Saturday, November 3, 2012

PBP Randonneur 2011, Part 1: Start to Mortagne-au-Perche

I've written two versions, one short, one very long. The short version is for the sane and the long version is for me when I am 80 years old, so please excuse the level of detail. I've tried to share as much of what I can remember and sometimes I may remember wrongly. Please excuse any omissions or errors, and the "me" centric writing: I thought I'd just keep it private for the longest time because of this reason. If you want an idea of what the ride was like, read the stretch from Fougères back to Villaines-la-Juhel. It consists of some of my best experiences during the event.

The Short Version

I have long lusted after PBP and in 2011 I finally got to experience it firsthand. In my first attempt at this distance I finished in 88 hours and 35 minutes. I was aiming for 9 hours of sleep, but got 5. I rode a few bonus km (see longer version for details). There were two secret controls and I have no recollection whatsoever of hitting that second secret control (one group says it was between Villaines-la-Juhel and Mortagne-au-Perche, and another group claims it was after Loudeac). I had some mechanical problems which forced me to use the granny for about 80 kilometers, but I had no flats. The course was fantastic, the people were amazing and I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Would I do this again? Yes. Would I recommend that cyclists do it? Yes. As Ron Himschoot says, you just need the desire to finish it. Paris-Brest-Paris is simply the most fun you can have on a bike, due in no small part to the French who fill the course at all hours and in the unlikeliest of places to cheer for us, help us with food, water, a place to nap, and show how much they love this event and those that ride in it. If you are a randonneur or a randonneuse and are wondering if Paris - Brest is worth it, take the plunge and come ride it in 2015. You will see and experience for yourself and probably come to the same conclusion. I can say honestly that I cherished this experience and will go back for more (if body and finances cooperate, perhaps). PBP is a huge commitment, but something to be experienced at least once.

My ride would not have been possible without help. There are simply too many people to thank... So, thanks are due to everybody who has ever encouraged (or discouraged), ridden with, supported, listened to, or simply commiserated with, me. Special thanks go to my wife Raji, the volunteers of PBP, ACP and RUSA: without you none of this would be possible. Thank you.

August 21st, 2011: Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines to Mortagne-au-Perche 

As we wait for the ride to start I find myself among a huge group of Seattle riders with the closest being Erik Nilsson, a first-timer and a much stronger rider than I. All around us, riders are capturing the scene on little point-and-shoots and cellphone cameras. We are quite surprised by the number and length of the pre-ride speeches, but knew we'd start at 8p. More waves were unlikely: there hadn't been very many people behind us as we waited behind the gymnasium. One final speech in English, a Mexican wave, and a countdown (in French!) later, a horn sounds. The cheers of the people in the background, the clipping-in sounds of hundreds of cleats, the look of determination descending upon the few hundred faces, and the beginning of a much-awaited journey: sweet. A chorus of beeps from the electronic chip-readers gives us a fine send off into the very warm French summer night.

I think I am all set for the road ahead: I have my reflective vest on - despite the warmth - and two bottles full of liquid nutrition to avoid stopping for the first 60 kilometers at least. I expect the first few kilometers to be dicey but riders are courteous and give wide berth. We start off riding on what looks like an expressway for a few kilometers, but take an exit on to the usual quieter roads. The road narrows a little bit and brakes squeal, the group compresses and decompresses at each of the roundabouts that litter the first few kilometers as we ride through the last of the suburbs of Paris. Several motorcycles escort us, volunteers cheer while holding traffic up at every intersection as riders take charge of the road. My initial miles are an avalanche of new discoveries, emotions, sights and experiences.

Hundreds of people of all ages lining the right side of the road cheer us, hoist placards that wish us luck, courage and a happy ride. Pedalling seems effortless: I am quite surprised to see that I am doing 30 km/h and don't know what to make of that. I surprise myself by keeping at that speed even up slight inclines. I am powerless to control myself. We have a peloton and a nice little tailwind, I reckon. I don't want to go out too fast but being in such a throng of riders is exhilarating and I'll get dropped when the serious hills hit anyway.

