|Brestward Ho - Main Page||
It was just 4 a.m. when I left Brest after a total stop of four hours. I wheeled my bike out with a group of six who invited me to join on the back. I did a mile of two, then bid them bonne route when the chains slipped up onto the larger cogs for the first big climb. It was during this opening spell of the second innings that I hit a pot-hole on a generally well-surfaced road and dented the Super-Champion rim which had already taken an early punch in the first round from Paris to Mortagne. I loosened the brake, yet the rim still wobbled on the blocks, hardly noticeable on the flat but pulling appreciably when riding uphill. The night was clear, with quite amazing visibility under the bright moon. Then after Landerneau it was into the woods again by the side of the Elorn, the Pifco (charged with new battery at Brest) leading me comfortably through. A nice comfortable feeling, too, to find a steady stream of riders approaching, still on their way to Brest.
The approach of one lone rider had me worried for a bit. I thought the lack of sleep was catching up. I seemed to be going dizzy. Then I realised the white light coming at me really was going round in small circles. The rider had one of those two-headed torches strapped to his left leg just below the knee, one head showing a white light to the front, the other to the rear and red. (Others were carrying these gadgets on their arms). This came under the heading of supplementary lighting, because competitors would not have been allowed to start without lamps firmly attached to the bicycle.
Out of the woods a cotton-wool mist rolled down gently from the hills now silhouetted to the east by the stretching though not yet rising sun. Like good Saint Brieuc on the outward journey I ignored the diversion sign at Landivisiau and soon afterwards in the gathering light did a grand slalom down the 1 in 7 run which I had walked a few hours earlier.
The wind had dropped during the night. I tried to convince myself that it was now coming gently from the west, then noticed smoke taking off vertically from a cottage chimney. More outward-bounders came towards me, one of them a transistor carrier, whose pedalling speed fell far short of the cadence of the martial music hanging in the still air. These oncomers were no longer lamps and voices and noises in the night, but recognisable men and women. They were a long way behind, but still in with a good chance of getting back to Paris inside the 90 hours. Indeed, had I slept at Morlaix as originally planned, I would probably have been riding with them.
The square near the Morlaix Control was much less busy than over night. Most helpers' cars were now well on their way to Paris, leaving the scene to self-supporting types like myself who carried everything with them. Soup and steak for an 8 a.m. second breakfast followed (eventually) by a pot of tea. I say eventually because I always had to emphasise when ordering tea that it should be with cold milk. This time a puzzled helper came to my table after five minutes and asked if I really wanted cold tea and hot milk! Maybe I did say that, maybe it was the original waitress who had it the wrong way round. We both had been working hard for two nights without sleep.
As well as the 8 a.m. cup of tea to stimulate the body there was a fresh boost to the morale with the continued arrival of riders who still had not been to Brest. They made it just in time. The Control closed at 0830 and anybody arriving after that would be eliminated. Although some seemed perky enough, the ambition of others now seemed limited to getting down to Brest without serious hopes of setting course back for Paris. Before I left Morlaix a helper with a nipple key squeezed a bit of the wobble out of the back wheel and pulled the brake block shoes outwards to give maximum clearance. He had just heard on the radio that Sunday's Bordeaux-Paris had been cancelled through lack of entries.
Whereas the long hill down into Morlaix yesterday had been corrugated purgatory, the climb on the opposite side of the road was surprisingly smooth. I stopped halfway up to take off the track suit and then, over the top, met the mounting sun and the rising wind. So much for the Wizard's prediction that it would change and blow us back to Paris!
The combination of head wind and hills can be the nastiest of propositions for a cyclist in a hurry, and more often than not they win. But I have found from long experience that if you humour them, they are not so bad, provided you accept that they are really in charge. After all, with the wind yesterday, I had got to Brest about six hours earlier that expected, and was now 10 hours inside the 90 standard.
I now had to hand back some of that gain and do so with a smile. It was while pedalling along the straight to Plouigneau that I noticed for the first time a slight pain in the right Achilles tendon. It increased on the miniature col which terminates this stretch just before the "frontier" between Finistere (Land's End) and the Côte du Nord.
