As I mentioned in my introduction to my series of blog posts on Paris-Brest-Paris, food was a major reason that I wanted to participate in this event — because I love food and France, of course, is a culinary paradise.
So aside from my initial concerns about the weather (but with a promising forecast, my fears about any rain were quelled), I was preoccupied by what food I’d find on route. I was looking forward to a moveable feast and wanted to indulge in gourmet treats as much as possible. But I knew that wouldn’t always be practical due to the ever-ticking clock, and I’d also heard from many seasoned riders that the 15 controls could be a dangerous time suck. (These are mandatory checkpoints where you’d have to get your brevet card stamped and could also eat, shower and rest. They were usually set up at local schools that had the facilities to accommodate nearly 6000 hungry, bleary-eyed riders.) So I’d loaded up my handlebar and drop bags with tons of energy bars as a backup plan to save time.
The velodrome at Saint-Quentin-En-Yvelines served as the start and finish control, followed by the optional stop in the town of Mortagne-au-Perche. Then you’d head to Villaines-la-Juhel, Fougères, Tinténiac and Quedillac. (The latter was another optional waypoint, and sticks in my memory due to a (now comical) incident on the outbound leg. As I walked towards the food tent, a makeshift chain link fence erected in the bike parking area happened to collapse on me as I walked by. Fortunately I was still wearing my helmet when one of the metal poles clonked me on the head, so I wasn’t injured in the slightest.)
The official event pamphlet (hilariously) describes Loudéac with this somber warning: “In this area, you will experience one of the steepest parts of PBP. You will not have enough time to visit our town.” Well, all righty then — we’ll just have to come back for sightseeing another time! Saint-Nicolas-du-Pélem, listed on our cards as another services only stop, turned out to be a “secret”, or unannounced control, so we had to get our cards stamped in both directions. Carhaix-Plouguer has commendably served 10 times as a control and was the final stop before the turnaround point in Brest. Then we backtracked on the same route, with just one addition as the penultimate stage: the town of Dreux, located about 65km (roughly 40 miles) from the finish.
I was lucky enough to share the same starting time slot as a fun group of randonneurs from North Carolina (later dubbed the “Tarheel Party Posse” by velomobile Bill, another rando): Mike, Luke and John, aka the “Cap’n”. Both Mike and Cap’n were PBP anciens, so they knew exactly where and when to stop. Luke and I were both PBP virgins, so we let these fine bon vivants lead the way. And Ian, who I’ve ridden with on two other grande randonnées, met up with us later on in the ride at the inbound stop at Carhaix. His personal rando motto is, “Ride hard, eat much and sleep little.”
About 50 miles away from St. Quentin, we spotted our first opportunity to buy sandwiches and drinks from a roadside entrepreneur in Châteauneuf-en-Thymerais. I got stuck waiting in a terribly long bathroom line inside of a café, so I just hastily grabbed a bottle of water and dug into my handlebar bag for sustenance. Fortunately Cap’n was still lingering behind and we rode onwards together to Mortagne-au-Perche. I’m fairly certain he spent several miles singing the praises of his baguette with ham, cheese and butter — the first of many to come — as he happily hummed along from its calories (washed down with a Coke) that would carry him all the way to the next control.
click images to enlarge
It was often a mad scramble of confusion when one first pulled into a control, especially at night. Finding parking in the vast sea of bicycles (and memorizing the spot in order to retrieve it successfully later on) was the first order of business, then you had to hurry off to the area where volunteers were stamping brevet cards. Once those two tasks were taken care of, you could have a bite to eat.
All of the cafeterias were expertly manned by a dedicated group of volunteers who patiently served us our meals at all hours around the clock. They usually didn’t speak English, and I only had three French words at my disposal: “Bonjour, bonsoir and merci”. (Pathetic, I know.) Emphatic pointing accompanied by smiles usually sufficed to communicate what I wanted to the volunteers, although trying to convey that I preferred vegan dishes usually drew blank stares. (I tend to avoid cow’s milk-based dairy products on longer brevets as it tends to be a gastrointestinal gamble with my stomach. And if I eat too much meat, it sits in my gut like a lead weight.)
I had vowed ahead of time that I’d drink some wine if it was sold at any of the controls — but the idea had lost its luster once the opportunity presented itself (I’m not sure why, since I’m usually not one to pass up a glass of vino.) So I skipped the Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon but commended the French for offering such a classy range of beverages to riders.
Paying for my food usually involved me fumbling with the stash of Euros I kept in my plastic Ziploc “wallet” and trying to interpret what I owed; I’d either look at their calculator or handwritten receipts to determine my total. Sometimes it was easier to just let them pick the right bills or coins out of my hand. Then we’d dutifully carry our trays, like a convention of construction workers in our matching reflective vest uniforms, to our seats in the cavernous lunchroom.
Behold my outbound dinner at Villaines-la-Juhel: a carbtastic feast of plain pasta, white bread, vegetable soup and a banana. Ah, the sacrifices we randonneurs make in order to properly fuel our legs — although I’ll readily admit it tasted absolutely delicious at the time.
