As we wind up another PBP year and start looking forward to a new one that will see us celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Randonneurs USA, it is fitting to learn more about one of the key figures in the development of randonneuring, both in our nation and around the world. During the last three decades of the 20th century the sport has grown far from its French origins, and one name stands out time after time: Robert "Bob" Lepertel.
In the United States, ten years ago Randonneurs USA took over from the now-defunct International Randonneurs. Beginning in the early 1980s, New Yorker James Konski was the trail-blazer who lead the way for us with the IR. But behind the scenes during those early years Bob Lepertel was encouraging Konski and other Americans to ride brevets, flèches, and Paris-Brest-Paris itself. It was Bob who first recruited and worked with Jim Konski, and then later with the founders of RUSA such as Jennifer Wise, Johnny Bertrand, John Wagner and myself—just as he had done in a score of other countries.
In addition to getting the free-pace style of randonneuring exported to lands outside the French borders during the 1970s and 1980s, Bob Lepertel had previously spearheaded a movement inside France itself that helped save the sport from extinction. Randonneuring had been popular in the first part of the 20th century, especially before 1914. Following a brief period of widespread activity in the post-World War II years, the sport had gone into decline. When he took over the reins of the Audax Club Parisien during the mid-1960s, randonneuring was in very bad shape. Of course it takes hardy cyclists to participate in randonneuring brevets, but there must also be someone to coordinate the riders and their clubs. Luckily for all of us that man was Bob Lepertel. Ably assisted by his tireless wife Suzanne and the other members of the ACP, they rescued PBP from its certain demise during a time in the 1960s when the total number of participants at each event numbered less than 180 riders, and the amount of annual French brevets was at alarmingly low levels.
"Big Bob" was kind enough to spend some time answering our questions last July. With the 16th version of the ACP's Paris-Brest-Paris rapidly approaching, and his daughter Claude working hard to process all the entries for foreign randonneurs, it seemed fitting to take a look back at the early days of PBP, and to learn more about the man who has devoted much of his life to our sport and its premier event.
Am/R: Bob, you were the president of the Audax Club Parisien from 1967-1983, and except for 1991, the organizer of the seven editions of PBP from 1966 to 1995. While you were at the helm, the randonneur Paris-Brest-Paris grew from being a lengthy French club run to an international festival of long-distance cycling. But let's go back to the very beginning. Where and when were you born?
Lepeertel: I was born on November 11, 1924; I'll be 83 on my next birthday. Our home was in the town of Bégard, in northern Brittany. (Bégard is about halfway between the cities of Morlaix and Saint-Brieuc—ed.)
Am/R: What was your family life like? What about your education?
Lepertel: It was a normal French family; my grandparents lived with us, my father worked for the regional railway. My mother took care of the house and my sister and me. My father eventually became an engineer on the railroad. Later he worked on the national system and was a mechanic there, but he lost part of his right arm in an accident. Then he managed a distribution center for heating coal. He died in 1956 at the age of 57 from cancer. My mother followed him in death at age 74, also of cancer.
My formal education was limited to two-and-a-half years past "le Certificat d' Etudes" (about 8th grade in the American system—ed.) I was 14 when I went to work at a coal firm; my father knew the owner and arranged for me to start a position there. I did any and all jobs, and I worked in the office a good bit. They taught me accounting and this helped determine my eventual career path.
Am/R: I'm curious, how did a French fellow get the nickname of "Bob"? I'm not sure I've heard that in France before, especially for someone who doesn't speak English.
Lepertel: In my first club, there were several guys named Robert, including the President. It was confusing, so I opted for "Bob" and it stuck.
Am/R: How did cycling fit in during those early years? You went to work in 1938, and then the war came along less than two years later.
Lepertel: By that time I was living and working in the suburbs north of Paris. Starting in 1941 I would ride my bike to work, home for lunch, and then back to work, and home again in the evening. The distance between Clichy and Aubervilliers was about 6 kilometers, so I did about 25 kilometers each day.
Am/R: Besides cycling for transportation, what drew you to the sport? What was your first club?
Lepertel: Well, that's a funny story. My involvement in cycling came around because of dancing…
Am/R: How so?
Lepertel: During the war there were limits on what we could do, and the authorities did not allow large gatherings since they were afraid of resistance movements developing. A group of us wanted to organize dances and social gatherings, but one of the few things possible in those days were sporting clubs. So, we became a "cycling club" under the banner of the FFCT (the national French touring league—ed.) This got us our permit, and with that we could rent halls. Our club was named the Sporting Association of Errant Companions. Out of our 110-120 members, perhaps four or five of us actually did any bicycling. Our "cycling club" had no regular ride schedule or rules, but a handful of us rode little rallies on Sunday mornings. It was fun.