At Plounerin I saw a signpost on the right pointing to Guerlisquin, a name which rang a bell. Then I remember that this was the village of only 2,000 inhabitants which annually organizes a professional Criterium attracting 5,000 spectators who put up more than £1,000 in primes, the biggest total in Britanny and second only to Boulogne-sur-Mer in the whole of France. I had not seen that signpost yesterday because here it was I had met the eight leaders on their way back to Paris. That was exactly 16 hours ago, and no wonder they had been working hard uphill and into the wind! On a gear 20 inches lower that their's I was heading for home 5 m.p.h. slower. I realised, too, that I was only as yet tackling one of the innocent slopes that built up to the Great Wall itself.
For 400 miles I had been climbing en danseuse, standing on the pedals, even up smallish hills. I thought back to pre-war days when a controversy arose after Hubert Opperman arrived in England to attack R.R.A. road records and surprised the fixed-wheel habitues of the Great North Road by "honking" even over Girtford Bridge. "Keep your seats, gentlemen, like Frank Southall" pleaded Kuklos in an article in "Cycling." Oppy replied that he did not dance up hill because it made him go faster, but to relieve pressure in the sittingroom.
That had largely been my reason for honking up, although occasionally I had to do so to climb them at all. Such was now the case with this new Wall, but when I got out of the saddle to stamp my way over the last 200 yards, the painful tendon just would not take it. So I had my second walk of the trip, and then a third a few miles later. The net result of these precautions was that I arrived at Guingamp having made a profit on the journey and was now 10 hours 10 minutes inside the 90 hours schedule!
After Guingamp, however, the trouble persisted and I became anxious and puzzled. I have had aches and pains in most parts of the body when cycling, but never in that region. I found the pain was eased by pointing the toe downwards when pedalling. Now, again, thinking back to pre-war days, it was a crime for a British cyclist to pedal in such a fashion. Since the advent of Jacques Anquetil the old idea of exaggerated ankle action--dropping the ankle at the top of the pedal stroke and raising it at the bottom--has been abandoned in favour of a more regular drive with toes slightly pointed all the way round. Often when riding at home I have found myself "doing an Anquetil" and watching my pointed feet circling away. Yet when I tried it on the road between Guingamp and Saint Brieuc I found that although the feet were pointed at the top, the ankle automatically dropped at the bottom and brought on the pain. At home I do most of my riding on the Condor Cadet which is fitted with 6 ½ inch cranks. I am constantly borrowing French bikes with 17 cms cranks (near enough 6 3/4) and hardly notice the difference, but now perhaps the slight extra length had literally found my Achilles Heel. I raised the saddle slightly and moved it forward, but by now the damage had been done and the dull ache persisted.
Like the wind and the hills, such a strain would have been a serious business to a man in a hurry with 300 miles still to go. For me, as yet it was merely a nuisance, and I realised just how lucky I was to get so far without any serious physical trouble when I caught a chap on the long climb just before Saint Brieuc.
"How is it? I enquired.
"Terrible--I ache all over, and I can't stand the heat."
"Why don't you walk up the hill?" I suggested. "I have walked several and went like a bomb after the break."
"I daren't get off here. If I did, I'd flop out on that grass and sleep for six hours. No, I must get to that Control at Lamballe before I stop again."
It certainly was hot even though I was now back on that bit of road which was under the influence of the fresh wind blowing off Saint Brieuc Bay. The busy town of that name with its traffic lights, pavé and cycle paths provided a welcome relief from the hours of solitude on the open road, and soon I was in Onion Country again and only 10 miles from Lamballe. Unlike my acquaintance on the hill I had no problems about getting back on the bike after stopping. I was looking for a suitable spot to satisfy, as the French say "a major personal need" when a toot from behind indicated that a friendly car was about to pass. This one bore a G.B. plate, pulled up on the grass verge ahead, and out of it popped a club cyclist I had met at various Vaux Grand Prix races in Co. Durham. I stopped. My friend quickly explained that he and his wife and daughter were on holiday in the area, had seen the string of Randonneurs on N12 and guessed that he had chanced upon the Paris-Brest-Paris competition he had read about many times in my articles. I suggested he went on ahead and met me for a longer chat at the Lambelle Control, now only two of three miles away.
