“As we remember it…” a conversation by Howard Rogers and Phil Mallette

Howard: My early recollection was that Jim Griffin and I went out for a meal to get ourselves stuffed up with lots of pasta and to get to the start pretty early. He returned to the hotel to prepare the bicycles at around about 11p.m. suppose, only to be told we couldn’t go into the courtyard where our bicycles were kept to get them ready. After 20 mtnutes of arguing we were contemplating all sorts of dastardly deeds to the poor bastard behind the desk. He didn’t seem to understand that it was exceedingly important for us to get our two bicycles and to get to the start of the event. He didn’t believe that we were really leaving the hotel at that hour. He didn’t believe that we were going to pay our bill. This man was the most suspicious man you’ve ever met in your life. The end result was that I was considering clambering over the desk and punching him, or at least holding him while Jim went and got the bikes. I was also considering punching the fire alarm and waking the entire hotel, including the slumbering patron, the person this twit feared most. He finally succumbed to the temptation to actually allow us to have our bicycles. A wise move, possibly just saving his life which, I think he realized, was in jeopardy. After having spent some time preparing the bikes and having a fitful rest, we were confronted at leaving time, with a torrential dowmpour. This naturally necessitated getting into the rain gear and heading to Reuil Malmaison for the 4am start. What better prospect than a cold and soggy 1200km ride!

Phil: I got to Reuil Malmaison on Saturday morning to see what the place was like so I wouldn’t get lost since I was riding from a hotel in Paris. My lights didn’t work. and I was checking everything over while I was there and just seeing who else was hanging around. It started to rain like hell, and this older gentleman from across the street came over and started a conversation and asked me if I wanted to fix ay bike in his garage. As it turned out he was Randonneur himself and a former racer, and I put my bike up on his rack and fixed the light which wasn’t grounded properly. Then he shoved me all of his racing memorabilia. He had been an amateur racer and had black and white pictures from the old cycling magazines. He showed se some pictures of him winning races, and as a randonneur, the badges from the rides he’d done. I saw him too the day we left. He was hanging out of his window upstairs and he gave me a big wave when we took off. For the dinner on the Saturday, there was a 2 1/2 hour line up. We got in to eat about 9:30 and the dinner menu was the beginning of the main menu of the next 4 days – slices of pork, green beans, roast beef, yogurt and bread. We weren’t getting that soup yet. Nothing exciting happened at the bike check. I showed him my complete life-time supply of light bulbs! I thought the start was incredible – the number of people, the motorcyclists and all the confusion and all those little red tall lights bouncing away down the road.

Howard: Disappearing into the night, snaking away, desperately trying to avoid contact with the nobblers around us.

Phil: And the flat tires! It seemed everyone had flat tres! Ian told us afterwards it had been pine needles.

Howard: But I didn’t meet any pine needles for the entire 1264 kms. (Note -1264kms – courtesy of a very accurate Avocet computer.) And carrying all those spares! I mean I carried enough gear to outfit about 3 bicycles. I actually used one tail light bulb in the entire event which goes to prove that if I hadn’t carried all the rest of the bloody gear, I’d have had all kinds of problems! But for me, the ride through the night was uneventful apart from somebody cascading past my ear, legs and head doing cartwheels through the air. He’d obviously hit a curbstone or something but it wasn’t anybody we knew so there wasn’t any real panic to jump off to make sure he was OK or see if there was anything we could do. I think he was French in which case…No comment. I was later of course to realize, much as I love France, that the French cyclos themselves appear to be terribly lazy. There was absolutely nobody, French or otherwise, that I could see, who was the slightest bit interested in getting on the front, let alone getting their tongues on their tires and their eyeballs out and you know, getting stuck in.

Phil: Well those guys just tucked In behind us and shook their heads when we asked if they wanted to take a turn.

Howard: They became known as baggage. Ken, I belleve, coined the rather apt
definition. Any baggage in tow? Yes. OK. Drop’em on the next hill. I think probably the whole ride consisted of us dropping Frenchmen on hills. Where were the French women when we needed them? That night was indeed a spectacle – following the line of red tall lights and passing the numerous repairers of poorly prepared equipment.

