Pondering Paris-Brest-Paris: a postscript

by Raymond Parker on August 25, 2011

in Cycling, Health, Randonneuring, Training

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Packing up

As I write, randonneurs of the 17th Paris-Brest-Paris are catching up on sleep before packing up for another four years.

Many—successful or not—will be pondering the question, “What could I have done differently?” Certainly I have asked myself if I might have faired better in the 16th edition, had I approached the ride from another angle. Based on my experience, here are some tips for riding the big ones.

Preparation

If your command of the French language is limited, expand it. Though I was praised by control volunteers for my earnest attempts, it was at times frustrating not to be able to make my needs clear.

Take note: manners are important in France, as they should be everywhere. A merci and a s’il vous plaît will go along way to ease your passage.

After qualifying for PBP (usually in late spring) the trick is to maintain your training without overdoing it. Racers understand and a lot of randonneurs miss the idea of “peaking.” Try to peak for PBP. Monitor yourself and pedal carefully between maintenance and losing fitness.

In my case, the unavoidable abrupt distance increase after cancer surgery resulted in a strained knee. Accordingly, I cut back after my May qualifying ride and only completed a hilly 200km brevet before leaving for France in August.

Speaking of health, short of living in a hyperbaric chamber, you should avoid environmental factors that might predispose you to life-threatening disease. Most people know what those are. There are many sources of information. Those disposed to activism might take up a cause in support of research or prevention.

Gear

More controllable factors include basic foundations like bicycle fit and the mechanical reliability of your bike. In the former case, I might have tweaked things a wee bit (is there a “perfect” fit for riding 1200km?).

As for the performance of my Marinoni Ciclo and its accessories; everything was flawless. Maybe it was luck, but while I passed hundreds hunched in the dark fixing flat tires, I suffered not one.

If you are not a proficient bicycle mechanic, seek tutoring. There are mechanics at controls but basics like flat fixing, cable replacement, brake and derailleur adjustment, chain repair, etc. should be second nature.

What to take? That is the question. Not too much, not too little, is the general answer.

Different approaches require different accessories. Carry tools for minor repairs and know how to use them. Food is not a big issue—towns are close together—but you should carry enough to get you between controls.

One thing is for sure: hypothermia is no fun. In 2007, and it looks like this year as well, cold and rain was an issue. Adequate clothing can mean the difference between a pleasant ride and a desperate struggle for survival.

Check out the Rando Kit page and choose wisely.

Travel

This may have been one of the biggest mistakes I made: Rather than flying straight to France, I tried to fit in a family visit in the UK beforehand. Don’t do this kind of thing; keep your eye on the prize. Though a short tour in France might be good to maintain fitness, familiarize you with the roads of France, and banish jitters, you should avoid situations that cause unnecessary stress.

I also recommend taking a taxi from the airport or train station to your accommodations. Avoid hauling luggage as much as possible.

Pre-event

It’s a good idea to at least recce the first kilometres from the start in Guyancourt. Get your bike ready and check it over. Check it over again. Is everything tight and properly adjusted? Give it one last check.

Rest. If you’re not fit now, it’s too late. I had visitors on the afternoon of the ride. I missed my nap. If you miss your nap, you will be reminded later.

The Ride

Do not underestimate PBP. It’s a hard ride. Train for hills, and more hills. Squeaking through easy brevets on home soil will not prepare you for France.

Having qualified on Vancouver Island’s lumpy landscape, I felt well-prepared. There were some mitigating circumstances however.

Controls

With attendance at PBP now around 6,000, expect mayhem at controls. The new automated check-in system may have speeded things up (comments from 2011 participants?) but expect line-ups. Many experienced randonneurs avoid the crush by moving to other establishments—bars and boulangeries—once they’ve checked through controls.

The smartest randos make their own overnight arrangements at critical points like Loudéac and Brest.

Roads

French roads are mostly good, but expect some chipseal. I would not run 23C tires again. Motorists are much more courteous toward cyclists than North Americans. That doesn’t mean you should ride as if on closed roads. I saw many doing so.

Learn how to navigate roundabouts.

Conclusion

It is common lore amongst randonneurs that you should change nothing on your bike before a big event like PBP. But what about on your person?

As readers of my memoir know, Shermer’s neck spoiled my ride, as it did for many, many randonneurs in 2007. Some were more innovative than me. I saw one chap riding into Guyancourt with a toilet plunger taped to his handlebar stem, with the rubber sucky end supporting his chin!

I have a theory that constant hunching of shoulders (see photo in last chapter) against the cold resulted in fatigued neck muscles. But something else occurred to me later: just before leaving, with meteorologists predicting a deluge, I opted for a cap with a wider brim–a largely untested piece of “equipment.” This caused me to crane my neck more acutely than normal, to see under the brim. This likely exacerbated the problem.

