Paris-Brest-Paris Part 2: Brest or Bust

castlesI’m more of a lone wolf than a pack rider, and sharing the road with several hundred other riders required a focus and awareness I typically prefer to avoid. At first everyone jockeyed for position, but over the first hour we all got into a groove, figuring out the pace which would allow continuous forward movement for the next four days. Every 5-10 minutes I reached into my front bag for another bite of something – nuts, cookies, energy rich date-nut bars, a sip of my custom sports drink. Despite eating all day, it would be critical to keep on eating and I was determined to keep up with my calorie intake. The “silent bonk” had proven deadly on my last 600k, and I did not want to go through that again. There were miles of open road with tiny towns dotting French sunsetthe way. In every town people lined the streets, cheering us on. It gets dark late in this part of the world so even with a 6pm start we had hours of daylight to see the rolling hills, corn fields, cows, and sheep. Homes of brick and stone punctuated the idyllic countryside, having withstood centuries of the legendary weather of Northern France. Darkness fell, and we settled into the first night of four, the way illuminated by 6000 taillights bobbing in the darkness. My companion and I pondered whether this sea of lights would be visible from space, drawing a line on the planet for the entire universe to observe. We rode strong, chatting with others as we went, but often alone with our thoughts and each other, an island in the sea of humanity. We skipped the “not a control” stop at Mortagne-au-Perche, determined to get as far as possible without a stop.

darkness descendsI was feeling fine, until I wasn’t. The bonk snuck up on me like a silent ninja in the night, and suddenly I felt wobbly and sleepy. We stopped at the first open establishment – a bar. It was about 3am, and the place was warm and crowded with drunken Frenchmen out to tip back a pint while watching crazy folks ride their bikes through the night. I grabbed the first chair I found while my friend, fluent in French, begged for coffee, sugar, and the first of many baguettes. I dropped three sugar cubes into the tiny cup of warm caffeinated elixir and tried not to gulp. As the sugar hit my bloodstream I gratefully chomped down on the bread, eating nearly half the loaf. A second cup of coffee, and we headed back into the night. Two hours later, my energy level dipped again and I started to feel queasy. The baguette which had tasted so good earlier was now sitting in my stomach like a pile of bricks. Everything I swallowed sat on top of this pile, but nothing was moving through. By the time we reached the first control in Villaines-la-Juhel, I was feeling awful. I forced down a bowl of soup and some coke while my friend looked for the drop bags we’d had delivered to this control. The plan had been to change shorts and socks here, refill our bags with our own food, have a snack, and move on quickly. The bags were nowhere to be found, I’d eaten what I could, and finally we left in the same shorts. I was in “never wear these for more than 200k” shorts, and was dismayed to find I’d be in them for another 250k until Loudeac, but there was nothing to be done about it.

Brain function becomes weird when you’ve been pedaling a bicycle through the night, but finally I realized what was happening in my misty morninggut – I had a huge pile of bread which wasn’t digesting and not enough calories getting through to my digestive tract to make it work. I swallowed two digestive enzyme tablets and a packet of maple syrup, and within 20 minutes I was feeling normal again. Early in the morning we passed through a town, cobblestone streets, stone houses, an open patisserie. I grabbed an apricot tart for myself, an éclair for my friend, and a ham with butter sandwich to share. We removed the extra layers which had kept us warm overnight, and kept on pedaling. I remember passing by the fortress in Fougeres and wishing I had time to stop and take a few pictures or even take a tour, but I have no recollection of the control where we stopped just long enough to get our cards stamped and grab a quick bite.

