PBP Preparation: Planning Your Trip To France

If you are planning to ride Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) this August, you probably have started training already. We are adding some hills to our “base miles” now as the brevet season approaches.

Now also is the time to plan the trip. Booking airfares early usually results in less expensive tickets, and hotels often fill up early as well. Here are a few thoughts from my perspective after having completed three PBP rides, as well as talking to many other participants:

Packaged Tours?

Traveling in France is easier than you may think. Paris is accustomed to tourists, and most hotels, restaurants, etc., have somebody who speaks English. You will have little trouble getting around on your own. (Learning a little French still is a good idea.) There is little need to book a packaged tour.

On the plus side, a packaged tour will offer you peace of mind and help with getting your bike from the airport to your hotel. Negotiating the Charles de Gaulle airport is always challenging, and it’s not made easier by having to carry your bike up and down flights of stairs.

Staying in Paris or Saint-Quentin?

For me, the main reason to ride in Paris-Brest-Paris is to experience riding in France and being part of the history of Paris-Brest-Paris. If my goal was just to ride a 1200 km brevet, I could do this closer to home…

Paris-Brest-Paris now starts in Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines in the outer suburbs of Paris. The good part is that tired riders no longer have to navigate Paris traffic at the end of this 750-mile ride. The bad part is that Saint-Quentin is a “ville nouvelle,” a modern suburb  (see photo below) lacking the charm, museums, restaurants, cafés and parks of Paris.

Contrasting this, Paris is a city with more than 1000 years of history, and worth a visit by itself (see photo below). It is a good idea to arrive a few days before the start of PBP to get over your jet lag and acclimatise to France. I think it is more fun to hang out in Paris than in Saint-Quentin.


Photo ©Gary Johnston

From Paris, it is relatively easy to get to Saint-Quentin by train. The trains leave from the Gare St. Lazaire and Gare Montparnasse (near the Latin Quarter), which you can take into account when booking your hotel. You can find public transit connections in Paris at this web site.

The suburban trains in Paris take bikes – you just roll them on. (It’s more difficult, but possible, to take a bike on the Metro and RER trains.) Since your bike must be checked the day before the start, you get to practice the itinerary without any stress. (You can show up to the bike control at any time you want.) After that practice run, there is little risk of getting lost when you are going to the start of the actual event.

Riding your bike in Paris is a fun and easy way to get around, but finding your way through Paris’ suburbs can be tricky. Perhaps I’ll map a bike route from Paris to the start of PBP when the time approaches and put it in the blog.

On the other hand, if you enjoy socializing with other American, British and Australian riders, then Saint-Quentin is the place to be. You’ll be near the start, and from the finish, it won’t be far to your hotel.

No matter where you stay, you don’t have to pay for the hotel while you ride the event. Leaving a suitcase or two for a couple of days while you are on the road usually is no problem if you return to the hotel for a couple of nights after the ride.

Start Group?

If you are at all uncertain about making the time limits, choose the 90 hour start group. That way, you have ample time to complete the ride. For faster riders, there are two additional start groups: The 80-hour group starts ahead of the crowds, ensuring open roads and empty controls. Clean bathrooms, too. These two groups start in the late afternoon. The 84-hour group starts in the morning. Some riders do not like riding at night, and prefer this group. I have tried each start time. Here is what I found:


Photo ©Gregg Bleakney

84-Hour Start
For my first PBP in 1999, I chose the morning start. I slept poorly that night, afraid I’d oversleep. With the excitement of the event, I was not tired until 24 hours into the ride. So I went to sleep at 5 in the morning, and my daily rhythm was upset. Furthermore, as the morning group started last, I found many of the controls to be crowded as we ran into the main wave of riders.

80- and 90-Hour Starts
Since then, I have started in the evening. The day of the start, I get up late, then take a lunch-time nap, and still have plenty of time to arrive the start with little stress. (This year, PBP will start a few hours earlier, so I may have to go without the nap.) Most of all, I really enjoyed riding through the night to leave Paris on empty roads with little car traffic. When the day broke, I was in Britanny, right in the heart of this remarkable event.

Hotels along the Course?

PBP is a well-organized ride. All you need to do is show up at the start with your bike and about 200 Euros in your pocket. (Don’t plan to use credit cards or ATM machines during the event.) The Audax-Club Parisien keeps the entry fee low, and you pay as you go for food and other services.

Some riders book hotels along the course. While it may sound nice to have a clean bed and shower half-way through the ride, the potential drawbacks may outweigh the benefits. Not only does a pre-booked hotel room detract from the adventure of PBP, it also locks you into a schedule that you may not be able to maintain. I have heard of many riders who arrived at their pre-booked hotel room, but were not yet tired. Others got there so late that there was no time to sleep. Yet others spent an hour or two just finding their hotel, losing valuable time.

