It has been suggested I post the following summary of my reflections on the recent Paris Brest Paris event as some of you may find it of interest, or even helpful. I am unsure as I am not in the habit of posting stand alone topics about myself in the public domain.
You’ll be the judge of whether it is useful.
I am 63. I’ve always cycled but nothing too serious, touring with the family, the odd sportive, long weekend raids with friends, local old persons cycle club ie café and cake is better than pace and power.
I tried a 150 Audax at the age of 57, blew out and crawled to the finish with empty legs but within the time limit.
Despite the pain I enjoyed the ride and loved the ethos of Audax. That gateway ride lead to 200’s, which inadvertently lead to doing a pre-qualification ride for 2019 Paris Brest Paris.
Paris Brest Paris
For those that aren’t familiar with Paris Brest Paris, or PBP, as it is more commonly known. PBP is the jewel in the crown of the Audaxing world.
It was first run in 1891 (check out the times of the first riders!). It is held every four years and supported by over 2,000 volunteers.
The event is 1220 kms long, give or take 10 kms and is out and back with some variation from, yes, Paris to Brest and back again. For a bit of flavouring and spice around 11,000 mtrs of climbing is thrown in.
There are different timescales for completion. You can ride in a 90 hr catagory, 84, 80, 72 or faster. Theoretically it is not a race, there is no first, second third, you are either in your time, over your time or do not finish. However humans being humans the fast ones always race.
To gain a place on PBP you need to complete a 200, 300, 400 and 600km qualifier ride in the 6 months prior. To get to the start line of PBP is a feat of logistical management, stamina, fitness, madness and a heap of tolerance from ones family.
In 2019 I had no idea whether I could ramp up and ride a 300, let alone a four or six. My strategy was to take each qualifier as it came. If I did okay and liked it I’d go onto the next qualifer.
To my surprise I really enjoyed them. I loved the self-supported ethos, if you get in trouble you get yourself out of it, there is no broom wagon to sweep you up.
I loved riding all through the night till dawn and beyond. Sleeping in strange places was wonderful, you can give me a nice bus shelter any time! I wasn’t fast and was always in the back end of the event but that didn’t matter as you are only racing against yourself.
2019 - clueless
To my surprise and horror I found myself at the age of 59 on the start line of 2019 PBP with 8,000 other riders. It is a truly international event and there I was without a clue about why I was there, not only that, I didn’t have any other strategy than riding my bike.
I went hopelessly over time by 11 hours, 111 hours to be precise, but I was so proud to finish and reach the end (generally 25% do not finish).
I LOVED IT.
It was the best experience and it was soooo hard, I fell asleep twice on the bike, I slept on the side of the road, I dribbled, I slurred my words. It was wonderful.
Technically I should not have received a medal because I was a long way over the 90hrs but I was so elated to have finished and so appreciative of the volunteers that the controllers gave me a medal. Perhaps that was to shut me up, but no matter the reason I treasure that medal for all it symbolizes.
Roll on 2023
I couldn’t wait for the next edition of PBP in 2023. However covid came, my hamstring was damaged doing online squat sessions, covid got me a number of times but the flame for 2023 kept on.
With the support of my wife I approached Pav about coaching. I am time poor, self employed and work is demanding. With that context I believed I needed structured support to help me achieve my goal – to get under 90 hours.
Pav’s support and training plan was brilliant and put me in a really good place both mentally and fitness wise for this years edition. I felt I worked harder than I would have if I’d tried to do it myself and I invested a lot of effort to face the challenge.
2023 – result and learning
PBP 2023 finished a few weeks ago. I was 63 but was stronger and more focused than the 59 yr old me.
The time since the event is filled with powerful and wide ranging feelings of joy, awe, pleasure, enthusiasm and disappointment.
I went over time, again. This time it was 96 hrs. I am also really disappointed it didn’t work with my potential riding partner
I once again was able to finish, and I took five hours off the previous time.
With what the body can handle and how quickly it adapts. At the finish I felt in good shape. Yes, tired and fatigued but no saddle sores or rashes, no serious aches, no knee of neck issues. My body felt good.
From the vivid memories etched into my brain and body.
Pleasure at arriving at the finish to be cheered in by the large crowd
For the 2027 edition. I will be 67 by then and provided I eat well, keep fit, look after my body and mind and with the support of my wife I aim to be back on that start line.
I aim to be under 90 hrs. I don’t care by how much, it may be five or ten minutes but under time I will be.
That is a lot of context.
The insights and learning
How did 2023 end up as it did? Since PBP finished my goal has been to step back and take a healthy perspective in order to learn, rather than beat ones self up.
My trade is as a leadership coach/psychologist and yes since finishing PBP I have been doing some self beating, however I am focused on managing it rather than let it eat me up because therein lies dispare.
