Saturday, November 3, 2012

PBP Randonneur 2011, Part 7: Villaines-la-Juhel to Dreux

August 25, 2011: Villaines-la-Juhel to Mortagne-au-Perche

It's 5 minutes to 10p. I've gotten back on the black side of the clock by a good 35 minutes. I find a spot to park my bike and prepare to mix more food. There is a family standing near my spot and the man asks me "Seattle?" looking at my jersey, "Oui" I say, and the man nods his head, his English just about exhausted and my French in hiding. I walk the 50 or so yards to the entrance and then 50 more yards to the control and get my card stamped. The volunteer smiles and wishes me Bon Courage while slipping in some kind of sticker into my control card. I feel pretty good coming out of the Villaines control. I mix two more bottles and feel fortified for the road. I don't have too much time but enough for any mechanical problems or a brief roadside nap which is all I care about really at this point.

The road leading out of the Villanes-la-Juhel control is through a big white banner with the words "La Mayenne" emblazoned in giant print. Every rider heading back on course has to pass through this banner and the crowds are concentrated along the narrow road giving each rider a hero's sendoff. I watch this spectacle for a few minutes chatting with the same family near my bike but I have to leave pretty soon. I mount my bike, and say "A Bientot" to the family. "Bon Courage", they say. Riding towards the banner, I wave to no one in particular and the crowd erupts with the cheering reaching a crescendo as I pump my arms in the air while stupidly yelling "Vive la France!". I am shamelessly working the crowd and they respond with sustained cheering as I ride out of the little chute area and into the open road. I feel so good and so happy and the rush is strong: it will be a moment I will cherish for the rest of my life. You can't get this anywhere else!

The road starts off being lumpy with a climb right out of the control but shortly afterward we hit what I would characterize as mostly flat terrain. The road is a little foggy and the night air is cool but not unbearably so. Little lights flicker inside houses and porches are filled with people watching us. I am still dressed in shorts, wool socks, and half-fingered gloves. My front derailleur is acting up again and I pull over to take a look at what is happening and a woman driving in the opposite direction stops and asks me if I want a ride to the Villaines control. Amazed at her kindness and her awareness of our event, I reply in the negative; I think I can nurse this to Mortagne as I nursed myself to Tinténiac this morning, but I do kick myself for not having visited the mechanic at Villanes-la-Juhel. It will just slow me down. I thank her and move on.

As this is just a few miles out of the control I am riding with people again. The road plunges downhill after a very tricky roundabout and we leave the town behind. The road curves right quite sharply and I see one rider down on the side of the road: it looks bad! The sound of squealing brakes fills the air as everybody in the vicinity stops. A (Chinese?) randonneuse - having crashed earlier - is sitting on the road surface taking stock of her injuries and two Asian riders are with her trying to make sure she is OK. Her bike is in the ditch. We ask if they need help, but understandably the three of them are in a world of their own, not to mention language. Figuring she has the support she needs we leave but ask (in English, oops) an oncoming car to render any assistance. The lady at the wheel is more than happy to help. I normally bomb down descents but the combination of witnessing an accident and an inability to shift to my large ring dulls my instincts somewhat.

After an uneventful few kilometers I start wondering about my food situation: I have polished off one bottle of Sustained Energy, but the remaining bottle isn't quite enough to get me to Mortagne-au-Perche, so I decide that I'd like a cup of coffee and some food. A nice descent brings us down into the small town of Fresnay-sur-Sarthe with a lovely bar right at the corner where the course makes a very sharp left turn and heads due East. There were a couple of bikes leaning against the wall and figuring that I'd been riding for a couple of hours at least and may have banked some time I go into the bar which happens to be the only open establishment in this town.

There are quite a few locals and a couple of Russian riders. I ask for a coffee and scanning the menu, order an Omelette with frites along with Toast and jam. The locals are full of questions and so is the very jovial barman. The cook comes out, greets me and goes back in to make my omelette. It feels good to get off the bike for a while. The standard questions are asked and answered and the locals make jokes that I do not understand.The food takes awhile; the Russians wish me luck and leave well before me, having stopped by for only coffee. The coffee arrives, warms and wakes me up. Two very welcome sensations at this late hour. The food takes its sweet time and by the time the food arrives I realize that I wasn't thinking when I sat down for food here. I must have restricted myself to some coffee, mixed more powdered food and moved on. Lingering on the road would cut into that other luxury: sleep. But, one does have to enjoy the experience some, right? I have just had a massive brain fart: there goes 45 minutes of sleep.

