PBP Planning: What Start Time Is Right for Me?

Paris-Brest-Paris has a 90-hour time limit. Complete the ride in that time (while making the intermediary controls within the time limits, too), and you’ll complete the event officially.

PBP actually has three different start times, each of which has riders depart in mass-start “waves” spaced about 15 minutes apart.  Some of the groups are further divided based on whether one is riding the event on a “solo” or a “special” bicycle. “Special” bicycles are anything other than two-wheeled, diamond-frame bikes. Tandems (and triplets, quads, and quints), recumbents, trikes, catrikes, handcycles, and HPVs are all “special” bicycles.

This article will explain how the start times work and help you think about which group might be best for you. It’s not too early to start thinking about this issue, which is one of the most critical to your PBP planning. Your start time drives the decisionmaking and planning for the rest of your ride. In past editions, once you selected a start time, you were not permitted to change it.

First, for 2015 – as in all recent editions of PBP — there will three starting times:

  • The 80-hour group (called the Vedettes, which means the “stars”). The 80-hour group will depart in waves of 350 people beginning at 1600 on August 16 (Sunday). There is no division of solo and special bikes in the 80-hour group.
  • The 90-hour group (Touristes). The 90-hour group departs in waves of 350 people beginning at 1800 on August 16 (Sunday). Special bikes in the 90-hour group leave an hour beforehand, at 1700. Expect that the last riders in the 90-hour group will not depart until approximately 2300.
  • The 84-hour group (Randonneurs). The 84-hour starters depart at 0500 on August 17 (Monday), with the special bikes departing at 0445. There is no mention of sending these riders in waves in 2015. (The 84-hour group was sent in 2 waves spaced 15-20 minutes apart in 2011; it rode as one wave of about 700 bikes in 2007.)

For the 80- and 90-hour groups, it is unknown at present how much spacing there will be between waves. In 2007 and 2011, there was about a 15-minute gap between waves of 500 bikes. The gap may be shorter in 2015, since the waves are smaller.

In all cases, your start time (and hence, your finish time) is based on when your “wave” starts. For example, a 90-hour rider who departed in a wave that left at 2300 would have each control opening/closing time adjusted by +5 hours.

Note that there is no mention for 2015 of the “free start” times that were used in 2011. Riders in 2011 were able to depart in small groups between the waves of riders in the 90- and 84-hour groups, which avoided their involvement in the large mass-starts and enabled groups of friends to start the ride more easily together. It is unknown if this will be an option. For now, my recommendation is to plan as if it will not be.

The 80-hour group includes anyone who is trying to win PBP. The controls have no opening times for this group. The lead peloton is also effectively given a rolling enclosure so that it may pass through the towns quickly and safely.

For some, PBP is competitive. The first finisher is officially recognized by the ACP and claiming that honor in an event that is only held every four years is a big deal. Although most of us think of randonneuring as “noncompetitive long-distance cycling within prescribed time limits,” this is not entirely true at PBP. PBP began as a professional bike race and it included a professional field through the 1951 edition.

My advice to all PBP participants is to understand and respect that the French in general and the ACP in particular – our hosts – view PBP as competitive on some level, even if this viewpoint conflicts with your strongly held views about what randonneuring is or should be. If an entire group of people, referred to as the “stars,” being officially sanctioned to race on a randonneuring event offends you to the core, consider skipping PBP. There are many other 1200s with a different vibe and most of them have more dramatic scenery and present fewer logistical challenges, too.

That said, only a tiny number of those riding in the 80-hour group are trying to win the event. Perhaps two dozen of the 700+ riders in the group would have a legitimate shot at it and all of those people have already been training hard for the endeavor by the time you read this. All of those people will be in the first wave, in the first or second row of starters.

As for the other 6,000 riders expected at PBP ’15, no one else is in a bike race. The rest of us are out there for the same reasons we were drawn to randonneuring in the first place: the camaraderie, adventure, and personal challenge. Rest assured that during your ride, at the controls, and when you finish that you will be welcomed, attended to, cheered on, and congratulated with the same enthusiasm showered on the vedettes, no matter which start time you pick.

The vast majority of 80-hour riders are not racing; they’re just looking for a “fast” ride, which is a relative term. Like many randonneurs, they’re just out there to turn in what they think is their “best” ride, and what’s “best” for them includes a finish time that’s (at least) under 80 hours. Among the advantages for those riders in the 80-hour group is that they have a clear road ahead of them (although they will likely face increased crowds at the controls from Tinténiac to Carhaix because they will be in-bound when many 90- and 84-hour riders are still out-bound). These riders are also likely to find more like-minded people to share the pace within this group, enabling large and fast pacelines and pelotons to form that will make for a much faster ride for all.

Historically, the finish rate for the 80-hour riders is not materially different than for the 90-hour riders. While one might expect those in the 80-group to be better conditioned or experienced – they are willing to give up 10 hours’ allotted time right at the start – I think the reduced finish rate is owing to some in the group riding beyond their abilities or conditioning (i.e., chasing rabbits), which results in exhaustion, demoralization, and an early exit from the event. The tried-and-true strategy of not quitting until you first rest, hydrate, and eat something is harder to implement when you left 10 hours on the table at the start. Some of these riders would be able to recover from bad decisions on pacing/hydration/nutrition were they in the 84- or 90-hour group, but they quit or end up hors délai because the elected for the 80-hour start.