I continued my search for the convenient gate and hedged field and found one on the opposite side of the road. On emerging a few minutes later I took the bike and began pedalling towards Lambelle. There was a sudden commotion ahead, a screeching of brakes and less friendly klaxoning than had greeted me from the G.B. car. No wonder. I was riding on the wrong side of the road. . . Why? A matter, I think of basic philosophy, a simple association of ideas. I had been speaking English to a friend and was looking forward to seeing him again at Lamballe. My control system, jaded after two sleepless nights issued orders in English and sent me pedalling off on the left.
I found my friends waiting for me at Lamballe Control where I made the pleasentest of all stops on the trip. My temporary "Manager" took my bike, parked it in the shade, pumped up the tyres. He bought a drink, then sat with his wife and little girl while I tucked into yet another meal. By luck the "official repairer" was just round the corner, and my friend went round with me. The patron, himself a cyclo-touriste, left whatever job he was doing, quickly had my Lejeune on the clip, and trued up the back wheel the best he could. He also solved the mystery of the flickering rear light of the dynamo which several bystanders at Controls had attempted to fix. He changed the bulb. . . Not that it would be much help, because the mechanic said it was foolish using a dynamo with such light tyres. While I went back to the Control to have the Route Card counter-signed, my friend found a fruit shop and sent me off with a bag of juicy peaches--and on the right side of the road. Before leaving the Control an official told me that De Munck had finished in Paris two of three hours earlier. At the moment I was 170th "at about 280 miles".
That interlude had taken up perhaps an extra half-hour, but had been well worth it. I can't say that my average speed shot up as a result but at least it did not go down, which in itself was quite a victory at that critical stage of the journey. Once again I had come to the hot late afternoon period during which I usually suffer after an all-night ride, and in this case it followed two on the trot. I took the hills steadily, in the saddle, and nearly all on the 42 x 24. I remembered many of the landmarks I had passed yesterday during my encounter with Monsieur Armagnac. How far ahead was he now, I wondered? Just about the point where I had "caught and dropped Oppy" I had to change the back tyre which went down with a sudden hiss. While completing the job a cyclo-touriste appeared from the opposite direction. He came from Rennes, he said, and had ridden Paris-Brest-Paris five years ago in 80 hours. This time he had planned to do 75, but a change of jobs two months ago made it impossible for him to get the time off. As is usual in France when addressing a stranger, I called him Monsieur. He told me off. Among the Cyclos nobody is a Monsieur, everybody a Camarade.
"Keep on steady as you are. You're hours inside. You should do 80, just like I did in '66".
On leaving Brest at 4 a.m. I had set my sights on being at Lavel for the second major stop, but now I was beginning to wonder if it would not be better to settle for Rennes 45 miles earlier. I walked two more stretches of 200 yards, not because they were uphill. They were strewn with loose chippings and I only had one spare tyre left. It was lights-on for the last five miles into Rennes, and on the run-in I began seeing things that certainly weren't there. Once a bat-man seemed to be hovering just in front to the right; it was just a passing car's headlights showing up a sign that our thick N12 was about to cross a thin minor road. In the city itself the combination of my smeared bi-focals, the headlamps of a car held up at traffic lights, and the Red itself had me thinking for a few seconds that the whole of Rennes was on fire. I was glad to get to the Control and find that I was still in control of myself. No. The Laval plan would have to be scrapped. I would sleep there at Rennes.
I checked in and asked if there were any beds available, but as at Brest there was no room at the Inn for me. Over the road, however, was an hotel with a restaurant which kept open until 2 a.m. This was perfect. If I could get a bed there I would have three hours' sleep and be on the road again by 0300 hours. There wasn't a room but the helpful patron agreed to rig up a bed in an upstairs lounge. I felt--indeed I was--dirty and wild-looking but that did not disqualify me from sitting down for a light meal with regular customers and a Camarade who had just slept for four hours and was about to get back on the road. A shower, and then between the sheets for 2 ½ hours of delicious sleep.