The road slopes gently uphill and I am in the middle of a 10 person group. It seems like there is wave after wave of riders on the road waiting to repeatedly swallow me up. There is this rider going about my pace and I gently make conversation. She is French (of African extraction?). She cannot lift her neck up which under normal circumstances would be an annoyance but at night in rural France is about the most difficult thing to endure. And here she is, riding on. I do my best to help her navigate roundabouts and the sudden projections that make riding challenging. Adroit or a gauche I call out and she says thanks each time and follows my instruction based on my proximity to her. Helping her allows me to focus on something other than myself and keeps me awake. A few miles out of Fresnay-sur-Sarthe she is slow to react to an "a gauche" call and crashes into a concrete projection. I stop to make sure she is ok but a small group gathers and figuring she has all the help she needs, I keep riding. I don't remember her frame number now so I have no way of finding out if she finished or not. In hindsight, I regret leaving her behind. Keeping her to my left would have helped her avoid more obstacles with lesser effort.

Shortly after this, I find myself riding with two gentlemen from England. Brian (from Essex) gushes about the strength of my lights (eDelux) and confesses to wanting to ride with me just for that purpose. I have everything to gain by the company and our pace seems compatible. We ride out of one town and as I shift to the big ring my chain falls off. I stop to fix it and Brian stops too, shining his helmet mirror at my chain and making sure that I was OK mechanically. Helpful company is always welcome and I resolve to not lose Brian. We do however manage to drop Brian's friend as we exit one village and head into the countryside. Our conversation tends to be about equipment, our jobs, and the areas where we ride in. Brian is a veteran of several PBPs and he is very even keeled. As on the first night of PBP, a string of red lights takes off into the sky with the accompanying bad news: there is a climb ahead. There is a big highway to our right as we climb and the road undulates again. We are still in the presence of a large number of riders but for some reason it's been a long time since we've seen a directional arrow. This worries both of us. We ride for what seems like a dozen kilometers before Brian finally spots an arrow on a roundabout. We suspect that people are stealing souvenirs with less than a day to go. We aren't making progress at the required rate, Brian tells me. We have more than 20 kilometers to go and about an hour and 10 minutes to do it in. I finally realize why a sense of urgency pervades the riders as are were getting passed.

Down this big descent we go and there are two roads both of which are looking like they could be the right road and there isn't an arrow. Somebody has stolen a sign again! But, there is a car parked with its light on near one road and Brian and I cautiously go up to him to ask which way to Mortagne-au-Perche. "Tout droit" he says and points uphill. We enter a nature preserve of some kind and start climbing again, but this time the climbing is serious. We know we are up against the clock: it shows in the desperation of our pedal strokes.

I take a few swigs from my bottle and immediately feel a rush of energy. Brian has sped up and is a few hundred yards ahead of me, but I catch him on an incline as the tree-lined road veers to the right. As I look far into the distance I can actually see the orange glow that almost certainly is Mortagne-au-Perche. I have no clue how far it is to the control from here. We climb and descend I know not how many times but each time I get to the top, I can see the orange glow but there is one more ridge between us and Mortagne-au-Perche. The area has its redeeming qualities: there isn't too much ambient light here and the cloudless night sky is filled with a trillion stars and the occasional streaking meteor. I distract myself looking at this light show, but Brian is thinking of nothing but the task on hand. There is nothing but forest on either side of us. It is an awesome setting.

When I lived in Canada, I worked for a company with quite a large Japanese population and became aware of a very interesting dish made with Tofu. The preparation of this dish goes something like this: You put water, a huge block of tofu into a vessel and hundreds of teeny-tiny live fish together in a pot and start the heat. As the fish start to dislike the temperature, they make a beeline for the only hospitable spot in the pot that they can hide in. This of course results in hundreds of these fish cramming themselves into the tofu, which then turns out to be their grave as the temperature of the water reaches boiling point and cooks the tofu and the fish completely. I don't know why this thought came to me, but in a macabre way we resemble those fish and the Tofu is the Mortagne-au-Perche control: each of us on the road trying to jam ourselves into the tofu except of course that we are fish expecting to live to tell the tale.

We descend down to a roundabout and I see one steep final climb before the control. Our effort pays off. Though I am filled with dread as we approach the last kilometers we are a large group all giving their best effort to achieve the same purpose: make the control. There is very little talking. We finally see the lights of the building and relief washes over me. The road slopes up towards the control and at the bottom I ask Brian how many minutes we have to closing and he says "5 maybe" and I begin what I hope will be the last hard effort before the control. The control looks familiar from a few days ago except we are now arriving in the other direction. I park my bike near the entrance and run in. We still don't know if we have made it.