The 90-hour start gives riders the full complement of time to complete the event.  The majority of all riders will elect for this start time.

For many, this is a no-brainer: they need all the time they can get to complete the ride. If you regularly finish brevets at or near the time limit, and if making control closing times has been or is likely to be an issue, then you will start with the 90-hour group. Electing the 90-hour start is either obvious or a process of elimination.

To this group I would add those for whom 2015 is their first and likely only PBP experience. If you’re only going to do this once, take the 90-hour start (or the 80-hour start, if you’re conditioned and your goals are such that that group makes sense for you) so that you can be a part of the pageantry and magic that makes up the first night of the event. The 84-hour starters miss out on all of this stuff (until they begin to catch the rest of the ride, Monday evening).

The biggest issues for the 90-hour starters are dealing with (1) the night start, including the many hours that you may spend waiting around to start and (2) the massive size of the controls and the amount of time that you will likely spend at them. This is also an opportune time to point out that PBP is not 1200km long. It’s about 1230km. Although the extra 30km (18.6 miles) does not sound like much, it’s noticeable especially to those who are attuned out of necessity to control closing times and time limits.

The 84-hour group starts Monday morning. In contrast to the hoopla that marks the events Sunday evening and night, the start of the 84-hour event is a staid affair. I have ridden PBP twice, and both times I rode in the 84-hour group. You can find the full account of my 2011 ride here, and an excerpted version is married up with Jeremy Shlachter’s (RUSA# 6276) excellent recount of his ride in the 90-hour group in the May 2012 issue of Bicycle Times (#16).

For many people, their choice – if they see themselves as having one – of which start time to take involves choosing between the 90- and 84-hour groups. Here are some considerations:

  • The 84-hour riders start in the morning. This is probably when you have done all, or most, of your brevets and the 0500 start time should be familiar to you. Most significantly, you get to sleep before undertaking the ride. You natural sleep-wake cycle is not disturbed by the evening/night start times for the other groups. I stayed in Versailles – about 10km away – and with my alarm set for 0340, I had plenty of time to wake, eat, and make it to the 0500 start. Civilized.
  • It’s a smaller and quieter bike ride. Some are not into the craziness or sharing the road with thousands of other cyclists. By the time you catch the 90-hour riders (and you will catch the many if not most of them, if you are to finish in time), they have spread out.
  • There is less control crowding. You get a totally clear road for the first day. The controls are deserted, until you get to Tinténiac, where you will have some 90-hour riders and, depending on your pace, the leading edge of the 80-hour riders on their return from Brest. The addition of Quédillac and St-Nicolas-du-Pélem in 2011 (and again in 2015) relieved pressure on Loudéac, which will make getting food and sleep there a relatively civilized experience. Many 90-hour riders should be clear of, or just leaving, Loudéac by the time you arrive there.
  • It’s an experienced group, but not full of hammerheads. Having ridden with this group twice, I would describe the over-all vibe and approach of many of these riders as “disciplined.” Most are efficient in how they ride and especially in how they use their time off the bike. Harried or frazzled randonneurs are not common in this group. An allotment of 84 hours when riding at a moderate pace, still allows for plenty of time for photos, sleep, sit-down meals in cafés, and conversations with the locals.
  • You do a lot more riding during the daylight than the other groups. The whole point of going to France is to see France. Dark roads look the same pretty much anywhere in the world. Irrespective of the aesthetics, some riders deal poorly with night riding and this should be a consideration for group selection. Next year will be an especially “dark” PBP, as the ride will take place just after a new moon.
  • It makes for a 3-night rather than 4-night bike ride. The 4th night on a 1200K can be miserable and harrowing, and you’ll avoid this. For the 84-hour riders, the ride breaks very nicely into four stages involving three overnights: (1) St Quentin-Loudéac (sleep at 448km); (2) Loudéac-Brest- Loudéac (sleep at 328km); (3) Loudéac – Mortagne-au-Perche (sleep at 309km); and (4) Mortagne-au-Perche – St Quentin (ride 140km the last day, finishing before 1700).
  • The PBP website itself notes that “[h]istorically, there are few DNFs in these starts” of the 84-hour groups. At least for the last two editions, the 84-hour group had a significantly better finish rate than any other group.

On the negative side of the balance are:

  • The 84-hour starters miss the fantastic atmosphere at the start. The roads are completely deserted for the first day. There are no cheering crowds at the start, or in any of the towns until you begin to catch the 90-hour riders somewhere between Fougères and Tinténiac.
  • If you are especially susceptible to pre-ride jitters and anxiety, then the morning start might be a big detractor. You’re in a strange hotel room, in a strange country, with a big ride coming up. If you’re likely to have a sleepless night anyway, you’d probably do better to be on the bike.
  • You have six fewer hours to do the ride.
  • If it’s hot (rare, but possible), you’ll do significant riding in the late-afternoon, heat-of-the-day as opposed to riding at night as the other groups will do.

