29 August 2011

Paris to Brest to Fresnay-sur-Sarthe -- Lessons from the "Metric Millenium" Ride

As reported earlier, I did not quite make it back to Paris and so DNF'ed from Paris Brest Paris 2011, as I tried to ride over a curb in the darkness of night and then smash my handlebars into some marble stone at the roadside in the town of Fresnay-sur-Sarthe, almost 1040 km into the event.  But I did get to take in almost all of the PBP experience, and wanted to pass along a few thoughts for anyone who might want to try it with me in 2015.  I don't have time to do a proper attempt at an MOB-esque blog post, and I did not take many photos, but at least this should give some ideas.

Actually, I'm not sure many photos are necessary, if you use your imagination.  The landscape looked pretty much like this:

To this "basic template" photograph of a French field you can add (1) corn, (2) cows, (3) sheep, (4) horses or (5) various grains.  Imagine well-fed, healthy looking farm animals, constantly eating the grasses.  Also, there were some forested areas -- just expand the trees in the distance.  To the sky, you can modify the clouds, either make them much darker, lower and more ominous (most of the time), or add more blue and make the clouds small, white and puffy (for a few hours on Wednesday).  Also, you can add some huge wind power generators at a few places, the ones closest to the route after Carhaix, looming out of the mist on the outbound leg and with flashing red warning lights visible even in the near complete darkness on the return trip.

Sometimes, even often, it felt as if the landscape was more like this (riding from right side to left side of the picture):

There were some completely flat sections, but for the most part it was up or down, 1, 2 or 3%.  And there were lots and lots and lots of little 4-5% rollers that went on for less than a kilometer, and also some shorter 6-8% hills.  The section between Villaines-la-Juhel (221km) and Fougeres (310km) seemed elevated a bit -- always up on a ridge with the fields slipping away to both sides, which made it a bit scary during the intense lightning storm that I experienced there on the outbound leg -- though not as scary as the even-more-intense lightning storm later that evening between Fougeres and Tinteniac (364 km). The section between Loudeac (449 km) and Saint-Nicolas-du-Pelem (493 km) also had lots of hills and elevated sections on back country roads with poorer surfaces.  And there was one "mountain" of 350m elevation between Carhaix-Plouguer (525 km) and Brest (618 km), which felt like a long, long climb and was pretty impressive in the storms and mist on the outbound leg, less imposing or impressive in the dry dark on the return leg.

The last night I saw incredible stars -- the milky way, the big and little dipper, cassiopeia, etc. -- though I could not rest for long to enjoy them.

The locals along the route were great in many places -- with tables set up in front of their houses offering water or other drinks, or even food.  At first I thought they might be selling these items, like the restaurants I saw in some of the first control towns, but in fact they were just trying to help out.  Some kids had strips of paper they were handing out -- I did not stop, but later learned that they were handing out their name/address and wanted riders to send them postcards from foreign lands.  In some places, such a commitment was the price of water or coffee.  Some people had mattresses where riders could rest.  But there were long stretches, in the rain and at night, where there were no locals along the road.  And being in the last start group also doubtless meant fewer people along the roadside on the outbound leg.

Kojima-san, of the Japan team, who I rode with at various times.
There were lots of choices for start times -- 5PM Sunday mass start with 80 hour time limit, 6PM Sunday mass start with 90 hour time limit (though the last group from this start time did not actually cross the line until closer to 8PM, I heard, and so spent hours waiting), a 9PM-10PM "free" start with 90 hour time limit, and a 5AM Monday start with 84 hour limit (the "quatre-vingt-quatre heure" group).  I chose the 5AM Monday start on the theory that I could use another night of sleep to get over jet lag, and based on the organizer's promotional materials which suggested much less crowded experience at the control points, and noted that this group had the highest percentage of finishers in 2007.
The 84ers waiting for the 5AM Monday start.

The line grows longer -- but Monday 5AM was still the smallest of the single road bike start groups.

The point about fewer crowds in the controls for riders with my start time was definitely true.  But I am pretty sure what happened in 2007 is that there was awful weather for the earlier starters, and the weather got better before the 84 hour riders passed through.  This time, the 84 hour group had awful weather for the first 36 hours, while I talked with someone who did the 80 hour start at 5PM Sunday and who made it through the entire event (in under 70 hours) without any rain at all.  And I think I would have done better if I could have ridden Sunday night and all day Monday, then rested at Carhaix-Plouguer (525 km).  Even though I was always on track for a sub-80 hour time, I felt really pressed by the intermediate time cut-offs, which required me to get to the Brest control (618 km) in 38 hrs 51 minutes, but left 45 hrs and 9 mins for the (612 km) return trip. 
The Loudeac sleeping accommodations.

