August 23, 2011: Carhaix to Loudéac
There are fewer than 30 bikes at the control as most of the horde have left towards Loudéac. I am in an undesirable position: behind the bulk of the riders. It does leave a lot of space to park one's bike, however: I lean mine against the white tent. The ground is still soggy and I make my way to the control to get my card signed. I leave Carhaix fairly quickly, fully aware that any time wasted here would cut into sleep and the terrain between Loudéac and Brest isn't exactly the "bank more time" kind. Oh, I do remember some of those hills. The terrain returns to rolling just as we leave the control but turns to mostly flat as we near Maël-Carhaix.
Dusk falls around us and I am within sight of several riders as we make our way through the first of the hills that guard Carhaix from the east. The road is pitch black and heavily chipsealed here and there. My palm starts to get quite tender in places but nothing to get alarmed about. Riders are everywhere as the sound of rolling tyres and chirping insects are the only sounds that disturb the still-warm night air. We climb one roller after the other as the string of lights rises and falls giving those behind a fair idea of what lays ahead. We ride past a sleepy Saint-Nicolas-du-Pelem again with the control abuzz with activity. And just like this morning, the number of riders on the road picks up.
A few miles before Corlay, I meet an old friend again. Mike Huber who started a good 9 hours after me has finally caught up and though he is far better rider than I am decides to hang with me for the next few dozen kilometers. Very very kind of him. I ask him to go on as I usually do and he replies in the way he usually does: "We'll see how it goes, Narayan". We chat about the ride and our experiences so far. I expect a secret control at Corlay but none materializes and the only person to cheer for us is a teenager who is sitting on his balcony of his house. The terrain switches character again after Corlay, the hills starting to hit with a vengeance. The pavement also is one of the roughest of the entire route. I am making slow and unspectacular progress but the thought of this interfering with my sleep never hits me. The required speed has dropped and I must be accumulating hours by the bushel, right? Delusion is a wonderful thing indeed.
A little past Corlay Mike bids goodbye. As we hit another one of those short steep pitches he launches out of the saddle and dances away from me. We have to climb a few steep ones before we get to Merléac and my speed hits rock bottom. At last, Merléac with its narrow streets and dominating church steeple arrives. The massive food tent in front of the patisserie is still there and is still staffed with people, although not the ones who saved my ride two days ago. There are a few riders sleeping inside the food tent and some are eating, looking ahead into emptiness with that trademark stare so easily discernible in randonneurs the world over. If Merléac is here then Uzel is not that far away. This thought helps me refocus. I arrive at the now familiar turn on the road to head uphill to the Uzel.
The course of course turns off to the right, but I keep straight on, figuring that I will find the little light display that indicates the pathway to the Gite. The one I couldn't find yesterday. Riders behind me yell adroit! letting me know that I missed a turn but I wave them off. A few hundred yards down the road I start looking for the lights that Rick told me would be hanging from the trees but I cannot find anything. I get to the top of the climb and am now in Uzel, but I have no clue how to get to the Gite. Not freaking again! Figuring it is downhill from here, I take the first left and then another left again, and am near a closed off gate with no Gite in sight. I need help and I need it now. I text Barbara to ask her if she can come and pick me up. I ride down a couple of alley ways and they all lead to dead ends. This is frustrating!
It is now past 11p and I don't think I can find this by myself. Lights flicker near one of the houses and I knock on the door. I am desperate. A young couple answer the door but have no idea where Rue de Dolo is. I try using my cellphone's map to show them where it is, but they have no clue. As I stupidly ride by a couple of times, I see them cover up the window and draw the blinds to prevent even more crazy people from disturbing their TV watching. I walk up a little more and find another house with what looks like a party in full progress. A half-a-dozen young people are enjoying themselves with Pizza and booze. I tell them my predicament and one guy immediately whips out his iPhone and starts looking. He spots the street and says he knows where it is. Meanwhile, Barbara sends me directions to the Gite. The guy with the iPhone and his lady friend walk with me up the hill and then point me downhill towards what looks like an inky foggy abyss. I thank them for their help and plunge down the narrow foggy road, all the while thinking this better be to the freaking Gite. I arrive at the now familiar Gite, thank goodness.
