Archive | PBP Preparation

Riding 600 km (Almost) Non-Stop


As part of preparing this year’s Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP), riders qualify by riding 200, 300, 400 and 600 km brevets. More than just preparation for the long ride in France, these rides are fun challenges in their own right.

The last of the Seattle qualifiers started at 6 a.m. just south of downtown. It was easy to find the spot – a coffee shop surrounded by bikes leaning against walls, street signs, trees – any available surface. Cyclists were milling around, greeting friends, folding route sheets and placing them in their map holders, taking off layers in anticipation of warming temperatures…

Our course would describe a big loop, first heading south to Mount Rainier, then west almost to the Pacific Ocean. We’d ride north to the foot of the Olympic Mountains and glide along the shores of the Hood Canal. After 300 miles (480 km) on the road, we’d traverse the steep and relentless Tahuya Hills, before ending the ride on Bainbridge Island and returning to Seattle by ferry.
The course offers variety that keeps the riding interesting, from the deep valleys of the Cascades to the sparkling inland waters that make Washington State so special. It’s not a truly mountainous route, but over the course of 600 km, the climbs add up to almost 4800 m (15,700 ft) – about the same ratio of climbing per mile (or kilometer) as Paris-Brest-Paris.
The map above also shows the controls, the checkpoints where we’ll have our brevet cards signed as proof that we’ve completed the course. There is a time limit of 40 hours to finish the ride – and as in all randonneur rides, it’s overall time, not riding time, that counts.

On this Saturday morning, the sky was overcast. By the time we crested the first ridge and headed toward Lake Washington, the sun already made its first attempts to pierce the clouds.

Riding with friends is a great way to cover long distances efficiently – and the conversations make the time pass quickly. We joined other groups from time to time, then split up again. We know each other well after riding together for so many years, and our paceline was smooth, relaxed and safe.

We enjoyed some of our favorite roads that skirt the flanks of Mount Rainier. With no traffic to speak of and a beautiful rhythm, it was fun to push our pace a bit, while being mindful of the long way we still had to go: almost 500 km (300 miles) remained ahead of us.
If I thought about the distance that lay ahead, it might have been a bit daunting, but instead, I focus on the moment during these long rides. Feel my bike, spin the pedals smoothly, time my effort perfectly for the little ups and downs, and enjoy the ride. Listen to my body and keep the pace at a sustainable level. I didn’t think about what was behind or what lay ahead, but instead focused on becoming one with the bike. Shifts happened automatically without me thinking about them. The bike followed the road as I looked in the direction where I wanted to go, without any conscious input. The tires hummed on the pavement, and these early stages of the ride felt effortless.

The long climb to Bear Prairie at 2600 ft (800 m) elevation was punctuated by views of Mount Rainier (top photo). The reward for the climb was the wonderful descent on Skate Creek Road. Undulating, with little dips and rises, and sunlight filtering through the trees, this is one of the most wonderful roads. It’s just enough of a descent to go fast while spinning effortlessly. Skate Creek Road is the highlight of any ride, and it didn’t disappoint on this day.

Then we headed west again. There is always a headwind in the Cowlitz River valley: Warm air rises from the lowlands up the slopes of the Cascade Mountains and of Mount Rainier. On this day, the wind was blowing even stronger than usual, and we formed a larger group to work together.
Riding into a headwind for hours can be hard for me. Unlike climbs, headwinds don’t offer rewards. There is no downhill on the other side – the best you can hope for is that the wind will stop. It was nice to be in a group here – the others not only provided shelter, but also encouragement. Plus, it was fun to catch up with others on this ride.

Hahn has entered the Concours de Machines, held in conjunction with PBP this year, and so he’s experimenting with new ideas – including this ultralight, see-through handlebar bag.

At the next control, we split up again. Now it was just Ryan Francesconi and me, forging ahead. We reached the ‘overnight control’ at sunset: Our club rents some rooms in a hotel for those wanting to sleep a few hours. We stopped only briefly, ate bowls of soup, then headed into the night. Our plan was to ride ‘straight through.’ Another control – another gas station – provided an opportunity to refill bottles, stock up on food and stretch briefly, before heading into the night again.

The Hood Canal in moonlight was a beautiful experience. The roads were almost deserted. The lights of the small communities reflected in the water. Night riding really is a lot of fun. There was another control with volunteers in Tahuya – more soup and encouragement – and then it was just us and the night: Now we entered the almost mythical Tahuya Hills.

Climbing the remotest parts of the Puget Sound region at night is a surreal experience. The few houses that dot the landscape are invisible in the dark. The hills seem longer, and yet time passes more quickly. This part of the course has a beautiful rhythm, and I enjoyed it very much.
You’d expect to get sleepy in the middle of the night, but working hard on the uphills is the best way of staying awake, followed closely by the excitement of descending curving roads in the dark. A good headlight with an even beam is a big plus – almost a requirement – for this type of riding. We both welcomed the first signs of dawn with that special feeling of having ridden through the night.
The sun rose just as we descended into Seabeck. The little town was deserted and the quaint store on the water was still closed. Instead of getting a signature at this control, we answered a question on the control card. With the finish approaching – less than 100 km/62 miles away – we didn’t linger, but pressed on.

The hardest part of the ride was yet to come: Anderson Hill Road is feared by most cyclists who’ve experienced it. It’s a triple climb that rises like a stairstep, with a vertiginous 18% descent between the first and second step. We crouched in the full aero tuck, hit almost 90 km/h (56 mph) on the descent, and made it up most of the second climb, but there was no momentum to carry us up the third climb: It was just hard work.
It was over quickly: The overall elevation gain is modest, and while harsh, Anderson Hill Road climbs for just a mile. From there, we rode on (hilly) backroads to the finish on Bainbridge Island.

No records were beaten on this windy weekend – we took 26:15 hours to complete the course. The next ferry left just 15 minutes after we arrived, so after the briefest of rests, we rolled down to the harbor – tired, but happy.

On this Sunday morning, the ferry was full of bikes. Most were heading out for their Sunday rides, while we had just finished ours. We parked our bikes, tied them to the railing, and for the first time in more than a day, the clock no longer was ticking for us. It was as if the world had suddenly switched to slow motion.

As the ferry headed back to Seattle, we climbed upstairs, stretched out on a bench, and enjoyed a restful crossing. Despite – or perhaps because of – the challenge, brevets are fun: They are (mostly) fun on the road; you’re glad when you arrive; and you feel a great sense of accomplishment afterward.
Paris-Brest-Paris is just two months away. Now is a good time to look back over the experience gained from the brevets. Where are our strengths and weaknesses? Do we need to condition our bodies to riding long distances, or do we need to work on our speed? Shall we train on hills, or improve our speed on the flats? Now is also the time to deal with aches and pains that are caused by a lack of flexibility or by muscle imbalances.
This is also the last opportunity to use the experience gained in the brevets and make changes to our bikes. Apart from general maintenance – new tires, gear cables, chain and other wear-and-tear parts – are there parts that could be improved? Like a different handlebar shape to alleviate hand problems? Or a more comfortable saddle? A headlight with a better beam pattern to make night riding less fatiguing? A handlebar bag that makes food and clothes easily accessible while riding? We don’t want to make changes shortly before the big ride – now there still is time to dial in new components and make sure they work flawlessly by the time we line up on the start line just outside of Paris. In the next post, I’ll talk about some of these equipment choices and what has worked well for us.

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The Road to Paris-Brest-Paris


Paris-Brest-Paris, one of the world’s oldest long-distance events, is held every four years. 2019 is a ‘PBP Year,’ and thousands of cyclists all over the world are preparing to ride 1200 km (750 miles) from France’s capital to its westernmost city and back.

PBP is not just an epic ride – it’s an amazing event with a long history. Started as a ‘utilitarian race’ in 1891 to promote cycling as a means of travel, it became a professional race for half a century (above, the 1931 winner, the Australian Hubert Opperman). Back then, it was considered so hard that it was run only every 10 years. As PBP morphed into a randonneur event during the 1930s and 1940s, it was run every five, then every four years.

Before we can take the start on the outskirts of Paris in August, we have to prepare. Riding 1200 km in 90 hours (or less) isn’t something that most of us can do without training and planning. The preparation is part of the fun.

The prospect of climbing the bucolic, but relentless, hills of Brittany in August has us head into the mountains with more vigor than usual. The season starts with the new year…

What we lack in form during these early rides, we make up with fun. We aren’t in a big rush, so we stop at stores along the way. We have plenty of time to talk and rekindle our friendships after not seeing much of each other over the winter.

We rediscover favorite roads in the lower parts of the Cascade Mountains, and we breathe fresh mountain air.
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We take backroads whenever we can.

We check on what is new since we last came out here. When will the Bush House in Index finally reopen? A nice option for lunch at the half-way point of our customary early-season ride would be nice!

With the coming of spring, the brevet season starts. Now we’re also working on our speed. In a ‘PBP Year,’ we have to ride the brevets, rain or shine: They are required to qualify for the big event. It’s actually the harder rides that create the greatest memories.

Last weekend’s 300 km brevet started with torrential rain. This was followed by ferocious winds as we rode up the coast. We drafted each other in silence, turning the pedals with smooth regularity. The landscape passed almost like a movie as we pedaled on flat roads, buffeted by the gusts.
Wind creates a strange disconnect between the effort and the landscape. Hills make it easy to predict how hard you need to work: You see them coming, you climb them, and then you are usually rewarded with a descent. In the wind, the effort changes with every gust. It makes it difficult to judge how much effort you can maintain.

And yet, we had a good time.

And then, after hours of hard effort, our ride came to a stop when the longest train I’ve ever seen crossed the road at a leisurely pace.

It was a good opportunity to rest and chat with our friends after battling the winds all day.

We headed out again the following day for a 200 km brevet. The course was beautiful, and we were excited to discover new roads…

… and new places.

And toward the end of the weekend, the roads even turned dry!
PBP is still four months away – there is plenty of time to prepare. From now on, the preparation will include our usual adventures as the snow melts in the Cascade Mountains. Fortunately, preparing for PBP requires doing what we like most: riding our bikes.

In the Spring 2019 Bicycle Quarterly, we feature four PBP Anciens (riders who’ve completed the long ride). Each has a different approach to the long ride, each has different goals, and each came away with different impressions. Yet they all agree that PBP changed their lives. And their advice for riders planning the big ride is remarkably similar: Take it one section at a time, and never give up! Click here for more information about this BQ edition.
Photo credits: Evelyne Champaux (Photo 3), Ryan Hamilton (Photo 6), Ryan Francesconi (Photos 9, 10), Tim Wainwright (Photo 16).

