Bike Non-Inspection

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The Paris-Brest-Paris organizers say that about 5,300 riders are signed up for the four-day trek. Today was the day the whole crew was supposed to show up to have their bikes “inspected.” What that means in practice, based on my 2003 experience, is running each cyclist through a quick check to make sure they have working front and rear lights, spares for each, and the required reflective sash. Nominally the officials, who seem to come from local bike clubs, are supposed to make sure your machine is in good working order. But unless you show up with something obviously awry — a broken crank arm or a missing wheel, say — the inspection is cursory.

Today’s inspection was much different from 2003’s, though. It rained hard overnight. Since the inspection takes place in the grassy areas around a soccer pitch, the organizers apparently decided to cancel the inspection because it would quickly turn the grounds into a Woodstock-style mire. So everyone expecting to show up and prove they can light their way through northwestern France was just waved in and told to go pick up their ride documents and assorted paraphernalia: the route book and swipe card we must each produce at every checkpoint; number plates to put on our bikes and number stickers for our helmets; another number plate to identify us to the finish line photography service; and a medal awarded for finishing this year’s qualifying brevet series — and yeah, the medals are kind of cool.

Even though I’ve done this before, I felt a little overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of people converging on the gym where the checkin was held. Thousands of people. Thousands of bikes. I’m not big into what I’ll call bike porn — leering lustfully at all the amazing and amazingly expensive and amazingly well outfitted bicycles people tend to bring to these events — but you can’t help but notice all the beautiful paint jobs, frames by small custom builders, advanced lighting systems and beautifully inventive and/or tasteful racks and bags for carrying all the gear people will have to carry for the next three or four days.

I had a moment — well, it lasted maybe half an hour — in which the thought formed that everyone looked better prepared than me, better fitted out than me, more fit than me. It passed — this riding ain’t about the gear as long as you respect the demands of going out on the road for as long as you do on PBP. And that’s one thing you probably always have to keep asking yourself — whether you’re doing everything you need to do to give yourself a chance of succeeding. I never feel like I really know the answer to that until I’m out there.

The element of uncertainty for PBP 2007 is the weather. In 2003, France was still suffering under its historic heat wave the night before the ride began. A deluge overnight cooled everything down, and the four days of the event were as close to ideal as you might find and certainly better than you’d dare expect. The weather this year is very different: It’s wet and cool, and we’ve seen rain or a good threat of it every day. The forecast, as far as we can see it online, suggests the week ahead will be the same. I met someone the first day I was here who said, “We hope for the best and plan for the worst.” Um — sure. But the truth is I never look forward to riding in the rain; and I think everyone here wonders in the back of their mind how they’ll like going up and down the roads of Brittany if it really does rain every day. (Pictures from today’s check-in here.)

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Pre-Ride Ride

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Four years ago, the Davis Bike Club’s huge contingent at Paris-Brest-Paris went out for a Saturday morning ride on the first 40 kilometers of the course. The Northern California contingent is a little splintered this year, with people having a chance to qualify in four different brevet series in the greater San Francisco Bay Area (which, for purposes of this discussion, includes Davis). A couple of the DBC veterans, Craig Robertson and Jennie Phillips, led a similar ride today. Beautiful, cool, breezy weather prevailed. It was nice to get on the road, even just for the morning. I’ve posted more photos here.

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Your Paris Church of the Day

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As part of our pre-PBP Paris sightseeing mini-frenzy, I found myself standing in front of a few churches again today; not just churches: structures that were centuries and centuries old, that were built to fulfill some promise or other to God, that were built as an expression of this king's or that cardinal's clout and deep pockets. But most of all, structures that, whatever the secular goings on that raised them, took shape at the hands of some inspired artists.

I took note of the church above and below when I started studying the sculptural elements above the main entrance and wondered whether the lower scene — a man who looks like he's about to be stoned by an angry crowd — depicted the death of St. Stephen (first martyr and, since I like my dad before me share the name, a subject of personal interest). I noticed that the initials SG and SE were carved on either side of the entrance: SG for St. Genevieve, some of whose remains turn out to be interred here, and SE for St. Etienne, the French for St. Stephen). The church is St.-Etienne-du-Mont, after its setting atop a hill above the Latin Quarter; it was completed close to 400 years ago.

Back to the sculpture above the entrance. The resurrected Jesus holds pride of place just below a rose window. He's got a spiky-looking halo and looks irresistible and a little pissed off.

Immediately above the doorway, a supine St. Stephen is about to earn his way onto the church calendar despite the presence of an angel who, though appearing benificent, doesn't seem the least inclined to stay the hands of a bunch of guys who look not at all hesitant to cast the first stone.

