Saturday, November 3, 2012

PBP Randonneur 2011, Part 6: Tinténiac to Villaines-la-Juhel

August 24, 2011: Tinténiac to Fougères

I feel oddly happy though I still can't afford to sleep. But I can get help for my bike! I am trying to find a spot for my bike when out walks Joe Platzner on his way out of the controle. Mark joins him shortly after. I am happy to see them because it means that I am making good time. Ok, decent time. I tell Joe about what's I think is going on and Joe immediately produces a spare cable but they are pressed for time too and they have to move on. It is the last I see of Mark and Joe on the ride.

Tinténiac is simply too big to not have a mechanic. I get my control card signed and one of the volunteers sends me to the mechanic's. I am seen immediately even though there are a bevy of riders there with all kinds of bike problems. The mechanic speaks decent English and I am told to come back in 15 minutes. I head over to the café, get 3 or 4 pieces of bread (all gratuit), hot soup, coffee, and a banana and share a table with Mike Norman. My fingers are dirty from fiddling with the bike, but I eat anyway. The bread is fresh but a bit hard but a dip into the soup softens it. Ah, so refreshing, this normal-people-food. We chat about the ride and compare notes. We have had similar rides, but Mike has had more sleep. I head back to my bike and am met by a very friendly woman who politely tells me that my cable wasn't broken but they have fixed the problem, and no, payment wasn't necessary! Amazing, these people! Overall, I stay about a half-hour here.

I briefly think about a nap but decide not to and leave Tinténiac happy that I can now make semi-decent progress. But, while the shifter works, my drivetrain is now making a mad racket and I can see that everybody around me accelerates when they come near me. A guy from the UK pulls up and slows down, fully intending to ride with me. But my unruly drivetrain interferes: he apologizes before he accelerates, unable to stand the din. The road out of Tinténiac is curvy and hilly, nothing much changes there. After a few miles of this the road appears flat for what seems to be miles. We are riding through verdant farms, and picturesque French villages adorned with bicycles and flowers, each village eager to win the approbation of passersby. I am looking for things to pick me up and deflect me from the mental low point I am now riding towards and these roadside decorations and flowers help me refocus on something else for a little while. About 10 kilometers outside of Tinténiac I get a mental boost.

We ride through the town of Dingé and John Ende comes to mind. PBP 2007 has yielded some spectacular stories and John's is one that I remember well. "I am strong, I can do it": these are words from John's report and they ring in my head for a while. I am just riding on sleep deficit but John had to pass a kidney stone! My plight seems minuscule compared to his. Then there's my friend Allison Bailey. You will never see a ride report from Allison about PBP 2007 but she rode a thousand kilometers with a bad stomach while barely able to keep anything down. She was way out of time limits and nobody would have blamed her if she decided to take a train back but she still rode her bike back to Paris. Jon Muellner had similar stomach problems after 900k and rode his bike to the finish. But the words I hold on to from his report are "Suck it up Mate. Ride it in!". Dingé reminds me to do just that. I stop by a roadside stand and eat two of the most delicious slices of Lemon Cake I've ever had and this lifts my spirits considerably. They have a small jar for donations and their eyes widen when I drop a 5E bill in it. It is truly delicious Lemon cake.

The day brightens and warms up and I can no longer bear wearing the leg warmers and reflective vest. My wool jersey is plenty for my upper body and the wool socks keep my toes warm. I pull over well away from the road on to a farm access road and sit down to strip some of my clothing off. Sitting down is painful. Noel Howes (or is it Joe Llona?) rides by and hollers out a hello. I take my time and then take a small nap on the side of the road. I need some thing to hold on to and this 10 minute nap is just that. I pull myself up most reluctantly and ride on thinking that with Fougères not that far away and the terrain being a whole lot forgiving I might make good time after all.

