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.