Thursday, March 5, 2009

PBP 2007, Part 3: Hours til dawn

By the time I arrived in France for this trip, I had listened to numerous PBP stories, hearing most of them while riding the qualifying brevets that spring. Spending yet more time with other riders in the days leading up to the start, I heard many new stories and it was becoming difficult to arrange the data points I acquired in a geographically correct order. This was especially hard when my grasp of French geography was tenuous at best. I had just ridden through a town larger than most so far, with a well lit and inviting cafe surrounded by cyclists. I saw no one I knew and felt compelled to keep moving, at the same time regretting passing up the stop. The route led through town, and then climbed up away from the center. Was this Mortagne-au-Perche? Wasn't there supposed to be a large church at the top of the hill outside of town? Maybe there was a church atop a hill outside some town somewhere ahead but it wasn't here, not unless the village church was to be found in the middle of the forest. Realizing that I was most likely confusing the details of more than one locale from more than one story, I instead focused on the climb before me. This I felt I could master.

Until this point, I had always been able to see a rider or two, or more often a dozen, ahead of me and could also tell that there were several riders just behind me. While I didn't feel all that strong just at this point, somehow I had outpaced all the other riders nearby as we went uphill from the village center. The darkness in between villages in the open fields was no comparison to the darkness I now found in the forest I was passing through. The light from my headlamp playing on the branches of the trees as they met over the middle of the roadway accentuated the impression of a riding through a tunnel. Lacking much sunlight during the day, this part of the route probably never warmed up much and now the chill helped produce visible exhalations. Without riders I could see ahead of me to confirm I was on the right path, I began to wonder if I was going the right way. There were no turns I could have taken so I must be on the right road, but doubt was gaining hold. A car approached from ahead, and strangely it's mere presence seemed menacing. This was the exact point at which I wished I had a fellow rider from back home to ride with. Instead, I decided to take any chance to talk with another rider that came my way.

The climb up into the forest had separated me from all the other riders nearby, but finally the ride through the forest ended after a long but slightly downhill run, itself followed by one more climb. Unlike the previous climb, this one tended to bunch up the other riders and again I was connected to the pack. The special velos had started in the wave just before the wave I was in, and all along the route up to this point I was catching and passing some of the recumbents and tandems that had a head start. While this was somewhat puzzling, that I should catch those riders on terrain that should really favor them, I didn't dwell on overmuch. Catching up to one of those riders though offered me my first chance to chat. I was paying attention to the jerseys of the riders I would come upon, using that as a clue about what language they might speak. One of the recumbent riders was wearing a familiar jersey, or so I thought so I asked him where he was from. I was right about him being from the U.S., but not at all about him being local to where I came from. He was from the East Coast, not quite as far from Northern California as one could get and still be a fellow countryman. As I matched his speed as we chatted, numerous other riders began to surround us. With more rain falling and it being hours til dawn, our primary effort needed to be directed toward riding in the pack and our brief conversation ended.

Heading into the next village a small pack of riders caught the group I was with and as they passed, I got my first contact with a fellow rider from the Bay Area. Keith Beato, who had started in a later wave, heard me call out and as I sped up a little he slowed down a little to say hello. He had seen no other riders we both knew and I let him know what I knew about who was ahead of me. While I would much rather have ridden with someone I knew, very much so, the fact that Keith had closed the gap between our start times plus the fact that I could tell it was an effort to match his pace meant that I'd be riding alone in a crowd for a while longer. Keith rolled on and I settled back into a pace more likely to allow me to reach Loudeac, the one-third-way point where I had a room waiting and a planned rest.

To arrive at that one-third point, though, there were many kilometers to cover, and many of those still to be ridden in the dark. From this point onward during the remaining night-time riding I was surrounded by other riders. I cared not if those other riders spoke English. Simply the sound of other conversations was good. Finally arriving at Mortange-au-Perche some time after 03:00, I mistook the road-side stand in the town center for the Contrôle ravitaillement (supply control). The rain had eased at this point and was no more than a sprinkle. Many of the riders stopped here and the stand was swarmed by hungry and thirsty riders. I needed the break and I needed water and wanted to get off the bike and buy a bottle. Just getting to the table was a struggle as riders crowded in, shouted out their orders and did what they could to get the attention of the overwhelmed staff behind the tables. Those poor souls were pulled in several directions at once and it took forever for anyone reluctant to be pushy to get their attention. "mai j'ai un peu d'eau s'il vous plaît?" Often, a worker there would turn to get what I ordered and upon turning back the bottle would be grabbed by someone else and money shoved into their hands. I did get my water and spent time just rearranging items in my bag, taking a quick bite to eat as well. Though many riders passed through, pausing or stopping, I didn't recognize anyone.

I finally remounted my bike when the rain began to come down a little harder. Imagine the surprise when I found the official supply control just a kilometer away. The activity seen at the food vendor's stand in the town center was totally absent at the official control. Here, bikes were parked everywhere, hundreds of them, but few riders seemed to be around at all. Those that were seemed to be moving with no great haste. I parked and walked indoors and was a bit lost as to why I was stopping, and my confusion showed to the woman greeting the riders upon their entry. It was warm inside, and riders filled all the tables available. I scanned the crowd and saw no one I knew and in fact saw no one I could identify as a countryman. Some riders were drinking beer, which is something I can do after a ride, but not during. As I'm still in search of the perfect source of energy on a ride, maybe I'll consider this in the future, but right then, it did not appeal to me. After doing one circuit of the hall, I went back outside where it was raining more heavily, got back on my bike and began to pedal just to get some warmth back.

Note: I'd like to thank Ivo Miesen for the use of his photos. Ivo's PBP photo album can be found here: http://fotoalbum.dds.nl/ivo_m/pbp2007

End of Part 3

5 comments:

Fatmex said...

Do you wish you knew more French to converse a bit more during the ride, in general, and night-time riding, in particular?

rob hawks said...

Absolutely! While the trip was not a last minute thing for me, there was doubt that it would happen at all. I had been laid off from work the winter before and found a job five months before. Uncertainty like that sometimes leads to a lack of preparation and I skimped on language. In further posts I'll be touching on the language theme again.

Fatmex said...

I may be overly ambitious then, to want to plan a family vacation in Europe around the PBP, do you think?
I plan perhaps, on staying in Switzerland with relatives and taking train to Paris 1 week before start. I get back sometime before 90 hrs and we stay the rest of the week to recover and savor and relive the adventure and the moment.

Have you considered vacation house swaps with people in France wanting to do extended stay here in the US.

rob hawks said...

Several friends did just this (house swaps). Others did the family trip before PBP and then did the ride. Do what ever adds the *least* amount of stress before the ride.

Anonymous said...

That cafe in the dark -- I remember that from the return trip in '03, and I spotted it as we whizzed past in '07. I arrived there at about 5 a.m., just about done in. The hot chocolate there kept me going to the next (and next-to-last) control ....