August 23, 2011: Loudéac to Carhaix
The path to the control building is challenging in Loudéac. First, there's a right turn to make along with 4 other riders, then a very tricky metal impediment to cross, then a very bumpy and curvy run lined with spectators wanting to high-five you, leads you to the massive bike parking lot which is filled with riders, their bicycles, and their support groups. Never before have I cycled 450+ kilometers on the trot and I am still feeling pretty good, that low point near Gorron completely forgotten. Loudéac is a town of almost mythical standing in my head and the sight of the controle induces part wonderment and part disbelief. I am having a pretty good ride so far and things are working out better than I thought they would. In my fantasies about the ride, I was hoping that I'd get here in 24 hours. But, I am close. I have made it in 24 hours and 40 minutes: not bad for a perpetual slowpoke like me.
There simply isn't a spot to park one's bike! I hunt for about 5 minutes and then take one vacated by a departing rider. I see the building that Gregg Bleakney shot a beautiful photo of in 2007. It is now close to dusk and after making quick work of the control (signature, water), I am back on the road, the number of riders now spectacularly thin, as almost everybody seems to have stopped at Loudéac. I've got to go a dozen kilometers - to Uzel - before I get to rest my head and hopefully before the dark skies open themselves and display their soaking powers. It is dark skies ahead and naturally, we are riding towards the blackness. The path out of town is busy and has a few large roundabouts that we have to navigate and soon we are back in the country side. Traffic though thick, is unfailingly polite.
The view west out of Loudéac doesn't look daunting but I can see nothing but one verdant ridge after another ahead of us. I know what's coming and how tough the terrain is going to be, though I have never laid eyes on it. Everything is beautiful, farms on either side, the dark skies above and the occasional house to keep things interesting. We come upon a flattish stretch of tree-lined road that threads itself through some farms and I find myself riding with Bill again. I hang with him for a little while until he politely asks me if I want to stop and put some reflective clothing on. We stop, Bill and I, and I dress up for the short night ride ahead, while Bill eats something and generally potters around the bike. Riders stream past us. I think Bill is headed for St Nicolas du Pelem or Carhaix, but I may be mistaken.
We set off and resume chatting: the conversation relaxes me by taking my mind off of the task at hand, but the details of our conversation escape me now. I lose Bill; it would have been very nice to share a few hundred miles with him. I judge myself by the quality of the riders I am with and as companions go, Bill is a good one. Too bad I am not good enough to hang with him. A few miles of short climbs later, it is now dark. I am now completely alone. After the constant companionship of the past few hundred miles, this solitude unnerves me. I am also a bit nervous about finding the gîte in the dark; I have after all never laid eyes on it, and I have to now hunt it down in the dark.
The rain is famous for falling on the just and unjust alike, but if I had the management of such affairs I would rain softly and sweetly on the just, but if I caught a sample of the unjust out doors I would drown him.
-- quoted in My Father Mark Twain, Clara Clemens
I love this quote: if Mark Twain is right and Karma is indeed something to be reckoned with, I have done more than a few egregious things in this life and possibly others. A few miles after I part company with Bill, the rain starts. We are now completely among farmlands with one hill after another, constantly gaining elevation and not losing much of it. I can't quite accurately describe the terrain chiefly because I only rode this stretch in the dark (both directions). There are dark clouds right above the ridges that we are riding over. The thunder rumbles softly at first, seemingly miles away and not threatening in any way. But then the lightning display starts and lights up the whole countryside in sometimes-brief-sometimes-long bursts. The rain worsens but figuring I've only a few K to go, I only put on my rain jacket though I have all the rain gear I need in my Carradice. I remember discussions with Andy Speier and Mark Thomas about the weather forecast and am now glad that I chose to carry everything, even if that meant lugging it all the way here.
I climb each ridge and the wetter I get. The route west out of Loudéac is nothing like the 600k I did back in June. The hills aren't quite as steep but their frequency is attention-grabbing. I count the number of seconds between the lightning and the thunder boom and the number keeps dropping: closer and closer it gets. For about a half-hour, I count several strikes that were within a mile (less than 5 seconds). Most of it was 2 seconds or less. The rain hits the road and produces small crowns as it bounces into the air, each water droplet the size of a gummy bear. I very briefly contemplate pulling over but resist the urge as there is nothing to hide under. My focus is to get to the gîte and pulling over for cover would delay getting to a warm bed.
Even in these conditions there are riders around. A few like me are on the road, a few are hiding under trees and some others under the awnings of barns. They watch in sympathy as we ride by, perhaps hopeful that they can wait out the storm. After a few miles of this horrendous weather I am completely drenched. There's fewer riders now on the road (like somebody had swept the area clean). Water runs off my hair and into my face, the salty taste almost welcome. A few riders are already on their way back, a good 300 kilometers ahead of me at this point. I look down at my computer to see how many more kilometers I have before the turn to the gîte and my computer is blank. The rain has killed it. This is when my ride starts going wrong...