The temperature was almost perfect for cycling -- cool enough so as not to sap your energy or require massive extra liquid intake, but not so cold as to cause you to get chilled, at least when it was dry.  The rain became a big problem.  I always assume that I will just put on a light rain jacket, but that the rest of my body will get wet, and that has worked fine for me on most rides, including plenty of Brevets and this summer's Etape stage from Issoire to St. Flour.  But it is not easy to ride wet for several days.  Even with a change of bib shorts at Loudeac, my spare pair got wet within an hour or two of riding.  Even with enough chamois cream for 3 days+ of riding, I was chafing badly and needed to "ration" the application of cream on the return route so as not to run out.  And my palms were getting raw from riding with wet gloves for far too long, though I alternated among 3 pairs, two of which were soaking wet by the end of the first day.

Both ankles and my left knee started to ache within the first 200 km.  I raised my seat a little at the next control stop and that helped for awhile, but then both ankles and both knees started to ache.  I really should not have climbed Mt. Fuji one week before this event.

My palms, chafed groin and an aching lower back also gave me various minor problems along the way. ... but everything felt better by the time I had passed Tinteniac (867 km) and Fougeres (921 km) on the return trip, and I realized that yes, I could make it.  My leg muscles never let me down.

If I were to do it again (and I very well may) in 2015:
  • I would put in a lot more thought in planning the ride, thinking about where and when to sleep, setting time goals, etc.  If I could I would try to ride to Carhaix (525 km) before sleeping, so as to get a large "savings" balance and be well ahead of the clock even when starting off on the next leg.  I would think hard about how to get in and out of the controls more quickly, since these can take a lot of time to get the food, etc.
  • I would arrive on site 2 days earlier, to really resolve jet lag before the start.
  • I would choose one of the 90-hour start time, probably the "free" start from 9 to 10 PM.  Even though this would mean more crowds in the controls, and even though I should be able to ride this easily in under 80 hours (and goodness knows, it does not get easier by spending more time on the bike), I think it would be worth it to get the extra leeway in my schedule for sleep.  And I think it is probably more consistent with getting to Carhaix before sleeping -- though it would require getting a long nap the day of the start.
  • I would carry larger water bottles.  I no longer have my 1 liter bottle, and need a replacement, or to use a hydration pack.  During the longer, daylight, dry sections, I ran low or out of water, or needed to ration it.  
  • Likewise, I would bring more energy bars for my saddle bag and drop bag.  It is nice that they have "real food" in cafeterias at the controls, but the lack of convenience stores means you are otherwise stuck, especially at night.  I really could have used those bars that we brought, and did not need, on Transalp.
  • I would use a larger saddle/rear bag.  I tried to put all my heavy items in my rear bag, to keep my small pack light.  But let's face it, it would be better to ride with no pack.  And you really do want to take more gear on this ride than a shorter Brevet, even with the ability to access re-supplies via a drop bag at Loudeac (449 km and 782 km), and even with summer weather (or something that approximates it).
  • I would either get a dynamo front light (built into my hub) to avoid the need to change batteries, or just stock up on lithium AAA instead of alkaline AAA batteries, since those apparently last several times longer than alkaline batteries or Ni-Mh rechargeables and sustain their full output much longer.  I was rationing batteries and so did not have both my front lights on at times, and was limiting my headlamp to checking directions, etc.  
  • On the other hand, the small lithium polymer "brick" battery/charger I brought for use with my Garmin GPS worked very well.  I did not keep the Garmin on for the full ride, but I could use it when alone and at night with no problem, and replenished the charge twice from the "brick" and once from the wall outlet in the Tinteniac dorrmitory where I slept.
  • I would bring at least a two-week supply of chamois cream, so there is no need to ration this either.
  • I would do it with some friends instead of alone, or at least try to do some Brevets in the U.S. between now and 2015 so that if I stay with the U.S. randonneurs, I will know more of the participants from before the event.  Yes, I met a few somewhat oddball randonneur types at PBP -- people who have done PBP many times, never use a car, look as if they got a bit too much sun while on the bicycle over the years and have difficulty thinking or putting together a sentence in a conversation with a human being, ride incredibly retro equipment just to make things difficult (but who am I to call others eccentric?) -- but most of the participants were very normal, friendly types and would make good cycling buddies.
  • The vibration from the road surface was painful at a few points, including one of the last stretches that I rode.  I went with my bombproof wheels (32/36 spokes, open pro rims) and regular 700/23 Schwalbe tires.  These did fine, but I think I would try a set up with slightly fatter tires, and lower tire pressures (at least when riding these sections) if I did it again, to try to make these stretches less painful.  The Schwalbe Ultremo ZX are great, but they do not quite give the "cadillac ride" that I get from these wheels with Vittoria Open Pro CX's. (My two outside fingers on the right hand still have some numbness 4 days after the event ... not atypical for this kind of really long event).

