(An abridged version of this article previously appeared in the 1999 PBP Yearbook published by Randonneurs USA.)
A SHORT HISTORY OF PARIS-BREST-PARIS
©Bill Bryant, 1999
First run in 1891, the 1200-kilometer Paris-Brest-Paris, or "PBP" as it is commonly called, is a grueling test of human endurance and cycling ability. Organized every four years by the host Audax Club Parisien, the Paris-Brest-Paris Randonneurs is the oldest bicycling event still run on a regular basis on the open road. Beginning on the southwestern side of the French capital, it travels west 600 kilometers to the port city of Brest on the Atlantic Ocean and returns along the same route. Today's randonneur cyclists, while no longer riding the primitive machines used a hundred years ago over dirt roads or cobblestones, still have to face up to rough weather, endless hills, and pedaling around the clock. A 90-hour time limit ensures that only the hardiest randonneurs earn the prestigious PBP finisher's medal and have their name entered into the event's "Great Book" along with every other finisher going back to the very first PBP. To become a PBP ancien (or ancienne for the ladies) is to join a very elite group of cyclists who have successfully endured this mighty challenge. No longer a contest for professional racing cyclists (whose entry is now forbidden), PBP evolved into a timed randonnée or brevet for hard-riding amateurs during the middle part of the 20th century.
The Racing Years
In 1891 people didn't know what could be done on the bicycle. Some medical experts of the day decried its alleged harm to the human body and soul; some women even boldly insisted on riding bikes, just like men! Racing on velodromes in front of throngs of spectators had begun ten years earlier, and cycling around town by wealthy enthusiasts who could afford a machine was common enough, but the idea of covering long distances on the open road was in its infancy. Still, as the turn of the century approached, ideas about what this fascinating new invention could do began to expand. Early attempts at road racing and touring over hill and dale had started some years before, but certainly weren't at all frequent. Rutted and dusty in dry weather or muddy after rain, the unpaved roads of the time were abysmal. Encountered mostly in cities, bumpy cobblestones were often destructive to the fragile bicycle wheels as well. Nonetheless, in the spring of 1891, the inaugural Bordeaux-Paris was held, a whopping 572-kilometer road race. It captured the public's attention and newspaper sales shot up for days before and after. This wasn't lost on the editor (and devoted cycling enthusiast) of Le Petit Journal, Pierre Griffard. Also not lost was the fact that foreign riders had dominated Bordeaux-Paris from start to finish-the first Frenchman was a distant fifth place.
So, Paris-Brest-Paris was announced for the summer of 1891. Griffard intended it to be the supreme test of bicycle reliability and the will of its rider. He didn't miss the mark: at 1200 kilometers, PBP would make Bordeaux-Paris and its winning time of 27 hours seem like child's-play. Only male French cyclists were allowed to enter. Each rider could have up to ten paid pacers strategically placed along the route to help with drafting and providing mechanical assistance. (Though a common racing practice of the time, only a few of the most well-sponsored racers employed them at PBP.) Since automobiles were still some years off into the future, the race would be monitored by a system of observers connected along the route by train and telegraph. Newspaper reporters would, of course, send their dispatches back to Paris so the public could be supplied with special editions reporting the race as it occurred. PBP also caught the attention of bicycle and tire manufacturers wanting to show the cycling-crazy public that their products were superior to other brands. Unlike the modern rural PBP route which successfully avoids the busier roads west of Paris, the original route followed the "Great West Road" to Brest, or Route Nationale 12 as it came to be known, through the cities of La Queue-en-Yveline, Mortagne-au-Perche, Pré-en-Pail, Laval, Montauban-de-Bretagne, Saint Brieuc, and Morlaix. Riders were required to stop in each of these contrôle towns and have their route book signed and stamped, a practice still done today. No one knew how long it would take to cycle the extraordinary distance, and nay-sayers were convinced it couldn't be done at all; they even claimed that some foolish riders might die in the attempt! During that summer of 1891, in a much simpler place and time than ours, French newspapers were filled with stories and speculation about the upcoming test and the public's imagination was riveted on this outstanding wager of audacity and determination. Over 400 riders entered the inaugural PBP, but many apparently came to their senses; 206 brave cyclists eventually set off just before sunrise on September 6th amid great pomp and ceremony. How many, everyone in the vast crowds wondered, would make it back to Paris in one piece?