Am/R: But I read that a young Robert Lepertel had ridden an ACP 200k brevet during the war years…
Lepertel: Yes, I met some older riders and learned from them about the brevets organized before the war. The longer distances seemed unbelievable; even 200 kilometers sounded impossible. But nonetheless, in 1943 I entered an ACP 200k. I made it inside 12 hours, but it was very difficult since I didn't know a thing about the caloric needs of cycling that far. I bonked badly twice and had to walk up all but the smallest hills. My second 200k was after the Liberation.
Am/R: Did you know Suzanne during this time?
Lepertel: Yes, we met in the dancing club. Like the others, she joined because she enjoyed dancing and the social scene there. Friendship came easily between us and blossomed into romance. We married after the war, on April 26, 1946. We celebrated our 61st anniversary this year.
Am/R: You have a daughter Claude, and she is a PBP ancienne; did you have other children, and did they do cycling too?
Lepertel: Our daughter Claude became a randonneuse with her first Flèche Vélocio. She was invited to join a team of English riders, and since then she has done six or seven. She is a Randonneur 5000, and did her PBP in the rainy 1987 in less than 84 hours.
Our two other children are not cyclists. Our son Michel works in the aerospace industry in Toulouse; he enjoys mountain hiking in his free time. Our second son Alain lives closer to home. He has started an electronics firm with two partners and is successful in his field. He enjoys playing bridge and is a nationally ranked player.
Claude and Alain have been an important part of the PBP organizing team for many years. Claude is in charge of the homologations for the French brevet results, and is now processing all the PBP entries for foreign riders.
Am/R: Let's go back to your early cycling years. What were you doing after the war ended?
Lepertel: After our marriage, we had a tandem built by Alex Singer, and left our original club, the AS Errant Companions, to found the Cyclo Camping Club in 1947. It was a small club, but we rode often with about 25 or 30 friends, some of whom had followed us from the old club to the new one. We went camping frequently, setting up in wild areas, not organized campgrounds.
Our little club, with only about 20 members, functioned well. Along with our own club rides, we created several events that many other cyclists enjoyed. First we started the Randonnée Cyclo Historique, which was a tour of Paris with a dozen stops; we put on five editions, with the last one attracting more than a thousand participants. Then we created the Randonnée des Boucles de la Seine, a ride of 280 kilometers. Riders could choose a group to suit their ability—Cyclo-Sportif (25 kph minimum pace); Randonneurs (22 kph); and Tourist (18 kph). Finally, we started the Brevet de Randonneurs de Chevreuse. It had the same three categories as the Boucles de la Seine, but it was 180 kilometers and had 18 hills to climb. These rides were a big success too. Around this time I spent two years working to help organize the FFCT's Cyclo-Camping section, but I was neither good at it, nor very interested in it.
Not long after that our club accepted a proposal to join the Vélo Club de Courbevoie Asnières (VCCA). It was a famous racing club that had launched the careers of several famous professionals such as Varnjo and Darrigade. But after the war, it was more active in touring than racing, and our fusion made sense. There were about 60 of us in total; the best of the era was Gilbert Bulte. He was a fast rider and very active in the cyclo-sportifs. His successes drew others to join the club. (We don't really have many equivalent events here in the US; the French "cyclo-sportif" events were, and are, fast rides with winners and also-rans like a race, but they fall outside formal racing events put on by the normal sanctioning bodies, such as the UCI. They might be considered similar to some running events today, where there are elite runners who race with each other to arrive first and win prizes and fame, while behind them others simply participate and challenge themselves, and don't take the competitive aspect too seriously the way the frontrunners do—ed.)
I became president of the "cyclo" section of the VCCA and we had some resources at our disposal, such as a printing press for publicity and newsletters, a bus to use to reach events far from Paris two or three times a year, and we recruited some strong riders from other clubs, such as Decker, Noel, Martyre, Lebas, and Roger Baumann. We were very active in those years. Our Sunday rides were from 150 to 250 kilometers, and we participated in all the big cyclo-sportif events around the region. Still, times were tough in the post-war years and our finances didn't allow us to travel as much as we would have liked, such as to the Easter events in Provence.
Am/R: It sounds like you were always an organizer as much as a rider.
Lepertel: I became president of the cycling league for the Paris region in 1951 and 1952. In those days cycling was popular, but unlike today, not so many clubs cooperated with each other or the national federation. I had to work hard to bring them together and created a free annual ride calendar for the Paris region. In so doing I had to find the advertising revenue to support this project. With my friend Migeon, we also started "Cyclo Informations", a bi-monthly newsletter that featured nothing but cycle-touring. However, it folded after about two years from lack of interest among the riders. During that time we also organized two "Nuits du Cyclotourisme", popular social events for cyclists that featured top entertainers of the day, such as Henri Salvador.
