15 Aug 2013

How The Paris-Brest-Paris Was Born

First run in 1891, the 1200-kilometer Paris-Brest-Paris, or "PBP" as it is commonly called, is a grueling test of human endurance and cycling ability. Organized every four years by the host Audax Club Parisien, the Paris-Brest-Paris Randonneurs is the oldest bicycling event still run on a regular basis on the open road. A 90-hour time limit ensures that only the hardiest randonneurs earn the prestigious PBP finisher's medal and have their name entered into the event's "Great Book" along with every other finisher going back to the very first PBP. To become a PBP ancien (or ancienne for the ladies) is to join a very elite group of cyclists who have successfully endured this mighty challenge. No longer a contest for professional racing cyclists (whose entry is now forbidden), PBP evolved into a timed randonnĂ©e or brevet for hard-riding amateurs during the middle part of the 20th century.

The Racing Years
In 1891 people didn't know what could be done on the bicycle. Some medical experts of the day decried its alleged harm to the human body and soul; some women even boldly insisted on riding bikes, just like men! Racing on velodromes in front of throngs of spectators had begun ten years earlier, and cycling around town by wealthy enthusiasts who could afford a machine was common enough, but the idea of covering long distances on the open road was in its infancy. Early attempts at road racing and touring over hill and dale had started, but weren't at all frequent. The Paris-Brest-Paris was announced for the summer of 1891 by the editor (and devoted cycling enthusiast) of Le Petit Journal, Pierre Griffard. At 1200 kilometers, he intended PBP to be the supreme test of bicycle reliability and the will of its rider. 

Only male French cyclists were allowed to enter. Each rider could have up to ten paid pacers strategically placed along the route to help with drafting and providing mechanical assistance. The race would be monitored by a system of observers connected along the route by train and telegraph. The original route followed the "Great West Road" to Brest, or Route Nationale 12 as it came to be known. Riders were required to stop in each of these contrĂ´le towns and have their route book signed and stamped, a practice still done today. Over 400 riders entered the inaugural PBP, but many apparently came to their senses; 206 brave cyclists eventually set off just before sunrise on September 6th amid great pomp and ceremony. 

The winner, Charles Terront, triumphantly, pedaled into Paris at dawn three days later, after slightly less than 72 sleepless hours on the road. Despite the early hour, over ten thousand cheering spectators were awaiting his arrival! His was an epic ride against his competitors and nature itself, and Terront became a national celebrity. One hundred haggard riders continued to trickle into Paris over the next seven days. Along with prize money to the 17th place, these lion-hearted heroes were all given a handsome commemorative medal inscribed with their name and time, and the legend of Paris-Brest-Paris was born.

©Reference Source Bill Bryant

P.S. The next Paris-Brest-Paris is in August, 2015

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