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Retracing the first Paris-Brest-Paris

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The first Paris-Brest-Paris was held as a “utilitarian race” in 1891. Organized by the newspaper Le Petit Journal, the big event started with a parade through Paris, before the cyclists raced off toward France’s westernmost city, some 600 km distant.
On our way to the pre-ride bike check of this year’s PBP, Hahn, Theo and I decided to retrace the beginning of the very first Paris-Brest-Paris.
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We met in front of Notre Dame. The original PBP did not go here, but Notre Dame is considered the “center of France”, and the first Flèches Vélocio started here. Left to right: Steve T. (who couldn’t join us), Hahn, Jan, Theo.
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The original PBP started at the building of Le Petit Journal in the Rue Lafayette. The offices of Le Petit Journal occupied the center of the block (above), but they’ve been replaced by a modern building that attempts in vain to echo the grand portal of the original (below).
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However, the adjacent buildings remain, giving a feel for the architecture. And best of all, cyclists still parade down Rue Lafayette. Today, they ride the wildly popular Vélib ride-share bikes.
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Led by organizer Pierre Giffard and by the president of the Union Vélocipédique de France, more than 200 racers paraded through town, followed by hundreds of spectators on bicycles.
We followed their original route via the Place de l’Opéra and the Place de la Concorde (above). In 1891, thousands of spectators were lining the streets, and on each square, marching bands and orchestras played. In 2015, we were almost alone on the streets of Paris on this Saturday morning.
From here, we went up the Champs Elysées toward the Arc de Triomphe (photo at the top of the post). The actual race then started in the Bois de Boulogne, a large park that borders the Seine. We don’t know exactly where the start was.
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The racers climbed the hill of Suresnes and went through Saint-Cloud (above). Back then, the Eiffel Tower was brand-new and highly controversial. Today, it’s one of the icons of Paris.
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The first real hill of the race was the Côte de Picardie. The eventual winner, Charles Terront, was the first to arrive at the top, led by his pacemakers (which were then allowed in the race). Spectators lined the road, and wondered: “How long until he will come the other way?” Estimates ranged from 70 hours to 5 days…
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The racers then “flew” through Versailles and passed the famous chateau. We took our time to stop and look at the impressive façades.
From here, we followed the original course for a few more kilometers, before turning off to head to today’s start in Guyancourt. On the way back, we retraced our steps and passed a commemorative plaque that answers the early-day spectators’ question.
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At the exit of Versailles, Terront was in the lead again after a most exciting and eventful race. 71:16 hours after he started, he stopped for a last time before heading to Paris as the winner of the great race. After Terront’s death in 1933, this stone plaque was mounted on the restaurant where he had rested for a few minutes. When the building was demolished, the plaque was saved and mounted on a stone.
On our way back, we decided to follow the course of the post-war Paris-Brest-Paris instead of retracing our steps: We headed across the Seine to arrive at the restaurant Aux Trois Obus at the Porte de Saint-Cloud.
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Theo recreated the famous photos taken at the finish by the great photographer Maurice Berton. Below is Roger Baumann, the fastest single-bike riders in 1956.
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It is remarkable how little Paris has changed over the 124-year history of Paris-Brest-Paris. To me, that is one of the main appeals of riding this event: You really feel like you are riding in the wheel tracks of great riders like Charles Terront and Roger Baumann.
For further reading about the fascinating history of Paris-Brest-Paris, we recommend:

  • Bicycle Quarterly No. 50: The story of the 1891 Paris-Brest-Paris, translated from Bernard Déon’s classic book Paris-Brest Et Retour.
  • Jacques Seray’s Paris-Brest-Paris, with hundreds of incredible photos from his collection. (French text, but the photos alone are worth the cover price.)
  • René Herse, with photos and stories of PBP during the post-war years, when most of the fastest riders were part of René Herse’s team.

 

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PBP Preparation: Rest, Check Bike, Learn French

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Paris-Brest-Paris is less than a week away. That means that training is over. Any hard or long rides from now will just fatigue your body, rather than make it stronger. All you can do to get your body into top shape is rest.
That doesn’t mean you cannot prepare for the big ride. Your bike probably is in good shape after you’ve ridden the qualifying brevets and trained for the big event. However, there are two things you can do that take little time, yet can save some aggravation during the ride.
First, if you have bar-mounted shifters, replace the cables and housing now. Your bike will shift better, and you eliminate the risk of a fraying or breaking shifter cable ruining your ride. Second, check your brake pads. Most riders don’t need to brake a lot in PBP, but if your pads are worn, finding replacements mid-ride will cost valuable time. Both maintenance items are not expensive and don’t take much time.
Finally, now is a good time to brush up on your French. With less than ten words, you can go from “stranger” to “nice guy who appreciates our culture”. Here is how:
Any time you talk to somebody in France, first say “Bonjour”. If possible, add “Madame” (if it is a woman) or “Monsieur” (if it is a man). This is basic politeness, and not greeting somebody before talking to them is incredibly rude in France. (You are entering their private sphere, and need to announce that intrusion.)
Second, follow any request with “s’il vous plait” (please). Again, it’s considered very impolite to omit this, even among friends.
Finally, receive any favor or information with “Merci” (thank you). That is all.
Let’s say you want to buy a croissant in a bakery. It’s perfectly acceptable to walk in, say “Bonjour, monsieur/madame”, point to a croissant and say “s’il vous plait“. Then, after you receive the croissant and pay the amount shown on the cash register, say “Merci”. Everybody will marvel at how well you speak French, and how nice you are!
I wish all readers who participate in PBP a great ride!

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Last-Minute PBP Prep: Tabata Intervals

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Paris-Brest-Paris is less than three weeks away. If you are riding in the 1200 km ride, you already have qualified and trained. You will have thought about your equipment and tried any changes that you may want to make.
Your endurance training should be complete by now. Riding long distances between now and PBP will only fatigue you. Arriving on the start line well-rested and eager to ride is a key component to an enjoyable experience in the long ride.
Now the final count-down has begun. What can you do to increase the likelihood of your success and to make your PBP experience more enjoyable? Of course, this advice applies to all big rides, not just PBP…
The answer is simple: Work on your speed!
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Why speed? Speed gives you options. If you are riding with a good group, speed means that you’ll likely be riding below your maximum. It willbe easy to keep up, and you can even do a greater share of the pulls. Speed also allows you to pull ahead of the crowds in PBP, which may allow you to go through the controls without lines. Not only is this more pleasant, but it saves valuable time and allows you to sleep where you want. Speed allows you to slow down or even stop if you want, knowing that the time limit isn’t breathing down your neck. Speed means that you don’t have to ride at your limit unless you choose to. It’s a nice option to have, and it makes a timed ride a much more enjoyable experience.
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Speed training, unlike endurance training, is something that you can accomplish in a relatively short time. It also doesn’t have to fatigue you very much. You get faster by taking your body to the max, and then resting. During the recovery, your body adapts to the new demands you’ve placed on it by getting stronger. And perhaps surprisingly, the speed you can sustain during a long ride is directly related to your top speed during short bursts. So if you increase your top speed, you’ll also increase your speed in a long ride like PBP.
Taking your body to the max is best done in structured intervals. Last year, the trainer at my gym recommended Tabata intervals. This year, my schedule has been tight, and so I’ve incorporated them into my training regimen, and they seem to work exceedingly well. Most of all, they are not all that hard to do, because they are so short!
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Here is how it works: Find a flat road without cross-traffic. After a good warm-up, go as hard as you can – for 20 seconds. Rest for 10 seconds, then repeat. After 8 intervals, rest for a minute or two, then do another set of 8. Repeat until you’ve done three or four sets.
20 seconds hard
10 seconds rest
20 seconds hard
10 seconds rest, etc.
My watch has only a single timer, so I set it to 10 seconds. During the intervals, I ride hard until the second beep, but the rest lasts only one beep. The “intermediate” beep during the interval shows me that only 10 seconds of hard riding remain, and I redouble my efforts.
The beauty of Tabatas is simple: 20 seconds is short enough that you can really go all-out. Just as it starts to get difficult, your watch will beep for the second time, and you get a short reprieve. And four sets of 8 Tabatas take only 15 minutes, so with a 20-minute warm-up and 20-minute cool-down, your training session lasts less than an hour. During that time, you’ll have worked hard for only 15 minutes, but the training effect will be tremendous. If you do three or four set of Tabatas in the next 10 days, it may well take an hour or more off your PBP time. Give it a try!
Next time, I’ll talk about checking your bike before you head to Paris. All the training in the world doesn’t help if your bike breaks down!

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8 Checks to Get Your Bike Ready for the Season (and PBP)

