Monday, March 2, 2009

2007 PBP, Part 2: Into the night

Over the years I've heard so many stories of Paris, Brest et Retour and I was slightly disappointed that the rain had seemingly suppressed the crowd size and enthusiasm. This was a mistaken impression though. After the gun signaled our start as our bundle of 500 riders spread out with each meter we now covered I could see that hundreds of spectators were stationed all along the route for the first dozen kilometers through the contiguous communes that help make up Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines. I could tell by the faces I passed on the roadside that while spectators were scanning the riders for familiar faces, they also were intent on cheering for everyone riding by. Even if this particular experience were isolated to this one point on the ride, I knew I would remember it for a long, long time. This respect and appreciation for the cyclists however, would play out over and over again and at all times through the day and night.

Having done a ride in the daylight that covered the several dozen kilometers of the route I knew very well that with rain soaked streets and hundreds of riders surrounding me it was best to be very cautious. (I heard later of a somewhat spectacular accident at kilometer 10 on the route and can only be glad that there weren't more of those stories to be told.) Even still, with the early roads closed to the other kind of traffic there were stretches of multiple lane roadway where passing wouldn't be such a risk. Bit by bit, the amount of street light illumination lessened and ever so slightly the number of buildings decreased. Early on I made the decision to drop off of Bruce and Dan's pace, and I had lost track of pretty much everyone else I had started with. I knew Bruce and Dan were just ahead and figured everyone else that I knew was also (save for Kevin, and the other riders I knew that chose later start times), but at the same time I knew I had passed many other riders and was somewhere in the first quarter of our start wave. I had a pretty good sense of where I was in the world based on the short, exploratory ride we did on Saturday, but I would reach the extent of that knowledge once we passed Gambais.

The darkness robbed the landscape of detail and all that was left was the roadway the short distance ahead that my lights and those of my fellow riders could illuminate. The darkness also took away any sense of the contours that the road bed crossed so instead of that input I concentrated on all the riders nearby, and while I couldn't understand one tenth of what was spoken around me, the overheard conversations still had meaning. After passing through the center of the village of Gambais, I would be riding beyond the extent of my meager local knowledge and the villages and towns for some time would become much further apart and much smaller. Just outside of Gambais, where the roadway had risen a bit to stand above the fields to the north I pulled off the road and collected my thoughts as I ate a Clif bar. The rain had temporarily lessened at this point and while I could not see the horizon, I could sense that we were now in a much more open country side. Perhaps the darkness just seemed that much more complete. While before the overheard conversations had been more energetic and upbeat, it seems clear looking back that this is where everyone began to look more inward.

Every Randonneur, to some extent, will address the hazards of riding at night with cycling gear of some sort. A variety of lights were on display, some good, some not so good but all in some way addressed the physical darkness all around. There is another hazard, which may just be a personal one, that lights can't seem to address. During daylight riding, there is an abundance of sources of input. During the night time though, you can't see as far down the road, you can't tell exactly what kind of vehicle is overtaking you, and you can't as easily focus on the landscape to either side of you. When you ride through towns, most of the buildings are shuttered. The danger then is that too much of the focus will now be on what is going on inside your head. This is where the hazard lay. What one really needs is a 'head' lamp to chase away all the dark thoughts inside your head. As Monday became Tuesday, and each rain squall was followed by another, I could easily have succumbed to this hazard and let misery write the soundtrack for images monopolized by rain and darkness. I'm not an outgoing person, especially in new situations and all of what surrounded me sure qualified as new.

After my brief break by the side of the road, I pushed on and regained my earlier momentum, passing again some of the riders I had seen earlier, while small waves of other riders passed me. The break in the rain after Gambais was over and the roadway, never in danger of drying out, was getting new puddles. I envied those riders who were obviously members of a group with that group surrounding them as we passed each other. It would have been wonderful to talk to someone at this point in the ride, if for nothing else than to share some of the sights the darkness allowed. At one point well outside of any of the small villages, the landscape undulated and cresting one high point in these undulations I could see miles ahead as the line of riders snaked across the lower section of fields and then climbed up the next modest hill. Desperate for visual input, I knew now that I was still close to the front of the 90 hour group. Cresting a small rise, I could see the lights of the lead riders glimmering dimly through the rain. They were less than two miles ahead, with a denser concentration of lights at the front, slowly fading to dimmer light behind. As quickly as that sight came, it disappeared as I rolled downhill. The sight of the lead group, which I doubt would have happened in the daylight gave me a little surge until the rain intensified once more and my hamstring, which I had tweaked a few weeks before, told me to back off. That hamstring was a worry I brought with me on the ride but I was able to keep the problem in check and it never really hindered my riding. Just the opposite, it was an effective warning bell to heed when my pace was too fast. Speed on the first night by itself would not get me back to Paris. I suspect though that I would not have even noticed the tender hamstring if it weren't for the constant rain and the overnight chill.

It was only while passing through the villages that I would have enough light to read my wristwatch, but then I didn't bother to check the time. There was too much activity to pay heed at that time and checking the time fell down the list, along with noting the names of the villages I passed through. None were like the small towns we rode through on the qualifiying brevets in Northern California, and I had not memorized the names or the order of the towns and villages the route would pass through. Most of these villages were compact, and with building styles that held a theme. For example, the stone fences from house to house would indicate a coordination when they were built. Sections of cobbles would present themselves near what I took to be the center of each village. Riding through one town that I believe was Nogent-le-roi was particularly memorable. Instead of the direct, straight through path, we wound through town, circling back and climbing in elevation along the way. Part way along there were PBP volunteers directing riders through the maze of streets. The lighting too was memorable, casting wonderful shadows as the riders passed by.

Joel Metz in Nogent-le-roi Photo courtesy of Gregg Bleakney,

In one small village I pulled off to use the phone booth to call home. I could not find my calling card and decided I was taking too much time looking for it. Ten kilometers later, in the next village I decided that the rain was calling for more riding gear so I stopped near by someone changing a flat on their recumbent. In each village, regardless of the time, there was always some local or locals standing outside watching the procession. In this village, that role was left to one small and very aged man. He waited for a gap in the bicycle traffic (and in the wee small hours of the night this still took some time) and crossed over to talk to me. We communicated only to a small degree as he watched me unpack and repack my gear and eat. My hearing loss as I age, and his loss of teeth through the years would have made my understanding him difficult even if I were able to speak any French (which I can not, alas). After telling me what he wanted to tell me, he went over to the recumbent rider finishing up the repair of his flat tire. Even still, the exchange made me glad to be part of an event that was such a big deal in the French countryside.

End of Part 2


Anonymous said...

Though I need to be getting to bed, I read this through from beginning to end. Couldn't stop. Very interesting - and good writing! I'm looking forward to more installments, and perhaps achieving my own dream of riding PBP someday.-- Matt Isaacs

Fatmex said...

When is part 3 coming? I'm with anonymous. My boss has chastised me for not working. Oh well. A bad day at the office will never beat a good PBP story.

I will ride in 2011. See you there.


rob hawks said...


Thanks for the comments. I'm waiting on the arrival of some images to add to the future segments of the pbp thread. Night time photos are in short supply. Plus, I'm writing a lot of this on lunch hours at work (so I don't run afoul of *my* boss)


Anonymous said...

Your description of the taillights stringing out over the rolling landscape ahead is excellent. My strongest impression of the first night of PBP, too.