Am/R: Many Amer-icans will recognize you as the chief organizer of many editions of Paris-Brest-Paris, but not many know you are also the creator of the Flèches des France rides. When did the idea come to you? Were they successful from the start?
(These are permanent rides, not team events like the Flèche Vélocio. There are 20 routes, each one starting in Paris and then traveling to some city on border of France. When viewed at once, the map looks like a star, with the rays spreading out from the capital. The route distances range from 180 to 1,000 kilometers. These rides have been a cornerstone of the French cycle-touring world for years, and are still very popular today—ed.)
Lepertel: During my last two years in Paris, and just before my relocation to Rennes for nine years when I took a new job, I presented to the club Board of Directors a proposal for the Flèches des France. There were some details to work out about distance, pace, and controls, and having them work with other types of FFCT events. But finally in 1953, Gilbert Dauvergne took on the huge task of laying out the actual routes and creating the route sheets—no small thing for 20 long rides!
The rides were popular from the start. They were opened in 1954, and Roger and Geneviève Rouy completed the entire series in only two years! With the normal highs and lows, about 40,000 riders have done them in the past 53 years, about 800 riders per year on average.
Am/R: By the early 1960s, you were back in Paris and moving up the corporate ladder in multi-national companies like Rhone-Poulenc and Buhler. This also returned you to your friends in the VCCA. The club then merged with the Audax Club Parisien around 1964. Quite soon after the merger you and Gilbert Bulte organized the next PBP, in 1966. What was that like? I've read you had very little from previous events to work with.
Lepertel: This merger resuscitated the VCCA as much as it did the ACP. Both clubs were ill, as was French cycling as a whole. We took on the organization of the Brevets de Randonneurs Français and the organization for the 1966 Paris-Brest. For the brevets, there were only 500 homologations in 1963. My new job, which brought me back to Paris, was inspector of sales for a large corporation, and included Brittany among my firm's 60 sales regions. This allowed me to also visit many hotels and restaurants we could use for controls during PBP. I also was able to meet Mr. Paquereau, the president of the cycling league for Brittany and he promised to run the control in Brest.
Yes, we didn't have much to go on except a few ride documents saved by Gilbert from his previous PBP participations, but we got L'Equipe to print the route books and route sheets and other materials. Lucien Virgile, a past president of the ACP, also volunteered to run a secret control, which he did for 48 consecutive hours. Things were pretty simple back then; a 400k brevet was needed for entry, the entry fee was 50 francs and we provided the riders with a route book, an itinerary, and a frame number. That is about all we could do, given the size of the club.
Am/R: The 1966 PBP randonneur event saw the maximum time reduced from 96 hours to the now-familiar 90-hour time limit. What prompted the change? The UAF's audax version of PBP had always had a time limit of 90 hours, was this an influence?
Lepertel: Gilbert Bulte wanted the change and I agreed. By then the roads and bicycles were better than in the first randonneur PBP in 1931. It is possible that the UAF time limit was a factor, but I don't recall that now. In any case, the randonneurs from earlier PBPs adapted to the change, and the new ones didn't know any better.
Am/R: At the next PBP in 1971, there was impressive growth from 173 to 325 participants. Then in 1975 it grew to 666, and by 1979 you had 1766 starters. Why do you suppose so many more French cyclists wanted to ride PBP compared to earlier years?
Lepertel: The growth in PBP participation was strong, but it progressed gradually and we managed to cope. I think the results plaquette we started publishing after the 1971 PBP helped create more interest among the French club riders. In general, the French rediscovered their taste for randonneuring. The old maps and routes were updated, the brevets got more coverage in the cycling press, routes and results were homologated more swiftly than before, results were published more often, etc.
Outside France, it was the book by Jock Wadley (Old Roads and New—ed.) that got PBP known in the English-speaking countries. It made British, American, Canadian, and a little later, Australian riders want to do PBP.
Am/R: Interest in PBP was also growing in other countries as well…
Lepertel: Yes, I created the Randonneurs Europeans in 1976, then this became the Randonneurs Mondiaux in 1983. We met after Paris-Brest-Paris at the Pied Couchon, a 24-hour restaurant popular with us since it is the starting place for many of the Flèches des France. There were eight founding member countries present, along with president of the FFCT. I was elected the first RM president, John Nicolas of the UK was vice-president, Jacques Delava of Belgium was treasurer; the other founders were James Konski of the US, Francesc Porta of the Spanish Catalans; Jose-Luis Garcia of the Spanish Basques, Russel Moore of Australia, Jean-Claude Muzellec of Sweden, and Gary Pareja of Canada, and of course I represented the ACP and France.