I don't mean to sound irreligious. I was brought up with some version of these scenes, and I find them stirring and moving on a deep level (I even went into the church, dipped my fingers into the holy water font and crossed myself). Part of what's moving to me, though, is the idea of the generations and generations of mostly anonymous artists, artisans, and laborers who erected this city of churches. What a legacy they left.

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Sacred Heart, Sacred Bike Ramp

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My first full day in France was spent walking around central Paris with the general goal of getting to the Sacre Coeur cathedral on the top of Montmartre. We (friend Bruce Berg and I) saw lots of old Paris stuff on the way; that’s not meant to be dismissive, but the city has a feel and appearance that just sort of swallows you up. The Seine. The bridges across the Seine. The churches — we also stopped at the Madeleine, which until today I didn’t know was French for Magdalen. The public buildings, like the National Assembly and the Louvre and the Palais Royal. The public squares and parks, like the Place Vendome. The place is big, it’s filled with history and beautifully made buildings, and it’s hard to conceive when you drop in that it has a life quite apart from your search for a public toilet or a panini sandwich and an Orangina. But it does.

Thom and Kate went to Montmartre in 2003, when I was out riding to Brest and back. They didn’t tell me that much about it, though, beyond the fact they had a great day up there. I was a little taken aback by the crowds in the streets leading up to the top of the hill where the cathedral is built. People are drawn by the dramatic spectacle of the church up there and also by the view the hilltop affords. But there’s a whole Fisherman’s Wharf aspect to the scene, too — some of the surrounding streets and parks are packed with tourists and shops and street performers.

The one added attraction today: a downhill bike ramp that starts right up at the cathedral and twists down the southern face of Montmartre to a spectacular end in the park at the foot of the hill. I asked one of the workmen what it was for — actually, first I asked if he understood English — and he told me that there’s some sort of X Games-like downhill competition up there this weekend. I suppose it’s not any crazier than ski jumping — but that’s still pretty crazy.

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Landed

Just a line from our hotel. It’s the Mercure, in Montigny le Bretonneux, one of the five towns that make up the “new town” suburb of St. Quentin en Yvelines, about 20 miles southwest of the center of Paris. I don’t believe Montigny or St. Quentin are among the places that suffered car-burnng riots among immigrant youths — was that last year or the year before? — but this part of it looks like a candidate. Lots of ’60s-era office and retail blocks that look worn today; lots of space for rent, significantly more than I noticed four years ago. The town center looks all the more bleak today for being deserted because of a national holiday, the Feast of the Assumption. Yeah — Virgin Mary worship right here in the heart of postmodern rationalism (if there is such a thing). Go figure.

Anyway, I got here in one piece; not without anxiety or minor travail, but I guess that’s just part of the drill for me taking a long trip away from the family. More later.

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En Route

The purpose of this trip, to be examined and re-examined frequently, is Paris-Brest-Paris. You’ve heard it all before, but: One of the world’s great long-distance (750 miles or so), semi-recreational, semi-masochistical cycling events: It started in 1893, a decade before the Tour de France; licensed racers are not welcome, but it’s still a ride against the clock: The longest you get to do the ride, barring extraordinary circumstances, is 90 hours; the fastest anyone has ever done it is in the neighborhood of 42 hours. This year’s ride — it’s held every four years — starts next Monday, the 20th. I’ll be starting with the biggest group of riders, leaving at 9:30 p.m. from the western suburbs of Paris with the full 90 hours to work with; that means we have to be back at the finish at 3:30 p.m. Friday. Townspeople across France call out “bonne route” and “bon courage” to hearten the riders. In advance, I’d like to say thanks, French townspeople; I’ll need all the encouragement I can get.

This here flight: Air France Flight 7. Took off from John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens, New York at about 7:35 p.m. The flight’s supposed to take six hours and fifteen minutes. We’ve got an hour and a half to go. I’m riding in the back of a 777; I’ve got the seat in front of me shoved so far back that my laptop is sort of wedged into my abdomen. It’s a minimally ergonomic setup.

My perfect airline: Air France is OK. The cabin crew is sort of elegant, and it is not understaffed. They serve actual food, with free (and passably decent) wine, for dinner. They hand out bread rolls. But the airline is not perfect. They charged me $150 to put my bike on the plane. Four years ago when I did PBP, they just took it as my second piece of luggage and charged me nada. Or rien, to be true to the spirit of this thing. OK, so there goes a hundred and fifty bucks — oh, yeah, 300, since this is a round trip and I plan on bringing the bike back with me. That bike charge would not happen on my perfect airline.