We are still flying and I am in a group of about 10 riders. I am passing people too! We make our way past the first few suburbs of Saint-Quentin and into the last vestiges of the Paris metropolitan area, parts where the number of spectators dwindles. It is almost entirely flat for the first 10k or so and as we arrive at the first little climb of the ride the setting on either side of the road is spectacular. It is one of my best memories from the ride. We are near the village of Jouars-Pontchartrain; there are huge fields on either side and the crest of the hill is punctuated by the silhouette of a church on the left and a row of trees lining the horizon darting to the right, with a spectacular pinkish red sunset on its way. I want to stop and take a photo but don't. Dumb! And it isn't the last dumb thing I do. This first little hill marks the end of the flat section of my inaugural Paris - Brest, and the rollers start. I shift to my granny for the very first time and hordes of riders stream past me. We are the last group and the hill is nothing serious mind you, and I am still flying, in general terms. No sign of the excitement ending and my familiar pace (between 15 and 20k) to show up. I keep at it, figuring that I might as well ride this horse till it tires.

Several houses along the course have bicycle related adornments, the pavement features messages encouraging us, and roundabouts have motivational placards with the names of riders on them. You are going to have to trust me because I have no photos to prove it. People sit on lawn chairs and keep clapping as we ride on by. Spectators line the streets in small towns and cars are always courteous. They drive a safe distance away and pass with plenty of berth, displaying none of the urgency that North American drivers seem to suffer from. Riders fill the roads and yet the cars are patient, only passing when safe, and never in an aggressive manner. I have read about this, but it is something else to experience. There aren't very many cars, with most of the locals probably figuring out that this night the roads are for the bicyclists. In the little town of Gambais which was situated on two lovely left turns, there is a house where a big group of people are sitting down to a very civilized family dinner and they let out a giant holler each time a group of riders goes by. In one village, there is loud music playing and every villager seems to be out cheering the riders.

We are riding in a foreign country! The houses, the roads, the signs, the company, the flora: all different. This is my first time riding in Europe, my first brevet out of North America and it is exciting. Riders everywhere and of national identities very different from what we see on a traditional brevet. People carry their gear differently: panniers, saddlebags, backpacks(!), CamelBaks, trunk bags, etc. Fenders are rarely to be found, and if they are found, it is most likely a Brit, or an American rider. A lot of riders just have small seat bags, like they are out on a 200k. Some don't have helmets. Lot of road bikes with skinny tyres. Some things remain true no matter where I ride though: I get dropped just as fast. I am dropped by Brits, Swedes, Australians, Bulgarians, Chinese, French, Spaniards, Japanese, Taiwanese, Serbians, Danes, and Germans, and some of our own.

On all of the rides that I have done, be it permanents, populaires or brevets, I have always had the security blanket of a route sheet. A small sheet of paper that controls your every move and vaguely assures you that you are on course. The advantage of knowing the distance to the next turn is that one can turn one's navigational brain off and just enjoy the countryside, by day or by night. PBP's route sheet was pronounced useless on the Internet because the course was marked with little flèches indicating the turns, but as with anything in life, this convenience comes at a cost: one can never turn one's brain or eyes off from navigation. It is unnerving at first but the combination of one's own wariness plus the security of having other eyes on the road makes it almost a non-issue as the kilometers go by. I have no trouble following the arrows - almost always at eye level or lower - but one has to be constantly on the lookout for these things. Much like a junkie looking for his next fix I keep thinking about where I can spot the next flèche. This is foremost on my mind as I navigate those first few kilometers in the dark. I am having good luck spotting the arrows and staying on course so far.

Dusk starts to fall as we enter the French countryside. We sail through the now dark night and the vision that I have been looking forward to the most finally materializes: a clothesline of red taillights dancing off into the distance, their gentle bobs divulging the effort required ahead. One look at my helmet mirror reveals a bevy of white head lights. It is quite the sight and is every bit as invigorating as previous ride reports have made it out to be. You will not see this anywhere else in the world, but at this great randonneur get-together. A Brit and I fall into conversation and agree that this is awesome fun. Lesli Larson catches up and I keep pace with her to chat for a little while before she slowly pulls away. We make a right turn onto a fairly large road and are faced with truck traffic for a little while. It is also here that I finally put my fears to rest about how we would be treated as bicyclists in France. Cars and trucks are uniformly courteous and I needn't worry about night riding in France. After a few miles we are taken off the major road and onto a minor road. I am getting comfortable on the ride and feeling good about how I am faring.

My stomach begins to grumble barely a couple of hours into the ride and by this time I have covered 40+ km. The only thing I can think of is the "Pria" bar. Dang it! My worst fear has come true: I am going to have stomach problems at PBP! We go by a few small towns and I look for something to be open, but no luck, and I really don't want to ask any spectators if I can use their restroom. The pack has spread out and while I am still in sight of riders, I am not right with them. A dozen kilometers later, I decide that I can't wait any longer: I'd have to ask to use somebody's bathroom and do it quick. We enter a long straight climb into the town of Le Breuil and halfway up the climb a group of three are on the side of the road cheering us on. They are my first hope!