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Whether you are going to ride a brevet with an eye on qualifying for Paris-Brest-Paris, whether you plan to ride a century or race, or whether you just want to enjoy exploring this season, having your bike in good condition is the best way to guarantee success. If you are confident in your bike, you can enjoy the ride without worrying whether you’ll make it to the finish. Here are 8 things to look at:
1. Clean your bike
It’s much more fun to work on a clean bike, so the first step should be to clean your bike thoroughly. This is a good opportunity to check for cracks. Components and frames don’t fail suddenly (unless you jump off a huge cliff), but cracks form and grow until there isn’t enough material left, and the part breaks. Finding a crack before it grows and breaks can prevent a crash. Check for cracks especially on the cranks and rims. On the frame, inspect the area around the bottom bracket and the rear dropouts.
Also check that fenders, racks, lights and other bolted-on parts are tight. This is best done by checking each bolt, but if you are in a rush, just give each part a firm wiggle.
Once your bike is clean and found to be generally sound, it’s time to inspect individual components.
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2. Tires
Are your tires worn? How do you check? The best way is to remove the tire and flex it with your hands. Is the center part of the tread thinner than the shoulders? Then your tire often shows a groove in the center when you flex it. Replace the tire now, rather than risk having multiple flats – or worse, a blowout – during your brevet. Cut the old tire in half, so you can see how much tread remained. If there is 1 mm of rubber or less (not including the casing) in the center of the tread, then it was high time to replace. If there is much more, you could have ridden the tire a bit longer. It’s good to know for next time.
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3. Brake Pads
Are your brake pads worn out? Modern pads often seem to be made entirely out of rubber, but in reality, there is a metal carrier embedded in the rubber. When that gets exposed, it will score and ruin your rim. Most pads have a “wear line” molded into them that show how far you can wear them down.
Also make sure the pads hit the rims squarely. Check the pad itself. If a ridge has worn into the pad either at the top or bottom (photo above), then it doesn’t hit the rim correctly. Remove it, file off the ridge, then reinstall it with the correct alignment. Poorly aligned pads can cause blowouts if they hit the tire (with sidepull and centerpull brakes) or they can dive underneath the rim, causing a complete loss of braking (with cantilever brakes).
4. Rims
The second part of your braking system are your rims. They abrade as you brake, and eventually, they get so thin that they can explode from the tire pressure. Many modern rims have wear indicators, either a groove or a dot that are machined into the sidewall. When these wear indicators disappear, it’s time to replace the rim. On rims without wear indicators, look whether the sidewalls have become concave. That shows you how much wear has occurred. Worse, if the sidewalls start splaying outward near the tire bead, they are so thin that the tire pressure forces them outward. Replace them immediately!
If you replace the rim with a similar model that uses the same spoke length, you can just swap the spokes from one rim to the next without completely rebuilding the wheel. (For detailed instructions, refer to the “How-to” article in Bicycle Quarterly No. 50.)
5. Cables
Check your brake cables: Pull on the brake levers and feel whether the action is smooth. If you feel grinding or extra friction, then the cable is probably fraying. Replace it now!
If you have downtube shift levers, you can see whether the cables are fraying – it usually happens where the cables wrap around the shift lever. If you have bar-end or brake/shift levers, you may just replace the cables as a precaution at the onset of the season. If the rear shifter cable breaks, you’ll be reduced to your largest gear – not much fun during a long ride.
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6. Wheels and Spokes
Are your wheels true? Spin them and look at the distance between rim and brake pad. It should remain constant within 2 mm. Also squeeze the spokes in pairs and see whether any are loose or broken. You can also twang the spokes like guitar strings. The pitch should be similar for all spokes on the same side of the wheel.
If the wheel isn’t true, or spokes are loose or broken, either fix it yourself or take it to a qualified wheel builder. If you have broken two or more spokes in one wheel, it’s a sign that all spokes are getting fatigued. Rebuild the wheel with new spokes now, rather than having to deal with more broken spokes during the season.
7. Bearings
Check whether your bearings are in good shape. Remove the wheels and feel whether the axles spin smoothly. On modern sealed bearings, some resistance is fine, but it should be smooth, without any catching or roughness as you turn the bearing. Bearing play is best checked with the wheel on the bike. Push and pull on the rim and see whether you can feel play in the hub bearings. (Sideways movement is fine – wheels aren’t very stiff laterally – but there shouldn’t be a “knocking” feel.)
Check the bottom bracket the same way after dropping the chain to the inside of the cranks, so it rests on the frame’s bottom bracket shell. For the headset, turn the handlebars 90°, lock the front brake, and rock the bike back and forth. You should not feel any play. (If you don’t turn the handlebars, you may feel play in the brake and mistakenly conclude your headset needs adjustment.) Don’t forget to check the pedal bearings by turning and wiggling the pedals.
Worn bearings won’t slow you down significantly, but they make riding the bike less pleasant. Eventually, they’ll pack up and stop turning altogether. And then your ride is over!
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8. Drivetrain
Make sure that all gears can be shifted smoothly. Check whether your chain has lengthened because the bushings have developed play. There are gauges that show how much your chain has “stretched”, but you can also measure it with a ruler:
Pull the rear derailleur rearward to tension the chain. Take a ruler and hold it against the lower chain run. Line up the 0 with a chain pin. The 12″ (1 foot) mark should line up with another pin. If it is more than 1/16″ off, the chain has worn and should be replaced. Unfortunately, it’s likely that your cassette cogs are worn out, too. If you have a big event coming up, test-ride your bike to make sure the new chain meshes smoothly with the old cogs. Pedal hard in each gear for a block or two. If the chain skips over the cog, the cassette is worn out and should be replaced.
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Now you know your bike is in good condition. Unless you ride huge distances, it shouldn’t require much maintenance during the season. Check the chain wear every thousand miles or so, keep an eye on the brake pads and tires, and you should be fine. That allows you to enjoy the cycling season confident that your trusted steed won’t let you down. Now it’s time to plan your rides!
What other pre-season checks do you perform on your bike?
Also in this series:

Correction (3/27): The post has been edited to reflect that play in the hub bearings is best checked with the wheels installed (see comments).

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9 Reasons to Ride Paris-Brest-Paris

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If you have been around randonneurs lately, you’ll have noticed a buzz around three letters: PBP. The 1200 km ride from Paris to Brest and back has captured the imagination of cyclists for more than a century. It’s now organized every four years, and 2015 is one of those years!
Randonneurs sometimes have a hard time communicating why they love this ride. They tend to focus on the easy-to-convey logistics instead – how to qualify, which start time to pick, etc. It makes it sound like it’s all about logistics and sleep deprivation.
Don’t be mislead: it’s one of the greatest rides in the world! Here are nine reasons why this unique ride is so appealing:
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1. Ride with randonneurs from all over the world
As you settle into the long ride, you’ll find yourself riding with others who ride at a similar pace. During my first PBP in 1999, I rode with randonneurs from Texas, Spain, Italy, France, Bulgaria, England, Australia, and a few other countries. By pure chance, I rode for half a day with an old friend from Toronto (above), and I met another rider from the Bay Area with whom I had corresponded via e-mail.
With more than 5000 riders at the start, you’ll rarely ride alone. Unless you need a break from all the stimulation. Then you can just wave good-bye and speed up or slow down a bit so that the road is yours alone.
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2. Be a hero in a festival of cycling

You’ll ride through little villages at 2 a.m., and people will be standing by the roadside, cheering you on with shouts of: “Bravo! Allez, allez!” In many places, locals put up tables with food and water. They cheer as much for the last rider as for the first. They are excited to be part of this event, and they make you feel special. Some riders have said they feel like riding in the Tour de France, but I think it’s even better, because these are local peole, not cycling fans, and their enthusiasm is all the more heartwarming for it.
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3. Ride on great roads
Most of the time, PBP goes over the bucolic backroads of Brittany. Cattle graze languidly on green pasture. Hedgerows line the road. Birds chirp in the brushes. The road curves as it dips and rises with the landscape. There is hardly any traffic, and drivers are very considerate. It’s some of the best cycling anywhere.
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4. Ride into history

When you ride on those little roads in Normandy, you are riding in the tire tracks of the pioneers of cycling. You can imagine friendly ghosts populating the landscape: Charles Terront, who won the very first edition (top photo); Hubert Opperman (above), the Australian racer who came first in 1931; Juliette Pitard, who completed every PBP over a 30-year period (1921, 1931, 1948, 1951).
If you talk to the spectators, you realize that many of them rode PBP in the post-war years, and are glad to share their memories. Being able to rub shoulders with the greats of our sport is special. Also, don’t skip the awards ceremony! Last time, you were able to meet the three fastest riders in 1961, plus Lyli Herse, Roger Baumann (fastest in 1956 and finisher of 10 PBP), the late Gilbert Bulté (fastest tandem in 1956 and organizer in 1966) and a number of other great anciens.
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5. Experience France as it used to be

During PBP, you traverse hundreds of ancient villages that have not changed much in decades, if not centuries. You pass by old churches and canals with beautifully kept lockkeepers’ houses. In the stone villages, there are small bakeries, little brasseries and tiny grocery stores that invite you to stop, eat a meal or refill you supplies.
99% of the time, you ride through a bucolic landscape that is far from the megastores and shopping malls that now infest much of France. If you want to experience France as it used to be, PBP is a great way to do so.
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6. It’s relatively affordable
In an age when even short events can cost hundreds of dollars, PBP has remained very affordable. The entry fee is less than $ 200. You pay for your supplies on the road, but it’s hard to spend more than $10 on a meal at one of the controls (above). If you want to sleep, a mattress in one of the gyms in one of the schools that serve as controls costs at most another $10. The rural bakeries you pass rarely charge more than $ 1.20 for a croissant.
So once you’ve taken care of your flight to Paris, PBP is one of the most affordable ways to ride across France.
7. You don’t need to speak French
Touring in France on your own can be daunting at first, especially if you don’t speak French. PBP is geared toward riders from all over the world. The logistics are taken care of. While you should learn a few phrases to show your appreciation to the volunteers, you don’t need a command of French to enjoy this ride to the fullest.
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8. You can do it!
Compared to other great adventures, PBP is achievable. It’s not like the Race Across America, which only superhumans finish. It’s not like riding around the world, where you have to quit your job and put your life on hold for a year or two. It’s not like an expensive guided tour, which might wipe out your savings.
PBP is a challenge, but it’s entirely doable. There is a path laid out for you to follow and make this ride a success: The qualifying brevets also act as training, helping you to get in shape for the big ride.
If you are in good shape already, dedicate a cycling season to it, and at the end, in August, you’ll be able to ride 1200 km and have a great time. Even if you take some extra time to visit France – and you should – two weeks will make for one of the most memorable holidays you’ve ever experienced. And as European vacations go, it’s affordable.
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9. Feel a great sense of accomplishment
The first time the magnitude of the event hit me was when I traversed the great suspension bridge over the Elorn River in Brest. Before me lay a great harbor of this important port city, bathed in the soft evening light. And I suddenly realized that I had ridden across the length of France. Most of my bike rides are local in nature, but this one, I can trace on a globe!
When I return to Paris at the end of the ride (above), I have completed one of the most incredible rides there is. The sense of accomplishment stays with me for months, if not years.
There are many other reasons to ride PBP. If any of them appeal to you, then your first PBP will be a highlight of your entire life. It’s really that special.
In future blog posts, I’ll look at what it takes to ride PBP.
Further reading:

Photo credits: Jacques Seray collection (historic photos); Maindru (tandem photo); Almut Heine (photos showing me); all used with permission.

