The Mel and Tim song tends to go through my head when setting off again in the mornings. It takes a while for my legs to get going again, and it seemed especially so on that Tuesday morning out of Loudeac. I felt as if it was going uphill forever, until I limped into a roadside cafe/tent at Merleac, which was a haven in the darkness. It’s a temptation to describe the controls and wayside stops as refugee camps, as they have that air of transience and desperation, with riders slumped at tables and stumbling in covered in grime, rain and the detritus of endless hours on the road, or shovelling food and fuel into themselves. I got myself a coffee and a croissant and watched the other riders come in, or pause and shake their heads before riding on. The roadside support was fabulous, but you couldn’t stop at every one. When I returned, I slowed to a crawl as I passed St-Martin at 3 in the morning, where the villagers had set up a massive canopy in the square outside the pub, with an enormous sound system and the enticing aromas of beer and barbecue, and were inviting riders in. It was a massive bouncing party which was only just getting going, but I shook my head and rode on rather than stopping, as I feared I wouldn’t be able to leave. Someone compared it to the sirens, luring careless riders onto the rocks.
I was still half asleep, but the coffee had perked me up a bit. I was still a long way from Brest, and I did start to feel the pressure of time, as I rode very slowly through the grey morning. The cloud was low and mizzle hung in the air, clinging to my specs and making it impossible to see. I rode for a while with Alaskan Buzz, but I had to keep stopping to clear the moisture from my lenses, or riding very slowly without them. I was also feeling very sleepy again – I had vaguely planned to coincide my sleep stops with my usual dip at around about 6 am (I still find it hard to believe that there’s more than one 6 o’clock in the day, and the one in the morning is definitely the wrong one), but this hadn’t worked out, so I took a nap at the least-damp spot I could find, which was someone’s driveway. No one in the house seemed to mind or notice, and I was only asleep for ten minutes or so, which was enough to let me pedal on to the next control, at Carhaix.
Carhaix. It was grey, and bleak, and concrete. I couldn’t see anyone I knew in the hall, and none of the food was appetising, and I could barely eat the soup, so I had a measly meal of bread and rice pudding (remembering that riz au lait was the French for rice pudding was a godsend). The place was busy, as the quicker riders were making it back to Carhaix, having already been to Brest; I saw Andy Clarkson come in, but I couldn’t be bothered to go and talk to him. I did speak to Greg Melia and Lindsay as I left, but I probably made even less sense than usual. I at least had the energy to put in my contact lenses, as the persistent mizzle was still persisting, and the sun showed no sign of breaking through the murk. I was glad to leave the place.
Someone at Merleac had mentioned a huge 4-kilometre climb before Brest, so I was contemplating that as I rode away from Carhaix, but my legs had finally woken up, so I was fair shifting, and I got riding with a couple of good groups on the long, easy climb over one of the valleys. There were loads of riders coming the other way at this point, returning from Brest, and it was fun to spot fellow Brits and other riders I knew, and shout their names – the others in the group seemed impressed that I was so well known. I got to the front as the road kicked up a wee bit, and led our little grupetto to the top of the climb which turned out to be Le Roc Trevezel, the dreaded climb of climbs. We’d caned it.
I let the group go on the descent, and peeled off the road to get out of the way of some fairly impatient wagon drivers, but I caught them up again in the village of Sizun, as I saw Andy stopped in the square, so I stopped to chat and take in the atmosphere. I brought my spork into action on a yoghurt from the supermarket. It was another of those villages which seemed to celebrate the passing of the riders with a quadri-annual carnival, so I enjoyed sitting out there and watching the crowds cheer the riders past.
I rode the last 50 k or so into Brest with Andy, who was in much better form, but still struggling to keep anything down (or up, as the case may be). About 10 km from Brest he dropped back to get a bit of, erm, privacy.
The roads were still busy with wagons which struggled to overtake the lines of cyclists. There was one huge convoy coming the other way, with a special load travelling at a relatively low speed, and I was amused to see a lone cyclist in the middle of the convoy, slipstreaming one of the trailers. Some people will do anything to get that little bit extra.
The entry into Brest was wonderful – a downhill swoop onto a fine old stone bridge, with a grand view of the new bridge next to it. We stopped for the obligatory photos. Unfortunately, I felt as though my legs had stopped at that point, and the route through the middle of the city to the control seemed to take an age and to cross about seventeen million billion level crossings, each of them at a more dangerous angle than the last.
