Feature: Paris-Brest-Paris, the ultimate event

"... The ever ticking clock continued and more riders came in. Mixed scenes were evident at the finish in the Parisian suburb. Some riders were elated to be finished, others happy that the suffering was over, but the vast majority were still in the zombie-like state that they had to achieve to maintain the constant effort of riding this huge distance. ..."

2011 Paris-Brest-Paris, photos by Philip Gale
The face of a finisher. Photo: Philip Gale

Four riders walk into the finish check point to get their final stamp on their route card. It is clear by their eyes red from the wind, their faces weathered by the hours they have been in the elements and their hollow cheeks due to the fatigue, that these riders have been truly tested. As they walk, with a wobbling motion similar to someone drunk, everyone knows that they have been pedaling for so long that their muscles are struggling to cope with motions other than pedal strokes. Polite applause meets them, in respect for their achievements. They hug, new friendships formed on the road. Slowly it sinks in that they have finished the hardest Audax event, Paris-Brest-Paris.

4pm on Sunday the 21st of August. The “Gymnase des Droits de la Homme” in Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelynes, on the western suburbs of Paris, saw the 5,200 Randonners start Paris-Brest-Paris. Facing them was 1,200 kilometers (746 miles) that had to be covered within the 90-hour time limit. This eclectic mix of riders, some on normal bikes, some on recumbents, and others on specially designed bikes, have all had to qualify for the right to take the start. This qualification process involves four different “Brevets” or events (200, 300, 400 and 600 kilometers), each of which had to been ridden during the past 12 months. The air thick with the anticipation of what lies ahead; both riders and supporters have many sleepless hours ahead of them to take on this epic challenge.

2011 Paris-Brest-Paris, photos by Philip Gale
A German rider sacks out after finishing. Photo: Philip Gale

Paris-Brest-Paris is one of the oldest and hardest cycling events. Taking place every four years (since 1971, before that it ran at originally 10 and then 5-year intervals) it sees amateur cyclists pit themselves mentally and physically against what has become the ultimate Audax.

First run in 1891, Pierre Giffard of the Le Petit Journal wanted to sponsor an event that would not only show how wonderful the new invention of the bicycle was, but would also capture the imagination of the public and sell more newspapers. Of the rather small group of 201 brave French professionals (Paris-Brest-Paris was restricted to French riders only in this the first running), it was Charles Terront who came in first after three days. Ever since that moment the event has embedded itself in the world of cycling and been closely followed by the general public.

The event has gone through various good times, bad times and changes. A certain event called Le Tour de France started to overshadow the race. Legend has it that Henri Desgrange worked on the original events, which gave him the idea for his Le Grande Boucle, motivated as Giffard was to increase newspaper sales. 2011 sees it following the same format first introduced in 1979 where the race was ruled as unsupported, other than at specific check points, and only open to amateurs (the last professional to race the event was in 1951).

The format is simple. Riders head west from Paris to the Atlantic port city of Brest, turn around and return on the same route. Actually look at how far this is on a traditional map and you will get an idea of the magnitude of this event. En route there are various towns where riders have to get their route cards stamped. The cards are checked at the end before the final results are posted. Some of the checkpoints are secret to stop riders skipping sections.

To sleep or not

With the many levels of riders and paces at which they ride, there are many different tactics that can be employed. Those who go for the best time possible will ride straight through without sleep, which adds greatly to the burden of the event. Those who wish to sleep can do so, but the clock is always running whether they are on or off of the bike. The only real rules are that you have to get your route card stamped and finish within the 90 hours (from 4pm Sunday, with different start times available). To become a Paris-Brest-Paris “Acien” (or “Acienne” for the many female finishes) you have to achieve this, then your name is placed in the event’s “Great Book” which lists all the finishes and their times over its 120-year history.

2011 Paris-Brest-Paris, photos by Philip Gale
1,200 k's will do that to you. Photo: Philip Gale

This year’s edition saw four riders coming in first (first to complete the course, remembering that this is not a race) just after mid-day on Tuesday the 23rd. Arriving together in great spirits they had a time of 44:22:00 (from the 4pm Sunday first wave start). This trickle of riders then continued as a group of two (44:52:00) followed by a group of eight riders (45:25:00) made up the top 10 finishers.