The café was just closing when I went down. I believe that the patron would have rustled me up a quick 2 a.m. breakfast, but I said I would eat at the Control across the road. How fickle is memory! Rennes was at the bottom of the League on the way out, and it was even worse on the way back. On my first visit the place had plenty of food of a limited range; it was just that you couldn't get hold of anybody to transfer it from the kitchen on to your plate. Now in the small hours of the morning the only things eatable were apples and more of those cobblestones allegedly made of rice. I breakfasted on apples, a Mars bar and a pot of tea.
Several times during the year I had been in correspondence with M. Lepertel, organiser of the Paris-Brest-Paris Randonneur, but had not yet met him. I knew only that he was a large gentleman who wore spectacles. Could that be he, I wondered, talking to officials at the control table? No. It was not. But Monsieur Lequet knew all about me.
"Ah--you are the Englishman from Carcassonne!" he exclaimed. "Some fellows were telling me they rode along with you. Glad to meet you at last so that I can practise my English."
M. Lequet had a good knowledge of English, so that I was able to emphasise in two languages that my home address was in Richmond, Surrey and had never been in Carcassonne in the south of France.
Leaving Rennes at 3 a.m. was much more pleasant than arriving there during the morning rush-hour as I had Tuesday. A bit of pavé to bounce over, the odd Red traffic light to creep unlawfully across and then on the wide road to Vitre. As during the previous night the wind had dropped, the moon was high and I rode for half an hour without realizing I had such a thing as a heel. I caught a chap from Cannes and we rode along together for a few miles. I had seen him at the Rennes Control, but already he was feeling drowsy and wanted a coffee. A workman had told him there would be a café open in the next village. When we came to it he wanted me to stop, but I sailed on, covering 15 miles in one of the hours. There were no real hills, but plenty of slopes on that 45 miles between Rennes and Laval and I thought I had left the aching tendon in bed in Rennes. In fact it had merely overslept and when I arrived at Laval it was fully roused. Before checking in I had a word with one of the ladies running the Red Cross ambulance parked outside. She thought she had the very thing to put it back to sleep again. But first to eat.
I forget what I ate, or the name of the ointment the nurse afterwards rubbed into the tendon, but both were good and I free-wheeled down into Laval town centre in high spirits. I had been making calculations in the Control and reckoned that 80 hours was in the bag. Then on the other side of the town, when climbing, the ache returned. I shifted the toe to find relief, and immediately up the leg shot a stinging pain searching, apparently, for the knee where it doubled in intensity. Bang went the optimism, down dropped the morale. Of all cyclists' physical enemies, knee trouble is the most feared of all, and it had attacked me with 180 miles still to go. Then to cap it all up rose the wind again and I began to wonder if I would manage to stagger home in 90 hours or even to finish at all. I rode for 10 minutes at about 5 m.p.h. afraid to put any pressure on the right leg. Could I pedal 180 miles in 24 hours with one leg? On the next hill I found that even with the right leg resting the pain still shot through the knee with each revolution of the pedal.
Then, as suddenly as it had come, the twinges stopped. Perhaps old Wizard Beaumann had waved his wand and banished the curse to some rival knee. Or could the attack have been sent by Providence as a reminder that we must ever be thankful for small mercies? If anything the tendon ache was worse than before, but now it was nothing with the knee right again.
This "drama" took place along the section where--in the opposite direction and with a good following wind--I had ridden behind the tandem. Now it was my turn to act as pace-maker. These fellows were just getting back onto the road after a stop, and tacked on behind me. After a mile or two I looked round and "invited them to lead" as the racing boys say, but their spokesman explained that one of them was having a bad time. Within a mile the victim had stopped again, his friends with him, and I arrived at the Hotel Normandie--top of the P-B-P Control League--on my own.
As well as occupying my time converting kilometres to miles, and calculating how much I could get inside 90 hours, I had been working out figures of a different kind. The answer posed an additional problem which would have to be settled before long. In the Control, waiting for some of his riders, was Monsieur Lequet.
"Ah, Monsieur, here we are again. At Rennes you asked if I would speak to you in English" I said.