I have anticipated this problem and know what to say (respectfully) when wanting to use the bathroom. The three of them are surprised that I stopped and when I ask to use their bathroom in my "French", the trio immediately swing into action: the man takes my bike, while the woman and her husband lead me straight into their house. They understood me! They understood my French!! I can hardly believe it! As I enter the threshold I bend down to remove my shoes like a proper Indian and the woman says "Non. Ca va". I could have hugged the three. Their house is simply decorated and looks cozy. When I came back outside they offer me water, tea or coffee and I refuse as politely as I can: I am now in "protect my stomach" mode. I thank them and take off to cries of Bon Courage. I didn't take a photo of them and I seriously regret that now. I rejoin the relentless stream of riders making their westward journey which is now a trickle. I still have some company but there aren't the dozens of riders nearby that I experienced for the first few hours.

We pass the odd village and vast expanses of farmland. Some of the fields have labels of what are being grown, but I cannot remember a thing now. The frequency of houses reduces greatly. Farmhouses dot the countryside, their lights the only indication that there are people in this landscape. Lots of farmhouses. The character of the houses changes too the further we go away from the Parisian suburbs. Modern construction recedes and old stone buildings become the norm. Streetlights are few too with an abundance inside towns and villages. A lot of riders new to Randonneuring are worried about riding at night. It can be the cause of even more consternation riding at night in a foreign country, but I find that riding at night brings on a rare-to-find familiarity. It is very new at first, but as the miles pass under our wheels the newness remains but without the butterflies at the bottom of one's stomach.

We have a good descent down into the town of Coulombs where townsfolk are gathered on both sides of the bridge to give us a good cheer. As we leave the throng and make a right turn to climb out of the town we are subjected to cheering of a different kind: three teenagers moon us, two show us their posteriors and one regrettably, the front. We all laugh: it is all in good fun. The former controle town of Nogent-le-Roi comes and goes but there isn't a reason to stop. I see a few Seattle jerseys inside a small bar here. We are back out in the country side and after a few dozen miles I am out of water.

We enter the town of Tremblay-les-Villages and even at this late hour TVs flicker and people are active. A few smokers cheer from their balconies. The bar is doing good business. We have been fed so many stereotypes of rude French waiters: the one that meets me at the door is anything but. I greet him with a bonjour and spying my water bottles he immediately leads me to the kitchen and leaves me there with a small pipe that has running water. I fill up my bottles and clumsily drop one onto my shorts. Water and Sustained Energy splatter everywhere, and the waiter comes running over. I brace for the worst but am faced with a smiling visage: "Pas de probleme, monsieur", he says and fills the bottles again himself. There is a mop nearby and I offer to clean up but he will have none of it. "Bon Courage!" he says and gives me a push out the door.

As I start riding again I am reminded that Sustained Energy is a bit of a sticky mess. My shorts are covered with white powder and my shoes are wet. My gloves are sticky. Fabulous. I have created extra work for a poor waiter on his busiest night of the year! The night is sure to get colder and my wet pants won't be an easy thing to deal with. I don't have two bottles of food either and have to stop again. And at this dark hour I have no chance of finding more water. One of the things that I was worried about before the ride was the 140 km stretch to Mortagne-au-Perche at night in a country with a reputation for having nothing open past 6pm even on a weekday. However, I needn't have worried (as I was told): there are bars open and when they aren't the townsfolk along the course stand cheering with bottles of water, food and even coffee as we ride past. And not just one or two little bottles for the sake of appearances: many have several two liter bottles of water sitting on tables along the side of the road. Some have Orange Juice, milk, and coffee.

I spy a car with its emergency blinkers turned on to the left, but I plow ahead into the inky darkness, a nice long downhill invitingly ahead. I hear a shout to my left "Paris - Brest": figuring this is somebody encouraging riders I shout a quick "Merci" and keep riding on. After a good three-quarters of a mile of downhill later I consider - albeit very briefly - that I am lost, but I see three red lights in the distance. Figuring I was on track and completely ignoring the lack of headlights behind me I keep riding. I arrive at a little pharmacy and find a Japanese rider looking at his map. We exchange hellos but the rider is consulting his GPS. We are now in another town and not another rider is in sight. I keep riding and come upon two Chinese riders: I pull over next to them to confirm if I am still on course and the man assures me I am, and the woman gives me one of those "Search me!" looks. I keep riding on and after about 3 miles (over a second ridge), I come upon a roundabout but there aren't any route markers: this is unusual. I wait for a few minutes hoping some riders will show up, but after a five minute wait a car comes by and doesn't stop for me.