Andy and I went to find the restaurant when we eventually got there, and we did eventually find it, after answering the three questions posed by the guardian, braving the mystic maze and descending the stairs of doom. OK, I exaggerate, but it was a bloody long way to go, especially when the queue was massive and they didn’t have free beer, which someone had told me they gave you at Brest. OK, OK, so Ian gave me his beer, so I did get free beer, but not quite as advertised. I’d thought that it was low alcohol stuff, but it was definitely the full-blooded variety, which might help to explain my jelly legs as I rode away from Brest, again over all the level crossings, again besting the guardian of the dreaded portal, again back up past the old city walls and the church… and back out at last onto the open roads. Andy had stopped for some much-needed kip, but I was keen to ride on, as I was feeling good and relaxed at reaching the halfway point, where the time limits became less severe, and I could have an enjoyable cruise back, which I did.
Peter the Mad Magyar Messenger caught up with me riding away from Brest – actually, not long after I’d stopped for a roadside kip in a sheltered wood. A bunch of Danes had woken me when they stopped for a piss nearby, and I rode dopily up the road, had a conversation with a pair of children and their grandfather in dopy French, and when they asked when I expected to get back to Paris, I replied “Ce soir,” as I couldn’t remember the French word for “Thursday”. They smiled, and the little girl gave me a flower.
The fog was finally starting to lift, and climbing back over Le Roc, I was amazed to see views, and a mast at the top of a hill, and the hill itself, which had all been grey blankness that morning. There were some quite spectacular masts on the ride, notably the fine example atop Le Roc, and another which we circumnavigated near Tinteniac. For the most part, PBP isn’t a ride memorable for spectacular views and vistas, but Brittany did look delightful that afternoon.
“Jeudi!” I shouted down the road. That being the French word for Thursday, which I’d finally remembered.
Peter the Mad Magyar Messenger had told me to expect a sort of mental countdown on the return, as I re-visited all the controls which I’d already seen, but mostly I felt that they were all completely different, none more so than Carhaix on that Tuesday evening. I had an urge for chips as I rode towards the town, resisting the signs for McDonalds, and grabbing a portion of chips at a local kebab house*, which I sat and ate on the grass outside the control while listening to the Breton pipe band in the warm evening sunshine. It was a perfect moment, and a complete contrast to my experience of Carhaix that morning. I especially enjoyed the riders who came over and asked longingly if they were doing chips at the control. Sorry pal, but no, and these are mine.
When I left Carhaix and took the turning for “Paris” rather than the turning for “Brest” – well, that felt good too. I was astonished, though, at how many riders were still heading west. Coming into Carhaix, I’d stopped to take one of the “Brest” waymarkers as a souvenir, but a Swedish rider interrupted me to check that it was the correct way to Brest (the routes diverged at that point, so he was seeing a stream of cyclists coming from a different direction to the one he was supposed to go, which was worrying him). I didn’t point out that he’d be hours out of time before he got there, I just reassured him that he was on the correct route, and asked if there were many still behind him. “Yes, lots,” he replied. I left the waymarker where it was.
I continued to see riders still heading west as I rode away from Carhaix, though they became more infrequent and progressively more worn out as I went further east.
I was still buoyed by a glow of happiness which mostly stayed with me to the end of the ride. Again, I was overtaking loads of riders, especially on the hillier bit towards Loudeac. I was also being overtaken in turn by a few of the faster riders from the 84-hour group which had started seven or eight hours behind me. Feeling fit, I did try to grab onto a few wheels, but since I was topping 40 kph to catch up with them, I generally let them go before long. I was going well, but I didn’t want to waste myself too early.
I stopped again at the hilltop cafe in Merleac, to grab a coffee and a bite to eat to get me on to Loudeac – I’d already decided to sleep there again. My memory had erased much of the 10 km or so from Loudeac on the previous day, so that I remembered it being all uphill to Merleac, and therefore all downhill on the way back – I expressed this opinion to a couple of Americans who were struggling with the hills. I do hope they’ll forgive me, asit wasn’t entirely gravity-assisted to Loudeac, though – like the rest of the route – I didn’t find it particularly challenging. I was tiring a bit and ready for some sleep, but not so much that I lost all my faculties, as when leaving Merleac, I was riding behind a German, and we saw another rider come flogging up the hill in the other direction, then a group ahead of us stopped and turned back. We passed them, then the German lad stopped, and asked me “Have we gone off route?”** I shook my head, as I didn’t think we had, and even in darkness, it looked kinda familiar. He was keen to ride back up to the village, but I said we should just stop, and wait, and if any other riders came down the road, we’d know it was the right road. It was less than thirty seconds later when a few lights came along, so we rode on. Not bad thinking, for after midnight. I’m probably far too sensible.
The crazy chicken-run through the chicanes into Loudeac seemed a little less challenging than it had the previous night, but otherwise my routine was much the same. A bit of beer and food and a chat with a few other riders at the cafe, then off to the dorm for sleep. I slept away five good hours, during which I stirred not even once.