Phil: I wiped out. There was an American cyclist who was staying in the same hotel Victor was at and he skidded on the arrows painted in the middle of the road with that thick rubber paint. I saw him go down and I knew I was going to hit him so I just tried to aim my bicycle where it would do the least damage to my own bike; so I rode over his legs and went down in a pile. Fortunately there was was nobody directly behind us. He got up and grabbed his head and started “Oh man, Oh man” and I looked behind us and I could see the headlights of a 1,000 bicycles coming down at us and I said “Get off the fucking road!”; and we got the bikes off the road and everyone went zipping by. Victor came back to check it out. The guy I rode over was shaken up and I was mad as hell. I checked my bike over, my handle bars were twisted around but everything else seemed to be alright. But when I went down, my feet in the toe clips had twisted the cleat around so that I was riding pigeon toed for a while until I could forcefully twist it around and straighten it out. Anyway that was the only thing that happened until breakfast.

Howard: Ah yea. The breakfast I’d not intended to have at David’s stopping point. Did you stop there? All I can remember is flailing along…somewhat erratically, because of the conditions. Not being able to see very well, staying well out in the middle of the road, in fact impeding traffic. I was asked a couple of times by the gendarme to move over but I felt that it was a lot safer being hit by a car than it was cascading over 14 cyclists who’d gone down. In fact, apart from the one poor guy going past me in the air, I only heard the clatter of falling bikes or saw people repairing tires at the roadside.

Phil: I was surprised we didn’t all pile into everyone. We’d all been warned of the ride out of the forest where the road narrows, but there was nothing going on there.

Howard: Well this was also a new experience from the point of view that I had no Idea if everyone was going to be able to stay together. My brother in law, whom I had never ridden with before, by some miracle, did manage to ride at almost exactly the same speed as Jim and myself. Various others, which included the guy from BC, whom we had met at the airport, came and went. We’d meet and have great conversations, then lose each other and meet again later. This went on all morning. Then after the wind picked up and the rain started again, I seem to recall, we plowed into Belleme which was the worst bloody disaster as far as I was concerned. Like a turkey I was thinking to myself, “Well these guys are going to be organized, we’ll get the card signed, we’ll go and stand in the line, we’ll get fed and off we go.” Fat Chance. An hour and a half standing in the driving rain and wind, and I was beginning to wonder what the hell I was doing on this thing and thinking to myself this cannot be serious. These guys have done this before, they can’t expect us to stand around like this at every checkpoint, it will take us three weeks to do this bloody event. Not to mention death from either malnutrition or pneumonia!

Phil: And after the two and a half hour line up of the opening meal on Sunday, I thought “oh shit there is a line up for this barbecue, you even get your omelette barbecued.” This line up was only forty five minutes. I’d been warned. Ian and Judy Watt warned me not to eat at this place even before l’d checked in at the control.

Howard: I wish someone had warned me in the same way. The time loss at Belleme made a significant difference to the way the event was to go.

Phil: I didn’t pay any attention to it

Howard: I saw people nipping off into town to look for something to eat. But me, being slightly retarded and reticent to leave the course or whatever, I thought no no no no, this is going to be fine. I ended up with virtually no food. What I did get was cold, and disgusting. So hungry, fairly dejected and soaking wet, got to the next control which was Villaines la Juhel. Ah, my favorite spot in the world although I didn’t realise that until I visited it on the way back. I can’t inagine what time that was.

Phil: I left Belleme with David Adam, John Alexander and Phil VanAlstyne.

Howard: Was Villaines the big barn? It was, wasn’t it?

Phil: Yes.

Howard: And the food suddenly took a turn for the better which was very misleading because you thought Belleme was an accident that shouldn’t have happened and that everything was going to be like Villanes la Juhel. Then came Fougeres which again was abominable. Ken decided he had a strange stomach and stood in the line up that was 15 or 20 minutes long and suddenly said to me, “Keep a place for me, I think I’m going to throw up.” I kept looking at Ken and wondering if he’s going to do this In the line or whether he’s going to leave the area. Finally he disappeared much to my relief. Then we moved into the restaurant area where I had, I think I had, 15 rice puddings, because there was nothing else on the menu that I could eat.
I remember thinking at that stage, that maybe this was a trip through hell rather than a ride through the French countryside. I didn’t realise how perceptive my feelings were. I was beginning to wonder if everything was going to be as sad as the Belleme/Fougeres experiences. Of course I hadn’t brightened up at this stage and said to myself, don’t eat at these bloody controls, buy food elsewhere and carry it. We left there late afternoon. This was becoming some event…What next!?

Phil: We arrived at Tintineac at 2 in the morning.

Howard: Pit-ineac perhaps would be better! The food was marginally worse than at Belleme which was very difficult to do.

Phil: It was the absolute worst. There was even a sandwich lineup!

