Randonneur Toolbox

BC Randonneurs Cycling Club

"Eating an Elephant"
Tips for PBP First-timers by Ron Himschoot

There was a message on the BC rando list serve from Tina in Penticton: "It is my goal to do the PBP this year. Having never done a randonneur event before, I realize that I am in a little over my head and will have to have a steep learning curve... If you have any advice for novices, I would greatly appreciate it." ...A familiar refrain every 4th spring.

There were a number of helpful responses. One of them was from Ron Himschoot. Sometimes what's intended as a casual e-mail message can be much more. To my mind Ron's message says it all. It's required reading for everyone, not just PBP 'neophytes'. (Don't blame Ron for the groovy title. It's mine - added later.) [Eric F, March 2003]

Postscript: Ron was hit by a car and was unable to qualify for PBP '03 (he's all better now.) As for Tina... I guess she figured it all out. She did qualify and go to PBP - her time of 79 hours is the sixth fastest time ever by a Canadian woman at PBP. Woosh. [Eric F, March 2004]

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I have a couple of pieces of advice. My first piece of advice is to announce publicly, repeatedly and without qualification to all your friends and the world in general (but not, however, to your mother) that you intend to complete PBP. That means you can't quit because you will never live it down. You said "It is my goal to do the PBP this year". Good start. That's much harder to get out of than "I want to do the PBP this year". Now you can't get out of it by saying "Yeah, I WANTED to do it, but ...". We all WANT to ride PBP. Don't be deterred by lack of experience. Every ancien was once a novice. Don't be afraid to make mistakes, just try not to repeat them. And don't be deterred when your friends say "Yeah. Right". Once you've made a commitment to do it, you will find a way. The hardest control to get to is the first control on your first 200K.

My second piece of advice is that the will to finish PBP is not as important as the will to PREPARE to finish PBP. You've got to do what it takes to get ready. Preparations include your body, your bike, and, on a practical level, travel arrangements. You need to log a lot of kilometers to get your body ready for PBP. Long slow distance is more important than interval training. You've probably already figured that out. You also need to figure out how to keep yourself hydrated and nourished. You need know what kinds of food you can and can't tolerate (then throw that out because the only foods you recognize at the French controls are jambon et fromage sandwiches, haricots and omelets). You need to know what (besides embarrassment) will keep you going when you're not having fun any more (attitude and determination are just as important as conditioning). You need to know how your body reacts to dehydration, glycogen depletion, and sleep deprivation and you need to know what to do about it. Riding 1200 kilometers is not the same as riding 100 kilometers 12 times.

Preparations for your bike are much easier. You are going to log a lot of kilometers on your bike. Make sure it is durable and comfortable. Light weight wheels, for example, are useless if they keep breaking spokes. A powerful headlight is useless if it burns out batteries too fast. When stuff does break you tend to be a long ways from a mechanic. Keep your bike in good running order and be sure you know how to make simple repairs (in the dark if you have to). Know how to fix a flat (you may want to carry a spare folding tire, just in case), change a brake or shifter cable (you may want to carry spare cables), and true a wheel with a broken spoke (you may want to carry a spoke wrench). Get a comfortable saddle, comfortable shorts, well fitting shoes and well-padded gloves. Make sure your position on the bike is ergonomically correct.

Preparations for accommodations in France are even easier. Get a passport and talk to Real Prefontaine about the rest.

My third piece of advice is to not try to ride 1200 kilometers: psychologically, it is too daunting. I tell everyone: "I cannot ride 1200 kilometers, but I can ride to the first control". How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. The first control is usually around 80 to 100 kilometers. That's a distance you can get your head around. That's a distance you already know how to ride. Don't worry about getting to the second control until you get to the first control. If you don't think you can make it to the next control, concentrate on just making it the next 20 kilometers, or the next intersection if that is all you know you can do.

My final piece of advice is to never quit a brevet until you've had an apple fritter (or a pain au chocolate). When you bonk, and you will, it affects your spirit as much as it impacts your physical performance. When you get to the point that you just cannot go on, eat something before you make a decision to quit. If you fail to finish, it should be because the time expired: not because you bonked, not because you were dehydrated, and not because you were tired. Eat an apple fritter, drink a liter of water, take a 15-minute nap, then get back on your bike and ride. The agony of defeat is mild compared to the haunting memory of quitting.

Oh, okay, one more piece of advice. Get down to the brevets and meet as many of the randonneurs as you can. You'll find they make the best of friends. Get to know them, talk to them, ask questions, ride with them, pay attention to the way they take on a brevet. I know it is a long drive from Penticton, but that's no excuse. After all, I have a long drive from Seattle (and sometimes a long wait at the border), yet I'll take every opportunity I can to spend my time riding, laughing, and anguishing with them. I look forward to meeting you there. I'll be the guy frantically trying to fasten my Carradice bag to my bike in time to make the start.

-Ron Himschoot

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A few weeks later Tina asked "What do I need in my little bag of tricks to fix any mechanical problem?" There were many responses. Here is part of Ron's:

The only question likely to generate more responses than gear ratios is: What should I bring with me? Prepare for lots of answers but nothing definitive.

I carry more stuff than some bike shops, especially on long brevets. I bring the following:
* At least 4 spare tubes, a patch kit, a spare folding tire, a boot (a 10cm strip of old tire with the beads cut off), and a pair of tire levers.
* Tools -- hex wrenches, 8, 9, & 10 mm socket wrenches, slotted and Phillips screwdrivers, spoke wrench, chain tool, a miniature Swiss army knife, and a pair of pliers (to remove little shards of glass or wire from my tires)
* Spare parts -- 5mm bolts, brake cable, derailleur cable, zip ties, batteries, bulbs, an extra link of chain
* First aid kit -- gauze, "brave soldier" (topical anesthetic for scrubbing road rash), tape, first aid book, rubber gloves, a full size pump (in case I need a splint), space blanket
* Personal hygiene items -- sunscreen, chafe cream, toothbrush, deet, toilet paper, iodine tablets (to purify creek water on the Rocky Mountain 1200)
* Foul weather gear -- reflective vest, rain coat, long fingered gloves, hat, rain booties, polartec 100 vest (they laughed at me when it was 35 degrees on the first day of the Last Chance 1200, but I got the last laugh when it turned cold and rainy on the second day)
* Fuel -- power bars (don't think of them as food, but as fuel for the machine), peanut butter & honey sandwiches, trail mix, fork and spoon
(convenience stores have cup-o-noodles, but not necessarily eating utensils)

To carry all this stuff, I have a Carradice seat bag...


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Ron Himschoot is our premier cross-border randonneur. He lives in Seattle but does big distances on both sides of the border. In addition to PBP '99 he has completed numerous ultramarathon distance brevets including the Rocky Mt 1200 four times. He was runner up for the Iron Butt award in 2000 (with 6600 km), and has done more BC brevet distance than any other non BC resident - at the moment he wrote this, in March 2003, he was at 19,324 BC Kms.