Report from Paris-Brest-Paris

I enjoy returning to Paris to ride  the Paris-Brest-Paris event. Paris is a place steeped in cyclotouring history. Several of us met in front of Notre Dame to ride to the start for the bike check; this is where the Flèche Vélocio used to start for the teams from Paris. We rode up the smooth cobblestones of the Champs Elysées (where the Tour de France ends each year), rounded the Arc de Triomphe, and continued through the Bois de Bologne. We passed by the 3.7 km-long cycling-only road around the horseracing track at Longchamps, where cyclists have met for almost a century to train. During World War II, when curfews made long randonnées difficult, cyclotourists had their tandem sprints and other competitions on this road. Lucien Détée once told me: “After work, I often went there, and within a few laps had met somebody I knew, and we rode together.”

A little out of Paris proper, we looked at the plaque commemorating the last stop of Charles Terront on his way to win the very first Paris-Brest-Paris in 1891. The plaque used to be on the building that housed the café where he got some food and drink. When the building was torn down, the plaque was saved and mounted on a plinth. The plaque explains that when Terront reached this point, he had covered 1170 km in 71:16 hours “without rest.”

A little down the road, we passed in front of the Chateau of Versailles and made a quick detour into the gardens, which were full of Parisians enjoying the sunny weekend.

PBP itself was exciting as always. A bit too exciting for me, as I was involved in an unfortunate crash early on, one of many crashes caused by excited riders on racing bikes with compromised handling due to some adventurous bag arrangements.  Fortunately, neither bike nor I were too damaged to continue.

Riding with a few friends, we enjoyed the applause of the locals in the little villages we traversed. As planned, we eventually split up to ride at our own pace. The ocean in Brest was beautiful, and the going was good into the second night. Then we hit a huge thunderstorm that followed us all night, for 9 hours of torrential downpour. We rode through sheets of water on the road, while the lightning was so bright that we could see for miles. It was impressive, but not the best conditions for riding a bike. I was glad for my big fenders, mudflap, and wide 650B tires that allowed me to descend in the rainy night without worrying too much about potholes, cracks and debris on the road.

Despite my layers of wool jerseys and my rain jacket, I became miserably cold by morning, so I decided to take a 30-minute sleep break at a control. I felt totally refreshed after that, and the remaining 340 km to Paris went by quickly, helped along by a tailwind that made up for the headwinds we had faced on the way out. One of the quiet joys of PBP is to meet up with fellow riders who ride at a similar pace; I came across a nice group and together we sped up for the last leg. We finished the ride in great spirits.

I returned the next morning and saw more of my Seattle friends finish their PBP, looking good and strong. I was glad to see that most of them were happy with their rides. At the awards ceremony, we saw the three first riders from 50 years ago mount the podium. Lyli Herse handed out trophies for the oldest and youngest riders, making a touching end to a memorable event about bicycles, French roads, and people from around the world.

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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23 Responses to Report from Paris-Brest-Paris

  1. Steve Palincsar says:

    What bike were you riding this year?

    • It’s brand new, it’s top secret, and it’ll be featured in detail in Bicycle Quarterly. Well, actually, it’s a 650B René Herse that combines everything I have found to like in various bikes we’ve tested. So far, it has worked great.

      • Steve Palincsar says:

        Looking at the photos, you’d think it was at least 60 years old. Nivex rear derailleur, yes? New ones of those don’t grow on trees!

  2. Leaf Slayer says:

    Jan, congrats. I hope we’ll get a more detailed account of your ride in the future.

  3. Gert Pagter says:

    Just back home today myself. A bit disapointed I did not enjoy it as much as I would have wanted. I needed to pace my selt in order to keep up with my backup plan of sleeping at Loudeac, Loudeac and Mortagne. Well the thunderstorm, You mentioned, started shortly before I arrived in Loudeac, so that also motivated me to sleep earlier and longer there than planned. Sleep in Loudeac was also the reason behind my choosing the free 90 hours start at 2100, so that sleep would the be at night
    I am happy that the preparation worked out. The training made me feel at ease on the climbs. The Mavic vest, was a great succes against the wind and light rain I ran into on Trevezel. All the other clothing and equipment as well, that I have tested on earlier brevets worked out perfectly. But what makes the ride memorable for me is the evening of the 24th (the day with percect weather (my birthday)) Going from Villaines to Mortagne. At every house and in every village lots of people cheering you on. Especially the free coffee and cake from the local cycling club in Mamers was a great lift to my spirit before going the last 26 km to Mortagne and, as another rider called it, participating in the “World Snorring Championship” in the sleeping hall in Mortagne for some hours

    • Glad you had a good ride. PBP is an adventure. If it was easy and enjoyable throughout, it wouldn’t be the achievement it is. Just like it’s hard to imagine a Greek tragedy where everything goes to plan, the armies win without fight, and the hero returns home to his loving wife… This was my fourth PBP, and only the first was relatively easy. Every one since then has brought unforeseen challenges.

      • Steve Palincsar says:

        Well, it would be pretty horrible if everyone’s experience of PBP was straight out of a Greek tragedy, don’t you think? Pretty much, I think everyone participating would be better off if the literary model was a Shakespearean comedy.

      • I did not mean to say that PBP is a Greek tragedy, but that some adversity should be expected, and overcoming it makes the success all the more meaningful.

  4. Congratulations, Jan! Sounds like conditions for some were not much different than 2007
    .

    Also seems like there were some issues with the new timing system as there are a few BC Randonneurs listed as abandons who actually finished under the time limit.

    BTW, I exchanged e-mails with Jaye Haworth yesterday. She is happy in New Brunswick.

    Cheers.

