It really is a good route for a fixed gear. The hills are constant, but none of them are ridiculous. I never needed to even think about getting off and walking on any of them. After Boston Montréal Boston last year, I said I would not ride Boston Montréal Boston again on a fixed gear, although whether I hold to that statement remains to be seen. However, there was never a point in Paris Brest Paris where I felt that way, and I think the probability of my showing up with a fixed gear for Paris Brest Paris in 2011 is fairly high.
Our adventure began with Jake's checked duffel bag not arriving at Charles de Gaulle airport with the rest of the luggage. Air France had no word, so we had to go to the hotel without it. Not only did it contain his clothing, it also contained his right crank, chain, and all his mounting hardware.
He took it very well, and had everything worked out so that he could still do the ride by Saturday evening. When we got back to the hotel, there was a message from AirFrance that his bag had been located, and it arrived right on time on Sunday morning. So Jake spent Sunday putting his bike back the way it was supposed to be, and aside from a little extra pre-ride stress, everything worked out fine. The only galling thing for Jake was that since he didn't bring a freewheel remover (after all, why would you bring one if you didn't bring a freewheel?), he was stuck with the freewheel on the flip side of his hub, and people kept asking him if he intended to flip it.
Aside from the freewheel questions, Jake's bike attracted quite a bit of attention with the reflective tape he had painstakingly covered the tubes of the main triangle with. Usually, my bike gets more attention than Jake's because it's a recognizable classic, but at Paris Brest Paris recognizable classics and classic-styled bikes are a dime a dozen. Jake's reflective tubes, along with his homemade headlight, and fixed gear combined with his front disc brake, were much more of a novelty. It was nice for "Daisy" to finally get appreciated!
The atmosphere in the Gymnasium was indescribable, but I'll have a go at describing it anyway. The entire track was packed full of riders and their bikes, elbow to elbow like sardines. We were in line next to French riders, German riders, British riders, other Americans, and others whose nationalities we didn't know. It started drizzling on and off as we waited. The riders slowly progressed around the track, got their books stamped and their cards swiped, and moved out onto the road for their start in waves of 500 riders spaced at 20-minute intervals. As we stood waiting, people would periodically give a big yell and start "the wave" around the whole ring. Finally we got checked in and sent out onto the road. There was one of those big inflated arches over the road, someone on a loudspeaker in French, a big crowd of cheering spectators, and a firework to start us off. In the middle of a group of 500 riders, which quickly ran together with the others for a massive peloton of thousands, passing through French towns with cheering spectators, it was almost like being in OLN's Tour de France coverage. Although it was a little scary going up and down hills and around corners on narrow village streets on wet pavement in such a big group, the rain did little to dampen spirits. Perhaps it was the rain, but people were getting more flat tires than I have ever seen. Every kilometer there was someone stopped fixing one.
When we reached the farmland, where there were some long flats and open spaces, you could see a long, uninterrupted line of tail lights stretching off down the road for miles. Jake and I rode this leg with Spencer Klaasen, a very strong fellow fixed gear rider whom I met met on Boston Montréal Boston last year (and whom we know through the internet). We enjoyed good company and pleasant conversation about long long distance fixed gear cycling (talk about a small niche). We stopped at a roadside stand briefy before the water stop in Mortagne au Perche, and we stopped when Spencer got a flat tire, but otherwise we rode straight through to the first control in Villaines la Juhel, at 222 km. At some point during that leg, a Dutch rider who had been commenting on my fixed gear warned me that there was a hill ahead, and "You will use your 'two foot gear,' I think!" I was skeptical that there were any hills, especially so early on, that would require getting off the bike and walking. I guess we got to a hill, but I don't think we even got to one that made me sure that was the one he meant. We certainly didn't need to walk!
Jake and I stopped for a little while to use the bathroom and access our drop bags in Villaines , and Spencer went on. The contrôle was exciting, with another big inflated arch over the road and another announcer, but it was also big and confusing and we really spent far too long there, getting ourselves organized, finding each other again, waiting around for each other, and figuring out how these places worked. Finally, we pushed on. The next leg was 87 km to Fougeres. The rolling hills had started in earnest, and while we were chugging along just fine, we weren't going fast. I felt constantly sluggish and our average speed was generally 2-3mph slower than usual. I think it was around that time that Jake's leg started hurting. There was a steady headwind, and while it wasn't actively raining at all times, the weather showed no signs of clearing up anytime soon.