"Yes please. I have a decent knowledge of your language but I do not always understand it when it is spoken to me.
"You don't mind on what subject I speak to you?"
"Not at all--introduce any subject you like."
"Fine" I said "Lend me 50 francs."
M. Lequet obliged and the financial problem was settled. The prices at all Controls were very reasonable, and the supper and bed at Rennes had cost less than £1.50, but I was eating so often that my supply of notes carried in a plastic bag in a back pocket of the jersey was running low.
It was logical that the easiest stages of the outward journey should prove the hardest on the way back. Pré-en-Pail to Mortagne was only 35 miles, but full into the wind and under a burning sun. It was the stage during which a second minor irritation suddenly became a major handicap--with emphasis on the hand. The front handlebar bag was in many ways a boon, the main compartments and the several outside pockets being instantly opened or shut by elastic loops slipped over metal hooks. It was however, fixed with leather straps which made the straights of the 'bars unusable, restricting the hands to the brake hoods and drops. I had considered lashing the bag to the back carrier with a couple of Sanduffs but the awkwardly placed lamp would still have prevented the comfortable "knuckles-up" grip on top of the 'bars. The hands were beginning to numb and I craved for a third position to give them some relief. The backside, too, was beginning to realise it had been taken for a long, long ride. I was wearing tight-fitting racing shorts designed to keep wind out. How I longed for my usual touring pairs--to hold open the loose legs on a downhill swoop and invite cool gales to fan the tender glade! Just to complete my grumbles, and again concerning that bag, I reckon that into the headwind its surface slowed me--and any other lone rider--by nearly a mile an hour.
Somewhere beyond Alencon I rode for a bit behind a couple of boys from Lille who had caught me following a minor stop. Despite my small problems I was in reasonable shape and quite ready to stay with them, as indeed they invited me to do. A touch of the tendon twinge, however, reminded me to be cautious, and I waved them on at the next hill. A few miles from stage-town Mortagne I saw a bike leaning against a tree, it's owner emerging from a clump of bushes. Soon the perky little fellow was riding with me. He at least had no problem with front bags, all his chattels being in a large canvas musette slung across his back. That was unusual, I thought; he was the first beast of burden I had seen in Paris-Brest-Paris. Odd, too, that he should chatter away about this and that; most of the riders I had come across during the last 12 hours held their breath and got on with the pedalling.
He was still prattling when he joined me at the restaurant table where the two Lille boys were scooping out pips from an enormous melon bought next door. It was in this same room 70 hours earlier that I had been "controlled" for the first time. I remember how, on that occasion, I caught sight of myself in a long mirror forming one of the walls. I looked awful and wondered what state I would be in if ever I got back. Now, on peering cautiously into the same mirror, I was surprised to find a bronzed face looking back, a bit bristley (unaccustomed as I am to electric shaving), cheeks rather drawn, eyes bloodshot, but otherwise quite presentable. Could it have been those T.V. lights playing tricks with me and that mirror on my first visit? The restaurant then had been humming with activity, queues of new arrivals at the Control tables, a stream of departures by faster comrades, impatient calls to harassed restaurant staff. Now all was clam; just four customers for a 3 p.m. snack, one car in the square outside with its weary crew taking a nap while awaiting the arrival of their men. The Lille boys told me they had hoped to be there much earlier, but one had been delayed two hours down Brest way and the morale had been more difficult to repair than a broken gear. As I had expected, a bit of my own lead over the 90 hours target had been surrendered, but I was still seven hours inside when I prepared to leave Mortagne.
I thought Chartterbox would leave with the Lille boys, but for some reason he waited for me. I had my card countersigned (having stayed more than 30 minutes) and reminded him that he had to do the same.
"Oh no I don't!" he replied I'm not in Paris-Brest-Paris. I'm just on holiday and riding along with the boys."
That, of course, explained his perkiness, his musette, his chatter and why (I now realised) he had no number attached to the frame. Now, throughout this narrative I have stressed my "independence" which was not always due to a Garbo-like desire to be alone. I only wish I had been confident enough to keep with more company on the trip, and felt quite a heel for deliberately avoiding the friendships of so agreeable a companion as Monsieur Armagnac. In this latest case the position was different.