PBP controls usually are located in high schools. The gym has sleeping arrangements. For a few Euros, you get a cot and a blanket. (Bring earplugs, because some randonneurs snore.) A volunteer who will wake you up at a pre-determined time. During a randonneur ride, you stop only when you truly are tired, and that is all you need. Food is next door in the cafeteria, and you are back on the road without much delay. Key to this is arriving ahead of the biggest crowds. I will discuss strategies for staying ahead of the crowds in a future part of this series.

Which PBP start times and travel arrangements do you prefer?

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

I love cycling and bicycles, especially those that take us off the beaten path. I edit Bicycle Quarterly magazine, and occasionally write for other publications. One of our companies, Bicycle Quarterly Press publishes cycling books, while Compass Bicycles Ltd. makes and distributes high-quality bicycle components for real-world riders.
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12 Responses to PBP Preparation: Planning Your Trip To France

  1. Marcello Napolitano says:

    Someone who has never visited Paris before, really should stay and spend time in the city. I have been to Paris a few times in my life, and the opportunity to spend a few days meeting with other rando riders from around the world is far more interesting than visiting Paris (a city I love) one more time. So I will be staying close to the start, and I will be near the RER anyway, so I can always spend a day or two sightseeing in Paris, if I want to.

    I am of the opinion that you should choose your start time based on your typical speed on your brevet. If you are a fast rider and finish with the first 10-20% of the riders on a 200k, you will find many riders who share the same “performance” riding style in the 80 hour start (a lot less are going to be in the 90 hour start). And if you are a “middle of the pack” rando rider who finishes a 600k in 35 hours or so, you will enjoy yourself more in the 90 hours start, where you will be less stressed and rushed than in the 84 hours start. From what I heard, the PBP route is not as interesting or scenic as other 1200s, and the real attractive is being with a lot more riders than you will ever see in other grand randonnees. It makes sense to choose a start where you will be with people who ride like you. And for me, that means 90 hours.

  2. Nick Bull says:

    Hi, Jan,

    Thanks much for your summary. Can you give a bit more detail on the public transport options? When you say “The suburban trains in Paris take bikes” — I don’t know which are the “suburban trains”. The website you pointed to and the map that I found there seem to assume you know what you’re doing, which I don’t. After PBP07, I took a train from SQY to Paris and another one a week later from Paris to SQY, but I can’t remember which lines I took. It looks like three lines come in to SQY. Can you summarize what they are and what the bike rules are on each?

    There were no escalators or elevators that I could find. So I had to haul a fully-loaded “touring” bike up and down several flights of stairs. I wonder what you do if you’re handicapped in France. Actually riding my bike in Paris was easy.

    Here’s a thread from Randon that has some stuff about trains:

    http://groups.google.com/group/randon/browse_thread/thread/c49d634827e9e829/4ebd6e59d0a0024d?hl=en&lnk=gst&q=bike+route+from+Paris+to+Saint-Quentin+en+Yvelines#4ebd6e59d0a0024d

    including a route for cycling from Paris to SQY

    http://www.bikely.com/maps/bike-path/Paris-to-PBP-start

    and map of supposedly-bike-friendly routes in Paris

    http://www.paris.fr/portail/viewmultimediadocument?multimediadocument-id=18436.

    Nick

    • Paris trains fall into four categories, each with its own dedicated tracks:
      - Metro (underground, short distances, stop a lot, slow, hard to take bikes).
      - RER (under- and above-ground, medium distances, stop less often, fast, bikes go through luggage doors, may not be allowed during rush hour)
      - SNCF suburban trains (above ground, medium distances, fast, stop at train stations, bikes roll on)
      - SNCF long-distance trains (TGV, etc.) (long distances, super-fast, bikes must be in box or bag)

      As you can see, the suburban trains are the easiest for bikes, and lucky for us, they connect Paris with Saint-Quentin. At the train stations, you usually have to climb up stairs and then back down to reach your platform, but it’s not like the Metro where you climb one huge set of stairs after another. No gates or turnstiles, either.

