9 Reasons to Ride Paris-Brest-Paris

9 Reasons to Ride Paris-Brest-Paris

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.
Further reading:

Photo credits: Jacques Seray collection (historic photos); Maindru (tandem photo); Almut Heine (photos showing me); all used with permission.

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Comments (30)

  • Xavier

    It’s fun to read this article a few weeks after having decided I didn’t want to participate in what would have been my first PBP.
    I’ve never been very interested in organized events or races but I don’t know many randonneurs locally and I thought it would have been a great way to meet fellow riders. I got discouraged after visiting a few websites and seeing that the focus was more on distance and logistics than on scenic roads or camaraderie. Your article will have me reconsider my decision even if I’ve the feeling that this kind of event is not for me.

    February 13, 2015 at 5:13 am
    • Jonathan Gehman

      I can’t make it happen this year but you are adding more reasons to the growing list for making it happen in 2019… Allez!

      February 13, 2015 at 6:07 am
    • Jason Marshall (@jmarshall312)

      @Xavier – As you know from researching PBP/randonneuring there are a number of rides that you need to do in order to qualify. If you have local options I would recommend starting by riding the 200k. This should give you a small sense of what randonneuring is all about. This way you will keep your PBP options open and worst case scenario you will only be out a day if it is not for you.

      February 13, 2015 at 6:26 am
  • Bryan

    I too shy away from large, organized group rides BUT would love to take this route “off season” as a solo or with a small group of friends.

    February 13, 2015 at 6:27 am
  • Janet

    PBP – c’est magnifique.

    February 13, 2015 at 7:06 am
  • William Watts

    This is beautifully written, and gets at many of the things I love about PBP.

    February 13, 2015 at 7:23 am
  • Bill Gobie

    There is a path laid out for you to follow
    During a tour last summer I was talking with one of my companions, also a randonneur, about the challenges of planning a tour. I blurted out, [by comparison] “Randonneuring is easy.” We both laughed, but on the logistical level it is true. Brevet routes are fully planned and inspected by the organizers. All the participants have to do is enjoy the ride.

    February 13, 2015 at 7:26 am
  • Luis Bernhardt

    At some point during the ride, you’ll likely be completely alone in the middle of nowhere. And then it will hit you: here you are, riding a bike along a quiet and picturesque rural road through the French countryside. I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing.

    February 13, 2015 at 8:13 am
  • ArsenalFan

    I can’t imagine doing the PBP. To ride essentially 3.5 double centuries over 3.5 days is beyond my capabilities. And this is coming from somebody who cycled 18,000 miles around the world last year. Hats off to all those who’ve attempted the PBP. You have my greatest respect and admiration!

    February 13, 2015 at 11:08 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Hats off to you for cycling around the world! PBP is very different, or perhaps the same: You just keep going until you arrive. And if you do it right, you enjoy almost every mile of it.

      February 13, 2015 at 1:57 pm
  • Preston Grant

    Jan, Your words are an inspiration! This summer my wife and I are doing some riding in the Alps and Dolomites, and then I am repeating the Raid Alpine, the only one of the four French raids that I was unable to complete, thanks to a sick day. PBP 2019 greatly appeals to me, but I will be age 79, so I will need to be diligent, careful, crafty, and lucky.

    February 13, 2015 at 12:23 pm
  • Jeff Loomis

    Jan, thanks for the beautiful words. You really captured a lot of what made PBP (I hope the first of many) very special for me. I won’t miss it as long as I am able to ride and get to France!

    February 13, 2015 at 3:38 pm
  • Peter Mathews

    Lovely piece Jan. You encapsulate so much of what motivates me to go back for a fourth round.
    The ride has a sense of community that I have never experienced in anything else I have done.

    February 13, 2015 at 4:23 pm
  • Michael

    Was just thinking about why would I want to do PBP (if I could )when there are 1200k’s here in the states.
    But this post makes it sound like one is riding through a party that takes place all over France with people who are happy to see cyclists on the road! Beautiful landscapes, and history. Sounds like an experience not to be missed if you are a successful distance cyclist.

    February 13, 2015 at 10:20 pm
  • Dave Thompson

    I had completed several 1200’s before doing my first PBP. In fact, I wasn’t that interested in riding with crowds … however, it’s the riders and the spectators that make PBP so enjoyable not to mention stopping for excellent cappuccino in little villages .. nowhere else will you have spectators cheering you on ! I’ll be back in Paris in 2015.

    February 14, 2015 at 2:38 am
  • Bob Macleod

    Thanks for the excellent informative article Jan. I’ve just completed my 3rd year of Randonneuring and have been waffling a bit on whether PBP is reasonably achievable for me this year, and the apparent complexity I’ve been reading / hearing about has been a bit daunting. Your article and some of the responses are inspirational and a great tonic to my doubting self – Vive la France – Vive la PBP 2015!!