Widely reported in the press and discussed by the general public, the first edition of PBP was a huge success. The winner, Charles Terront, triumphantly, albeit wearily, pedaled into Paris at dawn three days later, after slightly less than 72 sleepless hours on the road. Despite the early hour, over ten thousand cheering spectators were awaiting his arrival! His was an epic ride against his competitors and nature itself, and Terront became national celebrity. A little over half the starters gave up along the way and got themselves to the nearest train station, while one hundred haggard survivors continued to trickle into Paris over the next seven days. Along with prize money to 17th place, these lion-hearted heroes were all given a handsome commemorative medal inscribed with their name and time, and the legend of Paris-Brest-Paris was born.
After the first event in 1891, there were PBP races in 1901, 1911, 1921, 1931, 1948, and 1951. The ten-year interval seemed to reflect the difficulty of organizing such a long race, and also because the Herculean event was so hard on the racers themselves-one PBP in a rider's career was widely felt to be more than enough! Though the starting fields at each PBP professional race were small (25-45 riders), most editions, especially the earliest ones, attracted the best endurance racers of the day. For example, already twice victorious in Paris-Roubaix, the winner in the 1901 PBP race was Maurice Garin, who would then go on to win the inaugural Tour de France in 1903.
The second PBP was also significant because entry was opened up to foreign racers. Among them was Chicago's Charly Miller, a successful long-distance track event specialist. Under-funded for PBP, Miller lacked the team support his rivals employed, particularly the all-important pacers. Yet, Miller would doggedly persevere alone through bad luck with numerous punctures and a broken bicycle. He arrived back in Paris on a hastily borrowed replacement for a fine fifth-place finish and wide-spread acclaim. His fast time of 56 hours, 40 minutes is still a remarkable feat that most modern riders would love to achieve. Thus, the 26-year-old Miller was the first American to enter, and complete PBP. Moreover, Charly Miller's self-reliance and stubborn determination remain an excellent model for today's randonneurs to emulate.
Beginning in 1901, the PBP entrants were divided into two groups: the fast coureurs de vitesse and the slower touristes-routiers. These hardy amateurs, denied all the team support given to the racers along the route between the contrôles, were the predecessors of today's self-sufficient randonneurs and often numbered over a hundred in each PBP until 1931. Another big change came in 1911; no intermediate pacers were allowed, as had been the practice in the first two PBPs. From then on, the racers would have to make do with teammates who rode every inch of the course alongside their leader.
In 1931 another fundamental change came to PBP. While still a very prestigious professional race, the organizers dropped the category for the unglamorous touristes-routiers. Luckily for today's randonneurs, the Audax Club Parisien stepped in and organized a 1200-kilometer brevet run alongside the race. Entrance was predicated upon having done a 300-kilometer brevet. (Tandem "stokers" could get in with just a 200-kilometer brevet to their credit.) About 60 randonneurs took the route that year, among them several women-a PBP first. A few of these randonneuses were on tandems and two used solo bikes. Riding with her husband Jean on a tandem, Madame Germaine Danis clocked in at 88 hours and became the first woman to ever finish PBP. Madmoiselle Paulette Vassard came in five hours later to become PBP's first female solo rider. (In those days the Audax Club Parisien (ACP) set the maximum time limit at 96 hours; it would switch, perhaps reflecting better roads and bicycles of the post-World War II era, to the current limit of 90 hours in 1966.)