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Getting Your Bike Ready for Randonneuring

mark_paved_helens
A number of readers have asked about randonneuring, and more specifically, about which bike is best to get started with randonneuring.
I recommend that you gradually ease into long-distance riding, and also incrementally change your equipment as you gain more experience. You don’t need to buy brand-new equipment before riding your first brevet, nor do you want to!
With each brevet distance discussed below, I suggest making one relatively simple modification to your bike. Focus on training and on your enjoyment of the ride!
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100 km Populaire: Cue Sheet Holder
For a 100 km Populaire, any bike will do. You don’t even need to be a member of Randonneurs USA or a local club. Just show up (with a bike and a helmet), and ride. One thing that will come in handy and doesn’t cost a lot is a cue sheet holder.
Having your cue sheet in front of you and easy to read at all times is the best way to avoid getting lost. It also will improve your finishing time more than any other component, because you won’t need to slow down or stop while you fumble with a sweat-soaked cue sheet (or a ziploc bag) that you retrieve from your jersey pocket.
The cue sheet holder in the photo above is part of a handlebar bag, but you can get them separately. They clip on to your handlebars and brake or shifter cables.
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200 km: Luggage
Most brevets start very early, and you’ll wear layers of clothes during the morning chill. As the day warms up (hopefully!), you will want to take off layers and put them somewhere. In most cases, you’ll also need a rain jacket. I also suggest you carry the food you’ll eat during the ride, so you’ll save valuable time that you’d otherwise spend shopping.
A backpack is a poor solution for carrying weight for long distances, as it puts the load on your back. Much better to have your bike carry the weight. The easiest solution is an under-seat bag, like a Carradice. It straps onto (almost) any bike without much ado, and it’s impact on the bike’s handling is felt only when you ride out of the saddle. The main drawback is that you have to stop to access your luggage.
A handlebar bag (above) is tempting, because it combines cue sheet holder and luggage. It also keeps your luggage accessible while riding. And it does not affect your bike’s handling like a saddlebag – provided your bike’s geometry is suitable for carrying a front load. Unfortunately, most production bikes sold today have geometries that are not ideal for handlebar bags.
Extra_leger
300 km: Tires
While most riders can “wing it” for 200 km (125 miles), a 300 km brevet represents more of a challenge. Due to the time limits, you have to maintain the same average speed as for the “200”, but for 50% longer!
This is a good time to invest in your bike’s performance (and comfort) by getting some supple, fast-rolling tires. Compared to all other changes you can make to improve your bike’s speed, reducing rolling resistance makes the biggest difference. The differences between tires are huge. A puncture-resistant “touring” tire can have more than twice the rolling resistance of a supple high-performance tire. (By contrast, a set of aero wheels reduces your wind resistance by only 2-3%.)
Tires represent a trade-off: You gain a lot in speed and comfort, but you give up a little in puncture protection. However, you can improve your puncture resistance by running wider tires (if they fit your bike). Run at lower pressures, wider tires don’t puncture as easily…
Unless you have multiple punctures during each brevet, you will save significant time with supple, fast tires. Bicycle Quarterly’s tests of tire resistance found that the slowest tires rolled a full 15-20% slower at average randonneuring speeds than the fastest ones. Where you’d go 25 km/h on the slowest tires, you’d roll at 29 km/h on the fastest, with the same power output. During a 300 km brevet, this would take more than 2 hours off your time – time you can spent resting and taking it easy if you feel like it, without worrying whether you will make the next control before the cutoff.
For the 300 km brevet, you’ll also need lights. You’ll probably only use them for a short period of time. If you don’t already have lights, I suggest borrowing a friend’s clip-on headlight and taillight. Just make sure they are fully charged! A reflective vest and ankleband should be in every cyclist’s wardrobe anyhow.
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400 km: Lights
Unless you are a very speedy rider, you will spend considerable time in the dark during the 400 km brevet. By now, you’ll know whether randonneuring is something you want to pursue, and so getting a good lighting system is a sound investment. While some randonneurs still use battery-powered lights, the majority prefer generator hubs. Not only is it nice to have lights at any time, without worrying about battery run time, but the beam patterns of the best generator-powered headlights are much better than those of battery-powered lights.
You’ll need a new front wheel built up for the generator hub, which increases the cost a bit. On the plus side, the wheel can be moved to a new bike if you get a purpose-built bike for randonneuring later on. Generator hubs also retain their value if you ever decide to sell it, unlike battery-powered systems that have a limited lifetime until the batteries no longer hold a charge.
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600 km: Wheels
For the 600 km brevet, reliability is key. You’ll be riding at night, and the last thing you need is a break-down miles from nowhere. As you ride more, it’s likely that your wheels are nearing the end of their service life. A good set of hand-built wheels features more even spoke tension and proper stress relieving. This keeps them true much longer, and avoids breaking spokes – something that is almost inevitable on machine-built wheels.
If you live in a rainy climate, fenders also are a good idea. Riding with a wet behind all day is bad enough. Add to that the cold temperatures you are likely to encounter at night, and it takes most of the fun out of randonneuring.
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1200 km: Handlebars
Having completed a 600 km brevet, you are becoming a seasoned randonneur. Now is the time to focus on preventing overuse injuries and improving your comfort on the bike. One key part are your handlebars. Many riders experience numb hands during long rides. Don’t ignore this – it’s a sign of nerve damage that may become irreversible.
Your hands don’t need to suffer on the bike. In a previous post, I talked about how to prevent numb hands. Handlebar shapes are crucial. Your bars should support your hands well and not put pressure on your nerves. Getting new handlebars is most likely the biggest change you can make to improve your long-distance comfort.
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Year 2 or 3: New Bike?
Once you have been riding long distances for a season or two, you’ll know the limitations of your existing bike, and you’ll have a good idea what you really want in a randonneur bike.
Step back and assess the situation. Is it worth spending money trying to improve your existing bike by, for example, adding a front rack and handlebar bag? Maybe re-rake the fork to make the front-end geometry optimized for a front load? Convert the bike to 650B so you can run wider tires? It all can be done, but it also might make sense to start over, and get a purpose-built randonneur bike that is optimized in every way, including frame geometry, tubing choices, tire size, racks, etc.
If you chose to get a new bike, by now you’ll know what you want in a bike. You’ll have optimized the fit of your current bike and thus have a good starting point so that the new bike fits you well. In any case, you’ll have enjoyed a few seasons of wonderful riding without breaking the bank!
For more information on randonneur brevets near you, check out the Randonneurs USA web site.

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Winter Projects

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At this time of year, we plan our rides for the summer. There are so many places we want to explore! We pore over roads and look at event calendars. And we think about changes to our bikes. Some of the changes are intended to make our bikes better suited to our riding styles. Other changes take advantage of what we have learned. Some changes are the result of new products becoming available.
Now is the time to make those changes to our bikes. That way, we can fine-tune everything during the long winter “base mile” rides. Our bodies get used to the new setup, and when the season starts, our bikes will feel like extensions of our bodies, rather than foreign objects. We want the next riding season to be even more enjoyable than the last.
If you are thinking about changes to your bike, here are a few things to consider for the new season:
Handlebars
One of the most important factors influencing the comfort on long rides are your handlebars. Many modern bikes are equipped with “compact” bars that feature a very short reach and shallow drop. This allows a more upright position, while keeping the handlebars fashionably low. The drawback is that your hands are locked into three positions, all very similar as far as the angle of your back is concerned. On long rides, this can lead to numb hands, as well as shoulder and back pains.
Experienced long-distance riders generally prefer classic handlebar shapes from the 1940s and 1950s. Back then, even racers spent many hours in the saddle. The old-style bars feature more generous curves and give your hands more room to roam.
As you ride more and as your core and back muscles become stronger, you can use a more inclined position that allows you to put out more power. Switching to handlebars with more reach is an easy way to achieve that, while preserving the upright “on the tops” position for slower rides. Read more about handlebars here.
Gearing
Did you find yourself shifting between front chainrings a lot last year? The reason usually is that your big chainring is too large; instead of shifting a few cogs on the rear for a minor hill, you need to change to the small ring and then compensate on the back cassette. These multiple shifts break your rhythm. A smart gearing choice starts with your base gear, which should be on the big ring and in the middle of your rear cassette. Read more about gearing in this post.
New gearing usually requires new chainrings, and in some cases, new cranks. If you still ride on old-style “racing” gearing (53/39), you will be surprised how much difference a “compact” crankset or, even better, custom-designed gearing will make to your riding enjoyment.
Tires
If you did not get a huge number of flats last year, consider changing to more supple tires that offer more comfort and speed. Nothing will transform your bike and increase your riding enjoyment as much as a great set of tires. If you have sufficient clearance, running wider tires will not only improve your comfort further, but also reduce the risk of flats. Read more about tires.

Saddle
If you want to try a new saddle, now is the time to put one on your bike and “break it in” during the winter training rides. A good leather saddle needs a few hundred miles until it becomes truly comfortable. A modern plastic saddle also will conform better to your anatomy over time. Making the switch now will make sure that you have a comfortable saddle during your summer cycling adventures.
Pedals
If you are considering a new pedal system, the long winter rides are a great opportunity to try it out and “learn” the different release. Then you will feel secure when you ride in events with unknown riders, where you may have to stop suddenly.
Fenders
Are you still waiting for the rain to end so you can start your cycling season? Maybe this is the year to install nice fenders on your “go-fast” bike? That way, you won’t curse the afternoon thunderstorm during that great mountain ride in July! Read more about fenders here.
Lights
If you plan to ride long events (or simply are tired of replacing batteries), consider upgrading to a generator hub system. This requires a new front wheel, so it is a bit of an investment, but most people only regret not having made the switch sooner. Read more about lighting systems here.
Luggage
Have you become hot during a ride, but were unable to remove layers because there was no place to put them? (Don’t sling a long-sleeve jersey or tights around your waist, as they are likely to get caught on the rear tire or in the spokes, causing you to crash.) Think about a new luggage system for your bike. Easiest is adding a large under-seat bag like a Carradice.
For convenience and excellent handling, it is hard to beat a good handlebar bag, mounted to a rack and attached to the stem with a decaleur – provided  your bike’s front-end geometry is suitable for front-loading.
Handlebar bags aren’t just great for clothes. They keep your food, your camera, your wallet, and other things easily accessible without dismounting the bike. Having your route sheet on top of the bag, visible at all times, greatly reduces the difficulty of navigating during organized rides. Read more about racks and bags.
What other changes are you making to your bike this year?

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Doping in Randonneuring?


