Mid-Life Cyclist

Training for a grueling bike race, a hard-charging banker learns to shift gears.

Paul Schaye is already breaking a sweat. It's five minutes before noon on a warm spring day, and the New York investment banker, sporting a navy-blue suit and a blue-and-red-checked silk tie, is racing out of his Park Avenue office. "Failure is not an option," says Schaye, founder of Chestnut Hill Partners, a mergers-and-acquisitions advisory firm, referring to the most critical item on his agenda for the year.

Rushing through Grand Central Station, he ducks into Oliviers & Co., a shop that sells vintage olive oil. As if on cue, the woman at the cash register pulls out a crinkled white paper bag and counts out four chocolate-covered almonds one by one into Schaye's hand. "If I kept them at the office," he laughs, "I'd eat them all up in no time." The candy, he explains as he turns to leave, is the perfect energy boost -- some sugar, protein, and fat -- just the thing for his next appointment. Minutes later, Schaye arrives at his destination, nearly a half hour early for a spinning class at the Equinox Fitness Club. Over the past five months, he has spent more than 50 hours cycling on a stationary bike in this room. Schaye, now in a T-shirt and biking shorts, takes his usual seat in the front. A woman slides onto a bike near Schaye, noticeably peeved that "her" bike, next to him, is already taken. "I ride better when I ride next to Paul," she says. "I can feel his energy."

The class begins. Schaye lowers his head and starts to ride. He hardly looks up at all for the 45-minute workout, legs pumping at 90 revolutions a minute, in a dizzying blur, while his loud, controlled breathing vies with the beat of the music. By the end of class, the puddle of sweat under his bike is bigger than anyone else's.

For Schaye, every ride and every rest is part of a journey that is far greater. In the process of training for one of the most grueling challenges in amateur sports, he is learning how to pace himself -- for a 750-mile bicycle ride that is taking place in France this month, and for the rest of his life.

"When I'm flying down the hill at 50 miles per hour, I can't be thinking about what I'm going to write in an email."

This is a story about the hard work and discipline of making a passion outside of the office a way of life. It is also a story of how two passions -- one professional, the other personal -- inform and transform each other.

Schaye is a man-on-a-bike with a mission: to ride one Herculean stretch of French countryside and to cover that ground within 90 hours. This is not a wine-and-cheese tour. There will be no baguettes, no straw basket on the back of a postcard-perfect beaten-up vé lo. This ride, the Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP), is legendary in the cycling world, and with its completion come substantial bragging rights.

First run in 1891, the punishing trek from Paris to the Atlantic port city of Brest and back is the oldest amateur long-distance cycling event on earth. Over the years, it has evolved into a timed endurance ride, or randonné e. Held every four years, it draws more than 3,000 riders from all over the world. "I love a challenge," says Schaye, who turned 50 last year. "The other part of this ride is an affirmation that I'm still alive and kicking."

The Ride Before the Ride

Schaye started his training last January, but the fire to fuel his ride ignited years ago. He remembers his first bike as if it were yesterday. Brown and light blue. Training wheels. A coaster brake. He was five, and his big sister taught him how to ride. A year later, he upgraded to a red bike that had better tires. Like most kids, Schaye thought of his bike as his ticket to freedom and exploration. And his neighborhood in the hilly, tree-lined streets of Chestnut Hill, near Boston, was the perfect place to ride it. As a teenager, Schaye went on a few bicycle trips, but nothing epic. It wasn't until 1996 that Schaye really got into the sport. He and his wife, Gay, were at the New York City Marathon cheering on the runners, and he decided, on the spot, that he would run the marathon the following year. Gay, thinking of her husband's bad knees and the fact that he was cycling more than he was running, casually suggested the Boston - New York AIDS Ride instead.

It was all downhill from there. Ten months later, Schaye rode 304 miles in four days, from Boston to New York. Between sporting cool riding gear and participating in several more AIDS rides, Schaye began calling himself a cyclist. And every year for the past six years, he has biked the 200-mile Pan-Massachusetts Challenge, the country's largest athletic fund-raising event.

Despite his growing momentum in the sport, Schaye initially scoffed at his friend Geoffrey Kauffman's email last December suggesting that they take on the Paris ride. But when his wife pressed him to explain why he thought that he wasn't up to the task, he couldn't come up with an answer. Neither could his friend. "Paul isn't the fastest rider in the world," says Kauffman, "but there is nothing that he won't finish. You know that if Paul Schaye reaches the starting line, he is going to reach the finish line."

Blood, Sweat, and Gears

In many ways, Schaye has been training for his Mount Everest all of his life. The relentless discipline and drive that led him to found and run his own investment-banking firm are at the heart of his training program. What Schaye has understood from the very beginning is that in the training process -- just as in good business -- there are no shortcuts.

Schaye's first move was to hire a coach, even though most people training for the Paris ride lack one. But Schaye insisted on training right, which to him meant shelling out hundreds for expert advice and a check-in ride with John Eustice, a former cycling champion.

Next up was a team effort to reframe the thinking that brought Eustice on board in the first place. "The biggest problem with someone like Paul is holding him back," says Eustice. "He wants to go too hard." January, the first month of training, was spent slowing Schaye down.

Slowing down. That's a tall order for a hard-charging financial guy who has spent his professional life overtraining -- working at the heart of a go-harder-faster-longer culture. Initially, Schaye was skeptical of Eustice's efforts, but over time, he began to let go and trust him.