I've wasted at least an hour looking for the Gite. It is not as much as I wasted last time around but at this stage in the game it is a serious waste of time. Too bad French Gites don't come with neon signage! Barbara, Nancy and Jan quickly swing into action. The Gite is completely quiet as Vincent, Mark and Joe are now napping peacefully, having reached the Gite a few hours before I did. I ask about our riders and hear the depressing news that Jan Acuff has abandoned. I am all business, and head upstairs to take a shower after retrieving my drop bag. I have some Sustained Energy left and switch to a new pair of shorts and carry another spare in my bag to change in Mortagne-au-Perche tomorrow. I shower, trying to make as little noise as possible. I change into my bike clothes and come down to tell Barbara to wake me up in 20 minutes. It's all the time I can afford. Oddly, I have trouble falling asleep, something completely new. I am nervous and my heart rate will not go down, but after a few minutes I fall asleep. Barbara gently wakes me up a moment later.
As I pack up my drop bag, I have a decision to make: I gamble and leave all my rain gear behind. I am going to try and save as much weight as I can. I have plenty of Nuun (unused since Brest) and Sustained Energy. A switch to well-worn gloves and socks makes me feel vastly better. Jan makes me a fantastic Omelette with onions, mushrooms, and green peppers. Nancy makes me coffee and I drink two cups of it, with a pain au chocolat as accompaniment. These are the first cups of caffeinated coffee in over a year. I kicked coffee for this day! I attempt to make up for a lack of talent and training with reading and effort and this is a little tip that I picked up reading somebody's ride report. Mark, Joe, Vinnie, Hugh Kimball and Vickie Tyer are all up and getting ready to leave. Vickie and Hugh leave before me.
I leave the gite around 2.20a (and have forgotten to charge my phone and brush my teeth!). Andrew walks me down the forest-like path and gingerly past the ditch on a small bridge and onto the road. I now see the lights that they have dangled on branches to help us identify the forest path. I have no freaking idea how I missed these in the dark. I must have been on the wrong darned road entirely! I ask Andrew to wait a few minutes (in case I don't get back on course), and head downhill. A half-a-mile later I see the familiar intersection and see riders en route to Loudéac. Relieved, I join them and am immediately struck by how benign the terrain looks and how slow I am still. It is neither cold nor warm and most importantly not raining. I am wearing most of my clothing and my half-fingered gloves work fine. I am with a small group of riders and at one point we get really worried because we haven't seen a marker in a while. We stop and chat about it and elect to press on until we finally hit a T-junction and find a course-marker. I reach down to take a swig of water and I come up empty. Dang it! I had left my souvenir PBP bottle back at the Gite! There was no time to go back though, and one can be certain that they'll sell water bottles at Loudéac.
The coffee is clearly doing its magic. I feel awake and well. My name rings out in the night air and it is Mark and Joe. I briefly harbour fantasies of hanging with them (when will I learn?) but the increasing gap between our wheels quickly puts paid to such silly fantasies. As you may recall, we climbed and descended quiet a few large ridges out of Loudéac and my worry is that I will be slow up these ridges and hence struggle to make the Loudéac control. In a spectacular stroke of good luck there is somehow more down than up, but when there is up it is steep. The pavement goes for a toss shortly before Loudéac and I remember one particularly evil descent where finding a nice pothole free line became a challenge with all the riders around me. I get to Loudéac around 3.30a. The control close is at 3.56a.
August 23, 2011: Loudéac to Tinténiac
Mentally, I am rather smashed. I am in a stupor, doing things very slowly and acting like I've just woke up. There is no place to park my bike; a lot of riders sleep at Loudéac and every single spot is taken. I eventually lean it against a rather large open trash can and am taking off my gloves when I spot Joe Platzner. Joe and Mark are on their way out having just enjoyed a nice breakfast. Who needs warm food when you have chemical cocktails!? The fools! Joe has picked me up with his wit and energy on more than one brevet and I always look forward to interacting with him on brevets when I get the chance of it, but I never expected what came next.
Joe is all energy even at this early hour. He comes up to me and says "Narayan! What are you doing right now?". I am now paying attention. "I don't know Joe, I just got here", I say in a weak voice. Joe looks concerned. "You should either be eating, sleeping, or riding. What are you doing right now?" he asks, and I am suddenly aware that I am lethargic. "It's business time!", he declares finally. It's my first ever pep talk on a brevet! I am awake now and I am desperate to follow the course of action set out by Joe. I quickly head to the controle and get my card signed. I mix up more food and in a matter of mere minutes I am out of Loudéac: thanks, Joe. I didn't have much chance of sleep or real food, but as I am riding out of Loudéac I yearn for some hot food. I will have something warm at Tinténiac if I have some time on the clock.
