Saturday, November 3, 2012

PBP Randonneur 2011, Part 2: Mortagne-au-Perche to Loudeac

August 22, 2011: Mortagne-au-Perche to Villaines-la-Juhel

Mortagne-au-Perche isn't a control on the way to Brest: it is termed a "ravitaillement" control and is housed in a very modern-looking building, but I don't need to enter it. I only need water and that need is very quickly satisfied thanks to well-placed spigots. Just ahead a food truck is doing brisk business. There is a mechanic station (with one very bored looking mechanic) and another booth selling Overstims products and even bikes. There are volunteers near the bike parking area which is overflowing with bikes. Finding a spot to park my bike is a challenge, so I lay my bike down on the ground and mix up food. I post a photo of the control on Facebook. I had been quite excited about keeping my friends up-to-date on my activities in France; This is my preferred way of sharing my journey with family and friends all over the world. After about 10 minutes I ride away. Helpful volunteers help us stay on course right out of the control, and yell "Brest, Brest" as they wave riders through. After several solitary miles I am back in the company of quite a few riders, most of whom have arrived here before me, but have taken the time to nourish themselves with that fancy French faire.

The approaching dawn rears her head behind me and my mind rejoices at having almost successfully navigated the first night on the course. The roads get hillier the closer we get to Villaines-la-Juhel, but with the exception of a couple of steep little hills the course has been very benevolent so far, but who knows what lays ahead. The rain is gentle at first and then gets annoying in a little while. I am not far from the first control as my bike computer informs me and we finally get to the top of the hill and the road takes a sweeping left. The crowds start appearing, slowly at first and thickening the closer we get to the control. The first signs that we are near the control comes from the tons of RVs parked along the road with riders from various nationalities being helped by their attentive support personnel. I get to Villaines-la-Juhel a little past 7:30a and now have a 3 hours and 15 minute cushion. I might have had more but I try to put the hilly bonus miles out of my head as things are going so well.

August 22, 2011: Villaines-la-Juhel to Fougères

Inside the Villaines-la-Juhel control
The control has very nice wooden bicycle racks alongside a stone wall that runs for quite a while, but every single one of them near the entrance is taken! It takes a while to find an empty spot but it isn't that big a deal. It is actually cause for cheer because it means I haven't been spit out the back yet. The control building is to the right and this is my first control! There isn't any confusion or a stampede. The ACP has a fantastic system in place for signing cards, with two tables to our left and right with 3 persons each. There is not even a trace of a wait to get one's card signed. A volunteer directs me to the correct table (plenty of volunteers, might I add?), and I exchange a merry Bonjour with the person who signs my card. It is of paramount importance to stay respectful and not act like an express train making a cursory stop. There isn't anybody else in line, so I take my time: they've taken the time to be with us and see us through. I ask them how they are doing and thank them for volunteering (Thank you, Google Translate!).

They forward me along to the food room, and I dutifully follow instructions, though I am not planning to stop here for food. I step out and survey the scene. Most of the people present are riders and their support staff, but there are a noticeable number of townsfolk nearby cheering the incoming and the outgoing. I've finished my control formalities and am ready to go in about 10 minutes. I feel pretty good. Looking west I see some gray skies with a tell tale trail from the clouds to the ground. Being from the Pacific Northwest, I have no trouble identifying rain nearby or in the distance. A bit of nervousness at the prospect of harsh conditions further ahead is quickly pushed down by the excitement of being in France and amongst these riders. It begins raining softly barely a few dozen miles west of Villaines-la-Juhel. I do have all my rain gear and that will tide me over. Things have been going well and I have 3 hours in the bank. I've ridden through the night and now have the day to look forward to. Riding in France at night has been wonderful and I've just done something that I've never done before: ride through the night and feel good after.

Lassay-les-Châteaux Castle on the way

On a long ride like this, the details of the latter parts of the ride cloud any memories one may have from the earlier parts of the ride: this is both good and bad. Good because it allows you to stay in the moment and forget any misfortunes that may have befallen you, and bad because you don't really recall the earlier stages when you are trying to write a report on the event. I confess that I don't remember the intricate details of what happened between Villaines-la-Juhel and Loudeac, but a lot of what I recall are standout moments: the mundane has been washed away as the detritus of a long ride.