Cap’n told me that one explanation he gives to non-rando civilians as to why he rides long distances — who often wonder why in the hell we partake in this sport — is that it gives you a deeper appreciation for the simple comforts of life. After riding hundreds of miles from dusk to dawn, you can bet that plate of rubbery pasta will taste like it was prepared by a Michelin starred-chef. Intense hunger will transform your scorn for the blandest, most watery bowl of soup (like the one I slurped down at my inbound stop at Quedillac) into feelings of pure gratitude for its salty warmth on a cold evening. (I struck up a conversation with two German riders after I took this photo; they found it endlessly amusing that I was documenting my Oliver Twist-like rations.)
When you do get the chance to eat some that’s truly delightful, it’s infinitely more so. Some highlights include stopping in Gorron at a quaint boulangerie just before sunrise for freshly baked brioche; diving into a savory goat cheese, mushroom and onion buckwheat crêpe just outside of Fougères (this was a popular stop and we joined several other riders, including SF Randonneurs’ Alex, enjoying their breakfasts there as well); skipping the long lines at the Tinténiac control and sitting down for petit dejeuner at a local café just on the outskirts of town; celebrating our arrival at Brest with a pizza lunch where we scrutinized control open/close times to make sure we were still on track.
There’s no fast food restaurants or 24-hour convenience stores on the PBP route, but you certainly didn’t need them (and definitely didn’t miss them.) In the larger communes, there were usually a few establishments that would stay open past regular hours in order to serve riders. But the most altruistic acts of charity came from angelic townspeople who’d offer water, tea, coffee, chocolate milk, juice, cookies and other nourishment from their roadside oases in the middle of the night — and asking for nothing more than a “Merci beaucoup,” in return. The kindness of these strangers with their friendly smiles and salutations of “Bravo!” as they poured you a hot drink could convince even the most cynical individual of the goodness of humanity.
Tucked away in the shadow of the prominent church in Sizun was a boulangerie that had primo pain au chocolat. We stopped there twice because its pastries were so irresistible. They also sold a Breton specialty, kouign-amann, which Cap’n gleefully sank his teeth into with a hearty bite.
One detrimental side effect of continually gorging ourselves on all these crusty French pastries and baked goods is something I call, “baguette mouth.” I’d been warned of this painful condition by my Texan friend Dan (RBA of the Lone Star Randonneurs), but at the time I thought, “Really? Come on, how bad can it be?” But as we have mealy American mouths that are used to being pampered by squishy bread, we’re ill-prepared for the rigors of French loaves. Our tender palates gradually became so abraded over time that by the end of the ride, soup was the most appetizing thing we could order at controls. (At our outbound stop at Saint-Nicolas-du-Pélem, they had French onion soup on the menu — which we joked was just “onion soup” in France.)
Now imagine the magic hour is approaching, and you hear the sweet sounds of accordions playing in the distance. You realize you’re being serenaded by a lively quartet of musicians playing traditional Breton music as you descend into the town square. Two large tents packed with locals are pouring beer, assembling crêpes and filling plates with piping hot servings of sausage frites. The Cap’n insisted that we stop and I can see why; if you’re seeking a poetic soujourn en route to Loudéac, Saint-Martin-des-Prés is the place to be. Ian, Luke and I sat with a randonneur from India, comparing notes about our respective rides as we listened to the music and enjoyed our splendid dinner.
Sadly, just after our second bakery stop for strawberry tarts in the town of Dingé (the setting for an epic PBP story featuring the Cap’n and Mike), I had to temporarily bid farewell to the TPP. My left knee was acting up so I couldn’t match their pace any longer.
For the remainder of day three, I rolled solo or grouped up with other SF Randonneurs that I encountered along the way. A bit concerned about my disabled progress, it took all of my willpower to not stop at the famed crepe stand run by Paul Rogue and his wife. But as a small consolation, at the behest of a persuasive woman who urged me to stop for free cake and candy, I took a short sugar break and refilled my water bottles. Reunited with Alex as well as SFR’s Nancy and Kitty, we stopped by a stand to buy spicy chicken salad sandwich and cheese sticks in Charchigné. We later plopped down on a comfortable patch of grass within a church courtyard with SFR’s Gabe, Ian, Jack and Peg for an impromptu pizza picnic in the town of Sougé-le-Ganelon.
It wasn’t until just before the 88-hour mark that I caught back up to the TPP. As we’d been planning on an Le Société Adrian Hands finish, the group (with the addition of SFR’s Theresa) deliberated on where to spend an hour so we’d roll in together after 88 hours and 55 minutes (according to LSAH rules.) The clubhouse at a nearby golf course technically wasn’t serving food until later, but the chef surprised us and assembled a lavish buffet of warm baguettes, assorted charcuterie, pâtés and cheeses and cornichons; we were willing to endure the pain of baguette mouth one last time to celebrate our pending triumphant arrival back to the velodrome. (My photos don’t do the spread justice, but I was pretty wrecked from sleep deprivation at this point and had already downed a much-needed double shot of whiskey…)