Saturday, November 3, 2012

PBP Randonneur 2011, Part 4: Carhaix to Brest to Carhaix

August 23, 2011: Carhaix to Brest

Carhaix in the early morning light

The rains have devastated the grounds where the bike parking is, and just like Loudéac yesterday, there isn't a place to park. There is a tent outside the control buildings and riders are busy milling about. I park my bike against the white tent and head in to get my control card signed. The volunteers are efficient as always and with no delay, I am taken care of.

Since I have been riding in the rain, I am craving something hot. The Sustained Energy simply will not do anymore. I follow directions to the cafeteria and enter a big hallway where every table is occupied with riders in every conceivable state. I pick up three rolls of bread and a bowl of hot soup. There is also fresh fruit, pudding, cheese and coffee. There is another vegetarian randonneur there (I swear he was wearing something akin to a skirt), and we both share tips on what to get. It is easy to get vegetarian things. I stand in line and pay but the amount quoted is miniscule compared to what I have on my plate. My disbelief is addressed by a smiling volunteer who tells me that the bread is free. Of course, he says this in French, and it takes me a good 20 seconds to understand what he is saying. He then uses English. This is simply amazing! Free food! I share a table with a few other riders whose nationalities I now forget. The hot soup warms me. I soften the bread by dipping it in the soup. The bread is tasty and the soup is the best I've ever had. I leave the control in about 25 minutes. That's all it has taken.

As I leave the controle, I remember that I haven't stopped at any of the patisseries and decide now is the time to get some baked goodies. I see one that has just opened, lean my bike against the trash can, and enter. Locals are flying in and out, getting their pastries and their coffee. They greet me with a cheery "Bonjour" as I stand in line with them. I order a pain au chocolat (chocolate croissant) and as the woman at the counter is ringing me up, I see a jar of macaroons, and thinking they must be free samples, reach into and grab one. The woman is shocked and then it strikes me that maybe, perhaps, this jar is not filled with samples! I apologize and pay the 1E. The woman smiles and sends me on my way. The croissant is warm and oozing with chocolate. I sit down on the concrete and eat it right outside the store. A delectable waste of time. It is now fully bright out.

The road surface is not smooth here, and I do notice the chipseal. Mark Thomas and Joe Platzner pass me with a cheery "Narayan!" on another one of those rare flat stretches and my spirits lift instantly. It feels great to be even within the same area code as those two. They are riding much faster than I am and lose them after a few hundred yards of conversation.

We climb for what seems like forever up a very gentle incline. Something exciting must be imminent because the crowd thickens and dozens of parked cars lining the roadway. My first thought is that it is yet another secret control, but it turns out to be a major road that gets us over the Roc Trevezel. The crowds are here to cheer every single rider beginning the ascent up the mountain. The climb itself isn't steep and I cannot remember a single stretch where the grade is higher than 6%. The pavement is chipseal and there is a certain reddish hue to the stones. Traffic is heavy, far heavier than the last several hundred kilometers, a thick misty rain dominates proceedings. There isn't a shoulder to speak of and there is a very small gravel patch abutting the road.

I feel reasonable as I start the climb but lack the power to muscle over this hill. I settle into a comfortable rhythm in my lowest gear and riders pass me in droves. Truck traffic is fairly heavy and riders are riding three abreast which doesn't do much to enhance the safety of those who are riding in the opposite direction. This is the one section on PBP that I didn't feel quite safe. Trucks are crossing over to the other side of the roadway while passing riders, and the fog makes it downright dangerous. Riders seem unmindful of the conditions and that comes as a surprise to me. I am still wearing my jacket now and I really want to turn on my taillights, so I stop to take my jacket off. An ornery British "gentleman" on his bike yells at me to get off the road and then continues on up the road, but I resist the temptation to yell something back. The incident does rankle me. I wonder what he would say if there was a truck parked on the side of the road?!! I turn on my taillights and then continue the long slog up the mountain. The crowd thickens near the top and then we are treated to the start of a wonderful descent. I am so focussed on riding that I forget to take a picture of the summit. Not that it would have done much good with all the fog.

The descent is fabulous. A headwind greets us but who cares when you are going downhill ? It is cold however, and I stop and don my jacket again. I look back to see nothing but a fog covered expanse. The red chipseal remains and the fog slowly retreats the further downhill we go. Riders are streaming by in the other direction. On one of the rollers before Sizun, I see a smiling Karen Smith and Michel Richard climbing up. I am rolling down the mountain so I do not stop and chat with them. They took the train to Brest and are riding 200k in three successive days to get back to Paris. Truly civilized! Seeing them energizes me for the drop into Sizun. I see Ray McFall riding by himself and climbing like a feather. He is hours ahead of me! We call out to each other as our momentum takes us both on our separate ways.

