I am sitting in my living room at the laptop, my smart phone on the small table to my right. Every few minutes, my smart phone beeps, signifying another email. Nearly all of them are from members of my local riding group, the Cyclepaths, to congratulate my good friends and riding companions Shane B. and Roy Y., who have just completed Paris-Brest-Paris. Well done, guys.
For those who haven’t attempted PBP, or any 1200k event, for that matter, the pats on the back, the expressions of awe at the accomplishment of riding 750 miles in less than four days, seem well-deserved. And they certainly are. Roy and Shane may not think so, given the prodigious efforts that they made to finish, but they are probably fortunate in some respects, in that they are fast riders who, barring physical or mechanical issues, can ride quickly enough to put time in the bank for sleep.
Where PBP becomes an even more punishing test of endurance is for the slower riders who cannot get much sleep. Roy and Shane only got 8-9 hours of sleep on this ride. But that is probably average or even more than average for PBP participants. Sleep deprivation is rampant in the PBP field and is a prime cause of abandonment. In the 64 hours or so I rode in PBP 2007 before dropping out between Fougeres and Villains de Juhal, I got exactly 2 hours, which I’m sure played a big role in the Shermer’s Neck that caused me to drop out.
Examine the rider tracking on the PBP website. You will see PBP riders who are right at the controle closing times at each controle, caught in a vicious circle where they need sleep in order to ride faster to get time for more sleep, Yet some people seem to survive on almost no sleep (not me, nor most riders, I suspect). Some get little bits here and there and somehow endure. Many riders somehow hang on for days on the verge of abandonment, then miraculously make it to the finish in time.
This is not to diminish the efforts of those who fail. I was one of them. It’s more to say that finishing an event like this, which is so hard, and so long, and so painful (especially to the places on your body that contact the bike, such as hands, feet and butt) is proof of a remarkably tough inner spirit as much as it is of strong legs. The gifted and swift riders who dominate the slower brevets are often matched or surpassed by the slow pokes on the really long ones. Mind eventually trumps body, it seems.
It really is true, that old piece of randonneuring advice. Just keep the cranks turning. Otherwise, you will never know how far you could have gone.