In PBP special moments lurk around every corner and here is one that is seared in my memory. I come around a corner and the road - after what seems like miles of false flat - finally begins to climb. Stone houses sit under a brilliant blue sky dotted by white puffy clouds. There is some cheering coming from up ahead from I know not where. As I ride up to a clump of houses I am at the bottom of this hill and the chanting seems to be coming about halfway up. I am near the last 100 yards from the top and I finally spot them to my left. It's a group of 3 girls with their elbows on a window ledge. They couldn't be anymore than 7 or 8 years old. I am finally near enough to understand what they are saying: "Allez les Bleus" they repeat over and over again in a chorus of perfect rhythm. My jersey is of course Blue and I am almost moved to tears by this custom greeting. They could have been cheering for the French football team, but I highly doubt it. Merci, I call out and they add rhythmic applause to their chanting. I am in my granny and climbing slowly up, so this lasts for a while. I feel like I am on top of the world.

I stop again a little while later for another mini nap as riders stream by. This stretch is one of the easier ones that have been thrown our way but I have no idea how far it is to Fougères. That darned computer! It is midday now and I am overcome by an intense desire to sleep. I spy a roadside car and ask them if there is someplace to sleep. The two youngsters inside are unable to help and I continue on. Some sense gets into me a few kilometers down the road and I kick myself for losing it completely. How could they have possibly helped?! A few kilometers out of Fougères, I am struck by an intense sense of deja vu, except I've never ridden to Fougères in this direction before. It feels really weird until we ride by the castle that dominates Fougères. I gawk again, but there isn't any time for pictures. I finally arrive at Fougères around 1:30p. Welcome sight indeed!

August 24, 2011: Fougères to Villaines-la-Juhel


This is where you go get your card signed

I am shocked to find that I only have about an hour and 40 minutes at my disposal, but I absolutely must sleep. Despite the flat sections of the last few miles and the lower required average speed, I haven't gained much time. I make a mental note of this as I make the long walk up to the control officials to get my card signed. The dortoir is but a short 50 yard ride away, and 3 Euros poorer I ask to be woken up in an hour. The gymnasium I am led to is completely empty except for mattresses with wool blankets on top. I lie down and let sleep take me. In milliseconds I am woken up by the control volunteer. "Monsieur", he says and softly touches my shoulder. I look up to a smiling face and sit up. Convinced that I have woken up, he leaves. He doesn't know me well, does he?

All through my life I have suffered from the "Oh please, 5 minutes more" problem when woken up from slumber. My mother and my wife will both attest to this: my "5 minutes" plea would leave my lips even before I've had a chance to open my eyes. I look at the clock and find I have 40 more minutes in the bank and so "decide" to sleep for just a few minutes more. I lie down and fall back to sleep. I wake up again to a hand on my shoulder and the same soft voice saying "Monsieur", but this time I detect just a trace of urgency and sit up upright. I have slept for another hour more! It is completely by chance that the volunteer came looking for me again.

Fougères Sleep Control volunteers who thoughtfully checked
back on me after my sleep break

It is almost 4.30 pm. I feel rested but despite being in the red as far as the clock is concerned, I am unworried. The official photographer comes over but waits for me to finish lubing myself up. The medical support person and the dortoir volunteers send me on my way with a "Bon Courage et Bonne Route".

Fougères: Official Photograph.
All lubed up and ready to go
The control is deserted, my bike being one of the few still around. I am just a touch desperate now, but one needn't panic, not with this many kilometers to go. There is plenty of distance between here and Villaines-la-Juhel to get back in the black. I haven't brushed my teeth in about 450 kilometers and I now have the beginnings of a sore developing along the tip of my tongue. Too much information? The road is mostly empty now as most riders are ahead of me but there are some people on the road. We head out on the road to Gorron.

The day is warm and the skies are clear. I arrive at La Tanniere at the home of Paul Rogue. There is a healthy crowd of locals outside and a few riders in front of what looks like a garage but it actually leads into a small yard. Who is Paul Rogue you may ask and how do I know him? Paul Rogue is famous for having a crepe and coffee stop along the PBP course and only accepting payment in the form of a postcard from your home town. In my obsessive reading of PBP ride reports his is another name that comes up in reverential tones. Not stopping here was not an option.

