The UltralongDistance Quest

Every 4 years in August, thousands of ultralong-distance cyclists, called randonneurs, descend on Paris to prove their prowess in an event called Paris-Brest-Paris, or PBP. The race’s 1200-plus kilometers and 10,000 meters of elevation gain are a backbreaking challenge to human endurance, both physical and mental. On the route from Paris to the port city of Brest, then back to the French capital, riders face endless hills, adverse weather, and sleep deprivation. Those who finish in 90 hours or less become anciens ( anciennes for women) and have their name entered into PBP’s “Great Book,” which dates back to the first event in 1891.

The factors that govern success in a race like this are surprisingly similar to those that govern success in a research endeavor. Passion, focus, organization, and tenacity are a few of the essential traits–and all are encompassed by a simple phrase: resource management, as my wife calls it. Resource management is key to conducting a successful scientific project just as it is to finishing the PBP in the allotted time.

Seventy-four hours and 1100 km into the ride, I find myself in Mortagne au Perche. It is midnight and pitch-black. I am just 140 km from the finish line, riding hard to make it by breakfast. Considering what I have accomplished already, this last part should be easy, but my body is beaten, I haven’t slept in more than a day, and long, steep climbs push me to the edge of exhaustion.

I am mostly alone, with perhaps 1000 riders ahead and thousands more behind. Weather conditions have been the worst in 2 decades, and nearly 30% of the riders have shipped back to Paris in overcrowded trains. I have teamed with a Belgian rider whose seven companions dropped off to sleep somewhere in the wet grass to recover for the final stage.

Getting through the dark hours

I have been in science for 30 years. I approached PBP as a scientific and engineering project–something I could relate to. In return, PBP taught me lessons about life that I can now apply to science.

Managing resources. Hardware is the easiest part. Do I go for a carbon frame or titanium? Something new or something familiar? Either way, choose reliable equipment, nurture it, and get to know it well. Learn to make repairs under duress and, with practice, to extract every ounce of potential.

The same goes for human resources, which are notoriously unpredictable and prone to failure yet also remarkably resilient. By the time the ride started, my training rides had covered more than 8000 km of grinding hills, scorching heat, and freezing rain, from the Appalachian Mountains to the Bavarian Alps. My laboratory is built on the efforts of postdoctoral fellows whose technically demanding, repetitive experiments are the equivalent of those long training rides. Long hours to get the job done are equivalent to those night rides.

Self-sufficiency and collaboration. In cycling as in science, self-reliance above all makes a project succeed. I obtained advice from friends and mentors in the months before the ride, but it was up to me to make it to the end. You can gain comfort from the companionship of others, as I did from the Belgian cyclist I rode with that last night, and on long, flat stretches, you can draft off other cyclists to save energy, although you must also be willing to ride in front and pull others along. If you are not a team player, you will always ride alone and face strong headwinds. Ultimately it’s you who has to finish.

Confidence. You may not be used to thinking of it as a resource, but healthy, justified confidence is a vital part of success. All those training rides are helpful, but true confidence emerged for me as days passed and I found myself ahead of schedule. Thousands of spectators lining the streets shouting “Bon courage” were also a mental support. In science, meeting milestones boosts your confidence, and presenting your data at a meeting to a cheering–or at least approving–audience can help a great deal.

Finishing the race

Without passion, we would not take on new challenges. Without planning and focus, we would not stay on track. Without tenacity, we would not finish. There are dark hours during a 4-day bike race just as there are in the course of a scientific project. If you quit, failure may haunt you forever. So push yourself over the last hill or through that last experiment, which you have done now so many times already.

The ride was the final experiment, the only remaining obstacle to getting my name in the Great Book. My resource management worked as planned, and neither equipment nor human resources failed. I formed bonds with many riders, and we supported each other. My Belgian colleague and I kept each other awake, sharing food and stories. After 83 hours and 31 minutes, I pulled in to the final controle in Guyancourt, in Paris, completing my most demanding project ever.

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