One of the rules I had accepted in signing my entry form was that "pace-makers are forbidden," that is to say I had no right to take shelter from a non-competitor who obviously would be rested and strong. I put the point to the little fellow as we pedalled out of Mortagne. He said he thought I was taking things too seriously. Maybe I was, but I remembered the four occasions--two of them in the middle of the night--when a voice called out my number. Each time I had been alone. I did not want to be caught out by a fifth Secret Control riding behind an outsider, particularly one whose shelter was so small as to be hardly worth taking.
That penultimate stage was 44 miles to Chateauneuf-en-Thimerais via Verneuil. Why did we not take the shorter route through D. roads some of which we had so pleasantly travelled on the outward journey? Because then, you will remember, only the last hour or so was ridden in the dark, and that with police outriders flooding the forest road with light. Such cooperation would be impossible on the return when some riders--including those trying desperately to finish just inside the 90 hours--would have to do the complicated stretch in the early hours of the morning. Much safer to follow N12 to Verneuil and then N839 to Chateauneuf.
The first 25 miles towards Verneuil were undulating and straight in a north-easterly direction. Through still contrary, the wind seemed to be coming at me more from the left-hand side and I dared to think that it might even be behind after the Verneuil "turn". In retrospect I can see I really was too severe with little Chatterbox who was only trying to be helpful. I suppose what the organizers meant by "pace-makers" was an organised service of well-trained riders scattered along the road as in the early days of Bordeaux-Paris, and that as a first offender I would get no more than a friendly warning should a secret controller find me riding with him. But just as a simple personal problem can assume alarming proportions during a sleepless night in one's own bed, so did innocent little Chatterbox become a scoundrel in my bloodshot eyes. Perhaps he had been sent to tempt me by Roger Beaumann who I no longer considered a Wizard but the very devil himself. Not being fast enough to drop my tempter, I made a series of unnecessary stops, to pump tyres, munch fruit or go over the hedge. Once when I gained back my "lost" ground I decided to pause for a swig from the bidon--only to find that once again I had left it on the table of the last Control.
Eventually the problem of the demon pacemaker was solved at the cross-roads south of Verneuil, where N839 went south-eastwards and making it unnecessary to go through the town. Chatterbox went straight on. Did I have to follow? The route instructions clearly said Verneuil. What if I missed a Secret Control there and got disqualified? Wind-up Wadley again . . . As I hesitated at the cross-road a local cyclo-touriste rode up.
No--there's no Control at Verneuil. Turn right here, right on the main road and straight on to Chateauneuf." Although I had been wrong about that wind, it was no trouble on this second leg which was well sheltered by a forest. Was this part of the estate of friend Victor Linart, the old-time motor-paced champion who went into the timber business in the area after his retirement from the sport? I remembered riding along this stretch of road to visit him a few years ago when, nearing 80, he was still riding the bike.
For the fourth night in succession I pedalled on while the sun made tracks for bed. At Brezolles I stopped in a café for a glass of cool bottled chocolate, a pleasant and sustaining drink. On the bike again and still in the village, I had the feeling that I had been here before, and recently. So I had. There on the right was the greengrocer where I had bought grapes and bananas on the outward trip, for Brezolles was the crossing point of the two routes. I was not quite so frisky now. Even the weather man was running out of breath, only a gentle breeze drifting over the corn stubble and potato fields as I got back into open space again. It was half-past seven when I clocked in at Chateauneuf, final stage-town of the 1971 Paris-Brest-Paris.
Before the tendon trouble set in I had reckoned on being in and out of the last Control with a minimum of delay in an effort to get back to Paris by mid-night, or inside 80 hours for the round trip. This was now out of the question; to do so I would have to average 15 m.p.h. for the last four hours. At the same time I was anxious to get away fairly quickly to use the remaining daylight. Batteries were running low and various helpers had tried in vain to get something to use with my English lamps. A pity; this restaurant was a pleasent place with good service, and an end-of-term air of jollity among the dozen or so Randonneurs who were eating together.
