PBP: The Zabielski Way

Back when I was a newbie randonneur, the guy with all the knowledge in our group was three-time finisher Ken Zabielski. He rode his initial PBP in 1987 when few Americans knew about it, and made a home movie with fellow D.C. finisher Dave Berning that year.

Dave carried a full-size camcorder on his bike to get action footage — it’s a classic for the D.C. randonneuring group.

Ken completed his fourth PBP that year in under 80 hours. Since then Ken has focused on other things, but he’s getting back into long rides this year. I asked him to write up his PBP approach. It’s the by-the-book method — follow these simple guidelines and you too will eliminate just about every rookie mistake possible.

PBP: The Zabielski Way
by Ken Zabielski

I am a four-time veteran of PBP: ’87, ’91, ’95, and ’99. Since I don’t want to do it again, and couldn’t even if I wanted, I would like to pass on some of the general lessons I learned in preparing for and doing PBP.

Before the brevet season starts, tear down your bike to clean, inspect, adjust and replace worn out components. Replace all consumable items on the bike, such as tires, tubes, rim strips, chains, cables, handlebar tape, etc. You want a reliable bike that will get you through the brevets. Don’t rely on a bike that had seen a tough winter.

It’s also a good idea to replace or rebuild your wheels before the brevets begin. A good set of wheels should carry you through the brevet season and PBP with normal maintenance.

When you re-assemble your bike, configure it in the same way you envision your bike should be configured for PBP. Thus, during the brevets and long training rides of the spring and summer you can test whether the bike will hold up under PPB conditions. Allow yourself time to make adjustments to the bike during the brevet season based on experiences, lessons learned from other riders, etc. The goal is to end the brevet season with a bike configured as it would be at the starting line in Paris. In other words, I’m not going to tell you the surefire way to set up lights on your bike. Find what is ideal for you and ride the bike with those lights during training, the brevets, and PBP.

Three or four weeks before you leave for France tear the bike down all the way to the frame again to inspect, clean, adjust and replace broken or worn out components, and replace all consumable items on the bike.

Get a wallet with cord attached that can hang on your neck. Use the wallet to carry your brevet card, cash, credit/debit cards, passport, insurance cards, emergency contact/next of kin card. Carry this wallet throughout the brevets.

Find a secure place, such as a seat bag, on the bike to carry the wallet. Get into the habit of putting the wallet into the seat bag and closing the zipper. When you need to pull the wallet out, like at a control, open the zipper, pull out the wallet, and close the zipper, hand wallet on neck. When you want to put it back, open the zipper, take off neck, place in pack, and close the zipper. In other words, get into the habit of opening and closing the zipper every time you put the wallet into or out of the pack. Why? It’s too easy to loose track of the wallet and the status of the pack when you’re hungry, tired, cold, and wet during PBP.

I’ve seen several instances where riders lost brevet cards, cash, credit cards, identity cards during brevets and PBP. By making this process a habit that becomes second nature and those things won’t happen to you.

Learn how to disassemble and re-assemble your bike for the trip to France. Don’t rely on a bike shop to disassemble and pack your bike for the trip. I witnessed a couple in France who could not re-assemble one of their bikes in France after having a bike shop do the disassembly and packing it for them.

They swore at the stateside mechanic simply because they didn’t have basic bike mechanic knowledge. Why is this mechanical knowledge necessary? For one thing you can’t expect other riders to do the job for you. And you need to know how to fix the bike on the road should you have a mechanical emergency.

Try to get to France as early as possible. I can’t say how soon is soon enough. You need to get there early enough to learn the lay of the land in and around the starting area. You also need time to acclimate to the time change, get accustomed to the roads in the vicinity of your hotel and the start point, and get accustomed to the change in diets.

Try to find a motel as close to the start point as possible. I can’t say how close is close enough. This is an obvious recommendation, unless of course there is a specific reason you want to stay some distance from the start point.

In the days before PBP forget about sightseeing, partying, and socializing. Save that for after PBP. Use the days before PBP to make sure you bike is operationally perfect, get plenty of rest, make sure you have everything you need for PBP, etc.

Ride your bike every day before PBP. You only need to ride one route. Ride the first 30 to 40 kilometers of the official PBP route out and back every day. It’s easy to get a group of Randonneurs to go with you. The first 30 to 40 K of the route is usually the most complex. Once you get the route ingrained in your memory, you won’t have any problems navigating the last 30 to 40 K of PBP when you are the most tired.

