Tuesday, November 18, 2014

PBP Tips for the First-Timer

This post originated as an answer to a question posted on Randon, a national randonneuring-focused e-list.

"I would like to hear about stuff that only comes from experience. Stuff that you only learn by either riding a Grand Randonee, or riding with Anciens who feel talkative.​"

I'm your run-of-the-mill 80-90th percentile rider.  While I sometimes have time goals, they are more along the lines of "shoot me if I'm out there longer than x-hours" as opposed to "I'd like to finish faster than y-hours".   

I don't have tons of experience at brevets longer than 600K.  I've done three 1000s (finishing two in time and one hors delai), PBP 11 and London-Edinburgh-London in 2013.  That's it.  So, ignore me if you are fast or experienced, because my PBP advice is mostly for the inexperienced back of the packers.    ie. those folks starting in the 90 hour group and taking 86-90 hours to finish.

1) Resign yourself to the unavoidable fact that you are going to be part of the great bulge.  At every control you hit, you will be there during it's busiest couple of hours, when the control/food/bathrooms lines are longest, the staff/volunteers are the most overwhelmed, the food choices get slimmest (especially if you are in a late start group and go the full 90), and the beds/dorms are fullest.  

On the bridge at Brest, with the same 3 guys I'd started with in Paris!
2)  Thanks to #1, EVERYTHING at controls will take longer than you think it should.  Do not expect to control in 10 minutes like you do at your local Chevron.   Not only will you wait in lines for everything, but everything is VERY spread out at the controls.  You may walk several minutes between the bike parking/ bathrooms/portopotties, the cafe, the dorms, etc.   Signage is sometimes great, sometimes crummy, and you may not find someone who can answer your question or understand what you need (not everyone speaks english, and no matter how much you pledge to study french between now and then, after 900km your English will probably be failing you, so forget about French 101.).     

Signage.  Confused?
3) If you plan to eat at a control, simply do not expect to get out of there faster than 30 minutes.   Or 45. Or an hour if you aren't paying attention to the clock, especially by the 3rd & 4th day.   All that waiting on lines, finding a place to sit, finding a place to fill your bottle, finding the portopotties, finding your bike again....  budget that time into your time estimates.

Labyrinth bike parking at Loudeac.

4)  Budget your time.   Like, in writing, on paper, and have a solid plan that you stick to.  I build ride plans for all my long bike events, based on average speed estimates, climbing on each leg, distance between controls, where I plan to sleep, etc.  I also have hard and fast "depart by" times in my plan, regardless of what time I arrive.   My goal in making my plan is to build my time bank throughout the day to enable me to get some rest at night, and still leave the overnight controls with a safety buffer in hand (which for me is 2 hours).   Late in a randonnee, when you are exhausted, it is easy to lose track of time and think you have more (or less) that what you really do.  Having a written plan that you can refer back to will help you stay focused and calm.  I can elaborate more on my methods if anyone is interested.  
Leaving Loudeac for the 2nd time, right on schedule.   Hotel garage parking.

5) As others have mentioned, try to use services OUTside of controls as often as possible.    As a slower rider, you should always be doing one of the following things: riding, eating, sleeping or urinating.   If you are doing anything else (like standing in a long line at a control) you are wasting time you simply do not have.   On PBP in 2011, I ate at a couple of street-side places (sausages, frites, etc.), a few bakeries, bought fruits and snacks in a few small shops, ate at some controls, ate on my bike a LOT (both stuff I bought, and energy bars, etc that were in my handlebar bag), accepted food from spectators, etc.   I also used bathrooms at places I purchased foods, in some town centers where there were public restrooms and peed in the dark on the side of the road more time than I can remember. (more on that later...)  Basically, if you have an opportunity to use services outside of the controls, do it. 

Roadside crepe stop

Jeff Tilden eating on the bike.  "Want some??"

6) Sleep.  Sweet sweet precious sleep.   I need it.  And never get enough on these things. (I got 10.5 hours on PBP '11 over 3 nights and only 8 hours total on LEL over 4 nights. )   On PBP, one of the very best things I did was pre-arrange for a hotel room at Loudeac the first two nights, and at Mortagne-au-Perche the 3rd night.   Here's the thing.   As a slower rider, that sleep time is absolute gold.  GOLD.  So I want it to be the very very best it can possibly be.   Having a REAL bed and a REAL shower all to myself was crazy important and very beneficial to me.  Plus, the hotel had "breakfast" going for the riders pretty much 24-7.   So, I was able to go straight from the control to the hotel, have a shower, sleep 4.5 hours both nights in Loudeac, go straight to breakfast where there was no line, no paying for anything, eat, get my bike out of the hotel's secure garage, then get out of Dodge.  I could also leave all sorts of stuff I didn't need at the hotel while I did the ride from Loudeac to Breast and back.   I also had my own place to plug in my chargers to top up my electronics, etc., without having to fight for/find an outlet.   The bed was comfortable, the hotel was quiet, the food was great, and I would absolutely do it all over again.