Am/R: You and Suzanne have always worked hard to welcome foreign randonneurs to PBP, and we sincerely thank you for your hospitality. Can you tell us a little more about why you encouraged foreign participation in PBP?
Lepertel: It was normal for us to welcome foreign randonneurs since they had always welcomed us in similar fashion when we visited them. And, they had agreed to work with us for PBP qualifying, and develop their national organizations in the way we desired, which contributed to our mutual friendship.
In 1983, after retiring from 45 years of work, Suzanne and I had the opportunity to travel and we visited many of our randonneuring friends in Australia, Norway, Britain, the US, Canada, South Africa, Sweden, Spain, Bulgaria, Germany, New Zealand, and elsewhere. It has been particularly gratifying to be on hand for quite a few of the new 1200k events that have sprung up around the globe. We've had many interesting trips and adventures in our busy retirement.
Am/R: When you look back at your involvement in cycling as a organizer, what stands out? What are you most proud of? Any surprises? Or sad memories?
Lepertel: Proud, you say? Nothing particular stands out, I suppose. But I had the luck to be supported all the time by Suzanne, and by club members who appreciated my efforts. I never worked alone. With PBP, for example, we had the advantage of knowing what we'd be doing every four years.
Overall, I've been very pleased by the growth of randonneuring and the Randonneurs Mondiaux. The enthusiasm it has produced in many countries has been satisfying. I've been happy to have my efforts contribute to more people enjoying the bicycle. In 1999 Suzanne and I were recipients of the FFCT's Gold Medal, its highest honor for people who have made significant contributions to the sport, and we are honored to have been chosen for that.
When we took over the ACP in the mid-1960s I wanted us to become the premier French cycling club, but that didn't happen. In its halcyon days ACP membership was 300, but in modern times we are not more than 80 in number. So, we are not the biggest, but we are at the top of the list for organizing events, and the ACP is well-known around the world. The FFCT has recognized us for this and has pledged to aid us if we have the need.
Other memories? There are enough to write a book. Probably the biggest surprise has been the continual growth of PBP. The saddest ones have been the loss of riders at PBP, like young Juignet, killed by a drunk driver in 1966 not far from Brest, or the accident near Mayenne in 1975 that killed two of the riders and left a third paralyzed. These things caused us to abandon the N-12 and develop the current route. We are pleased with it, as are the provincial clubs who run the controls.
Am/R: Where do you see PBP in ten years' time? Or in 50 years?
Lepertel: We have come to a time with more than 5,000 entrants at PBP and this is a big problem for the Organizing Committee. What will they do in 2011—will they find 40 or 45 member countries of the Randonneurs Mondiaux? Will we see 7,000 to 8,000 people asking to get into PBP? I have suggested that they modify the entrance requirements by limiting the brevet times. For example they could require the 400k in 25 hours or less, or 36 hours for the 600k. But they should keep the standard times for the Super Randonneur series; the reduced times would be only for PBP entry. However, this is just a suggestion; I don't know what they will do. As for PBP in 50 years, obviously I am too old to even discuss that.
Am/R: Back in the 1980s did you ever imagine a time when the US would lead the yearly country standings for randonneuring? I must admit I'm rather surprised myself.
Lepertel: Like you, I never imagined it, nor that the worldwide level of randonneuring activity would be so strong. The change in leadership in the US, with Randonneurs USA, has been beneficial to the growth of the sport, just as happened in Britain with the AUK some years earlier. One man, however devoted or capable, just can't do it all himself, especially for a nation as big as the United States—some of your 50 states are larger than nations elsewhere. One must also salute Jennifer Wise and Johnny Bertrand for their vision, and the exceptional team they put together. They found the necessary people with the energy to make it all happen. RUSA has done a fine job organizing the clubs, and it has published a mass of information to help its new members too. All of this has worked to build a strong organization of randonneuring in your country.
Am/R: Bob, before we close is there anything you'd like to tell our American randonneurs and randonneuses?
Lepertel: I have met many American randonneurs and I wish them continued success; I hope they will continue to build their spirit for the long randonnées, to keep encouraging the new riders to develop their skills and progress to the next level, and most of all, to keep riding brevets and their national flèches. I hope that one day some large state, such as Texas or California, might copy the idea for the Flèches de France and do something similar there. Of course I am at your disposition to help in any way I can for that, or any other project you have; our friendship means a lot.