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In praise of PBs

Trevor Ward
19 Nov 2019

In a world of data comparison and leaderboards, sometimes the only record to aspire to is your own

Suffering on a bike is subjective. Despite metrics for everything from heart rate to power output, there are too many variables to render direct comparisons conclusive in determining whether one ride is harder than another. Take the ‘Toughest Stage Race’ ever held. Was it the 1919 Circuit des Champs de Bataille – ‘Tour of the Battlefields’ – as author Tom Isitt claims in his book Riding In The Zone Rouge?

Or was it the ‘the very terrible 1914 Tour of Italy’, as posited by Tim Moore in Gironimo!?

Both authors ride variations of the original routes to argue their case. Moore goes as far as riding a bike from the period, complete with wooden rims and brakes fashioned from cork – usually from the bottle of wine he had with dinner the previous night – while Isitt opts for a contemporary, lightweight titanium frame with 22 gears.

Both suffer for their art. Moore does a lot of walking and pushing up steep hills, while Isitt suffers broken ribs while attempting to bunny hop over some cobbles.

While they also break up their endeavours with rest days and visits from loved ones, both extol the true awfulness of the races they’re retracing.

‘With a 2,000km route in seven stages across the war-torn roads and battlefields of the Western Front in horrific weather, a mere couple of months after hostilities ceased, the Circuit des Champs de Bataille took suffering on a bike to a whole new level,’ writes Isitt.

Out of 87 starters only 21 finished the race, with the last of them, Frenchman Louis Ellner, rolling in 78 hours behind the winner, Belgian Charles Deruyter.

By comparison, 81 riders started the 1914 Giro, but only 37 completed the storm-ravaged first stage, and only eight made it to the finish (with Alfonso Calzolari the overall winner).

‘The 1914 route deliberately set out to explore the very limits of human desperation,’ writes Moore. ‘The number of stages was cut and the overall length increased, meaning riders faced the unparalleled attritional brutality of covering 3,162km in just eight non-stop stages, averaging very nearly 400km each.’

French rider Paul Duboc, runner-up at the 1911 Tour, took part in both races. So could his experience decide which was truly the toughest? Well, if it’s any indication, he was one of more than half the field of the 1914 Giro that abandoned during the first stage.

Five years and one World War later, he made it as far as stage four of the Tour of the Battlefields before abandoning that too.

It’s personal

Having read both books – both are excellent, by the way – I still can’t say with conviction which was the tougher of the two races and which riders were the strongest.

Data from modern-day accoutrements probably wouldn’t have helped either, as they wouldn’t have taken into account the emotional turmoil of riding through the killing fields of the Great War or a route so brutal it was condemned afterwards in the Italian press as ‘an inhuman spectacle… that seeks to destroy its competitors’.

Which brings me to the subject of PBs and PRs – personal bests and personal records. If suffering really is subjective, then surely your PB is the only metric that counts in a cacophony of FTPs, HRs, KMHs and VO2s?

I might climb that hill slower than any of my friends and end up on page 76 of the Strava leaderboard, but if I score a personal best it’s a triumph, even if I was assisted by a tailwind.

It’s easy to get hung up on how everyone else is performing when surely it’s more cost productive to concentrate on improving your own performance. And the simplest way to monitor that is with your PB.

A KoM badge is a wonderful thing, of course, but with some of the greedy KoM hunters around my parts it can be frustratingly ephemeral.

A PR medal, however, is much more significant. It means you’ve become faster. You’ve become stronger. And the only thing that can replace it is another PR…

You can lose your KoM at the whim of that ‘ex-pro’ with the £8,000 Cervélo, but no one can take away from you the fact that on that day, at that time, on that climb, you were the fastest and most powerful you’ve ever been.

A beacon of hope

Of course, as you get older PBs become rarer treasures. I’m resigned to the fact that my 19:39 up the formidable incline of the Cairn O’ Mount, achieved in 2014, is unlikely to be bettered unless I drive to the foot of it and ride it from there instead of 50km into a 100km loop, but no one does that sort of thing, right?

Instead, it will remain on record as my PB, a beacon to aspire to, a light that will burn brightly in the encroaching mists of middle age until, inevitably, it becomes a distant memory. (At least until I get an e-bike.)

To quote from The Great Gatsby, my ‘count of enchanted objects will have diminished by one’, although admittedly F Scott Fitzgerald was referring to the distant light belonging to his hero’s unrequited love, rather than a 3km climb with an average gradient of 10%.

But that’s how special a PB is. We should never downplay its importance. You may not have finished first but you did your best. Literally. And that’s something we should all aspire to.

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