We make a giant right turn and come up to a T-junction and there is a sign that says Uzel is to the right. As expected the road now makes a left turn and I am in the company of a few riders and ride past the Uzel sign thinking the gîte would be on the main road. I start looking right for the lights that Rick told me would point me to the gîte, but there is nothing there. I make a U-turn when I hit another road and circle back looking for the lights but nothing there. I have several choices here: calling the gîte, pulling out the paper map or figuring out instructions using my phone. But what do I do ? I continue riding. Westward. Away from the gîte. I have no idea why I did this when I clearly know that the gîte is in Uzel. I can only blame it on the accumulated tiredness.
We've climbed a lot to get to Uzel, but the route turns seriously hilly west of Uzel. It is never flat and the rain shows no signs of abating. Traffic is non-existent as we make our way through one village after another with hardly any spectators to cheer us on. You know conditions are bad when there are no spectators at PBP! I ride on in the rain for kilometers on end, completely wet, all the while wishing for the comfort of a hot shower and a warm bed. We start climbing towards Merléac, another hilltop town. I can see city lights and what looks like a tent, ahead. There are people hiding away from the rain, and to the right of the white semi-circular tent, are a bunch of shops, all closed. There are quite a few people here and this gives me hope that I'll somehow find my way to the gîte.
They are selling food here and there are some riders huddled over in small makeshift beds. A woman and a man walk up to me and ask me if I want something to eat. I tell them that I have a gîte in Uzel (Oozell is how I pronounce it) and alarmingly, they have no clue where that is. I repeat that I have a gîte and that I need to get there to sleep, and I tell them the name of the street. Nothing clicks. I curse my luck and after about 10 minutes of looking hither and thither, I continue further west away from Merléac. The road heads seriously downhill and I pedal for a half-hour more. The rain is still going, with the hills making it interesting.
The first shivers start as I find myself well away from the lights of Merléac. Even though I am working hard on the hills, it is increasingly growing colder. I look for shelter and find none. The area is filled with farms and I am climbing again, the interminable rollers being the one constant. I start shivering seriously a few miles later and the bouts hit me when I least expect it. I have made the mistake of craving comfort, a hot shower, hot food and a warm bed. It is very hard - mentally - to let go of that which you were looking forward to for the better part of the day. I know I won't get what I crave and that tells me that I am not going to survive this ride. When I come to this realization I am almost relieved; relieved that I won't have to pedal 750 odd kilometers.
I pull over and stop for the first time to check if my pit zips are closed. They are. I remount and my spirit is now crushed. I simply have no desire to go another foot. I stop and hang my head for a few seconds, a tree offering me some respite from the relentless rain. When I contemplate moments like these, I always think that money spent, the training, the travel worries, the disappointment of 2007 would all rise up and snap me into the present, but no, all I can think of is getting some comfort. When the brain fixates on creature comforts, it's curtains.
Before I can put my plan of quitting into action, two motorcycles pull over next to me, and ask me if I am ok. They are part of the official roving motor pool responsible for rule enforcement and rider care. Escorting me to the side of the road, they ask me if I need any help. Their English is pretty rusty and my French is terrible, but my sorry figure probably left them in no doubt that I was in trouble. I tell them about my gîte and about how I could not find it and now I am all wet and shivering. We briefly talk about where my gîte is, and I tell them, incorrectly again, that it is in Oozell. They do not know where that is either. I am pretty sure they thought I was making the name of a town up in my mental state. I struggle to open my Carradice bag looking for the piece of paper documenting the route to the gîte that Rick and Barbara gave me on Saturday.
As I hold my phone and try to look for Uzel on Google Maps, I am hit by another bout of shivering, this one the worst of them all. It goes on long enough for one of the motorcyclists witness; he parks his motorbike and walks over to take my bike away from me. I now know my ride is over. He's seen me shiver and now he's taking my bike away, I think, powerless to fight that move. He hands the phone to the other motorcyclist, and then holds me up. That little piece of paper probably saved my ride. As the other motorcyclist looks at the piece of paper, he sees the name of the town. I swear I remember this like it happened 15 minutes ago, he says "Oh, Oo-Zellllle". It turns out that I was pronouncing the name of the town wrong. They confer amongst themselves and then come back to me, and propose that we head back to Merléac.
Now that I know my ride is over, I am unmindful of the time being wasted, or of riding back along the course. I start pedalling, but the man who took my bike away asks me to hold onto him and starts pulling me ahead, but I am so tired that my front wheel is at risk of hitting his rear wheel sending me crashing down. I try for a few dozen meters but I quickly give up. We head back to Merléac, the steep hill before the town awash with water heading downhill. We arrive back at the tent, and I am escorted to a table and made to sit. Somebody holds my bike while the townsfolk and the motorcyclists confer among themselves. I catch a few winks of sleep, with my head on the table.
