August 25, 2011: Dreux to The Finish
As I walk to the table I am apprehensive and nervous: "Bonjour" I say, and the controle volunteer smiles and stamps my card. Next comes the time: "8.32" she writes. I have missed it by 2 minutes! "Oh, crap", I say, and instinctively my left hand comes down on the table and thumps it. I honestly don't know what the heck I was thinking. I recognize fairly fast that this act might be misconstrued as belligerence and quickly apologize. The volunteers are quite surprised but my prompt apology has the intended effect. They reassure me in two languages as I stand there with a very embarrassed look on my face and show me the closing time on the control: 7:12. With my 2 hour allowance for starting in the final group I have made it with 40 minutes to spare! I thank them again, apologize and head back out the wrong way but there is another helpful volunteer directing me towards the proper exit.
The guy who got me here deserves a hug, except he is nowhere to be found. I find my way back to the bike and an overwhelming desire to sleep grabs me. I succumb: 15 minutes I tell myself, no more. There is a generous amount of foot traffic and there is little chance of me falling into deep sleep. I ask the volunteers to wake me if I am not gone in 15 minutes. I wake refreshed from my 15 minute nap on the concrete. I open my eyes and find an Eastern European rider taking a photo of me with a wide grin on his face. He smiles and heads off as I get up.
As I dig through my Carradice I find the Japanese rider sitting inside the glass enclosure digging into a plate of food. I say a wholly inadequate "Domo Arrigato" again and make for the water taps to prepare my final two bottles. Carrying your own food saves one a lot of time at the controls but also delivers some regret at not being able to stop and sample the fantastic French faire. My mouth feels like a cesspool and I really must find a way to brush my teeth. I get back on the bike again and set off for the last 60 or so kilometers to Paris. We start with a nice little downhill and then the road flattens out. We are now reaping the benefits of the final few kilometers being mostly flat. My speed increases and so do my spirits. The terrain remains farmland but changes as we enter the first of several towns with insanely narrow streets. We don't find as many people standing to cheer us but they are present all the same. We eventually get on a very narrow road running through fields. It looks and feels like a bike path but a car in the opposite direction surprises me. I am passed by swarm after swarm of riders of different nationalities. They are almost uniformly in good cheer having smelled the barn from 50 kilometers out and I am not fast enough to hang with any of them.
It seems like I am destined to limp my way in. The day warms up and in yet another field I pull over and shed some clothing: the rain jacket, skull cap and leg warmers are no longer needed. It doesn't strike me that I can wrap the leg warmers around my handlebars to get cushioning. I get back on the bike and briefly ride with a rider from China and stop to get the business card of a Spanish woman who has taken a picture of me. She speaks no French and my Spanish is worse than my French.
The flatlands don't last. We enter more suburbs and then a long stretch with a very mean set of hills. I grind my way up as my speed drops right back down. The distance has destroyed my ego, cleansed me of my vanity, robbed my memory and arguably my respectability. It has left me bare for all to see: I can do no more than simply slouch, whimper and whine and hope that the next pedal stroke finds me at the top of the hill. My butt, neck and hands all hurt. I never think "I am never doing this again" but I confess thinking that I'll never be doing L-E-L. I don't think I can put up with another 160k on the bike. The climb puts us back a little Southwest of Jouars-Pontchartrain, past that beautiful church and row of trees running away from us into the distance. The road flattens out a little but not for long as the sustained flat lands I remember from Sunday don't materialize: more rollers, tree-lined boulevards, narrow streets, screaming children and shy cars do, however.
The final couple of dozen kilometers all blend together for me. Under an overpass, I see the 15 km banner and a man cheers us on: "Quinze kilometer" he says with a grin. I think the rollers finally end somewhere near the 15km point. We enter a series of roundabouts, and shortly after the famous set of lights that seem to annoy everybody. Each one of them is red, each one heightening the expectation of the finish. After the solitude of the last dozens of miles, I find myself in the company of a lot of riders, and the group expands the more lights we hit. Not all of the riders wait patiently: an Italian jumps the light and nearly gets creamed by a car coming from his right: the woman driving is none too pleased and decides to let him know how she really feels. The Italian is unfazed and sprints at the next gap in traffic.
