I went to France 3 weeks ago for vacation. Well, that and a bike ride. Every four years the Audax Club Parisien runs Paris-Brest-Paris, a 1200K ride from Paris, to Brest, and back. The ride has a long history, having been run the first time in 1891. There is also a history of long, organized bike rides in general, this type of riding is labeled Randoneering. To make it interesting (and depending on your personal level of machismo) there are time limits. Riders get a choice of 80, 84, or 90 hours. My personal level of machismo and the desire to squeeze as much into my once-a-decade European vacation led me to choose 80 hours. Since there are about 5000 riders, there are different start groups, and 80 hours went off first. An earlier start would mean an earlier finish and I would be able to meet up sooner with my wife and continue vacation. This decision would come back to bite me in the ass.
Coming from overseas with a bike and gear to do a 1200k ride is challenge enough, but to do PBP you have to qualify. Audax Parisiene requires that every participant complete a Brevet series: a 200k, 300k, 400k and 600k ride, each with time limits.
I thought that the brevets were very regimented, for what were essentially a few long rides with 30 or 40 participants. There are official start times, map sheets, cue sheets (at 32.6 miles, go left on Soft tire street. 41.9 miles go right on Old Fart road. continue straight at Boy Does my Ass Hurt Trail for 9.3 miles to 51.4 miles). Each ride has a series of checkpoints where riders have to get their “control” cards initialed with the time. There are not only time limits for each ride, but the controls are spaced roughly evenly and to make the Brevet count you have to get to each control point within a specified time window. The timing is such that you only have to average 9.2 mph (roughly) and can’t average more than about 20mph, which would be extremely hard to maintain with stops.
The series is required to prepare you for the rigors of a 1200k ride, the rule used to to be that you had to do two series in consecutive years to qualify for PBP. Because I have ridden at least 2000 miles a year for the past 30 years, and raced for about 10 years, I thought I was completely ready for PBP without these silly mandatory (and time consuming) rides. Physically I was, but I still had some things to learn:
First, Brooks saddles really are the most comfortable thing you can ride. I have heard this for ever, but never believed it. My first brevet was a 400k (250mile) ride – about 50 miles longer than I had ever gone at one stretch before. My legs were fine, but the roads were rough, and after about 140 miles it was painfully obvious that my trusty Flite saddle was just not the right thing. The monday after I got back I immediately ordered a venerable B-17 (honey brown). It truly is the most comfortable saddle I have ridden, and it is because it never bottoms out onto the shell like modern saddles do. From the very first ride it was no worse than my Flite, and by the third ride it was more comfortable.
Next, nutrition. Even before I started this adventure I had done some solo double centuries. My foods of choice were grape Koolaid, braunschwieger sandwiches, and oatmeal cookie bars. I have never like “engineered” excercise food bars and drinks, I prefer good old fashioned sugar, salt, fat, and artificial grape flavoring. Lots of people thing I am nuts when I expound on my on-bike re-fueling theories, but it had always worked for me. On a long ride I want food that is calorie dense, so I don’t have to constantly eat, or carry pounds of food. It is also a good idea to take in some salt to replace what is sweated out. Koolaid and cookies just taste good and all that sugar gives a pretty quick boost when you are tired, plus the oatmeal has a little staying power.
All this was good on shorter rides in moderate temperatures, but my 600k brevet was long and hot. Suddenly braunschwieger wasn’t sitting in my stomach too well, cookies got old after a while, and I had already lost my grape koolaid on a big pothole during an earlier thunderstorm. I got so tired that I literally laid down on the side of the road and took a nap. There were buzzards circling when I woke up, but I don’t think they were serious about me. Anyways, I did the second half of the ride pretty much on Gatorade. There is a place for plastic foods.
Third, ointment. It really does ease discomfort. I advise liberal use.
As you might guess, these brevets had a wide range of bikes. I saw everything from 25(?) year old Gitanes to all carbon Treks, all ti Serottas, and a surprising number of guys in full randonneur kit. It looked like several of them were riding and wearing the complete Rivendell catalog. The Rivendells and custom randonneur bikes were by far the best looking bikes at every ride.
By June 21 I had completed the mandatory rides, got my signed doctors note OKing me to do 750 miles in 3 days, arranged all the paperwork, and sent the whole thing off to Paris. I was ready to go.