Paris-Brest-Paris is a 1200 km road cycling event that is regarded by many as the oldest cycling event in the world.
First held in 1891 in the form of a professional race, it has evolved in modern times into an amateur “Randonneur” event, held every four years, in which participants must ride from Paris to Brest, on the Northwest coast of France, and back to Paris, in under 90 hours. Fourteen control points along the route must be visited and, although progress is primarily tracked electronically these days, in a nod to the past, riders must also obtain proof of passage at these controls in the form of stamps in their brevet cards. PBP is the flagship event in the world of randonneuring (or “audaxing” in the UK) and attracts riders from all over the world.
The 2023 edition of PBP was held between the 20th and 24th of August 2023 and was the largest yet. Amongst the 7000 riders taking part were three of us from BRC.
Having completed our qualifying rides of 200, 300, 400 and 600 km in the damp and chilly British winter and spring, Paul, Laurent and I gathered in the baking, picturesque castle grounds in the small town of Rambouillet, near Paris. With a few hours to kill before the late afternoon start, we tried to rest, hide from the blazing sun and not over-think what lay ahead. I think I did a pretty good job of pretending I wasn’t terrified!
At 4pm the first group of 300 riders set off. This group consisted of ex-pros, semi-pros and very strong amateurs who were “racing” the event. Although officially not a race, riders in this first group aim to complete the event as quickly as possible, with the ultimate goal of being the “first finisher”. They will ride through two nights without sleep, use support crews to minimise their time off the bike and typically finish in a little over 40 hours, before most riders have reached Brest.
Every fifteen minutes thereafter another group of 300 riders set off. We watched the “Specials” go off; a splendid collection of recumbents, velomobiles, tricycles, tandems and various other human powered contraptions. Next, Laurent set off in group “H”, followed by me in group “L”. Paul had a few hours to kill before his start at 5am the next morning in the 84 hour group. Like most riders, our goal was to simply finish within the time limit and soak up the whole occasion.
You might expect – given the length of this event – that everyone would take it nice and easy in the early kilometres. Nope. As my 300-rider peloton flew along at a completely unsustainable pace, I was passed by riders on the outside and the inside, sometimes swerving without warning. Brakes screeched, tyres skidded, people shouted in various languages. It was like a Thursday night at Castle Combe in the 3/4s. Nervous times.
Fortunately, after an hour or so, as dusk fell, the rolling hills stretched the field and I found myself in a nice group of 12 which stayed together through most of the night.
We cruised through villages and towns, usually to be greeted by cheering locals, many offering water and food, even deep into the night. I wondered if those pioneering riders 132 years ago, on their rudimentary bikes, experienced something similar.
At mid-morning the following day, I caught up with Laurent in Tinteniac at the 353 km mark. He was riding a fixed gear and we settled into a pattern of riding together on the flat, before he rode ahead of me on a climb. I would then catch him on the descent while his legs spun like a hamster in a wheel. Many people reckon that PBP is well-suited to a fixed gear bike because although there are 12,000 metres of climbing, most of this is at relatively gentle gradients. Even so, I’ll keep my gears and save my knees, thank-you very much. After a few hours and an interesting conversation about the similarities between the Bretton and Welsh languages, Laurent stopped at a supermarket to re-supply and I carried on into the second evening alone. Our paths would cross again.
I reached Carhaix, 514 km in, at about 8pm. I’d been riding for over 24 hours and had been awake for 36. Uncharted territory. The control at Carhaix, like most of the others, was situated in a large school. I went about the now familiar drill of getting my card stamped, filling water bottles and eating. However, instead of getting more efficient at this simple process, in my fatigued state I was getting considerably slower. I went to the stamping room only to realise I’d forgotten my brevet card. I traipsed over to the canteen on the other side of the school to buy some food, only to realise I’d left my money in my bike bag. A complete shambles. Before I knew it, it was 10pm and I was faced with a dilemma: should I push on to Brest immediately, stay ahead of the middle of the field (aka “the bulge”), probably get there around 3am and then sleep. Or, get some sleep now and make an early start before dawn. Although pretty tired at this point, I wasn’t particularly sleepy, but I knew it would hit me sooner or later, probably at some point before reaching Brest in the cold of the night. I decided to play it safe and booked a bed for 4 hours. I lay down, couldn’t get to sleep, gave up after 2 hours and got back on my bike. It was 1am, I’d wasted hours and would now be riding in the coldest part of the night. C’est la vie.
I reached Brest just before dawn, in a zombie-like state. I got my stamp, ate a mediocre breakfast and went in search of somewhere to sleep. My minimum standards for sleeping accommodation were now very low. I thought about walking over to the dorm to book a bed for a couple of hours, but then spotted a lovely little spot under a table in a quieter part of the canteen. Someone had kindly left a sheet of cardboard on the floor (still warm) for added comfort. I lay down and within a couple of nano-seconds was out like a light. So tired was I that I’m fairly confident I could have slept quite easily in the middle of the pit at a Megadeth gig.
