First off, I am so excited to write out more about this epic adventure that I woke up thinking about it this morning. Memories from this next part are VIVID.
The stretch from Saint Nicolas to Carhaix was the section where I thought to myself, okay, this is where the Paris-Brest-Paris really begins for me. It was dark, the middle of the night. On top of it being o'dark-thirty, riding along between Saint Nick and Carhaix, the pea soup fog decided to finally show up. I _knew_ it! I am fairly certain this is a key element to riding PBP. At some point, there will be heavy fog. This is fog so thick that within three minutes my glasses produce lower visibility than riding blind, without them. I cursed my decision to shove on from Saint Nicolas because I was limited to a barely-moving crawl in the poor visibility, blindly feeling my way along the road near the white center line (no fog lines here, hah!). Plus I am fairly certain that stretch of road is absolutely gorgeous to ride through during the daytime, with beautiful forest and ferns. Ah well. After crawling along for what felt like eons, eventually the fog started to lift and I could see well enough again to pick up the pace onward to Carhaix. Often this time of night brings on a big case of the sleepies, but I wasn't feeling especially sleepy yet. It helped that I rode in to Carhaix with another American rider whose name I can't remember (argdarnit!). Every night I seemed to manage to find other English-speaking riders to talk to, and the conversations helped keep up our spirits and keep everyone awake.
This rider had started out an hour before me, so he had only two hours in the bank to my three by the time we reached Carhaix. He'd indicated an interest in continuing to ride together, and I hope I didn't hurt his feelings too badly when I suggested we take care of ourselves individually at Carhaix. For me, managing interpersonal dynamics and trying to coordinate adds an extra level of strain to the ride because it can turn everything into a negotiation that has to be discussed and agreed upon. How long to sleep? Where to eat? What else needs attention? If I were a stronger and more confident rider I would be more interactive, but it felt important to remain self-focused so I could put all my energies towards my goal of completing PBP. I need to ride when I feel good, and stop when I need to stop.
Since it was the middle of the night/morning and dark, and my camera is terrible at taking photos under those conditions, you'll just have to use your imagination for the Carhaix control. I had hoped there would be sleeping cots, but alas, none. Piffle! Instead, there were riders sacked out everywhere: in the hallway by the bathrooms, in the cafeteria, under tables, on top of tables, sitting at tables. One of the best was a rider who had found a full pack of toilet paper and was using it as a pillow. Pillowy-soft indeed!
I got in the food line and started reaching the end of my patience for the control food lines when I got up to the counter and discovered they didn't have any shredded cheese to go on my plain macaroni noodles. Only meat sauce for a topping. I need protein and fat to make those carbs stick! Thankfully, necessity is the mother of invention. When I pleaded, "Fromage?" they gesticulated towards some wedges of brie in a deli case. Walking over to the deli case, I observed little trays holding hard-boiled eggs and tomato slices, as well as some sort of mustard-based salad dressing. Okay, fine. Dinner (? breakfast? Who cares! Calories.) consisted of a huge pasta salad, with slices of brie, tomato, and hard-boiled egg with a mustardy dressing and plenty of salt and pepper. Not too bad, all things considered.
Then I changed into my wool long underwear to give my butt and bike shorts a breather, pulled open my space blanket, and joined the sleeping masses for a snooze.
Stage 9: Carhaix-Plouger to Brest (614 km; halfway mark!)
I had intended to sleep for two restful hours, but after one hour my eyes popped open again. Was it from the discomfort of lying on the cardboard floor, keeping barely-warm? Was it adrenaline? Did it matter? Not really. It seemed pointless to continue trying to lie there, so I got up and got ready to get back on my bike. It was now Tuesday at 4 am, and I knew two things: there was still a mountain range between myself and Brest, and at least last time there were soft sleeping mats in a big gymnasium in Brest. Perhaps my body could be convinced to sleep there.
In retrospect, I should have caloried-up again before departing Carhaix, but I just couldn't bring myself to face that awful food line again. So I was low on calories when it came time to begin the mountain climb. I think I had one or two granola or candy bars stashed away in my food bag. They vaporized while I continued to slog up the hill.
As we rode up and up and up some more, I remembered something I'd read or heard somewhere: you'll know you've reached the summit when you see the tower. In my addled state, I clung to this memory and was only partly fooled by an early false-flat section.
After what felt like several billion years of grinding along (induced in part, no doubt, by being low on calories), at last I spied the red-and-white TV tower. Summit success!
In 2011, everything was completely fogged and misty at the summit, so we didn't have a chance to admire the view. This time, there were clouds in the valleys but we had climbed up above them, and the view was phenomenal. Here's a blurry photo that captures about 5% of the experience. This spot gives you one of those "top of the world!" feelings.