Howard: This is where we didn’t eat. This is where things started to get exciting. We’d all (Ken, Phil, Jim, and myself) had a fair old trot into Tintineac and we decided this was going to be a sleeping point. That was when we found out concrete wasn’t that comfortable, but then what the hell, it was better than nothing. I had to go back to my bicycle at one stage to get something and I found a 50 franc note floating around on the grass. Nobody was at hand that might have dropped it, so I quickly pocketed it and actually it came in very handy for breakfast the next morning. We left after a 2 1/2 hour sleep which vas probably a four hour stop by the time we’d finished piddling around trying to find somewhere to sleep. Incidentally, though bloody noisy, those silver foil space blankets actually keep you warm – one of the nicer revelations of this pioneering event!

Phil: That was the place where everyone was sleeping under the cafeteria tables and in the stairways. They were everywhere. One of the staff in the cafeteria whispered in my ear and showed me this dark stairwell and there wasn’t anybody in it and I went to try and find you guys. I could only find Jim who thought it was time to go when I woke him up. When we woke up the place was packed. I think Howard Chan vas there, and every stair had somebody sleeping on it. At the far end of the cafeteria there were all these French cyclists sitting there smoking and drinking beer and wine and having a wonderful time and under the tables everybody was trying to sleep. With the lights glaring, it was like a Dominion store at rush hour.

Howard: Mind you, I’ve never seen anyone sleeping at a Dominion store on stone cold floor, but I actually did manage to do it for two and a half hours. I got up and wandered about and remember thinking to myself, Ah, it’s been a while since I cleaned my teeth. So I walked downstairs and went into the bathroom. Well I decided I wasn’t going to clean my teeth for the rest of the ride! This was my first realization that the bathrooms were not all they were cracked up to be. Didn’t I read somewhere that there were adequate facilities for one’s ablutions?

Phil: They were just cracked up.

Howard: I was fairly appalled by the facilities generally, but then we are going into another whole political area about this whole event because we discovered of course the food was no good, the sleeping arrangements were fairly inadequate, the facilities were no good, I was beginning to wonder what they were trying to do to the people on their bicycles. Could it be chat there was an attempt to make it harder than need be I began to ask of myself?

Phil: I wondered about the sleeping arrangements. They weren’t particularly good at any stop although I don’t think it was really a high priority. If you wanted to sleep there was always some place to sleep but maybe they assumed it’s a randonneur ride and it’s up to your own wits. They’ll give you facilities but you’re going to be so tired anyway it doesn’t matter where you sleep and this is what happened. If I’d been sleeping in a normal cot with blankets on top of me, I might never have woken up! So be thankful that they were as bad as they were.

Howard: We left at about six, I believe. Certainly realizing that not having eaten everyone would start to flag rather, and thinking that we were making good time, which was a another farce, we came across a Breton creperie! Now this place was basically open to sell toast and croissant and coffee, so we sat down and actually talked the manager into opening the creperie, which wasn’t supposed to open for an hour or so, but they said under the circumstances… And we ordered the most expensive and highly packed crepe that the man could possibly create. It was magic. In fact it was so magic that we had another of everything, plus two pails of coffee (cafe au lait), and some tea. We also had a conversation or two. Ken knew an English guy at the place. The end result of this was that we felt pretty well. I think the best we’d felt for some time. The coffee was actually perfect, and the whole thing didn’t cost a great deal. We got on the bicycles only to discover after riding about 10 or 15 kms that we didn’t exactly have a lot of spare time to get to the next control. Now this factor was enhanced by the fact that the wind was against us and there wasn’t a flat bit of terrain to be seen. Consequently the miles we were trying to achieve in the time alloted was going to be rather difficult. So we started digging in a bit and we started passing group after group after group after group after group of people who managed to stay with us on the downhills, but couldn’t stay with us on the hills, let alone do a pull. Quite warming from our point of view. Chuff, chuff. As time went along ve realized that our strategy wasn’t working and a plan was devised to go into a pace line and spend 30 seconds or so on the front and drag the others, then whip to the back so no one got absolutely exhausted. We picked up a 65 year old French man and we dragged him for miles. He wouldn’t get on the front either! He told us how old he was, not obviously realising how old Jim and I are! Well the end result was that with approx. 5 ainutes to spare we came upon Carhaix, no? Wherever! Loudeac? We ended up coming into the town going like the very clappers, about the speed of the traffic. Then we came to a traffic signal which took an interminable time to change. There was a huge truck in front of us and nothing coming the other way, so we decided to overtake the truck, much to the driver’s chagrin and after a certain amount of kerfuffling, we went on in front of the truck. We then sprinted into the home stretch making a right turn up to the Loudeac Control, actually getting our card stamped with 5 minutes to go. Phew! That didn’t do my underwear any good at all, what with the noose of disqualification hanging over our heads – little did we know!