(The ACP's arch-rival, the Union des Audax Parisiens (UAP), didn't want to be upstaged and also put on a similar event one day after the randonneur PBP for its "always riding as a group" members, but they didn't allow any women or tandems in their ranks at that time. Very much believing in the camaraderie of "all for one, one for all" in their strictly scheduled audax version of PBP, the big peloton intentionally arrives back in Paris together after 85 hours on the road. Thus, it never truly resembled the faster free-paced randonneur version, which is somewhat closer to the unpredictability of a road race. The Union des Audax Française, successor to the UAP, has continued to organize the "PBP Audax" at five-year intervals since 1951.)
Changes among touristes-routiers and randonneurs aside, 1931 was an epic PBP race, arguably the best of all. Run in wretched weather, it was fought tooth and nail by men of iron. After various breakaway attempts, chases, and counter-attacks, the race ended in a desperate sprint among five exhausted racers on the banked boards of the Buffalo Velodrome in Paris! The worthy winner was the great Australian racer Hubert Opperman, or "Oppy" as he was popularly known. Riding solo and outnumbered by rivals with supporting teammates at PBP, his cycling prowess and never-say-die Aussie toughness thrilled race fans and made him a hero in France.
Not surprisingly, there wasn't a PBP event held in 1941 due to World War II. The sport of cycling was largely put on hold across Europe, with a few exceptions here and there, such as hollow versions of the one-day Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix races. (Despite a distinct lack of trained, high-caliber racing cyclists, some ersatz bicycle races were run as morale boosters to remind those nations vanquished by the Nazis that life was getting back to normal in 1942-44. It didn't work; "real racing" only resumed in 1946-47 after Germany's defeat.) There was some effort given to organizing a PBP race for 1941, but the inevitable night-riding would have violated the strict civilian curfew imposed by the harsh German occupation forces, so the idea was eventually dropped. Alas, in the following three years, Brest suffered immensely at the hands of the American air and land forces since the Germans used the city's excellent harbor as their main submarine base. By September of 1944 eighty percent of the city lay in total ruin and its citizens faced a long period of reconstruction in the decades to follow.
A post-war race was promoted in 1948, and the traditional system of using years ending in a "one" was resumed in 1951. As it turned out, that was the last time there was a professional race at PBP. Hard-fought from the start, it was a grand battle despite rain much of the time. However, there were also favorable winds for most of the race; the tailwinds from the start in Paris switched 180 degrees just as the peloton reached Brest! Frenchman Maurice Diot arrived back in Paris after only 39 hours on the road and narrowly outsprinted compatriot Edouard Muller on the Parc des Princes Velodrome to take the victory-this after gallantly waiting for Muller to get a wheel change following an unlucky puncture on the outskirts of Paris at Trappes! Diot's sterling example of sportsmanship was a fine way for the last racing version of PBP to end.
Attempts were made to organize PBP races in 1956 and again in 1961, but both events were cancelled for lack of interest among the racers. The long-distance training PBP required was in direct conflict with the very lucrative criterium season that followed on the heels of each Tour de France. Few, if any, riders could afford to dedicate themselves to preparing for the rigors of PBP and then gamble that they would win some prize money; they could earn much more by riding the shorter daily races in cities and villages around France throughout August. The guaranteed appearance money offered them was hard to ignore, plus, they got to sleep each night! The PBP race promoters reluctantly gave up and turned over their event to the French cycle-touring federation. An era had ended; after 1951 PBP was no longer une course professionelle.
The Randonneuring Years
As interest in PBP among the professional racing world died out in the years following World War II, the amateur versions-both randonneur and audax-would keep PBP very much alive. There have been ACP Paris-Brest-Paris Randonneurs events in 1931, 1948, 1951, 1956, 1961, 1966, 1971, 1975, 1979, 1983, 1987, 1991, 1995, and 1999. Well attended for the times, the post-war Paris-Brest-Paris events saw much enthusiasm in a country trying to forget its wartime nightmares. Along with the free-paced, freewheeling randonneur event, the controlled-pace audax version was also very popular, as was club cycling in general throughout France. In fact, the audax PBP often had more participants than the randonneur version until the 1980s. After 1951 it was decided to schedule the event at five-year intervals. Interestingly, the three PBP randonnées of 1948, 1951, and 1956 saw men's tandem teams outrun the solo bike riders and arrive back in Paris first.