We have less than 5k to go. It finally dawns on me that I am on my victory lap. A cliché it is, but I can stop riding, start walking and still make it in time. Maybe. If I get a flat now that is what I will do I think: walk to the gym and soak in the love for a wee bit longer. Oh, and my upper body wouldn't cooperate in fixing the flat for sure. We climb one last bridge, one last little steep stretch of no more than 30 yards and we are finally on the home stretch. More lights follow but now the sidewalks are crammed with people cheering, clapping and yelling. As we come to a stop at each light, we are bathed in a sea of adulation. "Chapeau!" they yell, and I later learn that this is a word that the French don't throw around lightly. I recognize this street: we walked here ages ago - last Saturday - for bike registration. No more than a couple of kilometers now. I find myself riding with a Frenchman who despite his lack of English is trying to make conversation. This is his Seventh Paris - Brest and that he had finished all of them. Amazing! An Englishman on his second Paris-Brest is on my right. I ask about their home clubs and ogle their bikes and gear. They ask about the Cascade 1200 and I tell them it is as beautiful as it is difficult and that the support is awesome.
|A few hundred yards from the finish|
|Ooh, that was close indeed.|
|Handing that card over, one last time!|
The very friendly volunteer tells me gently - for next time - that I should fill my emergency contact information on my brevet card. "It is too late now", she says with a smile. "Yes", I tell her, there most definitely will be a next time.
The Post-ride scene
My battery is out of juice and as she takes away my brevet card I am filled with regret at not being able to snap a photo of my card. Do I have the brains to ask Barbara to take a photo of my card? No, of course not. Susan Otcenas finishes a few minutes behind us but I guess (rightly) that she has had way more sleep than I have. She looks fresh and I resolve to train harder for next time so I can linger a tad longer, sleep a little more and look like Susan at the finish. What a delightful ride! The next few hours are a blur but the main motivation was a complete unwillingness to leave the finish. I buy photos at the Maindru booth. I wander around talking to riders. I leave my bike out and walk outside and meet Michael Huber.
Mike and I have been riding together for a while and at the Spring 100k on a very frigid West Snoqualmie Valley Road Mike made me a promise: we would share a bottle of Champagne at the finish of PBP in Paris! Mike keeps his promise and blows 50 Euro on a bottle and we sit down with Jan Heine and Drew Buck to finish the bottle. We talk bikes, PBP, and our respective rides. Drew is tough, having completed the ride solely on catnaps. I hit the food stall and find the meaty fare very unappetizing. There's quite a few SIR riders waiting in line for food. I treat myself to some Pain au Chocolat and a Nutella crepe. We talk bikes and see riders finish. Kole finishes.
|Hanging out with the Indian Contingent|
Near the roundabout, I meet two German riders who finished earlier and they help me pack my things and take a photo of me at the finish. I am clueless as to how to get there, but they help me find my way.
|At THE roundabout|
|With PBP loot!|
I walk back to the hotel and the roads are filled with riders. The Campanile lobby is filled with riders and their bikes. Some of them have the look of contentment in their face. Many strangers offer congratulations for finishing the ride. In the room Mike is already out cold. I brush my teeth for the first time in almost 48 hours, shower quietly and fall into blissful sleep at around 7p.
|Self-Portrait at the Campanile hotel room|
One more instance of largesse awaits me from an unexpected source: a Parisian. On the train to the Gare Montparnasse a very genial looking Frenchman is sitting across from me and asks me in perfect English if I have finished Paris-Brest. I don't pass up many opportunities to show off and we chat about the whole experience. He is a cyclist too and I ask him which of the French papers have good coverage of PBP. He mentions a few names and the only one I recognize is L'equipe (Tour de France). We get off at the Gare and join the weekday throng, walking together towards the newsstands that dot the station. Cautioning me about bike thieves he tells me to stay with the bike and goes to look for papers. Say what you will about the Internet taking over for newspapers, you don't see anybody printing out webpages as souvenirs! Instead of coming back with names, he comes back with copies of Le Parisien, L'equipe and Le Telegramme. "My gift to you for finishing Paris - Brest" he says and without so much as an introduction walks away. I am quite surprised. Thank you, Mr Anonymous Frenchman.
I cannot bear to get on the bike. My butt is still quite sore and as I walk past a crowded restaurant where patrons are sitting pretty close to the street, I notice a gentleman pointing in my direction, and as I walk past them I hear the tail end of the word "Brest" and figuring I'd chat with him I walk back. An older couple are sitting along with 2 men, both of whom rode PBP. I visit with them for a little, hear their stories and while all of them introduced themselves, I can only remember Rob from Florida. I take their leave as I have a train to catch. My bike box is at the hotel where I stayed at before the ride. I get my bike box and it hurts to unpack the bike because every part of my body is screaming. A few drops of rain fall on me as I take my time to pack the bike and catch a train to London that very same evening.
I sit on the EuroStar train and reflect on the ride and one thought strikes me. I was asked a myriad of questions during the ride: Where are you from ? Where do you live? How old are you? Are you married? Do you live in France? Do you like Brittany/Normandy? Are your parents from France? Would you like some coffee? Why won't you have some Camembert Cheese? There is one question that I was never asked: "Why are you doing this?" (or the French equivalent, for all you smart-asses out there). The French simply get it. There is no need to explain, justify, or cower behind anything. You can simply be.
Vive Paris - Brest - Paris. Vive la Bretagne et la Normandie! Vive la France!
See you in 2015 and hopefully I will write a shorter ride report then.