InsideOut client: Benge Ambrogi... beats the clock and crosses the finish at Paris-Brest-Paris 2023!
Caroline Kavanagh | August 30, 2023
Benge in the Lab for metabolic testing early March, after winter months of Base training. It’s fair to say that randonneuring is very much a niche sport. In August, Benge completed the Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) 1,200-kilometer course challenge within the 90-hour limit. This marks his third time across this famed finish line. A true test of mettle!
The history, prestige, and challenge of PBP attracts riders from around the world, and the fact that it is only held every four years merely adds to the demanding contest. This year, over 7,000 qualified riders got their chance at completing this most historic of long-distance rides. WHAT IS THE PBP?
Billed as the longest, hardest test of endurance for both man and machine, Paris-Brest-Paris is the oldest cycling event in the world. PBP was held this year for just the 27th time since 1891. It is a self-supported ride from Paris, to Brest in Brittany, and back again. It is by most descriptions the oldest cycling event still in existence today, and the pinnacle of the audax and randonneuring calendar. THE ROUTE
Paris-Brest-Paris is a 1,200km ride from Paris, to Brest in Brittany on France’s Atlantic coast, and back to Paris. From the start in Rambouillet, a town 20km southeast of the city proper, the route heads west, into Île-de-France. Depending on their start wave, riders negotiate the first few kilometers of the ride in either the fading sun of the evening, or the first light of day the next morning.
Historically, the PBP route followed the main road from Paris to Brittany (now the N12), but now follows quieter roads running alongside it, through quaint Bretagne towns full of cheering spectators. The terrain is rolling, the roads often straight and seemingly endless with the perpetual threat of wind rolling in over the coast.
Riders must pass through a series of controls on the 600km outward leg to Brest, before an about turn sees them return along the same route back to Paris. Each of the controls must be ticked off again in reverse order, as well as two additional controls (Mortagne-au-Perche and Dreux) in the final stretch before the finish. Participants must complete the 762.3 mile course in under 90 hours (3.75 days). The quickest riders will finish in less than two days, while others will need the full time limit to complete.
QUALIFICATION PBP is gaining in popularity every year, and therefore a lengthy registration and entry process ensures only the most dedicated of entrants are on the start line. Riders who have completed official BRM (Brevets de RandonneursMondieux) events in the year preceding PBP are given priority. To qualify for PBP, all riders must complete a Super Randonneur series of BRMs (200, 300, 400, 600km) in 2023. The series does not need to be completed in order of ascending distance, nor in the same country, but you do need to do all of them.
BENGE'S 2023 RIDE This year's PBP ride for Benge was his most dominant to date, stating, "it was not nearly as much of a struggle as in 2015 and 2019 and never did I have a concern regarding covering the distance within the allotted time." There were some hiccups, as you would imagine, in an event of this magnitude. The most unsettling struck before he even rolled up to the start line in Paris. Unfortunately, en route to France he contracted and was battling a bad cold! Benge's ultimate goal for the ride was to complete it without major heroics or suffering. The less suffering the better in my book so I whole-heartily agree on this point. His plan had been crafted and he felt committed to execute. Even though "under-the-weather" and finishing was questionable, he resolved to proceed as planned. All of the training, qualifications, preparations and travel would not be squandered! All aspects of Benge's ride plan were covered – pace, rest, sleep and food, along with the wisdom and knowledge that the best made plans can, and mostly likely will, require alteration based on the obstacles that arise. His ability to pivot was certainly in his toolkit. Benge did in fact have to recalibrate a number of times when it was apparent that his strategy was inoperative.
Enjoy his highlighted recap of the challenge! Pre-Ride: Massive head congestion, mild fever and runny nose. Saturday night, woke up with massive congestion, post-nasal drip, and generally feeling like crap. I didn’t feel any better on Sunday morning, still stuffed up, really wiped out and a mild fever. I was actually debating whether I could start. Having trained for 4 years, and come all this way, spent all of this money, before long I came to the conclusion - I had to at least give it a go. Late in the afternoon I took some Advil and had some coffee, which seemed to help. Pasta dinner at 5 pm, then made final preparations, took another nap and at 7:30 pm headed for the start. Drank coke while waiting in the start queue. Lots of hoopla as we waited. At 9 pm my wave was off.
Official 2023 start - wave number one. They're off!
First 300K - Ramboulliet to Fougeres: Broken rear derailleur cable.