All in all, PBP is well worth doing, and it is a part of cycling history that I wanted to join -- and I may very well want to join again.  But I think they are right to hold it only once in 4 years.


Manfred von Holstein said...

David, once again congratulations on this great achievement. I think my back would hurt too badly too soon to get anywhere near 1,000km. Not to speak of the inflammation in my body, if cycling without real sleep breaks.

I think your takeaways for next time make sense. Just a few additional thoughts.

Jet lag - I find that I get most easily over jet lag by cycling. There will be times when the heart refuses to go above a certain rate, but there will be other times when you feel perfectly fit. Maybe you can even use the jet lag to your advantage. With jet lag you might be fitter during your first night, if you start in the evening. The key might be to make sure the flight does not tire you - so maybe worth investing into a discount business class ticket or upgrading with miles.

It sounds from your description (and knowing you) that you pushed quite hard over the first few hundred km. When I do this, I always pay the price later - performance drops steeper than when I take it a bit easier in the beginning. That's why Tom always takes the first few passes ahead of me, but later I slow down for him - and in particular on Days 2 and 3. I use my heart rate monitor to make sure I avoid going anaerobic unless I intend to do so for training purposes. Maybe another lesson here?

It sounds like it was easy to stay on the route - was it sign-posted? I would probably feel more comfortable with the GPS on all the time. If you had a dynamo that could power the USB port too, that might be ideal.

I guess despite the duration I would still go as light as possible, because over the distance every gram adds up, even if the course is not steep.

I just put a 25mm tyre onto my back wheel for the first time. I haven't done long distances with it, but it feels good. It also gave me the option of doing the worst unpaved rindo I have ever done (even with my cyclocross) - 20km of gravel and mud, often quite steep. My bike was never as dirty - just like after a real cyclocross race. Yet I managed to stay upright at all times and didn't walk even a meter. This would have been impossible with 23mm Conti GP 4000S tyres. I guess I can sell my cyclocross...

Froggy said...

Hey David
Congratulations & thanks for this captivating report. After reading your amazing story I start to feel something about challenging this non sense challenge... with some good friends
2 reasons: it seems very hard & boring + need to help you avenging this first try.
Wish you a fast recovery & look forward to preparing this coming season BM schedule
See you soon on the road

Froggy said...

Hey David
Congratulations & thanks for this captivating report. After reading your amazing story I start to feel something about challenging this non sense challenge... with some good friends
2 reasons: it seems very hard & boring + need to help you avenging this first try.
Wish you a fast recovery & look forward to preparing this coming season BM schedule
See you soon on the road

David Litt said...

Froggy: Great to hear you are interested for 2015. I learned last week that any self-respecting French cyclist needs to do this once in his/her life, so I think it is only appropriate that you join me then.

Manfred: I actually got upgraded to "premium economy" on the way out and could sleep some during the flight, and arrived Friday evening, then got exercise (1) walking 3 km Friday to the hotel, (2) cycling with Jerome and locally Saturday (50km), and (3) cycling to/around Versailles and locally on Sunday (50km) before the Monday start. I thought that would be enough to get me over jet lag, but the wall I hit Monday early evening was definitely jet lag, not just the result of a fast start (which, as you note, is my usual method, and for which I do usually suffer later). Jet lag just gets harder with the years, I have found.

Yes, I don't want a bike that is weighed down, just more room in storage on the frame and no need to carry a small rucksack, plus a little more gear if I had known the course and particulars.

Yes, there are sign posts, but they are not that easy to see, even in daylight, and much harder at night (unless your headlamp happens to hit them).

Bonne route to all! I need to ride to work.