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Original and the Brest

| Blog, Cycling Plus, Features | 08/08/2011 14:05pm

On August 21 Paul Howard will be taking part in one of the oldest, and toughest, cycling events out there: Paris-Brest-Paris. Before he attempts to ride 1200km in less than 90 hours he looks back at the history of this brilliantly crazy event.

There are probably many sensible responses to the question ‘how do you prepare for such an outlandish event as Paris-Brest-Paris?’, even if trying to ride 1200km in less than 90 hours could hardly be described as sensible. You could, for example, focus on covering significant distances at a reasonable speed, thus allowing the luxury of time to rest during the event itself; if you can ride at 25kph for the entire 1200km you end up with more than 40 hours for eating and sleeping. Or you could learn how to deal with sleep deprivation in an attempt to reduce the physical hardships associated with sustaining a fast pace for more than two days and nearly 800 miles; maintain a sedate 15kph and you still have 10 hours to spare for catnaps, calls of nature and punctures or other mishaps.

(Pic: Gregg Bleakney)

Finishing a 600km qualifying event already worn out and dangerously close to the time limit probably isn’t the answer. Add in constant and increasingly acute knee pain for the last 150km and it becomes downright silly.

If I hadn’t completed the qualifier within the required 40 hours, though, my intended participation in Paris-Brest-Paris would have been abandoned for another four years. Due to the rigours of cycling such a distance, and to the event’s ever-growing popularity – there were more than 5000 riders in 2007, and there are likely to be more than 6000 this time, as many as ride the Etape du Tour – only those who have the full set of qualifying rides (see ‘Qualified success’, //wherever//) can enter the ride itself.

Also, if you can’t train yourself to cope with some degree of adversity – physical, mental, mechanical – your ability to complete Paris-Brest-Paris is going to be compromised. The story of the race is riddled with examples of riders overcoming – and sometimes not overcoming – a staggering variety of obstacles: night riding without bicycle lights (or even street lights in the early years); falling asleep on the bike, shortly before the inevitability of a painful awakening as you fall off; the pitiful state of the roads in the late 19th and early 20th century, exacerbated by the ready deployment of nails and tacks to puncture unsuspecting rivals… A sore knee and low spirits hardly compare.

So, in spite of having demonstrated scarcely sufficient speed and a clear inability to tolerate a lack of sleep, I continued. To my considerable surprise, thanks to the encouragement of other riders and as many painkillers as I was allowed to reduce my knee pain from severe to just severely uncomfortable, I made it to the finish, albeit with less than two hours to spare. In many ways, having cycled so far and endured so much was something to celebrate. Yet the prize that awaited was something of a poisoned chalice: I had now qualified for the right to ride twice as far.

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This entry was posted on Monday, August 8th, 2011 at 2:05 pm and is filed under Blog, Cycling Plus, Features. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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