The rolling hills were relentless. No one climb was that hard, but the road was never flat. In every town, people lined the streets cheering us on. They set out card tables and handed out water, coffee, cookies, cheese. Every town was at the top of a big hill, with twisting streets leading to a stone fortress at the apex. Some were tourist attractions with castle tours to be had for a few Euros, some had been transformed into hotels or even busy shopping centers. Always, we’d crest the hill, turn a corner, and fly down the other side, leaving to a chorus of “Allez, allez! Bon courage!” from the local people. We had reserved a hotel in St. Meen, 400 kilometers from the start and 1 kilometer off the course, planning for a 3-4 hour sleep stop. While I was feeling better, now my friend was struggling. We had a big meal at Tinteniac, and debated the merits of pushing on to Loudeac or St. Meen open fieldsbefore resting. She was determined to keep at least a two hour buffer on the control windows, and with both of us not feeling our best we’d been moving slowly enough to have only about 90 minutes over our buffer. The meal we’d eaten had guaranteed a “digestive pace” slow down, and we decided to just take a sleep stop while we were here. Seven Euros each bought us beds in a quiet room. I fell asleep almost instantly, and too soon we were awakened as requested. We got back onto our bikes and kept on pedaling as daylight faded into the second night. We reached Loudeac, 450 kilometers from the start, with about 3 hours still in the bank., accompanied by Bob Olsen of NJ and Scott from Iowa.

Another meal at the control. I was already bored with bread and pasta, and I wasn’t sure I would be able to digest a load of protein. I settled for a dismal plate of mashed potatoes. My friend opted for the chicken and pasta, and we passed plates back and forth between us.  The most sustained climbs were yet to come, all in the section between Loudeac and Carhaix. My companion lives with several chronic conditions, and by this point it was clear that she was not simply having a case of “rando-stomach”. She was feeling awful. She wanted to continue, but feared she would slow the rest of us down too much. We debated whether she should keep riding or check herself into the medical facility, and the issue was decided when I made it clear that I would NOT leave her sick on the side of the road if she found she couldn’t continue between controls. She was not willing to risk a group DNF in order to try to finish herself, and with hugs and a few tears we helped her to the medical tent before Bob and I continued pedaling into the night.

The temperature dropped, the hills got longer and more sustained. The stars were brilliant sparks in a pitch black sky. Bob and I chatted to keep each other awake, finally stopping for another 30 minute nap on the floor of a “secret control” at St. Nicholas-du-Pelem. The road was dotted with sleeping randonneurs who had dropped their bikes in the grass and passed out beside them. Every sign post supported a bicycle with a body sprawled somewhere nearby. I ran into Scott in Carhaix and we shared another sad early morning meal at the control – pasta and some braised pork – and parted ways with Bob who had more time in the bank and wanted an extra hour of sleep.

Scott left with me, but the pre-dawn fog was wreaking havoc with his glasses and he had to keep stopping to clean them. His need to stop repeatedly was slowing me down too much and we opted to part ways. I pedaled on into the brightening morning alone. Two hours later, I was feeling full, queasy, and groggy again. This time, it only took me 30 minutes to realize the pasta was sitting in my stomach like another pile of bricks and the calories I’d been eating were not getting to my muscles or brain. A dose of digestive enzymes and another packet of maple syrup and everything was right within a few minutes. Apparently, my body does not appreciate large boluses of gluten-based carbohydrates at 4am, but the fix was easy once I recognized what was happening!

Bridge to BrestMore hills, more rolling farmland, more happy well-fed cows and sheep, and finally I descended to the coast at Brest. I stopped for a photo on the bridge, but never saw the family handing out “mandatory free crepes”. A crepe would have been a welcome respite from the industrial food of the controls, and I pressed on disappointed to have missed them. The route took us through Brest, with a gratuitous 300 foot climb up to the control. I reached it with 45 minutes left in the bank, a margin too slim for comfort.

I’d been squeezing two sphincters for hours, so there was no choice about using the loo at the control. Down a full flight of stairs, thankfully no line for the women’s, but a Turkish-style toilet awaited me. Imagine squatting over a hole in the ground, with filth everywhere, after riding 380 miles. My legs protested mightily as I took care of my somewhat urgent business then slogged back up that full flight of stairs. The line for food was too long for me to wait, so I nibbled from my bike bag and sprawled under a tree for a 15 minute nap before heading back onto the road with no time to spare…

To continue the story…

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