by Bill Bryant
There are many ways to ride Paris-Brest-Paris successfully. One randonneur's preparation can differ quite a lot from another's. Different riders will often need different amounts of weekly training hours to reach a similar level of fitness, plus we all have to contend with various amounts of work and family commitments to balance against finding optimal training times. But no matter what approach you take to the Big Ride, it is time to begin your 2003 randonneuring campaign if you haven't already done so.
Obviously you should ride your bike a lot before PBP. The average amount for the US finishers in 1999 was about 6100 miles. Interestingly, this corresponds nicely with the recommended minimum amount of 10,000 kilometers of training counseled by the Audax Club Parisien (ACP). Don't let lousy end-of-winter weather keep you indoors too much; fit fenders to your bike and get outside. You will need a good base of training before you ramp up in the weeks leading to the first brevets. And if you normally ride alone, be sure to include frequent group rides in 2003 to develop your pack-riding skills. There will be times at PBP that you will have to ride shoulder-to-shoulder with other randonneurs day or night. You'll find the level of cycling skill in the PBP packs to be very high; don't get yelled at for being an unsafe doofus.
When thinking about your preparation, merely counting miles isn't necessarily the best way. It will be more useful if you track your weekly hours of training along with the miles; then subsequent analysis will be more useful. As you increase the duration of your workouts, ramp up the amount of time you spend exercising each week and the miles will usually take care of themselves. When you have built up a good base, be sure to incorporate some intervals or fast group rides into your routine. You want to raise your overall riding speed before August so that you can either finish PBP faster or get a little more sleep along the way. When trying to decide how to use your hours of training, the RUSA Handbook has very good advice from Tim Sullivan and John Lee Ellis and the wise randonneur will heed it. Another useful source of training info for the long-distance cyclist is the UMCA's UltraCycling sent to their members. "Just" riding long miles is a good start, but you can become a much better randonneur with a planned training regimen. But whatever you do to get ready, don't leave it until too late; the "must finish" qualifying brevets will be happening too soon for a lackadaisical ap- proach to your preparation.
As you begin your training program be sure to include upper-body workouts with weights. Riding PBP will wear out all of your body, not just your legs, butt, and hands. You don't want to overdo things in the gym and build up unneeded muscle mass, but strive for excellent overall muscle tone with light weights and lots of reps. Stronger abdominal muscles will help you ride 1200 grueling kilometers better too. Daily ab-crunches and push-ups will help your back, neck, and hands survive the long rides.
Increased upper body strength is needed for another reason. Will you be able to quickly hand-pump a puncture repair up to full pressure after 80 grueling hours on the road? Some exhausted PBP riders have been reduced to tears from this frustrating situation. Also be sure to practice a fast-but-flawless tire repair routine during 2003 until it becomes second nature. At the slowest it should take no more than five minutes, not as long as the laggardly 15-20 minutes sometimes seen on brevets. At PBP, even an extra 15 minutes of sleep late in the event will make the speedy puncture repairs worth the extra effort.
A regular routine of stretching is essential for the hard-riding randonneur. The 600k brevet will severely tax your body and the 1200k event will seemingly be three or four times harder, not two. Rides longer than 24 hours will often irritate old injuries or cause new problems related to poor bicycle fit. Along with making sure your bike fits as well as possible, regular stretching will be your best defense. Now is the time to get started stretching daily, not when the brevets get underway.
Along with preparing your muscles, there are other things to consider. Do you live in an area that has relatively dry spring and summer weather? If so, use the rainy winter rides to work out what rain clothes you need to take to France in August. Though the three PBP events in the 1990s have been mostly dry, this is quite unusual if you look back at all the others since the first edition in 1891---No prizes for guessing why northwestern France is perpetually green. Do you have the clothes (and willpower) to survive four days of pedaling in cold, rain, and wind? Or, what if it is unusually hot? Are you from a temperate region that rarely sees summer temperatures above 80-85 degrees? How will you acclimate to ride successfully in hotter temperatures if they should be present at PBP next August? Could you fit in a one-week cycle tour in some hotter area as part of your training? Prepare as best you can---that cruel event clock at PBP will keep ticking no matter what your personal weather- related cycling limitations might be.
Are you accustomed to relying on aero-bars for comfort during the long rides? At PBP you'll not have them due to regulations that forbid their use. Take them off before the 200k brevet and get used to riding with only normal handlebars. This might be vexing and you can complain all you want, but the ACP is bound by a strict mandate from its insurance carrier that prohibits the use of aero-bars in mass-start cycling events. Previous attempts to eliminate this unpopular PBP rule have been unsuccessful, so get over it. If you can't ride the qualifiers without aero-bars, it's probably not a good idea to go to France. Doing 1200k with the sudden absence of familiar hand and arm resting positions will hamper your chances of success there.
How's your French? Unlike the old days when it was a nearly all-French affair, now you'll find lots of English- speakers at PBP so you need not worry about this too much during the event itself. At the start/finish check-in, the controls, the food lines, or among the riders you can do pretty well speaking only English or using gestures and a smile. But what if you get off-course and become lost? How will you ask directions from some farmer or passerby? Or what if you need to stop at a store or pharmacy to ask for something special to relieve some injury or illness? Try to learn as much French as you can and put an emphasis on acquiring the words and phrases related to numbers, directions, body parts and their functions and ailments, as well as food and drink. Verbs related to motion are very useful too. You should know that understanding spoken French is rather different from reading it, so try to work with a class or tutor that emphasizes verbal communication. You won't be fluent in the short time between now and August, but whatever you can do to learn as much French as possible will make PBP all the more enjoyable, not to mention during the days before and after the event. Despite untrue myths to the contrary, you will find the French people are very friendly and helpful, particularly in rural areas, and this increases noticeably when you make an effort to speak and understand their language.
With all the bike rides, gym workouts, stretching sessions, French lessons, traveling to brevets, and work and family commitments, your free time during 2003 will become a very precious commodity. To avoid wasted time later on, lay in a supply of spare tires, tubes, and other cycling items that you'll need during your months of PBP preparation. Not having to dash out to the local bike shop in search of a replacement tire, at an inopportune moment before a training ride, will save you valuable time and let you stay focused on your preparation instead of running time-wasting errands that could have been avoided with some forethought. Be sure you can do the regular maintenance on your bike effectively and efficiently; your local bike shop mechanic won't be on the brevets or at PBP to help you. At the least, you should be able to repair a broken spoke and true the wheel, replace gear cables and adjust the derailleur, and repair any chains problems. If you can't, then learn how soon.
To wrap up, Paris-Brest-Paris is not an idle stroll in the park. Treat it with awe, respect, and dedication. Prepare your body and bike well, and you will succeed despite its grueling nature. Above all, be sure an unwavering sense of determination is fully engaged from now to the end of the event. You will need an unfailing never-say- die attitude to get you through the hard times on the brevets and PBP itself, not to mention during the long hours of training. If you want to have your name written upon the Honor Roll of Finishers in the Great Book of Paris-Brest-Paris, the time to begin training for next August's festivities starts now. The satisfaction of earning your prestigious finisher's medal will make the effort worthwhile.