With the recent news that Lance Armstrong effectively admitted to a large-scale doping conspiracy on his teams, the issue of doping has been front and center in the cycling news. A few readers have asked whether doping exists in randonneuring, too.
The short answer is yes – doping exists in any sport. A random test during a French cyclosportive (a timed long-distance ride) found astonishing numbers of riders with forbidden substances in their urine and bloodstream. Interestingly, it was not so much the faster riders who resorted to doping, but those who really wanted to beat 10 or 12 hours for a 200 km event.
What about the fast randonneurs of the past, the ones you read about in Bicycle Quarterly? Many of them have admitted to taking amphetamines, of the type the Air Force administers to its pilots. Like the Air Force pilots, they took these medications not to improve performance, but to fend off sleep.
Roger Baumann (on the right in the photo above) was the fastest single-bike rider in the 1956 PBP. He told me: “Most of us took it. Daniel Rebour said it was better to take it than to crash into an oncoming car.” At the time, the over-the-counter product, called Maxiton, was not yet on the list of forbidden substances, so technically, it wasn’t doping.
Gilbert Bulté (second from right in photo), who was part of the fastest tandem in that year’s PBP, also questioned its effectiveness: “I took three pills during the 50 hours of PBP. When I later told a doctor about this, he said: ‘Considering how much you ate and drank during the ride, the amphetamines had absolutely no effect.'”
From my own experience, I know that with experience, it is not difficult to stay awake for a 50+ hour ride, even without coffee or other stimulants, unless it involves long mountain descents where the rider does not pedal. So perhaps it was all about a placebo effect.
Among these old randonneurs, there are some behind-the-back stories of “x en a pris (used to take it),” but few of these stories can be corroborated. It is hard to know for sure, but considering how open and honest these randonneurs have been about other thorny issues, I suspect that they are telling the truth, and that performance-enhancing doping was very rare.
What about lead groups in recent PBPs? Having ridden with them for hundreds of kilometers in 2007, I was surprised that their pace was not as fast as that of typical racers. When we approached the first control, everybody was jockeying for position on the last climb, knowing that only the first riders would get through the control without delay. It was not difficult for me to maintain a position in the top five of the group. My conclusion was that you don’t need to resort to doping to stay with the lead group. More important is an efficient support team and consistency – I lost significant time and had to chase hard because I had to get my own water at the control. On the road, it appears that riders get dropped not because they aren’t fast enough, but because they suffer from a weak moment or two.
For everybody else, a fast time in a brevet mostly depends on managing your off-the-bike time well. No amount of doping will make you faster at the controls. So yes, it is likely that there is doping in randonneuring – as there is abuse of medication in all parts of society. But unlike in professional bike racing, doping is not a prerequisite for success in randonneuring, however one chooses to define that success.
P.S.: For the comments, I will discard comments about Mr. Armstrong, since he has been discussed on many other forums. I’d like to keep the discussion focused on doping in randonneuring and other amateur sports.

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PBP: The Movie


Last week, Sur la Route de l’Extreme by Sandrine Lopez and Philip Dupuis was shown on French TV. It’s a well-done documentary of this year’s PBP, with beautiful shots showing the variety of randonneurs who participate, from the fastest to the slowest. There are great shots of the lead peloton. I loved a scene following a faired tricycle recumbent on a descent. In an evocative twilight scene, I spotted a friend leaning against a tree and napping. And I had tears in my eyes when a rider abandoned with back pain.
So you can watch it, too, we have put a recording on the Bicycle Quarterly server. Download it and watch it over the holidays (mp4 file, 155 MB, French language without subtitles). Enjoy!
We would like to wish Happy Holidays to all our readers and customers. May the new year bring you great rides and wonderful memories!

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Report from Paris-Brest-Paris


I enjoy returning to Paris to ride  the Paris-Brest-Paris event. Paris is a place steeped in cyclotouring history. Several of us met in front of Notre Dame to ride to the start for the bike check; this is where the Flèche Vélocio used to start for the teams from Paris. We rode up the smooth cobblestones of the Champs Elysées (where the Tour de France ends each year), rounded the Arc de Triomphe, and continued through the Bois de Bologne. We passed by the 3.7 km-long cycling-only road around the horseracing track at Longchamps, where cyclists have met for almost a century to train. During World War II, when curfews made long randonnées difficult, cyclotourists had their tandem sprints and other competitions on this road. Lucien Détée once told me: “After work, I often went there, and within a few laps had met somebody I knew, and we rode together.”

A little out of Paris proper, we looked at the plaque commemorating the last stop of Charles Terront on his way to win the very first Paris-Brest-Paris in 1891. The plaque used to be on the building that housed the café where he got some food and drink. When the building was torn down, the plaque was saved and mounted on a plinth. The plaque explains that when Terront reached this point, he had covered 1170 km in 71:16 hours “without rest.”

A little down the road, we passed in front of the Chateau of Versailles and made a quick detour into the gardens, which were full of Parisians enjoying the sunny weekend.
PBP itself was exciting as always. A bit too exciting for me, as I was involved in an unfortunate crash early on, one of many crashes caused by excited riders on racing bikes with compromised handling due to some adventurous bag arrangements.  Fortunately, neither bike nor I were too damaged to continue.
Riding with a few friends, we enjoyed the applause of the locals in the little villages we traversed. As planned, we eventually split up to ride at our own pace. The ocean in Brest was beautiful, and the going was good into the second night. Then we hit a huge thunderstorm that followed us all night, for 9 hours of torrential downpour. We rode through sheets of water on the road, while the lightning was so bright that we could see for miles. It was impressive, but not the best conditions for riding a bike. I was glad for my big fenders, mudflap, and wide 650B tires that allowed me to descend in the rainy night without worrying too much about potholes, cracks and debris on the road.
Despite my layers of wool jerseys and my rain jacket, I became miserably cold by morning, so I decided to take a 30-minute sleep break at a control. I felt totally refreshed after that, and the remaining 340 km to Paris went by quickly, helped along by a tailwind that made up for the headwinds we had faced on the way out. One of the quiet joys of PBP is to meet up with fellow riders who ride at a similar pace; I came across a nice group and together we sped up for the last leg. We finished the ride in great spirits.
I returned the next morning and saw more of my Seattle friends finish their PBP, looking good and strong. I was glad to see that most of them were happy with their rides. At the awards ceremony, we saw the three first riders from 50 years ago mount the podium. Lyli Herse handed out trophies for the oldest and youngest riders, making a touching end to a memorable event about bicycles, French roads, and people from around the world.

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PBP Preparation: Quality Time Off the Bike


Many people think that the difference between a fast ride and a slow one is a superhuman power output. While some riders ride somewhat faster than others, especially on hills, the main factor affecting the time to complete a ride is off-the-bike time.
In Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP), imagine riding from Carhaix to Brest at an average speed of 25 km/h (15.6 mph). It takes 3:43 hours to complete this 93 km stretch. Now imagine increasing your pace by 2 km/h (1.2 mph). That requires working a lot harder on the bike. When you get to Brest, you have gotten ahead 16 minutes.
Sixteen minutes can be quickly spent when you are stopped. I timed myself taking off my leg warmers (without removing shoes) in a hurry. It took 54 seconds – almost a minute. Some riders spend 5 minutes at a control, others an hour. The extra 55 minutes are lost. It is impossible to make up that much time on the road, no matter how fast you ride. If you bring your camera and plan to spend time photographing yourself and fellow cyclists during the ride, consider that professional photographers will take great pictures of you cycling at a number of scenic spots along the route. You can buy the photos after you finish the ride.
To minimize your time off the bike, make every stop count. Plan ahead before you reach a control, and think of what you want to do there. Stay focused and take everything you need off the bike before you enter the control, so you don’t walk back and forth between your bike and the control to get your wallet, and then your spare clothes, and then your water bottles, etc.
However, this does not mean that all your stops should be the bare minimum. I plan a few longer stops that will restore body and soul. During our tandem ride in PBP 2003, we spent 30 relaxed minutes off the bike in Loudéac (see photo above). The rest was very salutary. It gave us renewed vigor for the following hills toward Carhaix.
Here are some ideas to maximize your rest while you are off the bike:

  • Don’t stand if you can sit. Riding a bicycle is a weight-bearing activity like walking. Sitting down allows your leg muscles to rest.
  • If you really need a rest, lay down. Your body recovers best if it does not have to expend any energy on holding itself up.
  • Close your eyes when you don’t need to see (not while riding, of course). Riding for long times strains your eyes more than any other part of your body. I may sound funny, but I chew with my eyes closed when I eat during PBP.
  • If you plan to sleep, get to bed quickly, rather than lingering over dinner because you are too tired to get up.

A few strategically planned rests provide significant benefits and enjoyment, whereas simply wasting time due to fatigue at a control does not do you much good. If things are not going according to plan, consider adding an unscheduled rest. You probably will feel so much better on the bike afterward that you may even make up the time you lost. Make sure that your schedule has you far enough ahead of the time limit to allow for these quality stops.
The roadside stands with food and drink along the PBP route can be very memorable stops. Plan to enjoy a piece of cake or a cup of tea, and practice your French as you say “Merci beaucoup” before making room for the next rider and heading on your way. It only takes two or three minutes, and your PBP experience will be the richer for it.

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PBP Preparation: Mavic Reflective Vest


In my quest for a suitable reflective vest that meets the PBP regulations, that is comfortable to wear, and that doesn’t take much space in my handlebar bag, I now have bought a Mavic reflective vest. How does it compare to the “official” PBP  and the Rapha vests, which I tested earlier?
Mavic Vision Vest
Cost: $ 110
Size tested: Medium
Weight: 153 g
Country of manufacture: Indonesia
Availability: various sources, I bought mine from www.expeditionco.com

The Mavic vest is a “wind breaker” vest that doubles as a reflective vest. The front uses a nylon shell material, while the upper back panel is a breathable, closely-woven mesh. A large zippered pocket on the lower back could be left open to increase ventilation. (Otherwise, you’ll have two layers of nylon shell material on your lower back.) The vest is heavier and bulkier than the Rapha vest, but lighter and smaller than the “official” vest.
Mavic’s vest has ample amounts of reflective material on the back, some of it placed low enough to be visible when the rider is in the drops. It reflects well (below), and it meets the EN 1150 standard that now is required in PBP.

I usually wear medium-sized cycling jerseys, and Mavic’s size Medium vest fit snugly over two wool jerseys. When in doubt about sizing, I recommend ordering the next size up.
The vest does not have mesh panels at the front or on the sides, so it will keep you warm. This can be good on cold nights during PBP, but may cause you to overheat during hot nights.
Of the vests reviewed so far, this one is my favorite. It isn’t perfect: I usually do not wear wind breakers, so I would prefer a vest that is more ventilated. At least the Mavic vest fits snugly. It does not absorb much moisture. Most importantly, it reflects well and meets the EN 1150 guidelines. I probably will wear this one at PBP.

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Bicycle Quarterly Get-Together at PBP


Following Paris-Brest-Paris 2011, Bicycle Quarterly readers (and others) are invited to an informal get-together at the historic start and finish of the famous 1200 km ride. On Friday, 26 August 2011, starting at 11 a.m., we plan to meet at the Brasserie Aux Trois Obus.
During the 1940s and 1950s, randonneurs started from this café at the Porte de Saint-Cloud on the western edge of Paris, and returned there after 50+ hours on the road. Shown in the photo above is Roger Baumann, who was the first single-bike rider to arrive in 1956. (Many of you have read the interview with him in Bicycle Quarterly Vol. 1, No. 2.)
Today, the café remains almost as it was back then. Even the huge trees are still there. I look forward to meeting many readers and other randonneurs in person. We’ll exchange PBP experiences, look at bikes and have a good time. I will invite several old French randonneurs about whom you may have read in Bicycle Quarterly, so brush up on your French!
The Brasserie Aux Trois Obus is at 120 rue Michel-Ange, 75016 Paris. Please plan to be an ordering customer at the Brasserie (no host event).