Private hotel room in Loudeac

Breakfast at the hotel in Loudeac.  No waiting.

Conversely, one of the biggest mistakes I made on LEL was NOT arranging for hotel rooms, especially the first night.   Again, we were in the bulge group, and when we got to the control where we wanted to sleep, there were no "beds" available.  We wasted tons of time sitting around waiting for something to become available.  Eventually they opened up another room, tossed some blankets on a hard wood floor and that was what we got.  After riding alllllll day and half the night, shivering for two hours on a hard wood floor in a room full of snoring, farting men with people constantly going in and out, talking, and phone alarms going off, was not very conducive to getting any rest.  It was a nightmare.    And it did not set me up well for the rest of the ride.   

So, if you can afford the luxury, I highly recommend a hotel room in Loudeac.   The quality of sleep you get is worth the extra expense and the few extra minutes you will expend finding it the first night.

7) Bathrooms - the bathrooms at the controls on PBP are downright disgusting.   Remember we are bulge riders and the controls are in schools, etc, where the facilities are not designed to handle the volume of people using them.  ANd they are manned/cleaned by volunteers who have other things to do as well.   Carry toilet paper, as the bathrooms often will not have any.    Do not expect soap or paper towels.  Expect the floors to be muddy or wet or worse.  If you drop something on them, you will probably not want to pick it back up.  (Really.)   Expect the women's rooms to be completely taken over by the men.    Expect to see men with their shorts around their knees applying butt lube.   The first organized food stop (not a control) is at Mortagne on the way out at 140km.  It's the middle of the night and nothing will be open during that first 140 km except a rare business or two that sees an opportunity and will hence be completely overrun.  So fully expect to do your "business" outside that first night in particular.  Ladies, there will be people everywhere, so expect to have to make your way down some dark driveway in the countryside if you want any privacy at all.

8) Can you sleep on the side of the road?  Yes.  Should you?  NO.  Why?  See #7 above.    Every time I saw someone sleeping just off the road, I wondered how many others had peed in that spot before them.  While the ladies might pee down a driveway somewhere, the men rarely strayed far from the pavement....

9) Remember that plan I mention in #4, and that 2 hour time buffer?  Plan to maybe have to use some of it up unexpectedly on day 3 or 4.   Like maybe you slow down more than expected. (check!)  Like maybe you are falling asleep and need an unplanned 20 minute nap in Tintineac. (check!)  Like maybe you puke your brains out and need some extra recovery time. ( check!  You know what they say: you aren't a real randonneur until you've puked in a french ditch.   Except in my case, it was in a lovely hotel in Mortagne on the final night).     Whatever you do, stick to that plan and keep that buffer those first couple days, because when you really need it in that final 200K or so, it's there for you to use up.

The bathroom of explosive vomitude.

When I left Mortagne before dawn on the final day, I was right at the closing time, having used up all my buffer by being slower than expected getting to Mortagne and by puking all over that lovely hotel bathroom.  I was a wreck, afraid that maybe I had come so far for nothing.  If I'd not left that buffer on the preceding days, I might have found myself in even worse shape for time.  Instead, I made it to Dreux, the next control, in time.  I cried tears of joy when the sun finally came up.  And I managed to finish with 1:15 in the bank, instead of 0:45 hors delai.

Leaving Mortagne, up against the control closing time.

10) Remember that on PBP you are never really alone.  There are always riders on the road nearby.  If you need some company and find yourself alone, even a moment's pause will find someone catching up to you (remember that when you try to just "stop and squat" roadside.  ;-) )     When I found myself alone and despairing on the side of the road in the middle of the final night, I no sooner stopped to have a personal pity party when several riders I know came along and saved me from myself.    Even if YOU don't need that help, maybe you can be that friend who stops and checks in on someone else in need.   It can mean the difference between finishing and not.  

You'll nearly always be in sight of many riders on PBP.

