Paris-Brest-Paris 2019: Sleep Stop Serenade
Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP), Day 3. Around 30 miles to reach Mortagne-au-Perche, and my watch says it’s close to midnight. Despite momentary jubilation over a math miscalculation where I thought we had more than 50 miles left for the day, I’ve resorted to slogging. Over 600 miles of pedaling has eliminated all pop in the legs.
I recall this stretch between Villaines-la-Juhel and Mortagne eight years ago – it was the slow roll of the zombies. Not this time. This time, it’s just slow steady circles into the crystal clear night around other quiet steady riders.
We mixed with the truly sleep-deprived earlier on, during the return from Brest to Loudeac mostly. I absently wonder how they are doing, but I’m happy nobody is weaving into our line. It’s a sedate, if slow, march to Mortagne.
We follow the rows of red taillights to town. Given the late hour, I welcome their company. Up, down, up down. The glow of city lights eventually appears. Mortagne. Finally. Only 75 miles to go. The big days are done, and – ever since reaching the midway point at Brest with two hours to spare – we have pedaled well ahead of controle windows.
In 2011, we arrived in Mortagne and I was amped up, full of a desire to keep going. Not this round. This time I’m excited about a victory nap. That’s right, my first PBP present for 2019 is some shuteye. The ride’s never over ’til it’s over, but I have that feeling I get when I’m certain we’ll finish – a mix of relief, gratitude, and confidence. Even if I have to crawl to the finish on my elbows, we’re going to make it. But first, this nap.
Jerry, Ed, and I wander over to the gymnasium where the sleeping accommodations are. Three or four people sit behind a table with a chart of the “beds” available. They have a very organized system, and it looks like they have room. I have no idea what anyone is saying. Next PBP, I learn more French. Helpfully, the volunteers have set out a map of the beds and a paper clock with moveable hands so I can indicate a 6 o’clock wakeup. Jerry emphasizes that he is sleeping 30 minutes later than us – he’s our efficient friend.
One of the volunteers tells us our bed numbers and we follow the sleep manager to our respective spaces, which are basically thin yoga mats laid out side by side on the hard floor. The sleep manager points out my spot and I set my watch alarm to vibrate me awake at 6 a.m. One lesson I’ve learned in life – don’t rely on anybody else to wake you.
The overnight controle volunteers tell us that the showers are cold, but Jerry doesn’t care, he takes one anyway and then tells Felkerino and me that the water is warm. Sleep? Shower? Sleep? Shower? I weigh the two for a millisecond and then tell Jerry I am sleeping. A dirty sleep will do me good, and I can’t wait.
It took three straight days and 685 miles over constant rollers to arrive at this point in Mortagne. So much pedaling and effort! This is celebratory sleep, a dream-state prize for a dirty bike rider. We’ll tackle the remaining miles soon enough, I tell myself, knowing that we’d take a different tack if the last days hadn’t proven so delightful and the forecast didn’t look so promising.
We’ve had such a lucky PBP. Synced up with our friend Jerry early on, and stayed together ever since. Hung out quite a bit with San Francisco Randonneurs Rob, Roy, and Anson, and spent three days leap-frogging with Chip, Gavin, and Bill, who we know well from D.C. Randonneurs rides. We met others along the way, but this has generally been our rider pod.
Unlike grand randonnees in the U.S., the French people have overwhelmingly cheered our endeavor. Controles have been well-staffed with volunteers and we’ve encountered roadside stands run by families offering us water, crepes, even wine and other treats.
No matter the hour, people have given riders support and encouragement. “Bon courage.” “Bonne route!” “Allez! Allez!” Their generosity and enthusiasm melts me and I can’t stop smiling.
Yes, Day 1 entailed a 280-mile day complete with steady headwind to Brest from Rambouillet, but with so much sun I’ll gladly take the breezes. In 2011 it rained so steadily for the first two days that I hardly saw the course.
For this edition, the overnights turned cool and temps dipped into the low 40s, but winds subsided in the evenings and the moon rose like a delicious roasted marshmallow to illuminate our way and keep the constellations company every night.
An unwelcome clunking came from the headset over the last two days – there’s always something novel going on with our tandem – but it never impaired our progress and we had no flats with our Gravel Kings. The sparkly green apple Co-Motion sailed up and over the rises like a champ. Our fit on the bike was excellent, and I guess the training miles paid off because I had minimal discomfort throughout the ride.
Oh yes, except for that moment late on Day 2 when Ed avoided dumping us over a curb only to run us into the side of a building. That was uncomfortable. He stayed upright somehow and fortunately we were going at a mostly slow speed, but I toppled over with the bike. Luckily the only casualty was my left pinky finger, which seemed sprained but not broken. And I could still ride with my hands on the bars. The bike wheel stayed true, and the tandem is such a beast we didn’t endo. So not too much to complain about, really.