Schaye has come to learn that peak performance is not only about maximizing training, but also about rest and renewal. The goal is not only to build more energy and tolerate more stress, but also to teach the body how to recover more efficiently between training intervals. Stress, recover. Stress, recover.

The same sort of thinking applies to his work. "The discipline of riding," Schaye says, "is in the discipline of business." Truth is, his approach to training for the race of his life closely mirrors his strategy at work. In training, he constantly searches for and enlists allies for support -- from the woman who hands him almonds to clients who check in just to ask, "How's the cycling?" In business, Schaye does the same, spending his day chatting up partners at the private-equity firms that come to him for new deals. He documents every business call just as he logs every mile on his PDA. After all, what gets measured gets done. And pacing matters. For the Paris ride, Schaye must complete a series of training rides called qualifiers, with the last qualifier covering 373 miles within 40 hours. So Schaye breaks down every ride -- every hill on that ride, even -- into a series of more manageable mental sprints. In the same way, when he was starting his company, Schaye set six-month benchmarks so that he wouldn't get overwhelmed by the immensity of the challenge. And his focus on the final goal, be it crossing the finish line or closing a deal, verges on the obsessive.

"When I'm flying down the hill at 50 miles per hour, I can't be thinking about what I'm going to write in an email," says Schaye. "I'm right there on the road and nowhere else. I feel the pavement, the bike, my hands, my body." Similarly, he's more relaxed and focused at the office. "It's not that I feel smarter," he says. "I'm working smarter. I have more mental acuteness. I take more in stride."

He's also learning to trust himself on the bike and tap into the more intuitive part of the sport. A number junkie by trade, it was natural at first for Schaye to go from staring at information on the computer screen to staring at information displayed on the gad- gets on his handlebars: heart rate, average speed, distance, and so on. Eustice had to steer Schaye's attention inward.

"When it comes down to crunch time in the sport," says Eustice, "if you look at the numbers and they're not the ones you want, then you're doomed. I said to Paul, 'Listen, you have to learn how to feel your body, feel the bicycle. You look at monitors enough.' " Some of the more important indicators to watch, according to Eustice: Are you tired? Is your appetite good? Are you being nice to your wife?

The training is as demanding on Schaye's body as it is on his schedule. By the time of the event this month, he will have clocked more than 650 hours -- more than 10 workweeks -- on his bike. The training has lowered his resting heart rate to 38. Schaye's life: Eat, sleep, bike, work, and repeat the routine all over again.

The first one in the office, Schaye arrives around 8 AM and easily works past 7 PM. Tuesdays and Thursdays, he attends a midday spin class. Wednesdays and Fridays, he rides after work. Saturdays, he might be on the road by 5 AM, arriving home at 8 or 9 PM to have a late dinner with his wife before crashing. Sundays are like Saturdays, only less extreme. And Mondays are rest days -- which usually means simply working at the office.

Basically, Schaye sees his wife of nine years only when he stops for a moment to catch his breath. "This type of intense time demand is totally self-indulgent," he admits, even for a person who does not have any children. Gay agrees, but adds that their relationship is actually performing at a higher level. "I've gotten to see my husband fully and to take in how strong his passion is and how great his discipline can be."

Schaye still puts in 60-hour weeks.

The (Long) Road Ahead

On August 18, Schaye plans to climb onto his bike in the small French town of Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines and, from the 10 PM starting time onward, pedal around the clock. Schaye will have to pedal 250 miles daily for three consecutive days, on a minimal amount of rest and sleep. To meet certain checkpoints, most riders go without sleep for the first 36 hours. Schaye's goal, like that of most riders, is to complete the ride within the time limit. Is he worried about a bumpy road ahead? "I don't even let the thought creep into my mind," he says. "If I do, I'm done."

If it sounds as if you have to be a super talent to take on such a ride, Schaye insists that the only difference between him and the next guy is the sheer will to go the distance. "If a guy like me can do this, with a full-time job, heck, anybody can. Why not?" He pauses, smiling. "You have to be a little off to do this. I know that I'm a little off, but I think it's off in a good way."

Sidebar: In Gear

A self-proclaimed gearhead, Paul Schaye recommends his favorite bike stuff.

The wheel deal Schaye swears by his titanium, four-year-old Litespeed Classic -- "my boy," he calls it. He opted for the Classic because its frame is more about comfort than about high-speed performance. (Visit www.litespeed.com. Price, including custom-made enhancements: about $7,000.)

Get a grip You've got to hand it to the Swiss-made Pros summer gloves by Assos. Padding where you want it at a hands-down good deal. (Visit www.assos.com. Price: $44.95.)

Hot seat For a kick-butt performance, try Assos's FI.13 cycling shorts. They provide the right amount of cushion in the right place. (Price: $219.95.) And for a smooth ride between you and your shorts, pack on the Chamois Butt'r butt balm. (Visit www.pacelineproducts.com. Price: $11.95.)

Fuel speed ahead "I'm constantly eating and drinking," Schaye says. "It's a veritable feast." He eats one-quarter of a Balance Bar (www.balance.com) every 15 minutes or half hour. He cuts the bars into bite-sized pieces and stores them in a bike lunch pack called a Bento Box. (Visit www.tniusa.com. Price: under $20.) He washes them down with Accelerade (www.accelerade.com), which he stores in a 64-ounce CamelBak pack. (Visit www.camelbak.com. Price: $30 to $90.)

Take heart Monitor your heart rate with the Polar S-210. A simple but smart device, it will help you stay on track. (Visit www.polar-heartrate-monitors.com. Price: $162.)

Christine Canabou is a Fast Company staff writer.

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