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Training and Qualifying for PBP and BMB
Qualifying for PBP, BMB and other 1200 km ACP sanctioned randonnees involves successfully completing 4 rides of 200, 300, 400, and 600km in length within specific time limits (14, 20, 28 and 40 hours respectively) The time limits average out to about 13km per hour, including all stops and sleep breaks. The rides vary in difficulty with some regional administrators more sadistic than others. Of course, the tougher the training rides, the better prepared a rider will be for the big event. Some regions offer hills, cold and rain; others offer heat and headwinds.
In the US, qualifiers are run by regional brevet administrators. Randonneurring has grown in popularity in the USA in recent years and there are far more regions and events than ever before. Check out the Randonneurs USA web site for details on location and dates for events.
Training recommendations follow.
If you have never ridden a century, set that as a goal. If you have never ridden a double set that as a goal. Then look for a 24 hour ride. 24 hour rides are usually run on loop courses, often with shorter night loops. As such, you are not as committed as doing a long brevet as your first overnight ride. If you have lighting or equipment or sleep problems, you are likely close to a control and you can stop. You can do as much or as little riding as you want.
You will need lights for this, so start checking out lighting systems.
Find a place to ride the qualifiers. Get your friends involved. You should also find new training partners at the qualifiers. Training partners can become an important motivation tool. You may not want to get up for a ride, but if you have committed to ride with someone else, that may help get you on the road.
Each qualifier serves as a good training ride for the next one. If you have a good base and regularly do centuries, then the first ride will be easy. It's just a century followed by a 30 mile ride. In fact it works very well to think of these long rides by breaking them up into segments of distances that you know you can do. The 300K is just a 200K (that you did a couple of weeks before) followed by a 100K that you do all the time.
Many people feel that a a single series with 600K as the longest ride does not accurately prepare a rider for PBP. Some have lobbied for a 1000K qualifier, and for the 1991 PBP, Americans were required to complete qualifiers in both 1990 and 1991. I would certainly recommend that anyone thinking of doing PBP or BMB should do more than the 4 qualifying rides! But I also don't believe that these rides alone truly prepare a rider for PBP, since there are so many other obstacles besides the physical ones.
For Americans at PBP, there is a culture and language difference. Language is obvious. But riders may not expect some of the other differences. You aren't in Kansas anymore, Toto. There aren't any 7-11's, so a rider may have to carry more supplies to last through the night. Bars are often open along the PBP route, and riders can get food and water there. In fact, they are open all night during the event for this reason. American riders may not think bars are a good place to stop, but at PBP they really are. When you order something in a bar or restaurant, always say S'il vous plait (please). I found a lot of the people to be abrupt and if you don't speak up, you may lose your place in line; so be assertive, but always say S'il vous plait! Try to learn the language or at least enough to get food. Je voudrais cette, s'il vous plait, while pointing to what you want works quite well. A lot of French people speak English (some better than me), but a lot don't and you may be in a crucial situation with someone who doesn't. Keep your phrase book with you always!
The roads are marked differently. The signposts tend to be parallel to the direction of traffic and harder to spot at night. In some places PBP arrows may be set up this way as well. The road signs tend to point to towns, rather than numbers with north, south, east and west designations. The drivers pass very close!
Multiday riding: This is where the 600K can be inadequate. Many people do this ride straight through, so they don't experience what it's like to get up the next day and have to get back on the bike. I don't think you necessarily need to do PBP distances, but 3-4 days of 100+ miles is a good indication of what it is like to get up again and again after a hard ride. In 1988, in preparation for BMB, I did a 4 day crossing of NC, where we rode about 150 miles a day. We have many 3 day (typically over a holiday weekend) tours in New England with distances of over 100 miles per day. Newcomers may really appreciate the experience of getting back on the bike day after day. Look for some of those multiday rides without time limits. You can relax, while still getting that multi-day experience.
Bad weather riding: Just do it. Go ride when it's raining, so you will know what to expect, and can refine your choice of rain gear. Since 1987, PBP has had a long run of pretty good weather. Don't expect it to continue. BMB has rarely been held when it didn't rain. Doing long rides in the rain will also make you appreciate the sunny days more. If you've done a miserable 400K with 7 inches of rain, then a day of rain on BMB will seem easy! (I heard of a rider who hauled a turbo-trainer out in the driveway when it rained to experience the misery of riding in the rain with less risk.)
Night riding: Do lots of this too. Get used to reading a cue sheet at night and finding turns. Get to know you lights. I can't emphasize enough how important it is to work out your lighting for the bike, backup, for reading cue sheets and doing repairs. It's not enough just to follow some recommendations and have the lights. Use them and get used to them.
Group riding: There are often 2000 riders at various of the PBP start times. Be prepared for closeness. Also be prepared at times to ride alone. It doesn't happen often with that many people on the road, but it can.
Train with all your gear. Strap your lights on and leave them there. Don't discard lights and batteries during the day. This also will help insure that your lights are secure. Carry that rain jacket no matter how nice the weather is. Train with the weight you will be riding with.
Find rough roads. BMB roads can be like washboards. By comparison French roads are much smoother, but that doesn't actually say a lot. Test your lighting setup on rough roads. You do not want to have to reattach your lights as thousands of riders pass by at the start.
Learn to fix anything and improvise. If you don't know how to change a tire, learn now and practice in your living room. Then one rainy day go out and practice in your driveway. Do this at night with a flashlight and in the winter when your fingers are turning blue. Simulate real conditions! Also learn to do other minor repairs on your bike, like adjusting brakes and derailleurs, truing wheels, replacing spokes, retightening headsets, etc. Learn what tools you may need and carry them.
Learn to improvise when you don't have the right tool or clothing. I've seen grown men don panty hose purchased at a 7-11 because they did not have tights with them. The war stories of overcoming some difficulty can be the best part of the ride sometimes! Don't be discouraged when something goes wrong. It's a long ride and you have plenty of time to recover from a mishap or mechanical problem.
Use standard, easy to find parts.
Find hills and headwinds. Ask anyone who rode PBP in 1991 about 375 miles of brutal headwinds. The climbing figures in PBP and BMB are remarkably similar. PBP spreads them out, so it's lots of shorter ups and downs. BMB has several long steep climbs. Be prepared. I use and recommend a triple chainset. It really comes in handy in the later stages of the ride. What on the first day seemed flat may seem mountainous by the last day.
PBP does not have any really awful grades, but there is one 40Km climb, headwinds and a thousand or so little hills and some of the checkpoints were at the top of very steep climbs. After 3 days, being able to spin up hills that on the first day you considered nothing, may make all the difference in the world.
Figure out your diet. If you are going to use liquid diet, energy bars or gel, start soon. It takes a while to get used to and you may not tolerate it well. Personally I recommend real food, and this may also take time to get used to. Eating on the bike, or sitting down, eating quickly and getting back on the bike can be hard on the digestive system. Whatever you are going to do, do it on your qualifiers and training rides.
Be prepared to spend a lot of money. This stuff is truly addictive and you will want to try all the new things and travel around to other qualifiers and events.
Be prepared to have fun. I've made some truly lifelong friends doing these rides. And despite the little aches and pains on the rides, that memory soon fades and all the fun comes back.
And tell your friends what you are planning. It will motivate you to finish!