To my great surprise and joy, I awoke half an hour later feeling like a new man. I ventured outside, had a chat with some Audax Club Bristol riders who had just arrived and set off towards Paris as dawn broke. Maybe it was the power nap, maybe it was the rising sun, maybe it was simply that I was now heading towards Paris rather than away from it, but it was as if a switch had been flicked inside me. This whole thing suddenly felt achievable. I wasn’t counting any chickens just yet – there was still 600 km to go – but as I rode over the famous Brest bridge, with the sun rising over the Atlantic Ocean and plenty of time in hand, all was well with the world. I was no longer daunted.
Later that day, around lunchtime, I arrived back at the Carhaix control, which looked as if a bomb had hit it. It was absolutely rammed with riders both on the way out to Brest and the way back. There was rubbish everywhere, there were bodies underneath this rubbish as well as on every available area of floor space and the grass outside. People were slumped over tables. There were long queues for food, water, beds and showers. Absolute chaos! I waded through the bodies, got my stamp and, craving a bit of normality, headed over to the nearby MacDonalds, where I bumped into a couple of friends from Bristol. Great minds think alike. We rode together off and on for the rest of the day, making good progress – punctuated by a lovely afternoon nap under a tree – until late into the evening when they decided to stop at Quediallac (842 km) to sleep. As I was still feeling ok-ish and not quite tired enough to sleep, I decided to press on to the next control at Tinteniac, which was only 25 km further on. 25 km less to do tomorrow, I thought. This was a big mistake.
A short time later, the hallucinations started. First it was the shadows caused by other rider’s lights morphing into various animals. Then I started really losing it. I was riding along, very slowly, following the stream of red lights ahead. There were moments of confusion when I didn’t know why I was doing this or which country I was in. My eyes were getting heavier and it was a real battle to keep them open. I tried slapping my face to wake myself up. I was getting passed by other riders every few seconds and passing no one. I was absolutely crawling.
Fortunately, every now and then I had a moment of clarity when I realised what was happening to me, and what I needed to do to sort myself out – sleep, ASAP! I considered laying down at the side of the road, but with the temperature plummeting, and the promise of hot food and a bed at the next control, I kept going. I calculated it was 10 km away, but was struggling with simple arithmetic, so had some doubt over this. I tried to clarify exactly where I was by asking a rider from Audax Japan, who also seemed to be struggling, but this just confused matters further.
My mind continued to malfunction, my energy levels were at rock bottom, but eventually I arrived at Tinteniac. The bright lights inside woke me up slightly and I managed a three-course meal and a shower before lying down on a squeaky camp bed in a hall full of 300 squeaky camp beds. There was a constant din of people coming and going, rustling space blankets, coughing and snoring. I fell asleep instantly and slept like a log for four solid hours.
I awoke feeling fully compos mentis and treated myself to a fresh pair of bib-shorts. As I forced down yet more pastries and sipped a cup of brown liquid I was assured was coffee, I contemplated how quickly the physical and mental state can change on a long ride like this. Feeling great one minute, terrible the next. I also marvelled at the body’s remarkable powers of recovery, particularly after giving it food, water and sleep.
I set off just before dawn with about 350 km left to go. Another hot one was forecast, but the bulk of the climbing was behind us. Despite the gradually increasing pain in my backside, I was looking forward to soaking up the atmosphere on what should be the final day on the road.
I rode with Laurent again, stopping at some wonderful roadside stalls for drinks, crêpes and rice pudding. Later, we passed through Villaines-la-Juhel, where it seemed the whole town had come out for a massive party. There was a brass band belting out tunes and tiered seating along the main street, packed to the rafters with cheering people I can only assume had been on the cidre all day.
As I left the town and ground my way up a long, hot climb a young girl jumped out of a camper van at the side of the road and poured iced water over the back of my neck as I rode. Merci beaucoup!
What makes this event special, apart from the rich history, the diverse field of entrants, and the quiet, smooth, pothole free roads, is the French public, I thought. They take great pride in hosting this global festival of cycling in their usually sleepy corner of France. It brings families and neighbours together and they seem to be having the best of times – certainly better than many of the riders at this late stage in the ride.
I continued to plod away and as this nice thought faded, my mind returned to the pain in my arse.
I rode most of the last 200 km with Alex, Rob and Carl from Audax Club Bristol. I had given up trying to be efficient at the controls at this stage. Barring disaster, I would finish comfortably inside the time limit and was savouring the precious time off the bike. At one point, I chose to join the longer of two queues in a canteen, just to delay the point at which I would have to regain contact with my saddle.
As the sun set for the fourth time, we all fell into the same mindset. It became a case of just getting it done. We eventually rolled into Rambouillet just before 3am, a shade under 80 hours after departing. The relief was immediate and immense.
After another couple of hours sleep on camp bed in a large dorm, I headed back to the finish area to see Laurent and Paul, who had made very good progress after his late start. Chapeaux.
We shared stories, chatted to those we’d met on the road and even broached the subject of returning in 2027. I for one almost certainly will, only with a different saddle.