It is easy to reach from Paris by subway (Métro station Porte de Saint-Cloud) or from Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines via the SNCF suburban trains (Issy Val de Seine station and short walk/ride across the Seine River). See you there!

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PBP Training: Recovery


In the past, we’ve discussed hill intervals and how they make you stronger. They’ve certainly worked for me this spring, as I achieved one of my big goals this year: I completed my Cyclos Montagnards R60 Honors.
You get faster and stronger through overload and recovery. This means not only that you have to work hard enough during your intervals to overload your body, but also that you need to rest long enough to give your body time to adapt to the new demands that you place on it. How do you know whether you have recovered enough to do another set of intervals? How long after a big event should you rest before you start training seriously again?
The amount of recovery needed varies with a number of factors. How you feel on the bike indicates whether you have recovered or not. I find that I need 24-48 hours to recover from a hard training session, and as much as 5-6 days to recover from a long brevet.
How do I know whether I have recovered enough when I head out for another session of intervals? I start the ride as usual. If the first two intervals are sluggish, I am not concerned; my muscles have to flush out the left-over lactic acid or whatever it is that makes your legs sluggish after a hard effort. However, by the third time up the hill, my legs usually feel better. If my legs still don’t have much power, and I bog down where I usually soar, I know I have not recovered enough. I go for an easy spin, and try again a day or two later.
It helps to ride a favorite bike on days when your motivation is flagging a bit. If I am on a bike that does not work well with my pedal stroke, staying motivated is a lot harder.
Beyond the recovery from my training sessions, I also need a week-long period of recovery from time to time to recharge my body. After three weeks of training with increasing intensity, I take a whole week of rest.
I increase the intensity throughout the three weeks of training. During the third week, I train more often and with the most intensity. I may even do intensive workouts on consecutive days toward the end of that week (assuming I can find the time!). By the end of that third training week, I feel less eager to ride, and it is getting harder to keep up with friends who are training less. This is a clear sign that I am on the verge of overtraining – as I should be before taking a rest week. It is clear that overload alone does not make me faster, and that is why the rest week is important.
I schedule my rest weeks so that they fall before big events in which I hope to do a personal best. After the rest week, I feel eager to ride. I may take a few miles until my legs spin smoothly again, but then they feel stronger than ever before.
Everybody is different, and our bodies change as we train. With some experience, you can tell whether you are training too much. If you are not having fun even mid-way through a ride, it’s probably a good idea to increase your rest periods.
I ride my bike fast because I enjoy it. For that, I need what the French call “the taste for the effort” (le gout de l’effort). If that “appetite” is not present any longer, I know I need to change my training.
The photo is from the Summer 2011 Bicycle Quarterly. It shows the fastest riders in Paris-Brest-Paris 1956 a day after the ride, as they wait to do a “lap of honor” in the Parc des Princes velodrome.

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PBP Training: Hill Intervals


Whether you are training for Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP), a century ride or racing, speed is an essential part of a successful event. Simply put, the faster you are able to ride, the more enjoyable (and less stressful) your ride will be. You’ll be able to work with pacelines, rather than just hang on. You’ll be able to take leisurely stops, rather than worry about running out of time. And hills will provide a welcome challenge rather than a seemingly insurmountable obstacle.
Fortunately, it’s easy and fun to get faster. There is little mystery about how to acquire speed. The key concept is “overload and recovery/adaptation”. That means that you push your body beyond its comfortable maximum. Your body then adapts to this unfamiliar demand by becoming stronger. You need to give your body time to adapt by resting.
The overload part of the training is best done through structured intervals. During normal riding, even if you try hard, it’s difficult to achieve the “overload” that generates the maximum effect. Intervals allow you to ride as hard as you can, and then rest.
I find that a little friendly competition gives me the incentive to work harder than I usually would, so I often do the intervals with a friend or two. Plus, the rest periods between the intervals are a great time to talk, once we have recovered our breath.
Since climbing is the place where speed provides the greatest benefit, we pick a hill that is a little less than half a mile long. Our favorite is Alder Street in Seattle, because it undulates and curves, making it more interesting than a unrelenting, straight slog uphill. This street also offers great views, and a tree canopy offers shade on hot summer days.

To accommodate differences in our speed and daily form, we use a handicap for the climb. One of us starts a bit ahead (above), and then we race each other to the top. The slower rider tries to stay ahead, while the faster rider slowly catches up.

Ideally, we get to the top in a lung-busting sprint with less than a bike-length separating us.

During the climb, our legs should feel warm, maybe even with a slight burning sensation. On top, we should be so out of breath that we can hardly talk. It’s truly a maximum effort.
If we did a good job and achieved our absolute maximum, we take a little detour on the way down to get some extra rest (and work on our descending skills). If we misjudged the handicap, then either the “chaser” didn’t catch the leader, or passed too early. As we descend the hill, we adjust the handicap for the next run.
The handicap really makes it fun, because the rider who is most exceeding expectations gets to the top first, rather than the fastest rider. I think handicaps would be a great way to make competition interesting for riders of all abilities.
After four or five intervals, we spin along Lake Washington for half an hour before we do the same thing over. Then it’s time to go home – usually rather slowly, because we are tired. The whole training session takes less than two hours.
The recovery part of the “rest and recovery” equation is easy: No training the next day. We may run errands on the bike, or just stay in the office and get some work done!
The effects of the interval training are almost immediate and profound. Two or three interval sessions make a huge difference during the next big ride, whether it’s climbing a mountain or riding into a sustained headwind. Just make sure to rest enough to allow your body to adapt to the new demands you are placing on it.

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PBP Preparation: Flèche Vélocio


By March, the distance/base mile phase of my training is over. It is time to work on speed and strength. This transition is hard every year. I remember how strong I felt when I climbed mountain passes last September, and now it seems like even small hills have grown into mountains over the winter. Wouldn’t it be easier to continue our nice rides in the valleys at a social pace?
At that point, my friend Ryan usually says: “We’ll be so glad we rode these hills when we are riding the next event, feeling great after 20 hours on the road.” Goals really are a great motivator. After all, last September’s form did not come out of nowhere.
Our next goal is the Flèche Vélocio. The Flèche is a 24-hour team ride in spring. Each team plans their route in order to ride the maximum distance they can in 24 hours. At the end of the ride, all teams congregate at a scenic location to enjoy each other’s company.
Today, the Flèche is one of the last traditional randonneuring events. It focuses on teamwork and performance, as is spelled out in the official rules of the Flèche:

  • Create a team spirit during training and during the ride.
  • Complete the longest route possible in 24 hours.
  • Arrive at a symbolic place to meet with like-minded cyclists.

As a 24-hour ride, the Flèche is a great dry run for PBP since it includes all-night riding. However, the Flèche is a great event in its own right. Follow this link for a list of Flèche rides organized in the U.S.
To increase participation in the Flèche, the Cyclos Montagnards are proposing the Flèche Challenge: Form a team and design a Flèche ride in the original spirit of the event. Challenge yourself how far you can go, but with a focus on a scenic course. After completing the ride, send in your route and ride report (and photos, if you have any). They will be published on the Cyclos Montagnards web site, so they can serve as inspiration to others. More information about the Flèche Challenge is at the Cyclos Montagnards web site.
(The photo above shows the start to the very first Flèche Vélocio in 1947. The original ride report was translated and reprinted in Bicycle Quarterly Vol. 3, No. 1. And Paulette Callet/Porthault (second from left) today is a sprightly 97-year-old and invaluable resource when I research articles about the history of randonneuring.)

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A February Ride


Last week, we went on a “training ride” into the hills northeast of Seattle. We met at 7:30 and rode to Snohomish (above). The valley of the Skykomish River was filled with cold fog, so a stop at our favorite bakery provided a welcome warm-up.

As we headed through the hills near Lake Roesinger, the frost was melting in the meadows, and the sun broke through the fog to start a glorious day.

February in Seattle isn’t always rainy! Matt’s on-bike photographs capture the gorgeous morning. (All photos by Matt Delcomyn.)
All winter long, we had been looking forward to one of our favorite roads. Reiter Road is a scenic, winding backroad that connects Gold Bar with Index. It runs high above the valley in a long series of short climbs and exhilarating descents.

Alas, the road was closed. A clogged culvert had caused a large washout. (Budget cuts in road maintenance don’t always save money.)  Fortunately for us, the road is needed as an alternative evacuation route for the town of Index, so it will be repaired. By next year, we should be able to return to Reiter Road.

We explored for an alternative route, and found a road that happened to go to a fish hatchery. From there, a pipeline maintenance trail led along the scenic Skykomish River.

When this dead-ended at a creek, we stopped for a picnic lunch. The photo shows (left to right): Hahn, Ryan, Jan. On the way back, we stopped at our favorite taco truck in Monroe for a second lunch. Riding in the cold makes you hungry!

While we don’t talk much about bikes on our rides, we do notice each other’s equipment. Matt was intrigued by the patina on Jan’s handlebar bag. It has been in daily use for a decade, yet it’s still waterproof.

The shadows were getting long as we headed into the hills that separate the Skykomish River from Lake Washington. It was dark by the time we got home. A day well-spent on beautiful roads in the company of good friends was ending!

For Seattle area readers, here is the essential part of our route. (Bikeroute Toaster does not display routes along bike trails; we took the Burke-Gilman Trail and the Centennial Trail near Snohomish.) See you out there!

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PBP Preparation: Planning Your Trip To France


If you are planning to ride Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) this August, you probably have started training already. We are adding some hills to our “base miles” now as the brevet season approaches.
Now also is the time to plan the trip. Booking airfares early usually results in less expensive tickets, and hotels often fill up early as well. Here are a few thoughts from my perspective after having completed three PBP rides, as well as talking to many other participants:
Packaged Tours?

Traveling in France is easier than you may think. Paris is accustomed to tourists, and most hotels, restaurants, etc., have somebody who speaks English. You will have little trouble getting around on your own. (Learning a little French still is a good idea.) There is little need to book a packaged tour.
On the plus side, a packaged tour will offer you peace of mind and help with getting your bike from the airport to your hotel. Negotiating the Charles de Gaulle airport is always challenging, and it’s not made easier by having to carry your bike up and down flights of stairs.
Staying in Paris or Saint-Quentin?
For me, the main reason to ride in Paris-Brest-Paris is to experience riding in France and being part of the history of Paris-Brest-Paris. If my goal was just to ride a 1200 km brevet, I could do this closer to home…
Paris-Brest-Paris now starts in Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines in the outer suburbs of Paris. The good part is that tired riders no longer have to navigate Paris traffic at the end of this 750-mile ride. The bad part is that Saint-Quentin is a “ville nouvelle,” a modern suburb  (see photo below) lacking the charm, museums, restaurants, cafés and parks of Paris.