I know now that I am in trouble. If there are no headlights or taillights may be I should ride back ? The thought of the long uphill keeps me hoping that I am still on track. But, I come to the realization that I am lost and have to head back until I see more riders. As I ride back I see another car coming up the road, but it doesn't stop either. The Japanese rider hasn't passed me and neither have the two Chinese riders, so they must have backtracked! I decide to ride back up the hill and as I reach the base of the climb, what do I see halfway up?! Two taillights bobbing in the distance. It is the two Chinese riders. I am really annoyed with myself for not having turned back sooner. Bonus miles aren't that bad, but when you factor in the distance we are aiming to ride, every little mile counts. I finally make it to the top and see the man who had yelled out to me when I was going downhill. He is a ride official sent out to warn riders that a left-turn sign is missing. I say "Merci Beaucoup" and ride on. I've lost about an hour.

Making a mistake is a common occurrence on a ride and the best course of action is to just forget about it and plow on ahead. Of course, my brain can't let go so soon: I keep hammering myself for the bonus miles. I have also run out of water. The fields along the course are now littered with riders suffering from sleepiness. We have been riding only for a few hours and dawn is a few hours away, but I can see riders pulled over and trying to deal with sleep. Their strategy seems to be to survive the night by all means necessary, while mine is to keep those cranks moving despite the loss of sleep. I am so overcome by the excitement of the event that sleep is an afterthought at the moment. Escort Motorcycles whiz by every once in a while keeping tabs on riders. The terrain also seems flatter a little bit after Chateauneuf-en-Thymerais and I make excellent time to Jaudrais. Some way to get water would be nice...

At a farmhouse under a whole bunch of streetlights I see a bunch of teenagers on the side of the road with bottled water. I pull over and much to their amusement, first fill my bottles with Sustained Energy. The oldest of the group, a lanky lad, waits for me to finish and then fills water politely while the rest look at me with curiosity on their faces. Not wanting to assume this is a free service, I innocently ask "C'est combien, monsieur?". The water filling teenager has a surprised look on his face; "C'est gratuit, monsieur" he says, almost offended that I brought the subject of money up (which I know is anathema to the French). I thank them all for their help, clip in, and am about to ride off when a voice from the back asks: "Quel Pays, monsieur?". I forget about my embarrassment and think about how I really want to answer. How does a man born in India, having Canadian citizenship, living in the United States answer this question? Of course, we aren't in Seattle and these kids probably have little chance to meet people of my ilk or so I flatter myself. Or maybe they just need confirmation. I think briefly for a moment; "Je suis né en Inde", I say. This seems to satisfy them. With a "Merci Beaucoup" I ride on while they holler out encouragement. In the last few hours I have barged into somebody's house, messed up a French Bar's kitchen, gotten lost, and the Coup de Grace, almost offended the French! I haven't reached the first control yet!

Past Jaudrais there are almost no people as we ride on narrow roads with only our headlights to lead the way. There are some people out in the town of Senonches, but I ride on, merely thanking the onlookers. Most of the little villages that we ride through are deserted, just like back home but every once in a while in some completely unexpected little village a voice would ring out disturbing the still of the night: Bonne Courage. The road flattens out again as we approach Longny-au-Perche and I find myself ratcheting up the speed again. The legs feel good, the sleep demon is away and there is constant company within sight. The roads are well paved, litter-free and uniformly excellent. Life is good! If only I could get that hour I lost back!

The closer we get to Mortagne-au-Perche the lumpier the course becomes and a few long steep rollers slow my progress. I am in a small group of riders as we make it to the center of town which is filled with bicycles and riders. The famous bakery (with it's bicycling man sculpture) is doing very brisk business. The control is a little further out and I make it to Mortagne-au-Perche around 2.45a. I am averaging almost 20 kmph. This is very good considering the terrain, my stomach and my navigational faux pas. With the first controle at 220k it will be a while before I find out how much time I've saved (or haven't), so it is 80k more on pure faith.



Sundar Rajan said...

Lovely narration.

Samir said...

Thanks for putting time to share each minute details.