We settled into the rhythm of the ride, crossing open fields of feed corn or sunflowers, and pastures of cream-colored cattle, then either climbing into a town on the top of a hill or descending into a town down in a valley.
The towns were very neat, historic, and picturesque, with narrow streets and old stone or plaster buildings. They were immaculately neat and clean, with neatly painted woodwork and dazzling flowers. The flower boxes in the windows were filled with cascades of geraniums, which dripped down the smooth plaster walls in waves of cheerful color. The roads were perfectly paved throughout almost the whole course; I don't think there was a single pothole on the entire route big enough to bother pointing out on a club ride in Boston.
Once inside, we would ride through a sometimes complex maze of barriers and find the rows of crowd barriers set up as bike parking, find a spot, and follow the signs that said "Contrôle to where we would check in. There would usually be barriers or ropes of some kind marking out a clear path to follow through check-in, where an official would greet us, stamp our books, and very slowly and carefully swipe our cards. There would be signs for "Restauration," which meant hot food; something indicating quick sandwiches; "WC," which meant a wet, muddy, smelly row of stalls and toilets with no seats, usually not differentiated by gender (I saw a few women riders who seemed extremely concerned about this, although it didn't bother me); infirmary; and mechanic. The contrôles were at schools or gyms, so they were big places and amazingly well organized for the demands that were placed on them. The hot food was served in appropriately large portions, and the coffee was generally served in bowls as the little bitty coffee cups they had for serving espresso were completely insufficient for the only moderately strong brew that tired cyclists wanted to gulp down in rivers.
In some places, it was even served by a large ladle from a huge turreen, like soup. The floors and grounds of most contrôles were littered with sleeping riders and their shiny space blankets, and many of the riders in the cafeterias had their heads down on the tables.
As it got dark, we got tired and sleepy and were not riding at a very good pace. Cris had gone one ahead awhile back; Jake and I were riding with Glen and Bruce, and we were all dragging. We were ready for the promise of sleep at Loudeac, although Bruce insisted that he was going to push on to Carhaix. I think that's when I had my first flat. It was the rear tire, which is just a bit more of a pain because it has to be bolted in and the chain properly adjusted.
I fixed the flat and we rolled off, but soon pulled over again so that Glen could take a nap. Jake napped as well, and Bruce and I went into a local bar for hot beverages. It was only coffee, but it was much better than the coffee at the contrôless, and I think the taste, smell, and feel of good, hot cafe au lait had more of an effect than the caffeine did. It was somewhere between that stop and the contrôles that we saw the first group of riders pass us on their return. Their headlights appeared around the corner like a gaggle of deep sea anglers, spots of white light glowing in the inky blackness. We had barely made it to the fourth contrôles, and they were on their way back already! What a way to feel slow!
The Loudeac contrôles was a den of stink, sweat, rain, and squalor. The bike parking area was all filled, and Jake and I parked our bikes on the ground with other 'overflow parking' vehicles. The porch outside the cafeteria was littered with sleeping riders wrapped in space blankets like half-eaten burritos in greasy aluminum foil. The entry way was lined with sleeping riders leaned against walls, hunched in the corners, scrunched up together on the floor, filling all available space and leaving just a narrow path to the food line. The WC was a single smelly, wet row of toilet stalls containing toilets with no seats. I'm not sure how many people feel like squatting over a seat-less toilet after over 400k on a bike, but I am not one of them. I wiped it off, put down a strip of toilet paper, and sat on the damn thing anyway.
The sleeping area was chaotic, and waiting in line for a cot didn't seem like a good use of time, so that wasn't an option. After a bit of wandering around, I returned to the dining room. The whole place could have been mistaken for a refugee camp if it weren't for all the bicycles outside. In a refugee camp though, people sleep fitfully, people snore, babies cry, people twitch and toss in their sleep. Not so in Loudeac; all those sleeping forms could have been frozen in time for all they moved. Jake decided to avoid the cafeteria and take his chances on the wet asphalt. I found myself a skinny stretch of floor in between two other riders and a couple of cafeteria tables, and crawled into my bivvy sack with my head on my saddlebag. It wasn't comfortable sleep, but it was two or three hours of some kind of sleep.
