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A Short History of Paris-Brest-Paris

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In 1891, Pierre Giffard, the publisher of the French newspaper Le Petit Journal, sensed that something had to be done to boost the sagging French morale. Unlike some more conservative journalists of the day who thought the bicycle was an oddity quickly to be disposed of, Giffard was a dyed-in-the-wool cyclist. This was easy in Giffard’s day since Lycra hadn’t been invented yet. What had been invented in 1885 was the “safety bicycle,” the basic form of the bicycle we know today.

Although there were only a few thousand cyclists in all of France and only a handful of those were racing fanatics, Giffard realized the potential of the fledgling bicycle. He wanted a dramatic demonstration of its power, range, and versatility. He wanted to sell more newspapers and increase his circulation. Giffard hit upon the idea of a cycling event of enormous proportions. This was not going to be any mere race; this was going to be a test.

Giffard fanned the flames of interest with a series of hot-breathed articles. He had conceived of a test “not primarily of speed but brains, skill and endurance.” He had hit upon the idea of a 750-mile (1200 km.) event going from Paris to Brest on the Atlantic Ocean and returning to Paris.

Could a man with the aid of nothing more than his muscles accomplish such a feat? The medical establishment of the time didn’t think so. Doctors universally condemned the idea as sheer lunacy. “The bicycle in such overdoses will kill the rider just as surely as an overdose of arsenic” one medical expert of the time wrote. So much for medical science.

Despite these dire predictions, people started lining up to enter. Giffard was taken aback at the tumultuous response he received. He changed the entry rules in mid-stream and charged the unheard of sum of 5 francs to enter. Nonetheless, 300 riders including 7 women signed up. Among the new rules Giffard came up with was the time limit of 10 days. Another rule said each rider had to use the same bicycle throughout. To avoid cheating, each bicycle was provided with a special seal. The sealing ceremony was an affair of great pomp and circumstance held in front of the Petit Journal building. Properly huffy officials affixed seals of worthiness to entrants’ machines. Presaging the length of the race, the sealing ceremony lasted for two days! When the officials had finished, 280 machines had been “signed, sealed, and secured.” Among the 280 were 10 tricycles, 2 tandems and 1 high wheeler. At the last moment, Giffard decided not to accept women. So much for equality.

At daybreak on Sunday, September 6, 1891, 206 riders left a cheering crowd in front of the Le Petit Journal. After three flats within the first mile, the French professional, Jules Dubois realized his pate de fois gras was cooked. The race was now between Charles Terront and Jacques Jiel-Laval.

There could not have been two more different riders than Terront and Jiel-Laval. Terront was hot-blooded and impetuous. Jiel-Laval, on the other hand, was coldly calculating, sticking methodically to an hour-by-hour schedule from which he would not deviate. In the end, the mad, impetuous Terront won the first PBP in 71 hours 22 minutes, even by today’s standards a very respectable time. His closest finisher, the ice-water veined Jiel-Laval, finished 8 hours behind Terront.

Terront had battled fatigue with nothing more than strong French coffee. On route, he had crashed into a barrier. At one point, he broke a crank and had to pedal one-legged to the next checkpoint. Even with so severe a handicap, most of his teammates could not keep up with his frantic pace.One of the hotly debated items prior to the race was which tires were better. Just two years earlier in 1889, the Michelin brothers had introduced their clincher tire and rims, a development that sounded the death knell of solid rubber tires and put us on the road to pneumatic riding. Terront was backed by the Michelin company. Jiel-Laval rode Dunlop pneumatic tires. The two front runners in 1891 were locked in an intense personal battle, as were their two tire company sponsors—they wanted to prove their product was the best.

Giffard was beside himself with success. He filled the newspapers with exploits of this seminal event for months. He made the most he could of the 98 official finishers of this first PBP. He wrote: “For the first time we saw a new mode of travel, a new road to adventure, a new vista of pleasure. These cyclists averaged 80 miles a day for 10 days, yet they arrived fresh and healthy. Even a skillful and gallant horseman could not do better. Aren’t we on the threshold of a new and wonderful world?”

Part of that “new and wonderful world” was in part culinary. A baker on seeing the gallant lads cycling by his window on the first PBP was so inspired by what he saw, he created a pastry called the “Paris-Brest” in honor of the staunch riders attempting this most unique of rides. The calorie-laden confection is available today at many French bakeries, especially in Paris or Brest.

It was also to be a “wonderful world” of sporting events. Encouraged by the success and notoriety of PBP, another Frenchman started the modern Olympics. The Tour de France was started in 1903, again inspired by Paris-Brest-Paris. But PBP remains the oldest cycling event run on the open road.

Because of the arduous nature of PBP, it was held at ten year intervals after 1891. There were events in 1901, 1911, 1921, and 1931. In these events there was a category for the fast racers, who got virtually all of the attention. But in their wake was also a tourist category. Despite not getting much, if any publicity, these hardy amateurs usually outnumbered the racers. They rode PBP purely for their own satisfaction, not money like the professionals.

There was something new with the 1931 running of PBP. The older “touristes-routiers” format was no longer organized, but in its place came two approaches for the tourists. The first, organized by the Union des Audax Française was the “audax PBP”, where everyone rode in one big pack the entire way. Their goal was, and is, for everyone to finish together in about 85 hours. The second approach was the “randonneur PBP”, organized by the Audax Club Parisien. Here, riders were free to ride the pace they liked so long as they stayed inside the opening and closing time limits. Sixty hardy riders started the inaugural randonneur event. They had 96 hours to complete the ride and 44 of them arrived back in Paris to earn their medals. The 1931 ACP event was also the first time that women were allowed to participate in PBP; it took a while longer for the audax group to let them into their version.

The 1931 PBP was an exciting race, hard-fought from start to finish in awful weather. It was won by the redoubtable Australian Sir Huber Opperman, but World War II interrupted the ten-year cycle for PBP after his victory. An event was organized in 1948 to take the place of the one lost to the war, and then another in 1951 that resumed the ten-year cycle. Both saw exciting racing, but as it turned out, 1951 was the final time the professionals rode at PBP. Too many of them would rather ride 10 races of 75 miles in August than one race of 750 miles. The lucrative post-Tour de France criterium circuit in August was too tempting for many professionals to pass up; the racing version of PBP died out despite various attempts to resuscitate it. However, the two touring formulas, audax and randonneur, enjoyed much popularity and both continued onward. The tourists began organizing their PBPs at a five-year interval, and later, four for the ACP version. During the 1960s, the ACP adopted the established UAF time-limit of 90 hours that contemporary randonneurs are familiar with.

While the audax version has gone into decline since the 1980s, the randonneurs’ version grows in popularity with each edition. The current running of PBP began on August 16, 2015.  Having done the Super Randonneur series of brevets to get in, all of them are expert long-distance cyclists. Over time Paris-Brest-Paris has become exactly what Pierre Giffard first intended in 1891—not just a race, but a true test of cycling “brains, skill, and endurance.”

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