By John Lee Ellis
The motopatrolman approaches me on the rolling route from Brest to Carhaix. It is a sunny afternoon; the birds are singing; I am finally getting into my stride, and am pleased to be on the homebound stretch. So what now? What infraction of the PBP rules or French sensibilities have I inadvertently committed?
The gentleman tells me my wife Pat is in a hospital. Details are sketchy. But for reassurance he adds in a comforting tone, "Ce n'est-pas mortel." At the next contrôle I am able to speak with her from her hospital bed. Thus ends my PBP 2003. The next event is a 600km drive in a rental car through village roads from the PBP contrôle to Burgundy, where she had been enjoying a solo bike tour in wine country while PBP transpired … until this eventuality.
The next fortnight in a Paris hospital was, shall we say, challenging. Same for the next month in recovery, and the next year, during which Pat stubbornly built herself back up from the West Nile Virus she had contracted in Boulder County on the eve of our departure for France.
Over the next three years, Pat resumed her active lifestyle and I completed three 1200k's, but I wondered about returning to ride PBP. Still, though, there were those 500km still left to finish …
- - -
Four years later: it is sunny and breezy on the rolling route from Brest to Carhaix. It has not rained for ten solid hours. I pause at roughly the spot where the motopatrol made contact in 2003, look down, and notice some dark splotches on the guardrail. Then a few more. Time to redon my rain jacket, as the patron deity of PBP'07 (la pluie) has returned. That's fine. I am happy to be here.
Rain Denied—Monday, 10pm—It looks pretty clear that we're in for a wet PBP. This to a generation of randonneurs like me who began with PBP'91 or later and did not know the meaning of a soggy PBP. But still, maybe we'll luck out. As darkness falls, I inch forward in the hour-long march to the starting line as a series of showers come through. On with the rain jacket, then off, then on, then off. (Not wanting to overheat, you understand.)
As it turns out, we mainly transit the aftermath of sometimes heavy-looking showers. Out in the open countryside the roads are wet, but it almost seems as though a star or two twinkled above. And, rounding a curve, there is one brief moment when I see neither taillights nor headlights—a relative thinning-out of the crush of riders to be sure, but one which I savor.
Spirits are high as riders close in on the famous bakery in Tremblay sometime after midnight, the automaton cyclist pedaling on the roof as always. There are so many moments when you wonder why you keep doing this event (and incur all the expense to get there). Suddenly I am reminded why indeed.
Rain Accepted—Tuesday, 4a.m.—Heavy drizzle welcomes us to the Mortagne-au-Perche revitaillement (refreshment) stop. With no lines in the cantine and deteriorating weather outside, I opt for a quick spaghetti bolognese. Keeping up your energy might count for a lot on a cold, rainy PBP.
Exiting the premises, we're met with showers evolving to downpour for the next three hours of dark, headlight-swallowing miles. At that moment, I opine, "This may turn in to quite a long ride. Oh well." C'est la vie, after all.
As light dawned, the large slugs and a few field rats that had washed out onto the roadway become apparent. Just one more added task —to avoid them—a task which one did not have when it was dark.
Leaving Villaines-la-Juhel, I know the Maindru photographers are soon to appear, atop this or that ridge. Yes, there's always something to look forward to on PBP! I start practicing a convincing smile and bon vivant attitude, which I hope will come through in the photos, despite the rain. (Sure enough, the photos waiting at the finish line evidence a semblance of cheer against a wet landscape.)
New Friends—It's funny how you travel 5,000 miles to an event only to meet people you've heard of or dealt with for years back in the States, but hardly ever see back there. Peter Beeson of SIR introduced himself riding on the hills between Villaines and Fougères; Peter Noris (ex Florida RBA) on his racing recumbent coming into Villaines; Last Chance veteran Spencer Klaassen of Missouri conquering the Fougères hills on his fixed gear; Bob Burns, the Kansas City RBA; Lothar Hennighausen, the DC Randonneurs Bavarian; and Henk Bouyhuizen from Toronto, another Last Chance veteran. All of these encounters are welcome diversions from the rain at hand.
Saucisse-en-Crêpe—As the afternoon wears on, the rain and blustery wind ratchet up a bit. En route to Tinténiac, a sausage stand has been set up in a village square, complete with sheltered tables. Being in Brittany means the "bun" is a crêpe, of course. Quick, hot food, out of the rain—an easy call. The only decision left to make is, "Avec moûtarde, monsieur?"
The approach into Loudeac has a northbound segment, a feature certainly hard to ignore this time, straight into the teeth of the northerly blast off the ocean. In Loudeac there is time to wolf down some croissants in the snackerie which, once again, has no lines!