The next setback arose in the middle of the first night, a broken rear derailleur cable! Benge had to ride single speed for about 2-3 hours before arriving at the next controle. "My chain was jumping in the lowest sprocket, which was troublesome, noisy and made me persona non grata in the peloton. Luckily, at the controle at Villaines la Juhel there was a bike mechanic who was able to replace the cable. It proved to be a relatively minor hinderance and could have been much worse. In the end, I arrived to Fougere about 1/2 hour earlier than planned." This was not the first time that cable had broken, and he regrets not replacing it before the ride. For a once in 4-year event, the bike needs to be completely scrutinized. When in doubt, replace it! He got lucky that the fix was relatively quick but noted that if it had been more complicated his ride may have been jeopardized. "I was able to eat, ice my knees, shower, and sleep. However, the sleep was not very good, since it was the middle of the day and my body was used to being awake. The street noise didn’t help. I ended up only sleeping about 3 1/2 hours. When I was on the bike, I didn’t notice my cold all that much, although I was definitely sniffly. When I was off the bike, I didn’t feel awful, but I didn’t feel great, and my congestion came right back."
Second 300K - Fougeres to Brest: Loosing energy and ditch napping. "I felt pretty good heading back on the road and planned to extend my second leg to the next controle after the turnaround, making it a 400K leg. This was delusionally optimistic! The road to the first controle was pretty flat and I made good time; feeling pretty good when I got there but much hillier getting to the second controle, and losing energy. Things got a little fuzzy and at one point I was falling asleep on the bike. I knew I wouldn’t make it through the night. I stopped for a 15 min “ditch nap,” which wasn’t very restful because I could hear the whirl of bike wheels going by the entire time. I decided I would get a cot at a rest stop coming up. Got a decent 1 hr sleep but still a bit groggy and I remember taking another nap (maybe 20 mins) against a wall in a town square. Once the sun rose I found some energy return. I made it into Brest well ahead of the controle closure. My wife wasn’t there yet, and I decided not to wait. We made plans to rendezvous on the route out of town."
Cyclists ditch napping everywhere - the roadside is cluttered with sleeping bodies! Third 300K: Brest to Fougeres: Wedged-up Garmin device. "Sleeping wasn’t working so revised plans such that I would stop in Loudeac (one of the controles along this segment) and sleep there, then have a shorter refuel and nap stop in Fougeres. I felt pretty good heading out of Brest, although my speed and power had dropped considerably. GPS battery was getting low, so I plugged it in to my dyno-hub charger. Not long after that it wedged up. Had to switch to my backup GPS which doesn’t have Ant+ capability, so no power data. Also, the courses I loaded on this device were only for single controle segments. It would have to do.
Hilly getting to Loudeac, my planned sleep stop, and I got there around 1:40 am. Woke up around 5 am and couldn’t sleep anymore, so I decided to get going. Ate some solid food - rice, tuna, tomato salad, an omelet, more rice, a croissant, a coke and coffee. Given the moderate temperatures and the lower power outputs at this point, I didn’t have any trouble processing solids and it was a welcome break from the various sport nutrition products. All a little foggy, but made it back to Fougeres where I had some more solid food, iced my knees, showered, changed clothes, etc. 900K down, 300K to go!
Arrival into Fougères! Last 300K: Fougeres to Ramboulliet: Marginal sleep and more food. "Reset my Garmin once I got it plugged into the wall, so power data was back for the last leg. Segment to the first controle in Villaine la Juhel was uneventful. Arrived and took a nap on a lawn - about 45 mins of marginal sleep then back on the road. Stopped at a roadside food stand (locals had setup) for a big bowl of soup, which was awesome. At the next controle, I was pretty foggy, and I didn’t feel like figuring out where the sleeping room was so I just crashed on the lawn. I woke up about 45 mins later freezing cold so I went in to the cafeteria and crashed on the floor (another common PBP activity - there were many others doing the same). At that point, it turned out to be a really comfortable concrete floor! After about another 45 mins, I decided to get up and get moving. One final time.... I ingested more food - a big plate of pasta and meat sauce - super delicious and some coffee, then hit the road.
Final Segment: To Ramboulliet: Finish line. "This was a pretty flat portion of the course, so my speed picked up and there were a few wheels to follow for a bit, which helped. It was raining steadily but not enough to slow me down. I made it to the finish in plenty of time!"
