By Scott Dickson
PBP Record Holder
PBP (79, 83, 87, 91, 95)
Having completed five PBPs, I would like to share my thoughts and experiences with you so that you may avoid the pitfalls on your first attempt. Completing PBP requires a strong mental outlook to overcome the adversities. Set realistic goals that are within your limits and select the appropriate starting group that fits your goals and style of riding. The 80 hour group (8pm departure) starts out like a 600-rider criterium. This start is not for the faint-of-heart. There are attacks throughout the 1200km with teams working together to place high and keep others out of the front group.
The climate of Western France is much like the northern latitudes of the USA in October where the highs are in the 60's to 70's and the lows may be in the low 40's. Rain and fog may occur during PBP. The very hilly terrain of western France and unfamiliar road and sign system can be a real challenge for any rider with no riding experience in Europe. It is advantageous to arrive in France early enough to become familiar with the different foods, road and sign system, and culture in general. A minimum of 5 days may be needed to overcome the effects of jetlag. I found the French diet to be so different from my normal diet that I needed a substantial increase in caloric intake to maintain weight. This may change sometime after sufficient exposure.
Many of the European riders belong to clubs and ride together the entire route. While this may seem impractical, it has the advantage of the "buddy system" which helps riders overcome both emotional and physical problems. Mechanical problems are often easier to solve with a small group than alone. Food and drink can be shared in a group, and the conversation will help keep a rider from feeling like dropping out during periods of depression. A group is much less likely to stray from the course or miscalculate a controls closing time. The groups headlights help locate turns and is safer than a single light.
TRAINING: Training for PBP will vary with a person's specific goals. The rider trying to finish in the front group must be ready to handle the pace of a typical European roadrace. Over the past twenty years, my annual average training mileage is 24,000 miles. While this may seem excessive, I have found an advantage with a large number of base-miles. However, there is no substitute for a comprehensive training program that includes long, slow, base-miles, tempo training, pack riding, and intervals. Each individual must decide how to maximize their preparation considering ability, goals, and time constraints. I do some speed work through the spring and summer prior to PBP. While most of my riding will be long, slow distance, there will also be plenty of fast training with groups of competitive cyclists. This type of training is especially valuable for familiarizing the cyclist with smooth pack riding at speed. For the 2-3 weeks prior to PBP, I ride approximately 550 miles per week. The final week I cut the mileage back to about 300 miles, with very low easy miles the last 3 days.
Most of my PBP preparation is mental rather than physical. This includes mental imaging to help prepare for the effects of sleep deprivation over a 2-day period. When I feel the urge to sleep, I exercise my mind by doing calculations, or hum songs to stay alert. Conversing with other riders or increasing the riding pace also helps battle the sandman. Periods of drowsiness occur in cycles and do pass, so try hard to get through them.
FOOD AND NUTRITION: It is very important to eat and drink on a regular schedule, before you are hungry or thirsty. An occasional sit-down hot meal is OK, but you should practice eating on the bike to save time. Approximately 1/3 to 1/2 of my total caloric intake comes from a fluid replacement drink and sports nutrition supplement. While riding, I eat fruit, rice pudding, sandwiches and cookies. At 3 or 4 controls my crew will obtain some hot food for me. This will include hot items such as omelets, mashed potatoes, vegetables, and soups. This is eaten quickly at the control, except the soup which is put in a water bottle for the road. There is a very strong urge to sit down for a nice slow hot meal. While this may be reasonable for the 90 hour rider, is not advisable for someone trying to stay in the front group.
The week prior to PBP I eat my normal diet as much as possible. This consists of large amounts of carbohydrates such as pasta, rice, potatoes, cereals and breads. Some lean meats such as chicken and fish and fresh fruits and vegetables will round out the diet. The 4 months prior to PBP I quit drinking coffee, colas and other sources of caffeine. This increases the effectiveness of caffeine when called upon during the event. I avoid fried foods or any foods that are high in fat. Most of your energy can be efficiently derived from carbohydrates, so it is wise to keep the intake of meat to a minimum. Proteins and fats are slow to digest, so this should be kept in mind when selecting foods.
After the first night of PBP I usually begin to feel a little drowsy. At this time I will take a Vivarin tablet to help remain alert. Besides being an effective mild stimulant, caffeine also immobilizes free fatty acids for use as a fuel. This has a glycogen sparing effect which reduces fatigue. Care must be taken to avoid dehydration since caffeine is a diuretic, requiring an increase in water consumption. Drink only bottled water to avoid any possible water-borne bacteria which could cause illness. My support crew purchases the water in multipacks of liter bottles before the start.
Common sense is the best advice on food selection. Foods should be easy to obtain and tasty enough to maintain the rider's interest. Give in to cravings as the body sometimes senses deficiencies in substances. Always carry some food between the controls. Using food treats as a reward for completing a portion of the event (one control to the next) is an excellent positive reinforcement tool.
EQUIPMENT: PBP is as much a road rally as it is a test of cycling endurance. Navigating on strange roads at night is not easy, so the use of a cycling computer that displays kilometers is essential for anticipating a turn or a control. I use Cateye double C-cell clamp-on lights. These are small, light, and easy to clamp on in a variety of ways and are fairly easy to open for battery replacement. This system puts out enough light for riding in a group, but may not be sufficient for riding alone.