This is the summary of PBP 2023 from a healthy position that begins to lay the foundation for 2027.
In the last 300 km of PBP I was on track to be within the 90 hr time limit, if I’d maintained around 14.5 kmph. That speed was easily do able, however in that last 300 km I blew it and went over time for a number of reasons
Lack of sleep -
During the first 600 I managed to take an hour and half of sleep at the 370 mark. I felt very good at 500 and even at 600 km when I reached Brest.
On the back 600 I resorted to keeping on moving by using 20 min catnaps. They are okay as I can ride for 3 or 4 hours before needing another cat nap. However in the last 200km fatigued increased, as did the need for catnaps.
Indeed by the final 30km I was nodding off and it was only the chatter between the French and German rider in front that kept me awake. I thanked them profusely for doing so as we crossed the line.
In hindsight I would have been better putting all those cat naps together to use as one two/three hour sleep that would have given my body a chance to recover.
Mental skills -
Mental skills were key, my fitness was still good at the end, however my capacity to mobilise that fitness was not. My mental skills declined severly from the lack of sleep.
For example, at one control I wasted two and half hours dithering between food, showering, changing kit, repacking my saddle bag. I was so addled I had no sense I was wasting so much time.
In the last 140km I calculated I was going to go over the 90hr time limit. At that point I distinctly recall making the decision to finish the ride and not bail. However I also decided to ride the last 140km in a relaxed state and enjoy the roadside hospitality (i.e. locals set up impromptu coffee, food stands). That decision was a huge error!!!
That decision made me mentally switch off and from that point on I lost my focus. Instead of aiming to minimise the excess time I relaxed and as a consequence time crept upwards.
That decision is one of the main aspects I am most disappointed about. In future I plan to practice and apply using a ‘third person’ strategy, ie ‘if you were sitting over there looking at yourself what would you say to Mike about that decision’
Overall my planning was much better and more thorough than 2019. However I didn’t plan my sleep strategy well and didn’t take into account -
Most days were hot, generally 32 - 36, and that heat hit my daytime speed big time. In future I would aim to do as much night/morning riding as possible and at pace to build time up and maybe sleep for an hour or so in the heat.
The climbing on many of the legs were unrelenting, not big hills but seemingly many, many hills, one after the other. When well and truly fatigued and the heat is high even a 3% climb feels significant.
In future I would do much more hill work in the months leading up to PBP, that seemed to be the consistent strategy of riders I spoke to who were under time.
On the last day some awful headwinds whipped across the open terrain and really zapped the energy
There are controls where you are time checked and can get food etc.
I planned on allowing 30 to 40 mins per control. However controls were crowded, spread out and as you waited for food, negotiated the geography, faffed around, found toilets etc they easily chewed up an hour and half . When tired I lost track of time at many of the controls.
Overall controls accounted for 21 hrs of time but the mental skills were key, ie instead of being swept up in the crowds, noise etc I didn’t notice what was happening and account for the impact and consquently adapt my strategies to minimise time.
I generally get low at the ¾ mark. I planned the 600 to 850 period would be the hardest when the suck developed. I therefore planned strategies to get me though that period (also the climbing was going to be very challenging through that period).
That planning worked well and that section went by much easier than anticipated (thanks to the planning I was mentally prepared). However I hadn’t planned beyond that.
I’d thought ‘if get through that bad section in reasonable shape I’ll be fine, after that I am on the home stretch’ – again big error not to have planned through to the end
Mismatched riding partner
Alongside the mental skills this was another disappointing area, possibly the most disappointing on a personal level.
A partner and I were looking forward to riding together (we hadn’t seen each other for some years). It soon became apparent our fitness levels were very different. Later on it became apparent our objectives were also different. This was his first PBP and his objective was to finish no matter the time, mine was to focus on getting under the 90 hrs.
Despite contracting before the start to separate if we were too different it nonetheless took 200km to disentangle ourselves from one another.
The reason it took so long was that I really wanted to make it work and I suspect he felt the same. However in that initial 200km I suspect our riding for each other threw both our rhythms out and chewed up valuable mental energy and time, time and energy that were crucial later.
Next time pay attention to my thinking and feeling and whether my judgement is being clouded, critcally bring the options and decision to the foreground much earlier.
Overall though it was the planning, lack of sleep strategy and mental skills which were the significant items.
I am really pleased to have finished, and proud to have done so particularly as I heard quite a few bailed at Brest, and I love the medal (despite being OTL I still qualified for a medal) as it means a lot. I am also really pleased that my partner also finished, he at 111.5 hrs, as it meant a lot to him. He also plans to be back.
I look forward to 2027, I will be older but also a lot wiser and will really focus on a good sleep strategy, increased fitness levels and managing how I am in those controls. Roll on 2027.