    • For me, conditions were much worse than 2007. First, it was very, very hot. Then very, very cold the second night. Temperatures in 2007 were mild all along. However, it really depended where you were along the course. Two friends, one five hours ahead, the other four hours behind, had no rain this year!

  5. djconnel says:

    23:28 to Brest, 53:10 to the finish — very impressive! Congratulations on the great ride!

  6. That is indeed an impressive time. I cannot imagine completing PBP even at the maximum time limit at this stage. Interesting that your first time went smoother than subsequent times. And interesting also about the racing bike/bag/handling phenomenon.

    Roughly what portion of the participants would you say were on modern racing bikes vs traditional randonneuring type bikes?

    Very exciting news about your new RH bicycle and looking forward to reading more about it, as well as a more detailed PBP ride report.

    • Roughly what portion of the participants would you say were on modern racing bikes vs traditional randonneuring type bikes?

      I’d say 80-90% of riders were on modern racing bikes. Traditional randonneur bikes were ridden by older French randonneurs, younger American (and Swedish) randonneurs, and employees of the Alex Singer shop.

  7. Rolly says:

    I’m in the process of randonneurifying my bike. care to elaborate on the crash-causing, creative bike loading you mentioned? I love reading about PBP; with more experience and saddle time I’d like to try it. Thanks and take care.

    • There was one obvious crash, when the under-seat bag on a racing bike broke off when we hit a short (10-foot) cobble section. The bag fell onto the rear wheel, which locked up, and the rider crashed, taking four others with him.

      Beyond that, it’s hard to assess how much was due to poorly loaded bikes and how much due to poor riding skills. Riders were weaving right and left, touching wheels and so on. I crashed when the rider to ahead and to my right suddenly moved four feet to the left. He hit my front wheel, and his rear bag wedged itself under my handlebar bag. My bike became a “trailer-bike,” and fortunately remained connected until we had slowed significantly, at which point I fell off, and the nose of my seat punched me in the shoulder blade as my bike landed on top of me. One saddle rail broke off the frame, one of my cleats got damaged in the “quick release,” but the bike still was rideable. I only had some road rash, plus a bruise where the saddle hit me. (I thought for a while I had “Shermer’s Neck,” which surprised me, but it was just that bruise that hurt.)

      • Rolly says:

        Glad you ended up relatively ok. Thanks for the reply and of course for all the great info and insight. I’m in the process of making a fork re-raker for altering the steel ‘cross fork I replaced a stock carbon one with; I’ve already brazed on canti bosses to the rear which gives my bike clearance for 30mm tires and fenders (and hopefully 32s, fingers crossed; I’ll save the 650b stuff for some later project). I’ve been lucky so far with the conversion and if all goes well I’ll have transformed a 2002 (? I think; Reynolds 853 frame) Lemond Alpe D’uez into something resembling the old French bikes. Maybe I’ll post more later after I get a few more accurate measurements and the fork re-raking done; so far it seems that just the top tube length being a tad longer and the BB/fork crown to axle length being higher will be the main differences between the measurements of a true French bike and my conversion… as far as I can tell anyway. Not sure what the head tube angle will end up being but it measures 71.75deg now and I’m thinking 2cm of additional fork offset near the bottom of the blades will give me 65mm of total offset with a steeper headtube and a slightly lower bb height. I’ve been experimenting with front and rear loads on this bike and your publishings and postings have been interesting and very influential and helpful! After the operation is finished, someday I’d like to see if longer cranks – I currently run 170s – will enhance the planing feel of the oversized tubes.

  8. I found a pic of you on the route while collecting my own vanity pics:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/cyclobertou/6082500299/

    I crossed you (gave a thumbs up) while you were motoring back from Brest to Tinteniac. If you were dampened at that point from rain and crashes I sure didn’t see it. Chapeau!

  9. Chris Cullum says:

    Hi Jan, it was nice to meet you in person briefly both before and after the event. I’m glad your new “top secret” Herse performed up to your exepectations.

    It was my first PBP and despite some unforseen digestive issues I had a wonderful time. It is indeed a special event.

    I was wondering if you at BQ might again collect data on equipment choices at PBP? I know the survey was a RUSA one in 2007 but if you would like some more data points I could distribute a survey to participating Canadian riders. I found the data quite interesting last time. I suspect that this time around more riders, at least those from North America, had opted to for wider tires and randonneur bikes that had integrated racks, fenders and lighting.

    • William M. deRosset says:

      Dear Chris,

      I’ll second a request for a post-PBP survey.

      The American riders I saw (80h start; 78h finish, so back of the pack aiming to do a time) were pretty bimodal. A small majority of the Americans I ran into were on racing bikes and had narrow tires, modified to varying degrees for the needs of the event. However, a substantial minority were on integrated 650B machines, and the rest (including me) were on integrated 700C machines with 28-30mm wide tires. Riders with fenders and modern lights didn’t seem to suffer and slow from the cold and wet the second evening the way the others did.

      Given the road composition west of Paris (good condition, no noticeable damage or frost heave, but with a very coarse wearing surface), I suspect an “event” 650B tire like the Paris-Moto or a shaved Hetre is as fast or a bit faster-rolling than the 29-622 tires I used, and would certainly be more comfortable. The route itself was not technically challenging. I didn’t brake on the descents at all unless someone took a bad line in front of me. Furthermore, acceleration just wasn’t part of the game after the first afternoon; consequently, I’d not consider a 650B machine a handicap as long as it fits and performs well for the rider.

      Best Regards,

      Will
      William M. deRosset
      Fort Collins, CO

  10. cept says:

    good job jan.

  11. Michael says:

    Jan,
    Don’t know if you have seen it yet–Velonews has published a piece on PBP, and you are pictured finishing. Nice work.

    http://velonews.competitor.com/2011/08/news/feature-paris-brest-paris-the-ultimate-event_190550

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