Contrasting this, Paris is a city with more than 1000 years of history, and worth a visit by itself (see photo below). It is a good idea to arrive a few days before the start of PBP to get over your jet lag and acclimatise to France. I think it is more fun to hang out in Paris than in Saint-Quentin.

Photo ©Gary Johnston
From Paris, it is relatively easy to get to Saint-Quentin by train. The trains leave from the Gare St. Lazaire and Gare Montparnasse (near the Latin Quarter), which you can take into account when booking your hotel. You can find public transit connections in Paris at this web site.
The suburban trains in Paris take bikes – you just roll them on. (It’s more difficult, but possible, to take a bike on the Metro and RER trains.) Since your bike must be checked the day before the start, you get to practice the itinerary without any stress. (You can show up to the bike control at any time you want.) After that practice run, there is little risk of getting lost when you are going to the start of the actual event.
Riding your bike in Paris is a fun and easy way to get around, but finding your way through Paris’ suburbs can be tricky. Perhaps I’ll map a bike route from Paris to the start of PBP when the time approaches and put it in the blog.
On the other hand, if you enjoy socializing with other American, British and Australian riders, then Saint-Quentin is the place to be. You’ll be near the start, and from the finish, it won’t be far to your hotel.
No matter where you stay, you don’t have to pay for the hotel while you ride the event. Leaving a suitcase or two for a couple of days while you are on the road usually is no problem if you return to the hotel for a couple of nights after the ride.
Start Group?
If you are at all uncertain about making the time limits, choose the 90 hour start group. That way, you have ample time to complete the ride. For faster riders, there are two additional start groups: The 80-hour group starts ahead of the crowds, ensuring open roads and empty controls. Clean bathrooms, too. These two groups start in the late afternoon. The 84-hour group starts in the morning. Some riders do not like riding at night, and prefer this group. I have tried each start time. Here is what I found:

Photo ©Gregg Bleakney
84-Hour Start
For my first PBP in 1999, I chose the morning start. I slept poorly that night, afraid I’d oversleep. With the excitement of the event, I was not tired until 24 hours into the ride. So I went to sleep at 5 in the morning, and my daily rhythm was upset. Furthermore, as the morning group started last, I found many of the controls to be crowded as we ran into the main wave of riders.
80- and 90-Hour Starts
Since then, I have started in the evening. The day of the start, I get up late, then take a lunch-time nap, and still have plenty of time to arrive the start with little stress. (This year, PBP will start a few hours earlier, so I may have to go without the nap.) Most of all, I really enjoyed riding through the night to leave Paris on empty roads with little car traffic. When the day broke, I was in Britanny, right in the heart of this remarkable event.
Hotels along the Course?
PBP is a well-organized ride. All you need to do is show up at the start with your bike and about 200 Euros in your pocket. (Don’t plan to use credit cards or ATM machines during the event.) The Audax-Club Parisien keeps the entry fee low, and you pay as you go for food and other services.
Some riders book hotels along the course. While it may sound nice to have a clean bed and shower half-way through the ride, the potential drawbacks may outweigh the benefits. Not only does a pre-booked hotel room detract from the adventure of PBP, it also locks you into a schedule that you may not be able to maintain. I have heard of many riders who arrived at their pre-booked hotel room, but were not yet tired. Others got there so late that there was no time to sleep. Yet others spent an hour or two just finding their hotel, losing valuable time.
PBP controls usually are located in high schools. The gym has sleeping arrangements. For a few Euros, you get a cot and a blanket. (Bring earplugs, because some randonneurs snore.) A volunteer who will wake you up at a pre-determined time. During a randonneur ride, you stop only when you truly are tired, and that is all you need. Food is next door in the cafeteria, and you are back on the road without much delay. Key to this is arriving ahead of the biggest crowds. I will discuss strategies for staying ahead of the crowds in a future part of this series.
Which PBP start times and travel arrangements do you prefer?

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Preparing the 2011 Cycling Season


Happy New Year! After my December rest period, it’s time to start training for the 2011 cycling season. Whether you race and prepare for a specific event, whether you plan to ride your first double century or brevet series, or whether you want to be in shape for a week-long tour, having a goal gives the season a nice focus.
It’s like being a farmer: You sow your crops, you tend them as they grow, and it all culminates in the harvest. Similar to the seasonal cycle that allows the soil to replenish itself, a seasonal training cycle allows you to “peak” and reach a top form that is far higher than the form you can maintain throughout the year. For me, this keeps cycling interesting, and prevents burn-out and boredom.
My goal for 2011 is Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP), the 765-mile ride in France. PBP is in August, so I have outlined my training roughly as follows:

  • January through mid-March: base miles
  • Mid-March through early June: endurance (qualifying brevets) and speed training
  • Mid-June through late July: speed training
  • Early August: rest
  • Mid-August: Paris-Brest-Paris

To stay with the farming analogy, it’s time to sow right now, to work on my basic form. Having a good base provides a sound foundation for working on speed and endurance later in the season. Training hard without a base often causes injuries or excessive fatigue.
My base miles consist of a weekly ride of 80-120 miles with a friend or two, at a moderate pace, with a stop at a café along the way. For now, we stay on relatively flat roads. Bike trails are great for this sort of training. It’s nice to revisit lowland roads and trails that we haven’t ridden since last January. (We don’t miss much doing this, as the mountains aren’t accessible right now anyhow… see the photo above taken near Paradise, Mount Rainier, in May.)
This also is the time to think about changes to your equipment. Are your handlebars comfortable? Do your feet get numb? Do you have the right gearing? Are you thinking about adjustments to your position (longer/shorter/higher/lower stem, etc.). Do you plan to get a new bike? Making changes now enables you to fine-tune them during the base miles, rather than when the events of the season start in the spring. You also can try out new nutrition on these rides. My goal is to have well-honed equipment and strategies when the season starts.
Most of all, I enjoy these casual rides with friends. Spending a day on the bike really does keep the winter blues at bay. What are your goals for the season?

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PBP 2011: "We Hope to Accommodate All Riders"


Many randonneurs are planning to ride in Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP), the famous 765-mile ride in 2011. The next edition of PBP will bring some changes to deal with the large number of participants. PBP is organized by the Audax-Club Parisien (ACP), the influential cycling club founded in 1903. The ACP created the Randonneur PBP, the Flèche Vélocio 24-hour rides and many other events. Today, the ACP continues to issue the rules for all randonneur brevets world-wide and validates the results.
I recently spoke with Jean-Gualbert Faburel, president of the ACP, about the 2011 PBP and other randonneuring topics. Translated from French:
JH: Many randonneurs are worried that they may not get to start in the upcoming Paris-Brest-Paris, even if they complete the qualifying brevets. Will there be many randonneurs who cannot enter the event due to a rider limit?
Faburel: We hope to accommodate all riders who want to participate in the 2011 PBP, but we will do this only under two conditions: 1. We find the means to accommodate more than 6000 people. 2. The French government does not impose a rider limit. Today we are assuming 6000 starters, a number which may increase or decrease. We hope that we won’t have to turn anybody away.
JH: If there is a problem in PBP, it’s the crowding in the controls just before closure time. Riders who already are at the time limit spend hours in line at the check-in, at the cafeteria, at the bathrooms, etc. Do you have any ideas to improve that situation?
Faburel: To reduce the waiting at the controls, we have chosen a new control system. There still will be a brevet card that is stamped, but the magnetic card will be replaced by a chip that is attached close to the rider’s foot. The chip will be detected automatically when the rider enters the controls. We also will open new facilities between Loudéac and Carhaix, at Saint-Nicolas-du-Pélem. This will not be a control, but only a spot to eat and sleep. We are looking for similar facilities on other parts of the route.
JH: The Audax-Club Parisien (ACP) has a glorious past. You created the “allure libre” brevets, the Poly de Chanteloup hillclimb race that proved the superiority of derailleurs over other gear changing systems, the Flèche Vélocio… A strong emphasis on performance runs through all these events. Does this spirit still exist at ACP?
Faburel: The “performance” spirit still is at the heart of the Audax-Club Parisien, but we are open to all forms of cycling. Above all, we believe that the bike is a wonderful vehicle to discover new landscapes and new people. Friendship and friendliness are our primary goals. With that in mind, we can enjoy riding fast from time to time – why not? But it’s important that it remains friendly.
JH: In the Flèches Vélocio, many teams ride the minimum of 360 km and stop on the way to sleep (only for two hours with the new rules). You have done a Flèche with many more kilometers. What was your goal? And how do you see the spirit of this event?
Faburel: The rules of the Flèche Vélocio have been poorly translated into English. We are looking at publishing a new translation to improve the understanding of this event. Many people think the goal is to ride 360 km in 24 hours. However, the goal is to ride 24 hours without stopping, more or less, and to do the maximum distance the team can do. The basic principles of this event are: 1. Creating a team spirit, starting with the preparation, to enjoy a great cycling experience in a group. 2. Complete a beautiful randonneur ride, even with difficult weather. 3. Arrive at a wonderful destination to meet other riders, and have a good time together talking about our rides… or anything else!
When I participate in the Flèche Vélocio, my team usually rides more than 600 km, but we carefully choose our route so that it is as flat as possible. Continue Reading →

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Avoiding Numb Hands


Hand numbness can spoil the most wonderful long distance ride. A cyclist’s hands can get numb from vibration and pressure.
The first step is to eliminate as much vibration as possible near the source (road surface). Supple, wide tires, run at moderate pressures, are key. Flexible fork blades and suspension are less effective at absorbing high-frequency vibrations, but they can absorb bigger bumps. Cushy handlebar tape is ineffective at absorbing vibrations, but it can reduce pressure.
Why are vibrations easiest to absorb at the source? It is relatively easy to stop a few grams of tire contact patch from moving up and down. This insulates the rest of the bike from the vibrations at the road surface. If your tire doesn’t absorb the vibrations, then your entire front wheel moves up and down a few hundred times every second as it rolls over rough pavement. These forces are then too large to be absorbed elsewhere.
Imagine somebody throwing a peanut at you: It is easy to catch with one hand. Now imagine having to catch a 5 lb weight – much harder. That peanut at the road level becomes a 5 lb weight at the handlebars, if the whole front of the bike vibrates.
Pressure can cause nerve damage in your hands, making them numb or tingly. When you look at the nerves in your hand, you see that there are only a few nerve endings in the base of your thumb, making this area ideal for resting on the handlebars.

