Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Paris Brest Paris - how hard is it really?

I recently had a brief twitter conversation with Michael Hutchinson:

This got me thinking, because I’ve done Paris-Brest-Paris twice. I’m nothing special in ability terms. I’m reasonably fit, yes. I had a fitness test when I was 25 (I’m now 40) which estimated my VO2max as 65. This isn’t too bad for an untrained person, but I was cycling regularly, and I think this is more down to training effect than anything else. I had a more accurate test when I was 37, which recorded a figure of 54.8. I was perhaps a bit heavier than ideal at the time (74kg) and I would score 59.5 when back at my summer weight, if I managed the same absolute.

In 2009 I’d let myself get a bit flabby after London-Edinburgh-London, so I expect the 55 was on the low side. But I was probably not that fit in 2007 when I rode PBP. I had failed to qualify at the first attempt (you need to ride 200km, 300km, 400km and 600km events in specified time windows in the spring). It had all gone to plan, though the 300k had taken 17.5 hours, and the 400k took 25h45 - with a 27h time limit. For the 600k I bit off more than I could chew, chose the Bryan Chapman Memorial 600k, and then took the "Scenic" option. I found myself at Menai Bridge at 01:40, having taken 19h40 to get there, 300km in with another 300km to go, lying on the floor, with an upset stomach, and shivering. I didn’t finish the ride. 

I gave it another go, riding the Border Raid 600k. This was an 'X-rated' or 'shoestring' event meaning there was no support of any kind, so I booked a hotel for some sleep. I arrived there with 5h in hand, and managed to sleep for 30 minutes. The ride ended up taking 38 hours, so I finished with two hours in hand. I was convinced, the next day, that I wasn't up to PBP. The day after that, I entered.

What made it even harder was I then spent 5 weeks sailing with family in the Mediterranean. So I returned to the UK about 4 weeks before PBP with no miles in my legs. I took more than 19.5 hours to ride two 300k events I rode in the following weeks, and then 10 hours to ride a 200k. This was actually my fastest, I think I had a moving average of around 25kph on that one. Paris-Brest-Paris ended up being very tough. I got two and a half hour sleep in the 88 hours or so it took me to ride it. The weather was terrible.

My average riding speed was very slow. My GPS had a moving time of 58 hours, giving around 21kph. I spent 30 hours off the bike, wasting time queuing at controls, fixing a mechanical problem (broken gear cable - unfortunately I couldn't fix it at the roadside and had to ride 50k to the next control on just the triple mech shifter).

Paris-Brest-Paris starts in the evening, so you have to ride through the night; there was a staggered start in groups of around 500. I started at around 10pm. After maybe an hour it started raining. I suppose it was worse for the riders who were still waiting to start when the rain came. I remember leaving the Mortagne au Perche control in the middle of the night, freezing cold and wet. You descend from there, so you get even colder when you get back on the bike. I decided I would give up at 300km.

I rode through the night, through the next day, and the second night I managed to get 20 minutes on the floor in the dining hall at Loudeac (450km). I'd have got more sleep if it wasn't for the mechanical, which occurred at 400km.

On to Carhaix at 525km and 45 minutes sleep in the morning. I slept 20 minutes in the sun at Brest, and I got 1h fitful sleep on the coach at Carhaix on the return. I then rode through that night, and the next, finally sleeping for 15 minutes on the verge on the final morning after I started to see double every time I blinked.

It doesn't take a great deal of fitness. But in circumstances where you aren't that fit, it does take a certain amount of bloody mindedness not to give up. In 2011, I rode again. This time, I qualified with ease, despite riding all the qualifiers on fixed (on the 300k qualifier I had to walk 7 hills, but it only took me 15 minutes longer than my best geared time on that route). On the 400k event I did a PB for that route, and also span out to 199rpm on a descent.

I rode the "non-scenic" - there is plenty scenery, trust me - version of the Bryan Chapman 600k. I finished in about 36.5h, with 10h off the bike including 4h sleep. Again, the cost was 10-15 minutes versus gears. I did injure my left wrist and had some recovery time and physio after qualification.