If the days of the professionals were over at PBP, sometimes the ACP's randonneur version didn't look too different at the front of the "race" (aside from the compulsory use of fenders and the prohibition against any advertising on clothing). Each edition was hotly contested by dedicated amateurs and they frequently turned in impressive performances. A few bicycle firms continued to support some of these fast randonneurs since sales of a particular brand would still improve following a PBP "win". There were many French successes, but often by different riders. However, in the modern era, two names stand out time after time: Belgian Herman De Munck was at the front of affairs for many years beginning in 1966, while the American Scott Dickson has dominated in a similar fashion from 1979 to the present without missing a single event. (Though now getting on in years, De Munck still rides PBP swiftly; he finished the 1999 edition in 56:49!) Clearly, Dickson and De Munck, like so many other hardy <>anciens, truly love PBP despite (or more likely, because of) its rigors. Perhaps 1931 winner Hubert Opperman described the difference between the two kinds of PBP cyclists best when he returned to Paris in 1971 to send off the randonneurs. Oppy told the waiting riders, "I was a professional cyclist. I lived by the bicycle. You fellows are the real cyclists; you live for it." These days, though, PBP as a race is clearly a side show to the real PBP of modern times. It is now a timed brevet or randonnée where the vast majority of riders' goal is to make it back to Paris inside the time limit and earn their finisher's medal-not to defeat their fellow randonneurs and randonneuses. Camaraderie, not competition, is the main characteristic among most entrants nowadays.
Following some very lean years in the 1960s (less than 180 riders), the PBP Randonneurs grew tremendously under the dedicated leadership of Bob and Suzanne Lepertel. Once entirely a domestic affair, by the 1970s increasing numbers of foreign riders traveled to France to attempt PBP. More French randonneurs took up the challenge too. After 666 starters in 1975, 1766 were at the next PBP in 1979.
After Charly Miller raced PBP in 1901, seventy long years would pass before the next cyclists from the US attempted the ride, but neither Clifford Graves nor Ruby Curtis made the finish in 1971. The second American to finish PBP successfully was Californian Creig Hoyt in 1975. Also finishing the 1975 PBP at intervals behind Hoyt were Herman Falsetti of Iowa, and randonneuses Annette Hillan, another Californian, and Harriet Fell of New York. The medals earned by this pioneering foursome that year opened the door for future American randonneurs at PBP and 35 rode PBP in 1979; by 1983 the number had risen to 107. By 1999, 3573 participants from 24 nations--including 400 Americans--took the start. (Which has brought some problems, since organizing and supporting such an enormous mob has clearly over-burdened the ACP.)
A curious tradition for decades, the rival audax and randonneur versions were usually run just one day after the other. In 1971, eight audax riders finished their 85-hour PBP ride on a Sunday afternoon and then started the randonnneur event the very next day at 4 PM! All eight made it back to Paris successfully the second time, so these incredibly audacious riders did two PBPs back-to-back in the space of a week! Since the rivalry between the two clubs was still fairly strong after the bitter split in 1921 (resulting in a long feud over which style of "randonneuring" produced more determined riders), one has to wonder if the ACP's subsequent switch to a four-year interval was made to prevent similar stunts from occurring.