The “on the ramps” hand position (behind the brake hoods) supports your weight with the base of your thumb, and therefore tends to be very comfortable (see photo at the top). This works best with handlebars that have flat ramps to support your hands well in that position.
Moderately soft handlebar tape can help distribute the pressure of your hands as they rest on the handlebars. Also, your hands should rest on the bars, rather than grip them tightly. Wrap your fingers around the bars loosely for safety on rough roads.
Beyond that, it helps to switch hand positions from time to time, so that you don’t put pressure on the same spot for too long. Furthermore, raising your handlebars or tilting your saddle nose slightly upward will prevent you from sliding forward and putting more pressure on your arms and hands. (However, tilting your saddle upward may cause other problems for some riders…)
Numb hands can lead to lasting damages. With the right technique and equipment choices, numb hands usually can be avoided even on rides as long as Paris-Brest-Paris (765 miles non-stop).

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Preparing for 2011 and PBP


At this time of year, we reflect on the cycling season that just has ended, and make plans for the next season. For me, the highlight of 2011 will be Paris-Brest-Paris. The famous 765-mile ride still is 9 months in the future, but now is the time to begin preparing for the upcoming season, whatever your goals may be.
I don’t ride much during most of November and December. It’s important for my body and mind to recover and rest, so that I can start the new year fresh and excited about cycling. It’s not that I have stopped cycling altogether: I still go on a leisurely 60-mile ride with a friend or two every 7-10 days. It’s nice to get out, and I don’t want to lose my body’s adaptation to cycling. Otherwise, my cycling consists of commuting for deliveries to local bookstores and bike shops, to pick up mail, etc.
So what do I do during the “off-bike” season? My core strength and flexibility are not what they should be. This is a common problem among cyclists that can manifest itself in knee problems (from the kneecap being pulled out of alignment by tight hamstrings and muscle imbalances) and even in shoulder, neck and hand pain (due to the upper body not holding itself up on the bike, and resting too heavily on the arms and hands).
To work on core strength and flexibility, I do a combination of yoga and strength-building exercises. It’s not something I greatly enjoy, but it makes for a much better cycling season. I try to fit in 5-10 minutes every day, doing stretching exercises recommended by a physical therapist together with others learned in a yoga class, plus some push-ups and sit-ups. Running also seems to help my core strength, so I go for a run twice a week, including some stairs (can’t resist that cycling-specific training!).

I poked around online a bit, and Bicycling magazine has an article on core strength with some exercises that could serve as a good starting point. Most of us know what we need to work on… and now is a good time to lay the foundations to a successful season. How do you prepare your 2011 season?

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Farewell to the Mountains


Autumn is a melancholy time. In Seattle, it is hardly noticeable, as the weather gradually gets cooler and wetter. But in the Cascade Mountains, the change of the seasons is swift and spectacular: Cold nights turn deciduous foliage into bright hues of yellow for a brief time, before snow falls and closes most of the scenic passes until June or July.
What better way for a last farewell ride than to string together many of my favorite roads? My pre-PBP-year* training usually includes a ride at least 3/4 as long as the event itself, so I quickly mapped a 930-km course. The route out of Seattle isn’t exactly the one I followed, as some roads are closed for cars, and the mapping program doesn’t allow using them (click here for course).
* Paris-Brest-Paris is a 1200-km (765-mile) randonneur event held every 4 years in France.
Last week, the forecast predicted snow levels dropping to 3000 feet, and I realized that my last chance for this ride had come. Without much time to plan, my route sheet for the unfamiliar parts of the ride was a bit rudimentary, but navigation in the mountains isn’t complicated since there are few roads.

Next came planning my schedule. I prefer to descend mountain passes in daylight. Not only can it be very cold descending for half an hour or more in late October, but the fall colors cannot be enjoyed at night. I jotted down a quick schedule and worked out that if I left around 4 in the morning, I could cover all but one pass in daylight, and might even get back in time to tuck my children into bed the following evening. The schedule was even rougher than the route sheet, as I did not adjust the average speeds for the terrain. My actual times are in the last column, which will help me plan future rides along these roads. (Click on the images for larger versions.)

So I left at 4:30 in the morning. After enduring morning commuter traffic (fortunately headed the other way), I reached Orting just after sunrise. Orting is the last of the suburbs, where the landscape transitions to meadows and forests. I turned off the highway. Fog was rising from meadows heavy with dew, and blue skies above were announcing a gorgeous autumn day.

“My favorite roads” was the theme of this ride, and few are more favorite than Orville Road along Ohop Lake. Its gentle undulations lent a nice rhythm to my effort. I enjoyed looking at the beautiful patterns of light and shade on the pavement. Between the trees, I caught glimpses of the meadows, lakes and even Mount Rainier in the distance.
Skate Creek Road is another favorite, and well worth the two-hour detour it took to get there. During my first summer in Washington, I rode and hiked almost every inch of this valley as I mapped its glacial geology. Under the bucolic cover of trees are the scars of an eventful past, with landslides, floods, debris flows and other events eroding and depositing material, as is visible in the photo in the river bank. Today, I just enjoyed the views of Mount Rainier at its barest, before new snow covers its flanks.

The sign at Bear Prairie reminded me why it’s always an effort to get there. Almost imperceptibly, the Nisqually River valley climbs 1200 feet in just under 20 miles.

Skate Creek Road then drops 700 feet in a few miles. It’s not so steep that you can coast, but the gradient helped me speed along. I took the challenging turns (below) at good speed, and that was great fun.

In Packwood, I turned westward again, taking in some recently discovered side roads as pleasant alternatives to the main highway. In Randle, I turned south toward Mount Saint Helens.

I passed the sign that announces 30 miles of beautiful, almost uninterrupted, mountain climbing. It starts with shady, curvy Forest Road 25 (below).

Forest Road 26 (below) is even better than FR25, since it sees almost no traffic.  It is a steep, single-lane ribbon of asphalt that winds up the slopes of the mighty volcano, Mount St. Helens. Every time I start this climb, I feel that the outcome of the battle between cyclist and mountain is slightly uncertain. Will I make it?

This time, I climbed smoothly and stopped only once, briefly, to stretch my legs on the steepest stretch. I felt a sense of accomplishment when I reached Norway Pass and joined the “main” road to Windy Ridge. The blasted trees from the 1980 eruption make this area a bit desolate. The lack of trees allows you to look over the Cascades and see the volcanic peaks of Mt. Adams, Mt. Rainier and Mt. Hood in the distance (see opening photo). It’s a rare feeling of being on top of the world. The descents on the return from Windy Ridge are spectacular, with the road forming a continuous string of curves that test the bike’s handling to the limit.

I resisted the temptation to take one scenic photo after another. October days are short, and my schedule called for descending Forest Road 25 before dark.
After a brief rest stop in Packwood, where the food is best forgotten, I headed up Cayuse Pass, then Chinook Pass. Mount Rainier was gleaming in the moonlight, and for almost two hours of climbing, I did not see a single car. Even though it was warm for an October night, I wore every bit of clothing I brought for the descent from Chinook Pass: wool shorts, Windstopper leg warmers, wool tights, wool socks, booties, two long-sleeve wool jerseys, rain jacket, fleece gloves, shell overmitts, skull cap and helmet. Tonight, the long descent offered views of the valley below and of the rocky slopes in the silvery light.

My small digital camera could capture only the moon, which is why you don’t also see Mount Rainier in the picture above. I understood why Ansel Adams kept coming back to the western mountain ranges in the moonlight… It’s magical, especially on a warm night like this one.
When I finally did feel sleepy, I stopped in Cliffdell, removed my helmet and lay down on the porch of a shop for a short nap. I fell asleep immediately. I woke up because I was getting cold. I checked my watch: Only 9 minutes had passed, but I was ready to go.
I try to find backroad alternatives to the main highways, but I hadn’t investigated this area on a map yet. As “luck” would have it, a massive landslide has blocked the main highway, and traffic was re-routed over an older road that meanders along the river. Eventually, the highway will be rebuilt, but I will continue to use that backroad.
My hasty preparation let me down in Yakima.  My cue sheet showed a “T-junction.” I anticipated that junction for a long time… until I found myself on the main highway to Yakima again. After more than an hour riding on various highways, I found a gas station and borrowed a map. I realized that my “T junction” was actually a small sideroad to the left in the middle of a curve to the right. I had followed the road to the right, and never noticed the small sideroad I should have taken.
It was with great relief that I finally found myself on Canyon Road toward Ellensburg. Canyon Road is lovely, but the moon had set, and it was too dark to see much. I enjoyed the road rising and falling along the sides of the canyon, although I was distracted with thoughts of breakfast. One of my favorite restaurants, the Valley Cafe, is in Ellensburg. I arrived at 7 in the morning; alas, the cafe opened at 11. Instead of breakfast, I got to fix a flat tire at a grocery store! A long thorn had punctured my tube.
At least it was a gorgeous morning. My misfortune in Yakima had put me behind schedule. I decided to forgo the short detour over Old Highway 10 that loops above the Yakima River. Instead, I headed straight toward old Blewett Pass. The old road up this pass blends into the landscape: You can barely see it in the middle of the photo below.

The mountain continuously tries to reclaim this road. I rounded a sharp bend and came upon a few rocks that had fallen onto the road. I was reminded once more why I prefer bikes that allow adjusting their line in mid-corner. Good brakes are useful, too.

Favorite roads aren’t always super-spectacular. Sometimes, they just provide a pleasant alternative to a major highway. Between Peshastin and Leavenworth, there is a lovely road winding its way on the glacial terraces above the Wenatchee River (below). Who wouldn’t rather ride through the orchards up here than on the busy highway in the valley?

I haven’t found any alternatives to most of the main highway up to Stevens Pass, but traffic was light, the shoulder was clean, and the trees had beautiful fall colors.

I reached Stevens Pass as the light began to fade on the second day of my ride.

On the other side of the pass, the old highway remains intact for many miles, often just a hundred feet from the busy highway. Instead of trucks thundering down the grade, you hear the burbling of a brook, which eventually will become the mighty Skykomish River. That evening, lots of chipmunks scampered off the road as I approached.

I zoomed through Skykomish, then took the side road to Index. I climbed over Reiter Road as the sun was setting in the Puget Lowland far to the west. Reiter Road is perhaps the crown jewel of any ride. I was afraid that after more than 800 km on the road, I would regret taking this rolling road instead of the downhill highway, but the opposite happened. I felt inspired by the road, and it mobilized energies I did not know I had. This invigoration carried me all the way to the outskirts of Seattle. I was home before midnight (the kids already in bed, though), and I was back at my desk the next morning.
Two days later, the snow started, and today, the passes were covered in snow.
This also completed my PBP training for the year. Now I will rest for two months until I start training again for the new season with a focus on PBP. In the coming months, I will talk about preparing and training for this wonderful 1200 km event.

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