I rode Paris-Brest-Paris on fixed also. I could perhaps have gone faster, but rode with my girlfriend. We took 89h. But where I had slept for around 2.5h, this time I got about 8h sleep, and we even had time to have a nice Italian meal at a restaurant in Brest. Our rolling average was still only around 22kph, and it got a bit tough towards the end as we only got 1h sleep overnight at Mortagne au Perche, and felt a bit pushed for time. Yet we also had time for a 30 minute kip on the verge on the final day. It's not that hard that you need to be super-fit. You just have to be crazy, and willing to suffer a bit.

Here I am resting my head on the table at Dreux:

Friday, 30 March 2012

New Shoes!

I got a new pair of shoes today, delivered from Wiggle. Ever since I first used SPDs (for those who don’t know what they are, here’s an explanation), I’ve used the same make and model of shoe, the Specialized Tahoe. These are a shoe that I can comfortably walk around in, can cake an SPD cleat, and have laces.

Laces are actually a bit of a pain at times in cycling shoes. I always end up eventually with the right hand lace shorter than the left due to chain wheel/lace interaction. I suppose the problem is self-limiting, but it’s annoying to have one short lace and one long. The old pair had also been through a lot - I bought them a few days before the 2010 Border Raid 600 - so have done nearly 12,000 miles with my feet in them, in all weathers.

Lara had told me that her Sidi boots were very good, so I did a bit of looking, and found the 2011 model of the Sidi Five XC shoes on Wiggle. These were quite a bit cheaper than 2012 shoes on offer, so I picked the same size as my Specializeds, and they arrived today.

The most obvious thing about them that differs from my existing shoes is they have a much firmer sole. I had been warned about Sidi shoes being quite narrow, but I found they fit ok for me. They feel more snug than my Tahoes, but the adjustability of the closure is good. These shoes have two velcro straps and a ratchet buckle system that allows you to adjust the tightness of the top strap. I had to read the instructions to work out how to use that - it’s easy once you’ve done that though, but I think this is the first time I’ve had shoes that require you to RTFM!

I fitted a brand new pair of cleats, trying to mimic as closely as possible the same position and alignment as on my existing shoes. Tricky given the difference in shape. When I put them on for the first time, I went over on my ankle a couple of times while trying to balance on one foot whilst putting the second shoe on. The bumps on the sole are much narrower than the sole on most shoes, and this took a bit of getting used to.

There was a bit of adjustment when getting going on the bike - clipping in felt slightly strange with the different shoe. The hard plastic sole also means more care is needed when not clipped in, as a foot can slip off more easily. It was made a bit trickier when riding fixed as you can’t freewheel to clip in. But I got used to it quite quickly.

The feel of these shoes, when riding, is very different to the Tahoes. The hard sole and snugness of the shoe mean that it feels like power is being delivered to the pedal far more efficiently. It almost felt like a new bike, and I was cycling quite briskly. I headed out of from work, through Cambridge to the east and looped via Swaffham Bulbeck, heading south then back home via Six Mile Bottom (hur hur) then through the Wilbrahams and Fulbourn. Probably about 20 miles, and my average speed was probably 17mph. Not setting the world alight, but it felt effortless. My feet felt slightly more constrained in terms of lateral (twisting) motion. I think part of this is that the sole protrudes more so there is some friction against the pedal. This is a good thing from the point of view of cleat life since walking on the shoes doesn’t seem to be damaging the cleat, unlike with the old pedals.

I find myself wondering if my power output is increased with these shoes. Certainly, they feel like they are more efficient. I guess that the more rigid sole should be more efficient, and also the ratchet allows better control of how tight the shoe is. My right foot is slightly bigger than the left and I did feel by the end that it was compressing very slightly at the arch. Hopefully a few more days’ riding and they’ll be broken in. I hope so: next weekend I’ll be riding an Easter Arrow for my Brevet 25,000 award. One reason I bought these shoes this week was that the Tahoes were hardly used at all when I rode the Border Raid 600k, and the shoe was digging into my instep for the duration of that ride, which was very uncomfortable. These shoes don’t feel like that will be a problem, though.

I’m very happy with these shoes so far, and now I’m wondering why I didn’t try something different sooner!