One may spend an inordinate amount of time on a ride like this living in his own head, but one clambers out of it often: there is one word that my mouth utters constantly, and that word is Merci. The French are out everywhere and are at key intersections guiding us along the right path, silently clapping sometimes, raising a glass to us other times, increasing the probability of our success, and expecting nothing in return: okay, they want a high-five every once in a while. You have to admit this though: we cyclists make a stunning spectacle. Different physical shapes, speeds, bikes of all types, riders from several nations, multi-colour jerseys, the differences so stark and yet the purpose so similar. I'd be fascinated by this stuff if I lived along the route too.

I remember riding along on a fairly lumpy road and in the company of a few riders when the rain takes a turn for the insistent. Gentle reminders about the precipitation that envelopes us are replaced with nags, with each nag getting more and more severe as we ride further west. My head is still clouded from not having slept the previous night, but because of the sleep that I've accumulated over the last few days, I am still functional. We are riding on a ledge cut into the mountain with green fields receding downhill to our left and  the road heading more or less straight toward another cluster of hills. A town lies ahead in the distance, covered by the misty fog of the early morning rain. It could be a scene from a hundred years ago as I see very little of the vestiges of a modern civilization: no skyscrapers, no disgusting industrial plants, no neon signs, and no malls. Stone buildings, farms, barns and forests. Delightful. I ride on, not worrying about putting any rain gear on, but my determination is being tested with every dollop of rain that hits my face.

I come to realize I have to stop and put my rain gear on, but there is no place to stop and change. I finally see a tree along the edges of a farm, and decide to stop there. Another rider has the same idea, and we both open our bags to get the rain jackets out. We introduce ourselves and I find out that he is from Canada and discuss people we know in common. I am embarrassed to say that I have no idea who he is now. So, if you are reading this and you are that person, please drop me a line. We leave together but the Canadian drops me easily, no surprise there. I settle into my former rhythm, the speeds of the previous night a distant memory, and continue on straight, when I am woken up from my reverie by the sound of a man yelling, and yelling it sounds like, to grab my attention. I am intent on riding straight ahead and the gentleman wants me to turn right and up a nice hill. It seems that I would have ridden off course if this genial gentleman hadn't interfered. Merci, Monsieur!

Back to the task at hand: the hill. We climb slowly up the hill and I get a good look at what I am trying to ride over. This climb is hardly steep but I am slow and for the first time in almost 13 hours I am reminded of how mediocre a rider I really am. The course shows its teeth and there isn't much flat land here. The rain has stopped, but the air still a wee bit on the chilly side. I am still doing decent time, which surprises me greatly. I half-expected myself to be dead after the first control and I take some comfort in my rate of progress. Despite the rain, the day is warming up and after a while, the rain stops completely. We pass a beautiful chateau in the town of Lassay-les-Châteaux, and I stop and take a picture and upload that so my friends can feel jealous of me. Quick stop though, no faffing, though we are in France. I do have to hit a bed around 9p.

After a long and gentle climb through a forest that felt like it went on forever, the delightful little town of Ambrières-les-Vallées materializes out of nowhere. The town is picturesque, lampposts and balconies are bedecked with flowers, and the bridge over the river is beautiful, and the town center is teeming with bicycles. Houses are arranged in rows up along the hillside. The river Varenne overflows a brilliantly constructed embankment to create a sort of faux waterfall. There is a wonderful painting of a horse drawn carriage on a wall that advertises the local bar and restaurant, which looks very inviting. It is a lovely spot for a bit of breakfast: it is around 10 am now. That would be too decent and not fit in my plans, so I keep riding, but in hindsight, I would rate this town along with Sizun as must-stop along the PBP route. Next time, I am taking a break here.