If using clinchers, you should also carry 2 spare tubes, tire levers, and a patch kit that includes some material to boot a tire in case of a gash. A light-weight rolled up spare tire may also be suggested. Use 700-C size wheels since that is what is available for purchase in France. I use Vittoria CX 240 gram cotton sew-up tires and carry along two pre-glued spares. These tires are much quicker to change than clinchers. Remember that when riding in the rain there is an increased chance for punctures. This is caused by debris adhering to the tires rolling surface due to surface tension of the water on the tire. If riding unsupported, panniers or a front or rear bag would be useful for carrying the variety of clothing needed for PBP. In deciding what to take along, the weight and bulk of the item versus the difficulty of obtaining it at a control should be considered.
Carry some spare bulbs and batteries and small cycling tools such as a spoke wrench and Allen wrenches. Also carry some Franc notes for emergencies. At many of the controls I receive a mussett bag filled with food by my support crew. This is a handy way to quickly grab a cache of food for consumption on the road. With the strap slung over the shoulder, the bag rests across the back and can creep around and drop down dangling near the knees. To alleviate the problem, place some velcro on the back of the bag so that it will remain on the lower back.
Equipment should be selected for use based on reliability before weight and aerodynamics are considered. It should all be thoroughly tested before PBP. Fender hardware should be loctited to prevent nuts from loosening over the long ride. Be advised that the batteries available at the controls are French and have about 1/2 to 1/3 the life of the American batteries. My support crew has a fresh set of American batteries in two of the three sets of lights for exchange at each of the controls through the nights.
CLOTHING: Be prepared to dress for a temperature range from the low 40's to the upper 70's. A wool cycling hat and light full gloves are useful through the cool nights. Consider the high possibility of rain and the very cool nights that are likely to occur. I use arm warmers which are easy to put on and strip off while riding. Lycra tights and long sleeved jerseys are recommended for the cool periods. The last day I usually dress conservatively wearing long sleeved jersey and lycra tights to reduce heat loss and conserve energy. Occasionally changing chamois lined shorts, jersey and socks help you feel more comfortable. I wear glasses with a securing strap rather than my usual soft contacts to avoid the possibility of problems caused by dehydration. I do practice riding while wearing the glasses before PBP, as there is a perception difference.
MEDICAL CONSIDERATIONS: Even with the high latitude of France, the use of a good sunscreen is recommended. The cyclist's body is already going through enough without having to deal with a sunburn. Everyone is likely to experience some saddle sores during PBP. Many miles of training beforehand is the best preventative measure. Correct position on the bike and occasionally getting out of the saddle while riding is also helpful. Changing the chamois (or similar artificial material) lined shorts once or twice during the event can also help.
Tendonitis of the joints, especially the knees, has been a slight problem for me in every PBP I have ridden. I try to limit my stops to less than ten minutes to avoid stiffening. Aspirin or other anti-inflammatory agent can help. Muscle cramps can be reduced with plenty of training miles prior to PBP. Changing riding style such as occasionally getting out of the saddle to use different muscle groups can also be of value. Once again, keeping the stops short will help reduce stiffness and cramps. The need to keep an adequate level of blood glucose is very important in maintaining an even energy level and avoiding states of depression and hallucinations. The brain needs a base level of blood sugar in order to function properly, so it is very important to eat on a regular schedule regardless of appetite.
There are periods where you just don't feel hungry or thirsty and may quit eating and drinking. It is essential that there is a constant intake of water and food to avoid the associated problems. A support crew can monitor the riders diet, but the self-supported cyclist must either do it for themselves or rely on another rider on the "buddy system".
PBP EVENT: The biggest surprise I had on PBP was the way the 8 PM group became very aggressive getting in and out of the controls. This has always caught me off-guard, even after five PBPs. Many times after getting checked through, I have had to chase for up to 20 miles to rejoin the group. I thought overcoming drowsiness was going to be my biggest problem. Staying with the front group through the controls and navigating alone at night were my biggest problems. Set mini-goals throughout the event such as making it to the next control rather than thinking of the finish which may be a day and a half away.
Keep in mind that your perception of speed at night is typically higher than the true speed. Parts of the course are well marked and easy to follow, but other sections can be a real nightmare. Some arrows may be poorly placed or possibly even moved by someone. I strongly recommend riding with at least a small group at night to help remain on course. With more lights and eyes, the chances of staying on course is improved. Conversation in the lead group is infrequent, most often occurring when approaching an intersection. The riders quickly voice their opinion on the course direction with the loudest voices carrying the vote, deciding the direction. The pace is quite high for the first few hundred miles, although it is not difficult to sit in and draft. Without a support crew, a rider will likely lose contact with the front group after the first control. Later in the event, the pack may discuss a truce and decide to regroup after 5 or 10 minutes at a control.
I once had a light rattle loose and smash to the pavement only 5 miles after the start due to the lack of a good shake-down ride. Make sure to give the fully equipped bike a good test ride well before the start. Most riders will find this difficult since they are usually putting on the lights and equipment just prior to the start.
Most Americans who abandon probably experienced a bit of culture shock. This combined with wide mood swings that occur through the event would make quitting look attractive. There may also have been a lack of proper mental preparation beforehand. Remember that mood swings are short-lived and will eventually pass. Periods of elation should be kept in check since the cyclist may feel invincible and push too hard only to face fatigue later.
For the rider who is ahead of schedule, it is all right to sleep for a short time. I recommend sleeping only at the controls and make sure that you have a wake-up call. Some riders may make the mistake of starting to take naps too early and risk getting to the next control after closing. There is always the risk of a mechanical problem or that adverse weather conditions may set in, such as the fog in 1987.
The cyclist hoping to finish under 55 hours will want to avoid sleep altogether.