The traditional route along the N-12 was still used, but the dangerous increase of motorized traffic in the post-war decades often meant the riders were subjected to unsafe road conditions. A speeding motorcyclist hit and killed a PBP randonneur in 1961; in 1966 another rider was killed by a drunken driver. In 1975, two more randonneurs were killed and another crippled when a truck plowed into their pack at night. (Sadder still, one of the dead was a member of the legendary "back-to-back" group of 1971.) These accidents convinced the ACP it was time to abandon the fabled "Great West Road" used by all PBPs since 1891, and it developed the more tranquil, but hillier rural route contemporary randonneurs are familiar with. The contrôle towns became Villaines-la-Juhel, Fougères, Tinténiac, Loudéac, Carhaix, and of course, Brest. After using Bellême a few times, in 1991 Mortagne-au-Perche was included again. (The audax PBP continues to use a modified N-12 route that tends to follow the original-but their 200-rider packs, lead by motorcycle escorts and followed by support cars, always stay together, which ensures greater safety.)
Along with the significant route change, the randonneur PBP took on much of its modern look following the 1975 event. After using quaint roadside restaurants and hotels as contrôle points since 1891, in 1979 the current practice of using larger school cafeterias was begun to handle the hungry hoards of riders. The modern system of staggered starting groups was also initiated that year for similar reasons. There was yet another change in 1979; all entrants, foreign as well as French, now had to do a full Super Randonneur series in order to enter PBP.
In 1991, the PBP Centennial was celebrated by the ACP and the UAF; both events were run simultaneously and it was declared a grand success by all concerned. This was also the time when the two clubs decided to "bury the hatchet" and relations have been harmonious ever since. As a concession to the ever-growing congestion in the Paris region, the start location was moved to St. Quentin-en-Yvelines, a Parisian suburb near Versailles. Long gone are the days of a civilized mid-morning or afternoon starting time for such a grueling ride. Due to justifiable safety concerns about launching thousands of randonneurs onto the busy roads around Paris, nighttime starts are now normal. (Unfortunately, this places an extra hardship on the slower participants, many of whom will suffer from worse sleep-deprivation later in the event.) In 1995, the ACP rules requiring fenders and prohibiting advertising on clothing were dropped, and some of the unique PBP atmosphere was definitely lost.
In late August of 2003, the Audax Club Parisien will put on its 15th edition of Paris-Brest-Paris Randonneurs. Add that to the seven racing PBP events, and one has a glorious history of determined cyclists daring themselves to get from Paris to Brest and back as quickly as possible. To be sure, there have been some changes at PBP over the years, but that shouldn't be too surprising-our world has become a very different place since 1891. Nonetheless, the challenges that confront today's randonneurs at PBP remain timeless, hence its extraordinary appeal and legendary status. What this short space doesn't allow are the stories of bravery, heartbreak, and triumph that have come from the racers and randonneurs in each edition of Paris-Brest-Paris. This rich tapestry of human endeavor is what gives PBP its enduring mystique. Make no mistake: PBP is definitely a brutal bike ride and not for the timid. But the heroic virtues commonly found among the participants, both past and present, are eloquent testimony to the unconquerable human spirit. Vive le Paris-Brest-Paris Randonneurs!
Sources: Plaquettes published by the Audax Club Parisien following the 1979, 1983, 1987, 1991, 1995, and 1999 PBP events; the Journal of the International Randonneurs, 1989 and 1990 editions; Coups de Pedals, Hors Série No. 2 (history of PBP races), Belgium, 1991; History of PBP: Racing and Touring by Robert Lepertel, Audax Club Parisien, 1986; A Brief History of the ACP by Robert Lepertel, Audax Club Parisien, 1996; Audax-UK Handbook, Year 2000; Paris-Brest et Retour by Bernard Déon, 1997; Old Roads and New by J. B. Wadley, 1971; 14e Paris-Brest-Paris: L'Epopée Fantastique, Cyclo-Passion magazine, October, 1999; Charles Terront & Paris-Brest-Paris by Andrew Ritchie, On The Wheel magazine, issues #10-12, 1999; La Saga du Tour de France by Serge Laget, 1990; Cyclotourisme magazine, Hors Série, No. 395 (1991 PBP special issue), France; Géants de la Route by Jean Durry; 1973.