Menu at a Sizun bar

Sizun Church, outbound

Sizun - like Loudéac - is a town that I've been eager to visit ever since I saw a photo of Jon Muellner and several of our SIR friends lounging there. There is a wonderful church steeple made of grey stone and the town itself seems to be buzzing with riders. There are several cafés, a market and some bars. I decide to stop here to get another croissant and maybe some water. I find a small bar (which offers a "Menu Randonneur"), eat another pain au chocolat, take some photographs, and just take the time to watch riders go by. I probably spent about a half-hour here. I forget to fill my water bottles, but I've long since gotten over worrying about where I'll get my next refill. The abundance of French citizens offering us goodies has a way of putting that worry out of your head!

A dozen miles out of Sizun I finally run out of water and find a small roadside stand manned by a French family. A woman, her husband, her child and an elderly French gent are handing out juice, cookies, nuts and water to cyclists and though it is on the other side of the road, I cross over and pull out my water bottles. This is one thing I see a lot of and never tire seeing: a wealth of goodies spread out on a table for you to feast on completely free of charge. The woman offers me Orange juice and cookies which I gratefully accept. It surely isn't that far to Brest but I have no idea how far (my computer is fried, remember?). We make small talk about where I am from and how I feel, but my lasting memory of this little interlude happens when I prepare to leave. The older gent of the family offers to take a photograph of me and as he returns my phone the younger woman grips my jersey, looks me in the eye and says something in French, which I fail to to understand. Recognizing this, she says "You will return to Paris, right?", in this voice of total seriousness. I say "Yes" and I realize that there are people along the route who really care that you finish the ride. Either that, or she was trying to tell me I am pointed in the wrong direction. :). Ride to the finish no matter what happens, is my take away.

Ride back to Paris, she says.
We resume climbing again and there seems to be a headwind any direction we turn and finally at the top of yet another rise, I see a freeway running to my right and a beautiful bay with the fabled bridge ahead of me. I stop to take a photograph and am joined by a Brit who remarks that this is the grandest sight in the world. I can only nod in agreement. It may not be to most other people, but to a randonneur this represents one of the most iconic spots in all of the world.

First View of the Plougastel bridge
We aren't quite yet at the bridge though, and as the road plummets, we are placed onto a bridge which parallels the main bridge now used by automobile traffic, leaving the old bridge to pedestrians and bicycles.

My bike on the Plougastel Bridge

Proof of being on Plougastel bridge, courtesy of a Japanese rider

I stop near the near end of the bridge and drink in the view. Yachts bobbing in Brest harbour, walkers ambling along a dirt path directly under our feet, dark clouds dominating the skies, the city of Brest perched on the far side and the new bridge to our right. It is a wonderful sight. A Japanese rider and I trade photographs of each other, cementing already strong Indo-Japanese relations.

Much to my surprise, Mark Thomas catches me on the bridge. He is riding a little ahead of Joe and the others. (This is the one documented instance where Joe Platzner was more than 5 feet away from Mark during the ride). We are all Facebookin'. Mark takes a photo of me. We both agree that being here is the greatest thing ever. Mark says "You're killing it!", it being the ride. Mark has always instilled a certain confidence in me and I think for the first time that maybe I have this thing in the bag. I leave before Mark and begin the ride over the bridge to the far side. I kick myself for not taking a photo of Mark at the bridge. The route puts us in a trafficky part of town and there is one crossing that I navigate with aplomb. Riding along the water, I see parts of the port of Brest and we wind our way around the harbour, and eventually see some of the walls of what looks like a fort.

We climb up to old Brest on a rather busy road, but traffic is very polite. We make a right turn and are faced with the Brest Controle! More than half-way! The time is 13:42.

August 23, 2011: Brest to Carhaix

My first order of business is to get my control card signed, which I do, and then find out that the food and restrooms are in the building across the street. I retrieve my bike and head over to the other side and spot Joe and Mark pulling into the control. They aren't going to eat here and want to head out fast, so I probably won't see them until Carhaix. For some reason I take my time in Brest, looking for water, heading to the restroom and then mixing up food. The cohesion I displayed in the past few controls is nowhere to be found. I leave after a good 25 minutes at the control when I should have left after about 10. Well, I lingered in Brest, at least.

My friend Didier from work tells me that there is a French song that goes "C'est le meilleur moment du voyage, le retour". Roughly translated, it means "It's the best time of the journey, the way back". Apt. We are halfway. Holy Crap!

The colour of the Fleches that we have to chase also changes. Our target is now to spot Orange coloured arrows. Volunteers send us towards "Paris" instead of asking which way we want to go. We are routed on a different route out of town and tackle a staccato sequence of long and somewhat steeper than usual hills. My pace drops precipitously on these hills and as usual a procession of riders passes me while I rarely - if ever - pass anyone. Here is a photo of me just outside of Landerneau: the weather beaten bricks are that of a rail bridge, crossing over the Route de Brest. A rider goes by and compliments me on my mudflap. It's one half of a water bottle. "Classic" he says, and rides on.

