Fast forward a few more months to late August on the roads in France, and on the initial kilometers leading away from the Fougeres control Phil rolls up from behind, having erased the gap between our start times. The pouring rain from when I had arrived at the control had now ceased and Phil and I chatted as we put Fougeres behind us. It was wonderful to have someone to chat with, but as the roadway began to slope uphill a bit, Phil began to ease ahead. I told him I hoped to see him further down the road but instead he slowed to stay with me for just a bit. The overcast seemed to have thinned a little and the weak daylight became a little stronger as we had left Fougeres but now with a few kilometers behind us, the cloud cover returned to the same thick and complete grey as before and pockets of drizzle began again as we negotiated a traffic circle where Phil decided to pull off and eat. I guess I wasn't the only one that didn't eat as I should at the controls.
The traffic circles on the PBP route were never hard to negotiate. The only time I encountered traffic actually in the circles was upon approaching Fougeres in heavy rain, but generally the circles were lightly trafficed and covered with the PBP directional signs and as a result easy to handle. The terrain on this segment from the Fougeres control to the next control at Tinteniac was much flatter than what I had covered before noon. This was a mixed blessing though, as the trade off for less climbing brought less varied landscape to see. As well, there were fewer riders to see, and this made a difference, a difference on my mind as well as legs. With out as many cyclists ahead to mentally pace my ride, and with less interesting terrain and fewer of the beautiful and tidy small villages to punctuate the route my pace seemed to slow and trying to increase my speed, calling on reserves that just weren't there gave me a sense of a lack of power. It clearly was a slog at this point.
Somewhere along the route, in a town whose name I can't now place, the rain began to come down hard. The route took a sharp turn to the right and began to climb through town as it passed a small store, the closest I had seen to a 'convenience' type store since leaving Paris. Many riders were slowing pedaling along continuing the climb but there was one rider already stopped at this store. Though it hadn't been long since my last stop, I turned right into the lot and put my bike under the overhang that the front of the building provided and headed inside in search of the saltiest food I could find, while another rider pulled up and parked near my bike. I must have looked pretty well used up as I stood dripping in line at the cashier. The patron in front of me addressed me in English and wondered how I was doing. It was good to speak to someone, anyone, but I could really not hide the fact that I was pretty demoralized at this point. He told me he had done PBP in year's past and wished me well. He knew, he said, that the ride was a challenge even under better conditions than this day. I went outside to eat as much of the bag of chips I bought as I could and scanned the riders going past for someone I knew. There were so many riders going by at this point, and I wondered why that would seem so.
At every low point something always came along to change the mental and physical landscape and on these long, straight and flat roads between towns I began to see riders in Audax events heading in the opposite direction. The first group I saw was approaching an intersection and in the process of calling a brief halt so that their tight formation was unravelling slightly. As earlier on my own ride when the sun had come up, this addition brought a number of new wonderful bikes to gawk at. I saw at least two more groups like this, perhaps in the same event but riding at different paces from the other groups. While they too must have ridden in the rain, that rain had ceased when I spotted their groups but shortly after their passing the rain began once more and the cloud cover was thick enough I lost track of where the sun was and therefore which direction I was headed in. I had put on my Rainlegs once more, but the right leg cover was tormenting me by binding up and then popping loose every three pedal strokes. It is impossible that the Rainlegs would cause this, but I began to feel knee pains starting with the right knee and shortly after both knees. Never seeming to dry out, even though it was no longer as cold as the previous night, the constant dampness was taking its toll on my legs. As I approached a side road crossing, I turned right, off course and headed off a modest distance for a little privacy as I 'offloaded' some fluids. As I slowly returned to the main road I heard a strikingly familiar voice talking non-stop as a pack of riders rolled on by. It was Kitty Goursolle, a rider I knew from so many of the brevets and double centuries around Northern California. I had met Kitty the year before on the SFR Williams 400km, a hideously windy brevet held the year before in March. As usual, Kitty was happy as a clam just rolling along chatting with a bunch of riders. I was no where near ready to roll off at that point, so with some small regret I let them go by without making my presence known. Without being able to spot them ahead, I still knew I was on the right route simply by the never ending clues of spent energy gel tubes sprinkled on the route by previous riders. I never saw anyone using these so I wondered if their use was something unique to the 80 hour riders. It irritated me seeing the otherwise spotless roadside littered with this debris.
The ache in my knees that began at this point would not leave for several days. At times it wasn't really much of an issue, but ultimately it would change my ride and change it completely. A sure sign that you are feeling the effects of limited sleep is when irritation at the smallest things can overwhelm you. Though I didn't know how close I was at this point to the next control, I had a flat tire just a handful of kilometers before Tinteniac. Though the flat was the front wheel, and therefore should have been a bit easier to deal with, I still had to work to keep my irritation from erupting into something else. Getting control of myself, I set to work on fixing the problem as I stood in a grassless triangle formed by intersecting roads. Riders in ones, twos and sometimes more would pass by, and it bothered me that I knew I'd see no one familiar, and that fed a feeling of isolation. Knees beginning to ache, intermittent rain, a flat tire when the roads had been smooth and clean and being alone in a crowd. All these things were like too much rain on a fire scorched hillside. After pumping up the tire my back complained as I straightened up but before I could put the wheel back on the bike a car that had passed came circling around and pulled up beside me. The French couple that got out into the rain didn't speak English but I knew they were simply checking on me and asking if I needed assistance. At low ebb, my psyche needed the boost that came from total strangers checking on my welfare would provide. 'Merci' I replied and I indicated that I was nearly set. They smiled and watched me reassemble everything and roll off down the road with a wave.
Tinteniac is a very small town, and yet it was just hopping with activity. I felt pretty well ragged out by the time I reached the bike parking and it was good to see that the activity was made up of riders as well as specators. That meant I was still in the thick of things. Just as I parked, I spotted Bruce and Dan, and was pretty well surprised to find that I was only a half hour behind them, basically the time of their stay at the control. (I later learned I was an hour and a half behind, not just half an hour.) I could not leave with them and knew they could not stay any longer so after the briefest of conversations, filled mostly of news of which riders we knew that had called it quits already, they rode off. I hurried through the check-in for the control and hurried through the line at the loo, and then knew I needed to slow down and rest while consuming some kind of fuel. The best I could do given what was offered was to drink a bowl of hot cocoa. I nibbled some of my supplies, the appricots and cashews, and ate some of the sandwich I had been carrying since the day before, and after indulging in some people watching I headed off for my bike and a resumption of my ride.
The rest was short, shorter than I wanted and yet it did absolute wonders for me. The terrain after the Tinteniac control changed considerably from long flat roads to one full of huge rollers, climbs that weren't hills really but where I could not coast past and over without some added effort. Before the control I was beginning to be passed by more riders than I passed, but after the control I was catching and passing everyone. I'll never know for certain, but the lack of caution simply because my legs felt better and my energy was up may have in the end sped up the more severe ache in my knees.
The first town after Tinteniac is the town of Becherel and as I approached the town I realized that I was lugging this camera with me, one purchased specifically for this trip, and I wasn't slowing down to take any photos. The shot above that introduces this segment of the story is one of the shots I took entering town along a long, straight, uphill run that aimed directly at the church in the center of town. As with so many of the towns and villages along the route, I was impressed with the neatness of this place, and I imagine it would stand out all the more if only the sun were shining. If only.
End of Part 6