Well, last Saturday (18th May) I stopped agonizing over whether to do my first brevet without any training and with no mileage base. I simply took the plunge and hopped onto my bike for the 3rd time this year.
The hypothesis being tested was whether general fitness as opposed to real preparation would be adequate to do the job. In other words, is ping pong twice a week enough? (I am a competitive ping pong player.) My excuse for the lack of proper preparation being that I'm no longer a grad student (have to work for real) and hours spent in the saddle would be precious hours taken from my competitive sport. I am also curious about the experiment because I used to train for centuries and ride 6 days a week. However, I had the sneaking suspicion it was all completely unnecessary since I didn't race.
I had called Jennifer Wise about brevet riding a few days before the event. She was very nice and patient, didn't try to rush me off the phone, and even sent me some info on BMB. I also made up my mind during that phone call to do the rides. She also cautioned me to get a triple and that the people up in Boston ride fast when I mentioned I was going up from NJ to do the series there. As a result, I panicked and rushed out to my local bike store and bought a wide-range Shimano 600 EX 13-26 6-speed cassette. (My bike is two generations, and soon-to-be three I am told, behind the latest Shimano.) I briefly tested the new cassette before leaving for Boston. Hated the three tooth jumps. Now I understand why Shimano pushes the envelope.
Anyhow, at 7:30am on Saturday I joined about 65 others on the Boston Brevet Series 200 km ride which went from Hanscom Field in Bedford MA out to New Boston NH (50 mile checkpoint) to Brookline NH (the 90 mile checkpoint) and back to Bedford MA. Also thrown in was about 6000 ft of climbing according to the brochure.
The temperature was in the 60s with overcast skies. It rained a little during the start and towards the end. I wore an old long sleeve Cannondale polypro jersey (someone else there had the same jersey!) plus my new (very comfortable) Pearl Izumi leg warmers which I later removed at the 50 mile mark. In my experience, a bad choice of clothing can make a long ride very unpleasant. In this case, I am glad to say I got at least the clothing right.
They say you shouldn't get sucked into the big, fast start. As we were rolling out the parking lot, an older gentleman was telling me that some of the guys do this ride pretty fast, he said: "you see them at the start, they go off fast, and then you never see them again." Anyhow, of course I got sucked into the fast start. So, I basically hammered the first 50 miles ending up at the New Boston NH checkpoint at 10:04 am, 3 minutes down the first arrivals. I had averaged about 20 mph.
I spent about 10-15 mins at the checkpoint, my average speed worried me so I decided it would be prudent to slow down in the next section. There was no way I was going to be able to keep this up for the whole ride. (Well, maybe 10 years ago.) One problem with the first 50 miles was that I had tried to stay with the lead pack for as long as possible. Unfortunately, every time we got to a hill, I was immediately off the back. I would make a big effort and chase on the descent and flat sections, get back only to get spit out of the pack again on the next hill. Was this less effort than hammering alone? I couldn't decide.
It got a bit hillier in the next section up to the 90 mile checkpoint, also in NH. Still, there were some nice descents to compensate. I reached 48 mph on one of them simply on the drops without even getting into an aero tuck. I rode this section with two other riders, but I had trouble keeping up in the hills, although I managed to close the gaps on the flats. I cramped up twice briefly on two ascents, payback for the first 50 miles I suppose. I solved the problem by backing off 10% on the hills, the 26 tooth on the back helped me to avoid crossing over the threshold into cramp territory for the rest of the ride.
I arrived at the 90 mile checkpoint at 12:46 pm. Spent about 20-25 minutes there. (Had to visit the bathroom for a "biggie".) Last 40 miles were not as hilly. Rode with 6 or 7 other riders, but I was getting kinda low on gas near the 122 mile mark, so I took it easy on the last 8 miles. I was very glad to see the Hanscom Field parking lot again. My total time was 7 hours 49 minutes. Moving average was 18 mph. I was fairly happy with this, considering the lack of preparation. For comparison, I was told the first finisher did the 130 miles in 7 hours and 1 minute.
[2005 Note: in later years, my times for the Boston 200k also dipped below the 7 hour mark. But that took dedicated training.]
Conclusions? As I have suspected for years, training for centuries is completely unnecessary if you do some reasonable physical exercise a couple times a week. Even ping pong is enough. How about the upcoming 300 km? Can I average around 18-20 mph without training? There is no way I can see myself doing that. The delta is huge. In fact, I think this 200 km ride is unrepresentative of brevets in the sense that 200 km is short enough that one can basically try to ride as fast as possible and not pay for it. Also, the 200 km route was completely marked. Which was just as well since, at 22-25 mph on the flats, there was no way anyone had time to read the cue sheets and try to navigate.
[2005 Note: The older (and wiser) Sandiway here wishes to opine that you can also "fake" a reasonably fast 300k and get away with it. But a fast 400k could be a cropper unless you have paid your dues, i.e. done the training miles. This was his unfortunate 2005 experience. The excuse was that he had returned to academia from industrial research and had insufficent time to train. Ha.]
Thinking of the 300 km, I will keep the 13-26 cassette on the bike despite the lousy three tooth jumps and it might be prudent to invest in aerobars even though I've never ridden with them before. Less than two weeks to go, I should try to fit in 3 or 4 training rides... Or I could always simply chicken out.