Just a little outside of Landerneau
A few miles before Sizun, Duane Wright comes climbing up a hill. Asking him about how he is doing produces a very surprising answer: "Not very well", which is a first coming from Duane. He never gives in to feelings of despair or disappointment on a brevet. He has raced against the clock and won too many times. He must have done the free start I think initially, but I do remember seeing him near the start and so I reckon he left with us. Things will look up: Duane is never to be counted out. He must have been sidelined with a mechanical, I think, and plod on. 

I arrive in lovely Sizun around 4 pm or so, having decided before I started the ride that it would be one of the few towns where I would linger. I am craving real food at this point and I see a sign for the patisserie off the side of the road. I walk in and find two young ladies who welcome me pleasantly. They've run out of Pain au Chocolat and all everything they have looks foreign to me. I ask for a recommendation and it is clear that my French is now dead and their English is non-existent. They enlist the help of another woman from the Kitchen but she doesn't know what to give me either. Every time I have needed help on this ride, I've received it, and this time is no exception. An older gentleman who speaks decent English arrives and helps me out of my predicament. He describes my choices and I settle on a puffy looking Pastry which he assures me is good and tasty and is a Bretagne specialty: it is a Kuign Amann. I thank them all profusely for their help and chat about the ride and where I am from for a few minutes.

A Bretagne Specialty: Kuign Amann
I pay for the pastry and am heading back to my bike when I spot Jeff Tilden parking his bike. It is great to meet Jeff. I have yet to find Jeff in a bad mood. He is in great spirits and we share our stories of the road so far. Jeff invites me to eat with him and though I cannot spare that much time, I walk in with him and order a Pain au Chocolat, which Jeff insists on paying for. We sit down and chat about the ride so far while Jeff sips his coffee. I finish my pastries and leave figuring I couldn't hang with Jeff on the bike if I tried anyway.

A few miles out of Sizun, I see Divya coming up another hill and yell out some encouragement. She has a look of steel in her eyes as she crests a small rise. I try to make a quick calculation of how much time she has to get to Brest but my brain refuses to cooperate. After Sizun the Roc'h Trevezel looms again but this time Mother Nature is atoning for her earlier tantrums. We now have a  spirited tailwind back up to the top of the Roc'h and the misty rain that plagued us earlier this morning has burned off leaving us to finally see what had been hidden a few hours earlier. One has a beautiful view for miles on end on both sides as we climb up to the radio towers which serve as the high point and pedalling to the top is effortless. There is a healthy crowd of spectators near the top and I begin the descent down the other side.

I am whipping my neck this way and that trying to see as much of this area as I can when I spot Vikram on the other side of the road. He is clearly in distress and the look of pain on his face tells me the news can't be good. I pull over to his side and find out that his knee is killing him. I try and talk to him about stretching his IT Band, but he has tried mostly everything already. He has decided to abandon and is trying to find the best way to get back to Paris. Vikram is quite calm; he is sure that his ride is over but also wants to come back and do this again. I promise to find somebody to help him and after about 10 minutes continue down the mountain. Hardly half a kilometer later I spot somebody cheering us and pull over and explain Vikram's plight. I do not know the French word for knee but I point to mine and mention that there is a someone up the road who needs a ride back to Loudéac. They promise to help as Carhaix isn't that far away from here.

Near the base of the descent from the Roc'h I spot another Indian rider walking his bike on my side of the road. I pull over and find out that his rear derailleur is dead and he cannot shift to the lower gears. (I forgot his name :( ). I tell him that he could go back to Carhaix and have his bike fixed and continue but our rider looks like he has made up his mind to abandon and nothing will make him change his mind. I chat with him for a few minutes and then leave. Having your bike have ride-ending problems is terrible, but it could happen to anyone at any moment. I find a couple sitting in a car and I try to tell them that there is a rider up the road walking his bike who needs help. They drive off immediately and I am hopeful that the rider will get the help he needs.

The descent  from the Roc'h is now over and we head to Carhaix on a different route than the one that took us to Brest. I am a little disappointed as I pass by the turn to Huelgoat. We stay on the main highway and instead of some long, mostly flat stretches, we get a few kilometer-long rollers and the road takes on a very busy-highway character. But, it does make the distance to Carhaix a few kilometers shorter, I guess. Eventually I spy Carhaix in the distance, unmistakable in its hilltop perch. When I headed out of Carhaix on Tuesday morning, I remember the long downhill stretch out of the control and thinking this wasn't going to be fun climbing back on the return, but in reality it isn't that bad. It is now nearing dusk and I am gently climbing up a hill that isn't too steep. There is a valley to my left as the road curves left and then right as we approach the control. I arrive at Carhaix a touch after 8p.

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