"What's the hurry Camarade Anglais?," they exclaimed when I announced my intention of making a quick turn round. "You're 15 hours inside 90 here with only 100 kms still to go. You could walk it in the time. Sit down and join us for a good tuck-in. Old Nice here is paying for the wine."
There he was, my old acquaintance I had last seen with straw in his hair at Brest. Already he had a glass poured out for me, and was drinking the health of "The Englishman from Carcassonne."
"Well, I could certainly eat" I said, "but I don't want to hang about. My batteries are almost dead, and the tyre is too light to take a dynamo. I want to get on and use up the rest of the daylight."
"Don't worry about lights! Ride back with us and tuck yourself in the middle."
"But I'm pretty useless on the hills and would only slow you down."
"That doesn't matter either. Besides, by the look of you you're not in such a bad state as some of the present company. How long did you take to come from Mortagne? Three-and-a-half-hours? Gosh you're flying. We took nearly five!"
I didn't need much persuasion to settle down to a good meal though accepting only one glass of the wine, and pushing half of that behind a pillar out of sight of the cheerful Randonneur from Nice. As in the case of Chatterbox, things were growing out of proportions. If I drank wine I could see myself falling asleep on the bike, collapsing by the roadside and not waking up until the 90 hours had expired.
As far as I could make out there would be about a dozen of us on this final night-ride to Paris, yet after pumping up tyres, checking lamps and slipping on track suits, there were only six moving out of Chateauneuf at about 9 o'clock (Nice was finishing his bottle). Apparently there were several different back-street ways of getting on to the D26 that we had to follow for the first 16 miles, but the expected "regroupment" of the whole field did not take place. When we had ridden only five miles in half an hour, I assumed my companions were hanging around for the others, then realised that this was to be the pattern of the ride all the way. Most frustrating. I was feeling quite spritely and capable of a better bat than that, yet lightless I was sentenced to five or six hours too easy labour with the lifeless. That was Wadley exaggerating again. Four of my companions would probably have dropped me smartly had it been a free-for-all. One of their party, however was having a bad time, and in the splendid spirit of comradeship which I had noticed so many times from Paris to Brest and nearly back to Paris, he was not going to be left in misery to find his way home.
The leader of the little party was from Nantes. He told me that he raced a bit as an amateur in the same club as Cyrille Guimard, now one of the world's top professionals. He explained that as well as riding Paris-Brest-Paris he was also gaining points in his club's touring competition by visiting an unusually wide area. We stopped for 10 minutes to have a coffee in a café where the patronne signed with evident pleasure his club's Carnet de Route to prove that he had visited Maintenon in the Department of Eure-et-Loire at 2230 hours on Thursday 9th September 1971.
We climbed out of the Eure valley past the little town's imposing chateau, along a flat stretch, then swooped down to cross the Droutte at Epernon. The moon was high and bright, the wind had dropped. And chill mist hung over the water-meadows. The much admired rear lamp which had blazed out for three nights was now a feeble glimmer, and the front Pifco had died of cell failure when on active service. Then I remembered the throw-away torches bought way back in Morlaix. I tucked them side by side in the map case on top of the front bag and out of the plastic, two brave little lights shone quite adequately for the next three hours (and were still in use about the house two months later!)
It was on this last night session that I had a curious experience each time we stopped--and we stopped plenty, at cross roads, to check the route, to pump up tyres, to wait for anybody had been delayed. I would pull up with the brakes normally, put both feet on the ground and then find the upper body dropping forward and--on the first two occasions--my head hitting the 'bars. Even when making deliberate resistance the tendency remained. It was probably because by now the hands were quite numb and failed to keep the arms rigid, encouraging the sleepy head and upper body to fall into the arched position occupied during nearly 60 hours of pedalling. Or could it have been my co-ordination at fault? Was I putting my feet on to the road before the bike had stopped and continuing with the momentum?