    February 14, 2015 at 8:18 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      It’s really not complicated at all. You do four brevets to qualify, then register, then show up at the start with a bike and 200 Euros in your pocket. Then do what you already know to do: Ride your bike!
      Think of it like setting up your phone service: There are many options, but you’ll be fine with just the defaults. Same here.

      February 14, 2015 at 3:03 pm
  • Marty Bialas

    Unfortunately I won’t be able to make it this year but I have it on my calender for 2019. I will turn 50 that year and celebrate my 20 year wedding anniversary. So I figure I will bring my wife along and make it a grand two week vacation! Thanks again for another excellent article.

    February 14, 2015 at 12:33 pm
  • EB

    Returning to PBP after 20 years, the anticipation of August 16th is tingling.
    Proper planning and logistical deployment does not preclude comraderie or having a good ride, whether that means attempting to earn the honor of the La Société Adrian Hands or La Société Charly Miller or simply just to enjoy a ride amongst thousand of like minded cyclists. Riding with other experienced riders in France is a key attraction for me because local Brevets often have no so many riders making long stretches riding solo often unavoidable. This is our Boston.
    Anyone who can spring for the airfare and has a weeks vacation time, go. Just go.

    February 15, 2015 at 5:02 am
  • Michael

    Just outta curiosity, and not that it matters, but what is the fastest time ever in PBP? Slowest? What finishing time is the most common?

    February 15, 2015 at 10:07 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Fastest ever was 39 hours and a bit, by the professional racers in 1951. Fastest randonneurs were in the 43-44 hour range – I’d have to look it up. Slowest was in the very first PBP, where the time limit was 10 days. These days, the slowest you can do is 90 hours, although sometimes, that gets extended if there are problems on the road, like construction or arrows that get taken. So there are some rider who’ve finished PBP in 90+ hours recently. If you finish outside the time limit, you get a “hors delai”, which is different from not finishing.

      February 16, 2015 at 9:06 am
  • Vitor Rosa

    I’m considering PBP for 2019 along with a colleague of mine, because I believe it’s a ride of a lifetime (as it would be to ride around the world, but I don’t have the time nor the financing to be able to do that – leaving my job or asking for a temporary license won’t be an option…). Last year I started randonneuring with a 300km brevet and this year I already did a 200k; if I’m able to do a 400k I’ll start planning a little bit more seriously this adventure.

    February 16, 2015 at 3:01 am
  • Gunther

    Where are all the women, http://www.audax-randonneure.de/index.php?id=247 shows only 2% female finishers? Is there something going wrong with randonneuring?

    February 16, 2015 at 9:28 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Generally speaking, randonneuring seems to have a hard time attracting women and younger people. Women and young people do race cyclocross and participate in other cycling, so it’s not that they aren’t interested. It goes beyond the topic of this post to speculate why randonneuring isn’t attracting younger and female riders and what to do about this…

      February 16, 2015 at 9:04 pm
  • Mark Hopper

    Thanks Jan, Larry and I did the whole ride together in 1999 and it was nice to see this and remember what great Randonneuring we did together. I went back in 2011 and it was a totally different experience. I hope to go back again and experience even more of France and the wonderful flavour of this event, a very amazing event.

    February 16, 2015 at 1:49 pm
  • Christoph

    After more than a decade of absence I got back into randonneuring last year, and was immediately reminded of two things I need to consider when signing up for long rides: As a vegan, I need to make sure not to run out of suitable food, which, up to now, effectively means I have to carry most of the special stuff I plan to eat during the ride. Obviously this isn’t possible for rides such as PBP, so I’m currently trying to figure out an alternative to switching to a less strict diet, i.e. to vegetarian meals for a week. Speaking of this, how’s the supply of vegetarian food in France? During my last vacation in France in the 1990s it was difficult to find trustable restaurants.
    That aside, I noticed that riding in the dark is becoming increasingly hard on my eyes, and it gets worse when it rains. I am not night-blind, but have difficulties focussing on the fog line, and I tend to ride slower than I could despite the sufficiently bright LED lighting (SON Edelux I) I have on my bike. Maybe upgrading to a Luxos or Edelux II would solve this problem. If not, I’ll have to go slow and avoid riding at night whenever possible.
    Anyone else having problems riding at night? If so, how do you cope with them during brevets?

    February 17, 2015 at 11:00 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Vegan food is easy at PBP. At the controls, you pick your own food at the cafeteria. It’s all in separate bowls: rice, noodles, string beans, salad, soup, meat, etc. You pick what you want and then pay for what you got. I did 4 PBP as a vegetarian without problems.

      February 17, 2015 at 5:39 pm
  • alliwant

    I’d love to do PBP. Medical issues kept me out four years ago, and still present a challenge. Hoping to do better this year!

    February 19, 2015 at 11:02 am

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