By Bill Bryant
An old proverb says that "a good beginning makes a good ending" and this is no more true than when thinking about the upcoming Paris-Brest- Paris Randonneurs. A year from now over 4000 randonneurs and randonneuses from around the globe will gather in St. Quentin-en-Yvelines to participate in this quadrennial celebration of free-pace randonneuring. Hopefully 500 Americans will be there to test themselves—are you planning to be among them? If so, then it's not too soon to begin your preparation. Bob Lepertel, the legendary leader of the host Audax Club Parisien, once wrote that prospective entrants should think about PBP daily during the year leading up to the event. That is good advice to follow. Overall, your goal is to prepare your mind and body in the coming months to successfully withstand the rigors of PBP and get your name inscribed on its Roll of Honor; you should do everything you can between now and then to earn that (lofty) achievement.
Already at this year's brevets many riders around the nation are talking about 2007. Experienced riders are using the current brevets to get back into long-distance cycling if they took a break after 2003, and there is a new crop of riders hoping to get some useful experience before the "must finish" PBP qualifiers begin next spring. Randonneurs USA has had preliminary discussions with the Audax Club Parisien and we've learned that they expect their event will be very similar to recent editions; no major changes are envisioned. (They also stress that with a year to go, some things might yet change.) Nonetheless, here are some key points to help with your planning:
• Dates: Monday, August 20 to Friday, August 24; Rider check-in Sunday August 19
• Location: St. Quentin-en-Yvelines (near Versailles)
• Start times: riders can choose which group they want: 8 PM Monday—80-hour group; 9 PM Monday—90-hour group (leaves in waves between 9 PM and 11 PM); 5 AM Tuesday—84-hour group. (The 80-hour group is for solo bikes only; tandems and recumbents can use either the 90- or 84-hour groups. These "special machines" depart 15 minutes ahead of the solo bikes in their respective starting groups. The 90-hour "specials" have no opening time limit and can go as fast as they please, like the 80-hour riders.)
• Route: Largely the same as before, with a few changes around Paris (but minor detours are always possible along the route due to road construction, etc.)
• Outbound Controls: Mortagne-au-Perche (feed stop outbound); Villaines-la-Juhel, Fougeres, Tinteniac, Loudeac, Carhaix, Brest.
• Inbound Controls: The same as outbound but in reverse order, and Mortagne-au-Perche is a regular control on the return. Another control is added between Mortagne-au-Perche and the finish—familiar Nogent-le-Roi is gone; replaced by a stop at Dreux.
• Qualifying brevets: The full Super Randonneur series of BRM events (200-300-400-600k) is to be completed between January 1 and June 16/17. The familiar requirement for doing them in ascending order is no longer necessary—but the ACP still recommends doing it that way.
• Entries: Entry forms will be published in the May issue of American Randonneur; Randonneurs USA will handle all entries sent from the United States.
More details to follow as they become known.
Veteran PBP riders know what to expect and have an advantage over the rookies; experience does count for a lot in this game. New riders, however, can improve their chances of finishing by educating themselves about PBP. Happily, these days there is a lot of valuable information available in English, something not true in years gone by.
First, your RUSA handbook is chock-full of useful information about how to ride PBP and the qualifying brevets successfully.
Second, the archives of American Randonneur are available on-line at www.rusa.org. Read the issues from 1999 and 2003 and you'll find many articles that cover various aspects of the ride, such as choosing the starting group that is best for you, how to ride in the speedy 80-hour group successfully, what to expect once you get to the event, how to arrange a personal support crew, etc.
Third, following the two most recent PBP events, RUSA published PBP Yearbooks filled with rider stories that are both entertaining and instructive. There is no one "correct" way to ride PBP; in the PBP Yearbooks you'll find all sorts of examples of this phenomenon, and since the next edition will be very much like past events, the various tales of the Yearbook contributors can be very helpful to aspiring PBP riders. Both editions are still for sale at the RUSA Store. (The PBP videos also for sale there are useful to at least get a visual sense of the event, but they lack the "how to" information that will help educate most rookie randonneurs. That the narration is in French probably won't be too helpful to a majority of RUSA members. Still, they might be worth a look.)
Fourth, when the qualifiers begin next spring, don't be shy and ask other riders if they are a PBP ancien or ancienne. You can learn a lot by listening to what went well for them, and what to avoid doing yourself.
Fifth, some randonneuring clubs offer a pre-PBP "how-to" seminar taught by experienced anciens; make an effort to attend as this type of direct instruction can be extremely helpful. Do some homework beforehand and be sure to come prepared with questions you can't find answers for yourself.
Sixth, join the Randon chat group at http://lists.topica.com/lists/randon/. You can learn a lot by corresponding with both experienced PBP participants. Again, there is no one way to ride PBP successfully—and it is always an on-going process; you can learn about various styles of randonneuring from others who are farther along their personal learning curve.