I am woken up and escorted to a car. Two men place my bike in the back and drive me back along the course. We are back in Uzel in no time and we are going gîte hopping. I fall asleep in the back of the car and I awake to voices in front of a building. A woman comes out and talks to the drivers and they figure out that we are the wrong gîte. However, the woman is a great help and points out the exact location of the gîte where I need to be. Another person who I shall never meet who saved my ride! In a couple of minutes we are at another building and this time it is the right one. I am greeted outside by Barbara and Jan, and I couldn't be happier that I am finally back on track.
My bike is taken out of the car, but there is one final thing to be done: the motorcyclists ask for and make a note in my brevet card, but hand it back to me. The significance of this would dawn on me later. I however, take this as confirmation that my ride is over. After all, I was given a ride back to the gîte. As I wait I shake hands and thank the drivers and get their addresses. The motorcyclists get ready to leave and I thank them profusely. I am handed off from one set of caretakers to another.
The families of three of SIR riders riding PBP (Mark Roberts, Mark Roehrig, Rick Blacker) had graciously offered to transport our drop bags and help us with things at the gîte, but I forget who came out to greet me in the pouring rain. I am led into the comfort of a room and a towel finds its way to my hands. Somebody parks my bike (probably Andrew), and the process of warming me up begins in earnest. I am still shivering, but thanks to the kindness of these four, I am finally in fit enough shape to eat something and go shower. I still have some time in the bank, but can only sleep for a couple of hours before I have to get back on the road again. I eat, shower and plug in my phone to be charged. I don't remember waiting to fall asleep, but I am gently woken up by Barbara, who tells me it is time to head out. Mark, Joe and Vincent are all in bed, but I brush my teeth and have a hot breakfast and my life is good again. The only thing left to do is to prepare my bag for the next 300+ kilometers.
Every randonneur (or randonneuse) has had a mentor, a guiding influence, and a good recipe for success in randonneuring is to learn from the experienced. The best are those that don't pretend to know all the answers, but rather share what has worked for them. When I was new to randonneuring, Michel Richard and Karen Smith took me under their wing and helped me learn the ropes. Indeed, much like the BC Randonneurs, RUSA is full of these folks and whoever came up with the idea of a Paris - Brest - Paris special edition of American Randonneur ought to be canonized. A few weeks before we left for Paris, I received a special edition of American Randonneur in the mail. It had a lot of very interesting articles but by far the best one was the one by our own Dr. Codfish on drop bags, and the tricks to function with the reduced brainpower during the latter stages of a grand randonee. One of the lessons that I took from the "drop bags" article was to have a one Ziploc bag full of the things required for that day: your brainpower is inversely proportional to the number of kilometers you've ridden your bicycle. Of course, such bags represent your idea of how things will go during the ride rather, but it is a great starting point.
Even though I had decided on and packed combinations of jerseys, shorts, socks and gloves back in Paris and stuffed them in big Ziploc bags , I mull over my choices for a little while. For a brevet of this magnitude, especially away from home, one tends to think and rethink clothing, food, equipment; looking at the mountain of things to choose from, one draws scant comfort from the strength of routine. I decided to switch to my wool jersey, but kept everything else. I switched to a comfortable pair of shorts and a new pair of gloves: well worn and well washed. I picked up a new ziploc bag of Sustained Energy. I had little left of the food I toted from Paris.
I leave my rain gear in the Carradice, but put on my rain jacket. The rain is gentler than yesterday. The road gently tilts upward and I pass farm after farm in the darkness of the night, the only light coming from homes set a bit inside the land. I worry that there wouldn't be any water until Carhaix, but my fears turn out to be unfounded: families have left tables of food and several 2L bottles of water on the side of the road to help us. Vive la France!
The rolling hills eventually end and I remember cycling up a long false-flat in the company of a dozen bobbing taillights a few hundred feet ahead and the whir of tyres on the pavement as riders pass me. Our lights offer the only illumination on a starless night. The red lights atop the giant windmills flash in a steady rhythm. Giant droplets of water smack our helmets as we ride on, each one of us wanting the sun to come up again. We pass through a still-sleeping Corlay (secret controle from a past PBP), and past the sleep stop of St. Nicolas du Pelem. Tons of tents dot the grounds as people rush about. We ride silently past, but the stream of riders thickens as riders rejoin the course after (hopefully) a few hours of sleep. It is still gently raining.
A few miles out of Mael-Carhaix the sky starts to lighten, but it is still dark out. I remember this because this was one of the very few sustained flat stretches after Loudéac. At Mael-Carhaix, the cafés are doing brisk business. Riders are stretched out in every chair and table possible, some resting their heads on the still wet table, some sleeping under store awnings. We are riding among curvy misty hills though the road itself is fairly flat. The road is rough but I guess French chipseal has yet to learn all the dirty tricks from Mason and Thurston county chipseal, and the road is still pleasant to ride.
I arrive at the control a little before 7a.