exhausted by dawn. But all bad things come to an end. The rain stopped around 2 a.m. and the climbing stopped at about 6 a.m.. We were on the home stretch. Didier was such a great guy to put up with my snappishness and whining that last night. He was faster than me and could have finished hours earlier but he decided we were a team and we would finish together.
The last day was dreamlike; I hit that point where you are in another world and can just keep on pedaling forever. That morning we saw a hedgehog, a fox, rabbits, and lots of other wildlife, and entertained each other by making barnyard sounds as we passed cows, sheep, etc. (Did I mention my French was bad? Didier's English wasn't much better and by this time we were getting pretty tired. Barnyard noises were about as good as communication was going to get.) When the bars finally opened at 7, we had some well-deserved rest. But, since many bars don't have food that early, we ate damp leftover bread from the previous day.
By mid-morning it was it was getting hot but we cycled through beautiful country. Some final climbing and then a flat run back into Troyes. We arrived at the finish Monday afternoon in high spirits. Didier and Monsieur Viard, the ride director, chatted while I got drunk on two paper cups of excellent champagne. The ride was fantastic, the most scenic brevet I've ever been on. It was certainly an adventure, my French is much improved, and I can't wait until next year!
DOs & DON'Ts• DO come prepared to be self sufficient, especially taking into account the lack of all-night 7-11 stores and the more limited food/drink options you'll find. Things close early, don't open until 7 a.m., and most stores are closed on Sunday.
• DO be prepared with excellent maps of the entire route, as the route sheet may not be sufficient. Very detailed maps are sold in bookstores or travel stores in France. Didier, my fellow rider, had maps photocopied so he could mount a single page for each section of the route on his handlebar rack. Without his maps, we would have never found the way the third night. (Special thanks to Didier for being an incredible riding partner, tour guide and friend.)
• DON'T worry if the ride organizers seem to be less organized or slower to respond than our brevet coordinators here in the US. They will get back to you eventually. I e-mailed for months and was very frustrated at the lack of response. But when I got to the start, everyone was very friendly and helpful. (My sincere thanks go out to Michel Viard for putting up with my demanding American-ness and to Claude Lepertel of the Audax Club Parisien for helping me, too.)
• DON'T expect any support on the road, no drop bags, no SAG, no staff at controls. And don't expect to find little things that you may be used to having. French grocery stores don't sell Gatorade or Cliff bars. Lesson here: if you think you may need it, bring it!
• DON'T worry that you don't speak the language very well, but knowing a few basics will make the experience more pleasurable.
• One more DO: Do enjoy yourself throughout the course. You will probably never see these little villages again so take a few extra minutes to soak it all up.
If you want to find a brevet in France, check the following site: http://www.ffct.org/pratiquer/cn_ran.htm