I’ve never used personal support sags for PBP so I cannot comment on them. However, I can comment on drop bags that International Randonneurs (Jim Konski) and RUSA usually organized for the riders. I don’t know what the drop bag plan is for this year. Previously drop bags were placed at the 400K mark which is also the 800K mark. Besides food, batteries, spare parts and personal medications, the most important thing you can place in the drop bag is a change of cycling clothes, primarily shorts.

Clean shorts and socks should be placed in plastic bags. A good rule of thumb is to change your shorts every 400K. Don’t try to wash them out at the controls. You will never get them clean enough, which will result in chafing and saddle sores. You can hand wash jerseys along the route, however. Shorts should be washed in cold water using detergent free of perfumes and dyes. Also use a non-chlorine bleach, which is usually hydrogen peroxide to sanitize the shorts from any fecal matter in the crotch. I can’t emphasize enough that the shorts should be sanitized.

If you haven’t yet chosen your starting time and field, consider this. Whenever I did PBP I chose the 90 hour field because I wanted as much wiggle room as possible to successfully complete PBP. I believe the starting times have changed; but when I did it the last 3 times the 90 hour field started at 10 PM. Some considered that late in the day, and other didn’t like the larger fields associated with the 90-hour start. To me it didn’t matter because (1) I was in a totally different time zone, (2) I had trained myself to ride consistent paces no matter what the time day, and (3) I came to France to ride/socialize with others, not by myself.

During the 24 hours before PBP there are a few important things you must accomplish. Make sure you have a good plan that will get everything done with minimal stress.

Final bike and pack preparation. This is not to say you should start packing the bike the day before PBP. You should have started this process several days ago.
Bike inspection. Good, nutritional meals, and basic bodily functions. Sleep. Don’t try to socialize with your PBP-buddies or hang out with them. If you are not eating, packing the bike, going to the bike inspection, or taking care of bodily functions, you must sleep. You may not be able to achieve full REM sleep. Do what you can to lay in bed with the lights low under the cover with your eyes closed. You will get some sleep. Remember, sleep as much as you can.

I integrated the 10 PM starting time into my PBP strategy in the following manner. Since I had been an experienced 24-hour ultramarthoner doing several 400+ mile races in 24-hours, I was confident I could ride the first 24-hours straight through without sleep.

For the first hundred miles of PBP, I rode as hard and as fast as possible to get ahead of the bulk of the 90-hour field. If you can picture the field as a bell curve, my position in the bell curve could be found at the leading right edge of curve within the first five or six hours. Then I would back off my pace and find small groups to ride with.

As a result when I pulled into the controls the lines where short and I could get in quickly and exit just as quickly. Those 90-hour cyclists, who remained in the main part of the bell curve, or what I called the bubble, were stuck in endless lines, which is where the 90-hour start got its bad name.

Since I started at night the bike was, of course, configured for night riding. Cycling into the morning I would reconfigure the bike for day-light running when I reached the first control “after” sunrise.

By configuring the bike for day or night that meant I had to move batteries and power cables around. You may have a simpler method to switch between day and night running. Continuing through the day I would reconfigure my bike for night-time running at the control just “before” sunset.

Cycling into the sunset I would stop at the control just “after” sunset for a sleep break, usually Carhaix. On my first PBP my first sleep break was Loudeac, which was too short. On my second PBP I went to Brest, which was too far. On my third and fourth PPBs I went to Carhaix, which, as Goldilocks would have said, “…was just right.”

When I ended my sleep break it was still night and my bike was configured for night. After breakfast and bodily functions it was back on the bike to continue the process until Paris, i.e., reconfigure bike for day light just after sunrise, reconfigure bike for night just before sunset, sleep break just after sunset, wake up, etc.

This process got me ahead of the 90-hour bubble, ensured no lines at the controls, provided ample availability of sleep facilities, and a put me in a normal circadian rhythm after the first 24 hours.

Things may have changed, but wine and beer were served at all controls except for the finish line at Paris. Thus, at the last control before Paris I would dump the water in one of my water bottles (I could carry three full size bottles on my bike), and fill it with red wine for the celebration at the finish line.


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