August 25, 2011: Mortagne-au-Perche to Dreux

Before Brian and I separate we agree to meet outside in 5 minutes: that is all the time we can spare. I feel like Jan Heine negotiating a break with riders in the lead pack except I am on the wrong end of the time game. There is the small matter of getting my card signed. I don't even know if I have made it. I take a short cut to the volunteer table but don't cross the mat which lies between the chip readers. The volunteers at the signing table are alert even at this late hour and guide me over the mat. I check in and have made it with 3 minutes to spare. THREE! It isn't my closest call ever and making the control infuses me with a sense of confidence and well-being.

Sleep doesn't even cross my mind mostly because making Dreux now has my attention. I remember where the water taps are and mix up more food, but when I arrive back at the entrance to the controle I do not find Brian or his bike. Another surprise is in store for me: when I look for the spare pair of shorts I have been carrying since Uzel, I cannot find them. I have to change shorts! Crap! I hunt every inch of my Carradice for them but it seems like I have left them back at the Gite. Oh, well. I can save some time not changing into new clothing. I step out into the night air and am immediately struck by how cold it is. I unwrap my leg warmers from my handlebars and put on every piece of clothing I am carrying. I have left my booties in my drop bag. Kent Peterson is right: drop bags do make you weak. I am hemming and hawing between waiting for Brian and leaving when I spot a very cheerful and well-rested - by outward appearances - Andy Speier.

Seeing a familiar face does wonders for my mood and I chat with him about missing by booties. Not even hesitating for a moment, Andy hands over his shoe covers saying he has no use for them but is glad that I could use it. I look around one last time for Brian and when he doesn't make an appearance I reluctantly leave the control. At PBP, time is worth something more than money. My pre-ride calculations had me sleeping a couple of hours here but reality is writ large on the clock at the control. Not knowing the terrain from here on out snuffs out any thoughts of taking a deficit on the clock.

I put on my leg warmers and the comfortable little cushioning they have been providing becomes very apparent: my hands hurt again. I decide that I cannot wait for Brian and leave the controle building. We start climbing again and I find myself gradually warming up. I left a little before Andy but he catches me a few miles out of Mortagne-au-Perche on a small biting climb. I stop and dismount and hand over his booties to him. In hindsight this is certainly a misguided attempt at saving weight as I still had at least 2lb of food on me. The things you are worried about after a few miles in the saddle!

We are treated to one roller after another and I roll over them rather slowly. Daylight is but a few hours away and with that will come welcome respite in the form of better mental awareness but we shall first have to navigate through some uncharted waters. I haven't slept a wink since Fougères and I now have 1000k under my belt. The mileage shows; there is very little detail I can remember between the first few hours out of the Mortagne-au-Perche control. If somebody told me what happened I am sure I'll go "oh yeah, that's right" but the memories are in a sinkhole someplace. I notice that not very many cars have passed us since Mortagne-au-Perche.

PBP is a ride where you are seldom alone, but there were long stretches where I found myself very alone. On this night, I am riding along with dozens of other people, all of whom are passing me. I take some comfort in the fact that I am not alone in this; that there are a hundred other souls on the road with a vacant stare and a mostly empty brain with two words scrawled on it: Sleep and Dreux. There is hardly a car on the road. We ride through towns, forests and one particularly annoying climb that went on for what seems like a few miles with nothing but forests on either side. I pass a house with a rather large black gate, the kind used to keep wastrels like me out. A few hardy souls are sleeping on the grass, their space blankets shine as our lights fall on I them, but I am determined to keep riding until I fall over. I look to my right and see the first signs of sunrise: a pleasing blue sky rimmed by a few dark clouds for variety and a vaguely reddish horizon.

A laundry line of red taillights leads us into the darkness of a very still night. I have been riding for at least a couple of hours now and the sleep demon has caught me and has started extracting tasty morsels. I've been slowly climbing for a while now and as we near a small building with sodium vapour lamps and inviting grass along the side of the road I cannot take it any more. I simply have to sleep. I wasn't weaving or anything, but I have to sleep. I lean my bike against the railing, spread out my rain jacket under my butt, set my alarm for 20 minutes, and go to sleep in just my short sleeved jersey. It is cold but that'll prevent me from oversleeping. There are plenty of riders riding within 3 or 4 feet of the grass. Seeing me spread my stuff out another rider pulls over and proceeds to do exactly the same.