Arguably, the three biggest factors affecting ones chances of finishing PBP are mind, body, and bike. In my estimation, the mind is one of the most probable things to go, whether it is a lack of sleep, lack of clear thinking, or lack of desire to finish. The mind plays wicked games on a long ride because it knows that respite requires inaction, not action: all you have to do is stop pedalling. And that is so easy: take a longer nap, linger a little longer at a controle, etc etc. The body is the next most probable thing to fail, as subjecting it to heretofore not experienced stresses might cause it to just break: Shermer's neck, saddle sores or a bum knee being prime examples. The least probable of all is a mechanical failure. The bike is the only factor that you can make close to bulletproof as possible. And try, I did.
In the weeks before the ride, I started working on the bike with Andy Speier. A new rear derailleur, new crank, new tyres, new chain rings, new bottom bracket, new shifters and new cables all went on, the first massive operation on my bike in almost 3 years. A new front rim was built and installed, thanks to the immeasurable kindness of Joe Platzner, who nonchalantly built my wheel in his living room while chatting about PBP. I did one 200k with this new setup: the hilly Woodinville - Granite Falls, and everything worked out perfectly. I pronounced the bike bulletproof for Paris - Brest. Delusion is an amazing thing.
A dozen or so miles outside of Loudéac my front shifter starts behaving oddly. I have to really struggle to get it into the big ring. It makes a big racket in the big ring, and I have to ride in the middle of my rear gears to have it stop whining. Switching to the small ring isn't an issue, thank goodness. A half-dozen or so miles later the front shifter completely breaks after a hill, the lever freely moving through its full range of motion with no response from the derailleur whatsoever. I am not that mechanically inclined and though I stop to examine what could be wrong, I am in no mental state to figure it out. The cable is not broken but the front derailleur is misbehaving. I curse myself for being so stupid: I should have learnt to change cables and carried some spares.
This isn't quite the disaster I tell myself, trying to stay positive. I can still motor along on the granny and maintain more than 15 kph! I wouldn't bank any time, but we have the secret control at Quedillac coming up, and there will probably be some mechanical help there. I am forced to stay in the small ring and I can't generate enough momentum on the downhills to allow me to climb rollers effectively. I am not sleepy yet and whenever I start thinking about sleep I try and dismiss that desire very quickly. We ride through field after field of corn and I can already spy dawn to my right. I have this image stuck in my head of red lights dancing through a narrow strip of blacktop flanked on either side by corn fields. It was pretty dark when I got to Loudéac but it is nearing daylight now, our last full day on the road.
I am desperate to stay awake now: I start singing songs and do not stop even when riders go by. I am beyond all shame and figure I'd give any passing riders a nice sample of my singing abilities albeit in a language that nobody can comprehend. Dawn breaks, lifts my mood, and, in what is immeasurable relief to my fellow riders, I stop singing. We go through the beautiful town of Saint-Meen-sur-le-Grand and once again I don't stop to take a photo. I don't smell the Lavender this time. The church is lit up beautifully as we sail through the center of town. No sign of wind or foul weather. I arrive at Quedillac and make sure this isn't a control in this direction: it isn't. The next thing I do is ask for a mechanic. A secret control on the way out, it has been reduced to just a revittallaiment control and does not have a mechanic. I have trouble with the French word but a very helpful volunteer repeats the word a couple of times to help me say it right. (RAH vitta lai mon). Far from being mad at me for butchering his language this man wants to help me learn it. Incredible. My mind shifts to learning and my brain temporarily forgets to obsess over the worries of the moment.
The volunteer further expresses his regrets and says "Tinténiac?". I thank him, refill my water bottles and leave. Gary Baker and another Canadian Randonneur (whose name completely escapes me now) are just setting out after a nap. Gary looks fresh. I am a little disappointed at not being able to fix my problem, but meeting Gary is welcome respite from living in my own head. He takes a photo of me as we make our way up a small incline. I manage a very weak smile which belies my mental state. Gary and his friend soon vanish. I will have to make Tinténiac at whatever pace I can muster. My computer is dead and I have no way of knowing if my pace is acceptable.
We ride through one picturesque town after another, Bécherel being one of the more memorable ones. It lies atop a climb - surprise! - and delivers a beautiful view as one enters town on a very narrow street. Traffic is picking up now but courteous as our small group of riders make its way through the sleepy town. Bécherel is also famous for having 15 book stores for a town of about 750 residents and is home to several festivals that celebrate the written word. I think of my wife - who is in England - as I ride through fantasizing about the two of us spending a day filled with coffee, pastries and casual browsing of all the bookstores in town. There are a small group of townsfolk waiting around the town square as we sweep left and carry on towards Tinténiac. There is a long curvy climb and a nasty set of rollers in the final few kilometers before the controle and traffic is now on the heavy side as we are on a main thoroughfare to Tinténiac.
I get to Tinténiac with about an hour and 40 minutes in the bank.