Five Reasons to Take the 5am/84-Hour PBP Start

By Charles W. Lamb

PBP has three start times:

  • 8pm on Monday night (red)
  • 10pm on Monday night (green)
  • and 5am on Tuesday morning (blue).

When you register you are given a control card and a bike number which are color-coded according to your start time (red, green, or blue). Each start-time-group has both a minimum and maximum time limit associated with it and the control point opening and closing times are arranged accordingly. The 8pm starters have a maximum of 80 hours to complete the ride. The 10pm starters have up to 90 hours. The 5am starters have up to 84 hours. In the past, of the approximately 3000 riders, at least 2000 choose the 10pm (90 hour) start. About 500 took the 8pm start and 500 took the 5am start. For all intents and purposes, the minimum times are not relevant except to say that if you want to "race" PBP you must start in the 8pm/red/80-hour group. In other words, if you are a non-80 hour rider you could actually arrive at a control point before it opens. Technically, if you arrived too early the control would be open and people would be there signing in the 80 hour riders, but they could refuse to stamp a non-80-hour rider's card until the official opening time for that group.

In 1987, I took the 90-hour start and finished in 89 hours. In 1991, I took the 5am start (84 hours) and finished in 67 hours. In 1995, I again took the 5am start (84 hours) and finished in 65 hours. To me, my advice to almost everyone riding PBP is to take the 5am start even if you're not going to do a sub-72-hour finish. There are a number of reasons.

First, by starting at 5am you get the most sleep before starting. If you start at 8pm or 10pm, you pretty much spend the whole day tossing and turning and hoping to take a nap. But in general, you're too worked up and excited to get any sleep. Or there's too much noise to get any sleep. Or the hotel is too hot and there's no air conditioning. So you arrive at the start without any sleep and you have to stay up all night long. Have a nice ride. If, however, you take the 5am start, you may not get a full night's sleep, but you'll get some and your sleep cycles won't be too disrupted. No matter how hard you try you won't get to sleep until 10pm or later. You will have to wake up at 2am to get to the start on time and sign in. But some sleep is better than none.

Second, by starting at 5am you can actually ride the whole thing (or most of it) in the daylight if you try hard. I didn't do it myself, but I rode with some Dutch riders who did 250 miles per day and rode the whole thing in the daylight, thus allowing themselves 8 hours of sleep at night. This style is not for everyone, but it is a reasonable possibility for some. You have no hope of doing this unless you take the 5am start.

Third, by starting at 5am you don't have the logistical nightmare of trying to keep your lights going for 8 hours straight. The 10pm start means you need to carry an entire night's worth of batteries. It's heavy and it's a pain in the neck, especially if you're using something like a NightSun or a NightRider. With the 5am start, you need about an hour's worth of batteries and then you can pick up more at some checkpoint after that.

Fourth, by starting at 5am you beat the crowds at the start. The 10pm start is crowded. In fact, it was so crowded in 1991 that many people didn't even get out of the starting gate until 10:30 or 11:00 (this is not a joke). In 1995 they fixed this and made three starting sub-groups within the 10pm group: 10:00, 10:30, and 11:00. Your card was marked accordingly and you were allowed the extra half hour or hour at the checkpoints. Nevertheless, you're still going to be riding in a crowd and you're still going to be standing around (awake, and maybe cold). No thank you.

Fifth, by starting at 5am you beat the crowds at the checkpoints. When you get to the checkpoints, the last thing you want to do is wait in line. If you're in the 10pm start, you'll be waiting in lines. You may also wait in line with the 5am start, but they will not be as bad. Eventually, you'll catch up with the 10pm starters. Perhaps it will be at Loudeac (275 miles from the start). But by then, the 10pm starters will be spread out a lot more and the lines won't be nearly as bad as if you had been riding with the 10pm starters the whole time.

Now you're probably wondering to yourself: Well Charlie, that's all fine for you but what does the 5am start mean to me, Al Franken? Good question. You'll have to train harder. Train as if you're going to do 72 or 75 or 79 hours at worst. That way you'll have the extra margin to make mistakes. Start your training now as if you were going to take the 84 hour/5am start. Shoot for getting to Loudeac (275 miles) on the first day in order to have a good margin for error.

Review the checkpoint opening and closing times (shown below) and work out a plan. Basically, train as if you're going to go 275 miles the first day, come hell or high water, sleep 4 hours, and then move on to Carhaix and Brest. If you do that, you'll be in good shape.

Keep in mind that once you sign up for a specific PBP start time, and send in your PBP application, you're stuck with it. You cannot change it. I've seen people ask to change their start time at the PBP checkin, to no avail. It is simply not done. So think long and hard, before choosing a start time. You will have to live with your decision, once you make it.