Extract from Rouleur Annual 5, on sale now
By the third night, the roads are strewn with bodies. “It looks as though a serial killer has been on the loose, wantonly slaying cyclists and laying their bodies in a ritual manner at the side of the road,” says Kieron Yates, slurring into an audio recorder he carried while riding the 1,230km from Paris to the western tip of Brittany and back, in the company of the world’s toughest cyclists. “Occasionally they are covered with bin liners or a bit of matting, a silver survival blanket, as though a generous member of the public wanted to hide the bodies from the view of the other passing cyclists.”
The bodies are laid out on verges and pavements, in front gardens and parking lots, utterly exhausted cyclists who have finally given in to the overpowering urge to rest, to close their eyes and slip into unconsciousness. Yates, himself wired and fatigued, has drawn the obvious parallel: sleep and death are brothers, two takes on oblivion, each a simulacrum of the other. Sleep, the essential, quotidian negation of consciousness. Death, the final, inescapable and infinite sleep, the negation of life.
“When you start to feel that you’re actually falling asleep while riding; that’s when your tiredness is becoming dangerous,” says Pete Kelsey of the Willesden Cycling Club, tackling his first Paris-Brest-Paris. “That’s when you need to get off the bike, find some shelter – a park bench, any flat surface – and set your alarm for fifteen minutes. I wouldn’t normally find myself sprawled out at three o’clock in the morning on a garage forecourt, but you’ve entered a parallel universe and it seems normal… but it’s not normal.”
It is very far from normal. Wig Worland’s photographic account lays bare the nihilistic qualities of PBP, an almost unimaginably arduous journey through a featureless landscape of dull, rolling farmland (with over 9,000 metres of climbing, it is by no means flat) that ends where it begins. You have to ask the question: what kind of person subjects themselves to a race like this? What is going on in their exhausted, sleep-deprived minds? Motivations are hard to fathom and every rider is different, but there is something that unites them all: it is about going to the limit, and then some, but coming out alive. Which is greater, the mental challenge or the physical? After all the body can be trained to perform, but can the mind be trained to suffer?
On December 28, 1963, a 17-year-old Californian high school student by the name of Randy Gardner was the subject of a sleep deprivation experiment. He was also going for a new World Record for staying awake, setting a target of 264 hours, or eleven days. It remains unbroken as the longest documented case of staying awake. By the second day Randy was experiencing difficulty focusing his eyes. By the fourth, he had become irritable, suffered memory lapses, slurred speech and found it impossible to concentrate. He began to see things that weren’t there. Five days into his marathon of sleeplessness, he became convinced he was an NFL player and would get agitated with anyone who disputed this. By the ninth day Gardner was unable to finish his sentences, lost all facial expression and developed hand tremors and involuntary jerks in his upper arms. Keep laboratory rats awake for a fortnight and they will die. That could be why the Guinness World Records no longer accepts sleep deprivation attempts due to the health risks involved.
Sleep deprivation impairs the functioning of the frontal lobe, the part of the brain where much of our humanity resides. The frontal lobe gives us our powers of reason, memory, self-awareness, empathy, language, innovation, and critically when riding a bicycle at speed, the ability to do multiple things at the same time and to assess risks and react appropriately.