A shower and more riz au lait for breakfast with mondo coffee, then I was away again. I’d probably have made a very obedient squaddie, as I awoke immediately and said “merci” as soon as I felt the waker-upper’s hand on my shoulder. If there is an advantage to being completely rubbish in the mornings, then it’s the slow response of non-essential thought processes and reactions. Before my brain lurched into life, I was up and getting dressed and in the shower, all on near-automatic. Nothing really filters through until the second coffee, I always feel.
This does have disadvantages, too. The nights are long in France in August, and it was still dark when I left Loudeac, so it’s probably not totally surprising that I followed a couple of cyclists off route, and completely the ignored the friendly French driver who tried to shepherd us back onto it. However, when he stopped me and a couple of Americans, between us we had enough French to realise that we were off the route, heading towards the motorway, and he’d point us back in the correct direction. Merci, mysterrious strrrangerrr.
Daylight came on and I began to notice the areas the route took us through more – around Loudeac and Quedillac it was very rural, lots of picturesque ramshackle houses, with a few better-kept than others. Someone pointed out that the better-kept ones were probably owned by Brits, and there were a couple of villages en route where the voices shouting out “Bon courage” and “bonne route” were in strongly accented British. They’d obviously picked up on the whole roadside support ethos of most of the places en route, which was a big part of what made the ride such a buzz – I was floating on a wave of gentle happiness, apart from being stung on the tongue by an insect near Fougeres, which was an altogether different kind of buzz.
Most people I rode with commented on the atmosphere: Aussie Tony said that riding down the hill into Villaines, amongst the cheering crowds and into the scrum of a press pit where riders were being dragged off their bikes and interviewed, was like being a rock star. The Famous Hugh Porter shook his head when he saw me at Villaines and said “I don’t know what they told these people was supposed to be happening”. To my relief, the guy in the red velomobile was being interviewed on my way in, and the girl in the array of flowery dresses who rode along with flowers in her basket (as well as many changes of clothes) was being interviewed when I left, which spared me from having to attempt any French.
I spent most of Wednesday and Thursday riding with Sven the Flemish Hipster, and they were both good days. I’d had plenty of sleep, including an extra doze under the trees at Fougeres while Sven went for a massage, and about half an hour in a field after Villaines, and the roadsides were littered with people taking impromptu naps, in a variety of poses, from carefully perched atop a dyke, to the “fell-asleep where he fell”, and a couple of more outré poses, such as asleep in the road, as in on the road itself. One advantage of the recumbentist made itself clear in this situation: stop, park, sleep.
And the ones who had stopped to sleep were the sensible ones: there were plenty of riders who must have been pushing the time limit, or had convinced themselves that they’d be OK to the next control, who had a tendency to weave about the road unpredictably, and generally wouldn’t listen to advice to stop. You kept them where you could see them, or rode away from them as quickly as possible.
The last control before Paris was Dreux, which was dreur. Dreary Dreux. Depressing Dreux. Don’t do Dreux. I had my only moments of real irritability on the ride, after failing to get much sleep in the busy control. I was asleep upright in a chair, and falling to my right, but I was dreaming that I was asleep between two other people and leaning on the shoulder of the person at my right… but luckily a volunteer propped me up before a tumble onto the creaky floorboards. That was the only positive thing to happen to me at Dreux, and I was immensely pleased to leave.
So, the last leg. We had time aplenty, and were aiming to finish at about midday, when there’d be crowds and people to cheer us in. Sven was limping a bit, so I fed him some good drugs and we rode slowly across the plains, under a huge sky. He was too tired to stop to piss, so he was experimenting with pissing while riding, which drew one or two comments from a couple of American riders, so I told them they weren’t taking their training seriously enough: it’s not just about riding your bike loads, you also have to think about saving time in other ways. They said they’d take my comments on board.
Sven bought a bottle of cidre doux, and we passed it back and forth between us on the road into Paris, Tour de France-style. There may be photos out there somewhere***. The sun was out as we rode down the boulevards (I only slowed to do up my jersey for the photos), the crowds were twelve-deep in my imagination, and Alex and Steve and a few other familiar faces were on the corner, and of course there was free beer at the end. I felt as though I’d surfed into Paris on a gentle wave of happiness and achievement. And even though Sven was suffering a bit, he did mention “Next time” once or twice. Damn right, next time.
*Mainly because I couldn’t summon enough French to order any of the other goodies on offer. I could manage “frites”, though.
** In perfect English, after first uttering German which I clearly didn’t understand. Git.
*** A couple of Yorkshire riders did take photos, and said they’d pass them to Chris Crossland, but did they?