If you have been around randonneurs lately, you’ll have noticed a buzz around three letters: PBP. The 1200 km ride from Paris to Brest and back has captured the imagination of cyclists for more than a century. It’s now organized every four years, and 2015 is one of those years!
Randonneurs sometimes have a hard time communicating why they love this ride. They tend to focus on the easy-to-convey logistics instead – how to qualify, which start time to pick, etc. It makes it sound like it’s all about logistics and sleep deprivation.
Don’t be mislead: it’s one of the greatest rides in the world! Here are nine reasons why this unique ride is so appealing:
1. Ride with randonneurs from all over the world
As you settle into the long ride, you’ll find yourself riding with others who ride at a similar pace. During my first PBP in 1999, I rode with randonneurs from Texas, Spain, Italy, France, Bulgaria, England, Australia, and a few other countries. By pure chance, I rode for half a day with an old friend from Toronto (above), and I met another rider from the Bay Area with whom I had corresponded via e-mail.
With more than 5000 riders at the start, you’ll rarely ride alone. Unless you need a break from all the stimulation. Then you can just wave good-bye and speed up or slow down a bit so that the road is yours alone.
2. Be a hero in a festival of cycling
You’ll ride through little villages at 2 a.m., and people will be standing by the roadside, cheering you on with shouts of: “Bravo! Allez, allez!” In many places, locals put up tables with food and water. They cheer as much for the last rider as for the first. They are excited to be part of this event, and they make you feel special. Some riders have said they feel like riding in the Tour de France, but I think it’s even better, because these are local peole, not cycling fans, and their enthusiasm is all the more heartwarming for it.
3. Ride on great roads
Most of the time, PBP goes over the bucolic backroads of Brittany. Cattle graze languidly on green pasture. Hedgerows line the road. Birds chirp in the brushes. The road curves as it dips and rises with the landscape. There is hardly any traffic, and drivers are very considerate. It’s some of the best cycling anywhere.
4. Ride into history
When you ride on those little roads in Normandy, you are riding in the tire tracks of the pioneers of cycling. You can imagine friendly ghosts populating the landscape: Charles Terront, who won the very first edition (top photo); Hubert Opperman (above), the Australian racer who came first in 1931; Juliette Pitard, who completed every PBP over a 30-year period (1921, 1931, 1948, 1951).
If you talk to the spectators, you realize that many of them rode PBP in the post-war years, and are glad to share their memories. Being able to rub shoulders with the greats of our sport is special. Also, don’t skip the awards ceremony! Last time, you were able to meet the three fastest riders in 1961, plus Lyli Herse, Roger Baumann (fastest in 1956 and finisher of 10 PBP), the late Gilbert Bulté (fastest tandem in 1956 and organizer in 1966) and a number of other great anciens.
5. Experience France as it used to be
During PBP, you traverse hundreds of ancient villages that have not changed much in decades, if not centuries. You pass by old churches and canals with beautifully kept lockkeepers’ houses. In the stone villages, there are small bakeries, little brasseries and tiny grocery stores that invite you to stop, eat a meal or refill you supplies.
99% of the time, you ride through a bucolic landscape that is far from the megastores and shopping malls that now infest much of France. If you want to experience France as it used to be, PBP is a great way to do so.
6. It’s relatively affordable
In an age when even short events can cost hundreds of dollars, PBP has remained very affordable. The entry fee is less than $ 200. You pay for your supplies on the road, but it’s hard to spend more than $10 on a meal at one of the controls (above). If you want to sleep, a mattress in one of the gyms in one of the schools that serve as controls costs at most another $10. The rural bakeries you pass rarely charge more than $ 1.20 for a croissant.
So once you’ve taken care of your flight to Paris, PBP is one of the most affordable ways to ride across France.
7. You don’t need to speak French
Touring in France on your own can be daunting at first, especially if you don’t speak French. PBP is geared toward riders from all over the world. The logistics are taken care of. While you should learn a few phrases to show your appreciation to the volunteers, you don’t need a command of French to enjoy this ride to the fullest.
8. You can do it!
Compared to other great adventures, PBP is achievable. It’s not like the Race Across America, which only superhumans finish. It’s not like riding around the world, where you have to quit your job and put your life on hold for a year or two. It’s not like an expensive guided tour, which might wipe out your savings.
PBP is a challenge, but it’s entirely doable. There is a path laid out for you to follow and make this ride a success: The qualifying brevets also act as training, helping you to get in shape for the big ride.
If you are in good shape already, dedicate a cycling season to it, and at the end, in August, you’ll be able to ride 1200 km and have a great time. Even if you take some extra time to visit France – and you should – two weeks will make for one of the most memorable holidays you’ve ever experienced. And as European vacations go, it’s affordable.
9. Feel a great sense of accomplishment
The first time the magnitude of the event hit me was when I traversed the great suspension bridge over the Elorn River in Brest. Before me lay a great harbor of this important port city, bathed in the soft evening light. And I suddenly realized that I had ridden across the length of France. Most of my bike rides are local in nature, but this one, I can trace on a globe!
When I return to Paris at the end of the ride (above), I have completed one of the most incredible rides there is. The sense of accomplishment stays with me for months, if not years.
There are many other reasons to ride PBP. If any of them appeal to you, then your first PBP will be a highlight of your entire life. It’s really that special.
In future blog posts, I’ll look at what it takes to ride PBP.
Photo credits: Jacques Seray collection (historic photos); Maindru (tandem photo); Almut Heine (photos showing me); all used with permission.