Earning Cake

Five o’clock is a good time to get up for an all-day ride. It’s not so early as to be unpleasant, but it’s early enough to know that you’ve got lots of hours to play with. And that means lots of kilometres you can cover by teatime.

Coffee, cereal, toast, a slice of proper French flan just because it’s there; then pick the right clothes for the day ahead, apply a handful of chamois cream, and it’s out of the door by six.

It was still firmly dark outside when I left, and there were no stars to be seen, so it would be dark for another hour yet. Enough time to get from our gîte in Guimaëc to Morlaix and get a few kilometres down the V7.

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Joining the V7 before dawn at Morlaix.

Like every region of France, Brittany has its own culinary specialities: crêpes, galettes, palets, kig ha farz, far Breton, and so on. But today I have decided to hunt kouign amann.

Kouign amann is “butter cake” in Breton, which pretty much explains it. The thing with kouign amann is that you can get good ones and mediocre ones; the difference largely being the amount of butter that seems to have gone into them. A lesser kouign amann will be dry in the middle, especially if it is not warmed before eating; a greater one will be moist and sweet throughout.

To a cyclist, a good kouign amann can be thought of as being very much like EPO. By which I don’t mean that it provides an athletic advantage; I mean that after consuming it you would be well advised to set an alarm for the middle of the night to get up and do some squat thrusts to prevent your heart grinding to a halt.

According to some stuff on the Internet that I was looking at before deciding where to ride, the birthplace of the kouign amann is Douarnenez. (And, apparently, this year is the 150th anniversary of its accidental invention.) So my destination for today is Douarnenez, nearly 120km away.

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The concrete section of the V7.

The section of the V7 running south from Morlaix is a disused railway line. It’s well surfaced: hard-packed fine gravel for the most part, but there is a fair stretch which is fully concreted. Naturally, the gradients are minimal and, at this time of the morning, the path was deserted except for a single jogger.

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The V7 is a nice way to travel, but in the thick mist and with thick tree cover it was quite dark. I cracked on, watching the front tyre throwing grains of grit into the beam of the Luxos, and wondered whether I’d be much quicker on the road. Initially my plan had been to simply have a leisurely day out along the whole length of the V7 (at least, the traffic free section, which runs to Rosporden near the southern coast) but having acquired a more purposeful destination I seemed to be thinking more purposefully, too. I made a mental note to try and stop that.

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The old station at Scrignac.

Close to Huelgoat I left the N7 and returned to the road. Two junctions later, I spotted a couple of other people cycling, both wearing hi-viz gilets. Then a couple more. Clearly there was some sort of event on. As I approached the junction I saw yet more.

It was only as I turned onto the road and spotted the text on the back of someone’s gilet that I realised I’d landed in the middle of Paris-Brest-Paris 2015.

I started chatting to the first person I saw. For some reason I asked “C’est le PBP?” despite having already seen it written on his back. “Oui.” Then, because I wasn’t quite sure which way we were pointing or how long they’d been riding, “Vous êtes en aller ou en retour?” I got a curt “En aller” in return. My questions were unwelcome. I pedalled ahead.

I felt quite glad that I was on the Disc Trucker. Dyno lights, mudguards, rack pack… I felt like I could fit in, even if I didn’t have the telltale frame plate that showed each rider’s name, number and nationality.

As I passed more riders I offered a “Bonjour” to most of them. I figured it was too early in the morning for a fistful of “Bon courage!” and PBP’s not really the sort of event for an “Allez! Allez!” so I stuck to the basics.

No-one seemed to be replying, though. And I knew why.

I’ve not ridden PBP, but I’ve ridden half of it (the “PB” bit) and some other hellish-houred rides, and I’m well aware that the early hours of the morning aren’t fun, especially when the night has been damp. As I’d later discover, these folks were actually on their second morning: they had started on Sunday evening. At this point they were 550km into the ride, with almost 700km to go. They were cold, wet and tired. They didn’t want some cheerful tit with 50km on the clock trying to coax pleasantries out of them. They probably just wanted to languish in the numbness of near-unconsciousness, or to stumble across a magical van handing out free coffee and bacon sandwiches.

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The PBP passes through Huelgoat.

