Six Things I Loved About Paris-Brest-Paris
Words and Photography by Jenny Hatfield
Countless hours, millions of calories and thousands of training miles over nearly three years finally culminated in me successfully qualifying for Paris-Brest-Paris, a challenging 1230 kilometer ride – or 764 miles -- that occurs every four years. It’s considered the signature event for randonneurs, or long-distance endurance riders, that draws nearly 6000 cyclists from 60 countries in the world. This August, I flew to France with 69 other members from my home club, the San Francisco Randonneurs, to partake in this historic ride.
While it’s still very much a niche sport, randonneuring has grown in popularity over the years, as has Paris-Brest-Paris since its inception in 1891 when it began as a professional race. (It’s now only open to amateurs, although some do treat it still as such.) Certainly the grueling nature of this discipline contributes to its smaller ranks; cyclists must ride a full “super randonneur” series within the same calendar year as PBP in order to qualify: 200k (125 miles), 300k (186 miles), 400 (248 miles) and 600k (373 miles). But the toughest part is completing them within a time limit. For a 200k, you have 13.5 hours to finish, but there’s mandatory controls, or checkpoints, that you must hit during specific windows of time as proof of transit that you followed the course -- in addition to reaching the end before the clock runs out. For Paris-Brest-Paris, you can choose between an 80-hour, 84-hour or 90-hour finish; most cyclists, particularly first-timers like myself, generally choose the more generous time allotment. But the main thing is to continually keep moving or you may find yourself, “hors délais”, or out of time.
When in France, it’s a given you must go to Paris -- one of the most beautiful capital cities in the world – and this trip was no exception for me. While the ride no longer officially starts in Paris (it’s been moved to the nearby suburb of St. Quentin-en-Yvelines to better accommodate the larger ridership), the City of Lights is just a short, hour-long train ride away. My husband and I spent several days on a splendid, self-guided sightseeing tour before and after the event. We found the easiest, most affordable and fun way to get around town was renting a bicycle through Vélib’. It’s the largest international bike share program and thus has an extensive network of bicycles available all throughout the city, especially near Metro stops.
As a self-proclaimed gastronaut (and I also work as a freelance interactive producer for a public media food blog in the Bay Area), eating lots of delicious food was definitely on my list of priorities during our 12-day trip. Several of my randonneuring friends persuaded me to register for PBP after I’d heard their stories of eating freshly baked baguettes with jambon, fromage and beurre, Nutella crêpes and buttery croissants en route. I definitely belong to the, “Will ride for good food” cycling camp, so while there were occasions we’d eat at the controls, my riding partners and I made it a priority to take side trips to boulangeries, cafés and patisseries when possible. There’s also a namesake “Paris-Brest” pastry which I had the pleasure of tracking down at this renowned establishment in the Left Bank.
Paris-Brest-Paris attracts cyclists of every age, gender and nationality, and I loved seeing the huge range of fantastical pedal-powered machines that they brought with them for the journey: carbon road bikes, vintage steel, tandems, triples, fixed gears and single-speeds, recumbents, velomobiles, tricycles and even a small group of stalwart Elliptigo riders and mountain bikes represented at the start.
Not only is PBP an extremely long route, but it’s incredibly hilly as well. While there’s no terribly steep, mountainous climbs, there’s hardly any flatlands to rest your weary legs, either. It’s a relentless up-and-down course that becomes more fatiguing as you approach the western coast, and I ascended nearly 36,000 ft. of elevation gain by the time I returned to St. Quentin. But the rewards are tremendous, like when I caught my first glimpse of the stunning Pont de l’Iroise in the port city of Brest, our midway point of the ride, or riding through the charming medieval French communes with quaint stone cottages, churches and cobblestoned streets.
It’s easy to forget, when you’re hanging out with just randonneurs, that riding these extremely long distances isn’t exactly commonplace. It’s an odd sport that borders on lunacy at times. When you view your pastime from an outsider’s perspective, you think to yourself, “Yes, this is kind of insane.” But the French not only understand and share your passion, but they treat you like a hero at a homecoming parade. At PBP, you see their unflagging dedication at all hours, as you encounter a staggering number of helpful volunteers at controls and crowds of townspeople cheer you on with shouts of “Bonne route!” and “Bon Courage!” Kids gleefully reach out for high-fives and happily serve you food and drinks in the middle of the night from their makeshift roadside stands – expecting only a, “Merci,” in return. And even drivers will patiently wait until it’s safe before passing you on the road. Experiencing this devotion firsthand was the most foreign concept I encountered whilst abroad; it was so uplifting to ride my bicycle in a country with such a cycling-friendly citizenry. That’s when I realized what an extraordinary privilege it was to partake in the merry madness that is Paris-Brest-Paris.
Back in 2011, 3860 men successfully completed the event, while only 208 women made it back to Paris. It’s a tough challenge that tested every ounce of my physical and psychological limits. I can’t quite describe how I felt when I crossed the finish line at 89 hours, 37 minutes from when I began. It was a mixture of pure exhaustion and relief, as I’d endured terrible sleep deprivation (only had 2.5 hours’ worth along the way), knee pain and other ailments. But earning the rare, hallowed distinction of ancienne, the title given to women finishers, will remain in my mind as one of my proudest cycling accomplishments.