My perfect airline, part deux: Did I tell you that the seat in front of me has been shoved so far back that I can barely move? That would not happen on my perfect airline. There’d be room enough between seats so that leaning back wouldn’t displace another passenger’s spleen. Either that, or the seats would not recline at all. Non-reclining seats would be bad news for the seat hog in front of me. You hear that, seat hog?

My perfect airline, part trois: The thrilling news is that I’m counting in French. The other news is that those little route tracker displays that have appeared on planes — mostly on international routes, I guess — have become more sophisticated. On Air France, they give you about a dozen different still and animated views of the plane’s position, along with the standard readouts on air speed and outside temperature, distance covered and time to arrival, and so on. Also, the basic maps they use are pretty much the same, with important cities like Nouakchott located (um — capital of Mauritania? I guess they speak French there). But one delightful addition to the maps of the Ocean Atlantique is the location of historic shipwrecks, complete with years they occurred — the Titanic, USS Thresher, Andrea Doria, and Bismarck have all shown up during the trip.

We’re passing south of Cork right now, the map says. An hour till we land. Forty-three below zero Fahrenheit outside, we’re at 38,000 feet, and the dawn is breaking. A baby’s squalling a few rows away, which is a bummer for its mere et pere; someone, no kidding, is calming the kid down by playing “Hey Mr. Tambourine Man” on a harmonica. That is all acceptable behavior on my perfect airline.

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Food Moment

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Sunday night at Jan and Christian’s in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. In our trip across country, Kate and I just once stayed two nights in the same place. So we blew through Jan and Chris’s place, too. But in the afternoon and evening and morning we *were* there, there was lunch at a tacqueria, dessert, a bike ride, a dog walk, a great dinner (above, grilled red onions on a plate with grilled chicken), dessert, a meteor-viewing party (the Perseids, disappointing except for lying down on my back watching the sky, an op-ed published in the Washington Post (Chris’s, on the ongoing threat of lead poisoning), a meeting with a guidance counselor (Jan, at the local high school), breakfast, and that’s about it.

Nice Ride Anyway

A friend asks: Have I been on the bike at all during our trip east? Yeah, I have. But it has been strange. After months of riding hard and getting neurotic about whether I was riding hard enough, now I’m deliberately trying to ride just a little — enough so that when I get to France and this 750-mile ride kicks off, in eight days, I will have maintained the fitness I built up over the spring and summer while not having exhausted myself. (In other words, it’s something else to get neurotic about.) So the riding I’ve done since leaving Berkeley has been a little sporadic and mostly not very intense: half a dozen rides, five states*, only once more than an hour; that’s just enough to remind my legs what they need to do.

Tonight, we’re staying with friends in a little town in Westchester County, on the Hudson just north of New York City. This afternoon, looking for a ride to do, I headed up the South and North County Trailways; they’re paved paths on the right-of-way of an old commuter railroad that used to run up to Putnam County, the next one north of Westchester.

The paths were mostly great,, even though they run close to a couple busy roads most of the 16 or 17 miles north that I rode. The paving was a little rough in places, but there weren’t many other users, the strip of land the path runs along was beautiful, and given how hilly the country is, the route was very flat (that figures, having been a railroad grade).

One thing I discovered is that folks using this trail apparently shun all contact with strangers. I probably passed a couple hundred people in 33 miles — mostly other cyclists, but also a few shaky looking in-line skaters and a handful of runners and very determined-looking walkers. Only one guy I passed acknowledged my wave as I passed; a couple people responded when I told them I was passing them. Mostly I got blank looks — sometimes because people were wearing headphones and listening to iPods, mostly from people who were just disinclined to respond in kind. Strange and oppressive and off-putting, this isolation people take with them out into the world.

Nice ride anyway, though.

*The five states: Nevada, Colorado, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York.

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Garden State

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Frenchtown, New Jersey, east bank of the Delaware River, 7:55 p.m., August 11. I think this is the last new state we’ll wander into on this trip.

New York, Pennsylvania

Checking in from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, north of Philadelphia, after stops (briefly) in Allegany State Park, New York, and (longly) in Shiremanstown, Pa., where Kate’s aunt and uncle live. Then today, across the eastern part of the state on the spanking clean pavement of the state’s turnpike (it was such an innovation that when it first opened people used to pull onto the median to picnic). The weather has turned in these parts: We’d had nearly a week straight of heavy, hot, humidity-saturated air; late this afternoon, that gave way to cool, windy weather that reminded me of the Bay Area or perhaps the first hint of post-summer in these parts. We’re staying tonight with Kate’s cousin, then tomorrow will wind up on the northern Jersey shore, where her family lives. Me, I’m just driving, enjoying good food and good company, and starting to obsess about my trip to France next week and whether I’m really ready for it.

Pardon, monsieur. Parlez vous l’anglais?