Benge crossing the PBP 2023 timing mat. REWARDS Benge "beat the clock" and crossed the finish line. Rewarding indeed! 762.3 miles of cycling...... from Paris to Brest and back to Paris. Its pure length required Benge to elevate himself as a rider while the qualifying process dictated it be a long-term goal. Four years of preparation, training and good old-fashion hard work. It paid off! He felt he was never back on his heels having to pore over how to get to the finish. Reiterating that this year's ride was his most dominate to date. Surpassing his 2015 and 2019 rides with more sleep and no major heroics or suffering!
That's not just one but three PBP finishes! He let me know his calendar is marked for the next PBP event, four years from now – 2027. ................. THE BACK STORY How did Benge work with InsideOut to assist in his preparation for this year's event? You'll want to read on to see the gains that Benge accumulated. It is sure to inspire! Especially those who wonder if they will ever reach their goals. He is proof positive - it is possible! First, a little bit about the bodies metabolism.... yes, just a little!
MITOCHONDRIA Known commonly as the "powerhouse of the cell," mitochondria plays a vital role in our health and fitness. They serve the dual purpose of producing the energy currency of our cells and they regulate our cellular metabolism. When we breathe in oxygen, it’s our mitochondria that play the key role in converting this vital element into the energy we need to function as a bodily unit and on a base level - to provide our cells with the ability to grow and divide. When we eat, they play the same crucial role. Mitochondria are the tiny subunits within a cell that specialize in extracting energy from the foods we eat and converting it into ATP (energy).
MUSCLE FIBER TYPES Breaking them down into their two primary classifications: Slow-twitch and Fast-twitch. Slow-twitch muscle fibers, also known as Type I, and are used for activities that require no bursts of speed. For example, walking or steady-state cardio activities at low intensity i.e.... jogging, biking and swimming, we rely on these slow-twitch fibers.
Fast-twitch muscle fibers are composed of two subtypes: Type IIa and Type IIb (also known as IIx). Type IIa fast-twitch fibers activate when we ratchet it up a notch, or two, and our Type I’s need some assistance to meet the energy demand. Type IIb fibers kick into gear once we are in overdrive.
ZONE 2 TRAINING The benefits of lower-intensity training, specifically in Zone 2, are becoming better understood, or I should say, more widely accepted and implemented. Just as a balanced diet consists of a variety of macronutrients like carbohydrates, fat and protein, a balanced exercise protocol also consists of a variety of training types.
Type I muscle fibers have the highest amount of mitochondrial content versus the other two types. Zone 2 is where your mitochondria are producing the maximum amount of ATP under purely aerobic conditions and utilizing the slow-twitch muscle fibers. When going a bit harder, entering into Zone 3, there is an uptick in lactic acid production as a result of tapping into glycogen stores, compelling the body to begin burning more carbohydrates versus fat. Therefore, staying within Zone 2 we are able to exercise our mitochondria to their fullest extent while preferentially converting fat into energy.
Of course you win races at high intensity, but to do this it is ideal to have the underlying structure in place to reach peak performances. LACTATE At higher intensity exercise, lactate is mainly produced in fast- twitch muscle fibers, which use lots of glucose for energy. It is cleared mainly by slow-twitch muscle fibers. This is a complex process involving different lactate-specific transporters and enzymes. A little more of the science... yes, just a little more...
Fast-twitch fibers have a high content of one transporter called MCT-4 which transports lactate away from these fibers. Slow-twitch fibers possess a transporter called MCT-1 which takes lactate inside these fibers. That lactate is then converted to pyruvate in the mitochondria by an enzyme called mLDH, to then finally synthesize ATP (energy).
Zone 2 training has the purpose of improving lactate clearance capacity by increasing the number of mitochondria to clear lactate mainly in slow-twitch muscle fibers as well as by increasing the number of MCT-1 and mLDH. High intensity training increases the number of MCT-4 to increase lactate transport away from fast-twitch fibers.
Lactate is mainly cleared by adjacent slow-twitch fibers that have a very high mitochondrial capacity and a much higher amount of mLDH enzymes and MCT-1 transporters. Therefore to improve lactate clearance capacity, and although counterintuitive, it is key to train these slow-twitch muscle fibers to stimulate mitochondrial growth and function as well as increase MCT-1 and mLDH.
On the flip side..... Training at lactate threshold (high intensity) is essential to improve glycolytic fibers and their machinery (“speed”). A goal being to up-regulate the number and function of glycolytic enzymes as well as to increase the number of MCT-4 transporters necessary to transport lactate away from fast-twitch fibers to then be cleared by slow-twitch fibers.