The cheering crew at La Tanniere
I ask for two crepes and a cup of coffee and a neighbour of Paul's from England hands it to me along with the coffee. "Paul is having a nap" she says in a crisp English accent. The Nutella crepes are delicious and I make small conversation in my paltry French as I eat and take sips of the very strong coffee. The crowd is small but well-dressed except for one man dressed in mechanic's overalls who is very interested in where I am from. There are two display boards featuring cards from riders past with a healthy representation from Seattle and Oregon. This stop is pretty close to Fougères so I have to leave fairly quickly, but I can now say that I have sampled Paul's hospitality firsthand. I check Facebook for just a minute and see an exhortation from my friend Amy Harman which politely tells me to quit taking photos and concentrate on the ride. I decide to stop taking photos unless I have time in the bank.

It is also near La Tanniere that my butt started complaining that it is unhappy with the general state of things. I have two sore spots on either cheek and I struggle to find a comfortable position on the bike that doesn't completely mess up my riding posture. I worry about my neck, my butt, and my hands. The former is still secure, but the latter two are getting insistent by the hour. I move my butt this way and that and finally find a position that I think works. I do not move my butt or stop for fear of losing this one comfortable position that I have somehow managed to find. In the interest of not grossing out the one reader who has read all the way to this point, I am going to refrain from mentioning this sore fact for the rest of the report.

There is a small climb outside of the town and as I am making my way up when the mechanic that I just met passes me in a old blue car, rolls down his window and yells "Bon Courage" before making a left turn off the main road. The Mayenne area we are riding through is chock full of farms and right out of La Tanniere we start climbing towards Saint-Berthevin-la-Tanniere. This area is vivid in my memory. We are afforded a 360 degree view: the surrounding landscape is a sequence of large mounds of earth all folding into each other. Farms pockmarked with trees fill the countryside. There isn't anything flat here. My butt doesn't want to help me sit on my saddle anymore: though slathered in unctuous goodness, it is complaining loudly. I am finding it difficult to sit comfortably and find myself climbing out of the saddle a lot for the next few kilometers. There is also a lot of bike related art including a tractor made out of bales of hay. I remember seeing something like that in the Tour de France! The pavement is littered with exhortations for the professionals with the Coup de Grace being "Good on ya, Cadel!". It is not as though they are partial to the professionals. Almost each town we pass through seems to contain some form of acknowledgement for the riders from the town who are doing PBP and for all cyclists in general.

We weave through Gorron the sight of my low moment a few days ago. I am reminded of Ken Krichman, having had to abandon due to a mechanical (post-ride note: he didn't abandon), a stark reminder that your ride could get messy any minute. There are a lot of riders from this town on PBP and proportionately, tons of people in support. All along the route I have seen people of different ages stand and cheer for us and it seems like this area has whole families at it. I see one family after the other at random points along the road with the now familiar "Bon Courage" and "Bonne Route" on their lips. There are two little girls sitting on a bench patiently observing the action wishing us "Bon Courage". I say "Merci Madame" and they start giggling. "Madame!?" they repeat in an amused voice and giggle again. Oh dear, not again. I yell out a "Merci Mademoiselles" as I ride by, their giggles receding into the distance.

I should have stopped and given those kids something I think just as I plunge down a small hill. I still have the second installment of those pins that I bought, the four or five left clanking around in my jersey pocket. I have forgotten about these and figure that I'd give them away to the next children I see. Of course, I have passed countless children before this revelation and the thought makes me sad. I start looking for children to give out these pins to.