I awoke with my neck and shoulder feeling mighty stiff, and my stomach complaining loudly that I'd decided to sleep first and eat later. I made my way into the food line, and did my best at choking down more of the same brevet gourmet "purée" and whatever else they had there. As we sat eating, we saw another rider walk into the cafeteria, very unsteady on his feet, face pasty and gray. His buddies were trying to get him to sit down or go to the infirmary or something, and he absently but firmly shook his head. He took another few steps, and then sort of melted where he stood, his buddies catching him and lowering him carefully to the floor. With some awkward maneuvering around the sleeping bodies that still covered the floor, the first aid volunteers carried him away in a stretcher. We saw that stretcher being carried around quite a lot at Loudeac.
Finally, in the wee hours of the morning, the refugee camp and bike parking areas were getting emptied out as riders made their way back onto the road, and we got underway. This was the leg where I finally started to feel like I was hitting my stride and riding well, even if we were still going slow-ish. The sky made occasional vague references toward possible clearing up at some point, and the roads dried out. The rolling hills were getting bigger, but still none were too steep for very long, and none of the descents were difficult. We saw some sun poking through the clouds, and by the time we were in Carhaix, it was actually sunny and very pleasant. I went in for a meal while Jake lay down in the grass for a nap. I went upstairs to find the food line was very long, and decided it would be better to just push on and stop somewhere along the road for food. I went downstairs and to tell Jake, but he was nowhere to be found. I must have spend 30 or 40 minutes searching the grounds around the contrôles looking for him, until I finally found him exactly where he said he'd be, just out of my direct line of sight behind a bush. Having already spent that long looking for Jake, I figured I might as well just wait in the food line and eat at the contrôle. But it was a long stop with lots of wasted time.
We finally left the contrôle in the company of a French rider with whom I was enjoying the challenge of conversing. I only speak a very little bit of French, and he only spoke a very little bit of English, but I enjoyed the challenge of trying to chat. It was one of many conversations I had along the route that tested my linguistic skills, and by the end of the ride I had certainly become far more proficient than when I started. He liked to loudly proclaim in a heavy French accent and with much gusto, "I am a French donkey!" I thought for a minute or two, and then replied with "Je suis une cheval americaine", which he found very amusing. We left the contrôle with him, but when we hit more than one or two hills, we dropped him and didn't see him again.
The leg from Carhaix to Brest was without doubt the most beautiful and dramatic of the ride. It was also the first point in the ride where I really started to feel decent on my bike, ironically enough. Who ever heard of a 500k warmup?? We went up and down a few more rollers, and then started climbing what was to be the biggest hill of the ride. It wasn't a difficult or steep climb, but it did seem to come out of nowhere and go on for a long time. But it was spectacularly beautiful. The landscape looked completely different than the rest of the route, with large uncultivated meadows with sparse bushes, wide vistas, and dramatic contours of the hillsides. Somehow, it reminded me of a greener, wetter, cooler, softer, shorter, gentler version of the climb out of Death Valley on the 508, if only in the shape of the landscape and the steady headwind. Then out of nowhere, we crested the hill to see an incredible view of the surrounding landscape: fields, villages, rolling hills, and the steeple of the church we would soon ride by in the town of Sizun. There were clouds around the edges of the sky and there was still a foggy haze that blurred the horizon, and the afternoon sun poked through the haze just enough to wash the edges in gold. We stopped for a minute or two just to enjoy the view before continuing with the descent.
We descended down through Sizun, past the steeple we'd seen from the top of the hill. There were a crèperie and some other establishments open in the center of town, and a number of bikes parked outside. I resolved to stop there on the way back, since I had not yet sampled any of the local cuisine along the route.
We descended farther, in what was now actual sunlight, through a park, and out onto a bridge that I think is for bicycle and pedestrian traffic that parallels the huge suspension bridge leading into Brest. It was the same style of bridge as the one they recently built in Boston, but bigger and taller, with more cables, and a more dramatic background of blue water dotted with sailboats, green shores, and the attractive city backdrop of Brest.