We hit a T-junction and are directed right towards the town of Gorron, whose significance I would never have recognized if it were not for Jeff Tilden's 2007 PBP report: Gorron has the highest per capita ridership of any town in the world at PBP (at least, it did in 2007). We start climbing a few hundred yards away from the bridge and traffic is now heavy. Unerringly courteous though, as we snake left and right, climbing away from town. I find myself overheating on some of these climbs out of town and stop to take off my jacket. A few miles later we are up against yet another hill when the first heavy droplets of rain hit. Serious rain. No messing around. I ride on, not wanting to stop and lose time, but I am not going as fast as I'd like. The legs aren't quite spinning right, the power is absent and the brain is feeling the effects of that last all-nighter.

A few miles before Gorron the rain thickens. My brain tells me the rest of the ride is going to be like 2007, my energy is at an all time low, and I am search for the power button. I have to stop and put on my rain clothes or I will be soaked to the bone. I find a huge tree to hide under and lay my bike against the dry ground. On the other side of the road, a small group of people waiting under an awning watch riders go by and they observe as I go about my business. My sense of urgency vanishes as I slowly pull things out and begin to dress up to head into the deluge. I take a good 15 minutes and eventually get going, but I am disappointed with the length of that stay. I suspect I am bonking but I am powerless to do anything about it. My brain is fried just a wee bit.

I haven't advanced a few hundred yards when Ken Krichman catches up to me. Ken is in great spirits and I tell him that I am not doing so well. Ken reaches into his jersey pocket and hands me a half-eaten baguette wrapped in white paper, which he has been carrying for who knows how long. "Eat this; you'll feel better", he says. We ride together for a little while, finally entering the town of Gorron and before we exit it, Ken has gone on down the road. Baguettes are easy to eat on the bike, as they are long and not that bulky. It is also my first solid food since yesterday afternoon, and the taste is everything you want in a piece of bread. I have been bonking! As I chew, the baguette rips into the soft tissue at the roof of my mouth and I wince in pain. It is another one of those glorious experiences that you can only get in France. Where else do you recover from a bonk by eating a baked-this-morning baguette ?

Gorron is motivating in several ways: first of all, it is a decent-sized town which means that there are lots of people at every curve and crossing cheering us on, the weather an afterthought in their minds as they hoot and holler and raise our spirits by just speaking their language. French is a delectable language and, along with Italian, is one of my favourite languages. Second of all, the townsfolk of Gorron have scribbled down numerous names and motivational phrases on the road exhorting us to ride with courage and ride well. How could one disappoint them? After Gorron, the rain seems a little less strident and the brain a little more aware as we enter Bretagne and finally the outskirts of Fougères. Not an inch of pavement is dry anywhere in Fougères. A big banner proclaims this as as "Haute Bretagne". The time is a little past 12:30p.

August 22, 2011: Fougères to Tinténiac

Sign welcoming us to Haute Bretagne
There are volunteers everywhere helping us find the control. The control is in a little building on the left, and straight ahead is the cafeteria. I lean my bike against the wall and go inside to get my card signed. I am dressed from head to toe in rain gear and the person doing the signing registers surprise as I amble to his table. I ask him how he is doing. He clearly doesn't expect me to ask him how he is doing. I get my card signed, tuck it away, and head out, not spending any more than 5 minutes off the bike. It is still raining as I leave. It is only 54 kilometers to Tinténiac. I am happy with myself for having left the control this fast. I feel pretty good and that is never a bad thing. I leave with a huge swarm of riders, bent on making Loudéac by nightfall. 445k in 24 hours would give me with a huge cushion - something I could draw upon to the end. The rain stops and temperatures warm up. This is most welcome.

SIR has arranged for riders doing PBP to get small souvenir pins to hand out to folks along the route. Naturally, I waited too long before I decided to get some. These pins haven't really been occupying my mind until now and have been lying in my bike jersey pocket, clinking away. I don't know why but I suddenly remember that I am carrying these pins to give out, and I am not exactly being diligent or appreciative of the cheering crowds and children. I vow to hand them out at the next village. In front of house with a small table, sit 5 kids: two of them, boys of about 10 or 12 years of age, and three little girls. I stop and the kids come over, not knowing what I stopped for. The oldest kid is clearly in charge.