I see them, two girls standing a little away from the sidewalk. The older sister is about 8 and the younger sister about 5, without any adult supervision, applauding cyclists as they ride by. They are quite surprised when I stop a few feet away from them on the road and motion for them to come over. They are a bit hesitant but something moves them toward me. I reach into my jersey pocket and in my kindest voice say "Un petit cadeau pour moi" ("a small gift for me"). They look confused. I'm stupid. Okay, let's try that again. "Un petit cadeau pour vous. Pour vous" ("a small gift for you") I say, and hold out the pins. Their eyes light up and they take the offering and look at them eagerly. I am about to mount my bike and ride off when the older girl - with a smile that could warm a Minnesota winter - says, "Vous êtes très gentil". Her voice is so soft that I might have missed hearing it had I not been two feet from her. Moved, "De Rien" I say and ride on.

One pretty town follows another. We've ridden through a lot of beautiful towns in the dark but I am happy to say that I rode through Ambrieres-les-vallés in the daylight in both directions: Beautiful town with a somewhat dilapidated chateau, brown stone houses and lots of flowers. A killer descent leads me to the only bridge in town over the river Varenne, but I ride on, not wanting to waste time. I'd regret this later. We climb out of Ambrieres-les-vallés past a beautiful little church. I need to use the bathroom and just before leaving town I spot a small park with bathrooms. The Men's bathroom is a giant mess and has run out of toilet paper but the Women's is as clean as can be expected after 500 men have used it. I become #501. I briefly consider stopping for pizza but thanks to the coffee at La Tanniere my brain is still in working order. I can't spare the time. In Lassay-les-Chateaux I ride by with little regret but after seeing Versailles my feeling is that a Chateau is best admired from the outside. Sorry, Chateauxophiles!

I don't know why but my most vivid recollections from this PBP are on the Fougères to Villaines-la-Juhel stretch, probably as a result of the coffee I had in La Tanniere. The light is softening now on an inexorable march towards dusk. Assorted groups of people are standing by the side of the road as we enter the town of Charchingné, politely applauding. A very small town with church, school and library, the centerpieces of any community. Before the last of the houses on the right on the very edge of town, two little boys unforgettably demonstrate why PBP is as sweet as it is. They come out sprinting from one of the houses on the right and hold out a small notebook each. They want our autographs! They want our autographs?!?. I am prone to the occasional emotional lachrymatory attack and I am completely floored by their request. I don't remember what I wrote now, but I sign my name and city. I ride like I have wings for the next few miles.

What is a good way to describe how we are being treated ? It is hard to express what the people along the route mean to me and my ride, the part that they played and the reaction they caused, and this is the best I can come up with: each spectator is like a blacksmith. Each cry of Bon courage and Bonne route, each bottle of water and admiring grin, each slice of lemon pound cake, each cookie, each offer of coffee, food or a bed, each request for an autograph, each clap, each handshake, hammers into place the steel of your resolve, makes you determined not to quit. To give it your best shot. To put short term pain aside and focus on getting to the finish. And I think it is this that will make me go back to Paris to do this ride in four years. Not the scenery, not to brag, not the medal. My resolve to finish hardens and I ride with just a little more pep for the next few miles. The people of the Mayenne seem to realize that this is our last night on the road, that we need the encouragement, the slow ones more than most. At least, that's my best guess.

Right as we leave Charchingné the road curves to the right and we are treated to a nice long downhill, the black top of the road splitting two fields of green on either side. I am caught by a French rider on a recumbent. We talk and find  the first three things we have in common: we are bonking, have run out of water and have no food left. We carry on knowing that one town or the other will come up soon. We start riding through what looks like forested land but there are houses every so often. To the left we see a small sign that identifies this land as owned by the French Military and has the only "No trespassing" signs on the entire route. My friend comments that we better be on our best behaviour. We ride together in silence.

We round a small corner and there in front of us is a small village: Le Ribay. It's location is easy to remember: the town just before the big N-12 highway crossing. To our left, a small group of people are gathered around a small table set against the wall of an old stone building. A few children on mountain bikes are stopped near them, chatting informally. As they catch sight of us the whole group explodes with cheers and gets even more buoyed when they find out we are about to stop and partake of their hospitality. A genial Frenchman comes over and fills my water bottle after patiently waiting for me to put some powder into it. The bent rider - whose name I never did catch - is getting some water and reaching for chips.