11) As long as you can safely ride, do not quit.   On the final day of LEL, I was soooooooo exhausted.   And so very slow.  I wanted to quit so many times that day.  Ultimately, though, my pride won out.  I eventually decided that I would just keep pedalling until I physically could not turn the pedals any longer, or until I ran out of time.   A wise rando planted the phrase "relentless forward motion" into my head very early in my rando career and it has stuck with me ever since.  Find a positive mantra that works for you (write in on your arm, or tuck it into your cuesheet holder, or wherever, and refer to it when you need it.)  As long as you are moving, you are making progress towards the goal.   And maybe - probably - you will feel better eventually.  Get a second, or third (or 20th) wind.   Lucky for me, I ran out of course before I ran out of time, and finished LEL and PBP.   Neither with very much time in the bank, but this sport is pass/fail.  I passed.   You can too if you just keep moving.  Don't make any rash decisions when tired or hungry.   Nap or eat, then move along again.
Ran out of road before I ran out of time.

12) Do PBP specific training, if you can.   We did a night-start 200K on a Friday night after work a month or so before PBP.   It's a good simulation for how tired you will be starting at night after being amped up and anxious all day waiting for the damn thing to start.  Turns out I love night starts.  Who knew?   ---  Find some courses that have similar elevation profiles to PBP.  There's a lot of climbing on PBP, but none of them are long.  More like relentless rollers.  Learn to love them.   ---   If you've never done a 1000K, consider doing one 8-10 weeks before PBP.   DO you need to ?  No.   I did my first one 8 weeks before PBP and for me it was a huge confidence booster.  

All new territory beyond 1000K for me.

 I learned what I would feel like on the third morning.  I also learned how hard it was to "ride through" the last night on that 1000K, spending almost 24 hours on the bike to get to the finish line.   Use those training rides to learn more about how you will fare on PBP and what you need to change.   I learned that my speed was going to drop significantly that last day, so I needed to plan for that.  I *also* learned that I could come back from a really sour stomach and significant nausea to ultimately finish.   It was a good lesson.  When I got sick on PBP, I had that experience to draw on.

Earned it!

Um, well, this was much longer than I expected it to be.  If you made it this far, you ought to do just fine persevering on PBP...  ;-)


  1. Great information! As a prospective PBP rider it is very insightful. I appreciate the advice.

  2. very useful info i can't say it makes me want to ride Paris-Brest-Paris more than I did before but if I don't i now know why :)

  3. Fantastic overview.
    Important/useful phrases to remember?
    Pain au chocolat, s'il vous plaît. Où est la bière? Jusqu'où aller?
    And: "I can elaborate more on my methods if anyone is interested." Yes, please.

  4. Susan, Thanks for this! I want to book the hotel room now. What hotel? (What room?!) Two nights in Loudeac is brilliant, because it's your room and you can leave your stuff there, am I right? Did you pre-ship chamoises (that might be a French word!) to the hotels? I can easily imagine any drop bag scheme ACP might offer turning into a nightmare.

  5. Graham - I stayed at the Voyageurs Hotel in Loudeac both nights. This reservation is likely obtainable only through Claus at Des Peres Travel. Claus offers a bag drop service as well. You have the same room both night, so you can leave things there that you will not need on the out-n-back to Brest.

    Most people using this service will have a bag with Claus, which means that when you arrive at Loudeac, you have to seek him out, get your bag, then get escorted to the hotel. I, however, had an advantage over that. Jeff accompanied me on PBP. He went sightseeing all day, then went to the hotel in Loudeac with my bag. So when I got to Loudeac, I merely got my card stamped at the control, then went off to find the hotel where Jeff was already checked in. This saved me quite a bit of time. Lesli, OTOH, had a bag with Claus and had to be escorted to the hotel, so there is definitely a little extra time expended there. My way was better. :-)

  6. This year, Des Peres will not let you book a room in Loudeac unless you also book your airfare and Paris hotel with them. Doing so would make the trip prohibitively expensive. I'm wrestling with the question of hotels now, and am thinking about Carhaix and Villaines.

  7. Bill - Claus told me the same thing in 2011. I replied that I had already purchased my tickets with air miles and that he could either have my hotel business, or no business at all. He booked my hotels. :-)

  8. In 2011 a friend and I took the afternoon start and rode through to Brest where we met our families who had rooms a block or so from the control. From there I rode to Villaines (dramatically slower) and slept at the control dorm, which was actually nice. Of course the weather was great and I seemed to be in a gap between crowds.

  9. Re: " Even if YOU don't need that help, maybe you can be that friend who stops and checks in on someone else in need. It can mean the difference between finishing and not," you were that person for me, and I wouldn't have finished LOL without your help, so I thank you kindly for that.

  10. How far in advance do you need to book the hotel rooms before they all fill up?

  11. hey Susan, great information you shared .. thanks alot for your time and efforts putting everything on paper for people like us :-) PBP 2019 is a goal :-)

  12. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  13. A decade on, this post is still helpful -- thank you