I wake up with a start. My mouth feels like a cesspool. That my battery had enough juice is something to rejoice over, because I have slept 40 minutes; 20 minutes of it through a loud and very insistent alarm. I suddenly realize that I do not have much time in the bank, so I quickly put everything away. The pre-dawn light is slowly brightening things up. I get back on the bike and start pushing the pace, but though I feel refreshed I am not riding any faster. I quickly calculate what time I need to be at the Dreux control: Around 8:30a. Time is probably 6am. I have 2 and a half hours to go whatever distance it is I have to go. I have no computer, no route sheet, no way to calculate or gauge progress and no way to find out how much is still left. I curse myself for having gone to sleep as I suspect this is going to cost me my ride. I am quite mad at myself. The road is still slowly climbing and a thin fog is doing its best to bestow some mystery on the trees. There are old palaces and grand buildings dotting the road as we finally make a left turn. There are people sleeping along the side of the road. Surely these are people with time in their bags.

I am passed by a Japanese rider who rides at a pace slightly faster than mine. He catches up but rides near me for a while. "How far to Dreux?" I ask him, and get no response. I figure he is thin on the English and switch to a question that I think he might understand: I point to his bike computer and say "What speed?". I must have looked really rude; this stranger who won't leave him alone asking all kinds of pointed questions. Again, I get no response. My desperation leaks through my lips: "I really have to make Dreux by 8.30" I say, not knowing who I am saying it to or what I expect them to do in return.

I start giving it everything I have got which as you've probably guessed by now, isn't much. I am reminded of what the volunteer at Loudéac said on the way back: we are allowed to miss one control. This gives me some mental relief that my ride will go on even if I miss Dreux. It is not the end of the world, after all. The road climbs again and he drops me and pulls away. I catch up a few kilometers later and he seems surprised that I caught him. Something seems to click inside the Japanese rider: he glances at me and pulls right in front as if to pull me along. I attempt to hang on but cannot and he drops me again but doesn't notice it. I curse my lousy drafting skills and give up hope. A few dozen feet later he realizes that he cannot just ratchet the pace up, and slows down to pull me. I gratefully merge back into his slipstream.

The acceleration comes and I can feel it, but instead of just taking it straight up he slowly increases the pace and I find I can match his effort. He looks back every few feet to make sure I am there. I am now riding at speeds that I haven't hit since the outbound leg to Loudéac. Maybe I have some hope of making Dreux after all. We ride past fields, palaces and water tanks. Nothing registers for long. Here now, gone the next instant. Nothing is as important as staying close to that wheel 5 inches in front. I am still on the train and hanging on and the Japanese rider is pulling me strongly. I don't know how long I can hold on but hold on I must. It's stressful, this effort to make time, especially when you have 1100+ k in your legs and not much sleep. I see signs for 25k to Dreux and I am convinced I only have 40 minutes to spare. I am going to miss the control and resignation washes over me, but the man in front doesn't let up.

Alarmingly, the first signs of hunger set in. I have run out of food too. I haven't bonked yet but I am sure I'll have that to look forward to in the next few miles. The road miraculously flattens out and as it curves left we ride past a bunch of corn fields. It is not the corn fields that capture my interest but the hordes of riders lying in a variety of states. Most of them are just dead to the world, some just barely waking up and a few cannot even lift up their necks to look at the goings on in the immediate world. I spot a sleeping rider on the side of the road and his hand is actually quite close to the road surface, on the gravel in fact. (I should have stopped and helped him off the road but acted selfishly. I won't do that again, I promise) Another is trying desperately to lift his head but cannot and makes eye contact with me as we crest the little hill. The look in his eyes and the expression on his face defies description. It didn't look like they were in a rush to make it to Dreux, but I hope they all did. The road finally flattens out, and with the tow I am getting it certainly feels like I am going downhill.

Hideharu Sasai: Got me into Dreux on time
We are flying now, a group of 4 or 5 riders, passing people, even unintentionally shelling out a few. We start hitting some suburbs and the road goes around what looks like the Football pitch of a school. The Japanese rider finally pulls off and collapses. Unbeknownst to me, he has been fighting sleep and can work no more. We've dropped everybody. I quickly mutter a "Domo Arrigato" and head off towards the next arrow still not knowing if I would make Dreux or not. The road turns into rollers again but finally to the right emerges the Palais des Sports, the Dreux control. I pedal almost all the way to the entrance of the control and lean my bike against the closest object I can find. I must look really comical as I run the last 20 or 30 yards to the control.

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