There's lots of stuff to eat. Pretzels, cookies, cakes, chips, watermelon slices, and I eat some of everything. I tell them that I find Brittany and Normandy very pretty. They are clearly proud of where they live and one man tells me about the parks, the open spaces and the farms. Of course, I have no chance in heck of really understanding what he is saying but I understand that the main points were about the beauty of the aforementioned places. As David Bartlett writes in "Paris: with pen and pencil", "The language was unintelligible for I found that to read French in America, is not to talk French in France". Point taken, Mr. Bartlett. I find my lack of French very badly exposed, found wanting in conversation and comprehension and I regret not working my French.

Maybe I am flattering myself, but I get the feeling that your average denizen of Le Ribay doesn't see people of Indian origin often: they crowd around me leaving the poor French bent rider to fend for himself. They also curiously seem to think that I speak French. I soon find myself the recipient of one question after another, the most complicated of which is translated by the bent rider. "Do your parents live in France?". I reply in the negative and the crowd seems to enter a new phase of uncertainty. "If his parents don't live in France what is he doing riding Paris - Brest?" they probably wonder. I can handle most of their questions, but what they do not know is I am just Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice: I have anticipated some of the questions that might be thrown my way and practiced answers for them. I have rehearsed compliments too!

I tell them my parents live in India, that I was born there, all in French. I meet the first guy on the ride who hasn't heard of Seattle. That is a surprise. Somehow the conversation turns to family and I volunteer this little tidbit "Mon mari est a Londres" I say. They seem surprised; I wonder why and have no clue, but I go back to eating. "Votre Mari?" they ask, and "Oui" I say taking care to say it the right way and not the Parisian way which makes the Oui sound like "way". I look around town and continue eating and then it hits me: I've just told them that my husband is in England!. "Mon femme! Mon femme! pas mon mari" I say and smack my forehead. They all laugh hard and one man puts his hand on my shoulder and laughs his guts out. It seems like the French portion of my brain is slowly shutting down, but I am happy to cause some mirth.

A local offers some Camembert cheese and I politely decline. He looks offended. Not wanting to make him unhappy, I explain in English to the bent rider that soft cheese upsets my stomach and so I am going to stay off. He completes the triangle in the conversation but recommends the Camembert himself. "You must have some Camembert, monsieur" he says and takes a bite while I smile and parry his recommendation. I put on my vest and offer a Merci Beaucoup. The locals sees us off with cries of Bon Courage and Bonne Route. The bent rider outpaces me a little and is still thinking about the cheese: "It was very good, Monsieur. You must have some Camembert", he says and I tell him it is the first thing I will eat when I get to Paris. We have a good laugh.

A few hundred yards past Le Ribay is a crossing of the N-12 highway and the bent rider offers a warning. But, as we approach the stop sign there is a local there watching for riders and traffic and standing in the middle of the road. Allez, Allez he says and waves us on. I've had a nice little break and we begin climbing again to what looks like a ridge with views extending far and wide on both sides of the road. I try to read the weather up ahead: some patches of gray and blue with what is unmistakably rain. A few drops fall on us out of Le Ribay and I wonder if we are up for a stormy night. But it doesn't last very long. Le Ribay is less than 20 kilometers away from Villaines-la-Juhel and I ride with no sense of urgency. I have completely forgotten that I need to make up more time if I plan to sleep at Mortagne-au-Perche. I've just killed 20 minutes at Le Ribay, but it's a cherished memory of mine from PBP.

A few miles later I round a corner while climbing a small hill and see what to me is one of the weirdest memories of all of PBP 2011: A rider smoking a cigarette while stopped on the opposite side of the road. After lots of bike art, including a 6-person bike in Loupfougères, I find myself riding down a well-lit street with hordes and hordes of spectators cheering at the top of their voices. It is an awesome reception: I am in Villaines-la-Juhel. Two more controls to go.

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