Another change from the norm for me included on-bike nutrition. Averse to sports bars (not the ones with strippers), I supplement between meals with liquid food. I should have taken a supply of my preferred drink with me. Instead, I bought an untested product in France. Mixed with tap water, it tasted foul.

Lastly, be flexible. Yes, you should undertake a strict regimen of stretching exercises, but at PBP you need to be mentally nimble, even when half-asleep. Shit will happen.

I’ve heard other PBP veterans say that you need to ride the event to learn how to ride it. I hope I learned more than I forgot. Should I ever return, I’ll at least make new mistakes.

Did you learn something new at PBP or other long ride?

Chapters: «|1|2|3|4|5|6|7|8|

{ 9 comments… read them below or add your spin! }

Harold Bridge August 26, 2011 at 11:00 am

Already 56, I felt it essential to attempt PBP 83 that year as I would be “too old”at 60 by 1987. Didn’t get far, the bottom bracket fell apart! And yet, I persevered through to the PBP centennary in 1991 even though that ended in disaster!

Something completely different to PBP took place in June 2011, the East Sussex 24 hour National time trial championship wherein 47 yoa Andrew Wilkinson put the Competition record on the shelf once again. His last go round in 1997 had ended with 525 miles on the record books.

In comparison to my lighting facility in 1983, watching the You Tube video of Andy’s ride in 2011 showed the advances made in bike lighting.

70 yoa Scot George Berwick finished with 300 miles.

There is a definite reduction in one’s eyesight when approaching old age and I think I was lucky that I was able to scrape inside 90 hours in PBP 83. “Never Ready” bike lamps were standard gear then.

I used 2 Union headlamps, one running a generator and the other battery powered. Not needing big gears I used a 7 block with 44×24 with 13,14,15,16,17,19 and 24 rings and barcons. Top gear 89″, bottom gear 38″. Some suggested I needed a lower gear than 38″.

But with 175mm cranks I was able to sit down and pedal on stiff grades.
I think it was worth putting on old Michelin 25mm tyres for the tour we did to Paris, saving the new ones for the event.

Cutting to the disaster, foot down in long grass that hid a rock filled ditch put me well outside time limit, at about 92 hours and in some pain that took 6 weeks to subside.

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Raymond Parker August 26, 2011 at 1:40 pm

I felt the same in 2007, at 55. Now my next chance will be 2015.

Sorry to see 79 y/o David Gillanders DNFd at PBP again this year. At least he got a 1200k at last year’s VanIsle 1200. Phenomenal!

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Harold Bridge, again August 26, 2011 at 1:01 pm

My previous diatribe avoided reference to Wilkinson’s 2011 24 hour record due to my uncertainty of the actual distance.
Now I have found the result I can confirm that Andy fiinished with a provisional distance of 541.17 miles. What’s that? about 870kms?

Generally speaking roads in the south of England tend to be in good shape and no doubt traffic flow helps.

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Raymond Parker August 26, 2011 at 1:41 pm

Yes, Harold, that ride was truly astounding.

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Stephen August 26, 2011 at 10:39 pm

1987, the first year I attempted PBP. I made the mistake of arriving in Paris just in time for the event. Mistake? I was in a different time zone to my body, I had no time to adjust, I didn’t know the culture. My stomach wanted dinner at 3 am. Where do you find that? And still get some sleep during the middle of the day? In 1991, we went over 2 weeks in advance to acclimate. Toured the Channel Islands and rode into the start along the outbound route. Had a successful ride. I repeated that formula in 2003, arriving in Paris in time to ride the first 100km of the route to check out the landmarks. Go over at least a week in advance to adjust to the local scene.

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Raymond Parker August 28, 2011 at 9:58 am

Good point. I also suffered from jet lag, mostly but not completely adjusted to during the UK visit.

I did a couple of 30-odd kilometre explorations of the start. It was good to make note of a low right-hand curb, indistinguishable from the road. A few people came to grief on that.

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Harold Bridge, again August 27, 2011 at 6:51 pm

By the time of the next PBP, 2015 I believe, Andy Wilkinson should be 51. If instead of going for the 24 record again, he planned around a PBP performance and with decent weather, I could see that 1951 38 hour record being put on the shelf again.
HJB

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Simon Bever August 28, 2011 at 10:24 am

Having completed both the Sussex 24 hour and the PBP in 2011 I can cofirm that there is a substantial difference in the road quality between the two. The surfaces for the 24 hr were appalling whereas the French roads were a dream; but using tri bars in the TT means that your hands and body don’t suffer as much though. Andy Wilkinson is a sensational rider but the rules of the PBP would not permit him to finish any quicker than 41 hours (30 kph) – remembering, of course, that the PBP is 1230 kms.

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Raymond Parker August 30, 2011 at 5:21 pm

Thanks for your insight Simon.

I don’t use tri bars, so I can’t comment. I’m guessing I’d find them uncomfortable. ACP is right to forbid them at PBP; they are unsafe in groups.

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