“I had to do it”

As the riders continued to come in, night began to fall. I spoke with American finisher Billy Edwards, 33, a professional triathlete from Colorado, who finished in 48:46:00.

“This is my first and last Paris-Brest-Paris,” Edwards said. “My wife, who is a great endurance athlete, did it in 2007 so I had to do it also. I race Ironmans but this was something else. There was nothing which could have prepared me for this. Physically I trained hard, my equipment was perfect … but mentally this was the hardest thing I have ever done, and I have been to war.”

Edwards is an ex-Marine and compared the event to “doing combat runs in full chemical suits, for two days.”

He carried on, “I was OK until 3 am this morning, keeping to my plan of riding through non-stop (for sleep) to get the best time possible. Then my bio-rhythms shut down and my body too. Not only was I fighting to stay awake, but my body was shutting down. Luckily I rode in with two great French riders that kept me sane and pedalling, even though we could not communicate.”

The new companions, whose friendship was formed on the road, shared hugs at the finish.

Shattered finishers

The ever ticking clock continued and more riders came in. Mixed scenes were evident at the finish in the Parisian suburb. Some riders were elated to be finished, others happy that the suffering was over, but the vast majority were still in the zombie-like state that they had to achieve to maintain the constant effort of riding this huge distance.

The riders who were arriving looked like they were coming in from a night at the bar, rather than finishing the ultimate Audax event. With weak legs and tired eyes they got the final stamp in their road books and seem stunned that it was over. Many shared moments with each other, whilst some just succumbed to the fatigue, with an ever-increasing number of bodies sleeping in various places in the large Sport Hall.

I spoke with Ultan Coyle, 32, an Irishman living London.

“I did not set myself any time to ride to, so finishing now has been a great surprise (54:05:00). I was riding with my teammates, but they told me to go ahead and go for a good time. Last night was so hard, the thunderstorms made it so cold and I did not warm up. To know that I am not going to have to ride through another night is such a relief. I wanted to ride through without sleep but had to stop for three hours in the end. I could not keep up with the large group in front (a large group of German riders had just finished, all riding for the same team) they were riding like a military unit. All I want now is some food, then bed.”

2011 Paris-Brest-Paris, photos by Philip Gale
A group arrives together. Photo: Philip Gale

The event is never without incident and there were numerous riders who had already abandoned. Tragically the atmosphere at the finish was marred by a fatal accident which took place on the outbound leg, with a rider and a semi-truck coming together.

Chatting with the organiser Coyle explained, “It is really sad when things like this happen, but it is an inherent part of the event. With the riders pushing themselves to such limits, then accidents happen. Tragically this one was fatal, but the rider’s memory will live on with the event.” He continued to explain his role with this historic event. “It is a lot of work and involves a huge team to get the level of organisation which we have. Hundreds of volunteers help us out with check points and marshalling. I will sleep very little over the next few nights, but it is nothing compared to the event. I rode in 1991 and, as tough as it was, it taught me what the human body and mind possible of achieving.”

“I struggled on”

Mechanical issues are of course a part of the event also. English-born, American-educated and now living in Holland, Steve Thorne, on his second Paris-Brest-Paris explains the trials he had endured.

“To be honest what could have gone wrong did. Even finishing in this time (56:29:00) I only had three ten-minute naps. Before Brest my gears stopped working and I had to use a single speed. And on the return journey the fix to that solution, taking off the front derailleur and using my foot to change from my big to small chain ring meant I dropped my chain, and the group I was riding with, every twenty minutes. I struggled on and am here now.”

Thorne was met by his family who showed their pride with hugs and kisses.

It will not be until Thursday 10 am that the final riders will arrive and the time limit will be up. All the intrepid riders will continue to ride up until the last, whilst all of the volunteers will keep working hard to keep them safe. One hundred twenty years old the event still draws the widest range of bike riders who want to challenge themselves to what is the ultimate in endurance road cycling events.

Editor’s Note: Phillip Gale wrote about the FMB tire factory for in March.