The descent is where things started to get dicey. On all of the descents, I try pretty hard to give myself a big pocket of space, because inevitably my extra mass and adequate aerodynamics cause me to creep up behind a rider who is finding it necessary to brake for some reason and waste all the potential energy they gained on the climb up. My safety pocket was fine, but the descent then became so tedious that I started getting incredibly sleepy - something that has happened before, out on Mission Road on an Arizona overnight 200k. This is where I came as close as I've ever come to hallucinating, only I never saw anything lucid, just something that looked like a computer circuitboard that popped up and made me think, "Oh, hello, I guess this is what people are talking about when they talk about hallucinating from sleep deprivation." Shortly after that, I managed to have another sleepy thought: maybe I should take this as a sign that I should take a nap RIGHT NOW.
I pulled over in the first spot that seemed like a logical napping spot to my sleep-addled brain: a concrete traffic island. I fished out my space blanket and wrapped myself up in a sitting position, resting my crossed arms on my knees, my head down on my crossed arms. Pretty soon it became apparent that this was insufficient, so I rolled over onto my side and passed out for a few minutes to the sound of bicycle freewheels whizzing past and the occasional chuckle of laughter.
On the Lincoln overnight 200k brevet in July, S and I hit a point at Hickman where we started to get extremely sleepy. S suggested that we pull over and take a 10-minute nap, and I agreed. That was all it took for me to feel refreshed and finish out the rest of that ride. That concrete traffic-island nap had a similar effect: I found I had enough energy to carry on. It seemed silly to stop in the middle of a downhill stretch, to sleep in such an uncomfortable location, but I have zero regrets.
Twenty miles outside of Brest, there's a small town called Sizun. In 2011, S and I stopped at a creperie here for some buckwheat crepes stuffed with goat cheese and mushrooms, YUM! I was still low on food in my food bag when I reached Sizun, so a stop was mandatory. For some reason, I didn't feel like lingering in the creperie this time around, in good part because I remembered the service being very French (i.e. took their time to prepare top-notch cuisine), and because I needed more calories than that. Calories for my belly and calories for my food bag. As I paused to peer at other potential options, I spied, aha! A boulangerie!
I got in the line, five cyclists deep. Someone up ahead of me recognized me somehow. It was a British cyclist named Simon, who had ridden in PBP 2011 with RG. He'd recognized my helmet from photos from the Seattle-to-Portland that RG had posted on Facebook. I was too deliriously low on calories to do much more than croak out a hello and weak smile. Then someone else in line, looking at the pastry case, ordered a slice of rhubarb galette, and instantly I knew that I would need to append my croissant order. One pain-au-chocolate, one plain croissant for the snack bag, and a slice of rhubarb galette, s'il vous plaît.
The second I bit into that rhubarb galette, fresh and still slightly warm, I knew it was PERFECT brevet food. THIS is what I came to ride Paris-Brest-Paris for. Okay, this and the amazing scenery. I can tolerate some sugar, but I have to be careful to not eat too much sweet stuff or it will make eating too off-putting and I'll go back into that deep, dark Land of Low Calories. Dangerous. The rhubarb galette most definitely contained sugar, but also a restorative dose of almond flour, and of course I had to enjoy the rhubarb in honor of S. Long-lasting calories and protein for the push to Brest. The enormous slice disappeared in about 30 seconds, and I was ready to push on. I need to find their recipe.
The PBP organizers made some changes to the route into and out of Brest this year. The first sign that we were getting close to Brest was that vehicular traffic picked up. I remember feeling exasperated about that in 2011, too. While the vast majority of French drivers are conscientious, I think there's a universal element to driving where anybody driving along suburban roads is prone to bombing along at frenetic speeds, incognizant of anything other than a desire to GET SOMEWHERE FAST!! After all of the gracious and welcoming country drivers, carefully alert to the presence of 6000 cyclists, it was a shock to be back in a place where most people just don't give a damn about you and your ridiculous bike because you're in the way between them and the mall.
I didn't have any close calls, but I didn't exactly enjoy this section, either. Finally, after being escorted by the suburban drivers up and down and up and down some mighty large hills (oof, those'll hurt on the way out), the trees parted and we observed a majestic vista of ocean and coastline, with Brest off in the near distance. Just ahead, an iconic bridge crossing, the perfect spot for a photo! A British rider kindly indulged and snapped one for me.
Note especially my forlorn empty flagpole, and how I have utilized every last inch of elastic on my trunk bag to air out all of my cycling laundry. Also note that handy polka-dotted bandana tied to my Camelback - one of the most invaluable tools I carried along!
As we crossed the bridge and started ascending yet another beastly Brest hill, a rider remarked, "Up next, a pointless tour along the shipyards!" Fortunately, he was wrong: this was the section that got modified. We rode through a few more city streets, and then suddenly, we were there, at the Brest control.
Up next: the return from Brest, including another epic nap.