We need to train both systems but the bulk of the "work" is done at lower intensity. The high intensity work can be sprinkled in and gains can be made here more swiftly. BENGE'S PREPARATION
Three years ago (2021) Benge stated his fitness goal was to improve his aerobic engine and speed for ultra distance cycling, specifically in preparation for this year and what would be his third, Paris-Brest-Paris event. As well as an interest on how his nutrition could be improved to further enhance his goal. This model of forward thinking is essential for improvement. I very much approved of his realistic expectations and we got started on his program. Benge's long-term approach is akin to accumulating wealth – small compounded gains over years, and years and years and achieved day in and day out. Patience is truly a virtue!
We started with a metabolic assessment, this test was his initial benchmark and a data-driven method from which to launch. The numbers are the numbers at a point in time. Often athletes will say to me that they "eat clean" or their training program is "top-notch." I find these phrases boundless with no manner in which to quantify. Without any data or way to track progress I feel we are working in the dark. I prefer the light - much easier to see ;)
Because higher fat burning occurs in Zone 2, it is sometimes thought to be a magical tool for weight loss. But people looking at Zone 2 training for weight loss specifically are barking up the wrong tree, as it alone is not a weight loss strategy. Neither is just nutrition. Rather, it's a combination of the physical training, daily nutrition and other lifestyle factors. Think of Zone 2 training as an action that will allow your internal engine to run more efficiently versus a weight loss tool. Visualize a picture of beautiful mitochondria within the cell, operating at peak efficiency.
Each athlete is a project of one, as individual circumstances influence the proceedings. The strategy fluxes, as the body is highly adaptable. A "curve-ball" can be thrown, here and there, in order for greater gains to be realized.
DAILY NUTRITION With metabolic assessment results in hand, we also addressed Benge's daily nutrition. The question being answered was how he could improve his intake to support his fitness goals. We looked at what foods he could add or swap to his daily diet, as well as how much and when. Then Benge began implementing his plan. I have found that most athletes embrace this challenge as they are typically a motivated bunch. Like all things that require us to change behavior it takes repeats. Sounds boring, but athletes understand this concept. I akin this to physical training, as it is the same principle, and when athletes think about eating as they do their training it makes sense and they embrace the challenge.
We worked on the fundamentals, the basic concept of how to put a balanced meal together. Meals that are spread out throughout the day, with amounts of carbohydrate that would support his training and goals optimally. His meals would provide not only fuel, but also the nutrients that were necessary to stay healthy. Benge, as a masters athlete (56 yr in 2021) means protein intake differs a bit than the younger competitor. His daily protein amount was established and targeted. This helps to delay the onset of adverse health associated with normal aging. Musculoskeletal deterioration remains somewhat inevitable with advancing age, so nutritional considerations in this realm are determined to enhance his speed of recovery, optimize training adaptations, and again, ultimately improve his performance. There are no quick fixes but rather consistency of effort over time. Success demands discipline.
Below are graphs of Benge's metabolic assessments (aerobic/MEP/FatMax burning capacity) over the last three year time span - 2021 - 2023. Tangible steady progress is illuminated.
Through the assessments it is was evident that Benge was progressing towards his goal. His first test in 2021 showed no crossover point, meaning even at a low intensity his body was utilizing a higher percentage of carbohydrate versus fat. One year later, in 2022 his test results made a welcome transformation as he now had a crossover point. His muscle fibers are adapting and he is utilizing fuel more efficiently. We were also able to establish his Zone 2 heart rate which narrowed down and further focused his training sessions. Research shows that MEP/FatMax correlates very well with the aerobic threshold. In practice. MEP/FatMax and the aerobic threshold sit at very similar powers, so if you know one, you’ll have a pretty good idea of where the other roughly sits. Blood Lactate testing is another method athletes are using to determine this location.
Early this year, after his winter base training, we see further improvements! Benge's crossover point is now at an estimated heart rate of 130 bpm, further to the right and another solid increase in aerobic capacity and fuel efficiency. From this information revised ride fueling calories were established and he used this data in training to practice and fine tune his PBP strategy. Zone 2 training is just one piece of the metabolic puzzle and the goal is not simply about “burning” more kcal/min of fat. Instead, it’s about striving for the optimal energy expenditure curve in which you can burn a bit more fat AND sustain such utilization rate for a wider range. In other words, your energy utilization curve shouldn’t just be about having the highest fat burning peak, but also, is to be able to sustain fat utilization at various intensities resulting in a wider curve.
Again, compounded gains over years, and years and years through purposeful intentional daily habits.
Congratulations Benge! Here's to 2027 and continued gains.