After the bridge, there was a long climb up through city streets where people cheered us on. When we rolled into the checkpoint, we had reached the halfway point and were rewarded with coupons for a free drink from the bar. I had mine in the form of a beer, which wasn't very good, but was at least cold and full of calories. We tried to get sandwiches, but they were out of everything to put on bread except for butter. So bread and butter it was. We hung around for far too long considering that there wasn't really much of any food to be had. As at every other checkpoint by this point, the corners were filled with sprawled out sleeping cyclists catching a few winks before pushing on. It was still sunny when we left, and I was looking forward to a possible tailwind in the homeward direction. However, Jake was pessimistic on that front, arguing that the wind had already started to shift shortly before we got there, and that we'd be riding into a headwind or crosswind all the way back, after a headwind all the way out.
Jake was right, and the wind had shifted. We left town on a different route than the one we came in on, but after we met up again with the original route, we saw a handfull of riders still persistently heading toward Brest, even though the contrôle was supposed to be closed by that point. We fought into a headwind out of town and back onto quiet green-banked roads. I began feeling very sleepy and needed a nap to avoid nodding off on the bike; I was also planning to stop at the Crèperie in Sizun, and Jake wanted to keep riding. So we split up for the first time of the ride and he kept going while I downed a couple packets of caffeinated gu and lay down in the grass for a short nap.
When I arrived in Sizun, I knew I couldn't afford a long stop, but I'd been thinking about those crèpes for hours and was not going to ride this far out and not have any of the buckwheat crèpes that I had been hearing Brittany was known for!
The Crèperie, interestingly enough, was filled with English-speaking customers. There was a British family whose family member was riding, and another British family that was just there for a vacation completely unrelated to Paris Brest Paris. There was a very tired-looking American rider from Tennessee whose table I sat at. He explained that his method of ordering, since he didn't speak any French at all, was to just point at something someone else had gotten that looked good, although at one point he asked me to order ice cream for him. I had an egg and cheese crèpe and a chocolate and almond crèpe, and both were excellent. It was only the ticking clock that stopped me from having another egg one... or two. The staff of the crèperie were very friendly, and so were the other customers, and I thoroughly enjoyed my little 30-minute stop. Before I left, I used the toilet there, and I felt pampered by the presence of both soap and a toilet seat!
Mission "Crepe Stop" accomplished, I back on the road to Carhaix. I think maybe it was on this leg that I met Duane Wright, another fixed gear on Paris Brest Paris. It was great to have company, and the conversation was engaging, and it brought us the rest of the way into Carhaix. We got into the checkpoint at Carhaix, made our way through the cafeteria line, and found Jake sitting at the table. I started eating, and Jake headed off to take a nap on an actual cot. Trying to be polite and start a conversation, I asked the fellow sitting at the same table how long he'd been there at the checkpoint. He said, "Um, I'm Duane. I came in with you, remember?"
Okay, so to be fair I had only met him in the dark and therefore didn't actually know what he looked like, but my mental acuity was not at its sharpest, and a nap was in order for me too. I found my way to the cots, which had been pointed out to us by Jeff Bauer and Mary Crawley, a very cool tandem team. Jeff is a fellow fixed gear enthusiast, and Mary is a prosecutor in real life who prefers the cooperative aspects of tandem riding.
The cot in Carhaix cost 4 Euro to lie down on for an hour, but it was worth every cent of it. Not only was the cot divinely comfortable, but it had a gigantic, thick, heavy wool blanket that was big enough to cover with and use as a pillow as well. That hour was short, but glorious. I don't remember how we worked it out, but Jake was concerned about making the time limits and his legs were really hurting, so he left before I did and we agreed to meet up in later if possible.
I didn't see Jake in Loudeac, but I was worried about him because he had been feeling bad when we split up, and I checked with the officials to make sure that he had gotten in okay. They were very confused because I kept giving them my number instead of Jake's (we were only one number apart) but eventually I figured it out and gave them Jake's number. I ate some more tasty brevet gourmet, changed clothes, brought a croissant or two with me shoved under my map case to keep munching on, and left Loudeac behind.