  3. Dale Brigham says:

    Great site, and great insights, Jan! Here’s my 2 (Euro) cents, based on three successful PBP forays:
    1) Team up with local/regional randos to share flights, lodging, and transport. Even if you ride separately, you will still enjoy having a “home team” with which to share your joys and tribulations.
    2) Reserve and take a shuttle van (just search for “Paris airport shuttles”) from CDG to your hotel, especially if you travel as a group. Saves hassles and time; costs little in the long run. We have piled 5 persons, 4 bike boxes, and our other luggage in one van, bringing the fare down to about 2o-25 Euros a person (about like a U.S. airport shuttle ride).
    3) Split the difference between staying in St. Quentin and Paris proper — Versailles. The old royal palace town is about 8 km from the PBP start, but world’s away from the ambience nouvelle of SQY. We have stayed in the Hotel Ibis there for the last three PBPs, but there are plenty of other lodging choices. The RER station to Paris is right across the street from the Ibis, and Versailles is a pretty nice town in itself. You can easily ride to the PBP bike inspection and start from Versailles.
    4) All of the start times have their adherents, but I have enjoyed the 84-hour start for my three PBPs. Since the 2011 PBP 80- and 90-hour starts will be earlier than previous editions, there will be even less crowding at controles for the 84-hour group (historically, the smallest of the three start groups) to contend with. Still, the best part of the 84-hour start, in my opinion, is catching and riding with the 90-hour group. They are, for me, the fun kids of PBP. Might not catch them this time!
    5) I think PBP is the most beautiful thing I have ever been part of. I love the people, I love the countryside, I love the whole dad-gum thing. It is a great privilege to be part of an historical epic event.

    Bonne Route!

    Dale

    • Thank you for your feedback. I agree that PBP is one of the most beautiful rides. Beautiful backroads going through beautiful, hilly country and beautiful old towns and villages. Wonderful, enthusiastic people lining the roads. It’s truly a treat to ride there. With 5-6000 riders on the road, you’ll usually find somebody who is riding exactly at your speed, at least for a while, before teaming up with somebody else. During my first PBP in 1999, I rode with riders from France, Spain, England, Costa Rica, Bulgaria, Canada and even the U.S. All riders I met on the road, some of whom became permanent friends.

  4. I would love to take part in PBP this year, but unfortunately I just don’t think I’m ready, and won’t be able to make myself ready in time for it. But I look forward to any advice or footage that you will feature on this blog.

    As for where to stay… I know Paris fairly well, so I am biased. Can’t imagine going there and staying in St Quentin, for the same reasons you mention.

  5. Alexander says:

    Is there guarded bike parking at the controls or is it advisable to bring a lock?
    Thanks for your guidance, this is very much appreciated!

  6. RoadiJeff says:

    I enjoyed reading the suggestions and comment thus far. I’ve already made reservations for PBP 2010. This will be my 4th time riding the “holy grail of randonneuring.”

    I have always started in the 84-hour group. The 5:00am starting time is close to the times I start my qualifying brevets, so I’m more used to it. As others have pointed out, the 84-hour group has a LOT less riders than the 80 and 90 hour and the controls are not as crowded, from some stories I’ve read by riders in other groups. I think much of the additional time in the 90-hour group is spent waiting in line. Heck, I’d rather be riding.

    Someone said that they prefer to stay in Paris because that’s where much of the French culture and history is at and that it is a easy train ride to Saint Quentin. The train goes both ways. I prefer to stay near where the PBP start is and mingle with other riders. I can take a train into Paris whenever I want. I have been know to ride there from my Saint Quentin hotel.

    Since this is my 4th visit to France I feel more comfortable about making most of my own travel plans. I’m also saving a lot of money by doing it myself. I am still staying at one of the popular hotels in Saint Quentin but I booked as much of it as I could directly via the hotel’s website. I had originally planned on staying in Versailles but “all the PBP action” is in Saint Quentin, as far as getting together for a last minute group ride the week before the big event and other things. Some key days at the hotel I’m staying at were unavailable, so I had to go through the travel agency that probably reserved all the rooms for those days.

    Now if the snow would just melt I could get started on my training. PBP is just a little over 6 months away. Bonne chance, everyone.

  7. Chris Cullum says:

    Thanks for the tips. As someone coming from the west coast of North America, how much minimum time do you think is required to arrive ahead of PBP to be well enough rested and aclimitized to the time change so as not to adversely affect your performance? One wrinkle in this is of course the start times and the fact that much of the riding is done at night anyway. I will have trouble getting much time off work in late August but I don’t want to arrive at the start already fatigued.

    • It probably depends on each person. I often feel a bit out of it for at least two days after an intercontinental flight. Strolling around Paris, perhaps visiting a museum or two, sounds like a great idea. I figure that PBP is such an effort that I don’t want to spoil the event for a day of vacation or two. What do others think?

  8. RoadiJeff says:

    I always get there at least a week before the start of PBP. Arriving 7-10 days early helps me get adjusted to the new surroundings and I have a chance to do some mini trips with my family. Flying to Paris is the biggest single cost of my trip and as long as I’m there I figure I might as well enjoy some things other than what I’ll get to see from my bicycle seat. We’ve rented a car and driven to Omaha Beach and Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy and down to southern France for a few things. In 2007 we took an overnight trip on the high speed Eurostar train to London.

    I like to do all these little side trips before PBP because I figure I’ll be too tired to enjoy them as much afterward. The extra time before the big ride helps me to relax. I still get out for an hour or more at least every other day for a ride before PBP to keep my legs from getting stale.

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