At Huelgoat, my planned route diverged from the PBP and turned left up a reasonably chewy ascent. I followed it for a hundred metres before realising it was just taking me over a pointless hill that I could ride around, so I dropped back to join the stream of dayglo yellow making its way into the centre of the town. Once there, I stopped by the lake and watched for a minute or two before deciding to find one poor bastard who was going to get talked to.

I pedalled off and checked the frame plates as I passed people. I didn’t want to subject someone to having to repeat themselves if I had trouble following their French, so I was looking for an English-speaker, but—for the sake of just getting a slightly different angle on things—not a Brit.

Before long I found an American flag, and the text alongside it on the classic 80s-looking steel bike identified its rider as Clyde. I pulled up alongside. “Hey. You’ve come a long way, then?” Clyde barely reacted at first, still stuck in the early-morning daze, but gradually we eased into a bit of chat about the event. He was with the San Francisco Randonneurs; he’d done PBP before along with plenty of other big events (obviously) and knew his stuff. We chatted about the logistics of PBP, its contrôles and timings, and its unique attractions, like the families who stay up all night cheering people on as they ride past their houses, as well as American randonneuring events and distance riding in general.

The mist started to disperse as we approached the D764, and the day had officially woken up. Clyde seemed to have, too. I felt a little better about having disturbed him now: hopefully I’d been helpful rather than selfish in dragging him out of the early-morning cocoon. We continued for some time further until I decided I really had to take the next turn south, and we said our goodbyes. I wished him all the best for the rest of the ride, waved, peeled off, and was back on my own.

By riding with Clyde I’d made a significant detour to the northwest, and I’d consciously knocked Doaurnenez on the head in favour of tagging along with the PBP. But I had a backup plan.

It was around 9am now. Heading south, I found sun and shed my windproof top, but before long I gradually found myself in the rolling hills and back under the cloud and in light mist. Back on went the windproof, and my thoughts turned to breakfast.

At Pleyben I finally found an unassuming boulangerie, and propped the bike up outside it. There were a couple of tables inside, which made me hope that they might serve coffee, but sadly they didn’t. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, so a chicken sandwich was my main event, but the pains aux raisins looked good so I added one of those. As it turned out, I think it may have been the finest pain aux raisins I have ever eaten.

I first contemplated buying another pain aux raisins for the road, then another chicken sandwich, and then both, but eventually I decided I should have an excuse to stop somewhere else (not to mention that I should also leave plenty of room for kouign amann), so I moved on.

A fine sandwich. And hiding in the paper bag is an even finer pain aux raisins.
A fine sandwich. And hiding in the paper bag is an even finer pain aux raisins.

From here I meandered my way south and then west, with the skies gradually clearing again as I approached my backup destination: Locronan.

I’d found a blog post from some years ago which mentioned Locronan and its pastry attractions; indeed, thanks to this post, before I’d found a greater weight of evidence to suggest that Douarnenez was The Place To Go For Kouign Amann, Locronan had been my intended destination anyway. The kouignettes mentioned on the page were exactly what I was after: single-portion versions of the normal, large kouign.

The only problem was that “La Torchette”, mentioned in the post as The Place To Go For Kouign Amann, didn’t seem to be recognised by the Internet eight years later. It was presumably gone. All I could do was turn up, find a patisserie, and hope for the best.

Locronan—its centre, at least—unexpectedly turned out to be grocklesville. It’s very twee, with its old stone buildings full of creperies, patisseries and tourist shops. Come for the buttery pastries, stay for the masonry, and maybe buy something wooden and painted while you’re there.

Inevitably I had a galette for lunch, and equally inevitably a jug of cider to wash it down. Though by now the sun was very decidedly out, and I went off-piste by Breton standards by having ice cream instead of a crêpe. Don’t say I don’t live on the edge.

But then I needed to find my kouign amann.

I decided to take pot luck, and wandered into “Ty Kouign Amann” (The House of Kouign Amann—though the translation makes it sound cheesier than it is). It sold many pastries, but there they were, in plastic compartments along one wall: kouignettes. Kouignettes in various flavours, but I was interested in only one: the classic salted butter caramel version. They looked moist and sweet and golden, just as they should be. I might not have followed the trail laid out by the Internet, but I was pretty confident these were plenty good enough, thankyou.

Slightly conservatively, I put three into a plastic bag, having no idea how much I was going to be stung for in this tourist trap. The lady at the till weighed them. “Quatre euros dix.” Rather less than I expected; they worked out about a quid each. I gave a thought to going back and stuffing as many as I could into a second bag, but my mind turned to the blazing sun outside and the likely six-hour journey back, and I resolved not to return home with a bag full of disappointingly ruined goodies.