I met up with a group of Catalan riders on that leg, and they presented me with the very engaging linguistic challenge of answering questions in half-Spanish-half-French, after they figured out that no amount of repetition would make me understand Catalan. They were very curious how old I was, and seemed very surprised when I told them (although I didn't know at the time whether they were expecting me to be older or younger). This was getting to be puzzling, since I had gotten the same question a number of times, including one rider who was very curious to know how I ended up there, explaining to me that the average age of Paris Brest Paris was about 49, and a couple of people who actually asked me where my parents were. One of them made a big deal of saying, "Oh, wow, good for you!" when, very puzzled, I told him that I didn't know where my parents were because they were certainly not on the ride. I know I'm on the younger side of this sport, but I'm certainly old enough to go on a bike ride by myself!
When we arrived in Tinteniac, the French guy's wife was there to meet him, and Jake was lying on a bench taking a rest. His legs were in a lot of pain, essentially from hip to toenail, and he said he was riding slowly and needed to keep moving. So we parted ways again while I went up and ate. The French guy and his wife were very dismayed to find that this control did not have the carafes of wine in the cafeteria that the others had, but when he asked about it, they found him some and served it to him in a gigantic paper cup of the size they were serving soup in. He and his wife shared it, but even still, I can't imagine drinking that much wine at that point on a 1200k and staying awake afterward. He did not understand why everyone wasn't drinking it with their meal.
I started out the leg from Villaines to Mortagne au Perche feeling pretty good. I was riding well, and in a big group of other riders, even if they were just so many bobbing white headlights in the night. I tried to chat with other riders, but it seemed that everyone in that group was just loopy off their gourds. Their responses were just off-the-wall, surreal, and made the ride feel like an even more dream-like experience than it already did. At one point, the white line on the right side of the road changed to an actual curb, and I saw a rider a little ways in front of me hit it and go down. A second later, someone else right behind him hit it and went down as well. I met up with a fellow whom I had chatted with the previous night, and we tried gamely to converse. I was getting very sleepy, starting to nod off on my bike, and contemplating a nap. The fellow I was with was in worse shape than I was, and had no clue what we were doing or where he was. He kept asking me when we were going to get into Canada, and what part of Canada we'd be riding through. I explained that we were in France and couldn't ride to Canada from where we were, and he didn't seem to understand. He even asked if this was a training ride for PBPers!
By this point, there were riders sleeping in the ditches by the sides of the road every few hundred meters. Whenever we passed through a town, every phone booth, driveway, doorway, park bench, building overhang, or other remotely sheltered spot was occupied by one or two or more sleeping cyclists. As the ride progressed, people got less and less discriminating about where they lay down for a nap. Coincidentally, they also got less discriminating about where they would stop to pee. In the farm areas, for either activity they'd stop whenever they felt like it and pull just far enough off the road to not get run over. I don't think it occurred to many of them, but those two activities were occurring pretty much indiscriminately in the same places, and you'd never know since everything was wet to begin with.
Finally, when I decided I needed to pull over for a nap if I had any hope of staying upright, the fellow I was with stopped as well. As I downed a couple of packets of gu and dug my jacket out of my bag, he asked again, "So... what are we doing here again? What are we trying to accomplish?" I explained that we were on Paris Brest Paris, we were trying to ride back to St. Quentin in 90 hours, and that I needed a nap. He said, "Oh. So... we have an objective now. Okay, that's good. Well, we're not accomplishing anything by sitting here!" and rode off. I didn't figure he was in better shape to keep riding than I was, but I was not going to give up my nap to go after him. I had seen lots of riders lying down in the wet grass wearing nothing waterproof (sleeping in wet grass while exhausted, sleep-deprived, probably not fueled or hydrated that well? Can you spell "hypothermia"?), and I still knew better than to do that, so I sat down indian-style and put my head down in my lap with my jacket over my head.
When I awoke, the group I had been with was gone. As I rode into the wee hours of Friday morning, I was as close to being alone as I had been the entire ride. I was sleepy and cranky and groggy, and all I could do was push harder and ride faster, focusing on the coming arrival in Mortagne. There were lots of rolling hills through town, and I felt that the checkpoint had to be just over each and every one of them. I would ride hard up each one to try and wake myself up, and struggle to stay awake on the descent on the other side. For anyone who has ever figured that a fixed gear would at least keep you awake on the descents because you have to spin, I have proven to myself on many occasions that it's entirely possible to find yourself struggling to fight off "the noddies" at 130 RPM.
