At one time, I imagined cycling the Paris-Brest-Paris. For anyone unfamiliar with this event, it is a 1,200km ride in France completed within a time limit of 90 hours. You may be forgiven for wondering why anyone would voluntarily take on such a feat. However, it seems ultra events like this have gained huge popularity over the years. Despite this, these days my goals are somewhat less ambitious and, although my fitness is far from the conditioning required for the Paris-Brest-Paris, my mind can’t resist contemplating this unrealized goal every time I get on a bike.
At the time of my original musings to enter the Paris-Brest-Paris, I competed in triathlons and Gran Fondos (‘big ride’ in Italian) and never gave the mechanics of riding much thought. Then over a short period of time I was involved in a series of crashes leaving me with a concussion, broken bones and multiple surgeries. At that point I thought I would never get back on the bike. Nevertheless, my body healed from the injuries but, unfortunately, my psyche didn’t. At the end of the day, when it came to cycling, I had lost my nerve and abandoned all thoughts of riding again!
Getting Back in the saddle
Getting back in the saddle has been a step-by-step process with the angst starting long before the ride. The actual act of clicking into the cleats and setting out for the first few rides has been tentative at best. However, by keeping to easy terrain with minimal traffic, a degree of confidence gradually returned.
The Gradual Build
In training, reaching a distance of 50km went without incident, however, it was moving up to 75km that some cracks began to show. At the end of July, the 75km goal was completed on a particularly gruelling route and included a series of hills up to a 14% gradient. The hills were definitely an issue.
Although I can still speed up a hill with the same prowess that earned me the nickname “Grasshopper” in my triathlon days, going down the hills is quite a different matter. I am likely one of the only cyclists whose ascent is faster than my descent. On the latter I clutch the breaks, white knuckled with the thoughts, “OMG, we are all going to die!”
Mind over Matter
To some degree, this fear is managed with mind over matter. In the context of performance, of all the different elements involved in endurance challenges such as sufficient training and proper nutrition, mind over matter is perhaps the most important. This is the ability of the mind to ignore the “suffering” that comes with pushing the limits and quietly and rationally talk oneself through the discomfort to reach the goal. This principle can be applied to almost any challenging endeavour, athletic or otherwise. In this instance it is also an advantage to be stubborn and this particular trait has borne me through many a gruelling event.
The 100 km
The day of the ride was forecast to be warm and sunny. On the morning of the ride, watching the dark, rolling clouds, the forecast still asserted that the current weather was warm and sunny. It seems, someone was mistaken! Not to be put out by a gloomy sky, the ride began but what I had not anticipated was the wind. Gusty blasts of wind are not a cyclist’s friend. There is nothing like going up a hill in a headwind to add a challenge to a challenge!
Despite this setback, the first 30km went without incident. Around 40km I started feeling a bit restless and the ride still seemed like an awful long way. However, at 60km it was over half way so that perked up my spirits a bit. Then, at 85km it was starting to hurt. By 92km, as I was pedalling stoically up the final hill, I was overtaken by a group of casual riders. This was somewhat discouraging and I felt compelled to call after them pointing to the accumulated distance on my Garmin. It seems you can take the oomph out of a rider but never the competitiveness! At the crest of the hill, the rest of the journey was a gentle downhill slope and before I knew it, the mission was accomplished!
Fueling and Hydration
Since I knew I would not always feel like eating during the ride and, as it is vital to maintain adequate fueling and hydration during endurance activities, I had a schedule to take in food and water every 15km regardless. As mentioned in Plant-Based Food to Fuel Endurance Challenges, my ride was fuelled by homemade, plant-based treats of Mango and Date Energy Bites, Chocolate Chargers Energy Bars, a little bit of sweet potato, a few Medjool dates and plenty of water.
Dr. Stacy Sims, an environmental exercise physiologist and nutrition scientist, talks about the importance of fueling and hydration and explains that during endurance activities, “Your body is slowly dehydrating. Your gut is becoming a little bit more sensitive, and this will affect your ability to digest food”. For this reason, I had taken a variety of tastes and flavours with me en route to ensure there was always something palatable to take on board at regular intervals.
It is hard to imagine that at one point I had contemplated selling my racing bike as I truly believed I would never ride again. It has been a gradual “pedal by pedal” process and, although I still experience angst in some situations, I have now gained enough confidence to ride again in a reasonably proficient manner.
Nevertheless, I suspect I am unlikely to race anytime soon since my current level of “cautious riding” does not make the most of speed from downhills nor maximizes efficiency when taking the tight corners. In addition, it somewhat defeats the whole purpose of racing if you are afraid of speed!
Still, I am enjoying the riding and the 4 hours and 27 minutest that it took to complete the 100km gave me lots of time to think about the Paris-Brest-Paris and the fact that I would only need to repeat this ride eleven more times to meet the goal. I have to admit that when I am relaxing on the couch this feels totally doable!