The road to Paris-Brest-Paris Pt1

From zero to 1200km in eight months: the journey begins

I'd already announced to the office that I intended to ride Paris-Brest-Paris in 2015, but what I hadn't done was look into whether this goal of completing one of cycling's most famous and grueling events was even attainable. So I took a trip north to visit Nick Thomas at The Endurance Coach for a series of tests to find out…

There will always be moments as you train your body for 90 hours of near continuous cycling when you struggle for motivation and question the wisdom of what you are doing. What I perhaps didn't expect was for my first such moment to come within a fortnight of beginning my plan to conquer the 1200km Paris-Brest-Paris randonée. Nonetheless, with gloves soaked through by snow, fingers devoid of all feeling and over half the distance of my ride home still ahead of me, this is what happened last week. Fortunately, when you are riding home, you have the greatest reason there is for pressing on, and as feeling returned agonisingly to my fingers in the warm hallway, I could afford a smile of satisfaction in knowing I hadn't let down the man who had taken on the challenge of turning me from cycling dillettante to seasoned mile-muncher in eight short months.

In the weeks before Christmas I had taken myself up to The Endurance Store in Appley Bridge, Lancashire, to subject myself to a series of tests that would determine my year-end fitness level and allow coach Nick Thomas to work out just what was needed to get me ready for a journey across northern France from Paris to the tip of Brittany and back. Given that my riding since August had constituted nothing more than a weekday commute between Bath and Bristol, I was guessing the answer would be quite a lot.

The test seemed easy enough to begin with, but things soon became more intense

The instrument of truth would be Nick's Wattbike. Climbing aboard and having a mask strapped around my mouth to measure my oxygen intake and outtake, I went through a progressive warm up routine, had a short break, and set about the test. Starting with the Wattbike's resistance set at 150W, I began pedalling at a cadence of 90rpm, the idea was to then maintain that cadence for as long as possible while the team increased the resistance by 20W every minute. I lasted for nine minutes, meaning I cracked at 310W (despite the encouragement of everyone in the room). It was fair to say a Tour de France champion had not been unearthed. A later sprint test to measure my maximum wattage also produced meagre results, in this case 718W. Hope lay in my relatively small frame, which ensured my power-to-weight ratio was at least respectable for the time of year at 4.92W per kilo, but Nick's aim is to get this up towards 6W per kilo by the time I head to Paris in August.

Outside of producing the sort of wattage Sir Chris Hoy would manage with one leg while fast asleep, the test also taught me a lot about my body's efficiency – and it wasn't great news. From monitoring my oxygen levels during the test it became clear that my body was spectacularly inefficient at using fat as a fuel source. This would become the focus of my training for the foreseeable future. My body was overly reliant on carbs even at low intensity, which would have big implications over the sort of distances I was looking to ride this year as glycogen stores are limited and the body can only absorb ingested carbs at a limited rate, so it had to change.

Nick Thomas talks me through the results

This has resulted in me riding my 16-mile morning commute (and the first 90-120 minutes of every morning ride) steadily without breakfast, to starve the body of carbs and force it to use fat, and to me slowly adjusting my diet to include less carbs and more protein and essential fats. For a fan of jacket and mashed potatoes, this is a commitment! At least cheese is on the 'good' foods list, though probably not in the quantities I like to consume it.

But we're over halfway through my first month of training, and so far I've kept on track, and thanks to the great people at Audax UK I have a series of PBP qualifying events lined up (more on the qualifying process next time). A recent series of bike fits forced me to accept that I have been riding a machine that is too big for me, but the recent arrival in the Cycling Plus workshop of a new stainless steel Genesis Equilibrium in my correct size should sort that out. We're going to be spending a lot of time together, me and this bike, so expect to hear a lot more about it, but the early indications from a ride home this week are that we're going to get along famously.

I await my February training plan from Nick with baited breath, although I understand there will be a continuation of the theme of base-building and training my body to be more efficient. At the moment my turbo sessions involve mostly hard but very short intervals, which Nick says will help boost power with reduced fatigue, but as things get more structured I am going to have to devise a way to start using the information gained from my testing and train with power…

This article was originally published in Cycling Plus magazine, available on Apple Newsstand and Zinio.

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