As it turns out after the event, Google Streetview proves quite illuminating.

Ty Kouign Amann, which turns out to be La Torchette all along.
Ty Kouign Amann, which turns out to be La Torchette all along.

There it is. Ty Kouign Amann, with a “La Torchette” delivery van outside it. And the name above the door, which I never noticed: “G. Larnicol”, the same Georges Larnicol mentioned in the blog post.

Well, maybe that PBP detour had proved serendipitous.

Now all that remained was to make my way home. Since I’d just had lunch, I saved the kouignettes for later, and I rolled east out of Locronan, back the way I came, trying to pretend my knee didn’t hurt a just a little bit.

The skies remained blue for a couple of hours. Pleasant stuff, although the warmth of the air did start to drop a few hints that perhaps I could have drunk a little more than half a litre of water in the six hours that it took me to get here. I’ve never been a big drinker on rides, but maybe I should have made an effort to get some more down. Hey ho.

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Some time later I found myself crossing the Nantes-Brest canal at Ty Men, and figured that this was a good spot to sit in the sun and dispatch the first kouignette. So I did.

And it was good.

Golden brown on top, moist throughout, and with its underside laden with smooth, buttery caramel, it was a many splendid thing.

I was starting to think I might regret not getting that second bag.

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The kouignette. The spoils of a 220km shopping trip.

From there I carried on through the rolling hills, stopping at Lennon for some cold Perrier and a top-up of my water bottles (having finally made my way through them now), before setting off again into the return of clouds and cooler temperatures.

Wind turbines loom over the Breton hills.
Wind turbines loom over the Breton hills.

I wondered where I’d encounter the PBP route again, and it turned out to be just south of Huelgoat. As I headed north on the D14 I passed over the D764 and saw the familiar stream heading east towards Carhaix. There was a little less fluorescent yellow on display now, and the riders were at 680km. Still 550km to go. Oof.

The PBP passes under the D14 near Huelgoat.
The PBP passes under the D14 near Huelgoat.
PBP riders heading east towards Carhaix.
PBP riders heading east towards Carhaix.

By this point I was getting a little tired. I knew the road route back from Huelgoat was reasonably hilly, having driven it a few times before, but the tarmac still seemed somehow more appealing than the flatter but slightly less easy-rolling V7. One of the descents was very affable indeed, a chance to find some apexes and use the width of the road, having checked that the Range Rover behind me wasn’t looking like trying anything cheeky.

But as the little climbs ticked past, the engines of the Mint Sauce Lancaster were spluttering, and each climb seemed to be tackled with slightly less resolve than the previous. I’d already had to eat some words I’d recently written on a forum about Specialized Sonomas being perfectly decent long distance shoes: historically I’ve always found that they are, but having used stiff soles year-round for the last year or two my feet had clearly gone soft, and my left foot in particular had felt like it was on fire for the last hour or so. I was keen to put an end to that, but of course the more I tried to hasten that end, the worse the problem was. Mental note made: bring the other shoes for anything over 100km.

I decided to put Thin Lizzy’s Thunder and Lighting on the mental jukebox, and it worked as planned. The legs pounded in time with Phil Lynott’s bass, and behind my face grew a snarl to match the lyrics. Like thunder/and lightning/god damn it’s so—exhausting!

From Plouigneau home felt like the home stretch. I hammered on—when it hits you/like a hammer/god damn!—to the silent Thunder and Lightning, having briefly flirted with Jailbreak but found it too downtempo. It continued to work until the last short climb before Lanmeur, when three of the Lancaster’s four engines finally guffed out plumes of black smoke and the old crate was left limping back on the smell of an oily rag.

I passed the boulangerie in Lanmeur and made the slightly odd decision not to pop in and stuff my face with petits Bretons, which I puzzled over for a few hundred metres before pulling into a bus stop and greedily extracting the second of my three kouignettes from the bag.

Oh, sweet butter. Sweet, salty, caramel butter.

It was barely a turn of the pedals from there back to the gîte, which made it seem a little embarrassing that the kouignette harvest had dwindled so rapidly so late, but hey. I went for kouignettes, after all, right?

I think one kouignette per 110km is quite restrained. Wouldn’t you agree?

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