When I reach into my jersey pocket, their eyes light up. I give them a pin each, one after the other, and they all look at it with wide eyes. Merci, they say; their parents have taught them well. But, there's one more child than I have pins for, and he is the oldest. One of the hardest things to do in the world is to disappoint a child. I confess to not having the heart for it. But I've handed over whatever I had and am one pin short. I dread what I have to do next...

Je suis très désolé, I tell him. His face changes to one of sadness, he stomps his feet and runs back into the house, crying. The other children look in the direction of the house, bewildered. I spend the next dozen miles regretting putting off buying these pins until the last minute. Next time around, I'll probably carry more than what I need and buy them early. Better that than disappoint a child. I have no recollection of which town this happened in, but I remember it was shortly after 1p. I am quite disappointed by how little I remember from this leg. Sorry. Slate written over by memories more recent. I do arrive at Tinténiac shortly after 3:30p.

August 22, 2011: Tinténiac to Loudéac

Entrance to Tinténiac control

I leave swiftly again ever mindful of the clock, and the steel reputation of the course from this point on. I remember precious little about the terrain itself. One of my motivations in writing this was to report on the exact nature of the course, but unfortunately I seem to have mislaid the details somewhere. Out of the controle, I start riding with Bill Russell. Bill is on a beautiful bike with even prettier panniers. We talk about SIR and I remember making inane jokes about him being the wrong skin colour for a Bill Russell and Bill being a good sport about it (having heard the same joke for the 900th time in his life).

A little past 5p and about 15 miles out of Tinténiac, in the little town of Quédillac, we come upon some commotion in the middle of the road; it is one of PBP's secret controls. "Controle", "Controle", the volunteer repeats as a fellow volunteer steers us towards a row where we are to park our bicycles. I get my card signed and leave immediately, quite proud of the fact. Out of Quédillac, the road flattens out as we make a left turn onto a major roadway with wide shoulders. We are on this for a few kilometers before we are sent off the main drag again making a right turn towards the town of Saint-Méen-le-Grand. There are farms to the left and right, lavender fields to be precise, and the warm air is rife with the smell of lavender. A brown brick shed sits not-quite in the middle of this field. A powerline runs along the road, interrupting my view of the farm. A tree stands amidst the greenery, its leaves shaking gently in the evening breeze. The memory is seared in my brain. The fantastic fragrance doesn't last for every long though, and we enter the town proper.

After the lavender fields, the buildings of a village ought not to impress one too much, but Saint-Méen-le-Grand has other ideas. It is a pretty town with a very imposing Hotel de Ville (City Hall, to the uninitiated) straddling the city square, sporting a giant banner welcoming cyclists to the town, it stands almost like a palace. Onlookers on both sides of the street yell out encouragement and applause. The reason I describe this scene in vivid detail is because I just rode on by, wanting to get to Loudéac before dark. Next time, I'll stop for a photo.

A little past this beautiful sight I spot an arrow pointing left mounted on a street sign and dutifully follow it. I don't go 200 yards before an elderly gentleman working in his garden signals me to stop. I ask him if I am on course and he shakes his head and points back in the direction where I came from. He waves as I thank him, and turn my bike around. Cyclists are streaming ahead on the main road and now I cannot even fathom how I could make such a simple mistake. I am guessing somebody - or the wind - turned the arrow a bit left to lead people astray.

The closer I get to Loudéac, the more excited I become. With a few miles to go I see the lead group with a very focused Chris Ragsdale near the head of the peloton. They are only a few hundred miles ahead of us. "Go Chris!" I shout, Chris looks at me, but is going at a speed that discourages identification of voices and faces. Still, seeing a familiar face is a big boost and seeing one of ours in the lead group is a giant morale booster. It looks like Chris is going to be one of the top finishers! Club Pride! The approach to the town is littered with farms but it slowly transitions to an urban environment: it cannot be long before the control now. The RVs give away the proximity of the controle. My pace quickens. We enter a roundabout and past it is a crowd two or three deep behind barricades, lining the road all the way to the controle. A few hundred meters of riding through this and the entrance to the controle emerges. It is 8:40p.

No comments: