The recent election for Randonneurs USA board members has featured a lively discussion on brevet safety. Some people advocate keeping statistics about how safe or dangerous our sport is, or having RUSA keep them. While there may be some dispute over the relative risk of brevet riding compared with other pursuits, such as driving a car, walking down a street or flying in a commercial airliner, anyone who has ridden one of the longer brevets has probably seen or experienced first-hand some elements of sleep deprivation. There can be no doubt that sleep deprivation has a negative effect on safety for those operating vehicles, motored or not, on the highway.
Perhaps because of the notoriously long time it takes to get into and out of controles, Paris-Brest-Paris seems to have more than its share of sleep deprived riders. From my own experience in PBP 2007, I recall one rider who was caught about 900k into the ride riding in the wrong direction, toward Brest instead of Paris. Many of my fellow riders by the last 300k looked like zombies. Many of the accounts this year give the same description.
Michael Breus, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who writes a blog called “Sleep Well” on webmd.com, observed in a July 28, 2011 posting, a few weeks before PBP, that extreme sports can lead to extreme sleep deprivation. He used the Race Across America as a prime example, citing a report that this year’s winner, Christopf Strasser, averaged one hour of sleep for the eight days it took him to cross the country. Strasser was quoted as saying that, by the end of the race, he did not know why he was riding.
We randonneurs debate a lot of safety issues, such as whether to use rearview mirrors or fenders, but we cannot seriously question the added risk that riding without sleep for 24 hours or more causes. I have experienced first-hand the hallucinations and irrational thought processes that come with prolonged lack of sleep. Motor coordinator suffers too. Dr. Breus suggests there is even evidence of increased risk of heart attack.
Read this description of sleep deprivation, from webmd.com:
“Many studies make it clear that sleep deprivation is dangerous. Sleep-deprived people who are tested by using a driving simulator or by performing a hand-eye coordination task perform as badly as or worse than those who are intoxicated.”
“Driver fatigue is responsible for an estimated 56,000 motor vehicle accidents and 1,500 deaths each year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Since drowsiness is the brain’s last step before falling asleep, driving while drowsy can — and often does — lead to disaster. Caffeine and other stimulants cannot overcome the effects of severe sleep deprivation.”
“The National Sleep Foundation says that if you:
“have trouble keeping your eyes focused
can’t stop yawning
can’t remember driving the last few miles”
“you are probably too drowsy to drive safely.”
Think about that advice the next time you start to feel drowsy on a bike (or behind the wheel of a car driving home from a brevet). Having trouble keeping your eyes focused? Can’t stop yawning? Don’t remember the last few miles? Then get off the bike. Pull the car over. Take a nap.
One of my riding buddies is a cardiologist. He has told me many times that he doesn’t think that riding 1200k on a few hours sleep is doing anyone very much good. In fact, he thinks that the human body is not capable of handling that kind of stress for that long. He didn’t cite me studies or other data, but he is a respected practictioner who reads the literature.
Most people, according to the prevailing wisdom among doctors, need between 6 and 8 hours of sleep each night. Most riders could not finish most 600k rides in the required 40 hours if they had to take a six-hour sleep break in the middle. Only the lucky few fast riders have that luxury.
The only way to ensure adequate time for sleep for longer brevets (those that last 600k and longer) would be to include a required sleep stop (or sleep stops) each night, with a corresponding extension of the finishing times to accommodate this. RAAM, in fact, has experimented with a two-tiered system where riders could opt for riding with required sleep breaks or not. It didn’t seem to catch on.
I suspect that instituting required overnight sleep periods would encounter resistance in our sport, too. But the more I learn about the subject of sleep deprivation, and the more I see what it does to randonneurs on long rides, the more I think it is an important, maybe essential, step. There is a line we cross, where the risk becomes too great to continue. In my opinion, sleep deprived riders cross that line.