Unlike 2011, when the 84-hour ride felt like you were barely ahead of the sag wagon, many more riders were in our midst throughout this edition of PBP. The Brest controle closed the kitchen on us again, but I didn’t take it as personally this round. Brest rush hour still sucks as much as ever, but no more or less than last time.
Climbing away from Brest, my mood faltered. While wondering how we would make it to Tinteniac, let alone Loudeac, an amazing U.K. rider suddenly appeared and pulled our flagging butts over the Roc’h Trevezel, buoying my spirits in time with the gradual ascent and injecting verve into my legs. A million thanks to that guy, he saved my attitude on that segment.
Now at the Mortagne overnight, volunteers have placed wool blankets on top of our yoga mat beds. There are no pillows so I pull out my rain jacket and it substitutes perfectly for the job. With this move, I’ve used every piece of gear I brought with me. That’s its own kind of victory and I close my eyes. I drift off briefly then hear somebody nearby snoring. I follow the noise and realize it’s Felkerino.
Unlike regular nights he’s too far away for me to poke at him to roll over, so I accept his snoring as part of the late night PBP experience. Others snore, too, I can’t run around poking everyone. Someone lies down next to me and unfolds the LOUDEST SPACE BLANKET EVER. I take it in stride. These are the musical instruments of the PBP overnight, the space blanket nothing more than the cymbal crashes of the sleep stop serenade. As long as I’m off my feet it’s pretty much fine with me, and I relax into the chorus of sounds.
For the last three days so much of our action has been purpose driven. Pedal to the controle, refill bottles, eat. Ride more, eat more, stop for a bathroom break, push to the next controle. Put on reflectives, turn on lights, don layers, keep going.
Settling into the Mortagne stop is pure release from the perpetual pushing, and the overnight noises play a nocturne serenade. Footsteps guide sleepy riders to their mats. Musical alarms bounce through the room. Some continue at length and my mind drifts along with their chirpy melodies.
The high ceiling of the large gymnasium scatters the sounds and sends them swinging gently about. “Beep! Beep! Beep!” alarms ring from the beds. Intermittent snores carry through the space. Occasional whispers and hushed voices cascade around us.
Riders rustle themselves to sleep and hours later ease their way off the floor to patter their way out of the gym and start the next day’s ride. More footsteps follow. Repeat. The songs of the night swirl, filling my heart and calming me in ways I didn’t anticipate.
I’m so happy we are not riding through this chilly evening, grateful we had time in the bank to indulge these three blissful hours. Further into the night the room becomes colder and I reach into my helmet purse for my wind jacket. I lie back down and am cozy again.
Hours pass and my eyes open before my alarm has a chance to buzz me awake. Languid, I lift myself off my rain jacket pillow and discard my blanket. I sit on my heels to stretch my feet, and see my neighbor, who I realize is Mr. Loudest Space Blanket Ever, doing the same thing. He moves quietly now, absent his crackly sheet of mylar.
I put on new cycling shorts for the final day – I have my dirty bike rider limits – and Ed, Jerry, and I join our friends Gavin, Bill, and Chip for breakfast in the cafeteria.
It’s a goofy morning, with all of us in various stages of readiness. Some guy walks around the controle with an Eiffel Tower labeled PBP stacked on top of his helmet. I bet he gets his photo taken a lot. I eat an omelette and instant mashed potatoes, and down a bowl of coffee – what I consider a classic PBP meal. Bill buys me a banana, Jerry drinks multiple bowls of tea, and Gavin reads the PBP Times. I’m not sure what Ed’s doing, but I see it involves a breakfast Coke.
After about 30 minutes, we wrap up breakfast activities and head outside to our bikes. A rider is splayed out in what Jerry calls the starfish pose, and since he’s passed out in a disability parking space, Ed wonders if somebody is going to ticket him. Three days of constant riding, and we think we’re pretty funny.
The sun rises almost fully over the horizon. The final day beckons.
Fueled and rested from our sleep stop serenade, we roll out of Mortagne for our final 75 miles. Moments like these are the reason I keep coming back to randonneuring. Over the last three days I fell in love with this ride and, for at least a few hours, PBP sang for me and loved me back.
Thank you for reading. To those who followed us all along our PBP journey, we so appreciate it; your cheers from near and far kept us moving! Thanks to Jerry for his excellent company, and to Carolyn for volunteering, and then greeting and cheering us at the finish. It was so awesome to catch up with both of you!
I took a lot of photos along the way and you can find them here. I still have lots of tagging and labeling to do, so if you see somebody or someplace you recognize, please leave a comment.
Thanks to Audax Club Parisien (ACP) and all the volunteers and families who make this unique event happen. Finally, big thanks to Felkerino (his fabulous PBP write-up here), my partner in all things bicycles and beyond. I love you even more than sleep, and that’s saying a lot. We made it, and I look forward to what comes next.