It has been a long day, and it is just barely evening. Peggy Reed, who is supporting her husband Gary Koenig, sees me and asks how things are going. "Draining" is the quiet, one word answer. "Worn to a frazzle" would require too much energy.
The stiffest climbs—the only truly stiff climbs on PBP in fact—are in the rustic hills west of Loudeac. But in the tranquil evening light, they seem very manageable. And some of the roughest roads have been repaved since last time. As night fell, we pass village tents specially set up with snacks for riders.
Heading into Carhaix there is a straight stretch on a narrow, wooded road, lined with trees whose trunks twist and limbs overarch the roadway. Even in daylight, it has a fairytale-like feeling. At night (a first for me), the effect of the gnarled limbs and elongated shadows is positively eerie.
The 90-Hour Strategy Shines! —My clever strategy— to get ahead of the crowds by taking the 90-hour start and working into a "bubble" of fewer riders—seems to have paid off, as I find no lines at the Carhaix cantine and plenty of space in the Carhaix dortoir, having sailed passed the problematic and crowded Loudeac. For some reason, the snorers had all collected at the opposite end of the sleeping hall, a Sargasso Sea of snoring, remote enough to be merely interesting as I drifted off like a log for sleep break #1.
I awake to … dryness! Even the pavement seems to be drying out. The longest climb and highest point of the route is Roc Trevezel. Usually it is windy and clear up top on the sage-covered heights. This time the Roc's transmission towers are cloaked in cloud. Is it low ceiling or coastal fog? If the latter, then the next few hours are going to be miserable and risky. But it turns out to be low ceiling, which burns off, leading to a progressively sunnier day!
(The weather forecast had predicted "delightful" weather for this day in Brest, and it certainly seems delightful after the previous day and a half.) The ocean inlet shimmers blue and sparkles in the sun. It is like coming up for air. We would need to take big gulps of these scenes to store them away for the wet trip home.
By Sizun, eastbound from Brest, both the weather and riders' dispositions have brightened. I encounter Gary Koenig and his riding partner Dick Wiss, and Lothar Hennighausen from DC, and trade upbeat banter. An hour later, past the bulwark of Roc Trevezel, we've returned to the rain.
Back at Loudeac, I am actually changing clothes from my dropbag. Outbound there didn't seem to be much point—they'd just get wet and dirty anyway. By now, the grime factor has shifted to favor a change.
The blast of north wind is blowing us out of town on the southbound stretch—the only real tailwind on the entire trip, but which we are not keen to meet as we veer back north towards Tinténiac. But at least it's dry. Night falls and we come upon the secret control in the usual place. At the contrôle counter, there is a box of ballpoint pens in their wrappers, clearly intended, I think, to be handed out. I glance towards the box; the lady understands: "Un crayon, monsieur?"
We haven't had rain for hours now—perhaps five or more—but now in the dead of night, it starts to pour. The next two hours into Tinténiac are an exercise in climbing hills you can't see in chilly sopping showers you can feel all too well. I decide that maybe the Loudeac hills aren't the stiffest in PBP.
At Tinténiac, I hand the controlleuse my entire plastic packet, knowing that if I try to extract the carnet myself, it will be thoroughly doused. The mechanics' station elicits a sense of envy for my poor bike, as the ones being worked on here are at least inside and dry.
The 90-Hour Strategy Falters —The Tinténiac contrôle has a multistory building where people can sleep. Ostensibly lots of capacity. But apparently not quite enough, as I end up sleeping under the stairwell listening to the clack-clack of cleats on tile flooring. A minute later, I don't care: I'm fast asleep. Interesting how well most of one's clothes dry out just by lying still out of the rain.
The next day, more of the same: driving showers into Fougères, a glint of sun and balmy air leaving Villaines, and even more boisterous showers heading into Mortagne, where RUSA member #6, Charlie Henderson, greets me decked out in a shower cap. As night falls, we enter terra incognita, the stretch to the new Dreux contrôle. In the dark, the flat plains seemed even more featureless, except for some mysterious buttes I remember passing, but no one else vouches for. (A hallucination? Yet more of the PBP experience!)
Dreux has a lot going for it, from lasagna to ample cots. A nap puts the kibosh to some incipient neck strain, and then on to the final stretch, reaching the towering Rambouillet forest at first light, moist and dripping from days of rain.
It's a quiet, subdued finish, traffic still light, and one solitary fan applauding at the gymnasium roundabout (Tim Bol, new Florida RBA). To me that is just fine. Lots of room to contemplate the long return from 2003 and this very special PBP.