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:

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