For those deciding between the 84- and 90-hour groups, be cautious in using your finish time on brevets to predict the appropriate start time. While many recommend this method, I do not. At least, I recommend a more detailed assessment about what your brevet finish times really mean than just looking at the number. Honestly assess how difficult your brevet series was from both a terrain and weather perspective. Could you turn in the same 600K time if the course had 18,000 feet of climbing on it, it rained the whole time, you rode into a 10mph headwind, and the temperature never made it out of the 50s? Although that may sound horrible, it accurately describes the conditions riders faced from Paris to Brest in 2007. Western France is frequently cold, rainy, and windy, even in August. These are not unusual conditions for PBP.

Also honestly assess how hard you worked and how you felt on the 600K. Completing a 600K in 38 hours while getting 4 or 5 hours of sleep, taking sit-down meals, and never feeling especially stressed, tired, or fatigued is not truly a “38-hour ride” for the purposes of gauging the propriety of the 84- versus the 90-hour start. On the other hand, if you’re taking 38 hours to finish and in doing so you are taxed to the limit to complete the ride on a course similar in profile to PBP, then this is the time to think about your fitness, training, nutrition/hydration, navigation, amount of time spent stopped, and any other factors that – if improved – might increase your pacing or decrease the effort to complete a 600K in that time.

Ah, but don’t I get 50 hours to complete the Brest-Paris portion of the ride?” Yes, this is true. However, that mode of thinking rarely translates into a successful PBP. On a 1200K, you cannot – except very rarely, and only then in the case of a very experienced randonneur – multiply your time for the first 600K by 2 and arrive at your 1200K finish time.

Take a hypothetical 38-hour 600K finisher as an example. This person finished comfortably within the 40-hour time limit, but they are completely exhausted. They slept maybe an hour on the ride. They are dehydrated. Their stomach is upset to the point where they have not been taking in sufficient calories for many hours. The fog of physical exhaustion and sleep deprivation makes navigation and decisionmaking difficult, increasing the likelihood of mistakes and “bonus miles” (yes, people manage to get off-route on PBP). They stop more frequently, spending increasingly large amounts of time at controls or by the roadside, but they’re not getting good, meaningful rest in any amount that would promote recovery. Take this person and now tell them to go ride a second 600K. They’re definitely not going to do it in 38 hours again (or less; negatively splitting a 1200K is quite rare) and, even when given an “extra” 10 hours, for many this proves to be an impossible task. For this hypothetical rider, taking the 90-hour start is a given. The more germane question is how they should use the next 16 months to prepare to increase their chances of safely, successfully, and enjoyably completing PBP.

On the flip side, if your experience on previous brevets suggests that you can ride 450K followed by two 300km “days” efficiently enough to get some sleep at the end of each “day,” then you would have about 8 hours to ride 88 miles on the last day, resulting in a finish time of 80 hours (leaving a healthy 4-hour cushion for the unexpected/unplanned). That’s a common (although by no means only) way in which riders approach the 84-hour start. Contemplating the 84-hour start in that way, I think, makes it more appealing and reasonable to riders who might not otherwise consider that start time. What matters more than your brevet finish times is whether – based on your experience and training – you think you can complete three back-to-back long rides, with sufficient time to get rested in between them, over terrain that fairly represents what you will experience at PBP (approximately 30,000 feet of rolling to strongly rolling hills).

Think on these things as you ride this year. Good preparation for PBP entails contemplating and then answering, “What do I want my ride to look like/be like/feel like?” Your PBP should be an intentional experience, and that begins with when you begin it.

That’s enough to ponder for the moment. More later. Until then, allez de l’avant avec courage!

Paul Rozelle (RUSA# 2955)
PBP Ancien, 2011 & 2007
RBA, Central Florida

Last Updated: 14 May 2014

2 thoughts on “PBP Planning: What Start Time Is Right for Me?

  1. Excellent suggestions. One thing I would add is that the size of the crowd along the route for the riders in the 90 hour start is two order of magnitudes larger than what we are used to. Almost 3000 riders will be going through the first few controles over the course of a few hours, compared to the 30 we might see on a reasonably well attended 600k brevet in the USA. On one hand that is an amazing experience, riding with so many people, but it can keep you from being efficient in navigating the controles. If you are very efficient on your brevets, getting in and out quickly after getting your card signed, you may not be able to do the same at PBP, when there are several hundreds of riders at the controle at the same time as you. Within the 90 hour start, I will choose the very last wave possible, while most people will try to start as early as possible. Doing the opposite of what the majority of the riders are doing will help me avoid riding in the “bubble”, I hope. I did that at LEL and it worked very well for me. I want to enjoy my time at PBP, instead of spending most of my time waiting in line for food and water.

    • Excellent points. Thanks, Marcello. Especially valuable info about avoiding the main bolus of riders. I have articles in the works on how to manage the start and handling the controls in particular. Those are unique experiences impossible to prepare for fully in your qualifying brevets. The controls are massive and it is time-consuming to pass through them, even for the most efficient.

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