Starting from the French national velodrome in Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, just outside the capital, Paris-Brest-Paris was originally conceived as an event to demonstrate the ‘practicality of the bicycle,’ which was still a relatively new mode of transport in the latter part of the 19th century. Today, practicality proven, the ride continues to test amateurs to their limits of endurance, demanding they complete the 1,200km course in 90 hours or less. Standing as a monument of long distance cycling for the most hardened of audax and brevet riders, Paris-Brest-Paris is considered by many to be the blue riband in randonneuring.
Now approaching its 125th year, Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) is one of the world’s longest running bicycle races, enticing thousands of long distance cyclists to tackle its route every four years. For its 18th edition, four Rapha riders signed-on to ride the classic brevet, taking place on 16th August 2015. Here, they talk us through their motivation for taking on Paris-Brest-Paris, and offer a glimpse into what it’s like to ride one of cycling’s most prestigious long distance events.
Silvi de Almeida, Rapha ambassador
Adventure was my inspiration. To ride through both the day and night, alongside others that you meet on the road, really attracted me to PBP. That, and the true randonneur spirit of joining point A to B, then back to A again.
My biggest memory from the race is meeting Nicole, Jean-Claude and their son, Olivier. Jean-Claude had ridden 11 PBPs, and Nicole eight, even classifying as the fastest woman in one edition. This year their son joined them. We were riding together in a fast group, when I looked over and saw the mother and the father, close together, descending fast down the hill. I felt tears in my eyes. I was thinking about so many things: being in love on a bike, and riding together at the same pace. The vision of these two elderly people enjoying riding fast, tucked in an aerodynamic position, made me think that there is no limit to the enjoyment you can take from riding.
I rode PBP for the discovery of new roads, and new people. I am not a time challenger, rather, I see myself as more of a randonneur. Next, I’d like to try new long distance challenges, or even crossing the USA by bike. For now, my hands and toes are still quite numb, with feeling coming back day-by-day. For the moment I’ll swim to recover, and you never know, perhaps I’ll be back to PBP.
Julien Verlay, Rapha ambassador
For me, PBP is a part of French cycling history. Riding 1,200km is a huge distance, and the legends of the first rouleurs, like in the tour de France – riding with a fixed gear bicycle and no assistance – truly inspired me.
The most important thing that helped me during PBP was the picture of my daughter and my girlfriend on the top of my front handlebar bag. Besides this, all those people that line the side of the road, applauding, yelling encouragement, also really helped. It made me feel like a professional cyclist, with the kids wanting to high-five you when you’re close to them. People offer you cookies, coffee, water, and ask you where you’re from, and how you feel. It’s a really strange sensation, and it makes you feel good – willing you on to ride until the end.
Anton Blackie, Rapha Travel
I had completed PBP twice before, so as a seasoned audaxer, to do it again is always on the cards.
Physically, the qualifying rides are a big help, but many people will have only ridden 600km to get here. To have arrived at the start line at all is probably the biggest battle – 1,200km is really a mental test.
During the race, my wife Claire helped to keep me out on the road. Even from miles away, her encouragement and support spurred me on to complete the ride. I developed tendonitis in my left knee, and the pain it produced almost made me pull the pin – more than once – but thankfully, Claire kept me honest until Paris.
Will I be back? You shouldn’t ask that question.
Frank van der Sman, Rapha ambassador
I found out about PBP when I interned at Rapha. James Fairbank, head of brand, and Ultan Coyle, product designer, were both riding it in 2011, and seeing them undergo the process of qualification and preparation truly fascinated me. Even though the distance at that point felt beyond imaginable, I knew I had to participate at least once – and so it happened.
The qualifying brevets you have to do before PBP made for quite a pleasant build up. They force you to increase the distance in your training. A lot of people there, including myself, had only ridden roughly 600km as their longest ride prior to PBP. Trying to feel ready for an event that’s twice that distance is both scary and almost impossible. It felt like rolling the dice.
The amount of people along the route is fantastic; you can really tell they have a great respect for what you’re doing. The honesty in their expressions, and the compassion and applause you receive as a rider is so humbling. The atmosphere was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. One particular memory is of a stand along the road giving away free crepes and drinks. In return they ask you to send them a postcard. Over the years they’ve collected these massive boards full of postcards from all over the world.
I expected the aftermath to be much worse, but sore muscles for several days and numbness in my hands were my only complaints. I’m amazed by how much the human body can endure – every kilometre beyond 600 was further than I have ever ridden before. This was about testing my limits, and these haven’t been found yet. So I’m afraid I’ll have to put myself through some even worse challenges… Will I be back at PBP? I honestly doubt it; this was a great experience and I wouldn’t want to spoil the memories.