Sure enough, Mike was there waiting for me when I finished. He brought me over to the van, and I think he said that Julie was over looking for Glen or Bruce. Jake had come through earlier, in pain but determined. I think it was at the Mortagne stop that Julie mentioned to me that my helmet made me look about 16 years old. That really put a lot of things into perspective right there: all the people who asked how old I was, the ones who asked where my parents were (my parents??? Okay, it's considered flattering when people think you look young, but when they think you're not old enough to go on a ride by yourself????); the guy who was carefully explaining to me how to ride over train tracks (fine, insult my intelligence and my handling skills, why dontcha?); and all the people I met whom I'd had some sort of internet correspondence with who said, "wow, I really thought you'd be older...." I felt a little self-conscious for the rest of the ride after that.
I wouldn't say that I wouldn't have finished without Julie and Mike, but seeing them made a huge difference for me, especially toward the end of the ride. It was nice to know that they were there, and it was nice to see and talk to normal, sane, clean and un-spandex-ed people when we were surrounded by so many sleep-deprived cyclists. Julie even went and bought pickles for me, which I kept in a ziploc bag in my handlebar bag. I didn't crave them (and their sodium content) quite as much as I would have if the ride had been hot and sunny, but they sure tasted good anyway!
Anyway, after I checked in, Mike brought me over to the van and made me a ham sandwich, explaining to me what average speed I had to keep up to make it to the next contrôle in time, and sent me on my way as quickly as possible. I folded the sandwich in half, took two gulps of it, shoved it under my map case on my handlebar bag, and took off. I went about a block or two before those hastily gulped couple of bites of sandwich decided that they really had been gulped far too hastily and with too much air or something, and my stomach was having none of it. I threw up on the curb while waiting for a red light; when it turned green, I started riding, still retching over the side of my bike. That little rebellion having been accomplished, my stomach settled right back down again, and I ate the rest of the sandwich with no further trouble.
Jake says that after I barf on a ride is when I start to feel much better and go faster. Well, I don't really think it was because of the puking, but this leg was no exception. There were some pesky ups and downs early on, but after a couple of them I got into much more of a groove and started passing people. At one point, I got passed by a very long, very neat, very smooth paceline of teenage riders. Most were on road bikes, but not all by any means. In any case, they were accompanied by a couple of older riders and they were riding in just about the most disciplined single file train I've ever seen with 30 people in it. I think they were doing whatever kids' ride event they have during Paris Brest Paris for riders under 18.
We hit a section of very rough chip seal pavement, which was really the only point in the ride where the pavement surface kinda sucked to ride on. My saddle was worn out, and so was my saddle cover (which I'd been unable to replace before leaving), and my butt was really feeling all the hours in the saddle. So that was a little extra incentive to get over it quickly. I found a group consisting of a bunch of 84 hr folks as well as some other 90'ers, and ended up pulling them a good bit of the way into Dreux.
When I arrived in Dreux, I had finally made up time. I was finally in well ahead of when the checkpoint was supposed to close! Actually, I think that leg had my fastest average speed for the whole ride. The Dreux contrôle was a big party, complete with a guy playing an amplified accordion next to the bar. Julie and Mike were there, and so was Jake. Jake was still in pain, so he left right away. I got some croissants and sat around for a few more minutes before heading out and realizing that I couldn't remember where I parked! I eventually did find my bike, got another sandwich from the van to stuck under my map case, and headed off with a good sized group. My butt hurt, I was tired, and I was really 'bout ready to be done with the ride, but I was almost there and had enough time to make it with no trouble.
There was a bit of climbing, but the only notable thing about that last leg was the red lights. Once we got within a few kilometers of the Gymnasium, there was a traffic light every block and they were not timed for bicyclists. We hit every single one of them, and had to wait for them to turn. I was so tired and impatient that even trackstanding at the stops was difficult, although slightly less of a pain than starting up from having my feet on the ground would have been.
The cranks, stem, and saddle bag bracket are new since these pictures, but you can see the bike in basically the same setup with the bags I made at: emilysdomain.org/bikebags Oh, and I also have very snazzy blue anodized Nokon brake cable housings, which were a birthday present from Jake. Very cool.