Many riders think the 2007 campaign begins on New Years Day, but they are, at least in my opinion, largely incorrect. Smart randonneurs will want to begin well before that. Even if serious athletic training doesn't start until later, there are still things to be learned and practiced long before the first brevet starts. First, try to learn some French! These days you can ride PBP quite well without knowing any, but your experience next August will be vastly more enjoyable if you can converse a little bit in the language of the hosts. At the least, you can get yourself back on track much more easily if you get lost during the ride, or need special assistance from someone at a checkpoint or outside the ride. Moreover, you'll find this will really enhance your travels in France before and after the ride itself where less English is spoken, such as in restaurants, stores, train stations, etc.
Another matter related to improving the randonneuring frame of mind is to carefully analyze how long you take at rest stops during brevets. At our domestic brevets and 1200k events, the size of the field means there are rarely any long lines to sign in or get food, and one often sees riders squandering a fair bit of time. More than at most other grand randonnées, good time management is essential at PBP. With 4,000+ entrants, encountering some long food lines is inevitable and you want to be sure you don't waste any additional time there by having to retrace steps or get back in line. (The PBP controls are surprisingly large and you'll spend a fair bit of time just walking from bike parking to the various places you need to go, such as the sign-in table, food line, eating area, restrooms, sleeping rooms, showers, mechanical support, etc.) If you can shave even five minutes off each stop by consistently being more efficient than you currently are, at the end of 15 controls you will have earned more than an extra hour—and by the end of PBP most riders will gladly sell their soul for an extra hour of sleep. So, try to develop a sense of urgency when doing your normal checkpoint routine at each brevet next spring; this will pay a big dividend in August. And now is the time to start working on developing the mental habits that make such checkpoint efficiency automatic, even when the rider is profoundly tired. As you ride the final kilometers before each control, take an "inventory" of what needs to be done for both rider and bicycle; then go do it—and very little else. It will probably take some extra mental discipline to change old habits so don't leave it to the brevets to start this process; they should just be the dress rehearsal of new behaviors learned on shorter rides. (Another reason to develop a fast rest stop routine is that the weather may make your overall riding speed a good bit slower than you'd ever predict. The past several editions of PBP have had generally good weather and this flavors how others will advise you how to do PBP, but earlier editions have been beset by awful riding conditions that made a mockery of pre-ride planning based on estimated riding speeds. Statistically speaking, we're overdue for some really bad weather during the ride.)
Winter is also a good time to test the clothing and lighting systems you'll need when riding all night at the spring brevets and in August. Can you change batteries and bulbs swiftly in the wet, cold, and dark? Or can you repair a puncture correctly on the roadside at night in less than four minutes? Practice until you can; don't leave it until too late to hone these vital randonneuring skills. You should get good enough to do these mechanical chores properly in your sleep—which might well come to pass later on during PBP. Winter is also a good time to work out any issues with how your bicycle fits. Niggling bike-fit irritations can turn into major "show stoppers" once the longer rides are undertaken. (In particular, be sure your shoe fit and cleat placement is optimal before the brevets. Don't start the 2007 season with worn-out shoes, but neither should you be changing them mid-season either. The same goes for saddles.)
Along with training the mind, learning the intricacies of your equipment, and ironing out any wrinkles with bike-fit, the body will benefit from early preparation too. Start training during the coming autumn months and build a base of fitness that will see you through the spring qualifiers in better shape than you might have done otherwise. What with predictably lousy winter weather, starting from scratch in early January is not recommended for riders needing to complete a Super Randonneur series before mid-June. Remember—PBP will wear out all parts of your body, not just your legs and butt. Better to use the normal off-season to build fitness and flexibility, then you'll come out the other side of winter in relatively good shape, and from there ramping up for the spring brevets won't be such a challenge. More than cycling a lot of long miles as the days grow short, workouts during autumn and winter should be to build overall fitness with gym sessions for upper body conditioning, along with mountain biking, other aerobic weight-bearing sports like jogging, hiking, snow-shoeing, cross-country skiing, and soccer are beneficial. Participating in these other sports will also help avoid getting mentally stale from too many hours of long-distance road cycling before you have to undertake the qualifiers. Don't overlook daily stretching and yoga; being flexible will help fight off the connecting tissue injuries that can ruin your PBP qualifying campaign, or the Big Ride itself. And if you need to lose excess body weight, now is the time to begin that process, not later. You don't want to be starving yourself of needed calories when you're ramping up your weekly hours of exercise in the weeks before the spring brevets.
So, there is a lot to do before 2007 arrives. Naturally some readers might find this all a bit much, and perhaps for them that is true. (I would argue that they are more likely naturally talented athletes, or have a lot of free time to train whenever they please, or are just procrastinators.) But for a majority of randonneurs aspiring to become PBP anciens, early preparation is a wise course to follow since prolonged winter weather or unexpectedly increased work commitments can adversely affect springtime training before the qualifiers arrive. Your family might be amused, alarmed, or annoyed by your new compulsion, but earning a Paris-Brest-Paris finisher's medal is a unique sporting challenge well worth the hard extra effort needed to make you the best randonneur you can be. To fly home from Paris at the end of next August with the profound satisfaction that comes from successfully finishing this legendary ride is a feeling hard to describe in words, but it is one well worth the energy you put into it. You will have joined (or renewed your membership in) a very special club for elite cyclists that goes back to 1891. And that work should commence now. The more you put into your PBP campaign beforehand, the less you will need to rely on luck to see you through.