Now the signposts were pointing to Rambouillet, the summer residence of the President of the Republic of France, and a town which has already appeared in this story. It was near here at Poigny-la-Foret where in 1956 Brian Robinson resisted efforts to get him to ride the professional Paris-Brest-Paris. Although it was an uncomplicated run through the sleepy town we stopped for five minutes for various reasons. I was now on familiar ground. As well as being a popular tourist area, Rambouillet has played a great part in road cycle racing. In 1953 I watched pale-faced, frail-looking Jacques Anquetil pedalling with pointed toes through its then cobbled streets on the way towards that first sensational victory in the Grand Prix des Nations time trial. When the distance was trimmed from 140 kms (87 ½ miles) to 100 the race still passed through the outskirts of the town. Indeed when we set off again we were along that very road leading to Chevreuse from which the 1971 "Nations" would be starting in five weeks' time.
I was glad now to be with the party. My little lights on their own would have been useless through that dark forest road. This must have been one of the stretches where scores of families used to park on Nations day and leave picnic lunches to cheer Anquietil & Company on their way. Then from the comparative warmth of the woods we began to shiver in open country, and after a session of slow riding dropped down steeply into the valley of Chevreuse and into the town of that name which seemed to have been put on ice for the night. I stopped (doing the involuntary trunk-bending-forward exercise again) to flap my arms and stamp my feet and generally try to raise a little heat. I was already wearing light gloves and track suit, with the top stuffed with a newspaper picked up during the coffee halt at Maintenon. The addition of a racing cape stopped more cold getting in, but did nothing to improve the central heating. I must have stopped three times more in the next five miles to flap and stamp again. Each time, patiently, and without complaint, the other fellows waited for me. They didn't seem to feel the cold, and the temperature probably was not all that low. It was getting on for 2 a.m., and as well as the circulation of hands and feet being sluggish after prolonged pressure on 'bars and pedal, my body resistance no doubt was falling.
Somehow I had got it into my head that once through St. Remy the ride was as good as over. Always a dangerous supposition, this! I knew that on the left the road led over the celebrated hill of Chateaufort famous in older "Nations" and Bordeaux-Paris lore, and imagined that straight-on was flat. What a blow for the morale to find that out of Courcelle, 10 miles from the finish, was one of the longest and most punishing climb of the whole journey! Yet it is an ill-hill that brings no good. The hard work brought some warmth back to the body, though not to the hands and feet. So off again to walk the last 200 yards and flap the arms and shake the fingers at the summit. Again, there were the boys not far ahead, off the bikes or riding slowly awaiting my return to the fold.
Usually the reward for a hard climb is an easy drop down the other side. This very early Friday morning the prospect of a long cold descent to the lights of Paris was not so pleasing. In fact it wasn't so bad after all, the temperature rising as we fell. Maybe some heat came from the powerful overhead street lamps which also shone clearly at the first two crossings to reveal big P-B-P arrows chalked on the road. We could see, a few miles to the east, aircraft taking off from Orly, perhaps to fly round the world in less time than we had taken for our own little jaunt. Then we lost the trail. Cold fingers fumbled with maps, bleary eyes peered at them by torchlight. I stamped around looking for fresh clues. "Longjumeau" said a sign in one direction "Plaiseau" the other. No, it was somewhere between the two. From the distance one explorer called that he had picked up the scent, and Eureka! we were in the hunt again following the chalk signs to Antony.
These delays did not worry us in the least, knowing that we could now push the bikes to the Croix-de-Berny and still finish hours inside the 90 limit. I thought, though how terrible would be the frustration of the customer six hours behind us on the road striving mightily to get home before the Controller pulled down shutters to suspend P-B-P business for another five years. It would, of course, be daylight when Tail-Light-Charlie tackled this final stretch and the arrows would be easily seen. But would they? By then the roads would be choked with traffic and his troubles even greater.
Now there it was at last, the sign we had been looking for since La Celle Saint Cloud, 753 miles ago: Croix-de-Berny. We turned right onto a main road bright with yellow lamps. I hit a drain or something and felt the back rim again on the blocks, and noticed that the front tyre was nearly flat. The lights were red on the big cross roads but the duty gendarme waved us across with a Bravo cry, just as if we had been real racing men. Half a minute later we were checking in for the last time. "Wadley John, U. S. Creteil" wrote the recorder against 183rd position " finished at 0322 hours 10th September. Total riding time 83 hours 22 minutes."