Friday, June 22, 2007

How to Avoid the Bottlenecks at Paris Brest Paris

Yesterday’s mail brought another fine edition of Bicycle Quarterly (Vol. 5, No. 4), the newsletter published by Seattle randonneur Jan Heine.

BQ began life in 2002 as Vintage Bicycle Quarterly, with an emphasis on French cylotouring. Heine has since dropped vintage from the name, although the focus remains squarely on classic bikes.

Fans of historic British marques will find much to love in the latest issue, including features on a 1951 Scottish Flying Scot Continental, a 1953 Claud Butler Jubilee and a 1957 Maclean Eclipse.

There’s also a photo essay, with pictures by cycling historian Hilary Stone, on some of the unorthodox frames concocted by British builders from the 1920s through the 1950s. One of my personal favorites is the Flying Gate, a design dating to the 1930s that is still in production today. I saw one British rider on a Gate in PBP 03.

Speaking of Paris Brest Paris, Bicycle Quarterly has two articles of particular interest to riders heading to France in August.

* Group riding and paceline. Jan has pointers on paceline etiquette, including when and how to draft -- and when to let the group go. He also describes the rotating paceline, and offers techniques for riding in crosswinds. (One personal observation about paceline riding in PBP: if you fall in with a group that is clearly a club, be sure to ask whether it’s okay to sit in, and be sure to take your turn at the front of the line.)

* Avoiding crowds during PBP. As Jan notes in another article, you’ll have 4,000 other cyclists on the road with you during PBP. Hundreds of riders will arrive at controls at or near the same time, making the food lines long and slow, and making sleeping accomodations scarce.

Jan, who gave me permission to quote from his article, says the lines form early. Riders from the three start groups -- 80 hour, 84 hour and 90 hour -- begin to merge at the first control in Villaines-la-Juhel, “with the faster riders of each group catching up to the slower riders of the previous one.”
If you arrive around 11 a.m., you will find yourself with more than 1,500 riders at the control. This peak then travels across France, spreading out remarkably little, because many riders travel at roughly the same speed.

Jan’s advice for staying ahead of the curve:
Keep your time at the early controls to a minimum to gain valuable time. Carry enough food so you only need water for the first 311 km. Incorporate hill intervals into your training regimen, so you can draw ahead of crowds once you reach the hills of Brittany.

Jan's article includes a chart that shows when peak crowds are likely to arrive at each control. The biggest traffic jam: Loudeac, where hundreds of riders arrive and linger on Tuesday evening.
Many stay to eat and sleep. This means faster riders remain at the control as slower ones arrive. The resulting bottleneck soon has close to 2,000 riders crowding the facilities… Many ride reports speak of 3 or more hours at the control before going to sleep.

To avoid that headache, Jan advises sleeping outdoors, weather permitting, in one of the villages past there, or riding the 77 km to Carhaix, “where the crowds will be smaller and the services more efficient."

Loudeac can pose similar problems on the return trip from Brest, according to Jan. After that, “riders will have spread out enough that controls no longer will be crowded.”

Jan also offers recommendations for finding food outside of controls. The bottom line: If you’re pressed for time, choose bakeries over restaurants.

Another nutrition tip: A French liquid meal replacement, Renutril 500, is available at pharmacies, easily spotted by their green cross sign.
With 500 calories in a can, you can ward off an impending bonk without standing in a long line.

Very useful information all around. Of course, for Jan, getting caught up in the logjam of “average-speed riders” is largely academic. At PBP 03 he captained a 1948 Rene Herse mixed tandem with Jaye Haworth, a Canadian rider and a member of the Toronto Randonneurs. The two finished in the remarkable time of 52:45.

That qualified him for membership in an elite group: La Société Charly Miller.

According to an article by author extraordinaire Bill Bryant:
Charly Miller of Chicago was the first American to ride Paris-Brest-Paris. In the second edition of PBP, in 1901, he finished an excellent fifth place in 56 hours, 40 minutes. This was an outstanding achievement for an unsupported rider, especially when one considers the poor roads and bicycles of that bygone era. Though many of his opponents at PBP had elaborate teams of pacers and helpers along the route, Miller persevered alone for three days and two nights, non-stop. While other racers with better support threw in the towel, Charly Miller had to use all his resolve to overcome a disheartening amount of punctures and a broken bicycle in order to finish. Yet, even on a hastily borrowed replacement bike obtained 350 kilometers from the end, the 26-year-old still set the fastest speed over the timed final kilometer to the finish line in Paris!

To honor Miller’s achievement, American riders who equal or best his 56:40 finish time are enrolled in La Société Charly Miller.

Subscriptions to Bicycle Quarterly are available here.

My buddy Adrian e-mailed me with another sure-fire strategy for beating the crowds: "Dropping back behind the curve," he said.

Absolutely. Adrian is one of those cyclists who believes in getting his money's worth by riding for the entire alloted time of each brevet....Look for him around Hour 90...

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